IBI Watch 12/1/13

1 12 2013

Science in Action //

Key, urgent decisions hinge on a clear understanding of scientific principles by decision makers. Those decision makers include the obvious – our executives, legislators and judges at all levels of government. But they also number all citizens – whether they seek out and try to understand scientific truth or not. That is a problem for the ages – ours and most crucially, those to come.

There really is no shortage of scientific information on humans and the environment, climate change, nutritional science, etc., but the problem is this. Much of the information that comes from science on these and other issues is not conducive to the business-as-usual inertia that pervades our policy. Corporate interests recognize the inconvenience of various scientific facts, and deploy armies of public relations specialists and lobbyists to spread spin and untruths to all those decision makers. To make it even more challenging, it is a rare scientist who can match up to a professional spin doctor with a contrary or fact-challenged tale to tell. This is what makes scientists who have left the lab to get the word out worth their weight in gold and then some. Here are just a few of my favorites, from the international to the local scenes.

First in line has to be James Hansen, who has crossed another line in recent years, becoming an activist willing to be arrested in his efforts to spread the truth about the climate crisis. I recommend his latest book, Storms of My Grandchildren, and also this TED Talk.

Next, there are some meteorologists who use their blow-dried TV news persona to blow denialist hot air on climate change. Among the most prominent in this corporate propaganda crowd are national figure Joe Bastardi and Twin Cities local anti-hero Dave Dahl. I find Dahl particularly entertaining in the way he has enlisted the Almighty in his anti-science campaign. I can’t find a link to something I heard him say – that it is arrogant to assert that mankind’s activity is upsetting nature’s balance ( which is really in the hands of God), but he is quoted in other terms with a whole crowd of compatriots right here. Fortunately for us in the Twin Cities, we have a genuine hero for the cause – Paul Douglas. He writes a fantastic, frequently updated blog in which he shares ample doses of climate science. He also speaks on climate change regularly, including this concise 2012 climate summary video. And oh yes – he is a Republican.

Then there is climate change’s dark, destructive twin – ocean acidification. Scientist and writer Ken Caldeira is on that beat. Here is a short video in which he talks about both science and the challenge of explaining it to those decision makers.

For the really big picture, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has carried on and built upon the work of the late Carl Sagan, and continued to promote astronomy and science more generally to a broad audience. Here he is on the Daily Show.

For science with entertainment value, it is hard to beat Bill Nye the Science Guy. Dancing exploits aside (funny!), Nye is always ready to weigh in on science topics that should not be controversial, but in this era of all-powerful corporate storytelling, remain so.

Locally here in the Twin Cities, University of Minnesota meteorologist Kenneth Blumenfeld is an expert on severe weather. He does frequent public appearances spreading the word on climate change, and also sends a great blind-copy newsletter on severe weather outbreaks across the US. If you would like to subscribe, send me a message and I will connect you. Blumenfeld has offered to debate this storyteller, but the offer has not been accepted. The state senator seems to be much wiser than the video would suggest.

Participation by scientists in the public debate may be on a slow growth trend. NPR tells us about a group that is training them to be more effective communicators. BioToasters. Take it from a Toastmasters alumnus – ya gotta love that. So efforts among scientists themselves are part of the success plan for science. But we the voting citizens also play a major role. We can vote for corporate poseurs or people with a genuine, fact-based interest in the public good. And we have responsibility beyond mere voting – understanding and acting on science as informed citizens. Here is an article from Nature magazine that can help in that quest.

It would be tempting to end this story with more bad news about the misuse of science in decision making here in this corporate paradise, but here is some positive news, from a very surprising place. This is one time where you can say “Don’t mess with Texas.”

 

Commuting Tough on the Wrong People

NPR has been doing periodic stories on commuting, and all are worth a listen. This latest entry documents the travails of a Chicago transit commuter trying to do the right thing and paying a big price in convenience and comfort. And if you try to do the right thing in another way – like anteing up for a gas-sipping hybrid – what happens? In some cases, we figure out a way for you to pay the price of not using enough gasoline. Say what?  We clearly need more big-picture-based, rational transportation policy that rewards the right sort of commuting behavior. That’s not what’s in the cards if this unfortunate idiocy comes to pass. Still, groups are working for reason on this issue – here is one. And anyone who needs convincing on the efficacy of public transit need only watch this very short stop-action video. Enough seen.

 

New Ideas in Rome

Holy Peter and Paul! Saints preserve us! What have we here? A populist pope, who takes all that kindhearted beatitude stuff seriously?  Looks like it. And certain people on the pious right are not at all amused. (The first four weekly conservative rants are broadsides at Francis; the rest are just a bonzo bonus.) Can you say “apoplectic”? You betcha.

 

Battle Lost; War Must Continue

The great divide in this country – people at the top, especially CEOs, getting richer while all others flat-line – has been well documented. It’s arguably the main quest of a populist hero, Robert Reich. Here is a recent Reich clip from the Colbert Report. And our penchant for running everything for the benefit of the rich oligarchs and executives is not unique to the US – in fact, you might say it is one of our most “successful” exports.

This week, there is some unfortunate news from Switzerland. Citizens of that bastion of financial stability had a referendum on the ballot and – voted it down.  I think the vote is more about that particular initiative than the quest. But time will tell if warnings from the likes of Reich and Naomi Klein for instance prove true. I know where I am putting my money.

 

Climate Change Ethics and Policy

Here are two items looking at who pays the price on climate change, and who is doing sinfully little to battle this existential threat to civilization. Many Strong Voices in concentrating resources and support in places that are currently feeling the brunt of manmade climate change – the Arctic and island nations. This HuffPost piece details corporate contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. And now for the news – shocking – I know – of where the US and Canada stand in a comparison of planetary policy among nations. Long way to go, friends.

 

Make Like a Hippie

There is much wisdom to live by in this short piece recalling what was very much forward thinking in the 60s. Please forgive the miscount – idealism may not correlate with math skills.

 

Corporations and Agriculture – the Big Picture

The Star Tribune’s Bonnie Blodgett has done it again. This time, she got a little more column space and wrote a tour-de-force on the agricultural revolution, the finances of farming and local solutions to conservation challenges. It might make you rethink which NGOs you support as well. Strongly recommended.

 

A Sociopolitical Barometer

I recommend this quiz. It runs six computer pages, but the questions are very thoughtful, as are the results. Where do you stand? My numbers are -7.38, -6.41. A wake-up call indeed. Who knew I was to the lower left of Jill Stein? Maybe I should rethink my long-time stance as an updated FDR Democrat.

 

Reverend Billy and the war on Thanksgiving

Yes, I know we hear so much about an alleged war on another way flashier holiday. But I think the good reverend has it right in picking out holidays to defend. And whoa, does this one need defending. Fortunately, Reverend Billy is more than up to the task – and is receiving recognition for his earth-dedicated efforts. Unfortunately though, he may soon be silenced – in prison for speaking out against corporate power destroying the planet’s natural systems. Please join me in signing this petition.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

“We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.” – Paul Hawken

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Brendan Murphy

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

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IBI Watch 11/10/13

10 11 2013

A Critical Mess //

While we continue to argue and dither over manmade climate change, extreme weather events are multiplying, and thousands are paying the price. This week’s example is the estimated ten thousand citizens of the Philippines – a country that has done very little to contribute to the climate crisis – killed by Typhoon Haiyan. Of course our vast experiment in atmospheric morphing is a wreck in progress, but this storm has the potential of being the strongest ever to strike land. That Guardian piece explains the climate change connection – steadily warming oceans may actually lead to fewer tropical storms (consider this year’s quiet Atlantic hurricane season as possible evidence of that theory), but those that do spin up can tap a much deeper energy well, and reach ghastly levels of power. Here is more from National Geographic on the dimensions of the late-season monster.

Who could have predicted this? Well, no one really. No one except just about every climate scientist in the past 30 years, and going back decades before that. More carbon in the atmosphere from our fossil-fuel addiction enhances the heat-trapping capacity of the atmosphere, melting glaciers and polar ice caps and warming the oceans. Presto – changes in weather patterns including changes in rainfall patterns, heat waves, and the potential for vastly more powerful storms. While changes in global patterns are complex, those basics of the science are not, and each of us as a world citizen needs to know and face the basics.

In addition to dramatic weather events like this epic typhoon, climate change evidence mounts almost daily, along with projections that become more dire and urgent at a similar pace. For just a few examples, here are: an excellent radio presentation by Alex Chadwick’s Burn journal on the problem of rising sea levels; a reassessment (upward) of the pace of polar ice melt; and a warning of evidence of melting methane hydrate off the East coast. All this means rising levels of trouble for the foreseeable future. And if we don’t figure out a good way to mitigate and reverse all this destruction and endangerment, here is our destiny – a world without any natural ice at all. That apocalyptic goal is clearly within reach, according to James Hansen. And it is a world we will pass on to our followers, who will no doubt wonder about us, “What in the hell were they thinking?!”

People all across the climate change movement recognize the gravity of the situation, with some having concluded that the problem has gone too far, and that human civilization itself is on the endangered species list, so to speak. Here is a cogent, logical example of that point of view. I find much to agree with in that entry, and its author and people with a similar perspective may very well prove correct. But I say – how can we be so sure, when we have done so little to reduce and reverse the damage our fossil fuel usage continues to wreak on the planet?

Besides dividing climate activists on the question of hopelessness, the crisis has spawned at least another wedge issue. That is, should nuclear power be part of the solution.  A new video – which I have not yet seen – is at the heart of the controversy.  There is plenty evidence arguing for complete abandonment of nukes – with the Fukushima disaster the most recent and most persuasive argument. The darkest view I have heard comes at the end of this quote from a credible source, prominent environmental scientist David Suzuki.

When it comes to the nuclear option, I stand with James Hansen. The former NASA meteorologist, one of the earliest and most prominent messengers about the climate crisis, supports continued and stepped up research on next-generation nuclear power as part of the solution. Hansen’s approach should stay in the mix, but I see it as on a par with research into geoengineering. That is, we are doing so little in the way of less risky positive change.

A good start on the positive front would be to stop coddling the very industries that are building this crisis. And another would be to make carbon pay its way, via a tax or fee. How effective might this be? Think of what is behind this throwaway comment from a Koch brother. Remember how his family will continue to live well and prosper under business as usual. Do you think they will use that monstrous windfall to plant forests?

What we need is a critical mass to get us out of this critical mess. Start here, here or here. Or better still, all of the above.

 

Minnesnowta No More?

Not that anyone is complaining, or up to now, even noticing for that matter, but climate change has been hitting hard here in the upper Midwest. This should not surprise. Way back in the late 80s, scientists were predicting that changes would be more apparent first in the higher latitudes, in the central part of continents (away from the ocean’s moderating influence), and more apparent at first in winter and in higher overnight lows than daytime highs. Of course, all those things are exactly what has been playing out, as documented specifically in this recent MPR Climate Cast, and generally in Paul Douglas’s consistently well researched and amply illustrated On Weather blog.

Money talks, even screams, and no doubt that is one driving force behind a recent conference on climate change in our northern state. Money? Yes, the money being spent to pay insurance claims. It may be hard to believe that Minnesota, safely ensconced in the center of North America far from those big bad hurricanes, can make the top of the hit list for weather damage, but that is exactly what faces homeowners, insurance companies, and all manner of corporate and government entities. Hence the conference. Sadly, demanding job responsibilities kept this blogger from attending. But it will not be the last of its type, safe to say.

Just the fact that such a conference is held is a refreshing dose of reality. It is about time we start listening to local experts – like Mark Seeley – and create science-based policy. What a concept.

 

Climate Change in Fact and Fiction

A friend and ally suggests I get my nose out of non-fiction books once in awhile and sample some excellent fiction. Her advice, plus certain other high-powered recommendations, might get me to do that. Here is a short presentation by the author, who makes the kind of inspirational comparisons we need. Mike Conley’s website is also worth exploring. His message – we don’t have to be victims. Well said.

 

Teach Your Children Well

Parents of young children today – thinking parents that is – face some tougher choices than we of the older generation whose kids are grown. That is, with current trends showing the world going to hell in a hand basket in the express lane, how can you educate kids about the facts without creating Gloomy Guses and Cassandras, resigned to a hopeless future. Also, with all the technical gizmos relentlessly demanding their attention, how can you keep kids in touch with the natural world.

A new article has spawned, yes, another controversy within the climate change community. Some accuse this author of sugar-coating the truth. As for me, I think it is pretty right-on, a blend of individual action that can contribute, in small and larger ways, to a better future, plus awareness and action plans for the big picture.

Right-on is how few would describe a justly (and comically) vilified ad by Toys R Us. First, here is the ad. Cute kids aside, you may have had some problems with the commercial, nature-trashing message. You are in good company. First, here is Peter Gleick with the environmental perspective. And here is Stephen Colbert, with the mock-Fox perspective. (Warning – hilarious, and leads directly into two other commentaries on “shroom tombs” and that poor, put-upon pepper-spraying cop from those quaint, distant days of the Occupy demonstrations).

This is also the theme of a book I am reading right now. Author’s prescription: more nature (while we still have it). Here is a short video chat by the author, Richard Louv. Beats the hell out of Toys R Us, methinks.

 

Begone, Frankenfat

At long last, trans fats may be on the way out. Good riddance. It is not yet a done deal, but if the federal government follows through, it will be simultaneously a blow against a serious health problem, and the end to one of the longest-lived corporate scams on record.

First the health problem. Trans fats are an engineered product, a “miracle” of early 20th-century food science. Hydrogenation allowed all manner of food products – mainly but not exclusively baked goods – to be mass-produced and made virtually immortal. Read all about it here.

Problem – scientists have long known (at least 20 years) that these fats clog arteries, causing heart disease. And as research piled up, by 2006, estimates of total annual deaths in the US rose to 100,000. A few more of those, and we would be talking real numbers.

Here is the scam. Today, you can walk into your grocery store and buy a product that says in large print “no trans fats.” Now in my reading of English, “no” means “none,” i.e. “nada,” “zippo.” But now read the fine print. You will see those words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list, and note that, if you eat the “recommended serving” of the cookies or chips, you will get “no” trans fats. But in this case, “no” means “less than 0.5 grams.” Eat a few more, and presto, you have more than your share of the minimum daily requirement – which is zero – of this frankenfat. That, friends, is a scam.

Expect weeping and moaning – probably funded by Big Snacks Inc. – about the loss of cherished snack foods. (Hold it – you don’t have to wait.) In truth, considering we are the home of the tobacco scam and the fossil-fuel-funded climate change denial scam, there has in truth been less of the “nanny state” outcry than would have been anticipated. Progress? Maybe.

Big Snack lobbying aside, this sure looks like it will happen. That emphatically cannot be said about another “full-information-disclosure” campaign that is raging right now. That would be the movement to force identification of all genetically modified (GMO) foods. That is a story for another time, but Stephen Colbert has a wry look at that one as well.

 

What’s Your Tribe?

This new map of North America is getting a lot of attention. It comes out of grim research on gun violence, but it also goes a long way toward explaining other ideological differences that we have allowed to paralyze our political system. The author, Colin Woodard, has divided most of the continent up into socio/cultural groups based on heritage and history. Curious – every place I have lived, though separated by 1200 miles, has been in “Yankeedom.” I guess I will always be a damned Yankee.

 

RIP Lawn

My wife and I have been on a campaign to vastly reduce our vast lawn. But what we have done is nothing compared to this guy. What could you do?

 

Tall Tales and Taller Tales

Who better to take on both sides of the Affordable Care Act morass than Jon Stewart? In his inimitable fashion, he lays it on President Obama, but shows also where the REAL dishonesty lies. Stewart’s penchant for bashing everybody seemed to be lost recently on our ideological friends at Fox News. Stewart of course had an answer to that, and brought a choir to sing about it. Yup, Wit Happens.

“We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?” – Carl Sagan

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper, David Vessel

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 11/3/13

3 11 2013

The Utility of Futility //

Call it a war among friends. This is an argument about climate change that is getting louder in recent days. It’s not the dreary battle between those who respect climate science and those who deny, facts be damned. No, this one is about whether it’s already too late to slow and ultimately reverse the manmade climate change juggernaut. And while this may seem like inside baseball – the debate rages in particular in chat groups among highly engaged activists – it has consequences for all of us and for the planet.

Evidence mounts daily for the futile position. For a few of the latest examples, consider this article about projections that we will burn through the world’s “carbon budget” in just 20 years. (The carbon budget is the estimated limit to total fossil fuel use before triggering climate change feedbacks that push world temperatures beyond the “safe” 2o C. rise that most experts say is already pretty much a done deal.)  Or maybe a look at the level of Arctic warming tells the story better. Then there are new IPCC projections of climate change cutting into food supplies, while the human population continues to expand. Then there is the debt we owe to the ocean, which has been absorbing the largest part of our emissions, and turning acid as a result. That debt will be repaid with interest. (Check the imbedded NOAA video.)

In my mind the most important battle is still that between climate scientists and their supporters on the one hand and denialists on the other. Why? Because the denialist crowd (I refuse to call them “skeptics,” because that implies openness to persuasion) still has the upper hand when it comes to policy. In other words, that battle is far from won, particularly in the pivotal country known as the US of A.

But the battle within the climate science activist community is vital as well. Why? If a significant share of those who trust the science say it’s too late to save this place known as Earth, this is fuel for the very profitable fires of the fossil fuel oligarchs, particularly these guys. If anyone knows how to capitalize (i.e., build lots more capital) on policy inertia that is helped by public futility, it is the Koch Brothers (whom I like to call “oiligarchs.”).

Think of it this way. We are on a ship, moving at full speed. The ship seems to have sprung a leak. One crowd – the one that holds sway, at least in America – says “Don’t worry about it, we are still moving at speed, and anyway, when we reach our destination, there will be a miracle fix that will bail out all the water and fix the hull, the whole works. So just shut up now and enjoy the ride.” Another crowd acknowledges the leak, and some are fighting to persuade the captain to slow down the ship and dedicate all energy to plug that leak, which by the way is growing, slowly but steadily. But part of that latter, fact-aware, crowd does complex calculations to prove that the leak is growing too quickly, there is already too much water on board, and of course that distant port is too far off for that magical fix. The result – full steam ahead, pay no attention to that hull problem, if it even exists.

I say, let’s pull together and fix the damned leak. Right about now.

Prescription: Scientific Revolt

One of the things I keep promising myself I will do on this blog site is post a list of my most recommended books. A pillar of that collection will be Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Klein brilliantly documents how powerful industrialists have continued to profit from crises, and, insidiously, foment crisis where one does not already exists – in order to privatize profits and socialize losses. Klein has weighed in several times on the climate crisis, so when she spoke out recently on climate science and activism, it was worth noting.

Here is Klein’s complete article, in which she rightly calls out the godfather of scientific activism, James Hansen. She also notes the work of Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, both of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Commuting Lessons from Orangutans?

Most stories these days about these amazing, endangered apes from Indonesia and its surroundings are on the sad and futile side – like this and this. That may be why I found this NPR story oddly entertaining and inspiring. The author, Richard Harris, used it as a chance to speculate on the possibilities of leaner, meaner modes of commuting.

While we are on the subject of commuting, the New York Times recently ran a Jane Body piece on something I have believed for many years. That is, commuting by car – something I avoid in every possible way – puts a big hit on human health in so many ways. Chris Tackett at the TreeHugger site wrote a commentary, with an imbedded link to the Brody piece. My favorite mode of commuting is the humble bicycle. I understand that many are not physically fit enough to share my passion. That is why inventions like this could be a big boost to two-wheeled culture.

Facts, Please

Stories like the one I link to here darkly amuse me. Why? Because it focuses on Antarctica, the “cleanup hitter” in the lineup of manmade climate change effects waiting to mow us down. The author looks into ancient climate conditions, which of course is valuable. But what about the documented changes in climate patterns? They include drier, colder temperatures in parts of Antarctica, plus heavier snow in other parts (which some denialists use as evidence debunking manmade climate change). This story about Antarctic glaciers melting from below, due to warmer ocean currents, is far more relevant.  Likewise this one from Bloomberg – based on updated IPCC projections.

Star Tribune commentator Bonnie Blodgett had a similar concern with a widely read New York Times article. The “unmentionable” in this case was the underlying assumption that continued growth is the only way. Here are Blodgett’s column  and the NYT piece.

Food Critic, Bee Booster

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, well-known Twin Cities food writer, got the story on pollinator decline just about right in an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio this week. Her prognosis was a bit too bright, in my view. It strayed close to that deluded notion that if we just plant our gardens right, all will be well again. But she covered the issues well, except for one – corporate control of agriculture (and everything else!). Read more at my recent post, the cover story – Blame it on Mother.

This is Your Chicken on Drugs

Another public radio story this week clarifies just how tough it will be to solve a growing problem – overuse of antibiotics on farms. This piece focused on the veterinarian’s perspective. You may be shocked, shocked, I say, to learn that money again is at the heart of the problem. I also covered this story in more depth, just last week. See An Unplanned War on Drugs.

Equipped for the Long Term

Buried deep in the debate about human longevity – the infamous NTE (near-term extinction) concept I alluded to earlier are current trends. Absent a major wake-up call, coupled with concerted, collective public action, we really are on course to make it mighty damned difficult for our descendants and maybe any critter larger than beagle to hang around this orb. But destroy the planet? Not a chance. Not with these guys to mind the store’s ruins.

Green in the Extreme

I can relate to most of these, except maybe for number 4. I like to think this weekly blog makes me less obnoxious. OK, maybe that is another form of self-delusion.

 

Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.”  ~Bill Vaughn

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





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 10/6/13

6 10 2013

Blame It on Mother //

 

Look for this formula in media articles on science, and you usually will not be disappointed. Here is how it goes:

  • Identify the environmental problem or threat
  • Offer a summary of evidence
  • List the apparent causes, including both natural and man-made
  • Detail efforts to mitigate or cope with the natural causes
  • Ignore the man-made causes because they are just “business as usual.”
  • Bypass or downplay the interaction between man-made and natural causes

I was reminded of this formula when I listened to a recent Minnesota Public Radio story on efforts to propagate “clean” bees. That’s right, 50 million years of evolution produced an amazing little social creature, on which an incredible, complex network of life depends, but we in our infinite human wisdom know the real problem – the bees are not sufficiently “hygienic.” In other words, it is their own damned natural fault that they are bringing those nasty, natural varroa mites back home and instigating hive hari-kari.

To be fair, that MPR story does mention the biggest of several elements in the room – modern agricultural chemicals, particularly neonicotinoid pesticides. But the complexity of Colony Collapse Disorder makes it easy for media to latch onto the threads of apparent “feel-good” efforts like stories like that one about breeding better-behaved bees, or of simply planting the right flowers as somehow solving this massive problem.

But what about looking at the big picture, i.e. how we humans with all our wizardry and of course our endlessly expanding population have changed things? I have found no better example of looking at the big picture of bee decline than this TED Talk by Marla Spivak. Give her 17 minutes, and I guarantee you will have a deeper understanding of this complex problem, and a clearer idea of what you can do to help. If you’d rather cut to the chase (though you would be missing much valuable learning), tune into that video at 12:30, when Spivak summarizes all the factors, natural and man-made. I also like her counsel – suggesting that we learn from insect societies, that the sum total of our individual actions creates the world we all have to live in. So we need to choose wisely.

So our alteration of the natural world often enhances natural forces that we don’t like. Another good example is the fungal infection that is devastating US bat colonies. White-nose syndrome is the ailment that, on first glance, appears to be just an unfortunate natural consequence. Tough luck, you poor batties. Deal with it. But as soon as you read into the research, you see the human alteration. Though it is not 100 percent certain, it appears that spelunkers may have introduced this non-native disease into North American caves. We are watching the results play out.

When you apply that thinking, that is, looking at how we change the natural world in the name of progress, thus enabling natural-appearing collateral damage, you are moving straight into the territory of two authors whose work I heartily recommend.

First there is David Quammen, one of the finest science journalists. Get a copy of The Song of the Dodo and you will learn to see through all the fluffy science articles you find that follow the formula. It starts with myths many of us were taught in school and that are often perpetuated in well-meaning media stories. For instance, mosquitoes are well along in the process of decimating native Hawaiian songbirds. A nasty natural pest? Yes, but there is one problem with blaming Mother Nature for that one. Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii, having been unintentionally introduced by Captain Cook in 1778. And that extinction of the “stupid, flightless bird” that gave the book its name? Well, you will just have to read the book.

The main point of Quammen’s work is this – island biogeography tells us that islands are natural evolutionary dead-ends. That is, creatures migrate to islands, diverge from their larger population, and, often, if the island is not large and diverse enough, eventually go extinct. We are creating man-made islands everywhere, where creatures just cannot survive. If you watched the complete Spivak video, this will ring true in terms of the lack of natural, bee-nourishing plants on vast tracts of our factory-farmed landscape. Once you understand this, you will know better in future (if we don’t change our ways) when a tsunami wipes out the last remaining wild orangutans in Indonesia, or a harsh winter kills off the last monarch butterflies, or a hot summer finishes off Minnesota moose.

And second, there is Alan Waisman, whose new book asks a vital question – what is Earth’s total human carrying capacity? I can’t wait to read Countdown, which follows several years after The World Without Us. NPR Science Friday interviewed the author, who hopes to wake us up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, a human population of 11 billion is something we might want to rethink – before Mother Nature imposes her own solution. That one involves a lot of collateral damage.

Waisman’s solution is far wiser. Educate women, the world over, and empower them to make family planning choices. He cites two shining examples – Italy and – surprise! – Iran.

Far wiser as well would be this choice – see through this covert blaming of natural forces for environmental problems we humans have caused or enabled. Wiser to would be supporting organizations that are working to deal with the problems:

World Wildlife Fund

World Conservation Society

United Nations Population Fund

Even wiser would be working to fight the real problem – lack of leadership by the United States on these issues, caused in largest measure by corporate control of our politics and media. These organizations deserve support in that regard:

Get Money Out

Move to Amend

Represent Us

The Age of Fighting Back, Upon Us

If Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell is right, climate scientists are, at long last, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. His recent commentary was dated just before release of the IPCC’s fifth Assessment Report, but was right on the money. Because money is what the lingering manufactured controversy is all about in the end. In a five-page broadside, Goodell calls out the biggest, deepest-pocketed denialists – the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson, Craig Idso to name a few of the oiliest. He also names the world capital of anti-science, fossil-fueled denialism. Can you “name that country?!” Most important, he points out scientists and messengers who have found themselves in the crosshairs of denialist rage.

Atmospheric scientist Ben Santer reports death threats from ignoramuses and a home-delivered dead rat from a Hummer-driving “patriot.” And the attacks against “hockey-stick” proponent Michael Mann are already well known. But they are detailed in his recent book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Here are several other books by climate scientists from my own reading that I can recommend– James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and Stephen Schneider’s Science as a Contact Sport and, best of all, The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery.

This fight against anti-science is not going away, and we need scientists to step up their speaking out to counter the chorus of well-paid pignorance (pretend ignorance) that threatens to drown out their world-critical message.

Climate Change – Culture, Magic and an Offer

Yes, strange headline, I know. But here are the connections.

First – one little-explored impact of runaway climate change is the effect on indigenous culture. Effects on livelihoods that depend on sea ice are obvious, but who ever thinks about the extinction of languages, surely a cultural tragedy of our modern era? Well, Greg Downey for one.

Second – Bonnie Blodgett wrote a fantastic column in the 9/29 Star Tribune pointing out the errors in our magical thinking. This piece deserves wide reading, for its insight and also for the way the columnist weaves in the thoughts of several recent books. I particularly cheer her take on this one.

Third – The offer. The Blodgett column in particular reminded me of how reluctant most of us are to engage with the reality of environmental problems, particularly climate change. I am a certified presenter for the Climate Reality Project. Any Twin Cities reader of this blog is invited to request a presentation from this blogger. Church group, social group, community group large or small does not matter. It is enlightening, not all gloom and doom, and even entertaining. I might even throw in a related song or two for the right interested group. Think about it.

Wolves Return; What Happens?

The answer – a cascade of surprises, as reported by science journalist George Monbiot on NPR.

Science Shut Down

The current partial federal shutdown has many victims. Unfortunately, that club does not include members of Congress. But it does include scientific knowledge and progress, in a variety of ways. Considering the Tea Party’s role in promoting pignorance, hey, maybe they are winning after all?

“We would be a lot safer if the government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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

 

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 7/28/13

28 07 2013

Downstream Cleanup //

How many times have you visited a beautiful natural space – wilderness area, national park, nature preserve – and seen the calling cards of fellow visitors? Bottle caps, wrappers, plastic water bottles spoiling paths, shores and rest areas?  What have you done? A confession from me is in order here. I have mainly muttered something like “pigs,” “slobs,” and moved on. After all, I am careful, I don’t toss rubbish about, they hire people to clean up after pigs, why should it be my job? These are just a few of the many stories to tell yourself about why picking up is not your job. But they are all wrong.

As of this vacation weekend, I have started a new practice. Whenever I visit such a place, I will bring along a bag to pick up after my piggish fellow users of these areas. I did just that today while visiting a Connecticut state park with my brother-in-law. I must say, it felt more than a little satisfying, and I still got to mutter “pigs,” “slobs,” and move on.

What got me thinking along these lines was this plea for an end to disposable living, delivered in a TEDX Talk by Tim Silverwood. Of course, the North Pacific Gyre garbage patch – the diffuse soup of plastic waste that is only the largest of several around the world – has been well documented. Most prominent in my experience is Alan Weisman’s excellent The World Without Us. But Silverwood’s presentation provides new information, and video evidence of certain phenomena that, to be honest, I have been somewhat skeptical of. For instance, I have long been cutting up six-pack plastic rings, all the while wondering why. If you watch the presentation, you will see a particular critter that wishes someone, somewhere had made that cut.

All plastic waste on the loose ultimately floats downstream to the ocean, where it does unspeakable harm. But Silverwood’s main point is worth elaborating. Responsible handling of plastic waste is good – and cleaning up beaches, parks and all public spaces helpful – but all this is not nearly enough. We need to generate less of the stuff in the first place. That clearly takes more than individual responsibility. Good starts on this are plastic bag bans and bottle deposit laws.

And isn’t this just another example of a massive environmental challenge where individual action – making the right choices like driving less, cutting consumption, conserving energy – is the right thing to do, and helps, but will only make a mass difference if societal change can happen? Think of all the right-thinking people planting native gardens while Monsanto pesticides kill off pollinators, others driving Priuses while the icecaps melt, others making wise if costlier food choices while our entire system subsidizes unhealthy food and encourages sedentary lifestyles.

Annie Leonard’s series on The Story of Stuff connects all the dots concisely and even amusingly. And most recently she makes that vital connection between individual action and societal change in The Story of Change.

Positive change starts with individual action, but if it stops there, we will just feel a little better on the road to hell. For real change, it all really does come down to cutting corporate power over our system.

 

Extremes All Over

First, it is always a good time to expose hogwash. Sorry, Rush and Co., climate change has not halted or paused since 1998. What’s more, the Arctic is indeed turning into slush, as it has to an ever-increasing extent in recent years. And that great savior at the other end of the planet, the Antarctic ice cap that denialists have told us was stable, not to worry, it turns out, is not so stable.

And of course climate change’s effects are not limited to the poles. Far from it. Check this excellent MPR ClimateCast story on how forests are suffering a double whammy of pest infestation and devastating wildfires in a self-feeding cycle. As for that idea that planting more trees will solve the climate problem, think again – as this concise piece posted at the BURN Energy Journal site explains.

But the biggest extreme of all? That would be the extreme pignorance (pretend ignorance) practiced by well-paid, mostly Republican Congressmen and Senators these shameful past 25 years. We need real (not gerrymandered) and filibuster-proof majorities in both houses – majorities made up of legislators who respect science and tell it like it is. Thank God for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He calls the whole pignorant lot of them out once again.

Time to listen to Bernie, and time to make carbon pay its way.

 

Supreme Hypocrisy

I must have needed one more reason to cement Justice Antonin Scalia at the top of my most reviled Supreme Court Justice list. The arrogant proponent of Constitutional Originalism (and the unacknowledged chief torch carrier for the corporatocracy) now makes a bizarre connection between his opponents and the engineers of the Holocaust. I guess there is always room for more reasons, needed or not. Was there ever a stronger argument for ending lifetime appointments?

 

See, I Told You So

Bonus points for any reader who knows that is the title of a book by America’s bigot-in-chief. More bonus points if you have steeled your will and made it through the Great Bloviator’s baloney. But this time, that phrase comes from an unexpected place – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The subject – the Court’s recent decision to invalidate key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (over liberal justices’ objections). Think of this as the GOP’s updated “Southern Strategy.” This time, it has the blessing of the highest court in the land.

 

It All Adds up to 200

A friend posted an interesting visual recently – a slide show showing what a 200-calorie serving of dozens of different foods looks like. This WiseGeek video runs three minutes, and tells the surprising story behind 200 calories.

 

“Special interests have blocked the transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil fuel companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, just as tobacco companies discredited the link between smoking and cancer. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming. CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of the long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

– James Hansen

 Contributed links to this posting –Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper

 Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN