How did I miss this story? Apparently it came out in October, so I guess I was a bit preoccupied with the election circus. I assume it flew under the radar for a lot of other people too. Here it is: on the scale of just a few decades, the combination of climate change and deforestation will likely result in the conversion of tropical rainforest to grassland in the Amazon. This article in The Guardian summarizes a peer reviewed study and aptly explains why/how this will happen. (Side note: The Guardian is one of my favorite sources for environmental stories. Of course, they’re all depressing stories that further chip away at any optimism I have left, but they are well done and it’s one of the few media outlets that seem to really focus on climate issues.)
I can’t say I’m surprised by this study (here’s a link to the original publication) but it’s deeply upsetting nonetheless. Tropical rainforests are often referred to as the “earth’s lungs”. While ⅔ of our oxygen actually comes from microorganisms in the ocean, tropical rainforests contribute a significant amount of oxygen to the atmosphere (20%) and, maybe more importantly, store carbon out of the atmosphere in all those huge, beautiful old trees. What does the loss of the Amazon rainforest mean for the planet? Many things, including
Let’s start with the carbon emissions. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, approximately 375 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted from human activities (World Meteorological Society). This has contributed to the warming of the planet and resulting increases in extreme weather (droughts, wildfires, hurricanes) and sea level rise. Note that 140 billion tons of carbon would likely enter the atmosphere with the conversion of rainforest to grassland. That’s nearly 40% of all the carbon that we have already contributed to the atmosphere but in a fraction of the time it took to get to this point. We thought we were already seeing rapid change. Buckle up everybody.
Let’s move on to the projected biodiversity loss. I’ve covered the importance of biodiversity loss in an older post (May 14, 2019) so I won’t rehash here. But needless to say, the scope of biodiversity loss that we face with the loss of the rainforest is very worrisome. Think about the potential cancer treatments that could be found in plants that grow only in the rainforest. Think about all the colorful frogs, the fascinating primates, the leaf cutter ants, the gorgeously colored birds, the rare orchids, I could go on and on (obviously, 10% of earth’s total biodiversity likely = millions of species). All that genetic potential, all that beauty will be gone. Let’s not forget all of the species that have yet to be discovered in the rainforest and all the indigenous people that live in and depend on the rainforests.
Then there’s the trees themselves. The trees of the rainforest actually generate about 40% of the precipitation that falls there and in surrounding areas of South America. When the trees are gone and the rainfall with it, conflicts over water resources will increase and agricultural outputs will diminish. This is a recipe for mass migration. Millions of people will be displaced, likely to North America. If conservatives in this country are upset about the current immigrant situation, they are going to be beside themselves in a couple of decades. We haven’t seen anything yet.
So, what is to be done? Well, first and foremost we need to vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we don’t fulfill the “worst case scenario” predictions of the IPCC and other models. You know how to do that: eat a vegan diet, use less energy, buy local foods, advocate for legislative change, etc. All the things I’ve mentioned in previous posts. A plant-based/vegan diet (you can do it! It’s so easy and tasty and healthy!) not only reduces your carbon footprint, but your land footprint as well. In the Amazon, deforestation is driven primarily by animal agriculture (see also this article). A global reduction in the demand for beef would slow destruction of the rainforest. In addition, the Rainforest Alliance recommends some other daily actions that individuals can take.
So, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything. To be honest, this “election season” plus COVID and dealing with the school year have just really gotten me down. My stress levels have been through the roof and I have not slept through the night in months. I know that I’m not unusual. Everyone is feeling like this. One bright spot is the recent news that Biden is installing John Kerry as a climate change envoy and pledging to rejoin the Paris agreement. After four LONG years, we can start to get back on track as a nation in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, something we should have done decades ago of course, but these last four years have been a major setback. I’ve also been buoyed a bit by the news that the U.K. recently put forth a major initiative aimed at restoring natural biodiversity by cutting farm subsidies in some areas and encouraging sustainable farming methods. Also, The Guardian reports many countries are pledging to be carbon neutral by 2050 or 2060 and two North Atlantic right whale newborns were recently spotted (this is a big deal!). Some rare good news.
But of course, the uplifting headlines are few and far between the negative ones. Just today these are a few of the headlines I saw:
(Note: this is a series of depressing photos on CNN’s website. This picture is of a cow that died of dehydration in an area that has seen climate change-exacerbated drought.)
You already knew it if you read some of my previous posts. Of course this mostly applies to those of you not eating a vegan diet.
And the hits keep coming. I’m not going to get into it now, but as more sea ice melts in the Arctic in the summer, the rate of warming for the entire planet will increase. The Arctic is a proverbial canary in a coal mine. That particular canary stopped singing decades ago, we just turned a deaf ear.
Sewage + warmer temperatures = low oxygen. Low oxygen = no fish. My first year environmental science students can all educate you on this issue. It's a classic.
Every year is now the hottest year. None of this is surprising, but it’s like icing on the worst cake ever. I can’t offer any words of comfort. All I can say is that now more than ever we need to advocate our legislators for quick and radical actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to take personal responsibilities: stop eating meat and dairy, buy less stuff, use less energy, etc, etc. You know the drill. Stop making excuses and do what you know has to be done. In the words of someone (?) "Do what must be done." (I feel like that's a Star Wars quote, but I have no idea who said it or which of the million Star Wars/Star Wars spin-off movies it was in.)
The other day, I saw a story on CNN that the current administration has approved leasing plans for oil drilling in the Coastal Plain area of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Rather than just the Area 1002 (roughly 2000 acres) that was set aside for potential oil exploration when the refuge was established, it seems like the whole Coastal Plain area (1.5 million acres) will be up for grabs. This will be devastating for wildlife. For example, there is a caribou herd that relies on the Coastal Plain area for their calving and summer feeding grounds. This decision to open the whole area to drilling will result in reductions in the caribou population and the predators and indigenous peoples that rely on the caribou. The World Wildlife Fund has a quick summary of the reasons we shouldn’t allow drilling in ANWR and the Center for American Progress has a summary of why we shouldn’t drill from energy and economy standpoints. The Gwich’in people (the original inhabitants of the land) also advocate strongly against drilling. One last link for you, Scientific American has a story on the environmental impact statement prepared by the government. By their own emission, drilling will contribute to extinctions of wildlife in the refuge. The Arctic ecosystem is already severely impacted by global warming. Do we have to double down on human impacts with more drilling? This is the time to move away from fossil fuels, not try to find more sources of them.
Now for some rare good news, on July 6 a federal judge ordered a shutdown of construction and operations on the Dakota Access Pipeline for a full environmental and cultural impacts review. This has been a four-year legal battle between the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes and the US Army Corps of Engineers and Dakota Access, LLC. This press release from Earth Justice (the group representing the Sioux tribes) detailing the ruling and giving the history of the struggle. There are many issues with the Dakota Access Pipeline (and the similar Keystone Pipeline and Keystone XL) but I will just address the issues with what the pipelines are transporting and the fact that pipelines are prone to spills and other leakage.
These pipelines bring or are slated to bring tar sands oil from Canada down to refineries in the United States. Extraction and refinement of oil from tar sands results in 50% higher carbon dioxide emissions than conventional oil (see this brief explanation) and extensive habitat destruction (which is of course followed by massive biodiversity loss). If we rely on tar sands oil as our conventional sources of oil are rapidly depleted, we will accelerate and exacerbate global warming.
This picture shows what the natural boreal habitat should look like and what the landscape looks like after clearcutting and sand extraction. In his documentary “Before the Flood” Leonardo DiCaprio likens the tar sands landscape to Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Photo credit: © Greenpeace/John Woods
While oil companies tout pipelines as the safer alternative to train or truck transport, it turns out that the Keystone Pipeline has frequent spills/leaks. Twenty one spills of varying sizes (sometimes underreported) occurred between 2010 and 2019. Oil spills threaten drinking water supplies and are toxic for wildlife. Despite this record of spills, the current White House administration approved the Keystone XL extension in March of 2019.
But let’s stay focused on the good news! The Dakota pipeline has beens stopped (for now). We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. These past four years have been devastating for the environment (and devastating for human rights in this country, and devastating for international relations, and...I could go on and on). I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say that the future of our nation and the world depends on the election of Joe Biden in November. That’s my action suggestion for today. Vote for Joe Biden (and democratic candidates down the ticket) in November. Only if the democrats control the White House and Congress can we start to undo the damage that the orange occupant (I can’t bear to say or write his name; he doesn’t deserve acknowledgement) of the White House has done.
Vote for Biden and Harris on November 3rd! (or vote early if your state allows it)
While we have been immersed in news of the global COVID pandemic the Great Barrier Reef has experienced a major bleaching event for the third time in five years. The reef experienced the hottest water temperatures on record since people started keeping reef temperature records in 1900. The Guardian has a short summary article that is worth a read.
For those of you who are asking, what is bleaching? Why is it bad? Here is a little primer on corals and bleaching. Corals are a tiny colonial animal. They are related to anemones and jellyfishes, so they have tiny tentacles with stinging cells. That’s not really the important part.
Corals have soft bodies made of two tissue layers. Microscopic algae (single-celled organisms) called Zooxanthellae live inside the cells of the inner layer. The Zooxanthellae are photosynthetic and provide corals with most of the energy they require for living. They are also responsible for giving corals their colors (all those photosynthetic pigments). The rest of the nutritional needs of the coral are met by capturing plankton with their tentacles. While the corals themselves are soft-bodied, they do make what is referred to as a skeleton. This is a hard base of calcium carbonate that the coral sits anchored in. This must be continuously maintained and built up. The coral expends energy to do this.
Corals are like Goldilocks (reference to Goldilocks and the Three Bears children’s story...do people read this to their kids anymore? Am I dating myself?). They have very specific environmental needs. We’ll use temperature as an example. The corals need water that is not too cold, not too warm, but just right. If the water gets too warm (hello global warming!) the Zooxanthellae malfunction and stress the coral out. The coral then kick the Zooxanthellae out of their cells. When the Zooxanthellae are gone, the corals lose their color and appear white, hence the term “coral bleaching.” Here’s a great animation about bleaching if you want to know more details. The corals can live for a little while without their Zooxanthellae because they can still capture plankton with their tentacles and live off of stored energy. But eventually they can’t survive without all the energy the Zooxanthellae provide, so they die.
Why should people care about corals dying? Coral reefs provide shelter and food for thousands of other species of marine organisms, most of which are not found in other ecosystems and many of which may produce compounds that could be used medicinally. This abundant wildlife supports ecotourism in many parts of the tropics and subtropics; reefs are estimated to generate $1 million per kilometer. Coral reefs also provide food for people (nearly 1 billion people are estimated to rely on reef ecosystems for food) and are important buffers to storm wave energy that could damage coastlines.
There is some hope that corals will become more resistant to bleaching. There are some kinds of Zooxanthellae that can tolerate higher temperatures than others. These Zooxanthellae have been found to become more common on reefs after bleaching has occurred (see Baker et al and Stat & Gates). This suggests that corals can switch to a more advantageous type of Zooxanthellae. Some researchers have even experimented with “planting” corals on reefs that have the resistant Zooxanthellae living in them. But even those heat-resistant Zooxanthellae have their limits with experimentally demonstrated high bleaching levels above 33°C. This recent heat wave on the Great Barrier reef saw temperatures of 31°C. What will the sea surface temperatures be in 10 years? By 2050? If even the most thermally tolerant corals and their zooxanthellae are subjected to temperatures over 33°C, reefs are likely to become a relic of the past and with them all the benefits that we get from the reef biodiversity.
So, what can we do about it? You know the drill! Look back at my old posts for a myriad of personal actions you can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advocate for legislative change. Most importantly, you can vote in November. We need a sea change in the government of this country. Clearly the current administration needs to go, as they have been systematically dismantling all environmental regulations in this country and consistently denying that climate change is happening (here’s a link to that climate change deregulation tracker again, just for fun. Clearly we also need to get people who understand the seriousness of the climate crisis in control of Congress. Generally, that means you should vote for Democrats and not for Republicans. It’s funny how things have changed in the past 40-something years. It was under the Republican Nixon administration that all the great environmental legislation of the 1970s was passed. George H.W. Bush even campaigned on the promise to protect Americans from the threat of climate change in 1988 (of course, the tune changed during his administration, but there was a point when he acknowledged the dangers). Now the Democrats are the party of climate change action. If Democrats control both the House and the Senate, we could get some climate change legislation passed. So, vote Democrat whenever possible. And yes, no politician is perfect, but we need some that will at least do no more damage than has already been done (that’s the low bar) and ideally some that will start to make significant progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (that’s the high bar...let’s shoot high).
These are unsettled times. In recent weeks I have discussed the "tragedy of the commons" concept with my environmental science class. Today on the morning news, one reporter was in a supermarket showing off the barren shelves. He noted that people should just buy what they need, not all the hand sanitizer or all the soap, because by buying more than you need for the time being, you are putting someone else at risk because they can't get their hands on sanitizer or soap. Tragedy of the commons, sort of. Definitely an "everyone for themselves" scenario playing out in the markets.
People are panicking. This is a time for common sense, not panic. Practice social distancing. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands thoroughly (get under those fingernails and in all the crevices!) and frequently with soap. [Simplified science note: most viruses, including COVID-19 are covered in a layer of lipids. These help the virus to stick to surfaces (think sticky oil on a pan). Scrubbing with soap breaks up that lipid layer so that viruses can be rinsed off your hands with water.] If you feel at all symptomatic or think you may have been exposed, stay at home and definitely stay away from your older relatives and friends, or people who have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk (cardiac issues, asthma, immune deficiencies, etc).
Also remember to take care of your mental health. Keep yourself busy and on a schedule. Read, maybe enjoy some Netflix or similar, exercise, and eat healthy. For exercise, get outside for a walk. Feel the sunshine on your face, it makes a big difference. Many fitness studios are offering virtual classes. I've got a class scheduled for every day this week. It will be nice to see the people I usually see and will take my mind off being stuck at home during the day by myself for three weeks. I'm going to schedule some virtual lunches with friends and colleagues. Lastly, turn the news off. Maybe watch a bit in the morning, but you know it's just going to be the same stress-inducing news over and over all day. That can have a big impact on your psyche.
On a science note, here's a video on how and why novel viruses (COVID-19, SARS) will likely continue to originate in China. With population growth and climate change (see "They're coming" post 8/2/19), we can expect more pandemics in the future. Here are a couple of articles that touch on this: Scientific American and Vox.
A couple of headlines caught my eye this morning, here's one:
I'll address the human tragedy later. The stories about koalas and kangaroos are really tugging at my heart strings. On one island alone (Kangaroo Island), it's estimated that 30,000 koalas have died, and many others are suffering from burns. This video and this one are just a couple of the many sad videos showing the plight of the wildlife. The article that goes with the headline above notes that koalas are not at risk of extinction from these fires, but many other species that are endemic to Australia and some of its unique habitats are. These are organisms that live no where else in the world.
The conservative Australian government is just now acknowledging that climate change has created the conditions that are fueling these fires. Extended drought and extreme heat are prolonging and intensifying fire seasons around the world, Australia is just the most recent tragic example. In the coming decades, there will be some places in the world that will become unlivable because of fires, heat, and drought. People who live in those places now are going to have to move. Combine those populations with the ones that will have to move away from coastlines, and the migration numbers become staggering and almost unbelievable. Not to mention the economic disaster that will unfold for countries that have to support domestic and international refugees and the food shortages that will get increasingly worse. These fires should be a major wake up call for the Australian government and the world that the time is now to take drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I'm not going to hold my breath though. The question is, how many tragedies will it take? In the meantime, I'm going to continue to do all I can do in my own life and encourage others to do the same.
My hope is that you read the title of this blog post as Oprah would when she is announcing something she is excited about. If you didn't, do that now before reading any further.
OK, you might know at this point that I hate plastics and I love science. The hating plastics comes through rather bluntly, so that is obvious, but the loving science may be a bit more subtly conveyed with the use of facts and figures. Anyways, one of my colleagues recently sent me a link to a story of the teenager that won the grand prize at this year's Google Science Fair. He found a way to bind up microplastics in the ocean with iron compounds and then remove the mixtures with magnets. SCI-ENCE!
I encourage you to read the story. There is still work to do before we go ahead and throw a bunch of ferrous compounds into the ocean and pass giant magnets over it (such as making sure that the ferrous compounds don't do their own damage in the ocean, you don't want to try to solve one problem and then create another....I could talk for days about examples of that!), but I love that a young person is working on tackling this problem using basic principles he learned in high school chemistry. What I love even more is the last line of the article. You'll have to read it for yourself. But if we could get all the young people together on that sentiment, we'd really be able to make some progress.
In what has now become a film classic, the world was introduced to the fascinating lives of emperor penguins. Who doesn't love watching penguins waddle along, heads bobbing side to side with the effort? I love that they look like the longest receiving line at a black tie event, that image being shattered by the ones that get tired of marching and slide along on their bellies for awhile. Then, as if the feat of marching 60-100 miles on what might be some of the shortest legs per body size was not enough, the females turn around after passing an egg off to the males, marching back 60-100 miles while the males endure the burnt of an Antarctic winter by walking around in a massive group huddle for months all while holding their egg on top of their feet. Emperor penguin parents might be the most dedicated in the world.
Now emperor penguins appear to be marching towards extinction. A recent study by a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute predicts that if climate change continues on the current track, these magnificent birds (which have persisted as a species for approximately 60 million years, p.s. way longer than modern humans have been around, 300 times longer to be exact-ish) could disappear forever by the end of this century. Most people will not be impacted by the loss of penguins. They'll be sad for a bit because penguins are so cute and Happy Feet etc., but they have other more pressing concerns. Of course, penguins don't impact our daily lives, but I believe strongly we have to question the morality of allowing what will likely be a mass extinction event this century, because, newsflash, emperor penguins are not the only species at high risk due to climate change (see my post from 5/14/19 "Biodiversity crisis"). For all those out there who champion the preservation of life, don't you think that should include all life, not just human life?
The good news of course is that the United States is fully committed to the Paris Agreement, making great strides at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging the development of renewable energy technologies...oh wait, that was a dream I had. In real life, the democracy-undermining, science-denying White House inhabitants started the process of removing our country from the Paris Agreement this week. Of course this is just a formality, they have been wrecking the environment in every way possible since day one of this administration (remember this deregulation tracker?). Now is the time for drastic actions, not "business as usual", and certainly not the time for rolling back the little progress that had been made. I reiterate that every person should do as much as she or he can on a personal level, plus everyone should be encouraging (or even nagging) their elected officials to do everything they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Skim through these blog entries for ideas of personal actions you can take. You need to get fired up, because our planet is on fire.
Since composting is going so well for me at home, I decided to carry that over into school. The cafeteria at school already has composting, but I do my best to avoid the cafeteria at lunchtime. It’s a madhouse. So I put a small bin in the refrigerator in the Science Department’s lunch/printing & copying center/makeshift office space (space is at a premium, so we use rooms for many purposes) for food scraps and a separate bin next to the fridge for paper towels and tissues. So far some people are using the bins, but we’re not near 100% yet. I may have to start weekly reminder e-mails. One of my colleagues has started a worm composting bin in his classroom, so we’re competing for food scraps. Not a bad problem to have!
I also put a bin in my classroom for tissues and paper towels. Right next to the tissue box and hand sanitizer. I think it’s really important to model sustainable behaviors for students. Eventually my hope is that these behaviors become routine for them.
Today I did my weekly grocery run and as usual brought a bunch of reusable produce bags. Two of them I filled with brown rice and pistachios from the bulk bins. I wrote in my 7/2 entry that I've started to buy some things in bulk, but didn't elaborate. I've been happy to find that two local groceries (I'm not going to name drop here because I don't necessarily want to advertise for anyone) carry all the grains I like in bulk (and organic!) plus lots of nuts, some raw, some roasted, and nutritional yeast (which I use a lot in "cheese" sauces and on salads for the B vitamins). As a vegan, I eat a fair amount of whole grains, probably at least a serving a day, so that packaging was adding up. Buying in bulk has been easy and I've been reusing glass jars to store the grains etc. in. So it feels like a double win. I also found some glass food storage jars at my local thrift shop, so there has been no need to go and buy new stuff. I'm feeling good about this. It's definitely an ingrained practice at this point (no pun intended).
Side note: In a couple of those other reusable produce bags I put some locally grown organic kale and local peaches. The biggest peaches ever! See picture below in my palm for scale. I love the summer for MANY reasons, but the variety of fresh, local produce is right up there near the top. Eating a plant-based diet is best for the planet of course but buying local stuff is another piece of the solution so that transportation-related pollution is reduced.
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist