Thursday, May 31, 2012


The climate blogs are all in a dither - and why not? - with the news that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has taken a precipitous, if not to say vertiginous, leap upwards.  Greenman has a particularly good post on the subject, where he quotes the Washington Post:  "The world’s air has reached what scientists call a troubling new milestone for carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant."
"Monitoring stations across the Arctic this spring are measuring more than 400 parts per million of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. The number isn’t quite a surprise, because it’s been rising at an accelerating pace. Years ago, it passed the 350 ppm mark that many scientists say is the highest safe level for carbon dioxide. It now stands globally at 395.

It’s been at least 800,000 years — probably more — since Earth saw carbon dioxide levels in the 400s, Butler and other climate scientists said."

Greenman adds:

"Actually, a bit longer than that.  The most commonly cited measures of atmospheric CO2 are those contained in Antarctic ice cores, which, so far extend about 800,000 years back.  Several years ago, a team from UCLA actually pushed the credible measurements back quite a bit further, using isotopic analysis of shells in deep sea sediments."
"You would have to go back at least 15 million years to find carbon dioxide levels on Earth as high as they are today, a UCLA scientist and colleagues report Oct. 8 in the online edition of the journal Science."

“'The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland,' said the paper’s lead author..."

Since the increase is especially high at the Arctic, I think it might be an ominous signal that the much-dreaded amplifying feedback of methane release has begun in earnest, like these bubbles frozen in the lake:
Or, the jump could be from the fact that we are losing our forests, which are in rapid decline from tropospheric ozone, so they're not absorbing as much CO2...which of course is the entire premise here at Wit's End.
I'm delighted to announce that today, ta-da! - we have more compelling evidence that this it true.  It derives from the embarrassing problem of pollution besmirching the vistas and weakening the trees in our beautiful National Parks - and so, the photographs today that illustrate Earth's wild and natural places are taken from the facebook page of the MilkywayScientists - where there are also many lovely celestial scenes if you're interested in that sort of thing.

An article in the HuffPo reveals the level of pollution, and the difficulty Park officials have in doing anything about it, since the precursors derive from outside their jurisdiction.  Park representatives have always been more forthcoming about the damage done to trees and other plantlife by ozone, because they're not beholden to the timber industry, or the chemical, pesticide and fungicide manufacturers...unlike Forest Service and Agriculture Department employees, or scientists looking for grant money.
Of course, that may change if the Republicans corporations have their way and instead of merely illegally leasing rights for drilling, mining and logging, actually privatize the parkland (which happens to belong to all the American people).  But that's been their agenda all along - to dismantle the New Deal and the Great Society.  They have tried and succeeded in making government so dysfunctional that they can point to it and say it is the problem.  They are unimpeded in the process of privatizing everything for profit - schools, the post office, prisons, the military.  It's why they hated the single payer health care option, even though it would drive down costs dramatically by eliminating the insurance companies not to mention mountains of unnecessary paperwork and layers of bureaucracy.
The funny thing is that aside from the very wealthiest, the right wingers are going to suffer just as much when services are no longer available to them.

Oh wait, did I digress?  Here's the HuffPo story, which is followed by an article written for the AP by Tracie Cone, which cuts spectacularly to the chase.  Be patient, it's the report I've been dreaming of!
"The flora and fauna within America's national parks may receive protection, but the air above the parks is not immune from the problems that plague more developed parts of the country.
The list below, compiled by the Associated Press with data from the National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency, ranks U.S. national parks that recorded the highest number of days with air violations and their highest smog levels in 2011."
"California's Sequoia National Park garnered the top spot, with nearly a quarter of the year, or 87 days, recording dangerous smog levels."

"According to AP, 'the only way' to improve the park's air quality is to clean up the air throughout the entire San Joaquin air basin, 'something that so far has proved elusive given the myriad sources of pollution.'  The National Park Conservation Association's Emily Schrepf said, 'Ozone levels here are comparable to urban settings such as LA. It's just not right.'"
Sequoia National Park, Calif.: 87.
Joshua Tree National Park, Calif.: 56.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.: 12.
Yosemite National Park, Calif.: 8.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.: 8
Big Bend National Park, Texas: 7.
Mojave National Preserve, Calif.: 6

"An ozone reading of 75 parts per billion or higher, which the EPA says is 'unhealthy for sensitive groups,' is considered a violation of the agency's regulations. The following parks exceeded that level in 2011:
Sequoia National Park, Calif.: 98 ppb (unhealthy for everyone)
Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. 91 ppb (unhealthy for everyone)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.: 83 ppb (unhealthy for sensitive groups)
Big Bend National Park, Texas: 80 ppb (unhealthy for sensitive groups)
Yosemite National Park, Calif.: 79 ppb (unhealthy for sensitive groups)
Mojave National Preserve, Calif.: 78 ppb (unhealthy for sensitive groups)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.: 77 ppb (unhealthy for sensitive groups)"

So there you have it - ozone levels are hideously high even in remote wilderness, and let's not forget that according to MIT research, the threshold above which vegetation is damaged is only FORTY ppb - and then look at those numbers again.  What do we suppose a doubling in the concentration could imply for trees exposed to cumulative absorption?  The following analysis makes the answer as clear as the skies are murky -  the only information it lacks is the fact that what is true in the park is true all over the world:
Sequoia Smog Damaging Redwood Seedlings.
~ Tracie Cone

On a clear day, the view from Beetle Rock in Sequoia National Park extends west for 105 miles across the patchwork of crops in California's agricultural heartland to the Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

The problem is there are few clear days, even at 6,200 feet.

The Sierra Nevada forest that is home to the biggest and oldest living things on earth -- the giant Sequoia redwoods -- also suffers a dubious distinction. It has the worst air pollution of any national park in the country.
Mountaintops that should offer awe-inspiring views of California's geologic grandeur often are muddled by a disorienting gray soup of smog.

"Ozone levels here are comparable to urban settings such as LA," said Emily Schrepf of the nonprofit advocacy group the National Park Conservation Association as she beheld the diminished view. "It's just not right."

This is not the place to take in a whiff of fresh mountain air. Smog is so bad that signs in visitors centers caution guests when it's not safe to hike. The government employment website warns job applicants that the workplace is unhealthy. And park workers are schooled every year on the lung and heart damage the pollution can cause.
Ozone also is to blame for weakening many stands of the park's Jeffrey and ponderosa pines, leaving telltale yellowing of their long needles. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, they soak up ozone through the stoma in their needles, which inhibits photosynthesis. Ozone also stresses young redwood seedlings, which already face challenges to survival.
Although weakened trees are more susceptible to drought and pests, the long-term impact on the pines and on the giant redwoods that have been around for 3,000 years and more is unclear.
"It's not a great story to tell, but it's an important story to tell because you can look at us as being the proverbial canary in a coalmine," said Annie Esperanza, a park scientist who has studied air quality there for 30 years. "If this is happening in a national park that isn't even close to an urban area, what do you think is happening in your backyard?"
It's a problem in a handful of the nation's 52 parks that are monitored constantly for ozone, including Joshua Tree National Park in California's Mojave Desert and North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is ringed by power plants and several major highways including Interstate 40, a major tractor-trailer shipping route. But none is in the ballpark with Sequoia and its neighbor, Kings Canyon.

Under the Clean Air Act, the region that encompasses Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks has been designated a "Class 1 air shed," which means by 2064 it must have pure air with no degradation of visibility. But that apparently didn't take into consideration its proximity to one of the worst air quality basins in the country.

"It does take visitors by surprise," Esperanza said. "On a day it's unhealthy, we ask people if you're going to do a rigorous hike, we recommend early morning. It's limiting, it's quite telling, and it's very sad."
While forest fires create some pollution, the lion's share comes from the San Joaquin Valley, the expanse of farmland that is home to the California's two busiest north-south trucking highways, diesel freight train corridors, 1.7 million dairy cows, food processing plants and tens of thousands of diesel tractors plowing dusty fields. Its trough shape traps pollutants, and high-pressure systems act like a lid on a pot.

Smog is created when the sun's rays hit pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds that are in motor vehicle exhaust, solvents, pesticides, gasoline vapors and decaying dairy manure.
"There is no simple answer to ozone pollution," said Thomas Cahill, a researcher at the University of California, Davis who studies air problem in Sequoia and across California.

Breathing ozone at high levels for even a short time can blister the lungs like UV rays blisters skin, scientists agree. The problem in quantifying exposure levels, however, is that some people suffer pulmonary damage at lower doses than others.

Dr. David Lighthall, health science adviser for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, says ozone levels at high altitudes don't drop at night like they do in the valley, which leads to "more cumulative exposure for those who live and work there."
Southerly breezes from the San Francisco Bay collect pollutants and push them to the valley's southern rim, where they bounce back north. Between Fresno and Visalia -- just below the park -- the warm air hits the cooler air pushing south and gets trapped in a swirling vortex called the Fresno Eddy. The warm, polluted air then rises up the canyons of three rivers that begin in the park.

The only way to improve air in the park is to improve the San Joaquin air basin, something that so far has proved elusive given the myriad sources. Even with hundreds of millions of dollars spent to retrofit diesel engines and replace gasoline lawnmowers with electric ones, residents pay a federal fine for the region's failure to meet even minimal EPA ozone limits.
"We don't create a disproportionate amount of pollution; it's just that we have these natural challenges so that the pollution we do create can take literally weeks or months to clean out. It just builds up over time," said Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the valley air district.

Already this year, the level of ozone in Sequoia park has exceeded federal health standards, even though it's early in the summer ozone season. During the June-to-September summer season last year, the park violated the National Ambient Air Quality standard at least 87 times, compared with 56 at Joshua Tree and 12 at Great Smoky Mountains.

"It's tragic that the National Park Service is known for clean air, and then you see a sign saying it's unhealthy to breathe," Esperanza said. "It's so contrary to the national parks idea."
Because ozone is so rarely attributed as the underlying cause of tree decline, being an Ozonista, I often wonder how much it is also being ignored as a factor in hospitalizations and deaths during heat waves.  It seems that since people are warned to stay indoors on "high-alert" ozone days, and to avoid exercising and breathing deeply, a health threat must exist - and yet, you almost never see pollution mentioned when deaths from heat waves are quantified or predicted.  This is true even though the voluminous EPA Integrated Scientific Assessment lists hundreds of research papers linking ozone to human health effects, and besides, if it's not an issue, why regulate it?  I would like to see a study comparing mortality increases at the same high temperatures for the same period of time in, say, Paris or London or Chicago or Beijing - with a control group in cleaner air, let's say, maybe Madagascar or western Australia or Equador.  But I don't know of one.

When I saw an article this week that discussed a new study published with the title "An Examination of Climate Change on Extreme Heat Events and Climate–Mortality Relationships in Large U.S. Cities" I decided to write the lead author to ask about it, and he very kindly answered with a link to the full study -

    Thanks for your interest in the research.  Attached is the PDF of the article.  With respect to your question, we did not include ozone-related deaths in the study.  We have examined the relationship between heat and ozone extensively in the past, however.  The short version is that when the heat is high, deaths are higher (regardless of ozone levels).  Ozone contributes on a long-term basis to illness and mortality, as you point out, but on an acute day-to-day basis it's very minor compared to the heat.


"your friendly scientist"

This caused me to do a little digging around with the google and I wrote back the following yesterday, and have not yet had a response:

Dear friendly scientist,

Thank you so much for sharing your paper.  I confess I do not understand all the algorithms and technical information but I did read through it.  Of course there is a correlation between heat and increased mortality but I am still perplexed as to why ozone is not considered a factor in your study, or as only a minor influence in the long-term.  I noticed a reference to the heat wave of 2003, and found this paper:
The Relation Between Temperature, Ozone, and Mortality in Nine French Cities During the Heat Wave of 2003

During August 2003, record high temperatures were observed across Europe, and France was the country most affected. During this period, elevated ozone concentrations were measured all over the country. Questions were raised concerning the contribution of O3 to the health impact of the summer 2003 heat wave.

We used a time-series design to analyze short-term effects of temperature and O3 pollution on mortality. Counts of deaths were regressed on temperatures and O3 levels, controlling for possible confounders: long-term trends, season, influenza outbreaks, day of the week, and bank holiday effects. For comparison with previous results of the nine cities, we calculated pooled excess risk using a random effect approach and an empirical Bayes approach.
For the nine cities, the excess risk of death is significant (1.01%; 95% confidence interval, 0.58–1.44) for an increase of 10 μg/m3 in O3 level. For the 3–17 August 2003 period, the excess risk of deaths linked to O3 and temperatures together ranged from 10.6% in Le Havre to 174.7% in Paris. When we compared the relative contributions of O3 and temperature to this joint excess risk, the contribution of O3 varied according to the city, ranging from 2.5% in Bordeaux to 85.3% in Toulouse.

We observed heterogeneity among the nine cities not only for the joint effect of O3 and temperatures, but also for the relative contribution of each factor. These results confirmed that in urban areas O3levels have a non-negligible impact in terms of public health.
Also, a US government publication says:

Poor air quality, especially in cities, is a serious concern across the United States. Half of all Americans, 158 million people, live in counties where air pollution exceeds national health standards.

While the Clean Air Act has improved air quality, higher temperatures and associated stagnant air masses are expected to make it more challenging to meet air quality standards, particularly for ground-level ozone (a component of smog).
It has been firmly established that breathing ozone results in short-term decreases in lung function and damages the cells lining the lungs. It also increases the incidence of asthma-related hospital visits and premature deaths.

Vulnerability to ozone effects is greater for those who spend time outdoors, especially with physical exertion, because this results in a higher cumulative dose to their lungs. As a result, children, outdoor workers, and athletes are at higher risk for these ailments.
Californians currently experience the worst air quality in the nation. More than 90 percent of the population lives in areas that violate state air quality standards for ground-level ozone or small particles. These pollutants cause an estimated 8,800 deaths and over a billion dollars in health care costs every year in California.

Higher temperatures are projected to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of conditions conducive to air pollution formation, potentially increasing the number of days conducive to air pollution by 75 to 85 percent in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, toward the end of this century, under a higher emissions scenario, and by 25 to 35 percent under a lower emissions scenario.

Air quality could be further compromised by wildfires, which are already increasing as a result of warming.
Because ground-level ozone is related to temperature, air quality is projected to become worse with human-induced climate change. Many areas in the country already have plans in place for responding to air quality problems. For example, the Air Quality Alert program in Rhode Island encourages residents to reduce air pollutant emissions by limiting car travel and the use of small engines, lawn mowers, and charcoal lighter fluids on days when ground-level ozone is high. Television weather reports include alerts when ground-level ozone is high, warning especially susceptible people to limit their time outdoors. To help cut down on the use of cars, all regular bus routes are free on Air Quality Alert days.

Pennsylvania offers the following suggestions for high ozone days:

• Refuel vehicles after dark. Avoid spilling gasoline and stop fueling when the pump shuts off automatically.
• Conserve energy. Do not overcool homes. Turn off lights and appliances that are not in use.  Wash clothes and dishes only in full loads.
• Limit daytime driving. Consider carpooling or taking public transportation. Properly maintain vehicles, which also helps to save fuel.
• Limit outdoor activities, such as mowing the lawn or playing sports, to the evening hours.
• Avoid burning leaves, trash, and other materials.
Traffic restrictions imposed during the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta quantified the direct respiratory health benefits of reducing the number of cars and the amount of their tailpipe emissions from an urban environment. Peak morning traffic decreased by 23 percent, and peak ozone levels dropped by 28 percent. As a result, childhood asthma-related emergency room visits fell by 42 percent.  [this is one of my favorite statistics]

Ground-level ozone concentrations are affected by many factors including weather conditions, emissions of gases from vehicles and industry that lead to ozone formation (especially nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds [VOCs]), natural emissions of VOCs from plants, and pollution blown in from other places.
A warmer climate is projected to increase the natural emissions of VOCs, accelerate ozone formation, and increase the frequency and duration of stagnant air masses that allow pollution to accumulate, which will exacerbate health symptoms.

Increased temperatures and water vapor due to human-induced carbon dioxide emissions have been found to increase ozone more in areas with already elevated concentrations, meaning that global warming tends to exacerbate ozone pollution most in already polluted areas. Under constant pollutant emissions, by the middle of this century, Red Ozone Alert Days (when the air is unhealthy for everyone) in the 50 largest cities in the eastern United States are projected to increase by 68 percent due to warming alone.
Such conditions would challenge the ability of communities to meet health-based air quality standards such as those in the Clean Air Act.  Health risks from heat waves and air pollution are not necessarily independent. The formation of ground-level ozone occurs under hot and stagnant conditions – essentially the same weather conditions accompanying heat waves.  Such interactions among risk factors are likely to increase as climate change continues.

And a paper about heat mortality in England and Wales also links ozone:

High ozone concentrations are an important co-exposure during heat waves in England. High ozone concentrations were reported during the 1976 heat wave [6]. Excess exposure to ozone and PM10 were recorded for all regions in England, most notably in London and the South East. Between 21% and 38% of the excess deaths (where excess deaths were predictions based on previous time series studies of air pollution and mortality) in the 2003 heat wave were estimated to be attributable to ozone and PM10, although that study assumed no interaction between high temperatures and high pollutant exposures [7]. This study has not attempted to separate out the effects of pollutants and temperature.
Even the US Sports Academy warns coaches that ozone is a serious health risk:

“How Hot Is Hot” … enough for Heat Stroke is variable because it depends on Primary and Secondary Risk Factors. Athletes can have a Heat Stroke at 70* Fahrenheit if other Risk Factors are in play, most notably the Primary Risk Factors. A dangerous Air Quality Index is a Primary Risk Factor. It directly affects the Airway, Breathing, Circulatory and Cardiovascular systems, the ABC’s of Resuscitation. Medications and infections are Secondary Risk Factors. They are less fatal Risk Factors.

“An Air Quality Alert means the air is expected to be unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Sensitive Groups include active children and adults and people with lung disease, such as asthma. With an Alert these groups are recommended to reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.” The Air Quality Index was expected to reach 106 on the 20th, the day the Athlete collapsed. The detrimental pollutant was increased ground level Ozone. Sensitive Groups can make their first appearance fatally.
Exercise to Exhaustion in Ozone characteristically produces a shift to Lymphocytes in the CBC 1 to 3 hours after weight lifting and 1 to 3 hours after running gassers to exhaustion. Lymphocytes are hailed to the blood stream by epinephrine and norepinephrine during Exercise to and beyond Exhaustion Stress as many, many immunologists have reported who are concerned with the affects of Exhaustion on Athlete Immunity, an important global topic nowadays.
“The health implications of Global Warming are the deadly effects a heat wave combined with Ozone have on Athletes practicing or playing outside.” Increasing evidence suggests the Ozone and Heat Index affect each other synergistically. This is Key. In other words, the presence of increased ground level Ozone increases the absolute number or the Heat Index and the presence of high Heat Index increases the absolute number of ground level Ozone. Therefore the Heat index on the 20th was higher than 94 and the AQI was higher than 106. There appears to be a linear relationship between the AQI and the Heat Index.

It appears the Football Athlete’s final clinical cause of death was Ozone Intoxication in addition to Exertional Heat Stroke. Dehydration was not proven as a cause of death. Complete autopsy was not concluded with an internal body post mortem examination.
Personally I think it's important that influential scientists such as yourself ensure that people understand the direct impact pollution has on their health because frankly, it appears too easy for them to ignore potential heat effects in the future from elevated CO2 when they make decisions regarding conservation and climate change policy.  I really hope you will evaluate your opinion that ozone comprises only a "very minor" contribution to acute and immediate health when asthma is now at it's highest rate ever and the death rate for children has increased by nearly 80% since 1980.

Thank you for your attention,


Never mind, after all that apocalyptic prognostication, the next enchanting video of a National Park will be comforting (there are ten more here), as will a quote from the comments at Tracie Cone's personal blog where she describes, with aching raw verisimilitude, her determination to survive cancer -

" is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away..."

and this poem:

Sensuous during life
do not deny me in death!

Wash me with scent of apple blossom.
Anoint me with essence of lilac.
Fill my veins with honeysuckle nectar.
Sprinkle me with perfume of purple violets.
Envelop me in shroud saturated with fragrance of freshly
mown meadow hay.
Rest me in moss velvet earth.
Cover me with soil exuding flavor of maple and oak leaves.
Command a white birch to stand guard!

~Lois Wickenhauser

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gaia, or Medea?

“Hell Is Truth Seen Too late.” ~ 18th Cent. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes

I'm always interested in the divisions between the factions of activists and bloggers, academics and pundits - those that espouse the imminence of peak oil, or the immensity of overpopulation, or the destabilization from climate change.  There is very little overlap, which is odd and peculiarly self-defeating (although I should be used to it by now); instead, the adherents of each group spend inordinate amounts of time and energy discussing how to better frame the precedence of their particular pet threat.  The corporations, war-mongers, and fascist religious fundamentalists seem to have no such impediment to collaborating on the dismantlement of the natural world for their own profit.  Or maybe it just seems like they work seamlessly together, so efficient is their destruction.
I become impatient with peak oilers who think we are in for a long slow descent from which they will be insulated because they are learning how to make soap and whittle - oh, and not to mention their enlightenment has enabled them time to stockpile supplies funded by book sales to their fans.  I've got even less tolerance for - in fact I don't even pay any attention to - the bloviators who are obsessed with the stock market and the price of gold.  They seem to have no recognition that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the ecosystem, and when the ecosystem goes bankrupt, the Federal Reserve Bank can't print more trees.  We are on the verge of that.

Lately I've been getting the distinct impression that people worried about overpopulation, who are often anti-immigration, are somewhat disingenuous when they reject any relevance of per capita consumption.  After making some vegan friends at Occupy I read a very thought provoking article about meat consumption, which proved to be less than welcome with the folks I know who make overpopulation their bête noire.  I know that we're so far into overshoot that reducing personal consumption is a completely inadequate response (oh, and as a devoted cook, I like meat on the menu!) - but that article makes a good case that we could buy some time for the next generation, relatively easily, if we decided to try.  I tend to think they would appreciate a few more years of not starving to death, even if it was only a decade or so.  But it became apparent that to make the slightest admission that we could conserve is a slippery slope, and it induces the occasionally rabidly hysterical counter-argument.
Thus lately, I have developed a suspicion that the reason the overpopulation activists are so fixated on our overabundance is that they are smart enough to know that we are on an unsustainable course, but they don't want to give up any of their toys.  They discount the fact that we're doomed no matter what from climate change (which was set in stone by the Industrial Revolution decades ago, really, given amplifying feedbacks that are irreversible) and indulge in the fantasy that if we were say, only a half billion on earth, everyone could live at the preferred level of their comfortable, energy-intensive lifestyle.

The thing is though, I question whether that is even true, because we in America and the other highly developed nations are in effect treating the rest of the people in the world like our slaves, and on top of which we're stealing their resources and rewarding them with our pollution.  In other words, we actually rely on their overpopulation - which ensures their poverty in turn affording cheap labor to produce our stuff..and a convenient lack of education and consequent vulnerability to our lawyers stealing assets (and pesky drone attacks).

Besides, if we can't persuade people to eat more vegetables and less meat, how are we ever going to convince them to have fewer children?  Maybe this video [raunch alert!] from Doug Stanhope can do it, but I doubt it.

At least the agendas of all the aforementioned folks are pretty transparent, intentionally or not - making the professional philanthropists, whether environmental or climate, the most infernally atrocious panderers of all.  Thus I was tremendously gratified to find their ilk eviscerated with stunningly audacious, surgical detachment by Curtis White, author of "The Philanthropic Complex" in this spring's edition of Jacobin.  This explication of the mechanisms by which foundations are actually engaged in "risk management" and not even remotely inclined towards the revolution required to effect real sustainability is just about the most lucid and penetrating I've come across of a very neglected topic - a nebulous and taboo subject which typically resides behind an impenetrable deceptive veil of professed good intentions.

With delightfully subversive and brutally honest passages like these, I certainly hope Professor White, who appears to have written a number of books worthy of perusal, has tenure at the State University out there in Normal, Illinois - where he can probably mothball his tuxedo, because he won't be getting invited to any fancy black-tie charity galas after penning passages like these:

"In the United States, everyone may enjoy freedom of speech so long as it doesn’t matter.  For those who would like what they say to matter, freedom of speech is very expensive. It is for this reason that organizations with a strong sense of public mission but not much money are dependent on the 'blonde child of capitalism,' private philanthropy."

'In the end, what the foundation can be trusted to understand is not forest health, or climate change, or the imperatives of recycling; what it can be trusted to understand is the thing that gives it its privileges: its endowment.  Unfortunately, managing how the endowment is invested often leads to conflicts with the stated social purpose of the foundation.'
"Because this culture of unaccountable authority is rarely challenged, especially by the organizations that receive funding, the foundations become little more than, as one source put it, dramas of 'self-aggrandizement.'—the lavish year-end celebrations in which many indulge being a particularly noxious demonstration. They like to be thanked for their generosity, and they like the warm feeling of virtue that washes over them when they receive their thanks."

"Mark Dowie reports in his book Losing Ground that in the early 1990s the Pew Charitable Trust entered the fray over public land forestry.  Josh Reichert, Pew’s environmental program officer, created a foundation coalition, the National Environmental Trust, to address forestry among other issues.  Once the money was held out, large organizations like the Sierra Club fell in line, talked the talk, and took the money."

"The downside was that this program was not allowed to consider a 'zero cut' position.  The organization would be about moderating policy on behalf of corporate interests.  Smaller, more principled organizations like the Native Forest Council were 'left out in the cold.'  But Reichert was unapologetic.  According to Dowie, 'Reichert stipulated that no one advocating zero cut, criticizing corporations by name, or producing ads that did so would be eligible for membership in the forest coalition—or for funding.'"

"In the end, philanthropy wants the wrong thing.  It may think that it ought to want what the lovers-of-nature want, but its actions reveal that, come what may, it loves other things first: the maintenance of its privileges, the survival of its self-identity, and the stability of the social and economic systems that made it possible in the first place."

"Capitalism has taught environmentalism how to protect it from itself.  Federal and philanthropic funding allows Big Green to play a forceful national role, but it also provides the means for managing and limiting the ambitions of environmentalism: nofundamental change. Sadly left out of negotiations between government, industry and environmental NGOs are the communities of people who must live with whatever decision is reached."

I highly recommend reading the entire article and then, when you get some time, watch the inside story on "The One Percent", for fun.
Meanwhile, following is an excerpt from Dianne Dumanoski's book, "The End of the Long Summer" (thanks to Michele for bringing it to my attention).  It was published in 2009 and discusses planetary challenges, chiefly climate change - but the very first and last sentences to a section on the nitrogen cascade, to which I added emphasis, are fascinating fodder for Ozonists who care about trees:

"Scientists understand less about the possible dangers to human well-being of nitrogen than of carbon dioxide. Just as rising carbon dioxide levels are leading to global warming, this great excess of nitrogen from human activity is causing “global fertilization,” upsetting the nutrient balance in ecosystems and creating havoc. Humans create nitrogen overload in natural systems by manufacturing artificial fertilizer, by planting legumes that can take nitrogen from the air and
“fix” it into a biologically accessible form, and by burning fossil fuels that release nitrogen gases."

"The rapid growth in the use of man-made fertilizers in the past sixty years has more than doubled the amount of nitrogen flowing down rivers to the sea, causing an explosive growth of algae that ultimately results in “dead zones,” where oxygen levels are too low to sustain animal life. When these algae die, the tiny plants provide food for bacteria, which use up much of the oxygen in the
surrounding water in the process of decomposing them."

"While some fish may be able to flee as oxygen levels plummet, bottom-dwelling creatures, such as eels, crabs, skate, and flounder, can’t escape. In Mobile Bay in Alabama, the bottom dwellers, trying to outrun advancing areas of low-oxygen water, end up stranded at the water’s edge, gasping for life. The Gulf of Mexico’s annual Dead Zone may be the most notorious, but summer brings dead zones to Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, to the coastal areas of Washington and Oregon, and to some forty other places in U.S. coastal waters. As fertilizer runoff and other nutrients have poured into coastal waters, each passing decade has seen the dead zones around the world double in number. Today the number is approaching 150, and dead zones have been spreading over increasingly larger areas."

"As this overload of biologically active nitrogen cascades through natural systems, it begets many other significant problems as well: It plays a role in smog and the formation of health-threatening fine particles. It generates the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which, molecule for molecule, is three hundred times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide and lasts in the atmosphere for 120 years, and thereby contributes to global warming. And nitrous oxide also aids in the destruction of the protective stratospheric ozone layer."
"Despite the current obscurity of the problem, fertilizing the Earth may prove as problematic as warming it, for like climate change, it can trigger “alarming and sometimes irreversible effects.” As the world struggles to feed a growing human population in coming decades and the use of fertilizer continues to grow, managing the damaging effects may pose as great a challenge as managing emissions from fossil fuels."

"Because of our dependence on fixed nitrogen to grow food, and because of the absence of substitutes, nitrogen promises to be the next urgent global problem, one even more intractable than climate change."

The overload of nitrogen that forms smog refers, of course, to the inexorably rising, invisible ozone component - which is what is killing trees, the primary subject of Wit's End.  Unfortunately, if the various effects from the nitrogen cascade present an even more intractable predicament than climate change, then we're in an unimaginably huge fat heap of trouble, because this past week there has been so many "faster and nastier" assessments about global warming that I'm almost of the opinion it doesn't matter anymore in the least what is done about ozone.

As scary as it was, that chapter almost seems tame compared to the relentlessly dire parade of new articles warning of climatic disasters.  The English language appears to have run out of synonyms, adjectives, metaphors and searing similes to accurately convey a peril so staggering and urgent that no hyperbole can surpass the reality.  I hardly know where to begin - so let's randomly reproduce an analysis from Climate Code Red, because it has a fun interactive scoreboard - and everybody likes to play with those:

Projected warming increases as emissions rise, politics fails
Climate scoreboard at 29 May 2012. View live scoreboard
This chart needs no explanation. The Climate Scoreboard is an online tool that allows the public to track progress in the ongoing negotiations to produce an international climate treaty. The Scoreboard automatically reports, on a daily basis, whether proposals in the treaty process commit countries to enough greenhouse gas emissions reductions to achieve widely expressed goals, such as limiting future warming to 1.5 to 2.0°C (2.7 to 3.6°F) above pre-industrial temperatures. And users can explore the analysis behind the numbers. At time of posting, the scoreboard projected an increase in global temperature of 4.5°C by 2100.
     Its important to note that the calculations shown in the scoreboard and graphs relate toproposals by countries and country groups. They are not assessments of the actual progressmade to fulfill those proposals.
     The yellow “business-as-usual” line represents the estimated global temperature increase in 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. The blue “proposals” line represents the estimated global temperature increase in 2100 if the current proposals were enacted. The shaded blue curve shows the uncertainty in the climate system’s response to emissions. The green “goals” line represents the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5°-2.0°C
The scoreboard in January 2011
     In January last year, I captured the scoreboard when writing a report on what 4 degrees of warming would look like. The image is at right.  What is disturbing is that between January 2011 and now (May 2012) the projected rise has increased a full half-a-degree Celsius, from 4.0C to 4.5C.
    And the reason is the deadly combination of political failure and rising emissions. According to preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency, global carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel combustion increased 3.2 per cent in 2011 compared to 2010, to reach a record high of  31.6 gigatonnes.
     More than half of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere comes from five countries – China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan –  according to a national rankingof greenhouse gas emissions.
     The Global Carbon Project found that in the previous year,  2010, the annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 2.36 ppm (ppm = parts per million), one of the largest growth rates in the past decade. The average for the decade 2000-2009 was 1.9 ppm per year, compared to 1.5 ppm for the decade 1990-1999, and 1.6 for the decade 1980-1989. The 2010 increase brought the atmospheric CO2 concentration to 389.6 ppm, 39 per cent above the concentration at the start of the Industrial Revolution (about 278 ppm in 1750). The present concentration is the highest during at least the last 800,000 years according to GCP, but recent research shows they are the highest in the last 20 million years.
     This emission boost runs in parallel with continuing international political failure, most recently with another bout of time-wasting failure in Bonn. So more than ever before the world looks headed for 4 degrees or more of warming, with consequences beyond our imaginations.

Are you worried yet?  No?  Then check out a review from all places - ABCNews, of the "Great Big Book of Horrible Things:  WWII and Climate Change".  Oh indeed, finally, an unthinkably unabashed comparison of the Holocaust with climate change - if only to note the stupidity with which people ignore looming and obvious threats, even to their own survival.  It begins with the quote from Hobbes at the top of this post, and ends with a ranked list - everybody likes lists, right? - of the 100 worst atrocities in human history.  I have to admit that even though you're supposed to refrain from references to the Holocaust, I find it kind of comforting to know that people are perfectly capable of not seeing physical evidence of anything they find uncomfortable or maybe even terrifying - like smoke from a crematoria - or that all the forests are dying.  Only a handful of people have managed to acknowledge what is plain for anyone to see, that the trees are either dead or on the verge.

Even famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in an interview lobbed a few bombs:

"'If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you've got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena,' Leakey says. 'Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change. Man accelerated, if not created, planet change phenomena; I think we have to recognize that the future is by no means a very rosy one....We may be on the cusp of some very real disasters that have nothing to do with whether the elephant survives, or a cheetah survives, but if we survive.'"

The title in last week's Common Dreams, by author John Acheson neatly sums up the article "Faster Than We Thought; An Epitaph for Earth" but don't let that deter you from clicking the link and reading the litany of humanity's crimes.  Of course, anytime an "alarmist" laments the destruction of the earth it invites the tedious old comments - the Earth will be fine!  Maybe humans will destroy ourselves, but the Earth has naturally regulating mechanisms and it will recover!  Which is yet another anthropomorphic conceit that the God [the one or severals that we created] won't allow us to destroy Nature - oh yes we can! - which is well refuted in a comment by Nullius in verba:

"Your thoughts reminded me of an article about Rachel Carson in the latest In These Times. This passage is from a letter Carson wrote as she was starting on Silent Spring:"
"It was pleasant to believe, for example, that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man … These beliefs have almost been part of me for as long as I have thought about such things. To have them even vaguely threatened was so shocking that … I shut my mind – refused to acknowledge what I couldn’t help seeing. But that does no good, and I have now opened my eyes and my mind."

Pretending that industrial civilization doesn't have at least the potential to eradicate life on this planet requires ignoring the evidence that, alas, is mounting up that it in fact does.

An article in Science Daily, for example, describes research indicating that after the great Permian extinction event it took ten million years for biodiversity to recover.  I don't know about you but in my book, ten million years is reckless flirting with "forever".

"There were apparently two reasons for the delay, the sheer intensity of the crisis, and continuing grim conditions on Earth after the first wave of extinction. The end-Permian crisis, by far the most dramatic biological crisis to affect life on Earth, was triggered by a number of physical environmental shocks -- global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification and ocean anoxia. These were enough to kill off 90 per cent of living things on land and in the sea."

"Dr Chen said: 'It is hard to imagine how so much of life could have been killed, but there is no doubt from some of the fantastic rock sections in China and elsewhere round the world that this was the biggest crisis ever faced by life.'"

"Current research shows that the grim conditions continued in bursts for some five to six million years after the initial crisis, with repeated carbon and oxygen crises, warming and other ill effects.
Some groups of animals on the sea and land did recover quickly and began to rebuild their ecosystems, but they suffered further setbacks. Life had not really recovered in these early phases because permanent ecosystems were not established."

"Professor Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol, said: "Life seemed to be getting back to normal when another crisis hit and set it back again. The carbon crises were repeated many times, and then finally conditions became normal again after five million years or so.'"

"Finally, after the environmental crises ceased to be so severe, more complex ecosystems emerged. In the sea, new groups, such as ancestral crabs and lobsters, as well as the first marine reptiles, came on the scene, and they formed the basis of future modern-style ecosystems.
Professor Benton added: 'We often see mass extinctions as entirely negative but in this most devastating case, life did recover, after many millions of years, and new groups emerged. The event had re-set evolution. However, the causes of the killing -- global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification -- sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.'"
Scientific American, not exactly an hysterical, conspiracy-riddled rag, had two articles - either one of which can make your hair stand on end.  Or at the very least, keep you up at night, sweating in terror.  The first, "Climate Armageddon, How the World's Weather Could Quickly Run Amok", is sub-headed "Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate "flips" could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years" and is adapted from a book with the equally reassuring title, "The Fate of the Species:  Why the Human Race May Cause It's Own Extinction and What We Can Do To Stop It."  The number of deniers in the comments is amazing - they can't have even bothered to read the article, which clearly lays out fact-based conclusions that we have or will soon pass one or more of the nine reinforcing tipping points outlined, any one of which separately will lead to catastrophic effects.  Two of them involve forests, so naturally I felt compelled to comment, although I shouldn't have bothered.  As is so often the case, the implications of trees dying off are so unthinkable to most people that even the most rabid trolls don't even bother to refute what I wrote, they simply skip past it, fingers firmly stuck in their ears shrieking LALALALALA!  Al Gore is fat!

Here it is, anyway:

The two tipping points regarding tropical and boreal forests are going to come even faster than predicted by changes in temperature and precipitation. There is another factor that virtually no climate models take into consideration, because it's never existed in past changes driven by CO2, and that is tropospheric ozone pollution.

The persistent background level of ozone is inexorably increasing, as precursors travel around the globe to even the most remote and rural areas. Decades of research have proven that ozone is even more toxic to vegetation than it is to people.

When plants absorb ozone through leaves and needles, they must repair direct damage which means they allocate less energy to roots, leading to increased vulnerability to drought and wind. They also lose immunity to insects, disease and fungus.

Peer-reviewed science has demonstrated that we are losing significant portions of vitally important annual crops in both yield and quality. Government agencies place the financial loss in the billions of dollars. Longer-term, cumulative damage is causing forest decline all over the world, which is generally - and mistakenly - being blamed on proximate causes such as drought and attacks from opportunistic biotic factors.

We should declare an emergency and ration fuel before famine results and climate change is exacerbated by the loss of a critical carbon sink and the generation of precipitation. Past generations have made sacrifices for the greater good. It's time for lazy greedy contemporary inhabitants of this earth to do so as well, and that includes giving up flying, mowing lawns and eating meat.
The second article that induced a near paralytic panic in SciAm is titled, "Apocalypse Soon:  Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?"  The short answer is YES...a slightly longer answer is here:

"Meadows holds that collapse is now all but inevitable, but that its actual form will be too complex for any model to predict. 'Collapse will not be driven by a single, identifiable cause simultaneously acting in all countries,' he observes. 'It will come through a self-reinforcing complex of issues'—including climate change, resource constraints and socioeconomic inequality. When economies slow down, Meadows explains, fewer products are created relative to demand, and 'when the rich can't get more by producing real wealth they start to use their power to take from lower segments.' As scarcities mount and inequality increases, revolutions and socioeconomic movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street will become more widespread—as will their repression."

As always, Chris Hedges has some rather scintillating observations to add to the discussion of repression and revolution, in "Why the Occupy Movement Frightens the Corporate Elite".  Not that this will come in time to help save the ecosystem, but in my opinion, it's a worthy protest:

"What fosters revolution is not misery, but the gap between what people expect from their lives and what is offered. This is especially acute among the educated and the talented. They feel, with much justification, that they have been denied what they deserve. They set out to rectify this injustice. And the longer the injustice festers, the more radical they become.

"The response of a dying regime—and our corporate regime is dying—is to employ increasing levels of force, and to foolishly refuse to ameliorate the chronic joblessness, foreclosures, mounting student debt, lack of medical insurance and exclusion from the centers of power. Revolutions are fueled by an inept and distant ruling class that perpetuates political paralysis. This ensures its eventual death."

"…They must face down opponents who understand, in a way the uneducated often do not, the lies disseminated on behalf of corporations by the public relations industry. These déclassé intellectuals, because they are conversant in economics and political theory, grasp that those who hold power, real power, are not the elected mandarins in Washington but the criminal class on Wall Street."

The website called Dharmagaians is where I saw the link to the cartoons in this post.  Even though it's a bit on the mystical side, it doesn't deflect reality with false hope or sentimentality.  Written by Suzanne Duarte, she has obviously obtained a profound understanding and wisdom derived from a lifetime of learning, which is thoroughly humbling to me.  On her "About" page, she describes herself this way:

"My perspective is ecocentric, rather than anthropocentric.  I am concerned about preserving the biodiversity of the Earth and the cultural diversity and mental health (sanity) of human beings, rather than preserving Western civilization, capitalism, and the global economy.  In fact, I am convinced that biological and cultural diversity and mental health are all severely threatened by the capitalistic global economy in its present manifestation.  This is a common view in the fields of Deep Ecology and Ecopsychology, which I taught for 12 years.  Ecology has been called 'the subversive science.'"

In her post, Mother Earth Doesn't Do Bailouts, she began:

"Aside from brief references to it, I’ve hardly written anything, ever, about climate change.  It isn’t because I don’t “believe” in it. It’s because I’ve been so disgusted by the ignorance and denial surrounding the fact of it.  In the mid-1980′s, I attended a seminar on climate change in Boulder, Colorado.  At that time, Stephen Schneider, working at Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), was already issuing warnings about global warming that were reported in the Boulder Daily Camera. As a rainforest activist and proponent of deep ecology, I understood the interdependence between climate and biodiversity, and the impact that climate change was having on the tropical rainforests of the world and on biodiversity.  I also was working on a book called Lessons of the Rainforest (published in 1990 by Sierra Club Books)."

"So learning about the dynamics of climate change was both natural and essential to my work at the time.My disgust with the ignorance and denial around climate change is fueled by the knowledge that the oil industry and governments have been colluding to deny and ignore climate change through disinformation and propaganda in order to perpetuate the fallacy of economic growth – in exactly the same way they have denied the fact of peak oil. After all, oil is what fuels both economic growth and climate change.  Duh! Admitting that oil production has passed its peak and that climate change is accelerating would imply that economic growth and consumerism must end – which they will, of course, one way or another.  However, politicians are as addicted to promoting economic growth, which keeps them in power (and makes them rich), as the global economy and wealthy societies are addicted to oil.  It’s shameful and stupid that climate change has not been effectively addressed by now.  In fact, it’s a crime against Nature and the future of life on Earth, including the future of our species.  But that’s where we are – both as participants and witnesses."
There's quite a bit more, in this particular post and on all the pages of the website of this prolific, excellent writer, but here's the real gloomy part towards the end:

"Many of us know, in outline, the warm, fuzzy Gaia hypothesis, first outlined by James Lovelock. It claims that the Planet Earth functions, in effect, as a single living organism called Gaia. It regulates its own temperature and chemistry to create a comfortable steady state that can sustain life. So coral reefs produced cloud-seeding chemicals which then protect them from ultraviolet radiation. Rainforests transpire water vapour so generate their own rainfall. This process expands outwards. Life protects life."

"Now there is a radically different theory that is gaining adherents, ominously named the Medea hypothesis. The paleontologist Professor Peter Ward is an expert in the great extinctions that have happened in the earth’s past, and he believes there is a common thread between them. With the exception of the meteor strike that happened 65 million years ago, every extinction was caused by living creatures becoming incredibly successful — and then destroying their own habitats. So, for example, 2.3 billion years ago, plant life spread incredibly rapidly, and as it went it inhaled huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This then caused a rapid plunge in temperature that froze the planet and triggered a mass extinction."

"Ward believes nature isn’t a nurturing mother like Gaia. No: it is Medea, the figure from Greek mythology who murdered her own children. In this theory, life doesn’t preserve itself. It serially destroys itself. It is a looping doomsday machine. This theory adds a postscript to Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. There is survival of the fittest, until the fittest trash their own habitat, and do not survive at all."

"But the plants 2.3 billion years ago weren’t smart enough to figure out what they were doing. We are. We can see that if we release enough warming gases we will trigger an irreversible change in the climate and make our own survival much harder. Ward argues that it is not inevitable we will destroy ourselves – because human beings are the first and only species that can consciously develop a Gaian approach. Just as Richard Dawkins famously said we are the first species to be able to rebel against our selfish genes and choose to be kind, we are the first species that can rebel against the Medean rhythm of life. We can choose to preserve the habitat on which we depend. We can choose life."

"Long after our own little stories are forgotten, the choice we make now will still be visible — in the composition of the atmosphere, the swelling of the seas, and the crack and creak of the great Antarctic ice. Do we want to be Gaia, or Medea?"
Last link in this miserable series is a column by Raffi - the singer Raffi! - about David Suzuki's pronouncement that Environmentalism is Dead.  I mentioned it in an earlier post because it puzzled me when I learned that Suzuki had five children...and the plaintive response from Raffi has more questions than answers.  I mention it because I found there a comment from a person named Janet, who I have never met but hold in great regard, which I will let be the last resplendent words today:

"I used to think I could make a difference. Now I get that I can't and that humans are doomed but the world will live on. I still do all the conservation things but I have learned to embrace the crash that is coming. As much as I've tried, I can't change others behavior by example and the penalties for bad behavior are small. At the end of the day I have loved doing the right thing and I can't be upset that most people prefer cheap Chinese junk to a beautiful world of birds, fish, plants and us. So be it."

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