Are the rich safe from climate breakdown? Yes, and we should do something about that

Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist, and a climate activist. He’s doing work that’s desperately needed, and deserves our support. That said, I’m not sure whether I agree with how he framed a wildfire in California. The fire destroyed several multimillion dollar mansions near Laguna Beach on May 12th, prompting Kalmus to point out that the rich aren’t safe from Earth breakdown.

This feels like one of those times when something is technically correct – no human is safe from climate breakdown – but maybe less correct from both a practical and a tactical perspective. I admit that this may be a bit of a petty hair to split, but for some reason my brain hasn’t been cooperating today, but it’s happy to provide whatever this post is. I want to say again, because the internet seems to thrive on bullshit controversy, that I’m not “attacking” Peter Kalmus. If you want to categorize this post, you can view it as a well-meaning propagandist musing aloud about his craft. Ok? Ok.

There are three reasons why I think this post may be a little misguided. The first is that in practical terms, the rich are safe from climate breakdown. They’re safe from it in their heads, and their wealth will protect them from it for a long time. I think it’s fair to assume that everyone who owned those mansions had good insurance plans for them. Maybe there are some people with houses like that who would be ruined by the loss, but my impression is that for the most part, people with homes like that tend to have other homes in other locations. They can relocate without much difficulty. They might lose things of sentimental value, and they might even become slightly less wealthy, but that’s not the same as what happens when a normal person’s home burns.

The amount of safety will depend on how obscenely rich they are, but for the people at the top – the ones who could make a real difference on the climate issue if they cared to – it could well be more than a lifetime before their wealth runs out, if we don’t change how the world works, and take it away from them.

My second quibble is with what seems like an appeal to the wealthy. I see the value in trying to get those with power to do something, but I don’t think this accounts for who they really are – they’re people whose lives have demonstrated to them that they really can spend their way out of any problem. They are also people whose power and wealth came from having the means to make the world better, and choosing to enrich themselves instead. My impression of history is that they won’t learn the error of their ways until they are forced to by circumstance. If climate change is that circumstance, then it may be too late for the rest of us by then – it will take time for the wealthy to exhaust their resources.

Remember – these are people who can just buy themselves a state-of-the-art bunker on a whim, and stock it with a decade’s worth of food and water, without even considering where that money’s going to come from. They will try to create a neo-feudal climate hellscape with order enforced by paramilitaries fitted with shock collars, and by the time that fully falls apart on them, everything will be much, much worse. I don’t think they believe that they’re not safe, and I don’t think we can afford to wait for them to find out.

Finally, I worry that appeals like this perpetuate the idea that we have to ask our rulers to save the world. To quote Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand, and I think the whole world will be far better off if we get our acts together and make that demand as soon as possible. The alternative is waiting until climate change scours away all of their power, and if that’s the path we take, they’ll use as many of us as human shields as possible to protect themselves. How many people will die by then? How much of our dwindling hope will be gone?

We should proceed as though the wealthy are safe from this global catastrophe, at least in the time frames that really matter right now. They’re safe for the same reason everyone else is not, and that should make us angry. They’re safe from climate change, and as long as that’s the case, humanity itself will continue to be in danger.

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Tips for accessing reproductive healthcare in the United States

Whether or not the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade has the exact language as the leaked memo, I think it’s safe to assume that the GOP will continue their relentless effort to make reproductive healthcare inaccessible. That won’t reduce the need for abortion and contraception, but it will make safe reproductive care difficult to access, and impossible for some. In some parts of the U.S., the “right” to an abortion exists only on paper, because of the logistical barriers that have been put in place. When confronted with unjust laws, it is right and just to break those laws, and when it comes to something like health care, I would say it’s our duty to do what we can to help those in need of care, to whatever degree we’re able. To that end, I’m linking some relevant resources. I’ll try to update this as I come across more materials, and I hope you folks will fill in any gaps in the comments. As with everything else, we’re at our strongest when we work together.

