Category Archives: Commentary

Aug. 23, 2020 Blumbers

Close shave

Driving down the roadI looked in my rear view mirror and saw guy using an electric shaver, like he was Don Draper from Madmen or the Norelco Santa Claus. Who is still making these devices? Should we put money into Aqua Velva?

Copyright 2020 All rights reserved.

Aug. 16, 2020 Blumbers

Traveling Light

I’ve been on the road so long  I am used to the routine. Physicist Leo Szilard used to carry two suitcases with him at all times.  I wonder if this is what there rest of our lives will be like?

Copyright 2020 All rights reserved. 

Aug. 9, 2020 Blumbers

Yesterday was the eight day of the eighth month. I am still on the road. Interesting story. A woman had her home destroyed in a fire. The insurance company would only pay if they had pictures of all the household. This brought up an important point. Do you have pictures of all your stuff online? Makes me think twice about acquiring lots of stuff. Meryn Cadell has a song about her stuff. Recommended.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Jun. 7, 2020 Blumbers

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

By David Wallace-Wells and introduction by DJ Cline
 

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.
 

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines). Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.
 
The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*
 
The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.
 
Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.
 

II. Heat Death

The bahraining of New York.

 

Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem; in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

Climate-change skeptics point out that the planet has warmed and cooled many times before, but the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history. At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually. This century, and especially in the tropics, the pain points will pinch much more quickly even than an increase of seven degrees. The key factor is something called wet-bulb temperature, which is a term of measurement as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the heat registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air (since the moisture evaporates from a sock more quickly in dry air, this single number reflects both heat and humidity). At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees. What is called heat stress comes much sooner.

 

Actually, we’re about there already. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Air-conditioning can help but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem; plus, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely plausible to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the world, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks. Of course, heat stress promises to pummel us in places other than our kidneys, too. As I type that sentence, in the California desert in mid-June, it is 121 degrees outside my door. It is not a record high.

III. The End of Food

Praying for cornfields in the tundra.

Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Some estimates run as high as 15 or even 17 percent. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them. And proteins are worse: It takes 16 calories of grain to produce just a single calorie of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life polluting the climate with methane farts.

Pollyannaish plant physiologists will point out that the cereal-crop math applies only to those regions already at peak growing temperature, and they are right  theoretically, a warmer climate will make it easier to grow corn in Greenland. But as the pathbreaking work by Rosamond Naylor and David Battisti has shown, the tropics are already too hot to efficiently grow grain, and those places where grain is produced today are already at optimal growing temperature — which means even a small warming will push them down the slope of declining productivity. And you can’t easily move croplands north a few hundred miles, because yields in places like remote Canada and Russia are limited by the quality of soil there; it takes many centuries for the planet to produce optimally fertile dirt.

Drought might be an even bigger problem than heat, with some of the world’s most arable land turning quickly to desert. Precipitation is notoriously hard to model, yet predictions for later this century are basically unanimous: unprecedented droughts nearly everywhere food is today produced. By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American dust bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China. None of these places, which today supply much of the world’s food, will be reliable sources of any. As for the original dust bowl: The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains” and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization.

Remember, we do not live in a world without hunger as it is. Far from it: Most estimates put the number of undernourished at 800 million globally. In case you haven’t heard, this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone.

IV. Climate Plagues

What happens when the bubonic ice melts?

Rock, in the right spot, is a record of planetary history, eras as long as millions of years flattened by the forces of geological time into strata with amplitudes of just inches, or just an inch, or even less. Ice works that way, too, as a climate ledger, but it is also frozen history, some of which can be reanimated when unfrozen. There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.

The Arctic also stores terrifying bugs from more recent times. In Alaska, already, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million and killed as many as 100 million — about 5 percent of the world’s population and almost six times as many as had died in the world war for which the pandemic served as a kind of gruesome capstone. As the BBC reported in May, scientists suspect smallpox and the bubonic plague are trapped in Siberian ice, too — an abridged history of devastating human sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun.

Experts caution that many of these organisms won’t actually survive the thaw and point to the fastidious lab conditions under which they have already reanimated several of them — the 32,000-year-old “extremophile” bacteria revived in 2005, an 8 million-year-old bug brought back to life in 2007, the 3.5 million–year–old one a Russian scientist self-injected just out of curiosity — to suggest that those are necessary conditions for the return of such ancient plagues. But already last year, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier; 2,000 present-day reindeer were infected, too, carrying and spreading the disease beyond the tundra.

What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. The first effect is geographical. Before the early-modern period, when adventuring sailboats accelerated the mixing of peoples and their bugs, human provinciality was a guard against pandemic. Today, even with globalization and the enormous intermingling of human populations, our ecosystems are mostly stable, and this functions as another limit, but global warming will scramble those ecosystems and help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. You don’t worry much about dengue or malaria if you are living in Maine or France. But as the tropics creep northward and mosquitoes migrate with them, you will. You didn’t much worry about Zika a couple of years ago, either.

As it happens, Zika may also be a good model of the second worrying effect — disease mutation. One reason you hadn’t heard about Zika until recently is that it had been trapped in Uganda; another is that it did not, until recently, appear to cause birth defects. Scientists still don’t entirely understand what happened, or what they missed. But there are things we do know for sure about how climate affects some diseases: Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, too, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster. Which is one reason that the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 5.2 billion people will be reckoning with it.

V. Unbreathable Air

A rolling death smog that suffocates millions.

 

Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.

Already, more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning; each year, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke, in part because climate change has extended forest-fire season (in the U.S., it’s increased by 78 days since 1970). By 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today; in some places, the area burned could grow fivefold. What worries people even more is the effect that would have on emissions, especially when the fires ravage forests arising out of peat. Peatland fires in Indonesia in 1997, for instance, added to the global CO2 release by up to 40 percent, and more burning only means more warming only means more burning. There is also the terrifying possibility that rain forests like the Amazon, which in 2010 suffered its second “hundred-year drought” in the space of five years, could dry out enough to become vulnerable to these kinds of devastating, rolling forest fires — which would not only expel enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but also shrink the size of the forest. That is especially bad because the Amazon alone provides 20 percent of our oxygen.

