Wednesday, May 4, 2016


This week: why knowing more about climate change could help you stall doing anything about it. Decision expert Joe Arvai joins us. We'll end with a voice from the first refugees from rising seas. But first, an industry insider says recycling is a myth that just postpones the inevitable collapse.

Listen to or download this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now.


Canada's Tar Sand city, Fort Mac, had to be completely evacuated today due to the sudden arrival of intense fires. At over 70,000 people, it's the largest evacuation in the history of the Canadian province of Alberta. Some homes and businesses have burned for sure. At least one gas station exploded. Gas supplies ran out as panicked residents tried to fill their big trucks and SUV's.

My gut reaction is simple: what the heck did they think was going to happen? If we pump out the world's most polluting energy source, the result is a changed atmosphere. Nothing stays the same, and bad things happen.

The temperature that third day of May in Fort Mac was 32 degrees, about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That's at least 30 degrees F. above normal, and way past any record heat for the day. The whole Arctic is heating wildly, and guess what, that includes the sub-Arctic where we find Fort Mac and the tar sands operations. This fire is no surprise event.

The humitidy rating was 14 percent. If the humidity and temperature were the same, it would be extreme fire risk. This was worse than that. The Jet Stream entered one of it's blocking phases which locks in this strangely hot May weather. That's partly due to another record low set for the extent of Arctic sea ice last winter. New science is just out, from Jennifer Francis and others, explaining how this works.

Large parts of the Boreal forest, in Canada, Scandinvia and Russia will burn. That will add even more carbon to the skies, and reduce forest cover. The forest "sink" is gone.

The same sort of blocking mechanism in the Jet Stream held a steady rain over Houston Texas last month. The floods were monumental. Houston is another oil capital. And again we have to ask: What did they think was going to happen?

As we saw with a flooded Calgary Alberta a couple of years ago, the self-styled "oil capital of Canada" - guess what: oil production facilities and the cities that support that industry are not immune to climate change. That whole extended system, on which we all still depend, is exposed to continuous interruptions and damage from climate disruption.


Don't get me wrong. I don't gloat about the troubles of others. My own village was home to hundreds of fire-fighters last summer. We couldn't go outside for two weeks because of the smoke. We housed three fire refugees. These are real people, with real lives, and I feel for them, for the worry their kids feel, all of it.

I also know I filled up my tank with gas today. It wasn't likely from the tar sands, or maybe it was. Nobody tells us where it come from, and we have not consumer choice. Anyway, I'm guilty too, although I try, and keep trying, to reduce my greenhouse footprint.

Even so, I know the people working in the tar sands need to stop working there. They are directly helping to wreck the world. If the fires burned over the production facilities of the Canadian tar sands, that would be a gift to our grandchildren. Maybe it will help prevent the even worse fire storms, and severe storms of all kinds, developing in the coming decades. One of the world's top climate scientists has just published a monumental paper warning of the coming super-storms. I'll be covering that in coming shows.

The fires at Fort Mac are another desperate sign of the times. We need to wake up before the nightmare becomes the only reality. The evacuated residents should never go back. They will. Some will hate me for saying it. But the future will judge whether we can react to reality, or just go down with the burning ship.


The truth can be difficult to hear. It's even harder when somebody kicks a sacred green cow like recycling. When John Buffington wrote to me about his new book saying recycling is a myth standing in the way to a greener world, I got defensive. When he told me he was a corporate exec for a major American beer company, I told him "no".

But Jack, as he's called, is also a post doctoral researcher at one of the premier universities in Sweden, the country with the lowest landfill rate in the world. Add that to my own doubts that what I "recycle" is actually heading anywhere useful, and here we go, with the new book "The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment".

Jack Buffington

In the old days, a person could see the local dump, and maybe pluck out a few things that could be used by someone. Now waste hauling is a huge industry, and you say it's so efficient we don't have to think about the problem, even as much as we did in the 1970's. Is the "success" of the waste industry part of the problem?

Some European countries cut their landfilling by incinerating up to 50% of the waste stream. As someone who has looked into the chlorinated bits and heavy metal particles coming out of those incinerator stacks, this scares the heck out of me. However Buffington says the Swedes at least have some tech to capture those emissions.

These allegedly "green" bottles, like "NatureWorks" from Cargill, do they just naturally biograde? No! It takes an industry process, with few facilities, consumer don't know the difference between PET and PLA. In a landfill it takes up to 1,000 years for these "organic" bottles to decompose.

Why are consumers not told about this really strange industrial process required to "compost" so-called bio-plastics?The city of San Francisco gave up on them.

I loved Buffington's Chapter sub-head tilted "EU SUSTAINABILITY: SLOWING DOWN PLANETARY COLLAPSE". The real deal is: food and drink containers, with a few exceptions, are not designed for recycling at all. Our confidence in the recycling game may be preventing us from going all the way to really natural containers.

We compare recycling in Sweden, Germany, the UK and Japan, and of course America.

In the village where I live, everything except glass is dumped into a single big metal bin. That is hauled "away" and I've heard it is shipped all the way to China to be separated and processed. That sounds insane, and it must be hard on China. What really happens to that trash in China? Buffington says the Chinese have just passed new laws to limit the garbage (literally) coming into that country.

I'm told the last paper recycling mills in Canada are at risk of closing, because these single use "recycling" bins produce paper and carboard soaked in so much food waste they can't be used for quality paper.

For now, the actual value of the materials recycled is less than the cost to grab it out of the waste stream. So what, should we just landfill everything? Buffington dreams of containers that actually help nature. He imagines real solutions involving supercomputers, nanotechnology, and 3-D printing. I worry that's a bunch of cool tech into the mix, hoping that will solve our waste problems.

The other problem with changing current recycling, while we wait for a big solution, is that big solution may never come, just as the problem of nuclear waste disposal was always promised but never came, despite 50 years of high tech.

My final complaint is this statement in his book: "A model of consumer austerity is not only un-american, and anti-evolution, but also unnecessary" I couldn't agree less. I think we need a complete reorganization of civilization to live within the planetary means. Do you really believe we can just tweak the consumer model of society?

John or Jack Buffington does research for the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. He's also a specialist in supply chain management for MillerCoors Brewing in Colorado. Buffington has written several books including "Progress, Technology and Seven Billion People: A New Solution for Capitalism".

I think his newset book "The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment" is definitely worth the read, whether it's for business people, politicians, - but especially for greens who need to get real about the greenwashing going on about our waste.

Download or listen to this 26 minute interview with Jack Buffington in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Does concern about climate change depend on the culture where you live? If you know more about it, will you be more likely to support action? New research has some answers which may surprise you.

Our guest Joseph Arvai is an expert in how humans make decisions. He's the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, and the Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. Joe is also co-author of a new paper in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Joseph Arvai

"Knowledge as a driver of public perceptions about climate change reassessed" in the journal Nature Climate Change, was published online April 25, 2016. Joseph Arvai is a co-author. Other authors are from the Institute for Environmental Decisions in Zurich, Switzerland.

The group studied cultural attitutudes toward climate change in Canada, China, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Essentially they found people care more about climate change when the human causes are identified. But their interest becomes less when they are told the details about the physics, CO2 levels, and all that.

This is serious for me, as a science broadcaster. I spend a lot of time talking with experts about the details of how Earth systems respond to greenhouse gases. Am I actually "dampening" public concern, and if so, what should I be doing to raise demand for action?

In a presentation Joe Arvai made while at the University of Calgary, you suggested an ethical oil station, with a menu of choices, based on sources, carbon emissions and more. That's a fascinating idea. What if we had informed choice about the fossil fuel products we buy? You can see his talk on You tube here.


While he was in Calgary, Arvai startled people by suggesting the oil-dependent economy of Calgary could go downhill fast as Detroit did. That was published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper - just before the oil prices crashed along with the Calgary employment and real estate scene. In 2013, his argument seemed crazy. Now it seems too plausible.

Download or listen to this 23 minute Radio Ecoshock interview with Joe Arvai in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


The first voices of refugees from rising seas are trickling in. I play you an 8 minute introduction from a half hour program from "Earth Matters" radio in Melbourne, Australia. The people of the remote Cartaret Islands off Papau New Guinea find the sea has turned against them.

Find the rest of the half hour program on refugees from rising seas at Earth Matters, 3CR radio, Australia. The web address is for Earth Matters is You can find that climate refugee show here.

The Pacific Islanders are running out of time. We did it, nobody helps them, nobody takes responsibility. It's just the start of pulling back from rising seas, first in distant places, then in your own country.

Radio Ecoshock is also out of time for this week. I'm Alex Smith. Thank you for listening, and caring about our world.

We go out with a bit from my new climate song "Change This Thing".

No comments: