Posts Tagged 'Climate'

We Are Petroleum Junkies

Hydrocarbons are a dog-damned miracle. The things we get out of crude oil, from fuel to explosives, from fertilizers to clothing, from pharmaceuticals to candle wax, from pesticides to plastics, from asphalt to inks… it’s just mind-boggling. Mostly we think of gasoline, but that’s not the half of it. The stuff both powers and rules civilization: we wear it, we eat it, we breath it. And what happens to the stuff when we burn it radically transforms the planet.

That old baked plankton, all that life from at least a 100,000,000 years ago, we shoot it up the mainline! I’ve been reading Eric W. Sanderson’s Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. I think everybody should have a copy at home. The first half of the book is how we got here. The second, where we should go. (There’s a discussion of the book in this Roosevelt House/CUNY video.)

Here is where oil, cars, and suburbs have left us. Sanderson gives us a great primer on hydrocarbons and their “siren song,” which lured us into the mess we’re in now, especially during the halcyon days of the “cheap oil window” of the 1930s-1970s. I lived through some of this, but of course the times you grow up in always seem like the way things are, and always have been.

Part Two of the book is his vision of a new world. Here’s a teaser: we have to get rid of the automobile. Check! I’ve been on that track for some 35 years, never having owned a car.

You may have noticed the paucity of optimistic thinking about the future in recent decades, barring the usual bubble-mania-hype of the market. The Right even believes — gotta defend their privileges any way possible — that utopian thought leads, inevitably, to the gulag. Yup, straight line.

Yet in this mire we’re bogged down in, clear-headed thinking about the future, envisioning it (with actually existing technology, not science fiction), and proposing how to make those visions come true (politics) are more vital than ever. With The Dumpster approaching the White House, now more than ever. That makes this book a weapon. Arm yourselves!

Crime of the Century

“Models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climatic changes within the next 75 years…. Should it be deemed necessary to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels to prevent significant climatic changes, dramatic changes in patterns of energy use would be required.” A 1979 Exxon memo, one of many revealing finds from the investigations into the company’s attack on climate science.

Exxon, now ExxonMobil, knew very well of the dangers of anthropomorphic global warming. Their own people were telling them this through the 1970s and 1980s. But then, in the late 1980s, the corporation began to systematically corrupt politics and science by manufacturing a bogus “debate” to undermine what their own scientists were saying.

They were quite successful in their strategy. Many Americans — hampered by poor, if any, educations in science; an astonishing eagerness to believe in pseudo-science and conspiracy theories; and perhaps vestiges of primitive but still effective religious control — took the sharpened bait hook  right through their television-slackened lips. As a result, efforts to reduce emissions and/or prepare for extreme climate events have been stymied, delayed, and undermined. Things are only getting worse and we are woefully unprepared.

Only the Pentagon has taken climate change seriously, knowing the political instability and social chaos that will result around the world from superstorms, flooding, droughts, and sea level rise will mean lots of business for them.

ExxonMobil followed exactly the murderous strategy of Big Tobacco, whose executives knew for decades that smoking caused cancers but lied and libeled to hide this fact. ExxonMobil’s tools in Congress and in the White House continue to devour the future.

The Nature of the Beast

imagesLast Sunday, I discussed the enemy. Shall we call it capitalism? In his short book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson certainly does. “Our economic system is destroying the planetary life support system upon which we depend.”

Is this a controversial idea? I don’t think so, but I suppose it will be met with resistance in some quarters. Certainly everywhere people went as they diffused across the planet, the large animals disappeared–except interestingly enough in the place we started–long before the capitalist system emerged. Some might point an accusing finger at agriculture and the complex, hierarchal societies that developed from the need to store and record grain surpluses and manage rising populations. Talk about terraforming! Yet where today is Mesopotamia (Humbaba may have had his revenge over Gilgamesh after all)? The breadbasket of Rome? Rapa Nui? The only place “we” didn’t destroy the megafauna was back in the cradle of Africa, but we’re catching up there now.

Yet capitalism seems a particularly virulent engine of planetary destruction, predicated on continuous consumption and constant growth, which as Edward Abbey pointed out was an impetus shared by cancer cells. Likewise, everything must be commodified: resources, certainly; but also genomes; personal and familial relationships; such givens of the commons as water. Recently yet another bottled water company has admitted it’s nothing but tap water in the plastic containers that will outlive all of us by generations upon generations.

Inevitably, the “tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction” has resulted in our present condition: the sixth great extinction event on planet Earth.

I am always struck by the old echoes in the word consumption, which used to be a disease. Isn’t it still? The root of the word means a burning up from within; consumption the disease, better known now as tuberculosis, was seen as a consuming fire that wasted away the body. (Humans are such survivors that consumption, until it was beaten, temporarily, by antibiotics, was adopted as sort of fashionable pose, tragic yet worthy of operas.)

Now, one of the problems with fire is that it makes smoke. Pollution has long been capital’s smoke, from the toxins poured into the air, water, earth, and quelle surprise, human and all the other life forms, to the chemistry of fossil fuels itself. Human beings have never seen so much carbon in the atmosphere as there is right now.

(Next Sunday: the once and future world.)

The Real War

IMG_9542The great Bill McKibben is urging us to declare war on climate change, mobilizing like Americans did in the Second World War against the enemy. But is his enemy the right one?

We know how stunningly disruptive climate change is, and how much faster it is all happening, and how quickly the bad news piles up. But the definition of “enemy” needs to be more specific — for it is hard to fight a symptom (cf. “war against terror”).

Don’t we know the real enemy? Isn’t it the carbon industry, and beyond that an entire economic system that calls devouring the planet “growth” and pours its waste production into the commons (and commonwealth) as a cost the rest of us pay?

You may not know this, but McKibben, who is a personal hero of mine, has been on the climate front for a long time. The End of Nature warned about climate change two decades ago. But good deeds do not go unpunished. He has been declared a public enemy of those who profit off of carbon — the oil, gas, and related industries — and their wholly-owned representatives in the Republican Party. Hacks shadow McKibben, filming his activities, trying, it seems, to show he’s a hypocrite for living in this world, too. Similarly, climate scientists are constantly harassed by tools and fools, paid or not (and more than a few are just nihilistic antis) of the Koch brothers and others who have placed their fortunes and their twisted politics in the service of denying physics and chemistry.

For instance, we now know that Exxon has been well aware of the dangers of continued carbon pumping into the atmosphere for many years. Like the cigarette companies, they have spent decades lying, bullying their critics, and buying politicians, all in the service of profit-making misery and death.

The fight is political. The profiteers are well aware of this. True, some of the human beings at the helm of corporations are loathsome examples of humanity — the excremental monstrosity that wealth sometimes results in is too well personified, daily, by Donald Trump — but it is really the system that is the cause.

(Next Sunday’s sermon will return to this theme.)


I Dream of Winter

snowtreesWinter this year consisted of two brief cold snaps and a couple of snowfalls. One storm was substantial, but it had no follow-through, and was preceded by spoiling absurdities of municipal and media hype. Yesterday, when I took this photo on Union Street, we’d had a little bit of snow, but it was mostly gone by the afternoon. I wants my money back! It’s not over yet, at least according to the calendar, but skunk cabbage don’t care, it’s coming up. It was the hottest February on record. But we’ll break that next year, or the year after.

Sweet Spot Soured

Neither too close nor too far from the sun, Earth has been described as a “Goldilocks planet” because it’s just right. The term is also used for similar planets, those of the over 2000 exoplanets now discovered that are situated just right, too. More formally, planets in sweet spot orbits are in the “circumstellar habitable zone.” No sign yet of other inhabitants, though. No, it’s just us with our porridge heating up.

Of course, it isn’t just about location, location, location. Venus is closer to the sun, so it gets more solar energy, but it’s also shrouded in atmospheric gasses that act like the green-house effect on steroids. Average temperatures there are 864F/462C. The atmosphere is some 95% carbon dioxide. Heat gets in, as through plates of glass in a greenhouse, but doesn’t escape as radiation because of the blanketing effects of the glass-lake atmosphere.

When I think about global warming, Venus is always on my mind. Not a perfect analogy, and by far the worst case scenario, but still sobering. Because, you know, physics. Back here on Planet Home, CO2 is just a trace element. It makes up 0.04% of the atmospheric gasses, which are mostly nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). This percentage is also measured in parts per million, PPM: CO2 is currently 400 parts per million, and as you know, it’s been rising since we were all born. The climate action campaign was named after the limit stated in 2007 as the tipping point.

Now, it has been much lower, for most of human history, and it has been much higher, back long before us: half billion years ago it was 7,000 parts per million.

We humans have been humans in the Goldilocks period of CO2. But not even 1% of the atmosphere!? It certainly seems ridiculously insignificant, doesn’t it? But this tiny amount goes a long, long way because it is such a powerful greenhouse gas. It’s effect is outsized, because its helping to cook the atmosphere.

Here’s the thing: the warming will continue even if we shut off all carbon inputs into the atmosphere now. Its effects are building even without additional CO2. Physics again. Damned physics. The ice will continue to melt, affecting some 20% of the population as coasts and cities flood. But of course we’re nowhere near cutting off all carbon inputs. We’re aren’t even doing much to prepare for what is coming. This country, in particular, with its small population and huge appetites, is for all intents and purposes controlled by the carbon industry. It will not provide leadership.

But do we think the refugee crisis in Europe is bad now? Do we think that political rage is high now and fascists like Donald Trump can feed off it? Do we think that terrorism and chaos have reached their limit? The effects of global warming suggest we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. And I do mean we.

Sorry to start your Monday off with this. It’s entirely too early to drink.

Last Ocean

Weller_Antarctica031The Last Ocean by John Weller, published by Rizzoli.

This year, I’m going to try to be systematic with my natural history reviews. I begin with a remarkable book of photography.

Darwin knows, there’s a lot of nature photography out there on-line, in print, and on TV (and DVD etc.). A lot of it is lovely, but as this blog hopefully argues overtly and covertly, such exotica shouldn’t keep you from exploring the local with your own eyes. Of course, Antarctica is a place few of us will probably visit. And these photographs by John Weller are rather jaw-dropping. There’s a slide show on his webpage to give you an idea; the book itself is oversize and worth looking at in its paper format, a very different experience from the screen.

This is predominately a picture book, but the text is definitely worth reading. I was particularly struck by the passages on the mechanics of very cold water and the importance of the southern ocean to the world’s deep ocean currents; the explosive sound of Weddell Seals, nearly strong enough to burst human eardrums, and evidently used to stun prey; and the transformation of the region by climate change and resource exploitation, for in the Ross Sea the toothfish industry is doing the same thing fishing fleets have done for ever, stripping the world of a particular species. The Dry Valleys, a Martian-like region usually kept clear of snow, were a revelation: in this near lifeless zone, the mummified bodies of seals which wandered in centuries ago still influence the delicate balance of the microbiota.

The Martian analogy is telling: we spend a lot of time and enthusiasm looking into space, but we don’t know enough about, or care enough for, the life surrounding us here.


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