IBI Watch 11/17/13

17 11 2013

A Tale of Three Storms //

Important lessons repeat themselves until we learn. Here are stories from three extreme storms – all of them recent, one with a recently observed one-year anniversary, and one fading from memory already. They are from different parts of the world, and yet are linked in a crucial way. Each is supercharged by manmade climate change, denialist claims notwithstanding.

The first storm of course is the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, from which the Philippines continue to reel. The most important thing right now, with survivors still struggling to find water, food and shelter, is to help. Take your pick from the 25 organizations listed on this page. But the best way to help victims of future storms is to keep them from becoming victims at all. To do that, we must learn the lessons these storms teach, understand the connections, and, yes, change our fossil-fueled ways.

To get an idea of the level of destruction, look at the slide show at this CNN story, which also makes the climate change connection. For those willing to accept the science – not nearly enough of us to effect wise policy at this point – the most obvious climate change connection is documented sea rise. That means the storm surge gets a boost. But the other driving force is this – tropical storms of all sorts get their energy from warm ocean waters. For every degree of water temperature rise, the atmosphere holds 4-8 percent more water. So the storms spin up faster winds, and then have that much more water to drop as torrential rain. This story is told here and in this Democracy Now segment, which also includes comments from Jeff Masters of Weather Underground.

The Philippines is frequently the target of typhoons, and its state of development contributes to the effect of the storms and the difficulty in cleaning up afterwards. But even the richest country in the world finds it difficult to rebuild after devastating tropical weather. The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy was just a few weeks ago. This NPR Science Friday segment shows the NYC metro area is far from back to normal – and important long-term rebuilding and resilience questions remain. This Skeptical Science post takes on the climate change connection directly.

The third storm is very recent, well out of the normal range of weather behavior, and yet already largely forgotten. It is a storm of a different type – not tropical at all – and yet shows the effects of manmade climate change. It’s the out-of-season blizzard that hit South Dakota just last month – called a “freak blizzard” here at Time.com. It’s one thing to describe a storm like this as “freak,” but that sounds to me suspiciously like “fluke,” which definitely does not apply here. When 3.5 feet of snow falls, smashing records, that is definitely an example of extreme weather.  And this kind of extreme weather is an example of stalled systems. This is no doubt connected to a jet stream-warping phenomenon documented by Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis. (You can learn more in one of my previous posts – Wacky Wobbly Weather.)

So all these direct and indirect connections to climate change should move us to action. Should, but not yet. But there is new evidence that more people here in America – which really must lead the way to meaningful global action on climate change – are seeing through the smokescreens spewed by the likes of the Koch Brothers, Exxon Mobil, etc., and their enablers in Congress. But then there is the current climate conference in Warsaw – with things not looking exactly rosy – surprise, surprise.

It’s clear – the dithering and self-interest continue as we get deeper and deeper into this manmade climate crisis. But Mother Nature will keep bringing us these lessons, and in this case her timing is uncanny. Typhoon Haiyan punctuates this year’s gathering. More or less the same thing happened in 2012, prompting an emotional speech by the Philippines’ representative, Naderev Saño.  This year, he is taking a more extreme step – a hunger strike.

I have heard it said that the only thing that will get our American government to care about climate change will be two direct-hit climate-change-warped hurricanes slamming into Washington DC. I am not sure even that would sway the paid servants of Big Oil and Big Coal, masquerading as representatives of the public. But until then, it is wise to support organizations like this one – the Climate Reality Project – that are working hard to turn the ship of state around. That of course, and prepare for the next lesson.


An Unhealthy Debacle

How is it possible? Starting with good intentions and a (nearly) universally embraced goal, health care coverage for all, the Obama Administration has actually made the situation arguably worse than when they started. I will spare you the details – all you have to do is turn on the radio or TV to be almost immediately drowning in them. But this morning’s NPR Weekend Edition did a nice job of outlining the political quagmire President Obama finds himself in, and that is just where the trouble begins.

My intent is to make this the last story I write on health care for a long time, and here are just a few reasons why:

  • Other advanced countries have universal health care, mainly via single-payer systems; we can’t, strictly for political reasons.
  • The whole notion of forcing people to buy private health insurance, though it squeaked by in constitutional terms, is also politically and commercially unworkable.
  • The whole basis of the Affordable Care Act (not “Obamacare!”) is a gigantic workaround that leaves in place the main reason why our current system does not work for so many – the profit motive at its heart. (Read more at my recent post. Scroll down to “Rube Goldberg’s Health Care for Cows.”)
  • The administration has been set up for failure here – first by the fact that corporate money rules our entire system, and second by being thwarted at every turn by the dramatically more corporatist of the two major parties – as two brilliant cartoons depict – Tom Tomorrow and the Star Tribune’s Sack.
  • In a single, errant stroke, President Obama may have simultaneously transformed himself into a limping lame duck, and handed the Republicans a thick club to beat Democrats with incessantly, starting with the looming 2014 Congressional election.
  • And the best reason of all – I am bloody sick of the whole pathetic disaster.


A Three-Headed Challenge

At the risk of oversimplifying, my goal here is to link three stories in one brief post. The first is the degree to which we are deforesting the planet. From Alberta tar sands to climate-change-driven catastrophic forest fires to the most concerning of all, the destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests, we are methodically disabling the planet’s lungs, on which all life depends. Here is more on that story from National Geographic.

Globally, the main driver of deforestation is agriculture, and that story is interesting, complex and also vexing. That’s because the challenge is not just the deforestation – which is bad enough – but also the way the farming land is managed. According to numbers cited in this Grain.org story, agriculture produces about half of all human-generated greenhouse gases. And a lot of that is based on unsustainable practices.

It’s not possible to think about these challenges without going to the root of the problem – human population that is well past seven billion, headed to where? Ten? Twelve? Rough, crowded sailing ahead. Here is a group working to challenge the growth at any cost mindset, and here is another actively working to give women more choice over how many or few children to birth.


Blows against the Shopping Empire

Though seasonable retail jobs have long offered workers a chance to pick up some extra income, it has probably become quite a drag for retail employees in recent years. Remember that quaint notion of Black Friday? When the stores would open at Friday sunrise for eager holiday shoppers?  Think how many thousands of retail employees who are now caught up in the Thanksgiving Day arms race? Enough, say two major retailers – Costco and Nordstrom’s. Worth supporting.

Also worthy – and very much in need right now – of support is that irrepressible anti-shopping activist, Reverend Billy Talen. This is a guy who ties it all together – social justice, environmental activism, over consumption – and presents his ideas in a mock-preacher persona that commands attention. Here is a recent video post marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The good reverend – who by the way is set up for friends on Facebook – is looking at possible jail time for telling truth to power. I hope you will sign this petition to help head off this unfortunate, ridiculous exercise of stomping out free speech. Earthallujah!


Sharing is Good and Growing

Former President Bush does not show up in the news too often – no doubt by his choice. So I had to note this appearance that I think says a lot about his deepest held ideas. But in one of his more lucid, articulate moments in the public eye, he talked about an “ownership society,” and how owning things was a key to prosperity and stability. That is true to a point, but if everything is owned, it means we each have to have our own personal example of each product and device. What do you think that does to consumption?  Fortunately – and this is one of those things that can offer a glimmer of hope for the future – many younger people are learning the benefits of sharing services – especially, but not exclusively – cars. Learn more from this NPR story.


Help Will Not Come From Elsewhere – Guest Post

Rolly Montpellier offers a thoughtful essay on the futility of expecting magical techno-fixes. He offers a call to action, and includes an excellent clip from the late, great Carl Sagan that is always worth watching. Rolly Montpellier blogs at BoomerWarrior. He also features my work from time to time. Here is an example.


No Depression

With all the environmental problems facing us, this is no time for people who understand what is going on to curl up in the fetal position and surrender. How about some science-based ways to stay reasonably positive and motivated to make things better? Don’t worry, be happy. (responsibly, sustainably, of course!)


“Through our reactions we create delusions. Without reactions the world becomes clear.”  – Buddha


Contributed links or content to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Bobbie Chong, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

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.



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