Sunday, February 24, 2008

American Disenlightenment


A well-informed, useful, and enlightening publication is Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy (London, 2007), 464 pp. It came out in 2006; this is an update. The subtitle says: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.

The author's blurb says, "Phillips, a former Republican strategist, has been a political and economic commentator for more than three decades." He dedicated American Theocracy "to the millions of Republicans, present and lapsed, who have opposed the Bush dynasty and the disenlightenment in the 2000 and 2004 elections."

"Disenlightenment" is not a common term, but it's a fair characterization for the vector of US policy of the past decade. American Theocracy addresses a key question in environmental studies: Why US resistance to climate policies? This is the biggest puzzle there is. It arises at the crazy juncture of several insane trends: First, anthropogenic climate change became measurable in 1971 and has worsened ever since, with atmospheric CO2 now at 384 ppm. Second, the US is the perpetrator of climate change; its 4 % of world population create 30 % of world carbon emissions. While China is pulling even with the US in terms of annual per-nation carbon emissions, the US is five times more responsible for what's happening in terms of annual per-capita carbon emissions. Third, the facts have been in since Hansen et al.'s 1981 "Climate Impact of Increasing Carbon Dioxide" Science 213 (1981): 957-966 (pdf here). Science is top-notch; faulty research stands little chance of getting published. Hansen's logic was bullet-proof then, and it's bullet-proof now. "Now" and "then" are separated by a quarter-century. For more than twenty-five years, the facts are on the table. The "table" is a US journal, not a newsletter from Mongolia. The author is employed by NASA, not by a basket weaver. And yet, as recently as 2007, corporate media such as Newsweek pretended that climate change is, as they put it, "controversial."

Add the three items up and you get a crazy sum. Something bad's happening. It's the fault of the US. The nexus has been known for a quarter century. And in the past decade, the US has been in overdrive to make everything worse -- rejecting emission caps; seizing Iraq oil, boycotting Kyoto; sabotaging Bali; relentless consumerism; deregulating industries; and contributing the SUV, as the new American icon, to world culture. As Phillipps notes (p. 33):

Against a backdrop of declining national oil and gas output, Americans consume 25 percent of world energy while holding just 5 percent of its energy resources. As the new century began, Americans enjoyed a lifestyle roughly twice as energy intensive as those in Europe and Japan, some ten times the global average. Of the world's 520 million automobiles, unsurprisingly, more than 200 million were driven in the United States, and the U.S. car population was increasing at five times the rate of the human population.
Even more puzzling, the US hurts not only the Global Village but also itself. The US is too far south to enjoy any hope for beneficial effects of climate change; odds are its coasts will flood and the inland will dry out. Thus the puzzle. Why US perpetration of a blistered orb? Whence US resistance to climate management?

American Theocracy is a data bank for anyone who, like me, is confused by the madness informing (or desinforming) American environmental policies. One third of this madness comes from what can be called Petro-Imperialism (p.67). Another third comes from the prevailing American faith, the evangelical strand of protestant monotheism, and is guided, so the technical term, by Pre-Millennial Dispensationalism, the belief in the end times (p. xl). The final third comes from a "reckless credit-feeding financial complex" (p. xii); a trust in Adam Smith turned into Financialization: "a sign of late-stage debilitation [of world economic powers], marked by excessive debt, great disparity between rich and poor, and unfolding economic decline." (p 268)

Phillips paints a fine-grained picture and seeks patterns, consistently comparing the US today with 4th century Rome, 17th century Hapsburg Spain, the 18th century Dutch Republic, and 20th century Britain. In doing so, he identifies five "critical symptoms of decline" (p. 220):

One symptom is widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay, with its many corollaries. The second is a growing religious fervor, church-state relationship, or crusading insistence. Next comes a rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a corollary downplaying of science. Fourth, we often find a considerable popular anticipation of a millennial time frame: an epochal battle, emergence of the antichrist, or belief in an imminent second coming or Armageddon. Last, empires are prone to a hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach, often pursuing abstract international missions that the nation can no longer afford, economically or politically.
He adds (ibid.):
I have not included high debt levels in this set of symptoms, partly because it seems a familiar facet of great-power economic aging .... in its most deadly form, debt accompanies corrupt politics, hubris, and international overreach and then -- as we shall see -- becomes crippling in its own right.
In sum, Phillips' study helps to explain US resistance to climate management. The US is ruled by oil politicians, and hence by the enemies of climate management; it is hampered by skepticism, partly Christian, partly Humean, about human-nature interplays and biospherical dynamics; and it is fueled by debts, due partly to imperial hubris, partly to a millennialist hatred of the future.

Phillips' answer ties in with what I've called elsewhere in this blog The Gringo Square, whose four angles are David Hume's reservations about causal influence and preferences for empirical particulars (thus skepticism about the "hockey-stick" of climate forcing, and rejection of "climate" as a rational gestalt); Adam Smith's trust in the invisible hand of the free market (thus deregulation and externalization of emissions); Ayn Rand's virtue of selfishness (and thus the US conduct as a free-rider in world climate management), and Jesus of Nazareth, Bush's Philosopher, about whose Gringo perversion Phillips notes (pp. 365-366):

By 2005 Bush's broad job approval had dissipated, but the biblical and evangelical influence over American foreign policy remained in place. It was visible not only in the Middle East but in the extraordinary, conjoined global posture of the United States on a half-dozen other fronts. One was the so-called Mexico City policy of denying U.S. financial assistance (through funding by the Agency for International Development or the State Department) to any international organizations extending support to abortion, even if the activity objected to had non-U.S. funding ... Different, but also biblically connected, was unwillingness to take part in international climate-change convocations or the implementation of treaties that recognized global warming -- supposedly incompatible with the Book of Genesis -- as a human-caused atmospheric problem.


Monday, February 18, 2008

climate review January


While sifting the season's information flow, a few things got stuck in the sieve ...

Union of Concerned Scientists

common sense solution 1: the cars
common sense solution 2: the grid
common sense solution 3: the homes
common sense solution 4: the trees
common sense solution 5: the visions
ten personal climate solutions

The news ...

droughts in U.S., Mexico, Europe, Turkey etc. The Nation 11.17.07
testimony on extent of polar melt (1 h 43 m video) C-Span 11.26.07
rising seas to beat predictions BBC 12.17.07
the pacific ocean garbage patch Sidney Morning Herald 12.29.07

oil at $100/barrel 1.4.08
(Flashback -- this day nine years ago oil at $11/barrel

UK living standards outstrip US The Times (London)1.6.08
Greenland, ice and instability New York Times 1.8.08
Shipping industry's bogus climate study New Scientist 1.8.08
Aussie rant on American vehicles The Age (Melbourne) 1.9.08
Tata Nano specs BBC 1.10.08
freak weather in Iraq Breitbart 1.11.08
bad weather in Africa BBC 1.11.08
the logic of plant-animal interplays New York Times 1.11.08
worse weather in Africa BBC 1.12.08
Northeast winters hotter by 2.5 degrees San Diego Tribune 1.13.08

Antarctic ice loss speeding up Nature 1.13.08

stop roads, rebuild rails Clusterfucknation Blog 1.14.08
2000-2007 U.S. brown policies Times Herald(New York) 1.14.08
2007 tied as 2nd warmest year ever Goddard Institute 1.16.08

American concentration camp at Bahrain Asia Times 1.16.08
climate changer-in-chief gets Peak Oil PoweringDown Blog 1.17.08
Canada lists US as torture nation (German) Der Spiegel 1.17.08
Canada puts US on torture list (English) BBC 1.18.08
Torture: US on Canada's torture list (French) Le Monde 1.18.08

the end of cheap food? The Guardian (Manchester) 1.20.08

2007 record year for wind industry The Oildrum Blog 1.20.08
US censors arctic scientists The Independent (London) 1.22.08
happy face (1) on fake climate meet Financial Times 1.23.08

state of the climate Huffington Post 1.23.08

US brownest of G 8 New York Times 1.23.08

12,500 UK windfarms The Independent (London) 1.24.08
options for a 2012 climate treaty Pew Center 1.24.08
the anthropocene has begun The Independent (London) 1.26.08
big business laughs at climate The Independent (London) 1.27.08

