Not Just CO2 – plants can clean up other pollution too!

When it comes to the question of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, I’ve long been of the opinion that our best option is also the one that requires the least amount of new research and development – plants. Harvest fast-growing crops, subject them to a little processing, and store them. It won’t solve the problem alone, and it won’t solve anything overnight, but neither will any other options. Plants are also a good way to both lower city temperatures, and reduce industrial and commercial air pollution. They’re useful all around, really.

In fact, for all re-wilding is often framed as being either a way to soak up CO2 or a way to strengthen ecosystems, there’s also some evidence that it can be a way for use to work on cleaning up the various types of toxic waste we’ve left all over the planet. For all some folks get excited about impressive engineering solutions and pollution-eating nanobots or whatever, as with the carbon capture question, there’s a vast amount we could do to clean up the planet by applying our understanding of evolution, and doing a little ecosystem engineering.

Some more general things have been pretty well-known for a while, like the way beaver-made wetlands and mangrove swamps can help filter pollution out of water, as well as providing other benefits associated with a healthy ecosystem. There is also evidence to support the use of specific plants for specific pollutants. White lupin, for example, can be used to pull arsenic out of contaminated soil, and it seems that there’s growing evidence that bacterial life is evolving to take advantage of a newly abundant food source – our oil and plastic pollution:

Although reducing the manufacture of unnecessary single-use plastics and improving waste management systems will help ease the pollution crisis, our reliance on the convenience of plastic products is unlikely to be abated any time soon. Researchers are therefore looking at alternative approaches to “clean up” the more persistent plastics from our environment and it appears that microbes may offer some promising solutions.

“Certain bacteria harbor the necessary enzymes to degrade PET, the most problematic plastic environmentally,” explains senior author Shosuke Yoshida. “Our research has shown that the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis converts PET into poly(3-hydroxybutyrate) (PHB), a type of poly(hydroxyalkanoate) (PHA) plastic that is biodegradable,” he continues.

This finding is particularly promising because it addresses two current problems for the sustainability of plastics: degrading the most persistent form of petroleum-based plastic while sustainably producing biodegradable plastics.

“We believe that this discovery could be significant in tackling plastic pollution,” Yoshida states, “as we show that the PET-degradation and PHB-synthesis pathways are functionally linked in I. sakaiensis . This might provide a novel pathway where a single bacterial species breaks down difficult-to-recycle PET plastics and uses the products to make biodegradable PHA plastics.”

Given the overwhelming challenge of dealing with worldwide plastic pollution, this novel bacterial approach may be a significant part of the solution.

Things like this won’t matter if we don’t stop creating pollution. Even if we could find an organism to consume every poison we’ve unleashed on the world,  their ability to do so will never come close to the rate at which we’re generating pollution. Just as our production of greenhouse gases has outpaced the planet’s ability to absorb them, so is our production of chemical pollution outpacing the biosphere’s ability to adapt. If we’re going to survive, the first step is always to stop actively doing harm, to the greatest degree possible.

The hope that things like this gives me is not one that lessens the amount of work we have to do; it’s the hope that once we do that work, even if it takes multiple generations, it will be possible to heal, and to move forward into something better.

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Simmering seas: “extreme” heat is now normal for a majority of the ocean’s surface.

As the planet warms around us, a lot of predicted changes are being confirmed by science. The drought forecast I wrote about a little while back is just one indicator of how the world around us is seething. Those of us who’ve paid even a little attention have been able to see and feel the changes around us, and anyone keeping up with ecological research knows that every other life form on the planet can see and feel the change as well, even if they lack the capacity to understand what’s going on.  To the complete surprise of nobody, oceans continue getting hotter. Research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium now indicates that “extreme heat” is starting to become part of normal conditions:

Researchers conducted the study by mapping 150 years of sea surface temperatures to determine a fixed historical benchmark for marine heat extremes. The scientists then looked at how often and how much of the ocean surpassed this point. The first year in which more than half of the ocean experienced heat extremes was 2014. The trend continued in subsequent years, reaching 57 percent of the ocean in 2019, the last year measured in the study. Using this benchmark, just two percent of the ocean surface was experiencing extremely warm temperatures at the end of the 19th century.

“Climate change is not a future event,” said Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, who headed the research team during his tenure as chief scientist for the aquarium. “The reality is that it’s been affecting us for a while. Our research shows that for the last seven years more than half of the ocean has experienced extreme heat.”

“These dramatic changes we’ve recorded in the ocean are yet another piece of evidence that should be a wake-up call to act on climate change,” he added.” We are experiencing it now, and it is speeding up.”

The study grew from separate research into the history of kelp forest changes throughout California. Van Houtan and team discovered that sea surface heat extremes, which are key stressors for canopy kelps, needed to be quantified and mapped along the California coast throughout the last century. The researchers then decided to expand the investigation beyond California to better understand the long-term frequency and location of extreme marine heat across the global ocean surface.

Using historic records, aquarium scientists first determined the average temperatures for the ocean’s surface over the period spanning 1870 to 1919. Then they identified the most dramatic ocean warming that occurred during that period — the top two percent of temperature increases — and defined that as “extreme heat.” The team then mapped the extremes over time, examining whether they occur regularly or are becoming more frequent.

“Today, the majority of the ocean’s surface has warmed to temperatures that only a century ago occurred as rare, once-in-50-year extreme warming events,” Van Houtan said.

The fact that I’m able to maintain this blog means that we still have time and resources to make changes that would both slow down the warming, and improve everyone’s ability to survive and thrive. That said, it’s hard not to think of the proverbial frog in its slowly warming pot of water.

Gravel Institute: The Famine America is Creating

Yesterday’s post discussed the effects of war on food prices and productions. Today, we’re looking at starvation inflicted by “economic” policies like economic sanctions. As I’ve mentioned, I’m working on a larger piece about sanctions that focuses on Iraq, but the US is currently in the process of setting up a brutal sanctions regime in Afghanistan. Further, there’s no good reason for these sanctions. There’s no reason to think they’ll influence Taliban policy, or to think that they’ll somehow result in regime change. Many of the people at the top of the US government are the same ones who push the previous sanctions against Iraq, and it seems very clear that no amount of death and misery will ever make them change their minds.

Tegan Tuesday: War threatens food supplies, drives up prices

In 2020, world production of wheat was 731 million tons (1.7 trillion pounds), making it the second most produced cereal after maize. Since 1960, world production of wheat and other grain crops has tripled and is expected to grow further through the middle of the 21st century. Global demand for wheat is increasing due to the unique viscoelastic and adhesive properties of gluten proteins, which facilitate the production of processed foods, whose consumption is increasing as a result of the worldwide industrialization process and the westernization of the diet.

Many people who are more informed, more educated, more aware of global politics than I, have discussed what’s going on with the Ukraine-Russian war. I’d like to pull the conversation back from the — equally valid! — discussions on nuclear or fossil fuel power, or NATO involvement, and talk about food. Specifically, wheat. The Ukrainian flag is a light blue band over a yellow band, and represents a blue sky over a ripe wheat field. Ukraine has been called the bread basket of Europe, and Ukraine is one of the five largest producers of wheat around the world. Unsurprisingly, wheat is a major part of Ukrainian culture, as well. One of the traditional plants for the Ukrainian flower crown (vinok) is wheat, worn during a harvest festival by an engaged woman, as good luck and honor, among other uses of wheat as a cultural icon. Ukraine and Russia together make up one-third of all wheat production and export globally. Because of the war, Ukraine is not harvesting winter wheat right now, nor planting any new crops (sunflowers and corn for oil are also supposed to be planted now).

Because of the war, Ukraine has no one to spare to transport or sell the wheat already harvested. Because of the war, Russia is banned from selling their wheat due to economic sanctions and countries making political stances against the Russian aggression and empire-building. Because of the war, people around the globe will be starving:

Grain prices were already rising before Russia invaded Ukraine, and recent days have seen unprecedented further gains as two of the world’s biggest producer are at war.

Wheat closed in Chicago at the highest price ever on Monday. Benchmark corn and soybean futures have each surged by 26% this year. Those kinds of increases in food-staple commodities have been associated with social unrest throughout history.

“Remember, bread riots are what started the Arab Spring, bread riots are what started the French Revolution,” said Sal Gilbertie, CEO of Teucrium, the largest U.S. exchange-traded fund issuer focused solely on agriculture funds. “It is a biblical event when you run low on wheat stocks. You won’t see a global food shortage. Unfortunately, what you’re going to see globally is that billions of people might not be able to afford to buy the food.”

Gilbertie doesn’t think the world will run out of wheat — but prices could continue to rise, and that will be most problematic for vulnerable global populations. “Ukraine dominates what they call the sun-seed market,” he said. “Sunflower oil is a major component of cooking oil and food, and you see palm oil rising, and soybean oil rising. That is a big deal, especially for the poorest of the poor, where cooking is a big part of the daily budget.”

Global food prices rose to a record high in February, led by vegetable oil and dairy products, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Wheat traded in Chicago, the international benchmark, has jumped more than 50 per cent since Russia invaded Ukraine. Prices rose to as high as $13.40 a bushel on Friday, while European milling wheat in Paris hit a record of €406 per tonne.

North American wheat harvests were curtailed by drought this past year, as were South American soybeans and corn. Severe weather all around the globe has impacted global food commodities, and food insecurity was already on the rise in many areas. The countries most reliant on Slavic wheat imports are in Africa or the middle east. Some particular countries are Egypt, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen — all of these whom have a fair amount of unrest even with full access to foodstuffs. Sudan in particular has already been suffering from wheat shortages due to the closing of ports during protests. But countries like Lebanon are buying 96% of its wheat consumption from either Ukraine or Russia, Egypt buying 85%, Turkey buying 78%, and the others listed above with similarly high amounts of annual consumption supported from Slavic wheatfields. Some countries, like Egypt, have attempted to buy imports from countries like France, but France has not been able to keep up the demand. Lebanon doesn’t have their expected stockpiles, as the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020 destroyed its only large grain silo. Turkey, in particular, needs wheat not just for it’s populace, but for it’s own exports: Turkey is a major producer and exporter of pasta, flour, biscuits, and semolina. Without the raw materials to make such items, Turkey’s economy will also suffer, along with everyone else in the region.

The price of bread has been a politically explosive issue in Egypt as on several occasions in the past 50 years it triggered angry protests, to which the Police usually responded by firing shots over the heads of demonstrators. Particularly strong protests were staged in March 2017 in Alexandria, Giza and many other areas after the government cut the supply of subsidized bread amid an economic crisis.

Also during the so-called “Bread Intifada” in January 1977 violent protests broke out and the Egyptian security forces killed 70 people and wounded more than 550 protesters, but in the end the government was forced to re-institute the subsidies.

Bread subsidies are considered a red line among Egyptians and people in other countries in the Middle East, as they are a staple for every family in the region. Bread is sold at very low prices, for example, a subsidized flat loaf costs 0.05 Egyptian pounds, less than one US cent, which covers only a small part of the real cost of producing it and the government coffers cover the rest.

It’s not just the general populace that is worried here either. The bakers who rely on the imported flour are the face of the government-subsidized bread for most families, and they are equally worried about what the future holds.

Tunisia’s government remains tightlipped on the flour shortages, even though the evidence is already apparent. Across the country, bakeries are shutting early, or rationing supplies, with anger growing among owners.

“There’s been a problem building for months,” said Hazem Bouanani, a baker. “Normally, we buy flour from mills and the government will reimburse us. For 10 months, we haven’t seen any payment.”

And that’s just wheat. Russia and Belarus also provide a significant amount of the world’s fertilizers, and the corn and soybeans grown in Ukraine feed livestock. People are going to starve. With a third year of a global pandemic, many industries failing or businesses failed, extreme weather patterns (flooding in Australia as we speak!); most people don’t have the funds to weather an additional hardship like severe food shortages.

This century is likely to be one instance of food insecurity after the next. I know that I will be working hard to have a large enough pantry to cushion any sudden surprises, considering how to eat more locally, and I think that I should look into how to support my local food banks. For those who wish to support those relieving the food insecurity of Ukrainian refugees, and many other global catastrophes, World Central Kitchen is usually one of the first organizations on the scene, and they provide hot food for all who can come.

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John Oliver on wrongful convictions, and some thoughts on the worship of process

John Oliver doesn’t get everything right, but he hits far more often than his misses, especially when critiquing aspects of domestic policy within the United States. In this case, the team at Last Week Tonight has put together an excellent video on the issue of wrongful convictions in the U.S., and how deeply fucked up that whole process is.

