Bear expert: flooded dens a threat to bears, not people

Brandon Wade | AP | BDN
File photo of a black bear that was relocated to an animal sanctuary in Texas, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.
By Callie Ferguson • 

The bear that mauled a puppy in Dedham last week apparently was one of several forced from its den because January was unusually rainy, according to Maine bear experts.

The bears were flooded out of their winter hibernation spots, said Jennifer Vashon, the biologist who oversees the state’s bear program within the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Last week’s bear-human conflict was the first such weather-related encounter that Vashon can recall. But, she said, having more bears become active early in the year does not put Mainers at much of a risk of running into one of them.

The bear versus dog tangle likely occurred because the dog disturbed a young bear that had recently relocated near a busy roadway and hadn’t fallen back into a deep hibernation, Game Warden Shannon Fish said.

Vashon agreed that the scuffle was a “freak coincidence.”

“I don’t see any reason that the weather is going to cause an increase in encounters between bears and people,” she said.

Heavy flooding from rain occurred earlier than usual, Vashon said. But if early-winter flooding becomes the norm because of climate change, it’s bears that will have to adapt, not people. Bears would gradually become more likely to establish their dens on higher ground, she said.

Last week’s mauling occured when 29-year-old Dustin Gray and his puppy, Clover, unwittingly stumbled upon a bear den in the woods just off of Route 1A in Dedham. Gray said he fought the bear off. Clover is now recovering from puncture wounds.

Near the place the conflict occurred, Fish found a small cave that looked like it had briefly housed a small bear. That led him to conclude the bear had recently moved out of a flooded den.

The National Weather Service does not record rainfall totals for Dedham, but Bangor received 5.53 inches in January, nearly double the its average for the first month of the year. That rain, combined with snow melt, caused widespread flooding, according to NWS meteorologist Mark Bloomer.

Vashon’s colleague, biologist Randy Cross, checked on five dens in a research area affected by the flooding and found that the bears in four dens had already left, she said.

When their dens flood, bears don’t roam around looking for food — or people, whom they tend to shy away from. Instead, they try to find somewhere nearby to resume hibernation, she said.

But, usually, that happens in rainy March — not January. And Vashon said that early-winter flooding could endanger newborn bears.

Cubs are born in January and cannot easily withstand flooding because they are tiny, hairless and vulnerable, she said. But by March cubs are five-pound “furballs” better equipped to cope, she said.

Vashon won’t know until the spring, when the state checks its cub counts, if last month’s heavy rains cost the lives of any newborns, she said.

“But this one year, there’s probably no reason to be concerned,” she said.

Climate change has made January rains more common, a trend that is likely to continue, according to Sean Birkel, a University of Maine climatologist.

But, Vashon said, that just means mother bears will seek out higher ground.

“Bears learn,” she said.


How to Read Between the Lines When Scott Pruitt Talks About Climate Science

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggested this week that climate change might not be a danger for humanity.

During an interview Tuesday with KSNV television of Las Vegas, Mr. Pruitt said that rising global temperatures are “not necessarily a bad thing” and that “humans have flourished’’ during times of warming trends. His comments represent a new wrinkle in Mr. Pruitt’s history of questioning the established science of climate change.

At the E.P.A., Mr. Pruitt has championed the elimination of policies intended to mitigate climate change. He also has long expressed doubt about the role of humans in rising global temperatures, despite the scientific consensus that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change.

His recent comments go a step beyond some of his previously stated views, some scientists say.

“I do think how Mr. Pruitt talks about climate tells us something important about how folks on the right view climate,” said Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that advocates conservative solutions to climate change. Mr. Majkut cited in particular the search for what he referred to as “counter-narratives.”

Here is a selection of Mr. Pruitt’s comments on climate science:

Jan. 18, 2017: Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation hearing

Senator Bernie Sanders: 97 percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change. You disagree with that?

Mr. Pruitt: I believe the ability to measure, with precision, the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it.

During his first appearance before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2017, as part of his confirmation hearing to be the head of the E.P.A., Mr. Pruitt walked a fine line on the subject. The climate is warming, he told lawmakers. But he also said, inaccurately, that the extent to which humans are responsible is not known.

When pressed by Senator Sanders, a Vermont independent, to offer his view on what is causing the climate to change, Mr. Pruitt responded, “My personal opinion is immaterial to the job.” 

March 9, 2017: Interview with CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box’

CNBC: Do you believe that it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate? Do you believe that?

Mr. Pruitt: “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the review and the analysis.”

The Squawk Box appearance offers one of Mr. Pruitt’s most definitive denials of established climate science, which holds that human activity is primarily responsible for the rise in carbon dioxide emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the top climate-science body at the United Nations, calls carbon dioxide the biggest heat-trapping force and says that it is responsible for about 33 times more added warming than natural causes.

Mr. Majkut of the Niskanen Center pointed out that some conservatives mistrust authoritative groups like the I.P.C.C., believing they have been “captured by environmental ideology.” By casting doubt on established science, Mr. Pruitt’s words reflect that skepticism, Mr. Majkut said.

A few months later, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Pruitt shifted his stance a bit, acknowledging the role of carbon dioxide as a cause of climate change.

June 4, 2017: Interview with ‘Meet the Press’

Chuck Todd, speaking of climate change: Do you believe that CO2 is the primary cause?

Mr. Pruitt: CO2 contributes to climate change, much like — Methane actually is more potent.

Mr. Todd: You don’t believe that CO2 is the primary cause.

Mr. Pruitt: No, no. I didn’t say that. I said it’s a cause.

Mr. Todd: Primary?

Mr. Pruitt: It’s a cause of many. It’s a cause like methane and water vapor and the rest.

Mr. Pruitt’s evolving statements on climate science represent a form of “political communication,” as opposed to an effort to discuss scientific findings, said Nicole Lee, an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State University who focuses on how scientists convey the complexity of climate change to the public. “It’s about not wanting to move the conversation to what to do about climate change,” she said.

In late 2017, Mr. Pruitt spoke on the television show “Fox & Friends,” promoting a plan to hold televised debates on climate change science. (Planning for the debates, called “red team-blue team” exercises, is still in the works, he said recently.) In his televised remarks, Mr. Pruitt raised the idea that even if temperatures are rising, it might not be a bad thing for humanity.

