Normalizing Disruption and Loss

fig3_american-samoa_before-during-after_2015Progressive death of coral. NOAA Coral Reef Watch.
A planet that can’t sustain its greatest reef will eventually become a place that won’t support human life.  – Tim Winton, 2017.  The Australian Marine Conservation Society.

For the first time the Great Barrier Reef has experienced two back-to-back bleaching events, which have been driven entirely by extreme sea surface temperatures. The devastation is hard to miss, unless you are not looking. Successive generations often experience the conservation phenomenon known as shifting baselines of perception. A boy’s granddad may remember when they fished for more than 15 species of fish in the Gulf of California, but the boy believes that the five remaining species are normal, i.e., a new baseline. As the disruption of the biosphere accelerates and reductions in biodiversity ensue, it will become increasingly hard for each generation to perceive current conditions as normal, assuming that they are paying attention. Continue reading “Normalizing Disruption and Loss”

Denial and Consequences – Advice for Scholars and Scientists

Sunset_2007-1Sunset a moment before nightfall over the Pacific. Wikipedia. 
“I’m sorry, Gemma. But we can’t live in the light all of the time. You have to take whatever light you can hold into the dark with you.”
― Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty

Scott Pruitt’s immoral denial of the reality of climate change is part of an assault on science that will promote the accelerating disruption of Earth’s living systems. The global consequences of this retreat from reality will be profound and irrevocable on any meaningful human timescale. The U.S. is the largest economy and the second largest emitter. Most the carbon pollution in the atmosphere came from us. Given the rate of climate and biosphere disruption, the administration’s aggressive embrace of fossil fuel interests poses an existential threat to civilization. The legislature and the executive branch are the handmaidens of an industry whose sole purpose is to mine and sell as much fossil carbon as possible. I see no effective means of turning this around in any timeframe that will matter with respect to our opportunity to salvage a livable planet. The window of opportunity for aggressive mitigation of climate change is almost closed. Continue reading “Denial and Consequences – Advice for Scholars and Scientists”

The Election and A Call to Service in The Anthropocene

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
4 November 2016

heather-webHeather at peace. Photo: S. Mulkey, Lakes Basin, The Eagle Cap Wilderness

“Elections have consequences.” – Barack Obama, 5 November 2008.

“Donald Trump can fool a lot of people, but you can’t fool Mother Nature.” Jacob Scherr, an attorney who is the former director of the international climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, 3 October 2016.

Climate change is complex. Within the scientific community, there is a broad consensus about its reality and cause, but experts hold a range of opinions about its impacts and how to address it. As any public scientist can tell you, it is hard to articulate a simple and compelling description of how the change of a few hundred parts per million of a trace gas can lead to potentially catastrophic consequences. Although complex in its interactions with natural systems, it is broadly correct to say that climate change presently amplifies the ongoing disruption of the biosphere driven by the forces of habitat destruction and extractive use of natural resources. By midcentury and beyond it will increasingly be a primary driver of the global transformation of ecosystems. The changes ensuing over this and coming centuries will be tectonic, but this message of scientific complexity and consequences does not play well in Peoria. Once again, the US political process has not made understanding this most critical of issues a prerequisite for the job of president. Continue reading “The Election and A Call to Service in The Anthropocene”

Switching from whiskey to beer and the false promise of woody biomass

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
15 October 2016

The Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, a woody biomass power plant that uses waste wood near Gainesville, Florida

“Well planned sustainable biomass power plants are a viable source of clean renewable electricity, and this is helpful for the task of phasing out coal-fired power plants. Knee-jerk opposition to all biomass projects has no sound scientific basis and is harmful to attempts to stabilize climate for the sake of our children, grandchildren, and future generations.” — James Hansen, Climate Science Awareness and Solutions Program, Earth Institute, Columbia University Continue reading “Switching from whiskey to beer and the false promise of woody biomass”

Rules of Engagement for The Environmental Century

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
30 August 2016

milky-way-for-ssmulkey-1The Milky Way from the Palouse near Moscow, ID. Photo by Marie Glynn. 2016. All rights reserved.

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will be the organizing principle for humanity for the next 30 years. – Joe Romm, Founder of Climate Progress, 2016

The International Geological Congress is poised to officially designate the present as part of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. I call the 21st century simply The Environmental Century, because this is the century when our species must face the transformation of our planet squarely as a responsible adult, rather than continue our adolescent demands for special treatment by the universe. As the consequences of our actions become apparent, the cozy blanket of normalcy bias is finally being shed. Like most adolescents, coming of age for humanity will be fraught with fear, pain, and the possibility of tragedy. Continue reading “Rules of Engagement for The Environmental Century”

Approaching the Ecological Event Horizon

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

15 September 2016

oregon-forest-mortality-2011View from Tam McArthur Rim of lodgepole pine and whitebark pine killed by mountain pine beetle within the prior 10 years, Deschutes County, OR, in the Deschutes National Forest, September 2011. (Photo: Garrett Meigs, Oregon State University)

“If looking into the sun may cause blindness, then human insights into nature entail a terrible price.” – Andrew Glickson, Australian National University, 2014

“If we don’t act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet.” James Watson, University of Queensland, 2016


This past July, I had the privilege of backpacking in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness with two extraordinary young adults, Andrew and Sachi, who call me Dad. A curse of being an ecologist is that I sometimes see things that others don’t, and these things are often alarming. Continue reading “Approaching the Ecological Event Horizon”

The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Climate Change, and The Public Trust

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

30 August 2016

_XYZ6725The Maine North Woods, Mark Picard / NRCM


On Wednesday, 24 August 2016, President Obama designated a large parcel of Maine’s North Woods as the nation’s newest federal parkland. Many environmental groups and environmentally inclined citizens have worked diligently for several years to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. These 87,500 acres were donated by Roxanne Quimby, a founder of the Burt’s Bees product line. The gift included a promised contribution of $40 million to support operations of the park. A gift of this magnitude is in the finest tradition of grand philanthropic giving to the National Park Service and is a much-needed boost to the chronically depressed economy of Maine. Although the benefits of preserving this area are manifold in the near to immediate term, I submit that the greatest value will be its ongoing contribution to our ability to respond to climate change. Continue reading “The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Climate Change, and The Public Trust”