Then there are the more familiar forms of pollution. In 2013, melting Arctic ice remodeled Asian weather patterns, depriving industrial China of the natural ventilation systems it had come to depend on, which blanketed much of the country’s north in an unbreathable smog. Literally unbreathable. A metric called the Air Quality Index categorizes the risks and tops out at the 301-to-500 range, warning of “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly” and, for all others, “serious risk of respiratory effects”; at that level, “everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” The Chinese “airpocalypse” of 2013 peaked at what would have been an Air Quality Index of over 800. That year, smog was responsible for a third of all deaths in the country.

 

VI. Perpetual War

The violence baked into heat.

Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria. They want you to know that while climate change did produce a drought that contributed to civil war, it is not exactly fair to saythat the conflict is the result of warming; next door, for instance, Lebanon suffered the same crop failures. But researchers like Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang have managed to quantify some of the non-obvious relationships between temperature and violence: For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. In climate science, nothing is simple, but the arithmetic is harrowing: A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.

This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. Of course, it’s not just Syria where climate has contributed to conflict. Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.

What accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics; a lot has to do with forced migration, already at a record high, with at least 65 million displaced people wandering the planet right now. But there is also the simple fact of individual irritability. Heat increases municipal crime rates, and swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation. And the arrival of air-conditioning in the developed world, in the middle of the past century, did little to solve the problem of the summer crime wave.

VII. Permanent Economic Collapse

Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world.

The murmuring mantra of global neoliberalism, which prevailed between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the Great Recession, is that economic growth would save us from anything and everything.
But in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves. After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change.

The most exciting research on the economics of warming has also come from Hsiang and his colleagues, who are not historians of fossil capitalism but who offer some very bleak analysis of their own: Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”). This is the sterling work in the field, and their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor).
Tracing the shape of the probability curve is even scarier: There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline. By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent, in a onetime shock; Hsiang and his colleagues estimate a one-in-eight chance of an ongoing and irreversible effect by the end of the century that is eight times worse.

The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world. It makes the grounding of flights out of heat-stricken Phoenix last month seem like pathetically small economic potatoes. And, among other things, it makes the idea of postponing government action on reducing emissions and relying solely on growth and technology to solve the problem an absurd business calculation.
Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.

 

VIII. Poisoned Oceans

Sulfide burps off the skeleton coast.

That the sea will become a killer is a given. Barring a radical reduction of emissions, we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century. A third of the world’s major cities are on the coast, not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas, marshlands, and rice-paddy empires, and even those above ten feet will flood much more easily, and much more regularly, if the water gets that high. At least 600 million people live within ten meters of sea level today.

But the drowning of those homelands is just the start. At present, more than a third of the world’s carbon is sucked up by the oceans — thank God, or else we’d have that much more warming already. But the result is what’s called “ocean acidification,” which, on its own, may add a half a degree to warming this century. It is also already burning through the planet’s water basins — you may remember these as the place where life arose in the first place. You have probably heard of “coral bleaching” — that is, coral dying — which is very bad news, because reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food for half a billion people. Ocean acidification will fry fish populations directly, too, though scientists aren’t yet sure how to predict the effects on the stuff we haul out of the ocean to eat; they do know that in acid waters, oysters and mussels will struggle to grow their shells, and that when the pH of human blood drops as much as the oceans’ pH has over the past generation, it induces seizures, comas, and sudden death.

That isn’t all that ocean acidification can do. Carbon absorption can initiate a feedback loop in which underoxygenated waters breed different kinds of microbes that turn the water still more “anoxic,” first in deep ocean “dead zones,” then gradually up toward the surface. There, the small fish die out, unable to breathe, which means oxygen-eating bacteria thrive, and the feedback loop doubles back. This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.” The name originally referred to the detritus of the whaling industry, but today it’s more apt than ever. Hydrogen sulfide is so toxic that evolution has trained us to recognize the tiniest, safest traces of it, which is why our noses are so exquisitely skilled at registering flatulence. Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97 percent of all life on Earth died, once all the feedback loops had been triggered and the circulating jet streams of a warmed ocean ground to a halt — it’s the planet’s preferred gas for a natural holocaust. Gradually, the ocean’s dead zones spread, killing off marine species that had dominated the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and the gas the inert waters gave off into the atmosphere poisoned everything on land. Plants, too. It was millions of years before the oceans recovered.

 

IX. The Great Filter

Our present eeriness cannot last.

So why can’t we see it? In his recent book-length essay The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction — why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre he basically imagines into half-existence and names “the environmental uncanny.” “Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ or ‘Where were you on 9/11?’?” he writes. “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’?” His answer: Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.

Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size. Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once.

It is. Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — a helpful perspective, in a way, since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime. My father’s, for instance: born in 1938, among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic Air Force of the propaganda films that followed, films that doubled as advertisements for imperial-American industrial might; and among his last memories the coverage of the desperate signing of the Paris climate accords on cable news, ten weeks before he died of lung cancer last July. Or my mother’s: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, now enjoying her 72nd year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the supply chains of an industrialized developing world. She has been smoking for 57 of those years, unfiltered.

Or the scientists’. Some of the men who first identified a changing climate (and given the generation, those who became famous were men) are still alive; a few are even still working. Wally Broecker is 84 years old and drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side. Like most of those who first raised the alarm, he believes that no amount of emissions reduction alone can meaningfully help avoid disaster. Instead, he puts his faith in carbon capture — untested technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which Broecker estimates will cost at least several trillion dollars — and various forms of “geoengineering,” the catchall name for a variety of moon-shot technologies far-fetched enough that many climate scientists prefer to regard them as dreams, or nightmares, from science fiction. He is especially focused on what’s called the aerosol approach — dispersing so much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that when it converts to sulfuric acid, it will cloud a fifth of the horizon and reflect back 2 percent of the sun’s rays, buying the planet at least a little wiggle room, heat-wise. “Of course, that would make our sunsets very red, would bleach the sky, would make more acid rain,” he says. “But you have to look at the magnitude of the problem. You got to watch that you don’t say the giant problem shouldn’t be solved because the solution causes some smaller problems.” He won’t be around to see that, he told me. “But in your lifetime …” If you are in college, you will never have to worry about repaying those college loans. Major in foraging.

Jim Hansen is another member of this godfather generation. Born in 1941, he became a climatologist at the University of Iowa, developed the groundbreaking “Zero Model” for projecting climate change, and later became the head of climate research at NASA, only to leave under pressure when, while still a federal employee, he filed a lawsuit against the federal government charging inaction on warming (along the way he got arrested a few times for protesting, too). The lawsuit, which is brought by a collective called Our Children’s Trust and is often described as “kids versus climate change,” is built on an appeal to the equal-protection clause, namely, that in failing to take action on warming, the government is violating it by imposing massive costs on future generations; it is scheduled to be heard this winter in Oregon district court. Hansen has recently given up on solving the climate problem with a carbon tax alone, which had been his preferred approach, and has set about calculating the total cost of the additional measure of extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

Hansen began his career studying Venus, which was once a very Earth-like planet with plenty of life-supporting water before runaway climate change rapidly transformed it into an arid and uninhabitable sphere enveloped in an unbreathable gas; he switched to studying our planet by 30, wondering why he should be squinting across the solar system to explore rapid environmental change when he could see it all around him on the planet he was standing on. “When we wrote our first paper on this, in 1981,” he told me, “I remember saying to one of my co-authors, ‘This is going to be very interesting. Sometime during our careers, we’re going to see these things beginning to happen.’?”

Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer, they suggested, is that the natural life span of a civilization may be only several thousand years, and the life span of an industrial civilization perhaps only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another. Peter Ward, a charismatic paleontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the “Great Filter”: “Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,” he told me. “If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.” The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.

And yet, improbably, Ward is an optimist. So are Broecker and Hansen and many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.

It is not easy to know how much to be reassured by that bleak certainty, and how much to wonder whether it is another form of delusion; for global warming to work as parable, of course, someone needs to survive to tell the story. The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do. Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.

*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been updated to provide context for the recent news reports about revisions to a satellite data set, to more accurately reflect the rate of warming during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, to clarify a reference to Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World, and to make clear that James Hansen still supports a carbon-tax based approach to emissions.

Copyright 2020

COmmencement Address

May 30, 2020

My interest in the future could not prepare me for this end of the world.. It was quite a surprise to be contacted by a college I had nearly forgotten I had graduated from all these years later. The only thing that is keeping me from attending is the quarantine.

Really I am surviving this because I took a gamble on biotech twenty years ago. Had I stayed near the college, I would be dead by now. As it is I have spent a fortune to keep one. There are no pictures of me graduating. I was in such a hurry to leave this place that I did not go to the graduation ceremony. I went to the bursar’s office to pick up my diploma and drive out of the city with my car loaded with all my worldly possessions. I never looked back…until now.

All the mom and pop shops that paid my bills were closing up or moving overseas. I saw the writing on the wall and it was in Mandarin.

Advice? Meet someone new everyday. I decided to photograph everyone I met and soon a busboy became a restauranteur and then a governor. Democracy requires people to rise to the top, I have seen it.

The rich have decided if they can’t take it with them, they are not going to go. Covid-19 has shown that everyone is vulnerable to disease,  even me.

Science fiction writer David Brin says the rich are having so much medical  work done that at some point, they will become a different species. I hope that does not happen. It is our commonality that unites what we learn from each other. So there it is. Meet as many people as you can, learn from them and remind them they will die eventually . No I don’t want to see the biolab.  I think I paid for Stanford’s. That turned out to be Tim’s most expensive non handshake. You live and learn or you don’t live long. Barb will find this funny, Pam will hate it. I will laugh all the way. If you meet Barb you will know why you never heard of her.

I have a long walk down the hill from here. They still have not worked out the parking around here.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved

May 17, 2020 Blumbers

 

Written Testimony
House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health

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Scientific Integrity in the COVID-19 Response

Statement of

Rick Bright, Ph.D

For Release on Delivery Expected at 10:00 am
May 14, 2020

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Good morning Chairwoman, Eshoo, Ranking Member Burgess and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for inviting me to testify today.

I am Dr. Rick Bright, a career public servant and a scientist who has spent 25 years of my career focused on addressing pandemic outbreaks. I received my bachelor’s degree with honors in both biology and physical sciences from Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. I earned my PhD in Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis from Emory University in Georgia My dissertation was focused on pandemic avian influenza. I have spent my entire career leading teams of scientists in drugs, diagnostics and vaccine development — in the government with CDC and BARDA, for a global non-profit organization and also in the biotechnology industry. Regardless of my position, my job and my entire professional focus has been on saving lives. My professional background has prepared me for a moment like this – to confront and defeat a deadly virus like COVID-19 that threatens Americans and people around the globe.

I joined the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in 2010 and from November of 2016 until April 21 of this year, I had the privilege of serving our country as its Director. During the time I was Director of BARDA we successfully partnered with private industry to achieve an unprecedented number of FDA approvals for medical countermeasures against a wide variety of national health security threats. This was a major and unprecedented accomplishment and one that I and the conscientious employees of BARDA take great pride in.

On April 21, 2020, I was removed from my positions as the Director of BARDA and HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response by HHS leadership and involuntarily transferred to a more limited and less impactful position at the National Institutes of Health. I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest funding allocated to BARDA by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit. While my intention in testifying today is to be forward looking, I spoke out then and I am testifying today because science – not politics or cronyism – must lead the way to combat this deadly virus.

The world is confronting a great public health emergency which has the potential to eclipse the devastation wrought by the 1918 influenza which globally claimed over 50 million lives. We face a highly-transmissible and deadly virus which not only claims lives but is also disrupting the very foundations of our societies. The American health-care system is being taxed to the limit, our economy is spiraling downward — leading to mass unemployment — and our population is being paralyzed by fear stemming from the lack of a coordinated response and a dearth of accurate, clear communication about the path forward. Americans yearn to get back to work, to open their businesses and provide for their families. I get that. We need a national coordinated strategy to look at all of these pieces and to ensure that they fit well together. To conceive and implement this strategy, our government must draw on the guidance of the best scientific minds.

In my position as BARDA Director, I led portions of a coordinated response; development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. In January of this year, I pushed for our government to obtain virus samples from China and to secure more funding for BARDA to be able to get started quickly on the development of critical medical countermeasures. HHS leadership was dismissive about

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my dire predictions about what I assumed would be a broader outbreak and the pressing need to act, and were therefore unwilling to act with the urgency that the situation required. Understanding that the United States had a critical shortage of necessary supplies and PPE to deal with a pandemic, in January, February and March, 2020, I pushed HHS to ramp up US production of masks, respirators and other critical supplies, such as medicine, syringes and swabs. Again, my urgency was dismissed and I was cut out of key high-level meetings to combat COVID-19. When I was nevertheless able to convey these urgent concerns by speaking directly with a senior White House advisor and with members of Congress who better understood the urgency to act, I faced hostility and marginalization from HHS officials. And finally, when I resisted efforts to promote and enable broad access to an unproven drug, chloroquine, to the American people without transparent information on the potential health risks, I was removed from BARDA.

While I am unfortunately no longer leading BARDA, I am an expert in these areas and fully understand the grave risks we are facing. I continue to believe that we must act urgently to effectively combat this deadly disease. Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities. While it is terrifying to acknowledge the extent of the challenge that we currently confront, the undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system. Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.

First and foremost, we need to be truthful with the American people. They want the truth. They can handle the truth. Truth, no matter how unpleasant, decreases the fear generated by uncertainty. The truth must be based on scientific evidence – and not filtered for political reasons. We must know and appreciate what we are up against. We have the world’s greatest scientists – they must be permitted to lead. Let them speak truthfully without fear of retribution. We must listen so that the government can then take the most powerful steps to save lives.

Most Americans want the same thing – a return to normal. The normal of 2019 is not going to return, but we all have an opportunity to shape the new normal of 2020 and beyond. With the participation and cooperation of every American, this can be achieved. We have a long history of uniting in response to adversity. Each of us can and must do our part now. However, it is critical to get this right. As my colleague Dr. Anthony Fauci testified on May 12, 2020, we must not rush blindly, or act too quickly, in returning to our daily lives. If we ignore the science, we stand a dramatically increased risk of worsening the spread of the virus in the coming months. This could lead to more widespread outbreaks and to many more lives lost throughout the remainder of this year.

To do our part, we need to hear one message in a voice that is clear, consistent, trustworthy, and backed by the best science available. In previous outbreaks, Americans listened to our public health experts at the CDC. They were the daily face and the voice guiding Americans during prior outbreaks including Ebola, Zika, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic. As an example, in 2009, the CDC, along with Elmo, taught Americans how to sneeze in a way that minimizes risk of contagion. Today, we need clear and simple messages to teach us how wear a face cover, when and how to safely go outside or back to work or back to school. It’s that simple.

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While waiting for a cure (which, I believe, will come), there is much we MUST do. With clear leadership, honest communication, and data-driven solutions. We must:

  • Increase public education regarding the basics — handwashing, social distancing, appropriate face covering, self- and dependent monitoring, and frankly, our leaders must lead by modeling the behavior.

    o These simple measures reduce the number of people exposed and can buy us valuable time.

  • Ramp up production of essential equipment and supplies, including raw materials and critical components.

o Shortages of critical supplies and protective gear increase the risk to our frontline healthcare workers; they deserve the necessary equipment to protect themselves while treating their patients. First responders must also be given protective equipment. And we now see a courageous segment of our workforce – essential workers who keep food on our tables and keep our society running. They too deserve our appreciation and support.

  • Facilitate equitable distribution of essential equipment and supplies – eliminate the state vs. state competition. Establishing a national standard of procurement and distribution increases efficiency and reduces costs.

  • Finally, we need a national testing strategy. The virus is out there, it’s everywhere. We need to be able to find it, to isolate it and to stop it from infecting more people. We need tests that are accurate, rapid, easy to use, low cost, and available to everyone who needs them. We need be able to trust the results so that we can trace contacts, isolate and quarantine appropriately while striving to develop a cure.

    As I reflect on the past few months of this outbreak, it is painfully clear that we were not as prepared as we should have been. We missed early warning signals and we forgot important pages from our pandemic playbook. There will be plenty of time to identify gaps for improvement. For now, we need to focus on getting things right going forward. We need to ensure that we have a plan to recovery and that everyone knows the plan and everyone participates in the plan. Congress has taken important steps to support the response; and we have more to do. We need your help to get us through the crisis.

    We Americans, working cooperatively with our global friends, can and will succeed in finding a cure for COVID19, but that success depends on what we do today. We must unite and use all available tools and measures we have to stem the damage this virus has wrought.

    We will either be remembered for what we did or for what we failed to do to address this crisis. I call on all of us to act – to ensure the health, safety, and prosperity of all Americans. You can count on me to continue to do my part.

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May 14, 2020 Covidonomics

On May 14, 2020 NPR’s Jim Zarroli reported “36.5 Million Have Filed For Unemployment In 8 Weeks”. Over a million Americans are infected with Covid-19.  Over 80, 000 are dead, with thousands dying everyday. Over 36.5 million people are out of work, with a mind boggling unemployment rate of 14.7 percent compared to a February fifty-year low rate of 3.5%.

“Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell painted a grim picture for the economy. “The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent, significantly worse than any recession since World War II,” he said. A Fed survey found that nearly 40% of workers in households making less than $40,000 a year had lost a job in March, Powell noted.”

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

May 10, 2020 Blumbers

Believe It

On May 6, 2020 NPR’s Jim Zarroli reported “3.2 Million More Are Out Of Work As Jobless Claims Keep Piling Up”. Over a million Americans are infected with Covid-19.  Over 70, 000 are dead, with thousands dying everyday. Over 33 million people are out of work, with a mind boggling unemployment rate of 14.7 percent. People are not getting the help they need to feed and shelter their families. They cannot get the medical care they need stay alive and no cure in sight. Competent leadership makes a difference. If someone had told you all this bad news on Election Day 2016, you would not have believed it. Will you believe it on Election Day 2020? Vote.

May Flour Baking Bad

Note: A friend sent me 25 pounds of flour in one large bag. I tried to carefully put it into five large plastic bags but flour still got everywhere. The kitchen table looked like something from Scarface or Breaking bad.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

May 3, 2020 Blumbers

Covid-19 News

On May 1, 2020 NPR’s Jeremy Hobson reported two disturbing bits of news. The CDC said over 50,000 citizens have died from Covid-19. The US Dept. of Labor said over 30 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits. We have to stop tying health insurance to employment. Nurses should not have to waste time asking about health insurance coverage while trying get your truly vital signs. National health screening would be a great network to communicate when a new disease appears.

Turkey Traffic

There is not a lot of traffic these days and wildlife is returning everywhere. Last week I got stuck in a traffic jam. I tried to see down the road and saw six turkeys wandering slowly through the cars like sheep on a country road. I had this happen with Canadian geese too. 

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline all rights reserved.

Apr. 26, 2020 Blumbers

Citizenship

Before the coronavirus quarantine, I carried out my responsibilities as a citizen. I appeared for jury duty,  filed my taxes and even filled out my census forms. The most important thing I did was vote. It is the most important thing you can do as a citizen. It should be federal holiday that you get the day off. You should be able to vote by mail. It should easy. With all that is going on, please vote. Elections do make a difference. 

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Apr. 21, 2020 Oil Less Than Zero

On April 20, 2020 NPR’s Camila Domonoske NPR reported “Free Fall: Oil Prices Go Negative” “For the first time ever, a key U.S. oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), went below zero on Monday as traders approach a deadline to find buyers.  That means some traders, instead of paying money to buy oil, are paying to get rid of it.  The unprecedented shift comes as global oil markets continue to grapple with a pandemic-driven collapse in demand.  At the start of 2020, a barrel of WTI cost around $60. Prices had dropped swiftly because of the coronavirus, landing at around $18 a barrel on Friday.  Then on Monday they plummeted through the floor. And kept going. WTI for May delivery settled at a negative $37.63 — meaning traders are paying $37.63 to get someone to accept a delivery of a barrel of oil.  The plunging price of WTI is driven by a trading contract deadline; oil traders have until Tuesday to sell off the current futures contract. And they need buyers that are capable of receiving and storing that much oil. Clearly, those buyers are in short supply.  Other types of crude, without a deadline coming up that quickly, have not dropped nearly so sharply.  But in general, crude oil prices are very low and continue to fall. Brent, an international benchmark, is in the mid-$20s and fell more than 9% on Monday.  Oil-producing countries and companies are trying to reduce their output, but they can’t keep pace with the extremely rapid drop in global demand, as the world economy hits the brakes.  That’s creating a massive oversupply of oil and raising concerns about where buyers will be able to physically store it all.”

This story gives you an idea of how weird this timeline is. If you had said this to someone back at the beginning of 2020 they wouldn’t have believed you. Air pollution is falling too. May be we do not need these wealthy oil guys. Maybe this a golden opportunity to switch to electric vehicles. Maybe people will figure out they do  not need a car at all if everything is delivered to your house.

Sadly people are still dying of coronavirus.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Apr. 19, 2020 Blumbers

Wall of Soldiers

The coronavirus has infected the crew of the US Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in Guam. The US Army is closing boot camps across the country. These are two clear examples of how not having universal health care can affect our nation’s defense. It protects those who protect us. In ancient Greece, a visitor to Sparta asked a local why Sparta had no walls. He said that Sparta was guarded by a wall of soldiers. A country is only as strong as the people who defend it. If we can fight disease, we can fight anything.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Apr. 12, 2020 Blumbers

Yippy-Ay-Yo

Funny how much has the coronavirus changed things. Yesterday I walked into a bank wearing a broad-rimmed hat and bandana for a mask. I looked like Tom Mix robbing a stagecoach. Two months ago the tellers would have hit the alarm. Of course, if you want to rob a bank, own one.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Apr. 5, 2020 Blumbers

State Of Emergency

Many governments have declared a state of emergency in light of the coronavirus pandemic. They are doing things they should have been already doing. Instead, people had to keep working so they kept spreading the virus. Conservatives complain about how much government programs cost, but not having Medicare For All, universal sick leave, affordable housing, and free education led to an economic crash making even wealthy corporations vulnerable.   Billions of dollars of prevention is still cheaper than trillions of dollars of cure.

If we can have these essential services during an emergency, why not have them to prevent the next emergency?

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Mar. 29, 2020 Blumbers

Panicdemic

I am seeing some odd behavior with coronavirus outbreak. I was walking down a street and a woman wearing a red baseball hat approached me and asked if I wanted to buy the car or RV in front of her house. The house was on sale too. She wanted cash. 

On another street at 9:00 PM, someone was mowing their lawn in the rain wearing a headlamp like a coal miner. There was a for sale sign on the lawn and an open house the next morning. Once again not interested.

Stores are blocking entrances and exits with lines of shopping carts or stacks of empty wooden palettes. This could be dangerous in an emergency. If there is a fire or earthquake, people will need to get out quickly. Blocking makes it more difficult for disabled and the elderly to get out. Yellow tape and orange traffic cones are safer. If you think you need  barriers you might want to close the store altogether.

One store insisted I use a shopping cart. Rather than touching one I went elsewhere.

A homeless man riding a bicycle down a street had a Bluetooth speaker blaring Kenny G light jazz. It was rather calming to hear elevator music during a pandemic.

One store had a man in front with an accordion playing the tango from the film Twelve Monkeys. Super eerie.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Mar. 22, 2020 Blumbers

My Corona

The end of the world always happens at the worst possible time. I meet and photograph thousands of people every year. Astoundingly,  I do not have symptoms yet. I carry a couple of cameras and I am usually more than six feet away. There is no time to  shake hands. Last week, every event I was supposed to cover was cancelled. It was time to take a break.

The first sign that things had changed was no toilet paper at the grocery store. People should know the coronavirus affects the lungs and  not the digestive system.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved. 

Mar. 20, 2020 U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (r-NC) Insider

On March 20, 2020 NPR’s Tim Mak reported “Intelligence Chairman Raised Virus Alarms Weeks Ago, Secret Recording Shows” The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned a small group of well-connected constituents three weeks ago to prepare for dire economic and societal effects of the coronavirus, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR.  The remarks from U.S. Sen. Richard Burr were more stark than any he had delivered in more public forums.  On Feb. 27, 2020 when the United States had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, President Trump was tamping down fears and suggesting the virus could be seasonal.  

