Monday, February 26, 2018

Arctic Sea Ice at Record Low Extent

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Doyle Rice in USA Today reported recently that Arctic sea ice is at its lowest extent since 1979, the year records began. The total extent in January is 9.4 percent below average. This report comes just as a new study shows that polar bears are going hungry and having problems finding food in a changing climate.

Overall, the news from the Arctic is not good and has not been for some time. The two reports are just more evidence piling on to a massive amount of scientific information about climate change at the poles. It is these vulnerable areas, with their extremes in temperature and daylight, where scientists find the early warning signs of climate change.

Certainly there are many who are working to try to limit the impacts of climate change and to develop sound public policy. However, even in the face of extensive evidence, there are elected, corporate, and non-profit leaders around the world who are responsible for energy policy and production and who deny climate change. At this point, the only possible explanation for their continued intransigence on this issue is that they are focused on economic gain.

An emerging question is whether they or their organizations will be held responsible for financial losses incurred as a result of climate change if they continue to act against the goodwill of individuals and society when their is abundant evidence for climate change.

Monday, February 19, 2018

My Interview with Baba Brinkman, Rap Artist, Writer, and Author of the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos

Baba Brinkmann, courtesy of the artist.
Last spring I had the pleasure of seeing Baba Brinkman perform The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at Hofstra University. I was deeply impressed by his performance and how he was able to address many nuances of climate change science and policy in his work. What is fascinating about his storytelling is that he weaves in difficult realities of the present moment such as climate change denial, climate chaos, and climate refugees, within a coherent entertaining show. Baba fully understands climate science, but takes a unique cultural viewpoint of climate change that sends you off on a musical journey with many twists and turns. He was kind enough to agree to an interview. His current show,  Rap Guide to Consciousness off-Broadway is opening in March.

One of the things about rap music that I think is unique is that the albums tell a story. Certainly other genres do this, but rap music has a way of building a memorable storyline that can be transcendent in unexpected ways. Why do you think rap is so effective at expressing stories and emotion?

I would say there are two parallel answers, and both reference Darwin. The long version is that our species has evolved an affinity for stylized storytelling. It’s literally in our DNA to be thrilled by a virtuoso verbal performance, which fulfills many of the same functions as animal displays (i.e. attracting mates and allies, solidifying group membership, alerting conspecifics about threats or opportunities, etc.) while adding a layer of symbolic information that no other animal display achieves. We evolved to love stories because they give us a wealth of insight into patterns of human motives and behaviour that would be too dangerous to acquire firsthand.

The short version is that rap is a specific cultural product, a relatively new set of symbols and signs that culturally evolved in the competitive urban setting of the Bronx, NYC, in the 1970s. The DJ would set up turntables and play beat-driven music for the party, with the crowd dancing and having fun, and the MC would get on the microphone and improvise (or recite memorized) lyrics over the beat. But as Pras from the Fugees very insightfully notes: there are “too many MCs, and not enough mics” which creates a Darwinian competition to be entertaining or get kicked off the mic. So rap evolved the most effective tools for connecting with and moving a live audience under those hyper-competitive settings.

It’s like cheesecake. To really understand what’s going on, you have to explain both the evolved taste for sweet/fatty foods and the circumstances by which those elements were refined and condensed into a hyper-stimulus.

I saw you perform the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos at Hofstra University and I have to tell you that I was blown away.  You basically covered an entire chapter of my textbook in rap in a way that was far more accessible than reading the chapter or hearing a lecture with Power Point slides. You reviewed a rich body of accurate scientific material and got at some of the policy nuances in unexpected ways. How did you prepare to write the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos?

Performing the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.
Courtesy of the artist.
Thanks! As I mention in the show, and in the song “What’s Beef” featuring Bill Nye, my mom wrote her master’s thesis on climate change in 1992 when I was a teenager, so interest in and concern for climate change has been part of my worldview since before Bill Clinton was president. But it wasn’t until 2011 when I came to New York to perform my previous show, Rap Guide to Evolution, off-Broadway, that a climate scientist reached out to me and said “can we work together to get the word out about climate change?” From there I started drafting songs and reading up to try to really capture the current state of the science, the IPCC AR5 Report, and make sure I had good advisors to help focus on the right messaging. In the end it was Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, and Naomi Oreskes who provided the main guidance to get it right.

I think one of the most challenging issues we face is the disconnect between science and the rhetoric of very powerful politicians. I honestly cannot believe that smart people who deny climate change actually believe in what they are saying. How do you think we can deal with this crazy time when we have leaders saying there is no such thing as climate change when there is so much evidence for climate change all around us?

I regard climate denial as distinct from other kinds of science denial in many ways. Unlike creationism, there are a lot of otherwise secular, pro-science people who remain skeptical about climate change. The common thread is libertarianism and skepticism of big government. Unfortunately for libertarians, the atmosphere is not amenable to partitioning and privatization, so the only solutions that work to scale are at the institutional rather than individual level, regulations and carbon pricing schemes, which are essentially arms control agreements whereby the freedom to pollute the atmosphere is either taxed or restricted by law. If your goal is to shrink government, climate change looks like a suspiciously government-centric problem, hence libertarians reject the scientific evidence necessitating a coordinated response. It’s a striking example of motivated reasoning by otherwise very intelligent people, but it’s the only way to explain the overwhelming overlap between libertarianism (which cuts across the usual left/right political divide) and disregard for the scientific evidence.

You participated in a number of important climate change conferences. How have they impacted you?

Baba Brinkmann performing the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.
Courtesy of the artist.
The main impact has been to impress me with the level of insight and clarity and energy that the research community brings to this challenge. I’ve never been to a climate skeptic conference but from the film and tv coverage I’ve seen they look like intellectually impoverished affairs compared to AGU or COP.

It’s easy to get discouraged by the constant “debates” around climate, but the academic conferences reinforce both the overwhelming degree of consensus among real scientists and the impatience they have with all the fake controversy.

Many creative forms, such as short stories or dramatic plays, have distinct structures. How do you develop a structure for your rap performances?

It’s pretty similar to the arc needed for a documentary film or a popular science article, you need to jump back and forth between presenting information and contextualizing that information with human-level stories about why it matters and how lives are being or could be changed. There’s also the challenge of building complex ideas out of simple ones, and choosing the right tone for each idea or scene, i.e. between evoking fear vs hope, indignation vs resignation, enthusiasm vs revulsion, etc.

Many of us in the climate change field try to live their lives in greener ways. My personal focus is on trying to be as climate neutral as possible in my transportation. I am not as good as I could be in my personal life on issues like food. In what ways do you try to live a greener life?

One of the main themes of my show is about how individual consumer-level responses to climate change are grossly insufficient at best, and a distraction from large scale institutional-level change at worst, so the short answer is: I don’t.   Or rather, I’m as green as I can be without putting unreasonable burdens on my time and finances, but in most cases living a greener life entails both, and it shouldn’t. Hence the need for a price on carbon pollution.

In one of my songs I describe voluntary offsets like this: “There are hundreds of gigatons that you would have to offset / You might as well donate your piggybank to the national debt.”

That said, over the course of writing and performing the show I did change my views on the value of consumer-level environmentalism, but it was because of new information rather than a crisis of conscience. It turns out the best predictor of whether someone gets solar panels on their house is whether their neighbors recently got them.

So there’s a knock-on effect among humans as social primates that goes further than our individual impacts, and as a consequence I now get most of my domestic power from the solar panels on my roof. Their impact on the planet may be negligible, but if they contribute to the social virality of green living, that’s an important contribution.

Not only do we both have the same last name, we also both grew up in the woods.  How do you think this upbringing impacted your environmental outlook?

It was never hard for me to answer the “why should I care” question that often dogs conservationism, because of how much time I’ve spent in natural settings and how much those experiences have shaped who I am.

You have created a number of other rap pieces (Rap Guide to Consciousness, Rap Guide to Religion, Rap Guide to Medicine, Rap Guide to Business, Rap Guide to Evolution, and others). Which piece do you think has made the greatest contribution?

I would say my projects on religion and evolution were the best received, probably because there are more and more people losing their religion in the modern world and those are the projects I made specifically about finding meaning within the scope of evidence-based beliefs. For instance, here’s a lovely recent comment from someone who’s 10 year old daughter listens to those songs.

Your current piece, the Rap Guide to Consciousness just dropped. What prompted you to take on consciousness as a theme?

Baba Brinkmann's new show is Off Broadway
at the Soho Theater. It opens on March 1st.
Sam Harris has argued, I think persuasively, that nothing is more important than consciousness because it’s the locus of all joy and suffering and anything we can say about morality or meaning or why something “matters” will always come back to the effect it has on the consciousness of a person or sentient being.

So the scientific study of consciousness has a lot riding on it, free will, the “soul”, artificial intelligence, animal rights, and the conscious experiences we are capable of achieving, among other things. What could be more intimate and relatable? And what could be more challenging and complex? How could I resist?

Is there anything else you would like to say?


If any of your readers are in NYC in March or April, I’ll be performing Rap Guide to Consciousness off-Broadway. Come see it!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Emissions From Household Volatile Organic Compounds Worse Than Feared

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One of the trickiest classes of pollutants to understand is the group known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A VOC is any organic compound that can evaporate and enter the atmosphere. There are hundreds of different kinds of VOCs with varying ranges of health risks. The scent of healthy wine is a VOC as is the scent of unhealthy formaldehyde. The distribution of VOC's is hard to track since they are invisible and highly variable. 

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the health impacts of VOC's and some of them have become a bit more regulated. That new car smell? It turns out it is not so good for you. The same is true of the smell of paint, some cleaning products, and even some nail polish remover.

A new study published in Science is showing that VOC's are a larger component of urban air pollution than we thought. Conventional wisdom has assumed that urban VOC pollution was largely from the burning of fossil fuels. However, upon combustion, some of the complex VOC's are destroyed. As a result, the percentage of them in the VOC component of air pollution is actually lower than we thought. This result is also driven by the reduction in fossil fuel use and the improvement in pollution reduction technology in automobiles. The study shows that emissions from household VOC's now make up about half of all VOCs. This demonstrates that there needs to be a renewed focus on pollution from household products.

I am sure that there will be follow up research to try to verify the findings. Regardless, the study demonstrates that we need to be more careful with the handling and composition of our household chemicals.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Decades of National Park Policy Could Change Under New Federal Budget

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When the U.S. National Parks were established nearly 150 years ago, there was considerable debate over how the parklands could be developed. Some were advocating that they should be developed in partnership with private entities to earn funds from activities like mining and agriculture. Others felt they should be preserved with limited use for the enjoyment of all Americans. This debate was largely settled after the Hetch Hetchy controversy which focused on the development of a dam in Yosemite. I won't go into the details of that debate, but you can read about it here at the National Archives. The debate focused on two giants of the era, John Muir, who advocated for limited development of the parks, and Gifford Pinchot, who sought some development of the public lands.

While the dam was built, the development policy in the parks since the Hetch Hetchy controversy has limited development. The parks are for the people not for development. Big projects like pipelines literally takes an act of congress. Little development has occurred in the parks beyond infrastructure for visitors.

The proposed federal budget recently released by the president contains provisions that are problematic for the park. First of all, it releases congress from the approval process for pipelines that go through National Parks and places it in the hands of the Secretary of the Interior. Thus, approval is taken away from elected officials and given to an appointed official. Second, funding for park repairs, which have not been funded in many years, is to be paid for out of new funds generated through the development of energy resources on public lands and through the sale of public lands. I have written before about how some public lands are leased or sold at very cheap rates to organizations or individuals who extract resources for their own gains. National Park budgets have been stressed as visits have increased. It is a bitter pill to get funds for visitor infrastructure improvement through the development of public lands for energy resources. On top of all of this, the budget proposes a significant cut to the annual budget of the Department of Interior.

U.S. budgets are odd things. Proposals come from the White House and negotiations with congress begin. What eventually passes is frequently different from the initial proposal. Only time will tell if the odd changes to the park system will pass. With all of the corruption allegations in the executive branch, I suspect that this initiative will be under the microscope.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Queen Elizabeth Bans Plastic

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In welcome news, Queen Elizabeth II has banned plastic from her royal estates. The initiative is seen as a significant move that will help to provide an example to other organizations on how they can reduce or eliminate plastic. The BBC has also gotten in the plastic ban bandwagon.

The news comes as there is growing concern about the world's ecosystems due to plastic pollution. I have written quite a bit about plastic pollution over the years. Check out posts here, here, and here for some background on the global issue. There is just too much plastic waste in the world and it is causing problems for the world's wildlife.

It seems there is a report every day about some environmental problem associated with plastic. In Kerala, Inda, an elephant recently died from ingesting plastic. Even in the remote Arctic, hundreds of animals have been found with plastics in their stomachs--largely from the fishing industry.

Given the examples from the Queen and the BBC, it is worth considering what we can all do to ban plastics in our daily world.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 129 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah. This is not one of the monuments that was under review for delisting as per executive order by the president. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.

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Previous On the Brink posts in the National Monument Series:

Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
California Coastal National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Saturday, February 3, 2018

5 Tips to Make Professional Football More Sustainable

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I have written quite a bit about sustainability and professional sports over the years. I have found that baseball is one of the greenest sports while surprisingly soccer tends to lag. Unfortunately, American football is rarely engaged on the issue. Given that it is Superbowl weekend, here are my 5 tips to make professional football more sustainable.

1. Engage with the community on sustainability. Professional football tends to focus on youth education and sports for community outreach. Given the many sustainability issues in football communities, sustainability initiatives would be welcome. The Minnesota Twins baseball team focuses on sustainability initiatives in the Twin Cities. Baseball teams around the country take on community issues like water conservation, climate change, and environmental justice. Professional football should get in the game.

2. Green the stadiums. Many new stadiums are LEED certified green buildings, including some football stadiums. As long-time readers of this blog know, the greenest buildings are the ones that are not built. Many stadiums could go for green retrofits or improved green infrastructure instead of a tear down. You don't need to build a new stadium to score a green touchdown.

3. Cut parking and enhance mass transit. Professional football stadiums can be wastelands outside of the few days a year when teams play. The parking lots do little to enhance the local community. Instead of focusing on building parking lots, teams should focus on mass transit and enhancing housing near stadiums. The more housing that can huddle near stadiums, the better it will be for local communities.

4. Provide organic and local food options. Many baseball stadiums now offer local and organic food to provide healthier and greener options. Some football vendors do the same, but it is really a hit and miss situation. It would not be a bad idea for football owners to tackle this issue.

5. Go carbon free. Many organizations have committed to going carbon free. Considering the travel of players and attendees, lighting, and a number of other carbon intensive activities associated with professional football, there is great gain to be made if teams commit to carbon neutral. This could be done by buying carbon credits, enhancing solar power, and through energy conservation. Since football teams are in the public eye, they would serve as an example to other organizations on best practices. The current federal government is really fumbling on climate change. State and local governments in partnership with industry are in full on blitz mode to get us into the carbon reduction zone. Professional football should join the team.