Iditarod moved farther north Anchorage Daily News 1.28.08
freak weather in China Daily Mail (London) 1.28.08
Iraqi government tackles global warming The Lede Blog 1.28.08
the battle for food, oil, and water Financial Times (London) 1.28.08

climate -- rethinking the meat guzzler New York Times 1.29.08

US fuel efficiency worse than 20 ys ago Common Dreams 1.30.08
happy face (2) on fake climate meet Yahoo News 1.30.08
freak weather in NYC New York Sun 1.30.08
freak weather in Jerusalem The Boston Globe 1.30.08

activists create memorial to Bush's evil legacy Greenpeace 1.30.08
happy face (3) on fake climate meet Hawaii News 1.30.08

Shell's 2007 profits biggest ever The Daily Mail (London)1.31.08

UN: climate change may cost $20 trillion AP 1.31.08

duh result of fake climate meet San Fran Chronicle 2.1.08

Australia experiences hottest January ever Yahoo News 2.1.08
climate change & western drought National Geographic 2.1.08
how oil burst US bubble TomDispatch 2.1.08
happy face (4) on fake climate meet USA Today 2.2.08

rain forest shrinking speeds up AP 2.3.08
Amazon near tipping point PhysOrg 2.4.08

Greenland tipping point Yahoo 2.4.08

China freak weather & food Telegraph (London) 2.4.08

US late and lame on warming New York Times 2.4.08

climate risk areas The Guardian (London) 2.5.08

winter disappearing as season in UK Terra Daily 2.8.08
farms delete world wilderness New Scientist 2.9.08
the pacific garbage patch PeakEnergy blog 2.10.08
climate change & ocean dead zones LA Times 2.15.08

California climate change education bill Mercury News 2.15.08
status of corporate carbon portfolios It's Getting Hot blog 2.16.08

Canada oil sands pollution Reuters 2.16.08

active subglacial watersystems (pdf) Science 2.18.08
North Atlantic current and abrupt climate change Nature 2.21.08
lubricating subglacial lakes (pdf) Nature 2.22.08
lubricating lakes and fast-flowing ice streams (pdf) Nature 2.22.08


Saturday, February 02, 2008

the big lurch: 213 ft or 65 m


The February print edition of Scientific American has an article by Robin E. Bell, director of the Center for Rivers and Estuaries at Columbia U's Earth Institute, on an emerging reality in the context of climate change. The article, "The Unquiet Ice," in Sci Am 298.2 (2008): 60-67, in the public domain as a stub, is the latest word on what's happening.(1)

Here's an attempt to parse the information and make sense of it. There are three large ice sheets on the planet: one in the north, two in the south. The northern sheet is the chunk that sits on top of Greenland. The two southern pieces are the West Antarctic and the East Antarctic ice shields, with the western smaller than the eastern. The West Antarctic shield rests on the edge of the south polar continent and on top of islands. The East Antarctic ice shield sits on land. All in all, the three shields hold 99% of the world's ice.

But now they're poised to lurch. The sheets are miles thick and sit on rock. Weight and friction creates melt-water between ice and rock. There's a network of lakes and rivers underneath. The shields are glaciers, naturally, so they slowly grow, moving from the interior to the coasts, where they break into bergs and melt off. Their growth is fueled by snow fall. In the Antarctic, in particular, the coastal melt is held in check by ice aprons -- as the shields edge out beyond dry land, their rims float on the sea, and these swimming aprons are in the way of ice piling up behind. The ice queuing up first needs to push the aprons out of the way before it'll be its turn in the drink. As the aprons break off, new ice moves in. That's how it has always been. New now is this:

As the ocean warms, the aprons break up quicker. Since they function like stoppers in a bottle, uncorking the bottle makes the ice queuing up behind the apron flow freely. Broken-up aprons means uncorked bottles. The more the apron tatters, the quicker the ice flows; the quicker it flows, the faster it pushes the tattered apron out of the way. That's positive feedback 1.

As it gets warmer, there's more melt-water on top. The water trickles through cracks in the ice down to the rock. There it bloats the ancient network of rivers and lakes underneath the ice. The rock-ice interface is getting wetter. Friction decreases that would otherwise slow the moving floes. Stability decreases that would otherwise hold the sheet in place. The more slippery the interface, the faster the sheet's motion; and the faster it moves -- smearing out rivulets and ponds into wider, smoother planes -- the slicker the interface gets. That's positive feedback 2.

Add to this the albedo problem.

The more ice melts into the water, the darker the surface becomes, turning from snow white to ocean blue. The more the surface darkens, the less sun is bounced back into space. The less is reflected, the more is absorbed. The more heat is absorbed, the more ice melts into the water. That's the loop that cinches it, that promises a domino effect -- positive feedback 3.

So the new information suggests that the polar situation is becoming unbalanced. The editors at Scientific American, usually a staid and sober lot, use the adverb "catastrophically" in the header of the article. The problem is that things may go fast. The Larsen B ice shelf that broke off the Antarctic Peninsula in 2002 slid into the water and disintegrated in five weeks, from January 31 to March 7. Glaciers move slowly. Avalanches don't.

A lurch of the sheets might be a matter of months not years. A sea level rise would be a matter of days not months. The cause of the sea level rise is not ice slowly melting, but ice instantly displacing water -- the ice that drops into the water had been on land before. The water displaced by all the new bergs has no way to go but up. How much it'll go up depends.

P. 63 of the article has three maps of Florida. If the West Antarctic shield lurched, Florida would be stubbier. If the Greenland sheet leaked out of the uncorked bottle, stubby Florida would be on a diet. If the East Antarctic shield lurched, Florida would shrink into a scatter of keys north of Orlando and one island north of Panama City. The new U.S. coastline would be in Georgia.

Case 1 (West Antarctic) = 19 ft / 6 m sea level rise.

Case 2 (Greenland) = 24 ft / 7.3 m sea level rise.

Case 3 (East Antarctic) = 170 ft / 52 m sea level rise.

The sequence suggested by Scientific American is deliberate. The West Antarctic ice shield stands to let go first, since its base is the smallest (partly on islands). And it did let go before. The Greenland ice shield is already turning into a swiss cheese of watery sinkholes draining via tubular caves into the Atlantic -- didn't we all learn the new word "moulin" only a few months ago? The East Antarctic had been stable for tens of millions of years and would be the last to lurch, if at all. Lest someone accuse me of dramatizing the news or of insinuating a fallacy here -- tacitly assuming that the distinct shields would be interconnected such that if one goes, the others go -- kindly consider the albedo problem. Any shield that lurches melts. White surface turns dark blue. Ocean warms up. Warmed-up ocean eats the aprons of the other shields. So, yes, their fates are interconnected.

We might lose land. If and when all three shields let go, sea levels would rise 213 feet or 65 meters -- think Statue of Liberty up to her neck in water. There is no engineering solution for this. You can't build dikes or levees that high. You just have to call it quits and move to higher ground.

Half of us live within an hours' drive from the coasts. How many would have to move? New cities would have to be built. Old fields would be lost. More people on less land means hunger. Climate Change is already messing up Agricultural Productivity; that's last year's news. But with the Big Lurch, agricultural productivity will totally tank just when it needs to be jacked up. Paradoxically, the Big Lurch also means thirst, since the sea level rise will contaminate coastal fresh water supplies.

Another side-effect of the Big Lurch -- noted by a blogger on the SciAm site, and so far unchallenged -- would be seismic activity. Right now, there is a lot of ice sitting on the Earth's crust at the poles. That's heavy stuff. If it moves, the crust will bounce up. In this polar rebound, and with the rebound traveling along the crust, the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Plate might let go. There might be volcanic eruptions in the Americas, Indonesia, and the Pacific Rim. That would mean even more CO2. The airborne ash would mean a negative feedback loop, in cutting down sunshine, but even then, plant growth wouldn't exactly be helped with the darker skies. Plus, the air would stink.

We can't shop ourselves out of this one. Pulling a Gore -- buying new light bulbs and leasing a Prius -- won't cut it. Unfortunately, the quickest way to cut emissions would be to stop the economic clock. Climate change is a market failure of stunning proportions. It's Gaia's punishment for us being stupid enough to trust Adam Smith's invisible hand. Facing a post-capitalistic future would be scary. But did anybody really think that this sad consumerism, all bling, no soul, would, could, or should go on forever? And assuming we and the kids can surf through the worst, would it not be a relief when the ownership society is over? Would its collapse not free us to evolve to a saner existence? Getting there will be tough. But it will be greener on the other side.

What can the individual do?

Six words: Live small. Opt out. Think big.


(1) Bell's February 2008 paper is based on new data plus older studies, by Kohler in Nature 445 (2007): 830-831; Bell et al in ibid.: 904-907; Fricker et al, in Science 315 (2007): 1544-1548; and Bentley et al, UNEP Global Outlook 2007, 99-114 (part of a large pdf).