January 15 2022

January 15 2022

lithium’s role in Chile’s constitutional convention, the big thaw, climate and historical human crises, whales as a climate solution, Don’t Look Up

In Chile, the worldwide demand for lithium (which Chile has in abundance) has initiated a series of controversies and precipitated a constitutional convention. The New York Times reports that the convention will consider many things: "How should mining be regulated, and what voice should local communities have over mining? Should Chile retain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? How about future generations?" Facing a crippling drought supercharged by climate change, the convention also will decide who owns Chile’s water. The previous constitution, written in 1980 by Pinochet’s people, has produced an economy where mineral-rich areas became known as “sacrifice zones” of environmental degradation. The incoming president finds lithium mining a major issue he must consider.

The New York Times takes a detailed look at the Goro nickel mine in New Caledonia, with which Tesla has recently signed an agreement to purchase a major proportion of the nickel for its car batteries. The company seeks to brand this source as "green nickel", citing major changes in the mining operation that will reduce pollution (including greenhouse-gas emissions). Given the socio-political history of the mine, achieving this admirable and valuable goal will be a great challenge. The article notes that the carbon footprint of electric vehicles is relatively large because of the energy used to mine the metals contained in car batteries.

For those interested in the article in the last edition about migrating "debris lobes" that threaten the Dalton Highway in Alaska, The Big Thaw in Sierra Magazine offers an excellent review of the many ways the thawing ground is impacting infrastructure and life in Alaska. A significant event is the closure of the highway into Denali National Park, where melting land has severely damaged the road. It appears that it will remain closed until a bridge can be constructed (for which the National Park Service will need to find $55 million). Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the country, and in many places the subsurface temperature was just below freezing. So the warming that has already occurred is causing that ground to thaw, leading to significant impacts.

The Guardian has a summary of the climate crisis in 2021. Bill McKibben also recounts the year in climate, noting that there was nothing more remarkable than the extraordinary heat wave that hit southern British Columbia. On June 30th, it was hotter in Lytton, BC, than on any day ever recorded in Florida, Europe or South America. As the New York Times concludes in its editorial, Scenes from a World on Fire, "Despite repeated warnings going back decades, we are not addressing the greatest challenge the planet faces with anything approaching the response it requires… we need to do more."

Yale e360 describes how new geochemical techniques for analyzing ice cores and sediment are allowing the dates of ancient volcanic activity to be determined down to the year or even season. With this information, experts are concluding that the soot and particles from volcanic eruptions were essential drivers of historic human crises. For example, researchers found that 62 of 68 dynastic collapses in Chinese history occurred soon after Northern Hemisphere volcanic eruptions. It has been argued that one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the last 2,500 years — at Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 B.C. — resulted in a decade of forbiddingly cold temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere that caused crop failures, famine, disease and social unrest. This eruption likely "helped trigger the end of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom, and hastened the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, as Rome gave up some trappings of constitutional government to become an absolute monarchy." Some historians note that climate should be considered a contributing cause of these changes, not the only one, and they caution against a "climate determinism" when analyzing human history.

An article in Salon describes how ticks are expanding their range northward as the climate warms, and the frequency of tick-borne disease is increasing. And, in case that isn’t enough, mosquitos are also poised to have a successful few decades! The AP reports on extreme heat in Phoenix, which costs millions now and will be even more expensive in the future. A study by the Nature Conservancy concluded that installing heat-reflecting “cool roofs” on just a third of the structures in the Phoenix metro area could save as much as $280 million annually.

An article in the Atlantic describes a fascinating ecological impact of whaling. By removing whales from the ecosystem (particularly in the Southern Ocean), humans eliminated a major source of fertilizer in the form of whale poop. In particular, the iron that whales deposit in the upper ocean stimulates the growth of phytoplankton — a vital part of the food chain. Researchers suggest that the relatively unproductive ocean waters we observe today used to be much more productive when large whale populations were present. Scientists are suggesting that adding iron to waters where krill and whales still exist could push the sputtering food cycle into higher gear, making it possible for whales to rebound at numbers closer to their historical highs. “We’d be re-wilding a barren land by plowing in compost, and the whole system would recuperate.” Stimulated phytoplankton production would also pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The Washington Post summarizes a recent study concluding that tropical forests that have been cut down can regrow faster than previously thought. This study is the largest of its kind, and is encouraging news for those projecting recovery from deforestation. One analyst noted that a key implication is "the cheapest way to get forest back on the land is to let nature do the work.”

The New York Times reports on the biggest utility-scale coal-to-solar project in the country, where a 230 MW solar-power plant is being installed on the site of an old mountaintop coal mine. The Martiki mine site, with its flat sprawling spaces and proximity to power transmission lines, makes it an attractive site for the plant. In addition, the region has a population of people who need work, and many ex-coal miners will be involved in the construction of the solar facility. The developer calls the project "social impact solar," with a focus on re-training coal industry workers, and has partnered with a nearby community college to create a certificate program so that the miners might be hired elsewhere when the temporary construction jobs are over.

Records with regard to solar power continue to be made with regularity. PV Magazine reports that the world’s largest floating PV (photovoltaic) project has been completed, a 320 MW facility in Dezhou (Shandong province), China. Also in the works are China’s first solar plant in an intertidal zone (a 130 MW facility), and a 2 GW solar facility that will include floating PV, agrivoltaics and solar parks on fishponds. Meanwhile, Greenland has permanently halted all new oil and gas development in the country.

In the Guardian, a climate scientist describes the similarities between humanity’s approach to the climate crisis and the plot of the new movie, Don’t Look Up. In the film, two scientists discover that a large comet is going to hit the Earth. Despite corroboration by independent observers around the world, the news is treated as "too depressing" or "fake news" by a public and media that is concerned only with the latest rock-star romance and silly social conflicts. George Monbiot notes that the film highlights "the structural stupidity to which the media are committed". Meryl Streep portrays a U.S. President concerned only with how things will reflect upon her and her political popularity (hmm… that sounds familiar). While the movie is something of a farce, climate scientist Peter Kalmus notes, "it is also terrifying because it conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day." More climate-scientist reactions can be found on the RealClimate blog, the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists and in another article. The film’s director co-authored an article in the Guardian that describes his motivations for making the film, and how we all need to take action.