One-Hundred-Year Storm

photo of house with flag over fence
A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

With another hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast this weekend (Delta? does that mean they ran out names for this year? Yes, yes it does), the NYRB reviews a new book about New Orleans – Katrina: A History, 1915-2015:

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

It’s all one story – the land development, the discovery of oil, the expansive canal digging, the sinking, the demolished wetlands, the unprotected infrastructure at risk from large storms exacerbated the very activity of said infrastructure – that bleeds out into a completely understandable loss of civic faith. A few get rich, many suffer, told and re-told over and over again, from slave markets to oil refineries. Katrina, a long time in the making, can but remind us of other slow-motion catastrophes coming due just now.

Taking the Slow Boat

photo of crowds on a beach

People sunbathe at Levante Beach on July 22, 2015 in Benidorm, Spain. Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images Europe

This being Amurrika and all, I started linking to the business press a little more regularly sometime ago, to be aware of how the world looks to those who see everything through the prism of money. Bloomberg Green has some good reporters and this digression on Mass Tourism’s Carbon Impact is valuable:

a model built by and for the masses, one that thrives on low-cost flights, all-inclusive hotel resorts, giant buffets and endless sangria. Spain, the world’s No. 2 destination with 83.7 million visitors in 2019, is a magnet for mass tourism (it’s no coincidence that package tours were invented not far from where I was standing). In total, the industry flew, accommodated, fed and entertained a good chunk of the world’s 1.5 billion tourists last year.

Globally, it was a booming sector before the pandemic, growing at about 4% every year, employing 10% of the world’s workers and representing 10% of global gross domestic product. The enormous cruise ships, fossil fuel-powered planes and the hotels in remote, water-scarce locations make it incredibly carbon intensive too. Total footprint is estimated at around 8% of overall human emissions.

The sector’s climate record before the pandemic was already discouraging. Efforts to lower the carbon footprint have mostly been limited to climate neutrality pledges and headline-grabbing small steps like eliminating mini-shampoo bottles, replacing plastic straws with paper ones and serving sustainable food on flights.

Just calculating the impact is hard. Any serious account should include carbon emitted directly from tourism activities, but also from the whole supply chain, also known as Scope 3 emissions. That would involve food, accommodation, transport, fuel and shopping.

Scope 3 emissions are an important benchmark, and we should be aware of how to think about carbon footprint. As for global travel, I have been an active participant for more than twenty years. I remember at one point looking into the cost/feasibility of traveling to Europe by ship instead of plane for a completely different set of reasons. Considering it again, it still makes sense – and is completely unaffordable vs. comparable flights. The reality of mass tourism is a conundrum – yes, people need to travel, to expand their mindfulness of and about the world. Yes, small communities without other industries need viable economic lifelines. Yes, it creates an environmental disaster in more ways than ten.

Things Fall Apart. Look at the photo up top. Look at what has become of Venice. Without factoring in the true costs of these experiences – cruise ships, quick trips, cheap tour packages – the viability of these this places and practices have already fallen into great peril. They are at risk, even as they continue unchanged. The cruise ship industry is revving their engines, despite the inherent contradictions of scale. We need to re-think broadly. Disperse the destinations. Stay longer, take longer to get there. Yes, it costs more. These experiences already costs more than we think.

Record melt of Greenland ice sheets in 2019

Alaska, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, the Narrows from Schrader to Peters Lake.

After a two-year slowing period through 2018, Greenland’s ice sheet lost a record amount of mass last year, according to a study published on Thursday:

That loss of 532 gigatons of ice – equivalent to about 66 tons of ice for each person on Earth – was 15% more than the previous record in 2012.

Greenland’s ice melt is of particular concern, as the ancient ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by at least 20 feet (6 meters) if it were to melt away entirely.

The study adds to evidence that Greenland’s icy bulk is melting more quickly than anticipated amid climate warming. Another study last week indicated the island was no longer getting enough annual snowfall to replace ice lost to melting and calving at the glaciers’ edges.

“We are likely on the path of accelerated sea level rise,” Sasgen told Reuters. “More melting of the ice sheet is not compensated by periods when we have extreme snowfall.”

The study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, used data collected by satellites to the gravitational force of the ice mass, which scientists can use to calculate how much snow and ice is locked within.

Other research has shown the melting is being helped by water pooling atop the ice and at meltwater streaming between the ice sheet and the bedrock beneath.

These studies are helping scientists refine their projections of how climate change will impact the Arctic, and how quickly. Sasgen compared the sobering process to getting difficult news from a doctor.

“It’s always depressing to see a new record,” Sasgen said.

But the studies offer insight into “where the problem is, and you also know to some extent what the treatment is,” Sasgen added.

Emphasis added, good grief. We know what we need to do, and if we reduce CO2 to limit global warming, then all these other concerns including sea level rise and ocean acidification can also be reduced.

But of course,

the Department of Interior approved plans to open ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for leases to drill for oil

Event though, “At current and foreseeable oil prices, the industry’s appetite to drill in ANWR will be exceptionally low and quite possibly will be zero.” So we know what we need to do. Vote – by mail, carrier pigeon, with your honey, whatever it takes.

Image: Via Getty Images.

Powering Down

Necessarily ambitious climate targets to meet the Paris Agreement goals earlier must actually be designed to surpass them. As we’ve said often these efforts are results of broad collective action, by governments:

The centerpiece of Leonore Gewessler’s plan is a radical revamp of Austria’s public transportation networks, giving residents nationwide access to buses, trains and subways for a flat yearly fee that works out at 3 euros ($3.38) a day, encouraging citizens to leave their cars at home. Austria’s minister for climate, energy and transportation policy, is drafting new laws that’ll redistribute billions of euros toward more ecologically-friendly activities in the euro area’s sixth biggest economy.

“That’s the project that is very dear to my heart,” said Gewessler in her first interview in her ministry since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Road traffic remains a “key concern” for Austria to meet its goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2040—a decade earlier than the target set by the European Union.

Note when this is happening – now. Even and especially during the pandemic. The localities we’ve heard about where streets have been restricted to pedestrian-only traffic requires another couple of steps to complete the process. Paired with (cheap!) alternative transportation options, this will seem like another thing we just had to do. (Narrator: Because. It. Is.)

Image via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Green Swan

Whatever the phenomenon is called, the broad effect of the slowdown in the face of the current pandemic demonstrates a version of the combined efforts needed to address climate change:

The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show, a transformation partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic, with profound implications in the fight against climate change.

It is a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago, when coal was so dominant that it provided nearly half the nation’s electricity. And it comes despite the Trump administration’s three-year push to try to revive the ailing industry by weakening pollution rules on coal-burning power plants.

Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led electric utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40 percent in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80 percent. And the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.

Now the coronavirus outbreak is pushing coal producers into their deepest crisis yet.

As factories, retailers, restaurants and office buildings have shut down nationwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, demand for electricity has fallen sharply. And, because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.

We can acknowledge this without cheering or crowing. The U.S. has been dragging our feet on everything climate-related, saying through official policy and propagandistic news sources alike that any reductions in energy use or shifts in methods of production was impossible. Belittling every international effort to spite progress has made us the pariah state envisioned on and indeed championed by the right. And now it is happening anyway, through a combination of forces, some truly awful – others, like coal becoming obsolete, by their very own economic reality. A combination of tactics will be required to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, it would be great if one of them didn’t have to be a plague.

Image: painting by Anna Lubchik

Digging in the wrong place, but digging

Many empty water bottles. Shallow DOF.

The use of enzymes to break down lignin in the quest to produce biofuels has a long history lined with small breakthroughs and a lot of futility. But a new study in Nature describes a mutant enzyme that can reduce plastic bottles to chemical building blocks to make new bottles:

A mutant bacterial enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours has been created by scientists.

The enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, reduced the bottles to chemical building blocks that were then used to make high-quality new bottles. Existing recycling technologies usually produce plastic only good enough for clothing and carpets.

The company behind the breakthrough, Carbios, said it was aiming for industrial-scale recycling within five years. It has partnered with major companies including Pepsi and L’Oréal to accelerate development. Independent experts called the new enzyme a major advance.

Billions of tonnes of plastic waste have polluted the planet, from the Arctic to the deepest ocean trench, and pose a particular risk to sea life. Campaigners say reducing the use of plastic is key, but the company said the strong, lightweight material was very useful and that true recycling was part of the solution.

The new enzyme was revealed in research published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. The work began with the screening of 100,000 micro-organisms for promising candidates, including the leaf compost bug, which was first discovered in 2012.

“It had been completely forgotten, but it turned out to be the best,” said Prof Alain Marty at the Université de Toulouse, France, the chief science officer at Carbios.

The scientists analysed the enzyme and introduced mutations to improve its ability to break down the PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made. They also made it stable at 72C, close to the perfect temperature for fast degradation.

Bugs doing the heavy lifting has long been an illustrative trope – it is said that life on Earth would grind to halt in days without the constant work of ants. Industrial-scale biological recycling sits on the other end of the teeter-totter with banning all plastics. Only significant inroads into both will help us turn the corner. Promising news. Keep digging.

Not the Same as it Ever Was

Things shutting down, a leadership vacuum and sports leading the way to a quieter next few weeks brings up a lot of possibilities that fall on the interesting/frightening continuum. What will be the new normal that follows this different normal?

Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancelations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before President Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.

But what happens after the coronavirus?

In some ways, the answer is: all the old normal stuff. The pandemic will take lives and throttle economies and scuttle routines, but it will pass. Americans will never stop going to basketball games. They won’t stop going on vacation. They’ll meet to do business. No decentralizing technology so far—not telegrams, not telephones, not television, and not the internet—has dented that human desire to shake hands, despite technologists’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

It seems like a good time to wonder: do you have stuff to Read? Write? Paint? Plant? Play?

Work on other stuff, or just yourself. Rest, and stay healthy. Think about what ‘different’ might be like, how it could be better.

Also possible without needing a pandemic

NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. There is evidence that the change is at least partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus.

At the end of 2019, medical professionals in Wuhan, China, were treating dozens of pneumonia cases that had an unknown source. Days later, researchers confirmed the illnesses were caused by a new coronavirus (COVID-19). By January 23, 2020, Chinese authorities had shut down transportation going into and out of Wuhan, as well as local businesses, in order to reduce the spread of the disease. It was the first of several quarantines set up in the country and around the world.

The maps on this page show concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities. The maps above show NO2 values across China from January 1-20, 2020 (before the quarantine) and February 10-25 (during the quarantine). The data were collected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite. A related sensor, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite, has been making similar measurements.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” said Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Liu recalls seeing a drop in NO2 over several countries during the economic recession that began in 2008, but the decrease was gradual. Scientists also observed a significant reduction around Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, but the effect was mostly localized around that city, and pollution levels rose again once the Olympics ended.

It doesn’t take a disaster or even an emergency – beyond the one we have already created with the usual emissions levels. Reductions are possible. Disasters and loss are not mandatory, though we do make them inevitable to some extent by doing nothing. Still, these dramatic images should be instructional about what’s possible. It would be interesting to know the near-term implications of these reductions. You know, science.

Tanker blinkers

It is very difficult to report on Climate Change. It even difficult to write about reporting on climate change. For example:

On the NYT Climate and Environment page right now has these as their stories:

Fossil Fuels Are to Blame for Soaring Methane Levels, Study Shows

Bezos Commits $10 Billion to Address Climate Change

Both are serious stories and neither can be taken as straight news as they scream out for flame and snark – not even looking at you, twitter. But it points up the challenges of treating climate developments as new when they have existed for more more than a decade and are only being admitted into polite, gray lady discourse. The very idea that plutocratic climate funds are any kind of answer to anything is almost as ludicrous as the story a little farther down the page about damming the North Sea to combat sea level rise. I’m sure they meant the other ‘damning,’ and perhaps could have used them interchangeably.

This is not [only] a complaint. That these stories are being reported out, written and published is something – it’s just an incomplete something. We probably need to cross reference these stories to get a more accurate picture. True multi-media. Bezos’ billions could go to greenlight feature films of stories about what’s happening. You can’t turn the tanker without starting to turn. The. Tanker.

 

Making money from the Greening

We’re mostly still just trying to do that, as if there’s a first, as if THAT’s the opportunity:

Sustainable investing is one of the hottest trends on Wall Street. Trillions of dollars are rushing in as consulting firms and private foundations spread the gospel. But no one is entirely sure what ESG is beyond the literal (environmental, social and governance) or exactly how to define it. Metrics are self-reported and often hard to measure, tracking everything from carbon emissions to boardroom diversity. Greenwashing is a perennial concern.

Profits, however, are very much measurable. Bloomberg’s fourth annual ranking found that the biggest ESG funds are beating the market. If you do happen to have $1 million to spare and a soft spot for the future of planet Earth, here are some investment ideas for you. How does the intersection of AI, blockchain and climate sound?

We also reported this week on emerging technology such as carbon capture, and less environmentally damaging rocket launches. While not as sexy as spaceships, dirt is also important to the future health of the planet. Global agriculture has come to rely on annual crops and heavy fertilizer use, which inhibit soil’s ability to sequester carbon

So we’ll call it ESG or whatever, and we do. Predictions about how this will affect THAT, about where to place your future-of-energy bets is till going to lead to many near-term flareups and dead-ends. Reckoning with the ultimate dead-end may not be appealing, prospectus-wise, but acknowledging that we’re doing it anyway, that doing it the old way got us right to here, is the thing we will always still need to do until we do it.

Waiting. Adaptability Funds are going to scare the investor class for about one-half of a news cycle.