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.

Video: 

“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?

_________

References

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.

#RestorationGeneration

“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."

Joshua
  

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.

References:
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.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Great Pause Week 46: Wolf Kill

"In 2020, federal protection for the gray wolf was removed entirely. Now the entire species teeters on the brink of extinction."

In August 2019, seven game wardens in black Kevlar body armor descended upon a remote mountain valley home in Northern California to issue an arrest warrant on a 23-year-old, sixth generation rancher. Mobile phone signals from local cell towers had placed the young man near the location where a wolf, tagged with a GPS collar, had been shot and killed. A few days before the wolf was shot, it had been spotted feeding on a calf that had died in a mountain pasture.

The two-year-old male gray wolf was known to the wardens as OR59 — the 59th wild wolf GPS-collared in Oregon. Now 500 miles from his home pack, the young gray had entered California along snowy trails of lava gravel, descending to the valley through juniper and sage, and was likely hunting for rodents until it had caught the scent of a dead cow.

Wolves began re-migrating into Northern California from Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming after California listed them endangered in 2014, ending their legal killing. The killing didn’t end in those other states, however. In the three years prior to OR59’s arrival, thirty-one wolves were shot by ranchers in Oregon and Washington where they are not legally protected.

California ranchers and hunters were outraged by the protection law, thinking wolf numbers would grow as they decimated herds of wild deer and elk, then encroach on ranches to feed on sheep, cattle, and poultry. “I can’t believe you guys would waste your time to investigate somebody for shooting a miserable wolf,” the grandfather of the young man told the arresting wardens.

“I’m not raising cattle to feed the wolves,” said a neighboring rancher. On social media locals were bragging of their kills, using the code “SSS” — Shoot. Shovel. Shut up.

“I don’t know you’d find a whole lot of people up here upset at someone shooting a wolf,” the local sheriff told the wardens, “especially after it’s been seen feeding on a calf.” 

Wolves have evolved to self-regulate their pack sizes based on available food. Where populations of prey are limited, packs stay small by individuals out-migrating or breeding less. 

Ranches within the hunting range of OR59 run some 100,000 head of cattle, much of that on state- or federally-owned lands like the mountain pasture where OR59 was first seen. The dead cow he was later scavenging was actually struck by a car and had died near the roadside before the wolf found it. This is most often how wild wolves prey on domestic livestock. As solitary hunters or in very small packs, they are unwilling to expend the energy or physically risk engaging in the combat required to bring down large, healthy animals.

Under normal conditions, wolves key-in on prey that is meek, infirm, or vulnerable. They are predisposed, by instinct and learned behavior, to go for animals that are easier to kill rather than those at peak physical strength. In this way they effect a valuable balance. They cull animals suffering viral, parasitic and vector-borne infections. Indirectly, they reduce the populations of ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, and other carriers of disease. Wolves quell epidemics.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is an always fatal, contagious, neurological infection striking deer, elk, and moose. It turns their brains to spongy mush, causing emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death. Studies of monkeys and laboratory mice that carry human genes show that CWD may eventually jump to humans through contaminated food or touching infected surfaces. Unless, that is, wolves, cougars, bears and other top predators are allowed to keep the disease in check among the herds of wild prey. Since it arrived in 1967, CWD has spread geographically, but its worst outbreaks are likely yet to come.

Wolves in North America were rescued from the brink of extinction in the 1970s by the Endangered Species Act, but in 2011, ”management” was transferred to the states. In the following years, more than 5,000 wolves were slaughtered in just seven states, even as the CWD epidemic spread. In 2020, federal protection for the gray wolf was removed entirely. Now the entire species teeters on the brink of extinction.

Wyoming is known for having the most notoriously-hostile attitude toward wolves in North America, with the possible exception of Alaska. In over 85 percent of Wyoming, “lobos,” like coyotes, can be killed year-round for any reason, no questions asked. And with the culling of wolves, CWD has been rapidly spreading westward across the West, infecting and killing mule deer and white-tailed deer.

Nearby Montana allows unlimited wolf harvest outside parks. “[P]robably not the best ecological strategy for containing CWD,” says biologist Dr. Gary J. Wolfe. Living in a free fire zone is no fun, so it should be little wonder grays like OR59 are moving to California.

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan described how the evolutionary strategy of certain plants — apples, maize, marijuana — allowed them to proliferate and dominate their ecosystems by virtue of their appeal to hominids. The partnership was great for these species.

Similarly, the evolutionary strategy taken by those ancestral wolves who evolved into dogs, 100,000 years B.P., has been enormously beneficial for dogs. Not so much for wolves. Dogs are now found everywhere in the inhabited world, hundreds of millions of them. The descendants of the primordial neolithic wolves that remained wolves are now sparsely distributed, often isolated into small inbred populations, and constantly under threat of extermination.

Unlike dogs, who are genetically predisposed towards human friendship, wolves have no motivation to help people hunt. Unlike their dog relatives, they would never have brought humans food, nor led them to prey. Like bears, jackals, and lions, they may have scavenged near human villages, but they were too dangerous, especially around children, for our human forebears to have tolerated them any more than they had to, never mind adopt them. They became like crab apples and teosinte grass, found only in remnant patches once the two-leggeds remade Earth’s landscape to suit their tastes.

Now they are on their own, wary, vigilant, not knowing whether death awaits them just around the next bend in the road.

Next week I’ll look more at the path trod by dogs.

And love Creation's final law— Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed—
Who loved, who suffered countless ills, Who battled for the True, the Just, Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

— Alfred Tennyson, 1849

 ___________________________

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.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Great Pause Week 45: Theocracy Rising

"Capitalism is a system that centers capital and wealth. Socialism is a system that centers society and people. Theocracy centers God."

In a long string of investigative reports for The New York Times, Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, explained why so much of the money and manpower used to storm the Capitol on January 6 came from churches:

In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, [Senator Josh] Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at The King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.
***
The line of thought here is starkly binary and nihilistic. It says that human existence in an inevitably pluralistic, modern society committed to equality is inherently worthless. It comes with the idea that a right-minded elite of religiously pure individuals should aim to capture the levers of government, then use that power to rescue society from eternal darkness and reshape it in accord with a divinely-approved view of righteousness. At the heart of Mr. Hawley’s condemnation of our terrifyingly Pelagian world lies a dark conclusion about the achievements of modern, liberal, pluralistic societies.

Much of the 20th century was spent in a global battle between two opposing ideologies: Socialism/Communism and Capitalism/Mercantilism. Whether systems were democratic, monarchic, autocratic, or class-based was largely irrelevant because both socialism and capitalism came in various flavors.

 


For much of the nation’s history, the US right wing has whipped up anti-socialist fervor, conflating care for public welfare and egalitarian apportionment of public assets with tyranny; drilling red fear and racial anger into the skull of every child; and then either overtly or covertly subverting any democratically-elected government that dared to promote universal health care, a basic income, education, or other survival requirements for their people. “Compassionate capitalism” is an oxymoron.

One need only look at a US foreign policy tilting away from boots on the ground (repeatedly disastrous at home and abroad) in favor of economic embargo a la the Cuban template, or bankrupting Venezuela, being used to bludgeon foes like Russia and China with currency and trade sanctions. Alternatively, the US pays surrogates without actually appearing to hire mercenaries, by stepping aside for the Saudis in Yemen, the Turks in Syria, and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Call it weaponized capitalism, in the sense that “capital” gets directed the same way cruise missiles once were.

For the past half century trade unions in the US and elsewhere (ironically the same kind that toppled the Soviet Union from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk) have been undercut and marginalized. Essential infrastructure like water systems, power grids, energy supply, national forests, and even defense have been privatized. The exercise of power has been gravitating towards the dictionary definition of fascism — corporate control of government.

With the conversion of the USSR and PRC to free-access consumerism (markets require masses), there came a moment when it seemed Adam Smith would emerge a clear winner in his century long duel with Karl Marx. That moment was short-lived.

“There are as many definitions of capitalism as Heinz has pickles.” — Hyman Minski

It was little noticed while all of this was going on that capitalism and socialism did not exist as a balanced opposing pair, as the economic hawks would have it. Instead, they are parts of a triangle with theocracy. When Soviet hegemony began to crumble, the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan. When the United States pushed unorthodox pro-Israel policies on the Middle East, Iran elected an Ayatollah, restored Shariah, and students seized the US Embassy in Tehran. Lacking aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons, Arab militants resorted to asymmetrical strategies like blowing up the barracks of the foreign invaders, in the old style of warfare, or hijacking airliners and crashing them into financial trading centers in the new.

It was politically advantageous to label these responses “terrorism” and use that brand to fatten the larders of multinational contractors, even at the cost of ignoring genuine threats faced at home and abroad from climate change, resource destruction, plastic Armageddon in the ocean, or latent zoonosis. But “terrorism” is a poor choice of words when one tries to apply it to the third point of the triangle, which enjoys widespread (genetically-embedded) popularity (and legal protection except where Tibetians, Uighurs, Armenian Kurds, and Yemeni tribes are concerned).

