Forehead Detective

Goodbye great barrier reef.

A few years ago I was sitting around a large table slowly losing a game of forehead detective. The last 15 minutes of the game was a round of awkward disbelief as clue after clue was dropped and it gradually became obvious that I had never heard of my famous person. The implications were a little shocking. It meant, by the looks, that I had not been near a New Zealand news source for the past month, maybe a little more. Even though I never leave the country.

The name on my forehead was a low-listed National MP. There had been a situation where he shot his mouth off at a Christchurch night club. I think there must have been a court case. I felt embarassment and a little shame while this sunk in. My friends rolled out the details for a while, during which I wondered what I had been attending to while all of this had been happening.

At the end someone noted that prior to the incident John Key probably didn’t know who he was either. That turned it all around in a moment. Everyone knew about him, about his case, because the media had dragged it around for weeks. It was probably a popular story because we’re wired to enjoy watching people getting their comeuppance.

It wasn’t news at all. It was just the way we put some someone in the stocks. Of course I had probably missed some actual news during this time, but I had to wonder whether it mattered. I had been following news but not much of it was local. More podcasts, more books, less radio and no TV.

The shocks kept coming. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef shocked me the most. The world’s largest living organism has existed in its current form for roughly the same amount of time that homo sapiens have existed. And now climate change is killing it. Right now. Emissions have not begun to subside, so this problem is only getting started. This is a very large canary in the coalmine that is our planet. One that can be seen from the moon.

When I talked about this to others I started to get the feeling it didn’t make headlines here. To me, this kind of news ought to have drowned out everything else. Not that other things don’t matter, but that all other things will before long be changed by this one thing. An existential crisis.

Still more shocks. I saw a post on reddit that linked to Mike Hosking reflecting on Trump’s pullout from the Paris accord. His words were:

In a world of politicians who lie, backtrack and make it up as they go along, he has been rock solid consistent.

If the above line was spoken in the US I would expect it to be met with howls of disbelief, even on Fox. I tried to imagine Sean Spicer saying them and failed. But here in NZ, on a news program, it just kind of slides by. It’s that surreal. Since the US election the words written to refute the statement above probably exist in the hundreds of thousands. The writers have likely never heard of Mike, but no doubt they would regard him with a morbid fascination. The news sources I’ve been reading have struggled themselves to deal with the daily stream of absurdities and have started talking about what the word ‘normal’ seems to mean now. Enjoy the links on those words by the way. There a plenty others I could have used.

The 1978 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy included a surreal Galactic president called Zaphod Beeblebrox. This man set a new standard by being the first to give presidential addresses from the bath. US presidential addresses today are no less ground-breaking. They are just as informal and unprepared. One drifted off mid-word during a typo. Twitter did not exists in Douglas Adam’s time, though its the sort of thing he might come up with.

My obsession with the work of Mr Hosking didn’t end there. I’ve been blissfully unaware of his presence for so long, and learned that a little of him goes a long way indeed. I stopped at these words:

If you’re into it, you reduce the emissions locally, plant a lot of trees. Planting trees, until you meet your emissions, right? Its as easy as. Simplest thing to be able to do.

This was part of a bit on his summation of the Paris accord as a ‘rort and a scam‘. His co-host was decidedly less glib, and trying weakly to take another side. But her words were just as chilling:

Climate change everyone seems to have a different opinion who knows what.

Strangely, people do have a variety of opinions on this. The overwhelming majority of people who have made sincere efforts to understand this do not have different opinions. 97% of scientists agree that man made climate change is real. NASA agrees. So do the oil companies. And you can’t fix this by planting trees. I’ve written another piece, ‘the pesky enzyme‘ that talks about this. Its his first words here that speak the loudest – “If you’re into it”. As if paying a carbon debt is like choosing to recycle. That its just the sort of thing you might do to feel better about yourself. That there are no real consequences for not doing it.

Essentially, the pair were telling me that they didn’t think of climate change as a real, tangible, crisis that affected people. George Monbiot has reported that climate change denial is currently spreading like an infectious disease. Certainly looks that way here.

So here I am, stuck with this existential crisis of seemingly unparalleled magnitude, and the people who appear most in touch with what the masses think have not given it much consideration and written it off as unimportant. So faced with this impossible situation I went online and bought a furby. Something I could yell at. I could pretend it was Mr Hosking, that I would attempt to share all the details of the grim reality we face and it would respond to me with giggle, farts and yawns.

I thought that would make the good basis for a podcast. It wasn’t long before I realised that this was futile and would make me look a bit mad. I also got attached to the furby. After all, a furby connect cannot tell a lie and will never speak to you of the things it cannot understand. I now call it Solomon. After the king.

This blog was intended to follow the actions of the NZ government and see how well it was doing to meet its obligations in Paris. I expected there to be a lot of investigation to do. But there is so little happening that perhaps I need to find another tack. On returning from Paris our goverment as acted as if they signed a reverse agreement. One where more carbon was to be released and anything close to a solution that already existed should be scrapped.

Here’s the thing. The Paris accord was a commitment that was intended to lower carbon emissions using any means possible. A signatory returning home should be expected to look at ways of doing this. This means that decisions around the use of energy should all be viewed in the light of this agreement. Since returning from Paris NZ has planned to abandon current use of electrified rail solutions and favour deisel and started coal mining in national parks 

Of course none of this can really be expected to look like progress on the emissions front. They are not feel-good stories about making progress on climate change. But one story is. It turns out that by burning tyres instead of coal when making cement we can reduce carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes annually. In 2014 we emitted 24.4 million tonnes of carbon. So that’s progress all right. That one action reduces our emissions by 0.05 percent. This story, in the light of all the lost opportunities, should not give anyone comfort.

NZ is left with a commitment to pay billions in Carbon Credits. Which are essentially an admission of failure and really no help when it comes to rising temperatures, increasing floods, droughts, slips and fires. And if public opinion follows Mr Hosking, we won’t pay them anyway.

The task I’m left with seems to be this. I do what I can to ensure the information I am gathering about the problem is correct. After that, if I am sure that I have the facts, I will attempt to share them. After that, I’m left with trying to understand why nothing is changing.

 

The pesky enzyme

There is an enzyme I need to tell you about. It was an adaptation in a class II peroxidase approximately 295 million years ago that gave rise to a specialist known as the Agaricomycetes.

This was able to do something completely new. Before it evolved there was nothing that could efficiently break down the thick cellulose walls of wood. Before this enzyme appeared a dead tree would simply fall over, degrade into tiny parts and those parts would make their way into the ground.

I learned about this enzyme a few months ago and it gave me a completely new perspective on climate change. At once I realised that the problem was both more simple and more terrifying than I had formerly thought. I think its a shame that the story of Agaricomycetes is not told more often, so I’m starting this blog by telling you about it now.

Before I begin I must warn you that I’m not a scientist, let alone the type of scientist that ought to know much about Agaricomycetes. I’m a software developer so I am working well outside of my area of knowledge. I ought to tell you though, that software developers do this all the time since their field is so restless. Sufficed to say, if anyone reading this knows a good deal more about Agaricomycetes and wishes to correct me I would love to hear from them.

When Agaricomycetes first appeared the planet Earth was very different to the one we know now. It was in fact, in a state of advanced global warming, as we describe it now. There were no ice caps at the poles and while there was plenty of life on the planet, both flora and fauna, it was unlike the life we currently recognise. It had evolved to prosper on a much hotter planet, with less land and a very different weather system.

I remember this question from Trivial Pursuit, a general knowledge board
game we used to play:

When a tree grows, where does the wood come from?

I remember stopping on this one. The obvious assumption was that the content of the wood was somehow lifted from the ground, up through the roots and along the branches, slowly adding to the whole thing piece by piece. This answer was too obvious of course, and the correct but surprising answer is the air. We were taught in school that plants ingest CO2 and release oxygen, while animals do the reverse. In this way plants and animals supply each other with the means for life.

But to imagine that a tree ingests the air around it and turns it molecule by molecule into something solid. You have to think like a scientist to buy into this.

Agaricomycetes was the first of a class known as lignin modifying enzymes (LME). They exist in fungi that feed on wood, and they also exist in the guts of animals that consume wood; including borer and some types of lice.

The time prior to the arrival of LME was known as the Carboniferous period. When this period started the planet was in something like the state we describe now when we talk about global warming. The average temperature of the planet was estimated to be 20 degrees Celsius, a good deal higher than the 12 to 14 we are looking at now. And it was not fit for humans. It did not contain the life humans are evolved for. Even if there were forms of life that existed then that might serve to feed and provide for us now, these are long gone and we can’t reproduce them any more than we could make a Stegasaurus.

As the Carboniferous period progressed, much of the carbon in the air was turned into trees, As these trees died and broke down the carbon they consisted of wound up underground. By the end of the period the global average temperature reached a new balance, around 12 degrees, and stayed that way for the nearly 300 million years. Over which time many species of plants and animals came and went.

10 million years ago the first apes appeared. Homo sapiens, humans as we know them, appeared somewhere between 1.8 and 0.2 million years ago.

The carbon that wound up underground turned into a variety of high energy forms, including peat, coal, oil and natural gas. During the industrial revolution, starting around 1760, new demand appeared for machines that provided torque, the rotational force that drove mills and vehicles and manufacture of every sort. From that time until now, we have worked like mad to remove the energy from the ground and burn it, releasing the its carbon and creating the world as we know it.

Nearly everything we do releases vast quantities of carbon in this way, from driving to work to eating a sandwich. There are very few parts of our industry that do not do this.

And, thanks to the humble Agaricomycetes, there is really no way to put it back, even if we wanted to. Truly, this is pandora’s box and it has been open for many generations now.

When you look at the growth of religions they can appear as a reaction to the world that is at once generous and indifferent. While one could expect year after year of successful crops and easy catches, sometimes, and for no reason, they could disappear and leave people to suffer. You can see why they imagined gods that were an uneasy mixture of attention and indifference. Ones that required constant appeasement.

The world science describes is not that different. Bountiful, but only within a context. There were no gods to tell us to leave the buried carbon alone, and no doubt we’d have ignored them anyway. We may have had as little as 200,000 years here. And in less than 300 we entered a creative phase that took us to space and gave us machines that can think. We’ve released carbon to do this. We’ve released more every year, observing that the more we burn, the more we make.

We’ve taken many creatures to the point of extinction along the way. And now, we appear to be taking ourselves.

What little chance we have left, how little and how late, is currently dwindling by the day. In the U.S. a man who likes to fire people says he thinks he’d be laughed at for trying. While here in New Zealand a man with a cheeky grin and a bad haircut tells everyone its a scam and not worth the bother.

New life will evolve to prosper in the climate we’ve created, and when it does the new carbon balance in the atmosphere with likely be our only legacy. Think of that: should new creatures emerge after us with the same curiosity, they may wind up trying to figure out how the planet went from 12 degrees back up to something much higher. That could be the best clue that we were here at all.

Carbon release may be the the most durable thing we achieve as a species. Think about how positive that sounds when you fail to parse it.