IBI Watch 8/18/13

18 08 2013

Upside-Down, Unconscious Voyage //

Here is something that amazes me about the climate crisis. It is how quickly research and speculation morph into routine commentary on weird weather events and their cause. And then we continue on our journey of inaction.

First, the back story. Though 90-degree-plus heat is back in the near-term forecast for Minnesota, we have enjoyed weeks of slightly-below-average temperatures. This coincides with devastating heat waves in China and Europe, plus extraordinary warmth in Alaska. Until relatively recently, you hardly heard anything in the media about a specific scientific reason for these heat waves relatively far north. Then along came Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis late in 2011 with surprising evidence. Here is an update.

Now –from just this week – a blog post from Minnesota’s Paul Huttner matter-of-factly noting the Arctic connection with a weird, lingering upside-down situation – Alaska much warmer than Minnesota. Don’t misunderstand – Huttner deserves much credit for his work, continually including climate change with his MPR commentaries. This post in particular includes a concise overview of climate change history going all the way back to Arrhenius in 1896! (Forget the denialists’ lie about scientists supposedly pushing “global cooling” in the 1970s.) But I find several things amazing here: how this science can slip into the mainstream virtually unnoticed; how so few people make this crucial connection; how we are doing so little to raise awareness and prepare for the inevitable sea rise and who knows what climate changes coming down the pike.

I have written before about Arctic amplification and its cause – melting Arctic ice. So – here is the multi-billion dollar question – with warming currently at approximately 0.8 degrees C., and at least two full degrees already inevitable, what sorts of climate disruptions will befall us as that warmth builds to that level and beyond? (Oh and by the way, ask not where all the warmth is currently going – we are mixing up a warm acid bath known as the future oceans.) Of course there will be winners – shipping over the melted Arctic will bring us all lower, lower prices – until a rusty ship capsizes or breaks apart. But hey, why worry about that?! Instead, let’s dream of the likely permanent weather changes laid out in this Climate Progress post. Is it just me, or do I see mostly losers in that crystal ball?

If we are sensible – bad bet, I know – we will recognize that we have destroyed our stable climate system with our greenhouse gases. Paul Beckwith lays that case out here, concisely and logically. Then, we will take action to halt this out-of-control experiment in atmospheric warping. I don’t expect too many will heed the call from this wild-eyed tree hugger. Instead, I suggest we follow the advice of three formerly powerful members of a nearly extinct species – environmentally responsible Republicans.


Feeding on Itself

A favorite tactic of climate change denial-liars is to harp on the technically true fact that it is awfully hard to pin a particular weather anomaly – say a supersized storm, a chronic drought, an off-the-charts heat wave – on manmade climate change. “Random variation” is the favored explanation. But now here comes a study that connects the two in a self-perpetuating cycle. That is, an extreme weather event itself leads to more climate change, just as climate change makes outside-the-norm weather events more likely.


Hand Out or Hand Up

Most of us have seen catalogs from a charitable organization called Heifer International. If you visit the site, you will see that the organization does lots of targeted good work – helping people in poor countries by giving them a chance to help themselves. I got to thinking on this group as I listened to the 8/16 This American Life. In that episode, David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein made a surprisingly strong case against such well-meaning charities, and in favor of another model – simply giving money, no strings attached, to poor villagers. Here is the charity featured in the story. (It focuses on Kenya.)

This got me thinking on a news story from this week that looked at another aspect of giving – with global implications. This story – Ecuador’s decision to drill for oil in the Amazon – represents a failure of an innovative experiment. A deal had been worked out whereby the world’s richer countries would make donations to Ecuador to preserve the Yasuni national park in the Amazon, thus protecting an area with astounding biodiversity. A great idea, undone by a single, simple problem. Despite generous donations from certain famous people, contributions from the wealthier countries were skimpy or nonexistent. Surprised? Just one more stop on the road to ecological destruction, I guess.


ALEC from the Inside

They assumed Chris Taylor was one of them. And she was prepared to tell the truth. All they had to do was ask. But no one did. So we got an inside view of the right-wing cabal that has been working steadily to build a permanent American corporatocracy, damn the public will, likewise the common good. Moyers and Company also picked up on Taylor’s unlikely investigative report on the American Legislative Exchange Council. (Learn more here). Here is hoping that Taylor – a representative in the Wisconsin state legislature – continues her courageous search for the truth.


Chemical Weapons Against Our Friends

The plight of pollinators – mainly honeybees and bumblebees – has been very much in the public eye of late. And the pace, sadly, seems to be quickening. Not necessarily in public policy debates at a level where something will be done – yet – but more people are aware of colony collapse disorder. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been fingered as the main culprit, but there is news this week that is not good. Even people who are trying to do the right thing have stumbled. This petition might help. Also, if you are not represented by a corporatocratic robot congressman (I resemble that remark), you might support this bill (not recommended by ALEC).   And here is at least a tiny bit of good news – though the author at least calls out the tentative nature of this apparently new “ban” on certain pesticides.


Fear, Inc.

War has long been big business. Think of Country Joe McDonald’s lyrics from the Vietnam era – “Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow, Why man, this is war au-go-go, There’s plenty good money to be made, By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,” – or the fortunes made from President W’s war of choice in Iraq – this being just the biggest of many examples.

In more recent times, though, terror about terrorism has become possibly even a bigger bonanza. I was prompted to write this little piece by two recent events. First – I recently missed the first inning of a game at Fenway Park by long, slow security lines. They were frisking people in the “express” lane. Understandable – maybe – considering the still-fresh memory of the Boston Marathon bombing last spring.

The second was a brief conversation with a neighbor about security measures. She said she had heard that the NFL was considering airport-style “porno” scanners to go with their new, unfriendly (except to plastic purveyors) transparent-bag policy. The scanner bit seems to be speculation, but these days you never know.

I mentioned that a certain former Department of Homeland Security head had earned piles of cash through government contracts for those privacy-shredding scanners. She was not aware of that example of the infamous revolving door. So I wondered how many readers might also be unaware. And then I opened my favorite muckraking site, AlterNet. It’s worse than you think.


The Sustainable Sun

How about something hopeful? Would you believe hydrogen fuel generated by solar energy? Fascinating.


Random Acts of Writing

This campaign is a project of my friend and Climate Reality Project colleague, Mary Colborn. Pass it on.


“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright


Contributed links to this posting – Mary Colborn, Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 6/23/13

23 06 2013

Ugly is Beautiful //

It was just a throwaway comment from a source on an NPR story on bad travel experiences. But her entirely understandable distaste for bats speaks volumes on human attitudes about nature. If it pesters us, inconveniences us, or does not impress us as cute and cuddly, it can be damned. We can get along without it, thanks. Or so we think (if we think about it at all).

Give this lady credit – she and her cohorts did not kill the misplaced bat. And she is right about them struggling to survive – across Canada and the US, a deadly fungus has been devastating bat populations in recent years. Because the proximate cause of that wildlife crisis is “natural,” a fungal disease as opposed to an obvious man-made chemical source, it is tempting to think of the situation as something we can lay unequivocally at Mother Nature’s doorstep. But the fact is that, with the way our ever-expanding human footprint on the earth has encroached on natural habitat, stressing animal populations, even as we alter the environment with our miracle agricultural potions and greenhouse gases, in no way can we wash our hands of blame even for maladies that seem natural on first glance. And of course bats play an important role in ecosystems, with their huge appetite for insects and in some cases their penchant for pollination.

It’s the same story with snakes and turtles, which some drivers seem less inclined to avoid running over (compared to “cute” species like geese and ducks) and sharks – whose numbers worldwide are decimated by the cruel practice of “finning.” There is also remarkably little outcry over the steep, documented decline in amphibians. (It’s a good time to remember Tyrone Hayes’ sadly under-publicized research on the pesticide atrazine’s endocrine disruption in frogs – but who cares about that?)

The biggest looming extinction story right now is bees. As I have written about recently (Scroll down to “The Little Guys will be Missed”), another miracle chemical is implicated here – neonicotinoid pesticides. The evidence fingering the chemicals was good enough for the European Union’s scientists, but here in corporation-dominated America? Nah, we are not impressed. We blithely blame Mother Nature, minimize our chemical assault on the environment, and life goes on. For now.


Fakin’ It

I just love this story. At some level, most of us feel a bit uneasy eating overprocessed, computer-designed, machine-extruded, factory-assembly-line-produced foods. Big Food knows that, and has ways of fooling us. I remember in my youth, eating one Burger King Whopper after the other, and noticing those grill sear marks on the meat. Were they authentic? Who knows? Who cares? It sells, and isn’t that what really matters? “Naturally flavored.” Yum. Before you buy another mcburger or in fact buy any highly processed foodstuff, you really owe it to yourself to read Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation. And now there is another book that updates the technical wizardry used to fool us into thinking this stuff is good. And the author, Michele Simon, has a new blog that targets Big Food. Sorry, enough on that for now. I think my freezer is running low on pink slime.


Oh, Alberta!

The weekly extreme weather roundup is starting to remind me of the deep, dark days of the Vietnam War. The nightly news then ran a roll call of American soldiers killed in action in Southeast Asia. The news today could easily be a similar sad parade. There’s the obvious – wildfires in Colorado, floods in Germany and India, Alaska (Alaska!) baking in the tropical sun, but also the subtle – “stuck” weather and slower moving storms pounding the same areas, day after day, with flood-spawning rains.

