Entombed in Plastic

US Produces Far More Waste and Recycles Far Less of It Than Other Developed Countries

We’re Buying Into a Giant Lie about Plastic

Microplastics Have Invaded the Deep Ocean—and the Food Chain

As many of you know, I live in Oaxaca, Mexico. Saturday morning was garbage day, and I watched a brand new truck pull up in front of my house for one of three pickups a week—better than most communities here get. The truck had big plastic bags attached to sort cans, glass and plastic bottles. The truck also collects flattened cardboard boxes.

From its collection points, the truck proceeds to an enormous, long over-capacity dump on the outskirts of the city. The dump has been the site of frequent controversies, closings, political fights and fires. Its history is documented here. One way the dump manages to survive is through the presence of “pepenadores” who sort and salvage the stuff they can sell to recyclers. They make far less than a living wage and their efforts, in terms of the local and global problem of plastic and garbage generally, are like shoveling shit against the tide, as the saying goes.

We need to be particularly and regularly reminded of the problems that plastic is causing in all our environments. Recycling was never the panacea for the problem; no country but maybe the US has the resources to deal with it. And US waste is the biggest culprit:

    • Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
    • The newest hotspots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation. . . . 
    • Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, last month [May 2019], 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US.

You may not know that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic trash gets recycled because it’s too expensive. China won’t take it anymore, so most gets dumped in the ocean or burned or put in over-burdened landfills. You may be familiar with what this dumping is doing to the ocean and its inhabitants, an abominable story with enormous consequences.

Like climate change itself, there is no real solution to this but to stop producing plastic and work on source reduction, as it’s called—like not burning fossil fuels in the first place. How to bring industry and consumers and politicians to this state is the conundrum of the age.

Recognizing the severity of the problem is the first step. Mexico’s giant supermarket chain Chedraui recently decided, without much fanfare, to just stop giving customers plastic bags. This I discovered last month with happy surprise on a shopping trip. Such bags are banned in at least 68 countries worldwide, but not in the US. Bangladesh, victimized by plastic and trash dumping, has banned them since 2002. Neither bans nor charges for bags are much more than quick fixes. But they are small and necessary steps forward.

Hansen’s Recent Thoughts on Climate Change—and Some History

Saving Earth (June 27, 2019)

Thirty years later, what needs to change in our approach to climate change (June 26, 2018)

Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (August 1, 2018)

Once one of the few scientific voices crying out about climate change, James Hansen has become a renowned, and sometimes vilified, spokesman. That trek took him more than thirty years, as he documents in a Boston Globe editorial. He’s a controversial figure still—both in his political views and in his opinions on nuclear power (with which I concur; see below)—but to many he is the father of climate change awareness.

A journalistic history of the climate change threat, its people, politics, and science is parsed in Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy New York Times piece, “Losing Earth,” published a year ago. It is a dramatic account in which Hansen is naturally a principal figure. I list it here as essential background reading on Hansen’s role in how the climate issue developed.

I got an early copy of “Saving Earth” forwarded from a friend. It struck me immediately as the most authoritative yet personal view of where the climate change arguments came from and how they need, in Hansen’s singular view, to be implemented.

It’s eleven pages long in pdf form and I doubt most of you will plunge into that. So I’ve excerpted some of the more significant passages.

It is wonderful that more people are waking up to the fact that we have a climate emergency. The emergency was clear more than a decade ago when it was realized that the long-term safe level of atmospheric CO2 was less than 350 ppm. Already, we were well into the dangerous zone. . . .

[The threat of an ungovernable planet] derives mainly from two large-scale climate change impacts. First, low latitudes during the warm seasons could become so hot and inhospitable to human livelihood as to generate an unstoppable drive for emigration. That potential future is emerging into view for regions as populated as India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and huge swaths of Africa. The tragedy would be that these regions are, in a ‘less than 350 ppm climate,’ among the most spectacular and livable regions on the planet.

The second climate impact is sea level rise, which is an ominous threat on multi-decadal time scales. This sea level threat may be less immediate than the low-latitude, over-heating, climate-change threat, but it is more ‘non-linear,’ implying that it has the potential to grow exponentially, becoming unstoppable and irreversible. Note that the sea level threat is near-global, because most of the world’s large cities and infrastructure are located on coastlines. Nations that would be devastated by large sea level rise include the greatest economic powers of the 21st century, the United States and China. These two climate impacts are the heart of the ‘existential threat.’ . . .

Most of the warming still ‘in the pipeline’ is associated with deep-ocean warming. Thus most of this ‘in the pipeline’ warming will not occur this century. This permits the possibility of avoiding most of that warming, if we reduce the amount of gases in the air on the time scale of a century or two. . . .

Faced with realization that we could hand young people a climate system running out of their control, political leaders took the easy way out. With the Paris Agreement in 2015 they changed the target for maximum global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C. A temperature ‘target’ approach is ineffectual. It has practically no impact on global emissions.

Global energy policies remain inconsistent with professed emission targets. Emission targets will never overrule the desire of nations to raise their standards of living. Effective energy policies, not professed targets, are the crucial requirement for phasing down fossil fuel emissions. . . .

The two essential energy policy requirements are: 1) honest pricing of fossil fuels, i.e., the price must rise to include the cost of fossil fuels to society; 2) government support of breakthrough technologies, including clean energy research, development, demonstration and deployment programs. . . .

The missing technology for China, and now for India, was a clean source of power to replace coal in massive energy requirements for electricity and industrial heat.

Later this century, when scholars look back at what went wrong, the single sentence likely to stand out will be one uttered by President William Jefferson Clinton in his first State of the Union Address, almost three decades ago: “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.”

How could such a spectacularly bad decision have been reached? Readily available empirical data showed that nuclear power was the safest energy source, with the smallest environmental footprint.

The potential for inexpensive, modular, ultrasafe reactors – built in a factory or shipyard – has not been developed. Support for research, development, demonstration and deployment – lavished on renewable energies for decades – only recently has been initiated in a small way for modern nuclear power. . . .

The most urgent task is to phase down fossil fuel emissions. There is no one simple solution to this. It will take a lot of positive actions, and also pressure on the fossil fuel industry, from multiple directions, pressure on them to become a clean energy industry. . . .

The legal approach is slow and no panacea, but it is an essential part of the solution. [It] must be pursued simultaneously with the political approach. . . .

[Voting Trump out of office is not the answer.] The public has tried that recourse. They voted in Barack (‘Planet in Peril’) Obama and Albert (‘Earth in the Balance’) Gore. The accomplishments by those Administrations in addressing climate change, to use a favorite phrase of my mother, “did not amount to a hill of beans.” Democrats and Republicans are both on the take from special interests, the fossil fuel industry. Both parties work with industry, approving and subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and use.

I wanted to write something today about the impact of tanks on the environment but then thought better of it.

Where Is the Climate Debate?

Don’t Overthink a Climate-Change Debate

Climate change got just 15 minutes out of 4 hours of Democratic debates

The Debates Showed America Still Doesn’t Know How to Talk About Climate Change

Tom Perez, the DNC Chair, says he won’t allow one because if he gave in to Jay Inslee’s request he’d then have to permit every other candidate to have a debate on their favorite issue.

Tom, that’s called begging the question. Which is that climate change has become the dominant issue for American voters—even if they balk at paying for the prescriptions. As the first debates demonstrated, it’s a dominant issue for most of the candidates—even if their plans aren’t always intelligent or intelligible.

As on other matters, Democratic leadership is behind the curve and moving rapidly behind the eight-ball. Perez on the debates is taking a position like Pelosi does on impeachment. No wonder there is a split between progressives and moderates.

How to generate momentum for a climate debate: first, the push has to come from the candidates themselves. Maybe they should just pull rank and produce their own debate forum. Will the DNC intervene to stop that? A better idea might be to prevail on DNC leaders that each major candidate supports the need to schedule a climate crisis debate.

There is also a crying need for both candidates and debate moderators to get up to speed on climate issues. Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow asked some silly and confusing questions in the few minutes they gave to the subject. And the candidates are going to have to improve on their shallow responses.

The climate crisis is supremely complicated, but that doesn’t preclude the need for a major public discussion.

Seven Minutes (out of two hours) on Climate Change

The First Democratic Debate Failed The Planet

The Debates Will Be about Climate—Disguised as Other Issues

The Energy 202: Seven minutes were devoted to climate change in the first Democratic debate

Last night’s first Democratic debate was just more of the same as it reflected a deliberate disregard of climate on the part of moderators and candidates. Only four of those on the Miami stage got asked direct questions about the crisis. The questions came finally in the second half of the debate.

Because DNC chair Tom Perez has ruled out a special debate on climate, the advocates want to crucify him. But climate issues are inescapable. Adam Rogers of Wired says:

Because every single issue that a presidential aspirant could conceivably talk about is, at heart, intertwined with climate change. Jobs, the economy, national security, immigration, energy, housing—they’re all facets of the same crystal. The science is clear; the politics, less so. It’ll be a climate debate, all right; the question is what the candidates will do about it.

Inslee, the only one making climate his top-tier issue, didn’t do well last night. A couple of others, like Warren, wormed climate into their answers. But the issue is so complex that it is hard to fit into a debate format. Plus, the candidates fear grandiose climate solutions would simply overwhelm many local voters who are focusing on pocketbook issues.

One could accuse them of playing politics with the overriding issue of our time.

Individual Choices Don’t Really Count

The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich

There has been much talk about how individuals can fight climate change through making personal choices. Well, finally we have a study, reported by David Roberts in Vox, that proves out how silly most of that discussion has been.

The study concluded that the biggest impact on reducing your carbon impact was to “have one fewer child.” Everybody went up in arms about that and, as Roberts shows, there are three big problems with framing the problem as one of individual choices.

  1. Attributing children’s emissions to their parents is unworkable
  2. If you want avoided children, the developed world is the wrong place to look
  3. Not all children are created equal (that is, kids of the wealthy produce way more carbon emissions).

What becomes obvious is that “climate change is primarily being driven by the behavior of the world’s wealthy. The same disparity holds within countries, none more so than the US [where rich people] produce 10 times more per capita emissions than the wealthy in China. That is pretty mind-boggling.”

When the G20 leaders meet in a few days, they would do well to consider this graphic:

Eating less meat, flying less and driving less are of course good personal choices that primarily affect the local environment. Yet,

the very ones whose choices matter most seem least inclined to cut back on consumption. I mean, maybe you could persuade the developed-world wealthy to voluntarily downsize their lifestyles, but . . . have you met the developed-world wealthy? That doesn’t sound like them.

The obvious and most direct approach to addressing the role of individual choices in climate change is to tax the consumptive choices of the wealthy. For now, and for the foreseeable future, carbon emissions rise with wealth. Redistributing wealth down the income scale, ceteris paribus, reduces lifestyle emissions.

 

The Climate Doctor Speaks

Jay Inslee has a radical plan to phase out fossil fuel production in the US

Writer David Roberts of Vox has as his subtitle: “This is going to make some people mad.” Jay Inslee, as you may know, is the only Democratic candidate to base his whole campaign on the issues of climate change. His proposals have made some of the other candidates look, shall we say, weak by comparison.

The Washington governor’s climate plans aim for net-zero carbon pollution by 2045, sooner than most of his would-be opponents would propose. Today he released details of the fourth planning component. According to Vox, “It is in many ways the most radical piece yet, and likely to be the most controversial. It is about cutting off the flow of fossil fuels from the US—‘keeping it in the ground,’ as the kids say.”

There are several big items of note in the latest plan, including a proposal to put a price on carbon. Fracking? He wants to work toward a national prohibition. He wants to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, reinstate dozens of environmental rules that President Trump reversed, step up enforcement on polluters, reject all new climate-unsafe infrastructure, and boost corporate climate accountability.

And that just scratches the surface. This is a capacious plan, requiring both executive powers and legislation. The net result would be a conscious, deliberate phasing out of US fossil fuel production.

There are five major steps in the Inslee plan, and each will face great political hurdles. But all appear necessary to avoid the otherwise inevitable disasters.

    1. end all fossil fuel subsidies
    2. end federal leasing and phase out fossil fuel production
    3. hold polluters accountable (with a climate pollution fee, or tax)
    4. reject all new fossil fuel infrastructure
    5. improve corporate climate transparency
    6. make this plan into the official Democratic platform.

I like number 6 best, though I am not holding my breath. And yet, Inslee’s new set of plans could be enough to shake up the other candidates.

The Worst Case Scenario, in Summary

Human Civilization Isn’t Prepared to Survive Climate Change

If you need to be brought up to speed on the worst horrors possible with climate change, this piece is a good place to begin. Author Luke Darby interviews David Spratt, research director of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia.

The very broad strokes aren’t too different from last year’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that we have just over a decade to prevent the absolute worst climate outcomes. That report focused on the now-inevitable two degrees of warming, the temperature at which 411 million people living in cities will face water scarcity, crops begin failing, and all coral dies off. But Spratt and Dunlop wanted to know what the absolute worst could be. . . .

P.S. (June 25, 2019):
‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive

“Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” Alston said. Developing countries will bear an estimated 75% of the costs of the climate crisis, the report said, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.