Sunday, December 11, 2011

looking back at a great year

The semester is over and the winter solstice is upon us.  It is time for a look back at this extraordinary, awesome and hopeful year that has been 2011.  Yes, I'm talking about the year after the largest annual jump in carbon emissions on the planet.  I'm talking about the year humankind grew to seven billion people. I am talking about the year that caps the hottest decade ever, that has seen monster tornadoes in the United States, mega-floods in Thailand, murderous drought in the Sudan, and yet another record melt in the Arctic.

And no, I am not being sarcastic.  This has been a beautiful, inspiring twelve months.  The last time I felt such hope was in middle school in Bavaria, when the first demonstrations for emissions control drew not only us hippie kids, but also foresters, farmers, and other upstanding folks.  That was the moment I knew we were winning.  From then on, things in Germany were moving in but one direction, and eventually the Greens were voted into the government coalition.

Global capitalism is now so ugly and ruinous, elected leaders in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are now such shameless servants to the oligarchy, that regular people are being pushed out of their comfort zone.  For the first time in a generation, a new protest movement has emerged, and it brings everyone together: old and young, radical and normal, poor and middle-class.  Hippies, stoners, ravers, and normal people are closing ranks now.  Even better are the news from the dark side: Unable to come to terms with social and climatic realities, the conservatives lurch into ever more lunatic positions, prompting an emerging consensus that the Republican Party is run by Wall Street Gekkos and the clueless (as the New York Times puts it); that its agenda is crackpot--to trash the environment, shred the safety net, and aid the rich (as Rolling Stones puts it); and that the right has stopped trying to pretend to be something that they're not (as Alternet puts it). 

This is the first step in the right direction: a collective recognition that the system is broken, that its old guardians are not getting it, and there is no alternative to fundamental change.  And the funny thing is, what is driving this change is so trivial.  Michael Moore's Occupy demands may be communist, but they also serve as reminder that Americans are not inferior to the French, the Swedes, the Japanese; that they do not deserve to be treated worse, that they, too, have a right to health care, education, housing, jobs, and a clean environment.

And so, as the weather gets erratic, food insecurity spreads, and capitalism digs in its fossil heels, people around the world are rising up, make their voices heard, topple tyrants, and are creating change.

2011 is the year civil evolution began.

Happy holidays--see you in spring!

Sixty months left.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

the plot thickens

The Durban Climate Conference (COP-17) kicks off Monday.  Two weeks ago, the Working Groups on Physical Science and on Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability gathered at the 34th session of the IPCC in Kampala.  Last week, they released a joint statement.

Key findings about the near future are 1. there will be more extreme weather; 2. heavy rains will likely increase in many places; 3. storms will likely grow stronger; 4. droughts will intensify (medium confidence); 5. coastal high water levels will very likely get higher; 6.  avalanches, mudslides, mountain floods will become common (high confidence).

Facts at present are 1. climate-related economic loss has increased; 2. climate-related economic loss is worst in rich countries; 3. climate-related fatalities are worst in poor countries. In sum, "interactions among climate change mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk management may have a major influence on resilient and sustainable pathways."

On the eve of Durban word got out, embarrassing, really, that the big economies already decided that dealing with climate change costs too much, so they won't do anything about it.  Yes, it costs more to deal with it later, but that's OK, that's economic rationality.  Adam Smith tells us that children should pay for the sins of their fathers, and if they can't, screw them.  We have engineering tools for the sustainable switchover at our disposal (wind, solar, nuclear, high speed rail, subways, bicycles, carbon scrubbers, smart houses, walkable cities, and so on), but making use of these tools is not as profitable as sticking to the status quo.  (Enlightening is NYT's hand-wringing take on bullet trains in California.)  This dissing of Durban made UNEP exec Achim Steiner mad.  And so he talked back:
Those countries that are currently talking about deferring an agreement [to come into force] in 2020 are essentially saying we are taking you from high risk to very high risk in terms of the effects of global warming.  This is a choice -- a political choice.  Our role, working with the scientific community, is to bring to the attention of the global public that this is the risk that policymakers and governments will expose us to.
In this way the plot thickens.  Things speed up and affairs simplify.  The acceleration is due to reality denial by power elites.  Collective conduct has become unsustainable, and unsustainability has consequences that sharpen the more we deny this.  The simplification is due to a thickening of connections that, not that long ago, would have looked like leftist paranoia.  The funny thing is that it does not matter anymore whether we read the plot as 'science versus disenlightenment,' 'nature versus capitalism,' 'climate versus corporation,' or 'people versus oligarchs'--these are all equally legitimate ways of decoding the fundamental tension.

The American Disenlightenment is in full push-back mode against values and facts.  Sustainability?  Forget about it.  Climate change?  Not in my world.   Economic justice?  Over my dead body.  Bill Scher wrote on Alternet,
What am I thankful for this year?  I am thankful the conservative movement has stopped trying to pretend to be something that they are not.  Instead of masquerading as 'compassionate conservatives' who want 'clear skies,' 'personal retirement accounts,' 'protect Medicare' and 'tax relief' for all, today's conservative lust lays it on the table: Tax the poor.  Deregulate the rich.  Drill Baby Drill.  Filibuster the jobs bills.  And to hell with Social Security and Medicare.
The push-back is the Corporate Thing To Do.  Twenty years ago a wave of democracy swept the globe.  Today a wave of corporate power tries to sweep away democracy everywhere we look--whether that's Durban, Tahiri Square, Zuccotti Park, or UC Davis.  Strange things thus happen.  Banks (!) decide the fate of nations, in Greece and elsewhere.  Corporations (!) decide what is law and what is to be done, in Tallahassee and elsewhere.  The day of the oligarchy dawns.  There are so many ways to illustrate this, that it gets actually boring to blog about, but heck, here we go: e.g. how five toxic energy companies control US politics (Massey, Koch, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron); how it isn't about the 'one percent,' but rather about the 0.1 percent.  Capitalism punks governments to act against their societies.  The pattern is local and global.  On the national level, science-averse Republicans have once again blocked the establishment of a National Climate Service.   

And that's where we are now.  Scientific information, people power, and environmental interests all head to one pole.  Economic rationality, corporate might, conservative politicians gravitate to another pole.  The polarization is stark: disenlightenment is the ideology of predatory capitalism.  Corporate power replaces democratic governance with oligarchic profiteering.  And scientific consensus is unanimous: we fight corporate disenlightenment; we embrace the paradigm shift; we embark on civil evolution.

For if we don't, we'll have only sixty-one months left.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

stage three

The new climate events summary is probably the most massive update ever at blisterdata.  Striking about the climate- and environmental data stream over the past month is the rising tide of items on civil evolution versus disenlightenment.  There has never been so much attention to the cultural dimension of the biospherical transition as in this autumn.

The transformation has now unfolded along three stages.  The first is a coalescing consensus on the groundswell of news so dire that they threaten longterm survival.  Recent book titles, such as Lester Brown's World on the Edge--How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (2011), speak for themselves.  As do the annual topics of volumes in the State of the World Report series by the Worldwatch Institute:  Into a Warming World 2009, Transforming Cultures 2010, and Innovations to Nourish the Planet 2011, the last of which puts a happy face on trends that are frankly expressed inside the covers, such as "Africa's soil fertility crisis and the coming famine" (S. 59).  We know we are in trouble.  That's stage one.

Stage two is the failure of political leaders to deal with this knowledge.  The Democrats do not dare to build policy around climate change since this would cost corporate donations.  The Republicans are in flat-out denial lockdown mode; to them the scientific findings do not even exist.  (It is ironic that conservatives, who pride themselves on manly John-Wayne-virtues, turn out to be too effete to stomach the facts.)  It is similar with other topics that deserve to be capitalized: Peak Oil, Mass Transit, Sustainability, Renewable Energy, and the great taboo Population Growth Control.  Facts on the ground overwhelm the political system's management capacities. 

Stage three begins once again with a coalescing consensus, only this time about the very failure of leadership, an executive, ethical, and cognitive failure tied to sellout to the highest bidder.  This failure also reflects a generation gap: the old are the grasshopper generation that eats everything up; the young are left with empty wallets, must think creatively, and will be the solutions generation.  The unfairness of it all galvanizes discontent.  Now the Occupy movement has gone mainstream and is being endorsed by philosophers (Habermas, Zizek), nobel laureates (Stiglitz, Krugman) and green sages (Suzuki, Sachs) worldwide.  Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs put it best, I think: it is the beginning of a new progressive movement, and what we are witnessing is historic. 

