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.”

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.

Negative Energy Pricing Becoming More Common as Clean Energy Outdoes Fossil Fuels

Imagine living in a world where one of the most significant threats in the decades ahead is for the most part not being properly addressed, and is in many ways being exacerbated. The threat is climate change, and for one thing, it’s being exacerbated by having massive fossil fuel subsidies instead of massive clean energy subsidies. This is of course despite clean energy already regularly outcompeting fossil fuels.

Bright and breezy days are becoming a deeper nightmare for utilities struggling to earn a return on traditional power plants.

With wind and solar farms sprouting up in more areas — and their power getting priority to feed into the grid in many places — the amount of electricity being generated is outstripping demand during certain hours of the day.

The result: power prices are slipping to zero or even below more often in more jurisdictions.

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Periods with negative prices occur when there is more supply than demand, typically during a mid-day sun burst or early morning wind gust when demand is already low. A negative price is essentially a market signal telling utilities to shut down certain power plants. It doesn’t result in anyone getting a refund on bills — or in electric meters running backward.

Instead, it often prompts owners of traditional coal and gas plants to shut down production for a period even though many of the facilities aren’t designed to switch on and off quickly. It’s left the utilities complaining that they can’t earn the returns they expected for their investment in generation capacity.

Even Minor Dehydration Can Make Thinking More Difficult

If climate change leads to increased temperatures throughout the world, people will sweat off water faster, meaning that they will become dehydrated more quickly. This has clear implications for possibly reducing the average level of decision making among humans.

If you’re finding it hard to get your thoughts straight, dehydration could be to blame. An analysis of previous research has found a link between dehydration and poor performance in tasks that need serious focus or advanced mental processing.

While we know that staying hydrated is good for us for all kinds of reasons, this new meta-study was designed to take a closer look at exactly which brain processes might be affected and at what level of dehydration.

It turns out that at just a 2 percent level of body mass loss due to dehydration – so losing about a litre of water through sweat – the mental imbalance starts. That underlines how crucial it is for us to keep up our water intake, and how damaging it might be to the mental agility we all rely on if we don’t.

“We find that when people are mildly dehydrated they really don’t do as well on tasks that require complex processing or on tasks that require a lot of their attention,” lead researcher Mindy Millard-Stafford, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Allison Aubrey at NPR.

Millard-Stafford and her colleague Matthew Wittbrodt looked at 33 previous studies linking dehydration with mental performance. In total, the studies covered a total of 413 individuals experiencing between 1 percent and 6 percent of body mass loss through dehydration.

That 2 percent point seems to be the tipping point when it comes to staying mentally sharp. According to the experts, it would maybe take an hour’s hike to get to that level.

What’s more, it’s a level of dehydration that we might not actually notice through triggers like increased thirst: so mental performance could decline even when we don’t feel like we need to take on any water.

The analysis backs up previous research suggesting that dehydration impairs some mental processes more than others, with attention, executive function, and motor coordination particularly hard hit. Lower-level tasks like reaction time aren’t as badly affected, the meta-study shows.

While it’s different for every individual, experts recommend that women get up to 2.7 litres or 95 fluid ounces (11.5 cups) of water every day, and men up to 3.7 litres or 130 fluid ounces (15.5 cups).

The body as a whole is 60 percent water, which it leverages for jobs like transporting nutrients around the body and lubricating our eyeballs.

When there isn’t enough water available – it’s regularly lost through sweating and urination – these vital functions start to break down. We become thirsty, start to feel nauseous, and become more likely to feel exhausted.

Insightful Noam Chomsky Interviews

Much of importance is worth noting here.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIOCORTEZ: I do think that the way that we won in New York 14 is a model for how we can win almost anywhere. I knew from the outset that—you know, I had no misconceptions of the fact that the New York political machine was not going to be doing me any favors. And so I didn’t—I tried to kind of come in as clear-eyed as possible. And I knew that if we were going to win, the way that progressives win on an unapologetic message is by expanding the electorate. That’s the only way that we can win strategically. It’s not by rushing to the center. It’s not by trying to win spending all of our energy winning over those who have other opinions. It’s by expanding the electorate, speaking to those that feel disenchanted, dejected, cynical about our politics, and letting them know that we’re fighting for them.

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AMY GOODMAN: And the issues you ran on?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIOCORTEZ: And the issues I ran on were very clear, and I think it was an important part to us winning: improved and expanded Medicare for all; tuition-free public colleges and universities, as well as trade schools; a Green New Deal; justice for Puerto Rico; an unapologetic platform of criminal justice reform and ending the war on drugs; and also speaking truth to power and speaking about money in politics not just in general, but how it operates in New York City.

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NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I think there’s—her victory was a quite spectacular and significant event. I think what it points to is a split in the Democratic Party between the—roughly speaking, between the popular base and the party managers. The popular base is increasingly, essentially, social democratic, following, pursuing the—concerned with the kinds of progressive objectives that she outlined in those—in her remarks, which should be directed not only to expanding the electorate but to the general working-class, poor population of the world, of the middle-class population of the country, for whom these ideals are quite significant. They can be brought to that.

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I think she was right in saying that the policies she’s outlined should have broad appeal to a very large segment of the population. We should bear in mind that, for now almost 40 years, since the neoliberal assault began, taking off with Reagan, on from there, a large majority of the population are living in conditions of stagnation or decline. Real wages are—for, say, male real wages—are about what they were in the 1960s. It’s been—there has been productivity growth. Hasn’t gone to working people. It’s gone into the very few extremely overstuffed pockets.

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Notice, as everybody’s well aware, the tax scam was a purposeful effort not only to enrich the super-rich and the corporate sector—corporate profits, of course, are overflowing—but it was also an effort to sharply increase the deficit, which can be used—and Paul Ryan and others kindly announced to us right away what the plans were—the deficit could be used to undermine any elements of government structure which benefit the general population—Medicare, Social Security, food for poor children. Anything you can do to shaft the general population more can now be justified under the argument that we have a huge deficit, thanks to stuffing the pockets of the rich. This is an astonishing phenomenon. And under those conditions, a properly designed progressive program should appeal to a large majority of the population. But it has to be done correctly and not shaped in ways which will appease the donor class.

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We should be considering why people are fleeing from their homes. Not because they want to live in slums in New York. They’re fleeing from their homes because their homes are unlivable, and they’re unlivable, largely, because of things that we have done. Overwhelmingly, that’s the reason. That tells you right away what the solution to the crisis is: rebuild what we’ve destroyed, compensate for the atrocities that we’ve carried out. Then the flow of refugees will decline. And for those who come with asylum pleas, they should be accommodated in a humane and civilized way. Maybe it’s impossible to imagine that we can reach the level of civilization of the poor countries that are absorbing refugees.

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AMY GOODMAN: Federal officials say 711 children remain separated from their parents, despite Thursday’s court-imposed deadline for the Trump administration to reunite all migrate children separated from their parents by immigration officials at the border. More than 400 of the children have parents who have already been deported from the United States.

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NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, it’s a major scandal, of course, and properly condemned throughout the world. Taking children away from their parents, sending them off somewhere, losing track of them, you know, it’s hard to think of a more brutal and sadistic policy.

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You’ll notice there’s one—there’s two countries in the region from which there haven’t been refugee flows. One is Costa Rica, which happens to be the one country that sort of functions, and not by accident, the one country that the United States has not—in which the United States does not intervene militarily to overthrow the government and run a military regime. The other is Nicaragua, which differed, which also suffered severely in the 1980s from Reagan’s assaults. But Nicaragua was unlike the other countries of the region: It had an army to defend it. In the other countries, the army were the terrorists. In Nicaragua, the army could, to some extent, defend the population from Reagan’s terrorist forces. And though there’s plenty of problems in Nicaragua, it hasn’t been the source of refugee flow.

So, essentially, what President Trump is saying is, we’ll destroy your countries, slaughter you, impose brutal regimes, but if you try to get out, you’re not going to come here, because America is full.

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NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, my frank opinion is that—I must say I don’t pay much attention to television, so I don’t know a great deal about it. But, in general, I think the media—first of all, Fox News is, by now, basically a joke. It’s, as you said, state media. The other media, I think, are focusing on issues which are pretty marginal. There are much more serious issues that are being put to the side. So, the worst of—even on the case of immigration, once again, I think the real question is dealing with the roots of immigration, our responsibility for it, and what we can do to overcome that. And that’s almost never discussed. But I think that’s the crucial issue. And I think we find the same across the board.

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NOAM CHOMSKY: Trump has basically one principle: me first. That’s almost all of his policies, and wild statements and so on are perfectly well explicable within—under the assumption that that’s what’s driving him. Now, that—crucially, for him, he has to ensure that the Mueller investigation is discredited. Whatever they come up with, if it implicates him in any way, the way the media and political culture function, that will be considered of enormous significance, much more significance than his pursuing policies on the environment which may destroy human civilization.

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NOAM CHOMSKY: We can’t overemphasize the fact that we’re in a unique moment of human history. In fact, we have been, ever since 1945. In 1945, human history changed dramatically. In August 1945, humans demonstrated that their vaunted intelligence had created a means to destroy life on Earth. Didn’t quite have it yet at that point, but it was obvious that it was going to extend and expand, as it in fact did.

A couple of years later, 1947, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists established its famous Doomsday Clock. How far are we from midnight, terminal disaster? It was set at seven minutes to midnight. It once reached two minutes to midnight, 1953, when the U.S. and then the Soviet Union detonated thermonuclear weapons, which do have the capacity to essentially destroy life. Then it’s oscillated variously. It’s now back at two minutes to midnight—with an addition.

It was not known in 1945 that we were not only entering the nuclear age, but entering a new geological epoch, what geologists call the Anthropocene, an epoch in which human activity is having severe and deleterious effects on the environment in which human and other life can survive. We also entered into what’s now called the sixth extinction, a rapid extinction of species, which is comparable to the fifth extinction 65 million years ago when an asteroid, huge asteroid, hit the Earth, we know.

The World Geological Society finally settled on the end of World War II as the onset of the Anthropocene—sharp escalation and destruction of the environment, not only global warming, carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, but also such things as plastics in the ocean, which are predicted to be greater than the weight of fish in the ocean not far in the future.