Climate Catastrophe In Slow Motion

Let me cheer you up. I came across an article on the rise of heat-trapping methane. In the comments section, I noticed someone link to another article about plants absorbing carbon dioxide, although there is a limit to how much plants can store. Here is the kicker. As plants take in carbon dioxide, it acts like a super-fertilizer for many of them. They grow larger, produce more leaves, and foliage becomes greener. “So on average, the poison ivy plant of, say, 1901, can grow up to 50 to 60 percent larger as of 2010 just from the change in CO2 alone, all other things being equal,” explained Dr. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural research service.

This is seen in the spread of poison ivy, a plant my mother recalls as being relatively uncommon in her childhood, to such a degree that she rarely noticed it. It has since proliferated with climate change and deforestation, a combination that creates the perfect conditions for this invasive species. Poison ivy (and poison oak, along with other vining plants like kudzu) loves both higher heat and higher levels of carbon dioxide. Poison ivy, more than other plants, thrives under these conditions. Also, in response, it produces more of the irritant that gives it its name. Poison ivy toxicity has doubled since 1950, that is to say since my parents’ childhood. This likely explains the phenomenon of why some people who didn’t react to poison ivy as children do so as adults. My mother may have not noticed poison ivy as a childhood not only because it was less widespread but, more importantly, because it was less poisonous to skin contact. Another climate-change-loving plant is giant hogweed (along with its cousin wild parsnip) that can cause third degree burns.

Dandelion and some other invasive species are also fond of mass climatological and ecological disruption (eat more dandelion salads and drink more dandelion wine?). Furthermore, sources of allergens such as pollen from ragweed and certain trees (as oaks and hickories replace pines, spruces, and firs) will become more of a problem and so allergies and asthma might become a more common affliction with increasing costs to society. Mosquitoes, along with deer ticks and red fire ants, have likewise been increasing their territory and population density (the Asian tiger mosquito can carry Dengue Fever and the painful virus Chikungunya, and don’t forget about West Nile virus, not to mention the lesser known Eastern equine encephalitis). The same pattern of spread is seen with bed bugs, kissing bugs, and killer bees. The warmer climate might be assisting the quickened pace of emerald ash borer infestation, and maybe also helping gypsy moths and the southern pine beetle.

I don’t know if it has anything to do with alterations in climate, but this has been one of the greenest springs I can remember. There is a dramatic increase of garlic mustard, one of the most invasive species — it is taking over the town like a 1950s movie about an alien invasion. Many other invasive species are growing like gangbusters across the country — hydrilla, purple loosestrife, Japanese knotweed, oriental bittersweet, milfoil, fanwort, etc — and likely shifting climate is a major factor, not only greater warmth but also changes in precipitation with some areas drier and others moister (ticks love moist and they are precisely moving into areas that have increased rainfall and humidity). The insects killing native species further aids the spread of the invasive plants that quickly take over disturbed ecosystems. And combined with farm runoff, there will be more toxic algae blooms. The entire biosphere can be transformed. The changing climactic conditions that encourage this kind of growth then creates a feedback loop that further alters the climate, with worse ever leading to worse in a vicious cycle spiraling toward catastrophe.

The pervasive growth of invasive species and noxious weeds is a nuisance. A friend of mine will no longer walk off trail because of concern for poison ivy, something he never thought about as a child and in fact he didn’t even know how to identify it until adulthood. But it’s more than a mere nuisance. With the spread of pests, there is also the spread of diseases, from Lyme disease to malaria to chagas disease parasite, since over time there are fewer deep freezes to kill off the pests and so they can move further north. There are many other “vector-borne diseases” like schistosomiasis and keep in mind how “thawing permafrost in Polar Regions could allow otherwise dormant age-old viruses to re-emerge.” And don’t think that there is a silver lining to this cloud of doom, as there is “a somewhat paradoxical finding that although carbon dioxide may fertilize plants, many crops show decreased growth (due to changes in rainfall, aggressive weed growth, plant diseases, and other factors), and the nutritional value of the resulting primary production is lowered. Flooded with carbon, crops can become deficient in other elements, resulting in a 10-20 percent decrease in protein levels and anemic iron and zinc concentrations.”

The dramatic superstorms and droughts get most of the attention. They create mass catastrophes and refugee crises, and that in turn causes political instability and contributes to conflicts and wars. But as we head toward existential crisis of the global order and as civilization is threatened by collapse, there will be a worsening that will impact people in small and less obvious ways that make life more difficult and uncomfortable with strains on the social fabric and public health, strains on the food system and economy. A worsening of the conditions and quality of life, this will happen even in the American Heartland that feels so far away from the catastrophes elsewhere in the world. I’ve barely touched upon the diverse challenges and disruptions that will harm humans in numerous other ways. Life will get ever more shitty and this will cause people to act in disturbed and disturbing ways. We are already seeing the increase of terrorism likely with climatological stress and trauma as a contributing factor. Mental health will certainly involve further precipitous declines, with heat waves and societal stress but especially with rising inequality where ecological and societal consequences will be disproportionately found among the poor, not that the rich will be able to forever escape the consequences of the externalized costs they’ve benefited from. The younger generations, as always, are being hit the hardest.

As a society, how long will we be able to ignore the climate crisis, to pretend nothing is going on? Why do we act like ecological collapse and the sixth mass extinction won’t affect us? This is insane and the insanity is going to get far worse. Pests and diseases, noxious weeds and invasive species will be the least of our worries, although I wouldn’t count out the possibility of the first global plague to decimate the human population. We are unprepared for the world we are creating for ourselves or else for our children and grandchildren. Our descendants will curse us for the living hell that will be forced upon them. But on a positive note, if you’re an older adult, you might die peacefully before the shit storm begins. Let the future survivors of the coming collapse deal with the mess later. The joke is on them and humanity is the punchline.

* * *

Here is an example of too little too late. But it’s still better than nothing. At least, it’s an acknowledgment of how bad it’s got. Speaking honestly and accurately is a massive step forward. Still, more than a style guide, what we need is a reality guide or rather a reality slap upside the head.

Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment
by Damian Carrington

The Guardian has updated its style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.

Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favoured over “global warming”, although the original terms are not banned. […]

Other terms that have been updated, including the use of “wildlife” rather than “biodiversity”, “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks” and “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”. In September, the BBC accepted it gets coverage of climate change “wrong too often” and told staff: “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”

Earlier in May, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has inspired school strikes for climate around the globe, said: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”

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