Science: Second ‘100-year’ Amazon drought in 5 years caused huge CO2 emissions. If this pattern continues, the forest would become a warming source.

Lead author Simon Lewis: “Current emissions pathways risk playing Russian roulette with the world’s largest rainforest.”

New research shows that the 2010 Amazon drought may have been even more devastating to the region’s rainforests than the unusual 2005 drought, which was previously billed as a one-in-100 year event.

Analyses of rainfall across 5.3 million square kilometres of Amazonia during the 2010 dry season, published in Science, shows that the drought was more widespread and severe than in 2005.

The UK-Brazilian team also calculate that the carbon impact of the 2010 drought may eventually exceed the 5 billion tonnes of CO2 released following the 2005 event, as severe droughts kill rainforest trees. For context, the United States emitted 5.4 billion tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuel use in 2009.

The authors suggest that if extreme droughts like these become more frequent, the days of the Amazon rainforest acting as a natural buffer to man-made carbon emissions may be numbered.

Lead author Dr Simon Lewis, from the University of Leeds, said: “Having two events of this magnitude in such close succession is extremely unusual, but is unfortunately consistent with those climate models that project a grim future for Amazonia.”

That’s from the University of Leeds’ news release, “Two severe Amazon droughts in five years alarms scientists.”  The Science article itself is “The 2010 Amazon Drought” (subs. req’d).

Here’s a figure from the paper comparing the two droughts [click to enlarge]:

Fig. 1

(A and B) Satellite-derived standardized anomalies for dry-season rainfall for the two most extensive droughts of the 21st century in Amazonia. (C and D) The difference in the 12-month (October to September) MCWD [maximum climatological water deficit] from the decadal mean (excluding 2005 and 2010), a measure of drought intensity that correlates with tree mortality. (A) and (C) show the 2005 drought; (B) and (D) show the 2010 drought.

Here’s more from the release:

The Amazon rainforest covers an area approximately 25 times the size of the UK. University of Leeds scientists have previously shown that in a normal year intact forests absorb approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2.1 This counter-balances the emissions from deforestation, logging and fire across the Amazon and has helped slow down climate change in recent decades.

In 2005, the region was struck by a rare drought which killed trees within the rainforest. On the ground monitoring showed that these forests stopped absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, and as the dead trees rotted they released CO2 to the atmosphere.

The unusual drought, affecting south-western Amazonia, was described by scientists at the time as a ‘one-in-100-year event’, but just five years later the region was struck by a similar extreme drought that caused the Rio Negro tributary of the Amazon river to fall to its lowest level on record….

The new research, co-led by Dr Lewis and Brazilian scientist Dr Paulo Brando, used the known relationship between drought intensity in 2005 and tree deaths to estimate the impact of the 2010 drought.

They predict that Amazon forests will not absorb their usual 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in both 2010 and 2011, and that a further 5 billion tonnes of CO2 will be released to the atmosphere over the coming years once the trees that are killed by the new drought rot….

“Our results should be seen as an initial estimate. The emissions estimates do not include those from forest fires, which spread over extensive areas of the Amazon during hot and dry years. These fires release large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.”

Some global climate models suggest that Amazon droughts like these will become more frequent in future as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Lewis added: “Two unusual and extreme droughts occurring within a decade may largely offset the carbon absorbed by intact Amazon forests during that time. If events like this happen more often, the Amazon rainforest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change, to a major source of greenhouse gasses that could speed it up.

“Considerable uncertainty remains surrounding the impacts of climate change on the Amazon. This new research adds to a body of evidence suggesting that severe droughts will become more frequent leading to important consequences for Amazonian forests.

“If greenhouse gas emissions contribute to Amazon droughts that in turn cause forests to release carbon, this feedback loop would be extremely concerning. Put more starkly, current emissions pathways risk playing Russian roulette with the world’s largest rainforest.”

The study itself concludes starkly:

The two recent Amazon droughts demonstrate a mechanism by which remaining intact tropical forests of South America can shift from buffering the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide to accelerating it. Indeed, two major droughts in a decade may largely offset the net gains of ~0.4 Pg C yearˆ’1 in intact Amazon forest aboveground biomass in nondrought years. Thus, repeated droughts may have important decadal-scale impacts on the global carbon cycle.

Droughts co-occur with peaks of fire activity. Such interactions among climatic changes, human actions, and forest responses represent potential positive feedbacks that could lead to widespread Amazon forest degradation or loss. The significance of these processes will depend on the growth response of tropical trees to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, fire management, and deforestation trends. Nevertheless, any shift to drier conditions would favor drought-adapted species, and drier forests store less carbon. If drought events continue, the era of intact Amazon forests buffering the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide may have passed.

The scientific literature has warned for years that the Amazon that could effectively become a positive (amplifying) feedback under conditions of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions.  Let’s hope it’s not coming even faster than predicted.

For more, see Nick Sundt at the WWF Climate Blog, and MSNBC and the Guardian and BBC.

Related Posts:

“These results are extraordinarily significant because they show that the global net effect of climatic warming on the productivity of terrestrial vegetation need not be positive “” as was documented for the 1980’s and 1990’s,” said Diane Wickland, of NASA Headquarters and manager of NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology research program”¦.

“This is a pretty serious warning that warmer temperatures are not going to endlessly improve plant growth,” Running said”¦.

“The potential that future warming would cause additional declines does not bode well for the ability of the biosphere to support multiple societal demands for agricultural production, fiber needs, and increasingly, biofuel production,” Zhao said.


41 Responses to Science: Second ‘100-year’ Amazon drought in 5 years caused huge CO2 emissions. If this pattern continues, the forest would become a warming source.

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    This is happening in North American forests, too, as mortality has increased and fires are becoming hotter and more widespread. The Canadian boreal actually stores more carbon than the Amazon.

    Besides the fossil fuel caused hotter climate, logging is a big problem. When you simplify forest ecosystems and reduce transpiration and cloud cover, forest fires become more common. The cure is simple: stop clearcutting, and allow diverse forests to regenerate. Most wood products can be easily substituted with other materials and fibers.

    The American timber industry is a soul brother to oil and coal. Americans are becoming desensitized to our own deforestation, as clever TV shows portray overweight bearded loggers as brave macho men, willing to take on a dangerous tree with only a chainsaw. John Muir is turning over in his grave.

  2. Dickensian American says:

    @ Sime

    tragic yet important pithy line from the lecture you link to: “A warmer world will be a sicker world”

  3. Wit's End says:

    I wonder if the researchers bothered to compare the condition of native trees with plants that are irrigated, growing in watered pots, or young trees raised in nurseries. I don’t know about south of the equator, but in the northern hemisphere, vegetation is rapidly dying off from exposure to ozone no matter how much water it gets. Even aquatic plants growing in ponds are in dieback. I just visited the Joshua Tree National Park, and the ranger (and their website) make it quite clear that the iconic trees are going extinct. Air pollution makes them much less resistant to higher temperatures and lower precipitation from climate change. Pictures of the park here:

    Because the scientists base their predictions narrowly on drought without factoring in the effects of ozone, forests – and agriculture – are going to collapse far, far sooner than they expect.

  4. Robert says:

    What is the correlation to annual CO2 increase? These are the Mauna Loa numbers:

    1995 1.94
    1996 1.22
    1997 1.93
    1998 2.97
    1999 0.91
    2000 1.75
    2001 1.57
    2002 2.59
    2003 2.30
    2004 1.57
    2005 2.53
    2006 1.71
    2007 2.20
    2008 1.64
    2009 1.89
    2010 2.39

    This seems to indicate that the hottest years (1998, 2005, 2010) have also seen the highest CO2 increase, 2005 and 2010 also being the Amazon drought years.

  5. Alteredstory says:

    I’m starting to become seriously worried about NH forests. There was a big ice storm a couple years ago, and there’s a LOT of downed wood. The entire forest looked and smelled like a tinderbox with all the dry wood around.

    I’m just hoping we don’t get a stupid camper or bad lightning strike during the coming summer’s drought.

  6. Bob Lang says:

    Go to any Home Depot hardwood flooring aisle. A lot of hardwood flooring comes from Brazil.

    In my area, you can’t even sell a suburban house unless it has “gleaming hardwood floors” everywhere.

    Mindless consumption will take this planet down.

  7. Mark says:

    I was wondering if this paper was going to get a mention. It’s a real stunner, and makes me wonder if we are in the process of moving from anthropogenic GW to AGW + natural GW. All we need now is for big tree losses (droughts/beetles/disease/fire) in the boreal forests and for accelerated methane release from the current permafrosts or shelf hydrates and it could be we are flipping to a new steady state at who knows where.

    Thanks for posting the Mauna Loa figures. Very interesting – something I’d been meaning to look at.

  8. I also covered this last week for IPS:

    The two droughts will end up adding an estimated 13 billion tonnes of additional CO2 – equivalent to combined emissions in 2009 from China and the U.S. – and likely accelerating global warming.

    “New growth in the region will not offset those releases,” Lewis told IPS.
    Nepstad said other forests are also shifting from absorbing CO2 to emitting the global warming gas. A particular worry is the Boreal forest that spans the top of the globe and is much larger than Amazon.

  9. paulm says:

    The message is that we have passed safe levels of greenhouse gasses.
    Emissions have to halt now….

    Climate Change Impacts on Ocean Ecosystems

    Very simple and straightforward and a consensus is forming around this.
    5yrs after Hansen stated that 350ppm was the essential level of CO2 (Time for a Nobel).

    This is the science – we stop now or were toast.
    What are we going to do?

  10. peter whitehead says:

    This Amazon story was well-covered by Sky Tv (UK murdoch). For once, they got it right. I e-mailed them a thanks, and also pointed them at the Arctic ice graphs in the hope they will cover the record low area so far this year. Perhaps some more people could thank them and add their push to get the sea ice story out. e-mail them at:

  11. Fire Mountain says:

    Let’s see how many climate impacts are already feeding climate warming –

    Ice-albedo feedback underway in the Arctic – studies show its the biggest source of warming there, and its effect is 2X what was thought.

    Leaking methane hydrates on continental shelves from East Siberia to West Spitzbergen.

    Deteriorating Siberian peat bogs.

    Tundra that has been a carbon source intermittently since the 1990s.

    And now Amazonian drought.

    The only response to autocatalytic climate change is autocatalytic political change. Thinking of Egypt.

  12. Yvan Dutil says:

    PETM redux?


    Somewhat related to Amazonia and Canadian boreal forests is this fascinating TED talk on the importance of forest fungi in the carbon cycle–as well as soil, food and fuel implications.

  14. dbmetzger says:

    and this from China
    Worst Drought in 200 Years
    East China’s Shandong Province has received only 12 millimeters of water since September. The four-month drought is the most severe the region has suffered in two centuries.

  15. Mike says:

    Quick! Call Elizabeth Hurley. She owes us a favor. ;)

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Sri Lanka –

    According to our Kalawanchikudy correspondent E Pakikiya Rajah rains in Batticaloa were continuing displacing over 78,000 people. Quoting Met Officials in the area, he said that since January 1, 2011 Batticaloa district had received 1,689.1 mm of rain exceeding its annual average rain fall of 1,652 mm. The DMC issuing a report on the latest situation at 1230 pm yesterday said that the number of affected persons had risen to 1,223,052. Eleven people have died while three are reported to be missing, they added.
    66.5 inches in 5 weeks , a foot of rain a week , an entire years worth of rain in 5 weeks.

  17. John Hollenberg says:

    “Fewer Polar Bear Births Tied to Less Sea Ice”:

    Surprise, surprise.

  18. Dappledwater says:

    Robert @ 5 – 1998 was also a drought year in the Amazon, however it was caused by the super El-Nino. Which highlights the issue here. Both warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical Eastern Pacific (El-Nino) and now warm waters in the tropical Atlantic can cause drought in the Amazon.

    I don’t think many readers really grasp the enormity of the situation – if this trend continues (very likely) then positive feedbacks will kick in accelerating the death of the Amazon rainforest. See Cox 2008 – Increasing risk of Amazonian drought due to decreasing aerosol pollution

    And while all this is playing out in the real world, American politics has been taken over by the Darkside, and other developed countries are sitting on their hands. Charming.

  19. Michael T. says:

    Recent CO2 measured at Mauna Loa

    January 2011: 391.19 ppm

  20. Colorado Bob says:

    The rain fall in Sri Lanka :
    November 7th through 11th Satellite estimates report over 600 mm (24 inches) of rainfall across southern India. 445 mm (17.5 inches) of rain on the capital city of Colombo Shri Lanka , in 24 hrs.
    31 inches fall in Central Vietnam near Hue.

  21. Bob Lang says:

    Michael T. #22

    Don’t worry, the “carbon-neutral” economic growth touted by many here on CP will kick in any day now.

  22. Colorado Bob says:

    One other event that fits the pattern about 2005 and 2010 . The coral bleaching events.

  23. Sailesh Rao says:

    Bob Lang #7: The dominant culture on the planet has profoundly misinterpreted its founding principles by conflating the “pursuit of happiness” with the “pursuit of affluence”. While happiness can be unbounded, affluence cannot grow endlessly without catastrophic consequences for life on the planet, as we are witnessing first hand. In Paul Ehrlich’s impact equation, I=PAT, letting A (affluence) tend to infinity will ruin the planet even if P (population) flattens out and T (technology) keeps reducing the impact. Yet, even Bill Gates is not content with the affluence that he has accumulated and chooses to invest in fossil fuel corporations to grow his wealth some more.

    We raise our children in this culture and then we unleash our military and our mega-corporations to spread this culture throughout the planet. Rather than blaming people for behaving exactly as they have been taught, I think that we need to reexamine what the “pursuit of happiness” really means.

  24. Crank says:

    Anybody who thinks we can avoid 650ppm (+4 C) is living in fantasy land.

    This spring I’m looking to buy a hobby farm near Moose Factory, Ontario:

    I think you’re probably right, unfortunately. Personally, I’m planning on just retiring to my own private island eventually.

    I’m not actually moving anywhere, though; I live on a hill.

  25. Richard Brenne says:

    Does anyone else feel as I do that we’ve clanked up to the highest point of history’s biggest roller coaster, about to plummet down at hypersonic speed only to notice that the track has been ripped up below us?

    Back in 2005 the Amazon drought was toward the top of the list of positive feedbacks I was most concerned about, then reflective ice being replaced by non-reflective ocean replaced that as my primary concern, then the release of methane from melting permafrost replaced that, then the release of methane from clathrates on the ocean floor replaced that. Now I’m concerned about the Amazon all over again, after a period of dormant concern.

    And as Mike Roddy (#1) and Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End (#3) point out, I’m concerned about trees and all plant life all over the world. I just asked a well-known tree scientist about your hypothesis that ozone is affecting plant life all over the world, Gail, and he said that made sense to him and with what he’s seeing, where almost no trees have the thick foliage and full canopies of branches, twigs and leaves or needles that most had just decades or even years ago. He also cited trees most affected by high ozone, like fledgling Douglas Fir saplings in the Santa Monica Mountains above Los Angeles that are barely hanging on, even with their own talent agents.

    All plants and trees do best with the most predictable precipitation patterns they’ve known their entire lives. It’s not just the total annual precipitation that affects them, but how that precipitation falls. Trees like the Redwoods on the Northern California coast have grown to almost 400 feet (the record is 376) and often over 300 feet not only because they can get 80 to 100 inches of rain a year, but also because they’re misted with fog during the summer months, and every type of cloud cover shields them from the drying sun.

    So the Amazon or anywhere else could suffer extreme, 100-year (and soon 500 and 1000-year) drought for several months, punctuated with storms that release record rainfall that can also be damaging. This is in fact what climate models predict.

    Liam (#5), I like your list of the most dangerous positive feedbacks further accelerating climate change. I’d love to hear any educated guesses about how much CO2 equivalency each category might be releasing now (expressed in fractions of parts per million or PPM), and how much each could be releasing by 2050 and 2100. Any takers?

    Also Bob Lang (#19), thanks for telling us about Moose Factory, Ontario – I’d always wondered where moose were made.

  26. Richard Brenne says:

    In my previous post at #28, I meant Gail at Wit’s End at #4, Fire Mountain at #12 and not Liam at #5, which I made up. And the tallest Redwood Tree is 379, not 376 feet (I’d guessed, then looked it up, then mistakenly submitted sent my original and erroneous comment).

    Robert (#5) makes an excellent point correlating warmest years with highest CO2 increases with the two most severe Amazon droughts.

    Does anyone know why CO2 ppm varies from a high of 2.97 ppm increase in 1998 to only a .91 increase in 1999? Since CO2 and temperatures track each other, can either take the lead, meaning when the combination of global warming raising the baseline with a 100-year record-intense El Nino in 1998 bumps global temperature to a new record high, does CO2 then decide to go along with that and increase more than in any other year on record, then increase much less in the much cooler year 1999?

    Also the average increase has gone from less than 1 ppm per year when Keeling began in 1958 to just under 2 ppm a year average now. Is this trend expected (with business as usual) to bring it to an average above 3 ppm, then 4 ppm, etc? When? And why can’t we all focus more on the Brazilian than Elizabeth Hurley’s deforestation?

  27. Wit's End says:

    This is usually around when comments here on CP posts about the most realistic projections for climate change impacts leave off.

    It’s all just too fucking gloomy and scary –

    Move on to the next post, folks. This one is terminal.

  28. catman306 says:

    In NE Georgia, the loblolly pines that haven’t died from pine bark beetles and drought are a much lighter and more yellow shade of green than just four years ago. It’s like they’re slightly singed. Of course, they’ve lost lower limbs and many of their needles, too. The local evergreen deciduous plants are also slightly yellowed.

    Perhaps someone, somewhere, keeps track of the ‘greenness’ of forests from the satellites.

    We’ve probably exceeded the ozone threshold for many deciduous plants and that lack of photosynthetic productivity has more effects than we can ever know. Billions of different inter-species interactions are being rebalanced right now. On the macro scale this rebalancing is called famine. The biosphere supports less life because ozone has cut the productivity of photosynthesis. People will recognize famine. They must associate this coming world wide famine with man-made climate change. Both are caused by fossil fuel air pollution.

    Call it the Ozone Famine or some such. Koch Famine?

  29. Colorado Bob says:

    So , I got some hard numbers from Sri Lanka today for the last 5 weeks , the last 90 days there have been off the charts. This is rain like we never dreamed of.
    7 feet of rain from just the reports with numbers. There have been at least 3 events when I couldn’t document the totals.

    It comes in waves , you never get a chance to dry out. Wet and muddy day after day. This is the entire island tonight.

    ShelterBox –

  30. Colorado Bob says:

    Every place where I have followed these rains, the forecast calls for more weeks of this . Every forecast.

  31. Michael T. says:

    NOAA state of the climate report is out:

    January 2011 report

    Temperature Highlights:

    •Across the contiguous United States, the average January temperature was 30.0°F (-1.1°C) which is 0.8°F (0.4°C) below the 1901-2000 average.January 2011 was the coolest January since 1994 when the average temperature was 28.3°F (-2.1°C), breaking a long string of warm or near-normal Januaries.

    •Cooler-than-normal conditions dominated most areas east of the Rocky Mountains while the western coastal states of California, Oregon and Washington were above-normal in January.

    •The past three months (November-January) were especially cool in the Southeast climate region, which experienced its seventh coolest such period. Five states had top-ten-coolest such periods: Georgia (4th coolest), North Carolina (5th), South Carolina (6th), Florida (8th), and West Virginia (9th).

    •Looking at a rolling twelve-month period (February 2010-January 2011), average temperatures were record warm in Maine (3.5°F [1.9°C] above normal), New Hampshire (3.1°F [1.7°C] above normal) and Rhode Island (3.1°F [1.7°C] above normal-tied with 2002). Eight other states, in the Northeast and Great Lakes areas, averaged a temperature for the period among their ten warmest. The Northeast climate region experienced its fourth warmest such period.

    Temperature and Precipitation Time Series Graphs for different states/regions and time periods:

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The drought in the Amazon is evidence, in my opinion, of why collapse will be precipitous. Everything is linked to everything else on this planet. Kick out one strand of the web of life and you weaken all the others. I think that thinking of all the ecological crises one at at time (climate disruption, ocean acidification, exacerbation of the hydrological cycle, forest loss, mega-fires, oceanic dead-zones and stratification, loss of Arctic summer sea ice, phytoplankton collapse etc)is a mistake. Not only does it give the denialist industry psychopaths and their rabble of Dunning-Krugerites a chance to deny each, one at a time, but it misses the synergies. These are legion, and almost beyond calculation. Nod off for a wee while, and new ones emerge, and they begin influencing all the others. And the chilling reality is that these synergies almost all, to my imperfect knowledge, amount to exacerbations rather than ameliorations, positive feedbacks rather than negative ones. You’d almost imagine that some power beyond our ken wants to see us off, and they are doing a hideously effective job.

  33. Richard Brenne says:

    Gail at Wit’s End (#30) – You’re our heroine, or at least heroin for doomers, with your irrepressible spirit and quest for knowledge, truth and justice.

    Look at my comment just above yours (#29), citing your tireless work, then Catman306 just below (#31) agreeing with you as much as anyone.

    You and I and Mike Roddy and Richard Pauli are like Richard Dreyfuss and the others who were irresistibly drawn to Devil’s Tower, in their case to make the first close encounter of the third kind. We’re drawn toward the evidence that we’ll all be meeting our Maker or whoever sooner than we might have expected. Maybe “We’ll meet again. . .” in another life as Ethel Merman sings at the end of Dr. Strangelove when the Doomsday Machine (which is really climate change, ozone and all other human impacts) has gone off. I’ve accepted all of this myself (it hasn’t been easy), maybe because I’ve always wanted to meet Ethel Merman.

    Anyway, these are the kinds of comments you more than anyone has been working to get us all to understand, so we need you and your wisdom in these comments.

    And often these end-of-post comments especially when they’re from people like you, Mike, Richard, Lou Grinzo, Jeff Hughes, Colorado Bob, Prokaryotes and the newest Romm’s All-Stars Mulga Mumblebrain and Sailesh Rao are incredibly valuable, deep, philosophical and insightful. I feel that surfing the ends of the most valuable posts for just these kinds of comments is one of the many treasures of CP.

    Gail, you might not realize it yet, but when you took all of this on because of your rare combination of talents, you were accepting the most difficult job of all: Prophet.

  34. Wit's End says:

    Thank you Richard Brenne. My three daughters have been frustratingly resistant to any inkling that the future will not be all the rosy scenario they want and expect it to be, to one degree or another – none more so than youngest daughter, who is working on her masters at UC Santa Cruz, where she is studying sea otters, whose population is in especially alarming decline.

    So I was a bit shocked to wake up this morning and find this attachment in an email from her – a pdf which I uploaded to google docs:

    Garrett Hardin’s, “Tragedy of the Commons” written in 1968, and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with a notable section on “Pollution.”

    I am so proud of her that she is finding the courage to ponder the imponderable, and also grieving that she has to.

  35. Roger B. says:

    Bob (#19),

    The James Bay lowlands are pretty marshy although there is obviously solid ground at Moosonee and Moose Factory. When you take the train up from Cochrane, it seems like you go through ~100 miles of bogland before getting to Moosonee. There is an amazing amount of farming on the clay belt around the James Bay lowlands.

    Roger Blanchard
    Sault Ste. Marie, MI

  36. Bob Doublin says:

    #29.I can’t remember the book (maybe Climate Coverup?), but I’ve seen several discussions that attribute the acceleration in the growth of the yearly increase in the rise of CO2 levels to the 1980’s increase in world trade and the subsequent boom in the use of fuel for ships and planes.That was a major culprit.I don’t have the time to do much googling and I’m not sure how to phrase it for the search engine or even wikipedia.

  37. Richard Brenne says:

    Bob Doublin (#39) – Thanks for your response, I’ll follow all leads. In honor of your last name, CO2 appears to be Doublin.

    Roger B (#38) in response to Bob Lang (#19) – I’d be wary of anyplace cut off by 100 miles of wetlands becoming 160 kilometers of James Bay in the future, unless you want to be completely self-sufficient and cut off from the world by land (maybe not a bad idea at some point). Wasn’t this close to where Henry Hudson was left on shore by his crew after their mutiny? I always thought it’d be an interesting story about what he did after that. Probably froze the following cold season, but if he headed south he could try to get to his namesake river (“I name this river and bay and all I get is this lousy t-shirt?”). Many people in such circumstances were taken in by Indians and lived the rest of their lives happily as members of a tribe, including many when they had a chance to return to European civilization. I think someone with as much invested in that civilization as Hudson would have a hard time doing that, though.

    By the way, Romm’s All-Stars include all of you, Anne, Tenney Naumer, and amazingly concise and profound paragraphs from Ed Hummel with great philosophical insights like Mulga Mumblebrain and Sailesh Rao.

    And of course the All-Starriest of them all is Gail at Wit’s End, including her warm response just above at #36, including the amazing last sentence about her youngest daughter, “I am so proud of her that she is pondering the imponderable, and grieving that she has to.”

    Said daughter sent Gail a link to the great UC Santa Barbara Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s epoch 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” When I moderated a panel with Bill McKibben, Kevin Trenberth, Brian Toon and the legendary Al Bartlett, Kevin almost immediately brought up The Tragedy of the Commons as the central metaphor for what we’re experiencing. Kevin is known for understanding the science of climate change as well as anyone (in addition to James Hansen and maybe a handful of others), and I thought it was an amazing philosophical insight for someone known for being so strong with the science.

    Briefly mis-synopsizing The Tragedy of the Commons: In someplace like 1600s colonial Boston where forest surrounds a small village, the only grass for cows to eat is in the central commons. Every family in the village feels that their cow alone – plus another cow they each desire – won’t by themselves denude the commons, but together all the cows do, and all the cows then starve.

    When each of us thinks that we can drive and fly everywhere we want, eat anything we want and live in a house of any size we want, that is the contemporary Tragedy of the Commons at work, and there are almost a billion of us able to make most of those choices on a regular basis.

    The Tragedy of the Commons works at the individual, family and business level, and also at the level of every size institution, including every nation thinking that they can make all those choices, since “We’re just one nation” and “Every other nation wants to do this” and “If we don’t do it the rest of them will.”

    And of course the U.S. is more culpable than any other nation.

    Below is an amazing essay written by my dear friend and father-figure Al Bartlett upon his hearing of Garrett Hardin’s Hemlock Society suicide at the age of 88 with his wife in equally chronic pain and also in her 80s. You’ll read it and weep:

    CP has the most savvy commenters anywhere and we see the mechanisms of our own destruction, but Garrett Hardin, Al Bartlett, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, William Catton, Rachel Carson and a handful of others saw these same things coming in the 1960s, and warned us then that we were all on a train moving at full speed in the wrong direction.

    We now see the specifics of what they began warning us about in some cases almost half a century ago: The train is a maglev bullet train. . .racing at full speed. . .off a cliff. . .into an ocean. . .of molten lava.

    But other than that, everything’s okay. . .

  38. Wit's End says:

    Richard, you should have warned me that essay revolves around a tree:

    “Unfortunately, trees are not a part of the world technologists have in mind for us.”