Thursday, November 16, 2017

America's Fateful Choice

As we approach the climax of the USA's fourth turning, a national consensus is brewing on the nature of our crisis and the way to overcome it. It hardly appears that renewed warning cries from The Union of Concerned Scientists are what we are preparing to rally around. Americans are loath to allow global concerns to trump our privileged status. On the other hand, threats to our great nation could lead us to intervene globally, saying with Lucifer, 'Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Paradise.' Only one problem with that: Lucifer is immortal. Mankind is not.

Hell could overwhelm Earth regardless of who reigns if humanity does not rally in the next few years to reclaim what we can of this lost Paradise. Then, what will it matter whether Putin, Xi, or Trump wore the one ring to rule them all? It is not just a matter of quality of life, it is a matter of life and death - for everyone.

A war between great powers, while culling masses from our overpopulated planet, will only delay action and waste resources needed to resolve the ecological crisis. If the war goes nuclear, it would doom untold millions even more quickly by accelerating the collapse of earth systems.

By James Vaughn
As Old Blowhard acts out his China policy, we will soon have a better idea of the USA's propensity to ignite the nuclear fuse. A war between the U.S. and Russia is now doubtful, but, unless the Un-President's Asia trip marks a real change of tone toward our next near-peer competitor, doomsday could be in the offing.  Let's hope that Xi realizes that the Fatty Trumpling is just a blowhard and also, that said blowhard would find a Gameboy should he ever pop open the nuclear 'football.' If his future actions vis-a-vis China comport with the airs he displayed while visiting, then we should be relieved. The strategic situation calls for retreat, not saber rattling.

When the two possible alternatives are permanent human extinction or a temporary era of difficulty, eliminating the first choice should be a no brainer. Are we such misanthropes that we would risk the lives of billions of humans just for a chance at greater personal freedom? Better for a nation to endure, for a spell, even the indignity of subjugation, than to endanger the whole world with annihilation. In the culmination of our secular crisis, whatever beligerence Old Blowhard engenders with China, let our singular consensus be to reject fratricidal war and, instead, turn as a nation to the intergenerational project of saving the planet.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


Leading up to COP-23 being held this week in Bonn, Germany, a flurry of reports on climate progress and solutions have been released by NGOs and governments. Drawdown was one of the early arrivals, but in the past couple of weeks, we have seen the annual Countdown report by The Lancet, a National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) report called Natural Climate Solutions, the fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment (Vol. 1), and the eighth annual Emissions Gap Report by the UN Environmental Program.

Of these, I gravitate toward Natural Climate Solutions, which is an independent update of work included in IPCC Working Group III (WGIII) for the greenhouse gas inventory sector referred to as agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU).  +Albert Bates offers a good case for prioritizing NCS, predicated by the understanding that these ecosystem solutions are only a small part of human activity required to prevent climate chaos. In NCS, as opposed to other remedial efforts, nature cooperates in restoring climate equilibrium, though humans, in their proper domineering role, intervene to initiate and manage that renewal.

Biochar, my chosen interest, ranks pretty high among NCS solutions, despite use of much lower estimates than scientists have offered. The NCS authors took pains to ensure no overlap when they compiled these, but in doing so, probably missed some synergies, partly because biochar is not just good for thirty years, but for hundreds of years. For biochar, synergies are possible with fire management, improved forest plantations, reforestation, trees in croplands, improved feed, crop nutrient management, conservation agriculture, and rice cultivation.

Granted, the problem we face must be dealt with quickly, but a long view puts the carbon net present value of biochar much higher than such a crisis management evaluation would include. For example, suppose reforestation included soil-ready biochar in the initial planting and added to the periphery of each tree's root tips each year for thirty years. That tree will likely grow healthy and live a hundred years or more, with larger and more plentiful roots, sequestering much more carbon than trees absent biochar. Those synergies were not assumed in the reforestation category or the biochar category. Another example of synergy, regardless of biochar's longevity, is the use of beetle-killed trees in providing biochar feedstock. This make biochar production more economical and helps with fire management and natural forest management.

Though synergies aren't accounted for in the NCS estimates (but possibly inadvertently included in the uncertainty ranges), they are still acknowledged in the larger sustainability context. The Nature Conservancy's summation concludes:
Most nature climate solutions—if effectively implemented—also offer water filtration, flood buffering, improved soil health, protection of biodiversity habitat, and enhanced climate resilience.
“The approach is synergistic,” says Justin Adams, managing director for Global Lands at the Nature Conservancy. “We can hit multiple targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals if we get this right.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Death Spiral

This week, the British medical journal, The Lancet, put out their annual assessment on the impact of climate change on human health. The report examines a small number of human health indicators and a much larger slate of human climate intervention measures to arrive at the conclusion that:
Many of the trends show positive change with time, most notably in global investment in zero-carbon energy supply, energy efficiency, new coal-fired electricity capacity, employment in the renewable energy sector, and divestment in fossil fuels. However, the change is relatively slow and must accelerate rapidly to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
Just how slow the change has been and how rapidly it must be accelerated is the subject of a report, also issued this week, by financial gurus from Stanford and the Hoover Institute. Both of these reports are a bit too opaque for the general reader, but the Energy 202 clarifies one salient point from the latter, i.e. that 2/3 of all private investment capital would have to go to clean energy projects in order for the world to meet the 2 C upper limit set by the Paris agreement.  Right now, the proportion of investment in this sector is less than 1/5 out of the total $3.4 trillion invested by pension, mutual, and sovereign wealth funds, alongside billionaires. So much for The Lancet report's saving grace, huh?

