Don't Blame Climate Change for the Hurricane Harvey Disaster, Blame Society

There is an old adage in disaster studies: "there is no such thing as a natural disaster." This article explains that idea clearly by arguing that nature and climate change are not driving causes of crises like Harvey, but instead the causes originate from social and political structures and human decisions. Kelman writes:

A disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it. People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane.

The socionatural disaster in Houston, as well as in New Orleans during Katrina, were largely caused by uncontrolled sub/urbanization, unregulated development of industry and housing, and as Michael Grunwald, writing in Poltico outlines, by Federal flood insurance policy. However, in Katrina we witnessed the failure of the structural, technological mitigation system and the failed political evacuation, rescue, and rebuilding, which all took its heavies toll on African Americans and the poorest residents of New Orleans and surrounding Parishes. We have yet to see the uneven toll that our social order has taken on the people of Southeast Texas. This will become more clear in the days, weeks, and months, and honestly years. 

What America Looked Like Before the EPA Stepped In

Excellent photo essay depicting how the United States looked before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clear Air Act and Clean Water Act. To quote an environmental radical, former President Richard Nixon: 

Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?

Apple's Real Carbon Footprint Is In Manufacturing and It's Dirty

Apple Inc. released its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report this week. In the report, Apple proudly claims that their data centers are running on 100% renewable energy and that their new headquarters in Cupertino will run entirely on renewables (solar plant in nearby Monterey County). Apple is proud to claim that building operations in the USA are moving to 100% renewable. That's great. However, Apple's real carbon footprint is in the vast, vast amount of energy used and CO2 released in manufacturing all of its physical products, mostly in China. 

For example, of the 34 million metric tons of CO2 Apple claims responsibility for in fiscal year 2014, 24.8 million metric tons are in manufacturing and only 0.4 million tons are in facilities. Put another way, 73% of Apple's carbon footprint is in manufacturing, whereas only 1.1% is in facilities. Sorry Apple, switching facilities to renewables is great optics (and still worthwhile) but it is a drop in the bucket of their CO2 footprint. For Apple to meaningfully contribute to reducing global warming they will need to begin to transition their manufacturing partners to renewables. It seems they are now just taking small steps in that direction.

For now, Apple and other manufacturers, and consumers, are contributing both to the localized pollution crisis in China as well as global CO2 emissions. If Apple wants to be a leading corporate environmental steward, as statements by CEO Tim Cook and Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives indicate, then it needs to more fully and quickly address the source of their real carbon footprint: the manufacturing of physical products.

Can Louisiana Hold Oil Companies Accountable for its Vanishing Coastline?

A great photo essay series would be "The Political Ecologies of the Age of Oil." A great place to start would be coastal Louisiana. The next place to go would be the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

 Image via thinkprogress.org

Image via thinkprogress.org

Is This Truly a Wild Life? Emma Marris on the Grand Canyon "wolf"

Emma Marris, writing on her Beacon wolf project, about the recently spotted "wolf like animal" in the Grand Canyon. What is the animal's potential fate? 

The first is that his or her fate will entirely depend on human values, human categories and human laws. Whether it is allowed to roam free, moved to a refuge or shipped south will depend on its genome—not whether it attacks livestock or not or any other fact about its actual behavior. This is despite the fact that it neither knows nor cares which category it falls into, and that it is highly likely that its individual personality is more predictive of its behavior than its species assignment. The only thing it can count on is being darted and tranquilized, because even if it is determined to be a gray wolf, agency officials will want to re-collar it. Is this truly a wild life?

Consider pledging and following Marris' wolf project. It's great stuff.

Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind

This is a great overview of the energy transition thesis (energiewende, in German). It focuses on the German example and highlights the major disruption renewables will have on utilities markets and business models. Many drastic changes and challenges lie ahead. 

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

See also "While Critics Debate Energiewende, Germany is Gaining a Global advantage."  

 

Climate Fair Share

Interesting new website (in beta) that gives a visual story of each countries emissions reduction targets. It includes both domestic fair share as well as embedded export emissions. I like how it begins with equity considerations. This quote caught my eye:

We demand action from everyone, but we don’t believe that everyone is equally responsible for the crisis.

Endangered Species Get Boost from U.S. War Games in Germany

 
 An artillery explodes behind a large deer at the US training facility in Grafenwoerh, Germany. Via NBC News.

An artillery explodes behind a large deer at the US training facility in Grafenwoerh, Germany. Via NBC News.

Animals and plants have way more resilience than we give them. No doubt there is some greenwashing here by the military, but this looks like a fascinating case in which animals adapt to extreme circumstances. Just look at the picture above.

The Grafenwoehr installation is now home to more than 3,000 plant and animal species, 800 of which are threatened, endangered or legally protected. These include the rare kingfisher, sea eagles, wildcats, a large beaver population, green woodpeckers and even lynx.
Still, biodiversity overall can benefit from the landscapes created by military training, officials say. Tank tracks or grenade craters from war games, for example, have become new breeding grounds and habitats for some endangered species.

 

Pollution Killed 7 Million People Worldwide in 2012

A World Health Organization report found that the fossil fuel economy and industrial civilization is already leading to 1 out of 8 deaths among humans each year (the number would be high for non-humans too). That is an immediate danger, more immediate than what climate change may be contributing to now. In the developing world, the main culprit is burring biomass for cooking and heating, with women being at greater risk than men. In the developed world, the main culprit are fossil fuel automobiles and industrial production.

Elegy for a Country's Seasons

A beautiful, moving essay by Zadie Smith on climate change and mourning a world we lost: 

Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar—essentially religious—cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation. This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help—the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse. In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved.

What if We Never Run out of Oil

 
 The Atlantic

The Atlantic

Why waiting for peak this or that and waiting for doom and gloom is a bad strategy. Capitalists and technologists continuously find ways to circumvent "limits" and "barriers." We need to take on the inequalities and socio-ecological harms the fossil fuel economy creates, rather than wait for the system to implode. They're not waiting.

Climate Change: End of Social Science?

A new article by Clive Hamilton argues that climate change reveals the long Western notion of the separation of humans from nature (nature/culture dualism) to be a sham. Climate change, he argues, lays bare that humans are and always have been embedded within natural systems, which at this point in time, we are so entangled we cannot epistemologically and ontologically separate the two. Hamilton writes, 

Climate science is now telling us that such a separation can no longer be sustained, that the natural and the human are mixed up, and their influences cannot be neatly distinguished.

This is an idea that has been circulating in environmental history (William Cronon) and political and urban political ecology (e.g. Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swengedouw, among many others). Recently, the hybrid thesis is moving into mainstream writing with the help from writers like Emma Marris.

Hamilton declares the social sciences to be on the way out. Why? He argues that since nature and society are not separate categories there is no longer a need for a dedicated social science. He writes,

So the advent of the Anthropocene shatters the self-contained world of social analysis that is the terrain of modern social science, and explains why those intellectuals who remain within it find it impossible to “analyze” the politics, sociology or philosophy of climate change in a way that is true to the science. They end up floundering in the old categories, unable to see that something epochal has occurred, a rupture on the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of civilization itself.

It's a bold argument. But I think he's wrong.

Environmental sociologists and other environmental studies folks, far from fading into oblivion, have an unique position in these matters because of their understanding of cultural, political, and economic systems, which analyzed properly are not siloed away from nature, but rather the society-nature hybrid is integrated into an overall analysis. Multi-disiplinary and trans-disciplinary collaboration, such as the Sustainable Engineering and Ecological Design institute at my alma matter. 

Furthermore, Hamilton oddly enough makes an environmental determinist claim, which goes against his overall argument:

From hereon our history will increasingly be dominated by “natural processes”, influenced by us but largely beyond our control. Our future has become entangled with that of the Earth’s geological evolution...it can no longer be maintained that humans make their own history, for the stage on which we make it has now entered into the play as a dynamic and capricious force.

He wants to argue that social science is going away, that the Modernist human-nature duality is crumbling, but then makes a statement that subsumes society into the totality of nature and puts us at the complete whim of nature. This is not hybrid socio-nature thinking that I and others, and Hamilton, up until that point, make.

Environmental studies requires systems thinking rather than category thinking. We may be embedded within natural systems, but it is incorrect to argue that we are now at the whim of nature. It is not enough to just turn Modernity on its head, as Marx once turned Hegel on his head, replacing base with superstructure. We need to continue to push the boundaries and dissolve the categories towards new socio-ecological studies. Down with dualisms, old and new.

Wind Beat Natural Gas As America's Fastest-Growing Power Source in 2012

This, in addition to renewables being the fasted growing energy sector last year. And the IEA declaring that renewables will be the worlds second largest energy source by 2015. Encouraging signs; long road ahead.

2013 Motor Trend's Car of the Year...

is the Tesla Model S. It is the first time an internal combustion engine automobile has not won the award. To quell any squabbling that this is eco-hype, Motor Trend says, "At its core, the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel."

 image via motortrend.com

image via motortrend.com

 

Mining the Great Ocean Landfill

 
 Image via  Dwell

Image via Dwell

Method's new Ocean Plastic line of soap strikes me as classic greenwashing. But, hey, if they want to commodify and mine the gigantic floating island of plastic trash out in the Pacific Ocean, go ahead. However, making and buying these products does not strike me as a good solution to the plastic problem. File under: Shopping Our Way to Safety.

Organic: It's never been about nutrition

Organic agriculture is been about the elimination of pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and monoculture.

There is a new meta-analysis (aggregate of other scientists' studies) out from scientists at Stanford that the New York Times and others are running, which states that there are no nutritional benefits of organic produce and meats. Problem with the headlines: no serious proponent of organic produce and meats, and organic farming in general, was saying that the products were more nutritious. This always bugged me when I saw people, proponents or opponents, making this claim.

Organic agriculture has always been about rejecting pesticides, hormones, and industrial farming techniques (large inputs and monoculture), not about how the produce was more nutritious. 

A Choice

President Obama signed an Executive Order "Accelerating Investment in Industrial Energy Efficiency", which comes on the heals of new improved car fuel efficiency standars for 2025

Meanwhile, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned climate change into a punch line during his acceptance speech as the RNC:

Obama has been pretty good about promoting new energy sources, green tech, and efficiency, not so good on climate change however. Romney, on the other hand, represents old, dirty energy production. Gas, coal, oil. No eye for the future, whether new energy sources or climate change.