Oldspeak: “We will not be able to “science” our way out of a climate collapse. Instead, we must act now. Rather than slamming on the brakes in the future, let’s start tapping that brake before we skid into oblivion… What can be done? Instead of searching for that Hail Mary global engineering project, look closer at hand, at fine-tuning the “science” already at our disposal: improving solar energy, making nuclear energy safer, building a better battery, lowering the cost of desalination, expanding biofuel use.” -James Rollins
“Mr Rollins is on the right track here. We can’t science our way out of this clusterfuck we’ve made of our Great Mother. However, ‘improving solar energy, making nuclear energy safer, building a better battery, lowering the cost of desalination, expanding biofuel use’ is just as futile an effort as geoengineering at this point. Nuclear energy is INHERENTLY UNSAFE. There’s no way to make it safe. All of these technofixes will require trillions of dollars, tremendous amounts of resources like fresh water, rare earth minerals, and other irreplaceable materials that are becoming scarcer every day. With a global economy at stall speed, those trillions are unlikely to be produced in the short order required. Also, I’m wondering, when has human science EVER saved the earth?! In my estimation, all human science has ever done really is ravaged the earth… Sigh. It’s time we fully accept that we can’t science our way out of this. It’s likely we only make it worse with our science. The point of no return has long passed.” -OSJ
Politicians seem to hope we’ll be able to ‘science the s**t’ out of global warming’s consequences at some point in the distant future—but the point of no return is fast approaching.
In the movie The Martian, Matt Damon proves he can “science the shit” out of his situation to survive on a toxic planet. We, unfortunately, will not be so lucky.
I’ve written some 30 novels, where invariably our planet is threatened, but by and large it’s due to the usual suspects: a despot seeking power, science run amok, a ticking nuclear crisis, a global terrorist threat. And, as is often the case, we are frequently our own worst enemies. That’s certainly the situation in my latest thriller, The Seventh Plague.
The current novel deals with the looming threat of climate change and addresses the likelihood of our being able to “science” our way out of this crisis. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the debate on global warming shift from “It ain’t happening” to “OK, it’s happening, but there’s not much we can do about it.” Of course, this helpless shoulder-shrugging is just another shade of denial, manifesting as the rejection of any immediate need for a solution. I believe such sentiment is buried in a very human desire to put off the inevitable, a willingness to foist a present problem off to a future generation—in other words, to cross that bridge when we get to it.
Unfortunately, that bridge is already burning. November was the hottest November on record; the winter Arctic ice cap is nearly the smallest it has ever been. And with all that ice melting, cruise companies are now selling seats on ships slated to sail along the Northwest Passage, a voyage once considered too hazardous to even contemplate and that led to the deaths of countless explorers. In fact, the Jet Propulsion Lab recently announced that the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets is even causing the Earth’s axis to shift.
So where are we headed next? I suspect many of those in the denial camp are secretly hedging their bets, trusting that in some distant future, if the situation proves dire enough, the whiz-bang of science will pull our butts out of the fire (in such a case, perhaps literally).
So let’s “science the shit” out of that future scenario. What can be done when we’re past the proverbial point of no return? By that time, the more conservative approach of reducing carbon emissions and switching to green energy sources won’t be enough. It would take a truly massive engineering project, one on a global scale, in order to reverse course and steer this giant ship to safety. The scientific term for such projects is “geoengineering.” The non-scientific term is a “Hail Mary pass,” one last-ditch effort before all is lost.
What do such geoengineering projects look like? In a word: big. Some of the proposals already under consideration include flooding Death Valley to stave off the rise of ocean levels, or wrapping Greenland in a reflective solar blanket to slow the melting of its ice fields, or constructing a 100,000-square-mile solar shield made up of trillions of tiny lenses that could deflect a portion of the sun’s ray. Even Bill Gates teamed up with NASA to consider the viability of shooting seawater into the skies to increase cloud cover as a means of cloaking the planet from the sun.
As one might imagine, such projects would be astronomically costly and require the international coordination of many governments. Even NASA’s seawater-spraying project was estimated to involve 2,000 ships at a cost over $7 billion, and still there would be no guarantee of success. And that’s assuming the current stagnated government could even manage such an act.
It will likely take the participation of an individual like Bill Gates, someone with the freedom and financial resources to pull off such a project. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the American government was gridlocked and unable to deal with rising global threats, it was wealthy entrepreneurs—great barons of industry Henry Ford and John Rockefeller—who wrested control from complacent politicians and faced those challenges head-on, ushering in the technological age. And now with governments again stultifying, with politicians deadlocked and mired in one-upmanship, it may very well take a new set of forward-thinkers to step in, to advance new technologies.
The Norwegians coined a phrase for such projects, calling them stormannsgalskap, or “the madness of great men.” While the term was meant to be disparaging, it might very well become a badge of honor in the future. If rising carbon levels are left unchecked, the world will need pioneering innovation. It will need great individuals who are willing to defy governments and do what is necessary to make hard, bold choices.
But better yet, let’s do that now.
Even if one of these massive geoengineering projects could be developed, financed, and implemented in the future, the question arises whether it will do more harm than good. When you’re talking about trying to control climate via an engineering project, there are a thousand variables at play. Pull the wrong string and everything could unravel. An international team of researchers ran models for a dozen different geoengineering projects and concluded that such massive endeavors would likely have disastrous unintended consequences. Their final conclusion was even more disturbing. Even if a project was successful at controlling carbon levels for 50 years, once the project was stopped, the rebound effect could actually accelerate climate change.
So in the end, geoengineering is a lose-lose scenario. It’s a scientific pipe dream. We will not be able to “science” our way out of a climate collapse. Instead, we must act now. Rather than slamming on the brakes in the future, let’s start tapping that brake before we skid into oblivion.
What can be done? Instead of searching for that Hail Mary global engineering project, look closer at hand, at fine-tuning the “science” already at our disposal: improving solar energy, making nuclear energy safer, building a better battery, lowering the cost of desalination, expanding biofuel use. These projects aren’t as exciting as wrapping Greenland in a blanket, but they’re more likely to be successful and last longer.
So maybe, in the end, science will save us—but only if we act now.
Protected parks and reserves for cheetahs are not sufficient as the animal ranges far beyond these areas
Oldspeak: “I was watching an episode of Black Mirror yesterday, an insane & chilling depiction of life in the dystopian transhuman the near future, where in one scene the news reported the extinction of the Siberian Crane (currently critically endangered) and a story about robot bees and how they’d successfully replaced extinct organic bees in England. (Bees, are also currently in steep decline, and yes, these FUCKSare currently working on fucking ROBOT BEES.) And today I saw this report about the worlds fastest land animal; a well known and widely ranging apex predator on the chopping block, thanks to the human-borne insanity of infinite growth. The life extinguishing plague that is Industrial Civilization, takes more and more life every day it drones on. Sigh. I Am Sad. More sad about this than the death of George Michael. -OSJ
The sleek, speedy cheetah is rapidly heading towards extinction according to a new study into declining numbers.
The report estimates that there are just 7,100 of the world’s fastest mammals now left in the wild.
Cheetahs are in trouble because they range far beyond protected areas and are coming increasingly into conflict with humans.
The authors are calling for an urgent re-categorisation of the species from vulnerable to endangered.
According to the study, more than half the world’s surviving cheetahs live in one population that ranges across six countries in southern Africa.
Cheetahs in Asia have been essentially wiped out. A group estimated to number less than 50 individuals clings on in Iran.
Because the cheetah is one of the widest-ranging carnivores, it roams across lands far outside protected areas. Some 77% of their habitat falls outside these parks and reserves.
As a result, the animal struggles because these lands are increasingly being developed by farmers and the cheetah’s prey is declining because of bushmeat hunting.
In Zimbabwe, the cheetah population has fallen from around 1,200 to just 170 animals in 16 years, with the main cause being major changes in land tenure.
Researchers involved with the study say that the threats facing the fabled predator have gone unnoticed for far too long.
“Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked,” said Dr Sarah Durant, from the Zoological Society of London, UK, and the report’s lead author.
“Our findings show that the large space requirements for the cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought.”
Another of the big concerns about cheetahs has been the illegal trafficking of cubs, fuelled by demand from the Gulf states, as reported by the BBC earlier this year.
The young cats can fetch up to $10,000 on the black market. According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, some 1,200 cheetah cubs are known to have been trafficked out of Africa over the past 10 years but around 85% of them died during the journey.
However if the species is to survive long term then urgent efforts must be made to tackle the wider question of protected areas and ranges.
The new study argues for a “paradigm shift in conservation”, moving away from the idea of just declaring an area to be protected and towards incorporating “incentive-based approaches”. This, in essence, means paying local communities to protect a species that many see as a dangerous predator.
“The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough,” said Dr Kim Young-Overton from Panthera, another author on the report.
“We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-reaching cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever.”
To fully recognise the scale of the threat that the cheetah now faces, the report is calling on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change the categorisation of the fastest animal on its Red List from vulnerable to endangered.
This would help focus international conservation support on a species that the authors fear is heading for extinction at an increasing pace.
Oldspeak: “Women as well as men are consciously deciding not to have children, knowing that their kids could inherit a future that is unlivable.” “What does bringing more people into the world mean for the future of the planet and what are those people’s lives going to look like?”
I don’t blame them. Count me among the ranks of the voluntarily childless. Why bring a child into this, Earth’s 6th & most rapidly progressing great mass extinction? The more time passes, the less hospitable this planet will become to human and all life. The more time passes, the less our Great Mother will be able to support life. It would be wise to not have any illusions otherwise. In my view, not having babies is about as green as you can go in any 1st world bastion of hyperconsumption. There are countless children here right now, who are in desperate need of willing and loving parents. Hopefully, more people with the luxury of not having kids will resist the endless, ubiquitous baby-making propaganda, heavy social pressure & internal pressures, commit to thinking bigger than themselves and question the taboos. Humans most significant legacy, is being the only species that walked the earth to have singlehandedly created the conditions to trigger the fastest mass extinction ever recorded here. We did that by industrializing, overpopulating, over-exploiting resources, generating vast and variegated amounts of persistent and toxic wastes & not thinking seriously about the long term effects of our actions. It’s high time we stopped. We need to start thinking collectively about strategies to limit the damage we’re doing on Earth. Having babies isn’t helping matters at this point. Time is not on our side.” -OSJ
Climate change has caused a reproductive justice crisis, activists say, as its projected impacts lead some to question how they could have a baby with such an uncertain future.
Nearly 200 nations came together to sign a climate treaty in Paris last year, but even their collective efforts to reduce emissions will not be enough to keep the planet at a safe level of temperature rise.
All of these things point to a precarious future for our species—a business-as-usual scenario will mean some six feet of sea level rise and some regions of the world becoming uninhabitable or disappearing under rising seas by the end of the century.
With little time to spare, many are trying to take matters into their own hands and consider their options. A group of 21 youth recently sued the federal government for its role in creating the climate crisis and for leaving them to inherit a polluted planet—calling it generational injustice.
Others worry more about future generations.
“Decision makers have repeatedly put big business and fossil fuels over a future for our children,” said Meghan Kallman, co-founder of Conceivable Future.
The women-led network hopes to bring awareness to the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice, and to end U.S. subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
Kallman and co-founder Josephine Ferorelli brought up a taboo question—how this affects a person’s decision on whether or not to have kids.
“How does this affect people of childbearing age?” Kallman asked.
The response they’ve received has been overwhelming, with many people commenting on articles written about the group: ‘That’s my reason!’
Women as well as men are consciously deciding not to have children, knowing that their kids could inherit a future that is unlivable.
“People are still shocked when they ask why I don’t have children, and I tell them ‘for environmental reasons,’” Shannon O., 38 years old, said in a testimonial for Conceivable Future.
“People will laugh, and some will actually be offended,” Shannon O. said.
She told her boyfriend when they first started dating that she didn’t want kids, and although he was initially taken aback, he came to the same conclusions that she had.
Having a child, especially in America where consumption levels are so high, adds another carbon footprint. For example, an American woman who makes lifestyle changes such as recycling and driving a fuel-efficient car saves almost 500 tons of CO2 emissions in her lifetime. But choosing to not have a child would dwarf that, preventing almost 10,000 tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere.
“What does bringing more people into the world mean for the future of the planet and what are those people’s lives going to look like?”
Projected impacts are also causing many to think twice about having a baby.
“Whether or not to have children as it relates to climate change (came down to) whether or not there’ll be a sustainable future for children that doesn’t involve floods, drought and hell on Earth,” 25-year-old Caitlin, from Seattle, WA, said.
Thinking about it that way made the decision too intellectual, Caitlin said, adding her life “isn’t an equation.”
Another testimony echoed Caitlin’s thoughts about calculating the risks and rewards of having kids in the context of climate change.
“I am currently feeling very conflicted about whether I want to bring biological children into the world,” said Alison Nihart, 31, of Burlington, VT.
“What does bringing more people into the world mean for the future of the planet and what are those people’s lives going to look like?” Nihart asked, saying she often envisions famine, drought, and increased conflict.
David Holzman, a 32-year-old New York, NY, resident, said he didn’t have kids but has always been interested in reproductive rights and privilege.
“I think maybe in the past few years I’ve warmed to the idea (of having kids) … I’m often delighted with my friends being so happy with having children,” Holzman said.
Holzman said climate change aside, there have been ethical arguments against having children for quite a while.
“It seems like this perennial question that ethically points to not having children, but then balanced with this human desire becomes more fraught,” Holzman said.
The testimonies are part of Conceivable Future’s strategy to build a conversation—and a movement—around this question. Ferorelli said they hope the movement will become powerful enough to enact change at the local level—especially with Trump’s statements on expanding the fossil fuel industry.
“Now more than ever, we need to organize at the grassroots level, because the possibility of federal action is pretty severely limited,” Ferorelli said.
The group encourages anyone who’s interested in talking about these issues to host a house party. There, they can discuss these often taboo topics openly in a comfortable environment.
Across the country, people have hosted house parties and sent in nearly 70 testimonies.
“They can feel their way through stuff that’s in their minds that they never said out loud,” Ferorelli said.
One house party in Seattle, WA, saw hosts open with introductions and then a free write—where participants wrote down their thoughts in a raw, sometimes unusable way. Then, they broke up into small groups and used the free write as a way to spark conversation.
At the end, they would record or write testimonies.
Participants were asked to send their testimonies to three important people in their lives—whether a family member or a local representative—to keep the conversation moving.
They also challenged everyone who testified to send their testimonies to the banks that funded the Dakota Access pipeline at the height of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota.
“One thing we’ve observed over and over is that for white middle class participants, it comes as a nasty shock that elected officials don’t care about their babies or reproductive lives.”
Even though the testimonies reflected different and at times opposing opinions, what remains common is all of their decisions were confined within the context of climate change and leaders who aren’t taking strong enough action, Ferorelli said.
“No one is making choices freely under this threat,” Ferorelli said.
Ferorelli likened it to the sometimes difficult choice for African Americans thinking about having children in an era of state violence against black people.
“This issue plays out in complex ways along the lines of privilege,” Ferorelli said. “One thing we’ve observed over and over is that for white middle class participants, it comes as a nasty shock that elected officials don’t care about their babies or reproductive lives.”
People of color tend to be more sensitized to leaders that don’t care about their reproductive lives, Ferorelli said, and often contribute to a more nuanced conversation.
One example is concern about overpopulation, which harkens back to racist ideas that blamed women in poor or developing countries for having too many kids.
“The people saying this are usually the most exorbitant consumers,” Kallman said, adding that the question of population is secondary as it correlates to climate harm only insofar as the population is consuming as we do in the U.S.
“There’s been a violent history of reproductive control … we’re acknowledging that in our conversation actively,” Kallman said.
The women hope the conversation they have started and the tools they offer through house parties, building community, and testimonies will help embolden people to take action to change the system that has created climate change.
That could be “civil disobedience or running for office,” said Kallman, who was recently elected to the Pawtucket, RI, city council.
“People have to feel empowered to make demands of the system,” Kallman said.
As Kallman takes steps toward local change, she still has many questions about her personal decision on whether or not to have children. She comes from a large family, and wonders how she will be linked to her heritage if she decides not to have kids.
Being recently engaged, she’s been asked the question more than ever, and realizes the social and internal pressures women experience that point them towards having children.
Marnie Jones, a mother of three from Whidbey Island, WA, wrote in a testimony about her personal beliefs on childbearing.
“I can’t help wondering what future my children can expect to have,” Jones said, referencing climate change and species extinction. “Still, I don’t regret becoming a mother. I believe in our power, as a species, to change—and I believe in children as empowered agents of that change.”
“I truly expect that together we can save the world,” Jones said.
Oldspeak: “This list is nowhere near 7 things long. It’s voluminous. But hyperconsumption, unbridled corporate power, the proliferation of cars and the roads they require, Human overpopulation, and the spread of unproductive land are good place to start. Inequality and poverty are bi-products of these conditions.We can’t keep over-consuming, rapaciously breeding, building more death machines a.k.a cars, and killing soil with our ecocidal farming practices and expect things to just magically get better because we’re marching, protesting, recycling and “going green”. As long as the 5 conditions (and unnamed others) above persist we’re fucked. Things will continue to get worse; alot worse, alot faster than we’re being told. Such is life in a culture where more is more on a planet where the resources it requires to continue growing are finite.” –OSJ
A baby ibex on a precipitous cliff edge. The hyenas of Harar eating from a human hand. Leopards in Mumbai, whales breaching and baby turtles heading blindly away from the sea. We are amazed by images of wildlife seen in ever more beautifully filmed natural history documentaries. They raise awareness, entertain, inform and amuse. We weep when we hear there are fewer birds in the sky, or that thousands of species are critically endangered. But there are some metaphorical megafauna that the BBC and we in the media really do not want everyone to see.
After half a lifetime writing for the Guardian about the decline of the natural world, I have to report that there is a herd of enormous elephants in the forest that are trashing the place. We avert our eyes and pretend they are not there. We hope they will go away, but they appear to be breeding. But it is now clear that they are doing so much damage that unless confronted, there is little chance that the rest of the animals, including us, will survive very long.
Hyper-consumerism is the dominant matriarch of this destructive herd and the dysfunctional economic model that supports it, generating waste and ecological damage on a massive scale. The average US supermarket offers nearly 50,000 products; in the UK we throw away millions of tonnes of food a year; mobile phones have an average lifespan of just over a year; computers and cars just a few years more. The free market economy that has been built around it celebrates speed, obsolescence and quantity over longevity and efficiency. But we know that hyper-consumerism leads directly to deforestation, over-extraction of minerals, the waste of natural resources and pollution. We simply have too much stuff that no one possibly needs. To avoid ecological disaster, it must be culled.
Letting corporate power off the leash
Corporate power is the adult male of the herd. The biggest 200 corporations now rule the world, and are economically greater than the combined economies of nearly 180 countries. They employ just a few million people but they wield power over governments and global bodies and have more economic influence than 80% of humanity. Together they set the world’s technological and economic direction, govern trade and industry, the burning of fossil fuels, and the sale and distribution of much of what we eat and grow. Together they must bear most responsibility for the deterioration of nature. They have been directly linked to devastating ecological and financial crimes, they avoid tax, and they mostly have their own way with national governments. Their plastic pollutes the remotest seas, their oil leads to climate change and their electronic waste continues to mount inexorably. Corporate power must be reined in.
The car is the wayward youngster of the herd. There will soon be two billion vehicles on the world’s roads, of which fewer than about a tenth of half of 1% could possibly be called green. But it is not just the air that they poison, or the greenhouse gases that are emitted when they are being built or driven. Doing just as much damage to nature and wildlife are the roads themselves – which, in under a century, have been driven deep into every area on Earth, destroying forest and coast and opening up and fragmenting habitat. The car has come to dominate the way cities grow, but now cars determine where people live, and how they travel and even die. In 20 years the number of cars on the roads is expected to double. But cars have no absolute right to pollute or proliferate like this. They, too, must be culled.
The one nobody wants to talk about
Human population. No one wants to talk about this, but between 1960 and 1999, almost unnoticed, numbers doubled from three to six billion people (pdf). They now stand at nearly 7.5 billion, and by 2050 there will be nine or possibly 10 billion people on Earth, all wanting cars, computers and other stuff. The ecological problem this causes is both from the sheer numbers and from how much each human consumes. One billion people living in absolute poverty may not have a vast impact on the natural world; but the same number living the lifestyle of an American or a European is very damaging. Because people everywhere are encouraged to aspire to consume more and more, there is little hope that the pressure on resources and the environment can be relieved soon. Population pressure is barely on the political or economic agenda of any rich country.
Soil is another ecological elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. It teems with life, yet because of bad farming and forestry practices, it is being washed away very many times faster than it is being replenished. On soil’s health depends much of the world’s food and water supplies, the growth of most plant and insect life and therefore the food of life itself. According to some studies, its accelerating loss is now second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces. As a direct result of soil erosion, possibly 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in just 40 years, leading to severe declines in bird and animal life. Soil is the most precious of all resources, yet in one country after another it is being allowed to wash or blow away. History shows that civilisations founder when farm productivity declines – usually as a result of soil mismanagement. It must be conserved.
Inequality, which now impacts on the natural world, may be the little sister of them all. Aside from fostering resentment between rich and poor people, there is mounting evidence that it causes environmental degradation. The greater the income difference between groups, or countries, the greater the waste, the meat and water consumption, and the biodiversity loss. People in the most unequal societies are more stressed and anxious, and under greater pressure to consume more. Hyper-consumption by the few reduces the satisfaction of the many with what they have, by showing it up as inferior. It may also undermine the collective action required to protect nature.
… and poverty
Poverty in developing countries and the rampant illegal wildlife trade is the progeny of the lot. This is now the largest single threat to many species. The trade, which is worth several hundred billion dollars a year, is not just from the poaching of horn or tusks from charismatic megafauna such as rhino and elephants, but the systematic denuding of wild places on an industrial scale. According to the global monitoring network Traffic, some 88m wild orchids, 6.2m wild-caught live birds, and 7.5m live-caught reptiles were traded globally between 1996 and 2001. Other records show more than 100m tonnes of fish, 1.5m live birds and 440,000 tonnes of medicinal plants being traded illegally every year. Driving the trade are rich consumers who desire products of animals, trees, flowers and fish for medicine, souvenirs, status symbols, building materials and food.
We do not have to live with these beasts. They can be ejected from the forest, culled or trained. Wildlife documentaries never point the finger at them and this makes us forget that we humans, too, are living in nature. Either we can wring our hands and carry on watching ever more gorgeous images of wildlife and see nature carry on declining, or we can intervene.
Joan Gardener, with the Naval Research Laboratory, scans the Arctic ice for a location to conduct research and collect data during Ice Exercise 2016 Image: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler N. Thompson/AP
Oldspeak: “What’s cookin? Apparently the North Pole. No sun shining, yet temperatures are 50 degrees above normal in December in the the North Pole. On the heels of news that 2016 is officially the hottest year on record, this is mildly surprising (pun intended). In light of this sobering news, we’re being constantly bombarded with messages to consume and exchange more and more and more disposable shit we don’t need, that will exacerbate this predicament in the lead up to the latest quarterly orgy of human hyperconsumption that is Christmas/New Years Not Good, folk, not good. Wacky Holidays!” -OSJ
It’s happening again: The temperature at the North Pole is projected to spike to around the melting point, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, on Wednesday into Thursday, despite the complete lack of sunshine that far north in December.Such temperatures would be about 50 degrees above average for this time of year, exceeding the color scale on some weather maps. (Typically, air temperatures at the pole don’t start periodically rising above freezing until at least May.)
In other words, this is not normal. But it’s a fitting conclusion to a year of unprecedented global warming milestones in the Arctic.
The reason for what would qualify as a heat wave at the North Pole is a combination of factors, led by a series of storms curving from the Atlantic side of the Arctic toward the Pole, dragging mild air on a moist, southerly air flow with them.
Record low levels of sea ice in the Arctic are also contributing to the record high temperatures, along with a weakened polar vortex that has pulled the most frigid air out of the Arctic and redistributed it into North America and Eurasia.
If this situation seems oddly familiar to you, it’s because a nearly identical event occurred in December 2015, causing alarm over a melting North Pole in media outlets.
This year’s event is just as anomalous, and it comes as scientists have been raising new alarms about the pace and extent of Arctic climate change. The North Pole warmup also brings questions about whether such extreme warming events, transient as they may be, are occurring more frequently or are becoming more severe.
This warmup is taking place amid the Arctic’s warmest year since records began in 1900, according to an international scientific assessment released on Dec. 13. A persistent pattern of anomalously warm conditions (warm for the Arctic anyway) across the central Arctic, including the North Pole, has set up this fall and winter, partly in response to the second-lowest sea ice minimum reached in September.
Experts told Mashable that while the storm systems are the major player in causing this extraordinary warm spell, it is most likely enabled by low sea ice cover.
In the summer and fall, low sea ice cover allows ocean waters to absorb heat from the sun, which is then slowly released into the air in the fall and early winter. Ice-covered areas stay cooler since sea ice reflects most incoming solar radiation.
An analysis published Wednesday by scientists affiliated with the research and journalism group Climate Central found that the record warm November and December in the Arctic would have been “extremely unlikely” in a world without human-caused global warming.
Zack Labe, a PhD student focusing on the Arctic climate at the University of California at Irvine, cited the forecast for Svalbard, Norway, on Dec. 21 as evidence of the poleward push of mild air. The high temperature there is forecast to be 4 degrees Celsius, or 39.2 Fahrenheit. Svalbard’s high temperature should be well below freezing at this time of year.
“It’s been a remarkably warm fall there in addition to record low sea ice,” Labe said in a Twitter message. He called the “warmth” this fall “just relentless,” and a clear result of natural variability combining with low sea ice cover to yield warm ocean and air temperatures that help reinforce each other.
“Despite Arctic sea ice extent (still record low for the date) finally nearing other years, it remains extremely thin and will be more susceptible as we move forward into the melt season for 2017,” Labe said.
Kent Moore, a physics professor at the University of Toronto, who published a study in Nature Scientific Reports on Dec. 15 that investigates last year’s North Pole warming event, says the long-term context of these North Pole temperature spikes is what is more alarming than each individual one.
The study found that North Pole winter warming events are associated with low pressure systems, or cyclones, near the pole, as well as a polar vortex that is “perturbed,” or weakened, which allows for areas of extreme cold to leak out into the midlatitudes. Both of these conditions are present this week.
Moore says that records of such events go back at least to 1959, with a frequency of about once or twice each decade. While there isn’t a clear indication that these events are becoming more frequent, Moore told Mashable, the temperature extremes are growing at twice the rate of general Arctic warming.
That’s especially noteworthy, since the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth.
“We’re getting to the point where extremes are becoming more extreme.”
Moore says this is consistent with loss of winter sea ice near Norway, which allows a “reservoir” of warm air to move closer to the Pole, where storms can tap into it.
The extreme events may get all the attention, he says, but they aren’t an entirely new phenomenon. “They’re not the real story,” Moore said. “We’re getting to the point where extremes are becoming more extreme.”
According to Moore, sudden warming events like this one can cause serious problems for Arctic wildlife by causing rain to fall on top of snow, leading to an icy crust that prevents reindeer herds from accessing their food lying beneath the snow.
One rain on snow event, associated with a sudden warming in the Arctic, killed about 61,000 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula in 2013, demonstrating the ecological consequences of such episodes.
A separate study, published this year in the Journal of Climate this year, found that there is an increase in the number of these events, known as “moist intrusions,” crossing 70 degrees north Latitude in December and January. The research found that the number of these events during December and January has nearly doubled since 1990, but it did not explain why this is the case.
Where did the cold air go
So if the North Pole is so unusually warm, where is the frigid air that would normally be keeping the far north in a deep freeze?
Like a freezer door left open for too long, Arctic air has spilled out of the Arctic and taken up residence in the midlatitudes. In the past week, severe cold snaps have hit the Midwest United States, with the most intense cold related to a lobe of the polar vortex situated on top of Siberia.
Temperature anomalies there are as cold as 50 degrees Fahrenheit below average, or more, for this time of year.
This heat wave of sorts is a fitting end to a year of extremes in the Arctic, as if Mother Nature decided to put an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Based on the trajectory of climate change, this won’t be the last or the most significant such event.
As the Climate Central analysis found, by the time global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels, anomalously warm weather events like this one could happen as frequently as every two years.
Flames along the south side of California State Route 138 in Phelan, California, on August 17, 2016. As climate disruption intensifies, wildfires will be burning well into winter (Photo: Andrew Cullen / The New York Times)
Oldspeak: “Huh. Curious development, eh? Wildfires. Raging in winter. In old the Old World, never happened. In the New World, likely the New Normal. Add to that mass plant die offs, world spanning droughts, increasing temperatures and increasingly CO2, methane & water vapor laden atmosphere, and you have yourself a bang up recipe for enough connoisseur quality extinction inducing fuckupedness us all all! (By all I mean most life on Earth.) Dahr Jamail is back with his latest Climate Dispatch. As per usual, shit’s fucked up and it’s rapidly getting more fucked up. Read it and weep Lovelies.” -OSJ
This is the first anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) dispatch to be written since the election, which heralded the arrival of a president-elect who will become the only western leader who is an ACD denier.
While President Obama remained clearly in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, with his unwillingness to take the radical actions necessary to mitigate (if even nominally) the already-dire impacts of ACD, he was, at least, willing to admit we live in a crisis never seen before.
As if underscoring the specter of Trump — and Obama’s failure to take appropriate measures, as the proverbial Titanic gurgles ever downward — the Arctic has been especially warm over the last few weeks. During the second half of November, temperatures at the North Pole were a shocking 36 degrees warmer than normal.
During a time when winter usually sets in and the Arctic sea ice freezes up, ice has been melting instead of freezing. Temperatures in late November were akin to what they normally are at the end of August.
It was Gaia sending yet another unmistakable message, and it was profound enough that Bob Henson with the WeatherUnderground said, “There are weather and climate records, and then there are truly exceptional events that leave all others in the dust. Such has been the case across Earth’s high latitudes during this last quarter of 2016.”
For perspective, add 36 degrees to whatever your weather is right now, wherever you are. How normal is that? Think about how plants and animals in your area would or wouldn’t adapt to that. What would happen to your food and water supply?
To give you another idea of how dramatically things have already changed in the Arctic as the region is in the midst of an ecological disintegration, Captain Cook’s records of the region from 1778 reveal a literally different world. His expedition was stopped from sailing north of the Bering Strait by “ice which was as compact as a Wall and seemed to be ten or twelve feet high at least,” according to the captain’s journal.
In continued attempts to sail further north, Cook’s ships followed this ice edge all the way to Siberia, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, longtime climate scientists are emphasizing that we’re currently seeing an unprecedented situation. Two days after it was revealed that temperatures at the North Pole were 36 degrees above normal, Walt Meier, a research scientist with the Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who has tracked sea ice data going back to 1979, announced, “It looks like, since the beginning of October, that for the first time we are seeing both the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice running at record low levels.”
According to the recently released annual “Emissions Gap Report” from the UN’s Environmental Program (UNEP), current Paris Climate Agreement emissions cuts will still result in 3.5C of planetary warming by 2100. “Current commitments will reduce emissions by no more than a third of the levels required by 2030 to avert disaster,” two UNEP leaders warned in the report’s introduction.
Recently published research in a prestigious scientific journal shows that ACD is likely already progressing so rapidly that scientists are warning it could well already be “game over.” Because the research shows that Earth’s climate could be far more sensitive to greenhouse gases than previously believed, they are warning of a temperature rise that is on the “apocalyptic side of bad:” more than 7C within one lifetime from now.
Less importantly, but still shocking and useful to consider (especially since plenty of people seem to believe economics are more important than a habitable planet): Another recent report estimates that the world economy will lose $12 trillion due to ACD damages alone.
A recent report in Bloomberg News lays out the fact that Americans around the US (Florida, Louisiana, East Coast island areas, Alaska, etc.) are already being forced to move due to ACD impacts like storms, erosion and rising seas.
Meanwhile, the global immigration crisis caused by ACD continues apace. A recent report shows that global military leaders have warned of an “unimaginable” global refugee crisis if business as usual persists, and, of course, there is no real sign of it abating.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, a member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project, said, “We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.”
An example of this within the US comes in the form of record-setting wildfires that have been burning across vast swaths of the southeast well into November. You’ll find more on this below in the “Fire” section, but it’s crucial to note that one of the wildfires scorching Tennessee is the largest in a century, and perhaps in the history of record-keeping. At least a dozen people have died across the southeast from the November wildfires, which are continuing to burn at the time of this writing.
The overview of the oceans continues to grow ever more bleak. A recent report indicates that ocean life is literally suffocating from low oxygen levels caused by ACD. The report shows that oceans, coastal seas, estuaries, and many rivers and lakes are experiencing dramatic declines in dissolved oxygen levels, and this phenomenon is occurring at a global level now.
As a whole, 2016 has been bleak news for anyone interested in the future of the planet. The World Meteorological Organization recently announced that this year is already “very likely” to be the world’s warmest ever. 2015 was the previous hottest year on record, and at that time it was the hottest year since record-keeping began.
Die-offs of planetary flora and fauna continue to increase in scope and frequency.
A recent report revealed how rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further into US wetlands across the coastal southeast, as well as along parts of the east coast, killing trees from Florida all the way up to New Jersey.
Meanwhile in California, a US Forest Service official recently called the ongoing die-off of what is now over 100 million trees there “unprecedented,” and blamed the brunt of it on the ongoing ACD-fueled drought afflicting that state.
Similarly, a recent study published in the journal Global Change Biology showed that yellow cedars in Alaska and British Columbia, trees that can live for 1,000 years, are now dying off over vast areas due to warming from ACD. Trees across 1,500 square miles are now undergoing a die-off linked directly to ACD, and the forecast for them is grim, since approximately half of the forested area that is currently considered suitable for the yellow cedars will no longer be so by 2100 due to ongoing temperature rise and shifting of winter precipitation from snow to rainfall.
Another disturbing report showed that the world has hundreds of millions fewer birds than it did just a few decades ago, thanks to ACD impacts, dwindling habitat, hunters and pollution.
In a massive new study in the journal Nature, scores of international authors have documented a climate “feedback loop” that they say will likely make ACD considerably worse in upcoming decades. The study addresses the soil-carbon loop in the climate system, which deals primarily with Earth’s soils. Soils store a massive amount of carbon in their plants, and the roots of plants that have lived and died there. Scientists have long since warned that as warming increases, microorganisms living in soils would naturally respond by increasing their respiration rates, a process that then releases more CO2 or methane into the atmosphere. The new study shows that this process is already happening.
As usual, the impacts of ACD across the planet are the most pronounced and obvious in the watery realms (which are increasingly losing their water).
A recently published study showed that, due to dramatically changed vegetation across the Mediterranean region, Spain could be a desert by the year 2100.
Across Africa, ongoing drought is destabilizing countries as it persists. It is the worst drought in 35 years, and has left more than 21 million people in need of food assistance. Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, the United Nation’s Special Envoy Macharia Kamau told journalists in Mozambique recently, “The crisis has yet to peak.”
Drought continues plaguing large sections of China. In one region, China’s largest freshwater lake is rapidly turning into prairie, as it has neared low-level lines nearly two months earlier than it has done historically.
Meanwhile in Bolivia, President Evo Morales has told people to “prepare for the worst” as the small Andean Mountain country is wracked by a historic drought. Reservoirs that supply water to Bolivia’s largest city are now nearly empty. The drought is primarily fueled by vanishing glaciers across the country, which are a key supplier of water during the dry season. Of course, the glaciers are melting away at record rates due primarily to ACD.
Closer to home, in Utah, recent NASA satellite imagery reveals that the Great Salt Lake is drying up rapidly, as five years of drought have seen the lake’s area decrease by 40 percent.
Meanwhile, yet another study was published recently tying US western states’ record low snowpack to ACD.
Looking further north, Russia, China and other countries are rapidly stepping up plans to exploit melting Arctic sea ice by making preparations for their large cargo ships to use the soon-to-be new shipping lanes. Once shipping begins, it will only be a matter of time before the inevitable environmental disasters start to occur in the Arctic.
In Antarctica things continue to worsen, as odd rifts in the middle of the ice shelf of that continent’s Pine Island Glacier might be a sign of a new mechanism that could lead to that glacier’s collapse, as well as the collapse of other glaciers.
Sea level rise continues apace. A recently published study shows us that ACD is set to cause the most rapid of sea level rise ever experienced in human history, which will make it challenging, to say the least, for megacities on the coasts to adapt. So far, several island and coastal towns facing sea level rise in the far north have had to relocate entirely.
On that note, the first female head of a Pacific Island nation, Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands, recently told the press that ACD is a “matter of life and death” for her country.
Lastly in this section, a sign of things to come: In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, the town of Nichols, South Carolina was damaged so heavily by flooding that it is an open question as to whether it will be rebuilt at all.
Wildfires across the US continued to burn far into November, another sign of how far along we are, in terms of ACD impacts. Increasingly, there is no longer a contained wildfire “season,” as the planet continues to warm apace.
From the southern US all the way up to New England, November saw fires burning across the country.
By late November, thousands of firefighters had mobilized to fight fires across the southeast, an area that rarely sees wildfires beyond the end of summer. At least 15 major wildfires across the region had, at the time of this writing, burned in excess of 15,500 acres — including more than 15,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and have led to several deaths.
Meanwhile, global “weirding” continues, as a recent study showed that the polar vortex is shifting due to ACD, which means winters in eastern North America will be longer. The polar vortex is a zone of frigid air that encircles the Arctic and makes its presence known the most during the winter months.
Also in the Arctic, as that region warms, another recently published study showed that more ancient diseases that were buried deep in the permafrost will be released, posing increasing threats to humans and wildlife. Last summer, anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy in a remote area of Siberia, and at least 20 others in Siberia were diagnosed with the disease. (Twenty may not seem like a large number, but bear in mind that this is an extremely lightly populated area.) Scientists are expressing concern over the fact that infectious microorganisms are now emerging from their deep freeze as permafrost across the entire Arctic continues to melt at unprecedented rates.
Lastly, and quite alarmingly, another recent study showed that the planet is far more sensitive to greenhouse gas levels than previously believed. It showed that climate models are likely underestimating how sensitive the planet is, due to the fact that the greenhouse effect will be amplified the more temperatures increase.
This means the pace of ACD is about to accelerate.
Denial and Reality
Almost needless to say, the most important act of denial over the last month was the US electing an ACD denier into the highest office in the country. President-elect Trump now actively threatens to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreements, eviscerate the EPA and appoint fossil-fuel loyalists into key government positions.
Steve Bannon, who has emerged as Trump’s chief strategist, has extreme views on many subjects, including ACD, which he calls an elaborate hoax. He refers to renewable energy as “a scam.” Bannon is known for helping influence Trump’s “views” on ACD and has called environmentalists “greentards” and “totally fucking wrong on climate change.”
As is now well known, Trump has claimed that ACD is a “Chinese hoax.” Inconveniently for Trump, during the recent UN Climate Summit in Morocco, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, told reporters that Trump is wrong to have accused China of portraying ACD as a “hoax.” “Look at the history of climate change negotiations, in fact [they were] launched in the late ’80s under the administration of Republican President Reagan and George Bush, supported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” Liu told reporters, according to Bloomberg and reports from within the Chinese media.
Meanwhile, there is more news on the reality front than is even possible to keep up with.
The government of Australia’s New South Wales recently unveiled a plan by which it aims to reach zero CO2 emissions by the year 2050 in order to work towards mitigating the worsening impacts of ACD as best as it can. It will do so primarily by making a concerted effort to shift over to renewable energies and increase battery storage capacity.
On a sobering note, a recently published study showed that the average American is responsible for melting 538 square feet of Arctic summer sea ice each year.
The UN’s World Meteorological Organization announced in November that the past five years were the hottest ever on record, and that greenhouse gas emissions have increased the risks of extreme weather events by as much as tenfold.
Disturbingly, a recently published study that surveyed more than 250 different plants and animals found that their ability to adapt to changes in rainfall and temperature cannot keep pace with ACD-generated changes in their environments. In short, this means that the climate is changing “too fast” for species, according to the report.
Not that validation from fossil fuel companies is necessary to confirm the reality of ACD, but it is indeed nice to have. On November 1, Simon Henry, the chief financial officer for Shell, the world’s second-largest oil company, said demand for oil will begin dropping permanently in the next five to 15 years, according to an article in World Oil. He went on to admit that his company will focus on making money by focusing on natural gas and renewable energy.
To conclude this month’s dispatch, it’s worth quoting the UN, which in November provided a very apocalyptic vision of the future of ACD, painting a picture of a changed world filled with famine, war and disease.
“We will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy; the growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver,” the UN warned, via its Environment Program. The UNEP released a report that predicted the Earth’s temperature is already set to increase by up to 3.4C (above the preindustrial temperature baseline) by 2100. This temperature change should take at least tens of thousands of years to occur naturally, but will have been attained by humans in just a little over two centuries.
It is worth remembering that the rapidly increasing global temperature has consistently outpaced even the worst-case predictions by the UN. Predictions of warming that reaches 8C by 2100 have not been uncommon, with some predictions reaching 12C. Bear in mind that humans have never lived on a 3.5C-warmed planet.
Oldspeak: Sooo….. that happened. As I read through this stomach turning and sobering news, I decided to check the weather forecast for NYC. So much for the Polar Vortex. High of 29 today, High of 44 tomorrow. By Sunday, December 18th it will be 60 degrees and the low will be 26 degrees. The following day the high will be 32 degrees The rest of the month here highs will be in the mid to upper 40s with lows not falling below 34. The regime shift in the Arctic continues and accelerates. The Arctic, one of Mother Earth’s air conditioners, has switched from a methane sink, to a methane source. Keep in mind “methane, … is 100 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2, during the winter. The report notes that this is happening now at a rate faster than that at which plants can absorb the gas during the summer.” Shit has gone sideways up north. Plant life is dying off ever faster & is no longer able to offset the volume of greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere. Our Dear Leader, Trump, just nominated the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary state. Translation: We’re “...polishing the brass on the titanic. it’s all goin down, man!”” We’re so fucked. Have a great weekend kids!” -OSJ
The Arctic’s average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 was, by far, the highest since 1900. New monthly record high temperature records were recorded for January, February, October and November of this year.
Spring snow cover extent in the North American Arctic was the lowest ever in the satellite records, which began in 1967.
In the nearly four decades of Greenland Ice Sheet observations, only one year had an earlier onset of spring melting than this year.
The Arctic’s biodiversity is changing, radically, before our eyes, including a movement of sub-Arctic species northward and an increase in parasites.
These are just a few of the highlights from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) recently released 2016 Arctic Report Card.
The report, sponsored by NOAA and coauthored by more than 50 scientists from three continents, is extremely sobering, with the report’s authors concluding that, “The Arctic is unraveling.”
A Completely New Arctic Climate
Data from the report indicate that the Arctic is warming at double the global average temperature rate. The report shows that if this fall’s extreme warmth in the Arctic persists for another few years, it will likely signal a completely new climate for the region.
“We’ve seen a year in 2016 like we’ve never seen before … with clear acceleration of many global warming signals,” NOAA’s Arctic Research Program Director Jeremy Mathis told reporters at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco this week where the report was released.
“The Arctic was whispering change,” report coauthor Donald Perovich, who studies Arctic climate at Dartmouth, said. “Now it’s not whispering. It’s speaking, it’s shouting change, and the changes are large.”
The report showed that extremely warm Arctic air temperatures last January and February caused the smallest maximum winter sea ice extent on record. The previous record was hit in 2015.
Then, just last month, the return of extremely warm temperatures caused a period of retreating and melting ice during a time of year when the ice has typically grown extremely rapidly.
And as usual, the impacts of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) are extremely evident in Greenland.
“The Greenland Ice Sheet continued to lose mass in 2016,” Columbia University Earth Observatory climate researcher Marco Tedesco said. “The melt onset was the second earliest and the melt season was 30 to 40 days longer than average in the northeastern US.”
According to the report, Greenland’s spring snow cover extent reached new record lows. Meanwhile, the snow depth is also decreasing, leading to even earlier, as well as faster, melting of the ice.
Another ramification of the dramatic warming of the Arctic is that permafrost is now releasing more greenhouse gases, like methane, which is 100 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2, during the winter. The report notes that this is happening now at a rate faster than that at which plants can absorb the gas during the summer, which means the Arctic has now become a net source of heat-trapping pollution.
It’s not just the ground that’s warming rapidly: Air temperatures across the Arctic have continued to soar past previous records. Between January and March 2016, temperatures blew away previous record highs, with some areas reporting records of more than 8 degrees Celsius above prior highs.
The report addresses how the melting of the Arctic is literally changing the path of the jet stream, which is what is likely going to lead to even more sustained extreme weather events across the entire Northern Hemisphere. One example is the so-called Polar Vortex that has been wracking the northeastern US in recent years — including right now.
University of Sheffield geographer Edward Hanna, who coauthored the report’s chapter on air surface temperatures, wrote about how the warming Arctic air temperatures are causing a trend towards younger, thinner Arctic sea ice, which means that its meltdown could well already be irreversible.
This week, the Trump transition team launched an “Energy Independence” website that underscores his intentions to open vast areas of the Arctic to fossil fuel development, as well as to scrap all existing climate action plans.
Rafe Pomerance, chair of Arctic 21 (a coalition of nongovernmental organizations concerned with climate change in the region), did not mince words about the actions of the Trump transition team.
“What kind of Arctic do we want to have?” he asked, speaking to InsideClimate News. “It has to be one that maintains the stability of the climate system. The melting of Greenland is going to put an enormous hit on real estate values. The fate of Greenland is the fate of Miami. It’s in the [US’s] national interest to stop Greenland’s ice sheet from melting. How are we going to bring it to a halt?”
Pomerance said that the Arctic ice does not care about politics, and that the 2016 Arctic Report Card stands in dramatic contrast to the Trump team’s intention to promote increased fossil fuel development in the Arctic, as well as around much of the rest of the world.
“This is a by-product of the poison of denialism, a political issue that has taken hold so deeply so that this is the kind of stuff that can be contemplated,” he said. “Evidence doesn’t mean anything, science doesn’t seem to mean anything. They ought to take what’s going on in the Arctic really seriously. This is a crisis. The Arctic is unravelling.”
Oldspeak: “As Non-Profit Industrial Complex funded environmentalists cheer and claim “victory” at Standing rock, as the Obama administration paused construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline while allowing the development of other pipelines, this news makes it clear that the development and expansion of toxic energy and its infrastructure continues apace around the globe, using U.S. taxpayer money to boot. Yes, “The president has called global warming “terrifying” and helped broker the world’s first proper agreement to tackle it, yet his administration has poured money into developments that will push the planet even closer to climate disaster.” Money that amounts to 34 billion dollars. And as usual, the environmental costs of these mega projects are being paid by the poor bastards unfortunate enough to live near them. Sigh. America’s dirty energy addiction is not being treated and cured. It’s being exacerbated.”-OSJ
Seemingly little connects a community in India plagued by toxic water, a looming air pollution crisis in South Africa and a new fracking boom that is pockmarking Australia. And yet there is a common thread: American taxpayer money.
Through the US Export-Import Bank, Barack Obama’s administration has spent nearly $34bn supporting 70 fossil fuel projects around the world, work by Columbia Journalism School’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project and the Guardian has revealed.
This unprecedented backing of oil, coal and gas projects is an unexpected footnote to Obama’s own climate change legacy. The president has called global warming “terrifying” and helped broker the world’s first proper agreement to tackle it, yet his administration has poured money into developments that will push the planet even closer to climate disaster.
For people living next to US-funded mines and power stations the impacts are even more starkly immediate.
Guardian and Columbia reporters have spent time at American-backed projects in India, South Africa and Australia to document the sickness, upheavals and environmental harm that come with huge dirty fuel developments.
In India, we heard complaints about coal ash blowing into villages, contaminated water and respiratory and stomach problems, all linked to a project that has had more than $650m in backing from the Obama administration.
In South Africa, another huge project is set to exacerbate existing air pollution problems, deforestation and water shortages. And in Australia, an enormous US-backed gas development is linked to a glut of fracking activity that has divided communities and brought a new wave of industrialization next to the cherished Great Barrier Reef.
While Obama can claim the US is the world’s leader on climate change – at least until Donald Trump enters the White House – it is also clear that it has become a major funder of fossil fuels that are having a serious impact upon people’s lives. This is the unexpected story of how Obama’s legacy is playing out overseas.
Sasan ultra mega power project, Madhya Pradesh, India
by Sonali Prasad
A hulking thermal power plant funded by American money shimmers in orange when night settles in India’s coal-rich district of Singrauli. A heavy blanket of smog wraps around the industrial district and its residents.
Sasan, an ambitious project by Indian energy utility Reliance Power, consumes coal incessantly from a nearby mine in the promise of lighting the homes of almost 300 million people in the country. But since it began operating in 2012, the project has been caught in a storm of health and safety violations, environmental concerns and land disputes.
In 2010, Sasan was handed a $650m export finance loan by the US Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), a taxpayer-funded branch of the federal government that ostensibly exists to support American jobs and contribute to the US Treasury.
The Sasan project was initially rejected by the bank for financing because of the extremely high carbon emissions from the coal-powered plant. However, Reliance reapplied for the loan under tighter emission guidelines, promising to “offset” 26.4m tonnes of annual carbon dioxide emissions produced by the plant through renewable power projects.
Ex-Im Bank approved the loan to facilitate exports of goods and services from the US, insisting on environmental and safety guidelines for the plant’s sustainable development. However, over the course of five years, residents and activists in Singrauli concerns about the project have grown.
Ramakali, 30, dressed in a vibrant sari with a thick smear of vermillion on her forehead, bent over a murky green well that was brimming to the top. The towers of Reliance Power stood tall behind her, the lettering on the chimneys within sight of her mud-and-brick home in the village of Harrahawa. Flies and insects flitted in the well water. “The water has started to taste funny,” she said. “I have been struggling with strong pains in my stomach ever since they started dumping their trash into our groundwater.”
She pointed to the residual ash dumpsite of the Sasan plant, which is only a couple of metres from her doorstep. On a hot day, one can see ash dust blowing up from the ash pond in the direction of nearby villages surrounding the plant.
The locals complain that ash from the enclosed reservoir is settling into the surface water of nearby regions, causing the wells to fill up to the top with impure water. “We put in a request for a handpump to the company but we never heard back,” Ramakali said, shaking her head. “They do nothing. We have complained countless number of times.”
The national green tribunal, a court that hears environmental cases in India, released a report by a committee of environmental experts in August 2015, stating that the groundwater in Harrahawa next to the plant had high levels of mercury in it. Excess mercury in drinking water has been medically linked to severe nervous disorders and birth defects.
Sasan was not exclusively identified as a source of contamination in the report, but the experts are certain that it’s linked to Sasan and the other big thermal plants in the region.
Two other government agencies determined Sasan’s mining waste was illegally overflowing into surrounding forest and farmlands, and that the company had failed to restore the green space lost due to the plant’s construction. Toxic coal dust was also found to have settled in the fields located next to the mines.
The Singrauli industrial cluster has been dotted with several giant thermal plants and coalmines since the 1980s, Sasan being the most recent addition to the country’s coal hub. In January 2010, the Indian ministry of environment and forests declared Singrauli a critically polluted area.
“When Reliance was planning to set up a plant in Singrauli, they knew that area already had severe poisoning and massive industrial pollution issues,” said Ashwani Kumar Dubey, a lawyer who has repeatedly taken on the coal industry. “Yet, they went ahead and set up their plant. They are adding to the damage, and not doing anything to control it.”
Reliance’s coalmine at Moher and its dumpsite are only a short distance away from the thermal power plant. The coal is transported into the power plant through a 14km long, blue, snake-like conveyor belt, saving Reliance Power the overhead costs of railroad transportation.
Devnarayan Sahu, 40, lives with his family and a herd of cattle in a village cluster called Amlohri, within 50 metres of Sasan’s overflowing dumpsite. The thud of mine blasting echoes in the background and Narayan’s house quivers a little. “We’ve become used to the tremors,” he said.
Narayan walked over to his backyard, and pointed to the bulldozers dropping boulders from atop the mounds of toxic mining waste. “Look at how those stones are rolling into my farm and home,” he said. “When it rained a couple of days ago, we were flooded with their rubble.”
A layer of grey coal dust has settled on his impoverished eggplant and tomato farm, his main source of livelihood. “If I don’t water them continuously to get rid of the toxic dust, the crop will not flower,” he said, wiping off dust from a pod with his fingers.
The industrial pollution is taking a toll on Narayan and his family. Difficulties in breathing, stomach aches and joint pains are common. “When we cough in the morning, we see dust in our sputum,” he said. “The little that we earn is now going into medical treatments.”
“Asthma, allergies and bronchitis are prevalent here because of the air pollution, especially in children belonging to clusters around the ash dams, mines and thermal power plants,” said Dr Kalpana Ravi, a paediatrician at the local district hospital in Waidhan.
Narayan has been pleading with Reliance to remedy the situation for years, but nothing has happened. “Many officials have come and inspected the place,” he said. “They come and go, but do nothing. Reliance says they don’t need our land as of yet. We can see the big boulders falling. Like many others who have abandoned their homes for the fear of their lives, they want us also to eventually get scared and move away on our own.”
Families settled almost directly underneath the noisy conveyor belt that brings coal to the plant have a similar tale to tell.
“I don’t know what will happen sooner: will we go deaf first due to the constant and unbearable rattling over our rooftops, or will we choke on the coal dust falling from the belt,” said Sukhlal Panika, who lives under a section of the conveyor belt with his aged mother. Reliance only acquired a part of his farmland for the belt, leaving his house and well exposed to the pollution caused by coal transportation.
Sasan has also been hit by reports of accidents, harassment, fatalities and injuries. In February 2015, Ex-Im’s chairman, Fred Hochberg, criticized the “poor” safety practices at the Sasan project in a letter to Reliance.
Hochberg stated: “the number of all fatalities at the integrated Project is now 19 – which is both tragic and absolutely unacceptable.” The chairman’s letter said “the alarming number of injuries and fatalities must come to an end” and that “rather than improving, the situation appears to be deteriorating”.
The police confirmed that 16 cases relating to the Sasan plant and coalmine have been investigated since 2012, resulting from vehicle accidents, beam and tower deaths and electric shocks.
Activist Awadhesh Kumar, who has been speaking to workers in Sasan and surrounding villages, believes the real number is larger. “It’s harder to account for the migrant workers who have no family here, and they form a huge chunk of Sasan’s labour population. When something happens or someone goes missing, there is no one to question the company for a report or explanation.”
In response to Ex-Im’s letter regarding the incidents, Sasan provided the bank with information on a taskforce comprising middle managers for the purpose of improving safety and training.
But the steps taken by Ex-Im to regulate Sasan are too little too late, according to people living around the thermal power plant and the coalmine. “Ex-Im’s ground inspection should have been done a long time back, and that too on a regular basis,” said Kumar.
“A federal agency of the United States of America should hold their financed projects to better and more neutral standards. Development is good, but not at the cost of the environment and the people who give away their everything to make way for such projects.”
All points in the story have been raised with Reliance officials. They are yet to comment.
Liquified natural gas plants, Queensland, Australia
by Michael Slezak
Alan and Ailsa Smith say setting foot on Curtis Island is like stepping back in history. The world-heritage-listed tropical island where they live sits just off the coast of Gladstone in Queensland, Australia, right under the Tropic of Capricorn.
“It’s a quiet little community here. You slip back 25 years in time,” said Alan.
The couple own a small grocery store and bed-and-breakfast. It’s the only business in the only village on the island, which is home to just 30 permanent residents.
But South End has a new neighbour that makes itself known at night, illuminating the clouds with its startlingly bright lights, and occasionally sending flames into the sky.
Since 2010, amid a storm of controversy that extended from Australia to the US, Curtis Island’s 30 residents have been joined by three giant gas liquefaction plants, with a fourth on the way.
When complete, they will propel Australia to become the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), overtaking Qatar. Their development has allowed a controversial fracking boom in Queensland, where about 6,000 coal seam gas wells have been drilled to deliver gas to be liquefied at the plants.
Two of the three plants – APLNG and QCLNG – have been backed by a $4.7bn loan from the US Export-Import Bank. Once operational, these developments will produce about 11.3m tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – and this figure will be much higher if methane emissions that leak from the wells aren’t controlled.
Those estimates ignore the carbon emissions that will be produced when the gas exported from Curtis Island is burned. The two US-funded plants will produce up to 17.5m tonnes of liquid natural gas each year. When burned, that will pump about 50m tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – roughly equivalent to the annual output of Sweden.
Sitting and having a beer at Capricorn Lodge, another of the island’s residents, Michael Radcliffe, says he isn’t bothered by the LNG plants, but expressed some concern about smoke produced when the plants burn some of their gases in large flares.
“There’s a lot of black stuff that comes out,” Radcliffe said. A week earlier there were a lot of flares that produced a lot of black smoke, he said. “I thought there was a bushfire or something going on.”
From the top of Ship Hill, it’s clear why the locals are interested to see the plants at sundown. As the sun sets, thousands of lights on the gas plants light up. The bushland between the hill and the plants is thick, but through the trees the sight of the huge plants – and the contrast they make with the rest of the island – is astounding.
The plants produce a loud hum, a bit like the sound of a giant refrigerator – which is almost exactly what an LNG plant is.
To allow ships to dock to collect the liquified gas, the Queensland government conducted a huge dredging operation in the harbour.
Around 25m cubic metres of earth have been scooped up from the harbour floor, with the Australian government giving approval for a further 19m cubic meters to be dug up. Some was simply dumped in the Coral Sea and the rest was put behind an 8km “bund wall” and used to reclaim land right opposite Curtis Island – a measure intended to stop the dredge spoil from smothering the delicate ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef.
The wall failed, the dredge spoil leaked through it, and spread through the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area.
Satellite analysis showed the plumes of mud that spread through the water stretched for 35km into the Coral Sea, which would have degraded seagrass meadows that support endangered dugongs.
As the dredging started, fishermen reported an outbreak of disease among marine life, which scientists said could have been caused by metals on the seafloor that were released into the water.
In an unusually forthright step, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which advises the UN’s world heritage committee on scientific matters, called for the LNG developments to be halted.
Trevor Falzon used to catch fish in Gladstone Harbour, home to one of the largest ports in the world. He was the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful case brought by 51 fishermen against the Gladstone Ports Corporation over the dredging.
The development meant they lost an area that they used to fish in. And the dredging meant the nets they used in shallow water weren’t suitable in the new deep water, but the case was thrown out.
“Now I have to sell everything – my house is on the market,” Falzon said, sitting among packing boxes in his house on the outskirts of Gladstone.
Kusile power station, Mpumalanga, South Africa
by Jason Burke
As the sun dips across the rolling hills of South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga province the lights come on high above the valley’s wetlands, soaring columns and cranes, black against the reddening sky.
The vast structure on the ridge is clearly visible from the small settlement of Arbor, a huddle of shacks and huts on a narrow strip of land between a coalmine and railway sidings 10 kilometres from Kusile.
“I watch it growing and I wonder what it will bring. It might mean jobs and development, or maybe sickness and drought. I don’t know. So I hope and pray it will make things better, not worse,” said Sibongile Sibeko, 41, a mother of five children in Arbor.
The structure Sibeko can see is what has so far been built of Kusile, which will be among the 10 biggest coal-fired power stations in the world, and is already one of the most controversial.
The project is part-funded by the US government, having received a loan of $805m from the US Export-Import Bank in 2011 after Eskom chose a US company to play a key engineering role, creating hundreds of jobs for American specialists. The money was crucial to the $8.4bn project, say campaigners.
“Kusile would have been very challenging to proceed with if the money from the Export-Import Bank had not come through,” said Melita Steele of Greenpeace.
Delayed by decades and wildly over budget, Kusile is emblematic of a development model increasingly seen as outdated. The days of vast mega-projects with enormous financial, social and environmental costs, as well as the potential to transform economies, are over, some experts say. Instead, smaller and cheaper projects can bring change as effectively, supplying energy and other needs with minimal impact.
“The only hope for us is renewable energy. That would mean less destruction, less landgrabbing or none at all and no need for coal and water,” said Matthews Hlabane, of the South African Green Revolutionary Council, a local NGO.
But the loan was also very expensive. As local currency has lost value against the dollar the cost of repayments has soared.
The project is immense. When completed Kusile will consist of six units with the ability to generate 4,800MW, making it significantly bigger than any power station in the US except the hydroelectric Grand Coulee dam in Washington.
Defenders say Kusile has been designed with advanced technology that will minimise its environmental impact, such as scrubbers to control sulphur dioxide and filters to reduce emissions of dangerous particulates. The plant will use an air cooling system to help conserve water and is designed so equipment to capture carbon emissions can be fitted in the future.
The plan to build Kusile, and its twin Medupi, in Limpopo province, dates back to the immediate aftermath of the repressive racist apartheid regime. Conceived as energy providers for a growing and free nation, they were seen as powerful statements of a new commitment to a modern economy that would improve the lives of all South Africa’s citizens. Kusile means “New Dawn” in Zulu, a local language.
In recent years, South Africa has been hit by severe power shortages, leading to rolling outages. Though these have now eased, in part due to renewable energy sources supplementing supply, local officials say that Kusile is still essential to ensure the developing nation’s energy security for decades to come.
But circumstances – and attitudes – have changed since the original decision was taken to build the vast plants.
“Medupi and Kusile are examples of large-scale mega infrastructure projects that countries see as the basis of a development model that started after World War II. Projects this large are seen as transformational. They cost a lot. They employ a lot of people. Their effects are meant to be big. But it’s a model that doesn’t make much sense now,” Janet Redman, director of the climate programme at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC said earlier this year.
“Using coal for energy is hugely expensive, outdated, against international trends and is financially and environmental irresponsible,” said Robyn Hugo of the Centre for Environmental Rights, a local NGO.
According to one estimate the total cost of the twin projects of Kusile and Medupi could eventually top $32bn. Medupi relies in part on a $500m loan from the African Development Bank and also $3bn from the World Bank, approved in 2010. Both projects have been plagued by allegations of corruption. All concerned deny any wrongdoing.
Kusile alone is projected to emit an estimated 36.8m tonnes of CO2-equivalent, according to Eskom’s own estimates. With Medupi, it will add 16% to South Africa’s current CO2 emission levels.
The impact on local towns and villages will be immense. It is not simply the power station itself, and the air pollution and traffic it will generate, but the vast coalmining operations needed to provide the estimated 17m tonnes of coal Kusile will require each year.
Farmland and wetlands will disappear as new open-cast and underground mines are opened or, in some cases, reopened. Tens of thousands of impoverished labourers will swell some settlements. Others will have to be entirely shifted to new locations. Roads will be built, bringing access and jobs for some, but exacerbating environmental consequences.
This is far from pristine farmland or wilderness, however. Central Mpumalanga is the site of a dozen power stations and a huge mining industry.
One of the major complaints of local communities is that local men are rarely hired by companies for anything but casual labour because already acute air pollution has, they claim, damaged their lungs.
Mpumalanga is already designated as a zone of acute air pollution in South Africa. Locals complain of sinus infections, headaches and coughing children.
Sibongile Sibeko, who has lived in the community of Arbor all her life said her three daughters and two sons had all suffered respiratory illnesses which local doctors blamed on “dust”.
She lives in a small three-roomed hut only a few metres from waste spoil marking the boundary of a major mine, operational for around five years. The Kendal power station, Africa’s biggest, is close by. It has been operational since the early 1980s, is coal-fired and has a capacity of more than 4,000MW.
“The doctor saw my little one – my four-year-old – recently. He said his chest was closing because of the dust,” Sibeko said.
Then there is water. Among the impacts of Kusile will be the destruction of important wetlands around the plant. Massive infrastructure including pipelines and canals has been constructed to bring water for cooling to Kusile, but the plans were conceived in a period when water was more plentiful. South Africa is currently experiencing its worst drought for 50 years, which some blame on climate change.
In all villages around Kusile, there are complaints of lack of water, deforestation and other environmental and social problems, ranging from higher crime levels to overcrowded schools, linked to the influx of workers.
“Before the mine came we had wood from forests and water from boreholes, and we grew vegetables in small gardens. We had goats, cows and chickens and there was a white farmer and people here worked on his land. But there are no jobs in farming now and there is no forest and the boreholes are dry or the water is bad, and there is no space for livestock or even our gardens because of all the people who have come,” Sibeko said.
Another nearby village, cut off from the main highway by a strip of dry grass strewn with cider bottles and rusting cans, is often shaken by the blasting at the nearby mine.
“There is a lot of dust here, especially when they are blasting,” said Patricia Mabaso, 30. “The old people and the children get diseases from it. Once it was all green round here, now it’s a desert.”
The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is supported by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with The Guardian. (Yeah fuckin right.)
Oldspeak: “Behold! The toxic and bitter fruits of industrial civilization! So, while the attention of the populace is focused on the cabinet appointments of Trump, his twitter diarrea, who he called, and the drought-fueled civil/proxy war in Syria, shit is poppin off in Earth’s rapidly deteriorating climate control systems. The point of no return has been reached. Accepting the high probability that human carbon emissions are not stopping, going neutral or being sequestered any time soon, we can expect with a high degree of certainty that “the pace of global warming of the oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere is set to accelerate in a runaway warming event over the next 85 years.” Anywhere one cares to look, abrupt climate change is in progress and shows no signs of slowing down. Multiple non-linear irreversible positive feedbacks have initiated and they cannot be stopped. These are the greatest threats to continued life on earth, not Trump. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick tick, tick….” -OSJ
“I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product.” — Prof Ivan Janssens, recognized as a godfather of the global ecology field.
“…we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it… we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.” — Professor Stephen Hawking yesterday in The Guardian.
The pathway for preventing catastrophic climate change just got a whole hell of a lot narrower.
For according to new, conservative estimates in a scientific study led by Dr. Thomas Crowther, increasing soil respiration alone is about to add between 0.45 and 0.71 parts per million of CO2 to the atmosphere every year between now and 2050.
(Thomas Crowther explains why rapidly reducing human greenhouse gas emissions is so important. Namely, you want to do everything you can to avoid a runaway into a hothouse environment that essentially occurs over just one Century. Video source: Netherlands Institute of Ecology.)
What this means is that even if all of human fossil fuel emissions stop, the Earth environment, from this single source, will generate about the same carbon emission as all of the world’s fossil fuel industry did during the middle of the 20th Century. And that, if human emissions do not stop, then the pace of global warming of the oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere is set to accelerate in a runaway warming event over the next 85 years.
Global Warming Activates Soil Respiration Which Produces More CO2
This happens because as the world warms, carbon is baked out of previously inactive soils through a process known as respiration. As a basic explanation, micro-organisms called heterotrophs consume carbon in the soil and produce carbon dioxide as a bi-product. Warmth is required to fuel this process. And large sections of the world that were previously too cold to support large scale respiration and CO2 production by heterotrophs and other organisms are now warming up. The result is that places like Siberian Russia, Northern Europe, Canada, and Alaska are about to contribute a whole hell of a lot more CO2 (and methane) to the atmosphere than they did during the 20th Century.
When initial warming caused by fossil fuel burning pumps more carbon out of the global environment, we call this an amplifying feedback. It’s a critical climate tipping point when the global carbon system in the natural environment starts to run away from us.
Sadly, soil respiration is just one potential feedback mechanism that can produce added greenhouse gasses as the Earth warms. Warming oceans take in less carbon and are capable of producing their own carbon sources as they acidify and as methane seeps proliferate. Forests that burn due to heat and drought produce their own carbon sources. But increasing soil respiration, which has also been called the compost bomb, represents what is probably one of the most immediate and likely large sources of carbon feedback.
(A new study finds that warming of 1 to 2 C by 2050 will increase soil respiration. The result is that between 30 and 55 billion tons of additional CO2 is likely to hit the Earth’s atmosphere over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)
And it is also worth noting that the study categorizes its own findings as conservative estimates. That the world could, as an outside risk, see as much as four times the amount of carbon feedback (or as much as 2.7 ppm of CO2 per year) coming from soil if respiration is more efficient and wide-ranging than expected. If a larger portion of the surface soil carbon in newly warmed regions becomes a part of the climate system as microbes activate.
Amplifying Feedbacks Starting to Happen Now
The study notes that it is most likely that about 0.45 parts per million of CO2 per year will be leached from mostly northern soils from the period of 2016 to 2050 under 1 C worth of global warming during the period. To this point, it’s worth noting that the world has already warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. So this amount of carbon feedback can already be considered locked in. The study finds that if the world continues to warm to 2 C by 2050 — which is likely to happen — then an average of around 0.71 parts per million of CO2 will be leached out of soils by respiration every year through 2050.
(When soils lose carbon, it ends up in the atmosphere. According to a new study, soils around the world are starting to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is caused by increased soil respiration as the Earth warms. Over the next 35 years, the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped out by the world’s soils is expected to dramatically increase. How much is determined by how warm the world becomes over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)
The upshot of this study is that amplifying carbon feedbacks from the Earth environment are probably starting to happen on a large scale now. And we may be seeing some evidence for this effect during 2016 as rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation are hitting above 3 parts per million per year for the second year in a row even as global rates of human emissions plateaued.
Beyond the Point of No Return
What this means is that the stakes for cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible just got a whole hell of a lot higher. If we fail to do this, we will easily be on track for 5-7 C or worse warming by the end of this Century. And this level of warming happening so soon and over so short a timeframe is an event that few, if any, current human civilizations are likely to survive. Furthermore, if we are to avoid terribly harmful warming over longer periods, we must not only rapidly transition to renewable energy sources. We must also somehow learn to pull carbon, on net, out of the atmosphere in rather high volumes.
“This study is very important, because the response of soil carbon stocks to the ongoing warming, is one of the largest sources of uncertainty in our climate models. I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product. If this happens by 2050, then we can avoid warming above 2C. If not, we will reach a point of no return and will probably exceed 5C.”
In other words, even the optimists at this time think that we are on the cusp of runaway catastrophic global warming. That the time to urgently act is now.