Category Archives: Enviroment

The Cognitive Dissonance of Earth Day

Marching for science in the Anthropocene

For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I ask the same question every year: how do we balance our sense of hope and despair? Another Earth Day rolls around and the question has never been more cogent.

Barely three months into Donald Trump’s America decades of policy and progress are now at risk of abandonment. As the world hurtles forward into an unknown future, the fractures within our society seem to grow wider; our self-absorption deeper our disconnect with the natural world more profound.

The ascension of Donald Trump to power and the appalling process that put him there seems to exemplify all of this. Trump, I argue, represents no cause; only effect.

As tens of thousands take to the streets to “March for Science” this Earth Day, the reality of what Donald Trump represents awakens within many a feeling of “resistance” in a world of increasing distrust and narcissism.

This is a good thing, but the anger and resentment we place at the feet of Trump change nothing unless we come to grips with our own disconnect; our own cognitive dissonance.

At war with ourselves

It may seem strange for someone spending so much of their time, energy, and resources advocating for environmental causes, but I am ambivalent toward Earth Day.

Like a tiresome preacher on Easter Sunday, it is too easy for me to look at the throngs of Earth Day supporters and wonder where they’ve been all this time; where they’ll be tomorrow.

Perhaps this a valid point, but it belies my own culpability. My own profound disconnect.

Do my efforts really make any difference or am I just assuaging my own guilt? To what extent am I responsible for the world into which I was born?

I write my articles on a computer made up of plastics, rare earth elements, toxic materials. A mysterious stew of components destined for an “away” that does not exist.

I often engage in my advocacy by traveling halfway around the world. Whether flying thousands of miles or driving hundreds, it doesn’t happen without adding to the destruction of which I claim advocacy.

I am a hypocrite.

I wouldn’t last a week without a lifestyle made possible by a global supply chain in an industrialized, fossil-fuel driven economy. Few of us would.

And yet we continue to play fast and loose with the resource base that makes it all possible.

Many days I would prefer to ignore the dark secret that it cannot go on forever. What choice do I have?

We start from where we are, a place of cognitive dissonance. One way or another, we are all hypocrites.

We all live with our own contradictions and conflict. Nothing will ever completely make sense. Accept it and move on.

By choosing our narrative we define our values.

The choice we all need to make is: “what kind of hypocrite will I be?”

Living with choices

There is still a debate about “Anthropocene” as a measure of geologic time, but surely “anthropocene” isn’t. We control our environment and there are a lot more of us.

Some dismiss it as modern-day Malthusianism. I believe we have ridden the industrial revolution to glorious heights, but at catastrophic cost for all.

I’m not getting any younger. Choices need to be made. I try to look at the world I inhabit through a lens of gratitude, consistently falling short.

That I have the luxury of time to devote to “a cause” makes it my responsibility to own it. For now, it works. I try to make it better. It’s what I can do.

Ripples of hope

I do, admittedly, often trot out these words from RFK’s historic South Africa speech. Nor am I the only one.

For me – for us –  it embodies among the most eloquent expressions of humanity, human agency, and change. It is the narrative I choose and therein lay my act of faith.

It’s my way of saying Happy Earth Day.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”


Thanks to all the people I’ve met, talked to, and worked with the past year. It is your work, insight, and expertise that informs any value in my efforts.

The gang at TriplePundit

Richard Matthews

Kurt Johnson:  Social System Physics

Natasha Zellerbach:  Zellerbach Associates

Andrew Burger

Mai Amit

Adrian Wain: Circular Economy, UL  EHS

Lynelle Cameron: VP of Sustainability, Autodesk. CEO, Autodesk Foundation

Sherry Flumerfelt: executive director, Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust

Jim Brainard: Mayor, Carmel, Indiana

Cyril Dion: filmmaker, Tomorrow

Anthony Barnoski: biologist and executive director, Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve

Noah Kaufman – World Resources Institute

Johnson Bridgewater, president, Oklahoma chapter, Sierra Club

Ondra Berry

 

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity
– Horace Mann

I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.
-Edward Everett Hale

Climate Impacts on Forests and Wildfire

In the southwest of North America, record heat has spawned an early an aggressive start to the 2016 fire season. One consequence of a warming world is the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. With increasing heat, fires burn more intensely over a steadily increasing wildfire season signaling a regime shift in global forests . A 2015 study published in the journal Nature Communications indicates that burn season has increased 20 percent from 1970 to 2013. In the U.S. fire seasons are now 78 days longer than in 1970.

It’s easy to count off recent record-breaking fires that confirm this trend: the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, Canada; the Butte and Lake fires in northern California; the Okanogan fire “complex” in Washington, the largest to date in the state’s history. In Australia, a string of bushfires are among the costliest and most deadly the nation has ever seen. The list goes on.

Wildfire is an essential component of a healthy, functioning ecosystem. In the U.S., a century of fire suppression has altered the natural cycle of burn and regrowth, ironically increasing the risk of wildfire. “Wildfires, when allowed to burn in areas where they do not impact human development, are regenerative for the forest, revitalizing for the watershed, renew the soil, and reset the clock for the ecosystem,” explains Dr. Timothy Mihuc explains, a professor of environmental science at the State Univesity of New York, Pittsburg.

“Many forests cannot sustain themselves without natural wildfire, including pine barrens, lodgepole pine forests, Eucalyptus forests and many more, says Mihuc. “These forests require canopy fires to regenerate because the trees in the forest are adapted to only produce seeds following a major fire event. Hence, fires can be regenerative for the forest, and without them many of these forest types would decline on the landscape.

Climate impacts of wildfire

Exacerbated by forest mismanagement, the impact of climate change on forest health has far-reaching implications on the future health of global forests. These impacts are interrelated and often self-reinforcing. Pine beetle infestation, aided by warmer winters in the western mountains of North America, is devastating many forests, making them more vulnerable to fire. Seasonal shifts and changing rainfall patterns increase the probability of wildfire. Changing habitats invite the spread of invasive species, force native species migration, and upset ecosystem balance.

Large wildfires are, of course, not new. They are a part of nature. But with human intervention, first through deforestation and mismanagement, and then from accelerating climate change, that natural balance becomes increasingly skewed. A healthy planet depends on healthy forests, so when they do burn, they regenerate and thrive. The intensity and frequency of wildfire we now see are not part of that natural cycle, but a sign that our forests are in trouble.


A version of this post originally published on our blog GlobalWarmingisReal.com

Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, courtesy flickr

Regime Shift for Permafrost Arctic Permafrost Thawing

Nowhere is the climate changing faster than in the Arctic. The region is warming at about twice the rate of the global average, with atmospheric temperature anomalies as much as 13 degrees Fahrenheit above normal reported in January.

Permafrost becomes especially vulnerable to these rapid changes, creating land subsidence, habitat change, and a potentially catastrophic release of carbon and methane as the once-frozen organic matter decomposes.

Arctic permafrost: the big thaw

Much of the terrestrial Arctic permafrost currently remains well below freezing.  At current rates of warming, scientists estimate it could take another 70 years for these frozen soils to fully melt.

Depending on the emissions scenario over the coming decades, researchers project anywhere from a 30 to 70 percent decline in near-surface permafrost by the end of the century. Our current emissions trajectory being the high end of that estimate, according to research cited Adam Wernick in a  Public Radio International article:

If 70 percent of the permafrost thaws, scientists expect to lose 130 to 160 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere by the end of this century,” writes Adam Wernick. “To put that in perspective, in 2013 the United States emitted 1.4 billion tons of carbon from fossil fuel combustion and cement production.

Thawing permafrost represents a potential “tipping point” for runaway climate change. As more permafrost melts, more methane and CO2 are released into the atmosphere, increasing temperatures, causing more permafrost to melt, releasing more greenhouse gasses –  a relatively sudden and abrupt oscillation into a self-amplifying feedback loop.

A “regime change” for permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes

A study accepted for publication this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters indicates an ongoing “regime shift” is underway in sub-lake permafrost. The soil below these shallow Arctic lakes is naturally warmer and is already thawing, as the following press release from the American Geophysical Union explains:

New research shows permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes is thawing as a result of changing winter climate.

Joint Release:

  • American Geophysical Union
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • U.S. Geological Survey

16 June 2016

Warmer winters combined with an increase in snowfall during the last 30 years have limited the growth of seasonal lake ice. In response, lakebed temperatures of Arctic lakes less than 1 meter (3 feet) deep have warmed by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) during the past three decades, and during five of the last seven years, the mean annual lakebed temperature has been above freezing.

These rates of warming are similar to those observed in terrestrial permafrost, yet those soils are still well below freezing and thaw is not expected for at least another 70 years. However, a regime shift in lake ice is leading to sub-lake permafrost thaw now.

Since permafrost underneath lakes is generally warmer than the surrounding terrestrial permafrost, rising temperatures in the lakebeds make permafrost thaw sooner than beneath surrounding dry land. These lakes may cover 20 to 40 percent of the landscape in vast areas of Arctic lowlands.

“During the 1970s, late winter lake ice thickness measurements commonly exceeded 2 meters (6.5 feet) in northern Alaska. Such thick ice growth helps to limit sub-lake permafrost thaw by freezing the sediments solid each winter. However, during winter field surveys over the last decade, lake ice has typically only grown to 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick, and has been as thin as 1.2 meters (4 feet),” said Christopher Arp, research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Water and Environmental Research Center and lead author of the new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

These drastic reductions in lake ice, caused by changes in winter climate, are the primary reason that shallow lakebed temperatures are warming and the permafrost below them is thawing.

Interactions and feedbacks among climate, permafrost, and hydrology underscore the complexity of forecasting change in the Arctic. For example, thinner lake ice may help fish overwintering, or it may help the oil industry since they need lake water to build winter ice roads. However, sub-lake permafrost thaw will likely unlock a portion of the permafrost carbon pool and potentially release this carbon in the form of greenhouse gasses.

These findings also highlight the importance of conducting winter fieldwork in the Arctic.

“Arctic lakes and ponds are typically ice covered for nine months of the year, but research on them typically occurs during the short Arctic summer. To more fully understand Arctic lake dynamics and to document the changes we have observed requires also doing fieldwork under often harsh conditions during the cold and dark arctic winter,” said Benjamin Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage and co-author of the new study.

“With further thawing of sub-lake permafrost there is a good chance that the ground will subside, increasing the lake depth and accelerating further permafrost thawing. In contrast, the warming on the land may increase the protective vegetation layer and delay thawing of permafrost outside of lakes,” said Vladimir Romanovsky of the UAF Geophysical Institute and co-author of the new study.

With increasingly warmer and snowier winters yielding thinner lake ice, shallow lakes will likely continue to warm, Arp said.


The American Geophysical Union is dedicated to advancing the Earth and space sciences for the benefit of humanity through its scholarly publications, conferences, and outreach programs. AGU is a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 60,000 members in 139 countries. Join the conversation on FacebookTwitterYouTube, and our other social media channels.


Image credit: Anthony Kendall, courtesy Flickr