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A Personal and Very Real Example of Climate Change

OWOE Staff: The world recently celebrated Earth Day on April 22 – 52 years after the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Unfortunately, like pretty much all the prior Earth Days, very little concrete progress was committed to addressing the world’s global warming crisis. If I may paraphrase  my favorite environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, it was all “bunny, bunny…blah, blah, blah“. Perhaps the biggest news in the fight against climate changes was Denmark’s proposal for a new corporate carbon tax, which would set a value of 1,125 Danish crowns ($164.21) per tonne of carbon equivalent and make it the highest such tax in the world if implemented. But again, that’s just a proposal. In the meantime, fossil fuel use has recovered from its Covid lows, CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt, and environmental damage from storms, fires, and rising sea levels continue. I personally witnessed a real-life example of that the very week of Earth Day when I visited one of my favorite beaches in the world, Cancun. I have been going to the beaches of Cancun almost every year since the early 2000s, and the change to the beach caused by the increase in seaweed over the past few years is dramatic. We all tend to miss the big picture when all we see are incremental changes, but after skipping two years because of pandemic travel restrictions, the magnitude of the beach changes was more obvious and led me to look back at my earlier visits and take a broader perspective. Figure 1 shows the change over the last 8 years, with a) from April 2014 and b) from April 2022, both the exact same stretch of beach.

Fig. 1 – Change in Cancun Beaches: 2014 (left), 2022 (right)

This seaweed is Sargassum which reproduces vegetatively and never attaches to the seafloor. The Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea was named after the seaweed for the large amount of Sargassum that collects there. More recently, an area of Sargassum has developed off the coast of Brazil near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Figure 2 from the University of Florida Satellite-based Sargassum Watch System (SaWS) shows how the Sargassum bloom off the coast of Brazil has evolved. Since 2011, Sargassum seaweed has appeared in the Caribbean Sea every summer except 2013, creating many environmental, ecological and economic problems. The seaweed originates in the tropical Atlantic and drifts with the current into the Caribbean. It is believed to be a result of climate variability combined with other natural and anthropogenic processes and has been getting progressively worse. One of those anthropogenic processes is deforestation, which causes soil erosion that leads to surplus nutrients being washed into rivers and flowing into the ocean, ultimately feeding the Sargassum. Deforestation also releases carbon into the atmosphere which contributes to climate change and increases ocean temperature, which then accelerates Sargassum growth.

Fig. 2 – Evolution of Brazil Sargassum Bloom 2011 to 2022 (University of Florida)

2018 was a bad year for the seaweed, but April 2022 seaweed quantities have exceeded all prior years. The overall Sargassum amount increased significantly across the tropical Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Central West Atlantic (the region east of the Lesser Antilles), setting a new historical record for the month of April.

How has Cancun been dealing with this problem? Not very well. Although there has been some attempt to clean the seaweed with vessels, most still washes ashore. Figure 3 shows the various ways the individual resorts in the Hotel Zone have been dealing with the problem: a) bury using tractor, b) what’s left after burying – “sandweed fluff”, c) leaving to decompose naturally – resulting in a prickly mess that is unsightly and uncomfortable to walk on, and d) haul-off using backhoes and dumpsters. Not shown is another common approach – hotel workers burying the seaweed by hand on the beach. They spend all day raking and shoveling and go home exhausted, only to return the next day and start over again. All approaches, other than leaving in place, result in significant cost for the hotels, and all impact the beach. The famous soft, white, pristine Cancun sand no longer exists.

Fig. 3 – Dealing with Sargassum

Ultimately, this has an impact on visitors who hear about the problem and choose a different destination or who visit Cancun, are disappointed in the beaches, and choose to not return in the future. According to the Mexican government, tourism will fall by as much as 30% at Quintana Roo (state that includes Cancun and the Mayan Riviera) beach destinations this year due to the invasion of Sargassum.

When organizations try to calculate the cost of climate change, they focus on measurable costs – how much it costs to fight the impact of the change or repair the damage caused. But what about the indirect costs? What is the value to the world of walking on the beaches of Cancun or scuba diving along the Australian coral reefs or skiing in the Andes mountains or living on the coast of almost any place in the world, all (and much more) of which are at risk of disappearing?


The Ghosts of Energy Decisions of the Past

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: Governments’ penchant for wasting taxpayer money and harming the environment is not a recent phenomenon but it went industrial in 20th century at all levels. At the beginning of the century Mother Nature and society had a tremendous capacity to forgive bad decisions even when some such decisions resulted in millions of deaths over the span of several decades. Human, sorry, people-kind abused Mother Nature and the pocketbooks of taxpayers in the name of progress and energy transition but managed to overcome crises such as anthropogenic acid deposition and the oil embargo of the 1970s. People-kind barely limped out of the 20th century into the 21st century. In all likelihood Mother Nature and taxpayer pocketbooks are now beyond the capacity to forgive our shortcomings and bad decisions for much longer.  Who is to blame for this? Big business has big shame, but most blame lies entirely before the governments who are elected to be wise but are faddish populists with inherent graft and “ism” agendas. Difficult and complex solutions require deep thinkers, not pot-addled Princes of Privilege (shout-out to Justin Trudeau, see notes 1 and 2).

Continue reading The Ghosts of Energy Decisions of the Past

Greenhouse Gas Emissions – A Short Summary of CO2

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: As some people, including most notably the Prime Minister of Canada, are confused about greenhouse gas emissions, both during production of electricity and during transportation, I feel that it is time to write a quick blog about this. I will focus mostly on CO2 emissions, which are believed to be the predominant greenhouse emissions driving global warming, even though the effect of methane (CH4) emissions on warming are roughly 20 times as potent (see edf.org, greenplanet.org, and Scientific American), and some other industrially produced gases that are ubiquitous in modern life are yet exponentially more potent.

Continue reading Greenhouse Gas Emissions – A Short Summary of CO2

The latest push for fossil fuels – rhetoric or reality? Part 2 – oil

By W. H. Luyties, editor OWOE. Recently, OWOE initiated a series of blogs to take a closer look into the key US government actions to promote fossil fuels. Since the 2016 election, one lightening rod topic has been the push to increase coal and oil production in the US. This has energized both proponents of fossil fuels, who see an opportunity to possibly save their industries (coal) or increase production (petroleum), and opponents, who fear the environmental consequences of such a change. But is this a real threat to the global move away from fossil fuels, or is it simply rhetoric to energize a political base? Continue reading The latest push for fossil fuels – rhetoric or reality? Part 2 – oil

Carbon Taxation – A Policy for Combating Global Warning That Has Been Poorly Planned, Implemented, and Marketed

By W. H. Luyties, editor OWOE. A carbon tax and a carbon cap-and-trade program are fiscal policy tools that a government can implement to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the atmosphere (see figure) and help in the fight against climate change. Continue reading Carbon Taxation – A Policy for Combating Global Warning That Has Been Poorly Planned, Implemented, and Marketed

EPA Report on Fracking Confirms Minimal Impact to Water Resources

The EPA just issued a draft report on their four-year study of the impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on drinking water (“Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources”, June 2015). In it they conclude that although there are mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources, there is no evidence of widespread, systemic impacts. Although there are specific instances of concern, the number of identified cases was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells. This helps confirm industry experts who have contended that properly designed, planned, and executed fracking activities do not contaminate water resources.