Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Planetary Boundaries Health Report

I am reading Thomas L. Friedman's new book Thank You for Being Late. The chapter, The Planetary Boundaries, is about the accelerations of Climate Change that Mother Nature can't tell us how it is affecting her.

So a Group of Earth System Scientists sat down in 2008 to identify the Planetary Life-Support Systems that are necessary for human survival, as well as the likely boundaries that we had to remain inside of, in each domain, to avoid causing abrupt and irreversible environmental changes that could essentially end the Holocene period and make Earth unlivable.

It's only been in the last eleven thousand years that we have enjoyed the calm, stable climate conditions that allowed our ancestors to emerge from their Paleolithic caves and create seasonal agriculture, domestic animals, erect cities and towns, and eventually launch the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Technology revolution.

This period, which geologist named the Holocene, was an almost miraculously stable and warm interglacial equilibrium, which is the only state of the Planet we know for sure can support the Modern World as we know it. It finally gave us the the ideal balance of forests, savannas, coral reefs, grasslands, fish, mammals, bacteria, air quality, ice cover, temperature, fresh water availability, and productive soils, on which our civilization was built.

Here is the 2015 Planetary Boundaries Health Report

Climate Change - We have already breached it. The Planetary Boundary Team, in line with the prevailing consensus among climate scientists, believes that we needed to stay below 350 parts-per-million of Carbon Dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere if we wanted to stay comfortably below the 2 degrees Celsius rise in Global average temperature since the Industrial Revolution, the redline below which most climatologists believe we will be risking unmanageable ice melt, sea level rise, extreme temperature variations, and much more severe storms and droughts. We are now 400 parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere, that blanket is now getting really thick and thickening at an accelerating rate, pushing the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces to the highest levels we've seen since before the Industrial Revolution.

Mother Nature knows she's getting a fever. NASA's Vital Signs of the Planet report on Global Service temperatures noted at the end of 2015, the 10 warmest years in the 134-year record all have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The year 2015 ranks as the warmest on record. The climate system determines the growth environment for all living species, and that environment is heading into a zone well beyond the Planetary Boundary, threatening to make Earth into a hothouse the likes of which humans have never lived in before.

Biodiversity - It includes all the living species in the Biosphere and all the nature covering the Planet, that is, forests, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs, and all the plants and animals residing within them. The Planetary Boundaries Team determined we should maintain 90% of Biodiversity cover from per-industrial levels. We are already down to 84% in parts of Africa and going down further.

It is impossible to regulate the climate without Biodiversity. If you don't have pollinators in the air and microorganisms in the soil and birds and other animals depositing seeds for new trees through their waste, you don't have a forest. If you don't have a forest, you don't have trees to soak up the Carbon. If you don't have trees to soak up the Carbon, it goes into the atmosphere and intensifies Global Warming or into the ocean and changes their composition. The natural species loss rate is one species or less per year out of every one million species. The set boundary is 10. With globalization that level is being regularly breached, we are now losing somewhere between ten and one hundred species per million species per year. That is as close a proxy as you can get for how much we losing Biodiversity.

Deforestation - This concerns the minimum level of key Biomes, manly rain forests, boreal forest, and temperate forests, that we need to maintain on land to have a balanced, regulated Holocene. The scientists estimate that we must maintain around 75% of the Earth's original forests. We are now down to 62% percent, and some forests are showing signs of absorbing less Carbon.

Geochemical Flows - We're now adding way to much Phosphorus, Nitrogen, and other elements to the World's crop systems, poisoning the Earth with fertilizers and pesticides, and then those chemicals run off into the oceans and harm plant and fish life there as well. To develop plants and animals that eat and create protein, you need a balance of Nitrogen and Phosphorus. They determine the state of oceans and the landscape, too much Nitrogen and Phosphorus and you choke them, too little and they don't grow. It is all about how much fertilizers and pesticide we can allow ourselves to use, without choking other plants in the Biosphere. Climate change can cause top-down tipping, and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides can create bottom-up tipping. Right now we have to go down to 25% of current usage.

Rising Ocean Acidification - Some of the CO2 we emit goes into the atmosphere, but a lot is actually absorbed by the oceans. This, however, is increasingly harming fish and coral reefs, which are like the tropical rain forests of the ocean. When you mix CO2 with water you get Carbonic Acid, which dissolves the Calcium Carbonate that is the essential building block for all marine organisms, particularly those with shells, and for coral reefs. When that happens, oceans, instead of playing host to marine organism, break them down. We can only ruin so much Calcium Carbonate before the marine system turns over and cannot host fish and coral reef as it did throughout the entire Holocene epoch before now.

Freshwater Use - The maximum amount of water we can remove from the world's rivers and underground reservoirs, so our wetlands and rain forests can remain in their Holocene state and we can continue to engage in agriculture at scale.

Atmospheric Aerosol Loading - These are the microscopic particles we put into the atmosphere with conventional pollution from factories, power plants, and vehicles. The inefficient burning of Biomass mostly by cooking stoves and fossil fuels creates layers of smog that damage plant life by blocking sunlight; it also contributes to asthma and other lung diseases in humans.

Introduction of Novel Entities - Our invention of chemicals, compounds, plastics, nuclear wastes, and the like that are alien to nature and seep into soils and water. They do weird things we don't fully understand, and the fear is that they could one day even change the genetic code of different species, including humans.

Stratospheric Ozone Layer - There is one boundary we have safely retreated from after breaching it in the past. This is the appropriate thickness of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer that protects us against dangerous UV radiation that causes skin cancer. Without that ozone layer, large parts of the planet would be uninhabitable. After scientists discovered an ever-widening ozone hole caused by man-made chemicals, Chlorofluorocarbons, the world got together and implemented the Montreal Protocol in 1989, banning CFC's and, as a result, the Ozone Layer remains safely inside its Planetary Boundary of losses not greater than 5% from preindustrial levels.

The one thing we've had going for us is that up to now Mother Nature has been very good at finding ways to adapt to stress. Oceans and the forests absorb the extra CO2; ecosystems such as the Amazon adapt to deforestation and still provide rain and freshwater; the Arctic ice shrinks but does not disappear. Again, the Earth has a lot of buffers and adaptive capacities. But eventually, we can exhaust them. And that is exactly what we've been doing, particularly over the last half century.

The Planet has demonstrated an impressive capacity to maintain its balance, using every trick in its bag to stay in the current state by buffering our actions. But if we keep breaching these Planetary Boundaries, we might shift the planet from friend to foe. That is a world where the Amazon becomes a Savannah and the Arctic Circle a year-round ocean that absorbs the Sun's heat rather than reflecting it away from Earth. That would almost certainly create a world for humans that would be nowhere near as benign and friendly as the Holocene, the one steady state we know has sustained the only civilization we've ever known.

Already, many Earth scientists argue that it is no longer appropriate to describe our current geological epoch as the Holocene. They believe we've already left it behind and entered a new era that is being driven by us. The name being given to this new era is the Anthropocene, as in anthropo, for man, and cene, for new. It is a fancy scientific name for the Power of Many.

Any formal recognition of an Anthropocene Epoch in the geological time scale hinges on whether humans have changed the Earth system sufficiently to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice that is distinct from that of the Holocene Epoch. That signature includes everything from the hundreds of millions of tons of cement we've poured across the Earth's surface to radionuclides from atomic testing will be shaping the planet for years and years to come. Of all the candidates for a start date for the Anthropocene Epoch is the beginning of the Great Acceleration, by far the most convincing from the Earth System science perspective. It is only beyond the mid-twentieth century that there is clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are:

1. Beyond the range of variability of the Holocene.
2. Driven by human activities and not by natural variability.

Because of this dispute, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is in charge of naming Geological Epochs, still has us in the Holocene.

But whatever era we are in, we have a responsibility to leave the planet in a state as close to the Holocene as possible.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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