Unleashing your hidden science geek

This is the post excerpt.


Science is really not as hard as you think. We are all observers, which is the basis of science, and thus all have a little, or big, scientist lurking inside us. This book is meant to unleash your hidden scientist, letting the geek free and in the process helping you understand and eventually take action on the great processes that form the world around us.

Take temperature, for example. From a basic standpoint, it equates to the energy stored and released from a material or a system. We all experience temperature, and know how it is measured, what those measurements mean, and we interpret and apply that data to our own lives. For example, if it is cold outside, we wear a coat so as not to waste so much energy keeping warm—a burden of having this mammalian body that is great at keeping its temperature stable and high so that we remain active in any environment but really wasteful compared to the metabolism of a tortoise.

Take another temperature example of physics, in this case our understanding of heat loss. We are all afraid of physics, but on some levels it is the most intuitive of sciences. Let’s look at the physics of a hot cup of coffee.

We feel energy loss from a hot cup of coffee, as the liquid is “trying” to achieve the same temperature as its surroundings (entropy). It is using the process of diffusion, relying on molecules to move within the liquid and transfer their excess heat energy to their surroundings. We can accelerate this process by actively mixing the coffee, which brings more of the hot coffee into contact with the less hot air above it and the cup around it. This is using the process of advection, moving the material and its molecules to actively move the excess energy off the coffee. We intuitively know this physics of energy, diffusion, and advection even if we don’t necessarily know the terms.

Now let’s take a solid, like ice. Ice is cold, obviously—in fact, it is 0 degrees, and serves as the very basis for the Celsius temperature system. When we put ice into a glass of water, it will slowly melt, in essence absorbing the heat in the water around it, as the ice turns from a heat-depleted solid to a liquid state. We all know this basic aspect of the energy properties of ice and water, even without knowing the terms for heat of condensation, for example.

This intuitive knowledge from the experiment in your drinking glass can be translated to the outside world, with really interesting results.

Consider a glacier, which is effectively a “river” of ice that flows from a source, where it is cold and has some snow accumulation, down to a terminus—think those tremendous pieces of glacier breaking off the cliff face at the seas edge in Alaska.

You might not know that a glacier is pretty hard to melt. Even when the potential temperature above a glacier should be above 0 degrees, it is not in fact 0 degrees. This is because of another property of physics—in this case, color.

Black materials appear black because the chemicals or minerals in that material absorb light over the full spectrum of colors, which are the optical manifestations of wavelengths. The fact that they absorb light, and hence the energy from that light, is well known intuitively to us. Walking across black asphalt in the summer can feel like walking across hot lava. And there is nothing like sweating under the hot sun in a black shirt to make you rethink your summer fashion choices.

Ice and snow are white—they reflect a lot of the light they receive. In fact, they reflect almost ¾ of the energy they receive from sunlight right back off the surface and back out to outer space, before anything has a chance to capture that potential solar energy. That is unless you happen to be snow skiing, in which case your skin can at least catch some of the ultraviolet rays bouncing off the snow. This provides the double whammy effect when you snow ski of getting sunburnt from above and from light reflecting off the slopes from below.

This balance between absorption and reflection has a scientific term, of course—albedo, which is a measure of how much light energy reflects off a surface. Something that absorbs 100% of light it receives, meaning that it reflects 0%, has an albedo of 0, whereas a material with the opposite characteristic has an albedo of 1. There are various mathematical reasons why the 0 to 1 scale is more useful than the 0-100% scale, so it is not a case of scientists being cruel! But back to ice…

Ice has a high albedo—about 0.7. So when sunlight hits ice, much of the energy is reflected right back out to outer space. When sunlight hits asphalt, which has a low albedo of about 0.3, much of the energy is absorbed, and the asphalt gives it off by heating the air above it.

So when sunlight hits ice, the air above the ice is actually cooler than would be expected compared to average absorption. In this way, ice inadvertently “protects itself” from melting, even when it really should be melting based on the amount of sunlight it is receiving. The air temperature has to increase quite a bit around ice to overcome this physical property of energy absorption and begin melting. The ice uses physics as a form of life insurance!

All relatively straightforward applications of basic principles of physics, but with a very intriguing implication for climate change. As air temperatures are warming because of human activities (trust me, there will be much more on this later!), they have begun exceeding the ice’s capacity for self-protection, and ice worldwide has begun melting.

The interesting thing about this melting is that it is a very non-linear response. A linear response is a response proportional to a force—think pushing a glass across your kitchen table. A gentle push will move the glass a short distance, and a harder push will move it farther. The non-linear response comes when the glass reaches the edge of the table. At this point, even a gentle nudge will send the glass over the edge, resulting in it moving a great distance, at a great speed, as it crashes to the floor. I strongly encourage you to experiment with this right now, hopefully using a soda or milk that will be particularly hard to clean up…

Back to ice and non-linearity. The slow warming causes some melting at the edges of a sheet of ice, the linear response, but as the edge of this ice sheet begins to erode, it loses its high albedo (assume that there is rock underneath, with a low albedo so high heat absorption capacity). This causes the air on the edge of the eroding ice sheet to heat up even more than it would otherwise, causing increased rates of melting, more exposure of rock, more absorption of heat, more melting, and so forth.

Global ice is a glass that we have inadvertently moved close to the edge of the global table. Continual gradual increases in air temperature are the gentle push that is causing ice sheets to tumble off the table, crumbling and melting and retreating the world over. We don’t know exactly there the table edge is—in other words, how much more heating ice can take before “going non-linear,” but based on recent satellite observations, we think that we are almost there.

Not only does this mean a changed, increasingly ice-free planet, with serious concerns for global water supplies for us (oh, and polar bears are getting pretty pissed off too), but it also means that we are exposing much more low albedo materials, like rocks and seawater to absorb even more energy from the sun. Do you hear that runaway train rumbling down the track?

This provides a few relatively straightforward examples of how we can use some of our intuitive understanding of physical and natural processes to explicitly understand current issues that we are all facing. Through our understanding of these processes, we can make better and more informed decisions about how we live on this planet, and can better direct our planet on a trajectory that we want.

The recent favorite pastime of politicians who want to avoid even discussing issues related to human induced global warming is to say “I am not a scientist.” This call has been taken up by some of my scientist friends, who respond with “That’s OK, because we are” and hence move the discussion forward. Although I like this approach, a response that I prefer is “But sir/madam, you are a scientist—we all are!” We all use data to inform our interpretations of response and thus personal decisions—my outside thermometer lets me decide whether I should wear a sweater today, even before I test the weather outside.

Of course, I no sooner expect you to understand the intricacies of global phosphorus cycling (my expertise) than you should expect me to understand and explain string theory (probably not your expertise, either!). But most of the great processes that drive our planet, and current issues about how we as humans and a global society interact with these processes, are straightforward, and can be adequately described in ways that nearly everybody can not only understand but can own and take informed actions on.

The political “I am not a scientist” statement is employing willful ignorance to avoid making informed, and perhaps contentious, decisions. I don’t buy it—ignorance of science will not make science go away. Nor will it easily make 2+2 equal to 5, no matter how much that Orwellian trope pervades many public discussions of science.

As you can probably glean from the above, this book is not intended for Biblical literalists, or literalists of any scripture. If you are, I don’t have time for you. Your eyes are too tightly closed to observe the relatively simple but endlessly miraculous patterns of nature around us. Some would like to think that the miraculous is just more mysteries that we may eventually solve, and some believe that the miraculous is a reflection of God’s presence or will. Either way, exploring the miraculous should not be forbidden, but rather exulted as part of our unique role on this planet.

So, if you think that the world was created 6,500 years ago, or if you believe that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, do not read this blog—I have nothing to give you. Oh, actually, please do read this blog, tell your cult/group/flock to also buy this book when published, and organize a public and highly advertised book burning ceremony, showing your resounding defeat of logic and sensibility in the face of clear proof from your literal scripture. I would love the book sales, because how else am I going to move a book that is trying to instill geekiness back into popular culture!


Time for Politics to Get into Climate Change…the Right Way

As a climate scientist, I have long fought against the politicization of climate change science. The science is sound, the outcomes for our planet are clear, and they are largely negative. But now, after the recent release of national and Indiana-specific reports on climate impacts, we need politicians to do what they are supposed to do—make policies and regulations that confront climate change and that improve the health and well-being of people, not corporations.


The Fourth National Climate Assessment was released on Black Friday, and it was dark news indeed, particularly for the economy of the Midwest. The agricultural sector will be hit especially hard with stronger swings of drought, and flood, challenging the ability of farmers to predict crop choices for a given year, and protect those crops once they are in the ground.


This regional perspective supports the results from a series of Indiana-specific climate change reports produced this year by the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, including challenges for farmers and frightening prospects for the health of Hoosiers. The spread of Lyme Disease, mosquitos varieties that can carry Zika and other “tropical” viruses, heat emergencies in major cities, and degraded air quality and related cardio-pulmonary diseases are all part of Indiana’s future.


Indeed, as anybody who has lived in Indiana for some time will tell you, general climate changes are already occurring, from the “pothole apocalypse” of 2018, caused by widely varying winter temperatures, to extreme precipitation events and nearly snow-free winters in central Indiana. That the trajectory of change will continue does not require much of a leap of faith, and it also can be used as an important planning tool moving forward.


We cannot change the trajectory of these changes, nor respond proactively to their impacts, on an individual basis. We need political leaders to step up, and create policies and regulations to speed our transition to a fossil-free future through greater incentives to change (the carrot), and stricter regulations (the stick) for polluters.


Such policies will help to dampen the negative effects of climate change and make Indiana more resilient to climate impacts. Indiana University is already investing in this future through the Environmental Resilience Institute, which aims to measure and model environmental change, and provide locally appropriate and impactful solutions to these changes. The grim economic and health picture painted by the National Climate Assessment indicates that it is time for politicians to step in as well.

Humanity is Living on Borrowed Time

The health and well-being of humanity has improved markedly over the past 50 years. Longer life spans, lower infant and maternal mortality, lower birth rates, lower poverty rates, are among many positive global health developments. Many of these improvements are not just forimg_7070 those in High Income Countries (HICs), but increasingly are reaching into Low Middle Income Countries and Low Income countries. Despite terrible and unjust genocides, wars of aggression, deaths from preventable diseases, and famine from climate change that appear on our news feeds, humanity is doing better on an individual level than ever before. Despite climate change beginning to have clear impacts on cities, communities, and cultures, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals of unknown ecotoxicity appearing in water samples throughout the world, legacy contaminants such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyl (pcb) poisoning our soils, water, and air, and poor air quality hovering over our major cities and countryside, by all measures we are getting healthier, more prosperous, and living longer.


Meanwhile, ample evidence exists that environmental degradation is escalating on several fronts, from poor air quality to water and soil pollution to climate-driven ecosystem degradation to human-driven decline in animal and plant species globally. One line of evidence linking this degradation to human health is the sharp increase in morbidity and mortality from non-communicable diseases, with 9 million people dying from pollution every year, which constitutes 15 times more deaths than from all wars and violence combined. And much of this pollution has a long lifespan in the environment, meaning that the even if some pollution revolution would occur tomorrow, the legacy contaminants will remain in our environment for tens to thousands of years.


This paradox, substantial improvements in health across most populations in the face of declines in environmental quality in many regions, was highlighted at the annual Planetary Health Alliance meeting held in Edinburgh in May 2018 (https://planetaryhealthannualmeeting.org/) in Keynote presentations by Hannah Ritchie and Philip Landrigan. Not discussed in a theoretical framework, however, are the implications of this paradox—how is this disparity characterized and can it continue sustainably?


This mathematical solution to this apparent paradox might best be characterized by:


EF + N = GH


Where EF is Earth Functions, encompassing the health of the environment and balance of global ecosystems, GH is global human health and well-being which constitutes the physical, mental, and economic well-being of humans, and N = (n+s+t), which signify the natural, social, and technological resources that support the human ecosystem.


In the current state, then, the equation looks something like this:


⇓EF + N = ⇑GH

with environmental degradation reducing environmental and ecological capacity while global health increases. To be sure, improvements in global human health can be ascribed to a shot of actions that might be only tangentially related to environmental or ecosystem processes, including water filtration technologies, access to information in remote locations, widespread vaccination efforts. But nevertheless, the benefits of these actions have their own limits, and many of these “public health” interventions rely on resources embedded in N.


The obvious balance to this is N, the resources bank for the planet. This bank receives deposits through natural processes, but these deposits typically come at a slow, geological rate. Take for example fossil fuels, which have accumulated over tens of millions of years but the carbon from which has been extracted and emitted to the atmosphere and surface systems at rates thousands of times faster than the deposit formed. Or, perhaps more troubling, take systems for which there are no obvious replacements, such as phosphate rock resources. These accumulate in rare settings over geologic time, but as for fossil fuels, are being withdrawn for fertilizer production at rates far outpacing deposits. But unlike fossil fuels, there are no alternatives to phosphorus, which plants depend on for photosynthetic processes and upon which the global population depends for food. And as a final example, the global population of pollinators, critical to food stability, is in sharp decline, with an observed decrease in flying insect biomass of 75% over the last 27 years, the result of multiple chemical and ecosystem pressures.


Our N, the resource capabilities of the planet, is impacted not just by the sheer quantity of reserves that exist in the resource bank itself (i.e., amount of oil, acreage of arable land, etc.), but also by our social interaction with this resource. This includes resource use intensity and preservation, and technological capacities to maximize or indeed bypass this resource, such as GMOs and precision agriculture to increase per acre yields and alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. Furthermore, geopolitical and resource distribution can impact N availability both globally and locally. For example, the majority of known remaining phosphate rock reserves exists in only two countries, Morocco and Western Sahara, whose standing as transparent states which cleave to the rule of law is not solid and which in fact do not even have an agreed-upon border, thus raising the potential for political instability impacting the extraction and distribution of this resource.