Virtually all of this extreme weather can be traced to a single phenomenon, and – hint – it is not Mother Nature. Find out more here. I also highly recommend this five-minute video explaining the jet stream/climate change connection, posted by by Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis.

OK, I hear you wondering, what is with the “Alberta” headline? It’s this – one of the most pressing wild weather stories this week is the devastating, deadly floods in Calgary, the Canadian province’s largest city. That province is also the site of one of the most controversial, and consequential, enterprises in our history of fossil fuel production and burning – tar sands extraction. Further expansion of that vast, destructive effort hinges on a key American decision – the Keystone XL pipeline.

That is the backdrop as Secretary of State John Kerry visits India to lecture the leaders of that  fast-developing country on cutting their greenhouse emissions (lots of cheek, there) and we anticipate President Obama’s long-awaited, legacy-critical plan for executive action on curbing greenhouse gases. Fingers eagerly crossed. Stay tuned.


Give the Kids the Bills . . . All of Them

Since 1980, by hook and by crook, we have rebuilt America in the image of “rugged individualism” – i.e., the Red State model. There is plenty of evidence that this is not what the people want.

For example, the system is constitutionally rigged in favor of red states. Wyoming has the same power as California in the filibuster-choked Senate. Also, a solid, obstructionist Republican majority sits in the House despite the GOP’s narrowly losing the 2012 popular congressional vote. Thank gerrymandering for that trick. And let’s not forget that the last more or less clean, legitimate presidential victory for Republicans was in 1988.

Nevertheless, we have been on the plutocratic path for 30 years. What has this brought us? Well, here we are, the richest nation in history, and we have a health care system that is the envy of whom? And our vaunted middle class – full of hard workers who, with a few good breaks to go with their toil, might be the next tycoons? Think again.

As we let our infrastructure decay, in the name of “cutting taxes for everyone,” and enable costly overseas adventures that profit only the big contractors, we are running up some massive bills. Who will pay? Why, those Millennials of course.  This fine AlterNet piece by RJ Eskow lays it all out. How will they pay for our selfishness? From cradle to grave, the author says. Let us count the ways:

  • Prenatal Nutrition
  • Early Childhood Nutrition
  • School lunches
  • Cutting education funds
  • Making college unaffordable
  • Leaving graduates drowning in debt
  • Massive unemployment
  • An increasingly inequitable, wage-stagnating economy
  • Greater fear and insecurity in old age

Gosh, who could have predicted this? Ah, well, sorry, kids. No time to wallow. Maybe you need to work harder. There is a third, low-pay, no-benefits job out there for you somewhere.


It’s a (Rich) Dog’s World

Heard about this vacation idea on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. It needs no additional introduction.


“Nature favors those organisms which leave the environment in better shape for their progeny to survive.” – James Lovelock


Contributed links to this posting – Tess Galati, Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 5/19/13

19 05 2013

Way up North, Future is Now  //

Climate disruption is nothing like a linear process. It is also nothing like fair.

For its non-linear nature, look at the numbers. Our carbon emissions have managed to raise the world’s average temperature by about one degree Fahrenheit. But in Alaska, it’s a different story – four degrees of warming already. That’s where the “unfair’ comes into view. Warmth is radically and rapidly transforming the landscape, heaping hardship on residents who already live in the harshest of environments. And here is the essence of unfairness – like residents of disappearing islands far to the south, these are some of the people who have done the least to create the climate crisis, but now must pay the dearest price.

Native Alaskans’ story has appeared in media for some time, but a new series in the Guardian brings home both the human side and the science. Suzanne Goldenberg’s insightful writing is paired with a collection of short videos by Richard Sprenger.  You will meet the villagers of Newtok on Alaska’s west coast, whose land is basically sinking all around them as the permafrost melts. This highly interactive, three-part series is one of the best pieces I have seen for learning about the plight of the far north.

If you watch the videos in the Guardian series, you will discover a key theme – the tussle over whether funds are available to move the village’s 350 residents. You will also note that Newtok is merely one of hundreds of doomed settlements in Alaska.

The news often holds ironic twists, and this week we have a particularly fine example. There may not be funds available for emergency evacuations of America’s first climate refugees, but we know of course what there are endless funds available for – sending high US officials off to meetings about the best ways to divvy up the melting Arctic Ocean and exploit the resources soon available under its formerly ice-covered waters. And let’s not think for now about the consequences of burning more and more of the stuff.

“Progress” marches, plunders and spills on.

A Dubious Party

It’s just a number. Atmospheric carbon dioxide touched 400 parts per million last week for the first time is several million years. Because of seasonal fluctuations – basically, the effect of photosynthesis in the northern hemisphere, it will soon slip back below that milestone. But next year, it will climb above that portentous number and stay there. Until it reaches 450, 500, who knows how high? So what is the big deal? See here for Caroline Alden’s excellent, concise explanation from the BURN journal of why we should give a damn and do something about it.

Myth Busting – or the 97% Solution

For anyone who has observed and studied climate disruption the past two decades, it is almost beyond belief that climate change doubt still lingers. But then, powerful interests have stoked that doubt for several decades, following a proud tradition.  One of the most sordid tales of doubt has to be the trumped-up pseudo-scandal known as “Climate gate.”  Read about closing that case right here. Be sure to check the imbedded Mother Jones video.

But what about that magic 97 number? As Skeptical Science reports, a new study shows the consensus that you, I and the rest of the 7 billion of us carbon-based and carbon-spewing life forms are causing climate disruption. Skeptical Science is one of the best baloney busters.

While you are there, check out their explanation about the truth behind your favorite “not our problem” myth. For instance, the idea that any pollution from “little old us” is dwarfed by volcanoes. So that’s a myth that is not just wrong, but 100 times wrong. That’s especially timely right now, with an Alaska volcano currently putting on quite a show. Just remember – that show, plus all the lava and ash acts that Mother Nature stages, are nothing compared to our ingenuity and industry.

Building a Movement

If you care at all about climate disruption, you must check into the May 18 This American Life installment. Ira Glass and team set out to do something different from the usual climate change coverage, and produced something special.

There is a conversion story – Colorado’s state climatologist finally becomes an ex-skeptic and utters the words “climate change” to his constituents after the awful fiery summer of 2012.

There is a quixotic tale of a lonely fellow – former Congressman Bob Inglis, who lost his primary in spectacular fashion, largely because of his heresy. He is a Republican who not only “believes” in climate change, he exhorts others to take action. Good news – he has a growing following. Bad news – most of them are already progressives, not the pignorant holdouts he seeks to influence.

And finally, there is a study of the man who woke us all up, Bill McKibben. A highlight of the McKibben segment – learning just how challenging the hopeful, student-driven university divestment campaign is turning out to be. Well, no one said saving the world was going to be easy. We can learn much from McKibben’s books old and new.

Want to know more about the national movement that McKibben is building? Of course you do.

Precautions for Pollinators, Please

The current bee decline – known as Colony Collapse Disorder – shares much with the climate change “debate.” We have a grave problem with massive consequences whose origin was once mysterious, but has become much clearer.

In a rational system, threats would be recognized, and treasured resources protected. And in fact the European Union has banned nicotinoid pesticides. This is an example of applying the precautionary principle. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? When the risk of losing a particular resource – let’s say a hospitable climate, or is this case, the lion’s share of food crops – you take policy actions before 100 percent rock solid certainty as to the science is established. (Remember that 97 number?) Here is more on the principle and its application in Britain, from George Monbiot.

Let’s face it. Powerful interests who profit from “business as usual” are a bit less precautionary, and may need to be constrained. I think that, after you read William Souder’s excellent Star Tribune article on the pollinator crisis is one situation crying out for precaution. The solution will take more than just planting bee-friendly flowers (one remedy that has been proposed.) It will take tackling a familiar problem. Why does everything seem to come back to this?

The Power Game – Three Views and a Wrapper

An NPR interview with the New Yorker’s George Packer caught my attention. His new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, looks promising and is on my reading list.  The essential question here of course is – are we a community, or individuals, each out for ourselves, and each outmatched by the decisions of the powerful “individuals” who increasingly control policy – for their own benefit.

The Star Tribune’s Bonnie Blodgett visited neighboring territory last week, with a special focus on a perplexing problem. That would be the frustrating lack of progress in creating common-sense, common-good regulation in the years since the 2008 economic collapse. (For more on this, check last week’s IBI Watch, under “Corporatism – Harmful, Heritable, Habitual.”)

And the third power view is about as petty as it gets. But it is just one more reminder that the wealthy and powerful can find ways to get to the front of the line in just about every aspect of life. Somehow I can see a free marketer justifying this as “gainful employment for the disabled.”

Somehow all of this vaguely echoes the words of that great sage who left us too soon, George Carlin. Old George wraps it up nicely in his inimitable, foul-mouthed fashion.

Hypocrisy and Double Standards

This is a guest post from Paul Beckwith. Paul’s work is a regular feature of Boomer Warrior, which also carries my writing from time to time. He also blogs at Sierra Club Canada.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” -Henry David Thoreau

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN