Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Uncertain Health in an Insecure World – 68


Eric Clapton’s I Shot The Sheriff refrain, “One day the bottom will drop out…”,  brings to mind the finality of irrevocable acts.

The World tells us when enough is enough, in its own, none too subtle ways. Unfortunately, the hardest thing to do, beyond listening, is to actually hear what it is saying.

The World does not speak our 6,500 languages… any of them. It talks to us in tongues. We translate with numbers that humans can measure – vital signs, of a sort – air temperature, sea level, ozone depletion, red tides, epidemics, droughts and deaths.

During this week’s global climate summit in Paris (COP21), delegates from 196 countries who have been listening hard for what seems like too many years (since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997), many of the same people who fumbled at Copenhagen in 2009, finally spoke… as one. Their final agreement on curbing fossil fuel use is designed to restrain the rise in average global temperature to “well below” +2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (or +3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the one country still using that scale).

In Obamacare terms, this warming projection is like “bending the curve” of cost expenditures in order to achieve healthcare system sustainability. As noted by U.S. President Barack Obama, the Paris plan is “a turning point for the world… the best chance we have to save the one planet that we’ve got.

How does one translate these temperature targets into global ecosystem terms?

Big data driven predictive analytic models have shown that between 2050 and 2100, the Paris accord’s limits on greenhouse gas emissions will achieve a new equilibrium – when trees, soil and oceans can naturally absorb what human activity is generating. John Schellnhuber of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Research calls this positive tipping point “net zero.

The top greenhouse gas-emitters – China, U.S., EU, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil and Japan – made 2030 pledges to shift from carbon-intensive fuels in favor of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, countries can view this multi-trillion dollar drive to reduce emissions very differently. China, for example, is in the midst of its own post-industrial revolution. China is also the #1 carbon-based fuel user, at 2,972 millions of metric tons of oil equivalents, generating 66% of its energy from coal burning (below).

Beijing, a city of 20 million souls, spent most of the past week under a red alert due to extremely high particulate level smog. Widespread industrial coal burning causes poor air quality in China’s cities on a regular basis, but last week’s levels were an “Airpocalypse.” The handshake with the Devil made by the Chinese Communist Party in return for breakneck economic growth is paying negative ecologic returns. 

What does the bottom falling out look like?

By the year 2100, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, est. 1988) estimates a 20 inch sea level rise. Expert opinions differ on these numbers – the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (est. 1863) predicts a rise ranging from 16 to 56 inches, depending on how we humans listen and respond to Earth’s queues. According to scientists and journalists at Climate Central (est. 2008), including some Weather Channel veterans, this places some 280 million peoples’ houses at risk of becoming submerged.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, est. 1970) says that ocean levels have already risen 8 inches since Europe’s Industrial Revolution, circa 1870. Pacific islands like Nauru in the Marshall archipelago (above) and many other vulnerable countries are threatened right now. Bangladeshi farmers have created floating agricultural rafts from straw, rice stubble and water hyacinth in response to ever worsening flooding.

As Unilever CEO, Paul Polman stated from Paris, “This agreement establishes a clear path to de-carbonize the global economy within the lifetimes of many people alive today.” Outside the boardrooms, protesters in the streets are angered by all the misdirection and obfuscation.

Oddly, the new accord waits until 2020 to take effect, largely so that individual governments – in some 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions – can ratify and enact the required standards. The intersection of policy and politics is jobs, and it would be naive to imagine that economies won’t fail and governments won’t fall in pursuit of these Paris ideals.   

We will not dwell on the obvious adverse effects of this carbon fuel cataclysm on human health.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, est. 1946) National Center for Environmental Health has surveyed the scientific literature on climate change, together with other natural and human-made stressors http://www.globalchange.gov/engage/activities-products/NCA3/technical-inputs The threats to human health and promotion of disease are diverse and patently evident (below), and appear to be intensifying, even in the less extreme North American ecosystem. New public health problems are to be expected from climate-induced disruptions of physical, biological and ecological systems.


Guitar aficionados have nick-named Eric Clapton ‘Slowhand’, because he plays complex rock riffs with such relaxed ease. In his rock classic, The Crossroads, Clapton sings, “I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.

The World is squarely at The Crossroads, right now!

After decades of analytic complexity from scientists and perilous advocacy by activists, COP21 looked too easy. Those who have brought Mother Earth to its knees have been handed one final chance… A reprieve.

Many of us standing in the Square today won’t be here in 2050.

But as the seas rise and cities choke, from this day forward, we are all out of envelopes to tear, and others to blame.

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