sea-level rise

Unleash the Toxic Avenger on climate change

The year 1984 may be famous -- especially amongst high-schoolers -- for the angst of Winston Smith. He's the guy trying to cope with illegal daydreams of individual freedom in the repressed collective created by George Orwell.

But 1984 also brought "The Toxic Avenger," a low-rent cinematic romp with environmental themes. Described as an action comedy horror film, it broke new ground by being surprisingly entertaining and launched the B movie careers of directors Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz.

Mitch Cohen, who later appeared as a bit player in Kevin Smith's incomparable "Clerks," stars in Toxic as Melvin, the Tromaville Health Club mop boy. Cohen's Melvin "inadvertently and naively trusts the hedonistic, contemptuous and vain health club members, to the point of accidentally ending up in a vat of toxic waste," says Cinema Fan on

For the good of the people

Rather than becoming a mindless monster, as would normally be the case in this genre, the "transmogrification effect" turns Melvin into the Toxic Avenger, royally irritated by "corruption, thuggish bullies and indifference."

Imagine then Melvin's response to climate change. Truly pissed.

Climate change has emerged as a summer blockbuster this year with more than half the United States experiencing drought. Still a far cry from the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, the phenomena is increasing popular awareness of the fragility of the environment. And rising average temperatures appear all but a certainty at this point, giving credence to predictions of future difficulties.

Nate Seltenrich of the East Bay Express writes about how sea level rise, brought on by climate change, would affect the San Francisco Bay region. He says the toxic legacy of polluted old industrial sites ringing the bay could unleash some particularly bad news for residents.

"Water could wear away at existing caps, barriers, and other containment measures, increasing the mobility of buried materials," Seltenrich says. "It could also carry metals, chemicals, and oils directly into groundwater and the bay, where they would harm human health and plant and animal life."

Up, up and away

In a another piece, Molly Samuel of's Climate Watch, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists eight superfund sites near the bay. There are 1,304 superfund sites across the country, according to the EPA.

Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard is one of those sites.

Hunter's Point covers 493 acres on land and another 443 underwater and was established in 1869 as the first dry dock on the Pacific Coast. The Navy arrived in 1940 and used it as a shipbuilding and repair facility. Submarines nosed in after World War II and continued to hang around until the 1970s, when some of the land was leased to a private ship repair company. The EPA says tests in 1987 confirmed the area was rife with "polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), trichloroethylene and other solvents, pesticides, petroleum hydrocarbons, and metals including lead."

In 1991, the Department of Defense closed the shipyard.

My mom the activist avenger

I have a personal connection. My mother the activist has been trying to clean up Hunter's Point using local labor for decades. She's a longtime resident of the Hunter's Point Bay View neighborhood and is fixated on bringing the land back to health. That means birds, wetlands and people.

Sea level rise there wouldn't be pretty. Nor would it in the nearby Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where rising waters threaten the complex network of levees and channels that provide the source of water for two of three people in the state. Fresh water from the Sierra Mountains is sent by way of a massive aqueduct and a sophisticated and energy-intensive network of pumps down through the San Joaquin Valley and up over the Grapevine pass to Los Angeles.

Visualize the superfund toxic mixture mingling with that precious fresh-water system. Ugh.

And here's the connection to the Toxic Avenger, or at least my attempt to make one. Melvin just wouldn't stand for such pollution. Of course, he might explode trying to right the wrongs. There are so many. Too much for one really ugly dude.

There may be room for a sequel, however. Cohen came back for "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV." Maybe he could do another and call it "Superfunds of San Francisco" or something.

Climate change: Water woes haunt Californians

California would sidestep most of the effects of climate change.

The state already is hot and dry, and its coastal areas, with some exceptions, are blessed with some elevation, enabling them to avoid disaster should the seas rise significantly. But one region, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, faces distinct peril, says climate risk analyst Richard Snyder.

"You'll have a problem," says Snyder who spoke at the 2012 International Green Industry Hall of Fame event in Fresno. "Water and climate change are big issues, especially in California."

The Delta is a complex network of levees and channels and the source of water for two of three people in the state. Fresh water from the Sierra Mountains is sent by way of a massive aqueduct and a sophisticated and energy-intensive network of pumps down through the San Joaquin Valley and up over the Grapevine pass to Los Angeles.

When the levee breaks

Should that aging network of levees fail, disaster would strike. Years of farming the roughly half million acres caused large swaths of the peat-rich soil to drop, so that now much if it is below sea level. Some more than 20 feet below. Salt water intrusion would poison the Delta fresh water source, causing extreme economic cost on a scale hard to imagine.

Snyder, a professor at University of California Davis, says Sacramento, the state's capital, would definitely have a problem. Some parts of the city are no more than 20 feet above sea level.

Drought is another probability of climate change. And California would suffer greatly in an extended dry spell, Snyder says. "If you have a 100-year drought, there's no hope," he says.

A decade-long drought would be more manageable. But still no walk in the park. "The secret is to be prepared," Snyder says.

