Climate Primer #7: The Sixth Planetary Boundary – Freshwater Consumption

Each day, I’m working to further compress the synopsis as these “Climate Primers” accrue: Climate crisis is the defining issue of the 21st century. The buildup, in Earth’s atmosphere, of greenhouse gases (emitted owing to human activity) drives global heating, the chief signal of climate crisis, but there are, in fact, a number of intersecting planetary boundaries – the broaching of any one of which would threaten the viability of organized human life on Earth. Thus far, these posts have addressed the following planetary boundaries: stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, toxic substance contamination, climate change (paradoxically, both a sub-component of “climate crisis” and its most defining feature), and ocean acidification.

Today’s post centers freshwater, or, as the Stockholm Resilience Center puts it, in heading the description which follows, “Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle”:

The freshwater cycle is strongly affected by climate change and its boundary is closely linked to the climate boundary, yet human pressure is now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems. The consequences of human modification of water bodies include both global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapour flows arising from land use change. These shifts in the hydrological system can be abrupt and irreversible. Water is becoming increasingly scarce – by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to be subject to water-stress, increasing the pressure to intervene in water systems. A water boundary related to consumptive freshwater use and environmental flow requirements has been proposed to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth system and to avoid the risk of ‘cascading’ local and regional thresholds.

Here, as elsewhere, is made manifest the centrality of the rapid changes in the Earth’s climate to the manifold and intersecting planetary crises that are now converging, but so too, in this description, is evident the complex interconnections amongst the different boundaries, such that changes in climate and human (that is, very often, corporate) land-use patterns (that also play a significant role in zoonoses and the propagation through human populations of novel pathogens) emerge as key drivers in the hydrological cycle and the availability (to humans) of freshwater.

Regular readers will know that the health, ecological, and economic impacts of the fracking boom in the United States have been a central concern for me in recent years, and while the SRC doesn’t address the connection between toxic substance contamination and freshwater availability, in many parts of the world (including parts of Pennsylvania and Texas, among other US states) contamination from fracking, extractive or other industry, or industrial agriculture (or failing infrastructure, as in Flint, Newark, and some parts of New York City) has left people with limited or no access to clean freshwater.

For readers interested in learning a little about New York City’s infrastructure, today’s bonus recommendations are two paired pieces of mine from 2019 on the City’s remarkable waterworks and its ailing, but equally remarkable sewer system. The title of the latter piece – “Shit in the Water” – touched a nerve with many readers when it was first published, and given that it’s been raining recently, there is almost certainly some combined sewer overflowage, at present, in the water bodies of our great estuarial metropolis. Enjoy, if not the fecal coliform (please don’t!) than at least the reading material!

Climate Primer #6: The Fifth Planetary Boundary – Ocean Acidification

In the belief that repetition is a key aspect of how most of us learn, I’m continuing the practice of opening with a summary: Climate crisis is the defining issue of the 21st century. The chief signal of climate crisis is global heating which is driven by the buildup of greenhouse gases (in this case, produced by human activity) in Earth’s atmosphere. What is called “climate crisis” though is really the convergence of multiple global crises that threaten to broach key planetary boundaries beyond which organized human life on Earth will be threatened. So far, posts here have addressed four of the nine planetary boundaries as outlined in the schema of the Stockholm Resilience Center: stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, toxic substance contamination, and climate change (which, for now, paradoxically, I’m treating as both a component part and the defining feature of global climate crisis).

Today’s post will address ocean acidification, which the SRC describes as follows:

Around a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is ultimately dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential ‘building block’ used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation. Beyond a threshold concentration, this rising acidity makes it hard for organisms such as corals and some shellfish and plankton species to grow and survive. Losses of these species would change the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems and could potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent. Unlike most other human impacts on the marine environment, which are often local in scale, the ocean acidification boundary has ramifications for the whole planet. It is also an example of how tightly interconnected the boundaries are, since atmospheric CO2 concentration is the underlying controlling variable for both the climate and the ocean acidification boundaries, although they are defined in terms of different Earth system thresholds.

Pre-industrial ocean pH was ~8.2; today, average ocean pH is 8.1, which may not seem like a big difference. For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with the pH scale (or at least haven’t thought about it much since high school), to quote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “[T]he pH scale is logarithmic, so this [0.1 pH unit] change represents approximately a 30 percent increase in acidity.” And, to quote from the Smithsonian: “[Ocean pH] is expected by fall another 0.3 to 0.4 pH units by the end of the century.” Were ocean pH to actually drop another 0.4 units (to 7.7), that would constitute a tripling of ocean acidity and would almost certainly have dire consequences for the “corals and […] shellfish and plankton species” and “ocean ecosystems” mentioned above. Given the extent to which many humans rely on the oceans for food and livelihoods; the centrality of Earth’s oceans to the planet’s climate and ecosystems; and the deep spiritual and aesthetic significance of the oceans and their animals to human societies, it is hard to comprehend the harm that such changes would bring, even when considered in a narrowly anthropocentric sense.

Finally, given that today is the 75th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima (and these primers have elsewhere addressed the threat of nuclear contamination via war or meltdown); the New York Times reported this morning on the possibility that the US-backed Saudi civilian nuclear program might be working towards the construction of a nuclear weapon (although, as the actions of Judith Miller made clear, it’s generally advisable to take the “national security” reporting of the Times with a hunk of salt); and that many recent actions of the Administration in DC (withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and undermining the New START Treaty, among them) have moved the world much closer to “midnight” as reflected by the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I’ll close by sending support and condolences to anyone touched by the devastating recent explosion in Beirut. Although – contrary to online rumors – the blast was not nuclear, and – contrary to White House rumors – nor was it, evidently, caused by “a bomb” – I’ve found videos of the explosion and the ruins and human injuries left in its aftermath at once so staggering and gut-wrenching that I’d hope no viewer could be left unmoved at the harm done, and by the evidence of the destructive power humans now, inadvertently or otherwise, can unleash. For anyone looking to delve deeper into the context within Lebanon which allowed such a horrible accident to occur, I encourage you to watch yesterday’s Democracy Now! segment with Rami Khouri.

Climate Primer #5: The Fourth Planetary Boundary – Climate Change

So climate crisis is the defining issue of the 21st century, but here “climate crisis” really means “the intersecting crises that threaten to broach key planetary boundaries and hence make the Earth less/unlivable (for humans).” So far, posts have addressed the planetary boundaries of stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, and toxic substance contamination. The title of today’s post (paradoxical as it may seem), points to just the problem that prevailing nomenclature creates in trying to think about the planetary crises now confronting human societies. Can climate change really be simply one of the components of climate crisis? For now, yes, because there is no better, widely-accepted terminology for addressing these matters. When I write “climate crisis,” I now refer to all of the intersecting planetary crises, whereas, here – following the Stockholm Resilience Center (whose description follows) – in using “climate change,” I mean only that:

Recent evidence suggests that the Earth, now [approaching 420 ppm] CO2 in the atmosphere, has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible. This is one example of a well-defined threshold above which rapid physical feedback mechanisms can drive the Earth system into a much warmer state with sea levels metres higher than present. The weakening or reversal of terrestrial carbon sinks, for example through the on-going destruction of the world’s rainforests, is another potential tipping point, where climate-carbon cycle feedbacks accelerate Earth’s warming and intensify the climate impacts. A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.

Even in this reduced form, it’s a doozy, and is almost certainly the most capacious (and hence the defining) of the nine planetary boundaries in the SRC’s schema, so perhaps it makes sense to think about climate crisis as synecdoche: Just as “White House” stands in for “the presidential administration” and “DC” for “the US Federal Government,” so too, perhaps “climate crisis” means “climate change, but also all of the other planetary crises which threaten the future of organized human life on Earth.”

A key aspect of the SRC’s description above is its emphasis on feedback loops and thresholds beyond which changes will become “irreversible” (over humanly-meaningful time horizons). I plan to address both of these issues in detail in future posts, but, in the meantime, if you’re feeling energized by all this (because despair and hopelessness are not options), you might consider donating to support the long-standing struggle of the Wet’suwet’en people against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Sometimes, battles seem un-winnable until you win them, and with pipeline projects stalled and canceled across the country in the face of fierce popular opposition (and plummeting fossil fuel prices); popular support growing for a Green New Deal, or something like it; and the US oil majors getting hammered financially (such that ~$400 billion – a lot of money, but a small fraction of all the pandemic-related Federal stimulus spending – would suffice to nationalize Exxon Mobile, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips), there’s never been a better time than now – other than any time in the last 70 years – to confront, break, dismantle, and repurpose the power and infrastructure of the fossil fuel giants.

Climate Primer #4: The Third Planetary Boundary – Toxic Substances

So far, this series has pointed to climate crisis as the defining issue of the 21st century and established the urgent need for a global Green New Deal, or something like it; explored, briefly, the role of greenhouse gases in driving global heating, the chief signal of the climate crisis; but then expanded our understanding of the intersecting global climate and ecological crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) to encompass a number of key planetary boundaries beyond heating, before beginning to examine, in turn, the nine key boundaries as outlined by the Stockholm Resilience Center. In recent days, posts have touched on the threats of stratospheric ozone depletion and loss of biodiversity. Today, let’s consider environmental contamination by toxic substances or, as the SRC puts it, “Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities.”

Like global warming and climate change, “novel entities” almost sounds nice. Unfortunately, this term refers to “toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials.” To quote in full the SRC’s description:

Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate). Even when the uptake and bioaccumulation of chemical pollution is at sub-lethal levels for organisms, the effects of reduced fertility and the potential of permanent genetic damage can have severe effects on ecosystems far removed from the source of the pollution. For example, persistent organic compounds have caused dramatic reductions in bird populations and impaired reproduction and development in marine mammals. There are many examples of additive and synergic effects from these compounds, but these are still poorly understood scientifically. At present, we are unable to quantify a single chemical pollution boundary, although the risk of crossing Earth system thresholds is considered sufficiently well-defined for it to be included in the list as a priority for precautionary action and for further research.

To put it in plain speech, the SRC hasn’t been able to identify “a single chemical pollution boundary” owing to the wide variety of toxic substances being released by human activity, but it is clear that the combined effects of all human-related contamination of the biosphere (that is, the Earth) pose an existential threat to life on the planet. Obviously, at a certain level, this has been well understood at least since the middle of the 20th century as the development and testing of atomic weapons, and US employment of the same against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced a public reckoning with the staggering destructive power of these weapons and the long-lasting consequences of radioactive contamination. Mid-century concern about nuclear winter reflected a clear public consciousness of human capacity to destroy most life on Earth, and the transformation of thinking about environmental issues/ecology in the US brought on by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring dovetailed with the concern about nuclear fallout and the harm caused to living things by radioactivity.

Today, as we confront, in the US, the challenges of legacy industrial pollution (like the PCBs in all of New York Cities major waterways); ongoing industrial and vehicular pollution; the massive spike in environmental contamination driven by the nationwide fracking boom (contamination which will not instantaneously disappear now that the industry is imploding); and the obvious, hidden reality that many common substances, such as the glyphosate in Monstanto’s (now Bayer’s) RoundUp and the ubiquitous PFAS substances produced by companies like 3M, are in fact endocrine-disrupters, carcinogenic, etc. – all of this, against a backdrop of rampant deregulation – at the same time that dynamics of the global economy (read: neoliberalism) have, in the past 50 years, driven an increasing fraction of the most polluting industries to countries of the Global South (where regulations are often more lax, wages lower, worker protections weaker, and communities’ abilities to resist more limited), it’s important to recognize that the crisis of global heating could be “solved” tomorrow (say, by an asteroid strike, the dust from which plunged the Earth into a mini-ice age) and – the further consequences of the asteroid strike and dust blanket aside – there would still be a planetary ecological crisis that would threaten the future of organized human life on Earth.

In future posts, I’ll explore the challenges that such consciousness/thinking poses for a “Green Transition,” given that both wind and solar power, battery storage technologies, and frankly, almost all technologies potentially involved in such a transition depend, to some extent, on extractive industry, and very frequently on the use of toxic substances. For now, I’ll end by recommending, again – to those with time and appetite for reading – William T. Vollmann’s chilling, funny examination of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, No Immediate DangerIf HBO’s Chernobyl has led to renewed attention in this country to the risk of nuclear meltdowns (while also instilling a false sense of security that only Soviet incompetence and corruption led to the disaster in present-day Ukraine), residents of the US would do well to remember how close the United States came to having its own Level 7 meltdown (Three Mile Island ended up being Level 5), and that we are only one natural disaster (see: Turkey Point near Miami) or episode of negligence or bad luck away from the same.

Climate Primer #3: The Second Planetary Boundary – Biodiversity Loss and Extinctions

To summarize the primers thus far, the build-up in Earth’s atmosphere of greenhouse gases emitted owing to human activity is causing the planet to heat up significantly. This is the clearest, and most dangerous, sign of the rapidly accelerating global climate crisis; however, while global heating and carbon dioxide may get disproportionate attention in the media, there are in fact a number of key planetary boundaries. Broaching any one of these would pose a threat to the stability of “organized human life on Earth” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Noam Chomsky), and so, in talking about climate crisis (which could use a more all-inclusive name), it’s necessary to consider not only the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the consequent global heating, but the “manifold intersecting phenomena” that threaten to lead to the broaching of key boundaries within which we must remain to sustain (human) life on Earth.

Yesterday’s post addressed the risk of stratospheric ozone depletion – a threat which is, thankfully, owing to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, largely under control (though both the US and China continue to emit significant amounts of ozone-depleting substances). In continuing to draw on the schema established by the Stockholm Resilience Center, today’s post will focus on (mass) extinctions and biodiversity loss, or what the SRC also refers to as “Loss of biosphere integrity“:

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 concluded that changes to ecosystems due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. These drivers are either steady, showing no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. The current high rates of ecosystem damage and extinction can be slowed by efforts to protect the integrity of living systems (the biosphere), enhancing habitat, and improving connectivity between ecosystems while maintaining the high agricultural productivity that humanity needs. Further research is underway to improve the availability of reliable data for use as the ‘control variables’ for this boundary.

In the SRC’s use of the marketizing term “ecosystem services,” you can see how fully the logic of neoliberalism has disfigured much of the research, thinking, and activism around climate and ecological issues, and yet, the fact remains: Human activity (specifically, the activities of the rich and the corporations and governments they control) is disrupting ecosystems; destroying habitats; and driving species into extinction at a geologically-significant scale. This impoverishes the Earth and human existence on it, in an immediate sense, but also threatens to undermine the agriculture and food systems on which human societies depend.

If the bonus material yesterday was encouraging, today, the news I’ll share is heavier: Some of you may already have read or heard that New York City’s weather in recent years has been subtropical, and – as I’ve been gradually catching up on pandemic-backlogged reading – I came across, this morning, this Nature Climate Change article entitled, “Evidence suggests potential transformation of the Pacific Arctic ecosystem is underway.” A fitting way to end today’s post, as – from equator to poles – the Earth is heating up, a reality to which all living things, ourselves included, will be forced to adjust. Unlike other living things, though, humans have a say in how this future unfolds.