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.

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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?”

Is Adaptation to Collapse the Best Case Scenario?

A little over a decade ago, a report by David Pimentel from Cornell University came out about the health costs of pollution. “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide,” wrote Susan S. Lang, “are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says” (Water, air and soil pollution causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide, Cornell research survey finds).

That is damning! It is powerful in showing the impact of our actions and the complicity of our indifference. It’s even worse than that. The harm touches upon every area of health. “Of the world population of about 6.5 billion, 57 percent is malnourished, compared with 20 percent of a world population of 2.5 billion in 1950, said Pimentel. Malnutrition is not only the direct cause of 6 million children’s deaths each year but also makes millions of people much more susceptible to such killers as acute respiratory infections, malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases, according to the research.” This is billions of people who lack the basic resources of clean water and air along with nutritious food, something that was a human birthright for most of human existence.

It’s worse still. This data, as bad as it is, maybe was an underestimation. Another report just came out, Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions by Jos Lelieveld et al. Summarized in Hurn Publications, it is stated that, “The number of early deaths caused by air pollution is double previous estimates, according to research, meaning toxic air is killing more people than tobacco smoking. The scientists used new data to estimate that nearly 800,000 people die prematurely each year in Europe because of dirty air, and that each life is cut short by an average of more than two years” (Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research). This isn’t limited to poor, dark-skinned people in far away countries for it also affects the Western world: “The health damage caused by air pollution in Europe is higher than the global average.” And that doesn’t even include “effects of air pollution on infant deaths”.

Think about that. It was a decade ago that around 40% of deaths were able to be linked to pollution and environmental problems. Since then, these problems have only grown worse, as the world’s population continues to grow as does industrialization. Now it is determined that air pollution is at least twice as fatal as previously calculated. The same is probably true more generally for other forms of pollution along with environmental degradation. Our data was incomplete in the past and, even if improved, it remains incomplete. Also, keep in mind that this isn’t only about deaths. Increasing numbers of sick days, healthcare, and disabilities adds up to costs that are incalculable. Our entire global economy is being dragged down, at the very moment we need all our resources to deal with these problems, not merely to pay for the outcomes but to begin reversing course if we hope to avoid the worst.

This barely touches upon the larger health problems. As I’ve written about before, we are beginning to realize how diet majorly impacts health, not only in terms of malnourishment but also all the problems related to a diet of processed foods with lots of toxins such as farm chemicals, hormone mimics, food additives, starchy carbs, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most of our healthcare costs go to a few diseases, all of them preventable. And the rates of major diseases are skyrocketing: neurocognitive conditions (mood disorders, personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, ADHD, etc), autoimmune disorders (type 1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s disease, many forms of arthritis, etc), metabolic syndrome (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc), and much else. This all relates to industrialized farming and food production that has, among much else, caused the soil to become depleted of nutrients while eroding what is left of the topsoil. At this rate, we have less than a century of topsoil left. And monocrops have been devastating to ecological diversity and set us up for famines when crops fail.

There pretty much is no one who isn’t being harmed. And increasingly the harm is coming at younger ages with diseases of older age now being seen among children and young adults. More of the population is becoming sick and disabled before they even get old enough to enter the workforce. For example, schizophrenia is on the rise among urban youth for reasons not entirely certain — in a summary of a study, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge” (see Urban Weirdness). So, it isn’t only that more people are dying younger. The quality of people’s lives is worsening. And with ever more people disabled and struggling, who is going to help them? Or are large swaths of the world’s population simply going to become unwanted and uncared for? And will we allow billions of people to fall further into poverty? If not becoming homeless, is it a better fate that we simply institutionalize these people so that we of the comfortable classes don’t have to see them? Or will we put these useless eaters into ghettos and internment camps to isolate them like a plague to be contained? The externalized costs of modern industrialized capitalism are beyond imagining and they’re quickly becoming worse.

Modernity is a death cult, as I’ve previously concluded. Besides mass extinction on the level never before experienced in all of hominid existence (the last mass extinction was 66 million years ago), we are already feeling the results of climate change with increased super-storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, etc. Recent heatwaves have been unprecedented, including in the Arctic — far from being a mere annoyance since it speeds up the melting of glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost which in turn releases greenhouse gases (possibly pathogens as well), speeds up the warming (Arctic Amplification), and will alter ocean currents and the polar jet stream. These environmental changes are largely what is behind the refugee crises numerous countries are facing, which is also connected to terrorism. Inequality within and between societies will exacerbate the problems further with increased conflicts and wars, with endless crisis after crisis coming from every direction until the available resources are pushed to the limit and beyond — as I wrote last year:

“As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.”

If you really want to be depressed, might I suggest reading Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK): “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you won’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.” Here is what a Vice piece had to say about it:

“You only needed to step outside during the record-breaking heatwave last year to acknowledge that 17 of the 18 hottest years on the planet have occurred since 2000. Scientists already believe we are soon on course for an ice-free Arctic, which will only accelerate global warming. Back in 2017, even Fox News reported scientists’ warnings that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Erik Buitenhuis, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me that Bendell’s conclusions may sound extreme, but he agrees with the report’s overall assessment. “I think societal collapse is indeed inevitable,” he says, though adds that “the process is likely to take decades to centuries” ” (Geoff Dembicki, The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy).

What are governments and other major institutions doing in response? Very little, despite the consensus among experts and a majority of Americans supporting environmental policies, although the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security is concerned in maintaining their own power: “Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress. Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses” (Phil Ebersole, Climate, migration and border militarization). There are many courses of actions we could take. And we know what needs to be done to prevent or mitigate what will otherwise follow. Will we do it? Of course not. The problem is too large, too incomprehensible, and too depressing. We will go on denying it, until well into the global crisis, if not the civilizational collapse. At that point, it probably will no longer matter what we do or don’t do. But until then, we can begin to imagine the unimaginable, if only to prepare for it psychologically.

Then again, maybe we’ll find some way to pull out of this death spiral at the last moment. It’s unlikely, but humans can be innovative under pressure and no doubt there will be plenty of people attempting to create new technologies and adapt to new conditions. Even if there is only minimal success, some of the population could be saved as we shift to smaller-scale societies in the areas that are still viable for farming or else escaping into ecodomes. One way or another, the world as we know it will not continue on as before and, ignoring all the suffering and death, I don’t know that will be an entirely bad thing, at least for the earth if not for humanity. Even in that best case scenario, we would still be facing possibly thousands of years of climate disruption, maybe a new ice age, and on top of that it would take millions of years for the biosphere and ecosystems to recover from mass extinction and find a new balance. So, if we humans plan on surviving, it will be a very long struggle. Thousands of future generations will inherit our mistakes and our mess.

Modernity as Death Cult

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation. […]

“Many scientists believe the world has begun a sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a species – Homo sapiens. Other recent analyses have revealed that humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilisation and that, even if the destruction were to end now, it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover. […]

“Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, said Barrett, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.”

Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds
by Damian Carrington

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Also see:

The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy
by Zing Tsjeng

It’s about:

Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy
by Jem Bendell

Too Much Success

It’s amazing the abilities some species have. But that brings up a question. If they are such an advantage, why doesn’t every species have equally amazing abilities? This particularly comes to mind with perceptual abilities.

Human senses are fairly mediocre. We can’t sense much of the world that many other species can. We make up for it with opposable thumbs and cognitive development. Just imagine how much more bad ass humans would be if we could see like a hawk, hear like an owl, and smell like a wolf.

Maybe there is no evolutionary advantage to having the best possible abilities in all ways. It might actually be a disadvantage, both for the species and for the ecosystem or even biosphere. Any given species being too successful might throw off the balance between species. Evolution isn’t only seeking the survival of species but also the survival of complex relationships between species.

Consider one of the earliest microbes, cyanobacteria. They were so successful that it led to what is called the Great Oxygenation Event. Most other microbes at the time were anaerobic and oxygen was toxic to them. It caused earth’s first mass extinction. Even the cyanobacteria didn’t benefit, as there numbers also precipitously dropped.

Too much success can be a dangerous thing, for all involved. This is a lesson of evolution. It’s the success of the entire system of species that matters, not the success of a single species. The survival of the fittest species is secondary to the survival of the fittest ecosystem and biosphere. As Phil Plait put it (Poisoned Planet):

“It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.

“If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.”