28 February 2008

Hope or despair?

There are reasons for hope. Society-at-large is increasingly tuning out the climate change deniers and doubters. Global warming is now widely recognized as a very real and very serious threat to civilization as we know it. Many are proposing a wide-ranging set of solutions. Some are promising, but many questions remain. Careless or rash actions could easily lead to despair.

One feasible solution involves capturing CO2 and storing it in sausage shaped bags which are subsequently dumped in the ocean. While this is apparently technically feasible with contemporary technology, the whole idea is really unpalatable to me. Haven't we done enough damage to the ocean? We've already wiped out a lot of the fish and created an enormous pool of plastic rubbish in the Pacific, all while slowly acidifying the ocean. Human impacts on the ocean are visible from space. This “solution” just adds insult to injury, even if it is “safe”.

Some new materials (chemicals) have been produced which are able to selectively capture CO2. Quoting from the link:

The carbon dioxide is captured using a new class of materials designed by Yaghi and his group called zeolitic imidazolate frameworks, or ZIFs. These are porous and chemically robust structures, with large surface areas, that can be heated to high temperatures without decomposition and boiled in water or organic solvents for a week and still remain stable.

Rabett Run points out that the energy cost may be too high for this to be feasible on an industrial scale. My concern is different than that. History suggests we have a poor track record when it comes to using new chemicals. Metaphorically speaking, It always blows up in our face. CFCs were considered stable. DDT was supposed to save the world. Look how well those turned out. This trend continues as the world discovers that the environmental contamination from our “harmless” chemicals is looking like more of a problem than originally believed. Chemicals in our waters are affecting humans and aquatic life in unanticipated ways. Dilution is NOT the solution. Terrestrial life is also affected by endocrine disrupting chemicals, although the net effect isn't clear at this time. Before we unleash some new chemical on the world, can we thoroughly test it and understand its interactions with the natural world?

Geo-engineering solutions remain a possibility, but fortunately these seem to be falling out of favor. The company that hoped to make money through ocean geo-engineering, Planktos, has stopped its field tests thanks to a “highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders.” I'm proud to have contributed. Further studies are continuing to suggest that geo-engineering through aerosol enhancement is likely to be very problematic. I think we shouldn't waste research time or money on these efforts. They could only possibly be used as a last resort, and if the situation gets that dire we are unlikely to be able to mount such an effort. Better to use to the money to better understand the increasingly dissonant 'music of the spheres' as a whole.

In the 'Are you serious?'-category comes 'To save the world we may have to waste it'. This is pretty cynical, and it is not clear to me what the author's intent truly is. It's funny in a black humor sort of way, or if you are feeling incredibly nihilistic, both of which I have been known to appreciate. But such a 'solution' cannot be genuinely considered. Maybe this is a manifestation of despair.

The above solutions (mostly) rely on some sort of techno-optimism. With just the right fix, everything will be alright. Such solutions allow humans to continue to live outside the bounds of the eco-system. Unfortunately, people are part of the natural world, and we must live within it. Solutions that offer real hope will take this into account. There can't be one quick fix, but rather many small steps which add up to a greater whole. The sole focus can't just be on the climate, either. Instead, the whole gamut of environmental problems we face must be addressed simultaneously. Any one of them alone could do us in.

Some steps (among many) could include: Organic fertilizers in agriculture can take up more CO2 in the soil, cutting waste and inefficiency, stopping deforestation, development of alternate energy sources, economic and social reforms. Population control is essential. In short, a societal change towards a more sustainable, less resource-intensive society. Maybe it is true that there is not enough time for a “reinvention of the world's cultures”, but that is the direction we must head to solve this problem in the long term. Perhaps we have to adopt some of the band-aid solutions noted above, but that entails enormous risk and they should only be used as stopgap measures. Recent studies suggest that human cultures are subject to natural selection, just like genes. To survive the challenge,the world and the Global North needs to rein itself in and live within the limits imposed by Nature. The cultures that do this the best will be the writers of history in the future. Nature wins in the end every time. If it finds us lacking, we lose.

There is reason to hope, though, as solutions are on the horizon. A path for long-term, permanent solutions exists with contemporary technology. But the problems we face are large, and most still do not understand the magnitude of the task at hand. Societal collapse requires adjustment, too. This can easily lead to despair. Prompt, but thoughtful action is needed to avoid this state.


Image: www.utahlifecoach.com (via Google Image Search, not an endorsement!)

23 February 2008

Dissonant spheres

The 'spheres' of our planet have long acted harmoniously, brilliantly improvising off the others' riffs to produce a beautiful soundscape – the ecosystem we currently inhabit. The song started slowly and took a long time to reach it's present state, each new instrument gradually incorporated into the greater whole. The newest members sit in with the band are modern humans. Unfortunately, we play our instruments poorly and we have a tin ear. We are creating dissonance.

In many ways, the ocean (hydrosphere) can be considered the rhythm section, a solid foundation on which to base a composition. Water is essential to all life as we know it. This sphere is slow to act, but difficult to stop once it begins. The raucous caterwauling of humans is beginning to be noticed. A recent study shows that only 4% of the oceans remained undamaged by human activity. The oceans are becoming rapidly transformed through increasing temperature and acidity of seawater. There is some concern that we may have already triggered an ocean circulation collapse. Plastic rubbish covers vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean, detritus from our way of life.

The atmosphere is deeply influenced by the ocean (although the influence really goes both ways...). The El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a major factor in determining the weather. We are currently observing the peak of the La Nina phase of the cycle, wherein cooler-than-normal sea surface conditions prevail across much of the Pacific Ocean. This has broken an extended drought across eastern Australia, while simultaneously bringing 'the worst drought in decades' to Chile. The relations have been seen historically. The role of La Nina as opposed to general climate change in producing the unusual winter weather in China and the US is uncertain, and despite the claims of these articles cannot be determined right now; the data just aren't there. It is certainly possible, but more expected during the warm El Nino phase.

The biosphere –- living things – are the main melody in this music of the spheres. Without a melody, the song (often) isn't worth listening to. Human cacophony is increasingly disrupting the main theme. Anoxic dead zones in the ocean are on the increase, a result of global warming. Warming conditions are leading the increased migration of animals. In the UK, seabirds are facing threats as snake pipefish, virtually unknown before 2002, move into the area. Warming seas around Antarctica also threaten the invasion of predators -- first crabs then sharks -- into the fragile ecosystem of the the region, threatening widespread devastation. It's not just climate change; tuna fisheries are facing a massive collapse from overfishing.

Playing a supporting role on human time scales is the lithosphere (the Earth's crust). Global warming may lead to an increase in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Such ideas are very speculative, but do have some precedence – parts of the crust are still rebounding' from the removal of ice from the last ice age. Probably a coincidence, but Norway just recorded its strongest earthquake ever in its Arctic archipelago.

It's obvious from the above that humans are not the virtuosos we imagine ourselves to be. We continue to belt out our drunken karaoke version of “My Way” at our own peril; the band may pack up and go home. Following the sentiment of Miles Davis, It's not the notes you play, but rather the space between the notes that make the music. Listening carefully and playing appropriately are admirable qualities. Silence is a perfectly acceptable musical technique; something is always happening that makes a sound. Seeing our selves and our species as a part of nature; fitting in and living within the more-than-adequate limits provided by the ecosystem. This philosophy will go a long way towards helping humanity produce a lasting grand opus.


Image: I. Stravinsky, L' Sacre du Printemps

16 February 2008

Future food redux

Since my last post on the subject, concerns about agriculture and food continue to be raised with increasing frequency. The problems remain the same, but the future keeps looking more grim.

Food prices continue to soar, with many commodities reaching all-time highs (and still rising!). There are several causes for this. Weather-related disasters are destroying crops in some areas (recently in China, for example). Whether these extreme events are a result of the changing climate or simply natural variability remains unclear; it is really impossible to tell. In Australia, the severe drought which has been ongoing for several years is finally beginning to break (in NSW and QLD; it remains in others), a result of the delayed La Nina rains. This is purportedly stabilizing food prices, which have risen considerably recently (a fact to which I can personally attest...). In December, milk prices went up 10.1 percent, vegetables rose 8.6 percent and bread gained 8.8 percent

The diversion of arable land to the production of biofuels is also reducing supply. This is done in the name of sustainability, but is really just the latest get-rich-quick scheme of global capitalism. Further, more detailed studies suggest that biofuels may actually end up increasing greenhouse gas emissions through a so-called 'land-use cascade'. Further, the production of biofuels is leading to human-rights abuses, particularly in Indonesia.

While the situation is bad today, future climate change and environmental degradation will likely make things worse. CO2 enhancement is not necessarily good for plants, contrary to widespread belief. Studies suggest that as CO2 levels rise, protein levels in staple grains like rice and wheat could be reduced by up to 15%, obviously lowering their nutritional value. Also, the fossil record suggests that plant-eating insect activity increases greatly in a warmer climate. As the current climate warms, this suggests further losses due to pests, meaning fewer crops and/or the application of more environmentally harmful pesticides. Further, shifting rainfall and temperature pattens suggest that impoverished regions of Africa and Asia could see severe crop shortages in the next few decades...

The dynamics of the modern agricultural system also pose a problem, independent of climate change or widespread topsoil loss. The green revolution itself is completely dependent on cheap oil,at or near peak production now. Without oil, it will be difficult to maintain current food production. How will we cope with a rising population? The system itself is in the hands of amoral (immoral?) global corporations, legally bound to maximize profits at all costs. The methods of production they use are globally homogeneous; to increase profits, the genetic diversity of their 'products' (particularly animals) have been narrowed to a few select breeds which perform well. Such a narrowing increases the chance of a highly pathogenic strain of disease. Perversely, this leads to a greater control by corporations, as free range stocks are generally the ones that are banned, further disadvantaging independent farmers.

Serious reform of current agricultural practices is needed. Agricultural should be better utilized for development of poorer regions. Increased research into sustainable agriculture is also needed to overcome the concerns of climate change and environmental degradation. Development of local crops, overlooked today, may also help alleviate some concerns in the short term. Outside of agriculture, limits to population growth are sorely required. Most importantly, a change of lifestyle is needed, particularly by those of us in western nations. Rampant consumerism and the acquisition of 'stuff' has got to go. Our society is unsustainable and we surely face collapse if we do not make the change now.


Image: Jamie Lantzy, Wikipedia

09 February 2008

Weather Whirligig 2

Another edition of the Weather Whirligig. As before, the basic idea of these posts is to note the occurrence of unusual or extreme weather events. Since the last post, there have been a few more weather events to report on; some are eerily similar to before.

Image: EO Natural Hazards

02 February 2008

We did what...!?

The magnitude of human induced changes to the planet is astounding. The existence and reality of anthropogenic global climate change, largely wrought by greenhouse gas emissions, is itself difficult to comprehend. And as global capitalism continues to accelerate, CO2 levels have reached new peaks, up to 394 ppm. Contrary to the claims on deniers, the recent global warming has not stopped, nor is it likely to in any sort of imaginable near future. Unfortunately, our environmental problems are not limited to the atmosphere.

All the 'spheres' (i.e. atmo-, hyrdo-, bio-, etc.) of the Earth are deeply interrelated, each affecting the other through poorly understood feedback mechanisms. Changing one aspect of the environment can have dramatic effects on a different, seemingly unrelated aspect. Over the eons, these different aspects of the environment have reached a 'dynamic equilibrium', allowing all we sense and rely upon to exist. Unfortunately, humans are radically altering all of these spheres at once, risking our existence. Often, this is done for the purpose of short-term profit and unchecked economic 'growth'. A few examples follow.

Our attitudes towards the ocean and its fish stocks are particularly shocking. Overfishing has long been a concern, but governments around the world continue to subsidize these activities and turn a blind eye towards regulation. Corruption rules the day. Recent studies using records of fishing activity from the pre-industrial era have begun to shed some light on the enormity of these transgressions against nature. A quote:

In 1855, just 43 schooners out of Beverly, Mass., were catching considerably more cod in the waters south of Nova Scotia in a season than their modern counterparts can catch today. Crews fishing over the side with baited hand lines caught 7,800 metric tons of cod – about three times what fishermen caught in that area in 2006. And they did it within sight of land in coastal waters where today cod are virtually nonexistent.

Consider also that the ocean's 'biological deserts' have expanded by over 15% between 1997 and 2006, likely driven by anthropogenic global warming. What effect will these have on future fish stocks? Will carbon sequestration in the ocean be reduced as a result, hence increasing global warming? What about man-made nitrogen? What will people who rely on the sea eat?

Our attitudes to the forests of the world, particularly in tropical regions, are also primarily motivated by profit. After a few years of relative decline, deforestation in the Amazon is again on the upswing, driven by high commodity prices and other land use pressures. The government is unlikely to take any serious remediative action. Similarly, mangrove swamps have declined by 20% since 1980. Land use changes, particularly conversion for agriculture is the main driver. These forests are mainstays of biodiversity and are a crucial part of maintaining the 'dynamic balance' needed for life as we know it to continue to exist. However, the true rate of tropical deforestation remains uncertain due to data quality issues.

While many of these changes are occurring in less-developed regions of the world, one can hardly fault them for following the model for success which served the western world so well. It continues there today. Similar questions to those for the ocean apply here. What about the carbon sequestration by the forest? What is the greater effect of species loss?

Issues of tropical deforestation were discussed at the recently Bali conference, and a tentative agreement was struck. Regardless, the World Bank continues sponsor destruction of the forest a month after promising to fight deforestation. If there is a buck to be made, they will make it. This attitude is symptomatic of the environmental problems we face. Our global economic system is harsh, with two possible outcomes: exploiter or exploited. The exploited get to live in post-collapse conditions now; the rest of us have to wait a few more years.

The magnitude of the environmental crises we have caused is beginning to be more widely recognized. So is the main driver of global capitalism and incessant economic growth. Bill Gates, one of the world's richest men, recently issued a call for a “kinder capitalism”. How to actually go about creating a low carbon society is being serious discussed by academics. But we in the rich nations cannot make our taking action contingent on action by the poor. We must lead by example and act unilaterally, freely sharing our knowledge to create a better life for all. We largely created the problems, we need to fix them. A new lifestyle is needed around the world, free from the clutches of unrestrained global capitalism. The changes won't be easy, but they are the only hope we have.

To achieve this, we must both summon to political will to change, as well as make a personal commitment to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Duplicitous climate change talks won't do it. Neither will greenwashed BS like the Eco credit card. It's easy to expect nothing of our political leaders or ourselves. Most wouldn't elect someone who runs on a platform similar to what is required.

We have already pushed ourselves into a new geological epoch with our radical alteration of the planet. We need to act now so that there will be future scientists to interpret these events in the geological record and marvel at how we avoided calamity.