The Ethics of GlobalizationProtecting Our Planet

Climate Change & the Future, 2016

Physicist Michio Kaku interviews environmentalist Lester Brown, the topic "What is Happening to the Earth?"


No Water, No Life

water.jpgNov 03, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST
By VL Baker for Daily Kos

Some 1.2 billion people—almost one fifth of the world—live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion face what can be called economic water shortage. The situation is only expected to worsen as population growth, climate change, investment and management shortfalls, and inefficient use of existing resources restrict the amount of water available to people. It is estimated that by 2025 fully 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, with almost half of the world living in conditions of water stress.

Agriculture is the most water-intensive sector, currently accounting for more than 70 percent of consumptive use. Agricultural water withdrawal accounts for 44 percent of total water withdrawal among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but this rises to more than 60 percent within the eight OECD countries that rely heavily on irrigated agriculture. In the four transitional economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, agriculture accounts for 74 percent of water withdrawals, but this ranges from 20 percent in the Russia to 87 percent in India.

While the growing world population is increasing the pressure on land and water resources, economic growth and individual wealth are shifting people from predominantly starch-based diets to meat and dairy, which require more water. Producing 1 kilogram of rice, for example, requires about 3,500 liters of water, while 1 kilogram of beef needs some 15,000 liters. This dietary shift has had the greatest impact on water consumption over the past 30 years and is likely to continue well into the middle of this century, according to FAO. The U.S. has the second greatest per capita meat consumption, after Luxembourg, and since it is also one of the largest exporters of animal feed globally its water use for animal agriculture is 50 percent of its total water use!

Leading water scientists from the The Stockholm International Water Institute are issuing a warning that food shortages in the future will dictate a global transition to vegetarian diets by 2050. "Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world," the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.


Extreme Weather & Natural Disasters

Hurricane Sandy

The Economist:

Global Warming

The heat is on
Jul 20th 2012, 15:50 by R.A.

EVEN by the standards of recent periods of extreme weather, this summer has been a doozy. High temperature records have been broken around the globe. Arctic sea ice is tracking record low levels. America has been battered by wildfires and freakishly strong storm systems. And an ongoing American drought is sending commodity prices soaring and threatens to match the Dust Bowl in intensity. No single weather event is "caused" by global warming. But warming raises mean temperature and increases the incidence of extreme temperatures and weather events. Warming bears some responsibility for this year's dramatic weather, and there is worse to come. The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
  • One of the most salient—but also, unfortunately, most counter-intuitive—aspects of global warming is that it operates on what amounts to a time delay. Behind this summer’s heat are greenhouse gases emitted decades ago. Before many effects of today’s emissions are felt, it will be time for the Summer Olympics of 2048. (Scientists refer to this as the “commitment to warming.”) What’s at stake is where things go from there. It is quite possible that by the end of the century we could, without even really trying, engineer the return of the sort of climate that hasn’t been seen on earth since the Eocene, some fifty million years ago.

There is much more warming already baked into the cake based on the carbon that has been released into the atmosphere. Bill McKibben writes that so far, the global temperature has risen 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that the carbon already emitted into the atmosphere will probably generate another 0.8 degree increase—distressingly close to the 2-degree threshold governments have agreed would be too risky to cross. To keep the world below that threshold, Mr McKibben says, would require humanity to limit future emissions to an estimated 565 gigatonnes of CO2. But if you estimate the emissions that would be generated by burning all the fossil fuels in the known reserves of private energy companies and sovereign governments—just the known reserves—that adds up to 2,795 gigatonnes of CO2.

  • It's hard to know what the world would look like under that emissions scenario. It would be an alien place. Conceivably, a sufficiently technologically sophisticated human race could adapt and avoid extinction. To imagine that adaptation could be accomplished without staggering human and economic cost is all but impossible.

So to avoid probable disaster, humanity must find a way not to burn some 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves (or to suck the resulting carbon out of the air and put it somewhere it won't do damage). How to do that?

Five years ago, I would have said that the most promising route forward was to develop a global carbon price while increasing investment in basic energy research. I still think a carbon price, set by tax or cap-and-trade plan, is a no-brainer of a policy. It would raise revenue more efficiently than other taxes while ensuring that the lowest hanging emission-reduction fruit was plucked. But I no longer think it is remotely adequate as a solution to global warming. For a carbon price to work on a very short timescale it would have to be very high, which may or may not be economically problematic but would surely be politically inoperative. For a carbon price to work while starting from a low level would take a long time, and time is in short supply. In 20 years the geese may already be cooked (and the bears and crops and coral with them).

Behavioral change isn't going to work fast enough. What's necessary are new technologies that can make a difference right now. Cheap, reliable, zero- or low-emission energy sources that can be plugged into the grid at rates that make fossil-fuel power look like a boondoggle. Zero- or low-emission vehicles that can be put on existing transport infrastructure. And innovative new technology that can pull carbon out of the air and put it back safely in the ground.

Easy, right? The temptation upon considering needs like those above is to call for a "Manhattan project" approach, throwing massive government resources at the problem. Maybe that would work, and maybe it would generate knowledge spillovers large enough to justify the cost. Again, however economically problematic it may prove, the political realities (in America, anyway) suggest that an effort is unlikely to materialize. It's more likely that funds will be diverted from existing research programs to pay for social spending or tax cuts.

I wonder why there hasn't been more philanthropical focus on prizes. Prizes have proven effective in generating innovation, perhaps most notably in kick-starting private space flight and research into autonomous vehicles. As many billions as there are floating around among men with a clear interest in using their wealth for good, why haven't a few established a handful of billion-dollar prizes for major zero-emission innovations, or smaller, but still massively lucrative prizes for stepwise innovations?

Perhaps prizes for new energy sources couldn't be expected to do much good; after all, there's already lots of money to be made from such innovations. But for technologies that would safely turn greenhouse gases in the air into something inert? There's little market for that at the moment, and a prize could make a great deal of difference. If governments won't respond to the problem, then individuals will have to. Or there will be no adequate response, and the disasters of this summer will soon look like a day at the beach.

Some Resources:

ABC: Global Warming is Increasing
Governor Jerry Brown/Lake Tahoe
Is Climate Change a Hoax?
Extreme Weather: Is Climate Change to Blame?
Colbert Report on Global Warming
Drought Monitor
Arctic Ice Melt
Arctic Ice Melt/Guardian
Tornadoes & Global Warming
Global Warming & the Weather
Is Global Warming Affecting the Weather?
Al Gore Talking to Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report
Climate Reality Project
Excerpt from An Inconvenient Truth

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Mutant Butterflies


Who should have jurisdiction over potential global disasters? What obligations do we have to one another, to future generations, and to the planet? How should they be mandated and enforced? In particular, what should we do about nuclear power?


On Friday, March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Japan. The epicenter was approximately 43 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku, and the hypocenter was at an underwater depth of approximately 20 miles. The quake's magnitude was 9.0.
It was the most powerful earthquake to have hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful earthquakes recorded since modern record-keeping began in 1900. It was so strong the island of Honshu was moved 8 feet eastward. The earthquake triggered tsunami waves of up to 133 ft in Tōhoku prefecture—in some cases traveling up to 6 miles inland. The Japanese government has confirmed 15,698 deaths, 5,717 injured, and 4,666 people missing across eighteen prefectures, as well as over 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.

In addition to loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, the tsunami caused a number of nuclear accidents, primarily the ongoing level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant complex. Since the quake there have been a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The plant comprises six separate boiling water reactors designed and built by GE, and maintained by the Tokyo Power Company (TEPCO). The Fukushima disaster is the largest nuclear accident on the planet since the Chernobyl disaster (1986, Russia), and is more complex than Chernobyl as multiple reactors and spent fuel pools are involved.

Worldwide Radiation

UCSD researchers' quantitative study measures radiation leaked from Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, citing no threat to human health in the U.S. For all you folks that rushed to the drug store to stock up on iodine following the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in March, rest easy. Researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have released the first quantitative study of radiation leaked from the meltdown, and the result is that although radiation levels across California spiked because of the meltdown, it was not enough to warrant any hazard to human health in the U.S.

Atmospheric chemists from UCSD were led by Mark Thiemens, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UCSD, in an effort to measure radioactive sulfur levels in the air following the meltdown. When nuclear fuel rods melt, neutrons are released, and collide with chloride ions in the seawater used to cool the reactors. This results in the loss of a proton from the nucleus of the chloride atom, turning it into a radioactive form of sulfur. To avoid hydrogen (another product of the cooling process) from exploding, the vapors from the seawater are released into the atmosphere. When introduced to the air, the radioactive sulfur reacts with oxygen to make sulfur dioxide gas and sulfate particles. These particles were carried via winds from Japan to North America, sparking alarm that the U.S. and Canada would experience the same kind of radioactive fallout seen in neighboring countries to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. But fears of mutated babies, high cancer rates and radioactive crops may be put to rest with the UCSD study’s findings.

More Fukushima Fallout

Millions of tons of debris from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March is headed for the West Coast of the US. A Russian ship has spotted a floating island of junk passing the Midway Islands northwest of Hawaii - some 2,000 miles from the source of the tsunami. Computer models from the University of Hawaii suggest it's due to hit the US mainland in the next three years.

They sighted a TV set, fridge and a couple of other home appliances. Subsequent observations found fragments of houses, along with items from drums to boots. "The most remarkable one is of a small fishing vessel about 20 feet long. The markings on the wheel house of the boat show its home port to be in the Fukushima Prefecture, the area hardest hit by the tsunami." The debris is expected to make landfall in the Windward Islands sometime in December. What fails to wash up there will head onwards to the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast. Altogether, there's believed to be as much as 20 million tons of debris—covering an area the size of Texas—on its way.

Trash in the Ocean

2012 Update, NBC Nightly News: Trash headed for West Coast


UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Department is tracking local radiation.
Families from Fukushima
Uninhabitable Land Around Fukushima
Radioactive Rice
Nuclear Power plants in the US