The global environmental impact of air conditioning is big and will get even bigger

Lucas Davis writes: With a heat wave pushing the heat index well above 100° F (38 °C) through much of the US, most of us are happy to stay indoors and crank the air conditioning. And if you think it’s hot here, try 124 °F in India. Globally, 2016 is poised to be another record-breaking year for average temperatures. This means more air conditioning. Much more.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Paul Gertler and I examine the enormous global potential for air conditioning. As incomes rise around the world and global temperatures go up, people are buying air conditioners at alarming rates. In China, for example, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled over the last five years. Each year now more than 60 million air conditioners are sold in China, more than eight times as many as are sold annually in the United States.

This is mostly great news. People are getting richer, and air conditioning brings great relief on hot and humid days. However, air conditioning also uses vast amounts of electricity. A typical room air conditioner, for example, uses 10-20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan.

Meeting this increased demand for electricity will require billions of dollars of infrastructure investments and result in billions of tons of increased carbon dioxide emissions. A new study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab also points out that more ACs means more refrigerants that are potent greenhouse gases. [Continue reading…]

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These Brexiters will grind our environment into the dust

George Monbiot writes: The more urgent the environmental crisis becomes, the less we hear about it. It exposes the economic policies of all major parties – whether neoliberal or Keynesian – as incompatible with the times in which we live. To remark on what we are doing to the living planet is to fall into cognitive dissonance. It is easier to ignore it.

This is the spirit in which our new prime minister has engaged with our greatest predicament. Climate change clashes with the economic model, so let’s scrub it from the departmental register. Wildlife is collapsing and, at current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left. So let’s appoint an extreme neoliberal fiercely opposed to constraints on industry as secretary of state for the environment. When the model is wrong, adjust the real world to make it fit.

I do not see the European Union as a lost Avalon. It brought us much that is good, such as directives that enable us to hold our governments to account for their environmental failures. But the good things it has done for the living world are counteracted – perhaps much more than counteracted – by a few astonishing idiocies. They arise from remote, unresponsive authority that is accessible to corporate lobby groups but not to mere mortals. In some respects the Brexit campaigners were right – though generally for the wrong reasons. [Continue reading…]

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Stephen Hawking says pollution and ‘stupidity’ still biggest threats to humanity

The Independent reports: Professor Stephen Hawking says he believes pollution and human “stupidity” remain the biggest threats to mankind, while also expressing his concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in warfare.

The world’s leading theoretical physicist argued “we have certainly not become less greedy or less stupid” in our treatment of the environment over the past decade, during an interview on Larry King Now, which is hosted on Ora TV.

Professor Hawking said: “Six years ago, I was warning about pollution and overcrowding, they have gotten worse since then. The population has grown by half a billion since our last interview, with no end in sight.

“At this rate, it will be eleven billion by 2100. Air pollution has increased by 8 percent over the past five years. More than 80 percent of inhabitants of urban areas are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

“The increase in air pollution and the emission of increasing levels of carbon dioxide. Will we be too late to avoid dangerous levels of global warming?”

The cosmologist was speaking at the Starmus science conference in Tenerife, themed this year as a tribute to his life’s work.

Professor Hawking went on to outline his concerns about the future of artificial intelligence technologies, and specifically their primary use in weaponry. [Continue reading…]

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Biodiversity is below safe levels across more than half of world’s land, say scientists

wheat

The Guardian reports: The variety of animals and plants has fallen to dangerous levels across more than half of the world’s landmass due to humanity destroying habitats to use as farmland, scientists have estimated.

The unchecked loss of biodiversity is akin to playing ecological roulette and will set back efforts to bring people out of poverty in the long term, they warned.

Analysing 1.8m records from 39,123 sites across Earth, the international study found that a measure of the intactness of biodiversity at sites has fallen below a safety limit across 58.1% of the world’s land.

Under a proposal put forward by experts last year, a site losing more than 10% of its biodiversity is considered to have passed a precautionary threshold, beyond which the ecosystem’s ability to function could be compromised.

“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Prof Andy Purvis, of the Natural History Museum, and one of the authors. “Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.” [Continue reading…]

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Half of all food produce in the U.S. is thrown away, new research suggests

The Guardian reports: Food waste is often described as a “farm-to-fork” problem. Produce is lost in fields, warehouses, packaging, distribution, supermarkets, restaurants and fridges.

