The Climate in Emergency

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


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Are Koalas Extinct?

A close-up of a koala whose facial expression appears vaguely amused yet accusatory. The koala, like all koalas, has gray fur, a round, teddy-bear-like head, and a large but flat black nose.

Photo by Laura Barry on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, scary links spread across social media to the effect that koalas are “functionally extinct” as a result of the recent catastrophic fires in Australia. Of course, reality is often more nuanced than Facebook posts, and “functionally extinct” is a technical phrase that doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to.

So are koalas really just about extinct now?

The short answer is no, they’re not, although the species may indeed be in bad shape and climate change is largely to blame.

Koalas and Functional Extinction

The scary social media posts either referred to, or actually linked to an article in Forbes that quoted the Australian Koala Foundation as saying the species may be “functionally extinct,” and that 1000 koalas may have died in the fires and that 80% of the animal’s habitat may be gone. Since its initial publication, the article has been edited to sound less alarming and to reflect the fact that some experts think the situation with koalas might not be as bad. Several other publications have also issued articles on the subject (such as this, in the New York Times) that attempt to walk back the panic a bit and provide some additional context.

But what does “functional extinction” mean, and is it really correct to calm down about koalas?

What Does “Functional Extinction” Mean?

The original Forbes article defines “functional extinction” as meaning a population no longer plays a role in its ecosystem and is no longer viable. These are actually two, ecological irrelevancy and non-viability, very different situations, and while they can obviously occur together, they can also occur separately–and neither means that the species is “basically gone,” as in a hopeless situation or a foregone conclusion.

Functional Extinction

Properly speaking, “functional extinction” refers only to the first problem described in the Forbes article; that a species can no longer participate ecologically. In fact, a species can be functionally extinct even when its population is still big enough that its existence is not seriously threatened–instead, functional extinction means that other species in the same ecosystem react as though it is already gone and they die out.

A large, round seed or nut sitting in the top of a glass containter that has a round body and a long, thin neck. The container is partly filled with water and sits on a whitish table top. The seed has sprouted, and has a long, thin root reaching into the water and a few small green leaves coming out the top. It is difficult to be sure, but it looks as though it could be the seed of a chestnut tree.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

A good example of functional extinction is the American chestnut*, which is by no means extinct, but which was devastated by an accidentally introduced disease some decades ago. Some trees proved resistant, and the root systems of young trees often survived and still send up shoots that sometimes manage to produce a few nuts before succumbing to the disease again. There are also well-organized efforts underway to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts, and I have in fact seen a blight-resistant seedling (it was given as a retirement gift to a noted naturalist at a party I attended). The species is likely to survive–but anything dependent on American chestnut forests is likely already gone.

Insects and birds and bears and whoever else once ate parts or products of this species must now do without.

So not only does “functionally extinct” not mean “almost extinct,” the concept is important precisely because it applies to species that may still be relatively abundant–and yet its decline is causing other extinctions around it.

Koalas themselves are not currently listed as “endangered,” or even “threatened,” only “vulnerable,” and although that assessment was conducted in 2014 and may now be outdated, it’s also possible it’s still accurate–the current status of koalas is apparently a matter of debate, since they are difficult to accurately count in the wild. But that doesn’t mean the species isn’t functionally extinct, nor does it mean that Australia is not in the process of losing something important.

What depends on koalas?

Population Viability

A large flock of small, dark birds flies against a blue sky. The birds are mostly in the bottom third of the image, clustered around a bright spot that might be the sun, so the blue is visually dominant. The birds are hard to see, being very small, but an expert birder would be able to tell they are not passenger pigeons; they may be rock pigeons, the familar bird of cities.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

“Population” doesn’t necessarily mean “species.” Most species consist of multiple populations that interbreed with each other to greater or lesser degrees, and one population can become non-viable or even extinct and leave the rest of the species doing just fine–or, a species can go extinct one population at a time, or all at once if one population is all there is.

The study of population dynamics is a whole branch of conservation science and I’m not going to get into most of it here (I don’t know most of it!). The relevant point is you can have a species that still has living members but is almost certainly going to go extinct. In fact, the species could actually still look quite large and yet be non-viable. For example, passenger pigeons could only breed in very large colonies. The phrase “hunted to extinction” evokes images of heartless gun-toters searching out every last member of a dying species, but that’s not what happened to the pigeons. Instead, they were so ridiculously abundant that no one saw any reason not to harvest them freely, and then they were slightly less abundant, and then all of a sudden there just weren’t any more–because the still-huge flocks had dropped below the threshold necessary for the birds to breed. Another, perhaps more common, scenario is that habitat loss fragments a species into lots of little, genetically isolated populations, each of which is too small to sustain itself. The species might have tens of thousands of members, but if they are scattered across hundreds of tiny refuges able to breed only with their cousins, the situation is dire.

They are like a person falling from the top of a sky-scraper. In one sense, they are fine until they hit the ground, but in another sense they are obviously not.

Extinction can take a long time, especially in species where individuals are long-lived, and a few individuals can persist, unable to breed at replacement, for decades or more, and yet their loss is more or less assured. The concept of the non-viable population is another important one for conservationists to pay attention to, for it, too, points to a type of catastrophe-in-progress.

An yet “non-viable” doesn’t mean “doomed” or “hopeless.” Species have been pulled back from the brink before. Sometimes the falling man is rescued.

Are Koalas Functionally Extinct or Non-viable?

A koala clinging to a tree with a baby koala sitting in her lap. The mother is curled up so her face is hidden, but the baby is looking towards the viewer. Both have mostly gray fur and large, round ears. The baby is a miniature of the mother.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Are koalas functionally extinct? The Australian Koala Foundation says that they are, but it’s important to recognize that the group made the announcement in a press release (calling for political action to protect the species) back in May. So no, the fires probably haven’t pushed koalas to the brink–they were there already. As to what the fire has done to them, we really don’t know. It’s too soon for anyone to have done a real assessment.

The leader of the Foundation, Deborah Tabart, appears to conflate functional extinction with non-viability, but from her statements quoted in the New York Times (the same article I linked to earlier) it is clear she considers both to be true.

Both the Forbes article and the piece in the NYT make clear that some experts disagree with the Foundation’s assessment, apparently due to a perceived lack of data on the subject. I’m not in a position to weigh in either way–though I will say that “hey, there MIGHT be more koalas than you think, they’re hard to count!” is not really a comforting argument.

In any case, the Foundation has put the results of their assessment online for public review. Here is the link.

The real reason (again, based on the NYT piece) that Ms. Tabart’s assertions are controversial is not that she might be wrong but that she might be misunderstood, that people might think the koalas’ case is hopeless and stop fighting for them. Public perception is an important issue, but if koalas ARE either functionally extinct or non-viable as a species, then we do need to know so we can do something about it.

Koalas and Climate Change

That koalas are in trouble is not in any serious doubt, despite their not being officially listed as endangered. There are several reasons. First, millions were shot for their fur in the few decades before and after 1900. More recently, habitat loss has become the critical factor as more and more of Australia’s native eucalypt forests are cleared. More than 80% of their original habitat has been lost. And deforestation not only limits the total amount of space where the animals can live (and hence limits the total number who can live), but also fragments the survivors into increasingly isolated small populations. Living near human development also leaves the animals vulnerable to being hit by cars or attacked by dogs.

But koalas are also considered one of the world’s ten species most vulnerable to climate change; not only are they very specialized animals (specialists categorically handle environmental disruption badly), but Australia’s climate is among the fastest-changing in the world.

The clearest danger is from heatwaves and drought. One area lost a quarter of its koalas in one heatwave in 2009 alone. Drought and heat together stress the trees and reduces the moisture content of their leaves; koalas not only depend on eucalypt leaves for food, but also for moisture (though the animals will drink if water is available). Heat-induced water stress is the primary factor that will shrink koalas’ range in the coming decades. Some conservationists are arranging supplemental drinking stations for koalas and other wildlife, and the animals do use the stations, but it isn’t known yet whether the extra water will help with survival.

But then there is fire. Fire can kill koalas directly, and the animals can also starve to death in the time it takes a burned-over forest to green up again. Eucalypt forests do burn sometimes, and koalas evolved with fire, but several things are different now. First, the badly-fragmented nature of koala habitat means that now if an area loses its koalas due to fire, koalas from other places can’t come in and repopulate the forest as it grows back. But the other new thing is climate change; by allowing much larger, more devastating fires, it has increased the scale of destruction to where a single fire event could become an existential threat to an entire species–this year alone, Australia’s north coast has lost a third of its koala habitat. That’s not the only region that has burned, either. Where will the animals who survived those fires go? What will they eat until the forest grows back?

About Those Scary Posts….

It’s easy to get panicked seeing those social media posts, which seem to imply that this year’s fires have burned up so many koalas and so much of their habitat so as to suddenly doom them. The truth, as always in more nuanced, and panic does not help. But while a careful reading of the situation is always helpful, it is not necessarily very encouraging in this case.

Koalas are not doomed, and it is far from clear how bad their situation is, but it is clear it’s dire, not least because the threats to the species are complex and can’t be solved with a single stroke of a pen (as might be possible if hunting were still the primary threat).. We’re talking climate change, land use policy, economic development, human lifestyle issues, all of which depends on the principled cooperation of many, many people for any hope of progress. And if koalas are in danger, than so is everything else that depends on the same habitat and anything that depends on koalas.

And as of today, Australia continues to burn.

 

*The chestnut example and several other un-cited portions of this post are based on material I learned in grad school.


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You Deserve Nothing

Confrontational title, yes?

I’m not being mean-spirited, but I’m not just trying to get your attention, either. I actually mean it. Let me explain.

Over my lifetime, I have watched the American environmental movement basically tread water. There have been a few gains, a few losses, a few bright spots of optimism, and much wringing of hands–but basically the national conversation sounds about the same as it did when I was a kid and first getting interested in these issues. Why aren’t we getting anywhere?

Because we have enemies. Climate denial isn’t a passive cultural apathy, it is an active movement being deliberately pushed by moneyed interests, as I’ve discussed before. There is an organized strategy involved, one with long-term goals and incredible reach.

Quite simply, we’re being outplayed.

As the campaign season heats up, I occasionally hear discussion of climate change, but I’ve heard no hint of large, organized strategy. Instead it sounds as though, once again, many people can’t quite believe that such a deserving cause as theirs could lose.

Well guess what?

I’m being a little vague here because I don’t want to get too far afield of this blog’s central focus. The point is that we can indeed lose. Deserving to win does not make winning more likely.

This cycle, forget about what your cause deserves. Fight to win.


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Update on the Candidates

Some months ago, I did a series of posts on the various candidates for present and how each looks from a climate perspective. Since then, the field has changed. Some people have dropped out, others have dropped in, and the Democratic part of the field has focused into a small group of serious possibilities (Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg) and a larger group of long-shot hopefuls.

I figure it’s time to update my coverage. Except where noted, I’m drawing information here from the New York Times–their page on the subject is being updated, however, so if you click on it weeks or months hence you won’t find the same information on it that I did.

The Democrats

Of the Democrats running, I have already covered Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang. This blog continues to back Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate for the climate (it remains neutral on other considerations), though the other front-runners would also be quite good.

Of those I covered, several have already dropped out: Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell.

Richard Ojeda jumped in and then out again without my having a chance to write about him at all.

But there are two new Democratic hopefuls I need to cover.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is a former Republican Mayor of New York, though he’s running for president as a Democrat with the specific, stated goal of defeating Donald Trump. His economic and cultural views suggest those of a centrist Republican–but his focus on gun control and climate change perhaps explain his current party affiliation.

His climate credentials are impressive.

Mr. Bloomberg is a billionaire who has been funneling large amounts of money into various climate-related projects. He has bankrolled the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal and Beyond Carbon campaigns, organized America’s Pledge, a formal effort by cities, states, and businesses to keep our commitments under Paris, and filled the budget shortfall at the UN left when President Trump pulled funding for most climate work there. And more. He is unquestionably a climate champion.

He is, however, having trouble getting support from activists, in part due to disagreements about strategy, and in part because of concerns over whether a pro-business billionaire is electable this cycle. After all, the Democratic Party is otherwise dominated by a progressive movement suspicious of the super-wealthy. It’s not just a case of people complaining that he’s not perfect enough; the worry is that if Mr. Bloomberg pours his money and attention into a doomed campaign for president, he might have less attention to give to climate–and clearly he does not need to be President of the United States to have an impact. He might better serve his cause by supporting a more viable candidate and making sure Democrats take the Senate.

Whether he progresses as a candidate or not, it is good to know he is out there.

Deval Patrick

Is a former governor of Massachusetts, and is running now on a call for unity, rather than on a particular issue or group of issues. As far as climate goes, he is a bit of a paradox; on the one hand, he has real credibility thanks to his leadership on renewable energy while governor, but on the other hand he is a former oil executive. His environmental work is more recent and can be taken as a better indicator of his current thinking. He has tossed around some interesting ideas, such as building manufacturing ups for solar cells and wind turbines in coal country to replace some of the lost jobs (somebody please do that!), though it’s not clear he knows how a US president might accomplish such a thing.

Ultimately, the paradox of Patric is less a matter of uncertainty about him–he was the driving force behind Massachusetts becoming the most energy-efficient state in the US with the eighth-highest solar capacity (pretty good for a small state with long, cloudy winters)–and more about whether he is electable given such an oily political liability?

The size of the Democratic field is a liability. The more energy the party expends fighting internally, the less will be available for the fights that matter–so is the thinking, anyway. And at this point in the process, additional candidates have to prove not just that they are credible as nominees, but also that they are worth the added complication their presence brings. But unlike most of the field, Deval Patrick is not just advocating for climate action, he has already accomplished it–and unlike Mr. Bloomberg, he has accomplished it as an elected official, and as a chief executive at that.

Mr. Patrick bears watching.

The Republicans

Of the Republicans running, I have already discussed Mr. Trump and Mr. Weld. Mr. Sanford, whom I discussed as well, has dropped out. But now we have another contestant for the Republican nomination in Joe Walsh.

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh is current;y a conservative radio show host. He was also one of the Tea Party Republicans elected the the US House of Representatives in 2010, but he only served one term. In the past he was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, but has since not only turned against the president but also expressed regret for some of his own anti-Obama language. His primary motivation for running is to deny Mr. Trump, who he describes as completely unfit for office, a second term, but he also wants to reduce the national debt and restrain executive power. He is a more traditionally Republican Republican than the President is.

Mr. Walsh’s score with the League of Conservation Voters is terrible–4%. In fact, so solid is his anti-environmental voting record that one wonders whether those few pro-environment votes were mistakes. Perhaps he was feeling poorly on those days? Not quite himself? But he has recently gone on record as recognizing that climate change is at least “impacted” by human activities and that the Republican Party needs to acknowledge the problem.

Change of heart? Transient illness? Or is at least a pretense of climate sanity becoming a political necessity for Republicans?

Big Picture

The big picture has not changed much since the last time I wrote on these topics. Donald Trump is still the candidate to beat–who must be beaten if we are to have a chance for the planet–and his most serious opponent will almost certainly be one of the four Democrats currently polling at the head of the pack. It’s possible that one or more of the Republican challengers will run as an independent and that they could complicate the race in interesting ways.

There is an outside possibility that either Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Patrick could change the picture, if either can gain enough traction.


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Thanksgiving Day

I’m posting my Thanksgiving post a little early thus year, re-edited in places just to keep it fresh.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows….Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that part up. It’s just physics.

But yes, ’tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

The Reason for the Season

I should acknowledge, before we get started, that American Thanksgiving itself has become controversial in certain circles in recent years as recognition spreads that the story of the “first Thanksgiving” is more or less a lie. The idea is that celebrating the Pilgrim’s supposed friendship with the “Indians” is an example of both ignorance and imperialism. I agree–except that’s not what Thanksgiving is about.

Here is a link to the text of the proclamation Abraham Lincoln used to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday. Before that, presidents had occasionally declared days of thanksgiving, as had various colonist communities and various European communities before them. Days of thanksgiving, like moments of silence in our time, were simply something people had occasionally–the nascent colony that would become Massachusetts had one, but they hardly “owned the brand,” so to speak. Only when Lincoln created an annual Thanksgiving did the United States begin celebrating the holiday in its modern sense. And you’ll notice that Lincoln (actually Secretary Seward, who wrote the text) makes no mention of “Pilgrims and Indians” at all.

My guess is that the “story of the first Thanksgiving” was an attempt to shoehorn a bit of history and patriotism in for the benefit of school children, but it had nothing to do with the creation of the holiday, nor has it ever been a feature of any of the Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve been part of for the almost 40 years of Novembers I can remember.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude, not history (let alone psuedohistory).

The Meaning of the Reason

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful as an act of will. The best we can normally do is remind ourselves of what we have to be grateful for, and surrounding ourselves with an abundance of food is a good way to start.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows the food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

The Limitations of the Season

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless–passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning.

For many of us, “running out” is a pretty abstract notion. Hunger and poverty certainly exist, but they are a distribution problem, for the most part, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. Ever more efficient resource extraction is, for the time being, largely masking the growing depth of the crisis–but make no mistake, the crisis is upon us. It’s not a problem of the future but of the here and now.

Is consumption really the best way to celebrate anything right now?

Thanksgiving Yet to Come

Thanksgiving depends on the illusion of an infinite table, an inexhaustible shared resource. We got into our current environmental mess by collectively acting as though the world were an inexhaustible resource for real. Quite obviously, we have to stop such irrational and selfish behavior right away.

Does that mean we need to stop celebrating Thanksgiving?

No.

First of all, a literal abundance of food had never been the point of the holiday; it’s not just an occasion of gluttony, the groaning table is supposed to be a metaphor for spiritual abundance. Eating a lot is a means, not an end. Second, because abundance is a feeling, not an amount, it’s possible to create that feeling of abundance on a sharply limited budget–as anyone knows who’s ever had to host Thanksgiving dinner without a lot of money.

Thanksgiving Day can be not just a reminder of all the natural richness we’re in the process of losing, but also an example of how we might regain some of that richness for our children and children’s children–and do it without feeling deprived ourselves.

Thanksgiving on a budget works as long as it’s possible for all the guests to enjoy the meal without worrying that they won’t get enough–skilled hosts accomplish it by paying close attention to what the guests really need while also staying strictly within their own limitations. They do it by putting what they have to the best possible use and by not wasting anything–including not wasting resources on things that don’t really add much to the celebration. We can do the same thing as a species.

We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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Climate Change and Medicine

As some of you know, my family has had altogether too much reliance on the healthcare system of late, prompting me to wonder about healthcare and climate change.

I have written before about some of the ways that climate change threatens public health (see here and here and here), but what about ways that healthcare itself threatens the climate? I had never heard the issue raised, and I’d noticed that medicine seems to be one area in which even environmentalists don’t stop to consider carbon footprints. Even I will drive to a medical appointment, and hospitals are obviously intensive users of energy.

Is medicine an area that just has to be bad for the planet? And, if so, does that mean that in the carbon-neutral future that is coming (remember; “unsustainable” means “going to stop eventually, one way or another”) will our standards of healthcare necessarily suffer?

The short answer is no, probably not.

Carbon-footprinting Healthcare

What does healthcare cost the planet in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? Figures seem to vary depending on the source. In the course of researching this article, I have seen healthcare’s share of the US carbon footprint quoted as 7%, 10%, or other numbers, for example. Most likely, the difference is due to variations in how the footprints were calculated–as I’ve explained before, there is more than one right way to calculate any footprint, and carbon footprint analysis is at its most useful when multiple footprints are calculated the same way and compared.

It does appear that the footprint of healthcare varies from one country to another, sometimes dramatically, though figuring out the exact nature of the variation is difficult. Consider that countries vary dramatically in their total carbon footprint, their population sizes, their ability to provide healthcare to their population, and their healthcare outcomes. It’s not immediately obvious how to make a fair comparison.

But some countries are examining their healthcare footprints with an eye towards improvement. An article about the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) explored that country’s healthcare-related emissions in some detail.

The NHS as a whole accounts for 4% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Of that 4%:

  • Patient and staff travel accounts for 16%
  • Pharmaceuticals account for 20%
  • Other procured goods and services, including food and medical devices, account for 30%

So, just to be clear, that means 0.8% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions are related to the production of pharmaceuticals, a small figure to be sure, but fairly impressive for a single industry.

Of course, 16+20+30 doesn’t equal a hundred. The article did not explain the remaining 34%, but my guess is that much of it is related to electricity and heating fuel used by hospitals and other facilities.

It’s not clear to me how a similar breakdown might look in a different country, but it seems likely that countries that are broadly similar economically and provide a broadly similar standard of medical care will also have similar emissions sources, even if the total size of the footprints are different.

Let’s see if we can break some of these figures down even further.

Pharmaceutical Production

Since pharmaceuticals account for about a fifth of the UK’s healthcare-related emissions, it’s important to understand where those emissions come from. How does the production and sale of a drug emit greenhouse gasses?

The short answer is I have not been able to find out. Since mass-produced drugs are made in factories, I suspect most of the emissions come from simply running the factories–mostly electricity and refrigerant (for both air conditioning and any stages of production that require chilling), plus fuel, if heating is not electric. Transportation of ingredients and finished products is probably also important, as is the production of plastic for packaging. But it would be useful to know details, since that would enable us to determine what emissions are truly excessive–then we could set reasonable expectations for pharmaceutical factories.

One research team has least approached the question by looking at the carbon footprints of individual drug companies. The group’s focus appeared to be American, but the companies studied are mostly transnational. The team used figures from the few pharmaceutical companies that report their greenhouse gas emissions to calculate annual emissions per million dollars of revenue for each company and for an industry average. They came up with 48.55 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per million dollars of revenue–almost half again the figure for the auto industry.

Now, since the auto industry involves more millions of dollars than the pharmaceutical industry does, its total footprint is still larger (plus cars produce their own emissions post-production and pills don’t), but it’s still a startling figure.

Just as startling is the fact that while the pharmaceutical industry as a whole needs to radically shrink its emissions in order to meet Paris targets, some companies have been working on shrinking and have met their Paris goals already–and these are among the most successful companies, namely Johnson & Johnson, Amgen inc., and Roche Holding AG. It appears the less-green companies have no excuse for not cutting back.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t tell us as much as they might. Some companies, such as Bayer, produce more than just pharmaceuticals and don’t break down their reported emissions in a way that would let us see what the figures for their pharmaceuticals alone really are. While we can be assured that Bayer really does have a large carbon footprint, we can’t put that number in context. We can’t fairly compare companies if we don’t even know which industries the numbers refer to.

And none of this answers my original question.

Hospitals

Articles on what hospitals can do to reduce their carbon footprints are fairly easy to find, and their content should sound fairly familiar to anyone interested in sustainability (carpool to work, cut back on meat, etc.). Most don’t provide information on what hospital-related emissions actually are.

More interesting is a study comparing greenhouse gas emissions from specific operating rooms in different countries. The big surprise is that anesthesia is a major factor; anesthetics are greenhouse gasses, and they vary in the strength of their greenhouse potential. Desflurane has between 5 and 18 times the global warming potential of its competitors, yet it is a favored choice in some operating rooms. The surgical suits studied in Vancouver and Minnesota both use a lot of desflurane, so anesthesia accounts for over half their carbon footprint, verses less than 5% of the footprint of surgery at Oxford. The total CO2e of the North American sites is actually ten times that of the UK sites, largely because of desflurane.

Another detail that caught my eye is that heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning together account for a much higher proportion of energy use for operating rooms than for other hospital facilities because building standards for operating rooms are different–though the article didn’t explain why. Does energy inefficiency somehow improve patient care? It’s possible it does in some indirect way.

What I want to know–and have been unable to find out so far–is how the footprints of hospitals compare to those of other centers of human activity. No matter what else it is, a hospital is a facility where large numbers of people live and eat together, and where other people come to work. Many of its emissions sources should therefore be similar to what one would find at a university with on-campus housing. Is the footprint of a hospital larger than that of a school of similar size? If it is, how much is waste and how much is just a necessary part of providing excellent healthcare?

Transportation

While transportation is a factor in the carbon footprint of anything healthcare facilities must move, including food, pharmaceuticals, and waste, the article I linked to earlier counted “transportation” as only involving the movement of people. In many cases, these movements of people are the same as for any other employer–staff coming to work and patients coming in for scheduled treatment, mostly by car. As with any other employer, the quickest way to minimize these emissions may be to minimize the transportation itself–encouraging car-pooling among staff, for example.

But the transportation category also includes the use of ambulances. These are not efficient machines. Gas mileage varies, depending on various factors, but I checked a number of sources, and it looks like the figures are clustering around 10 miles per gallon for both ground-based ambulances and helicopters (that’s diesel fuel for ambulances and either high-grade gasoline or kerosene–jet fuel–for helicopters). And the problem is that while the engines could perhaps be made more efficient, their use can’t be minimized without compromising (or at least radically changing) care.

So what portion of of the healthcare carbon footprint is emergency transport?

I could not find an article that simply answered that question. I could find one that gave a per-capita figure for emissions of ground-based ambulance service in Australia: it’s 0.003 metric tonnes CO2e.

I then looked up the total annual per capita carbon emissions for Australia (20.58 metric tonnes CO2e) and the proportion of Australia’s total carbon footprint that is attributable to healthcare (7%). Some arithmetic reveals that Australia’s per capita healthcare-related emissions are roughly 1.44 metric tonnes CO2e per year, just 0.2% of which is attributable to ground-based ambulance rides. The figure for other first-world countries is likely similar.

Air ambulances–helicopters–are a different story, but one I can’t really tell. The same article that gave me the ground-based figure also said that air ambulances account for almost 200 times the emissions that ground does. Unfortunately, the article did not make clear whether that is a comparison between air and ground services as a whole, or per-trip figures, or per-kilometer figures, or something else. Logic suggests it can’t be all-of-the-above. But since Australia has large areas that are sparsely settled, it likely uses air ambulances much more extensively than, say, the UK does. Its helicopter-based emissions are likely less comparable to that of other countries than their ground-based ambulance figures are.

What we can say is that whether the emissions of ground-based ambulances can be a substantially reduced or not, they are a drop in the bucket. Emergency helicopters may be a more important contributor, however, at least in some countries.

Post-petroleum Healthcare

While many of the articles I found during research were aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of healthcare, my focus, as I mentioned, is a little different. Shrinking footprints is important, of course, but neither I nor most of my readers are in a position to shrink healthcare footprints directly. What are we supposed to do, boycott our own medical care in protest? No, our job here is to support (and demand!) climate-friendly political leadership.

But I want to know what we can look forward to. What will healthcare in a carbon-neutral society look like? Do we have to think about the ethics of a trade-off, restricting healthcare for the good of the rest of the world, or is such a conflict really a non-issue?

What We Know

What do all the facts and figures I’ve collected suggest?

First of all, healthcare as a whole tends to be about 10% of each country’s total carbon footprint or less. That means most countries could make substantial progress towards carbon neutrality without touching healthcare at all. But there are reasons to believe healthcare footprints can shrink without changing the standard of care.

  • A substantial source of emissions must be electricity use by healthcare facilities. Switching the electricity grid to renewables will therefore automatically shrink the healthcare footprint even if the facilities themselves don’t change.
  • Many healthcare-related emissions types are the same as for similarly-sized facilities in other industries, and can therefore be reduced in the same way: buildings can be better-insulated; lights can be switched to LEDs; unused equipment can be turned off; waste can be minimized; food (in hospitals) can be sourced locally and made largely vegetarian; and so on.
  • Many healthcare-specific emissions types can shrink: operating rooms can switch away from desflurane; the footprint of pharmaceutical production can be reduced (as evidenced by Johnson & Johnson); and ground-based ambulances can run on biodiesel.

There is only one area where I suspect major changes might need to be made; air ambulances could use biofuels, too, but since these are likely to be more expensive than petrofuels, fuel-intensive operations, like Australia’s helicopters, might be cost-prohibitive. Various structural changes to the system might be necessary to maintain the standard of care.

That’s OK. Structural changes can be made.

Possible Complications

All of the above suggests that healthcare could stay basically the same and become carbon neutral–but that’s not true because a carbon neutral society will have to change in ways that will in turn influence healthcare. Exactly what these changes might be is impossible to predict, but we can do a little educated speculation.

Improved Health

We know that modern environmental problems cast a healthcare shadow, both directly and indirectly. From pollution, to extreme weather, to increased violence, to mental health concerns, the environmental crisis is bad for people. And some things that are also bad for people, such as a sedentary (automobile-based) lifestyle and a diet rich in animal products, exacerbate the crisis further. This not to say that we’re sicker now than our pre-industrial ancestors were–we’re not–but most of the factors that have improved our health (antibiotics, vaccines, public sanitation) should not be threatened by carbon neutrality.

So a carbon-neutral world should see its healthcare needs drop, thus further shrinking the healthcare footprint.

An Altered Economy

Industrialization makes it possible to concentrate large numbers of people in one place; the cities of the past were smaller, sometimes much smaller, than those of today. Since carbon neutrality is likely to make fuel very expensive, the long-distance transportation of food and other goods will likely become economically nonviable–urban populations will therefore have to shrink. Even if carbon-neutral big cities prove to be possible, we have to face the fact that most of the world’s major cities are going to be lost to climate change, even if we do achieve carbon neutrality soon (remember atmospheric lag); many coastal cities will drown, while many inland cities will run out of water in droughts or simply burn. Some cities will simply become too hot to live in.

So the future will likely have smaller and more spread-out population centers than we have today, a change which will have a huge impact on the economics of hospitals. Consider that big hospitals, the ones that can use economies of scale to offer world-class care, tend to be in or near big population centers–that’s where the patients are. Paying for rural healthcare is hard. It’s going to get harder when patients can’t afford to travel much.

Smaller Population

There are those who disagree with me on this, but I hold that carbon neutrality will require a smaller human population, at least over the long-term. Hopefully we can make the change through attrition alone. But fewer people also means reduced healthcare needs, further reducing the carbon footprint of care–and making it harder to pay for.

The Vision

Earlier this year, I published a novel set in a post-petroleum society. While healthcare as such is not covered in the novel, in the course of world-building I did think about how healthcare in the future might work. Here are some of the ideas I came up with.

  • Because populations are smaller and more spread-out, doctors, dentists, psychotherapists, and other such professionals travel. Rather than making house calls, they set up temporary offices, either in tents at the weekly market or, for those who need specialized equipment, in clinics that are shared with other traveling professionals. For example,everybody in a small town might have their semi-annual dental cleaning and check-up the same month, when the dentist and a team of hygienists visit. The next month, some of those people will return to the same office, because now it’s the office of an orthodontist or an oral surgeon.
  • Each small town will have a tiny clinic that has space for traveling professionals and an emergency center, a birthing center, and perhaps a dozen or so beds for in-patient treatment. On good days these clinics will be mostly empty. The idea is to minimize travel for patients, most whom will now live within two or three miles of basic medical services.
  • Large, full-service hospitals will exist for specialized services. These will function as small cities, with food production, machine shops, and staff and visitor housing all on site. Most patients will have traveled long distances to get to the hospital after having exhausted the capacity of local options.
  • Emergency transportation exists and is powered by biofuels. It is minimized by the use of online consultation; techs working either in the local clinic or, in some cases, in the patient’s home, can collect diagnostic data and send it to teams of relevant experts elsewhere. Some treatments can also be given by techs, nurses, general practitioners, and even robots working at the direction of experts who are far away (usually in the major hospitals).
  • In some cases air transport is accomplished, not by helicopters, but by semi-autonomous drones. The drone carries a paramedic and relevant equipment to the patient’s location, where the paramedic stabilizes the patient and, if necessary, loads the patient into the drone. The drone flies autonomously to the nearest medical facility, adjusting the flow of medication or oxygen on the way if necessary. Its onboard AI can also talk to the patient and record messages. Meanwhile, the paramedic hires a horse-drawn cab to get back to the clinic. Because the drone is only carrying a single human being at a time, it can be much smaller and use much less energy than a helicopter, which must carry a pilot and a medical team in addition to the patient.

All of the above is, of course, speculation on my part. But informed speculation can be useful; it makes the future seem a good deal less scary.


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If I Had a Dollar For….

October was, in many ways, a bad month for climate news, with much of California being on fire. Again. But here at Climate in Emergency, there was a small note of encouragement–November was the second-busiest this blog has ever had, and the third month running that broke 300 visitors.

300 visitors might not seem very much, in the grand scheme of things (actually, “views” are always somewhat higher and have been close to 400 for each of the past three months), but it means I’m averaging over ten visitors per day–or more than 70 visitors per post.

“If I had a dollar for….” is a tried-and-true way of expressing the scale of something. If I had a dollar for every gray hair I’ve gotten in recent years, I’d be rich–but if I had a dollar instead for every hair that isn’t gray yet, I’d be even richer. If I had a dollar for every visit to my blog, I could make a student loan payment. You know how it goes.

Except nobody is going to pay me for having gray hair. So let’s talk about funding, just for a minute.

Always Free, But….

This blog will always be free to read, but it’s not free to write. It costs me time that I could otherwise dedicate to paid work. How much time varies, but the posts that depend on a lot of research run me about six to ten hours. I also have plans to expand this project that I literally can’t afford to put into practice because they would require too much time.

I’ve had a “donate” button on my blog for a long time, but until recently readership was too low for me to expect much of anything from that button. That’s changing. It’s getting to the point where even a small donation from every reader would add up to enough to make a difference for me–and for this blog.

And maybe for the planet.

The Vision

The vision is for this website to become a major platform for climate-related news and information. This blog will continue, with its mix of news, science, commentary, and personal musings, but you’ll also be able to come here for a curated list of links to climate-related news and articles on other sites and information on calls for political action and activism. You’ll be able to see who is doing what in this important fight, and who needs your help.

To make all that happen, I’ll need to budget about 16-20 hours per week, mostly for research. That’s about twice the time I can afford to donate, so I’m looking at raising about $150 per week to cover the difference.

The Numbers

WordPress tells me I’m getting just over 70 visitors per week. It’s hard to know what that actually means; I might have 70 people who read every post, or 60 of those visitors might be electronic passers-by who don’t come back. Or something in the middle. I also have 81 followers, but I am unclear as to how many of them are active readers or whether their reading is recorded in the site visitation stats.

But clearly I have at least a few dozen regular readers, and I could have over a hundred, plus some number of curious people who just drop in occasionally. I want to see those numbers increase, and I’m taking steps in that direction. The point is that if you’re reading these words, you’re part of a small but growing crowd. If you find the work I do valuable and would like to buy me a coffee now and then (I don’t actually drink coffee, but you get the point), you’re not alone.

If everybody who’d like to kick in for the occasional coffee clicks on that donate button, this blog will grow right before your eyes.

What’s at Stake

President Trump just initiated the process of taking the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a process that takes a certain amount of time and can be cancelled at any point–specifically, if Mr. Trump is re-elected, we’ll be out of Paris. If someone else is elected instead, the new president can put us back in.

Whether the world can fight climate change effectively without the help of the US is doubtful.

Between now and the election, American voters will see a vast amount of propaganda, much of it on social media, much of it subtle, to the effect that voting Democrat is pointless or evil, that the problems we face can best be solved with more anti-environmentalist nationalism, and that climate change is either a hoax or irrelevant. Those will be lies bought and paid for by moneyed interests, mostly people with huge fossil fuel investments. We have to combat those lies. We have to get the truth out and keep it out in front of voters’ eyes all the time.

The truth is that no matter what other issues matter to you, climate change will make them worse. The truth is that unless the United States has a climate-friendly President AND Congress, this coming cycle we will likely lose this thing. The truth is that if everyone in the United States who believes climate is important votes like it next year, we will have a chance.

People are dying. They die in wildfires and hurricanes.  They die in wars over dwindling resources. They die in boats or refugee caravans trying to escape farms that won’t produce anymore or crime and chaos made worse by climate-related woes. We have to fight back.

And the way I can fight back is by writing. But I can’t do it alone.


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Annual Reading of Names

Here is a slightly edited version of a post I’ve used every year at this time for several years running. The link for my original source for the list isn’t working. Here is another.

Hallowe’en is coming up. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, sex, and fake blood (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in that example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and sea ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the advanced age of the relevant stands (the species requires bare soil to sprout, such as after a fire or logging, and there happened to be a lot of that in New England decades ago–hence, a lot of aging birches). Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to go extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of the golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and also the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has extinguished or gravely endangered many other amphibians world-wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well–as could various non-amphibians, including some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, no matter what the proximate cause of an extinction is (whether climate itself is directly involved), the ultimate cause of this entire mass-extinction event is fossil fuel use.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. If you’re an American citizen, VOTING is a major and necessary step. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will never exist again.

I did find a list of historical extinctions. You can look up the whole thing here. It is far from comprehensive, but even so it’s still too long for me to copy over all of it. I’ll just focus on those from the list that have been lost since my birth.

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978