Sunday, December 6, 2015

Climate Sunday: The End of Breathable Air?

While the COP21 talks continue, let's take a minute to talk about breathable air. Normally, when I talk about breathable air around here, I'm talking about the kind of air pollution in Beijing that makes simple breathing the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes a day. (And wouldn't you know, it's about as bad as it ever was.) This time, however, what I want to talk about is a recent finding that at 6 degrees C increase in oceanic temperature, we could be seeing the end of actually breathable air--not air that is too dirty to safely breathe, but air without enough oxygen to sustain aerobic life. This comes about due to a die-off of the phytoplanktons that produce most of the oxygen in our atmosphere, similar to the die-offs we see in the current mass coral bleaching event.

This is why it's imperative that fossil fuels like coal are quickly phased out in countries like India, which has made the case that as a matter of economic justice, they will continue to use coal due to its price point over other energy sources. Leaving aside that coal has been determined to be irredeemably "dirty" in CO2 terms, and that increasingly severe weather events from climate change, such at the devastating floods occurring just now in the Tamil Nadu region are not without economic impact, they have a point--and my feeling is that economic aid should be gathered in a trust managed by the UN for the purposes of subsidizing the necessary transitions, which needn't be painful, and which may prove to be even more outstandingly effective than low-cost coal use from an economic point of view, once it's off and running. It's necessary to think in these terms, because India's energy needs show no signs of decrease any time soon. (On the other hand, China, which is still using coal hand over fist, should basically just stop because they should, and shouldn't need paying off to do so.)

Currently, the ratio of fossil fuel subsidies compared to climate aid is 40:1. That's ridiculous! Let's be honest, subsidizing fossil fuels in and of itself doesn't represent fairness in the market. And we definitely can't expand our fossil-fuel energy exploration. Take the position of British Prime Minister David Cameron regarding fracking (please!). Fracking is basically the worst. It's causing quakes in Oklahoma. It's potentially as dirty as coal if leaks aren't tended to (they won't be). And the run-off fracking water garbage could harm livestock. And yet this foolish fuel is being expanded in regions which could really suffer in the event of an incident.

I don't know what generation will see the end of breathable air, or at what generation the children of the British Isles are as adrift as those of the Marshall Islands (which is, to be sure, no joke), and other Pacific Island nations, for whom climate change already means genocide. I don't know when we, as a species, will have basically ruined agriculture. I don't have to know that to care now. Making the changes necessary to forestall unthinkable calamity is all I care about.

6 comments:

mikey said...

In a (MUCH) bigger picture, I think it's very interesting to think about how we got here, and what it might mean throughout the universe. First, over millions of years, a species develops intelligence. Late in that process, the species develops sanitation, medicine and industry, the population explodes. As that intelligent species builds civilizations that evolve from agrarian to industrial to technological, their use of planetary resources increases drastically. It strikes me as fascinating to think about where we got when we effectively began to curtail our planet's ability to sustain a large human population.

The net outcome of sea level rise, changes in agricultural productivity, collapse of the fish stocks, diseases and resource wars will be a collapse in the human population. Interestingly, that MAY be a universal necessity for a species to survive into their own post-technological society. A population of no more than 2 billion, migrated to clean new cities where the climate permits productive agriculture, might be the path to continued technological advancement and long-term human survival. Of course, the one to two hundred year upheaval could easily leave scattered pockets of humans living a pre-technological agrarian/industrial existence amidst large areas of intense radioactivity.

But perhaps it is this precise kind of tipping-point resource exhaustion upheaval that, if an intelligent species can survive it with their society intact, is necessary for the transition into a better future...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The plutocrats would love to be able to sell us breathable air.

Currently, the ratio of fossil fuel subsidies compared to climate aid is 40:1. That's ridiculous! Let's be honest, subsidizing fossil fuels in and of itself doesn't represent fairness in the market.

Now, that is the biggest disgrace in policy in the developing world, bar none.

In the runup to this phytoplankalypse, there's an effect called photorespiration which occurs under hot conditions- plants are simply less able to produce oxygen.

Vixen Strangely said...

One of the things I worry about is that we need a technological civilization to pave the way for a reasonably endurable future, but our technology has been so focused on war technology and destructive capability, that if we should experience a significant breakdown in in economic and political structures as a result of climate change, it could erode our capacity to fix anything. I've written about how Russia and Saudi Arabia are petrostates who've sort of put a lot of their eggs in one basket and now have to do whatever they can to protect that basket, militarily or otherwise. The high-production, low price of oil seems to have to do with wiping out competition from fracking--but there is a sustainability issue with that tactic--and I don't mean "peak oil".

Saudi Arabia recently determined that they will not have a wheat crop in 2016. They basically rely on imports for food as it is. Their national debt is expected to surge. This kind of economic scenario could be precarious and have political consequences. Russia can at least feed itself--and their government is a model of economic parsimony--they haven't much national debt (although local govt's do have rather a bit), but US and EU sanctions do pose a strain, and as the EU particularly transitions to renewables, this is gonna bite. The 1990's is a recent memory for Russians--they could very well take a recession in combination with blowback from either Ukranian or Syrian misadventure (anyone paying attention to hos Russia is engaging in Syria? Worrying.) could provide instability. Both SA and Russia have global influence aplenty that could be thrown out of whack.

There's Big Picture stuff I worry about. In case of war, does everyone's eye fall off the climate ball? I worry about us whiffing the real long term threat over temporary short term spasms we should have seen coming in the first place, and finding ourselves past the tipping point where shit stops being reversible.

Also--in relation to what BBBB said, every time I hear a denialist politician start up on that "climate change could be good for plants because they use CO2!" I just want to find out who their HS science teachers were and ask them what went wrong. How can people be that fundamentally inept at grasping basic science concepts?

mikey said...

Come on, guys. First, Climate change is exactly that. Change. There WILL be regions that benefit. The fact that it will represent one of the largest die-offs in earth's history is bad, but who ever promised that 7 or 9 billion humans was a sustainable population? It clearly is not, and balancing happens in nature, whether we want it to or not.

Saudi Arabia will suffer the consequences of their economic decisions. They had immense resources, and they sqandered them. They're on the clock, and at some level they know it.

Russia's an interesting case. Positioned fairly far to the north, their breadbasket will increase in productivity as the US midwest collapses. Canada has the same geographic advantage.

The optimistic argument is the feedback loop between cheaper solar and wind and harder to access fossil fuels. As you build out the renewable infrastructure, you make it harder for traditional providers to compete.

But it ultimately doesn't matter. The human population on planet earth is in the process of experiencing a 'correction'. We're going from 7+ Billion souls to 2 or three. Without question, and without doubt. It's merely a matter of how that process plays out....

mikey said...

Oh, and it should be mentioned that 'war technology' has been the fastest path to technological advancement. From Penicillin to space travel to lasers to the internet, all of the things that have brought us into our post-technology age have been the result of military research.

It sucks, but it's reality. We're still monkeys, at the end of the day...

Vixen Strangely said...

Call it my humanist streak, but the correction that takes human population down from 7 billion to 3 is going to involve war, famine, plagues and death. I'm not just a monkey, but a monkey's aunt. It's the misery factor for future generations I worry about. And for about five billion people, mostly young, who never particularly caused the predicament they found themselves in, they will have short, nasty, brutish lives that was brought to them by some of the finest minds history ever produced.

But I'm being a little melodramatic here. Maybe with reason.

Russia covers a huge amount of area--Europe and Asia. Central Asia is at risk of increasing desertification, the Siberian region to serious infrastructure disruption due to melting permafrost. The appearance of "pingoes" that are cratering and spitting methane in that area are of no small concern. The drought/flood combinations expected under climate change could offset any gains from exploiting recently uncovered arable land. And then there is the problem with crops flourishing in the newly-changed and still changing climate--

Animal species collapse is something we've been dealing with since the 1970's. Among peoples like the Himalayans and indigenous Alaskans and Siberians, meat plays a big role in the diet. For some people in the northernmost latitudes, their calories largely come from fish and game. Fish stocks are falling. Caribou and elk populations are hurting. I don't know if whatever recent gains in vegetable-based agriculture would sustain their caloric needs. When Tibet becomes a major wine-producer, the rest of the world is probably in the deep shit.

But you raise a good point about the military--they have to be practical because armies live and die on logistics. That's why the Pentagon has been serious about making the transition to renewables. It's also why I think it's positively absurd that conservatives can't even listen to the ferchrissakes' military (no hippy treehuggers, there) regarding what is practical and necessary.