By one government tally, about 60m tonnes of produce worth about $160bn (£119bn), is wasted by retailers and consumers every year – one third of all foodstuffs.

But that is just a “downstream” measure. In more than two dozen interviews, farmers, packers, wholesalers, truckers, food academics and campaigners described the waste that occurs “upstream”: scarred vegetables regularly abandoned in the field to save the expense and labour involved in harvest. Or left to rot in a warehouse because of minor blemishes that do not necessarily affect freshness or quality.

When added to the retail waste, it takes the amount of food lost close to half of all produce grown, experts say. [Continue reading…]

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Art that makes visible the invisible

Sheherzad Preisler writes: The environmental artist Ned Kahn, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee, gravitates toward phenomena that lie on the edges of what science can grasp — “things,” he tells me over the phone, “that are inherently complex and difficult to predict, yet at the same time beautiful.” The weather, for example, has, because of its chaotic yet orderly nature, “fascinated me for my whole career,” he says. For almost the last 30 years in particular, he’s been creating dynamic installations that he thinks of as “observatories”: Since they frequently incorporate wind, water, fog, sand, and light, he states on his website, “they frame and enhance our perception of natural phenomena.”

Take his most recent project, the “Shimmer Wall”. Composed of over 30,000 tiles, it will be a 1,100-foot long façade of a new building, home to the “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit, set to open this year at the New York Aquarium (over $80,000, toward a $100,000 goal, has been donated for its construction). It will house over 100 species of animals, including but not limited to a variety of crustaceans, sharks, fish, rays, and turtles. “They were struggling with the façade and someone on the design committee knew about my work and approached me,” says Kahn. “That led to the idea that we’re doing a skin for the aquarium inspired by fish skin, shark skin, scales. I’ve been doing a number of faceted, fragmented, kinetic artworks influenced by scales — that move with the wind and, when you step back, you get an idea of how the wind affects it.”

Kahn tells me that, before Hurricane Sandy hit, on October 29th 2012, there was a six-foot square experimental piece of the Wall outside the aquarium, to test if it could stand extreme weather. It held up perfectly, he says. In his conversation with Nautilus, Kahn also spoke with enthusiasm about how nature both inspires and interacts with his work, as well as what people make of it. [Continue reading…]

 

(Note: The sound in this video has no connection with the shimmering wall — it is the sound of waves on a shore on the Canary Islands.)

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Leading Brexiters support the transfer of public money from the poor to the rich

George Monbiot writes: The common agricultural policy is a €55bn incentive to destroy wildlife habitats and cause floods downstream.

All the good things the EU has done for nature are more than counteracted by this bureaucratic idiocy. Millions of hectares of wildlife habitat in the EU are threatened by this rule; clearance has taken place already across vast areas. Why do we hear so little about it?

I spent part of this spring in Romania, in the midst of hundreds of thousands of hectares of wood pasture: a mosaic of flowering meadows, marshes and trees. I have seldom seen such a profusion of life anywhere on earth. I watched golden orioles, hoopoes, honey buzzards, red-backed and great grey shrikes, lesser spotted eagles, black storks, yellow wagtails, roe deer, wild boar and bears. Cuckoos were so common they flew around in flocks. All nine species of European woodpecker live in one small valley where I stayed; so do bee eaters, goshawks, corncrakes, quails, nightjars, tortoises, tree frogs, pine martens, wildcats, lynx and wolves.

All this is now on the brink. Across Romania, farmers are beginning to realise that they can make money simply by cleansing the land. In eastern Transylvania I saw the heartbreaking results: the mass felling of trees and destruction of wildlife, not for any productive purpose, but just to meet the European rules. It’s the same kind of vandalism, driven by diktat and blindly enforced by bureaucrats, that the Romanians suffered under their former despot, Nicolae Ceausescu. The European subsidies rules are responsible for one of the world’s great unfolding disasters, which ranks only a little way behind the fires in Indonesia and the collapse of coral reefs.

This dog that hasn’t barked exposes the real agenda of the leading Brexiters. They denounce the transfer of public money from rich to poor; they are intensely relaxed about the transfer of public money from poor to rich. It also challenges those who wish to remain.

I will vote in on Thursday, as I don’t want to surrender this country to the unmolested control of people prepared to rip up every variety of public spending and public protection except those that serve their own class. But if we are to live in Remainia, we should insist on sweeping change. Daylight robbery and mass destruction: the EU is supposed to prevent them, not deliver them. [Continue reading…]

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Global warming’s evil twin: ocean acidification

Climate Reality reports: Our oceans are an incredible carbon sink — they absorb about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide humans produce every year. But this is changing sea surface chemistry dramatically: when carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, it dissolves to form carbonic acid. The result, not surprisingly, is that the ocean becomes more acidic, upsetting the delicate pH balance that millions and millions of organisms rely on.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our seas have become about 30 percent more acidic, a rate not observed in 300 million years. This has a wide range of consequences for marine ecosystems, as well as for the billions of people who depend on the ocean for food and survival. [Continue reading…]

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RIP Bob Paine, a keystone among ecologists

Ed Yong writes: I’m deeply saddened to learn that Bob Paine, a giant of ecology, passed away yesterday. You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know the ideas that he pioneered.

Back in 1963, Paine began prying ochre starfish off a rocky beach in Washington and hurling them into the sea. After a year, the mussels that the starfish would normally have eaten had overrun the beach, turning a wonderland of limpets, anemones, and barnacles into a monoculture of black gaping shells.

The experiment was ground-breaking. It showed that not all species are equal, and that some — like the starfish—are secret lynchpins of the natural world. Their absence can ripple outwards, triggering the rise and fall of connected species and can even reshape the landscape. For example, when sea otters vanish, the sea urchins they eat transform lush forests of kelp into desolate barrens, dooming the fish, crabs, and other animals that once lived there. Paine called these ripples “trophic cascades”, and he billed the animals behind them — the starfish, otters, and others — as “keystone species”, after the central stone that stops an arch from collapsing. These concepts are so familiar today that we take them for granted, but we didn’t always know about them. We only do because of Paine. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists have found yet another part of Antarctica that may be in trouble

Thwaites-ice-shelf

The Washington Post reports: The forces affecting the ice in West Antarctica are an area of urgent focus for climate scientists who are all too aware of the ice sheet’s huge potential contributions to global sea-level rise. A great deal of this attention has centered on a specific region bordering the Amundsen Sea, south of the Antarctic Peninsula, where research has suggested that a set of rapidly retreating glaciers — including the famous Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers — may be increasingly vulnerable to collapse.

But research is increasingly suggesting that the region is not the only area deserving of concern. Just last month, a new study suggested that the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica, which has typically been considered much less of a threat than West Antarctica, is also thinning quickly and has retreated inland by close to two miles in some areas. Overall, the glacier has the potential to raise sea levels by about 13 feet should it collapse.

And now, a new study just published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has identified a new area of concern. The new research focuses on the Bellingshausen Sea region, an area just above the Amundsen Sea on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Using four decades’ worth of satellite data, researchers have found that ice in this region has also experienced significant retreat, particularly since 1990, and could be a bigger threat than expected. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear plants, despite safety concerns, gaining support among environmentalists

The New York Times reports: Just a few years ago, the United States seemed poised to say farewell to nuclear energy. No company had completed a new plant in decades, and the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 intensified public disenchantment with the technology, both here and abroad.

But as the Paris agreement on climate change has put pressure on the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some state and federal officials have deemed nuclear energy part of the solution. They are now scrambling to save existing plants that can no longer compete economically in a market flooded with cheap natural gas.

“We’re supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said recently at a symposium that the department convened to explore ways to improve the industry’s prospects.

As a result, there are efforts across the country to bail out nuclear plants at risk of closing, with important test cases in Illinois, Ohio and New York, as well as proposed legislation in Congress.

Exelon, one of the country’s largest nuclear operators, for example, is deciding whether to close two of its struggling plants in Illinois after efforts to push a bailout through its Legislature fell apart.

Nuclear power remains mired in longstanding questions over waste disposal, its safety record after the catastrophes at places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the potential for its plants to be converted into weapon-making factories. In spite of the lingering issues, policy makers, analysts and executives, along with a growing number of environmentalists, say that at stake is the future of the country’s largest source of clean energy.