September 19, 2017: Interview on ‘Fox & Friends’

Mr. Pruitt: “I mean, with this climate change we know certain things. We know the climate’s always changing. We know that humans contribute to it in some way. To what degree, to measure that with precision is very difficult.

But what we don’t know is, are we in a situation where the next essential threat, is it unsustainable with respect to what we see presently? Let’s have a debate about that.”

Mr. Pruitt also maintained in the same interview that it isn’t possible to measure the degree to which human activity contributes to climate change.

That point is refuted by a sweeping climate-change study issued in November by the E.P.A. and other federal agencies. It is “extremely likely,” the report found, that more than half of temperature rise over the past half-century can be attributed to human activity. “There are no alternative explanations.”

January 31, 2018: Senate Environment and Public Works hearing

Mr. Pruitt: “There are questions that we know the answer to, there are questions we don’t know the answer to. For example, what is the ideal surface temperature in the year 2100, is something that many folks have different perspective on.”

That comment, made before a Senate panel, about knowing the “ideal surface temperature in the year 2100,” has become a recurring talking point. Mr. Pruitt has repeated it several times since.

According to the I.P.C.C., if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at their current rate, global temperatures will rise nearly 4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100. The World Bank has found that would mean “a frightening world of increased risks and global instability,” including severe declines in crop yields, the migration of diseases into new regions and significantly rising sea levels.

“Some places will be essentially unlivable,’’ said Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute, a Washington research group. “It’s a tremendously different world.”

When asked to comment on Mr. Pruitt’s statements or to frame his views on climate change, Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., referred to an interview Mr. Pruitt conducted with The New York Times podcast The Daily, where he discussed his position. “Here’s my view on it,” he said in that interview. “There are things we know and there are things we don’t know.”

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Last December, atmospheric scientist Peter Kalmus ruffled some feathers when he called out 25,000 of his colleagues for flying to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.

Being acutely aware of the worsening impacts from anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) — since it was, after all, his job — Kalmus had already made some dramatic changes in his own life to reflect some of the steps he knew the larger culture needed to take.

In 2010 he quantified his own carbon emissions and realized they were dominated by flying: More than three-quarters of his emissions were from flying alone. So, over the next two years he made an effort to fly less, and began to think of his airplane trips within the context of a warming planet.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

“In 2012, I was sitting on a plane — the last flight I’ve taken — and I had this strong, visceral sense that I didn’t belong there, that I didn’t want to continue being part of the problem,” Kalmus told Truthout, speaking for himself (and not on behalf of any institution with which he is affiliated). “Flying felt like a sort of taking from my children. It wasn’t guilt; it was clarity.”

He has not flown again.

And now Kalmus is not alone. He has been joined by a growing number of environmental scientists and academics who are committing to fly less or not at all.

Flying Less

Flying Less, a petition for academics with over 400 signatories, is becoming better known by the day, as is the No-Fly Climate Sci website, where Earth scientists and other academics who don’t fly or fly less are joining together to share their ideas.

Dr. Andreas Heinemeyer is a senior researcher and assistant professor at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, where she works on carbon cycling and ecosystem services in relation to ACD and land use. ​

“Flying felt like a sort of taking from my children. It wasn’t guilt; it was clarity.”

Like Kalmus, her work has impressed upon her the urgency of our global situation. She told Truthout the situation with ACD is “very urgent” and that real changes are long overdue.

“We should have curbed greenhouse gas levels about 20 years ago,” she explained. “We certainly have created the issue in the first place — all our wealth is based on this overuse of resources in connection with fossil fuel and land use impacts on rising greenhouse gases.”

In addition to the need for government action, Heinemeyer feels we are all obliged to do something about it.

“This includes assessing where we overuse resources and waste energy and limit this excess behavior,” she said. “This requires education but also leadership.”

Christoph Küffer is a professor of urban ecology in Zurich, Switzerland, and a member of No-Fly Climate Sci. He studies the ecology of the Anthropocene and ACD’s impacts on mountain ecosystems as well as restoring green infrastructure and biodiversity in cities.

“Obviously, [ACD] is a very urgent issue,” he told Truthout of his reasons for joining the group. “It affects foremost the weakest, and a small minority of us uses the vast majority of resources.”

Kalmus told Truthout he believes ACD is a far more urgent situation than the average person understands. He explained how it is affecting nearly every aspect of life on Earth.

“It threatens our homes, our livelihoods, our food supply, our geopolitical stability,” he said. “It’s happening faster than we expected. In the scientific community, we’ve had this unfortunate tendency to underestimate rates of change due to under-modeling complex processes such as permafrost methane release and ice sheet disintegration.”

He added that ACD is long-lasting because CO2 will stay in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and the injury to biodiversity will take millions of years to heal.

Kalmus believes it is time for us all to take a step back and think seriously about what we actually need. Do we really need to fly halfway around the world in a matter of hours?

“Or are things like a healthy biosphere, stable climate and reliable food system more important?” he asked. “Is a carbon-rich lifestyle for an elite few worth hundreds of millions of climate refugees tomorrow, and disruption for tens of thousands or even millions of years?”

Kalmus believes that while wind and solar energy are obviously also part of the solution, he does not see the prospect of developing renewables as enough of a fix on its own. Hence, he is taking action to spread consciousness about how we all live.

He told Truthout that his own process of reducing his emissions has been surprisingly fun and satisfying. He wrote about it in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

“At work he studies the physics of clouds in a changing climate, and at home he explores how we can address climate change while living happier, more connected lives,” reads his “About the Author” page. “He lives in Altadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, with his wife and two children on 1/10th the fossil fuels of the American average. He enjoys orcharding, beekeeping, and backpacking.”

Is our fast, fossil-fueled lifestyle even that satisfying, or might we be happier if we slowed down a bit?

In our interview, Kalmus said that we all need to be asking ourselves some challenging questions.

“Can we get by with less electricity?” he asked. “If we cut our use in half in the US, we’d only need to build a quarter as much wind, solar and storage to decarbonize our grid. Is our fast, fossil-fueled lifestyle even that satisfying, or might we be happier if we slowed down a bit?”

Kalmus thinks what is required is a cultural shift to bring about the rapid, large-scale change that is our only hope for some mitigation of the impacts of ACD. In addition to institutional action, that cultural shift will require individuals to push the bounds of what society views as normal.

“We need to get to a point where burning fossil fuel is no longer socially acceptable,” he said. “I know we’ll get there, I’m pretty sure I’m on the right side of history here, but the question is how long will it take? Time isn’t on our side.”

Living What They Preach

Küffer, who has managed to go a year without flying, decided to affiliate himself with the No-Fly Climate Sci group because, he says, while humans invented the airplane, the pursuit of “non-flying” is its own form of innovation.

“Innovation happens only if we try, experiment and learn by doing,” he said. “There is a belief in our society that we can have everything together, that we can fly as much as we like and have simultaneously all the benefits of non-flying. But there are opportunity costs. My experience is that non-flying brings lots of benefits.”

Heinemeyer decided to affiliate herself with the no-fly group because of ACD’s impacts on society’s underpinning ecosystem services, including food security.

She does not see her efforts to fly less as an inconvenience.

“It might be an inconvenient truth, but it is quite convenient to stop flying … just do it!” she said. “However, I have to admit that there are some downsides and consequences one has to consider: lower international profile (no conferences over the pond), less involvement in conference attendance overall … and potential issues with promotion.”

However, Heinemeyer has three children and is working to be truthful with them about ACD issues and the urgency of changing their lifestyle, as well as how to do so.

“I feel that I have to live what I preach,” she said.

Kalmus thinks scientists and academics should be taking on the role of “cultural leaders.” He points out that Earth scientists, in particular, have front row seats to multiple, connected Earth system catastrophes unfolding in real time, from dying coral reefs to record-breaking wildfires — and they need to share that perspective with the public.

“We know that this isn’t the ‘new normal.’ It will get steadily worse until we stop burning fossil fuel,” he said. “Doesn’t this knowledge come with some responsibility? Studying climate change isn’t like studying astrophysics: Earth science has revealed a clear and present danger to civilization.”

The scientists behind the no-fly campaigns are not calling for individual change in a vacuum.

Kalmus feels he can’t separate being a scientist from being a concerned, responsible citizen and father. One way to communicate the urgency of the climate emergency, he says, is to live his life like it’s urgent — to model the transition away from fossil fuels.

“I don’t expect every Earth scientist to do this, but I do hope more start to see it this way, because we need all hands on deck,” he said, going on to add that he hopes that as a community, Earth scientists and climate researchers will embrace the seriousness of what their science is telling them. “A good place to start would be to find ways to systematically reduce our flying, like more teleconferencing, more local conferences. Doing this can only enhance our credibility.”

Küffer echoes the belief that “walking the talk” should be part of how credibility is evaluated among scientists and academics.

“As environmental scientists we can’t call upon the world to stop all CO2 emissions within the coming few decades while we ourselves don’t change our habits,” he said. “Maintaining credibility of scientific facts, academia and experts has become a key challenge of the sciences in our time.”

Reflecting on the kind of science that is needed today, Küffer added, “Flying even affects how we do science.”

Heinemeyer wants her colleagues to know that it is indeed possible to fly less, or even to cease flying altogether. Her hope is that her efforts will inspire people. She says she wants to “create a feel for ‘it does matter what I do,’ because simply put, it does — but only if enough of us do it!​”

Too often, Heinemeyer said, people in her research area and institute work on the issue but then ignore the fact that they themselves can also be part of the solution. Many of them refuse to change their own emissions practices.

“Justifying flying by doing good is no good per se, mostly just a simple excuse for not trying alternatives,” she said. “Certainly flying less, if not stop flying, should be part of any research project.”  ​

The scientists behind the no-fly campaigns are not calling for individual change in a vacuum. Kalmus, for example, also points to many ways we can all push for large-scale change, such as voting out those who attack science, and advocating sensible policies such as an annually increasing carbon fee and dividend. However, he also thinks a key tool in the individual toolbox is conspicuous non-consumption: cultural shift through individual change.

“This isn’t a hopeless situation,” he said. “Yes, climate change is here, and it’s a shame we didn’t start dealing with it 10 years ago. I’m not optimistic that we’ll keep global mean surface warming below 2 degrees Celsius. But 3 degrees of warming will be much worse than 2 degrees. And 4 degrees of warming will be much, much worse.”

There are worst-case warming projections that exceed even 4 degrees Celsius, and there are many factors that will continue to drive warming under the current global economic system. However, Kalmus and his colleagues are working to bring their lives in line with Mahatma Ghandi’s code of “being the change” they hope to see in the world. It is a heartfelt and dignified stance in a time of environmental uncertainty, violence and strife.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Here’s why 60 percent of the world’s saiga antelopes were wiped out in 2015

A burial ground for dead saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan, in 2015.
 Photo: courtesy of the Joint saiga health monitoring team in Kazakhstan (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, Kazakhstan, Biosafety Institute, Gvardeskiy RK, Royal Veterinary College, London, UK)

In May 2015, researchers in central Kazakhstan witnessed something really strange: thousands of saiga antelopes began acting a bit weird, becoming unbalanced, and then just plopping on the ground within a few hours — dead. Over the course of just three weeks, more than 200,000 saigas died, or about 60 percent of the global population.

“I had never seen anything like it,” says Richard Kock, a wildlife veterinarian and professor at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK. “It was very concerning because it was so unnatural, outside of the realm of my experience.”

Dead saiga antelopes in the steppes of Kazakhstan, in 2015.
 Photo: courtesy of the Joint saiga health monitoring team in Kazakhstan (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, Kazakhstan, Biosafety Institute, Gvardeskiy RK, Royal Veterinary College, London, UK)

The saiga antelopes were later found to be infected with a bacterium that causes blood poisoning and internal bleeding, or hemorrhagic septicemia. Now, a new study shows that unusually wet and hot weather played a key role in causing the outbreak. How exactly that happened, though, remains a bit of a mystery.

Researchers analyzed historical data related to other mass die-offs of saigas from the 1980s, and found that when the outbreaks occurred, it was warmer and more humid than normal, according to a new study published today in Science Advances. That doesn’t bode well for the future of this critically endangered species. A warmer world could make such outbreaks more likely, and if that happens, the saiga antelopes could go extinct.

Saiga antelopes, whose bulbous noses recall the tauntaun creatures in Star Wars, live in the grasslands of central Asia, from Hungary all the way across Mongolia. They’ve been around for thousands of years, since the time of the mammoths, but they’re now at risk of disappearing because of hunting and habitat loss. “Extinctions took out other animals, but the saiga persisted through modern time,” says Kock, one of the authors of the study. With thick furs and unusual noses that warm up cold air before it gets to the lungs, the animals are highly adapted to extreme environments, and being able to survive harsh winters.

A saiga calf.
 Photo: courtesy of the Joint saiga health monitoring team in Kazakhstan (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, Kazakhstan, Biosafety Institute, Gvardeskiy RK, Royal Veterinary College, London, UK)

In 2015, as the antelopes got together in the spring to give birth, a sudden disease outbreak wiped out an enormous number of saigas in central Kazakhstan, almost 90 percent of the local population. Such die-offs aren’t unheard of when it comes to mammals called ungulates: the Mongolian gazelle, wildebeest, and white-tailed deer have all experienced mass deaths. But what happened in 2015 was unprecedented, says Kock. In affected herds, 100 percent of animals deceased — an insanely high percentage. “If everything dies, the bacteria doesn’t benefit, the host doesn’t benefit. It doesn’t make biological sense,” Kock tells The Verge.

Conservation scientist Eleanor Jane Milner-Gulland, who’s worked with saiga antelopes for 25 years, says the die-off was traumatic for field biologists. She remembers seeing photos of the lifeless animals spread over the steppes of Kazakhstan: “It was horrible,” Milner-Gulland says. The antelopes had succumbed to a bacterium called Pasteurella multocida, which lives in their tonsils. But somehow, the bacteria seemed to have proliferated to a point where the animals got sick and died.

To understand whether environmental factors were to blame, Kock, Milner-Gulland, and their colleagues analyzed troves of historical data on saiga antelopes, including satellite images and weather records. The animals had died en masse before, with symptoms similar to the 2015 event. In 1981, 70,000 saigas went heels up, or about 15 percent of the population in the Kazakh region of Betpak-Dala. In 1988, 270,000 died, or 73 percent of the regional population. The data showed that in the days leading up to all outbreaks, the humidity was higher than usual, over 80 percent, and the average minimum daily temperatures were also higher than normal, particularly in 2015.

Dead saigas.
 Photo: courtesy of the Joint saiga health monitoring team in Kazakhstan (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, Kazakhstan, Biosafety Institute, Gvardeskiy RK, Royal Veterinary College, London, UK)

How exactly those conditions sparked the outbreak isn’t clear, Kock says. It could be that bacteria spread when it’s hot and wet, but to be sure, more research is needed. It’s also not clear whether climate change can be blamed for the 2015 outbreak, according to Kock. Climate models aren’t precise enough to determine whether changes in climate are affecting weather in a very specific region, but the trend is obviously pointing toward the world becoming a hotter place — and that’s concerning.

Global temperatures have already increased by roughly 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit (0.85 degrees Celsius) since 1880, and saiga antelopes are already being affected, Milner-Gulland tells The Verge. In the last 40 years, the areas where the animals go to give birth have already shifted north. And since there seems to be a connection between weather and the outbreaks, more die-offs are expected in the future, Kock says. “The question is, will it cause extinction?” he says. “I think that’s a risk.”

One way to protect saigas is to make sure their populations are strong and healthy, so that if there is an outbreak, more animals can survive. That means limiting poaching, and giving the antelopes enough space to migrate across the grasslands. But saigas are also “really good at recovering,” Milner-Gulland says, and their populations can bounce back quickly: females can have babies when they’re only one year old, and newborns are large enough that they can run and migrate quickly.

So, for these mythological-looking creatures, there’s hope for survival.

Saving the world with carbon dioxide removal

 January 8 at 12:29 PM

Steam billows from the chimney of a coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. Jan. 20, 2015. (Jim Cole/AP)

Peter Wadhams is professor of ocean physics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, U.K.

CAMBRIDGE — Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as the countries of the world committed themselves to do under the Paris climate accord, is impossible without removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which set the Paris goals, concedes this. But the panel has neglected to suggest how to do it.

If we want to survive climate change, we must double down in research manpower and dollars to find and improve technology to remove carbon dioxide — or at least reduce its effects on the climate. We now emit 41 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already high enough to bring about a warming of more than 2 degrees after it has worked its way through the climate system, so if we want to save the Paris accord, we must either reduce our emissions to zero, which is not yet possible, or combine a significant emissions reduction with the physical removal of about 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year indefinitely.

As I outline in my book, “A Farewell to Ice,” this is because we have a carbon dioxide “stock-flow” problem: temperature rise is closely associated with the level of the gas in the atmosphere (the stock), but we are only able to control the rate at which new gas is emitted or removed (the flow). Carbon dioxide, unlike methane, persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, so even if we reduce our emission rate, the level of the gas will keep going up. At the moment, measurements show that this carbon level increase is exponential — it is accelerating.

Currently, the best way to save our future is to remove carbon dioxide through direct air capture, a process that involves pumping air through a system that removes carbon dioxide and either liquefies it and stores it or chemically turns it into a substance either inert or useful. Enterprising researchers have already developed systems that work by passing air through anion-exchange resinsthat contain hydroxide or carbonate groups that when dry, absorb carbon dioxide and release it when moist. The extracted carbon dioxide can then be compressed, stored in liquid form and deposited underground using carbon capture and storage technologies.

The challenge here is to bring the cost of this process to below $40 per ton of carbon removed, since this is the estimated cost to the planet of our emissions. At the moment, most methods cost more than $100 per ton, but there are dramatic developments which promise great improvement. Three companies have opened pilot plants — Global Thermostat (United States), Carbon Engineering (Canada) and Climeworks (Switzerland).

Climeworks is the trendsetter. After building a small plant which fed absorbed carbon dioxide into a greenhouse, they have opened a small-scale commercial plant in Iceland. This is aimed to remove 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year and pump the carbon dioxide, with water, down into basalt rocks underground, using Iceland’s abundant geothermal power as a source of energy. Here the carbon dioxide is literally turned to stone — it mineralizes rapidly because of the type of rock and the pressure. The carbon dioxide, turned to stone, is out of the planet’s energy system for millions of years. This is an enormous breakthrough.

Even in Houston, the home of the oil industry, climate innovation is taking place. In October, using an approach called the Allam cycle, a company called NET Power opened a plant that burns natural gas to produce power, but it captures all the carbon dioxide produced because the carbon dioxide is itself the working fluid — a new concept. This is not carbon drawdown but is a totally renewable energy source based on a fossil fuel.

In theory, cooling air so as to liquefy its carbon dioxide content could also be used to remove it. This could involve setting up plants on high polar plateaus such as Antarctica or Greenland but has yet to be investigated.

A compelling criticism of carbon removal is that it discourages us from even trying to reduce our carbon dioxide emission levels and instead shifts our focus to unproven “emit now, remove later” strategies. It doesn’t help that the unfortunate reality is that as a global population, especially in the West, we are reluctant to give up the comforts and conveniences of a fossil fuel world. Climate change will not wait for us to become more enlightened.

Effective and impactful carbon dioxide removal operations will need to be in place by around 2020. To keep global temperature rise within acceptable limits, we’ll need to remove half the current human emissions, which means extracting about 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, indefinitely. If we can manage this, we can save our society and our children’s futures. After all, if carbon dioxide is the chief cause of climate change, its removal would be our salvation.

This is an exciting time. The Iceland and Houston plants show us that man’s ingenuity, when turned loose on the problem of getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, can achieve success and maybe save the world from the plight into which our misapplied technology of the past has cast us. We just need to spend more — a lot more — on helping this process along. If we don’t, then in 20 or 30 years, the world will be a different and much nastier place than it is now.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

It’s Colder in Florida Than Alaska: Climate Disruption Hits Home With a Chill

Friday, January 05, 2018By Dahr JamailTruthout | Report

A man walks on the snow covered boardwalk during a snow storm on January 4, 2018 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A 'bomb cyclone' winter storm has caused every East Coast state, from Maine to Florida, to declare at least one weather advisory, winter storm watch, winter storm warning or blizzard warning. (Photo: Mark Makela / Getty Images)A man walks on the snow-covered boardwalk during a snowstorm on January 4, 2018, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A “bomb cyclone” winter storm has caused every East Coast state from Maine to Florida to declare at least one weather advisory, winter storm watch, winter storm warning or blizzard warning. (Photo: Mark Makela / Getty Images)

On January 2, it was colder in Jacksonville, Florida (38 degrees) than it was in Anchorage, Alaska (44 degrees, which tied a record high for that city).

What is wrong with this picture, in addition to the obvious?

Since December 27, at least a dozen people have died from Arctic-cold temperatures that have covered much of the United States, as wind-chill and freezing advisories were issued by the National Weather Service from the border of Canada down to southern Texas, and from Montana all the way across to Maine.

What’s causing the chaotic temperatures? To understand them, we need to look at the globe’s northernmost regions. The Arctic’s extremely cold air is usually trapped within a circular weather pattern known as the Polar Vortex. Prior to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), that weather pattern was intact and strong, which kept the Arctic’s freezing cold air trapped in the Arctic.

But now, thanks to ACD along with natural variability, that weather pattern is changing, and possibly for good.

What It Means

As global weather patterns are becoming increasingly disrupted by ACD, the polar vortex is being weakened, which is allowing the freezing air to flow out of that region and head south across Canada — and as far down as southern Texas this week.

The total area of global tree cover lost last year was equivalent to the area of the country of New Zealand (approximately 73.4 million acres). This was a staggering 51 percent increase over the previous year’s loss. The University of Maryland study that provided this data cited ACD-driven forest fires and deforestation as the two leading causes, and noted that the wildfires were responsible for the massive spike in coverage loss compared to the previous year.

That phenomenon used to be extremely rare, but is becoming increasingly common as ACD impacts intensify. What is also rare is how long this intense cold snap across the US is lasting — 10 days now and counting.

On Tuesday, for example, Boston tied its seven-day record for the most consecutive days at or below 20 degrees. Meanwhile, during the last week of December more than 1,600 cold temperature records were either tied or broken across the US, making it the second coldest week on record for the country.

As cold as it has been throughout many of the 48 contiguous states, Alaska and other parts of the Arctic are seeing record-warm temperatures.

In addition to the January 2 record in Anchorage, temperatures across the Arctic on that same day were more than 6 degrees warmer than normal.

study published by the American Meteorological Society in September 2017 found that, since 1990, the polar vortex has weakened and meandered more than it had before. The study also reported that the weakening of the vortex was most likely being set in motion by a rapidly warming and melting Arctic region, which was resulting in colder winters across Europe — and occasionally the US.

Danger Compounded by Trump’s Denialism

On December 28, President Donald Trump tweeted:

In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!

Jason Furtado, a University of Oklahoma meteorology professor, told the Associated Press that it is important not to confuse weather with climate. Weather is something that occurs over a period of a few weeks or less in one region, whereas climate occurs over a period of years or decades and is global.

“A few cold days doesn’t disprove climate change,” Furtado said. “That’s just silly. Just like a couple down days on the stock market doesn’t mean the economy is going into the trash.”

Over the last year, there have been approximately three record high temperatures set across the US for every record low temperature.

Furthermore, the last for years have been the four hottest years ever recorded for the planet.

More than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that ACD is real, and that the prime driver of it is CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions stemming from human activity. Of the less than 3 percent of climate scientists who doubt or dispute that fact, the vast majority have been shown to be funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last 10 years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.

His third book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon.

Dahr Jamail is also the author of the book, The End of Ice, forthcoming from The New Press.

The diet that helps fight climate change

Do we all have to go vegan to save the world?  [Well, yes.]

Ben Houlton spends a lot of time thinking about what’s on your dinner plate.

“If you take a steak and ask the question, ‘What’s been put into making that appear on my plate?’, you can trace it back all the way to the fertilizer that’s used to grow the food and then the grains which are used to feed the animals,” said Houlton.

As director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Davis, Houlton studies how food production affects the environment and creates greenhouse gases. Nearly every step that goes into food production has some impact on global warming, and it adds up: Agriculture and land use is responsible for nearly a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

A lot of people count calories, or try to cut carbs from their diet — the next step could be cutting carbon from your diet. Take that steak on your plate: Eating an average-sized steak for dinner has a comparable carbon footprint to driving about three miles in a standard gas-powered car. Get a large steak with some sides, and you easily double the impact.

“We have to think about the methane that’s being released from animals and rice paddies and areas where we’re growing food. And we have to consider the nitrous oxide gas that’s being produced from the fertilizers we’re feeding to the microbes that live in the soil. And you add all of that together, and you get a better understanding of global climate impacts of our food system,” said Houlton.

Houlton’s work on nitrogen modeling and the often-overlooked climate effects of fertilizers has helped improve global comprehension of just how much our food system impacts global warming, and lets lawmakers craft more targeted and effective agricultural policies.

His research has also crystallized for him that we can’t just wait for better policies and futuristic technology to swoop in and save the day: This is one area where we have the power as individuals to make a significant impact on climate change right now.

“It’s very easy to get depressed, to feel sad about all the changes that are happening and feel like you can’t contribute to the solution,” said Houlton. “Well, here is a shovel-ready opportunity.”

The power of choice

Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral researcher who works with Houlton at UC Davis, said she wishes she had a magic wand that could make everyone understand just how powerful their food choices can be.

“A lot of people feel really helpless when it comes to climate change, like they can’t make a difference,” said Almaraz. “What our research is showing is that your personal decisions really can have a big impact.”

Different foods have vastly different carbon footprints. Swap your steak for fish, for example, and you get an eight-fold reduction in emissions. And if you’re game to switch that to beans or lentils your emissions drop to near zero. It really gets interesting when lots of us start making similar changes.

“What we’re finding is that reducing your meat intake can actually offset the emissions from all of our cars and even double that,” said Almaraz. “It’s not really something that you write into the Paris climate agreement. It’s something we have to decide on every day.”

Eating our way out of climate change

But to make a dent in something on the scale of global warming, where time isn’t on our side, are drastic measures required? Do we all have to give up that steak — or (shudder) bacon — and switch to a vegan diet to save the planet?

While only around six percent of the U.S. identifies as vegan, according to one recent survey, Americans are starting to embrace some vegetarian habits: Per capita beef consumption has been declining since the 1970s, dropping off steeply in the last decade according to USDA data, and the meat alternatives industry is growing rapidly. Even so, the U.S. still has one of the highest per capita meat consumption rates in the world, and meat is deeply ingrained in American culture — in short, we’re not all going vegan anytime soon.

“We’re not saying you should go cold turkey — although eating turkey alone might be a good option, better than eating red meat,” said Houlton. “What we are saying is consider moderating the amount. Maybe, instead of having meat two times a day, have it once a day. If each of us take baby steps, we’ll find that we can go a mile pretty quickly.”

While Houlton’s climate models find that a vegan diet reduces your carbon footprint more than any other dietary choice, a Mediterranean diet is really close.

“Our studies are showing that the Mediterranean diet — which is rich in nuts and beans and has a lot of fish, maybe chicken once a week, maybe red meat only once a month — if everyone were to move toward it, it’s the equivalent of taking about a billion or more cars of pollution out of the planet every year,” said Houlton.

To put that in perspective, Houlton’s models show that global adoption of a Mediterranean diet could help reduce global warming by up to 15 percent by 2050.

The Mediterranean diet has additional benefits. Previous studies have found that a Mediterranean diet can reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Multiple studies have linked the Mediterranean diet to increased overall longevity.

The takeaway, according to Almaraz, is that the focus should be on reduction.

“Eliminating 90 percent of your meat intake is more important than eliminating all of your meat intake,” said Almaraz.

Houlton’s advice is to feel empowered: consumer choice can change trends almost overnight. He also thinks you should feel selfish, but in a good way.

“Put your health first. Be really selfish about your health. Make healthy choices in terms of the food you’re putting into your body and watch the planet repair itself at the same time.”

Watch the video above featuring Ben Houlton and Maya Almaraz to learn more about how simple, everyday food choices can take a bite out of climate change.

Learn more about how the food we eat and the food we waste affects climate change, and what we can do about it, at

New Conservative Argument: Climate Change Is So Awesome, You Guys

Saturday, December 09, 2017By William Rivers Pitt, Truthout | Op-Ed

2017 1209 Pitt(Photo: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images)

In my worst post-apocalyptic imaginings, there is a place in my mind where a ravenous sea has encroached over every surface, ankle to knee to thigh to belly to throat. On a lone and desolate promontory clings one last living human who shrieks into the maelstrom a final defiance even as the pitiless rain clogs his throat: “In the church of climate alarmism, there may be no heresy more dangerous than the idea that the world will benefit from warming.”

His name is Jeff.

Not “may benefit,” mind you. “Will benefit.” The power of positive thinking meets the end of everything. And in conservative circles, many of the denials that climate disruption is really happening are now being seamlessly replaced with guarantees of coming greatness.

It gets better.

“Polar melting may cause dislocation for those who live in low-lying coastal areas, but it will also lead to safe commercial shipping in formerly inhospitable northern seas,” says Jeff Jacoby in his Boston Globe article titled, “There Are Benefits to Climate Change.”

Istanbul. San Francisco. Helsinki. Philadelphia. Dublin. New Orleans. Venice. Perth. Bangkok. Edinburgh. Honolulu. New York. Oslo. Lisbon. Los Angeles. San Diego. Hong Kong. Miami. Tokyo. Sydney. Washington. Copenhagen. Vancouver. Barcelona. Mumbai. Nagoya. Tampa. Shenzen. Guayaquil. Khulna. Palembang. Tampa. Kochi. Abidjan. Boston.

Low-lying coastal areas, all.

Cities, housing hundreds of millions of people, home to countless architectural wonders, each in itself a living history in mortar and stone and stucco and steel, wreathed in treasure and art of infinite value and absolutely, positively not waterproofed … all happy fodder before the prospect of new commercial shipping lanes.

One must ask: Shipping to whom? From where? All the places to park the ships will be underwater. When all those cities fall to the sea, there will be no commerce because civilization itself will be crumbling. In its stead, there will be starving wet survivors on the run to high ground and Jeff Jacoby’s boats happily puttering along plying their wares to people who died below the water line before the good news about climate change could properly cheer them.

“Shifts in climate are like shifts in the economy,” writes Jeff, as if he has seen such seismic shifts before. “They invariably spell good news for some and bad news for others.” According to him, all the new warm weather will keep people from freezing to death, which is a good thing.

Yet Jacoby somehow missed the explosion of diseases that will come with widespread excessive heat. He missed the massive ecological die-offs on land and in the ocean that will be caused by high heat. He missed the crop disasters that will be caused by high heat. He missed the population displacement that will make our current refugee crisis seem like a longer than usual walk in the park by comparison. And then there is the methane bomb waiting to detonate once the northern permafrost finally melts from all this fortunate heat.

“The effects of climate change,” concludes Jacoby, “range from the obvious (lower heating bills) to the subtle (more habitat for moose and endangered sharks). Territory formerly deemed too forbiddingly cold will grow more temperate — and valuable. Delicacies from lobster to blueberries may become more plentiful. Bottom line? Global warming will bring gains as well as losses, upsides no less than downsides. Climate science isn’t a good-and-evil morality tale. Climate discourse shouldn’t be either.”

There it is, folks. The bridge from climate change denial to acceptance, long deemed unpassable, has been traversed by none other than Boston’s own mini-Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Jacoby has dutifully hauled water for every bad conservative idea since the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, but here, he is road-testing what to do when denial and obfuscation are no longer viable tactics. It’s as if he’s deploying an evil version of the “Stages of Grief.” Last comes acceptance … but with a catch.

One can go on only so long denying the obvious before something has to give. Here, Jacoby accepts the premise that climate change is upon us, but rather than face the grim and dangerous reality of it, he chooses instead to look on the bright side. Sure, Republicans colluded with the energy industry for decades to deny the threat of climate change so their friends could get rich and now we’re all going to suffer for it, but blueberries! Heat bills! Lobster, so you can pretend to be rich!

Jacoby and other conservatives  who now accept climate change have opened a window into our future. He and the people he represents will fight as hard as they can to get what they want — which is the loot, always the loot, the loot every single time — until the moment comes when they sound foolish even to themselves. When that happens, they will turn on a dime and begin talking up the advantages to be found in the disasters they have created. Jacoby shows them the way by moving from “it’s not real” to “no big deal” in one sideways shuffle, locating the financial upside — valuable new land! — and managing to sound like a scold all at once.

When the harrowing effects of the GOP tax plan begin bleeding all over Main Street, when the true nature of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is revealed, when the attacks on Medicare and Social Security wreak havoc on the lives of elderly Americans, when all the lies no longer have a place to hide, this will be the new gospel, preached from the promontory by the likes of Jeff and his friends.

God help us all.

Copyright, Truthout

California’s Climate Emergency

In the hills above the Pacific Ocean, the world crossed a terrifying tipping point this week.

As holiday music plays on the radio, temperatures in Southern California have soared into the 80s, and bone-dry winds have fanned a summer-like wildfire outbreak. Southern California is under siege.

As the largest of this week’s fires skipped across California’s famed coastal highway 101 toward the beach, rare snowflakes were falling in Houston, all made possible by a truly extreme weather pattern that’s locked the jet stream into a highly amplified state. It’s difficult to find the words to adequately describe how weird this is. It’s rare that the dissonance of climate change is this visceral.

That one of California’s largest and most destructive wildfires is now burning largely out of control during what should be the peak of the state’s rainy season should shock us into lucidity. It’s December. This shouldn’t be happening.

The Thomas fire is the first wintertime megafire in California history. In a state known for its large fires, this one stands out. At 115,000 acres, it’s already bigger than the city of Atlanta. Hundreds of homes have already been destroyed, and the fire is still just 5 percent contained.

In its first several hours, the Thomas fire grew at a rate of one football field per second, expanding 30-fold, and engulfing entire neighborhoods in the dead of night. Hurricane force winds have produced harrowing conditions for firefighters. Faced with such impossible conditions, in some cases, all they could do is move people to safety, and stand and watch.

“We can’t control it,” firefighter and photographer Stuart Palley told me from a beach in Ventura. “In these situations, you can throw everything you’ve got at it, tanker planes dropping tens of thousands of gallons of flame retardant, thousands of firefighters, hundreds of engines, you can do everything man has in their mechanical toolbox to fight these fires and they’re just going to burn and do whatever the hell they want. We have to learn that.” As we spoke, another wall of flames crested a nearby ridge, reflecting its orange glow off the sea.

The Thomas fire isn’t the only one burning right now. At least six major fires threaten tens of thousands of homes and have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee in recent days. “California fires enter the heart of Los Angeles” read one New York Timesheadline, a statement so dire it could double as a plot synopsis in a nearby Hollywood movie studio. Million-dollar mansions in Bel Air were evacuated, and the 405 freeway, one of L.A.’s busiest, was transformed into a dystopian hellscape during the morning commute. Ralph Terrazas, the Los Angeles fire chief, called the conditions the worst he’s seen in his entire 31-year career. “There will be no ability to fight fires in these kinds of winds,” said Ken Pimlott, the state fire chief. Shortly after these statements, state officials sent an unprecedented push notification to nearly everyone in Southern California, ominously warning millions of people to “stay alert.”

For years, climate scientists have warned us that California was entering a year-round fire regime. For years, climate campaigners have been wondering what it would take to get people to wake up to the urgency of cutting fossil fuel emissions. For years, we’ve been tip-toeing as a civilization towards a point of no return.

That time is now.

The advent of uncontrollable wintertime megafires in California is a turning point in America’s struggle to contain the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Conditions that led to the Thomas fire won’t happen every year, but the fact that they’re happening at all should shock us.

As California-based scientist Faith Kearns writes in Bay Naturemagazine, “The admission that our best efforts may not always be enough opens a small window to shift how we think about disasters.”

The sirens are wailing, the long-feared scenarios are coming true. The era that scientists have warned us about for decades is here. There’s no denying the facts anymore: What’s happening right now in California is a climate emergency.

Historically, the Santa Ana fire season in Southern California peaks in October, at the end of the long summer dry season, just as the first snows of the winter start to appear in the Sierras. With the right conditions, the dense, cold air further inland gets funneled toward the coast, warming and drying as it quickly descends toward the sea, waiting to transform an errant spark into a raging inferno.

These are the Santa Ana winds, and they’ve been happening here for millennia. What’s different now, of course, is there are millions of people living in the area, for all the reasons people want to live in Southern California. The seasons are changing, too. Increasingly, those two facts are becoming incompatible.

There’s a whole series of links between climate change and this week’s fires. Ten years ago, scientists warned of possible lengthening of the Santa Ana fire season, and the data bear that out. Fire season is more than a month longer now, and 13 of the state’s top 20 fires in history have happened since 2000. This year’s “rainy” season has also been suspiciously absent so far, with Los Angeles rainfall 94 percent below normal since October. Right now, the atmosphere over the West Coast is the driest in recorded history. There’s no rain in the forecast for at least the next two weeks – the current fires could last until Christmas. Combine that with more people wanting to live in harm’s way – more than a million more people live in Southern California compared to 2000 – and it’s no wonder wildfire seasons are becoming increasingly catastrophic.

This year was the most expensive wildfire season in U.S. history, but money isn’t really the issue here. It’s the daily terror that fills residents as they look up and see a blood red sky and wonder if their home will make it through the night. It’s the rush on breathing masks as air pollution values spike above the top of the scale. It’s the realization that what you thought was normal, isn’t anymore.

In Houston, Puerto Rico, and Los Angeles, Americans are feeling the urgency of climate change not in weather data and distant news reports, but in their pulse rate.

Climate change is no longer some abstract concept, some line on a graph, some strongly-worded scientific consensus statement. Climate change is terrifying. It’s families fleeing a fire with only a moment’s warning to collect their photo albums. It’s single mothers using an axe to break a hole in the roof of their house as floodwaters rise into the attic of their home in the backyard of the oil industry’s capital city. It’s an entire island destroyed and forgotten, buried in a frenetic news cycle.

new study this week that examines the recent performance of climate models, provides a hint that the ones showing the quickest rise in global temperatures have generally been the most accurate so far. Increasingly, that rise will accelerate, say the models, unless the world institutes a sharp reduction in emissions. Should we continue on a business as usual pathway, the new findings show a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed what was previously considered a worst-case scenario by 2100.

A baby alive today has a good chance of living to the year 2100. The people of the future are real people, you can already meet them. Their climate futures are increasingly tangible. That climate change is now a California emergency doesn’t necessarily fate the region to uninhabitability, it provides an opportunity for a radical rethink. If we bungle this opportunity, all indications are that things can definitely get a lot worse.

Animal agriculture is choking the ​Earth and making us sick. We must act now

Cows at a farm in western Taiwan.
 ‘Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.’ Photograph: David Chang/EPA

Our collective minds are stuck on this idea that talking about food’s environmental impact risks taking something very intimate away from us. In fact it’s just the opposite. Reconsidering how we eat offers us hope, and empowers us with choice over what our future planet will look like. And we can ask our local leaders – from city mayors to school district boards to hospital management – to help, by widening our food options.

On Monday and Tuesday, the city of Chicago is hosting a summit for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy to discuss climate solutions cities can undertake. Strategies to address and lower food’s impact should be front and center.

Animal agriculture is choking the Earth, and the longer we turn a blind eye, the more we limit our ability to nourish ourselves, protect waterways and habitats, and pursue other uses of our precious natural resources. Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.

On top of this, eating too much meat and dairy is making us sick, greatlyincreasing our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several major cancers (including breast, liver and prostate) and obesity. Diets optimal for human health vary, according to David Katz, of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, “but all of them are made up mostly of whole, wholesome plant foods”.

So what gives? Why can’t we see the forest for the bacon? The truth can be hard to swallow: that we simply need less meat and dairy and more plant-based options in our food system if we’re to reach our climate goals.

Still from Avatar.
 ‘The Avatar movie set had plant-based menus.’ Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Everett/Rex Features

This can start with individual action. Five years ago, our family felt hopeless about climate change, and helpless to make meaningful change. But when we connected the dots on animal agriculture’s impact on the environment, coupled with the truth about nutrition, we took heart because it gave us something we could actually do.

To create change at the scale needed, this will take more than individual choice – we need to get climate leaders on board about the impact of food. Cities and counties have used their buying power to transition fleets from diesel to electric, and we need to do the same with how we purchase food. We have done this in our own community, moving the lunch program of Muse School, in Calabasas, California, and the Avatar movie set to plant-based menus. Scaling up initiatives like these can make a big difference: if the US reduced meat consumption by 50%, it’s the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road. We think that’s damn hopeful.

Decision-makers on all levels can make it easier for us to eat better, by expanding access to food options that are good for our health, affordable, and climate-friendly. Nationwide, cities and school districts have adopted food purchasing policies that include environment, health and fair labor standards. The city of Chicago is a recent adopter of this Good Food Purchasing Program, and so the solutions-focus of the summit is the perfect place to discuss how food can move us toward climate goals. In the same breath that we discuss fossil fuels, we should be talking animal ag, or we’re missing a big part of the problem – and a big part of the solution.

Yes, food is inherently personal. It’s the cornerstone of holidays, it fuels high school athletes and long workdays, and it nourishes nursing mothers and growing children. And yes, Americans love meat and cheese. But more than that, we love our majestic national parks, family beach vacations and clean air and water for our children and grandchildren.

As individuals, we can make choices on how to better nourish our families, and as citizens, we can encourage local leaders to make choices that will allow us to enjoy our land and natural resources now and in the future.

 James Cameron is a film-maker and deep-sea explorer. Suzy Amis Cameron is a founder of Muse School and Plant Power Task Force.