Archive for the ‘Global warming’ Category

Why Record Low Arctic Sea Ice Only Tells Half the Story

March 23, 2015

Polar bear in the Arctic (photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins/Corbis)
Polar bear in the Arctic (photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins/Corbis)

By Henry Gass, The Christian Science Monitor

22 March 15


New studies on both of Earth’s polar regions reveal record-setting levels of ice melt, but scientists are most concerned about the Antarctic melt and its effect on sea-level rise.

series of new studies from scientists around the world have revealed just how threatened the Earth’s polar regions are to warming ocean waters.

Over the past week, new studies have shown that ice melt in the Arctic and Antarctica is proceeding at a record pace, with potentially disastrous consequences for global sea level rise and its attendant threats, which could include stronger storm surges and extreme weather events around the world.

While headlines have focused on the Arctic sea ice reaching a record low this winter, of the two polar regions, climate scientists are most concerned about melting ice sheets in Antarctica. Unlike sea ice in the Arctic – which melts and freezes seasonally, having a minor effect on global sea levels – melting ice sheets in Antarctica have the potential to melt enough fresh water to raise global sea levels by more than 10 feet.

A study released on Tuesday has challenged a central assumption about Antarctic ice sheet melt: Namely, whether the famously fragile western edge of the continent is in fact the most most vulnerable to warming waters. The new study, published by the International Collaboration for Exploration of the Cryosphere Through Aerogeophysical Profiling (ICECAP) research team in the journal Nature Geoscience, contends that the continent’s eastern ice sheets are actually in much more danger than previously believed.

Antarctic researchers have long been aware that warm-water currents in the region are eroding the continent’s western ice sheets, with the Southern Ocean’s high salinity allowing warm water to sink uncharacteristically below cold water. According to the ICECAP team, those same warm-water currents are also gaining access under the east side of the Totten Glacier through two “gateways” into a large cavity in the ice shelf.

The Totten Glacier covers an area of 90 miles by 22 miles, but more important is the “catchment” of inland ice the frozen glacier holds back from the surrounding ocean. That catchment is estimated at 538,000 square kilometers, or three-quarters the size of Texas. There is enough ice in the catchment area behind the glacier to raise sea levels by 11 feet, according to the ICECAP team.

“And that’s a conservative lower limit,” said Jamin Greenbaum, an ICECAP geophysicist and lead author of the study, according to The Atlantic.

“It would take [melting] all of the glaciers in West Antarctica that drain its interior basin to raise sea levels by that much,” Greenbaum added.

Ice sheet melt in West Antarctica, in contrast, could raise sea levels four feet – with NASA recently declaring that the eventual loss of a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet “appears unstoppable.”

The ripple effects of Antarctic ice melt are hard for scientists to predict, but their overall concerns are that the potential contributions of the ice melt to global sea level rise could severely exacerbate storm surges and extreme weather events around the world.

The ICECAP team have said they will now use their new findings to develop a better predictive model for mapping out the future behavior of the glacier.

Meanwhile, a separate report from the National Snow & Ice Data Center found that this year’s Arctic sea ice hit a record low this winter.

According to the report, Arctic sea ice covered 5.61 million square miles at its maximum extent this year – the lowest since satellite record keeping began in 1979. The report also found that Arctic sea ice reached this maximum extent earlier than expected, on Feb. 25, 15 days earlier than the March 12 average calculated from 1981 to 2010. This year’s ice cover was also 50,200 square miles less than the previous low-record set in 2011.

Another recent study, published last month, found that Arctic sea ice had thinned by 65 percent between 1975 and 2012.

NSIDC scientists wrote in the report that further increases in sea ice cover “are still possible” over the next two to three weeks, but added that “it now appears unlikely that there could be sufficient growth to surpass the extent reached on February 25.”


Arctic sea ice hits record low winter peak

March 23, 2015

According to the NSIDC, Arctic sea ice extent has declined by an average of 4.52 percent per decade


Arctic sea ice hits record low winter peak(Credit: Reuters)
This piece originally appeared on Climate Central.

It’s official: When the sea ice that blankets the Arctic Ocean hit its yearly peak on Feb. 25, the maximum area was a record low.

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Warm temperatures in parts of the polar regions kept sea ice levels depressed, and also contributed to the winter peak occurring much earlier than usual, the National Snow & Ice Data Center announced Thursday. The maximum normally isn’t reached until early March, but was recorded about a week early this year, the NSIDC said. That low occurred on the backdrop of overall dwindling sea ice levels, fueled by global warming.

The extent of Arctic sea ice is monitored by satellites throughout the year. Scientists keep a close eye on sea ice area because it is so crucial to the polar habitat and has considerable economic potential. Animals like polar bears and walruses depend on it to reach their food, and diminished ice makes the search for sustenance more difficult. Humans are interested in the opportunities afforded by ice melt in terms of new shipping lanes and oil drilling, much more controversial topics.

Changes in sea ice area have also been linked to changes in weather patterns over North America, Europe and Asia, though the connection is still tenuous.

The amount of the polar ocean covered by sea ice waxes and wanes with the seasons, reaching its lowest point at the end of summer and its peak at the end of winter. But this natural cycle has been affected by the rapid warming of the Arctic, which is happening at a much faster than the world as a whole.

As the Earth warms and ice melts, more areas of open ocean are created. The dark waters readily absorb the sun’s rays, whereas bright, white sea ice would reflect them. The heat absorbed by those waters melts more ice, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.

On average, Arctic sea ice extent has declined by 4.52 percent per decade, according to the NSIDC. The summer minimum has seen an even steeper drop of 13.7 percent per decade.

Obama to Seek 40 Percent Cut in Federal Greenhouse Gases

March 20, 2015

Pres. Obama in front of solar panels. (photo:
Pres. Obama in front of solar panels. (photo:

By Timothy Cama, The Hill

19 March 15


resident Obama signed an executive order Thursday to cut the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent over the next decade.

The effort will save taxpayers as much as $18 billion due to energy savings, the White House said.

“Today, America is going to be once again leading by example,” Obama said in brief remarks Thursday during a Department of Energy roundtable event with leaders from the federal contractors and suppliers.

“These are ambitious goals, but we know that they’re achievable goals,” he continued.

Obama will also push federal agencies to get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Several major federal contractors and suppliers are announcing emissions reduction goals of their own. “Since the federal government is the single largest consumer of energy in the nation, federal emissions reductions and progress across the supply chain will have broad impacts,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

Brian Deese, a top adviser to Obama, said the executive order shows that the administration is “on offense” on climate even as congressional Republicans attack some of the president’s landmark environmental efforts.

Months ahead of a planned United Nations agreement to cut emissions globally, the federal efforts should show world leaders and other nations that the United States is serious about cutting emissions, Deese said.

“Certainly our hope is that we are laying forth a template that other countries could also learn from and look at as well,” he told reporters.

Taken together, the actions will be the equivalent of taking 5.5 million average cars off the road for a year, saving 26 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in carbon dioxide-equivalent terms, according to the administration. The reduction goal is based on a 2008 starting point.

As the top energy consumer in the nation, the federal government’s actions can make a huge dent. They can also represent a major part of Obama’s goal of reducing the United States’s total greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.

“With a footprint that includes 360,000 buildings, 650,000 fleet vehicles and $445 billion spent annually on goods and services, the federal government’s actions to reduce pollution, support renewable energy and operate more efficiently can make a significant impact on national emissions,” the White House said.

Some of the specific measures in the executive order will include goals over the next decade of getting 25 percent of the government’s electric and thermal energy from clean sources, reducing federal buildings’ energy use 2.5 percent over the next decade and slashing federal vehicle emissions by 30 percent.

Thursday’s announcement moves the goalposts from a 2010 order Obama signed on federal agencies’ emissions. That mandated a 28 percent cut from the same 2008 starting point, and the government has already reduced greenhouse gases 17.2 percent since then.

Obama will participate in a roundtable discussion later Thursday at the Energy Department where major federal contractors such as IBM and Northrup Grumman will announce their own emissions goals.


By 2050 Some US Cities Will Be Hotter Every Year Than Their Current Records

March 14, 2015

Phoenix skyline. (photo: Deirdre Hamill)
Phoenix skyline. (photo: Deirdre Hamill)

By Maggie Severns, Guardian UK

13 March 15


ithin 35 years, even a cold year will be warmer than the hottest year on record, according to research published in Nature on Wednesday. The study, which used 39 climate models to make a single temperature index for places all over the world, estimates when major US cities’ average temperatures will never again dip below that of the hottest year in the past century and a half. As the chart below shows, that’s as early as 2043 for Phoenix and Honolulu, 2049 for San Francisco, and 2071 for Anchorage, Alaska.

The study found that the tropics will reach the point when even a cold year is hot based on past temperatures, referred to by the researchers as “climate departure,” sooner than areas to the north. Climate departure will happen in 2025 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and 2034 in Mumbai, India, for example, compared to a global average year of 2047. In coral reefs, both pH and temperatures are climbing. “Our paper’s showing that pH is already well beyond the historical threshold,” co-author Abby Frazier said on Tuesday.

Hottest years in US cities. (photo: Mother Jones/Climate Desk )

Hottest years in US cities. (photo: Mother Jones/Climate Desk )

These estimates assumed that there will be no major push to curb carbon emissions in the coming years. The study also predicted a second set of temperatures for an alternate future, in which there’s what Camilo Mora, lead researcher, calls a “strong and concerted” effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That scenario would result in there being 538 parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere in 2100, which is significantly lower than the 936 ppm that the researchers estimate will be in the atmosphere without that effort.

But this substantive action to curb carbon emissions would only buy us about 20 years. “The most striking thing for us is that we used a very conservative scenario,” Mora told Mother Jones. “Many people are already thinking that that just isn’t going to happen, considering the amount of effort that it requires to reach that. Even under those conditions, which are unlikely, we’re still going to face an unprecedented climate, just 20 years into the future. To me, that was pretty shocking.”

Those are two scenarios that Mora and his colleagues consider realistic. Even 538 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere in 2100, the scenario in which we curb carbon emissions in Mora’s study, is a significantly higher level of carbon than many experts consider safe for the planet. Since the late 1980s, scientists and advocates such as Bill McKibben have pushed 350 ppm as a safe upper limit for CO2. We’re already past that level: earlier this year, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere passed the “grim milestone” of 400 ppm for the first time in human history.

The potential result of 936 ppm? As Mora puts it: “The coldest year in the future is going to be hottest year of the past.”


Pacific Dying

February 23, 2015

I am sorry to tell you this, I know that you don’t want to believe that this is happening, but it is.  I am sorry.

Scientists study massive krill die-off on Northern California coast

July 25, 2013  San Jose Mercury News

Scientists say the strandings were reported from Newport, Ore., to McKinleyville in northern Humboldt County in mid-June, making it the geographically largest krill die-off on record.An examination of 10 krill found all were female and most carried sperm packets, suggesting they may have perished just after mating, Tyburczy said.


West Coast sardine crash could radiate throughout ecosystem

January 05, 2014 Los Angeles Times

To blame is the biggest sardine crash in generations, which has made schools of the small, silvery fish a rarity on the West Coast. The decline has prompted steep cuts in the amount fishermen are allowed to catch, and scientists say the effects are probably radiating throughout the ecosystem, starving brown pelicans, sea lions and other predators that rely on the oily, energy-rich fish for food.If sardines don’t recover soon, experts warn, the West Coast’s marine mammals, seabirds and fishermen could suffer for years.


Mass Death of Seabirds in Western U.S. Is ‘Unprecedented’

January 23, 2015  National Geographic

“This is just massive, massive, unprecedented,”

said Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird ecologist who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost 20 years. “We may be talking about 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. So far.”


‘Prepare for the worst': Struggling to save starving sea lions on California shores

January 15, 2015  Orange County Register

“This year could be a perfect storm,” Nollens said. “An El Niño climate event affecting the females and yearlings and something still unexplained affecting the skinny pups.”. . .

Later this month, she will go out again.

“We’ve told the centers to prepare for the worst,” she said.


This is NOT an El Nino year.  This is a third year of unprecedented West Coast offshore sea surface temperature warming that is the HALLMARK of global warming.

Do you still think that global warming is a hoax, you arrogant, misanthropic, sociopathic, fascist bastards???





These Valentine’s Day cards will show you care and cost you nothing

February 14, 2015

Grist / Amelia Bates

Love is in the air! Or maybe that’s smog. Either way, don’t celebrate this Valentine’s Day by shelling out your hard-earned dollar bills to some corporate behemoth for meaningless cards and mass-market tulips. Instead, give these Gristy valentines to the love of your life — and if they’re all, “Why no chocolate???,” explain that there’s nothing less romantic than deforestation-causing cocoa production.

To share, right click any of the images below to save them, then post on bae’s Facebook page, tweet it out, email it, whatever. Or, if you’d prefer a 3D V-Day card, right-click “Printable version,” which will take you to a full-size image that you can then print and bestow upon your sweetie like you didn’t forget all about the big day until just now.

Happy Valentine’s Day, folks. May true love blanket the world like so much atmospheric carbon.

Grist / Amelia Bates

You make me “HOT,” Valentine!


Grist / Amelia Bates

Roses are red, and I’m feeling blue, climate change is scary, at least I’ve got you! 


Grist / Amelia Bates

You’re the coal plant to my rising temperature 


U.S. Droughts Will Be the Worst in 1,000 Years

February 13, 2015

The Southwest and central Great Plains will dry out even more than previously thought
February 12, 2015 |By Mark Fischetti

The dryness of soil, basically measured as a balance between precipitation and evaporation, is predicted to drop steadily in the U.S. central Great Plains and Southwest, during the second half of this century.
Credit: Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains. Benjamin Cook et. al in Science Advances, Feb. 12, 2014.

SAN FRANCISCO—Several independent studies in recent years have predicted that the American Southwest and central Great Plains will experience extensive droughts in the second half of this century, and that advancing climate change will exacerbate those droughts. But a new analysis released today says the drying will be even more extreme than previously predicted—the worst in nearly 1,000 years. Some time between 2050 and 2100, extended drought conditions in both regions will become more severe than the megadroughts of the 12th and 13th centuries. Tree rings and other evidence indicate that those medieval dry periods exceeded anything seen since, across the land we know today as the continental U.S.

The analysis “shows how exceptional future droughts will be,” says Benjamin Cook, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and lead author of the study. The work was published online today in the inaugural edition of Science Advances and was released simultaneously at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting here.

Cook and his colleagues reached their conclusion by comparing 17 different computer projections of 21st century climate with drought records of the past millennium, notably data in the North American Drought Atlas. (The atlas is based on extensive tree-ring studies conducted by Cook’s father, Edward, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.) The models consistently demonstrated drought worse than at any time during that epoch, and worse than the current drought out West, which has prevailed for 11 of the previous 14 years, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In 2014 the drought cost California more than $2 billion in agricultural loses alone, according to the University of California, Davis.

The models also revealed that the drying in the Southwest would result from a combination of less rain and greater soil evaporation due to higher temperatures. They were not as conclusive about less rain in the central Great Plains but all showed more evaporation there. “Even where rain may not change much, greater evaporation will dry out the soils,” Cook says.

Drought, of course, means more stress on crops and possibly greater water shortages in urban areas. “We have strategies today to deal with drought—develop more drought-resistant crops, use more groundwater,” Cook says. “But if future droughts will be much more severe, the question is whether we can extend those strategies or if we need new ones.” Municipal planners and legislators may have a tough challenge, and groundwater is a finite resource. “Our water laws and sharing agreements are very convoluted,” Cook notes. Untangling them in order to make conservation measures practical and equitable “could become a wicked problem.”

The next step for Cook’s group will be to try to determine when the transition to severe drought will begin: in the next 20 years, the next 50 years? We’re still uncertain about that,” he says.

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Planetary Suicide

February 11, 2015
Life Arts 2/11/2015 at 11:09:17

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Every so often a nonfiction book comes along that, because of its objective, comprehensive coverage of a hot topic, should be carefully read with a highlighter in hand by everyone. That new book is“Unprecedented” by David Ray Griffin. Be warned, this book will probably bum you out. It presents the most readable treatment of the global warming and climate change issue that anyone could wish for. It is not an emotional rant, but rather a carefully organized and detailed discussion. Most significantly, with carefully documented sources, it allows a reader to fully appreciate the compelling and overwhelming scientific evidence supporting a negative view of our planet’s and civilization’s future.

Sadly, I suspect that the many climate deniers who most need to read such a book and learn all the facts will probably not do so. However, for the greater number of sensible people who do believe that the planet is, or is likely to be, on a path to unspeakable disaster, this book is a most useful resource to better understand, debate and actively support faster and more effective political action by the US and other nations.

I was more motivated than most others to read this book because I recently completed a trip into the Antarctic. With my own eyes I saw evidence of what Griffin discusses, including sea-level rise resulting from melting ice and higher ocean temperatures. I find this particular problem perhaps the most compelling of a number of global environmental changes that threatens humanity. Why? Because sea-level rise has been going on for a long time, eating up coastal lands all over the world. But now sea-level rise is accelerating and at such a rapid rate that virtually all major coastal cities are extremely threatened.

Emissions already in the atmosphere spell tragedy for 316 US cities where 3.6 million people live, according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And without forceful action, things will only get worse.

People may not care much about a few islands disappearing. But untold millions of people will face the need to escape cities worldwide that will not be able to cope with and survive many feet of higher oceans flooding their infrastructure, streets and housing. Where will those millions of people go? How will such deep economic disaster be managed by governments?

What I saw in Antarctica was the melting away of glaciers on mountains. Even more startling was seeing unbelievably large tabular, rectangular icebergs in the ocean near Antarctica, often with dimensions of a mile or more. These are pieces of ice sheets that are increasingly breaking off because of warmer air and water. Third, is the shrinkage of some penguin home sites because of higher temperatures.

Will technology come to the rescue? I am old enough to remember the 1960s when there was a passionate argument that rising population and consequent food shortages spelled global doom. It did not happen. Why? Because various technologies came to the rescue and greatly expanded food production. This and other disaster scenarios that never come to pass foster an attitude of technological optimism. This blocks both political action and public demands for emergency solutions to ecological catastrophe tied to climate change and global warming. So, will there be a technological solution enacted fast enough to prevent this new nightmare scenario? It is a lot to hope for. It is being called geoengineering. It includes methods to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to reflect sunlight. Griffin pays just a little attention to geoengineering and not in the final section of the book where it belongs.

A major problem with all those trying to get the public, the media and the political world to focus on fast actions to sharply cut carbon dioxide emissions now is that they fear attention to geoengineering will make it harder to take rapid actions to replace dirty technologies with green ones. Two new related reports on climate intervention by the US National Academy of Sciences support more geoengineering research. But the head of the research project noted “we need to do more now to reduce emissions, which is the most effective, least risky way to combat climate change.”

The best strategy is to pursue both approaches, emissions reduction and geoengineering, with vigor, but this is not emphasized by Griffin or many others sounding alarms about climate change. With so much at stake, to depend on either approach by itself is foolish. To wait until emissions reduction does not greatly cut global disaster threats to develop a geoengineering solution is crazy.

Another cautionary note to the many trying to broaden public passion and government action is to stop saying things like what Griffin says at the end of his book: “Given our refusal to cut emissions over the past 30 years, it is already too late to save the kind of world that has been hospitable to human being since the rise of civilization.” Ok, maybe that pessimistic view has some credence. But it also can feed broad public disinterest because it is too late and makes it difficult to take gutsy political action and spend big money on remedies.

As Griffin noted, a 2013 Pew poll found that only 28 percent of Americans believe climate change should be a top priority of federal politicians. What an utterly dismal situation. A more recent 2015 poll found that the segment of the US population having the strongest views for addressing climate change are Hispanics and, conversely, Republicans have the least concern about it. Unless a large majority of people take responsibility for contributing to planetary suicide the worst scenarios are likely to come true.

I urge everyone who reads this book to get at least three other people to also read it. If pessimism, selfishness and narcissism prevail, concern about future generations will be largely disregarded. Can most people give high priority to the strong possibility that the human race as we know it today does not survive? The subtitle of Griffin’s book is “Can civilization survive the CO2 crisis?” Read the book and you are likely to say No! Then the question is: Are you now motivated to speak up and work to avoid perilous decay and doomsday?

Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of Delusional Democracy – Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government. His current political writings have been greatly influenced by working as a senior staffer for the U.S. Congress and for the (more…)

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Is it Too Late to Save the Planet?

January 24, 2015


Our planet’s ecosystem is under duress and human activity and human behavior as the main culprits. It’s time our species stops contributing to the problem and starts becoming the solution.


  1. Physics – a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.
  1. lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.

Having fun in the sun last summer was no sweat for people living on the East Coast – literally. As the rest of the country sweltered, Easterners were experiencing cooler-than-normal temperatures last summer. It was a gift to any climate-denying member of Congress who happened to be living in Northern Virginia, for example. “Proof” that global warming is a hoax.

Westerners weren’t so fortunate.  The weirdly cool weather on the East Coast was matched by weirdly warm and dry weather on the West Coast.  Specifically in South California.  Each is an example of what climate scientists call an anomaly. Like a Republican or Democrat in Congress who cares more about serving the people than getting re-elected – anomalies happen in all times and places.

Hence the question Amy Davidson posed in a recent article in the New Yorker (“Our Hottest Year, Our Cold Indifference”):  Will indifference to climate science one day be an anomaly?

We know that the planet’s ecosystem is under duress. We know that everything from biodiversity to ocean chemistry is being degraded, that entropy due to global population growth and human activity is a major cause.  We know that climate change is not some sci-fi fantasy anymore. It is happening, the signs are abundant, and, as Davidson rightly points out, too many of our leaders – and I dare say, too many voters – are indifferent. “The planet is changing, and we are close to the time when trying to check climate change will be like trying to redirect El Niño with canoe paddles.”

She’s right, of course.  But two things often missing in cautionary tales about our beleaguered planet are 1) a policy prescription for the government and 2) an action  program for the rest of us. Specifically, there’s rarely any mention of conservation as a kind of categorical public-policy imperative.

It isn’t enough to decry lower oil prices as a disincentive to dependence on fossil fuel. Global population stands at a staggering 7.3 billion and will continue to rise for the next few decades if not longer. Nobody wants to talk about population in part because most everything that can be done about that issue has already been or is being done. Yet the numbers are still rising, will continue to rise, and cannot be reversed without some catastrophic event — a pandemic, major asteroid impact, or nuclear holocaust. No one wants that, it probably won’t happen, and no one wants to hear, read, or think about it.

So there’s nothing we can do, right?  Wrong.

The science is clear – human activity and human behavior are changing the planet, and not in a good way.  Astrophysicist Adam Frank put this point into sharper focus: “The defining feature of a technological civilization is the capacity to intensively ‘harvest’ energy. But the basic physics of energy, heat and work known as thermodynamics tell us that waste, or what we physicists call entropy, must be generated and dumped back into the environment in the process.” Globally, we generate around 100 billion megawatt hours of energy every year and dump 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere and oceans, not to mention rivers, coal slurry impoundments (“sludge ponds”), aquifers, and underground “sequestration”, all of which goes a very long way to explaining the  overheating planet and acidifying oceans.

We’re in control and reckless which is why the planet is out of control and threatened.  As a species, we will either modify our behavior or perish, but not before we drive many other species into distinction (a process well underway).

Still, we’re not doomed.  Not yet, anyway. Maybe we can change.  Maybe out indifference will give way to our instinct for survival in time.  Maybe we will come to understand that we have to conserve in order to survive, reorganize our cities and societies, depend less on long-distance transport and travel, and do more on a local level. We have to drive fewer cars fewer miles, build mass transit systems, and subsidize riders for being good citizens. We have to consume less and conserve more of everything — from water and fossil fuel to wildlife and rain forests. We have to do a much better job of protecting the atmosphere, oceans, topsoil.

Our species has caused this problem and there will be a lot more of us either contributing to the problem or becoming the solution in the future. We have to learn to do more with less. A lot less. It probably won’t happen any time soon on the scale that’s needed, but it will happen sooner or later because it has to.  Let’s hope it won’t be too late.

Scientists to Earth: Prepare to Abandon Planet

January 18, 2015

Earth First! Now we’ll trash the other planets. There are other planets, right? (Photo by Gideon Wright/Flickr)

Two major scientific studies out this week agree that it may well be time to include other planets in your future relocation plans. Because we have just about finished trashing this one. One study says that of nine “planetary boundaries,” which is to say boundaries between inhabitable and uninhabitable, human activity has already wrecked four. The other finds an implacable rise in the number of mass dyings of animals, of such magnitude that they “can reshape the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of life on Earth.” And, need we specify, not in a good way. Let’s see what these studies say, and then consider what we should make of what they say.

Five years ago, a group of scientists laid out a series of benchmarks for assessing the damage we’ve done to the web of life. They established nine “boundaries” that define a “safe operating space” for humanity — theoretical limits to destruction that we exceed at our peril. They were: the rate at which species are becoming extinct; the rate of deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the flow of nutrients from fertilizer into the oceans; ozone depletion; freshwater use; ocean acidification; atmospheric aerosol pollution; and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.

The purpose of the current paper was to refine the boundaries concept and to see how we are doing. It concluded that we have already trampled the first four boundaries and are endangering the remainder. “Human activities are destabilizing the global environment,” said the paper’s lead author, Will Steffen of the Australian National University. When exactly the system will become destabilized, putting the entire human population in dire peril, cannot be estimated with certainty but Steffen sees it happening, on the current course, in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

Take that as the good news: the bad news is that MMEs — mass mortality events — are on the rise around the world. They key word here is mass: we’re talking about events in which at least a  billion animals die, more than 90% of an existing population, leaving 700 million tons of corpses. Believe it or not, there have been 727 such events recorded since 1940. And a survey of those events finds that they are increasing in frequency for birds, marine invertebrates and fish, while remaining constant for mammals and decreasing for reptiles and amphibians.

What are we to make of such science? Most of our brethren and, um, cistern will ignore it, as they do any science not headlined “miracle weight loss without effort.” Some of us, a decided but growing minority, will take it as further evidence of a coming collapse of the industrial age. And of that minority, a minority (Guy McPherson being a prominent example) believes that what is coming is an extinction of the human race.

I will not go that far. Not because I think I have superior scientific knowledge (than Dr. McPherson? Get out!) or can prove one case or another, but for two reasons that satisfy me.

  1. It is not useful to me to believe that all humans are going to die, or the planet is going to fry, or the sun is going to explode. So I refuse to believe it. Now, that may be as maddening in its way as the refusal of right wingers to believe in climate change despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because they don’t want to. But there is a difference. I don’t deny the possibility that Dr. McPherson et al may be right; I just prefer to act and plan and think while focussed on the possibility they may be wrong.
  2. It would be well to keep in mind, it seems to me, how wrong the scientists have been about the effects of climate change. They have consistently underestimated the speed and severity of its onset. It seems reasonable to expect them to be wrong in the future, as they try to quantify a staggering array of variables, and it does not seem reasonable to expect them to be wrong only on one side of the ledger. The two things humans have consistently underestimated is the amount of harm they are doing to natural systems, and the power of those systems to recover if we just quit doing the harm.

But all of this — the power to harm, the power to recover, the power to understand — has to bow down at present before the awesome power of stupidity in a culture that, having been told clearly and repeatedly that it is destroying the foundations of its existence, continues to do so.


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