IBI Watch 10/13/13

17 10 2013

This Horror Movie is Already in Production //

This week’s announcement of a new, research-based perspective on manmade climate change makes for compelling reading. It would be fascinating as science fiction, but that would only be half right. Because we have the science part, but this is nothing like fiction.

Here is the story – if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising at their current rate, virtually the entire world will be living in a completely new climate regime by 2050. Now that may seem far off, but it is obviously within the lifespan of today’s young adults. And babies born today? This will be the prime of their lives. What will they think of baby boomers like me, who let this steady tragedy unfold before our very eyes?

The implications of these changes are profound. One way to understand it is this – by midcentury, the coolest year will be warmer than the hottest year that we have experienced as of 2013. Think about that. We are a force of nature, overwhelming the planet’s natural self-regulation system. For humans, we are talking about climate refugees who are forced to leave their devastated homelands. And forget the oil wars of our era – how about water wars? And note that the people who have done the least to build the climate crisis will be among the first to suffer. For instance, think of the island residents of Tuvalu , the Maldives and the Far North.

What startles me in this study is the geographic progression. Since about 1990, when I started explaining climate change to anyone who would listen, I have read and reported that changes would be seen first in the higher latitudes, in the center of continents, during winter, and in overnight low temperatures that would rise faster than daytime highs. Of course, all that remains true, but the new study points out that tropical areas, as they are not used to wild fluctuations, are more vulnerable to rapid climate transformation. That is, it takes less of a temperature change to cause major disruption near the Equator than closer to the planet’s poles. That leads to projections like this one.

And while we consider the effects on humans, what about the Armageddon we are unleashing on our fellow travelers. Commentator Thom Hartmann makes the extinction connection very effectively here. The same Hartmann has a new video that is gaining much attention. It is an eleven-minute video with accompanying web site that compellingly explains the climate crisis, incorporating the latest research findings, especially those on methane hydrates. If you don’t know about those, you need to watch the video.

If the new research does not scare the hell out of us, maybe nothing will. Don’t you wish it were all just science fiction? Best scenario of course would be scaring a critical mass of citizens into action. In fact, you may not have noticed that “take action” link on the Lost Hours site.

Here is one recent example of the logic for wise action, and here are several organizations working for change:


Climate Reality Project

Citizens Climate Lobby

One is Called by God; One Fears the Devil

Minnesota Public Radio deserves much credit for its recent investigative series on the local Archdiocese’s continuing covert campaign to protect pedophile priests. The series has led to action. This particular installment had me swearing at my radio, particularly when this predator claimed to be “called by God.”

As for the other powerful doer of good deeds from my church of origin, we go to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court. Call it The Devil and Mr. S. I have long maintained that “Constitutional Originalism,” as practiced by Justice Scalia and his allies, might as well be a literalist religion, replete with deity and dogma. Did you hear about how the Constitution was inscribed in stones up on the mountain and brought down by the Chosen Founding Father? Just kidding, I think. But here I am not kidding – if there ever was a walking, preaching argument for Supreme Court term limits, it would be Antonin Scalia. I imagine the good justice channeling President W. Think of the hilarity – the robed Satan hunter ransacking the office. A mirror might help.


Rube Goldberg’s Health Care for Cows

The struggles of the poor souls trying to sign onto the sputtering, complex health care exchanges spawned by the Affordable Care Act’s startup recall a kids’ game – this one. As the Obama-haters lambaste the program as unworkable – and the early going certainly adds fuel to that vitriol-driven fire – it is helpful to remember a few things. This is especially important since the right wing’s fatwa against the Affordable Care Act is a main force behind the current federal government shutdown. (In fact, it has driven righties over the edge, as explained here by Jim Hightower.)

  • The term “Obamacare” is a derogatory coinage by the Tea Party that many Democrats and all too many media voices have adopted. The term, carefully designed to capitalize on the already thriving dislike of the president in some circles, and of course build more, is at best misleading and at worst a bald-faced lie. Why? It implies that the program is some kind of national health care system. i.e. the dreaded “government takeover of health care.” It is not.
  • The Affordable Care Act – which seeks to force the uninsured to buy into the private health insurance system – is originally a Republican idea, successfully instituted in Massachusetts on the watch of that raving socialist Mitt Romney.
  • The program is a baby step in the right direction that has at least two laudable goals – bring uninsured people into the health care system so they have access to care before they are wheeled into costly emergency rooms, and prevent insurance companies from refusing to insure sick people by declaring that they have pre-existing conditions.
  • While the Affordable Care Act may – once the bugs are ironed out – serve as a modest slowdown in health care costs, it will not go after the biggest problem – the massive profits locked into the health insurance and medical systems. As described by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson in a conversation with Bill Maher, those profits create a fundamental conflict of interest.

One of most powerful conservative arguments against the new program is this – forcing people to buy a private product is fundamentally unfair and undemocratic (though Chief Justice John Roberts did sway the Court to upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.) But here is why I find that argument both endlessly frustrating and also entertaining. The whole reason we have this Rube-Goldberg-inspired system is the right’s visceral opposition to anything that looks like the dreaded bogeyman, national health care.

The administration rightly upholds this baby-step toward a rational system. But that is a tough job in the face of the flaws and bungling, as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius found out when she met with Jon Stewart.

But what about those cows I referred to in the headline? Well, these are not barnyard animals, but they are plenty hungry and also plenty satisfied. The sacred cows are the profits of the insurance companies. Those are well protected under the Affordable Care Act, and will continue to grow until reason creates a single-payer system something like those that citizens of other advanced nations enjoy.

Meanwhile, I leave the last word, or words – the most words you can pack into a content-filled, well-argued polemic – to the animated, amazing, agitated John Green. Eight minutes of video common sense that you will be glad you checked out. As you watch Mr. Green, remember about those sacred cows that our Rube Goldberg system will go on protecting.

Apply the “C” Word Here

The US government was once, they tell me, based on the principle of majority rule. That was then, this is now. Look at the current government shutdown, and think of it as majority overruled by a minority within a minority that parades and struts and threatens and obstructs as if it were a majority.  I strongly recommend this link to Rachel Maddow’s work, where she lays out the connection between the gerrymandered House of Representatives, and the twisted, extreme process that got so many Tea Party politicians into power in the first place. In addition to the current video, be sure to watch the one from December 2012 at the same link.

How did we come to this system of super-powered money? The long story is worth telling another time, but for now, this visit to Moyers and Company offers some valuable insight. Heather Gerken gives her take on our current corporatocracy and the importance of an imminent Supreme Court decision on candidate contribution limits. The “C” in the headline is for coup, as in coup d’état, a term Gerken so rightly uses for the right-wing subversion of our system.

It is up to us to change it, and it will be no easy task. For some inspiration, here are two wise recent animated commentaries. The first is narrated by Ed Asner, and the second is the latest from Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff series – the Story of Solutions.

An Inspiration from a Troubled Land

Who can fail to be impressed and inspired by Malala Yousafzai? When I watched Jon Stewart’s interview, I was floored by the young Pakistani’s knowledge, poise and commitment to a radical idea – education for all throughout the world, but especially for young women who have been excluded and in her case nearly assassinated by repressive societies. She may not have won the Nobel Prize, but this young lady has a hugely influential future ahead of her.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” – Wendell Berry

Contributed links to this posting –Allyson Harper, David Vessel

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 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