Friday, December 24, 2010
How come global warming involves winter cooling? Last winter, complicated explanations were making the rounds. Because warming is wiggly, said some. Because there's a third wiggle, said others. That's all true, but now we know better.
In the past winter, J. Hansen et al. were saying that warming wiggles up but the zigzag of the seasons still out-wiggles the warming-wiggle for now. Hence cold winters happen in the shift to a hot world and can still be expected for a few more years.
Others were pointing to another culprit, a wiggle between the warming wiggle and the season wiggle, the Arctic Roll or Arctic Oscillation (AO), a multi-decadal climate wave. Arctic sea level pressure (SLP) oscillates around a mean. For forty years the Roll is in the low index of the mean with negative values, and then it surfs to the high index with positive values. When the AO is rolling low, SLP is above normal and we see hard winters. When the AO rolls high, SLP is below normal, and the northern hemisphere enjoys mild winters. The string of hard winters 1899-1939 was followed by mild winters 1940-1988. Now we are in a string of hard winters again, presumably until 2029. So there's a third wiggle overlaying seasonal zigzag and the warming wiggle. This AO-wiggle is giving us one cold winter after another.
A year ago, we had these two accounts: wiggles happen, and we're in a cold phase. Both are empirically true, and neither of them contradicts global warming. But as they are independent events, they make for a complicated picture. The picture was that global warming is compatible with cold winters, or it can be cold when the planet is heating up. That was then. Now we know that global warming entails cold winters, or it must be cold when the planet is heating up. The simulation Petoukhov ran in "A link between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents" J of Geophysical Research 115 (2010) D21111 (pdf), suggests an explanation that's as powerful as it is elegant. It's beautiful, tight, and it is not paradoxical. Mother Nature operates perfectly rationally.
This is how it works. Because of all these Americans with their SUVs and the Chinese following suit etc., the planet heats up, and the ice floating on the Arctic sea is shrinking. It wiggles, like Nature is wont to do, but its summer thaws and winter freezes wiggle along a death spiral of no more summer ice pretty soon. What satellite pictures of the ice pulse show is that the annual maximum is getting smaller. What the pics don't show is that it's also getting thinner. So each winter there's less ice on the ocean; the frozen area is shrinking, and what's left is thin ice.
The winter blanket is smaller and threadbare. Less ice insulates less. The ocean used to be insulated by a large sheet of thick ice but is now exposed to the elements. The evil bloodsucking Republicans etc. etc. have pulled the lid off the sea, exposing warm water to the raw winds. The warmth rises from the water into the cold air. The cold air warms up. The warmed-up air expands outward.
Shrinking ice exposes water whose rising warmth creates a high pressure zone, hence air is moving outward and southbound. The Arctic winter air, warmer than it used to be but still searingly cold, travels south, arrives here, and makes our temperatures plummet. And here we are, shivering.
We learned from Ockham that great insights are not complicated, and Petoukhov's findings fit in one sentence. Amerigenic climate change peels ice off the Arctic ocean, and the sea reacts by belching up its inner warmth, yielding a widening high pressure disk over the Pole that drives frigid air ahead of itself. Air that would otherwise stay at the Pole is pushed south to Atlanta and Paris, and Tampa and Berlin.
That's why it's so cold on a heated-up planet.
Seventy-two months left.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
The 2010 United Nations climate change summit, also known as the 16th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (in the acronym-happy UN, that's COP-16 UNFCCC), took place about 800 klicks or 500 miles from Tampa across the Gulf of Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula in Cancun Nov 29 to Dec 10. The results are mixed and can be spun in different ways. Cancun "ends with a modest deal on emissions," says the New York Times; it led to a "compromise," writes Der Spiegel; it amounts to a "surprising success," notes The Economist. Nouvel Observateur captures the ambiguity nicely: Cancun boils down to "timid advances," but then again, especially after Copenhagen, it was really a "giant breath of fresh air" (un immense bol d'air).
The result is the "outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on long-term cooperative action under the Convention": the Cancun Agreement. There is a refreshing rationality to the document. To wit: Climate change "represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies" (preamble);
"adverse effects of climate change have a range of ... implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights" (preamble);
"climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time" (#1);
"scaled-up overall mitigation efforts ... are necessary" (#2a);
"adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation" (#2b);
"capacity-building is essential" (#2e);
"warming of the climate system is unequivocal" (#3);
"deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required" (#4);
we must "hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 C above pre-industrial levels" (#4);
and lastly, "addressing climate change requires a paradigm shift towards buliding a low-carbon society" (#10).
The Cancun Agreement codifies the cognitive consensus shared by the peoples of the world except the majority of US Americans. While the consensus is nothing new, the Agreement is the first global treaty to decree a temp rise of +2 C as safe upper limit.
There's also a practical result. The Conference of the Parties (#100) has decided "that a significant share of the new multilateral funding for adaptation should flow through the Green Climate Fund," which is to say that a pot of money is to be set aside (they're saying $ 100 billion) to help developing nations with mitigation and adapation.
And yes, this is good. Especially when you put it in context. Compared to other climate summits, COP-16 was a step forward. Think of how the discussion started and where it is now.
COP-1 Berlin 1995, UN: "Um, you know, this climate thing really sucks, and it's kinda scary, and we should do something about it."
COP-3 Kyoto 1997, UN: "Alrighty, so us rich folks agree to ease off the throttle a bit, and yes, we know that the reduction targets are too wimpy to make a difference, and yes, we also know that the Americans screwed it up, by bullying everyone else to agree on wimpy targets only, but, hey, at least we've got something here."
COP-6 The Hague 2000, USA: "Sorry world, we read Ayn Rand and the Bible, and so we don't give a hoot about saving the planet. But if you bleeding-heart foreign liberals want to be goody-two-shoes, we won't stop you. Now excuse us, we've got some invading to do."
COP-13 Bali 2007, where the representative from Papua New Guinea spoke for everyone (and this is a real quote): "There's an old saying if you're not going to lead you should get out of the way, and so I say to the United States: we ask for your leadership but if you are not going to lead, leave it to us. Get out of the way."
COP-14 Poznan 2008, where UN Secretary-General Ban said (another real quote), "What we need today is leadership: leadership by you. We look for that leadership from the European Union."
COP-15 Copenhagen 2009, ending in a sorry cacophony of voices:
EU: well then, leadership it is, so lets get down to brass-tacks, lads and ladies, and let's cut emissions by a third for starters." --
US: "But ... cutting emissions ain't good for Detroit motors! And us Democrats are afraid of them Republicans! And they think climate change ain't real! We can't tick them off! Cutting emissions? Do you realize how many problems we have now because of eight years of Bush? We need another challenge like we need a hole in the head! The two wars basically bankrupted us. We don't have any extra money, not to mention wiggle-room. We're glad if we can hold on to the status quo. Cutting emissions? Plus our people are really confused whether this climate thing is actually for real and are definitely not happy to make any sacrifices for the greater good just because a bunch of nerdy scientists tell them so." --
China: "Cutting down emissions? Now? When we just got started with our industrial revolution? Don't you remember that industrial revolutions are dirty? What do you want us to do? Remain an agrarian society and forgo large-scale industrialization? So basically the EU wants us to take one for the team? Screw this! We're mainlanders, we're next in line, and now it's our turn!"
Developing World: "Well, this sucks, because without emission cuts we'll go down, but China has a point: why take one for the team? Especially when the team is the rich folks up North who screwed up the climate in the first place? Why should we poor folks down South foot the bill? Something's not fair here. We gotta talk about it."
And at COP-16 Cancun 2010 they did. Hence the Green Climate Fund. Now the playing field levels a bit.
Seventy-two months left.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Trends: food situation worsens; jungles won't make it.
American Disenlightenment: Republican skeptics take over climate, energy, environ panels; Wisc., Ohio reject high-speed rail funds; WikiLeaks shows how US & China sabotaged COP-15 Copenhagen.
Global Enlightenment: China boosts bullets (longest, fastest, newest)
Cancun: despite all odds, manages to make a deal.
Seventy-two months left.
Saturday, December 04, 2010
Seventy-two months left.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Seventy-three months left.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Not all U.S. Republicans are corrupt, dim-witted climate skeptics. Meet the exception: Rep. Bob Inglis, Republican of South Carolina, ranking member of the Energy & Environment Subcommittee, and a man of integrity, who went yesterday on record against deniers at a House Science subcommittee hearing on the science of climate change. The only buzz-kill is that Inglis is an outgoing House Representative. He was defeated. He stated that his "belief in climate science was partly responsible" for his election defeat.
Okay. I want you to stop right here and savor this turn of phrase. His belief in climate science. In American English this is now a proper phrase. It is acceptable, grammatically and culturally, to speak of one's "belief in climate science." Just as there are some who believe in Santa Claus, and some who don't, there are the select few Americans who believe in climate science.
This is what deepening disenlightenment means. And this sickness of the American mind is bound to enter the history books. In the twentieth century, eighty years ago, there were some Germans, not many, but a few, who believed that Jews were people like you and me. Others, the many, the loud, and the well-funded disagreed. They believed that Jews were their misfortune. The majority of Germans then decided that the Jews were a race out to get them. They even had think tanks committed to the cause. Where did they get this wit and wisdom from? Beats me. I guess they pulled it out of their asses. But remember, this stuff stays in the history books.
For all times to come, for all future generations, the Germans will be known as the one people who once went nuts and evil and fired up the ovens at Auschwitz in the 2oth century. And for all times to come, for all future generations, due to Tea Partiers & Republicans-sans-Inglis, the Americans will be known as the one people who went nuts and evil and caused global heating in the 21st century. And pulled the plug on policies such as cap and trade. Yesterday the only national carbon cap-and-trade exchange in the United States, the Chicago Climate Exchange, called it quits.
In the 1950s, it was a somewhat iffy proposition to walk around in Europe and show that you're German. In the 2030s, I predict it's going to be an equally iffy proposition to move about in the world and show that you're American. Watch out, America! Don't go so nuts and evil on the world! Historians track every move you make.
This is what Inglis said:
"And we're here with [an] important decision to be made. And I would also suggest to my Free Enterprise colleagues--especially conservatives here--whether you think it's all a bunch of hooey, what we've talked about in this committee, the Chinese don't.
"And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century. They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that'll lead the twenty-first century.
"So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button. And as a result, if we wake up in several years and we say, geez, this didn't work very well for us [...] then what we'll find is we're way behind those Chinese folks. [...]
"And you know what? They plan on leading the future."
Seventy-three months left.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
About a month ago The Economist devoted an issue to economic growth, or rather, to the lack thereof, called “The Quest for Growth.” On the cover (see above) is a guy straining to push a few hairs out of his pate. Underneath it says, grow, dammit, grow! The IMF published its semi-annual World Economic Outlook in October, Recovery, Risk, and Rebalancing. Of course “recovery” refers to the fact that stalled growth sickens the economy. Of course economies are sick when they don't grow, healthy when they do; ‘health’ and ‘growth’ are synonyms. (An oncologist would beg to differ, but economics ain't medicine.) As the foreword (p. 15) by O. Blanchard makes clear, “unless advanced economies can count on stronger private demand, both domestic and foreign, they will find it difficult to achieve fiscal consolidation. And worries about sovereign risk can easily derail growth.”
Everyone is affected. I’m no exception. The position I hold at the University of South Florida since 1995 was created as a line to meet new needs in the Philosophy Department and the Environmental Science & Policy program. Philosophy was expanding and had to have someone in German thought, especially Kant; Environmental Studies (ESP) was planned as a department and needed builders and teachers.
That I have a job is the direct result of Florida’s boom years. That close friends are out of jobs now is the direct result of the boom having come to an end. Right now Philosophy is doing fine, because it’s close to the core of the educational mission of the university, and because it’s supportive of the signature area of the university, sustainability. But as a state university, the school depends on funds that the state of Florida gets through taxes, whose amount depends on how business is doing. With business slow and unemployment high, fewer people pay fewer taxes; this translates into less money for educating the next generation. So … grow, dammit, grow!
As the core statement of the Institute of Growth Studies (Giessen, 2008) puts it, “continuous growth is seen as the benchmark for any successful economic policy and is therefore the most urgent objective for any government that wants to stay in office. While politicians, interest-groups, and think-tanks fiercely debate the conditions under which this goal can be achieved most effectively, there is hardly any dispute about the necessity to meet it. The reason for this is very simple: without economic growth unemployment rises, social secularity systems are not sustainable and funding education and research becomes difficult.”
On the side of the Earth system, the need NOT to grow is also imperative. The world population grew from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000 (in 2010, the world population is close to 6.9 billion). The world economy grew even faster. Chapter 5 of the IMF's World Economic Outlook (May 2000) is a summary of ‘the world economy in the twentieth century’. The authors state (p. 150-151), “the total amount of goods and services produced in the twentieth century is estimated to have exceeded the cumulative total output over the preceding recorded human history … Between the years 1900 and 2000 world GDP at constant prices has increased about 19-fold, corresponding to an average annual rate of growth of 3 percent."
Because of this fourfold increase of our numbers and nineteen-fold increase of the market, we are hurtling from the Holocene into the Anthropocene. The first price of growth is the greatest extinction of species the Earth has seen for the past sixty-five million years. But because of this double human increase in numbers and wealth, pressure on resources has grown excessive. We have crossed the sustainable-yield thresholds of pretty much all the resources we use. So the other price we pay is that we’re running out of good stuff.
Our pressure on nature pushes the Earth System away from of its current optimal state. We are impairing the dampening mechanisms or negative feedbacks that keep the system in balance. Thus the third and lethal price of growth is climate change. As Lovelock succinctly put it in his most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Basic Books, 2009), 156, “Global heating would not have happened but for the rapid expansion in numbers and wealth of humanity.”
Lovelock has mixed feelings (p. 85), “to become carbon neutral, to put on sandals and a hair shirt and follow the green puritans”. But what else can we do? (The sister site, blisterdata, has suggestions right on top.) The problem is a conflict of economy and Earth, and in this conflict neither side yields. We are pushing climate out of whack. All the multinationals financing the GOP denial machine cannot change this fact. It’s physics. At the same time we're committed to growth, because if we don’t grow, we won’t have jobs. Global civilization renounced the vision of communism and is stuck with the market. And markets must grow. But the fact that seven billion people on the planet seem to embrace McDonalds and dismiss Karl Marx fails to assuage the Marxist suspicion that capitalism risks collapse through its inner contradictions. Unfortunately Gaia votes communist.
At this point in time it sure looks as if capitalism lacks the flexibility to evolve to a stable system. There doesn’t seem to be a snowball’s chance in hell for the political will to re-engineer our economies accordingly. We need jobs, no? Grow, dammit, grow! And at this point in time it seems inconceivable how the economic stagnation that would be required by biospherical balance could ever amount to social stability—just as it seems inconceivable how economic downsizing, demanded by a sustainable world, could ever amount to collective prosperity. And yet conceiving of the inconceivable is what we need to do. For if we don’t, the future will simply be the meeting of an irresistible force with an immovable object.
It’s physics. We have work to do. Seventy-three months left.
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Disenlightenment deepened last night yet another notch. Der Spiegel calls the 2010 US midterm election an election of fury and writes (in German), "only two years after Barack Obama's victory of hope, the nation is demoralized, divided, and fuming. Now the angriest have screamed the loudest and managed to grab a seat at the table of power."
The Guardian's analysis of the election sums up what's most relevant for civil evolution in the headline, "Barack Obama's green agenda crushed at the ballot box." The lead is, "with a slew of new climate change deniers entering Congress, Barack Obama's environmental ambitions are now dead." It appears that the election's sleeper issue was the cap-and-trade system.
"It saw the defeat of a handful of Democrats from conservative states who voted for last year's climate change bill." So there will be no new climate legislation. The US cannot support any global mitigation attempts anymore. A new Chevron-backed proposition has passed that requires a two-thirds majority for new state taxes. The House of Representatives is poised for "sweeping investigations of climate science and of Obama administration officials such as Lisa Jackson,who heads the EPA."
In principle it is great that a third party arises from a grassroots movement, despite the quite undemocratic Electoral College whose winner-takes-all system perpetuates a two-party system in the US. But what an irony this is! Finally a grassroots movement goes to Washington and seizes power, and then it turns out that these revolutionaries and idealists are just the same old paleo-conservatives as the Republicans, both pushing for a predatory corporate agenda, both heavily funded by multinational corporations, both wanting a future of more consumerism, more arms, more oil, and both wallowing in denial of climate science.
So phase two begins. A biospherical storm is gathering at the horizon. And as the sky darkens and the wind picks up, the most powerful nation on the planet has decided to cross its arms in ideological defiance and proudly say there is no storm.
Seventy-three months left.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Two trends are now set on collision course. One, climate change is accelerating and has entered runaway mode. Two, the top perpetrator, responsible for a third of cumulative world emissions, for the highest-per-capita share of emissions on the planet at present, and for the decade-long international policy stalemate, the United States of America, is sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of its own making.
Is climate change accelerating? Well, the easiest way to see that it does is to look at the Assessment Reports (AR), prepared by specialists and researchers for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the United Nations every five years or thereabouts. Four Assessment Reports have been completed, 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007; AR 5 is being prepared, with publication anticipated 2013 or 2014. These reports are the fruit of the largest peer-reviewed enterprise ever undertaken to identify the emerging realities. There has never been any other scientific collaboration of such magnitude in the history of civilization.
In contrast to Republican think tank members, Fox TV pundits, radio heads, and other so-called experts cited by corporations and their law firms, contributors to these reports are just regular scientists on normal salaries, who can state their findings freely because they hold tenure in academia, and who are not paid for voicing pro-corporate and pro-carbon opinions. So these reports are as authoritative as it gets.
The sequence of reports evokes an ever grimmer picture. First the consensus had been that climate change is likely; now it is that climate change is certain. The original judgment was that climate change will be trouble; now the trend goes towards perceiving climate change as a catastrophe. And just as one used to think that we could stop global warming through policy measures, now it appears we might be able to stop the worst only if we revolutionize civilization.
And we all know the numbers by now, don’t we? “Global average surface temperatures during the last three decades have been progressively warmer than all earlier decades, making 2000-2009 (the 2000s) the warmest decade in the instrumental record” (NOAA State of the Climate 2009, c 2 p 29). The year 2010 is set to become the hottest year ever; it has also been the first year with a near-worldwide heat-wave this summer, spanning the globe from Ireland to Taiwan to Florida.
It has also been the year with the first climatic mega-events—the mad winter in Mongolia that killed off so much livestock and drove so many herders into poverty and into the cities; the deepening drought in Bolivia that threatens the entire society there; the millennium-fires in Russia, with giant swaths of Siberia ablaze; the millennium-flood in Pakistan, with the agriculture in ruins and millions now homeless … yes, boys and girls, the shit’s going down. So, climate change is accelerating.
And it has entered runaway mode. This means that the events set in motion cannot be fully stopped anymore. For even suppose all the rich countries suddenly see the light, and a worldwide mitigation project gets fired up, it just doesn't look as if we could reverse the changes already underway. We discovered this year that we cannot refreeze the Arctic. No matter what we do now, the melt-off will inexorably continue.
That’s the one trend. The other trend is the American Disenlightenment. The battle between the Democrats and the Republicans-cum-Tea-Partiers is a contest over the identity of the United States. The former hope to keep the United States a liberal democracy; the latter hope to turn it into a policy front for corporations. The Democrats accept the reality of climate change but are so stuck in the consumerist-capitalist mind-set, that their initiatives had been limited. Much of this half-hearted plan cannot be realized now anyway, since the Republicans in the US Senate killed the climate legislation bill.
How did things ever go so wrong? Who would have thought that the post-Vietnam USA would again invade other countries for made-up reasons? That Americans would build concentration camps and use torture methods such as waterboarding that the Gestapo had made infamous? That Americans would start waging war on their own wilderness, with a never-before-seen roll-back of environmental legislation—much of it which had originally been Republican initiatives—a war that would lead to mountain-top removal in Appalachia, well-drilling in the Great Plains, and deep-see drilling (and spilling) in the Gulf? All because of coal, gas, and oil? Who would have thought that a people once with the vision to fight the Nazis and to send a man to the moon now resist joining in the global effort to save civilization from heat death?
The Democrats made the mistake in 2009 to work with the Republicans. They should have pressured the GOP to purge its ranks of war-criminals, torture-condoners, and climate fiends. I would have liked to see GOP functionaries on trial -- not only for the sake of justice, but also for pragmatic and historical reasons. Germany rose from the ashes because the Allies helped the defeated nation to de-Nazify. How could it have been otherwise? Could have post-war Germany recovered with Nazis still running around freely? To the extent invading Iraq '03 was as heinous as invading Poland '39, Bush is like Hitler. But by shying away from a clean break with the crimes committed under Bush, this makes Obama resemble Dönitz—a tragic figure who wished for change but remained glued to the status quo.
Well, perhaps Obama can still be an Adenauer of sorts. Change cannot be avoided anymore. The only question is whether the US will still rise to the occasion or be effectively left behind, as an impoverished people in a parched land, facing bitter weather.
Seventy-four months left.
Friday, October 08, 2010
Register your 10/10/10 event here...
The empirical data are clear: the Macondo well blowout, Deepwater Horizon explosion, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or whatever you call it, is the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. It is also the largest marine oil spill in the history of human civilization.
And it wasn’t an accident. It was corruption. The explosion happened because a gas bubble got into the drill pipe, igniting and shooting up to the rig. The fiery bubble shot up because a blowup preventer (BOP) failed. The BOP failed because it hadn’t been fitted with an acoustically-activated trigger that would seal the pipe should the BOP ever go on the fritz. And the BOP hadn’t been fitted with this trigger because U.S. regulations didn’t require its installation – although common sense would have dictated it (backup safety devices are generally a good idea) and regulations elsewhere, say, for drilling in European waters, require it.
The Minerals Management Service (MRM) didn’t require it because this regulatory branch of the Department of the Interior was staffed by Bush-clones from the very companies they were tasked to regulate. The regulators-to-be received kickbacks and gifts from the to-be-regulated. The same guys were sometimes regulators and regulated: a revolving door linked agency and industry. Corporate lobbyists were appointed as agency directors, and ex-agency directors went to work for the oil companies. Licenses were up for grabs, rules were waived, corners were cut; it was drill baby drill, Wild West, and Republican oil craze all in one.
After the oil gushed from the well, MRM’s corruption caught federal attention. The Obama administration restructured and partly re-staffed the agency. Some people were let go, and the MMR was renamed as Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement.
And no one went to jail. The Democrats cannot take on the Republicans, since both parties are dialing for the same corporate dollars. Presumably for the same reason that no Republicans were tried in 2009 and 2010 for war crimes and environmental crimes committed under the Bush regime, all former Republican appointees at MRM were given a pass. Corruption is so endemic in America, and the multinationals-GOP alliance has become so in-your-face, that no one goes to prison for bribes now. (With good timing, P. Krugman wrote on another GOP-corporate fusion this week.)
I don't like calling for Americans to go to jail. The USA is already Prison Planet, as The Economist reported this summer under the subtitle, “Never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little.” The US prison population in state and federal prisons and local jails rose from 0.5 million inmates in 1980 to nearly 2.5 million inmates in 2009, even though the number of violent crimes did not rise at all. The US has 748 inmates per 100,000 population, more than any other country. Russia has 600, Brazil 240, Iran 220, Britain 150, China 130, Canada 120, France 95, Germany 80, and Japan 65. Most people are locked up for activities not considered deserving of punishment in enlightened societies, such as recreational drugs and commercial sex. Other inmates are locked up because exploding legal bills forced them to change their pleas to guilty.
In contrast to the countless non-criminals behind U.S. bars, and as the deregulation responsible for the Gulf oil spill illustrates, the Republican tools owned by predatory corporations do harm to society, economy, and environment. In a more progressive society, these Republicans would now rot in jail. In the American Disenlightenment, such clowns run free.
Seventy-four months left.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
(On second thought, slightly revised 1 Oct 2010...)
News came in last Sunday, five months after the blowout, that the Macondo well is finally sealed. On 20 April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing eleven workers (plus two who died later) and leading to an out-of-control gusher at the bottom of the seafloor, 1,500 m deep and 66 km from the Louisiana coast. In May BP tried to disperse and collect the oil; efforts to seal the well failed. In June, a plug was inserted in the well-head, and some of the oil was siphoned off to a tanker. In July a cap was put on the wellhead; on 10 July 2010 BP said that the cap was holding, but it wasn’t clear whether oil was still seeping out. Relief-wells were drilled. In August, the containment was strengthened. On 19 Sept 2010 the well was declared sealed.
Estimates of the spill amount vary, partly because of BP’s attempted cover-up (barring scientists outside the company from examining the site), partly because of the US government lowballing the numbers. Why the federal government tried to hide the damage and protect the corporation is not entirely clear. There are also physical reasons for the variation in estimate. The spill happened a mile below the surface. The mixture spilled consisted of heavy crude, light oil, and gas, with the heavy stuff sinking to the ground, the light stuff rising to the surface, and the rest hovering as giant plumes in the deep. The corporation sprayed dispersant to make the oil that had risen to the surface go away again. From a physicist’s viewpoint, dispersing oil while collecting oil is stupid—if you scatter it you can't gather it, and if you gather it you shouldn’t scatter it. From a sociologist’s perspective, using dispersants during collection is smart, because the US culture is empirically oriented. If you don't see it, it can't be bad. Indeed, various GOP leaders said just that. (The same out-of-sight-out-of-mind cognition contributes to climate denial in the U.S. culture.)
Best estimates came from outside academics not on the corporate payroll or under federal pressure. The oil spill lasted 87 days. The amount spilled is 205 mil gallons or 4.9 mil barrels according to the New York Times, 870 mil liters or 600,000 tons of crude according to Die Zeit, and 780,000 cubic meters according to Nouvel Obs. It is the largest marine oil spill in human history. (Two spills on land, the 1991 Kuwait-Iraq Gulf War spill and the 1910 California Lakeview gusher, were larger.) Let’s put this in context. The worst spill for Europeans was the 1978 Amoco Cadiz breaking up at France’s coast, spilling 1.6 mil barrels of crude. The worst spill for Americans before 2010 was the Exxon Valdez shipwreck at Alaska’s Prince William sound in 1989, spilling between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels. What happened in the Gulf 2010 was three times as bad as the Amoco Cadiz spill, and between six and nineteen times as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill.
Some argue that the Macondo blowout was not as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill. The former occurred in the Gulf in summer, when air and sea temps are hot. The latter occurred in Alaska in March, when air and sea temps are cold. The heat in and over the Gulf, they say, allowed much oil to evaporate and be eaten by bacteria. The cold at Prince William Sound let the oil wash onshore as is. It sounds sensible and would be nice if it were true. Two problems, though. One, the bacteria in the Gulf ate the methane but not the oil. Two, the oil spilled in the deep sea, where the temps are cold too; only little of the oil made it to the surface where heat is a factor.
The oil that rests on the ground and hovers in plumes will in all likelihood create dead zones. The marine ecosystem is running, but not as well anymore. American Capitalism has done to the Gulf what Soviet Communism once did to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic went partly dead; jelly fish took over; biodiversity plummeted. The Gulf awaits a similar fate. Here heat is a liability. Cold waters are nutrient-rich, warm waters are nutrient-poor. Gulf temps are rising with climate change anyway, and the anoxic zones that may emerge would only speed up the marine desertification. This also means that the Gulf’s climatic function, to take up atmospheric carbon, is now impaired.
But all of this is systemic and subtle, rational and predictive. It’s not empirically ‘there’ or in your face. The beaches are pristine. The water is great. The swimming is awesome. It’s back to the old normal. There are still no solar collectors on people’s houses. There are no wind turbines in sight. There are no new nuclear power plants. The government still refuses to give subsidies to green housing. Florida construction companies or at least those that haven’t gone under yet still build inefficient McMansions. There’s still the same giant volume of automobile traffic on Florida’s highways. Most motorists still drive obese SUVs, outsized pickups, and infantile Hummers. Only Mexican gardeners and the Mad Hun bicycle. The first modest high speed rail project in Florida is still an open question; the received federal funds must be matched by state funds for construction to start, and the state coffers are empty. A subway system isn’t even on the drawing board. No Floridian would even dream about building a metro here; they say the city’s too close to sea level and there’s water underground. Shanghai and Kaohsiung (Taiwan) are as close to sea level as Tampa is, both have terrific subway systems, with very cool Siemens-built trains. France and England are joined by the 50 km long high-speed Chunnel under the North Sea. But, it appears that the engineering vision realized in Europe and Asia remains a foreign perspective here.
All in all, the BP oil spill wasn’t big enough to make Gulf Coast residents shake off their carbon complacency. From what I see in Tampa Bay, the American Disenlightenment continues. To me, that's the meaning of the Macondo blowout in the Gulf. At least, that's the environmental sense I draw from it. Scott Schneider rightly reminded me, however, that the ethical dimension of Macondo is an altogether different story.
To be continued ...
Seventy-five months left.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
More than 14 percent of the US population, I read in the NYT today (9.18.10, B Herbert, ”Two Different Worlds”), now lives in poverty. Yesterday I read in the Economist (9.9.10, Report on Latin America) that Chile's proportion of poor people has fallen to less than 14 percent.
But this post is not about the Bush legacy. There's a bigger picture, of the forcing of world climate and the declining stability of the Earth system. The cover of Scientific American’s current issue, vol. 303, no. 3, is held in red, with two words dominating the page: the end.
One of the features of this month’s issue, under the rubric “risk analysis,” is “Laying the Odds on the Apocalypse,” by J Matson, 82-83. It’s all in good cheer (or not), as the author puts the odds for runaway global warming at “one in 2 in the next 200 years”. The risk he’s worried about (p. 82), citing H Pollack, professor at Michigan, emeritus in geophysics, and author of A World Without Ice (2009), is that it’ll be “touch and go as to whether we can actually achieve the avoidance of Greenland and West Antarctic ice loss,” which would raise global sea levels by 12 m (39 ft). “The consequences of displacing so many people—the world has never dealt with something like that.”
Maybe the chances of the lesser of the South Polar ice sheets slipping, and of Greenland’s interior ice melting and draining, are fifty-fifty in the next two centuries, who knows. Two years ago Sci Am published a paper by R Bell on how this might go (key phrase: greasing the skids). And surely, since half of the world's population lives within 100 km of the sea, this would mean upheaval. Here at the campus of the University of South Florida I’m 6 m (19 ft) above sea levels. All of south Florida, up to Gainesville, would have to be evacuated—that’s twelve million people.
But this nonlinear specter of climate forcing is just one of many climate worries. Plus, it's still a long shot. It isn’t the really dangerous stuff. The real danger is that more heat means less water. The danger is dwindling agricultural productivity. Just look at Darfur. Sudan’s humanitarian catastrophe was brought on by violence; violence was partly worsened, partly brought on by scarcity; scarcity was brought on by environmental decline, and that was brought on by the monsoon not coming as regularly anymore as it once did. Darfur is now too dry for both farmers and herders coexisting on the same land. So they’re killing each other.
Shrinking harvests, I think, is the ugly reality of climate change. Slipping ice sheets makes for a good story. Crappy crop yields in poor countries doesn't. Right now the Arctic sea ice reflects eighty percent of the solar radiation. When the ice floes dissolve in sea water, only twenty percent of insolation will be bounced back. The rest will feed straight into the Earth system. Think of a wooden shack in the desert heat with a block of ice inside. As long as the sea ice is there, it cools things down. Once the ice is gone, the shack will get hot. We’ve hit the summer sea ice minimum now. It’s less than 2009, and the third lowest overall. Charting a graph yields a picture that Tamino calls a death spiral.
And nothing is done. J Sachs, professor at Columbia, director of the Earth Institute, and columnist at Scientific American, wrote a farewell column called “The Deepening Crisis” (read full text here). It’s a scathing conclusion and a damning verdict. Excerpts:
Seventy-five months left.
During the four years of this column, the world's inability to face up to the reality of the growing environmental crisis has become even more palpable. Every major goal that international bodies have established for global environmental policy as of 2010 have been postponed, ignored, or defeated. Sadly, this year will quite possibly become the warmest on record, yet another testimony of human-induced environmental catastrophes running out of control.
This was to be the year of biodiversity. In 2002 nations pledged ... to slow significantly the planetary loss of biodiversity by 2010. This goal was not even remotely achieved. Indeed, it was barely even noticed by Americans: the U.S. signed the convention in 1992 but never ratified it. Ratification fell victim to the uniquely American delusion that virtually all of nature should be subdivided into parcels of private property, within which owners should have their way.
This year was also to be the start of a new post-Kyoto treaty, but that effort was stillborn by the continuing paralysis of U.S. policy making. President Barack Obama came empty-handed to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, and the U.S., China and other powers settled for a nonbinding declaration of sentiments and goals rather than an operational strategy and process of implementation.
According to Obama's 2008 election campaign, this was to be the first year of a new climate and energy policy for the U.S., too, and the second year of a "green recovery". We've had neither. The recovery has sputtered: Obama bet on "stimulating" exhausted consumers rather than on a long-term program of public investments in sustainable infrastructure. The Senate, true to form, sustained its 18th year of inaction on global warming since ratifying the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. ... We are losing not just time but the margin of planetary safety, as the world approaches or trespasses on various thresholds of environmental risks. With the human population continuing to rise by 75 million or more per year and with torrid economic growth in much of the developing world, the burdens of deforestation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, ocean acidification, and other massive threats intensify ... [We must] bring objective science to the public sphere and to empower a democratic citizenry who must become responsible stewards of the planet before it is too late.
Monday, September 06, 2010
Surfing the data wave can sweep one into troubled waters. Contradictory swirls abound these days. One the one hand there's The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009), the best yet of J. Lovelock's Gaia-series, a persuasive argument for why we are at the brink. Lovelock's views are shared by the likes of E. O. Wilson, J. Hansen, or the late S. Schneider. Numerous recent and well-researched books evoke a dark future. Some of them are Houghton's Global Warming (2004), Flannery's Weathermakers (2005), Wilson's Creation (2006), Ward's Under a Green Sky (2007), Pearce's With Speed and Violence (2007), and Hansen's Storms of my Grandchildren (2009). Every year, more peer-reviewed articles with worrisome findings appear. S. Rahmstorf (Science '07) showed how the IPCC underestimates global warming; the speed of events, such as that of sea level rise, is outpacing the AR projections. J. Polovina (Geophys Res Let '08) showed a feedback loop between heat and algae; algae cool oceans down, but as sea water temps creep higher, the algae die. It's like brakes melting off a runaway train. N. Shakova (Geophys Res Abstr 2008) observed methane outgassing in the tundra; another loop: rising GHG concentrations thaw the tundra, which releases CH4, raises GHG concentrations, and thaws the tundra more. E. Shur (Nature 2009) found another nasty loop: the more outgassing takes place, the less carbon plants can take up. This is yet another brakeshoe melting off the runaway train. Each single positive feedback loop alone, the speed, the algae, the methane, the carbon uptake, is already disturbing. But all of them together? And I haven't even mentioned the extra heating that will start up in the Arctic basin once the floating polar ice will be gone. Eighty percent sunlight will then be absorbed in the North Polar sea, instead of the twenty percent now. Then we'll all feel the heat. We're looking at a lengthening queue of extremely scary harbingers.
On the other hand, a paper appeared by C. Raudsepp-Hearne (Bioscience 2010), which reminds us that despite the environmental decline human wellbeing is getting ever better. D. Biello at the Scientific American blog rightly asks, if the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?
So what is it now? Are we going down? Or is it just that nature as our grandparents had known it is vanishing, while we're actually doing fine? Has technology decoupled our wellbeing from that of the biosphere, as the Bioscience authors seem to suggest?
Does this mean we can finally relax? Or is this global situation now similar to the Florida housing bubble right before it burst, when everybody was happily maxing out their credit cards?
In the midst of such contradictory eddies and whirls it is refreshing to read an account of the new reality at the science news site of New York Times. At the topics site dedicated to climate news, there's a recently updated summary of global warming, which is as good as it gets:
There are some qualifiers, to be sure, but more about them next time.
Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. On the one hand, warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases--produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests. On the other, the technological, economic, and political issues that have to be resolved before a concerted worldwide effort to reduce emissions can begin have gotten no simpler, particularly in the face of a global economic slowdown.
World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in Dec 2009 for a session that had been years in the making but that fell short of even the lowered expectations with which it opened. The 192 nations in attendance at the end merely agreed to try to reach a binding accord before a follow-up meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in Dec 2010. By the summer, Ban-Ki moon, the UN Secretary General, was saying that no sweeping accord was likely, and recommending that a better approach might consist of small steps in separate fields that built toward wider consensus.
At the heart of the international debate is a momentous tussle between rich and poor countries over who steps up first and who pays most for changed energy menus.
In the US, Democratic leaders in the Senate in July 2010 gave up on reaching even a scaled-down climate bill, in the face of opposition from Republicans and some energy-state Democrats. The House had passed a broad cap-and-trade bill in 2009.
In the meantime, recent fluctuations in temperature have intensified the public debate over how urgently to respond. A string of large snowstorms in the Washington area and freezing weather in Florida in the winter of 2009-2010 were seized on by climate change skeptics. but the combination of flooding, heat waves and droughts in the summer were taken by most researchers trained in climate analysis as evidence to show that weather extremes are getting worse.
The long-term warming trend over the last century has been well-established, and scientists immersed in studying the climate are projecting substantial disruption in water supplies, agriculture, ecosystems and coastal communities. Passionate activists at both ends of the discourse are pushing ever harder for or against rapid action, while polls show the public locked durably in three camps--with roughly a fifth of American voters eager for action, a similar proportion aggressively rejecting projections of catastrophe and most people tuned out or confused. (read more)
Seventy-five months left.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
After coming back from Asia, I screened the data flow about climate change and wrote up two posts on the data bank, one two weeks ago, another over the past few days. Point, as always, is to find a gestalt, of what's been happening to Mama Gaia over the summer. Backdrop of this gestalt is the just published NOOA report, the upshot being that 2009 was warmer than 2008, that 2009 was one of the top 10 warmest years on record, the 2000s (the decade from 2000 to 2009) was the warmest decade on record, and that 2009 was the 19th consecutive year that the world's glaciers have been losing mass.
This year we've seen an amazingly extensive heatwave covering the entire northern hemisphere, blistering Russia and blanketing Eurasia from coast to coast, from Ireland and Britain to Taiwan and Japan. Concurrently the heatwave set temperature records from Las Vegas to New York. Has a heatwave of this extent ever happened before? From new year to late summer, we've also seen flood extremes, worst in Pakistan, and violent seasonal swings, worst in Mongolia.
Since starting this blog, I've felt like one of those surreal archivists in a sci-fi novel by Clifford P Simak, or a witness to a world that would give birth to a Walter M. Miller-like Canticle for Leibowitz. And now I'm getting the feeling climate change is shifting into second gear.
P.S.: sorry to say so, because I wish speedy recovery to the Gulf shrimpers, but Gulf of Mexico shrimp right now taste like dish soap, which is presumably the flavor of Corexit. They also give you a stomach ache, which is no surprise, because the dispersant is toxic.
Seventy-five months left.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Three months and a week the blog had lain dormant. Now summer recess is over. Fall term is about to start. And blistered orb is back.
For archivists of these historic times and for philosophers wondering about the worldly wisdom of it all, 2010 does not disappoint. Wow!!! I mean look at this: atmospheric CO2 concentrations are creeping up to 390 ppmv worldwide, 40 ppmv in the red zone above safe limits, and no one's stopping it. The COP-15 Copenhagen talks collapsed ten months ago, and the COP-16 Mexico City talks are getting bad press before they've even started. Meanwhile 2010 is the hottest year ever, and the symptoms of climate change are becoming spectacular. Looking for culprits? Blame China, Russia, and the fabulous USA. Because of these three, we're still without any plan, blueprint, or accord to replace Kyoto, set to expire 2012. The species has no decarbonization timetable, no binding emissions limits, and no blueprint for evolving to a sustainable world. In the mekka of retarded consumerism, the US of A, Conversatives and Liberals alike hold on to the hope that things will return to capitalist normalcy. Indeed, numerous Republican candidates doubt global warming ... and that's why some call this era the American Disenlightenment. We're in denial of reality, and we're fresh out of ideas. Our kids are going to hate us really bad.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I don't even have kids. So what happened the past three months? What's going on? There are nice summaries out there. Here's one from Amy Goodman:
Wildfires in Russia have blanketed the country with smoke, exacerbating the hottest summer there in 1,000 years. Torrential rains in Asia have caused massive flooding and deadly landslides in Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and China. An ice shelf in Greenland has broken off, sending an ice island four times the size of Manhattan into the ocean. Droughts threaten Niger and the Sahel.Here's another, from Mark Morford:
The flooding in Pakistan has already caused more devastation than the 2004 tsunami in Asia, worse than the Haiti earthquake. One quarter of the country is underwater. They say Pakistan also just broke a record for the single highest temperature ever recorded on the Asian continent, at 128 degrees [53 C] (16 other nations also met or broke heat records this year, too.) That record was set in a city. Where people live. Not for very much longer, because they do not have giant air conditioners and pallets of Fiji water from Costco, like we do, so they probably won't survive.And another, from Jeff Masters:
Add to this that 2010 is the year with the lowest sea ice extent ever for the month of June. Because of the heat, the North Polar ice is also much thinner now than it used to be--floes and sheets contain less volume than they used to. The sea ice oscillation will bottom out at its annual trough in September. Next month we'll see whether 2010 tops the minimal sea ice record. Either way and anyway, the North Polar cap is now melting off.
2010 has seen the most national extreme heat records for a single year: 17. The past decade was the hottest decade in the historical record. The first half of 2010 was the warmest such six-month period in the planet's history. The five warmest months in history for the tropical Atlantic have all occurred this year (likely leading to more frequent and severe Atlantic hurricanes).
As soon as we braid the various summaries into a panoramic view, the pattern becomes inescapable. The year shapes up to be a concatenation of national disasters, freak events, and record breakers. (Note to myself: update climate events at the data bank .) Freak rainstorms and floods happened in France, in Spain, in Germany, in Poland, in China, and --most astoundingly-- in Pakistan. A heatwave of unprecedented intensity swept across the northern hemisphere, affecting the US, Taiwan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and most noteworthy Russia. The 2010 heat surge in the north mirrors a cold spike in the south--Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina suffered, among others. The result is always the same: fish die, cattle die, crops die, and people die.
(And yes, cold weather is a logical consequence of global warming. Here's how it happens: rising greenhouse gas concentrations trap heat plus energy; the added energy makes the climate more dynamic; a more dynamic climate makes bigger waves; bigger waves in a dynamic system means that amplitude of seasonal swings widens; wider amplitudes mean that summers get hotter & drier, and winters get colder & snowier. Now imagine what this will do to crops.)
Remarkable, to my mind, and an ominous sign of things to come, are the data that came out of Mongolia in April and May. Last winter was the harshest on record; a sixth of the country's livestock didn't survive, and a fifth of the country's herders lost their livelihood. And that's a lot, since eighty percent of Mongolia's economy depends on animal husbandry. So now there are all these uprooted people that are flooding in the cities, hoping to work at 7-11 or whereever. Meanwhile the land abandoned by the destitute herders is ripe pickings for predatory multinationals seeking metals and oil.
Reminds me of this line in Two Towers (the script, condensing Tolkien's actual words), spoken by Treebeard the Ent:
There was a time when Saruman would walk in my woods. But now he has a mind of metal and wheels. He no longer cares for growing things.Anyway, time to stop. It's late. Now we're back in the grotesque automotive society of Tampa Bay next to the toxically dispersed oil spill. The summer in Asia was lovely. Spent time with the family at the mountains in southern Taiwan, climbed into the foothills, and swept tiles. The construction of a climate philosophy is making progress. Occasionally I ventured from the Hakka village to the coastal cities, to conduct a workshop, to give a lecture. In spring I found out that the ideas in Letter on Humanism are a key to climate philosophy. But the reactionary, irrational thrust of Heidegger's critique is troubling. In summer I learned that Spinoza's evolutionary vision solves this problem; here's a future-oriented way that leads beyond humanism without doubling back to Heidegger's quasi-medieval postmodernity. Friends at Tunghai University showed me how to better understand the paradigm shift in store for academic philosophy; I realized I was still thinking too conventionally. Other friends, at Potsdam's Institute of Climate Impact Research, made me explore the impact of climate on the fate of religion. Which creeds will squeeze through the bottleneck? The days in Formosa passed nicely with writing, surrounded by chatty, cheerful children. This little renegade Republic of China fills me with hope. While there are just as many SUV-morons here as elsewhere, you really don't need a car. In three months I needed to drive only twice, and briefly at that. The road system is such that you can comfortably bicycle. Biking in the three million city of Kaoshiung is doable and relaxing. Biking the 500 klicks from Kaohsiung in the south to Taipei in the north is also perfectly viable, quite safe, and truly enjoyable. If bicycling is not your cup of tea, and you do want to roam, well then, just hop on the bus, subway, light rail transit, intercity trains, and the lovely gao-tie bullet train. Did you know that cruising through the countryside with 300 km/h (190 mph) gives you a three-dimensional view into the sky? I kid you not. Just look up when there are clouds, and you'll see the lower strata moving against the ones higher up. It's beautiful.
Seventy-six months left.
Monday, May 10, 2010
Sometimes I hate myself. Like after picking up Newsweek in a store. Always, with yet another issue purchased, I hope I won't be let down this time, and that it'll be possible to tap into the US mainstream, finally approving of the establishment for once.
Hah! Wish it were so. Usually the lies Newsweek spreads are white, small, and sneaky. But sometimes Newsweek really crosses the line.
Like this time.
In the 26 April 2010 issue, on p. 56, the magazine published a deceitful essay, entitled, "Has anything gotten better since that first Earth Day?" (On the web, the essay appears as photo album called "Earth Day 40th anniversary progress check").
The writers (among them a certain Ian Yarett) answer the question by parsing it into bitesize chunks and comparing how things used to be with how they're now. Typical for the sneaky bastards who run this magazine, the answers are all of the "yes ... but"-kind, the sort of even-handed approach political correctness had encouraged in academia, to teach li'l stoodents there's always two sides to a story.
So how do we stand, according to Newsweek? What's up with acid rain? Much better, thank you Sir, but still a smidgen too lemony. The ozone layer? Almost groovy too; "thanks to a global treaty" the layer is "recovering," but it hasn't quite recovered yet. Endangered species? Many more species are now protected; some have recovered, but others are gone. And toxic substances? Nasty stuff the EPA has been tracking since the '80s has gone down, but then there's lots of new nasty stuff that hasn't been tracked yet. Air pollution? Ah, much better, but a few folks still die from smog each year in California. Energy use? Everything's more efficient now than it had been, but still not as efficient as everything is in France or Germany. Solid waste? Well, there's more of it than there had been, naturally, but there's also tons of recycling now. Climate change? Hmm...not sure. On the one hand, CO2 levels in the air are up 19 percent since 1970. Then again, 19 pct isn't really that much, is it?
Win some, lose some.
And nothing, unfortunately, could be further from the truth.
The endangered species item on the list shows something's wrong here. The blurb (a bit longer on the web) in the print edition runs,
The number of animals on the U.S. endangered species list has more than quadrupled since 1970. Partly from the attention they've gained by being on the list, 15 species have recovered, including the bald eagle and grizzly bear. But seven have gone extinct, including the blue pike and the dusky seaside sparrow.This sounds even-handed and objective, partly sad (poor dusky seaside sparrow!), partly glad (hey, bald eagle, rock on!). It sounds profound because it concludes on a melancholy note, and it's cheerful, because "the price is right". Blue fishies and brown sparrows gone extinct is the price of progress; but that's OK, because there are other blue fishies in the sea, and other brown sparrows, maybe not on the seaside, and perhaps not dusky, but who cares, really? As long as grizzly bears growl, and bald eagles soar, the world is a-okay.
What this glosses over--and how this becomes a bald-faced lie--is that the loss of life is off the charts. We're losing species at a rate at least one order of magnitude higher than what could be sustained. We are now in the sixth great extinction event, comparably to the fifth extinction, 62 mya, which finished off the dinosaurs. Different now is that there is nothing natural about the current extinction. We are the perpetrators. We are doing all other life in. Not by going out with guns and killing them; no, by surreptitiously expanding our footprint on Earth, year after year, with more babies, more consumption, more traffic, more housing, more fields, more industries, squashing the old biological diversity that was there before us under the heels of business and development. In fact, we've killed off so much already, and the killing is so much quicker now, that we have entered a new age, the Anthropocene.
The problem hidden by Newsweek, and which escapes such analytic parsing of green issues, is that environmental degradation is not about individual thises and thatses anymore, as it had been in 1970. In 2010, environmental degradation is about the pervasive destabilization of the Earth System. That more lifeforms are now protected via the endangered species list, or that more toxic substances are now tracked, or that more recycling is now done, or that the air is cleaner, the rain is not as acidic, and the ozone layer is healing really doesn't matter. In 1970 humankind was still within the tolerance limits of the biosphere. Since then we have crossed sustainable yield thresholds of virtually everything we rely on. In environmental terms, we're now existing literally beyond our means.
And then there's the white elephant in the room: climate change. Newsweek writes:
Atmospheric levels of CO2--one of the main greenhouse gases driving climate change--have been rising steadily, up 19 percent worldwide since 1970.That Newsweek states that atmospheric CO2 levels are up 19 percent since 1970 sounds innocuous. But the number is isolated from the context that concerns the threshold of such levels beyond which magnifying feedbacks and runaway changes occur. In 1970 atmospheric CO2 concentration had been 325 ppm; in 2010 the concentration is 389 ppm, and the upper safety limit is 350 ppm. It's like a medical report saying about a patient that her body temperature is up ten percent, which sounds as if it was just slightly elevated, when in reality it's close to life-threatening.
Newsweek pretends that climate change is just another item on the win-some-lose-some list. Not so. It isn't one more item. It is the item. Or, more precisely, it is the sheet on which the list is written. Climate change doesn't represent a standard environmental problem in addition to the problems we're familiar with since 1970. It is an emergent and sweeping biospherical reality, coalescing on top of the old discrete problems. It is the signal of a looming systems failure.
For a more truthful account of what's going on, take a look at J. Foley's "Boundaries for a healthy planet," Scientific American (April 2010), 54-57; J. Rockstroem et al, "A safe operating space for humanity," Nature 461 (2009): 472-475, and Nature Reports Climate Change commentaries: planetary boundaries.
Seventy-nine months left.
Sunday, May 02, 2010
--climate happenings are at the data bank--
At sunset yesterday we ran on the beach towards Caladesi Island. We passed two wedding ceremonies along the way. Then happy tourists yielded to empty dunes sprinkled with cord grass and held down by joewood, and Republican mansions yielded to saw palmetto and cabbage palms. The natural preserve and bird sanctuary was as pristine and beautiful as usual. We're running in paradise.
But we can’t help thinking of the oil volcano out there in the Gulf, five hundred klicks east-north-east from Clearwater beach. Today the news says that the event rivals that of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound 1989. Since there doesn’t seem to be a quick way of plugging the well leak one and a half km below sea level, this might become the worst man-made environmental disaster in the history of this continent. It is ‘history in the making,’ as they say. That one sees nothing out of the ordinary standing there and looking out towards the horizon makes it all the more ominous. Maybe that’s the way Berliners felt 1945 when the Red Army was massing their tanks at the Oder River waiting to strike.
If worst comes to pass, swaths of Louisiana, Alabama, and panhandle coastline will be mucked up for years to come. If the oil slick gets caught in the Gulf’s loop current, it’ll be dragged into the conveyor belt of the Gulf Stream, whisked around the keys towards the Atlantic side and unloaded on the beaches of Miami and Ft Lauderdale. Shrimpers and fishers will go out of business. Tourists will take off and not return for years. Housing and construction will once again grind to a halt. The oil prices might rise above $ 90 a barrel, once again strangling the US carbon economy. The budget holes in the state governments will grow larger, making the green switchover even harder to finance. Tuition will go up even more. Students will have an even harder time to make ends meet. Unemployment will get worse again. The country would polarize even more and Republicans will be unanimously radical, paranoid, and planet-hating. The Iron Age will make way to the Cardboard Age.
The spill imperils marine and coastal ecosystems. Populations will crash, and some species or at least their local variants won’t make it. It’s spring time now. Yesterday’s beach was littered with large shells and heavy coral from the first spring storm of the season a week ago. It’s nesting time for the birds. Avian populations are grounded. Babies want to be fed. Parents, looking to feed their offspring, fly here and there, and are more likely to wind up oiled. The shrimp nurseries in the mangroves up north are now receiving the oil slicks washed towards them. They are dying silently.
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, this dying serves the end of enlightenment. It fills me with resentment to see mainstream Americans making climate worse for everyone else on the planet because of their greed for oil. Yet climate change is so elusive! It’s hard to see until it’s too late, and effects may be half a planet away. And it’s difficult to get, to grasp the logic of change, especially in such an empirical and analytically-minded culture with so little patience for synthetic logic, rational insights, and the big picture.
Oil spills, however, are as empirical as they come. And the slick breaking up into ever smaller pieces, tar balls, and poison pills, should satisfy even the most analytic mind. Perhaps this will help conservative America process the information that their lifestyle is a thing of the past, that the paradigm has changed, and that they better catch up with other nations on the quest for sustainability unless they want to be left behind like mammoths stuck in a tar pit.
Seventy-nine months left.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Different about this year’s Earth Day is that a new paradigm has emerged. It concerns meaning and purpose of environmental protection. It used to be about “saving the planet” (not that the planet cared; it was there before us and will be there after us), or, perhaps better, about saving the integrity of the biosphere. Problem was that in such rescue efforts environmentalists suffered from overstretch. The list of things that needed fixing was endless, and when you put out the fires in front of you, the ones behind your back were blazing all the merrier. Should we save the rainforests or curb overpopulation? Should we deal with recycling or save the whales? Should we do something about plastics, peak oil, and consumerism, or should we rather be concerned with acid rain, global warming, and coral bleaching? Should we worry about frankenfoods, supercrops, biofuels, or about animal rights, meat-eating, & factory farming? Everything cried out for care, and ‘everything’ was all over the place.
Now things are simpler. The list is a system. The cloud of cares is falling into the gravity well of twin suns: climate and sustainability. The chaotic motions are organizing into orbits revolving around a center. The old issues haven’t gone away, but they’re now integrated in an orderly framework. Strictly speaking, the new paradigm hasn't so much replaced the old one as integrated it.
Before the paradigm shift, anthropogenic climate change, known since the 1950s, was just another item on the list, similar to sustainable development, which first appeared on the policy radar screen in the 1970s. Now climate and sustainability are at the core, subordinating everything else. Climate change is what’s happening to the planet. Sustainability is what will better happen to us fast if we still wish to slow down, reign in, and reverse the runaway changes towards a blue-yellow orb, towards dry lands and sour seas.
This makes things a whole lot easier. Before the shift, protection was about, well, the environment. It was about ‘them’—the lions, tigers, and bears (or the pandas, and orchids, and spotted owls). Now it’s about us, our future, our well-being and that of our kids. Before the shift we cared for a variety of reasons, all of which seemed somewhat ethereal, spiritual, or geeky to outsiders. We valued ecological integrity, natural beauty, and endangered species. We valued the genetic, medical, and yes, the aesthetic information stored in the biological diversity of climax communities. We liked, for ethical, ecological, or purely formal reasons, the complexity of some unkempt wild spot more than the consumerist monotony of the well-groomed suburban subdivisions that ate it up and took its place.
After the paradigm shift--now--environmental protection is about us. They (whoever ‘they’ are) and we are sitting in the same boat. And the boat is sinking. We need to adapt. So we better start bailing out the water and patching up the leaks. We need to smoothen the waves left in its wake, mitigate the consequences of our conduct. And more: we need to change the design of the boat now. The way we’ve used to do things, with the planet as all-you-can-eat buffet for global capitalists and US Republicans, won’t work anymore. We need to evolve. And we shall do so because the alternative is collapse. Thus the old range of reasons for caring squeezes now into a terse formula: adaptation plus mitigation plus evolution equals survival.
Remove any one part from this sum, say, civil evolution, and the outcome of the remainder will likely fall short. 'Survival' refers to the continuity of civilization, without incurring a dieback of our species next to all the others that are crashing now. And this, come to think of it, is the best news for environmentalists after Earth Day 2010. The annual celebration doesn't signal anymore a luxurious indulgence of romantics with their heads stuck in the clouds, if it ever did. Instead and henceforth it signals a level-headed, tough-minded realism of pragmatic optimists who are enlightened and want to go on. We are mainstream now, and while our foes remain formidable, they are marginalized and, in the worst sense of the word, history.
Eighty months left.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Guest post by Dan Grifen:
With spring, Earth Day also draws nearer (April 22nd); as individuals, we must remember and realize the importance of global warming and all of its implications. Topics discussed as of late include burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and green building. As nations like Haiti and Chile prepare for rebuilding and new construction, there are many things to consider when advancing. Moving towards cleaner, greener infrastructure is vital in ensuring a successful restoration campaign.
The U.S. Green Building Council is a 501(3)(c) non-profit community of leaders working to make green buildings available to everybody. It’s one of the many organizations playing its role in green progression. Heavy discussion lies on green topics, such as deforestation, green crops, energy, and much more. It’s important that we as individuals/citizens stay up-to-date on important global topics like climate change. As organizations like the CGI (Clinton Global Initiative), AFH (Architecture for Humanity), and the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) conducts sustainability campaigns and enforce strict green constraints, our world will continue to become a better, cleaner place. Machines behind the CGI, Doug Band and Former President Clinton have been pursuing an emission reduction plan in the San Francisco Bay area. Meanwhile, GEC (Globetrotters Engineering Corporation) is underway with green building projects in Chicago, IL. Despite these few national examples, green infrastructure, particularly in places like Haiti, has become an integral part of restoration and construction.
This aligns with the implications of "economic viability" and long term sustainability, posing the questions, "Can Haiti really make it through all the costs of repair and reconstruction?" Infrastructure can take a toll on any economy, especially if the funds aren't there. This goes hand in hand with meeting modern day LEED standards and approaching this in a "greener" sense. Organizations like Architecture for Humanity will make this possible. Architecture for Humanity (1999) is a nonprofit design services firm building "a more sustainable future through the power of professional design." It was formulated through a group of building professionals whose overwhelming passion for construction drove them to provide a way for underdeveloped, suffering countries to rebuild. Through their dedication and hard work, these people will be able to not only create new buildings and infrastructure, but make them bigger, better, and greener.
To touch on just some of the things that AFH covers:
• Alleviating poverty and providing access to water, sanitation, power and essential services
• Bringing safe shelter to communities prone to disaster and displaced populations
• Rebuilding community and creating neutral spaces for dialogue in post-conflict areas
• Mitigating the effects of rapid urbanization in unplanned settlements
• Creating spaces to meet the needs of those with disabilities and other at-risk populations
• Reducing the footprint of the built environment and addressing climate change
As polluters continue to buy their way out of Carbon Cuts globally, and large organizations continue to dump their waste into lakes, ponds and rivers, communities and must play their role in ensuring sustainability; organizations like the CGI, AFH, and USGBC provide repercussion and policy change for acts such as the above. Most of the results from warming and climate change are miniscule and unnoticeable now, but our youth and earlier generations will experience firsthand the effects of pollutants and unsustainable efforts. Feel free to visit http://www.earthday.org/ to learn more about what you can do to support your world.
--guest post by Dan Grifen--
Health Sherpa counts the blistered orb to the Top 50 Public Health Blogs. Listed in the Environment and Health category of the ranking, the blistered orb is described as "a scathing view of the current view on effects of global warming, along with citations."
The Mad Hun is honored.
Eighty months left.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
A startling piece of information in the data flow is on the partial collapse of western forest ecosystems. The great forest die-off, by Montana-based New York Times journo Jim Robbins, appeared first on 3-16 at Yale's Environment 360. This is what it says:
Across western North America, from Mexico to Alaska, forest die-off is occurring on an extraordinary scale, unprecedented in at least the last century-and-a-half, and perhaps much longer. All told, the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the United States have seen nearly 70,000 square miles [180,000 sqkm], an area the size of Washington State, die since 2000.Basically all western conifers are threatened, especially mountain pines; Colorado sees also a die-off of aspen. commondreams posted the piece next; comments there (3-21) add more factoids and threaten to spawn an unwelcome gestalt: in British Columbia, conifers are dying faster than loggers can remove them / in Minnesota, ash are dying / in Indiana, elm and dogwood are dying / in Michigan maple and beech are dying / in Appalachia, hemlock and oak are dying / at the west coast, oak are dying.
The huge American injection of GHGs into the Earth System is a main factor driving global warming. Global warming to date has involved greater seasonal oscillations and rising temperatures, which, in the western half of North America, show themselves in warmer winters. Warmer winters let tree parasites such as bark beetles survive easier. Higher winter survival rates cause bigger parasite proliferation in spring and summer. Trees sicken in greater numbers, more intensely, and over larger areas. And die.
This is a causal cascade typical of the emerging realities. Americans drive Dodge Rams and Ford F-150, and oops! forests turn red. The way of Nature is a wave. As long as trees infested in summer have a chance to get clean in winter, they're ready for another round next year, and beetles and trees can coexist. But when trees infested in summer carry the burden over into winter, they weaken come spring and eventually get exhausted. The stress killing them off can also be understood as a symptom of exposure. Like fields and limits, exposure is a concept to explain the phenomena of climate change.
C. Allen et al., "A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests," Forest Ecology and Management 259 (2010): 660-684
Meanwhile realclimate ran a thread on the Amazon dieback, with entries here and here. This is another seed of destruction. First one reads about Amazon dieback in pessimistic climate scenarios a la Lovelock--not his most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 2009, but the previous volume, Gaia's Revenge (New York: Basic, 2006, p. 30)--and then the topic spreads, like into this 2010 thread.
Relevant papers are
A. Samanta et al., "Amazon forests did not green up during the 2005 drought," Geophysical Research Letters 37 (2010) L05401
which is a response to
S. Saleska et al., "Amazon forests green-up during 2005 drought," Science 318 (2007): 612
and which had already been qualified by
O. Phillips et al., "Drought sensitivity of the Amazon rain forest," Science 323 (2009): 1344-1347
Lovelock, 2006, 30, writes,
R.Betts ... has shown how the great tropical rainforests have to some extent overcome this limitation [of water evaporating faster in heat] by adapting to their warm environment so as to be able to recycle water. The ecosystem does it by sustaining the clouds and rain above the forest canopy, but this ability has limits. He and P.Cox suggest a 4 C rise in temperature would be enough to disable the Amazon forest and turn it into scrub and desert, and it would happen partly from the local consequences of a faster evaporation of rain but also from global changes in wind patterns in a 4 C warmer world.Betts (Hadley Centre) has done various items on the topic, e.g.:
R. Betts et al., effects of large-scale Amazon forest degradation on climate and air quality
Phil. Trans.of the Royal Society B 327 (2008): 1873-1880
C. Jones, R. Betts, the impact of climate change on major habitats
Met Office PPT, The Linnean Society 27.11.08
A non-technical account of how climate change forces Amazon dieback is in S. Faris, Forecast (NY: Holt 2009), ch. 4 p.114-115
For North America, the upshot is simple: climate change warms winters, and the trees can't take it. For South America, the upshot is also simple: climate change reduces rainfall in the dry season, the trees don't like it, and eventually can't take it either. In the rainforest, it's the old giants that die of thirst first. As they keel over and crash down, they open gaps in the forest. The unbroken rainforest is fire-resistant. The forest with gaps is not. Less rain in the dry season signals what might be called the power-up, the amplitudinal growth of seasonal waves that comes with the change.
Sometimes only a dictionary helps.
The OED defines "poignant" as 1. sharp-pointed, piercing, 2. pungent, piquant, 3. moving, touching, 4. hurtful, 5. keen
Eighty-one months left.