February 20, 2011

A Crucial Talk By Naomi Klein Energy  Environment  Future

Watch this. Take it to heart. It couldn't be more important.

It calls to mind this, one of my favorites.

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September 24, 2008

Methane Bubbling Up From Arctic Seas Environment

Wall Street may be the least of our worries. The Independent:

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

Underground stores of methane are important because scientists believe their sudden release has in the past been responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species. Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia's northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through "methane chimneys" rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a "lid" to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age.

They have warned that this is likely to be linked with the rapid warming that the region has experienced in recent years.

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.

The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is calculated to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves so there is intense interest in the stability of these deposits as the region warms at a faster rate than other places on earth.

Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, one of the leaders of the expedition, described the scale of the methane emissions in an email exchange sent from the Russian research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi.

"We had a hectic finishing of the sampling programme yesterday and this past night," said Dr Gustafsson. "An extensive area of intense methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface. These 'methane chimneys' were documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instruments]."

At some locations, methane concentrations reached 100 times background levels. [...]

"The conventional thought has been that the permafrost 'lid' on the sub-sea sediments on the Siberian shelf should cap and hold the massive reservoirs of shallow methane deposits in place. The growing evidence for release of methane in this inaccessible region may suggest that the permafrost lid is starting to get perforated and thus leak methane... The permafrost now has small holes. We have found elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed."

The preliminary findings of the International Siberian Shelf Study 2008, being prepared for publication by the American Geophysical Union, are being overseen by Igor Semiletov of the Far-Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Since 1994, he has led about 10 expeditions in the Laptev Sea but during the 1990s he did not detect any elevated levels of methane. However, since 2003 he reported a rising number of methane "hotspots", which have now been confirmed using more sensitive instruments on board the Jacob Smirnitskyi. [...]

The Arctic region as a whole has seen a 4C rise in average temperatures over recent decades and a dramatic decline in the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by summer sea ice. Many scientists fear that the loss of sea ice could accelerate the warming trend because open ocean soaks up more heat from the sun than the reflective surface of an ice-covered sea.

The key point here is that these are self-reinforcing, self-accelerating effects. Melting permafrost releases more methane, which warms the Earth causing more permafrost to melt, etc., etc. These kinds of feedback loops are nonlinear — i.e., in the absence of suppressing feedback loops, they take on a momentum of their own, accelerating faster and faster, more or less exponentially. At some point run-away warming will be the result, and that point is almost certainly a lot closer than we think since we humans always misjudge exponential growth.

This methane story is a very big deal.

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February 08, 2008

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!! Environment  Politics

This'll leave you sputtering:

Your modern GOP.

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February 03, 2008

Annie Leonard's Story Of Stuff Activism  Economy  Environment

Good chance you've already seen this, but if not go check out Annie Leonard's video Story of Stuff, viewable here. Much of it is familiar, but it's got some startling statistics and a great quote or two. Its real strength, though, is the way it pulls together some of the big picture. Recommended.

A teaser:

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January 30, 2008

Wendell Berry On The "Environmental Crisis" Activism  Environment

Had some time on my hands today as I spent the day hooked up to an IV, which gave me the opportunity to do something that's been on my to-do list for a while — type in a passage I love from Wendell Berry's essay "The Idea of a Local Economy":

The "environmental crisis" has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of "raw materials," and that we may safely possess those materials merely by taking them. This taking, as our technical means have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less gratitude, less local knowledge, and less skill. Our methodologies of land use have strayed from our old sympathetic attempts to imitate natural processes, and have come more and more to resemble the methodology of mining, even as mining itself has become more technologically powerful and more brutal.

And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive as "environmental" problems without correcting the economic oversimplification that caused them. This oversimplification is now either a matter of corporate behavior or of behavior under the influence of corporate behavior. This is sufficiently clear to many of us. What is not sufficiently clear, perhaps to any of us, is the extent of our complicity, as individuals and especially as individual consumers, in the behavior of corporations.

What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently most people in the "developed" world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover, they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of "service" that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities. Our major economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others.

The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution to the "environmental crisis" can be merely political — that the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated by a few people to whom we will give our proxies to police the economic proxies that we have already given. The danger, in other words, is that people will think they have made a sufficient change if they have altered their "values," or had a "change of heart," or experienced a "spiritual awakening," and that such a change in passive consumers will cause appropriate changes in the public experts, politicians, and corporate executives to whom they have granted their political and economic proxies.

The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves. A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life. The "environmental crisis," in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies. If people begin the effort to take back into their own power a significant portion of their economic responsibility, then their inevitable first discovery is that the "environmental crisis" is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an "environmental crisis" because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, god-given world.

I usually highlight the important bits in bold, but in this case that would mean highlighting the whole thing. It's a deeply considered and beautifully expressed set of ideas. Each sentence, each thought, is well worth savoring and reflecting on. That's what I think, anyway. I love it.

I don't take it to mean we shouldn't be acting politically to rein in the corporations, rather that just reining them in (or getting some leader to rein them in) isn't enough. We need to replace them with something better, something more on a human scale, something sustainable that nourishes us in the deepest sense of the word and that truly belongs in the "natural, god-given world."

There's a lot more that could be said — about the bizarre legal doctrine that grants corporations the same legal rights as persons, for example; or that they, unlike persons, can live forever, amassing enormous wealth and political power; that they don't need clean air to breath or clean water to drink, they're just machines programmed to maximize profit, and they behave accordingly; that they have almost limitless powers of persuasion via advertising and media generally, so the struggle of persons versus corporations long ago stopped being anything resembling a fair fight. Those are important issues. But for now, let's just read Berry's words and take them in. We'll come back to them.

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January 04, 2008

Peak Food Development  Environment  Future

Canada's Financial Post (via Cryptogon) on the developing global food crisis:

A new crisis is emerging, a global food catastrophe that will reach further and be more crippling than anything the world has ever seen. The credit crunch and the reverberations of soaring oil prices around the world will pale in comparison to what is about to transpire, Donald Coxe, global portfolio strategist at BMO Financial Group said at the Empire Club's 14th annual investment outlook in Toronto on Thursday.

"It's not a matter of if, but when," he warned investors. "It's going to hit this year hard."

Mr. Coxe said the sharp rise in raw food prices in the past year will intensify in the next few years amid increased demand for meat and dairy products from the growing middle classes of countries such as China and India as well as heavy demand from the biofuels industry.

"The greatest challenge to the world is not US$100 oil; it's getting enough food so that the new middle class can eat the way our middle class does, and that means we've got to expand food output dramatically," he said.

The impact of tighter food supply is already evident in raw food prices, which have risen 22% in the past year.

Mr. Coxe said in an interview that this surge would begin to show in the prices of consumer foods in the next six months. Consumers already paid 6.5% more for food in the past year.

Wheat prices alone have risen 92% in the past year, and yesterday closed at US$9.45 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade.

At the centre of the imminent food catastrophe is corn - the main staple of the ethanol industry. The price of corn has risen about 44% over the past 15 months, closing at US$4.66 a bushel on the CBOT yesterday - its best finish since June 1996.

This not only impacts the price of food products made using grains, but also the price of meat, with feed prices for livestock also increasing.

"You're going to have real problems in countries that are food short, because we're already getting embargoes on food exports from countries, who were trying desperately to sell their stuff before, but now they're embargoing exports," he said, citing Russia and India as examples.

"Those who have food are going to have a big edge."

With 54% of the world's corn supply grown in America's mid-west, the U.S. is one of those countries with an edge.

But Mr. Coxe warned U.S. corn exports were in danger of seizing up in about three years if the country continues to subsidize ethanol production. Biofuels are expected to eat up about a third of America's grain harvest in 2007.

The amount of U.S. grain currently stored for following seasons was the lowest on record, relative to consumption, he said.

We've got some big, snowballing trends bearing down on us: peak oil, peak water, peak grains, peak fish, peak topsoil. Just coasting along on the path of least resistance isn't going to be good enough. Not even close.

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January 03, 2008

Waste Not, Collapse Not Environment  Future

Via EuroTrib (from whom I stole the wonderful tagline above), an excerpt from a Jared Diamond (author of Collapse) NYT op-ed. Diamond says people in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia consume about 32 times more resources and produce 32 times as much waste as people in the developing world. This is, putting it mildly, a problem. Diamond:

Among the developing countries that are seeking to increase per capita consumption rates at home, China stands out. It has the world’s fastest growing economy, and there are 1.3 billion Chinese, four times the United States population. The world is already running out of resources, and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates. Already, China is competing with us for oil and metals on world markets.

Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let’s suppose they rise to our level. Let’s also make things easy by imagining that nothing else happens to increase world consumption — that is, no other country increases its consumption, all national populations (including China’s) remain unchanged and immigration ceases. China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent.

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.

We Americans may think of China’s growing consumption as a problem. But the Chinese are only reaching for the consumption rate we already have. To tell them not to try would be futile.

The only approach that China and other developing countries will accept is to aim to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world. But the world doesn’t have enough resources to allow for raising China’s consumption rates, let alone those of the rest of the world, to our levels. Does this mean we’re headed for disaster?

No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Other aspects of our consumption are wasteful, too. Most of the world’s fisheries are still operated non-sustainably, and many have already collapsed or fallen to low yields — even though we know how to manage them in such a way as to preserve the environment and the fish supply. If we were to operate all fisheries sustainably, we could extract fish from the oceans at maximum historical rates and carry on indefinitely.

The same is true of forests: we already know how to log them sustainably, and if we did so worldwide, we could extract enough timber to meet the world’s wood and paper needs. Yet most forests are managed non-sustainably, with decreasing yields.

Just as it is certain that within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now, it is also certain that per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours. These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects. In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends; the main thing lacking has been political will.

Diamond has a point: we produce enormous amounts of waste and useless crap that do nothing to improve our quality of life. Who needs it? We can do much more with less — and be much happier in the bargain — if we focus on the stuff that really makes our lives better. Instead of using ever more resources and producing ever more waste, we need to redefine economic growth as making ever more efficient and effective use of a sustainable level of resource consumption and waste production. No doubt.

Ah, but will we? Diamond thinks it's a matter of summoning the political will. If only. Unfortunately, it's a whole lot bigger than politics. A lot of people make a lot of money on waste and useless crap. They're not voluntarily going to stop. Everybody pursues his or her own individual short-term interest and, in the aggregate, the result is collective suicide. Hard to see what's going to turn that around. We're like bacteria in a petri dish who grow like mad until they run out of nutrients, then die off. We like to think we're smarter than that, but we sure haven't proved it yet.

The 21st century question: are people smarter than bacteria?

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January 02, 2008

Fillin' 'Er Up With Other People's Food Development  Energy  Environment  Ethics  Future  Peak Oil

$100 oil prices poor folks out of the market for energy. But worse than that, it prices them out of the market for food. It's already happening. IHT:

In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned [December 17].

The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The agency's food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year, compared with 9 percent the year before - a rate that was already unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107 million, in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's total consumption - much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday. Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time [December 17], the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil.

Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

"We're concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world's hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, in a telephone interview. She said that her agency's food procurement costs had gone up 50 percent in the past 5 years and that some poor people are being "priced out of the food market."

To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

"You can debate why this is all happening, but what's most important to us is that it's a long-term trend, reversing decades of decreasing food prices," Sheeran said.

Climate specialists say that the vulnerability will only increase as further effects of climate change are felt. "If there's a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that effects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation," said Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra.

Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change - such as droughts, floods and storms - have decreased production in important exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf said. [...]

Sheeran said, that on a recent trip to Mali, she was told that food stocks were at an all time low. [...]

[R]ecent scientific papers concluded that farmers could adjust to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees) of warming by switching to more resilient species, changing planting times, or storing water for irrigation, for example.

But that after that, "all bets are off," said Francesco Tubiello, of Columbia University Earth Institute. "Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale, but there is a strong potential for negative surprises." [...]

Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling their corn to make subsidized ethanol.

The world's food stocks are rapidly shrinking. Could anything be more fundamental? And yet there is almost no awareness of this situation in the world's wealthier nations.

By being energy hogs, we make other people go hungry. It's really that simple. Picture it next time you fill your tank: some of what's going in there is other people's food. Either directly, in the form of ethanol from corn, or indirectly, because our profligate energy use drives prices up and fuels global warming. This is a central moral issue of our time: will we in the world's wealthier nations continue to use our wealth to maintain a way of life that is increasingly deadly to everyone else on the planet? In other words, will we make other people starve so we can drive our SUV to the mall?

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December 18, 2007

Past The Tipping Point Environment  Future

Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On and Boiling Point, thinks it's no longer possible to prevent catastrophic climate change. It's too late. We need, therefore, to stop thinking (only) about how we're going to avert global warming and start thinking about how we're going to deal with its consequences. It's quite a long piece, but worth excerpting at length (Grist):

As the pace of global warming kicks into overdrive, the hollow optimism of climate activists, along with the desperate responses of some of the world's most prominent climate scientists, is preventing us from focusing on the survival requirements of the human enterprise.

The environmental establishment continues to peddle the notion that we can solve the climate problem.

We can't.

We have failed to meet nature's deadline. In the next few years, this world will experience progressively more ominous and destabilizing changes. These will happen either incrementally — or in sudden, abrupt jumps.

Under either scenario, it seems inevitable that we will soon be confronted by water shortages, crop failures, increasing damages from extreme weather events, collapsing infrastructures, and, potentially, breakdowns in the democratic process itself. [...]

[If] humanity decided tomorrow to replace its coal- and oil-burning energy sources with noncarbon sources — it would still be too late to avert major climate disruptions. No national energy infrastructure can be transformed within a decade. [...]

The truth is that we may already be witnessing the early stages of runaway climate change in the melting of the Arctic, the increase in storm intensity, the accelerating extinctions of species, and the prolonged nature of recurring droughts.

Moreover, some scientists now fear that the warming is taking on its own momentum — driven by internal feedbacks that are independent of the human-generated carbon layer in the atmosphere.

Consider these examples:

  • Despite growing public awareness of global warming, the world's carbon emissions are rising nearly three times faster than they did in the 1990s. As a result, many scientists tell us that the official, government-sanctioned forecasts of coming changes are understating the threat facing the world.

  • A rise of 2 degrees C over preindustrial temperatures is now virtually inevitable, according to the IPCC, as the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is approaching the destabilizing level of 450 parts per million. That rise will bring drought, hunger, disease, and flooding to millions of people around the world.

  • Scientists predict a steady rise in temperatures beginning in about two years — with at least half of the years between 2009 and 2019 surpassing the average global temperature in 1998, to date, the hottest year on record.

  • Given the unexpected speed with which Antarctica is melting, coupled with the increasing melt rates in the Arctic and Greenland, the rate of sea-level rise has doubled — with scientists now raising their prediction of ocean rise by century's end from about three feet to about six feet.

  • Scientists discovered that a recent, unexplained surge of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is due to more greenhouse gases escaping from trees, plants, and soils — which have traditionally buffered the warming by absorbing the gases. In the lingo of climate scientists, carbon sinks are turning into carbon sources. Because the added warmth is making vegetation less able to absorb our carbon emissions, scientists expect the rate of warming to jump substantially in the coming years.

  • The intensity of hurricanes around the world has doubled in the last decade. As Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research explained, "If you take the last 10 years, we've had twice the number of category-5 hurricanes than any other [10-year period] on record."

  • In Australia, a new, permanent state of drought in the country's breadbasket has cut crop yields by over 30 percent. The 1-in-1,000-year drought exemplifies a little-noted impact of climate change. As the atmosphere warms, it tightens the vortex of the winds that swirl around the poles. One result is that the water that traditionally evaporated from the Southern Ocean and rained down over New South Wales is now being pulled back into Antarctica — drying out the southeastern quadrant of Australia and contributing to the buildup of glaciers in the Antarctic — the only area on the planet where glaciers are increasing.

As one prominent climate scientist said recently, "We are seeing impacts today that we did not expect to see until 2085."

The panic among climate scientists is expressing itself in geoengineering proposals that are half-baked, fantastically futuristic, and, in some cases, reckless. Put forth by otherwise sober and respected scientists, the schemes are intended to basically allow us to continue burning coal and oil. [...]

Climate change won't kill all of us — but it will dramatically reduce the human population through the warming-driven spread of infectious disease, the collapse of agriculture in traditionally fertile areas, and the increasing scarcity of fresh drinking water. (Witness the 1-in-100-year drought in the southeastern U.S., which has been threatening drinking water supplies in Georgia and other states.)

Those problems will be dramatically intensified by an influx of environmental refugees whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes or whose freshwater sources have dried up or whose homelands are going under from rising sea levels. [...]

One frequently overlooked potential casualty of accelerating climate change may be our tradition of democracy (corrupted as it already is). When governments have been confronted by breakdowns, they have frequently resorted to totalitarian measures to keep order in the face of chaos. It is not hard to imagine a state of emergency morphing into a much longer state of siege, especially since heat-trapping carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about 100 years.

Add the escalating squeeze on our oil supplies, which could intensify our meanest instincts, and you have the ingredients for a long period of repression and conflict.

Ominously, this plays into the scenario, thoughtfully explored by Naomi Klein, that the community of multinational corporations will seize on the coming catastrophes to elbow aside governments as agents of rescue and reconstruction — but only for communities that can afford to pay. This dark vision implies the increasing insulation of the world's wealthy minority from the rest of humanity — buying protection for their fortressed communities from the Halliburtons, Bechtels, and Blackwaters of the world while the majority of the poor are left to scramble for survival among the ruins.

The only antidote to that kind of future is a revitalization of government — an elevation of public mission above private interest and an end to the free-market fundamentalism that has blinded much of the American public with its mindless belief in the divine power of markets. [...]

There needs to be a vision that accommodates both the truth of the coming cataclysm and the profoundly human need for a sense of future.

That vision needs to be framed by the truly global nature of the problem. It starts with the recognition that this historical era of nationalism has become a stubborn, increasingly toxic impediment to our collective future. We all need to begin to think of ourselves — now — as citizens of one profoundly distressed planet.

I think that understanding involves a recognition that a clean environment is about far more than endangered species, toxic substances, and the "dead zones" that keep spreading off our shorelines. A clean environment is a basic human right. And without it, all the other human rights for which we have worked so hard will end up as grotesque caricatures of some of our deepest aspirations. [...]

At the level of social organization, the coming changes imply the need to conduct something like 80 percent of our governance at the local grassroots level through some sort of consensual democratic process — with the remaining 20 percent conducted by representatives at the global level. [...]

The key to our survival as a civil species during an era of profound natural upheaval lies in an enhanced sense of community. [...]

As the former Argentine climate negotiator, Raul Estrada-Oyuela, said, "We are all adrift in the same boat — and there's no way half the boat is going to sink."

To keep ourselves afloat, we need to change the economic and political structures that determine how we behave. In this case, we need to elevate the ethic of cooperation over the deeply ingrained reflex of competition. We need to elevate our biological similarities over our geographical differences. We need, in the face of this oncoming onslaught, to reorganize our social structures to reflect our most humane collective aspirations.

The triumph of the ideology of private self-interest over a shared sense of public responsibility came at the worst possible time, historically speaking. The last couple of generations of Americans have had it ingrained in them that greed is good and unrestrained markets are the only way of organizing human activity that actually works. Unfortunately, the total here is qualitatively different from the sum of its parts: countless acts that each advance individual self-interest add up to collective suicide. If there ever were a refutation of naked, unregulated capitalism, this is it. But the Titanic steams on.

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December 12, 2007

"The Arctic Is Screaming," "The Canary Has Died" Environment

The global warming news keeps getting worse. AP:

An already relentless melting of the Arctic greatly accelerated this summer, a warning sign that some scientists worry could mean global warming has passed an ominous tipping point. One even speculated that summer sea ice would be gone in five years.

Greenland's ice sheet melted nearly 19 billion tons more than the previous high mark, and the volume of Arctic sea ice at summer's end was half what it was just four years earlier, according to new NASA satellite data obtained by The Associated Press.

"The Arctic is screaming," said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the government's snow and ice data center in Boulder, Colo.

Just last year, two top scientists surprised their colleagues by projecting that the Arctic sea ice was melting so rapidly that it could disappear entirely by the summer of 2040.

This week, after reviewing his own new data, NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally said: "At this rate, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions."

So scientists in recent days have been asking themselves these questions: Was the record melt seen all over the Arctic in 2007 a blip amid relentless and steady warming? Or has everything sped up to a new climate cycle that goes beyond the worst case scenarios presented by computer models?

"The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming," said Zwally, who as a teenager hauled coal. "Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines." [...]

In the United States, a weakened Arctic blast moving south to collide with moist air from the Gulf of Mexico can mean less rain and snow in some areas, including the drought-stricken Southeast, said Michael MacCracken, a former federal climate scientist who now heads the nonprofit Climate Institute. Some regions, like Colorado, would likely get extra rain or snow.

More than 18 scientists told the AP that they were surprised by the level of ice melt this year.

"I don't pay much attention to one year ... but this year the change is so big, particularly in the Arctic sea ice, that you've got to stop and say, 'What is going on here?' You can't look away from what's happening here," said Waleed Abdalati, NASA's chief of cyrospheric sciences. "This is going to be a watershed year."

2007 shattered records for Arctic melt in the following ways:

• 552 billion tons of ice melted this summer from the Greenland ice sheet, according to preliminary satellite data to be released by NASA Wednesday. That's 15 percent more than the annual average summer melt, beating 2005's record.

A record amount of surface ice was lost over Greenland this year, 12 percent more than the previous worst year, 2005, according to data the University of Colorado released Monday. That's nearly quadruple the amount that melted just 15 years ago. It's an amount of water that could cover Washington, D.C., a half-mile deep, researchers calculated.

The surface area of summer sea ice floating in the Arctic Ocean this summer was nearly 23 percent below the previous record. The dwindling sea ice already has affected wildlife, with 6,000 walruses coming ashore in northwest Alaska in October for the first time in recorded history. Another first: the Northwest Passage was open to navigation.

• Still to be released is NASA data showing the remaining Arctic sea ice to be unusually thin, another record. That makes it more likely to melt in future summers. Combining the shrinking area covered by sea ice with the new thinness of the remaining ice, scientists calculate that the overall volume of ice is half of 2004's total.

Alaska's frozen permafrost is warming, not quite thawing yet. But temperature measurements 66 feet deep in the frozen soil rose nearly four-tenths of a degree from 2006 to 2007, according to measurements from the University of Alaska. While that may not sound like much, "it's very significant," said University of Alaska professor Vladimir Romanovsky.

Surface temperatures in the Arctic Ocean this summer were the highest in 77 years of record-keeping, with some places 8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, according to research to be released Wednesday by University of Washington's Michael Steele.

Greenland, in particular, is a significant bellwether. Most of its surface is covered by ice. [...]

Other new data, from a NASA satellite, measures ice volume. NASA geophysicist Scott Luthcke, reviewing it and other Greenland numbers, concluded: "We are quite likely entering a new regime."

Melting of sea ice and Greenland's ice sheets also alarms scientists because they become part of a troubling spiral.

White sea ice reflects about 80 percent of the sun's heat off Earth, NASA's Zwally said. When there is no sea ice, about 90 percent of the heat goes into the ocean which then warms everything else up. Warmer oceans then lead to more melting.

"That feedback is the key to why the models predict that the Arctic warming is going to be faster," Zwally said. "It's getting even worse than the models predicted."

NASA scientist James Hansen, the lone-wolf researcher often called the godfather of global warming, on Thursday was to tell scientists and others at the American Geophysical Union scientific in San Francisco that in some ways Earth has hit one of his so-called tipping points, based on Greenland melt data.

"We have passed that and some other tipping points in the way that I will define them," Hansen said in an e-mail. "We have not passed a point of no return. We can still roll things back in time — but it is going to require a quick turn in direction."

Once again, we are confronted by the two themes I've been harping on for a long time. First, we are constantly being surprised by the pace of global warming, with pretty much every surprise being on the side that warming is happening faster than anticipated. That implies that climate models are overly conservative and we're a lot worse off than we think. Second, much of the acceleration of global warming is likely caused by various self-reinforcing feedback loops that are rapidly gaining strength. The whole process is taking on a life of its own.

We tend to expect things to proceed in a nice linear fashion, so we feel like we've got time, but our intuition here is our enemy. In nonlinear, far-from-equilibrium systems like the Earth's climate, change can be quite sudden. And so we see the Arctic ice cut in half in a mere four years. Like the man said, the Arctic is screaming. Are we listening?

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December 04, 2007

Do The Math Environment

I hate to say it, but the likelihood that the UN conference in Bali will produce reductions in carbon emissions sufficient to prevent catastrophic global warming is essentially zero. Not going to happen. Because what's really needed is not even being hinted at.

George Monbiot does the math:

There is now a broad scientific consensus that we need to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level. Beyond that point, the Greenland ice sheet could go into irreversible meltdown, some ecosystems collapse, billions suffer from water stress, droughts could start to threaten global food supplies. [...]

In the new summary published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you will find a table which links different cuts to likely temperatures. To prevent global warming from eventually exceeding 2°, it suggests, by 2050 the world needs to cut its emissions to roughly 15% of the volume in 2000.

I looked up the global figures for carbon dioxide production in 2000 and divided it by the current population. This gives a baseline figure of 3.58 tonnes of CO2 per person. An 85% cut means that (if the population remains constant) the global output per head should be reduced to 0.537t by 2050. The UK currently produces 9.6 tonnes per head and the US 23.6t(9,10). Reducing these figures to 0.537t means a 94.4% cut in the UK and a 97.7% cut in the US. But the world population will rise in the same period. If we assume a population of 9bn in 2050, the cuts rise to 95.9% in the UK and 98.3% in the US.

The IPCC figures might also be out of date. In a footnote beneath the table, the panel admits that "emission reductions...might be underestimated due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks." What this means is that the impact of the biosphere's response to global warming has not been fully considered. As seawater warms, for example, it releases carbon dioxide. As soil bacteria heat up, they respire more, generating more CO2. As temperatures rise, tropical forests die back, releasing the carbon they contain. These are examples of positive feedbacks. A recent paper (all the references are on my website) estimates that feedbacks account for about 18% of global warming. They are likely to intensify.

A paper in Geophysical Research Letters finds that even with a 90% global cut by 2050, the 2° threshold "is eventually broken." To stabilise temperatures at 1.5° above the pre-industrial level requires a global cut of 100%. The diplomats who started talks in Bali yesterday should be discussing the complete decarbonisation of the global economy.

It is not impossible. In a previous article I showed how by switching the whole economy over to the use of electricity and by deploying the latest thinking on regional supergrids, grid balancing and energy storage, you could run almost the entire energy system on renewable power. The major exception is flying (don't expect to see battery-powered jetliners) which suggests that we should be closing rather than opening runways.

This could account for around 90% of the necessary cut. Total decarbonisation demands that we go further. Preventing 2° of warming means stripping carbon dioxide from the air. The necessary technology already exists: the challenge is making it efficient and cheap. [...]

The Kyoto Protocol, whose replacement the Bali meeting will discuss, has failed. Since it was signed, there has been an acceleration in global emissions: the rate of CO2 production exceeds the IPCC's worst case and is now growing faster than at any time since the beginning of the industrial revolution. It's not just the Chinese. A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that "no region is decarbonizing its energy supply." Even the age-old trend of declining energy intensity as economies mature has gone into reverse. [...]

Underlying the immediate problem is a much greater one...[A] growth rate of 3% means economic activity doubles in 23 years. At 10% it takes just 7 years...Each successive doubling period consumes as much resource as all the previous doubling periods combined. In other words, if our economy grows at 3% between now and 2030, we will consume in that period economic resources equivalent to all those we have consumed since humans first stood on two legs. Then, between 2030 and 2053, we must double our total consumption again. [...]

But I am not advocating despair. We must confront a challenge which is as great and as pressing as the rise of the Axis powers. Had we thrown up our hands then, as many people are tempted to do today, you would be reading this paper in German. Though the war often seemed impossible to win, when the political will was mobilised strange and implausible things began to happen. The US economy was spun round on a dime in 1942 as civilian manufacturing was switched to military production. The state took on greater powers than it had exercised before. Impossible policies suddenly became achievable.

The real issues in Bali are not technical or economic. The crisis we face demands a profound philosophical discussion, a reappraisal of who we are and what progress means. Debating these matters makes us neither saints nor communists; it shows only that we have understood the science.

I'd like to think that humans can look at the science, do the math, draw the conclusions, and do what's necessary. But it's not going to happen. Certainly not any time soon. Only when they feel like their very survival is threatened will people make the needed changes and sacrifices. Realize that we're not talking about cutting emissions by a few percent here, a few percent there. We're talking about cutting carbon emissions almost to zero. Monbiot says it's not impossible and invokes the example of WWII, but people are a long way from feeling anything like the level of urgency they felt during WWII. The problem is that the threat is relatively abstract (not a sabre-toothed tiger or an invading army, but a prediction made by scientific modeling) and it's happening in slow motion (not in geological terms, certainly, but in terms of the average human life span). When people make life-changing decisions, there's a huge emotional component. Hardly anybody feels anything like the emotional urgency that would be required for the "complete decarbonization of the global economy." It's nowhere on anybody's to-do list.

A note on the math. I've written a number of times in the past (for example, here) about the crucial importance of understanding exponential growth. Think compound interest: growth by a steady percentage per year. Which is equivalent to growth by doubling at a constant rate. And, as Monbiot notes, when you grow by doubling, each step is greater than the sum of all the preceding steps. Consider the sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and so on. Each number in the sequence is greater (by one) than the sum of all the preceding numbers. Check it for yourself. So if something grows at a rate of 3% a year, say, that sounds pretty innocuous. But that means it doubles about every 24 years, and during that 24 years it increases more than it has in all previous history combined. We're good at creating exponential growth, but we're not wired to grasp its implications, and that may be our species' fatal flaw.

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November 29, 2007

US Carbon Emissions Down In 2006; Bush Takes The Credit Energy  Environment  Politics

In a White House press release issued yesterday, President Bush declared:

I was pleased to receive the Energy Information Administration's final report today, which includes U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for 2006. The final report shows that emissions declined 1.5 percent from the 2005 level, while our economy grew 2.9 percent. That means greenhouse gas intensity - how much we emit per unit of economic activity - decreased by 4.2 percent, the largest annual improvement since 1985. This puts us well ahead of the goal I set in 2002 to reduce greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent by 2012.

My Administration's climate change policy is science-based, encourages research breakthroughs that lead to technology development, encourages global participation, and pursues actions that will help ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for our citizens and for people throughout the world. [...]

Energy security and climate change are two of the important challenges of our time. The United States takes these challenges seriously, and we are effectively confronting climate change through regulations, public-private partnerships, incentives, and strong investment in new technologies. Our guiding principle is clear: we must lead the world to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and we must do it in a way that does not undermine economic growth or prevent nations from delivering greater prosperity for their people.

Breathtaking in its cynicism.

Decide for yourself if you're willing to take the government's figures at face value. But let's suppose we do. As Andrew Leonard points out, here's what the EIA report actually says about causes of the drop:

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2006 were 110.6 million metric tons (MMT) below their 2005 level of 6,045.0 MMT, due to favorable weather conditions; higher energy prices; a decline in the carbon intensity of electric power generation that resulted from increased use of natural gas, the least carbon intensive fossil fuel; and greater reliance on non fossil energy sources.

Andrew Leonard:

Call me partisan, but I'm finding it difficult to credit the Bush administration with responsibility for a year that featured both a mild winter and a cool summer. And while one can put some blame on the White House for high energy prices, the administration has actually fought tooth-and-nail against any kind of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system that would ensure stiff energy costs for greenhouse gas generating fossil fuel consumption. I'm also skeptical of the notion that "greater reliance on non fossil energy sources" has yet made any significant impact on emissions. Indeed, the EIA's own data have carbon dioxide emissions attributable to "renewable fuels" rising from 11.6 MMT to 11.9 MMT.

Which leaves us with the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation. I don't know the whole story of how that transition is playing out, but one major incentive has been the New Source Review requirement of the Clean Air Act, which was designed to encourage the phasing out of older, high-polluting energy-generating technologies.

Of course, the Bush administration attempted (and failed) to gut New Source Review.

And to that we can add this: natural gas is, in terms of its usefulness, the most valuable fuel we have. Think of a gas stove. Instant on, instant off, no fumes, no smoke, no soot. There is no substitute. Moreover, natural gas can't easily be shipped across oceans. When you use up what's on your own continent, you're pretty much done. Here in North America, natural gas production may already have peaked. So, if we're using more natural gas for electricity generation and building lots of new natural gas-powered generation plants, that's hardly cause for celebration.

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November 27, 2007

More Climate Feedback Loops Environment

As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, some of the CO2 gets dissolved in the oceans and some gets captured by green plants — forests, in particular. These effects have mitigated the impact of CO2 emissions to a significant extent, buying us some time. The oceans have been taking up something like a quarter of the CO2 emitted, land-based plant life another quarter.

It now appears, however, that both of these carbon "sinks" are losing their ability to take up carbon and are doing so much sooner than had been expected. Global warming is causing the carbon sinks to lose effectiveness, which leads to more warming, which leads to a further loss in effectiveness, etc., etc. Yet another example of a self-reinforcing climate feedback loop kicking in.

First, the oceans. Here are excerpts from a summary at RealClimate:

The past few weeks and years have seen a bushel of papers finding that the natural world, in particular perhaps the ocean, is getting fed up with absorbing our CO2. There are uncertainties and caveats associated with each study, but taken as a whole, they provide convincing evidence that the hypothesized carbon cycle positive feedback has begun.

Of the new carbon released to the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, some remains in the atmosphere, while some is taken up into the land biosphere (in places other than those which are being cut) and into the ocean. The natural uptake has been taking up more than half of the carbon emission. If changing climate were to cause the natural world to slow down its carbon uptake, or even begin to release carbon, that would exacerbate the climate forcing from fossil fuels: a positive feedback.

The ocean has a tendency to take up more carbon as the CO2 concentration in the air rises, because of Henry's Law, which states that in equilibrium, more in the air means more dissolved in the water. Stratification of the waters in the ocean, due to warming at the surface for example, tends to oppose CO2 invasion, by slowing the rate of replenishing surface waters by deep waters which haven't taken up fossil fuel CO2 yet.

The Southern Ocean is an important avenue of carbon invasion into the ocean, because the deep ocean outcrops here. Le Quere et al. [2007] diagnosed the uptake of CO2 into the Southern Ocean using atmospheric CO2 concentration data from a dozen or so sites in the Southern hemisphere. They find that the Southern Ocean has begun to release carbon since about 1990, in contrast to the model predictions that Southern Ocean carbon uptake should be increasing because of the Henry's Law thing. [...]

A decrease in ocean uptake is more clearly documented in the North Atlantic by Schuster and Watson [2007]. They show surface ocean CO2 measurements from ships of opportunity from the period 1994-1995, and from 2002-2005. Their surface ocean chemistry data is expressed in terms of partial pressure of CO2 that would be in equilibrium with the water. If the pCO2 of the air is higher than the calculated pCO2 of the water for example, then CO2 will be dissolving into the water.

The pCO2 of the air rose by about 15 microatmospheres in that decade. The strongest Henry's Law scenario would be for the ocean pCO2 to remain constant through that time, so that the air/sea difference would increase by the 15 microatmospheres of the atmospheric rise. Instead what happened is that the pCO2 of the water rose twice as fast as the atmosphere did, by about 30 microatmospheres. The air-sea difference in pCO2 collapsed to zero in the high latitudes, meaning no CO2 uptake at all in a place where the CO2 uptake might be expected to be strongest. [...]

The culprit is not in hand exactly, but is described as some change in ocean circulation, caused maybe by stratification or by the North Atlantic Oscillation, bringing a different crop of water to the surface. At any event, the decrease in ocean uptake in the North Atlantic is convincing. It's real, all right. [...]

For the time period from 1960 to 2000, the models predict that we would find the opposite of what is observed: a slight decrease in the atmospheric fraction, driven by increasing carbon uptake into the natural world. Positive feedbacks in the real-world carbon cycle seem to be kicking in faster than anticipated, Canadell et al conclude. [...]

In addition to the changing ocean sink, drought and heat wave conditions may change the uptake of carbon on land. The infamously hot summer of 2003 in Europe for example cut the rate of photosynthesis by 50%, dumping as much carbon into the air as had been taken up by that same area for the four previous years [Ciais et al., 2005].

Now, the forests (Independent):

The sprawling forests of the northern hemisphere which extend from China and Siberia to Canada and Alaska are in danger of becoming a gigantic source of carbon dioxide rather than being a major "sink" that helps to offset man-made emissions of the greenhouse gas.

Studies show the risk of fires in the boreal forests of the north has increased in recent years because of climate change. It shows that the world's temperate woodlands are beginning to lose their ability to be an overall absorber of carbon dioxide.

Scientists fear there may soon come a point when the amount of carbon dioxide released from the northern forests as a result of forest fires and the drying out of the soil will exceed the amount that is absorbed during the annual growth of the trees. Such a prospect would make it more difficult to control global warming because northern forests are seen as a key element in the overall equations to mitigate the effect of man-made CO2 emissions.

Two studies published [November 1] show that the increase in forest fires in the boreal forests – the second largest forests after tropical rainforests – have weakened one of the earth's greatest terrestrial sinks of carbon dioxide.

One of the studies showed that in some years, forest fires in the US result in more carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere over the space of a couple of months than the entire annual emissions coming from cars and energy production of a typical US state.

A second study found that, over a 60-year period, the risk of forest fires in 1 million sq kms of Canadian wilderness had increased significantly, largely as a result of drier conditions caused by global warming and climate change. Tom Gower, professor of forest ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his study showed that fires had a greater impact on overall carbon emissions from boreal forests during the 60-year period than other factors such as rainfall, yet climate was at the heart of the issue.

The intensity and frequency of forest fires are influenced by climate change because heatwaves and drier undergrowth trigger the fires. "Climate change is what's causing the fire changes. They're very tightly coupled systems," Professor Gower said.

"All it takes is a low snowpack year and a dry summer. With a few lightning strikes, it's a tinderbox," he said.

Historically, the boreal forests have been a powerful carbon sink, with more carbon dioxide being absorbed by the forests than being released. However, the latest study, published in the journal Nature, suggests the sink has become smaller in recent decades, and it may actually be shifting towards becoming a carbon source, Professor Gower said.

"The soil is the major source, the plants are the major sink, and how those two interplay over the life of a stand [of trees] really determines whether the boreal forest is a sink or a source of carbon," he said.

"Based on our current understanding, fire was a more important driver of the carbon balance than climate was in the past 50 years. But if carbon dioxide concentration really doubles in the next 50 years and the temperature increases 4C to 8C, all bets may be off." [...]

"There is a significant potential for additional net release of carbon from forests of the United States due to changing fire dynamics in the coming decades," Dr Wiedinmyer said.

Not to sound like a broken record, but every time we read about a surprise in the rate of global warming effects, the surprise is always on the side of global warming happening faster than anticipated. Always. I think we have to assume, therefore, that we're worse off than we think: otherwise, there'd be some number of surprises going the other way. Meanwhile, each surprise leads to new surprises because of the self-reinforcing acceleration driven by the variety of positive feedback loops that are coming into play.

We fiddle, Rome burns.

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November 17, 2007

"We Have To Get Smart Fast" Environment  Essays  Future

[This is a rerun — a post from February 2006 that may be worth another read.]

The Long Now Foundation seeks to foster the long view, looking ahead to the next 10,000 years of human society. It sponsors monthly lectures by some of the West's most original thinkers, the audio for which is archived here. It's an extraordinary collection. Go explore. (The talk by Bruce Sterling is a hoot.)

I want to touch on just one of the lectures here, a recent talk by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has studied the planting and water management practices of Balinese rice farmers. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:

With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

There's a lot more in the talk. It's a great little introduction to complex adaptive systems. It's a deeply thought-provoking look at the role of religious and other stable cultural systems in maintaining social norms over time. It's an extraordinary look at ecological interconnections and the disastrous unintended consequences that can result when Western development models are jammed down people's throats. And much more besides.

The thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is this. The planners and development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum. Much of that thousand-year-old knowledge was unconscious knowledge in the sense that it was woven into the very fabric of systems and social arrangements. It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it. And yet it was very real and very profound. It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.

But the development "experts" were so sure of the superiority of their own brand of knowledge that they didn't hesitate to upset the whole apple cart, all at once, with disastrous effect.

Wendell Berry has a wonderful essay, "The Way of Ignorance," in which he writes:

The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

To think you know better than people who have "pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined" their knowledge over many, many generations, that you know so much better that you can just uproot a way of life, all at once, with scarcely so much as a pilot project, you really have to be ignorant, arrogantly ignorant. As Berry says:

We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to see bad consequences.

In this century, humanity is faced with global-scale challenges that will require global-scale action. The people at WorldChanging, for example, whose work I mostly admire, and who are determined to maintain an optimistic view of humanity's chances (which is a good thing), go so far as to talk a lot about "terraforming" and "mega-engineering", i.e., humans needing to engineer planetary systems on a planetary scale, literally re-forming the Earth.

It may come to that. That is, it may turn out that our only hope is to take the reins of Earth's systems and risk it all on a few rolls of the dice. But I have to confess that it all strikes me as crazy hubris, the very epitome of the "willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk," the last wild perturbations in a system that's growing increasingly chaotic. If we can't interfere with a thousand-year-old system of rice paddies without ruining it, what makes us think we can mega-engineer the planet?

As Lansing said at the very end of his talk: with the challenges that face us, "We have to get smart fast."

Part of getting smart is knowing the limits of one's knowledge. Part of getting smart is working on an appropriate scale. And part of getting smart is to realize that there's enormous knowledge and wisdom woven into living systems, including traditional human societies, that have had millenia and more to arrive at solutions whose surface we have only barely begun to scratch. They have much to teach us. We have much to learn.

(Note: Lansing's written a lovely book on all this.)

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October 30, 2007

Peak Water Environment

George Monbiot on the recent UN report on the global environment outlook (full PDF). Excerpt:

Crop production has improved over the past 20 years (from 1.8 tonnes per hectare in the 1980s to 2.5 tonnes today), but it has not kept up with population. "World cereal production per person peaked in the 1980s, and has since slowly decreased". There will be roughly 9 billion people by 2050: feeding them and meeting the millennium development goal on hunger (halving the proportion of hungry people) would require a doubling of world food production. Unless we cut waste, overeating, biofuels and the consumption of meat, total demand for cereal crops could rise to three times the current level.

There are two limiting factors. One, mentioned only in passing in the report, is phosphate: it is not clear where future reserves might lie. The more immediate problem is water. "Meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will require doubling of water use by crops by 2050." Where will it come from? "Water scarcity is already acute in many regions, and farming already takes the lion's share of water withdrawn from streams and groundwater." One-tenth of the world's major rivers no longer reach the sea all round the year.

Buried on page 148, I found this statement. "If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress." Wastage and deforestation are partly to blame, but the biggest cause of the coming droughts is climate change. Rainfall will decline most in the places in greatest need of water. So how, unless we engineer a sudden decline in carbon emissions, is the world to be fed? How, in many countries, will we prevent the social collapse that failure will cause?

The stone drops into the pond and a second later it is smooth again. You will turn the page and carry on with your life. Last week we learnt that climate change could eliminate half the world's species; that 25 primate species are already slipping into extinction; that biological repositories of carbon are beginning to release it, decades ahead of schedule. But everyone is watching and waiting for everyone else to move. The unspoken universal thought is this: "if it were really so serious, surely someone would do something?" [Emphasis added]

"1.8 billion people...living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025." 2025 is a lot sooner than it sounds. It's when today's infants will be graduating from high school.

We can't say we haven't been warned.

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October 25, 2007

UN: "Humanity's Very Survival" At Risk Environment

Here's another one of those stories that deserves to be front page news all over the world, but it will probably disappear without much of a trace. No exciting visuals for the teevee. Times (UK):

The speed at which mankind has used the Earth's resources over the past 20 years has put "humanity's very survival" at risk, a study involving 1,400 scientists has concluded.

The environmental audit, for the United Nations, found that each person in the world now requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the Earth can supply.

Thirty per cent of amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are under threat of extinction, while one in ten of the world's major rivers runs dry every year before it reaches the sea.

The bleak verdict on the environment was issued as an "urgent call for action" by the United Nations Environment Programme, which said that the "point of no return" was fast approaching.

The report was drafted and researched by almost 400 scientists, all experts in their fields, whose findings were subjected to review by another 1,000 of their peers. [...]

The report assessed the impact on the environment since 1987.

Climate change was identified as one of the most pressing problems but the condition of fresh water supplies, agricultural land and biodiversity were considered to be of equal concern.

The Earth audit

- The world's population has grown by 34% to 6.7 billion in 20 years [...]

- 73,000km2 of forest is lost across the world each year – 3.5 times the size of Wales [...]

- Three million [people] die [annually] of water-related diseases

- Ten million children under 10 die [...]

- 60 per cent of the world's major rivers have been dammed or diverted

- Populations of freshwater fish have declined by 50 per cent in 20 years

- More than half of all cities exceed WHO pollution guidelines [Emphasis added]

One of the things that works against us humans is our short life span. 20 years seems like a long time to us, but it's nothing, the merest blink of an eye. And in that tiny blink of an eye, world population has increased by 1.7 billion people and freshwater fish populations have been cut in half. In 20 years. The scale and speed of what's happening defies understanding, but somehow we need to envision it. Imagine a time-lapse film of the world at large. Glaciers melting, rivers drying up, forests and topsoil disappearing, species dying off, all before your eyes, at breathtaking speed. No pause button, no rewind.

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October 23, 2007

Amazon Burning Environment

The fires in southern California are alarming. Now multiply them by a thousand. Guardian:

Veteran Amazon pilots such as Fernando Galvao Bezerra are hard men to shock. During 20 years in aviation Mr Bezerra, 45, has ferried prostitutes and wildcat miners to remote, lawless goldmines. He has taxied wealthy loggers between ranches, lost countless colleagues to malaria and once survived when his plane plummeted out of the sky. But as his 10-seater Cessna banked over a vast expanse of burning rainforest in the state of Mato Grosso, the pilot, who now works for the environmental group Greenpeace, was virtually speechless. "Holy shit," he blurted over the plane's PA system, as the plane swung sharply to the right towards an image of destruction which owed more to a scene from Apocalypse Now than the Amazon rainforest. "Just look at the size of what this guy is burning."

It is burning season in Brazil, and across the Amazon region, where illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and a growing number of soy producers continue their advance into their world's largest tropical forest, similar scenes are taking place. In August government satellites registered 16,592 fires across Brazil, the overwhelming majority in the Amazon.

For environmentalists the fires are one of the first indications that deforestation is once again on the rise. Over the last two years fears for the future of the Amazon have been tempered by news of a reduction in deforestation. In August the Brazilian government heralded a 30% drop in rainforest destruction - the result, it said, of a government deforestation plan launched in March 2004. The plan outlined the creation of conservation units and 19 anti-deforestation units in deforestation hotspots such as Novo Progresso and Apui. [...]

Already there are signs that rainforest destruction is gathering speed. Deforestation in the states of Mato Grosso and Para is reportedly rising, with chainsaws and forest fires levelling thousands of hectares of pristine forest. Figures released last week by Brazil's space agency, INPE, show that between May and July of this year there was a 200% rise in deforestation in Mato Grosso.

Further north, in the Amazon state of Para, local ranchers and environmental activists claim a similar process is under way. Flying over the south-western corner of Para the tell-tale signs that logging continues at a staggering rate are everywhere: in the illegal dirt tracks that trail through the forest and the trucks that are dotted along them; in the charred trees that litter the landscape; and most strikingly in the newly deforested areas, which have turned the landscape into a messy patchwork of dark green and dull brown.

"It [the level of deforestation] is definitely going to rise," said Agamenon da Silva Menezes, the president of the Rural Workers Union in the Amazon town of Novo Progresso and one of the region's most powerful farmers.

"Lula [president of Brazil) says what he says because it is beneficial for him. But this year they have chopped down much more. What I am supposed to say to the guys [to stop them?]" added Mr Menezes.

Mr Menezes compared the illegal actions of the loggers to the American invasion of Iraq. If George Bush could attack a country out of financial interest, why could the loggers not do the same to the rainforest, he wondered. [...]

Activists claim that the spike in deforestation is a sign that the government's action plan has been largely ineffective. They argue that the recent reductions owe more to external economic factors such as the market price of soy and beef.

With ranchers now looking to cash in on rising prices, Marcelo Marquesini, a former inspector for Ibama (Brazilian ministry of the environment's enforcement agency) who now works for Greenpeace, says the outlook for the rainforest is bleak. [...]

He described the idea that a policy of "zero deforestation" could be introduced as "the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard". Mr Menezes asked: "Where is he [President Lula] going to get 30,000 soldiers from to police the insides of this whole forest?"

Three thousand feet over the burning forest Paulo Adario, the Amazon director of Greenpeace, let out a sigh of resignation. "It's like a scene from a world war," he said gazing down at the forest, which now more resembled the aftermath of a napalm bombing.

"It is forbidden to sell cocaine, it's illegal to deal marijuana and it's illegal to molest little children," Mr Adario added with mix of frustration and irony. "And, as you can see, it is also illegal to destroy the Amazon rainforest." [Emphasis added]

Stories like this make me despair for our future. Individuals continue to act on their own short-term self-interest even though the sum total of all of their actions amounts to collective suicide. We see this everywhere. People figure their little drop in the bucket won't make a measurable difference, so why be a martyr? Why not take the path of least resistance? Why not not cash in?

So individual choices inexorably lead to collective ruin. Somehow, the common good and the individual good need to be brought into alignment. It's hard to see that happening, though, without one of two things. Either people need to accept a vision of collective solidarity that so thoroughly informs their actions that they wouldn't think of taking the selfish path — or drastically coercive measures need to be taken. The first seems improbable, the second (rightly) unacceptable. So we race ahead, gobbling everything we can get our hands on.

Me, I vote for vision. We need to zoom out, see the big picture.

This is our home. All of us together. There is no escape hatch.

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October 22, 2007

Oceans Absorbing Much Less CO2 Environment

Another day, another global warming surprise. And, as usual, the surprise is that we're worse off than we thought.

The BBC reports that the world's oceans are absorbing much less CO2 than they did just ten years ago:

The amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the world's oceans has reduced, scientists have said. University of East Anglia researchers gauged CO2 absorption through more than 90,000 measurements from merchant ships equipped with automatic instruments.

Results of their 10-year study in the North Atlantic show CO2 uptake halved between the mid-90s and 2000 to 2005.

Scientists believe global warming might get worse if the oceans soak up less of the greenhouse gas.

Researchers said the findings, published in a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research, were surprising and worrying because there were grounds for believing that, in time, the ocean might become saturated with our emissions.

BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin said: "The researchers don't know if the change is due to climate change or to natural variations.

"But they say it is a tremendous surprise and very worrying because there were grounds for believing that in time the ocean might become 'saturated' with our emissions - unable to soak up any more."

He said that would "leave all our emissions to warm the atmosphere".

Of all the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, only half of it stays there; the rest goes into carbon sinks.

There are two major natural carbon sinks: the oceans and the land "biosphere". They are equivalent in size, each absorbing a quarter of all CO2 emissions. [Emphasis added]

It's remarkable, really, that all of the surprises have been on one side — things being worse than projected — instead of more or less randomly distributed. It would appear that scientists have a built-in tendency to be conservative in their projections. Nobody wants to cry wolf. But when the wolf's at the door, it's time.

[Thanks, Malcolm]

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Tests Show High Chemical Levels In Kids' Bodies Environment  Science/Technology

As increasingly sensitive tests become available for monitoring the levels of industrial chemicals in people's systems, the results are cause for alarm. CNN:

Michelle Hammond and Jeremiah Holland were intrigued when a friend at the Oakland Tribune asked them and their two young children to take part in a cutting-edge study to measure the industrial chemicals in their bodies.

"In the beginning, I wasn't worried at all; I was fascinated," Hammond, 37, recalled.

But that fascination soon changed to fear, as tests revealed that their children -- Rowan, then 18 months, and Mikaela, then 5 -- had chemical exposure levels up to seven times those of their parents.

"[Rowan's] been on this planet for 18 months, and he's loaded with a chemical I've never heard of," Holland, 37, said. "He had two to three times the level of flame retardants in his body that's been known to cause thyroid dysfunction in lab rats."

The technology to test for these flame retardants -- known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- and other industrial chemicals is less than 10 years old. Environmentalists call it "body burden" testing, an allusion to the chemical "burden," or legacy of toxins, running through our bloodstream. Scientists refer to this testing as "biomonitoring."

Most Americans haven't heard of body burden testing, but it's a hot topic among environmentalists and public health experts who warn that the industrial chemicals we come into contact with every day are accumulating in our bodies and endangering our health in ways we have yet to understand.

"We are the humans in a dangerous and unnatural experiment in the United States, and I think it's unconscionable," said Dr. Leo Trasande, assistant director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Dr. Trasande says that industrial toxins could be leading to more childhood disease and disorders.

"We are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today," he said. "Rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can't be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we're being exposed to." [...]

Dr. Trasande said children up to six years old are most at risk because their vital organs and immune system are still developing and because they depend more heavily on their environments than adults do.

"Pound for pound, they eat more food, they drink more water, they breathe in more air," he said. "And so [children] carry a higher body burden than we do."

Studies on the health effects of PBDEs are only just beginning, but many countries have heeded the warning signs they see in animal studies. Sweden banned PBDEs in 1998. The European Union banned most PBDEs in 2004. In the United States, the sole manufacturer of two kinds of PBDEs voluntarily stopped making them in 2004. A third kind, Deca, is still used in the U.S. in electrical equipment, construction material, mattresses and textiles.

Another class of chemicals that showed up in high levels in the Holland children is known as phthalates. These are plasticizers, the softening agents found in many plastic bottles, kitchenware, toys, medical devices, personal care products and cosmetics. In lab animals, phthalates have been associated with reproductive defects, obesity and early puberty. But like PBDEs, little is known about what they do to humans and specifically children.

Russ Hauser, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, has done some of the few human studies on low-level phthalate exposure. His preliminary research shows that phthalates may contribute to infertility in men. A study led by Shanna Swan of the University of Rochester in New York shows that prenatal exposure to phthalates in males may be associated with impaired testicular function and with a defect that shortens the space between the genitals and anus. [...]

"I'm angry at my government for failing to regulate chemicals that are in mass production and in consumer products." Hammond says. "I don't think it should have to be up to me to worry about what's in my couch." [Emphasis added]

These kids weren't living on a toxic waste dump. The chemicals in their systems came from the normal stuff around them: their mattresses, pajamas, plastic bottles and toys. Sticking our heads in the sand won't fix it.

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October 15, 2007

Reassurance Environment  Humor & Fun


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October 12, 2007

Statement From The Nobel Laureate Environment

Email from Al Gore:

I am deeply honored to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This award is even more meaningful because I have the honor of sharing it with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the world's pre-eminent scientific body devoted to improving our understanding of the climate crisis — a group whose members have worked tirelessly and selflessly for many years. We face a true planetary emergency. The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level.

