Great Whales Are More Valuable Than Trees…

Hard not to love great whales for their beauty and intelligence alone. But they are also among the greatest carbon recyclers on the planet:

A whale accumulates carbon through feeding and stores it in its body during its long lifetime. Some whales weigh up to 200 tonnes, with an average lifespan of 70 years. One species, the bowhead whale, is estimated to have a lifespan of 268 years.

When a whale dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where the carbon in its body is sequestered. The IMF estimates that each great whale sequesters 33 tonnes of CO2 on average, and that a tree absorbs only up to 22kg of CO2 a year. Tree-planting schemes are being seen as the cheapest and fastest method of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, but the evidence suggests conserving and boosting whale populations also has great carbon-capturing potential…[snip]

…Whales do more for carbon capture when they are alive, however, thanks to their jumbo-sized poo. These “faecal plumes” contain enormous amounts of nutrients – including phosphorus, iron and nitrogen – that are essential for the growth of microscopic organisms known as phytoplankton. When these plants photosynthesise, they consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The IMF calculates that phytoplankton are responsible for capturing about 37 billion tonnes of CO2, the same as 1.7 trillion trees, or four Amazon forests’ worth. They also contribute as much as 50-85% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. The famous National Geographic ocean explorer Sylvia Earle has estimated that they provide the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take.

Scientific research shows that whales have a “multiplier effect”, increasing phytoplankton production wherever they are found. As well as bringing nutrients from the ocean’s depths to the surface through their vertical movement, called the “whale pump”, whales also distribute them laterally on their vast migrations, a phenomenon named the “whale conveyor belt”.

Great whales are by far my favorite example of “Everything is connected.” Let’s let them be, so they can do what they do.

Weekend #Earthism Reads…

The Sound Of Icebergs Melting: My Journey Into The Antarctic

It was the opposite of what we imagined. Rather than water dripping down through air, we were listening to air escaping up through water. We were so close to the ice that this ancient fizz was surprisingly loud. Though we humans never hear it above the surface, this is the sound the Antarctic makes every summer. And as the planet heats, the sound is getting louder.

The Baller: Can attitude help save the planet? A frightened climate reporter meets an ex-basketball player with a serious game plan

Attempting some sort of equanimity about, basically, horror, I’d been vacillating along a “hope or despair” continuum. But recently I’d decided that both ends of that scale were bankrupt. Hope wasn’t precisely rational, and despair was too cruel to the living—anyone who genuinely cared about a place or a child had to come up with something, anything, more useful than “Good vibes only” or “We’re screwed.”

So I was quietly seeking a better approach as I wrote story after story on efforts to curb climate emissions. And while working on a cover story earlier that year about how the built environment (cities, roads, offices, homes, infrastructure) was an enormous part of the problem, I’d called up Mazria, who was recognized as a thought leader on the topic.

One hour on the phone with him had jolted me.

After I hung up, I told a colleague, “I just spoke with a man who has a strategic plan to beat climate change. Not ‘fight the good fight,’ but win.”

The Ecological Vision That Will Save Us: To avoid the next pandemic, we need a reckoning with our place in nature

With faith, you can ask how life will be on the other side. Will you be changed personally? Will we be changed collectively? The knowledge we’re gaining now is making us different people. Pain demands relief, demands we don’t repeat what produced it. Will the pain of this pandemic point a new way forward? It hasn’t before, as every war attests. This time may be no different. But the pandemic has slipped a piece of knowledge into the body public that may not be easy to repress. It’s an insight scientists and poets have voiced for centuries. We’re not apart from nature, we are nature. The environment is not outside us, it is us. We either act in concert with the environment that gives us life, or the environment takes life away.

Read. Enjoy. Think.


Earth Day In 2070

Eric Holthaus nails it:

The world in 2070 will not be a utopia. We’ve already locked in enough climate change to melt the Arctic, no matter what we choose from here. But we will have a world that works for everyone in a way that it just doesn’t right now – that, in the words of Joanna Macy, is “the work that reconnects”. That is our shared goal now.

A world not focused on growth, but on life.

A world not focused on ownership, but on solidarity.

A world not focused on competition, but on connection.

Those might sound like wishy-washy socialist utopian dreams, but they must be true for our civilisation to survive. So, I believe that they will become true, and it will happen in the next 50 years.

One person’s utopia is another person’s (or planet’s) survival. The key point about these ideals, though, is that they are revolutionary, requiring the wholesale reinvention of human politics, economics, and culture.

That is the scale of change needed, and it is clarifying, Nothing we do over the next 50 years, nothing we do after the coronavirus fades, should be similar to what we did before. We don’t need to reclaim the old. We need to wholeheartedly, and as a species, embrace the new.


COVID Silver Linings: Cycling Rediscovered…

Much of the world is locked down and turning to cycling. An excellent reminder that it is a superior (carbon-free) mode of transport. And that smart planning would mean making it safer and more accessible everywhere.

Planting A Trillion Trees…

…would be great for the climate and also a great way to generate post-Covid19 jobs. Win-win:

An incentive for growing trees would contribute to exactly the sort of economic stimulus the United States badly needs. Every dollar the federal government gives landowners and tree-planting contractors multiplies economic activity in communities that plant trees and manage forests, including underserved urban and rural communities. Rural communities are already more vulnerable to certain impacts of the coronavirus pandemic due to an ongoing trend of rural hospital closures and the scarcity of high-speed internet access for remote work. An annual federal investment of $4-4.5 billion in tree restoration could help these communities recover by bringing in $6-12 billion per year in economic growth. That investment could also fight climate change cost-effectively, removing nearly 10% of annual U.S. emissions at less than $10 per ton of carbon dioxide.

A Novel Christmas Gift: Going Vegan

Tis the season. So this is a good time to revisit this story:

It started with Christmas.

And what happened was what always happens: I did no shopping.

I have on one or two occasions experienced the slightly awkward moment on Christmas morning when the gifts are finally all opened and it becomes apparent that none of them are from me. This general awareness is something I try to avoid, and sometimes, if I have the sense that the need for some kind of public admission is approaching, I have to think quickly. That’s what happened with the vegan thing. It just came to me — in the nick of time. The oranges were barely out of the stockings when I blurted out my entirely spontaneous idea. I told my 30-year-old daughter, who is a committed vegan, that her gift was six months of my being vegan. I said I’d give it a try.

Read on

How To Address Overpopulation Without Talking About Overpopulation

“Stop hassling us about population growth. Instead help empower our women and stop consuming so much yourselves!”

Rapid growth in human numbers is a key variable of any equation related to climate, conservation and stress on the planet. But you don’t often hear about it.

Vox writer David Roberts explains why, and argues that it is far more constructive to talk about policies that can help address population and its environmental impact (empowering women and global income inequality) than it is to directly plunge into the morally sticky and inevitably controversial topic of population control:

The first way to look at population is as a pure numbers game. More people means more consumers and more emitters, so the thing to do is slow the rise of population. Specifically, since most of the new people are going to come from poor or developing countries, the question is specifically how to slow population growth there.

Luckily, we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose, and education of girls, giving them access to income opportunities outside the home. We know that women, given the resources and the choice, will opt for smaller families.

Those are the two most powerful levers to bend the population curve. They are also, in and of themselves, an enormously powerful climate policy. When Paul Hawken and his team investigated and ranked carbon-reduction solutions for their Drawdown project, they found that the combination of the two (call it the female-empowerment package) carried the most potential to reduce greenhouse gases later this century, out of any solution. (Together they could prevent 120 gigatons of GHGs by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind combined.)…

One way to prevent the creation of new high-consumers would be to persuade the wealthy to have fewer babies and to close off the borders of wealthy countries, preventing low-consumers from immigrating and becoming high-consumers. You could try, in short, to engineer population decline in wealthy countries.

That seems … fraught.

For one thing, fertility tends to decline with wealth anyway. For another, any targeted attempt to engineer population decline is going to run into an unholy thicket of moral and political resistance.

Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth. You could do that by, for instance, taxing the shit out of wealthy people.

If you approached the problem that way, under the banner of reducing global income inequality, you would find many allies. Income inequality is a top-line concern of people and organizations all over the world, even some conservatives these days.

He’s right. And I’d stress that when wealthy populations preoccupy themselves with the environmental impact of growing developing world populations, instead of their own overconsumption,  they are aiming at the wrong target.

Chart Of The Day: Wealth and C02 Emissions

The idea that wealthier people consume more and emit for greenhouse gases won’t surprise you. But the concentration of global emissions among the planet’s wealthiest might.

How much wealth do you need to be in the richest 10%? $68,800. So now we have a very clear picture of where (most of) the problem lies, and who should (mostly) bear the expense and burden of reducing carbon emissions–and it is not the world’s developing populations. Just in case that wasn’t already clear.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy….

The below is from the New York Times “Watching” e-mail I get (which usefully helps sort the good from the bad in the streaming universe). Hard to imagine them advising “Skip if you don’t want to think a lot about racism.” Or poverty. Or how f*cked we are.

I guess climate change is still an optional existential threat.

Trump Vs The Planet

“Alright, let’s fire these babies up!”

Brad Plumer of Vox lays out the implications of a Trump Presidency (and Republican control of Congress) for the environment:

And there’s no way around it: What he’s planning to do looks like an absolute disaster for the planet (and the people on it). Specifically, all the fragile but important progress the world has made on global warming over the past eight years is now in danger of being blown to hell.

Trump has been crystal clear about his environmental plans. Much of the media never wanted to bring it up, never wanted to ask about it in debates, never wanted to turn their addled attention away from Hillary Clinton’s email servers to discuss what a Trump presidency might mean for climate change. But all the indications were there:

  • Trump called global warming a Chinese hoax. He couldn’t have been blunter about this.

  • Trump has said, straight up, he wants to scrap all the major regulations that President Obama painstakingly put in place to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, including the Clean Power Plan. With Republicans now controlling Congress, he can easily do this. Pass a bill preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating CO2. Done.

  • Trump has also hinted he wants to get rid of the EPA entirely. “What they do is a disgrace,” he has said. If Congress agrees, he could readily scrap other regulations on mercury pollution, on smog, on coal ash, and more.

  • Trump has said he wants to repeal all federal spending on clean energy, including R&D for wind, solar, nuclear power, and electric vehicles. Again, with Congress at his side, this is totally doable.

  • Trump has said he wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal. There’s nothing stopping him. (Technically, the US can’t officially withdraw for four years, but for all practical purposes, the Trump administration could ignore it.)

All true. And some experts calculate that the impact on climate of Trump will be an additional 3.4 billion tons of carbon emitted.

But it should also be noted that the trajectory of the blue dotted line representing carbon emissions under a President Clinton also leads to climate disaster. Incremental progress will be reversed by Trump. But as I noted earlier incremental progress is not enough.

Key point: nothing that President Trump does or says will compel you or me to emit more carbon. Keep working to change how you think and live. Keep working to change how the people around you think and live. Live the argument. Win the argument. And then win an election that brings about real and meaningful change.