The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Humpback Whale

I spent most of today walking down a beach and then walking back. Why? Because I wanted to go see a dead whale who had washed up there. Reportedly, her name was Pivot (many humpback whales have been named by researchers. They are are individually recognizable), and she has been known individually to humans for 13 years. That means that however old she was, she was an adult, sexually mature and full-size, despite looking quite small for her kind (at least to me). Her cause of death is not yet known.

A photo of me standing near a dead humpback whale. The whale is about thirty feet long, mostly black but with long, white flippers, and looking a bit deflated but otherwise intact. I'm wearing a trench coat and looking unfortunately lumpy. The whale is right on the edge of the water, with waves breaking against the whale and kicking up spray. The sea is a dark, muted blue with white spray and foam, and the sky is covered by bluish cloud. It is a side view of the whale. I'm looking away from the camera.

Me and Pivot the Whale. Photo by Chris Seymour.

Because I was thus occupied, I don’t have time to write a detailed piece. Instead, I did an internet search on “humpback whale climate change.” Here is what I found.

Problems

The humpback population of the western Atlantic (to which Pivot belonged) is one of the best-studied whale populations in the world–and it’s not doing well. Over the past fifteen years that their reproduction has been being closely studied, annual breeding success for females has dropped from around 40% to only 20%. That doesn’t mean an 80% failure rate–humpback pregnancy lasts almost a year, so females rarely if ever calve annually even if everything goes perfectly. But the period between successful pregnancies is increasing significantly. That’s enough to slow population growth of this still-endangered species. At least part of the reason is a reduction in the population of the whales’ favored prey species in the northwest Atlantic–humpbacks migrate south to breed in the Caribbean, but they don’t eat on their breeding grounds or on migration. The northwest Atlantic is IT for food. And that food is being threatened by climate change.

Puffins are having a curiously similar problem.

Solutions

Humpback whales are not only victims of climate change, they are also potential agents of climate change mitigation.

There are several ways humpbacks (and other whale species) contribute to the sequestration of carbon. One is that they move nutrients by eating in one place and peeing and pooing elsewhere–for example, while they don’t eat on their breeding ground, they do still have to pee regularly while there. Since phytoplankton growth is limited by nutrient availability, fertilizer in the form of whale feces and urine will mean more phytoplankton–just a 1% increase in phytoplankton will mean an increase to carbon sequestration equivalent to that of two billion mature trees.

The other way whales help is that when they die, they often sink to the bottom of the ocean (Pivot was an exception here), and much of the carbon in their bodies simply stays down there, eaten by animals who never come up.

There aren’t a lot of whales these days–counting all species together, there are currently about a quarter of the number who lived prior to the age of intensive whaling. If their populations recover fully, that will mean two or three million more whales, each of them fertilizing phytoplankton for decades and then carrying more carbon down to the bottom of the sea, to be replaced by more young whales ready to start fertilizing phytoplankton in turn.

I really hope Pivot’s kids are OK.

The two images in this postMe standing near a dead humpback whale. The whale is about thirty feet long, mostly black but with long, white flippers, and looking a bit deflated but otherwise intact. I'm wearing a trench coat and looking unfortunately lumpy. The whale is right on the edge of the water, with waves breaking against the whale and kicking up spray. The sea is a dark, muted blue with white spray and foam, and the sky is covered by bluish cloud. The picture is mostly from the front. A round, orange float is visible near the tail. I'm looking away from the camera.

Me and Pivot, the Whale. Photo by Chris Seymour.

Photo by Chris Seymour. Used by permission.

 

 


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Changing Seasons

Yesterday I didn’t post because it was almost sixty degrees and gorgeous out. Who can stay inside then? Meanwhile, much of the country is under some kind of blizzard. And the new administration seems to have stirred up the right-wing trolls on social media.

(To be clear, not all right-wingers are trolls, and not all trolls are right wingers. These just happen to be both)

The seasons, they are a-changing.

What’s With the Weather?

For anybody who’s been out of touch lately, here’s the deal; a huge intrusion of unusual coldness has parked itself across the United States, bringing snow and ice to surprising places. On maps, the thing appears U-shaped, or even V-shaped, with Texas at the bottom. I’m off to the side, not under the U, which is why it’s sunny and gorgeous here–yesterday was unseasonably warm, and while today is not, it’s not oddly cold, either. But my friend Bridgette, who has weathered quite a lot of bad weather over the years, has no power just when she needs it the most. Without power, she has no heat.

There are two stories, here. There’s the story about the weather, and there’s the story about infrastructure. Both involve climate.

A Familiar Story, But Colder

Why is nobody calling our current spate of cold weather a “polar vortex”? That phrase was all over the news a few years ago when similar cold snaps and blizzards descended on the US. Now the term seems to be “arctic outbreak,” but even that is not achieving buzzword status. Is there an actual technical distinction here, or only changing terminology?

Whether there is a distinction or not, the temperature map still looks like an extreme versions of the ones I saw when “polar vortex” was on everybody’s lips.

Dan Satterfield, our local weatherman and supergeek, posted a current temperature anomaly map recently to his Facebook page, saying:

“Is the Northern Hemisphere warmer or colder than normal today? The answer is Warmer! Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.”

The map accompanying his post is quite striking–I’m not attempting to include it here because I don’t know who owns the image or whether it is freely available, but I suggest following the link above to go look at it. It shows temperature anomalies across the globe. Indeed, there is a large, violet and blue blob over the central and southern United States, plus a few other large blue blobs in other places, notably Europe and Asia–but most of the big blobs are orange and red.

To be clear, it’s not necessarily colder in Texas than in Greenland at the moment (though it could be–I haven’t looked that up). Anomalously warm for Greenland in February is still pretty cold. But Texas is much colder than it normally is, whereas Greenland and much of the rest of the Arctic are warmer than they normally are.

The important point here is that now, like many instances when the United States has a severe cold snap, it’s not because there’s more coldness than normal–it’s because coldness has moved. Texas is cold because some other place is unusually warm. And it’s warm because of climate change.

Many news sources and commentators acknowledge that climate change is involved, but I’ve been having a hard time finding an explanation as to why. But, as I said, the map Mr. Satterfield posted looked familiar. So I looked back to the post I wrote about the polar vortex seven years ago:

It’s easy to think the word means a swirling storm of unusually cold air, and some people are starting to use it to refer to any cold snap. But that isn’t what it means.

The polar vortex is actually a persistent weather pattern that forms around the north or south pole and acts to keep cold air concentrated near the pole during winter. What happened earlier this month was not that a polar vortex occurred or that the polar vortex was stronger than normal, but rather that the polar vortex was weaker than normal and it leaked.

And…

The polar vortex that normally keeps the coldest air confined to the poles is ringed by the jet stream, a current in the upper atmosphere that is in turn created by the contrast in temperature between polar and tropical air. That is, the difference in temperature exacerbates itself by creating a wind pattern that keeps the two air masses largely separate. Since the poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet is, climate change could involve a weakening of the jet stream. That would allow the polar vortex to leak more often, producing a warmer world overall, but more frequent cold snaps in unexpected places.

Here is an article I found back then explaining that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the country, possibly because of the melting of polar ice, and explaining the connection between that warming and the frequently-leaky polar vortex. The author also reports on a study that found a connection between “sudden stratospheric warming events” and the melting ice.

The stratosphere is the layer of the atmosphere above the part where weather happens. Fourteen years later, the connection between the stratosphere and actual weather is still poorly understood–but there is a connection. One of those connections is that sudden stratospheric warming events are usually (not always) followed a few weeks later by one of these polar vortex breakdowns. An unusually intense sudden stratospheric warming event occurred just a few weeks ago, in early January.

So, there you have it.

The Human Element

My friend, Bridgette, who has been such a useful source of news in past Texan disasters (such as here and here), is once again in the thick of it, intermittently without power or heat, building blanket forts in her house in an attempt to survive. When she can, she posts to Facebook.

Photo by Mike Payne on Unsplash

I’m not going to quote her because I have not had opportunity to ask her permission, but I doubt she’d object to my paraphrasing, since she makes a very important point; though the low temperatures she’s experiencing would not seem so odd in, say, New England, houses in Texas are not built the same way New England houses are. They’re not designed to retain heat.

Generally, Texas is not prepared for this type of cold. I’m left to imagine the details, but I’m thinking of all the things that my New England friends have, or even that I have, that might not apply in a place where it never gets seriously cold–warm clothes, snow shovels, snow tires, heavy blankets, the know-how to drive in snow or to get heavy snow off the roof–and what they’re going through is just not comparable to what we Northerners think of when we hear about low temperatures.

That lack of preparedness by individuals is unfortunate but understandable. But the same problem has manifested in the state’s infrastructure, especially its power grid–and when state leadership is unprepared it’s less understandable and less forgivable because people die. Huge numbers of people are without power, or with power only intermittently, tonight because there just isn’t enough power in the grid. Pipes have burst, causing indoor flooding and leaving many people without water. Many people who do have water must boil it (which they can’t if their stoves are electric) because water treatment plants have failed in the cold. People on oxygen can’t power their machines. There is little to no food left on grocery store shelves. As of a few hours ago as I write this (on the night of February 17), 24 people had died of this storm, either from the cold directly or from carbon monoxide poisoning or house fires as people tried to keep warm by unsafe means. More will likely die in the coming weeks who otherwise would not have, because COVID vaccine distribution has temporarily been suspended.

The news just keeps getting worse the more I read about it–and most of it is completely unnecessary.

One state official reportedly claimed that the problem was that the wind turbines couldn’t handle the cold, as if renewable energy were at fault. Let’s clear this one up right away: first, wind turbines only supply about a quarter of the Texas grid’s power in the winter, and while wind generation has indeed been compromised by the weather, it’s actually done better than expected under the circumstances; second, there’s no reason wind turbines can’t be winterized, they just aren’t in Texas.

Rachel Maddow made this second point very well tonight (the relevant episode of her show, 2/17/21, should be available here within a day or so), explaining that the entire energy infrastructure in Texas has not been winterized, despite similar disasters in years past. The current storm may be unprecedented in its severity, but Texas tends to freeze about once a decade, and when it does the power grid fails, triggering rolling blackouts and associated human misery. The relevant experts advise winterizing the power grid, it doesn’t happen, and ten years later Texas freezes again.

And because most of Texas is on a state power grid unconnected to the grids of other states, no outside agency can force the state to winterize, nor is there any simple way for other states to feed power into Texas. It’s not an accident–apparently, Texans don’t like being told what to do, and their political leadership has isolated the state power grid in order to ensure nobody can make them do anything, even keep their people from dying in a cold snap.

Here’s the climate connection:

Texas would not be having this problem if its leadership acknowledged the reality of climate change, which includes an increased risk of severe weather of all kinds, including unusual freezes. Climate sanity includes a resilient power grid, and it also includes both building codes and community development plans that do not leave people to die when the grid fails, as even the most resilient power grids will occasionally. For example, a well-insulated, energy-efficient building doesn’t just cost less to heat and cool when things are going well–it’s also less likely to turn into an ice-box or an oven when heating or cooling stops.

Not to pick on Texas. It’s the one being hit at the moment, but most other parts of the United States (and other countries) have their own versions of the same problem.

What to Do, What to Do….

Remember those trolls I mentioned at the beginning? So far they are mostly posting blatant untruths about either the COVID-19 pandemic or the new administration, but there are some attacks on Greta Thunberg, too. I’m surprised to see them, for although my professional social media accounts are open to anyone regardless of political stripe, I hadn’t been seeing this much vitriol before–there was no one I would have pegged as a troll, only people who happen to be wrong on a topic that isn’t a matter of opinion. Now, there are some extra people getting just plain getting mean. I have to assume that some folks are coming out of the woodwork in a specific effort to push back against the new administration. And even when the specific posts have nothing to do with climate, the ugliness that has lodged within the right wing (and to label these things ugly is not partisanship) has a climate dimension.

As I’ve argued before, most of the tenets of this ugliness (racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-immigrant extremism, science denial) benefit nobody. They appeal to certain people because they tap into real fears and real pain, but hurting others in these ways will not resolve the real sources of any problem–except climate denial, where preventing meaningful climate action does earn certain individuals boatloads of money. Some of those individuals actively funded and encouraged the movement that elected Donald Trump. I have to conclude that climate denial is the real central point of that movement, and everything else is simply there to make it more appealing to its supporters. That movement is not dead, and it must be fought on a climate basis–the heart of the hydra must be countered, not simply its many distracting and dangerous heads.

Last week, I forget which day, Rachel Maddow suggested that because of economic woes triggered by the pandemic, the fossil fuel industry is weak and those interested in meaningful climate action actually have a chance of succeeding right now. I hope she’s right. We’re going to have to push hard, though, and we’re going to have to push against these trolls.

We have to do it because people in Texas are dying right now, and more people will die in similar ways if we do not succeed.


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Speak Up!

Why am I getting news about my own country from Brits?

I don’t mean all news, I get plenty of news on American topics from homegrown sources, but when Extinction Rebellion staged a rebellion in New York City last year, I only heard about it from my friends in XR abroad. While I’m not part of the American wing of the group, you’d think they’d welcome support from activists of other groups, and I’m on lots of other mailing lists. Not a peep. And the event wasn’t covered on the news, either.

Now, it’s happening again.

America’s first Citizens Climate Assembly is occurring in Washington State, and I had no idea until my friends in Britain tipped me off. Why aren’t American journalists paying attention?

So, in the interests of “being the change,” even if only in a modest way, let me tell you this particular bit of news.

A citizens assembly is a discussion group made up of a representative sample of a given population. They are convened to discuss a given issue and then draft recommendations for dealing with the issue. Participants are chosen randomly, so they reflect the range of opinion on the matter the public actually has, and any recommendations they agree on are likely to be acceptable for the general population also.

There have been citizens assemblies in America on other issues, and there have been citizens assemblies on climate change in other countries, but this is our first citizens assembly on climate.

The assembly has eighty members and ten alternates, all of whom are given an honorarium for participating. Those who did not have internet access were given access by organizers–the event is happening online because of the pandemic. The represent every congressional district in the State of Washington, and have the same demographic make-up as the state population as a whole. They have the time and the resources necessary to learn about climate change and ask whatever questions they need to. Over two months, they will draft recommendations for climate action in Washington State and deliver those recommendations to the state legislature.

We’ll have to keep an eye on this and see if their recommendations become law. We need to push for this sort of thing in other states, too.


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It’s Groundhog’s Day…Again!

A groundhog standing on short grass and partially melted snow.

Photo by Ralph Katieb on Unsplash

Rise and shine, campers! Don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day.

Thus, if memory serves, begins the loop in the remarkable Bill Murray movie that has totally taken over the phrase “groundhog’s day” in recent years (yes, technically the loop begins with the clock radio registering six AM and turning on to play “I Got You, Babe,” but it’s the dialogue Phil Conners and the audience soon memorize).

If you say “it’s Groundhog’s Day,” you will be understood to mean not that it is the second of February, and not that spring is right around the corner, but rather that something is repeating, possibly endlessly, and there is nothing you can do about it. You’re stuck in a loop, just as Phil Conners is in the movie.

I assume you’ve seen it? No? OK, go watch. I’ll wait. Not that you need the movie to understand this post, you don’t, it’s just a good movie.

Back now? Good.

I’ve always found the movie very hope-inspiring. It’s premise is that a man, Phil, gets stuck in a loop, repeating February second over and over. He can do anything he likes on that day, even die, and he still wakes up at six in the morning to find everything except his own memory entirely re-set. It’s Groundhog Day again. There is never any explanation given for the loop. It finally ends and time marches forward with him again after he’s learned his lesson, so possibly the loop happened in order to teach him something, but we can’t be sure and neither can we. Although the movie is a comedy, it escapes triteness by taking Phil’s misery seriously. It’s a very hard lesson and he takes a very long time to learn it. But he needed to learn it. He was a self-involved jerk who could not be happy. He needed the help. To me, the idea that the universe might stage an intervention in this way is a tremendously cheering fantasy.

And it’s a fantasy that is curiously congruent with the themes of the ancient cross-quarter day that became the modern Groundhog’s Day–renewal, beginnings, the first hint of spring.

Groundhog’s Day is also America’s only holiday that celebrates climate.

On History and Groundhogs

Groundhog’s Day goes back to Europe, where various animals (hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes) were said to emerge from hibernation in February and either see or not see their shadow. Now, a moment’s thought reveals the animal is not predicting the weather in these stories, only reacting to the fact that it is sunny; the stories are a memorable way to say that clear weather in early February tends to be followed by a late spring–I don’t know if that’s true, but it could be, at least in Europe where the tradition is from.

February 1st is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions, Christian holidays, and modern pagan holidays. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, German immigrants in Pennsylvania, who had told stories about hedgehog’s seeing their shadows back home, switched to groundhogs (same thing as woodchucks, FYI) in the New World because North America has no hedgehogs (porcupines are unrelated). In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Curiously, real groundhogs do sometimes come out of their burrows in the later part of winter. All groundhogs break hibernation briefly several times through the winter, usually without leaving their burrows, but one study showed that males use some of their break-time to get up and about, defending their territories and meeting females. They do not mate during these visits, but do court. Females will not mate with strangers, but since mating must occur right after hibernation ends (or the young won’t be born early enough to store enough fat for the next winter), courtship has to happen on the breaks during the hibernation period. Males go out to visit females rather than the other way around because females have to save their energy for pregnancy.  It’s probably a coincidence that Punxsutawny made their iconic groundhog male, but it is appropriate–it’s the males who come out in February.

On Groundhog’s Day and Climate

Although the groundhog is usually said to predict the weather (Phil Conners is a weatherman sent to do a story about his rodent colleague), if clear weather in February does mean a late spring, that’s not weather, that’s climate.

Again, I don’t know that such a pattern exists, but it could. There are patterns to weather that repeat, year after year. That’s what climate is. And while such patterns are fiendishly difficult to pin down without good data and the right statistics, it’s not hard to imagine a group of German villagers telling stories about weather and animals over hundreds of years to figure it out in an approximate way. That’s the kind of knowledge that makes farming and hunting and the rest of life possible for people who don’t have access to modern science–and it mostly works well enough.

Patterns in the natural world form the framework for our cultural observances and lifeways.

Punxsutawny Phil is silly, not because he’s a groundhog predicting the weather, but because he is supposedly the groundhog predicting spring for everybody, everywhere, and that’s not how these things work. The knowledge is local, part of an intimate familiarity between a people and a place, the place one’s culture has developed in order to accommodate, the place where one knows how to live. We’re not silly to prefer the places most familiar to us, the places where our traditions make sense.

But patterns change. Certain things don’t repeat themselves over and over, not anymore.

The climate is changing. If clear weather in February once meant something, it might mean that no longer. These shifts can mess up life for a lot of animals, including us. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate change go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.

Now.


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The Internet’s Climate

I’ve been hearing for a while now rumors to the effect that the internet uses a lot of energy, but I didn’t know how much “a lot” might be, how those figures compare to other emissions sources, or what we really ought to do about it. Today, I decided to do something about my ignorance and share the results with you.

Turns out, a lot of writers have had similar ideas–there are many articles about the carbon footprint of the internet, though they vary in their emphasis, their intended readership, and other factors. I’ve combined what I learned from them with the answers to some other questions I’ve gone looking for–I want to cover a bit more territory than the existing articles do.

The Carbon Footprint of the Internet

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with a given thing. Because there are multiple greenhouse gasses, each with a different potential for warming the planet, carbon footprints are usually expressed as tons (or tonnes or kilograms or whatever other unit of weight) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), that is, the amount of carbon dioxide necessary to cause the same amount of warming if it were the only greenhouse gas in play.

Carbon footprints are almost always estimates. That’s because in most cases, and certainly for anything as big and as intricate as the internet, actually identifying and measuring all associated emissions is impractical or even impossible.

Unfortunately, the articles I’ve found on the carbon footprint of the internet don’t explain how the estimates they quote were generated or how old the data they are based on are. Because these articles come from reputable sources (in the case of the following paragraphs, except where noted, the source is the BBC), I’m confident that they are at least in the right ball-park, which is good enough for our discussion here, but it’s worth noting the limitations of the information I’m presenting.

  • Total global emissions for manufacture and use of “digital technologies” (a category that sounds somewhat larger than the internet as such) is 1.6 billion tons CO2e.
  • So defined, the internet produces roughly 3.7% of humanity’s total greenhouse gas emissions. For comparison, the airline industry produces a similar share of emissions.
  • Roughly 53.6% percent of humanity uses the internet–that’s about 4.1 billion people (probably far more than those who use airplanes).
  • The average user’s personal internet-related carbon footprint is thus 14oz CO2e per year.

That last figure is interesting. After all, the same article gives an estimated footprint for a regular email (one without photos or large attachments) of 0.14oz CO2e. Does that mean that the average user’s internet use consists of sending just ten emails per year? Of course, one would expect some users’ footprints to be much larger than the average, but other users must have much smaller footprints, too. That’s what “average” means. Who are all of these people sending less than ten emails per year, yet somehow still counting as internet users?

This apparent discrepancy reflects differences in how the relevant estimates were calculated. Simply put, the per-email figure includes a lot of energy use that isn’t online, such as heating and lighting the building you are composing your email in. Such discrepancies don’t cause a problem for us so long as we remember these numbers are big-picture rough estimates. Treat them as precise (by, for example, attempting to calculate your online carbon footprint by counting the number of emails you send and multiplying by .14oz), and you’ll rapidly run into problems.

Onward we go.

When we’re talking about the carbon footprint of the internet, we’re talking about several different categories of emission sources.

Data Centers

Data centers are large collections of servers. They aren’t the only servers hosting the internet, but they have a large share of it, and are relatively easy to get information about (as opposed to tracking down everybody who has their own server for email and such in their closet). They use a lot of electricity, both to run the servers and to cool them–servers generate a lot of waste heat, and a group of them together could produce enough heat to damage themselves.

US data centers account for 2% of the country’s electricity. That doesn’t sound like a big number, but for a single element of a single industry, it’s pretty impressive. I don’t know how that number compares to figures from other countries or whether we have more or less than our fair share of server capacity based on how much Americans use the internet.

Globally, data centers account for 1% of total electricity usage.

There are two important things to remember. First, electricity usage alone doesn’t tell us the carbon footprint, since we don’t know how that electricity is generated. Are we talking coal-fired power plants, or are we talking wind turbines? We could make a rough estimate for each country’s data centers by looking up the carbon footprint for each country’s electrical grid, but a data center’s owner could well make a point of sourcing power sustainably, and some do. It’s also worth remembering that although internet usage is increasing, the energy efficiency of data centers is increasing rapidly as well.

So I don’t have a number for the carbon footprint of data centers. A reasonable estimate appears to be “considerable, but shrinking.”

Hardware

Building and shipping and then disposing of internet-related hardware (both servers and the various computers, laptops, smartphones and so forth using the internet) also has a carbon footprint (as well as other kinds of environmental impact). I have not found an estimate for this one, but you can find a more general discussion of the environmental impact of electronics, including certain aspects of their carbon footprints, here.

Use

In addition to the energy usage by servers, there is the energy usage by the various devices that are logged on to the internet or otherwise associated with it. At the moment, my laptop is one of them. The carbon footprint of its energy usage should be either zero or negative, depending on where our energy co-operative is buying its renewable power these days. We pay extra for the renewable option. Of course, the manufacture of my laptop had a carbon footprint, too, as will its eventual disposal.

In general, the user’s share of the internet’s footprint is harder to estimate yet easier to get a feel for because we see our own electric bills. Our bills don’t itemize which household devices used how much (though it’s fairly easy to figure that out), nor do they tell us how much electricity other people are using, but home and business electricity usage is not the black box that data centers seem to many of us. At least we know the right ballpark.

Based on my own home audit some years ago, unless a person is a serious electronics enthusiast, digital devices are likely a small but meaningful portion of home energy usage.

You can find information on at least American electricity usage here.

The Internet vs. the Alternative

It’s tempting to mentally compare the internet’s carbon footprint to zero, to look at its size (1.6 billion tons CO2e!) and think wow, that’s a problem, we’ve got to use the internet less! And it is a problem. We need to become carbon neutral as soon as possible. But not all problems are equal in severity, nor are all solutions equal in priority–and it’s possible the internet itself represents at least a partial solution to other problems.

To understand the real footprint of the internet, we’ve got to understand the footprints of what we’d be doing without the internet.

Communication

The internet is all about communication. Part of that communication is personal, or at least interpersonal, one person directly addressing another. These contacts might otherwise happen in person, by telephone, or by mail. So, let’s look at estimates for the carbon cost of non-internet means of connecting with each other.

  • A letter has a carbon footprint of roughly 1oz CO2e. Yes, I know that figure is from a company that sells online greeting cards. A company that sells postal equipment had a similar figure–the two companies differed only in the importance they ascribed their figures.
  • A text message has a carbon footprint of less than one-thousanth of an ounce, CO2e.
  • A phone call has….Well, that depends on whether the call goes over the cellphone network or over the landline network. The former is about 4oz CO2e per minute, the latter is somewhat over 1oz CO2e per minute. What happens with a mixed-technology call I am not sure. Please note that a lot of phone calls are a lot longer than one minute!
  • Meeting in-person has a very small carbon footprint, provided you don’t need to travel to see each other and don’t engage in any carbon-intensive activities while you are together.

So how does this compare to online communication? Online communication means email, video calling (though video calls can also go over the cell phone network, which does not count as the internet), and social media. I do not have good figures for any of these–yes, I have what looks like a per-email figure, 0.14oz CO2e, but remember that includes all of the emissions sources associated with sending an email, including heating or cooling your home, owning a computer, etc. Many of those carbon costs don’t go away simply because you’re not writing an email at the moment–and I don’t know whether the estimates for letter-writing and so forth include any of those costs. We might have an apples-to-oranges situation.

Video calling is even more confusing, for while figures for the carbon cost of these calls exist, they vary, and some are plainly wrong. It does seem reasonable to conclude that a video call is more carbon-intensive than an audio-only call made through the same equipment and the same network, since it requires more bits of information, and electronic information means electricity.

Social media use is confusing in a different way, for while there are apps that can estimate the carbon costs of using various social networks (here is a description of one, though I can’t tell how accurate the app in question is), it’s hard to know what non-internet activity to compare social media to. In many ways, these networks are truly new.

So how does online communication compare to its alternative? Most likely, a per-email carbon cost that could be fairly compared to the figures for letter-writing and so forth would be lower, maybe significantly lower, than 0.14oz CO2e, meaning email still has letters and phone calls beat, but is beat in turn by text messaging (not that all these formats are interchangeable–there are times when a text won’t do). Video is probably beat by phone and by letter (and by email), but video far and away beats traveling across country to meet in person.

Publishing

A lot of web content replaces printed periodicals, either directly (in the case of online issues of newspapers and magazines) or indirectly (in the case of a blog that might otherwise have been a magazine column, a newsletter, or a photocopied zine). Some sites replace printed books, such as encyclopedias, traveler’s handbooks, and phone books. Plus there are ebooks that can be read online. Of course, “replace” is questionable here, since it’s not clear in all cases that more stuff online really means less stuff in print, but let’s leave that aside for now.

I’ve compared print books and ebooks before. The latter came out ahead in some circumstances but not others. Since the greater part of a print book’s carbon footprint is its paper, magazines and newspapers probably have roughly the same footprint as books of the same weight. But the footprint of a printbook is spread out over a working lifetime that could easily last decades, maybe even centuries. Periodicals, in contrast, are basically single-use items (beloved collections of Natty Geos notwithstanding). I have not found a formal analysis of the subject, but unless I really intend to read a periodical cover to cover and keep it for reference, I’m probably better off using the internet.

Telecommuting

Telecommuting, considered very narrowly, obviously produces less CO2 than driving to work. Considered more broadly, it might not.

I’m working here off of an article that summarized an analysis of a large group of studies on the carbon savings involved with telecommuting. The analysis showed that the more rigorous and comprehensive a study was, the less difference it found between telecommuting and going to the office–and some studies found that in some circumstances telecommuting had higher emissions.

In general, the point of the article is that telecommuting isn’t just about what you stop doing (driving to work). It’s also about what you start doing. Additional emissions sources flagged by the authors include:

  • Extra car trips because you can’t go shopping on the way home from work anymore
  • Extra car trips because someone else in the household uses the car while you work now that you’re not using it
  • More lighting and heating and cooling at home because you’re not out of the house all day (meanwhile, if the office isn’t closed, it’s also being lit and heated or cooled while you’re not there)
  • Purchasing and using equipment, such as printers, for home use rather than using shared machines at the office
  • Greater internet usage
  • Lots of Zoom meetings (which may count as internet usage or may go over the cell phone network).

Whether the net effect is an increase or decrease in emissions depends on what you would have been doing if you were at the office, and whether the office is still open (and being lit and heated, etc.).

For further interesting discussions along these lines, try here and here.

Shopping

In general, if you buy one item from on online business that has no brick-and-mortar store and have it delivered, you will produce less greenhouse gas than if you drive to a brick-and-mortar store and buy the same single item yourself. But there are complications.

The trip to the brick-and-mortar can be made much more efficient by not driving and by buying more than one item. Online purchases get much less efficient if the item is returned or if it is miss-delivered the first time–most of the carbon footprint of an online purchase comes from the “last mile” part of delivery, the part where the delivery truck is headed to your house specifically, so anything that increases the number of trips that truck has to make increases the carbon footprint. Plus, returns are much more common in online purchases because you can’t try things on or otherwise examine them–and you won’t get lost on your way to your house, the way a delivery driver might.

Finally, whatever carbon advantage an online purchase may have is erased when shoppers select rushed delivery.

So on average online shopping has the smaller footprint, but there are circumstances under which shopping in-person may be just as good or even better.

Entertainment

Over half the world’s internet traffic is online video, accounting for about 1% of global emissions, or almost half the internet-related emissions total. Not all of that video is entertainment (and not all entertainment is video), but a lot of it is. Pornography alone is a third of all online video, plus there are music videos, online games, funny little video clips, and streaming movies and TV. Figuring out the carbon footprint for all of this is difficult.

For one thing, some internet video providers (such at Netflix) reduce and offset their carbon footprints. So while it may be possible to estimate the standard electricity demand of, say, an hour of video, there is no simple way to derive a one-size-fits-all carbon cost from that figure. For another, some of the popular estimates for the electricity demand of online video are very severely wrong. In fact, one oft-quoted group of figures both dramatically over-estimates the carbon cost of streaming video itself while under-estimating the electricity demand of the devices people use to watch the video (a demand which is the same when viewing video offline)–making it look like watching traditional TV is far and away better than streaming when it might not be.

Poking around on YouTube to pass the time clearly has a larger carbon footprint than, say, going for a walk around your block or having a conversation with your spouse. There are lots of forms of entertainment that are carbon-neutral. And it does seem reasonable to suppose that audio-only has a smaller footprint than audio with video, which means I should probably stop using YouTube as a music player (while ignoring the video entirely). If watching video isn’t important, it’s best not to do it and to choose some other pastime instead. But when watching video is very much the thing you want to do, it seems unclear whether watching online is better or worse than the alternative.

So How Does the Internet Compare?

In general, the internet seems to represent a carbon reduction over the offline activities it replaces, though there are some important exceptions (don’t watch online porn; have sex for real! Do it for the planet!). In context, the internet is mostly part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Can we make it into a better solution? Yes!

We can and we should.

Greening the Internet?

In researching for this article, I found a number of suggested ways to improve matters, including the idea that we ought to stop sending emails that say “thank you.” Apparently, these words are wasteful and unnecessary, and if everyone would just stop emailing them, it would be the equivalent of taking one car off the road, or some such.

No.

Not only is such advice based on a serious misunderstanding of the 0.14oz CO2e per-email figure, as noted earlier, but even 0.14oz really isn’t all that much. It’s possible to spend so much time and mental energy trying to shave off tiny personal environmental impacts here and there that one forgets to pay attention to the big picture, where the major impacts are. We are not going to end anthropogenic climate change by not saying thank you.

But it does seem reasonable to adopt a couple of climate-wise internet habits:

  • Don’t waste time online. If you want to waste time, do it offline, where it won’t have as large a carbon footprint.
  • Don’t waste other people’s time online. Don’t CC the whole group if you don’t have to, don’t send chain emails, don’t post stuff to social media just because you’re bored, and so on. While the carbon costs of online activity are mostly small, they are not zero.
  • Don’t use video when you can use audio-only or text. This goes for both making calls and entertainment. Use video only when the video truly adds something to the situation, and use the lowest video quality that works for your situation.
  • Don’t waste online storage capacity. Those 3,850 pages of emails hanging out in my in-box? The ones I’ve either read or identified as spam but haven’t gotten around to deleting or archiving offline? Yeah, I gotta do something about that.
  • Don’t forget about the environmental impact of your devices. Wherever possible, use energy-efficient devices to use the internet and resist the pressure to replace your devices prematurely–the manufacture of a device could account for as much as 80% of its total lifetime carbon footprint, and the manufacture and disposal of electronics present other, serious environmental challenges.
  • Shop wisely. When shopping online, choose slower shipping options when possible. Avoid having to return items by only buying what you really think you’ll keep. Shop through environmentally-responsible companies that are taking steps to minimize delivery-related emissions. If the package can’t be left on the doorstep, arrange to be home when it arrives so the driver does not need to try again.

But there are even better ways to address the problem.

Get Out the Big, Green Guns

The big guns, the heavy-hitters, for shrinking the carbon footprint of the internet involve policy and infrastructure.

It’s not that ordinary people can’t move the needle, it’s that sending fewer emails and other such changes isn’t the way to make a big difference. Even if every internet user on Earth, all 4.1 billion of us, took steps to make our internet use as efficient as possible, the electricity thus saved would likely be used for something else. Demand for energy rarely if ever goes down, provided the supply remains consistent (or increases!). But if even a small fraction of us demanded fossil-free electric grids and hyper-efficient electronic infrastructure, we’d get them. In fact, we are demanding, and we are getting, just not as swiftly as we must.

Demand better.

The large online companies have the power to improve the internet if consumers demand that they do so, and if government regulations and incentives support the change. If the big players want carbon-neutral data centers, they’ll get them.

Here are our marching orders:

  • Find out the climate impact of the online companies you use. Reward those that are doing the right thing. Demand that others do better.
  • Demand transparency and accountability from online entities, especially as regards energy usage.
  • Demand similar environmental responsibility from manufacturers of electronic devices.
  • Support climate legislation and the elected officials who enact it.
  • Support regulations that favor the shift away from fossil fuels and the reduction of waste. Support the elected officials who enact such regulations.
  • Vote.


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Ding! Dong! The….Sort of

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Photo by Aral Tasher on Unsplash

Tomorrow, assuming nothing untoward happens that cannot be rapidly overcome, the Trump presidency will end and the Biden presidency will begin. The hand-over will be a relief to many across the political spectrum, but the nation will still be deeply divided, and divided in a way that goes well beyond politics. We will still face multiple existential threats, grave challenges that some people frankly do not want to meet.

These challenges are, in no particular order:

  • Converting to climate neutrality and environmental sustainability quickly
  • Irrevocably dismantling white, male, cishet, “Christian” hegemony in favor of genuine pluralism (scare-quotes because I’m referring to something that has little to nothing to do with real Christian teachings)
  • Ending the COVID-19 pandemic and building protections against pandemics and disasters of the future.

President Biden will not be able to do all that alone. He will need Congress and may also need the courts. He will need a vast amount of skill, sensitivity, and grit, and he will need the support of the American people. It will be months or years before we find out if he can make meaningful, lasting progress on any part of his tall order.

But there are a few things he can do, by and of himself, with just a phone and a pen, that he plans to accomplish tomorrow or the next day. By the end of this week, we’ll know whether he’s serious.

Let’s look at the climate/environment part of his promises.

Mr. Biden’s Promises

Joe Biden made, like any other would-be president, campaign promises. Now, campaign promises are famous for being broken, even by elected officials operating entirely in good faith–the reality of office sometimes necessitates a change of plans. But Mr. Biden has also released more recent statements of his intentions for his first day and for his first hundred days, and for these he may expect to be held to account.

Three first-day climate-related executive orders have been promised recently:

  • Rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement

    Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

  • Cancel the permit necessary for the much-fought-over Keystone Pipeline
  • Freeze implementation of any Trump-era environmental regulations that have not yet gone into effect. This will mean the older, stronger regulations will stay in force.

There is also vague mention of other climate-related executive orders to be signed in the period between four and ten days after inauguration–apparently he has released a detailed schedule for the first ten days, but I have not found any news site willing to simply publish that schedule rather than summarizing it.

Campaign promises for additional first-day actions include:

  • Sign an executive order to create a plan whereby the US will be carbon-neutral by 2050
  • Sign an executive order to “conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030”

Climate-related campaign promises for the first hundred days include:

  • Call a world summit in which to push world leaders to take stronger climate action, especially with respect to shipping and aviation
  • Pressure China to stop subsidizing coal and “outsourcing pollution.” No, I’m not sure what sort of outsourcing that refers to.

There are also other steps he could take in his first hundred days, and may, but has not yet committed to.

So, What Does It Mean?

Most of Mr. Biden’s promises are either symbolic or preliminary–that does not make them unimportant, but it does shape the kind of importance they have. Let’s look at two of them.

Considering Paris

The Paris Climate Agreement is not actually climate action except in a vague and general sense. It never was. It is a statement of shared intention and mutual, ever-more ambitious goal-setting. It contains no legally-enforceable commitment to do anything, only a process whereby countries agree to be held politically accountable for the promises they make–perhaps something like how friends sometimes make mutual pacts to go to the gym regularly. Knowing your friends will be disappointed if you stay on the couch offers some motivation to exercise.

Though I don’t remember any international outcry of disappointment when President Trump pulled out of the agreement.

If all this sounds…rather weak, remember that it was the best we could do at the time. For the United States, ratification of a legally-binding treaty requires Senate approval, and at the time there was no way the Senate was going to approve of any climate action at all. And without the United States, the rest of the international community would not agree to be bound themselves. President Obama constructed the closest thing he could get to a climate agreement under the circumstances. It was meant to be a beginning, a foundation upon which more could be built.

So, what does rejoining Paris really mean? It does not specify any actions that reduce our emissions directly, it isn’t legally enforceable, and while it was designed to be “politically enforceable,” when Mr. Trump pulled out nobody enforced anything. So why rejoin?

Mr. Biden will rejoin for the same reason Mr. Trump left; to signal the direction of his loyalties.

Keystone

The Keystone XL Pipeline–remember that? I’ve written about it several times (here and here and here). The short version is that it is intended to transport Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast for international shipment, Republicans like it and Democrats and their allies do not, and because its route crosses an international border, the President of the United States has final authority on whether it can be built. President Obama said no. President Trump said yes. President Biden will say no again. This is not the sort of decision that’s meant to be re-made over and over again.

Keystone is a symbol, as I’ve discussed before–it’s not that the pipeline doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter as much to either side as the intensity of the rhetoric over the years suggests, in part because only a small part of the project, a short link, is really at issue. The rest of the pipeline system, for better or worse, has been operational for years. Mr. Obama knew that, and said no to the pipeline quite deliberately as a symbolic gesture in order to signal American leadership on climate. Mr. Trump began the process of reviving the project almost as soon as he took office, doubtless also for symbolic reasons.

Several years ago, I discussed what I see as the content of the symbol:

The Republican Party is trying to control the narrative, trying to be the one whose framing of events the public accepts. From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether Keystone XL helps the American economy and it is nearly irrelevant whether the pipeline even gets built. Votes in the House that go no place still count as strikes in the larger cultural war.

Why Keystone? Because liberals care about it.

Critics sometimes point out that for all the furor around the Keystone XL, other pipelines are being built across the country with little or no fuss. As a line in the sand, this one looks arbitrary to some. In point of fact, some of the other pipeline projects do receive a share of controversy, most people just never hear about it. Moreover, there is indeed a reason to focus on Keystone; out of all the pipeline projects, it is the one that President Obama has the power to say no to, because it crosses an international border. Mr. Obama constituency is the entire country and he is just one person. A national movement can speak to him in a way it couldn’t if final decisive power lay in the hands of dozens of state and local officials. And the President does actually pay attention to environmental issues. In order words, this one is winnable in a way that the fights over other pipelines may not be.

But all that being said, if KXL is defeated, a very large and multifaceted minority will celebrate a huge symbolic victory.

It seems likely that the Republican Party, which is very corporate-friendly, is trying to prevent that victory. They are also gunning for a national debate in which the economy represents the highest imaginable good, clean water and clean air are not considered relevant or important, and the homes, livelihoods, and families of farmers, ranchers, and indigenous peoples do not have meaningful standing.

If they achieve such a limitation of parameters, there are fights more important than one 36-inch pipeline that they can and will win.

Mr. Biden want to give “a very large and multifaceted minority” back its victory.

What’s in a Symbol?

There may be a temptation, in some quarters, to downplay Mr. Biden’s initial efforts as merely symbolic and therefore inadequate. Already I’ve seen posts on social media to the effect that Paris isn’t worth much anyway. But if Mr. Biden can’t enact symbols by executive order, there is little hope of his being able to do anything else. He is taking steps towards more substantive action–his nomination of John Kerry for the new position of Presidential Climate Envoy, part of the National Security Council–is a good indication. But that action is not going to come quickly or easily. We can assume it still faces real opposition.

The bottom line is we’re going to need to get involved. We need to provide the political support necessary to put climate action through both houses of Congress so it can’t be undone by executive order the next time the White House changes parties. And we need to do whatever it takes to make sure climate deniers do not take either house of Congress at the midterm.

Does that mean campaigning for Democrats? Maybe. But sooner or later we’re going to need a second party interested in climate action. We need something like the Republican Party of Teddy Roosevelt, a re-imagining and re-aligning of American Conservatism.

Frankly, I think now is a very good time for that.

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

 


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Plastics Again

I like being right. But there are times it would have been nice to be wrong.

For years, my husband and I have had a recurring argument that erupts when we go to the grocery store together where I say we shouldn’t buy certain things because they have too much packaging, and he says it’s OK because it’s recyclable. Usually the packaging in question is some kind of plastic.

Then, last night, we finally got around to seeing a Frontline documentary on plastics last night, and today I got online and did some further reading on the subject.

And the thing is that even in 2018, when the tonnage of America’s plastic waste being recycled was very close to its historical peak, over 90% of our plastic waste was not recycled. That’s because most plastic things are not really recyclable. Plastics really aren’t OK.

The Trouble with Plastic

There are several troubles with plastics, actually. Their production has a huge carbon footprint, for example, and most plastics are made from either petroleum or natural gas, both of which are very environmentally destructive to source and transport.

But the most obvious problem is they don’t biodegrade. Yes, I know, “biodegradable plastic” exists, but it earns its scare-quotes—in this context it is a technical term that might not mean what we naturally assume it does.

Anyway, for most types of plastic, part of what makes them useful is that they don’t biodegrade.

Being non-biodegradable, plastics never go away. Instead, plastic products and packaging take up landfill space or enter the environment where they tangle up animals or break into pieces so small that they enter the food chain. There’s probably some plastic in your body right now. Nobody is claiming that’s a good thing.

The disagreement is over what to do about it.

Recycling and the Illusion of Power

Public outcry about the dangers of plastic subject is not new. According to the Frontline documentary (and if you’re older than I am you probably remember this yourself), there was a lot of public pressure to ban various plastics in the 1970’s, and some bans were passed. Plastics industry leaders were understandably unhappy, so they developed plastics recycling programs and pushed the idea that plastics are just fine because they’re recyclable.

But those programs never worked. They weren’t designed to work. They were designed to keep people buying plastics.

What Happens to “Recycled” Plastics

There are multiple types of plastic. How easily they can be recycled, and whether they can be fully recycled back to the same uses they had the first time around, varies. How much each costs to produce and to recycle also varies, as does how much the recycled material can be sold for.

Once upon a time, plastics of different types had to be cleaned and sorted into different bins at recycling centers. Plastics that didn’t have a bin had to be thrown out. People balked at cleaning and sorting, so now there are combined bins, or even mixed curbside pickup in some areas. It’s not just convenient, it creates the comforting illusion that everything is recycled because everything goes in the recycle bin.

But the cleaning and sorting still has to take place, it just happens at the recycling plant. There, the various types of plastic that buyers want are pulled out to be sold. Any plastics that buyers don’t want are added to the waste stream. As in, not recycled–landfilled, incinerated, or just plain dumped somewhere.

Up until relatively recently, Chinese companies bought large amounts of unsorted plastic, creating that comfortable illusion, but China wasn’t magically recycling plastics the United States couldn’t. It, too, was sorting plastics, pulling out what could be sold, and trashing the rest—often with environmentally disastrous consequences.

The bottom line is that exhorting people to put stuff in the recycle bin doesn’t get stuff recycled. Pressuring local governments to build recycling centers or even sorting plants doesn’t either. If a plastic isn’t profitable to recycle, it won’t be recycled, period.

Most plastics are not profitable to recycle.

The Responsibility Mind Game

The plastics industry very effectively—and very deliberately, according to Frontline—pulled a fast one on the American public. I am unclear whether the same trick was pulled on the public of other countries or if the story varies from country to country (perhaps some of my international readers can write in and tell me?), but here the trick was elegant in its simple subtlety.

Industry said “plastic is good, it just needs to be recycled. So if we can all work together to get the public to recycle, everything will be fine.”

Get the public to recycle. Yeah, right. Sure, people can be convinced to put the stuff in the bins. Lots of people do that, now. But ordinary people have no control whatever over what types of plastic are economically viable to recycle, nor do we have any control over whether the companies that sell the stuff we need choose packaging options that are viable in that way. Some of us can choose to avoid products that include, or are packaged in, plastics that aren’t really recycled, once we learn what those are, but that requires time and mental energy most people don’t have to spare—and it requires the wherewithal to buy specialty brands that cost three times as much and aren’t sold in most stores.

But the piles of unrecycled plastics are our fault because we didn’t care enough about the planet. Yeah, sure.

Motivation

It’s important to understand that the plastics industry wants to make single-use plastic products that are thrown away, not recycled. Sure, some plastics are economical to recycle, and that’s fine—it’s not that industry leaders are cartoon villains producing environmental destruction for the fun of it. But those true recyclables are only part of the wide range of lucrative plastics applications. And the whole point of plastics, the reason they are lucrative, is that they are cheap. They can be made so cheaply that they can be sold cheaply and still turn a large profit—just so long as the producers don’t have to pay for disposal or recycling. And just so long as consumers, who ultimately do pay, one way or another, aren’t aware of the real cost.

The illusion that used plastic somehow vanishes is what makes the entire system go.

When I was a kid, my dad showed me an ad in a magazine extolling the virtues of recycling. There were pictures of park benches and other such objects made from used plastic bottles, the message being that by working together and recycling, we can clean up the trash and go green. My dad then pointed out that none of the recycling promoted by the ad was closed-loop, and that however many park benches they made from plastic bottles, the demand for new plastic to make bottles with would remain untouched.

Then he drew my attention to the bottom of the ad and the name of the company so greenly pushing recycling: Chevron. An oil company.

Plastic Solutions?

We’re in a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is pretty bad. But there is a solution.

The Good News

We can stop producing plastic trash. Plastics are a recent invention, and the pre-plastics world is still within living memory. We could simply go back to it. That would require reshaping our economy, but we could do that. There are certain technical innovations that require plastics that we don’t want to lose (single-use medical supplies, for example), but it’s likely we could develop closed-loop recyclable plastics to meet those needs. Radically reducing, or perhaps even eliminating, plastic trash is possible, and we could get most of the way there tomorrow if we really wanted to.

The Bad News

The bad news is that there are some very powerful people who don’t want to get rid of the trash.

Plastic is big business. Making plastics is how some people make a living—and how some get very, very rich. They don’t want to stop. In fact, plastic use is still increasing, and it’s going to continue to increase until it’s forced to do otherwise.

After all, fossil fuels are being phased out, and oil companies have to do something to make money.

Recycling is one of the tools we have to both reduce solid waste and to reduce pressure on dwindling natural resources, but it’s not a panacea. As my dad showed me, open-loop recycling can even be used as a kind of bait-and-switch to distract the public from the fact that neither pressure on natural resources nor solid waste are being reduced (eventually, that plastic park bench by Chevron is going to end up in a landfill). And that’s when the recyclable stuff is actually recyclable at all. Without a larger context of genuinely environmentalist public policy, recycling becomes just one more tool industry can and does use to quiet dissent.

Consumers cannot fight industry alone. Putting stuff in the recycle bin does not guarantee it will be recycled, nor can we make much progress by making wise buying choices—our options for what to buy are largely shaped by industry in the first place.

But we can fight by banding together. We can form a group so that our collective power can create and enforce policies for the public good.

If we live in a democracy, the name of our group is “the government.”

The Solutions

We have to recognize that the shift to sustainability will not be pain-free for everybody, and that while there will be many winners, there will be losers also. We also have to recognize that the more powerful of these prospective losers are aware of their risk and are fighting back. They will continue to do so.

The shift to sustainability must be made in the face of opposition or it will not be made at all.

We can use public policy to minimize the losses. Regarding plastics, one attractive option is to legally shift the responsibility onto the producers. Make them pay for disposal, as well as for the cleanup of pollution caused by production—including carbon emissions—and for any health problems caused by the toxic forms of plastic. After all, somebody has to pay, and it is the producers who are ultimately responsible for setting the cost. They, and really nobody else, have the ability to change the industry so that it costs less to clean up after. Instead of punishing industry leaders or banning their products, change the rules of the game so that in order to win they have to help the common good instead of hurting it.

Such a policy is fair, it’s consistent with the concept of the free market, and it gives the industry a chance to continue to exist, albeit in an altered form.

But the change won’t happen on its own. The industry won’t self-regulate. Even if the leaders of individual companies wanted to take responsibility for cleaning up plastics, the way the game is played right now making real change would put them out of business—remember what I said about the system requiring the illusion of disappearing trash. No CEO can make that requirement go away by an act of will. Only government, pushed and demanded by the people, can.

And no matter how careful and fair the new policy is, it’s going to cost the industry money, which means the majority of industry leaders will fight it.

We have to fight them, not because of any animosity or lack of sympathy on our part, but because there are larger, more important things at stake.


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Resolutions for Climate

I’ve started seeing posts on social media about New Years’ resolutions specifically about climate change. I’m glad people are thinking along these lines, but such resolutions will be useless if they are are not kept—and almost useless if the changes people resolve to make are very small.

It’s not that minor personal lifestyle change make no difference, but they won’t cut it alone.

So let’s look at how to make climate resolutions make a difference. Some of this will be material I’ve posted before—this is in some ways one of my seasonal posts, back in some form almost every year, but some of it is new. And for everyone thinking “but New Years was a few days ago!” please remember you can start your year, and your resolutions, any time you want.

Making Resolutions

So what are some good resolutions to make? The answer depends on your own circumstances, of course. If you don’t have a car, resolving to use less gas probably isn’t an option—using less gas might not be an option if you need your car to get to work, either (although you might also have options you haven’t considered yet.

Whatever your circumstance, there are two key characteristics when considering which changes to make; there are the easy changes and there are the changes with big consequences.

Occasionally, one will be both at once.

Low-hanging Fruit

Low-hanging fruit is, by definition, easy to pick. It might not be the best fruit on the tree, and it’s not the only fruit you’ll need to harvest, but it’s the easiest place to start.

These are going to be the 50-Simple Things changes—turning off unnecessary lights, recycling rather than throwing stuff out, and so on. Making change, any change, can be difficult. Sometimes it’s useful to just change something to begin the process. If that’s your position, the choice of what to do first is going to be largely psychological—what are you willing to start?

Big Bang for Your Buck

The opposite strategy involves looking at you life and deciding what changes you can make that will make the most difference. There may be lifestyle changes here, too—where does most of your carbon footprint lie? What’s the once change that will shrink that footprint the most?

But then there is activist work. There is voting. There is giving money and time. There is organizing community change.

How does all this relate to resolutions? More on that in a bit.

Keeping Resolutions

We have abundant evidence to suggest that good intentions alone don’t make resolutions stick. Logic suggests that the thing most of us try next—making resolutions with more intense good intentions doesn’t work, either. Motivation is simply not the issue. If you want to make real change, you need to try something else.

That’s what Charles Duhigg did—some years ago, I wrote a post based on two interviews he gave (one on Talk of the Nation, the other on Fresh Air) in connection with his book, Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them. I still haven’t read the book and am therefore not in a position to endorse it, but I have found some of the things he said in the interviews helpful—and I like his approach.

What Habits Are, According to Charles Duhigg

Mr. Duhigg researched habits—what habits are, neurologically speaking, and how they are established. Then he used what he found to develop methods for setting better habits. The following is based entirely on material from his interviews.

The name of the book is a misnomer; according to its author, habits can’t actually be broken, only replaced. They certainly can’t be resisted by mere will power. When we do the same sequence of behavior over and over (e.g., get in the car, take a left out of the driveway, go three miles, turn right, go two more miles, then left, then arrive at work), the brain concludes that this sequence doesn’t really need your full mental power anymore, and it delegates the entire sequence to a very simple part of the brain that just executes instructions. In a sense, you automate the sequence. From then on, every time you begin the sequence, that simpler part of the mind goes “oo, I got this!” and takes over, leaving the rest of your mind free to do something else.

That’s how you end up sitting in your car in front of your office on your day off, when you intended to drive someplace completely different.

Once an automated sequence is triggered, it’s impossible to interrupt because the part of the brain that’s executing the sequence doesn’t actually think. It doesn’t make decisions. It just executes the sequence until the sequence is done.

These automated sequences are habits.

As I said in my post years ago, forming habits is not bad–your conscious mind has better things to do than ponder every possible decision point in your day every day. When you brush your teeth, which tooth do you start with? Which shoe do you put on first? Do you put the cereal or the milk in the bowl first? Really, you don’t need to think about that stuff.

The point isn’t to do away with habits, it’s to make sure you have the habits you want.

Replacing Habits.

Mr. Duhigg’s advice for forming new habits centers around the idea of the trigger—the event that cues your brain to activate the automatic sequence. Once you hit that trigger, the habit is on and you can’t stop it. So you have to either avoid the trigger (which might not be possible) or design a new habit that has an earlier trigger.

For example, when I bike into town, there are two routes I can take. They both get me there, but from opposite directions. That means if I have an appointment on one end of town, going the wrong way adds almost ten minutes to my trip and makes me late. Naturally, I’ve gone the wrong way in the grip of habit several times.

So, what I did was to make a new habit of thinking about which route to take when I got on my bike (before the old habit could kick in), and then to review the choice when I saw the speed limit sign right before the critical turn. The new habit thus includes making a choice, and I don’t go the wrong way by force of habit anymore.

It works.

To create a new habit, just figure out what sequence you want to attach to what trigger, and do it, over and over, every time the trigger occurs. There is no magic number of repetitions that turns something into a habit—any number you may hear is made up—but the more times you practice your habit the more automatic it will feel. And yet you’ll need to keep feeding the growing habit with practice if you want it to keep it strong.

Some Extra Tools

There are a few other ways to strengthen new behavior, aside from building a habit. These include creating accountability and building in rewards—make the whole thing feel more emotionally immediate. I usually read about these tools relative to people trying to keep resolutions to hit the gym, but they work the same way for people trying to change the world.

Bringing It All Together

So how do all these pieces together in a single process that has something to do with New Years’ resolutions? After all, we usually don’t think about voting or community organizing as matters of habit.

Here’s one way it could work:

Make a group resolution with your household or, if you live alone, with a small group of like-minded friends. Resolve to have a meeting about climate action once per week. At those meetings, talk about your options, what you know and what you don’t know, make decisions and set goals. Share your progress. Help each other. The habit-changing technique will be one of your tools for meeting your goals. Mutual accountability will be another. You can arrange to reward each other. You can arrange to make changes. Maybe a major community initiative will come out of your group.

You can have 51 weekly meetings between now and the end of the year. What do you suppose you can do?


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A Year in Review

I usually do a review of climate-related stories at the end of the year. I’m not the only one. Here is the review by the New York Times. Here is one from Bloomberg. I recommend both.

For my part, I want to take my review season by season and include, where possible, follow-up pieces. Then I want to say a few words about the upcoming year.

The Climate of 2020

So, first, let’s take a look back on the year.

Winter

My first current-events-related piece of last year, in early January, was about Australia’s catastrophic fires, which had then been ongoing for some time. I wanted to know whether the fires were the climate-change-fueled agent of destruction, or merely a consequence of a subtly destruction already well underway.

I spent the rest of January and most of February posting science explainers and personal stories. COVID-19 was starting to spread, though I didn’t know it yet, and indeed we all got weirdly sick (I mentioned it briefly in one post) around the same time—my entire family and most of our friends apparently infected by a nasty little bug given to us by a friend of a friend who had students who had recently returned from a trip to China. Did we have Covid? Officially, of course, it wasn’t in the US yet, but since nobody was testing for it the fact that nobody was diagnosed here until months later does not seem reliable. So we wonder.

A Note on Climate

January was the warmest January on record globally. Several regions also experienced unusual—in places record-breaking—warmth, including the eastern US, much of Europe and Asia and parts of South America. Some places were colder than average, such as much of Alaska and the western US, but overall the planet had a warm January. Most Januaries, lately, have been warm.

The story in February was broadly similar, though the global temperature record was not broken.

Update on the Australia Fires

So, what happened with those fires? Well, eventually they did go out (by early March), and various Australian communities set about trying to deal with lingering physical and mental health problems, not to mention rebuilding infrastructure and economies. Ironically, the rains that put the fires out caused their own problems. Several towns had to be evacuated.

It’s not yet clear what’s going on ecologically—obviously, the burned-over areas are devastated, but it’s not known how well the land will be able to recover. Researchers are tackling these questions. So far, it appears that these fires were indeed different, that full recovery may simply not happen. Something has changed.

Spring

I made my first post about “the new coronavirus” in early March, though it had been in the news for a while by that point. The tone of the article assumes readers are already semi-familiar with the disease because it focuses on the connections between Covid and climate only (yes, there are some, though they are a little indirect). For the rest of the month and into April, most of my posts were Covid-related. See here and here and here. I then posted science explainers, book reviews, and personal stories until well into May.

But as I mentioned in that third Covid post, there was plenty of other climate-related news. The Great Barrier Reef (which, being in the Southern Hemisphere, was then experiencing autumn) had just experienced a severe summer bleaching event due to unusually warm water. Unusual flooding had killed a startlingly large number of people. A series of tornadoes in March in the American Midwest and South, while not unprecedented, was unusual, and apparently caused by abnormally warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. Florida had a record-breaking, hot, dry spring. Sichuan Provence, China, lost 19 people to a huge wildfire. Well over a thousand people had to evacuate. I wasn’t able to confirm a climate connection, however.

And while I didn’t mention it, because I didn’t know about it yet, the East-African locust plague had begun.

A Note on Climate

Globally, March was warm, though not quite record-breaking. Some large oceanic regions did set new heat records, though, including parts of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. As for precipitation, as usual there were many small unusually dry areas and many small unusually wet areas; globally, precipitation rates are steady or nearly so, but as weather gets more extreme, some regions are getting drier while others get wetter. Most (though not all) of the March precipitation anomalies were consistent with these longer-term regional changes.

April was again globally warm, though my region was one of the few large cold spots. Much of Asia was extremely warm. And while the globe as a whole did not set a new record, global ocean surface temperature did, as did the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. One interesting detail about precipitation? Australia as a whole was 21% below average, yet Victoria had its wettest month in sixty years.

Update on Florida Fire Risk

Florida’s dry, hot spring led to an unusually fierce wildfire season in May. Curiously, I don’t remember ever hearing about those fires at the time. I am not clear on how unusual the fires were, whether it was a minor or a jaw-dropping anomaly.

Summer

Being pagan, somewhat contrarian, and a resident of a warm place, I think of summer as starting in May.

At the beginning of May, then, I belatedly posted about the locust plague, which had a stronger climate connection than I had thought. Towards the end of that month, I posted about the Atlantic season’s first tropical storm. The fact that it formed well before the official start of the hurricane season, was, as I pointed out, less of a smoking gun for climate change than it seemed, since out-of-season storms, while rare, are not really new. That the storm formed in an Atlantic that was generally behaving as if it were June is a bit more suggestive, though.

In June, my next current-events post (appropriately titled Current Events) explained both the dramatic Siberian heat wave and the dust storms that sent clouds of airborne particles streaming across the Atlantic from Sahara all the way to North America—putting a damper on the hurricane season in the process. About a month later, towards the end of July, in a post largely about other things, I mentioned a heat wave and the season’s first full hurricane, which had hit Texas. Otherwise, most of my summer posts concerned somewhat more abstract ideas.

Update on the Locusts

The East African locust plague of 2020 is not over. I’m surprised, as I haven’t heard any hint of it in the news for months—I had assumed that the crisis had been forgotten by the American news because the crisis had passed. Although the coverage of the story early on warned of possible famine, but I have not been able to find out whether such a famine has developed and how it was avoided if it didn’t. I have also not been able to find more than a few suggestions of how the locust plague and Covid have interacted.

A Note on Climate

In May, again my region was unusually cool, although the planet as a whole tied with 2016 as the hottest May since record-keeping began. Just as dramatic, 7.55% of the planet’s surface (land or ocean) set new record highs for the month. In the 70 years for which we have such information, only two years (2016 and 2010) have seen a month when more of the planet set a record.

June was warm but not startlingly so globally. The largest, most-intense hot areas and cool areas were both in Asia. Tropical Storm Cristobal (the earliest-recorded third storm of any Atlantic season) brought catastrophic flooding to parts of Mexico and Guatamala. The Abidjan Department of Cote d’Ivoire also experienced catastrophic flooding. Meanwhile, Australia’s Northern Territories had one of the ten most severe droughts on record.

In July, land and ocean-surface temperatures together tied for second-warmest for the month since record-keeping began. The cooler-than-average areas were few and small. The Northern Hemisphere was the warmest ever, breaking a record set…last year. Parts of Asia experienced catastrophic flooding. Australia’s drought continued.

Fall

Yes, fall begins in August, at least by some measures. And in early August, I described our almost direct strike by Tropical Storm Isaias. Then my husband went to fight a wildfire, so I wrote about that. I spent most of the next several months talking about hurricanes (remember the hurricanes? They wouldn’t stop! More than the Atlantic season has ever had before!) or politics. I wrote very little about the catastrophic wildfires in the western Unites States, though they were very much on my mind. The American presidential contest was heating up, but there were also a series of climate demonstrations, starting in the UK and then spreading, especially through Europe, but also to other places. There was even a demonstration in New York. I was severely unhappy that most of this was not covered by the American news.

Heading into the winter, the big stories have been largely political and Covid-related. There are a few hints I’ve heard about other stories I want to follow up on in the upcoming weeks.

Following Up on Hurricanes

Some of the storms caused no significant damage anywhere. Those that did cause damage did not cause disasters everywhere they touched—I see no remaining sign of Isaias in my area. But there are some areas, particularly in Central America and the American Gulf Coast, where (at least as of the first of December) the full scope of loss still isn’t known. There are still people missing. There are still areas that have not been fully assessed.

A Note on Climate

August was the second-warmest on record, globally. North America set a new regional heat record. Europe and the Caribbean each had their third-warmest August. Eastern North America was unusually wet, thanks to all those hurricanes, while Western North America continued is drought. Asia had an unusually intense rainy season.

In September, 8.49% of the planet’s surface set a new heat record—that’s the second-largest such percentage for any September since these records have been kept. Many of the unusually-warm areas of the world were oceans (could that be related to all those hurricanes?). The storms kept eastern and southern parts of North America wet, but Western North America was still in a drought. Australia had a very warm month.

In October, 6.80% of the planet’s surface set new heat records, tying for second as the most-record-setting October known. Much of North America (though not my part of it) were unusually cool, however. Parts of North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia were very wet. Most of Australia was wet, too.

Looking Back

Looking back over 2020, what stands out to me are the hurricanes, the fires, Covid, the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, and the incredibly high stakes of the American presidential election. It’s important to notice how interrelated these themes are—how politics create and is in tern influenced by the various aspects of the climate crisis, and how Covid is just one (very dramatic) aspect of a public health crisis with which climate change is intimately involved.

So, About the Future

New Years’ resolutions seldom lead to a change in behavior, probably in part because they seldom include a plan to deal with whatever it was that led to the old behavior. It might be better to set, not resolutions for the new year, but goals.

Relative to climate change, most of us can easily list at least a couple of things which should happen—stricter fuel economy standards for vehicles, America rejoining Paris, regulatory changes to favor the use of low-carbon alternatives to cement, and so on—but without mentioning who is going to actually do all these useful things. Alternatively, the action might be ascribed to “we,” as in “we should stop subsidizing fossil fuels.”

But who is “we”?

As I pointed out last year in a similar post, “we” is such an amorphous duty assignment that even if everybody agreed that “we” should do a thing, chances are excellent nobody would actually do it. Nothing will ever get done, and nothing has ever gotten done, until somebody stepped up and said “I’ll do it.”

“I” is the only one who does anything.

So in the interests of getting things done, I recommend setting some goals and stating them in a form that begins with “I will.”

For example, if you want meaningful climate legislation passed, your goal could be “I will ask my Congressmembers to pass meaningful climate legislation.” Not that you shouldn’t try to do things in groups, just make a point of personalizing your goals—make them things that you, not some vague other person, will do.

Add a time-line and some logistical considerations, and your goal becomes a plan:

“The day after the new Congress is sworn in, I will go online and look up the phone numbers for my Congressmembers’ offices. That day, I will call and leave messages saying “I am very concerned about climate change, so I hope you will prioritize meaningful climate legislation this term.”

Now you can hold yourself accountable, because if you don’t follow through on your plan, you’ll know. It’s unambiguous.

So, now—what are you going to do this coming year?