Reading Recommendation #1: “Children & Environmental Toxins”

Trying something new this week, and devoting a single, short post to a reading recommendation and some excerpts. Without further ado, I recommend:

You can find it at bookshop.org

Here are some excerpts that jumped out at me:

The claim is that GMO crops are safe and that they help feed the world. The reality is that GMO crops are designed to survive application of pesticides (mostly Monsanto’s, so now Bayer’s, glyphosate); many “weeds” are rapidly developing resistance to this poison (which both leads to reduced crop yields from conventionally-grown “Roundup Ready” crops and necessitates the application of still more glyphosate); and that far from being about food security, the widespread use of GMOs is about intellectual property in the form of patented seeds and, above all, corporate profits. Monsanto has worked hard – by hounding academics, funding fake research, and engaging in never-ending litigation – to hide what seems now an obvious truth: That glyphosate, which is used on much of our food supply, on many lawns, and in many public parks, is a powerful human carcinogen linked, in particular, to non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The 20th century explosion in environmental contamination by toxic synthetic chemicals is a far better explanation of skyrocketing autism rates than the discredited (that is, totally spurious and intellectually dishonest) MMR vaccine hypothesis.
See above.
Long live the EPA!
Just like the battle is not to recycle (which we all should), but to end the plastics industry, the call is not to run another 5K to “cure” cancer, but to end the production of countless toxic substances that, through human (largely corporate) action have become ubiquitous in Earth’s biosphere to our collective detriment.

Thanks to Philip and Mary Landrigan for their excellent, useful primer! And to my colleague Yom, who, I believe not only pointed me to this book but gave me my copy.

Climate Primer #37: Positive Feedback – 2. Methane Emissions

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible to grasp, but this (linked) representative selection gives a sense of the enormity of the current global impasse. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

A previous post on climate feedback loops addressed albedo. Today’s brief post will focus on methane emissions. As previous posts have covered, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (with warming potential an order of magnitude or two greater than carbon dioxide’s over the first ten to hundred years after its release, after which it eventually breaks down into still more carbon dioxide) that is emitted by a number of anthropogenic processes (especially animal/ruminant agriculture, natural gas extraction/distribution, and rice farming) as well as by any number of non-anthropogenic processes on Earth (such as those that occur in healthy wetlands). With respect to positive feedback loops, however, the most worrying methane emissions are those triggered by anthropogenic warming; in particular, thawing of Arctic permafrost is likely to release very large quantities of methane, which, in turn, is likely to drive further warming, which, in turn, is likely to trigger further thawing and further methane release…

Such is the nature of these positive feedback loops, and while the state of the science on the balance of emissions from thawing permafrost continues to evolve as we live through scenarios unprecedented in human history, nonetheless, it seems highly likely that the net methane emissions from thawing permafrost (as from some warming freshwater bodies) will be positive, and so threaten to fuel the type of runaway warming it is the work of this century to avert.

For a different sort of knock-on effect to climate crisis, I recommend you read this InsideClimate News piece entitled “Battered, Flooded and Submerged: Many Superfund Sites are Dangerously Threatened by Climate Change.”

Climate Primer #36: Positive Feedback – 1. Albedo

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible to grasp, but this representative selection gives a sense of the enormity of the current global impasse. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

Because out-of-control climate change (or a runaway greenhouse effect) could easily be fueled, among other things, by positive feedback, I thought about titling this post: Positive Feedback Loops (Relative to Climate Crisis, They’re Negative). What is positive feedback? In brief, in a positive feedback loop, a signal/change in a system occurs that drives its own further amplification. A good example from human life can be found in birth, in the process of which the release of oxytocin stimulates contractions, which trigger the release of more oxytocin, which triggers yet more intense contractions, in an intensifying positive feedback loop, ideally until a healthy baby is born to a healthy birthing person, at which point, contractions cease. (Positive feedback loops tend to be escalatory – at least up until a point – whereas negative feedback loops tend to be range-constrained; in both stable climates and healthy biological systems, negative feedback loops, which maintain balance/homeostasis, tend to predominate. A classic, simple example of a negative feedback loop, in a rich country context, is the functioning of a thermostat: If the target temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit, then the thermostat can be imagined to turn on the air conditioning whenever the temperature rises to 79 degrees, and turn off the air conditioning whenever the temperature drops to 77, thereby maintaining the air temperature in the range between 77 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit, or roughly at 78.)

Relative to climate crisis, positive feedback loops occur when anthropogenic changes disrupt Earthly conditions which – at least for the ~10,000 years of the Holocene, and until historically recently – had remained relatively stable, in such a fashion as to drive still further like disruption. Today’s post will highlight changes in average global albedo as a positive feedback loop which is driving further planetary warming. As this primer from NASA puts it: “Ice is white and very reflective, in contrast to the ocean surface, which is dark and absorbs heat faster. As the atmosphere warms and sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more heat, causes more ice to melt, and makes the Earth warmer overall. The ice-albedo feedback is a very strong positive feedback.”

It’s not hard to imagine that the melting of glaciers and ice caps is contributing to the same “strong positive feedback” effect, although in some instances – for example, the destruction of California’s forest, and the likely ecological regime shift to follow – climate crisis may lead to changes on Earth’s surface that increase albedo (in that trees tend to have green leaves for much of the year, whereas, if the forests are all destroyed by fire, disease, and encroachment – which, at least in much of California, strikes me, grimly, as a near certainty at this point – the new scrub or desert land may very well be more tan than green, and thus more reflective, though I wouldn’t count that as any net great win for climate stability). Similarly, the science, at least so far as I understand it, still seems to be out on what effect heating (and other climatic shifts) will have on cloud cover; increases in cloud cover increase albedo, thus significant heating-driven increases in cloud cover could, in turn, dampen heating (and hence would constitute a negative, rather than a positive feedback). So far as ice is concerned though – a lot of which is currently melting – the effect is unequivocally to reduce albedo, which is positive, in a negative way.

Note: I’ve failed, in spite of my mother’s request, to inject terribly much optimism into these posts as yet; I do think that an honest encounter with and unsparing foundation in the facts is prerequisite for charting any viable path forward, and only hope that as the harsh realities of global circumstances become ever more readily apparent, that people of conscience will summon the courage to confront sad realities – for example, that settler-colonial California, as we have known it, is over and never coming back – as part of a grieving process that might yet open up to a life-affirming future on Earth. My intention is, in time, to address various climate “solutions” and solutions (if it is even fair to talk about the latter), but, in the meantime, for readers feeling a bit starved for sources of hope, there’s always Project Drawdown.

Climate Primer #35: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 18. Violent Conflict

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, deforestation, water scarcity, food insecurity, deteriorating health, urban threats, rural threats and deepening poverty, and mass migration. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

Today’s post – which may be the last in this admittedly esoteric sub-series (esoteric in the sense that one could have very easily categorized and emphasized differently, though to much the same effect) – is on violent conflict; as AR5 suggests, in the following excerpt, climate crisis will make such conflict more likely:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 73)

For anyone interested in exploring this troubling connection in more detail, I recommend Christian Parenti’s prescient 2011 books, Tropic of Chaos. Unfortunately, it has only grown more relevant since its publication.

Climate Primer #34: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 17. Mass Migration

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, deforestation, water scarcity, food insecurity, deteriorating health, urban threats, and rural threats and deepening poverty. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

I’d planned to write, yesterday, about mass migration driven by climate crisis, but then the New York Times went and scooped me:

I no longer link to the Times (because I’m sick of them stealing content without attribution; drawing false equivalences and soft-pedaling on lies; publishing dishonest hit jobs on courageous investigative journalism outlets; and, of course, not forcefully standing up for Julian Assange. Their coverage of India is also shit), but, in this instance, the Times is absolutely right: “Millions will be displaced,” and not just in the United States. As AR5 puts it:

Accidental highlighting my own; I was surprised not to find human migration mentioned, so found in document “displace” only to discover it was the very next clause on the page I was already looking at…
Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 73)

Leaving it at that for today, as my intention is not to belabor heavy and distressing points, only to assert the obvious: That we live in an already radically changed reality, and our time and resources are dwindling to respond to the threats posed by escalating climate crisis.