IBI Watch 2/19/12

19 02 2012

Normalizing Extremes  //

Someone following only mainstream media would know very little about our ongoing climate crisis.  There are several reasons for this.  The biggest is probably corporate ownership of those media.  Getting people all worked up about man-made climate change is bad for business, at least in the short term.  If people really understood the gravity of the challenge, they might actually change their habits, i.e., conserve more and buy less.  Right – bad for business.  Good for the planet, but who cares about that?!

Another reason is false equivalence.  That is, the journalistic convention that requires both sides of the story – even if the two sides are unbalanced.  On climate change, it works this way – some scientists say the problem is serious and getting worse, but some scientists say it is grossly exaggerated.  You don’t often see the whole truth – the science is solid and peer-reviewed, and the ‘skeptics’ are outliers, many of whom are themselves bankrolled by corporations heavily invested in the current carbon-heavy system.

One more reason – the confusion between climate and weather.  This allows a gaping hole through which denialists happily drive their truck of lies.  We saw that last winter, big-time, when a series of major snow dumps had denialists like James Inhofe and Rush Limbaugh chortling about how the extreme snows proved how stupid that Al Gore was all along.

And meteorologists – even those employed by public media – seem to be permanently programmed to operate this way: look at a current extreme example – say our virtual lack of a winter here in the Twin Cities – and find an example from the past that sort of matches.  The subliminal message – sure, it’s ridiculously warm and dry, but stay calm, don’t rock the boat – this has happened before.  This myopic view ignores how current weather fits into trends, but it keeps people calm, and is therefore good for business.  In virtually every case like this, if you look at the context of the earlier matching phenomenon, you see that it was truly a fluke, an aberration surrounded by normal patterns.  Today’s string of ‘flukes’ long ago lost any characteristics of flukiness.

Over the long haul, weather becomes climate.  That is what made a recent story so disappointing.  A mob of right-wing weather forecasters, true denialists, not only ignore the plainly obvious weather trends in their daily forecasts, they use their platforms to fight and try to discredit climate science.  We have one of those here in the Twin Cities.  Check Dave Dahl’s pignorant (pretend ignorant) cred with this short video clip.  This pseudo-scientist is on record as saying it is ‘arrogant’ to think humanity could be changing the world’s climate.  And why is this so important?  To move climate policy in a meaningful, positive direction, public support will be required.  And when large swaths of the public hear only this kind of willful ignorance from ‘experts’ who should and probably do know better, policy change will not happen.

There is some positive news on this front.  Possibly the most pernicious obfuscation mill, the laughably named Heartland Institute, got caught in its lies, big time, this past week.  This is especially sweet justice, considering that this organization led the charge in puffing up the non-scandal that was dubbed ClimateGate.  Still, the good Heartland folks are simply shocked, outraged, at the callous treatment they are receiving as a result of their internal documents seeing the light of day.  It could not happen to a nicer bunch of liars.  And if you are curious where all the funding for Heartland’s mischief comes from, try this.


What do these Critters not Understand about ‘Adapt or Die?’

Look into ecology in the most cursory way and you see that we are massively altering the natural world.  Our greenhouse gases are disrupting climate worldwide, with a general (though not linear) warming trend. This is forcing changes in ecosystems, and setting the stage for winners and losers – those that adapt will survive, and those that don’t, well, too bad.  In essence, terrestrial climate systems are marching toward the poles, and up mountainsides, and cool marine environments are sinking as the oceans warm.  But if we think we can just make those changes and say goodbye to the less adaptable, and so what, we have some big surprises coming.


Three stories on this theme came to my attention recently.  First, a sad tale of an unfortunate butterfly.  The Miami Blue may already be history – and it’s not directly caused by urban development.  Think escaped iguanas – that happen to be vegetarians!  Then there are the poor elephant seals.  Dinner is ever deeper, and may soon be out of reach.  But looking at this from an immediate human-centered perspective (is there any other?), hardly any story is more important than the dramatic decline in honeybees.  Scientists are teasing out the mystery of colony collapse disorder.  And of course, the enemy is us – in many ways, shapes and forms.  This petition looks to help.


How Extreme Will it Be?

That’s the essential question.  All but the most extreme climate denialists agree that things have changed.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now 24% higher than 1959, when detailed annual measurements started at Mauna Loa in Hawaii.  Our current 393 parts per million is also a whopping 46% above preindustrial levels! Paleoclimatologists have shown how atmospheric carbon dioxide over the eons tracks closely with world temperatures.  So it is no wonder the entire climate system is in chaos, as evidenced by increasing weather extremes – droughts, floods, blizzards.  While we must cite the usual disclaimer – cause and effect concerning a single event is fuzzy – there is no arguing with the 2011 weather disaster bill here in the US – a total of 14 events costing at least a billion dollars each.  Hey, keep this up and we are talking real money.

Global temperatures have risen .74 degrees Centigrade already, according to NOAA.  And scientists say we have to keep that rise to no more than 2 full degrees to avoid cascading climate catastrophe.  How are we doing on that front?  Well, sadly but not surprisingly – not so well.  The current debate over the Keystone XL pipeline (canceled by President Obama for now) fits here.  The linked Atlantic story by Lisa Margonelli (author of Oil on the Brain) explains the crucial issues around that tar sands pipeline.  Try this quote from the article:  “The Keystone XL is merely on hold, and oil from all sorts of other “dirty” situations continues to flow into our gas tanks. The next time around, environmentalists should resist fighting the symbolic pipeline to concentrate on fighting the larger issue — reducing emissions and making tar-sands oils prices reflect their environmental toll. We need to stop fighting oil development project by project — and instead focus on passing a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (which could make the Keystone XL economically unviable), and on reducing oil consumption overall.”  And this AlterNet piece from activist Bill McKibben (author of many books, including Eaarth) goes a long way toward explaining the big picture climate risks facing us.  The article is full of useful links.  I like McKibben’s use of the phrase ‘the disaster that dare not speak its name.’  His movement site is also frequently updated, and a fine source of news on efforts to stem the climate crisis.


Extreme Politics Reconsidered

In this election season, articles about the ‘horse race’ and the ‘money race’ easily outnumber those about policy matters.  Nothing new there, but the Supreme Court (hey – what about a name change – ‘Extreme Court’?) dramatically worsened matters with its infamous Citizens United decision.  This robed tycoons’ club opened the floodgates of corporate election spending with that travesty.  But wait – there is good news from, of all places, Montana.  Read how the top court in that state may force Scalia and company to take another look at the matter.  The article includes a quote from an important source on this important issue – Jeff Clements.  His Corporations are Not People is on my reading list.  How about yours?


Inequity in the Extreme

Invest a few minutes in this Mother Jones article by Josh Harkinson, and you will quickly see how far our financial system has tilted in favor of the wealthy over the last 30 years.  Harkinson lets a group of charts tell the disturbing story.  Another key author has recently weighed in on this crucial issue.  Thomas Frank explained the rise of the corporatist right among social-issue voters so effectively in What’s the Matter with Kansas?  Frank’s latest book blows the lid off the idea that forever lowering taxes on the very wealth, all-powerful job creators (majestic music please) is somehow good for us all.  You have to love the title and subtitle – Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.  Right on.  Judging by Kansas, Frank’s latest will be readable and insightful.  Check this interview with the author.


Not Just Extremely, but Severely Conservative

Poor Mitt Romney just can’t close the deal.  It makes for great cartoons, though!


Somewhere Out There

Scientists are learning more all the time about the Goldilocks Zone.  That’s the neighborhood in stellar systems where temperatures would allow liquid water – increasing the likelihood of life.  And hey – if this life respects science more than we do, and we keep our lifeboat afloat long enough – maybe we will be around to learn definitively that we are not alone in the vast universe.  The numbers are staggering.  This makes me think of a song, in honor of the recent celebration of Darwin Day.  The Mother of All Mysteries, indeed.


“Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
– George Washington


Contributed links to this posting – Jeff Carlson, Tess Galati, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper




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