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Desert Year: Climate Change as a Fungal Spore

by Skip Laitner • January 20, 2012 @ 10:13 am

I never saw it coming.  And I never really felt it until it flared.

The episode likely began as an inhaled fungal pathogen (likely Coccidioidesimmitis, but it could have been C.posadasii) that flared up into something much bigger.  The doctor tells me that I likely breathed it in while roaming the desert trails, maybe sometime in early September.

The pathogens are usually dormant in the long dry spells of the year but when the rains come they can then develop into a mold with long filaments that break off into  airborne spores. Once inhaled they typically resolve into mild flu-like symptoms that in Arizona we usually call Valley Fever.  But as it did in my particular case, over a period of some weeks or even a couple of months, it can become a full-blown inflammation of the lungs; in short, a less-than-fun bout of pneumonia.

As my doctor further explained it to me, if you’re generally in good health the illness can stay sub-acute or below the radar until it might suddenly flash into the more serious infection.  The good news is that with rest, oral antibiotics, simple analgesics, and fluids, most types of bacterial  pneumonia can be cleared within two to four weeks.  Building up to a full strength might require a couple more weeks.

I don’t know when the musings began.  Perhaps it was a moment early in the pneumonic stage as I was visiting the Land of Fever 104.  But at one point I began to wonder how such a very small pathogen – one that I couldn’t see, feel, hear, or touch – could have such a huge impact on my body?  And maybe because I was in a feverish state several different times early in the course of my pneumonia, I also began to wonder . . . What insights might emerge from understanding how a case of Valley Fever that lapsed into a more serious case of pneumonia might be like climate change.

From a Bout of Pneumonia to a Disruptive Climate Condition

For example, the atmosphere, or what we mostly call air, is actually a layer of gases surrounding our planet.  Those gases are retained by the Earth’s
gravity. And those gases protect life here on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation. They also warm the Earth’s surface through heat retention (that is, the greenhouse effect).  The temperature of the Earth without an atmosphere, for example, might be about -18 degrees Celsius or one degree below zero Fahrenheit (if you’re interested, you can check out the math for the radiative equilibrium of the earth’s temperature – given in degrees Kelvin).

While air content and pressure varies significantly, the air that is suitable for the survival of plants and animals (as far as we know), and generally our own civilization, is found in the Earth’s troposphere which has an average depth of about 56,000 feet or about 17 kilometers.  That seems like a lot of (hot) air, but my own calculations suggest that if we thought of the earth as the size of a soccer ball, the troposphere would be roughly the equivalent of a sheet of paper. Not very big at all.

At the scale of a sheet of paper compared to a soccer ball, we can begin to imagine how easy it might be to throw the atmospheric system sufficiently out of whack. And just like Valley Fever that flares into a bad case of pneumonia, climate change may prove a hugely disruptive environmental and economic illness.  Especially when we realize that we now have a planet of more than 7 billion people spewing out about 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide which increases the strength of the greenhouse gas effect each year – and doing it year after year after year.  This becomes even more critical when we’re adding other wastes and pollutants onto the land and into the air, and water. Those additional burdens tend to further weaken the ability of the Earth and its atmosphere to cope with the load of more and more greenhouse gases being dumped each year (see my earlier Blog, More by Waste than Ingenuity?, for yet another look at the amount of garbage that the United States alone unloads each year onto the planet).

The Treatment for a Lurking Climate Change

Like Valley Fever slipping into pneumonia, climate change can build into something serious without our really being aware of it – until it bursts into a serious and disruptive burden at wholly unexpected moments. And like pneumonia climate change can lead to additional, even disruptive, complications.  But also like pneumonia the prescription is rest and treatment.  In this case, what we call rest might be the reduction of greenhouse emissions through a greater emphasis on energy efficiency.

My ACEEE colleagues and I have just released a study which suggests that total energy use, at least in the United States, can be cut in half if we’re willing to “Think Big” about a productivity-led, energy efficiency investment strategy. The good news here is that, if we’re willing develop that resource, it can be done in ways that enhance the resilience of the economy. As it turns out, the efficiency gains that make the economy more resilience and more robust will also provide a substantial increase in future job opportunities.

Once we’ve given the planet a breather through our energy productivity improvements, we can further treat the climate and the economic problem with clean, renewable energy resources. In effect, greater energy efficiency gains can then allow renewable energy to become the dominant climate change strategy.  But as with any medical condition that we want to change, we first have to accept the diagnosis – even if it means that we can’t see it or feel its effects immediately.  Then we have to be willing to accept the recommended treatment.

Taking Our Medicine

As our report highlights, the U.S. has already achieved significant advances in our overall energy efficiency; and we are poised to do more. Although energy efficiency has been the workhorse of the American economy for many, many years, we’ve hardly exhausted the economic potential for an even
greater contribution – if we choose to develop that potential. So in this particular case of small changes within the atmosphere, ones that we may not be able to see immediately, thinking big may be the smartest remedy.  And the huge task ahead!

John A. “Skip” Laitner is Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), based in
Washington, DC.  Tucson is his family’s hometown, and he likely will be there through August of 2012. He hopes to provide a new posting roughly every week over this next year.  While these columns do not reflect the official opinion or views of ACEEE, its board or its staff, he can be reached
at jslaitner@aceee.org.

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