Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Responding to my Climate Change Denying Friends

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Curves of pop & CO2 in air

Please note the two curves above. Although the graph of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (Keeling curve) on the left starts in 1958 and the one on the right (human population) starts in 1800, they follow the same trajectory of steep increase over the past 50+ years.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

            A recent Letter to the Editor of the Herald got my attention. It would seem that its author and I are living on different planets.

The writer calls Dr. James Hansen’s statement that the world would “overheat” because of carbon emissions “a ridiculous assertion”. NASA has a web page devoted to statements from our country’s foremost scientific organizations. For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”

The LTE was in response to Herald article about the wager between Roger Cohen and me. Dr. Cohen (former manager of strategic planning at Exxon Mobil) earned a PhD in physics and is a member of the American Physical Society, which states: “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.”

Let’s go back to the other planet where the writer of the LTE seems to be living. He asserts that polar bears are thriving. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the status of polar bears as “vulnerable”, This would not lead me to believe that they are thriving. Dr. Steven Amstrup, head scientist with Polar Bears International, wrote: “One of the most frequent myths we hear about polar bears is that their numbers are increasing and have, in fact, more than doubled over the past thirty years.”

“The polar ice caps, both of them, are robust” according to this LTE. Unfortunately, Earth’s ice caps are not healthy. Indeed, a large freighter recently navigated the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean!

There is mixed news from Antarctica. Although ice in west Antarctica is melting, the amount of ice is increasing over the continent. That is a bit of a paradox since the average temperature there has gone up by almost 1 degree Fahrenheit—but it is just so darn cold in Antarctica.

Studies find rising levels of CO2 help some plants but hinder others. Studies of phenology (when plants and animals wake up after the winter) find that climate change is already causing problems that may lead to decreased crop productivity. Many places in the world are experiencing decreased precipitation from climate change. Overall, the bonus of increased CO2 seems to be overwhelmed by other aspects of climate change.

The LTE ends up by stating “…the standard of living of some of the world’s poorest of the poor has risen because of increased vegetation to feed themselves and their animals….” Try telling that to the people who are starving in Madaya—where the Syrian revolution was triggered, in part, by drought caused by climate change. The Horn of Africa is also suffering from chronic malnutrition, as are many other places in Africa and Asia. Drought caused by climate change has worsened starvation in these places. Although the percentage of people who are undernourished in the world has decreased, the improvement is not generally attributed to increased CO2.

People are also suffering from climate change closer to home. Residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, will be relocated because their community is disappearing under the rising ocean.

What I find amazing is that, although people deny climate change (or perhaps deny that climate change is anthropogenic), I have yet to read any refutation of the observation that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is rising, and that its rise is anthropogenic. We all understand that this gas, along with methane and water vapor, are greenhouse gases. Without GHGs our planet Earth would be 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder—and totally unable to support life. Doesn’t it make sense that, as the CO2 level rises, the temperature will also rise?

Perhaps we can excuse some of the denial of climate change thanks to the findings of a recent study of people’s reaction to the climate. Apparently the warming that we in the USA have experienced actually has made the climate more agreeable—although that is far from true in other parts of the world.

Greenhouse gases released by people cause climate change; the more people, the faster the climate will change. Family planning is part of the solution! Another part of the solution is convincing our political representatives to support legislation to slow climate change. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (http://citizensclimatelobby.org) has an effective plan to do this. A local chapter has just been formed; you can contact them at: durangoccl@gmail.com.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Consider Human Inhabitants When Creating Nature Reserves

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

tiger closeup 4

Last summer a big game hunter from Minnesota shot Cecil, a famous male lion, in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean officials didn’t press charges against Cecil’s killer.

Many people in this country were outraged that such a rare and beautiful beast had been murdered. The response in Africa was different, however. For us a lion—especially a noble and handsome male—symbolizes freedom and wildness. In Africa, however, a lion means danger.

We live in a protected bubble from which most predators have been excluded. It is true that occasionally a mountain lion will injure or kill a human, but fortunately that is a very rare, newsworthy incident. Black bears are also responsible for a few injuries and rare deaths here in Colorado. The real killer is not a predator but the sweet, innocent herbivore—deer.

Biologist E. O. Wilson has recently written a book advocating that half of the planet become a nature reserve. He wrote: “…I propose that only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.”

I grieve for the loss of biological diversity (biodiversity). Although we cannot know exactly, it is estimated that species of plants and animals are going extinct at 1000 times the normal rate; we are in the 6th mass extinction. There have been five prior mass extinctions, the last one being about 65 million years ago when a huge meteor hit off the coast of Mexico. The resulting explosion changed the climate for centuries, killing off dinosaurs. What is different about the current mass extinction is that it is caused by a single species—ours.

Each species has evolved strategies to maximize reproduction, to gather nutrients efficiently and to ward off other species that imperil it. We are no different, except we have been so amazingly successful. Sadly, our success endangers nonhuman species—and probably ourselves, since our livelihood depends on the web of life.

I have a problem with those who are “prolife”. Our human success is causing the extinction of other animals and plants. By preventing women from access to family planning and safe abortion services, the people who claim to be “prolife” are actually destroying the biodiversity that makes our planet habitable.

Although I haven’t read Wilson’s “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, its premise troubles me. Yes, it is important to do what we can to protect other species. Yes, the major cause of loss of species is loss of habitat. Yes, preserves (both terrestrial and marine) have shown their value in preserving biodiversity. The Center for Biological Diversity has a brilliant record of protecting endangered species by preserving habitat.

Turning half the Earth into preserves would slow the loss of biodiversity. But what about the people who currently live on that land—many of whom live in overcrowded, developing countries? what would happen to them?

We had the good fortune to visit the Ranthambhore preserve in India where we observed a Bengal tiger in the wild. We also heard about people who were forced off that land and repatriated to a nearby village. They now make their living by making and selling souvenirs to tourists. This model would not work for half of Earth’s surface, however. Where could all those people settle?

This conundrum is one of the plotlines of “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh. This wonderful novel takes place in the Sundarbans, the deltas of four major rivers where they empty into the Bay of Bengal. Thousands of squatters settled on Marichjhanpi Island, an Indian animal refuge, in1979. Piya, a protagonist, biologist and protector of animals, is distressed when settlers kill a man-eating tiger. Forest Guards moved in and destroyed the settlement—and the settlers. Thousands of people were killed in this genocide. Although this sounds incredible, it is based on history.

Thanks to the foresight of Americans a century ago, we have the National Park Service, one of the agencies that take care of our public lands. We should be proud that 14% of our land is currently protected. Costa Rica may have the highest percentage of land preserved for nonhuman use at 25%. It is important to preserve what we have and to continue to protect more wilderness, parks, forests and roadless areas for our enjoyment, and especially for the benefit of other species. However, it is important to keep human rights in mind when considering making new protected areas. Voluntary family planning will help achieve that goal by decreasing population pressure.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Woodman, Spare that Tree

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Autumn-Lake-Reflection-800px

 

                       Woodman, spare that tree!

                           Touch not a single bough!

                        In youth it sheltered me,

                             And I’ll protect it now.

                                                George Pope Morris

 

Twelve years ago at this time we had just returned from Costa Rica to celebrate Christmas at home. Close to where we had stayed we watched the beginning of a new building going up, using steel instead of wood.

In this country with vast forests and where all steel is imported, why wouldn’t they use wood? I was told that it was to preserve the trees. When I asked what the building was going to be, I was told… but you need to read to the end of this column to find out!

There is an estimate that humans have cut down or damaged three quarters of the forests that existed before we became the dominant animal on the planet. Costa Rica is no exception; Ticos had cut down large portions of its forests. Fortunately, thanks to that country’s exceptionally good conservation policies and good luck, second growth forests now cover about a seventh of the country’s land area.

We rented a cozy cabin for most of the 3 months that we lived in Monteverde. Perhaps its best quality was its location, bordering the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest. Trees in this area had been cut down for agriculture, and more recently they were allowed to regrow. The land was bought with donations from all over the world. Most impressively, the movement to preserve and rehabilitate this land was started by Swedish elementary school children.

Trees are pretty amazing. In addition to being attractive and fun to climb, they provide shade and purify air and water. They are also part of the carbon cycle, as many kids can tell you. Using sunlight for energy, they suck out carbon dioxide from the air, synthesize cellulose and release oxygen. If that wood burns, the CO2 is returned to the atmosphere. If a tree is allowed to slowly decompose, some of its carbon joins the soil and increases its fertility.

All trees are not created equal, however. In a natural forest there are many different species of trees, plus undergrowth, all filling different ecological niches. On the other hand, a tree monoculture, especially if treated with lots of chemicals, is a poor substitute for a natural forest.

Shade-grown coffee is an example of a good compromise between agricultural production and good ecology. Trees shade the coffee bushes as well as providing homes for many beneficial animals. Hungry birds gobble up harmful insects on the coffee bushes, for example.

Part of the reason we selected Monteverde, Costa Rica as the place to spend a sabbatical was the Quaker connection. Several Quaker families chose to live in the only country in the world that did not have a military force; they founded Monteverde in 1951. They bought a large amount of land very inexpensively, and preserved much of it to insure the purity of their water supply. This uncut, undeveloped cloud forest has become a haven for plants and animals—and for the biologists who study them.

Brazil, in stark contrast to Costa Rica, has been unable to control devastation of its Amazon rainforest. Called the “lungs of the planet”, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and is key for the planet’s health. In 2014 the destruction (by harvesting tropical wood and clearing for cattle and other agriculture) has increased by 16%. An area larger than Delaware was cut down in just one year!

Palm oil production is big business in some Asian countries. Often grown in huge plantations, in Indonesia alone the land devoted to palm oil monoculture is almost as large as Connecticut. The native forest is often burned to prepare for the land for planting oil palms, causing terrible air quality. Sadly, this has lead to the destruction of habitat for orangutans and tigers, among other creatures.

What can we do to spare tropical trees? Avoid buying products made with exotic woods. Eat less beef—you’ll be healthier, too! When possible, pass up foods that contain tropical oils such as palm oil.

We visited Monteverde about a year after the sabbatical and found a group of people outside that little building built with steel instead of wood. Most of them were kids, since school had just let out, and they all looked happy—for a good reason. The shop was selling locally made ice cream! Indeed, Monteverde has some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted—coffee is my favorite flavor.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.