Tuesday, January 17, 2017

In California we are overcoming words that blind and bind by discussing biosphere science

Wikipedia tells us that the term "biosphere" was coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1875, which he defined as the place on Earth's surface where life dwells.

The "biosphere" is the zone of life on Earth, a closed system and largely self-regulating. Well, perhaps not completely closed as solar radiation and heat from the interior of the Earth have an ongoing influence.

As used here, the biosphere is the Earth's ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships including their interaction with the elements of the 
  1. lithosphere including the crust and the uppermost mantle which constitute the outer layer of the Earth subdivided into tectonic plates including the mineral elements that make it up;
  2. hydrosphere including the combined mass of water found on, under, and above the surface; and 
  3. atmosphere including the layer of gases, commonly known as air, that surrounds the planet Earth and is retained by Earth's gravity.
Though it may be self-regulating, the biosphere is a constantly evolving system of interactions among organisms and their environment.

Many factors challenge the self-regulating mechanisms causing minor-to-disruptive changes that establish new balances within the biosphere sometimes resulting in species extinction.

Occasionally asteroids and volcanoes significantly disrupt the biosphere resulting in significant species extinction and radical species evolution. These kind of events represent a subject that we can ignore while the scientists argue of the meaning of their data. For you and I, which event - asteroid strike or volcano eruption - will cause the change is irrelevant. If we are the animals standing where 30 seconds from now either an asteroid is going to hit or a volcano is going to explode, who cares which it is? Just ask a dinosaur ... oh, that's right, you can't because of what is known as an extinction event.

The concern at the beginning of the 21st Century is simple. The biosphere's self-regulating mechanisms have undergone disruptive changes far more significant than, and occurring far more rapidly than, typical. The disruption we are mostly concerned about is in the atmosphere though the impacts extend to the hydrosphere and the lithosphere. The dramatic results look like this:



There is, however, a far less dramatic look shown below from The Realities of Sea-Level Rise in Miami's Low-Income Communities.
...This is just one neighborhood of many in Miami-Dade dealing with the effects of Florida’s King Tide last week, the highest tide of the year. Coastal neighborhoods are hardest hit, but the flooding also reaches farther inland, to less affluent communities. It’s here where the consequences of climate change and sea-level rise could in fact be most grave, says Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a climate researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Middle- and low-income households tend to be less resilient to shocks such as flooding, and they also run the highest risk of being forgotten in the rush to save the millions of dollars in real-estate investments on the waterfront.
“It’s getting worse. When you visit places that weren’t flooding 30 years ago, they’re flooding now,” says Hammer. Today, the Miami area experiences about six of these sunny-day flooding events per year. But the Union of Concerned Scientists projects that by 2045, they’ll be happening 380 times per year. “That’s two times per day in some areas,” she says.

It is interesting that these areas are within just a short drive from Trump Miami and Trump's Mar-a-Lago. Trump can already study the biosphere disruption effects in his own neighborhoods, from his own real estate investments.

But it doesn't matter to the Neoliberal billionaires developing the Miami waterfront as explained in this article. They have state officials denying climate change while local officials are funding beachfront mitigation measures at taxpayer expense. At the same time, they have the federal government absorbing all the risk while Congress fights against any effort to acknowledge and understand the biospheric disruptions.

It isn't as if the unwashed masses in those less affluent neighborhoods can relate to some impact projected out to 27 years from now. When it is presented with probabilities and decades, it is like telling them that a small asteroid will hit here 27 years from now. They really aren't going to react immediately.

And in fact they can't relate to this sentence in Elizabeth Kolbert's 2015 article The Siege of Miami that states: "In the Miami area, the daily high-water mark has been rising almost an inch a year."

It just doesn't register that such a continuing rise at that rate means the water will be over two feet deeper in the lifetime of most of those residents, and that doesn't even indicate what the impact will be for storm water drainage as explained by Kolbert. That rise is relentlessly continuing, but in human terms it is slow.

What Californians know is that the important discussion among scientists is over whether
  1. the disruption in the biosphere will continue slowly and relentlessly towards a new balance or 
  2. the disruption will reach a tipping point, a threshold for abrupt and irreversible change. 
If it reaches a tipping point the disruption will progress rapidly, potentially leading to a time of significant species extinction and radical species evolution. But in either case, there is little that can be done about it. Through cooperation with folks in regions not controlled by Neoliberals by modifying our behaviors and our economy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Californians hope to limit the disruption. But....

What Average Jolene wading out to her 15-year-old minivan feels is that decades ago somebody failed her. And she can't focus on the problems her grandkids will face because the problems she faces include providing food, clothing and shelter for her kids.

How we failed is a typical American story. (It is an American story - it's all about 20th Century economics, when the United States was the world leader, the decision-maker relative to almost all relevant issues.)

In 1976, after joining the United States House of Representatives, Al Gore held the "first congressional hearings on the climate change, and co-sponsored hearings on toxic waste and global warming."

Uh, yeah, we've all heard about this. What is important is that it is now 40 years after 1976 and that passage of time matters. Let me say it again.  

It is now 40 years after 1976 and that passage of time matters.

Gore, who ironically is from Tennessee which has a climate change denial law, has spent a lifetime as an environmental activist and was co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 31 years after his first Congressional hearing on climate issues.

About 20 years ago and 20 years after those first hearings, then Vice-President Gore reflected on his experienced reality in a 1995 New York Times article:
"We are in an unusual predicament as a global civilization," Al Gore said when I interviewed him early in his Vice Presidency. "The maximum that is politically feasible, even the maximum that is politically imaginable right now, still falls short of the minimum that is scientifically and ecologically necessary."
Confronted in 1995 with Gore's clear, candid pessimism, the writer of that article, renowned environmental organizer (whatever that is) Bill McKibben, with wild optimism, or maybe massive denial, went on to write this (emphasis added):
But this state of affairs may not last. According to the most accurate computer models of global climate, for instance, increased global temperatures may be obvious to the man in the street by decade's end. For all the right-wing bluster about taming the environmental movement, for all the happy-talk books about our ecological triumphs, it will take only a hot summer or two, a string of crop failures or some similar catastrophe to bring these issues center stage once more. A spate of recent studies has begun to make clear that an average temperature increase of only a few degrees hides tremendous heat waves, droughts and storms; the insurance industry has actually begun to worry publicly about the greenhouse effect and the losses it will cause.

If and when such stresses really show themselves, though, we will need an environmental movement that understands what is happening -- that understands that more recycling is not the main answer, that is willing to advocate the unpopular and the disturbing. Partly this means a stepped-up political campaign -- continual pressure on governments around the world to sign and fulfill treaties, share renewable technologies and pass steep new taxes on the use of fossil fuels and other polluters. Already a small segment of the environmental movement has begun to focus on such issues.
Yeah, well, it's 20 years later.... We've had that hot summer or two, in fact we've had over a decade of expanding worldwide drought, wildfires, and huge storms. The environmental movement has pushed hard. But no. The U.S. population would never allow "the unpopular and the disturbing", particularly if it meant not being able to afford a new iPhone every year and otherwise bask in the light of economic achievements based on the overuse of the resources in the biosphere.

Environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert's works include the books The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and other awards and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change expanding on a 2005 three-part series for The New Yorker which had won the 2006 National Magazine Award for Public Interest, the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award, and the 2006 National Academies Communication Award. Hopefully these books have been read by at least a million or so people out of the 7 billion humans on Earth and 350 million Americans as they represent the best available reporting on the subject.

In her recent update to Field Notes she told us all (emphasis added):
In the years since I wrote this book I’ve been asked hundreds of variations on the question: “What should I do?” What people seem to be looking for is both advice on concrete actions they can take and the assurance that what they do will make a difference. Given the paralysis of the political system, the time lag built into the climate system, and the high likelihood that the threshold of DAI [dangerous anthropogenic interference] has now been crossed, it’s difficult to offer such assurances. We have already changed the world dramatically, indeed quite probably catastrophically. But even when it comes to catastrophe, distinctions can be made. What we choose to do—or not to do—in the coming decades will determine the future both for our own kind and for the millions of other species with whom we share this planet. It is possible that we could still limit warming to around two degrees Celsius, and it is also possible that we could lock in warming of six degrees Celsius or more. These two possibilities represent radically different worlds.
For clarity, "dangerous anthropogenic interference" means that within a period of less than a 100 years we humans screwed up the self-regulating mechanisms of the biosphere to an irremediable level.

Perhaps it is because she has hung around scientists too long, but in this case Kolbert, who is a master wordsmith and whose two books are the best reporting available on the subjects of regional climate change impacts, still used probability wording - "the high likelihood that the threshold of DAI has now been crossed." A more accurate way of saying it is "the threshold of DAI was crossed sometime early in this Millennium." To put it in perspective, looking back from the year 2116 folks will be correct when they say that on one date in the 20 years between 1995 and 2015 the threshold of DAI was crossed.

And that's what most too many Americans still don't get - by 2066 the number of natural disasters - massive hurricanes, flooding, drought-caused water shortages, and wildfires - will have reached significantly disruptive proportions for many. "Significantly disruptive" in many cases will mean catastrophic locally in some areas by 1950's standards.

No one wants to say to anyone that millions of your grandkids will be in deep s**t if we don't start urging families and businesses to locate to safer locations through planning processes.

But the Safeguarding California website explains:
California is leading the way on emissions reduction, but no matter how quickly we reduce our climate polluting emissions, climate impacts will still occur. Many impacts – increased fires, floods, severe storms and heat waves – are occurring already and will only become more frequent and more dangerous. But there are many things we can do to protect against climate impacts. Taking steps now to adapt to climate change will protect public health and safety, our economy and our future.

 The Safeguarding California Implementation Action Plan...


...deals with ten sectors that show the path forward by concisely presenting
  • risks posed by climate change impacts caused by the biospheric disruptions,
  • adaptation efforts underway, and
  • actions that will be taken to safeguard residents, property, communities and natural systems.
California is preparing for what is understood to be the inevitable.

Curiously, unbeknownst to or perhaps deliberately ignored by Donald Trump and people in the Rust Belt, the folks around the San Francisco Bay, which among others includes all the area known as Silicon Valley, acting through The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority voted last year to tax themselves to begin the needed regional climate change adaptation process. The Bay is not just facing flooding from the sea level rise. As noted in an MIT study:
For California, they calculated that, if the world’s average temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, the state will experience three more extreme precipitation events than the current average, per year.
One irony is the Bay Area can afford to start adapting now because the iWorld prints and sends them real money, albeit in digital format, but still not in bitcoins. Apple does keep their money offshore so they don't have to pay taxes on it, but the tax for the adaptation to localized impacts of the biosphere disruption is a parcel tax they have to pay.

This couldn't have happened without political dialog. The assumption many would make is that this is a typical California liberal effort raising taxes on the everyone.

To understand the political context of biosphere disruption and climate change impacts, we need to explore the meaning of the Neoliberal takeover of the United States. But we need to do so after gaining an understanding of the context of language confusion created in the second half of the 20th Century by the tech industry.

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