I have one more thing to add: The kinds of organizing and networking I periodically talk about are humanity’s original multi-tool for dealing with big problems. Having a network and knowing who in it believes what is a way for people to seek help. If you aren’t likely to need help yourself, it puts you in a position where others know that you might be able to provide it. Also a general reminder – if you’re planning to do something that could get you in trouble, don’t post about it online, and consider who might have access to your modes of communication.

This resource was last updated on the sixth of May, 2022.

There’s more on that thread that’s worth looking at.

Take care of yourselves, and take care of each other.

Catastrophe comes when crises collide: Heat wave in India and Pakistan has global implications

As many of you are probably already aware, India and Pakistan are facing a particularly nasty heat wave. Heat is much more difficult to escape than cold, without modern technology, and unfortunately there are a lot of people in those countries without access to air conditioning. This is one of those situations where wealthy nations have a moral obligation to the rest of the world. Instead of letting a few monsters become cartoonishly wealthy, we should be working to implement carbon-free power generation around the world, and on making sure that everyone at minimum has access to air-conditioned shelters. Heat waves should be treated as seriously as we treat things like hurricanes or tornados, especially since we know that it’s only going to get worse.

Beyond all of that, however, we also have to come back to one of the central themes of this blog: Agriculture.

A record-breaking heat wave in India exposing hundreds of millions to dangerous temperatures is damaging the country’s wheat harvest, which experts say could hit countries seeking to make up imports of the food staple from conflict-riven Ukraine.

With some states in India’s breadbasket northern and central regions seeing forecasts with highs of 120 Fahrenheit this week, observers fear a range of lasting impacts, both local and international, from the hot spell.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this month that India could step in to ease the shortfall created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries account for nearly a third of all global wheat exports, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the conflict could leave an additional 8 million to 13 million people undernourished by next year.

India’s wheat exports hit 8.7 million tons in the fiscal year ending in March, with the government predicting record production levels — some 122 million tons — in 2022.

But the country has just endured its hottest March since records began, according to the India Meteorological Department, and the heat wave is dragging well into harvest time.

The heat wave is hitting India’s main wheat-growing regions particularly hard, with temperatures this week set to hit 112 F in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh; 120 F in Chandigarh, Punjab; and 109 F in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
Devendra Singh Chauhan, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah district, told NBC News that his wheat crop was down 60 percent compared to normal harvests.

“In March, when the ideal temperature should rise gradually, we saw it jump suddenly from 32 C to 40 C [90 F to 104 F],” he said in a text message. “If such unreasonable weather patterns continue year after year, farmers will suffer badly.”

Harjeet Singh, senior adviser to Climate Action Network International, said the heat wave would have a “horrific” short- and long-term impact on people in India and further afield.

“[Wheat] prices will be driven up, and if you look at what is happening in Ukraine, with many countries relying on wheat from India to compensate, the impact will be felt well beyond India,” Singh said.

Harish Damodaran, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said regions that planted earlier tended to escape the worst impacts on their harvests. In other regions, however, the hot temperatures hit during the wheat’s crucial “grain filling” stage, which is critical for producing high yields.

“Temperatures just shot up,” he said. “It was like an electric shock, and so we are talking of yields more or less everywhere coming down 15 to 20 percent.”

What worries me is that this is just a taste of what’s to come. A big part of the reason for this growing global food crisis is that a vicious asshole decided to invade a neighboring country, but the reality is that war is likely to become more common as temperatures increase,  especially if it continues to be so profitable to the ruling classes that tend to start most of the wars. The reality is that war in one region will be increasingly dangerous to everyone else, because the odds grow every year that we’ll have crises collide, as we’re seeing now.

It’s not just the war in Ukraine and the heat wave in India, either. China’s wheat crop is also doing badly right now.

A Chinese agricultural official said on March 5 that this year’s China winter wheat crop could be the “worst in history,” Reuters reported.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian told reporters at the country’s annual parliament meeting that a survey taken of the crop prior to the start of winter showed a 20% reduction in first- and second-grade winter wheat, due mainly to heavy rainfall during planting that reduced acreage by one-third.

War has never been something we could “afford”, but now more than ever, it’s something that can have a global impact even without its devastating environmental impact, and the threat of nuclear weapons. I don’t think a more democratic planet would see war eliminated altogether, but I think there would be far less of it driven by the greed or bigotry of people whose wealth and power separates them from humanity. That means doing the work of building democracy – something that was never done, despite all the lip service given to it in the past. As always, I don’t have all the answers. I’m trying to figure out some of them, and for others – like agriculture – I’m relying on the basics of what we know is coming for us.

If we want to avoid mass death on a scale never before seen in history, I think it would be a very good idea for us to invest in indoor food production. As I’ve said before, I think a lot of that effort should go into things like bacterial and algal food stocks that can serve as a staple for most people. I also think we should invest in communal greenhouses, as well as more large-scale indoor farming operations.  The more we plan ahead, and act before disaster strikes, the more we’ll be able to work on things like improving quality of life, and even reducing greenhouse gas levels.

And in case it needs to be said, I really, really don’t care whether indoor food production is profitable right now. I can’t think of a clearer indication that our concept of profit is flawed than the idea that humanity’s survival might be “unprofitable”.

This is a warning, as clear and as dire as those issued by climate scientists. At the moment, it seems that all of our “leaders” are either unwilling or unable to hear or act on these warnings, so we need a different way of managing governance. How much longer will people keep believing that our current political and economic systems are up to the needs of the moment?

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Unions even help workers who aren’t unionized.

It has warmed my heart to see the wave of labor organizing in the United States, and the apparent blind panic it has caused among executives and their ilk. It’s long been pointed out that when a country has strong unions, it improves conditions even for those workers who aren’t organized, because bosses have a choice between offering jobs that look as good as what unions can get, or having their workers unionize.

I have to say, I didn’t expect to see this happening so quickly.

In this case, it’s a desperate attempt to prevent more Starbucks franchises from unionizing, but the basic pressure seems to be the same. The bosses know that they can’t do without workers, and that they can afford to pay a lot more, and treat people a lot better.

When the U.S. had no real organized labor movement, our rulers could get away with the pretense of benevolent leadership, but now there’s zero ambiguity. People who are worth thousands of millions of dollars only get to that point by viewing their right to every cent they can hoard as more important than anyone else’s right to anything.

Organize. Organize with your fellow tenants. Organize with your fellow workers. Throw out constructed social norms like not talking about your wages. The more power we get, the more they will fight back, but there’s no other path to a better world.

Weep for Cassandra if you must, but heed her warnings, for humanity’s sake

It’s April of 2022. We’ve had a couple years of disruption, primarily caused by the collision of late capitalism and SARS-CoV-2, which itself followed a couple years of unrest in the United States, and the growing realization that fascism was still a real threat. And in the background of all of this, we’ve had a steady march of disasters fueled by global warming, and scientific reports quantifying exactly how screwed we are.

Small wonder, then, that superstition seems to be on the rise. Every headline about black goo in a sarcophagus, or climate change revealing ancient artifacts was met with a lot of joking-not-joking about curses, or Pandora’s Box.

For myself, I have to wonder if some early climate scientist broke an indecent agreement with Apollo, so that all future climate scientists would be cursed to speak the truth about the growing threat of climate change, and to be disbelieved or dismissed by everyone with the power to do anything about it. Worse, an entire industry has formed around attacking and discrediting climate scientists. If you want to get a taste of that frustration, you can check out things like The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael E. Mann.

I once heard someone say that the more you learn about nuclear power, the less it scares you, but the more you learn about climate change, the more it scares you. Imagine, then, the life of someone whose full time job is monitoring this unfolding catastrophe, and reporting on it to what often seems like an indifferent world.

The reality, of course, is that most of humanity is not indifferent. Most of us care very much about what’s happening, we just don’t currently have the power to change anything. That’s something we should be working on, but in the meantime, at least part of our efforts do need to go towards convincing the ruling class to at least stop accelerating towards the proverbial cliff. Climate scientists have been making that case for decades now, and it has been a thankless task.

Among the many attacks levied against them, one that always irked me especially was the claim that climate scientists were “getting political” by describing the implications of their research, and by urging action. It is so obviously insincere, and yet it has hung around. I think part of its longevity is the fact that it does double duty. It casts doubt on the science, and it communicates to the audience that “being political” is an inherently bad thing. That’s dangerous, of course, because if we’re going to have any hope of a better world, we must get political , and at a scale the world has never seen before.

I am nowhere close to being alone in making the Cassandra comparison, and unfortunately it seems to be just as unpleasant as you’d think. Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, published this letter in association with a protest carried out by him and his colleagues:

I’m a climate scientist and a desperate father. How can I plead any harder? What will it take? What can my colleagues and I do to stop this catastrophe unfolding now all around us with such excruciating clarity?

On Wednesday, I risked arrest by locking myself to an entrance to the JP Morgan Chase building in downtown Los Angeles with colleagues and supporters. Our action in LA is part of an international campaign organized by a loosely knit group of concerned scientists called Scientist Rebellion, involving more than 1,200 scientists in 26 countries and supported by local climate groups. Our day of action follows the IPCC Working Group 3 report released Monday, which details the harrowing gap between where society is heading and where we need to go. Our movement is growing fast.

We chose JP Morgan Chase because out of all the investment banks in the world, JP Morgan Chase funds the most new fossil fuel projects. As the new IPCC report explains, emissions from current and planned fossil energy infrastructure are already more than twice the amount that would push the planet over 1.5°C of global heating, a level of heating that will bring much more intense heat, fire, storms, flooding, and drought than the present 1.2°C.

Even limiting heating to below 2°C, a level of heating that in my opinion could threaten civilization as we know it, would require emissions to peak before 2025. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in the press conference on Monday: “Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness.” And yet, this is precisely what President Biden, most other world leaders, and major banks are doing. It’s no exaggeration to say that Chase and other banks are contributing to murder and neocide through their fossil fuel finance.

Earth breakdown is much worse than most people realize. The science indicates that as fossil fuels continue to heat our planet, everything we love is at risk. For me, one of the most horrific aspects of all this is the juxtaposition of present-day and near-future climate disasters with the “business as usual” occurring all around me. It’s so surreal that I often find myself reviewing the science to make sure it’s really happening, a sort of scientific nightmare arm-pinch. Yes, it’s really happening.
If everyone could see what I see coming, society would switch into climate emergency mode and end fossil fuels in just a few years.

I hate being the Cassandra. I’d rather just be with my family and do science. But I feel morally compelled to sound the alarm. By the time I switched from astrophysics into Earth science in 2012, I’d realized that facts alone were not persuading world leaders to take action. So I explored other ways to create social change, all the while becoming increasingly concerned. I joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby. I reduced my own emissions by 90% and wrote a book about how this turned out to be satisfying, fun, and connecting. I gave up flying, started a website to help encourage others, and organized colleagues to pressure the American Geophysical Union to reduce academic flying. I helped organize FridaysForFuture in the US. I co-founded a popular climate app and started the first ad agency for the Earth. I spoke at climate rallies, city council meetings, and local libraries and churches. I wrote article after article, open letter after open letter. I gave hundreds of interviews, always with authenticity, solid facts, and an openness to showing vulnerability. I’ve encouraged and supported countless climate activists and young people behind the scenes. And this was all on my personal time and at no small risk to my scientific career.

Nothing has worked. It’s now the eleventh hour and I feel terrified for my kids, and terrified for humanity. I feel deep grief over the loss of forests and corals and diminishing biodiversity. But I’ll keep fighting as hard as I can for this Earth, no matter how bad it gets, because it can always get worse. And it will continue to get worse until we end the fossil fuel industry and the exponential quest for ever more profit at the expense of everything else. There is no way to fool physics.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Out of necessity, and after exhaustive efforts, I’ve joined the ranks of those who selflessly risk their freedom and put their bodies on the line for the Earth, despite ridicule from the ignorant and punishment from a colonizing legal system designed to protect the planet-killing interests of the rich. It’s time we all join them. The feeling of solidarity is a wonderful balm.

As for the climate scientists? We’ve been trying to tell you this whole time.

This was one part of a multinational protest by over 1,000 climate scientists, aimed specifically at the big banks that are funding – and profiting from – our destruction. The notion that scientists ought to be non-political has always been a lie that could only ever benefit the powerful. In a world that seems to only value the sensational, we need acts of civil disobedience like this, and we need to build the capacity to wield collective power for the collective good. These scientists are in the right when they aim for the heart of our capitalist system, and while I really, really want to be wrong about this, I have little hope that our corporate overlords will suddenly decide to do the right thing.

One thing I think we should be doing, beyond organizing and protesting, is finding ways to bring up climate change with politicians and their representatives. Not just climate change, but the ways in which our system – working as it was designed – is making it profitable to turn this planet into a sweltering hellscape. Make it impossible for them to ignore, and when they respond with talking points, challenge those, and the ones that come after them. Individually, we’re limited in how much time and energy we can spend on this. Anyone with a sense of perspective realizes that the mightiest effort of one person is a drop in the bucket, compared to the size of the problem. If we can get enough of us moving in the same direction, those drops can become a relentless storm, and if we can’t force our rulers to at least go with the flow, then maybe we can wash them away.

Thanks to StevoR for requesting the topic.

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 that goes into this. 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!

Action or despair? What’s the result of “climate deadline” rhetoric?

So I’m going to read the new IPCC report, and see if I have more in-depth commentary on it, but I wanted to say a couple words about the rhetoric surrounding the report, and a strategy I think basically anyone making six figures or more should consider.

While I get why it’s being pushed, the “now or never” rhetoric worries me for a couple reasons. The first is just that I’m worried it will push people to give up, since “now” clearly isn’t happening. The second is that I feel like it’s a continuation of the same obsession with the short term and with urgent crises that has gotten us to this point.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I think that if I was involved in climate messaging, I’d probably start making preparations for the world we seem to be creating, and simply talking about them in public on a regular basis. Store food against crop failures, and mention that it probably won’t be enough, if things keep warming. Start building water storage infrastructure, with rationing rules about how that emergency supply is to be used (very little for hygiene, for example). Put around plans to require new hotel construction (among other kinds of facilities) to double as emergency shelters with the capacity to keep indoor air at livable temperatures when it’s 45°C/113°F or higher, even if there’s a blackout. Put around draft regulations requiring new power plants to be able to operate safely under extreme heat wave conditions, because otherwise people will die.

If anyone with political or economic power happens to be reading this, and you actually care about climate change, the most powerful messaging you could probably do is to use the resources you have now to start making preparations for a much hotter world. You can be clear that you’re hoping this won’t be needed right away, but also paint a picture, with references to relevant research, of how our lives are going to change in the coming decades. Speeches will not work to convince people at this point – actions might have a shot.

And if people don’t like what your actions say about the future, then remind them that we know what we have to do to make that future better, we’re just not doing it.

I don’t know if this will be easier for politicians to do than directly tackling the fossil fuel industry right now, but I feel like it’s a powerful message to tell people that since corrupt monsters like Manchin (and many others) are preventing us from doing anything to slow or stop climate change, then it’s their duty to do what they can to help their constituents or communities survive.

Couple rhetoric with action wherever possible, and make it clear what path is being chosen for us with the status quo. I have a feeling that as things get worse, the political cost of opposing climate change adaptation measures will increase. It’s easy to abstract and confuse the causes of climate change, but when it comes to living with the effects, I think you’ll have a hard time convincing people that they don’t need to make any changes to survive.

It feels like we’re still stuck in the “capitalist realism” trap, where nobody seems to be able to conceive of any end to capitalism that isn’t also the end of the world. We know that technology and planning can help us survive more hostile conditions, but it really feels like the collective view is that if we can’t stop climate change from getting really bad, then we might as well just give up and die. It’s not just a bad strategy, it’s also frankly pathetic from a species with ambitions to live on other planets.

I don’t want to live in a world that’s a couple degrees hotter, but I don’t want to live under capitalism either, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up on my life and my species because a few rich assholes can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum for future generations. When we miss climate deadlines, that does mean certain changes are inevitable. It does not mean that if we don’t take action now, taking action a little later will be pointless – it’ll just be harder.

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 that goes into this. 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!

Do your droughts take too long to dry up the land? Try new and improved Flash Droughts!

Flash droughts have always been a thing – the term refers to a drought that dries out the landscape to a given point within five days – and they don’t seem to be getting more frequent right now.


What they are doing, is getting faster.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Texas Tech University found that although the number of flash droughts has remained stable during the past two decades, more of them are coming on faster. Globally, the flash droughts that come on the fastest — sending areas into drought conditions within just five days — have increased by about 3%-19%. And in places that are especially prone to flash droughts — such as South Asia, Southeast Asia and central North America — that increase is about 22%-59%.

Rising global temperatures are probably behind the faster onset, said co-author and UT Jackson School Professor Zong-Liang Yang, who added that the study’s results underscore the importance of understanding flash droughts and preparing for their effects.


Flash droughts are relatively new to science, with the advancement of remote sensing technology during the past couple of decades helping reveal instances of soil rapidly drying out. This serves as the telltale sign of the onset of a flash drought and can make drought conditions appear seemingly out of the blue.

As the name suggests, flash droughts are short lived, usually lasting only a few weeks or months. But when they occur during critical growing periods, they can cause disasters. For example, in the summer of 2012, a flash drought in the central United States caused the corn crop to wither, leading to an estimated $35.7 billion in losses.

In this study, the scientists analyzed global hydroclimate data sets that use satellite soil moisture measurements to capture a global picture of flash drought and how it has changed during the past 21 years. The data showed that about 34%-46% of flash droughts came on in about five days. The rest emerge within a month, with more than 70% developing in half a month or less.

When they examined the droughts over time, they noticed the flash droughts happening more quickly.

The study also revealed the importance of humidity and variable weather patterns, with flash droughts becoming more likely when there’s a shift from humid to arid conditions. That makes regions that undergo seasonal swings in humidity — such as Southeast Asia, the Amazon Basin, and the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the United States — flash drought hot spots.

“We should pay close attention to the vulnerable regions with a high probability of concurrent soil drought and atmospheric aridity,” said Wang.

Mark Svoboda, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center and originator of the term “flash drought,” said the advancement in drought-detecting technology and modeling tools — such as those used in this study — has led to growing awareness of the influence and impact of flash droughts. He said the next big step is translating this knowledge into on-the-ground planning.

“You can go back and watch that drought evolve in 2012 and then compare it to how that tool did,” said Svoboda, who was not part of the study. “We really have the stage well set to do a better job of tracking these droughts.”

I think what this means, from the point of view of agriculture, is that it’s very possible that without maintaining a reserve supply of water against flash droughts, a crop could be destroyed before there’s time to organize an emergency response. As with so many other aspects of living with climate change, it seems to me that step one is to create a society that values storing up resources against need, rather than using as much as we produce, as we produce it. It’s not a guaranteed solution to all problems, but it is a way to make it likely that you’ll have the time and energy to come up with a more tailored solution to whatever your problem is, because you’re less likely to be focused on bare survival.

Luck favors the prepared.

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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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.

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Good news! Urban forests are better carbon sinks than we realized!

I like cities.

It took me a while to admit that to myself. Throughout my teens, I lived in rural New Hampshire, and I spent a decent portion of my time doing stuff in the woods. Realizing that I actually do like living in cities was a bit of a blow to my identity. That said, there are ways in which I think city life could be made much, much better.

To begin with, every city I’ve lived in needed a better public transit system. A lot of modern cities are designed around cars, and I’d like to see that end. Ideally I’d want urban car traffic to be as close to zero as possible, not just because the roads have been reclaimed for pedestrians and other purposes, but also because getting around a city should be easier without them. That should include infrastructure to ensure full access for folks with disabilities. Another benefit of better public transit and few if any cars, is a dramatic decrease in urban air pollution, which in turn would mean a dramatic increase in the overall health of the urban population.

Another thing that I think should happen is a concerted effort to pack as much vegetation into cities as possible. I’m exaggerating slightly, but I do think that most urban roads, for example, should be converted into public parks with communal garden space, and/or communal greenhouses. I think this would go a long way toward improving people’s mental health in addition to their physical health. More greenery would also soak up some of the air pollution that can’t be avoided, and pull at least a little CO2 out of the atmosphere.

In fact, when it comes to that last bit, it turns out the news is better than expected:

“We think about forests as big landscapes, but really they are chopped up into all these little segments because of the human world,” says Hutyra, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment. Forests get cut into smaller parcels, as chunks are taken down to make space for roads, buildings, agriculture, and solar farms — one of the biggest drivers of forest loss in Massachusetts. These alterations to forests create more areas called forest edges — literally, the trees at the outermost edge of a forest.

It has long been assumed that these forest edges release and store carbon at similar rates as forest interiors, but Hutyra and researchers in her lab at BU have discovered this isn’t true. Soils and trees in temperate forest edges in the Northeast United States are acting differently than those farther away from people. In two recent research papers, Hutyra’s team found edge trees grow faster than their country cousins deep in the forest, and that soil in urban areas can hoard more carbon dioxide than previously thought. Their results can challenge current ideas about conservation and the value of urban forests as more than places for recreation.

Pretty much any scenario in which out civilization survives the next century will see that civilization change radically. In that time line, I’d expect to see us continue becoming an urban species, but also changing what urban life is like. Replacing streets with foot and bike paths and light rail would allow cities to pretty much be parks, and because the goal is an economy that lets need drive production, rather than greed, everyone would have to spend far less of our lives working, so we’d have time for stuff like growing food, and just hanging out.

Honestly, thinking about what cities could be like rekindles my irritation at mortality. If we did things right, cities could become some of the most fascinating ecosystems on the planet, with their own unique wildlife communities and crops. As the quoted article states, rising temperatures could reduce net CO2 uptake, but “greening” urban environments as I describe would also go at least some way toward combatting the urban heat island effect. I think there’s potential there for a feedback loop that actually works in our favor, which would be nice.

The last aspect of this I wanted to look at is the way it would affect more rural areas. Dedicating more of a city’s surface area to growing food would take some pressure off current farmland, especially if there’s a simultaneous effort to do large-scale indoor food production, which means more land can be either returned to wilderness, used for carbon capture and sequestration, or converted into things like food forests for less intensive food production.

Years ago, when I was part of a Quaker climate action group, I wanted to set up a “snowballing” climate fund. The basic idea would be that the New England Quaker community could pool some money, either regionally or at the local level. That money would be used to install things like rooftop solar, geothermal heat pumps, and insulation for the whole community, one house at a time. The money saved or even earned from that energy production would all go back to the fund, and once the whole community had gotten their “refit”, that fund could be turned towards other projects.

I think that responding to climate change could work rather like that hypothetical fund. Some of what we do will have immediate results, and some might take decades or even centuries to fully pay off, but in pretty much all cases, the outcome is the same. Taking action to mitigate or adapt to climate change will make life better, and will make it easier to take more action. We’re in the middle of a massive systemic change that has built up a fair amount of momentum. The upside is that we have the capacity to influence that system in ways that will sap some of that momentum. We’re not just stuck on a scripted march towards doom. Everything we do, year by year, can change our trajectory.

We just have to do it.

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