Harmful Contacts with our Living Earth and Redounding Shots Across the Bow

About two-thirds of all infectious diseases in humans have their origins in animals. Scientists say the ability of a virus to mutate and adapt from animals to the human system is very rare, but the expansion of the human footprint is making that rare event much more likely. — Jeff Berardelli

Contact — the state or condition of physical touching.

Harmful or unwanted contact — an assault.

Redound (archaic) — to come back upon; rebound on.

*****

How do you get sick from a virus? In the most simple sense, the virus touches your skin, your eye, the inside of your mouth, your blood or some other part of your body. It makes contact. Then it gets inside to do its damage. Often, this is through some action that you take. Some voluntary, some involuntary. Breathing, moving, picking up objects, putting contaminated clothes or blankets on or venturing into environments where other carriers of the virus can touch you. Or even, in a broader sense, disturbing the virus carriers and changing their environment is such a way that makes it easier for them to literally come to your home community to roost.

Contact.

In the last chapter we briefly explored how the world houses many, many potential, new, and re-emerging illnesses. Kept away from humans in mostly safe or remote places. We also briefly looked at how those illnesses are expanding. In this chapter, we will take a deeper dive into the second part. To look at how some harmful elements and activities within of our civilization have wrecked some of those safe places, how they’ve gotten us into what amounts to a brutal embrace with the places and beings in living nature that are reservoirs to those illnesses. How in this epic and global struggle, often bad actions and behaviors have shaken some illnesses loose. How it’s all gotten many of us sick.

That’s our present and recent history. One of harmful contact. Of touching and grasping for things best left undisturbed. And how it’s getting worse. How the general disturbance is rippling outward and bounding back.

We’re living in a time of an explosion of new illness or the re-emergence of old illnesses previously thought contained onto the global scene. How this has happened first became a major part of the discussion among health and epidemic experts since around the 1980s. For at the time, we experienced one of our initial major warnings that diseases may be dedounding onto expanding global civilization. And this first warning came from a terrifying new illness. For HIV humbled a global health corps that until that point had seen a long string of victories arising from the advances in medical science during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

HIV — Major Warning Shot to the Global Health System

HIV heralded an ominous new era. One where victory against infectious illness was less certain or at least came much slower and at a much higher price than earlier medical science victories might have given us hope for. One in which disrupted, damaged, or harmfully contacted life (and its supports) appears to return a toll on humankind as various enormous and harmful activities spread — burning, deforesting, killing and eating, and polluting their way across the globe.

virus3d rendering of a virus

3D rendering of HIV. Image source: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Since its first outbreak as a pandemic during the early 1980s, HIV has infected over 75 million people of which around 32 million have died as a result of an illness that jumped to human beings from primates. Many deaths occurred early in the pandemic outbreak as first treatments were mostly ineffective. But even today HIV kills between 500,000 and 1,100,000 people each year (770,000 during 2018).

HIV originated in the broader African rainforests. There its progenitor reservoir existed as semian immuno deficiency virus (SIV) in the great apes and monkeys of the jungle for more than 10,000 years. All without transferring to humans until very recently. Our best present understanding is that the ultimate zoonosis occurred due to the bush meat trade in Africa which produced multiple contacts between SIV in apes and the blood of humans.

Hunting, Rubber and Bush Meat

The story of the bush meat trade is one that should be eerily familiar to those researching the climate crisis. Because it is also a story of forced displacement of human populations which then results in a harmful interaction with the natural world and subsequent damaging upshots. In the period from around the 1880s to the 1920s, sub-saharan Africans were forced from their native rural homes in droves as waves of Europeans descended on the jungles of Africa.

The Europeans wanted elephant tusks from the hunting trade to be sent home to Europe. They wanted rubber vine sap for industrial uses. They wanted to commoditize the jungle for these and other products. But often the Europeans didn’t have the manpower or local knowledge to conduct effective hunting expeditions into the jungle without the help of native populations. And they needed a local labor force for the rubber vine trade. Tribal Africans were pressed into service for the expeditions and the industrial exploitation of jungle plant products, often at the point of a gun.

This was a kind of mass invasion of the jungle in which abused and often under-nourished natives needed a new food source to survive. Rural subsistence agriculture wasn’t a possibility for a constantly mobile porter in an elephant hunting expedition. Nor was it for rubber plant harvesters or those newly impressed into factory work in burgeoning cities.

Bushmeat

“At this bushmeat market in Pointe Noire, a butchered chimpanzee is shown in the middle of the photograph, along with other smoked and fresh meat. It has been theorized that SIV moved from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys to humans—evolving into pathogenic HIV-1 and HIV-2 respectively–through exposure to primate blood, most likely as a result of the bushmeat trade. The HIV-1 group M epidemic likely began in the region of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Although wild chimpanzees are not found in the immediate vicinity of Kinshasa, the city is situated on the Congo River, which allowed for the easy transport of SIV-infected bushmeat and of infected humans from rural to urban areas.” Image and caption source: Physicians Research Network and the Goldray Consulting Group.

So a kind of shadow trade in bush meat arose. Porters on hunting expeditions would opportunistically kill and butcher the jungle animals they came into contact with to supplement their diets. It was an ironic and ominous outgrowth of the abuse handed down to the native Africans by the Europeans. It was almost as if they’d been corrupted by the hunting and killing they were forced to take part in such that it became a new means of survival for them.

The Monster that Lives in the Jungle and the Monster that Lives in Us

Various strains of SIV lived in the blood of apes and monkeys in Cameroon and Sierra Leone. Porters and laborers driven into the jungle killed and ate their hominid relatives to survive the European expansion into Africa and its subsequent exploitation. Hunted chimps and monkeys fought back. They bit. They flung feces. Tired porters and laborers hunting chimps after endless hours of work made mistakes. They missed when cutting chimp meat off of bones. They under-cooked bloody meat. They cut themselves with bloody knives containing the blood of their hominid fellows. The SIV living in the blood of the monkeys and apes its way into the blood of the porters and laborers. It happened many, many times.

At first, SIV was a mild virus in humans. It didn’t live well in the new host. But viruses are weird. Like life, they mutate. They change. They adapt to new environments. If there is one prime directive a virus has in its intrinsic design it is to self-replicate. At some point in all the butchering and eating and messy cutting or in the conflicts between the people hunting the apes and monkeys for food and the fighting creatures struggling for very existence, there was an SIV transmission into humans that caught fire. Changing from the mild SIV to the raging and lethal human immuno-deficiency virus that we know today.

It had to have happened multiple times. We know this, in part, because there are not one but two progenitor strains of HIV — HIV 1 which links back to apes and chimps in the Cameroon region and HIV 2 which links back to Sooty Mangabays in the Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast region. A grim bit of evidence pointing to how widespread the harmful contact was that resulted in the virus’s leap into humans. The point in time at which the consistent leap was made is thought to have occurred in the pre-World War 2 period — possibly as early as 1908.

Once the leap happened, the machine of exploitation in Africa that the colonialists had set up then served to help spin the virus out into the broader human population. Industrial centers and related communities had sprung up around the animal products and jungle harvesting trades. And in those centers prostitution of various kinds was rampant. Already established human illness such as syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea became widespread in Africa. These illnesses assisted the spread of HIV into hundreds of people by the mid 20th Century. This created a consistent viral HIV reservoir in humans from which the major pandemic later emerged.

Ebola — Novel Jungle Hemorrhagic Fever

If HIV was the first known serious illness to arise through harmful human interactions with ancient tropical and subtropical disease reservoirs, it became sadly apparent early on that it would not be the last. More human beings were coming into contact with the old animal disease reservoirs moving from previously sequestered habitats than before.

Ebola cdc

An electron microscope image of Ebola virus. Image source: CDC.

Cities were extending into the jungles, animals carrying illnesses foreign to humans were moving into those cities. Deforestation and slash and burn agriculture was displacing them, driving them. And in most new places that the animals moved there were human beings as well. A new harmful interaction, the climate crisis driven by fossil fuel burning, was also beginning to heat up the world. This served as a new pathway for expansion — increasing the habitable range for creatures used to hot weather and typically averse to cooler climes. This greatly increased and continues to increase the spatial range of tropical and semi-tropical illnesses capable of infecting people.

Of the jungle fevers that arise from the hot regions of the world, that are carried by animals that live in this heat, the viral hemorrhaigc fevers are perhaps some of the most terrifying. Like HIV, they are seriously lethal — tricking the body’s immune response in a way that enables them to multiply out of control. Directly attacking the body’s linings, they thus cause such great cell death that they effectively blow holes in tissue. This breaks down the body’s integrity causing loss of fluid and ultimately bloody hemorrhage.

From Viral Brush-fire to Conflagration

The first instances of Ebola occurred in 1976— in Sudan and then in Zaire. These initial infection outbreaks were highly lethal and terrifying to the local populations effected. Of the 284 people suffering from the Sudan strain of the virus, 151 died. In Zaire, 280 out of the 318 infected souls (88 percent) perished. For a relatively short-lasting infection, Ebola was amazingly lethal. Though later, less deadly strains emerged, many of the outbreaks to follow would continue to kill a surprising number of those afflicted. Presently, the World Health Organization estimates the lethality rate for Ebola, overall, at 50 percent. Sudan and Zaire both hosted different strains (SUDV and EBOV) of the same virus — Ebola — which was named after the river region from which it emerged.

It is still not fully known how the deadly Ebola virus first made its leap into humans from animals. But it is well known that tropical fruit bats, porcupines, and primates — yes our poor hominid relatives again — can carry the virus. As with HIV, the harmful bush meat trade is one of the key suspects. Although with Ebola, there are many other possible modes of zoonosis from animals to humans.

The virus is more transmissible than HIV, though less so than many other illnesses, such that direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people or animals, and with surfaces and materials (like bedding and clothing) contaminated with these fluids can result in sickness. It is thought that eating fruits partially eaten by fruit bats, food contaminated by bat or other infected animal feces, or consuming bush meat are all means of animal to human transfer of the illness.

Ebola Jungle Ecology CDC

Initially, the bush meat trade was a prime suspect for transmission of Ebola to human beings. Presently, it’s understood that other contacts with infected animals or their bodily fluids may transmit the virus. Also, at first, Ebola primarily impacted areas bordering the jungle. But in recent outbreaks, major population centers have been impacted. Image source: Ebola Virus Ecology — CDC.

Notably corpses of both humans and animals who were killed by the illness remain infectious for some time — requiring special burial. The disease typically spreads from human to human through direct contact with the blood, semen, saliva, vomit or other body fluid of infected persons. Surfaces contaminated by these fluids are also a means of infection. The virus is thankfully fragile in air, but splashing with droplets can transfer illness. And the virus is known to live in droplets on surfaces for up to 3 days.

After Ebola first burst onto the scene in 1976, there was a long hiatus of epidemic outbreaks in humans. Some thought, hopefully, that the disease had faded back into its tropical environs. But in 1995, nearly two decades after its first emergence, the virus broke out among humans in Zaire again — this time infecting 315 and killing 254. Subsequent outbreaks occurred every five years or so leaping to Uganda in 2000 (425 cases, 224 deaths), the DRC in 2003 (143 cases, 128 deaths), again in DRC in 2007 of a less lethal strain (149 cases, 37 deaths) and in 2012 in both Uganda and DRC yet again in three separate outbreaks (Uganda — 31 cases, 21 deaths; DRC — 57 cases, 29 deaths).

Thus far, outbreaks of the novel illness had been relatively small if intense viral brushfires. And, though lethal, the virus was thought be inhibited in transmission. A major outbreak spanning from 2013 through 2016 would belie that impression. Looking back, the illness had mostly been confined to small settlements bordering jungle regions in the 1976 to 2012 timeframe. But in 2013 and 2014 the virus, possibly through the enlarging span of its animal reservoirs, penetrated into more densely populated urban and city environments. From these more packed regions the virus would explode to rage out of control for years — consuming many thousands of human lives.

The West African outbreak which would hitherto dwarf all previous episodes of Ebola began in late 2013. Then, a one year old child perished from Ebola infection from an unknown source. Afterward, the disease rapidly spread through her community in Guinea, out into the local region and then on through the nearby countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. What precipitated was a global health emergency that reached catastrophic proportions by summer of 2014 with the virus overwhelming the medical capacity of impacted countries. At this point the illness threatened to go global — with a handful of cases leaping to neighboring countries in Africa and even transferring overseas. But intense contact tracing and strict isolation both inside and outside the virus hot zone was largely responsible for preventing further spread.

By the end of the outbreak in 2016, an estimated 28,646 infections had occurred of which 11,323 were reported to have died. Ebola had risen from the ranks of a fringe if rather scary illness cropping up on the outer edges of society to an illness striking directly at the bones of global civilization. It had shown its ominous potential.

Subsequent outbreaks in 2017 and 2018 in DRC and Equateur Province mirrored previous less widespread infections. But a new outbreak that began in 2018 in the Kivu region of DRC and extends to today is considered a global health emergency by WHO. This particular outbreak as of 29 March, 2020 is reported to have infected 3453 people of which 2273 have died.

Warning Shots Across the Bow

Both Ebola and HIV served as early warning shots across the bow of global civilization. Visible signals that the risk of catastrophic emergence of new infectious illness was on the rise. That our harmful contacts with the natural world were the primary source of this rising risk. And that many, many more human souls may be at stake. These two novel illnesses were not the only major emergences to occur in this time. In fact, a plethora of new and re-emergent sicknesses have come onto the global scene over the past four decades. But they both represented the ominous character of the larger risk human beings now faced. They also foreshadowed the follow-on emergence of SARS into a major global pandemic — which we’ll be talking about in the next chapter.N

(Up Next — The Emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

From Ancient Reservoirs

“The insidious emergence of HIV/AIDS and the lack of due attention by policymakers illustrate how some outbreaks that start subtly can grow to global proportions if they are not aggressively addressed early on.” — Dr Anthony Fauci

The Infectious Diseases Society of America recognizes climate change as a global health emergency and calls for policies responding to the intrinsic links between warming temperatures and rising sea levels and epidemic and pandemic events as well as other infectious disease threats to public and individual health. — IDSA

The climate system of our world envelopes it.

It represents the state of our atmosphere, our oceans, and the frozen regions we rely on. It interacts with and influences all things living here on Earth.

The present changes we now experience due to a climate in crisis are far-reaching. Disruptive to the balance of life itself. Harmful or even demolishing to ecosystems. Driving species of all kinds into new environments after their old safe places have been changed, disrupted, or taken away.

This is a story that we have become sadly familiar with as the burning of fossil fuels keeps dumping heat-trapping carbon into our atmosphere — resulting in rising seas, melting ice, stronger storms, worsening droughts, expanding heat, and far larger and more dangerous wildfires.

Global examples of emerging infectious diseases NIH

Global examples of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Even before COVID-19, they were growing more numerous. Back in the early 1990s, this map showed just one illness — HIV. To humans, quite a few are now rather new. Others are re-emerging. Many are influenced by the climate crisis in various ways. Image source: Three Decades of Responding to Disease Outbreaks — NIH.

But there is one aspect of our changing climate that is often nuanced and overlooked — how the climate crisis can influence the spread of disease itself. How a disrupted global climate can drive sickness up out of the ancient reservoirs that have harbored it throughout the ages. How it can help accelerate the spread of new illness, make us more susceptible to sickness, or cause the re-emergence of previously well-contained diseases. Given the present context of a global pandemic caused by an entirely new illness — COVID-19 — it’s crucial to take a look at generally how harmful interactions with the natural world, particularly through climate crisis, are increasing risks of new and re-emerging diseases.

Reservoirs as Illness Havens

For what we know of as illness is also a kind of life.

Bacteria are micro-organisms. Viruses are pseudo-life and life-altering. And parasites are living things that dwell within or upon other living things. Climate change can generate or worsen such illnesses by directly affecting their environments as well. Creating the conditions that facilitate the transfer of diseases from typical ranges — called reservoirs — to new hosts. Developing pathways for expanded or new (novel) infections.

An illness reservoir is any person, animal, plant, soil or substance in which an infectious agent normally lives and multiplies. A harbor for the bacteria, viruses, or parasites that cause disease.

Human beings are reservoirs for certain diseases. These could be living humans or the dead — long buried and held dormant in ancient frozen tundra for hundreds or even tens of thousands of years. It is possible that the devastating illness smallpox (Variola virus), which was recently considered eradicated, may still be harbored by frozen dead humans entombed in the permafrost. That permafrost is now thawing as the Arctic heats up.

Animals can also be reservoirs — rabies, for example, lives in bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Cholera is a bacteria that lives in water. It can also live in humans and zooplankton. And there is a link between the spread of Cholera and the loss of water security — which the climate crisis risks. Anthrax lives in herd animals like sheep and reindeer. Because it is capable of developing spores, Anthrax can survive for decades in the bodies of dead reindeer and the climate crisis produced thaw of permafrost has already resulted in new outbreaks of this illness in herd animals and, in rarer possible cases, human beings. Dengue fever is a nasty virus harbored by both humans and mosquitoes. And it is worth noting for diseases which cause illness and loss of life in human beings that mosquitoes — whose range can be greatly altered by changes in climate — weigh quite heavily.

Zoonosis — The Transfer of Illness From Animals to Humans

During recent years, human beings have unfortunately seen the emergence of numerous new or novel illnesses. Many of these illnesses have arisen as the result of mistreatment of nature. Our disruption of the natural world and harmful or abusive relationships with animals appears to have done double duty in getting us ill. For a good share of the nastier new ailments have arisen as the result of zoonosis — or the transfer of diseases that previously affected only animals to human beings — involving such harmful acts.

The harmful bushmeat trade in Africa is thought to be the origin of the novel HIV virus transferring from its original reservoir in primates as SIV before mutating into a stronger illness in humans during the 20th Century to become common from the 1980s onward. Though there is little clear and present evidence that the jump from animals to humans for HIV was directly influenced by the climate crisis, the link between harmful industry and disease transfer is a bit close for comfort here. It is also worth noting that those living with HIV are among the most vulnerable to increasing extreme weather events and related disruption of human habitat and support systems driven by the climate crisis.

SARS illnesses (of which COVID-19 is a subset) and Ebola are also novel viruses in humans. As with HIV, they are likely zoonotic illnesses. This means they originated in animal host reservoirs but, through some process of contact, transferred to human beings. These viruses are still rather mysterious in that they presently have unconfirmed reservoirs. But both are reasonably suspected to be harbored by animals — with tropical and subtropical bats relatively high on the list.

With Ebola in particular (we’ll talk about some similarities between Ebola and SARS due to suspect reservoirs in the next chapter), there is a bit of an ominous interaction with the climate crisis. New modeling produced in Nature Communications suggests that under the present pathway of global heating, Ebola epidemics in Africa could occur once every 10 years — or almost twice as often as they do at present. This is because the bats and other animals that are thought to harbor the virus are expected to be driven by warming temperatures into new areas — expanding the epidemic-prone region by 20 percent.

Expanding Heat

The heating function of the climate crisis is very well understood. And, early-on, scientific research from world health and climate agencies identified the risk that more global heat posed to expanding illness. In particular, mosquitoes which are both reservoirs and vectors (agents of disease transfer) for numerous harmful illnesses are seeing their ranges greatly expand as the world heats up.

Mosquito-borne infection is an ancient and well-known threat to humankind. But it has thankfully been relegated to warmer climates. Despite knowing little about mosquito-borne Malaria, the Roman aristocrats of antiquity did know they could avoid infection by retreating to villas in the cooler hills. Away from where mosquitoes were plentiful. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is driving heat, and the mosquitoes that come with it, both uphill and into higher latitudes.

A single populous species of mosquito — Aedes aegypti — can spread four serious illnesses. They include Dengue Fever, Zika virus, Chikunyunga and Yellow Fever. As global heating continues to be driven by fossil fuel burning, the range of this mosquito is expected to greatly expand. How much depends on how rapidly we halt fossil fuel burning and transition to clean energy (or not). But a business as usual (worst case) fossil fuel burning scenario in which the clean energy transition continues to be hobbled will bring this so-called jungle fever carrier to the Arctic by the 2080s (see image above).

There are over 3,500 species of mosquito. Most are relegated to warmer climates. In addition to the illnesses mentioned above, these insects also carry Malaria and West Nile virus among many others. And as the climate heats up, their range and their ability to transfer diseases among humans will expand.

But mosquitoes are not the only disease reservoir and disease vector species now on the move as a result of the disruption caused by climate crisis. There are many. Some which we probably don’t yet know about.

Receding Cold

If tropical heat spreading northward bringing with it flights of mosquitoes and displacing other disease carriers presents one illness expansion problem, the ongoing thaw of cold regions presents another. In particular, there is evidence that the Arctic has locked away numerous ancient illnesses that could be released in the thaw produced by climate crisis.

The Variola virus which causes Smallpox may well be sequestered in the various graves and burial mounds scattered throughout the Asian and European north. A study conducted in the 1990s detected fragments of smallpox DNA in the remains of Stone Age humans as well as people who were known to have died from smallpox during the 19th Century. Though smallpox was considered eradicated from human beings, long deceased humans frozen in the Arctic may serve as a reservoir that results in potential new infections. If such a reservoir exists, the Arctic thaw produced by the climate crisis will disturb it.

Other pathogens that may still be harbored by dead humans frozen the Arctic includes the 1918 Spanish flu (H1N1) which was found in frozen regions of Alaska. In 2007, scientists discovered Spanish flu RNA in the body of an Inuit woman who’d been buried for 75 years in the permafrost.

Anthrax is a bacteria-caused infectious disease that typically afflicts herd animals such as sheep and reindeer. But Anthrax can pass to humans that are exposed to the bacteria. In 2016, 2,000 reindeer became infected with Anthrax in the Yamal Peninsula region of Siberia. Nearby, it is thought that a reindeer killed by anthrax decades before thawed out, spreading the bacteria into the lands where the reindeer grazed. These reindeer then spread the illness to a number of human beings, including a 12 year old boy who died.

The potential for the release of both known and other as-yet unknown infectious agents from the thawing regions of our world have generated concern among top researchers. Jean-Michel Claverie a professor of microbiology at Aix-Marseilles University recently noted to BBC:

“Following our work and that of others, there is now a non-zero probability that pathogenic microbes could be revived, and infect us. How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria, or a virus. If the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous.”

A Context of General Disturbance

Overall, it is likely that there are more numerous climate influences to disease transfer than mere heating and thawing. The general disturbance to the natural world generated by more extreme fires and floods, by instances of flash drought, and even by the mechanism of rising seas is likely to displace more disease reservoirs, creating previously unknown illness transmission potentials.

As far as our general scientific knowledge of illness related to or influenced by the climate crisis at this time, what we see now is likely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And, as with all things climate crisis related, we require more research, more knowledge-sharing, more general public support of scientific discovery to pull back the veil on this particular new threat. So in conclusion of this chapter on the climate crisis relationship to human illness, we’ll depart with a statement from the World Health Organization:

Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change. We need to learn more about the underlying complex causal  relationships, and apply this information to the prediction of future impacts, using more complete, better validated, integrated, models.

Up Next — Harmful Contacts with our Living Earth and Redounding Shots Across the Bow

Introduction — Climate of Pandemic

Electron microscope image of first COVID-19 case in US. Viral particles are colored blue. Image source: CDC.

Climate change currently contributes to the global burden of disease and premature deaths (very high confidence). — IPCC

 

One disease.

Just a single nasty bug. COVID-19.

An illness resulting from the virus SARS-CoV-2.

That’s all it took to bring global civilization to a grinding, crashing, train-wreck like halt. Not a collapse. But more of a rational-fear freeze.

And now here we are, 3.38 billion souls at least, sheltering at home or under some form of confinement. Waiting in isolation as medical professionals struggle to keep a growing flood of our fellow human beings — in hospitals or triage tents — alive and breathing. For COVID-19 kills by essentially filling our lungs up with viral glass like nodules and fluid due to the body’s defensive immune response. This is the social climate of our presently distanced public life. A fearful Climate of Pandemic.

How did we get here? How do we get out? And how might the increasingly disturbed Earth system climate have influenced the spread of this particularly nasty illness? Most important of all, how can we make ourselves more aware, more alert, and more resilient to illnesses like COVID-19 in the future?  That is the scope of Climate of Pandemic. An exploration we will undertake here over the coming weeks as this particularly vicious illness ripples across our world.

Why is this important? For one, now more than ever before, we all have a civic and moral duty to listen to and understand the science in all its stripes. Not to deny science. This is not just because we live in a world under siege by the harmful influence of climate crisis. A crisis that, by its very nature, is clastic and fragmental to many structures of our world that we all rely on for life, health, and well-being. One that through various destructive processes multiplies risks to individuals and societies. It is also because we live in what Carl Sagan referred to as A Demon Haunted World. One in which scientific ignorance and superstition — denial — is actively promoted by some leaders as a false alternative to fact and reason.

Science is our candle in the darkness in a rising wind. It can give us a predictive indicator of what may be in store as a result of the climate crisis and its coordinate pandemic crisis. In that understanding, it can provide a guide to make the crisis and its related offspring and out-castings less damaging through various actions. And if we listen to science, we can act to save lives and life support systems — both human and environmental — now.

The climate crisis itself stretches to contain a very broad diversity of threats. Some of these threats it directly causes. Others, as is likely the case with COVID-19, it influences in a number of ways to make them more dangerous or potentially more likely to spread. Cause and influence are both important threat relationships of the climate crisis. But they are also important to distinguish.

This does not mean that influence should be overly diminished. For example, the climate crisis influences the strength of hurricanes. It does not cause a hurricane. But if a hurricane is influenced in such a way that in the present climate it is now a category 5 storm where it would once have been a category 2 storm, then the climate crisis influence is a seriously destructive one.

I suspect that the influence relationship between climate and disease is similarly substantial. Perhaps not with COVID-19 particularly. But maybe so. Or maybe somewhere in between. The nuanced degree a known unknown at this time. But one that the process of scientific discovery will likely unravel more for us as we look closer. In any case, the broader context given by IPCC indicates that the climate crisis already is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.

So it is important to be clear that the climate crisis did not cause COVID-19. The illness existed before, likely in bats and in civets or in pangolins and civets. But it may have provided impetus for the illness to amplify in bats or pangolins and to spread through other species ultimately to humans. And the drivers of the climate crisis such as air pollution from fossil fuel burning or its upshots such as wildfires, extreme heat, and extreme weather may have also amplified the illness’s impact once it did make the leap into humans.

All are subjects we’ll dive into more deeply later in this work.

For now, we are going to take a step back from COVID-19 itself and look more broadly at the scientific understanding of how the climate crisis impacts diseases in general and presents a higher risk of deadly illnesses making their way into the human population. Because when it comes to understanding larger threats, context is often everything.

(Up Next — From Ancient Reservoirs)

Climate of Pandemic — Announcement and Contents

Image of COVID-19, or coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) which is a sudden acute respiratory syndrome type virus, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Image source: CDC.

 

Scribbling through a Global Pandemic

The present tragedy of the COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted us all. For my own part, I am now at home under quarantine with my wife. This is a decision I have made to protect myself, my family, and my fellows here in Maryland, America, and across the world.

As many of you know, I had taken a long hiatus from climate writing to help promote clean energy as a response to the climate crisis. I did this by using the Uber rideshare platform, driving a Tesla, and sharing conversations with riders of all stripes — from business and government leaders to everyday people — as a way of raising grass roots awareness about the climate crisis and directly showing that solutions are available now to everyone.

I feel that these conversations were very effective. That I helped both raise awareness in the local community as well as among leaders and decision makers. I’ve found that it is so much easier to convey concern and caring through the medium of direct interpersonal contact vs mere words written on an electronic page or even the more adept but still far removed from the heart-to-heart media provided here on the interwebs.

But life has a way of catching up with us. Particularly at a time when our world is being shaken to its very roots by forces unwisely unleashed. We are all now isolated out of necessity. Out of safety. Out of responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Duty in Exile

So this is my task in exile — Climate of Pandemic. A combined special report and web book. A project that will explore the breadth and depth of the global coronavirus emergency. Take an in-depth look at how climate change may have helped to shake it out of an ancient viral reservoir. Reveal how the brash and brutish politics of climate change denial encapsulated the failed leadership that enabled the virus to spread like wildfire. And look at how experts are concerned that more pandemic threats may be on the way due to the great shaking up of the natural system that the climate crisis is now inflicting on our world (hopefully, I’ll be able to pick up on some other climate writing as well, but this will be my special focus for the time being).

Of course, in piercing this subject, we will likely drift into direct reporting on the emergency itself — dipping into the realms of epidemic science and disaster response. That’s OK! Because we should understand that the basic value of climate crisis response lies in both our understanding of inter-related contexts out of a sense of holistic responsibility to our world and its inhabitants.

What follows is the table of contents with links to each chapter in the new special report. At present, I have seventeen planned. But given how we are living in such uncertain and tragic times that might well expand. New links will be provided as each chapter is written. And upcoming installments will have the parenthetical (in progress) label. To quick-link this table of contents, you can click the Climate of Pandemic illustration on this blog’s side-bar and get right to catching up or reading an update.

Best to you all! Please stay safe! Please care for your loved ones! And please remember that caring for our world is also providing that much needed care and response as well.

 

Climate of Pandemic Contents:

 

  1. Introduction — Climate of Pandemic
  2. From Ancient Reservoirs
  3. Harmful Contacts with our Living Earth and Redounding Shots Across the Bow
  4. The Emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
  5. COVID-19 First Outbreak — Viral Glass-Like Nodules in Lungs
  6. Denial, Defunding, Downplaying — First COVID-19 Leadership Failures
  7. Effective Containment — How South Korea’s First Coronavirus Wave was Halted
  8. The Trouble with Testing Part 1 — “No Responsibility at All”
  9. It’s Everywhere Now — COVID-19 A Global Viral Wildfire
  10. No COVID-19 Did Not Stop the Climate Crisis — But it’s Interacting with it in a Bad Way
  11. Social Distancing and Waiting Until It’s Safe Enough to Re-Open
  12. A Possible Vaccine, But When?
  13. The Trouble with Testing Part 2 — Dubious Interpretations of Antibody Studies Risk More False Confidence (pending)
  14. Approaching 100,000 Official Fatalities in the U.S. Alone (pending)
  15. What is the Real Mortality Rate? We Won’t Know For Sure Until It’s Over (pending)
  16. Large Outbreak in Brazil (pending)
  17. False Silver Bullets: The Unscientific and Life-Risking Peddling of Hydroxychloroquine (pending)
  18. Firing Another Top Expert — This One a Specialist in Vaccination (pending)
  19. Success in Germany — More Evidence that Containment Can Work if Managed Well (pending)
  20. Frozen Economies, Worries About Food (pending)
  21. Reopening Safely (?) In the Presence of COVID-19 (pending)
  22. Risks for Subsequent Waves of Illness; Dual Respiratory Illness Outbreak Potential? (pending)
  23. COVID-19 Oil Crash (pending)
  24. No Cure For Climate Crisis, But a Clean Energy Recovery Can Be (pending)

Melting Ice Everywhere — Arctic Sea Ice Extent Hit New Record Lows in Late July and Early August

If there is one word I’d use for the summer of 2019 it would be awakening. Awakening to a general public awareness of a climate crisis driven by fossil fuel burning we are now entering the throes of.

(According to NOAA, July of 2019 was the hottest July on record for the state of Alaska. This likely presages a July that will be globally the hottest July ever recorded in 2019. Much of this excess July heat was centered on the polar zones during the month — resulting in serious ice loss for both Greenland and the floating Arctic sea ice. Image source: NOAA.)

The global record hot month of June along with its related severe heatwaves, storms, and droughts have certainly served to raise the general awareness of trouble. Our new youth advocates such as Greta Thunberg and an expanding Extinction Rebellion, have certainly served to amplify the much-needed message. But vividly melting ice in tremendous volume — particularly in Antarctica, Greenland and on the ocean surface has also played its role.

The Arctic zone has seen an outrageous hotter than normal period that has extended throughout July and well into August. States and regions within or near the Arctic Circle have experienced temperatures from the upper 70s all the way into the lower 90s. Great wildfires have blanketed large sections of thawing permafrost and boreal forest — casting out smoke plumes covering as much as 4 million square kilometers at a time. Greenland saw a single day in which ice melt exceeded 11 billion tons. By volume, that’s 11 cubic kilometers — roughly equal to 11 moderate sized mountains — gone in a single 24 hour period (what does one cubic kilometer look like? See here.).

Out in the ocean waters of the Arctic, another key feature of our climate system that keeps the Earth environment stable, was getting hammered by the rising heat. For every day from July 22nd through August 9th, Arctic sea ice extent had been running in record low ranges below previous low marks set for this time of year during 2011 and 2012.

2012 in particular was a very severe Arctic melt year. Both sea ice and Greenland saw significant losses at that time. But it appears as we end the decade of the 2010s and start to enter the 2020s, Arctic summers like the one that occured in 2012 will become commonplace even as new hot outliers are more possible. For 2019 has begun to replace some of the previous worst losses seen during 2012.

(Arctic sea ice extent entered new record low ranges below the 2011 and 2012 lines during late July and into early August. By August 11, Arctic sea ice had dropped to 5.249 million square kilometers the second lowest measure for the date. Image source: NSIDC.)

As we get into August, it appears that at least some of 2012’s late season sea ice records will hold. The new August 11 measure of 5.249 million square kilometers is just above 2012’s low mark of 5.190 million square kilometers. And August 10 saw 2019 edging just above the 2012 line in the NSIDC measure.

Looking forward, the second week of August is expected to bring 1.38 C above average temperatures for the Arctic region. This is a rather significant departure for August as Arctic temperature anomalies tend to moderate during summer. And very warm ocean surface temperatures ranging well above 4 C warmer than average for large regions is likely to continue to enhance sea ice melt (see right image below).

(Greatly reduced Arctic sea ice extent [left] faces off against much warmer than normal Arctic ocean waters during August of 2019 [right]. Image sources: Uni Bremen and DMI.)

But a present lack of forecast strong weather systems that typically impact ice at this time of year such as burly high pressure ridges over the Central Arctic or major storms invading from the south may help to maintain at least some of the ice. Nonetheless, with so much heat left in the Arctic system and with sea ice perilously thin for this time of year, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that anything can happen between now and traditional melt season end in mid September.

(Related video blog above.)

(Want to help fight the climate crisis by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

What 2019’s Hottest June Ever Recorded Says About the Climate Crisis

Hint — It’s accelerating.

*****

To be a climate scientist, to read the science, or to otherwise track today’s unfolding global disaster brought on by fossil fuel burning, is to witness a historical event beyond the scope anything encountered by human civilization.

(July 14th’s record low Arctic sea ice ringed by far northern wildfires and related smoke plumes is just one signal of a rapidly heating global climate. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Over the past Century, heat trapping pollution has forced the world to warm by about 1.1 degrees Celsius. That’s 1/4 the difference between what humans are used to and an ice age — but on the side of hot. Seas, swollen by this heat and by thawing glaciers, have risen by an average of about 17 centimeters since 1900. Nine trillion tons of ice — the equivalent to 9,000 mountains — have melted from those glaciers into our oceans. Wildfires in the U.S. now burn twice the number of acres as they did 30 years ago. Flood events are more than twice as frequent as during the 1980s. Strong hurricanes have doubled in frequency in the North Atlantic over a similar period. The Arctic’s sea ice is in full retreat.

And if we continue burning fossil fuels, this is just the beginning.

June of 2019 was the hottest June ever recorded in the 139 year global climate record provided by NASA. It was about 1.15 C hotter than 1880s averages and exceeded the past hottest June — 2016 — by a full 0.11 C margin. In climate terms, this was a big jump upward.

(Distribution of hotter and colder than average temperatures shows most of the globe sweltering under greenhouse gas induced heating. In particular, the Arctic has been hit quite hard in the most recent round of extreme temperatures. Image source: NASA GISS.)

Perhaps more importantly to the larger trend, the first half of 2019 was the second hottest first six month period on record. Meanwhile, 2019’s heat comes in the context of the past five years. All were one of the five hottest years ever recorded. And NASA GISS head Dr. Gavin Schmidt’s projection is pointing toward a potential second hottest 2019 as well. Dr. Schmidt stated as much to the Guardian, saying:

“It is clear that 2019 is shaping up to be a top-five year – but depending on what happens it could be second, third or fourth warmest. The warmest year was 2016, which started with a big El Niño, which we didn’t have this year, so a record year is not particularly likely.”

With the global climate system so large and subject to swings (produced mainly by El Nino and La Nina), consecutive hot years are a signal of accelerating global heating. A trend born out by NASA’s global temperature record. In the 1990s, decadal temperatures averaged around 0.61 C above 1880s readings. The 2000s — 0.8 C hotter. The 2010s thus far — 1.08C hotter. In other words, the global heat gain from the 1990s to the 2000s was approximately 0.19 C while the heat gain so far from the 2000s to the 2010s is about 0.28 C. A near doubling of past 0.15 C decadal temperature increases.

(Record hot July may follow record hot June…)

This apparently accelerating global heating is driven by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Dr Michael E. Mann noted to Mashable today:

“As we have shown in recent work, the record warm streaks we’ve seen in recent years simply cannot be explained without accounting for the profound impact we are having on the planet through the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Carbon dioxide, which is the primary driver of heat gain, is now at around 411 parts per million37 percent higher than during any period in the last 800,000 years. This level of heat trapping gas is unprecedented in human terms — likely about as high as readings seen during the Middle Miocene 15 million years ago and at least as high as those seen during the Pliocene 3 million years ago.

Methane — another very potent greenhouse gas and the second strongest overall contributor to the climate crisis — is also continuing to rise in concentration. This rise, along with increasing CO2, has been the cause of some anxiety among scientists who monitor the global climate system.

(Rising atmospheric CO2, primarily driven by fossil fuel burning, is the main driver of the global heating crisis we are now experiencing. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Together with other trace heat trapping gasses, the global CO2 equivalent heat forcing is around 499 ppm during 2019 (extrapolated from NOAA data). In other words, we’ll be crossing the ominous 500 ppm CO2e threshold very soon.

What all this data means is that we have now turned the ratchet of climate crisis at least once. A set of serious impacts are now locked in. Indeed, we are seeing them. But if we keep burning fossil fuels and turn the ratchet again, it gets much worse from here on out.

(Want to help fight the climate crisis by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

NASA: April of 2019 was Second Hottest on Record

Before we get into the latest record or near record global heat news, I’d just like to make a brief announcement. Concordant with editorial guidance from The Guardian, I’ll be changing my climate communications to more fully reflect the crisis that is now ongoing. Whenever possible, I’ll be using the words — climate crisis to replace climate change, and global heating to replace global warming.

I’ve already made liberal use of the term human forced climate change — this will change to human forced climate crisis or global heating when possible. In addition, the elevation of linkages between fossil fuel burning — which is the crisis’ primary driver — to present global heating will continue.

(Global heat for April of 2019.)

In my view, this verbiage more sufficiently communicates a necessary sense of urgency. For the climate crisis is upon us now and we are now experiencing more extreme impacts. In other words, we’ve already taken one full turn of the climate crisis ratchet by allowing fossil fuels to continue to dominate our energy systems. We don’t want to experience a second or third full turn and the related terrible tightening.

*****

The climate crisis deepens further…

According to NASA GISS, global temperatures have again jumped into near record hot ranges. Readings from this key global monitor found that April of 2019 hit 0.99 degrees Celsius above mid 20th Century ranges. This is about 1.21 C above 1880s values that bound the start of the NASA monitor. In total, it’s a value that makes April of 2019 the second hottest such month in the 139 year global climate record. And the temperatures we are experiencing now are likely the hottest annual and decadal averages in the last 120,000 years.

(April of 2019 anomalies paint a picture of global heat. Image source: NASA.)

Looking at the NASA temperature anomalies map above we find the greatest departures from typical April averages centering on the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. This distribution of abnormal warmth is consistent with polar amplification in which relative warming tends to center on the poles as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations increase. The ongoing and massive burning of fossil fuels — beginning in the 18th Century and rapidly ramping through the 20th Century — has provided the majority of these gasses. They are pushing the Earth system into the severe warming spike we now see today.

The Equatorial region also showed elevated heat — consistent with an ongoing weak El Nino (which also nudges Earth into the warm side of natural variability, making regional and global all time heat records more likely). Meanwhile, very few cool pools were found. The notable region being a persistent cool zone in the North Atlantic near melting Greenland (predicted by climate models and a facilitator of unstable weather for North America, the Northern Atlantic, and Europe).

Overall temperature track for 2019 is still behind the record hot year of 2016 (see predicted range by Dr. Gavin Schmidt above). And it appears likely that 2019 will hit in the range of 5th to 1st hottest on record. This year, however, is likely to strike close to or even above 2016 values during some months as the effect of the weak El Nino combined with the larger trend of global heating by fossil fuel burning sets the stage for potential new high temperature records.

(Want to help fight the climate crisis by transitioning to a clean energy vehicle? Get 1,000 to 5,000 free supercharger miles at this link.)

 

Record Emissions: 41 Billion Tons of Heat-Trapping Carbon Dioxide Were Added to the Atmosphere This Year 

Over the past few years, something pretty amazing and hopeful happened. Global carbon emissions began to stabilize. This was caused, primarily, by stronger emissions reduction policies in China even as the rest of the world moved steadily away from coal burning and more and more toward adopting clean energy systems provided by the likes of wind, solar and electrical vehicles.

But during 2017, there appears to have been a return to rising emissions rates from both China and the rest of the world. As a result, a rather bad global climate situation is continuing to worsen.

China’s Swing Back to Coal and More Rapid Growth Result in Rising Emissions

As the major present emitter of carbon dioxide and a host to hundreds of hothouse gas spewing coal plants, any big move by China can also really move the global carbon emission total. We saw this in practice from 2013 to 2016 as China began to reign in rampant coal consumption and as global emissions levels subsequently responded.

(During recent years, global carbon emissions have plateaued. But during 2017, a new record high was reached on the back of a return to increased rates of coal burning in places like China. The peak year of fossil fuel burning and the year at which net negative carbon emissions occur are very important factors in determining future warming. And even the best case emissions scenarios will likely lead to 2 C or greater warming this Century. Impacts from 2 C warming will be very difficult to manage with a high likelihood that at least some widespread catastrophic impacts would occur. 3 C warming would be terrible — with very widespread harm and disruption. And it is unlikely that most nations would survive the impacts related to 4 to 6 C warming. Image source: University of East Anglia.)

This year, we see a bit of backsliding by this key energy and climate player due to a combined reduction in hydro based power supply and strong annual rates of economic growth.

Drought afflicting China has hit hydro-electrical power generation pretty hard. China presently possesses about 320 gigawatts of hydro power generation capacity. This is about 1/3 of its total coal generating capacity and compares to a relatively smaller wind and solar capacity of around 150 gigawatts. So any disruption to water flowing into hydro generators can have a big effect on coal use and related downstream carbon emissions.

China also rapidly added solar this year. But it was apparently not enough to offset the impact to hydro resources which increased demand for coal. In addition, China’s rapid projected growth rate of 6.8 percent in GDP also resulted in higher overall power demand — leading to more coal burning. Overall, China’s carbon emissions grew by 3.5 percent or around 350 million tons per year. This increase is well ahead of overall global carbon emissions growth in the range of 2 percent for 2017.

U.S. and E.U. Emissions Drop; India and Rest of World Sees Rise

Other factors included a slowing of U.S. carbon emissions reduction due to a degradation of helpful climate policies by the Trump Administration. Despite this deterioration, U.S. emissions fell by 0.4 percent or around 21 million tons per year. The European Union also saw continued if slow emissions reductions of around 7 million tons per year. Environmentalists have criticized mixed policies in places like Germany that continue to protect high-carbon coal burning. But the picture for the EU has, overall, been one of slow if steady progress. India-based emissions increased by a slower than expected rate of 50 million tons per year. Another somewhat disturbing feature in the new data shows that the rest of the world saw carbon emissions grow by 2.3 percent or about 305 million tons per year.

(Most energy and climate experts did not expect to see a potential peak in global carbon emissions until at least the early 2020s. However, 2013 to 2016’s plateau did provide a hopeful look at what was possible. In order to see an actual peak, the countries of the world will have to be far more aggressive about shutting down fossil fuel based energy sources and rapidly deploying renewables. Image source: The University of East Anglia.)

So even without the big bump in China’s emissions, the world, as a whole would have experienced some CO2 emissions growth. But this single country accounted for almost half of all carbon emissions growth around the world during 2017. And it is worth noting that even a relatively minor reduction in carbon emissions by China this year would have resulted in an extension of the global carbon emission plateau.

A Problem Caused by Fossil Fuel Burning

Where the problem of increasing carbon emissions is coming from is pretty obvious. According to reports, 41 billion tons of CO2 were emitted to the atmosphere during 2017 due to human activities. Of this amount, almost 90 percent came from fossil fuel burning — accounting for 36.8 billion tons of CO2 each year. This overall rate of emission is more than ten times faster than during the last hothouse extinction event to occur on Earth.

(Annual rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation are now higher than 2 parts per million per year. The last time atmospheric CO2 levels were as high as they are now — around 407 parts per million — the oceans were between 25 and 75 feet higher than they are today. Image source: The University of East Anglia.)

The present increase is problematic in that it also makes it less likely that warming this Century will be limited to 1.5 or 2 C. The scientific community has often identified these as safer limits for warming. But we should be clear that no level of warming is entirely safe. That present warming in the range of 1.1 to 1.2 C above preindustrial levels is already causing harmful impacts like shifting climate zones, more instances of damaging, extreme weather, worsening wildfires, and ramping rates of sea level rise that are threatening islands and coastal cities. We should also be clear that present atmospheric greenhouse gas levels in the range of 407 ppm CO2 and 491 ppm CO2e imply a warming close to or above the 1.5 to 2 C threshold range by the end of this Century even if these levels were to merely remain stable.

An Increasingly Urgent Situation — But the Means of Lessening the Damage is at our Disposal

The urgency of the situation, therefore, cannot be understated. We are presently living in a time during which the safety of global civilization requires that we rapidly reduce to zero presently unprecedented annual levels of greenhouse gas emissions. And the first step to doing this is a swift as possible cessation of fossil fuel burning enabled by a transition to renewable energy.

It is worth noting that 2017’s rate of carbon emissions growth was less than the 3 percent annual rates experienced during the decade of the 2000s. Back then, less well developed renewable energy technology and very rapid economic growth in places like China resulted in far higher annual emissions gains than we see at present. So 2017’s gain may be a blip due to circumstances as combined wind, solar, and electrical vehicle advances begin to take hold of the larger energy and emissions trend. That said, challenges to rates of renewable energy adoption and related rates of carbon emissions reduction coming from right-wing governments like the Trump Administration should not be discounted. Failure to act by leaders in the U.S. and around the world or attempts to return to increasing rates of coal, oil, and gas burning are measures that will result in serious harm going forward.

We are thus at a moment of crisis when it comes to global emissions. We can continue to move forward on replacing fossil fuels with zero emitting energy sources. Or we can return to the very harmful increases in global carbon emissions of the past — at which point the damages we see from climate change will be rapidly enhanced.

RESOURCES:

World’s Carbon Emissions Spike by 2 Percent in 2017

The Global Carbon Budget

Warning Signs For Stabilizing CO2 Emissions

Climate Change — Why 2016 May be the Most Important Election in US History

“I have talked to scientists all over the world. And what they are telling me — if we don’t get our act together — this planet could be 5-10 degrees warmer by the end of this Century! Cataclysmic problems for this planet! This is a national crisis!” — Bernie Sanders, Michigan Democratic Debate, March 6th.

 

(Bernie Sanders pledges to end fracking and tackle climate change in the Michigan Democratic debate last night.)

Last night, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton gave a spirited debate over substantive issues. To someone who respects political figures who address problems and actively seek solutions, it was a welcome respite from the most recent low-information, public action denigrating, Republican wrangle. But one two-minute segment in Hillary and Bernie’s exchange really stood out for me. And it’s the clip streaming above where Bernie Sanders tackles the critical issue that is human-caused climate change.

And we should be very clear. Bernie is absolutely right — it’s a national crisis that will become an existential crisis if we don’t act swiftly, if we don’t act well, and if we aren’t also pretty amazingly lucky.

A Tough, Tough Issue of Critical Importance

Like many who write on this issue, I often find it difficult not to fall into crushing despair. With each post, it’s like seeing the life-blood of our world slowly drip away. It’s a tough, tough issue.

The posts appear to have an impact. There’s a vigorous discussion going on in the comments section. People are actively identifying problems, taking action, doing their best to contribute to solutions. To spread the word. To develop a sense of urgency. But despite the response here, despite the actions of a vast spectrum of other responsible groups around the world, and despite a growing warning and outcry from the scientific community, the world itself seems to be moving far too slowly to effectively confront the crisis.

The Keeling Curve March

(Atmospheric CO2 is now reaching levels comparable to those seen during the Middle Miocene. A period of time when the world was both much warmer than today and sea levels were far, far higher. Each year that greenhouse gas emissions continue, more heat, more sea level rise, and more future dangerous climate change is locked in. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

To be clear, fossil fuel burning now pumps out enough heat trapping gas to equal one Permian Extinction producing volcanic prominence active on every major continent on the Earth and all going off at the same time. It’s a really big deal. One that people probably aren’t quite so aware of because, well, volcanoes are individually more spectacular than billions of tailpipes, coal and gas turbines, and smokestacks. All efficiently, but relatively quietly, throwing up that hothouse extinction producing pallor. One that hangs invisible in the air. But one whose effects are all-too-real.

The 2 C Goal is Pretty Bad; Continued Burning is Far Worse

Attempts to face down this growing threat became apparent in a flurry of new urgency at the Paris Climate Summit. There the strongest international agreement yet on preventing catastrophic climate change was forged as global climate policy makers appeared to have begun to get a whiff of the gravity of our current situation. But the new agreement doesn’t yet produce enough in the way of committed action to prevent 2 C warming this Century. And it’s pretty clear that Paris’s policies will meet stiff opposition from fossil fuel special interests — who exert far too much influence and control over the world’s various political bodies and governing systems even as they have managed to block many helpful policies and pollute public awareness through the active promotion of climate change denial.

2 C warming by 2100, even if we were to make the monumental strides necessary to achieve that limit, is by itself pretty terrible. Though nowhere near as catastrophic as the 3, 4, 5 or 6 C levels of heating that are entirely possible if the world keeps going all out to extract and burn coal, oil and gas, it’s a rate of temperature increase not seen in 55 million years and a level of warming not seen in 2-3 million years. It locks in severe heatwaves the likes of which we’ve never seen before, terrible wildfires, extraordinary rainfall and droughts, monster storms, city-wrecking sea level rise, habitat loss, ocean health decline, glacial melt on a scale that changes the very complexion of the Earth, sea ice winnowing away to a shadow of its former coverage, amplifying Earth System feedbacks, and a whole host of other problems. It also means that the Earth continues to heat up for hundreds of years more unless greenhouse gasses are somehow drawn down — resulting in a long term warming in the range of 4 C so long as climate sensitivity is about what we’ve come to expect from our study of paleoclimate.

Probably the Worst Crisis Humankind has Ever Faced — Which Makes the 2016 Election Absolutely Critical

Even achieving that rather difficult but probably survivable future will necessitate very swift action. For each year in which a peak in human greenhouse gas emissions is delayed, the more difficult it becomes to limit future warming.

Rates of warming based on global emissions and climate sensitivity

(Amount of warming this Century expected under differing emissions reduction and climate sensitivity scenarios. In the above graph TCRE stands for transient climate response to emissions. It’s basically how much warming you get short term as a result of accumulated greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Note that greenhouse gas emissions need to decline by more than 2 percent per year starting now if we are to have much confidence in avoiding 2 C warming this Century. It’s also worth noting that even a slow decline rate from near now likely locks in about 3 C warming this Century. Image source: Impact of Delay in Reducing CO2 Emissions.)

To this point, if the best case global policy can currently produce is a future in which the world’s temperatures warm by 2 C by 2100, then we have a serious problem. If that’s the case, then what it really boils down to is the fact that civilization this Century faces an existential crisis. A level of geophysical upheaval worse than the end of the last ice age that may all end up being crammed into the next 300 years with a good chunk of it happening this Century.

This is one of the toughest challenges humankind has ever faced. And its solutions require an unprecedented level of government involvement and activism. It’s for these reasons why it’s pretty amazing that climate change isn’t the central subject of every Presidential debate this year. For who we elect as President will have a significant and important role to play in confronting or facing down this crisis. But so far, candidate comments on climate change have been limited to only the briefest of questions and responses on the democratic side, and to a chilling and all-encompassing climate change denial on the republican side.

This is not how a nation readies itself to effectively confront a very serious crisis. Whispers and denial are not enough. We need strong statements and bold action.

To my mind, so far, Bernie Sanders has been the only candidate to address the problem with the level of urgency the situation warrants. And I suspect he would speak to it more if the question and answer format of the recent debates were not so limiting. Hillary’s own statements seem positive, but it’s pretty clear that much of this is due to Bernie’s own responsible and persistent prodding. A little more ardor on her part would be reassuring.

But the point here is that, according to many of the world’s top climate scientists, we are in a worsening global crisis at this time. If there was ever a time when government climate policy should be front and center as a political issue, then it is now. Rapid and radical efforts are now necessary and warranted. So we should praise Bernie for raising what is an absolutely critical issue. And we should criticize pretty much everyone else for downplaying and denying it.

Links:

Bernie Sanders on Fracking and Climate Change

Impact of Delay in Reducing CO2 Emissions

The Keeling Curve

Hat tip to Caroline (Thank you for your activism)

 

%d bloggers like this: