Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Great Pause Week 50: Suicide by Insect

"Chances are, insects or their deeds touch your lips every day."

There are few better ways to separate wizards from prophets in our modern world than by their revealing attitudes toward mosquitoes. Your average wizard would be quick to swat a buzzing intruder, spray the area with some Raid, or maybe plug in one of those clever blue light gadgets that waft carbon dioxide to lure the little whiners into electroshock therapy. 

Perhaps, if they were a Bill Gates, they would see Mr. Mosquito as the evil embodiment of malaria, deadliest scourge of all infectious diseases, and devise robot-bulldozer eradication of swamp-like habitats or some wizardly genetic alchemy to quash the plague and earn a Nobel Prize. 

In any case, to technological wizards, we are at war with nature and mosquitoes are a corps of enemy. Stewart Brand has more recently revised his famous 1968 axiom, the opening Sentence of Purpose for the Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” to “We are as Gods and we have to get good at it” (coming soon to a theater near you).

Brand is also a champion of moral relativism, an anti-Pelageist, writing,

Certain knowledge of what to fight for, and what to fight against, gives meaning to life and provides its own version of discipline: never give up. That kind of meaning is illusory, I now believe, and blinkered. Fealty to a mystical absolute is a formula for disaster, especially in transformative times. 

For prophets (like myself), a mosquito is as old as time and part of the greater natural order of things. If I don’t want to be bitten, I can screen my windows, drop a net over my bed at night, rub on some non-toxic repellent, or make sure there are no rain-catching knick-knacks in my yard. Like all living creatures, mosquitoes have their role amongst predators and prey. While they may be a nuisance to us and our domesticated animals (their prey), fewer mosquitoes also mean fewer bats and purple martins, fewer bluegill and catfish, fewer dragonflies and turtles (their predators). 

Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the hegemonic meme of chemistry was crawling into bed with many different industries, “insect” was a word easily confused with “pest.” The synonymity was a cultural legacy tracing from the locust plagues of Pharoah’s Egypt, The Good Earth, and the indenture of farmers to slavishly produce monocultured field crops year on year, once they had cut down the forests and killed the game.

Of course, not all cultures cravenly clung to that kind of war footing. Aboriginal Australians had many different insects and larval grubs in their broad cuisine, as did their northern neighbors in Indochina, Korea and the Japans. Aboriginal elders might share a good laugh at people that find witjuty grubs revolting but salivate for jumbo shrimp in rotini pasta parmigiana.

In truth, our food has less to do with insects’ competing appetites than the gardening they willingly and gratuitously perform for us. In tropical countries like México (with a savory history of grasshopper and ant delicacies) about one-third of a world class gastronomic palette is derived from insect-pollinated plants. Any decline in forest-, field-, or desert-dwelling insects has devastating consequences. 
Once any insect population drops, populations dependent on them collapse. The ecosystem cascades in search of a different steady state. Crashes in populations of aquatic insects can crash much wider populations of fish and amphibians. The domino effect knocks down dependent species up and down the food chain.

Biodiversity is a useful proxy for ecosystem quality, and so a sort of blinking warning light on Spaceship Earth’s control display.

Chances are, insects or their deeds touch your lips every day. The coffee or tea you brew in the morning. The honey, almonds, apples, cashews, cinnamon and sunflower seeds in your granola. Basil, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cherries, garlic, grapefruit, olive oil, onions, oranges, watermelon — all insect pollinated. 

Even some vaccines require insects to come to fruition. The majority of flowering plants, the core of terrestrial life systems, depend on insects for pollination and reproduction. Below ground, insects are essential to the cyclical and reciprocal movement of nutrients. While less is mapped about the marine environment, we know the same processes happen there.

But there are troubles in paradise. Human population growth and urbanization — and not just by wizards — are leading to declines among insects, as well as many other lifeforms. Precipitous insect declines are being escalated as we overshoot critical planetary boundaries — biodiversity, climate change, nitrification, and plastic pollution. On average, the decline in insect abundance is thought to be around 1–2% per year or 10–20% per decade. These losses are seen on nearly every continent, even within well-protected areas like national preserves and biological heritage sites. In geologic time it is a biological super-volcano.

Research by scientists at the University of Toronto showed that hummingbirds exposed to systemic neonicotinoid insecticides for even a short period of time lose their high-powered metabolism. Ounce for ounce, hummingbirds in flight expend 5 times the energy of an Olympic sprinter. 

Within two hours of exposure to the pesticides, hummingbird metabolism dropped significantly. While the control group increased energy expenditure between 1% to 7%, the low exposed group displayed a 6% average decline, the medium a 10% decline, and the high exposure group showed 25% reduced energy expenditure

— Graves et al. (2019)

Measures of species abundance, species richness and community composition are all in decline, although rates vary across distance and across families. 

In the United Kingdom, 8% of resident species [of butterflies] have become extinct, and since 1976 overall numbers declined by around 50%. In the Netherlands, 20% of species have become extinct, and since 1990 overall numbers in the country declined by 50%. Distribution trends showed that butterfly distributions began decreasing long ago, and between 1890 and 1940, distributions declined by 80%. In Flanders (Belgium), 20 butterflies have become extinct (29%), and between 1992 and 2007 overall numbers declined by around 30%. A European Grassland Butterfly Indicator from 16 European countries shows there has been a 39% decline of grassland butterflies since 1990. The 2010 Red List of European butterflies listed 38 of the 482 European species (8%) as threatened and 44 species (10%) as near threatened (note that 47 species were not assessed). A country level analysis indicates that the average Red List rating is highest in central and mid-Western Europe and lowest in the far north of Europe and around the Mediterranean. The causes of the decline of butterflies are thought to be similar in most countries, mainly habitat loss and degradation and chemical pollution. Climate change is allowing many species to spread northward while bringing new threats to susceptible species. 

 — Warren, et al (2021)

Sarah Cornell, a scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, points out that we know very little about the extent or cascading effects of insect extinction, or even how this one might compare to others.

There might have been many more mass extinctions. It’s just that we only see extinctions with the things that leave a record… things with skeletons… When people [say], ‘we’re entering the sixth mass extinction.’ Okay, well, how do we know that? We might be entering the 17th?…We might make ourselves extinct before we even reach these hallowed glories of the sixth.” 

The Dasgupta review, The Economics of Biodiversity (2021) recently revealed:

A general pattern is that rarer species and habitat specialist species are declining, whereas some generalist species are stable or increasing (Marvier, Kareiva and Neubert, 2004). For example, invasive non-native species are on the increase globally (Seebens et al. 2017). Larger species seem to be particularly vulnerable to extinction with direct harvesting for consumption as the principal driver of declines (Ripple et al. 2019). A global review of 166 long-term surveys of insect assemblages found that on average there have been declines of terrestrial species abundance by around 9% per decade compared to increases in freshwater insect abundance by approximately 11% per decade since 1925 (van Klink et al. 2020). These patterns were dominated by trends in North America and some parts of Europe, and it is suggested that improvements in water quality in these regions explain the increasing freshwater insect numbers. The 2020 global LPI shows that the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of vertebrates has declined on average by 68% (in terms of animal population sizes) between 1970 and 2016 (Almond et al, 2020). For freshwater vertebrates, the picture is worse, with average declines of 84%. 

It should be worth noting that the study period cited by Dasgupta began in 1970. Silent Spring was published in 1962. We cannot hide behind our ignorance.

Biodiversity is a useful proxy for ecosystem quality, and so a sort of blinking warning light on Spaceship Earth’s control display. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a definitive list of species that exist on Earth because efforts to quantify and record them are still in their infancy. We instead rely on estimates derived from patterns — models based on what we think we know. In this way we estimate approximately 8.7 million eukaryotic species (animals, plants and fungi, excluding bacteria and similar organisms) of which 2.2 million live in marine environments and 8.1 million are animals and plants. We’ve estimated that 75% of eukaryotic species are insects. Compared to just under 6,500 mammal species, one million insect species are known and named.

Only about 2 million species of all forms have been catalogued. Around 2,000 new plants are added each year to some 390,000 named to date. There are probably more than 100 million species of prokaryotes (life forms not enclosed by a cell, such as bacteria and viruses) and 4 to 6 × 10E30 individuals (that’s a 4 or 6 with 30 trailing zeroes), but our lack of knowledge rivals that scale. 

Other creatures’ activities are critical in processes ranging from helping you breathe, digest, and think to regulating the composition of the atmosphere. 

And yet, species extinction is increasing faster than diversity, far faster than the cataloging process. According to Dasgupta, more than 32,000 species are threatened with extinction — 26% of mammals, 41% of amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals and 14% of birds (Betts, 2020). 

Birds, mammals, amphibians, corals and cycads are moving towards extinction most rapidly. Half a million animals and plants may become extinct because the loss and degradation of their habitat has already taken place — a so-called ‘extinction debt’ — meaning, even if all destructive practices stopped today, species would still go extinct due to past habitat loss. Only habitat restoration — and that includes climate restoration — can slow the damage.

While we have gone a long way towards extinguishing zebras, tigers, and elephants in the wild, we keep their token brethren alive in zoos to remind us of their former wild greatness. In a warped sort of way, we may begin doing the same with insects, only their confinement will have less in common with a zoo and more in common with a dystopian novel. We will examine that prospect more closely in our next installment.

Pasta con Camarones

Serves Four
Marinating time: 30 minutes minimum, or overnight
Prep Time: 20 Minutes



  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed
  • 1 tablespoon Shiro (white) miso
  • 2 Tb minced hot chile such as Habanero, Serrano, or Jalapeno, or to taste (seeds and ribs may be removed)
  • 1 pound sustainably caught medium shrimp, peeled (or you can substitute grasshoppers, sauteed, if available)


  • 1 qt water
  • 1 tsp oliive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 8 ounces penne or rotini whole-grain pasta
  • 2 tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
  • 8 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • freshly ground salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 1 green onion, thinly sliced



  1. Whisk olive oil, garlic, miso, cheese and chile. Combine shrimp or sauteed grasshoppers.
  2. Mix well and marinate, chilled and covered, for at least 30 minutes to overnight, stirring occasionally.


  1. Heat water on high flame with oil and salt until boiling in a 2-qt or larger pot.
  2. Stir in pasta. Check for doneness every few minutes while starting other prep.
  3. Drain pasta when just al dente and keep warm until needed.
  4. Heat a large skillet or wok with olive oil over medium high heat. Add shrimp with marinade, tomatoes, and nutritional yeast, and toss until shrimp are pink, about 2 minutes. Do not overcook. 
  5. Add drained pasta and mix well.
  6. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and green onions.

For a vegan version one could substitute 12 baby (egg-size) eggplants, crowns removed, quartered lengthwise, in the place of shrimp or grasshoppers and add with the other marinade ingredients to the hot skillet, eliminating the overnight marinading. Cook until eggplant is tender, about 10 minutes, before combining pasta.


Almond, R. E. A., M. Grooten, and T. Peterson. Living Planet Report 2020-Bending the curve of biodiversity loss. World Wildlife Fund, 2020.

Betts, Jessica, Richard P. Young, Craig Hilton‐Taylor, Michael Hoffmann, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Simon N. Stuart, and E. J. Milner‐Gulland. “A framework for evaluating the impact of the IUCN Red List of threatened species.” Conservation Biology 34, no. 3 (2020): 632–643.

Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring. 1962.

Dasgupta, P., The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. (London: HM Treasury, 2021)

Graves, Emily E., Karen A. Jelks, Janet E. Foley, Michael S. Filigenzi, Robert H. Poppenga, Holly B. Ernest, Richard Melnicoe, and Lisa A. Tell. “Analysis of insecticide exposure in California hummingbirds using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 26, no. 15 (2019): 15458–15466.
Marvier, Michelle, Peter Kareiva, and Michael G. Neubert. “Habitat destruction, fragmentation, and disturbance promote invasion by habitat generalists in a multispecies metapopulation.” Risk Analysis: An International Journal 24, no. 4 (2004): 869–878.

Ripple, William J., Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Matthew G. Betts, Gerardo Ceballos, Franck Courchamp, Matt W. Hayward, Blaire Van Valkenburgh, Arian D. Wallach, and Boris Worm. “Are we eating the world’s megafauna to extinction?.” Conservation Letters 12, no. 3 (2019): e12627.

Seebens, Hanno, Tim M. Blackburn, Ellie E. Dyer, Piero Genovesi, Philip E. Hulme, Jonathan M. Jeschke, Shyama Pagad et al. “No saturation in the accumulation of alien species worldwide.” Nature communications 8, no. 1 (2017): 1–9.

Van Klink, Roel, Diana E. Bowler, Konstantin B. Gongalsky, Ann B. Swengel, Alessandro Gentile, and Jonathan M. Chase. “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances.” Science 368, no. 6489 (2020): 417–420.

Warren, Martin S., Dirk Maes, Chris AM van Swaay, Philippe Goffart, Hans Van Dyck, Nigel AD Bourn, Irma Wynhoff, Dan Hoare, and Sam Ellis. “The decline of butterflies in Europe: Problems, significance, and possible solutions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 2 (2021).



The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. My brief experiment with a new platform called SubscribeStar ended badly, with my judgement that they are not yet ready for prime time. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.” 

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Great Pause Week 49: BiCRS Without Borders

"Imagine bamboo skyscrapers and biochar sponge cities. Imagine the Spruce Goose."

About 4000 years back, a breed of upright, thinking apes, having mastered fire, then pyramids, then nature (or so they imagined), redirected their energies from their daily allowance — from firewood, wind, rain and sunlight — to their billion-year fossil sunlight trust fund, which, as small withdrawals emboldened them and grew ever larger, they raided and spent.

A forthcoming IPCC report is expected to say that BECCS can deliver 80 to 90 percent emission reductions compared to the fossil energy baseline, and that is true enough, taken in isolation. However, land use conversion and tillage lead to massive and rapid losses of soil carbon, water, and biodiversity (including soil microbes) that can lessen, and in some cases more than erase, any net GHG reductions.

But look out your window. Temperature increases, rainfall pattern changes, weather wilding, and increased frequency of extreme events all diminish biomass photosynthetic productivity. Most vulnerable are exactly the kinds of monoculture cropping patterns favored for industrial scale BECCS by the techno-utopians: bio-lab cultivars, in satellite-directed straight rows, dependent on chemical drips, tended by robots.
Holly Buck and Daniel Sanchez, portrait by Albert Bates
Fortunately for the rest of us, there are social scientists on the front lines of the policy debate who are pushing back. Two of these are Holly Buck at U.Buffalo and Daniel Sanchez at U.Cal Berkeley. Joining forces with Columbia University’s Innovation for Cool Earth Forum, now in its 7th year, they write:

Unlike BECCS, which is conceived as a capital and resource intensive industrial process with little consideration for social or biodiversity impacts, BiCRS “describes a range of processes that use plants and algae to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store that CO2 underground or in long-lived products.” Behold, the new carbon economy Kathleen Draper and I described three years ago in Burn.

Instead of imagining fake meat factories powered by wood pellets, imagine Geppetto’s workshop with mittened childrens’ faces pressed to its frosty windows hoping to see wooden puppets come to life. Imagine bamboo skyscrapers and biochar sponge cities. Imagine the Spruce Goose.

Carbon Dioxide Removal science is moving so rapidly that unless you are following every lab every week, your scorecard is likely hopelessly out of date, as were the January 2021 Greenpeace UK Briefing, Net Expectations; Bill Gates’ 2021 book, How to Avoid A Climate Disaster; the Drawdown Review 2020; and potentially will be the IPCC’s 2021 Sixth Assessment Report.

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.


“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Great Pause Week 48: The Climate Cabinet

 "What we need to do will cost less by one-third what we currently spend on fossil fuel subsidies."

A short while from now all of the President’s cabinet nominees will be confirmed and a first cabinet meeting will be convened. We’d like to imagine that after the usual banalities and formalities, it might go something like this.

PRESIDENT BIDEN: We face a great many challenges as a nation — the viral pandemic; an economy that will remain in dire straits for much of this year with consequences that will linger long after; serious security threats from both state and non-state actors — but what we are going to talk about now is the other emergency, the one that we can no longer ignore. I am going to turn the floor over to my climate advisor, Gina McCarthy. 

MS. MCCARTHY: Thank you Mr. President. I will keep this as short as I can. Many of you have years of experience getting briefings like this, but what I am about to tell you may surprise you. 

Let me begin with a few charts most of you will be familiar with. This first one is from James Hansen’s famous 2017 paper, “Young People’s Burden.”

I realize not everyone here is a climate science wonk, so let’s extract the most important takeaways this way:

The black line is the historical record of CO2 emissions from the start of the Industrial Age in 1850. The lower green line assumes that all the countries in the world achieve Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and the blue line is if they accomplish that by 2040. In either of those cases, global temperature peaks at around 1.4C above normal and then declines to about 1 degree above and we achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

We can do this entirely by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, no geoengineering or negative emissions technologies required. The rollout and replacement will need to be very rapid. We have to retire existing coal plants and gasoline-powered vehicles and heavy equipment as rapidly as possible and replace all of it. That will look something like this:


Williams et al, 2021

There is a limited role for fossil gas in the transition but we will need to be far more strict about fugitive emissions from drilling and pipelines, and gas will have to be also phased out by around 2040, just twenty years from now.

While these are all difficult tasks, they are things we know how to do. There is nothing that needs to be invented that doesn’t already exist. This is an affordable project — about $1 per person per day; less by one-third then we currently spend on fossil fuel subsidies — and it will make many new jobs and buoy our economy, almost immediately. By methodically increasing energy efficiency, switching to electric technologies, utilizing waste biomass, wind and solar power, and deploying a small amount of carbon capture technology such as BiCRS, the United States can reach zero emissions without requiring changes to behavior.

VICE-PRESIDENT HARRIS: I sense there is a “but” coming.

MS. MCCARTHY: I am afraid so, Madam Vice-President. The change to the atmosphere brought about by the picture I just painted is only short-lived. Here is another chart, that takes it out beyond 2100:


Randers et al, 2020

What is going on here? If we wait until 2050 to make this change, and hit net-zero at 2100, you get the top line, in black. By assuming our technology is much better then, we get a rapid drop until about the second quarter of the next century. By then everyone is feeling much better about having solved the problem. 

Then, suddenly, it changes and starts going back up, despite whatever anyone tries to do. The dotted purple line assumes we start right now and achieve net zero by 2050, but then the same thing starts to happen, within our own century. The curve rebounds and continues rising to 2.5 degrees and much higher in later centuries. It only gets worse. This is what sea level rise looks like:


Randers et al, 2020


The left-hand chart is permafrost melt. That is baked into the cake now. It will only stop if we can get the atmospheric CO2 levels back to around 300 ppm. The middle chart is what melting ice cover and permafrost do to albedo, or the ability of sunlight to bounce back to space, reflected off of shiny surfaces. Naturally that goes down as we lose more ice and snow cover. The third chart is how all that is going to affect sea level rise. We are looking here at a 1 meter rise by 2100, if we wait to act, and 2200 if we act rapidly. But one meter is a fait accompli, and only the start of a much greater rise. So, what is going on?

What we are seeing here are the latent consequences of delayed action. Those who warned Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that we had 20 years to turn this around or told Jimmy Carter in 1977 that we had just 10 years left were precisely correct. Those who issued that same sort of warning in 1990, 2000, 2010, or 2020 were just gaslighting us.

After the short-lived greenhouse gases decay away, the long-lived ones keep gradually warming the planet. Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, and Antarctica continue to melt, less sunlight is reflected back to space, and sea levels continue rising. That process has been set in motion by tipping points that were crossed when we and most other countries failed to meet our Kyoto Treaty obligations more than 20 years ago. So, even if we now hit our Paris targets, we still have to face the fact we will likely lose large parts of Miami and New Orleans and will have to spend vast amounts of money to save New York City, Washington, Sacramento and many other coastal cities.

We can see how this happens if you compare our planned approach to lowering carbon emissions to zero and the actual effect that has on the atmosphere:

Williams et al, 2021

The chart on the left is the Net Zero 2050 pathway of annual emissions for the US and the path on the right is that same pathway’s cumulative emissions. The chart on the left has its own challenges, as I will discuss in a minute. It is the chart on the right, however, that is going to cause the problem. Once we stop emitting greenhouses gases, the insulation of the atmosphere, and global temperature, will stop growing, but where we stop is where we stay.

Between 2020 and 2050 we expect to load the atmosphere with another 100 billion tons of greenhouse gases from the United States. Those will eventually go away. They will be absorbed by the ocean, space, or break down chemically. Unfortunately, that process does not take years, or even centuries. The natural drawdown process takes thousands of years.

MR. KERRY: I really hope this is not the whole story and you have something you are saving to tell us.

MS. MCCARTHY: Yes, John, thank you. There is. If, in addition to merely substituting clean energy for fossil energy we invest in a strong program of carbon dioxide removal, there is a 50–50 chance we can switch off that future and move into to a better one. 

VICE-PRES. HARRIS: Not great odds. 

MS. MCCARTHY: Not great odds. But better than zero. We already have good enough negative emission technology to achieve a large fraction of what we need at negative cost — that is to say, it produces profits — and with just that we can achieve 350 ppm by year 2100. By accelerating that development it is conceivable that we could return to pre-industrial concentrations by early in the next century, if not sooner. Below 300 ppm, ice would begin to reform at the poles. Ocean heat would stabilize and sea level rise would slow. That is the consensus science finding at this moment.


Bates, after IPCC 2021

You see going forward there is a large yellow and orange zone below zero, which is our carbon capture and net drawdown zone.

The “normal” temperature of our old climate, from about 200 to 250 years ago before widespread use of fossil fuels, could be recovered at 220 ppm, with about 90% confidence level. That, Mr. President and Mr. and Ms’s Secretaries, is our new target.

PRES. BIDEN: All good news.

MR. KERRY: All good news until you get to the politics. (laughter)

GENERAL AUSTIN: Politics will come down to guns or butter. I don’t know how you will sell this, given we're also asking for better cyber-defense and projecting fleet power into the South China Sea. 

MS. MCCARTHY: Xi Jinping’s Green New Deal proposes $30 billion per year toward seven strategic goals: universal 5G cellular; artificial intelligence; industrial internet of things; data centers; EV charging stations; intercity high speed rail; and ultra high voltage smart grids. That sounds a lot like what we will be proposing, as will our NATO allies.

GEN. AUSTIN: I’m sorry, but are those guns or are those butter?

PRES. BIDEN: I would say the distinction has become irrelevant, Lloyd.

MS. MCCARTHY: I am afraid, Mr. President, the challenge is not technical, as I said at the start. Our challenge is a social and cultural one. 

Here are some charts that show what we will need to do just on the clean energy transition to get to Net Zero 2050. First let me begin by showing what a growing economy like the United States will demand as we electrify our transportation, industry, and heating, and phase out fossil fuels.

Williams et al. 2021

The 21st century recarbonization, by moving strongly into electrification, will cost on the order of one trillion dollars and to that we must now add negative emissions technologies to bring us back below 250 ppm, assuming most other countries, and in particular Europe, China, Russia, and India, can be persuaded to do the same. The Fed is telling me our proposed capital investment in climate of $600B per year represents about 10% of current U.S. annual capital investment of $6T in all sectors, but remember — what we will actually be doing is redirecting some of the $800B/year from fossil fuels into clean energy and NET technologies. So, finance per se is not a barrier.

What I want everyone here to pay attention to is not the goal, but the direction of change and the speed at which it must be accomplished. It is how we get from here to there. If we miss the target by so much as a decade, the world winds up at 3 degrees, maybe more. Humans and nearly all other mammals, with the limitations of our sweat glands to cool our bodies, could go extinct at some yet unknown temperature. Our kind, going back several million years, has never lived above 3 degrees. So, that course is unthinkable. We must get onto this lower trajectory.

In many ways the transformation is going to be truly marvelous. We will see cargo ships built like the Americas Cup yachts, with hydrofoils and carbon fiber hulls. We will see wooden skyscrapers. Carbon will become a much greater part of our lives. It will be ubiquitous. Let me run this brief clip from climate scientist Michael Mann.


“The lockdown and social distancing — those weren’t really voluntary actions, we were forced to do that by the pandemic — and we saw that those did have an immediate impact: carbon emissions are going to be down about 7% this year. That’s the good news, right? We’re actually sort of coming down the ramp now, as we need to do. The bad news is we’ve got to do that 7%, roughly, every year. Seven percent upon seven percent, then seven percent more the year after that for ten years, if we are going to bring carbon emissions down fast enough to avert catastrophic warming of the planet —  more than a degree and a half Celsius or roughly three degrees Fahrenheit warming. To do that, behavioral change simply isn’t going to be enough. We are going to need to decarbonize civilization; we need to decarbonize all the sectors of the modern economy. And that requires serious, systemic change, not just behavioral change. But we can do it.”

What does that mean in practical terms, for your average factory-worker, or office clerk, or someone teaching school or waiting tables? Let’s talk this through. If yours and my climate pollution footprint is 16 tons, as it is now, within a couple of years it needs to be 14 tons. A few years after that it needs to be 12. Well, in the EU it is 11.5 now and moving down. The global average is at 4. We know this is do-able.

The Danish government has told its people they have to get down to 2 tons per person and, you know what? Danes are listening and doing it. In Denmark 47 percent of the population considers climate change to be the most serious problem facing the world. That’s more than double the E.U. average of 23 percent.

I guess don’t have to tell you what pollsters tell us about the United States.

SECRETARY GRANHOLM: I guess I am not getting something here. If we can replace all our carbon emitting machines and factories with clean energy and also deploy negative emissions technology to deal with what is up there from the past, why does anyone have to modify their lifestyles?

MS. MCCARTHY: By 2050, global negative emissions technology will require a third to half of total biomass on the planet for conservation, sustainable bioenergy and carbon capture (up to 80 Gj in energy terms). That will only barely keep pace with population growth and rising standards of living around the world, and also pull down legacy emissions. If those of us in the developed world cannot bring our lifestyles into sync with our carbon limit we will blow out the budget nature has provided. It is a hard biophysical limit.

SECY. GRANHOLM: What about nuclear fission and eventually fusion instead of more bioenergy? 

MS. MCCARTHY: Sorry, that doesn’t draw carbon out of the sky. We can and will build direct air capture machines, but those take energy, they don’t produce it. Only photosynthesis lets us have both. Also, there is no way we will replace a million acres of seagrass meadows or the Siberian forest with direct air capture machines.

PRES. BIDEN: Social acceptability is key to our success. We are going to have to sell this to the American people and I can already hear the howls from the other party. And you know what Bill Clinton said, “You can’t get elected by promising people less.” We all saw what happened when Jimmy Carter tried that.

Suggestions? Anyone?



Canadell, Josep G., and E. Detlef Schulze. “Global potential of biospheric carbon management for — Second level climate mitigation.” Nature communications 5.1 (2014): 1–12.

Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, Pushker Kharecha, Karina von Schuckmann, David J. Beerling, Junji Cao, Shaun Marcott et al. “Young people’s burden: requirement of negative CO 2 emissions.” Earth System Dynamics 8, no. 3 (2017): 577–616.

Randers, Jorgen, and Ulrich Goluke, “An earth system model shows self-sustained melting of permafrost even if all man-made GHG emissions stop in 2020.” Scientific reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1–9.

Sanchez, D.L., P.A. Turner, E. Baik, C.B. Field, S.M. Benson and K.J. Mach. “Rightsizing expectations for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage toward ambitious climate goals” in Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage: Using Natural Resources for Sustainable Development, Elsevier Press (2019).

Sandalow, David, Roger Aines, Julio Friedmann, Colin McCormick and Daniel Sanchez, Roadmap: Biomass Carbon Removal and Storage (BiCRS), ICEF 2021.

Sivaram, Varun, Colin Cunliff, David Hart, Julio Friedmann, and David Sandalow. “Energizing America.” CGEP, Sept 2020.

Williams, J. H., Jones, R. A., Haley, B., Kwok, G., Hargreaves, J., Farbes, J., & Torn, M. S. (2021). Carbon‐neutral pathways for the United States. AGU Advances, 2, e2020AV000284.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. My brief experiment with a new platform called SubscribeStar ended badly, with my judgement that they are not yet ready for prime time. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon or SubscribeStar get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.” 

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Great Pause Week 47: The Downside of Dogs

"To reach a carbon footprint of net zero, we will need to cut the US pet population by some 10 million dogs and 10 million cats every year for a decade and then by some 200,000 per year in the out years towards mid-century. We’ll have to get to one dog and one cat for every 300 people."


For most of my youth my family had a pet beagle, Nero. He was loyal, friendly, curious, funny, and loving. Nero was my reference dog. When I left home and went off to school, I didn’t have any pets and after graduation, when I joined the ecovillage in 1972, we didn’t have pets as a matter of principle. Bicycling back roads in Tennessee, dogs were something to be on guard for, and I knew where they were likely to be lying in wait, and stayed ready to suddenly change gears and go into a 30-second sprint if I was chased by a pack. I still have scars from those times I was not quick enough, or they were more clever in hiding. I was not alone. US insurers pay out some $700 million for dog bites every year.

The Farm had one dog, a black retriever we named Joshua, who adopted us not long after the land was settled by 325 hippies in 1971. Joshua hobbled around on three legs, and we never really knew how he lost the use of that other one. As the intentional community grew to more than 1200 residents in the mid-70s, we still had just that one three-legged dog. That was all we really needed, and Joshua did a good job reminding us of what dogness was. He was loyal to 1000 masters, including children. Because we had no dogs, we had the benefit of whippoorwills, nightingales, and other ground-nesting birds and native fauna. Joshua never chased birds, bicycles, or horses. He ate vegan, same as we did.

What is dogness? 

Parrots, horses, pigs and goats can follow human intentions, such as pointing gestures and spoken commands, as can many animals that have never been subject to domestication, like dolphins, tigers, and wolves. Dogs are not special in this regard. What makes dogs unique, beyond even the communication and devotion capabilities of other animals, is their ability to form deeper emotional connections with humans.

Dogs seek us out. They will ignore food in order to be with us, even if very hungry. They express joy through their body language when we are present. They are eager to help us when we are in need. Their loyalty far surpasses our own.

A retired gamekeeper, aged eighty-one, set off with his dog on an afternoon ramble over the moors of Derbyshire, England in late December, 1953, and went missing. Search parties failed to discover them, buried by a heavy snowfall, and presumed both dead. Then, in late March, fifteen weeks having passed, shepherds grazing sheep on the moor came across the man’s body, with the dog beside it, emaciated but still alive. Paranormal researcher Rupert Sheldrake tells us this sort of phenomenon was not unknown in England. Another wanderer who died in a remote part of the Lake District in 1805 was found months later by a shepherd attracted to the spot by the wraith-like terrier hovering over the corpse. Similar stories are told in many countries.

Dogs diverged from wolves on the evolutionary tree about 100,000 years ago so they have been around, biologically, for about half as long as modern humans. One change that distinguished dogs was the gene WBSCR17 that mutated into its present form around the same time as dogs’ domestication. It is thought that this gene, and two more, GTF2I and GTF2IRD1, were responsible for the difference in sociability between dogs and wolves. Different breeds of dogs possess different versions of these three genes, to varying degrees consistent with the typical descriptions of breeds as friendly or aloof. The same genes transplanted into mice yield the same sociable effect. These genes in humans are associated with a form of autism known as Williams syndrome that is characterized by “hypersociability” or “extreme gregariousness.”

One scientist who devoted many years to studying dog behavior is Clive D. Wynne, author of Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You. Wynne writes:

Love… is what makes dogs such exceptional — truly, uniquely — well-suited companions for humans. Their capacity for love distinguishes dogs from every other animal on the planet, including their closest canid relative, the wolf. Dogs try very hard to get close to and interact affectionately with familiar people, but they are interested in strangers too. In this regard, they are completely different from their wild relatives. Wolves taken from their mother at the earliest possible age and raised entirely by human beings just don’t show this level of emotional engagement, even with their surrogate mothers. Wolves can form friendships with human beings, but these relationships never include the all-encompassing love that dogs develop for people. 

When is dog?

Humans have been painting on the walls of caves for more than 70,000 years. Dogs appeared in those paintings 31,700 years ago, in the Goyet cave in Belgium. Early archaeological evidence, a track of footprints from a large dog walking with a child, was found in the deepest part of the Chauvet cave in France. Soot on the roof of the cave, left by the torch the child was carrying, has been dated to 26,000 years ago. The oldest canine remains, from a quarry in Germany, date to 14,223 years ago (give or take 58 years).

The wolves that evolved into dogs have been enormously successful in evolutionary terms. They are found everywhere in the inhabited world, hundreds of millions of them. The descendants of the wolves that remained wolves are now sparsely distributed, often in endangered populations, constantly under threat of extermination. So how did this division transpire?

Unlike dogs, wolves have no motivation to help people hunt. They would never have brought early hunting bands of humans any food, nor led them to any prey. While they, like bears, jackals, and coyotes, may have scavenged near human villages, they were too dangerous, especially around children, for our ancestors to have tolerated them any more than they had to, never mind adopt them.

Wynne suggests that as we emerged from the last Ice Age, from three to nine thousand years ago, we found ourselves stymied by woods we just could not see through or move through. Dogs as hunting scouts would have been very valuable. It is in that window of time that humans first took to burying their dogs with great care and honor in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North America and northern Europe.

Those wild animals most likely to be domesticated are those useful to humans — skilled and/or edible, hardy, and able to survive with little care and attention. They should breed freely, be gregarious, and be easy to control in groups. Sheep, goats, cattle, horses, pigs, hens, ducks, and geese all meet these criteria. Deer, tigers and zebras don’t. Dogs did. Wolves didn’t.

One indication of how dogs came to be domesticated may be seen in what biologists call “flight distance.” Wolves run off when they detect a human within about 650 feet. Feral dogs let unfamiliar people get to within about 16 feet before moving. That difference matters for how much food different canid species can extract from a human dump site, and how easily it might have been to teach an ancestral dog to accept a hand offering of food. After many generations of being fed, dogs developed smaller and less powerful jaws and teeth. Varieties with warning vocalizations made useful village guards. Silent pointers at birds, mastiffs that could bring down bears, and burrowers for rabbits and groundhogs each helped on hunts in their unique ways. 

Herders likely discovered that exposure of dog puppies to sheep, cattle, poultry, and goats during their sensitive development months transferred love of humans to love for these other animals. Given timely exposure, dogs can develop bonds with farm animals that make them fierce protectors. 

Some breeds of dogs are ancient by our standards. Even before the pyramids rose in Egypt, there were already dogs of the Greyhound or Saluki type, a Mastiff type, a Basenji type, a Pointer type, and a small terrier-like Maltese type. As we urbanized and specialized, we continued adding breeds. Some might like to divide these breeds between utilitarian and cosmetic, but in the context of human needs, all breeds have their functions.

Even though most people in modern cities no longer need cats for mousing or dogs for herding or hunting, these animals are still kept in the millions, together with a host of other creatures that play no utilitarian role: ponies, parrots, budgerigars, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, goldfish, lizards, stick insects, and many other pets. Most of us seem to need animals as part of our lives; our human nature is bound up with animal nature. Isolated from it, we are diminished. We lose a part of our heritage. 

 — Rupert Sheldrake

Pet-keeping, unlike the ownership of draft and farm animals, has been a luxury in much of the world until very recently. Demographers see the change as an indicia of affluence (a euphemism for having more than you need and so engaging in waste as a form of fashion — as a signaling of tribal identity). The United Kingdom, which is broadly representative of Western Europe, more than doubled its home ownership of dogs and cats — to 9 million in each category — between 1965 and 2020. In the USA, those numbers in 2021 are 90 million dogs and 96 million cats, roughly five times the per capita ownership rate of other affluent countries.

An analysis of pet ownership trends using Simmons Market Research data between February 2019 and May 2020 found that in the US, 54% of households keep pets and 73% of those have dogs. Ownership percentages were unaffected by the financial stress of 2008–2009, and despite the ongoing costs of a non-essential commodity — averaging $5000 over the life of an animal — pet numbers may now be increasing due to the Covid Pandemic for a population that is largely isolated, staying at home, and keen for the mental and physical health benefits of companionship. Obesity is the number one health problem for US cats and dogs.

Other notable trends: the aging affluent remain as pet owners longer than did their counterparts in years past; Millennials keep exotic breeds as status symbols; Gen Z adults (age 18–24) may even prefer animal companions to marriage; and Hispanics and other ethnic groups sometimes prefer more, rather than fewer, companion animals by tradition.

Lately there has been the emergence of “therapy” animals that provide disabled or emotionally handicapped individuals assistance in various ways and can have a relaxing effect on both patients and their caregivers, lightening moods, providing affection and physical contact, and acting as social lubricants to counter feelings of isolation. Prisons that allow animals to visit prisoners or allow prisoners to keep pets themselves have seen a reduction in violence, suicides, and drug use.

People often talk to their animals as they would a counselor or spouse. Some confide in them on a regular basis. Professional psychologists have agreed that a good counselor is “genuine, honest, empathic, nonjudgmental, able to listen, not talking too much, and ensuring total confidentiality” — the very qualities that owners of dogs experience. Pets increase their owners’ self-esteem and may help them get in touch with their own inner resources for development. Still, this all comes at a cost that we have been ignoring.

Some 3,600 years ago, house cats were depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings. They were mummified in such enormous numbers that at the beginning of the twentieth century cat mummies were excavated by the ton, ground up, and sold as fertilizer. Today fish meal that was once used for fertilizer is ground up and fed to cats.

In the US, dogs and cats consume about a third of the animal-derived food produced. They produce about 30%, by mass, of the feces of USAnians (5.6 million tons vs. 19 million tons), and, through their diet, constitute about 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impacts from farm animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and toxic agro-chemicals. Dog and cat foods are responsible for release of up to 80 million tons of CO2 and CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide. Globally, pets are responsible for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions each year. To reach a carbon footprint of net zero by 2050, the US will need to cut its pet population by some 10 million dogs and 10 million cats every year for a decade and then by some 200,000 per year in the out years towards mid-century. We’ll have to get to one dog and one cat for every 300 people — about like Joshua on The Farm. Other countries will need to do the same.

What will become of the millions of neurotic individuals whose capacity for social integration is anchored in the daily psychiatric interventions of their animal companions? What becomes of a nation’s mental stability when more than 50% of households suddenly go cold turkey and euthanize their biggest addictions? Will we see, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, the best minds of a generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn in search of a dog to cuddle?

USAnians are per capita the largest pet owners in the world, but the habit has been spreading. A 2017 report published in PLOS, a peer-reviewed science journal, reported: 

As pet ownership increases in some developing countries, especially China, and trends continue in pet food toward higher content and quality of meat, globally, pet ownership will compound the environmental impacts of human dietary choices. Reducing the rate of dog and cat ownership, perhaps in favor of other pets that offer similar health and emotional benefits, would considerably reduce these impacts. Simultaneous industry-wide efforts to reduce overfeeding, reduce waste, and find alternative sources of protein will also reduce these impacts.

Many millions of dogs whose owners have fallen on hard times, fallen out of love with them, become ill, died, or abandoned them, languish for long times in cages with bare concrete floors, cardboard-like kibble, only minimal human interaction each day, and no ability to simply chase a ball or play. Some are quite literally deafened by echoing, incessant barking. Some “shelters” are ovenlike in summer and iced in winter. The total number of world dogs is somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion. An estimated three hundred million of those are in people’s homes; the rest are feral or jailed.

Their ancestors made a choice, although a random mutation — perhaps a zoonotic virus — may have compelled it. Those who stayed as wolves may have had the harder time, but now can look forward to inhabiting a better future, as we eliminate more of man’s best friends to make room for them.

And maybe, just maybe, there is hope that some day a virus might cause a mutation in us that makes us friendlier and more empathetic, too.

Okin, G.S., Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats. PLoS One. 2017 Aug 2;12(8):e0181301. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0181301. eCollection 2017.

Sheldrake, R., Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Wynne, Clive D. L.. Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. If you are not that keen on Patreon I am experimenting with a new platform called SubscribeStar. Check it out. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon or SubscribeStar get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




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