Burning down the house – global environmental consequences of tyranny in the United States

NRDC November 2019

Published in Medium

As a nation we have passed a political tipping point. The effects of decades of divisive rhetoric from right wing media and craven zero-sum political manipulation of race and economics by the GOP will be with us for decades to come. With the election of Trump our nation has been consumed by the negativity of his corruption, denial of science, overt racism, outright lies, and unending illiterate demagoguery.

The divisions in American culture are deeper than ever and unlikely to be healed by a general election. We have paid a horrific price for not standing up to tyranny when it became apparent that the GOP would do whatever is necessary to maintain minority rule and that major media outlets would support these efforts. Despite the political fallout from Black Lives Matter protests and the federal mismanagement of the pandemic, it remains entirely possible or even likely that Trump will be re-elected or that the November election process will be manipulated.

At this point in our history it is reasonable to think that the democratic republic of the United States cannot be quickly recovered. Should the GOP and Trump be turned out by this election, there will remain much to repair in our democracy because of decades of cronyism and gerrymandering. Although the Republican party is mostly to blame for this carnage, the Democrats have at minimum been complacent and even complicit when it benefited their political agendas.

Many do not comprehend the enormous impact the United States has had on the global environment. As the world’s largest consumer nation, it is arguable that through greed and globalization we broke the world. As the third most populous nation and the highest per capita emitter of carbon our environmental impact is immense. We have the biggest economy and military and our economic power is maintained at least in part through intimidation. Re-election of an anti-science and anti-environmental administration will ensure that that the US will continue on this path of global destruction.

Abdication of the moral responsibility for climate change by the United States will go down in history as one of the most criminal acts by a single nation. According to a report in Nature in September 2019, the US is responsible for 25 percent of the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. Collectively, the other more than 190 nations are responsible for the remainder with China being the largest single nation contributor at 13 percent. A significant amount of China’s emissions represent manufacturing for export.

Rather than lead the world in addressing the climate crisis, the government of the United States continues to deny the reality of climate change, and when this is shown to be untenable, to delay any action to address it. Of the major political parties of the world, the GOP is the only one to staunchly adhere to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of climate change. The fossil fuel industry in the US has been at war with climate science for over 40 years.

Descent into a one-party authoritarian state by a US government hell bent on domination of global markets and unwilling to participate in the Paris agreement will have impacts that will affect our climate and global ecology literally for centuries to come. This is because removal of carbon from the atmosphere through natural processes requires centuries to millennia. Everything is at stake during the next few years. The electoral process in November will be the most important since the founding of our nation. It will have a planetary impact.

Tyranny and one-party rule are easy, and democracy and republics are hard. Recent events have demonstrated that our system of checks and balances is broken. Trump’s defense during the impeachment was that the president is above the law. This is in direct contradiction to our founding documents. During the trial in the Senate, the Chief Justice permitted jurors to declare how they would vote in advance, choose not to listen to evidence, or call witnesses. The trial of Donald J. Trump was rife with threats that the GOP and Trump would exact revenge on any who voted to convict. Key elements of authoritarian rule were on display throughout the trial and there was little that the public could do to intervene.

There is no doubt that there has been a war against science. As of 20 May 2020, the Trump administration has reversed 100 mostly science based environmental regulations. Many of these reversals will have global consequences. Rather than regulate, the EPA has become little more than an advocate for polluting industries. Rank and file members of federal agencies such as EPA, NOAA, USDA, CDC, NSF, FDA, and the National Park Service have been fearful of reprisal through budget cuts or loss of employment if they report honestly on the relevant science.

Many of these highly trained experts toe the line in order to avoid repercussions and senior scientists have left for positions outside of government. A report in May found that almost 400 employees of the EPA believed that a manager had interfered with or suppressed scientific information. Presently the EPA is using the pandemic as a pretext to dismantle environmental protections. At NSF and other agencies, program officers have been asked to omit the phrase “climate change from documents. This was my personal experience as a program officer at NSF during 2017. Many employees of these agencies simply avoid working on this issue.

The latest modeled projections for climate change are starkly terrifying. Although there is ongoing assessment of the degree of climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 and the validity of these models, there can be little doubt that the current rate of warming will be catastrophic for many parts of our planet. Even if all commitments from the Paris Agreement are met, it is very likely that average warming will be at least 3˚C. Although this will not end civilization, the humanitarian and ecological impacts of this will be immense. The Earth System, which includes the climate, oceans, biosphere, and geosphere, will continue to be massively disrupted by human actions.

The dramatic drop in emissions during forced confinement of the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic presents an auspicious moment to implement green choices that will serve generations to come. Unfortunately, it is clear that federal and state governments fully intend to open the US economy during the pandemic without consideration of the opportunity to implement reductions in emissions. The IEA presently projects that demand for oil will soon reach pre-pandemic levels and several projections show that emissions will come roaring back with business as usual.

As described with uncharacteristic bluntness by the IPCC special report in fall 2018, we have less than ten years remaining to stem the tide of emissions in order to remain below 2˚C overall warming. If the newest model projections are correct, this timeline is significantly shorter. It seems very unlikely that we can make the planetary changes necessary without leadership and strong compliance by the United States. To be sure, China and Europe must change as well, but all is lost without leadership by the country responsible for most of the emissions in the atmosphere. We are out of excuses and out of time.

The most important thing we can do as individuals is prepare our kids to live in a hard world. There is no way to soften the reality that this century will see millions of climate refugees, multiple simultaneous crop failures and famine, acceleration of extreme weather events including floods and droughts, and climate driven expansions of disease. The public health reality that our children will face is beyond anything the current system is designed to support. Developing nations in Africa and the global South will suffer the most severe impacts, although these nations contributed least to the cause.

The United States is increasingly considered to be a pariah state by Western democracies. It seems reasonable that we can expect retaliation as it becomes clear that we are responsible for much of the suffering that will unfold. This is more than a heartbreak for someone who grew up in the largess of the postwar era when everything seemed possible. I am rightly and deeply ashamed of what we have become.

Death taxes and science denial

This is a more recent version of a post that I made in 2017. It seems clear that attacking science never goes out of style (ask Galileo and James Hansen), so I guess it is time to revisit this issue.

The Conversation.

Indelible in my memory is that day that I lost my political virginity. In March 2007 I was just beginning to deliver an invited talk on the science of climate change to a joint committee of the Florida legislature when a conservative senator rose from his seat and called me a charlatan and demanded that I be dismissed. I was asked to step down.

The good news is that I finished my talk on time. The bad news is that the Florida legislature made it abundantly clear that the topic of my talk would be censored. Only one newspaper in the state carried the incident, and the denial of science in Florida became even more extreme under the administration of Rick Scott, who banished the term “climate change” from official business.

The current administration under Ron DeSantis seems finally to be taking environmental issues seriously, but this is largely because they can no longer be swept under the rug. The consequences of climate change and widespread despoiling of Florida’s freshwaters are abundantly apparent to even the most hardened denier. The public is demanding a response from Tallahassee.

Like death and taxes, the denial of science is a constant. The current denial of science with respect to COVID-19 is essentially the same story as the denial of climate change, but it is playing out much more rapidly. Climate change has unfolded over decades, but we can see here and now the COVID-19 dead in ERs, ICUs, morgues, refrigerated trailers, and graveyards. Death and suffering have touched every corner of the US.

The best science delivered by our leading experts has been ignored and denied by key members of the GOP in the US Senate, and of course, by Trump and much of his administration. Delay and refusal to acknowledge the COVID-19 threat by the administration has cost thousands their lives. All leading scientific authorities project that a disorderly opening of the US economy will kill thousands more.

Within the lay community there is profound confusion and anger about the science of the pandemic. Of course, some of this is the desire to shoot the messenger, but much of it is driven by a disinformation campaign that is strikingly similar to that propagated over the last 30 years about climate change. The fossil fuel industry and various corporations have invested massively to undermine attempts by governments to address climate change.

My friends from my hometown include many who are hard rightwing in their views and they are profoundly distrustful of science. They are angry at the experts who have testified before Congress about COVID-19 and they argue that the media cannot be trusted. They feel that experts are lying to them in order to promote a liberal agenda. There is overwhelming evidence that much of this disinformation is coming through social media propaganda funded by rightwing organizations.

Much of the confusion about the science of COVID-19 derives from widespread misunderstanding of the nature of science. Dr. Naomi Oreskes is a leading international scholar on the practice and history of science. Her recent TED talk is one of the best that I have found to convey the basic tenets of science. She masterfully demonstrates that there is no such thing as the scientific method. Science proceeds through many means of discovery, and inductive and deductive reasoning. The fundamental universal commonality for all good science is the critical skeptical review of findings by the scientific community. All hypotheses, no matter how long standing or venerable, are subject to re-evaluation and falsification.

Naomi Oreskes TED talk on the nature of science

It is important for the public to realize that the sciences are an ever-changing mosaic of scholarship that is self-correcting and never finished. It is natural for people to want answers to difficult questions such as when it will be safe to return to business as usual. The lay public often fails to grasp the depth and breadth of the scientific enterprise, which involves hundreds of thousands of experts from every corner of our planet. Arguably, the creation of such amazing scholarship is the greatest accomplishment of civilization.

As a scientist I will continue to point the public to the most authoritative sources available and hope that something sticks. Unfortunately, the phenomenon known as “cultural cognition” is a major factor in the acceptance of science. It is a person’s cultural milieu that is a major determinant of what information they are willing to trust. Most often it is not the facts, but rather who is speaking and who is hearing that determine the acceptance of scientific understanding. Such tribalism is the dubious luxury of a time when our populations were small, but the denial of facts will be catastrophic for a globalized civilization.

Science can only provide a framework for understanding the issues involved and make recommendations based on the best data available. The best data available as I write this shows that it will be monumentally stupid to open the US economy without very strong measures in place to control the spread of the virus. Americans are notoriously undisciplined and not likely to follow the guidelines that have made return to normality possible in countries such as Denmark, New Zealand, and others. The consequences for public health in the US have already been profound, and based on the best science that I have studied, likely to get much worse.

I wish that science could give the public definitive proof about when it will be safe to return to business as usual. Unfortunately, science does not work this way. Unequivocal evidence for how the virus works will require enormous meticulous effort by experts all over the world, and this takes time. I implore my conservative friends to avoid extreme responses based on their political perspectives. I ask them to get their science from sources that are directly linked to the peer reviewed literature. Although papers in many scientific journals are impenetrable for someone with a high school degree, there are aggregators such as ScienceDaily and ScienceX that provide accessible summaries of the scientific literature. Journals such as The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and Nature often provide lay summaries of important papers.

It is likely that science will never provide answers to our most important questions about, well, the reality of reality. What is the universe? I don’t know, and importantly, you don’t either regardless of your high opinion of your beliefs. Despite our hubris and belief that someday we will have all the answers, I am certain that there will always be mysteries. Science is a chaotic and messy process that is always pushing the boundaries of what is knowable. Rather than cry conspiracy and hate science when it reveals something you don’t like, approach new understanding with equanimity and willingness to grow.

Question. Read. Learn. Grow. Rinse and Repeat.

The economy of nature and the case for big government

I am an economist. As a professional ecologist I have been trained in the economy of nature. It is only those economists that service the financial industry who treat the human economy as if it is separate from the economy of nature. Since the time of Adam Smith the evidence has been overwhelming that they are tragically wrong.

I continue to be impressed by the twisted economic logic that has been applied to the mitigation of climate change and now to the management of COVID-19. In both cases governments and the financial industry have acted on the assumption that growing the economy, or in the case of COVID-19 rebuilding it, will fix these problems. Yet in both cases it obvious to most scientists that failure to address the underlying dysfunction makes it impossible to maintain a healthy economy, or for that matter, a functioning civilization.

In the case of climate change, the neoliberal capitalist argument is that economic growth will ameliorate or even obviate the damages from climate change. Of course, economists say, we will simultaneously pursue some measures to reduce emissions (e.g., clean coal through CCS), although the evidence is clear that continued additions to the greenhouse gas burden of the atmosphere will hasten the wholesale transformation of the Earth System. We are already on the happy road to hell and ecologists know that we are out of time.

As evidenced by a recent poll at Davos, economists and big businesses have not gotten the message. They argue that with a big enough economy, climate change will not matter….well, at least not matter so much for wealthy nations. Thus, we drill baby drill in Ecuador, Federal lands in the US West, in Siberia, and in the Arctic while mining increasingly hard to get oil from tar sands and through fracking.

COVID-19 represents the same failure of clear thinking by many of the world leaders, but its damage is unfolding much more rapidly. This is especially true in the US. After a chaotic and weakly effective national strategy for control, the government has decided that the cure is worse than disease. The Trump administration and many state and local governments are opening the economy without the necessary controls to manage the disease (see Sweden for how to get it right). This is especially, but not exclusively, underway for those governments dominated by the GOP.

All respected scientific groups in the world predict that this will result in tens of thousands more deaths and massive morbidity that will afflict perhaps millions for the remainder of their lives. There is much that we don’t know about COVID-19 pathology. With such a half-assed strategy in several Western democracies and especially in the United States, COVID-19 will continue to cripple the global economy and it is unlikely that some sectors such as air travel will ever recover.

For both climate change and COVID-19 we need systemic change that can only be managed through massive government intervention. This requires WWII-level investments of cash and management of resources on a global scale. In the case of climate change, millions of people must be put to work to restore the biosphere and the burning of fossil fuels for energy must be outlawed. For COVID-19, billions or perhaps trillions of dollars must be spent to save and restore the health of those afflicted. Treatment and long term care must be separated from the mercenary pharmaceutical and so-called health insurance industries. The health insurance industry should be so heavily regulated that it will be forced to abandon its present business model.

Addressing climate change and COVID-19 must be achieved through strategic transformation of the global economy. Such a transformation will entail rapid transition to renewable energy and net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible. Millions of people could be put to work in a transformed energy sector. Through creative financing the economy of nature could be partially monetized by creating value for elements of a restored biosphere. Addressing COVID-19 would require much more than an infusion of a trivial $1200 per month per person. Long term financial support of citizenry is necessary and restoration of the biosphere is a means of connecting the needed labor to government payments. Corporations should be supported only to the extent that they are willing to participate in the large scale retraining of workers and the overall transformation of the economy to a sustainable model. They should be required by law to actively participate in achieving net zero emissions.

Liberal democracy is founded on the understanding that good government is necessary for the preservation of civilization and the well being of citizens. As conservative elements have fully embraced neoliberal capitalism we have progressively crippled and dismantled the means of recovery from climate change and COVID-19 through good government. If there was ever a time in history when we need good, big government, it is now.

Their money and your life - the clarity of climate change and COVID-19

There are several parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, but perhaps the most disturbing is the intentional disregard of the value of human life in favor of money. This is hardly the first time since the end of WWII that money vs. lives has defined our daily lives. From the institutionalized denial of the damage from smoking tobacco, to the utter failure of the war on drugs, to the brutal promotion of addictive opiates by Big Pharma, financial gain by big corporations and wealthy individuals has defined the market based reality of modern existence. Nature does not matter unless it can be extracted, owned, and monetized.

The tradeoff between money and lives has always been a false narrative. It has never been a zero-sum game in which the one who dies with the most stuff wins. Most people know this, but they have been powerless to be different within a system that penalizes even modest attempts at transformation. Witness the anemic and largely failed Transition Movement in which communities tried to find a better way, only to fail within a global economy that will not support progressive change and new ways of producing goods and services.

The damage to the Earth System and our planet’s climate from fossil fuels is something that we have come to accept. Because we rely so completely on the benefits of the fossil fuel economy, we are inured to the damages that it inflicts on ourselves, on nature, and on the Earth System at the basis of all life on our little spaceship. Many economists fervently believe (hope?) that through technology the flow of energy and materials can be decoupled from natural processes.

The social costs of carbon include numerous forms of disease and disability, the poisoning of our waters and air, the breathtaking destruction of life in the oceans, the ongoing transformation of the world’s rainforests, and the social injustices that come with pollution and wars for oil. If you add it all up, millions have died already and many millions more will die because of climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

But, wait…what about all the lives that are improved by access to power and light and transportation? To be sure, these improvements are real, but we now know the irreparable damage being done to our climate and public health by the burning of fossil fuels. We also have a better way. There is no a trade off between lives and prosperity.

Despite the concerted war on science and the backlash from corporate interests and conservative politicians, clean energy is the future because it is the most cost effective form of energy to deliver in the near term. The transition will happen regardless of the efforts of the fossil barons. The reality of grid parity of renewables with fossil fuels has arrived for many energy markets.

Unfortunately without government intervention to outlaw the burning of fossil fuels the transition will not happen fast enough. Vested interests have maligned science and stood in the way of implementing the necessary changes for over 40 years. Although their days are numbered, they remain wealthy and powerful.

More importantly, the consequences of unchecked climate change will bring civilization to its knees. There is no technology or economic strategy that can obviate this incontrovertible truth. No amount of economic growth will make the damages from climate change acceptable. We are out of time and the consequences of further delay are clear.

Warming in excess of 2˚C will transform the Earth System to a state that is not consistent with supporting 9 billion people by mid century. The mortality from climate change and the burning of fossil fuels is already immense and by the middle of this century it will cost additional millions of lives. At 3˚C and higher there will be mass migrations of millions, multiple simultaneous crop failures and famine, pandemics, and increasingly unlivable conditions for billions living in the warmest parts of our planet.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a process that is rapidly causing pain, suffering, and death. Yet here too, science is being dismissed and maligned. The data and projections from all authoritative sources show without doubt that opening the US economy will result in tens of thousands of new cases and thousands more deaths. Yet there is widespread well-funded disinformation and political manipulation of the science in an attempt to energize a sputtering economy. There has been stonewalling of information from the CDC, WHO, and state and local authorities. We who have fought the climate wars are sadly familiar with these tactics.

For both COVID-19 and climate change the root driver of denial and delay is financial gain by wealthy individuals and corporations at the expense of public health. It is clear that people may suffer economically if we take the measures to mitigate COVID-19 and climate change, but addressing this is the role of good government. Liberal democracies exist in part to provide for the greater good during times of transition and crisis. The current hardship from unemployment reflects a failure of government as much as it reflects the consequence of the pandemic.

Let no one tell you that we lack the resources to address this suffering. There is no shortage of money or ability to support our citizens through extreme changes. Even with the massive government spending already committed, current indebtedness results in far less than the debt-to-GDP ratio shortly after WWII. We have met such crises in the past, and we can do it again.

We are a nation without a safety net, and COVID-19 demonstrates the consequences of this. If you have no job, no health insurance, no income, you will have no hope. As those you love suffer and die, you will believe whatever narrative that promises to make you whole. Totalitarian governments and dictators know very well that disenfranchised people are vulnerable to political manipulation and propaganda. Throughout the pandemic, science has been portrayed by the White House and the GOP as the enemy of the people. We are losing the war on the truth.

The important difference between COVID-19 and climate change is that the former is happening fast, while climate change has unfolded over decades. The deaths from climate change are spatially and temporally dispersed, while deaths from COVID-19 are here now, and fill ERs, ICUs, refrigerated trailers, and morgues.

Some of the people carrying assault rifles and protesting in state capitals will soon be dead from COVID-19. It is unclear if the near term impact of these deaths will change any minds. I doubt it. The right wing media has done an excellent job of inoculating millions of Americans against infection by science, data, facts, and reality. The delusion of the godless socialist liberal enemy will be carried to the grave by many of these poor souls.

The extractive neoliberal capitalist juggernaut is destroying our planet and our future. The saddest part is that we can see it happening and we seem powerless to stop it. We are shocked into inaction. We are terrified of the complete restructuring of our lives that is necessary to save ourselves and countless other living things on Earth. Without visionary leadership and a government that can function effectively, such change is unlikely to occur in time to save the lives yet to be lost from COVID-19 and to stop the ongoing dismantling of civilization as climate change accelerates.

Like many I believe that our best hope is the young people who demand change and look at us with accusing eyes filled with the tears of betrayal. Theirs is not a future full of hope and the joy of anticipation, but a future filled with hard work and terrifying consequences if we fail to change.

There are several parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, but perhaps the most disturbing is the intentional disregard of the value of human life in favor of money. This is hardly the first time since the end of WWII that money vs. lives has defined our daily lives. From the institutionalized denial of the damage from smoking tobacco, to the utter failure of the war on drugs, to the brutal promotion of addictive opiates by Big Pharma, financial gain by big corporations and wealthy individuals has defined the market based reality of modern existence. Nature does not matter unless it can be extracted, owned, and monetized.

The tradeoff between money and lives has always been a false narrative. It has never been a zero-sum game in which the one who dies with the most stuff wins. Most people know this, but they have been powerless to be different within a system that penalizes even modest attempts at transformation. Witness the anemic and largely failed Transition Movement in which communities tried to find a better way, only to fail within a global economy that will not support progressive change and new ways of producing goods and services.

The damage to the Earth System and our planet’s climate from fossil fuels is something that we have come to accept. Because we rely so completely on the benefits of the fossil fuel economy, we are inured to the damages that it inflicts on ourselves, on nature, and on the Earth System at the basis of all life on our little spaceship. Many economists fervently believe (hope?) that through technology the flow of energy and materials can be decoupled from natural processes.

The social costs of carbon include numerous forms of disease and disability, the poisoning of our waters and air, the breathtaking destruction of life in the oceans, the ongoing transformation of the world’s rainforests, and the social injustices that come with pollution and wars for oil. If you add it all up, millions have died already and many millions more will die because of climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

But, wait…what about all the lives that are improved by access to power and light and transportation? To be sure, these improvements are real, but we now know the irreparable damage being done to our climate and public health by the burning of fossil fuels. We also have a better way. There is no a trade off between lives and prosperity.

Despite the concerted war on science and the backlash from corporate interests and conservative politicians, clean energy is the future because it is the most cost effective form of energy to deliver in the near term. The transition will happen regardless of the efforts of the fossil barons. The reality of grid parity of renewables with fossil fuels has arrived for many energy markets.

Unfortunately without government intervention to outlaw the burning of fossil fuels the transition will not happen fast enough. Vested interests have maligned science and stood in the way of implementing the necessary changes for over 40 years. Although their days are numbered, they remain wealthy and powerful.

More importantly, the consequences of unchecked climate change will bring civilization to its knees. There is no technology or economic strategy that can obviate this incontrovertible truth. No amount of economic growth will make the damages from climate change acceptable. We are out of time and the consequences of further delay are clear.

Warming in excess of 2˚C will transform the Earth System to a state that is not consistent with supporting 9 billion people by mid century. The mortality from climate change and the burning of fossil fuels is already immense and by the middle of this century it will cost additional millions of lives. At 3˚C and higher there will be mass migrations of millions, multiple simultaneous crop failures and famine, pandemics, and increasingly unlivable conditions for billions living in the warmest parts of our planet.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a process that is rapidly causing pain, suffering, and death. Yet here too, science is being dismissed and maligned. The data and projections from all authoritative sources show without doubt that opening the US economy will result in tens of thousands of new cases and thousands more deaths. Yet there is widespread well-funded disinformation and political manipulation of the science in an attempt to energize a sputtering economy. There has been stonewalling of information from the CDC, WHO, and state and local authorities. We who have fought the climate wars are sadly familiar with these tactics.

For both COVID-19 and climate change the root driver of denial and delay is financial gain by wealthy individuals and corporations at the expense of public health. It is clear that people may suffer economically if we take the measures to mitigate COVID-19 and climate change, but addressing this is the role of good government. Liberal democracies exist in part to provide for the greater good during times of transition and crisis. The current hardship from unemployment reflects a failure of government as much as it reflects the consequence of the pandemic.

Let no one tell you that we lack the resources to do address this suffering. There is no shortage of money or ability to support our citizens through extreme changes. Even with the massive government spending already committed, current indebtedness results in far less than the debt-to-GDP ratio shortly after WWII. We have met such crises in the past, and we can do it again.

We are a nation without a safety net, and COVID-19 demonstrates the consequences of this. If you have no job, no health insurance, no income, you will have no hope. As those you love suffer and die, you will believe whatever narrative that promises to make you whole. Totalitarian governments and dictators know very well that disenfranchised people are vulnerable to political manipulation and propaganda. Throughout the pandemic, science has been portrayed by the White House and the GOP as the enemy of the people. We are losing the war on the truth.

The important difference between COVID-19 and climate change is that the former is happening fast, while climate change has unfolded over decades. The deaths from climate change are spatially and temporally dispersed, while deaths from COVID-19 are here now, and fill ERs, ICUs, refrigerated trailers, and morgues.

Some of the people carrying assault rifles and protesting in state capitals will soon be dead from COVID-19. It is unclear if the near term impact of these deaths will change any minds. I doubt it. The right wing media has done an excellent job of inoculating millions of Americans against infection by science, data, facts, and reality. The delusion of the godless socialist liberal enemy will be carried to the grave by many of these poor souls.

The extractive neoliberal capitalist juggernaut is destroying our planet and our future. The saddest part is that we can see it happening and we seem powerless to stop it. We are shocked into inaction. We are terrified of the complete restructuring of our lives that is necessary to save ourselves and countless other living things on Earth. Without visionary leadership and a government that can function effectively, such change is unlikely to occur in time to save the lives yet to be lost from COVID-19 and to stop the ongoing dismantling of civilization as climate change accelerates.

Like many I believe that our best hope is the young people who demand change and look at us with accusing eyes filled with the tears of betrayal. Theirs is not a future full of hope and the joy of anticipation, but a future filled with hard work and terrifying consequences if we fail to change.

We must do everything we can to help them shoulder the burden placed on them by our generation. We must stand with them in the classroom, in the boardroom, while protesting in the legislature, in line while they vote, and as they raise their voices in outrage while marching in the street. We must help them find courage to face down men with badges and guns. We must do all that we can to prepare them for lives that will be profoundly different from the ones that we have enjoyed. As we pass from the scene, we must leave them all possible resources to remake civilization and restore liberal democracy.

On the survival of civilization – Earth Day 2020

Unusual Weather Leads to Ozone Low Over the Arctic
Ozone depletion over the Arctic. NASA Earth Observatory

An Australian NGO has been following the anthropogenic decimation of our planet for the past few years. The group, known as The Commission For The Future of Humanity, notes that there are ten existential issues that could spell the demise of civilization during this century. No single one of these is unfolding in isolation because they are potentially mutually reinforcing calamities on a global scale. Note also that the Commission identifies ten issues, which is a suspiciously round number that is easily cited. To be sure there are other factors that reinforce the ten that they identify.

The 10 existential threats to civilization are:
1. Climate change
2. Environmental decline and species extinction
3. Nuclear weapons
4. Resource scarcity
5. Food and water insecurity
6. Dangerous new technologies
7. Overpopulation
8. Universal pollution by chemicals
9. Pandemic disease
10. Denial, misinformation, and failure to act

All of these are to some degree a consequence of human hubris and the deeply held assumption that we are separate from nature and thus masters of our destiny. Perhaps the universe is amused by this whenever she happens to look our way. These ten are also intersectional with and deeply linked to issues of social and environmental justice. It should be obvious in the midst of what is likely to be the hottest year on record and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that many of these dire threats are unfolding as we march inexorably toward a population of 9-10 billion by midcentury.

The Commission offers its views on how to get out of this mess, and I am sure that every armchair authority is certain that they have the correct solution. I encourage you to look up their work and read about the Commission’s approach. I also think you should STFU and listen to experts and scientists because you don’t know squat about it if you haven’t studied these issues – I am tired of hearing from you that it is simply overpopulation – you are wrong (equal rights does not mean that your uninformed opinion is equivalent to my 40 years of scholarship). In that vein, I offer the following observations that I hope will put the living parts of the Earth System into the mix as part of our understanding of these unfolding horrors.

The Earth System has been developing for over 4 billion years since the formation of the planet Earth. It is the climate, the biosphere, the geosphere, and the oceans. Most people cannot fathom the concept of deep time, but I encourage you to consider that the rhythms of energy and material flux on Earth operate on a timescale that is centuries to millennia to millions of years.

This means that the disruptions that we have applied to the Earth System in a mere 200 years have occurred far faster than only the rarest of occurrences in prehistory. Such rare events are things like an asteroid strike. Although the event itself may occur in the wink of eye, the transformation of the Earth System in response to such an event unfolds over tens of thousands to millions of years.

The implication of the role of deep time in the dynamic flux of energy and material in the Earth System is that our present disruptions will not be repaired or “fixed” on any meaningful human timescale. There is no technological trick or form of geoengineering that will reverse what we have done. For example, removing CO2 from the atmosphere through technology that is barely proven at present would not keep ecosystems from continuing with ongoing massive transformation.

Ecosystems exhibit system-level hysteresis. Thus large scale perturbations such as the mega-drought of the American West or the deforestation and burning of the Amazon will play out over hundreds or thousands of years before those ecosystems achieve a relatively stable relationship with the Earth System. The bottom line is that the ecology and climate of the “normal” 20th century are gone forever.

We must be prepared to manage the Earth System in perpetuity for so long as civilization is to thrive. We will not fix it and then all will be well. It is important to realize that the latter part of the Holocene is remarkable for its stable climate and this is the period during which all of civilization and agriculture developed. This goldilocks climate may very well have been a one-off in the history of glacial advance and retreat over the last 1.8 million years. No, this is not evidence of god, but merely the complexity of the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Forget about any moral obligation that you may feel toward the other living things on Earth. You had better worry about your own ass and those of your descendants trying to survive in a disrupted biosphere. It is a requirement that we manage the biosphere. Either we do it, or face collapse, and perhaps down the road beyond this century, extinction. We cannot decouple human use of energy and material from the dynamic flux of energy and material in the Earth System. What is truly remarkable is that we appear to have acquired this understanding in the nick of time.

You and I are gardeners and we live in a very ailing garden. Pick up your hoe and get to work, and hope like hell that it is not too late to save those parts of the garden that we need to survive.


Misrepresentation of business-as-usual emissions: The red herring of RCP8.5

The notorious Breakthrough Institute has been busy. Their director of climate and energy has been allowed by the editors of Nature to publish a critique of the use of RCP8.5 as BAU.* While it is true that many papers misinterpret RCP8.5 as being the worst case scenario and that this is equivalent to BAU, the authors of the RCPs recently reminded the climate community that RCP8.5 assumed maximum burning of coal , which is not what is happening and not likely to occur.  

We have been aware of the misuse of RCP8.5 for quite a while, but the purpose of the commentary in Nature was to make the claim that BAU will lead to about 3.0˚C global average warming by the end of the century. Of course, this level of climate change would be nothing short of catastrophic and the scientific community is nowhere near reaching a consensus that this is would be the outcome of BAU. Moreover, the latest estimates of Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity suggest that we are on track to warm as much as 6˚C. To be sure, this result is being questioned by leading climate scientists such as Gavin Schmidt. Stay tuned to see what happens as the various modeling groups work out their differences and validate the models. 

The problem with dismissing RCP8.5 is that one interpretation of the trajectory of warming indicates that we may be on this path or slightly higher. If so, what is the source of the additional climate forcing? This morning Michael Mann produced his review of the Nature article and notes that the spin in this commentary is not supported by the science. Mann points out the difficulty in assessing the track we are on, and more importantly, he emphasizes that we know almost nothing about positive feedbacks from the biosphere. Certainly these feedbacks are poorly constrained in projections, likely very large, and rapidly growing.

One good thing about the article in Nature is that it provides a brief explanation of the improvements in the scenario analysis that will be presented in the AR6. Under development is a subset of the SSP models (Shared Socioeconomic Pathways) that will function in a similar way to the RCP scenarios in the AR5.  Although this represents a conceptual improvement, the new scenarios promise to be very complex. The big unknown in all of this is what humanity will do. Our economy will be the driver of whatever path we assume moving forward. 

About the Breakthrough Institute

This organization got its start with an article entitle The Death of Environmentalism. The authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have since become the darlings of the business elite and they are featured regularly in the Wall Street Journal. Neither Shellenberger or Nordhaus has a terminal degree in any science, but they have apparent collaborations with conservative think tanks and conservative leaning scientists, such  as David Kieth at Harvard who is a leading advocate of geoengineering and has financial connections to corporate development of this technology. Nordhaus is the nephew of William Nordhaus, who won the Nobel in Economics for his development of an economic model for assessing the impact of climate change (Many of us regard this model as worthy of scorn, rather than a Nobel).

The Breakthrough Institute has no academic or scientific staff to speak of, yet they seem to have an outsized credibility in the press.  One of their recent “breakthroughs” is a white paper known as The Ecomodernist Manifesto. The most glaring flaw in their argument that we can have a “good” Anthropocene is that they ignore ecosystems and biosphere responses to environmental degradation and climate change. There is no mention whatever of the massive management efforts that would be required to realize this vision. 

Perhaps most worrisome about the Breakthrough Institute is their insistence that we should burn fossil fuels generously as we develop other sources of energy. Their rationale for this is that energy-dense fuels such as coal and nuclear will result in less climate damage than the rapid development of renewables. Although there is some logic in this, their argument about energy-rich fuels should not preclude the development of renewables. Moreover, they ignore the social costs of further development of fossil fuels. Needless to say, the fossil fuel industry loves the Breakthrough Institute. 

So what is the bottomline about RCP8.5? Depending on what the data show, it may be a useful surrogate for BAU, although this was not its intended purpose.  We need to see what the data reveal moving forward. There is no doubt that the big unknown is biosphere feedback


  • RCP = Relative Concentration Pathway; Developed to describe possible emissions scenarios in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). BAU = Business as Usual.

Methane bubbles and other surreal observations

Crater in collapsed permafrost on the Yamal Peninsula likely caused by methane emissions. Reuters.

Recently researchers have noticed several areas where large amounts of methane are bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The press has quoted one of the observers as saying that this is “terrifying.” Another recent report has declared that the Arctic tundra is now a net source of carbon emissions. Perhaps.

Has the Arctic passed a tipping point? Circumstantial evidence is pretty scary, but it needs to be put in the context of overall emissions from the Arctic biome. We need comprehensive inventories of these lands and waters to understand the extent to which these one-off events are truly cause for alarm. There is little doubt that the tundra is rapidly transforming, and there have been a distressing number of discoveries of such large gas eruptions in Siberia.

Make note of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This was a spike of 5-8˚C in the atmospheric temperature about 55.5 mya. Officially the academic community does not know what caused the PETM, but increasing evidence from stable isotopes is compelling that it was caused by pulses of CO2 and massive releases of methane. Methane has an intrinsically high forcing ability and a relatively short lifespan in the atmosphere. It is interesting that the PETM lasted only about 200,000 years, whereas other forcing events that involved large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane persisted for much longer.

There is a lot published on the ecosystem disruptions in the oceans and on land that occurred during the PETM and it is a model for what is unfolding as we warm our atmosphere during this century. The impacts of the PETM did not result in one of the five mass extinctions, but many species went extinct and there was wholesale disruption of the Earth’s ecosystems.

Recently a commentary in Science by two leading experts notes that the Amazon forest is very close to a tipping point. Deforestation and burning of the forest is now synergistic will increasing frequency of extreme drought. As a source of humidity, i.e. the trees, is reduced, the hydrology of the entire Amazon Basin is shifting toward drier conditions. The outcome of this is the creation of savanna, which has far less carbon uptake potential than the rainforest. The region that we have always assumed would absorb CO2 from the air is now mostly impaired. Along the way to this new state it will release enormous amounts of carbon and is becoming a massive positive feedback to the climate system.

We live in interesting times. What continues to amaze me is that as a species we can quantify and understand in explicit detail how we are destroying the Earth’s ability to support the civilization that has made this awareness possible. It is surreal.

Even stranger is the magic of CO2. Carbon dioxide is necessary for life and over billions of years the Earth has developed a dynamic flux of carbon among atmosphere, rocks, and living systems. This is part of the rhythms of our planet in which changes occurring over millennial timescales provides the substrate for the evolution of species and ecosystems.

Without anthropogenic influences during the modern era, CO2 should exist in our atmosphere well below 300 ppm. We are at 411 ppm as I write this. The last time our atmosphere contained ~400 ppm was the Pliocene, about 3 mya, and sea level was at least 6 meters higher than it is now. It is a rare gas that nourishes us all, yet if there is too much of it even if relatively rare, it can disrupt the climate that made possible the development of civilization. During this decade we have repeatedly been surprised by the sometimes extreme responses of the Earth System to about 1˚C warming.

CO2 and the other non-condensing greenhouse gases are responsible for the radiant energy structure of the atmosphere that makes the overall temperature of the Earth consistent with life. If CO2 were to be zeroed out, that structure would collapse and the Earth would become icebound with an average temperature below -20˚C. It is true that water vapor, a condensing greenhouse gas, is responsible for about 70% of the greenhouse effect, but only if CO2 provides the radiant energy structure of the atmosphere to allow sufficient capture of heat in the layer of air where we live.

The bottomline is that CO2 is the master thermostat for our planet and it has a rather narrow range of setpoints that are consistent with our needs. All of civilization and agriculture developed during the last 8,000 years, the stable period known as the Holocene, aka The Goldilocks Climate, because it was neither too cold nor too hot. It is entirely possible that the development of civilization is simply a one-off that may be just a blip in the unfolding evolution of the Earth System.

Amazingly, we understand these things about our planet even as we wreck it.