Scottish waves and Texas wind

I made note of tidal power progress in Maine a while back, and now it’s Scotland’s turn. The Scottish government just released its green-lit plans to power as many as 42,000 homes with tidal energy—-the biggest of its kind in Europe. Good news for renewable energy fans. There are, unfortunately, possible negative ramifications for ocean ecology and human use of nearby areas—certain fish and ocean mammals could be disrupted, turbines can be noisy, etc. But in terms of reducing the carbon intensity of energy generation, this is another gratifying moment in the grand narrative of progress toward sustainability.

I’ll also take this opportunity to mention Texas again–cause Texas is still doing it right. Texas is way out in front of national rankings when it comes to generating wind energy. Coming in with more than 13 million kW from almost 8,000 turbines, #1 Texas leaves #2 Iowa with its 5.1 million kW in the proverbial dust. Gilbrath and Price are calling it “The Great Texas Wind Rush“—how a Big Wind has become part of a Big Oil culture.

Keep it up Texas and Scotland, y’all are makin’ me proud.

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Prime real estate!

Antarctica is melting! An iceberg the size of Chicago recently broke off of the Pine Island Glacier because of an enormous and growing crack in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And the Chicago-sized glacier is only the latest event in a recent trend of Antarctica’s glaciers melting.

Why this is happening is still something of a mystery—but a warming Southern Ocean eating at the ice from below and higher air temperatures from climate change melting it from the top-down are the main suspects. Whatever the cause, the Antarctic is melting—and we might be responsible, even if only in part. So what does, and what should, the Antarctic meltdown mean to us?

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Should we see the Antarctic meltdown as yet another sign that the human footprint on Earth is out of control and must be stopped? On the contrary, if anthropogenic climate change is not at the root of Antarctica melting, it’s not so clear that we have a responsibility to intervene for its own sake—though intervention for humanity’s sake may be another story.

There are several implications of a melting Antarctica worth considering. Worthy concerns range from sea-level rise and the threat posed to human civilization, what Antarctica might mean to us as climate change intensifies, habitat and biodiversity loss, messy international politics over the governance of a global commons, the inherent value of wilderness, and the impacts of Antarctic melt on ocean ecology.

The issues raised above are too many and too complex to cover in a single post. So, this represents the inaugural installment of a six-part series I will be writing on the ethics, science, and policy questions surrounding the Antarctic meltdown.

The ethical elephant in the room is sea-level rise. If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, sea-level would rise somewhere between 16 and 23 feet. Coastal dwellers beware. Even if humans aren’t responsible for Antarctica’s recent trend of melting, outwardly we seem morally obliged to mitigate the Antarctic meltdown because of its disastrous consequences for humans living on coasts. But human interests aren’t necessarily the only concern. In any case—hold that thought. We’ll dive into the ethics of sea-level rise in a later piece.

Fresh water and climate change

What follows takes a look into what Antarctica might mean to us in context of freshwater scarcity—or rather, drought—-due to climate change. In a recent piece, “Our new hydroverlords,” I discussed some of the scary possibilities that could arise as a result of water scarcity due to climate change. With this fresh in my mind, I thought—what role does Antarctica play in this dialectic?

Consider: water is essential to life on Earth. While the marginal value of water is relatively small—a 20 oz. bottle of fresh water can cost less than a dollar—its total value is beyond measure—without water, life as we know it would come to an end. Disregarding the needs of the nonhuman world for the moment, we use water for drinking, agriculture, industry, recreation, etc. The list goes on.

Freshwater only makes up about 2.5% of the total water on Earth, and most of that—more than 99%—is trapped in the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets. Of that 99%, the Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly 30 million cubic kilometers of ice—and it has been that way for the past 40 million years. But this pristine and ancient reservoir is draining into the ocean.

Technically, Antarctica is a desert. Among several other places contending for record low annual precipitation, Antarctica is one of the harshest, highest deserts on the planet. But ice has been building up for millennia, so while scarce precipitation falls there each year, the ice is at least a mile thick in most places. So, if we even come close to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s most severe drought prediction, we may start seeing the South Pole in a different light within the century.

Depending on how much desalination technology improves in the next 80 years or so, places with plentiful freshwater resources may get increasingly hard to come by. That’s not to suggest that governments or multinational companies should start shipping glacier fragments or piping melt water—or that this would be legal, feasible, cost efficient, or desirable—but as latitudes of livable precipitation press northward and southward, Antarctica may start looking more and more like prime real estate. With the human population climbing well beyond 7 billion and close to a billion people going without access to clean freshwater already, there are bound to be lots of hot, thirsty folks in the future.

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099 — CLICK TO ENLARGE

Seven nations—Australia, Chile, Great Britain, Argentina, France, New Zealand, and Norway—have claimed territory in Antarctica by right of discovery and occupation, but the Antarctic Treaty System has peacefully suspended any future territorial claims. So long as the treaty is in place, these claims should neither expand nor diminish—nor should Antarctica become an object of international discord.

In short, no one “owns” Antarctica so no one can “buy” resources or property there like we typically think when it comes to land. But land is land and humans are, at the end of the day, just animals that will adapt to climate change however we can if things elsewhere get inhospitable enough.

Resource scarcity exacerbated by a climbing population and climate change could mean a new interest in extraction from the Antarctic. If humans are struggling with drought and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting anyway, shouldn’t we attempt to harvest that freshwater resource rather than let it slip into the ocean?

Changes in the Antarctic ice could also be seen as an opportunity for fossil fuels exploration and send the Southern Ocean the way of the Arctic.

In the most radical scenario, even multinational emigration, settlement, and urban development is possible. If things get warm enough from catastrophic climate change and the land beneath the ice sheet starts poking through, should humans become Antarctica’s first permanent mammalian terrestrial inhabitants?  In spirit reminiscent of Westward Expansion, should we press forward—or rather, southward—into the wild?

Human presence in the Antarctic would represent a fundamental shift in Earth’s last wild ecosystem, as well as for geo-politics—and both are rife with ethical quandaries. If at some point our survival or the prevention and alleviation of human suffering depends upon Antarctic resources, then have we non-arbitrary justification for doing so? But barring abject, otherwise inescapable poverty, don’t we also have good reason to prefer to see the world’s last wilderness remain exactly that?

Human beings have been an exceptionally successful invasive species and could no doubt make life in Antarctica work, but the inherent value of preserving its natural condition may outweigh our disposition to view the nonhuman environment as a resource stock. Put a pin in that thought: we’ll consider the idea and value of wilderness again and in more depth in a later post.

So humans are resource hungry and need places to live—especially as the world population grows—but Antarctica isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. If it comes to that, it’ll be a long time off. If such a day does arrive, something of an international governance fiasco might ensue. Antarctica could become the world’s next radical political experiment.

But not to worry, the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty currently prohibits development in Antarctica almost altogether (short of a few low-impact scientific research stations) in order to “preserve the intrinsic value of Antarctica.” In turn, some of these questions may be ethically rich but legally moot…for now.

However, a recent attempt to create a new Antarctic ocean sanctuary failed in an moment of international politicking—so perhaps we should take this as a sign that, like the climate, international norms of Antarctic governance are changing. Or is the failed sanctuary vote just business-as-usual? But hold that thought, yet again. We’ll get to that in one of the next installments of the Antarctic meltdown.

Wet and wild weather

Living in Boulder through this week’s historic flood was wild. And I mean that literally. Extreme weather is some of the only wilderness most urbanites are exposed to these days. There’s something exciting and adventure-inspiring about a good storm—the unknown, the uncontrollable. But only to a certain point—only within our comfort limit. Even outdoorsy folks generally don’t opt for true wilderness anymore—the occasional hunting, fishing, and multi-day backpacking trips spent surviving on sustenance food are soon followed by showers, couches, electricity, restaurants, beer, climate control, and all the other comforts of modern life we’ve come to take for granted.

But floods, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, tornados and the rest are quick to remind us of nature’s wild power. I’ve personally experienced Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike—and some indirect effects of Hurricane Katrina—in Houston, extended extreme drought in Austin, Hurricane Irene in New York, and now a 100-year flood in Boulder. For all our sentimentality about Mother Nature’s harmony and plenty, natural disasters tell another story—one of the Earth’s indifference to our troubles. It’s easy to romanticize wilderness—and for a lot of reasons we should—but we should also keep in mind the violence that comes the with it.

Despite some internal disagreement about the meaning and virtue of the idea of wilderness, it is usually a clarion call for environmentalists. But I think the wilderness—the same natural force that drove humans out of the state of nature—could play a slightly different role in the debate over climate change.

In the most general terms, climate change means increasingly extreme weather events. For the US and many other places, it will look like bursts of extreme precipitation followed by extended dry periods. In other words, the flood in Boulder fits the pattern. Of course, to what extent or degree this flood was caused by climate change exactly is tough to say, but it’s hard to reflect on an event like this past week and not implicate climate change in the grand scheme of things.

In essence, some calls for climate action could start to look something like “climate change must be stopped because it’s bringing the wilderness to our doors!” For rhetoric’s sake, it’s probably best not to confuse the term “wilderness” with more than one context or connotation. But it seems important to recognize that by intensifying such extreme weather through climate change, we’re literally bringing the power of the wild into our homes (mostly basements, in Boulder’s case). Supporting climate action because we believe the nonhuman world is inherently valuable is one thing (and apparently not very persuasive to many in politics), but property damage and loss of life from extreme weather might finally drive home the justification for national climate policy with anthropocentrics. A silver lining, at best, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Experiencing wilderness is enchanting, inspiring, and important for developing a sense of place and meaning in secular modernity. But let’s not necessarily invite the wild in for coffee. Radical, home-destroying, life-taking weather exists with or without anthropogenic climate change. It should be obvious that we should do whatever we can to stop exacerbating these natural disasters, even and especially if it means evolving beyond our unsustainable carbon-intensive lifestyles. Maybe something about Boulder—alongside these 10 facts about climate change—will be mentioned in this week’s Climate Change Hearing before the US House of Representatives.