Wednesday, April 05, 2006


The Greenhouse We Don't Want is Here

From one of my favorite books comes the "call to environmentalism" theme of this collection of essays. The book is The Cannibal Queen, which is a memoir about restoring an old plane and then flying her to each state of the United States, and the observations along the way.

From pages 251-253



Years later, Thomas Frank gives another description of the expression of our times in “What’s the Matter with Kansas”. This book isn’t about the environment, at least not directly. However, like “The Cannibal Queen”, an introspective writer examining other things manages to capture something critical to our future as a species.




If you haunt or any other major news source, you would have probably seen an article last week about coral dying off in the Caribbean. I’m very much reminded of the insidious invasion of Caulerpa taxifolia in the Mediterranean, which is an ecological disaster that few people seem to be very much worried about. Possibly, like the Caribbean coral holocaust, because it occurs beneath the waters of the oceans, and is therefore completely invisible to all but a few observing eyes and instruments.

"Meinesz's fight against C. taxifolia—and against the arrogant ill-informed oficials who allowed it to prosper—may be a lost battle, but his combat journal is enormously valuable. We will never have any such well-documented record of how the gypsy moth, the whelk tingle, or the house sparrow established their beachheads and rolled on to conquest."— from the foreword of Killer Algae by David Quammen

Link to check out the book “Killer Algae”

Unprecedented die-off of Caribbean coral reefs

The barriers, which limit damage from weather, are key to the region's tourism and fishing.

By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - A one-two punch of bleaching from record hot water followed by disease has killed ancient and delicate coral in the biggest loss of reefs scientists have ever seen in Caribbean waters.

Researchers from around the globe are scrambling to figure out the extent of the loss. Early, conservative estimates from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands find that about one-third of the coral in official monitoring sites has recently died.

"It's an unprecedented die-off," said Jeff Miller, a National Park Service fisheries biologist, who last week checked 40 stations in the Virgin Islands. "The mortality that we're seeing now is of the extremely slow-growing reef-building corals. These are corals that are the foundation of the reef... . We're talking colonies that were here when Columbus came by have died in the past three to four months."

Some of the devastated coral can never be replaced because it grows only the width of one dime a year, Miller said.

Coral reefs are the basis for a multibillion-dollar tourism and commercial-fishing economy in the Caribbean. Key fish species use coral as habitat and feeding grounds. Reefs limit the damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. More recently they have been touted as possible sources for new medicines.

If coral reefs die, "you lose the goose with golden eggs" that are key parts of small island economies, said Edwin Hernandez-Delgado, a University of Puerto Rico biology researcher.

On Sunday, he found a colony of 800-year-old star coral - more than 13 feet high - that had just died off Puerto Rico.

On Wednesday, Tyler Smith, coordinator of the U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Reef Monitoring program, dived at a popular spot for tourists in St. Thomas and saw an old chunk of brain coral, about three feet in diameter, that was at least 90 percent dead from the disease called "white plague."

The Caribbean is actually better off than areas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans where mortality rates - mostly from warming waters - have been in the 90 percent range in past years, said Tom Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance.

And with global warming, scientists are pessimistic about the future of coral reefs.

"The prognosis is not good," said biochemistry professor M. James Crabbe of the University of Luton near London. In early April, he will investigate coral-reef mortality in Jamaica. "If you want to see a coral reef, go now, because they just won't survive in their current state."

New sea-surface temperature figures show the sustained heating in the Caribbean last summer and fall was by far the worst in 21 years of satellite monitoring, said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch.

The heat causes the symbiotic algae that provides food for the coral to die and turn white. That puts the coral in critical condition. If coral remains bleached for more than a week, the chance of death soars, according to NOAA scientists.

Our culprit is global warming, which was almost immediately discarded as a myth, mainly by people with a vested interest in the consumption continuing. Pressure was applied to government, the issue politicized, those who wanted reductions in greenhouse gases were patronized as washed up hippie environmentalist fruit cakes, and those that quietly insisted that the caring for all creation was a religious duty shared by all humanity and that the place of man was as a servant to the earth and not the center of it were dismissed as socialists or irrelevant.

Worse, the issue was portrayed here in the U.S. as one of defending American sovereignty, patriotism, and authenticity. Images of rugged individualism were ordered in by the generals of capitalism against the latte-sipping limousine liberals that were out of touch with ordinary Americans. The only trouble is, anyone with any amount of analytical skill, could read and slowly appreciate that the trend was not good. In the 1990s, a wait-and-see approach was commonly adopted by even ardent environmentalists. No one wants to be the one that cries wolf. And, you only have so much reputation capital as an activist. But now, I think we have a consensus.

Powerless in the face of corporatism, most people in America seem to not have many choices when it comes to causing the emission of so-called greenhouse gases. Sure, everyone could cut their energy consumption in, say, half. But we love using electricity, and we love oil. We are also not unique. Everyone on the planet loves using electricity and loves consuming oil. We in the U.S. just seem to have perfected the conspicuous consumption of it.

There is little incentive to walk instead of drive when no one else in the neighborhood walks the 40 minutes to the grocery store. There is little incentive when it’s actually physically unsafe to walk the 40 minutes to the grocery store. And that is if you happen to have a grocery store relatively close to you.

The “town square” mentality of new construction doesn’t help either. It’s mostly a charade. An unintentional charade that was probably executed with the best of intentions, of course, but it is still a charade. Those Town Squares, where walking paths occupy otherwise unbuildable space, and a nod is made towards public transit, still require almost every resident to own and operate a car. They’re ornamental and not functional. The bedroom community reigns supreme, and is remarkably intractable when it comes to modification.

The older neighborhoods aren’t a sure bet either. Move to them, and see your local shopping evaporate because a Wal-Mart was built 24 miles to the south-east. The scythe-wielding harbinger of completely empty Main Street business districts has been silently and darkly standing sentry over all of us for at least two decades.

Is Wal-Mart and the centralization of shopping necessarily a bad thing? No. Maybe in the case of greenhouse gas emissions we cause less damage with centralized shopping than we would with decentralized shopping, where every place requires shipping to and from, and every little store duplicates the overhead of waste. I don’t know which is environmentally better, but I wouldn’t be surprised either way. All I know is that I’m chained to a car of some sort, and unless technology gets a move on, we’ll run out of oil before having anything close to an equivalent ubiquitous replacement for transportation.

Why every single home in Southern California does not already have solar panels on the roof yet, I don’t know. Is it simply cost? Is it because it’s not “cool” enough? Too much trouble? Why in the world every single large commercial building isn’t required to have co-generation on their vastly spreading flat roofs, to reduce the need to burn coal or natural gas for electricity, defeats my minor-league brain. It would seem to make perfect sense.

This brings up the question, however, of whether or not it’s really worth it to be able to drive when the biodiversity of the planet is failing all around us. Here’s a series of essays that document some of the damage.

Feeling the Heat: The World Wakes Up
By Jim Motavalli

Two thousand and six is emerging as the year Americans finally wake up to the reality of global warming. Of course, E has been hammering away at the issue for six years or more, but now it has momentum, with the release of several new books and a Time magazine cover story ("Be Worried, Be Very Worried") April 3.

An ABC/Time/Stanford University poll accompanying the article confirmed that Americans are finally focusing on the problem. Today, 85 percent of Americans believe that global warming is occurring, versus 13 percent who don't. Sixty percent of respondents admit to worry about it either "a great deal" or "a good amount." Sixty-eight percent think the federal government should do more to combat it. (It's doing virtually nothing now.)

But Americans remain pretty confused. A stunning 64 percent in the poll think there's "a lot of disagreement" among climate scientists on the reality of global warming, when there's actually a near total consensus. And 54 percent think climate change is "a problem for the future," versus only 44 percent who think it's already a serious problem.

Given that misconception, we thought it might be helpful to provide some examples of climate change that are happening right now. Let's make this clear: We are already causing major disruption to the Earth's weather patterns, and we're seeing huge effects, from melting polar ice to shifting species, from rising seas to dying coral. For humans, this poses grave dangers, but for some species it means extinction. "There will be no polar ice by 2060," says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "Somewhere along that path, the polar bear drops out."

Imperiled polar bears.
© Gary Braasch
These excerpts are from E's book Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge). Our report on ongoing climate change came out in 2004, before Americans were as focused on global warming as they are now. But much of the evidence cited in the Time article and in other, more recent books first appeared between covers in Feeling the Heat. The book would probably have sold better if we simply sat on it for two years! Here's some of what we saw around the world in 2004, from the pages of Feeling the Heat (which is illustrated, as is this article, with dramatic photographs by Gary Braasch):

The California Coast: Migrating Species

In 1949, a combination of state and federal organizations began monitoring physical, chemical, biological and meteorological facets of the California Current under the auspices of the California Cooperative Oceanic and Fisheries Investigations program, known as CalCOFI. It was designed in part to track many factors affecting commercially important fish species such as mackerel and sardines. The data gathered under CalCOFI include air temperatures, wind speeds, nutrient levels, salinity, water temperature on the surface and deep below the surface, and the abundance of larval fish and zooplankton--the smallest marine animals.

What happens if you watch those data change over the years? Your findings might echo those of John McGowan, an oceanography professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego: As water temperatures have risen, the base of the marine food chain off the coast of California has crashed. And one by one, the fish and birds farther up that food chain are crashing, too.

Life in the ocean begins with tiny plants known as phytoplankton. Like all plants, phytoplankton need light to drive photosynthesis and nutrients to feed the process. Although it's somewhat counter-intuitive, the richest and most nutritive ocean waters are the coldest and heaviest. Strong winds do the work of stirring the system and pulling the nutrient-rich waters up toward the light.

The first problems showed up because of El Niños, short-term changes in ocean temperatures that tend to increase the warm water along the western U.S. coastline, reducing the food that boosts the phytoplankton. But researchers like McGowan noticed a difference between the early El Niños and the later ones. Numbers of zooplankton--the tiniest animals in the food chain, which depend on the phytoplankton--dropped during the El Niño of 1957-1959 and then quickly rebounded. But after subsequent El Niños during the 1983 to 1984 and 1997 to 1998 seasons, the zooplankton didn't come back.

California's tidepools are changing.
© Gary Braasch
In 1995, going back through the accumulated years of data, McGowan reported a staggering finding in Science: Zooplankton numbers in the California Current had dropped by 70 percent. "It's the largest change ever measured in plankton productivity in the ocean," McGowan says. "This enormous change in the zooplankton in the California Current could not be detected from year to year. It took several decades before we discovered this big drop, by at least 70 percent or even up to 80 percent."

With that huge loss at the base of the food chain, reverberations throughout the system that depended on it were inevitable. Since McGowan's study came out, declines of species throughout the area have been attributed to the loss of zooplankton and the warming water.

The crash showed up in fish, although it's often tough to tell if such declines come from too many nets or too little fish food. But even when researchers look at species for which human markets have no appetite, they find precipitous declines. The larvae of Leuroglossus stilbius--a fish of so little market value that it doesn't even have a name in English--historically are the third most abundant in the California Current. Larvae counts for it dropped 50 percent after 1977. Another similarly ignored species with no common name, Stenobranchus leucopsarus, saw its larvae drop 42 percent after the sharp temperature rise. Its larvae are typically the sixth most abundant in those waters.

In 1967, aerial surveys found 70 square miles of kelp forests along the long California coastline. In 1989, that number dropped 42 percent. By 1999, the most recent year for which data are available, the total plummeted to just 17.8 square miles--down 75 percent from the 1967 survey.

George Divoky with a Black Guillemot, whose population crash has been related to global warming.
© Gary Braasch
But the most dramatic decline came to the sooty shearwater, a predatory seabird at the top of the marine food chain. "In the 1960s and 1970s they were present in the tens of millions," McGowan says, "the largest population of pelagic [marine] seabirds in the entire California Current. They dominated it. Millions and millions of them." The birds feed on juvenile fish and larger zooplankton. Researchers began looking at the birds regularly in 1987. By the 1990s, the population of sooty shearwaters had crashed, with numbers down 90 percent. —Orna Izakson

New York: The Virus Specter

Heat stress is probably the most obvious thing people think of when global warming comes up. Other effects are more subtle, but no less deadly. Higher rates of ground-level ozone are a major respiratory irritant, and vector-borne diseases thrive in warmer temperatures. And that's the problem that's keeping the city's public health officials up nights.

New York City had never had a case of West Nile encephalitis before 1999, but that hot summer--the hottest and driest in a century--62 cases were reported in the region. In all, 8,000 New Yorkers were infected, and seven people died.

Between August 12 and 23, six people were admitted to Flushing Hospital in the borough of Queens with high fevers and headaches. Routine culture screens for bacterial or fungal microbes were negative, leading to a growing consensus the patients were suffering from an encephalitis-like disease of viral origin. Within three weeks, three elderly patients died.

Tests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colorado revealed that the illness was close to the St. Louis encephalitis, which had never previously touched New York City. By September 6, there were five confirmed victims of the new virus, and 34 suspected cases. By September 9, exotic birds began dying in the Bronx Zoo. A general health warning was issued, and city residents began to get used to helicopters overhead spraying clouds of malathion and pyrethriod pesticides. By September 21, scientists had isolated and identified the specific virus, not St. Louis encephalitis but West Nile.

West Nile is spread by a mosquito, Culex pipens, which breeds in stagnant pools of water. According to several prominent scientists, drought is the key factor in spreading West Nile virus. Outbreaks require an unfortunate series of events, they say. According to Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, Culex mosquitoes often live in close proximity to people because of the stagnant water they carelessly let stand. While the mosquitoes' favorite prey is birds, periods of high heat and drought send such common urban-dwelling species as crows, blue jays and robins out of the city in search of fresh water. City bird populations are further reduced as unlucky individuals are bitten and killed by West Nile infection.

"By reproductive imperative the mosquitoes are forced to feed on humans, and that's what triggered the 1999 epidemic," Despommier says. "Higher temperatures also trigger increased mosquito biting frequency. The first big rains after the drought created new breeding sites." It took Hurricane Floyd, which passed through New York on September 16, to break the weather cycle that led to the outbreak.

Despommier says this same pattern is also discernible in recent West Nile outbreaks in Israel, South Africa and Romania. In Bucharest, Despommier's investigation turned up abandoned buildings whose basements were full of water, a perfect Culex breeding ground.

Another prominent proponent of the West Nile global warming connection is Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard University. "Droughts are more common and prolonged as the planet warms," he says. "Warm winters intensify drought because there's a reduced spring runoff. The cycle seems to rev up in the spring, as catch basin water dries up and what's left becomes organically rich and a perfect mosquito breeding place. The drought also reduces populations of mosquito predators."

In 2002, West Nile spread across the country, appearing in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Five provinces of Canada were also affected. In a growing scientific consensus, public health officials believe the next drought will give this serious virus even a wider reach. Spraying certainly hasn't stopped these infectious bugs. Researchers at France's University of Montpellier said in mid-2003 that a mutation in the West Nile mosquitoes' genetic code resulted in their singular resistance to pesticides. —Jim Motavalli

Florida: Dying Coral

Florida's vulnerable coastline.
© Gary Braasch
I first heard about coral bleaching from Billy Causey, the manager of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. We were sitting in his office deep in a 67-acre hardwood hammock on Marathon Key. It's a place where ospreys, egrets, cormorants, fat black snakes, hermit crabs, parrot fish, even an old tropical fish collector like Billy can still find refuge from the Kmart mall sprawl out on Route One. Thick set with iron-gray hair and sea-gray eyes, Causey, who moved to the Keys in 1973, sounds like some Old Testament Jeremiah as he recalls the gradual decline of the reef during the years he's been here.

Unfortunately, while among the most diverse of marine habitats, the world's massive coral colonies are also fragile structures, living within a narrow range of clarity, salinity, low-nutrient chemistry and temperature.

"Throughout the '70s we saw various problems but constantly clear waters with typical hundred-foot visibility," Billy recalls.

"In 1979, we had a warm water spell and big vase sponges started dying," he continues. "In June of 1980 we had a pattern of slick calm weather and thousands of fish were killed. This was the first signal to me that things were tilting the wrong way. Then in 1983, with an explosion of onshore development, there was an urchin die-off. In 1984, there was another doldrums and the reefs bleached down to Key West. Maybe five percent of the coral died. In May of 1986, when we had hardly seen black band disease [characterized by dark bands of dead coral on otherwise healthy specimens], I went out to take a picture of it. I saw four-dozen massive outbreaks within an area about 400 feet in length."

Causey pauses to listen to a passing bird cawing over the still, aquamarine waters of the Gulf a few yards away. Further north I've noticed the fringing waters of Key Largo have taken on a greenish lime Jell-O hue.

"In June of 1987 we got a slick calm," he continues. "On July 13 we went out and saw all the corals turning mustard yellow. Then they went stark white. Then we began getting reports of similar bleaching in the Caribbean and on the Indo/Pacific reefs and we realized something global was going on. We began looking at this as the canary in the coal mine. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was reporting 1987 as the hottest year on record and the 1980s as the hottest decade." These records would all fall in the 1990s.

The bad news multiplied, Causey says. "In 1990, we had the first big losses linked to bleaching where the coral didn't come back. We lost most of our fire coral that year. There was another benchmark year in 1997, with coral bleaching all around the Caribbean. Lots of living coral just went away in 1998, a catastrophic bleaching event. But remote reefs in the Pacific were also being lost, so it gave me a sense that this wasn't an isolated event--the result of our failure to act. There were back-to-back severe bleaching in 1997 and 1998, then Hurricane George hit."

Causey shakes his head, as if unwilling to believe his own unremittingly bleak narrative. "You look at old photos and film of the reef and you realize what was lost," he says. "If you were lucky enough to be here 20 or 30 years ago, you know."

I do. As a teen I got to snorkel through Keys' waters so clear and vibrant with exotic life and color they were almost scary.

After talking with Billy I'll do some diving in the Keys, including a couple of dives down to Aquarius, the world's last underwater research habitat, seven miles off Key Largo. The habitat is a 48-foot cylindrical structure resting on four steel legs planted on the bottom in 60 feet of water. Its yellow body is rusting in spots and encrusted with weedy growths being grazed by roving schools of fish. A couple of large tarpon in the 100- to 150-pound class circle it curiously, shadowing me as I swim under the metal skirt of the habitat, popping up in the wet room where a school of yellowtail snapper huddle discreetly at the edge of the entry pool. Beyond the wet room there is a lab, shower and toilet, kitchen and berthing area with two sets of triple bunks. Scientists, living here for up to eight days at a time, have a unique opportunity to study the world's third-largest reef system.

Unfortunately the reef they're studying is also dying. Where once branching corals grew I find only skeletal sticks in faded rubble fields. Many of the abundant rock corals are being eaten away by diseases that have spread in an epidemic wave throughout the Keys. The names of the diseases tell the story: black band, white band, white plague, and aspergillus, a fungus normally found in agricultural soils that can shred fan corals like moths shred Irish lace. The corals are also being smothered under sediment and algal growth linked to polluted runoff and are periodically bleaching white as a result of warming ocean temperatures. —David Helvarg

Pacific Northwest: The Incredible Shrinking Glaciers

Edith's checkerspot butterfly is a global warming victim.
© Gary Braasch
It feels as if a giant meat locker has swung open, sending a cold, yet thin, wind blowing down South Cascade Glacier just outside North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. The sun glares. Everything is white. The expanse of snow acts like a big reflecting basin. Bob Krimmel, a scientist in a broad-brimmed hat and gloves, is initially winded by the altitude change, but spends much of the day trudging through brush to get to this spot--the longest-studied glacier in the northern Cascade mountains, the nation's most heavily glaciated area outside of Alaska. So much snow. And yet, the glacier is shrinking.

"It's very easy to see the glacier is much, much smaller," Krimmel says later, back at his office at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Seated at a computer, he looks at the side-by-side images--a photo taken in 1928 and another 60 years later. "In the last century, it's retreated about 1.2 miles," says Krimmel, a hydrologist and the glacier's leading researcher. "Right now, it's about 1.5 miles long. It's lost about half of its length and half its volume."

South Cascade Glacier has become the poster child for global climate change in the Pacific Northwest, contends Jon Riedel, glacier researcher for North Cascades National Park. It is thinning so much, Riedel points out, that between 1953 and 2000 it lost the equivalent of 72 feet of water in thickness off its surface. That's about as tall as seven basketball hoops stacked on top of each other.

Call it the case of the incredible shrinking glacier. In this icy high country, 46 of the 47 Cascade glaciers observed by Nichols College researcher Mauri Pelto were found to be retreating. Riedel, meanwhile, personally backpacks several miles to monitor four glaciers; he notices the lower-elevation, smaller glaciers on the west side of the Cascades are shrinking, a pattern also found farther south.

This melting promises to change the very image of the Pacific Northwest. Montana's Glacier National Park in 30 years may need to be renamed "the park formerly known as Glacier," as Seattle-based writer John C. Ryan puts it. A hundred of its 150 glaciers have vanished, and the pace is hastening. Or take Washington's white-capped Mount Rainier, that looming symbol of the Northwest depicted on Washington license plates and the label of a venerable local beer. The vast majority of Rainier's glaciers are receding, says Andrew Fountain, researcher and Portland State University geology professor.

"They don't recede because they're getting colder, you know what I'm saying?" Fountain says. Whatever the ultimate cause, he says: "That's global climate change--right there."

In scene after scene played out around the Pacific Northwest, researchers are uncovering surprises that appear linked to the past century's average one-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature and, based on what has happened so far, they predict serious problems to come in the next century. The surprises are as varied as the region itself, from the dangerously delayed spawning of salmon in British Columbia to the practically regionwide shrunken snowpack and perhaps happier news--such as the discovery of a butterfly that has colonized Oregon and Washington from the south as temperatures warmed.

"We're seeing things that never happened before to our knowledge," says Elliott Norse, of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington. "These things are consistent with what we would expect in a world that is warming. It would be, in many cases, surprising if this weren't human-caused." —Sally Deneen

Antigua: Stronger Storms

I am standing on the shoreline at Runaway Bay. It is mid-January, the height of the tourist season in the Caribbean tropical islands. The sea, as its groundswell rushes in, retains those same wondrous shades--the navy-blue, the turquoise, the cobalt. Something is missing: there is no sand. No sand, no tourists. The effect is not so much unreal, as surreal.

Lionel Hurst, since 1988 Ambassador to first the United Nations and then the United States for Antigua and neighboring island Barbuda, points to the waves crashing against a metal wall just below the concrete patio of the Sunset Cove hotel. "The owner put in that barrier to try to save his property after Hurricane Luis came ashore in September 1995," Hurst says. "The waves used to break 23 feet further out to sea. But that entire stretch of beach just disappeared, overnight, and it's never returned. So nobody wants to stay here now. The hotel's clients used to walk up a little further and swim. But you can see the same thing has happened in that half-moon area there. Basically, about 1,000 feet of sand has eroded along what used to be one of our most idyllic areas."

Hurricane Luis was the most devastating storm the island had ever seen. With gusts approaching 200 miles an hour and sustained winds of more than 140, Luis damaged 90 percent of Antigua's homes, 65 percent of its business sector, and left 7,000 people unemployed. In a small country now dependent on tourism for 70 percent of its income, virtually all such facilities along the coast needed extensive repairs.

Clearly, something new was in the wind. "A signal," as Ambassador Hurst puts it, "that something is terribly wrong." Simply stated, warmer ocean temperatures put greater moisture into the atmosphere, two variables that work to power hurricanes. Caribbean-wide, as Hurst would summarize in March 2003 at the World Water Forum in Japan, storms and hurricanes have risen from an average of 3.5 events per year between 1920 and 1940, to 5.5 events per year between 1944 and 1980, to 13 events per year ever since 1990.

More hurricanes and volcanic eruptions are just the most extreme manifestations of what is happening to the leeward islands of the West Indies. Make no mistake: Antigua is still achingly beautiful. Including day-trippers from the cruise ships, more than half-a-million visitors still arrive annually to vacation at places like the Jolly Beach Resort, enjoying wintertime temperatures in the 80s and cool rum punches before an evening feast of fresh grouper against a backdrop of Caribbean steel drums. But there is trouble in this Westerner's paradise, and local Antiguans sense it all around them in myriad ways. —Dick Russell

I’m a big fan of Edward O. Wilson. He is one of my favorite scientists. He is an ultimate interdisciplanarian. Reading his CV is a tour-de-force of legitimate modernity. He is the champion of many people like me, who do not see religion and science being intractably opposed, who see biodiversity as the greatest wealth of the planet, and who see culture being primarily responsible for our success in evolving as a species.

He is the reason that I developed a renewed interest in biological science, after being simply and flatly disgusted by both sides of the Creation Science debate. You can only take so much of rigid fundamentalism, whether it be scientific, or protestant. When they seem to be two sides of the same coin, it can be depressing. However, having been introduced to another coin, I now am able to give my two cents worth.

Biodiversity is key. The loss of it only happens when really bad things occur. Like, the big impact that killed off most of the dinosaurs. Or the other 11 or so mass extinctions that have been identified in the distant past, which occur (very roughly) every 26 million years or so.

Here’s the seminal paper on the issue of periodicity of mass extinction events.

Wilson writes that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event now. We very well may see what a mass extinction looks like, from the infinitesimally small blink of time that a human life-span allows.

This begs the question. If species are dying off around us, and it’s due to global warming, then are we dying off as well?

If you are like me, you grew up with scary stories of exploding population growth and how it would only go up and we would soon be doomed by overcrowding. There have been some interesting developments. When I was born in 1972, the global fertility rate had just climbed to 5 births per woman. It didn’t look like it was going to come down. The articles below discuss what has happened since then, and what the thinking is now going forward. Understanding what affects population size, which naturally affects energy consumption, is vital to identifying what we need to do next.

World Population in 2300
The United Nations Population Division (UNDP) released its first projection of population trends to the year 2300. According to its medium scenario, the UNDP predicts global population will increase from approximately six billion persons in 2000 to nine billion over the next 75 years. Global population will then decline to about eight billion by 2175 and then increase again to nine billion by the year 2300.
Because population grows at exponential rates, small increases of decreases in the growth rate would result in significant differences in long term population trends. For example, in its low growth scenario, UNDP projects that global population could decline to 2 billion in 2300; under its high growth scenario, as many as 36 billion people could populate the globe. All of these projects have a considerable degree of uncertainty; they are based on current population trends, but the world could be a very different kind of place three centuries from now. After all, three centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution was many decades away, and it was another century and a half before Louis Pasteur published the germ theory, which led to a revolution in health and the increase in longevity that has led to the current increase in global population.
The UNDP's projections are based on its revised predictions for global population trends over the next five decades. During the past fifty years, there was an unprecedented increase in global population as mortality rates declined almost worldwide. This rapid increase in population raised concerns that population growth in many developing countries would outstrip the countries' ability to feed their population. That concern, however, has been reduced because of another unprecedented trend: Developing countries are experiencing a transition from high to low fertility rates much faster than occurred in Western nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Total fertility rates are declining almost worldwide. The concern in many developed nations is that total fertility rates have dropped so low that populations will begin to decline significantly.

There are several clear population trends. First, the global population is getting older. Because longevity is increasing almost worldwide, and birth rates are declining, the age distribution of the population is changing. UNDP projects that 40 percent of the world's population will be over 60 years of age in 2300. The global distribution of population will also change, if present trends continue. Almost every countries' total fertility rates will decline over the next century; more than half of the positive population growth will be in three countries: Yemen, Uganda, and Niger. India will bypass China to become the most populace country. Together, India and China will account for 48 percent of positive population growth.

The key factor is whether current population trends continue or not. The UNDP significantly revised their last population growth predictions in 2002 because demographers did not foresee the rapid transition to lower fertility rates in many developing nations. There is also a considerable lag in obtaining population statistics for some countries; countries that are politically unstable, war-torn, and host to large refugee populations may lack the capacity to collect adequate birth and death rate data for their populations. Moreover, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is taking a larger toll on populations in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China than was previously predicted. How current trends will change in response to numerous unforeseen factors is a matter of considerable uncertainty. For more on population, see the following:

Population Dynamics

It is estimated that the world population reached 6 billion at the end of the 20th century, a remarkable expansion. While historical records are inexact, it is believed that at the beginning of the 20th century, the world population was approximately 1.6 billion, which means that global population nearly quadrupled in just 100 years. Most of this expansion in population occurred in the fifty years following World War II.

This unprecedented increase in global population is due to the dramatic decline in mortality worldwide. The agricultural revolution, the availability of antiobiotics, vaccines, and pesticides has all contributed to the increase in life expectancy. Life expectancy is estimated to have more than doubled over the course of the 20th century, from approximately 30 years to nearly 65 years.

It is expected that the population will continue to grow over the next two decades, because a large percentage of the population in the most populated countries are of, or will reach childbearing age during this period, a phenomenon known as population momentum. According to most recent estimates, the population will continue to increase by 1.3 percent per year, adding about 78 million people each year.

However, another remarkable demographic transformation is underway. Worldwide, the total fertility rate is declining and a demographic transition is taking place. Total fertility rate is the average number of children that a woman has over her lifetime. Demographic transition is the term demographers use to describe the change a nation undergoes from experiencing high mortality rates and high death rates to low death rates and low birth rates. Most western industrialized nations began to undergo a demographic transition after the Industrial Revolution. Now evidence indicates that most developing nations are undergoing a similar transition. Almost every region, except Africa, has experienced a sharp decline in fertility rates; it appears that a decline in fertility is occurring in Africa as well. The worldwide total fertility rate was estimated to be 5 births per woman when total fertility rates peaked during the period from 1965 to 1970; it is now estimated at 2.7 births. A replacement fertility rate would be 2.1 births per woman, or one child to replace each parent (taking into account premature deaths). Almost half of the world's population lives in countries in which the fertility rate is below replacement rates. These below replacement rate countries include not only Western developed nations, but developing countries such as China,Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

Additional demographic trends are emerging: the aging of the population. People are living longer and having fewer children. As a result, the average age of the population is increasing, with a larger percentage of the population aged 65 years or older. The aging of population will strain the ability of nations to finance social security programs for the elderly in coming decades, because the number of people working and paying taxes to support these programs is shrinking in relation to the number of people these programs must support. It is not clear how nations will deal with these demographic trends.

Although the global population growth rate has slowed, the population is estimated to continue to grow over the next two decades. Most of the increase will occur in nations that have the lowest income levels, depend heavily on natural resources and in areas of rich biological diversity where deforestation for fuel wood and cropland is a serious concern.

The decline in fertility rates seems directly related to the level of education women get, and the availability of contraception. There have been a lot of studies, but this seems to be the key. When women are educated and have control over their biology, birth rates go down. And they decline fast. If this is true, then the reality and requirement of global assistance for the education and health support to women everywhere especially becomes an absolute imperative.

Does this mean requiring women in poor countries to use contraception? Pushing it on them as some sort of string tied to aid money? No, not at all. Simply the process of improving education and allowing families access to the tools that enable their right to choose their own size, from NFP to Norplant, is all you need to reduce fertility rates. This works, where lectures and smug superiority from the Northern Hemisphere do not. Some would argue that this is already happening on its own.

What will the world look like in 300 years? Will there be less of us? One way or another, there might be. Plague (waves of bird flu), major events (supervolcano, asteroid impact), the end of oil (that 40 year reserve is looking kind of thin), shock waves from the loss of biodiversity (our current mass extinction event), and the natural decline of fertility rates (education and contraception effects) could all play a role in creating an earth where people depopulate. Will we live like Isaac Asimov (everyone in cities while massive machines farm the empty lands for us?) or will we live like Jean Auel (decentralized tribes wandering the renewing earth?).

I wish I could be here to see it.

What next in the short term?

Reduce your energy consumption.
Talk about the issue.
Take as radical steps as you can in your own life.
Vote with the survival of the earth first, not last, on your priority list. This does not necessarily mean Democrat. Nor does it mean a Republican can’t qualify.
Write letters to companies and congress-critters alike.
Compliment progress when you find it.

Support legislation like this:

California aims to limit emissions of gases
Mon Apr 3, 2006 11:33 PM BST164

SACRAMENTO, Calif (Reuters) - California on Monday stepped up efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

State assembly members introduced a bill that would make California the first state to set a limit on emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The bill, which aims to cut emissions by 25 percent, or 145 million tons to 1990 levels by 2020, was drafted by Democrat Speaker Fabian Nunez and Democrat Assemblywoman Fran Pavley.

Pavley also wrote a state law ordering the reduction of emissions from cars and light-duty trucks.

A "Climate Action Team" of environmental advisors also recommended a series of new clean-air programs to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We cannot continue to ignore the threat of global warming to our environment because it isn't just about the future, it's about the impact that it's already having on our public health. It's about the impact that it's already having on our planet, our natural resources," Nunez said at a news conference.

The climate report to Schwarzenegger said the emissions reduction target for 2020 "should be the basis for an emissions cap in the development of the program." The report urged a program beyond California's borders to include other states in the West "to minimize emissions leakage."

It also called for mandatory reporting of emissions levels by the largest polluting industries -- oil and gas exploration and production, oil refining, electric power, cement manufacturing and solid waste landfills.

"Mandatory reporting will ensure an accurate inventory of emissions, which is critical to ensure that decision-making is based on emissions and emission reductions," the report to the governor said.

The climate advisors also said California should develop a "market-based program which considers trading, emissions credits, auction and offsets" and recommend the program to the governor by January 1, 2008.

A cap-and-trade market system would establish financial incentives to reduce emissions. Such programs are used extensively by electricity producers in the European Union.

Another key recommendation would require new electricity in California to come from sources with emissions equivalent to or less than new combined-cycle natural gas-fired plants. All utilities, whether publicly or privately owned, would have to meet state energy efficiency goals.

A spokesman for PG&E Corp.'s Pacific Gas & Electric unit, the state's biggest utility, said the company had not reviewed the Assembly bill and could not comment specifically on an emissions limit.

PG&E spokesman John Nelson said "we are not talking just about greenhouse gases emitted by utilities. This is something that all significant emitters of greenhouse gases need to address and on a regional basis."

The company has been reporting its emissions levels to a state climate registry.

The End.

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