Climate Change Threatens Prospects for Human Society

The burning of fossil fuels that leads to climate change carries with it numerous threats to the environment, and the world’s nations must quickly transition to the use of clean energy to avert massive catastrophes in the future.

NOAM CHOMSKY: A couple of weeks ago, the IPCC, the international group of scientists monitoring climate change, came out with a very ominous report warning that the world has maybe a decade or two to basically end its reliance on fossil fuels if we’re to have any hope of controlling global warming below the level of utter disaster. And that, incidentally, is a conservative estimate. It’s a consensus view. There are—repeatedly, over the years, it has been shown that the IPCC analyses are much less alarmist than they should be.

Now comes this report in Nature that you mentioned, a couple of days ago, which shows that there has been a serious underestimate of the warming of the oceans. And they conclude that if these results hold up, the so-called carbon budget, the amount of carbon that we can spew into the atmosphere and still have a survival environment, has to be reduced by about 25 percent. That’s over and above the IPCC report. And the opening up of the Amazon to further exploitation will be another serious blow at the prospects of survival of organized human society.

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We have to make decisions now which will literally determine whether organized human life can survive in any decent form. You can just imagine what the world would be like if the sea level rises, say, 10 or 20 feet or even higher, which is within the range—easily within the range of predictions. I mean, the consequences are unimaginable. But it’s as if we’re kind of like the proverbial lemmings just happily marching off the cliff, led by leaders who understand very well what they’re doing, but are so dedicated to enriching themselves and their friends in the near future that it simply doesn’t matter what happens to the human species. There’s nothing like this in all of human history. There have been plenty of monsters in the past, plenty of them. But you can’t find one who was dedicated, with passion, to destroying the prospects for organized human life. Hitler was horrible enough, but not that.

Combating Climate Change With Free Busing

Ideas worth trying to tackle the extremely relevant problem of climate change.

We are clearly going to have to change much about our lives if we are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by enough to save the planet. We can and should look for technical fixes like more fuel efficient cars and increased used of solar and wind energy, but it is not likely that these fixes can be adopted quickly enough to prevent lasting damage to the environment. We will also have to change the way we do lots of things.

One obvious target is commuting. We burn an enormous amount of oil in the process of getting to and from work. Part of this story is rush hour traffic, which causes people to burn fuel sitting in their idling cars, especially in the summer months when they have their air conditioners running.

There are some fairly simple ways to combat this congestion. For example, we could have congestion pricing, which would charge people for driving into city centers in the middle day. This is a Milton Friedman idea that was put into practice by London’s left-wing mayor, Ken Livingston.

A second way to reduce congestion is to try to smooth out the flow of traffic over the work day, by encouraging employers to have flexible work hours. A modest tax credit may go a long way in this regards. After all, a 9 to 5 work day is a norm, not a matter of religious conviction.

The same story would apply to four-day work weeks. Suppose companies switched to four-day work weeks, with workers putting in 9 or 10 hour days, instead of the current standard five-day work week. This would reduce commuting by 20 percent, with the reduction in gas use being even larger since it would also reduce congestion.

But in addition to these actions, we should look to more mechanisms to get people out of their cars and to instead take advantage of more efficient modes of transportation. Most progressives will quickly sign on to mass transit, but this generally means subways or light rails. These modes of transportation have the serious disadvantage that, they tend to be both very expensive and that they take a long time to get up and running. The light rail approved in 2019 is likely to still be under construction in 2029. That is not a good story if the goal is a near-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a simple, quick, and cheap alternative. It’s called a “bus.” For some reasons, busses don’t seem to feature prominently on the mass transit agenda. I have never been quite able to figure that one out. Perhaps it’s one of the many cases where the answer is too simple to be taken seriously.

It wouldn’t cost a lot of money or take very much time to get more busses on the road. Currently, we manufacture around 5,000 passenger busses a year. I suspect that number could be increased rapidly, if there was demand. We could also import busses from foreign manufacturers.

Of course many city busses now travel half empty. This both makes the cost per trip expensive and raises the obvious question as to what good having more busses would do if they are already hugely underutilized?

This is where having free bus transportation would make a big difference. If people had the option of taking a free bus, as opposed to driving to work and paying for gas, insurance, and parking, many more would opt to take the bus. We could even try to make busses more attractive by doing things like having more bus only lanes, that would allow them to pass other traffic. We could even follow an example used in other countries, where traffic lights are set to adjust so that busses will have green lights when they approach.

But even if these measures sound too expensive and/or exotic, simply making bus rides free should hasten their rate of travel considerably. We would no longer have to wait for people to fumble with their money or transit cards, or deal with card readers that don’t want to read. They would just hop on and off the bus.

Would free busses break the bank? To take one example, the Chicago Transit Authority, which serves the whole metropolitan area of 9.5 million, gets a bit less than $300 million a year from its bus fares. This means that replacing current passenger revenue would require annual tax revenue of a bit more than $30 per person.

Of course this would go up if we envisioned ridership doubling or even tripling. But there would also be savings if the bus system no longer had to deal with cash or issuing and reading fare cards. And, the cost increase would be nowhere near proportionate to the increase in ridership, since it costs little more to operate a full passenger bus than one that is nearly empty.

When comparing policies to deal with global warming, free bus fares has to rank near the top in yield per dollar. It would also have the great advantage of reducing other pollutants in the air in major cities. Gasoline is much cleaner than it was five decades ago, but the less we burn of it the better.

In addition, taking cars off the road is also going to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in car accidents. Yeah, driverless cars will do this too, but that is not going to be next year. In fact, with average insurance cost per car close to $1,000 a year, the typical driver may save enough on their insurance to more than compensate for the taxes needed to pay for free bus fare. (We could also start pushing pay by the mile auto insurance, but that is another story.)

And, free bus travel can be phased in, just to see how people respond. We can have free travel days where the city announces that Tuesdays or some other day of the week will be free. We can also do it by route, where some bus routes are free, while people still have to pay regular fare on others.

Free bus travel is only one part of what we will have to do to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but it is a simple step that could in principle be quickly implemented. It should rank high on the agenda for folks who care about saving the planet.

Oceans Have More Heat Than Previously Thought, Making Climate Change More Threatening

Climate change is one of the most serious problems facing humanity this century, and unless there is action to avert its damaging consequences, the world faces a dark future.

Offering a stark warning that humanity may have even less time to drastically cut carbon emissions than the United Nations suggested in its latest alarming report on the climate crisis, new research (pdf) published in the journal Nature on Wednesday shows that Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year over the past 25 years than scientists previously believed.

“We thought that we got away with not a lot of warming in both the ocean and the atmosphere for the amount of CO2 that we emitted. But we were wrong,” Laure Resplandy, a geoscientist at Princeton University who led the new study, told the Washington Post. “The planet warmed more than we thought. It was hidden from us just because we didn’t sample it right. But it was there. It was in the ocean already.”

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argued in its report released earlier this month that humanity must cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 in order to avert climate catastrophe by 2040—but that timeframe was based on previous and possibly conservative estimates of global warming.

As the Post‘s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis noted, “higher-than-expected amount of heat in the oceans means more heat is being retained within Earth’s climate system each year, rather than escaping into space.”

“In essence,” they added, “more heat in the oceans signals that global warming is more advanced than scientists thought.”

Study: Glyphosate is Directly Harmful to Bees

Glyphosate is a carcinogen that’s the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, and there’s now evidence that it’s directly harmful to bee populations worldwide. Bees of course play extremely important role in the world’s food production.

While it has been widely established by the scientific community that the class of pesticides known as  neonicotinoids (or neonics) have had devastating impacts on honey bees and other pollinators, new research shows that Monsanto’s glyphosate—the world’s most widely used chemical weed-killer—is also extremely harmful to the health of bees and their ability to fend off disease.

Documented in a new study by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings show, according to the Guardian, that glyphosate negatively impacts “beneficial bacteria in the guts of honeybees and makes them more prone to deadly infections” by damaging “the microbiota that honeybees need to grow and to fight off pathogens.”

Erick Motta, one of the researchers and co-author of the study, said, “We demonstrated that the abundances of dominant gut microbiota species are decreased in bees exposed to glyphosate at concentrations documented in the environment.”

Based on their study, Motta and her colleagues are urging farmers and homeowners to avoid spraying glysophate-based herbicides on flowering plants that are likely to attract bees.

Bee experts and advocates worldwide in recent years have been warning that humanity’s insatiable use of pesticides has been causing serious harm to bee populations that are essential to the global food supply.

While previous research has shown that use of glyphosate—the main active ingredient in Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup—indirectly harms bees by devastating certain flowers on which they depend, the new research is significant for showing the direct harm it has on the health of bees.

“The biggest impact of glyphosate on bees is the destruction of the wildflowers on which they depend,” Matt Sharlow, with the conservation group Buglife, told the Guardian. “Evidence to date suggests direct toxicity to bees is fairly low, however the new study clearly demonstrates that pesticide use can have significant unintended consequences.”

More Climate Change Worsens Natural Disasters

Hurricane Florence has been receiving massive media coverage for the immense damage it’s doing. There are hundreds of thousands of people without electricity in North Carolina now, and among other things, such as threatening nuclear reactors, the flooding is doing major harm.

In the news media, it is almost never mentioned that climate change has made natural disasters such as hurricanes worse. More warm air translates to more water vapor, and more water vapor means worsened superstorms. In 2017, there was a record amount of U.S. economic costs related to natural disasters, in significant part due to hurricanes like Hurricane Florence.

Amazingly, it is now 2018 and there is not even much discussion about ways that human technology can reduce the strength of superstorms. Hurricanes require a sea surface temperature of 26.5 degrees Celsius to form, and there is some research showing that sending compressed bubbles (via perforated pipes located over a hundred meters down) from deeper in the ocean brings up colder water to the surface. The cold water would cool the warmer surface water, possibly preventing hurricanes through removing their supply of energy.

The United States has given enormous subsidies to fossil fuels companies that operate oil rigs on the ocean, contributing to the greenhouse gas effect that leads to warming and worse storms. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to use the materials from them to create platforms that use the perforated pipes to cool the ocean water and prevent (or perhaps ameliorate) hurricanes. In response to data that predicts where hurricanes are about to form, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that that sort of platform could be quickly deployed or transported to other locations either.

But the absence of a discussion like this is what kind of mass media (and therefore significantly communicative) structure is currently in place — one that doesn’t discuss a key factor in making the problem much worse, and one that doesn’t really mention potentially viable technological solutions in the 21st century.

Climate change (yes, it’s real and at least largely human-caused) will keep making these sorts of disasters much worse if it continues unabated. In 20 years, Hurricane Florence may seem mild compared to the average hurricanes of 2038, and that is clearly a stormy future that needs prevented.

Scientists Discover How a Giant Release of Carbon Dioxide Triggered a Mass Extinction of Ancient Marine Organisms

It’s a parallel comparison to what’s happening to this world, what with the record levels of carbon dioxide being amassed today and all. I’ve understood for years that climate change was a significant threat, but as more is discovered, it’s turning out to be a far more significant problem than I ever imagined.

Global climate change, fueled by skyrocketing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, is siphoning oxygen from today’s oceans at an alarming pace — so fast that scientists aren’t entirely sure how the planet will respond.

Their only hint? Look to the past.

In a study to be published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Florida State University did just that — and what they found brings into stark relief the disastrous effects a deoxygenated ocean could have on marine life.

Millions of years ago, scientists discovered, powerful volcanoes pumped Earth’s atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, draining the oceans of oxygen and driving a mass extinction of marine organisms.

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“We wanted to reconstruct Early Jurassic ocean oxygen levels to better understand the mass extinction and the T-OAE,” said Theodore Them, a postdoctoral researcher at FSU who led the study. “We used to think of ocean temperature and acidification as a one-two punch, but more recently we’ve learned this third variable, oxygen change, is equally important.”

By analyzing the thallium isotope composition of ancient rocks from North America and Europe, the team found that ocean oxygen began to deplete well before the defined time interval traditionally ascribed to the T-OAE.

That initial deoxygenation, researchers say, was precipitated by massive episodes of volcanic activity — a process not altogether unlike the industrial emission of carbon dioxide we’re familiar with today.

“Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen that a significant amount of oxygen has been lost from our modern oceans,” Them said. “While the timescales are different, past volcanism and carbon dioxide increases could very well be an analog for present events.”

When the atmosphere is suffused with carbon dioxide, global temperatures climb, triggering a cascade of hydrological, biological and chemical events that conspire to sap the oceans of oxygen.

[…]

“It’s extremely important to study these past events,” Them said. “It seems that no matter what event we observe in Earth’s history, when we see carbon dioxide concentrations increasing rapidly, the result tends to be very similar: a major or mass extinction event. This is another situation where we can unequivocally link widespread oceanic deoxygenation to a mass extinction.”

Steps can still be taken to curb oxygen loss in the modern oceans. For example, conserving important wetlands and estuaries — along with other environments that absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide — could help to blunt the effects of harmful industrial emissions.

Economic Models Are Underestimating Climate Change Risks

The difference between even a half degrees Celsius of temperature increase can be massive, and there’s new research out regularly that affirms the multitude of problems climate change can cause. “The world is burning” used to be just an expression, but it could become a reality this century with the wildfires and chaos that climate change can cause.

The paper’s authors, Thomas Stoerk of the Environmental Defense Fund, Gernot Wagner of the Harvard University Center for the Environment and Bob Ward of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, draw attention to “mounting evidence that current economic models of the aggregate global impacts of climate change are inadequate in their treatment of uncertainty and grossly underestimate potential future risks.”

They warn that the “integrated assessment models” used by economists “largely ignore the potential for ‘tipping points’ beyond which impacts accelerate, become unstoppable, or become irreversible.” As a result “they inadequately account for the potential damages from climate change, especially at moderate to high levels of warming,” due to rises in global mean temperature of more than 2 Celsius degrees.

The authors draw attention to “a major discrepancy between scientific and economic estimates of the impacts of unmanaged future climate change.” They state: “These discrepancies between the physical and the economic impact estimates are large, and they matter. However, physical impacts are often not translated into monetary terms and they have largely been ignored by climate economists.”