Politics presents a problem

However, politics, and especially the politics of water, is turbulent in California. Always has been. Agriculture would be the first casualty of a water shortage, pummeling the San Joaquin Valley economy.

Heidi Cullen, a senior research scientist with nonprofit Climate Central, spells out the Delta's woes in her book "The Weather of the Future." "The Delta has far more in common with New Orleans that with Hollywood," she writes. "The odds are roughly two in three that during the next fifty years either a large flood or a seismic event will affect the Delta."

Even without such disasters, rising sea level will bring more salt into the Delta and increase the cost of water, Cullen says.

The situation doesn't look good. And attempting a political fix in California is described as a nightmare.

An urgent fix is needed

James Hansen, climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Center, says delay shouldn't be an option. He co-wrote a new report, "Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature," which says humanity is the dominant force driving atmospheric composition and the climate.

"We must transition rapidly to a post-fossil fuel world of clean energies," the report says. But that can't be done without public and government support, the report says. But that "requires widespread recognition that a prompt orderly transition to the post fossil fuel world" is the best choice for avoiding disasters like the one that faces the Delta.

A solution may be tough to find. A line in 1974 film noir "Chinatown," which uses California water politics as its central theme, explains the importance: "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water."

But the difficulties surrounding water, climate change and the potentially tumultuous mix indicate a bleaker outlook, something like that faced by Jack Nicholson's character Jake Gittes in the movie: "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown."

And let's hope the Delta can avoid the destruction wrought by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that destroyed homes and the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin.

That flood was chronicled by blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, but I know the Led Zep version with John Bonham's drums a whole lot better.

Photo: Sacramento's Yellow Bridge.

Even the Sub-Mariner can't stop the rising sea

Back during the Golden Age of comics, Bill Everett in 1939 conceived of the under-sea superhero Namor, the Sub-Mariner, as a scourge against evil.

His target, initially, was the Nazis.

"He is a rare hybrid endowed with great strength, power over the undersea world, the ability to breathe both in and out of water, and the gift of flight," writes blogger and Sub-Mariner expert J. Chivian at "He fought valiantly with the Allies in both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. He has been King of Atlantis."

Namor left the comic scene in 1955 but returned in the 1960s, or Silver Age as it's known to fans. But this time around, he was furious not with the Axis powers but with earth-dwellers in general for fouling his oceans with leaky barrels of nuclear waste and assorted garbage and for exterminating sea life with nets and pollution.

He's likely less pleased today (although I stopped buying the Marvel books in the early 1980s and know nothing of his present-day adventures). A two-page release issued this week by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research Program said that rising sea levels will have significant impacts, causing coastal flooding and erosion.

"Melting of the land-based ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the thermal expansion of warming seawater, has contributed to a rise of global sea level at an average rate of approximately 3 millimeters per year from 1993 to 2010," the release said.

The release describes a research project coordinated through the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The council is assembling a committee of experts that will seek answers to four goals: determining potential sea level rise in 2030, 2050 and 2100 "along with the uncertainty associated with these values"; providing local data for ocean winds, el niño effects, storm frequency and others; recommending planning guidelines for local governments; and conduct case studies to help governments plan ahead.

The project is to be the first California-specific assessment for sea-level rise and likely will be controversial. And why not? Nobody wants to hear that coastal land faces threats to erosion.

After the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, Kodiak Island sunk an estimated four feet. On tiny Raspberry Island where my family's processing plant was based, high tide subsequently washed over the top of the dock, rendering the whole operation useless. The Seldovia plant was destroyed as well.

Just the personal losses were immense, and that's just a single story. Imagine hundreds of thousands and millions of lives and businesses affected. The project undertaken by the council may be California specific, but the issue has world-wide implications.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy and Power recently that the threat of climate change (and thus stuff like melting polar caps) is real. She said the EPA found in 2009 that man-made greenhouse gas emissions threaten the health and welfare of the American people.

"EPA is not alone in reaching that conclusion," she said in an appearance meant to oppose legislation that would block a move by President Obama to beef up The Clean Air Act. "The National Academy of Sciences has stated that there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that the climate is changing and that the changes are caused in large part by human activities."

Jackson went on to say that 18 of the nation's "leading scientific societies have written that multiple lines of evidence show humans are changing the climate ... and that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and the environment."

Assertions to the contrary, she essentially said, are full of malarkey.

Sub-Mariner would not be pleased.

Janet Ritz, editor of, put some perspective on the coming changes in a piece for the Huffington Post. "The new climate reality will force everyone, no matter what their belief about climate change, to live in an unstable climate," she said.

Ritz outlined studies that foretell the disappearance of species, longer winters, harsher droughts and "where floods happen so fast they defy forecast and correctly earn what used to be the hyperbole of 'biblical.'"

She didn't say anything about Namor's wrath. I can imagine Smilin' Stan Lee crafting devastating drama with our undersea friend saving the day but not the war. Our hero, in one of Lee's episodes, would walk back into the ocean wondering, "What have they done?"