“Nothing else comes close,” Mr. Moniz, a nuclear physicist, said at the symposium. [Continue reading…]

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Reading Edward Said in a warming world

Naomi Klein writes: Edward Said was no tree-hugger. Descended from traders, artisans and professionals, he once described himself as ‘an extreme case of an urban Palestinian whose relationship to the land is basically metaphorical’.​ In After the Last Sky, his meditation on the photographs of Jean Mohr, he explored the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives, from hospitality to sports to home décor. The tiniest detail – the placing of a picture frame, the defiant posture of a child – provoked a torrent of insight from Said. Yet when confronted with images of Palestinian farmers – tending their flocks, working the fields – the specificity suddenly evaporated. Which crops were being cultivated? What was the state of the soil? The availability of water? Nothing was forthcoming. ‘I continue to perceive a population of poor, suffering, occasionally colourful peasants, unchanging and collective,’ Said confessed. This perception was ‘mythic’, he acknowledged – yet it remained.

If farming was another world for Said, those who devoted their lives to matters like air and water pollution appear to have inhabited another planet. Speaking to his colleague Rob Nixon, he once described environmentalism as ‘the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause’. But the environmental challenges of the Middle East are impossible to ignore for anyone immersed, as Said was, in its geopolitics. This is a region intensely vulnerable to heat and water stress, to sea-level rise and to desertification. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change predicts that, unless we radically lower emissions and lower them fast, large parts of the Middle East will likely ‘experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans’ by the end of this century. And that’s about as blunt as climate scientists get. Yet environmental issues in the region still tend to be treated as afterthoughts, or luxury causes. The reason is not ignorance, or indifference. It’s just bandwidth. Climate change is a grave threat but the most frightening impacts are in the medium term. And in the short term, there are always far more pressing threats to contend with: military occupation, air assault, systemic discrimination, embargo. Nothing can compete with that – nor should it attempt to try.

There are other reasons why environmentalism might have looked like a bourgeois playground to Said. The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos. And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads. It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green’, boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region. In publicity materials, the JNF bills itself as just another green NGO, concerned with forest and water management, parks and recreation. It also happens to be the largest private landowner in the state of Israel, and despite a number of complicated legal challenges, it still refuses to lease or sell land to non-Jews.

I grew up in a Jewish community where every occasion – births and deaths, Mother’s Day, bar mitzvahs – was marked with the proud purchase of a JNF tree in the person’s honour. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to understand that those feel-good faraway conifers, certificates for which papered the walls of my Montreal elementary school, were not benign – not just something to plant and later hug. In fact these trees are among the most glaring symbols of Israel’s system of official discrimination – the one that must be dismantled if peaceful co-existence is to become possible.

The JNF is an extreme and recent example of what some call ‘green colonialism’. But the phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it unique to Israel. There is a long and painful history in the Americas of beautiful pieces of wilderness being turned into conservation parks – and then that designation being used to prevent Indigenous people from accessing their ancestral territories to hunt and fish, or simply to live. It has happened again and again. A contemporary version of this phenomenon is the carbon offset. Indigenous people from Brazil to Uganda are finding that some of the most aggressive land grabbing is being done by conservation organisations. A forest is suddenly rebranded a carbon offset and is put off-limits to its traditional inhabitants. As a result, the carbon offset market has created a whole new class of ‘green’ human rights abuses, with farmers and Indigenous people being physically attacked by park rangers or private security when they try to access these lands. Said’s comment about tree-huggers should be seen in this context.

And there is more. In the last year of Said’s life, Israel’s so-called ‘separation barrier’ was going up, seizing huge swathes of the West Bank, cutting Palestinian workers off from their jobs, farmers from their fields, patients from hospitals – and brutally dividing families. There was no shortage of reasons to oppose the wall on human rights grounds. Yet at the time, some of the loudest dissenting voices among Israeli Jews were not focused on any of that. Yehudit Naot, Israel’s then environment minister, was more worried about a report informing her that ‘The separation fence … is harmful to the landscape, the flora and fauna, the ecological corridors and the drainage of the creeks.’ ‘I certainly don’t want to stop or delay the building of the fence,’ she said, but ‘I am disturbed by the environmental damage involved.’ As the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti later observed, Naot’s ‘ministry and the National Parks Protection Authority mounted diligent rescue efforts to save an affected reserve of irises by moving it to an alternative reserve. They’ve also created tiny passages [through the wall] for animals.’

Perhaps this puts the cynicism about the green movement in context. People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said’s intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don’t ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first ‘save the world’ – but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said – and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers – because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. So what follows are some thoughts – by no means complete – about what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world. [Continue reading…]

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