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.

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

[Night on] Earth Day

Let’s just take a look back at this little episode, shall we? Yes, we shall:

A massive deepwater oil spill is nearly as likely today as it was in 2010, experts warn, 10 years after the disastrous explosion of BP’s rig in the Gulf of Mexico that caused an environmental catastrophe.

The blowout killed 11 workers and spewed 4m barrels of petroleum into the ocean for 87 days before it could be capped, devastating marine life and polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline. Thousands were put out of work in oil, fisheries and tourism.

But experts say an incident of similar scale could happen again and has been made more likely by the Trump administration’s decision to loosen Obama-era safety rules. Those standards had grown from an independent commission’s damning findings of corporate and regulatory failures leading up to the spill.

Frances Ulmer, who served on the commission and is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said the government and industry have not made sufficient changes to prevent or respond to another mammoth spill.

Sufficient changes. Just what might those those be? It isn’t me walking to work (I do), or building a solar charging station for the car (we are). Those things are those things and they make my life better as they ease some pollution in my local community. But they’re not going to save anything – only collective action will do that. Governments working together to re-assert control that has been systematically ceded to corporations for the purpose of pillage and profit. Reigning in the unaccountable and including the costs of externalities in the price of everything we can buy are the things that will begin make a difference. The reduced economic activity of the past six weeks should give us a little hint of what is required if we had to cram for the test. If we [all] decided to start studying a little everyday, it would mean different political leaders, building codes, transportation alternatives, land development regulations, and prices than the ones we have today. How many of these are possible in the near term?

There’s an election in November.

Image: A man lays oil-absorbent boom as oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacts Cat Island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in 2010.
Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

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.

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.

Conscious Capitalism

We started this blog back in 2008 but okay, here we go:

DAVOS — The powerful momentum of the global sustainability movement, driven by a younger generation, can carry a new era of stakeholder-focused capitalism forward, according to business and financial leaders speaking at the World Economic Forum this week.

At a CNBC panel on “Conscious Capitalism,” anchor Karen Tso talked to two members of the Business Roundtable, Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman and EY chief executive Carmine Di Sibio, who were among the 181 signatories to the organisation’s statement in August, committing to the purpose of a corporation being to serve all stakeholders: customers, employees, communities and suppliers, as well as shareholders.

Di Sibio said the younger generation of employees (and customers) was a huge driver of this shift in emphasis for businesses. He said: “This is about talent, and it’s coming from the bottom up. People want to know you have a plan around sustainability when they join your company. We hire from college campuses all over the world and it’s the number one thing they want to talk about, and they are going to create more and more pressure.”

Friedman agreed: “The young generation who were at school ten years ago at the time of the crash are now moving up through organisations and expecting more of their companies. Regardless of the economic backdrop, the next generation of workers will demand more of their companies. Investment in climate change and social good is not just a bull market phenomenon.

And just when you thought it was safe to go skiing in the Alps with your favorite, enlightened global tech elites, don’t forget to cross check The Evil List.

Squamish Nation not squeamish on blending indigeneity and urban design

Clunky title, but this story on the re-development of one of Canada’s smallest First Nations reserves mixes boldness with vision for Vancouver that is easy to romanticize but more nearly resembles a living model for cities going forward.

Few First Nations reserves in Canada are found so centrally in urban areas, and this unique location has given the Squamish Nation a chance to explode local city-building norms. Construction begins in 2021, and at more than 500 units per acre, Senakw’s density will reach Hong Kong levels – a fact that is only allowed because Senakw exists not on city land, but on reserve land, which is technically federal.

Another striking feature is that only 10% of apartments will include parking, unlike the city’s rules that mandate one parking space per unit. The buildings will also forgo the podium-and-tower design that’s become a hallmark of “Vancouverism” in favour of slender high-rises maximising public space. The buildings could be up to 56 storeys tall, towering above the low-rise neighbourhoods nearby.

But beyond even the serious density considerations, there is the language slight of hand that gets at something far more pernicious:

“In the early history of Vancouver, and colonial cities generally, there is this opposition assumed between the civilization cities are imagined to represent, and the imagined savageness of Indigenous people,” [Stanger-Ross] says. 

The ways that the terms ‘urban areas’, ‘cities’, and even abstractions like ‘density’ have been co-opted as code words for racist politicking is maybe coming full-circle. Hopeful, I know. But good work, First Nations folk. Right racists depend on decent people being too nice, too squeamish, plus the ever-present lack of temerity to call out, punch back, or in this case, build up. Re-take the words, then re-make the savage cities with civilizing force of architecture.

Updating the artwork

The Prado is collaborating with the World Wildlife Fund to deface some famous works of art to reflect the effects of climate change:

Marta Zafra raises the sea level on Felipe IV a Caballo (Philip the IV on Horseback) by Velázquez, circa 1635.

The Parasol that supplies the title for Francisco de Goya’s El Quitasol of 1777 becomes a tattered umbrella barely sheltering miserable, crowded refugees in the sodden, makeshift camp of Pedro Veloso’s reimagining.

If Velasquez and Goya getting the Banksy treatment seem too much for you, try ocean acidification, lack of fresh water, and drought on for size and pay some attention before the price gets any higher.

Bravo, Prado.

Climate Strike

I’ll take the day off here in solidarity, by republishing a post I wrote eleven years ago this month:

As a country we’ve made a living bragging about how ambitious we are, how audacious our concepts of freedom, liberty and happiness are as to make their fulfillment just a matter of conquering a lesser will.

Well, here’s the way to defuse most every geopolitical conflict for the next century or so, at least until things even out and Republicans can get elected again and start whining about socialism or how unjust their tax burden is. Cheap desalination powered with clean energy is the key to making the fossil fuels conundrum exit stage left. As the article points out these are massive public works projects with very sophisticated interactions with the natural environment; The question is not will they work, but do we have the will to make them work.

In the speech by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday that had all the Republican house members whining and crying with hurt feelings, she recalled that people around the world constantly tell her that the greatest emerging market in the world is rebuilding the public infrastructure of the United States of America. She said it could be done in a fiscally responsible manner. Even with only what we know how to do right now, it could also be done in a highly innovative manner, geared toward sustainably shifting our transportation and land-use conventions in the permanent direction of clean water and low-carbon power.

Building a green house isn’t green, but takes a lot of green. The reviewer says it at the end:

Maybe the real meaning of being green is closer to what modest Kermit had in mind: learning to make the best of what we already have rather than having to create, spend and construct something “eco-friendlier.”

Yes it is. One household living off the grid does not a difference make; we need to get the grid off the grid. Meanwhile, live close to work, know where your food comes from, spend and buy accordingly.

Image: Climate strike in Sydney, September 20, 2019. Photo from Kym Chapple on Twitter