Wednesday, July 19, 2017 Blog · News

The abundance of life! Threats thereto. Protecting marine ecosystems. Preventing flooding. What YOU can do!

by Dana Beach

The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

William BeebeThe Bird, 1906


One of the benefits of spending a week in the Southern Appalachians, (in our case, on the virtual edge, at Caesar’s Head), is that it is cool.  This week a thunderstorm has rolled through almost every afternoon.

Which brings me to the second benefit – there are a lot of plants and animals up here!  The Southern Apps is a temperate rainforest, receiving an average of 5.5 feet of rain annually.  Rainfall, along with the gentle, dramatic, water-sculpted, ancient topography, (these mountains were once taller than the Himalayas), underlies (literally) the region’s remarkable diversity of life.

“Our” mountains host the highest amphibian diversity on the planet – with more than 50 species – representing about 10 percent of all amphibians worldwide!  There is, of course, also an almost unparalleled array of vegetation.  The large white rhododendrons (Rhododendron maximum) are blooming, along with the most beautiful flower on the East Coast, the Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum).  And then there are the birds…

This article from the Washington Post reports on an alarming study by scientists at Stanford concluding that the magnificent expression of life here and elsewhere is in the grip of the most severe extinction crisis since dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, (probably caused by a giant meteor striking the earth somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico).

Washington Post: Earth is on its way to the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, scientists warn

From the article:

“Thus, we emphasize that the sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most,” the authors wrote. “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.” 

This point of view is not shared by everyone in the scientific community.  Says Stuart Pimm, professor of biology at Duke:

“It’s a little bit dramatic,” Pimm said. “Yes, we are driving species to extinction a thousand times faster than we should. So yes, there is a problem. But on the other hand, telling people that we’re all doomed and going to die isn’t terribly helpful.”

My take on it:  Regardless of whether Dr. Pimm or Dr. Erhlich is right, we need to act quickly and decisively to preserve the world’s biodiversity.  Fortunately, there are steps we can take that will make a huge difference for the future of life on earth.  More on that in a minute.

Seismic blasting and offshore oil extraction on the Southeast coast could hasten the decline of marine species, particularly those in the path of the blasting, along with birds, marine mammals and fish that could be harmed by oil spills.  This next piece is an editorial by Frank Knapp, head of the S. C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.  Frank writes in the Greenville News that the risks of blasting and extraction are too high, and the return too minimal and too speculative.  (It is hard to imagine what return could justify putting a substantial part of our coastal marine ecosystem at risk.)

Greenville News: Knapp Editorial: Time is running out to protect the Atlantic coast

Says Frank:

Setting aside the ultimate, unwanted purpose for seismic testing in the Atlantic, exploration using airguns under current regulations itself is not safe. Research has clearly demonstrated that this old technology is very harmful to marine life, a fact that was cited by the Obama administration as one of the reasons it denied seismic testing permits for the Atlantic just 6 months ago. 

The government estimates that up to 138,000 whales and dolphins could be injured or harassed if seismic airgun blasting was allowed in the Atlantic. This is hardly an insignificant number. Regulations to try to mitigate the harm to marine mammals from seismic airgun blasting are ridiculously insufficient. Seismic vessels are to place an observer with binoculars on the deck to advise if they see a whale or dolphin, which supposedly results in the airguns being stopped.

He urges citizens to weigh in by opposing the blasting permit and includes the following contact information for submitting comments on the proposal.

Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division,
Office of Protected Resources,
National Marine Fisheries Service,
1315 East-West Highway,
Silver Spring, MD 20910 by July 21.

To date, Coastal Conservation League members have submitted 1,125 comments on seismic testing. You can do the same at

Here is an article from the Island Packet elaborating on the public comment process, and praising Congressman Mark Sanford for his leadership opposing offshore oil.

Island Packet: Mark Sanford, environmental groups in race against clock to stop offshore drilling

Besides harming marine life, accelerated extraction of fossil fuels, favored by our president, would also worsen the impacts of climate change.  This next article, by Tony Bartelme with the Post and Courier, reports on a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists identifying areas that are likely to experience increased flooding because of higher sea levels.  Tony reports that Edisto and Kiawah are “in the crosshairs.”

Post and Courier: New study pinpoints sea rise hot spots, with Edisto and Kiawah islands caught in the crosshairs

The Island Packet poses the question of whether Beaufort County could suffer from the increasingly frequent “dry weather flooding” that is plaguing Charleston.  Based on this study, the short answer is:  Yes.

Island Packet: Could Beaufort County soon experience street flooding the way Charleston does?

From the article:

By 2060, under moderate sea level rise or about 2 feet, the scientists predict 12 percent of Hilton Head Island and 16 percent of St. Helena Island will experience floods at an average rate of every other week.

This is serious stuff – extinction, flooding, etc. – the horsemen of the modern Apocalypse. How should a concerned citizen of the planet respond?  Is it even possible to make a difference?  The answer is a resounding yes!  And the prescription is neither complicated nor particularly difficult.  But, according to this article from Forbes, we’ve been getting it wrong for the past few decades.

Forbes: The Four Most Effective Things You Can Do About Climate Change, According To Science

The author reports that some mitigating actions are more effective than others.  But, according to a study produced by Seth Wynes of Sweden’s Lund University and Kimberly Nicholas of the University of British Columbia, most educational materials and curricula don’t provide that insight.  So people are spending a lot of time doing things that, relatively speaking, won’t have much of an impact on greenhouse emissions.

The study identifies four things (some of which they admit are politically unpopular) that have outsized benefits.  Here they are:

  1. Eating a plant-based diet.
  2. Living without reliance on a car.
  3. Avoiding air travel.
  4. Having smaller families.

From the study:

“These actions… have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less effective).”

I have two nits to pick… First, the study notes that changing from plastic to reusable bags has limited benefit for emissions reductions.  I will point out that eliminating single-use plastic bags serves other important environmental purposes like reducing threats to marine life.

Second, while it may not be possible to live “car free” in South Carolina yet, (unless you are Katie Zimmerman), shifting trips to bicycles, buses and feet whenever possible, and driving a fuel-efficient car, will make an enormous difference. (I am a huge fan of the Toyota Prius.  Our 2006 model has 200,000 trouble-free miles on it.)  Similarly, cutting down on meat, even if you don’t completely give it up, will help substantially.  Same with air travel and… children. (I’m not giving up either of mine.)

Still, the report makes a critically important point:  We need to adopt a much more rigorous approach to evaluating which personal choices will achieve the largest emissions reductions.  Otherwise, we’ll end up doing things that are more symbolic than effective.  I hate to say that this is probably the situation with recycling, which has been the rage for decades.  We should do it, but we shouldn’t do it exclusively.

Here is Forbes’ summary:

The good news is, people who combine the four helpful actions listed above can drastically reduce emissions much faster than governments can.

“National policies and major energy transformations often take decades to change locked-in infrastructure and institutions,” the authors write, “but behavioural (sic) shifts have the potential to be more rapid and widespread.”

Good point, but one more nit.  Government must make the right investments if people are to reduce automobile dependency and avoid air travel.  (Once upon a time, there were passenger railroads that conveniently served almost every city in America…)

So take the steps you can today, and lobby for the public investments that will make those things possible and more convenient.

Finally, beating a dead car, (let’s make that metaphor relevant to the present day and leave horses alone!), one investment that will do exactly the opposite of allowing people to make more responsible travel decisions is to spend almost $1 billion extending I-526 to John’s Island.  A recent editorial from the Post and Courier urges Charleston County Council to focus on projects that can be built quickly and that will have long term benefits for the region. (Like the proposed bus rapid transit line between Charleston and Summerville.)

This article reports on the status of 526.

Post and Courier: New Charleston County proposal to finish I-526 spurs passions on both sides

And here is the editorial.

Post and Courier: Editorial board: Misguided road ‘priority’

The editors say:

Eventually, council has to recognize that there are other higher priority transportation projects the county needs to work on, many of which were included on the half-cent sales tax referendum. There are other projects that would do more to alleviate traffic problems for Johns Island residents than extending I-526. 

So, the bottom line is “Don’t despair.”  There’s a lot you can do to make a difference!

Enjoy the week!


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