There’s one thread in this video that I want to pull a little, and that’s this:

When one of the West Memphis Three tried to get a new trial based on new evidence, including DNA, an assistant AG appeared before the state supreme court to try and talk them out of considering it, citing the harm that could do.

Judge: “What harm is there to allowing him to present all evidence?”

Assistant AG: “Well the harm is in the finality of a criminal judgment that is not demonstrated to have any constitutional or procedural defect, and just to try it again- I mean you’re suggesting, it sounds to me, Justice (inaudible), as though every 15 or 17 years or so we we really ought to try cases again to reestablish guilt so the harm is in is to the criminal justice system’s interest in finality.”

And a similar point comes up a little later, about a different case:

But the thing is a quick ruling like that is not remotely unusual. Many times appeals judges will just sign the state prosecutor’s documents without even changing the heading. One study looked at post-conviction appeals in the largest county in Texas, and found judges adopted the prosecutor’s findings verbatim in 96 of their rulings, and if at this point it seems like our whole system is set up to preserve its process even at the cost of human life, well during one death row appeal before the Missouri supreme court for this man, Joe Amrine one assistant ag basically admitted as much:

Judge: “You’re suggesting if we don’t find there’s a constitutional violation, then even if we find that Mr. Amrine is actually innocent, he should be executed?

Assistant AG: “The US Supreme Court in Herrera- ”

Judge: “I’m asking if that’s what you are arguing this day-”

Assistant AG: “That’s – That’s correct, your honor.”

It’s popular on the left to compare the center and right-wing worship of capitalism to actual religion, both in the dedication of its believers, and in their refusal to acknowledge reality. That’s why, while there has been real social progress in recent decades (though we’ve got a long, long way to go), economic policy has been moving far to the right, with the help of both major parties. I think there’s another ideological commitment that getting close to being as destructive as worship of capitalism and profit, and that’s worship of “the process”.

This seems to be a largely Democratic belief system these days. The Republicans have more or less openly embraced fascism, and they have a clear set of goals – more power for them and their donors, no matter the cost to the United States or the world. Democrats, or at least the leadership and a majority of the party, seem to have little in the way of actual beliefs, beyond their belief in capitalism, and in the process. That’s why it seems like the GOP fights tooth and nail for what they want, testing every boundary and looking for every loophole, but the Democrats always seem to fall short on their “big policies” before they even start negotiating with the GOP.

The Democrats don’t test the boundaries in pursuit of their goals, because the boundaries are their goal. Most of the party doesn’t actually want change. They’re willing to accept change, so long as it is very small, very popular, doesn’t require much effort from them, and doesn’t threaten to meaningfully change anything at a systemic level. They’re willing to embrace change that doesn’t hurt the powerful, like Obama’s continuation of the war on terror, or Biden’s continuation of Trump’s border policies, but when it came time to “fight for healthcare”, a universal system was never seriously discussed, and a public option was taken off the table before negotiations really started. And when a candidate was winning the primary with his Medicare for All message, there was a coordinated effort to tilt the field to favor a far more right-wing candidate.

If we assume that they aren’t consciously working to prevent left-wing change (and I think that’s an unsafe assumption), then they seem to hold a devout belief that change can only be good if it happens “within the rules”, and they even avoid things that aren’t against the rules, or that just might be against the rules. One of the better examples of this is the “Day One Agenda” from The American Prospect. They pulled together a number of actions that are within the power of the Executive Branch, or that haven’t been ruled to not be within that power. The GOP has made it clear that there’s no real punishment for making unconstitutional executive orders, to the point where they kept re-wording their “Muslim ban” until it managed to get through the courts.

Biden, as has been pointed out many times, couldn’t even be bothered to do things – like forgiving federal student loan debt – that pretty much everybody agrees he has the power to do.

Protocols and processes can be good, in theory. It’s good to have rules restricting the use and accumulation of power – I want more of those! But adhering to protocol for its own sake, especially when the “other side” has openly changed it in ways that hurt people, isn’t much better than causing that harm in the first place. Our system and its rules are designed to prevent any changes that might disempower the ruling class, and it seems to be that spirit of the law that the Democratic Party is committed to following, no matter how many people are hurt as a result.

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We need to downsize the fish.

Going vegetarian or vegan has long been a big part of the environmental movement in general, and the climate movement in particular. The reason is pretty simple – producing a pound of meat generally requires around ten times as much resources as a pound of whatever food that livestock eats. Animals have to eat, and only a fraction of what we consume is turned into muscle.

We generally think about this in terms of land animals – cows, chickens, sheep, etc., but this also applies to fish. Raising something like a salmon is going to require more energy than raising the smaller fish that salmon eat. That means that if we want to continue using fish as a source of protein, it would probably be a good idea to farm those fish that are cheapest to raise, and as much as I love salmon, farming it is not a good use of our resources.

Increased demand for seafood has driven an expansion in aquaculture. However, 90 percent of commercial fish feed is made from food-grade fish such as sardines and anchovies that are edible to humans. To analyze the efficiency of aquaculture in terms of net nutrient production, researchers first quantified the volume of micronutrients and wild fish retained by fish-fed farmed salmon using 2014 data on Scotland’s farmed salmon production. They calculated the volume of micronutrients used as aquaculture inputs and compared it to salmon aquaculture nutrient outputs. Using these data, the researchers modeled several seafood production scenarios to assess potential sustainability benefits of alternative seafood systems.

The researchers found that in 2014, 460,000 tonnes of wild-caught fish were used to produce 179,000 tonnes of Scottish salmon. 76 percent of the wild-caught fish were edible for human consumption. The data also suggest that multiple alternative seafood production models would be more efficient in terms of net nutrient production, so could significantly reduce wild fish capture while increasing global seafood supply. However, these data were limited to only one year (2014). Future studies are needed to better understand how to operationalize a global shift away from farmed fish toward sustainable fisheries.
According to the authors, “Feed production now accounts for 90% of the environmental footprint of salmonid production. Allowing salmonid production to expand further via its current approach will place exceptional stress on global fish stocks already at their limit. Our results suggest that limiting the volume of wild-caught fish used to produce farmed salmon feed may relieve pressure on wild fish stocks while increasing supply of nutritious wild fish for human consumption.”

The authors add: “Nutritious fish stocks are being squandered by salmon farming. Scientists reveal that eating the wild-caught fish destined for salmon farms would allow nearly 4 million tons of fish to be left in the sea while providing an extra 6 million tons of seafood.”

I spent a semester in Tanzania, back in 2006, and one thing I noticed there was that many markets would have a bin or even just a pile of tiny dried fish that you could buy in bulk. It was basically an easy way to add protein to a meal, by just tossing a handful of dried minnows into whatever you’re making. They did not taste as good as salmon, but they get the job done, and if you’re a decent cook and have access to spices, you can do good things with them.

As with so many other things,  I think our best path forward is to work on having a diverse array of options for anything we need to do, so that a catastrophic failure in one area, like a livestock epidemic or extreme weather event, won’t be enough to cause mass starvation or malnutrition. The way we do things now is not the way things have to be.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work I do. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

A good response to transphobia in Texas, and a good discussion of puberty blockers

While we’ve had a fair amount of expansion in the civil rights of people who fall outside “traditional” gender and sexuality, recent years have brought a reactionary backlash by people to narrow-minded and bigoted to accept that these changes have only made the world better. As ever, this hate campaign is founded is misinformation, and so it’s also necessary to debunk that propaganda, and help people understand the facts. Minority groups have always made particularly good targets for this particular tactic, because it’s far more likely that the general public won’t know enough to spot lies when they’re told. The best way to guard against that is to use at least some of our free time on educating ourselves and others.

One of the current targets of the political campaign against trans rights is the collection of medications known as “puberty blockers”. These are medications that have been in use for a pretty long time, to help cis children deal with things like early onset of puberty. For trans kids, they buy time to consider their options, and figure out who they are. Because a small minority of the population has a personal reason to know about this stuff, it makes it easier for bigots to spread lies, or half-truths, in order to support legislation that causes needless harm. As usual, I think Rebecca Watson has done a good job in discussing this issue:

As always, Watson has a full transcript available on Skepchick, for those who don’t want to watch the video. In particular, I like her breakdown of the claims about puberty blockers that were used by Texas Republicans to justify targeting parents who support their trans kids:

So why do people like Abbott consider puberty blockers “child abuse” if a teen can go off them at any time and experience puberty like normal? Well, this was kind of tough to nail down, for the main reason that puberty blockers are overwhelmingly safe with little to no known negative side effects.

But opponents claim a few things about puberty blockers: one, that they’re irreversible (they are, as mentioned, easily reversible). And two, that they may cause loss of bone density and sterility later in life. I’ve even seen those things mentioned in places like the Mayo Clinic’s site, but they say blockers MAY cause these things. That’s not good enough for me so after reading far more research on this than I’d honestly like, it appears to me that the medical consensus is that none of that is true: puberty blockers do NOT cause loss of bone density or sterility. A systematic review of the literature by “authors designated by multiple pediatric endocrinology societies from around the globe” found “Adverse effects of GnRHa therapy are rare, and the associations of most reported adverse events with the GnRHa molecule itself are unclear. Decades of experience have shown that GnRHa treatment is both safe and efficacious.”

Further, “There is no substantiated evidence that GnRHa treatment impairs reproductive function or reduces fertility,” and in regards to bone density, while “GnRHa treatment slows mineral accrual, after discontinuation BMD appears not to be significantly different from that of their peers by late adolescence. Reports of BMD among children and adolescents verified a decrement in BMD at the achievement of near AH, while accrual resumed after therapy, regardless of whether or not calcium supplementation was given. By late adolescence, all subjects had BMD within the normal range.”

Note that these were kids who experienced early puberty and they had heavier bone density prior to taking blockers, but even if trans kids did experience a loss of density that’s something they and their doctor could watch for and control either by switching to a different puberty blocker or by taking medications to increase bone growth. In other words, even if it does happen in rare cases it’s simply not a big deal.

We know all this because we have DECADES of research on puberty blockers used not just in trans teens but in countless kids with “precocious puberty” (the medical term, which makes it sound cuter than it is). Puberty blockers are safe, easily accessible, and easily stopped and the body naturally “reverses” them.

If you like Watson’s work, consider supporting her on Patreon, and please consider giving to the groups she highlights.

If you haven’t read The Shock Doctrine, you really should. The audiobook is free!

Content warning: Descriptions of torture re: CIA, MkUltra, Cold War torture programs, and so on.

I’ve made this pitch before, but I’m making it again, and I’m going to keep making it. The audiobook for Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine is youtube, and EVERYONE should listen to it, or read a paper or e-book copy. It provides historical context for a lot of what has happened in the world since the 1970s, for what’s happening right now, and for what we can expect from the current COVID-19 crisis, and from the crises we will be seeing from climate change in the coming years. If you believe that healthcare should be available to all, or that everyone should be free to pursue happiness in their own way, then understanding what’s in this book is essential. People with an unimaginable amount of power continue to carry out the tactics described here, and resisting their efforts will require us to be able to understand what’s going on as it’s being done to us. This book is probably the best way to get that understanding.


New drought forecast for the 21st century looks grim. We urgently need to move food production indoors.

We need to move food production indoors. I keep saying it, but weirdly nobody running the world seems to read my blog. One of the central theses of this blog is that we missed the deadline on climate change, by at least a decade. That doesn’t mean we’re all doomed, but it does mean that returning to the global climate that gave birth to our current civilization is not an option. It could happen in a few hundred years, with active efforts from a global human society, but for that to happen, we need to survive those centuries of warming. To do that, we need to change how we do things in a number of ways, and agriculture is very near the top of that list.

A Washington State University-led research team analyzed climate, agricultural and population growth data to show continuing fossil fuel dependence will increase the probability of co-occurring droughts 40% by the mid-21st century and 60% by the late 21st century, relative to the late-20th century. That comes out to an approximately ninefold increase in agricultural and human population exposure to severe co-occurring droughts unless steps are taken to lower carbon emissions.

“There could be around 120 million people across the globe simultaneously exposed to severe compound droughts each year by the end of the century,” said lead author Jitendra Singh, a former postdoctoral researcher at the WSU School of the Environment now at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. “Many of the regions our analysis shows will be most affected are already vulnerable and so the potential for droughts to become disasters is high.”

I’d just like to pause to emphasized that. 120 million people dealing with severe drought each year. For a comparison, the WHO estimates the current annual number at 55 million, and they don’t even specify “severe” drought. I’ve mentioned before that starvation and malnutrition around the globe isn’t due to a lack of resources, but the factors that create that artificial scarcity are likely to be exacerbated by this increase in drought, causing mass famine well before we get to the point where conventional farming can’t produce enough food because of climate change. Without systemic change, this could mean anywhere from hundreds of millions to billions starving to death.

But because we know this is coming, I would argue that none of those deaths are unavoidable, even now. We could invest heavily in various forms of indoor food production, which can recycle water used, and be immune to things like drought. Making that a global priority now would mean that our inevitable mistakes will do less harm, because conventional farming is still producing food. If, as seems more likely, the people running the world continue to procrastinate on avoiding our looming extinction, then we’re going to have much less leeway. We’ve already lost a lot of that slack, but I fear we’re going to lose what remains pretty quickly.

The elevated risk of compound droughts estimated by Singh and colleagues is a result of a warming climate coupled with a projected 22% increase in the frequency of El Niño and La Niña events, the two opposite phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The researchers’ projections show that nearly 75% of compound droughts in the future will coincide with these irregular but recurring periods of climatic variation in the world’s oceans, which have played a large role in some of the greatest environmental disasters in world history.


The researchers’ analysis specifically focused on ten regions of the planet that receive most of their rainfall during June-September, have high variability in monthly summer precipitation and are affected by ENSO variations, factors that lead to an increased potential for co-occurring drought. Several of the regions analyzed include important agricultural regions and countries that are currently facing food and water insecurity.

Their results indicate areas of North and South America are more likely to experience compound droughts in a future, warmer climate than regions of Asia, where much of the agricultural land is projected to become wetter.

Food produced in the Americas could therefore be more susceptible to climatic hazards. For instance, the United States is a major exporter of staple grains and currently ships maize to countries across the globe. Even a modest increase in the risk of compound droughts in the future climate could lead to regional supply shortfalls that could in turn cascade into the global market, affecting global prices and amplifying food insecurity.

“The potential for a food security crisis increases even if these droughts aren’t affecting major food producing regions but rather many regions that are already vulnerable to food insecurity,” said coauthor Weston Anderson, an assistant research scientist at the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland. “Simultaneous droughts in food insecure regions could in turn amplify stresses on international agencies responsible for disaster relief by requiring the provision of humanitarian aid to a greater number of people simultaneously.”

There is some good news, Anderson said. The researchers’ work is based on a high fossil fuel emissions scenario, and in recent years, the global community has made progress toward lowering carbon emissions which would greatly mitigate the frequency and intensity of co-occurring droughts by the end of the 21st century.

Also, the occurrence of nearly 75% of compound droughts alongside ENSO events in the future climate highlights the potential to predict where these droughts may occur with a lead time of up to nine months.

“This means that co-occurring droughts during ENSO events will likely affect the same geographical regions they do today albeit with greater severity,” said Deepti Singh. “Being able to predict where these droughts will occur and their potential impacts can help society develop plans and efforts to minimize economic losses and reduce human suffering from such climate-driven disasters.”

Research and development of new technologies should always be an ongoing investment we make as a society. That said, it is not necessary to do more research and development in order to take major action on climate change. We already have everything we need to make a huge difference in what our future looks like, except for a political and economic system that actually values humanity (let alone the rest of life). I know I keep repeating myself, but until real change actually happens, it needs to be repeated, and said in different ways and different contexts. The people who currently run the world, and the political and economic systems that put them in power are not going to save us. I don’t think they particularly want to, but I also don’t think they’re capable of doing it.  We can work within the system to do at least some good, but that will not be enough. I feel like that should be increasingly obvious to people, given how many decades it’s been since the IPCC was first convened. Vote, protest, and do all the rest, but we need to view democracy as a part of our daily lives and our daily work, not just something we participate in now and then. We need to stop relying on political parties for our political organizing, and start organizing more directly to put real pressure on politicians no matter who’s in office, and to work towards revolutionary change in who our society serves.

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