Explore climate disinformation. Russia outed pushing the anti-vaccine movement, the American fossil fuel industry is literally gas-lighting consumers. Even Microsoft’s Bill Gates donates to climate denying politicians. It’s mess, but we begin with real science with Dr. David Archer, University of Chicago.
Welcome to Radio Ecoshock, 650 original programs since 2006, now broadcast by over 100 non-profit radio stations in 5 countries. This program is also available free on the world-wide web, by podcast, Soundcloud, YouTube and downloads. You are about to travel from the distant past to the deep future, with well-known scientist David Archer from the University of Chicago.
Then let’s explore climate disinformation. Just as Russia has been outed pushing the anti-vaccine movement, Mother Jones reveals the American fossil fuel industry is literally gas-lighting consumers, planting fake voices pretending to be your neighbor. Among the list of countries suppressing or silencing climate science we find Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States, and of course every Middle East oil state. Even the big guys struggling to go green, like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, still donate to elect climate denying politicians. It’s mess, but we begin with real science.
DAVID ARCHER – FUTURE ENTERS THE DEEP PAST
“Burning Fossil Fuels Almost Ended All Life on Earth” -Science journalist Peter Brannen took Atlantic magazine readers back to the “planet’s worst mass extinction”. Will the deep past emerge again in the future? Professor David Archer has studied and published on the deep past. In a new paper, he looks at the long future. I’m Alex Smith. You are about to join our wide-ranging conversation broadcast in February 2021, on Radio Ecoshock.
YOU CAN WATCH this slightly shorter version of my David Archer interview on YouTube.
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It was damn cold in “the windy city” of Chicago when we talked. The UK was shivering too. Can we blame excursions of extreme cold on global warming? David Archer says we would “be on thin ice” to go that far. But I know there is a growing cluster of scientists who think the Jet Stream and Polar winds have been destabilized by the extreme heat in the Arctic over the last few years. Even the winter this year was dramatically warmer in Alaska, northern Canada and Siberia. The cold that would have been there can apparently escape south where many of us live. Only time will tell if this instability of hotter then colder winters will continue in coming years.
THE ULTIMATE COST OF CARBON
In a paper published in July 2020, Archer examines “The ultimate cost of carbon”. It’s really hard to imagine how humans might live hundreds of years from now, much less hundreds of thousands. But if we project our current economy forward, the real cost of free dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere costs society large sums not just this century, but for many to come. We try not to count that.
There is a dark assumption in this paper about the deep future. It includes this phrase: “estimate climate impacts as fractional decreases in economic activity, potentially amplified by a human population response to a diminished human carrying capacity.“ Should we assume there will be “a diminished human carrying capacity” for humans on this planet? But that’s just me. This paper is deep and worth your time. David discussed it in our interview.
OUR “GIFT” TO FUTURE GENERATIONS: MERCURY
Some of Archer’s work reminds me of Alan Weisman and his book “The World Without Us”. Weisman found the secret behind all our structures is maintenance. If that stops, skyscrapers fall, bridges go down, many signs of human existence disappear within a few hundred years. You can get my 2007 Radio Ecoshock 13 minute piece with Alan Weisman here from archive.org
But Archer scanned the deep future landscape and found another lasting sign of the human project: mercury.
Mercury is absolutely toxic to humans and many other forms of life. In addition to death, it can cause gross birth defects. The classic case arose in Japan where a pulp mill used tons of mercury as a “slimicide” on wood. That leaked into the nearby ocean bay, accumulating in sea life. When fishermen brought those fish and shell fish to market, and entire community was poisoned. A lot of children were born with tiny limbs or other birth defects. We call is “Minamata Disease” after that place in Japan.
“Mercury is considered by WHO as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern….Exposure to mercury – even small amounts – may cause serious health problems, and is a threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life. Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.”
In the interview Archer credits Helen Amos, now at NASA, for her research work on mercury cycle. Surprising to me: once humans dig up mercury (in many ways) – some of it becomes airborne. That mercury can stay in the atmosphere for one to two years. It circulates around the globe, falling far away from the original source. Some has landed in your city or rural property, in you waterways. More mercury has appeared in the ocean, endangering sea life and all those who eat. This heavy metal “bioaccumulates” – meaning every creature eating contaminated food builds up more mercury. Large fish like Tuna can be loaded with it. Whales can get mercury poisoning. Humans who eat sea food also accumulate mercury, in varying degrees, depending on the source.
Part of the point is to look as what we leave succeeding generations into the deep future, no matter how they live. Number one is carbon dioxide, which can last at least 100,000 thousand years in the atmosphere. Every generation will inherit whatever carbon we emit – and the unstable hotter climate it creates. We are also leaving a burden of mercury. I would add the extremely long-lived radioactive elements, like plutonium. Five hundred thousand years from now the plutonium created in all nuclear reactors will still be emitting radiation.
I was quietly alarmed David recommended two books, both about geoengineering our way out of the climate crisis. We have Elizabeth’s Colbert’s new book “Under A white Sky – The Nature of the Future.” In the radio show I mistakenly confused Kolbert’s new work with another book by Jeff Goodell, “How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate”, published by Scribe books in 2010. Sorry. In our interview, David Archer talks about Oliver Morton’s book “The Planet Remade”. My first reaction is: are we already at the point of last resort?
AN ALTERNATIVE PAST
In other papers, Archer considers an alternative past. What would happen if atmospheric carbon dioxide happened to be lower when the coal revolution got rolling in the mid-to-late 1700s? In the interview, David explains the key role of “doubling” greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, greenhouse gases were under 300 parts per million. If greenhouse gases happened to be at today’s 420 ppm in 1750, current climate disturbances (floods, fires, hurricanes, ice melt, etc.) would have appeared much sooner, perhaps in the late 1800’s. I suppose people might have realized then the dangers of an economy based on burning coal. The fact that greenhouse gas levels were lower than today, created a “longer fuse” that gave us an extra hundred, perhaps 150 years, before the doubling.
If we just put the start of the big burn back two hundred years, to 1820, the atmospheric fire was already well underway. Coal was already running trains, since 1804. The first coal-powered steamship in America was in Philadelphia in 1787. Mines used coal engines since 1712.
I often wonder what we would think about the Romans today, if THEY had changed the atmosphere the way we did.
REAL SCIENCE BLOG
For many years, David Archer has been a senior editor at the scientist’s blog “Real Climate”. In part, this was created to allow climate scientists to discuss new work, but also to take down stupid statements about what science says. The discussion there has been very informed and informative. But Archer tells me he is stepping back, and there is less activity at the blog. We talk about why.
I’ve seen a number of climate communicators step back from the public arena. Robert Scribbler stopped his influential climate blog and moved on to religion. Professor Peter Ward advised on TV documentaries and published at least 3 books. Now he’s pretty quiet. For the real picture on Arctic ice melt, I used to follow the work of Neven. But a couple of years ago Neven wrote on Typepad: “ I try to follow the data, but my mind is just all over the place due to stress or a midlife crisis or who knows what. One thing I do know, is that the build-up of melting momentum seems to be very large right now.” I totally sympathize.
These developments worry me. Of course as the climate shift begins to dominate all our lives (it will) – I expect mainstream media will cover it, perhaps some channels non-stop. Radio Ecoshock may be replaced by the big media, and that may be a good thing. But we are not there yet by a long shot. Is all the science in, not much left to say? Maybe there is also less active denialism? Has the discussion subsided on both sides?
A few years ago I interviewed Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver. He asked whether we need more science, since we already know what is lining up to ruin lives, if not threaten mass extinction. Weaver removed himself from science for a while, successfully running as a Green Party Candidate for the legislature of my home province of British Columbia. Is it time for more scientists to get political? Not all scientists are made for that role.
FYI, When I ask David about his current work, he refers to the Berner model with a silicate thermostat. The University of Chicago site on this says: “the Geocarb model for the geologic carbon cycle developed by Robert Berner at Yale. CO2 is released to the atmosphere as volcanic degassing, and consumed by chemical weathering of rocks on land. These dynamics generate a stabilizing negative feedback called the weathering CO2 feedback, which stabilizes atmospheric CO2, and hence Earth’s climate, on times scales of hundreds of thousands of years.”
During the interview I refer to this study of little mountain building and evolution: “Orogenic quiescence in Earth’s middle age” led by Ming Tang, and published February 12, 2021. Here is a good plain-language article about why evolution seems to require active mountain building.
THE BIG LIE BEHIND METHANE
On Radio Ecoshock, you hear scientists discuss the big risk of methane in several of my recent programs. Why methane? Also known as “natural gas”, methane creates about 28% of the greenhouse effect that is warming this planet in dangerous ways. We can reduce human methane leaks relatively inexpensively, but to really stop the run of this gas, we need to cure our addiction to fossil fuels.
On to the dark side of methane fear. Last week with guest Sara Sayedi, and the week before with Andrew MacDougall, we covered concern about large amounts of methane escaping from the permafrost, under the Siberian side of the Arctic Ocean. Plant life long dead, decayed, and frozen in shallow seas is thawing under warmer seas. The Russians, often funded and aided by Swedish institutions and scientists, have sent over a dozen expeditions to measure methane in those Arctic waters. That is necessary science and should continue. But I think it is also being used as disinformation and a sly kind-of climate cover-up.
For those just tuning in: here is a fast rehash the plot. In 2008 a Russian scientist, then assigned to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wrote this in a 2008 paper: “we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time.“ By “hydrate storage” she means methane long buried, frozen under the sea. In a 2010 paper Natalia Shakhova and her partner Igor Semiletov modified this a bit, talking about “a total emission of 50 Gt [of methane] over 50 years.”
There were many joint Swedish/Russian expeditions to study methane in the Arctic Sea from 1999 to 2009. From time to time other nations joined in, providing some funding and scientists. Remember there is very little subsea frozen carbon in Arctic seas bordering Canada and Alaska. The big problem, if that ever came, would be in the shallow East Siberian Shelf. Given the tight control by Moscow of all science and institutions of higher learning, the routine was the same.
The only way to enter tightly controlled Russian waters was by permission of the central government in Moscow. Requests for expeditions were all sent to Igor Semiletov, and he had to be in control of the ship and the data gathering.
I spoke confidentially with a Swedish scientist who complained that while they had paid the costs of the expedition, the raw data collected on methane coming up through the sea was kept by Semiletov and never released to them. It is hard to verify that, but this is the pattern over two decades: scientists in other countries, the media and environmental activists must depend on summary of results by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov. Until recently there has been no other direct data source. A satellite was launched in recent years to measure methane, but that data has not yet available for the general public (or journalists).
After doing dozens of interviews on this topic with experts, and countless hours of research, here is how I think this methane story developed. Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov were among a number of Russian scientists who became concerned a grave danger could come from Arctic Ocean as permafrost in shallow seas warmed. They managed to mount expeditions to study this, even during the late 1990’s when post-Soviet scientists were not getting paid, or going to work in other countries. A number of scientists in other countries saw this as a legitimate possibility, and a big one if it happened.
The truth is: after more than a dozen expeditions and many millions of dollars and work-hours spent, the duo failed to prove there are significant new amounts of methane rising up from the Eastern Siberian Sea Shelf. There are stories. There are ominous warnings. There is no base line to know how much methane has been bubbling up there for thousands of years, so how can we know if it is increasing? As experts have explained in at least a half dozen Radio Ecoshock shows, the growing burden of methane is not coming from the Arctic, no matter how shrill a few voices are. At least not yet.
Let’s take last year’s obligatory warning article in the UK Guardian Newspaper. The headline warns: “Arctic methane deposits ‘starting to release’, scientists say.” It continues: “Exclusive: expedition says preliminary findings indicate that new source of greenhouse gas off East Siberian coast has been triggered.”
But look at how it all goes away with a whimper in this part of the story, quote:
“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered. This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing,” said the Swedish scientist Örjan Gustafsson, of Stockholm University, in a satellite call from the vessel.
So the latest is in: this whole methane fear is unlikely to have any major impact on global warming! Other scientists would point out this release of methane from subsea deposits has NOT just been triggered. According to the expert assessment gathered by Sara Sayedi, frozen plant matter at the bottom of the East Siberian Shelf has been releasing it’s carbon load for about 42,000 years.
From this tiny source of two Russian scientists, disputed by hordes of other scientists in the West including David Archer, a whole branch of climate watchers became convinced we are doomed. It’s all too late now, because the methane bomb.
Who gains if we believe the climate struggle is pointless now? Fossil fuel companies and states. Russia could benefit from this panic in three ways. First, it distracts people away from their own vast responsibility for climate wrecking through their natural gas industry which, along with oil, have founded and funded the modern Russian state. That is where the money for half-billion dollar yachts, Florida estates purchased at twice the price, countless homes in the most expensive parts of the UK and around the world – that’s where the money comes from: gas and oil. But people are encouraged to fear nature, and a possible doom from a faraway place where humans are obviously not to blame.
As we know from the scraps released by American intelligence agencies, the Russians are also working to create any sort of fear and dissent in Democratic countries that might threaten the current Russian government, or Russia itself. In a speech around 2005, Vladimir Putin made it clear Russia could never hope to keep up with American military spending. So his government invested in information warfare instead. So far they are winning.
If you think it far-fetched the Russian government has helped push the Arctic methane bomb narrative, consider how tightly Russian science is controlled. Almost all scientists depend upon government funding. Experts who investigate unsavory things, like the emissions of the natural gas industry, would either lose their funding, or submit their reports for editing by the central government. Non-profits, including Greenpeace, are kept on a tight leash when operating within Russia. There is no way Shakhova and Semiletov produce their annual methane warning without direct funding by the Russian government. The same government who gives permits and sets the rules for all other scientists wanting to investigate in Russian waters.
USING YOUR FEAR TO EXPAND GAS DRILLING INTO THE ARCTIC
This story brings foreign funding into Russian science, helps pay for an Arctic research ship and crew, and does not draw attention to human-made Russian methane emissions. It unsettles some people in the West. But there could be another sub-plot. What if the world becomes completely convinced Arctic methane could ruin world agriculture and maybe civilization? Maybe the big corporations, the big money, and big government would all mount a huge effort to rush into the Arctic and capture the methane before it reaches the atmosphere? Somebody sends thousands of drilling rigs into the Arctic to drill into the seabed and capture that methane. That gas is then given priority as a source for whatever natural gas is still being burned in the world. At least we get to burn the methane and reduce it to carbon dioxide before it kills us all, right?
Is that too far out for you? Malcolm Light said we should to it. Malcolm Light is the retired Texas oil geologist who helps run the Arctic News Blogspot, partnered with the English academic with the online name “Sam Carana.” Malcolm was also a founding member of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, but left them.
One of Light’s core articles was posted on The Arctic Methane Emergency Group web site, but has since been taken down. The title is: “Global Extinction within one Human Lifetime as a Result of a Spreading Atmospheric Arctic Methane Heat wave and Surface Firestorm“. It looked like a scientific paper but was far from it. Guy MacPherson has cited Malcolm Light’s work as one reason why humans will go extinct before 2040, and then 2030, and most recently 2026.
Malcolm Light pronounced our death sentence and day of execution, writing “The absolute mean extinction time for the northern hemisphere is 2031.8 and for the southern hemisphere 2047.6 with a final mean extinction time for 3/4 of the earth’s surface of 2039.6.“ His alleged science looks more like astrological charts.
I cover Malcolm Light’s extraordinary work in painful detail in my Radio Ecoshock blog posted June 6, 2013, titled “Will Humans Go Extinct Soon?”. The point here: Malcolm Light described the need to mount a planet-saving effort to drill natural gas in the Arctic!
Malcolm Light’s proposal has the delightful name “The Angels Project“. I found this in a PowerPoint presentation by Light, titled “A Proposal for the Prevention of Arctic Methane”. “ANGELS” is an acronym for “Arctic Natural Gas Extraction Liquefaction Sales“.
The sub-title reads: “A Proposal for the Prevention of Arctic Methane Induced Catastrophic Global Climate Change by Extraction of Methane from beneath the Permafrost – Arctic Methane Hydrates and its Storage and Sale as a Subsidized “Green Gas“ Energy Source”.
Yes, we will save the world by finding and burning all the natural gas in the Arctic! Malcolm Light continues: “This will also act as an incentive to oil companies to produce methane in large quantities from the Arctic methane hydrate reserves. In this way the Arctic methane hydrate reservoirs will be continuously reduced in a safe controlled way over the next 200 to 300 years supplying an abundant “Green LNG” energy source to humanity.”
From a climate perspective, this is absolute madness but it is music to the ears of big Arctic hungry corporations like Shell, and to the Russian government no doubt. An environmentally-worried world will help them drill more gas!
WOULD THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT USE METHANE FEARS AS DISINFORMATION?
But wait a minute. Would the current Russian government seize on an opportunity to create a distraction, perhaps use legitimate science to lead us away? You are probably aware of U.S. Intelligence reports about Russian efforts at cyber warfare. The hacking, but also whole offices of online operatives who create false personalities looking like homegrown “friends”. The U.S. Natural Gas industry is doing that too. See the new article in Mother Jones by Revecca Leber, February 11, 2021. Facebook comments on natural gas appear to be from your neighbors, but really come from industry hacks using sophisticated software to fool you. It isn’t just the Russians.
In his new book, American scientist Michael Mann describes a number of “wedge” campaigns run to divide climate advocates. He points to a 2020 news story in the Guardian reporting that “the social media conversation over the climate crisis is being reshaped by an army of automated Twitter bots.” That article estimated that “a quarter of all tweets about climate on an average day are produced by bots,” with a goal of “distorting the online discourse to include far more climate science denialism than it would otherwise.” The book is “The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet”. Listen to my interview with Dr. Mann about that book in my Radio Ecoshock show posted January 23rd, 2021.
Another example has just been documented: Russian efforts to discount belief in the COVID-19 virus, and to support anti-vaxxers. Perhaps you have seen Dr. Peter Hotez as an expert on American television and cable networks. He is a founder of the National School of Tropical Medicine, at Baylor College of Medicine and Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. On January 28, 2021 Dr. Hotez published his new paper “Anti-science kills: From Soviet embrace of pseudoscience to accelerated attacks on US biomedicine.”
Hotez gives a snapshot of the difficult Russian history of distorting science for totalitarian goals. But he says that did not end with the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Although the exploitation of biomedical anti-science as a political instrument reached its darkest hour during the Great Purge, it did not end with Lysenko. Today, Russian politicization of biomedicine—the biological sciences as they apply to translational medicine—reveals a confusing or ambivalent system of legitimate scientific endeavors alternating with an ever-widening program of disinformation designed to undermine the field.”
WHERE THE HECK IS RELIABLE RUSSIAN CLIMATE SCIENCE?
That is the Russian government approving the Arctic methane expeditions, and controlling the results. Meanwhile, unlike China, climate science in Russia is almost completely invisible. When it does speak, it comes out through official channels.
As CBS news reports, with Irina Ivanova last January: “In a document published on a government website last weekend, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev outlined a “national adaptation plan” that describes the potential benefits of global warming even as the country seeks to cope with its adverse effects.”
Because this is what Vladimir Putin says about climate change: “Nobody knows the origins of global climate change…In the history of our Earth there have been periods of warming and cooling and it could depend on processes in the universe.” What else is he going to say? The gas that is making his economy possible is adding enough methane and carbon dioxide to wreck the future of the world?
So Putin publicly explains why Greta Thunberg is just a school girl not to be listened to, while state press calls her mentally ill. Meanwhile Russian bots and trolls work to persuade Australians their monster deadly bushfires were started by dozens of criminals and surely not climate change. Add it all up: I would not trust Russian pronouncements on climate, or their ongoing campaign of fear about Arctic methane.
NOT JUST RUSSIA: GOVERNMENTS AROUND THE WORLD SUPPRESS THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE
That is not the big story. What we learn from this one case is just another example of how major governments around the world, probably including your own, has worked to undermine the case for climate action, for decades at a time. What else would you expect when the whole civilization is based on power from coal, oil, and gas? The vested interests from the banks to the stocks to the old families trying to run countries are all in with fossil fuels. They don’t want solar and wind.
We, as deluded populations also dependent on fossil power, keep allowing governments to stall and stall action to stop the constant gush of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We just learned that even the supposed “good guys” like Microsoft founder Bill Gates is helped elect climate denying politicians. Find that in the online newsletter “Heated” with climate sleuth Emily Atkin, posted around February 10, 2021.
It happens all over. Canada shut down it’s government funded climate science for 10 years under the Harper government, which only ended in 2015. Canada had one ship capable of carrying climate and ice scientists into its vast Arctic. Harper leased it out to the oi companies for exploration instead. Canadian climate scientists had to get permission from the Prime Minister’s Office to speak to the press. The PM’s Office would tell scientists what they could say. Doesn’t that sound like what you might expect in Russia?
Think of the total climate-denial disaster of the Trump years! Research institutes were defunded and decapitated with some of the best climate scientists chased away or fired. Listen to my interview with Dr. Ben Santer posted January 26, 2021.
Australia elected the coal-lover Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. He also disbanded a world-class climate institute and did his best to scuttle international climate talks. We have not even begun to discuss the underhanded and overt anti-climate action funded by the endlessly deep pockets of oil-producing Monarchies like Saudi Arabia and many more. Nobody has thoroughly covered that story yet.
All this means: we have allowed governments around the world to throw away the time when we could have stopped the endless killer heat waves, fires, rising seas, superstorms, dying coral, dying everything. We let governments from Monarchies to Oligarchies to alleged Democracies endanger life on this planet, including our kids future.
If we can’t change that, we really are doomed.
This is Alex Smith, saying thank you for listening to Radio Ecoshock. Please care about the world of living things.
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