IBI Watch 10/27/13

27 10 2013

A Climate Change Balance Sheet //

There was a time, not long ago, when climate change activists like me expected the rising cost of oil and coal to speed moves toward conservation and alternatives. This was the thesis of the Peak Oil movement – that it would become increasingly difficult to access and exploit remaining fossil fuels, thus making it ever harder to keep burning them for energy and transportation. That was BF (before fracking). (Though I disagree with his assessment of overall risks of exploiting extreme fuels, David Blackmon rightly justly skewers the notion of peak oil in this Forbes commentary.) Also, costs have risen, but all that has done is to make “extreme” fossil fuels economically viable. The result – for now – is business as usual, more or less, with continued overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. And then there are the climate paybacks.

Since peak oil will not save our bacon, motivation for the essential move toward sustainable energy will have to be financial, a massive cost/benefit analysis. Right now, who is suffering the costs or our addiction to fossil fuel burning? Certainly, indigenous people in the Arctic and on islands threatened by sea rise. But increasingly, “climate justice” of sorts is moving in. The anniversary of Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that storms strengthened by sea rise threaten American cities as well, with New York, Miami and New Orleans the prime targets for now. Also, the Amazon – sometimes called the planet’s lungs – being cut down for cheap wood and endangered by climate change, faces even more serious, costly risk than previously understood. And then there is the ocean, already on course for massive change caused by acidification and warming from our greenhouse emissions. Not to mention burgeoning wildfires, which travel around the world with the warm season.

So the question is – when does all this cost become enough to be widely recognized as more costly than moving to a sustainable energy/climate future?  This won’t be easy, because those reaping the benefits – oil and coal companies and their obedient congressional acolytes – still hold sway. Why else would misinformation continue to thrive on Fox News? And the true costs of dependence on fossil fuels are hidden, imbedded in the system. And for a measure of that control, see this AlterNet expose on the Koch Brothers. You can see more of the same on the horizon. Can you guess which country is trying to slow the process of moving to a new, stronger, greenhouse gas agreement? Of course you could.

If we have any hope of passing on a livable planet to future generations, this can’t continue. Here is a call for “solutions journalism.” And to me, hope lies in part with corporate interests recognizing the folly of wrecking the place, long-term, in the interest of profits. Here is a piece on investors’ doubt in the financial future of Big Hydrocarbons. And insurance companies are beginning to get the message that climate change threatens their business model, big-time. And Bill McKibben is a force to be reckoned with. His 350.org has spearheaded a campaign to help investors large and small divest from Big Oil and Big Coal.

But the best idea out there for hastening the process of internalizing is to build the momentum for a carbon fee and dividend system. This is not the discredited cap and trade idea, but a rational way to nudge the market system toward sustainability by rewarding responsible behavior. One worthy organization working steadily and specifically on that goal is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. And it would be a far better, more sustainable world if we just followed the punchy slogan at the heart of this Guardian piece.

 

An Unplanned War on Drugs

No one really wants to fight this war, and in fact we don’t like even to admit the war is proceeding. But fight we do, and any one of us could find ourselves in the crosshairs of the resurgent enemy. That may sound like unhinged, extreme fear mongering. But it is an accurate assessment of our increasingly shaky relationship with a whole class of drugs – antibiotics. Accurate because uncontrollable infections affect two million Americans per year, killing 23,000, and solutions elude us.

There is much to learn from a recent Frontline documentary – Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. The suffering of the people highlighted in the video makes it hard to watch. But I highly recommend it, first because it explains a story we don’t hear nearly enough about, and because it points to societal trends that we must manage if we are to save masses of people from fates like those of the documentary’s unfortunate subjects.

A dark twin of the old adage “use it or lose it” applies here. The video makes clear that when it comes to antibiotics, we “use them and lose them.” That’s because, thanks to evolution, which takes place at warp speed in the microbial world, bacteria are constantly morphing into new forms that challenge our defenses, i.e. the miracle cures of antibiotics. Therefore, the more encounters we arrange, wittingly or not, between the bugs and the drugs, the more we help the bugs get “smarter,” more potent, and maybe invincible. So that is the battle we have conducted since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. And in fact Fleming warned against complacency in using these drugs in his 1945 Nobel Prize speech.

Two recent developments justify Fleming’s concerns. You will learn about them in the video – gram-negative bacteria, which have special, impenetrable defenses against antibiotics, and a special instance of that resistance – klebsiella pneumoniae, called KPC in the Frontline segment.

So, knowing this is unfolding, you would think we would be mounting an effort akin to the moon race to protect the population. You would think wrong. First, research on this shadowy problem is number 70(!) on the priority list cited by a Federal source in the video. Second, if you think government-supported scientific research somehow thrives in this era of partisan showdowns, government loathing and government shutdowns, you are living in another realm. Third, an interesting market- driven phenomenon, also explained by Frontline, plays out here – private research by drug companies is hard for them to justify. Why? Remember – use it and lose it. That is, antibiotics, used properly, are developed, demonstrated to be effective, and then shelved for those instances where they are really needed. That is far removed from “take two pills per day for the next five decades.” That is, maintenance drugs pay long-term profits, but antibiotics just don’t pay back the private developers for their investment. A fine example of where the common good just does not fare well in an unregulated, profit-driven system.

But there is one more piece of this story that the excellent Frontline segment just does not touch. That is this – for all the problems we encourage with misuse of antibiotics in human health care, they pale in comparison to the risks we create with our livestock practices. Here is why – eighty percent of all antibiotics used in the US are used on farms. This would be bad enough if they were used to combat rampant illness. But the main purpose of all this mass feeding of miracle drugs to meat animals is twofold – first, to prevent illness in cheek-by-jowl feedlot confinement, and second, to fatten up Big Piggy or Bossy for market faster. That’s right, we are risking health Armageddon in the name of a cheaper Big Mac. You can learn more about that particular ignorance-based initiative in an excellent interview of David Hoffman (whose work is featured in the Frontline story) done by NPR’s Terry Gross. (And for an in-depth look at the bigger picture of factory farming’s impacts, check this commentary on a new John Hopkins University report.) The entire Fresh Air interview is excellent, but if you want to cut to the chase for a summary of all the issues – medical, feedlot and antibiotic cleansers –  go to 34:00 on that audio segment.

Hoffman promises a follow-up specifically on the feedlot problems, but does not go so much into solutions. Seems to me that common-good solutions are these:

  • Recommitment to government-sponsored research into bacterial resistance
  • Regulation against overuse and misuse of antibiotics in agriculture and consumer products
  • Creative ideas for overcoming the perverse market forces that discourage drug companies from researching and developing new antibiotics

These will not be easy in our corporate-ruled, gerrymandered system, but I see no other way forward.

 

Wealth Gap in Video

The ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, and especially the extremely wealthy and everyone else, is no accident. And it’s not because most of us are just not working hard enough, otherwise we would all be millionaires or even billionaires. It’s the logical result of policy decisions over decades, coupled with market forces. What is tremendously interesting – and – if you are not careful, depressing, is people’s poor understanding of this issue. This six-minute video is an eye-popper. And arguably the most tireless and optimistic teacher on this issue – former Labor Secretary Robert Reich – has a new movie on this crucial issue that I just can’t wait to see.

 

Martians Invade!

Seventy-five years ago on 10/30, the great film director Orson Welles pulled off one of the greatest media hoaxes ever. His War of the Worlds radio broadcast – which was identified at the start as fiction – induced untold panic and mayhem. The prank spun out of control thanks to a variety of coincidences. And the most amazing thing? The phenomenon repeated itself years later, and not just once. Years after the event, Welles said he and his co-conspirators sought to encourage media consumers not to believe everything they hear or see. And yet . . . a case can be made that sensational fear mongering that is the heart of much TV news got its start on that night in the fall of 1938. I strongly encourage you to take in the excellent RadioLab feature on the broadcast and its long legacy.

 

Young Warriors for Social and Environmental Justice

Too many in my generation – the graying Baby Boomers – stereotype our followers, i.e. Generation X and especially the Millennials, as self-absorbed, disengaged texters who never lift their gaze from their IPhones. Here is a gallery of activists who defy that stereotype and offer hope for a sustainable, just future.

 

Awkward

Jon Stewart has done it again. Watch him sum up the trajectory of America’s image with world leaders right now. It ain’t pretty, folks. Should you wax nostalgic for the good old days of the Bush II administration, watch for a cameo appearance of the would-be-masseur himself. Terrific job, see?

 

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell

 

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 6/9/13

9 06 2013

Weather Meets Climate //

When does today’s weather become our climate? This question drives the climate change debate. Everyone agrees that the sum total of each day’s weather, over the long haul, adds up to the climate. But with our greenhouse gases rapidly changing the atmosphere and climate system, making the climate/weather connection is a key challenge for scientists from both the meteorology and climatology camps.

It is way past time to retire that dull old TV weather talking head’s saw, “It’s not possible to tie any specific weather event to climate change.”  How can I say that? That is, what other reasons are there than the fact that I have been waving my arms around on this issue since the late 1980s? The answer in a moment.

First, here is a roundup of the absolutely crazy weather plaguing the world in just the last week or so, along with some new climate-related findings. Ho-hum, seen-it-all- before stuff like record rain and flooding in Germany and neighboring countries. An early-season tropical storm setting flood records on the East coast. Maybe your taste tends toward extraordinary western wild fires (and don’t forget the record-low Sierra snowpack). Or how about the biggest, fattest, fastest tornado on record? A naysayer might point out that the Oklahoma mauler was only the second-fastest recorded, making it not unprecedented, but that just contributes to my argument. Which is – arguing that each of these phenomena, looked at individually, might represent only something approaching or slightly exceeding some isolated historical precedent, is a colossal and costly failure of big-picture thinking. That is because any historical precedent for a modern drought, a flood, a torrential downpour, did not happen in world anything like today’s dramatically warming orb. When each historical “precedent” occurred, alpine glaciers were not turning to water, the jet stream had not slowed by 14%, the trade winds over paradise were blowing as ever, and maybe most important of all, the Arctic ice cap was not in a death spiral of melt.

The world needs many more scientists like Stu Ostro and Jennifer Francis, and science journalists like Chris Mooney to help them tell their story. The two scientists come from different worlds, but, like 97% of climate scientists and (sadly) about 50 percent of TV meteorologists, have concluded that as Pogo said, we have seen the enemy and it is us. That is, human altering of the atmosphere is the root cause of the overall one degree Celsius of warming observed so far, and rapidly accelerating changes in climate patterns – which we see daily and weekly as perturbations of weather.

Ostro is a media meteorologist and self-described reformed climate change skeptic who is now travelling the country sharing research results that demonstrate key connections between our “thickening” of the atmospheric blanket with greenhouse gases, and resultant greatly increased frequency of blocking highs and cutoff lows. These result in a slowing of west-to-east progress of weather systems, and bring daylong floods, months of drought, tornadoes battering the same area for several days in succession, and other examples of meteorological mayhem. Ostro is also a witty fellow and good storyteller, as you will find if you stay with me and follow a link I will share shortly.

Jennifer Francis is a research professor in marine and coastal science, who has been approaching the climate change issue from a different angle. Her research centers on polar melting and the consequent changes in the jet stream. In her words, we have created “a real pickle.” Can’t argue with that.

The two scientists met recently in a seminar facilitated by journalist Chris Mooney (author of Unscientific America). The presentations by Ostro and Francis offer some of the most powerful evidence yet that our ever-weirder weather can be traced right to our carbon-spewing smokestacks, tailpipes and farm gas. If you are not already convinced that we need to take this problem on, their highly illustrated and fascinating talks can help spring you to action. Here is the link, with big kudos to Chris Mooney.

And oh yes, if you agree that it is time to act, see this guy.

 

Pre-Rich Fall Further Behind

I have heard it said in some extreme laissez-faire circles that the real divide is not between the rich and the poor, but the rich and the “pre-rich.” If we would just remove all the controls, all the impediments, all the “distortions,” barriers to wealth for all would vanish. Deregulation has been a work in progress, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, since the 1970s. Let’s see how that is working out. Sorry, Mr. and Ms. “Pre-Rich,” just as Joseph Heller’s Yossarian must always fly more missions, you have to wait a little longer for that million. Maybe a fourth job?

 

Bees Chemically Imperiled

One of the greatest environmental crises right now is Colony Collapse Disorder. Just as climate change has a wealth of evidence pointing to the cause – manmade greenhouse gases – bee decline has a similar body of clues pointing to nicotinoid pesticides. But just as climate change has a powerful lobby blowing smoke and generating a critical mass of public doubt, so does bee decline. Learn more here. See some innovative hive designs, and meet some people trying to reverse the catastrophic decline. This documentary, cited in the longer piece, looks promising. Watch the trailer here. Also – I wrote a lead story on this issue in last week’s post – see Happy Talk or Sustainability?

 

COD (Crap on Delivery)

I wish my adopted home town would adopt this ordinance.

 

“Mark Twain had it backwards. Nowadays, everybody is doing something about the weather, but nobody is talking about it.”

― Stephen Schneider

 

Contributed links to this posting – Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 5/12/13

12 05 2013

Respect Mom //

Just in time for Mother’s Day, we have an alarming new marker on the Pignorance (pretend ignorance) Path. For the first time in quite awhile, atmospheric carbon dioxide has hit 400 parts per million. That “awhile” is quite a stretch – at least 800,000 years, and maybe as much as three million years. (Check the video at that link.) In other words, well before our planet-altering species evolved and began burning fossil-fuel joy juice to produce heat, civilization and, oh yes, greenhouse emissions.

Is this any way to treat “Mother Earth,” i.e., the planet and its systems that we depend on for everything, including our survival? I think we all know the answer to that question, though we clearly don’t want to know it, and we act as if the question does not matter very much. How much it matters becomes clearer with each chaotic lurch in climate systems. At some point, we will have to change our ways. If we fail to do so before catastrophic climate change occurs, Mother has some nasty surprises in store for us. Oceans raised by 100 feet, anyone? How about half a billion climate refugees?

The 350.org movement, founded by Bill McKibben, takes its name from the most commonly cited number for a “safe” atmospheric carbon dioxide level – 350 ppm. That’s well above the historic (pre-industrial) level that prevailed throughout human history until we got coal- and oil-happy – 280 ppm. Doing the math, we see that in just a couple hundred years – a blink in geological time – we have managed to raise CO2 by 70 percent. And we are poised to blow by 450 (maybe 20 years from now) and even 500 ppm (probably 35 years out at most). Considering all the increased weather instability we have set in motion with just a 0.8 degree C. rise in world temperatures, it is hard to imagine what we will see with two degrees or a lot more. Most experts say we already have two degrees of man-made warming locked into the system based on the effects of emissions we have already produced.

So, what are we doing to head off this building crisis? Not nearly enough. To understand the factors in play here, it helps to delve into the carbon cycle – the natural process plus the warp speed “adjustment” that humans have added. Caroline Alden does a good job at that, writing for the BURN journal. A careful reading of that concise piece helps us understand how we have the earth’s natural systems to thank for keeping a lid on the boiling pot we have ignited – in particular, ocean absorption of our CO2 has slowed climate change. But it’s also clear that that planetary “free pass” is about to expire, and it is also clear that James Hansen can say with authority “game over for the climate” if we unleash the massive amounts of carbon that will come with full exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.

The wisest – and most necessary – course of action is for the world to drastically reduce its use of fossil fuels. The only way to do that is to “internalize the externalities,” that is, to make carbon pay its way. “Cap and trade” has not worked so well; Hansen and others have a better idea. That would be “fee and dividend,” a gradually increasing fee on the carbon content of fuels that would be collected at the time of production, and returned directly to the public. This would reward those who use less carbon and therefore emit less heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

Here in the United States, one of our major political parties is a wholly owned subsidiary of the big corporations, and the other is a highly paid, all-too-supportive partner. With the power of Big Oil and Big Coal undiminished, how can we get a carbon fee enacted? Corporate pressure can help. Big Insurance gets it. Here is a more recent update from MPR’s ClimateCast on that angle. Still, it won’t be easy. Just read how this latest episode of GOP obstruction is hamstringing the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s hard to regulate on behalf of the public with no one at the top.

Pressure from activists and ordinary, informed citizens will be essential. Here’s a piece that encourages populist uprising. Bill McKibben sees a growing synergy between Baby Boomers and the Millennials. And imagine this – modern Republicans getting past ideology to understand and accept climate science.

We are all involved in discussions on this all-important issue from time to time. Here are two resources that can be very helpful. First, a climate change flow chart with attitude from the ThinkProgress site. And finally, courtesy of Joe Romm of Climate Progress, a listing of one-sentence and one-paragraph rejoinders to deliver in response to the 99 most popular denialist assertions on climate change.

Ultimately, it is a battle for public opinion on this issue. The mainstream media barely cover the issue. They need to hear from us. It’s the least we can do for Mom.

 

Weather: Something New Under the Sun

I love a Minnesota day where the weather changes by the minute. Winds wailing, then nearly calm. Bright sunshine, followed by a dark sky and brief dousing, then a return to brilliance. But this morning I experienced something I have never seen. Picture this: 50 degrees, bright sunshine, clear sky overhead, passing dark clouds all around, north wind blowing a gale. I am leaving my neighborhood park with my dogs. And it starts “snowing.” But the stuff is not at all like snow, more like sleet, except it floats, with a texture like fresh popcorn. By the way, it is May 11.  My meteorologist friend pointed me to this odd phenomenon’s name – graupel. It is going to be a mighty interesting ride, this climate change business.

 

Environmental Action Large and Small

With all the bad news on our disregard for earth systems, we often forget that there are many people in this world who “get it” on the important issues, and take meaningful action. Here is a story on a continent-wide tree planting initiative in Africa. Read more here. Read about the comeback of the US wind power industry. (Idea – check if your local utility has a program whereby you can buy some or all of your electricity from alternative production. We pay a small, worthwhile premium at my Minnesota home for all wind power.) And finally, this article with imbedded video is probably more about symbolism than major environmental impact. Still, it says a lot about making the most of resources.

 

Corporatism – Harmful, Heritable, Habitual

It’s been nearly three years since the Dodd-Frank Act passed in response to the financial disaster of 2008. And still, actual reform crawls at best. Wonder why? This Fresh Air installment features an interview with Gary Rivlin. The Nation’s investigative journalist names many names in the obstructionist squad, but the one that stuck most in my memory happens to be the son of the ultimate corporatist right-wing Supreme Court Justice. You can also read Rivlin’s Nation article here – How Wall Street Defanged Dodd-Frank.  This makes us wonder what is the next bursting bubble on the agenda. Looks like most are betting on student load debt.

 

Energy: Conservation, Efficiency and the Zero Point

This is a guest post by Desmond Berghoffer. He blogs at Grandparents for the Future and also posts frequently at Boomer Warrior.

 

Facts? Why Bother?

I am old enough to remember Art Linkletter and his “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” feature. Think of this as an update, except that many of these fact-free sages wield power in this distracted, deluded nation called modern America.

 

Taking the Wind out of Rush

The Great Bloviator twice made the wisdom roll call in the above article. But the king of ugly radio seems to have stepped too far out on his plank of hate with his recent personal attacks on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Remember the “slut” firestorm? It seems that Rush Limbaugh angered enough people to launch a boycott of his advertisers. The free market has slapped him silly, as noted in these two articles – here and here. An added bonus – Sean Hannity is apparently sharing the pain.

 

Enduring Commitment

These military veterans are continuing to serve the nation. Read about a project led by a Facebook friend that is dedicated to building sustainable solutions in the wake of disasters. The Veterans Green Bus deserves recognition and support.

 

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” – Wangari Maathai

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN