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Climate Breakdown: explaining it is easy when the examples abound

I’m teaching Climate Change in my first-year classes at the moment.

No matter what the topic, I always like to use examples to make things clearer to the kids – references to things in their own lives. I often refer to TV programs, movies, songs.

However, some of my references are dated – movies made before they were born, which, while classics, haven’t always been seen. In my English SL class last week, when describing the meaning of “a the height of one’s career,” I used a TV presenter, who first shot to prominence on the Spanish equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The show was called 50 for 15, referring to 50Million Pesetas – a currency that disappeared when the kids were toddlers.

But teaching Climate Change, I was struck by the fact that I don’t have to reach back very far to come up with an example of what I mean when I talk about the changes that are happening/ could happen in the future.

For example, California – it was burning a few weeks ago; latest news out of there is a terrible mudslide. Opposite types of natural disasters in a short timeframe.

 

Even here in this very city, though, the oscillations are becoming ever more obvious. And rapid.

I described how Spain was experiencing a drought late last year. Reservoirs were down to 10 or 20%. On the 3rd of January, I was in a jeans and a sweater, enjoying the sunshine. I was sent a video of a snake the same week.

This poor frog was squashed by a car just outside the village that night – what the hell was a frog doing out on Jan 3?

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On the 5th, it started raining, then snowing.

I posted this photo on my facebook page, joking how I’d always wanted a garden with a little river flowing through it.

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It was gushing out of the gully under the rocks you can see behind the fence in this photo.

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And some of it was filling the groundwater so much that I’d springs popping up in the grass.

This looks like a cowpat, but it’s actually mud pushed out of the ground by the water flow.

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Pamplona was covered in snow.

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The aqueduct of Noain outside Pamplona.

The reservoirs refilled past 50% in a few days.

And now it’s mild again.

So the kids get it. They understand Climate Breakdown. They can hardly not when it is staring us in the face like the barrel of a shotgun.

Question is, what can they do about it?

Because the previous generation who knew about it haven’t been able to do very much, yet.

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The End of Fire Season… until next year?

The cranes started passing over Pamplona yesterday evening.

They were chased by the rain that came in overnight. The first in weeks.

Autumn has thus officially started.

And hopefully also this means the end of the fire season for this year.

While Ireland braced for an almost unheard of hurricane in the North Atlantic, in northern Spain and Portugal, forest fires were killing even more people than Ophelia killed.

There were dozens burning over the weekend and until Tuesday, when the rains helped to finally extinguish them.

Unlike hurricanes, though, which are terrible, and indirectly related to man’s activities, these forest fires were only wild in the sense of the untamed destruction they could wreak. They were not natural. They were man made, purposefully started, and repeatedly so.

 

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Forest fires across Galicia, photo Diario Sur

After so many deaths, there are now questions being asked of politicians as to how these arsonists can be stopped. Spanish news has little else, other that the Catalan situation – politics and fraud, even football has been put in the background by the terrible scenes of people trying to escape burning villages only having to turn back as the roads are flanked with flames, and others park inside a motorway tunnel to wait rescue, or let the fires pass overhead.

Because these fires have been a part of summer in places like Galicia for years. As soon as the weather dries, huge tracts of forests go up there. All directly caused by humans and usually set intentionally, with a few the result of stupidity and neglect.

The people of Portugal are naturally outraged, after a summer of huge fires has been followed by an autumn death toll almost as terrible, with dozens of people claimed by the flames.

The perpetrators must be caught and jailed for their murders, but also, the politicians and police, if it is the case, must be held responsible for letting this situation get to this state. Why have these people not been caught for their previous fires? – because there’s no way these conflagrations were started by first-time arsonists.

Why do people go out of their way to set fires, driving along highways in the middle of the night with fireworks tied to helium balloons?

It’s clear they have nothing better to do, and they’re assholes of the highest calibre, but there must be some other, external, motivation for most of the fires. What is it? Why has it not been identified years ago and why has it not been removed?

There are forests that could burn just as badly and even more easily in other parts of Spain, so why are there not so many fires elsewhere? Galicia has 40% of all fires in the country, and half the area burnt every year for the last decade.

Surely the arsonists are spread out in a broader swath across the country. Or is there something about the mind-set of Galicians that makes them excessively prone to arson?

The gorse fires and heather fires we have seen in Ireland in recent years were all set intentionally for financial gain – the current agricultural subsidy system means that farmers make more money if there land is considered in use, even if it’s not.

Ultimately, stopping them will require a change in the EU farming subsidy system to allow land go fallow without farmers losing money.

Is there a financial motivation in Galicia and Portugal for setting huge fires?

According to Ecologists in Action, this is only the cause of a small proportion of the fires set.

What other factors are in play?

The use of fire for farming practices is permitted much more freely than elsewhere.

In most of Spain it is not permitted to light fires in camping and picnic areas and other recreational areas during times of fire risk. Not so in Galicia.

Vehicles are also allowed onto forest paths in Galicia during the summer, which is prohibited elsewhere.

AND they allow fireworks in village festivals during the summer, which is just asking for trouble.

 

But as I said, the summer is over.

The cranes, luckily, don’t stay long in Spain during their migration.

When they passed before on their way north I wrote this poem. Hopefully it will ease the depression of these fires. Watching the birds certainly lifts the spirit.

 

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European cranes. photo wikipedia – need a better camera myself!

 

The Great Migration

 

I’ve not yet seen the Serengeti,

Nor the caribou upon the artic plains

But up above my house in the hills,

I’ve been privileged to witness

The cranes migrating, calling

Eyes aloft to observe their long

Strings streaked across the sky

Huge wing beats by the thousands,

 

And can’t but wonder where

Those numbers bide in other times,

(Amazed such spaces yet exist)

And where they will find abode

In other climes.

 

 

Fire and Water

We’re just about done with possibly the hottest December on record, with heat waves across the northern hemisphere. Simultaneously, there is record flooding in England and Ireland, and huge fires across northern Spain, where I live; seemingly unconnected, but not really.

Both phenomena are either caused by or exacerbated by bad laws.

Today in my email inbox are two mails. One is my automatic notification of George Monbiot’s Guardian article about the predictions of flooding in York because of the actions of farmers (grouse farmers, to be sure) in the watershed upstream, burning and draining peatlands so they don’t hold rainwater as well as they should.

Athlone floodingFlooding in Athlone. Photograph: Harry McGee, from Irish Times

 

The other email is a request to sign a petition to change the new Spanish law, which means people get rich by burning land. 50,000 hectares have burned so far, and most fires have been set on purpose. Forests which have been burned can now be rezoned for building, making a tidy profit for anyone who invests in a forest and a few gallons of petrol.

 

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It seems amazing that we can have such stupid laws when we are faced with such grave global problems. In Ireland, in fact, the minister responsible for environment will change the law to allow field and hedge burning even later than before, in response to the problem of illegal fire setting last spring. Mind boggling, even if we discount the fact that the birds the law is there to protect are breeding even earlier as the climate warms.

Yet, when I talked to a farmer I know about the article I wrote about the illegal fires, she told me she doesn’t get paid for having gorse on her land, so not being able to burn was losing her money – though to date I haven’t seen her burn the patches she has.

Just as we can’t blame corporations for putting their shareholders ahead of the wellbeing of their customers and workers, since the law obliges them to do so, we can’t blame farmers from trying to get the money the law says they are entitled to, as long as their fields are in “agricultural condition.”

Some farmers I know here in Spain are actively digging trenches and putting in plastic drains under fields in far from the wettest part of the world by any stretch of the imagination. These fields have been farmed for centuries, but nowadays the machinery is so heavy it can only be used on dry soil. The state subsidies for starting farmers stipulates that the five-year plan have such modern machinery to be efficient, so staying out of muddy fields after a rain is not an option. And never mind that the water not held in the fields just goes faster to the Ebro, a river notorious for flooding, and which flows through large cities like Logroño and Zaragoza. A whole pig farm was swept away last year, and farmers are asking the river be dredged so the water can flow faster away from them. Which is counterproductive, we know. But farmers are paid to farm, not to mange the environment in a sensible manner. Or to protect other people’s homes from flooding and wildfires.

In Ireland, the town of Athlone on the Shannon is hoping the river won’t inundate it, while politicians suggest paying people to move out of floodplains that should never have been built on in the first place. At the same time, some locals say they never had a flood in 75 years until trees were cut down on the local mountains.

The rules are more than faulty. They’re stupid. Except for those they benefit, of course. Big landowners are making millions off them.

The politicians have thus far, even including the recent Paris agreement, decided it’s supposedly less damaging to their precious economy to deal with the consequences of climate change rather than prevent it.

This is a test of their ideas.

The warming climate will bring much more such fires and floods.

Building flood defences is all well and good, but it’s more wasted money dealing with consequences rather than wisely trying to prevent them. Forests and bogs can absorb a lot of the water destroyed homes from the recent storms, if they aren’t burnt to the ground.

As Monbiot said, flooding fields or towns: which is it going to be?

Common sense says the former, of course. Let’s see if anyone in power got some for Christmas.