Climatically Speaking: The Best Stories on Climate, Food, Science and Culture, (6th ed.)

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from  Pexels

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from Pexels

Turning air into gasoline; threefold increase of ice loss in Antarctica; water conservation in Los Angeles; climate change and diminishing crops; climate change and the nutritional quality of fish; electric scooters; climate change and vector-born diseases; arsenic in the wind; a class on environmental grief and more. 


Welcome to this week's edition of Climatically Speaking. I wonder ... who caught my typo from last week? As a reminder, here's what I wrote: "May ushered in another bleak carbon dioxide milestone, with levels exceeding 211 parts per million." It should have read—411 ppm. It's been a long time since atmospheric CO₂ levels were anywhere near 211 ppm. So, I wrote a post about the geological history of CO₂, complete with easy to read bullet points and nifty graphs. You can take a look by clicking the insert, below. Or, if you're a subscriber and reading this via email, you can access the post through a direct link, here. It opens in a new window so you won't get lost in the Pliocene. That sounds dangerous!

Climate, environment and energy

Turning air into fuel

Could we prevent catastrophic climate change by turning carbon dioxide into gasoline? This fascinating—and controversial—piece by Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic describes this process, which has already been implemented on a small scale at a research facility in British Columbia. Here's a short explanation: CO₂ is sucked from the air and converted into gasoline through similar chemical processes used in the paper and oil industries. If this technology can scale up, then it could provide a carbon-neutral fuel source for the transportation sector.

But what's most noteworthy about this process is that it could one day sequester the CO₂ by burying it in the ground instead of turning it into fuel. Though this option is too costly to consider right now because there wouldn't be a product to sell. And even the lead author of the study, David Keith, thinks we should first reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before implementing carbon-sucking technology. If it does work, then I'll go back to practicing James Taylor songs on the guitar instead of writing blog posts about climate change—sounds good to me! 

But ... here's the catch

But here's the caveat, as reported by Rafi Letzter at Live Science: There's no guarantee the process of storing the CO₂ in the ground can become cost effective and ramp up in time to prevent runaway global warming. Even though the Paris Agreement assumes that negative emissions technologies are necessary to meet climate goals, we shouldn't rely on them because we still don't know if they will work. And as Glenn Peters, a scientist with the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, observes, it would take an enormous number of carbon-sucking plants to remove enough CO₂ from the atmosphere for the world to meet its emissions targets. And carbon-sucking technology isn't cheap. 

If you find this topic interesting and would like to know more, here's an article by Robbie Gonzales at Wired that you might also enjoy—the take home message being that although we shouldn't rely on negative emissions technologies to prevent accelerated global warming, it's imperative we invest more money in their development because we almost certainly will need them. 

Antarctica's ice sheet is melting fast: like, three times as fast

Another big story from last week is that the melt rate of Antarctica's ice sheet has tripled over the last ten years, when compared to ice loss during the prior decade. As Chris Mooney writes at the Washington Post, "If the acceleration continues, some of scientists' worst fears about rising oceans could be realized, leaving low-lying cities and communities with less time to prepare than they had hoped." Mooney notes that the world may have as little as ten years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent some of the more serious effects of global warming, depending on how fast the ice continues to melt.

The ice loss is mostly occurring on the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, located on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Scientists note that the rate of ice loss in East Antarctica has also been increasing—but only over the last five years, which is too short a time frame for scientists to make predictions. Though if all East Antarctica melted, seas would rise by 100 feet (30.48 meters).

Ice melt in West Antarctica, however, has serious implications for North America because it ups sea-level rise projections for the U.S. East Coast by 25 percent. A fascinating reason for this has to do with the gravitational pull that glaciers have on our oceans. As ice melt increases in Antarctica, the gravitational pull lessens and water surges toward the U.S. East Coast and other areas. Is this an appropriate place to insert a disgruntled emoji? As this piece points out, though, we still have a choice in how much sea-level rise to expect.

Because the Washington Post limits the number of free articles you're allowed to read, I've also included links to other sources. Here's a good one—and it has a few videos, too—by Daisy Dunne at Carbon Brief and another one by Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic, here

Do you need a good laugh?

Then you most definitely need to read this piece by James Hamblin at The Atlantic: "Climate Change Is Going to Make Scott Pruitt Need So Much Moisturizer." Though if you approve of Scott Pruitt's environmental policies and ethics, then you'll probably never read one of my posts again. Never mind that; Hamblin is hilarious. 

Back to the carbon bubble

I can't believe I volunteered to start this series. What did I get myself into? But to keep things interesting, today I'm recommending an approximately three-and-a-half minute video presentation of Al Gore speaking at Davos. I tried to put the video directly on this post, but it didn't work. So, here's the link. The part about the carbon bubble is toward the end. 

Climate change, environment and energy in brief

I was thrilled to learn that the Desert Botanical Garden's program to increase monarch butterfly populations—by collaborating with schools and communities across Arizona to plant milkweed—is working (azcentral). And at Carbon Brief, Daisy Dunne writes about safely storing CO₂ underground. Though the process is not without risks. Would it leak into the atmosphere? But this piece by Matt Simon at Wired on how Los Angeles is diverting a future catastrophe by innovating ways to capture and conserve water struck a cord because I live in California. Yet, what I didn't know is that some rural communities in the state have already experienced dire water shortages. And in the future, as Dunne notes, "Water wars will rage, and communities will perish." Yikes.

Food and farming

Climate change and the nutritional quality of fish

Two food-related stories from this past week caught my eye. One of them, written by Jamie Morton at the New Zealand Herald, describes how warmer waters decrease the nutritional quality of fish harvested for human consumption. You can read more about that, here.

Climate change, corn and other vegetables and legumes 

At second piece, by Georgina Gustin at Inside Climate News, discusses two new studies on climate change and risks to some of the world's most important crops. The first study analyzed the effects of 2°C and 4°C of warming on global corn production. And the news isn't good. Because corn is used to feed livestock and make biofuels, sharp losses in the world's supplies, especially synchronous declines, would negatively impact the global economy, resulting in higher food prices and food scarcity. But the outcomes vary greatly, depending on how much Earth warms. At a 2°C increase in global temperatures, the study predicts a decrease in corn production of around 18 percent. But if Earth warms by 4°C, losses could be close to 50 percent. As Gustin notes, we're currently on track for nearly a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of this century.

The second study assessed how the environmental effects of climate change might impact the quality and availability of vegetables and legumes. Though what most interests me from this study is how ozone negatively impacts plants. And just to be clear, one of the results of increasing levels of CO₂ is higher concentrations of ground level ozone due to hotter temperatures. I found some helpful information on that, here (pdf from the Union of Concerned Scientists). But I think this quote sums it up nicely:

While previous research has shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide could boost some vegetable and legume yields, the new study finds that any benefits will be offset by the negative effects of increased ozone, less water availability and increased salinity.
— Georgina Gustin, Inside Climate News, July 11,2018

Science, health and technology

Electric scooters

Learn how a skeptical Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic reluctantly gives in to electric scooters. I confess this highly amusing piece makes me want to try one, even though electric scooters remain controversial. Evidently, cyclists don't like them. And I can understand that. But the good news is that you don't have to purchase one, depending on where you live. They work much like Uber and Lyft. Also, if you decide to read the article, make sure to take a look at the amusing question and answer part at the end. I loved it! Here's an additional piece about scooters, by Conor Friedersdorf, also at The Atlantic. Enjoy.

Insects, dust, health and climate change

Texas is at greater risk for vector-born diseases than other parts of the U.S., reports Ruth SoRelle at Texas Climate News. In fact, the incidence of diseases spread by ticks, fleas and mosquitoes in the U.S. jumped threefold between 2004 and 2016. But Texas is particularly vulnerable due to an increase in higher temperatures, floods, migration, poverty and other factors. Though what I found most noteworthy from this piece is that higher temperatures also increase the odds mosquitoes will infect humans and that they will do so more quickly. Even if Texas if off your radar, you still might want to take a look at the color-coded U.S. map in the article because Texas isn't the only state at risk from these diseases. 

Because I don't want to annoy you by summarizing another worrisome story on health, I'll leave you to read about dust, health and climate change at The Conversation. But I will share one surprising fact I learned: Fine particles of dust not only transmit valley fever but also arsenic poisoning.  


Snowflakes or Badasses? 

Are we wimps for wanting to express our grief over the impacts of climate change and the environmental damage humans are causing? I don't think so. But when a senior lecturer at the University of Washington created a class called "Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety," people in the community lashed out through emails and phone calls. Do you think mourning the changes we're witnessing almost daily makes a person a snowflake? And what would it feel like to hold a bird as it took its last breath, dying because it ingested plastic? I, for one, would like to sign up for that class! How about you? You can learn more about the program in this poignant piece by Jennifer Atkinson at High Country News. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this remarkable quote: 

Direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow. That doesn’t make them snowflakes. It makes them badasses.
— Jennifer Atkinson, University of Washington, writing at High Country News, May 29, 2018

Closing thoughts

I don't have any more thoughts, except that you must be mad at me for sharing so much bad news. I'm sorry. Yet, the news from the U.S. southern border is even worse. I'd call it heart-wrenching.  

I hope you'll stick with me, though, because I'm planning to work on my website a lot over the summer. I also started a Patreon page, which I'll tell you more about next week. But it isn't live yet. 

Weekly carbon dioxide stats

This past week's CO₂ levels: 410.94

The week before that—411.39 ppm.

According to NOAA, as per Sammy Roth's Climate Point newsletter

From my favorite newsletters:

The most recent edition of Climate Point includes a wonderful story about Pope Francis and another one on how coral reefs benefit ecosystems and help prevent flooding. You can sign up for Climate Point, here. Another excellent newsletter, Above the Fold, shared a fascinating piece on using plant fibers to make building materials stronger while also reducing emissions. You can sign up for Above the Fold, here. Both newsletters are free. 

That's all for today. Until next week, stay safe and be mindful of the sun and summer's heat. Oh, and I'll try really, really hard to find some upbeat stories for the next edition of Climatically Speaking.   —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!