The Uninhabitable Earth


Source: New York Magazine

Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.

By

 


Fossils by Heartless Machine
In the jungles of Costa Rica, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories every day, like last month’s satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought. Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the geological record shows that temperature can shift as much as ten degrees or more in a single decade. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.

 

II. Heat Death

The bahraining of New York.

In the sugar­cane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. Photo: Heartless Machine

Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem; in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

Climate-change skeptics point out that the planet has warmed and cooled many times before, but the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history. At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually. This century, and especially in the tropics, the pain points will pinch much more quickly even than an increase of seven degrees. The key factor is something called wet-bulb temperature, which is a term of measurement as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the heat registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air (since the moisture evaporates from a sock more quickly in dry air, this single number reflects both heat and humidity). At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees. What is called heat stress comes much sooner.

Actually, we’re about there already. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Air-conditioning can help but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem; plus, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely plausible to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the world, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks. Of course, heat stress promises to pummel us in places other than our kidneys, too. As I type that sentence, in the California desert in mid-June, it is 121 degrees outside my door. It is not a record high.

 

III. The End of Food

Praying for cornfields in the tundra.

Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Some estimates run as high as 15 or even 17 percent. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them. And proteins are worse: It takes 16 calories of grain to produce just a single calorie of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life polluting the climate with methane farts.

Pollyannaish plant physiologists will point out that the cereal-crop math applies only to those regions already at peak growing temperature, and they are right theoretically, a warmer climate will make it easier to grow corn in Greenland. But as the pathbreaking work by Rosamond Naylor and David Battisti has shown, the tropics are already too hot to efficiently grow grain, and those places where grain is produced today are already at optimal growing temperature — which means even a small warming will push them down the slope of declining productivity. And you can’t easily move croplands north a few hundred miles, because yields in places like remote Canada and Russia are limited by the quality of soil there; it takes many centuries for the planet to produce optimally fertile dirt.

Drought might be an even bigger problem than heat, with some of the world’s most arable land turning quickly to desert. Precipitation is notoriously hard to model, yet predictions for later this century are basically unanimous: unprecedented droughts nearly everywhere food is today produced. By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American dust bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China. None of these places, which today supply much of the world’s food, will be reliable sources of any. As for the original dust bowl: The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains” and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization.

Remember, we do not live in a world without hunger as it is. Far from it: Most estimates put the number of undernourished at 800 million globally. In case you haven’t heard, this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone.

 

IV. Climate Plagues

What happens when the bubonic ice melts?

Rock, in the right spot, is a record of planetary history, eras as long as millions of years flattened by the forces of geological time into strata with amplitudes of just inches, or just an inch, or even less. Ice works that way, too, as a climate ledger, but it is also frozen history, some of which can be reanimated when unfrozen. There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.

The Arctic also stores terrifying bugs from more recent times. In Alaska, already, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million and killed as many as 100 million — about 5 percent of the world’s population and almost six times as many as had died in the world war for which the pandemic served as a kind of gruesome capstone. As the BBC reported in May, scientists suspect smallpox and the bubonic plague are trapped in Siberian ice, too — an abridged history of devastating human sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun.

Experts caution that many of these organisms won’t actually survive the thaw and point to the fastidious lab conditions under which they have already reanimated several of them — the 32,000-year-old “extremophile” bacteria revived in 2005, an 8 million-year-old bug brought back to life in 2007, the 3.5 million–year–old one a Russian scientist self-injected just out of curiosity — to suggest that those are necessary conditions for the return of such ancient plagues. But already last year, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier; 2,000 present-day reindeer were infected, too, carrying and spreading the disease beyond the tundra.

What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. The first effect is geographical. Before the early-modern period, when adventuring sailboats accelerated the mixing of peoples and their bugs, human provinciality was a guard against pandemic. Today, even with globalization and the enormous intermingling of human populations, our ecosystems are mostly stable, and this functions as another limit, but global warming will scramble those ecosystems and help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. You don’t worry much about dengue or malaria if you are living in Maine or France. But as the tropics creep northward and mosquitoes migrate with them, you will. You didn’t much worry about Zika a couple of years ago, either.

As it happens, Zika may also be a good model of the second worrying effect — disease mutation. One reason you hadn’t heard about Zika until recently is that it had been trapped in Uganda; another is that it did not, until recently, appear to cause birth defects. Scientists still don’t entirely understand what happened, or what they missed. But there are things we do know for sure about how climate affects some diseases: Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, too, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster. Which is one reason that the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 5.2 billion people will be reckoning with it.

 

V. Unbreathable Air

A rolling death smog that suffocates millions.

By the end of the century, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Photo: Heartless Machine

Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.

Already, more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning; each year, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke, in part because climate change has extended forest-fire season (in the U.S., it’s increased by 78 days since 1970). By 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today; in some places, the area burned could grow fivefold. What worries people even more is the effect that would have on emissions, especially when the fires ravage forests arising out of peat. Peatland fires in Indonesia in 1997, for instance, added to the global CO2 release by up to 40 percent, and more burning only means more warming only means more burning. There is also the terrifying possibility that rain forests like the Amazon, which in 2010 suffered its second “hundred-year drought” in the space of five years, could dry out enough to become vulnerable to these kinds of devastating, rolling forest fires — which would not only expel enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but also shrink the size of the forest. That is especially bad because the Amazon alone provides 20 percent of our oxygen.

Then there are the more familiar forms of pollution. In 2013, melting Arctic ice remodeled Asian weather patterns, depriving industrial China of the natural ventilation systems it had come to depend on, which blanketed much of the country’s north in an unbreathable smog. Literally unbreathable. A metric called the Air Quality Index categorizes the risks and tops out at the 301-to-500 range, warning of “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly” and, for all others, “serious risk of respiratory effects”; at that level, “everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” The Chinese “airpocalypse” of 2013 peaked at what would have been an Air Quality Index of over 800. That year, smog was responsible for a third of all deaths in the country.

 

VI. Perpetual War

The violence baked into heat.

Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria. They want you to know that while climate change did produce a drought that contributed to civil war, it is not exactly fair to saythat the conflict is the result of warming; next door, for instance, Lebanon suffered the same crop failures. But researchers like Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang have managed to quantify some of the non-obvious relationships between temperature and violence: For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. In climate science, nothing is simple, but the arithmetic is harrowing: A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.

This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. Of course, it’s not just Syria where climate has contributed to conflict. Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.

What accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics; a lot has to do with forced migration, already at a record high, with at least 65 million displaced people wandering the planet right now. But there is also the simple fact of individual irritability. Heat increases municipal crime rates, and swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation. And the arrival of air-conditioning in the developed world, in the middle of the past century, did little to solve the problem of the summer crime wave.

 

VII. Permanent Economic Collapse

Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world.

The murmuring mantra of global neoliberalism, which prevailed between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the Great Recession, is that economic growth would save us from anything and everything.
But in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves. After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change.

The most exciting research on the economics of warming has also come from Hsiang and his colleagues, who are not historians of fossil capitalism but who offer some very bleak analysis of their own: Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”). This is the sterling work in the field, and their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor).
Tracing the shape of the probability curve is even scarier: There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline. By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent, in a onetime shock; Hsiang and his colleagues estimate a one-in-eight chance of an ongoing and irreversible effect by the end of the century that is eight times worse.

The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world. It makes the grounding of flights out of heat-stricken Phoenix last month seem like pathetically small economic potatoes. And, among other things, it makes the idea of postponing government action on reducing emissions and relying solely on growth and technology to solve the problem an absurd business calculation.
Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.

 

VIII. Poisoned Oceans

Sulfide burps off the skeleton coast.

That the sea will become a killer is a given. Barring a radical reduction of emissions, we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century. A third of the world’s major cities are on the coast, not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas, marshlands, and rice-paddy empires, and even those above ten feet will flood much more easily, and much more regularly, if the water gets that high. At least 600 million people live within ten meters of sea level today.

But the drowning of those homelands is just the start. At present, more than a third of the world’s carbon is sucked up by the oceans — thank God, or else we’d have that much more warming already. But the result is what’s called “ocean acidification,” which, on its own, may add a half a degree to warming this century. It is also already burning through the planet’s water basins — you may remember these as the place where life arose in the first place. You have probably heard of “coral bleaching” — that is, coral dying — which is very bad news, because reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food for half a billion people. Ocean acidification will fry fish populations directly, too, though scientists aren’t yet sure how to predict the effects on the stuff we haul out of the ocean to eat; they do know that in acid waters, oysters and mussels will struggle to grow their shells, and that when the pH of human blood drops as much as the oceans’ pH has over the past generation, it induces seizures, comas, and sudden death.

That isn’t all that ocean acidification can do. Carbon absorption can initiate a feedback loop in which underoxygenated waters breed different kinds of microbes that turn the water still more “anoxic,” first in deep ocean “dead zones,” then gradually up toward the surface. There, the small fish die out, unable to breathe, which means oxygen-eating bacteria thrive, and the feedback loop doubles back. This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.” The name originally referred to the detritus of the whaling industry, but today it’s more apt than ever. Hydrogen sulfide is so toxic that evolution has trained us to recognize the tiniest, safest traces of it, which is why our noses are so exquisitely skilled at registering flatulence. Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97 percent of all life on Earth died, once all the feedback loops had been triggered and the circulating jet streams of a warmed ocean ground to a halt — it’s the planet’s preferred gas for a natural holocaust. Gradually, the ocean’s dead zones spread, killing off marine species that had dominated the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and the gas the inert waters gave off into the atmosphere poisoned everything on land. Plants, too. It was millions of years before the oceans recovered.

 

IX. The Great Filter

Our present eeriness cannot last.

So why can’t we see it? In his recent book-length essay The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction — why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre he basically imagines into half-existence and names “the environmental uncanny.” “Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ or ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ ” he writes. “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’ ” His answer: Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.

Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size. Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once.

It is. Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — a helpful perspective, in a way, since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime. My father’s, for instance: born in 1938, among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic Air Force of the propaganda films that followed, films that doubled as advertisements for imperial-American industrial might; and among his last memories the coverage of the desperate signing of the Paris climate accords on cable news, ten weeks before he died of lung cancer last July. Or my mother’s: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, now enjoying her 72nd year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the supply chains of an industrialized developing world. She has been smoking for 57 of those years, unfiltered.

Or the scientists’. Some of the men who first identified a changing climate (and given the generation, those who became famous were men) are still alive; a few are even still working. Wally Broecker is 84 years old and drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side. Like most of those who first raised the alarm, he believes that no amount of emissions reduction alone can meaningfully help avoid disaster. Instead, he puts his faith in carbon capture — untested technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which Broecker estimates will cost at least several trillion dollars — and various forms of “geoengineering,” the catchall name for a variety of moon-shot technologies far-fetched enough that many climate scientists prefer to regard them as dreams, or nightmares, from science fiction. He is especially focused on what’s called the aerosol approach — dispersing so much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that when it converts to sulfuric acid, it will cloud a fifth of the horizon and reflect back 2 percent of the sun’s rays, buying the planet at least a little wiggle room, heat-wise. “Of course, that would make our sunsets very red, would bleach the sky, would make more acid rain,” he says. “But you have to look at the magnitude of the problem. You got to watch that you don’t say the giant problem shouldn’t be solved because the solution causes some smaller problems.” He won’t be around to see that, he told me. “But in your lifetime …”

Jim Hansen is another member of this godfather generation. Born in 1941, he became a climatologist at the University of Iowa, developed the groundbreaking “Zero Model” for projecting climate change, and later became the head of climate research at NASA, only to leave under pressure when, while still a federal employee, he filed a lawsuit against the federal government charging inaction on warming (along the way he got arrested a few times for protesting, too). The lawsuit, which is brought by a collective called Our Children’s Trust and is often described as “kids versus climate change,” is built on an appeal to the equal-protection clause, namely, that in failing to take action on warming, the government is violating it by imposing massive costs on future generations; it is scheduled to be heard this winter in Oregon district court. Hansen has recently given up on solving the climate problem with a carbon tax, which had been his preferred approach, and has set about calculating the total cost of extracting carbon from the atmosphere instead.

Hansen began his career studying Venus, which was once a very Earth-like planet with plenty of life-supporting water before runaway climate change rapidly transformed it into an arid and uninhabitable sphere enveloped in an unbreathable gas; he switched to studying our planet by 30, wondering why he should be squinting across the solar system to explore rapid environmental change when he could see it all around him on the planet he was standing on. “When we wrote our first paper on this, in 1981,” he told me, “I remember saying to one of my co-authors, ‘This is going to be very interesting. Sometime during our careers, we’re going to see these things beginning to happen.’ ”

Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer, they suggested, is that the natural life span of a civilization may be only several thousand years, and the life span of an industrial civilization perhaps only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another. Peter Ward, a charismatic paleontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the “Great Filter”: “Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,” he told me. “If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.” The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.

And yet, improbably, Ward is an optimist. So are Broecker and Hansen and many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.

It is not easy to know how much to be reassured by that bleak certainty, and how much to wonder whether it is another form of delusion; for global warming to work as parable, of course, someone needs to survive to tell the story. The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do. Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.

*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been updated to clarify a reference to Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World.

Sea Levels Will Rise Faster Than Ever


 

sea-level-rise

Scientific research indicates sea levels worldwide have been rising at a rate of 0.14 inches (3.5 millimeters) per year since the early 1990s. The trend, linked to global warming, puts thousands of coastal cities, like Venice, Italy, (seen here during a historic flood in 2008), and even whole islands at risk of being claimed by the ocean. Photograph by Andrea Pattero/AFP/Getty Images (National Geographic)

By Scott Waldman, ClimateWire on November 8, 2016

Source: Scientific American The Atlantic coast will be one of the hardest hit regions

Sea levels across the globe will rise faster than at any time throughout human history if the Earth’s warming continues beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

The Atlantic coast of North America will be one of the worst-hit areas as melting glaciers cause the sea level to rise over the next century, a new study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds.

However, that rise is not expected to be uniform, as gravity and the movement of the ocean will play a role in how the water is distributed, and some areas will be hit worse than others. New York and other cities along the East Coast could see seas rise by more than 3 feet by the end of the century if the Earth warms by 4 or 5 degrees beyond pre-industrial levels.

If the rate of carbon emissions continues unabated, the authors said, the globe would warm by 2 degrees and cause significant sea-level rise by 2040. It would be worse along the East Coast of North America and Norway, which are expected to experience a sea-level rise of about a foot. The relative speed of the sea’s rise means many areas won’t have time to adapt, researchers found. And from there, warming would accelerate even faster.

“The coastal communities of rapidly expanding cities in the developing world and vulnerable tropical coastal ecosystems will have a very limited time to adapt to sea-level rises after the ‘2 degrees Celsius’ threshold is likely to be reached,” said Svetlana Jevrejeva, a researcher at the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool, England, and lead author of the study.

The sea-level rise comes as the Earth’s record-breaking warmth is expected to become the “new normal,” according to another study published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. While 2015 was the hottest year on record, it could be the average within the next decade if carbon emissions continue to rise at their current rate, it found. And even if countries take action to limit carbon dioxide, humanity may have already locked in the increased warmth by 2040.

But limiting emissions now will mean some of the regions of the globe are not locked in for the new levels of warmth, and that they can still have significant variability.

“It gives us hope to know that if we act quickly to reduce greenhouse gases, seasonal extremes might never enter a new normal state in the 21st century at regional levels for the Southern Hemisphere summer and Northern Hemisphere winter,” said Sophie Lewis, a researcher at the Australian National University.

Millions of urban dwellers at risk

Nations that signed the Paris Agreement limiting warming to a maximum of 2 degrees are meeting this week in Morocco to put the accord into motion. Meanwhile, the United Nations has already cautioned that the emission targets countries voluntarily set may not be strict enough to meet the 2-degree goal.

Two degrees of warming is expected to cause an average global sea-level rise of 8 inches, but virtually all coastal areas will see more of a rise, Jevrejeva found. If warming exceeds 2 degrees by 2100, as some climate scientists worry it might, about 80 percent of the global coastline could experience a rise in sea levels of 6 feet. Such a rapid rise in sea levels is unprecedented since the dawn of the Bronze Age about 5,000 years ago, according to the study.

The research takes further the potential for sea-level rise posed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which argued that sea-level rise of 11 to 38 inches is possible by 2100. Many climate scientists have since claimed that estimate is too conservative.

Absent a concerted effort to limit warming, cities and island nations across the globe are at risk, researchers found.

“Coastal communities, notably rapidly expanding cities in the developing world; small island states; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Cultural World Heritage sites; and vulnerable tropical coastal ecosystems will have a very limited time after mid-century to adapt to these rises,” they wrote.

The rise for New York is predicated on a warming of 5 degrees by 2100, which some researchers have contested may be too high. But at the upper scale of that level of warming, tens of millions of people around the world would be displaced. That includes “2.5 million living in low-lying areas of Miami; 2.1 million in Guangzhou [in China]; 1.8 million in Mumbai; and more than 1 million each in Osaka [in Japan], Tokyo, New Orleans, New York, and [Vietnam’s] Ho Chi Minh City,” researchers contended.

The study is part of a growing body of research that looks for possible scenarios that involve the potential for catastrophic sea-level rise, but more attention should be paid to the loss of land ice, as well, said Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. While researchers typically focus on the loss of glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland, the loss of land ice in other spots across the globe is now contributing to sea-level rise at almost the same rate as the Arctic’s melting ice, he said. It’s the full scope of the current glacial loss that concerns political leaders and policymakers because it has already presented a pressing need to be addressed, he said.

“This near-term time scale is the time of greatest concern to decision makers,” he said. “Research that reaches out to 2100 and beyond is scientifically exciting, but really of secondary importance to the people who are trying to make sense of the science for decision-making.”

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

Remembering Exxon Valdez: Obama Should Cancel Leases in Gulf and Arctic


exoon spill clean

By Margie Alt and Cindy Shogan, EcoWatch -24 March 16
Source: Reader Supported News

Today marks the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe—the 11-million-gallon oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that remains one of the largest human-caused environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Twenty-seven years later, in some ways, not much has changed. The devastation from the spill lingers. Crude oil remains beneath beaches. The orca whale population continues to struggle. Crab and shrimp populations have yet to fully recover.

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the largest catastrophe in U.S. history. Shell’s Kulluk drill rig running aground on New Year’s Eve 2012 offered a new, horrific reminder of the risk of offering up one of the world’s most remote and diverse marine environments to oil and gas development.

And last week, the Obama administration issued its latest plan for more drilling and inevitable spilling. The proposal includes 10 new lease areas for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and three in Alaskan waters – two of which are located in the Arctic Ocean.

But many changes over the last three decades also point to a clean energy future. In fact, the scientific, economic and political momentum to stop new drilling proposals and wean ourselves off fossil fuels altogether is increasingly on our side.

Nearly 200 nations have agreed to a goal of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, a benchmark scientists say we can only meet if we keep the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground. There’s no better place to start than with the fragile Arctic, and with a just transition off fossil fuels that begins with no new drilling in the Gulf.

Time and again, the Obama administration has also proved itself willing to listen to the call of opposition to ocean drilling.

Last year the administration canceled existing drilling leases in the Arctic Ocean, following the actions of “kayaktivists” who sought to block Shell’s icebreaker headed north from Portland, Oregon.

Earlier this month President Obama announced a wide-ranging joint climate agreement with Canada, pledging to take into account climate science and emergency response plans when determining future oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean.

Last week, the Department of the Interior withdrew the southern Atlantic Ocean from its leasing proposal after an outcry from citizens, businesses and local governments up and down the coast.

Just yesterday, in the face of spirited protests at the symbolically-charged Superdome in New Orleans, the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management even temporarily shut down their auction of drilling leases in the Gulf.

Of course, Exxon and its ilk are pushing for the ways of the past. A year ago, in public comments submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Exxon’s Vice President urged the administration to maintain all its proposed leasing areas, and even add the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico, which is currently protected by moratorium. The oil company also lamented at that time that certain areas of Alaska had been removed from consideration.

Today, help us ride the wave of change and push past Exxon and other polluters. Remember the Exxon Valdez disaster by urging the Obama administration to drop its proposals for new drilling in the Arctic and the Gulf.

Oil Companies Want to Get in on the Action in Cuba


Platform

By Katie Herzog, Grist -23 March 16

It’s a new day for Cuba and the U.S.

A little more than a year after relations between the two nations officially started to thaw, President Obama on Sunday became the first U.S. president to visit the island nation since Calvin Coolidge. During a two-and-a-half-day visit, Obama is meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro to discuss lifting the 1962 embargo as well as economic opportunities and human rights abuses, according to the White House. He’ll also attend a baseball game.

Obama isn’t the only one interested in Cuba. Big Business, including the oil industry, is eyeing the island nation as well. One hundred and twenty business leaders converged upon the country to discuss offshore oil development last October. While American companies are still barred from owning oil assets in Cuba, U.S. firms can be involved in drilling and safety operations. Cuba might welcome that, as Bloomberg Government reports:

Cheap oil has forced Venezuela to scale back its support for Cuba, and that’s prodding the officially Communist nation to open up to foreign investment and build on its rapprochement with the U.S., according to a Moody’s report in December. And opening up may mean boosting the 50,000 barrels a day of oil now produced there. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 4.6 billion barrels of crude oil are lurking in the North Cuba Basin, with most of it within 50 miles of Cuba’s coast; that’s one-fifth of what USGS estimated to exist in the Arctic seas off Alaska. But this oil — if it’s really there — wouldn’t need to be produced in some of the world’s harshest conditions, and would be just a short barge voyage away from U.S. Gulf-area refineries.

Of course, the prospect of more offshore development in Cuban waters isn’t exactly comforting to environmentalists. Drilling could happen as close as 50 miles off the coast of Florida, so a big oil spill there could certainly reach American shores. Plus there’s the whole climate change thing to worry about. Cuba, a low-lying island, is especially vulnerable to sea-level rise.

An official White House fact sheet about Obama’s trip to Cuba mentions climate change and the two countries’ intentions to work together on fighting and adapting to it — and makes no mention of oil or gas. “The United States and Cuba recognize the threats posed by climate change to both our countries,” it reads, “including worsening impacts such as continued sea-level rise, the alarming acidification of our oceans, and the striking incidence of extreme weather events. Cooperative action to address this challenge is more critical than ever.”

Addressing this challenge may be critical, as both Washington and Havana are aware, but as oil companies show an increased interest in Cuba’s oil reserves, we may, once again, see the triumph of profit over progress. It’s happened everywhere else. Why not Cuba as well?

Does Methane Threaten Life?


Source: CounterPunch

The question of whether methane (CH4) in the atmosphere is a threat to life is extraordinarily complex and generally not well understood. But, yes it is a serious threat, very serious and horribly real.

Okay, but don’t scientists understand this, and why aren’t they speaking out?

They are speaking out but only a very few.

Here’s the “speaking out” problem: Leading climate scientists are not willing to honestly expose their greatest fears, as discovered by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! whilst at CO21 in Paris this past December, interviewing one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson (University of Manchester) of Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research who said: “So far we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.”

Straightaway, we know from one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change that climate scientists are censoring their own research. But why?

“What we are afraid of doing is putting forward analysis that questions the paradigm, the economic way that we run society today… We fine-tune our analysis so that it fits into the economic reality of our society, the current economic framing. Actually our science now asks fundamental questions about this idea of economic growth in the short term, but we’re very reluctant to say that. In fact, the funding bodies are reluctant to fund research that raises those questions,” Democracy Now! Top Climate Expert: Crisis is Worse Than We Think & Scientists Are Self-Censoring to Downplay Risk, Dec. 8, 2015.

Accordingly, since the current economic framing throughout the world is all about neoliberalism, then it appears this framing does not frame well with climate scientists. One has to wonder why? Maybe it’s only about fossil fuels, but then again, neoliberalism does not leave much room for science. Neoliberalism’s all about “privatizing everything for profits,” removing regulations and let free enterprise (Milton Friedman) determine what’s good for the atmosphere, not science. Alas, climate science is not (underlined twice) profitable. Who needs it?

The scientists that do talk, sans concerns about the current economic paradigm, are openly alarmed by growing evidence of the risk of CH4’s sudden release from the icy protection of the Arctic, knowing humanity is not ready for it.

Those scientists that do speak out, do so in a video, Abrupt Climate Change, The Hard Truth: (The following quotes come from scientists in the video below.)

A major concern amongst scientists is the ongoing meltdown of the Arctic which in turn could release massive quantities of CH4 which in turn feeds into an irreversible feedback loop leading to uncontrollable self-perpetuating rapid planetary temperature rise, the dreaded doomsday scenario, a fireball planet.

“If global average temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above baseline, what that means is that the interior of large continents heats up at least twice that much, so to 4C, or higher. And that’s where all of the grain is grown, and grain is the basis for civilization… That would be sufficient to have civilization collapse… we’re talking about the type of suffering that goes beyond anything we’ve ever seen before… well beyond what goes on in war… well beyond the plagues of the past.”

“We have already lit the fuse on a giant methane subsea permafrost bomb in the Arctic which can go off at any moment.”

A methane monster idly sets in waiting in the shallow waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf where 100s to 1000s of gigatons could release from very shallow water. Scientists who have studied the area for over a decade say it only takes destabilization of 1-2% to create irreversible havoc for the planet.

According to a 2013 NASA satellite observation, methane plumes in the Arctic Ocean 150 kilometers (93 miles) wide were observed bubbling up to surface. That explains the upward sloping chart of CH4 into the atmosphere, a steeper slope than CO2.

“We’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter. In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed,” Dr. Semiletov said, “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale. I think on a scale not seen before. Some of the plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere. The concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.” (Igor Semiletov PhD, Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far Eastern Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, visiting scientist, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska- not in the video).

How does this vicious cycle end?

First, how did it start? It started by humans burning too much fossil fuel like gasoline for cars and coal for electricity which in turn spews noxious CO2 into the atmosphere which in turn hangs around for centuries acting like a big blanket retaining more and more heat until Mother Earth develops a horrible cough, disrupting her Jet Streams, which brings tropical storms to Boulder, Colorado for the first time ever and loosens up gigatons of CH4 from below the icy cover of the Arctic Ocean, now iceless blue water, into the upper atmosphere to join CO2 as a much larger down-filled blanket which turns up the heat even more.

This cycle likely does not end, assuming noxious emissions do not stop almost cold turkey, rather it expands via vast, continent-wide swaths of climate disruption to the extent that people are forced into pathways of migration, fleeing flooded zones, like Bangladesh (where cities are already sinking), or in search of food sources as desertification overrides local food production, like vast areas of India with 25% already turned to desert, or the drought-stricken eastern Mediterranean (worst drought ever) pushing out more migrants, or entire communities and cities migrating to find sources of water, like Andean communities and cities, e.g., Lima (pop.8.5M) dependent upon glacial water (the World Bank has already warned about this), or a population of 50,000 picking up stakes to move inland, North Carolina’s Outer Banks where portions of the 200-mile island are already at 25% of original width, or crazed upper atmospheric Jet Streams, under the wavering influence of an overheated Arctic, driving endless torrential tropical storms out of the tropics to America’s heartland, like Colorado (2013 Colorado Tropical Storm), as county after county experiences massive flooding, destroying valuable farmland, or when the high tides in Miami are suddenly relabeled “historic flooding.”

Then, a maddening political scramble will ensue to find some way, shape, or form to come to grips with the planet’s rapidly collapsing ecosystem, as angry mobs roam the countryside to hunt down climate change liars to tar and feather. Still, by the time these overwhelmingly large massive bodies of enraged mobs do their dirty work, most of the planet will mirror the dystopian image projected by Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros. 2015). They’ll fit right into the script.

Dr. Peter Gleick (member of the National Academy of Sciences) director of the Pacific Institute of California recently warned, “What is happening in the Arctic now is unprecedented and possibly catastrophic,” Ian Johnston, Arctic Warming: Rapidly Increasing Temperatures are Possibly Catastrophic for Planet, Climate Scientist Warns, Independent, February 25, 2016.

The Solution

Get off fossil fuels as soon as humanly possible and do not elect a president to the White House who denies anthropogenic climate change because that will be tantamount to voluntarily entering a gas chamber, slamming shut the big thick heavy door, and giving thumbs up to the warden!

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at roberthunziker@icloud.com

Leonardo DiCaprio Devotes Oscars Speech to Climate Change


Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars in 2016. (photo: EcoWatch)

Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars in 2016. (photo: EcoWatch)

By Lorraine Chow, EcoWatch, 29 February 16
Source: Readers Supported News

After six nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Revenant at last night’s Academy Awards. The noted environmental activist devoted half of his acceptance speech to call for urgent collective action to fight climate change, calling it “the most urgent threat facing our species.”

The 41-year-old actor, who was favored to win the Oscar and had swept the Best Actor category in every major award show leading up to the Academy Awards, first thanked the cast and crew in his speech and then shined a spotlight on a his passion project.

Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history,” he said, describing how the entire production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet in Argentina just to be able to find snow.

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now,” DiCaprio continued. “It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”

He also spoke about the need to support leaders who fight the biggest polluters, as well as the need to stand up for the rights of indigenous people and for the “billions and billions of underprivileged people” affected by a warming planet.

“For our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. Thank you so very much,” he concluded.

DiCaprio’s speech was given a standing ovation by the star-studded audience at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

The Revenant, which was nominated for 12 Oscars—more than any other film this year—took home two other awards at Sunday’s ceremony, including one for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The entire cast and crew braved the elements and faced extreme weather conditions in locations such as Mexico, Argentina, British Columbia and Alberta.

DiCaprio, who played fur trapper and legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass in the film, made similar comments at previous awards ceremonies about the The Revenant‘s grisly filming conditions.

“We shot at high altitudes in Calgary, and weather conditions were unprecedented,” DiCaprio said backstage after taking home a Screen Actors Guild Award last month.

DiCaprio, who is working on a documentary about climate change, told reporters at the SAG awards, “We are in the process of changing our climate for tens of thousands if not millions of years at this very moment, so this is a very significant turning point for me to witness it first-hand while doing this movie and simultaneously doing the documentary, and it’s absolutely, absolutely terrifying.”

As EcoWatch reported, DiCaprio saw the impacts of climate change first hand while traveling to film the documentary. He was “astonished to see that ancient glaciers” in Greenland and the Arctic are “rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific models.” In India, he saw farmers’ fields devastated by unprecedented flooding. He said we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, urged business leaders to divest from fossil fuels and pushed for a rapid transition to renewables.

DiCaprio is so passionate about environmental issues, that he recently told The Sunday Times (via the Mirror) that he once considered saying bye-bye to Hollywood to focus on environmental issues full-time instead.

“I had a friend say, ‘Well, if you’re really this passionate about environmentalism, quit acting,’” he said. “But you soon realize that one hand shakes the other, and being an artist gives you a platform. Not that necessarily people will take anything that I say seriously, but it gives you a voice.”

The longtime environmental advocate formed his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 to protect biodiversity and threatened ecosystems. DiCaprio—who urges a “transition to a clean energy economy that does not rely on fossil fuels”—is a United Nations Messenger of Peace and played an active role at the Paris climate talks, urging mayors and governors to “commit to no less than 100 percent renewable energy as soon as possible.”

Last month, DiCaprio and Pope Francis met at Vatican City to have a conversation focused on how they can work together to address the immediate need for major action to stop the devastating impacts of climate change.

Watch and read DiCaprio’s full Oscars speech below.

“Thank you all so very much. Thank you to the Academy, thank you to all of you in this room. I have to congratulate the other incredible nominees this year. The Revenant was the product of the tireless efforts of an unbelievable cast and crew. First off, to my brother in this endeavor, Mr. Tom Hardy. Tom, your talent on screen can only be surpassed by your friendship off screen… thank you for creating a transcendent cinematic experience. Thank you to everybody at Fox and New Regency … my entire team. I have to thank everyone from the very onset of my career … To my parents, none of this would be possible without you. And to my friends, I love you dearly, you know who you are.

“And lastly I just want to say this: Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this. For our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. Thank you so very much.”

The Arctic Is Melting and Big Business is Chomping at the Bit to Dig In


arctic drilling

By Alejandro Davila Fragoso, Think Progress – 27 January 16
Source: Readers Supported News

Standing at a podium before the World Economic Forum, Leonardo DiCaprio briefly smiled as he received an award for his leadership in tackling climate change. Once settled under the spotlight, he quickly moved away from his grateful statements, and began railing on corporate avarice.

“We simply cannot allow the corporate greed of the coal, oil, and gas industries to determine the future of humanity,” said DiCaprio last week while at Davos, Switzerland, where some 2,500 top global business leaders, politicians, and intellectuals gathered to discuss politics, economics, and social issues.

Fossil fuels must be kept in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, he continued. “Enough is enough. You know better. The world knows better.”

But while DiCaprio was cheered Wednesday as he stepped off the stage with his Crystal award, the international business community appears interested in venturing into new areas despite potential ecological costs. In fact, a day after recognizing environmental leadership, a World Economic Forum advisory group launched the Arctic Investment Protocol, and with that came a tacit push for extracting resources from one of the least-developed areas of the world.

The Arctic Investment Protocol is a voluntary set of guidelines for nations looking to do business where diminished ice coverage from man-made climate change is allowing access to once-unreachable sea routes as well as vast mineral and fossil fuel reservoirs.

The protocol calls for building resilient societies through economic development, pursuing measures to protect the Arctic environment, and respecting and including local communities, to name a few. The Guggenheim Partners, a major global investment and financial services firm, quickly endorsed the protocol, saying the Arctic represents one of the last great economic frontiers.

With more than $240 billion in assets, Guggenheim Partners was the first major firm to endorse these guidelines. In doing so, it also gave a strong indication of where global business is headed as South America, Asia, and Africa receive increasing investment. “The Arctic Investment Protocol is an important step forward and a solid foundation upon which to build for the future,” said Scott Minerd, global chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, in a statement.

On the one hand, such a business trend would bring economic prosperity and infrastructure that experts say is lacking in many Arctic communities. On the other, human history shows that economic development is very often intertwined with ecological costs.

Exponential Arctic development thus raises serious environmental questions involving a region known for its fragile endemic species, where maritime environmental protection codes are in infancy, and so remote that pollution cleanup operations are difficult and costly. Not to mention the major role the Arctic plays in global climate since its already receding ice reflects a large amount of solar radiation, all while holding onto CO2 that if released would accelerate global warming.

And yet the northernmost region of the world has seen its share of development for many years. Researchers reached said the Arctic became part of the global economy at least two centuries ago with the emergence of the whaling industry, followed by oil and gas exploration. Researchers noted, however, that a new boom is taking place because the area is more accessible, and that Guggenheim could be a watershed for even more investment.

This comes as studies have found that Arctic ice is receding and thinning at an accelerated pace. Annual mean ice thickness has decreased from nearly 12 feet in 1975 to some four feet in 2012, a 65 percent reduction, according to a 2015 study. Moreover, the Arctic warms twice as fast (or more) than the Earth as a whole does.

“You can say that it is the era of [the] Arctic,” said Mohamed A. Essallamy, an expert in Arctic maritime issues and a professor at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, via email to ThinkProgress.

In 2009, only five cargo ships went through the Russian Northern Sea Route, according to a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations. By 2013, that figured climbed to 71. Meanwhile, investment in the Arctic could potentially exceed $100 billion within the next six years, according to a 2012 Arctic Opening report by Lloyd’s of London Ltd, the world’s oldest insurance market.

Profiting from the Arctic is costly, however. In a statement, Guggenheim Partners said the Arctic needs about $1 trillion in infrastructure. The firm said it’s working with international partners to establish the Arctic infrastructure inventory to identify and prioritize such needs across the region.

“There is a great need for infrastructure,” said Jessica M. Shadian, a researcher and professor at Iceland’s University of Akureyri, in a phone interview with ThinkProgress. Telecommunications, affordable energy, but also more basic infrastructure like sewage and potable water is lacking in many areas, she said.

“People want economic development in the Arctic, in the north, just as much as anyone does anywhere else,” said Shadian, who like many noted that local support for economic development is abundant, even if that development means unearthing fossil fuels.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, she said, are just two large examples of organizations owned by Arctic communities that back resource extraction. Environmentalists in the Arctic and elsewhere have questioned development for years as well, saying extraction will industrialize land, pollute water, and generate greenhouse gas pollution.

Just last week, Greenpeace Norway director Truls Gulowsen told Climate Home that the group aims to challenge oil development in Norwegian courts. “We have already discovered more fossil fuels than it is safe to burn in a 1.5°C or 2°C scenario,” he said.

Last year governments agreed on a framework that puts the world on track to limit global warming to no more than 2°C, a threshold many in the scientific community say will prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. By some estimates, this threshold requires keeping as much as two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

For the Arctic, moreover, development may come at time of serious local environmental frailty. In recent research, Essallamy explained that many Arctic species live long and produce only a few offspring, making them particularly sensitive to any change that could affect mortality. He further noted that slow biological processes lead to slow revegetation, so for instance, impacts on tundra from heavy vehicles may be observed for decades. And then there are invasive species that ships could bring and the unavoidable leakages of lubricant and fuel oils.

All these effects would come as maritime environmental protection codes are barely developing, and when laws in the high seas are difficult to enforce to begin with. In fact, a code for ships operating in polar waters is yet to be applied. The International Maritime Organization has adopted regulations in the last couple of years and more are expected, Essallamy said, but the earliest polar code will come into force in 2017.

Still, the notion that the Arctic is lawless is deceptive, experts said. For more than two decades the Arctic Council, a high level intergovernmental forum including arctic governments and indigenous communities, has been meeting to promote coordination. It has eight member countries: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

“The fortunate aspect about a lot of parts of the Arctic is that they are in highly developed countries,” said Shadian, “and so you are not going to really see just extracting resources at any cost because there are a lot of environmental standards.”

Drue Pearce, a former Alaska State senator, said in an email to ThinkProgress that in Alaska the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 that regulates development, “and the rest of every permitting process, is more rigorous than anywhere else in the world.”

The Arctic region has nonetheless suffered ecological damages for years. Russia has struggled to enforce its environmental standards, although it holds stringent environmental laws, experts said. According to published reports, environmentalist and experts agreed that at least 1 percent of Russia’s annual oil production, or 5 million tons, is spilled every year. Much of the spillage reportedly happens in the oil-rich Russian Arctic.

Alaska too, has had its share of issues with oil, most notably during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the 1980s. Responding to environmentalist catastrophes — and other emergencies — is quite difficult and costly, experts said, and many resources need to be concentrated in developing safety systems.

Two Russian oil workers use a boat and shovels to gather oil and mud from the waters of a small river, a tributary of the Kolva River, some 37 miles north of Usinsk, an Arctic town six miles from the Arctic Circle in Russia, Friday, Oct. 28, 1994. (photo: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Two Russian oil workers use a boat and shovels to gather oil and mud from the waters
of a small river, a tributary of the Kolva River, some 37 miles north of Usinsk,
an Arctic town six miles from the Arctic Circle in Russia, Friday, Oct. 28, 1994.
(photo: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Yet Shadian said local communities that have inhabited the Arctic for thousands of years still don’t necessarily agree that their development should be discounted, particularly over climate change. The brunt of climate change, she said, didn’t originate in the Arctic. “What happens in the south doesn’t stay in the south, it goes straight to the Arctic.”

And with that, Shadian touched on how the world may be unfairly weighing on development and the environmental costs associated with climate change, an issue that has received increased attention in recent times. During the Paris climate talks for instance, the issue of how rich nations have benefited from fossil fuels while passing many of the costs to developing countries was front and center. This in turn emboldened the argument that resource demand in some areas drives resource extraction elsewhere, which when ill-managed exacerbates climate change and increases the risk for ecological disasters.

For the Arctic, this argument and the ecological paradox it carries is no different, and in part places the responsibility of what happens in the Arctic on the global consumer. That’s because economic theory says demand largely drives supply, and if that’s the case, then global demand will establish the rate of Arctic development, not the other way around.

Indeed, as commodity prices continue declining in value, costly Arctic development may very well be following the same trend, at least in the short term. “Right now mineral and oil and gas prices are so low that a little bit of a hype in the Arctic is dying down,” said Shadian, who like many others who’ve lived in the region, welcomed Arctic development, so long it’s environmentally responsible and sensible to local control.

“The Arctic is not any different when it comes to development or the right to do so,” said Inuuteq Holm Olsen, a Greenland diplomat, in an email to ThinkProgress. “For us, it is not a choice between development or the environment. The right to development is a universally recognized principle and that applies to the Arctic as well.”

%d bloggers like this: