Climate Change is Dangerously Complicated

smokestacks
(Wikipedia)

The People’s Republic of China suffered a horrible famine from 1958 through 1961 that is estimated to have killed 20 to 43 million people. Bad weather, including droughts and floods, contributed to this disaster, but most of the problems were caused by bad decisions from the ruling Communist Party.

One of the contributing factors was Chairman Mao Zedong’s Four Pests campaign, wherein he tried to get the Chinese people to exterminate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The sparrows were included because they were considered pests for eating too much grain in the fields. The Chinese people were mobilized to harass all sparrows until they fell from the sky due to exhaustion. The birds were killed in other ways too, and the result was their near extinction in China.

The Chinese soon discovered, however, that the removal of the sparrows had produced an unexpected result. Instead of increasing grain yields, the yields actually decreased because the sparrows had eaten lots of insects. Without sparrows to control them, insect populations exploded and ate more than the sparrows had ever eaten.

An important lesson to be learned from what happened in China is that Earth’s ecosystem is an enormous web of life with many complex interrelationships, and as we alter it, the outcomes are difficult to predict. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to forecast what’s going to happen. In fact, many scientists say our impact on the planet has become so great that we’ve entered a new age in our planet’s history, the Anthropocene Epoch, wherein the primary characteristic is the global environmental changes caused by humans. So trying to predict the results of changes we’re making to the Earth’s ecosystem is more important than ever, and its importance will continue to grow.

The federal government’s National Research Council, for example, recently released a report that analyzed the ecological changes we face due to human caused climate change from the greenhouse gases we’re adding to the atmosphere. The report explained that the amount of Arctic ice has already significantly decreased, and many plant and animal species are going extinct because their habitats are changing too rapidly for them to adapt or migrate. (Perhaps we’ll find out too late that some of these species were as important as the Chinese sparrows?)

The report said some other changes will probably take longer than originally anticipated, but it warned that the Earth’s ecosystem is too complicated to accurately predict all of the changes that will occur, and we will inevitably encounter “tipping points” wherein the climate quickly crosses over unexpected thresholds beyond which there will be rapid and irreversible changes. The report’s authors encouraged the world’s governments to begin creating a warning system before these events happen.

This report should be alarming to everybody. But we still continue to have noisy people that are determined to continue the fake debate about whether or not human caused climate change is real. And too many of our politicians are sympathetic to their unjustified claims. Instead of trying to prevent a worldwide ecological catastrophe, they willingly repeat Orwellian fossil fuel industry political slogans like the “War on Coal.”

I don’t know if these obstructionist politicians are motivated by large campaign contributions from industry lobbyists, or if they really believe there’s no human caused global warming. But I think they will be judged very harshly by history. When their grandchildren ask them why they didn’t do anything to prevent the disaster, the only honest answers they’ll have will be greed and ignorance.

Updates

On June 29, 2018, the periodical High Country News reported that climate change was making it more difficult to do ecological restoration in Arizona.

On November 23, 2018, the U.S. government released its 4th National Climate Assessment report, and Chapter 25 warned that the arid American Southwest will be particularly hard hit by climate change.

On December 1, 2008, the Associated Press reported on the myriad of environment changes that are being caused by climate change, including whales changing their songs in Antarctica to better cut through the noise of melting icebergs.

On December 11, 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual Arctic Report Card announced that during the past three decades of global warming, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic had declined by a stunning 95 percent.

On December 18, 2018, the NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington (UW) issued a report that warned that salmon may lose the ability to smell danger or find their way to their spawning streams as carbon emissions rise.

On January 29, 2019, The New York Times reported how simultaneous extreme weather events are a consequence of global warming.

On January 31, 2019, the BBC reported on research which showed the colonization of the Americas by Europeans resulted in significant vegetative changes that altered the Earth’s climate.

On February 10, 2019, it was reported that an analysis scheduled to be published in the journal Biological Conservation found that many of the world’s insects are on a path to extinction, which threatens to destroy the Earth’s ecosystem. Specifically, more than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. The primary cause of this ecological holocaust was found to be the widespread use of pesticides.

On April 8, 2019, an article published in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution estimated that it will take the Earth about 10 million years to replace all of the plant and animal species that humans are currently driving to extinction.

Republican Hypocrites on the AZ Corporation Commission

Gary Pierce, Arizona Corporation Commission
Gary Pierce (AZ Corporation Commission)

In November, 2013, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), which regulates the state’s utilities, voted by a 3-2 margin to allow Arizona Public Service (APS) power company to add about $5 to the monthly bills for its customers who install rooftop solar panels.

APS had asked the ACC to be able to charge solar customers an additional $50 to $100. They argued that homeowners with solar panels were benefiting from their access to the power grid while avoiding the costs of maintaining it. The problem, APS claimed, was the practice of net metering, wherein APS must pay pay its solar customers a retail price for the excess power they generate. APS warned that as more homeowners install solar panels, the effect will be to “unfairly” shift more of the cost of their electric grid maintenance to non-solar customers. The Commission’s widely-watched decision to impose a fee of just $5  was seen as a win by most solar energy proponents, especially since APS was reported to have spent about $3.7 million on advertising to promote the higher fee.

The two ACC Commissioners who voted against the fee, Gary Pierce and Brenda Burns, said they did so because they thought $5 was too little. Pierce said he didn’t think it did enough to protect non-solar ratepayers.

But Pierce apparently wasn’t worried about protecting other ratepayers when he became ACC chairman in January, 2011, after Republicans took control of the Commission in the 2010 election. One of the first things Pierce did was to try and eliminate the fees charged for power line extensions.

A few years earlier, when the ACC was controlled by Democrats, it had voted to stop Arizona power companies from providing free power line extensions. ACC Commissioner Kristin Mayes explained that all ratepayers shouldn’t have to bear the cost of line extensions, and growth should pay for itself. The free line extensions were also blamed for promoting urban sprawl and wildcat subdivisions.

But real estate interests complained loudly that the end of free power line extensions had devastated the market value and saleability of rural parcels located off the grid. (In other words, they’d lost their subsidy.)

So Pierce said he believed that reinstating free line extensions would help the economy and improve real estate prices. In February, 2011, he succeeded in getting the ACC to make it free for UniSource power company of northwestern Arizona to install power line extensions of 400 feet or less (more than the length of a football field). Then in July, 2011, the ACC voted to reinstate free power-line extensions to new customers within 500 feet of Tucson Electric Power (TEP) company’s distribution system.

According to UniSource, the price of a power line extension of this length in 2011 was about $4,000 to $7,000. The existing ratepayers served by UniSource and TEP are now having to help pay for these extensions to new customers. (APS has so far succeeded in maintaining the fees it charges for power line extensions.)

It’s difficult to understand how Commissioner Pierce could be so worried about the costs to non-solar ratepayers supposedly caused by net metering, when he was so eager to have power line extensions paid for by existing ratepayers. Maybe it’s because the APS scheme to impose a new fee on solar customers was never really about unfair electric grid maintenance costs.

Update

On May 23, 2017, former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce was indicted in federal court for conspiring to accept bribes from Johnson Utilities owner George Johnson in exchange for Johnson receiving favorable treatment from the Commission.

Stop Dairy Industry Subsidies

dairy cows
Dairy cows (Wikipedia)

Recent news reports about the stalled Farm Bill in Congress warn that a failure to approve continued dairy industry subsidies could lead to a rise in milk prices. But would that be such a bad thing?

To start with, dairy foods aren’t natural human foods. They were invented when some starving people in the distant past were so desperate that they decided to steal the milk from another mammal. For some reason, maybe because it was easier for them to keep milk fresh yearlong, people in northern Europe evolved to be able to digest milk. But most of the rest of the human population didn’t. In fact, about 80% of the rest of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.

Milk is very nutritious, but there are plenty of people in the world who get adequate nutrition without drinking it. And there’s a lot of scientific controversy about whether or not the nutritional benefits of dairy foods are outweighed by their effects on our overall health. This includes suspicions that dairy foods elevate the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and joint pain. These claims aren’t difficult to believe, considering that cow milk wasn’t designed for human consumption. But I’m going to ignore all of that for now.

Instead, let’s take a closer look at the practice of large-scale dairy farming. If you’ve ever visited or driven by a large dairy farm you know they are nasty looking and smelling places. Dairy cows emit millions of metric tons of methane, a greenhouse gas, annually. In fact, a single dairy cow emits more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) annually than a car. The enormous piles of cow manure generated by dairy farms can also cause water pollution in nearby streams and the local groundwater. Dairy farms also require a lot of food for the cows. This results in large areas of land being converted to growing livestock feed crops like alfalfa and corn. Dairy farming can also be abusive to the cows. A dairy cow is usually artificially impregnated every year so that she continues to give milk. The calves are immediately removed from their mothers.

According to the Heritage Foundation, dairy industry subsidies paid through the USDA’s Dairy Product Price Support Program and Milk Income Loss Contract Program were estimated to be about $222 million in 2012. It doesn’t make any sense for taxpayers to continue to pay these subsidies. But the dairy industry’s advertising campaigns are very effective. (Got Milk?) So chances are good that when you think of dairy foods, you imagine a beautiful little blond girl running through a field of beautiful flowers to drink a gleaming glass of milk from her friendly old grandfather.

Updates

In the July 2018 the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to start enforcing a federal standard that says milk must come from cows. The National Milk Producers Federation said it wants “plant-based dairy imitators” to have to quit using terms like soy milk.

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