The complacent majority needs to step up and call for action on climate change.
- Climate change is often framed as a debate that has split society down the middle and that requires more evidence before we can act. In reality, 97 percent of scientists agree that it is real and only 3 percent are skeptical. A sticking point for some is the estimated timeline, but as Columbia University professor Philip Kitcher points out, a 4-5 Celsius temperature increase that makes the planet uninhabitable is a disaster no matter when it happens.
- In this video, 9 experts (including professors, astronomers, authors, and historians) explain what climate change looks like, how humans have already and are continuing to contribute to it, how and why it has become politicized, and what needs to happen moving forward for real progress to be made.
- David Wallace-Wells, journalist and New America Foundation National Fellow, says that the main goal of climate action is not to win over the skeptical minority, but to "make those people who are concerned but still fundamentally complacent about the issue to be really engaged in a way that they prioritize climate change in their politics and their voting and make sure that our leaders think of climate change as a first-order political priority."
Animals are adapting all the time these days to stay out of our way.
- Evolution is something that happens over time, but animals (humans included) are always mutating and adapting.
- Thanks to human presence and interference, animals are experiencing what has been referred to as "human-guided evolution."
- More animals are becoming night owls. Pollution determines which moths dominate the tree trunks of the U.K. Are these short-term changes, or is humanity doing lasting damage?
We often think of evolution as taking place over extended periods of time as mutations prove themselves advantageous, or not. Mutations, though, are not rare things: They happen all the time. Scientists estimate that there were 37 trillion of them in your own body just over the last 24 hours. (It's amazing more things don't go wrong, right?) The characteristics we see in ourselves and other organisms are merely the latest winners in a wild and woolly mutation free-for-all competition, in which nature, or random chance, tries out many wonderful, bizarre, and ridiculous traits as things settle out over the long term.
Adaptations in response to changing environmental factors occur all the time, too: An attribute that may have been meaningless before may suddenly become very helpful. Here in the Anthropocene, animals are adapting to all sort of habitat changes we've imposed on them. While not yet long-term changes, necessarily, these characteristics suggest we may be having a considerable impact on the ongoing process of evolution in the world's organisms.
Image source: Marek R. Swadzba/Shutterstock
Before the Industrial Revolution got up and running in the U.K., light-colored peppered moths, Biston betularia morpha typica, were a common sight. However, by about 1864, they'd been essentially replaced by a darker peppered-moth cousin, Biston betularia morpha carbonaria. Why?
Pollutants — mostly coal soot —covered the British countryside, darkening its trees. Worse, sulfur dioxide emissions wiped out many of the trees' lichen and moss coverings. Against these darkened backdrops, light-colored peppered moths became far too easy to spot by predators. Better suited were the darker peppered moths, which soon came to dominate the habitat — by 1895, some 95 percent of peppered moths spotted were the darker variety.
Fortunately, the Industrial Revolution days passed, with dirty factories over time being replaced by cleaner alternatives, and today, the light-colored peppered moths are back on top.
The story is a pretty fast-paced and dramatic example of how extreme our impact can be, and also — and there's a hopeful feeling to this — how short-lived it can be if we fix what we've broken.
Urban vs. rural red fox skull measurements
Image source: K.J. Parsons, et al
Researchers published in June a really interesting study regarding a surprising way in which foxes are adapting to life in human-dominated urban environments.
An examination of 111 red fox skulls from London, UK, revealed "urban individuals tending to have shorter and wider muzzles relative to rural individuals." Essentially, the more urban a fox's environment is, the shorter its snout was likely to be. The change may be considered an example of Darwin's "domestication syndrome," as Big Think previously reported.
The study suggests it's all about the biomechanics benefits imparted by such a change:
"Firstly, a shorter snout, as found in urban foxes, should confer a higher mechanical advantage but with reduced closing speed of the jaw. This may be advantageous in an urban habitat where resources are more likely to be accessed as stationary patches of discarded human foods. Furthermore, in some cases, these foods may require a greater force to access them, explaining the expanded sagittal crest in skulls of urban foxes."
If these traits make an individual fox better suited to its city life, it's that much more likely to survive and reproduce than a longer-snouted competitor.
Nighttime on human Earth
Image source: Viktor Grishchenko/Shutterstock
Habitat loss is the single most destructive thing we're doing to animals. It can lead to utter displacement and death, and it can also change the way animals go about doing the things they need to do to survive.
In many cases, animals dealing with fresh human encroachment bend before they break, and some are trying to carry on around us, so to speak. A 2018 study in the journal Science finds, for example, that animals are becoming more nocturnal to get out of the bipeds' way.
The authors of the study analyzed data from 76 other reports to learn how 62 species on six continents were trying to adapt to our intrusive presence. The data was sourced from all sorts of devices such as cameras to GPS trackers, and ran the gamut from 'possums to pachyderms.
What the researchers found was that animals known to split their activities between day and night were overwhelmingly becoming busier after dark. There was a 68 percent increase in nighttime activity among such animals.
If this habitat pressure continues, will we start to see individuals with, for example, better night vision, come to dominate as competitors for scarce resources? It'll be interesting to see.
When people say, "Such and such animal has this trait because it allows them to…" what they're really saying is that "Of all the crazy mutations that nature tried out, individuals with this mutation fared better than others did." Whether it's effective camouflage, the ditching of a trunk, or becoming a night owl — except for owls who already… never mind — temporary adaptations become fixed evolutionary traits when the conditions in which they are beneficial remain in place long enough. In the case of the pressure we're continually imposing on other life forms, it bears saying that only the ones lucky enough to survive humankind's challenging influence in the first place will get that chance to change.
Today's agriculture workers face 21 days of heat that exceed safety standards. That number will double by 2050.
Turning up the heat index<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzIyNDg4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Nzk2OTk2MX0.1Jq1pARhOK6onw5edPNt4rbGLMwvQmpxQmmXlfi5-f8/img.jpg?width=980" id="19637" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92d1984e8f22d559095bcbf62f1abf62" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Three maps showing the maximum daily heat index, in Fahrenheit, for the top 5% of the hottest days in the growing season.
It's the humidity<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="NfydgBWh" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="e553c36cd3fa32fd345d1e7aa7e8a0fb"> <div id="botr_NfydgBWh_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/NfydgBWh-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/NfydgBWh-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/NfydgBWh-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Typically, our bodies perspire to cool down. On dry summer days, sweat evaporates from our skin to transfer our metabolic heat into the air around us. But when humidity rises, sweat evaporates much slower as the surrounding air is thick with water.</p><p>Because of this, humid days don't just feel hotter. According to our bodies, <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-do-we-sweat-more-in-high-humidity/" target="_blank">humid days are hotter</a>. We experience an 88°F day with 85 percent humidity as though it were a stifling 110°F.</p><p>Exposure to such heat can cause illnesses such as sunburn, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion. If a person's temperature reaches 103°F or higher, they may suffer from heatstroke which can result in headaches, nausea, fatigue, confusion, loss of consciousness, and even death. </p><p><a href="https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/phys_agents/heat_health.html" target="_blank">Chronic overheating</a> has been correlated with stress-related heart, kidney, and liver damage, though studies have not shown conclusive causation.</p><p>This makes a hotter, more humid planet more dangerous for outdoor workers.</p><p>Today, the average U.S. agricultural worker experiences 21 days per growing season when the daily heat index exceeds safety standards. Even then, agricultural workers are <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202759/" target="_blank">four times more likely to suffer heat-related illnesses</a> than non-agricultural workers and suffer <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20665306" target="_blank">four heat-related deaths</a> per one million workers per year, a rate 20 times higher than other U.S. civilian workers.</p><p>When global temperatures rise by two degrees, according to the study, the average agricultural worker will face 39 days of heat that exceed safety standards. At four degrees warming, that number grows to 62 days. Their data also show that heatwaves—defined as a three-or-more-day stretches of extreme heat—will become five times as frequent by 2050.</p><p>"The climate science community has long been pointing to the global south, the developing countries, as places that will be disproportionately affected by climate change," David Battisti, co-author and a UW professor of atmospheric sciences, said in the same release. "This shows that you don't have to go to the global south to find people who will get hurt with even modest amounts of global warming -- you just have to look in our own backyard."</p><p>It's worth noting that those numbers are averages, and agricultural workers in different locations will encounter drastically different conditions. </p><p>For example, the study's data show counties in Washington state remaining on the cooler side of the median. Meanwhile, workers in Imperial, California already contend with 105 days that exceed safety standards. By the year 2100, that number will jump to 136—nearly the entire growing season!</p>
The costs will be global<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzIyNDkyNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTcxMzAwMX0.sRkdbHygYdKG9gRY_FGD4c0WLCQYUQvURZq1sSebH3I/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C206&height=700" id="4cb2f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6676d85d764d7bf53cacfcb57cc75007" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The heat won't just affect agricultural workers; billions of people of people worldwide live without air conditioning and other cooling amenities.
We've known this virus was coming. We just didn't do anything about it.
- As far back as 2007, researchers warned about a novel coronavirus emerging from SARS.
- Long before that, experts knew that factory farms create the conditions for pandemics.
- Pandemics will be part of our lives as long as we continue our current methods of meat production.
Cows in a milking parlour on a large farm. The cows are milked by milking machine twice a day on April 24, 2019 in Verkhniy Ikorets, Russia.
Photo by Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images<p>A few years ago, public health expert Larry Brilliant <a href="https://bigthink.com/videos/larry-brilliant-the-biggest-threats-to-global-health" target="_self">stopped by</a> the Big Think office to discuss the most pressing issues facing humanity if a pandemic were to occur. He offered two: the diseases that ravage our biology, and more importantly, our preparation to combat those diseases. Brilliant was especially concerned in regards to the second. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We have a White House which would almost reflexly discard anything that has the word 'public' in it, and one of those words is 'public health.' And they have not shown a keen interest in pandemics. The whole idea of 'America First,' which might be good for many things, is singularly not good for a global pandemic."</p><p>Brilliant says we've had 30 to 40 diseases, almost all of which are viruses, that jump from animals to humans at a rate of roughly one a year. The number is increasing—not catastrophically, he says, at least not yet. The reason for concern? Humans and animals living in such close proximity due to clear-cutting of forests and factory farms. This proximity is creating a "natural virus experiment." </p><p>How to stop this experiment? We have to curb our enthusiasm for meat. Eating less of it, sure, and being more discerning about where you source meat. Words like "natural" don't mean anything on a package; even "free range" is suspect. Knowing your farmer is important. Or, as Shapiro advocates, the emerging market of "clean meat," which is actual meat cultured in laboratories. A consumer-priced burger isn't there yet, but we're getting closer. </p><p>We can also add vegetarian and flexitarian arguments here. Yet I'm wary of recent vegan arguments that humans were not designed to eat meat. You can't rewrite history—humans are humans thanks in part to our consumption of meat, as thinkers such as <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/206671/the-story-of-the-human-body-by-daniel-e-lieberman/" target="_blank">Daniel Lieberman</a> and <a href="https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/richard-wrangham/catching-fire/9780465020416/" target="_blank">Richard Wrangham</a> have pointed out. We can—and should—argue about the future, but let us at least understand where we come from. </p><p>One thing is certain: stopping this virus experiment will require seriously rethinking the system that's creating it. At least the next time someone asks, "how could this have happened?," tell them we already know the answer. We've known it for generations. What we do about it moving forward is the story we've yet to write.</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His next book is</em> "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</p>
Why a 400-mile enclosure around the North Sea is not as crazy as it sounds
- The Northern European Enclosure Dam (NEED) would cut off the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean.
- It would save 15 countries, and up to 55 million people, from sea level rise—but at a cost.
- The idea is a warning more than a plan: NEED will be necessary if we don't stop global warming now.
Unprecedented scale<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjc4NDA4MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTk4ODgwMX0.OIVPa10vLKHoSRNoKxamwi5G6gxdbo16RP1scPHu0mo/img.jpg?width=980" id="fcc7f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f8017c1ceba1cb482445330caa4d8771" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="The top of a 4.5-m (15-ft) statue, some rooftops and a church spire are all that remains above water in Wieringerwerf, near Amsterdam, during the Wieringermeer flood of 1945." />
The top of a 4.5-m (15-ft) statue, some rooftops and a church spire are all that remains above water in Wieringerwerf, near Amsterdam, during the Wieringermeer flood of 1945.
Image: Nationaal Archief / Willem van de Poll / Anefo – CC0 1.0<p>Climate change is real, and it's bad. It's also gradual and impersonal. That's why it's both tempting and easy to stick your head in the sand. Do that long enough, though, and you're likely to drown, as sea level rise (SLR) catches up with you. </p><p><span></span>Here's something that might shock you into action: A plan for a giant dam to protect 15 European countries from those rising seas. The project's scale is unprecedented. Its cost phenomenal. But it's still cheaper than all the alternatives—including doing nothing. All the alternatives except one: Taking action now against climate change.</p><p>Here's how the situation looks today:</p><ul><li>Current global mean temperature is about 1°C (1.8°F) above pre-industrial levels.</li><li>Rising temperatures cause rising sea levels, albeit with a lag. Global mean SLR is 18 cm (7 in) since 1880 and it's accelerating.</li><li>Current policies imply a further global warming of up to 3.1 °C (5.6°F) by 2100, so it's virtually certain SLR will continue well beyond that date.</li><li>The rule of thumb: For every extra °C, expect an SLR of 2.3 m (7.5 ft). Because of the lagging effect, SLR by 2100 would be 'only' 1 to 2 m (3.3 to 6.6 ft). But by 2500, it could be as high as 10 m (32.8 ft). </li></ul>"The magnitude of that threat demands a solution that reflects the scale of the problem," write oceanographers Sjoerd Groeskamp and Joakim Kjellsson. In a paper that has just been published in <em>Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society</em>, they propose the construction of a Northern European Enclosure Dam (NEED), that would disconnect the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean, thus protecting 15 countries (and millions of people) from the dangers of SLR.
51 billion tons of sand<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjc4NDA4Ni9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Nzc0MjUxOX0.x2HCrBr89VeiJAhm7sJUC4Bc2xI7dnThAwfKRW8zXqI/img.png?width=980" id="9ccb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d88cac55f5ef3e49a37afb6ce49f3a77" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bTotal length: almost 400 miles. Total cost: up to $600 billion. PInk dots: areas with high population density." />
Total length: Almost 400 miles. Total cost: Up to $600 billion. PInk dots: Areas with high population density.
Image: Groeskamp & Kjellsson<p>The logistics of their proposal are dizzying:</p><ul><li>NEED would consist of two major sections: NEED-South, a dam connecting France's Breton coast (near Brest) with England's south-west coast. It would measure 161 km (100 mi) in length, with an average depth of 85 m (279 ft) and a maximum depth of 102 m (335 ft).</li><li>NEED-North would consist of several parts, linking the Scottish mainland to the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and from there to Norway. Its total length would be 476 km (296 mi), with an average depth of 127 m (417 ft) and a maximum depth of 321 m (1,053 ft) in the Norwegian Trench. </li><li>NEED would have a combined length of 637 km (396 mi).</li><li>NEED would have a combined volume of 36.2 km3 (8.7 mi3), which would require 51 billion tons of sand. That is equal to one year's worth of global sand use.</li><li>Total price for NEED: Somewhere between €250-€550 billion ($270-$600 bn).</li><li>NEED would protect coastal communities in 15 countries, keeping the feet dry of 25 million to 55 million people; depending on SLR of between 2 to 15 m (6.6 to 49.2 ft), respectively. </li></ul>Comparing NEED to alternative solutions—managed retreat, country-by-country mitigation—the oceanographers arrived at an alarming conclusion: "A solution as considerable as NEED might be a viable and cost-effective protection measure for even a few meters of SLR."
Cheapest option<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjc4NDA4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTcwOTY0OH0.gFrtRKV8NZxgcATlLBEtPxRWaE5-L--OjxVXvbXQXbI/img.jpg?width=980" id="6ef40" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2a02e53b72d1d2acd6bcf3d2e7d403" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bWhat would happen to the Netherlands if the sea level rose by 1.8 m (6 ft): the blue area would flood." />
What would happen to the Netherlands if the sea level rose by 1.8 m (6 ft): The blue area would flood.
Image: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen<p>So, how do those alternatives pan out, exactly? </p><p>Since so much of most countries' population and economies is located at or near the coast, the cost of doing nothing is extreme: Up to 10 times as high as the main alternatives, protection and retreat. Being scientists rather than politicians, Groeskamp and Kjellsson only considered the latter two. </p><ul><li>Managed retreat is a feasible option and is indeed being implemented in the Netherlands, for example, on a small scale. But large-scale retreat for SLR would involve forced migration of large numbers of people, widespread psychological trauma, massive loss of cultural heritage, and political instability at an international level.</li><li>The combined cost of protection on a per-country basis would soon dwarf the cost of NEED. Again, the Dutch example. In a scenario of 1.5 m (4.9 ft) SLR by 2100, the Netherlands would need to spend up to €140 billion ($152 bn) on sea defenses. That alone amounts to about one-third of the total cost of NEED. </li></ul>Indeed, despite its massive scale and massive cost, NEED would be the cheapest way to mitigate SLR.<ul><li>Spread out over 20 years, its cost would amount to at most 0.16% of the combined GDP of the 15 countries involved.</li><li>Even if the cost were borne by the five local countries most likely affected by SLR (the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany), it would still only amount to 0.32% of their combined GDP, tops.</li></ul>"For SLR of even a few meters, we expect that the integrated cost of individual protection of all 15 countries together far exceeds the costs of constructing NEED," write the paper's authors.
Serious consequences<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjc4NDA5MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMTQ0MDk1N30.nSH9MGVDTJQ0Mf8t66lYSW2zMzDGo-2q70hPZhyOSqE/img.png?width=980" id="19574" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="78df80a4fb384c04809d40fe7c5ce331" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Some other parts of the world where solutions similar to NEED could help safeguard coastal areas from sea level rise." />
Some other parts of the world where solutions similar to NEED could help safeguard coastal areas from sea level rise.
Image: Groeskamp & Kjellsson<p>They are not presenting NEED as a panacea, however. Blocking off the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean will have far-reaching, and potentially serious consequences for the region's ecosystems, economies and societies. <br></p><ul><li>Rivers will continue to discharge into the enclosed seas, and this alone will lead to an annual SLR of 0.9 m (3 ft). Around 100 major pumping stations would be needed to transfer that volume to the ocean.</li><li>The continued discharge would also lead to a freshening of the basin, with salinity projected to reduce by a factor 10 over the course of a century. This would greatly affect biodiversity and fishing.</li><li>The damming of the North Sea would produce important changes in the tidal amplitudes, on both sides of NEED. Inside, it would be greatly reduced. Outside, it would increase by up to 0.7 m (2.3 ft) along the coasts of Wales and southwest England. This would have a major effect on the circulation of sediment, nutrients and small marine life in the area.</li><li>NEED would lock Europe's four busiest ports—Rotterdam, Antwerp, Bremerhaven, Hamburg—behind a huge dam. New harbors would need to be built on the exterior of the dams, and/or sluices to accommodate the volume of traffic to the interior ports. </li></ul>"Certain consequences will oppose people to the idea of constructing NEED. Alternative solutions, however, will undoubtedly also lead to irreversible environmental changes," write Groeskamp and Kjellsson. Ideally, neither NEED nor its alternatives should be necessary, they say: "We hope that the mere suggestion of NEED as a solution (…) may instigate a thought process that sparks public awareness of the threat that SLR poses, possibly clearing a path for global-scale action to address long-term climate change-related threats." Without such action, "SLR will lead to unavoidable and irreversible loss of physical places, cultural heritage and environmental and ecological systems." Right now, NEED is a warning. But if nothing—or too little—is done, it may still become the least-worst option for saving north-western Europe from drowning.