IBI Watch 2/10/13

10 02 2013

Lessons from the Deep Past  //

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Let’s add prehistory to that George Santayana quote. I was reminded of this when I listened to NPR Science Friday on Feb. 8. Though the segment runs only about 10 minutes, guest Paul Renne digs into new research that reaffirms suspicions that a major meteorite impact coincided with the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Renne’s work focuses on parsing the exact timing of this meteorite – whose story is told in this short National Geographic video. This is timely, considering the asteroid that is slated to make a remarkably close near-miss with earth on February 15.  But the very end of Renne’s comments on Science Friday points to what is most relevant in this research. That would be the impact of climate-change events on the biosphere.

The relevance – for anyone who cares about human-caused climate change (which should be everyone) is this – we are on a trajectory to re-create conditions that approximate the worst extinction events from deep prehistory. That’s right, and there is no asteroid or meteorite required. We’re doing this all by our little old selves with our tailpipes, smokestacks and factory farms. It’s the carbon dioxide, you see.

Paleoclimatologists have dug up numbers from the deep past, and they tell stories that are way more interesting than determining exactly when dinosaurs perished. Here are just a couple of examples of rapid warming from the deep past. About 183 million years ago, during the Jurassic Era, the Arctic was ice-free, and no wonder – atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 1000 parts per million (compared to today’s 395 and the preindustrial level of 280). Lest we take comfort in time distance, think on this – 1000 parts per million is in the range of the IPCC’s “worst-case scenario.” Here is another – at the worst extinction event ever – the End-Permian at 251 million years ago – Earth’s temperatures warmed by six degrees Celsius. That is also on the worst-case agenda. It is also the subject of a book that looks worthy – When Life Nearly Died, by Michael Benton

Some deniers accept this science and in fact use it for more denial – you see, if pre-SUV Earth could engineer such changes, well then anything little, harmless humans could do is surely irrelevant. This of course reinforces pedal-to-the-metal, business-as-usual climate inaction.

Those of us who study this stuff – professionally or out of curiosity and concern – are aghast at the apathy of many, and the magical thinking of many others. That would be the mindless faith in a sudden, amazing tech fix. If you would like to learn more about paleoclimate research and its relevance to the world we are creating (or maybe re-creating), I can recommend two books – Under a Green Sky by Peter Ward, and Six Degrees by Mark Lynas.  The latter volume – which I read recently – is a special case. The fact that it is about five years old makes it all the more interesting. Why? Because the predictions are half a decade old, and the only thing turning out different today is that they are happening much faster than predicted. Case in point is the summertime ice-free Arctic, which we damned near “achieved” last year.

Of course, things are not all apathy and magical thinking. For those able to go, you may have heard that a climate awareness rally is happening in Washington next weekend. Read about it here.

And if you can’t make it to the rally (the sidelines crowd on this one sadly includes this blogger), you can still make a difference in the policy fight. The time is now.

Extreme Water – in Many Forms

A piece on a welcome new weekly series offered by Minnesota Public Radio – the Climate Cast – reminded me of an interesting article I read recently in Scientific American. Meteorologist Paul Huttner talks about how extreme rain events are expanding rapidly, and consequence of a significant rise in the warmed atmosphere’s capacity for water vapor. And of course, what is the current blizzard in New England but an extreme precipitation event? And though a blizzard like this is often cited by deniers as evidence proving that climate change is not real, this could hardly be more false. And this just in – scientists are already discussing the connection between human-caused climate change and the likelihood of huge winter storms like the current specimen.

Common Wildlife Sense Prevails, For Once

It may be too little too late for the big beasts but some good news emerged this week. As recently as last fall, the Department of Natural Resources was still – amazingly – allowing moose to be hunted, despite well-documented population declines. The dubious, self-absolving excuse? We kill only the males. Well starting in 2013, no moose will be hunted. When common sense breaks out, it is cause for celebration. Now if only such common sense can be extended to another iconic species. This group in particular is working hard to end the wolf hunt.

Renewables in Fact and Fiction

Ah, Germany! That renowned sun-drenched paradise!  Legendary for suntanned bodies basking in the warming rays.  And those beaches on the North Sea! That gives Germany an unfair advantage, according to Fox News’ pignorant pundits. Germany has a lot more sun than we do?! Back in the real world, there is some good news on renewables. Read about wind power in Spain, and, yes, solar in cloudy, cold, dark El Paso.  And here is a bit of good news on a wave gathering strength. That would be colleges whose students are forcing the institutions to divest from fossil-fuel companies. One more reason to put our faith in the young people.

Stay Inside – Weather’s Fine

A story I heard on Marketplace this week reminded me of Richard Dreyfus’ character in Jaws. To paraphrase, “You’re gonna need a bigger dome.” Listen here. And while you are at it, take a look at Marketplace’s smog simulator for what you could see in selected American and European cities if they were beset with Beijing’s smog. (Not much.) But before we go all smug, think about what that disastrous smog in China’s capital means, as I did in a post. The truth is – there is no dome big enough to save us from carbon’s jaws.

A Killer Oil

No, it’s not petroleum, not even tar sands oil that I have in mind here. It is a seemingly innocent substance that has infiltrated so many products under so many guises that it is sometimes hard to know when you are dealing with palm oil. But I think that if you educate yourself, you will take steps to avoid the stuff.  This one is about the orangutans. According to this story, only about 20,000 of these cousins of ours remain in the wild, with all of them concentrated on two islands in Indonesia. Estimates are that ranchers seeking more land for palm plantations destroy habitat and kill about 5000 orangutans each year. It does not take a math prof to figure out those disastrous numbers. Now learn more by watching this documentary.  Now, check this info-graphic from the Rainforest Action Network. It is hard to believe how ubiquitous this product has become. And for one last bit of useful information, check this list of palm-oil based ingredients. So many names, so many choices.

Here is one more parting shot. Some environmentalists – including friends of mine – are reluctant to make the connection between environmental destruction and world population growth. But check this amazing statistic that I caught in a recent reading. More human babies are born into the world each day than the entire remaining population of gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans put together.

Climate Change: Food Crisis & Future Hunger Wars

Guest blogger Rolly Montpellier – http://www.boomerwarrior.org – educates us in a concise post, drawing the food and water connection with the climate as we are changing it. Highlights – a diagram that shows all the climate feedbacks we have unleashed, plus another that shows the consequences of each degree of further warming. Recommended

“The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.”
– George Orwell

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


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 1/13/13

13 01 2013

The Land of Make Believe  //

It’s a country where you’d better profess a strong religious belief if you hope to gain high office. It’s a country where nearly half of the public believes in a magical explanation of Earth’s and humanity’s origin. And it is the country where “doubt” around the critical issue of climate change, as reported by the overwhelming majority of scientists, just won’t go away.

It’s modern America, where that special brand of magical thinking, i.e., belief in the literal truth of religious stories, inexplicably endures. Not that several prominent authors haven’t tried to explain. Both Chris Mooney and Susan Jacoby have decried the harm that arises from our willful denial of inconvenient science. And Jacoby has a new book that looks promising. In The Great Agnostic, Jacoby tells the story of Robert Ingersoll – a Gilded Age freethinker who struggled to help America become more secular. Based on my reading of her excellent Age of American Unreason, I am putting the new book on my reading list.  Here is an interview with the author that ran on NPR.

Why is the work of authors like Jacoby important? Our national politics suffers from hypocrisy and exclusion – however brilliant a potential leader might be, if he or she has theological views too far from the conventional Christian mainstream, there is virtually no chance for election to major national office. And how a country whose economic dominance has been so defined by technological advance can allow itself to slip into such willful ignorance of scientific reality seems a mystery – until you realize that a public who believes unscientific baloney is much easier to marginalize and immobilize.

My son is an officer in an organization promoting secular society – the Secular Student Alliance.

Normalizing Climate Change in the Upper Midwest

When I moved to the Twin Cities, the annual “bottom-out” temperature range, as it happens, for this week in January, was high 20, low 2. But if you look in today’s Star Tribune, you will see a different story – 23 and 7. So what gives? Our friends at the paper are comparing today’s temps to a shorter range – when the temps had already warmed, thanks to sunspots or an Inhofian hoax or something like that. Of course, even with these ginned up numbers, what has happened over the last few days (yet another disgusting January rainstorm, culminating in a mess of snow remnants refrozen into crusty, treacherous ice) here in the Twin Cities would have been weird 25 years ago. Today, well, it’s just normalized weirdness of our local variety. Paul Douglas gives the context.

Why it is Called GLOBAL Climate Change

Though I have been following climate change since the late 1980s, I cannot recall a time when there has been such a confluence of aberrant weather occurring simultaneously around the world. Quite a roundup. Rampant bush fires and a heat wave so intense and persistent in Australia that they have had to concoct new colors for the weather map. Tornadoes in Italy, icy cold in the Middle East, drought across America. Extreme weather in the US, as reported in the Guardian.

Do you think all this mayhem could have something to do with the melting Arctic?  I am currently reading Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees. Although the book is five years old, I am learning a lot from it. The structure is intriguing: each chapter explains what researchers say we can expect for each Centigrade degree that we warm our home planet. What I am finding most interesting is this – predictions based on the existing science of 2008. In the chapter I am reading right now, Three Degrees, Lynas writes:

“One likely outcome of is that a reduction in Arctic sea ice will exacerbate the drying of western North America. Instead of ocean heat remaining trapped under surface ice during the winter, once most of the ice cap has disappeared, large areas of open ocean will remain exposed toe the winds, altering the usual pattern of winter weather over North America. In one modeling study, the rain-bearing systems get shunted farther north toward Canada and southern Alaska, and away from the drought-scarred plains of the United States.”

Eerie how that prediction is playing out. The most interesting thing of course is how much faster all these consequences are playing out, compared to the forecasts. And remember that all the extreme weather we are seeing are taking place on a planet that has warmed “only” just under one degree. The Onion has a nice satirical take. And here is a down-to-earth forecast of what is in store in the near future – this year.

Seems to me that, when a house is on fire, you don’t argue about what is causing the fire, and how bad it has to get before you take action. You get the damned fire extinguisher, start spraying and call for help. Isn’t it about time for a carbon tax? Thomas Friedman thinks so. (You have to read to the end.) So does a true hero of the people, Senator Bernie Sanders. And for depth on the political climate and inspiration for action, this NPR story featuring scientists Michael Mann and Katharine Hayhoe is very useful.

Pork Bung: It’s What’s for Dinner

Here is a guarantee. If you listen to this excellent This American Life story (audio available 7:00 PM EST 1/13/13), you will think twice before ordering that “seafood” appetizer at your local chain bistro. This story gives new meaning to that old pork industry adage – “we use the entire pig, everything but the squeal.” My take – just one more reason for avoiding factory-farm meat.

In the Name of Common Sense

The horrific Newtown school massacre focused public attention on gun violence. A new momentum has grown, and we can only hope that it builds toward common-sense measures to stem the tide of violence. And of course it continues, daily, in our country. This Slate site keeps track of the body count.  Vice President Joe Biden has been talking to groups with various perspectives this past week, and he now has an agenda. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly are speaking out, and have formed an action group. Jon Stewart’s take on the issue is funny, but packs a punch. Look for a cameo by Mike Huckabee, one of my favorite pignorant pundits.

Wolf Hunt Controversy Continues

Minnesota’s wolf hunt is over – for this year. But this hunt –which can only be described as a hunt for sport or fun – will continue to be a hot topic and something that groups will continue to fight. This group is worthy of support.

Jobs Drive the Economy

This interview with Paul Krugman is worth your time. Appearing on Moyers and Company, the Nobel economist argues for rebuilding infrastructure, and compares our current economic situation with the 1930s.


Big business and oligarchs rule. George Carlin had it right. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

25 Cheers

Truthout’s Peter Dreier says progressives have many reasons to celebrate. Count ‘em.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

― Martin Luther King Jr.

Contributed links to this posting – Christy Bailly, Jeff Carlson, Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN