Category Archives: Climate Change

Climate Change, Corporations AND Us

I was reading my news feed this morning and hit upon this article about zero-waste which highlights the efforts of people and businesses to pre-cycle. Which is to say, eliminate trash via the re-use of containers for shopping. Excellent. That’s exactly what we need to be doing. But that’s actually not the point of the post.

Early in the article I hit upon this and it struck a nerve:

In response to these bleak realities, we’re often told that it’s all our fault. Because you didn’t bring your reusable tote bag to Trader Joe’s, that polar bear is now dead. This is a lie, of course — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a damning report that revealed just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions, most of them oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP. But it would also be a lie to claim that online shopping isn’t terrible for the environment — in 2016, transportation overtook power plants as the top producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the US, with a quarter of that coming from medium- and heavy-duty delivery trucks.

Are just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global climate emissions? Well, for fuck’s sake, no. One hundred companies might be the source but we are also responsible because those companies are selling their product to us. However you want to break this down, ultimately, the chicken comes home to roost on our porch. We drive. We purchase products that are sourced, manufactured, packaged and shipped to us. Then we throw away the packaging (or try to recycle it). Then we use it and throw it away (or try to recycle it).

Every aspect of our lives is currently based on fossil fuels. So, those 100 companies are no more or less responsible than we are. We’re all a part of this process. Headline and story writers should be more careful of writing text that helps readers absolve themselves of their participation in the cycle.

Climate Change Gloom

(Note: This was originally written to an extended family Apple Messages thread as I shared the video there. Once I started writing what was meant to be a couple sentences I just kept going. Seems shareable here too.)

Upon reading my news feed this morning I came upon this is an excellent video. Beautiful but sad. That said, I don’t think they hit on the title as hard as they should have. It get’s mentioned once but it should be more prominent in the story.

The point about adaption is that at this point, going forward, the carbon in the atmosphere cannot be removed. Even if we stopped all fossil fuel burning now (which we obviously won’t) the carbon in the atmosphere will remain for decades. So, the melting we see happening now will continue for decades. So, the effects of climate change that we see now will continue and become more intense for decades. Droughts, wildfires, melting, changes in food production capacity, flooding… basically, more intensity, less predictability, less stable. With the carbon already in the atmosphere we’ve committed.

The scenario, as dark as it is, turns much darker when you then consider: We’ve made no progress towards decreasing our carbon output. It’s growing not reversing and is likely to do so for the next few years. Best-case scenario (which is not likely given current politics) is we slow and reverse carbon output within 15 years. The reality is that our current output will remain steady and grow slightly for the next 15 or more years. Then consider, the human population is currently at 7.4 billion and growing. Projected to hit 8 billion by 2023.

Back to the title of that video… “The only thing we can do is adapt”. The sad truth is that every new release of information that comes out now always says the same thing, “This is all happening faster than we thought it was.” It used to be 150 out. Then 100. Then 50. What’s now being talked about is that it’s not 50 or 25. It’s happening around us. But most people just say, oh, it still snowed, it’s still cold here in the winter. Everything’s okay. See, look, brrr, so cold. But the truth is most people confuse weather and climate. Most people aren’t doing the science and most people aren’t seeing the changes with their eyes yet.

So, to the younger of you, sorry. We will all have to adapt. But you will have to adapt more. I feel very guilty. The only thing that softens it is that I know you too will continue to do the things we did. You’ll make the problem worse for yourselves and for your kids. So, in the end, though you’ll suffer more, you’ll likely end up being as guilty as the previous generations.

Of course, this was written as an American for Americans (see note above). The truth is that many others around the planet will suffer far more as a result of developed nations’ lifestyles. As I get older I realize that there is no actual justice in our world. Sure, we can have social and ecological justice as a goal but too few do and looking out toward the horizon I see no sign of that changing, certainly not in the U.S.

Much, much more to say but for now this will do.

More Quickly

More quickly than predicted. Over the past 20 years that has become a common statement in every serious article discussing climate change research. Here’s the latest and as usual, it is alarming. But, it’s to be expected and more of the same will continue to come.

Ice loss from Antarctica has sextupled since the 1970s, new research finds

Antarctic glaciers have been melting at an accelerating pace over the past four decades thanks to an influx of warm ocean water — a startling new finding that researchers say could mean sea levels are poised to rise more quickly than predicted in coming decades.

The Antarctic lost 40 billion tons of melting ice to the ocean each year from 1979 to 1989. That figure rose to 252 billion tons lost per year beginning in 2009, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That means the region is losing six times as much ice as it was four decades ago, an unprecedented pace in the era of modern measurements. (It takes about 360 billion tons of ice to produce one millimeter of global sea-level rise.)

Tasting Climate Change

James Temple writing for the MIT Technology Review:

In early November, gale-force winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno that nearly consumed the town of Paradise, California, and killed at least 86 people.

By the second morning, I could smell the fire from one foot outside my door in Berkeley, some 130 miles from the flames. Within a week, my eyes and throat stung even when I was indoors.

Air quality maps warned that the soot-filled air blanketing the Bay Area had reached “very unhealthy” levels. For days, nearly everyone wore masks as they walked their dogs, rode the train, and carried out errands. Most of those thin-paper respirators were of dubious value. Stores quickly ran out of the good ones—the “N-95s” that block 95% of fine particles—and sold out of air purifiers, too.

I’ve long understood that the dangers of global warming are real and rising. I’ve seen its power firsthand in the form of receding glaciers, dried lake beds, and Sierra tree stands taken down by bark beetles.

This is the first time, though, that I smelled and tasted it in my home.

There will be much more of this to come. This is, obviously, just the beginning.

Harvey is the new normal

David Grinspoon, writing for The Atlantic, Hurricane Harvey Lays Bare Our New Bargain With Nature

As I write this, the disaster of Hurricane Harvey is still unfolding. Buckets of rain are still falling in Houston and the waters are still rising. The flood damage, biblical in proportion, is frightening to behold. Even as the rescue efforts continue, many are wondering, “Is this the new normal for our coastal cities?”

As Earth’s climate changes we can expect more destructive hurricanes. As sea level and surface temperatures rise, more solar energy is trapped in the atmosphere, revving up the hydrological cycle of evaporation and precipitation, and sometimes manifesting in terrifying storms. Add to this the rapid and sometimes careless development of our urban areas in patterns which are, shall we say, not always strictly motivated by long-term planning for runoff management and neighborhood safety.

We’ve set ourselves for a lot of pain. Climate change is only getting worse and we’re doing little to change things.

Apple and the environment

If you’ve read this blog for long you may have picked up that I’m a bit of an Apple fan. But it’s also true that I have, since around 1990, I have oriented the way I live my life around the question, “Is this good for the health of the Earth?” Those that know me would probably agree with the suggestion that I’m a bit extreme in that regard. The way I look at it is that it is, fundamentally, a question lived ethics and survival. What we do everyday impacts not only our future survival but the survival of countless other species with which we share the planet. Our choices thus far have been leading us to the extinction of other species and quite possibly our own. Our time on this planet does have an expiration date. One day humans will no longer exist on this planet. That’s a given. But will we end our time here prematurely due to poor behavior? Increasingly it looks as though we will.

I have long argued (as many have) that capitalism is incompatible with the longterm health of the planet. As an economic system it is focused on profit and specifically short-term profit. Corporations have demonstrated time and time again that they don’t do well when it concerns the environment and questions of human social justice. In the past ten years Apple has begun to demonstrate that it is possible continue making a profit even as it undergoes a dramatic shift in it’s social and environmental impact from a negative to a positive. Apple isn’t just minimizing its negative impact but is attempting and succeeding at creating a significant positive impact.

In recent years as it makes these changes it has made an effort to communicate to the public what it is doing. On the face of it it’s pretty easy to dismiss as the usual greenwashing that many companies engage in when they care about that aspect of how they appear to the public. In other words, marketing. But here’s the thing, Apple has gone so far in changing the way it operates that it no longer appears to be trying to convince the public that it is a good corporate “citizen”. They have seemingly made it a part of their mission to set the bar of conduct at a new level. This is a sustained effort to shift the fundamentals of the company from one that prioritizes profit to one which puts environmental impact on an equal footing.