“It’s going to disappear. One day, It’s like a miracle. It will disappear,” the president said then, before adding, “it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”  

On that same day, Burr attended a luncheon held at a social club called the Capitol Hill Club. And he delivered a much more alarming message.  “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” he said, according to a secret recording of the remarks obtained by NPR. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”  
 
The luncheon had been organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a nonpartisan group whose membership consists of businesses and organizations in North Carolina, the state Burr represents. Membership to join the Tar Heel Circle costs between $500 and $10,000, and promises that members “enjoy interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector,” according to the group’s website.  In attendance, according to a copy of the RSVP list obtained by NPR, were dozens of invited guests representing companies and organizations from North Carolina. And according to federal records, those companies or their political committees donated more than $100,000 to Burr’s election campaign in 2015 and 2016. (Burr announced previously he was not planning to run for reelection in 2022).  
 
The message Burr delivered to the group was dire.  Thirteen days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe, and fifteen days before the Trump administration banned European travelers, Burr warned those in the room to reconsider.  
 
“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?” Burr said.  Sixteen days before North Carolina closed its schools due to the threat of Coronavirus, Burr warned it could happen.  
 
“There will be, I’m sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, let’s close schools for two weeks, everybody stay home,” he said.
 
And Burr invoked the possibility that the military may be mobilized to combat the Coronavirus. Only now, three weeks later, is the public learning of that prospect.  
 
“We’re going to send a military hospital there, it’s going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere,” Burr said at the luncheon. “It’s going to be a decision the president and DoD make. And we’re going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment.”  
 
Burr has a unique perspective on the government’s response to a pandemic, and not just because of his role as Intelligence Committee chairman. He helped to write the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), which forms the framework for the federal response.  
 
But in his public comments about the threat of COVID-19, Burr never offered the kind of precise warning that he delivered to the small group of his constituents.  
 
On Feb. 7, 2020 Burr coauthored an op-ed that laid out the tools that the U.S. government had at its disposal to fight Coronavirus.  
 
“Luckily, we have a framework in place that has put us in a better position than any other country to respond to a public health threat, like the coronavirus,” Burr said in a statement on March 5.  He pressed a CDC official in early March as to why the nation’s pandemic surveillance capabilities had fallen short despite the millions in funding he had helped secure for that purpose through PAHPA.  But despite his longtime interest in bio-hazard threats, his expertise on the subject, and his role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr did not warn the public of the government actions he thought might become necessary, like he did at the luncheon on Feb. 27.  
 
Burr’s office did not directly respond to a list of questions sent by NPR.  
 
His spokesperson Caitlin Carroll provided a statement that stressed Burr’s decades-long interest in public health preparedness.  
 
“Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus,” Carroll wrote. “At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort. Every American should take this threat seriously and should follow the latest guidelines from the CDC and state officials.”  
 
One public health expert told NPR that early warnings about a coming health crisis and its effects could have made a difference just a few weeks ago.  
 
“In the interest of public health, we actually need to involve the public. It’s right there in the name. And being transparent, being as clear as possible is very important,” said Jason Silverstein, who lectures at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.  
 
“The type of language that could have come out there at the end of February saying here’s what we ought to expect could have, you know, not panicked people, but gotten them all together to have to all prepare,” Silverstein added.
 
Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Mar. 19, 2020 Li Wenliang

On March 19, 2020 NPR’s Amy Cheng reported “Chinese Authorities Admit Improper Response To Coronavirus Whistleblower” Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist whose early warnings of the coronavirus earned him a reprimand from Chinese authorities, is finally receiving justice — albeit posthumously. Authorities in the country are apologizing to his family and dropping their reprimand, six weeks after his death from the disease caused by the virus.  Widely known as a whistleblower who spoke up about the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, China, the 34-year-old doctor was initially punished by local authorities. They said he was “spreading rumors” in early January, after he had tried to warn others about the emergence of the novel coronavirus that has now become a global pandemic.  By the time the young doctor died of COVID-19 in early February, the virus had already claimed hundreds of lives. To date, more than 3,000 people have died of the virus in mainland China.  News of his death, coupled with accusations that the government was covering up the outbreak, triggered an avalanche of outrage from a wide cross-section of Chinese society. In response to popular demand, the central government dispatched investigators two days later to look into the circumstances surrounding his police reprimand and death.  

Beijing’s investigators now conclude that Wuhan authorities acted “inadequately” when they reprimanded the late doctor and failed to follow “proper law enforcement procedure.” They did not, however, explain what the correct response should be.  Investigators also characterized his efforts to sound the alarm on the coronavirus as a positive influence that aided in raising awareness.  Shortly after the official findings were published, Wuhan police announced that the two officers responsible for improperly reprimanding Li have been disciplined.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved. 

Mar. 18, 2020 Food Supply THreatened

March 18, 2020 NPR’s Dan Charles reported “COVID-19 Threatens Food Supply Chain As Farms Worry About Workers Falling Ill”. As Americans scattered to the privacy of their homes this week to avoid spreading the coronavirus, the opposite scene was playing out in the Mexican city of Monterrey.  A thousand or more young men arrived in the city, as they do most weeks of the year, filling up the cheap hotels, standing in long lines at the U.S. Consulate to pick up special H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers, then gathering in a big park to board buses bound for farms in the United States.  

“I spoke with people going to North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi,” says Justin Flores, vice president of the AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, who was in Monterrey for meetings. “[They were] headed to destinations all over the country to provide really important labor that supports the backbone of our economy, which is the agricultural industry.”  About 250,000 workers came to the U.S. on H-2A visas last year, the majority of them from Mexico. They’ve become an increasingly important piece of America’s food industry.  

Late in the day on Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City announced that it is suspending nonemergency visa appointments because of concerns for the health of its employees and visitors.  At the same time, though, the embassy notified farm employers that many — perhaps most — of these farm workers still can get their visas, because they participated in the program last year and don’t require an in-person appointment at the consulate.  

Ryan Ogburn, visa director at wafla, which helps farms manage the flow of H-2A workers in the Pacific Northwest, says that 85-90% of their workers will qualify for this exemption. Meanwhile, influential farm organizations in the U.S. are pushing the Trump administration to ease the entry of more guest workers.  The continuing availability of agricultural workers illustrates the paradox of America’s food supply in the age of COVID-19.  

One end of the food supply chain has been completely upended as restaurants go dark and consumers prowl half-empty aisles of supermarkets. Food producers, though, are operating almost as normal — at least for now.  Slaughterhouses, dairies and vegetable producers say that they are open for business, ready to feed the nation. Howard Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council, wrote in a statement that “telecommuting is not an option for us; we are reporting for work as always.”  

Food distributors and wholesalers in the middle of that supply chain, meanwhile, are trying to perform logistical miracles, redirecting truckloads of food from shuttered businesses toward places where people now crave it — mainly grocery stores.  “There’s nothing ‘as usual’ anymore,” says Mark Levin, CEO of M. Levin and Co., a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Philadelphia. Levin normally sells lots of bananas to schools and restaurants, and “unfortunately, all those people, last minute, say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t use this fruit. You must take it back, or don’t deliver it.’ And that’s tough, because we’ve already got it in the system ripening and ready to sell,” Levin says.  Can he send those bananas instead to grocery stores that are out of stock? “Yes, but at a reduced price,” Levin says.  The problem, Levin says, is that different customers want slightly different things. Schools and other institutions buy boxes of loose “petite” bananas, with 150 bananas in a box. “Grocery stores don’t want those,” he says.  

At least people are still eating. Drinking is a different story.  “We’re losing a lot of occasions, regular things like birthday parties or weddings, where people normally get together,” says Stephen Rannekleiv, who follows the beverage sector for RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness.  

“For the beverage world, those are occasions for consumption. We’re losing some of those,” Rannekleiv says. He notes that in China, overall demand for alcoholic beverages has fallen by about 10% during the coronavirus crisis.  There’s an even bigger worry hanging over the food industry: The prospect of workers testing positive for COVID-19.  When it happens, the response likely will go beyond sending that individual home — although that alone can be catastrophic to field workers who are paid, in part, based on their production. 

This week, the United Farm Workers union called on employers to expand paid sick leave for workers.  Vegetable growers are considering policies that would require quarantine for everyone who worked in close proximity to the infected person. That could easily include two dozen or more people. Workers on H-2A visas often live together, sharing kitchens and bedrooms and traveling together on buses. The virus could spread quickly, and measures to stop it will be extremely costly.  According to Steve Alameda, a vegetable grower in Yuma, Ariz., losing an entire 30-person work crew overnight will be extremely disruptive. Farmworkers already are hard to find, and replacing so many people immediately could prove impossible.  

“We’ve got enough disruption,” Alameda says. “We don’t need to disrupt our food supply, that would be really catastrophic.”

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

mar. 17, 2020 Deaths Of DEspair

On March 17, 2020 NPR’s Jim Zarroli  reported “‘Deaths Of Despair’ Examines The Steady Erosion Of U.S. Working-Class Life” The 20th century was an era of rapid and unprecedented improvement in public health all over the world.  

In the United States alone, a person born in 1900 could expect to live to 49; by 2000, that person’s great grandchildren were likely to see their 77th birthdays. Reaching old age is no longer an anomaly, and that is true for people of every race, ethnicity and social class.  

Around 2000, however, came a stark and dramatic reversal of that trend, one documented in the disturbing book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Economics. For white Americans between 45 and 54, average life expectancy was no longer increasing; in fact, it was actually declining — in a pattern seen almost nowhere else on Earth. If increases in life expectancy had continued at the same rate, some 600,000 more Americans would now be alive, Case and Deaton write.

This reversal has come almost entirely among white Americans without a four-year college degree, who make up 38 percent of the U.S. working-age population. “Something is making life worse, especially for less educated whites,” Case and Deaton write.  

Much of the decline stems from higher rates of suicide, opioid overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses — the “deaths of despair” that Case and Deaton refer to. Americans “are drinking themselves to death, or poisoning themselves with drugs, or shooting or hanging themselves.”

They’re also no longer making progress against heart disease, due to higher rates of obesity and tobacco use. While U.S. smoking rates have declined precipitously over the years, they remain stubbornly high in states such as Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee. Smoking rates are actually rising among middle-aged white women who lack a Bachelor’s degree.  The America that Case and Deaton write about is an intensely class-bound place, where the less-educated experience higher rates of severe mental disease, have more trouble with the “instrumental activities of daily life,” such as walking, and report more pain. Chronic pain is now more common among the middle-aged than the elderly, they write.  

By contrast, Americans with a Bachelor’s degree live longer, enjoy more stable families, report happier lives and abuse opioids and alcohol less often. They even vote more. Once, suicide was more common among the educated; today, the reverse is true.  

Case and Deaton don’t shy away from the likely cause of this public-health scandal: The collapse of the steady, decently paid manufacturing jobs that once gave meaning and purpose to working-class life. 

They write:  “Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. It is the loss of meaning, of dignity, of pride, and of self-respect that comes with the loss of marriage and of community that brings on despair, not just or even primarily the loss of money.” 

Men without good jobs make lousy husbands and poor fathers. “They may have children from a series of relationships, some or none of whom they know and some of whom are living with other men. Such fractured and fragile relationships bring little daily joy or comfort and do little to assure middle-aged men that they are living a good life,” Case and Deaton write.  

In such a world, marriages break up, and social bonds fray. 

The institutions that once provided ballast to working-class life — unions and mainstream churches — have proven largely ineffectual against the tectonic forces now reshaping the global economy.  

Case and Deaton do a great job making the case that something has gone grievously wrong. The solutions they propose, such as repairing the U.S. safety net and overhauling the broken U.S. health-care system, are worthy ones, but somehow don’t feel up to addressing the gargantuan social problems they spell out so well.  

Something more will be needed to address the steady erosion of working-class life, with all the heartbreak and despair it’s engendered.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Mar. 15, 2020 Blumbers

Corona Virus Covid-19

On December 21, 2018 seventeen-year-old Avi Schiffmann in Seattle started a site about the coronavirus in China called nCoV2019.live. The site tracked deaths and numbers of cases locally and globally. It talked about the number of people who have recovered. “I basically just wrote a script that every minute or so just goes to those websites and downloads the latest information.”

On January 10, 2020 NPR’s Pien Huang reported “CDC to Screen For New Strain Of Coronavirus”. Originally called 2019-nCoV, it was spreading in the Hubei province city of Wuhan. More than forty people were diagnosed with mysterious viral lung infections since early December. It may have originally spread from bats to an unknown animal and then to humans. Experts think the infection probably came from a seafood and live animal market with people touching or eating animals that carry the virus. These individuals then developed viral symptoms including fever, breathing issues and lesions on their lungs. Approximately two percent of mainly older humans die from it.

The coronavirus family includes six other strains known to infect humans. Four of those strains cause common colds, and two (SARS and MERS) have caused major pandemics. All share a signature look under a strong microscope: a circle with spikes coming off the surface, ending with small blobs — hence the “corona.” “Kind of looks like the peaks of a crown,” says Carolyn Machamer, a virologist and cell biologist at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

On January 24, 2020 NPR’s Emily Vaughan reported “Coronavirus 101: What We Do — And Don’t — Know About The Outbreak Of COVID-19” The corona virus called 2019 novel coronavirus was renamed COVID-19 by the United Nations World Health Organization. 

The virus can spread from human to human. Early symptoms include fever and dry cough. Some people also experience fatigue, headaches and, less frequently, diarrhea. Shortness of breath can develop in about 5 days. Symptoms in severe cases include pneumonia (which makes it harder to breathe) and kidney failure. People over age 40 who died had significant underlying conditions” like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Some eighty percent of cases were mild with twenty percent of more severe cases requiring hospitalization. Two percent could be fatal.

Chinese government officials temporarily shut down transportation to and from Wuhan by bus, subway, ferry, airplane and train, according to Chinese state media. At least twelve other Chinese cities have limited travel as well. The travel ban came just days before the biggest holiday on the Chinese calendar, the Lunar New Year. Despite that COVID-19 spread from China to  the U.S., Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. 

On Mar. 4, 2020 NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith reported “The Corona Bump” “Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the global economy and on businesses, disrupting manufacturing all over the world.”

That same day NPR’s Bill Chappell reported “Coronavirus Deaths In Washington State And California, Where Gov. Declares Emergency” The most recent death is connected to a cruise ship that traveled from the U.S. to Mexico. Officials in Placer County, Calif., announced that an elderly resident has become the first person to die from the illness in California. The patient, who was not identified, had underlying health conditions, according to the county. The patient tested positive for the coronavirus illness on March 3, 2020 and “was likely exposed during international travel from Feb. 11-21 on a Princess cruise ship that departed from San Francisco to Mexico.”

On Mar. 6, 2020 NPR’s Martin Kaste reported “U.S. Hospitals Prepare For A COVID-19 Wave” The  World Health Organization’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “We’re concerned that some countries have either not taken this seriously enough or have decided there is nothing they can do. … This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.” 

Large numbers of people may overwhelm hospitals. The American Hospital Association says the total number of Intensive Care Unit beds is about 65,000. Richard Waldhorn is a pulmonary critical care physician who’s studied hospital preparedness for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He says government planning assumptions based on past flu pandemics suggest a surge in demand for intensive care that could range somewhere between 200,000 thousand and 2.9 million patients.

Around the world, people suspected of being infected were being quarantined on ships, military bases and their own homes for at least two weeks. The public was advised to practice social distancing by staying at least six feet apart.  Sporting events and other large gatherings like conventions are being cancelled and hurting local economies. People are losing their jobs and causing a downturn.

Mar. 6, 2020 NPR Kelsey Snell, Domenico Montanaro, Scott Horsley, and Asma Khalid reported “Stock Market Slide Could Reshape Election; Biden Faces Test In South Carolina Primary” the stock markets around the world began to fall thousands of points because of disruption by COVID-19.

On March 9, 2020 MSNBC’s Steve Benen reported “Trump struggles to explain why he disbanded his global health team”. “It was two years ago when Trump ordered the shutdown of the White House National Security Council’s entire global health security unit. NBC News had a good report on this recently, noting that the president’s decision “to downsize the White House national security staff — and eliminate jobs addressing global pandemics — is likely to hamper the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus.”

On March 11, 2020 NPR’s Jason Beaubien reported COVID-19 Is Officially A Pandemic, Declares World Health Organization. The head of the WHO Tedros, Adhanom Ghebreyesus, today he said that the WHO is making this designation because they expect that things are going to get worse.

On Mar. 13, 2020 NPR’s Avie Schneider reported US President Donald Trump belatedly declared a state emergency. Stock markets fell around the world. Trading was halted as the Dow plunged 2300 points. The bull market became a bear market. “Just on Monday, the stock market had its worst drop since 2008 amid fears that the growing spread of coronavirus would push the global economy into recession.”

On Mar. 14, 2020 NPR’s Maria Godoy reported “Flattening A Pandemic’s Curve: Why Staying Home Now Can Save Lives”. As the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S., more and more businesses are sending employees off to work from home. Public schools are closing, universities are holding classes online, major events are getting canceled and cultural institutions are shutting their doors. Even Disney World and Disneyland closed. The disruption of daily life for many Americans is real and significant — but so are the potential life-saving benefits of isolation.

It’s all part of an effort to do what epidemiologists call flattening the curve of the pandemic. The idea is to increase social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus, so that you don’t get a huge spike in the number of people getting sick all at once. If that were to happen, there wouldn’t be enough hospital beds or mechanical ventilators for everyone who needs them, and the U.S. hospital system would be overwhelmed. That’s already happening in Italy.

Hope all this helps figure out what happened.

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

Mar. 8, 2020 Blumbers

Tightrope

On January 14, 2020 Michael Schaub of the New York Times reviewed Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about the destruction of the working poor. “Kristof and WuDunn, a married couple, follow several of Kristof’s ex-schoolmates with whom he grew up near Yamhill, Ore. “About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies,” they write, saying the fates of Kristof’s friends led them to examine “how our country could have let tens of millions of people suffer an excruciating loss of jobs, dignity, lives, hopes and children, and how we can recover.” “They examine a host of issues, including unemployment, health care, substance use disorder and the prison system. The authors offer a host of proposed solutions, including the expansion of social programs, treatment instead of prison for drug offenders, universal health care and more early-childhood programs. The book ends, helpfully, with an appendix listing suggestions for how people can make a difference in their own communities: volunteering at a homeless shelter, for example, and boycotting companies that don’t pay their employees a living wage.”

Copyright 2020 DJ Cline All rights reserved.