On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

Can Planet Earth Be Saved? Maybe. Still.

Wildfires 11.18One thing we absolutely know: the recent, tragic California wildfires were NOT due to “poor forest management.” Perhaps someone clued our president in on a few facts – since he did ease off the “It’s all their fault, stupid Californians” rhetoric. The facts: essentially all of the state’s publicly owned forests (including Plumas National Forest where the deadliest fire began) are controlled by the federal government. Mr. Trump recently reduced funds for cleaning up fire-prone vegetation. Meanwhile, though, who knows how many of those who simply accept Mr. Trump’s lies now have one more lie to confirm their belief that the globe isn’t warming and climate isn’t changing, and who needs to worry about the planet?Planet earth

It is our children’s and grandchildren’s planet we are playing with. Every regulations rollback that puts more pollution into the air and water, every “economy-boosting” measure that sends more CO2 into the atmosphere, every additional acre released from federal control so a few billionaires can get richer by mining, drilling, logging is lopping off health and life for future generations. That is, assuming the planet survives beyond the generations already born.

Planetary survival was at the heart of a recent Commonwealth Club program titled “A Four-Zero Climate Solution.” Climate One founder/director Greg Dalton brought together three leaders in the field to talk about the growing problem and discuss potential solutions. (Just to hear the words ‘climate’ and ‘solution’ in the same phrase is somehow heartening.) Panelists included Kate Gordon, a Partner in the Sustainability Practice of Ridge-Lane LP and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of clean energy and economic development; author Hal Harvey (Designing Climate Solutions😉 and Stanford professor Arun Majumdar, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Climate One 11.13.18
l to r: Arun Majumdar, KatenGordon, Hal Harvey, Greg Dalton

The panelists were talking about answers to the critical state of our plant’s climate being a four-pronged solution: getting the carbon grid to zero, switching to zero-emission vehicles, replacing (eventually – but all of this is long-term thinking) existing buildings with zero net-energy buildings, and moving toward zero-waste manufacturing. It’s complicated, politically fraught, and no easy task. But there IS a solution.

Now – if only we could start working toward it, our grandchildren might still have a planet. Most estimates – by people with working brains, that is – are that we have another 10, maybe 12 years max to tackle the problem; after that we can start looking for a way to move to Mars. But Mr. Trump just shrugs off the report issued by his own White House detailing what is clearly happening, saying, “I don’t believe it.”

We are in deep trouble.

Climate Change? What Climate Change?

Albert Bierstadt: "Storm in the Mountains"
Albert Bierstadt: “Storm in the Mountains”

About that climate-change argument…

Snowstorm Barrels into Northeast was the headline on the New York Times at the door; Rainless January sparks fears, fires proclaimed the lead story in the San Francisco Chronicle lying next to it. At some point, the argument begins to seem absurd.

But it is easy to find individuals and groups who maintain that the globe is not really warming, the climate is not really changing, it’s all just part of Mother Earth’s cycle through her planetary life. Climate change deniers even have their own formal designation – which this writer only now learned: Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) Deniers. By whatever name, Deniers are those who think we humans have nothing to do with it so we might as well go right on doing what we’re doing forever.

Some of us worry that forever could come sooner, rather than later, if we don’t pay attention.

Heat_Wave_by_FlamingClaw
Heat Wave by Flaming Craw

 

Watching the ice melt in arctic regions, wishing for air conditioning in San Francisco in January – those things suggest paying attention to fossil fuels probably makes sense. Carbon dioxide sent into the air by the burning of fossil fuels is the proven culprit in global warming. One gallon of gas, when burned, puts 16 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere; the math is pretty easy to do.

We non-deniers worry about fossil fuels (which of course does not keep us from driving cars) but also about little things, like aerosols. Natural aerosols? Lovely. They translate into mist and fog and Old Faithful Geyser. It’s the un-naturals that are problematic, those tiny particles that spill into the atmosphere every time you reach for that handy aerosol can.

“Scientists call airborne particles of any sort — human-produced or natural — aerosols,” explains Carol Rasmussen on NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet site. “The simplest effect of increasing aerosols is to increase clouds. To form clouds, airborne water vapor needs particles on which to condense. With more aerosols, there can be more or thicker clouds. In a warming world, that’s good. Sunlight bounces off cloud tops into space without ever reaching Earth’s surface, so we stay cooler under cloud cover.”

But the bad news is that there are different kinds of aerosols, and different kinds of effects that are hard to predict – so cloud cover becomes sooty haze, and what bothers the people walking outdoors in Beijing can affect people fanning themselves in San Francisco in January.

City smog
City smog

 

Which brings us back to the news headlines:

Storm Batters Coastal New England Town.

California’s Hottest Year On Record. China’s Air Pollution at Danger Levels.

 

 

Democrats have a survey too — they just don't call it a Census

In the interest of fair-and-balanced commentary in this space, we want to report receipt of an Official Document from the Democrats. This one, unlike that decidedly suspect missile from the Republicans last week, does not advertise itself as an Official Census Document and does not raise the fear level to code red. It advertises itself as a 2010 Priority Issues Survey, which, in fact, it is.

The envelope, though, does bear the admonition: Do Not Tamper. We wonder who’s been tampering with Democratic issues, other than the hapless invaders of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. We’re not even sure how one can Tamper with an Official Document.

Nevertheless. Because the Democratic Party Headquarters bothered to send a fairly straightforward questionnaire, with a minimum of weighted sentences, below are listed a few considered responses to this “opportunity to help shape Democratic priorities and build a brighter future for America.” You are invited to send your own answers to www.dccc.org, even if you lack an Official Survey Registration number, and we’ll see who’s paying attention. One citizen’s response:

Yes, I believe waterboarding is torture and the U.S. has a moral responsibility to not engage in or condone any form of torture.

Yes, every American should be guaranteed access to affordable, quality health care.

No, I don’t support privatization of Social Security, but Yes, the Medicare prescription benefit plan should be reformed so the government can negotiate lower drug prices with big pharmaceutical companies. (Good luck with that, government.)

Yes, the federal government would do well to provide more assistance to Americans who want to continue their education beyond high school. Cutting student loan interest rates, increasing college tuition tax deductions, increasing Pell grants – all sound good to me.

Weighted question next: How concerned are you about the environmental damage resulting from last-minute Bush Administration maneuvers to weaken laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. Well, since I happen to agree, pretty darned concerned.

Slightly different phraseology question: How serious a threat is global warming? Thanks for not asking, as the Republicans did, if I believe it’s real. I’ll go with Very Serious.

That’s about it for the Democrats. They do also provide a postage-paid envelope, and they also invite your contribution.

If the Independents have an Official Survey going, it will be duly reported in this space.