In the lead-up to Earth Day 2017 we’ve seen a push by Apple to share what it’s been doing in these areas. In past years they have done the same but with each passing year as the scope of their commitment deepens it seems to be a shift from corporate marketing to one in which Apple sees a “teachable moment” and is educating the public not for it’s own benefit but for the public good. They are setting an example not just for corporations but even for citizens and governments. They aren’t just meeting the too-low requirements and goals set out by governments. They are exceeding them and raising the bar and not just by a little. And then they are saying to the world, do better. Do much better.

A day or so ago John Gruber of Daring Fireball and The Talk Show published an interview with Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of Environmental Policy. I remember when Lisa Jackson moved over to Apple having served 4 years as head of the EPA under Obama. At the time I just figured, oh, the usual high-level corporate/government revolving door. I didn’t pay much attention to her. But listening to that interview I can only say that I am really impressed. She’s a fantastic asset to Apple as well as an excellent STEM role model who also addresses the connection between STEM and our social and ecological problems and needs. I’ve listened to it twice and might give it a third go. She offers some fascinating details about how Apple operates in relation to resources.

As an activist who protested Nike in the late 90s for it’s overseas labor policies I was keenly aware that Apple was having it’s own labor issues in the early 2000s (and probably before). I began paying attention then to both the labor and environmental practices of my favorite technology company with some hope that they would “Think Different” in their dealings with the world around them. They have not disappointed. While progress was made when Jobs was at the helm their move towards greater social and environmental responsibility really increased when Tim Cook took over. The focus on the social and environmental responsibility has intensified greatly over the past 5 years. This interview is an excellent summary of those changes. But what is truly breathtaking is the scope and depth to which they have gone.

It’s easy these days to become mired in a mix of hopelessness, despair, frustration and disgust. Our political system seems equal parts corrupt, inept, and circus. On the issue of climate change the U.S. has proven largely ineffectual and confused. From the public to government to business, we’ve made little progress at far too slow a rate. It seems very likely that we are past the point of no return and that all there is to do now is adapt and attempt to minimize what now seems to be inevitable. But I listen to this interview and not only am I inspired but I’m embarrassed that it is a company… a capitalist enterprise that is actually leading the way, that is setting the best possible example not only for other companies but for citizens. As someone who has long considered himself an activist (of sorts) I suddenly feel a bit ashamed of my despair. That might not be exactly it or quite the best way to put it but it’s close.

Also, Apple has put together four videos for Earth Day 2017. Good stuff.

And yet another bit of Apple and the environment bit of news, Macworld reports that Apple will return heat generated by data center to warm up homes:

Apple is building a new data center in Denmark, and it has some interesting ideas on how to power the data center with renewable energy, while also giving back to the community.

Excess heat generated by the data center will be captured and returned to the local district’s heating system, which will warm up homes in the community.

This is just one example of many that illustrates the scope of commitment that Apple is making to this effort. This is exactly the sort of project that Lisa Jackson is describing in the above linked interview with John Gruber.

Last but not least, Apple is set to move into it’s new headquarters, Apple Park. Much work is still being done but April was to be the month that employees started moving over. To say that I’m impressed with Apple Park would be a huge understatement. From native and edible landscaping to the heating and cooling to the local energy production, it is, by all accounts, the standard for large scale green architecture and landscaping.

Precarious

As is my usual routine I took my dog Cosmo out for our walk to the mailbox yesterday. Along the way I had a thought about the precariousness of our existence on Earth. We live in this sort of illusion as our daily life is wrapped in an assumption of stability. For the most part our human brains encounter the same environment everyday. Most of us wake up in the morning and are active during the day. The light from our sun scatters in our atmosphere, heating and lighting and otherwise presenting a world around us that seems stable. Somedays are cloudy, others sunny, often a mix of the two. As we go about our days we see a mix of human and non-human species, natural and human environments. We eat and breath, work, play, and talk.

But our life on this planet exists on the thinnest of onion skins. The biosphere of our planet, the zone in which all life happens is remarkably thin. While the actual thickness of the biosphere is not easily measured it generally falls within a range of 6.5 miles. At the highest we have birds flying as high as 1.1 mile and at the depth we have fish 5.2 miles below the water. There are examples of higher flying birds and deeper dwelling organisms but they are exceptions to the general. The diameter of the earth is 7,918 miles. The radius is 3,959 miles. Almost all life on our planet lives on the outer 6.5 miles of that.

The image above is to scale for size but not distance in orbits

The image above is to scale for size but not distance in orbits

As an amateur astronomer I've spent a good bit of time viewing and contemplating space and distance. For all of the beauty of the stars in the night sky, space is mostly empty. The space between stars is vast. The space between galaxies even more so. If we just turn our attention to our own solar system and what exists here well, again, it's mostly empty space. Our Sun makes up 99.86% of the matter in our solar system. Our Earth, though it is the densest planet in the solar system, is only the tiniest proportion of the mass of our solar system. It barely registers. On the scale of our solar system our Earth is merely a tiny point separated from the sun and other planets by vast distances. To get a sense of it watch this amazing video by Wylie Overstreet in which three guys drove out to the desert of Nevada with a to-scale model to demonstrate the spacing of our solar system.

Our lived experience, our world, is just a precarious, thin layer on what amounts to a very tiny planet. On a clear, dark night I can lookup and see several thousand stars with my naked eyes. In remote locations such as mine there is little light pollution and the atmosphere disappears. It is in this star-lit darkness that I can begin to experience the Earth as a space ship of sorts. It really is a living space ship. In our orbit around the sun we move through space at 67,000 miles per hour. But remember, our solar system is also moving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at 490,000 miles per hour. Of course we don't see it or feel it directly but it is happening nonetheless.

Life on Earth is precarious. It's stability is not permanent. Our sense of day-to-day continuity is something we're used to and something we assume will continue. I'd suggest that if more people had a better sense of how it all works, had a better sense of just how thin the envelope of safety is, perhaps they might be more inclined to take seriously the warning of science regarding climate change, habitat loss and other aspects of biosphere stability. It's too late to stop much of what we've set in motion but if we don't make real change very soon we will experience the worst case scenarios.

It’s up to us

So, Trump won the 2016 election. Yikes. Many are rightly concerned with what he and the Republican controlled congress will do. So many issues, far too many to cover here. No, this is a post about climate change because that’s one that affects us all and it’s the one that in the near and long term is causing significant damage to the ecosystems of our planet to the degree that our very survival is in question. For far, far too long people have looked to government for solutions. To technology and products for easy or even fun fixes. This must stop.

I think the real question is when will we all become the solution for the planet? I understand that laws can help, that federal funding can help. But each and every day every person on the planet makes choices, mostly going with the flow and the flow is harmful. This is especially true in the U.S. and other affluent nations where consumption of energy and goods have been far higher. It’s easier to go with the flow and so we do. We drive. We turn the thermostat to whatever makes us most comfortable. We buy food shipped in from across the country or world. We freeze our food, we refrigerate it. We buy new phones, tablets, and computers, big screen televisions, and huge houses to fill. New cars, new clothes, and the list goes on.

What. Are. We. Waiting. For? Must we really be told by the government how to behave? Forced? I get that corporations need such enforcement. The vast majority of them behave very badly in regards to the environment. But each of us? We can choose to do better. Every day we can choose to harm less but by and large we choose to harm more because its our way of life. Our way of life is based on consumption, comfort and convenience all of which are based on the burning of fossil fuels. That’s it. There’s no magic involved in fixing this.

DO LESS. CONSUME LESS. BE LESS COMFORTABLE. ACCEPT INCONVENIENCE.

A list of the things we can do everyday regardless of who is president:

Do the bare minimum in climate control of your home. If it’s cold outside be as cold inside as you can be. It was 30° today at sunrise. My tiny home was 50° because my heat was off. I was cozy because I was wearing warm clothes and was covered with blankets, a dog and a cat. I got up put on a jacket and made some coffee and oatmeal. In the summer I do the same. I do the best I can to deal with the heat. Eventually I turn on the AC just as this winter I will use heat. But I make a choice to cover up and to wear layers. I don’t assume it’s my right to crank my heat up to 70 or 75 or any other temperature.

Don’t drive unless you must. I work from home so it’s easy. I go to town once a week or less. I only go if I must and when I do I combine all my errands. If I forget something it waits until the next trip. When I lived in Memphis I walked and used a bike as much as possible. I did use a car when I needed to… and sometimes when it was convenient. But that’s when I made the wrong choice. Everyday our highways are full of cars most of which have only one person in them. That’s the wrong choice.

Take a train, not a plane. This is a big one. We fly the globe with little consideration of the climate change impact. If you’ve flown in the past year can you also say how much carbon your flight produced? Was it even on your radar? For some it may be but I’d guess that for most it never enters the equation. Why not? If we must travel we should travel by train as it is FAR more efficient.

Buy less. Buy used. Share. Make do. This is pretty straight forward. You don’t buy stuff unless you must. When you do buy you buy used if you can. Borrow first. Fix first. If you replace something and it is still useable (computers and gadgets especially) make sure it goes somewhere where it will be reused. Whether you sell it or donate it, be responsible for it because it’s not waste. It’s a resource with lots of energy bound up in it.

Reuse and recycle as much as possible. I stopped buying trash bags a long time ago. I use canvas bags for shopping but occasionally get the plastic bags that I use for trash. I throw away one of those plastic shopping bags filled with trash once every 2–3 weeks. Almost everything is recycled. When I do visit the dumpster it is always full of mostly recyclable materials that others are too lazy to recycle. Most “trash” isn’t trash at all.

Eat less meat, eat local food if possible. Food takes energy to produce and transport. Some takes more energy, beef and other raised livestock especially. This one can get complicated and probably requires it’s own post.

Do less in a general way. People are always on the go. Stop. Take a nap. Read a book. Take a walk. Just stay out of your car.

Last but not least, choose not to have children. This is another biggy that probably could do with it’s own post. Each human requires a lifetime of resources. There are 7+billion of us on the planet. We probably need to reduce that by lowering the birth rate.

This is just a partial list that covers some of the most obvious choices that also happen to have the most impact. I’ve had a thought in the past day that it would be great if we had a social media that combined aspects of FB, Instagram, Twitter etc but which was focused on making such changes. A website that offered an opportunity to commit to the most important, impactful choices that individuals can make. Such a site would include ways to share and document solutions and efforts. We should celebrate the effort and the change. Our social media hashtags should be about how we’re saving the planet. Our selfies should show our gardens and our produce. Our latest home improvement share should demonstrate practical repairs, re-uses and re-purposes. I think our use of social media has, to now, largely been about ego and status. That should change. It should be about supporting one another’s efforts to make the changes we must make if we are to survive.

Many of us were surprised by the election of 2016. Many upset. There’s much fear about the policies that will be enacted. The fears are valid. But much of the work we have to do would have existed regardless of the election. Especially in regards to the environment, much of what can happen, much of what needs to happen, much of what must happen, is in our own hands. We cannot wait for government to force us. We cannot wait for convenient technological fixes. We cannot wait. Me and you. We each make our choices. We must make better choices for ourselves and encourage others in our lives to do the same.

Off the Charts Heat

August might be a new record for hottest month ever recorded:

On Monday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that August 2016 has probably set a new record for the warmest absolute month ever measured, though it’s so close to July 2016 as to be in a statistically indistinguishable tie. That’s saying something, because Earth’s globally averaged temperature normally peaks in July — this year, that didn’t happen. Whichever month is a hair warmer, the conclusion is the same: When it comes to global warming, 2016 is something very special.