by Eleanor Goldfield
We are drowning – literally and figuratively. We are figuratively drowning in a vapid and censored cesspool of omission and outright lies regarding the role of climate change in the ever-growing list of natural disasters and extreme weather. Although 2017 has been dubbed “ the year climate change began to spin out of control ,” a recent study published by Public Citizen shows that in 2017 corporate media STILL failed to draw the link between climate change and these extreme weather events.
By severing effect from cause, we are not only dangerously cut off from understanding the gravity of these events, but we are also blind to climate change events that (so far) haven’t resulted in world-wide disasters. For example, the fact that we are literally drowning due to sea level rise is perhaps something you’ve heard peripherally on some depressing Facebook post over your morning cup of coffee. The reality, however, is that sea level rise is not only an issue that carries with it catastrophic consequences greater than what we’ve already seen, but it’s happening faster than previously predicted . In November of last year, NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission warned that due to temperatures as high as 54º above normal, the Greenland ice sheet is “far more unstable than we realized.” To put it another way, an ice sheet that could precipitate a 20 foot global sea level rise if it melts is only slightly more stable than Donald Trump.
In similar news from the other pole, the glaciers in the eastern Antarctic “are not nearly as stable as scientists had believed” and could, on their own, cause a global sea level rise of nearly 15 feet which would be enough to submerge most coastal cities . As temperatures rise causing warmer winters and more tumultuous weather in the Arctic, ice reforms at stunted rates if at all. And as Climate Scientist Paul Beckwith put it, this “preconditions the ice to melt that much faster” meaning that there is no smooth or steady ramp up to climate catastrophe. Indeed, a recent study found that “one section of the Greenland ice sheet began melting 80 percent faster between 2003-2014 compared to the 26-year period beforehand.”
Beyond the issue of impending doom via drowning, the other very serious issue regarding melting ice is what that ice is covering up. Inside the permafrost or frozen soil beneath the ice, carbon lies dormant. As current ice melts, that stored carbon is released as CO2 or Methane, aka warming greenhouse gases. This not only speeds up the melting process of the ice but opens up the Pandora’s box associated with dumping tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. How many tons? Well, the Arctic permafrost alone seals in roughly double the amount of CO2 currently in Earth’s atmosphere!
That’s bad news – for several reasons. Yes, that means that life here on land will be hotter and dirtier but the bigger question is whether it will be at all. “Life can not exist on the land if there’s no life in the ocean,” Climate Scientist Paul Beckwith asserted. As more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, ocean water absorbs it. From there, chemical reactions reduce seawater pH in a process known as ocean acidification. The reason that matters to you and me is that below a certain pH level, many marine creatures will not be able to form their (calcium carbonate) shells, thereby causing massive die-offs and wreaking havoc in the marine food web. To give you an idea of how fast this is happening, consider that for roughly 40 million years, the pH levels in the oceans were stable. “What we’ve done is drop that
[pH] number from roughly 8.2 to 8.05 on a logarithmic scale meaning an increase of about 30% in ocean acidity ,” Beckwith explains. Marine creatures are already showing signs of malformed shells and if we reach a pH level of 7.8 or 7.9, they won’t be able to form those shells at all. Coral reefs and creatures at the bottom of the food web will die – and those deaths will domino up the food web and over to the land. When one takes into account the massive release of greenhouse gases via permafrost along with our continued burning of fossil fuels, that delicate pH balance looks all the more fragile.
Now, grab a drink because – believe it or not – I’m not done with the bad news. Another threat to life in the water and thereby life on land is ocean deoxygenation . A report released on January 5th 2018 noted a huge uptick in these so-called “dead zones” in our oceans and a major contributor: Big Ag. As reported by Mint Press News , “The increased use of chemical fertilizers by the industrial agriculture sector over the past several decades has prompted large-scale run-off of sewage and other byproducts entering ocean waters causing deoxygenated dead zones to quadruple in size since 1950 —now covering an area roughly the size of the European Union.” While deoxygenation in the open ocean is primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the study notes that in estuaries and other coastal systems, farming and agricultural practices are “loading” the water with chemical elements like nitrogen and phosphorus that cause these low-oxygen dead zones. The report ends with a clear and simple proposal: decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce nutrient discharges into coastal waters . And as it happens, by focusing energy on the latter, we can achieve the former.
Livestock agriculture contributes up to a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions , uses 30% of the world’s fresh water, and drives 80% of deforestation worldwide. That in turn contributes greatly to greenhouse gas emissions by releasing stored carbon via the burning of trees and the subsequent use of that land for farms which create and release gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Ready for the silver lining? Shit, I know I am. If we all reduced our meat consumption by 25%, we could see a 51% decline in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And I’m not suggesting that everyone must turn vegan. Indeed, if everyone did go vegan, our ecosystems would suffer in a very different way. Rather, the point is to scale back our meat consumption and with what’s left, ensure fair and just practices for people, plants, animals, land, water, air, and you get the point.
Serious and large-scale shifts are required and most of those begin with a necessary mental shift. For instance, Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing points out that if we were to factor in the environmental costs and other externalities, a plain old hamburger would cost $200 . Of course the social implications of merely spiking the cost of meat make this an approach that requires a little more consideration. The ever-growing number of poor people in this country who also find themselves in what are known as food deserts would be the most burdened by such a move. Fast, cheap and easy meals that usually contain meat are often the only options available. However, this doesn’t mean that meat shouldn’t have some sort of carbon tax or fee attached to it. After all, if we’re willing to tax cigarettes to deter smoking, why not tax meat to deter the accelerated death of humanity? Money then made from such a fee could subsidize organic farms, neighborhood markets, raise wages for farm workers and so on. Farming practices would then necessarily shift to make up for the shift in demand.
And while the ongoing fight against Big Ag is a separate and necessary conversation unto itself, we don’t have to save these battles for lobbying days or Marches against Monsanto. We can start now by educating ourselves and our communities on the issues of food and environmental impact. We can lower our meat intake and encourage our friends and families to do the same. We can support and engage with community farming projects such as Soul Fire Farm . We can draw the connections between the ocean and our fertilizers, the Arctic ice and our steak dinner. Indeed, we have to. As everything you’ve read up to this point suggests, we are already experiencing climate change. We are already feeling the force of storms like Hurricane Harvey which are now not only three times as likely to occur but whose severe flooding was made 15% more intense by climate change. We’re already seeing record breaking forest fires in places like California. There is no way we can stop climate change from happening. The only thing we can do is mitigate it.
Climate Scientists such as Paul Beckwith argue for a multi-faceted approach. We obviously need to slash fossil fuels; there is absolutely no way around that. However, as he points out, “It would be ideal if it was sufficient for us to slash fossil fuel emissions…but we have set into motion changes in a system that are going to continue even when we slash fossil fuel emissions. The next phase is carbon dioxide removal. But this is not sufficient because the Arctic is warming so rapidly. We have to try to cool the Arctic to restore some stability in the jet streams to buy time and the only way I can see of doing that is to employ some solar radiation management technologies .” Solar Radiation Management (SRM) refers to projects that reflect sunlight thus reducing warming. One such suggestion involves releasing sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere – similar to what a large volcano would do. And yes, that sounds really damn frightening. I still feel uncomfortable even suggesting that we further mess with the planet in order to undo the mess we’ve created but I feel quite a bit more uncomfortable looking at my niece and wondering “Will she have access to water and food in 30 years?”
The time for perfect solutions that come wrapped in pristine and pure trimmings is over. We have passed the point of no return and now we have to do more than just stop being assholes. We have to use our brains and the tools they imagine to save ourselves and countless ecosystems at risk. Technology can help us mitigate climate change. It can help clean up our mess. Deep and detailed research plus careful application are of course mandatory. Setting off the equivalent of a massive volcano with the same laissez-faire attitude that we set off bombs is not going to help us. Therefore, our diligent work as citizens and humans at the outset (for this suggestion and all others) is the only bridge over the gaping chasm between ‘we’re fucked’ and ‘we got this.’
As I noted earlier, corporate media will not sound the alarm. If they do, it’ll be when we’re already neck deep in cow shit and melted ice caps. Spreading the word, engaging and informing are vital pieces of that diligent work. But it’s not just about getting the facts out there – it’s about restructuring our movements to make room for new paradigms and radical inclusion.
In an article in ROAR magazine earlier this month, Kevin Buckland wrote, “Let us be clear: climate change is not an ‘issue.’ Rather, it is now the entirety of the biophysical world of which we are part. It is the physical battleground in which every ‘issue’ is played out — and it is crumbling.” To treat climate change as just another issue far underestimates the realities that I’ve outlined in this article. Furthermore, by treating it as a singular piece we block necessary connections that would help us organize and build. Indigenous rights, racial justice, poverty, gender equality and basically every other issue or social identifier can be linked and should be linked to climate change organizing . By incorporating these stories and these battles into the larger fight for our very existence on this planet, we unite and create the only force that can weather the storms of both capitalism and climate change: people power.
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(Published in collaboration with LeeCamp.com )