Sixty-one months left.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

american disenlightenment

I first came across the term "American Disenlightenment" in a work by the intellectual Kevin Phillips.  Phillips is a critic of the zeitgeist; his writings mark him as a bit of a visionary, for he has a tendency of being always a little ahead of the curve.  His excellent Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (London: Penguin) appeared in 2008, just when the Great Downturn happened.  Evidently he had been working on this project when stocks were still rising and the bubble was still in the making.  The term "American Disenlightenment" is from an earlier work; American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006).   Phillips dedicates it "to the millions of Republicans, present and lapsed, who have opposed the Bush dynasty and the disenlightenment in the 2000 and 2004 elections."

Disenlightenment?  Disenlightenment?  I remember how startled I was when stumbling over this when opening the book four years ago.  Before I turned to Philosophy of Climate, my academic bread-and-butter had been the Enlightenment, the Aufklärung and Kant.  After earning tenure I studied the Eastern variant of the Enlightenment (Erleuchtung in German), and researched the Leibniz-Wolffian links from East to West, from Erleuchtung to Aufklärung, or how the Jesuit reception of Chinese wisdom triggered the Age of Reason in Germany.  I thought I had been familiar with the topic, but suddenly there was this new term: not Enlightenment, but Dis-Enlightenment, and in America no less -- even though the United States had been a creation of the Enlightenment.  This was curious.

So what, actually, is Disenlightenment?  Phillips approaches the question by a characterization of decline.  Four social traits are linked with empires in decline: Angst, or a spreading sense of anxiety; bible-thumping or increased religious fervor; anti-rationalism or skepticism; and lastly the expectation of demise.  Add to this three political and economic traits: military overreach, a people in debt, and systemic corruption.

Disenlightenment, as the profile of a zeitgeist, involves features such as structural stagnation or regression; an embrace of supernatural absolutes and a devaluing of the human community; narcissist individualism (the consumerist ego) or contempt for public spaces; distrust of reason (which expresses itself philosophically in analytic and postmodern variants of skepticism), and lastly a sense that reality is opaque (absurd, terrifying, puzzling).  Generally, disenlightenment boils down to a disconnect from reality, science, and humanity.

In 2008 the Philosophy Department organized a workshop-conference on "Science in Society".  I was asked to join in and thought that, well, the most intriguing society, to me, is the American one, being at the anthropological limit and all, and the most impressive science, to me, is climatology, involving the largest research collaboration in history, and disclosing, for the first time ever, the probability-cones of our collective future.  So what about climate science in American society?  Given the denial, the doubt, and the dismissal, here is the perfect example.  U.S. climate denial--what better illustration can there be for the reality of American Disenlightenment?

At the time my presentation elicited confusion and annoyance, especially among my more scholarly colleagues.  The sense was that this topic is a bit nuts.  And perhaps it was.  But strange, from a research perspective, is to see the rise of this subject-matter from curious beginnings to a straightforward field of study.  After witnessing the general cultural unraveling, the liberal apathy, and the rise of ideological extremism, there is no doubt anymore that the American Disenlightenment has arrived.  I couldn't give the same kind of conference lecture now that I gave then because with climate denial at an all time peak domestically while the whole world is moving in a postcarbon direction, the topic has become almost trivial.  There is soon little for philosophers left to study; the topic will become the work of sociology, anthropology, and history.

Sixty-one months left.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

seven billion now

The United Nations tells us that the world population will reach seven billion on Halloween.  A few months ago, the date of this milestone was not yet clear; it then seemed the crossing would occur sometime after this summer and before the next.  A bit more number-crunching put the event in focus (see pdf) and pins the milestone crossing to October 31 or thereabouts.

This makes 2011 a significant year.  It is on par with 1999, when we reached six billion; 1987, when we reached five; 1974 (four); 1959 (three); 1927 (two), and 1804, when, for the first time in history, our numbers reached one billion.  Last month, there were 37 million people living in Australia and on the islands of Oceania; 740 million in Europe; 942 million across the Americas; 1051 million in Africa; and 4,216 million people, sixty percent of the total, in Asia, with 1,350 million of them in China  and 1,240 million in India.

A Time article spun the event in the usual even-handed mainstream fashion, to please breeders and environmentalists alike, wow, will you look at that, we're lots and lots of people now, which is entertaining in a scary sort of way.  On the one hand, the poor environment will be trampled underfoot (sigh), but then again, it's nothing really to worry about, for (I cite)
Is there room on the planet to support 7 billion-plus people?  Take a deep breath.  The answer is yes--and not just because you could fit 7 billion people in the state of Texas and it would only have the population density of New York City, which I can tell you from personal experience isn't that bad.  We're a long way from Soylent Green territory here.  As Joel Cohen of Rockerfeller University pointed out ... we have more than enough food, water, and other essentials to keep every one of the 7 billion -- and far more -- perfectly healthy.
That's nice to hear, no?  In fact, there are three reasons that should make your BS-detectors go off.  Yes, there are enough "food, water, and other essentials" to go around for everyone -- but only if we lived in a communist world with precise equality.  We don't. 

The second reason is climate change.  The powersurge that accompanies global warming is  the worst possible news for farmers.  Climate change is downsizing carrying capacity at the precise moment we are supersizing our numbers.

The third and most important reason is that the question of whether there's enough room for this many people is the wrong question to ask.  We are immature to think about this like the little engine that could.  Thinking about population growth in terms of capacity makes us miss a deeper dimension.  It tempts us to keep doing business as usual and to endorse reproductive values and sexual mores that have outlived their utility.

What we are missing here is the question of whether we actually should be so many.  It does not matter whether we can.  It matters whether being this many is good.  Don't think about the environment now -- going that route is obvious, and it can make you fall into the corporate trap of thinking that it is all about "us" versus "them"; culture versus nature; economy versus ecology; people versus the environment; and since we're people, of course we'll have to come out as winners and then feel sorry for the environment, the poor loser.

Neither is it necessary to think about the future, that we are the locust generation of history, eating everything up in narcissist bliss, and that the children will pay the price.  Just think about people.  Not people in the past, not people in the future, no; people right here, right now.  Think about people of some number living at a fixed space.  The space is the planetary surface, with all its land, mountains, forests, deserts, islands, and seas.  Given this space, is seven billion good for us?
That's the question to ask. 

Look around and consider what being-in-the-world means then.  Imagine what life could be for everyone if we left the space unchanged but altered the number.  Imagine we lived on this surface with one percent of the lot; 70,000,000 instead of 7,000,000,000, and not because of some terrible tragedy or horrible catastrophe.  Suppose we would enjoy normalcy, but at seventy million.  Imagine the return of a stable climate.

Imagine the biotic abundance.

Imagine the relief.

Sixty-two months left.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

wall street and climate change

but what do they want? (full comic here)

Occupy Wall Street has spread to all major cities in the U.S. and is now in the second month.  A friend of mine complained that the message of the movement is too one-dimensional and too clear-cut.  There are other things, next to economic injustice, that are also important, arguably even more so, such as climate change.  The irony, of course, is that the capitalistic media have tried for the longest to maintain the precise opposite, as if the message of the protesters were not sufficiently clear.  The complaint touches a nerve, because there are so many things to engage with, so many things to worry about.  Thus, indeed: where should we start, and what should come first?

Here's a leaflet from the Occupy Tampa folks (I quote):
The top ten percent own more than the bottom ninety percent put together.  Lobbyists pour money into the government to get whatever the corporations want.  Wars are fought while we can't feed our children and can't keep our homes.  Most of us can't afford insurance.  Schooling no longer assures employment, trapping our new graduates in burger-flipping positions and saying, 'would you like fries with that?'  Our 'duly elected representatives'  listen to money instead of the people's cries of anguish ... No longer can we close our eyes and believe in the fairy tales of benevolent powers that be.  No longer can we hide the growing number of homeless in jail cells and junk yards.  Peaceful resistance is the only way to save our country.
The remarkable thing about this statement is that it is a set of truisms.  Every single sentence is true, in a humble, erring-on-the-safe-side way (in one case by one order of magnitude; see below).  Paul Krugman calls the Republican agenda that exacerbates this crisis rabbit-hole economics.  Current rightist proposals, such as Cain's 9-9-9 plan, are barely veiled deceptions serving the oligarchy, and any quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows how bad such a plan would be for people with college loans or medical bills.  Even a columnist as conservative as Nicholas Kristof points out three factoids that underscore the demands for economic justice, namely that the 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans; that the top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and that 65 percent of economic gains in the Bush expansion had gone to the richest 1 percent. 

So how does climate fit in all this?  Or, why would the blistered orb blog, whose Notes on the Looming Darwin Award concern climate change, problematize economic injustice?  Well, for the mystic, everything is connected, including economic injustice and climate change.  But that's of course shallow.  As a matter of fact, the economy and the environment are intertwined; the condition of the one affects the condition of the other.  The economic-environmental connection is particularly close between economic injustice and climate change.  Here the links are strong and direct.  Economic injustice is the cause; climate change is the effect. Moreover: just as economic injustice worsens climate change, climate change worsens economic injustice.  And finally: the mitigation of climate change is not merely a technological challenge; on the structural level, mitigating climate change presupposes stopping environmental injustice.

Chris Hedges puts it succinctly:
Tinkering with the corporate state will not work.  We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands.
The capitalist oligarchy perpetrates climate change.  The exceptional capitalist control of the U.S. society is the essence of economic injustice.  It manifests itself in all the known ills the Occupy Wall Streeters are fighting against.  It shows itself in the environmental deregulation that has made the U.S. into the world's climate fiend.   And it drives the exceptional climate denial of the U.S. society.  This is the world we are living in now: the German railways recently announced that all of its bullet trains will run on carbon-free electricity in the near future, while on the other side of the Atlantic, scientifically illiterate Texas politicians drive in oversize gas guzzlers to prayer meetings to ask their Lord for the drought to end--with the support of the public.  This denial happens not because Americans, or Texans, are stupid or evil; they are neither.  It happens because U.S. citizens are at the mercy of a media juggernaut pounding home a message of doubt.  This is reminiscent of the rise of antisemitism in Nazi Germany that led to the Holocaust.  A decade-long mass media pounding from 1933, when Hitler seized power, to 1942, when the Final Solution was launched, eroded common sense, subverted decency, and fueled collective madness.  Anyone hearing lies long enough may eventually become insecure, feel tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and adapt to the new norms, thereby aiding and abetting the perpetration of lies.  And all the individuals doing so become, in Goldhagen's polemic terms, 'willing executioners'.  Then it was the Nazis murdering the Jews.  Now it is U.S. oligarchs and their dark Republican helpers who devastate the world's climate and who steal the future from the children.

That's how this is connected.

Sixty-two months left.

Monday, October 10, 2011

progress, in an absolute sense

The great difference between this century and the twentieth century concerns the way we look at progress.  If there is one idea that serves as a point of reference for the paradigm shift, then it's this one.  About this idea, we can identify 'before' and 'after,' just as we can distinguish 'then' from 'now'.

The transformation of the progressive idea coincides with the turn of the millennium but was spread out over a longer period, from the nineties to the noughts.  What we mean by progress in 2011 is not what was meant by it in 1989.

For one thing, there is now actually a 'we' about progress.  In this century we enjoy a science-based consensus.  But prior to the transformation, there was no single and coherent way of viewing the idea.  Opinions differed on both what progress is supposed to mean, and whatever its merit or value may be.

In 1989, Reagan left office, Gorbachev ruled, the Wall came down, the Iron Curtain fell, the Soviets lost the Baltic, Chinese police massacred protesters on Tiananmen Square, Deng stepped down after telling China there is nothing wrong with money, and the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, with Gecko's line "greed is good," was two years old.  Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature came out.  So did Stephen Schneider's Global Warming, with the subtitle Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?  The WMO published proceedings of a Toronto conference on The Changing Atmosphere in Geneva. The volume's subtitle was Implications for Global Security.  That was 1989.

And in that roiling, eventful and ominous year, the sense of progress had effectively fragmented.  There was no single unifying perspective anymore.  Instead there were three.  The Left had anchored progress on the foundation of the German Enlightenment and given it a blue-collar twist.  Here, progress meant advancing on the historic path of humankind toward the steady state of social justice, collective security and classless harmony otherwise known as socialism.  Progress consisted of scientific advances, technological innovations, social welfare, and moral progressions.  Moral progressions were step-by-step realizations of the French Revolutionary parole liberté, egalité, fraternité.  Problem was that this leftist idea of progress started looking partly obsolete, partly plain wrongAfter all, socialist systems were being swept away by a global uprising.

Enter the Right.  It also anchored progress on the basis on the Enlightenment, but did so on the Scottish variant, stressing individualism, skepticism, and empiricism.  Individualism expressed itself in the notion that government is the problem and free market the solution.  Skepticism led to doubt about science, especially about any finding at odds with moral conservativism, yet another element of the Right.  Empiricism came into play as a short-sighted focus on the bottom line and as a disdain for social ideas, environmentalist idealism, and utopian ideologies, in short for anything visionary and altruistic.  Moral conservativism, finally, included a celebration of Christian faith, not the communist spirituality taught by Jesus, preached by Master Eckhart, and lived by St Francis, but instead the puritanical and narcissist faith of personal success & screw everyone else, spread by rich white homophobic Americans with toothy smiles--Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, the Bakkers, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and today's Prosperity Gospel ministers. 

The Right measured progress in technological innovations, just as the Left did, but was uneasy about scientific advances, experiencing them more as a threat than as steps forward.  The Right did not measure progress on either social welfare or moral progressions.  The liberty of the market always trumped the rights of labor.  Morality was eternal and fixed; from a rightist point of view, moral progress was a contradiction in terms.  Morality meant regress: a return to traditions of the past.

The third perspective on progress fashionable then was that of Postmodernity.  Postmoderns rejected the Enlightenment, distrusted science and technology, and had grave doubts about the concept of progress as such.  The belief that progress is good, and that it would be the same for everyone, struck them as naive.  In a way, the Postmoderns, or Liberals, as they called themselves, were the children of the aging Left; they belonged to what Chinese today call the "golden spoon generation".  Postmodern Liberals cared little about the struggles of labor, worked in white collar professions, and aspired to be well-adjusted members of the bourgeoisie or what was called "upper middle class" in pre-downturn America.  The Liberals took social sensitivity from the Left, joined it to anti-ideological skepticism from the Right, and added as marks of their own easygoing relativism and ironic disdain for universals.
The Postmodern position was the final consequence of the fragmentation of views on progress, because it internalized the split.  The Postmodern attitude to Nature illustrates this incoherence.  Yes, Nature was good and deserving of protection; but no, bearers of information on its staggering systemic decline, the scientists, were not really to be trusted.  Yes, environmentalism, at least of the type Arne Naess called Shallow Ecology, was good; but no, climate change was probably not happening, and climatologists could well be cheaters.  So yes, let's save the planet, but please not at the price of sacrificing our self-infatuation and reality-denial. 

That was then.  In 2011, the situation has turned upside down.  Paradoxically, it did so because the Right and the Postmoderns had won, with the biospherical and climatic consequences of this victory that are evident now.  The subsequent reality-check ended the fragmentation.  Now, having sobered up from the consumerist and relativist binge, we all discover anew what progress really means.  The biospherical destabilization serves as a double falsification; it reveals the unsustainability of the conservative view, on the Right, as well as the incoherence of the postmodern view, on the side of the Liberals.  Ironically, the lone remaining survivor is the very perspective that had looked like a total loser in 1989, the old-fashioned viewpoint of the Left.

Climate change confirms the leftist faith in universality, that all humans are basically the same, with similar needs and vulnerabilities.  It also underscores the leftist fondness for technological innovations and scientific advances.  Moving away from fossil fuels towards a postcarbon world is a oneway street called progress; advancing on it depends on technology.  Mitigating climate change, moreover, and resisting the causal cascades that had been set off, are progressive stances whose success depends on appropriating scientific know-how.  Finally, the leftist principles of secular humanism and social justice constitute the moral compass for shepherding as many humans as possible through the tightening bottleneck of looming food insecurity, water scarcity, and land loss, so as to keep dieback and collapse to a minimum.  Waiting for the Rapture and embracing the Apocalypse may work for the aging American Right, but is not in the interest of the children of the world.  When it comes to confronting climate change, we are, like the Parisians storming the Bastille, all equal now.  When it comes to suffering the environmental consequences, we are all brothers and sisters now.  When it comes to renouncing the shackles of consumerism and leaping towards civil evolution, we all exist in freedom now.  Once again liberté, egalité, fraternité is the parole of universal progress.  Only this time around the planet has given us fair notice that there are no other options left.

Sixty-two months.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

occupy tampa

Four hundred people own half the wealth of this country.  All empirical studies show that trickle down Reaganomics is a lie. (And if you don't believe it, just take a look around).  The overclass sucks wealth out of the work done by the rest of us, the ninety-nine percent of wage earners, and this wealth is NOT coming back to the society.  The tax rate for the rich is a fraction of what it used to be under Eisenhower.

Meanwhile students pay more tuition year after year -- for education that, rightfully, should be free.  Seekers of degrees do society a service, because prosperity in an era of civil evolution lies squarely with information-based economies.  College kids and grad students are thus patriots: their learning helps the country.  Why, then, must they pay?

Add to this that students -- and not only students! -- pay when they need to see a doctor.  But why on Earth should they?  Are Americans inferior to the citizens of nations with healthcare?  Why do Japanese, German, Swiss, French, Korean, Taiwanese students (etc.) have free healthcare, but American students do not?  What makes U.S. kids unworthy?  Why must they pay?

Just as there is a minimum wage (albeit one that's far too low), there ought to be a maximum wage.  Currently, of course, there is none; in fact the mere demand sounds insane.  And if the liberal bourgeois pundits in their good suits and red ties would talk about it, they'd call it 'communism' and add eerie sounds to frighten you, so that your brain freezes and you stop asking taboo questions.  Well: don't stop.  So let's ask communist questions to the authorities anyway.  Where should we set the maximum wage?  At 100 million a year?  At 10 million a year?  At 1 million year?  At 500 k per year?  At 250 k per year? Still too high?  Well then, just for kicks, consider a maximum annual after-tax income of 100 k. Take it further: let's assume 100 k is the cap for joint household incomes.

Should that not be enough for any family to live on, and live really well?  Why would you need more?  For sending the kids to college?  But college can be free.  For seeing the doctor?  But physicians can be civil servants.  So imagine: the cap is 100 k; anything more is taken by a strong central government, to make education and healthcare free to all, and to transform the tar-pit motorvating culture into a  sustainable society.  That way America would have a fighting chance to weather the climate crunch and to make it safely through the century.

Would this be so bad?

Occupy Wall Street.

Better yet (mind your carbon footprint): Occupy Tampa.

There is only sixty-two months left.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

liberal losers

German liberals really want you to like them

The Free Democratic Party (FDP, Freie Demokratische Partei) has been a mainstay of German politics.  In my senior high in Bavaria, the kids voting for the FDP were the ones with preppy outfits and blow-dried hair.  They were into money and the market.  For them, consumerism rocked.

Liberals in Germany are how Republicans used to be before going insane.  No FDP-politician, simply no politician in Europe or Asia, for that matter, would be caught dead denying climate change or challenging evolutionary biology.  'Liberal' doesn't mean stupid; it means free, and in the case of the FDP it refers to freedom of the individual from too much state, freedom of the market from too much regulation, and freedom of the wealthy from too much taxation.  How much is 'too much' depends, of course, but among German parties, from the Greens (Grünen) to the Socialists (Die Linke) to the Social Democrats (SPD) to the Christians (CDU/CSU), the FPD Liberals are at the conservative fringe: they want the least amount of government and the most coddling of big business.  Think Adam Smith with a little dash of Ayn Rand.

It is odd that European liberals are like U.S. conservatives without the extremism, since being liberal in the U.S. is the opposite of being conservative.  A U.S. liberal is on the left of the political spectrum; in Europe liberals are on the right. Still, all three positions, conservative, liberal here, & liberal there, are located in the same ideological framework: all join in a basic embrace of capitalism.  And in this way, Republicans, American Liberals, and FDP Liberals are one and the same.

This embrace is sustained by the faith in what Erich Fromm in his 1976 masterwork To Have or To Be called "The Great Promise": the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and of unimpeded personal freedom.  As he puts it (Continuum ed. 1996, p. 2), "the achievement of wealth and comfort for all was supposed to result in unrestricted happiness for all."  Only it did not.  Already a generation ago, Fromm argued that the Great Promise failed for three reasons: the economic contradictions of industrialism, the confusion of happiness with satisfaction of any desire, and the delusion "that egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace."

Nearly half a century later, the failure of the Great Promise is becoming all too obvious.  The religion of capitalism, Progress, has not delivered.  Young people in the West, whether in Europe or in North America, are realizing that capitalism does not like them.  And now they are caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, their immediate future looks grim because the chaotic interplay of reckless banksters, greedy speculators, and scary austerity programs poses direct harm to them.  And as long as there is no economic recovery, this malevolent dance will only continue, driving them into debt, and pushing them into poverty.  On the other hand, their long-term future looks just as grim, if not more so.  For if an economic recovery happens and resource exploitation and commodity production resume at full steam, new jobs will be created at the expense of pushing the Earth System, which is already at the brink, over the edge.  So young Westerners will either wind up jobless and poor, or find work amidst surging food prices, bad harvests, environmental refuges, and failing states.  Climate change is the consequence of capitalism.  Trying to make it on a hot, crowded, and barren world, it slowly dawns on the young generation that their elders, trusting in the Great Promise, thereby wrecked the future. 

The Liberals in Germany had never garnered a majority but always got seven, eight percent of the vote, enough to act as kingmaker or coalition partner.  In 2009 this party of preppy business kids triumphed with the best election results ever, an unprecedented fifteen percent, and partnered up with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Party (CDU).  The downturn of the U.S. economy, which had begun in 2008, had little effect on European and Asian markets in 2009.  In 2010 the first clouds gathered at the global economic horizons, and since then, of course, things have gone from bad to worse.  Somehow capitalism does not look cool anymore.  In the September 2011 elections in Berlin, the FDP plummeted to an astounding low of 1.8 percent and failed to retain the minimum number of votes to stay in parliament.  Voters are running away, recognizing that the Great Promise had been a lie.

And this makes me curious about Plan B.  When I was a kid, there was a Plan B.  It was called Communism.  But the socialist economies all failed because the Soviet and East European bureaucrats at the center of power who were supposed to steer production and match demand with supply could never keep up.  They were too slow, too clumsy, too inefficient.  And so the iconic image we remember from the socialist experiment of centrally planning an economy was of people standing in long queues in half-empty stores.  Eastern Europeans and Russians impoverished while the capitalistic West prospered, until the socialist citizens had enough, toppled their governments, threw the bureaucrats out, and went to McDonald's.  Thus Communism died.  Its structure had made it inefficient, and so it won a Darwin Award.

But now I am wondering.  This happened when I was in high school.  That was before computers.  With modern information technology, how could a planned economy still be inefficient?

Sixty-three months left.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

klare, hedges, and the irish

A propos being stuck in the tar pit: in the week after the 9-11 decennial -- a week with the Texas drought deepening to 'exceptional' levels; the Arctic melt either being the second worst ever or having set a new all-time record (depending on how the Bremen University data hold up); the polar climate having moved beyond the tipping point; and the U.S. House of Representatives now being 'the most anti-environmental in history' -- three superb summaries of the realities resulting from America's wrong response to 9-11 have appeared.

One is Michael Klare's America and oil: declining together? 
America and Oil.  It's like bacon and eggs, Batman and Robin.  As the old song lyric went, you can't have one without the other.  Once upon a time, it was also a surefire formula for national greatness and global preeminence.  Now, it's a guarantee of a trip to hell in a hand basket.  The Chinese know it.  Does Washington?  (more)
Another is Chris Hedges's We are what we loathe
We have still not woken up to whom we have become, to the fatal erosion of domestic and international law and the senseless waste of lives, resources and trillions of dollars to wage wars that ultimately we can never win. We do not see that our own faces have become as contorted as the faces of the demented hijackers who seized the three commercial jetliners a decade ago. We do not grasp that Osama bin Laden’s twisted vision of a world of indiscriminate violence and terror has triumphed. The attacks turned us into monsters, grotesque ghouls, sadists and killers who drop bombs on village children and waterboard those we kidnap, strip of their rights and hold for years without due process. We acted before we were able to think. And it is the satanic lust of violence that has us locked in its grip. (more)
Third is an editorial by Jim Roche in the Irish Times about the decennial.  Personally I have mixed feelings about Ireland.  Some repulsive relatives of mine live there, postmodern relativists with no moral compass.  But this Irish editorial rings so true it deserves to be quoted at length:
The communal grief and sympathy for those killed and bereaved on 9/11 was willfully exploited by a neoconservative agenda in order to wage terror on a massive scale, premised on the extreme ideology of the now defunct Project for the New American Century, through which Messrs Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney et al had argued repeatedly for regime change in Iraq. The real aim of the Bush administration, of which it boasted quite openly, was to seek global hegemony by the United States – a flawed policy that confused dominance abroad with security at home.
The farcically named “war on terror” has caused immense suffering to millions of people. Premised on disinformation, false claims and a desire for world dominance, it has involved the corporate theft of resources; the misuse of reconstruction funds; illegal rendition and torture (as in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib); an assault on civil liberties; the gross vilification of the Islamic religion; the stoking of ethnic tension and hatred; indiscriminate bombings and shootings; the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous; the cowardly use of unmanned drone aircraft; and thousands dead, injured and displaced.
Take, for example, the violence visited on a medium-sized town of 350,000 people on the Euphrates river west of Baghdad in Iraq’s Anbar province between April and November 2004. As unembedded journalist Dahr Jamail relates in his book Beyond the Green Zone , the response to the killing by insurgents of four private Blackwater military contractors was a siege and assault by US forces in a surge of collective punishment.
US forces declared a curfew and refused the evacuation of the wounded and the ingress of medical aid while snipers shot from the minarets of mosques at anything that moved, including women and children. Hospital doctors confirmed between 20 and 30 per cent of victims’ wounds were the result of sniper fire, often from dumdum bullets.
Almost every family in this city lost a member. The number of dead is disputed but ranges between 6,000 and 12,000, the majority being old men, women and children.
Mike Marquez of the Guardian noted that the city’s compensation commissioner reported that “36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines”. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent called it “a city of ruins” and reported on the dramatic dramatic increase in cancers, birth defects and infant mortality, more than those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as a result of the use of chemical weapons.
The city is Fallujah. 
It is natural, indeed inevitable, to make mistakes.   That's what humans do.  We are not perfect.  And it is prudent, indeed intelligent, to own up to one's mistakes.  This requires courage and lends us our humanity.  The first step in owning up to a mistake is to cease and desist from doing more of the same.  The second step is to formulate and firm up the resolution to do the right thing from now on.  The third and final step, actually a process, is to launch into a clear-sighted effort at correcting the mistake made.

America can get out of the oil quagmire and return to its former leadership role on this changing planet.  It needs to own up to its contribution to climate change.  It needs to stop military operations in the Arab world.  It needs to enact a progressive gas tax, to regulate carbon emissions, and to launch three New Deal-style work programs -- one for building the wind farms we need to meet domestic energy demands, another for massive production and free installation of solar panels on every single rooftop in the country, and a third for expanding and upgrading the national railroad system.  Then -- and only then -- America would look at a bright future.  But as long as such realism, rationality, and courage are not shown, Gaia's clock will keep ticking ever louder and harder.

Sixty-three months left.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

ten years after

Ten years ago, an event happened that changed the course of history.  The attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the crash of flight United 93, and the abduction of flight AA 77 mark a day of suffering.  More suffering was to follow in the wake of the event: two wars and three far-flung military operations were launched in consequence.

In October 2001, the first war began, in Afghanistan, with bombing raids, followed by invasion,  pacification, insurgency, strategic retreats, re-occupation, reconstruction, bribes, and assassinations.  Ten years later, the war has expanded into the western parts of flood- and drought-stricken Pakistan.

In January 2002, the first overseas operation began, in the Philippines, with the deployment of military advisers to the Armed Forces of the Philippines for suppressing insurgencies in Basilan, Jolo, and other islands.  In October of the same year, the second operation was launched, in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa, to check maritime traffic and disrupt insurgencies in the failing and failed states of Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.  In 2005, the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative was added as a third operation, to train fighters in counterinsurgency warfare in eleven other African countries.

In March 2003, the second war began, in Iraq, under the pretext of securing weapons of mass destruction despite protests by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission that no search ever pointed to the existence of such weapons.  Without the backing of the international community, despite countless reports that the Iraqi government had no connection to the terrorist attacks, and regardless of the largest peace demonstrations that were ever held on the planet, the U.S.government choose to go to war anyway.  Since Turkey denied the US invaders any use of its territory, the invasion was launched from bases in Kuwait and vessels in the Persian Gulf.  The U.S. armed forces and their mercenary contractors reached the Oil Ministry in Baghdad in April 2003 and believed the war to be over.  A smoldering insurgency flared up in 2004 and erupted in two battles for Fallujah.  The invaders installed a puppet regime in 2005, which led to civil war in 2006.  This spawned a surge of American troops in 2007 and necessitated yet another try at foreign nation building from 2008 to 2010.

In 2011, U.S. finances are in shambles.  The budget surplus that had been created right before the Republicans employed the terrorist attack as an excuse for wars (with the most immoral of them, in Iraq, also having been the most costly) changed into the worst deficit in U.S. history.  The economic downturn began in 2008, with no end in sight.  Now little money is left for greening the economy, for building mass transit systems, for planting wind-farms and distributing photovoltaics, and for climate-proofing the infrastructure.  The oil dependence is worse than ever; the per capita carbon footprint remains the largest worldwide and grew even fatter in the past decade. 

I wonder how future generations will assess the military response to the terrorist attack ten years ago.  Chances are they will look back at it as a fateful mistake, and as a missed opportunity.  Before the terrorist attack, before the military operations, and before the costly wars, the U.S. had the power to end its addiction to oil, an addiction that forced it to intervene in the politics of Arab oil nations, a colonialist interference which was in no small part responsible for the rage that wove the networks of the extremists.  Ten years ago, the U.S. was wealthy enough to move beyond its fossil liability to postcarbon independence. Ten years ago, the U.S. had the chance to lead the world to a new era of innovation.

But instead of responding to the crime perpetrated by non-state actors with a police investigation, as would have seemed appropriate, all available resources were spent to exert military might in the far-flung regions that either did or did not harbor and house these or related actors.  While it was hoped that doing so would not only enhance national security but also shore up American dominance over oil producers, the flow of money went just one way: from the wallets of U.S. workers into the coffers of military contractors and oil companies.  Now the people's money is gone.  And just as the rising concentration of greenhouse gases worsens the weather by the year, making our planet harder to live on, and just as other countries are extricating themselves from the suicidal lure of fossil fuels, thus helping to give the world's children a future, the U.S. is stuck in a tar pit.

Sixty-three months left.


Sunday, September 04, 2011

two graphs

Sometimes a picture does say more than a thousand words. The  quintessential information in the IPCC AR-4 report is packed in two graphs on emissions scenarios and surface warming.  Both are pretty old hats.  But this adds to their appeal, because they are dated in having been too cautious.  Climate change in the past decade has outpaced the worst of expectations.  Reality is more cartoonish than we thought. 

Trippy about this twin figure is its philosophical consequence.  The scenario storylines are where the metaphysical meat is.  The worst case scenario evokes a collapse brought about by the skepticism of Hume, the relativism of Derrida, and the selfishness of Adam Smith-slash-Ayn Rand.  The best case scenario evokes a new era guided by the wisdom of Kant, Confucius, and Laozi.  So now we know.  Some thinkers are indeed wiser than others.

While this particular consequence of the IPCC storylines is sort of an in-house provocation, the other consequence is a universal challenge for civil evolution.  The information distilled in the twin graph of the AR4 Climate Change 2007 report serves a similar cultural role as Copernicus' De Revolutionibus (1543) and Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) did in their day.  Christian Wolff would have had a ball.  In the guise of climatology, rational dogma is back and eager to kick our collective asses if we don't get up to speed. 

But right now there are two other graphs, far more ominous, astounding, and timely, that I keep obsessing about. One is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Drought Monitor housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I copied an image into the current climate events update at blisterdata.  Another is from a geoinformatics facility for satellite image analysis, a joint venture of the International Arctic Research Center and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.  The IARC-JAXA outfit processes information with real time updates into a graph on Sea Ice Extent.  A link is on the August post at blisterdata.  RealClimate just opened a new thread about it.

The two graphs on drought and melt speak for themselves.  Karl Marx must be laughing in paradise now: the graphs are the planetary legacy of capitalism.  And this raises two questions.  Must we sacrifice our children on the altar of corporate profit? Can we still turn civilization around?  The plot thickens.

Sixty-three months left.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

gaining altitude

-- Also posted at Common Dreams (Aug 30) --

Welcome back.  The events this summer make old warnings by the naturalist Lester Brown ring with meaning.  The foreword of his 1996 State of the World report begins as follows:
As we complete the 13th State of the World, it is a dark time for environmental policy in Washington, threatening the U.S. leadership role on environmental issues.  Yet in many other countries, and among hundreds of corporations and nongovernmental organizations, environmental problems are being taken more seriously than ever.
The first essay, "The Acceleration of History," starts this way:
The pace of change in our world is speeding up, accelerating to the point where it threatens to overwhelm the management capacity of political leaders.
Fifteen years later the trends forecast by Brown unfold as predicted.  Living in Formosa with family for the summer put the foreword in a new light.  Staying in Kaohsiung county let me take a sabbatical from driving, a freedom made possible by bike lanes, good buses, a spanking new metro, and efficient railroads, paid for by a tax system that charges the wealthy.  Returning to Florida feels as if one stepped into a time machine set for the past, hurtling the traveler from a future of wind farms and bullet trains back into the quaint old fossil era.

The U.S. leadership role on environmental issues is no more.  With the American Disenlightenment--the oil wars, the climate denial, the deregulation--the US has renounced this role.  The president promised change but delivered continuity.  A whole party is controlled by anti-environmentalists.  The Republican hatred of nature is all the weirder as much of the regulation now under attack had been a Republican creation.  Hatred of nature joins hands with contempt for knowledge.  Florida Governor Rick Scott announced that "I've not been convinced that there's any man-made climate change; nothing's convinced me that there is" (May 2011). Texas Governor Rick Perry derided global warming as a phony mess (November 2010).  New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez claimed "There is disagreement in the science community concerning the causes of global warming" (October 2010). And on it goes.  With the laudable and solitary exception of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, virtually all Republican governors are in cognitive denial.

Here in Florida, in the past few months alone, the Department of Community Affairs was eliminated; the Florida Forever land acquisition program was unfunded; all the appointments to the Environmental Regulation Commission and to the Florida Energy and Climate Commission had been withdrawn; the state's planned cap-and-trade program was scrapped, and the regulations protecting the Everglades, a body of laws that had been decades in the making, were rolled back.  Seed money from Washington for high speed rail was rejected by the Florida governor--as if the Florida construction industry were not in need of jobs.  Meanwhile the ocean around the Keys heated up to an astounding 30 C (90 F); the water is teeming with jellyfish, and the reefs look blotched and blighted.  How can we possibly afford this--even from a business standpoint?  Is the Florida tourism industry not in need of tourists?
The disconnect between information and policy is a symptom of what I describe elsewhere as the square of flawed cognition.  Despite its predictability, it boggles the mind.  The governor and legislature of a region extremely vulnerable to climate change decided to make it ... more vulnerable.

Then again, the rightist conduct is also heart-wrenching to watch: a doomed bourgeois attempt to turn back the clock, back to a time when environmental issues were a weekend luxury, when there was no climate change, and when cars were cool.  U.S. politics today confirms Lester Brown's prediction, that the speed of environmental change would eventually overwhelm the management capacities of political leaders.

Being in Formosa, by contrast, made me feel safe.  Typhoon Morakot, which dumped a year's rainfall within 72 hours on the island in 2009, had wrecked much of the roadways in the mountains.  I spent a month roaming the mountains on a bike, with repeated forays up on the nanheng gonglu, the east-west traverse connecting Tainan to Taidong at the shoulder of the Yu Shan massif, with a pass at nearly 3000 m.  The typhoon had made mountain sides come down, obliterated aboriginal villages in mudslides, and toppled the viaducts west of Yakou pass.  First I heard that the road would be abandoned, but when climbing up to Meishan I witnessed the giant climate-proofing construction project now underway.  Entire river valleys are being fortified now, so as to channel future floods more safely.  The workers in the road crews along the nanheng must number in the thousands.  This lifted my spirits.  At least somewhere on the planet global citizens do act on the information, with capable politicians who are not overwhelmed.

And perhaps this is how civil evolution works.  Cultures stuck in nostalgic denial and cognitive dissonance will weaken.  Others, acting on the information, will rise, and prevail, and rule.

Sixty-four months left.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

preliminary attribution

We expect to be away and unplugged for about three months, and I wish everyone a happy and safe summer.  Before signing off, I would like to close the sequence of posts in this academic year with some questions about attribution.

Attribution is the soft underbelly of global warming.  It is where deniers and skeptics strike rational blows below the belt.  Climate change is an ever more tangible reality, but time and again we hear that freak weather cannot be firmly linked to climate climate, making it intangible again.  This puts us in a strange spot.  On the one hand, we know climate change can inform weather events.  On the other, weather events cannot be attributed rigorously to climate change.

When something comes into being we expect, on some level or another, to be able to touch it.  If we cannot touch it, we would find it reasonable to doubt its being.  A changing climate has meteorological consequences, but freak weather may also be due to other causes.  Obviously, freak weather events happened already before the industrial revolution that eventually sparked climate change.

That's baby logic: if p is climate change, and q is freak weather, and we know p implies q, and we also know p happens, then q follows.  But from p implying q, and from us affirming the consequent q, does not follow p.  Inferring climate change from freak weather, or attributing freak weather to climate change, is a logical fallacy.

So far so frustrating.  But there is a way out.  Here is how.  Let us think of attribution in terms of tangibility, and of tangibility in terms of proportion.  Remember the 1998 Roland Emmerich movie Godzilla?  Rather lousy, I admit, but the advertisement was cool: size does matter

A giant putting down a foot cannot squash microbes.  Conventional wisdom tells us that climate change is just too big to squash local weather into a new shape, even if common sense suggests the opposite.  Climate refers to a long-term meteorological average in a spacetime field; weather expresses momentary conditions at a point.  Climate and weather relate to one another like an oscillation and an interval, a melody and a note, or Godzilla and the bug.

While there are difficulties attributing a tiny effect to a giant cause, the difficulties lessen as soon as we fiddle with magnification.  On the smallest, microbial level, I can certainly not attribute the heat and humidity (33 C, 90 %) of today's bicycle commute from home to campus to global climate change.  After all, this is south Florida; it's mid-May; it hasn't rained in a while, and thunderheads are building up.  So what do you expect?  On the other extreme, at the largest, planetary level, I certainly can attribute, say, the Arctic melt to climate change, if only because of the hugeness of the effect and the consequent proportionality of causation.  Here cause and effect are of comparable size.  Moreover, here certainty runs so high that it would be silly to object.  For illustration, think of G. Monbiot's four questions in Heat 2007: 1. does the atmosphere contain CO2?  2. does atmospheric CO2 raise the average global temperature?  3. Will this influence be enhanced adding more CO2?  4. Have human activities led to a net emission of CO2?  Since we are forced to answer yes, yes, yes, and verily, yes, to the questions, the dwindling North Polar ice cover is an attributed consequence of the 'duh!' variety.  This is the epistemic comfort zone.

The query then becomes: how small does attribution get? Or: how far can we push cause and effect out of proportion to attribute the latter still to the former?  One line of inquiry concerns mid-size events such as the Arctic Blowout and the consequent harsh winters in Florida (more findings here).  Other examples of medium-scale attribution are the relation of global climate change to Himalayan warming and to worsening allergies in North America.  Other inquiries concern not-quite-long-term processes, e.g. the relation of global climate change in the past thirty years to a five percent reduction in world crops such as wheat and maize.  All this is certain in being measurable, explainable, and peer-reviewed to boot. 

Can we make it smaller? Here recent work examines the deepening aridification of Mexico, the inundation increase of the Mekong delta in Vietnam, the harsher weather swings in Mozambique, last year's floods in Pakistan, last year's fires in Russia, and the American snowmaggedon.  (Specific links are in the 'attribution' file here.)  This type of research has drawn various criticisms; so the connections are arguable but not all that sure yet.  Well, then, let's wait.  My guess is that it is only a question of time before these causal connections will harden.

Lest we forget, there is also a pragmatic way out of this puzzle.  Should we remain unpersuaded by the subtle etiology of freak weather, then perhaps it were wise to pay attention to the analysts at reinsurers such as Munich Re.  They went on record with declaring that "the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change."

When information is still soft, and when it's your investment that's at risk, prudence points the way. 

Have a nice summer.

Sixty-seven months left.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

everything on track

A new climate events post is at blisterdata.  All the warnings and predictions, dismissed by the American oligarchs and their Republican puppets, are in hindsight perfectly on track.  Climate change is unfolding ever faster.  I imagine we'll have less of a decade, maybe six, seven years on the outside, to initiate the revolutionary transition to a post-carbon civilization.  If we let this window of opportunity slam shut, we'll find ourselves in what could be called "the reactive mode".

Most event-related news concern the spring weather in the US, no surprise there; but it is unsettling to put this in context: super tornadoes plus record droughts plus historic floods plus massive wildfires -- everything is qualitatively rather extreme.  Add to this the quantitative dimension (and I'm not talking about the details, such as four times as many tornadoes as average), but about the big picture: more than half of the contiguous U.S. has been affected by the freak weather; and the damage, merely from the most recent tornado outbreak, is assessed at $ 5 billion.  As the weather amplitude widens, swinging from lashing rains to deep drought to massive storms, farmers take a hit.  The main trend, of course, will be crop loss.

Speaking of trends: all the bad stuff is continuing.  CO2 goes up, Arctic sea ice goes down.  Sea levels go up, aquifer levels go down.  Human consumption, especially in Asia, goes up, and green forest expanse, especially in Latin America, goes down.  And as the icing on the cake, with cherry on top, the carbon culprits already announced there is no hope for a climate deal at the South Africa summit later this year.  The plot thickens.

The last item worth noting is that the freak weather inexorably prompts public questions about the link to climate change.  So the contentious issue of attribution is not going away.

Sixty-seven months left.

Friday, April 29, 2011

drudge disinformation

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

Sharpened 4-30

Drudge report, a popular US news site, couldn't resist spinning the weather crisis in denialist fashion.  Below headlines such as survivors pick up the pieces, now come the floods, storm death passes 300 in South, and deadliest swarm of twisters since 1974, the site added (screenshot above): SORRY, AL: tornadoes whipped up by wind, not 'climate change' ...

Drudge report discloses the American Disenlightenment.  Its spin shows the cognitive impairment of climate skepticism.  The disinformation begins with a mock apology. "AL" refers to Al Gore, not Alabama.  The idea is to use the weather crisis for linking climate change to the author of An Inconvenient Truth; a link forged by lobbyists, hardened by their Republican serfs, and reinforced by Drudge.  Thus climate change does not stand on its own, but stands and falls with an eccentric loser of a bygone presidential election.  The purpose is to present a globally emerging reality as if it wasn't; as if it were nothing but a mental disorder, an idée fixe, Al Gore's demon baby.

The rest of the headline is equally revealing. A key to American Disenlightenment is its Humean bent: empiricism expressed as skepticism, which impairs its victims to make connections and to think holistically.  Just as the American Disenlightenment is a reality-disconnect in moral terms -- as a narcissist repudiation of the other, manifest in the Republican virtue of selfishness -- so it is a reality-disconnect in causal terms: a divorce of behavior from its consequences.  Moral and causal disconnects are mutually reinforcing.  As the egoist hopes to 'get away with it,' and as the narcissist trusts he deserves to get away with it, the skeptic insists that, really, there is nothing to get away from, there is no constant conjunction between what seems cause and what seems effect, and that, therefore, there is perfectly good reason for expecting to get away with it.

The self-serving disciples of David Hume can see this tornado and trace it to that wind being whipped up.  But cognitively confined to the ostentatiously observable, they cannot trace this to the powersurge that comes with a warming climate.  Since climate is around us, it is white noise and perceptual background, thus not really visible and therefore not really real.  Hence Drudge puts it in quotation marks: not climate change, the reality, but "climate change," Al Gore's idée fixe .

Yet for all of this, Drudge's disinformation is now on the defensive.  You'd think that with the corporate resources at their command, denialists could do better.  The journalists of the article titled "Tornadoes whipped up by wind, not climate: officials" quote an assistant professor at Mississippi State University as their lead authority.  That faculty's comments are the hook of the news: Dr. G. Dixon is cited as denying the link between the particular event of tornadoes here and now, and the general event of climate change overall and everywhere.  Dixon is a good scientist in doing so: he is echoing the consensus that attribution of freak weather to climate change can be done only with difficulty, and only rather recently

A look at Dixon's work shows he's on the level.  He's not a denialist.  But the journos who cite him make it seem as if he were, as if blaming a weather catastrophe on climate change is, to quote, "a terrible mistake," thus underscoring the headline that, indeed, "officials" like Dixon are telling us that "tornadoes [are] whipped up by wind, not by climate."  The monster storms lashing the South are thus a 'teaching moment,' to differentiate climate and weather.

What follows are quotes from meteorologists who explain the how-to of tornado formation.  Scroll further down in the article, and you come across a real skeptic: a Mr. Fugate at FEMA, described as an "administrator," who "also dismissed Thursday climate change as a factor in the deadly tornadoes." So here's a skeptic at last ... and he is an administrator.

The article ends with a quote from a Mr. Imy at NOAA, who repeats the conventional wisdom that such upticks of freak weather are still within statistical norms.  Imy is presented as another authority (dude works for NOAA), but googling shows he doesn't have a Ph.D. ... he's a weather forecaster.

So what's happening here?  Drudge's disinformation demands another post, on attribution, but here's the upshot.  First, single weather events hardly signify climate change.  For the most part, and for the time being, the former are lost in statistical fog and do not qualify as evidence for climate change.  Which doesn't matter, since the evidence comes from elsewhere--not single factoids and discrete events constitute confirmation, but the aggregate of factoids or series of events does.  Just as one swallow not yet a summer makes, one incident does not constitute a trend.  Local weather events do not point to global climate change as evidence.

Second, climate change contributes to single weather events.  This is obvious--the warming of the atmosphere has consequences all over, and therefore also locally.  On the other hand it isn't obvious, because global events do not directly translate to local events.  A regional bridge connects them.  Global warming causes regional changes such as the soaring temps and high pressure zones in the Arctic Circle, and such as the greater surface heat on the Gulf of Mexico.  Regional changes in the Arctic cause more frequent southbound flows of unusually cold air.  Regional changes in the Gulf cause more frequent northbound flows of unusually hot air.  When two such air-flows collide, as they did this week, a highly energetic storm blooms in the Southern US, locally spawning EF5 tornadoes more than 1 km wide and moving at 300 km/h.  Global climate change points to local weather events as consequence.

The disinformation is to smear all this together as if affirming the one entailed denying the other: because local weather events don't point to climate change as evidence, we can rest assured that they also won't arise as consequence.  (The missing premise such reasoning would need to get off the ground is that there is no other evidence, which, as we know, is false.)  The beauty of manipulation is you don't even have to make this explicit.  All the manipulator needs to do is to imply it through good timing.  Just when a consequence of climate change occurs, Drudge assures us that this is not evidence, thus stick to your carbon lifestyle and be good little sheep.

Sixty-eight months left.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

powersurge spring

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

A new climate events post is at blisterdata.  The past decade was the hottest ever; last year was the hottest year on record; and this springs may shape up to be the most extreme spring on the books.  Extremes are quantifiable in terms of storm and flood damage, and loss in livestock and crops.  Historic storm clusters are a continent-wide unifier of Spring 2011 in the U.S., but the global unifier of this season appears to be drought.

In the American Southwest, Texas and Oklahoma are hard hit.  One should feel compassion for people who are suffering, but how sorry can one feel when it's their fault? The southwestern states are massively Republican populated by majorities of climate deniers.  And now the Southwest may turn into a Dust Bowl, quite ironic, really, since research shows that regional climate would have been ready to cycle back to a long-term wet period had the Americans curbed their emissions.  As Fawcett et al. (Nature 470) put it (p. 518): "in the absence of anthropogenic forcing, the region should be entering a cooler and wetter phase."  I guess it wasn't meant to be. 

In Europe, spring 2011 has morphed into a century drought, and no, the reports of the sand storm in Germany that caused the deadly eighty-car pileup on the Autobahn were no hoax -- welcome to the 21st century.  In Africa, the drought in Somalia is on the global radar screen, but as soon as you dig deeper, you'll find reports of livestock deaths and crop damage in Kenya, Malawi, Niger, and Uganda--basically the spring's too dry all over, from coast to coast.  In Asia, drought is the name of the game in China and Vietnam.  For different reasons (floods and frost), North Korea lost most of its crops as well.  Closer to home, there is severe drought in Cuba, of all places.  South of the border, parts of Mexico are burning because it is so dry.  And drought keeps worsening in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where all hell is breaking loose anyway.

Climate change spawns failed states.  Libya has entered failure mode now, and even if the rebels win, there's no guarantee the tribes will want to stick together.  The outcome of failure is territorial disintegration, displacement, and dieback.  Roots and reasons of failure vary, but judging from the lessons of the Middle East, the process appears to kick in with economic polarization, with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.  The next step is fiscal impotence; the inability of the government to provide basic services because of too little tax revenue -- the poor can't pay, and the rich won't pay.  The third step is privatization of government services and the creation of a state-in-a-state: since firefighting, emergency services, police, and schools become dysfunctional, the rich pay for private substitutes, with most costs sunk into security.  Governments in such a predicament are weak, and not only that; they are brittle; one hard knock, like a heat wave, a drought, or a price spike, and they shatter and disintegrate.

Sixty-eight months left.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

two wins: China & Lovelock

A new climate findings post is up at blisterdata.  I scrolled through recent issues of Nature and checked out items published elsewhere, as in Geophysical Research Letters and Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.  Two things stick out.

One is China's new five-year plan (links in "mitigation").  It seems the communist leadership "gets it".   COP-15 raised question marks about China's conduct, but it now appears that the communist government is now willing to do what it takes.  Whereas the U.S. is bungling postcarbon opportunities, China is not.  While powershift is happening in Washington, D.C., with B McKibben consoling the crowd that this so very centrist president is just not that into you, and with V Jones stating that the national political establishment is stuck on stupid, the new Chinese plan stipulates the reduction of energy intensity by 16 % and of carbon intensity by 17 % until 2015. (This is not enough to stay at the 2 C mark, but it's close, and far better than what the Americans are doing.)  Non-fossils are to be boosted from the current 8 % to more than 11 %, and forest coverage is to expand to 22 %.  (The postcarbon shift is doable, since China has the know-how, but the forest expansion may not be, what with the ever drier climate.)  The plan also decrees the increase of efficiency of irrigation to 53 % and the reduction of water use per unit of industrial growth by 30 %.  (If the last goal is met, then China's industrial base will be as sleek as that of Europe.)  That this is not just words is shown in the mass transit investments I blogged about last time.  With a financial effort two orders of magnitude greater than that by the U.S., China puts its money where its mouth is.

Another is James Lovelock.  As a philosopher in awe of the progression from Spinoza and Leibniz to Kant and Hegel, I root for the Gaia Hypothesis.  Every time I come across another instance of Gaia going mainstream, I'm as happy as a clam.  The review by Lucht, of Lenton and Watson, works for me.  Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson published Revolutions that Made the Earth with Oxford 2011.  The authors substantiate Lovelock's contention (spelled out in The Ages of Gaia), that life forms and the planetary environment are the joint product of co-evolution.  Wolfgang Lucht, who teaches Sustainability Science at the PIK and at Humboldt University, compares this substantiation of the Gaia Hypothesis to a culture-changing insight akin to the Copernican revolution.  In Nature no less.

Surely it would be nice to end on this happy note. 

Unfortunately, Gaia and The Ages of Gaia were followed by The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia.  And my data trawling netted findings that fit either of these sequels.  (Those findings are mentioned in Nature and published in Geophys. Res. Lett.)  About the vanishing face, it appears that the 2010 Amazon drought has led to a widespread decline in greenness.  The rainforest is in crisis, and the eventual savanna is now just around the corner.  About Gaia's revenge, it turns out that rising arctic ocean temperatures cause gas hydrate destabilization.  This is news of the balls-crawling kind: the clathrate gun points now at us.  While the authors hasten to assure the reader that the methane release won't kick in as climate forcing for a century, it will augment acidification within years.

So eat these tasty fishies while they still swim.

Sixty-eight months left.

Monday, April 11, 2011

fading into ignorance

--climate happenings are at the blisterdata--

Saying that the American disenlightenment is deepening doesn't even come close.   The fading substance of policy is painful to watch.  This may be symptomatic of the closing of a once open society, and perhaps this is normal when an old order yields to an oligarchy, but it's still a bummer.

Exhibits of this disconnect from logic and reality are the budget woes, the energy policy, and the climate hearings.  These three items are locked in a fateful interplay that pushes America even deeper into self-destructive ignorance.  I refer, of course, to HR 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, which failed in the Senate, which the White House intends to veto, and which the House of Representatives approved.  The point of HR 910 is to strip the EPA of power to regulate GHGs, because such regulation "hinders the economy and job growth".

So here you have it: because of its failed gamble on oil wars in the Middle East, the US is now strapped of cash, the very cash that would have paid for creating a postcarbon economy.  Now, the Middle East revolutions drive up the price of crude; Time Magazine is tripping out on the saving powers of oil shale, and the real issues are being swept under the rug.

Exhibit A: Budget Woes

The ballooning of the federal budget is typical of empires in decline.  Those that don't end in violence end in bankruptcy.  The combination of military overreach, domestic luxuriation, and falling revenue spelled the demise for the ambitions of Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England.  America is on track to repeat their histories.  Well then: if budget woes are the problem, then the rational solution, you'd think, would be to increase revenue by raising taxes on those who have more than enough, and rein in spending on the greatest expenses.  All budget woes would disappear as soon as we taxed the 400 Americans who have the same wealth as half of all Americans combined the way they would be taxed if they were Germans or Swedes or Fins, and as soon as we slashed the military research budget and the defense budget by half or two thirds.

Such a solution would balance the budget while leaving the status quo unchanged.  Even if they had to pay more taxes, the superrich would still be super rich.  Even if its funds were cut by two thirds, the US military would still be (by far) number one in the world.  Then a shift towards a post-carbon society would be affordable.  But no: none of this is on the table.  Rational proposals, such as the people's budget by J Sachs (Columbia), are utterly taboo in the current political culture.

Exhibit B: Energy Policy

Another instance of the ongoing weirdness is the neglect of wind.  As Lester Brown points out in Plan B (p. 113), the US has enough land-based and offshore wind energy to satisfy its national energy needs several times over.  Merely exploiting the wind energy of both coasts would meet all our needs.  As mentioned in an earlier post, using the wind that blows in North Dakota, Texas, and Kansas would do the same too.

Such a national construction effort of vast wind farms would eliminate unemployment, help with poverty, and boost the economy, thus giving us some breathing space while we figure out how to transition to a steady-state economy.  Ways to go forward, via a Cinderella economy, are already being devised, for instance by T Jackson (Surrey).

An example of how to do such a large-scale project is China's daunting push for high speed trains.  As the NYT reported, the People's Republic is engaged in a program of constructing 8,100 miles of high-speed rail lines and more than 11,000 miles of traditional fast railroad lines, at a cost of $ 750 billion, some $ 365 billion for high-speed rail alone.  By comparison, the US can afford only $ 8 billion for high speed.  But a plan that could compete with China's vision would of course be the American equivalent of a socialist enterprise or state capitalism.  Never mind that the Apollo Program that put men on the Moon was just that.  Thus market ideology trumps ecological pragmatism.

Exhibit C: Climate Hearings 

But let's now turn to the worst example, the most compelling illustration of how far the American disenlightenment has already progressed. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (23 R, 17 D), held a Hearing on Climate Change on 31 March.  Witnesses were J S Armstrong (Penn), R Miller (Berkeley), J Christy (Alabama), P Glaser (corporate/lawyer), D Montgomery (corporate/economist), and K A Emanuel (MIT).

Armstrong argued that the "validity of the manmade global warming alarm" requires evidence of three items: knowledge of rising temperatures, knowledge of harmful effects, and knowledge of cost-effective regulations that would be better than doing nothing, "in effect, a three-legged stool".  He concluded that we don't have such knowledge, the science done violates all sorts of "forecasting principles", and the "alarmists" are wrong. 

Muller argued that the big national climate analysis centers, NOAA, NASA, HadCRU, are biased in their data selection; even though there are so many weather stations, they only pick data from where it's really hot.  Well, OK, maybe not, and maybe "some of the most worrisome biases are less of a problem" than he had first thought, but the message was clear: the alarmists are biased.  The only question is how severe their prejudice is: are the alarmists more biased, or less biased?

Christy, the Alabama professor, argued that the Hockey Stick is a fraud; the EPA misrepresents evidence; ClimateGate shows what's going on, and the IPCC consists of a clique of evildoers who think Christy is an idiot.

Attorney Glaser, in true tobacco-lobbyist style, channeling his forebears who cast doubt on cancer research, argued that the EPA's analytic approach is one-sided; it lacks "independent and objective peer review," and its conclusions must be doubted.

The economist Montgomery then did a cost-benefit analysis, as economists are wont to do, with the result that reducing carbon emissions will cost much more than politicians would want to pay.

Emanuel was the token critic, the only man of integrity among the lot, who expressed the scientific consensus.  But the damage was done; MIT prof was checkmated by the skeptics.  Sure enough, the House Committee issued a press release (Mar 31) headlined that the witnesses "highlighted flawed processes used to generate climate change science." 

Two weeks before the House Hearings, reacting to a similarly rigged Congressional Climate Hearing, Nature issued an editorial titled Into Ignorance. This is the state of the Union now.  The oligarchs are taking over, the corporate-political complex wages war on science and education, and Obama, who once said he wanted to change it all, is timid. 

Sixty-eight months left.