Climatically Speaking: The Best Stories on Climate, Food, Science and Culture, (3rd ed.)
Last updated May 27, 2018
Rethinking energy storage, the circular economy and textile recycling; Jeff VanderMeer talks about climate change; an interview with Michael Mann; another grim milestone for carbon dioxide; reviving the camas lily as a dietary staple; new studies on glyphosate; ejaculating fruit flies; an increase in seasonal allergies and more.
Welcome to Climatically Speaking. Before I share today's stories, I would like to remind my subscribers that updated versions of these posts are always on my website. Simply open the email and click on the title. I'm suggesting this option because, sometimes, I make mistakes, as in the most recent edition of Climatically Speaking when I used the phrase "comprised of." That's incorrect—my bad. Even though I changed the wording on my website, emails are eternal, mistakes and all. I wasn't joking about my editor having taken off for the hills! But enough of that: Today's edition comprises a selection of thought-provoking stories, a few of which might surprise you.
climate, environment and energy
All that glitters is not gold; or, rather, not all green technology is as green as it might seem. For example, many supporters of renewable energy have assumed that energy storage makes it possible to use more renewable energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But as David Roberts reports for Vox, energy storage actually increases carbon emissions, because of the way it's utilized in the U.S.
But it doesn't have to be that way. As Roberts notes, the Institute for Policy Integrity published a report with guidelines on how to make energy storage carbon friendly. Because I'm not comfortable summarizing technical information, I suggest you take a look at Roberts' article for the details. It's really good.
Also, learn how the Second Law of Thermodynamics could limit the environmental benefits of the circular economy in this thought provoking piece by Paul Mobbs at Resilience (originally published at Free Range Activism Website). According to Mobbs, even if we use renewable energy to recycle materials into new products, the planet doesn't have enough natural resources to make the wind turbines and solar panels to do so—and give everyone on the planet access to clean energy and a higher standard of living. In addition, sometimes it takes more energy to recycle materials than it does to make new products from raw materials. Granted, Mobbs believes in recycling as a way to preserve natural resources; it's just not a panacea for decarbonizing the economy. This piece contains additional details you might be interested to know. But for now, I'll leave you with this quote:
But what about recycling textiles? And what I mean by that is turning used clothing into new fabric, which is then used to make more clothes—back to the circular economy idea mentioned above. But as Maxine Bédat and Michael Shank note in this piece at Fast Company, the conventional circularity concept fails to address the coal-powered factories used to produce the clothing; the toxic dyes and sweatshops; the carbon footprint of shipping textiles around the globe; and the use of petroleum-based fibers to make the clothes. What's more, the global fashion industry currently produces 8.1% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. And this percentage is expected to increase 49% by 2030.
And something else to remember is that recycling synthetic textiles won't stop microfibers from entering our waterways. To be truly sustainable, the fashion industry will need to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of energy while sourcing more sustainable fibers.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of "Annihilation," shares his thoughts on writing fiction about climate change in this short video at The Atlantic. He hopes his work will warn humanity of the possible hazards ahead because we need to act now. After all, climate change isn't 50 or 60 years down the road; it's here. Let's watch.
Also, Craig Miller interviews climate scientist Michael Mann in this excellent piece at KQED Science (NPR). You have the option of reading the transcript or listening to the recording. In the interview, Mann notes that Earth's oceans are expected to rise 6 feet or more by the end of this century because the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting twice as fast as scientists had earlier predicted. But what most inspires me from the interview is that Mann continues to talk about climate change in spite of threats to him and his family. And he is not the only one. Mann and other climate scientists who continue to speak out in the face of harassment are true heroes.
But one of the most important climate stories from last week is how April's atmospheric carbon dioxide levels averaged above 410 parts per million for the first time in human history. In fact, as Eric Holthaus reports at Grist, it's most likely that carbon dioxide levels haven't been this high in 15 million years. And it gets worse: According to Holthaus, CO₂ levels are rising twice as fast as they did 50 years ago because our greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase from burning fossil fuels; yet, the world's forests, which store carbon, are dying.
climate, environment and energy in brief
Did you hear the one about the bear? I don't really know any good bear jokes. But what I do know is that some American black bears have stopped hibernating, or they're waking up too early—and getting into trouble. Learn more about how climate change is affecting bears' sleep patterns, and behavior, in this piece by Kendra Pierre-Louis at The New York Times.
Also, Fiona Harvey, writing at The Guardian, reports that scientists at NASA are concerned about dramatic declines in freshwater supplies in 19 areas across the globe. I found additional information, along with a color-coded map, in this compelling article by Ivan Semeniuk at The Globe and Mail.
But I think my favorite story from last week is about saving the San Francisco Bay. Can humans triumph over nature and save it from rising seas? Elizabeth Rush, writing at The Atlantic, contemplates this question while interviewing experts and visiting project sites. I like how the tension between the project managers' optimism and Rush's quiet skepticism give this well-researched piece a lyrical quality. So, can we save the San Francisco Bay from climate change? I suggest you read the article to find out. It's well worth the effort.
food and farming
Since first learning how climate change could bring unpredictable weather patterns and reduce water supplies, I've become fascinated by the idea of eating native plants—hopefully ones that could thrive without irrigation and intensive farming practices. At Hakai Magazine, author Madeline Ostrander describes how one couple is working with locals to revive native foods on Lopez Island, Washington, where the camas lily was once a dietary staple for indigenous peoples. Interestingly, it was an important source of carbohydrates for native cultures across much of western North America. Though it's important to point out that the camas is not a fast food; it takes many hours to prepare. Would you eat the bulb of the camas? I think I'd like to give it a try.
science, health and technology
If you follow the latest news on glyphosate, then you might be interested in these two articles from the Guardian: The first piece, by Arthur Neslen, discusses the results of a new study that link glyphosate—the active ingredient in a popular herbicide brand—to "disrupting effects on sexual development, genes and beneficial gut bacteria at doses considered safe, according to a wide-ranging pilot study in rats." Naturally, the results of the study are controversial, and further research is needed to assess long-term health risks to humans. The second article, by Carey Gillam, reports on research that shows a higher toxicity level of glyphosate-based herbicides compared to glyphosate alone. Most of the studies have focused on glyphosate in isolation from the weedkillers' other (inactive) ingredients.
But why dwell on the possible hazards of herbicides when we can learn about ejaculating fruit flies from Ed Yong at The Atlantic? Yes indeed! Scientists genetically engineered male fruit flies to—ahem—do it under red lights. And what's interesting about this is that the flies remained under the red lights for a long time, ejaculating a lot. "It happens seven times a minute, for up to three minutes." They could have left the red-lit chamber at any time but chose to stay. Though the most significant finding from this study—and it has far-reaching implications for understanding drug addiction and alcoholism in humans—is that male flies that had recently ejaculated were more likely to choose a good meal over alcohol. So when are scientists going to study female fruit flies? They already are. I'll be sure to let you know about it when they publish the results.
In today's cultural section, I'm sharing photographs of Afghanistan (The Atlantic) taken by photojournalist Shah Marai, who was killed in a suicide bombing back in April. We owe our thanks to the journalists who risk their lives to tell the world's stories. In addition to viewing Marai's photography, I also recommend "When Hope is Gone," an essay Marai wrote in 2016. The link to the essay is in the paragraph just before the photos.
One reason why it took me so long to publish this post is because something is wrong with my left eye. This not only makes driving difficult but also staring at a computer screen. Most likely, allergies are the culprit. But in a fascinating article by Umair Irfan at Vox, I learned that plants produce more pollen when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase. Another interesting fact from this piece is that higher CO₂ concentrations also increase the potency of pollen. And there's more:
On that note, I bid you adieu for this edition of Climatically Speaking. But don't forget to check out the latest edition of Sammy Roth's newsletter, Climate Point, for more stories on climate, energy and the environment. Take care, and beware the potent pollen! —Laura
Please note: My editor took off for the hills and hasn't been seen for years. If you're a journalist or scientist and find mistakes in these summaries, please reach out through the contact form in the menu at the bottom of this page. I don't mind being corrected at all. Thanks!