Headlines from Earth Part II: Climate, PFAS & New Hope for Rainforests

The recent post I wrote about planetary issues was so popular that I’ve decided to do another one. Like before, it’s hard to keep up, because things are changing rapidly. And, like before, much of the news – frankly – isn’t great, although within that, there’s reason for hope.

Ocean Temperatures. The world’s oceans have suddenly spiked much warmer, well above even the record levels in the last few weeks. It’s possible that the jump in sea surface temperatures stems from a brewing and possibly strong natural El Niño warming weather condition following three years of a cooling La Niña, in the context of steady global warming that is heating deep water that sits below the surface later. Have a look at the interactive data set on the Climate Reanalyzer from the Climate Institute at the University of Maine. It was updated just a few days ago (April 28, 2023). When you click the link and with the visual data it presents a sobering view. Average sea surface temperatures are consistently higher, spiking nearly two-tenths of a degree Celsius over the last nine to ten weeks. Not surprisingly, NASA’s Snow and Ice Data Center reported on April 27th that the Antarctic Peninsula had an “intense melt season with above average melting persisting through much of February.”

Does it matter? Turning to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for an answer, way back in 2021 they said that every region of the Earth and across the whole climate system has been demonstrably effected. They don’t mince words: “For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.” They also list more intense rainfall and flooding, continued sea level rise, thawing permafrost (with re-release of long-gone diseases like smallpox), and ocean acidification. These folks are definitely no fun at parties. They’ve developed an interactive map so you can explore different scenarios on your own.

Image from the IPCC’s interactive map, showing areas of predicted change in aridity, with associated confidence levels. One of many facets that can be explored on the site. Image IPCC 2021.

Jumping forward a couple of years is the most recent assessment report, from March 20th 2023, just a couple of weeks ago. The language is distinctly different, more positive. The title of their most recent post is “Urgent climate action can secure a livable future for all.” This statement resonates not because thing are better, in fact they’re worse than two years ago. But a truism for public-facing conversations on the environment is that if you say “we’re all doomed,” many people will turn off wondering why they should bother. It’s far better to provide hope and a clear roadmap for fixing it. Realistically, making a tangible difference now means reassessing the fundamental way we live on the planet. They say: “Changes in the food sector, electricity, transport, industry, buildings and land-use can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they can make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles, which will also improve health and well-being… Transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritize risk reduction, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably.”Are we ready for that? Read this positive story from USA Today that shows what, if we are ready, might be achieved.

PFAS. The other day I watched a sad clip on CBS of a former organic farmer in Maine who’s crops failed because they contained dangerous levels of PFAS. PFAS are “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” introduced in the early 1900s for use in Teflon cookware, waterproof fabrics and cosmetics. They have been linked to numerous health issues like liver damage, as well as kidney and testicular cancer and are known as “forever chemicals” because of the time it takes them to break down in the environment. Currently, about 200 million Americans (60% of us) receive water contaminated with PFAS. The toxins in the news story were traced to sludge spread as fertilizer in the 1990s, an especially grim irony as they were trying to start an organic farm.

The nine planetary boundaries. Green is impact within acceptable limits, orange is beyond that. The further from the center the color appears, the more severe the impact. Image: Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Given the pervasiveness of its use and spread as waste material, it won’t be a surprise to hear that PFAS levels are included as an indicator of global environmental health, like the ones listed in the “Planetary Boundaries,” devised in 2009 by Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University in Sweden and his colleagues. The framework describes limits to human impacts on the Earth, beyond which the environment may no longer be able to self-regulate. Note that climate change is one of the boundaries and has been exceeded.

Last year, by another Stockholm University professor, Ian T. Cousins, along with some of his colleagues, demonstrated in a paper in Environmental Science and Technology that environmental contamination by PFAS defines a separate planetary boundary (i.e. even beyond what’s in the picture above) and that this boundary has been exceeded. For instance, he demonstrates that the level of PFAS in US drinking water is often greater than the US EPA recommended maximum. The good news in this story, if there can be said to be any at all, is that Adam Nordell, the organic farmer highlighted above has since joined a nonprofit called Defend Our Health. It was founded in 2002 by Mike Belliveau and Amanda Sears to promote toxin-free food, water, and land. In 2021 it played a critical role in pushing the Maine Legislature to pass a law to eliminate the use of toxic PFAS in commonly used products. Organizations like Defend our Health make an enormous difference in reversing the trend of environmental degradation, for our environment and our families.

Good News for Rainforests. While this news is from December, it’s something that many – especially those in the US – might not be aware of. On the 6th of December last year the European Union put forward new plans to protect the world’s forests from unsustainable use by introducing new regulations on the importation of forest products. They say: The main driver of deforestation and forest degradation is the expansion of agricultural land, which is linked to the production of commodities we import such as soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa and coffee. As a major economy and consumer of these commodities linked to deforestation and forest degradation, the EU is partly responsible for this problem — and it wants to answer the strong call of European citizens to lead the way to solve it.

Once adopted and applied, the new law will ensure that key goods on the EU market will no longer contribute to deforestation and forest degradation in the EU and elsewhere in the world. As major consumers of these goods, the EU’s change will have a significant positive impact on greenhouse emissions. This important agreement came just before the milestone Conference on Biodiversity (COP15) which defined protection goals for nature for the next decades. This, coupled with the toppling of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in favor of the more environmentally-minded Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as well as the commitment – just days ago – of the United Kingdom to contribute more than $101m (80 million pounds) to Brazil’s Amazon Fund, means some much-needed respite for the world’s rainforests and other important biomes.

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