Still Drinking a Cup of Joy

Coffee - a cup of joy

How often does science news make you feel guilty of environmental harm?  The list of ways we contribute to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet is endless. Carbon-dioxide is the cost of being alive and a consumer, produced from birth until cremation and now exceeding the ability of plants and the oceans to buffer the atmosphere. The news can turn us green to blue, looking for something we love that is innocuous.

What is more innocent than the cup of coffee that gives cheer and brings us together? But that’s on the list, too—starting where the beans are grown (often in land cleared of tropical forest) all the way to my hand and beyond, until the plastic lid is tipped into a landfill or floats to the ocean.

Wait a minute. How much consumption can we surrender for the sake of posterity? We fall into the trap of an overwhelming list that because we can’t do everything we do nothing. It is a dilemma for people who care about human ecology and biodiversity. I think the answer is to do something I can manage because if everyone did a bit the additive impact would make a significant difference. For one person it might be more vegetarian, for another drive/ fly less and others buy consumer products more carefully. We can’t wait for politicians to stop dragging feet, generally old feet habituated to their ways. Even companies are getting into the act, wanting to flaunt greenness to discerning customers.  

That brings me back to coffee where there’s something in a cup to lift spirits.

As forests are cleared and fragmented in Columbia the habitat of jaguars and other charismatic wildlife is depleted. But in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Columbia some poor farmers have signed up to a program for shade-grown coffee with the Jaguar Friendly label that sells at a premium price. To be certified, they protect high quality forest equal in area to the crop they cultivate.

Coffee produces as much waste as the crop itself, dumping 10 m tons of biomass every year. In an experimental trial in Costa Rica the waste was spread on deforested land where it had a regenerative effect, creating 80% canopy from young trees in two years, four-fold taller than in a control area where there was only 20% cover of the (mostly non-native) grasses. As coffee gives us a buzz, its pulp helps forests to grow faster.

At the other end of the chain, Starbucks sells 4 bn cups per year. Customers at branches in Seattle are now being offered reusable cups (remember them?). This is a challenge when customers want a cup on the go, but let’s wish the ‘borrow’ program success and no guilty feelings to spoil our cup of joy.

The Peril of Faith in a Net-Zero Target for Carbon Emissions

Global warming from power stations generating electricity
Photo: Anon. Pixabay, CCO. Electric Towers during Golden Hour.

“… Our goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 …” Joe Biden (Reuters, February 23, 2021)

A laudable goal reinforced by the President this week on Earth Day. However, the same day, three leading climate experts writing in The Conversation (US edition) condemned ‘net zero’. Of course they weren’t recanting global warming as an existential threat. They fear by putting off to a future gamble what needs to be done today we will lose the race to rein in average global temperature rise by < 2ºC. False hope in unproven technologies promised ‘just over the horizon’ encourages CO2 emissions to soar from business as usual.

Commentators have welcomed the frankness, though one admitted that few people, even those who deeply care, will read a lengthy article. He recommended reaching people through bullet points. I therefore wrote the summary below, hoping to be faithful to the authors while acknowledging I am no expert.

  • James Hansen (NASA) testified to the US Congress in 1988 that greenhouse gas emissions from human sources were already warming the planet
  • Faith in technological salvation has continued to diminish the sense of urgency, postponing solutions to the future
  • The polemical mantra is we can burn now (fossil fuels) and pay later, trusting the ‘wisdom’ of the market
  • From the 1990s, elegant computer models attempt to project emissions from investments in new technology with links to impacts on economies. Testing scenarios in silico (e.g. planting trees, carbon sequestration) offer quick and cheap projections compared to real-life simulations. They continue to be a bedrock even as successive hopes have dashed
  • The first hope: plant trees, though we can’t plant enough in the world to sink all the anthropogenic carbon and the attempt would harm biodiversity and food production
  • The second: improved energy efficiency with a gradual switch from coal to gas (+ nuclear) has hardly shifted the ascending curve
  • The third: carbon capture from power plants with storage underground, a great concept though exceedingly costly to scale up (admitted at Copenhagen Summit 2009)
  • The fourth: a combination of burning wood and farm waste plus carbon storage was a principled achievement for climate justice at Paris 2015, but is it workable?
  • The fifth: direct capture of atmospheric CO2 but only been achieved on a small scale in practice
  • The sixth: geoengineering by injecting sulphuric acid into the stratosphere to reflect back solar radiation, but what could be the unintended consequences?
  • Beautiful in theory, but can a computer algorithm match the deep and dynamic complexity of social and political realities across the globe?
  • The 1992 Rio Summit was supposed to kick start mitigation, but since then, instead of stabilizing, atmospheric CO2 has risen by 60%

The emperors of technology have no clothes. Among the many problems facing humanity, none requires more urgent attention than warming of our planet that is happening too fast for the biosphere to comfortably adapt. Net-zero policies are focused on reigning in emissions targeted to some wobbly date in future. Meanwhile, precious time is lost with irreversible damage to ecosystems.

The authors give stark advice: “The only way to keep humanity safe is immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.”

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Can’t bear very much reality …

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton

If Eliot meant we can’t imagine a world without us, perhaps this poem also speaks to our inability to grasp a world molded by global warming, so utterly beyond our comprehension yet one that generations to come must endure.

Cherry blossom time

Our Weeping Cherry tree started to bloom on March 28, an old lady now yet still graceful. She has a voluminous floral dress spread wide from her ‘hips’ by branches like the hoops and side panniers of a woman in the court of George III. She cheekily displays through the cascade the one silvery leg she stands on. We hope she dances in the spring breeze for more years.

The same day, the National Park Service announced the famous lines of cherry trees lining the National Mall reached peak bloom. Fewer people stroll there in a pandemic year but can view them at #BloomCam. This year the blossom that celebrates beauty and grace is a brilliant contrast to the chaos and violence viewed from the Mall of the Capitol steps on January 6. But it also symbolizes the impermanence of life.

The trees were gifted to Washington DC in 1912 by the Japanese, who celebrate bloom time with spring festivals (hanami). This year the peak occurred in Kyoto on March 26, earlier than usual, as in the Mall. Bloom times have been recorded in Japan for 1,200 years. The date varied depending on when winter lost its grip, but on average stayed constant over centuries or rose slightly until the 19th century since when it has steadily advanced.

The ancient recorders of first blooms and shoots could not imagine why they should interest us today. But there are no more blazing signs of a  warming planet than trees exploding in color. On March 28, Red Maple buds burst at Mechanicsburg, PA and Pawpaw at Gibsonville, NC, although Redbud is still dormant at Spring Hill, TN (already rose pink here in Williamsburg, VA). If you doubt our climate is changing, ask the trees.