When the Planet Has a Fever and the Kids are Sick: McKibben’s Math, Colborn’s Letter, Planetary Chemistry and Grassroots Economics

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It has been a record-breaking year for breaking records. Heat waves. Cold snaps. Floods. Tornadoes. Super storms. Blizzards. Wildfires. Cyclones. Polar melts. Equatorial droughts. Rising seas.

Crops failed. Infrastructure buckled. Forests burned. Subways drowned. Shorelines vanished. Neighborhoods blew apart. Mold grew.

It is not hard to connect the climate change dots when there are so darn many of them. But for those still struggling, environmentalist Bill McKibben connected them for us in a devastating piece—Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math—last July in Rolling Stone magazine: 

  • Once greenhouse gases (GHGs) currently wafting into the atmosphere are accounted for, we are already 75% of the way to the 565 gigaton of greenhouse gas limit linked to a doom-and-gloom 2 degree Celcius global temperature rise.
  • The 2 degree target is optimistic. Look at all the trouble 0.8 degrees has already caused.
  • It is not only the carbon we are burning today, but also the carbon assets still in the ground—2,795 gigatons worth—about which we need to worry. 

…We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.


Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians…


..You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

Yet there is even more to the story. It turns out we are poisoning ourselves right along with the planet. 

CHEMICALLY ALTERED

Theo Colborn, a thin slip of a woman with a voice as gentle as the grandmother she is, packs a punch. An environmental analyst, expert on fetal development, Time magazine “Hero of the Environment,” professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida and founder and president The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), Dr. Colborn warns of another fossil fueled catastrophe with generational implications: petrochemicals polluting the very cells of life.

At TEDxMidAtlantic in Washington DC last fall, Dr. Colborn read a letter she would later send to the President and First Lady. By turns, it is personal, professorial, horrific and hopeful. 

In the 1950s, when the Colborns had their four children, parents counted their newborns fingers, toes and private parts to assess overall health. It was an optimistic decade that saw the start of  the post-WWII industrial boom and the beginnings of the space race. Petrochemicals that had been developed for bombs were transformed into fertilizer, while miracle materials came pouring out of research labs to build rockets bound for the moon and beyond. Consumer applications, from non-stick frying pans to fire retardant pajamas, quickly became part of daily life. 

…As a result, today the surface of the earth is saturated with man-made chemicals that society and the global economy have become totally dependent upon—chemicals that can interfere in the womb with the delicate endocrine system that makes possible the development and differentiation of that precious single cell in the womb into a normal healthy child. 


Yes, a small number of the nearly 100,000 new chemicals produced up through 2011 were tested but at high, occupational-level doses for the probability they could cause immediate harm, obvious birth defects, and cancer—and governments set standards, using risk assessment and cost benefit analysis to determine whether a chemical is safe, based on the odds of getting cancer. But, the odds that a baby born today will become compromised with one or more endocrine disorders are far greater than the odds of getting a malignant cancer. 


This has happened because of the old chemical safety standards that predominantly focus on cancer. Those standards are deeply embedded in the language of federal health regulations allowing corporations to continue to put dangerous chemicals into their products, into the food we eat, and into the air we breathe. Chemicals are now in wide use that were never tested using assays that can detect disturbances in the womb that eventually lead to diseases that might not appear until puberty or even later in life such as obesity, infertility, dementia, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Our laws have let this happen… 


—Theo Colborn, PhD / letter to President and Mrs. Obama


* Ed. note: emphasis added in quotes throughout post  

Just as with GHG’s, people had no idea of the potential harm, nor any way to measure the risk. Conventional scientific wisdom was proved wrong time and again. It turned out that chemicals could indeed float into the placenta, into the embryo and into the very fetal brain itself. No one knew about epigenetics—that the micro-environment around genes can determine whether they toggle on or off, zig or zag. 

Dr. Colborn points out that the discovery 45 years ago that a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy affected her baby should have been a giant tip off that environmental chemicals could pose a serious health threat. Yet research just crept along for decades. The best science available—a favorite fallback phrase of corporate and bureaucratic spinmeisters—was not nearly as good as it might have been with more funding.

But now we know. 

… Today, one out of every three babies will develop diabetes and if you are African American or among the other minorities that will be every other baby. One out of every 88 babies born today will develop autism spectrum disorder and if you are a boy, that is one out of every 54. And in less than 10 years 80% of the population will be overweight. No woman should have to live with knowledge about epidemics like this throughout her pregnancy and then watch every day for any tell-tale sign that her precious baby might be diabetic or autistic because somehow the chemistry in her womb had become flawed.  


Many of these disorders that were once rare are the result of fossil fuel-derived chemicals interfering with our endocrine system, the overarching system that integrates all our body’s glands—like the pancreas, thyroid, adrenals, sex organs, and segments of the brain, and now we know, even body fat, the stomach, and intestines, are all part of the endocrine system—and they all produce hormones and function under hormonal control.  

Dr. Colborn makes a plea for more research, a “Manhattan Project”-style effort, bringing together—and generously funding—the world’s best thinkers to find a way to break the petrochemical spiral to disaster. 

…Mr. President, the best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging it deeper. It is here, where you, as the head of our nation, can step in and help. Keep in mind that both the ravages of climate change and the increasing endocrine-related epidemics are intimately connected with the increasing use of fossil fuels and their byproducts. By drilling deep into the bowels of the earth for coal, oil, and natural gas, we have unwittingly and catastrophically altered the chemistry of the biosphere and the human womb. Something must be done immediately….

DOING SOMETHING IMMEDIATELY 

The good news: one solution addresses multiple disasters. Reduce the use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals and things will start to improve. But with global carbon emissions averaging an annual increase of 3%, McKibben calculates that we will blow past the magic 565-gigaton GHG number before 2030. Even worse, data indicate a temperature spike three times what was earlier predicted: 6 degrees Celsius. “That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction,” warns McKibben. Of course, if that happens, we might just have a generation of sci-fi children to match. 

Perhaps things will turn out better. Last July, in the Rolling Stone story, McKibben speculated that it would take something really big—”…a giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture”—to make things politically palatable for policy-makers to do the right thing.

Lucky us, 2012 saw both disasters.

In the shredded, waterlogged aftermath of Hurricane-turned Superstorm Sandy, politicians on both sides of the aisle pointed to climate change, seeking tens of billions of federal dollars to repair what was damaged and to shore up infrastructure in New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, 80% of US farmland experienced drought, making it “more extensive than any drought since the 1950s,” according to the USDA. “Severe or greater drought is impacting 67 percent of cattle production, and about 70-75 percent of corn and soybean production.” 

McKibben and others, inspired by the anti-apartheid movement that toppled South Africa’s racist regime 20 years ago, are now calling for a global movement to pressure large investors—pension funds, municipalities, university endowments—to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

…Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes. That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. “The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure,” especially from “the divestment movement of the 1980s.”


The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”

 

It might just work. In November, McKibbon’s 21-city bio-diesel bus tour, "Do the Math," inspired 192 student groups pressure their schools to divest, and the Mayor of Seattle to order city pension funds to cut ties to fossil fuel companies. 


It is a modest start, amounting to just a few tens of millions of dollars in an industry worth trillions. But it is a step in the right direction: a grassroots, follow-the-money approach could succeed where international treaties and global political will so far have failed.

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED: 

• Fossil Free Campaign / Divestment Toolkit (website) 

• Bill McKibben (website) 

• Hot Topics: On Weather, Preppers and the Promise of a “Blue Economy”  / by J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews Dot to Dot

• Bouncing Onward: Climate, Consequences, Crops, Memes & Resilience / by J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews Dot to Dot

Bouncing Onward: Climate, Consequences, Crops, Memes & Resilience

It is amazing what summer soaker can do. Three or four of such storms over the course of a few days can bring back the seemingly dead. For weeks I have given feeble garden hose life support to frying hosta lilies and parched grass, always making sure to water a spot near a robins’ nest so the parents would have a fighting chance of finding a few worms and grubs to feed their peeping young. Some days, the water in the hose would get so hot, I would spritz the sidewalks for few minutes to avoid scalding the already scorched.

Now it’s all green lawns, revived trees and perked up posies, reveling in gloriously normal temperatures that gently rise into mid-80s during the day and settle into the 60s for snugly cicada-serenaded sleep at night.

This is summer as it ought to be. Summer as it used to be, at least in my little sliver by Chicago. Yet even though the view out the window looks like the poster child of resilience, it is more a reminder that what was once reliably normal is fast becoming a rarity to be treasured.

Over 4,700 weather records have been broken in the US so far this year. The withered corn crop, once on track to be the largest in history will now be the largest loss in history. And with demand for all commodity crops increasing right along with global population, even little wiggles can amplify across world markets. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan a couple of years ago sent cotton prices soaring, even though Pakistan ranks a distant fourth as a supplier.

The Great American Corn Pop of 2012 is a much, much bigger deal and will translate into higher food prices, higher fuel prices (another ethanol promise broken), more hunger, more debt, more unrest and more misery in a cycle that will be tough to break.

The drought tipped the balance of a global food system already in a delicate state,   made vulnerable to petro chemical-dependent soils, fast-depleting aquifers, pesticide-impervious "superweeds," an increasingly monopolistic agri-food supply chain, a resurgence of crop pests and rising fuel costs.

Extreme and unpredictable weather causes highways to buckle, concrete to crack, rail ties to kink, bridges to bend and rivers to become unnavigable. Even if you manage to grow a crop, there is still the challenge of getting it to market

A DANGEROUS MEME

How do you adapt to such a fast-moving target? Even if we were able turn off our collective car ignitions and switch instantly to renewable power sources, there are more than enough greenhouse gases swirling around the Earth’s atmosphere to cause mischief for decades to come. The disaster is so overwhelmingly obvious that now Koch-sponsored scientists have seen the grim light. Still, there are politicians who continue to bray for more mining and drilling.

In a tour de force numbers analysis in Rolling Stone magazine, Bill McKibben follows the money:

…We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

—Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Sustainability, which implies a baseline stability—the very thing we are fast losing—is giving way to the meme of resilience: the idea that somehow we will be able to recover from the inevitable disaster looming and “bounce back.” It is the seductive promise of Dorothy waking up safe in her bed in Kansas, with Toto ready to resume his rightful place in her arms once more.

But the tornado that rocked Dorothy’s world is nothing compared to the tornadoes, direchoes, record monsoons, massive droughts and rapid ice melts rocking ours. Even the parched park lawn now showing signs of green grizzle isn’t bouncing back, but  evolving, bouncing onward. Weeds with better root systems are making the most of their competitive advantage. Unless someone rips up the sod and reseeds, that lawn has changed for good.

Resilience is also a neutral concept, a point that is often overlooked. What bounces onwards may not be to everyone’s liking, such as weeds, bunny rabbits, pathogens, drug cartels and oil companies.

So the question is not whether we can return to a comfortable status quo: We can’t. Rather it is Status quo vadis? Where are we going?

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED:

• Global Risks 2012 / World Economic Forum (pdf and additional web resources)