Monday, May 10, 2010

newsweek greenwash

-- climate happenings are at the data bank --

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

had it coming

--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.