 

 
And so it came to be that right wing Christian churches flying the tax-exempt banners of Alliance Defending Freedom, American Renewal Project, Conservative Action Project, Council for National Policy, The Leadership Institute, Family Research Council, Judicial Watch, and similar theocratic advance guards could raise millions to bus kevlar’d neo-Nazi minions to Washington to stop Congress from certifying the electoral college vote on January 6.

At a rally in Washington on Jan. 5, on the eve of Electoral College certification, the right-wing pastor Greg Locke said that God is raising up “an army of patriots.” Another pastor, Brian Gibson, put it this way: “The church of the Lord Jesus Christ started America,” and added, “We’re going to take our nation back!”

— Katherine Stewart

Preliminary data suggest 28 percent of voters in the US 2020 election identified as either white evangelical or white born-again Christian, and of these, 76 percent voted for Mr. Trump, a singularly poor example of Christian values if not the Antichrist Himself. Why? Under all that halo of righteousness, they were realists. Mr. Trump’s success in packing some 220 God-fearing, Bible-thumping federal judges and three Supreme Court justices onto the courts will have lasting impact on religious affairs in coming decades. The legacies of Mitch McConnell and Newt Gingrich — and what Stewart termed “politics of total obstruction” — are merely preparation for the return of what the Hawleys and other antipelagians know to be the only “legitimate” ruler — the Prince of Princes.


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.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Great Pause Week 44: Auguries of Change

"Forbidden from attending the annual rites of football in facepaint and cheesehead-hats, frustrated masses bused to Washington to chant in unison and smash tribal effigies in their nation’s marbled HaDvir.

It is not particularly difficult to position the Capitol Riot of 2021 in the timeline of the life and death of complex societies. Were we to apply Orlov’s Six Stages of Collapse to this moment, we might find ourselves hovering over some midpoint in the implosion sequence:
  • Financial
  • Commercial
  • Political
  • Social 
  • Cultural
  • Environmental.
Ideally, it would start with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.

 — Dmitry Orlov

Today is Hawaii Day. Three days after this essay publishes on Sunday, Joseph Biden will be President of the United States. When Barack Obama took over the 2008 economic crash and the absurd war legacy of his predecessors, he kicked those smelly cans down the road. Rather than investigate, prosecute lawbreakers, and legislate lasting correctives, or — dare we suggest? — make reparations to those harmed, “Look forward, not backward” became the Democrat’s mantra. How did that work out? The Beltway scoundrel class took their free pass as a birthright. When opportunity next presented, they repeated the calumnies, with vastly greater profits. They are getting very good at what they do. 

Coiled in the inbox of the Resolute Desk is Medusa. Iran recently said it would resume de-nuclearization talks with the US only after the US repays the billions of dollars it imposed in illegal and unjustified sanctions. Russia could easily demand the same vis-a-vis START talks. Trade compacts with China and others are in tatters. The Kushner Middle East peace plan has hardened Apartheid. While nothing will put Humpty Dumpty back together again, punishing guilty parties could at least show well intentions. Sadly, the new Administration will never venture to the roots of its problem, and so collapse on all fronts will continue, and accelerate.

Orlov advises that the progression of the decline is not necessarily meant to be linear. Rather, the steps are similar to the Kubler Ross 7 stages of grief. Any one of them may come to the fore, recede, and be supplanted by another.

  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope.

Several years after publishing The Five Stages of Collapse, Orlov conceded that he had missed a sixth stage — environmental — and issued a correction. In that 2013 essay he also revisited two points raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment:

The phenomenon is well understood: sunlight reflected back into space by the atmospheric aerosols and particulates generated by burning fossil fuels reduces the average global temperature by well over a degree Celsius. (The cessation of all air traffic over the continental US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has allowed climate scientists to measure this effect.) If industrial activity were to suddenly cease, average global temperatures would be jolted upward toward the two degree Celsius mark which is widely considered to be very, very bad indeed. Secondly, even if all industrial activity were to cease tomorrow, global warming, 95% of which is attributed to human activity in the latest (rather conservative and cautious) IPCC report, would continue apace for the better part of the next millennium, eventually putting the Earth’s climate in a mode unprecedented during all of human existence as a species.

Fortunately, Orlov and the IPCC of that era were wrong. Climate scientist Joeri Rogelij, a lead author of the forthcoming IPCC Sixth Assessment told Covering Climate Now last week that a rapid heat rebound from removal of global dimming aerosols is a misplaced concern: “It is our best understanding that, if we bring down CO2 to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two.” Climate scientist Michael Mann called IPCC’s new finding a “game-changing new scientific understanding.”

After describing the inability of Captain Cook and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia to comprehend the others’ cultures, Orlov in his 2013 essay proceeded to write one of the most passionate and eloquent paragraphs of his long career:

Even when viewed from this rather bizarre perspective that treats our one and only living planet as a storehouse of commodities to be plundered, it turns out that most of our economic “wealth” is made possible by “ecosystem services” which are provided free of charge. These include water clean enough to drink, air clean enough to breathe, a temperature-controlled environment that is neither too cold nor too hot for human survival across much of the planet, forests that purify and humidify the air and moderate surface temperatures, ocean currents that moderate climate extremes making it possible to practice agriculture, oceans (formerly) full of fish, predators that keep pest populations from exploding and so on. If we were forced to provide these same services on a commercial basis, we’d be instantly bankrupt, and then, in short order, extinct. The big problem with us living on other planets is not that it’s physically impossible — though it may be — it’s that there is no way we could afford it. If we take natural wealth into account when looking at economic activity, it turns out that we consistently destroy much more wealth than we create: the economy is mostly a negative-sum game [and]… we don’t really understand how these “ecosystem services” are maintained, beyond realizing that it’s all very complicated and highly interconnected in surprising and unexpected ways.

Eight years after writing that, in January 2021, Orlov regularly repeats that Western Civilization’s collapse is well underway, albeit just not evenly distributed. Those nations that have invested in science, energy, manufacturing, large-scale infrastructure projects, and social safety nets …

“… are surging ahead (after scaling back while massacring their parasitic sectors such as international tourism). Nations that have gone all in on globalization, financialization, post-industrialism and virtualization are at best treading water; most of them are drowning in debt.”

In an obscure 2006 essay, “The collapse of complex systems,” Dale Allen Pfeiffer wrote: 

Consider treating pneumonia as a cold. You might be able to clear up the cough and sinus condition temporarily, only to have the untreated infection claim the patient. The civilization we live in is simply a complex form of ecosystem. As such, it obeys all the laws of ecology. Increased energy availability will result in population growth, given there are no other immediate limits to environmental carrying capacity. Already, the world population is almost twice again more than the carrying capacity of the planet without hydrocarbons. Should we find and implement the perfect technofix, population would continue to grow. The adoption of conspicuous consumption (otherwise known as the American lifestyle) by more and more people will result in graver problems. And the eventual population crash will be even worse. 
And for those who say that a technofix would work if we also practiced conservation, I submit that it is impossible for our current socioeconomic system to conserve. For one thing, conservation could endanger the economic growth upon which this system is so dependent. And even if we did succeed in conserving energy in some ways, Jevon’s Paradox implies that total energy consumption will still increase. This is why scientists and engineers have been warning us for over a decade not to expect technofixes. 
Our problems are too complex, and they result from basic conceptual flaws that lie outside of the realm of science and technology. It is too late for technofixes. Even if it existed, a technofix would only be a temporary fix. And, in any case, our efforts would be much more effective if we were to address the fundamental problems instead. 

What comes after? Orlov has stopped clinging to his early expectation that the crash of industrial civilization — even the restoration of a global aboriginal economy — would arrest our slide into Hothouse Earth. Still, that slide is glacial in comparison with political, social, and cultural collapse afoot, as witnessed in the events of January 6. 

It is not just that the next four years will look a lot like the last four years, it is that theocracy may be an idea whose time has ripened. Beware ye Satan-worshiping pedophiles hiding your alien presence in the pizza kitchens of Capitol Hill! Plagues, locusts, and firestorms are the wrath of God. Jihads of the righteous are now upon us. 

In addition to all of us having a genetic program that forces us to deny our own mortality, or the mortality of the soul, we likewise have an embed that inclines us towards tribal fealty. You cannot deprive us of our football spectacles without Hell to pay.


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.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Great Pause Week 43: Two Physicists Walk Into A Bar…

"The question is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale up Carbon Dioxide Removal, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale."


On a hot summer night in 1992, or so we are told by a writer for MIT’s Technology Review, two particle physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory were staring out over the moonlit desert and sipping cold beers. Given the story that followed, I kind of wonder whether something more aromatic than beer was involved. 

“What if,” Klaus Lackner wondered out loud to his companion, Christopher Wendt, “machines could build machines? How big and fast could you manufacture things?” It was not a new idea. Science fiction writers had been drawing from that meme for half a century to populate whole galaxies. But Lackner and Wendt were real scientists, working at a real National Laboratory, the same one that invented the atom bomb.

They decided that the only way the scheme could work would be if you designed robots that dug up all their own raw materials from dirt, harnessed renewables to power the process, and taught succeeding generations of robots to copy themselves. Quoting from Technology Review, March 2019:

They eventually published a paper working out the math and exploring several applications, including self-replicating robots that could capture massive amounts of carbon dioxide and convert it into carbonate rock. “My argument has always been we need to be passive,” Lackner says. “We want to be a tree standing in the wind and have the CO2 carried to us.” The robot armada, solar arrays, carbon-­converting machines, and piles of rock would all grow exponentially, reaching “continental size in less than a decade,” the paper concluded. Converting 20% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would generate a layer of rock 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick covering a million square kilometers (390,000 square miles) — an area the size of Egypt.

In 1999, Lackner released a government study titled “Carbon Dioxide Extraction from Air: Is It an Option?” It was a bit starry-eyed, imagining that direct CO2 removal could be accomplished for $15 per ton. The machines that actually do that today require $1000 per ton but many working in the field hope to get that cost down to $600 or even $50 with further investment, at scale. Still, the idea had Lackner in its grip. He left Los Alamos in search of sponsors. Gary Comer, founder of the Lands’ End apparel catalog, gave him $8 million. Lackner founded Global Research Technologies and built a small prototype… and ran out of money. GRT was sold and its buyers went bust, too. The idea’s time had not yet come.

Still, Lackner had definitely started something. Other researchers he influenced became more successful by being less idealistic. They prototyped chemical removal processes by working on coal stack effluents. They sold CO2 to hothouse, dry ice, and beverage companies —a process I like to call “catch and release.” More importantly, they attracted enough venture capital from corporations like Stripe, European Space Commission, various airlines, and Bill Gates to form loss-leader companies — Carbon Engineering (Canada), Climeworks (Switzerland), Global Thermostat (USA), Antecy (Netherlands), Hydrocell (Finland), Infinitree (USA), Skytree (Netherlands) —to begin to commercialize designs and scale pilot plants. Articles in the scientific and popular media have proliferated. Now it would appear they even have the Biden transition team interested in moonshot level funding in the first 100 days of the new Administration.

For a generic DAC system in the long term, experts expect the costs for captured CO2 to go down to $37, 87 and 129 per ton CO2 for optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic assumptions, respectively. They estimate rates (in dollars per ton) of 0.12 for capital costs, 0.17 for energy costs and 0.17 for operational and maintenance costs. Under these assumptions, by 2029, DAC will drop capture costs to $55 per ton CO2, with possible further reduction to $28 by 2050 and $17 by 2100.

I have been for many years calling Direct Air Capture technology “artificial trees.” In a recent colloquy with Peter Eisenberger of Global Thermostat, he bristled, responding that each “tree” (a DAC capture unit the size of a shipping container that costs $500,000) can sequester the equivalent of 20,000 to 100,000 natural trees. I’ll have to check his math on that one.

First, the DAC unit is only part of the price, both in dollars and surface area. To go with DAC you need CS (carbon storage) and since DAC produces CO2 in a hot (>212°F) gaseous form that can be frozen and liquified, you’ll also need refrigerated pipelines, deep wells for geologic storage, pumps, etc. Also DACCS (DAC+CS) requires power to run, typically 200–300 kWh-e/tCO2. The cycling of chemicals requires significant heat, 1200–2100 kWh-t/tCO2. Add to the shipping container’s cost and land footprint, a solar array or wind farm, battery storage, road access, fencing, etc. and you are looking at considerably more capital cost (CAPEX) and operating cost (OPEX) than your average tree, or many hundred trees. What is the CAPEX of DACCS compared to the CAPEX of reforestation, on a per tree basis? What is the OPEX? Actually we already know that, because for millennia humans have profitably inhabited forested landscapes, drawing from them most necessities of life. Which of these necessities do artificial trees provide? Just one, it seems: carbon dioxide removal.

To withdraw the 1500 GtCO2 required to keep us under 2 degrees warming this century, builders, be they Lacknerian robots or mere human stainless steel or aluminum welders, would have to produce 51,368,863 artificial trees, each averaging CO2 withdrawals of one ton per day for the next 80 years, at the cost of $25 trillion in capital cost, excluding power plants and pipelines. 

Bruce Melton, an engineer who heads the Climate Change Now Initiative and is drafting a carbon neutrality plan for Austin, Texas, responded to Eisenberger that “In WWII we spent $19 trillion dollars globally (2019 dollars) in 7 years, 1939 through 1945, on industrial expansion and mostly heavy manufacturing or $2.71 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Total global GDP 1939 through 1945 in 2019 US Dollars was $44.6 trillion in 7 years or an average of $6.37 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Average annual global WWII spending then, was 43 percent of global GDP. If we were to mimic WWII industrialization infrastructure spending today at 43 percent of global GDP of $87 trillion annually in 2019, this would be $37 trillion per year, or $261 trillion in seven years.” 

“It’s all about motivation and risk, not money,” Melton concluded.

Of course there are many other problems with technofixes that do not involve money. The chemicals used in sorbent manufacture and the disposal of sorbents at the end of their useful lives must be handled in a responsible way. Sodium hydroxide is highly corrosive and the chlorine gas that is emitted during its production from brine is extremely poisonous. Concentrated CO2 is also potentially deadly. Deep geological storage of the captured carbon gas involves not negligible risk of leakage and upwelling because nowhere is the Earth completely stable. Deep ocean disposal raises issues of salinity, contamination, fragility and cost. The biological carbon pump operates everywhere, even in the deepest depths of the ocean.

Another consideration — which regular readers of this blog will recognize as a recurring theme — is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale artificial trees up to billions of tons carbon sequestration per year, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale implementation, and to make that worth doing even during the decline phase of a civilization? With other negative emissions technologies — mineral fertilizers, biochar, tree-planting — there is palpable benefit to be harvested at an individual farm-to-kitchen scale. Who would spend $500,000 to have a DACCS container in their village and feed it the heat and electrical energy it requires, with no tangible benefit, assuming this is not a village of robots who have been programmed just to do that?

We are once more confronted with the ideological conflict between wizards like Elon Musk and Bill Gates and prophets like Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva. It would be sad to see the United States throw trillions at technological chimeras like DACCS when the same money could and should be regenerating the hardwood, evergreen, and chaparral forests we desperately need to stave off the coming climate chaos.

It would be worth recalling by the Biden transition team that on a day when the Capitol was shrouded in a black blizzard from the Dustbowl, the 74th Congress appropriated the money for Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to build a great wall of trees from Texas to the Dakotas. Between 1935 and 1939, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Forest Service (USFS) planted 217 million trees on 232,212 acres. The New Deal turned back the desert and saved the American breadbasket. Now, since 2000, owing to agricultural subsidies, fencerow-to-fencerow planting, suburban sprawl, and a waning conservation ethic among Plains farmers and their lenders, most of those trees have been cut, burned, and buried where they stood. In Nebraska alone, 57 percent of the original plantings are gone, even as climate change threatens a repeat of the 1930s, on steroids. Whether Roosevelt’s great green wall will be replaced with real trees or artificial ones remains to be seen.

Sources:

Fasihi, Mahdi, Olga Efimova, and Christian Breyer. “Techno-economic assessment of CO2 direct air capture plants.” Journal of cleaner production 224 (2019): 957–980.

Gambhir, Ajay, and Massimo Tavoni. “Direct Air Carbon Capture and Sequestration: How It Works and How It Could Contribute to Climate-Change Mitigation.” One Earth 1, no. 4 (2019): 405–409.

Goodell, Jeff. How to cool the planet: Geoengineering and the audacious quest to fix earth’s climate. HMH, 2010.

Hailing, Tu, Sun Zongtan, Yao Yuan, and Xu Yuan. “Analysis and Insights from the MIT Technology Review “Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies” in the Past Six Years.” Strategic Study of Chinese Academy of Engineering 19, no. 5 (2017): 85–91.

Lackner, Klaus, Hans-Joachim Ziock, and Patrick Grimes. Carbon dioxide extraction from air: Is it an option?. No. LA-UR-99–583. Los Alamos National Lab., NM (US), 1999.

Temple, J. One man’s two-decade quest to suck greenhouse gas out of the sky, Technology Review (March 2019). 

Yao, Benzhen, Tiancun Xiao, Ofentse A. Makgae, Xiangyu Jie, Sergio Gonzalez-Cortes, Shaoliang Guan, Angus I. Kirkland et al. “Transforming carbon dioxide into jet fuel using an organic combustion-synthesized Fe-Mn-K catalyst.” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (2020): 1–12.

 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Great Pause Week 42: Taintered Passages

"Haaland’s very existence is proof that the collapse of Chaco culture did not augur extinction of the Pueblo peoples."

Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Murales de Tlaxcala

The popular science writer Jared Diamond defined “collapse” as “a drastic decrease in human population size and or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” If we conceive the Covid Pandemic of 2020 in these terms, it was pretty mild. It caused, as it now seems in December 2020, a temporary drop in the rate of increase in human population accompanied by slight reduction in political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for a short time. As collapses go, it was a light rehearsal. A table read. 

Covid should make us aware, however, of the potential for a novel virus or some other lethal infectious agent to bring global civilization to abrupt collapse; full stop. Had vaccines not been discovered, and had natural disasters simultaneously combined to produce widespread famines, this pandemic might have resembled the Black Death or a similar historic collapse that can unfold more rapidly than herd immunity can develop. Because Covid is only lethal in a small number of cases compared to those that are mild and confer immunity, however, a full-on collapse comparable to the fall of Rome in the 6th century or the feudal system in the 14th was never likely. Nonetheless, the zoonotic potential remains for that destiny to be fulfilled in our lifetimes.

A full scale SolarWinds cyberattack could have met Diamond’s defined threshold for collapse. It might still.

Last month I looked at the writings of environmental sociologist William R. Catton. This week I’ll dive into a parallel stream developed by the other scientist I sat down next to in that row of fold-down auditorium seats in DC on a brisk May day in 2006: anthropologist Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).

By studying the collapse of a number of monumental civilizations, Tainter teased out many causes of collapse and how they combine in synergistic ways. His analysis is illuminating when one tries to parse how nations like the US, UK and Sweden were laid low by Covid while others, like Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand, sailed through nearly unscathed. 

Collapse is seldom entirely the result of external or natural forces. Most often it comes from latent social forces, or entropies, that are brought to crisis by some triggering event. Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand are tight-knit cultures with deep reserves of social capital. When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called upon her “team of 5 million” to go into voluntary lockdown, they went, even if somewhat grudgingly, until they saw what following the advice of epidemiologists had got for them compared to other countries, and then the grudges wore off. In Senegal, graffiti artists painted Covid murals on city walls, warning the population to mask and supporting healthcare personnel. In the USA and a number of other countries, the inferiority of pay-to-play health care systems, deep-seated racial and social inequality, absence of rumor control and rational leadership, and many other, by now well-commentated flaws, ran up death tolls needlessly. Recklessly.

The end of the Covid pandemic, which at this writing is still a ways off into the future, will not be the end of the problems it exposed. Knowing about them does not equate to doing something about them. By largely ignoring them, as we are predisposed towards, we set ourselves up for still greater calamities to come. One of Tainter’s contributing factors is obstructed feedback.

When you fire the head of your Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and put in a lackey, you have no feedback to tell you that most of the Fortune 500 companies and half the government agencies have been breached by a hack attack of unknown origin, and so it can go on for months, quietly seeding malware.

I am writing this just as BREXIT is playing out upon the European stage even as the Covid pandemic rages across the UK and Northern Europe, graduating into its first Northern winter. Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand may seem remote, economically, but they are hopelessly tethered to what happens elsewhere because all depend heavily on imports and exports. 

In 2019, Iceland’s trade deficit amounted to around a billion euros. In 2020, its exports decreased 5.6 % while imports increased 7.5 %, which must have been a strain, except that since the financial implosion of 2008 they have become accustomed to running annual trade deficits and their lenders have tolerated it. Senegal is a net exporter of oil, phosphate, gold and fish. However, the country is dependent on the import of fuels, foodstuffs and capital equipment. Its sales from mineral, oil, and ocean exploitation are not able to keep pace with the demands of its growing population, causing a persistent trade deficit of 500 million. New Zealand’s trade sheet is always predictably seasonal — surpluses of 300 to 500 million in summer and fall; deficits of 800 million to a billion in winter and spring. Although its exports were down 4.4% in 2020, its imports were down an even greater 12.6%, so it managed austerity well (kudos again to Jacinda Ardern). It would be difficult to find a correlation between trade balance and pandemic response among these examples, but it is not difficult to say that all of these countries are fully integrated into the global economy and will be equally affected by what comes next.

So, what does come next? Tainter would likely say all of the nations in the world today, and their integrated network, can be described as “complex” societies. Complexity requires a substantial caloric subsidy to be maintained, which can be denominated in fossil energy, consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth. 

When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a devastating pandemic, it tends to create new layers of complexity to address the challenge, whether within existing agencies or by creating entirely new ones. Operation Warp Speed to develop a vaccine is an example of a new layer, and it was far more complex than, for instance, the Apollo moon landing program, in terms of numbers crunched, persons employed, or moneys spent. The physical resources required were “borrowed” in the sense that the US issued Treasury bonds (which the Fed purchased), and the European Central Bank or the Bank of China did the equivalent, and they lent the money to governments, companies, or consortia to produce results. While there was little immediate drawdown of real calories from food inventories, oceans, or oil refineries, these bonds were IOUs for future calories. The world went into caloric debt to fund Operation Warp Speed and all other parts of the pandemic response.


This entire exercise laid bare the hoax being perpetrated by politicians who claim there is no money to pay for a Green New Deal to address the climate emergency, because the trillions borrowed to respond to the Covid crisis were far more, cash wise, than anyone had dreamed of asking for to begin pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by safe natural means, or by sponsoring the experimental phase of new carbon drawdown economy. Still, borrowing from the future to spend now always carries consequences. Sooner than you expect, those debts come due.

Such debts are of little concern in a period of rapidly expanding resources, such as following discovery of two entire continents, each larger than Europe, populated only by inhabitants without gunpowder, Andulusian war horses, Toledo steel or any natural immunity to measles; or in 1595 in Balakhani, Azerbaijan, when Allah Yar Mammad Nuroghlu dug a 35m deep well to extract black oil, forever altering the balance of sunlight calories bouncing back to space or stored within our planet’s rock, by Watts per square meter as it turned out. It is only when such one-off expansions of carrying capacity begin to contract that debts to the future intrude and creditors come knocking.

In Collapse, Tainter identifies seventeen examples of rapid collapse and applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture. 

As Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita caloric availability dropped. The Romans “solved” their deficit not by borrowing but by investing in their military and expanding. They conquered their neighbors to gain more grain, metals, slaves, and armies. However, as they grew, the cost of maintaining supply lines, communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew faster. Eventually, as their currency devalued and their overstretched borders were overrun, the Romans learned lex minoratio redit — the law of diminishing returns. Hitler sent armies into Poland and Czechoslovakia for the same reason — too many people on too little land — and began strategic exterminations in conquered territories to make room for future Aryans. He followed Caesar’s dictum but neglected to read up on lex minoratio redit.

Complexity by itself produces diminishing returns. Conquest can be counterproductive, and as we saw last week, civilizations more often fall by their own hand — by neglect of the ecosystems that support them.

Terminal stages have many common elements. Shortages in things like land close to to urban centers drive up real estate prices, displacing service classes, which drives wage demand, illegal immigration, and poverty. Military conflict over depleting resources militarizes society at home. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion foster push-back by the oppressed populations. General strikes. Populist demagogues. Cabals. Elite escape refuges. There is seldom a catastrophic die-off; more often there is merely a fragmentation. In both the Mayan and Roman collapses, the welfare of the people improved by a devolution to rural simplicity. Tainter is not entirely a pessimist. While the cycle itself cannot be thwarted, he believes innovation can stave off the worst parts of contraction phase.

Debra Haaland by by Shane Balkowitsch, pure silver on glass for “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective” 23 June 2019

Joe Biden’s pick for Interior Secretary, Debra Haaland, is 35th generation Laguna Pueblo. Her very existence is proof that the collapse of Chaco culture did not augur extinction of the Pueblo peoples. If the Senate runoff election in Georgia goes well enough for her to be confirmed, Haaland will oversee about one-fifth of the land in the United States, 476 dams and 348 reservoirs, 410 national parks, monuments, seashore sites, 544 national wildlife refuges, much of Alaska, and the well being and demands of 574 federally recognized tribes, Hawaiians, Native Alaskans, Pacific Islanders, and the populations of other occupied territories that have been engaged in an unfulfilled civil rights, land and water struggle since at least the mid-1950s.

Harvard Lampoon cartoonist and Hasty Pudding cross-dresser Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While the pandemic of 2020–21 did not bring with it the collapse of complex civilization, it was one more small nail in an already fashioned coffin. A harbinger, if we care to notice.

This holiday season let us rejoice that we were bowed but not broken by the calamities that beset us in 2020. We have been given a learning moment. Pray we will use it.

_____________


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.

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