Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies is commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans from our reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.

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rant on/

As the world turns and history piles up against us, nature (as distinguished from human civilization) takes hit after hit. One reads periodically about species extinction proceeding at an estimated rate of dozens per day (or even faster), 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the background rate of evolution without anthropocentric climate change thrown in. Headlines usually read that large populations of plants or animals show up dead where they once used to thrive. When it’s insects such as crickets or bees, we often lack concern. They’re insects after all, which we happily exterminate from places of human habitation. Although we know they’re significant parts of the terrestrial food web just as plankton function as the base of the marine food web, they’re too small and/or icky for us to identify with closely. Species die-offs occurring with large mammals such as whales or dolphins make it easier to feel empathy. So, too, with aspen trees suffering from beetle infestations and deer populations with chronic wasting disease. When at-risk species finally go extinct, no fanfare, report, or memorial is heard. Here’s an exception: a new tree species discovered and declared extinct at the same time.

Something similar can be said of cities and communities established in hurricane alleys, atop earthquake fault lines, in flood plains, and near active volcanoes. They’re the equivalent of playing Russian roulette. We know the gun will fire eventually because the trigger is pulled repeatedly (by us or by nature itself). Catastrophists believe the planet across long time spans (tens of thousands of years) has always been a killing field or abattoir, though long respites between episodes can be surprisingly nurturing. Still, the rate of natural disasters has been creeping up now for decades. According to the statistics, we can certainly tolerate disaster better (in terms of death rates) than in the early 20th century. Yet the necessity of building out civilization in perilous locations is Pyrrhic. The human species must ineluctably expand its territory wherever it can, other species be damned. We don’t need no stinkin’ whales, dolphins, aspens, deer, bees, crickets, etc. We also don’t need no stinkin’ oceanfront property (Carolina outer banks, New Jersey shore, New Orleans, Houston) that keeps getting hit, requiring regular, predictable rebuilding. Let it all go to hell (meet you there!) ruin. The insurance companies will bail us out, just like taxpayers the federal government bailed out all those banks dicking playing around with the casino economy a decade ago (which, BTW, hasn’t abated).

The typical metaphor for slow death between major planetary catastrophes is “death by a thousand cuts,” as though what’s happening this time is occurring to us rather than by and because of us. I propose a different metaphor: Jenga tower civilization. The tower is civilization, obviously, which we keep building taller by removing pieces (of nature) from the bottom to stack on top. Jenga (say it everyone: Jenga! Yahtzee!) ends when the entire edifice crashes down into pieces. Until then, it’s all fun and games with no small bit of excitement and intrigue — not so much a game of skill as a game of rank stupidity. Just how far can we build until the eventual crash? It’s built right into the game, right? We know the dynamics and the outcome; we just don’t know when the critical piece will be pulled out from under us. Isn’t the excitement just about killing us?

jenga-falling

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We’re trashing the planet. Everyone gets that, right? I’ve written several posts about trash, debris, and refuse littering and orbiting the planet, one of which is arguably among my greatest hits owing to the picture below of The Boneyard outside Tucson, Arizona. That particular scene no longer exists as those planes were long ago repurposed.


I’ve since learned that boneyards are a worldwide phenomenon (see this link) falling under the term urbex. Why re-redux? Two recent newbits attracted my attention. The first is an NPR article about Volkswagen buying back its diesel automobiles — several hundred thousand of them to the tune of over $7 billion. You remember: the ones that scandalously cheated emissions standards and ruined Volkswagen’s reputation. The article features a couple startling pictures of automobile boneyards, though the vehicles are still well within their usable life (many of them new, I surmise) rather than retired after a reasonable term. Here’s one pic:

The other newsbit is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now as much as 16 times bigger than we thought it was — and getting bigger. Lots of news sites reported on this reassessment. This link is one. In fact, there are multiple garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean, as well as in other oceanic bodies, including the Arctic Ocean where all that sea ice used to be.

Though not specifically about trashing the planet (at least with trash), the Arctic sea ice issue looms large in my mind. Given the preponderance of land mass in the Northern Hemisphere and the Arctic’s foundational role in climate stabilization, the predicted disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic (at least in the summertime) may truly be the unrecoverable climate tipping point. I’m not a scientist and rarely recite data or studies in support of my understandings. Others handle that part of the climate change story far better than I could. However, the layperson’s explanation that makes sense to me is that, like ice floating in a glass of liquid, gradual melting and disappearance of ice keeps the surrounding liquid stable just above freezing. Once the ice is fully melted, however, the surrounding liquid warms rapidly to match ambient temperature. If the temperature of Arctic seawater rises high enough to slow or disallow reformation of winter ice, that could well be the quick, ugly end to things some of us expect.

In the sense that a picture is worth a thousand words, this cartoon caught my immediate attention (for attribution, taken from here):

comforting-lies-vs-unpleasant-truths-640x480

Search engines reveal quite a few treatments of the central conflict depicted here, including other versions of essentially the same cartoon. Doubtful anything I could say would add much to the body of analysis and advice already out there. Still, the image called up a whole series of memories for me rather quickly, the primary one being the (only) time I vacationed in Las Vegas about a decade ago.

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We operate under a sloppy assumption that, much like Francis Fukuyama’s much ballyhooed pronouncement of the end of history, society has reached its final form, or at least something approximating it. Or maybe we simply expect that its current form will survive into the foreseeable future, which is tantamount to the same. That form features cheap, easy energy and information resources available at our fingertips (or wall plugs); local, regional, and international transportation and travel at our service; consumable goods only a phone call or a few website clicks away (since now everything is deliverable); and human habitation concentrated in cities and suburbs connected by paved roads (and to a far lesser degree, rail) suitable for happy motoring. Free public education, such as it is, can be enjoyed until one is presumably old enough to discard it entirely (at 16 years in the U.S. unless I’m mistaken and it varies by state), and higher education can be pursued as far as ambition and finances allow. Political entities from nations to states/provinces to municipalities will remain stable or roughly as they have been for the last 70 years or so, as will governments (as enshrined in documents such as the U.S. Constitution and its foreign equivalents). Suffice it to say, I don’t believe any of these things are capable of lasting much longer. Ironically, it’s probably true that what is described above is, in fact, society’s final form precisely because what follows won’t qualify anymore as a society.

The video embedded below (that’s a fat lady singing on the splash screen in case you missed the metaphor) is a recent presentation given by a climatologist to a group of meteorologists regarding the current state of our climate change predicament. There is nothing “sudden” about the presentation, as the title says; this information has been widely available for more than a decade and only ever gets worse with periodic updates of the relevant data.

The tone is not hysterical or alarmist but settles toward the end into observing a mere problem with communications or educating the public. The dispassion is not unlike the iconic phrase “Houston, we have a problem,” which soft-sells rather urgent issues. How anyone could possibly do anything but conclude that we’re irretrievably fucked (how soon no one quite knows) is beyond me. I tire of pointing out our situation, but since it hasn’t penetrated many thick skulls, I guess it’s worth another try.

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

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Four years, ago, the Daily Mail published an article with the scary title “HALF the world’s wild animals have disappeared in 40 years” [all caps in original just to grab your eyeballs]. This came as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. I blogged on this very topic in my review of Vaclav Smil’s book Harvesting the Biosphere, which observed at the end a 50% decrease in wild mammal populations in the last hundred years. The estimated numbers vary according to which animal population and what time frame are under consideration. For instance, in 2003, CNN reported that only 10% of big ocean fish remain compared to 47 years prior. Predictions indicate that the oceans could be without any fish by midcentury. All this is old news, but it’s difficult to tell what we humans are doing about it other than worsening already horrific trends. The latest disappearing act is flying insects, whose number have decreased by 75% in the last 25 years according to this article in The Guardian. The article says, um, scientists are shocked. I don’t know why; these articles and indicators of impending ecological collapse have been appearing regularly for decades. Similar Malthusian prophesies are far older. Remember colony collapse disorder? Are they surprised it’s happening now, as opposed to the end of the 21st century, safely after nearly everyone now alive is long dead? C’mon, pay attention!

Just a couple days ago, the World Meteorological Association issued a press release indicating that greenhouse gases have surged to a new post-ice age record. Says the press release rather dryly, “The abrupt changes in the atmosphere witnessed in the past 70 years are without precedent.” You don’t say. Even more astoundingly, the popular online news site Engadget had this idiotic headline: “Scientists can’t explain a ‘worrying’ rise in methane levels” (sourcing Professor Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway University of London). Um, what’s to explain? We’ve been burning the shit out of planetary resources, temperatures are rising, and methane formerly sequestered in frozen tundra and below polar sea floors is seeping out. As I said, old news. How far up his or her ass has any reputable scientist’s head got to be to make such an outta-touch pronouncement? My answer to my own question: suffocation. Engadget made up that dude just for the quote, right? Nope.

Not to draw too direct a connection between these two issues (wildlife disappearances and greenhouse gases — hey, I said pay attention!) because, ya know, reckless conjecture and unproven conclusions (the future hasn’t happened yet, duh, it’s the future, forever telescoping away from us), but a changing ecosystem means evolutionary niches that used to support nature’s profundity are no longer doing so reliably. Plus, we just plain ate a large percentage of the animals or drove them to extinction, fully or nearly (for now). As these articles routinely and tenderly suggest, trends are “worrying” for humans. After all, how are we gonna put seafood on our plates when all the fish have been displaced by plastic?

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The storms referenced in the earlier version of this post were civilization-ending cataclysms. The succession of North American hurricanes and earthquakes earlier this month of September 2017 were natural disasters. I would say that September was unprecedented in history, but reliable weather records do not extend very far back in human history and the geological record extending back into human prehistory would suggest that, except perhaps for their concentration within the span of a month, the latest storms are nothing out of the ordinary. Some have even theorized that hurricanes and earthquakes could be interrelated. In the wider context of weather history, this brief period of destructive activity may still be rather mild. Already in the last twenty years we’ve experienced a series of 50-, 100- and 500-year weather events that would suggest exactly what climate scientists have been saying, namely, that higher global average temperatures and more atmospheric moisture will lead to more activity in the category of superstorms. Throw drought, flood, and desertification into the mix. This (or worse, frankly) may have been the old normal when global average temperatures were several degrees warmer during periods of hothouse earth. All indications are that we’re leaving behind garden earth, the climate steady state (with a relatively narrow band of global temperature variance) enjoyed for roughly 12,000 years.

Our response to the latest line of hurricanes that struck the Gulf, Florida, and the Caribbean has been characterized as a little tepid considering we had the experience of Katrina from which to learn and prepare, but I’m not so sure. True, hurricanes can be seen hundreds of miles and days away, allowing folks opportunity to either batten down the hatches or flee the area, but we have never been able to handle mass exodus, typically via automobile, and the sheer destructive force of the storms overwhelms most preparations and delays response. So after Katrina, it appeared for several days that the federal government’s response was basically this: you’re on your own; that apparent response occurred again especially in Puerto Rico, which like New Orleans quickly devolved into a true humanitarian crisis (and is not yet over). Our finding (in a more charitable assessment on my part) is that despite foreknowledge of the event and past experience with similar events, we can’t simply swoop in and smooth things out after the storms. Even the first steps of recovery take time.

I’ve cautioned that rebuilding on the same sites, with the reasonable expectation of repeat catastrophes in a destabilized climate that will spawn superstorms reducing entire cities to garbage heaps, is a poor option. No doubt we’ll do it anyway, at least partially; it’s already well underway in Houston. I’ve also cautioned that we need to brace for a diaspora as climate refugees abandon destroyed and inundated cities and regions. It’s already underway with respect to Puerto Rico. This is a storm of an entirely different sort (a flood, actually) and can also been seen from hundreds of miles and weeks, months, years away. And like superstorms, a diaspora from the coasts, because of the overwhelming force and humanitarian crisis it represents, is not something for which we can prepare adequately. Still, we know it’s coming, like a 20- or 50-year flood.

rant on/

As the next in an as-yet unnumbered series of Storms of the Century (I predict more than a dozen at least) is poised to strike nearly the entirety of the State of Florida, we know with confidence from prior experience, recent and not so recent, that any lessons we might take regarding how human habitation situated along or near coastlines vulnerable to extreme weather events, now occurring with increasing frequency and vehemence, will remain intransigently unlearned. Instead, we’ll begin rebuilding on the very same sites as soon as construction labor and resources can be mustered and deployed. Happened in New Orleans and New Jersey; is about to happen in Houston; and will certainly happen all across Florida — even the fragile Florida Keys. I mean, shit, we can’t do without The Magic Kingdom and other attractions in the central-Florida tourist mecca, now can we?

This predictable spin around the dance floor might look like a tragicomic circus waltz (e.g., The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), or even out-of-tune, lopsided calliope music from the carousel, except that positioning ourselves right back in harm’s way would be better characterized as a danse macabre. I dub it the Builder’s Waltz, which could also be the Rebuilder’s Rumba, the Catastrophe Tango, the Demolition Jive … take your pick.

Obstinate refusal to apprehend reality as it slams into us is celebrated as virtue these days. Can’t lose hope even as dark forces coalesce all around us, right? Was it always so? Still, an inkling might be dawning on some addle-brained deniers that perhaps science-informed global warming and climate change news might actually be about something with real-world impact, such as dramatic reduction of oil refinery output or a lost citrus crop. So much for illusions of business as usual continuing unhindered into the foreseeable future. Instead, our future looks more like dominoes lined up to fall — like the line of hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. Good luck hunkering down and weathering once-in-a-lifetime storms that just keep coming. And rebuilding the same things in the same places, well, just let it go, man, ’cuz it’s already gone.

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Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.