Two Degrees of David

11 06 2016

Friday eve, I stopped by a St. Paul brew pub with my dog, Dooley.  He helps me make new friends, and doesn’t drink beer. That saves me money.

Conversation was lively, and I made several new acquaintances. With one fellow, a man from Canada, conversation turned to climate change (as it sometimes does with me!)

Let’s call him Pierre (not his real name). I could see on Pierre’s face that he was a “skeptic” of climate science. So we got into a little duel of ideas.

Pierre sensed he was dealing with one of those environmental wackos, so he immediately launched his usual haymaker. He told me he was a mining engineer, expecting that would knock me off my soapbox.  I told him, “Sounds like interesting work.” He was floored that I did not lecture him on the evils of mining, and start chanting “Stop mining now,” or some such. He let on that other environmental wackos he had encountered tended to trash the notion of mining, all the while fondling their smart phones. That of course would give him the opportunity to lecture on all the mined metals that make up their best pocket pal. No such opportunity with me, much to his chagrin.

So I asked him about his climate change “skepticism.” He acknowledged that climate change is happening, but said he doubted it was anthropogenic. Natural processes are involved, he said. So I parried – scientists tell us that atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising steadily, and at an increasing rate – latest numbers are more than three parts per million increase over just the past year.  I asked him to explain that by natural processes. Pierre’s reply – an uncomfortable smile, but nothing else.  Then I asked him to explain the massive die-off (not mere bleaching) of vast swaths of the Great Barrier Reef. Again, not much in reply except an increasingly uncomfortable smile. I was getting a bit more animated – as I sometimes do – but remained courteous. Pierre’s wife joked, “Be careful about hitting him – he’s an expert in (name an obscure martial art)”. I joked that I was glad I had decided not to hit Pierre.

He also trotted out the usual canard about those magazine articles in the 1970s that warned us of global cooling. And he said modern climate science was entirely based on models, which were only a theoretical construction of reality – and a shaky one at that. So I said, “What you are saying is that a few outlying, fringe articles from 45 years ago somehow cancel out the four decades of work by crowds of very smart people – climate scientists who have spent their careers trying to understand Earth’s atmosphere. And what ‘models’ are needed to explain the documented rise in atmospheric carbon, ice melting, sea rise, etc.?” More uncomfortable smiles. And  he joked that, being from Canada, he thought global warming might be a “good” thing, thawing all that forbidding frozen wasteland. Heh, heh.

KochThen it got even more interesting. Pierre let on a secret about his employment past. He previously worked for Koch Industries. Yep, that Koch. And he related that he had spent considerable time with David Koch – who, Pierre assured me, is a “nice, decent, down-to-earth guy, who visits the employee lunchroom, and engages people at all levels in conversation about their projects.” I made a mental note – just because someone is a greed-addled planet wrecker, does not mean he has to be an insufferable asshole.

I can only imagine the reason that Pierre brought his pal David into conversation. Perhaps he thought that would lend some heft to his “views” in my mind. Or perhaps he thought it was some kind of trump card, considering that I mentioned I was a trained presenter for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project.

Anyway, the pub atmosphere was lively and loud, and our conversation soon ended. But not before I told him, in all honesty, that I thought he was a smart guy.  I meant that. It takes a smart person to earn a degree as a mining engineer.  So I asked him, as a smart guy, to explain how, considering the documented fact that human activity pumps 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single day, how a closed system – our atmosphere, oceans and climate, could NOT change. No answer.

And the heat goes on . . . whether we “believe” it or not.

 

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IBI Watch 10/20/13

20 10 2013

What Scotty Said //

If we live in a material world, governed by scientific laws, then surely something big must be happening – something changing in the system – as a consequence of the 90 million tons of carbon dioxide that we humans collectively pour daily into the atmosphere, 24/7/365. And, denialist assertions notwithstanding, the only thing really in doubt is how bad and how soon.

The recent IPCC finding – its fifth in a series – raised the probability that human activities are the cause of the already observed changes in atmosphere and ocean to at least 95%. That’s about as close to certain as it gets. The report is a formidable document, but this admirable 10-slide show constructed by Katherine Bagley and Zahra Hirji of Inside Climate News summarizes the key findings. Pay careful attention to the notion of a carbon budget. The IPCC clearly stated that, this being a material world, a vast but closed system, we have a choice – leave most of the world’s remaining carbon in the ground, or deal with the physical consequences. This is what activists Bill McKibben and James Hansen have been saying for years, but now this dire warning comes from a consensus-bound, conservative chorus of the world’s scientists.

The amount of carbon in the world is constant – what changes is its form and of course its effect on the climate system. For an accessible explanation, try this Mark Boslough piece on HuffPost.  And for a view of the scope of the pressure we are putting on this old planet, try to wrap your mind around this – we are adding the heat equivalent of four Hiroshima-size bombs to the atmosphere per second.

So we have some crucial choices – for instance, on Keystone XL. Are we smart enough to choose wisely? There is plenty of evidence for a dark view – as eloquently laid out in this recent Facebook post by Bodhi Paul Chefurka. Believers in the magic of technology assure us that techno-fixes – including geo-engineering – will save our bacon. (I like the subtitle for that piece – “7 far-out geoengineering ideas that could save the planet — or destroy it trying.”) In my book, there are potentially good geoengineering schemes – for instance, trying to engineer an artificial tree that sucks carbon out of the air – and awful schemes – basically anything that seeks to allow us to go ahead with business-as usual fossil fuel use. I put in that category all these space-based mirror schemes and especially trashing the upper atmosphere with soot.

The fact that such schemes are even being considered before we have done a fraction of what is possible by way of conservation and developing clean energy makes Bodhi Paul Chefurka’s case stronger. But the single best strategy, I believe, is making carbon pay its way. Using dramatically less of the stuff is the only hope we have going forward.

We really should have listened to the Enterprise’s engineer, more than four decades ago. That is, “ Ye cannae change the laws of physics.”

 

Theory and Practice

Whenever former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan appears in the media, I find it entertaining to hear him justify his not seeing the 2008 financial crisis coming. Now he is back – hawking his new book. To his credit, the longtime champion of deregulating the financial system now says he was wrong, and portrays himself as chastened when it comes to the theory of radical deregulation of markets. Listen to this NPR interview, in which the interviewer respectfully holds Greenspan’s feet to the fire. But you might say that the former Fed chief committed a big oversight during his years holding immense power – not listening to a wiser forecaster than he. The great Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

 

Seas of Heartbreak

If people pay attention to climate science at all, they look to the land. That’s where burgeoning intense weather events like the recent Boulder CO flooding disaster, the out-of-season South Dakota blizzard and the new and destructive Australian fire season wreak their havoc on humans and their environs. Sure, rising sea levels have their effect, and will they ever have an effect in the decades to come (wanna buy some “land” in Miami, cheap?), but ocean morphing is something out of sight for most of us.

Here are three stories about what we are doing to the oceans – which after all cover 71 percent of the planet. The first is probably not directly related to the effect of our greenhouse gas emissions, the second caused in large part by them and the third the direct feedback.

First – cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – pop up in the news periodically, mostly because of beaching. Read about massive whale stranding in Madagascar. Tut, tut, the beasts will just have to get used to the racket we raise under the sea with our oil explorations and war games. And now there is growing concern that a mulititude of factors – including climate change – seem to be assailing dolphins. Dolphin in the ocean is the new canary in the coal mine?

Second – So creatures most people see as desirable are taking it on the chin. But there are always winners and losers, right? Right indeed – the lionfish are coming, and so are the jellyfish, in untold armadas. Come on in, folks, the water’s fine.

Third – The ocean apparently isn’t acid enough, so we are taking care of that, in a hurry. Carbon dioxide may be flirting with 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, but that is nothing compared to the way we have altered the pH of the ocean, a truly massive undertaking that goes on as we drive and burn fossil fuels. This is the change in the ocean that will have the gravest long-term effects on seaborne and land-based life. Those of us who gravitate toward environmental stories know how much more often of late we see phrases like “much graver than had been thought” or “deteriorating more rapidly than predicted.”

We on the land can help. The World Wildlife Fund, the Ocean Conservancy and Greenpeace all work to preserve the world’s oceans. However, this massive challenge comes back to that familiar one – how to drastically cut use of fossil fuels.

 

One Day, One Massive Boost to Your Climate Knowledge

The Climate Reality Project ( an organization I represent) will launch on October 22-23 this year’s 24 Hours of Reality – a content-packed event featuring speakers and media highlighting the costs of carbon pollution and pointing to solutions that can change the course of our future. You can tune in on the Internet, live or via archives, to six one-hour presentations, organized by regions of the world:

  • North America: how carbon pollution and climate change have had a severe impact on our ways of life and livelihoods.
  • South America and the Caribbean: water as our lifeblood, and the threats of rapidly melting glaciers, rising sea levels and ocean acidification.
  • Europe: infrastructure losses that have resulted from climate-related hazards and extreme weather, as well as how infrastructure is being forced to change in a changing world.
  • Africa: how climate change is contributing to growing food insecurity, along with socio-economic and political insecurity.
  • Asia: how extreme weather and other carbon pollution impacts are resulting in displacement of people within their countries.
  • Australia: how human health threats are exacerbated by climate change.

I hope you will tune in – the event is a great way to get up to date on latest research and learn the ways you can help solve the climate crisis.

 

Gimme that Old Time Coalition

That might be the motto for an idea hatched by Nobel economist and commentator Paul Krugman. Of course, the settlement that got US government working again is really another short-term fix. Krugman recalls a time when southern Democrats worked with Republicans to support conservative causes (think of the still-elusive goal of universal health care). But more important for our time, he sees a novel spin on that old alliance, a new direction that could mean real progress. Could.

 

Science for the Masses

Climate denialists and other enemies of science push their ideas in various ways. Two of the most common are these – disparage scientists and their findings as slanted or concocted or part of a conspiracy to secure more funding; assert that science journalists and activists are not actually scientists, and therefore lack standing to promote and defend scientific research results and projections. Fortunately, some scientists – most notably James Hansen – are recognizing the need for them to get out of the lab and into the spotlight to fight the well-funded denialists.

And there are the most valuable popularizers. Two were recently highlighted in the media. First – there is Elise Andrew, who aims her efforts at a young demographic, and operates a wonderful site with an in-your-face name. And speaking of young demographics, that’s exactly the target that Bill Nye aimed at two decades ago, when his tremendously entertaining PBS show hooked thousands of youngsters (including my son) and their parents. Nye has a new science series, Why with Nye. I really enjoyed an interview Weekend Edition Sunday did with him, and you will too.

 

“I’ve recognized there is no such thing as cheap gas. Whether you’re paying $3.51 in San Francisco or 9 cents a gallon in Caracas, someone, somewhere, is always paying more dearly for the stuff. Now when I buy gas I see hidden pennies everywhere – from the health effects of air pollution to the social cost of human rights violations in oil-producing countries to the money used by the U.S. military to police oil shipping lanes.” – Lisa Margonelli (excerpted from Oil on the Brain)

 

Contributed links to this posting –Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 9/15/13

15 09 2013

Arctic Refreeze + Slow Hurricane Season = Climate Change Bunk? //

It’s all the rage. The Arctic icepack will not set a new minimum record this year. It is already refreezing, fast. Those facts have climate science deniers energized. For instance, one of the most prominent of all the climate change denial sites has charts and graphs galore, telling this story that apparently proves climate change is not happening. This site has run pretty much the same story the last two years – see 2012 and 2011 entries. And it is not just pundits and bloggers – here is an established British news source with the same story.

True unbelievers in climate science take some kind of comfort, I guess, in news like the Arctic ice returning, plus this year’s near-record late start to the Atlantic hurricane season. Here is a balanced view of that hurricane situation, from Time magazine. Cherry-picked data serves as potent fuel for fantastical stories, as Rush Limbaugh regularly proves. And just as monthly Arctic ice stats serve some deniers, so have some other deniers seized on the late hurricane start as evidence that climate change activists are alarmists, to be ignored. Note – Taylor is a prime author for the oil-fueled Heartland Institute.

This is all familiar territory. It follows an established script. First, assert falsely that climate change as explained by scientists and science journalists is a perfectly linear process. Support that position with a few quotes, preferably speculative ones, by one or more of your demons – Al Gore or Bill McKibben, just to name two. Then, report your supportive data which undermines that inaccurate depiction of climate science. So you and the forces of do-nothingness win. Or do you?

These facts can’t be challenged. We pump 90 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day. The current atmospheric carbon dioxide reading is 395 parts per million, compared to preindustrial levels of about 280. Both the daily and cumulative numbers continue to rise, with chaotic consequences that cannot be precisely predicted.

 

So what is happening now? In the hurricane realm, there are several possibilities. First, as Chris Mooney reports, climate change may actually reduce hurricanes. Of course, thanks to sea rise resulting from warmer oceans and melting ice sheets and glaciers, those hurricanes that do occur will have a head start. And with all the uncertainty, it is also possible that this season’s late start could itself be an anomaly.

As for the alleged return of the Arctic to its long-term solid, frozen status, don’t count on it. Time will prove the denialists wrong. It is only a matter of how fast things happen. For instance, the decidedly conservative, consensus-driven Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change comes out with its latest forecast in two weeks. Leaked information points to more certainty than ever. And though some evidence points to a lull in the temperature rise, our emission-driven acidification of the oceans proceeds. The Seattle Times’ Craig Welch put together a comprehensive article on acidification that includes several imbedded videos. And as for those who persist in their denial of scientific facts and projections, thus paralyzing policy, they will be justly recognized. As this Truthout piece suggests, we might think of them as the Dr. Kevorkians of the planet. Call it pignorance-assisted suicide.

 

Extremes in Two Mismatched Pairs

So the relationship between hurricanes and manmade climate change is unclear and hotly debated, and the ongoing experiment in liquefying the Arctic is crucial in its effect on weather patterns, not so crucial in sea rise. That’s because the ice, old and new alike, is already floating on the sea.

For a clear view of our climate-changed future, look to extremes today that are part of well-predicted trends. First there are increasingly common weather extremes. The Yosemite Rim fire, just about contained, is one example of an enhanced fire season, driven by higher temperatures and persistent drought. The latest shocking example is the horrific flooding and mudslides around Boulder, Colorado. As of this writing, four are confirmed dead, with hundreds unaccounted for. This disaster is caused by a triple-whammy series of drought, wildfire and finally, the knockout punch of monsoon-like storms that come and stay, dumping months or years worth of rain on the same sun-baked spot. Here are two videos from the Boulder environs – from Salina and Boulder itself. (Scroll down for the Boulder video.) Subhankar Banerjee effectively makes the case for climate change in the Colorado floods. And with the mangled jet stream causing all sorts of mayhem in weather patterns, Boulder-like events could be soon coming to a creek, stream or river near you.

And then there is the melting that really matters – the head-for-the-hills variety. That would be ice that resides on land, until it melts that is and slides into the rising sea. Two extreme locations, two similar stories. First there is Greenland, whose ice is described here by MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner as a “stick of butter in a hot pan.” In other words, it does not move at all for awhile, but then really starts to slip along seaward. Be sure to watch the short video on Greenland’s Mega Canyon. But what about the granddaddy of all ice sheets, Antarctica? If you guessed “accelerated melting, you get the extra credit points. Read here about research at the Pine Island Glacier, being undermined by warming ocean water. Here is 9/15 update from NPR on the same research. Did you catch the possible sea rise there? Six feet? See for yourself how that matters in this terrific interactive map from Climate Central.

So all of this manmade chaos and disruption really matters. But does it matter enough to motivate meaningful changes in energy and greenhouse gas policy? Not yet. But these groups are working hard to wake us up and tip the balance toward adaptation and sustainability – 350.org, the Climate Reality Project and Citizens Climate Lobby.

 

The Magical Techno Fix

This longstanding idea is often a slam at doomsayers of old – Thomas Malthus – or of more recent vintage – Paul Ehrlich. The idea is this – the earth’s capacity for human occupation is pretty much unlimited, nigh infinite. Hogwash, most ecologists say. But those who really believe in our technical ingenuity (and don’t much give a damn about our fellow travelers on this orb, i.e. any life form that is not human) persist in their sacred faith in technological innovation. Seldom in recent times has this view been given a more articulate or narrowly myopic presentation than in this Erle C. Ellis article in the New York Times. The problems that Ellis ignores or summarily dismisses in this column are too numerous to mention, but he does make at least one true statement – “In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.” To which I would reply with words borrowed from Colin Powell: “If you break it, you own it.”

We have a lot of repairing to do, with or without technological wizardry. And to be fair, there is much more to Ellis’s ideas than this single article would indicate. See the linked video here.

As for the big picture, there is much to learn in National Geographic’s study of the world’s continued population growth. I also like the education and activism being done by Growthbusters, World Population Balance and the Population Connection. The more the merrier? No chance. The best strategy – educate the world’s women and support their family planning choices.

 

Plant It, and They Will Come?

We have invested much time and sweat in recent years replacing swaths of lawn with wild-looking native and rain gardens. Until this year, we attracted droves of large butterflies, including varieties of swallowtails and of course the lord of them all, monarchs. This year, we have seen exactly three swallowtails and not many more monarchs. In addition, our abundant milkweed shows no evidence of monarch eggs. An isolated, unfortunate incident? Not on your life.

This Minnesota Public Radio interview with the University of Minnesota’s Karen Oberhauser fingers two closely-related culprits – neo-nicotinoid pesticides, and modern factory agriculture’s penchant for decimating “unwanted” plants between the rows. That includes of course milkweed. She offers two remedies – plant more milkweed (maybe it will work for you) and be careful when buying garden plants from nurseries, who may have treated the plants with those magical modern poisons. But all of that means little when our government allows chemical companies such as Bayer and Monsanto to continue this campaign against the natural world. Congress has the power to stop this, if its members would for once think of the common good rather than their corporate sponsors.

 

A Hypocrisy Interview

I find that I have had the conversation described in this little article before. It serves to prove a long-held theory of mine. That is, that any ideology that purports to have all, or even most of, the answers to all the problems begins to look like a dogma, a religion. Magical thinking, that is. Unreal. Fantasy. Enjoy the script.

 

1227 Facts

There is a difference between trivia and curious, even meaningful facts. This is why I waste no time on trivia contests and collections, but love, for example Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and the Harpers Index. This is precisely why a new book hit my reading list. Two of the three authors of 1227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, interviewed by the great Scott Simon. Work is more dangerous than war, the most shoplifted book in the United States is the Bible, and there is an actual word for an affliction that awards the sufferer with feet the size of umbrellas. But the universe is not shaped like a bumbershoot. Try a vuvuzela. Enough said.

 

Shooting Each Other Some Love

Thanks to comic Sarah Silverman, we can fittingly celebrate two recent recall election victories by the fear-fueled National Rifle Association in Colorado. She has a modest proposal to make the country even “safer.”

 

Diplomacy Wins, for Now

Bill Moyers’ commentary highlights the power of public opinion in recent events concerning Syria. Collective common sense. What a concept.

 

“The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.”
Edward O. Wilson

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 8/25/13

25 08 2013

Unseasonable and Unreasonable //

If you follow climate change news carefully, and I hope you do, you know that an important event looms. That would be the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The report is due in September. Though denialists have branded this organization as a club of worry-wart, alarmist exaggerators, the truth is that it is a consensus-bound body, which adheres to conservative protocols.

So it is fair to say that IPCC projections tend toward the low end of the effects of our uncontrolled experiment in atmosphere transformation. That said, let’s see what is on tap, based on some early releases of findings (shared by Chris Mooney of Mother Jones). Nothing much to worry about, folks. Substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet, sea rise of five to ten meters, runaway ocean acidification. So what? This blog post by the Guardian’s John Abraham suggests that contrarians will have no choice but join the consensus and stop fighting policy to deal with the threat.

One thing is clear. The changes predicted by IPCC based on current trends are not some far-off theoretical possibility. They are happening right now. There of course is accelerating Arctic melting – clear for all to see. And there is that persistent drought in the American Southwest, dramatically lowering the flow on the Colorado River and showing the newly famous “bathtub ring” at Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead. Thirteen years and counting; bound to end any day now, eh? And let’s not forget the western fire season, now in full swing and threatening state budgets (and even the water supply of San Francisco).  A less dramatic, though arguably more universal, phenomenon has overtaken weather patterns – “stuck weather.” Though this can mean weeks of beautiful weather, or a hellacious heat wave that just won’t quit, it all results from the same condition – a weak, meandering jet stream caused by a vastly warmer Arctic. We are currently switching gears right now in Minnesota from a warm, settled regime into a possible record heat wave (for this late summer season) – as Paul Douglas reports in his consistently excellent weather and climate blog.

So though climate change evidence becomes clearer every day, I remain skeptical about significant action in the near term, for two important reasons. The first is the fact that a well-funded, powerful, persistent campaign of pignorant (pretend-ignorant) anti-science has lulled a significant slice of the public into somnolence. Adam Frank – author of About Time – chronicles our pathetic decline into science denial in this fine column he wrote for the New York Times – summarized here and commented on by Tree Hugger’s Chris Tackett.  (See a glimmer of hope there in the planned reboot of the TV series Cosmos.) The second is the pathetic power structure that has taken hold in modern America. With the GOP in the (gerrymandered) majority in the House of Representatives right now, this is the pignorant posse that passes for leadership of the House Science(!) Committee. It is so bad that I mainly agree with these two assessments of the cause and results of our spending decades dealing with denialists’ posturing rather than accepting the science and moving ahead. The first is by Jeff Schweitzer and the second by Robert Parry. Neither pulls punches in calling out the real engineers of today’s alarmingly science-dumb state of affairs among the public. I especially identify with Frank’s description of his earlier mistake in judgment – that public awareness and understanding of scientific reality would only grow. Sorry.

Surely, this state of affairs can’t go on indefinitely. And in fact a recent media shift may point to some hope from an unlikely source – the much-maligned (in some circles) Al Jazeera. Sure, the burst of coverage on the newly realigned network far surpasses typical American coverage because of the dismally low standard.  But we need hope on waking up the public, and allies of all stripes are valuable. And of course this is a global problem, calling especially for leadership on the part of the wealthy industrialized nations. Here is a call for action on the part of the United Kingdom’s David Cameron. And despite continued intransigence on the part of the pignorant right in the United States, prominent activists see hope for action. In this interview, former Vice President Al Gore sees a tipping point in public opinion based largely on growing consensus on the connection between ever-wilder weather and our continued dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gore holds onto his optimism despite interviewer Ezra Klein’s tough questioning.

This is no time for giving in to complacency and inevitability. Active groups such as the Climate Reality Project and 350.org are doing no such thing. And the single most helpful step – maybe even more helpful than killing the Keystone XL pipeline – would be enacting a carbon fee system. That’s the goal of the Citizens Climate Lobby, endorsed by former NASA scientist James Hansen.

One Observance that Really Matters . . .

There is a big buzz in Washington this weekend, with tens of thousands crowding the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. And that great, resounding speech was only one of the highlights of the civil rights movement, as this collection posted by Bill Moyers reminds us. But this is far from a mere celebration of important history. That is because these battles, sadly, must be fought over again. Here is a speech from John Lewis, calling out the Supreme Court on new efforts mainly (but not exclusively) in the South to suppress the poor and minority vote. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder has put welcome attention on this crucial area. But remember – this won’t be easy.

And Two More that Really Should Matter

Not that most of us have heard of these, but Earth Overshoot Day shot past largely unnoticed the other day. That day marks the day when humanity exhausts the earth’s annual capacity to absorb our carbon-generating body blows. Fortunately, groups like Growthbusters and World Population Balance were keeping count. Those groups focus on the macro scale and the driving force behind environmental trouble – the unfettered and unrelenting growth in human population. The other recent occasion – World Orangutan Day – focuses on a micro scale – destruction of the habitat of one of our most amazing and beloved primate cousins. The saddest thing about this destruction is its driving force – clearing rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations so we in the comfortable developed world can buy cheaper soap (check the labels) and all manner of processed food products. Learn more and take action.

Boomer Warrior – An Ally

My Facebook friend Rolly Montpellier of Toronto has been developing his Boomer Warrior newsletter. He posts a variety of environmental sustainability pieces on his impressive site, featuring a range of writers, including, on occasion, this blogger.

Three Random Blows against the “Unsustainable Empire”

First – how much do bike commuters save the government? The piece comes from Australia, but is relevant everywhere. Second, who could ever imagine a victory such as this in a battle between microbrew and Big Oil? And finally – further news of the growth of renewable energy in “sunny” Germany.

“I am a person who is unhappy with things as they stand. We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things.” ― Hugo Claus

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 6/2/13

2 06 2013

Happy-Talk or Sustainability? //

The future world will be the result of our choices as individuals, but also as societies. I think about that when I hear the growing chorus of well-meaning people who have a “solution” to the mounting crisis of bee die-off. They prescribe a laudable individual choice – plant more flowers, particularly native varieties. You can glean plenty of that good advice in this recent Star Tribune article, and also this NPR interview with scientist Marla Spivak.

It’s hard to argue with advice such as planting less grass and more flowers. After all, our chemically nurtured lawns are a big part of the problem – grass is nothing like a natural habitat for insects, and the fertilizers and weed killers create all manner of environmental problems. But this is clearly a case where individual virtue can make us feel good, but will go only so far in solving the serious environmental problem.

Articles about bee decline, or colony collapse disorder, carry a common theme. It could have multiple causes, we are told – fungus, landscape changes, mites, etc. Neonicotinoid pesticides are mentioned, but sometimes as an afterthought. Minnesota author William Souder – who recently wrote an acclaimed biography of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson – sees a Silent Spring connection. And look at this piece from MPR featuring beekeeper Steve Ellis. Make sure you watch the imbedded two-minute video.

Since research shows the pesticides affect bees’ navigation and orientation, and that is exactly what beekeepers are observing, a sensible approach would be to ban the stuff – particularly considering what is at stake. Our friends in Europe have seen enough. To us environmentalists, that sure looks like a prudent choice, considering the evidence and the risk. But here in the US, we are no nervous nellies, by God.

I fear this controversy is devolving into another policy-paralyzing stalemate – like the granddaddy of those standoffs, climate change. Powerful moneyed interests insist there is no danger, or insufficient proof, or the cost of fixing the problem is too high – as the situation warrants. Pick your business-as-usual-preserving argument, and go for it. It’s a winning formula. Just ask ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, back in the news this week with some creative new magical thinking.

Though the issue of bee decline is not as much in the public eye – for now – as climate change, I see the cause of “controversy” and resultant policy paralysis as one and the same – corporate control of the system. (How is that last article for a laugh?) The cure is the same as well – getting corporate money out of politics.

If we don’t get smart, we will push pollinators, the climate and who knows what else beyond the point of recovery before we finally set about creating sustainable, common-good policies that serve us all in the long run. In the meantime, let’s plant lots of pretty native flowers. They provide some beauty as we rearrange the deck chairs. And let’s play some fiddle music while we watch the fires. Worked well for Nero.

Climate Change Awareness and Action

Despite the almost daily recent weather events with varying levels of connection to climate change – the repeated pounding of the Plains by tornadoes and armadas of slow-moving storms, the freakish late-spring snowstorm in the Adirondacks, the fast-melt flood destruction of a small Alaska village to name just a few, a significant portion of the American public has still not connected with reality. Part of this refusal to respect scientific facts – carbon dioxide at about 400 parts per million is radically changing weather patterns – can be traced to the propaganda of Tillerson and company. But not all of it. Remember that accepting manmade climate change as real will require change and sacrifice, especially from us in the comfortably rich West. That’s inconvenient, and we just wanna be happy.

But prominent activists are keeping up the pressure. Former Vice President Al Gore’s latest message compares our treatment of the atmosphere to dumping waste in a sewer. Dr. Paul Ehrlich – he of The Population Bomb fame – writes about planetary limits. And Organizing for Action is raising a ruckus within the Obama Administration – trying to get the president to take a stance worthy of his campaign positions on climate change issues – mainly the Keystone XL pipeline.

This blog post offers suggestions for our mission – should we choose to accept. That would be – talking to ideological conservatives about climate change. The prime directive – awaken a critical mass of the public so we can build climate-friendly policies and clean energy before it is too late. The single biggest step, I believe, would be a carbon fee, along the lines of the system suggested by activist and former NASA meteorologist James Hansen. And an essential interim step is halting the madness of tar sands oil, by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline – a main cause of longtime climate activist Bill McKibben.

Ceding Land to Nature

For environmentalists, it’s an inviting prospect – returning certain lands to something like a wild state. Watch this short video by George Monbiot (author of Heat) to get an idea of what this is about. If this sounds a bit romantic, quixotic, that’s because it is. While Monbiot points out that an area the size of Poland will be abandoned by agriculture in the next several decades, it is hard to imagine burgeoning humanity purposefully returning vast swathes of land to wildness. And yet, our technological blunders and wars have set up some dramatic, if little-realized, examples of just that.

Take Chernobyl’s neighborhood. Various accounts – including this one – have described Mother Nature’s rebound in the devastated area deemed too radioactive for human habitation. And further to the east – the standoff between the Kim dynasty in North Korea and its southern adversary has brought an endless hair-trigger drama to the peninsula. But the DMZ that divides the countries is something of a natural paradise – with no nuclear disaster either. Both areas, and so many others, are explored in a book I can’t recommend strongly enough – The World Without Us. Forget the movie by the same name, but I can guarantee that Alan Waisman’s book will get you thinking in new ways about the relationship between the natural world and humankind’s stamp upon it.

If Korea’s dictators named Kim finally come to their senses, and when Chernobyl’s curies finally diminish to tolerable levels for humans, it is hard to imagine wise leaders setting such prime real estate aside for nature. But still, groups dream and – more important – act.  The DMZ Ecology Research Institute’s work is featured in this post. There appears to be no group specifically working to preserve the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but you can learn more here from Voice of America’s bureau chief in Moscow.

Closer to home, and actually all over, this group works to connect wild areas, even in the midst of ribbons of freeways. That is exactly the message that emerges from another of my oft-recommended sources, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo.

Own a Little Less; Share a Little More

I am a lifelong advocate for and user of public transit. I started out riding to high school via the Q1 bus and the E train in Queens NY. Nowadays, I live in a southeast suburb of St. Paul MN. I still find ways to use transit whenever possible – I rarely drive to work for instance. But many people resist public transit because they “need” a car. And indeed, transit does not go everywhere. But several encouraging trends are sidelining more autos – and the beneficiaries are many. First, check this NPR story on bicycle sharing systems. It’s well produced and tells a very positive story. And car sharing is also on the rise. Here is an overview, with a cover quote from, of all people, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company. Young people are just not as enamored with the car as my generation, and that is a good thing for this crowded planet of ours.

Dingbats Stifled

There are two losses to report this week.

When the passing of Jean Stapleton was announced yesterday, I felt I had lost a member of my family. Her most famous character, All in the Family’s Edith, was the wise, kind foil to her husband, the irascible bigot Archie Bunker. OK, so my mom is not much like Edith. My dad on the other hand, had much in common philosophically with the immortal Arch. I reminded him of this so frequently that for the last few years of his life, he called me Meathead at least as often as I called him Arch. Of course, Stapleton was a fine actress who had other roles, including a portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt. RIP, Jean Stapleton. Those were indeed the days.

The other passing is not a death at all, but a departure nonetheless. If you can watch the eight-minute farewell video, you have more patience than me. (For a shorter, comical version try this.) But scroll down for the amazing, facts-be-damned quote collection. What politician has provided more entertainment than our own Michele Bachmann? I am indeed sad to report this departure. And cartoonists are in mourning all over. But let’s give credit where it is due. The lady did win four congressional elections – no small achievement. And she also set herself up as a weighty scientific voice. Aye, we will miss ye dearly, Congresswoman Bachmann.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

― Albert Einstein

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 2/3/13

3 02 2013

The Final Parallel, Please  //

Tobacco and fossil-fueled energy have curious parallels. Both have provided users with benefits, both got entrenched in behavior and society, both have grievous unintended consequences. But the story of one is more resolved, to a point.

Back in the day in America, virtually everyone smoked, or so it seemed. Ads that look outrageous, even hilarious today – try this “scientific” one and this endorsement by doctors – sold cigarettes as keys to the good life, even good health. And no question – there were benefits. I remember trying them as a teenager, and feeling that intense nicotine rush. (It was a brief fling.)

But even during the well-documented cover-up by tobacco companies of the health risks, the evidence was right there in the ads. Check these for examples of “protesting too much.” “Camels agree with your throat.” “Nose, throat, and accessory organs not adversely affected by smoking Chesterfields.” “Medical authorities recognize Phillip Morris proved less irritating to the smoker’s nose and throat.” Uh huh.

Fast-forward to today. Smoking bans make it harder and harder to puff in public. And the habit hits the wallet harder and harder. Check the taxes per pack by state. Makes me glad not to be a smoker, especially in my native state of New York. Though the revenue from these taxes goes to various purposes, the logic is clear – put a cost on a product which creates costs to the user and to society generally. But this is where the parallel histories of cigarettes and fossil-fueled energy diverge.

The benefits of fossil fuels are so massive they are hard to quantify. Cheap coal and natural gas have fueled the rapid growth of population and cities. Plentiful oil has powered our cars, trucks and airplanes for decades. And in ways most of us don’t realize, our entire food system is oil-powered. According to author Michael Pollan, when you tally up oil-based agricultural chemicals, plus all the fuel used in production and transport, it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce each calorie of food we consume. So you might say that our whole society is built on fossil fuel – in a real sense, we eat oil.

Just like with cigarettes, the dark side of fossil fuel burning has gradually come into view. And just as reliably, the people amassing fortunes purveying the offending products are not at all happy with the science – in this case the science of how greenhouse gases are changing the atmosphere and the climate. The predictable action – still playing our today – is to “teach the controversy” and paralyze policy supporting the common good.  Read about the whole denial-pushing cabal right here in this resourceful  Media Matters blog post. Former Vice President Al Gore also makes the tobacco/fossil fuel connection in recent comments on video here.

Higher tobacco taxes have been one factor in reducing smoking rates. And that points to the way this parallel story needs to play out, and not over decades. We have summoned the political courage to charge some of the cost of tobacco use – both to users and society.  Isn’t it time we do the same with the cost of fossil fuel use? Cap and trade has been a failure. But putting a price on carbon – either through a tax or through James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan is the only way to keep our fossil fuel addiction from ultimately becoming a suicidal pursuit.

And the discussion is proceeding – in Australia, recent site of unprecedented heat so intense they needed to add new weather map colors, at NASA meteorologist James Hansen’s blog, and even, of all places (Grover Norquist and James Inhofe aside), in the Republican Party.

As long as we continue to ignore and externalize the cost of fossil-fuel pollution, we are behaving in a way satirized brilliantly in this Saturday Night Live video.  We can and must do better. Here are two organizations working for rational carbon pollution policy – the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Carbon Tax Center.

 

Sensible Policy from the Barrel of a Gun

Why – for so many of us – does it take immediate exposure to the dangers of gun violence to build commitment to rational gun laws? Think James Brady, Ronald Reagan, Mark Kelly and now these doctors from Sandy Hook.  This past week, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords provided brave testimony in favor of gun regulation. Here is the handwritten version. And here is the video. Now watch the diversionary pro-gun propaganda delivered at the same hearing from the chief lobbyist for the gun industry, Wayne LaPierre.  He has supported enhanced school security, not necessarily a bad idea. He has also suggested that arming teachers – think Rambo at the blackboard – also can help. Here is what one prominent St. Paul teacher has to say about that on her blog.

As usual, satire cuts through the baloney. First – how different is LaPierre’s approach from this Tom Tomorrow character? Second, hats off yet again to Jon Stewart. He has once again discovered a current right-wing radical debating a more rational opponent. That is, his former less extreme self from a decade or so ago. Senator Grassley gets a howler award here as well, folks – discredit where discredit is due.

I like this mayors’ organization fighting for the cause. I also love the fact that this group – led by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg – is slated to run an ad favoring sensible gun regulation at the Super Bowl.

 

Dream On

George Carlin said “they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Star Tribune columnist Bonnie Blodgett wrote a thoughtful commentary recently that packs so many issues into a short Sunday column. Pay inequity, unfettered growth, our switch to a “me first” ethos, it is all here and very thought-provoking. A fitting examination of the complicated, elusive American Dream. And the parting shot reminds us of the legacy of our creeping embrace of “every-man-for-himself.” We are in the horse race now for the most unequal society in the world. How is that for “American Exceptionalism?”

 

The Growth Affliction

A promising new book has hit my reading list. This Excerpt from Enough is Enough suggests that authors Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill will tread where few sustainability activists dare – fingering unfettered population growth as the root cause of environmental ills. This also made me think of Dave Gardner, director of an informative documentary, Growthbusters. Watch the trailer here, and read a short article by the director right here.

 

Common Sense Revolution

In this guest post, Ottawa’s Rolly Montpellier brings the wisdom of that great 18th-century thinker, Thomas Paine, to bear on our modern climate crisis. Recommended.

Rolly blogs at the Boomer Warrior.

 

Light in the Darkness

One of the things that strikes a city kid like me when spending a night far from the city is just how much you can see in the night sky. Light pollution has been growing for decades, and as a result, most city dwellers have no idea what is up there. Some speculate this reinforces our view of humans as separate from the natural world. With our ongoing destruction of natural habitats, more separation from nature is exactly what is not needed. That need to connect is behind the work of photographer Thierry Cohen. In this slide show, Cohen shows what could be seen with light pollution under control in eleven major world cities from New York to Hong Kong. Magical.

 

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

― Thomas Paine

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier, Brendan Murphy

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/9/12

9 12 2012

Mother Nature Demands Respect //

If the planet could talk to us, it might evoke Rodney Dangerfield: “I tell ya, I don’t get no respect.” But maybe the natural world is talking to us. And some of the most recent messages seem uncannily timed. We best pay attention.

Next to the “fiscal cliff” drama, the second biggest topic in recent weeks here in America has been Hurricane Sandy’s devastation – which hit the most crowded part of the US just before Election Day. But as I write this, Typhoon Bopha – after killing at least 500 in the Philippines – has made a u-turn and is threatening the island nation with an encore. This out-of-season storm – like Sandy one that most experts link to human-caused climate change – provides a dramatic backdrop to the current, latest installment of world climate talks, in Doha, Qatar. Not that it will goad wealthy nations – particularly the United States – into taking action commensurate with the threat. Proof of non-commitment arrived Saturday.

So while delegates – doing the bidding of their national leaders – continue to pay lip service rather than take meaningful action, they have to work harder all the time to ignore dramatic new information that seems to arrive daily. This Scientific American article paints a dire picture of current trends leading to the high end of temperature-rise predictions. For a “report card” on the Arctic, check this Huffington Post piece, which also includes a series of before-and-after photos of scenes around the world already affected by climate change. And here is an NBC News piece detailing the dramatic increase in polar melting. Even the World Bank is getting into the act. Listen to the president of the Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who does an effective job explaining the devastation we are insuring if we fail to act. As he rightly points out, “once-in-a-lifetime events are happening all the time.”

So what needs to happen? Here are a few ideas. First, I was glad to see the Green Party’s Jill Stein use an image I used recently – the “environmental cliff.” Here, former Vice President Al Gore chides President Obama for lack of action on this important issue. And for an idea on what is really needed, try this piece on the notion of “zero carbon.” In her comments, Jill Stein recommended what I think is the best measure of all for getting the entire energy and climate picture turned in a positive direction – a carbon tax. NASA’s James Hansen calls it “fee and dividend.” By any name, it will make a big difference – if only we can summon political will.

Cheap Gas Costs Too Much

In our recent election, the issue of the price of gasoline surfaced from time to time, as if the president could control it. The debate of course was about how to keep the price low. But the low price means its true cost – the environmental damage caused by burning all fossil fuels – is left out of the equation. Currently, a variety of factors are holding the price stable at a reasonably low level. I have personal evidence that it is too low. Just the other day, I parked my car in the grocery store lot near a minivan that was empty, locked and running. Why? I could only surmise that the owners wanted immediate comfort from the cool dampness when they returned with their groceries. When I left, there it was, still running, still spewing. I have seen this even more frequently during hot summer days. If gas cost more, do you think these comfort freaks would still waste and pollute? Maybe. But here is another reason to raise the price of gas. The taxes are used to fund transportation infrastructure. And I think here in Minnesota, Governor Dayton’s administration has the right idea. Not that the “garage logic” guy will agree on that one!

Two Hard Lessons

I need to be reminded periodically just what a special, progressive place I call home. Not that the experience has to be pleasant. First there was a Bill McKibben event – the Twin Cities stop on his “Do the Math” tour.  I tried to buy a ticket a few days after the stop was announced. Out of luck – fastest sellout in the country. And then there was the Friday night Twin Cities debut of the new documentary “Chasing Ice.” I was eager for this show – National Geographic photographer James Balog, the subject of the movie, was scheduled to do a question and answer session after the early show. I rode the bus and train over to Uptown, approached the counter, plunked down my cash. But wait – out of luck. The show had sold out in three days. The late show, sans discussion, was three hours later, and my border collie was alone at home. (I had already been gone several hours before the show.) So I am left to try to find another time to head to the theater. Next time, I move fast! And of course I recommend both McKibben and Balog to you.

The Whole Dirty Story

A friend pointed me to a clever cartoon video that explains the greed-driven financial morass that confronts today’s America. The narrator is Lou Grant, er, uh, Ed Asner. Here – watch the video. See if you can catch the single offensive, graphic metaphor. (Hint – it involves tinkle-down economics.) Fox News, always on the lookout for something to foam at the mouth about, had a blast of faux outrage with this one. See the Young Turks for that story. But the sideshow does not lessen the impact – or the entertainment value – of this clever little piece that tells it like it is.

Our Broken System – and Fix-it Ideas

I find it especially gratifying when conservatives point out just how extreme their brethren have become over the last 30 years – and the corrosive effect their greed-based, scorched-earth politics has had on the entire country. Here is the latest example to come to my attention. Bill Moyers interviewed former Oklahoma Representative Mickey Edwards. He is the author of The Parties Versus the People. And though Edwards is a little too think with the false equivalence for my taste – repeatedly alleging corresponding extremism on the Democratic side – he does make a powerful case for getting the corporate money out of politics. I agree – that is the root cause of so much that is wrong in America today – including John Boehner and Mitch McConnell risking going over the metaphorical fiscal cliff in the name of protecting low marginal tax rates on the very wealthy. And let’s not forget the unelected godfather of greed, Grover Norquist – who has recently run into some headwinds, at long last. Get the corporate money out, and watch all manner of good things happen. The Move to Amend folks know all about that.

Fighting Dirty Energy, Dirty Weather, Filthy Future

Young people own what is to come, for better or worse. More are speaking out and taking action – which is something that gives this old boomer a modicum of hope. Read about young college students taking action against fossil fuel polluters – via university endowment funds. And here is another angle taking shape – the undeniably discriminatory nature of coal’s negative side effects.

Bon (Bug) Appétit

Eating lower on the food chain is one way to reduce your carbon footprint. I have been eating far less meat in recent years, with associated health benefits for me and the planet alike. But for many Americans, insect cuisine may be going a bit far. Want flies with that?

Global Light Show

A new NASA video is making the rounds. It is undeniably beautiful. Take a look here. The majestic background music and enthusiastic narration tell us this is a good thing. But I need to spoil the fun. Besides beauty, I see two things here. The overwhelming share of that light is – you guessed it – burning fossil fuel. If ever there was a win-win, it would be curbing fossil-fueled light pollution. Here is one organization working to do just that.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace” – John Lennon

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

Contributed links to this posting – Tess Galati, Allyson Harper, David Oertel