Ask Andrew Guzman, a professor of international law at U.C. Berkeley, why he decided to write a book about climate change, and he says it’s simple: It’s the biggest issue of our time.
“If I didn’t write about it,” he says, “for my grandkids, I’d sound like somebody who wasn’t interested in Nazi Germany in 1939.”
Guzman doesn’t want to be painted as an alarmist. That’s why, for the book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, he assumes that we will see a modest (and increasingly optimistic) 2 degrees C of warming. You know, so as to stay on the conservative side of things.
But it turns out that 2 degrees is enough to sound some serious fucking alarm bells.
Environmentalists and green marketers are always talking about “saving the planet.” Buy this car, this laundry detergent, or this light bulb and you will help save “the planet” or “nature” or “the environment.” Jenny Price, for one, wishes they’d stop.
Price is an activist, historian, and self-appointed Los Angeles urban ranger. When she’s not trying to inject a little humor into the generally unfunny world of environmental preaching with her satiric blog Green Me Up, JJ, she gives tours of the concretized L.A. River. She’d be happy to tell you why she loves the river, why it is every bit a part and parcel of “nature,” and why she thinks that places like this have got to be at the core of the environmental movement.
When it comes to rhetoric about “saving the planet,” she has two main beefs: First, it encourages a “greener-than-thou” form of preachy consumerism that does not encourage real change nor help those most in need. Second, the rhetoric clings desperately to the historical notion that nature = pristine wilderness, obscuring the muddy, mixed up reality visible in places like her beloved L.A. River.
By now you’ve probably heard of the Anthropocene. Pin it on climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction, resource depletion, global population, landscape transformation, or any other holy fuck hockey-stick graph: The point is that the stable environmental conditions of the Holocene -- the geologic epoch we've known and loved -- no longer apply.
The Anthropocene is more than just a fanciful notion held by those who believe homo sapiens has gone totally berserk. Bigwig geologists are taking the idea super seriously. In fact, members of the International Commission on Stratigraphy -- the masters of the official geologic timetable -- have organized a group of scientists and experts to consider formal adoption of the Anthropocene. The basic task of the Anthropocene Working Group is to try to imagine what the rock record will look like a million years in the future, and to figure out whether we humans will have a lasting enough impact to truly merit an epoch all our own.
To get a peek behind the curtain, the Generation Anthropocene producers recently sat down with four members of the Anthropocene Working Group: Jan Zalasiewicz, the group’s convener; Mike Ellis, head of climate change science at the British Geological Survey; Mark Williams, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester; and Davor Vidas, an international lawyer and expert on the Law of the Sea.
We’ve heard it 38,942,038,417 times* before: The system we use to produce meat in the U.S. is really eff-ed up. Feedlots = horror movies, all this carnivory is making us fat, and to make matters worse, meat consumption contributes to climate change. Right, all good arguments for eating less meat.
What we rarely hear is a fair, honest conversation with the actual farmers raising the animals that produce the meat that most of America consumes. That’s what Graham Meriwether wanted to do with his documentary, American Meat. The film explores meat production from the farmer’s perspective -- and not just those who do it the free-range, organic, grass-fed way.
Meriwether initially set out to make a movie just about the alternative farms springing up across the country. He started off by talking to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But when he started using stock footage of slaughterhouses, something didn’t feel right.
“I think the most important decision we made in the production of the film was not to put any hidden camera footage in the film,” Meriwether says, “because then that set us off on a journey where we got to talk to [conventional farmers], the people that, for the most part, feed most of our country.”
In the end, he was able to get his own footage of what goes on inside a slaughterhouse, but he chose not to include it in the film. We’ve become so distanced from the reality of where our meat comes from, he says, that we just aren’t ready for it.
You may remember Katharine Hayhoe as the climate scientist who wrote a chapter for Newt Gingrich’s book about environmental entrepreneurs, only to watch Gingrich throw the chapter in the trash and her under the bus. If so, you know one thing about Hayhoe (the climate scientist part) that her husband didn't know when they got married.
Improbable as it may seem, when Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech, married Andrew Farley, a linguistic professor and evangelical preacher, he didn't know what she studied. And she didn't know that he was a climate skeptic. Love, as a wise guy once said, is blind.
Over the succeeding years, Hayhoe and Farley debated the evidence, and, eventually, they proved the ancient proverb: In marriage, the woman is always right. Their experience even spawned a book geared toward evangelical Christians -- A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-based Decisions — and something of a secondary career track for Hayhoe: communicating climate science to churchgoers.
Imagine Earth with toxic air, stifling heat, no water, and no signs of life -- sort of like Los Angeles. This is a world laid bare by massive and catastrophic climate change, and believe it or not, it isn't science fiction. It’s our neighbor, Venus, and it’s more similar to Earth than you might want to believe.
Venus and Earth have a lot in common: They’re practically the same size, they’re made up of basically the same stuff, and early in the life of our solar system they were nearly identical, right down to oceans and moderate atmospheres. But then climate change arrived on Venus -- the same processes that are playing out on our planet today with rising carbon dioxide and an increasing greenhouse effect -- and transformed the planet into an uninhabitable, 900-degree-F wasteland swathed in clouds of sulfuric acid.
“It’s almost as if you had a twin study -- you take these identical twins and give them different experiences in life and see how they grow up,” says David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the NASA-sponsored astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center.
When the Voyager spacecraft left Earth in 1977, it carried music in case it was ever encountered by aliens. If extraterrestrial beings have found it and downloaded its contents onto their iPods, they’re now listening to Mozart, Beethoven, and Chuck Berry, among others. When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars earlier this year, it beamed back will.i.am -- and imagine, some people actually question our technological advances!
So what, exactly, is Curiosity doing out there? And what have we found so far? I recently sat down with Ken Herkenhoff, a planetary geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and co-leader of the ChemCam team for Curiosity. ChemCam is that piece of technology that lasers rocks so we can learn what they’re made of. I talked with Herkenhoff about the rover itself, the gadgets on board, and the dicey “seven minutes of terror” involving the rocket-powered “sky crane” that lowered the rover to the Martian surface.
Imagine for a moment that planet Earth isn’t running out of anything. We have plenty of food, plenty of oil, plenty of rare minerals, and plenty of air. In this little utopia, the only constraint is space. We can breed like bunnies, and everything is fine -- until we hit what I call Peak Elbowroom.
This is more or less the idea behind a series of experiments conducted by John B. Calhoun in the 1960s. Calhoun offered a group of rats a limitless supply of food, water, bedding, and everything else healthy, happy rats could want -- except space. He kept his rats confined in “rat cities” -- elaborately partitioned boxes designed to simulate the urban environment, which he built in his basement in Washington, D.C.
So what was the rat response? Turns out they all died. Well, they went big, then died. The population spiked and plummeted in a blaze of rodent self-extermination.
Twenty years ago, scientists atop the Greenland ice sheet pulled up an ice core that both excited their curiosity and scared the pants off of them. They had discovered definitive evidence that Earth’s climate can change quickly, dramatically, and unpredictably, rearranging the planet’s energy balance and plunging Europe and North American into bitter, 1,000-year cold snaps. It wasn’t quite like they played it in The Day After Tomorrow, but it was damn scary nonetheless.
Though there is now ample evidence that our planet has seen dozens of these sudden climatic changes, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the official, consensus-building arbiter of climate science -- rates the probability of humans causing another abrupt climate change in the next century as low: less than 10 percent. Still, a one-in-10 chance of pushing the climate over a cliff is enough to sober you up. Should we be as scared as those scientists were?
We know what ecological degradation looks like: Clearcut hillsides, vanishing elephants and whales, forests overtaken with kudzu, and Florida swamps filled with Burmese pythons. These constitute a poignant, convenient visual shorthand for landscapes out of balance -- so convenient, in fact, that it's easy to forget about the ecological communities we can't see.
What is the clearcutting equivalent for bacteria? How does the changing environment look to a virus? In other words, what is the disease landscape of the Anthropocene?