As we would expect in a report about human health effects, mortality due to weather-related disasters and diseases is reported by The Lancet. The figures appear to be fairly steady over the past ten years - nothing to get excited about. For that, one needs to look at forecasts, rather than statistics.

From Albert Bates at The Great Change
One forecast that includes global death rates is The Limits to Growth. The notional curve portrayed in this World 3 result shows deaths beginning to climb within the next few years as food scarcity kicks in and industry output declines. Sometime before 2050, deaths begin to skyrocket. A forecast curve showing climate-related deaths only, by Sam Carana, shows a similar steep rise in the next few years after being lulled by such steady, predictable death rates over the past half century. 

Point being, that we can't expect to keep seeing a stable death rate, whether due to climate factors or in general. Life is going to become much more precarious. The Lancet understates the severity of our predicament, but deserves the last word for prompting this look at how close we might be to human extinction.
We found that the symptoms of climate change have been clear for a number of years, with the health impacts far worse than previously understood... Climate change has serious implications for our health, wellbeing, livelihoods, and the structure of organised society. Its direct effects result from rising temperatures and changes in the frequency and strength of storms, floods, droughts, and heatwaves—with physical and mental health consequences. The impacts of climate change will also be mediated through less direct pathways, including changes in crop yields, the burden and distribution of infectious disease, and in climate-induced population displacement and violent conflict.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Genocidal War Against Nature

You hear it a lot from this President. His favorite put down: "He (she) is low energy." It is a bit odd that energy seems to be a critical attribute that Old Blowhard applies to his assessments.

Trumpists can't abide low energy. Their leader, The Pretender to the Presidency, recently gifted them with the promise of, not merely high energy, but Energy Dominance - a big relief to them, because they were beginning to sense that energy was running low. Shale oil isn't living up to their dreams, so they are leaning more toward more remote sources like deep ocean beds. With shortages projected for 2018 and the price of oil moving up, it would not surprise me to see investment rise in this area.

In the spirit of Energy Dominance, the biggest lease auction ever of offshore oil and gas drilling rights has been announced by the Department of the Interior for everything left in the Gulf of Mexico. (Shouldn't the Department of the Exterior handle these?) While the auctions should result in more takers than under the previous administration (when oil prices were ridiculously low), the operating and insurance cost of deep-water rigs makes returns-per-barrel less lucrative. Then there's the push to drill on the Atlantic seaboard, which some, like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, are resisting. The Arctic is also becoming more open to drilling, thanks to global warming. We sure can't be dominant unless we compete in that theater.

While a call for U.S. energy dominance may sound like a prelude to resource wars, I think these untapped domestic undersea regions will yield enough extra oil to endure the current power-obsessed regime with a modicum of energy. Oil may not incite the next war - not war in the usual sense, anyway.

The war that a policy of energy dominance perpetuates is one that has enveloped the whole world for decades - a genocidal war against nature. Together with the global effects on climate, compound effects from pollution and habitat loss impact ecosystems to various degrees. Climate change, itself, is not at a likely tipping point, but species diversity is in the red zone, at least in many locales.

Planetary Boundaries 2015 from Wikimedia Commons

Keep in mind that we are just one of millions of species on this planet. Extinction of other species could lead to that of our own. Even if God issues you a dominion mandate, the Creator doesn't want you to use it for genocide. Say a prayer for The Pretender. He knoweth not what he does.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Letting Off Steam over Leaky Pipes

Being skeptical of the natural gas boom and, in particular, Dominion-Cove Point's ability to operate for very long, if at all, due to a diminishing reserve of natural gas to export, working to prevent this from happening has not been high on my agenda. However, if tonight's Maryland Public Service Commission hearing in my town was of any help in slowing the runaway train of this plant's start-up, I will be pleased.

I addressed the commission tonight with regard to the changes sought by Dominion alleviating the limits on how much volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could be discharged from leaky pipes and valves. My major points pertained to the need for the commission to not make a rushed decision and to consider amending or rewriting the procedures for leak monitoring and repair.

It would surprise me if the Commission takes action on these recommendations, but I enjoyed having the opportunity to address the public with some cogent observations. If my recommendations were adopted, I could see the ultimate result being impacts to Dominion's bottom line, since it would require more attention to stopping large leaks promptly instead of at the convenience of the plant's shutdown schedule.

If the Commission accepts Dominion's proposed changes as is, then I could see the result being major health hazards occasionally realized, impacting vulnerable members of the community who live in the area where plumes drift outside the plant boundaries.

All-in-all, I think the liquefaction plant's over 2 Megatons of annual greenhouse gas emissions is the main problem, rather than the 20 tons or so of annual VOC's. Nevertheless, I managed to pull off my best public speech ever and hope there will be more opportunities to exercise a talent that has heretofore felt to be wanting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Welcome to Disasterland

I was talking to Colin, my next-door neighbor, yesterday about the impact of Hurricane Irma on the Everglades. As a U.S. Park Service biologist, Colin has spent many hours in the Everglades. He  unequivocally stated that the wildlife in the Everglades was seriously harmed by Irma. Yet, the Everglades took the hit for much of the human habitation on Florida's west coast. In a few decades, that won't be the situation since the Everglades will be swamped by rising seas.

Irma was a big hurricane that could have caused a lot more damage, especially if it had tracked up the eastern side of the state. As it turns out, the cost is estimated at $60 billion, yet we haven't figured in the cost of ecosystem damage that, due to threshold effects like loss of the entire Everglades, will precipitate from this and subsequent storms and temperature rise.

Ecosystem services aside, the cost of natural disasters is increasing. Driven in large part by overpopulation and also by global warming, the cost trend has been swooping upward over the past several decades. The relevant graph in the preceding link is the one above the caption: "Overall losses and insured losses 1980-2016 (in USD bn)." It shows trend lines for uninsured and insured losses superimposed over the loss figures for each year. 2017 looks like it will be consistent with that trend.

A dramatic graphic that shows how 2017 is shaping up in the U.S. came out after Hurricane Harvey. Since then, we've had Irma, Maria, and wildfires in California. Note that the yellow semi-circles on this reticulated timeline, denoting wildfires, are the second biggest in terms of average cost per occurrence. My guess is that one yellow semi-circle this year will exceed any on this chart.

Figures that put Harvey and Irma together at $150 billion are enough to nearly exceed the global total of losses for 2016. Maria, the Mexico earthquake, California's fires, and who knows what else will send 2017 way over that mark. Markets may falter as the effects compound. My prediction made three years ago of a major financial seizure in 2017 could well turn out to be accurate.

Richard Heinberg sees, in Puerto Rico, a teachable moment about how the limits to growth will eventually treat all places in much the same way as Maria did P.R., forcing us all to adjust our thinking about what is achievable and sustainable. We may not all be made homeless by wildfires, hurricanes, or earthquakes, but we will still suffer from collapse of financial and infrastructural systems we have come to rely upon. Take heed and prepare for a simpler way of living.

Photoshopped photo by Elliot Margolies

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Coming War We Must Strive to Prevent

Some anger smolders over generations. It depends on the offense. Whatever the eldest of the Paddock boys endured because of his father's criminal legacy could have been behind his one-man orgy of slaughter at an improvised Las Vegas shooting gallery.

Seething over the same time frame, the bitter anger of North Koreans against America for the devastation caused by bombardment in the Korean war could soon lead to a torrent of violence that makes Mr. Paddock's high mark all but forgotten. Violence could be unleashed by nuclear missile(s) hitting Guam or Japan. It wouldn't stop there, since not for nothing has the U.S. brooded over its thousands of nuclear eggs these many decades.

A second Korean war is not inevitable. There are some intricate diplomatic maneuvers that could resolve or de-escalate the conflict. Less certain is whether a war with China is likely nonetheless. Though Graham Allison's historical analysis of what he calls Thucydides's Trap allows him to claim that we aren't necessarily Destined for War, when you compound the Fourth Turning of our secular cycle with the historical probability that China will fight the U.S. for its place as King of the Hill, the chances of a war occurring look better than 75%. That a war with Korea could be the spark for this unimaginable war between great powers underlies a somewhat hopeful assessment by Oriana Skylar Mastro describing a possible Chinese takeover of the country.

If, instead of fighting over dwindling resources, China and the U.S. craft their economic strategies around sustainability, China's ascent may be reversed and the U.S. could relax and tend to its own transition. This would require recognition by the obtuse political class that global economic growth is ending. However, Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth (2011), is no more sanguine than other analysts noted here on preventing a war with China. An excerpt:
Unfortunately, rising costs and flagging returns from resource conflicts will not guarantee world peace. History suggests that as nations become more desperate to maintain their relative positions of strength and advantage, they may lash out in ways that serve no rational purpose.
Again, no crisis is imminent as long as cool heads prevail. But the world system is losing stability. Current economic and geopolitical conditions would appear to support a forecast not for increasing economic growth, democracy, and peace, but for more political volatility, and for greater government military mobilization justified under the banner of security.
Regina - Bitter Memories of Childhood - photo by Ted McGrath
War with China would very likely be big and radioactive. Old Blowhard's China hand, Peter Navarro, doesn't seem to see that as a reason not to rumble. The slim chance of avoiding a war with China in the next few years should occupy as much of our capability as necessary. Treading lightly with Korea should be part of that effort. Another part should be reshaping the political climate in the U.S. to one that is more civil and less fascist, whatever that takes.

Featured Post

A Coming War We Must Strive to Prevent

S ome anger smolders over generations. It depends on the offense. Whatever the eldest of the Paddock boys endured because of his father'...