Too Little, Too Late

May 20, 2009

From a Time Magazine article by Bryan Walsh

That's where Sterman's research comes in. "There is a profound and fundamental misconception about climate," he says. The problem is that most of us don't really understand how carbon accumulates in the atmosphere. Increasing global temperatures are driven by the increase in the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. Before the industrial age, the concentration was about 280 parts per million (p.p.m.) of carbon in the atmosphere. After a few centuries of burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels, we've raised that concentration to 387 p.p.m., and it continues to rise by about 2 p.p.m. every year. Many scientists believe that we need to at least stabilize carbon concentrations at 450 p.p.m. to ensure that global temperatures don't increase more than about 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. To do that, we need to reduce global carbon emissions (which hit about 10 billion tons last year) until they are equal to or less than the amount of carbon sequestered by the oceans and plant life (which removed about 4.8 billion tons of carbon last year). It's just like water in a bathtub — unless more water is draining out than flowing in from the tap, eventually the bathtub will overflow.

That means that carbon emissions would need to be cut drastically from current levels. Yet almost all of the subjects in Sterman's study failed to realize that, assuming instead that you could stabilize carbon concentration simply by capping carbon emissions at their current level. That's not the case — and in fact, pursuing such a plan for the future would virtually guarantee that global warming could spin out of control. It may seem to many like good common sense to wait until we see proof of the serious damage global warming is doing before we take action. But it's not — we can't "wait and see" on global warming because the climate has a momentum all its own, and if we wait for decades to finally act to reduce carbon emissions, it could well be too late. Yet this simply isn't understood. Someone as smart as Bill Gates doesn't seem to get it. "Fortunately climate change, although it's a huge challenge, it's a challenge that happens over a long period of time," he said at a forum in Beijing last year. "You know, we have time to work on it." But the truth is we don't.

If élite scientists could simply solve climate change on their own, public misunderstanding wouldn't be such a problem. But they can't. Reducing carbon emissions sharply will require all 6.5 billion (and growing) of us on the planet to hugely change the way we use energy and travel. We'll also need to change the way we vote, rewarding politicians willing to make the tough choices on climate. Instead of a new Manhattan Project — the metaphor often used for global warming — Sterman believes that what is needed is closer to a new civil rights movement, a large-scale campaign that dramatically changes the public's beliefs and behaviors. New groups like Al Gore's We Campaign are aiming for just such a social transformation, but "the reality is that this is even more difficult than civil rights," says Sterman. "Even that took a long time, and we don't have that kind of time with the climate.&quot

This last winter and spring has been colder than usual along the southern shore of Lake Superior.  Everyone around me is breathing a sigh of relief.  See, there’s nothing to worry about!


President Elect Obama

November 5, 2008

While the majority of USians, including myself, are rejoycing at the election of Barack Obama, his election will not effect the coming ecological disaster.  However, it may effect how humanity survives.

Over the last few months, I have become even more pessimistic about our survival.  Within the next four years, the Earth will witness the beginning of the death of the ocean, increasing human starvation, and the beginning waves of eco-refugees. 

The rich will continue to take as much as they can and the poor will continue to die. 

But perhaps it has come down to how we go down.  Will we we die with our heals on the throats of starving children?  Will we die like junkies, taking that last hit of our energy addiction to smooth the way? 

Or is this a man who can pull us together to work toward survival?  I want very much to hope.

Hand Wringing

July 17, 2008

I have a beloved on the West Coast (USA) who says that he has no interest in exploring apocalyptic scenarios.  All that hand wringing is just so much wank; we are too clever, too imaginative, and too driven to allow ourselves to self-destruct.  He believes that there will come a point when concern for our life support system will drive the world to work together to make a change.

When he talks, when he builds visions of global cooperation and responsibility, I believe that we might pull it off.  Maybe those new solar cells will be enough, that and the new batteries, and recycling, we’ll get serious about recycling….

But alone, in the dark of night, or even here, in the morning sun, as cars flash by me on the freeway, I’m very certain that it won’t happen that way. 

“If you’re going to write, then write about solutions,” he says.  I feel guilty because I’m not pouring my heart into making the world change.  I’m only watching: watching as the world spins along, spins away, everyone knowing that this is our place and this is how we are and this is how it will always be.

My beloved who lives in the Midwest says, “You aren’t thinking out of the box.  West Coast is right; if you’re going to complain, you should also offer solutions.  There are solutions, and it won’t get as bad as you think.”

James Lovelock is convinced that the only way the human race will survive is if it fully embraces nuclear power.

Most agrologists think that breadbasket-growing belts won’t disappear, but simply shift.

The Dutch are designing floating homes.

Dr. Dennis M. Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, suggests that “Mega-Engineering” such as sunshades in space, triggering volcanoes, or altering the albedo via nano-particulates will avert severe climate change.

In Collapse, Jarred Diamond suggests that the key is starting early enough and working together. To our advantage, the ideas are out there. Many, many people are working right now on solutions, on adaptations.

These are things that need our attention.

Well, Golly!

July 11, 2008

There was much self-congratulatory back slapping going on at the close of the G-8 summit in Japan.

“Three or four years ago, President Bush was saying global warming didn’t exist. So, in relation to that, we have seen quite a lot of movement. But in relation to what’s needed, it’s way, way, off the mark.”

Max Lawson, Oxfam International

Pretty much what happened was this: The leaders present at the summit agreed that, well, golly, the world does seem to be getting a might warm; we should do something about that.

But world leaders aren’t willing or able to convince their populations that we are living in a time of environmental crisis. The United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain Russia and Japan pledged to “move toward a low-carbon society” by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. No guidelines were set, nothing really definite, just an agreement that global warming is really happening and we should really do something about it.

The thing is, we humans have a really rotten track record when it comes to this type of thing. Since the Kyoto Protocol, which had an objective of “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” was adopted in 1997, Japan’s, as well as the rest of the world’s, carbon emissions have actually increased.

Even if we, and I mean all of us, working together, are able to curb emissions to the level that this summit envisions, such a small reduction so late in the game will have little effect on the coming crisis. Instead of a 50% reduction by 2050, if we want to avert total ecological disaster, we need to reduce emissions 50% by 2020, and 90% by 2050.

I have little hope that this will happen.

Yvo de Boer, who heads the U.N.-led global negotiations to forge a new climate change treaty, said in an Associated Press telephone interview from his home in the Netherlands: “I don’t find the outcome very significant.” He added that the summit’s vague pledge to work toward slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 mentioned no baseline, did not appear to be legally binding and was open to vastly different interpretations.

We will continue on, as we are, wringing our hands and watching in confoundment as the world changes, as the species die, as the oceans warm and acidify, as human populations starve and civilizations disintegrate. It will happen so fast that it will take our breath away.

The Cost of Living

May 12, 2008

Up around my neck of the woods, there is a huge debate going on as to whether a nickel mine should be allowed to open. The land that sits on top of the nickel deposit belongs to the State of Michigan. The mining company, Kennecott Minerals, argues that there is money to be made. The opponents argue that the cost to the environment will be higher than the financial payout. It really is as simple as that.

Now everyone knows that the non-sentient entity known as “Kennecott Minerals” doesn’t care about the environment. Like an earthworm, it’s only concern is to continue feeding so that it may continue living. If an earthworm found out that it’s poop was toxic to the soil that it lived in, it would simple keep moving forward, leaving the poop comfortably behind; it will keep doing this until there is no more ‘forward’ and it must do this right up until its own toxic poop kills it. It has no other alternative.

The question of whether Kennecott should be allowed to open a nickel mine on the Yellow Dog Plains is a pretty simple equation: will we end up paying more for it than what we get out of it? Kennecott is very invested in convincing the State and the locals that the payoff will be significant and the costs negligible.

The other two speakers in this debate are the locals and the State of Michigan.

Like a corporation, the State of Michigan is also a non-sentient entity. But instead of requiring profits for its survival, it requires reelection. I concede that there are officials who will make a stand for what they believe is right against public majority opinion, but for the most part, party officials will not throw their support behind a cause that is unsupported by their constituency.

Which leads to the locals, the people who will be left to live in Kennecott’s poop trail. There are several reasons why the locals are comfortable with the notion to open a new nickel mine on the Yellow Dog Plains.

Organisms strive toward life. First and foremost, living things must take in nutrients, dispose of waste, and breed new life. This truism flows from the cellular level on up through the whole organism. Because of this, an organism will become toxic to itself if it must do so to live. An example of this is the disease phenylketonuria, or PKU. Some newborn infants are born with a defective enzyme. The infants are unable to correctly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, an amino acid in breast milk. When these infants are nursed at their mother’s breast, their bodies cannot convert the phenylalanine into tyrosine. Toxic levels of phenylalanine cause severe mental retardation. But the baby has no choice; it must eat to live, even if eating causes causes her system to become toxic. Severe retardation is still life, and the organism always strives towards life.

In the same way, many locals are convinced that the immediate financial payoff of jobs that will provide sustenance to themselves and their families is more essential than the eventual toxicity of their environment. This is mining country, and the people here are used to having to acclimate to toxicity in order to live.

And besides, the poop pile is over there. Since most people live a significant distance from over there, they are more comfortable with making that place toxic. It’s a shame, but folks gotta make a living.

Finally, Kennecott has spent a lot of time and money convincing the locals that the damage won’t be any more significant than what they’ve known all their lives, and the payoff is worth a little sacrifice.

In the meantime, the people who actually live on the Yellow Dog Watershed are going absolutely apeshit. They are being betrayed by their neighbors, and they are angry, hurt and horrified. Because they are a small group of people with limited assets, there is a good chance that they will not be able to convince their neighbors that the payoff will not be worth the sacrifice.

Deciding whether sacrifice is worth averting probable future pain requires a level of sentience. I’m curious of what a sentient community would look like. I wonder how “American” it would be; We The People are so invested in individual rights that we forget that we live communally in our environment. There really is no over there.

I think that it’d be a good idea to move toward sentience. Does our society really need this nickel mine? Does our community really need these jobs? Is the toxicity worth it?

I believe that sacrifice now might better insure life for our grandchildren. That is my answer. Perhaps you have a different answer. I would be willing to debate the question.

Currently, the decision process includes applications to the DNR and EPA. The DNR is holding a hearing in Lansing, Michigan as this post is being written on whether it is legal, by the laws of Michigan, for Kennecott Mine to open.

The hearing is being conducted before Richard A. Patterson, an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules. It involves two permits — one for building and operating the mine, and the other for groundwater discharge. Patterson could uphold the DEQ’s ruling or recommend that it be rejected. The final decision would be made by DEQ Director Steven Chester, who already has endorsed his staff’s recommendation to approve the mine. Entire Associated Press Article

Most of the locals think that the hearing is about whether the mine will be safe enough; what the hearing is actually about is “a challenge filed by the National Wildlife Federation, the Huron Mountain Club, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. They contend the DEQ wrongly concluded that Kennecott’s plan meets environmental protection standards set under a state nonferrous mining law enacted in 2004.”

I think that we, as a society and as a species still think of this planet as one of limitless resources. There is no end to the air in the sky and the sea is vast beyond our imagining. But, like the people of the Easter Islands, our resources are finite. And like the Easter Islanders, our choices may spell out disaster.

Or maybe we are canny enough, intelligent enough, and sentient enough to ask the right questions, to find the answers that point down a path toward survival. This new path will take courage and belief in our fellow humans. It will take hope. It will be frustratingly difficult. But working toward solution is the only really interesting option.


May 10, 2008

Up here on the southern shore of Lake Superior, we do a lot of ice fishing. It’s a hell of a lot of fun — not the fishing, per se, but all the stuff that goes with the fishing. By fun, I do not mean exciting; ice fishing is just like other kinds of fishing; long periods of calm contemplation of the human condition and ones own place in’t.

A person knows when they’ve got a fish on the line when the tipup is triggered — on my rig, a little orange stick that springs up and literally quivers with excitement.

When I read the story in the Chicago Tribune about Russian scientist Sergei Zimov study of methane gas release from Siberia’s melting permafrost, a tipup spronged up in my head.

In Siberia, the permafrost entombs billions of tons of organic matter from the Ice Age, when northern Russia’s steppe teemed with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, musk oxen and other wildlife. Dormant for millennia, the permafrost is being thawed by global warming, triggering the microbial consumption that results in the release of greenhouse gases.

The process feeds on itself. As the climate warms, permafrost on the banks of Siberian lakes collapses into the water, supplying bacteria with more organic material to consume and further raising the level of methane released into the air.

The melting of permafrost cannot be stopped, Zimov said, but it could be slowed.

(Chicago Tribune – entire article)

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Konrad Steffan on a National Geographic program calmly say that the Greenland ice sheets are experiencing a positive feedback of melting. As an aside, I get a huge kick out of how calmly scientists talk, how their tone, word usage and body language say “Move along, nothing to see”; a person’s really gotta listen to get their point.

A few weeks before that, I read an article about how shocked scientists are at the rate of polar ice melt. Just five years ago, most scientist predicted that we may have an ice-free arctic summer sea by 2070. Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) just predicted that this summer, the summer of 2008, may experience an ice free arctic polar ocean — a sight last seen by the dinosaurs.

I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse. What I like about it so far is that it is so beautifully hopeful. There are ways that societies throughout our time on this old earth have dealt with these issues. Some societies, like the Easter Islanders, have failed completely. But others have managed not to fail.

We’ve hooked one hell of a fish. It’s easy to see that the global climate is going to change in increasingly dramatic ways. I think that, personally, I need to turn my attention to something other than staring horrified at the Loch Ness Monster that’s on the end of our line. It’s time that I started talking about what we might do with the bastard.

Water, Water Everywhere, And Not A Drop To Drink

April 14, 2008

Back in September of 2007, the IPCC said that the effects of climate change are being felt sooner than anticipated.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which is a co-founder of the IPCC, said: “Unchecked climate change will be an environmental and economic catastrophe but above all it will be a human tragedy. Seven of the world’s most populous countries are located in Asia and future population growth over the next 50 years is projected to increase India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’s populations by 570 million, 200 million and 130 million respectively”.

IPCC Technical Paper on Climate Change and Water, released on Wednesday 9th April 2008 states:

Globally, the negative impacts of future climate change on freshwater systems are expected to outweigh the benefits.

Changes in water quantity and quality due to climate change are expected to affect food availability, stability, access and utilization.

Current water management practices may not be robust enough to cope with the impacts of climate change on water supply reliability, flood risk, health, agriculture, energy and aquatic ecosystems.

Deus ex Machina

April 8, 2008

I’ve been quiet for a while.  Sometimes it just gets too much and I have to step away.

The big environmental news story on MSN today is that beer drinkers might have to pay more for their brew.

I wonder how many people know that scientists were shocked to see how fast Antarctica’s Wilkens Ice sheet is breaking up.

It takes an awful lot to shock a scientist.

I wonder how many people know that “If global emissions of CO2 from human activities continue to rise on current trends then the average pH of the oceans could fall by 0.5 units (equivalent to a three fold increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions) by the year 2100. This pH is probably lower (more acidic) than has been experienced for hundreds of millennia and, critically, this rate of change is probably one hundred times greater than at any time over this period. The scale of the changes may vary regionally, which will affect the magnitude of the biological effects.” The Royal Society, Ocean Acidification Due To Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, 2005 (my ephasis)

I wonder if people know that scientists who thought that the arctic ice cap would be ice-free by 2070 are now predicting that it’ll be ice-free by 2015?

I know that there is a growing sense of unease. But I don’t think that decreasing our use of shopping bags is going to make much of a difference. It might make people feel better, but it will not deflect the load of buckshot that has already fired and is speeding toward our collective faces.

“Deus ex Machina” is a latin phrase — “God from the machine.” In Greek theater, when all was lost, God would jump out of a box and save the day.

I’m going to school, to University, and I’m surrounded by young people every day. Eating, laughing, studying, typing away on their laptops, chatting on their cell phones, they are seemingly unconcerned by their future. They talk about their future as if the world will always be as it is right now.

And it’s certainly not just the 20-somethings. I hear 40-somethings talking about their retirement funds and whether they are saving enough to support themselves when they are in their eighties.

I look around at all of this and I wonder if any of the current world governments will survive through the end of this century. I wonder if the ocean die-off will be gradual or quick. I wonder what will happen when their is no more money left for public schools, public housing and public medical care. I wonder what will happen when we face starvation in the cities.

We aren’t saving ourselves, and the hand of God or science will not sweep away the self-inflicted death-shot flying toward us that is our future.

Sometimes I have to set it aside and think about the day — getting kids to school, making dinner, walking the dog, listening to the first birds of spring, lifting my face to the late day sun. Sometimes I have to just take a deep breath and think about my own personal plan.

I wonder how many other people, these people who are seemingly unconcerned, are like me.

The Philosophy of Objectivism

March 26, 2008

I saw “The Corporation” last night, a 2003 Canadian documentary film critical of the modern-day corporation, considering it as a class of person and evaluating its behaviour towards society and the world at large as a psychologist might evaluate an ordinary person.

I found this quote particularly compelling:

“Drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly. The man going off of a very high cliff in his airplane, with the wings flapping, and the guys flapping the wings and the wind is in his face, and this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but, in fact, he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet because the ground is so far away, but, of course, the craft is doomed to crash.

That’s the way our civilization is, the very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seem to have when we began this journey. The craft isn’t flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics and it’s subject to the law of gravity.

Our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly. And, of course, the ground is still a long way away, but some people have seen that ground rushing up sooner than the rest of us have.

The visionaries have seen it and have told us it’s coming. There’s not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario: every living system of earth is in decline, every life support system of earth is in decline, and these together constitute the biosphere, the biosphere that supports and nurtures all of life, and not just our life but perhaps 30 million other species that share this planet with us.”

—Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, The Corporation

 Robert Hessen, who critiques “The Corporation,” calls it propaganda and makes an argument that “The Corporation” should not be shown in 8th grade classes because children of that age do not have the intellectual sophistication to make an argument against what is presented.

“Everyone in the world could, at a cost, reduce the chance of his or her death.  You could chose to not to walk across the street.  The question is, is whether that person is willing to pay for it.  Consumers should be free to decide what type of risk they want to bear.  And the government has the right to provide courts of law to allow people to sue corporations if (for example) they fraudulently conceal gas tanks that are not sufficiently safe to protect the consumer.  

Strangely, people are not willing to pay very much.   And people do many stupid things that can lead to their death.  People jump out planes, people smoke, even thought they know that it’s bad for them.  But the underlying principle is that individuals should be able to decide how much they are willing to pay.  It has nothing to do with evil corporations.”

So, the folks who are promoting “The Corporation” are jumping up and down, saying that our current economic system is not sustainable, and we’re gonna crash because we’re gonna run out of resources to use.

Hessen replies that there are plenty of resources, and doing things much differently than we are currently doing it would be cutting our own throats, for no reason.

Hessen’s main critique of “The Corporation” is that corporations are an agreement between individuals — “the corporation” and “the consumer”;  the corporation is a product of the freedom of association, and Hessan sees that any criticism of the corporate form is a criticism of that freedom. 

Hessen is a “Randian”, a follower of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  The Objectivists believe that the fundamental right is the right to life— that is, the right to act in furtherance of one’s own life — not the right to have ones life protected or to have ones survival guaranteed by the involuntary effort of other human beings.  Secondly Objectivists believe in the right to property: one person’s right to life cannot entail the right to dispose of another’s private property, under any circumstances. 

Objectivism holds that human beings have the right to manipulate nature in any way they see fit, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

 Ok, so if you’ve read this far, this is what got me — from Wikipedia:

“On the Objectivist account, the rights of other human beings are not of direct moral import to the agent who respects them; they acquire their moral purchase through an intermediate step.

An Objectivist respects the rights of other human beings out of the recognition of the value to himself or herself of living in a world in which the freedom of action of other rational (or potentially rational) human beings is respected.

Ones respect for the rights of others is founded on the value, to oneself, of other persons as actual or potential partners in cooperation and trade.”

Really, the fact that very powerful humans, humans who control our planet through the use of its resources and disposal of commercial waste, live and operate by this philosophy is terrifying. 

And it explains a lot.

Black Carbon — New Report

March 25, 2008

A new report was published on line this weekend at Nature Geoscience:

Nature Geoscience
Published online: 23 March 2008 | doi:10.1038/ngeo156

Global and regional climate changes due to black carbon
V. Ramanathan1 & G. Carmichael2



Black carbon in soot is the dominant absorber of visible solar radiation in the atmosphere. Anthropogenic sources of black carbon, although distributed globally, are most concentrated in the tropics where solar irradiance is highest. Black carbon is often transported over long distances, mixing with other aerosols along the way. The aerosol mix can form transcontinental plumes of atmospheric brown clouds, with vertical extents of 3 to 5 km. Because of the combination of high absorption, a regional distribution roughly aligned with solar irradiance, and the capacity to form widespread atmospheric brown clouds in a mixture with other aerosols, emissions of black carbon are the second strongest contribution to current global warming, after carbon dioxide emissions. In the Himalayan region, solar heating from black carbon at high elevations may be just as important as carbon dioxide in the melting of snowpacks and glaciers. The interception of solar radiation by atmospheric brown clouds leads to dimming at the Earth’s surface with important implications for the hydrological cycle, and the deposition of black carbon darkens snow and ice surfaces, which can contribute to melting, in particular of Arctic sea ice.

The paper concluded that black carbon’s warming effect in the atmosphere is about 0.9 watts per meter squared, compared with IPCC’s consensus estimate of 0.2 to 0.4 watts.

“The positive side of this discouraging story is we know how to cut down black carbon,” Ramanathan said. “We have reduced it. So this is something we can do now.”
(Los Angeles Times, 25 March 2008 )