Until recently, the field of plant breeding looked a lot like it did in centuries past. A breeder might examine, for example, which tomato plants were most resistant to drought and then cross the most promising plants to produce the most drought-resistant offspring. This process would be repeated, plant generation after generation, until, over the course of roughly seven years, the breeder arrived at what seemed the optimal variety.
Now, with the global population expected to swell to nearly 10 billion by 2050 (1) and climate change shifting growing conditions (2), crop breeder and geneticist Steven Tanksley doesn’t think plant breeders have that kind of time. “We have to double the productivity per acre of our major crops if we’re going to stay on par with the world’s needs,” says Tanksley, a professor emeritus at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
To speed up the process, Tanksley and others are turning to artificial intelligence (AI). Using computer science techniques, breeders can rapidly assess which plants grow the fastest in a particular climate, which genes help plants thrive there, and which plants, when crossed, produce an optimum combination of genes for a given location, opting for traits that boost yield and stave off the effects of a changing climate. Large seed companies in particular have been using components of AI for more than a decade. With computing power rapidly advancing, the techniques are now poised to accelerate breeding on a broader scale.
AI is not, however, a panacea. Crop breeders still grapple with tradeoffs such as higher yield versus marketable appearance. And even the most sophisticated AI cannot guarantee the success of a new variety. But as AI becomes integrated into agriculture, some crop researchers envisage an agricultural revolution with computer science at the helm.
An Art and a Science
During the “green revolution” of the 1960s, researchers developed new chemical pesticides and fertilizers along with high-yielding crop varieties that dramatically increased agricultural output (3). But the reliance on chemicals came with the heavy cost of environmental degradation (4). “If we’re going to do this sustainably,” says Tanksley, “genetics is going to carry the bulk of the load.”
Plant breeders lean not only on genetics but also on mathematics. As the genomics revolution unfolded in the early 2000s, plant breeders found themselves inundated with genomic data that traditional statistical techniques couldn’t wrangle (5). Plant breeding “wasn’t geared toward dealing with large amounts of data and making precise decisions,” says Tanksley.
In 1997, Tanksley began chairing a committee at Cornell that aimed to incorporate data-driven research into the life sciences. There, he encountered an engineering approach called operations research that translates data into decisions. In 2006, Tanksley cofounded the Ithaca, NY-based company Nature Source Improved Plants on the principle that this engineering tool could make breeding decisions more efficient. “What we’ve been doing almost 15 years now,” says Tanksley, “is redoing how breeding is approached.”
A Manufacturing Process
Such approaches try to tackle complex scenarios. Suppose, for example, a wheat breeder has 200 genetically distinct lines. The breeder must decide which lines to breed together to optimize yield, disease resistance, protein content, and other traits. The breeder may know which genes confer which traits, but it’s difficult to decipher which lines to cross in what order to achieve the optimum gene combination. The number of possible combinations, says Tanksley, “is more than the stars in the universe.”
An operations research approach enables a researcher to solve this puzzle by defining the primary objective and then using optimization algorithms to predict the quickest path to that objective given the relevant constraints. Auto manufacturers, for example, optimize production given the expense of employees, the cost of auto parts, and fluctuating global currencies. Tanksley’s team optimizes yield while selecting for traits such as resistance to a changing climate. “We’ve seen more erratic climate from year to year, which means you have to have crops that are more robust to different kinds of changes,” he says.
For each plant line included in a pool of possible crosses, Tanksley inputs DNA sequence data, phenotypic data on traits like drought tolerance, disease resistance, and yield, as well as environmental data for the region where the plant line was originally developed. The algorithm projects which genes are associated with which traits under which environmental conditions and then determines the optimal combination of genes for a specific breeding goal, such as drought tolerance in a particular growing region, while accounting for genes that help boost yield. The algorithm also determines which plant lines to cross together in which order to achieve the optimal combination of genes in the fewest generations.
Nature Source Improved Plants conducts, for example, a papaya program in southeastern Mexico where the once predictable monsoon season has become erratic. “We are selecting for varieties that can produce under those unknown circumstances,” says Tanksley. But the new papaya must also stand up to ringspot, a virus that nearly wiped papaya from Hawaii altogether before another Cornell breeder developed a resistant transgenic variety (6). Tanksley’s papaya isn’t as disease resistant. But by plugging “rapid growth rate” into their operations research approach, the team bred papaya trees that produce copious fruit within a year, before the virus accumulates in the plant.
“Plant breeders need operations research to help them make better decisions,” says William Beavis, a plant geneticist and computational biologist at Iowa State in Ames, who also develops operations research strategies for plant breeding. To feed the world in rapidly changing environments, researchers need to shorten the process of developing a new cultivar to three years, Beavis adds.
The big seed companies have investigated use of operations research since around 2010, with Syngenta, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, leading the pack, says Beavis, who spent over a decade as a statistical geneticist at Pioneer Hi-Bred in Johnston, IA, a large seed company now owned by Corteva, which is headquartered in Wilmington, DE. “All of the soybean varieties that have come on the market within the last couple of years from Syngenta came out of a system that had been redesigned using operations research approaches,” he says. But large seed companies primarily focus on grains key to animal feed such as corn, wheat, and soy. To meet growing food demands, Beavis believes that the smaller seed companies that develop vegetable crops that people actually eat must also embrace operations research. “That’s where operations research is going to have the biggest impact,” he says, “local breeding companies that are producing for regional environments, not for broad adaptation.”
In collaboration with Iowa State colleague and engineer Lizhi Wang and others, Beavis is developing operations research-based algorithms to, for example, help seed companies choose whether to breed one variety that can survive in a range of different future growing conditions or a number of varieties, each tailored to specific environments. Two large seed companies, Corteva and Syngenta, and Kromite, a Lambertville, NJ-based consulting company, are partners on the project. The results will be made publicly available so that all seed companies can learn from their approach.
Drones and Adaptations
Useful farming AI requires good data, and plenty of it. To collect sufficient inputs, some researchers take to the skies. Crop researcher Achim Walter of the Institute of Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zürich in Switzerland and his team are developing techniques to capture aerial crop images. Every other day for several years, they have deployed image-capturing sensors over a wheat field containing hundreds of genetic lines. They fly their sensors on drones or on cables suspended above the crops or incorporate them into handheld devices that a researcher can use from an elevated platform (7).
Meanwhile, they’re developing imaging software that quantifies growth rate captured by these images (8). Using these data, they build models that predict how quickly different genetic lines grow under different weather conditions. If they find, for example, that a subset of wheat lines grew well despite a dry spell, then they can zero in on the genes those lines have in common and incorporate them into new drought-resistant varieties.
Research geneticist Edward Buckler at the US Department of Agriculture and his team are using machine learning to identify climate adaptations in 1,000 species in a large grouping of grasses spread across the globe. The grasses include food and bioenergy crops such as maize, sorghum, and sugar cane. Buckler says that when people rank what are the most photosynthetically efficient and water-efficient species, this is the group that comes out at the top. Still, he and collaborators, including plant scientist Elizabeth Kellogg of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, and computational biologist Adam Siepel of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NY, want to uncover genes that could make crops in this group even more efficient for food production in current and future environments. The team is first studying a select number of model species to determine which genes are expressed under a range of different environmental conditions. They’re still probing just how far this predictive power can go.
Such approaches could be scaled up—massively. To probe the genetic underpinnings of climate adaptation for crop species worldwide, Daniel Jacobson, the chief researcher for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in TN, has amassed “climatype” data for every square kilometer of land on Earth. Using the Summit supercomputer, they then compared each square kilometer to every other square kilometer to identify similar environments (9). The result can be viewed as a network of GPS points connected by lines that show the degree of environmental similarity between points.
“For me, breeding is much more like art. I need to see the variation and I don’t prejudge it. I know what I’m after, but nature throws me curveballs all the time, and I probably can’t count the varieties that came from curveballs.”
In collaboration with the US Department of Energy’s Center for Bioenergy Innovation, the team combines this climatype data with GPS coordinates associated with individual crop genotypes to project which genes and genetic interactions are associated with specific climate conditions. Right now, they’re focused on bioenergy and feedstocks, but they’re poised to explore a wide range of food crops as well. The results will be published so that other researchers can conduct similar analyses.
The Next Agricultural Revolution
Despite these advances, the transition to AI can be unnerving. Operations research can project an ideal combination of genes, but those genes may interact in unpredictable ways. Tanksley’s company hedges its bets by engineering 10 varieties for a given project in hopes that at least one will succeed.
On the other hand, such a directed approach could miss happy accidents, says Molly Jahn, a geneticist and plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “For me, breeding is much more like art. I need to see the variation and I don’t prejudge it,” she says. “I know what I’m after, but nature throws me curveballs all the time, and I probably can’t count the varieties that came from curveballs.”
There are also inherent tradeoffs that no algorithm can overcome. Consumers may prefer tomatoes with a leafy crown that stays green longer. But the price a breeder pays for that green calyx is one percent of the yield, says Tanksley.
Image recognition technology comes with its own host of challenges, says Walter. “To optimize algorithms to an extent that makes it possible to detect a certain trait, you have to train the algorithm thousands of times.” In practice, that means snapping thousands of crop images in a range of light conditions. Then there’s the ground-truthing. To know whether the models work, Walter and others must measure the trait they’re after by hand. Keen to know whether the model accurately captures the number of kernels on an ear of corn? You’d have to count the kernels yourself.
Despite these hurdles, Walter believes that computer science has brought us to the brink of a new agricultural revolution. In a 2017 PNAS Opinion piece, Walter and colleagues described emerging “smart farming” technologies—from autonomous weeding vehicles to moisture sensors in the soil (10). The authors worried, though, that only big industrial farms can afford these solutions. To make agriculture more sustainable, smaller farms in developing countries must have access as well.
Fortunately, “smart breeding” advances may have wider reach. Once image recognition technology becomes more developed for crops, which Walter expects will happen within the next 10 years, deploying it may be relatively inexpensive. Breeders could operate their own drones and obtain more precise ratings of traits like time to flowering or number of fruits in shorter time, says Walter. “The computing power that you need once you have established the algorithms is not very high.”
The genomic data so vital to AI-led breeding programs is also becoming more accessible. “We’re really at this point where genomics is cheap enough that you can apply these technologies to hundreds of species, maybe thousands,” says Buckler.
Plant breeding has “entered the engineered phase,” adds Tanksley. And with little time to spare. “The environment is changing,” he says. “You have to have a faster breeding process to respond to that.”
3. P. L. Pingali, Green revolution: Impacts, limits, and the path ahead. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 109, 12302–12308 (2012).
4. D. Tilman, The greening of the green revolution. Nature 396, 211–212 (1998).
5. G. P. Ramstein, S. E. Jensen, E. S. Buckler, Breaking the curse of dimensionality to identify causal variants in Breeding 4. Theor. Appl. Genet. 132, 559–567 (2019).
6. D. Gonsalves, Control of papaya ringspot virus in papaya: A case study. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 36, 415–437 (1998).
7. N. Kirchgessner et al., The ETH field phenotyping platform FIP: A cable-suspended multi-sensor system. Funct. Plant Biol. 44, 154–168 (2016).
8. K. Yu, N. Kirchgessner, C. Grieder, A. Walter, A. Hund, An image analysis pipeline for automated classification of imaging light conditions and for quantification of wheat canopy cover time series in field phenotyping. Plant Methods 13, 15 (2017).
9. J. Streich et al., Can exascale computing and explainable artificial intelligence applied to plant biology deliver on the United Nations sustainable development goals? Curr. Opin. Biotechnol. 61, 217–225 (2020).
10. A. Walter, R. Finger, R. Huber, N. Buchmann, Opinion: Smart farming is key to developing sustainable agriculture. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 114, 6148–6150 (2017).
Larry Elliott, Mon 9 Nov 2020 19.18 GMT. Last modified on Tue 10 Nov 2020 04.37 GMT
Large companies and financial institutions in the UK will have to come clean about their exposure to climate risks within five years under the terms of a tougher regime announced by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.
In an attempt to demonstrate the government’s commitment to tackling global heating, Sunak said the UK would go further than an international taskforce had recommended and make disclosure by large businesses mandatory.
The chancellor also announced plans for Britain’s first green gilt – a bond that will be floated in the financial markets during 2021 with the money raised paying for investment in carbon-reducing projects and the creation of jobs across the country.
In a Commons statement, Sunak said departure from the EU meant the financial services sector – which employs more than a million people – was entering a new chapter.
“This new chapter means putting the full weight of private sector innovation, expertise and capital behind the critical global effort to tackle climate change and protect the environment.
“We’re announcing the UK’s intention to mandate climate disclosures by large companies and financial institutions across our economy, by 2025, going further than recommended by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, and the first G20 country to do so.”
The Treasury said the new disclosure rules and regulations would cover a significant portion of the economy, including listed commercial companies, UK-registered large private companies, banks, building societies, insurance companies, UK-authorised asset managers, life insurers, pension schemes regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and occupational pension schemes.
The government plans to make Britain a net-zero-carbon country by 2050 and the previous governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, told a London conference that the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated the dangers of ill-preparation and of underestimating risks.
Climate change was “a crisis that involves the whole world and from which no one will be able to self-isolate”, Carney said on Monday.
His successor at Threadneedle Street, Andrew Bailey, said the decision to issue a green bond underlined the UK’s commitment to combating climate change – as did Sunak’s announcement that disclosures related to climate change risk would be mandatory by 2025.
Sunak, Carney and Bailey were all speakers at the Green Horizon summit, which took place in London on what would have been the first day of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow had Covid-19 not forced the postponement of the event.
Bailey said: “Our goal is to build a UK financial system resilient to the risks from climate change and supportive of the transition to a net-zero economy. In the aftermath of the financial crisis we took far-reaching action to make the financial system more resilient against crises – Covid is the first real test of those changes.”
Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, said: “Tackling climate change means the corporate sector is not just green round the edges but green right to its core. The chancellor’s plans to make disclosure mandatory for companies is right if the rules are compulsory and thorough. Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk
“The real win would be to make all financial institutions put in place plans to meet the Paris climate agreement by the end of next year, steadily choking off the supply of cash to planet-wrecking activities. Disclosure is a route to making that happen, but not an end in itself.”
Roger Barker, the director of policy and corporate governance at the Institute of Directors, said: “What gets measured gets changed. The problem is there’s a hundred and one different ways of measuring climate impact out there right now. It’s a confusing landscape for companies and investors alike, so bringing in common standards is absolutely the right thing to do.
Fran Boait, the executive director of the campaign group Positive Money, said: “We desperately need more green public investment if we are to have a fair, green transition, so it’s positive that the government has signalled that it is finally taking this more seriously, by issuing green gilts for the first time.”
Antes encaradas com desconfiança pela comunidade científica, as metodologias de intervenção artificial no meio ambiente com o objetivo de frear os efeitos devastadores do aquecimento global estão sendo consideradas agora como recursos a serem aplicados em última instância (já que iniciativas para reduzir a emissão de gases dependem diretamente da ação coletiva e demandam décadas para que tenham algum tipo de efeito benéfico). É possível que não tenhamos esse tempo, de acordo com alguns pesquisadores da área, os quais têm atraído investimentos e muita atenção.
Fazendo parte de um campo também referenciado como geoengenharia solar, grande parte dos métodos se vale da emissão controlada de partículas na atmosfera, responsáveis por barrar a energia recebida pelo nosso planeta e direcioná-la novamente ao espaço, criando uma espécie de resfriamento semelhante ao gerado por erupções vulcânicas.
Ainda que não atuem sobre a poluição, por exemplo, cientistas consideram que, diante de tempestades cada vez mais agressivas, tornados de fogo, inundações e outros desastres naturais, tais ações seriam interessantes enquanto soluções mais eficazes não são desenvolvidas.
Diretor do Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, na Columbia Law School, e editor de um livro sobre a tecnologia e suas implicações legais, Michael Gerrard exemplificou a situação em entrevista ao The New York Times: “Estamos enfrentando uma ameaça existencial. Por isso, é necessário que analisemos todas as opções”.
“Gosto de comparar a geoengenharia a uma quimioterapia para o planeta: se todo o resto estiver falhando, resta apenas tentar”, ele defendeu.
Desastres naturais ocasionados pelo aquecimento global tornam urgente a ação de intervenções, segundo pesquisadores. Fonte: Unsplash
Dois pesos e duas medidas
Entre aquelas que se destacam, pode ser citada a ação empreendida por uma organização não governamental chamada SilverLining, que concedeu US$ 3 milhões a diversas universidades e outras instituições para que se dediquem à busca de respostas para questões práticas. Um exemplo é encontrar a altitude ideal para a aplicação de aerossóis e como inserir a quantidade mais indicada, verificando seus efeitos sobre a cadeia de produção de alimentos mundial.
Chris Sacca, cofundador da Lowercarbon Capital, um grupo de investimentos que é um dos financiadores da SilverLining, declarou em tom alarmista: “A descarbonização é necessária, mas vai demorar 20 anos ou mais para que ocorra. Se não explorarmos intervenções climáticas como a reflexão solar neste momento, condenaremos um número incontável de vidas, espécies e ecossistemas ao calor”.
Outra contemplada por somas substanciais foi a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, que recebeu do congresso norte-americano US$ 4 milhões justamente para o desenvolvimento de tecnologias do tipo, assim como o monitoramento de uso secreto de tais soluções por outros países.
Douglas MacMartin, pesquisador de Engenharia Mecânica e aeroespacial na Universidade Cornell, afirmou que “é certo o poder da humanidade de resfriar as coisas, mas o que não está claro é o que vem a seguir”.
Se, por um lado, o planeta pode ser resfriado artificialmente; por outro, não se sabe o que virá. Fonte: Unsplash
Existe uma maneira
Para esclarecer as possíveis consequências de intervenções dessa magnitude, MacMartin desenvolverá modelos de efeitos climáticos específicos oriundos da injeção de aerossóis na atmosfera acima de diferentes partes do globo e altitudes. “Dependendo de onde você colocar [a substância], terá efeitos diferentes nas monções na Ásia e no gelo marinho do Ártico“, ele apontou.
O Centro Nacional de Pesquisa Atmosférica em Boulder, Colorado, financiado também pela SilverLining, acredita ter o sistema ideal para isso — o qual é considerado o mais sofisticado do mundo. Com ele, serão executadas centenas de simulações e, assim, especialistas procurarão o que chamam de ponto ideal, no qual a quantidade de resfriamento artificial que pode reduzir eventos climáticos extremos não cause mudanças mais amplas nos padrões regionais de precipitação ou impactos semelhantes.
“Existe uma maneira, pelo menos em nosso modelo de mundo, de ver se podemos alcançar um sem acionar demais o outro?” questionou Jean-François Lamarque, diretor do laboratório de Clima e Dinâmica Global da instituição. Ainda não há resposta para essa dúvida, mas soluções sustentáveis estão sendo analisadas por pesquisadores australianos, que utilizariam a emissão de água salgada para tornar nuvens mais reflexivas, assim indicando resultados promissores de testes.
Dessa maneira, quem sabe as perdas de corais de recife que testemunhamos tenham data para acabar. Quanto ao resto, bem, só o tempo mostrará.
Summary: Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study has found. Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.
Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study from Oregon State University found.
Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.
Climate scientists predict that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will only continue to increase in coming decades. OSU researchers wanted to understand how local communities are reacting.
“There’s obviously national and state-level climate change policy, but we’re really interested in what goes on at the local level to adapt to these changes,” said lead author Leanne Giordono, a post-doctoral researcher in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Local communities are typically the first to respond to extreme events and disasters. How are they making themselves more resilient — for example, how are they adapting to more frequent flooding or intense heat?”
For the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, Giordono and co-authors Hilary Boudet of OSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Alexander Gard-Murray at Harvard University examined 15 extreme weather events that occurred around the U.S. between March 2012 and June 2017, and any subsequent local climate policy change.
These events included flooding, winter weather, extreme heat, tornadoes, wildfires and a landslide.
The study, published recently in the journal Policy Sciences, found there were two “recipes” for local policy change after an extreme weather event.
“For both recipes, experiencing a high-impact event — one with many deaths or a presidential disaster declaration — is a necessary condition for future-oriented policy adoption,” Giordono said.
In addition to a high death toll, the first recipe consisted of Democrat-leaning communities where there was focused media coverage of the weather event. These communities moved forward with adopting policies aimed at adapting in response to future climate change, such as building emergency preparedness and risk management capacity.
The second recipe consisted of Republican-leaning communities with past experiences of other uncommon weather events. In these locales, residents often didn’t engage directly in conversation about climate change but still worked on policies meant to prepare their communities for future disasters.
In both recipes, policy changes were fairly modest and reactive, such as building fire breaks, levees or community tornado shelters. Giordono referred to these as “instrumental” policy changes.
“As opposed to being driven by ideology or a shift in thought process, it’s more a means to an end,” she said. “‘We don’t want anyone else to die from tornadoes, so we build a shelter.’ It’s not typically a systemic response to global climate change.”
In their sample, the researchers didn’t find any evidence of mitigation-focused policy response, such as communities passing laws to limit carbon emissions or require a shift to solar power. And some communities did not make any policy changes at all in the wake of extreme weather.
The researchers suggest that in communities that are ideologically resistant to talking about climate change, it may be more effective to frame these policy conversations in other ways, such as people’s commitment to their community or the community’s long-term viability.
Without specifically examining communities that have not experienced extreme weather events, the researchers cannot speak to the status of their policy change, but Giordono said it is a question for future study.
“In some ways, it’s not surprising that you see communities that have these really devastating events responding to them,” Giordono said. “What about the vast majority of communities that don’t experience a high-impact event — is there a way to also spark interest in those communities?”
“We don’t want people to have to experience these types of disasters to make changes.”
Summary: In a comprehensive study of nearly 20,000 species, research shows that plant communities are shifting to include more heat-loving species as a result of climate change.
Although Live Oak trees are common in South Florida today, Ken Feeley, a University of Miami biology professor, said their time here may be fleeting. With climate change pushing up temperatures, the oaks, which favor cooler conditions, could soon decline in the region and be replaced with more tropical, heat-loving species such as Gumbo Limbo or Mahogany trees.
“Live Oaks occur throughout the southeast and all the way up to coastal Virginia, so down here we are in one of the very hottest places in its range,” said Feeley, who is also the University’s Smathers Chair of Tropical Tree Biology. “As temperatures increase, it may simply get too hot in Miami for oaks and other temperate species.”
Likewise, in Canada, as temperatures increase, sugar maple trees — which are used to produce maple syrup — are losing their habitats. And in New York City, trees that are more typical of the balmy South, such as Magnolias, are increasing in abundance and blooming earlier each year, news reports indicate.
These are just a few examples of a larger trend happening across the Americas — from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego — as plant communities shift their ranges and respond to changing climates, Feeley pointed out. In his newest study, published in Nature Climate Change, Feeley, along with three of his graduate students and a visiting graduate student from the Nacional University of Colombia, analyzed more than 20 million records of more than 17,000 plant species from throughout the Western Hemisphere. They found that since the 1970s, entire plant ecosystems have changed directionally over time to include more and more of the species that prefer warmer climates. This process is called thermophilization.
“Almost anywhere you go, the types of species that you encounter now are different than what you would have found in that same spot 40 years ago, and we believe that this pattern is the direct result of rising temperatures and climate change,” Feeley said.
The research of Feeley and his students demonstrates that entire ecosystems are consistently losing the plant species that favor cold temperatures, and that those plants are being replaced by more heat-tolerant species that can withstand the warming climate. Plants favoring cool temperatures are either moving to higher elevations and latitudes, or some species may even be going locally extinct. Feeley and his students are now exploring key focal species that may offer more insight into these processes.
“Some of these changes can be so dramatic that we are shifting entire habitat types from forests to grasslands or vice versa — by looking at all types of plants over long periods of time and over huge areas, we were able to observe those changes,” he explained.
In addition to the effects of rising temperatures, the researchers also looked at how plant communities are being affected by changes in rainfall during the past four decades. Feeley and his team observed shifts in the amounts of drought-tolerant versus drought-sensitive plant species. But in many cases, the observed changes were not connected to the changes in rainfall. In fact, in many areas that are getting drier, the drought-sensitive species have become more common during the past decades. According to Feeley, this may be because of a connection between the species’ heat tolerances and their water demands. Heat tolerant species are typically less drought-tolerant, so as rising temperatures favor the increase of heat-tolerant species, it may also indirectly prompt a rise in water-demanding species. Feeley stressed that this can create dangerous situations in some areas where the plant communities are pushed out of equilibrium with their climate.
“When drought hits, it will be doubly bad for these ecosystems that have lost their tolerance to drought,” he said, adding that “for places where droughts are becoming more severe and frequent — like in California — this could make things a lot worse.”
But the implications of thermophilization go far beyond just the loss of certain plants, according to Feeley. Plants are at the base of the food chain and provide sustenance and habitat for wildlife — so if the plant communities transform, so will the animals that need them.
“All animals — including humans — depend on the plants around them,” Feeley said. “If we lose some plants, we may also lose the insects, birds, and many other forms of wildlife that we are used to seeing in our communities and that are critical to our ways of life. When people think of climate change, they need to realize that it’s not just about losing ice in Antarctica or rising sea levels — climate change affects almost every natural system in every part of the planet.”
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In their zeal to promote the importance of climate change as an ecological driver, climate scientists increasingly are ignoring the profound role that indigenous peoples played in fire and vegetation dynamics, not only in the eastern United States but worldwide, according to a Penn State researcher.
“In many locations, evidence shows that indigenous peoples actively managed vast areas and were skilled stewards of the land,” said Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology and physiology. “The historical record is clear, showing that for thousands of years indigenous peoples set frequent fires to manage forests to produce more food for themselves and the wildlife that they hunted, and practiced extensive agriculture.”
Responding to an article published earlier this year in a top scientific journal that claimed fires set by Native Americans were rare in southern New England and Long Island, New York, and played minor ecological roles, Abrams said there is significant evidence to the contrary.
In an article published today (July 20) in Nature Sustainability, Abrams, who has been studying the historical use of fire in eastern U.S. forests for nearly four decades, refutes those contentions.
“The palaeoecological view — based on a science of analyzing pollen and charcoal in lake sediments — that has arisen over the last few decades, contending that anthropogenic fires were rare and mostly climate-driven, contradicts the proud legacy and heritage of land use by indigenous peoples, worldwide,” he said.
In his article, Abrams, the Nancy and John Steimer Professor of Agricultural Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences, argues that the authors of the previous paper assumed that the scarcity of charcoal indicated that there had not been burning. But frequent, low-intensity fires do not create the amount of charcoal that intense, crown-level, forest-consuming wildfires do, he pointed out.
“Surface fires set by indigenous people in oak and pine forests, which dominate southern New England, often produced insufficient charcoal to be noticed in the sediment,” said Abrams. “The authors of the earlier article did not consider charcoal types, which distinguish between crown and surface fires, and charcoal size — macro versus micro — to differentiate local versus regional fires.”
Also, lightning in New England could not account for the ignition of so many fires, Abrams argues. In southern New England, lightning-strike density is low and normally is associated with rain events.
“The region lacks dry lightning needed to sustain large fires,” he said. “Moreover, lightning storms largely are restricted to the summer when humidity is high and vegetation flammability is low, making them an unlikely ignition source.”
Early explorers and colonists of southern New England routinely described open, park-like forests and witnessed, firsthand, Native American vegetation management, Abrams writes in his article, adding that oral history and numerous anthropological studies indicate long-term burning and land-use for thousands of years by indigenous people.
Burning near Native American villages and along their extensive trail systems constitutes large land areas, and fires would have kept burning as long as fuel, weather and terrain allowed, he explained. Following European settlement, these open oak and pine woodlands increasingly became closed by trees that previously were held in check by frequent fire.
The authors of the previous paper also argued that fire should not be used as a present-day management tool, a view that Abrams does not support.
The role of anthropogenic fires is front and center in the long-running climate-disturbance debate, according to Abrams, who notes that fires increased with the rise of human populations. The world would be a very different place without those fires, he contends.
“Surprisingly, the importance of indigenous peoples burning in vegetation-fire dynamics is increasingly downplayed among paleoecologists,” he writes. “This applies to locations where lightning-caused fires are rare.”
Abrams points out that he is not denying the importance of climate in vegetation and fire dynamics or its role in enhancing the extent of human fires. “However,” he writes, “in oak-pine forests of southern New England, Native American populations were high enough, lighting-caused fires rare enough, vegetation flammable enough and the benefits of burning and agriculture great enough for us to have confidence in the importance of historic human land management.”
Gregory Nowacki, a scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Forest Service Office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contributed to the article.
When you perform a Google Image search for “victims of climate change,” the faces you see are those of Black and brown people in the tropics. The images depict small reef islands in the Pacific Ocean, arid landscapes in East Africa and flooded villages in South Asia.
At some level, this association seems to make sense: Climate change disproportionately affects indigenous people and people of color, both within North America and around the world. The people and the nations least responsible for the problem are, in many cases, the most threatened.
But the search results also reflect the assumption, common among individuals in the global north—notably Europe and North America—that people in tropical climates are helpless victims who lack the capacity to cope with climate change. Beneath that assumption lies a long, ugly history of climate determinism: the racially motivated notion that the climate influences human intelligence and societal development. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, we need to reckon with systemic racism in all forms. Understanding how climate determinism unfolded historically can reveal the racial biases in present-day conversations about climate change. And it can better prepare us to address the very real inequalities of climate injury and adaptation—which I have seen firsthand while working with colleagues in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati over the past 15 years.
The story starts with the term “climate.” It comes from the ancient Greek word klima, which describes latitude. Greek philosophers deduced that the temperature at a given time of year varies roughly with the klima, because latitude determines how much energy a region receives from the sun. Eratosthenes defined bands of klima, later to be called clim-ata, going from frigid belts in the high latitudes, where there was permanent night in winter, to a hot band near the equator.
That is the sanitized origin story in most old textbooks. Here’s the part you’re not told: Using the concept of the “golden mean,” the ideal balance between two extremes, Greek philosophers argued that civilization thrived the most in climates that were neither too hot nor too cold. Greece, not so coincidentally, happened to be in the middle climate. The Greek people used climate to argue that they were healthier and more advanced than their neighbors to the north and south.
Scan the ancient Greek and Roman texts taught in philosophy classes—from Aristotle, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Plato, Cicero, Ptolemy, Pliny the Elder—and you will find passages that use climate differences to make harsh claims about other races. Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, argued that more equatorial civilizations to the south were inferior because the climate was too hot for creativity. In Politics, Aristotle argued that people in cold climates were “full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill,” whereas those in warm climates were “wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery.” These ideas were parroted by scholars across Europe and the Islamic world throughout the Middle Ages. Ibn al-Faqih, a Persian geographer in the 10th century, assertedpeople in equatorial climates were born “either like uncooked pastry or like things so thoroughly cooked as to be burnt.” Another suggested northerners tended toward albinism.
During the Enlightenment scientists used stories of heat and disease from tropical expeditions to build faux empirical evidence for racially loaded climate determinism. Scholars, as well as national leaders, advanced the European colonial view of tropical people and society as a lesser other, a practice referred to today as “tropicality.” Immanuel Kant argued in the late 1700s that a mix of warm and cold weather made Europeans smarter, harder-working, prettier, more civilized and wittier than the “exceptionally lethargic” people in the tropics. David Hume claimed that southern people were more sexual because their blood was heated. These arguments were also adapted to claim superiority over indigenous people of North America: writers such as Montesquieu claimed that the more extreme weather of the American colonies created degeneracy.
Blatant climate determinism persisted in the academic literature well into the last century. Geographer Ellsworth Huntington’s 1915 book Civilization and Climate featured tropicality-infused maps of “climatic energy” and “level of civilization”—which the journal Nature highlighted as showing “remarkably close agreement” when it published his 1947 obituary.
Although such claims no longer appear in textbooks, tropicality lives on in Western popular culture and everyday discourse. Think of how movies, books and vacation ads depict tropical islands as unsophisticated places where you can get your mind off the busy tasking of advanced society. The subtext: it is hot here, so no one works hard. Movies and TV programs also present certain tropical locations as dangerous, dirty and disease-ridden because of the climate. The 2020 Netflix film Extraction literally imposes a yellow filter on images of Bangladesh to disguise the blue skies.
Research and media coverage of climate are not immune from this cultural history. Well-intentioned efforts to document and spread stories about the inequalities of climate change inadvertently call up implicit climatic biases. For example, story after story presents the people of low-lying Pacific island nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu as potential climate “refugees”—victims in need of hand-holding rather than resilient individuals able to make conscious and informed decisions about their future. Warnings that climate change could help trigger mass migration, violence and political instability focus almost exclusively on the global south—Latin American, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia—and ignore the likelihood of similar unrest in Europe and North America, despite current events. This implicit bias rears its head in coverage of climate change in the U.S. Deep South, too: Why were Black Americans who were moving to Houston after Hurricane Katrina called “refugees,” a word applied to international migrants, when they had not left the country?
The problem persists, in part, because predicting the impacts of climate change inevitably requires assumptions about people and society. Science can project future climate conditions and those conditions’ impacts on the environment at any latitude. But there is no formula for calculating how individuals, communities or society at large will respond. This inexactness opens the door for implicit biases, developed over hundreds of years of deterministic thinking, to influence conclusions about who is, and who is not, capable of adapting to climate change. For example, a 2018 study inNature Climate Change found that research on climate and conflict suffers from a “streetlight” effect: researchers tend to conclude that climate change will cause violence in Africa and the Middle East because that is where they choose to look.
This legacy of deterministic thinking matters because it can do real-world damage. Rhetoric about climate refugees robs people of agency in their own future. Adaptation is possible, even in low-lying atoll nations. But good luck to them in securing international investment, loans or assistance for adaptation when every story says their community is doomed. People across the tropics have been pushing back. The slogan of the Pacific islands’ youth groupthe Pacific Climate Warriors—“We are not drowning. We are fighting.”—is an explicit rebuke to reflexive, racially loaded assumptions that the people of the Pacificare not up to the challenge.
Climate change is about legacy. We are seeing the legacy of past greenhouse gas emissions in today’s warming climate. And we are seeing the legacy of systemic racism and inequality in the impacts of that warming: indigenous peoples in the Arctic losing a way of life; people of color in the U.S. being disproportionately affected by extreme heat; slum dwellers in Chennai, India, suffering from floods. We need to spread the word about the inequalities of climate change. To do so responsibly, we must be willing to check our implicit biases before drawing conclusions about people living in different places.
A study published in Nature Climate Change recently found that, in early April, daily global carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 17 percent compared to the 2019 mean levels. Because of shelter-in-place rules and businesses being closed, people have been driving and flying less, leading to lower emissions.
Shortly after emissions started dropping in March, the climate community was careful to apply nuance to the emissions reduction discussion: Less carbon dioxide emissions, while good, should not be celebrated when caused by a global pandemic. In other words, while this time may show us the extent that people can come together in action, the ends don’t justify the means — the means here being a global financial crisis and hundreds of thousands of people dead. As climate scientist Carl-Friedrich Schleussner said in Carbon Brief, “The narrative that the economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus is ‘good’ for the climate is dangerously misleading and could undermine support for climate action.”
Though the climate community quickly dismissed this narrative, the right wing latched onto the idea that progressives were celebrating COVID-19 for its environmental benefits. Quickly, commentators on the right asserted that the world as it is under the pandemic is the world that climate advocates want under policies like the Green New Deal. The British libertarian web magazine Spiked wrote that “Covid-19 is a frightening dress rehearsal of the climate agenda.” Spiked is, incidentally, funded by the Koch foundation. Meanwhile, figures like Alex Epstein, who wrote a book entitled The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and whose organization Center for Industrial Progress has ties to the coal industry, have said that the recession caused by the pandemic is a preview of the Green New Deal.
This argument is incorrect in many ways, the least of which being that the temporary emissions reduction isn’t nearly enough: The UN has said that emissions need to drop by 7.5 percent each year. That drop needs to be permanent.
“[Right-wingers] are grasping at straws. And they’re actually trying to spin a couple pieces of straw into silk,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “I don’t see anybody in the climate community actually making that argument” that coronavirus is a good thing.
Yet for climate deniers and delayers, a straw man argument is often enough. “It’s totally in character with the entire [denier] community to make shit up and try to pin it on their opponents,” says Leiserowitz. They just need to sow enough confusion that their benefactors — usually the fossil fuel industry — can thrive under deregulation and the status quo.
Commentators on the right asserted that the world as it is under the pandemic is the world that climate advocates want under policies like the Green New Deal.
So, while these are unprecedented times, this line of attack on the climate community already has a long history. Linking the global pandemic with an imaginary environmental agenda is just part of a quiet but consistent decades-long strategy to attack climate policy. This particular argument strives to equate any climate action with suffering — or, as the reactionary right might put it, a loss of “freedom” or “liberty.”
This narrative has taken many forms over the years; the idea that climate regulation kills jobs was a prominent one for several decades. Now, as the progressive left and climate action have gained ideological ground, the right has had to adapt and warp its arguments accordingly. The new argument, it seems, is that climate regulation kills not just jobs but the entire economy, as conservative pundits and politicians argued in early 2019 when the Green New Deal became popularized.
The irony is that many climate policies are built to be as non-disruptive as possible. “The kinds of changes that we’re going to make in our lives — some of them, we’re not even going to notice,” says Leiserowitz. Light switches will still work, people will still be free to roam outside, meat will still be available to eat; in many ways, without the most oppressive effects of climate change, life will be better.
But deniers take advantage of the fact that climate communicators haven’t quite articulated the vast amounts of life-improving changes that climate action will bring and fill in the gaps with conspiratorial scare tactics.
“The thing that intrigued us [at DeSmogBlog] about the overlap between COVID misinformation and climate denial is that we couldn’t have one without the other,” says Brendan DeMelle, executive director of DeSmogBlog. DeSmogBlog has been documenting the overlap between those who deny or downplay the effects the coronavirus and known climate deniers. The overlap is vast, with climate denialist figures such as Alex Jones and Charlie Kirk and organizations such as the Heartland Institute, The Daily Caller, The Federalist and PragerU participating in various COVID-19 denial tactics.
“This echo chamber [on the right] is rapidly spreading misinformation through The Daily Caller and through all kinds of outlets that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this strategy of undermining public trust in science and government leadership,” says DeMelle. Part of the efficacy of the radical right’s propaganda is that it politicizes and smears institutional authorities like scientists and journalists in order to push its counterfactual agenda.
One effective way to combat the narrative that environmentalists want to destroy freedom and liberty is “to paint the positive and inspiring picture of transitioning from polluting energy sources to clean energy,” says John Cook, a climate and cognitive science researcher at George Mason University, over email to Truthout.
After all, mitigating the climate crisis, living free of harmful air that chokes out entire communities, leaving behind the fear that rising sea levels will displace entire countries and casting off our dread of what an entirely new category of hurricane will bring — that would be true freedom.
The COVID-19 global lockdown has had an “extreme” effect on daily carbon emissions, but it is unlikely to last — according to a new analysis by an international team of scientists.
The study published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that daily emissions decreased by 17% — or 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide — globally during the peak of the confinement measures in early April compared to mean daily levels in 2019, dropping to levels last observed in 2006.
Emissions from surface transport, such as car journeys, account for almost half (43%) of the decrease in global emissions during peak confinement on April 7. Emissions from industry and from power together account for a further 43% of the decrease in daily global emissions.
Aviation is the economic sector most impacted by the lockdown, but it only accounts for 3% of global emissions, or 10% of the decrease in emissions during the pandemic.
The increase in the use of residential buildings from people working at home only marginally offset the drop in emissions from other sectors.
In individual countries, emissions decreased by 26% on average at the peak of their confinement.
The analysis also shows that social responses alone, without increases in wellbeing and/or supporting infrastructure, will not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net zero emissions.
Prof Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, in the UK, led the analysis. She said: “Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions. These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport, or energy systems.
“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come.
“Opportunities exist to make real, durable, changes and be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement.
“For example in cities and suburbs, supporting walking and cycling, and the uptake of electric bikes, is far cheaper and better for wellbeing and air quality than building roads, and it preserves social distancing.”
The team analysed government policies on confinement for 69 countries responsible for 97% of global CO2 emissions. At the peak of the confinement, regions responsible for 89% of global CO2 emissions were under some level of restriction. Data on activities indicative of how much each economic sector was affected by the pandemic was then used to estimate the change in fossil CO2 emissions for each day and country from January to April 2020.
The estimated total change in emissions from the pandemic amounts to 1048 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) until the end of April. Of this, the changes are largest in China where the confinement started, with a decrease of 242 MtCO2, then in the US (207 MtCO2), Europe (123 MtCO2), and India (98 MtCO2). The total change in the UK for January-April 2020 is an estimated 18 MtCO2.
The impact of confinement on 2020 annual emissions is projected to be around 4% to 7% compared to 2019, depending on the duration of the lockdown and the extent of the recovery. If pre-pandemic conditions of mobility and economic activity return by mid-June, the decline would be around 4%. If some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of the year, it would be around 7%.
This annual drop is comparable to the amount of annual emission reductions needed year-on-year across decades to achieve the climate objectives of UN Paris Agreement.
Prof Rob Jackson of Stanford University and Chair of the Global Carbon Project who co-authored the analysis, added: “The drop in emissions is substantial but illustrates the challenge of reaching our Paris climate commitments. We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behavior.”
The authors warn that the rush for economic stimulus packages must not make future emissions higher by delaying New Green Deals or weakening emissions standards.
‘Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement’, Corinne Le Quéré, Robert B. Jackson, Matthew W. Jones, Adam J. P. Smith, Sam Abernethy, Robbie M. Andrew, Anthony J. De-Gol, David R. Willis, Yuli Shan, Josep G. Canadell, Pierre Friedlingstein, Felix Creutzig, Glen P. Peters, is published in Nature Climate Change on May 19.
The research received support from the Royal Society, the European Commission projects 4C, VERIFY and CHE, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Australian National Environmental Science Program.
Corinne Le Quéré, Robert B. Jackson, Matthew W. Jones, Adam J. P. Smith, Sam Abernethy, Robbie M. Andrew, Anthony J. De-Gol, David R. Willis, Yuli Shan, Josep G. Canadell, Pierre Friedlingstein, Felix Creutzig, Glen P. Peters. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x
If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals.
By Jonathan Safran Foer – May 21, 2020
Is any panic more primitive than the one prompted by the thought of empty grocery store shelves? Is any relief more primitive than the one provided by comfort food?
Most everyone has been doing more cooking these days, more documenting of the cooking, and more thinking about food in general. The combination of meat shortages and President Trump’s decision to order slaughterhouses open despite the protestations of endangered workers has inspired many Americans to consider just how essential meat is.
Is it more essential than the lives of the working poor who labor to produce it? It seems so. An astonishing six out of 10 counties that the White House itself identified as coronavirus hot spots are home to the very slaughterhouses the president ordered open.
In Sioux Falls, S.D., the Smithfield pork plant, which produces some 5 percent of the country’s pork, is one of the largest hot spots in the nation. A Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, had 730 cases of the coronavirus — nearly 60 percent of its employees. At another Tyson plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, there were 1,031 reported cases among about 2,800 workers.
Sick workers mean plant shutdowns, which has led to a backlog of animals. Some farmers are injecting pregnant sows to cause abortions. Others are forced to euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them. It’s gotten bad enough that Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has asked the Trump administration to provide mental health resources to hog farmers.
Despite this grisly reality — and the widely reported effects of the factory-farm industry on America’s lands, communities, animals and human health long before this pandemic hit — only around half of Americans say they are trying to reduce their meat consumption. Meat is embedded in our culture and personal histories in ways that matter too much, from the Thanksgiving turkey to the ballpark hot dog. Meat comes with uniquely wonderful smells and tastes, with satisfactions that can almost feel like home itself. And what, if not the feeling of home, is essential?
And yet, an increasing number of people sense the inevitability of impending change.
Animal agriculture is now recognized as a leading cause of global warming. According to The Economist, a quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based “meats” have skyrocketed, with Impossible and Beyond Burgers available everywhere from Whole Foods to White Castle.
Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door.
At the very least it has forced us to look. When it comes to a subject as inconvenient as meat, it is tempting to pretend unambiguous science is advocacy, to find solace in exceptions that could never be scaled and to speak about our world as if it were theoretical.
Some of the most thoughtful people I know find ways not to give the problems of animal agriculture any thought, just as I find ways to avoid thinking about climate change and income inequality, not to mention the paradoxes in my own eating life. One of the unexpected side effects of these months of sheltering in place is that it’s hard not to think about the things that are essential to who we are.
We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly. This is not a refutable perspective, but a banal truism. Whether they become Whoppers or boutique grass-fed steaks, cows produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gas. If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
According to the research director of Project Drawdown — a nonprofit organization dedicated to modeling solutions to address climate change — eating a plant-based diet is “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming.”
Americans overwhelmingly accept the science of climate change. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats say that the United States should have remained in the Paris climate accord. We don’t need new information, and we don’t need new values. We only need to walk through the open door.
We cannot claim to care about the humane treatment of animals while continuing to eat meat regularly. The farming system we rely on is woven through with misery. Modern chickens have been so genetically modified that their very bodies have become prisons of pain even if we open their cages. Turkeys are bred to be so obese that they are incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination. Mother cows have their calves ripped from them before weaning, resulting in acute distress we can hear in their wails and empirically measure through the cortisol in their bodies.
No label or certification can avoid these kinds of cruelty. We don’t need any animal rights activist waving a finger at us. We don’t need to be convinced of anything we don’t already know. We need to listen to ourselves.
We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly. Much attention has been paid to wet markets, but factory farms, specifically poultry farms, are a more important breeding ground for pandemics. Further, the C.D.C. reports that three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — the result of our broken relationship with animals.
It goes without saying that we want to be safe. We know how to make ourselves safer. But wanting and knowing are not enough.
These are not my or anyone’s opinions, despite a tendency to publish this information in opinion sections. And the answers to the most common responses raised by any serious questioning of animal agriculture aren’t opinions.
We can live longer, healthier lives without it. Most American adults eat roughly twice the recommended intake of protein — including vegetarians, who consume 70 percent more than they need. People who eat diets high in animal protein are more likely to die of heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure. Of course, meat, like cake, can be part of a healthy diet. But no sound nutritionist would recommend eating cake too often.
If we let the factory-farm system collapse, won’t farmers suffer? No.
The corporations that speak in their name while exploiting them will. There are fewer American farmers today than there were during the Civil War, despite America’s population being nearly 11 times greater. This is not an accident, but a business model. The ultimate dream of the animal-agriculture industrial complex is for “farms” to be fully automated. Transitioning toward plant-based foods and sustainable farming practices would create many more jobs than it would end.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask a farmer if he or she would be happy to see the end of factory farming.
Isn’t a movement away from meat elitist? No.
A 2015 study found that a vegetarian diet is $750 a year cheaper than a meat-based diet. People of color disproportionately self-identify as vegetarian and disproportionately are victims of factory farming’s brutality. The slaughterhouse employees currently being put at risk to satisfy our taste for meat are overwhelmingly brown and black. Suggesting that a cheaper, healthier, less exploitative way of farming is elitist is in fact a piece of industry propaganda.
Can’t we work with factory-farming corporations to improve the food system? No.
Well, unless you believe that those made powerful through exploitation will voluntarily destroy the vehicles that have granted them spectacular wealth. Factory farming is to actual farming what criminal monopolies are to entrepreneurship. If for a single year the government removed its $38-billion-plus in props and bailouts, and required meat and dairy corporations to play by normal capitalist rules, it would destroy them forever. The industry could not survive in the free market.
Perhaps more than any other food, meat inspires both comfort and discomfort. That can make it difficult to act on what we know and want. Can we really displace meat from the center of our plates? This is the question that brings us to the threshold of the impossible. On the other side is the inevitable.
With the horror of pandemic pressing from behind, and the new questioning of what is essential, we can now see the door that was always there. As in a dream where our homes have rooms unknown to our waking selves, we can sense there is a better way of eating, a life closer to our values. On the other side is not something new, but something that calls from the past — a world in which farmers were not myths, tortured bodies were not food and the planet was not the bill at the end of the meal.
One meal in front of the other, it’s time to cross the threshold. On the other side is home.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of “Eating Animals” and “We Are the Weather.”
FOR MORE than 100,000 years humans derived all their energy from what they hunted, gathered and grazed on or grew for themselves. Their own energy for moving things came from what they ate. Energy for light and heat came from burning the rest. In recent millennia they added energy from the flow of water and, later, air to the repertoire. But, important as water- and windmills were, they did little to change the overall energy picture. Global energy use broadly tracked the size of a population fed by farms and warmed by wood.
The combination of fossil fuels and machinery changed everything. According to calculations by Vaclav Smil, a scholar of energy systems at the University of Manitoba, between 1850 and 2000 the human world’s energy use increased by a factor of 15 or so.
The expansion was not homogeneous; over its course the mixture of fossil fuels used changed quite dramatically. These are the monumental shifts historians call “energy transitions”. They require huge amounts of infrastructure; they change the way the economy works; and they take place quite slowly.
James Watt patented his steam engine in 1769; coal did not exceed the share of total energy provided by “traditional biomass”—wood, peat, dung and the like—until the 1900s (see chart overleaf). It was not until the 1950s, a century after the first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, that crude oil came to represent 25% of humankind’s total primary energy. Energy transitions were slow largely because the growth in total energy use was fast. In the century it took oil to capture a quarter of the total, that total increased. They are also always incomplete. New fuels may reduce the share of the pie that old fuels control, but they rarely reduce the total energy those fuels supply. Much more “traditional biomass” is burned by the world’s poor today than was burned by the whole world in 1900.
To give the world a good chance of keeping global warming, measured against the temperature pre-coal, well below 2°C (3.6°F) will require an energy transition far larger and quicker than any before it. In the next 30-50 years 90% or more of the share of the world’s energy now being produced from fossil fuels will need to be provided by renewable-energy sources, nuclear power or fossil-fuel plants that bury their waste rather than exhaling it.
During this time, the pie will keep growing—but not necessarily as fast as it used to. The direct relationship between GDP and energy use, which held tight until the 1970s, has weakened over the past half century. It is possible for growth per person to continue without energy use per person increasing. Though the population is no longer growing as fast as it did at the 20th-century peak of its increase, it will still be the best part of 2bn higher by mid-century. And all those people should be able to aspire to modern energy services. Today more than 800m people still lack electricity—hence all that burning of traditional biomass.
The good news, however, is that governments say they are willing to push through the change. Previous transitions, though shaped by government policy at national levels, were mostly caused by the demand for new services that only a specific fuel could provide, such as petrol for engines.
The growth in renewable-generation capacity is the exception. It has not been driven by the fact that renewable electrons allow you to do things of which those from coal are not capable. It has largely been driven by government policy. This has not always had the near-term effects for which such policy should aim. Germany’s roll-out of renewables has been offset by its retreat from nuclear, and its emissions have risen. But subsidies there and elsewhere have boosted supply chains and lowered the cost of renewable technologies.
During the 2010s the levelised cost (that is the average lifetime cost of equipment, per megawatt hour of electricity generated) of solar, offshore wind and onshore wind fell by 87%, 62% and 56%, respectively, according to BloombergNEF, an energy-data outfit (see chart overleaf). This has allowed deployments that were unthinkable in the 2000s. Britain now has more than 2,000 offshore wind turbines. They are built by developers chosen based on how low a price they are willing to take for their electricity (the government pledges to make the cost up if the market price falls below it).
In 2015 winning bids were well over £100 ($123) per MWh, far higher than the cost of fossil-fuel electricity. Thanks to predictable policy, fierce competition and technical progress, a recent auction brought a bid as low as £39.65 per MWh, roughly the level of average wholesale power prices. Solar and onshore wind are even less expensive. About two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries where renewables represent the cheapest source of new power generation, says BloombergNEF.
Solar power is the really spectacular achiever, outstripping the expectations of its most fervent boosters. Ramez Naam, a bullish solar investor, recently recalibrated his expectations to foresee a future of “insanely cheap” solar power. By 2030, he reckons, in sunny parts of the world, building large new solar installations from scratch will be a cheaper way of getting electricity than operating fully depreciated fossil-fuel plants, let alone building new ones. Michael Liebreich, a consultant on renewable energies, speculates about a “renewable singularity” in which cheap renewable electricity opens up new markets that demand new capacity which makes electricity cheaper still.
Even without such speculative wonders, the effect of renewables is appreciable. Together with natural gas, which America’s fracking revolution has made cheaper, solar and wind are already squeezing coal, the energy sector’s biggest emitter (a megawatt of coal produces a stream of emissions twice the size of that given off by a megawatt of gas). In 2018 coal’s share of global energy supply fell to 27%, the lowest in 15 years. The pressure that they can apply to oil is not yet as great, because oil mostly drives cars, and electric cars are still rare. But as that changes, renewables will come for oil, as they are already coming for gas.
There are stumbling blocks. Neither the sun nor the wind produces energy consistently. Germany’s solar-power installations produce five times more electricity in the summer than they do in the winter, when demand for electricity is at its peak. Wind strengths vary not just from day to day but from season to season and, to some extent, year to year. This amounts to a speed bump for renewables, not a blockade. Long transmission lines that keep losses low by working at very high voltages can move electricity from oversupplied areas to those where demand is surging. Lithium-ion batteries can store extra energy and release it as needed. The economic stimulus China announced in March includes both ultra-high-voltage grids and electric-vehicle-charging infrastructure.
Thou orb aloft, somewhat dazzling
As the sun and wind account for a larger share of power, renewables might store power by splitting water to create hydrogen to be burned later. More ambitiously, if technologies for pulling carbon dioxide back out of the air improve, such hydrogen could be combined with that scavenged carbon to make fossil-free fuels.
In doing so, they might help remedy the other problem with renewables. There are some emissions which even very cheap electricity cannot replace. Lithium-ion batteries are too bulky to power big planes on long flights, which is where artificial fuels might come in. Some industrial processes, such as cement-making, give out carbon dioxide by their very nature. They may require technology that intercepts the carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere and squirrels it away underground. When emissions cannot be avoided—as may be the case with some of those from farmland—they will need to be offset by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere either with trees or technology.
None of this happens, though, without investment. The International Renewable Energy Agency, an advisory group, estimates that $800bn of investment in renewables is needed each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2°C of warming, with more than twice that needed for electric infrastructure and efficiency. In 2019 investment in renewables was $250bn. The big oil and gas firms invested twice as much in fossil-fuel extraction.
If governments want to limit climate change, therefore, they must do more. They do not have to do everything. If policy choices show that the road away from fossil fuels is right, private capital will follow. Investors are already wary of fossil-fuel companies, eyeing meagre returns and the possibility that action on climate change will leave firms with depreciating assets.
But governments need to make the signals clear. Around the world, they currently provide more than $400bn a year in direct support for fossil-fuel consumption, more than twice what they spend subsidising renewable production. A price on carbon, which hastens the day when new renewables are cheaper than old fossil-fuel plants, is another crucial step. So is research spending aimed at those emissions which are hard to electrify away. Governments have played a large role in the development of solar panels, wind turbines and fracking. There is a lot more to do.
However much they do, though, and however well they do it, they will not stop the climate change at today’s temperature of 1°C above the pre-industrial. Indeed, they will need to expand their efforts greatly to meet the 2°C target; on today’s policies, the rise by the end of the century looks closer to 3°C. This means that as well as trying to limit climate change, the world also needs to learn how to adapt to it. ■
Correction (May 22nd 2020): This article previously stated that Britain had 10,000 offshore wind turbines. In fact that is the total number of turbines; only 2,016 are offshore. We’re sorry for the error.
This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “Not-so-slow burn”
The pandemic shows how hard it will be to decarbonise—and creates an opportunity
Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub
FOLLOWING THE pandemic is like watching the climate crisis with your finger jammed on the fast-forward button. Neither the virus nor greenhouse gases care much for borders, making both scourges global. Both put the poor and vulnerable at greater risk than wealthy elites and demand government action on a scale hardly ever seen in peacetime. And with China’s leadership focused only on its own advantage and America’s as scornful of the World Health Organisation as it is of the Paris climate agreement, neither calamity is getting the co-ordinated international response it deserves.
The two crises do not just resemble each other. They interact. Shutting down swathes of the economy has led to huge cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. In the first week of April, daily emissions worldwide were 17% below what they were last year. The International Energy Agency expects global industrial greenhouse-gas emissions to be about 8% lower in 2020 than they were in 2019, the largest annual drop since the second world war.
That drop reveals a crucial truth about the climate crisis. It is much too large to be solved by the abandonment of planes, trains and automobiles. Even if people endure huge changes in how they lead their lives, this sad experiment has shown, the world would still have more than 90% of the necessary decarbonisation left to do to get on track for the Paris agreement’s most ambitious goal, of a climate only 1.5°C warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
But as we explain this week (see article) the pandemic both reveals the size of the challenge ahead and also creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case. Rock-bottom energy prices make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels and to introduce a tax on carbon. The revenues from that tax over the next decade can help repair battered government finances. The businesses at the heart of the fossil-fuel economy—oil and gas firms, steel producers, carmakers—are already going through the agony of shrinking their long-term capacity and employment. Getting economies in medically induced comas back on their feet is a circumstance tailor-made for investment in climate-friendly infrastructure that boosts growth and creates new jobs. Low interest rates make the bill smaller than ever.
Take carbon-pricing first. Long cherished by economists (and The Economist), such schemes use the power of the market to incentivise consumers and firms to cut their emissions, thus ensuring that the shift from carbon happens in the most efficient way possible. The timing is particularly propitious because such prices have the most immediate effects when they tip the balance between two already available technologies. In the past it was possible to argue that, although prices might entrench an advantage for cleaner gas over dirtier coal, renewable technologies were too immature to benefit. But over the past decade the costs of wind and solar power have tumbled. A relatively small push from a carbon price could give renewables a decisive advantage—one which would become permanent as wider deployment made them cheaper still. There may never have been a time when carbon prices could achieve so much so quickly.
Carbon prices are not as popular with politicians as they are with economists, which is why too few of them exist. But even before covid-19 there were hints their time was coming. Europe is planning an expansion of its carbon-pricing scheme, the largest in the world; China is instituting a brand new one. Joe Biden, who backed carbon prices when he was vice-president, will do so again in the coming election campaign—and at least some on the right will agree with that. The proceeds from a carbon tax could raise over 1% of GDP early on and would then taper away over several decades. This money could either be paid as a dividend to the public or, as is more likely now, help lower government debts, which are already forecast to reach an average of 122% of GDP in the rich world this year, and will rise further if green investments are debt-financed.
Carbon pricing is only part of the big-bang response now possible. By itself, it is unlikely to create a network of electric-vehicle charging-points, more nuclear power plants to underpin the cheap but intermittent electricity supplied by renewables, programmes to retrofit inefficient buildings and to develop technologies aimed at reducing emissions that cannot simply be electrified away, such as those from large aircraft and some farms. In these areas subsidies and direct government investment are needed to ensure that tomorrow’s consumers and firms have the technologies which carbon prices will encourage.
Some governments have put their efforts into greening their covid-19 bail-outs. Air France has been told either to scrap domestic routes that compete with high-speed trains, powered by nuclear electricity, or to forfeit taxpayer assistance. But dirigisme disguised as a helping hand could have dangerous consequences: better to focus on insisting that governments must not skew their bail-outs towards fossil fuels. In other countries the risk is of climate-damaging policies. America has been relaxing its environmental rules further during the pandemic. China—whose stimulus for heavy industry sent global emissions soaring after the global financial crisis—continues to build new coal plants (see article).
The covid-19 pause is not inherently climate-friendly. Countries must make it so. Their aim should be to show by 2021, when they gather to take stock of progress made since the Paris agreement and commit themselves to raising their game, that the pandemic has been a catalyst for a breakthrough on the environment.
Covid-19 has demonstrated that the foundations of prosperity are precarious. Disasters long talked about, and long ignored, can come upon you with no warning, turning life inside out and shaking all that seemed stable. The harm from climate change will be slower than the pandemic but more massive and longer-lasting. If there is a moment for leaders to show bravery in heading off that disaster, this is it. They will never have a more attentive audience. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Seize the moment”
Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub
AMID COVID-19’s sweeping devastation, its effect on greenhouse gases has emerged as something of a bright spot. Between January and March demand for coal dropped by 8% and oil by 5%, compared with the same period in 2019. By the end of the year energy demand may be 6% down overall, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental forecaster, amounting to the largest drop it has ever seen.
Because less energy use means less burning of fossil fuels, greenhouse-gas emissions are tumbling, too. According to an analysis by the Global Carbon Project, a consortium of scientists, 2020’s emissions will be 2-7% lower than 2019’s if the world gets back to prepandemic conditions by mid-June; if restrictions stay in place all year, the estimated drop is 3-13% depending on how strict they are. The IEA’s best guess for the drop is 8%.
That is not enough to make any difference to the total warming the world can expect. Warming depends on the cumulative emissions to date; a fraction of one year’s toll makes no appreciable difference. But returning the world to the emission levels of 2010—for a 7% drop—raises the tantalising prospect of crossing a psychologically significant boundary. The peak in carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels may be a lot closer than many assume. It might, just possibly, turn out to lie in the past.
That emissions from fossil fuels have to peak, and soon, is a central tenet of climate policy. Precisely when they might do so, though, is so policy-dependent that many forecasters decline to give a straight answer. The IEA makes a range of projections depending on whether governments keep on with today’s policies or enact new ones. In the scenario which assumes that current policies stay in place, fossil-fuel demand rises by nearly 30% from 2018 to 2040, with no peak in sight.
The IEA, though, has persistently underestimated the renewable-energy sector. Others are more bullish. Carbon Tracker, a financial think-tank, predicted in 2018 that with impressive but plausible growth in renewable deployment and relatively slow growth in overall demand, even under current policy fossil-fuel emissions should peak in the 2020s—perhaps as early as 2023. Michael Liebreich, who founded BloombergNEF, an energy-data outfit, has also written about a possible peak in the mid 2020s. Depending on how the pandemic pans out he now thinks that it may be in 2023—or may have been in 2019.
Previously, drops in emissions caused by economic downturns have proved only temporary setbacks to the ongoing rise in fossil-fuel use. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian financial crash in 1997 and the financial crisis of 2007-09 all saw emissions stumble briefly before beginning to rise again (see chart). But if a peak really was a near-term prospect before the pandemic, almost a decade’s worth of setback could mean that, though emissions will rise over the next few years, they never again reach the level they stood at last year.
The alternative, more orthodox pre-covid view was that the peak was both further off and destined to be higher. On this view, emissions will regain their pre-pandemic level within a few years and will climb right on past it. Covid’s damage to the economy probably means that the peak, when it arrives, will be lower than it might have been, says Roman Kramarchuk of S&P Global Platts Analytics, a data and research firm. But an economic dip is unlikely to bring it on sooner.
What, though, if covid does not merely knock demand back, but reshapes it? This shock, unlike prior ones, comes upon an energy sector already in the throes of change. The cost of renewables is dipping below that of new fossil-fuel plants in much of the world. After years of development, electric vehicles are at last poised for the mass market. In such circumstances covid-19 may spur decisions—by individuals, firms, investors and governments—that hasten fossil fuels’ decline.
So far, renewables have had a pretty good pandemic, despite some disruptions to supply chains. With no fuel costs and the preferential access to electricity grids granted by some governments, renewables demand jumped 1.5% in the first quarter, even as demand for all other forms of energy sank. America’s Energy Information Administration expects renewables to surpass coal’s share of power generation in America for the first time this year.
Coal prices have fallen, given the low demand, which may position it well post-pandemic in some places. Even before covid, China was building new coal-fired plants (see article). But the cost of borrowing is also low, and likely to stay that way, which means installing renewables should stay cheap for longer. Renewable developers such as Iberdrola and Orsted, both of which have weathered covid-19 rather well so far, are keen to replace coal on an ever larger scale.
Those who see demand for fossil fuels continuing to climb as populations and economies grow have assumed demand for oil will be much more persistent than that for coal. Coal is almost entirely a source of electricity, which makes it ripe for replacement by renewables. Oil is harder to shift. Electric vehicles are sure to eat into some of its demand; but a rising appetite for petrochemicals and jet fuel, to which lithium-ion batteries offer no competition, was thought likely to offset the loss.
Now oil’s future looks much more murky, depending as it does on a gallimaufry of newly questionable assumptions about commuting, airline routes, government intervention, capital spending and price recovery. In the future more people may work from home, and commuting accounts for about 8% of oil demand. But those who do commute may prefer to do so alone in their cars, offsetting some of those gains. Chinese demand for oil has picked up again quickly in part because of reticence about buses and trains.
As to planes, Jeff Currie of Goldman Sachs estimates that demand for oil will recover to pre-crisis levels by the middle of 2022, but that demand for jet fuel may well stay 1.7m barrels a day below what it was as business travel declines. That is equivalent to nearly 2% of oil demand.
Such uncertainty means more trouble for the oil sector, whose poor returns and climate risks have been repelling investors for a while. Companies are slashing spending on new projects. By the mid-2020s today’s underinvestment in oil may boost crude prices—making demand for electric vehicles grow all the faster.
Natural gas, the fossil fuel for which analysts have long predicted continued growth, has weathered the pandemic better than its two older siblings. But it, too, faces accelerating competition. One of gas’s niches is powering the “peaker” plants which provide quick influxes of energy when demand outstrips a grid’s supply. It looks increasingly possible for batteries to take a good chunk of that business.
Those hoping for fossil fuels’ imminent demise should not be overconfident. As lockdowns around the world end, use of dirty fuels will tick back up, as they have in China. Energy emissions no longer rise in lockstep with economic growth, but demand for fossil fuels remains tied to it. Mr Currie of Goldman Sachs, for one, is wary of declaring a permanent decoupling: “I’m not willing to say there is a structural shift in oil demand to GDP.” Even so, a peak of fossil fuels in the 2020s looks less and less farfetched—depending on what governments do next in their struggle with the pandemic. Of all the uncertainties in energy markets, none currently looms larger than that. ■
Ben Tarnoff, co-founder of Logic Magazine, explores the devastating impact of cloud computing on the climate — and makes the case for a radical transformation of the internet as we know it.
As of writing, roughly half of the world’s population is living under lockdown.
Not everyone can remain indoors, of course: millions of working-class people put their lives at risk every day to be the nurses, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers on whom everyone else’s survival depends. But globally, a substantial share of humanity is staying home.
One consequence is a sharp increase in internet usage. Trapped inside, people are spending more time online. The New York Times reports that in January, as China locked down Hubei province — home to Wuhan, the original epicenter of Covid-19 — mobile broadband speeds dropped by more than half because of network congestion. Internet speeds have suffered similar drops across Europe and the United States, as stay-at-home orders have led to spikes in traffic. In Italy, which has one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world, home internet use has increased 90 percent.
The internet is already deeply integrated into the daily rhythms of life in much of the world. Under the pressures of the pandemic, however, it has become something more: the place where, for many, life is mostly lived. It is where one spends time with family and friends, goes to class, attends concerts and religious services, buys meals and groceries. It is a source of sustenance, culture, and social interaction; for those who can work from home, it is also a source of income. Quarantine is an ancient practice. Connected quarantine is a paradox produced by a networked age.
Anything that can help people endure long periods of isolation is useful for containing the virus. In this respect, the internet is a blessing — if an unevenly distributed one. Indeed, the pandemic is highlighting the inequalities both within and across countries when it comes to connectivity, and underlining why internet access should be considered a basic human right.
But the new reality of connected quarantine also brings certain risks. The first is social: the greater reliance on online services will place more power in the hands of telecoms and platforms. Our undemocratic digital sphere will only become more so, as the firms that own the physical and virtual infrastructures of the internet come to mediate, and to mold, even more of our existence. The second danger is ecological. The internet already makes very large demands of the earth’s natural systems. As usage increases, those demands will grow.
In our efforts to mitigate the current crisis, then, we may end up making other crises worse. A world in which the internet as it is currently organized becomes more central to our lives will be one in which tech companies exercise more influence over our lives. It may also be one in which life of all kinds becomes harder to sustain, as the environmental impact of a precipitously growing internet accelerates the ongoing collapse of the biosphere — above all, by making the planet hotter.
Machines Heat the Planet
To understand how the internet makes the planet hotter, it helps to begin with a simplified model of what the internet is. The internet is, more or less, a collection of machines that talk to one another. These machines can be big or small — servers or smartphones, say. Every year they become more ubiquitous; in a couple of years, there will be thirty billion of them.
These machines heat the planet in three ways. First, they are made from metals and minerals that are extracted and refined with large inputs of energy, and this energy is generated from burning fossil fuels. Second, their assembly and manufacture is similarly energy-intensive, and thus similarly carbon-intensive. Finally, after the machines are made, there is the matter of keeping them running, which also consumes energy and emits carbon.
Given the breadth and complexity of this picture, it would take a considerable amount of time to map the entire carbon footprint of the internet precisely. So let’s zero in on a single slice: the cloud. If the internet is a collection of machines that talk to one another, the cloud is the subset of machines that do most of the talking. More concretely, the cloud is millions of climate-controlled buildings — ”data centers” — filled with servers. These servers supply the storage and perform the computation for the software running on the internet — the software behind Zoom seders, Twitch concerts, Instacart deliveries, drone strikes, financial trades, and countless other algorithmically organized activities.
The amount of energy consumed by these activities is immense, and much of it comes from coal and natural gas. Data centers currently require 200 terawatt hours per year, roughly the same amount as South Africa. Anders Andrae, a researcher at Huawei, predicts that number will grow 4 to 5 times by 2030. This would put the cloud on par with Japan, the fourth-biggest energy consumer on the planet. Andrae made these predictions before the pandemic, however. All indications suggest that the crisis will supercharge the growth of the cloud, as people spend more time online. This means we could be looking at a cloud even bigger than Japan by 2030 — perhaps even the size of India, the world’s third-biggest energy consumer.
Machine Learning is a Fossil Fuel Industry
What can be done to avert the climate damage of such a development? One approach is to make the cloud run on renewable energy. This doesn’t entirely decarbonize data centers, given the carbon costs associated with the construction of the servers inside of them, but it does reduce their impact. Greenpeace has been waging a campaign along these lines for years, with some success. The use of renewables by data centers has grown, although progress is uneven: according to a recent Greenpeace report, Chinese data centers are still primarily powered by coal. It also remains difficult to accurately gauge how much progress has been made, since corporate commitments to lower carbon emissions are often little more than greenwashing PR. “Greening” one’s data centers can mean any number of things, given a general lack of transparency and reporting standards. A company might buy some carbon offsets, put out a celebratory press release, and call it a day.
Another approach is to increase the energy efficiency of data centers. This is an easier sell for companies, because they have a strong financial incentive to lower their electricity costs: powering and cooling data centers can be extraordinarily expensive. In recent years, they have come up with a number of ways to improve efficiency. The emergence of “hyperscale” data centers, first developed by Facebook, has been especially important. These are vast, automated, streamlined facilities that represent the rationalization of the cloud: they are the digital equivalent of the Fordist assembly line, displacing the more artisanal arrangements of an earlier era. Their economies of scale and obsessive optimizations make them highly energy-efficient, which has in turn moderated the cloud’s power consumption in recent years.
This trend won’t last forever, however. The hyperscalers will max out their efficiency, while the cloud will continue to grow. Even the more conscientious companies will have trouble procuring enough renewables to keep pace with demand. This is why we may also have to contemplate another possibility: not just greening the cloud, or making it more efficient, but constraining its growth.
To consider how we might do that, let’s first consider why the cloud is growing so fast. One of the most important factors is the rise of machine learning (ML). ML is the field behind the current “AI boom.” A powerful tool for pattern recognition, ML can be put to many purposes, from analyzing faces to predicting consumer preferences. To recognize a pattern, though, an ML system must first “learn” the pattern. The way that ML learns patterns is by training on large quantities of data, which is a computationally demanding process. Streaming Netflix doesn’t place much strain on the servers inside a data center; training the ML model that Netflix uses for its recommendation engine probably does.
Because ML hogs processing power, it also carries a large carbon footprint. In a paper that made waves in the ML community, a team at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that training a model for natural-language processing — the field that helps “virtual assistants” like Alexa understand what you’re saying — can emit as much as 626,155 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s about the same amount produced by flying roundtrip between New York and Beijing 125 times.
Training models isn’t the only way that ML contributes to climate change. It has also stimulated a hunger for data that is probably the single biggest driver of the digitization of everything. Corporations and governments now have an incentive to acquire as much data as possible, because that data, with the help of ML, might yield valuable patterns. It might tell them who to fire, who to arrest, when to perform maintenance on a machine, or how to promote a new product. It might even help them build new kinds of services, like facial recognition software or customer-service chatbots. One of the best ways to make more data is to put small connected computers everywhere—in homes and stores and offices and factories and hospitals and cars. Aside from the energy required to manufacture and maintain those devices, the data they produce will live in the carbon-intensive cloud.
The good news is that awareness of ML’s climate impacts is growing, as is the interest among practitioners and activists in mitigating them. Towards that end, one group of researchers is calling for new reporting standards under the banner of “Green AI.” They propose adding a carbon “price tag” to each ML model, which would reflect the costs of building, training, and running it, and which could drive the development of more efficient models.
This is important work, but it needs a qualitative dimension as well as a quantitative one. We shouldn’t just be asking how much carbon an ML application produces. We should also be asking what those applications do.
Do they enable people to lead freer and more self-determined lives? Do they cultivate community and solidarity? Do they encourage more equitable and more cooperative forms of living? Or do they extend corporate and state surveillance and control? Do they give advertisers, employers, and security agencies new ways to monitor and manipulate us? Do they strengthen capitalist class power, and intensify racism, sexism, and other oppressions?
Resistance with Transformation
A good place to start when we contemplate curbing the growth of the cloud, then, is asking whether the activities that are driving its growth contribute to the creation of a democratic society. This question will acquire new urgency in the pandemic, as our societies become more enmeshed in the internet. It is a question that cannot be resolved on a technical basis, however — it is not an optimization problem, like trying to maximize energy efficiency in a data center. That’s because it involves choices about values, and choices about values are necessarily political. Therefore, we need political mechanisms for making these choices collectively.
Politics is necessarily a conflictual affair, and there will be plenty of conflicts that arise in the course of trying to both decarbonize and democratize the internet. For one, there are obvious tensions between the moral imperative of improving and expanding access and the ecological imperative of keeping the associated energy inputs within a sustainable range. But there will also be many cases where restricting and even eliminating certain uses of the internet will serve both social and environmental ends simultaneously.
Consider the fight against facial recognition software that has erupted across the world, from protesters in Hong Kong using lasers to disrupt police cameras to organizers in the United States pushing for municipal bans. Such software is incompatible with basic democratic values; it also helps heat the planet by relying on computationally intensive ML models. Its abolition would thus serve both the people and the planet.
But we need more than abolition. We also need to envision and construct an alternative. A substantive project to decarbonize and democratize the internet must combine resistance with transformation; namely, it must transform how the internet is owned and organized. So long as the internet is held by private firms and run for profit, it will destabilize natural systems and preclude the possibility of democratic control. The supreme law of capitalism is accumulation for accumulation’s sake. Under such a regime, the earth is a set of resources to be extracted, not a set of systems to be repaired, stewarded, and protected. Moreover, there is little room for people to freely choose the course of their lives, because everyone’s choices — even those of capitalists — are constrained by the imperative of infinite accumulation.
Dissolving this law, and formulating a new one, will of course involve a much broader array of struggles than those aimed at building a better internet. But the internet, as its size and significance grows through the pandemic, may very well become a central point of struggle. In the past, the internet has been a difficult issue to inspire mass mobilization around; its current highly privatized form, in fact, is partly due to the absence of popular pressure. The new life patterns of connected quarantine might reverse this trend, as online services become, for many, both a window to the world and a substitute for it, a lifeline and a habitat. Perhaps then the internet will be a place worth struggling to transform, as well as a tool for those struggling to transform everything else.
Chuvas atrasadas, secas intensas, rios sem água — em diversas partes da Amazônia, comunidades indígenas vêm testemunhando as transformações decorrentes das alterações no clima. O resultado: mais incêndios, menos alimento disponível.
Os indígenas acreditam que as mudanças climáticas têm afetado inclusive sua saúde corporal: doenças antes controladas como sarampo e febre amarela ressurgiram na floresta e até a menstruação das mulheres tem chegado mais cedo.
Como forma de minimizar os danos, os indígenas se mobilizam de várias maneiras. Entre elas, a aposta em sementes mais resistentes à seca e ao calor, a linha de frente nas brigadas de incêndio e até um aplicativo de celular para compartilhar informações sobre variações no clima.
Na região do Bico do Papagaio, norte de Tocantins, Antonio Veríssimo Apinajé recorda seus tempos de menino na aldeia Taquari, na década de 1970. “Chovia sem parar, por três, quatro dias seguidos, de janeiro a junho. Os rios e as nascentes ficavam cheios. A estação chuvosa começava em outubro, quando minha família plantava mandioca, milho e arroz. Em junho vinha a estação seca, e durava até setembro.”
Não mais, diz o líder do povo Apinajé. “Tem anos que as chuvas demoram para chegar, só em novembro, dezembro, até janeiro, e só então podemos plantar. Em abril a chuva já está parando. Se falta água, não temos como irrigar [a roça]. A mandioca fica pequena, o milho ‘não enche’. As chuvas diminuíram bem nos últimos dez anos.”
Assim como Antonio, boa parte dos indígenas brasileiros vem testemunhando, no dia a dia, as transformações decorrentes das mudanças climáticas. Segundo eles, a natureza vem dando sinais de alteração há pelo menos 15 anos, e com mais rapidez nos últimos tempos.
“Falta de água é o primeiro sinal”, diz Antonio. É indício de que as chuvas estão chegando com atraso — fator que, alternado com secas intensas e prolongadas, termina por prejudicar as colheitas e reduzir a variedade de alimentos disponíveis nas aldeias.
Maria Leonice Tupari, coordenadora da Associação das Guerreiras Indígenas de Rondônia (Agir), relata que na TI onde vive, a Sete de Setembro, “o rio seca com frequência e a água que sobra forma uma espécie de baía, onde os peixes tentam sobreviver. Quando volta a chover, a água morna do leito mistura-se com a água fria que cai e o choque [de temperaturas] mata os peixes pequenos.”
Não bastasse a diminuição de recursos naturais, Maria Leonice tem se inquietado também ao ver ressurgir enfermidades nas aldeias. “Doenças que já tinham sido controladas estão voltando: sarampo, febre amarela… Acredito que isso tem a ver com o clima, a destruição da natureza. E veio um vírus para mostrar nossa fragilidade, trazer reflexão”, diz ela, referindo-se à chegada da covid-19 às aldeias, que até o início de maio já havia infectado mais de 200 indígenas no país.
O clima cada vez mais quente pode estar também alterando o organismo das mulheres Kiriri, no nordeste da Bahia, segundo as próprias relataram a Sineia do Vale, coordenadora do Departamento Ambiental do Conselho Indígena de Roraima (CIR). “As cacicas acreditam que o calor extremo fez com que a tensão pré-menstrual de jovens indígenas chegasse mais cedo.”
Não bastasse a diminuição de recursos naturais, Maria Leonice tem se inquietado também ao ver ressurgir enfermidades nas aldeias. “Doenças que já tinham sido controladas estão voltando: sarampo, febre amarela… Acredito que isso tem a ver com o clima, a destruição da natureza. E veio um vírus para mostrar nossa fragilidade, trazer reflexão”, diz ela, referindo-se à chegada da covid-19 às aldeias, que até o início de maio já havia infectado mais de 200 indígenas no país.
O clima cada vez mais quente pode estar também alterando o organismo das mulheres Kiriri, no nordeste da Bahia, segundo as próprias relataram a Sineia do Vale, coordenadora do Departamento Ambiental do Conselho Indígena de Roraima (CIR). “As cacicas acreditam que o calor extremo fez com que a tensão pré-menstrual de jovens indígenas chegasse mais cedo.”
É o caso da mesma TI Sete de Setembro onde vive Maria Leonice Tupari, território ancestral dos Suruí Paiter na divisa de Rondônia e Mato Grosso, hoje cercado de fazendas de gado. “Os fazendeiros gostam de queimar grandes áreas de terra para limpar o pasto. No ano passado, qualquer coisinha dava incêndio, de bitucas de cigarro a garrafas de vidro. Era lixo jogado por caminhões nas margens de capim seco das estradas”, diz ela.
Segundo a líder das mulheres guerreiras de Rondônia, o fogo causou outro grave problema em 2019, ano recorde de queimadas: “A fumaça gerada fez com que muitos de nós passassem mal, com fortes dores de cabeça, irritação nos olhos e problemas respiratórios. A fumaça era terrível. Crianças e idosos especialmente tiveram de ir aos hospitais da região, que estavam lotados com pessoas das cidades, também intoxicados”.
Antonio Apinajé, a mil quilômetros dali, na beira do Rio Tocantins, tem o mesmo temor: “Ficamos preocupados quando há focos de incêndio na região porque, dependendo do horário e da força do vento, o fogo voa. Vivemos perto da floresta e da vegetação de Cerrado; dá até angústia só de pensar, aquela fumaça pesada fica no ar por dois, três meses,” diz o líder Apinajé.
Como forma de reduzir os danos às vegetação dos biomas, o Centro Nacional de Prevenção e Combate aos Incêndios Florestais do Ibama (Prevfogo) contrata indígenas, na temporada das queimadas, para atuarem como brigadistas nas TIs onde vivem. “Eles conhecem os territórios melhor do que ninguém, sabem onde está a vegetação mais suscetível ao fogo, onde os incêndios costumam começar e se espalhar,” diz Gabriel Constantino Zacharias, chefe do Prevfogo.
A iniciativa começou em 2013 com 400 indígenas — um terço do total de brigadistas — e foi crescendo ao longo dos anos. Em 2019, porém, caiu pela primeira vez: foram 760 indígenas em campo, vinte a menos do que no ano anterior.
O primeiro ano de um governo é normalmente de restrições orçamentárias”, justifica Zacharias, ao falar da gestão Bolsonaro. Em agosto passado, Alemanha e Noruega suspenderam suas contribuições ao Fundo Amazônia em face do desmatamento crescente no país. Parte desses recursos financiava as roupas e botas dos brigadistas — entre 2014 e 2018, o fundo investiu R$ 14,7 milhões em atividades do Prevfogo nos nove estados amazônicos.
Casa de sementes
Em Tocantins, os Apinajé tem se dedicado a pesquisar sementes mais resistentes à seca e ao calor.
“Em vez de usar sementes de arroz, que levam cinco a seis meses para amadurecer, agora só plantamos o arroz ‘ligeiro’, que demora três meses”, diz Antonio Apinajé. “Conseguimos também uma espécie de mandioca que cresce em sete meses, enquanto a que plantávamos antes levava normalmente um ano.”
A oferta de água igualmente influencia o que vai ser cultivado, segundo ele: “Mandioca e feijão não pedem muita chuva, mas arroz, abóbora, milho e banana sim, por isso estamos plantando menos deles”.
Há pouco mais de um ano, o povo Apinajé, formado por 2,8 mil habitantes espalhados em 42 aldeias da TI homônima, criou uma “casa de sementes”, como assim a batizaram, que armazena as espécies mais produtivas e resistentes ao calor. A ideia é ampliar a variedade desse acervo, fazendo intercâmbio de sementes e de experiências agrobiológicas com outros povos, além de agricultores familiares e quilombolas.
Essa proposta vem se difundindo em outros estados amazônicos: em Roraima, por exemplo, lideranças coordenam a formação de uma rede de bancos de sementes entre as regiões do estado onde vivem indígenas. “O projeto parou por causa do coronavírus, mas vamos retomá-lo assim que possível,” diz Sineia do Vale, do CIR, representante do povo Wapichana.
Em agosto passado, o CIR promoveu a organização de um banco de sementes na TI Raimundão, no município de Alto Alegre, e o cultivo de uma área de dois hectares com sementes mais resistentes de milho, mandioca e pimenta, principais alimentos das comunidades locais.
As ações são parte de um plano pioneiro de gestão ambiental que inclui o fator climático, concebido a partir de consultas junto a habitantes das TIs Malacacheta, Jacamim e Manoá-Pium.
Inimaginável até poucos anos atrás, “os conhecimentos ancestrais estão sendo discutidos por cientistas em diversas partes do mundo para ajudar no entendimento das questões climáticas,” diz a líder Wapichana.
Celulares contra o fogo
A colaboração entre ciência e saberes indígenas também se dá por meio da criação de ferramentas tecnológicas, como o Alerta Clima Indígena. Desenvolvido pelo Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (Ipam), o aplicativo fornece dados sobre focos de calor, riscos de seca e desmatamento para ajudar os indígenas a monitorar seus territórios e o entorno. As informações podem ser acessadas mesmo quando os celulares estão sem conexão.
Além disso, por meio do aplicativo, os próprios indígenas podem inserir e compartilhar alertas de fogo e de atividades ilegais em suas terras, como desmatamento, pesca predatória e extração de madeira.
“Os povos indígenas são, por um lado, grandes figuras em mitigar as alterações climáticas, mas, por outro, vivem diretamente com elas e por isso são os mais afetados”, diz Martha Fellows Dourado, pesquisadora do Ipam. “O ACI surgiu como uma ferramenta para apoiar a gestão territorial das TIs na ponta final — as próprias comunidades.”
Usado atualmente em Roraima, Maranhão e Mato Grosso, a meta é que o aplicativo seja empregado em todas as TIs demarcadas do país. E, nos próximos meses, o Alerta Clima Indígena irá ganhar uma função ligada ao coronavírus, de modo que os usuários possam acompanhar a disseminação da covid-19 nas aldeias e cidades.
Para além da tecnologia, Leonice Tupari invoca a espiritualidade dos povos da floresta como forma de reverter o futuro que se anuncia: “Precisamos respeitar a natureza e nos conectar com ela. Somos espíritos aqui na Terra, encarnados na matéria, ligados ao fogo, ao solo, ao vento, a tudo que existe. As pessoas se afastaram dela. Não pisam no solo, não sentem a brisa. É preciso sentir a água, e não falo da água do chuveiro. Nossa espiritualidade está conectada com a natureza.”
Imagem do banner: Incêndio em comunidade Huni Kuin, no Acre, em agosto de 2019. Foto: Centro de Cultura Indígena Huwã Karu Yuxibu.
Mais reportagens da Mongabay sobre a Amazônia aqui.
Mais reportagens da Mongabay sobre povos indígenas aqui.
O ano de 2020 será lembrado como o ano em que a pandemia causada pelo vírus SARS-CoV-2 precipitou uma ruptura maior no funcionamento das sociedades contemporâneas. Será provavelmente lembrado também como o momento de uma ruptura da qual nossas sociedades não mais se recuperaram completamente. Isso porque a atual pandemia intervém num momento em que três crises estruturais na relação entre as sociedades hegemônicas contemporâneas e o sistema Terra se reforçam reciprocamente, convergindo em direção a uma regressão econômica global, ainda que com eventuais surtos conjunturais de recuperação. Essas três crises são, como reiterado pela ciência, a emergência climática, a aniquilação em curso da biodiversidade e o adoecimento coletivo dos organismos, intoxicados pela indústria química.i Os impactos cada vez mais avassaladores decorrentes da sinergia entre essas três crises sistêmicas deixarão doravante as sociedades, mesmo as mais ricas, ainda mais desiguais e mais vulneráveis, menos aptas, portanto, a recuperar seu desempenho anterior. São justamente tais perdas parciais, cada vez mais frequentes, de funcionalidade na relação das sociedades com o meio ambiente que caracterizam essencialmente o processo de colapso socioambiental em curso (Homer-Dixon et al. 2015; Steffen et al. 2018; Marques 2015/2018 e 2020).
O ano da pandemia é o do mais crucial ponto de inflexão da história humana
Por sua extensão global e pelo rastro de mortes deixadas em sua passagem, superior a 250 mil vítimas (oficialmente notificadas) em pouco mais de quatro meses, a atual pandemia é um fato cuja gravidade seria difícil exagerar, tanto mais porque novos surtos podem ainda ocorrer nos próximos dois anos, segundo um relatório do Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), da Universidade de Minnesota (Moore, Lipsitch, Barry & Osterholm 2020).
Mas ainda mais grave que o saldo imenso de mortes, é o momento da incidência da pandemia na história humana. Outras pandemias, algumas muito mais letais, ocorreram no século XX, sem afetar profundamente a capacidade de recuperação das sociedades. O que singulariza a atual pandemia é o fato de se somar a diversas crises sistêmicas que ameaçam a humanidade, e isso justamente no momento em que não é mais possível postergar decisões que afetarão crucialmente, e muito em breve, a habitabilidade do planeta. A ciência condiciona a possibilidade de estabilizar o aquecimento médio global dentro, ou não muito além, dos limites almejados pelo Acordo de Paris a um fato incontornável: as emissões de CO2 devem atingir seu pico em 2020 e começar a declinar fortemente em seguida. O IPCC traçou 196 cenários através dos quais podemos limitar o aquecimento médio global a cerca de 0,5oC acima do aquecimento médio atual em relação ao período pré-industrial (1,2oC em 2019). Nenhum deles, lembram Tom Rivett-Carnac e Christiana Figueres, admite que o pico de emissões de gases de efeito estufa (GEE) seja protelado para além de 2020 (Hooper 2020). Ninguém exprime o significado dessa data-limite de modo mais peremptório que Thomas Stocker, co-diretor do IPCC entre 2008 e 2015:ii
“Mitigação retardada ou insuficiente impossibilita limitar o aquecimento global permanentemente. O ano de 2020 é crucial para a definição das ambições globais sobre a redução das emissões. Se as emissões de CO2 continuarem a aumentar além dessa data, as metas mais ambiciosas de mitigação tornar-se-ão inatingíveis”.
Já em 2017, Jean Jouzel, ex-vice-presidente do IPCC, advertia que “para manter alguma chance de permanecer abaixo dos 2oC é necessário que o pico das emissões seja atingido no mais tardar em 2020” (Le Hir 2017). Em outubro do ano seguinte, comentando o lançamento do relatório especial do IPCC, intitulado Global Warming 1.5oC, Debra Roberts, co-diretora do Grupo de Trabalho 2 desse relatório, reforçava essa percepção: “Os próximos poucos anos serão provavelmente os mais importantes de nossa história”. E Amjad Abdulla, representante dos Pequenos Estados Insulares em Desenvolvimento (SIDS) nas negociações climáticas, acrescentava: “Não tenho dúvidas de que os historiadores olharão retrospectivamente para esses resultados [do relatório especial do IPCC de 2018] como um dos momentos definidores no curso da história humana” (Mathiesen & Sauer 2018). Em The Second Warning: A Documentary Film (2018), divulgação do manifesto The Scientist’s Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, lançado por William Ripple e colegas em 2017 e endossado por cerca de 20 mil cientistas, a filósofa Kathleen Dean Moore faz suas as declarações acima mencionadas: “Estamos vivendo um ponto de inflexão. Os próximos poucos anos serão os mais importantes da história da humanidade”.
Em abril de 2017, um grupo de cientistas, coordenados por Stephan Rahmstorf, lançava The Climate Turning Point, em cujo Prefácio se reafirma a meta mais ambiciosa do Acordo de Paris (“manter o aumento da temperatura média global bem abaixo de 2oC em relação ao período pré-industrial”), esclarecendo que: “essa meta é considerada necessária para evitar riscos incalculáveis à humanidade, e é factível – mas, realisticamente, apenas se as emissões globais atingirem um pico até o ano de 2020, no mais tardar”. Esse documento norteou então a criação, por diversas lideranças científicas e diplomáticas, da Missão 2020 (https://mission2020.global/). Ela definia metas básicas em energia, transporte, uso da terra, indústria, infraestrutura e finanças, de modo a tornar declinante, a partir de 2020, a curva das emissões de gases de efeito estufa e colocar o planeta numa trajetória consistente com o Acordo de Paris. “Com radical colaboração e teimoso otimismo”, escreve Christiana Figueres e colegas da Missão 2020, “dobraremos a curva das emissões de gases de efeito estufa até 2020, possibilitando à humanidade florescer.” De seu lado, António Guterres, cumprindo sua missão de incentivar e coordenar os esforços de governança global, alertava em setembro de 2018: “Se não mudarmos nossa rota até 2020, corremos o risco de deixar passar o momento em que é ainda possível evitar uma mudança climática desenfreada (arunaway climate change), com consequências desastrosas para a humanidade e para os sistemas naturais que nos sustentam”.
Pois bem, 2020, enfim, chegou. Fazendo em 2019 um balanço dos progressos realizados em direção às metas da Missão 2020, o World Resources Institute (Ge et al., 2019) escreve que “na maioria dos casos, a ação foi insuficiente ou o progresso foi nulo” (in most cases action is insufficient or progress is off track). Nenhuma das metas, em suma, foi alcançada e, em dezembro passado, a COP25 em Madri varreu definitivamente, em grande parte por culpa dos governos dos EUA, Japão, Austrália e Brasil (Irfan 2019), as últimas esperanças de uma diminuição iminente das emissões globais de GEE.
A pandemia entra em cena
Mas eis que a Covid-19 irrompe, deslocando, paralisando e adiando tudo, inclusive a COP26. E em pouco mais de três meses resolveu pelo caos e pelo sofrimento o que mais de três décadas de fatos, de ciência, de campanhas e de esforços diplomáticos para diminuir as emissões de GEE mostraram-se incapazes de realizar (já a Conferência de Toronto, de 1988, recomendava “ações específicas” nesse sentido). Ao invés de um decrescimento econômico racional, gradual e democraticamente planejado, o decrescimento econômico abrupto imposto pela pandemia afigura-se já, segundo Kenneth S. Rogoff, como “a mais profunda queda da economia global em 100 anos” (Goodman 2020). Em 15 de abril, o Carbon Brief estimou que a crise econômica deve provocar uma diminuição estimada em cerca de 5,5% nas emissões globais de CO2 em 2020. Em 30 de abril, a Global Energy Review 2020 – The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on global energy demand and CO2 emissions, da Agência Internacional de Energia (AIE), vai mais longe e estima que “as emissões globais de CO2 devem cair ainda mais rapidamente ao longo dos nove meses restantes do ano, atingindo 30,6 Gt [bilhões de toneladas] em 2020, quase 8% mais baixas que em 2019. Este seria o nível mais baixo desde 2010. Tal redução seria a maior de todos os tempos, seis vezes maior que a redução precedente de 0,4 Gt em 2009, devido à crise financeira e duas vezes maior que todas as reduções anteriores desde o fim da Segunda Guerra Mundial”. (https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-review-2020/global-energy-and-co2-emissions-in-2020). A Figura 1 indica como essa redução das emissões globais de CO2 reflete a queda na demanda de consumo global de energia primária, comparada com as quedas anteriores.
Figura 1 – Taxas de mudança (%) na demanda global de energia primária, 1900 – 2020
Fonte: AIE, Global Energy Review 2020 The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on global energy demand and CO emissions, Abril 2020, p. 11
A redução das emissões globais de CO2 projetada pela AIE para 2020 equivale ou é até pouco maior que os 7,6% de redução anual até 2030 que o IPCC considera imprescindível para conter o aquecimento aquém de níveis catastróficos (Evans 2020). O relatório da AIE apressa-se, contudo, em advertir que, “tal como nas crises precedentes, (…) o repique das emissões pode ser maior que o declínio, a menos que a onda de investimentos para retomar a economia seja dirigido a uma infraestrutura energética mais limpa e resiliente”. Salvo raras exceções, os fatos até agora não autorizam a expectativa de uma ruptura com os paradigmas energéticos e socioeconômicos anteriores. Malgrado o colapso do preço do petróleo, ou justamente por isso, as petroleiras estão se movendo com vertiginosa velocidade para tirar partido desse momento, obtendo, por exemplo, investimentos de USD 1,1 bilhão para financiar a conclusão do famigerado oleoduto Keystone XL, que ligará o petróleo canadense ao Golfo do México (McKibben 2020). Os exemplos desse tipo de oportunismo são inúmeros, inclusive no Brasil, onde os ruralistas se aproveitam da situação para fazer aprovar da Medida Provisória 910, que anistia a grilagem e eleva ainda mais as ameaças aos indígenas. Como bem afirma Laurent Joffrin, em sua Lettre politique de 30 de abril para o jornal Libération (Le monde d’avant, en pire?), o mundo pós-pandemia “corre o risco de parecer furiosamente, a curto prazo ao menos, com o mundo de antes, mas em versão piorada”. E Joffrin emenda: “o ‘mundo de após’ não mudará sozinho. Como para o ‘mundo de antes’, seu futuro dependerá de um combate político, paciente e árduo”. Político e árduo, sem dúvida, mas definitivamente não há mais tempo para paciência.
De qualquer modo, uma redução de quase 8% nas emissões globais de CO2 num ano apenas não abriu sequer um dente na curva cumulativa das concentrações atmosféricas desse gás, medidas em Mauna Loa (Havaí). Elas bateram mais um recorde em abril de 2020, atingindo 416,76 partes por milhão (ppm), 3,13 ppm acima de 2019, um dos maiores saltos desde o início de suas mensurações em 1958. Não se trata apenas de um número a mais na selva de indicadores climáticos convergentes. É o número decisivo. Como lembra Petteri Taalas, Secretário-Geral da Organização Meteorológica Mundial: “A última vez que a Terra apresentou concentrações atmosféricas de CO2 comparáveis às atuais foi há 3 a 5 milhões de anos. Nessa época, a temperatura estava 2oC a 3oC [acima do período pré-industrial] e o nível do mar estava 10 a 20 metros mais alto que hoje” (McGrath 2019). Faltam agora menos de 35 ppm para atingir 450 ppm, um nível de concentração atmosférica de CO2 largamente associado a um aquecimento médio global de 2oC acima do período pré-industrial, nível que pode ser atingido, mantida a trajetória atual, em pouco mais de 10 anos. O que nos aguarda por volta de 2030, mantida a engrenagem do sistema econômico capitalista globalizado e existencialmente dependente de sua própria reprodução ampliada, é nada menos que um desastre para a humanidade como um todo, bem como para inúmeras outras espécies. A palavra desastre não é uma hipérbole. O já mencionado Relatório do IPCC de 2018 (Global Warming 1.5oC) projeta que o mundo a 2oC em média acima do período pré-industrial terá quase 6 bilhões de pessoas expostas a ondas de calor extremo e mais de 3,5 bilhões de pessoas sujeitas à escassez hídrica, entre outras muitas adversidades. Desastre é a palavra que melhor define o mundo para o qual rumamos no horizonte dos próximos 10 anos (ou 20, pouco importa), e é exatamente o vocábulo empregado por Sir Brian Hoskins, diretor do Grantham Institute for Climate Change, do Imperial College em Londres: “Não temos evidência de que um aquecimento de 1,9oC é algo com que se possa lidar facilmente, e 2,1oC é um desastre” (Simms 2017).
Em consequência dessas altíssimas concentrações atmosféricas de CO2, o ano passado já foi o mais quente dos registros históricos na Europa (1,2oC acima do período 1981 – 2010!) e, mesmo sem El Niño, há agora, segundo o NOAA, 74,67% de chances de que 2020 venha a ser o ano mais quente em um século e meio de registros históricos na média global,iii batendo o recorde precedente de 2016 (1,24oC acima do período pré-industrial, segundo a NASA). Não é no espaço deste artigo que se podem elencar os muitos indícios de que 2020 será o primeiro ou segundo (após 2016) ano mais quente entre os sete mais quentes (2014-2020) da história da civilização humana desde a última deglaciação, cerca de 11.700 anos antes do presente. Baste aqui ter em mente que, se março de 2020 for representativo do ano, já perdemos a meta mais ambiciosa do Acordo de Paris, pois a temperatura média desse mês cravou globalmente 1,51oC acima do período 1880-1920, conforme mostra a Figura 2.
O aquecimento global é uma arma apontada contra a saúde global. Como mostra Sara Goudarzi (2020), temperaturas mais elevadas favorecem a adaptação de micro-organismos a um mundo mais quente, diminuindo a eficácia de duas defesas básicas dos mamíferos contra os patógenos: (1) muitos micro-organismos não sobrevivem ainda a temperaturas superiores a 37oC, mas podem vir a se adaptar rapidamente a elas; (2) o sistema imune dos mamíferos, pois este perde eficiência em temperaturas mais elevadas. Além disso, o aquecimento global amplia o raio de ação de vetores de epidemias, como a dengue, zika e chikungunya, e altera a distribuição geográfica das plantas e animais, levando espécies animais terrestres a se deslocarem em direção a latitudes mais altas a uma taxa média de 17 km por década (Pecl et al. 2017). Aaron Bernstein, diretor do Harvard University’s Center of Climate, Health and the Global Environment, sintetiza bem a interação entre aquecimento global e desmatamento em suas múltiplas relações com novos surtos epidêmicos:iv
“À medida que o planeta se aquece (…) os animais deslocam-se para os polos fugindo do calor. Animais estão entrando em contato com animais com os quais eles normalmente não interagiriam, e isso cria uma oportunidade para patógenos encontrar outros hospedeiros. Muitas das causas primárias das mudanças climáticas também aumentam o risco de pandemias. O desmatamento, causado em geral pela agropecuária é a causa maior da perda de habitat no mundo todo. E essa perda força os animais a migrarem e potencialmente a entrar em contato com outros animais ou pessoas e compartilhar seus germes. Grandes fazendas de gado também servem como uma fonte para a passagem de infecções de animais para pessoas”.
Sem perder de vista as relações entre a emergência climática e essas novas ameaças sanitárias, foquemos em duas questões bem circunscritas e diretamente ligadas à pandemia atual.
A pandemia foi prevista e será, doravante, mais frequente
A primeira questão refere-se ao caráter, por assim dizer, antropogênico da pandemia. Bem longe de ser adventícia, ela é uma consequência, reiteradamente prevista, de um sistema socioeconômico crescentemente disfuncional e destrutivo. Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz, Eduardo Brondizio e Peter Daszak escreveram um artigo, a convite do IPBES, de leitura obrigatória e que me permito citar longamente:
“Há uma única espécie responsável pela pandemia Covid-19: nós. Assim como com as crises climáticas e o declínio da biodiversidade, as pandemias recentes são uma consequência direta da atividade humana – particularmente de nosso sistema financeiro e econômico global baseado num paradigma limitado, que preza o crescimento econômico a qualquer custo. (…) Desmatamento crescente, expansão descontrolada da agropecuária, cultivo e criação intensivos, mineração e aumento da infraestrutura, assim como a exploração de espécies silvestres criaram uma ‘tempestade perfeita’ para o salto de doenças da vida selvagem para as pessoas. (…) E, contudo, isso pode ser apenas o começo. Embora se estime que doenças transmitidas de outros animais para humanos já causem 700 mil mortes por ano, é vasto o potencial para pandemias futuras. Acredita-se que 1,7 milhão de vírus não identificados, dentre os que sabidamente infectam pessoas, ainda existem em mamíferos e pássaros aquáticos. Qualquer um deles pode ser a ‘Doença X’ – potencialmente ainda mais perturbadora e letal que a Covid-19. É provável que pandemias futuras ocorram mais frequentemente, propaguem-se mais rapidamente, tenham maior impacto econômico e matem mais pessoas, se não formos extremamente cuidadosos acerca dos impactos das escolhas que fazemos hoje” (https://ipbes.net/covid19stimulus).
Cada frase dessa citação encerra uma lição de ciência e de lucidez política. A maior frequência recente de epidemias e pandemias tem por causas centrais o desmatamento e a agropecuária, algo bem estabelecido também por Christian Drosten, atual coordenador do combate à Covid-19 na Alemanha, além de diretor do Instituto de Virologia do Hospital Charité de Berlim e um dos cientistas que identificou a pandemia SARS em 2003 (Spinney 2020).
“Desde que tenha oportunidade, o coronavírus está pronto para mudar de hospedeiro e nós criamos essa oportunidade através de nosso uso não natural de animais – a pecuária (livestock). Essa expõe os animais de criação à vida silvestre, mantém esses animais em grandes grupos que podem amplificar o vírus, e os humanos têm intenso contato com eles – por exemplo, através do consumo de carne –, de modo que tais animais certamente representam uma possível trajetória de emergência para o coronavírus. Camelos são animais de criação no Oriente Médio e são os hospedeiros do vírus MERS, assim como do coronavírus 229E – que é uma causa da gripe comum em humanos –, já o gado bovino foi o hospedeiro original do coronavírus OC43, outra causa de gripe”.
Nada disso é novidade para a ciência. Sabemos que a maioria das pandemias emergentes são zoonoses, isto é, doenças infecciosas causadas por bactérias, vírus, parasitas ou príons, que saltaram de hospedeiros não humanos, usualmente vertebrados, para os humanos. Como afirma Ana Lúcia Tourinho, pesquisadora da Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso (UFMT), o desmatamento é uma causa central e uma bomba-relógio em termos de zoonoses: “quando um vírus que não fez parte da nossa história evolutiva sai do seu hospedeiro natural e entra no nosso corpo, é o caos” (Pontes 2020). Esse risco, repita-se, é crescente. Basta ter em mente que “mamíferos domesticados hospedam 50% dos vírus zoonóticos, mas representam apenas 12 espécies” (Johnson et al. 2020). Esse grupo inclui porcos, vacas e carneiros. Em resumo, o aquecimento global, o desmatamento, a destruição dos habitats selvagens, a domesticação e a criação de aves e mamíferos em escala industrial destroem o equilíbrio evolutivo entre as espécies, facilitando as condições para saltos desses vírus de uma espécie a outra, inclusive a nossa.
4.As próximas zoonoses serão gestadas no Brasil?
O segundo ponto, com o qual concluo este artigo, são as consequências especificamente sanitárias da destruição em curso da Amazônia e do Cerrado. Entre as mais funestas está a crescente probabilidade de que o país se torne o foco das próximas pandemias zoonóticas. Na última década, as megacidades da Ásia do leste, principalmente na China, têm sido o principal “hotspot” de infecções zoonóticas (Zhang et al. 2019). Não por acaso. Esses países estão entre os que mais perderam cobertura florestal no mundo em benefício do sistema alimentar carnívoro e globalizado. O caso da China é exemplar. De 2001 a 2018, o país perdeu 94,2 mil km2 de cobertura arbórea, equivalente a uma diminuição de 5,8% em sua cobertura arbórea no período. “Extração de madeira e agropecuária consomem até 5 mil km2 de florestas virgens todo ano. Na China setentrional e central a cobertura florestal foi reduzida pela metade nas últimas duas décadas”.v Em paralelo com a destruição dos habitats selvagens, o crescimento econômico chinês desencadeou uma demanda por proteínas animais, incluindo as provenientes de animais exóticos (Cheng et al. 2007). Entre 1980 e 2015, o consumo de carne na China cresceu sete vezes e 4,7 vezes per capita (de 15 kg para 70 kg per capita por ano ao longo deste período). Com cerca de 18% da população mundial, a China era em 2018 responsável por 28% do consumo de carne no planeta (Rossi 2018). Segundo um relatório de 2017 do Rabobank, intitulado China’s Animal Protein Outlook to 2020: Growth in Demand, Supply and Trade, a demanda adicional por carne a cada ano na China será de cerca de um milhão de toneladas. “A produção local de carne bovina não consegue acompanhar o crescimento da demanda. Na realidade, a China tem uma escassez estrutural de oferta de carne bovina, que necessita ser satisfeita por importações crescentes”.
A cobertura vegetal dos trópicos tem sido destruída para sustentar essa dieta crescentemente carnívora, não apenas na China, mas em vários países do mundo e particularmente entre nós. No Brasil, a remoção de mais de 1,8 milhão de km2 da cobertura vegetal da Amazônia e do Cerrado nos últimos cinquenta anos, para converter suas magníficas paisagens naturais em zonas fornecedoras de carne e ração animal, em escala nacional e global, representa o mais fulminante ecocídio jamais perpetrado pela espécie humana. Nunca, de fato, em nenhuma latitude e em nenhum momento da história humana, destruiu-se tanta vida animal e vegetal em tão pouco tempo, para a degradação de tantos e para o benefício econômico de tão poucos. E nunca, mesmo para os pouquíssimos que enriqueceram com a devastação, esse enriquecimento terá sido tão efêmero, pois a destruição da cobertura vegetal já começa a gerar erosão dos solos e secas recorrentes, solapando as bases de qualquer agricultura nessa região (na realidade, no Brasil, como um todo).
Em decorrência dessa guerra de extermínio contra a natureza deflagrada pela insanidade dos ditadores militares e continuada pelos civis, atualmente o rebanho bovino brasileiro é de aproximadamente 215 milhões de cabeças, sendo que 80% de seu consumo é absorvido pelo mercado interno, que cresceu 14% nos últimos dez anos (Macedo 2019). Além disso, o Brasil tornou-se líder das exportações mundiais de carne bovina (20% dessas exportações) e de soja (56%), basicamente destinada à alimentação animal. A maior parte do rebanho bovino brasileiro concentra-se hoje nas regiões Norte e Centro-Oeste, com crescente participação da Amazônia. Em 2010, 14% do rebanho brasileiro já se encontrava na região norte do país. Em 2016, essa participação saltou para 22%. Juntas, a região norte e centro-oeste abrigam 56% do rebanho bovino brasileiro (Zaia 2018). Em 2017, apenas 19,8% da cobertura vegetal remanescente do Cerrado permanecia ainda intocada. A continuar a devastação, a pecuária e a agricultura de soja levarão em breve à extinção quase 500 espécies de plantas endêmicas – três vezes mais que todas as extinções documentadas desde 1500 (Strassburg et al. 2017). A Amazônia, que perdeu cerca de 800 mil km2 de cobertura florestal em 50 anos e perderá outras muitas dezenas de milhares sob a sanha ecocida de Bolsonaro, tornou-se, em sua porção sul e leste, uma paisagem desolada de pastos em vias de degradação. O caos ecológico produzido pelo desmatamento por corte raso de cerca de 20% da área original da floresta, pela degradação do tecido florestal de pelo menos outros 20% e pela grande concentração de bovinos na região cria as condições para tornar o Brasil um “hotspot” das próximas zoonoses. Em primeiro lugar porque os morcegos são um grande reservatório de vírus e, entre os morcegos brasileiros, cujo habitat são sobretudo as florestas (ou o que resta delas), circulam pelo menos 3.204 tipos de coronavírus (Maxman 2017). Em segundo lugar porque, como mostraram Nardus Mollentze e Daniel Streicker (2020), o grupo taxonômico dos Artiodactyla (de casco fendido), ao qual pertencem os bois, hospedam, juntamente com os primatas, mais vírus, potencialmente zoonóticos, do que seria de se esperar entre os grupos de mamíferos, incluindo os morcegos. Na realidade, a Amazônia já é um “hotspot” de epidemias não virais, como a leishmaniose e a malária, doenças tropicais negligenciadas, mas com alto índice de letalidade. Como afirma a OMS, “a leishmaniose está associada a mudanças ambientais, tais como o desmatamento, o represamento de rios, a esquemas de irrigação e à urbanização”,vi todos eles fatores que concorrem para a destruição da Amazônia e para o aumento do risco de pandemias. A relação entre desmatamento amazônico e a malária foi bem estabelecida em 2015 por uma equipe do IPEA: para cada 1% de floresta derrubada por ano, os casos de malária aumentam 23% (Pontes 2020).
A curva novamente ascendente desde 2013 da destruição da Amazônia e do Cerrado resultou da execrável aliança de Dilma Rousseff com o que há de mais retrógrado na economia brasileira. Já para a necropolítica de Bolsonaro, a destruição da vida, do que resta do patrimônio natural brasileiro, tornou-se um programa de governo e uma verdadeira obsessão. Bolsonaro está levando o país a dar um salto sem retorno no caos ecológico, de onde a necessidade inadiável de neutralizá-lo por impeachment ou qualquer outro mecanismo constitucional. Não há mais tempo a perder. Entre agosto de 2018 e julho de 2019, o desmatamento amazônico atingiu 9.762 km2, quase 30% acima dos 12 meses anteriores e o pior resultado dos últimos dez anos, segundo o INPE. No primeiro trimestre de 2020, que apresenta tipicamente os níveis mais baixos de desmatamento em cada ano, o sistema Deter, do INPE, detectou um aumento de 51% em relação ao mesmo período de 2019, o nível mais alto para esse período desde o início da série, em 2016. Segundo Tasso Azevedo, coordenador-geral do Projeto de Mapeamento Anual da Cobertura e Uso do Solo no Brasil (MapBiomas), “o mais preocupante é que no acumulado de agosto de 2019 até março de 2020, o nível do desmatamento mais do que dobrou” (Menegassi 2020). Ao monopolizar todas as atenções, a pandemia oferece a Bolsonaro uma oportunidade inesperada para acelerar sua obra de destruição da floresta e de seus povos (Barifouse 2020).
Recapitulemos. O que importa aqui, sobretudo, é entender que a pandemia intervém no momento em que o aquecimento global e todos os demais processos de degradação ambiental estão em aceleração. A pandemia pode acelerá-los ainda mais, na ausência de uma reação política vigorosa da sociedade. Ela acrescenta, em todo o caso, mais uma dimensão a esse feixe convergente de crises socioambientais que impõe à humanidade uma situação radicalmente nova. Pode-se assim formular essa novidade: não é mais plausível esperar, passada a pandemia, um novo ciclo de crescimento econômico global e ainda menos nacional. Se algum crescimento voltar a ocorrer, ele será conjuntural e logo truncado pelo caos climático, ecológico e sanitário. O próximo decênio evoluirá sob o signo de regressões socioeconômicas, pois mesmo a se admitir que a economia globalizada tenha trazido benefícios sociais, eles foram parcos e vêm sendo de há muito superados por seus malefícios. A pandemia é apenas um entre esses malefícios, mas certamente não o pior. Não são mais atuais, portanto, em 2020, as variadas agendas desenvolvimentistas, típicas dos embates ideológicos do século XX. É claro que a exigência de justiça social, bandeira histórica da esquerda, permanece mais que nunca atual. Além de ser um valor perene e irrenunciável, a luta pela diminuição da desigualdade social significa, antes de mais nada, retirar das corporações o poder decisório sobre os investimentos estratégicos (energia, alimentação, mobilidade etc.), assumir o controle democrático e sustentável desses investimentos e, assim, atenuar os impactos do colapso socioambiental em curso. É do aprofundamento da democracia que depende crucialmente, hoje, a sobrevivência de qualquer sociedade organizada num mundo que está se tornando sempre mais quente, mais empobrecido biologicamente, mais poluído e, por todas essas razões, mais enfermo. Sobreviver, no contexto de um processo de colapso socioambiental, não é um programa mínimo. Sobreviver requer, hoje, lutar por algo muito mais ambicioso que os programas socialdemocratas ou revolucionários do século XX. Supõe redefinir o próprio sentido e finalidade da atividade econômica, vale dizer, em última instância, redefinir nossa posição como sociedade e como espécie no âmbito da biosfera.
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*** Luiz Marques é professor livre-docente do Departamento de História do IFCH /Unicamp. Pela editora da Unicamp, publicou Giorgio Vasari, Vida de Michelangelo (1568), 2011 e Capitalismo e Colapso ambiental, 2015, 3a edição, 2018. Coordena a coleção Palavra da Arte, dedicada às fontes da historiografia artística, e participa com outros colegas do coletivo Crisálida, Crises SocioAmbientais Labor Interdisciplinar Debate & Atualização (crisalida.eco.br).
“Government should be doing little or next to nothing,” Richard Ebeling wrote in a post about COVID-19 republished on March 24 by the Heartland Institute. “The problem is a social and medical one, and not a political one.”
“I just think we’re going to be fine. I think everything is going to be fine,” Heartland editorial director and research fellow Justin Haskins said about COVID-19 during a March 13 episode of the podcast In the Tank. “I really don’t think this is going to be a problem even two to three months from now.”
On Dec. 31, 2019, “a pneumonia of unknown cause” was first reported to the World Health Organization’s China Country Office — and in the months following that report, the disease now known as COVID-19 spread to infect millions of people worldwide and seems well on its way to killing hundreds of thousands — while experts warn that the presumed death toll may be significantly higher than we yet know.
As the virus spread, so too did misinformation: baseless predictions that the disease would not cause significant harm, claims of miracle cures, and conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins. That misinformation was often circulated by white-collar professionals — including many who have a history of casting doubt on climate science or seeking to debate issues that were already laid to rest within the scientific community. The overlap was so striking that it caught the attention of both former President Barack Obama and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel in March.
Some of that misinformation on COVID-19 came straight from President Trump. But a river of faulty information on the coronavirus also flowed from think tanks, experts (some self-proclaimed), academics, and professional right-wing activists who also have spurned climate science and sought to slow or stop action to respond to the climate crisis.
Some compared COVID-19 to the flu or other threats, suggesting that the flu was a larger threat and that action to slow the spread of the novel virus was an overreaction. As the toll from COVID-19 grew, others argued that the virus was the most important threat and that action to slow climate change was superfluous. Some circulated false or unproven cures and remedies while others touted the benefits of single-use plastics during the pandemic (without regard for the health of those living in places where plastics and petrochemicals are produced — like Saint John the Baptist parish, Louisiana, which on April 16, had the highest per-person COVID-19 death rate in the U.S.)
Some attacked renewable energy, some the Green New Deal, and others the World Health Organization (WHO). Some framed efforts to “flatten the curve” of infections as infringements on liberty or simply unnecessary while others persisted in using terms that the WHO has warned can lead to dangerous stigma and discrimination. And some climate science deniers have circulated conspiracy theories, like claims that the virus was a foreign “bioweapon,” that it’s linked to “electrosmog” and 5G networks, or alleged that “the World Health Organization has carried out the greatest fraud perhaps in modern history.”
The decades that fossil fuel companies spent funding organizations that sought to undermine the conclusions of credible climate scientists and building up doubt about science itself ultimately created a network of professional science deniers who are now deploying some of the same skills they honed on climate against the public health crisis at the center of our attention today.
Many of the operatives spreading COVID disinformation have influence because of the fossil fuel industry.
COVID denial reveals the deadly threat that climate denial poses to all aspects of public health and science.
The American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 “Victory Memo” outlined a broad roadmap to erode public confidence in climate change that went well beyond just the science. Their strategy included plans to “identify, recruit and train” messengers who could “participate in media outreach” on “the climate change debate.” It called for the use of both individuals and third-party organizations to assist in the industry’s efforts to stir doubt about climate science.
To delay climate change-related regulation and policy-making, the oil and gas industry sought to mislead the public and Congress and create distrust of the media.
Decades ago, an industry report drafted by a Mobil executive concluded that theories that had been advanced by climate “contrarians” didn’t hold water —— but the industry nonetheless funded their work on climate change, and now some of those same professionals are speaking out about COVID-19. In 1995, Lenny Bernstein, a Mobil executive, examined the work of climate “contrarians” in a draft report for the Global Climate Coalition (later published omitting that assessment). Bernstein’s draft concluded that “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.” One of the arguments that the report draft specifically labeled “not convincing” was credited to Prof. Patrick Michaels, then based at the University of Virginia. In 2010, Michaels — at that point based at the Cato Institute — estimated in a CNN interview that perhaps 40% of his funding came from oil and gas companies.
In a March 9, 2020 article in the Washington Examiner, Michaels — now a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — predicted that a proposed European Union law (one intended to slow climate change) would be far more damaging to the economy and to “environmental resilience” than COVID-19. “Make no mistake,” Michaels wrote. “The proposed EU climate law will reverse a lot more progress and a lot more economic and environmental resilience than any probable climate change or, for that matter, coronavirus.” (Another of the scientists whose work was discredited in the draft Global Climate Coalition report, Richard Lindzen, signed onto a March 23, 2020, open letter calling climate change a “non-problem” compared to COVID-19. “As a very first step, designated Green New Deal money must be redirected and invested in a significantly better global health system,” the letter argues. “The past 150 years also show that more CO2 is beneficial for nature, greening the Earth and increasing the yields of crops. Why do world leaders ignore these hard facts? Why do world leaders do the opposite with their Green New Deal and lower the quality of life by forcing high-cost, dubious low-carbon energy technologies upon their citizens?”)
COVID denial should forever discredit climate science deniers.
These attempts to exploit a global pandemic to further the climate denial machine’s anti-science agenda will mean loss of life, and unnecessarily imperil frontline medical personnel by allowing the virus to spread further and more quickly.
Some climate deniers have pushed outright conspiracy theories on COVID-19: claiming, as Piers Corbyn did, that the pandemic is a “world population cull” backed by Bill Gates and George Soros; alleging, as a former member of British Parliament did, that COVID-19 is just a “big hoax”; or, like Alex Jones, seeking to profit directly off of COVID-19 through false marketing, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the New York Attorney General, both of which have warned Jones to desist from marketing a toothpaste he claimed “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”
Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit claiming that COVID-19 “was prepared and stockpiled as a biological weapon to be used against China’s perceived enemies.” Principia Scientific International claimed that economies were about to be shut down because “the WHO Director caused a global coronavirus panic over a basic math error,” (referring to early World Health Organization fatality rate numbers). Steve Milloy tweeted out a link to a New York Times op-ed by Dr. Cornelia Griggs, who described working in a New York City hospital amid the pandemic, calling her a “Hysterical doc” and writing “Stop the panic.” (Less than a week later, Milloy tweeted that “#Coronavirus has given us the #GreenDream: —Deprivation — Destroyed economy — Police state”). On April 10 — at a time when over 92,000 deaths had been reported worldwide — Bjorn Lomborg wrote that “Significant data indicate corona is no worse than the common flu.” And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani tweeted out a list of leading causes of death on March 10, writing “Likely at the very bottom, Coronavirus: 27.” Six weeks later, more than 14,400 people in New York City had died after contracting the virus.
Not only does their pandemic messaging undermine climate science deniers’ credibility, it also puts on display some of the faulty thinking that can be seen in their discussions of both topics — you see the same logical fallacies at play. There’s the rejection of basic modeling techniques (and early models on both COVID-19 and on climate have ultimately proved tragically accurate). There’s a failure to grasp the ways that an exponential problem can accelerate. There’s a willingness to make assertions that aren’t supported by evidence as well as a willingness to issue blanket assurances that things will be fine without taking into account the evidence. And there’s a reliance on ad hominem attacks and innuendo. These communications tactics used on both issues mirror each other.
The individuals and organizations responsible for spreading disinformation on climate science and COVID-19 will forever cement their reputations on the wrong side of history.
Climate change and the COVID pandemic are both crises.
Some climate science deniers argue that COVID-19 is the “real” crisis — but that’s another logical fallacy, because it’s entirely possible to be confronted with multiple crises at the same time. Some claim that we have to choose between action to fight COVID-19 and action to fight climate change — but that ignores policy options proposed by some advocates who have highlighted ways to respond to the urgencies of COVID-19 and the climate crisis simultaneously.
Some climate science deniers conflate the impacts of slashing carbon emissions through a managed transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles with the slashed emissions that resulted from the dramatic drop in travel caused by shelter-in-place orders — two very different ways to arrive at a similar point. “Brendan O’Neill, editor of Koch-funded website Spiked, argued that ‘this pandemic has shown us what life would be like if environmentalists got their way.’ In a column titled ‘COVID-19: a glimpse of the dystopia greens want us to live in,’ O’Neill claimed government responses to the virus represent a ‘warped dystopia’ that environmentalists like George Monbiot have been calling for,” DeSmog UK reported.
By taking a close look at where those who advocate inaction on climate change erred or misled their audience about the pandemic, it’s possible to learn a great deal — and not only about who has provided reliable information about COVID-19 and who has misled.
There are striking parallels between this pandemic and the climate crisis. The virus’ spread has proven capable of accelerating at an exponential rate.
Similarly, climate scientists have warned for decades that climate change can accelerate exponentially. That means that for both crises, the earlier action is taken, the more effective it is, and more cost efficient too.
This is an exercice extracted from a paper in French (translated in English by Stephen Muecke) in AOC-Media A little exercise to make sure things don’t restart after the lock out just as they were before* If you wish to share your auto description: here is a platform: Proposed by @BrunoLatourAIME following arguments proposed in Down to Earth Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity, 2018). Let us take advantage of the forced suspension of most activities to take stock of those we would like to see discontinued and those, on the contrary, that we would like to see developed. I suggest that readers try to answer this short questionnaire for themselves. It will be especially useful as it will be based on a personal experience that has been directly lived. This exercise is not a question of expressing an opinion but of describing your situation and may be investigating. It is only later, if one were to give oneself the means of compiling the answers of many respondents and then composing the landscape created by their intersections, that one could find a form of political expression – but this time embodied and situated in a concrete world. Answer the following questions first individually and then if possible with others: Question 1: What are the activities now suspended that you would like to see not resumed? Question 2: Describe why you think this activity is harmful/ superfluous/ dangerous/inconsistent and how its disappearance/suspension/substitution would make the activities you favor easier/ more consistent. (Make a separate paragraph for each of the activities listed in question 1). Question 3: What measures do you recommend to ensure that the workers/employees/agents/entrepreneurs who will no longer be able to continue in the activities you are removing are helped in their transition toward other activities. Question 4: Which of the now suspended activities would you like to develop/resume or even create from scratch? Question 5: Describe why this activity seems positive to you and how it makes it easier/ more harmonious/ consistent with other activities that you favor and helps to combat those that you consider unfavorable. (Make a separate paragraph for each of the activities listed in question 4). Question 6: What measures do you recommend to help workers/ employees/ agents/ entrepreneurs acquire the capacities/ means/ income/ instruments to take over/ develop/ create this favored activity. Now, find a way to compare your descriptions with those of other participants. Compiling and then superimposing the answers should gradually produce a landscape made of lines of conflict, alliances, controversy and opposition. This terrain may provide a concrete opportunity for creating the forms of political expression these activities require.
As of 2019, the Big Picture for humanity was approximately as follows. Homo sapiens (that’s us), a big-brained bipedal mammal, had spent the Pleistocene epoch (from 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago) developing its ability to control fire, talk, paint pictures, play bone flutes, and make tools and clothes. Language dramatically enhanced our sociality and helped enable us to invade and inhabit every continent except Antarctica. During the Holocene epoch (the last 12,000 years), we started living in permanent settlements, developed agriculture, and built state societies with kings, slavery, economic inequality, full-time division of labor, money, religions, and armies. The Anthropocene epoch (more of a brief interlude, really) dawned only a couple of centuries ago as we humans started using fossil fuels, which empowered us dramatically to grow our population and per capita consumption rates, mechanize production and transport, and basically dominate the entire planet. The mechanization of agriculture, by making the landed peasantry redundant, led to mass urbanization and quickly pumped up the size of the middle class. However, the use of fossil fuels destabilized the global climate, while also vastly increasing existing problems like pollution, resource depletion, and the destruction of habitat for most wild creatures. In addition, over the past few decades we learned how to use debt to transfer consumption from the future to the present, based on the risky assumption that the economy will continue to grow forever, thereby enabling future generations to pay for the lifestyle we enjoy now.
In short, the Big Picture was one of ever-increasing power and peril. Suddenly it has changed. A pattern of furious economic growth, consistent over many decades since the dawn of the Anthropocene (with only occasional interruptions, primarily consisting of the Great Depression and two World Wars), has slammed precipitously into the wall of pandemic (un)preparedness. In an effort to limit mortality from the novel coronavirus, governments around the world have put their economies into a state of suspended animation, telling most workers to stay home and to avoid direct contact with others.
How is this development impacting trends that were already underway? Will future generations look back on the coronavirus pandemic as a blip or a game changer? Let’s review a few of the major trends that developed during the Anthropocene and engage in a little informed speculation about how they might be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Climate change: In China, lockdowns of workers and closures of companies have led to a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Over the coming weeks, emissions for the world as a whole could fall by ten percent or more. Note to climate warriors: don’t cheer too loudly; folks who are out of work won’t appreciate gloating greenies.
The world’s response to the coronavirus undermines the argument that governments cannot reduce carbon emissions because doing so would hurt their economies. Clearly, national leaders felt that the more immediate (though, in the larger scheme of things, much less significant) threat of pandemic justified shutting down commerce. Climate activists should now feel emboldened to make the following case: If economic degrowth is what it takes to preserve a habitable biosphere, then world leaders can and must find fair and humane ways to reduce society’s scale of energy usage, resource extraction, manufacturing, and waste dumping—all of which contribute to climate change.
However, the pandemic is not good news for the transition to renewable energy. Supply chains for solar and wind companies have been disrupted, and demand for new installations is down. And with super-cheap oil and gas in the offing (see “Resource Depletion,” below), market forces are likely to hinder rather than help both the renewables industry and the shift to electric cars.
Economic inequality: For the gig economy, and for people living paycheck to paycheck (which includes up to 74 percent of Americans earning hourly wages), the coronavirus lockdown is a catastrophe. Over the short term, existing economic inequalities will result in highly unequal levels of sacrifice and suffering. It may be relatively easy for low-wage workers to rationalize a mandated week or two at home as a forced vacation, but if tens of millions of Americans with no savings experience several months without income, regional social stresses could build to the breaking point. That’s one reason government officials are talking about cash handouts.
Over the longer term, recent absurd levels of inequality could get seriously snipped. In his book The Great Leveler, historian Walter Scheidel argues that, in the past, economic inequality has been reversed most dramatically by what he calls the “Four Horsemen”—mass mobilization for warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse, and plague. Currently many governments are undertaking economic re-allocation efforts equivalent in scale to those seen in the World Wars. For example, Denmark is paying 75 percent of wages (for salaries up to ~$50k/year) for companies that would otherwise have to lay off workers, for a period of three months. This not only enables quarantined workers to survive, but allows them to stay on the payroll and not have to go through a rehiring process later.
Thus, the current pandemic might arguably qualify as two of Scheidel’s Horsemen (mass mobilization and plague). The investor class is witnessing capital destruction at a prodigious rate and scale, while government efforts at maintaining civility and social well-being may entail providing a safety net for those with the least. Of course, this isn’t the way social justice advocates envisioned reining in inequality, but the result may end up being equivalent to another New Deal, and possibly even a Green New Deal.
Biodiversity loss: The novel coronavirus pandemic almost certainly began in wild animal markets in Wuhan, China. As Carl Safina put it in a recent article, “Humans caused the pandemic by putting the world’s animals into a cruel blender and drinking that smoothie.” While there have been other zoonotic epidemics in recent years, including HIV, the Marburg virus, SARS, and the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic, the global coronavirus outbreak could provide a teachable moment, when wildlife conservation organizations can call successfully for an international moratorium on the trade or sale of any non-domesticated animal species (with zoos providing a highly regulated exception).
Otherwise, don’t expect much of a change in the overall declining trend in the numbers of insects, reptiles, amphibians, and wild birds and mammals with which we share this little planet.
Overpopulation: A few cynical millennials have called the novel coronavirus the “Boomer Remover” due to its tendency to attack the elderly with greatest virulence. Because humanity has recently been adding 80 million new members per year (births minus deaths), an erasure of one year’s net growth in population is possible in a worst-case scenario. However, the potential for a short-term moderation of our overall pattern of demographic expansion could be at least partly offset by the results, starting nine months from now, of hundreds of millions of people of reproductive age worldwide staying home for weeks with little to keep them busy. For wealthy nations with falling fertility levels, a much bigger threat to human population stability will likely continue to be posed by the buildup of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment. For poor nations with high population growth trends, equal education opportunities for everyone regardless of gender will substantially help reduce growth rates.
Resource depletion: With manufacturing on the skids, demand and hence prices for most commodities are plummeting. The world’s most economically crucial commodity, oil, has seen its price fall from $50 a barrel to close to $20 (as of this writing); some analysts are forecasting prices in the single digits. With oil usage crashing, petroleum storage capacity will run out, at which point producers will have no choice but to mothball some oil wells. Oil companies will likely be bailed out, but cannot be profitable under current conditions. The prospect of ever ramping world oil extraction rates back up to recent levels seems dim. It is likely, then, that the long-anticipated moment of the world oil production peak has already occurred, with little fanfare, in November, 2018.
Of course, the blowout in oil markets is a result of economic disaster rather than sound policies of resource conservation. Therefore, adaptation on the part of industry and society as a whole will be chaotic. The international implications are fraught and hard to predict: several key Middle Eastern nations will see their economies shredded by low oil prices, and Great Powers (specifically, China and Russia) may seek to take advantage of the moment by seeking to realign alliances in the region.
Pollution: Marshall Burke of Stanford University has recently written that “the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country.” Reduced rates of manufacturing and consumption should help to reduce overall pollution, but of course this is the side effect of crisis, not the result of sound policy. Therefore, without environmental policy interventions, there’s no reason to expect pollution reduction benefits to be sustained. Just one example of how some temporary benefits could be balanced by new harms: The use of single-use plastics is likely to increase during the pandemic response.
Global debt bomb: The world economy is again in a deflationary moment, as it was in 1932 and 2008. For central banks and governments, all fiscal efforts will be geared toward re-inflating an economy that is otherwise hissing and flattening. There is a heightened risk that investors will realize that, in a no-growth world, their financial instruments are inherently worthless, forcing not just a collapse of the market value of stocks, but a repudiation of the very rules of the game. However, since the coronavirus epidemic itself will eventually subside, the more likely outcome is a period of defaults and bankruptcies mitigated by heroic levels of Fed bond purchases, and government bailouts (of the oil and airline industries, just for starters) and deficit spending. Eventually, if money printing goes exponential, hyperinflation is a possibility, but not soon. Big takeaway: the financial system has been destabilized and, like the oil industry, may never return to “normal.”
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Let’s return to the question posed above: Will humanity look back on the coronavirus pandemic as a blip or a game changer? The likely answer depends partly on how long the pandemic lasts, and that, in turn, will depend largely on how soon tests become widely available, and when treatments and vaccines are found. US Government documents marked “not for public release” suggest significant shortages not just of medical equipment, but also of general goods over the next 18 months for government, industry, and private citizens, if solutions are not quickly forthcoming.
The level at which the game is changed also depends on the degree of downturn in employment and GDP. Fred Bullard, President of the St. Louis Fed, has gone on record saying that the US unemployment rate may hit 30 percent in the second quarter because of shutdowns to fight the coronavirus, and that GDP could drop 50 percent. This would be economic carnage far beyond the scale of the Great Depression (the United States unemployment rate in 1933 was 25 percent; its GDP fell an estimated 15 percent). If the global economy falls that far, and remains locked down even for a few weeks, label the coronavirus “game changer, big time.”
But a change to what? Dystopian possibilities come only too readily to mind. However, in conversation, some of my think-tank colleagues have suggested the pandemic could turn out to be a “Goldilocks” crisis that would disrupt the global order just enough, and in such a way, as to foster a response that sets at least some societies on a trajectory toward cooperation, redistribution, and degrowth.
First, governments often deal with shortages (foreseen in the report cited above) through the tried-and-true strategy of quota rationing. As Stan Cox details in his indispensable book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, quota rationing doesn’t always work well; but when it does, the results can be fairly admirable. During both World Wars, Americans participated enthusiastically in rationing programs for food, tires, clothing, and more. Britain continued its rationing programs well after the end of WWII, and surveys showed that, during the period of rationing, Britons were generally better fed and healthier than either before or after. In most imaginary scenarios for deliberate economic degrowth, quota rationing programs for energy and materials figure prominently.
Cox concludes that rationing programs tend to be more successful when people are united against a common enemy, and when shortages are believed to be temporary. Despite President Trump’s efforts to dub it the “Chinese virus,” SARS-Cov-2 has no inherent nationality, nor is it Democrat or Republican. It is indeed a common enemy, and people tend to become more cooperative when faced with a collective threat. Further, epidemiologists agree that the threat will have an end point, even if we don’t know exactly when that will be. Therefore, conditions for success in rationing exist, and rationing could help foster more communitarian and cooperative attitudes overall.
Also, as discussed above, the pandemic has the potential for significant economic leveling. Historically, not all leveling moments featured increased cooperation: when initiated by state collapse or transformative revolution, leveling has been accompanied by widespread suffering and bloody conflict. However, during the great leveling moments of the twentieth century—the Depression and the two World Wars—Americans managed to pull together with a sense of shared sacrifice.
Over the longer term, we are still faced with the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, pollution, and biodiversity loss. While the pandemic might have minor or temporary spinoff effects that ameliorate these problems, it won’t solve them. Significant, sustained collective effort will still be required to transform energy systems, economies, and lifestyles (though the pandemic could transform economies and lifestyles in unpredictable ways). If the coronavirus response puts us on a cooperative footing, all the better. Of course, that would be at the expense of currently unknown ultimate numbers of fatalities and sicknesses, as well as widespread fear and privation. The potential bits of silver I’ve mentioned are the linings of a cloud; but, as Monty Python can still remind us via YouTube, it’s always good to look on the bright side of life.
Por Richard Heinberg, publicado originalmente por Resilience.org. Traduzido por Renzo Taddei.
25 de março de 2020
No ano de 2019, o panorama geral para a humanidade era aproximadamente o seguinte. O Homo sapiens (nós), um mamífero bípede de cérebro grande, passou a época do Pleistoceno (de 2,5 milhões de anos atrás até 12.000 anos atrás) desenvolvendo sua habilidade de controlar o fogo, conversar, pintar imagens, tocar flautas ósseas e fazer ferramentas e roupas. A linguagem aumentou drasticamente nossa sociabilidade e nos ajudou a invadir e habitar todos os continentes, exceto a Antártica. Durante a época do Holoceno (os últimos 12.000 anos), começamos a viver em assentamentos permanentes, desenvolvemos a agricultura e construímos sociedades estatais com reis, escravidão, desigualdade econômica, divisão de trabalho em tempo integral, dinheiro, religiões e exércitos. A época do Antropoceno (um breve interlúdio, na verdade) surgiu há apenas alguns séculos, quando nós humanos começamos a usar combustíveis fósseis, o que nos capacitou dramaticamente a aumentar nossa população e nossas taxas de consumo per capita, mecanizar a produção e o transporte e basicamente dominar o planeta inteiro. A mecanização da agricultura, ao tornar redundante o campesinato, levou à urbanização em massa e rapidamente aumentou o tamanho da classe média. No entanto, o uso de combustíveis fósseis desestabilizou o clima global, além de aumentar enormemente os problemas existentes, como poluição, esgotamento de recursos e destruição de habitat para a maioria das criaturas selvagens. Além disso, nas últimas décadas, aprendemos a usar a dívida para transferir o consumo do futuro para o presente, com base no pressuposto arriscado de que a economia continuará a crescer para sempre, possibilitando às gerações futuras pagar pelo estilo de vida que desfrutamos agora.
Em suma, o quadro geral era de poder e perigo crescentes. De repente, o quadro mudou. Um padrão de crescimento econômico furioso, consistente ao longo de muitas décadas desde o início do Antropoceno (com interrupções ocasionais, consistindo principalmente na Grande Depressão e nas duas Guerras Mundiais), chocou-se com força contra a parede do (des)preparo pandêmico. Em um esforço para limitar a mortalidade pelo novo coronavírus, os governos de todo o mundo colocaram suas economias em um estado de hibernação, dizendo à maioria dos trabalhadores para ficar em casa e evitar o contato direto com os outros.
Como esse desenvolvimento está impactando as tendências que já estavam em andamento? As gerações futuras olharão para trás e verão a pandemia de coronavírus como algo que simplesmente passou, ou como um fenômeno que mudou o curso da história? Revisemos algumas das principais tendências que se desenvolveram durante o Antropoceno e exercitemos nossa capacidade de especulação bem informada sobre como elas podem ser afetadas pelo surto de COVID-19.
Mudança climática: Na China, o lockdown de trabalhadores e o fechamento de empresas levaram a uma redução drástica nas emissões de gases de efeito estufa. Nas próximas semanas, as emissões do mundo como um todo podem cair dez por cento ou mais. Nota para os guerreiros do clima: não comemorem de forma muito efusiva; ambientalista exultantes não serão bem vistos pelas pessoas que estão desempregadas por causa da pandemia.
A resposta do mundo ao coronavírus mina o argumento de que os governos não podem reduzir as emissões de carbono porque isso prejudicaria suas economias. Claramente, os líderes nacionais sentiram que a ameaça mais imediata (embora, no esquema mais amplo, menos significativa) da pandemia justificava o fechamento do comércio. Os ativistas climáticos sentem-se encorajados a defender o seguinte argumento: se o decrescimento econômico é o que é necessário para preservar uma biosfera habitável, os líderes mundiais podem e devem encontrar maneiras justas e humanas de reduzir o uso de energia, extração de recursos naturais, atividade industrial e lançamento de resíduos – todos eles elementos que contribuem para as mudanças climáticas.
No entanto, a pandemia não é uma boa notícia para a transição para as energias renováveis. As cadeias de suprimentos para empresas de energia solar e eólica foram interrompidas e a demanda por novas instalações foi reduzida. E com a perspectiva de petróleo e o gás superbaratos (veja “Esgotamento de recursos”, abaixo), é provável que as forças do mercado atrapalhem, em vez de ajudar tanto a indústria de energias renováveis quanto a transição para carros elétricos.
Desigualdade econômica: para os freelancers e para as pessoas que vivem de salário em salário (o que representa 74% dos americanos que são horistas), o bloqueio do coronavírus é uma catástrofe. A curto prazo, as desigualdades econômicas existentes resultarão em níveis altamente desiguais de sacrifício e sofrimento. Pode ser relativamente fácil para trabalhadores com baixos salários racional recursos e aguentar uma ou duas semanas em casa como férias forçadas, mas se dezenas de milhões de americanos sem poupança ficarem vários meses sem renda, as tensões sociais regionais podem chegar ao ponto de ruptura. Essa é uma das razões pelas quais os funcionários do governo estão falando sobre distribuição de dinheiro.
No longo prazo, os recentes níveis absurdos de desigualdade podem ser seriamente rediuzidos. Em seu livro The Great Leveler, o historiador Walter Scheidel argumenta que, no passado, a desigualdade econômica foi revertida de forma dramática pelo que ele chama de “Os Quatro Cavaleiros” – mobilização em massa para guerra, revolução, colapso estatal e epidemias. Atualmente, muitos governos estão realizando esforços de realocação econômica equivalentes, em escala, aos vistos nas guerras mundiais. Por exemplo, a Dinamarca está pagando, por um período de três meses, 75% dos salários (para salários de até 50 mil dólares por ano) para empresas que, de outra forma, teriam que demitir trabalhadores. Isso não apenas permite que os trabalhadores em quarentena sobrevivam, como também permaneçam na folha de pagamento e não precisem voltar ao mercado de trabalho.
Assim, a atual pandemia pode se qualificar como dois cavaleiros de Scheidel (mobilização em massa e epidemia). A classe dos investidores está testemunhando a destruição de capital em taxa e escala prodigiosas, enquanto os esforços dos governos para manter a civilidade e o bem-estar social podem implicar a criação de uma rede de segurança para os mais pobres. Obviamente, não é assim que os advogados da justiça social imaginaram controlar a desigualdade, mas o resultado pode acabar sendo equivalente a outro New Deal, e possivelmente até a um Green New Deal.
Perda de biodiversidade: A nova pandemia de coronavírus quase certamente começou nos mercados de animais selvagens em Wuhan, China. Como Carl Safina colocou em um artigo recente, “os seres humanos causaram a pandemia colocando os animais do mundo em um liquidificador cruel e bebendo-os como um drink”. Embora tenha havido outras epidemias zoonóticas nos últimos anos, incluindo o HIV, o vírus de Marburg, a SARS e a pandemia de “gripe suína” (H1N1) de 2009, o surto global de coronavírus pode proporcionar um momento de aprendizado, em que as organizações de conservação da vida selvagem podem pedir com êxito uma moratória internacional ao comércio ou venda de qualquer espécie animal não domesticada (os zoológicos sendo uma exceção fortemente regulamentada).
Caso contrário, não espere muita mudança na tendência geral de declínio no número de insetos, répteis, anfíbios e pássaros e mamíferos selvagens com os quais compartilhamos este pequeno planeta.
Superpopulação: Alguns indívíduos cínicos da geração Y chamam o novo coronavírus de “Removedor de Boomers”, devido à sua tendência de atacar os idosos com maior virulência. Como a humanidade recentemente adicionou 80 milhões de novos membros por ano (nascimentos menos mortes), uma exclusão do crescimento líquido de um ano na população é possível no pior dos cenários. No entanto, o potencial para uma moderação de curto prazo de nosso padrão geral de expansão demográfica pode ser pelo menos parcialmente compensado pelos resultados, a partir de nove meses a partir de agora, de centenas de milhões de pessoas em idade reprodutiva em todo o mundo que ficam em casa por semanas com pouco o que fazer. Para nações ricas com níveis decrescentes de fertilidade, uma ameaça muito maior à estabilidade da população humana provavelmente continuará sendo representada pelo acúmulo de substâncias químicas no ambiente que causam desregulação endócrina. Para os países pobres com altas tendências de crescimento populacional, oportunidades iguais de educação para todos, independentemente do sexo, ajudarão substancialmente a reduzir as taxas de crescimento.
Esgotamento de recursos: com a produção industrial em queda, a demanda e, portanto, os preços da maioria das mercadorias estão caindo. A commodity mais economicamente crucial do mundo, o petróleo, viu seu preço cair de US$ 50 por barril para perto de US$ 20 (no momento em que este artigo foi escrito); alguns analistas estão prevendo preços em um dígito. Com a queda do uso de petróleo, a capacidade de armazenamento de excedente de petróleo acabará, e os produtores não terão escolha a não ser abandonar alguns poços. As companhias de petróleo provavelmente serão socorridas, mas não serão lucrativas nas condições atuais. A perspectiva de aumentar as taxas mundiais de extração de petróleo até níveis recentes parece fraca. É provável, então, que o momento tão antecipado do pico da produção mundial de petróleo já tenha ocorrido, com pouco alarde, em novembro de 2018.
Obviamente, a queda nos mercados de petróleo é resultado de um desastre econômico, e não de políticas sólidas de conservação de recursos. Portanto, a adaptação por parte da indústria e da sociedade como um todo será caótica. As implicações internacionais são difíceis de prever: várias nações importantes do Oriente Médio verão suas economias destruídas pelos baixos preços do petróleo, e as grandes potências (especificamente China e Rússia) podem tentar aproveitar o momento buscando realinhar alianças na região.
Poluição: Marshall Burke, da Universidade de Stanford, escreveu recentemente que “as reduções na poluição do ar na China causadas por essa perturbação econômica provavelmente salvaram 20 vezes mais vidas na China do que foram perdidas devido à infecção pelo vírus naquele país”. Taxas reduzidas de atividade fabril e de consumo devem ajudar a reduzir a poluição geral, mas é claro que esse é o efeito colateral da crise, não o resultado de uma política sólida. Portanto, sem intervenções em políticas ambientais, não há razão para esperar que os benefícios da redução da poluição sejam sustentados. Apenas um exemplo de como alguns benefícios temporários podem ser equilibrados por novos danos: o uso de plásticos descartáveis provavelmente aumentará durante a resposta à pandemia.
Dívida global explosiva: a economia mundial está novamente em um momento deflacionário, como em 1932 e 2008. Para os bancos centrais e governos, todos os esforços fiscais serão voltados para reinflacionar uma economia que está murchando. Há um risco de que os investidores percebam que, em um mundo sem crescimento, seus instrumentos financeiros são inerentemente inúteis, forçando não apenas um colapso do valor de mercado das ações, mas um repúdio às próprias regras do jogo. No entanto, como a epidemia de coronavírus acabará por retroceder, o resultado mais provável é um período de inadimplência e falências, mitigadas por níveis heróicos de compras de títulos do Fed e ajudas dos governos (para as indústrias de petróleo e companhias aéreas, por exemplo) e déficit de gastos. Eventualmente, se a impressão de moeda crescer de forma exponencial, a hiperinflação é uma possibilidade, mas não tão cedo. Ponto central: o sistema financeiro foi desestabilizado e, como a indústria do petróleo, pode nunca voltar ao “normal”.
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Voltemos à questão colocada acima: a humanidade voltará a olhar para a pandemia de coronavírus como um evento sem maior importância ou como uma transformação profunda? A resposta provável depende, em parte, de quanto tempo dura a pandemia, e isso, por sua vez, dependerá em grande parte da rapidez com que os testes se tornarem amplamente disponíveis e tratamentos e vacinas forem encontrados. Os documentos do governo dos EUA marcados como “impróprios para divulgação pública” sugerem escassez significativa não apenas de equipamentos médicos, mas também de bens em geral nos próximos 18 meses para governo, indústria e cidadãos, se as soluções não forem rapidamente encontradas.
O nível de mudança sistêmica também depende do grau de desaceleração do emprego e do PIB. Fred Bullard, presidente do Fed de St. Louis, afirmou que a taxa de desemprego nos EUA pode atingir 30% no segundo trimestre, devido a paralisações para combater o coronavírus, e que o PIB pode cair 50%. Isso seria uma carnificina econômica muito além da escala da Grande Depressão (a taxa de desemprego nos Estados Unidos em 1933 era de 25%; seu PIB caiu cerca de 15%). Se a economia global cair tanto e permanecer paralisada mesmo por algumas semanas, o coronavírus poderá ser chamado de “o grande divisor de águas”.
Mas uma mudança em que direção? As possibilidades distópicas vêm à mente com muita facilidade. No entanto, em conversas, alguns dos meus colegas que trabalham em think tanks sugeriram que a pandemia poderia se transformar em uma crise de tamanho suficiente para desorganizar a ordem global na medida certa e de tal maneira que promovesse respostas que induzissem pelo menos algumas sociedades à trajetória de cooperação, redistribuição e decrescimento.
Primeiro, os governos costumam lidar com a escassez (prevista nos documentos oficiais citado acima) por meio da estratégia testada e comprovada do racionamento de recursos. Como Stan Cox detalha em seu livro indispensável Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, o racionamento nem sempre funciona bem; mas quando isso acontece, os resultados podem ser admiráveis. Durante as duas guerras mundiais, os americanos participaram entusiasticamente de programas de racionamento de alimentos, pneus, roupas e muito mais. A Grã-Bretanha continuou seus programas de racionamento bem após o final da Segunda Guerra Mundial, e pesquisas mostraram que, durante o período de racionamento, os britânicos eram geralmente mais bem alimentados e saudáveis do que antes ou depois. Na maioria dos cenários imaginários de degradação econômica deliberada, os programas de racionamento de energia e bens são os mais prováveis.
Cox conclui que os programas de racionamento tendem a ser mais bem-sucedidos quando as pessoas estão unidas contra um inimigo comum e quando se acredita que a escassez seja temporária. Apesar dos esforços do presidente Trump em chamá-lo de “vírus chinês”, o SARS-Cov-2 não tem nacionalidade inerente, nem é democrata ou republicano. É de fato um inimigo comum, e as pessoas tendem a se tornar mais cooperativas quando confrontadas com uma ameaça coletiva. Além disso, os epidemiologistas concordam que a ameaça terá um ponto final, mesmo que não saibamos exatamente quando será. Portanto, existem condições para o sucesso do racionamento, e ele poderia ajudar a promover atitudes mais comunitárias e cooperativas em geral.
Além disso, como discutido acima, a pandemia tem potencial para a redução significativa das desigualdades econômicas. Historicamente, nem todos os momentos de nivelamento econômico promoveram a cooperação: quando gerados pelo colapso do Estado ou por uma revolução, o nivelamento econômico foi acompanhado por sofrimento generalizado e por conflitos sangrentos. No entanto, durante os grandes momentos de nivelamento do século XX – a Depressão e as duas Guerras Mundiais – os americanos conseguiram se unir ao redor do sentimento de sacrifício compartilhado.
A longo prazo, ainda enfrentamos os desafios das mudanças climáticas, esgotamento de recursos, superpopulação, poluição e perda de biodiversidade. Embora a pandemia possa ter impactos positivos secundários ou menores sobre esses problemas, ela não os resolverá. Esforços coletivos significativos e sustentados ainda serão necessários para transformar sistemas energéticos, economias e estilos de vida (embora a pandemia possa transformar economias e estilos de vida de maneiras imprevisíveis). Se a resposta do coronavírus nos colocar em uma base cooperativa, tanto melhor. Obviamente, isso seria às custas de montantes desconhecidos de mortes, bem como do medo e da privação generalizados. Os elementos positivos que são sólidos como uma nuvem; mas, como Monty Python nos lembra pelo YouTube, é sempre bom olhar para o lado positivo da vida.
Brazilian rainforest expert warns that increased deforestation under President Bolsonaro’s regime is having a catastrophic effect on climate.
LONDON, 16 March, 2020 – Antonio Donato Nobre is passionate about the Amazon region and despairs about the level of deforestation taking place in what is the world’s biggest rainforest.
“Just when I thought the destruction couldn’t get any worse, it has,” says Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading scientists who has studied the Amazon – its unique flora and fauna, and its influence on both the local and global climate – for more than 40 years.
“In terms of the Earth’s climate, we have gone beyond the point of no return. There’s no doubt about this.”
For decades, he has fought against deforestation. There have been considerable ups and downs in that time, but he points out that Brazil was once a world-leader in controlling deforestation.
“We developed the system that’s now being used by other countries,” he told Climate News Network in an interview during his lecture tour of the UK.
“Using satellite data, we monitored and we controlled. From 2005 to 2012, Brazil managed to reduce up to 83% of deforestation.”
Then the law on land use was relaxed, and deforestation increased dramatically – by as much as 200% between 2017 and 2018.
It’s all become much worse since Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president at the beginning of last year, Nobre says.
Nobre argues that Bolsonaro doesn’t care about the Amazon and has contempt for environmentalists.
His administration is encouraging the land grabbers who illegally take over protected or indigenous tribal land, which they then sell on to cattle ranchers and soybean conglomerates.
For indigenous tribes, life has become more dangerous. “They are being murdered, their land is being invaded,” Nobre says.
In August last year, the world watched as large areas of the Amazon region – a vital carbon sink sucking up and recycling global greenhouse gases – went up in flames.
Nobre says the land grabbers had organised what they called a “day of fires” in August last year to honour Bolsonaro.
“Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone . It’s losing the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.”
“Thousands of people organized, through WhatsApp, to make something visible from space,” he says. “They hired people on motorbikes with gasoline jugs to set fire to any land they could.”
The impact on the Amazon is catastrophic, Nobre says. “Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone – it’s losing the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.
“When you clear land in a healthy system, it bounces back. But once you cross a certain threshold, a tipping point, it turns into a different kind of equilibrium. It becomes drier, there’s less rain. It’s no longer a forest.”
As well as storing and recycling vast amounts of greenhouse gas, the trees in the Amazon play a vital role in harvesting heat from the Earth’s surface and transforming water vapour into condensation above the forest. This acts like a giant sprinkler system in the sky, Nobre explains..
When the trees go and this system breaks down, the climate alters not only in the Amazon region but over a much wider area.
Time running out
“We used to say the Amazon had two seasons: the wet season and the wetter season,” Nobre says. “Now, you have many months without a drop of water.”
The vast majority of Brazilians, he says, are against deforestation and are concerned about climate change – but while he believes that there is still hope for the rainforest, he says that time is fast running out.
Many leading figures in Brazil, including a group of powerful generals, have been shocked by the international reaction to the recent spate of fires in the Amazon and fear that the country is becoming a pariah on the global stage.
Nobre is angry with his own government, but also with what he describes as the massive conspiracy on climate change perpetrated over the years by the oil, gas and coal lobbies.
Ever since the late 1970s, the fossil fuel companies’ scientists have known about the consequences of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“They brought us to this situation knowingly,” Nobre says. “It’s not something they did out of irresponsible ignorance. They paid to bash the science.” – Climate News Network
Jessica Rawnsley is a UK-based environmental journalist. She has written stories on the Extinction Rebellion movement and police tactics connected with demonstrations. She has a particular interest in campaigning groups and their influence on government climate policies.
Climate protection and public health have striking similarities. The benefits of both can be enjoyed by everyone, even by individuals who do not contribute to the collective efforts to address these problems. If climate change slows down, both drivers of gas-guzzlers and electric cars will benefit – although the former did not help in climate efforts. Similarly, if the spread of Coronavirus is halted (the so-called flattening the curve), individuals who refused to wash their hands, as well as the ones who washed them assiduously, will enjoy the restored normal life.
Most countries have gotten their acts together, although belatedly, on Coronavirus. Citizens also seem to be following the advice of public health officials. Could then the Coronavirus policy model be applied to climate change? We urge caution because these crises are different, which means that policies that worked well for Coronavirus might not be effective for climate change.
Different Penalties for Policy and Behavioral Procrastination
Climate change is the defining crisis of our times. Floods, hurricanes, forest fires, and extreme weather events have become more frequent and severe over the years. Although climate change generates passionate discussions in big cities and university campuses, there is inadequate public clamor for immediate action. Some types of decarbonization policies are certainly in place. However, carbon-intensive lifestyles continue (with “flying shame” in Scandinavia being an exception). Today In: Green Tech
This policy lethargy and behavioral inertia are due to many reasons, including concerted opposition by the fossil fuel industry to deep decarbonization. But there are other reasons as well. Climate change is cumulative and does not have a quick onset. Its effects are not always immediate and visible. Many individuals probably do not see a clear link between their actions and the eventual outcome. This reduces the willingness to alter lifestyles and tolerate personal sacrifices for the collective good.
In contrast, Coronavirus is forcing an immediate policy response and behavioral changes. Its causality is clear and its onset quick. Lives are at stake, especially in western countries. The stock markets are tanking, and the economy is heading towards a recession. Politicians recognize that waffling can lead to massive consequences, even in the short-term. Corona-skeptic President Trump has reversed course and declared a national emergency.
In the US, there is federal inaction on climate change. But Coronavirus seems different. 2020 is a Presidential election year, and perhaps this motivates the federal government to (finally) act decisively so that Coronavirus does not become Hurricane Katrina type of political liability.
Climate policies are hobbled by “spatial optimism,” whereby individuals believe that their risk of getting affected by climate change is less than for others. This reduces the willingness to tolerate personal sacrifices for deep decarbonization.
Coronavirus episode began with some level of spatial optimism in the Western world. After all, it was happening in China. But this confidence has quickly disappeared. Globalization means a lot of international travel and trade. China is the main global supplier of many products. Prominent companies such as Apple (AAPL) and Tesla (TSLA) depend on China for manufacturing and sales of their products. Spatial optimism has been overwhelmed by international travel as well as globalized supply chains and financial markets.
Belief in the Efficacy of Adaptation
Some might believe that climate change can be “managed.” Innovators will probably develop commercial-scale negative carbon technologies and societies will adapt to sea-level rise by building seawalls, or maybe relocating some communities to safer areas.
Coronavirus offers no such comfort. Unlike the seasonal flu, there is no vaccine (yet). It is difficult to adapt to the Coronavirus threat when you don’t know what to touch, where to go, and if your family members and neighbors are infected. Not to mention, how many rolls of tissue paper you need to stock before the supplies run out at the local grocery store.
Different Incentives to Attack Scientific Knowledge
On Coronavirus, citizens seem to be willing to follow the advice of public health professionals (at least when it comes to social distancing as reflected in empty roads and shopping centers). Every word of Dr. Anthony Fauci counts.
Why has this advice not drawn scorn from politicians who are suspicious of the “deep state”? After all, the same politicians attack scientific consensus on climate change.
Climate skeptics probably see substantial political and economic payoffs by delaying climate action. Stock markets have not penalized climate skepticism in the US: markets hit record high levels in the first three years of the Trump presidency. And, climate opposition is not leading to electoral losses. On the contrary, the climate agendas in liberal states, such as Oregon and Washington, have stalled.
Nobody seems to gain by attacking scientific consensus to delay policy action on Coronavirus. Airlines, hospitality, and tourism industries, who have taken a direct hit from social-distancing policies, probably want the problem to be quickly addressed so that people can get back to their “normal” lives.
US politicians who talk about the “deep state,” may want Coronavirus issue resolved before the November 2020 election. Attacking science does not further their political objectives. After all, the looming recession and the stock market decline could influence the election outcomes.
Depth, Scale, and Duration of Changes
Climate policy will cause economic and social dislocation. Decarbonization means that some industries will shut down. Jobs will be lost, and communities will suffer unless “just transition” policies are in place.
Coronavirus policies will probably not cause long-term structural changes in the economy. People will resume flying, tourists will flock to Venice, Rome, and Paris, and the basketball arenas will again overflow with spectators.
However, some short-term measures could lead to long-term changes. For example, individuals may realize that telecommuting is easy and efficient. As a result, they may permanently reduce their work-related travel. Coronavirus may provide the sort of a “nudge” that shifts long-term behavioral preferences.
In sum, the contrast between the rapid response to Coronavirus and policy waffling on climate change reveals how citizens think of risk and how this shapes their willingness to incur costs for the collective good. Further, it suggests that politicians respect science when its recommendations serve their political ends.
Nives Dolsak is Stan and Alta Barer Professor in Sustainability Science and Director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs. Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor and the Director of the Center for Environmental Politics. Both are at the University of Washington, Seattle.
A year’s diary of reckoning with climate anxiety, conversation by conversation.
By Emily Raboteau Photo: Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Emily Raboteau, Anadolu Agency/Getty, Courtesy Emily Raboteau (4), Alex Coppel/Newspix/Getty, courtesy Emily Raboteau, Daniel Volpe/The New York Times/Redux, Courtesy Emily Raboteau (2), Kevin Hagen/The New York Times/Redux
Some scientists say the best way to combat climate change is to talk about it among friends and family — to make private anxieties public concerns. For 2019, my New Year’s resolution was to do just that, as often as possible, at the risk of spoiling dinner. I would ask about the crisis at parent-association meetings, in classrooms, at conferences, on the subway, in bodegas, at dinner parties, while overseas, and when online; I would break climate silence as a woman of color, as a mother raising black children in a global city, as a professor at a public university, and as a travel writer — in all of those places, as all of those people. I would force those conversations if I needed to. But, it turned out, people wanted to talk about it. Nobody was silent. I listened to their answers. I noticed the echoes. I wrote them all down.
Tuesday, January 1
At last night’s New Year’s Eve party, we served hoppin’ John. Nim said that when he used to visit relatives in Israel, he could see the Dead Sea from the side of the road, but on his most recent trip, he could not. It was a lengthy walk to reach the water, which is evaporating.
Chris responded that the beaches are eroding in her native Jamaica, most egregiously where the resorts have raked away the seaweed to beautify the shore for tourists.
Wednesday, January 2
After losing her home in Staten Island to Hurricane Sandy, Lissette bought an RV with solar panels and has been living off the grid, conscious of how much water it takes to flush her toilet and to take a shower, I learned at Angie’s house party. Get unlimited access to The Cut and everything else New YorkLEARN MORE »
Monday, January 14
At tonight’s dinner party, Marguerite said that in Trinidad, where they find a way to joke about everything, including coups, people aren’t laughing about the flooding.
Wednesday, January 16
On this evening’s trip on the boat Walter built, he claimed with enthusiasm that we might extract enough renewable energy from the Gulf Stream via underwater turbines to power the entire East Coast.
Moreover, Walter predicted with the confidence of a Swiss watch, no intelligent businessman will invest another dime in coal when there is more profit to be made in wind, solar, and hydrokinetic energy. Economic forces will dictate a turnaround in the next ten years, he said.
Monday, January 21
After Hurricane Irma wrecked her homein Key West, Kristina, a triathlete librarian, moved onto a boat and published a dystopian novel titled Knowing When to Leave, I learned over lobster tail.
Tuesday, February 12
We ate vegetable quiche at Ayana and Christina’s housewarming party, where Christina described the Vancouver sun through the haze of forest-fire smoke and smog as looking more like the moon.
Monday, February 18
In the basement of Our Saviour’s Atonement this afternoon, Pastor John said he’s been preaching once a month about climate change, despite his wife’s discomfort, and recently traveled to Albany to lobby for the Community and Climate Protection Act.
Saturday, February 23
When I see those brown recycling bins coming to the neighborhood, said a student in Amir’s class at City College in Harlem, it tells me gentrification is here and our time is running out.
Thursday, February 28
Just between us, Mik said over drinks at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village, it scares me that white people are becoming afraid of what they might lose. History tells us they gonna get violent.
Sunday, March 17
On St. Patrick’s Day, Kathy, who’d prepared the traditional corned beef and cabbage, conversed about the guest from the botanical garden in her master gardening class, who lectured on shifting growing zones, altering what could be planted in central New Jersey, and when.
Tuesday, March 19
Sheila, who brought weed coquito to the tipsy tea party, said that when people ask her, “What are you Hondurans, and why are you at the border?,” she says, “Americans are just future Hondurans.”
Monday, March 25
Mat recalled vultures in the trees of Sugar Land, Texas, hunting dead animals that had drowned in Hurricane Harvey, during which he’d had difficulty fording flooded streets to reach his mother’s nursing home.
Tuesday, April 16
After a bite of roasted-beet salad in the Trask mansion’s dining room, Hilary spoke of the historic spring flooding in her home state of Iowa, where the economic impact was projected to reach $2 billion.
Thursday, April 18
Carolyn warned me at the breakfast table, where I picked up my grapefruit spoon, that I may have to get used to an inhaler to be able to breathe in spring going forward, as the pollen count continues to rise with the warming world. My wheezing concerned her, and when she brought me to urgent care, a sign at the check-in desk advised, DON’T ASK US FOR ANTIBIOTICS. Valerie, the doctor who nebulized me with albuterol, explained that patients were overusing antibiotics in the longer tick season for fear of Lyme.
Tuesday, April 23
On his second helping of vegetable risotto, Antonius reflected that in Vietnam, where his parents are from, the rate of migration from the Mekong Delta, with its sea-spoiled crops, is staggering.
Sunday, April 28
Due to Cyclone Fani, Ranjit said he was canceling plans to visit Kerala and heading straight back to Goa, where he would be available for gigs, lessons, jam sessions, meals.
Michael said that beef prices were up after the loss of so much livestock in this spring’s midwestern flooding, and so he’d prepared pork tacos instead.
Friday, May 3
At the head of the table where we sat eating bagels, Aurash said we won’t solve this problem until we obsess over it, as he had obsessed over Michael Jordan and the Lamborghini Countach as a kid.
He added that, just as his parents weren’t responsible for the specific reasons they had to leave Afghanistan, in general the communities most impacted by climate change are least responsible for it.
Balancing an empty plate in his lap, Karthik said that New York City (an archipelago of 30-odd islands), with all its hubris, should be looking to Sri Lanka, another vulnerable island community, for lessons in resilience.
We have more in common, he went on, with the effective stresses of low-lying small-island coastal regions such as the Maldives, the Seychelles, Cape Verde, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean than with a place like Champaign, Illinois —
“I’m from Champaign!,” Pamela interrupted, her mouth full. “It’s in a flood plain too!,” she cried. We’re all sitting at this table now.
Tuesday, May 7
“Personally, I’m not that into the future,” said Centime, who had a different sense of mortality having survived two bouts of breast cancer. She uncorked the fourth bottle of wine. We’d gathered over Indian takeout for an editorial meeting to comb through submissions to a transnational feminist journal centering on women of color. “But I can respect your impulse to document our extinction.”
Sunday, May 19
Eating a slice of pizza at a kid’s birthday party in a noisy arcade, Adam reminisced about the chirping of frogs at dusk in northern Long Island — the soundtrack to his childhood, now silent for a decade.
“Sad to say,” he mused, “among the 9 million meaningless things I’ve Googled, this wasn’t one. It’s like a postapocalypse version of my life: ‘Well, once the frogs all died, we shoulda known.’ Then I strap on a breather and head into a sandstorm to harvest sand fleas for soup.”
Friday, June 7
Hiral, scoffing at what passes for authentic Punjabi food here in New York, was worried about her family in Gandhinagar and the trees of that green city, where the temperature is hovering around 110 degrees Fahrenheit weeks before monsoons will bring relief.
Sunday, June 9
After T-ball practice at Dyckman Fields, while the Golden Tigers ate a snack of clementines and Goldfish crackers, Adeline’s dad, an engineer for the Department of Environmental Protection, spoke uneasily of the added strain upon the sewage system from storms.
Saturday, June 15
Jeff, who’d changed his unhealthy eating habits after a heart attack, said, “We are running out of language to describe our devastation of the world.”
Lacy agreed, adding, “We need new metaphors and new containers with which to imagine time.”
Sunday, June 16
Keith confessed that he was seriously losing hope of any way out of this death spiral.
Tuesday, June 18
We sipped rosé, listening to Javier read a poem about bright-orange crabs in the roots of the mangrove trees of Estero de Jaltepeque in his native El Salvador, where the legislative assembly had just recognized natural forests as living entities.
The historic move protects the rights of trees, without which our planet cannot support us. Meanwhile, Javier discussed the lack of rights of migrants at the border, recalling the journey he made at age 9, unaccompanied, in a caravan surveilled by helicopters.
In Sudan, where Dalia (who read after Javier) is from, youth in Khartoum wish to restore the ecosystem through reforestation using drones to cast seedpods in the western Darfur region, hoping to stymie disasters such as huge sandstorms called haboob.
Owing to this month’s massacre, one of Dalia’s poems proved too difficult for her to share. “I’d be reading a memorial,” she said.
I strained to hear the unspoken rhyme between the rising sandstorms and the dying mangroves, hemispheres apart.
Wednesday, June 19
Salar wrote to me about the call of the watermelon man this morning in Tehran where groundwater loss, overirrigation, and drought have led to land subsidence. Parts of the capitol are sinking, causing fissures, sinkholes, ditches, cracks.
The damage was most evident to him in the southern neighborhood of Yaftabad, by the wells and farmland at the city’s edge. There, ruptures in water pipes, walls, and roads have folks fearing the collapse of shoddier buildings. The ground beneath the airport, too, is giving way.
Thursday, June 20
“Our airport’s sinking too!,” mused Catherine, who’d flown in from San Francisco for this evening of scene readings at the National Arts Club, followed by a wine-and-cheese reception.
Friday, June 21
“It’s not true that we’re all seated at the same table,” argued David, a translator from Guatemala, where erratic weather patterns have made it nearly impossible to grow maize and potatoes.
Retha, David’s associate, quoted the poem “Luck,” by Langston Hughes:
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Then we went out looking for the Korean barbecue truck.
Saturday, June 22
“Say what you will about the Mormons,” said Paisley, who lives in Utah, “but they’ve been stockpiling for the end of days for so long that they’re better prepared.”
Sunday, June 23
At the Stone Barns farm, where tiara cabbages, garlic scapes, snow peas, red ace beets, zucchini flowers, and baby lambs were being harvested for the Blue Hill restaurant’s summer menu, Laura spoke hopefully of carbon sequestration in the soil.
Edgily, Lisa argued, “There’s not a single American living a sustainable lifestyle. Those who come close are either homeless or are spending most of their time growing food and chopping wood.”
Tuesday, June 25
S.J. said their car as well as eight of their neighbors’ cars, including a freaking Escalade, got totaled by a flash flood in the middle of the night in Charleston without warning. Living in a sea-level coastal city is becoming more terrifying by the day, said S.J. They now check the radar before parking.
Thursday, June 27
Magda turned philosophical before returning to Tepoztlán, Mexico. What is the future of memory and the memory of the future? she pondered. We were eating raw sugar-snap peas, remarkable for their sweetness, out of a clear plastic bag.
Her eyes, too, were startlingly clear. “My daughter’s 27 now,” she said. “By mid-century, I’ll be dead. I can’t imagine her future or recall a historical precedent for guidance …” Magda lost her thread.
Meanwhile, Roy had been pointing out the slowness of the disaster; not some future apocalypse, but rather our present reality — a world’s end we may look to culturally endure with lessons from Gilgamesh, the Aeneid, the Torah, and the Crow.
Friday, June 28
The other Adam sent word from Pearl River at breakfast: “Today’s temps at camp are going to reach 100. It will feel hotter than that. We’ll be taking it slower and spending more time in the shade. Don’t forget sunscreen, water bottles, and hats; they’re critical to keeping your kids safe.”
There was no shade at the bus stop in front of the Starbucks on 181st Street. “Why wasn’t climate change the center of last night’s Democratic presidential debate?,” asked Ezra, a rabbi.
“They didn’t talk about it at all in 2016,” pointed out Rhea’s mom, who preferred to see the glass as half-full. “This is progress!,” she cheerfully exclaimed.
Sunday, June 30
Ryan, Albert’s head nurse on the cardiac unit, feared the hospital was understaffed to deal with the upswing of heat-induced diseases. Delicately moving the untouched food tray to rearrange the IV tube, he said, “It’s hard on the heart.”
Tuesday, July 2
“My homeland may not exist in its current state, a bewildering, terrifying thought I suffer daily,” Tanaïs said of Bangladesh. “Every time I go to the coast, there’s less and less land and now a sprawling refugee camp. Every visit feels closer to our end.”
Wednesday, July 3
“Let’s lay off the subject tonight,” suggested Victor, as he prepared the asparagus salad for dinner with Carrie and Andy, who were back in town for the music festival.
Thursday, July 4
Holding court over waffles this morning in the stately dining room of the black-owned Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast in Philadelphia, Ulysses, who works to diversify the U.S. Geological Survey, said, “We need representation. Earthquakes affect us, too. Volcanoes affect us, too. Climate change affects us, too.”
Charlie stirred the gumbo pot. He speculated that his girls’ public school had closed early this year because its sweltering classrooms lacked air-conditioning to manage the heat wave. “Our seasons are changing,” he said, regarding the prolonged summer break.
While Lucy distributed glow necklaces to her little cousins on the Fourth of July, her aunt learned the fireworks display had been canceled by the Anchorage Fire Department owing to extreme dry weather conditions. Alaska was burning.
Cyrus yanked off his headphones with bewilderment and looked up from his iPad toward his mom. “It says there’s a tornado warning,” he cried. All through the airport, our cell phones were sounding emergency alarms, warning us to take shelter. A siren sounded.
“Take shelter where?” begged his mother in confusion. She clutched a paper Smashburger bag with a grease spot at the bottom corner. The aircraft was barely visible through the gray wash of rain at the wall of windows rattling with wind.
Sunday, July 7
Nadia, a flight attendant in a smart yellow neck scarf, served us Würfel vom Hahnchenkeulen in Pilzsauce on the delayed seven-hour red-eye from Philly to Frankfurt, on which each passenger’s carbon footprint measured 3.4 metric tons.
Monday, July 8
Owing to a huge toxic algae bloom, all 21 of the beaches were closed in Mississippi, where Jan was getting ready to start her fellowship, I learned before tonight’s dinner at the Abuja Hilton.
Jan ordered a steak, well done, and swallowed a malaria pill with a sip of South African wine. She referred to Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” which starts:
The world begins at a kitchen table.
No matter what, we must eat to live.
Wednesday, July 10
Eating chicken suya in the mansion of the chargé d’affaires, Chinelo spoke quietly of the flooding in Kogi state at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers.
Few Nigerians realize, Buchi said, that the longevity of Boko Haram in the Northeast, the banditry in the Northwest, and the herder-farmer crises in the North Central are a result of rapid desertification and loss of arable land even as the country’s population keeps exploding.
Thursday, July 11
Jide, a confident and fashionable hustler, slipped me a business card claiming his sneaker line was the first innovative, socially conscious, sustainable footwear brand in all of Africa. His enviable red-laced kicks said, “We’re going to Mars with a space girl, two cats, and a missionary.”
Stacey, a science officer for the CDC, was geeking out about the data samples that would help control the spread of vector-borne diseases like yellow fever and dengue when the waiter interrupted her epidemiological account with a red-velvet cake for my 43rd birthday.
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / Ché la diritta via era smarrita!,” shouted Nicole, my college roommate from half a lifetime ago, before we had kids, before she went blind. We had memorized the opening lines of The Inferno, had crushes on the Dante professor, and knew nothing yet of pain.
Tuesday, July 16
Naheed said, “The southwest monsoon is failing in Nagpur. For the first time in history, the municipal corporation will only provide water on alternate days. There will be no water on Wednesday, Friday, nor Sunday in the entire city for two weeks.”
Chido told us that in Harare, she was one of the lucky ones on municipal rotation getting running water five days out of the week, until fecal sludge appeared, typhoid cases cropped up, and the taps were shut off entirely. “They are killing us,” she said.
Friday, July 19
Kate said the back roads of Salisbury, Vermont, were slippery with the squashed guts and body fluids of the hundreds of thousands of northern leopard frogs — metamorphosing from tadpoles in explosive numbers — run over by cars.
Centime sent a picture of a memorial for Okjökull, the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. “For your time capsule,” she offered. The plaque read, THIS MONUMENT IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WE KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING AND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.
Posed as a letter to the future, the message ended, ONLY YOU KNOW IF WE DID IT.
“What would you do if the power went out and you were stuck underground in a subway tunnel?” Lissette drilled, showing me the prepper items in her crowded backpack, heavy as a mother’s diaper bag: water, protein bars, flashlight, battery, filter, knife …
Saturday, July 20
“Bobby was stuck underground on the 1 train during last night’s commute for 45 minutes,” said his wife, Angela, describing the clusterfuck of six suspended subway lines. “And in this heatwave, too,” she griped. “Folks were bugging out! — ten more minutes and there woulda been a riot.”
Monday, July 22
Morgan wasn’t the only one to observe it was the poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn that had power cut off in yesterday’s rolling blackout. The powerless scrambled to eat whatever food was in their fridges before it spoiled. Wealthier hoods were just fine.
Tuesday, July 23
“Can you rummage in my mind and take out the fire thoughts and eat them?,” asked 8-year-old Geronimo at bedtime. This was the ritual. He felt safer with his anxieties in my stomach than in his brain.
Just back in L.A. from an empowering trek to Sicily where she’d visited the Shrine to the Black Madonna despite sizzling temperatures, Nichelle shared her two rules for dealing with the global heat wave: “(1) Drink lots of water. (2) Watch how you talk to me.”
Wednesday, July 24
Marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the Reverend John sermonized, “You’d think after seeing the Earth from afar, we would do anything to protect this planet, this home. You’d think wrong.”
“We’ve become drunk on the oil and gas poisoning the waters that give us life,” he preached. “And we have vomited that drunkenness into the atmosphere. Truly, the prophet is right,” he said, quoting Isaiah 24:4. “The Earth dries up and withers. The world languishes and withers. The heavens languish with the Earth.”
“We have broken the everlasting covenant,” reasoned the Reverend John. “Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that God loves this world.”
Thursday, July 25
At last night’s “Intimate Dilemmas in the Climate Crisis” gathering at a software company on Madison Avenue, we were told to write our hopes and fears for the future on name tags as a silent icebreaker, then to stick these messages to our chests and walk about the room. Sebastian’s was only one word: war.
Mary, who left the event early, said she worried about her aging mother down South. “I’m the first person in my family born after Jim Crow. They fought battles so I could live the dreams my mother couldn’t. How can I talk to her about this existential grief of mine when she’s already been through so much?”
“Having one less child reduces one’s carbon footprint 64.6 U.S. tons per year,” Josephine from Conceivable Future informed us.
“Why is it so easy to police reproductive rights of poor women and so hard to tell the fossil-fuel industry to stop killing us?,” asked Jade, a Diné and Tesuque Pueblo activist in New Mexico, whose shade of red lipstick I coveted.
Friday, July 26
Ciarán set down our shepherd’s pie and Guinness on a nicked table at Le Chéile. On one of the many drunken crayon drawings taped to the walls of that pub were scrawled these lines from Yeats:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Protesters from Extinction Rebellion Ireland staged a die-in at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, where Ciarán’s family is from, arranging their inert bodies on the floor among silent stuffed “Mammals of the World.”
Tuesday, July 30
Ari cooked lamb shoulder chops with eggplant and cilantro purée, a family recipe from Yemen, where swarms of desert locusts, whose summer breeding was ramped up by extraordinary rainfall, are invading crops, attacking farms, and eating trees.
Meanwhile, Yemeni villagers are eating the locusts, shared Wajeeh, catching them in scarves at nightfall, eating them with rice in place of vegetables, carting sacks of them to Sanaa and selling them, grilled, near the Great Mosque.
Wednesday, July 31
When Nelly and I chewed khat with Centime in Addis Ababa a decade ago, discussing creation myths at the New Flower Lounge while high as three kites, we never imagined that Ethiopia would plant 350 million trees in one day, as they did today.
Eric distributed Wednesday’s fruit share under a canopy in Sugar Hill, Harlem. I took note of the Baldwin quote on the back of his sweat-soaked T-shirt when he bent to lift a cantaloupe crate:
The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Thursday, August 1
Off the rugged coast of Devon, where Jane grew up picking wild blackberries, the Cloud Appreciation Society gathered to slow down and gaze up at the sky in gratitude and wonder. Nobody spoke of the modeled scenario released by scientists of a cloudless atmosphere.
“In the beginning,” said Elizabeth, who lives in Pass Christian, a block from the Mississippi shore, “before they closed the beaches, I saw the death with my own eyes. Dead gulf redfish, dead freshwater catfish dumped from the river. Thousands. I saw a dead dolphin in the sand.”
Friday, August 2
“I’m always so pissed at plastic bags and idling cars, but I feel like there’s no point in caring anymore,” said Shasta upon learning that between yesterday and today, more than 12 billion tons of water will have melted from the Greenland ice sheet.
Saturday, August 3
Meera grew disoriented when she returned to the Houston area to finish packing up the house that her family had left behind and could not sell; it was languishing on the market for a year as if cursed.
Sunday, August 4
Because he dearly loved taking his boys camping in the Mojave Desert, Leonard felt depressed about the likely eventual extinction of the otherworldly trees in Joshua Tree National Park.
Monday, August 5
The El Paso shooter’s manifesto said, “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist … If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”
In her kitchen, Angie nearly burned the platanos frying in oil on her stovetop. “That ecofascist targeted Mexicans,” she said, swatting at the smoke with a dish towel. “He called us invaders.”
Wednesday, August 7
“In the Black Forest,” said Daniel, “there are mainly firs and spruces. Many of them die because it is too dry. We used to have something called land-rain. That was light rain for days. It’s gone. When it rains (like now) it feels like an Indian monsoon. What I really want to say to you about Waldersterben (dying forest): Come now, as long as the Black Forest exists.”
Friday, August 9
Claire, a former Colorado farmer, spoke of intensifying forest fires. “The mountains are full of burn scars like this,” she said, sharing a shot from a blaze near Breckenridge.
None of us will be able to say later that we didn’t know we were doing this to the Earth.
Thursday, August 15
Isobel stopped planning our 25th high-school reunion to study the weakening of global ocean circulation and the tanking of the stock market when the Dow dropped 800 points today. Back to back, she traced with a painted fingernail the lines of the inverted yield curve and the slowing Gulf Stream.
Friday, August 16
Zulema wasn’t surprised when Pacific Gas & Electric went bankrupt from the billions of dollars in liability it faced from two years of raging California wildfires, though it wasn’t a downed power line that ignited the Detwiler fire she fled. It was a discharged gun.
On being evacuated from Mariposa for six days by that fire, whose smoke reached Idaho as it burned 80,000 acres of trees dried into tinder by bark beetles and drought, she said over soup dumplings: “I almost lost my house. It’s surrounded by charred forest now. We’re like those frogs in the boiling pot.”
Sunday, August 18
“The developers don’t live here, so they don’t care,” said Jimmy, the tuxedoed waiter who served me linguini with clam sauce for lunch at Gargiulio’s on Coney Isalnd, where the new Ocean Dreams luxury apartment towers are topping out despite sea-level rise. “All they care about is making a buck.”
Monday, August 19
Manreet said she felt anxious. Yesterday in Delhi, where her sister in-law lives, the government sounded a flood alert as the Yamuna River swelled to breach its danger mark.
“Punjab, where I come from, means ‘The Land of Five Rivers,’” she explained. “It’s India’s granary. After a severe summer left the fields parched, the brimming rivers are now flooding them. It’s worse and worse each year. I feel weirdly resigned.”
Tuesday, September 3
Although the sky directly above her wasn’t blackened by smoke from the burning Amazon rain forest, Graduada Franjinha saw protests along the road to a capoeira competition in Rio. “It’s so sad to see how humankind destroys the lungs of the earth that gives us breath,” she said.
Saddened by the loss of 28 wild horses in Pamlico Sound to a mini-tsunami, Chastity remembered seeing them as a kid and swearing to commit them to her forever memory. “You don’t see beautiful things like that and question whether there’s a higher being,” she said. “You just don’t.”
Wednesday, September 4
Chaitali said she can’t stop thinking about Grand Bahama after learning that 70 percent of it is now underwater. “Where are all those people going to go?,” she asked, mystified and horror-struck.
It is an unprecedented disaster, said Christian, struggling to control his voice. He had cut his hair since last I saw him. Dorian was still hovering over his birthplace of Grand Bahama. “Natural and unnatural storms reveal how those most vulnerable are disproportionately affected,” he said.
Friday, September 6
At last night’s party, Jamilah, a Trini-Nigerian Toronto-based sound artist and former member of the band Abstract Random, took a bite of pastelito and said she’d like to get to the Seychelles before they drop into the Indian Ocean.
Saturday, September 7
“Eat the fucking rich,” said Jessica, in reply to a quarterly investment report on how to stay financially stable when the world may be falling apart.
Thursday, September 9
Arwa feared that the plight of 119 Bahamian evacuees thrown off a ferryboat to Florida for being without visas they did not legally need was a sign of climate apartheid.
Wednesday, September 11
“Ma’am, I am the heat,” Maurice replied to the woman in New Orleans’s Jackson Square who warned him against jogging outdoors because of the heat advisory in effect.
Thursday, September 12
Maya, proud owner of a Chihuahua–pit bull–mini-pin mix in Montclair, was saddened to learn that nearly 300 animals had drowned at a Humane Society shelter in Freeport during the hurricane.
Melissa, incensed, asked why they didn’t let the animals out of their damn crates.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, a shit ton of people died too,” argued Sanaa.
Tons of babies, tons of elderly and infirm people, even perfectly healthy people died, too. Over 2,500 people are still missing, and 70,000 now homeless.
“Did you not see the videos of people trapped in their attics with the waves crashing over their houses? Y’all sound fucking stupid,” Sanaa fumed.
Friday, September 13
“Did you hear the NYC Department of Education approved absences from school for the youth climate strike next Friday?,” Elyssa asked during the Shabbat Schmooze while the children swarmed around a folding table tearing off hunks of challah and dunking them in Dixie cups of grape juice.
“I’d rather go to school,” said Jacob. His dislike of large crowds outweighed his dislike of third grade.
Wednesday, September 18
Amanda, whom I last saw at Raoul’s, where we ate steak au poivre and pommes frites, said she had to sell off half the herd on her family’s Texas cattle ranch after a drought left the tanks dry, the lake depleted, and the hayfield shriveled.
She mentioned, almost as an aside, that they’d lost half the honeybees in their hives to colony-collapse disorder in the past five years too.
“Everyone here is linked to someone who works in oil,” she said. “It’s the center of the damage, and all that industry makes my efforts feel small. Sailing in Galveston Bay after a tanker spill, I wondered if my soaking-wet clothes were flammable.”
Thursday, September 19
TaRessa, from Atlanta, said, “I have always loved awakening to birdsong. This year, for the first time, I hear none.” A third of North American birds had vanished from the sky in the span of her lifetime.
Friday, September 20
“I’m here to sign out my child for the climate strike,” said a dad to Consuelo, the parent coordinator in the main office at Dos Puentes Elementary.
“By the time they’re our age, they won’t have air to breathe,” worried Consuelo. “They’ll be wearing those things on their faces — mascarillas respiratorias.”
Ben’s sign said, I’M MISSING SCIENCE CLASS FOR THIS. He was 6, in the first grade and studying varieties of apples, of which he knew there were thousands. He’d also heard that as many as 200 species were going extinct every day.
Shawna told her daughter on the packed A train down to Chambers Street that a teenage girl had done this, had started protesting alone until kids all over the world joined her to tell the grown-ups to do better, had sailed across the ocean to demand it.
Along Worth Street toward Foley Square, the signs said:
SHIT’S ON FIRE, YO
COMPOST THE RICH
THIS IS ALL WE HAVE
I WANT MY KID TO SEE A POLAR BEAR
SEAS ARE RISING AND SO ARE WE
MAKE EARTH GREAT AGAIN
SAVE OUR HOME
In yellow pinafores, Grannies for Peace sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while a nearby police officer forced a protester to the ground for refusing to move off the crowded street to the sidewalk. “Shame!,” chanted the massive crowd in lower Manhattan.
“When our leaders act like kids, then we, the kids, will lead!,” shouted a gaggle of outraged preteen girls in Catholic-school uniforms. Their voices grew hoarse, though the march had not yet begun.
Saturday, September 21
Humera’s Sufi spiritual guide, Fatima, said, “Alhamdulillah! Let’s offer a Fatiha for the young generations who are inheriting a heavy, sad burden left by their predecessors but who are in process of finding their own voice of goodness. This is a movement of consciousness. “
Thursday, September 26
“You need to use an AeroChamber that goes over his nose with the pump so he gets all the asthma medicine,” La Tonya, the school nurse, instructed me. Her office was full of brown boys like our son, lined up for the first puff of the day.
Friday, September 27
“The point of the shofar is to wake us up,” Reb Ezra said, lifting the ram’s horn to his mouth. He blasted it three times with all he had. “Shana tova!,” he shouted. The table was dressed for the New Year with apples and honey.
“Who shall perish by water and who by fire?,” went a line in the Rosh Hashanah service as we were asked to think about atonement. So began the Days of Awe.
Sunday, September 29
Namutebi said at Andrew’s memorial service that in the 25 years since that picture of him holding his son in Kampala was taken, Uganda has lost 63 percent of its trees.
Monday, September 30
“The Rollerblades are $5,” said Abby, who sold books, clothes, toys, puzzles, and games she’d outgrown, spread over a blanket on the sidewalk leading to the Medieval Festival, to make money to fight climate change.
Tuesday, October 8
Danielle made risotto in the pressure cooker for dinner tonight in Marin County to feed her 91-year-old grandparents, who are staying over because they lost power in Sonoma as part of the huge, wildfire-driven blackout.
“I’m almost scared they aren’t turning off our power and we’re going to end up engulfed in flames,” said Danielle. “My grandfather keeps asking when the storm is coming, and I keep trying to explain to him that this isn’t like a hurricane.”
She was curious about how the rest of America sees this — 800,000 people without power as risk mitigation by the gas-and-electric company against wildfires during high winds. She asked, “Do they know this is how we live now?”
Wednesday, October 9
“We are okay, but it is starting to get smoky, and we are sorry about our friends closer to the fire,” Zulema alerted us. The Briceburg fire was 4,000 acres and 10 percent contained. “PG&E will cut power to the northern part of the county,” she said.
Friday, October 11
“You’re going to feel some discomfort,” Dr. Marianne warned me at yesterday’s annual gynecological checkup. She inserted the speculum. I stared at the wall with a picture of her taken five years prior on the white peak of Kilimanjaro.
“Are you in pain?,” the doctor asked, discomfited by my tears. The glaciers that ring the mountain’s higher slopes were evaporating from solid to gas, the wondrous white ice cap towering above the plains of Tanzania for as long as anyone can remember disappearing before our eyes.
Saturday, October 12
In the highlands of Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda — where Damali is from — the climate is no longer hospitable for growing coffee. Damali will likely serve hot milky spiced tea at the family gathering she invited us to with a proper note card through the mail.
Baby Kazuki’s mother feared her breastmilk had sickened him after she reintroduced eggs into her diet. And she feared for the 8 million people ordered to evacuate their homes, as Typhoon Hagibis flayed Tokyo, including the house where her father was born.
Sunday, October 13
In the park this morning, Ana said her Realtor had advised against the offer she wished to make on purchasing her first home through the subsidized Teacher Next Door program. The house she’d fallen in love with was in a flood zone.
Tuesday, October 15
Romy sent us video of the churches in Damour ringing bells before sunrise to warn people of the raging wildfires. “Lebanon is burning,” Romy said. “Probably the biggest fire this country has seen. Please send help.”
Amaris said, “Mount Lebanon, the refuge of persecuted native minorities and their history in the Middle East, is on fire. For a place that represents holy land for us, I’m not joking when I say I feel my soul has been set aflame.”
And then, as if by listing the scorched villages, she could turn them verdant again, she mourned their names: “Mechref, Dibbeyye, Damour, Daqqoun, Kfar Matta, Yahchouh, Mazraat Yachoua, Qournet El Hamra, Baawarta, Al Naameh …”
Wednesday, October 16
Yahdon, bred in Bed-Stuy, bought his gold Maison Martin Margiela designer sneakers secondhand to stay sustainably fly, he said.
Tuesday, October 22
Amelia posted a picture of the view from her kitchen window in Quito last week. “Gracias a Dios, we escaped the fire and the house is still standing!,” she said amid nationwide civil unrest, wherein protesters clashed with riot police and a state of emergency was declared.
“Fossil-fuel subsidies were reinstated to stop the protests in Ecuador, a petrostate where the price of an unstable, fossil-fuel-dependent economy is paid by the poor. It’s been a tough week,” said Amelia, following up with a picture of a chocolate cupcake. “We all need a treat sometimes.”
“What’s your position on public nudity?,” slurred Elliott, my seatmate on this morning’s flight to San Francisco. In Melbourne, where he’s from, Extinction Rebellion activists had stripped for a nudie parade down Exhibition Street.
Thursday, October 24
“Are we under the ocean or in the clouds?,” asked Geronimo, looking up at the illusion of undulating blue waves made by a trick of laser light and fog machines at tonight’s Waterlicht show, both dream landscape and flood.
“Anyone else have their fire go-bag ready just in case?,” asked Lizz, who paints wrought iron in San Diego and writes about brujas. Six hundred fires had burned in California in the past three days.
“For me as a parent, knowing that my ancestors have overcome the brutality of colonialism gives me hope for the future,” said Waubgeshig, originally from the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario. “My people have seen the end before.”
Tuesday, October 29
Salar, just back from Beirut, described a contrast between streets of festering trash and citizens forming a human chain, across sect, at the start of revolution. “It’s like we forgot the planet was our house until it grew so dirty we had to wake up,” he said.
Wednesday, October 30
Felicia, Mark, Dean, Robin, Dara, Kellen, Alexandra, Roxane, Alethea, Susan, David, and Roy all marked themselves safe in Los Angeles during the Getty fire, which started near I-405 and Getty Center Drive, destroying 12 homes and threatening 7,000 more.
No word as yet on the safety of Samara, Marisa, Nkechi, Josh, Kelela, Anika, or Laila.
Thursday, October 31
“It’s because of global warming,” said Geronimo, dressed as a wizard, when his father recalled having to wear a winter coat over Halloween costumes during his own New York City childhood. The jack-o’-lanterns were decaying. It was 71 degrees when we walked to the parade.
Friday, November 1
Naheed brought us back a painting of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, and his wife Parvati, from the Dilli Haat handicraft bazaar in New Delhi, where schools have closed because of the dirty, toxic air.
Tuesday, November 5
“I feel guilty,” said Alejandra, a City College student, at the first Extinction Rebellion meeting held on campus, the same day 11,000 scientists declared a global climate emergency.
“Is there going to be food at this meeting?,” Hector asked, poking his head in the door of the nearly empty classroom with mismatched, broken chairs. Down the hall was a food pantry. “You’d get more students to act if you offered food,” Hector said, then left.
“Our aim is to save humanity from extinction,” said Tom, an Iowa native. He’d volunteered to give the presentation, having joined the protest back in August. The slideshow included a picture of him drenched in fake blood at the feet of the Wall Street bull.
“This is a decentralized movement. Our nonviolent civil-disobedience actions are theatrical. We disrupt the status quo by occupying space. This was my first time getting arrested,” Tom said. “You can do this too.”
“Not me,” said Cedric, referencing the obstacles to his participation, as a black man. “If I get arrested, will it go on my record? Who pays my bail?”
Valentin, a full-time rebel since graduating with a degree in architecture, said we could address the criticism of the rebellion as a white movement that fetishizes arrests at our next house meeting. Demanding divestment, he added, should be on the agenda.
Wednesday, November 6
“Back home in Ontario, the backyard rinks are gone,” lamented Michael, the man we met playing solo street hockey in the schoolyard of PS 187. He showed my boy, wobbling on new inline skates, how to balance himself with a hockey stick, how to gracefully sweep the puck across concrete.
Sunday, November 10
At Václav’s baby shower, Yana, who’d ordered the usual Mediterranean platter, told him to just rip the wrapping paper off the gift. That’s how Americans do it, she said. Vaclav held up the bibs, booties, and dresses she’d bought for his baby, due in five weeks.
“Is it just me or does it feel like this is the last baby we will produce?,” whispered Renata, depressed by our aging and shrinking department in an age of endless austerity with several retirements on the horizon but no new hires. “It feels like Children of Men.”
Monday, November 11
Geronimo climbed into our bed with The Children’s Book of Mythical Beasts and Magical Monsters open to a page of flood stories, floods delivered by vengeful gods: Utnapishtim, Viracocha, Zeus, Vishnu, Noah, and Chalchiuhtlicue.
“ ‘The Mexican goddess of rivers and lakes once flooded the whole world to get rid of all those who are evil, but those who were good were turned into fish and were saved,’ ” he read. “Will I be saved?”
“You will be safe because we are privileged, not because we are good,” I said, torn between wishing to comfort him and wanting to tell him the truth. “Those who are less safe aren’t drowning because they are bad but because they are poor.”
Thursday, November 14
“Samantha’s got serious respiratory issues now too,” said her mother, as we waited for the school bus to drop off our kids outside our building around the corner from a busy bus terminal in a neighborhood at the nexus of three major highways and the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world.
Friday, November 22
“Are we rebels or are we not?,” asked Lena, a French international student studying environmental biotechnology. “The best way to make people know the movement is to plan an action and make demands,” she said.
Saturday, November 23
“Wow, and here I thought it was going to be just another game,” said Aaron, class of ’98, after student activists from both schools disrupted today’s Harvard-Yale football game, rushing the field to demand fossil-fuel divestment. “I guess I should have gone in to bear witness instead of hanging out at the tailgates.”
Friday, November 29
Next to me at Kathy’s Thanksgiving table sat her eldest son, who’d driven up for the holiday from Virginia, where he said his neighbors in the coalfields knew their industry was dead and were understandably fearful of the transition into new lines of work.
Sunday, December 8
The Ghost of Christmas Present encouraged Ebenezeer Scrooge to do the most he could with the time he had left, in the Harlem Repertory Theater’s opening-night production of A Christmas Carol. The last ghost waited in the wings.
Monday, December 9
Sujatha said it was getting harder to see outside in Sydney, but the failure of state and federal government action was clear: No mitigation policy. No adaptation policy. No energy-transition policy. No response equal to the task of this state of climate emergency.
“I am worried,” she said, as ferries, school days, and sports were canceled because of air quality 11 times the hazardous levels. Mike bought air filters for the house, face masks for their two kids. Shaad had asked her, “Will this be the future?”
Friday, December 13
The other Ben had been at the U.N. climate conference in Madrid all week and felt depressed about our chances of getting through this century “if it wasn’t for these kids,” he said, sharing a picture of teens with eyes drawn on the palms of their upheld hands. “They are watching and awake.”
“We’re not here for your entertainment. The youth activists are not animals at a zoo to look at and go, Awww, now we have hope for the future. If you want hope for the future, you have to act,” said Vega, a Swedish Fridays for Future leader.
Wednesday, December 18
“You know it’s bad when the sun looks red and there’s ash on every windshield,” said Sarah from Sacramento, who could feel it constricting her lungs.
“What’s the right balance of hope and despair?,” asked the other Laura.
Friday, December 20
In the Netherlands, where Nina just submitted her doctoral-dissertation proposal to the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the government must protect the human rights of its citizens against climate change by cutting carbon emissions.
“Everyone not from Australia, I’m begging you,” said Styli in Sydney. She feared international ignorance due to the lack of celebrity and location. “The truth is, our country is burning alive,” she said, on the nation’s hottest day on record, one day after its prior record.
Sunday, December 22
“It looks like an alligator’s head,” said Ben from the backseat on the drive to Nana’s for Christmas. “No, a hydra,” said Geronimo. Billowing smoke from the towers of the oil refinery and petrochemical plant to the side of the New Jersey Turnpike at Linden took shifting monstrous shapes.
Monday, December 23
“It’s always the women who pick up the mess at the end of the meal,” sighed Angie, doing the dishes at the kitchen sink in a pink T-shirt that said, SIN MUJERES NO HAY REVOLUCIÓN.
Tuesday, December 24
Though it was the third night of Hanukkah, Rebecca was still preoccupied by the Parshas Noach she’d heard weeks before, admonishing her to be like Noah, who organized his life around saving his family despite the part of him that couldn’t fathom the flood.
The hardest pill for her to swallow was this: Knowing that a single transatlantic flight for one person, one way, is equivalent to commuting by car for an entire year, she now feels flying to Uruguay to see friends and family for the holidays is a kind of violence.
Friday, December 27
Home in Bulawayo for the holidays during Zimbabwe’s worst drought of the century, NoViolet described hydropower failure at Kariba Dam. Downstream from Victoria Falls, shrunken to a trickle, the Zambezi River water flow was too anemic to power the dam’s plants, and so, NoViolet said, there was no running water three to four days a week, and power only at night, “A terrible living experience.”
“The time of the month can be a nightmare for women and girls. Showers are a luxury. Those who can afford to turn to generators and solar power, but for the poor, it means adapting to a maddening and restricted life,” she said.
Saturday, December 28
“Mom!,” called Geronimo from the bath. “I can’t breathe.”
Sunday, December 29
Ben was disturbed by the dioramas on our visit to the American Museum of Natural History. “Who killed all these animals?,” he demanded. “Don’t they know this is their world, too?”
“I learned to fish at my grandparent’s house on the beach, and now my kids enjoy its calm waters,” said Trever from Honolulu. “Every year, the ocean inches higher. We will sell the house next year.”
Monday, December 30
From Gomeroi Country, Alison wrote, “Even away from the fires, we saw a mass cockatoo heatkill on the Kamilaroi Highway near Gunnedah. Willy-willy after willy-willy followed us home down that road. I can’t find it in me to be reflective about the decade right now. Love to everyone as you survive this, our night.”
“The worst part is feeling helpless, held hostage at the whim of an abusive, inconsistent parent who wreaks havoc, then metes out arbitrary punishment in the name of protecting us,” said Namwali from Zambia, about the failing of the hydroelectric company and the failures of those in power. “In a word, capitalism.”
Tuesday, December 31
Another New Year’s Eve. In distant parts of the planet, it was already tomorrow. The future was there and almost here. We drank prosecco at Angie’s party, awaiting the countdown while thousands of people in the land Down Under fled from the raging bushfires and headed for the beach, prepared to enter the water to save their lives on New Year’s Day.
The screen of my phone scrolled orange, red, gray, black — fire, blaze, smoke, ash. A window into hell on earth. I shut it away to be present for the party and the people I loved. Before he kissed me, Victor said, “Here’s to a better 2020 for our country and the whole world.”
140 blocks to the south of us in Times Square, the ball is about to drop.
*A version of this article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine.