How Acidic Are The Oceans?

It’s one of the key questions of the global warming puzzle, and the X Foundation is stepping in to incentivize the scientific world to invent a good way to monitor ocean pH:

Scientists know this is killing coral reefs and dissolving the shells of marine animals, but the overall danger of ocean acidification is still poorly understood. To fix that, the X Prize Foundation announced a new bounty this week: $2 million for anyone who can figure out how to figure out what all this extra CO2 is doing to the pH of our planet’s oceans.
Named the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, the 22-month competition is scheduled to kick off in early 2014 and name its winner(s) in 2015. The $2 million jackpot is divided into two purses, which can be won separately or by the same team. The X Prize Foundation provides this description of the potential winnings on its website:
  • Accuracy award ($750,000 first place, $250,000 second place): To the teams that navigate the entire competition to produce the most accurate, stable and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.
  • Affordability award ($750,000 first place, $250,000 second place): To the teams that produce the least expensive, easy-to-use, accurate, stable and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.
This is the latest of many such trophies from the X Prize Foundation, which launched in the 1990s with a $10 million contest aimed at spurring commercial space travel. (It was inspired by the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 jackpot won by aviator Charles Lindbergh when he flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.) The original X Prize went to aerospace firm Scaled Composites in 2004, whose technology is now part of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two.
One the one hand, this is the sort of out-of-the-box technology strategy that could help the planet confront warming. On the other hand, it is sort of depressing that we have made the oceans about 30 percent acidic over the past 250 years without really bothering to understand what the implications might be. Humanity has never been skeptical enough about the potential impacts and unintended consequences of technology.

The Media #FAIL On Climate Change

I’ve long thought that if Dr. Evil, or an alien race, or Al Qaeda, threatened to slowly warm the planet, acidify the oceans, intensify extreme weather events, wipe out or alter countless species and habitats, and flood low-lying countries, the global media, and the US media in particular, would treat it as the greatest threat to humanity since fascism. Headlines would scream. Editorials would scathe. News article after news article would detail the latest evolution of the threat and its implications. The media would go into full war-footing mode and treat an existential threat like a, well, existential threat. Which is to say it would be given the prominence that it truly deserves.

But if we–humans–are doing it to ourselves, not so much. As the full impact of climate change accelerates and makes itself felt, how the media handled climate change in our era will be a perfect case study in failure to report and communicate the most important news. And it will look all the worse to future generations of media scholars in contrast to the infotainment and twerking obsessions that instead dominate the media.

It may be understandable that the public–endlessly poking away at its smartphones in search of the latest meaningless distraction–gives the media a free pass on the epic climate change fail. But thinkers and leaders don’t get the same pass on not calling out the media. So it is nice to see Al Gore speaking plainly:

Gore, the former vice president who should have been president but instead used Powerpoint to put climate change on a lot of regular folks’ radars, is not shy about using his outsized soapbox. He was blunt in sharing his reflections Friday during a talk at the Brookings Institution. Here are some choice quotes, as transcribed by The Hill:

“Here in the U.S., the news media has been intimidated, frightened, and not only frightened, they are vulnerable to distorted news judgments because the line separating news and entertainment has long since been crossed, and ratings have a big influence on the selection of stories that are put on the news.”

“And the deniers of the climate crisis, quite a few of them paid by the large fossil fuel polluters — really it is like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage if anyone mentions alcohol, and so the rest of the family decides to keep the peace by never mentioning the elephant in the room. And many in the news media are exactly in that position.”

“They get swarmed by these deniers online and in letters and pickets and all that if they even mention the word climate, and so they very timidly, they get frightened and they are afraid to mention the word climate.”

“Their purpose is to condition thinking and to prevent the consideration of a price on carbon. It’s just that simple.”

I think this is right, but there is a feedback loop that intensifies the problem. As Gore notes, the media these days (especially cable TV) is much more about entertainment than it is about truth-telling or reporting inconvenient truths. But I think the media’s reluctance to really report climate change is less about being intimidated by the drunk fathers of climate denialism than it is about a craven effort to throw before the public anything and everything that will get attention, or go viral, or get page views. And downer news about how we are destroying our own planet with lifestyles driven by materialism and self-gratification, is just not…popular (though dramatic superstorm reporting is). At the same time, if you are going to subject your audience to a grim reality it’s vastly more entertaining to put the drunk uncle in the mix, and let him rant against reality, than it is to tell your audience that the drunk uncle is crazy and needs to be ignored.

And that, in turn, creates the impression that the facts are murky, there are two sides to the debate, and that sacrifice or a deep re-thinking of the destructive culture we have perfected over the past 50 years is simply unwarranted.

But, hey, even Al Gore can make climate reality entertaining:

Climate Change As Threat

Here’s some evidence that the media in the US and some other countries is not doing a very good job of explaining the implications of climate change, and how the threat of climate change should be seen relative to other threats. My guess is that far more than 40% of Americans would label “terrorism” a “major threat.” But the sort of terrorism most Americans worry about (bombs on planes, for example) is nothing compared to how climate change will impact humanity and the planet.

There are two existential threats right now. Nuclear terrorism. And climate change. But apparently that’s not the message that the public is getting (click image for full size).

And, of course, in the US climate change belief breaks down along political lines.

Does The Reality Of Climate Change Preclude Hope?

David Roberts (hey, I thought he was unplugging!) is not hopeful, but tries to make the case for holding onto hope:

Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory. For all our sophistication, we remain terribly inept at the simple task of predicting what will happen more than a few years out. All our models fail. That means those who predict a steady extension of the status quo will be wrong, too.

The outcome of the climate crisis depends not just on physical forces but on human beings, complex economic, social, and technological systems, and complex systems are nonlinear. We forget this; our instinct is to think the future will look like the recent past, only more so. We don’t anticipate the lateral moves, the lurches, the phase shifts. Because of this, the Very Serious thing to do is always to predict that things will not substantially change. If you say, “There will be a series of brilliant innovations that make clean energy cheap,” or, “There will be a sea change in public opinion on climate,” or, “Young people will take over and revive politics,” you sound like a hippie dreamer. Those aspirations are a matter of faith, a triumph of hope over experience.

And yet: things change! History unfolds along the lines of what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.” Things can appear stable for years and years while tensions gather beneath the surface, hairline fractures develop, and the whole system becomes highly sensitive to small perturbations. (The butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, etc.)

We do not know what those perturbations will be or when they will emerge, but we know from history that Don Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” are inevitable. The North American natural gas boom, the precipitous decline in solar PV prices, the financial crisis — none were widely predicted. And there will be more like them.

Will unexpected, rapid changes in coming decades be good or bad, positive or negative? That depends on millions of individual choices made in the interim. Some of those choices, if they happen at just the right moment, could be just the perturbations that spark cascading changes in social, economic, or technological systems. Some of those choices, in other words, will be incredibly significant.

Personally, I don’t have much hope. I think that climate change is happening faster than humanity can develop wisdom, or make the political, economic and cultural changes that will blunt its impact on the Earth. We are by evolution a self-interested species, and that is not something that is easy to change. Sure, a miracle is always (remotely) possible, so why utterly abandon hope. And, in any case, because doing more to mitigate the full impact of climate change is better than doing less, we do have a responsibility to keep learning and to try to find ways to live that are more in harmony with the planet and all its other species.

How Bad Will Climate Change Be?

Chris Mooney, at Mother Jones, breaks down the 5 most worrisome conclusions of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 Summary for Policymakers report:

We’re on course to change the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.” This is a general statement in the draft report about the consequences of continued greenhouse gas emissions “at or above current rates.” Unprecedented changes will sweep across planetary systems, ranging from sea level to the acidification of the ocean.

Ocean acidification is “virtually certain” to increase. Under all report scenarios, the acidification of the world’s oceans will increase—the draft report calls this outcome “virtually certain.” As we have previously reported, more acidity “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems from phytoplankton to coral reefs, and from Antarctic systems reliant on sea urchins to many human food webs dependent on everything from oysters to salmon.”

Long-term, sea level rise could be 5 to 10 meters. Journalists are already citing the draft report’s prediction that by the year 2100, we could see as much as three feet of sea level rise. But there is also a more long-range sea level scenario alluded to in the draft report, and it’s far more dramatic and alarming.

This also implies a substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The draft report adds that during the last interglacial period, the melting of Greenland “very likely” contributed between 1.4 and 4.3 meters of global sea level rise, with additional contributions coming from the melting of Antarctica. If Greenland were to melt entirely, it is estimated that sea level would rise by about seven meters.

