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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Is there scientific basis to the assertion that global warming is affecting our ability to make decisions and lowering our collective intelligence? -- P.D., Sacramento, CA

As we continue to pump carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the climate warms around the world, it’s not only our health and the environment that we have to worry about. A handful of recent studies conclude that a warmer world with higher CO2 concentrations in the air we breathe is likely to make us less intelligent. If the other reasons to battle global warming that we’ve all heard for years aren’t enough to convince you, how would you like your great-grandchildren to know that they could’ve been so much smarter if you had only biked more and driven less?

To wit, a recent study on “Heat and Learning” from the American Economic Association assessing test scores of some 12,000 school-age kids across the U.S. over a seven-year timespan found that in years with more hot days than normal, average test scores declined across the board, signaling a correlation between hot weather and the ability to concentrate and learn. Nowadays, we’re getting more hot days than ever before, so don’t be surprised if it gets more and more difficult to concentrate.

Meanwhile, a 2018 study by researchers from the Yale School of Public Health found that air pollution itself has a hugely negative effect on human cognition. “Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year,” says Yale’s Xi Che. “But we know the effect is worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and for men, and for those with low education. If we calculate [the loss] for those, it may be a few years of education.”

Yet another recent study found that humans exposed to high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 (1000 parts per million) exhibit a 21 percent reduction in overall cognitive abilities. Essentially, if the air we breathe contains less oxygen and more CO2, then our blood won’t be sufficiently oxygenated, leading to a decrease in cellular function, especially in our brains.

At our current rate of output, atmosphere carbon levels will likely surpass 1000 ppm by the end of the century. The upshot of such atmospheric conditions, as reported by James Bridle in his book New Dark Age, could be a 25 percent reduction in human decision-making ability as well as a 50 percent drop in more complex human strategic thinking abilities by 2100. Could this decrease in cognitive abilities exacerbate the problem as we will be less mentally equipped to deal with it? Will reduced intelligence among children and adults alike lead to a less functional society, even an “idiocracy?”

Rather than letting society fall into a downward spiral, we must step into our critical roles as deciders of both our environment’s and our civilization’s fate. Scientists have found clear connections between heat and political unrest, so turn these new warmths into an opportunity to get out and make a change. Whether through protesting or striking, we need to speak our voice and stand together for a brighter future—both metaphorically and literally.

CONTACTS: “Heat and Learning,” aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257%2Fpol.20180612; “The impact of exposure to air pollution on cognitive performance,” pnas.org/content/115/37/9193; New Dark Age, amzn.to/3biYWBZ. 

Dear EarthTalk: How are bee population numbers doing these days? – B. Turner, via e-mail

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, there are far fewer bees around nowadays. One-quarter of the world’s 20,000 bee species are in precipitous decline or have already gone extinct since 1990. A range of causes are to blame, including indiscriminate overuse of pesticides, loss of plants, and habitat destruction from human encroachment. But the latest and greatest threat is now climate change, which is warping the bees’ environments (blooming seasons, plant diversity, etc.) at a faster rate than they are able to adapt.

Today in the U.S. only eight bee species are afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act. Seven are found only in Hawaii while the other, the Rusty patched bumble bee, occupies the tallgrass prairie of the Upper Midwest, most of which has been lost to farmland, strip malls and housing developments. Rusty patched bee populations have fallen off by 87 percent as a result.

In February 2021, conservation groups petitioned the Biden administration to grant the American bumblebee endangered species protection as well. Once the most common type of bee from coast-to-coast, this iconic bee has declined by some 89 percent in just the last two decades alone. Conservationists are worried about the implications for bee-pollinated plants and the animals (like us) that depend on them.

While the bees’ decline worldwide is unquestionably due to human activity, the silver lining is that human activity can also help bring them back. A new map of global bee distribution and density created by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Georgia aims to help conservationists track the health of various bee populations across the U.S. and around the globe.

As for what readers can do to help bees, plant some native plants that attract them to your backyard. Regardless, if you happen to see bees nearby, snap some photos of them with your phone and upload them to iNaturalist so researchers can use your sighting to help track population dynamics. For more ideas on how you can help bees rebound locally, check out the website of the Bee Conservancy, a U.S.-based non-profit that is coordinating efforts to save bee populations around the world.

The good news is that bee populations in the U.S. and globally have seen a slight increase during the course of the COVID pandemic, due to reduced human activity. But the problem is hardly solved—especially as we all get back to business as usual.

They may be small, but if we do not care for bees, we lose natural pollinators for the vast majority of cultivated crops and wild plants. If we can’t save bees now, fresh fruits and vegetables could be scarce worldwide, which could in turn lead to massive social upheaval, even wars. It seems well worth our time, money and effort at this point to protect bees now, if not for their own sake, then for ours.

CONTACTS: “Global Patterns and Drivers of Bee Distribution” cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)31596-7#secsectitle0125; “10 Ways to Save the Bees,” thebeeconservancy.org/10-ways-to-save-the-bees/; “Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for American Bumblebee,” biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/endangered-species-act-protection-sought-american-bumblebee-2021-02-01/; iNaturalist, iNaturalist.org; “What’s Killing All the Bees,” emagazine.com/whats-killing-bees/.

Dear EarthTalk: What is a so-called “passive solar” house and can I retrofit my existing house accordingly? -- Bill C., Raleigh, NC

A passive solar house is typically designed from scratch factoring in several considerations to boost the structure’s ability to naturally keep the interior living spaces a comfortable air temperature without using conventional emissions-spewing HVAC appliances.

The concept hinges on having lots of insulation, no air leaks, and large, strategically-oriented south-facing windows that “collect” heat energy (in the form of sunlight) during the day and store it in “thermal mass” (concrete slabs, brick walls, tile floors or other building materials with heat retention capacity). This stored solar energy is then naturally distributed throughout the interior space by natural convection caused by ventilation and the dynamics of colder and warmer air reacting differently to gravity.

While the concept has been kicking around since at least the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1991 that Dr. Wolfgang Feist, an Austrian physicist and subsequent founder of the Passivhaus Institut, turned the dream into a reality with the design and construction of the world’s first passive solar house in Darmstadt, Germany.

This three-story home was designed from the ground up with thick walls and copious amounts of efficient insulation, and no holes large or small where hot air could escape. The Feist house was also designed to be free of any potential “thermal bridges,” where heat could travel through walls to get outside, unlike conventional homes which are framed with wood 2x4s and 4x4s with insulation laid or sprayed in between. Conventional framing typically comprises about 25 percent of the interior walls’ surface area. Unlike the insulation around it, the framing sections provide zero insulation value and therefore act as thermal bridges whereby hot air can escape. Passive houses, on the other hand, are designed with solid slabs or with denser framing materials to cut off this insidious form of heat loss.

Siting is also a major design consideration for any passive solar house. Picking a spot that can harvest lots of sunlight (via large south-facing triple-glazed windows) and also take advantage of neighboring shade (like large trees and buildings) to cool the structure off in the heat of summer is also key. Indeed, it is of paramount importance to the building’s success in maintaining consistently comfortable indoor air temperatures without electricity or gas/oil no matter the weather outside. Another important aspect of the passive solar design is the incorporation of some kind of heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system that can let fresh air into the building without letting any of the heat out.

Given all of the design, siting and construction factors involved, it’s usually not practical to convert a pre-existing conventional house into a passive solar one. But that said, there’s no reason not to upgrade what you can at home to at least take advantage of increased efficiencies where it’s easy and get as close to passive solar as possible. Upgrade your insulation. Plug holes and other air leaks. Put weather-stripping around doors and windows. The list goes on... While you might not be able to do any and everything to make your house greener, remember that a walk of 100 miles starts with one step.

CONTACTS: Passive House Institute, passivehouse.com; Passive House Accelerator, passivehouseaccelerator.com; International Passive House Association, passivehouse-international.org

Dear EarthTalk: How does climate modeling work? What is the state-of-the-art in the field these days, and what do these most recent models tell us about our future? – J.M., Austin, TX

Climate models are 3D figures of the Earth’s surface that demonstrate the cycling of energy and materials through the atmosphere, oceans and land. They compile geography, physics, chemistry and biology to analyze historical data and predict future global conditions. Ultimately, these models allow researchers and the public to explore Earth’s systems, climate change and the impacts of human activity on the planet.

The Coupled Model Intercomparison Projects (CMIP), conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are some of the most detailed and expansive climate models to date. They show that the warming predicted from this century may be 0.4 degrees C greater than what was deduced from the CMIP5 in 2013. This may not sound significant, but it takes an immense amount of heat and, in this case, trapped greenhouse gases to warm the atmosphere, oceans and land that much. In the 1700s, it only took a 1-2 degree drop in global temperature to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age.

The CMIPs have also been proven to be very accurate. Fourteen of the 17 models done between 1970 and 2007 made similar projections of temperature change through the next decade as found by UC Berkeley researchers. These findings have bolstered the support for and confidence in the use of climate models.

Climate models may be portrayed as alarmist or extreme by some skeptics, but they actually tend to be more conservative with their predictions since a net positive feedback—that is, an overloading of the system with greenhouse gases—skews toward a stronger climate response. One example is the recorded sea level rise from satellite data collected from 1993 to 2008. CMIP3 models predicted just 1.9 millimeters of sea level rise while the data collected in the following years showed 3.4 millimeters of sea level rise. CMIP models also underestimated sea ice melt-out rates. Between 2007 and 2009, the amount of sea ice that melted was 40 percent greater than the average predicted by CMIP4 models.

One aspect of the new CMIP6 models that will work toward addressing underestimations are their higher climate sensitivity in comparison to past assessments. Climate sensitivity is the amount of long-term warming expected after a doubling of carbon emissions that greatly affects the model’s predictions. To eliminate more of the uncertainty from past models, scientists and mathematicians are constantly evolving climate models to improve their accuracy.

Though it is undeniable that models innately have uncertainties and the Earth encompasses a collection of complex systems, climate models have proven to be reliable predictors of climate change trends. Whether or not these most recent models will continue in that vein can only be determined over time, but climate action is not something that can wait any longer.

CONTACTS: “CMIP6: the next generation of climate models explained,” carbonbrief.org/cmip6-the-next-generation-of-climate-models-explained; “Newest climate models shouldn’t raise future warming projections,” arstechnica.com/science/2020/11/newest-climate-models-shouldnt-raise-future-warming-projections/; “Some of the latest climate models provide unrealistically high projections of future warming,” sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200430113003.htm.

Dear EarthTalk: Were frozen wind turbines the reason for Texas’ historic power outages recently? If so, how can we make renewables more reliable moving forward? -- G. S., Hartford, CT

As Winter Storm Uri wreaked havoc on the American Midwest this past February with bitter cold snow, entire power grids shut down and states like Texas faced a crisis like never before. Conservative politicians put the blame on renewable energy, particularly wind and solar. “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis," Governor Greg Abbot told Fox News.

Contrary to this argument, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) reports that renewable energy is responsible for less than a fraction of the state’s power supply—with wind power making up a mere seven percent of energy losses. While issues such as frozen wind turbines did contribute to the widespread power grid failures, wind turbines tend to generate less power in the winter anyway, leaving the chief culprit of the statewide power shortages to natural gas.

Natural gas provides more than a third of Texas’s power and heats over 40 percent of homes. The ERCOT reported that over 80 percent of the state’s total winter capacity is generated by natural gas, coal and nuclear power. Natural gas power plants don’t usually store fuel on site, and a lack of cold insulation because of the rarity of severe cold in Texas left most pipelines frozen and unable to maintain a continuous transferring of gas.

The ample evidence of fossil fuel energy failures behind Texas’ electricity crisis points to the broader issue of climate change denial and its devastating consequences. “It is an extreme weather problem, not a clean power problem. If anything, it shows why we need to be investing in building out more renewable energy sources with better transmission and storage to replace outdated systems," says Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association.

Regardless, everyone is in favor of making renewable energy more reliable as well. One short-term solution is to modify wind turbines with anti-icing methods to withstand extreme temperatures, which Texas grid operators have yet to invest in. In the long run, however, the nation needs to drastically decrease its reliance on fossil fuels in order to make renewable energy more reliable. In the case of wind energy, the inconsistent demand of wind power makes wind power output fluctuate and thus less reliable. As more wind power is added to a localized grid, wind energy output is more easily predicted, decreasing wind variability and increasing the efficiency, flexibility and reliability of the grid.

In the end, the disastrous level of under-preparation resulting in a cascade of failures in Texas highlights the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and failure to build resilience by investing in a sustainable infrastructure. Though developing clean energy may come at a high cost, climate-linked disasters will only intensify and cause dangerous fallouts. Let’s hope that Winter Strom Uri can serve as the final wake-up call for our nation to begin a firm transition to renewable energy and fight for a habitable future.


CONTACTS: “Rick Perry says Texans would accept even longer power outages ‘to keep the federal government out of their business’,”
washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/02/17/texas-abbott-wind-turbines-outages/; “Don't blame wind turbines for Texas' historic power outages,” cbsnews.com/news/wind-turbines-texas-power-outage-electrical-grid/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org



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