Michael Mann's 'Dire Predictions' Provides Ultimate Guide on Understanding Climate Change
If you find it difficult to fully grasp the concept of climate change, you're not alone. But, thanks to esteemed climate scientists Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump at Pennsylvania State University, understanding the reality of climate change has never been easier.
Mann and Kump's new book, Dire Predictions, expands upon the essential findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 5th assessment—which evaluates the risk of climate change brought on by humans—in a visually stunning and extremely powerful way. If you've always wanted to better understand the data behind climate change and be able to share this information with your family and friends, this illustrated guide is for you.
I had the chance to interview Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, last week about his book and here's what he had to say:
Q. Your book provides difficult to understand information in a very digestible way. What was your biggest challenge in boiling down the IPCC data in a clear-cut way?
A. Yes indeed. As a scientist who does research on this topic, it is always a challenge to look that at the data, graphs and projections, not as I would as a practicing climate scientist, but as someone who is not familiar with the topic, does not have a technical background and is seeing this stuff for perhaps the first time. Fortunately, I have a lot of experience in doing that now because of the time I spent on public outreach more generally. This book is a joint venture of both Pearson (a traditional academic publisher) and DK (who specialize in picture/photo-driven guides and books), and the supporting cast at Pearson and DK really helped us digest the information and bring it alive in the form of vibrant graphics that come out of the page, and supporting prose pitched at the right level for our audience.
Q. When contemplating the reality of climate change, one can get very depressed. Just the fact, as presented in your book, that "Basic principles of physics and chemistry dictate that Earth will warm as concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases increase" is a huge indication that we're in serious trouble. What would you like to share with EcoWatch readers to provide hope?
A. Yes, there is a fine line between urgency and pessimism. We do try to communicate as clearly as possible both the serious nature of the problem and the urgency of taking action, while stressing that real solutions exist, now. There is no reason we can’t solve this problem, and there are reasons for optimism.
There are signs of real progress today. Both the executive branch (through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and groups of states are enacting policies to lower our carbon emissions, and on the international stage, the world’s two largest emitters of carbon, the U.S. and China, have entered into an historic agreement to lower carbon emissions. There is indeed quite a bit of reason for cautious optimism, going into the Paris summit later this year, that we will see meaningful progress this year. We’ve provided a considerably expanded discussion of the history of international policy agreements on climate change in the book this time, to make sure that readers have a sense of where we stand today in terms of this historical context. Among other things, we provide examples (e.g. acid rain, ozone depletion) where international cooperation has indeed led to solving global environmental problems in the past. There is no reason this time has to be any different.
Q. What role do individuals play in reducing carbon emissions? Is the role of the individual enough? Or is the role of government policy the critical piece to mitigating climate change?
A. Certainly, each person can make a difference. By taking actions to reduce our energy consumption, we can each save money, be healthier and reduce our carbon footprint. But to make the sorts of reductions in carbon emissions that we need to make to avert ever more dangerous warming of the planet, we must incentivize a transition away from reliance on fossil fuels for energy. In the absence of any congressional leadership on this issue, we must turn to other avenues for progress. That includes executive actions like those taken by current administration in the form of the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal fired power plants and higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. It also includes efforts by the states, including the New England states, and the west coast consortium of California, Oregon and Washington, to introduce carbon emissions reduction plans. And finally, it includes a bold new plan by majors of major cities, including LA, Houston and Philadelphia, to reduce carbon emissions in the country's largest cities.
Q. You hit on geoengineering in the book. People ask me all the time about this and I direct them to an article by Dr. David Suzuki, which I think takes a common-sense approach to the topic. What is your take?
A. Yes, well David is a personal hero of mine. I remember watching him early on in my scientific career and saying to myself, "I hope that someday I can be anywhere near the science communicator that he is.” David, unsurprisingly, hits the nail on the head (and his take is similar to what we say in the book). Geoengineering is to often these days used as a crutch for not doing the hard but necessary work of solving this problem the safe way, i.e. reducing our carbon emissions.
Q. If you could control the outcome of the climate talks in Paris, what would the final agreement look like?
A. Hah—some of my critics, ironically, do seem to think I have that sort of power. Alas, I do not. But nonetheless, I would insist, first and foremost, that the discussions accept as a starting point what the science has to say, i.e. that climate change is real, caused by human activity and already a threat. There are still some heads of state who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence, and who use that denial as an excuse for bad faith negotiation. In order to obtain an agreement with teeth in it—an agreement that really has the potential to lead to the substantial necessary reductions in carbon emissions—we must have good faith participation from all parties. We must accept that the problem exists and that the time to solve it is now. I would urge other heads of state to take, as a template, the historic agreement for substantial reductions in carbon emissions already reached last year by the world’s two largest emitters—China and the U.S. It provides a blueprint for what a global agreement that takes account the needs and interest of both developing and industrial nations would look like.
Q. What are the top three takeaways you want readers to get from your book?
A. 1. Climate change is real, caused by human activity and already a threat.
2. The threat will get much worse if we don’t act on the problem.
3. Solutions to the problem are available NOW in the form of renewable energy and policies to incentivize a shift away from fossil fuel energy. There is no excuse for further delays in action.
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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