Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Justin Gillis has a sobering report in the NY Times, a report that I fear will do nothing to stir Congress and governments to take action. He writes:
Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.
Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.
The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said. The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities.
“Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reduction in snow and ice, and in global mean-sea-level rise; and it is extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the draft report said. “The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.”
The report was drafted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists and other experts appointed by the United Nations that periodically reviews and summarizes climate research. It is not final and could change substantially before release.
Continue reading. Given the crop failures we’re likely to see as global warming intensifies (drought, extreme rainfall, and so on), I would expect food wars to erupt within a few years. Indeed, the Arab Spring uprising seems to have been prompted in part because of food shortages that caused increased prices.
And what do you bet that, even if this were absolutely established, people would still continue to build large dams? I bet you anything that they would.
Jacques Leslie writes in the NY Times:
THAYER SCUDDER, the world’s leading authority on the impact of dams on poor people, has changed his mind about dams.
A frequent consultant on large dam projects, Mr. Scudder held out hope through most of his 58-year career that the poverty relief delivered by a properly constructed and managed dam would outweigh the social and environmental damage it caused. Now, at age 84, he has concluded that large dams not only aren’t worth their cost, but that many currently under construction “will have disastrous environmental and socio-economic consequences,” as he wrote in a recent email.
Mr. Scudder, an emeritus anthropology professor at the California Institute of Technology, describes his disillusionment with dams as gradual. He was a dam proponent when he began his first research project in 1956, documenting the impact of forced resettlement on 57,000 Tonga people in the Gwembe Valley of present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe. Construction of the Kariba Dam, which relied on what was then the largest loan in the World Bank’s history, required the Tonga to move from their ancestral homes along the Zambezi River to infertile land downstream. Mr. Scudder has been tracking their disintegration ever since.
Once cohesive and self-sufficient, the Tonga are troubled by intermittent hunger, rampant alcoholism and astronomical unemployment. Desperate for income, some have resorted to illegal drug cultivation and smuggling, elephant poaching, pimping and prostitution. Villagers still lack electricity.
Mr. Scudder’s most recent stint as a consultant, on the Nam Theun 2 Dam in Laos, delivered his final disappointment. He and two fellow advisers supported the project because it required the dam’s funders to carry out programs that would leave people displaced by the dam in better shape than before the project started. But the dam was finished in 2010, and the programs’ goals remain unmet. Meanwhile, the dam’s three owners are considering turning over all responsibilities to the Laotian government — “too soon,” Mr. Scudder said in an interview. “The government wants to build 60 dams over the next 20 or 30 years, and at the moment it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with environmental and social impacts for any single one of them. . . .
The biggest lawbreakers in this country are large corporations, and they seem immune to prosecution. Naveena Sadasivam reports for ProPublica:
A new report charges that several oil and gas companies have been illegally using diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing operations, and then doctoring records to hide violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The report, published this week by the Environmental Integrity Project, found that between 2010 and July 2014 at least 351 wells were fracked by 33 different companies using diesel fuels without a permit. The Integrity Project, an environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., said it used the industry-backed database, FracFocus, to identify violations and to determine the records had been retroactively amended by the companies to erase the evidence.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires drilling companies to obtain permits when they intend to use diesel fuel in their fracking operations. As well, the companies are obligated to notify nearby landowners of their activity, report the chemical and physical characteristics of the fluids used, conduct water quality tests before and after drilling, and test the integrity of well structures to ensure they can withstand high injection pressures. Diesel fuel contains a high concentration of carcinogenic chemicals including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, and they disperse easily in groundwater.
FracFocus is an online registry that allows companies to list the chemicals they use during fracking. At least 10 states, including Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, mandate the use of the website for such disclosures.
The report asserts that the industry data shows that the companies admitted using diesel without the proper permits. The Integrity Project’s analysis, the report said, then showed that in some 30 percent of those cases, the companies later removed the information about their diesel use from the database. . .
Kevin Drum has a good post, with a graph of the data, on the influence of childhood lead exposure on subsequent teen-age pregnancies. From the post:
Jessica Wolpaw Reyes has a new paper out that investigates the link between childhood lead exposure and violent crime. Unsurprisingly, since her previous research has shown a strong link, she finds a strong link again. But she also finds something else: a strong link between lead and teen pregnancy.
This is not a brand new finding. Rick Nevin’s very first paper about lead and crimewas actually about both crime and teen pregnancy, and he found strong correlations for both at the national level. Reyes, however, goes a step further. It turns out that different states adopted unleaded gasoline at different rates, which allows Reyes to conduct a natural experiment. If lead exposure really does cause higher rates of teen pregnancy, then you’d expect states with the lowest levels of leaded gasoline to also have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy 15 years later. And guess what? They do. The chart on the right shows the correlation between gasoline lead exposure and later rates of teen pregnancy, and it’s very strong. Stronger even than the correlation with violent crime.
None of this should come as a surprise. The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.
. . .We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.
Read the whole thing and contemplate the graph.
Paul Krugman once more points out some fundamental flaws in the libertarian position (that the free market can solve all problems):
n the latest Times Magazine, Robert Draper profiled youngish libertarians — roughly speaking, people who combine free-market economics with permissive social views — and asked whether we might be heading for a “libertarian moment.” Well, probably not. Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders. But I’d like to ask a different question: Is libertarian economics at all realistic?
The answer is no. And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus.
As you’ve probably heard, the City of Toledo recently warned its residents not to drink the water. Why? Contamination from toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, largely caused by the runoff of phosphorus from farms.
When I read about that, it rang a bell. Last week many Republican heavy hitters spoke at a conference sponsored by the blog Red State — and I remembered an antigovernment rant a few years back from Erick Erickson, the blog’s founder. Mr. Erickson suggested that oppressive government regulation had reached the point where citizens might want to “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp.” And the source of his rage? A ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent. After all, why would government officials want to do such a thing?
An aside: The states bordering Lake Erie banned or sharply limited phosphates in detergent long ago, temporarily bringing the lake back from the brink. But farming has so far evaded effective controls, so the lake is dying again, and it will take more government intervention to save it.
The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.
Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. For example, . . .
That parents can transmit their own trauma to their offspring. Article here. If true, one can see both some potential contributors to Israel’s use of arms and occupation, and also how this generation’s conflicts will similarly shape the Palestinians, who pretty clearly on the suffering side of this war, in loss of family members as a rough metric. Their next generation will show the trauma.
I was reading this very interesting New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert, and you may also find it of interest. She raises some interesting points.
Agriculture was invented several times, and it seems likely that it was born of necessity, notoriously the very mother of invention. The reason it was a pressing matter is that the large animals that had served as prey were getting scarce on the ground. See this interesting brief article for a modern example of overhunting (and overfishing). Similarly, when humans entered the Western Hemisphere, quite a few animals (the mastodon, for example) went extinct. Human hunting, particularly after the invention of projectile weapons, was highly effective, and prey became harder to find.
So we got agriculture, and with it (as described in the article) a litany of ills: diabetes, tooth rot, and infectious diseases, among others. Kolbert writes:
According to a study of human remains from China and Japan, the height of the average person declined by more than three inches during the millennia in which rice cultivation intensified. According to another study, of bones from Mesoamerica, women’s heights dropped by three inches and men’s by two inches as farming spread. A recent survey of more than twenty studies on this subject, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, found that the adoption of agriculture “was observed to decrease stature in populations from across the entire globe,” including in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.
Early farmers were not just shorter than hunter-gatherers; they were also more sickly. They had worse teeth—one analysis from the Near East suggests that the incidence of cavities jumped sixfold as people started relying on grain—and they suffered from increased rates of anemia and infectious disease. Many now familiar infections—measles, for instance—require high population densities to persist; thus, it wasn’t until people established towns and cities that such “crowd epidemic diseases” could flourish. And, by living in close proximity to their equally crowded farm animals, early agriculturalists helped to bring into being a whole set of diseases that jumped from livestock to people.
“The adoption of agriculture,” Diamond notes in his most recent book, “The World Until Yesterday,” provided “ideal conditions for the rapid transmission of microbes.” According to Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard and the author of “The Story of the Human Body,” “farming ushered in an era of epidemics, including tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis, plague, smallpox and influenza.”
So that was a bad development (in terms of health, though not human culture: denser populations create a better environment for memes to arise and evolve rapidly. Kolbert points out, “Anatomically modern humans have, after all, been around for about two hundred thousand years. The genus Homo goes back another two million years or so. On the timescale of evolutionary history, it’s agriculture that’s the fad.”
And yet humans cannot really eat as hunter-gatherers. First, our food animals and food crops are substantially different from their wild ancestors that were food for hunter-gatherers—to the point that modern corn/maize cannot grow without cultivation. Second, the human population, already far too large to survive with intensive agriculture globally, continues to grow rapidly, putting ever more strain on natural resources. Kolbert notes:
The last time most of humanity followed, by necessity, a paleo diet, there were maybe five million people on the planet. Yet already they were having a big impact; it’s been theorized that one of the impetuses for the development of agriculture was that large, easy-to-kill prey were becoming harder to find. As grain-growing spread, it produced what’s been called the “first population explosion.” Farmers can wean their children at a much younger age than hunter-gatherers can—they have foods like porridge to feed them—and thus can produce new ones more quickly. As a result, the sicklier agriculturists were able to outbreed the more robust hunter-gatherers. More farmers then needed even more land, which further reduced the resources available to foragers.
Whether or not agriculture was the “worst mistake in the history of the human race,” the choice, once made, was made for good. With a global population of seven billion people, heading rapidly toward eight billion, there’s certainly no turning back now (even if paleo does, in fact, prevent zits). Pound for pound, beef production demands at least ten times as much water as wheat production, and, calorie for calorie, it demands almost twenty times as much energy. Livestock are major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, not just because of the fuel it takes to raise them but also because they do things like belch out methane and produce lots of shit, which in turn produces lots of nitrous oxide. One analysis, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that, in terms of emissions, eating a pound of beef is the equivalent of driving forty-five miles. (Grass-fed beef—recommended by many primal enthusiasts—may produce lower emissions than corn-fed, but the evidence on this is shaky.) Eating a pound of whole wheat, by contrast, is like driving less than a mile. All of which is to say that, from an environmental standpoint, paleo’s “Let them eat steak” approach is a disaster.
Gary Taubes, in his excellent book Why We Get Fat And What to Do About It, notes:
Carbohydrate-restricted diets typically (if not, perhaps, ideally) replace the carbohydrates in the diet with large or at least larger portions of animal products—beginning with eggs for breakfast and moving to meat, fish, or fowl for lunch and dinner. The implications of that are proper to debate. Isn’t our dependence on animal products already bad for the environment, and won’t it just get worse? Isn’t livestock production a major contributor to global warming, water shortages, and pollution? When thinking about a healthy diet, shouldn’t we think about what’s good for the planet as well as what’s good for us? Do we have a right to kill animals for our food or put them to work for us in producing it? Isn’t the only morally and ethically defensible lifestyle a vegetarian one or even a vegan one?
These are all important questions that need to be addressed, as individuals and as a society. But they have no place in the scientific and medical discussion of why we get fat. And that’s what I am setting out to explore here—just as Hilde Bruch did more than seventy years ago. Why are we fat? Why are our children fat? What can we do about it?
So we seem to face a dilemma: the best diet for humans grows increasingly unsustainable. But even worse, humanity seems to be increasingly unsustainable. Our affect on the environment has been devastating (even apart from the Big Kahuna, global warming), and we despoil our natural resources faster than they can be replaced—not that we are devoting much effort to replacing them.
I think the human race is simply not wired for long-term success (in evolutionary terms). It looks increasingly as though human civilization is going to be short-lived blip—perhaps 20,000 years at the outside, more likely 15,000 (of which 10,000 are already used up).
Probably I’m wrong, but the overall long-term trends look quite bearish.