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Reason For Hope If We Go Bold

Blue Planet 2 BBC

By Scott Nuzum

My four-year-old loves the fantastical flora and fauna of the marine environment so the other day we decided to watch Blue Planet 2. What began as a joyous attempt to showcase the wonder of the oceans soon took a melancholy turn as we silently watched an exhausted walrus mother and pup struggle to find pack ice on which to rest. After a few minutes, my daughter sought confirmation of something that had clearly bothered her. “Papa,” she said, “if those walruses don’t have ice, they’ll die.” Amazed (but not surprised) by my young child’s ability to reason, I took a deep breath before responding. “Yes,” I replied, “without ice, the walruses would die, but people are working to ensure that doesn’t happen.” I hated to sugarcoat the truth and I worry that I have overstated current efforts to save both the walrus and humanity itself.

It is an extraordinary time to be alive and after seven decades of relative peace and prosperity, living standards have improved for billions. Indeed, public health campaigns have eradicated diseases and lengthened lifespans, and economic growth has lifted billions of people out of dire poverty. Moreover, this sustained period of global peace and prosperity has spurred the proliferation of many new and exciting technologies, allowing us to reach the Moon, decipher the human genome, and wirelessly communicate with one another from across rooms and oceans.

But it is also true that the benefits of peace and prosperity have been neither uniform nor equitable. For decades, many of us (myself included) have been able to engage in mindless consumption—of energy, of natural resources, of durable and non-durable goods—at an unsustainable rate. Only now, as a wave of environmental and technological disruption washes over us, are we beginning to appreciate the disruptive effect of our collective actions.

Signs of Disruption

Signs of disruption and its societal impacts have long been evident. For example, the destruction of various ecosystems and wasteful water use practices have dramatically altered water cycles leading to shortages, restrictions, and difficult questions over resource access. Likewise, the use of fossil fuels has pushed global carbon dioxide concentrations to levels not seen in hundreds of millions of years. According to the IPCC, “[h]uman-induced global warming has already caused multiple observed changes in the climate system.” Without drastic and immediate action, our planet is on a trajectory to exceed 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, if not sooner. According to the IPCC, this would almost certainly amplify the impacts we’re already experiencing and lead to the inundation of coastal communities, the further alteration of ocean chemistry due to ocean acidification, and the complete loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic.

Environmental disruption is a major challenge and constitutes an existential threat to humanity. But it is not the only brand of disruption we face in our modern world—technological disruption is now impacting society with full force. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are disrupting the workplace to such an extent that Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute estimates that 47% of the US workforce is at risk of automation. On top of this, big data and the internet of things are fundamentally altering our humanity. These technologies have so eroded the concept of personal privacy that it is now nearly impossible to go anywhere—virtually or physically—without revealing intimate details of one’s life.

Why Haven’t We Acted?

While our collective inaction to counter disruption seems, in retrospect, more than negligent, it’s not actually surprising. The reason we haven’t acted is really quite simple: environmental disruption hasn’t so fundamentally altered our sense of permanence of place. But it could. Nor has technological disruption so fundamentally altered our individual sense of what it means to be human. But it could. The sooner we come to terms with these truths, the more likely we are to be able to stave off the worst of the potential impacts.

Reason to Hope

As humans, our relatively brief lifespan is a blessing—it instills in us an ability to hope for the better and motivates us to do as much as we can in a short amount of time. We must acknowledge that the future will be different than the past—indeed it always has been—and we must recognize that we have some degree of agency over that future. While some may question the need for or the practicality of bold solutions to disruption—climate change included—for my generation and for my daughter’s generation, there is no choice.

A piecemeal, incrementalist approach will not suffice—it will only accentuate the impacts of disruption. Instead, we must seek an “all in” strategy from our leaders and work to build a movement to ensure that we have both the political will and the necessary structural conditions to meet all forms of disruption head-on. This will require a global effort, the scale of which has been unseen in human history and will necessitate coordinated government strategy, cooperation among public and private sectors, and a massive mobilization of resources.

Beyond that, we must seek to harness positive disruptive outcomes as a means of addressing negative disruptive consequences. For example, we should apply disruptive technologies as tools to help us address the most acute impacts of environmental change. Likewise, we must reframe our collective challenges as opportunities to improve conditions for all. While this mindset will not make the very real and acute impacts go away, it will show us that each of these challenges is interconnected, just as each one of us is connected. Unlike any generation in history, we have the tools and capabilities to unite as a global community for the common good.

As a lawyer and a futurist, I have spent much of my adult life feeling pretty down on the prospects of the human race. It was only when I had children that I regained my hope. Minutes after witnessing the plight of the walruses, my daughter raced to our kitchen to get ice packs from the freezer. “What are you doing,” I inquired. “An experiment to help the walruses,” she replied. While we can draw inspiration from their hope, it shouldn’t be up to today’s four-year-olds to solve the global crises they stand to inherit. Rather, the responsibility should fall on those of us who’ve enjoyed the fruits of peace and prosperity to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Scott Nuzum is a Washington, D.C. based father, husband, attorney, and futurist. He previously worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (2009-2012) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (2012-2014).

One Cool Thing: Human-Sized Penguin Discovered in NZ

Image: Canterbury Museum

This week brought the discovery of an extinct “monster,” human-sized penguin in New Zealand. Crossvallia waiparensis, lived in the Paleocene Epoch (between 66 and 56 million years ago), making it one of the oldest known penguin species. As NBC News reported, the penguin was more than 5 feet tall and weighed more than 170 pounds, according to a statement from the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. It becomes part of a group of “gigantic, but extinct, New Zealand fauna,” including the world’s largest parrot, a massive eagle, a huge burrowing rat, the moa and other large penguins, scientists said.”

Hero of the Week: Ian Recchio

Ian Recchio, wades into an amphibian tank at the L.A. Zoo, where he leads a captive breeding program for endangered frogs. Image: Brian van der Brug / LA Times

 

California’s native southern mountain yellow-legged frog is an endangered species and Ian Recchio, the LA Zoo’s curator of reptiles and amphibians, is out to save it. As the LA Times reported, “named for the bright yellow on their undersides, southern mountain yellow-legged frogs once thrived in hundreds of streams cascading down the high mountains that surround Los Angeles. But since the 1960s, nonnative trout, bullfrogs and crayfish have decimated these frogs. So have wildfires, extreme weather and hotter stream temperatures linked to climate change.”

At the LA Zoo, Recchio runs a program (nicknamed the Frog Shack) that mimics the very specific conditions these frogs need to survive and each year hatches hundreds of new tadpoles each year. About 900 of this year’s crop are scheduled to be released this week in a creek where they’d been absent for half a century–all thanks to Recchio’s tireless work to keep this native species from going extinct.

Air Pollution Can Equal Smoking a Pack of Cigarettes Each Day

Dallas Smog

Smoggy Dallas Image: Sierra Club

This week, the largest-of-its kind study was published in JAMA and reveals that long term exposure to air pollution can have the same effect on human lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. The study was conducted between 2000–2018 and included 5780 participants in 6 US metropolitan regions followed up for a median of 10 years. The results were striking, as there is a statistically significant association between concentrations of air pollutants like ground-level ozone and black carbon and greater increases in emphysema.

The Study: As CNN explained, “The patients were all healthy when they started the study, and researchers controlled for factors that could compromise lung health, including age and whether the person was a smoker or was regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. The strongest association between a pollutant and emphysema was seen with exposure to ozone, which was the only pollutant associated with an additional decline in lung function.

Troubling Sign: Ground-level ozone is particularly nasty and is on the rise. As EcoWatch reported, “While most air pollutants have declined thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act, ground-level ozone has actually increased. Ozone is colorless and forms when pollutants from fossil fuels interact with sunlight. Pollution from cars, power plants, refineries and chemical plants all contribute to smog, and it is on track to get worse.”

Why This Matters: Transitioning to a clean energy economy is about a lot more than just reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a matter of public health. Air pollution from fossil fuels is shortening lifespans by causing chronic illness. So the next time you hear a lawmaker claim that it’s unrealistic to transition away from fossil fuels, just know that this isn’t a choice but rather an imperative to ensure that needless lives aren’t lost because we refused to act. This is a solvable problem, we just need the political will to do so.

Interview of the Week: Yotam Ariel, Bluefield Technologies

Yotam Ariel is the CEO fo Bluefield Technologies, Inc., a startup using microsatellites to measure methane gas leaks and emissions.
ODP:   How does your technology work?
YA:  Sunlight that has passed through methane contains a unique spectral signal that can be detected by Bluefield’s proprietary optical sensor. We integrate our sensor into a backpack-size microsatellite and launch it to space. As the satellite orbits Earth, our sensor tracks each of the millions of emitting sources around the world. The scale, speed, and low cost at which we collect this precise data are unprecedented.
 
ODP: Your vision is for your company to be the Earth’s breathing monitor — can you explain?  Who will pay you for this service?
YA:  We’re working to create something like Google Maps, but instead of just seeing an address, we’ll see every critical emitter on the planet, in near real-time. Such emissions data is valuable for oil and gas companies and other sectors to detect and fix methane leaks, as well as protect them from legal and financial liability. We’re already working with several of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, as well as two government agencies.
 
ODP:  Of all the greenhouse gasses, why methane?  Will you track other greenhouse gasses in the future?
YA: Methane is responsible for 25% of global warming, and knowing who is emitting, when, and how much, would have a massive impact in combatting climate change. In the next few years, we will be expanding our monitoring capacity to include CO2, SO2, NO2.
 
ODP:  What is a microsatellite and how affordable and precise is it? Could the leakage data be validated or certified for an enforcement proceeding?
YA:  A microsatellite is any satellite with a weight between 20 and 200 pounds. For our size microsatellite, the cost to build and deploy it in space is several millions of dollars. The precision depends on the sensor that’s in the satellite. Our sensor can pinpoint the exact emitting source, for example, a specific oil & gas wellhead. We’re working with experts such as Berkeley Lab to validate our data by taking sample measurements and then calibrating our satellite sensor.
 
ODP:  There are lots of methane leaks in Texas and other states that are “free” — either unregulated or the rules against flaring are unenforced — so the companies are wasting ridiculous amounts of gas with abandon. How would you change the incentives on that? Price on carbon or limitation on flaring?
YA: Our sensors will be an essential tool for any solution — whether it is a price on carbon or the development of market-driven trading like https://www.xpansiv.com/, which allows greater transparency in the production process.
 
ODP:  Could you make the leakage information available to the public so that citizens and health care professionals and governments can know when they are living and/or working in an area with lots of leaks? 
YA:  There are a great many uses for the data that we will be collecting and we look forward to working with policymakers, the private sector, and concerned citizens to achieve a variety of worthwhile objectives.
Thanks, Yotam – what a great technological advance!  Good luck scaling it further – we need this kind of detection to achieve emissions goals.

Bluefield Microsatellite

Toxic Blooms Have Energy Potential

Algae in Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio.   Photo: DRONEBASE, via AP and The Boston Globe

We often write about the damaging impacts of algal blooms found in the ocean and in lakes that are fouling beaches and coastal waters, not to mention drinking water in certain areas (see yesterday’s story on how it is poisonous to dogs).  But algae have the potential to be used as fuel for everything from delivery trucks to warplanes and ships, according to author Ruth Kassinger in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe

Why This Matters: Biofuels are now made mostly from corn – but the corn is grown in the Midwest where fertilizers and nitrogen injected into the soil are contributing to the algal dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other waterways. If we could use these algae to replace some of the biofuels made from corn that would have a double environmental benefit.

Biofuels of the Future

  • Biofuels became economically viable in 2005, according to Kassinger, when fossil fuel prices rose to more than $150 per barrel.
  • Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus required the Navy to develop an algae-based biofuel alternative for a Navy demonstration project to reduce the fuel costs born by the fleet’s planes and ships.
  • But low prices for oil made it hard for algae-based biofuels to take off because of the cost to produce it.
  • Now new technologies are now making it much more economical to filter massive quantities of water and liquefy algae biomass more quickly and cheaply than before.
  • The big market for biofuels in the future is likely to be aircraft since electric versions of cars and trucks are growing and it is not possible to fuel airplanes that way.
  • Air travel is the seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Algae Could Replace Plastic Too 

  • Plastics are also fossil-based, but may also be replaced by algae-based products – a company called Algix is making plastic from pond scum.
  • In 2018, the company turned 12 million pounds of algae from ponds into shoe soles. 

Algae pull carbon down from the atmosphere into the water it is a carbon sink. If put to use, it could be part of our climate solutions, according to Kassinger.

To Go Deeper:  If you want to learn more about the potential of slime, click here for Kassinger’s book.  Or you could try one of her recipes for treats like seaweed scones from algae.

Plastic Found in Rocky Mountain Rainwater Samples

Water samples collected by USGS scientists in the Rocky Mountains. Image: USGS

Scientists for the USGS who were analyzing rainwater in the Rocky Mountains found more than soil and mineral particles, instead, they identified plastics in 90% of the water samples they collected. The particles they found were so tiny that they could only be visible with magnification and included plastic fibers, as well as beads and shards. The study they published, called It is raining plastic, highlights that we don’t know very much about microplastics and how they move in freshwater and the air.

Growing Trend: As CNN explained, “scientists have found microplastic particles in rain before. They saw it in the rain falling in the Pyrenees in southern France. It has wound up in remote and otherwise pristine islands. Trillions of pieces of plastic litter float through the ocean, killing fish and other animals. An earlier study found that people are swallowing an average of 5 grams of plastic every week, about the weight of a credit card.”

Drowning in Plastic: Since plastic can take thousands of years to decompose, we’re living with just about all of the plastic we’ve ever made. Because it doesn’t readily decompose plastic breaks down into tinier and tinier pieces that humans and other animals ingest. Additionally, our synthetic clothing sheds microscopic plastic fibers and cannot be filtered out in public water treatment.

Why This Matters: We don’t know how microplastics in our food and our environment are affecting our health or if the petrochemicals that plastic is comprised of might affect our lifespans. Even if we do drastically reduce our reliance on plastics, the microplastic that is already polluting the environment will continue to permeate. We should still actively work to phase out single-use plastics and ensure that plastic waste is captured before it enters the environment. Unfortunately, that’s not the signal that President Trump is sending as on Tuesday he made an appearance at a Pennsylvania plastic manufacturing plant to promote plastic. Additionally, Royal Dutch Shell recently announced that it will build a giant plastic plant capable of producing more than a million pounds of plastic pellets.

Invasive Pests Threaten 40% of U.S. Forests

Signs of emerald ash borer on a tree

Emerald ash borer damage. Image: University of Waterloo

U.S. forests are under threat, and not just from logging or drought but from invasive insects and fungi that could kill 40% of all domestic forests. As the Guardian explained, “About 450 overseas pests that damage or feed on trees have been introduced to US forests due to the growth in international trade and travel. PNAS-published study of the 15 most damaging non-native forest pests has found that they destroy so many trees that about 6m tons of carbon are expelled each year from the dying plants. This is the equivalent, researchers say, of adding an extra 4.6m cars to the roads every year in terms of the release of planet-warming gases.”

Carbon Not Sequestered: The researchers identified 15 pests that are the biggest threat to trees and then calculated how much carbon storage capacity was lost as a result of trees dying from invasive species, that’s how they arrived at the 6m tons figure noted above.

What Can Be Done: Songlin Fei, a forestry expert and report author at Purdue University explained that “the best way to control these pests it through inspections and quarantine – once they are in the system it’s hard to stop them. For many trees it’s too late.” However, scientists need to understand pathogens and invasive species better than they do now–the infection of Hawaii’s native ohi’a trees is an example of a tree disease that officials didn’t understand enough to curb.

Why This Matters: Another recent study revealed that planting .09 billion hectares of trees could result in trapping two-thirds of all the carbon released since the beginning of the industrial age. However, if we don’t better manage invasive pests and pathogens that affect trees then we might lose the benefits of reforestation. As Discover Magazine explained, “many of the pest species have only invaded less than a third of their potential range. Although nearly half of forests are at risk of invasion, it also means there’s time to take action.”

Scotland Surging on Renewable Power

By Alexandra Patel and Monica Medina

In the first half of 2019, Scotland generated enough wind energy to supply homes with electricity two times over. Wind turbines produced more than 98 million megawatt-hours of electricity – which is univalent to enough power for 4.47 million homes.  And just last week, a new £6 million renewable energy project in Stirling — the first of its kind in the UK — using cutting-edge technologies to harness energy from wastewater from the city’s sewage works.

Why This Matters: In 2018, under the Trump administration, the renewable energies sector faced severe roadblocks. From rolling back policies designed to curb carbon emissions, imposing tariffs on solar panels and threatening to cut subsidies for clean energy, the government worked to hold back the industry. Even under these conditions, the development and investment into clean energy continued to grow. Without the backing and resources of our government though, it will be a much harder and longer battle for the United States to rival Scotland and reach its full potential for renewable energy. According to a report from the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, U.S. onshore wind resources have the potential to generate 11,000 gigawatts of electricity – that is 123 times the current installed capacity. Only through cooperation and collaboration between public institutions and private corporations can the United States hope to achieve the full integration of renewables within the energy industry akin to what Scotland is doing.

A Global Example: Scotland has become a global leader in renewable energy adoption.

  • It generates more than half of its electricity consumption primarily from wind, wave, and tide energy sources.
  • Scotland is home to around 25 percent of all of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal resources and holds over 60 percent of the UK’s onshore wind capacity.
  • The Scottish government is committed to ‘decarbonizing’ by reaching 100 percent electricity generation from renewables by 2020 and 50 percent total energy consumption by renewables by 2030.
  • In 2018, Scottish Power became the first UK energy firm to completely eradicate energy production from fossil fuels, with plans to invest £2 billion to increase renewable capacity.

Side by Side: By comparison, the United States generates only about 11 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. 80 percent of power is still being derived from fossil fuels, with a small 8.6 percent from nuclear. While the different geographies of the two countries explain some of the difference, such as lower wind speeds across many parts of the U.S., institutional and governmental support also plays a big role.

One Important Dog Safety Thing: Toxic Algae Could Poison Them

Photo: earth.com

Toxic algae are harmful not only to humans but also to dogs, which are particularly vulnerable to blue/green cyanobacteria — owners should prevent their pets from coming into contact with it. Dogs are vulnerable to it because they swallow so much water when they swim, Heavy.com reported.  Dogs in several states that have come into contact with the toxic algae have died — including in Austin, Texas, Marietta, Georgia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, according to The New York Times.  The Times also reported earlier this month that there has been an unusually intense wave of toxic algae blooms shutting down waters from the Pacific Northwest to New Jersey and even all of the Mississippi coast, as we reported a few weeks ago, which was likely caused by climate change.