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The 10 Most Likely Real-Life Catastrophes

Previews of Coming Disasters

Catastrophe is in the air: the sense of it is almost palpable. It is our entertainment, our fear, our fantasy, our future. We have come to expect calamity as a matter of course.

Apocalyptic ages before us be­lieved in the end of the world, but then it was a question of man’s damnation and God’s will. Nobody carries signs today saying “Repent, the End is Near” — they don’t need to. So what else is new? we’d say. There is something frivolous about our rapid change from confidence into fear of our scientific accom­plishments, in our swing back to Original Sin, even in our safe en­joyment of film spectaculars like “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno.” We seem to accept the immanence of catastrophe yet at the same time refuse to take it serious­ly.

Perhaps that’s because we lack experience. It used to be said that Americans didn’t understand war because their homeland had never been ravaged by one. A broader generalization is that we have been mostly spared from catastrophe. Disasters — explosions, plane crashes, ship sinkings, major fires­ — we’ve had aplenty, but never a mor­tal blow. Consider the casualty fig­ures in what have become our legendary calamities, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which killed from 452 to 700 people or the Johnstown flood which claimed 2200. That the numbers look big is a dead giveaway.

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A real earthquake in terms of victims occurred on Jan. 24, 1556, in Shensi Province, China: 830,000 dead, mostly in landslides. In Cal­cutta, in 1737, an earthquake and a cyclone teamed up to take 300,000 lives. Floods? If the Mississippi overflows its banks there is much lamentation and discomfort but not as much as there was along the Yangtze in 1887 when almost a million people perished. Nor let us for­get Noah. Dr. Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin believes that the story of Noah is  based on a Sumerian folk hero who lived 5300 years ago in the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and that rains and flooding were so extensive and long-lasting as to change the face of Sumerian society.

At many times over the centuries it must have seemed to those in the middle of nature’s tantrums that whatever the world was made for, it wasn’t people. Three cyclones — or hurricane-type storms — struck what is now Bangladesh in 1965, killing almost 60,000, but that was only a prelude to the cyclone of 1970 that took 225,000, mostly by drowning. It also destroyed the rice crop at har­vest time, contributing to uncounted deaths by starvation. Nature has lost none of its punch. (The 1970 Bangla­desh storm may not have been the worst there. An 1876 cyclone killed between 100,000 and 400,000.)

Those who happily slight science and technology, whose idea of pro­gress is the natural food shoppe and the “Whole Earth Catalog” might ponder what are horribly called disease vectors. The “Black Death” or bubonic plague is thought to have killed 25 million in Asia and Europe in 1340s, three million in 1898-1908 in China and India, and two million more in India in the 1920s. There were four major outbreaks of cholera in Europe during the 1880s with many millions dead — almost one million in 1831 alone. Smallpox in Brazil killed three million in 1560 and Cuba lost a quarter of the world’s population, and the influenza pan­demic of 1917-1919 may have been the single greatest catastrophe in histo­ry, killing perhaps 30 million world­wide and 548,000 in the U.S. Note that the number of humans existing was smaller when these epidemics occurred, and that they claimed statis­tically large portions of the popula­tions.

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A particularly eerie affliction struck down whole districts of Western Europe and England in 1200 A.D. A grain fungus grows in continuously wet and mild weather, as then oc­curred, and a few blighted grains in a sack are sufficient to cause a disease called St. Anthony’s fire, which, despite its romantic name, causes convulsions, abortion, the hands and legs to turn black until fingers and toes fall off, and eventu­ally death. But if the blighted grain is stored damp, and there is no other choice, a by-product is produced which we know as LSD. People in other words went to the grave “high.”

Think of that! There they were, extremities turning black and fall­ing off, then dying without under­standing what was killing them or why they had what must have seemed a mystical experience to boot. Surely, they would have asked what was going on. Disease was hardly understood — and certainly tripping wasn’t. In this condition you would, would you not, ponder the mood of the Almighty?

Not today. Today we are causally minded — we understand the reasons for things (or think we do), which may be why we have ceased to believe in and need God, once the all-purpose reason. Understanding confers on us the gift of foresight, the ability to reason in front, to anticipate at least a little of the future. That is a brand-new tool, and per­haps some of the seers and sages who employ it err on the side of pessimism and overstate the hazards ahead. Nonetheless, possible catastrophies predicted far outdo those of the past, either because the population is larger or because man­made dangers have been added to natural ones. Some of these conceiv­able events would directly threaten human survival, and we are right to worry. The question is whether we worry enough. Let us give form to a dozen of what might be calamities to come.

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WEATHER WARFARE
Probability: Uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elim­ination of mankind.
Timetable: ?

Wars, since they are intended to kill, usually fail to be counted as catastrophes. But in the past, wars, no matter how devastating, always ended sooner or later and normal life resumed until the next one. This is no longer true: at least four kinds of warfare could alter planetary conditions for some time to come, perhaps forever so far as humanity is concerned.

Of the four, three are too familiar to need explication — chemical, bio­logical, and nuclear (reducing the ozone layer, increasing radiation, perhaps depleting atmospheric oxygen) warfare. The fourth, using the environment itself for hostile pur­poses, is potentially the most dangerous. Dr. Edward Teller has said that weather war would be the “last” war, meaning that there might be nobody left to fight the next one.

As brought out in 1974 Senate hearings under Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the U.S. practiced weather warfare over the Ho Chi Minh trail from 1967 to 1972. The weapon was cloud-seeding and the objective was to soften road surfaces, cause landslides, wash out river crossings, and maintain damp soil for long periods of time. Apparently the program achieved suc­cess, for rainfall in some areas increased 30 per cent or more, with subsequent declines in North Vietnamese traffic. (The Soviet Union has accused the U.S. of having tried to tamper with the weather in North Vietnam too, but we have denied it.)

But the rain-making in Asia was primitive alongside more sophisti­cated possibilities of weather war: “aiming” hurricanes; causing rain to be acidic to knock out equipment; forming or intensifying fog; starting fiery cyclones called “fire storms”; producing earthquakes; detonating atomic devices in the ice pack which, falling into the sea, would cause massive tidal waves; manipulating electrical properties in the atmosphere so as to interfere with normal electrical processes of the brain and bring about disorientation and derangement; inflicting ditto on the enemy’s navy with oceanic vibrations; breaking a window in the ozone layer which would intensify hard, ultra-violet radiation on enemy territory, perhaps destroying all forms of life and turning the land into a desert. Such warfare might be slow­ and insidiously difficult to detect. Weather warfare should not be dismissed lightly: Jacob A. Malik, the Soviet ambassador to the UN made a speech there in 1974 warning of the dangers.

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INADVERTENT CLIMATE MODIFICATION (COLD)
Probability: good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Immediate future.

Much impressive data shows that the world’s climate is becoming  colder of itself, after a time of ex­ceptional warmth. Periods of greater or lesser cold have, of course, been normal throughout history. This new cold, however is different in two vital ways. First, the favorable growing conditions that existed between 1900 and 1910 in­creased the food supply and en­couraged the vast population increases that occurred in places like South Asia. The coming cold would mean heavy rains in the northern temperate zones, reducing the food supplies, and subtropical drought further reducing it. Casualties from famine would be immense.

Second, and even more ominous, man has been changing the atmosphere. From power plants, mills, autos, furnaces, slash-and-burn farming (practiced in most places on earth ), even from millions of feet tramping on dry soil, particles are thrown into the air forming what is called a “particulate cloud.” This cloud, virtually world-wide, blocks incoming solar radiation sufficiently to add to the cooling already underway, with the result of a further decline in mean annual temperature. A drop of only 4-5° F. (2° C), believes Dr. Bryson, foremost proponent of the cooling hypothesis, would be sufficient to initiate a new Ice Age.

INADVERTENT CLIMATE MODIFICATION (HEAT)
Probability: Fair to good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead to elimination of mankind 
Timetable: 25 to 250 years.

Will the world end in a shiver or a sweat? Another harrowing view holds that the long-term trend is toward heat — far too much of it.

Man-made heat is still only a frac­tion of that received from the sun but is growing exponentially and may become a pollutant that must be reckoned with. According to Dr. Thomas F. Malone. Director, Hal­comb Research Institute, Butler Uni­versity, we may face one of the major policy decisions of all time. “I refer to the limited capacity of the biosphere to absorb heat … Simply put, the concentration of heat discharged into the atmosphere may turn out to reach a high enough val­ue within the next hundred years that we will have to place restraints on the population, on the population distribution, or on the energy con­sumption per person. The policy im­plications for the world, and in par­ticular for our nation, which has such a high consumption of energy per capita, are obvious.”

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According to one calculation, man-made emitted heat will equal absorbed solar heat in 250 years. Mean annual temperature will then have risen from the present 58° F, to 190° F, a level incompatible with human life as we have known it. But as Dr. Robert Heilbroner points out, time may be shorter than that be­cause of sharply rising energy use (meaning heat) and increasing pop­ulations that will need more energy still.

Nor is this quite all or it. Atmo­spheric carbon dioxide is also increasing because of the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 has an important role in the “heat budget,” as it’s called, because it prevents heat from escaping into space, a beneficial function so long as there isn’t too much heat and too much CO2. If man-made heat became an impor­tant factor, and a dense CO2 blanket prevented it from escaping, global heat could rise rapidly, especially if the cooling period ended. In that kind of world, it might be against the law to light a match.

DESTRUCTION OF THE OZONE SHIELD
Probability: Highly uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elimination of all life
Timetable: Starting now

About 20 miles up in the stratosphere hangs a thin layer of ozone that absorbs ultra-violet radiation from the sun and makes life on earth possible. Scientists are deeply concerned that man could destroy this vital shield with nitrous oxides from sub and supersonic aircraft, from the space shuttle, from nuclear explosions or even nitrogen fertilizer. At the moment, the number one hazard is thought to be chlorofluromethane (Freon), a million tons of which are manufactured a year for use as the propellent in aerosol cans and as a refrigerant. Eventually this gas drifts up and destroys ozone. Best estimates say that the Freons already released will deplete the ozone shield three to six per cent. A reduction of only five per cent would cause 8000 new cases of skin cancer a year in the U.S. If the ozone layer were further destroyed, results could include widespread cancer, the disruption of agricultural produc­tion, reduction of the oxygen supply (through the killing of phytoplankton in the ocean), plant and animal mutations, and a global desert.

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PEACETIME NUCLEAR CALAMTTY
Probability: Uncertain
Possible magnitude: Elim­ination of higher forms of life  
Timetable: For the global catastrophe, 40 years minimum.  

The well-known doomsday clock on the cover of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” stands at nine minutes to midnight. When created, this clock ticked away the likelihood of atomic warfare between major nations. Now it must measure as well the potential threat from a starving Third World nation that has acquired nuclear power, and from accidents among the 24,000 breeder reactor nuclear power plants that will be required to provide all the world’s primary energy a century from now. Under present conditions, with nuclear power plants constructed under U.S. safety standards, the “maximum credible” accident, ac­cording to a 1957 AEC study, would kill over 3000 people, injure 40,000, and quarantine agriculture over a 150,000 square mile area. But the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club predict 120,000 people killed or made seriously ill. The probability of such accidents in­creases with each plant that is built. The combination of threats from accidents and deliberate acts in han­dling the 15,000 tons of plutonium required for 24,000 plants is so great that the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, has warned: “Somehow, the world must skip the breeder reactor and go from petroleum and coal — liquid, gassified, and solid — to fusion and/or solar energy or it is inconceivable that the human race will avoid a worldwide calamity on so large a scale as to jeopardize the continuing future of our species.”

NEW KILLER VlRUS
Probability: Remote
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Any time

Epidemic diseases, man’s greatest killers, remain possible, though we think of them as part of the past. New strains of influenza, for example, can occur and vaccines are only marginally effective and probably couldn’t be produced in time to help against a mass outbreak. Further, amid the famine and collapse of the social order many forsee in parts of the world, preventive measures might not be implemented and mil­lions could perish.

An utterly new man-made virus for which no immunization or cure existed, would be a graver menace still. From working with DNA, a molecule that stores and transmits information, scientists have come to believe that genetic engineering, though filled with hopeful possibilities for curing genetic diseases and deficiencies (or even make possible, say, human beings with chlorophyll in their skins who could take energy from the sun, like plants) could lead, by accident or design, to a new incurable disease. So serious is this possibility considered that, last July, pioneers in the field, through the National Academy of Sciences, asked for a voluntary world-wide ban on aspects of DNA research because of its “unpredictable ef­fect.” This February, DNA researchers will meet to try to find a solution to their problem (This may be the first time in history that scientists accept restrictions on the freedom of research other than ex­perimentation with humans.)

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CALAMITOUS EARTHQUAKES
Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 560,000 deaths plus
Timetable: Any time

Out of the 100,000 earthquakes a year, a few will be major. The only question is where they happen and how many die.

Two large cities located on faults are San Francisco and Tokyo. If a quake of the magnitude of the one that shook Alaska in 1964 (magnitude over 8.6, 20 times larger than the magnitude 8.3 of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) property damage has been estimated at $10 billion and casualties up to 250,000 and higher if Crystal Springs Dam broke, flooding San Mateo (this dam, however, sur­vived 1906), or if high-rise buildings performed poorly. The problem with San Francisco is that the fault has been locked: instead of slipping slowly, the fault and its “tribu­taries” have not moved since 1906 and a potential movement of 13 feet has been accumulated. By way of comparison, the 1923 Tokyo quake moved nine feet.

As for Tokyo, despite the quake that killed 56,000 in ’23, construction is not much different. The population is, being much larger, and, according to Japanese estimates, 560,000 plus could die in a big quake, espe­cially if (as is likely) a tsunami also occurred, flooding the extensive sub­way system and underground com­mercial development. (Tsunamis can travel at 600 mph; in 1923, one hit Japan twice, having crossed the Pacific and bounced back again.) At Tokyo, a major quake has happened at least once within every 69 years.

Japanese, American, and Russian scientists are all working on earth­quake warning systems, and these illustrate catastrophe problems rather vividly. Suppose the scientists were certain, which they are not, that such a system would work. Would anyone pay for it? And, if it were developed, what would be done? Would politicians, who might be long out of office when E-Day came, warn the public and begin precautionary measures now? Would the public credit scientists, especially as they couldn’t forecast the quake to the precise hour, day, week or maybe even month? Proba­bly not. Today, houses are built, and people live in them, right along the San Andreas Fault.

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CATASTROPHIC HURRICANES
Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 1 million deaths
Timetable: Any time

High concentrations of populations in low-lying coastal zones along established hurricane paths add up to calamity. Dr. Neil Frank, head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, has estimated that a 40-foot storm surge in Bangladesh (all too possible) would kill one million.

In the U.S., too, terrible things could happen. A hurricane with a central pressure of less than 26 per inches, wind in excess of 200 miles per hour, and tides of 25 or 30 feet 30 feet could easily kill tens or thousands if it struck Miami with little warning. In the Tampa-St Petersburg area, planning officials estimate, as many as 100,000 could die in a major storm. Always, people are reluctant to evacuate an impending storm path until the last minute, figuring the hurricane will miss them or that they can ride it out. In this region especially, last minutemanship will cause tragedy because of the inade­quacy of roads leading to higher ground, much new housing which might not take the effects of flooding, and the advanced age of the popula­tion, making them less mobile.

Even if we could eliminate hurricanes we wouldn’t want to since hurricanes are important in terms of rainfall. Casualties, though, could be reduced with the proper land-use policies, construction codes, and so on. With cloud-seeding, hurricanes may yet be controlled. In the mean time …

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MASSIVE FAMINE
Probability: Almost a certainty,
Possible Magnitude: 50 million deaths a year
Timetable: This year? 

Although people have starved ­— and starve now in Asia and Africa ­— the world has simply never known famine on the scale predicted for the coming decades. It is completely outside our experience and almost beyond our imagination. Vast though they may be, the political, moral, and ethical questions that must de­velop from this catastrophe remain almost unexplored.

If there should be severe drought in 1975, Green-Revolutionist Norman Borlaug has estimated that as many as 50 million children would starve unless there were a world “food bank” available. In a normal, non-drought year starvation is a closely related cause for about half of all child deaths in the poor countries. (Famine deaths mean children)

In “Mankind at the Turning Point,” Mesarovic and Pestel divide the world into 10 regions with alternate scenarios for each. With severe but feasible adjustments nine of these regions can survive a decent standard of living assuming that food production keeps up with population increase: this is nowhere guaranteed. But for South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — formerly Ceylon) the prospect is gruesome. For this region alone, the following projections ap­pear reasonable:

  • In the next decade: five to seven million child death a year; 20 to 50 million during drought years unless world “foodbank” available.
  • In the second decade: eight to 12 million during normal year.
  • In the third decade: 20 to 30 million during normal years.
  • After: Decreasing fatalities because of population decrease; hence shortages considerably reduced.

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The tremendous calamity could be prevented or ameliorated if the birth rates were greatly reduced in these countries, but the probability of that happening is a virtual zero, short of the development and universal acceptance of a miracle contraceptive. In fact, the social disorganization that is likely to accompany the famine may make birth control harder to accomplish. Several decades of exceptionally favorable weather could change things too, but as we have seen the prospect is for more, not less, drought, and if the droughts were exceptionally severe the pro­jected numbers of dead would have to be upped. Besides, if famine were averted by increased food produc­tion, populations might increase still further, raising the specter of famine.

Ninety per cent of the world’s surplus grain is produced in North America and this grain could meet worldwide food shortages if a way could be found to pay for it. (The only feasible means, probably, of giving it away would be to socialize agricul­ture and sharply lower the American style of life, which seems unlikely.) But people thus saved from starvation will continue to bear children at the rate of 45 per thousand (compared to 17 per thousand in the U.S.) and by the end of the century, even under various optimistic assumptions, the Asian food shortage would be greater than the total North American grain production.

Triage, or simply letting those least likely to survive die, has been suggested as the best policy, but such an act, or lack of one, would certainly require a hardening or what moral sensibilities we have and an almost complete change in exist­ing ethics. Besides, triage assumes the chosen victims will meekly accept their fate, and that notion does not correspond with human nature as we know it.

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STEADY-STATE ANARCHY
Probability: Good
Possible magnitude: Universal
Timetable: 20-100 years 

In a time perhaps not too distant the world might return to barbarism — or greater barbarism than it now displays — and if we do not classify such a future as a catastrophe then we lack all faith and pride in our civilization.

Any calamity that placed more stress on the world’s delicately bal­anced social system might cause it to crumble altogether. Consider a rise in global temperature. The obvious answer would be to reduce the consumption or fossil fuels, but who would cut back? Suppose the U.S. issued a call for a worldwide energy-­use reduction of, say, five per cent. Third World leaders would inevitably respond, “Who, us? You use a third of the world’s energy as it is. You cut back.” They would tell us, further, that attempts on their part to curtail the output of energy would lead to 1000 guerrillas for every one that exists now, to the collapse of all even vaguely democratic Third World governments and eventually of the West, for how could democratic governments survive in a world of military-Socialist states?

Suppose further that our own gov­ernment then asked or demanded that we reduce energy use by per­haps 25 per cent, an amount large enough, at any rate, not only to decrease thermal output but to set an example for the rest of the world. Would Americans comply? Considering the resistance already met (including the President’s) to the most modest proposals for curtailing energy use, it appears unlikely. We might well expect a reaction far stronger, uglier, and more stubborn than that recently encountered by the attempt to secure racial balance in the Boston public schools — a simple social change by comparison. There might well be an armed insurrrection followed by a right-wing gov­ernment, itself doomed by global antagonsism.

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But it’s not necessary to conjure up a severe climate change to arrive at much the same result, for mass famine could do it. The rapidly increasing populations in the poor countries have less and less to eat. They do not get much help from the rich. (The U.S. recent contribution to Pakistan earthquake relief was $25 thousand, compared to Saudi Arabia’s $10 million.) Military govern­ments come to power and refuse to let their people starve while others remain relatively prosperous. They want their share even if what Heil­broner calls “wars of redistribution” or nuclear blackmail are required to get it. A nuclear bomb is hidden in a freighter in New York harbor and set to detonate at X harbor if 10 per cent of the national wealth isn’t pledged in time — a sort of Patty Hearst-SLA model. One way or another, national wealth would be redistributed inter­nationally.

It would not seem likely, in the general poverty of the world, that what we have known as Western civilization would long endure. Most of the proud accomplishments of bourgeois society would be seen as wasteful, expensive, and deeply un­fair, since it would not be the lot of Global Everyman to enjoy or even understand them. The skills and talents which would be permitted to exist would be only those narrow scientific and technical ones which directly and manifestly aid in human survival.

Rather than speculate endlessly, let us point to just one more possible consequence of massive famine. Suppose even looting the treasures of the rich proves to be insufficient medicine, as well it might for if the rich no longer have wealth, they cannot buy what the poor lands need to sell. We could reach a condition of steady-state anarchy: totalitarian nations everywhere, each engaged in continual attempts to raid and pillage others, no matter what their ideological stripe, just to get enough to eat, a sort of post-industrial Stone Age, in which nations would gra­dually break down as entities, fol­lowed by the collapse of regional governments and perhaps local ones. And this state would be steady, that is, it would last until … Oddly, this confirms a physical prediction of how the world will end. The universe, it seems, tries to break down the enclaves of order that represent so­ciety and indeed our world. The universe, it seems, will not be satis­fied until complete disorder is reached, and complete disorder, in these terms, is simply random par­ticles, all exactly the same.

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***

Now then, are you shocked?

No. Numbed, maybe, not shocked.

That is part of the problem. How can we have this doomsday con­sciousness and yet do nothing about saving ourselves until maybe too late? After all, at least some — in fact, most — of the coming catastro­phes could be avoided, or the con­sequences minimized, given battle plans and the will to carry them out.

One reason, perhaps, is that we don’t really take the future seriously, do not really believe that anything very severe will happen, or do not care: (Apres nous, a catastrophe.) If this is true, we must account for our present anxiety on other grounds. The psychologist Leon Festinger has developed the theory of “cognitive dissonance,” holding that the mind will always try to square antinomies. If people are already anxious, and can neither rationalize away or face squarely the cause of their anxiety, they will find something exterior to be anxious about, in order to achieve consonance. Thus the fear of future catastrophes is not anxiety-provoking at all but anxiety-justifying. What then really frightens us?

Certainly the economic and political-condition of the world cannot be reassuring, even for those who experience it as a purely national or personal malaise. Many may be heading downhill and it worries them. But let us focus on just one aspect of our present response to future catastrophe.

A sociologist, Charles E. Fritz of the National Academy of Sciences, specializes in disaster response. Contrary to the rusty canards about behavior, people act splendidly dur­ing a disaster or catastrophe, he says. With exceptions, of course, they don’t loot, flee the scene in panic, or become hysterical (as in the movies.) On the contrary, people pull together and quickly move toward the center of the trouble instead of away, and so on. Team spirit is such that they organize and rebuild fast, like Germany and Japan after World War II. There is, of course, psychological pleasure in such an effort. In Britain today there is a real nostalgia for the war, when Britons felt they had a collective purpose.

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This sort of response is so univer­sal as to amount to human nature. It is different, however, before the disaster, because then the culture operates. People cling to their cherished routines, habits, and be­liefs. They won’t recognize what’s in store, even when the signs are man­ifest showing what Fritz calls “a tendency to interpret disaster clues within a framework of normal ex­pectations.” The expectation we cherish most and the habit we most blindly stick to, is the ability to consume. We practice consumption like circus animals trained to dance, and without consumption what would we do, strive for, be?

So, we do not prepare for the storm because we would have to change our habits, our goals. And that is too hard and too painful. We know we should change and so, we are fright­ened. For unlike catastrophes of the past, the new ones demand foresight and preparation.

Given the nature of the challenges and the likely shape of our response left to itself, the finale seems more or less inevitable. Plato, in “The Republic,” theorized that only philosopher-kings were fit to rule. We shall have not a philosopher, but an ecologist king, a scientist! He will tell us what to do, direct our activities, supervise our habits, punish us if we refuse to obey orders. Perhaps a quondam freedom of speech will survive, or some foofaraw about voting, but down the road lies tyran­ny, however benign.

And after that? Will the last man on Earth please turn off the lights? ♦

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

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From The Archives

The Climes They Are A-Changin’

From the August 6, 2002, issue of the Village Voice

It is hard not to suspect that a dirty little word lies at the center of the controversy spawned by the most recent Bush administration document on climate change. In the June EPA policy paper “Climate Action Report 2002,” the government admitted that climate change is not only real but getting worse, that human activities are the most likely cause, and that the negative consequences are real and dangerous, a clear and present threat. This dirty little word may have been the reason conservative leaders have privately pressed to have EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman fired from her position — for producing a document that provides the most realistic, scientifically accurate picture of the problem available from current research. This dirty little word may be the main reason President Bush is eternally trying to distance himself from this itchy environmental problem, this foreign cause touted by Russians, Europeans, and Japanese. The word: liability.

In terms of scale, the climate change issue will make any sort of environmental liability lawsuit filed in national or international courts to date seem like tarts and gingerbread. Human pressures on the global climate — what scientists call anthropogenic forcings — represent a problem orders of magnitude larger than the impacts of even the most notorious environmental catastrophes of modern times — the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, or even the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which suffocated 10,000 people in their beds. The Netherlands faces undeniable threats from rising seas, and Bangladesh will not survive. Symptoms are already apparent in the daily headlines — islands in the South Pacific abandoned by their residents as their ground water turns salty; Connecticut-size bergs calving off the antarctic ice mass; record floods in Europe followed by more record floods. Across northern India this year, record-breaking heat storms arrived before the monsoon, raising the temperature to 123 degrees in the shade — so hot that the birds were dropping dead from the trees. Exactly as the scientists have been warning. And much earlier than most had expected, save those branded doomsayers only a few years ago. Considered in this context, the EPA document may represent the most important mea culpa of all time. The line between an “act of God” and an “action of Man” has just become significantly more blurry, with all the associated legal implications.

And then there’s that sticky bit. Things are only going to get worse. Expert opinion varies widely on the time frame for the most dramatic impacts. It could be next week — certain important factors may hang on a hair trigger. Record-breaking fires, droughts, and floods have already become annual events around the nation. It could be in a decade. Agreement is nearly universal that current trends will continue to worsen. It probably will occur within the century. This fact is largely accepted as a given even under many of the more benign scenarios for a changing climate. What is abundantly clear in the science of the matter is that we as a society are at the beginning of a long journey.

The science of climate change begins with the geological record of the paleoclimate — records of past sea-level changes, telltale signs of the cycle of glaciation and retreat, firestorm signatures carved into the skin of the earth over tens of thousands of years. Data from Greenland ice cores and sediment samples collected from bogs around the globe. Pollen records maintained over the millennia. Tree rings counting back thousand-year records of rain and drought. Geology, biology, ecology, and chemistry all working together to create a picture of the climatological history of the planet — a turbulent history marked by mass extinctions, sudden and dramatic changes in sea level, large-scale migrations of forests, storms to dwarf any of the minor maelstroms recorded in the human histories.

Today, networks of sampling buoys monitor sea surface temperatures, floating along gridworks mapping the oceans of the world. Satellite eyes peep down on cloud cover, identifying and enumerating the gases in the atmospheric column that runs from outer space to surface Earth. Global maps made to shift with time mark the changes in water resources, rivers running dry before they reach the ocean, the disappearance of the Aral Sea. In nightside snapshots, with each passing year, the ring of Amazon fires eats closer to the heart of darkness — the unconquered lands. Pollutant plumes emitted by each city on Earth stretch for tens of miles, forming confluent rivers of contaminants that flow in the winds, crossing ocean-scale distances to poison the remotest sites on anyone’s map.

Over the course of the past decade, many interests have entered the melee of debate on the issue of ongoing anthropogenic climate change. Energy companies arguing that nuclear power is the only acceptable answer. Advocates of wind power, sun power, wave power, volcano power. Oil producers. Automobile manufacturers. Coal men. The stakes involved in the debate over climate change do not come any higher. The largest industries of humankind, energy and transportation, are directly implicated. Virtually every activity in the life of the global, modern-day consumer is involved. Many natural responses to the changes we cause act only to exacerbate the problem — for example, the recent thaw of northern permafrost exposed a new source of greenhouse emissions. In the media, conventional scientific thinking is denounced as extremist, while members of the smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em school of scientific inquiry are awarded the chairmanships of well-heeled think tanks and lobbying empires to quibble, to hem and haw, to delay and filibuster.

However, as the Bush administration discovered, scientific theories have a way of proving themselves, regardless of whether policy makers and corporate heads believe them or not. And the daily news is beginning to heap ample evidence that the unequaled hubris at the core of this ever expanding, all-consuming 21st-century technotopia has stirred forces that are well beyond any sort of normal climatic fluctuation or temporary readjustment of weather patterns. One cannot wish away elementary thermodynamics, basic geophysics, fundamental biology, or essential fluid dynamics.

Already we have seen the unfolding of many of the events described by some of the climate change “extremists” — massive wind storms that pummel Europe, leading to hundreds of deaths, and the destruction of millions of acres of established forest. Unusual winter tornados ripping through the U.S. Latin America struck by storms that killed tens of thousands and destroyed decades of infrastructure over the course of a few days. Entire nations sinking into famine as unprecedented droughts choke crops in the fields. Record-breaking floods becoming annual events in mainland China. The permafrost under northern Europe beginning to melt from under vast regions that have not known a real thaw for tens of thousands of years. These are the milestones many experts consider symptoms of problems that can only grow worse as the Leviathan Climate gains more thermal momentum, growing more turbulent, more unpredictable as established climatic patterns change and shift.

Even some of the largest energy corporations on Earth have begun to accept the science of climate change, quietly withdrawing their support for rabidly anti-climate-change PR campaigns and beginning to trumpet their investment in renewable fuels. The response from the international insurance industry has been as mercenary as would be expected. Many large insurers have begun advising industrial clients with facilities in low-lying coastal regions to begin armoring their plants with systems of protective dikes and coastal constructions. The need for action is no longer questioned by the wise investor.

The uncertainties and confusion over climate change bear comparison to a series of scientific discoveries and theories that culminated in one of the highlights of the end of the 19th century: the discovery of radiation. The scientists who first worked with radioactive materials knew they were onto something, but they were working in the dark — manipulating and adjusting their notions to suit anecdotal evidence. When a researcher suffered burns to his leg from a vial of radium carried in his trouser pocket, scientists discovered that there was some danger involved in handling these new types of materials. Rapid commercialization of the technology led to the development of fluoroscopes, which allowed customers in shoe stores to examine the bones of their feet with live-action viewing devices — subjecting even passersby to massive doses of radiation. Health drinks were concocted that contained uranium, the new wonder of wonders and miracle cure-all. In beauty shops, women with excess facial hair could have their faces bathed in X rays until the hair fell out. Only years later, as the cancers began twisting the jaws of women around the country, did the public become aware of how dangerous radiation could be — and that was years too late for anyone to wish away their troubles.

And despite the occasional media attention to climate change, real responses and actions remain fairly hard to come by even among countries that support the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, aimed at limiting human emissions of greenhouse gases. Most national governments face significant economic obstacles to the implementation of the guidelines, with no nation currently on track to achieve compliance. Continuous growth of national economies is absolutely mandatory for survival in the highly competitive markets evolving under current trends toward globalization. Economic growth is linked directly to energy consumption and higher emissions of greenhouse gases. Emission limits for individual nations under Kyoto are set at 5 percent below those of 1990, but in virtually every country on Earth, economic growth has raised emissions to well above those ancient figures. Compliance with Kyoto would entail substantial shifts in the largest national economies, with the U.S. taking the biggest hit of all as the biggest polluter of all.

As a result, most national governments have failed to establish the aggressive regulations needed to achieve the greenhouse emissions reductions required for real progress. Even in nations that have attempted to take the lead on climate change, enforcement of lofty policy initiatives has proved a nearly impossible task. In the single remaining superpower on Earth and the confirmed largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the sitting administration blindly refuses to have anything to do with climate change. Its recommendation? Pretend the problem does not exist. Act as though the science is not valid. We’ll all adapt. You know…somehow.

In the long term, the symptoms of the disease will become pronounced enough to convince even the most reluctant Americans that climate change is not some sort of flim-flam invented by a bunch of grant-greedy eco-kooks. Perhaps some sort of limit should be established for the level of destruction we will allow before action is taken on climate change. The destruction of agriculture in California, say, or the permanent loss of New Orleans, Miami, and a few other coastal cities by the year 2050. Of course, by the time these limits have been reached, the time to do anything about the climate problem will have long passed. The Leviathan Climate will have awakened then, and there will be no apologizing to the grandchildren or turning back. No amount of money will prove sufficient. No amount of spin doctoring will be able to stem the mounting losses. Issues of liability will become moot as the planetwide catastrophe gathers steam.

Recent data obtained from the tens of thousands of monitoring buoys networked across the world’s oceans have underscored the critical role played by a phenomenon known as the Thermohaline Circulation — a massive conveyor belt of heated water carried from the tropics to the northern latitudes via the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Some researchers believe that this current system may be the trigger that initiates the cycles of glaciation, the ice age trigger. Certain evidence suggests that this circulation may be extremely sensitive to changes, shutting down in response to minor pressures. Other evidence suggests that the thermohaline may be disrupted by the formation of a large lens of freshwater sitting atop the saline waters of the oceans around Greenland and Iceland. Such a lens is currently forming in the North Atlantic as a result of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in the north. There is no way of currently knowing or predicting what may come next.

However, given the consensus for action on climate change expressed by the majority of the other industrialized nations, the U.S. will find itself in an increasingly difficult position as the lone holdout against responsible and progressive action on the climate problem. Already, international accord on the Kyoto Protocol in the absence of U.S. support signals a shift in the post–Cold War paradigm that has dominated the international political arena for a decade. The Kyoto agreement was formulated based on a fundamental tenet of democratic public law, the concept of the commons — property belonging in equal measure to all citizens for all time. Leadership on this issue must value the hard commitments required of democratic thinking, and not simply trot out the term to justify the current mania for saber rattling. Perhaps “superpower” status is no longer a given for any individual nation. Radical backlash against U.S. policy, or rather lack of policy, on the climate change problem can only be expected to grow as the symptomatic evidence grows, as the record-breaking storms unleash their fury, as the droughts consume the harvests of dozens of nations, as the rivers either flood beyond all parallel or run dry as a bone, as coastal regions lose their war against the encroaching sea. Not the stuff of science fiction. The stuff of Science.

And as all the proponents of action on these issues agree, the Kyoto Protocol is really nothing more than a symbolic gesture, a nod to the fact that future agreements will be required, that more extensive regulations will be established, and that the problem has only begun to be addressed. Responsible and mature leadership will be required to guide nations around the globe through the admittedly difficult adjustments that will be expected of each and every citizen, every local government office, and all levels of the federal government of each nation on Earth. Unfortunately, for an alarming number of Americans, the “environment” has been reduced to the strip of lawn and the manicured shrubs they pass on the way from the parking lot to their climate-controlled office buildings, or between their climate-controlled automobiles and their climate-controlled homes.

A serious tremor in the accepted order of things would arise from the multinational imposition of economic sanctions against the U.S. for failure to comply with the regulatory regime to be established under Kyoto. The most obvious medicines for the problem, such as aggressive energy conservation and protection of forested regions, are direct threats to the de facto capitalist economic principle of infinite economic growth to meet ever increasing demand in a world of infinite space and resources. Humanity, as a species, has reached a time in its evolution when it must begin to consider its own limits — beyond race, beyond economic politics, beyond any form of enlightened thinking of the past. The Bush administration is right on one thing: Adaptation is the only answer to these new realities. Rigid ways of thinking, old ways of thinking, no longer apply. A new paradigm is needed, at the very root of the culture. Those who fail to bend will be broken. The science of the matter will see to that.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Prepare Yourselves, There Is No Immediate Fix for Hot Subway Stations

If the sweat running down the back of your knee hadn’t made you aware, the Regional Plan Association wanted to remind you last week that it is very hot in the subway. It’s not exactly news that the subway gets hot in the summer. But the RPA’s press release wanted to point out that it’s likely only going to get worse as climate change causes more severe heat waves. 

On August 9, the outside temperature was 86 degrees, but the RPA, an urban planning nonprofit agency focused on the tristate area, diagnosed the downtown 4/5/6 platform at Union Square with a fever of 104. Most of the sixteen platforms it measured that day had temperatures above 90 degrees.

The average temperature in New York increased 3.4 degrees from 1990 to 2013, the RPA notes. “If we don’t tackle the issue of heat in the subway, the public health impacts will continue to worsen as our planet and our city warms.” The design and age of the city’s hottest stations make traditional options — improved ventilation or climate control — too costly to consider for now. So, is there anything the MTA can actually do to cool down the platforms?

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First, it’s worth noting not all subway platforms are swelteringly hot. In July 2015, WNYC measured the temperature at 103 platforms during that summer’s second heat wave; many stations were hotter than the ambient air temperature at that time of 96 degrees, but some were cooler. For example, the Brooklyn G train stops WNYC measured — Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint Avenue, and Metropolitan Avenue — all had temperatures below 80 degrees. Cortlandt Street and Rector Street were downright pleasant at 74 and 71 degrees, respectively. Not coincidentally, comparatively few trains run through these stations.

Generally speaking, the more trains that run through a station, the hotter the station will be. In part, this happens because a train’s air-conditioning unit expels heat. But a lot of heat also comes from a train’s brakes. A tremendous amount of energy is needed to slow down a train of ten cars, which can weigh between 700,000 and 900,000 pounds, depending on the age of the car. A lot of that brake energy gets turned into heat, which is released as trains approach and enter stations. And the more times a train stops, the more heat it creates, so the increasing number of delays and starting and stopping in tunnels over the last several years has further exacerbated the problem.

Fortunately, technology exists that can help mitigate the brake heat problem. Anyone who has ever paid attention to the dashboard of a hybrid car might recognize regenerative braking, a process whereby some of the kinetic energy created by braking is captured and then returned into an active circuit for reuse. Not only does regenerative braking reduce the amount of heat, but it also lowers energy costs. For example, in 2015 London officials discovered via a five-week trial that regenerative energy could lower the London Underground’s energy bill by 5 percent. Studies also suggest that this braking system could lower the Underground’s ambient and platform temperatures by 50 percent (a much lower percentage of the Underground’s cars are air-conditioned, as the U.K.’s average high temperature in the summer is in the low 70s. The Underground’s stations are notoriously hot, although that is caused more by a lack of ventilation in stations that are buried deep). 

The MTA is familiar with regenerative braking. In 2007, then–MTA CEO Elliot Sander created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability and the MTA, which was expected to offer suggestions on how to reduce the authority’s carbon footprint and promote green practices in anticipated future climate change–based challenges. In the final report that was released in 2009, two of the commission’s key suggestions were to implement regenerative braking and to reduce the weight of approximately 50 percent of subway cars (the remaining cars were too old to be used with the technology). Although nothing written in the report mentioned regenerative braking in the context of hot stations, one estimate said that in the most aggressive scenario the MTA could regenerate 11.25 kilowatt-hours every time a ten-car train stopped. (For context: The energy captured from just eighty of those stops, or two round-trip 7 train runs, could power the average U.S. household for one month.) The commission estimated such a program would cost $805 million over a forty-year period — mostly in battery replacement costs — which is less than the MTA is now spending to “enhance” twenty subway stations.

But implementing regenerative braking has never yielded such benefits in New York. According to an RPA report issued in June, which echoed the Blue Ribbon Commission’s 2009 call for regenerative braking, the MTA’s current power system doesn’t allow the energy created from braking to be put back into the third rail. The Paris Metro, by contrast, has been using some form of regenerative braking since 1977, and today the line consumes 30 percent less traction energy thanks to the technology, the RPA reported.

Although 57 percent of subway cars are equipped with the necessary technology to implement this style of braking, “most of the regenerative energy is currently being wasted,” as it simply turns into heat, Ahmed Mohamed, a City College electrical engineering professor, wrote in a report last year after conducting a study that was funded by a $200,000 grant from Con Edison to examine the issue. (Mohamed did not respond to an inquiry from the Voice.)

The MTA’s official position on hot subway stations is that it can’t install air-conditioning in the stations and is more focused on improving system reliability so that passengers aren’t waiting on platforms for so long. “Climate control didn’t exist when the subway system was built more than a century ago, and the air-conditioning units on trains discharge a lot of heat into tunnels and stations,” MTA spokesman Andrei Berman told the Voice. “We’re working hard to reduce delays so we can get our customers off the platforms and on their way in an air-conditioned car.” The MTA did not respond to follow-up questions regarding specific technologies or approaches, such as the possible use of regenerative braking, or something as simple as putting more electric fans on the platforms.

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A potentially key bit of technology that has been discussed often by the transit authority in regard to reducing delays could also help cool stations: communications-based train control, or CBTC. Not only do its supporters say CBTC can help trains run reliably and on time, but the software that controls the trains can help them brake more efficiently, reducing the number of stops and starts that generate so much heat. But the MTA is averaging roughly ten years per line to install CBTC. New York City Transit president Andy Byford is currently looking for funding for his plan to install CBTC across the majority of the system by 2030.

Christopher Jones, the senior vice president and chief planner at RPA, says tells the Voice that there’s “probably not a lot of things you can do in the short term” to cool down stations, regenerative braking included, and the authority must focus on long-term fixes. 

As Jones alludes, this is just another issue where the MTA’s previous long-term planning has failed New Yorkers in the present time. As Paris’s and London’s systems demonstrate, regenerative braking and CBTC — which have been widely deployed in both cities — are neither new nor strange technologies. Like plans to fix the elevators in stations, and plans to fix the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, cooling subway platforms is yet another issue that requires prioritization and money. Jones expressed the need for the MTA to make this and other resiliency issues a priority in the next capital plan, along with all the plan’s other priorities. In the meantime, maybe it can plug in some more fans to push all that hot air around.

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Environment THE FRONT ARCHIVES

New York Will Drown Long Before It Freezes

Of all the ways in which our broken planet is preparing to kill us — tropical diseases gone wild, swarms of water refugees, frozen methane rising from the inky depths to smother us in prehistoric microbe farts — the general public has become most fascinated with the possibility that melting Greenland glaciers will shut down the Gulf Stream, plunging northern Europe and much of North America into a new ice age. People have clung to this specific possibility partly because of its contrarian appeal — global warming causing local freezing? where’s my snowball? — and partly because it’s been part of the plotline of certain Hollywood blockbusters.

Recently, the media gave the issue a bit of attention when a pair of papers in Nature last month indicated that the Gulf Stream is now slower than at any time in the past 1,600 years. As the Voice’s Lara Zarum remarked when one especially alarming story from the Guardian showed up in the office Slack, “It’s never a good sign when you use a still from The Day After Tomorrow to illustrate your climate story.”

The Voice contacted several leading climate scientists who study ocean currents, who offered some good news: Any effect on the Gulf Stream from the slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation — or AMOC, the “conveyor belt” that helps drive ocean currents via the sinking of cold saltwater in the North Atlantic — is probably not that dire, at least not yet. The less good news: Everything else is extremely dire, especially for coastal cities like New York.

Asked if end-of-the-world AMOC scenarios are overblown, Susan Lozier, an oceanographer at Duke University who is an expert in oceanic circulation, replies, “I think it’s a distraction from the other end of the world. New York City has more to worry about in terms of sea level rise than about AMOC anytime soon.”

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The threat of an Atlantic deep freeze is relatively simple to picture, at least as complex climate-related systems go. As the Gulf Stream sweeps up from the Gulf of Mexico toward the North Atlantic, it brings warm water and warming temperatures to Western Europe, while drawing cold air down from the north to cool the U.S. East Coast. (This is one reason why Madrid is so much toastier than New York, despite being at the same latitude.) Once it gets there, the water cools and sinks, then flows back southward along the ocean floor to start the process all over again.

That’s how it’s worked for the past 10,000 years. The worry — which was already being raised before The Day After Tomorrow hit theaters in 2004 — is that Greenland’s rapidly melting ice cap is releasing a blob of cold freshwater into the North Atlantic, which will sink more slowly since freshwater is lighter than saltwater. As a result, that would stall the AMOC, and eventually could slow down or stop the Gulf Stream altogether.

Not so fast, says Lozier. “Unlike sea level rise or global warming or Arctic sea-ice loss, where there’s broad consensus in the scientific community,” the models predicting what will happen to the Gulf Stream are far less certain, she says. “The latest IPCC” — the reports regularly issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to track our impending doom — “says AMOC is more stable than we thought it was,” she notes, predicting only that the AMOC is expected to decrease in strength by between 11 to 34 percent by the year 2100, which is still a little ways off. 

“There’s a lot going on in the climate system, and to think there’s only one mechanism is oversimplifying the climate system,” adds Amy Clement, a climate scientist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, who has authored papers on AMOC. “Ocean circulation variability is one thing in what’s happening in ocean sea level.” Some of the other factors, as scientists like to say, are not well understood: “There are definitely some mysteries: We have had a tripling of sea level rise here in Miami and the Florida Straits, and we basically don’t really know the specific cause.” (One leading suspect: The North Atlantic Oscillation, an El Niño–like climate pattern that can accelerate or slow sea level rise for years at a time.)

The problem with the recent spate of Day After Tomorrow stories, notes Lozier, is that “the headlines really exaggerated things.” 

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In any case, what we can be sure of is scary enough. Lozier says that regardless of what the Gulf Stream does, we are likely to see more late-winter storms in the Northeast and general shifts in precipitation patterns. (Pro tip: Don’t move to Arizona.) A less publicized but potentially even scarier issue is ocean acidification, in which the world’s oceans absorb about 25 percent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s good news for the atmosphere, she notes — more carbon in the oceans means less in the air — but bad news for the ocean, where the carbon forms carbonic acid, the same mechanism that sent the trilobites and other prehistoric sea creatures on a path to extinction after a run of 270 million years.

“Plan for sea level rise,” says Clement. “Plan for storms. We have a very good theoretical understanding of the connection between the intensity of storms and how the impacts change as sea level rises and as the atmosphere gets warmer and wetter. All those things we know.” The Gulf Stream issue, she says, “is a real scientific debate — but the fact that the sea level is rising is not up for debate.”

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Environment THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Winter Apparently Just Lasts Forever Now

The fourth nor’easter of the month barreled into New York City yesterday, bringing with it between four and thirteen inches of snow, wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour, and the usual helping of transit chaos. Mayor de Blasio got to wear his special windbreaker, and Andrew Cuomo’s press team sent out the customary photo of the governor spontaneously rescuing a stalled tractor trailer. Everything in its right place, save for the Earth’s position in relation to the sun, which would technically suggest it is, in fact, springtime.

You remember spring, yes? It’s the good season, blooming with flowers and endless possibilities, like leaving your apartment without being impaled by an icicle. But nor’easters do not care about the astronomical seasons, or your outdoor drinking plans. They are here to remind you that an extra hour of daylight may not solve all your problems after all.

If you feel like winter’s finish line has continuously moved back in recent years, you’re not imagining things. According to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications earlier this month, late-winter storms are becoming both more common and more intense. Looking at data from the past sixty years, the study found that “as the Arctic transitions from a relatively cold state to a warmer one, the frequency of severe winter weather in mid-latitudes increases…with the strongest association in the eastern third” of the United States.

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That study builds on a growing body of research, commonly referred to as the “warm Arctic, cold continents” theory. As we noted in January, several scientists have posited that a rapidly warming Arctic has messed up the polar vortex — the circular band of air sitting in the stratosphere above the North Pole — resulting in an invasion of cold air and moisture, carried by a weakened jet stream, into our part of the world. There are a few different meteorological explanations here, but they all point to a conclusion that you may have observed on your own: Between 1959 and 2008, the Northeast averaged between five and seven winter storms per decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the last ten years, we’ve had twenty-six.

It’s not just that severe winter storms are becoming more common; they also seem to be happening later and later. “In the past three years, we’ve seen polar vortex disruptions in February and March, which have set us up for cold late winters,” Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research and lead author of the Nature Communications study, tells the Voice. “This parade of nor’easters that we’ve seen this month is consistent with the study overall.”

Beyond the inconvenience, there are more serious consequences to these late-season storms. “People throughout the metro area are conscious of snow, but for those who live in coastal locations, there’s the big risk of flooding, which is what we’re seeing with more of these storms as well,” notes Ben Orlove, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and a professor at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. “We’re only beginning to realize this is a problem with winter nor’easters.”

It snowed a lot last March, too. What is this “spring” you speak of?

While Wednesday’s storm brought only minor coastal flooding, it’s worth remembering that some climate scientists believe the city is “still in denial of the long-term consequences of sea level rise,” as Columbia University climate scientist Klaus Jacob wrote in 2015. Last year, a study focused on the tristate area found that New York was particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding from winter storms. And by the end of the century, a Sandy-level flood is expected to happen once a decade.

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In the meantime, it might be comforting to know that you’re not alone in your dismay, and that even the experts feel betrayed by the sight of a sooty snow mound this time of year. “We’re all just depressed at this point,” says Orlove. “No one wants to see snow on the daffodils.”

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES

What’s a Climate Denial Funder Doing on the American Museum of Natural History Board?

Selecting trustees for your prestigious New York cultural board would seem an easy enough process. Start with upper-crust old money — your Roosevelts, Hearsts, Ziffs — toss in a few local celebrities to spice up the uptown soirees — say, Tina Fey and Tom Brokaw — and fill out the rest of the roster with blue bloods willing to shell out six figures for the privilege of an oversight role. So long as your power set isn’t tasked with voting on any drastic cost-cutting measures, and everyone agrees to stay mum about the abysmal diversity rates, voilà, that’s basically it.

Oh, and be sure to screen out any trustees who’ve devoted their life’s work to undermining the fundamental goals of your institution.

Over at the American Museum of Natural History, whose 41 board seats are among the city gentry’s most coveted social prizes, it’s that last step that seems to present some problems. Two years after the world’s top scientists mounted a successful campaign to unseat billionaire oil magnate David Koch from his longtime trustee position, the museum is again taking heat for allowing another titan of climate change propaganda a seat on its board. This time around, it’s New York hedge fund heiress Rebekah Mercer, whose extensive influence-purchasing has earned her a key position of power within Trump’s GOP. Notoriously press-averse, she made news this week for initiating Steve Bannon’s departure from Breitbart, the site that the Mercer Family Foundation, which she controls, has given at least $10 million to.

Though Mercer has been on the AMNH board since 2013, her ties to the museum have drawn increasing scrutiny in recent days, following a viral Twitter thread accusing the museum of peddling climate misinformation. Over the weekend, Jonah Busch, an environmental economist and visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, shared photos of a museum plaque that downplayed human influence on global warming (saying only that human-made pollutants “may also have an effect on the Earth’s climatic cycles”) while overstating the likelihood of a future ice age.

The photos, taken in what appeared to be the David Koch–funded Dinosaur Wing, quickly garnered furious reactions from science Twitter, prompting the museum to release a statement clarifying that the exhibit in question — which is actually in the extinct mammal wing adjacent to the dinosaurs — predated Koch’s involvement, and was simply in need of an update. The museum promised a speedy review, telling the Voice that “if that label copy were written today it would likely come with a different context and emphasis, including more recent scientific data.”

While Busch tried to give the museum the benefit of the doubt, the incident has ignited a larger debate about the museum’s cozy relationship with those working to discredit the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. The plaque was installed in the early 1990s, the so-called Exxon era of the museum, during which time the fossil fuel giant — whose duplicitous efforts to deny climate change were well-known by then — funded several permanent exhibitions.

Neither Exxon nor Koch are directly involved with the museum currently, the latter’s departure coming after public outcry. Rebekah Mercer’s four-year tenure as a museum trustee, meanwhile, has largely flown under the radar.

“I think it touched on something bigger that a lot of people are feeling, which is the appearance of wealthy and villainous donors corrupting a beloved institution,” Busch tells the Voice. “Was it David Koch? Was it Exxon? Was it Mercer? I don’t know.”

“This raises systemic issues beyond the misleading wording,” echoes Beka Economopoulos, co-founder of the pop-up Natural History Museum, which spearheaded the effort to remove David Koch from the board. “It was likely done for fear of offending a major donor, and for me that makes the current Mercer tie a cause of concern.” (The Voice’s efforts to reach Mercer were unsuccessful.)

For its part, the museum insists that “scientific and educational content is determined by scientists and educators.” It cites past exhibitions on climate change, as well as the research work being conducted in-house, as evidence of a firewall between donors and decisions.

But others with experience in the museum sector say that ultra-wealthy patrons have always had a say in institutional decisions, and warn that it’s especially naive to pretend otherwise when the donors have a vested interest in shaping the thing they’re helping to fund.

“A museum board member who has the potential to give millions or tens of millions exerts influence merely by being in the room,” James Powell, executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium and the former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, tells the Voice. “Other members know where that donor stands and don’t want to offend, else the wealthy member may take his donations elsewhere.”

In the case of Rebekah Mercer, that potential for lost donations is quite significant. According to tax filings shared with the Voice, the Mercer Family Foundation donated $1.25 million to the American Museum of Natural History in 2013 — the same year she was named a trustee. In 2013, the Mercers also gave millions to climate change–denying organizations: nearly $3 million to the Media Research Center, which once called global warming a “media myth”; $550,000 to the Center for the Defense of Free Media Enterprise, whose executive vice president Ron Arnold has said his stated goal is “to eradicate the environmental movement”; and $877,000 to the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank that famously launched a billboard campaign comparing believers in climate science to Osama bin Laden and the Unabomber.

The fear that Mercer’s generosity to the museum might come with a price is based not only on her contribution record, but on an alarming precedent that’s developed in recent years. After Shell helped fund a climate science gallery at London’s Science Museum, executives with the oil giant requested, and seemingly received, several changes to the exhibit, according to internal emails obtained by the Guardian. For years, a Koch-funded climate exhibition at the Smithsonian has drawn criticism for suggesting that humans might simply evolve out of climate change — a favorite Koch refrain. In her 2015 book, Artwash, Mel Evans argues that it’s become increasingly popular for donors to seek to cash in on their “solidarity” with museums to fend off public backlash over their ideological positions.

American museums see approximately 850 million visitors a year, nearly double the combined attendance for major league sporting events and theme parks. They’re a unique interface for communicating science to the public — and one that’s “never been more important, when science is under attack,” notes Economopoulos.

“Having someone like Rebekah Mercer on the board undermines the credibility and trust that the public places in this institution, which in turn undermines the trust that people place in science communication as a whole,” she adds. “That’s just way too high a price to pay.”

 

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES

It’s Freaking Cold, and Climate Change May Be to Blame

Not sure if you’ve noticed this, but it’s cold outside. It’s been cold for a while now — we haven’t been above freezing since Christmas — but now it is really cold. The briefly insulating snow has given way to a citywide luge course, as the temperature has quickly dropped into the single digits. Wind gusts are approaching 50 miles per hour. Heaps of frozen rats are piling up in the streets. Even Craigslist’s hot singles are afraid to go outside.

Like clockwork, cold spells like this tend to bring out the armchair climatologists, eager to point to the frigid temperatures as evidence that global warming is a myth. Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe famously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to back up his well-funded climate denialism. Last week, President Trump, whose so-called winter White House may soon be underwater, capped off his first year in office by suggesting that the East Coast “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.”

Putting aside our president’s inability to distinguish weather from climate, it’s worth exploring the ways in which global warming may be disrupting our atmospheric conditions. According to one increasingly popular theory, climate change may actually be contributing to these bone-chilling conditions.

The explanation for this counterintuitive pattern can be found in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the globe. Known as Arctic amplification, this astonishing phenomenon is the result of a feedback loop specific to the region, in which melting ice exposes the dark ground and ocean beneath it, which in turn absorbs more sunlight. The record for this amplification was smashed in 2016, and 2017 looks likely to come in second. But while scientists have observed this dramatic thawing for years, it’s only recently that some have started to connect that process to extreme cold snaps like the one we’re currently experiencing.

“A growing body of research suggests that the rapidly warming Arctic is causing the jet stream to take larger north/south swings, thereby leading to so-called amplified patterns occurring more often,” Jennifer Francis, a research professor in the department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, tells the Voice.

Recent studies by Francis and other scientists have advanced this theory, which links extreme weather temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere to the ongoing weakening of the polar vortex — a widely misused term, Francis notes, that actually refers to the circular zone of frigid air in the stratosphere above the North Pole. When that weakened polar vortex interacts with the jet stream below, as is the case right now, Arctic air may be pushed south in our direction.

“So if the jet stream takes a big dive southward, as it does when it’s very wavy, Arctic air dives southward with it,” explains Francis. There’s also a resulting swing in the opposite direction that may be less obvious to us East Coasters, allowing warm air to penetrate far north, “which is why Alaska has been very warm so often this winter,” according to Francis.

The meteorology behind this can get complicated, but the underlying explanation for how jet streams travel is fairly straightforward. These bands of wind get their strength when air moves from high-  to low-pressure areas, which are dictated by the boundary of warm and cold air. (Cold air is denser than warm air.) So when the temperature gap between the equator and the North Pole lessens, the jet stream weakens, and starts acting crazy.

“If you think of a river moving rapidly down a sleep stope, it’s going to go pretty straight,” explains Ben Orlove, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and a professor at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. “If you think of it moving across a flatter area it’s going to meander, which is what we’re seeing in the jet stream.”

Orlove adds, “I don’t want to say that everything bad is climate change, but we know the Arctic is warming and it’s having an effect on the jet stream.”

To be clear, there’s no scientific consensus on how, exactly, global warming will affect winter weather patterns. Predictions are difficult, particularly when, as one science writer puts it, the Arctic’s air appears to be drunk. But like many wayward drunks, that jet stream is prone to lingering. Beyond the occasional invasion of freezing arctic air, Francis says, we should expect the disrupted jet stream to cause future extreme weather events to last even longer.

“In my view, it’s the persistence that is more disruptive to society than a few days of broken records,” she says. So as you saddle up next to a shrieking radiator, know that global warming won’t fix things, and may indeed be responsible for this Arctic blast — and additional ones in the future that will stretch on for more days at a time. Right now, Francis warns, we’re in “uncharted territory.”

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Netflix’s Gorgeous, Despairing “Chasing Coral” Bears Witness to the Planet’s End

In February of 1995, Charlton Heston called Rush Limbaugh’s radio program to read from Jurassic Park — the book, not the movie. In his best Old Testament boom, Heston declaimed a speech about man’s hubris that Michael Crichton had written for Dr. Ian Malcolm, the chaos theoretician played on-screen by Jeff Goldblum. It opens with this: “You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity!” It peaks with this: “We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try.” The lesson, both actor and talk-radio host concluded, was simple: It is the height of arrogance to assume that human activity could alter so vast and ancient a system as our planet. For years afterward, Limbaugh — the man who demonstrated how wildly profitable it could be to poison the minds of white America — would play the tape on Earth Days or whenever Al Gore was in the news, essentially asking his millions of listeners, Who you going to believe, most scientists around the globe, or Moses himself and this one scientist that a novelist made up?

Crichton and Heston didn’t live long enough to see what such humility has wrought. In 2016, rising sea temperatures killed 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. In Jeff Orlowski’s new film, Chasing Coral, the scientist and reef specialist Charlie Veron — born in 1945, three years after Crichton — throws a pained look at a millennial marine biologist and sighs, “I’m glad I’m not your age.” During the 1980s, the decade in which Crichton wrote Jurassic Park, Veron never believed that the majestic reef he studied and showcased on television could be in existential danger; now, he looks stunned at what humanity and climate change have wrought. His hope isn’t so much that the reef to which he dedicated his life might still be saved; he hopes instead that outcry over its death might at last spur the world to act to prevent the loss of coral elsewhere.

The oceans are warmer, of course, because our release of carbon dioxide has thickened the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, trapping heat that once would have bounced out into space. The seas absorb much of that heat, sparing those of us on land from radically increased temperatures — but not sparing coral, which after steeping in too-warm water blanches white and then dies. One scientist in the film notes that if a human body increased in temperature as much as sea water has in recent decades, that body would die, too. He knows what Crichton and Limbaugh don’t: The true humility is the honest attempt to understand our place within the systems of our planet, and to strive not to upset them.

Rather than just a globe-trotting report on the crisis afflicting our oceans, Chasing Coral is about ad man Richard Vevers’s efforts to find a way to focus us on the problem. Orlowski (Chasing Ice) tracks a race to document rather than one of discovery, with a team of scientists and photographers traveling to endangered reefs to capture, with time-lapse cameras, the bleaching of coral and the death of the vibrant ecosystems that thrive around it. (The scientists continually compare coral to forests and cities, the point being that marine life depends upon it — and many of our lives, too.) At first, Orlowski’s reliance on reality TV–style interviews about process and emotions struck me as indulgent padding, but by film’s end their necessity is clear. We watch this crew emerge from the depths stunned and shaken, their hearts ripped open by their work: bearing witness to the slow death of a world.

The film is a devastating success, moving in its beauty and wrenching when that beauty withers: Acres of coral waste away to chalky ash before our eyes. Charlie Veron and the team dare to exhibit some hopefulness, a belief that the loss of the reef might spur our species into taking action to limit emissions at last. It’s not easy to be roused by the cheery final minutes, as the thrust of the rest of Orlowski’s documentary is our species-level obstinance. The film climaxes with images to weep over, reminders that the Earth’s rhythms aren’t as slow and mysterious as we might prefer to believe — that the true hubris is to believe that we’re incidental to those rhythms. The movie’s on Netflix; demand that people Limbaugh’s age watch it, too.

Chasing Coral premieres July 14 on Netflix.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Sustainability THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Is a Movie Enough? “Chasing Coral” Director Jeff Orlowski on Trying to Film Our Dying Planet

Jeff Orlowski grew up wanting to be a nature photographer. But like so many in that field, his work now focuses less on capturing Earth’s natural wonders than on cataloging their steady demise. “This is an entire field of professionals who are witnessing firsthand the falling apart of our planet, and they’re all scared,” he explains. That’s why Chasing Coral, his latest documentary, feels so personal. His film doesn’t simply cover the death of coral reefs in warming oceans — a huge portion of our planet’s coral has already been lost, and the phenomenon of “coral bleaching,” which indicates mass coral death, has been accelerating. Chasing Coral also examines how best to capture and convey this information, so that people understand the urgency and horror of the situation.

The journey takes Orlowski and others — including former ad exec Richard Vevers and young camera technician Zack Rago, a coral buff who plays an increasingly prominent role in the film — all over the world as they try to find a way to document and lay bare the horrifying sight of a mass global-bleaching event. Spoiler alert: They succeed, and the final act of this film is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever seen. I talked to Orlowski about the effort to get this story told and the effect it’s had on him and others.

A couple of years ago, an “obituary” ran for the Great Barrier Reef. A lot of people were obviously very concerned, but some were also upset because it was an exaggeration: “Well, it’s not dead, and this is irresponsible to say that.” My thought was, We need to get people to notice this! Will you be so much happier if we wait until after the reef is fully, truly dead to run the obituary? With activism, where do you draw the line?

It’s a challenge. I think one of the benefits that we had was that we were able to figure out a way to show how bad it was. So we didn’t need to be hyperbolic. This is as scientifically sound of a film as you can possibly get. It’s been peer-reviewed. But it’s not a science-first film. We’re trying to keep the human story, the thread that gets people engaged, and the science is as little as you need to know to understand what’s going on. And the footage of the climax is so damn shocking that it kind of does its own job.

But I do understand, and it’s been a struggle for activists and scientists for a long time now. The science community is struggling the most with this because they can’t be hyperbolic — they can’t write sensationalized headlines. They have to write the facts as they know them. And oftentimes it doesn’t sound as scary when a scientist says, pretty straight-faced, “Oh, yes, we’ve lost half of the world’s coral in thirty years.” Right? It doesn’t pack the same sort of punch that it could. Scientists aren’t alarmists; the science is alarming.

The film is, on one basic level, about the search for how best to express an idea.

Climate change as a whole is a concept that is hard to visualize. I think that’s why the general public is so confused about it — because the only way it has really been visualized is through ice and through a polar bear standing on an iceberg. And the criticism is that this phenomenon always happens — it’s just the photographer being selective and exaggerating. And there’s a legitimate response there. That’s why, with [Orlowski’s previous film] Chasing Ice and then Chasing Coral, the goal for us was to make both of those movies visual evidence — so you can’t refute this story being told through the time lapses.

It’s almost like the word idea is itself hard to deal with, because it suggests something abstract when it’s not. Most people don’t get to go to Antarctica and see ice chunks falling off or glaciers melting, so to them it’s just an image on a screen. And the Great Barrier Reef … obviously, to a lot of people in the region, it is a very real thing. But to somebody in, say, Cleveland who hasn’t ever been out there, that’s a little abstract.

Absolutely. Part of our task as filmmakers is to capture those corals and bring them home. I do think of it as the Golden Fleece — we’re going out there on these epic journeys to try to capture something to take back to civilization. You know, less than 1 percent of the world population goes scuba diving, and of that percentage the vast, vast majority of recreational divers get brought to the beautiful spots. So even if people were diving on the Great Barrier Reef last year, they weren’t usually seeing what we were seeing — because they were being brought to the healthiest, prettiest parts. And they certainly were not spending enough time there to notice the changes happening. That’s another big challenge here, too: A stressed coral reef still looks pretty beautiful. The average person who doesn’t know any different goes out there and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so pretty and it’s so colorful.” It’s like, “You know this is on its way to dying? This is a really, really devastated reef right now.” That is its own challenge in the storytelling.

The emotional impact of the time-lapse photography is absolutely shattering. And the film builds to that, so we get it right at the end. It’s like few things I’ve experienced in a movie theater, having to watch that. Narratively, it makes sense because it was only toward the end of your own journey that you were actually able to see this footage. But isn’t there a challenge here with viewers? With a film in a movie theater, you have kind of a captive audience — people don’t walk out of movies very often. But now, this is going out on Netflix. On the one hand, that’s a huge audience — a much bigger potential viewership than a theatrical release on a couple of hundred screens. But it’s also easier to turn it off halfway through.

Yeah, I mean, we weren’t designing it specifically for Netflix. It was a Netflix acquisition. So we were designing it based on what’s the best way for us to tell the story. You’re right: In a physical theater, people are captive, and I guess your question is representative of how attention spans are shifting and how people consume content online. What’s the most optimal content for various platforms? We’re also making shorter versions of the film that we can screen in schools, so that if you only have 40 minutes, we still want you to be able to really use the film.

But for us, to fully appreciate and understand what the time lapses represent, there was a lot we wanted you to know before that point in time. We wanted you to know how beautiful they [the corals] were, how magical they were up close, the relationship between the plant and the algae, the role that the corals play. So we did feel like the only way for that climax to have its full impact was for you to understand the significance of losing this ecosystem. Because I could just show people those shots, and they might not care in the same way that I hope they do after going through that whole process.

I’m intrigued by the figure of Zack Rago, the camera technician and coral obsessive. He has this fascinating emotional journey in the film. Our reaction to him is also interesting, because at first he’s kind of this goofy guy — a little too cool, in an uncool sort of way. But by the end he becomes such a sympathetic figure. Our heart goes out to him as he witnesses what’s happening to the reefs and becomes an activist.

You know, when people are writing narrative films, they often say, “If you know what the climax of the film is, you can work backwards from there”? We didn’t know for a long time what the climax of this story would be. It was only when Zack and I were shooting out in the field, and I saw how emotional it was for him to watch the corals die, that we knew this was the climax in some way. But we needed to set Zack’s character up in the film, to pay that off. At the beginning of the project, we had no idea that he’d play a role at all; he was just the tech guy who happened to be there, who helped to install the stuff.

But we were fortunate: One of the things about documentary is that you just have to shoot everything, so I had all this footage from earlier of Zack doing the first camera installations and setting that stuff up. As a result, we were able to introduce Zack and integrate him into the story as it happened in real life. I’m very proud of the way this works now in the film, where at first you don’t realize that he’s going to become a big part of the story and it slowly builds over time. I just have such a soft spot for him and seeing what he’s gone through, and audiences have really responded positively to it.

There have been a couple of stories over the past couple of years about scientists working on climate change issues and how depression is a real thing they now have to deal with.

Yeah. I know scientists who are getting therapy just due to the state of the planet.

Has it taken a toll on you?

When we came back from the Great Barrier Reef, I seriously thought that Zack and I needed to get some PTSD treatment. There was an odd conflict there, because using that language of PTSD made me feel like I was downplaying the troubles that veterans go through: “Well, no, what we went through is not on the same scale as, like, watching a person die.” But this was a legitimately traumatic event that Zack and I experienced: Over the course of two months, we slowly watched — firsthand — an ecosystem die. That messes with your head. Zack was really depressed when we were coming back, and it took us both quite a long time to adjust back to normal. I’ve been using this line during Q&As lately, saying to audiences, “If you’re a little depressed after seeing the film, don’t worry — we’re far more depressed.”

All the nature photographers I know — everybody — is thinking about or working on or studying how the planet is changing now. Scientists, journalists, travel photographers: There’s a small collection of people who are going out and seeing it firsthand on a regular basis, and they’re the ones who right now are dealing with a version of this.

Is a movie enough?

The biggest problem right now is that very few people know what’s going on with coral at all. It just started getting some press coverage, quite honestly, because of Richard pushing it a couple years ago. The only imagery that exists are the photos that Richard’s put out there. And most people don’t have any way of seeing it. So no. By no means is a movie enough. But it’s the best tool we have right now to be able to show what’s going on, and hopefully that can start the conversation of, “OK, what do we do?” That was the biggest thing for me. I had no idea corals turned white. I had no idea corals were dying like this. I had no idea we had been losing as much coral as we have been. And I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about environmental stuff and planetary stuff, so this was just a total shocker.

With so-called “issue docs,” I feel like there’s often a real tension when it comes to reconciling the message with the art. How do you tell your story in the best possible way while also being clear about the urgency and gravity of the situation? Was this something you had to dwell on?

Yes. Every day in the edit room. We don’t have a call to action in the film. We’re not telling people what they should do. We get criticized for that from environmental groups, who say, “Oh, you need to tell people what to do.” But there is no silver bullet. Changing your light bulb is not gonna solve this problem. It helps a lot, but that’s not the one thing that needs to happen. And so we really tried to keep it as this objective study, and I think that’s one of the strengths of Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral: You can’t deny the reality of what this team has seen. This is what we saw. This is what we documented. These are the photographs. And we’re explaining through the best science available what this means, and you can make your own decision and judgment about whether that’s bad or not, or how bad it is, or if you want to take action on it.

We are working to create calls to action that we can bring to audiences after the film, and we’re doing an impact campaign for that purpose, to help people make a shift in their own community. But I look at that as a separate goal than the film itself, and the hope is to keep the film as artistically and creatively pure as possible. I don’t want the film to be seen as propaganda. This is evidence of something that’s happening. Yes, there’s a point of view and a perspective there, but that perspective is informed from objective science.

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Equality NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Saturday: March For Science While We Still Exist

Tomorrow is Earth Day and, around the globe, supporters of science — including scientists, politicians, and average citizens — will take to the streets in order to defend the planet they rest on.

The March for Science will take shape in the form of more than 500 demonstrations in every corner of the world, from Hawaii to Finland, from Alaska to Uganda to, of course, New York City. The main event will be held in Washington, D.C., where organizers hope to blanket the nation’s capital with demands that the government fund, support, and rely on scientific research to make important policy decisions that impact not just Americans but people worldwide.

This latest iteration of what has become a season of large-scale political protest comes as the Trump administration continues to lean into its disregard for demonstrable, widely accepted research. But organizers say characterizations of the march as partisan and left-leaning are inaccurate.

“The reason we advocate for research to inform policy is because the scientific method exists to try to reduce biased interpretations of the world,” said Caroline Weinberg, one of the march’s organizers, in an interview with Scientific American. The march has been criticized by some for its overt entrance into what some consider a politically charged debate. “Science works to give you answers that transcend partisanship — and so everyone should be behind it. Painting science as specific to one party is how we ended up in this situation,” she said.

Despite the agnosticism of the scientific method, the field has long been necessarily partisan, even more so as the Trump administration has demonstrated its dangerous indifference to research, beginning with the president’s sordid love affair with the coal industry (which will kill us all) and the miners to whom he’s promised jobs that aren’t coming back. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who spent much of his career suing the agency he now leads, continues to question humans’ role in climate change and has characterized a cleanup of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay as “federal overreach.” And he has staffed his office with like-minded folks such as Steven Milloy, who called the EPA finding that greenhouse gases are hazardous to human health “the original climate sin.”

Early in his tenure, Pruitt rejected the findings of his own agency that had, in 2016, led to the recommendation that the EPA ban a commonly used pesticide that causes neurological damage to children who are exposed to it in utero. Dow Chemical, a primary manufacturer of the pesticide, gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, and its CEO leads a presidential advisory committee. Trump has proposed major cuts to the EPA’s budget, signed an executive order eliminating former president Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. And while Trump makes frequent visits to Mar-a-Lago, 70 or so miles north of Miami Beach, which is literally drowning, his associates in Congress are providing handy assists.

Trump’s attacks on science often begin with the environment, but they don’t end there: He has suggested that data scientists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics aren’t to be trusted, rejects data that shows the wide array of health services other than abortion that make up the majority of Planned Parenthood’s offerings, and undermined the Congressional Budget Office’s findings that the Republican health care bill would spell disaster for Americans.

The New York rally will begin at Central Park West at 62nd Street at 10:30 on Saturday morning. The march, which starts at 11:30, will encompass Central Park West from 72nd Street through Columbus Circle, from where it will head onto Broadway and finish at 52nd Street. Dress for the weather, attach your signs to soft handles (no metal or wood — these are considered weapons by the NYPD), and think green: Bring reusable mugs and water bottles for breaks and take mass transit, carry your trash with you, and don’t ditch your signs in the street, recycle them.