My wife, Tipper, and I will donate 100 percent of the proceeds of the award to the Alliance for Climate Protection, a bipartisan non-profit organization that is devoted to changing public opinion in the U.S. and around the world about the urgency of solving the climate crisis. [Emphasis added]

Thank you,

Al Gore

I like that: global warming provides "our greatest opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level." It remains to be seen if humanity will make the leap, but global warming will certainly be, as they say, a teaching moment. On a global scale.

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September 13, 2007

Disappearing Boys Environment

The Arctic is a sink for a lot of air- and water-borne pollution. The effects of that pollution are profound. The Independent:

Twice as many girls as boys are being born in remote communities north of the Arctic Circle. Across much of the northern hemisphere, particularly in the US and Japan, the gender ratio has skewed towards girls for the first time.

Now scientists working with Inuit villages in Arctic Russia and Greenland have found the first direct evidence that this trend is linked to widespread chemical pollutants. Despite the Arctic's pristine environment, the area functions as a pollution sink for much of the industrialised world. Winds and rivers deliver a toxic tide from the northern hemisphere into the polar food chain.

Scientists have traced flame-retardant chemicals used in everything from industrial products to furniture, phones and laptops to the food chain, finding high levels of these pollutants in seabirds, seals and polar bears. The Inuit have traditionally relied on a hunter- gatherer's diet almost exclusively made up of marine animals, making them especially vulnerable to toxic pollutants.

Historically in large populations, it is considered normal for the number of baby boys slightly to outnumber girls in a trend believed to compensate naturally for greater male mortality rates.

But a peer-reviewed US study found an unexpected drop in the proportion of boys born in much of the northern hemisphere. The missing boys would number more than 250,000 in the US and Japan, using the gender ratio at the levels recorded up until 1970.

The researchers suspected that this linked widespread exposure among pregnant women to hormone-mimicking pollutants. But Danish scientists examined 480 families in the Russian Arctic and found high levels of the hormone-mimicking pollutants in the blood of pregnant women, and twice as many girls being born as boys.

They are now studying similar communities in Greenland and Canada and although full results will be published next year, their initial findings exactly match those in Russia.

Lars Otto Riersen, a marine biologist, pollution expert and an executive with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Amap), says: "When you see such things happening in the Arctic, it may happen here first, in the same way as climate change did." [...]

Dr Jens Hansen, leader of Amap research, said they were finding incredibly high levels of banned PCBs among a cocktail of other hormone-mimicking chemicals in pre-natal mothers. Pregnant mothers, he said were ingesting these hormone-mimicking chemicals in their diet and passing them through the placenta where they influenced the gender of the foetus or killed male foetuses. [...]

Aqqaluk Lynge, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said they were trying to raise the alarm internationally but nobody was listening. "People don't want to talk about such a critical question. We are talking about our people's survival which is very alarming."

Greenland, the world's largest island and still a dependency of Denmark, now has the highest proportion of women in the world. [Emphasis added]

The modern world's a runaway train. So few people take the long view anymore. Gotta make that buck, gotta do it today — tomorrow be damned. Maybe it's because, deep down, we've lost confidence that we've got a lot of tomorrows left.

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September 11, 2007

Arctic Ice Melt Obliterates Previous Record Environment

The Arctic continues to melt at an astonishing pace. ABC:

An area of Arctic sea ice the size of Florida has melted away in just the last six days as melting at the top of the planet continues at a record rate.

2007 has already broken the record for the lowest amount of sea ice ever recorded, say scientists, smashing the old record set in 2005.

Currently, there are about 1.63 million square miles of Arctic ice, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. That is well below the record of 2.05 million square miles set two summers ago and could drop even lower before the final numbers are in.

From September 3 to September 9, researchers say 69,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappeared, roughly the size of the Sunshine State.

Scientists say the rate of melting in 2007 has been unprecedented, and veteran ice researchers worry the Arctic is on track to be completely ice-free much earlier than previous research and climate models have suggested.

"If you had asked me a few years ago about how fast the Arctic would be ice free in summer, I would have said somewhere between about 2070 and the turn of the century," said scientist Mark Serreze, polar ice expert at the NSIDC. "My view has changed. I think that an ice-free Arctic as early as 2030 is not unreasonable." [...]

Melting sea ice, unlike land-based glaciers like the ones in Greenland and elsewhere, does not raise sea level. But it does play a major role in regulating the planet's climate by affecting air and ocean currents.

"It will shift some of the weather patterns in ways that we are just beginning to understand," said Robert Correll, a scientist who chairs the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and is also the climate change director at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

Correll said that white sea ice also acts as a mirror at the top of the planet, reflecting much of the sun's energy back into space. As it melts, it reveals darker water that absorbs more energy from the sun — further warming the ocean in a process scientists call a "feedback."

"If there is no ice, the ocean is going to continue to heat, and that is going to accelerate the global warming process," said Correll. [Emphasis added]

1.63 million sq mi this year, compared to 2.05 million sq mi when the record was set two years ago. That's a reduction of 20%. The record hasn't been broken, it's been absolutely obliterated.

Something very significant is happening up there.

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September 09, 2007

Greenland Melt Accelerates Environment

Greenland ice is melting so quickly now that chunks breaking off are so huge they trigger earthquakes. Glacier flow is three times faster than it was just 10 years ago. Guardian:

The Greenland ice cap is melting so quickly that it is triggering earthquakes as pieces of ice several cubic kilometres in size break off.

Scientists monitoring events this summer say the acceleration could be catastrophic in terms of sea-level rise and make predictions this February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change far too low.

The glacier at Ilulissat, which supposedly spawned the iceberg that sank the Titantic, is now flowing three times faster into the sea than it was 10 years ago.

Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, said in Ilulissat yesterday: "We have seen a massive acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving into the sea. The ice is moving at 2 metres an hour on a front 5km [3 miles] long and 1,500 metres deep. That means that this one glacier puts enough fresh water into the sea in one year to provide drinking water for a city the size of London for a year."

He is visiting Greenland as part of a symposium of religious, scientific, and political leaders to look at the problems of the island, which has an ice cap 3km thick containing enough water to raise worldwide sea levels by seven metres. [...]

He had flown over the Ilulissat glacier and "seen gigantic holes in it through which swirling masses of melt water were falling. I first looked at this glacier in the 1960s and there were no holes. These so-called moulins, 10 to 15 metres across, have opened up all over the place. There are hundreds of them."

This melt water was pouring through to the bottom of the glacier creating a lake 500 metres deep which was causing the glacier "to float on land. These melt-water rivers are lubricating the glacier, like applying oil to a surface and causing it to slide into the sea. It is causing a massive acceleration which could be catastrophic."

The glacier is now moving at 15km a year into the sea although in surges it moves even faster. He measured one surge at 5km in 90 minutes - an extraordinary event.

Veli Kallio, a Finnish scientist, said the quakes were triggered because ice had broken away after being fused to the rock for hundreds of years. The quakes were not vast - on a magnitude of 1 to 3 - but had never happened before in north-west Greenland and showed potential for the entire ice sheet to collapse.

Dr Corell said: "These earthquakes are not dangerous in themselves but the fact that they are happening shows that events are happening far faster than we ever anticipated." [Emphasis added]

The one constant in all these global warming stories seems to be that everything is happening much faster than even the worst case predictions. It's important to realize that the ice doesn't all have to melt outright. As melt water gets under the ice sheet, breaks its hold on the rock below, and turns the rock into a slippery slope, the ice can just slide into the sea and melt there. These kinds of effects can be quite sudden, as is being seen. A glacier moving 5 km in 90 minutes — that's stunning.

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September 01, 2007

Price Of Wheat Sets Record Environment

Adverse weather conditions are taking a toll on wheat yields in much of the world; wheat prices set a record high this week. Bloomberg (via Cryptogon):

Wheat futures in Chicago climbed to a record, heading for the biggest monthly gain in 34 years, as demand from importers including South Korea and India reduced global inventories.

Prices for the grain have doubled in the past year as adverse weather in Ukraine, Canada, Europe and Australia damaged crops. Global stockpiles will fall to the lowest in 26 years by May 31, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. [Emphasis added]

Climate change is tough on agriculture, and it's only going to get worse. China, for example, projects that warming will reduce its grain harvest by as much as 10%. SMH:

Global warming will cut China's annual grain harvest by up to 10 per cent, placing extra demands on the country's shrinking farmland and threatening its notion of food security, an official has warned. This would mean China would have to find another 10 million hectares of farmland by 2030, when its population is expected to peak at 1.5 billion.

The head of the State Meteorological Administration, Zheng Guogang, told an agricultural forum in northern China that global warming would increase the cost of production because more money would be needed to fight new insects and diseases.

A one degree rise would also exacerbate ground-water evaporation by 7 per cent in a country where drought already affects 22 of 31 provinces.

A fall in the grain harvest of up to 10 per cent would mean 30 million to 50 million tonnes less grain at a time when an extra 100 million tonnes of food would be needed to feed an additional 200 million people in 2030, Mr Zheng said.

China has 20 per cent of the world's population but just 7 per cent of its arable land.

Chinese officials have warned that the country is already nearing the "red line" for the minimum amount of arable land needed to ensure the country can meet the bulk of its food needs.

At the end of 2006, China had 121.8 million hectares of arable land, just over the 120 million hectares deemed the minimum requirement by 2010. [...]

Global warming would cause more drought in already dry areas in low-lying and mid-altitude regions because rainfall would drop 10 to 30 per cent by 2030, Mr Zheng said, while wet, high-altitude areas would experience more drastic flooding.

Although climate change would have little impact on wheat production it would cause corn and rice production to fall. Though some places in north-eastern China had increased grain production because warmer winters meant rice could be grown there, most regions' grain output was falling.

Mr Zheng is one of a growing number of experts to warn against the negative impact of global warming. Last month environmental authorities said climate change was shrinking wetlands at the source of China's two greatest rivers - the Yangtze and the Yellow - and other studies found that glaciers, the source for many of Asia's rivers, in north-western China's Xinjiang region and in the Himalayas have been shrinking rapidly. Summer droughts and floods have already affected a fifth of China's arable land this year and agriculture experts have warned that a decline in the autumn harvest - which usually provides 70 per cent of grain production - could fuel inflation. [Emphasis added]

There was a time when people thought additional CO2 in the atmosphere might boost photosynthesis, increasing crop yields enough to counteract the negative effects of climate change, but that appears to be wishful thinking. New Scientist:

Climate change is set to do far worse damage to global food production than even the gloomiest of previous forecasts, according to studies presented at the Royal Society in London, UK, on Tuesday.

"We need to seriously re-examine our predictions of future global food production," said Steve Long, a crop scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US. Output is "likely to be far lower than previously estimated".

Most researchers believe that higher temperatures and droughts caused by climate change will depress crop yields in many places in the coming decades. But a recent consensus has emerged that rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide could come to the rescue. The gas thought to be behind global warming could also speed up photosynthesis, counteracting the negative effects of warming and even ushering in an era of bumper crops.

But Long told the two-day meeting on crops and future climate that this conclusion was a dangerous illusion. It was, he said, based on results from tests in gas chambers and small greenhouses known to be unreliable.

Long reported instead on the findings of four studies in the US, China and Japan that all test crops in open fields. In these Free-Air Concentration Enrichment experiments, gases such as CO2 were piped into the air around plants - a world first.

The FACE experiments showed that for all four of the world's main food crops - maize, rice, soybean and wheat - the real-world fertilization effect was only half as great as predicted by the contained experiments.

Meanwhile, in some FACE experiments, Long added a new variable not factored into previous studies. He puffed doses of ozone into the fields to simulate the expected rise in ozone smogs due to higher temperatures - and yields crashed. A 20% increase in ozone levels cut yields by 20%, he said.

Increases in ozone levels of this level are predicted for Europe, the US, China, India and much of the middle east by 2050. If Long’s findings prove correct, even CO2 fertilisation will not prevent the world’s crop yields from declining by 10% to 15%. [...]

The Royal Society conference also heard about dangerous temperature thresholds that could destroy crops overnight and give rise to famine.

According to Andrew Challinor of the University of Reading, UK, climate change will mean tropical countries like India will face short periods of super-high temperatures - into the high 40s Celsius. These temperatures could completely destroy crops if they coincide with the flowering period. [Emphasis added]

The world's food situation is increasingly precarious. Burning corn as ethanol doesn't help. Add the rising cost of fossil fuels (and therefore of fertilizers), the depletion of aquifers and glaciers, the loss of topsoil, and there's a perfect storm brewing. When there's no longer enough food to go around, people will get desperate. Desperate people do desperate things.

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August 29, 2007

The China "Miracle" Environment

Capitalism's achilles heel is that there generally is no cost associated with robbing from the future by polluting and depleting non-renewable resources. That, and the fact that capitalists' decisions are driven by a single numerical quantity: profit. Life's too complicated to be reduced to a number.

Witness China, the capitalist's wet dream. This is a long article, but it's essential. NYT:

[J]ust as the speed and scale of China's rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.

Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China's leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.

Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life.

China is choking on its own success. The economy is on a historic run, posting a succession of double-digit growth rates. But the growth derives, now more than at any time in the recent past, from a staggering expansion of heavy industry and urbanization that requires colossal inputs of energy, almost all from coal, the most readily available, and dirtiest, source. [...]

China's problem has become the world's problem. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides spewed by China's coal-fired power plants fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. Much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China, according to the Journal of Geophysical Research. [...]

Experts once thought China might overtake the United States as the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases by 2010, possibly later. Now, the International Energy Agency has said China could become the [greenhouse gas] emissions leader by the end of this year, and the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency said China had already passed that level.

For the Communist Party, the political calculus is daunting. Reining in economic growth to alleviate pollution may seem logical, but the country's authoritarian system is addicted to fast growth. Delivering prosperity placates the public, provides spoils for well-connected officials and forestalls demands for political change. A major slowdown could incite social unrest, alienate business interests and threaten the party’s rule.

But pollution poses its own threat. Officials blame fetid air and water for thousands of episodes of social unrest. Health care costs have climbed sharply. Severe water shortages could turn more farmland into desert. And the unconstrained expansion of energy-intensive industries creates greater dependence on imported oil and dirty coal, meaning that environmental problems get harder and more expensive to address the longer they are unresolved. [...]

Provincial officials, who enjoy substantial autonomy, often ignore environmental edicts, helping to reopen mines or factories closed by central authorities. Over all, enforcement is often tinged with corruption. This spring, officials in Yunnan Province in southern China beautified Laoshou Mountain, which had been used as a quarry, by spraying green paint over acres of rock.

President Hu Jintao's most ambitious attempt to change the culture of fast-growth collapsed this year. The project, known as "Green GDP," was an effort to create an environmental yardstick for evaluating the performance of every official in China. It recalculated gross domestic product, or GDP, to reflect the cost of pollution.

But the early results were so sobering — in some provinces the pollution-adjusted growth rates were reduced almost to zero — that the project was banished to China's ivory tower this spring and stripped of official influence.

Chinese leaders argue that the outside world is a partner in degrading the country’s environment. Chinese manufacturers that dump waste into rivers or pump smoke into the sky make the cheap products that fill stores in the United States and Europe. Often, these manufacturers subcontract for foreign companies — or are owned by them. In fact, foreign investment continues to rise as multinational corporations build more factories in China. Beijing also insists that it will accept no mandatory limits on its carbon dioxide emissions, which would almost certainly reduce its industrial growth. It argues that rich countries caused global warming and should find a way to solve it without impinging on China's development. [...]

Indeed, Britain, the United States and Japan polluted their way to prosperity and worried about environmental damage only after their economies matured and their urban middle classes demanded blue skies and safe drinking water.

But China is more like a teenage smoker with emphysema. The costs of pollution have mounted well before it is ready to curtail economic development. But the price of business as usual — including the predicted effects of global warming on China itself — strikes many of its own experts and some senior officials as intolerably high. [...]

For air quality, a major culprit is coal, on which China relies for about two-thirds of its energy needs. It has abundant supplies of coal and already burns more of it than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. [...]

Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain, are increasing even faster than China's economic growth. In 2005, China became the leading source of sulfur dioxide pollution globally, the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, reported last year. [...]

Perhaps an even more acute challenge is water. China has only one-fifth as much water per capita as the United States. But while southern China is relatively wet, the north, home to about half of China’s population, is an immense, parched region that now threatens to become the world’s biggest desert.

Farmers in the north once used shovels to dig their wells. Now, many aquifers have been so depleted that some wells in Beijing and Hebei must extend more than half a mile before they reach fresh water. Industry and agriculture use nearly all of the flow of the Yellow River, before it reaches the Bohai Sea. [...]

This scarcity has not yet created a culture of conservation. Water remains inexpensive by global standards, and Chinese industry uses 4 to 10 times more water per unit of production than the average in industrialized nations, according to the World Bank.

In many parts of China, factories and farms dump waste into surface water with few repercussions. China's environmental monitors say that one-third of all river water, and vast sections of China’s great lakes, the Tai, Chao and Dianchi, have water rated Grade V, the most degraded level, rendering it unfit [even] for industrial or agricultural use. [...]

This spring, a World Bank study done with SEPA, the national environmental agency, concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution. [...]

But other international organizations with access to Chinese data have published similar results. For example, the World Health Organization found that China suffered more deaths from water-related pollutants and fewer from bad air, but agreed with the World Bank that the total death toll had reached 750,000 a year. In comparison, 4,700 people died last year in China's notoriously unsafe mines, and 89,000 people were killed in road accidents, the highest number of automobile-related deaths in the world. The Ministry of Health estimates that cigarette smoking takes a million Chinese lives each year. [...]

But Chinese experts say that, if anything, the Western models probably understate the problems.

"China's pollution is worse, the density of its population is greater and people do not protect themselves as well," said Jin Yinlong, the director general of the Institute for Environmental Health and Related Product Safety in Beijing. "So the studies are not definitive. My assumption is that they will turn out to be conservative."

As gloomy as China's pollution picture looks today, it is set to get significantly worse, because China has come to rely mainly on energy-intensive heavy industry and urbanization to fuel economic growth. In 2000, a team of economists and energy specialists at the Development Research Center, part of the State Council, set out to gauge how much energy China would need over the ensuing 20 years to achieve the leadership's goal of quadrupling the size of the economy. [...]

That worst-case situation now looks wildly optimistic. Last year, China burned the energy equivalent of 2.7 billion tons of coal, three-quarters of what the experts had said would be the maximum required in 2020. To put it another way, China now seems likely to need as much energy in 2010 as it thought it would need in 2020 under the most pessimistic assumptions.

"No one really knew what was driving the economy, which is why the predictions were so wrong," said Yang Fuqiang, a former Chinese energy planner who is now the chief China representative of the Energy Foundation, an American group that supports energy-related research. "What I fear is that the trend is now basically irreversible." [...]

In 1996, China and the United States each accounted for 13 percent of global steel production. By 2005, the United States share had dropped to 8 percent, while China’s share had risen to 35 percent. [...]

Similarly, China now makes half of the world's cement and flat glass, and about a third of its aluminum. In 2006, China overtook Japan as the second-largest producer of cars and trucks after the United States. [...]

Chinese steel makers, on average, use one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement manufacturers need 45 percent more power, and ethylene producers need 70 percent more than producers elsewhere, the World Bank says.

China's aluminum industry alone consumes as much energy as the country's commercial sector — all the hotels, restaurants, banks and shopping malls combined, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Houser reported.

Moreover, the boom is not limited to heavy industry. Each year for the past few years, China has built about 7.5 billion square feet of commercial and residential space, more than the combined floor space of all the malls and strip malls in the United States, according to data collected by the United States Energy Information Administration.

Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the United States and Europe, according to the World Bank. A vast majority of new buildings — 95 percent, the bank says — do not meet China's own codes for energy efficiency.

All these new buildings require China to build power plants, which it has been doing prodigiously. In 2005 alone, China added 66 gigawatts of electricity to its power grid, about as much power as Britain generates in a year. Last year, it added an additional 102 gigawatts, as much as France. [...]

In the second quarter of this year, the economy expanded at a neck-snapping pace of 11.9 percent, its fastest in a decade. State-driven investment projects, state-backed heavy industry and a thriving export sector led the way. China burned 18 percent more coal than it did the year before.

China's authoritarian system has repeatedly proved its ability to suppress political threats to Communist Party rule. But its failure to realize its avowed goals of balancing economic growth and environmental protection is a sign that the country’s environmental problems are at least partly systemic, many experts and some government officials say. China cannot go green, in other words, without political change. [...]

"The main reason behind the continued deterioration of the environment is a mistaken view of what counts as political achievement," said Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration. "The crazy expansion of high-polluting, high-energy industries has spawned special interests. Protected by local governments, some businesses treat the natural resources that belong to all the people as their own private property." [...]

Energy and environmental officials have little influence in the bureaucracy. The environmental agency still has only about 200 full-time employees, compared with 18,000 at the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.

China has no Energy Ministry. The Energy Bureau of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s central planning agency, has 100 full-time staff members. The Energy Department of the United States has 110,000 employees. [...]

At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment. [Emphasis added]

It's not just China, it's just more obvious there. If a true accounting were done, with real costs assigned to environmental damage and loss, I think we would find that capitalism, at least as practiced heretofore, is a long-run failure. We seem prosperous, but that's only because we have been consuming our capital, eating our seed corn, sawing off the limb we sit on. Fishing's a good business — until the fish are gone forever. Etc., etc.

China now emits more greenhouse gas than the US. It already burns more coal than the US, Europe, and Japan combined, and it's coal usage is growing at a rate of 18% per year. At that rate it will double in four years.

There's a cliff ahead, and the capitalist response is to push the gas pedal to the floor. Even though we're all at least dimly aware of the cliff.

The compression of time scales in China make it all so horribly obvious. Not that we — or they — will take the point. Everybody pursues his/her individual short-term interest, and the end result is collective disaster.

It remains to be seen if humans, taken in the aggregate, are smarter than bacteria in a petri dish, who gobble all available nutrients, and reproduce, as rapidly as they can until it's all gone and they wipe themselves out. So that's the question: are we smarter than bacteria?

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August 24, 2007

Arctic Ice Melt Shatters Previous Record Energy  Environment

When the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out, there were people who called it alarmist. It now appears that it may have been wildly over-optimistic. The summer melt of Arctic ice this year is proceeding so rapidly that it is on target — this year — to hit a level the IPCC projected wouldn't happen until 2050. The ice sheet has already shrunk to its smallest size on record, with another month of melting to go.

Here's the previous record, September 22, 2005 (source):

Here's what it looks like today — with another month of melting to go:

This is no trivial matter. As the ice melts, the Arctic absorbs more solar radiation, warming further, causing further melting, etc., in a feedback loop that will have significant effects on the climate of the planet. And as we've seen so many times before, it's all happening faster than anyone anticipated. Canada.com:

Scientific institutes in the U.S. and Japan confirmed [August 17] that the Arctic Ocean ice cover has shrunk to the smallest size ever recorded, prompting a startling prediction from one expert that the world could witness a total summer melt within 25 years.

The latest findings support an alarm issued last week by another climate expert at the University of Illinois that all-time records for maximum meltage of the polar ice cap will be "annihilated" by the time Arctic temperatures start turning colder in mid-September.

"Everyone is seeing the same thing," Mark Serreze, a senior researcher with the Boulder, Colo.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, told CanWest News Service on Friday.

"The sea ice seems to be on this death spiral," he said. "And this is not some nebulous thing like global temperature rises. You can see this with your own eyes." [...]

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency - expressing "fear that global warming will accelerate" as a result of the rapid melting - pegged the current size of the Arctic ice cover at 5.31 million square kilometres, just less than the historic low measured on Sept. 22, 2005.

But what worries researchers most is that there's still a month of melting left to go this summer.

"The absolute minimum is typically the first or second week of September," said Serreze, "but we've already set a record. That is amazing. That is just an eye-opener. We appear to be on the fast track of change."

The disappearance of Arctic sea ice is widely viewed not only as a key early indicator that climate change is well under way, but also as a portent of rapidly escalating global warming.

Reduced ice cover, and thus a darkened polar region, means the planet will absorb even more of the sun's energy and trigger higher temperatures, scientists believe.

"If you had talked to me a few years ago, I would have said total melting of Arctic ice might be possible by 2070 or 2100," said Serreze.

Noting that the rate of shrinkage has surpassed all climate models, he predicts that a complete summer melt could occur as early as 2030.

"For many of us, we might be looking at this within our lifetimes."

The Japanese agencies made similar forecasts, noting that the ice cover this year could shrink to 4.5 million square kilometres — a low that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn't expect to be reached until 2050. [Emphasis added]

So, how are governments reacting to this trend? By racing to establish territorial claims to the oil and gas buried under the Arctic seabed. Times of India:

If there were any lingering doubts as to how ill-prepared we are to face up to the reality of climate change, they were laid to rest this month when two Russian mini submarines dove two miles under the Arctic ice to the floor of the ocean, and planted a Russian flag made of titanium on the seabed. This first manned mission to the ocean floor of the Arctic, which was carefully choreographed for a global television audience, was the ultimate geopolitical reality TV.

Russian President Vladimir V Putin congratulated the aquanauts while the Russian government simultaneously announced its claim to nearly half of the floor of the Arctic Ocean. The Putin government claims that the seabed under the pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is an extension of Russia's continental shelf, and therefore Russian territory. Not to be outdone, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hurriedly arranged a three-day visit to the Arctic to stake his country's claim to the region. Although in some respects the entire event appeared almost comical - a kind of late 19th century caricature of a colonial expedition - the intent was deadly serious. Geologists believe that 25 per cent of the earth's undiscovered oil and gas may be embedded within the rock underneath the Arctic Ocean.

The oil giants are already scurrying to the front of the line, seeking contracts to exploit the vast potential of oil wealth under the Arctic ice. The oil company BP has recently established a partnership with Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, to explore the region. Aside from Russia and Canada, three other countries - Norway, Denmark (Greenland is a Danish possession that reaches into the Arctic) and the United States - are all claiming the Arctic seabed as an extensionof their continental shelves and, therefore, sovereign territory.

Under the Law of the Sea Treaty, adopted in 1982, signatory nations can claim exclusive economic zones for commercial exploitation, up to 200 miles out from their territorial waters. The US has never signed the treaty, amidst concerns that other provisions of the treaty would undermine US sovereignty and political independence. Now, however, the sudden new interest in Arctic oil and gas has put a fire under US legislators to ratify the treaty, lest it is edged out of the Arctic oil rush.

What makes the whole development so utterly depressing is that the new interest in prospecting the Arctic subsoil and seabed for oil and gas is only now becoming possible because of climate change. For thousands of years, the fossil fuel deposits lay locked up under the ice and inaccessible. Now, global warming is melting away the Arctic ice, making possible, for the first time, the commercial exploitation of the oil and gas deposits. Ironically, the very process of burning fossil fuels releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide and forces an increase in the earth's temperature, which in turn, melts the Arctic ice, making available even more oil and gas for energy. The burning of these potential new oil and gas finds will further increase CO2 emissions in the coming decades, depleting the Arctic ice even more quickly. [Emphasis added]

It's too grotesque for words. We respond to global warming by racing to dig up even more carbon so we can send it into the atmosphere. Talk about a feedback loop. I'm tempted to say that with stupidity like this we deserve whatever we get, except that most of humanity — not to mention all the other species of life on Earth — is not participating in this insanity, but they will all pay the price.

Greed kills, and that includes greed for comfort and convenience.

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August 22, 2007

Plastic Bags Are Forever Environment

This was supposed to accompany yesterday's Gumpagraph, but I ran out of time. Salon:

The plastic bag is an icon of convenience culture, by some estimates the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. They're made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they've been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It's equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide — about 2 percent in the U.S. — and the rest, when discarded, can persist for centuries. They can spend eternity in landfills, but that's not always the case. "They're so aerodynamic that even when they're properly disposed of in a trash can they can still blow away and become litter," says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. [...]

Bits of plastic bags have been found in the nests of albatrosses in the remote Midway Islands. Floating bags can look all too much like tasty jellyfish to hungry marine critters. According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic. The conservation group estimates that 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In the Northern Pacific Gyre, a great vortex of ocean currents, there's now a swirling mass of plastic trash about 1,000 miles off the coast of California, which spans an area that's twice the size of Texas, including fragments of plastic bags. There's six times as much plastic as biomass, including plankton and jellyfish, in the gyre. "It's an endless stream of incessant plastic particles everywhere you look," says Dr. Marcus Eriksen, director of education and research for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which studies plastics in the marine environment. "Fifty or 60 years ago, there was no plastic out there." [...]

The problem with plastic bags isn't just where they end up, it's that they never seem to end. "All the plastic that has [ever] been made is still around in smaller and smaller pieces," says Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, which has undertaken a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague. Plastic doesn't biodegrade. That means unless they've been incinerated — a noxious proposition — every plastic bag you've ever used in your entire life, including all those bags that the newspaper arrives in on your doorstep, even on cloudless days when there isn't a sliver of a chance of rain, still exists in some form, even fragmented bits, and will exist long after you're dead. [Emphasis added]

"Paper or plastic?" is a false choice. (Paper has its own problems.) The real choices are between a bag and no bag, or between a new bag and one you've brought from home.

Go bagless, or BYOB.

Posted by Jonathan at 05:52 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

August 07, 2007

Extreme Weather World-Wide Environment

The world weather system is heating up. As climate models have long predicted, the additional energy is resulting in greater extremes of weather around the world. The only surprise is how quickly it's all happening. CNN:

Extreme weather has plagued the globe this year, a U.N. agency says, causing some of the highest temperatures on record.

The World Meteorological Organization said "global land surface temperatures for January and April will likely be ranked as the warmest since records began in 1880," according to the United Nations.

WMO said temperatures were 1.89 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average for January and 1.37 degrees C (2.45 degrees F) higher than average for April.

The agency found that climate warming was unequivocal and most likely "due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels."

Here are some of the extreme instances the United Nations cites:

Four monsoon depressions, double the normal number, caused heavy flooding in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. On Monday, floodwaters receded in parts of South Asia, but the death toll rose to 347, officials said.

Millions remain displaced and homeless, and authorities fear waterborne disease could spread. Indian officials say more than 1,200 people have died in their country alone since monsoon season began in June.

England and Wales have experienced their wettest May-to-July period since record-keeping started in 1766. In late July, swollen rivers threatened to burst their banks. At least eight people died during weeks of torrential rain, and thousands were without tap water.

Late last month in Sudan, floods and heavy rain caused 23,000 mud brick homes to collapse, killing at least 62 people. The rainfall was abnormally heavy and early for this time of the year.

In May, swell waves up to 15 feet high swept into 68 islands in the Maldives, causing severe flooding and damage. Also in May, a heat wave swept across Russia.

Southeastern Europe did not escape the unusual weather. The area suffered record-breaking heat in June and July.

An unusual cold southern winter brought wind, blizzards and rare snowfall to various parts of South America, with temperatures reaching as low as 7 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-22 degrees Celsius) in Argentina and 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius) in Chile in July.

In June, South Africa had its first significant snowfall since 1981, as almost 10 inches (25 centimeters) of the white stuff fell in some parts of the country.

And in the United States, temperatures climbed into the triple digits this week in Midwestern states. [Emphasis added]

It's happening very quickly in climate terms, but humans are hard-wired to sense danger that occurs on much shorter time-scales. When change happens over years or decades, people tend to become accustomed to it. Winters here in Madison are very different from what was normal 30 years ago, but who remembers? The scary thing is that we ain't seen nothing yet.

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August 04, 2007

Lake Superior Warming, Levels Falling To Record Lows Environment

Another day, another grim environmental story. AP:

Deep enough to hold the combined water in all the other Great Lakes and with a surface area as large as South Carolina, Lake Superior's size has lent it an aura of invulnerability.

But the mighty Superior is losing water and getting warmer, worrying those who live near its shores, scientists and companies that rely on the lake for business.

The changes to the lake could be signs of climate change, although scientists aren't sure.

Superior's level is at its lowest point in eight decades and will set a record this fall if, as expected, it dips three more inches. Meanwhile, the average water temperature has surged 4.5 degrees since 1979, significantly above the 2.7-degree rise in the region's air temperature during the same period.

That's no small deal for a freshwater sea that was created from glacial melt as the Ice Age ended and remains chilly in all seasons.

A weather buoy on the western side recently recorded an "amazing" 75 degrees, "as warm a surface temperature as we've ever seen in this lake," said Jay Austin, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth's Large Lakes Observatory.

Water levels also have receded on the other Great Lakes since the late 1990s. But the suddenness and severity of Superior's changes worry many in the region. Shorelines are dozens of yards wider than usual, giving sunbathers wider beaches but also exposing mucky bottomlands and rotting vegetation.

On a recent day, Dan Arsenault, a 32-year-old lifelong resident of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, watched his two young daughters play in mud on the southeastern coast where water was waist deep only a few years ago. A floatation rope that previously designated the swimming area now rests on moist ground.

"This is the lowest I've ever seen it," said Arsenault.

Superior still has a lot of water. Its average depth is 483 feet and it reaches 1,332 feet at the deepest point. Erie, the shallowest Great Lake, is 210 feet at its deepest and averages only 62 feet. Lake Michigan averages 279 feet and is 925 feet at its deepest.

Yet along Superior's shores, boats can't reach many mooring sites and marina operators are begging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge shallow harbors. Ferry service between Grand Portage, Minnesota, and Isle Royale National Park was scaled back because one of the company's boats couldn't dock.

Sally Zabelka has turned away boaters wanting to dock at Chippewa Landing marina in the eastern Upper Peninsula, where not long ago 27-foot vessels easily made their way up the channel from the lake's Brimley Bay. "In essence, our dock is useless this year," she said.

Another worry: As the bay heats up, the perch, walleye and smallmouth bass that have lured anglers to her campground and tackle shop are migrating to cooler waters in the open lake.

Low water has cost the shipping industry millions of dollars. Vessels are carrying lighter loads of iron ore and coal to avoid running aground in shallow channels. [...]

Precipitation has tapered off across the upper Great Lakes since the 1970s and is nearly 6 inches below normal in the Superior watershed the past year. Water evaporation rates are up sharply because mild winters have shrunk the winter ice cap — just as climate change computer models predict for the next half-century. [...]

Austin, the Minnesota-Duluth professor, said he's concerned about the effects the warmer water could have.

"It's just not clear what the ultimate result will be as we turn the knob up," he said. "It could be great for fisheries or fisheries could crash." [Emphasis added]

4.5 degrees since 1979. That's huge. It's got to be one hell of a shock to the lake's ecology. And not in a good way.

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August 02, 2007

Bottled Water Is For Suckers Environment

Amy Goodman, via Alternet:

The soft drink giant Pepsi has been forced to make an embarrassing admission: Its bestselling Aquafina bottled water is nothing more than tap water. Last week, Pepsi agreed to change the labels of Aquafina to indicate the water comes from a public water source. Pepsi agreed to change its label under pressure from the advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, which has been leading an increasingly successful campaign against bottled water. [...]

The environmental impact of the country's obsession with bottled water has been staggering. Each day an estimated 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away. Most are not recycled. The Pacific Institute has estimated 20 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the plastic for water bottles.

Economically, it makes sense to stop buying bottled water as well. The Arizona Daily Star recently examined the cost difference between bottled water and water from the city's municipal supply. A half-liter of Pepsi's Aquafina at a Tucson convenience store costs $1.39. The bottle contains purified water from the Tucson water supply. From the tap, you can pour over 6.4 gallons for a penny. That makes the bottled stuff about 7,000 times more expensive, even though Aquafina is using the same water source. [Emphasis added]

Don't be a sucker. Keep some of the plastic bottles, refill them from the tap, stick them in the fridge. Drink, refill, refrigerate. Repeat. Like Carie taught me.

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August 01, 2007

The Beauty Of Wind Energy  Environment

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote: "Wind farms are a thing of beauty, a monument to a better, saner future." A commenter took exception, saying, "the idea of wind farms as beautiful is purely subjective."

Well, maybe. But if anything is objectively beautiful, I think windmills have to be on the list. It's not just how they look, it's what they embody, what they portend, what they mean. We're not alone on this Earth.

Posted by Jonathan at 07:11 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

July 24, 2007

Unfair, Unbalanced, Unhinged Environment  Media

This really ticks me off:

Millions of people get their version of reality from Fox News. Not a trivial matter. Garbage in, garbage out.

Time to make their advertisers pay.

Petition (and more videos) here.

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July 03, 2007

Bad News On Climate — Again Environment  Science/Technology

Scientific papers tend to have a limited audience, but here's one that deserves to be front page news all over the world. James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute and one of the world's foremost climate scientists, is lead author of a new study that concludes that the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), alarming as it was, may have been, in George Monbiot's words, "absurdly optimistic."

As we have noted here many times (for example, here), the most ominous global warming scenarios involve positive feedback loops that make GW self-reinforcing. The thawing of Siberian permafrost, for example, releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere — which causes further warming, which causes further thawing, and so on. Hansen et al look at the data on past ice ages and warming periods and conclude that such positive feedbacks make the earth's climate far more sensitive to climate "forcings" (i.e., things like greenhouse gases that upset the balance between the energy the Earth receives from the sun and the energy it radiates back out to space) than previously thought.

When major warming has occurred in the past, it has happened quite suddenly — on a scale of centuries or even decades, rather than millenia — because of the accelerating effects of positive feedback loops. A primary source of this abruptness is the sudden shift that occurs when ice changes phase — i.e., when it melts. When ice becomes wet, it suddenly reflects much less energy than before. The change in its reflectivity, or "albedo," means that more energy is absorbed, which causes more melting, in turn causing more of an "albedo flip," etc., etc. Self-reinforcing. Instead of a linear, gradual change, positive feedback creates a nonlinear system where change happens suddenly. Ice sheets melt, sea levels rise, and quickly.

The IPCC warned that sea levels could rise by as much two feet in the coming century as the West Antarctic ice sheet begins to melt. The melting of the entire ice sheet, though, they projected to take millenia. But according to Hansen et al, the IPCC view is inconsistent both with data on past climate changes ("paleoclimate" data) and with current observations. Ice sheets become unstable and break up suddenly. Hansen et al say it's "implausible" under a business-as-usual scenario (i.e., if humanity stays on its current course with respect to emissions) that the West Antarctic ice sheet would even survive the century. They're talking about the possibility of sea level rises of 75 feet or more.

Here's an excerpt from the paper's abstract:

Palaeoclimate data show that the Earth's climate is remarkably sensitive to global forcings. Positive feedbacks predominate. This allows the entire planet to be whipsawed between climate states. One feedback, the 'albedo flip' property of ice/water, provides a powerful trigger mechanism. A climate forcing that 'flips' the albedo of a sufficient portion of an ice sheet can spark a cataclysm. Inertia of ice sheet and ocean provides only moderate delay to ice sheet disintegration and a burst of added global warming. Recent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the largest human-made climate forcing, but other trace constituents are also important. Only intense simultaneous efforts to slow CO2 emissions and reduce non-CO2 forcings can keep climate within or near the range of the past million years.

"Whipsaw." "Cataclysm." Remarkably dramatic language for an article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. But there's a lot at stake. I recommend you go read the paper. The evidence is persuasive, and the conclusions could hardly be more important.

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June 16, 2007

Biodiversity And Mental Health Environment

Numerous studies have shown the mental health benefits of experiencing the natural world. For example (WorldWatch):

A nine-year survey of U.S. gall bladder patients showed that patients recovered faster and required less pain medication if their hospital windows overlooked trees rather than brick walls. Other research has indicated that inner city residents who had some nearby nature outside their apartments showed significantly lower levels of aggression and violence. Similarly, workers in buildings that contain plant life have been found to have better concentration and less anxiety on average than those working without plants.

A new study from the UK goes a step further. It's not just a question of experiencing some Nature. It's a question of the quality of the Nature experienced. The psychological benefits derived from a walk in a park are proportional to its biodiversity:

Researchers found that visitors to city parks with a greater diversity of birds, butterflies, plants, and other organisms reported feeling better than visitors to less-diverse green spaces.

The sad corollary is that the more biodiversity we destroy the unhappier and crazier we will become, the more divorced from Nature — which is to say, from reality — and hence the more willing to further destroy biodiversity. And on it goes. Consider that in conjunction with the preceding post, below.

Watching the Nature Channel doesn't count.

Posted by Jonathan at 05:15 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Bye Bye Birdie Environment

It's not just the fish and the bees that are in trouble. Mother Jones:

The National Audubon Society reports that populations of many of America's most familiar and beloved birds are in dangerous decline. Some have fallen more than 80 percent in the past 40 years — a direct result of the loss of habitat, including grasslands, healthy forests, and wetlands, from multiple environmental threats such as sprawl, energy development, and the spread of industrialized agriculture. The threats are now compounded and amplified by the escalating effects of global warming—as detailed in MoJo's current cover story.

"These are not rare or exotic birds we're talking about — these are the birds that visit our feeders and congregate at nearby lakes and seashores and yet they are disappearing day by day," said Audubon chair and former EPA administrator Carol Browner. "Their decline tells us we have serious work to do, from protecting local habitats to addressing the huge threats from global warming."

Audubon's assessment comes from 40 years of its citizen-led Christmas Bird Count's data and the Breeding Bird Survey. The following once-common species are among those hardest hit: Northern Bobwhites down 82 percent; Evening Grosbeaks down 78 percent; Northern Pintails down 78 percent; Greater Scaups down 75 percent; Eastern Meadowlarks down 71 percent; Common Terns down 70 percent; Snow Buntings down 64 percent; Rufous Hummingbirds down 58 percent; Whip-poor-wills down 57 percent; Little Blue Herons down 54 percent in the U.S.

Check out Audubon's suggestions on what individuals can do to help.

One problem we "civilized" humans have is that we gradually grow accustomed to whatever is the current state of affairs. As birds and other species dwindle and disappear, it isn't long before we think that's just the way things are. We stop expecting to see birds in our back yards; before long, we forget they were ever there.

But a world without birds. I hope I don't live to see it.

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June 15, 2007

Where To Start On GW Environment

RealClimate, probably the premiere site for global warming news and analysis on the web, has posted a "Start Here" page with links to material to get you up to speed on the science of global warming. Lots of great stuff, whether or not you already know the basics.

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June 14, 2007

Growth In CO2 Emissions Triples Environment

This is a story from last month, but it's too important not to call to your attention. McClatchy:

Instead of slowing down, worldwide carbon-dioxide levels have taken a sudden and alarming jump since the year 2000, an international team of scientists reported Monday.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuels - mostly coal, oil and gas - are increasing at three times the rate experienced in the 1990s, they said. [...]

Instead of rising by 1.1 percent a year, as in the previous decade, emissions grew by an average of 3.1 percent a year from 2000 to 2004, the latest year for which global figures are available, the scientists reported in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [...]

The spurt in the CO2 emission rate is especially worrisome because it marks a reversal of a long-term trend toward greater energy efficiency and away from carbon-based fuels, the report's authors said.

Molecules of heat-trapping carbon dioxide - the leading "greenhouse" gas - make up about 380 parts per million of the particles in the atmosphere. If emissions continue to increase at the rate of 3.1 percent a year, CO2 concentration would rise to 560 parts per million in 2050 and soar to 1,390 parts per million in 2100, according to Michael Raupach, an atmospheric scientist at the Center for Marine and Atmospheric Research in Canberra, Australia.

"A CO2 future like this would spell major climate-change disaster in the latter part of the 21st century," Raupach said in an e-mail message. [...]

The CO2 acceleration is happening fastest in China and other developing areas. It's increasing more slowly in the advanced economies of the United States, Europe and Japan, the report said.

"The emissions growth rate in the U.S. has remained nearly steady for the last 20 years, at a little under 1 percent a year," Raupach said. "The growth rate in Europe has averaged less than half that in the U.S. over those 20 years, but it has increased a little in the last five years."

Last week the National Academy of Sciences joined 12 similar bodies from around the world - including Europe, China and Russia - in urging cooperation in reducing carbon usage.

To meet the threat, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report recommends greater efficiency in transportation and power production and more use of low-carbon or no-carbon energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear power. [Emphasis added]

As always, the basic problem is individual greed versus the common interest. Pollution costs the individual producer nothing; not polluting costs money. In the absence of regulation, most producers will reason that their own little contribution is a tiny drop in a very large bucket, and they'll go ahead and pollute. Especially when all of their competitors are thinking the same way.

This is as good an example as one could ask for of the fatal flaw in free market economics: rational individuals acting in their own short-term economic interest can, step by rational step, commit long-term collective suicide.

Humanity faces a fundamental fork in the road. We can each of us continue to operate out of short-term self-interest — in which case we're long-term screwed — or we can begin to take seriously an ethos based on doing what's good for humanity, our posterity, and the biosphere generally.

But we're addicts, addicted to material possessions, addicted to comfort. Most addicts, unfortunately, have to hit bottom before they sober up. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

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May 07, 2007

Colony Collapse Environment  Science/Technology

From GNN, a long survey article on Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious malady that's wiping out large numbers of honeybees. Excerpts:

[A] strange new plague is wiping out our honey bees one hive at a time. It has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, by the apiculturalists and apiarists who are scrambling to understand and hopefully stop it. First reported last autumn in the U.S., the list of afflicted countries has now expanded to include several in Europe, as well as Brazil, Taiwan, and possibly Canada.

Apparently unknown before this year, CCD is said to follow a unique pattern with several strange characteristics. Bees seem to desert their hive or forget to return home from their foraging runs. The hive population dwindles and then collapses once there are too few bees to maintain it. Typically, no dead bee carcasses lie in or around the afflicted hive, although the queen and a few attendants may remain.

The defect, whatever it is, afflicts the adult bee. Larvae continue to develop normally, even as a hive is in the midst of collapse. Stricken colonies may appear normal, as seen from the outside, but when beekeepers look inside the hive box, they find a small number of mature bees caring for a large number of younger and developing bees that remain. Normally, only the oldest bees go out foraging for nectar and pollen, while younger workers act as nurse bees caring for the larvae and cleaning the comb. A healthy hive in mid-summer has between 40,000 and 80,000 bees.

Perhaps the most ominous thing about CCD, and one of its most distinguishing characteristics, is that bees and other animals living nearby refrain from raiding the honey and pollen stored away in the dead hive. In previously observed cases of hive collapse (and it is certainly not a rare occurrence) these energy stores are quickly stolen. But with CCD the invasion of hive pests such as the wax moth and small hive beetle is noticeably delayed.

Among the possible culprits behind CCD are: a fungus, a virus, a bacterium, a pesticide (or combination of pesticides), GMO crops bearing pesticide genes, erratic weather. [...]

[A]utopsies of CCD bees showed higher than normal levels of fungi, bacteria and other pathogens, as well as weakened immune systems. It appears as if the bees have got the equivalent of AIDS. [...]

Bees certainly are important, and it will get ugly if we lose them. “It’s not the staples,” said Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. “If you can imagine eating a bowl of oatmeal every day with no fruit on it, that’s what it would be like” without honeybee pollination. [...]

Honey bees are used commercially to pollinate about one third of crop species in the U.S. This includes almonds, broccoli, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries. [...]

Recent military research at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center claims to have narrowed the likely cause of CCD to a virus, a micro-parasite or both. [...]

[A] suspicious fungus was also discovered in them, suggesting the possibility that the fungus is either an immunosuppressive factor or the fatal pathogen that kills the bees. [...]

Sharon Labchuk is a longtime environmental activist [in Canada]. In a widely circulated email, she wrote:

I’m on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies.

Her email recommends a visit to the Bush Bees Web site at bushfarms.com. Here, Michael Bush felt compelled to put a message to the beekeeping world right on the top page:

Most of us beekeepers are fighting with the Varroa mites. I’m happy to say my biggest problems are things like trying to get nucs through the winter and coming up with hives that won’t hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.

This change from fighting the mites is mostly because I’ve gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren’t aware, and I wasn’t for a long time, the foundation in common usage...produces a bee that is about half as large again as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems. [...]

Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. [...]

It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time. [...]

This conclusion is not surprising, considering how the practice of beekeeping has been made ultra-efficient in a competitive world run by free market forces...Rare is the beekeeper that does not need pesticide treatments and other techniques falling under the rubric of "factory farming." [...]

Bees are finely tuned machines, much more robot-like than your average species. They operate pretty much like the Borg of Star Trek fame. A honey bee cannot exist as an individual, and this is why some biologists speak of them as super-organisms. They are sensitive barometers of environmental pollution, quite useful for monitoring pesticide, radionuclide, and heavy metal contamination. They respond to a vide variety of pollutants by dying or markedly changing their behavior....Some pesticides are exceptionally harmful to honey bees, killing individuals before they can return to the hive.

Not surprisingly, the use of one or more new pesticides was, and likely remains, on the short list of likely causes of CCD. But more than pesticides could potentially be harming bees. Some scientists suspect global warming. Temperature plays an integral part in determining mass behavior of bees. [...]

Erratic weather patterns caused by global warming could play havoc with bees’ sensitive cycles...[A Michigan beekepper] thinks CCD might stem from a mix of factors from climate change to breeding practices that put more emphasis on some qualities, like resistance to mites, at the expense of other qualities, like hardiness.

[A]nother possibility with CCD is that the missing bees left their hives to look for new quarters because the old hives became undesirable, perhaps from contamination of the honey. This phenomenon, known as absconding, normally occurs only in the spring or summer, when there is an adequate food supply. But if they abscond in the autumn or winter, as they did last fall in the U.S.,...the bees are unlikely to survive.

A bee colony is a fine-tuned system, and a lot could conceivably go wrong...[One] theory holds that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bee navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way home. German research has shown that bees behave differently near power lines. Now, a preliminary study has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. [...]

It should be noted that the CCD Working Group at Penn State believes cell phones are very unlikely to be causing the problem. Nor are they interested in the possibility that GMO crops are responsible. Although GMO crops can contain genes to produce pesticides, some of which may harm bees, the distribution of CCD cases does not appear to correlate with GMO crop plantings. [...]

[O]ther pollinators are facing problems too...[S]everal of the U.K.’s 25 species [of bumblebees] are endangered, and three have gone extinct in recent years....[T]he process is caused by “pesticides and agricultural intensification” which could have a “devastating knock-on effect on agriculture.” The disappearance of wildflower species has also been implicated in the British bumblebee decline. [...]

[In other words,] it’s an ecosystem thing. As with honeybees and CCD, the root of the bumblebee problem lies in our modern rationalist drive toward endlessly ordering the world around us. [...]

This truth may be generalized to most facets of our agricultural existence; the bees are just a warning. Wherever you look, pests are getting stronger as the life forms we depend on get weaker. Adding more chemicals isn’t going to help for much longer. [...]

“There used to be a lot more regulation than there is today,” says Arizona beekeeper Victor Kaur. “People import bees and bring new diseases into the country. One might be colony collapse disorder.”

“The bees are dying, and I think people are to blame,” is how Kaur puts it simply. “Bee keeping is much more labor intensive now than it was 15 years ago. It’s a dying profession,” he eulogizes. “The average age of a beekeeper is 62, and there are only a couple of thousand of us left. There are only about 2.5 million hives left...It’s too much work.” [Emphasis added]

Free market enthusiasts take note. Factory farming and other forms of profit-driven monoculture are, in the long term, suicidal. (Not to mention, murderous.) But the market rewards them in the short term. The big commercial monoculture players displace everyone else, and by the time we wake up and begin to realize what we have lost, it's gone. The fatal flaw of monoculture: when something goes wrong, it goes wrong everywhere, all at once.

The fundamental problem is a mindset that treats Nature as a dead thing to be engineered and manipulated, as if it were a machine to be pushed until it breaks, then thrown away. That mindset, together with the tunnel vision created by the ferociously single-minded pursuit of profit.

Greed kills. On a larger and larger scale. Inevitably.

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April 25, 2007

What Will It Take? Environment

Great rant from Bill Maher:

Here's a quote from Albert Einstein: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Well, guess what? The bees are disappearing. In massive numbers. All around the world. And if you think I'm being alarmist and that, "Oh, they'll figure out some way to pollinate the plants..." No, they've tried. For a lot of what we eat, only bees work. And they're not working. They're gone. It's called Colony Collapse Disorder, when the hive's inhabitants suddenly disappear, and all that's left are a few queens and some immature workers...

But I think we're the ones suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. Because although nobody really knows for sure what's killing the bees, it's not al-Qaeda, and it's not God doing some of his Old Testament shtick, and it's not Winnie the Pooh. It's us. It could be from pesticides, or genetically modified food, or global warming, or the high-fructose corn syrup we started to feed them. Recently it was discovered that bees won't fly near cell phones &mdash the electromagnetic signals they emit might screw up the bees navigation system, knocking them out of the sky. So thanks guy in line at Starbucks, you just killed us. It's nature's way of saying, "Can you hear me now?"

Last week I asked: If it solved global warming, would you give up the TV remote and go back to carting your fat ass over to the television set every time you wanted to change the channel. If that was the case in America, I think Americans would watch one channel forever. If it comes down to the cell phone vs. the bee, will we choose to literally blather ourselves to death? Will we continue to tell ourselves that we don't have to solve environmental problems — we can just adapt: build sea walls instead of stopping the ice caps from melting. Don't save the creatures of the earth and oceans, just learn to eat the slime and jellyfish that nothing can kill, like Chinese restaurants are already doing.

Maybe you don't need to talk on your cell phone all the time. Maybe you don't need a bag when you buy a keychain. Americans throw out 100 billion plastic bags a year, and they all take a thousand years to decompose. Your children's children's children's children will never know you but they'll know you once bought batteries at the 99 cent store because the bag will still be caught in the tree. Except there won't be trees. Sunday is Earth Day. Please educate someone about the birds and the bees, because without bees, humans become the canary in the coal mine, and we make bad canaries because we're already such sheep. [Emphasis added]

We can't continue to take the path of least resistance. Our future depends on it.

Greed kills. That includes greed for comfort and convenience.

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DST And AGW Environment

Too funny. I sure hope it's satire.

[Thanks, Kevan]

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April 23, 2007

Plastic Environment

Good news, bad news.

The bad news: Americans are clueless about plastic, according to a national survey (BusinessWire, via Crpytogon):

  • 72% of respondents do not know that plastic is made out of oil/petroleum
  • On average, respondents estimated 38% of plastic is recycled (the reality is less than 6%, according to the EPA)
  • Nearly 40% (38.1%) of respondents said plastic will biodegrade underground, in home compost, in landfills, or in the ocean (plastic will not biodegrade in any of these environments).
  • The good news: once they learned how wrong they were, they said they'd be willing to pay more for a natural, biodegradable plastic:

  • After learning that plastic is made from oil and never biodegrades, half (50.1%) of respondents stated they would be likely or very likely to pay 5-10% more for a natural, biodegradable plastic. Only 24% were unlikely/very unlikely to pay this much more.
  • Demonstrating the utter importance of education on these issues. More and more, people want to do the right thing. They just don't have an accurate picture of where things stand and what needs to be done. Imagine if there were effective, principled national leadership on these issues, instead of its opposite.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:51 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 21, 2007

    Glub Glub Environment

    If global warming causes sea levels to rise significantly, how will world coastlines be affected? The USGS has animated maps (via Policy Pete) showing the effect at different levels of increase.

    Hey, who needed Florida?

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    April 19, 2007

    Tigers Headed For Extinction Environment


    Hope is fading in the fight to save the tiger in India, the animal's last stronghold, according to Indian conservationists. Resurgent poaching and feeble official protection have combined to put the animal, India's national symbol, on the road to extinction, say the country's leading tiger experts...

    Tiger numbers, which officially stand at nearly 4,000, are rapidly falling and may actually have dropped below 1,200, says Valmik Thapar, the conservationist who is the Indian tiger's best known champion. "I think we are living with the last tigers of India," he tells the BBC2 documentary, Battle To Save The Tiger.

    The disappearance of India's wild tigers ­— one of the world's most charismatic animal species ­— would mark one of the most sinister milestones yet in the history of the degradation of the earth's environment by people. [Emphasis added]

    Shame on us all.

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    April 16, 2007

    Conservation Is Cool Activism  Environment

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    April 11, 2007

    Vacuuming The Oceans Environment

    Stories like the following make me despair for our prospects. If humans manage to survive the coming century, we are likely to find ourselves on a planet very different from the one we now know. And we are likely to find ourselves increasingly alone, having killed off many of the large vertebrate species with whom we currently share our Earth.

    Last year we noted that nearly a third of fish and seafood species have collapsed: i.e., declined by 90% or more. For many large predators, we now read, the numbers are even worse. The oceans are being vacuumed, and the fish will be gone in the lifetimes of most people now living. George Monbiot:

    If these animals lived on land there would be a global outcry. But the great beasts roaming the savannahs of the open seas summon no such support. Big sharks, giant tuna, marlin and swordfish should have the conservation status of the giant panda or the snow leopard. Yet still we believe it is acceptable for fishmongers to sell them and celebrity chefs to teach us how to cook them.

    A study in this week's edition of Science reveals the disastrous collapse of the ocean’s megafauna. The great sharks are now wobbling on the edge of extinction. Since 1972 the number of blacktip sharks has fallen by 93%, tiger sharks by 97% and bull sharks, dusky sharks and smooth hammerheads by 99%. Just about every population of major predators is now in freefall. Another paper, published in Nature four years ago, shows that over 90% of large predatory fishes throughout the global oceans have gone. [...]

    In terms of its impact on both ecology and animal welfare, shark fishing could be the planet's most brutal industry. While some sharks are taken whole, around 70 million are caught every year for their fins. In many cases the fins are cut off and the shark is dumped, alive, back into the sea. It can take several weeks to die. The longlines and gillnets used to catch them snare whales, dolphins, turtles and albatrosses. The new paper shows that shark catching also causes a cascade of disasters through the foodchain. Since the large sharks were removed from coastal waters in the western Atlantic, the rays they preyed on have multiplied tenfold and have wiped out all the main commercial species of shellfish. [...]

    In 2001 the British government promised to protect a critically endangered species called the angel shark, whose population in British waters was collapsing. It ducked and dithered until there was no longer a problem: the shark is now extinct in the North Sea.

    Why do we find it so hard to stand up to fishermen? This tiny industrial lobby seems to have governments in the palm of its hand. Every year, the European Union sets catch limits for all species way above the levels its scientists recommend. Governments know that they are allowing the fishing industry to destroy itself and to destroy the ecosystem on which it depends. But nothing is sacred, as long as it is underwater. In November the United Nations failed even to produce a resolution urging a halt to trawling on the sea mounts at the bottom of the ocean. These ecosystems, which are only just beginning to be explored, harbour great forests of deepwater corals and sponges, in which thousands of unearthly species hide. But we can't summon the will to stop the handful of boats that are ripping them to shreds. [...]

    Though fish species far outnumber mammal species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species protects 654 kinds of mammal and just 77 kinds of fish. Trade in only 9 of these is subject to a complete ban. [...]

    The rules that do get passed are ignored by both fishermen and governments. [...]

    Of course, governments plead poverty. Which makes you wonder why they decided last year to allocate €3.8 billion to the destruction of the marine environment. This is what you and I are now paying in subsidies to keep the ocean wreckers afloat. The money buys new engines, and boats for young fishermen hoping to expand their business. For the same cost you could put a permanent inspector on every large fishing vessel in European waters.

    If we don't act, we know what will happen. Another paper published in Science suggests that on current trends we'll see the global collapse of all the species currently caught by commercial fishermen by 2048. Yet, if we catch the ecosystems in time – with temporary fishing bans and the creation of large marine reserves – they can recover with remarkable speed. [...]

    But beyond a certain point the collapse is likely to be permanent. Off the coast of Namibia, where the fishery has crashed as a result of over-harvesting, we have a glimpse of the future. A paper in Current Biology reports that the ecosystem is approaching a "trophic dead-end". As the fish have been mopped up they have been replaced by jellyfish, which now outweigh them by three to one. The jellyfish eat the eggs and larvae of the fish, so the switch is probably irreversible. We have entered, the paper tells us, the "era of jellyfish ascendancy".

    It's a good symbol. The jellyfish represents the collapse of the ecosystem and the spinelessness of the people charged with protecting it. [Emphasis added]

    If space aliens, say, invaded and occupied the earth and proceeded to vacuum the planet's oceans, we would recognize it for the unspeakable crime it is. And we would fight it.

    Derrick Jensen writes:

    We have been too kind to those who are destroying the planet. We have been inexcusably, unforgivably, insanely kind.

    Who would argue with him?

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:21 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 05, 2007

    Global Warming Tipping Points Environment

    USA Today Tuesday carried a preview of the upcoming IPCC report on the projected effects of global warming. Not bad for a thoroughly mainstream publication:

    Earth is spinning toward many points of no return from the damage of global warming, after which disease, desolation and famine are inevitable, say scientists involved in an international report due Friday on the effects of climate change. [...]

    In its first report in February, the panel, backed by the World Meteorological Organization and conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme, concluded that "unequivocal" evidence shows industrial releases of greenhouse gases have warmed the Earth an average of about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century. That makes it "very likely" that temperatures will rise 3 to 7 degrees this century, depending on future emissions. [...]

    "In a sense, we are looking at a series of tipping points for humanity and climate," says Richard Moss, senior director on climate at the United Nations Foundation.

    Irreversible effects on plants, animals, farming and weather already are apparent, says biologist Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas in Austin, one of the scientists assigned to review the report. Studies weighed in the report show that warming has eliminated about 70 animal species and affects 59% of wild species surveyed. [...]

    Moss says the roughly 5-degree rise in global average temperatures envisioned in the February report will cause damage that cannot be recovered. He echoes a warning by NASA scientist James Hansen in 2004 that the window for action is only 10 years. The Stern Review, a high-profile report last year by the United Kingdom's chief economist, Nicholas Stern, warns of serious financial threats to agriculture and commerce. [...]

    In Brussels this week, about 60 lead authors are working with representatives of more than 100 nations to distill, clarify and approve the panel's findings in a short summary for policymakers. The summary is out Friday; the scientific chapters arrive Tuesday.

    Environmental and energy analyst Anthony Patt of Boston University, a report co-author, says the report will divide the possible effects of temperature increases this century into three grades: a 3.6-degree rise with warmer winters but few human catastrophes; an up to 7.2-degree rise that wealthy nations could handle but would prove calamitous to poor nations and many species; and an even higher rise, which "would prove difficult for any society to adapt to." [...]

    What the panel's report will not establish is whether vast infestations by pine beetles in the forests of the western USA and Canada are tied to warming, Running says. Although many scientists believe there is a link, he says, research has not focused enough on temperature. "My nose is telling me there's a climate-change signal here, but the papers in print yet aren't doing a strong enough analysis."

    Worldwide, thresholds were outlined last year in "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change," a summary of tipping points for which British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote the foreword. They include:

  • At a 3.6-degree rise, all Indian Ocean coral reefs go extinct, and 97% of the rest around the globe are "bleached" or severely damaged. All Arctic ice disappears.

  • At a 5.4-degree increase, half of all nature reserves become unable to conserve native species. The Amazon rainforest disappears.

  • At 7.2 degrees or higher, coastal flooding is seven times worse than in 1990. Malaria threatens 330 million more people a year, and hunger jeopardizes 600 million. Australia no longer can grow food.

    All of this leaves aside the most extreme risks that Schneider calls the "dark edge of the bell curve": melting of the vast Antarctic ice sheets; shutdown of Atlantic Ocean circulation, which brings warm weather to the United Kingdom; and the release of more greenhouse gases frozen in the Arctic tundra.

    Some scientists, such as Penn State's Michael Mann, worry that the panel's reports lag behind the latest science because of a six-month research cutoff before their release, a lifetime in climate study.

    Last month, for instance, a report in Geophysical Research Letters found that ocean acidification from increased carbon dioxide is likely to wreak "havoc" for shellfish and coral and disrupt food chains.

    A Colorado State University analysis in March said warming will make grazing lands less productive by 2050.

    A University of Minnesota team reported that Lake Superior has warmed an average of 4.5 degrees since 1979, about twice the local atmospheric warming. [...]

    James McCarthy of Harvard, incoming head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the reality of warming is accepted, with regional climate-change trends already playing out as predicted. [Emphasis added]

  • One hopeful sign is that awareness of the seriousness and scope of the global warming threat is growing rapidly and going mainstream, as this article demonstrates. Let us hope awareness leads to action, and quickly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:34 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 02, 2007

    Supreme Court Rules Greenhouse Gases A Pollutant Environment  Rights, Law

    A piece of good news for a change. This is an example of why the composition of the US Supreme Court matters so much (Boston Globe):

    In a defeat for the Bush administration, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday that greenhouse gases are a pollutant and ordered federal environmental officials to re-examine their refusal to limit emissions of the gases from cars and trucks.

    The justices' 5-4 decision did not go as far as to require the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Rather, the court directed the agency to take a new look at the gases. If it determines they cause global warming and therefore human harm, the agency should regulate them under the federal Clean Air Act, or provide a reasonable explanation why it will not, the court said.

    The case, brought by 12 states and 13 environmental groups and argued by the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, is the high court's first decision on global warming and is expected to have far-reaching implications for regulating greenhouse gases in the United States.

    "In short, EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

    The EPA had argued that the Clean Air Act did not give it authority to regulate greenhouse gases in part because of "substantial scientific uncertainty" about its harm to human health and the environment.

    The decision comes just two months after the US endorsed a statement by hundreds of scientists worldwide that concluded that there was a high degree of certainty that the recent rise in global temperatures was mostly caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

    "Despite acknowledging that global warming poses serious dangers to our environment and health, the Bush Administration has done nothing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement. "As a result of today's landmark ruling, EPA can no longer hide behind the fiction that it lacks any regulatory authority to address the problem of global warming." The EPA released a statement saying it is reviewing the decision. "The Bush Administration has an unparalleled financial, international and domestic commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions," it said, adding that the administration is pursuing voluntary efforts to prevent emissions and has spent over $35 billion on climate change programs -- "more than any other country in the world." Stevens was joined in the majority by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Anthony Kennedy. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. [Emphasis added]

    Corporations and utilities won't voluntarily act in ways that hurt their bottom line in the short term, even if it means their ruin in the long term. Government regulation is needed to save them from themselves. This decision today doesn't guarantee the EPA will act, but it's an important step. And it was decided by a single vote.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:59 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 31, 2007

    The Post-Peak Path Of Least Resistance Energy  Environment  Peak Oil

    I don't think the end of cheap oil will mean that things completely grind to a halt à la James Kunstler. But what seems like good news may actually be bad news. Very bad news. Why?

    Humans, like other organisms, generally take the path of least (short-term) resistance. It's our nature. In the Peak Oil context, the path of least resistance won't be to change how we organize cities and suburbs; or to switch to public transportation; or even to drive significantly smaller, more efficient vehicles. Nor will it be most of the other alternatives that could meaningfully reduce the demand for liquid fuels.

    Instead, the path of least resistance will be to substitute other liquid fuels for gasoline and diesel, those other fuels probably being ethanol made from plant matter and, most alarmingly, synthetic fuel made from coal. There is an enormous amount of coal remaining, and if we put all of that carbon in the atmosphere the results will be deadly.

    As people flail about for ways to cope with increasing shortfalls in oil production, they will act hurriedly, thoughtlessly, and they will almost certainly exacerbate global warming, perhaps catastrophically. That will be the path of least resistance.

    In a BBC op-ed, author David Strahan makes a similar point. Excerpts:

    [I]t is quite possible to run out of oil and pollute the planet to destruction simultaneously.

    In fact peak oil could even make emissions worse if it drives us to exploit the wrong kinds of fuel.

    Burning rainforest and peatlands to create palm oil plantations for biofuels releases vast amounts of CO2, and has already made Indonesia, according to some ways of calculating it, the world's third biggest emitter after the US and China.

    Synthetic transport fuels made from natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch process emit even more carbon on a well-to-wheels basis than conventional crude; and when the feedstock is coal, the emissions double.

    None of these alternatives are likely to fill the gap left by conventional crude — at least, not in time.

    But because they are so much more carbon intensive, it is quite easy to conjure scenarios in which we still suffer fuel shortages while emitting even more CO2 than in the current business-as-usual forecast — the worst of all possible worlds.

    Although these fuels are likely to prove inadequate, we may be driven to use them because cleaner alternatives are even more inadequate, for a variety of reasons.

    Biofuels can be produced sustainably and with real CO2 reductions, but in the industrialised world there simply isn't the land.

    In the developing world, however, there are vast swathes of land which could be put to sugar cane in a sustainable fashion; but the scale of the task of replacing crude oil would still be monumental.

    I calculate that to substitute the fuel lost through a post-peak oil production annual decline of 3% would mean planting about 200,000 sq km — equivalent to the land area of Cuba, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea — every year.

    Alternatively, if we decided to run Britain's road transport system, say, on cleanly produced hydrogen — electrolysing water using non-CO2-emitting forms of generation — our options would be:

  • 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations
  • a solar array covering every inch of Norfolk and Derbyshire combined
  • or a wind farm bigger than the entire southwest region of England.

    When oil production starts to fall, the economic impacts could well be devastating.

    Soaring crude prices could tip the world into a depression deeper than that of the 1930s, and collapsing stock markets cripple our ability to finance the expensive clean energy infrastructure we need.

    As the unemployment lines grow, the political will to tackle climate change may be sapped by the need to keep the lights burning as cheaply as possible.

    Many environmentalists seem to dismiss or ignore peak oil because they simply cannot see it as significant when compared to climate change.

    But this is to miss the point.

    Oil depletion is deadly serious in its own right, but it also has the capacity both to worsen emissions and destroy the wealth needed to fight global warming.

    For this reason - among others - it too has the power to destroy our civilisation. [Emphasis added]

  • Desperate people do desperate things. Fuel shortages will be an immediate, concrete problem staring people in the face. Global warming will seem, by comparison, an abstraction somewhere off in the future. And it will be easy for people to rationalize that their little contribution to global warming is an insignificant drop in a very big bucket; meanwhile, they need a way to get to work, to shop, to heat their homes. They are going to want fuel; they're not going to care much where it comes from.

    Of course, there are significant wild cards in any attempts to project the future. Biotechnology and nanotechnology, especially, have the potential to radically transform the equation. (And also to create their own brand of havoc.) But the next couple of decades are pivotal, and the sheer scale of the problem means that new technologies may arrive too late. Enormous damage is already being done, right now, in the race to produce biofuels. The colossal scale of the world's thirst for fuel pretty much guarantees that in the race for profits all sorts of bad ideas will be pushed into large-scale use without due regard for the consequences. We suffer from a kind of technological monoculture and a monoculture of the mind that causes us to risk way too much on a few throws of the dice.

    If we act without thinking, we're guaranteed to follow the path of least (short-term) resistance. But it's the wrong path. It remains to be seen if humans are smart enough to forego short-term convenience to gain long-term survival. Are we?

    [Thanks, Jason]

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:55 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 29, 2007

    Today's Biofuels Are A Disaster Energy  Environment

    If you run your car on recycled fry oil or biofuel generated from waste, awesome. But growing food crops to turn them into fuel (and ripping up rainforests to do it) is out and out lunacy. Nothing shows our addiction to fossil fuels more starkly than our willingness to bid up the price of food crops — so we can price the world's poor out of the market, take food out of their mouths, and set fire to it.

    It's simple really. There's a finite amount of corn and other crops in the world. They go to the highest bidder. There isn't enough to feed the world as it is. But now we in the First World want to take a big piece of that pie and pour it into our gas tanks. Every bushel that goes for fuel is a bushel that cannot go for food. People must go hungry so we can drive our SUVs to Wal-Mart.

    But it's actually worse than even that. Many of today's biofuels are an environmental disaster, too, worse for the planet than petroleum. George Monbiot explains:

    It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless.

    In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow – it is released again when the fuel is burnt. By encouraging oil companies to switch from fossil plants to living ones, governments on both sides of the Atlantic claim to be "decarbonising" our transport networks.

    In the budget last week, Gordon Brown announced that he would extend the tax rebate for biofuels until 2010. From next year all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is made from plants — if not, they must pay a penalty of 15p a litre. The obligation rises to 5% in 2010. By 2050, the government hopes that 33% of our fuel will come from crops. Last month George Bush announced that he would quintuple the US target for biofuels: by 2017 they should be supplying 24% of the nation's transport fuel.

    So what's wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 this column warned that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats....Well in one respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn’t materialise for many years. They are happening already.

    Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled. The price of wheat has also reached a 10-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows. Already there have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling the strain all over the world....According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the main reason is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from both maize and wheat.

    Farmers will respond to better prices by planting more, but it is not clear that they can overtake the booming demand for biofuel. Even if they do, they will catch up only by ploughing virgin habitat.

    Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum. The UN has just published a report suggesting that 98% of the natural rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded or gone by 2022. Just five years ago, the same agencies predicted that this wouldn't happen until 2032. But they reckoned without the planting of palm oil to turn into biodiesel for the European market. This is now the main cause of deforestation there and it is likely soon to become responsible for the extinction of the orang utan in the wild. But it gets worse. As the forests are burnt, both the trees and the peat they sit on are turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or ten times as much as petroleum produces. I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm oil causes TEN TIMES as much climate change as ordinary diesel. [...]

    The reason governments are so enthusiastic about biofuels is that they don't upset drivers. They appear to reduce the amount of carbon from our cars, without requiring new taxes. It's an illusion sustained by the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our national total. The forest clearance in Malaysia doesn't increase our official impact by a gram.

    In February the European Commission was faced with a straight choice between fuel efficiency and biofuels. It had intended to tell car companies that the average carbon emission from new cars in 2012 would be 120 grams per kilometre. After heavy lobbying by Angela Merkel on behalf of her car manufacturers, it caved in and raised the limit to 130 grams. It announced that it would make up the shortfall by increasing the contribution from biofuel.

    The British government says it "will require transport fuel suppliers to report on the carbon saving and sustainability of the biofuels they supply." But it will not require them to do anything. It can't: its consultants have already shown that if it tries to impose wider environmental standards on biofuels, it will fall foul of world trade rules. And even "sustainable" biofuels merely occupy the space that other crops now fill, displacing them into new habitats. It promises that one day there will be a "second generation" of biofuels, made from straw or grass or wood. But there are still major technical obstacles. By the time the new fuels are ready, the damage will have been done.

    We need a moratorium on all targets and incentives for biofuels, until a second generation of fuels can be produced for less than it costs to make fuel from palm oil or sugarcane. Even then, the targets should be set low and increased only cautiously. I suggest a five-year freeze. [...]

    You can join the campaign at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk. [Emphasis added]

    Like addicts everywhere, we pretend not to see the damage our addiction does. And biofuels make denial easy. They seem so green. And who really knows what's going on in Indonesia or the Amazon, anyway? Out of sight, out of mind. Out of our minds is more like it.

    We do what we do because we are too lazy and too greedy to increase fuel efficiency, drive smaller vehicles, use public transportation. It's too much trouble. We'd rather starve the world's poor, strip off the last remaining rainforests, use the atmosphere for our sewer.

    Not always intentionally, perhaps. Many people want to do the right thing (at least if it's not too inconvenient), and fuel from plants sounds like it ought to be the right thing. But just because something sounds green doesn't mean it is. Good intentions alone are worth nothing. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions. We have to realistically assess (take a fearless inventory of) the net effect of whatever steps we take from here on out. We have to determine if they do more harm than good. We have to stop kidding ourselves. We no longer have a lot of room for error.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:53 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 26, 2007

    Stacking The Deck Environment  Politics

    A Maryland paper reports that Republicans who want to serve on the global warming subcommittee have to have decided in advance that humans don't cause global warming. Otherwise, the Republican leadership won't let them on the committee:

    House Republican Leader John Boehner would have appointed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest to the bipartisan Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming — but only if the Maryland Republican would say humans are not causing climate change, Gilchrest said.

    "I said, 'John, I can't do that,'" Gilchrest, R-1st-Md., said in an interview. "He said, 'Come on. Do me a favor. I want to help you here.'"

    Gilchrest didn't make the committee. [...]

    Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a research scientist from Maryland, and Michigan's Rep. Vern Ehlers, the first research physicist to serve in Congress, also made cases for a seat, but weren't appointed, he said.

    "Roy Blunt said he didn't think there was enough evidence to suggest that humans are causing global warming," Gilchrest said. "Right there, holy cow, there's like 9,000 scientists to three on that one." [Emphasis added]

    Hey, here's an idea. How about we actually look at the science and try to come up with constructive public policy solutions. You know, like grownups.

    Meanwhile, the Republicans seem to revel in being the Flat Earth party. They diverge farther and farther from reality. It's weird. And dangerous.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:25 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 24, 2007

    Global Warming: WWJD? Environment  Ethics  Religion

    Is denial of global warming a Christian thing to do?

    Here's what Al Gore told the Senate in reference to Senator Inhofe, who often cites the Bible as the source for his political views:

    I say to Senator Inhofe, I don't prostelytize my own beliefs, but all religious traditions hold to the same teachings: That the Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof. That the purpose of life is to glorify God, and you cannot do it while heaping contempt on God's creation.

    Not to mention the enormous suffering, especially among the world's poor, that global warming will cause. As Jesus himself said:

    What you did to the least of these, you did to Me, and...whatever you neglected to do for the least of these, you neglected to do it for Me.

    Jesus wept.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:05 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 20, 2007

    Editing Global Warming Out Of Government Reports Environment  Politics


    A House committee released documents Monday that showed hundreds of instances in which a White House official who was previously an oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role.

    In a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the official, Philip A. Cooney, who left government in 2005, defended the changes he had made in government reports over several years. Mr. Cooney said the editing was part of the normal White House review process and reflected findings in a climate report written for President Bush by the National Academy of Sciences in 2001.

    They were the first public statements on the issue by Mr. Cooney, the former chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Before joining the White House, he was the "climate team leader" for the American Petroleum Institute, the main industry lobby.

    He was hired by Exxon Mobil after resigning in 2005 following reports on the editing in The New York Times. [Emphasis added]

    From the oil industry lobby's "climate team leader" to White House chief on environmental quality issues to a position at Exxon Mobil. All with no science background.

    Everything's politics to this White House, but these are issues that put the health and safety of millions of people at risk. There's actual physical reality at work here. No amount of political hackery can change that. Putting a political hack in charge is like putting a political hack in charge of working up your cancer diagnosis.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:52 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 16, 2007

    Warmest Winter On Record Environment


    This has been the world's warmest winter since record-keeping began more than a century ago, the U.S. government agency that tracks weather reported Thursday.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the combined global land and ocean surface temperature from December through February was at its highest since records began in 1880.

    A record-warm January was responsible for pushing up the combined winter temperature, according to the agency's Web site.

    "Contributing factors were the long-term trend toward warmer temperatures, as well as a moderate El Nino in the Pacific," Jay Lawrimore of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center said in a telephone interview from Asheville, North Carolina.

    The next-warmest winter on record was in 2004, and the third warmest winter was in 1998, Lawrimore said.

    The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995. [...]

    Temperatures were above average for these months in Europe, Asia, western Africa, southeastern Brazil and the northeast half of the United States, with cooler-than-average conditions in parts of Saudi Arabia and the central United States.

    Global temperature on land surface during the Northern Hemisphere winter was also the warmest on record, while the ocean-surface temperature tied for second warmest after the winter of 1997-98.

    Over the past century, global surface temperatures have increased by about 0.11 degree F per decade, but the rate of increase has been three times larger since 1976 — around 0.32 degree F per decade, with some of the biggest temperature rises in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. [Emphasis added]

    I think I'm beginning to spot a trend.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:33 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 22, 2007

    Recycling: Incentives Needed Economy  Environment  Politics

    How are Americans doing at recycling plastic bottles? The answer is disappointing. Andrew Leonard, at Salon:

    In 1995, nearly 40 percent of all plastic PET bottles sold in the United States were recycled. Ten years later, in 2005, the figure was only 23 percent.

    The vast majority of water and plastic soda bottles consumed in the world are made of PET, aka polyethylene terephthalate. And perhaps contrary to expectations, this is one petroleum byproduct that is eminently recyclable. Indeed, and here's a second baffling peculiarity, producers of ground-up recycled PET "flake" cannot keep up with demand. Prices per pound are strong, propelled by Chinese buyers who will buy all the flake or bales of flattened bottles that they can get, to turn into pseudo-polyester and other materials.

    So, we are recycling a smaller percentage of plastic bottles than 10 years ago, and yet supply of what is lovingly referred to as "post-consumer PET" can't keep up with demand. What's wrong with this picture? Why hasn't the market solved this problem?

    The answer to the first question turns out to be simple. A handy chart provided by the National Association for PET Container Resources reveals that in 1995, the U.S. recycled 775 million pounds of PET bottles, out of a total of 1.95 billion pounds of bottles estimated to be on retail shelves. The actual total poundage recycled over the next 10 years stayed more or less the same, albeit finally beginning to tick up steadily in 2004. But the total amount of bottles produced more than doubled, jumping to nearly 5 billion pounds by 2005. Those of us who do recycle aren't necessarily recycling less as the years go by, we just haven't been able to keep up with the deluge.

    But now that we've answered the first question, there's still the second. With so many bottles available to be recycled, why can't we satisfy demand? One reason is that we don't have enough installed capacity to clean the bottles and chop them up into flakes. But another is that voluntary programs for recycling plastic don't appear to work too well. Maybe most people are like me, and didn't realize until today how recyclable the bottles are. Or maybe they don't live in one of the 11 states that mandate refundable deposits for PET bottles.

    Because if you want to know why PET bottle recycling rates started to rise again in recent years, the answer appears to be simple: California. In 2004, California enacted a law that increased redemption values for PET containers. As a result, PET recycling in California surged.

    Strange: Legislation and financial incentives make a difference! If government properly sets up a system that encourages people, whether you, me or the neighborhood poacher, to ferret out those bottles and turn them in, we can reduce landfill waste and clean up our neighborhoods. [Emphasis added]

    The free market, all by itself, won't protect the environment. Regulation is needed — which means government regulation.

    Give people an incentive, and they'll do the right thing. Providing that incentive just requires political will. What are we waiting for?

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:18 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 20, 2007

    Global Warming Tied To Marine Dead Zones Environment

    A year ago last August, we noted a story about a marine dead zone caused by unusually warm waters off the coast of Oregon. At the time, scientists were reluctant to blame global warming. Enough evidence has accumulated in the interim, however, that marine scientists are now blaming global warming for similar dead zones occurring in many places around the world. Guardian:

    A few months ago, the clear blue Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Oregon suddenly turned a thick greenish brown. A swell of nutrients produced a bizarre blooming of plankton that reached levels never seen before by scientists. Then the plankton died and sank, causing oxygen levels in the water to plummet to zero.

    The living ocean was transformed into a dead zone. Scientists conducted a submarine survey and found only the bodies of crabs and marine worms scattered across the ocean floor. There were no signs of any fish. Nothing had survived the cataclysm.

    Nor has this been the only such disaster to strike a marine ecosystem in recent years. As scientists reported at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco yesterday, unprecedented changes to ocean currents are having a devastating effect on finely balanced marine ecosystems all over the globe. Similar upheavals have been recorded in other parts of the world, particularly off South America and Africa.

    Marine researchers are convinced the evidence points to one culprit: global warming. Man-made changes to the climate are throwing previously predictable seasonal winds out of kilter. 'We finger the winds as the important culprit, but we do not know definitively why these winds are changing,' said Professor Jane Lubchenco from Oregon State University. 'However, we know the changes are what would be expected under climate change scenarios, and climate change is a viable hypothesis. We should expect more surprises.'

    Seasonal winds blowing across the sea affect ocean currents by pushing away surface water, which is then replaced by colder water from below. But warmer land temperatures result in higher pressures and stronger winds, which in turn have an impact on currents, said the scientists. Normally these effects were predictable, but recently the system had become unstable and volatile — a pattern that mirrors climate change models. 'Wild fluctuations in the intensity of ocean upwellings are wreaking havoc with ecosystems,' added Lubchenco. 'We're seeing extreme distortions on both sides of the norm. This is a system that is out of kilter. It's fluctuating rapidly.'

    Up to five decades of data have shown that these events were unprecedented, she said, pointing out that similar ocean current disruption had been seen in other regions, particularly off Peru, Chile and parts of Africa.

    Last year's ecosystem collapse on the Oregon coast was the second to strike there in as many years. In 2005, a nutrient-rich ocean current that normally appears off northern California and Oregon in spring was delayed by a month. This led to a loss of plankton, the microscopic plant organisms upon which larger animals depend for food. Salmon, which normally take to the sea at this time, starved. The effects rippled through the food web as predators, including sea birds, went hungry and died. Huge numbers of dead birds washed up on the shores.

    'Beaches were littered with the bodies of dead sea birds,' said Dr Julia Parrish, from the University of Washington in Seattle. Many of the starving survivors have been unable to breed since then, she added.

    Then, a year later, in 2006, the dead zone appeared and remained for nearly 17 weeks. 'It grew to an area the size of the state of Ohio and lasted much longer than we thought would be possible, from something that we tracked day to day for months on end,' said Dr Francis Chan, from Oregon State University in Corvallis. 'It went from a low-oxygen system to a no-oxygen system. This had a dramatic effect on marine life.' [Emphasis added]

    The climate is a highly nonlinear system, with lots of built-in, potentially self-reinforcing feedback loops, so changes can be sudden and dramatic — on the scale of years or decades, not centuries. Our brains are wired to extrapolate linearly, however, so we expect next year to be pretty much like last year. That works well most of the time, but as turbulence and instability increase it is likely to become dangerously misguided. We will tend to think we have more time than we do. We should expect to be surprised.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:30 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 19, 2007

    Starving Climate Science Environment  Politics  Science/Technology

    From an interview with NASA climatologist Drew Shindell in yesterday's NYT:

    Q: As a physicist and climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, you recently testified before Congress about ways in which the Bush administration has tried to prevent you from releasing information on global warming. Can you give us an example? Sure. Press releases about global warming were watered down to the point where you wondered, Why would this capture anyone's interest? Once when I issued a report predicting rapid warming in Antarctica, the press release ended up highlighting, in effect, that Antarctica has a climate.

    If your department is that politicized, how does that affect research? Well, five years from now, we will know less about our home planet that we know now. The future does not have money set aside to maintain even the current level of observations. There were proposals for lots of climate-monitoring instruments, most of which have been canceled.

    By NASA? Well, it's a NASA decision following the directives from their political leaders. The money has been redirected into the manned space program, primarily.

    Are you referring to President Bush and his plan to send Americans to Mars? The moon and Mars, yes. It's fine to do it for national spirit or exploring the cosmos, but the problem is that it comes at the cost of observing and protecting our home planet.

    Why is NASA involved in climate research in the first place? There is no federal agency whose primary mission is the climate, and that's a problem, because climate doesn’t command the clout that it should in Washington. Since NASA is the primary agency for launching new scientific satellites, it has ended up collecting some of the most important data on climate change. [...]

    Why do you think the federal government has been so phobic about adopting energy-efficiency regulations? "Phobic" is the right word, because it's irrational not to conserve when you think of all the advantages, such as keeping money in consumers' pockets instead of sending it to Middle Eastern countries that hate us. [Emphasis added]

    It always seemed a little odd that the Bush White House took an interest in promoting manned spaceflight to Mars and the moon. It seemed out of character.

    Pardon my cynicism, but could it just be their way of diverting funding away from research into the inconvenient truth of global climate change? Seems like just the sort of move that Bush, Cheney, and Rove might think was oh so very clever.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:41 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Climate Change And The Future Of The West Economy  Environment  Future

    From "The End of the West As We Know It?" by Anatol Lieven (IHT):

    Every political, social and economic system ever created has sooner or later encountered a challenge that its very nature has made it incapable of meeting. The Confucian ruling system of imperial China, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, has some claim still to be the most successful in history, but because it was founded on values of stability and continuity, rather than dynamism and inventiveness, it eventually proved unable to survive in the face of Western imperial capitalism.

    For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

    The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.

    If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.

    Even the relatively conservative predictions offered by the Stern report, of a drop in annual global gross domestic product of up to 20 percent by the end of this century, imply a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s; and as we know, the effects of that depression were not restricted to economics. In much of Europe, as well as Latin America and Japan, democracies collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian regimes.

    As the report makes clear, however, if we continue with "business as usual" when it comes to the emission of greenhouse gases, then we will not have to wait till the end of the century to see disastrous consequences. Long before then, a combination of floods, droughts and famine will have destroyed states in many poorer parts of the earth — as has already occurred in recent decades in Somalia.

    If the conservative estimates of the Stern report are correct, then already by 2050 the effects of climate change may be such as to wreck the societies of Pakistan and Bangladesh; and if these states collapse, how can India and other countries possibly insulate themselves?

    At that point, not only will today's obsessive concern with terrorism appear insignificant, but all the democratizing efforts of Western states, and of private individuals and bodies like George Soros and his Open Society Institute, will be rendered completely meaningless. So, of course, will every effort directed today toward the reduction of poverty and disease.

    And this is only to examine the likely medium-term consequences of climate change. For the further future, the report predicts that if we continue with business as usual, then the rise in average global temperature could well top 5 degrees Celsius. To judge by what we know of the history of the world's climate, this would almost certainly lead to the melting of the polar ice caps, and a rise in sea levels of up to 25 meters.

    As pointed out by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth," this would mean the end of many of the world's greatest cities. The resulting human migration could be on such a scale as to bring modern civilization to an end.

    If this comes to pass, what will our descendants make of a political and media culture that devotes little attention to this threat when compared with sports, consumer goods, leisure and a threat from terrorism that is puny by comparison? Will they remember us as great paragons of human progress and freedom? They are more likely to spit on our graves. [Emphasis added]

    The piece makes an essential point, though it could have been made more forcefully: unregulated market capitalism is, by its very nature, incapable of self-restraint, and hence incapable of dealing successfully with an issue like global warming. Capitalism is about the single-minded pursuit of one thing: profit. That single-mindedness is the source of capitalism's dynamism, but it is also, in a world of unregulated markets, going to be the source of capitalism's ultimate undoing. It costs nothing to emit greenhouse gases; it costs money to not emit them. Unless someone can figure out a way to reverse that circumstance, unregulated capitalism will be "successful" the way cancer is successful. It will grow and grow until, in the end, it kills its host.

    So capitalism needs to be regulated, to save it from itself, and to save us from it. But a successful worldwide regulatory regime is ultimately going to have to be largely voluntary. Capitalists will have to restrain themselves. They are going to have to not cheat. Unfortunately, buccaneers have always vastly outnumbered saints.

    [Thanks, Miles]

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:27 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 16, 2007

    Gore To Host World's Biggest Party Activism  Environment

    Al Gore is promoting a 24-hour worldwide concert July 7 to raise awareness of global warming. MSNBC:

    Al Gore, the former vice president and now hit documentary maker, on Thursday added rock promoter to his résumé, announcing plans for a 24-hour concert series on all seven continents to highlight, you guessed it, the dangers of global warming.

    With a powerhouse lineup of acts from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Snoop Dogg to Bon Jovi, what's being called "Live Earth" aims to gather more than 100 of the world's top musicians on July 7 — and attract 2 billion viewers, most of them via television, radio and the Web.

    It's easy to view this kind of thing cynically, but I choose not to. I think anything that lets the world's people connect, transcend cultural and political borders, and redirect their energies in a peaceful direction is welcome in a world where so many things push in the opposite direction.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:21 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January Smashes Warmth Record Worldwide Environment

    January temperatures in the US were fairly normal, but not worldwide. January temperatures worldwide smashed the previous record for the warmest January on record. AP:

    It may be cold comfort during a frigid February, but last month was by far the hottest January [on record]. [...]

    Spurred on by unusually warm Siberia, Canada, northern Asia and Europe, the world's land areas were 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.9 degrees Celsius) warmer than a normal January, according to the U.S. National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

    That didn't just nudge past the old record set in 2002, but broke that mark by 0.81 degrees Fahrenheit (0.56C), which meteorologists said is a lot, since such records often are broken by hundredths of a degree at a time.

    "That's pretty unusual for a record to be broken by that much," said the data center's scientific services chief, David Easterling. "I was very surprised." [...]

    The temperature of the world's land and water combined — the most effective measurement — was 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit (0.85C) warmer than normal, breaking the old record by more than one-quarter of a degree.

    Ocean temperatures alone didn't set a record. In the Northern Hemisphere, land areas were 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4C) warmer than normal for January, breaking the old record by about three-quarters of a degree. [...]

    The world's temperature record was driven by northern latitudes. Siberia was on average 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5.1C) warmer than normal. Eastern Europe had temperatures averaging 8 degrees Fahrenheit (4.55C) above normal. Canada on average was more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.88C) warmer than normal.

    Larger increases in temperature farther north, compared to mid-latitudes, is "sort of the global warming signal," Easterling said. [...]

    Temperature records break regularly with global warming, Trenberth said, but "with a little bit of El Nino thrown in, you don't just break records, you smash records." [Emphasis added]

    Siberia's warmth can't be good news. As we've noted in the past, Siberia's permafrost harbors an enormous amount of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. As the world warms, the permafrost thaws, releasing methane, which warms the world further, causing more methane to be released, etc., etc., in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

    As I wrote previously:

    The horrifying thing about these feedback loops is that at some point it's no longer going to matter much what we do — the process will have taken on a life of its own, accelerating out of control, leading finally to a new equilibrium in the form of a very different planet from the one we know.

    All of which makes our obsessive worrying about the threat of a possible terrorist attack seem grotesquely foolish. Survival depends on accurately assessing and prioritizing threats. But people seem to have a hard time mobilizing against a threat that doesn't have a human face. And of course war-profiteers are a whole lot better at playing the political game than are a bunch of climate scientists and environmentalists. But just imagine if the resources that have gone into selling us the "war on terror" had gone instead into informing us about the really important threats we face.

    You often hear people say that dealing with global warming would be too expensive. Yet somehow we never seem to run out of money for war. Odd species, us.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:28 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 05, 2007

    45 Nations Unite To Fight Global Warming — Not US Environment

    Good news, bad news. Boston Globe:

    Forty-five nations answered France's call yesterday for a new environmental body to slow inevitable global warming and protect the planet, perhaps with policing powers to punish violators.

    Absent were the world's heavyweight polluter, the United States, and booming nations on the same path as the United States — China and India.

    The charge led by President Jacques Chirac of France came a day after the release of an authoritative — and disturbingly grim — scientific report in Paris that said global warming is "very likely" caused by mankind and that climate change will continue for centuries even if heat-trapping gases are reduced.

    It was the strongest language ever used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose last report was issued in 2001.

    The document, a collaboration of hundreds of scientists and government officials, was approved by 113 nations, including the United States. [...]

    Without naming the United States, producer of about one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, Chirac expressed frustration that "some large, rich countries still must be convinced." [...]

    So far, it is mostly European nations that agreed to pursue plans for the new organization, and to hold their first meeting in Morocco this spring. [...]

    Former Vice President Al Gore, whose Oscar-nominated documentary on the perils of global warming has garnered worldwide attention, cheered Chirac's efforts.

    "We are at a tipping point," Gore told the conference by videophone. "We must act, and act swiftly. ... Such action requires international cooperation."

    The world's scientists and other international leaders also said now that the science is so well documented, action is clearly the next step.

    "It is time now to hear from the world's policy makers," Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, said Friday. "The so-called and long-overstated 'debate' about global warming is now over." [Emphasis added]

    Decision-makers in politics and business operate in such short time frames that they tend to be ill-equipped to react to long-term threats like global warming. There are hopeful signs, though, that many of the world's leaders are waking up. Imagine how inspiring it would be if the US were to act as a leader on this issue, instead of the world's biggest laggard.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:46 PM | Comments (12) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Glacier Melting Continues To Accelerate Environment

    Glaciers are melting faster than ever. UN:

    Mountain glaciers around the world melted from 2000 to 2005 at 1.6 times the average loss rate of the 1990s and three times that of the 1980s, with much of the accelerated change attributable to human-induced climate change, according to tentative figures in a new United Nations-backed report released today.

    "This is the most authoritative, comprehensive and up-to-date information on glaciers world-wide and as such underlines the rapid changes occurring on the planet as a result of climate change," UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said, noting their importance as sources for many rivers upon which people depend for drinking water, agriculture and industrial purposes.

    "The findings confirm the science of human-induced climate change, confirmation that will be further underlined when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change unveil their next report on 2 February. These findings should strengthen the resolve of governments to act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put in place the medium to longer term strategies necessary to avert dangerous climate change," he added. [...]

    Comprehensive data for the year 2006 are not yet available, but as it was one of the warmest years in many years in many parts of the world, it is expected that the downward trend will continue.

    "Today, the glacier surface is much smaller than in the 1980s, this means that the climatic forcing has continued since then," Michael Zemp, a glaciologist and research associate at the WGMS said. "The recent increase in rates of ice loss over reducing glacier surface areas leaves no doubt about the accelerated change in climatic conditions." [Emphasis added]

    Some 75% of the world's fresh water is stored in glaciers. Many of the great rivers of Asia, including the Yangtze, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong and the Yellow River, are fed by glaciers, so as the glaciers disappear, enormous numbers of people will be put at risk. In China alone, some 300 million people depend on water from glaciers for their drinking water.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:39 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Texas GOP: Proud To Look Stupid Environment  Politics

    Texas Republicans don't care about your grandkids — or theirs. Not when there's money to be made. Austin Star-Telegram:

    Despite warnings from President Bush about global warming — and in the face of what many experts and even industry leaders describe as overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue — top leaders in Texas have continued to question the validity of man-made climate change.

    "Absolutely," Gov. Rick Perry replied when asked recently by the Star-Telegram whether there is scientific doubt that human activity causes global warming. "I am not going to put the state of Texas in a competitive economic disadvantage on some science that may or may not be correct."

    State Rep. Phil King said: "I think it's just bad science. I think global warming is bad science." The Weatherford Republican has responsibility for electric-utility issues in the House.

    The global-warming debate has exploded in prominence during the legislative session, especially against the backdrop of TXU's controversial plan to build 11 coal-fired plants that environmentalists say will contribute dramatically to greenhouse gases in Texas. Other utilities also propose new facilities.

    Perry and other key Republicans have expressed general support for those utility plans even as they have rejected the validity of global warming or sidestepped the question.

    In a recent opinion piece, Perry said there remains great debate among scientists about the validity of man-made global warming. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that there's an "absence of scientific consensus on the causes of climate change" but added that "we should take every reasonable step to support the development of new technologies and renewable energy sources."

    House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he did not know whether there was scientific consensus.

    Contrast that with a recent cover story in Scientific American, in which Gary Stix wrote that "the debate on global warming is over" and that "carbon dioxide from SUVs and local coal-fired utilities is causing a steady uptick in the thermometer."

    David Kennedy, writing for Science magazine, has noted that "consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science." [...]

    Perry has signed an executive order directing state regulators to expedite permits for new power plants, and in an interview this month with the Star-Telegram he repeated skepticism about the science of global warming.

    King said he hopes the Legislature does nothing to restrict emissions that environmentalists associate with global warming.

    "For every study and every report that somebody points to and says this is occurring, you can find just as many that say it's not," King said. "I just haven't seen anything that [convinces me that this is] anything other than the natural swing that the climate takes throughout the eons." [...]

    D. James Baker, a former administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was quoted in a May 2005 issue of Mother Jones as saying that "there is a better scientific consensus on this than on any other issue I know — except maybe Newton's second law of dynamics." [...]

    "Anybody, regardless of their position, reaches a point where they just look silly denying what is so clear to the rest of the world," said Rowan, of Environmental Defense. [Emphasis added]

    Sooner or later, the gap between what these people say and what the rest of us can see with our own eyes will grow so large that they'll be discredited forever. Or at least one can hope so.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:27 PM | Comments (7) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 30, 2007

    The Way Of The Ostrich Environment  Politics

    This is outrageous, crazy, you name it. AP:

    Two private advocacy groups told a congressional hearing Tuesday that climate scientists at seven government agencies say they have been subjected to political pressure aimed at downplaying the threat of global warming.

    The groups presented a survey that shows two in five of the 279 climate scientists who responded to a questionnaire complained that some of their scientific papers had been edited in a way that changed their meaning. Nearly half of the 279 said in response to another question that at some point they had been told to delete reference to "global warming" or "climate change" from a report. [Emphasis added]

    If we just ignore it, maybe it will go away. As if reality is only what we say it is.


    Posted by Jonathan at 11:18 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 26, 2007

    "Like A Business In Liquidation" Environment  Musings

    Just came across a great phrase from Al Gore: we're "operating the planet like a business in liquidation". Liquidating everything, using it up as fast as we can, last one out lock the door. Except there is no "out".

    The bottom line on sustainability: unsustainable = stupid. Fatally stupid. Suicidally stupid. Pretty much by definition, when you stop and think about it. Sustainability is the fundamental requirement for long-term survival. Anything else is sawing off the limb we're sitting on — and there ain't no net.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:49 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 24, 2007

    Phaeton's Reins Environment  Science/Technology

    MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel, one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2006, has published a superb overview of the science of global warming in the Boston Review [link via RealClimate].

    Long, but lucid, and well worth the effort of working your way through. Excellent discussions of how the greenhouse effect actually works, how a variety of factors interact as climate changes, how climate scientists separate the effects of human activity from other sources of climate variability, and the most elegant description I've seen of how chaotic systems are sensitive to small changes in initial conditions.

    Very highly recommended.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:07 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 23, 2007

    IPCC: Global Warming Will Be Worse Than Previously Thought Environment

    The Guardian says that the forthcoming IPCC report on climate change says global warming will be worse than previously thought. Excerpts:

    Global warming is destined to have a far more destructive and earlier impact than previously estimated, the most authoritative report yet produced on climate change will warn next week.

    A draft copy of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, obtained by The Observer, shows the frequency of devastating storms — like the ones that battered Britain last week — will increase dramatically. Sea levels will rise over the century by around half a metre; snow will disappear from all but the highest mountains; deserts will spread; oceans become acidic, leading to the destruction of coral reefs and atolls; and deadly heatwaves will become more prevalent.

    The impact will be catastrophic, forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee their devastated homelands, particularly in tropical, low-lying areas, while creating waves of immigrants whose movements will strain the economies of even the most affluent countries.

    "The really chilling thing about the IPCC report is that it is the work of several thousand climate experts who have widely differing views about how greenhouse gases will have their effect. Some think they will have a major impact, others a lesser role. Each paragraph of this report was therefore argued over and scrutinised intensely. Only points that were considered indisputable survived this process. This is a very conservative document - that's what makes it so scary," said one senior UK climate expert. [...]

    [The report] points out that:

  • 12 of the past 13 years were the warmest since records began;

  • ocean temperatures have risen at least three kilometres beneath the surface;

  • glaciers, snow cover and permafrost have decreased in both hemispheres;

  • sea levels are rising at the rate of almost 2mm a year;

  • cold days, nights and frost have become rarer while hot days, hot nights and heatwaves have become more frequent.

    And the cause is clear, say the authors: "It is very likely that [man-made] greenhouse gas increases caused most of the average temperature increases since the mid-20th century," says the report.

    To date, these changes have caused global temperatures to rise by 0.6C. The most likely outcome of continuing rises in greenhouses gases will be to make the planet a further 3C hotter by 2100, although the report acknowledges that rises of 4.5C to 5C could be experienced. Ice-cap melting, rises in sea levels, flooding, cyclones and storms will be an inevitable consequence.

    Past assessments by the IPCC have suggested such scenarios are "likely" to occur this century. Its latest report, based on sophisticated computer models and more detailed observations of snow cover loss, sea level rises and the spread of deserts, is far more robust and confident. Now the panel writes of changes as "extremely likely" and "almost certain".

    And in a specific rebuff to sceptics who still argue natural variation in the Sun's output is the real cause of climate change, the panel says mankind's industrial emissions have had five times more effect on the climate than any fluctuations in solar radiation. [...]

    The report reflects climate scientists' growing fears that Earth is nearing the stage when carbon dioxide rises will bring irreversible change to the planet. "We are seeing vast sections of Antarctic ice disappearing at an alarming rate," said climate expert Chris Rapley, in a phone call to The Observer from the Antarctic Peninsula last week. "That means we can expect to see sea levels rise at about a metre a century from now on — and that will have devastating consequences."

    However, there is still hope, said Peter Cox of Exeter University. "We are like alcoholics who have got as far as admitting there is a problem. It is a start. Now we have got to start drying out — which means reducing our carbon output." [Emphasis added]

  • Humans, like other organisms, are designed to react to threats that appear suddenly. A loud noise, a sudden movement, and we feel the adrenaline hit our bloodstreams, mobilizing us for fight or flight. Slow motion threats have a hard time getting our attention. They require us to mobilize ourselves via rational thought, rather than reflex. Are we rational enough to save ourselves?

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:12 AM | Comments (7) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 09, 2007

    Methane Bubbling Up From The Sea? Environment

    The most frightening global warming scenarios involve runaway feedback mechanisms that make global warming self-reinforcing. The thawing of Siberian permafrost, for example, releases methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, into the atmosphere — which causes further warming, which in turn causes further thawing, and so on.

    Besides methane in permafrost, an enormous amount of methane is trapped undersea as methane clathrate or hydrate. If that methane were to start being released into the atmosphere, it would be an ominous development, putting it mildly.

    Which brings us to what could be the scariest global warming story I've seen yet. Unfortunately, it's impossible at this point to evaluate or confirm its accuracy, so I'll just pass it along.

    The source is Wayne Madsen, former NSA analyst and US Navy intelligence officer, who reports:

    According to U.S. maritime industry sources, tanker captains are reporting an increase in onboard alarms from hazard sensors designed to detect hydrocarbon gas leaks and, specifically, methane leaks. However, the leaks are not emanating from cargo holds or pump rooms but from continental shelves venting increasing amounts of trapped methane into the atmosphere. With rising ocean temperatures, methane is increasingly escaping from deep ocean floors. Methane is also 21 more times capable of trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

    Madsen goes on to speculate that the venting of undersea methane could have been the source of the gas-like odor that alarmed Manhattan residents yesterday. Make of that what you will. (Before you write me to point out that methane itself is odorless, let me add that undersea methane is often accompanied by longer-chain hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide, decidedly not odorless.)

    Treat this with some skepticism for now. But if it turns out to be true — I don't want to think about it.

    [Thanks, Miles]

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:53 PM | Comments (12) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Explaining This Winter's Warmth Environment

    NOAA announced today that 2006 was the warmest year on record in the continental US. Winter weather has been especially anomalous: in much of the US, winter has never really arrived.

    RealClimate, the premier climate science site on the web, tackles the obvious question: what's causing the anomalous winter warmth? Is it global warming?

    First, a couple of maps. This was the situation a year ago, when winter temperatures were also unusually warm:

    The map shows how much temperatures last winter differed from average temperatures for the baseline period 1971-2000 (a period that was already warmer than usual).

    Here's the situation so far this winter:

    Last year was warm, but this year is ridiculous. Where I live, for example, average temperature has been 12-14 degrees F warmer than the baseline.

    The scientists at RealClimate are quick to make the obligatory disclaimer that no single weather event or season can be chalked up to anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming (AGW). Variations and anomalies occur for a variety of reasons.

    But, that said, the non-AGW explanations don't seem adequate to explain the magnitude of this winter's anomaly. Some meteorologists say El Niño is to blame, but, according to RealClimate, El Niño, which shifts the path of the jet stream, typically changes winter temps in the Northern Hemishphere by about 1 deg C. The current anomaly, they say, is roughly 5 times greater. Moreover, the current El Niño event is only of moderate strength. Besides which, AGW may itself be behind El Niño:

    It is possible, in fact probable, that climate change is actually influencing El Niño (e.g. favoring more frequent and larger El Niño events), although just how much is still very much an issue of active scientific debate.

    So one cannot say definitely that AGW is the culprit — but no other explanation seems adequate.

    The RealClimate scientists take particular issue with the Fox News argument that Denver blizzards somehow disprove AGW:

    A canard that has already been trotted out by climate change contrarians (and unfortunately parroted uncritically in some media reports) holds that weather in certain parts of the U.S. (e.g. blizzards and avalanches in Colorado) negates the observation of anomalous winter warmth. This argument is disingenuous at best...[T]emperatures for the first month of this winter have been above normal across the United States (with the only exceptions being a couple small cold patches along the U.S./Mexico border). The large snowfall events in Boulder were not associated with cold temperatures, but instead with especially moisture-laden air masses passing through the region. If temperatures are at or below freezing (which is true even during this warmer-than-average winter in Colorado), that moisture will precipitate as snow, not rain. Indeed, snowfall is often predicted to increase in many regions in response to anthropogenic climate change, since warmer air, all other things being equal, holds more moisture, and therefore, the potential for greater amounts of precipitation whatever form that precipitation takes. [Emphasis added]

    So, as we noted in an earlier post, the anomalous blizzards in Colorado, far from being a refutation, are entirely consistent with — in fact, predicted by — models of global warming.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:53 PM | Comments (9) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Changing Seasons Environment

    Commenting on this post regarding hundreds of European plant species blooming in mid-winter, longtime reader ivieee writes from Austin, Texas:

    Here in Austin, Redbuds had a fall bloom, which I had never seen. But really, ask the gardeners. I found an old planting guide for Travis County, rev. 1990. Compare it to our updated guide:

    1990 - Feb 15-June 1
    2000 - Jan 10-Feb 28

    Broccoli transplants
    1990 - Feb 15-Mar 15
    2000 - Jan 15-Feb 28

    1990 - Feb 15-May 15
    2000 - Jan 10-Feb 10

    Leaf Lettuce
    1990 - Jan 15-Apr 1
    2000 - Jan 1-Apr 1

    1990 - Jan 15-Mar 1
    2000 - Oct 1-Mar 31

    So most of the early spring planting has to be done about two weeks to a month earlier now than it did ten years ago, and you must finish planting about a month earlier, before the heat sets in.

    Summer plantings, like okra and sweet potatoes stay about the same.

    Then, for the fall plantings, we are starting two weeks to a month LATER, because the summer heat lasts longer.

    That is the extension service recommendations, but the gardeners themselves are being much more experimental with earlier planting. I would have to say that we are now Zone 9 where we were Zone 8. I am ordering seeds for Zone 10, because it just might work given the new climate.

    That much change in a decade is simply stunning.

    Meanwhile, here in Madison — I know I've said this before — you used to be able to park your car on the lakes this time of year. Today, they're open water.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:28 AM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 03, 2007

    Netherlands: Hundreds Of Plant Species Blooming In Mid-Winter Environment

    Today's global warming story. Science Daily:

    Observers in the Netherlands reported that more than 240 wild plant species were flowering in December, along with more than 200 cultivated species. According to biologist Arnold van Vliet of Wageningen University, this unseasonable flowering is being caused by extremely high autumn temperatures.

    The mean autumn temperature in 2006 was 13.6°C, which is 3.4°C above the long-term average. It was even 1.6°C warmer than in 2005, which was previously the warmest autumn since 1706, when records were first kept. It is very likely that other European countries also experienced unseasonable flowering due to the high temperatures. This information emerged from a unique, large-scale observation campaign conducted by volunteers during the first 15 days of the month. [...]

    The aim of the observation campaign was to determine the effects of the extreme weather conditions in the Netherlands during the second half of 2006. This year included not only the warmest July and September on record, but also the wettest August. Temperatures were far above normal: 3.7°C higher in September, 3.3°C higher in October and 3°C higher in November. The first 17 days of December were even more extreme, registering 4.2°C above normal. For the entire autumn the average temperature was 3.4°C above the long-term average and even 1.6°C warmer than the autumn of 2005, which was previously the warmest on record in the Netherlands. [...]

    Van Vliet warns that the ecological consequences of the extreme temperatures and the longer growing season remain largely unknown. Next year will be an important year for ecologists to identify the impacts on plants and animals. The high temperatures in 2006 are likely to increase the numbers of warmth-loving species even further, a trend which has been observed for some time. [Emphasis added]

    Meanwhile, Fox News wants us to believe that recent blizzards in Denver cast doubt on global warming. Think Progress:

    Today, prominent climate skeptics Pat Michaels and Dan Gainor appeared on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto to argue that the recent snowstorms in Denver prove there is a "Northeast bias" on global warming. Both agreed with Cavuto's claim that if "more of those who support global warming did not live in the East Coast, or more specifically in New York, and were stationed in Denver," they might be more skeptical of global warming.

    Michaels added that "if you believe that warming causes cooling, you're like my neighbors down in Virginia who think that if you put hot water in the ice cube tray, it freezes faster. It doesn't work that way."

    Of course, global warming models all predict increased precipitation and increased frequency of extreme weather events. Like blizzards. But that's just, you know, science.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:48 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 30, 2006

    Huge Ice Shelf Breaks Off In Canadian North Environment

    Today's global warming story. Reuters:

    A chunk of ice bigger than the area of Manhattan broke from an ice shelf in Canada's far north and could wreak havoc if it starts to float westward toward oil-drilling regions and shipping lanes next summer, a researcher said on Friday.

    Global warming could be one cause of the break of the Ayles Ice Shelf at Ellesmere Island, which occurred in the summer of 2005 but was only detected recently by satellite photos, said Luke Copland, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's geography department.

    It was the largest such break in nearly three decades, casting an ice floe with an area of 66 square km (25 square miles) adrift in the Arctic Ocean, said Copland, who specializes in the study of glaciers and ice masses. [...]

    "The risk is that next summer, as that sea ice melts, this large ice island can then move itself around off the coast and one potential path for it is to make its way westward toward the Beaufort Sea, and the Beaufort Sea is where there is lots of oil and gas exploration, oil rigs and shipping." [...]

    The speed of the crack and drift-off shocked scientists.

    Satellite images showed the 15-km long (9-mile long) crack, then the ice floating about 1 km (0.6 miles) from the coast within about an hour, Copland said.

    "You could stand at one edge and not see the other side, and for something that large to move that quickly is quite amazing," he said.

    Copland said the break was likely due to a combination of low accumulations of sea ice around the mass's edges as high winds blew it away, as well as one of the Arctic's warmest temperatures on record. The region was 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees F) above average in the summer of 2005, he said.

    Ice shelves in Canada's far north have decreased in size by as much as 90 percent since 1906, and global warming likely played a role in the Ayles break, Copland said.

    "It's hard to tie one event to climate change, but when you look at the longer-term trend, the bigger picture, we've lost a lot of ice shelves on northern Ellesmere in the past century and this is that continuing," he said. "And this is the biggest one in the last 25 years." [Emphasis added]

    No anecdote, taken in isolation, confirms global warming. But when we get one of these anecdotes practically every day...

    Meanwhile, here in Madison, you used to be able to park your car on the big lakes this time of year. Today, they're open water. I'm just saying.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:40 AM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 28, 2006

    Global Warming Claims First Inhabited Island Environment

    Rising sea levels have claimed their first inhabited island. Independent:

    Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India's part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.

    As the seas continue to swell, they will swallow whole island nations, from the Maldives to the Marshall Islands, inundate vast areas of countries from Bangladesh to Egypt, and submerge parts of scores of coastal cities. [...]

    The disappearance of Lohachara, once home to 10,000 people, is unprecedented. [...]

    So remote is the island that the researchers first learned of its submergence, and that of an uninhabited neighbouring island, Suparibhanga, when they saw they had vanished from satellite pictures. [...]

    Refugees from the vanished Lohachara island and the disappearing Ghoramara island have fled to Sagar, but this island has already lost 7,500 acres of land to the sea. In all, a dozen islands, home to 70,000 people, are in danger of being submerged by the rising seas. [Emphasis added]

    These are poor people being made homeless, so we continue with business as usual. But at some point, we are going to look back with stupefaction and horror on this period of our inaction in the face of ever more urgent warning signs.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:53 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 27, 2006

    Impedance Mismatch Corporations, Globalization  Environment  Musings

    The really big problems facing humanity are, for the most part, problems resulting from the dominant culture's abuse of the natural world. Global warming, deforestation, the collapse of the world's fisheries — these are problems requiring determined action over the long haul. But nothing much gets done. Why?

    There are many factors, but one, in particular, strikes me as cause for real pessimism. A sustainable relationship with the natural world requires us to think and act in time frames of many decades, centuries, millenia and more. But our decision-making institutions operate at drastically shorter time scales. That mismatch in time scales is a killer. In the political sphere, decision-makers seldom look past the next election cycle or two. In the corporate realm, where most of the important decisions now get made, perspectives are even shorter, with emphasis on the next quarter or fiscal year. A five-year plan is considered really long-range, blue sky stuff.

    Everybody optimizes for the short run. People who don't find themselves out of office or out of a job. And so, by a series of "rational" decisions — rational from a perspective that ignores the long term — we march steadily towards the abyss.

    The trend toward increasing corporate power and decreasing political power (with the political process increasingly a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporate sphere) may, in the end, seal our fate. Just when we desperately need a decision-making institution that can forego short-run profit and convenience for long-term sustainability, we are vesting societal decision-making in the institution least capable of taking that perspective.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:44 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 17, 2006

    Tell New Congress To Act On Global Warming Activism  Environment

    Al Gore wants to deliver a million postcards to the incoming Congress, telling them that now is the time for decisive action on global warming. Go here and fill one out. Go!

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:44 PM | Comments (8) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 13, 2006

    Arctic Ice May Be Gone By 2040 Environment

    Earlier studies have said Arctic summers may be ice-free by 2070 or 2080. New NASA-funded research now says 2040 — and even that is probably too optimistic. Times UK:

    Ice is melting so fast in the Arctic that the North Pole will be in the open sea in 30 years, according to leading climatologists. [...]

    American researchers, assessing the impact of carbon emissions on world climate have calculated that late summer in the Arctic will be ice-free by 2040 or earlier, well within a lifetime.

    Some ice would still be found on coastlines, notably Greenland and Ellesmere Island, but the rest of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole, would be open water. [...]

    In 30 to 50 years, they concluded, summer sea ice will have vanished from almost the entire Arctic region.

    Their forecast may, however, already be out of date and over-optimistic, said Professor Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey.

    He said a recent study by the Global Carbon Project suggested that emissions were rising more than twice as fast as in 2000, which was likely to speed up ice-loss even further.

    "The study may be an underestimate of when the Arctic summer ice might be all gone," he said. "It could well be their assumptions are more optimistic than they might be." [Emphasis added]

    Well, we can't say we haven't been warned. And warned. And warned. And warned.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:47 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 09, 2006

    World's Oceans Poisoned With Plastic Environment

    Tiny pellets of plastic are everywhere in the world's oceans. That's bad enough in itself, but the plastic pellets tend to collect concentrations of toxic chemicals like PCBs that adhere to the plastic. The poisoned plastic is then ingested by marine organism and moves up the food chain. BBC:

    Microscopic particles of plastic could be poisoning the oceans, according to a British team of researchers. They report that small plastic pellets called "mermaids' tears", which are the result of industry and domestic waste, have spread across the world's seas.

    The scientists had previously found the debris on UK beaches and in European waters; now they have replicated the finding on four continents.

    Scientists are worried that these fragments can get into the food chain.

    Plastic rubbish, from drinks bottles and fishing nets to the ubiquitous carrier bag, ends up in the world's oceans.

    Sturdy and durable plastic does not bio-degrade, it only breaks down physically, and so persists in the environment for possibly hundreds of years.

    Among clumps of seaweed or flotsam washed up on the shore it is common to find mermaids' tears, small plastic pellets resembling fish eggs.

    Some are the raw materials of the plastics industry spilled in transit from processing plants. Others are granules of domestic waste that have fragmented over the years.

    Either way, mermaids' tears remain everywhere and are almost impossible to clean up.

    Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth is leading research into what happens when plastic breaks down in seawater and what effect it is having on the marine environment.

    He and his team set out to out to find out how small these fragments can get. So far they've identified plastic particles of around 20 microns - thinner than the diameter of a human hair. [...]

    They found plastic particles smaller than grains of sand. Dr Thompson's findings estimate there are 300,000 items of plastic per sq km of sea surface, and 100,000 per sq km of seabed.

    So plastic appears to be everywhere in our seas. The next task was to try and find out what kind of sea creatures might be consuming it and with what consequences.

    Thompson and his team conducted experiments on three species of filter feeders in their laboratory. They looked at the barnacle, the lugworm and the common amphipod or sand-hopper, and found that all three readily ingested plastic as they fed along the seabed.

    "These creatures are eaten by others along food chain," Dr Thompson explained. "It seems an inevitable consequence that it will pass along the food chain. There is the possibility that chemicals could be transferred from plastics to marine organisms." [...]

    So-called hydrophobic chemicals such as PCBs and other polymer additives accumulate on the surface of the sea and latch on to plastic debris.

    "They can become magnified in concentration," said Richard Thompson, "and maybe in a different chemical environment, perhaps in the guts of organisms, those chemicals might be released." [...]

    Whatever the findings eventually show, there is little that can be done now to deal with the vast quantities of plastic already in our oceans. It will be there for decades to come. [Emphasis added]

    All of these environment stories — ice sheets, glaciers, and permafrost melting; 90% of large fish gone from the oceans; old growth forests and rain forests disappearing; toxic chemicals everywhere; etc., etc., etc. — get reported in isolation, but they're all connected. They're all facets of one big story. Sooner or later, we will have to face the fact that the problem is industrial civilization itself. And does anybody really think industrial civilization will voluntarily change course and stop killing the living planet? When all of these deadly trends are only accelerating? No amount of green living by scattered individuals, no amount of letters to the editor or symbolic demonstrations or Earth Days are going to change the outcome. The problem is way more fundamental than that. Not a happy conclusion, but there it is.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:18 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 07, 2006

    Global Warming And Bangladesh Environment

    Rich countries generate greenhouses gases, poor countries suffer. Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, is already paying the price. Veena Khaleque, country director for Practical Action in Bangladesh, writing in the Guardian:

    While the west puzzles over ways to curb future climate change, in the developing world the present climate change is being felt already, and there is nothing abstract about it. Every year an estimated 150,000 people die as a result of global warming - mainly through natural disasters, disease and malnutrition - and the toll is rising exponentially. There is much talk, but little is done.

    The industrialised world has pumped huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, setting us on a course where a global temperature rise of at least two degrees Celsius is inevitable. That may not sound much, but for people here in Bangladesh those two degrees amount to a catastrophe.

    The average Briton produces 48 times more carbon dioxide than someone living Bangladesh. And yet it is here that the impact of those emissions is being felt. Bangladesh is one of the world's largest deltas, formed by a dense network of 230 unstable rivers; most of the country is less than 10 metres above sea level. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world: 50% of our population lives in poverty, 51% of our children are malnourished. A low economic capacity, inadequate infrastructure and a higher dependence on a natural-resource base exacerbate our vulnerability.

    Scientists tell us that the most profoundly damaging impact of climate change in Bangladesh will take form in floods, salinity intrusion and droughts, all of which will drastically affect crop productivity and food security. We will also face riverbank erosion, sea water level rise and lack of fresh water in the coastal zones. The prognosis is more extreme floods in a country already devastated by floods; less food for a country in which half our children already don't have enough to eat; and less clean water for a country where waterborne diseases are already responsible for 24% of all deaths.

    The last two decades have witnessed ever more frequent and intense flooding. In 2004, 38% of our country was ravaged by floods, which destroyed more than three quarters of our crops, left 10 million people homeless, and in their wake diseases such as dysentery and diarrhoea. [...]

    The poor are hit hardest by climate change, as the recent Stern review noted. Poverty forces people to live in makeshift homes; when disaster strikes they have no way of rebuilding. Of every 100 deaths caused by a natural disaster, 97 are in the developing world.

    Were the Earth to warm by just one degree Celsius, 11% of Bangladesh would be submerged, putting the lives of 55 million people in danger. Most scientists - including the UK government's David King - expect a two-degree increase. I find it almost impossible to imagine how the poor of Bangladesh will cope.

    It is not just Bangladesh. Across the globe, there are fierce droughts, threats to water resources, more intense hurricanes, rising sea levels - the list goes on. How many millions - or billions - of lives must be put at risk before we are prepared to act? [...]

    The recently published Bangladesh National Adaptation Programme of Action recommends strategies focusing on coastal forestation, provision of drinking water to coastal communities, education, the protection of urban infrastructure, and scientific research and development to protect crops.

    We are doing our bit. However, if richer countries do not change their way of life, and do it now, input from our organisation and others will not be able to protect these communities from the devastating, deadly effects of climate change. [Emphasis added]

    Meanwhile, here in the US, Republican Senator James Inhofe, in his last hearing as chair of the Senate's environment committee, "blamed Hollywood and the news media Wednesday for 'hyping' the view that humans are causing global warming." SF Chronicle:

    California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who will take the committee gavel from Inhofe in January, shook her head and said it was sad that one of the last days of the 109th Congress was spent criticizing media coverage of climate change instead of working on legislation to curb greenhouse gases. [...]

    "...again we're arguing about who believes what rather than moving toward solving the problem," she added.

    Will the Dems do something meaningful to curb emissions? Let's hope so, but I'm not holding my breath.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:06 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 06, 2006

    How Long Before US Invades? Environment

    Be afraid Canada, be very afraid. (Via Xymphora)

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:43 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Study: Exxon Mobil Source Of 5% Of All CO2 Emissions Corporations, Globalization  Energy  Environment

    A short coda to yesterday's Exxon Mobil post (PlanetArk):

    Exxon Mobil Corp. has historically been responsible for about 5 percent of the world's carbon emissions, a finding that could prod more shareholder resolutions on climate change, environmental groups said on Wednesday.

    From 1882 to 2002, emissions of carbon dioxide from Exxon and its predecessor companies, through its operations and the burning of its products, totaled an estimated 20.3 billion metric tons, according to Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth.
    That represents 4.7 percent to 5.3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions during that time, the group said in a report.

    The 120-year period in question starts in 1882, the year Exxon Mobil's ultimate predecessor, the Standard Oil Trust, was formed.

    Single-handedly responsible for 5% of the world's CO2 emissions over the past 120 years. Think maybe they have a vested interest in confusing the global warming issue?

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:30 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 05, 2006

    The Obfuscation Agenda Energy  Environment

    Senators John D. Rockefeller IV and Olympia Snowe write to Rex Tillerson, Chair and CEO of ExxonMobil, to ask ExxonMobil to stop providing financial backing to groups seeking to obfuscate the issue of global warming (WSJ):

    Dear Mr. Tillerson:

    Allow us to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your first year as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the ExxonMobil Corporation. You will become the public face of an undisputed leader in the world energy industry, and a company that plays a vital role in our national economy. As that public face, you will have the ability and responsibility to lead ExxonMobil toward its rightful place as a good corporate and global citizen.

    We are writing to appeal to your sense of stewardship of that corporate citizenship as U.S. Senators concerned about the credibility of the United States in the international community, and as Americans concerned that one of our most prestigious corporations has done much in the past to adversely affect that credibility. We are convinced that ExxonMobil's longstanding support of a small cadre of global climate change skeptics, and those skeptics' access to and influence on government policymakers, have made it increasingly difficult for the United States to demonstrate the moral clarity it needs across all facets of its diplomacy.

    Obviously, other factors complicate our foreign policy. However, we are persuaded that the climate change denial strategy carried out by and for ExxonMobil has helped foster the perception that the United States is insensitive to a matter of great urgency for all of mankind [sic], and has thus damaged the stature of our nation internationally. It is our hope that under your leadership, ExxonMobil would end its dangerous support of the "deniers." Likewise, we look to you to guide ExxonMobil to capitalize on its significant resources and prominent industry position to assist this country in taking its appropriate leadership role in promoting the technological innovation necessary to address climate change and in fashioning a truly global solution to what is undeniably a global problem.

    While ExxonMobil's activity in this area is well-documented, we are somewhat encouraged by developments that have come to light during your brief tenure. We fervently hope that reports that ExxonMobil intends to end its funding of the climate change denial campaign of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are true. Similarly, we have seen press reports that your British subsidiary has told the Royal Society, Great Britain's foremost scientific academy, that ExxonMobil will stop funding other organizations with similar purposes. However, a casual review of available literature, as performed by personnel for the Royal Society reveals that ExxonMobil is or has been the primary funding source for the "skepticism" of not only CEI, but for dozens of other overlapping and interlocking front groups sharing the same obfuscation agenda. For this reason, we share the goal of the Royal Society that ExxonMobil "come clean" about its past denial activities, and that the corporation take positive steps by a date certain toward a new and more responsible corporate citizenship.

    ExxonMobil is not alone in jeopardizing the credibility and stature of the United States. Large corporations in related industries have joined ExxonMobil to provide significant and consistent financial support of this pseudo-scientific, non-peer reviewed echo chamber. The goal has not been to prevail in the scientific debate, but to obscure it. This climate change denial confederacy has exerted an influence out of all proportion to its size or relative scientific credibility. Through relentless pressure on the media to present the issue "objectively," and by challenging the consensus on climate change science by misstating both the nature of what "consensus" means and what this particular consensus is, ExxonMobil and its allies have confused the public and given cover to a few senior elected and appointed government officials whose positions and opinions enable them to damage U.S. credibility abroad.

    Climate change denial has been so effective because the "denial community" has mischaracterized the necessarily guarded language of serious scientific dialogue as vagueness and uncertainty. Mainstream media outlets, attacked for being biased, help lend credence to skeptics' views, regardless of their scientific integrity, by giving them relatively equal standing with legitimate scientists. ExxonMobil is responsible for much of this bogus scientific "debate" and the demand for what the deniers cynically refer to as "sound science." [...]

    In light of the adverse impacts still resulting from your corporations activities, we must request that ExxonMobil end any further financial assistance or other support to groups or individuals whose public advocacy has contributed to the small, but unfortunately effective, climate change denial myth. Further, we believe ExxonMobil should take additional steps to improve the public debate, and consequently the reputation of the United States. We would recommend that ExxonMobil publicly acknowledge both the reality of climate change and the role of humans in causing or exacerbating it. Second, ExxonMobil should repudiate its climate change denial campaign and make public its funding history. Finally, we believe that there would be a benefit to the United States if one of the world's largest carbon emitters headquartered here devoted at least some of the money it has invested in climate change denial pseudo-science to global remediation efforts. We believe this would be especially important in the developing world, where the disastrous effects of global climate change are likely to have their most immediate and calamitous impacts. [Emphasis added]

    Ok, as Jerome a Paris notes, there is a certain irony in John D. Rockefeller IV taking issue with ExxonMobil, the principal remnant of his great-grandfather's Standard Oil empire.

    Meanwhile, the editors of the Wall St. Journal read the Senators' letter and flipped out:

    Washington has no shortage of bullies, but even we can't quite believe an October 27 letter that Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe sent to ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Its message: Start toeing the Senators' line on climate change, or else. [...]

    This is amazing stuff. On the one hand, the Senators say that everyone agrees on the facts and consequences of climate change. But at the same time they are so afraid of debate that they want Exxon to stop financing a doughty band of dissenters who can barely get their name in the paper. We respect the folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but we didn't know until reading the Rockefeller-Snowe letter that they ran U.S. climate policy and led the mainstream media around by the nose, too. Congratulations.

    Let's compare the balance of forces: on one side, CEI; on the other, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, the U.N. and EU, Hollywood, Al Gore, and every politically correct journalist in the country. We'll grant that's a fair intellectual fight. But if the Senators are so afraid that a handful of policy wonks at a single small think-tank are in danger of winning this debate, they must not have much confidence in the merits of their own case. [Emphasis added]

    There's a special place in hell reserved for these people.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:57 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 04, 2006

    Unbelievable Environment


    Who are these people?

    Via Gristmill.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:50 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 30, 2006

    CO2 Emissions Accelerating Sharply Environment

    Not only is humanity failing to curtail CO2 emissions, the rate of growth of emissions is actually accelerating — sharply. BBC (via CommonDreams):

    The rise in humanity's emissions of carbon dioxide has accelerated sharply, according to a new analysis.

    The Global Carbon Project says that emissions were rising by less than 1% annually up to the year 2000, but are now rising at 2.5% per year.

    It says the acceleration comes mainly from a rise in charcoal consumption and a lack of new energy efficiency gains.

    The global research network released its latest analysis at a scientific meeting in Australia.

    Dr Mike Rapauch of the Australian government's research organisation CSIRO, who co-chairs the Global Carbon Project, told delegates that 7.9 billion tonnes (gigatonnes, Gt) of carbon passed into the atmosphere last year. In 2000, the figure was 6.8Gt.

    "From 2000 to 2005, the growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions was more than 2.5% per year, whereas in the 1990s it was less than 1% per year," he said.

    The finding parallels figures released earlier this month by the World Meteorological Organization showing that the rise in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 had accelerated in the last few years. [...]

    "There has been a change in the trend regarding fossil fuel intensity, which is basically the amount of carbon you need to burn for a given unit of wealth," explained Corinne Le Quere, a Global Carbon Project member who holds posts at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey.

    "From about 1970 the intensity decreased — we became more efficient at using energy — but we've been getting slightly worse since the year 2000," she told the BBC News website.

    "The other trend is that as oil becomes more expensive, we're seeing a switch from oil burning to charcoal which is more polluting in terms of carbon." [...]

    How emissions will change over time is one of the factors considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body responsible for collating and analysing climate data for the global community.

    "At these rates, it certainly sounds like we'll end up towards the high end of the emission scenarios considered by the IPCC," commented Myles Allen from Oxford University, one of Britain's leading climate modellers.

    The "high end" of IPCC projections implies a rise in global temperature approaching 5.8C between 1990 and the end of this century.

    "We need to think about radical alternatives to the belt-tightening approach," said Professor Allen.

    "At the moment, the assumption is we will solve the problem by controlling demand; but regulating at the point of use is clearly not working." [Emphasis added]

    Another in the long parade of stories telling us that what used to be thought of as worst-case global warming projections may actually turn out to be, if anything, conservative. It's all happening faster, the numbers bigger, than anyone expected.

    An optimistic view has it that as humanity learns more about the dangers facing us, we'll do the rational thing and take measures to forestall disaster. But it's not happening. Instead, everybody's focused on the short run, taking the path of least resistance, trying to make it through today. In the best of all possible worlds, rising oil prices and the prospects of peak oil and global warming would motivate humanity to move away from using fossil fuels altogether. But the path of least resistance is to just burn coal instead of oil, so that's what will happen.

    The runaway train hurtles cliffward. If you're not scared yet, maybe you should be.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:14 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 28, 2006

    Corporatism Corporations, Globalization  Environment

    Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth", should be seen by as many Americans as possible. That includes kids. Especially kids. The film's producers thought so, too, so they offered 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association. The NSTA declined. Why? They don't want to piss off Exxon Mobil. WaPo:

    At hundreds of screenings this year of "An Inconvenient Truth," the first thing many viewers said after the lights came up was that every student in every school in the United States needed to see this movie.

    The producers of former vice president Al Gore's film about global warming, myself included, certainly agreed. So the company that made the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their classrooms. It seemed like a no-brainer.

    The teachers had a different idea: Thanks but no thanks, they said.

    In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other "special interests" might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn't want to offer "political" endorsement of the film; and they saw "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members" in accepting the free DVDs.

    Gore, however, is not running for office, and the film's theatrical run is long since over. As for classroom benefits, the movie has been enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide, and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden.

    Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.

    That's the same Exxon Mobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it. It has run ads in leading newspapers (including this one) questioning the role of manmade emissions in global warming, and financed the work of a small band of scientific skeptics who have tried to challenge the consensus that heat-trapping pollution is drastically altering our atmosphere. The company spends millions to support groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute that aggressively pressure lawmakers to oppose emission limits.

    It's bad enough when a company tries to sell junk science to a bunch of grown-ups. But, like a tobacco company using cartoons to peddle cigarettes, Exxon Mobil is going after our kids, too.

    And it has been doing so for longer than you may think. NSTA says it has received $6 million from the company since 1996, mostly for the association's "Building a Presence for Science" program, an electronic networking initiative intended to "bring standards-based teaching and learning" into schools, according to the NSTA Web site. Exxon Mobil has a representative on the group's corporate advisory board. And in 2003, NSTA gave the company an award for its commitment to science education.

    So much for special interests and implicit endorsements.

    In the past year alone, according to its Web site, Exxon Mobil's foundation gave $42 million to key organizations that influence the way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they graduate from high school.

    And Exxon Mobil isn't the only one getting in on the action. Through textbooks, classroom posters and teacher seminars, the oil industry, the coal industry and other corporate interests are exploiting shortfalls in education funding by using a small slice of their record profits to buy themselves a classroom soapbox.

    NSTA's list of corporate donors also includes Shell Oil and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which funds NSTA's Web site on the science of energy. There, students can find a section called "Running on Oil" and read a page that touts the industry's environmental track record — citing improvements mostly attributable to laws that the companies fought tooth and nail, by the way — but makes only vague references to spills or pollution. NSTA has distributed a video produced by API called "You Can't Be Cool Without Fuel," a shameless pitch for oil dependence.

    The education organization also hosts an annual convention — which is described on Exxon Mobil's Web site as featuring "more than 450 companies and organizations displaying the most current textbooks, lab equipment, computer hardware and software, and teaching enhancements." The company "regularly displays" its "many...education materials" at the exhibition. John Borowski, a science teacher at North Salem High School in Salem, Ore., was dismayed by NSTA's partnerships with industrial polluters when he attended the association's annual convention this year and witnessed hundreds of teachers and school administrators walk away with armloads of free corporate lesson plans.

    Along with propaganda challenging global warming from Exxon Mobil, the curricular offerings included lessons on forestry provided by Weyerhaeuser and International Paper, Borowski says, and the benefits of genetic engineering courtesy of biotech giant Monsanto.

    "The materials from the American Petroleum Institute and the other corporate interests are the worst form of a lie: omission," Borowski says. "The oil and coal guys won't address global warming, and the timber industry papers over clear-cuts."

    An API memo leaked to the media as long ago as 1998 succinctly explains why the association is angling to infiltrate the classroom: "Informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect barriers against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future."

    So, how is any of this different from showing Gore's movie in the classroom? The answer is that neither Gore nor Participant Productions, which made the movie, stands to profit a nickel from giving away DVDs, and we aren't facing millions of dollars in lost business from limits on global-warming pollution and a shift to cleaner, renewable energy. [...]

    While NSTA and Exxon Mobil ponder the moral lesson they're teaching with all this, there are 50,000 DVDs sitting in a Los Angeles warehouse, waiting to be distributed. In the meantime, Mom and Dad may want to keep a sharp eye on their kids' science homework. [Emphasis added]

    Corporations like Weyerhauser and Exxon Mobil have no ties to any landbase. They don't eat food, they don't drink water, they don't breathe air. They are machines programmed to follow one prime directive with single-minded ferocity: maximize profits. Maybe the people who work for Weyerhauser and Exxon Mobil are just like you and me, maybe they're not, but it probably doesn't matter much. Global corporations will continue to chew us up and spit us out, right up until the day the world ends (unless we stop them). It's hard-wired in the machinery.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:52 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 25, 2006

    Addicts Environment  Ethics

    More and more, I think we're fucked — we in the industrialized world, especially. The fundamental problem is that we're never going to voluntarily change course to the radical degree needed to stave off disaster. All of the trends that point to disaster — greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of nonrenewable resources, worldwide ecosystem destruction, species extinctions, etc. — are accelerating. In fact, the rate at which they're accelerating is accelerating. We see where it's all heading, and still we can't stop ourselves. We're addicts, addicted to comfort, power, artificial stimulation of all kinds, and like most addicts we’ll never recover without first hitting bottom — that's if we manage to recover at all. We'll take the path of least resistance until it ends in disaster and stops being the path of least resistance.

    Here's a story that strikes me as the perfect epitome of what I'm talking about. BBC:

    Marine scientists say the case for a moratorium on the use of heavy trawling gear in deep waters is now overwhelming and should be put in place immediately.

    A new report prepared for the UN indicates the equipment is doing immense damage to the ecosystems around seamounts, or underwater mountains.

    Its analysis shows bottom-trawling is being used in regions which harbour particularly sensitive corals. [...]

    Bottom-trawling uses huge nets armed with steel weights or heavy rollers.

    Boats drag them across the seafloor to catch species such as orange roughy, oreos, alfonsino and roundnose grenadier.

    The technique is very effective but smashes everything in its path, ripping corals and sponges from the sea-floor — removing the habitats on which the fish and other diverse organisms depend.

    It is practised by relatively few vessels — perhaps no more than 200 worldwide — and accounts for about 0.2% of the total world catch.

    This meant the scale of the destruction was out of all proportion to the gain in terms of the value of the fishery, said Dr Alex Rogers, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, UK.

    "It's the equivalent of clearing old-growth forest to collect squirrels. It's a practice on land that just wouldn't be acceptable," he added. [...]

    Scientists think there may be 100,000 or more of the underwater mountains distributed around the world's oceans.

    They attract aggregations of the planktonic organisms that form the food base of marine ecosystems. "We call it trophic focusing," Dr Rogers told BBC News.

    Prominent in these deep — 1,000-2,000m down — ecosystems are vast "forests" of slow-growing corals and the very high densities of fish that are now the target of industrial trawlers.

    "But if there are species which you really shouldn't fish, these are the ones," said Dr Rogers. "The orange roughy lives for up to 150 years or more; they don't mature until they are 30 or 40 years old; their reproduction is very sporadic; they are very vulnerable to overfishing."

    At these depths, life processes are long and slow.

    The team has compared the distributions of commercially trawled fish, fishing effort and coral habitat on seamounts.

    This shows a broad band of the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans between 20-degrees and 60-degrees-south where bottom-trawling activities are likely to have a particularly deleterious impact.
    Campaigners are concerned because vast swathes of this band are beyond the authority of national or regional fisheries' regulation. They want proper management of these gaps established as soon as possible.

    Most bottom-trawling is conducted by northern fleets from developed nations. The European Union bloc undertakes the largest effort, with Spain operating the majority of its boats. [Emphasis added]

    We have no trouble seeing that the trawlers are acting insanely: destroying ecosystems that will take decades, centuries, or millenia to recover, for a one-time profit. If their activities were visible to us all, instead of buried under the sea — out of sight, out of mind — perhaps there would be more outrage. Clear-cutting old-growth forests to harvest squirrels.

    But here's what's really crazy. The trawlers are acting "rationally" according to the tenets of mainstream economic theory. The deep-sea ecosystems replenish themselves only very slowly. A sustainable harvest would take only a very few fish per year, using methods that preserve the surrounding ecosystem. But that would yield an extremely low — or perhaps even negative — rate of return. You can get a much higher rate of return by "clear-cutting" and taking the proceeds and investing them. Especially since the profits are private while the costs, in the form of destroyed or degraded ecosystems, are public, borne by us all — so-called externalities. Besides, if you don't "clear-cut", somebody else will — the tragedy of the commons. Economic theory says the "rational" thing to do is to seek to maximize profits. So it's not just the trawlers who are insane.

    This example is so egregious — so few ships wreaking so much damage — that it seems hard to deny that the moral thing to do, if one had the opportunity, would be to sabotage or sink as many of these ships as possible. But this example is only a microcosm of what's happening everywhere, in all spheres of activity, all over the world. (So it's an example worth remembering, since it exemplifies the issues so starkly.) Does the same moral argument apply more broadly? Is it time to start throwing wrenches into the gears of industrial civilization? Is it time for an intervention?

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:28 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 21, 2006

    Global Warming Killing Off Species Faster Than Expected Environment

    Global warming is forcing adaptations and extinctions among plant and animal species at a much faster rate than anyone anticipated. AP:

    Animal and plant species have begun dying off or changing sooner than predicted because of global warming, a review of hundreds of research studies contends.

    These fast-moving adaptations come as a surprise even to biologists and ecologists because they are occurring so rapidly.

    At least 70 species of frogs, mostly mountain-dwellers that had nowhere to go to escape the creeping heat, have gone extinct because of climate change, the analysis says. It also reports that between 100 and 200 other cold-dependent animal species, such as penguins and polar bears are in deep trouble.

    "We are finally seeing species going extinct," said University of Texas biologist Camille Parmesan, author of the study. "Now we've got the evidence. It's here. It's real. This is not just biologists' intuition. It's what's happening." [...]

    Parmesan reports seeing trends of animal populations moving northward if they can, of species adapting slightly because of climate change, of plants blooming earlier, and of an increase in pests and parasites.

    Parmesan and others have been predicting such changes for years, but even she was surprised to find evidence that it's already happening; she figured it would be another decade away.

    Just five years ago biologists, though not complacent, figured the harmful biological effects of global warming were much farther down the road, said Douglas Futuyma, professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York in Stony Brook.

    "I feel as though we are staring crisis in the face," Futuyma said. "It's not just down the road somewhere. It is just hurtling toward us. Anyone who is 10 years old right now is going to be facing a very different and frightening world by the time that they are 50 or 60." [Emphasis added]

    Terrifying stuff.

    Every study that comes out shows it's all happening faster than anyone expected. It seems likely, therefore, that there's a corollary: the endgame is going to be a lot more severe than anyone expected.

    Down here in the real world, not all stories have happy endings.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:04 AM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 15, 2006

    Business As Usual Environment

    Another year goes by without our making a meaningful dent in CO2 emissions (graph via PolicyPete):

    We can act constructively. In fact, we must. But the question is, will we — before it's too late.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:25 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 05, 2006

    Denying Global Warming Environment

    A remarkable article from New Scientist describes organized efforts to intimidate and discredit scientists who call public attention to global warming:

    Kevin Trenberth reckons he is a marked man. He has argued that last year's devastating Atlantic hurricane season, which spawned hurricane Katrina, was linked to global warming. For the many politicians and minority of scientists who insist there is no evidence for any such link, Trenberth's views are unacceptable and some have called for him step down from an international panel studying climate change. "The attacks on me are clearly designed to get me fired or to resign," says Trenberth.

    The attacks fit a familiar pattern. Sceptics have also set their sights on scientists who have spoken out about the accelerating meltdown of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and the thawing of the planet's permafrost. These concerns will be addressed in the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global organisation created by the UN in 1988 to assess the risks of human-induced climate change. Every time one of these assessments is released, about once every five years, some of the American scientists who have played a part in producing it become the targets of concerted attacks apparently designed to bring down their reputations and careers. At stake is the credibility of scientists who fear our planet is hurtling towards disaster and want to warn the public in the US and beyond.

    So when the next IPCC report is released in February 2007, who will be the targets and why? When New Scientist spoke to researchers on both sides of the climate divide it became clear that they are ready for a showdown. If the acrimony were to become so intense that American scientists were forced to stop helping in the preparation of IPCC reports, it could seriously dent the organisation and rob the world of some significant voices in the climate change debate. [...]

    Another scientist to suffer the ire of the sceptics was Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. He was attacked after the IPCC assessment in 2001, which highlighted his "hockey stick" graph showing that temperatures began a rapid rise in recent decades and are now higher than at any time over the past thousand years. The sceptics accused Mann of cherry-picking his data and criticised him for refusing to disclose his statistical methods which, they claimed, biased the study to show recent warming . Last year, Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, ordered Mann to provide the committee with voluminous details of his working procedures, computer programs and past funding. Barton's demands were widely condemned by fellow scientists and on Capitol Hill. "There are people who believe that if they bring down Mike Mann, they can bring down the IPCC," said Santer at the time. Mann's findings, which will be endorsed in the new IPCC report, have since been replicated by other studies.

    Santer says, however, that he expects attacks to continue on other fronts. "There is a strategy to single out individuals, tarnish them and try to bring the whole of the science into disrepute," he says. "And Kevin [Trenberth] is a likely target." Mann agrees that the scientists behind the upcoming IPCC report are in for a rough ride. "There is already an orchestrated campaign against the IPCC by climate change contrarians," he says. [...]

    Many of the IPCC's authors...claim there is an extensive network of lobby groups and scientists involved in making the case against the IPCC and its reports. Automobile, coal and oil companies have coordinated and funded past attacks on them, the scientists say. Sometimes this has been done through Washington lobby groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), whose officers include Myron Ebell, a former climate negotiator for George W. Bush's administration. Recently, the CEI made television advertisements arguing against climate change, one of which ended with the words: "Carbon dioxide, they call it pollution, we call it life." CEI's past funders include ExxonMobil, General Motors and the Ford Motor Company.

    Some sceptical scientists are funded directly by industry. In July, The Washington Post published a leaked letter from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), an energy company based in Colorado, that exhorted power companies to support the work of the prominent sceptic Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Worried about the potential cost of cleaning up coal-fired power plants to reduce their CO2 emissions, IREA's general manager, Stanley Lewandowski, wrote: "We believe that it is necessary to support the scientific community that is willing to stand up against the alarmists... In February this year, IREA alone contributed $100,000 to Dr Michaels." [...]

    Another sensitive area is the concern that existing models of ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica massively underestimate future melting and consequent sea-level rise. "Our understanding of the dynamics of ice-sheet destruction has completely changed in the last five years," says Richard Alley of Penn State University, a lead author of the chapter on ice sheets who expects to find himself in the firing line over this issue. "We used to think it would take 10,000 years for melting to penetrate to the bottom of the ice sheet. But now we know it can take just 10 seconds," he says.

    The rethink has come from the discovery that when surface water from melting ice drains down though crevasses it can lubricate the join between ice and bedrock. This mechanism appears to explain the faster discharge of ice from Greenland into the Atlantic, but it has yet to be incorporated into ice-sheet models, which still assume that the limiting factor is the rate at which heat penetrates through solid ice. [...]

    A third focus for debate will be the way the IPCC treats recent reports of climate change disrupting the natural carbon cycle more than anticipated. This has to do with the release of large amounts of CO2 from rainforests and soils, and methane from permafrost and beneath continental shelves, possibly speeding up global warming. "These are factors not included in the current models, which may cause us to underestimate warming," Mann says. [...]

    The US Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee under its chairman James Inhofe has begun investigating NCAR, Trenberth's employer. Inhofe has repeatedly written to NCAR and other agencies demanding details about financial and contractual arrangements with their employees and with federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). In a letter to the NSF in February, Inhofe said he needed the information to help him in "researching, analyzing and understanding the science of global climate change". Inhofe has a record of hostility to the idea of climate change, having asked on the Senate floor in July 2003: "Could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."

    NCAR is not commenting on Inhofe's investigation, but many climate scientists contacted by New Scientist regard it as a tactic designed to intimidate those working on the IPCC report. "Inhofe's actions appear to be an effort to discourage leading US scientists from being involved in international scientific assessment processes such as the IPCC," Mann says.

    This is potentially disastrous for the IPCC. Out of 168 scientists listed as lead authors or reviewers involved in assessing the science of climate change, 38 are from the US - more than twice as many as the second-largest national grouping, the British. [Emphasis added]

    We've linked to article after article that shows that global warming is advancing more rapidly than anyone expected and that a variety of feedback loops are kicking in that will tend to accelerate it further. E.g., warming melts the permafrost; which releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas; which causes more warming; which melts more permafrost, etc., etc. It has never been clear in most of those articles if the feedback loops are already taken into account in current computer models of global warming. Apparently not, which means we're worse off than we think. Cause for alarm, indeed.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:52 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    November 02, 2006

    Erasing The Fish From The Sea Environment

    Here at work there's a break room where a tv, visible from the hall, is usually on. A few minutes ago, I walked by and CNN was running an item with an on-screen graph evidently depicting the horrific rate at which the oceans are being denuded of fish. The headline on the graph was something like "Seafood gone by 2050?"

    Seafood. Humans are on the verge of erasing fish from the oceans, an unthinkable, earth-shaking catastrophe, an irreversible crime of unimaginable proportions, and CNN couches the story in terms of "seafood". As if it's an issue of the availability of fish sticks. (To be fair, it's not entirely CNN's fault. The original journal article also puts an emphasis on food species. But still.)

    Here are excerpts from CNN's online story:

    Clambakes, crabcakes, swordfish steaks and even humble fish sticks could be little more than a fond memory in a few decades.

    If current trends of overfishing and pollution continue, the populations of just about all seafood face collapse by 2048, a team of ecologists and economists warns in a report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

    "Whether we looked at tide pools or studies over the entire world's ocean, we saw the same picture emerging. In losing species we lose the productivity and stability of entire ecosystems," said the lead author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

    "I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are — beyond anything we suspected," Worm said.

    While the study focused on the oceans, concerns have been expressed by ecologists about threats to fish in the Great Lakes and other lakes, rivers and freshwaters, too.

    Worm and an international team spent four years analyzing 32 controlled experiments, other studies from 48 marine protected areas and global catch data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's database of all fish and invertebrates worldwide from 1950 to 2003.

    The scientists also looked at a 1,000-year time series for 12 coastal regions, drawing on data from archives, fishery records, sediment cores and archaeological data.

    "At this point 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed — that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating," Worm said. "If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048."

    "It looks grim and the projection of the trend into the future looks even grimmer," he said. "But it's not too late to turn this around. It can be done, but it must be done soon. We need a shift from single species management to ecosystem management. It just requires a big chunk of political will to do it."

    The researchers called for new marine reserves, better management to prevent overfishing and tighter controls on pollution.

    In the 48 areas worldwide that have been protected to improve marine biodiversity, they found, "diversity of species recovered dramatically, and with it the ecosystem's productivity and stability."

    While seafood forms a crucial concern in their study, the researchers were analyzing overall biodiversity of the oceans. The more species in the oceans, the better each can handle exploitation. [Emphasis added]

    Everywhere scientists look these days, they are shocked at the rate of environmental degradation. It's all happening much faster than anyone expected. To make matters worse, these are nonlinear systems, which means that major qualitative changes — points of no return — can happen quite suddenly. And everything's inter-connected.

    What will it take to wake us up?

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:06 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 31, 2006

    Peak Grains Corporations, Globalization  Development  Environment

    The world is running dangerously low on grains, writes Wayne Roberts at Energy Bulletin:

    Now's the time to brace yourself for major price hikes in food, as peak grains join the lineup of lifestyle-changing events along with peak oil and peak water.

    Unless this year's harvest is unexpectedly different from six out of the last seven years, the world's ever-decreasing number of farmers do not produce enough staple grains to feed the world's ever-increasing number of people. [...]

    Whenever there's a shortfall in the amount of food produced in any given year, it's possible to dip into an international cupboard or "reserve" of grains (wheat, rice and corn, for example) left over from previous years of good harvests. [...]

    The world's grain reserve has been dipped into for six of the last seven years, and is now at its lowest point since the early 1970s. There's enough in the cupboard to keep people alive on basic grains for 57 days. Two months of survival foods is all that separates mass starvation from drought, plagues of locusts and other pests, or wars and violence that disrupt farming, all of which are more plentiful than food.

    To put the 57 days into geopolitical perspective, China's shortfall in wheat is greater than the entire wheat production of Canada, one of the world's breadbaskets. Since the World Trade Organization prohibits government intervention that keeps any items off the free trade ledger, there's no law that says that Canadians, or any other people, get first dibs on their own food production.

    To put the 57 days in historical perspective, the world price for wheat went up six-fold in 1973, the last time reserves were this low. Wheat prices ricocheted through the food supply chain in many ways, from higher prices for cereal and breads eaten directly by humans, to the cost for milk and meat produced from livestock fed a grain-based diet. If such a chain reaction happens this year, wheat could fetch $21 a bushel, again about six times its current price. It might fetch even more, given that there are two other pressing demands for grains that were not as forceful during the 1970s. Those happy days pre-dated modern fads such as using grains as a feedstock for ethanol, now touted as an alternative to petroleum fuels for cars, and pre-dated factory barns that bring grains to an animal's stall, thereby eliminating farm workers who tended livestock while they grazed in fields on pasture grasses. [Emphasis added]

    There's a perfect storm brewing: peak oil, peak water, peak grains, peak fish — the latter three exacerbated by global warming.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:59 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 25, 2006

    World's Coral Rapidly Dying Environment

    60% of the world's coral may be gone in 25 years. AP:

    Researchers fear more than half the world's coral reefs could die in less than 25 years and say global warming may [be] at least partly to blame.

    Sea temperatures are rising, weakening the reefs' resistance to increased pollutants, such as runoff from construction sites and toxins from boat paints. The fragile reefs are hosts to countless marine plants and animals.

    "Think of it as a high school chemistry class," said Billy Causey, the Caribbean and Gulf Mexico director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    "You mix some chemicals together and nothing happens. You crank up the Bunsen burner and all of a sudden things start bubbling around. That's what's happening. That global Bunsen burner is cranking up." [...]

    Last year's coral loss in the Caribbean waters supports predictions that 60 percent of the world's coral could die within a quarter century, said Tyler Smith of the University of the Virgin Islands.

    "Given current rates of degradation of reef habitats, this is a plausible prediction," Smith said.

    More than 47 percent of the coral in underwater study sites covering 31 acres around the U.S. Virgin Islands died after sea temperatures exceeded the norm for three months in 2005, said Jeff Miller, a scientist with the Virgin Islands National Park. [...]

    Up to 30 percent of the world's coral reefs have died in the last 50 years, and another 30 percent are severely damaged, said Smith, who studies coral health in the U.S. Virgin Islands and collaborates with researchers globally. [...]

    The researchers said global warming was a potential cause of the abnormally high sea temperatures but was not the only suspect in the reefs' demise.

    What causes disease in coral can be hard to pinpoint and could be a combination of things. Other threats include silt runoff from construction sites, which prevents the coral from getting enough sunlight, and a record increase in fleshy, green algae, which competes with coral for sunlight.

    "Climate change is an important factor that is influencing coral reefs worldwide," said Mark Eakin, director of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch. "It adds to the other problems that we are having." [Emphasis added]

    This is the sort of thing that should be front page news all over the world. But because it's happening in (relatively) slow motion, it barely gets noticed. In planetary terms, however, a quarter century is the blink of an eye. For 60% of the planet's coral to disappear that quickly, we have to be skating on very thin ice indeed. How many dead canaries in the coal mine will it take to get our attention?

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:45 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 10, 2006

    In The Red Environment

    Humanity is using up the world's ecological resources faster than Nature can replenish them. One way to dramatize that fact is to calculate the date each year when humanity has used up resources that would take a full year to replenish. This year, that date was yesterday. For the remainder of this year, we'll be stealing from our children. Guardian:

    Humanity slides into the red [Monday] and begins racking up an ecological overdraft driven by unsustainable exploitation of the world's resources, according to a report by the sustainable development organisation Global Footprint Network.

    In little more than nine months, humans have used up all that nature can replenish in one year, and for the rest of 2006 are destined to eat into the planet's ecological capital, the study claims.

    The network calculated the day the global economy started to operate with an ecological deficit by comparing world demand for resources with the rate at which ecosystems can replenish them. The study draws on surveys from bodies such as the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.

    According to GFN, humanity first went into global ecological debt in 1987, when the year's resources were spent by December 19. Since then, the date has leapt forward year by year to November 21 by 1995 and October 11 last year. The trend reveals the alarming effect of unsustainable lifestyles which are increasingly using up world reserves. "Humanity is living off its ecological credit card," said Mathis Wackernagel at GFN.

    The worst offenders are in developed countries: for North Americans the "ecological footprint" - the land and water a person needs to sustain their lifestyle - is 9.6 hectares (23.7 acres). For the typical African it is 1.4 hectares.

    If every country lived frugally, only half the planet's resources would be needed to meet demand. But if the world adopted a US lifestyle, four extra planets would be needed. [Emphasis added]

    And then, of course, there are the non-renewable resources that Nature will never replenish.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:37 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 08, 2006

    Micro-Generation Isn't The Answer Energy  Environment

    According to Britain's George Monbiot, author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, micro-generation of electricity via small-scale wind turbines and solar panels is an over-hyped non-solution to global warming. Large-scale wind turbines, however, are a practical solution, especially for an island nation like the UK. Excerpt:

    In seeking to work out how a 90% cut in carbon emissions could be achieved in the rich nations by 2030, I have made many surprising findings. But none has shocked me as much as the discovery that renewable micro generation has been grossly overhyped. Those who maintain that our own homes can produce all the renewable electricity and heat they need have harmed the campaign to stop climate chaos, by sowing complacency and misdirecting our efforts.

    Last year, the environmental architect Bill Dunster, who designed the famous BedZed zero-carbon development outside London, published a brochure claiming that "up to half of your annual electric needs can be met by a near silent micro wind turbine". The turbine he specified has a diameter of 1.75 metres. A few months later Building for a Future magazine, which supports renewable energy, published an analysis of micro wind machines. At 4 metres per second — a high average wind speed for most parts of the UK — a 1.75 metre turbine produces about 5% of a household’s annual electricity. To provide the 50% Bill Dunster advertises, you would need a machine 4 metres in diameter. The lateral thrust it exerted would rip your house to bits.

    Turbulence makes wind generators even less efficient. To avoid it, you must place them at least 11 metres above any obstacle within 100 metres. On most houses, this means constructing a minor hazard to aircraft. The higher the pole, the more likely you are to inflict serious damage to your house. In almost all circumstances, micro wind turbines are a waste of time and money. [...]

    [S]eeking to generate all our electricity by [installing solar panels on residences] would be staggeringly and pointlessly expensive — there are far better ways of spending the same money. The International Energy Agency's MARKAL model gives a cost per tonne of carbon saved by solar electricity in 2020 of between £2200 and £3300. Onshore macro wind power, by contrast, varies between a saving of £40 and a cost of £130 a tonne.

    [Another] problem is that the supply of solar electricity is poorly matched to demand. In the UK, demand peaks on winter evenings. Even if we could produce 407TWh a year from solar panels on our roofs, only some of it could be used. There would be a surge of production in the summer, during the middle of the day, and very little in the winter. While solar panels might reasonably supply 5-10% of our electricity, the size and inefficiency of the energy storage and standby power system required makes a purely solar network impossible.

    Similar constraints affect all micro renewables: a report by a team at Imperial College shows that if 50% of our homes were fitted with solar water heaters, they would produce 0.056 exajoules of heat, or 2.3% of our total demand; while AEA Technology suggests that domestic heat pumps could supply only 0.022 eJ of the UK's current heat consumption, or under 1%. This doesn't mean they are not worth installing, just that they can't solve the problem by themselves.

    Some campaigners accept that micro generators can make only a small contribution, but argue that they are still useful, as they wake people up to green issues. It seems more likely that these overhyped devices will have the opposite effect, as their owners discover how badly they have been ripped off and their neighbours are driven insane by the constant yawing and stalling of a windmill on a turbulent roof.

    Far from shutting down the national grid,...we should be greatly expanding it, in order to produce electricity where renewable energy is most abundant. This means, above all, a massive investment in offshore windfarms. A recent government report suggests there is a potential offshore wind resource off the coast of England and Wales of 3,200TWh. High voltage direct current cables, which lose much less electricity in transmission than an AC network, would allow us to make use of a larger area of the continental shelf than before. This means we can generate more electricity more reliably, avoid any visual impact from the land and keep out of the routes taken by migratory birds. Much bigger turbines would realise economies of scale hitherto unavailable.

    The electricity system cannot be run on wind alone. But surely it's clear that building giant offshore windmills is a far better use of our time and money than putting mini-turbines in places where they will generate more anger than power. [Emphasis added]

    Driving along highway 18 in southwestern Wisconsin this weekend, Carie and I passed the Montfort windfarm — a string of 20 large turbines (30 Megawatt capacity) installed on a ridge running parallel to the road. The turbines are both stately and graceful — quite beautiful, in fact. The mere sight of them inspires hope. They are like visitors from a better future. They radiate peace. No carbon emitted, no oil wars required.

    It should be a no-brainer.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:59 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 05, 2006

    The Human Algae Bloom Environment  Essays  Peak Oil

    [Another blast from the past, along the same lines as the pieces on exponential growth reposted Tuesday and Wednesday. This one's also a couple of years old, but I think it's worth repeating.]

    Life requires energy. Without a continual input of energy, without a continual flow of energy through them, organisms die.

    This is a consequence of a general natural law (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) that says that if you don't put energy into a system it becomes more and more disordered. Put another way, things fall apart if you don't keep after them. Anybody who's ever tended a garden or maintained a house, a car, or a lawn — or, God forbid, a sailboat — knows this principle first-hand. The same principle applies to the maintenance of the internal order required by living organisms to sustain life.

    For green plants, the energy input is sunlight. For the rest of us, it's food. We eat green plants directly, or we eat things that eat green plants, or we eat things that eat things that eat green plants. We humans also use energy that we don't consume directly as food. Such energy, however, we use indirectly to produce or acquire the necessities of life — more food, for example, or warmth, shelter, water, etc. It all takes energy.

    Now, a given environment has a specific "carrying capacity" for a given kind of organism. I.e., there's a maximum size population of that organism that can be sustained in that environment. The carrying capacity is determined by whatever necessity is in shortest supply. In a desert, for example, the limiting factor might be water. Typically, the limiting factor is energy in one of its forms (e.g., food). Suddenly introducing a new source of energy can change things in a hurry, however.

    There's a lake near my house. Every summer, fertilizers from surrounding lawns and farms find their way into the lake, creating an environment artificially rich in energy (from a plant's perspective, fertilizer = energy). As a result, every summer there is an explosion in the algae population, turning parts of the lake into a thick green goo. The algae experience a giddy period of runaway growth fueled by the influx of energy, but this growth increases the algae population to a level that's completely unsustainable once the fertilizers are used up. When that happens the algae population crashes, and there's a huge die-off until the population returns to a level that can be sustained without fertilizers — i.e., back to more or less its original level.

    For the past two hundred years, human beings have been in the position of algae in a fertilizer-rich lake. For us, the artificial energy infusion has been in the form of an incredibly concentrated and easily acquired energy source: hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). In the 19th century, the key fuel was coal. In the 20th, it was oil. During this period, humanity has experienced a giddy population bloom like the algae's.

    Hydrocarbon fuels are a one-time gift to humanity, however, and we're burning through them as fast as we can get them out of the ground. We in the industrialized nations — the US most of all — have been like a person who comes into a huge inheritance and proceeds to spend it as quickly as possible. The time comes when the inheritance runs out and one is forced to go back to living on what one can earn.

    Most people, I think, attribute the "success" of the human population during the last two centuries to advances in technology, medicine, and knowledge generally. Of course, these have been contributing factors (to a large extent enabled by the energy surplus), but the most important factor has been the sudden infusion of an enormous supply of cheap, portable energy. Without this energy, or an equivalent substitute, the human population simply cannot be sustained at current levels.

    Am I exaggerating energy's importance? Think of a modern city, with people stacked in high-rise buildings whose windows don't even open, utterly dependent on modern transportation/distribution systems to bring them the food they no longer grow or gather. Imagine New York City, or London, or Mexico City, or Los Angeles or any other modern metropolis if someone pulled the plug. Every so often we get a tiny glimpse of what this would mean when there's a blackout, but that only scratches the surface. Imagine that not only is electricity gone, but also gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, coal — and permanently.

    The next time you're watching a film that has an aerial shot of a large city, especially one taken at night, think about the enormous flow of energy through that system — and the system's utter dependence on that energy flow. If you live in a large city, just look out your window. And then reflect on the fact that the majority of the world's people now live in cities and towns.

    Moreover, the importance of hydrocarbons goes far beyond just their use as a source of energy. They are the raw material from which plastics and synthetic materials of all kinds are made, as well as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The last thing we should be doing is setting fire to them.

    I'll have more to say about the specifics of our usage of and dependence on hydrocarbons — and the possibilities, if any, for a successor energy source to replace hydrocarbons — in future posts.

    For now, I just want to leave you with the mental image of the algae bloom. Pump fertilizers into the algae's environment, and the algae undergo a giddy period of explosive growth, culminating in their turning what had been a stable, balanced equilibrium into a green goo. That's what living organisms do. Give them a source of surplus energy and they gobble it up and reproduce like crazy. It's the path of least resistance.

    Pump hydrocarbons into the human environment and the same thing happens. We've spent the last two centuries creating our equivalent of the green goo. And the hydrocarbons are about to start running out.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:14 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 04, 2006

    Exponential Growth Cannot Last Environment  Essays  Science/Technology

    [Another repost of a piece from a couple of years ago, once again dealing with the meaning of exponential growth. I hope you'll make it to the punchline at the end.]

    I've written about exponential growth before, but the concept is so essential to understanding the future that awaits us that I want to revisit it.

    To say something grows exponentially is to say it grows at a constant percentage rate — for example, 3% per year. Anything that grows in this way doubles at a constant rate. You can estimate how long it takes to double by dividing the percentage growth rate into 72. So, for example, something that grows at a rate of 3% per year doubles every 24 years (72/3 = 24).

    So, you can think of exponential growth as growth by doubling at a constant rate.

    Doubling is an extraordinarily powerful process. Some examples (from M. King Hubbert):

    1. If you start with a single pair, say Adam and Eve, in just 32 doublings you’d have a population greater than the total population of Earth today. Just 14 doublings later you’d have one person per square yard over the entire land surface of the planet.

    2. If someone gives you a single grain of wheat for the first square of a chessboard, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, doubling at each square, by the time you finish the 64 squares of the chessboard you’d have more than a thousand times the total annual wheat production of Earth.

    3. If you play the chessboard game with automobiles instead of wheat, by the time you finish the 64 squares you’d have so many automobiles that if you stacked them uniformly over the entire land surface of the earth, you’d have a layer 1,200 miles deep. (Think of that the next time some economist says world GNP can grow at 3% per year forever.)

    What these examples show is that doubling (or exponential growth) is such a powerful process, that it takes only tens of “generations” of doubling — not hundreds, or thousands, or millions — to completely exhaust the physical environment of the planet. Put another way, in the physical world (as opposed to an idealized mathematical world) exponential growth cannot last for long.

    When any living species is placed in a favorable environment — meaning an environment that doesn’t limit growth because of the lack of some necessity (e.g. food), the presence of a predator, or for some other reason — its population grows exponentially. In Nature, over the long run, limitations in their environments prevent species from multiplying exponentially. Otherwise, the world would long ago have been engulfed.

    Why is all this important?

    Early in a doubling sequence, the numbers grow slowly. Likewise, until recently in human history, human population grew slowly. Use of energy and material resources by humans also grew slowly, and the resources used were entirely of the renewable variety, except for tiny amounts of coal and metals. Everything else (food, energy, shelter, clothing, etc.) came from animals and plants (renewable), plus a small amount of energy from wind and water (renewable). If humans had continued to rely on renewable resources, that fact would have put a ceiling on population size.

    Starting about two centuries ago, however, a revolution occurred in human life: people starting using non-renewable resources — hydrocarbon fuels and a variety of minerals — in a big way. This use of non-renewables removed the constraints on human population and activity, and exponential growth really kicked in. Not only has population grown exponentially, but human use of coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, tin, lead, zinc, etc. have grown exponentially as well, as has human damage to the environment. It’s the use of non-renewables — hydrocarbon fuels, especially — that has made this growth possible.

    But, inevitably, we’re going to hit the wall, and sooner than we think. Even if we had infinite resources to draw on, exponential growth would soon fill up a finite environment, as we've seen. But that hardly matters, since we do not have infinite resources to draw on. Non-renewables are a one-time gift to humanity. They are finite. We’re burning through them at an exponential pace, and when they’re gone they’re gone forever.

    Now, one of the really startling characteristics of growth by doubling is the following fact: if you consider the sequence of doubled numbers — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. — each number in the sequence is greater (by one) than the sum of all the numbers that precede it.

    Why do I call this startling? Consider oil. World oil consumption is now growing at a rate that will double it every 15-20 years. This means, as long as exponential growth continues, in the next 15-20 years the world will consume more oil than was used in all of human history up to this point. More than in the entire 19th and 20th centuries combined — in just 15-20 years — assuming exponential growth continues. I don't know about you, but I find that startling.

    I want to finish with a riddle I posed in the earlier post on exponential growth. I repeat it here because I’d really like this riddle to stay with you. If it does, you’ll understand exponential growth better than 99.9% of your fellow citizens.

    Suppose you put a small amount of bacteria in a Petri dish. Suppose further that the bacteria population grows exponentially (i.e., by doubling) at a pace that causes it to double each hour. Suppose finally that it takes 100 hours for the bacteria to completely fill the dish, thereby exhausting their supply of nutrients. (It's a large Petri dish.)

    Question: When is the dish half full?

    After 50 hours (half of 100)?

    No. Because the population doubles each hour (including the final hour), the dish is half full just one hour before it’s full. For the first 99 hours the bacteria have got it made. Then wham!

    To make this more vivid and memorable, imagine the following as an animated cartoon. For the first 99 hours the bacteria are just partying and congratulating themselves on how smart and successful they are. It’s party hats and noisemakers, Conga lines and champagne, the bacterial Dow Jones going through the roof. Woo hoo! No limits! After 99 hours, some of the bacteria start to worry, but the rest party on — after all, the dish is only half full. Plenty of room left, plenty of nutrients. The first half lasted 99 hours, and there's another whole half to go! Sure, somebody’s gonna have to figure something out eventually, but meanwhile life is good, and nonstop growth will only make it better! An hour later — the world ends.

    When growth is exponential, limits are sudden.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:46 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 03, 2006

    Feedback Loops And Exponential Growth Environment  Essays

    [We live in a world of exponential growth, but most of us find it hard to grasp what that really implies. Here's a post on the subject I originally posted more than two years ago. It's worth revisiting.]

    There's an old story you've probably heard. Unless you understand this story, you won't understand many of the problems that face us in the coming century.

    In an ancient kingdom, a clever man saves the life of the king's daughter. The grateful king, wishing to reward the man, offers to grant him whatever he asks for, within reason. The man, being clever, says give me one grain of rice for the first square of a chess board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, etc., doubling the number of grains of rice for each of the 64 squares on the board. The king, who's not so clever, thinks he's gotten off easy and readily agrees.

    How much rice has the king just agreed to give the man? If a sack of rice holds 18 million grains, the king has agreed to fork over more than one trillion sacks. The king is ruined. End of story.

    The king did not understand exponential growth, which is growth by a constant percentage (100% in our story) at each step. The number of grains starts small and grows slowly at first, but soon you're doubling larger and larger numbers:

    1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, etc.

    20 squares yield about a million grains, 30 squares yield a billion, 40 squares a trillion, 50 a thousand trillion, 60 a million trillion.

    What makes the growth so explosive is the fact that the output of each step is fed back in as the input to the next step. This is what's known as a positive feedback loop. ("Positive" not in the sense of "good", but rather in the sense of "leading to increase".) Population growth is an example. Each generation's children (the output) become the next generation's parents (the input to the next step). In the absence of outside constraints, positive feedback loops give results like in the story of the rice.

    The idea of a positive feedback loop — and the kind of ever-accelerating growth that can result — can be applied in a variety of settings, from population growth, to global warming mechanisms, to the way the situation in Iraq is spinning out of control, with chaos leading to greater resistance leading to more chaos, etc. Positive feedback also explains the exponential growth of technical and scientific knowledge, since each new technical effort builds on what has been discovered or invented in the past.

    Unfortunately, we seem to have a built-in bias, either neurological or learned, that makes us extrapolate linearly into the future. I.e., we tend, instinctively, to estimate future change as involving the same size steps in absolute terms — not percentage terms — as in the past, so exponential growth always seems to take us by surprise. That's why, when the king saw that in the first several steps the change was just a few grains of rice, he unconsciously assumed that at every step the change would be just a few grains of rice. We all make this mistake. And it's a very dangerous mistake to make at this point in human history.

    Here's a riddle.

    Suppose someone puts a few bacteria in a petri dish at noon on Monday. Suppose further that the bacteria grow at a rate that causes their population to double every hour. Suppose finally that the growth is such that the petri dish is completely full of bacteria at noon on Wednesday.

    Question: When is the petri dish half full?

    Click the link below for the answer.

    Many people say Tuesday at noon — halfway between noon Monday and noon Wednesday. That's linear thinking, and it's incorrect. Since the population doubles each hour, the dish is half full just one hour before it's full, i.e., at 11 AM on Wednesday. From noon Monday to 11 AM Wednesday, the bacteria have plenty of room to spare. No worries. Then wham!

    What's the point? When growth is exponential, or when powerful feedback loops are present, we can think everything's going along fine until just before we hit the wall. Many of the problems that face us — problems of population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation, political instability — involve exactly this kind of exponential growth caused by powerful feedback loops. If we don't have an appropriate mental model of what that means, we'll be complacent right up to the moment when we hit the wall — hard — and, like the king, lose everything.

    It's crucial that we overcome our linear bias. We're living in a world of exponential growth, and our petri dish is filling rapidly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:42 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    October 02, 2006

    Talk Is Cheap Environment

    Someone I always make a point of reading is Britain's George Monbiot. Here are excerpts from a recent piece of his on getting real about global warming:

    Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and as unacceptable as Holocaust denial. But I'm not celebrating yet. The danger is not that we will stop talking about climate change, or recognising that it presents an existential threat to humankind. The danger is that we will talk ourselves to Kingdom Come.

    If the biosphere is wrecked, it will not be done by those who couldn't give a damn about it, as they now belong to a diminishing minority. It will be destroyed by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won't change by one iota the way they live. [...]

    While environmentalism has always been characterised as a middle-class concern, and while this has often been unfair, there is now an undeniable nexus of class politics and morally-superior consumerism...[C]arbon emissions are closely correlated to income: the richer you are, the more likely you are to be wrecking the planet, however much stripped wood and hand-thrown crockery there is in your kitchen.

    It doesn't help that politicians, businesses and even climate change campaigners seek to shield us from the brutal truth of just how much has to change. Last week Friends of the Earth published the report it had commissioned from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which laid out the case for a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. This caused astonishment in the media. But other calculations, using the same sources, show that even this ambitious target is two decades too late. It becomes rather complicated, but please bear with me, for our future rests on these numbers.

    The Tyndall Centre says that to prevent the earth from warming by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere must be stabilised at 450 parts per million or less (they currently stand at 380). But this, as its sources show, is plainly insufficient. The reason is that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the only greenhouse gas. The others – such as methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons – boost its impacts by around 15%. When you add the concentrations of CO2 and the other greenhouse gases together, you get a figure known as "CO2 equivalent". But the Tyndall centre uses "CO2" and "CO2 equivalent" interchangeably, which leads to an embarrassing scientific mishmash.

    "Concentrations of 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent or lower", it says, provide a "reasonable-to-high probability of not exceeding 2 degrees C". This is true, but the report is not calling for a limit of 450 parts of "CO2 equivalent". It is calling for a limit of 450 parts of CO2, which means at least 500 parts of CO2 equivalent. At this level, there is a low-to-very-low probability of keeping the temperature rise to below 2 degrees. So why on earth has this reputable scientific institution muddled the figures?

    You can find the answer on page 16 of the report. "As with all client-consultant relationships, boundary conditions were established within which to conduct the analysis. ... Friends of the Earth, in conjunction with a consortium of NGOs and with increasing cross-party support from MPs, have been lobbying hard for the introduction of a 'limate change bill' ... [The bill] is founded essentially on a correlation of 2°C with 450 parts per million of CO2."

    In other words, Friends of the Earth had already set the target before it asked its researchers to find out what the target should be. I suspect that it chose the wrong number because it believed a 90% cut by 2030 would not be politically acceptable.

    This echoes the refusal of Sir David King, the chief scientist, to call for a target of less than 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, on the grounds that it would be "politically unrealistic". The message seems to be that the science can go to hell – we will tell people what we think they can bear.

    So we all deceive ourselves and deceive each other about the change that needs to take place. The middle classes think they have gone green because they buy organic cotton pyjamas and handmade soaps with bits of leaf in them – though they still heat their conservatories and retain their holiday homes in Croatia. The people who should be confronting them with hard truths balk at the scale of the challenge. And the politicians won't jump until the rest of us do. [...]

    So the question which now confronts everyone...is this: how much reality can you take? Do you really want to stop climate chaos, or do you just want to feel better about yourself? [Emphasis added]

    Greed kills — and greed comes in many forms. Most insidious, perhaps, is our greed for comfort and convenience. Humans, like other organisms, generally take the path of least resistance. We're supposed to be more intelligent than other organisms and therefore better equipped to understand what's going to be the real path of least resistance over the long term, but it never seems to work that way in practice. Everybody wants to be comfortable now. And besides, if the people around you aren't changing how they live, you feel like your own little contribution is meaningless. But that is a sure path to disaster for us all.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:06 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 29, 2006

    Air-Conditioning The Arctic Environment

    This is the kind of global warming story that really hits you in a visceral way. Chicago Trib:

    They never used to need air conditioners up in the Arctic.

    But earlier this year, officials in the Canadian Inuit territory of Nunavik authorized the installation of air conditioners in official buildings for the first time. Artificial cooling was necessary, they decided, because summertime temperatures in some southern Arctic villages have climbed into the 80s in recent years.

    Inuit families in the region never used to need to shop in grocery stores, either. But the Arctic seas that always stayed frozen well into the summer have started breaking open much earlier, cutting off hunters from the seasonal caribou herds on which their families depend for sustenance.

    And experienced Inuit hunters, as comfortable reading ice conditions as professional golfers are reading greens, had seldom fallen through the ice and drowned. But this year in Alaska, more than a dozen vanished into the sea.

    "These are men used to running their trap lines, people who know the area well, yet they are literally falling through, they are just gone," said Patricia Cochran, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission in Anchorage and chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. "The ice conditions are just so drastically different from all of their hunting lifetimes."

    It took a while, but global warming, the relentless greenhouse gas phenomenon that most scientists believe has altered climates across much of the rest of the world, appears to have finally breached the northern polar redoubt. And the effects on aboriginal societies trying to hold fast to traditional ways have been jarring.

    The people of this far northern Canadian hamlet of 250 used to hunt eider ducks every summer, using the meat and eggs for food and the soft feathers for clothing. But this past summer was the third in a row that the Inuit couldn't reach the nesting grounds because the ice around them was too thin.

    The seals have changed, as well.

    "Now when we are trying to take the fur off the seals, it's very hard to do," said David Kalluk, 65, a village elder and veteran hunter. "It's like it's burned onto them. Maybe this is because the sea is warmer."

    Wayne Davidson, the resident meteorologist in Resolute Bay for 20 years, says monthly temperatures throughout the year are 5 to 11 degrees higher than recent historical averages. For example, Davidson said, the average daily temperature last March was minus 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with an average of minus 24.2 degrees from 1947 to 1991.

    "Science for us in the Arctic is experience," Davidson said. "Resolute used to be a horrible place to live as far as weather is concerned, absolutely brutal. Now it's much milder." [...]

    "The basic question of global warming is no longer a subject of dispute in the scientific literature," said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at the University of California, San Diego, who reviewed 928 scientific papers about climate change published between 1993 and 2003 and found none challenging evidence of human contributions to global warming.

    "The discussion has moved on to how quickly will things change in the future, the rate of ice melting and differing climate models," Oreskes said. "There's almost nobody left anymore who doesn't accept that global warming is real."

    It certainly feels real enough to the people of Resolute Bay. From their perch on the edge of the Barrow Strait, they watched this summer as the waters of their rocky bay melted and filled with drifting icebergs — a view as depressing as it was picturesque, because in years past the water remained frozen solid enough to traverse aboard sleds and snowmobiles to their traditional hunting grounds.

    "The heat of the sun is different now," said Kalluk, the village elder, trying to make sense of the changes. "I think there is global warming, because snow that has never melted before is starting to melt now." [Emphasis added]

    Large-scale satellite studies, etc., are absolutely essential, but nothing hits home like these stories of real people experiencing horrifyingly rapid and profound changes in environments they've lived in for generations. Global warming is here, it's real, and it's accelerating. Welcome to the future, when you need A/C to live in the Arctic.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:17 PM | Comments (6) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Masters Of Denial Environment

    According to a report in Nature, NOAA officials scuttled the release of a scientific report linking global warming and increased hurricane activity. AP

    A government agency blocked release of a report that suggests global warming is contributing to the frequency and strength of hurricanes, the journal Nature reported Tuesday. [...]

    In its own reporting for the journal, Nature said weather experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — part of the Commerce Department — in February set up a seven-member panel to prepare a consensus report on the views of agency scientists about global warming and hurricanes.

    According to Nature, a draft of the statement said that warming may be having an effect.

    In May, when the report was expected to be released, panel chair Ants Leetmaa received an e-mail from a Commerce official saying the report needed to be made less technical and was not to be released, Nature reported. [...]

    NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher is currently out of the country, but Nature quoted him as saying the report was merely an internal document and could not be released because the agency could not take an official position on the issue.

    However, the journal said in its online report that the study was merely a discussion of the current state of hurricane science and did not contain any policy or position statements.

    The report drew a prompt response from Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., who charged that "the administration has effectively declared war on science and truth to advance its anti-environment agenda ... the Bush administration continues to censor scientists who have documented the current impacts of global warming." [...]

    Just two weeks ago, researchers said that most of the increase in ocean temperature that feeds more intense hurricanes is a result of human-induced global warming, a study one researcher said "closes the loop" between climate change and powerful storms like Katrina. [...]

    In February, a NASA political appointee who worked in the space agency’s public relations department resigned after reportedly trying to restrict access to Jim Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who has been active in global warming research. [Emphasis added]

    We look at the ostrich, head buried in the sand, and laugh. But the laugh's on us. Unlike the ostrich, we humans are supposed to know better.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:10 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 21, 2006

    California Sues Auto Makers Over Global Warming Economy  Environment

    The State of California is suing the big auto makers over the damage caused by global warming. Reuters:

    California sued six of the world's largest automakers over global warming on Wednesday, charging that greenhouse gases from their vehicles have caused billions of dollars in damages. The lawsuit is the first of its kind to seek to hold manufacturers liable for the damages caused by their vehicles' emissions, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.

    It comes less than a month after California lawmakers adopted the nation's first global warming law mandating a cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

    California has also targeted the auto industry with first-in-the-nation rules adopted in 2004 requiring carmakers to force cuts in tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks.

    Automakers, however, have so far blocked those rules with their own legal action — prompting one analyst to say California's lawsuit represents a way for California to pressure car manufacturers to accept the rules. [...]

    Environmental groups hailed the lawsuit, saying it represented another weapon for the state as it seeks to curb greenhouse gas emissions and spur the auto industry to build vehicles that pollute less.

    "(California) just passed a new law to cut global warming emissions by 25 percent and that's a good start and this lawsuit is a good next step," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program. [...]

    The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for past and ongoing contributions to global warming and asks that the companies be held liable for future monetary damages to California.

    It said California is spending millions to deal with reduced snow pack, beach erosion, ozone pollution and the impact on endangered animals and fish.

    "The injuries have caused the people to suffer billions of dollars in damages, including millions of dollars of funds expended to determine the extent, location and nature of future harm and to prepare for and mitigate those harms, and billions of dollars of current harm to the value of flood control infrastructure and natural resources," it said.

    The Center for Automotive Research's Cole said it would be tough for the industry to immediately meet demands from some critics and predicted other states would quickly follow suit should California succeed with the legal action. [...]

    In the complaint, Lockyer charges that vehicle emissions have contributed significantly to global warming and have harmed the resources, infrastructure and environmental health of the most populous state in the United States. [Emphasis added]

    One of capitalism's fatal flaws: it may just be more profitable to destroy the Earth than to save it. Why doesn't an unregulated market solve environmental crises? Because environmental costs are borne by the public, not by the polluters who cause them. If the market is to function constructively, polluters must be made to pay for the damage they cause. Their profits must suffer. That, and that alone, will give them an incentive to stop.

    Who knows if a lawsuit like this will have an appreciable effect, but governments and citizen groups have to bring to bear whatever leverage they can. The automakers won't clean up their act until compelled to do so. They're just following the logic of capitalism: maximize short-term profit, grow or die. Even if they wanted, individually, to reduce pollution, they believe they can't afford to do so unless their competitors simultaneously do so as well. In that sense, they may come to crave regulation as a way to save them from themselves.

    [Thanks, Charyn — who likes to be known as "Alert reader Charyn"]

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:32 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 19, 2006

    Lovelock: Too Late To Turn Back Environment

    As we've noted in the past, James Lovelock, the environmental scientist who discovered that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer, and who proposed the Gaia Hypothesis that views terrestrial systems as a sort of self-regulating superorganism, sees a global warming apocalypse coming our way, and quickly. WaPo (via Billmon):

    "It's going too fast," he says softly. "We will burn." [...]

    "Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return." [...]

    Lovelock's conclusion is straightforward.

    To wit, we are poached.

    He measured atmospheric gases and ocean temperatures, and examined forests tropical and arboreal (last year a forest the size of Italy burned in rapidly heating Siberia, releasing from the permafrost a vast sink of methane, which contributes to global warming). He found Gaia trapped in a vicious cycle of positive-feedback loops — from air to water, everything is getting warmer at once. The nature of Earth's biosphere is that, under pressure from industrialization, it resists such heating, and then it resists some more.

    Then, he says, it adjusts.

    Within the next decade or two, Lovelock forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts, will be hotter than at any time since the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.

    "There's no realization of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing," Lovelock says. "Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary steps, it would take the world 1,000 years to recover." [...]

    Lovelock's radical view of global warming doesn't sit well with David Archer, a scientist at the University of Chicago and a frequent contributor to the Web site RealClimate, which accepts the reality of global warning.

    "No one, not Lovelock or anyone else, has proposed a specific quantitative scenario for a climate-driven, blow the doors off, civilization ending catastrophe," writes Archer. [...]

    What's perhaps as intriguing are the top scientists who decline to dismiss Lovelock's warning. Lovelock may be an outlier, but he's not drifting far from shore. Sir David King, science adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, saluted Lovelock's book and proclaimed global warming a far more serious threat than terrorism. Sir Brian Heap, a Cambridge University biologist and past foreign secretary of the Royal Society, says Lovelock's views are tightly argued, if perhaps too gloomy. [...]

    "I'm an optimist," [Lovelock] says. "I think that after the warming sets in and the survivors have settled in near the Arctic, they will find a way to adjust. It will be a tough life enlivened by excitement and fear." [...]

    Lovelock was a prodigy, earning degrees in chemistry and medicine. In the 1950s he designed an electron capture machine, which provided environmentalist Rachel Carson with the data to prove that pesticides infected everything from penguins to mother's milk. Later he took a detector on a ship to Antarctica and proved that man-made chemicals — CFCs — were burning a hole in the ozone. [...]

    [Says Paul Ehrlich,] "If Lovelock hadn't discovered the erosion of the ozone, we'd all be living under the ocean in snorkels and fins to escape that poisonous sun." [...]

    How will our splendid Spaceship Earth so quickly become the oven of our doom? As we sit at his table in Devon, Lovelock expands on his vision.

    It begins with the melting of ice and snow. As the Arctic grows bare — the Greenland ice cap is shrinking far faster than had been expected — dark ground emerges and absorbs heat. That melts more snow and softens peat bogs, which release methane. As oceans warm, algae are dying and so absorbing less heat-causing carbon dioxide.

    To the south, drought already is drying out the great tropical forests of the Amazon. "The forests will melt away just like the snow," Lovelock says.

    Even the northern forests, those dark cool beauties of pines and firs, suffer. They absorb heat and shelter bears, lynxes and wolves through harsh winters. But recent studies show the boreal forests are drying and dying and inducing more warming.

    Casting 30, 40 years into the future, Lovelock sees sub-Saharan lands becoming uninhabitable. India runs out of water, Bangladesh drowns, China eyes a Siberian land grab, and local warlords fight bloody wars over water and energy. [...]

    "We like to think of Hurricane Katrina, or a killer heat wave in Europe, as a one-off," he says. "Or we like to think that we'll come up with a technological fix." [...]

    Today the environmentally conscious seek salvation in solar cells, recycling and ten thousand wind turbines. "It won't matter a damn," Lovelock says. "They make the mistake of thinking we have decades. We don't."

    Lovelock favors genetically modified crops, which require less water, and nuclear energy. Only the atom can produce enough electrical power to persuade industrialized nations to abandon burning fossil fuels. France draws 70 percent of its power from nuclear plants.

    But what of Three Mile Island? Chernobyl? Lovelock's shaking his head before you complete the litany. How many people died, he asks. A few hundred? The radiation exclusion zone around Chernobyl is the lushest and most diverse zone of flora and fauna in Eurasia. [...]

    "People say, ‘Well, you're 87, you won't live to see this,' " he says. "I have children, I have grandchildren, I wish none of this. But it's our fate; we need to recognize it's another wartime. We desperately need a Moses to take us to the Arctic and preserve civilization.

    "It's too late to turn back." [Emphasis added]

    What can one say? Of course, you hope that Lovelock's wrong. Utterly wrong. Given his track record, though, you have to think his intuition in these matters is probably quite good. I.e., it may not turn out as bad as he says, but it's probably going to be worse than most people are expecting. And it's happening quickly.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:18 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 14, 2006

    Arctic Sea Ice Shrinking Rapidly In Winter, Too Environment

    The strongest evidence yet of the accelerating impact of global warming in the Arctic (New Scientist):

    The amount of Arctic sea ice is shrinking not only in the summer but in the winter as well, a NASA scientist reported on Wednesday. Researchers are linking the change directly to global warming.

    In 2005 and 2006, the extent of winter ice was about 6% smaller than the average amount over the past 26 years. The retreat is also significantly larger than the long-term decrease of 1.5% to 2% in winter ice cover observed per decade over the same time period.

    Researchers have long known that warmer temperatures have been causing more and more ice to melt during summer in the northern hemisphere, with the last four summers showing record lows in ice cover.

    Now, Josefino Comiso of NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Branch in Greenbelt, Maryland, US, has used satellite data stretching back to 1979 to show that less of the meltwater is refreezing in the wintertime.

    "It is the strongest evidence yet in the Arctic of global warming," Comiso said in a press conference on Wednesday.

    Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist for the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who is not on the team, agrees. "There is lots of natural climate variability — it is a complex science — but the best explanation of what we are seeing is the emerging signs of greenhouse warming," he said. "What we see in the Arctic is a [dead] canary in the coal mine."

    "I hate to say we told you so," Serreze said of predictions on global warming from the past five years, "but, we told you so."

    Comiso found that from 1979 to 2004, the extent of winter ice in the Arctic remained virtually the same — despite reductions in summer cover.

    He believes the recent decline is due to a reduction in the length of the Arctic ice season and unusually warm wintertime temperatures in the region. Serreze agrees: "What is different this year is what is happening in winter."

    "If the winter ice retreat continues, the effect could be very profound — especially for marine mammals," Comiso says.

    Polar bears, which rely on drifting ice to hunt seals, are believed to be hit especially hard by the diminishing icepack. In Canada's Hudson Bay, the bears' population has dropped 21%, from an estimated 1200 individuals in 1989 to 950 in 2004, according to Claire Parkinson, also of NASA's Cryospheric Sciences Branch. [Emphasis added]

    Humans evolved to react to sudden changes in their environment: sabre-tooth tigers didn't pounce in slow motion. What suited us in the past may just kill us in the future, though. Slow changes don't get our hearts pumping, but that doesn't mean they're not deadly.

    [Thanks, Sue]

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:33 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 13, 2006

    Taking The Long View Activism  Environment  Ethics

    Somehow or other, we need to foster the mental and moral habit of taking the long view. We need to visualize humanity and the Earth as here to stay, not just for 7 generations, but for 7 hundred, 7 thousand, or 7 million. Consider this (from WorldChanging):

    The KEO project aims to launch a satellite into an orbit which will decay over 50,000 years, eventually returning the capsule and its contents to Earth intact.

    The capsule will contain what the folks putting together the project imagine will be an archeological treasure-trove for future generations: an astronomical clock; a diamond-encased set of samples (of sea water, fertile soil and human blood [before any genetic engineering], a library (with instructions for decoding), portraits of people from all the major contemporary ethnic groups (since the ethnic make-up of humanity will undoubtedly be completely transformed in 50Ks) and a bunch of messages contributed by supporters.

    Like Stewart's Clock of the Long Now, Jaron Lanier's library written in cockroach DNA, or Jamais' Retrospect Project, the real value here is in getting us to think of responsibilities and continuities that extend 50,000 years. After all, when we think of building a future, we ought to be imagining a future that goes on a very, very long time, for simply conjuring the idea of our decendents living here on this planet fifty millennia hence changes the meaning of our lives and actions today. [Emphasis added]

    A time capsule, yes, but more than that. It will be up there, overhead, not buried somewhere out of sight. I like the symbolism of it, and the implied optimism. When was the last time any of us seriously contemplated humanity 50 millenia hence? Consider the responsibility such a time horizon entails, the reverberations down the millenia of the choices we make today.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:26 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 12, 2006

    Re-Greening The World Activism  Environment  Science/Technology

    I must confess that things have sometimes felt pretty hopeless to me of late. But this is an antidote. It's positively brilliant. Do yourself a favor, stop what you're doing, and watch it. Excerpt:

    We could re-green the Middle East. We could re-green any desert and we could de-salt it at the same time...You can fix all the world's problems in a garden. You can solve 'em all in a garden, you can solve all your pollution problems and supply-line needs in a garden. Most people today don't actually know that, and that makes most people today very insecure.

    How's it done? Watch the video.

    Anyone can do it; it's based on know-how, not massive capital investment. And it's based on humbly cooperating with Nature, not aggressively trying to dominate it.

    I love this kind low-tech, common-sense solution to problems.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:58 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 08, 2006

    Thawing Permafrost Is Releasing Methane Five Times Faster Than Previously Thought Environment

    As we've noted here many times, global warming is setting in motion a variety of feedback loops that tend to make warming self-reinforcing. One of the most dangerous of these is the release of methane from thawing permafrost, in Siberia especially (see this and this).

    Well, like everything else about global warming, it turns out that methane release is happening faster than anyone expected. Five times faster. AP:

    Global warming gases trapped in the soil are bubbling out of the thawing permafrost in amounts far higher than previously thought and may trigger what researchers warn is a climate time bomb.

    Methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is being released from the permafrost at a rate five times faster than [previously] thought, according to a study being published Thursday in the journal Nature. The findings are based on new, more accurate measuring techniques.

    "The effects can be huge," said lead author Katey Walter of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks said. "It's coming out a lot and there's a lot more to come out."

    Scientists worry about a global warming vicious cycle that was not part of their already gloomy climate forecast: Warming already under way thaws permafrost, soil that has been continuously frozen for thousands of years. Thawed permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide. Those gases reach the atmosphere and help trap heat on Earth in the greenhouse effect. The trapped heat thaws more permafrost and so on.

    "The higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost we melt, the more tendency it is to become a more vicious cycle," said Chris Field, director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not part of the study. "That's the thing that is scary about this whole thing. There are lots of mechanisms that tend to be self-perpetuating and relatively few that tend to shut it off." [...]

    Using special underwater bubble traps, Walter and her colleagues found giant hot spots of bubbling methane that were never measured before because they were hard to reach.

    "I don't think it can be easily stopped; we'd really have to have major cooling for it to stop," Walter said.

    Scientists aren't quite sure whether methane or carbon dioxide is worse. Methane is far more powerful in trapping heat, but only lasts about a decade before it dissipates into carbon dioxide and other chemicals. Carbon dioxide traps heat for about a century. [Emphasis added]

    The horrifying thing about these feedback loops is that at some point it's no longer going to matter much what we do — the process will have taken on a life of its own, accelerating out of control, leading finally to a new equilibrium in the form of a very different planet from the one we know.

    All of which makes our obsessive worrying about the threat of a possible terrorist attack seem grotesquely foolish. Survival depends on accurately assessing and prioritizing threats. But people seem to have a hard time mobilizing against a threat that doesn't have a human face. And of course war-profiteers are a whole lot better at playing the political game than are a bunch of climate scientists and environmentalists. But just imagine if the resources that have gone into selling us the "war on terror" had gone instead into informing us about the really important threats we face.

    [Thanks, Miles]

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:46 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    September 01, 2006

    Human Activities As Environmental Feedback Loops Environment  Peak Oil

    A few weeks back, I linked to an article at RealClimate about the impact of drought on the Amazon rainforest. Kent points out an interesting observation made by the first commenter to that RealClimate story:

    I wonder...if areas of relative dryness might become attractive to farmers and loggers, since the drier forests would be more easily accessed by heavy equipment for more days during the year. If these rainfall patterns persist long enough for people on the ground to take advantage, it could well direct human activity toward those areas and accelerate their demise via exploitation, just as if the rainfall had actually stopped and the trees had died in place for that reason. The overlap [between] climate and economic models might be more important than either acting alone.

    Good point. We have seen a number of examples of feedback loops that tend to make global warming self-reinforcing. The comment above points to another kind of feedback loop, consisting of changes in human activities as the environmental crisis deepens.

    A similar sort of example, this time in the Peak Oil arena: as Peak Oil begins to really take hold and it becomes clear to everyone that the price of oil is only going to increase, and quickly, producers may begin to hoard the oil they've still got in the ground. Why sell it today when it could be worth twice as much in a few years? This kind of reaction by producers would exacerbate the production decline, causing prices to rise even faster, making hoarding even more attractive, etc., etc., etc.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:03 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 31, 2006

    More On US Drought Environment

    A follow-up on the US drought, this time from the NYT:

    With parts of South Dakota at its epicenter, a severe drought has slowly sizzled a large swath of the Plains States, leaving farmers and ranchers with conditions that they compare to those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930's.

    The drought has led to rare and desperate measures. Shrunken sunflower plants, normally valuable for seeds and oil, are being used as a makeshift feed for livestock. Despite soaring fuel costs, some cattle owners are hauling herds hundreds of miles to healthier feedlots. And many ranchers are pouring water into "dugouts" — natural watering holes — because so many of them (up to 90 percent in South Dakota, by one reliable estimate) have gone dry.

    Gov. Michael Rounds of South Dakota, who has requested that 51 of the state's 66 counties be designated a federal agricultural disaster area, recently sought unusual help from his constituents: he issued a proclamation declaring a week to pray for rain.

    "It's a grim situation," said Herman Schumacher, the owner of a livestock market in Herreid, S.D., a small town near the North Dakota line where 37,000 head of cattle were sold from May through July, compared with 7,000 in the corresponding three months last year. "There's absolutely no grass in the pastures, and the water holes are all dried up. So a lot of people have no choice but to sell off their herds and get out of the business."

    Drought experts say parts of the states most severely affected — Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming — have been left in far worse shape because of recent history: several years of dry conditions, a winter with little snow and then, with moisture reserves in the soil long gone, a wave of record heat this summer. [...]

    "The bottom line is that even if we got relief starting today, at this minute," Dr. Hall said, "it would take a few years economically to recover." [...]

    Even here in Mitchell, about 70 miles west of Sioux Falls, some residents did not grasp the scope of the drought until the Corn Palace, this city's tourist-luring castlelike civic center wrapped in hundreds of thousands of ears of corn, announced that because there was not enough of the crop, it would not redecorate this year for the 2007 season.

    "We don't have any record of anything like this happening before," said Mark Schilling, the director of the Corn Palace, a campy, 114-year-old landmark promoted on highway billboards with endless corn puns.

    "But if there's not a crop, there's not a crop," Mr. Schilling said quietly.

    After weeks and weeks with little rain and high temperatures, one farmer, Terry Goehring, watched the mercury spike to 118 degrees in his Mound City, S.D., field one day in July. That was it. Mr. Goehring, who has farmed since 1978, sold half his 250 head of Angus cattle.

    "There was no corn," he said. "There was no hay. We had nothing. And in that moment, I knew there was no choice." [Emphasis added]

    It's impossible to say whether this particular drought, as severe as it is, is a consequence of global warming, but it is, in any case, a preview of what's in store.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 26, 2006

    Mr. Peabody's Coal Train Environment

    A big global warming worry has been the enormous amount of coal-fired electrical generation capacity being added in places like China and India. But we don't have to look that far from home. Grist (via Big Gav) tells us that here in the US, coal-fired plants are being built at an astonishing and dangerous pace. Excerpt:

    Across the nation, 153 new coal plants are currently proposed, enough to power some 93 million homes. Of those 153 proposals, only 24 have expressed an intent to use gasification technology, which offers a way to handle the large amounts of carbon dioxide produced by coal combustion. A recent report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory anticipates the construction of up to 309 new 500 MW coal plants in the U.S. by 2030. If NETL's projections are correct, U.S. coal-generation capacity will more than triple by 2010, with corresponding air pollution and greenhouse-gas increases.

    Some of the 153 proposed coal plants will add capacity for existing public utilities. Others, like those by developers LS Power and Peabody, are speculative "merchant" coal plants, which ultimately intend to sell the power — or even the plant itself — to the highest bidder. Local need for power is not part of the calculations behind these merchant plants. The concept isn't new, but the voracious expansion plans are.

    Economic projections indicate that demand for electricity will continue to rise, so developers are gambling that the need for power and the low price of western coal will make them very rich. Merchant-coal developers are also finding ways to minimize the risks posed by possible carbon regulation on the horizon. A recent Business Week analysis approvingly cites Peabody's plan to sell ownership stakes in its new plants to municipal utilities and electric cooperatives, along with 30-year Peabody coal-supply contracts. If and when federal carbon regulation pushes up the cost of coal-fired generation, a smart developer like Peabody will have insulated itself from that expense. The utilities and cooperatives will pay ever-higher prices to generate electricity, passing those costs on to the consumer — but Peabody's profits will never falter. [Emphasis added]

    I wonder if "2010" is a typo, but in any case this is a very ominous trend.

    People who think the capitalist market will, all by itself, solve our energy and environmental problems should take note. The fundamental problem (it could hardly be any more fundamental) with unregulated capitalism vis-a-vis the environment is that the people producing the pollution don't pay the cost. As a result, it may be a whole lot more profitable to destroy the Earth than to preserve it. The coal story is a huge case in point. They'll make their quick buck now, and leave it to the rest of us to figure out what to do about global warming later. At some point, however, later will be too late.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:42 AM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 25, 2006

    Major US Drought Continues Environment

    The US is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history. Here's a map:

    Some 60% of the country is affected. AP:

    More than 60 percent of the United States now has abnormally dry or drought conditions, stretching from Georgia to Arizona and across the north through the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. [...]

    Brad Rippey, a federal Agriculture Department meteorologist in Washington, said this year's drought is continuing one that started in the late 1990s. "The 1999 to 2006 drought ranks only behind the 1930s and the 1950s. It's the third-worst drought on record — period," Rippey said. [Emphasis added]

    Here's an historical graph, excluding 2006. 60% out-and-out drought is rare:

    The current drought hasn't reached Dust Bowl levels, but the demand for water is much greater today than it was in the 30s, so the consequences of drought are considerably more severe. Topeka Capital-Journal:

    While the prolonged Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s and droughts of the 1950s are considered the historically devastating dry periods in the United States, less severe events today can create enormous problems, [climatologist Mark] Svoboda said.

    That is because population growth, particularly in Southwestern states like Nevada, puts a heavier strain on water sources during a drought.

    "When a little drought comes along now, it can be very disruptive," he said. "The amount of water hasn't changed, but the demand has increased greatly. You don't need to have a drought of the '50s to have the impact of the '50s." [Emphasis added]

    This all seems to be happening under the radar in areas that haven't been affected. There will be downstream consequences, however, as crops fail, food prices rise, farms go out of business, etc. Expect more of the same in years to come.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:38 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 22, 2006

    Planet Under Pressure Environment

    From a six-part BBC series Planet Under Pressure (click the image for a larger view):

    Exponential growth cannot continue.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:51 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 16, 2006

    Greenland's Melt Speeding Up Environment

    Yet another confirmation that global warming is accelerating. BBC (via Big Gav):

    The meltdown of Greenland's ice sheet is speeding up, satellite measurements show.

    Data from a US space agency (NASA) satellite show that the melting rate has accelerated since 2004.

    If the ice cap were to completely disappear, global sea levels would rise by 6.5m (21 feet). [...]

    Estimated monthly changes in the mass of Greenland's ice sheet suggest it is melting at a rate of about 239 cubic kilometres (57.3 cubic miles) per year.

    This figure is about three times higher than an earlier estimate of the mass loss from Greenland made using the first two years of Grace measurements. [...]

    "Acceleration of mass loss over Greenland, if confirmed, would be consistent with proposed increased global warming in recent years," the authors wrote in Science. [...]

    The group's findings agree remarkably well with a study released earlier this year that used data from other satellites to estimate mass changes in the Greenland ice. [Emphasis added]

    The Greenland melt is important not just because it will cause sea-levels to rise (if one can say "just" about something that significant) but also because it is likely to trigger other changes with even more far-reaching effects. Chief among these is disruption of the North Atlantic currents that warm the UK and Western Europe. Besides which, the accelerating melt is evidence that global warming generally is accelerating. Feedback loops are strengthening, in a self-reinforcing process that may spin out of control, finally reaching equilibrium in a world very different from the one we know.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:19 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 08, 2006

    Another Look At Drought In The Amazon Environment

    The climate scientists at RealClimate urge caution in interpreting the Woods Hole experiment that suggested the Amazon rainforest would collapse if it experienced three years of major drought. It's not that simple — the rainforest is not that fragile — but the picture in the Amazon still is not good. Excerpt:

    The not-so-good part comes when [the Woods Hole] experiment is linked too directly to the ongoing drought in the southern Amazon...This is incorrect for a number of reasons. Firstly, drought conditions are not the same as no rain at all — the rainfall deficit in the middle of the Amazon is significant, but not close to 100%! Secondly, the rainfall deficits are quite regionally variable, so a forest-wide response is highly unlikely. Also, the trees won't all die in just one more year and could recover, depending on yearly variation in climate.

    ...[T]here are, however, some issues that should provoke genuine concern. Worries about the effects of the prolonged drought (and other natural and human-related disturbances) in the Amazon are indeed widespread and are partly related to the idea that there may be a 'tipping point' for the rainforest (see this recent article for some background). This idea is exemplified in a study last year...which looked at the sharp transition between forest and savannah and related that to the coupling of drought incidence and wild fires with the forest ecosystem. Modelling work has suggested that the Amazon may have two vegetation/regional climate equilibria due to vegetation and climate tending to reinforce each other if one is pushed in a particular direction...The two alternative states could be one rainforested and wet like today, the other mainly savannah and dry in the Eastern Amazon. Thus there is a fear that too much drought or disturbance could flip parts of the forest into a more savannah-like state. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty in where these thresholds may lie and how likely they are to be crossed, and the rate at which change will occur. Models go from predicting severe and rapid change..., to relatively mild changes... Locally these responses can be dramatic, but of course, these changes also have big implications for total carbon cycle feedback and so have global consequences as well. [Emphasis added]

    So the conclusion drawn in the Independent article — namely, that since trees started dying in the Woods Hole experiment after rain was blocked for three years it follows that three years of drought could induce the collapse of the Amazon — was a gross over-simplification that exaggerated the fragility of the system.

    But, that said, it remains true that the Amazon is in trouble. Parts of it are drying, and it's not clear when or if a tipping point will be reached after which the feedback loops in play will push the system to a new and different equilibrium state, possibly replacing forest with savannah — which would have significant global consequences. I.e., the Amazon's in trouble, but it's not going to collapse overnight, drought or no drought.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:48 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 07, 2006

    Choking On Plastic Environment

    This sucks. LA Times via CommonDreams:

    The albatross chick jumped to its feet, eyes alert and focused. At 5 months, it stood 18 inches tall and was fully feathered except for the fuzz that fringed its head. [...]

    The next afternoon, the chick ignored passersby. The bird was flopped on its belly, its legs splayed awkwardly. Its wings drooped in the hot sun. A few hours later, the chick was dead.

    John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, turned the bird over and cut it open with a knife. Probing its innards with a gloved hand, he pulled out a yellowish sac — its stomach.

    Out tumbled a collection of red, blue and orange bottle caps, a black spray nozzle, part of a green comb, a white golf tee and a clump of tiny dark squid beaks ensnared in a tangle of fishing line.

    "This is pretty typical," said Klavitter, who is stationed at the atoll for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We often find cigarette lighters, bucket handles, toothbrushes, syringes, toy soldiers — anything made out of plastic."

    It's all part of a tide of plastic debris that has spread throughout the world's oceans, posing a lethal hazard to wildlife, even here, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest city.

    Midway, an atoll halfway between North America and Japan, has no industrial centers, no fast-food joints with overflowing trash cans, and only a few dozen people.

    Its isolation would seem to make it an ideal rookery for seabirds, especially Laysan albatross, which lay their eggs and hatch their young here each winter. [...]

    Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that chicks that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died for other reasons.

    The atoll is littered with decomposing remains, grisly wreaths of feathers and bone surrounding colorful piles of bottle caps, plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles, fishing line and small Styrofoam balls. Klavitter has calculated that albatross feed their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year at Midway.

    Albatross fly hundreds of miles in their search for food for their young. Their flight paths from Midway often take them over what is perhaps the world's largest dump: a slowly rotating mass of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.

    This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system of currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, the garbage patch is an area of slack winds and sluggish currents where flotsam collects from around the Pacific, much like foam piling up in the calm center of a hot tub. [...]

    The debris can spin for decades in one of a dozen or more gigantic gyres around the globe, only to be spat out and carried by currents to distant lands. The U.N. Environment Program estimates that 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of the oceans. About 70% will eventually sink.

    ...An estimated 1 million seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets or other debris every year. About 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate.

    The amount of plastic in the oceans has risen sharply since the 1950s. Studies show a tenfold increase every decade in some places. Scientists expect the trend to continue. [...]

    On land, [decomposition of plastic] can take decades, even centuries. At sea, it takes even longer, said Anthony L. Andrady, a polymer chemist at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina who studies marine debris. Seawater keeps plastics cool while algae, barnacles and other marine growth block ultraviolet rays.

    "Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere," Andrady said, "because there is no effective mechanism to break it down." [...]

    A piece of plastic found in an albatross stomach last year bore a serial number that was traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944. Computer models re-creating the object's odyssey showed it spent a decade in a gyre known as the Western Garbage Patch, just south of Japan, and then drifted 6,000 miles to the Eastern Garbage Patch off the West Coast of the U.S., where it spun in circles for the next 50 years. [...]

    Charles Moore, a member of the Hancock Oil family, was on his way home from the Los Angeles-to-Hawaii Transpacific Yacht Race in 1997 when he took a shortcut through the Eastern Garbage Patch. It's a place that sailors usually avoid because it lacks wind.

    As he motored through on his 50-foot catamaran, Moore was startled by what he saw thousands of miles from land. "Every time I came on deck, there was trash floating by," he said. "How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?" [...]

    The experience changed Moore's life, turning him from an adventurer into a self-taught scientist and environmental activist.

    Two years later, he returned to the garbage patch with a volunteer crew to survey its contents. He knew he would collect plenty of plastic bags, bottle caps, nets and floats.

    He didn't expect what turned up in a special net, one with a tight mesh for collecting plankton, the bottom link in the oceanic food chain. Instead of plankton, it was choked with a colorful array of tiny plastic fragments.

    "It blew my mind," Moore said. "We are filling up the oceans with this confetti stuff, and nobody cares." [...]

    ...plastic pellets the size and shape of pills. They come in all colors and are the raw material for a vast array of plastic products, from trash bags to medical devices.

    About 100 billion pounds of pellets are produced every year and shipped to Los Angeles and other manufacturing centers. Huge numbers are spilled on the ground and swept by rainfall into gutters; down storm drains, creeks and rivers; and into the ocean. [...]

    Some plastic starts out as tiny particles, such as the abrasives in cleaning products that are washed down the sink, through sewage systems and out to sea. [Emphasis added]

    Part of growing up is learning to clean up after yourself. That includes not closing your eyes and pretending the mess isn't there, hoping it'll go away on its own. What we wash down the sink or throw in the trash doesn't magically disappear.

    This is an important story to bear in mind, because it demonstrates that human activity is happening on such an enormous scale that even the little things have planetary implications.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:08 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 05, 2006

    We've Done It Before Environment

    Greenhouse gas reduction seems like a problem that's too big, too expensive, requiring too much sacrifice and international cooperation, to ever get done. Pretty much every political figure, from Bush on down, says that limiting greenhouse gas emissions would cripple the economy, so nobody wants to get out in front on the issue. The problem seems hopeless, so nobody's really tackled it with the seriousness it deserves.

    But is it hopeless? Gregg Easterbrook, in the current Atlantic Monthly (article not available online), points out something I haven't heard emphasized elsewhere. It's actually pretty inspiring:

    Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem — and all previous air-pollution problems have been reduced faster and more cheaply than predicted, without economic harm. Some of these problems once seemed scary and intractable, just as greenhouse gases seem today. About forty years ago urban smog was increasing so fast that President Lyndon Johnson warned, "Either we stop poisoning our air or we become a nation [in] gas masks groping our way through dying cities." During Ronald Reagan's presidency, emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, threatened to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. As recently as George H. W. Bush's administration, acid rain was said to threaten a "new silent spring" of dead Appalachian forests.

    But in each case, strong regulations were enacted, and what happened? Since 1970, smog-forming air-pollution has declined by a third to a half. Emissions of CFCs have been nearly eliminated, and studies suggest that ozone-layer replenishment is beginning. Acid rain, meanwhile, has declined by a third since 1990, while Appalachian forest health has improved sharply.

    Most progress against air pollution has been cheaper than expected. Smog controls on automobiles, for example, were predicted to cost thousands of dollars for each vehicle. Today's new cars emit less than 2 percent as much smog-forming pollution as the cars of 1970, and the cars are still as affordable today as they were then. Acid-rain control has cost about 10 percent of what was predicted in 1990, when Congress enacted new rules. At that time, opponents said the regulations would cause a "clean-air recession"; instead, the economy boomed.

    Greenhouse gases, being global, are the biggest air-pollution problem ever faced...Still, the basic pattern observed in all other forms of air-pollution control — rapid progress at low cost — whould repeat for greenhouse controls.

    Yet a paralyzing negativism dominates global-warming politics. [...]

    One reason the global-warming problems seem so daunting is that the success of previous antipollution efforts remains something of a secret. Polls show that Americans thing the air is getting dirtier, not cleaner, perhaps because media coverage of the environment rarely if ever mentions improvements. [...]

    Americans love challenges, and preventing artificial climate change is just the sort of technological and economic challenge at which this nation excels. It only remains for the right politician to recast the challenge in practical, optimistic tones...But cheap and fast improvement is not a pipe dream; it is the pattern of previous efforts against air pollution. The only reason runaway global warming seems unstoppable is that we have not yet tried to stop it. [Emphasis added]

    Notice also that we were successful combatting urban smog, the hole in the ozone layer, and acid rain because government regulations were put in place. The market didn't do it, government regulation did. Government regulation is not the answer to everything, but it is the answer when capitalistism needs to be saved from itself.

    Greenhouse gas reduction is a harder problem than the others Easterbrook cites because it's probably going to require some fundamental changes in behavior. It won't be a matter of just adding catalytic converters to our exhaust systems or giving up aerosol sprays. But, that said, there's a hell of a lot that we can do — right now — that will get the ball rolling. To succeed, we have to start.

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:41 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    August 02, 2006

    Will Carbon Sequestration Save Us? Energy  Environment  Peak Oil

    Oil's about to peak, but we've still got lots of coal, and coal, unfortunately, will become the path of least resistance. All that coal means lots more carbon in the atmosphere. Unless we can bury the CO2, permanently — so-called carbon sequestration.

    Is carbon sequestration the answer? TreeHugger quotes Tim Flannery's book The Weather Makers:

    For every tonne of anthracite [coal] burned, 3.7 tonnes of CO2 is generated. If this voluminous waste could be pumped back into the ground below the power station it would not matter as much, but the rocks that produce coal are not often useful for storing CO2, which means that the gas much be transported. In the case of Australia's Hunter Valley coal mines, for example, it needs to be conveyed over Australia's Great Dividing Range and hundreds of kilometres to the west.

    Once the CO2 arrives at its destination it must be compressed into a liquid so it can be injected into the ground — a step that typically consumes 20 per cent of the energy yielded by burning coal in the first place. Then a kilometre-deep hole must be drilled and the CO2 injected. From that day on, the geological formation must be closely monitored; should the gas ever escape, it has the potential to kill.

    The largest recent disaster caused by CO2 occurred in 1986, in Cameroon, central Africa. A volcanic crater-lake known as Nyos belched bubbles of CO2 into the still night air and the gas settled around the lake's shore, where it killed 1800 people and countless thousands of animals.

    Earth's crust is not a purpose-built vessel for holding CO2, and the storage must last thousands of years so the risk of leak must be taken seriously.

    Even the volume of CO2 generated by a sparsely populated country such as Australia beggars belief. Imagine a pile of 200-litre drums, ten kilometres long and five across, stacked ten drums high. Even when compressed to liquid form, that daily output would take up a cubic kilometre, and Australia accounts for less than 2 per cent of global emissions! Imagine injecting 50 cubic kilometre of liquid CO2 into the Earth's crust every day of the year for the next century or two.

    If geosequestration were to be practised on the scale needed to offset all the emissions from coal, the world would very quickly run out of A-grade reservoirs near power stations and, especially if the power companies are not liable for damages resulting from leaks, pressure would be on to utilise B, C, D and E grade reservoirs.

    As always when it comes to world energy usage, the fundamental issue is a question of scale. 50 cubic kilometers a day, every day, 'til the coal runs out. And it's got to stay buried. What are the chances?

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:34 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 27, 2006

    How's The Weather? Environment

    Something's up with the weather. Here in Madison, the summer's been a freaky succession of highly localized, unusually potent storms leaving trails of downed trees and power outages. Here's a parking lot near downtown Madison, lunchtime today, after one of these micro cloudbursts:

    That ain't normal.

    Elsewhere, it's hot. Record high temperatures are being recorded in the UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Here in the US, hundreds of thousands of people have been subjected to heat-related power outages lasting many days in NYC, St. Louis, and California. Scores if not hundreds of people have died. There was a time when it would have seemed like a big deal; now it's just the way things are. The public infrastructure is unraveling, and we're already getting hardened to it. Like New Orleans, only less so. Sign of the times.

    Meanwhile, the weather just doesn't feel normal. I know, I know — individual weather events prove nothing about larger patterns (so you can spare me the usual comments and emails). Still, are we not to credit the evidence of our own senses? How's the weather where you are?

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:41 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 25, 2006

    Oh. My. God. Environment

    Pretty clearly the worst news yet. Words fail me. The Independent:

    The vast Amazon rainforest is on the brink of being turned into desert, with catastrophic consequences for the world's climate, alarming research suggests. And the process, which would be irreversible, could begin as early as next year.

    Studies by the blue-chip Woods Hole Research Centre, carried out in Amazonia, have concluded that the forest cannot withstand more than two consecutive years of drought without breaking down.

    Scientists say that this would spread drought into the northern hemisphere, including Britain, and could massively accelerate global warming with incalculable consequences, spinning out of control, a process that might end in the world becoming uninhabitable.

    The alarming news comes in the midst of a heatwave gripping Britain and much of Europe and the United States. Temperatures in the south of England reached a July record of 36.3C on Tuesday. And it comes hard on the heels of a warning by an international group of experts, led by the Eastern Orthodox "pope" Bartholomew, last week that the forest is rapidly approaching a "tipping point" that would lead to its total destruction.

    The research, carried out by the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole centre in Santarem on the Amazon river, has taken even the scientists conducting it by surprise. When Dr Dan Nepstead started the experiment in 2002,­ by covering a chunk of rainforest the size of a football pitch with plastic panels to see how it would cope without rain, he surrounded it with sophisticated sensors, expecting to record only minor changes.

    The trees managed the first year of drought without difficulty. In the second year, they sunk their roots deeper to find moisture, but survived. But in year three, they started dying. Beginning with the tallest, the trees started to come crashing down, exposing the forest floor to the drying sun.

    By the end of the year the trees had released more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide they have stored during their lives, helping to act as a break on global warming. Instead they began accelerating the climate change.

    [T]he Amazon now appears to be entering its second successive year of drought, raising the possibility that it could start dying next year. The immense forest contains 90 billion tons of carbon, enough in itself to increase the rate of global warming by 50 per cent.

    Dr Nepstead expects "mega-fires" rapidly to sweep across the drying jungle. With the trees gone, the soil will bake in the sun and the rainforest could become desert.

    Dr Deborah Clark from the University of Missouri, one of the world's top forest ecologists, says the research shows that "the lock has broken" on the Amazon ecosystem. She adds: the Amazon is "headed in a terrible direction". [Emphasis added]

    I don't know words strong enough to say how significant this is. If you're not scared yet, you should be.

    Posted by Jonathan at 01:50 PM | Comments (7) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 21, 2006

    Brain Food Economy  Environment  Science/Technology

    When I was a kid, I used to hear that fish is "brain food." I don't know if people still say that, but they should. George Monbiot:

    The more it is tested, the more compelling the hypothesis becomes. Dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological problems seem to be associated with a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, especially in the womb. The evidence of a link with depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and dementia is less clear, but still suggestive. None of these conditions are caused exclusively by a lack of these chemicals, or can be entirely remedied by their application, but it's becoming pretty obvious that some of our most persistent modern diseases are, at least in part, diseases of deficiency.

    Last year, for example, researchers at Oxford published a study of 117 children suffering from dyspraxia. Dyspraxia causes learning difficulties, disruptive behaviour and social problems. It affects about 5% of children. Some of the children were given supplements of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, others were given placebos. The results were extraordinary. In three months the reading age of the experimental group rose by an average of 9.5 months, while the control group's rose by 3.3. Other studies have shown major improvements in attention, behaviour and IQ.

    This shouldn't surprise us. During the Palaeolithic, human beings ate roughly the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as omega-6s. Today we eat 17 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. Omega-6s are found in vegetable oils, while most of the omega-3s we eat come from fish. John Stein, a professor of physiology at Oxford who specialises in dyslexia, believes that fish oils permitted humans to make their great cognitive leap forwards. [...]

    Stein believes that when the cells which are partly responsible for visual perception — the magnocellular neurones — are deficient in omega-3s, they don't form as many connections with other cells, and don't pass on information as efficiently. Their impaired development explains, for example, why many dyslexic children find that letters appear to jump around on the page.

    So at first sight the [British] government's investigation into the idea of giving fish oil capsules to schoolchildren seems sensible. The food standards agency is conducting a review of the effects of omega-3s on childrens' behaviour and performance in school. [...]

    There is only one problem: there are not enough fish. In March an article in the British Medical Journal observed that "we are faced with a paradox. Health recommendations advise increased consumption of oily fish and fish oils within limits, on the grounds that intake is generally low. However...we probably do not have a sustainable supply of long chain omega 3 fats." Our brain food is disappearing.

    If you want to know why, read Charles Clover's beautifully-written book The End of the Line. Clover travelled all over the world, showing how the grotesque mismanagement of fish stocks has spread like an infectious disease. Governments help their fishermen to wipe out local shoals, then pay them to build bigger and more powerful boats so they can go further afield. When they have cleaned up their own continental shelves, they are paid by taxpayers to destroy other people's stocks. The European Union, for example, has bought our pampered fishermen the right to steal protein from the malnourished people of Senegal and Angola. West African stocks are now going the same way as North Sea cod and Mediterranean tuna.

    I first realised just how mad our fishing policies have become when playing a game of ultimate frisbee in my local park. Taking a long dive, I landed with my nose in the grass. It smelt of fish. To the astonishment of passers-by, I crawled across the lawns, sniffing them. The whole park had been fertilised with fishmeal. Fish are used to feed cattle, pigs, poultry and other fish — in the farms now proliferating all over the world. Those rearing salmon, cod and tuna, for example, produce about half as much fish as they consume....Now I have discovered that the US Department of Energy is subsidising the conversion of fish oil into biodiesel...It describes them as "a sustainable energy supply".

    Three years after Ransom Myers and Boris Worm published their seminal study in Nature, showing that global stocks of predatory fish have declined by 90%, nothing has changed. The fish stall in my local market still sells steaks from the ocean’s charismatic megafauna: swordfish, sharks and tuna, despite the fact that their conservation status is now, in many cases, similar to that of the Siberian tiger. [...]

    If fish stocks were allowed to recover and fishing policies reflected scientific advice, there might just about be enough to go round. To introduce mass medication with fish oil under current circumstances could be a recipe for the complete collapse of global stocks. Yet somehow we have to prevent many thousands of lives from being ruined by what appears to be a growing problem of malnutrition.

    Some plants — such as flax and hemp — contain omega-3 oils, but not of the long-chain varieties our cell membranes need. Only some people can convert them, and even then slowly and inefficiently. But a few weeks ago, a Swiss company called eau+ published a press release claiming that it has been farming "a secret strain of algae called V-Pure" which produces the right kind of fatty acids. It says it's on the verge of commercialising a supplement...The oils produced by some species of algae...are chemically identical to those found in fish: in fact this is where the fish get from them from. [...]

    [The algae] had better work. Otherwise the human race is destined to take a great cognitive leap backwards. [Emphasis added]

    The race to deplete the fish of the sea is a stark illustration of a fundamental problem with unregulated capitalism: it may be more profitable to destroy the world than to save it. Destroying the world is bad business in the long run, of course. But a population of perfectly rational people out to maximize short term profit can bring about ultimate collapse, even though each of them acted in perfect accord with capitalist economic theory every step of the way.

    A combination of factors come into play. There's the "tyranny of small decisions" — the cumulative effect of a number of small decisions can lead to a result that no one wants. So I may think, what's a few fish more or less? But if everyone thinks that way, before long the fish are gone. Forever.

    There's the "tragedy of the commons" — when resources are "free", like the air, or the oceans, or the fish in the sea, there is no disincentive to overexploitation. There is, in fact, an incentive to exploit them as quickly as possible: if I don't take the fish, someone else will.

    There's the problem that money grows faster than trees, or fish, or what have you. A forest may grow at a rate of 2% per year. That means that if I cut only 2% of it a year, my forest lasts forever. But if I clear-cut it today and invest the proceeds, my forest may be gone, but my money will grow a lot faster than 2% per year. So the economically rational thing is to monetize everything. Right up until the moment when it's all gone.

    But, as Wendell Berry said:

    Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

    It is rapidly changing from a privilege to a necessity.

    (See also this.)

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:31 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 20, 2006

    Toyota To Develop A Plug-In Hybrid Environment

    Now that I've got my Prius (which I adore), Toyota has announced plans to develop a plug-in hybrid. They're looking at bringing flex fuel cars to the US as well. Grist:

    Toyota plans to develop a plug-in hybrid vehicle, the company announced this week. Rechargeable via any typical electrical outlet, a plug-in would be able to "travel greater distances without using its gas engine, ... conserve more oil, and slice smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels," said Jim Press, president of Toyota's North American subsidiary. The technology is far from ready, and the automaker has no timeline for offering the cars for sale, but hey — we'll give it points for pressing forward with the R&D while other companies dawdle. Toyota is also taking a serious look at bringing flex-fuel cars capable of running on an E85 ethanol blend to the U.S. market, putting pressure on America's beleaguered Big Three automakers, who recently announced that they will double production of flex-fuel vehicles. Toyota already produces E85-capable vehicles in Brazil. Toyota, which dominates the regular hybrid market, also plans to introduce hybrid versions of all its current vehicle models. [Emphasis added]

    The "slice smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels" is a bit of a cheat since the electricity used to charge the car will come largely from fossil fuels, but let's not quibble.

    Meanwhile, you wouldn't believe how many Priuses are on the road here in Madison these days. They're everywhere. My daughter Molly and I recently drove out to Philadelphia and back, and we didn't see anywere near as many Priuses anywhere else, sorry to say.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:32 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 13, 2006

    West African Black Rhino: Gone Forever Environment

    The West African black rhino apparently is no more. BBC:

    The West African black rhino appears to have become extinct, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

    A mission to their last known habitat in northern Cameroon failed to find any rhinos or signs of their existence.

    The sub-species has declined in recent decades due primarily to poaching, which has also brought the northern white rhino close to extinction. [...]

    But after two decades of warnings, the western black rhino has apparently met its final end, according to the findings of an extensive expedition by three specialists earlier this year. [...]

    "They did, however, come across lots of evidence of poaching, and that's the disconcerting thing." [Emphasis added]

    So very sad. Is this the best we can do?

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:13 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 07, 2006

    Wildfires Boosted By Global Warming Environment

    One of the most ominous aspects of global warming is the many ways in which it is self-reinforcing. Warming causes phenomena which lead to more warming, in ever-strengthening feedback loops. Here's an example. Boston Globe:

    Global warming may be largely to blame for the increasingly destructive wildfires in the Western United States in the last two decades, new research suggests.

    Longer and fiercer wildfire seasons since 1986 are closely associated with warmer summer temperatures, earlier arrival of spring, and earlier snowmelts in the West, scientists reported yesterday in the online edition of the journal Science.

    The new findings suggest that the most up-to-date forest management methods may be insufficient to slow the uptick in large forest fires. [...]

    Westerling and his colleagues analyzed a comprehensive government database of forest fires larger than about 1,000 acres in the West since 1970. They found a dramatic increase in wildfires after 1986, with large fires four times more frequent than during the preceding years, and burning through 6 1/2 times more area. Also, the average wildfire season increased by 2 1/2 months.

    Scientists had previously believed that increased wildfire activity resulted from changes in land use practices. In particular, tactics to suppress fires had allowed dead and dry vegetation to build up in Western forests, providing more fuel for fires.

    But the new study shows that most of the increase in wildfires has occurred in the Northern Rocky Mountains, where few land-use changes have occurred. Also, the scientists found that 66 percent of the yearly variation in forest fires could be explained by temperature changes alone, with hotter years producing more fires.

    The wildfires were also much more common in years with an early snowmelt, the researchers reported. When snow melts earlier, it allows more time for soil and vegetation to dry out, permitting fires to begin earlier in the season. On average, snowmelt in the West came about a week earlier after 1986, with spring and summer temperatures higher by about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Thomas W. Swetnam of the University of Arizona, a coauthor of the paper, said he was surprised that the study showed temperature had a greater influence than land-use changes on wildfire activity. Steven W. Running, a forestry professor at the University of Montana who was not involved in the study, said the research shows that climate change is already making its impact felt. As he talked, a forest fire burned less than a mile from his office, he said. [Emphasis added]

    Atmospheric CO2 leads to warming which leads to wildfires which lead to more atmospheric CO2, and around it goes. Fiddling while the world burns.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:09 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 05, 2006

    CO2 Benefit To Crops Overestimated Environment

    Global warming will rob soils of moisture, hurting crop yields. But some studies have seemed to show that increased CO2, which increases photosynthesis, will offset soil moisture effects. New research casts doubt on that conclusion, however, partly because of the damaging effects of ozone, which is also increasing. NASA:

    Open-air field trials involving five major food crops grown under carbon-dioxide levels projected for the future are harvesting dramatically less bounty than those raised in earlier greenhouse and other enclosed test conditions — and scientists warn that global food supplies could be at risk without changes in production strategies.

    The new findings are based on on-going open-air research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and results gleaned from five other temperate-climate locations around the world. According to the analysis, published in the June 30 issue of the journal Science, crop yields are running at about 50 percent below conclusions drawn previously from enclosed test conditions.

    Results from the open-field experiments, using Free-Air Concentration Enrichment (FACE) technology, "indicate a much smaller [CO2] fertilization effect on yield than currently assumed for C3 crops, such as rice, wheat and soybeans, and possibly little or no stimulation for C4 crops that include maize and sorghum," said Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois plant biologist and crop scientist.

    FACE technology, such as the SoyFACE project at Illinois, allows researchers to grow crops in open-air fields, with elevated levels of carbon dioxide simulating the composition of the atmosphere projected for the year 2050. SoyFACE has added a unique element by introducing surface-level ozone, which also is rising. Ozone is toxic to plants. SoyFACE is the first facility in the world to test both the effects of future ozone and [CO2] levels on crops in the open air.

    Older, closed-condition studies occurred in greenhouses, controlled environmental chambers and transparent field chambers, in which carbon dioxide or ozone were easily retained and controlled. [...]

    Older studies, as reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggest that increased soil temperature and decreased soil moisture, which would reduce crop yields, likely will be offset in C3 crops by the fertilization effect of rising [CO2], primarily because [CO2] increases photosynthesis and decreases crop water use.

    Although more than 340 independent chamber studies have been analyzed to project yields under rising [CO2] levels, most plants grown in enclosures can differ greatly from those grown in farm fields, Long said. FACE has been the only technology that has tested effects in real-world situations, and, to date, for each crop tested yields have been "well below (about half) the value predicted from chambers," the authors reported. The results encompassed grain yield, total biomass and effects on photosynthesis. [...]

    "The FACE experiments clearly show that much lower [CO2] fertilization factors should be used in model projections of future yields," the researchers said. They also called for research to examine simultaneous changes in [CO2], [O3], and temperature and soil moisture."

    While projections to 2050 may be too far out for commercial considerations, they added, "it must not be seen as too far in the future for public sector research and development, given the long lead times that may be needed to avoid global food shortage." [Emphasis added]

    It's too bad we were all raised on stories that ended, "And they all lived happily ever after." Maybe that's were we learned complacency. But down here in the real world, not all stories have happy endings. Much of real life is brutal and tragic. Nature is pitiless. If we continue our complacent inaction in the face of the mountain of scientific evidence on global warming, we'll deserve what we get. We cannot say we haven't been warned.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:07 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    July 01, 2006

    US Cars Emit Nearly Half Of World's Automotive CO2 Environment

    According to a new report from the Environmental Defense Fund, the US has 30% of the world's cars, but because our cars are less efficient and we drive them more, they account for nearly half (45%) of the world's automotive CO2 emissions.

    If we made more efficient cars, we might actually be able to sell some of them to the rest of the world. Just one example of how the claim that conservation hurts the economy is bull.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:53 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 28, 2006

    Posts Will Be Sparse For A Few Days Environment

    Saw "An Inconvenient Truth" again tonight, this time with my daughters. It's a masterpiece of explication. See it if you can. It's most important message: global warming is happening now.

    I'll be leaving in the morning to drive to Pennsylvania with my younger daughter Molly to visit my ailing father. Internet access will be intermittent, so I don't know how much posting I'll be doing over the next few days. We'll be staying in Reading, one of the Pennsylvania cities hit by the flooding. I expect that to be sobering and eerie, after seeing Gore explain how global warming models predict exactly the kind of unusually heavy rains and flooding that we're seeing. Welcome to the future.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:36 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 27, 2006

    The Real WMD Activism  Environment

    Parade Magazine, which reaches 75 million people, began its Sunday cover story "How Climate Change Affects You Right Now" with this bold sentence:

    As we learned last year in New Orleans, weather can be a weapon of mass destruction.

    Momentum is building.

    Global warming: the real WMD. Pass it on.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:59 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 26, 2006

    DC Tastes Its Future Environment

    If you've seen Al Gore's movie, you know that global warming is expected to produce torrential rains and flooding in some locales, drought in others. Today, the pols in Washington got a preview, as the capital got more than a foot of rain, with more rain forecast for the remainder of the week.

    It's clear that somebody at ABC saw the movie. Excerpt:

    The massive downpours this morning shorting out government buildings with flooded basements, seizing up legislative communications, snarling traffic access to white columned buildings, fit exactly the pattern predicted decades ago as a consequence of global warming.

    It's a simple fourth grade science lesson: the warmer the air, the more moisture it can hold.

    Winds suck up more water vapor from oceans and farmlands — leaving more agricultural drought behind — and when they finally do dump that moisture out as rain, the downpours are much heavier.

    Not just in the United States. Worldwide, such downpours have been increasing markedly over recent decades — exactly as predicted by scientists.

    In the 1980's, leading American climatologists stood in front of Congress, trying to get across the reality of this planetary threat.

    One of the world's most resepected climatologists, NASA's James Hansen, even used a dice metaphor to make it clear.

    If you paint one side of the die red, you'll roll red about one in six times. Paint four red, and you'll roll red on average four in six times.

    Manmade greenhouse gas emissions, Hansen explained, were loading the dice so that we'd have such extreme weather far more frequently. And, exactly as predicted, we and the world have — well above what the frequency of any natural weather cycles can explain. [...]

    And the president amid this morning's wind and rain?

    In the White House, only hours after that old elm had fallen, Bush was addressed by a reporter, thus: "I know that you are not planning to see Al Gore's new movie, but do you agree with the premise that global warming is a real and significant threat to the planet?"

    "I have said consistently," answered Bush, "that global warming is a serious problem. There's a debate over whether it's manmade or naturally caused. We ought to get beyond that debate and start implementing the technologies necessary ... to be good stewards of the environment, become less dependent on foreign sources of oil..."

    The President — as far as the extensive and repeated researches of this and many other professional journalists, as well as all scientists credible on this subject, can find — is wrong on one crucial and no doubt explosive issue. When he said — as he also did a few weeks ago — that "There's a debate over whether it's manmade or naturally caused" ... well, there really is no such debate.

    At least none above what is proverbially called "the flat earth society level."

    Not one scientist of any credibility on this subject has presented any evidence for some years now that counters the massive and repeated evidence — gathered over decades and come at in dozens of ways by all kinds of professional scientists around the world — that the burning of fossil fuels is raising the world's average temperature.

    Or that counters the findings that the burning of these fuels is doing so in a way that is very dangerous for mankind, that will almost certainly bring increasingly devastating effects in the coming decades.

    One small group of special interest businesses leaders — those of some fossil fuel companies — have been well documented by journalist Ross Gelbspan and others to have been fighting a PR campaign for 15 years to keep the American public confused about the wide and deep scientific consensus on this.

    They've aimed, as Gelbspan explains, to keep us thinking that (to borrow the president's words this morning) "There's a debate over whether it's manmade or naturally caused" — though no open and thorough journalism this reporter knows of can find any such thing. [...]

    Meteorologists predict more heavy rain this week along the mid-Atlantic seaboard.

    Climatologists predict much the same for the coming decades. [Emphasis added]

    If you haven't seen Gore's extraordinary movie yet, you should. Your survival may ultimately depend on it. Before long, the irresponsibility of Bush and the rest of the puerile know-nothings will be seen for what it is. Hopefully, before it's too late.

    New Orleans was only the beginning.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:36 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 25, 2006

    James Hansen On Global Warming Environment

    James Hansen, probably America's top climate scientist, has an excellent article on global warming in the The New York Review of Books.

    Recommended reading.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:33 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 20, 2006

    Iraq: Millions Of Barrels Dumped Disasters  Environment  Global Guerrillas  Iraq

    So, how's that Iraqi reconstruction coming along? Check this out. NYT:

    An environmental disaster is brewing in the heartland of Iraq's northern Sunni-led insurgency, where Iraqi officials say that in a desperate move to dispose of millions of barrels of an oil refinery byproduct called "black oil," the government pumped it into open mountain valleys and leaky reservoirs next to the Tigris River and set it on fire.

    The resulting huge black bogs are threatening the river and the precious groundwater in the region, which is dotted with villages and crisscrossed by itinerant sheep herders, but also contains Iraq's great northern refinery complex at Baiji.

    The fires are no longer burning, but the suffocating plumes of smoke they created carried as far as 40 miles downwind to Tikrit, the provincial capital that formed Saddam Hussein's base of power.

    An Iraqi environmental engineer who has visited the dumping area described it as a kind of black swampland of oil-saturated terrain and large standing pools of oil stretching across several mountain valleys. The clouds of smoke, said the engineer, Ayad Younis, "were so heavy that they obstructed breathing and visibility in the area and represent a serious environmental danger." [...]

    ...He added that at least some of the black oil was already seeping into the river.

    Exactly how far those pollutants will travel is unknown, but the Tigris passes through dozens of population centers from Baghdad to Basra. In the past, oil slicks created when insurgents struck oil pipelines in the Baiji area have traveled the entire length of the river.

    As much as 40 percent of the petroleum processed at Iraq's damaged and outdated refineries pours forth as black oil, the heavy, viscous substance that used to be extensively exported to more efficient foreign operations for further refining. But the insurgency has stalled government-controlled exports by taking control of roadways and repeatedly hitting pipelines in the area, Iraqi and American officials have said.

    So the backed-up black oil — known to the rest of the world as the lower grades of fuel oil — was sent along a short pipeline from Baiji and dumped in a mountainous area called Makhul.

    A series of complaints handed up the Iraqi government chain were conveyed to oil industry officials, and as of last weekend the fires had at least temporarily stopped, but black oil was still being poured into the open valleys, according to Mr. Younis, who works in the province's Department of Environment and Health Safety. [...]

    But with few options for disposing of Baiji's current production of black oil and so much at stake for the Iraqi economy, it is unclear whether the government will even be able to hold the line on the burning at Makhul. A United States official in Baghdad, speaking anonymously according to official procedure, said earlier this month that Baiji was still turning out about 90,000 barrels a day of refined products, which would yield about 36,000 barrels a day of black oil.

    Iraq's refineries will grind to a halt if the black oil does not go somewhere. "Unless we find a way of dealing with the fuel oil, our factories will not work," said Shamkhi H. Faraj, director of economics and marketing at the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

    The dumping and burning has embarrassed ministry officials and exposed major gaps in the American-designed reconstruction program, even as President Bush appeals to the international community for much more rebuilding money in the wake of his visit to Baghdad. [Emphasis added]

    This is how a modern insurgency can bring a country to its knees: isolated, relatively low-risk actions by small teams that hit the country's economic infrastructure at key points where the effects cascade and are magnified manyfold. Blow up an oil pipeline here, sabotage a refinery there, and in the end, you've got the government dumping millions of barrels of heavy oil into valleys and reservoirs. The downward spiral feeds on itself.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:17 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 13, 2006

    Bush Administration Slashing Energy Efficiency R&D Programs Environment  Politics

    More lunacy on the energy front. CSM:

    A few years ago a little-known US Energy Department program helped produce a design technology for lightweight cars and trucks that in 2004 alone saved the nation 122 million barrels of oil, or about $9 billion.

    Even without that breakthrough, the tiny Industrial Technologies Program routinely saves the United States $7 worth of energy for each dollar it spends, proponents say.

    So, with energy prices spiking and President Bush pushing for more energy research, the ITP would seem a natural candidate for more funding. In fact, its budget is set to get chopped by a third from its 2005 level. It's one of more than a dozen energy-efficiency efforts that the Energy Department plans to trim or eliminate in a $115 million cost-saving move.

    [T]he Bush administration is anxious to fund its new Advanced Energy Initiative — long-term research into nuclear, coal, wind, solar, and hydrogen power. But to accomplish that, it is cutting lesser-known programs like ITP whose payoffs are far more near-term. [...]

    If Congress accepts the Energy Department's proposed 2007 budget, it will cut $152 million — some 16 percent — from this year's budget for energy-efficiency programs. Adjusting for inflation, it would mean the US government would spend 30 percent less on energy efficiency next year than it did in 2002, the ACEEE says. [...]

    One energy-efficiency program on the chopping block is the Heavy Vehicle Propulsion and Ancillary Subsystems. It helps improve the fuel efficiency of heavy-duty trucks, one of the nation's biggest oil consumers. That program is "zeroed out" in the 2007 budget request.

    The same fate awaits the $4.5 million Building Codes Implementation Grants program. It helps states adopt more energy-efficient requirements for new buildings, the nation's largest consumer of electricity and natural gas. [...]

    Dr. Muller's Industrial Assessment Centers program annually conducts about 600 energy audits and trains a new crop of about 250 new energy-efficiency engineers. The $7 million program, which is estimated to save enough power to supply half a million homes each year, wins plaudits from the small businesses that have been able to reduce their costs.

    But budget cuts slated for 2007 would trim the program by a third, slashing the number of its university-based auditing and training programs from 23 to 16. Savings: about $2.4 million. [...]

    These programs are minuscule compared with the big-ticket research programs envisioned by the White House. Mr. Bush's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, for example, would cost $1.2 billion over five years.

    Proponents of the small-scale efficiency programs point out that the ITP, with 1/20th of the budget, has already saved more oil than the hydrogen-fuel program would save, if successful, by 2025. [...]

    One of the nation's priorities is improving the security and reliability of the electric grid. One option for doing that sooner, rather than later, is the emerging technology of "distributed generation." Under that approach, the nation would build more but much smaller power plants so that small businesses and even individual homes could have them.

    True, such systems would burn costly natural gas — but at twice the energy efficiency of today's grid — to produce both heat and electricity for homeowners. If such systems caught on, they could vastly reduce load demand on central power stations and slash the need to build new power plants.

    But that vision of the future may be delayed, since the DOE's "distributed energy" program has been cut in half and the remainder is being heavily earmarked by federal lawmakers for specific projects that they favor. The program is slated to be terminated in 2008, observers say.

    "Hurricanes, terrorism, and blackouts have given us so many reasons to emphasize distributed generation, and instead we're putting emphasis on new forms of centralized power," says John Jimison, executive director of the US Combined Heat and Power Association, a Washington advocacy group. "It's too bad it's getting cut because it was a very modest program."

    There may be a glimmer of hope for energy-efficiency programs. The House Committee for Energy and Water Development subcommittee moved last week to restore some funding to ITP and hybrid technology for heavy trucks. The committee voted earlier this month to fully fund the president's $2.1 billion Advanced Energy Initiative. [Emphasis added]

    It takes your breath away. Energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit. It doesn't require massive, centralized capital investment. It has proven that it works and yields enormous returns on investment. But it's not sexy, somehow. It's what grownups would do, but grownups are in short supply in this administration. And everybody wants their own back scratched. Everybody wants to bring home some pork. Who cares what really works. Fiddling while the world burns.

    The Iraq War is proving to be expensive in ways people never dreamed of. Think opportunity cost. All those billions that could have been used to do something about energy, peak oil, and global warming, instead are being used to blow stuff up. Suicidal insanity.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:40 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Politics And NIMBY Stop Wind Farm Development Environment  Politics

    It takes some energy to build, transport, install, and maintain wind turbines, yes, but after that wind power is basically energy for free. No carbon emissions, no pollution. Who could oppose it? Chicago Tribune:

    The federal government has stopped work on more than a dozen wind farms planned across the Midwest, saying research is needed on whether the giant turbines could interfere with military radar.

    But backers of wind power say the action has little to do with national security. The real issue, they say, is a group of wealthy vacationers who think a proposed wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts would spoil the view at their summer homes.

    Opponents of the Cape Wind project include several influential members of Congress. Critics say their latest attempt to thwart the planting of 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound has led to a moratorium on new wind farms hundreds of miles away in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

    Federal officials declined to reveal how many stop-work orders have been sent out. But developers said that at least 15 wind farm proposals in the Midwest have been shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration since the start of the year.

    The list of stalled projects includes one outside Bloomington, Ill., that would be the nation's largest source of wind energy, generating enough juice to power 120,000 homes in the Chicago area. The developer had planned to begin installing turbines this summer and start up the farm next year. [...]

    [D]espite the government's recent concern about proposed wind projects, it is allowing dozens of current wind farms to continue to operate within sight of radar systems. [...]

    Critics of Cape Wind include members of the Kennedy family, whose summer compound is on Cape Cod. Both U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have said the turbines would spoil the ocean views, threaten the local tourist economy and endanger migratory birds.

    The younger Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and activist who has supported wind power in other parts of the country, said putting a wind farm in Nantucket Sound would be akin to placing one in the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park. [...]

    Another opponent is U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who has tried several times to block the Cape Wind project. In a 2002 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Warner included a handwritten note saying he often visits Cape Cod, which he called a "national treasure."

    But the project continued to move forward until late last year, when Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, slipped an amendment into a military spending bill. The one-sentence congressional order directs the Defense Department to study whether wind towers could mask the radar signals of small aircraft.

    Since then, at the Defense Department's behest, the FAA has been blocking any new wind turbines within the scope of radar systems used by the military. [Emphasis added]

    It's stuff like this that makes me despair for our prospects. As noted the other day, the time for "grudging incrementalism" is over, but people just don't get it yet. By the time global climate change has gotten so bad that nobody can doubt it's seriousness and urgency, it will be too late. By then, feedback loops will have been set in motion that will push the global climate much, much farther into disastrous new territory, no matter what we do. The time to act is right now, and we need to act with urgency and determination.

    Wind farms are an obvious good. I don't really understand this idea that they spoil the view. When I see a wind farm, it makes me feel good. It connotes a peaceful future, a harmonious relationship with the Earth. The turbines are quiet and graceful, beautiful in more ways than one. You might even say they're a gesture of love for our Mother Earth.

    The time for NIMBY is over. Every site is in somebody's backyard, but global warming puts many millions of lives at risk. NIMBY is for a different world than the one we're living in. NIMBY is obsolete.

    Feel free to build a wind farm in my backyard.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:12 PM | Comments (7) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 11, 2006

    Al At The Movies Activism  Environment  Media

    Who wants to see an Al Gore documentary about global warming? Lots of people, apparently. Weekend box office (via Atrios), per screen:

    MoviePer Screen
    An Inconvenient Truth$12,073
    The Break-Up$6,669
    A Prairie Home Companion$6,146
    The Omen$5,673
    X-Men: The Last Stand$4,225
    The Da Vinci Code$3,103
    Over the Hedge$2,920
    Keeping Up with the Steins$2,037
    Mission: Impossible III$1,592

    Not too shabby.

    122 screens this weekend, 400 next. Opens here in Madison Friday. Be there or be square.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:43 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Jonathon Porritt On Climate Change Environment

    The UK Oil Drum reports on a recent talk by Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission that advises the UK government on sustainability. Porritt presented four main points on where we stand with respect to global warming:

  • Everything is moving a great deal faster than [scientists] thought it was moving, even two years ago. When you talk to scientists in the science community they will tell you the last two years have been deeply shocking, in terms of the volume and the authority of the data that has come forward on a number of different climate phenomenon.
  • We shouldn't think about climate change as a gradually unfolding set of phenomena, all gradually increasing within our midst. The climate record tells us very clearly this is as much about sharp discontinuities in patterns of climate as gently rising changes.
  • We should be thinking about systems not symptoms. We still focus on individual symptoms, we focus on the permafrost, disappearing sea-ice, melting glaciers or increased intensity of hurricanes. We keep looking at these individual phenomena, epiphenomena, and what we're not looking at is the big systems stuff.
  • This means nothing less than a radical break in the way we create and distribute wealth in the world today. I still hear people talk about climate change as something which can be managed in the dominant orthodox economic paradigm. I don't believe them, I just don't believe that is the case, I don't see how we’re going to be able to manipulate those conventional aspects of growth bound consumer driven economy and cope with climate change in the way that we actually need to. [Emphasis added]
  • Porritt noted as well that we need to "shock this still complacent, inert system into a state of radical response rather than grudging incrementalism, which is what we have today."

    How do we get from here to there? In the short time frame available to us before climate change passes a tipping point? It's going to take something that's never happened before: the most advantaged segments of the human population are going to have to turn away from the path of least resistance. The people with the most are going to have to cease the constant pursuit of more. The dominant capitalist culture, all across the board, is going to have to voluntarily forego short-term wealth accumulation in the interest of long-term sustainability. And do it quickly.

    Even if people in the West make that shift, already the longest of long shots, does anyone really think people in China and India will be content to stop where they are and not try to have what people in the West have? It may be that our past greed — the example we've already set for the rest of the world — has doomed us. I.e., even if we somehow leave our own greed behind, we've already taught the rest of the world how to live a life of greedy unsustainability. They want their turn.

    We have no choice but to proceed as if there's still time, as if success is still possible. Let's have no illusions, though, about what we're up against. As Porritt said, "grudging incrementalism" just won't cut it. The dramatic acceleration of climate change in just the last few years is the Earth's way of telling us that time is running out.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:42 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    June 05, 2006

    Global Warming "Journalism" Environment  Media

    In her recent interview of Al Gore, NPR's Terry Gross pointed out the following jaw-dropping facts:

    Let me mention a study that you cite in your documentary and your book, An Inconvenient Truth. This is a study from the University of California at San Diego. A scientist there named Dr. Naomi Oreskes published in Science magazine a study of every peer-reviewed journal article on global warming from the previous 10 years, and then in her random sample of 928 articles, she found that no articles disagreed with the scientific consensus on global warming. Then another study on articles on global warming that were published in the previous 14 years in the press, specifically published in The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times and Wall Street Journal found that more than half of those stories gave equal weight to the scientific consensus and to the view that human beings played no role in global warming.

    So just to sum up: the scientific journals, the scientists agreed about global warming, but in these four, you know, major American newspapers, equal weight was given in half the articles to the opposing view that human beings are not causing global warming.

    Staggering — yet, in a sad way, unsurprising. This is what it has come to. Scientists publishing in peer-reviewed journals are 100% unanimous, have been for years, but readers of the newspapers of record would have no way of knowing that. No wonder people are confused. Journalists who insist on reporting the world-is-flat "side" of the "argument" have a lot to answer for.

    The Daily Show (as usual) perfectly captured the essence of this kind of "journalism" back in August, 2004:

    JON STEWART: Here's what puzzles me most, Rob. John Kerry's record in Vietnam is pretty much right there in the official records of the US military, and haven't been disputed for 35 years?

    ROB CORDDRY: That's right, Jon, and that's certainly the spin you'll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign over the next few days.

    STEWART: Th-that's not a spin thing, that's a fact. That's established.

    CORDDRY: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontrovertible fact is one side of the story.

    STEWART: But that should be — isn't that the end of the story? I mean, you've seen the records, haven't you? What's your opinion?

    CORDDRY: I'm sorry, my opinion? No, I don't have 'o-pin-i-ons'. I'm a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called 'objectivity' — might wanna look it up some day.

    STEWART: Doesn't objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what's credible and what isn't?

    CORDDRY: Whoa-ho! Well, well, well — sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! [high-pitched, effeminate] 'Ooh, this allegation is spurious! Upon investigation this claim lacks any basis in reality! Mmm, mmm, mmm.' Listen buddy: not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.

    It just makes you want to scream. Global warming is an issue where many millions of lives hang in the balance. Everlasting shame on all the big-shot reporters who comfort themselves with self-interested rationalizations about "objectivity". Their brand of "objectivity" is going to get a lot of people killed.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:57 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 26, 2006

    Subtropical Warming Leading To Bigger Deserts Environment

    The steady drumbeat of global warming news continues. Reuters:

    Earth's atmosphere is warming faster over the subtropics than anywhere else, which could mean bigger deserts and more drought from Africa to Australia to the Middle East, researchers said on Thursday.

    The fast-heating area girdles the globe at about 30 degrees north and south latitude, crossing the southern United States, southern China and north Africa in the Northern Hemisphere, and southern Australia, South Africa and southern South America in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Based on 25 years of satellite data, researchers at the University of Washington also determined that the jet streams — a pattern of westerly winds that help drive weather in both hemispheres — have shifted about 70 miles toward their respective poles.

    This is important because the jet streams mark the northern and southern boundaries of the tropic climate zones, said John Wallace, an atmospheric scientist and co-author of a research paper in this week's Science journal. The jet streams' shift toward the poles means the zones are expanding. [...]

    The dry subtropical climate regions, which contain some of the world's major deserts, could encroach into temperate regions, Wallace said. Areas such as the Mediterranean, southern Europe and the northern part of the Middle East could have a tendency toward more drought, Wallace said.

    The same might happen in southern Australia and South Africa, he said.

    The study does not address whether this warming is due to the greenhouse effect or some other factor. It is different from previous models, which saw the fastest warming in the tropics, rather than the subtropics. [Emphasis added]

    We are all participants in an ongoing experiment at planetary scale. It's up to us to help determine the experiment's outcome.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:39 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    African Migratory Birds Dying Off Environment


    Several bird species that make annual migrations between Africa and Europe have experienced drastic population declines and scientists are not exactly sure why, conservationists said on Friday. [...]

    "Scientists fear that their dwindling numbers — well over 50 per cent down in some cases — may be a warning of widespread environmental damage, which could soon affect man as well," the RSPB said in a statement.

    "Climate change, drought and desertification in Africa, and massive pesticide use on African farmland may all be to blame for the declines of once common UK birds such as the spotted flycatcher, wheatear, wood warbler and turtle dove," it said.

    Researchers were looking at factors such as drought and heavy pesticide use in the Sahel region of Africa, which borders the Sahara desert and is a major stopover point for birds that have made the exhausting journey across the unforgiving sands.

    The RSPB said the research, to be published in the journal "Biological Conservation", showed that 54 percent of the 121 long-distance migrants studied have declined or become extinct in many parts of Europe since 1970. [...]

    "These migrants are highly evolved and some range over a quarter of the planet's land surface. For species like this to be affected so severely suggests that something pretty serious is going wrong somewhere," said the RSPB's Dr Paul Donald, a co-author of the study. [Emphasis added]

    The proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 20, 2006

    Peak Food Environment  Future  Peak Oil

    The world is eating grains faster than farmers can grow them, and the problem is only going to get worse, with rising oil prices and global climate change both playing a significant part. CommonDreams:

    The world is now eating more food than farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years. Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and the growing costs of fossil fuel-based fertilisers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's grain supplies in the near future, according to Canada's National Farmers Union (NFU).

    Thirty years ago, the oceans were teeming with fish, but today more people rely on farmers to produce their food than ever before, says Stewart Wells, NFU's president.

    In five of the last six years, global population ate significantly more grains than farmers produced.

    And with the world's farmers unable to increase food production, policymakers must address the "massive challenges to the ability of humanity to continue to feed its growing numbers", Wells said in a statement.

    There isn't much land left on the planet that can be converted into new food-producing areas, notes Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation. And what is left is of generally poor quality or likely to turn into dust bowls if heavily exploited, Brown told IPS.

    Unlike the Green Revolution in the 1960s, when improved strains of wheat, rice, maize and other cereals dramatically boosted global food production, there are no technological magic bullets waiting in the wings.

    "Biotechnology has made little difference so far," he said.

    Even if the long-promised biotech advances in drought, cold, and disease-resistance come about in the next decade, they will boost yields little more than five percent globally, Brown said.

    "There's not nearly enough discussion about how people will be fed 20 years from now," he said.

    Hunger is already a stark and painful reality for more than 850 million people, including 300 million children. How can the number of hungry not explode when one, two and possibly three billion more people are added to the global population?

    The global food system needs fixing and fast, says Darrin Qualman, NFU's research director.

    "Many Canadian and U.S. farmers are going out of business because crop prices are at their lowest in nearly 100 years," Qualman said in an interview. "Farmers are told overproduction is to blame for the low prices they've been forced to accept in recent years."

    However, most North American agribusiness corporations posted record profits in 2004. With only five major companies controlling the global grain market, there is a massive imbalance of power, he said.

    "The food production system is designed to generate profits, not produce food or nutrition for people," Qualman told IPS. [...]

    Shifting from a global food production system to local food for local people would go a long way towards addressing inequity, Qualman believes.

    "The 100-mile diet, where people obtain their food from within a 100-mile radius of their homes, makes good sense for most of the world," he said.

    The whole fabric of the food production system needs to change, or hunger and malnutrition will only get much worse.

    "North America's industrial-style agricultural system is a really bad idea and maybe the worst on the planet," Qualman concluded. [Emphasis added]

    And people want to take a big chunk of the grain harvest and burn it (turning it into ethanol for that purpose). What's wrong with this picture?

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:18 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 17, 2006

    "Carbon Dioxide...We Call It Life" Environment  Politics

    Not an April Fool's joke, apparently, nor satire. Reuters:

    A little girl blows away dandelion fluff as an announcer says, "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life," in an advertisement targeting global warming "alarmists," especially Al Gore.

    The television ads, screened for the press on Wednesday and set to air in 14 U.S. cities starting on Thursday, are part of a campaign by the Competitive Enterprise Institute to counter a media spotlight on threats posed by worldwide climate change.

    The spots are timed to precede next week's theatrical release of "An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary film on global warming that features Gore, the former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate.

    Against backdrops of a park, a beach and a forest, one celebrates the benefits of greenhouse gas-producing fuels.

    "The fuels that produce CO2 (carbon dioxide) have freed us from a world of back-breaking labor, lighting up our lives, allowing us to create and move the things we need, the people we love," the ad runs. "Now some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant. Imagine if they succeed — what would our lives be like then?"

    The other ad questions media reports of the threat of climate change, especially a Time magazine issue devoted to the topic, and shows film of a glacier melting and then runs in reverse to show the glacier reconstituting itself.

    "We had started work on this several months back, but we sort of changed course once the flood of glacier-melting stories began," said Sam Kazman, an institute lawyer who worked on the ads. "So we did want to get out there before the Al Gore film got into national opening." [...]

    "They fly in the face of most of the science," Charlie Miller of Environmental Defense said of the institute ads. "The good news is that there's not a trade-off here between prosperity, jobs, growth and protecting the Earth. We can do both." [Emphasis added]

    Kinda takes your breath away. What dimwits.

    [Thanks Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:37 PM | Comments (5) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 16, 2006

    CO2 Growth "Unprecedented" Environment

    In the past, the oceans and the biosphere have modulated CO2 increases by absorbing CO2. There are now signs, however, that the Earth's capacity for CO2 absorption may be getting overwhelmed. SMH (via Big Gav at Peak Energy):

    The global level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has alarmed scientists by growing strongly for the last four years in a row.

    "That's unprecedented," said Paul Fraser, chief research scientist at the CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research division.

    Describing the trend as "a clear manifestation" of the world's increasing hunger for fossil fuels, Dr Fraser said: "We are in line for the carbon dioxide future that we hope to avoid, a one-to-three degree rise in temperatures over the next century."

    Last year carbon dioxide levels grew by two parts per million, or 0.54 per cent, twice the rate of the early 1980s. Atmospheric nitrous oxide, produced by fertilisers and land clearing, also soared last year, rising one part per billion, or 0.3 per cent.

    And artificial greenhouse gases, including hydrofluoro-carbons, introduced during the 1990s to replace chlorofluorocarbons, set a growth record, up seven parts per trillion, a 5.3 per cent increase.

    The CSIRO said 2005 "was a record for increases in green-house gas heating, the main driver of increasing surface temperatures". Dr Fraser said that with carbon dioxide emissions, "normally we have one or two years of high growth, followed by one or two years of lower growth". This comes from the oceans and the biosphere - including trees and plants - soaking up enough of the gas to take the edge off increases.

    However, sampling by the Bureau of Meteorology in Tasmania showed the normal pattern of higher and lower growth rates, called modulation, had failed to appear in the last four years. Instead, annual carbon dioxide increases had been consistently above average. "That's a surprise," said Dr Fraser, adding it would be extraordinary if the modulating effect of the oceans and the biosphere failed to kick in this year. However, the environment's ability to absorb the gas could eventually be overwhelmed. The only solution was "emitting less carbon dioxide", he said. [Emphasis added]

    Yet another sign that harmful feedback loops are kicking in: global warming is only going to accelerate if we don't cut CO2 emissions, and quickly. We can all do what we can as individuals, but the essential missing ingredient is leadership. We should have elected Al Gore when we had the chance. No wait — we did.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:47 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 15, 2006

    Big-System Hysteresis Environment  Essays  Peak Oil

    I've just started reading Elizabeth Kolbert's global warming book Field Notes From a Catastrophe (excellent so far), and I came across this arresting passage:

    The effect of adding CO2 to the atmosphere is to throw the earth out of "energy balance." In order for the balance to be restored — as, according to the laws of physics, it eventually must be — the entire planet has to heat up, including the oceans, a process, [a panel of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences] noted, that could take "several decades." Thus, what might seem like the most conservative approach — waiting for evidence of warming to make sure the models were accurate — actually amounted to the riskiest possible strategy: "We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable." [Emphasis added]

    The fundamental problem is the scale of the Earth's global climate system. Because it's huge, it moves slowly. It has built-in time lags — what scientists and engineers call hysteresis — that mean that by the time global warming effects become pronounced the system is already in a critical phase. Effects are delayed, but when they begin, the transition to a new equilibrium is likely to be quite sudden. This is especially true of the climate system because of the suddenness of phase changes — e.g., ice to water.

    It has taken a long time to get this enormous ocean liner moving on its current course, and it will take a long time to turn it around. The time to start easing off the throttle is long before the icebergs come into view. When Bush et al talk about the jury still being out on global warming and about the need to wait until it's obvious to everyone that the problem is serious and human activity is the cause (as if we don't know that already), he is like the captain of the Titanic, barreling full tilt through the icy North Atlantic. The downside of slowing down would have been nothing compared to the downside of hitting an iceberg and sinking. And we know how that turned out.

    Roughly analogous considerations apply to peak oil. Many of the same people who downplay the seriousness and urgency of the global warming threat blithely assert that when oil gets scarce, rising prices will naturally prompt people to conserve and develop alternatives.

    But again the problem is the scale of the system and its built-in time lags. Shrinking below-ground reserves don't cause oil prices to go higher. Prices depend on how much oil is coming out of the spigot. Prices won't go substantially higher until the below-ground situation has become so critical that oil can no longer be pumped out of the ground fast enough: i.e., price signals, when they come, will come too late. Switching to new energy technologies in transportation will take years, no matter what. The time to ease off the throttle is now. As with global warming, the seemingly conservative wait-and-see approach is actually the riskiest strategy possible. The cost of showing some self-restraint now will be nothing compared to the cost of letting the system crash.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:46 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 14, 2006

    An Inconvenient Truth Activism  Environment  Media

    I know what I'll be doing June 16.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:14 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 10, 2006

    Fritjof Capra On Sustainability, Part I Activism  Environment

    From Transition Culture via Energy Bulletin, a two-part interview with Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, The Web of Life, and, most recently, of The Hidden Connections. Excerpts from part one:

    On sustainability:

    The key to [sustainability] is that we can use ecosystems as models. They are adaptive and sustainable, they support life, they recycle, they are solar powered.

    In terms of creating sustainable human communities, our aim has to be to redesign them so that they don't interfere with Nature's inherent ability to sustain life. Our first step is to understand how Nature sustains life. The second step is then to introduce these principles into design, which we call "eco-design," to redesign our technologies, social institutions, commerce and so on. [So the] first step is that we have to help communities become what I call "eco-literate," there is really no way round this. It needs to happen at a very early stage in a relocalisation process. [Emphasis added]

    On networks and community:

    The 6 [basic principles of all living systems] are;

  • Networks
  • Nested Systems
  • Cycles
  • Flows
  • Development
  • Dynamic Balance

    Networks is...the first principle because it is it the defining characteristic of life. Wherever there is life there are networks, be they metabolic networks, food webs, human social networks...Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. We all know what a community is, even if we don't have it...Community is visceral and real, and that is why I think it is central to a definition of sustainability. The experience of a living network is the experience of a living community. The network concept is important, as sustainability is the quality of a community, an individual cannot be sustainable. Creating communities is creating sustainability. [Emphasis added]

  • On economic globalization:

    [E]conomic globalisation [does not have a future]. It has peaked, in much the same way oil has. The current global capitalism has created a number of interconnected problems — increased poverty, alienation and pollution, destroyed communities, environmental destruction. In the human political realm, we have seen diminished democracy. Within the last year we have seen a turning point in perception. The model no longer works, even within its own perameters, never mind those that you or I might use. Opinion polls in the US show that people don't believe in it anymore. South America appears to be turning away from it as a continent. [Emphasis added]

    Can technology save the day?

    Technology has a big part to play, but if technology could solve the problems they'd already be solved. If it was only technology that is the problem we would already be there. I drive a Toyota Prius, and if everyone in the US drove one too, the US would be self-sufficient in oil, and not need to import anything from the Middle East. Wind power and biofuels are there and ready when we decide to use them. In the supermarket the organic food costs more than the non-organic, of course it should be the other way round. This is a question of taxes and subsidies. As a scientist I believe in human creativity and human discoveries, but the problem is not a matter of technology, but one of short-termist politics, vested interests, and so on. The solutions exist and make sense, sense that is clear to most people. If we feed our children good food they won't become obese, if they grow the food too they will be healthier and more cooperative, with the added benefit that they will be building soils which will be locking up carbon. There is no downside to this. [Emphasis added]

    I love his emphasis that the way to a sustainable life is to learn from and mimic natural ecosystems. I.e., the way to be a successful life form is to act like successful life forms act. Makes sense, eh? What are ecosystems like? "They are adaptive and sustainable, they support life, they recycle, they are solar powered." And, above all, they are networks, they are communities.

    As Capra says, we already know much of what has to be done, and it's not rocket science. We just have to do it. A better life awaits.

    (Capra is also a founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy. One of their projects is a program called "Rethinking School Lunch," which I'll have more to say about in a future post. Great stuff.)

    Part two tomorrow.

    [Thanks, Erik]

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:18 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 09, 2006

    James Hansen: A Point Of No Return Is Looming Economy  Environment

    James Hansen, perhaps the country's most senior climate scientist, has posted a talk he gave in February at the New School (link via Energy Bulletin). In a nutshell: time is quickly running out. We're about to pass a global warming point of no return. Summary:

    The Earth's temperature, with rapid global warming over the past 30 years, is now passing through the peak level of the Holocene, a period of relatively stable climate that has existed for more than 10,000 years. Further warming of more than 1ºC will make the Earth warmer than it has been in a million years.

    "Business-as-Usual" scenarios, with fossil fuel CO2 emissions continuing to increase ~2%/year as in the past decade, yield additional warming of 2-3°C this century and imply changes that constitute practically a different planet. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that the Earth's climate is nearing, but has not passed, a point of no return beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far ranging undesirable consequences.

    The changes include not only loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to worldwide rising seas. Sea level will increase slowly at first, as losses at the fringes of Greenland and Antarctica due to accelerating ice streams are partly balanced by increased snowfall and ice sheet thickening in the ice sheet interiors. But as Greenland and West Antarctic ice is softened and lubricated by melt-water, and as buttressing ice shelves disappear due to a warming ocean, the balance will tip to rapid ice loss, bringing multiple positive feedbacks into play and causing cataclysmic ice sheet disintegration.

    The Earth's history suggests that with warming of 2-3°C the new equilibrium sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising sea level of the order of 25 meters (80 feet). Contrary to lethargic ice sheet models, real world data suggest substantial ice sheet and sea level change in centuries, not millennia. The century time scale offers little consolation to coastal dwellers, because they will be faced with irregular incursions associated with storms and with continually rebuilding above a transient water level.

    The grim "Business-as-Usual" climate change is avoided in an Alternative Scenario in which growth of greenhouse gas emissions is slowed in the first quarter of this century, primarily via concerted improvements in energy efficiency and a parallel reduction of non-CO2 climate forcings, and then reduced via advanced energy technologies that yield a cleaner atmosphere as well as a stable climate.

    The required actions make practical sense and have other benefits, but they will not happen without strong policy leadership and international cooperation. Action must be prompt, otherwise CO2-producing infrastructure that may be built within a decade will make it impractical to keep further global warming under 1°C.

    There is little merit in casting blame for inaction, unless it helps point toward a solution. It seems to me that special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers. The special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to either the long-term impact on the planet that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren or the long-term economic well-being of our country. The public, if well-informed, has the ability to override the influence of special interests, and the public has shown that they feel a stewardship toward the Earth and all of its inhabitants. Scientists can play a useful role. [Emphasis added]

    Something I just don't get: the many people, here in the US, especially, who continue to cling to the idea that the private sector is the source of all things good, while public institutions are the parasitic source of nothing but waste, inefficiency, and error. But the atmosphere (and the oceans and wildlife and the commons in all its other forms) shows up on no private sector balance sheet, so the market Titanic speeds full steam ahead toward the iceberg.

    Corporations — international corporations, especially, since they owe allegiance to nobody and nowhere — are single-minded machines programmed to pursue one goal: maximum profits. Their focus is short term, and they are by their nature incapable of self-restraint. If governments were to impose regulations that caused all corporations to restrain themselves equally, they might welcome it (it beats suicide), but in the meantime the logic of the market bars them from any form of self-restraint not also being practiced by their competitors. And so, with a cliff looming dead ahead, when you might expect them to be stepping on the brakes, they instead have got the pedal to the floor. Wheeeee!

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:21 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 07, 2006

    Global Warming Turning Tibetan Plateau Into A Desert Environment

    There are times when the global warming news is so shocking, so horrifying, so profoundly sad, that you look around at people going about business as usual and you wonder if it's you or the rest of the world that's gone crazy. Why isn't the following front page news all over the world? The Independent:

    Global warming is rapidly melting the ice-bound roof of the world, and turning it into desert, leading scientists have revealed.

    The Chinese Academy of Sciences - the country's top scientific body - has announced that the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau are vanishing so fast that they will be reduced by 50 per cent every decade. Each year enough water permanently melts from them to fill the entire Yellow River.

    They added that the vast environmental changes brought about by the process will increase droughts and sandstorms over the rest of the country, and devastate many of the world's greatest rivers, in what experts warn will be an "ecological catastrophe".

    The plateau, says the academy, has a staggering 46,298 glaciers, covering almost 60,000 square miles. At an average height of 13,000 feet above sea level, they make up the largest area of ice outside the polar regions, nearly a sixth of the world's total.

    The glaciers have been receding over the past four decades, as the world has gradually warmed up, but the process has now accelerated alarmingly. Average temperatures in Tibet have risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years, causing the glaciers to shrink by 7 per cent a year, which means that they will halve every 10 years.

    Prof Dong Guangrong, speaking for the academy - after a study analysing data from 680 weather stations scattered across the country - said that the rising temperatures would thaw out the tundra of the plateau, turning it into desert.

    He added: "The melting glaciers will ultimately trigger more droughts, expand desertification and increase sand storms." The water running off the plateau is increasing soil erosion and so allowing the deserts to spread.

    Sandstorms, blowing in from the degraded land, are already plaguing the country. So far this year, 13 of them have hit northern China, including Beijing. Three weeks ago one storm swept across an eighth of the vast country and even reached Korea and Japan. On the way, it dumped a mind-boggling 336,000 tons of dust on the capital, causing dangerous air pollution. [...]

    Perhaps worst of all, the melting threatens to disrupt water supplies over much of Asia. Many of the continent's greatest rivers - including the Yangtze, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong and the Yellow River - rise on the plateau.

    In China alone, 300 million people depend on water from the glaciers for their survival. Yet the plateau is drying up, threatening to escalate an already dire situation across the country. Already 400 cities are short of water; in 100 of them - including Beijing - the shortages are becoming critical. [Emphasis added]

    I was thinking earlier today about the human capacity for denial. You'd think the steadily worsening global warming news would prompt immediate, determined action by the people of the world. But then everybody knows that smoking is bad for you, and obesity, and lack of exercise, but the average person doesn't turn that knowledge into immediate, determined action until the doctor tells them that if they don't stop what they're doing they will die, and soon. I was wondering what it will take for us to feel like we've just gotten that medical ulimatum with respect to climate change. This story out of China ought to come close, but it won't. Not here in the West, anyway. Probably not in China either, where they're gambling on economic growth to solve their problems. All the GDP growth in the world, though, won't help them when the water runs out.

    As with so many of the global warming stories lately, we're talking here about phenomena that are accelerating with terrifying rapidity. It's all happening so much faster than anticipated. Is anyone paying attention?

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:54 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 05, 2006

    Global Warming And The Spread Of Disease Environment

    Global warming is causing tropical diseases to spread into regions that had never experienced them before, and it's happening much faster than anyone anticipated. WaPo:

    Global warming — with an accompanying rise in floods and droughts — is fueling the spread of epidemics in areas unprepared for the diseases, say many health experts worldwide. Mosquitoes, ticks, mice and other carriers are surviving warmer winters and expanding their range, bringing health threats with them.

    Malaria is climbing the mountains to reach populations in higher elevations in Africa and Latin America. Cholera is growing in warmer seas. Dengue fever and Lyme disease are moving north. West Nile virus, never seen on this continent until seven years ago, has infected more than 21,000 people in the United States and Canada and killed more than 800.

    The World Health Organization has identified more than 30 new or resurgent diseases in the last three decades, the sort of explosion some experts say has not happened since the Industrial Revolution brought masses of people together in cities. [...]

    Scientists have warned for more than a decade that climate change would broaden the range of many diseases. But the warnings were couched in the future, and qualified. The spread of disease is affected by many uncertainties, including unforeseen resistance to antibiotics, failures of public health systems, population movement and yearly climate swings. For that reason, some scientists have been cautious about the link between disease and global warming.

    But Paul Epstein, a physician who worked in Africa and is now on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, said that, if anything, scientists weren't worried enough about the problem.

    "Things we projected to occur in 2080 are happening in 2006. What we didn't get is how fast and how big it is, and the degree to which the biological systems would respond," Epstein said in an interview in Boston. "Our mistake was in underestimation."

    The incremental boost already detected in the Earth's temperature, for example, has expanded the range and activities of disease carriers.

    "Insects are exquisitely sensitive to temperature changes," a report prepared by Epstein and others at Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment noted in November.

    The clearest case for that, according to the report's authors, is in cold areas. The higher elevations of Africa, the Andes mountains in South America and the Alps in Europe are warming at a faster pace than lowlands. As ice caps and glaciers melt, forests inch higher on the mountains, and insects carry diseases from warmer lowlands farther up the slopes. [Emphasis added]

    The Four Horsemen: war, famine, pestilence, death. Global warming is their incubator.

    Everywhere we turn, we find that the effects of global warming are making themselves felt much more quickly than anyone expected. When will mass media act responsibly and start to connect the dots for people? Most people cannot follow the climate news sufficiently to see the big picture, but if people don't grasp what's happening, they'll never act. And if we don't act, what we're seeing now is only the beginning.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:06 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 03, 2006

    Prosperity's Ax Development  Environment

    We wonder what the Easter Islanders thought about as they cut down the last few trees on their island. Who can say? Perhaps they were no more conscious of the consequences of their actions than we are of ours. NYT:

    The Indonesian government has signed a deal with China that will level much of the remaining tropical forests in an area so vital it is sometimes called the lungs of Southeast Asia.

    For China, the deal is a double bounty: the wood from the forest will provide flooring and furniture for its ever-expanding middle class, and in its place will grow vast plantations for palm oil, an increasingly popular ingredient in detergents, soaps and lipstick.

    The forest-to-palm-oil deal, one of an array of projects that China said it would develop in Indonesia as part of a $7 billion investment spree last year, illustrates the increasingly symbiotic relationship between China's need for a wide variety of raw materials, and its Asian neighbors' readiness to provide them, often at enormous environmental cost. [...]

    From Indonesia to Malaysia to Myanmar, many of the once plentiful forests of Southeast Asia are already gone, stripped legally or illegally, including in the low-lying lands here in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of Borneo. Only about half of Borneo's original forests remain. [...]

    Over all, Indonesia says it expects China to invest $30 billion in the next decade, a big infusion of capital that contrasts with the declining investment by American companies here and in the region.

    Much of that Chinese investment is aimed at the extractive industries and infrastructure like refineries, railroads and toll roads to help speed the flow of Indonesia's plentiful coal, oil, gas, timber and palm oil to China's ports. [...]

    The decision to award a $1 billion [wood] concession to China will "increase the deforestation of Papua," a place of extraordinary biodiversity, said Elfian Effendy, executive director of Greenomics, an Indonesian environmental watchdog. "It's not sustainable." [...]

    Indonesia's environmentalists, and some economists, say chopping down as much as 4.4 million acres of the last straight-stemmed, slow-growing towering dipterocarp trees on Borneo would gravely threaten this region's rare ecosystem for plants, animals and people.

    Maps for the project have aroused fears that it would encroach into the forest in Kayan Mentarang National Park, where the intoxicating mix of high altitude and equatorial humidity breeds an exceptional diversity of species, second only to Papua's, biologists say.

    The area is the source of 14 of the 20 major rivers on Borneo, and the destruction of the forests would threaten water supplies to coastal towns, said Stuart Chapman, a director at the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia. [...]

    For years, Mr. Anyie, the Dayak elder, said he had resisted offers from commercial contractors to cut down the forest around his village. [...]

    He worked hard, too, to keep the old ways of life. [...]

    But now it is time for change, he said. "People have told me, 'Wood is gold, you're still too honest,'" said Mr. Anyie, a diminutive man with brush-cut black hair.

    His own grown children have deserted the village for big towns, and the villagers left behind are tired of traveling everywhere by foot (three days to neighboring Malaysia where jobs in palm oil plantations are plentiful) or by traditional long boats powered by anemic 10-horsepower engines. [...]

    Until now, the forests at these higher elevations have been protected by their sheer inaccessibility. To get back to the coast from the research station, for instance, takes a 15-hour journey along a 350-mile stretch of the Bahau and Kayan Rivers in a wooden longboat powered by three outboard motors.

    In contrast, the forests in lowland Kalimantan, where roads have been hacked into the land already, are so ravaged by logging that they will have disappeared by 2010, the World Bank says.

    As the roads start penetrating the area of Mr. Anyie's clan, the upland forests will begin to disappear here, too. The solution is to adopt sustainable management plans, Mr. Wulffraat said.

    Such plans allow logging only in specially certified areas, he said. But so far, he said, they have proved a losing proposition.

    "In about 30 years," Mr. Anyie said, "the forest will be gone." [Emphasis added]

    The NYT's headline for the article is "Forests in Southeast Asia Fall to Prosperity's Ax." It's a mighty strange notion of prosperity, when what is happening is so clearly unsustainable. It's a one-shot deal that'll all be over in a few decades. Then what?

    We need a notion of prosperity that isn't built on stealing from our descendants. Prosperity for posterity.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:29 PM | Comments (7) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    May 02, 2006

    Key Climate Skeptic Paper Proved Wrong Environment

    In October 2004, Science published a paper that was seized on by global warming skeptics, including members of Congress who based hearings on it. The indispensable Real Climate, a global warming site run by working climate scientists, tells us that a correction published last week in Science shows that the original paper was just flat wrong. Excerpt:

    Today, Science published an important comment pointing out that there were serious errors in a climate research article that it published in October 2004. The article concerned (Von Storch et al. 2004) was no ordinary paper: it has gone through a most unusual career. Not only did it make many newspaper headlines...when it first appeared, it also was raised in the US Senate as a reason for the US not to join the global climate protection efforts. It furthermore formed a part of the basis for the highly controversial enquiry by a Congressional committee into the work of scientists, which elicited sharp protests last year by the AAAS, the National Academy, the EGU and other organisations. It now turns out that the main results of the paper were simply wrong. [...]

    Error made, error corrected, and all is well? Unfortunately not. A number of questions remain, which need to be resolved before the climate science community can put this affair to rest.

    The first is: why did it take so long to correct this error, and why did the authors of the original paper not correct it themselves? The error is reasonably easy to spot, even for non-specialists. And it was in fact spotted very soon after publication. In January 2005, a comment was submitted to Science which correctly pointed out that Von Storch et al. had calibrated with detrended data and had therefore not tested the Mann et al. method. As such comments are routinely passed to the original authors for a response, Von Storch et al. must have become aware of their mistake at this point at the latest. However, the comment was rejected by Science in May 2005.

    In a paper dated July 2005, Zorita and Von Storch admit their error in passing. [...] It is thus clear that they knew that their central claim of the Science paper, namely that they had tested the Mann et al. method, was false. But rather than publishing a correction in Science, they wrote the above in a non-ISI journal called "Memorie della Societa Astronomica Italiana" that not many climatologists would read.

    An unambiguous correction in Science, where the original paper appeared, would not only have been good scientific practice. It would have been particularly important given the large public and political impact of their paper. It would have been a matter of courtesy towards their colleagues Mike Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes, who had suffered a major challenge to their scientific reputations as well as having to invest a large amount of time to deal with the Congressional enquiry mentioned above. And it would have been especially pertinent given the unusually vitriolic media statements made previously: in an interview with a leading German news magazine, Von Storch had denounced the work of Mann, Bradley and Hughes as "nonsense" ("Quatsch"). And in a commentary written for the March 2005 German edition of "Technology Review", Von Storch accused the journal Nature for putting their sales interests above peer review when publishing the Mann et al. 1998 paper. He also called the IPCC "stupid" and "irresponsible" for highlighting the results of Mann et al. in their 2001 report. [...]

    Unfortunately, while the dispute has been used in the public arena to score political points, e.g. to discredit the IPCC process and to question all of the relevant climate science, the significance of this dispute for the bigger picture has been wildly blown out of proportion...We should not lose sight of the fact that the debate here is about a few tenths of a degree — a much smaller change than is projected for the next century. It is also important to remember one principal point: Conclusions on whether recent warmth is likely to have been unprecedented in the past millennium, or the recent extent of human-caused warming, are based on the accumulation of evidence from many different analyses and are rarely impacted by a technical dispute about any one paper such as this. [Emphasis added]

    Among the many sins of the current administration is its deliberate campaign to politicize science. I have no idea if that politicization had any bearing on this case, but there is no question that it has muddied the waters on a number of scientific questions, global warming most prominently.

    With so much riding on the outcome in this critical time, scientific enquiry needs to remain true to the scientific method and the scientific culture of free and open debate. There is just too much at stake. If humanity fails to act, there will be a special circle of Hell reserved for those who treated science as an exercise in propaganda.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:06 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Biodiversity Loss Accelerating Environment

    This is truly horrifying news. Putting it mildly. Guardian:

    Polar bears and hippos have joined the ranks of threatened species, along with a third of amphibians and a quarter of mammals and coniferous plants, according to the World Conservation Union.

    The conservation group's Red List of endangered species found that 16,119 species are at the highest levels of extinction threat, equivalent to nearly 40% of all species in its survey.

    Fish are in particular danger, with more than half of freshwater species in the Mediterranean basin facing threats and formerly common ocean fish such as skate disappearing. [...]

    At present, animals are believed to be going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times the usual rate, leading many researchers to claim that we are in the midst of a mass extinction event faster than that which wiped out the dinosaurs. [...]

    "Biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down," [IUCN director general Achim Steiner] said. "Reversing this trend is possible [but] biodiversity cannot be saved by environmentalists alone - it must become the responsibility of everyone with the power and resources to act."

    The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment said in 2004 that Polar Bears would be extinct within 100 years, and some scientists believe that they could disappear within 25 years. [...]

    Two carp species from Turkey and Croatia were listed as extinct and one in eight classified bird species were endangered or vulnerable, along with a third of dragonflies. [...]

    The IUCN said that people were responsible for the majority of extinctions, via habitat destruction or degradation. Invasive species, overhunting, pollution and unsustainable harvesting were also mentioned as major causes of threats, along with climate change.

    A 2004 report by the University of Leeds found that a quarter of land animals and plants could be driven to extinction by global warming. [Emphasis added]

    Something truly momentous is happening in the world. By biological and geological standards, it is happening with extraordinary rapidity, but by human standards, it is not happening quite fast enough to demand our undivided attention. If we don't begin to pay attention, though, we will wake up to find ourselves on a very different planet, and soon.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:31 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 19, 2006

    Uncertainty Is No Excuse Environment  Politics

    Bush says the jury's still out on whether human activity causes global warming. Even if that were true (it isn't), as Nicholas Kristof (via RealClimate) noted in yesterday's NYT, it's no excuse for doing nothing. The real world is always subject to uncertainty. Excerpt:

    The White House has used scientific uncertainty as an excuse for its paralysis. But our leaders are supposed to devise policies to protect us even from threats that are difficult to assess precisely — and climate change should be considered even more menacing than a nuclear-armed Iran....The best reason for action on global warming remains the basic imperative to safeguard our planet in the face of uncertainty, and our leaders are failing wretchedly in that responsibility. [Emphasis added]

    There's no such thing as a sure thing, not even in science. But there is such a thing as taking prudent measures based on the best available evidence and analysis. Assuming, that is, that one cares about doing the right thing, rather than the thing that provides short-term rewards to one's political base.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:19 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 06, 2006

    Energy Execs To Senate: Cap Us! Activism  Energy  Environment  Politics

    In a Senate hearing Tuesday, executives representing a number of major energy companies actually requested federal legislation that would place caps on carbon emissions. Why? They're afraid of local and regional regulations that are gaining momentum. Grist:

    Tuesday saw a tectonic shift in the climate-change debate during an all-day Senate conference on global-warming policy. A group of high-powered energy and utility executives for the first time issued this directive to Washington: Bring on the carbon caps!

    The Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard statements from leaders representing eight big energy companies, including General Electric, Shell, and the two largest owners of utilities in the U.S., Exelon and Duke Energy. Six of the eight said they would either welcome or accept mandatory caps on their greenhouse-gas emissions. Wal-Mart too spoke in favor of carbon caps. The two outliers from the energy sector, Southern Company and American Electric Power, delivered pro forma bids for a voluntary rather than mandatory program, but they, too, broke with tradition by implicitly acknowledging that regulations may be coming, and offering detailed advice on how they should be designed.

    Many industry players are increasingly concerned about the inconsistent patchwork of climate regulations that are being proposed and adopted throughout the U.S., from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that seven Northeastern states put forward in December to plans for greenhouse-gas caps unveiled in California this week. Worried companies say federal regulations would bring stability and sureness to the market. [...]

    Senate hearings rarely manage to draw a crowd of 60, but for this one some 300 members of Congress, lobbyists, and advocates crammed themselves into the hearing room...and more watched via a live webcast.

    "It's the most widely attended hearing that I've ever been to for this committee," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "and that shows the gravity of this issue."

    Said John Stanton, a vice president of National Environmental Trust, "I began the morning far more cynical than I felt at the end of the day." The conference was "remarkably devoid of the climate-skeptic malarkey that usually derails the debate at these sorts of events," he said. "You actually had real experts making real progress — hashing out the nitty-gritty of exactly how this emissions-trading system could be implemented."

    Of course, there are still plenty of energy companies that oppose caps, and the conference didn't hear from anyone in the auto industry, a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions and a major opponent of moves to curb them. [Emphasis added]

    Take note: local and regional activism matters! Getting local/regional regulations enacted forces the feds to act on the national level. That's the good news. The bad news is that federal legislation may turn out to be a watered-down version of what local/regional activists accomplished. Still, it's good to see the beginnings of movement on this front.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:00 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 05, 2006

    Fuzzy Math Environment  Politics

    Is there anything they won't lie about?

    Last week the Interior Department made news by claiming that the nation's wetlands had actually increased, the first time that's happened. Except it's a lie. Real wetlands continue to shrink, but the administration now counts artificial ponds — water hazards on golf courses, for example — as wetlands. St. Petersburg Times:

    By counting golf course ponds and ornamental lakes as wetlands, the federal government announced Thursday a massive gain in the number of wetlands nationwide, the first such gain ever reported.

    But a chorus of critics called the report misleading, saying the nation lost wetlands without those man-made bodies of water.

    More than 520,000 acres of wetlands were wiped out from 1998 to 2004, according to the study done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    But the report contends that the losses were offset by creating more than 715,000 acres of new wetlands, mainly artificial ponds that do not provide the same environmental benefit as wetlands.

    Federal officials hailed the results as a positive sign.

    "Although the overall state of our wetlands is still precarious, this report suggests that nationwide efforts to curb losses and restore wetlands habitats are on the right track," said outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

    And as for the ponds, Norton said: "People like having ponds as an amenity...Even ponds that are not a high quality of wetlands are better than not having wetlands." [...]

    Not even the federal agency in charge of protecting wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, considers such ponds to be a replacement for wetlands, and neither do the state agencies in charge of regulating wetland losses. [...]

    Wetlands - marshes, swamps, bogs, salt flats and dozens of areas that have wet soil and plants that thrive there - are supposed to be protected under the Clean Water Act because they are vital for water supplies, flood control, pollution filtering and wildlife habitat.

    In 1989 President George Bush declared the nation's policy on wetlands would be No Net Loss - whatever is wiped out will be replaced. The policy proved so popular that it has been embraced by both Presidents Clinton and Bush. President Bush two years ago promised to go beyond No Net Loss and add millions of acres more wetlands.

    But a study by an arm of the National Academies of Science pointed out five years ago that no one knows how well No Net Loss is working because no agency has complete and reliable data on the nation's wetlands. And most of the efforts to make up for wetland losses end in failure, the scientific study found.

    Mitigation - making up for wetlands losses - is the linchpin of the No Net Loss policy. Even research by the corps paints a dim picture on what's being done to offset losses.

    In New England, researchers for the corps found that forested wetlands that were being destroyed by development were most often replaced with shallow ponds, devoid of the trees that were lost. Other corps studies found projects that were supposed to make up for wetlands losses lacked any wetlands at all. [Emphasis added]

    This is a wetland:

    In the real world that most of us inhabit, this is not:

    Something I don't understand: why do so many self-styled "conservatives" have such utter disregard for conservation of the environment? And why, for that matter, are they such liars? Some adolescent minds at the Interior Department thought this was a clever gimmick. Did they really think no one would notice? Did they really think these issues don't matter?

    Do these people have no regard for the truth? Have they, when all is said and done, no desire to do the right thing? No notion of the common good? No awareness of their posterity? No conscience? Are there no grownups among them?

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:11 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 02, 2006

    Polluting The Poor Environment

    It's probably no surprise that poor and non-White communities are subjected to much greater levels of pollution and toxic waste than affluent, White communities. The magnitude of the discrepancy, however, is shocking. Rachel's News reports on a detailed demographic study of pollution in Massachusetts. Excerpt:

    [Study authors] Faber and Krieg tallied up all the various toxic exposures for each of the 250 cities and towns (and 12 neighborhoods of Boston) in the entire state of Massachusetts and divided them by the land area of each community. The resulting 'exposure index' is an estimate of how contaminated each community is and takes into account different types of exposure — recycling centers are more hazardous than closed landfills, which are more hazardous than small industry.

    Not surprisingly, poor communities and communities of color scored much higher (more toxic) than wealthy and white communities. These communities averaged 35.3 points while the wealthiest communities averaged just 8.5 points. Communities of color averaged 87.7 points compared to just 4.3 points for white communities. So its four times as dangerous to be poor and twenty times as dangerous to live in a community of color.

    Faber and Krieg sum it up this way, "...if you live in a white community, then you have a 1.8 percent chance of living in the most environmentally hazardous communities in the state... However, if you live in a community of color, then there is a 70.6 percent chance that you live in one of the most hazardous towns. In short, if you live in a community of color, you are thirty-nine times more likely to live in one of the most environmentally hazardous communities in Massachusetts."

    The market differs from democracy in that the market operates on a basis of one-dollar-one-vote, not one-person-one-vote. The US political system has become so heavily dependent on money that it, too, is pretty much a one-dollar-one-vote affair. Which is no accident.

    Toxic waste sites and polluting industries are located where they are because of a combination of market factors and political factors. So it's no surprise that communities with the least money get the most screwed. It is shocking, though, to see the extent to which race is a much more potent factor than wealth (class). Racism is built into the very structure of the system, evidently.

    Nobody would countenance a policy that caused poor, non-White people to be lined up against a wall and publicly shot as a side-effect of industrial activity. But pollution kills slowly and silently. No matter how unjust the situation, it's a case of out of sight, out of mind.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:24 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    April 01, 2006

    Antarctic Air Warming Is Earth's Fastest Environment

    Another day, another horrifying global warming story. Times of UK:

    Air temperatures above the entire frozen continent of Antarctica have risen three times faster than the rest of the world during the past 30 years.

    While it is well established that temperatures are increasing rapidly in the Antarctic Peninsula, the land tongue that protrudes towards South America, the trend has been harder to confirm over the continent as a whole.

    Now analysis of weather balloon data by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has shown that not only are the lower reaches of the Antarctic atmosphere warming, but that they are doing so at the fastest rate observed anywhere on Earth.

    Temperatures in the troposphere — the lowest 8km (5 miles) of the atmosphere — have increased by between 0.5C and 0.7 C (0.9F and 1.3F) per decade over the past 30 years.

    This signature of climate change is three times stronger than the average observed around the world, suggesting that global warming is having an uneven impact and that it could be greater for Antarctica. [...]

    The new research, led by John Turner, of the BAS, shows that the air above the surface of Antarctica is definitely warming, in ways that are not predicted by climate models and that cannot yet be explained. The results are published today in the journal Science.

    “The rapid surface warming of the Antarctic Peninsula and the enhanced global warming signal over the whole continent shows the complexity of climate change,” Dr Turner said.

    “Greenhouses gases could be having a bigger impact in Antarctica than across the rest of the world and we don’t understand why.

    “The warming above the Antarctic could have implications for snowfall across the Antarctic and sea level rise. Current climate model simulations don’t reproduce the observed warming, pointing to weaknesses in their ability to represent the Antarctic climate system. Our next step is to try to improve the models.” [...]

    The study is the third to be published this month to suggest that the effects of global warming on Antarctica are likely to be more pronounced than has often been predicted.

    Research has indicated that the melting of the Greenland ice-cap in the Arctic could produce sea level rises that destabilise Antarctic ice-shelves, and Nasa satellite data have shown the internal Antarctic ice-sheets to be thinning. [Emphasis added]

    There's a disturbing trend in all these stories. Where observations fail to match current climate models, the discrepancies all seem to be going one way: the actual situation is considerably more grave than the models predict. The models are bad enough. Reality is shaping up to be a good deal worse.

    Somebody's got to figure out how to turn these stories into compelling video, so they can get a toehold on the evening news.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:30 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 31, 2006

    Record Die-Off Of Caribbean Coral Environment

    Centuries-old Caribbean coral reefs are dying, quite suddenly, just in the past few months. AP (via ENN):

    A one-two punch of bleaching from record hot water followed by disease has killed ancient and delicate coral in the biggest loss of reefs scientists have ever seen in Caribbean waters.

    Researchers from around the globe are scrambling to figure out the extent of the loss. Early conservative estimates from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands find that about one-third of the coral in official monitoring sites has recently died.

    "It's an unprecedented die-off," said National Park Service fisheries biologist Jeff Miller, who last week checked 40 stations in the Virgin Islands. "The mortality that we're seeing now is of the extremely slow-growing reef-building corals. These are corals that are the foundation of the reef ... We're talking colonies that were here when Columbus came by have died in the past three to four months."

    Some of the devastated coral can never be replaced because it only grows the width of one dime a year, Miller said.

    Coral reefs are the basis for a multibillion-dollar tourism and commercial fishing economy in the Caribbean. Key fish species use coral as habitat and feeding grounds. Reefs limit the damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. More recently they are being touted as possible sources for new medicines. [...]

    On Sunday, [Puerto Rican biologist Edwin] Hernandez-Delgado found a colony of 800-year-old star coral — more than 13 feet high — that had just died in the waters off Puerto Rico.

    "We did lose entire colonies," he said. "This is something we have never seen before." [...]

    "We haven't seen an event of this magnitude in the Caribbean before," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch.

    The Caribbean is actually better off than areas of the Indian and Pacific ocean where mortality rates — mostly from warming waters — have been in the 90 percent range in past years, said Tom Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Goreau called what's happening worldwide "an underwater holocaust."

    And with global warming, scientists are pessimistic about the future of coral reefs.

    "The prognosis is not good," said biochemistry professor M. James Crabbe of the University of Luton near London. In early April, he will investigate coral reef mortality in Jamaica. "If you want to see a coral reef, go now, because they just won't survive in their current state." [...]

    New NOAA sea surface temperature figures show the sustained heating in the Caribbean last summer and fall was by far the worst in 21 years of satellite monitoring, Eakin said.

    "The 2005 event is bigger than all the previous 20 years combined," he said.

    What happened in the Caribbean would be the equivalent of every city in the United States recording a record high temperature at the same time, Eakin said. And it remained hot for weeks, even months, stressing the coral. [...]

    "This is probably a harbinger of things to come," said John Rollino, the chief scientist for the Bahamian Reef Survey. "The coral bleaching is probably more a symptom of disease — the widespread global environmental degradation — that's going on."

    Crabbe said evidence of global warming is overwhelming.

    "The big problem for coral is the question of whether they can adapt sufficiently quickly to cope with climate change," Crabbe said. "I think the evidence we have at the moment is: No, they can't. [Emphasis added]

    The global effects of global warming are not some vague threats somewhere off in the indefinite future. They're happening now, more suddenly and more quickly than anyone anticipated. This is the challenge for our time.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:16 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    Somebody Tell Bush: That "Fundamental Debate" Is Over Environment  Politics

    Two days ago, in response to a questioner from Australia, President Bush said this about global warming:

    We — first of all, there is — the globe is warming. The fundamental debate: Is it manmade or natural. Put that aside.

    RealClimate, an excellent site run by working climate scientists, had this response:

    The first part is the silver lining: despite receiving novelist Michael Crichton in the White House recently, Bush obviously has not bought his theory that the globe is in fact not warming. Crichton is one of the last trend sceptics who deny the warming trend is real.

    Rather, Bush adopts an attribution sceptic position: warming yes, but is it caused by humans? This position is equally out of step with science, where the debate over this question has also now been settled.

    Data show that carbon dioxide levels are rising, they are now 30% higher than at any time during at least the past 650,000 years, and likely even the past several million years. This rise is caused entirely by human activities. This is also demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt by data - for a start, we know how much CO2 we have emitted, and the observed rise is equal to 57% of this (the rest has been taken up by ocean and biosphere). That carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping longwave radiation, is also a measured fact and well-established physics since the 19th Century...In equilibrium, you [would] expect a warming of 2 ºC based solely on the human-caused rise in greenhouse gas concentration. But there's a time lag due to ocean heat uptake ("thermal intertia"), so that up to half the expected warming would still be in the pipeline and not here yet (this is shown by models and confirmed by oceanographic data...). That means: this rough calculation shows that the human-caused increase in greenhouse gases can explain at least 1 ºC of global warming. The observed warming is 0.8 ºC - this is less than what would be expected from greenhouse gases alone, because greenhouse gases are of course not the only factor that affects climate - there is a cooling effect by aerosols which counteracts part of the warming.

    What about a "natural" explanation for the observed global warming? There is none. Indicators and measurements of solar activity show no increasing trend over the past 60 years. The orbital cycles, which cause the ice ages, would currently tend towards cooling, if anything. There is no remotely feasible alternative explanation for the observed warming published in the scientific literature. The "fundamental debate" postulated by Bush is a media phenomenon - to use the words of ABC News, a "con job" by special interest groups. It is not a debate that is ongoing in the scientific community. The numerous, often hair-raising arguments that have been brought forward as part of this "con job" have been thoroughly refuted many times.

    In summary, the following scientific findings can no longer credibly be argued to be in dispute:

    (1) The observed large-scale warming of the atmosphere and ocean is an entirely expected, and in fact well-predicted, consequence of the human-caused accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    (2) There is no other reasonable scientific explanation for the observed warming. [Emphasis added]

    It's impossible to know if Bush actually believes what he's saying. He is such an intellectually lazy and incurious man that it's entirely possible. But that's no excuse. Far from it. With the fate of millions hanging in the balance, a man in Bush's position has an absolute moral duty to educate himself on the issue and act in consonance with the best scientific opinion. This is no time for know-nothing frat boy leadership. This is a time for leadership by smart, conscientious, serious-minded grownups.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:48 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 29, 2006

    Wombats Never Lie Activism  Environment

    Everything we need to know, in a nutshell. (Flash, with sound)

    Now we just have to learn it. While we still can.

    [Thanks, Carie]

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:19 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 28, 2006

    The Fire Next Time Disasters  Environment

    When Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, we got a preview of what awaits the world's coastal cities as global warming leads to bigger storms and higher sea levels.

    In the interior, however, the global warming threat isn't floods, it's fire. Fire fed by drought, like the current drought in the Texas Panhandle that has led to the largest wildfires in Texas history. Texas officials say that if such wildfires were to reach Austin, they would be powerless: much of Austin would be lost. Austin American-Statesman (link via Viridian):

    Authorities urged residents in six Panhandle towns to evacuate Wednesday and warned that the state's largest wildfire outbreak in history could cross into Oklahoma. [...]

    Although this fire was raging in sparsely populated ranching country, Texas Forest Service Director James B. Hull warned Wednesday that such a fire striking Austin and Travis County would yield a more nightmarish fate.

    "Austin is going to be the worst catastrophe Texas has ever seen," Hull said as he toured firefighting operations in the Panhandle. "The conditions we're having in the Panhandle right now, when it gets to Austin, it will be a tragedy."

    Mix drought conditions and high winds in an urban-area forest like the cedar-covered hills of western Travis County and the area would be a tinder box of gigantic proportions, Hull said.

    Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck agreed: "It would not be what house we are going to save...it would be what neighborhood are we going to save."

    The Fire Department does not have the resources to fight a major wildfire in the hills along Lake Austin or the rugged terrain of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve area, Buck said. [...]

    The 1,800 volunteer fire departments with 40,000 firefighters are the backbone of protection in rural communities. But almost half those departments have budgets of $10,000 or less. Hull said volunteer departments often have old equipment and are not equipped to battle blazes that last days or weeks. [...]

    When Sunday's 55-mph winds first fueled the Panhandle fires, the state at first could offer only minimal backup to local fire departments. The Texas Forest Service had a management team in Amarillo and, luckily, had been able to get five large air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service to fly from Albuquerque, N.M., and Ardmore, Okla., to drop fire retardant.

    Typically, those planes would be fighting fires in other parts of the country, and Texas would have to rely on eight National Guard helicopters to fly large buckets of water to the fires. The war in Iraq, however, has reduced that option.

    "There have been times when none of the helicopters were available," Hull said. [...]

    Although state firefighting officials were able to predict the threat of the Panhandle fires because of the projected wind speeds, drought conditions and low humidity, they had no firefighting equipment on the ground to back up local operations. [...]

    Part of the problem is the sheer size of the state.

    "We're fighting fires all the way from Laredo to East Texas, through the Hill Country, to here in the Panhandle," Hull said. "We're stretched very thin." [...]

    A study done by the Austin Fire Department in 2003 showed that about 50,000 homes in Travis County are in either extreme- or high-risk fire zones. [...]

    "Texas still has a rural mentality," Hull said. "But with 22.5 million people, we are an urban state, and we have to plan for that urban catastrophe." [Emphasis added]

    Sooner or later, it's really going to dawn on us what we've set in motion. Outside, a wind is rising.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:27 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 25, 2006

    Rising Sea Levels A Threat To Coastal Cities Environment

    Storm surge floods low-lying coastal city: a true 21st-century story. New Orleans was only a preview. Guardian:

    Half of Greenland and vast areas of Antarctica are destined to melt if global warming continues at the same pace until the end of the century, scientists warned yesterday. Their research shows that the loss of so much ice will trigger dramatic rises in sea levels, ultimately swamping low-lying regions of Essex, Lincolnshire and Norfolk and threatening the flood defences of cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol. The last time so much ice was lost from the poles - in a period between ice ages 129,000 years ago - global sea levels rose by four to six metres.

    Experts believe many coastal regions would suffer long before sea levels rose significantly, because even a minor rise will make storm surges more devastating and increase the risk of flooding. A rise of one metre would in effect close the port of London as the Thames barrier would need to be raised for 300 days a year to protect the city, according to one scientist.

    The warning comes from climate scientists who combined historical records of Arctic and Antarctic ice melting with advanced computer models capable of predicting future environmental conditions. They found that if nothing is done to put the brakes on climate change, Greenland, the west Antarctic ice sheet and other expanses of polar ice will be warmed beyond a "tipping point" after which their melting is inevitable. [...]

    "We showed that that level of warming will come later in this century unless we act on carbon emissions," said Professor Overpeck. "An Arctic warming of 3C to 5C is enough to cause four to six metres of sea level rise."

    If temperatures do rise as the scientists predict, the ice at the poles will not be lost immediately. Enough ice is likely to melt within the next 100 years to raise sea levels by a metre, but ultimately the fresh water pouring into the North Atlantic would slow down the Gulf stream, which bathes Britain in warm water from the tropics, by a quarter. "These ice sheets have melted before and sea levels rose. The warmth needed isn't that much above present conditions," said Dr Otto-Bliesner.

    The major concern is that unless climate change slows down significantly, the eventual loss of polar ice and subsequent six-metre rise in sea levels will be unavoidable. "There has been an increasing number of observations from the ice sheets suggesting they are responding faster to climate change than anticipated. Now along come our results showing these kinds of changes occurred in the past and lead to large ice sheet retreat and sea level rise. There's a threshold beyond which we'll be committed to this melting and sea level rise irreversibly in the future and that will come later this century," said Prof Overpeck. A one-metre rise in sea level would see the Maldives disappear, make most of Bangladesh uninhabitable and put cities such as New Orleans "out of business", according to Prof Overpeck. The research is published in two papers in the US journal Science today. [...]

    Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere stand at around 380 parts per million, but many scientists believe they will rise to 550ppm by the middle of the century. "If we were to experience a rise of one metre [in sea levels], we would have to improve sea defences around the country and that would be extremely costly. We wouldn't be able to use the port of London because the Thames barrier would have to be closed for much of the year," said Professor David Vaughan, a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. [Emphasis added]

    Republicans say we can't do anything to limit emissions because that would be bad for business. As if losing a bunch of coastal cities and ports will be good for business.

    A core problem is that our existing commercial and governmental institutions have a short term focus. No one gets anywhere in business or politics by worrying about problems that are a few decades off in the future. But some problems just aren't short term problems.

    [Thanks, Jeff]

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:52 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 21, 2006

    Rising Ocean Temperatures Are The Culprit Environment

    Many climate scientists have speculated that warmer ocean surface temperatures are the cause of increased hurricane intensities in recent decades, but some suggested that other causes may be more important. A new study settles the question: only ocean temperature is strongly correlated with the increase in storm intensity. Nature:

    Warmer ocean waters are indeed a key factor in creating more devastating hurricanes, atmospheric scientists have found. The finding confirms what many have suspected: that rising temperatures are directly linked to the upswing in hurricane intensity seen in the past few decades.

    Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta examined data for a range of climate variables thought to contribute to the formation of hurricanes in categories 4 and 5, the upper end of the strength scale. Only sea surface temperature showed a strong correlation with the observed increase in the occurrence of these storms since 1970.

    And with sea temperatures set to rise still further, that means the next few decades could bring even more hurricanes like Katrina, which hammered New Orleans in August 2005. "The inference is that if you keep warming things up, you're going to get more intense storms," says Judith Curry, a member of the research team.

    Climate scientists already know that, throughout the world, hurricanes have grown in intensity although not necessarily in frequency over the past few decades...So Curry and her colleagues examined existing data on a range of climate variables, correlating changes in these factors with trends in the occurrence of higher-category hurricanes.

    Globally, only sea surface temperature increased in line with super-strong hurricanes, Curry's team reports in Science. [...]

    Further rises in sea temperature could mean more devastating storms batter the world's hurricane-prone coastlines — with severe implications for those with a stake in the future of these regions.

    "We're looking at a much worse risk than people were thinking about a year ago," says Curry. And with sea levels and rainfall set to increase as a result of global climate changes, the risk of flooding from such storms will grow, she adds.

    "Some people will not return to New Orleans. They'll vote with their feet," Curry says. "And some places are going to become uninsurable." [Emphasis added]

    Expect more scenes like we saw in New Orleans. As WorldChanging points out:

    Places already damaged by storms stand every chance of being hit again, and political resistance to rebuilding at-risk cities will only grow with each big storm.

    Imagine how demoralizing it will be to leave certain coastal cities largely in ruins, as is currently being done with New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Titanic sails blithely on, all engines ahead full.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:26 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    UN: Worst Mass Extinctions In 65 Million Years Environment

    We're blindly sawing off the limb we're sitting on. The Guardian:

    Humans have provoked the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65m years ago, according to a UN report that calls for unprecedented worldwide efforts to address the slide. The report paints a grim picture of life on earth, with declining numbers of plants, animals, insects and birds across the globe, and warns that the current extinction rate is up to 1,000 times faster than in the past. [...]

    Released yesterday to mark the start of a UN environment programme meeting in Curitiba, Brazil, the report says: "In effect, we are currently responsible for the sixth major extinction event in the history of earth." A rising human population of 6.5bn is wrecking the environment for thousands of other species, it adds, and undermining efforts agreed at a 2002 UN summit in Johannesburg to slow the rate of decline by 2010. The global demand for biological resources now exceeds the planet's capacity to renew them by 20%.

    The report, Global Biodiversity Outlook 2 from the secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, says: "The direct causes of biodiversity loss — habitat change, over-exploitation, the introduction of invasive alien species, nutrient loading and climate change — show no sign of abating." It is bleaker than a first UN review of the diversity of life, issued in 2001, and says the 2010 goal can only be attained with "unprecedented additional efforts".

    About 6m hectares (15m acres) of primary forest are felled each year and about a third of mangrove swamps have been lost since the 1980s. In the Caribbean, average hard coral cover has declined from 50% to 10% in the last three decades. Up to 52% of higher bird species studied are threatened with extinction and the number of large fish in the North Atlantic has declined by two-thirds in the last 50 years.

    The report concludes: "Biodiversity is in decline at all levels and geographical scales," and international travel, trade and tourism are expected to introduce more alien species to fragile ecosystems.

    On the positive side, the number and size of protected areas is increasing, though most types of natural environment fall short of the target to protect 10%. About 12% of the land surface is protected, against 0.6% of the oceans. [Emphasis added]

    I can't tell you how profoundly sad this makes me. This is not a small thing. This is not something that, once done, can be undone. It is the very definition of irresponsibility. In fact, it is in many ways the very definition of evil. We're doing the devil's work.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:02 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 19, 2006

    Australia Hit With Category 5 Hurricane Environment

    The northeast coast of Australia is being hit with a category 5 hurricane. AP:

    A powerful tropical cyclone packing winds of up to 290 kilometers per hour (180 mph) has slammed into Australia's northeastern coast Monday after more than 1,000 tourists and local residents were evacuated to higher ground, the weather bureau said. [...]

    The weather bureau on Monday upgraded the storm to a category five — the strongest category possible — and thousands of local residents were evacuated ahead of the cyclone's arrival.

    There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage, but officials predicted the storm could cause widespread devastation.

    [Forecaster Jonty] Hall said conditions were "terrible" in the region, and warned of surging coastal tides and gale force winds along a 300-kilometer (186-mile) stretch of coast in northeastern Queensland.

    "There's extremely dangerous conditions," he said. "We're starting to see a very dangerous storm surge come to shore ... It doesn't get much worse than this." [...]

    Late Sunday, Queensland state Counter Disaster and Rescue Services executive director Frank Pagano compared the potential force of Larry to Katrina, which ravaged the United States' Gulf states in August last year, killing more than 1,300 people.

    "This is the most devastating cyclone that we could potentially see on the east coast of Queensland for decades ... there is going to be destruction," Pagano told reporters in the state capital of Brisbane. [...]

    Pagano warned residents to stay away from areas likely to become flooded, saying water often posed a much higher danger than gale force winds during cyclones.

    "Buildings themselves may withstand the force of the winds because of our building codes, however, a category four and category five will be devastating," Pagano said. [Emphasis added]

    Fortunately, no major city lies in the storm's path. The two largest cities that will be affected are Cairns, with a population of 125,000, and Townsville, population 160,000. Wikipedia has a page on the storm, here.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:46 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 15, 2006

    Mexico Announces New
    Deep-Water Oil Field
    Environment  Peak Oil

    Mexico's President Vicente Fox has announced the discovery of a significant new deep-water oil field in the Gulf of Mexico. AP:

    President Vicente Fox climbed aboard a drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday to formally announce a new deep-water oil discovery [called Noxal] he said could eventually yield 10 billion barrels of crude oil. [...]

    Government estimates say the find could exceed reserves at the giant offshore field Cantarell, Mexico's largest oil field, which has seen its production decline but is still expected to yield 1.9 million barrels a day this year.

    Luis Ramirez, chief executive of Mexico's government-run oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said Noxal is the fourth deep-water well explored by Pemex.

    Ramirez said that while production tests will be conducted in coming weeks, "evidence found is sufficient to infer potential reserves to be discovered that could reach 10 billion barrels of crude oil equivalent."

    "This number, compared with annual production of 1.6 billion barrels of crude, shows its strategic importance," Ramirez said, adding that crude oil production at Noxal likely won't begin for eight to 10 years. [Emphasis added]

    10 billion barrels is a significant find, but here are some things to bear in mind:

  • 10 billion barrels is being cited as a best-case number. It remains to be seen if 10 billion barrels can actually be recovered.

  • The world currently uses 10 billion barrels of oil every four months.

  • Production at Noxal is 8-10 years away. By that time, other Mexican production will have declined significantly. As we saw a month ago, Mexico's Cantarell field, the world's second largest producer, is facing precipitous decline. Noxal will simply plug part of the hole left by declines in other fields.

  • According to an industry insider quoted at The Oil Drum, the new find "is supposed to be nearly as big as Cantarell, but is a lot heavier." That's what we would expect in a peak oil world: the light, sweet crude has mostly all been discovered. Now we're on to the harder-to-find, harder-to-produce, harder-to-refine oil.
  • All that being said, this discovery may indicate that Mexico's deep-water exploration has been spottier than previously thought. It's possible they'll find more. Which is good news on the peak oil front (though not wildly good news — as noted above, it just postpones peak by a few months).

    But every new find is bad news on the global warming front, and that is likely to turn out to be the bigger problem in the long run. Every new find is that much more carbon that will be pumped into the atmosphere, and it's that much longer that people will delay doing what has to be done to reduce carbon emissions and start to get a handle on the accelerating rate of increase in atmospheric CO2.

    People tend to follow the path of least resistance. As long as we've got relatively cheap oil, the path of least resistance will be to continue to burn it.

    [Thanks, Scott]

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:24 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 13, 2006

    North Pole CO2 Rising Up To 3 Times Faster Than In 1990 Environment

    The global warming news just keeps getting worse. Things are deteriorating much faster than anyone anticipated, and the pace continues to accelerate. Now comes news that CO2 concentrations at the North Pole are rising 2.5 to 3 times faster than they were just a decade and a half ago. Guardian:

    Researchers have uncovered compelling evidence that indicates Earth's most vulnerable regions — the North and South Poles — are poised on the brink of a climatic disaster.

    The scientists, at an atmospheric monitoring station in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, have found that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere near the North Pole are now rising at an unprecedented pace.

    In 1990 this key cause of global warming was rising at a rate of 1 part per million (ppm). Recently, that rate reached 2 ppm per year. Now, scientists at the Mount Zeppelin monitoring station have discovered it is rising at between 2.5 and 3 ppm. [...]

    In the last two decades, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen from 350 to 380 ppm and scientists warn that once levels reach 500, there could be irreversible consequences that would tip the planet toward disaster: glacier melts triggering devastating sea-level rises and spreading deserts across Africa and Asia.

    Scientists and campaigners are desperate for politicians to reach agreements that will prevent the 500 ppm "tipping point" being breached in the next half-century. These new data suggest they may have a far shorter period of time in which to act.

    "Fortunately, this rate of rise of carbon dioxide is not yet seen round the world," added Strom. "However, it may be that we have been the first to detect it, and that we are seeing some kind of special effect that could have widespread consequences in a few years."

    One theory proposed by Strom is that heating of the oceans could be leading to the release of carbon dioxide. Other scientists suggest that as the world warms, the Arctic tundra — previously gripped by permafrost — may be giving off carbon dioxide as it melts, releasing gas from vegetation trapped within it that has now started to rot. Thus levels of the gas would increase with particular rapidity near the North Pole. [...]

    "The crucial point is that you can't look at the Arctic and Antarctic in isolation,' said Professor Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey. 'What happens there has profound consequences for the rest of the planet."

    It was thought until recently that it would take up to 1,000 years for heat to penetrate the Greenland ice shield and melt it. But the latest data show that large parts of it are actually sliding in lumps into the sea. "That means it is likely to take far less time to raise sea levels," added Rapley. "And if Greenland's ice melts, [the UK] will be in trouble. There will be a seven-metre rise in the oceans. The Thames Barrier would be swamped." [Emphasis added]

    The world is being turned into a giant psychology experiment, where we get to stand back and watch with horror the enormous human capacity for denial. What's it going to take for people to wake up and act? I don't want to be cynical — cynicism at a time like this is a lousy survival strategy, for one thing — but a country that can watch New Orleans get washed away and pretty much put it out of their minds is a country that's going to need one hell of a wakeup call before people really let it sink in what we're up against.

    And of course we picked the absolute worst historical moment to put a bunch of anti-science know-nothings in power. It's a national disgrace. Shame on us and shame on them. They're going to have so much to answer for.

    It's time for grownups to step to the fore. It's time for all of us to demand the straight scoop, even if the news is grim. What we don't know, in this case, may well kill us.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:02 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 05, 2006

    A Crock Of — Manure Energy  Environment

    Not every alternative energy idea is a good one. The NYT has an illuminating op-ed today about the use of manure as a source of energy. Excerpts:

    Talk of reducing our dependence on foreign oil through alternative energy sources like biomass is everywhere these days — even on our president's lips. As a livestock farmer and environmental lawyer, I've paid particular attention to discussion about using manure as "green power." The idea sounds appealing, but power from manure turns out to be a poor source of energy. Unlike solar or wind, it can create more environmental problems than it solves. And it ends up subsidizing large agribusiness. That's why energy from manure should really be considered a form of "brown power."

    Manure is used mainly in methane digesters, incinerators and certain biodiesel plants. Digesters, often at dairy farms, liquefy manure, then put it in large tanks with anaerobic bacteria. As the liquid decays, the bacteria produce methane, which is purified and used like natural gas. Incinerators generate power by burning animal waste, usually from poultry. Biodiesel involves creating a gas from manure, then combining it with oil from animal fat or plants (often soybeans or corn).

    Government officials tout such projects as energy generation that benefits both nature and agriculture, and are pouring public funds into them. Few seem to question whether the projects make economic or environmental sense. And there are plenty of questions that need to be addressed. For starters, manure simply does not contain enough energy to produce cost-effective power. Studies show that manure power projects are probably not viable without large public subsidies and are likely to remain so. An analysis by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Applied Economics Department found that methane digesters are dependent on big subsidies to break even. [...]

    Part of the problem is that the digesters, incinerators and biodiesel plants are expensive to build and run. Cost and technical complexity make these manure power projects more economical when done on an industrial scale, with operations that produce vast quantities of manure. It's telling that one of the first major manure biodiesel plants in the United States will use the millions of pounds of waste produced by the 500,000 pigs at a Smithfield Foods operation in Utah.

    But even the largest projects require significant public money for construction and operation. This has also been Europe's experience with manure power projects.

    And those subsidies tend to help factory farms. Traditional farms, which usually both grow plants and raise animals, recycle manure as organic fertilizer and thus bear the full cost of handling their waste. But large livestock operations can't do that. They put their manure — and there is a great deal of it — in huge piles or storage pools that often leak into nearby streams and ground water and exude stenches that make life miserable for neighbors. For them, manure isn't valuable fertilizer but a vexing disposal problem.

    The stampede for power from manure gives these huge livestock operations a subsidized way to deal with this problem — and even gives them an incentive to expand. An article about methane digesters in The Des Moines Register quoted a farmer saying that doubling his dairy herd allowed him to justify the expense of a digester. This could well be a typical response, with manure power projects everywhere resulting in still larger herds and flocks.

    But as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted last month, concentrated livestock operations threaten the environment and human health in a way that traditional farms do not. It is increasingly clear that traditional, smaller-scale farming is better than factory farms for people, animals and the environment.

    Even manure power projects' immediate environmental benefits are dubious. Digesters, for example, don't make the manure disappear; instead, a manure slurry (which is sometimes larger than the original volume of manure) is left over and still has to be stored somewhere. Moreover, the slurry contains most of manure's original pollutants... [...]

    Despite President Bush's statement that biodiesel "is one of our nation's most promising alternative fuel sources," making biodiesel from manure is also unlikely to be an environmental gain. Burning biodiesel may increase a greenhouse gas, nitrogen oxide, according to the Energy Department. And the full environmental costs of biodiesel fuel include soil erosion and water pollution caused by growing the soybeans and corn used. These crops are now the leading cause of both nitrogen water pollution in the United States and soil erosion.

    Using manure as power sounds like a good idea, but it's not. The energy that can be generated from manure is not worth the expense. And by lowering industrial animal operations' cost of production, subsidizing manure power pushes family farms further toward the brink of extinction. Our money would be better spent investing in truly sustainable, sensible ways of producing energy and food. [Emphasis added]

    The agribusiness giants have the political muscle to push ideas like this, and on the surface it sounds like a great sustainability move: what could be better than reusing "waste"?

    But as this example shows, it's important to consider the full range of costs and consequences associated with alternative energy proposals. Just because we have to do something to deal with the impending energy crunch doesn't mean we have to do something stupid. And we don't have to subsidize stupidity with public funds.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:42 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    March 02, 2006

    Denial, Despair — Or Activism? Activism  Environment

    From TedBlog (via TreeHugger):

    One of the more poignant points that Al Gore made in [February 22nd's] powerful speech about global warming was that a lot of people move directly from a state of denial about this issue to one of despair. People in the first state don't go out and try to change things because they don’t see a problem. People in the second state are often no more inclined to act because they think the situation is hopeless. The fact that these are the two most stable cognitive states on this issue probably explains why a lot of people do, in fact, remain in denial. It's human to avoid pain, and therefore perhaps natural to subconsciously choose a state of denial over the daily trauma of despairing for the future of humanity. [Emphasis added]

    My guess is that most of you who read PastPeak are too smart and too well-informed to choose denial: you already know better. Despair's not much of an option, either: it's not only self-defeating and pointless, it's no fun. That leaves activism. Activists are lucky. They get to interact with some of the brightest, most ethical and compassionate people on the planet. They get to look themselves in the mirror — and look their children in the eye — and know they're working on the side of the angels. And history is full of examples of movements that had miniscule beginnings against what seemed like overwhelming odds, only to triumph in the end. Forget denial. Forget despair. Activism is the only stance worth taking, if not for yourself, then for your children and the generations yet to come. It's part of the good life.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:21 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 28, 2006

    Subsidizing What's Bad For You Corporations, Globalization  Environment  Politics

    Why do Americans — especially, poor Americans — eat such unhealthy diets? Why are American obesity and diabetes rates skyrocketing? Partly it's because government policy, policy shaped by the lobbying muscle of agribusiness giants like ADM, makes an unhealthy diet a lot cheaper than a healthy diet. The USDA tells people to eat fruits and vegetables, but it pays farmers to grow corn. Grist:

    If you're going to talk about poverty, food, and the environment in the United States, you might as well start in the Corn Belt.

    This fertile area produces most of the country's annual corn harvest of more than 10 billion bushels, far and away the world's largest such haul. Where does it all go? The majority — after accounting for exports (nearly 20 percent), ethanol (about 10 percent, and climbing), and excess (another 10 percent) — anchors the world's cheapest food supply in purchasing-power terms.

    Our food system is shot through with corn. It feeds the animals that feed us: more than 50 percent of the harvest goes into domestic animal operations. About 5 percent flows into high-fructose corn syrup, adding a sweet jolt to soft drinks, confections, and breakfast cereal. All told, it's a cheap source of calories and taste. Yet all this convenience comes with a price — and not just an environmental one.

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount Americans spend on food as a percentage of disposable income has fallen from 15.4 percent in 1980 to 10.8 percent in 2004. But while we've spent less money on food, our waistlines have expanded. The obesity rate, after hovering around 15 percent from 1960 to 1980, surged to 31 percent in the last 25 years, USDA figures show. The percentage of overweight children tripled in the same time period. Meanwhile, incidence of type II diabetes, a diet-related condition with a host of health-related complications, leapt 41 percent from 1997 to 2004.

    This trend has hit low-income groups particularly hard. The obesity rates for "poor" and "near-poor" people stand at 36 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively, against an overall average of 29.2 percent for "non-poor," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. While the CDC doesn't break down diabetes rates by income, a look at the disease through the lens of ethnicity shows that those rates tend to align with economics: African Americans and Mexican Americans, for instance, have higher diabetes rates than whites, and lower median incomes.

    Why do low-income people tend to exhibit more diet-related health problems? Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, posits a simple answer: people are gaining weight and getting sick because unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food — thanks in large part to federal policies.

    If the USDA's food pyramid recommends two to five cups of fruits and vegetables per day, its budget — mandated by Congress through the Farm Bill — encourages different behavior altogether.

    Under the Farm Bill, the great bulk of USDA largesse flows to five crops: corn, soy, cotton, wheat, and rice. Of the $113.6 billion in commodity subsidy payments doled out by the USDA between 1995 and 2004, corn drew $41.8 billion — more than cotton, soy, and rice combined. By contrast, apples and sugar beets, the only other fruit or vegetable crops that draw federal subsidies, received $611 million over the same period. (The latter are generally processed into sweeteners.)

    The huge corn payouts encourage overproduction, and have helped sustain a long-term trend in falling prices. According to figures from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the inflation-adjusted global commodity price for corn plunged 61 percent between 1983 and 2002. Today a bushel, roughly 56 pounds, fetches about $2.

    Cheap corn, underwritten by the subsidy program, has changed the diet of every American. It has allowed a few corporations — including Archer Daniels Midland, the world's largest grain processor — to create a booming market for high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS now accounts for nearly half of the caloric sweeteners added to processed food, and is the sole caloric sweetener for mass-market soft drinks. Between 1975 and 1997, per-capita consumption jumped from virtually nothing to 60.4 pounds per year — equal to about 200 calories per person, per day. Consumption has generally hovered around that level since. [...]

    From a short-term economic viewpoint, ...Ding Dongs present a better deal [than wild salmon]: 360 calories per dollar, and no need for the time or skill to cook. "If you're on a limited income trying to feed a family, in a sense you're behaving rationally by choosing heavily sweetened and fat-laden foods," Drewnowski says.

    The price gap between these two categories is growing. Drewnowski and Monsivais show that the overall cost of food consumed at home, when adjusted for inflation, has been essentially unchanged since 1980. But over the same time, the price of soft drinks plunged 30 percent, and the price of candy and other sweets fell 20 percent. Meanwhile, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 50 percent.

    "Energy-dense foods ... are the cheapest option for the consumer," Drewnowski says. "As long as the healthier lean meats, fish, and fresh produce are more expensive, obesity will continue to be a problem for the working poor."

    Thus far, government efforts to address diet-related health problems among low-income Americans have done little to reduce incidence of obesity and diabetes. One reason may be that even when they do account for the economics of different types of foods, such programs often neglect other pressures faced by low-income families.

    In 1999, for example, the USDA began promoting a revised "Thrifty Food Plan," designed to help people choose low-cost, healthy foods. But as Diego Rose of Tulane University's Department of Community Health Sciences showed in a 2004 study, the plan failed to account for time stresses on working-class families. Rose calculated that it would take an average of 16 hours per week to prepare the meals outlined in the Thrifty plan, and that working women tended to have only about six hours per week to devote to the kitchen at the time the plan was unveiled. [Emphasis added]

    It's crazy. We subsidize a diet that makes people sick, then wonder why health care costs are sky-high. Meanwhile, the agribusiness giants and pharmaceutical and health care giants use campaign contributions to keep the juggernaut rolling along. Their profits are built on our disease. Is this any way to run a civilized society?

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:48 PM | Comments (10) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 26, 2006

    Peak Fish Environment

    The peak in oil and gas production is far from the only resource peak confronting industrial civilization. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council calls attention to the fact that the world's fisheries passed peak in the 1980s. The world's wild fish catch has been declining ever since. Excerpt:

    The world has passed "peak fish" and fishermen's nets will be hauling in ever diminishing loads unless there's political action to stem the global tide of over fishing, says a fisheries expert based at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Daniel Pauly says the crisis in the world's fisheries is less about scientific proof than about attitude and political will.

    And, he says, the world's fish need a dynamic, high-profile political champion like a Bono or Mandela to give finned creatures the public profile of cute and furry ones.

    "It's time for leadership on global fisheries issues. It's time to act," says Dr. Pauly, Director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "We don't need more science. This is a message that's different from many of my colleagues. Of course we need to learn more about fish. But research is often publicly funded on the grounds that this is an alternative to other political action. We know enough to act to prevent the continued decimation of global fisheries." [...]

    Among its most notable findings, the research has revealed that the world passed "peak fish" – a peak in the biomass, or weight, of fish caught from the world's oceans – in the late 1980s. Since then, while there have been regional variations, the global fish haul has gradually sunk.

    "There's no doubt about this," says Dr. Pauly whose findings have been published in the world's leading peer-reviewed journals, including Science and Nature. "We're in a phase where increasing fishing effort produces less catch."

    While global catches peaked in the late 1980s, the peak occurred earlier in those parts of the world where industrial fishing developed first. Thus, peak fish occurred in the mid-1970s in the North Atlantic, exploited by European and North American fisheries. In the southern Atlantic, where the industrialization of fishing stated later, peak fish occurred in the mid-1990s.

    Dr. Pauly is adamant that pulling back from a global fisheries collapse – one on par with the collapse of various regional fisheries, such as the Atlantic cod fishery off Canada's Newfoundland coast – requires recognizing what he describes as a deep divide between the fishing industry and those who eat fish. He argues that fisheries companies' actions show that they're primarily interested in maximizing short-term profit, with little or no regard for the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.

    "The industry is ready to commit suicide at any time," he says. "It's an industry that needs to be reined in for its own good."

    He notes that the global fisheries industry is very complex. According to Dr. Pauly, it operates with "one foot deep in illegality," by landing illegal catches, and skirting existing laws through the use of tools such as flags of convenience. And, he says, public policy on marine fish conservation issues is distorted by the fact that most governments view fishing companies, and not their citizens, who actually are the true owners of the resources, as their main constituency.

    While the situation is dire, Dr. Pauly believes this situation can be turned around. He believes that a reduction of excess fishing capacity, the creation of "no-take zones" covering about 20 per cent of habitats, and political enforcement of sustainable fishing levels will result not just in pulling back from the brink, but more fish for our tables.

    "The irony is that reducing fishing actually increases the catch in the long term," says Dr. Pauly. "Public policy must be downsizing the industry to a level that allows for sustained catch and stocks to rebound."

    This past October, Dr. Pauly was awarded the prestigious 2005 International Cosmos Award. The award recognizes exemplary research that "promotes the harmonious co-existence of nature and mankind." [...]

    He says receiving the prize was one additional push to move his message from the open sea to the political beachhead. But he emphasizes that research alone won't solve the crisis. It's time for dramatic political leadership to move from a global marine tragedy to a future with bountiful fish.

    Says Dr. Pauly: "Reclaiming the ocean and its resources from excessive use will be a key task for humanity in the 21st century." [Emphasis added]

    Fans of unrestrained, profit-driven capitalism take note. Unregulated market activity is subject to what Alfred Kahn called the "tyranny of small decisions." By a series of small decisions made by individual actors, society arrives at an end result that no one wants. Everybody involved is doing what the market demands. Everybody is homo economicus, acting in his/her own self-interest. But the end result is suicidal, both for the individual decision-makers and for the rest of us. One of capitalism's fatal flaws.

    Detailed data on the world's fisheries can be found at SeaAroundUs.org.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:00 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 22, 2006

    "We Have To Get Smart Fast" Environment  Essays  Future

    The Long Now Foundation seeks to foster the long view, looking ahead to the next 10,000 years of human society. It sponsors monthly lectures by some of the West's most original thinkers, the audio for which is archived here. It's an extraordinary collection. Go explore. (The talk by Bruce Sterling is a hoot.)

    I want to touch on just one of the lectures here, a recent talk by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has studied the planting and water management practices of Balinese rice farmers. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:

    With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

    When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

    Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

    The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

    Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

    The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

    It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

    There's a lot more in the talk. It's a great little introduction to complex adaptive systems. It's a deeply thought-provoking look at the role of religious and other stable cultural systems in maintaining social norms over time. It's an extraordinary look at ecological interconnections and the disastrous unintended consequences that can result when Western development models are jammed down people's throats. And much more besides.

    The thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is this. The planners and development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum. Much of that thousand-year-old knowledge was unconscious knowledge in the sense that it was woven into the very fabric of systems and social arrangements. It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it. And yet it was very real and very profound. It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.

    But the development "experts" were so sure of the superiority of their own brand of knowledge that they didn't hesitate to upset the whole apple cart, all at once, with disastrous effect.

    Wendell Berry has a wonderful essay, "The Way of Ignorance," in which he writes:

    The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

    To think you know better than people who have "pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined" their knowledge over many, many generations, that you know so much better that you can just uproot a way of life, all at once, with scarcely so much as a pilot project, you really have to be ignorant, arrogantly ignorant. As Berry says:

    We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to see bad consequences.

    In this century, humanity is faced with global-scale challenges that will require global-scale action. The people at WorldChanging, for example, whose work I mostly admire, and who are determined to maintain an optimistic view of humanity's chances (which is a good thing), go so far as to talk a lot about "terraforming" and "mega-engineering", i.e., humans needing to engineer planetary systems on a planetary scale, literally re-forming the Earth.

    It may come to that. That is, it may turn out that our only hope is to take the reins of Earth's systems and risk it all on a few rolls of the dice. But I have to confess that it all strikes me as crazy hubris, the very epitome of the "willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk," the last wild perturbations in a system that's growing increasingly chaotic. If we can't interfere with a thousand-year-old system of rice paddies without ruining it, what makes us think we can manage the planet?

    As Lansing said at the very end of his talk: with the challenges that face us, "We have to get smart fast."

    Part of getting smart is knowing the limits of one's knowledge. Part of getting smart is working on an appropriate scale. And part of getting smart is to realize that there's enormous knowledge and wisdom woven into living systems, including traditional human societies, that have had millenia and more to arrive at solutions whose surface we have only barely begun to scratch. They have to much to teach us. We have much to learn.

    (Note: Lansing's got a book coming out in a few weeks. I've already ordered my copy.)

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:55 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 19, 2006

    Sign Of The Times Environment

    Is global warming increasing the frequency and severity of storms, floods, etc? Insurance companies provide a market-oriented barometer. Hertz has now changed its car rental contracts to make the renter responsible for damage resulting from hurricanes, floods, and other "acts of nature or God".

    As of Jan. 1, Hertz's voluminous contract for its core customer base of millions of "Gold Club" members has been changed in several eye-opening ways that place a far greater onus on customers to make good for any unforeseen mishaps.

    The changes also allow Hertz to reach deeper into customers' pockets by placing larger holds on credit cards when a car is rented. [...]

    [Renters now are] accountable for accidental fires or "acts of nature or God."

    This is a change that, had it been in effect at the time, would have been potentially troublesome for any Hertz customer caught in Hurricane Katrina, say, or the recent flooding in Northern California... [...]

    Another change to Hertz's contract says that if the company decides a damaged car has been totaled, it can bill customers for the "fair market value" even if this "is greater than the cost that Hertz would have incurred to repair the car." [...]

    Hertz also now says that when a hold is placed on customers' credit or debit cards to cover all anticipated costs — a routine transaction for car-rental firms and hotels, among others — it may lay claim to as much as $200 "greater than the estimated charges." [...]

    Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for Washington's U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said it's clear that Hertz is taking a leadership position in shifting greater responsibility for damage, and a greater financial burden, onto customers.

    Even if other rental-car firms aren't doing exactly the same, he said it may be just a matter of time before they're all rewriting their contracts.

    "Generally, companies in this industry keep testing to see how much they can gouge customers for every ding or what have you," Mierzwinski said. "They quickly copycat each other.

    "It's a race to the bottom," he said.

    Handwriting on the levee wall.

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:46 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 17, 2006

    Just When You Thought It Couldn't Get Any More Grotesque Environment  Politics

    From Fred Barnes' laudatory Rebel-in-Chief (via Chris Mooney):

    The president later provoked worldwide protests when he formally withdrew the United States from the Kyoto global warming treaty. The environmental lobby in this country fumed, but Bush didn't flinch. The treaty had never been ratified and stood little chance of winning Senate approval. Though he didn't say so publicly, Bush is a dissenter on the theory of global warming. To the extent it's a problem, Bush believes it can be solved by technology. He avidly read Michael Crichton's 2004 novel State of Fear, whose villain falsifies scientific studies to justify draconian steps to curb global warming. Crichton himself has studied the issue extensively and concluded that global warming is an unproven theory and that the threat is vastly overstated. Early in 2005, political adviser Karl Rove arranged for Crichton to meet with Bush at the White House. They talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement. The visit was not made public for fear of outraging environmentalists all the more. [Emphasis added]

    With the health and well-being — and quite possibly the lives — of millions of people in the balance, we've got a know-nothing president getting briefed in secret by a novelist.

    Bush's greatest sin is that he never stops to consider that he's completely unqualified to be president and to make the judgments he makes. Here's a man who is utterly ignorant of science, as of most things, who yet imagines himself to be in a position to overrule the near-unanimous consensus of the scientific community. I believe the term is narcissistic personality disorder.

    Posted by Jonathan at 09:33 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 16, 2006

    Greenland Glaciers Melting Faster Than Expected Environment

    Yet another in the steady stream of news items indicating that global warming is proceeding faster than anticipated (AP):

    Greenland's southern glaciers have accelerated their march to the Atlantic Ocean over the past decade and now contribute more to the global rise in sea levels than previously estimated, researchers say.

    Those faster-moving glaciers, along with increased melting, could account for nearly 17 percent of the estimated one-tenth of an inch annual rise in global sea levels, or twice what was previously believed, said Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    An increase in surface air temperatures appears to be causing the glaciers to flow faster, albeit at the still-glacial pace of eight miles to nine miles a year at their fastest clip, and dump increased volumes of ice into the Atlantic. [Emphasis added]

    When the full realization of global warming finally hits, we're not going to be able to say we had no warning. There are alarms bells going off everywhere you look. They're just being ignored.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:27 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 08, 2006

    Record Warmth In US Environment  Peak Oil

    There's good news and bad news. The good news is that the US has had a very unusually warm winter. Otherwise, natural gas and heating oil prices would have risen far more than they have, with significant economic consequences.

    How warm has it been? January was the warmest January ever recorded in the US. National average temperature was 39.5°F (4.2°C), a rather startling 8.5°F (4.7°C) warmer than average.

    The past three months were the third warmest November-January on record, 3.8°F (2.1°C) warmer than average.

    The past six months were the warmest August-January ever recorded in the US, 2.8°F (1.6°C) warmer than average.

    So the good news is that the US dodged a bullet this winter. The (post-Katrina) natural gas situation, in particular, would have been very dicey if the winter had just been normal, let alone colder than normal.

    The bad news, of course, is that these record temperatures didn't occur in a vacuum. The world is changing, and the pace of change is quickening.

    Posted by Jonathan at 08:21 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 05, 2006

    The Worst Problem You Never Heard Of: Coal Fires Environment

    It's astonishing — and somewhat disheartening — that a problem this important remains largely unknown: enormous underground coal fires, some of which have burned for decades or even centuries, emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the cars and light trucks in the US combined. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via WorldChanging):

    Underground coal fires are relentlessly incinerating millions of tons of coal around the world.

    The blazes spew out huge amounts of air pollutants, force residents to flee their homes, send toxic runoff flowing into waterways, and leave the land above as scarred as a battlefield.

    "A global environmental catastrophe" is how geologist Glenn B. Stracher described the situation. [...]

    [S]ome of the fires have been burning for centuries with few people aware of the problem.

    Concern and action is needed...because of the environmental impact — especially of mega-fires burning in India, China and elsewhere in Asia. One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.

    "The direct and indirect economic losses from coal fires are huge," said Paul M. van Dijk, a Dutch scientist who is tracking the Chinese blazes via satellite.

    He estimated that the Chinese fires alone consume 120 million tons of coal annually. That's almost as much as the annual coal production in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois combined.

    The Chinese fires also make a big, hidden contribution to global warming through the greenhouse effect, scientists said. Each year they release 360 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as much as all the cars and light trucks in the United States.

    Soot from the fires in China, India and other Asian countries are a source of the "Asian Brown Haze." It's a 2-mile thick cloud of soot, acid droplets and other material that sometimes stretches across South Asia from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka.

    The cloud causes acid rain that damages crops, cuts sunlight reaching the ground by 10 to 15 percent, and has been implicated in thousands of annual lung disease deaths.

    Mine fires are frustratingly difficult and costly to extinguish, panelists said.

    Weapons range from backfilling mine shafts to cutting off the oxygen supply with a new foam-like grout that's squirted into mine shafts like shaving cream and then expands to sniff out the fire.

    Most are simply left alone to burn until they eventually exhaust their fuel supply. [Emphasis added]

    Simply amazing. A fire over an area 3000 miles by 450 miles, underground, obviously poses a staggering fire-fighting problem. But ignoring it gets us nowhere. The emissions of CO2 and other pollutants make these fires a global problem. Fighting them needs to be an international priority.

    Posted by Jonathan at 02:19 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    February 04, 2006

    Global Warming Feedback Loops Having Measurable Effect Environment

    The truly alarming aspect of global warming news in recent years has been the various indications that feedback loops are kicking in, feedback loops that will make global warming self-reinforcing. Some examples:

    A recent report in the Independent (via FTW) should set off alarm bells in a big way, then. It appears to be direct confirmation that feedback loops are, in fact, starting to produce the feared acceleration in the rate of atmospheric change:

    Global warming is set to accelerate alarmingly because of a sharp jump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    Preliminary figures, exclusively obtained by The Independent..., show that levels of the gas — the main cause of climate change — have risen abruptly in the past four years. Scientists fear that warming is entering a new phase, and may accelerate further. [...]

    The climb in carbon dioxide content showed up in readings from the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken at the summit of Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The measurements have been taken regularly since 1958 in the 11,400ft peak's pristine conditions, 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass and protected by unusual climatic conditions from the pollution of Hawaii, two miles below.

    Through most of the past half-century, levels of the gas rose by an average of 1.3 parts per million a year; in the late 1990s, this figure rose to 1.6 ppm, and again to 2ppm in 2002 and 2003. But unpublished figures for the first 10 months of this year show a rise of 2.2 ppm.

    Scientists believe this may be the first evidence that climate change is starting to produce itself, as rising temperatures so alter natural systems that the Earth itself releases more gas, driving the thermometer ever higher. [Emphasis added]

    Feedback loops are the source of exponential rates of growth. We may be entering a phase in which global warming becomes a runaway train. If not now, then soon. We must act. Given the scale of what needs to happen, we need to start immediately.

    Here's where we in the US get our energy from (source):

    As you can see, it's pretty much all coal (gray), oil (green), and natural gas (red): carbon-based fuels, the burning of which produces CO2. A little tweaking around the edges won't cut it.

    For more on the urgency of the situation, listen to On Point's interview yesterday with James Hansen, chief climate scientist at NASA. I hope to have more to say about it in a future post. Bottom line: Hansen says we've got about a decade to make significant changes, or things are going to spin out of control.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:21 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 31, 2006

    NASA's Top Climate Scientist Says He Is Being Censored Environment  Politics

    NASA's top scientist on global warming issues says the Bush administration is trying to shut him up since he called for prompt greenhouse gas emissions reductions in a speech in December. NYT:

    The top climate scientist at NASA says the Bush administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture last month calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

    The scientist, James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists.

    Dr. Hansen said he would ignore the restrictions. "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," he said.

    Dean Acosta, [NASA's] deputy assistant administrator for public affairs...[said] that policy statements should be left to policy makers and appointed spokesmen. [...]

    Dr. Hansen, 63, a physicist who joined the space agency in 1967, directs efforts to simulate the global climate on computers at the Goddard Institute in Morningside Heights in Manhattan. [...]

    He fell out of favor with the White House in 2004 after giving a speech at the University of Iowa before the presidential election, in which he complained that government climate scientists were being muzzled and said he planned to vote for Senator John Kerry.

    But Dr. Hansen said that nothing in 30 years equaled the push made since early December to keep him from publicly discussing what he says are clear-cut dangers from further delay in curbing carbon dioxide. [...]

    He said he was particularly incensed that the directives had come through telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents. [...]

    The fresh efforts to quiet him, Dr. Hansen said, began in a series of calls after a lecture he gave on Dec. 6 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In the talk, he said...that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth "a different planet." [...]

    After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be "dire consequences" if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.

    Among the restrictions, according to Dr. Hansen and an internal draft memorandum he provided to The Times, was that his supervisors could stand in for him in any news media interviews. [...]

    But Dr. Hansen and some of his colleagues said interviews were canceled as a result.

    In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.

    Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was "to make the president look good" and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch's priority. [...]

    Mr. Acosta, Mr. Deutsch's supervisor, said that when Mr. Deutsch was asked about the conversations, he flatly denied saying anything of the sort. Mr. Deutsch referred all interview requests to Mr. Acosta.

    Ms. McCarthy, when told of the response, said: "Why am I going to go out of my way to make this up and back up Jim Hansen? I don't have a dog in this race. And what does Hansen have to gain?" [...]

    In an interview on Friday, Ralph J. Cicerone, an atmospheric chemist and the president of the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's leading independent scientific body, praised Dr. Hansen's scientific contributions and said he had always seemed to describe his public statements clearly as his personal views.

    "He really is one of the most productive and creative scientists in the world," Dr. Cicerone said. "I've heard Hansen speak many times and I've read many of his papers, starting in the late 70's. Every single time, in writing or when I've heard him speak, he's always clear that he's speaking for himself, not for NASA or the administration, whichever administration it's been."

    The fight between Dr. Hansen and administration officials echoes other recent disputes. At climate laboratories of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone.

    Where scientists' points of view on climate policy align with those of the administration, however, there are few signs of restrictions on extracurricular lectures or writing. [Emphasis added]

    This is both infuriating and sickening, to put it mildly. We already know that the Bush administration is the most anti-science administration in living memory, but given what's at stake, stifling of debate on an issue like global warming is nothing short of criminal.

    Scientists can only be interviewed in the presence of handlers. That's how totalitarian regimes operate. America ain't what it used to be.

    Posted by Jonathan at 07:55 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 29, 2006

    Greening Your Diet Beats Greening Your Car Environment

    According to research published in the New Scientist, switching to a vegan diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions more than switching to a hybrid car:

    Thinking of helping the planet by buying an eco-friendly car? You could do more by going vegan, say Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago.

    They compared the amount of fossil fuel needed to cultivate and process various foods, including running agricultural machinery, providing food for livestock and irrigating crops. They also factored in emissions of methane and nitrous oxide produced by cows, sheep and manure treatment.

    The typical US diet, about 28 per cent of which comes from animal sources, generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tonnes more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet with the same number of calories, say the researchers, who presented their results at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last week.

    By comparison, the difference in annual emissions between driving a typical saloon car and a hybrid car, which runs off a rechargeable battery and gasoline, is just over 1 tonne. If you don't want to go vegan, choosing less-processed animal products and poultry instead of red meat can help reduce the greenhouse load. [Emphasis added]

    As it happens, I ordered a new Prius a few weeks ago (April delivery). Guess I won't be driving it to Burger King (not that I would anyway).

    Posted by Jonathan at 03:11 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 26, 2006

    We're Number One 28! Environment


    A pilot nation-by-nation study of environmental performance shows that just six nations — led by New Zealand, followed by five from Northern Europe — have achieved 85 percent or better success in meeting a set of critical environmental goals ranging from clean drinking water and low ozone levels to sustainable fisheries and low greenhouse gas emissions.

    The study, jointly produced by Yale and Columbia Universities, ranked the United States 28th over all, behind most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Chile, but ahead of Russia and South Korea.

    The bottom half of the rankings is largely filled with the countries of Africa and Central and South Asia. Pakistan and India both rank among the 20 lowest-scoring countries, with overall success rates of 41.1 percent and 47.7 percent, respectively. [Emphasis added]

    3 out of 4 Americans support doing "whatever it takes" to protect the environment, yet this is how we perform. Democracy, American-style.

    Posted by Jonathan at 10:53 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 20, 2006

    Global Warming News Keeps Getting Worse Environment

    Earlier this week, we had James Lovelock's grim essay on global warming. Now we have this. The news just keeps getting worse. From today's Independent:

    The microscopic plants that underpin all life in the oceans are likely to be destroyed by global warming, a study has found.

    Scientists have discovered a way that the vital plankton of the oceans can be starved of nutrients as a result of the seas getting warmer. They believe the findings have catastrophic implications for the entire marine habitat, which ultimately relies on plankton at the base of the food chain.

    The study is also potentially devastating because it has thrown up a new "positive feedback" mechanism that could result in more carbon dioxide ending up in the atmosphere to cause a runaway greenhouse effect.

    Scientists led by Jef Huisman of the University of Amsterdam have calculated that global warming, which is causing the temperature of the sea surface to rise, will also interfere with the vital upward movement of nutrients from the deep sea.

    These nutrients, containing nitrogen, phosphorus and iron, are vital food for phytoplankton. If the supply is interrupted the plants die off, which prevents them from absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. [...]

    The sea is one of nature's "carbon sinks", which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposits the carbon in a long-term store - dissolved in the ocean or deposited as organic waste on the seabed. The vast quantities of phytoplankton in the oceans absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide. When the organisms die they fall to the seabed, carrying their store of carbon with them, where it stays for many thousands of years - thereby helping to counter global warming. [...]

    Warmer surface water caused by global warming causes greater temperature stratification, with warm surface layers sitting on deeper, colder layers, to prevent mixing of nutrients.

    Professor Huisman shows in a study published in Nature that warmer sea surfaces will deliver a potentially devastating blow to the supply of deep-sea nutrients for phytoplankton.

    His computer model of the impact was tested on real measurements made in the Pacific Ocean, where sea surface temperatures tend to be higher than in other parts of the world. He found that his computer predictions of how nutrient movement would be interrupted were accurate. [...]

    Scientists had believed phytoplankton, which survives best at depths of about 100 metres, is largely stable and immune from the impact of global warming. "This model prediction was rather unexpected," Professor Huisman said. [...]

    Microscopic plankton comes in animal and plant forms. The plants are known as phytoplankton. They lie at the base of the marine food chain because they convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into organic carbon - food for everything else.

    ...Without phytoplankton, the oceans would soon become marine deserts. [...]

    Phytoplankton...acts as a carbon "sink" which takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposits the carbon in long-term stores that can remain undisturbed for thousands of years. If the growth of phytoplankton is interrupted by global warming, this ability to act as a buffer against global warming is also affected - leading to a much-feared positive feedback. [Emphasis added]

    It's impossible to overstate the importance of this finding. All sea life ultimately depends on phytoplankton. Without it, the world's oceans will become an enormous dead zone. And the feedback loop set in motion as the phytoplankton dies off (less phytoplankton leads to more atmospheric CO2 which leads to more global warming which leads to less phytoplankton, etc.) is only one of a number of recently discovered feedback loops that are likely to accelerate and amplify global warming. In other words, current computer models are, if anything, understating what we're up against.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:24 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 17, 2006

    Lovelock: Global Warming Will Kill Billions Environment

    James Lovelock, the environmental scientist who originated the Gaia Hypothesis that views terrestrial systems as a kind of self-regulating superorganism, has published a profoundly pessimistic assessment of humanity's prospects in the face of global warming. Excerpt:

    This article is the most difficult I have written...My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I...have to bring bad news.

    ...[C]limate specialists see [the Earth] as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.

    Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.

    Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.

    Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This "global dimming" is transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable. [...]

    Had it been known [in Darwin's time] that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth's skin — its forest and ocean ecosystems — as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

    So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent. [...]

    We [in the UK] could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

    Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

    We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home. [Emphasis added]

    What can one say?

    Lovelock understands the big picture better than most, and he isn't a doctrinaire environmental fundamentalist — he's a vocal proponent of nuclear power, for example. So his warning is not to be dismissed lightly. Meanwhile, here on the Titanic, there are lunatics at the helm. Somehow, we have to take control out of their hands (or at least launch lifeboats), and do it quickly. This is way past being a question of playing politics. The stakes couldn't be higher.

    It's impossible to imagine, but somehow we must try to imagine the literally unfathomable sorrow and shame that will be ours if we let it all go up in smoke. Imagine it. Maybe it's already too late — but maybe it's not. We have no choice but to act as if it's not. But time is of the essence. We must act.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:44 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 08, 2006

    All That Glisters Environment

    The days of the great gold rushes, when nuggets of gold could be plucked from the earth or panned from streams, are behind us. The easy gold's all been mined.

    Today, to satisfy the world's appetite for gold — primarily for making jewelry — enormous open pit mining operations dig 30-100 tons of rock to capture a single ounce of gold. The rock is piled in gigantic mounds. Sprinkler systems are placed on top that drizzle cyanide onto the mounds — for years. The cyanide seeps down through the rock, taking gold with it. Once the gold has been extracted, what's left is a nightmare of toxic waste.

    The mining companies work hand-in-glove with the World Bank, setting up operations in many of the world's poorest regions. Richer nations get gold jewelry, poorer nations get an environmental disaster. NYT:

    The price of gold is higher than it has been in 17 years — pushing $500 an ounce. But much of the gold left to be mined is microscopic and is being wrung from the earth at enormous environmental cost, often in some of the poorest corners of the world. [...]

    [T]he soaring demand for jewelry...consumes 80 percent or more of the gold mined today. [...]

    Consider a ring. For that one ounce of gold, miners dig up and haul away 30 tons of rock and sprinkle it with diluted cyanide, which separates the gold from the rock. Before they are through, miners at some of the largest mines move a half million tons of earth a day, pile it in mounds that can rival the Great Pyramids, and drizzle the ore with the poisonous solution for years. [...]

    Some metal mines, including gold mines, have become the near-equivalent of nuclear waste dumps that must be tended in perpetuity. Hard-rock mining generates more toxic waste than any other industry in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency estimated last year that the cost of cleaning up metal mines could reach $54 billion. [...]

    With the costs and scrutiny of mining on the rise in rich countries, where the best ores have been depleted, 70 percent of gold is now mined in developing countries like Guatemala and Ghana. It is there, miners and critics agree, that the real battle over gold's future is being waged. [...]

    [E]nvironmental groups say companies are mining in ways that would never be tolerated in wealthier nations, such as dumping tons of waste into rivers, bays and oceans. [...]

    This month a Philippine province sued the world's fifth-largest gold company, Canada-based Placer Dome, charging that it had ruined a river, bay and coral reef by dumping enough waste to fill a convoy of trucks that would circle the globe three times. [...]

    [Gold] generates more waste per ounce than any other metal and yet has few industrial uses. [...]

    [T]he largest sellers of gold are...Wal-Mart stores... [...]

    Mountains have been systematically blasted, carted off by groaning trucks the size of houses and restacked into ziggurats of chunky ore. These new man-made mountains are lined with irrigation hoses that silently trickle millions of gallons of cyanide solution over the rock for years. The cyanide dissolves the gold so it can be separated and smelted.

    At sites like Yanacocha, one ounce of gold is sprinkled in 30 tons of ore. But to get at that ore, many more tons of earth have to be moved, then left as waste. At some mines in Nevada, 100 tons or more of earth have to be excavated for a single ounce of gold... [...]

    But much of those masses of disturbed rock, exposed to the rain and air for the first time, are also the source of mining's multibillion-dollar environmental time bomb. Sulfides in that rock will react with oxygen, making sulfuric acid.

    That acid pollutes and it also frees heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury, which are harmful to people and fish even at low concentrations. The chain reaction can go on for centuries. [...]

    And just as cyanide dissolves gold out of the rock, it releases harmful metals, too. [...]

    Environmental risks from hard-rock mines often turn out to be understated and underreported, according to two recent studies. [...]

    The environmental group Earthworks examined 22 mines for a report it will publish in November. Almost all of them had water problems, leading it to conclude that "water quality impacts are almost always underestimated" before mining begins. [...]

    Today gold companies are striking out to remote corners of the globe led by a powerful guide: the World Bank. [...]

    [T]he draft rules give mining companies even more latitude, said...group that monitors the bank. They will make it easier for companies to evict indigenous people and to mine in some of the globe's most treasured habitats... [...]

    [In Guatemala,] Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, a big burly man who mixes politics and religion with ease, doesn't understand why the World Bank lent $45 million to a rich multinational company for a gold mine in his impoverished region of Mayan farmers.

    "Why not spend the money directly to help the people?" he asked. [...]

    At the June 2004 board meeting of the International Finance Corporation, there was considerable skepticism about its $45 million loan to Glamis.

    Members questioned why a $261 million project was creating only 160 long-term jobs and giving money to a "well capitalized" company like Glamis at all... [...]

    Mr. Miller, of Glamis, said the mine was a winner for the people, and his company. In fact, he said, Glamis didn't need the bank, the bank came to Glamis.

    Bank officials "were anxious to make some investments" in the region, he said.

    This is a perfect example of an activity that seems economic (i.e., worth the cost) only because the costs are not borne by the people who reap the profits. As long as corporations are permitted to "externalize" the costs of environmental damage — i.e., push them off on the public — they will continue to leave enormous environmental damage behind. They'll take the money and run.

    If gold companies had to pay to clean up their own mess, gold jewelry would be a lot more expensive, true. But as it is, the price of gold — and the profits of the gold mining companies — are subsidized by the people who pay for clean-up through taxes or who have to live with the uncleaned-up toxic mess. Why should one person have to subsidize another person's gold jewelry? And, like any subsidy, this subsidy distorts the market. It directs resources and labor into an activity that is better left undone.

    As it is, the costs are public, the profits are private. It's a racket.

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:07 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 07, 2006

    The New Red, White, and Blue Energy  Environment  Peak Oil

    I'm not a Thomas Friedman fan ordinarily, but this is good — and the guy does have clout. From WattHead, via WorldChanging, here's an excerpt from a stirring new Friedman piece that calls energy independence and environmental sustainability the top issue facing America today:

    What's so disturbing about President Bush and Dick Cheney is that they talk tough about the necessity of invading Iraq, torturing terror suspects and engaging in domestic spying — all to defend our way of life and promote democracy around the globe.

    But when it comes to what is actually the most important issue in U.S. foreign and domestic policy today — making ourselves energy efficient and independent, and environmentally green — they ridicule it as something only liberals, tree-huggers and sissies believe is possible or necessary.

    Sorry, but being green, focusing the nation on greater energy efficiency and conservation, is not some girlie-man issue. It is actually the most tough-minded, geostrategic, pro-growth and patriotic thing we can do. Living green is not for sissies. Sticking with oil, and basically saying that a country that can double the speed of microchips every 18 months is somehow incapable of innovating its way to energy independence — that is for sissies, defeatists and people who are ready to see American values eroded at home and abroad.

    Living green is not just a "personal virtue," as Mr. Cheney says. It's a national security imperative.

    The biggest threat to America and its values today is not communism, authoritarianism or Islamism. Its petrolism. [...]

    We need a persident and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but to impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home. That takes a real energy policy with longterm incentives for renewable energies — wind, solar, biofuels — rather than the welfare-for-oil-companies-and-special-interests that masqueraded last year as an energy bill.

    Enough of this Bush-Cheney nonsense that conservation, energy efficiency and environmentalism are some hobby we can't afford. I can't think of anything more cowardly or un-American. Real patriots, real advocates of spreading democracy around the world, live green.

    Green is the new red, white and blue. [Emphasis added]


    Posted by Jonathan at 08:43 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    January 05, 2006

    Climate Change May Take Tens Of Thousands Of Years To Dissipate Environment

    Today's scariest news item has nothing to do with NSA wiretaps or the "war on terror". It's a study published today in Nature that has dire implications for global warming.

    Scientists have found that a sudden warming period some 55 million years ago caused dramatic shifts in the world's ocean currents, causing climate shifts that stayed in place for tens of thousands of years. Such ocean current shifts have long been predicted by modern climate models and have begun to be observed. The Nature study shows that the effects may be very long-lasting indeed — for all practical purposes, permanent. AFP:

    An extraordinary burst of global warming that occurred around 55 million years ago dramatically reversed Earth's pattern of ocean currents, a finding that strengthens modern-day concern about climate change, a study says.

    The big event, the Palaeocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), saw the planet's surface temperature rise by between five and eight degrees Celsius (nine and 16.2 Fahrenheit) in a very short time, unleashing climate shifts that endured tens of thousands of years. [...]

    Before the PETM, deep water upwelled in the southern hemisphere; over about 40,000 years, the source of this upwelling shifted to the northern hemisphere and it took another 100,000 years before recovering completely.

    What unleashed the PETM is unclear. Most fingers of blame point to volcanic eruptions that disgorged gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, or coastal reservoirs of methane gas, sealed by icy soil, that were breached by warmer temperatures or receding seas.

    The huge temperature rise may have occurred within just a few thousand years, but as [study authors] Nunes and Norris point out, the effects were enduring and the lesson for humans today is clear.

    "Modern CO2 input to the biosphere from fossil fuel sources is approaching that estimated for the PETM, raising concerns about future climate and circulation change," they warned.

    "The PETM example shows that anthropogenic (man-made) forces may have lasting effects not only in global climate but in deep-ocean circulation as well." [...]

    [The concentration of atmospheric CO2 is] 380ppm [parts per million] today, which is already the highest concentration of CO2 for 650,000 years.

    The higher the level, the greater the risk that a vicious circle of global warming could be unleashed, inflicting potentially irreversible damage to Earth's climate system, scientists said. [Emphasis added]

    People talk, rightly, about the need to consider the effects of our actions for seven generations to come. What this study shows is that our activities right now, today, may have effects that are felt for thousands of generations — for many, many times the length of recorded history to date.

    Yet the Titanic steams blithely on. Where are the words to express the depths of our denial and irresponsibility?

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:31 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 15, 2005

    Polar Bears Drowning As Arctic Ice Shrinks Environment


    It may be the latest evidence of global warming: Polar bears are drowning.

    Scientists for the first time have documented multiple deaths of polar bears off Alaska, where they likely drowned after swimming long distances in the ocean amid the melting of the Arctic ice shelf. The bears spend most of their time hunting and raising their young on ice floes.

    In a quarter-century of aerial surveys of the Alaskan coastline before 2004, researchers from the U.S. Minerals Management Service said they typically spotted a lone polar bear swimming in the ocean far from ice about once every two years. Polar-bear drownings were so rare that they have never been documented in the surveys.

    But in September 2004, when the polar ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska, researchers counted 10 polar bears swimming as far as 60 miles offshore. Polar bears can swim long distances but have evolved to mainly swim between sheets of ice, scientists say.

    The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days after a fierce storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. "Extrapolation of survey data suggests that on the order of 40 bears may have been swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough seas caused by high winds," the researchers say in a report set to be released today. [Emphasis added]

    But of course we don't know why the arctic ice is melting. Or why the glaciers are retreating everywhere. Or why hurricane intensity is growing rapidly. Or why average worldwide air and sea temperatures are rising. Or why the currents that circulate warm water into the North Atlantic are shutting down. Or why sea levels are rising. Or why coral reefs are dying. Or why the polar bears are drowning.

    Because the jury's still out on global warming. Our president told us so. The same president who told us the jury's still out on evolution.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:22 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 12, 2005

    Chinese Activists Take On The Environment Activism  Economy  Environment

    The Chinese economic "miracle" is going to seem a whole lot less miraculous when the environmental bill comes due. More and more Chinese agree, and they're mobilizing to do something about it. Boston Globe:

    Much of China watched in horror as work crews struggled to contain the recent benzene spill that polluted the northeastern Songhua River and disrupted drinking water supplies to about 12 million people in the region for more than a week.

    But even residents of Beijing watching the event unfold on television weren't entirely safe from the effects of China's increasing environmental decay.

    China's capital is one of the most polluted cities in the world and lung cancer is now the number one cause of death here, according to China's State Environmental Protection Administration. A thick cloud of sulfur envelops the city most evenings; a recent picture taken from NASA's Terra satellite shows the entire city covered by a nearly opaque band of gray smog.

    With more and more people finding themselves directly affected by China's endemic pollution, public awareness of and anger over China's deteriorating environment is growing. So is their willingness to take risks and do something about it, despite the strictures on organized political activity in this authoritarian state.

    "People are taking a stand," said Dai Qing, a political and environmental activist who was jailed during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and who emerged from prison to champion opposition to the giant Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which she has called "the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world."

    In the years since China's first environmental nongovernmental organization, Friends of Nature, was allowed to register in 1994, more than 2,000 grass-roots environmental nongovernmental organizations have risen all over the country, according to government reports. Once disparate, under-funded, untrained, and badly equipped, many of these groups are now learning how to organize and empower themselves. [...]

    [T]he view of many activists here [is that] foreign media coverage, money, and expertise is critical for China's budding nongovernmental organizations to grow. [...]

    One reason international nongovernmental groups and leaders are eager to assist the grass-roots ones in China is that while the economic ripple effect of China's booming economy is buoying global markets, the environmental fallout caused by the surge in economic activity also is spreading across the region and beyond.

    According to Dr. Tsutomu Toichi, managing director and chief executive economist of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo, "A lot of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from China are reaching Japan with the western wind and even the West Coast of the United States." [...]

    [M]ost Chinese power companies prefer to pay the financial penalties levied by the Chinese government against polluters since that's cheaper than installing the equipment. [...]

    Initially, Chinese nongovernmental groups and journalists had focused only on politically safe issues, such as tree-planting campaigns. But now many are engaged in fierce battles with authorities over the construction of dams and other mega-public works projects, and filing lawsuits against polluting factories.

    So far, they've had some success. A growing section of the Chinese leadership, led by Deputy Environment Minister Pan Yue, has been vocal in calling for China to make its economic policies more environmentally sensitive.

    Earlier this year, China's State Environmental Protection Administration took the unprecedented step of suspending work on 30 projects, worth more than $10 billion collectively, after they failed to meet environmental standards.

    On Friday, China's chief environmental regulator, Xie Zhenhua, quit and took the blame for last month's chemical spill, which shut off water to millions.

    ...[But there has] been little change in Beijing's overall economic and environmental policies, which continue to focus on creating the 7 percent annual growth that analysts say the country needs to avert domestic political turmoil.

    What also angers Chinese and activists is that the government, despite its rhetoric, continues to hide critical facts and information from the public. [...]

    [T]he government withheld news for 10 days after a chemical plant explosion on Nov. 13 dumped about 100 tons of benzene into the Songhua River near Harbin. The blast occurred at a company owned by a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, a state-owned company.

    ..."China's top priority" remains political stability and economic growth...

    The Chinese government's development plans and economic policy remain dedicated to promoting cars instead of public transportation, burning fossil fuels instead of alternate energies, and pampering manufacturers with cheap resources instead of pushing them toward greater efficiencies. [...]

    [I]n Beijing alone 70 percent to 80 percent of deadly cancer cases are related to the environment, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration. [...]

    "There's this new sense of 'I can,'...[a]nd it's not just with the younger generation. Even older people here have a feeling, a passion to change things...This country's future is at stake." [Emphasis added]

    As I've said before, this is a perfect illustration of what is probably the single biggest blind-spot in "neoclassical" economics: the pretense that growth has no cost. Neoclassical economics (i.e., economics as it's usually taught in school) treats environmental damage, damage to people's health, etc., as "externalities" — costs that don't show up on any balance sheet and which therefore might as well not exist.

    An honest accounting that treated all such externalities as debits rather than mere footnotes would show that in many cases growth is actually uneconomic, costing more than it's worth. But since the cost is not borne by the people who profit from growth (but rather, in many cases, by people who haven't even been born yet), those who profit see growth as an unalloyed "miracle" as they take the money and run.

    Posted by Jonathan at 06:48 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 09, 2005

    US Delegation Walks Out Of Climate Talks Environment  Politics

    The Bush administration has been doing whatever it can to scuttle the global warming talks in Montreal, including walking out of the room when the subject of emissions reductions is raised (NYT):

    Two weeks of treaty talks on global warming neared an end today with the world's current and projected leaders in emissions of greenhouse gases, the United States and China, still refusing to take any mandatory steps to avoid dangerous climate change.

    The Bush administration was sharply criticized by environmental groups for walking out of a round of informal discussions shortly after midnight that were aimed at finding new ways of curbing gases beyond steps taken so far.

    The walkout was widely seen here as the capstone of two weeks of American efforts to prevent any fresh initiatives from being discussed.

    "This shows just how willing the U.S. administration is to walk away from a healthy planet and its responsibilities to its own people," said Jennifer Morgan of the World Wildlife Fund. [Emphasis added]

    Compare that with what Bill Clinton told the delegates:

    "I think it's crazy for us to play games with our children's future," Mr. Clinton said. "We know what's happening to the climate, we have a highly predictable set of consequences if we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we know we have an alternative that will lead us to greater prosperity." [Emphasis added]

    Money rules US politics and global warming doesn't show up on anybody's balance sheet, so it's all engines ahead full here on the Titanic.

    If we don't do something significant, and quickly, future generations will despise us.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:28 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 08, 2005

    American Plan To Destroy European Support For Kyoto Economy  Environment  Politics

    The fundamental problem with unregulated capitalism: if it's more profitable to liquidate the global environment than to sustain it, capitalism will liquidate it. Even if it's ultimately suicidal to do so. Corporations are machines programmed to make short-term, tunnel-vision decisions based on a single prime directive: maximize profits. Here's the kind of thing that results (The Independent, via The Oil Drum):

    A detailed and disturbing strategy document has revealed an extraordinary American plan to destroy Europe's support for the Kyoto treaty on climate change.

    The ambitious, behind-the-scenes plan was passed to The Independent this week, just as 189 countries are painfully trying to agree the second stage of Kyoto at the UN climate conference in Montreal. It was pitched to companies such as Ford Europe, Lufthansa and the German utility giant RWE.

    Put together by a lobbyist who is a senior official at a group partly funded by ExxonMobil, the world's biggest oil company and a fierce opponent of anti-global warming measures, the plan seeks to draw together major international companies, academics, think-tanks, commentators, journalists and lobbyists from across Europe into a powerful grouping to destroy further EU support for the treaty.

    It details just how the so-called "European Sound Climate Policy Coalition" would work. Based in Brussels, the plan would have anti-Kyoto position papers, expert spokesmen, detailed advice and networking instantly available to any politician or company who wanted to question the wisdom of proceeding with Kyoto and its demanding cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

    It has been drawn up by Chris Horner, a senior official with the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute and a veteran campaigner against Kyoto and against the evidence of climate change. [...]

    Mr Horner, whose CEI group has received almost $1.5m (£865,000) from ExxonMobil, is convinced that Europe could be successfully influenced by such a policy coalition just as the US government has been. [...]

    Mr Horner believes the moment for his coalition is at hand and has been seeking support for it from multinational companies. In his pitch to one major company, he wrote: "In the US an informal coalition has helped successfully to avert adoption of a Kyoto-style programme by maintaining a rational voice for civil society and ensuring a legitimate debate over climate economics, science and politics. This model should be emulated... to guide similar efforts in Europe."

    Elsewhere he claimed: "A coalition addressing the economic and social impacts of the EU climate agenda must be broad-based (cross industry) and rooted in the member states. Other companies (including Lufthansa, Exxon, Ford) have already indicated their interest!" [...]

    While there is nothing illegal about the lobbying, the documents reveal a rare insight into the well-funded efforts within the US to influence opinion at senior levels of European corporations. Campaigners say the campaign is similar to a notorious lobbying effort carried out during the 1990s to undermine support for Kyoto within the US.

    The revelation comes as international negotiators in Montreal are discussing the next step within Kyoto and the possibility of introducing new emissions targets. The Bush administration ­ which has rejected the treaty ­ has insisted it will not agree to any measures that legally bind it to reduce emissions. Mr Horner has been present this week in Montreal. [Emphasis added]

    Individual corporations and their shareholders get to make a profit, but everyone on earth pays the price. The fatal flaw in the logic of (unregulated) capitalism: the entities acting on the environment don't bear the resulting costs, so they act as if the costs are zero. Right up until the day the world ends.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:16 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 06, 2005

    Worse Than Fossil Fuel Environment

    George Monbiot writes that "biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth." He's not talking about "frybrid" cars that burn used french-fry vegetable oil, but used vegetable oil can supply only a tiny fraction of our energy needs. Monbiot:

    Over the past two years I have made an uncomfortable discovery. Like most environmentalists, I have been as blind to the constraints affecting our energy supply as my opponents have been to climate change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief in magic.

    In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter "containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's current biota." In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries' worth of plants and animals.

    The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy — and the extraordinary power densities it gives us — with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by states — such as [the UK] — which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil fuel burning it replaces. [...]

    When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land. Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented the world's most carbon-intensive fuel.

    In promoting biodiesel — as the European Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do — you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

    Last week, the chairman of Malaysia's Federal Land Development Authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant. His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam. Two foreign consortia — one German, one American — are setting up rival plants in Singapore. All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.

    "The demand for biodiesel," the Malaysian Star reports, "will come from the European Community...This fresh demand...would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia's crude palm oil inventories". Why? Because it's cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

    In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impacts of palm oil production. "Between 1985 and 2000," it found, "the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia". In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.

    Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orang-utan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

    Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they've cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.

    The British government understands this. In the report it published last month, when it announced that it will obey the European Union and ensure that 5.75% of our transport fuel comes from plants by 2010, it admitted that "the main environmental risks are likely to be those concerning any large expansion in biofuel feedstock production, and particularly in Brazil (for sugar cane) and South East Asia (for palm oil plantations)." It suggested that the best means of dealing with the problem was to prevent environmentally destructive fuels from being imported. The government asked its consultants whether a ban would infringe world trade rules. The answer was yes: "mandatory environmental criteria...would greatly increase the risk of international legal challenge to the policy as a whole". So it dropped the idea of banning imports, and called for "some form of voluntary scheme" instead. Knowing that the creation of this market will lead to a massive surge in imports of palm oil, knowing that there is nothing meaningful it can do to prevent them, and knowing that they will accelerate rather than ameliorate climate change, the government has decided to go ahead anyway. [Emphasis added]

    This story illustrates how the free market is often the worst arbiter imaginable when it comes to decisions regarding the environment: the market often leads individuals acting in their own self-interest to undertake actions that are suicidal for humanity as a whole. It illustrates as well how reckless and destructive our collective behavior is likely to become as world oil/gas production peaks and starts to decline. Rising fuel prices will make biosphere destruction an increasingly profitable business. And it illustrates how so-called free trade agreements have handcuffed nations at just the wrong time in history. England cannot ban the importation of palm oil biodiesel because that would be an unfair restriction of trade under GATT.

    The fundamental problem with letting the market make large-scale environmental decisions is that environmental costs are not reflected in the prices for anything, so decisions made on the basis of price are necessarily faulty. By insisting on an unregulated pursuit of profit, we dig our own graves.

    Posted by Jonathan at 11:42 AM | Comments (10) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 04, 2005

    The 2005 Hurricane Season Environment

    In the every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining department, we're getting more hurricanes than ever now, but at least we'll all learn the Greek alphabet. After named storms in the Atlantic exhausted the English alphabet this year (excluding Q, U, X, Y, and Z, which are not used) for the first time ever, the NHC resorted to naming storms after Greek letters, giving us tropical storm Alpha, hurricane Beta, tropical storms Gamma and Delta, and hurricane Epsilon. Epsilon is still active, even though the Atlantic hurricane season is conventionally said to end on November 30. This is the fifth time just since 1998 that tropical storm activity has extended past November 30.

    2005 has already been a record year:

  • Most named storms: 26
  • Most hurricanes: 14
  • Most Category-5 hurricanes: 3
  • Most powerful hurricane: Wilma
  • Most major hurricanes making landfall in US: 4
  • Most US damage by a single hurricane: Katrina
  • Most US damage in US for a hurricane season: > $100 billion (previous record was set just last year)
  • One record year doesn't make a trend. Is there a trend or not?

    The Oil Drum links to this graph from the LA Times. If you compare this past decade to the other periods of above-average storm activity in the graph, I think it's clear that the most recent decade shows markedly higher activity, in terms of numbers of storms. The really important trend, though, is in something the graph doesn't show: total storm energy. Had the graph shown total storm energy rather than just the number of storms, the trend would have been considerable more dramatic. Note also the strong trend in rising ocean temperatures in the graph. No coincidence.

    In case you want to get a jump on next year, here's the Greek alphabet in full: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi, omega.

    No word yet on what we use when Greek runs out. Cyrillic? Arabic?

    Posted by Jonathan at 04:24 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 02, 2005

    Dubya's Briefing Book Environment  Humor & Fun

    A briefing book on global warming, created just for Dubya, here.

    Posted by Jonathan at 05:40 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

    December 01, 2005

    Gulf Stream Shutting Down? Environment

    The science journal Nature reports that the ocean currents that warm the North Atlantic appear to be weakening. Such weakening is one of the predictions made by global warming models. If the currents, which include the Gulf Stream, weaken significantly, average temperatures in western Europe and the UK will fall dramatically. Excerpts:

    The North Atlantic's natural heating system, which brings clement weather to western Europe, is showing signs of decline. Scientists report that warm Atlantic Ocean currents, which carry heat from the tropics to high latitudes, have substantially weakened over the past 50 years.

    Oceanographers surveying the 'Atlantic meridional overturning circulation', the current system that includes the warm Gulf Stream current, report that it seems to be 30% weaker than half a century ago.

    Failures of the Atlantic Ocean's circulation system are thought to have been responsible for abrupt and extreme climate changes during the ice age that lasted from 110,000 to 23,000 years ago. [...]

    [S]cientists are worried about the...changes measured in the North Atlantic. Both salinity and water density, which influence the transport of warm waters, have previously been found to be decreasing.

    The likely cause is more fresh water flowing into the ocean from rivers, rain and melting ice, and this is thought to be linked to global warming. But climate modellers are worried that the resulting weakening of ocean currents could ultimately lead to substantial cooling of the North Atlantic.

    The team behind the new study are the first to spot these signs of decline in Atlantic currents. [...]

    During a cruise in spring 2004 from the Bahamas to the Canary Islands, on board the British research vessel RRS Discovery, the team measured water temperature and salinity along a latitude of 25º North, taking samples roughly every 50 kilometres. [...]

    Similar measurements along the same latitude were previously made in 1957, 1981, 1992 and 1998. But until now, the data never showed any significant decline in circulation. "In 1998 we saw only very small changes," says Bryden. "I was about to give up on the problem."

    However, this time things were very different. The near-surface, and mostly wind-driven, Gulf Stream has remained almost constant since 1957. But the deep-ocean return flow of cooler water has decreased dramatically. This cycle usually returns water to more southerly latitudes from as far north as Greenland and Scandinavia.

    But much of this water now seems to be trapped in a loop in the subtropical Atlantic, instead of cycling all the way to the ocean's northern extremity. Bryden and his colleagues estimate that, overall, the circulation has slowed by about 30% since 1957.

    "This is quite sensational information in itself," says Detlef Quadfasel, an oceanographer at the University of Hamburg in Germany. "But it is also an important message to politicians who negotiate the future of the Kyoto agreements: we do change our climate." [Emphasis added]

    It is too early to be certain that a long-term trend is in motion, but it obviously doesn't look good. Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds are farther north than Irkutsk, London nearly so. Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen are farther north than Moscow.