Much of the carbon we’ve emitted will stay in the atmosphere for a millennium…even after we’ve stopped emitting it. The draft report says that 20 percent of the carbon dioxidecurrently in the atmosphere will stay there for an almost unimaginably long time—more than 1,000 years. Even if we were to completely cease all greenhouse gas emissions, the draft report adds, warming would continue for “many centuries.” “A large fraction of climate change,” the document intones, “is thus irreversible on a human time scale.”

Read Mooney’s full analysis here.

Depressing, no? Well, at least Al Gore is optimistic about the future, at least in this interview with the Washington Post:

But in spite of the continued released of 90 million tons of global warming pollution every day into the atmosphere, as if it’s an open sewer, we are now seeing the approach of a global political tipping point.

The appearance of more extreme and more frequent weather events has had a very profound impact on public opinion in countries throughout the world. You mentioned my movie back in the day. The single most common criticism from skeptics when the film came out focused on the animation showing ocean water flowing into the World Trade Center memorial site. Skeptics called that demagogic and absurd and irresponsible. It happened last October 29th, years ahead of schedule, and the impact of that and many, many other similar events here and around the world has really begun to create a profound shift.

A second factor is the sharp and unexpectedly steep decrease in prices for electricity produced from wind and solar and the demand destruction for fossil fuel energy from new efficiency improvements. The difference between 32 degrees fahrenheit and 33 degrees fahrenheit seems larger than just one degree. It’s the difference between water and ice. And by analogy there’s a similar difference between renewable electricity that’s more expensive than electricity from coal and renewable electricity that’s less expensive. And in quite a few countries in the world and some parts of the United States we’ve crossed that threshold and in the next few years we’re going to see that crossed in nations and regions containing most of the world’s population.

Gore’s optimism, unfortunately, is not really about mitigating the damage that the IPCC predicts. It’s more about finally “winning the conversation” about climate change and starting to react to climate change on a global scale. Of course, we are very late in the “conversation” and much of the damage warming will cause is already baked (get it?) into our future.

Full Gore interview is here.

The Meat Files

“The fact is that the blue planet is literally being destroyed by meat production.”

That’s a slightly more edified version of my blunt mantra: “Meat is killing the planet.” (It’s also killing lots of people, but even that doesn’t seem to get a meat-lover’s attention).

Think it’s hyperbole? Not really–though it is a very hard reality to accept:

Does Pristine Nature Exist?

“You think I am not used to change?”

Some ecologists are arguing that humans and alien species have been churning up ecosystems far more intensively, and for far longer, than we assume:

We like to think that most nature was pristine and largely untouched until recent times. But two major studies in recent weeks say we are deluded. In one, Erle Ellis, a geographer at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and colleagues have calculated that at least a fifth of the land across most of the world had been transformed by humans as early as 5,000 years ago — a proportion that past studies of historical land use had assumed was only reached in the past 100 years or so.

The human footprint was huge from the day, perhaps 60,000 years ago, when we began burning grasslands and forests for hunting, according to the Ellis study. It extended further with swidden “slash-and-burn” agriculture, and became more intense when farmers began to domesticate animals and plow the land.

And if that is right we should change the way we think about stewardship:

Far from reaching some equilibrium state with niches filled, ecosystems have always been in a constant state of flux, says Stephen Jackson, of the Southwest Climate Science Center in Arizona, in Novel Ecosystems. “Change, including rapid and disruptive change, is a natural feature of the world.” Humans may have dramatically speeded that up, but novelty is the norm.

In that light, we need to look afresh at conservation priorities. Novel ecosystems cannot be dismissed as degraded versions of proper ecosystems, nor can alien species be demonized simply for not belonging. If novelty and change is the norm, Hobbs and colleagues ask, does it make sense for the growing business of ecosystem restoration to try and recreate static historic ecosystems? By doing that, you are not creating a functioning ecosystem; you are creating a museum exhibit that will require constant attention if it is to survive.

Ecosystems can be hardy, and no doubt have always been in a state of flux and evolution. The big issue now is that humans are turbo-charging the rate of change. And that will be a severe test of how fast ecosystems and the species within them can adapt. No doubt some will, but it could get ugly.

“[W]e now know that as much as a tenth of the trees in the Amazon rainforest grow on man-made “dark earths,” or terra preta, which archaeologists believe were created by pre-Columbian farmers who added organic wastes and charcoal to improve nutrient supply and boost yields. Much of the Amazon, Ellis concludes, is actually forest regrowth.”

Ocean Investigations: Chasing Glass

Over the past 25 years, C. Drew Harvell has meticulously recovered more than 200 models in a mostly forgotten collection of 570 glass sculptures created by a pair of father-and-son glassmakers, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, in the 1860s. (Photo: Jeffery DelViscio/The New York Times)


A very cool effort to find and film oceanic hundreds of oceanic species that were captured in exquisite detail by a family of 19th century glassmakers:

I’ve been a marine biologist my entire professional life, spending more than 25 years researching the health of corals and sustainability of reefs. I’m captivated by the magic of sessile invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea squirts — creatures vital to the ecosystem yet too often overlooked in favor of more visible animals like sharks and whales.

The filmmaker David O. Brown and I want to change that. To make a documentary, “Fragile Legacy,” we are on a quest to lure these elusive and delicate invertebrates in front of the camera lens.

Our inspiration springs from an unlikely source: a collection of 570 superbly wrought, anatomically perfect glass sculptures of marine creatures from the 19th century.

These delicate folds and strands of glass make up theBlaschka collection of glass invertebrates at Cornell, of which I am the curator — enchanting and impossibly rare jellyfishes of the open ocean; more common but equally beautiful octopus, squid, anemones and nudibranchs from British tide pools and Mediterranean shores.

How many will be thriving? How many will be impossible to find? It’s an interesting snapshot of what has happened in the oceans over the past 200 years.

Make sure you check out the spectacular multimedia presentation that compares the glass versions to the real thing.

Climate Change Is Not An Environmental Issue

Well, okay, it is partly that. But what it really is is an existential issue. And that distinction is very important.

So, in honor of the impending human achievement of carbon at 400PPM in the atmosphere, here is how we should be thinking about climate change. Because if we don’t understand the problem we can’t divine the solution.

Climate Change Reality Check: The Gap Between Theory And Action

I’ve long been struck (dumb) by the enormity of the chasm between the policies and actions climate change demands, and the policies and actions humans and their governments are actually willing to take (no, buying a Prius isn’t enough).

Grist’s David Roberts digs into this problem, with a look at just one industry, the shipping industry. First, some general context:

There is a titanic gulf between what we say ought to be done about climate change and what we are doing. This ineluctable fact has loomed behind national and international policymaking for decades, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore…[snip]

Needless to say, we are not acting in a fashion that would put us on any of those emission curves. According to International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol, our current trajectory is “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6°C, which would have devastating consequences for the planet.”

Here’s a quick graphic on what sort of reductions Annex 1 (developed countries) and non-Annex 1 (developing countries) would have to accomplish to achieve different probabilities of avoiding the 2 degree C increase in global temperatures that is the guesstimated dividing line between sorta bad consequences and really bad consequences (click image to enlarge).


Not looking very likely, is it? And here is why the shipping industry, and its stated plans to help reduce carbon, can help explain why this gulf exists:

In fact, note Anderson and Bows, “the shipping industry’s EEDI and SEEMP leave the sector on a trajectory for emissions to be approximately 2200% higher by 2050 than is their fair and proportionate contribution.”

Let that sink in for a moment: 2,200 percent. That’s the size of the gulf between the industry’s stated intentions and the industry’s real-world policies, between what it says it intends to do and what it’s doing. Anderson and Bows call this a “Machiavellian duality,” and it is by no means unique to shipping. It is true of most industries and most countries. We talk a good game about 2°C, but nobody, anywhere, is doing close to what would be necessary to make it real.

To add a kind of surreal twist to all this, the industry talks constantly about the emission “reductions” it plans. How can it do this when, as the graph makes clear, it plans enormous emission increases? What enables this kind of Orwellian doublespeak?

The answer is that the reductions are relative to a baseline projection of growth. They’re lower than they would be otherwise, without policy to reduce emissions. You hear this all the time, from companies, industries, agencies, and countries, about emission “reductions” that are, in fact, merely slightly-less-enormous emission increases. And so we lull ourselves with the thought that we’re doing something, making progress.

So there you have it. The reality of climate change is met by the fantasy that incremental change will get the job done. Unless that fantasy is made apparent and banished, and real changes on the scale reality requires are implemented, things are going to get mighty warm up in here.

What should we do if everyone wakes up and suddenly says, how do we achieve the change required? Repeat with me: price carbon. The change will follow.