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

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IBI Watch 8/18/13

18 08 2013

Upside-Down, Unconscious Voyage //

Here is something that amazes me about the climate crisis. It is how quickly research and speculation morph into routine commentary on weird weather events and their cause. And then we continue on our journey of inaction.

First, the back story. Though 90-degree-plus heat is back in the near-term forecast for Minnesota, we have enjoyed weeks of slightly-below-average temperatures. This coincides with devastating heat waves in China and Europe, plus extraordinary warmth in Alaska. Until relatively recently, you hardly heard anything in the media about a specific scientific reason for these heat waves relatively far north. Then along came Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis late in 2011 with surprising evidence. Here is an update.

Now –from just this week – a blog post from Minnesota’s Paul Huttner matter-of-factly noting the Arctic connection with a weird, lingering upside-down situation – Alaska much warmer than Minnesota. Don’t misunderstand – Huttner deserves much credit for his work, continually including climate change with his MPR commentaries. This post in particular includes a concise overview of climate change history going all the way back to Arrhenius in 1896! (Forget the denialists’ lie about scientists supposedly pushing “global cooling” in the 1970s.) But I find several things amazing here: how this science can slip into the mainstream virtually unnoticed; how so few people make this crucial connection; how we are doing so little to raise awareness and prepare for the inevitable sea rise and who knows what climate changes coming down the pike.

I have written before about Arctic amplification and its cause – melting Arctic ice. So – here is the multi-billion dollar question – with warming currently at approximately 0.8 degrees C., and at least two full degrees already inevitable, what sorts of climate disruptions will befall us as that warmth builds to that level and beyond? (Oh and by the way, ask not where all the warmth is currently going – we are mixing up a warm acid bath known as the future oceans.) Of course there will be winners – shipping over the melted Arctic will bring us all lower, lower prices – until a rusty ship capsizes or breaks apart. But hey, why worry about that?! Instead, let’s dream of the likely permanent weather changes laid out in this Climate Progress post. Is it just me, or do I see mostly losers in that crystal ball?

If we are sensible – bad bet, I know – we will recognize that we have destroyed our stable climate system with our greenhouse gases. Paul Beckwith lays that case out here, concisely and logically. Then, we will take action to halt this out-of-control experiment in atmospheric warping. I don’t expect too many will heed the call from this wild-eyed tree hugger. Instead, I suggest we follow the advice of three formerly powerful members of a nearly extinct species – environmentally responsible Republicans.

 

Feeding on Itself

A favorite tactic of climate change denial-liars is to harp on the technically true fact that it is awfully hard to pin a particular weather anomaly – say a supersized storm, a chronic drought, an off-the-charts heat wave – on manmade climate change. “Random variation” is the favored explanation. But now here comes a study that connects the two in a self-perpetuating cycle. That is, an extreme weather event itself leads to more climate change, just as climate change makes outside-the-norm weather events more likely.

 

Hand Out or Hand Up

Most of us have seen catalogs from a charitable organization called Heifer International. If you visit the site, you will see that the organization does lots of targeted good work – helping people in poor countries by giving them a chance to help themselves. I got to thinking on this group as I listened to the 8/16 This American Life. In that episode, David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein made a surprisingly strong case against such well-meaning charities, and in favor of another model – simply giving money, no strings attached, to poor villagers. Here is the charity featured in the story. (It focuses on Kenya.)

This got me thinking on a news story from this week that looked at another aspect of giving – with global implications. This story – Ecuador’s decision to drill for oil in the Amazon – represents a failure of an innovative experiment. A deal had been worked out whereby the world’s richer countries would make donations to Ecuador to preserve the Yasuni national park in the Amazon, thus protecting an area with astounding biodiversity. A great idea, undone by a single, simple problem. Despite generous donations from certain famous people, contributions from the wealthier countries were skimpy or nonexistent. Surprised? Just one more stop on the road to ecological destruction, I guess.

 

ALEC from the Inside

They assumed Chris Taylor was one of them. And she was prepared to tell the truth. All they had to do was ask. But no one did. So we got an inside view of the right-wing cabal that has been working steadily to build a permanent American corporatocracy, damn the public will, likewise the common good. Moyers and Company also picked up on Taylor’s unlikely investigative report on the American Legislative Exchange Council. (Learn more here). Here is hoping that Taylor – a representative in the Wisconsin state legislature – continues her courageous search for the truth.

 

Chemical Weapons Against Our Friends

The plight of pollinators – mainly honeybees and bumblebees – has been very much in the public eye of late. And the pace, sadly, seems to be quickening. Not necessarily in public policy debates at a level where something will be done – yet – but more people are aware of colony collapse disorder. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been fingered as the main culprit, but there is news this week that is not good. Even people who are trying to do the right thing have stumbled. This petition might help. Also, if you are not represented by a corporatocratic robot congressman (I resemble that remark), you might support this bill (not recommended by ALEC).   And here is at least a tiny bit of good news – though the author at least calls out the tentative nature of this apparently new “ban” on certain pesticides.

 

Fear, Inc.

War has long been big business. Think of Country Joe McDonald’s lyrics from the Vietnam era – “Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow, Why man, this is war au-go-go, There’s plenty good money to be made, By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,” – or the fortunes made from President W’s war of choice in Iraq – this being just the biggest of many examples.

In more recent times, though, terror about terrorism has become possibly even a bigger bonanza. I was prompted to write this little piece by two recent events. First – I recently missed the first inning of a game at Fenway Park by long, slow security lines. They were frisking people in the “express” lane. Understandable – maybe – considering the still-fresh memory of the Boston Marathon bombing last spring.

The second was a brief conversation with a neighbor about security measures. She said she had heard that the NFL was considering airport-style “porno” scanners to go with their new, unfriendly (except to plastic purveyors) transparent-bag policy. The scanner bit seems to be speculation, but these days you never know.

I mentioned that a certain former Department of Homeland Security head had earned piles of cash through government contracts for those privacy-shredding scanners. She was not aware of that example of the infamous revolving door. So I wondered how many readers might also be unaware. And then I opened my favorite muckraking site, AlterNet. It’s worse than you think.

 

The Sustainable Sun

How about something hopeful? Would you believe hydrogen fuel generated by solar energy? Fascinating.

 

Random Acts of Writing

This campaign is a project of my friend and Climate Reality Project colleague, Mary Colborn. Pass it on.

 

“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Contributed links to this posting – Mary Colborn, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 7/14/13

14 07 2013

Preserve or Destroy? //ibiwatchnaturebanner1.jpg

Here are two recent Minnesota-based “inconvenient nature” situations that differ only in scale. But the contrary outcomes can teach us much, if only we are willing to learn.

These are bee stories. Regular readers of this blog and almost any newspaper or environmental site know that our buzzing, pollinating partners are in deep trouble. A variety of factors have conspired to dramatically reduce populations of wild and commercial bees. Read more about the decline – called colony collapse disorder. The chemical elephant in the room of course is the “magic” neonicotinoid pesticides, but that is not the main point here. That would be this – regardless of cause, bees, essential pollinators for the world’s food supply, are in deep distress, possibly a death spiral. You would think we would be taking special steps to preserve the remaining bees. You would think.

When a swarm of bees took over two oak trees in downtown St. Paul the other day, the St. Paul Fire Department had just the right fear-driven response – kill the little buggers, all 30,000 of them. Flame retardant foam does a fine job of exterminating, apparently. Can you think of a more human-centric way to handle such a situation?

Fortunately, it is not just a raving tree hugger like me who thinks there has to be a better way. Though I think the Green Girls are being entirely too “Minnesota Nice” about this, you can see the alternative in this short piece – call in the beekeepers.

But I did mention two bee stories. Fortunately for the troubled bee population, St. Michael resident and IBI Watch reader Mario Ruberto had a better idea. When a swarm commandeered a bush on his property on June 17, he naturally first thought of the safety of his young children.

Bee Swarm 1

The idea of an exterminator did cross his mind – as it did for his neighbor – but then he remembered the plight of the honeybees. He dug for resources (google-seaching “beekeepers” and his ZIP code), and found the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association. This group works closely with the University of Minnesota, and manages the beehive at the State Fair.

Bee Swarm 2

Beekeeper Jerome Rossi – shown here – came to Mario’s house free of charge (compared to the typical exterminator charge of about $350). He collected the bees in a box, and took them away to thrive in more suitable surroundings.

Bee Swarm 3

Not a drop of flame retardant foam, or a dead bee, in sight.

Hats off to Mario Ruberto, who kept his kids safe while doing his part to preserve not just endangered nature, but a hugely valuable resource. It’s easy to see these two situations as isolated incidents and in the grand scheme of things, a hive or two will not make a huge difference. But considering the rapid, documented decline of bees, it is clear that every beekeeper’s rescue – vs. a fire department’s extermination – will help build our future. Preserve or destroy? The choice should be easy.

Waiting for Godot’s Butterflies

At my house, we continue to note the virtual absence of honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies in our native gardens this year. In fact, we have seen a single monarch (despite our dozens of milkweed plants), and not one swallowtail. And note – our place is ordinarily a riot of these critters.

Bees’ value to agriculture is widely recognized, and concern apparent (though not yet enough to do something about it), but what about the butterflies? Is this just an esthetic worry that we nature buffs should just forget about and shut up? I think not. First, butterflies do their part in pollination as well. Also, monarchs, with their remarkable annual migration, are seen by naturalists as a “marker” species, measuring the health of ecosystems.

That’s one of the points made in this MPR story that I found both sad and infuriating. Sad because the subject, Dave Kust – obviously a well-informed and well-intentioned fellow – is flummoxed by the complete lack of monarchs on his property. Hard to educate about them – as Kust has enjoyed doing for many years – when they are completely absent. Infuriating because, as you probably guessed, there is nary a mention of the chemical-induced crisis here, and precious little mention of the huge factor in the monarch’s decline. That would be the familiar one-two punch of habitat destruction (in Mexico’s wintering mountains) and the increasingly unstable climate. We can speculate all we want about droughts on the migration path if that helps us pretend that this is a natural dip and recovery is just around the corner. But what is needed is facing and dealing with the real problems, before it is too late.

Climate Foolishness and Facts

Let’s start with a little pignorant (pretend-ignorant) entertainment. The message of this Motley Fool blog post is simple – climate change is not a problem, and if it is a problem, it is not caused by the 90 million tons of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere every single day. So, let’s go on investing in those fossil fuels, boys and girls!

And now, back to reality. Pick your angle. Massive Antarctic icebergs melting? Check. Carbon dioxide turning oceans into acid baths? Certainly. Marshall Islands soon to be former islands? Naturally, or maybe not so naturally. Megafires? Sure.

This would make any fool, motley or otherwise, want to invest in more fossil fuel energy. For everyone else, there are other options. Of course, it’s hard to see it happening without carbon paying its fair share.

Deliberate Inequality

It’s tempting to think that the booming prosperity for those at the very top is somehow an unintended consequence of sweeping change, like globalization. Tempting, but wrong, says Robert Reich – here in a clever cartoon essay.

The Jobs Picture

It’s one thing to look at numbers – how many jobs in different fields, earnings comparisons, etc. But the old saw about a picture trumping words comes into play here. A very interesting graphic from NPR’s Planet Money plots job gains and losses and wage levels. Some of the comparisons may surprise.

Grow Your Own

Good ideas here, for maximizing the harvest from minimal space.

Justice Not Served

The Zimmerman acquittal in Florida is sadly not very surprising. Florida after all is the state that gave us the tainted presidency of George W Bush, and that, more recently, has led the charge on ALEC-driven “stand your ground” laws – basically “stay out of jail free” cards for vigilantes. I will leave more detailed comments and context to “Rant” blogger Tom Degan. And a closing comment from moviemaker Michael Moore: “Had a gun-toting Trayvon Martin stalked an unarmed George Zimmerman, and then shot him to death… DO I EVEN NEED TO COMPLETE THIS SENTENCE?

“Saving the world requires saving democracy. That requires well-informed citizens. Conservation, environment, poverty, community, education, family, health, economy- these combine to make one quest: liberty and justice for all. Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from: compassion.” – Carl Safina

Contributed links or media to this posting – Glenn Gilbert, Allyson Harper, Mario Ruberto

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN