The Climate in Emergency

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


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What the Science March Was Like

I went to the March for Science, as promised, on Saturday. My husband went to our local satellite march (he was brainstorming chants for days ahead of time. My favorite of his: Science Yes!/Silence No!), but I felt a need to be in DC. So, I arranged to spend the week with my mother, and she and I bought tickets on a bus chartered by the university in my hometown. We went marching together.

My mother, incidentally, is a scientist, a geologist, specifically. I am trained as an ecologist, though I’m a science writer, rather than a researcher. It was our march.

It was not an ideal day for marching. The rain started just as we got on the bus, and the sky proceeded to variously spit and drizzle throughout the day, while the air temperature held steady around 60° F. Hypothermia weather. Heat travels much faster through water than through air, so wet weather gets dangerous at a much higher temperature than dry weather does. A four hour rally preceded the actual march, which took an additional two hours or so, a long time to stand or walk out in the rain. We kept ourselves as dry as possible and checked in with each other frequently.

I’ve been cold in DC before. At my first climate march, four years ago, the weather was cold and blustery. But that was in February. This time, in April, the grass had greened up, most of the trees had leafed out, the spring color enlivened and relieved by white and pink flowering dogwoods and the blond and white monumental architecture of the city. Tiny, winged elm seeds and fallen, string-like, oak flowers clotted together in the streets, and the slicked and flowing water turned everything silver and vague beneath dark, grey cloud. Sometimes the pavement shone with isolated grains of glitter, presumably shed from someone’s costume or sign. There is a loveliness possible, on a rainy day.

Our bus dropped us off near the Capitol Building, but the rally and the beginning of the march was at the Washington Monument, so we had to walk a good distance just to start. Clumps and clots of people, some carrying signs, moved in the same direction, presumably fellow marchers. One of my favorite things on march days is watching people converge, seeing actual, undeniable evidence that other people–maybe a lot of other people–are showing up.

As we arrived, we could hear the rally already in progress. The grounds were full of streaming lines of people. We went through security (a simple, efficient process, but one that did not occur on prior marches) and joined the crowd, which seemed largely organized around a big stage and a scattering of large video screens and tower speakers hung from cranes.

Unfortunately, I’m somewhat sensitive to sound. I don’t mean my hearing is especially acute, I mean that noise that is too loud drives me nuts. We found that there was no happy medium between being too close to those giant speakers for comfort, and too far away to clearly hear what the people on the stage were saying–which was too bad, because some of them seemed like they would have been interesting. Bill Nye was one of them. I have no idea what he said. Some of the others introduced themselves by saying their names, institutional affiliations, and the proud shout “I am a SCIENTIST!” Everybody cheered. I have no idea what they said, either.  But there were bands playing in between each speech, and the music was good.

Instead of listening to the people I couldn’t hear (I really hope all of that is posted online somewhere so I can watch it), I milled around, trying to spot anyone I might know, looking at signs, and people-watching. A few people wore pussy hats. One person wore a polar bear costume. Two dressed as dinosaurs and fought with each other and inspired frantic barking by various small dogs. At least one person wore a Beaker costume, as in the anxious Muppet who says “meep!” and works as a lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Beaker showed up on a lot of signs, too. He seemed to be popular, as were t-shirts from my beloved XKCD (the best geeky internet comic, ever).

Organizers had suggested we either wear whatever we normally wear as scientists or dress as our favorite scientist. Accordingly, I saw several Einsteins and Darwins and at least one Bill Nye (other than the real Bill Nye, of course, whom I did not see except on the giant screen). I had been planning on wearing a hat similar to one worn by one of my science heroes, Tom Wessels, and I wished sincerely I had not forgotten it–that hat would have kept the rain off my head.

Finally, we surged out of the rallying grounds and onto the march route…and then we stopped, standing still in the road. After a few minutes, a strange sound issued from up ahead and grew and swelled…people were cheering! The wave of cheering passed over us–we duly cheered as well–and swept on behind us, and no, none of us knew why. We advanced maybe fifteen feet and stopped again. This went on for almost an hour, start and stop and start again, interspersed with cheering, and by the end of that hour we’d traveled only a few hundred feet.

“This is a good sign,” I told the people behind us. “The same thing happened at the climate march in New York, and that march was really big.” They seemed to agree with me, so I said it again to someone else. I meant that maybe there were so many people that we’d clogged up the route. I really hoped that was the case. Another wave of cheering passed over us.

In the middle of a demonstration, you can’t tell how big it is or why anything is happening.

I people-watched some more, and found the Wonder Twins, in full regalia, holding a banner, which I forgot to read because I was busy reading the Twins’ capes–which identified the scientific specialty of each and the fact that one of them was transgender, the other cisgender. The original Wonder Twins did not wear capes and had nothing to do with science that I remember, but I liked the costumes and we chatted for a while.

I read more signs.

SCIENCE HAS NO AGENDA

MARA LAGO WILL BE SO FAR UNDERWATER, YOU WON’T BELIEVE HOW UNDER WATER IT WILL BE

HAD POLIO LATELY? ME NEITHER: THANKS, SCIENCE!

BF IS MY BFF! (BF Skinner reference)

MY MONKEYS CAN WRITE BETTER EXECUTIVE ORDERS! (under copies of two paintings that did appear to have been made by monkeys or apes)

IT’S SO BAD, EVEN THE INTROVERTS ARE HERE. PLEASE DON’T TALK TO ME.

There were a lot of signs in which SCIENCE was an anagram for something, or written out using the Periodic Table or other suitably sciency symbols. There were quotes from Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan. There were lots of signs using “trump” as a verb, as in “facts trump opinions.” There were puns on the word “resistance” involving electronics. There was a sign with the words SCIENCE and TRUMP separated by three parallel lines with a slash across them. I asked the man holding it what the symbol meant. “Exact opposite of,” he said. A popular sign read “science is like magic, except real.”

Which is pretty much true. It’s common knowledge that many branches of science grew out of magic–chemistry began as alchemy, and so on. Arguably, it remains magic, it’s just effective magic. I mean, any good wizard claims to have special knowledge and insight into how the world works and to be able to transform the world as a result. Scientists and engineers do just that. It actually is possible to make lead into gold, and gold has been made from bismuth. It is possible to change the entire climate.

What this march reminded me of were the Druids. I cannot find a really reliable source to cite here, so please don’t take my word for this, but I have read that the Druids and bards together were the educated class of the Celts and performed social roles that we now might identify with clergy, law, art, and science. And they were politically powerful, standing up to fight the Roman Empire. Everyone knows that the Romans tried to eradicate the Christians, but they quite literally slaughtered the Druids, too. Well, maybe the Druids are rising.

Perhaps the people carrying the REVENGE OF THE NERDS signs harbored a similar sentiment.

Other than the mysterious cheering, we were mostly quiet. A group of men beside us discussed possible chants: “If P is low/the null hypothesis has got to go!” which is definitely catchy, but instead of chanting it they began quietly discussing whether they were remembering the principal correctly, given that one of them hates statistics and the other is a physicist with dyscalcula (the math equivalent of dyslexia). I have a similar problem, and the physicist and I commiserated for a while. We never got around to chanting about P values. Around then was when I spotted the glitter floating by on the rainy street.

We still hadn’t gone anywhere. The advantage to not going anywhere was that we were still relatively close to the stage, and we danced to keep warm as long as they kept playing. My mother recognized the groups, though I did not. It was fun.

Finally, we got going, and some chants did start up. “Science, not silence” was popular. My favorite was “don’t pretend that you don’t care/science gave you back your hair!” My other favorite was “What do we want? SCIENCE! When do we want it? AFTER PEER REVIEW!” Which is extra-awesome because I first saw it as a joke on social media captioned “why scientists can’t have protest marches,” or some such. But we can, and we did, and peer review is important, so there.

We continued marching, without incident, back to the Capitol building and our bus home, though we did pass a few counter-demonstrators who seemed to think that we were all atheists (they held signs asking whether we had been brainwashed by professors who denied and mocked God. Of course, I can’t imagine any real science professor even mentioning religion in class, much less mocking it). Other demonstrations seemed to be embedded in ours, like inclusions in some larger mineral mass. We passed socialists handing out leaflets, anti-fascists with their own signs and chants (I suspect most of us agreed with them, but they did seem to be their own group and held their own miniature rally at the end of the march), and an abortion rights contingent, complete with their own counter-demonstration of pro-life people. I’ve never seen anything like that before, this symbiosis of highly disparate groups within the same overall system. My mother and I stopped, once, so she could buy lunch from a food cart, and once again so she could buy a dry sweatshirt to wear on the bus. Did I mention it was raining?

I was struck, all but literally, by how different this march felt from every other political protest or demonstration I have attended. There was no sage smoke. There was very little drumming, and no one costumed as Uncle Sam or Big Daddy Oil, or other such motifs. At all of the others I kept seeing the same signs and hearing the same chants, from march to march, regardless of what the specific event was supposed to be about. At the pipeline rallies, a large number of participants carried signs that had nothing to do with the land use issues and Native American rights placed front-and-center by organizers. No, it seemed to be just the usual suspects in for a generalized pro-environment event. But at the science march, it was all science.

A few “I’m with her” signs with pictures of the planet on them could have been previously used at other events, but mostly it was incredibly focused. Even the typical chants were missing. We knew them–someone started up with “show me what a scientist looks like/this is what a scientist looks like,” a clear riff on a recurring chant about democracy, but even that died out pretty quickly. It was just a different type of crowd.

When we, the marchers, spoke to each other, we tended not to make statements. Instead, we asked questions, mostly about what each others’ signs and shirts said or meant. “What kind of scientist are you?” was frequent. The kind who asks questions, apparently.

This march even felt different.

In every other demonstration or protest I’ve been on, there has been a definite pep-rally vibe. Someone starts chanting “the PEOPLE, UNITED, will NEVER be defeated!” and you feel all optimistic, like yeah, power to the people! And only later, afterwards, do you remember that if the people were actually united around progressive politics, we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump, and anyway, united people are defeated routinely by folks with money and guns. We come back, but we do get defeated. The pep rallies help, of course, for a while.

This time, I felt no such surge of optimism–but no pessimism, either. We didn’t need to boost ourselves up. Our message wasn’t “we’re going to WIN,” but simply “we are here.” And, even more simply, “the world is what it is.” After all, we’re scientists. As many of the signs pointed out, facts don’t care whether you believe in them or not.

Whether we win or not, global warming is real. Whether scientists get the funding they need to watch it or not, anthropogenic climate change will continue to happen until we collectively stop making it happen. The world needs scientists, and individual scientists, of course, are part of the needing world. But the truth of that need exists whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. There is a certain serenity in that.

It was nice to rally with the scientists, to see signs and hear chants that you actually need to think, to know something, or to ask questions to understand, to be in among the crowd that has never been the in-crowd, and know that today, this is our place, 40,000 of us strong. Today, we are the cool kids.

But it wasn’t a pep rally. It didn’t need to be. It was just rockin’ with the Druids in the rain.

 


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Ninety-Seven Percent Pure

When I was kid, a popular soap brand advertised itself with a slogan similar to the title of this post. I’ve just done an internet search on the subject, and learned that the brand was Ivory, the claimed percentage was 99.44%, and there are multiple stories on where the number comes from. In most versions, the figure comes from a chemical analysis of the product’s ingredients and the .66% remainder is not necessarily an “impurity” in the negative sense (rat droppings, for example), but simply material that does not, strictly speaking, count as soap–fragrance, perhaps.

Anyway, it was an iconic, and, I’m sure, very successful ad campaign, but whenever I saw it I was always distracted by the thought of that .66%. Did I really want to wash with a bar that contained .66% impurities? Why are they boasting about a product that isn’t really completely pure?

Whatever. I have no actual opinion on the brand. It was just an ad campaign.

The point is that the scientific consensus is commonly presented as being even less pure than Ivory Soap: 97% of climate scientists reportedly agree that global warming is caused by humans. Obviously, I need no persuading that anthropogenic climate change is real, but the figure bothers me. It leaves itself too open to well-placed questions–above all, scientists don’t vote on the truth by majority rule, so why is the percent who agree even relevant?

So, let’s take a little time and look at this: where does 97% come from, why isn’t it 100%, and who are those 3% who disagree?

Before we go further, though, I want to point out that, contrary to the posts of certain trolls, climate dissidents do not live in fear of bullying by the establishment majority. I’m sure those people aren’t popular at departmental parties, but it is the scientists who do support the consensus who see their work maligned and ignored, who are personally harassed, and who occasionally receive death threats. Researchers who want the easy way out get out of this field, not into it.

So.

Um, 97% of What?

The figure, 97%, comes from several suitably scientific analyses of science. That is, it’s not a result of a public opinion survey, but rather a series of literature reviews and reviews of reviews conducted by climate scientists themselves. These reviews, conducted over a period of years, present various figures, but most place scientific agreement at somewhere between 90 and 100%. The figures vary because the methods vary–and this is important, because while different questions can yield the same answer, the answers mean different things.

Percent of Papers?

The public statements generally refer to the number of scientists who agree, but in many of these reviews, it wasn’t the scientists who were questioned–it was their papers. The distinction is important for two reasons. Most obviously, the same scientist can write multiple papers. The fact that most papers agree with a certain proposition tells us very little about how many humans agree. It’s simply a separate question.

A more subtle point is that while the number of scientists who agree on something is arguably irrelevant, the number of studies that agree matters very much. Science works on the principle of repeated observation. If I claim that an opossum has gotten into my basement, you might well ask whether anyone else who has gone down there has seen it. We’re not going to vote on the existence of the opossum–it’s either down there or it isn’t, whether the majority agrees or not–but we both know a single observation could be wrong. The light’s bad down there, after all. Maybe I just saw my cat, or some old stuffed animal. But if most people who check my basement also see an opossum (or opossum scat, or opossum hair, or other sign), that is harder to dismiss.

97% of visits to our planet’s basement have involved sightings of the global warming opossum.

Percent of Experts?

Several of the studies did survey individuals, but varied in how they defined the pool of respondents. On one end of the continuum were surveys limited to those who regularly publish peer-reviewed papers on climate. On the other were surveys open to people who work in any science at any educational level. A field tech in geology is a scientist, but does not necessarily know any more about climate than anyone else. Not surprisingly, the percent of respondents who agree with the consensus is higher if the survey is limited to people with the most relevant expertise.

Agree With What? And What is Agreement?

The wording of the surveys varied a lot. Some asked if the respondent believed at least some climate change is caused by humans, others if most is caused by humans. Clearly, for some people, the answers to these questions could be different.

A related issue is that many climatology papers do not state whether anthropogenic climate change is real. An even larger number do not make such a statement in their abstracts. Some studies have counted these as denying climate change, others have simply excluded them from analysis. Arguably, most of these should be counted as supportive of the reality of climate change, since the reason they don’t address the question is that the authors regarded the answer as accepted and obvious. Chemistry papers don’t take the time to note that water is wet, after all. Physicists don’t bother to express a professional opinion on whether gravity is real.

In case it’s not obvious, all of the above came from the two sites I linked to above. Both are worth a read.

So, Who Are the 3%?

I originally set out to write a piece about that three percent–who are they, why do they believe what they do, and are they genuine examples of free disagreement, or are they paid shills?

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an answer, yet. It may be that no one knows the answer–if quantifying the consensus was complicated, qualifying the dissent must be more so. How do you define your sample without including at least some people who aren’t legitimate scientists, and without excluding at least some people who are legitimate but maybe don’t act that way anymore because they disagree with the current consensus and go rogue?

How do you get someone to respond to your survey if doing so could expose them as a paid shill?

I suspect that at least some dissenters are exactly that–paid shills. Others are likely artifacts of the analysis. That is, dissenters who don’t really exist, but only seem to because of how a survey was worded or how papers were coded for analysis. Some may well be both real and genuine. But how many fall into each group and who they are and why they believe thus may be one of those questions science has trouble answering.

 


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For a Little Boy

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for reasons that should be obvious to friends and family–and I figure now is also a good time to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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One Word: Plastics

The title for this post is, of course, a quote from The Graduate, but  the line of inquiry that got me writing today was actually triggered by a different movie. In It’s a Wonderful Life, one of George Baily’s friends tries to get him to invest in a company than makes plastic from soybeans. This detail is irrelevant to the plot–the important thing for the story is that the suggestion to invest in something functions as more pressure for George to settle down, which is does not want to do. That the “something” is plastics is arbitrary, and I ignored it for all of the 948,000 times I’ve seen the movie.

Until this year, when I saw it for the 948,001st time, and thought–wait, soy-based plastic? In the 1930’s? (the movie was actually made somewhat later, but the scene is set before World War II) If they had soy-based plastic then, why do we still bother with petro-plastics now? Why are bioplastics always talked about as if they were new, when we’ve obviously had them for at least ninety years?

The short answer is that “plastic” is not one material but several, and the types of bioplastics that existed ninety years ago were not very useful. They’re not the plastic we’re looking for.

Let me elaborate.

A Primer on Plastics

“Plastic,” originally an adjective meaning “flexible,” has come to refer to a any of a large group of organic polymers (“organic,” in this case, means including the element, carbon). A polymer is a a very large molecule made by stringing together lots of smaller molecules, or monomers. Not all polymers are plastics–DNA, for example, is a polymer made out of protein.

Depending on the polymer, how it is processed, and what additives it contains, a plastic might be clear or opaque, strong or weak, flexible or brittle, cheap or expensive, toxic or non-toxic, biodegradable or not biodegradable.Thermoplastics are made of chain-like polymers and melt and flow when heated–that makes them relatively easy to recycle. Thermo-set plastics are made of web-like polymers and do not melt. They are very difficult to recycle.

Plastics can be synthesized from various feed stocks, including petroleum, natural gas, sugar, and plant-derived oils. Some plastics can be made from either petroleum (or natural gas) or recently-living plant-matter–and the result is chemically identical either way. That is, being made from petroleum doesn’t make a plastic automatically bad, and being made from recently-living plant doesn’t, all by itself, make a plastic good.

Some plastics can only be made from a fossil fuel, but do have bioplastic analogues. But since the analogue is chemically distinct, it won’t necessarily have the same performance characteristics and might be both more expensive to the consumer and less useful.

The long and the short of all of this is that “plastics” is a very broad category and you really have to know which plastic you are talking about before you can say much of anything about it.

The Problem with Green Plastics

Because different plastics have different properties and different advantages and disadvantages, looking for an “eco-friendly” plastic is a good way to get confused or even scammed. Apples get compared to oranges through marketing, and the point of the whole exercise can get lost in the shuffle, unless you remember to think of plastics as a whole group of materials.

Ideally, for each petroplastic on the market today, we want a bioplastic equivalent that does the same job at a competitive price and then biodegrades when we don’t need it anymore.

And indeed, as noted, some petroplastics do have bioplastic equivalents, some of which are even chemically identical. Use of bioplastics would at least get us away from fossil-fuel feed stocks, a definite good thing, even if everything else remained the same. Remember, it is demand for fossil fuels, including demand by the plastics industry, that drives fracking, oil spills, and pipelines being put in where they should not go.

But bioplastics are still synthetic polymers, which means hardly anything can eat them.  They can stick around in the environment forever, clogging up animal digestive tracks and otherwise causing havoc, just like petroplastics can. And some plastics of either origin can shed their component monomers, many of which are toxins.

There are biodegradable bioplastics and there are also biodegradable petroplastics. In theory, either would be a good thing–even if the product were still made from petroleum, reducing the amount of plastic floating around in our oceans forever would be an improvement.

The problem is that true biodegradable plastic–as in, you could throw it on the ground and it will become soil in a reasonable amount of time–is rather hard to find. What you get instead is various versions of disintegration, referred by a  collection of terms that are precisely defined by industry leaders.

Degradable means the plastic breaks up into lots of little, hard-to-see pieces that you can ignore if you want to. The term does not say anything about what happens to those little bits–they could just go on being plastic, which is very bad, because eventually they end up in the oceans where they get mixed up with the plankton that forms the basis of oceanic food webs. Already a really scary proportion of ocean life have tiny bits of plastic in their bodies. Remember that, next time you eat ocean-caught fish.

The first plastics marketed as “biodegradable” in fact did exactly that–broke up into tiny pieces of permanent plastic. These days industry standards require stricter labeling, but fancy terms such as photodegradable and oxydegradable still just refer to how any why plastic breaks down into bits–they promise nothing as far as avoiding the Tiny Plastic Apocalypse.

If you want something that actually breaks down because microorganisms digest it, you’re looking for biodegradable plastic. And it does exist, but that term promises nothing about how healthy the resulting soil is–you need compostable plastic if you want soil that, say, does not kill plants.

And even compostable plastic might not break down unless it is processed in a large-scale, municipal composting facility which, by the way, hardly any municipalities actually have. Your back-yard compost pile might not work, and throwing the stuff in the ocean (which is what will happen to virtually all plastic eventually anyway, even if it gets delayed in a landfill for a few thousand years first) definitely won’t work. You’ll get tiny bits of plastic again.

Even under ideal circumstances, I’m not sure that compostable plastic actually avoids the tiny-bits-of-plastic scenario. The standard tests involve sieving the composted product to make sure all the pieces are small, testing for the presence of heavy metals, and trying to grow plants in it–but they don’t test for the chemical signature of the synthetic polymer itself. Some plastic could get through.

Some people argue that biodegradable/compostable plastic is actually a bad idea. It’s not going to get a chance to compost, and a lot of it probably gets dumped in with plastic recycling by mistake, where it can contaminate whole batches. Some compostable plastics are recyclable in theory, but virtually no facilities are equipped to handle it.

I would not say compostable plastics are bad–rather, I’d say this is another example of why we should not try to simplify our choices into blanket pronouncements: PLASTIC=BAD, COMPOSTABLE=GOOD, etc. There are some circumstances under which a compostable plastic might be the better option. Other times, it might not be.

At this time, the most effective thing we can do is probably to minimize the use of all plastics, while continuing to call for compostable bioplastic options for those times we’re unwilling to do without. Half of the oil used in plastics production actually goes into energy generation, not feed stock. If we can shift the industry over to renewable energy, we can substantially shrink the carbon footprint of plastics.

Bioplastics, Past, Present, and Future

The first plastics–cellophane and rayon–were bioplastics. They still have a place in the market, but the market has grown to include many needs that these products can’t meet. Newer, petroleum-based plastics can and do. Much of the early promise of bioplastics never panned out–Its a Wonderful Life is fiction. Henry Ford’s famous attempt to make a plastic car using soybeans actually involved soy fibers in a phenolic resin. Phenolic resin is Bakalite, a petroplastic.

Over the years, hardly anybody has ever been able to make bioplastics work as a business model except, again, in niches. Modern environmental awareness might expand some of those niches, and ongoing technological development might give us new bioplastics that function better as competitive analogues to some of the petroplastics. Various authors have analyzed the probable economic effects of a shift to bioplastics–production would likely shift to the Midwest, for better access to raw materials, for example.

Sooner or later, we’re going to have to get off fossil fuels entirely. When that happens, bioplastics will be all we have–and we have the technical know-how to make the conversion already. It may be comforting to know that the future need not leave us without plastics, since they are very useful materials for some things–medical equipment, for example. The downside is that we will still be faced with the problem of plastic waste–barring a radical change in technology, it seems likely that even the most compostable bioplastics will still require specialized circumstances to break down. The key will be to keep plastic use to a minimum and to diligently recycle or compost all used plastic items.

The important thing to remember is that, however ubiquitous plastics are now, they didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, and most are more recent than that. Most uses of plastics today are simply unecessary.

 

 

 


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The Story of Global Cooling

I’ve been hearing climate deniers talking about a global cooling scare in the nineteen seventies for a while now, and I finally got curious about where this narrative had come from–I didn’t think it had been made up whole cloth, but I hadn’t heard word one about it from any credible source, either. You’d think that if climate scientists had thought an ice age was imminent as recently as the seventies, at least some of the scientists I know would mention it occasionally?

So, I looked into it. And I found not one but two explanations.

In one story, Peter Gwynne, a science writer for Newsweek, wrote a short article on an idea some scientists were kicking around at the time–that a thirty-year cooling trend might continue and develop into a real ice age. The article was published on April 28, 1975, and attracted enough attention that other publications picked up the story with their own articles. Books and TV shows followed.

Scientific American, my source for this particular story, explains that the cooling trend is

now believed to be a consequence of soot and aerosols that offered a partial shield to the earth as well as the gradual retreat of an abnormally warm interlude.

And that

there also was a small but growing counter-theory that carbon dioxide and other pollutants accompanying the Industrial Age were creating a warming belt in the atmosphere, and by about 1980 it was clear that the earth’s average temperature was headed upward.

Scientific American acknowledges that the global cooling thing has no legitimate place in the climate discussion today, and reports that Mr. Gwynne himself is somewhat embarrassed by the anti-scientific uses to which his writing is being put. He does stand by what he wrote, given the limits of available knowledge at the time.

Ok, but there are a couple of problems with that story, starting with the fact that the greenhouse effect was not a “small but growing counter-theory” in the 1970’s–the effect of carbon dioxide on the climate has been known since 1859. The first calculations of the human role in climate change were made in 1896.

And it’s not like global warming was some far-out thing nobody was paying attention to back in the 1970’s, either. No less a person than the fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin had started making oblique references to climate change as early as 1969 (her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, includes a flawless description of the natural greenhouse effect, as well as a reference to an alien planet that is hot because “an exploitive civilization wrecked its natural balances, burned up the forests for kindling, as it were.” Several of her later books also refer to the Earth itself getting warmer, too). Perhaps more starkly, the 1970’s were when Exxon was busy figuring out what it was going to do about global warming, of which its internal documents prove it was well aware.

Beyond all that, there wasn’t a 30-year cooling trend, except perhaps in a mathematical sense. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the period from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1970’s was cooler than previous years had been, but there was a lot of minor temperature fluctuation, not a consistent cooling. A cool period of relative stability is not the same thing as an oncoming ice age.

So, I did some more poking and found the second story.

Apparently, in the 1970’s, the greenhouse effect was well-known, but the cooling effect of sulfate emissions (“aerosols”) had just been discovered and it wasn’t clear yet which would prove dominant. A few climate scientists thought the aerosols might win out–between 1965 and 1979, 10% of the scientific papers on the subject predicted cooling, but 28% could make no prediction and 62% predicted warming. In other words, the coming ice age was a legitimate scientific idea for a while, but only a small minority of studies ever supported it.

I’m not actually sure, based on what I’ve read, whether anybody ever proved that sulfate emissions couldn’t have counteracted carbon emissions under some scenarios that were plausible back then. As history has actually played out, sulfate emissions have been dramatically reduced (they also cause acid rain), while carbon emissions have continued to climb. Aerosols still complicate climate predictions, but no one thinks they’re going to cause an ice age anymore.

There’s no cooling trend mentioned in there.

The way I see these two stories blending, I suspect that what really happened was that the end of the warming trend of the first third of the 20th century was taken (maybe correctly) as evidence of the cooling power of aerosols. Some climate scientists thought the aerosols could go on to trigger a cooling trend, but most did not. Peter Gwynne, being a writer who cared about science and about getting his writing published, chose to focus on the minority opinion, since that seemed more sensational at the time. He has admitted that the story “pushed the envelope a little bit,” in deference to Newsweek’s penchant for what Scientific American called an “over-ventilated style.”

The ventilation would have seemed harmless at the time, if the article was fundamentally accurate, as I’m willing to buy that it was. Nobody can represent the entire breadth of the scientific conversation on any one topic in just nine paragraphs. You have to choose which of all possible stories you’re going to tell, in order to tell any story at all.

That deniers have since pounced on his article for political and anti-scientific purposes is not Mr. Gwynne’s doing. Being co-opted is a risk all published writers run–it’s the Scylla to the charybdis of being utterly ignored.

Curiously, the one detail I thought would enter the discussion apparently didn’t, except as a note of context written long after the fact by one or another of my sources–astronomically speaking, we’re supposed to be in an ice age already.

The primary factor that dictated the glacial/interglacial cycle through recent geological history was the Milankovitch Cycle, an interaction between three separate variations in Earth’s orbit that together dramatically how much solar radiation we get at different times of the year. We’re at a point in the cycle where we should be heading into a new ice age, but aren’t because our carbon dioxide levels are too high.

The connection between that cycle and climate was confirmed in 1976, so it may be another thread of the “global cooling” story that none of my sources happened to tease out–but if not, there may have been good reason to ignore it.

The onset of ice ages is very slow. I have to cite one of my grad school classes here (Tom Wessels was the teacher–I’ve cited him as a source here before) as I haven’t been able to lay my hands on an appropriate link, but ice ages melt quickly (as in many hundreds of years) and grow slowly (as in many thousands of years). In fact, the warmest point of our current interglacial (before now, anyway) was thousands of years ago. No, the cooling was never enough to initiate continental glaciation on North America or Asia, but cooling was in progress.There is an excellent illustration of this cooling, and how long and consistent it was, here (yes, that is a web comic, but this one’s not a joke).

Sliding towards an ice age doesn’t look like anything special, it turns out. More or less, it looks like all of human history.

 


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How Normal Is this Abnormality?

Ok, I was going to write about politics or something this week, because we all know climate change causes extreme weather already so why should I have to write the same post about floods and droughts over and over and over and over again, but really? Baton Rouge? There’s a time and a place for just acknowledging what’s going on because people are dying down there. One area resident, who also happens to be the Louisiana state climatologist, told Scientific American (see previous link) the scale of devastation was like that of Hurricane Katrina and that “This is a pretty big deal, many, many, many homes flooded; it is hard to capture that in any one scope of a camera. It’s worse than it appears on television.”

So, however bad it looks to us from the outside? It’s worse than that. We’re going to be coping with the effects of this storm, as a nation, for years.

Again, according to Scientific American (same link!), this specific event can’t be linked to climate change, but extreme weather in general, including flooding, is a sign of climate change. That’s the standard story, and I’ve told it before. But I don’t actually think it’s true anymore. Not in this case, anyway.

The thing is, the reason this storm has been so achingly, awfully bad is that a high pressure zone sat itself down on the East Coast and refused to move, so, therefore, this storm full of Gulf Coast moisture had nowhere to go and just dumped all of its water right there on Louisiana (same link again!). And the thing is, I’ve heard that before.

It seems like every severe weather story I hear lately is the direct result of a blocking high.

So, I went looking around on the internet for a while, trying this search term and that, and finally found an article explaining that yes, stationary high pressure zones, caused by an erratic jet stream ARE the major proximate cause of many different types of extreme weather and, yes, these highs ARE getting more frequent. Because of climate change. Granted, the author was talking about winter extremes, but I see to reason to suppose the same mechanism might not work in the summer, too. The exact mechanism for the more erratic jet stream is still being debated, but seems to have something to do with the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the lower latitudes are.

So, why did it take me twenty minutes online to find information Scientific American said didn’t exist? I don’t suggest a conspiracy–we’re probably looking at the result of a legitimate editorial decision about how much detail to get into for a popular market article. Also, what, exactly, it means to say a weather event was or was not caused by climate is a bit philosophically murky, anyway.

In the meantime, there are also various droughts (if you click on that link more than a week after I post this you won’t see the information I used, but rather the new, updated drought map. I wish I knew a way around that, but I have bigger fish to fry at the moment).  Some of these droughts are garden-variety, others are severe and unprecedented. California continues to just plain dry up. It’s horrible. Part of Massachusetts are in an Extreme Drought for the first time since the category came into existence (in 1999, but still!). There are other examples. But I’m unable to find out if any of this, except California, are really unusual. Is the US having bizarre weather at the moment?

It’s an important question. Somewhere the weather is always extreme. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it must be nearly so. It’s a big planet, and a couple of extremes somewhere at any given time is about what you’d expect. Put another way, a certain amount of abnormality is normal. So, if we’re going to talk about evidence of climate change seriously, it’s not enough to just see what extreme weather is making the news lately–we have to know if the extremes we’re seeing are themselves unusual in some way.

It’s like temperature.  It’s easy to notice that it’s hot today, but to know what that heat means, you’ve got to look at it in context–is today’s high above or below the average for your area at this time of the year? 80° F. is just not that impressive in Delaware in August, for example, even if you, personally, are over-heated. Human perceptions of “normal” are easy to fool. So, are we looking at a normal level of abnormality this week or not?

I haven’t been able to find out. Really, what I’m looking for is an extreme weather index, a site that keeps track of, perhaps, the number of weather records broken this week or the number of events labeled “extreme,” and color-codes each part of the country according to whether that number is typical or not. And there is something like that–the Climate Extremes Index, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Except it hasn’t been updated since July of 2015.

This is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration we’re talking about. You’d think they’d be on this sort of thing.

Maybe the up-to-date website I want is out there somewhere and I just don’t have the right search term yet or something. I’m not saying the information doesn’t exist, only that it’s disappointingly hard to find. It’s not on the tip of my search engine. That tells me most people aren’t asking the question.

And that is scary.


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Walking in the Woods

Note: the following is a re-post from an older version of this blog on a different site.

Science is a journey, not a destination. Ecology is a process, not an heirloom. If you don’t understand that, go for a walk on Mount Monadnock with a forester.

Monadnock is the mountain you can see on a clear day from pretty much anywhere in southwestern New Hampshire. It’s a big, solitary dome set in otherwise low, rolling country; if the land were a ship, the mountain would be its mast. The summit is open and rocky, the views are amazing, the trails are mostly fairly easy, and the trailheads are a few hours’ drive from pretty much anywhere. Not surprisingly, Monadnock is the third-most climbed mountain in the world, after Mt. Fuji, in Japan, and Mt Tai, in China.

The forester will probably have some connection to Professor Peter Palmiotto, Director of the Conservation Biology concentration at Antioch University New England. Maybe more to the point, he is also Director and founder of the Monadnock Ecological Research and Education Project, or MERE. If Mount Monadnock is a ship’s mast, MERE is the crow’s nest from which Professor Palmiotto and his students and colleagues are watching climate change.

Monadnock is a good place to watch the process of climate change across time, because of the way mountains alter climate change across space. We are used to climate change across space; Florida does not have the same climate as Maine, nor does it grow the same trees. If the climate of Florida moved to Virginia (as it may well do before the century is out, barring a miracle), the trees of Florida would follow. A complicating factor is the speed of human-caused warming; most tree species will not be able to keep up, so Florida forests will not simply shift north all together. Forest compositions will likely be reshuffled in the coming decades. But if you could keep track of all the trees in the country over a long enough period of time, you could watch the different kinds of trees surging south and then north again over the centuries like the wrack-lines of some giant, green tide.

If you want to keep an eye on the tide without running transects across hundreds of miles of North America, you can see the same shift in climate and trees by climbing a good-sized mountain. Mountains foreshorten forest zones because a few hundred feet of elevation changes climate the same way hundreds of miles of latitude does. Start at the base of Mount Monadnock on a fine day in late fall (after the leaves are off, so you can beat the crowds) and you stand among red oaks, white pines, and hemlocks—pretty typical of the woods in southern New Hampshire. Walk uphill, and you climb into forests of red spruce, a plant you might otherwise have to go to Canada or Maine to find. If you are walking with a forester, you might stop at one of the permanent study plots MERE has established on the mountain so you can see how the trees are doing this year. Growing fast or slow? Living or dying? Sprouting up with happy little red sprucelings, or the first, bold oaks? It’s not so much that red spruces like the cold, but that they dislike the cold less than the oaks do. Without the cold to reserve a space for them, the spruces can’t compete and they’ll give ground, retreating up the mountain–until they run out of mountain. This is important, because as go the spruces of Monadnock, so go the spruces of Maine and Canada, and so go all the animals and other plants that make up the boreal forest. So how are the spruces doing today? The forester doesn’t know. Science is a journey, not a destination.

I have climbed Mount Monadnock, though not with a forester, but today I stayed home and spoke with Professor Palmiotto by telephone. I’ve heard about the issue with the spruces before (I am an unrepentant plant geek), but what I don’t understand is why MERE is also looking for changes in subalpine plant communities on the summit. Generally, yes, a mountain can poke up into the alpine zone just like Monadnock pokes up into the spruce forest. Such a pokey mountain will sport a spot of tundra on its tip. Just as the spruces need the cold to keep the oaks at bay, so do the sedges and little heaths and cushion plants need the cold to keep at bay the spruce. Climate change means the alpine communities, too, will head up-slope until they finally run out of mountain.

But Monadnock is not actually that high. It is not tall enough to have tundra normally, and until 1800 or so, the whole mountain was forested. In that year there was a fire, and twenty years later there was another one. Between them, the two fires denuded the upper cone of the mountain, and without the trees most of the soil washed away. What is climate to the little subalpine plants, since it was fire, not climate, which created the opportunity for them?

Professor Palmiotto explains that these plants are vulnerable, not so much to changes in temperature, but to changes in moisture. With hotter summers will come drought, and that may be more of a problem than the warming itself. But the issue of whether the subalpine plants are actually in “their” climate touches a nerve. Apparently, some people are wondering why MERE’s alpine stewards are working so hard to protect plant communities that are in the wrong spot? Why try to restore a mountain that isn’t in its natural state anyway?

This is what I meant when I said ecology is a process, not an heirloom. The beautifully engraved chest of drawers your Great Aunt Jo gave you derives its value from how close it is to its original condition. It’s a piece of history. The glittery unicorn stickers you added when you were ten didn’t help. But Mount Monadnock is less like that chest of drawers and much more like Great Aunt Jo herself–with living beings, the point isn’t to preserve the original condition, the point is to protect and support the processes of their lives.

Plants don’t grow where they are supposed to, they grow where they can. Though taller mountain tops and polar sweeps have the right conditions for tundra plants more consistently than Monadnock does, there is no wrong place to be a plant. As Professor Palmiotto explains, the exposed summit of Monadnock is, at present, a bad place for trees. The little subalpine plants and lichens cope with the wind much better, therefore, it is the right place for them now. If and when trees get a chance to come in, the growing shrubs and saplings will provide shelter for each other and conditions will change. The point is not to prevent change, to turn back the clock to some more pristine era, the point is to support the integrity of the mountain’s own processes as it changes;

“My whole goal is to monitor change over time, educate people about change, and maybe, give the parts of the mountain that can re-vegetate the chance to do so. The trajectory of re-vegetation can probably be predicted, based on our knowledge of succession and species, but we haven’t predicted it yet. But if those plants just get stepped on…they’ll be no opportunity to study succession if everything just gets crushed.”

Getting stepped on is a serious possibility up on the summit. Remember that Monadnock is the second-most climbed mountain in the world. In 2009, the busiest 24 days of the year saw 16,111 visitors; that’s 32,222 feet! That’s a lot of foot-prints, especially for small plants and lichens not adapted to any human foot traffic at all. I ask what Monadnock would it look like now, if hardly anyone had hiked on it since the fires? Would the summit be closer to being reforested?  

“Oh yeah, a lot closer, a lot more forested,” Professor Palmiotto replies immediately. All his other answers have come slowly, careful as the growth of trees. This one tumbles out like water leaps off rock, tinged, suddenly, with something like nostalgia for a forest that does not yet exist and that Professor Palmiotto, being merely human, cannot now hope to live to see.

“The gravely patches and grassy areas would be shrubs and small trees. People would look at the summit and think it was forested; the trees would be tall enough to hide the summit cone, but just not on the bare rocks…like a lot of areas that are sparsely forested, with a lot of bare rock underneath. But the places that could hold seeds, that could support germination, have been stomped on. The trees haven’t had a chance. There are some patches of shrub-land already, you can see in aerial photos. But succession has been thwarted, halted, arrested by human trampling. So I will claim.”

The young forest, that would exist, but for a hundred and ninety years of trampling, blossoms in my mind. I have been to the top of Monadnock, as I’ve said, sheltered from the whipping sky behind big grey blocks of bare stone, crawled carefully along ridges of rock to harvest scraps of candy wrapper from pools of chilly water. I can place myself there with a thought. But now, young shrubs and trees sprout from the grassy hollows in my mind, spill out from sheltered crevices, and gain the height of my head and keep going. Spruce limbs meet and cross like reaching fingers over me and my rock. The stone beneath my fingers, also protected from feet, scales itself with lichen, little discs, green and brown like leather coins. If MERE has stopped the trampling with its education efforts, the clock of succession that was stopped by feet will move forward again. The new forest will come—in about a hundred and eighty years.

In a hundred eighty years, the climate will have changed—how much depends on human choices now, but the climate is still adjusting to the pollution already up there. Some further warming is inevitable. By then, the spruce could be gone from Monadnock, chased upslope by oaks. That the upper few hundred feet of mountain will not grow trees in the coming decades means the spruce will run out of mountain that much sooner.

But Professor Palmiotto does not say this. It’s true I did not ask, and he does not have much time today for chit-chat, but what comes across is not dread of the future but curiosity about it. MERE is too young a project to have much in the way of results yet. Let the rest of us issue warnings, there is certainly plenty to warn about; global climate change is real, and we are in trouble. But science never arrives; it never runs out of questions. Take a walk with a forester, and your companion will listen more often than speak, watch more often than perform. If we and the forests are all moving, at least someone is up in the crow’s nest watching where we go.