So at what point will withdrawals exceed deposits, resulting in an N that goes into a negative balance? There seems no capacity to receive a loan on N, and for some resources, no viable or at least painlessly adopted alternatives. In many cases, technological or social innovations can make N transitions feasible. The development and commercialization of alternative energy technologies relying on renewable sources is beginning to change the energy production and distribution landscape, thus replacing one N, fossil fuels, with several others. Emerging research, programs and businesses that focus on resource use reduction and resource reuse are beginning to change the way that we can reduce the withdrawal rate of N from various systems.


A major concept of Planetary Health is that all systems, including ecosystems, humans, social systems, political systems, etc., are linked together. This would imply that we could in theory quantify the components of the global N in such a way as to target exactly what components of this resource bank are most vulnerable to stress and thus should be prioritized for interventions or innovations to ensure that recent improvements in global health do not stall, or worse, degrade. In a practical sense, however, ample evidence already exists that highlight those Ns. Food production capabilities, mineral resources, energy sources, water and water distribution, and ecosystem services are among those critical, and vulnerable, resources. And hanging over all of this are the threat multipliers of climate change, inequities in resource distribution and/or redistribution, and conflict and impacts on global food trade, to name but a few.


One of the important final sessions of the Planetary Health Alliance meeting focused on solutions, both local and global. One session that resonated was by members of the Scottish Children’s Parliament, which highlighted the passion, commitment, and effectiveness of youth in inspiring change. And perhaps that is where the answer to the resource paradox lies—not in passing down global problems that will impact kids, but rather passing down the knowledge, tools, and pulpit to allow youth to lead. As evidenced by Pakistani Nobel Prize-winning Malala Yousafi and her activism on female education and more recently by the Dutch youth activist Boyan Slat crusading for developing solutions for plastic pollution in oceans, with the right access to tools and platforms, there is nothing that moves hearts and minds more than hearing “enough is enough” from the very generation of humanity that will be living on a planet fundamentally different than the one the we grew up on. I argue that these “Anthroponauts” will be the first generation to grow up and die on a Spaceship Earth that is fundamentally different than before, and thus should have that leading voice, which seems to have eluded previous generations, in substantively addressing the global environment-health paradox. Hope is not a strategy, nor is despair an answer.


Excerpted and modified from Filippelli, submitted. Exploring the paradox of increased global health and degraded global environment—How much borrowed time is humanity living on? GeoHealth



What if we don’t have enough food to go around?

Severe limitations exist in our ability to feed the plant. Not least of which is the availability of fertilizer phosphorous, which i sin vanishingly short supply and for which no alternative exists. What should we do, and how should we do it, are subjects of my recent paper in global Biogeochemical Cycles.

Filippelli phosphorus


Finding solutions for pollution outsourcing

Recently, my colleague Mark Taylor (Macquarie University, Sydney Australia) and I published a report on the tragedy of our current system of sending our used junk to poor countries, where it either contaminates the water, air or soil. This includes batteries, electronics, and other materials that are often reprocessed in those countries without any environmental protection for those doing the recycling. You can access the published article here (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2017GH000119/full), but here is a briefer version…


New analyses are revealing the scale of pollution on global health, with a disproportionate share of the impact borne by lower income nations, minority and marginalized individuals. Common themes emerge on the drivers of this pollution impact, including lack of regulation and its enforcement, research and expertise development, and innovative funding mechanisms for mitigation. Creative approaches need to be developed and applied to address and overcome these obstacles, as “business as usual” continues to externalize the human health costs related to pollution exerting its negative influence on global environmental health.

A bombshell report from the Lancet Commission on global pollution and health should have us all reflecting on what it really says. The report states that pollution is linked to 16% of all premature deaths worldwide, a statistic that belies our medical focus on treating symptoms rather than the causes of disease. However more troubling is that the report states that “…in countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalized.”

It seems that the burden of environmental injustice on minority and marginalized people is not just felt among developed nations with large income disparities, such as the U.S., but is a worldwide phenomenon. Compounding this is the fact that 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries (LMIC), providing evidence it is a true global environmental issue. Many of those countries have little in the way of local expertise or environmental regulations, which results in poor knowledge transfer from high-income countries to address well-studied and soluble issues. For example, it is well-known that exposure to fine particulate matter from indoor and outdoor combustion is a major cause of premature death, a problem faced by people largely in LMIC. This is a classic ‘wicked problem’ because although the solution is a relatively straightforward issue to address with emission regulations and relatively low cost technologies, it is proving resistant to remedy because of organizational and political constraints.

The common themes shared by global environmental exposure hazards from air, soil, and water are (1) lack of adequate regulations or their enforcement to avoid or clean up pollution, (2) lack of adequate research and data coverage on extant and emerging pollutants, and (3) lack of resources, including money, expertise, and capacity to mitigate legacy and ongoing challenges. While LMIC tend to suffer from all three of these challenges, it is evident that one or more of these structural deficits burdens high-income countries as well. Reducing the global burden of disease requires attention to these deficits, a challenge given that they typically lie in different “sectors” of national and international governing frameworks.


Regulations to avoid pollution and pollution exposure

Adoption of protective environmental regulations at the national and international levels has resulted in positive environmental change and protected human health. Indeed, this is the underpinning of the enormous improvements in health and longevity that have been enjoyed by many of the upper-middle and upper-income countries. For example, national legislation in the U.S. that removed the harmful toxicant lead from gasoline resulted in an immediate and continued decline in blood lead levels of children, and the avoidance of substantial lifetime economic losses and health problems. This policy intervention is broadly seen as a great public health success story. However, the lead that was emitted from gasoline in the 20th century is persistent in the environment, and continues to disproportionately impact poor communities of color.

At an international level, the Minimata Convention signed in 2013 implemented a global agreement to reduce the emissions of the harmful toxicant mercury into the environment from multiple sources. The Paris Climate Agreement goal of significantly modulating global net carbon emissions will result in multiple positive benefits for environmental and human health especially from the likely reduction in particulate matter for which their appears no safe level of exposure. Indeed, perhaps most concerning is that there is not only no safe lower level of exposure for a range of common environmental toxic pollutants, but that their effect on human health is ‘proportionately greater at the lowest dose or levels of exposure.

The fact that the current U.S. administrative pulled out of the Paris agreement is troubling on multiple fronts, especially when it comes at a time when there is a growing sense of the purposeful erosion of environmental protection within the U.S. itself. Even though the U.S. government has decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement, its existence provides a strong roadmap that will still likely guide business, industry and state governments to attain many of the national carbon targets.


New ways to develop data and research through citizen-science and community-engaged research

Evidence-based policy formulated from research into pollutants, their sources and human health impacts has resulted in a marked reduction of pollution-related disease burden in higher-income countries over the last three. Higher income countries have monitoring systems in place to measure pollution levels and to identify pollution sources, and are often drivers of research into the impacts of pollutants on environmental and human health and effective mitigation techniques to reduce exposures.

But even these countries have structural flaws in their pollution protection systems in that monitoring does not always equate to intervention. A classic example of this structural flaw is lead poisoning in children, where intervention only occurs after a child has really high levels of lead in their blood. While levels of lead in children have dropped significantly since the elimination of the use of lead additives in gasoline and its removal from other sources (paint, food, toys), some 500,000 U.S. children still have an elevated blood lead level. It is a fact that exposures are disproportionately greater in lower income children of color. This impact and the inherent environmental injustices are particularly evident in U.S. cities. Most of the exposure of lead to urban children is from legacy sources that have accumulated from over a century of industrial activity and now reside in surface soils and dust. These now lead-rich deposits continue to be remobilized causing contamination of human, food and ecological systems.

Although we do monitor air and water for potential contaminants, there is no similar program to map urban soil geochemistry and thus to identify and eliminate hotspots from this persistent and toxic pollutant. Indeed, we typically resort to analyzing maps of children’s blood lead levels to find these particular pockets of high lead exposure—in other words, authorities wait until children are exposed so that we can find the source of the pollutant. Obviously, this approach fails the gold standard of public health, which is primary prevention. Moreover, such an approach is a backward approach to public health protection, particularly given our understanding of lead toxicity and how we can prevent harm to the most vulnerable section of the population—young children.

Several efforts are underway to flip this equation, and to actively engage with community members to address this gap. Some of these approaches are now utilizing citizen science and community-engaged research, which are emerging as effective and powerful mechanisms to collect data and to engage communities to take action to find and reduce personal exposures to contamination in their own homes. Recent examples from soil and dust lead exposure include Indianapolis (https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=healthy%20cities%20project) New Orleans (https://plus.google.com/102811471396098140243), Sydney (https://www.facebook.com/MQVegeSafe/), and an emerging global dust network (www.360dustanalysis.com). While these citizen science and community-engaged research programs do not preclude publication in traditional academic journals, they are designed to provide evidence-based advice to participants to help them better manage pollution risks in their home environment. For such citizen science programs, it is more important that the data can be used to trigger new knowledge and positive changes within local communities. Deeper reach of science and scientists into our wider communities about research that matters to individuals can be accelerated by use of social media platforms, improving the social impact of science. However, while some progress is being made in the low- and middle-income countries that are heavily burdened by contaminants, further work is required.


Creative approaches to mitigating and eliminating global pollutants

Mitigation and elimination of pollutant sources and legacies are perhaps the most challenging of the three exposure burden themes (lack of adequate regulations, research, resources), particularly in LMICs. This is due to a lack of funds and creativity around solutions, often compounded by poor governance that results in wasting precious financial resources through poor management and/or corruption before they can do public good. A lack of funding for mitigation and protection is often addressed through international assistance (e.g., World Bank, Global Environment Fund, various national and NGO programs). A lack of creativity is exampled by the application of “industry standard” mitigation approaches to environments without adequate resources to pay for infrastructure support to maintain these protections. Instead, we need big picture models like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges that aim to conceive, develop, and apply solutions that are appropriate to the setting. Simple, yet effective locally based solutions for remediating contaminated soils are required because they not only reduce exposure risks but also build local capacity. However, inadequate attention has been paid to developing workable solutions to very large-scale contamination issues, like the widespread lead poisoning devastating children in the Zambian city of Kabwe. That said, promising outcomes are achievable such as those associated with improved cooking stoves to reduce soot and indoor air pollution in homes or the use of solar lights to eradicate pollution from kerosene lamps.


A citizen-science project to examine pollution in soils in Kabwe, Africa


Our collective future

Collectively, the solutions to the reduction and ultimate elimination of pollution cannot be achieved via technology alone, but need to be resolved with and alongside the very people and communities that require solutions—these are the real drivers for sustained change. Communities and individuals are too often left out of the conversation, even when ample evidence exists that the human burden of environmental exposures can be reduced both by limiting exposure sources and by relatively simple modification of behaviors.

Without significantly recognizing and addressing the three keys themes of global pollution burdens, it is entirely possible that pollution–related morbidities and mortalities in 20 years might be worse than outlined in the Lancet Commission report. Imagine a future earth where resource extraction and utilization continues to follow a reckless trajectory of “business as usual” (profit over pollution), leaving poorer and disadvantaged populations to absorb the externalized costs of environmental pollution. Ultimately, failure to reduce chemical exposures costs the whole of society.

Given that the knowledge and resources to combat pollution are available, we have a responsibility to do so for future generations. If we do not accept that responsibility, not only will we burden them with our failure of inaction but they will not reflect favorably on our profligate use of the environment, for which there is no replacement.



Hurricanes, Houston, and the Hullabaloo over Climate Change

Did it or didn’t it? If it did, how much was its fault? How many more can we expect?


All of these questions are being asked about links between climate change, hurricanes, and coastal destruction. But they are being asked the wrong way around, and until we fix that, we will not learn and deal with the problem for next year, let alone the next century.


“Houston, we have a problem”…but it really was not Hurricane Harvey, but rather Houston itself, that was the problem.


Why blame a city that just finished bailing out from catastrophic flooding? Why not blame Hurricane Harvey? My answer is simple—it is no surprise that a hurricane would eventually hit Houston, or indeed any coastal city in that location. The surprise was how horribly poorly-designed the city was to cope with this absolute surety.


The devastation wrought by the hurricane was certainly compounded by a warmer planet, with higher sea levels due to the melting of continental ice and warmer sea surface temperatures, which drive much “wetter” hurricanes. And yes, there are likely to be more such catastrophic storm events in the future, a result of this new game of Climate Chaos that we are now experiencing regularly. But even absent these conditions, Houston would have had a huge problem on its hand, as illustrated by one picture:


Houston built itself into this problem. As eloquently put by Joni Mitchell “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” Natural systems have capacities to absorb and release all kinds of things that are valuable for life, including carbon, oxygen, and yes—water. These capacities, called “ecosystem services” are grossly undervalued in a capitalistic society because we have always had a hard time putting a price on, say, paradise. But as pioneered by Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize winning economist from Indiana University, Bloomington, we need to start putting values on these services in order to place them among the other “competitors” that capitalism demands.


So what happened in Houston? Well, it likely happened in your city as well—it certainly did in Indianapolis where I live. The post-WWII boom in urban development occurred during a time of nearly no application of environmental fundamentals in our daily lives. As suburbs exploded, value was placed on esthetics and ease and “normalcy.” Bare land, or farmland, or often woodlands, were bulldozed and covered over with houses, schools, malls, and vast, endless, excruciatingly unnatural stretches of asphalt and concrete. Probably many will remember entire school playgrounds that were asphalt, with one shabby tree in the corner—indeed, many old schools in our neighborhood still look basically like this!


Nature was a lawn (and lawnmower to keep it perfect), and maybe a tree or two that was chosen for its foliage and swing-carrying capacity and not because it was native to that area. And that was enough for most, so long as they had paved driveways and streets and parking lots of zip around to with their cars.


Cities doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in size over the span of several decades, grabbing more and more land and converting these paradises to parking lots. But have you ever seen it rain on a parking lot? Of course you have—sheets of water streaming between the curbs and lines, looking for somewhere to go. Indeed, gutters gushing, streets awash, all with water that before soaked into soil and now has no place to go.


How puzzling if water could think, and have a memory—it would wonder what in the world happened to the old days, when it would drop out of the sky, and then trickle down through layers of soil and eventually make its way to groundwater, or streams and lakes and rivers. But it would be a slow journey, one controlled by the earth’s permeable nature.


Now, we have this same deluge coming down, and actually more of it given climate change, and it is all trying to find lower ground in a hurry. Without the ecosystem functions that would slow this flow and absorb a fair amount of it, we see massive flooding. Water is this scenario is viewed as harmful waste—one that we want to get rid of as soon as possible.


Most sewer systems in older cities in the US are built to do just that—to take sewage to wastewater treatments plants, and to also take the rainfall that runs off all of the impervious services to the treatments plants. A silly arrangement, obviously, because water running off a sidewalk or a parking lot is not nearly as harmful to humans as our own sewage that goes down the toilet—yet it ends up in the same place, and must be treated to regulatory levels before being released back to waterways. This is like airport security—almost all of the people going to catch their flights are fine, upstanding citizens, and only a tiny number are aiming to do something bad. But we have to check everyone to the same standards before they board. Hard to design “crazy bad” out of the human race, but it would have been easy to design water systems that separate the good and the bad water at its source, and treats it accordingly.


The problem with this model was recognized early on, even as these systems, called Combined Sewer Outflows or CSOs, were being designed and installed. During rain storms, you would simply have too much water going into the treatment plants, effectively flooding them out. So a safety valve was put in. During times of high rainfall, gates would automatically release the rain+toilet sewage into creeks and streams and rivers, sparing the treatment plants from failure. Yay for engineering! Boo for salamanders, fish, and people!


It was bad enough when these CSOs would just activate once or twice per year, flooding waterways with sewage and leading to significant issues with pathogenic bacteria. But here is where we circle around to development again—imagine that now we have paved over most of the area that would absorb those rainstorms and slow the flow of water into wastewater systems. And that is exactly what has happened in many cities, resulting in CSO activations 10, 20, and even 50 times per year.


I wrote about this in a previous post, and creative solutions are being put in place to make cities more water-resilient, but we are an incredibly long way away from that point. In fact, we might even be farther away given the number of environmental policies and protections that are being removed in the current administration, in the name of “reducing restrictions to companies and getting our jobs back.” Ironic, I think, that the US saw a string of roughly 5 years of continuous job growth come to an end this month, because of all of the employment disruption of the massive hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast and US territories in the Caribbean.


So, Houston, and most other cities, built their way over the decades into this problem of climate fragility. They did this with a combination of engineering hubris, environmental devaluation, and racism/classism (one of the drivers of suburbanization). With the quickening pace of climate change and the incredibly poor commitment to infrastructure investments, I fear that we won’t have time to build our way out of this unscathed.


Every single new building or development should consider first how it impacts ecosystem services, and how it can be made to minimize those impacts—to capitalize on these functions to conform to the flow of water, energy, and heat that is most sustainable. Every infrastructure rebuild should be looking at climate states 50 years from now, and engineering to those standards.


And herein lies the rub. It is the rare company that will intentionally build something more expensive but more sustainable in a general sense, because the company doesn’t typically reap the majority of the benefit, but rather the overall system. And it is a rare institution that will accept a bid for a new major building at a substantially higher price than a competing bid based on the sustainability factor alone. And in fact, many state institutions are not allowed to do this.


Policies and incentives help companies and cities make better decisions by leveling the playing field. These might be modest, like a net metering system to allow homeowners to sell excess solar-produced electricity back to the grid at a rate approaching the price they pay to buy it from the grid. Or these might be substantial, like committing to increasing the total area of greenspace and pervious landscapes by 20% using public bonds to cover the cost.


The time is now (actually, it was more likely 20 years ago) to make these investments in resilience. We need to work with a changing climate, anticipating these changes and leading with our heads instead of our bottom line. Because really—the bottom line is us on this little, blue, insanely resilient ball.


We can’t lose sight of that, because the ball will survive long after us. Scathed, and a bit depleted for awhile, but still chugging along!

Where are you headed after Paris, planet Earth?


As news of the Trump Administration withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement buzzes around the interwebs, I am left pondering the question “What next, planet Earth?” Perhaps surprisingly, I have to answer “Meh, pretty much the same old story, with the same ending.”


In other words, we might take a deep calming breath and examine what this asinine and globally unpopular move will really mean for climate. And I will argue that beyond the continuing international embarrassment with which this administration coats an otherwise good and caring nation, this particular stupidity has more of a symbolic impact than a carbon impact.


Hear me out. The Paris Climate Agreement is to a large extent symbolic anyway. It was a good faith effort of nearly every nation on the planet to develop its own national benchmarks for net carbon emissions over the next several decades. The targets were nationally-based, and compliance to those targets was similarly nationally policed.


The international part was simply the target for reducing global carbon emissions to somehow control the worst of climate change impacts. The target was to change global carbon balances in such a way to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees.


Each nation had their own strategies for doing so, ranging from conversion to non-fossil fuel energy and transportation systems to greater carbon sequestration via green strategies (trees) and green technologies, with many strategies in between. All good stuff, planned in collaboration over many years, culminating in the fine global guidance document that is the Paris Climate Agreement.


Here are the critical factors that, in my opinion, make the Trump Administration withdrawal from the agreement a predictably ignorant symbolic move that will not necessarily change the trajectory of future climate.


First, most of the Paris Climate Agreement was really about process, anyway. We were able to build and share roadmaps toward a carbon-lean planet. We were able to talk about climate as something that we have significantly altered because of human activities, and thus acknowledge that have and will continue to have the global thermostat at our fingertips in terms of net carbon balances.


Second, most of the roadmaps that were laid out in national plans are things that are or will likely happen anyway. For example, because renewable energy sources have become so cheap, electrification of large swaths of currently light-less continents is best done by small-scale, renewable-based power grids. Renewables will continue to dominate new power development around the world, as reflected in nearly every economic projection and futures market.


Additionally, natural gas has continued to replace coal as an energy feedstock, resulting in most nations abandoning plans to build new coal-fired power plants and closing mines (sorry again, Trump). This replacement has its own issues, as natural gas is still a fossil fuel and still contributions to carbon emissions, but it is at least cleaner than coal and does emit less carbon per BTU than coal.


Third (and sorry here, because Dr. Reality is about to give an unpopular diagnosis to our dear patient planet Earth), we are never going to make the temperature targets laid out in Paris anyway. Given carbon emission trajectories over the next decade, upon which we can rely to some degree of certitude, we will easily blow past 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, and maybe even 2.5 degrees warming by 2050.


Indeed, this next decade would have to see cuts in carbon emissions so profound that they would likely result in global instabilities that exceed the instabilities that climate change will wreak on the globe by mid-century. The reason is that the carbon emitted yesterday, today, and tomorrow doesn’t just go away, but rather accumulates in the earth system, leading to a long “memory effect” of carbon emissions.


This is the reason why James Hansen, all the way back in the early 1980’s, rang the global climate alarm bell and has stated, correctly and repeatedly, that by making moderate cuts in carbon emissions NOW we can avoid making more draconian cuts in the future.


The Paris Agreement has a lot of national-scale action occurring by 2025 or 2030. It really has to start in 2017, or indeed to have started in 1980, to have the potential to stop short of 2 degrees of warming. And last I looked at the global carbon dioxide curve, climbing ever upward at a faster rate every year; I see no immediate reason to be optimistic on this front.


I am not suggesting that we stop trying. I am simply saying that (1) most of Paris will probably happen anyway, (2) we have to be a bit more realistic about future temperature changes and start living with the reality of a warming planet, and (3), given (1) and (2), we should start looking seriously at what 2050, and 2100, will look like, and considering how best to manage resources and protections so that more money is not thrown down the drain protecting areas that are obviously doomed (hello, Miami Beach) and protecting people who do not have the capacity or infrastructure to “weather the storm.”


An admittedly disconcerted sum-up from a guy who helped work on these issues in the State Department, as we were crafting the blueprint of the Paris Climate Agreement. But perhaps this mix of hope and despair will help to comfort/terrify you when the Trump Administration pulls out of the agreement.


Another in a series of internationally-embarrassing moments for the US? Yes.

Portending the imminent destruction of our planet? Not exactly…that was coming anyway! Just kidding, sort of.