The Uninhabitable Earth

Source: New York Magazine

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



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.

The Sick Ocean

A major new scientific report, “Explaining Ocean Warming” was released on September 5th. It is grim. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, the findings are based upon peer-reviewed research compiled by 80 scientists from 12 countries. It is the most comprehensive study ever undertaken on the subject of warming of the ocean.

Significantly, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of “enhanced heating from climate change since the 1970s.” In other words, the ocean has been “shielding us” from the extensive affects of global warming. And, the consequences for the ocean are “absolutely massive.”

The “seasons in the ocean” are actually changing as a result.

“The scale of ocean warming is truly staggering with the numbers so large that it is difficult for most people to comprehend,” D. Laffoley, et al, ed. Explaining Ocean Warming, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme, Sept. 2016.

“A useful analysis undertaken by the Grantham Institute in 2015 concluded that if the same amount of heat that has gone into the top 2000m of the ocean between 1955-2010 had gone into the lower 10km of the atmosphere, then the Earth would have seen a warming of 36°C.”

In other words, humanity would be toast.

Here’s one of many dangerous “hooks” mentioned in the report: “Crucially, as evident in the past two years, the heat and CO2 accumulated in the ocean are not permanently locked away, but can be released back into the atmosphere when the ocean surface is anomalously warm, giving a positive rapid feed-back to global warming,” which would entail a decidedly harsh blow to life on the planet.

The 500-page report is all-inclusive with several subsections dealing with individual oceanic issues. Yet, a general overview of the “chain of impacts” is perhaps most relevant to an understanding of the dire consequences of failure to act by halting CO2 fossil fuel emissions as soon as possible.

The “chain of impacts” clearly demonstrates the linear interrelated behavior of ocean warming, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise. Due to a domino effect of one problem cascading into others, key human sectors are now threatened, e.g. fisheries, aquaculture, coastal risks management, general health, and coast tourism.

In point of fact, scientific studies show rapid deterioration throughout the “change of impacts” statement such that an all-out alarm is necessitated. In short, the ole public clarion bells need to start ringing hard and loud because “the impacts on key marine and coastal organisms, ecosystems and ecosystem services are already detectable from high to low latitudes transcending the traditional North/South divide.”

In other words, the entire world oceanic ecosystem is already showing signs of severe stress or oceanic sickness.

Furthermore, the latency affect of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming means the impact of today’s carbon emissions shows up years and years down the line such that, assuming carbon emissions drop to zero tomorrow, global warming continues cruising along for many years to come.

All-important, the ocean is a “climate integrator” that regulates the entire planetary biosphere by absorbing 26% of human-caused CO2 and 93% of additional planetary heat. “Without the ocean, present climate change would thus be far more intense and challenging for human life.”

Meanwhile, the regulating function of the ocean comes with heavy costs, for example, ocean acidification and availability of carbonate ions are disrupted, which are building blocks for marine plants and animals to make skeletons, shells, etc.

This acidification impact is already a factor at the base of the food chain, as tiny pea-sized pteropods, which serve as food stock for everything from krill to salmon to whales, show ultra-thinning of their protective shells necessary for both reproduction and maturation, a problem especially found in the Southern Ocean. This early stage risk to disruption of the food chain is caused by excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed into the ocean emitted by fossil fuels.

Astonishingly, sea level rise, the most noticeable oceanic impact, has already dramatically increased its rate of increase over the 1901-2010 period as the rate of rise from 1993-2010 accelerated by an astounding 88%. This sea level rise is already felt in cities like Miami where streets are being raised and additional pumping systems installed (Miami Beach is Raising Streets by 2 Feet to Combat Rising Seas, miamibeachrealtor displays a photo of newly raised streets).

Assuming business-as-usual anthropogenic climate change, sources of dietary protein and income for tens of millions of people will likely be severely impacted by mass mortalities. Wherefore, the ole clarion bell needs to ring even louder, waking up citizens to the threat of impending serious food shortages. Fisheries and aquaculture, which are both key for survival for millions, are already at high risk.

Meanwhile, and unfortunately, climate change contemporaneously continues to negatively affect land agriculture, which will likely exacerbate food shortages with the ocean simultaneously stressed. In all, ocean warming is synergistic with other human-induced stresses such as over-exploitation, like drift net fishing, and habitat destruction, e.g., bleached coral, and chemical pollution, for example, Ag runoff.

The report has suggested solutions to ocean stress, as for example: (1) mitigating CO2 emissions by getting off fossil fuels is number no. 1 on the hit list, followed by (2) protecting marine and coastal ecosystems by governmental regulation of “protected areas” and (3) repairing damaged ecosystems with, for example, coral farming, and (4) adapting economic diversification zones and activities.

Importantly, the landmark study emphasizes the fact that “unequivocal scientific evidence shows that impacts on key marine and coastal organisms, ecosystems, and services are already detectable and that high to very high risks of impact are to be expected,” Ibid, page 53.

That statement is as straightforward, pulling no punches, as scientific papers ever get. The evidence is crystal clear that climate change is disrupting the ocean, which is the only ocean we’ve got.

There are no backups.

Here’s hoping Mr. Trump reassesses his “global warming is a hoax” statement. After all, he has a big audience.

Source: Counter Punch

Noam Chomsky: Climate Change & Nuclear Proliferation Pose the Worst Threat Ever Faced by Humanity

noam chomsky

By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! – 16 May 16
Source: Reader Supported News

Video Democracy Now!


President Obama has just passed a little-noticed milestone, according to The New York Times: Obama has now been at war longer than any president in U.S. history—longer than George W. Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Obama has taken military action in at least seven countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Just last month, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 more Special Operations troops to Syria in a move that nearly doubles the official U.S. presence in the country.
As war spreads across the globe, a record 60 million people were driven from their homes last year. Experts warn the refugee crisis may also worsen due to the impacts of global warming. Over the weekend, NASA released data showing 2016 is on pace to be by far the hottest year ever, breaking the 2015 record. Meanwhile, many fear a new nuclear arms race has quietly begun, as the United States, Russia and China race to build arsenals of smaller nuclear weapons.
These multiple crises come as voters in the United States prepare to elect a new president. We speak with one of the world’s preeminent intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for more than 50 years. His latest book is titled “Who Rules the World?”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road here in New York, then on today to [Chicago], to Madison, Wisconsin, and then to Toronto, Canada.

The New York Times is reporting President Obama has just passed a little-noticed milestone: He has now been at war longer than any president in U.S. history—longer than George W. Bush, longer than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, longer than Abraham Lincoln. Obama has taken military action in at least seven countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Just last month, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 more Special Operations troops to Syria in a move that nearly doubles the official U.S. presence in the country.

As war spreads across the globe, a record 60 million people were driven from their homes last year. Experts warn the refugee crisis may also worsen due to the impacts of global warming. Over the weekend, NASA released data showing 2016 is on pace to be by far the hottest year ever, breaking the 2015 record. April became the seventh month in a row to have broken global temperature records. Meanwhile, many fear a new nuclear arms race has quietly begun, as the United States, Russia and China race to build arsenals of smaller nuclear weapons. These multiple crises come as voters in the United States prepare to elect a new president.

To make sense of the challenges facing the globe and the state of the U.S. election, we’re joined today by one of the world’s preeminent intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than half a century. His latest book is called Who Rules the World?

Noam Chomsky, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Glad to be with you again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Noam, who rules the world?

NOAM CHOMSKY: That’s, to a certain extent, up to us. It is possible for populations to rule the world, but they have to struggle to achieve that. And if they don’t, the world will be ruled by concentrations of power—economic power, state power—closely linked with consequences that are of the kind that you describe. But that’s a choice.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the United States set the terms of the global discourse and, overall, what’s happening in the world?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that’s basically an outcome of the Second World War. At the end of the Second World War, the United States had a level of power and comparative wealth that had never existed in history. It had literally half the world’s wealth. It had an incomparable position of security—controlled the hemisphere, controlled both oceans, controlled the opposite sides of both oceans. In military terms, it was overwhelmingly preeminent. Other industrial societies had been devastated or severely weakened. The war had actually greatly benefited the U.S. economy. It ended the Depression. Industrial production virtually quadrupled. There was a debt, which you could easily grow out of it by growth. So the United States was in fact in a position to pretty much set the terms for virtually the entire global system.

It couldn’t stay that way, of course, and it began to erode pretty quickly, though, with all the changes over the past years, the United States still is in a preeminent position with incomparable advantages and maybe now a quarter of the world’s wealth. In military terms, on that dimension, the United States is completely alone. It’s the only country that has hundreds, maybe a thousand, military bases around the world, troops all over the world. U.S. military spending is almost as great as the rest of the world combined, technologically much more advanced. And within that context of the past 70 years or so, the United States has had a—usually, a pretty dominant role in world affairs and setting the framework within which others operate—not without conflict, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the two major threats facing the world today: nuclear war and climate change. Talk about each.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I might start by referring to the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a clock that’s—since 1947, shortly after the atomic bombing, they established a Doomsday Clock. Every year, a panel of specialists make an estimate of how close we are to midnight. Midnight means termination for the species. It’s moved up and back over the years. Right now, it—just last year, it was moved two minutes closer to midnight because of the two threats that you mentioned, stayed there this year. That’s three minutes to midnight, close as it’s been since the early 1980s, when there was a major war scare. It was recognized then to be serious. Now that Russian archives have been opened, we see that it was far more serious than was assumed. We were at one point literally minutes away, several points in fact, minutes away from nuclear war. That’s where the Doomsday Clock stands now.

The nuclear threat is the threat of—on the Russian border, which happens to be the invasion route through which Russia was virtually destroyed twice last century by Germany alone—well, Germany as part of a hostile military alliance—on that border, both sides are acting as if a war is thinkable. The U.S. has just sharply increased; it quadrupled military expenses on its side. The Russians are doing something similar. There are constant near collisions, jets coming close to colliding with one another. A Russian jet a couple months ago virtually hit a Danish commercial airliner. U.S. troops are carrying out maneuvers virtually on the Russian border. That threat is escalating and very serious. William Perry, a respected nuclear specialist, a former defense secretary, recently estimated that the threat is higher than it was during the 1980s. There are also confrontations near the Chinese around China, South China Sea and so on. That’s one major threat.

The other is what you just described. The threat of global warming is very serious. Every time one reads a science journal, there’s an even more alarming discovery. Virtually all the ice masses are melting. The Arctic ice mass, which was assumed to be pretty stable, is actually melting very fast, much more than was thought. The glaciers are melting. There’s severe droughts. Right now already, about 300 million people in India are on the edge of starvation from drought, which has been going on for years. The groundwater is depleted as the Himalayan glaciers melt, as they’re doing. It will undermine the water supply for huge areas in South Asia. If people think there’s a migration crisis now, they haven’t seen anything. The sea level is rising. Chances are it could rise three to six feet, maybe more, by the end of the century—some estimate even sooner. It will have a devastating effect, not just on coastal cities, but on coastal plains, like, say, Bangladesh, where hundreds of millions of people will be severely threatened. I mean, this is a—we’re already killing other species at the level of the so-called fifth extinction. Sixty-five million years ago, when an asteroid hit the Earth, devastating consequences ended the age of the dinosaurs, opened the way for small mammals to develop, ultimately evolve, finally evolve into Homo sapiens, which now is acting the same way the asteroid did. That’s the fifth extinction. It’s going to get worse. All of these are—the rate of global warming today is far faster, maybe a hundred or more times as fast as any moderately comparable period that can be estimated in the geological record.

And to make it worse, of these two huge threats, we have an electoral—the quadrennial electoral extravaganza is going on right now, of course. And it’s pretty remarkable to see how the worst threats that the human species has ever faced, the most important decisions it must make—and soon—are virtually absent from the discussions and debates. On the Democratic side, there’s a couple of comments about it here and there, not much. On the Republican side, it’s much worse. Every single candidate either denies global warming altogether or, in one case, Kasich, admits that it’s taking place but says we shouldn’t do anything about it, which is even worse.


NOAM CHOMSKY: That’s 100 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam, we’re going to go to a break. When we come back, we’ll play the last remaining Republican in the race, Donald Trump’s comment on climate change, and also get your take overall on the 2016 presidential election here in the United States. Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author, has a new book out; it’s called Who Rules the World? Stay with us.

The Scientist Who First Warned of Climate Change Says It’s Much Worse Than We Thought


Oceans are warming. (photo: Shutterstock)

Oceans are warming. (photo: Shutterstock)

By Amelia Urey, Grist – 23 March 16

The rewards of being right about climate change are bittersweet. James Hansen should know this better than most — he warned of this whole thing before Congress in 1988, when he was director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies. At the time, the world was experiencing its warmest five-month run since we started recording temperatures 130 years earlier. Hansen said, “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”

Fast forward 28 years and, while we’re hardly out of the Waffle House yet, we know much more about climate change science. Hansen is still worried that the rest of us aren’t worried enough.

Last summer, prior to countries’ United Nations negotiations in Paris, Hansen and 16 collaborators authored a draft paper that suggested we could see at least 10 feet of sea-level rise in as few as 50 years. If that sounds alarming to you, it is — 10 feet of sea-level rise is more than enough to effectively kick us out of even the most well-endowed coastal cities. Stitching together archaeological evidence of past climate change, current observations, and future-telling climate models, the authors suggested that even a small amount of global warming can rack up enormous consequences — and quickly.

However the paper, publicized before it had been through peer review, elicited a mix of shock and skepticism, with some journalists calling the news a bombshell but a number of scientists urging deeper consideration.

Now, the final version of the paper has been published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. It’s been reviewed and lightly edited, but its conclusions are still shocking — and still contentious.

So what’s the deal? The authors highlight several of threats they believe we’ll face this century, including many feet of sea-level rise, a halting of major ocean circulatory currents, and an outbreak of super storms. These are the big threats we’ve been afraid of — and Hansen et al. say they could be here before we know it — well before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sanctioned climate models predict.

Here we help you understand their new paper:

Sea-level rise

The scientists estimate that existing climate models aren’t accounting well enough for current ice loss off of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Right now, Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets both contribute under or near 1 millimeter to sea-level rise every year; they each contain enough stored ice to drive up ocean levels by 20 and 200 feet, respectively.

This study suggests that, since the rate of ice loss is increasing, we should think of it not as a straight line but as an exponential curve, doubling every few years. But how much time it takes to double makes a big difference. Right now, measurements of ice loss aren’t clear enough to even make a strong estimate about how long that period might be. Is it 10 years or is it 40? It’s hard to say based on the limited data we have now, which would make a big difference either way.

But then again, we don’t even know that ice loss is exponential. Ian Joughin — a University of Washington researcher unaffiliated with the paper and who has studied the tipping points of Antarctic glaciers — put it this way: Think about the stock market in the ’80s. If you observed a couple years of accelerating growth, and decided that rate would double every 4 years — you’d have something like 56,000 points in the Dow Jones Industrial by now.

Or if stocks aren’t your thing, think about that other exponentially expanding force of nature: bacteria. Certain colonies of bacteria can double their population in a matter of hours. Can they do this forever? No, or else we’d be nothing but bacteria right now (and while we’re certainly a high percentage of bacteria, there’s still room for a couple other things).

Nature tends to put limits on exponential growth, Joughin points out — and the same probably goes for ice loss: “There’s only so fast you can move ice out of an ice sheet,” Joughin explained. While some ice masses may be collapsing at an accelerating rate, others won’t be as volatile.

This means, while some parts of ice sheet collapse may very well proceed exponentially, we can’t expect such simple mathematics to model anything in the real world except the terror spike of the Kingda Ka.

Ocean turnover

Mmm mm, ocean turnover: Is it another word for a sushi roll or a fundamental process that keeps the climate relatively stable and moderate?

That’s right — we’re talking the Atlantic Meridonal Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, and other currents like it.

As cold meltwater flows off of glaciers and ice sheets at enormous rates, it pools at the ocean’s surface, trapping the denser but warmer saltwater beneath it. This can seriously mess with the moving parts of the ocean, the so-called “conveyor belts” that cycle deep nutrient-rich water to the surface. These slow currents are driven by large-scale climate processes, like wind, and drive others, like the carbon cycle. But they also rely on gradients in temperature and density to run; if too much cold water from the glaciers pools at the surface, the whole conveyor belt could stutter to a stop.

In the North Atlantic, this would mean waters get colder, while the tropics, denied their influx of colder water, would heat up precipitously. Hansen says we’re already seeing the beginnings of AMOC’s slowdown: There’s a spot of unusually cool water hanging out off of Greenland, while the U.S. East Coast continues to see warmer and warmer temperatures. Hansen said it plainly in a call with reporters: “I think this is the beginning of substantial slowdown of the AMOC.”


Pointing to giant hunks of rock that litter the shore of the Bahamas, among other evidence of ancient climates, the study’s authors suggest that past versions of Earth may have featured superstorms capable of casually tossing boulders like bored Olympians.

And as the temperature gradient between the tropic and the polar oceans gets steeper, thanks to that slowing of ocean-mixing currents, we could see stronger storms, too.

This is surprisingly intuitive: Picture a temperature gradient like a hill, with the high temperatures up at the top and the low temperatures down at the bottom. As the highs get higher and the lows get lower, that hill gets a lot steeper — and the storms are the bowling balls you chuck down the hill. A bowling ball will pick up a lot more speed on a steep hill, and hurt a lot more when it finally runs into something. Likewise, by the time these supercharged storms are slamming into coasts in the middle latitudes, they will be carrying a whole lot of deadly force with them.

So what does it all mean?

Whether other scientists quibble over these results or not — and they probably will — the overall message is hardly new. It’s bad, you guys. It might be really, truly, deeply bad, or it might be slightly less bad. Either way, says Hansen, what we know for sure is that it’s time to do something about it. “Among the top experts, there’s a pretty strong agreement that we’ve reached a point where this is truly urgent,” he said.

So Hansen is frustrated once more with the failure of humanity to respond adequately. The result he’d hoped for when he released an early version of the paper online last summer was to get world leaders to come together in Paris to agree on a global price on carbon. As he told Grist’s Ben Adler at the time, “It’s going to happen.” (It didn’t happen, but some other stuff did.)

Still, true urgency would require more of us than just slowing the growth of emissions — it requires stopping them altogether. In a paper published in 2013, Hansen found that we have to cut 6 percent of our use of carbon-based fuels every year, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change.

Carbon prices and emissions cuts are more the purview of politicians and diplomats, but if anything, Hansen has shown he is unafraid to stray beyond the established protocol of academic science.

“I think scientists, who are trained to be objective, have something to offer by analyzing the problem all the way to the changes that are needed in order to address it,” he said on a press call. “That 6 percent reduction — that’s not advocacy, that’s science. And then I would advocate that we do that!”

And to pre-empt the haters, Hansen wants you to remember one thing. “Skepticism is the life blood of science. You can be sure that some scientists will find some aspects in our long paper that they will think of differently,” he said. “And that’s normal.”

So while scientists continue their debate over whether the ice sheets are poised to collapse in the next 50 years or the next 500, the prognosis is the same: The future is wetter, stranger, stormier unless we make serious moves to alternative energy sources now. Will we? Maybe. We’ve started but we still have a long, long way to go. If it’s a race between us and the ice sheets, neither I nor James Hansen nor anyone else can tell you for sure who will win.

Hey, no one said telling the future was easy.

The Unseen Slaughter Under the Sea

By Taylor Hill, TakePart – 08 January 16


Ocean Defenders Alliance is on a mission to stop abandoned “ghost nets” from killing dolphins, sea turtles, and millions of other marine animals.


As we set off for our destination off the Southern California coast, Captain Rex Levi weaves Mr. Barker’s LegaSea, a 55-foot Chris Craft yacht, between the massive cargo ships plying Los Angeles Harbor. The dockworkers’ strike of the past winter is over but still reverberates at sea as the behemoths queue 35 deep, waiting their turn to offload cars, clothes, and other merchandise at the Port of Los Angeles.

Mr. Barker’s LegaSea belongs to environmental group Ocean Defenders Alliance and is named for Bob Barker, the game-show host and animal rights activist who donated $150,000—the price was right—toward the boat’s purchase. As we set out on a one-hour cruise, two gray whales on our left are also navigating a path amid the 1,000-foot-long ships—an ever-present danger during the marine mammals’ annual migrations. “We brake for whales,” says ODA founder Kurt Lieber.

A 50-foot-long boat called the African Queen, sunk in 90 feet of water, poses perhaps as great a threat to whales as to dolphins, seals, and sharks that can become entangled in derelict fishing gear snagged by the shipwreck. So on this spring day we’re on a mission to liberate them from these “ghost nets,” among the thousands around the world silently killing marine mammals and other ocean animals.

Killing Without a Cause

Imagine there’s a fence running through the wilderness and that each animal that passes by—deer, bear, bison—is in danger of getting its head stuck in the chain link and starving to death. That happens every day in the world’s oceans as lost, abandoned, and derelict fishing gear trap countless numbers of marine animals for years, decades, and perhaps even centuries.

“There are no borders in the ocean,” says Dianna Parker, communications coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program. “This is a global problem.”

The African Queen happens to be a local ghost fishing hot spot. Its resting place is just outside the boundary of California’s ban on gill nets—huge vertical nets that hang in the water—within three nautical miles of the coast. Boats that deploy gill nets, which have been blamed for inadvertently catching dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals, often cross over the African Queen.

“They go by and drag their nets along the sandy bottom here. They don’t know the wreck is down there and get their nets caught,” said Walter Marti, a volunteer diver for ODA. “The boats leave their nets behind, but those nets just keep on fishing and killing, perpetually.”

The mission today: dive to the wreck, remove some of the nets, and free trapped animals.

For Lieber, a Chicago native, these expeditions have become a life mission. Since 2002, he has embarked on more than 180 trips with his crew of volunteer divers and deckhands, recovering more than 32,000 pounds of fishing nets and 12,000 pounds of lobster and crab traps just along California’s coast.

Over the years, he’s seen just about every kind of critter caught in ghost nets—sharks, sea lions, lobster, eels, sea turtles, and even whales.

“I really didn’t expect this to become a long-term thing, but this fishing gear never stops, so we don’t stop,” Lieber says.

On this day’s dive, the team gets a glimpse of a global catastrophe.

“Just nets on top of nets down there,” Marti said in between the team’s first and second dive on the wreck.

For Marti and the dive team, the African Queen is a familiar foe. Over the years they’ve rescued nurse sharks, wolf eels, and lobsters from its web of nets and also seen the remains of sea lions, fish, and other animals they weren’t able to save.

“It’s an interesting yet depressing dive,” Marti says of the African Queen. “Interesting due to all the fish life, especially the wolf eels. Depressing due to the nets and other fishing gear snagged all about her.”

Diver Kim Cardenas has been down to the site before. On this trip she sees just how much work is left.

“It could take five or six more trips down there before it’s all removed,” Cardenas says. “You think you see all of it, but it’s buried too. You follow it down, and there’s just more and more—it never ends.”

Ghost Fishing’s Global Reach

A frustrating endeavor, but not unique, says NOAA’s Parker. She has worked for the agency’s marine debris program for the past four years, researching derelict fishing gear hot spots and participating in marine debris cleanups along the United States’ East and West coasts, the Great Lakes, and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Just as ocean currents are pushing plastics to convergence zones, also called gyres, abandoned nets often end up funneled into the same spots.

NOAA’s 244-foot research vessel, The Sette, last year recovered 57 tons of fishing nets and plastic garbage in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The archipelago is home to the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, which has been found to be highly susceptible to entanglements with ghost gear.

“We didn’t even finish,” says Parker. “We just ran out of room to store it on deck.”

Like a fine-tooth comb, the reefs along the 1,200-mile chain of atolls sift and snag drifting gill nets, trawl nets, longline fishing gear, and other ghost gear. An estimated 57 tons of derelict nets end up in the 139,000-square-mile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands region every year.

The global reach of ghost nets remains mostly unknown as few studies have looked at the worldwide consequences of abandoned fishing nets. But World Animal Protection, a Europe-based conservation group, estimates as much as 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost or abandoned every year.

In the U.S., NOAA researchers recently looked at seven fisheries and found that derelict fishing gear affected all of them. They discovered that 85,000 abandoned lobster and crab traps are ghost fishing in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, while in the Chesapeake Bay, more than 913,000 crabs are caught by derelict traps each year.

And more than 1,500 marine animals—including seals, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, 22 species of fish, and 15 species of birds—were found dead among 870 derelict nets discovered in the Puget Sound over the course of one year.

But help is on the way. ODA is just one of several volunteer teams that have joined a global nonprofit network called Ghost Fishing. Together, teams from Italy, Iceland, Australia, the U.S., and other countries have pulled up thousands of nets over the past decade, saving countless marine animals in the process.

In Washington state, more than $7 million from federal wildlife agencies is paying for the removal of more than 4,000 nets and nearly 3,000 traps from waterways. That has saved more than 3.2 million animals from entanglement, according to the Northwest Straits Foundation.

The problem of ghost nets is global. It's estimated that as much as 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost every year. (photo: NOAA/

The problem of ghost nets is global. It’s estimated that as much as 640,000 tons
of fishing gear is lost every year. (photo: NOAA/

Centuries of Needless Nets

Still, the problem is ever growing. Before 1950, there were no reports of turtles stuck in marine fishing gear. By 1970, all six species of sea turtles had been reported entangled in ghost gear. Today, more than 200 marine species worldwide are impacted by derelict fishing gear.

What’s changed?

First, technological advances have allowed much of the commercial fishing operations to move further into the open ocean, where retrieval of lost nets is rarely an option. But the biggest change has come in the materials used to make fishing gear. Long-lasting synthetics used in today’s nets keep derelict gear fishing for years, if not centuries.

“We’ve got nets out there that will go on catching fish for 450 years,” Lieber says “It used to be hemp nets and rope that would biodegrade, but this stuff stays.”

Parker also noted the lack of national, not to mention international, regulation of ghost fishing.

“Each fishery is different, and the rules have to make sense to be put in place,” she says.

One of the biggest challenges is getting both the conservationists and the commercial fishing operators to fully understand the issue.

“Fishermen aren’t out there trying to lose their nets—that’s a lot of money to replace,” Parker says. “At the same time, we need to get fishermen to understand that those abandoned nets are hurting them economically too.”

One fish caught by a ghost net is one less for a fisher to catch and sell.

Zeke Grader, a 40-year industry veteran and executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, says the fishing industry has a stake in keeping vessels from losing their gear.

“Our first venture into derelict gear was in San Francisco Bay and the herring gillnet fishery,” says Grader, whose association represents fishing interests along the West Coast. “It’s really the last urban commercial fishery in the country, not many places you can look out a skyscraper and see commercial fishing taking place, so we wanted to maintain a good image in the community.”

By fishing only on weekdays, herring gillnet boats avoided entanglements with recreational sailboats over weekends and spent that time retrieving nets they had lost while fishing.

“The most important aspect is figuring out how to minimize gear loss for whatever fishery you’re looking at, whether it’s gillnets, trawl, drift nets, or traps, and second, when gear is lost, you’ve got to ensure a way to recover it,” Grader says.

For fishers, recovery of just one lost net can mean savings of thousands of dollars.

“Any way we can give fishermen the opportunity to go back and retrieve their fishing gear is good regulation,” Grader notes.

Worldwide, efforts are under way to prevent the loss of fishing gear.

    • Better Nets, Fewer Ghost Nets: Improved fishing gear attachments and designs are limiting unwanted disconnects and snagging incidents.


    • Zoning Laws: Keeping fishing nets out of areas where crab and lobster traps are in place can limit the number of conflicts and entanglements.


    • Curfews on Catching: Restricting the time a net can “soak” or stay in the water without being attached to a boat can limit the chances of losing nets.


    • Biodegradable Trapdoors: Using biodegradable materials in fishing gear can shorten the duration of ghost fishing. In Maine, all lobster traps are required to come equipped with a biodegradable hatch, so if the trap is lost, the hatch will disintegrate and animals won’t get stuck inside.


    • Location, Location, Location: Placing GPS tags on individual nets, as many European fisheries do, is leading to much higher recovery rates of ghost gear.


    • Recovery Compensation: It’s not just conservation; money can be a good incentive too. Fishing boats in Northern California’s Dungeness crab fishery are heading out in the off-season to retrieve the thousands of lost and abandoned traps. The program sponsored by the University of California, Davis, lets the boaters sell the traps back to their original owners—saving crab fishermen money, compensating other local fishermen, and saving marine life from being trapped in ghost gear.


  • Recycling Program: Getting rid of old fishing gear can cost a pretty penny, and that price can deter fishers from properly disposing of nets. For over a decade, South Korea has offered a waste fishing gear buyback program, where fishers receive cash for every 100-liter bag of net they bring back.

Parker believes the tide is changing on ghost fishing.

“People are really starting to recognize that this is a problem,” she says. “Now, these solutions that are being implemented on the local levels need to start coming online as global initiatives.”

Grader agrees, but cautions against painting the fishing industry as rapacious ravagers of the sea.

“It’s like the marine protected areas set up along the West Coast here,” Grader said. “We were in support of the MPAs, but they were implemented wrong. It doesn’t matter the hell area you’re carving out, ocean acidification and warming water temperatures know no boundaries. You’re not going to really save the ocean without stopping pollution and getting aggressive on climate change.”

Back aboard the LegaSea, Lieber is busy hauling in the nets surfaced by the dive team. He’s also musing on how much more good could be done if he could just get the local fishing fleet to have him on speed dial.

“When they lose their nets, I just want them to report it, so I can go get it,” Lieber said. “I don’t want them to be put out of business, I just want them to stop facilitating these senseless deaths.”

The divers make their way back to the vessels’ swim step after cutting and successfully floating a few hundred yards of gill net and squid net wrapped around the African Queen.

But instead of a deckhand, an unexpected guest greets the divers: A sea lion pup has hopped aboard for a quick rest. The pinniped looks young, confused, and scared—shivering and emaciated.

A massive decline in Pacific sardines—one of the sea lion’s primary food sources—has created an epidemic of starving sea lions stranded on California’s shoreline. Just this year, more than 1,450 animals have been admitted to marine mammal rehabilitation centers up and down the coast.  

Lieber calls the local marine mammal center to get tips on what to do with the new crew member.

“So don’t even let her warm up here? She’s shivering,” Lieber asks. But while he’s still on the phone, the pup rolls off the swim step, darting back into the water as the first diver climbs the ladder and onto the boat.

“She’s who we’re trying to keep alive,” Lieber says. “There’s enough for them to worry about without having to deal with invisible nets that kill.”

Mer de plastique, laquelle est la plus polluée?


 DDQ_7037Source: Effets de Terre

Posté le 24 mai 2015 dans la catégorie:A la Une, Histoire de déchets.

En décembre dernier, une étude parue dans PLoS One évaluait les quantités de déchets plastiques dans les océans de la planète. A l’occasion d’un séminaire en Suisse, j’en ai tiré deux graphiques avec mon complice Jean-Marie Lagnel, qui montrent combien il est facile d’orienter la présentation de statistiques.


En décembre et février dernier, deux papiers importants ont paru dans la littérature scientifique, qui tentent de mieux cerner la question du plastique qui flotte dans les océans, le plus souvent sous forme de minuscules particules.

Cette semaine, j’étais en Suisse, à Berne, à l’occasion d’un séminaire sur la visualisation de la science organisé par l’Association des journalistes scientifiques suisses, présidée par Olivier Dessibourg, du Temps. J’y avais été invité avec mon complice Jean-Marie Lagnel, Directeur artistique et fondateur de Studio V2, pour évoquer notre travail commun pour le site internet d’Arte: des infographies et datavisuflisations sur toutes sortes de sujets, de la science dure à la démographie, en passant par l’économie, la pollution etc.

Lors du séminaire, la quarantaine de participants s’est essayée aux travaux pratiques: nous devions créer un poster en 45 minutes à partir des données sur la pollution des océans au plastique publiées en décembre dernier dans PLoS One et en février dans Science.

Cette première représentation est tirée des données du groupe de Markus Eriksen, qui a compilé les observations de 24 expéditions dans les océans de la planète. Il s’agit d’une estimation de la masse de déchets plastiques, océan par océan (Les données plus détaillées montrent qu’environ 70% de cette masse provient de macro-déchets de plus de 20 cm). On constate que le Pacifique Nord, baigné par d’immenses bassins de population comme la Chine et les Etats-Unis, est de loin le premier réservoir à déchets plastiques flottants. En étudiant les données de l’article dans Science du groupe de Jambeck, on observe que —s’il y a un grand désaccord sur les tonnages— ce sont bien des pays comme la Chine qui rejettent le plus de déchets dans les océans.


A la première lecture du tableau de données de Markus Eriksen, avant même de savoir ce que nous aurions à faire comme TP au cours de cet atelier, les données concernant la Méditerranée sautaient aux yeux: quatre fois moins de déchets que le Pacifique Nord seulement, alors que cette mer est un confetti à l’échelle des grands océans. Nous sommes donc tombés d’accord avec Jean-Marie, pour creuser ce sujet.

Pendant que mon acolyte commençait à réfléchir au meilleur moyen de représenter ce type de données, avec une très forte contrainte de temps, j’ai donc fouillé le réseau à la recherche des surfaces des océans. A ma grande surprise, ce n’était pas si facile, car il existe très peu de références au découpage nord-sud des océans Atlantique et Pacifique. Une fois trouvées ces superficies, une simple division conduit à la représentation ci-dessous, qui donne une toute autre image de la situation.


La comparaison des deux « Dataviz » est très spectaculaire et montre combien les choix opérés pour une visualisation de données conduisent à des résultats différents. La première, associée aux données sur les rejets par pays, montre très clairement que ce sont les pays pauvres et émergents qui bordent le Pacifique qui sont à l’origine de ce qu’on décrit à tort comme une mer —parfois même un continent— de plastique. Et la seconde rappelle à quel point la Mer Méditerranée est dans une situation alarmante en matière de pollution au plastique. La lecture des données plus détaillées du papier d’Eriksen le confirme: le poids des plus fines particules (entre 1/3 et 1 mm) représente 6% du total en Méditerranée, contre 2% dans le Pacifique Nord. Si on effectue la comparaison pour l’ensemble des petites particules (entre 1/3 et 5 mm), les plus vicieuses pour la faune aquatique, la différence est encore plus marquée: elles pèsent 29% du total de plastique en Méditerranée, contre 12,5% dans le Nord Pacifique!


Denis Delbecq

Earth wins time as land and seas absorb more carbon

Where does all the carbon go? Only half stays in the atmosphere Image: Ra Boe via Wikimedia Commons

Where does all the carbon go? Only half stays in the atmosphere
 Image: Ra Boe via Wikimedia Commons

Kind of good news but by no means should we slow efforts in the direction of a carbon-free Earth.
Self-protection of the planet (oceans, forests etc) has reached its limits and further violation could destroy Earth as well as mankind. That’s scientific and common knowledge as you, probably, can read here among other sources.


Climate change has intensified more slowly than scientists had expected because the continents and oceans are absorbing more atmospheric carbon dioxide.

LONDON, 17 May, 2015 − Half of all the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels remain in the atmosphere. The good news is that only half remain in the atmosphere, while the rest have been taken up by the living world and then absorbed into the land, and the ocean. That is, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen, so also has the planet’s capacity to soak up atmospheric carbon.

The implication is that what engineers call “positive feedback” – in which global warming triggers the release of yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to accelerate yet further warming – doesn’t seem to be at work yet.

The implication, too, is that the world’s governments still have time to launch determined programmes to sharply reduce fossil fuel use, and switch to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources before climate change disrupts the planet’s food security and exacts what could be a devastating toll on the biosphere.

But most climate scientists know all this anyway: the real significance of a new study in the journal Biogeosciences is that US and British scientists have narrowed some of the uncertainties in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget: how much gets into the atmosphere, where it goes, and how long it stays.

That is because although the big picture – that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are beginning to rise steeply – has been confirmed repeatedly by systematic measurements since 1956, the potential margin of error has been considerable.

“This increased uptake by land and ocean is not only surprising; it’s good news”

“There is no question that land and oceans have, for at least the last five and half decades, been taking up about half of the carbon emitted each year. The outstanding question is, Why?” said Richard Houghton of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, one of the authors.

“Most of the processes responsible for that uptake would be expected to slow down as the Earth warms, but we haven’t seen it yet. Since the emissions today are three times higher than they were in the 1960s, this increased uptake by land and ocean is not only surprising; it’s good news.

“Without it, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would be twice what it is, and climate change would be much farther along. But there’s no guarantee that it will continue.”

The carbon budget is an integral part of the climate puzzle: all simulations of how climate will change with increasing emissions from fossil fuels depend on an understanding of how much carbon dioxide concentrates in the atmosphere and what happens to it after that.

In the last few months researchers have reported a dramatic uptake of atmospheric carbon by new forests and the growth of woodland on the world’s savannahs and pinpointed the fjords – those steep, still stretches of sea in mountainous coastlines in the high latitudes – as prime “sinks” for atmospheric carbon.

Uncertainties narrowed

At the same time others have once again confirmed fears that thawing permafrost could release vast quantities of carbon stored for millennia is semi-decayed and now frozen vegetation.

But these have been studies of small pieces of the big puzzle. What the Biogeosciences authors did was to refine two global uncertainties. One is how much fossil fuel is burned each year and the other is how much is stacking up in the atmosphere.

Both sound simple, but the first question is complicated by differences in the ways nations maintain their own energy inventories, and the way they report the details, and the second depends on how the use of land has changed, how the oceans are responding to higher levels of acidification and how carbon dioxide levels vary according to region, and to season.

With greater certainty in the answers to the second question – which began with one single set of measurements at the top of a mountain in Hawaii now replicated worldwide – researchers found they could make more sense of the first question, and narrow the uncertainties to a point where they could write that they were “93% confident that terrestrial C uptake has increased and 97% confident that ocean C uptake has increased in the last five decades.

“Thus it is clear that arguably one of the most vital ecosystem services currently provided by the biosphere is the continued removal of approximately half of atmospheric CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.” − Climate News Network»

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