Category Archives: The Catacombs

This is the dark abyss of climate change. Down here, wading through the ever-rising waters in dank, echoing chambers, you will find my explorations into the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Why a hot year matters more than a cold year or a neutral year

Earth’s systems are already out of balance. The comparative equilibrium we saw during most of the last 10,000 years meant that the amount of ice we had was roughly the amount of ice we were likely to get and keep at our current temperature and greenhouse gas level. When we increased the average temperature, that balance was shifted, and ice started melting in response to the increased temperature of the climate.

The “lull” between 1998 and 2015, which was not much of a lull, still saw accelerating ice melt, permafrost thawing, and sea level rise, because we had already raised the temperature enough to make those inevitable, based on our understanding of physics. Even a year that was down to the 1990 or 1980 temperature level, on average, followed by a return to 2000s temperatures, would have fairly little effect. The melting would have slowed, without stopping, and then sped up again when the temperature returned to the decadal “norm”.

But a dramatically hotter year – like this El Niño year – is a different matter. It injects a bunch more heat into the system, which means faster ice melt, and so lower albedo for the coming year, and more permafrost melt, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year, and more water evaporation, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year.

A single, unusually cold year, does not do much when we’re still above the temperature at which the current ice sheets formed, but a single hot year can create a spike of warming factors, which will cause even more warming in the years to come.

If we had not been emitting fossil fuels, it’s possible that the dip in global temperatures in the late 1960s/early 1970s would have led to more global cooling, and even an ice age – we’re certainly due for one – but we had already started the slowly accelerating process of global warming. We already had warming momentum, even back then, so we had a temporary cool period, and then when we came out of the 1970s, the temperature skyrocketed.

We’ll have more warming “pauses” in the future. That is a virtual certainty, but unless we re-balance the planet’s temperature budget by reducing greenhouse gases, the planet will just keep warming until it reaches a new equilibrium. Because of feedbacks like the albedo and the melting permafrost, even if we stop emitting CO2 now, the planet will keep warming for thousands of years, and the new equilibrium will be far, far hotter than anything our species has ever encountered.

There are a number of ways we could respond to this, but our best bet is to stop contributing to the problem, prepare for the changes we know are coming, and develop a strategy for deliberately managing the planet’s greenhouse gas levels.

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Richard Alley on ice sheets and the future of sea level

This video is well worth 44 minutes of your time. Dr. Alley knows what he’s talking about, and he lays out the current understanding pretty clearly.

values

In a country that has, for many years, been at the forefront of scientific innovation and technological development, everybody (excepting a few religious fundamentalists) claims to value science, and yet we consistently see policies and behaviors that seem to ignore reality.

So what does it mean to value science? Is it like the lip-service version of “valuing life” that goes along with building the world’s most deadly military? Do we value it at a distance, in a sort of abstract manner?

For my part, I feel that if we value science, then we need to consider how its findings connect to other things we value. Take the current example of Flint, MI. We have known that lead is dangerous for thousands of years, and more recently had a refresher of that lesson with the rise and fall of tetraethyl lead. We know that the Flint River is more corrosive to lead than the lake water coming from Detroit. We also know how to treat water so that it won’t corrode the lead in pipes.

At a minimum, valuing science should mean accepting its findings, and acknowledging what we know about reality, but what then?

Then we get to other values. Most people claim to value human life and wellbeing, so it should be a simple conclusion – either avoid water sources with a low pH, or treat the water to protect the population from lead poisoning. Supposedly, Governor Snyder and his “Emergency Financial Manager” made the choices they did because they value fiscal responsibility.

Before we address the financial aspect of this, let’s dwell on the implications here for a moment. The decision to change water sources and the decision to not treat the water were made in order to save money, and that goal was more important than the wellbeing of the people who would be using the water. That is the best possible explanation. That means that to the people making those decisions, human life and wellbeing is worth less than whatever money they thought they could save.

But let’s set aside, for the moment, the moral outrage of valuing the lives of our fellow humans so little, and consider the supposed reasoning behind this disaster. The idea was to save money. With the information available BEFORE the change was made (years, decades, and in some cases centuries before), no responsible financial calculation could have left out the impacts of widespread lead contamination in Flint.

If life was valued, then they would have taken care to treat the water or not make the switch if they couldn’t afford the treatment.

If fiscal responsibility was valued, then again, treatment or not switching were the best options, given the short-term and long-term costs associated with untreated water.

If science was valued, then that value did not extend beyond mere academic interest, and into any kind of informed action. In that case, I think that were Snyder to claim to value life, fiscal responsibility, or science, he would be demonstrating only that he does not value truth.

In the absence of any honest statement of the values that went into creating this human rights disaster, we are left wondering what was really at work. Whether it was the manifestation of a belief that government is inherently evil (surely a self-fulfilling prophecy from someone with power over government policy), or a desire to transfer wealth (financial or otherwise) from the hands of poor, black folks to the hands of rich, white folks, or any of the other motives suggested, this does not seem like an isolated incident.

The poisoning of Flint, MI parallels many, many other cases of environmental contamination, including the destabilization of Earth’s climate through fossil fuel use. It seems that the values that have lead to decades of obfuscation and inaction surrounding climate science, are the same as the values behind disasters in Flint, the Gulf of Mexico, Los Angeles, Bhopal, and countless other places around the world.

I don’t have a solution, but I think it’s important to state as clearly and as often as possible that the ideological movements behind all these crimes against humanity and against life on this planet are tied together. Without identifying and solving that problem – as well as our own participation and contribution to that ideology – it seems unlikely that we will be able to fix the crises before us, or prevent the new ones that loom on the horizon.

Mass Extinction

Note: This post is relevant

A recent report has garnered some attention for its declaration that we have entered Earth’s sixth Mass Extinction – the first since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They also state that humans, as a species are at risk of going extinct.

I’ve got lots to say about all this, but right now I want to address how we know what we know.

Most people not involved in the study of plant and animal populations don’t have a very clear idea of how scientists come to conclusions like this. There’s no reason they SHOULD, but having an idea of how we know what we know can act as a defense against those who say things like this are all made up.

When I was in college, I spent one week on some islands in the Bahamas (terrible, I know), studying a population of iguanas. I was part of a group of around 10 people led by a biologist who had been doing this for 20 years. This species only lives on three islands, and was almost extinct when he started studying them.

20 years later, with the help of the Bahamian government, they were doing quite well, and he had a massive amount of information about the iguanas, how long they lived, how many there were, what their breeding habits were, and so on.

This was achieved by spending between two weeks and a month on the islands about once a year.

This same biologist was doing similar studies of turtles in a couple places in Indiana, Nebraska, and probably a couple other places I’m not remembering.

I also spent time in Tanzania, and talked to biologists there who were studying everything from plants to elephants.

I also talked to scientists at the New England Aquarium that monitor fish and sea turtles populations all along the East Coast of the United States.

When I worked for a state department of natural resources, I spent two summers doing similar work to what I had done with the iguanas and turtles, this time with snakes. There were fewer of us studying many more populations, so it took us a full summer to cover about half the significant habitats in the state.

I also did some filing work for that department, going through the records of citizens reporting in about animals they had seen.

Now I regularly interact with people who are doing the same thing with bird species – counting them, weighing them, and monitoring how their populations have been changing for the last 50 years.

I’ve also been talking to people who’ve collected plant and bird records from scientists and hobbyists going back in to the 1800s.

This is just the tangential experience of one person, who studied biology as an undergrad in one college, and worked for a couple science-related organizations afterwards.

In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of colleges and universities that do similar kinds of research at different levels. Every state has an agency that ALSO hires scientists to do research. Every state also has people who closely monitor wildlife for their own reasons – hunters, birdwatchers, reptile enthusiasts, frog enthusiasts, fishermen, and so on.

Many of the colleges I mentioned ALSO do research in other countries all over the world, but all of those countries also have their own researchers and institutions doing their own work.

This work involves individually counting lizards, or snakes, or turtles, or birds, insects, or fish, or mammals, or plants, or sometimes number of flowers ON plants.

On every continent, in every country, in every habitat in all conditions of all seasons, there are thousands of people constantly monitoring the myriad of organisms we share our planet with – and in some cases rely on.

All of these people also share their data, and publish it, and cross-check it, and add it in to common databases that cross international boundaries. All of this work goes back generations, and as the human population has grown, so to has the number of people studying the world we live in, as well as our capacity to do so.

That is how we know that species are going extinct. That is how we know that the climate is changing – because for every person I mentioned who’s studying life on earth, there’s also someone studying the planet’s past, and someone studying the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and someone studying how those chemicals behave in different conditions.

The entire planet is changing all around us, and everybody who’s watching can see it.

Silence of the Labs: Canada’s war on Science

The primacy of economic growth is the most toxic philosophy ever adopted.

It assumes that “compromise” means “industry gets what industry wants” and the only question is what the price is.

It means, by default, the every single human, every single living organism, and every single part of the world has a price – a point at which its destruction is worth the monetary gain.

It reduces all of us, and everything around us, to either resources, products, or obstacles to development. Nothing more.

A plea, a reminder, a call.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that this video might suggest that my concern is the “methane burp” hypothesis, which suggests that a vast amount of methane would be released from the ocean all at once in a single explosive event. I don’t think the video says that, but even so, that hypothesis is not my concern. My concern is about an increasingly rapid release of methane from oceans and permafrost, leading to the events described in the opening statement of this blog. Nothing in global warming seems to act like an on/off switch, which is why believe that we are seeing the so-called “tipping point” in action as the arctic melts and releases more CO2 and methane from the permafrost and ocean floor.

Everybody who sees this, please read what I’ve written, and then please watch the video.

The warning in this video is what I have been talking about for years. It’s what I named my blog after, and it’s what my very first blog post was about in October of 2010.
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Policing our own: integrity in the midst of struggle

Wind turbines kill bats.

Wind energy is one of the biggest sectors of renewable energy at the moment, and it’s something that I, along with many other climate activists, have strongly supported.

It’s important to remember, however, that the corporations responsible for the proliferation of wind turbines around the world are still corporations, and are still vulnerable to the same kinds of abuse and neglect that we so regularly vilify when they come from the fossil fuel industry.

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