Climate Primer #2: The First Planetary Boundary – Stratospheric Ozone Depletion

To summarize yesterday’s post, “Climate Primer #1: Greenhouse Gases,” energy reaches the Earth from the Sun. Some fraction of it is reflected from (or absorbed and reemitted by) the different features of the Earth’s surface. Owing to the molecular structure of greenhouse gases, when present in the Earth’s atmosphere, these compounds trap some of that reflected (or reemitted) energy. A key factor regulating the Earth’s climate is the fraction of the incident solar energy reaching our planet that remains trapped within the confines of the atmosphere, so as the concentrations of greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, many human-made halogenated compounds, and water vapor – rise in the atmosphere, the planet will tend to heat up in direct proportion, barring the presence of other mitigating factors (such as, say, a huge amount of volcanic ash or nuclear-winter fallout “blanketing” the Earth).

In view of these facts, talk, in recent decades, has been of global warming, climate changing, anthropogenic climate disruption, climate crisis, and climate emergency; however, what is, in fact, unfolding at present is a comprehensive crisis of the life-sustaining capacity of the Earth, of which climate change is only one element. For this reason, people (including Greta Thunberg) speak of the simultaneous climate and ecological crises, but – as with certain other efforts at inclusion – attempts to encompass all the various components of a complex phenomenon in a single phrase or acronym often lead to ungainly neologisms, so for simplicity, I will continue to use “climate crisis” by which I mean, as I wrote yesterday, “the manifold intersecting phenomena that now accelerate the Earth system towards broaching of key planetary boundaries” within which it is necessary to remain to sustain (human) life.

I thought it would be useful to summarize the key planetary boundaries. To that end, I draw on the Stockholm Resilience Centre (across which, I’d come before, but to which I’ve most recently been directed by Ann Pettifor’s worthwhile book, The Case for the Green New Deal) which offers a schema of nine key boundaries. (One could easily imagine other taxonomies, but I think theirs works.) Hence, the next nine posts here will quote directly from SRC’s schema, with some of my own commentary added on.

With no further ado, Planetary Boundary #1 – Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, as defined by the SRC:

The stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation will reach ground level. This can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. The appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole was proof that increased concentrations of anthropogenic ozone-depleting chemical substances, interacting with polar stratospheric clouds, had passed a threshold and moved the Antarctic stratosphere into a new regime. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary.

Nice to start with some good news! For today’s bonus recommendations – and more good news – two Nature Climate Change articles, one, which offers some ground for guarded optimism regarding the prospect for rapid shift towards acceptance of the seriousness of climate crisis among conservatives in the US, and another, which offers evidence that past climate models have significantly overstated the amount of methane likely to be emitted by melting permafrost.

Climate Primer #1: Greenhouse Gases

One major barrier to climate progress is ignorance. The climate crisis is immensely complex, and trying to make sense of even the basics of the manifold intersecting phenomena that now accelerate the Earth system towards broaching of key planetary boundaries is daunting. I have some imagined projects to that end that, for now, feel impractical (as they’d require data synthesis and visualization beyond my current appetite or capacity), so for the time being, I’m going to start writing up some very basic primers. My hope is that these may prove both useful and interesting to some readers, and that I’ll learn a lot in the process of writing them.

Okay: Greenhouse gases. What are they? Greenhouse gases are molecular compounds that, when present atmospherically, trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. They do this owing to their molecular structures; my best understanding, to be more precise, is that the resonance frequencies of some of their bonds correspond to the wavelength of infrared radiation. A product of insolation (that is, exposure to solar radiation), this infrared (or IR) radiation – that would otherwise have been reflected off the surfaces (of land, water, ice, etc.) of the Earth back into “outer space” – is then instead retained in Earth’s atmosphere because it strikes the greenhouse gas molecules in the atmosphere, causes their bonds to “vibrate” and thus become more energetic. At a very macro level, when the balance of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere shifts, it can cause the planet to heat up or cool down as those of us alive today are now experiencing.

There are a great many greenhouse gases, but the one most talked about is obviously carbon dioxide (or CO2). Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are measured in parts per million (or ppm). During the pre-industrial Holocene, these concentrations remained relatively stable around 270 ppm. Today, they are approaching 420.

In addition to carbon dioxide, methane (or CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are also significant contributors to the current global heating being experienced on Earth, though their concentrations are both low enough to be measured in parts per billion (or ppb). Both of these gases are much shorter lived in Earth’s atmosphere than is carbon dioxide, but both of them also have much higher global warming potential (that is, they contribute more to the heating up of the planet on a per-molecule basis) than does carbon dioxide over a 100-year time horizon, which makes rising global methane and nitrous oxide emissions especially worrying at present.

There are also a number of halogenated compounds (many of them refrigerants) that are present in still lower atmospheric concentrations, but which have astronomically higher global warming potential than even methane and nitrous oxide. (Project Drawdown, a worthy endeavor that is also subject to criticism for its essentially neoliberal framing of climate action, has hence identified changes to refrigerant production, use, and disposal as the single most impactful step to be taken to combat global climate crisis.)

Finally, it’s worth noting that water vapor itself serves as a greenhouse gas, and atmospheric black carbon (aka, soot) also contributes to warming, while – ironically – some industrial pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, actually lead, when present in the atmosphere, to a cooling effect (which is why maniacs who believe in geoengineering look to releasing sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere as a potential “solution” to global heating; more about geoengineering, solar radiation management, stratospheric aerosol injection, and other related topics in future posts).

That feels like enough for today. Anyone not already familiar with the Keeling Curve should reward themselves for finishing this post by having a quick look at the curve, data for which has been collected since the 1950s from atop Mauna Loa, at an observatory which stands on the occupied land of Native Hawaiians.

Note: Apologies for the lack of subscripts above. WordPress does not seem to allow for their easy insertion.

The Problem of the Twenty-First Century Is the Problem of the Climate Crisis

In paraphrasing Du Bois, I risk both appropriation and reduction, for the “problem of the color-line” still disfigures the present, and climate crisis can only rightly be understood as a manifold convergence of mega-phenomena that threatens to broach key planetary boundaries. Keeping the Earth within these boundaries is the work of the decade, as of the century, ahead.

As the worst of the (first wave of the) pandemic has passed in New York, and I’ve circled back to my primary focus on climate crisis, a few conclusions are clearer now than ever:

  1. Although there are no “solutions” to climate crisis (by which I mean not just the buildup of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, but the above mentioned convergence that threatens to push the Earth beyond the threshold of key boundaries), only through public action at every level of government – but most especially at the national and supra-national levels – is there hope for mobilization commensurate to the scale of the challenge.
  2. Through the shock, trauma, and inspiration engendered by the pandemic, its corollary economic crisis, and the national protest movement in the United States, a new consensus is emerging – for which the foundation had already been laid by Indigenous, environmental justice, climate, and youth activists – that issues related to climate crisis, racial and economic justice, and public health are interrelated; that the root causes for these various ills lie in capitalism (and/or neoliberalism, the current dominate mode of the global capitalist order); and that to confront any one of these challenges effectively will likely mean confronting all of them simultaneously and coherently.
  3. Thankfully, in the Green New Deal (and perhaps, even more, in the Red Deal), such a coherent, justice-oriented plan for taking commensurate action to confront these intersecting and interlocking ills already exists.

To date, relative to climate crisis, I’ve committed my time and energy to writing, education work, and modest but sustained engagement with a number of mostly local- and state-level political advocacy and organizing efforts. In approaching a multi-faceted problem of such scope (basically, the call is to entirely remake the world), it is, of course, challenging to figure out what to do as an individual. I’m finding it productive to articulate clearly the character and scope of the problem, and to identify the types of actions and strategies that stand a meaningful chance of “success” as I grapple with the question: What more can and should I be doing?

In this way, I hope to avoid self-delusion and false promise: I’ll keep recycling, but the plastics industry should be shut down. I’ll be mindful of our residential energy consumption, but a comprehensive overhaul of national energy infrastructure and housing stock is necessary. I’ll support local retailers and regional organic farms, but unless the entire population has access to real food, my choices reflect only privilege and constitute only luxury. I won’t fault startups tracing carbon footprints or selling offsets (unless they are fraudulent or worse), but neither will I pretend that these are meaningful “climate solutions.” I’ll fly less (and how easy that’s become!), but unless an equitable, just, binding international agreement is reached – an agreement which centers those least responsible for climate crisis, and most immediately threatened by it – regarding global emissions, my personal choices in this regard will amount only to so much ethical purity in keeping a few metaphorical drops out of an ocean-sized bucket.

The stakes, scope, and character of the defining issue of our age are increasingly coming into focus, as are the potential pathways to confronting it, and thus – hopefully – averting global cataclysm. In the months to come, I plan to examine the current state of (climate) affairs with redoubled intensity. I hope you’ll join me in the process.

Immediate Danger

Between 38 and 45 US states have increasing daily case counts of COVID-19. This disaster was avoidable, and its befalling us is a function of (failed and ill-conceived) public policy. As the New York Times recently headlined, “Months Into Virus Crisis, U.S. Cities Still Lack Testing Capacity.” A recent study of SARS-CoV-2 antibody prevalence in Spain (showing only ~5% seropositivity across the country) has thrown further cold water on the herd immunity strategy that we are now de facto pursuing in the United States, but in a tiny glimmer of good news, the very hardest hit parts of Queens (perhaps the hardest hit communities in the world) may have antibody positivity rates high enough to confer a degree of collective protection to their populations. Operative word is “may,” as the results underlying this supposition are unscientific and the unknowns manifold.

But you already know all of this, more or less. New York’s progress has stalled. The Governor persists in claiming, in his daily “NYS Coronavirus Update” newsletters, that, “The number of total hospitalizations continues to remain low,” but the fact of the matter is that the numbers have stopped declining and leveled out, just as have our daily confirmed case counts and percent positivity rates in COVID-19 testing. At the same time, we’re moving to further reopen the economy, gradually adding in riskier and riskier activities to our overall economic mix. This is a recipe for a disaster. Indefinitely delaying the resumption of indoor dining was the right choice, given circumstance (and bearing in mind, as I’ve written since early March, that we never should have been in this situation in the first place, because we have known for a century how to confront and contain epidemic disease), but as a case in point, here are headlines for two articles I came across yesterday: “Mayor de Blasio: Child care centers ready to reopen on July 13” and “Texas coronavirus cases top 1,300 from child care facilities alone“; one doesn’t need to be an epidemiologist to do this math.

The Federal Government has utterly failed to confront the crisis and is now flailing in paroxysms of cruelty, denial, and blame-mongering. Our prima donna Governor, on the face of things, has done a better job, but – even in the wake of his disastrous policy on nursing home readmittance – he continues to quietly do things like create “a Prison Nursing Home Way Upstate” rather than release elderly prisoners. The recent letter to the WHO from hundreds of scientists regarding airborne spread of the virus points to just how little we still know about the disease and its transmission, while anecdotal stories – like this one, from the Financial Times, about “The lockdown death of a 20-year-old day trader” – continue to lend personal detail to the contours of this tragedy, just as statistics give us a sense of the horrific scope of the consequences of the pandemic for the very poor globally.

In New York City, Benjamin Kabak opines that “The MTA Sits on the Brink of Fiscal Collapse”; much the same can be said of the City as a whole, and yet one gets little sense that either elected officials or the City’s population at large is in any way prepared to deal with that reality. (In fact, I fear that understandable, but single-minded focus on the NYPD budget has blinded many progressive/Leftist New Yorkers to the fact that the City is already in economic free-fall, and that this fact is likely to have dire consequences for all of our priorities in the absence of drastic action, and, most especially, massive Federal relief.) Here’s what the New York City Council – in its “Report to the Committee on Finance: Economic and Revenue Forecast for the Fiscal 2021 Preliminary Budget” – had to say, on March 2nd of this year, regarding “Risks to the Revenue Budget” from the “coronavirus” with which China was then “grappl[ing]”:

On the other hand, most forecasters see the economic impact of the virus on the U.S. economy to be small and temporary. As a producer and exporter of services, the New York City economy is likely to be immune to most of the virus’ economic transmission mechanisms. The one exception is the virus reducing travel for tourism, business and trade shows. Consequently, transportation, accommodations, and the arts and leisure sectors could see some impact.

Really great prediction.

I’ve just finished reading Volume I of William T. Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies – No Immediate Danger – a grim and darkly humorous exploration of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, its ongoing consequences, and the culture of denial that has grown up in Japan, and elsewhere, regarding the threat of nuclear disasters to human civilization on Earth. The passage (from pages 509 through 511 of No Immediate Danger) which continues in the images below, begins, “We normalize our lives in order to diminish our pain. Most human beings…”

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Don’t know what a micro-Sievert is?
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I didn’t either before reading Vollmann’s book!

The immediate dangers of climate crisis – as of future pandemics and the risk of nuclear accidents or nuclear war – are clear and present. There is a difference between predicting and foretelling. No one predicted, exactly, the COVID-19 pandemic, but countless journalists, writers, doctors, and epidemiologists foretold that a pandemic like it would occur within the time horizon which it occurred. We should feel the pain now of our badly disfigured world, live it, and act to transform it while we still have the chance. Otherwise, we can only expect to reap the consequences, which will be exponentially more pain for all, though, as always, unevenly distributed.

Dear New York City, Please Don’t Fuck This Up

I’m officially very concerned about the possibility of NYC backsliding in our effort to contain COVID-19.

Briefly, confirmed case count and percent positivity for New York City were as high as they’ve been in weeks yesterday; New York State’s effective reproduction number has climbed back above one; key metrics are slipping backwards for the first time since they began to be published; and meanwhile, much of the rest of the country continues to melt down.

CNBC reported Monday that the “CDC says U.S. has ‘way too much virus’ to control pandemic as cases surge across country.” On that same day, Axios opined, “The return of coronavirus lockdowns could threaten U.S. economic progress.” Mid-week, the New York Times published a graphic showing the extent of the distribution of spikes in case loads nationwide. And there’s a new study out in JAMA arguing that from March through May, the excess death count nationally suggests that COVID-19 deaths have been undercounted by ~25% in the US, which – based on current official death toll of ~130,000, would put the actual death toll above 160,000 already. On the grisly subject of COVID-19 deaths, the COVID Tracking Project published this helpful piece from Whet Moser analyzing various potential bases for trends in deaths relative to confirmed case counts in this latest phase of the extended first wave of infections in the US. Finally, here’s a piece from Bloomberg on five new outbreaks in reopening Europe, which share the common feature of impacting poor/marginalized communities.

So much for being “all in this together”…

I’m at a loss what to do at the moment, but I urge all of my fellow New Yorkers to continue to take the pandemic seriously, lest we find ourselves back at the bottom of the hole out of which we’ve slowly dug our way, with great sacrifice, since March.