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 11/3/13

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 3/3/13

3 03 2013

Calling All Trouble Makers //

Sure, as the old song says, more “love sweet love” would be nice. But what the world really needs now is more trouble makers of a certain kind. On this week’s Moyers and Company, we meet two such contributors from different generations.

First, another example of why I hold out so much hope for the younger generation’s opposition to pignorance (pretend ignorance). Here is a young man who has already contributed mightily to the cause of science and thought in his home state of Louisiana. Advocate Zack Kopplin is a 19-year-old warrior against, as the episode’s title states, “creeping creationism.” He is also putting a scare into the creationism creeps, apparently. He’s the first winner of a new award for young upstarts, the Trouble Maker of the Year. Here is hoping this lad has many more years of trouble to come.

Moyers’ other guest is an author I have featured before – Susan Jacoby. Here is a recent post where I talked about her newest book about influential 19th-century freethinker Robert Ingersoll. (See the lead story, “The Land of Make Believe.”) I can recommend an earlier book by this tireless advocate of freedom from dogma-tainted policy – The Age of American Unreason

We need thinkers and activists like Kopplin and Jacoby more than ever. Want proof? Try this story linking a certain news network with pignorance around tobacco and climate change. Or maybe this piece on how three states are pushing a poison cookie-cutter bill from our friends at ALEC on teaching pignorance in public schools is more to your liking. Wait until you see the Orwellian name for this stupidity campaign.

Snoozing or Shocking?

The news is full of sequestration frustration – so much so that we have tired of this seemingly boring story. Yes, the gridlock in Washington right now is the consequence of two opposing political philosophies, compounded by the fact that one of the parties has eliminated the word “compromise” from its vocabulary. But I sense something more sinister, and I am not alone.

After last fall’s election, I had to laugh when I heard positive spinners speculate on the demise of the government-hating Tea Party. Here is one example.  The Republican warriors in the House – they who stand firm and are currently allowing formulaic budget cuts to take effect (hoping blame the president of course) – are actually a majority/minority party. How so? This Mother Jones article explains the gerrymandering that yields a House strongly in Republican hands, despite compiled popular votes for the other party.  In other words, people demonstrably did not vote for the GOP approach. And this David Horsey column in the Los Angeles Times explains how the sequester actually plays into the government-haters’ hands. Now consider that the Tea Party, often portrayed in the media as some sort of populist uprising, is really anything but.

I think former Labor Secretary Robert Reich gets it right with this post. And Walter Hickey of Business Insider also lays out the series of clashes that lie just ahead.

My opinion – this is just the most recent, and one of the most extreme and consequential – example of the Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. In short, her thesis is this – corporate interests use crises, real or manufactured, to cripple the government and destroy the public sector, which must then be “rescued” by corporate interests which take over what used to be run by the government.

So we have a government paralyzed by obstinacy from a majority/minority party completely in the thrall of an unelected power-monger.

What is the solution? Who knows? But I do know this – meaningful progress on behalf of the common good will not happen until we get the big corporate dollars out of elections. Here are several worthy groups pursuing that laudable goal:

Climate Sell-Out Looms – Unless We Act

I hate to admit it, but the stars are lining up for accelerating climate destabilization. You can just sense the rationalizations for approving the Keystone XL pipeline. It looks like the State Department environmental impact statement will give its qualified blessing. Though that report is not yet public, it is already generating controversy and anger. And that comes after Nebraska’s governor altered the route to eliminate the Ogallala Aquifer issue from the mix. And all this will mix with the usual self-absolving blather about “energy independence,” “we need to help our ally – Canada,” “if we don’t get that oil, the Chinese will,” and on and on along the road to environmental hell.

There are many reasons not to approve, and not just the 40,000 protesters who let their opinions be known in Washington two weeks ago. NASA’s James Hansen has long articulated the case. And Bill McKibben has dedicated his 350.org movement to the cause.

Of course, all those reasons are up against the most powerful one – money. But it is too early to give up the fight. These folks certainly have not.

The “Grand” Experiment Continues

Here are this week’s examples of why climate action is imperative. Check this Global Possibilities page for an eye-catching vertical info-graphic that is full of climate change facts. We often hear how it is “too expensive” to deal with climate change. This article points out the toll of not dealing with it. This 90-second video explains the melting permafrost threat. For more depth on the same topic, look to New Scientist. And finally, if you think King Tides are some kind of surfers’ heaven, think again.

Of Horses and Space Chaos

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart had too much fun with two recent news stories. Warning: it is strongly suggested that you put down any hot or fizzy beverages you might be drinking before watching these videos, particularly the Russian videos of the meteor explosion. First-here is Stewart’s take on the ongoing horsemeat caper. And second – these videos shot from Chelyabinsk dashboards would give any outrageous Hollywood action film a run for its money. Remember – you stand warned.

Think Green and Early

If we are to have any hope of saving this broken place we call home, we need to encourage young people to think environmentally. Here is a thoughtful list of books to help in that quest. It includes many personal favorites, such as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

“I doubt that most people with short-term thinking love the natural world enough to save it.” – E. O. Wilson

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper, Brendan Murphy, Edrichus Sykes

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 2/24/13

24 02 2013

What’s the Beef?  //

A meat caper boils in Europe right now. Two issues emerge. First, is it OK to eat our whinnying friends? Second, if a processed meat product is labeled “beef,” isn’t that what should be inside?

This update on the bait-and-switch horsemeat scandal explains how things got mixed up. It’s a safe bet that many a burger eater across America takes comfort in the thought that nothing horsey could ever make its way into a Big Mac. Maybe. But this affair got me thinking on other meaty issues – such as health. Human and planetary.

In a case of curious timing, the horsemeat kerfuffle coincides with a grim anniversary – the deaths of several Americans in 1993, from eating fast food burgers, and in one case, simply from sharing day care space with another youngster who had. NPR ran a cover story on 2/17 updating the meat safety situation. The story goes into real improvements (including the abandonment of the “dime standard”) in the safety of the meat supply that took effect after the 1993 deaths. But problems continue, as this story of a paralyzed dancer in Minnesota from just a few years ago attests.

Taking the health picture a step further, new studies are providing more evidence that eating more than a little red meat poses serious risks. Would you like some cancer with that everyday red meat?

So eating too much meat is not good for you. And as those charts show, many seem to be getting that message.  And that’s a good thing, though the change is far short of what is needed. Why? The total impact on the planet of a single quarter-pound hamburger is a little hard to grasp. This NPR story and accompanying graphics tells the surprising tale.

It has dawned on activists and others in recent years that one of the most effective things a person can do to help slow and reverse climate change is also one of the easiest – eat less meat. And as Michael Pollan points out, this does not necessarily mean banishing meat, but rather cutting consumption and making sure what you do eat comes from sustainable sources – i.e., no factory farms.

Though I have read several of Pollan’s books – which I strongly recommend – it was another book that scared me away from factory meat for good. This one. Take in that book or its documentary follow-up or watch the better-known Supersize Me and you too can learn about how those lip-smacking modern factory burgers are made, or the manufacturing process that produces those alleged chicken nuggets.

Do one of those things and, chances are, you will join me and many others on the outside of the fast-food meat industry.  We have nothing to lose but excess fat and carbon footprints.

Preparing for the Bath

Marketplace Morning Edition host Kai Ryssdal has been railing against what is really a stupid term – “sequester.” That term of course is all over the airwaves, since the latest manufactured Washington financial crisis is about to crest. Paul Krugman sees yet another example of false equivalence – that is, it is extremists on both the Republican and Democratic side that keep common sense and compromise from solving dilemmas.

And the Nobel economist has a good point. The Republicans are demanding an “all-cuts” outcome, while Democrats are pushing a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. I say this. Remember that nearly every Republican in Congress signed a pledge of fealty to that government-despising unelected power monger known as Grover Norquist. What if he and his vassals mean what they say?

Two authors have insights that explain the context of this sequester showdown. First, Richard Wolff sees the crisis as a tool for plutocrats to widen the divide between the rich and powerful on the one hand and everybody else on the other. He appeared on Moyers and Company this week. And of course Wolff’s take brings to mind Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine – a book I recommend in the strongest terms. Both authors make powerful arguments for changing our system. (If you watch the Moyers installment, be sure to stay for the short piece that follows the Wolff visit. It features the work of Saru Jayaraman, who has dedicated herself to securing a fair shake for the legions of sickeningly low-paid restaurant workers.)

Climate Paradoxes

If we could collect a dollar for every time someone declared that the latest blizzard proved that climate change was not happening, we would have a sizable fund to spend wisely – maybe on alternative energy. And in a popular, uninformed way, this line of thought seems to make sense. After all, they call this “global warming,” right?

This Yahoo news site article does a nice job explaining why that reflexive take is so wrong. It is anything but simple, and yet – this sentence sums things up nicely: a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which fuels storms year round – including snowstorms.  But overall less snow, with more frequent big snow dumps? By all means. I like this quote:  “Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature — warm enough for the air to hold lots of moisture, meaning lots of precipitation, but just cold enough for it to fall as snow,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Increasingly, it seems that we’re on that ragged edge.”

This article is good enough to warrant quoting at a bit more length – three bullet points in fact:

  • The United States has been walloped by twice as many of the most extreme snowstorms in the past 50 years than in the previous 60 years, according to an upcoming study on extreme weather by leading federal and university climate scientists. This also fits with a dramatic upward trend in extreme winter precipitation — both rain and snow — in the Northeastern U.S. charted by the National Climatic Data Center.
  • Yet the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University says spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has shrunk on average by 1 million square miles in the past 45 years.
  • And an upcoming study in the Journal of Climate says computer models predict annual global snowfall to shrink by more than a foot in the next 50 years. The study’s author said most people live in parts of the United States that are likely to see annual snowfall drop between 30 percent and 70 percent by the end of the century.

Climate Actions

Fortunately, more people are learning the seriousness of the climate crisis and the imperative that we enact sensible policies to move us toward sustainability. Some are in positions of power. Just look how Ed Davey, Britain’s Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, describes climate deniers. Hey – maybe we can hire this guy.

And forget the conventional “wisdom” on snow and warming. Get the facts. This new site – created by Peter Carter – is full of charts that tell many angles on the story of how we are altering the atmosphere and the climate. His Climate Change Index site illustrates land temperatures, Arctic sea ice, atmospheric methane, and much more.

And finally, kudos to the 40,000 citizens who marched in Washington last weekend. I wish I had been there. Their goal – stop the approval and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline – which will accelerate the destruction of a swath of Alberta’s boreal forest and – more important – rapidly advance our transformation of the world’s climate with our greenhouse gases.

The World Still Surprises

In the run-up to President W’s invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “If you break it, you own it.” Such is our relationship with the natural world. And yet, we still have so much to learn from the parts we have not destroyed or dramatically altered. Here are three interesting stories. First – news of a newly discovered owl species in Indonesia. Hope the little guy survives the palm oil boom. Next, who could have predicted this secret about bumblebees? Too bad that zap does not seem to fight Colony Collapse Disorder. And finally – shark finning has long been a cruel practice that has pushed many of these essential predators of the ocean to the brink of extinction. A new project matching human beauty and grace to that of whale sharks is calling attention to the practice and – we hope – will lead to its end.

Mother Nature is Keeping the Focus on Climate Change

Guest blogger Rolly Montpellier – http://www.boomerwarrior.org – suggests that 2013 could be a breakthrough year in public awareness and action on climate change.

“If we are going to start calling industrial corn sustainable, then we might as well say that petroleum is a renewable resource if you’re willing to wait long enough.”
Catherine Friend

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

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 11/18/12

18 11 2012

Sell the Goodies, Ignore the Costs //

You might say this describes the fossil fuel industry’s business model these many decades.  And those who enjoy those goodies – the CEOs, the shareholders and, yes, we consumers, particularly those who think there is nothing more important than low, low gas prices – continue to hope this model endures.  Recent media accounts crow about the United States’ current trajectory towards top-dog status in oil production.  Non-traditional extraction methods – fracking and horizontal drilling – are responsible for this dramatic uptick. But the costs I describe here are not exploration bills.  Rather, they are costs to the environment – so-called “externalities.”  And of course those magical new methods have their own unique costs that industry has so far hidden from public view. Well, mostly.

But leaving aside fracking, consider oil spills.  The Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 continues to play out.  BP has just agreed to a record payout of damages, but even the $4.5 billion dollar figure is really just a fraction of the immense environmental damage.  Cynics might say it’s just a cost of doing business.  And just in the last few days, there is a report of another oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to at least one fatality.  Lest we think this is only an American problem, try this brand new story from Nigeria.

Then of course there is that inconvenient issue that won’t go away – the greenhouse gases that are loading the dice for destructive weather and radically altered climate.  This Scientific American article puts the chortling about “American energy independence” into stark perspective. The piece includes many informative links.  Here is a Tara Lohan piece on AlterNet on a similar myth-debunking mission. And don’t forget – it’s been warmer than average for awhile.  In fact, for a generation or so.  Every single month, no exceptions.  Man, what a fluke!  Anytime now, this will be recognized as a trend.  Maybe it needs more research.

Grand Climate Opportunity

It’s been a long time since I heard the issues surrounding human-caused climate change described as comprehensively and succinctly as did Naomi Klein in a recent interview with Bill Moyers.  No surprise there.  Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is a book I often recommend.  Her thesis – that the rich a powerful strategically capitalize on disasters of all sorts in order to become richer and more powerful – comes into play in the current climate-related disaster, Hurricane Sandy, and its aftermath. It applies as well to the grand crisis – the damage our greenhouse gases are doing to the planet that sustains us.

Klein’s comments overflow with quotable lines and insightful analysis.  She rightly points out that the recent election was between a “terrible candidate and a candidate who needs a lot of pressure.” She fingers climate change as the ultimate social problem in an era of rugged individualism. And here is an ironic twist that I somehow missed.  Apparently, the crown prince of pignorance (pretend ignorance), Senator James Inhofe, missed the most recent Heartland Institute conference because of illness.  The irony? He had contracted an infection from swimming in an algae- clogged lake.

Don’t call Klein a communist.  She says in the interview that the only system worse than capitalism for managing this consummate public space issue is – you guessed it – communism.  She calls for a “people’s shock” in response.  If you follow only one link in this post, make it this one.

The Shock Doctrine author is collaborating with Bill McKibben (350.org) on the latter’s “Do the Math” tour.  Readers in locations other than my home Twin Cities can still get tickets – which of course I recommend.  The math is simple and scary.  Big Fossil Fuel already has five times the amount of oil, gas and coal necessary to drive global temperatures up a total of two degrees Centigrade.  That’s right, all the climate destabilization we have seen – droughts, deluges, glacial melting, superstorms – comes from a mere one degree Centigrade rise. Keeping the conflagration from happening is up to us, and especially to young people.  Here is one of McKibben’s main strategies – student pressure on universities to divest from fossil fuel stocks.

This week saw another big event highlighting climate change and ideas for solving the crisis.  The Climate Reality Project ran its second 24 Hours of Reality.  More than 14 million people worldwide tuned in. Each hour covered a different region of the world and its issues, and featured expert panels and compelling video.  It is all archived here. The final hour featured a presentation by the Project’s founder, former Vice President Al Gore – billed as a continuation of his presentation in An Inconvenient Truth.  He includes some powerful math here as well – we put 90 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every 24 hours.  I highly recommend Gore’s presentation – which includes lots of current information proving the thesis of the entire event – dirty fuel produces dirty weather, and we have the means to correct the problems.  If you want a strictly audio version of his recent comments, here is a new, brief interview with NPR.

For something completely different, how about Al Gore, with music? That’s right.  This is a new discovery for me – the Symphony of Science. At first I found this weird. But it grows on you, and is part of an expanding collection of techno-musical videos on scientific topics.  But to close on climate change for now, why not commit to being part of the solution?  Take the pledge.

Bridges Away from Extinction

There is no doubt about it.  If we have any hope for preserving biodiversity, and particularly for keeping large mammals on the planet in places other than zoos, small islands of habitat just won’t cut it.  That’s the message of wildlife biologists, and is featured in a new book by Mary Ellen Hannibal.  In The Spine of the Continent, Hannibal explains the science, and discusses programs under way to link habitat by building infrastructure for animals to deal with the ways we have carved up the landscape.  That’s mainly our highways and roads of course. The prescription is not to destroy the roads, but create bypasses, overpasses and underpasses so that populations can mix across our artificial boundaries. Hannibal was interviewed by MPR’s Kerri Miller.  Look for the six-minute video interview highlight on the MPR site. Here is the website of an organization – Wildlands Network – working to build the network.  And if you want the big picture – served up by one of the best popular science writers of all – read this book that I frequently recommend.  That’s David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo.

Logjam Breakup Imminent?

Just as it looks like we could see some movement on climate change, the fiscal cliff provides an opportunity to set some things right.  First – here is a Robert Borosage commentary that calls our recent election “the first class-warfare election of the new Gilded Age.” I could not agree more. Then, two more shockers.  First – unelected powerbroker Grover Norquist hinting that a carbon tax would be acceptable to his legions of vassals? The only thing more startling would be the prospect of an end to the grossly misused Senate filibuster.  Hey, we have that too! Maybe. Stay tuned.

A Bird Dog for Wild Weather

All eyes have been on the East coast of the US recently and rightly so.  Three weeks after the disaster of Hurricane Sandy, some still remain without power, and those are the lucky ones – their homes were not washed away. But here in the upper Midwest, we had our own weird weather sequence last week.  We are used to weather extremes here, but these events had the mark of today’s climate chaos.  Saturday – warmth and sunshine.  Saturday night – heavy thunderstorms with two extremely rare November tornadoes. Monday – the season’s first traffic-snarling snow squall.  The bird dog I speak of is a University of Minnesota meteorologist and severe weather enthusiast, Kenny Blumenfeld. Standing aside from mainstream media talking heads, he predicted the tornadoes!  He also had one of the best explanations of the link between Sandy and climate change. I posted that explanation in several climate change sites I frequent on Facebook.  I will post both the Sandy comments and the right-on forecast here.  Also – here is an offer for Minnesota-based IBI Watch readers.  If you would like to get on Kenny’s email list – make a comment on the blog site or send me an email.

“Sandy had an exceptionally high impact, mostly because we cram all those people (tens of millions of them) into an area the size of Iowa.
Meteorologically, Sandy was odd for the following reasons:

  1. pretty late in the season
  2. turned west at an unusually high latitude because
  3. it interacted with a strong mid-latitude weather system, which was “negatively tilted” and caused Sandy to take a sharp-left
  4. it hit an area that doesn’t get a lot of direct hits, because the predominant storm tracks run parallel to (rather than perpendicular to) that part of the coast

Now, this sort of thing is unusual, but not unheard of, but to go to the not-unheard-of places, you have to leave the domain of most TV weather maps, and head up to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  Those areas get frequent direct hits from aging, transitioning tropical weather systems, which are occasionally still hurricanes at landfall.   Many of those storms interact with midlatitude weather systems, and they occasionally even get tugged westward by strong negative-tilt-related flow patterns. But in those areas, population 14, we don’t hear much of the results. 

Climatically, it gets even more interesting, at least for me.  Sandy may or may not have been attributable to the deus ex machina we know as global warming.  It’s a tough position for scientists who appreciate nuance: global warming is at this point *undeniable*; oceanic warming is one of the theoretically-expected and already-observed results of global warming; tropical weather systems derive their source energy *entirely* from oceanic heat content.  Thus, global warming could be, would be, should be, and is leading to more and even stronger hurricanes.  But, as we all know, there were hurricanes, including very strong ones, before global warming, and they operate on scales that are smaller (in both time and space) than global warming.  This makes attribution very very difficult.  If you are a meteorologist or a climatologist and you want to get a good spanking, you will write a paper attributing some individual event to global warming.  It’s a scientific no-no.
On the other hand, any reasonable person should be able to add it up: oceans will be warmer, which means they will stay warm-enough-for-hurricanes later into the fall, and at higher latitudes.  Add to that the fact that even with global warming, the lights still go out in the high Arctic region by early fall–the sun goes down.  Without the sun shining, the temperatures in far northern areas begin to fall, quickly.  But at the same time, it’s still plenty warm in the northern hemisphere tropics.  So, by fall, a strong hemispheric temperature gradient forms.  This is very important, because it is this temperature gradient that really gets the strong mid-latitude (i.e., non-tropical) weather systems going.  In the summer, it’s warm in the Tropics, but it’s also relatively warm in the Arctic.  The temperature gradient is weak, and consequently, you have little in the way of energetic weather systems.  But by fall, it’s show time, and this will remain true–even if to a slightly lesser extent–well into the future.
So, warming oceans should lead to an expanded hurricane season.  At the same time, the loss of sunlight during mid fall will create the important temperature gradient that leads to our strong non-tropical weather systems.  Make a Venn Diagram in your head: the circle representing the season for hurricanes is now (increasingly) overlapping with the circle representing the season for non-tropical storms.  Thus, as hurricanes and other tropical weather systems continue later and later into Autumn, they will have better chances of interacting with non-tropical weather systems.  Kind of like Sandy did.  The first one is always unusual, but it won’t be unusual for all that long.
Several readers, friends, colleagues etc. have urged me to use this event get soapboxy about global warming, but I don’t need to.  The evidence speaks for itself.  The recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek said it pretty well:
http://news.wsiu.org/post/bloomberg-businessweeks-cover-its-global-warming-stupid
Besides, I have a different soapbox.  As a guy who grew up obsessed with hazardous weather, I had to tease out which part of the obsession was about the weather, and which part was about the results and our reactions, both of which are non-meteorological.  And do you know what?  They’re close to equal.  I will spare you the essay within the essay, and just say that we better learn, quickly, to take care of our disadvantaged, lower-access populations, and also our pets.  Because these groups keep getting hurt, killed, and permanently displaced during major weather events, and we look like great big jerks for allowing it.
And now that we’re all a little bit uncomfortable, let’s talk about the weekend.
Today, once upon a time, looked pretty freakish.  But, the models have been doing that a lot this fall–generating freakish storms for a few days, before settling on something much more pedestrian.  But this system in reality is neither; let’s call it a pedestrian-jaywalker, one-too-many whiskeys into its evening.
Basically, a massive area of low pressure hit the Pacific Northwest a few days back, and, as always happens, exhausted itself in the process of crossing the mountains.  The large trough and circulation system split into three pieces:  one is up in James Bay, acting as a high-end, low-impact hyper-blizzard (just imagine 2-3 inches of snow per hour for most of a day, amid 40-60 mph winds and temperatures around zero); a second one is weakening in the Wyoming/Dakotas/Montana border region and had produced near-blizzard conditions in northern Montana on Thursday and yesterday; the third one is just getting into western Nebraska and is morphing into the main playmaker right now.

 This storm system will be pretty talented.  In the southerly flow out ahead of it, temperatures will sail right through the 50s and go well into the 60s, with 70s possible in far southern Minnesota and Iowa.  In the northwesterly flow on the other side of the system, temperature will fall through the 20s and into the teens and even single digits in the western Dakotas.  Rain and scattered thunderstorms are likely in the warm areas, snow and blowing snow in the colder areas, with a decent ice storm possible on the cold side of the buffer zone between the two.
The conditions are running a bit short of ideal for severe weather, but it is close.  The wind fields are nearly perfect, we have decent–but not excellent–upper-level support, but we are really lacking instability.  Today will probably be cloudy, leaving temperatures around 60, maybe 65.  If the sun comes out for a couple important hours, we may see 70 as far north as the Twin Cities, which by the way, would be very special.  Did you know it’s November?  Even with the sun, however, dew points should remain in the 50s, putting them on the very low end of the reliably-generating-severe-weather spectrum.  If moisture transport becomes even more efficient and the dew points can get up into the low 60s, and if the sun comes out, well, then this evening will be severe weather bonanza.  The pattern of wind shear–the way the winds increase and shift from southeasterly, to southerly, to southwesterly with height–is just about perfect for tornadoes.  But the lack of instability is not.  So at this point, widespread or significant severe weather doesn’t seem too likely.

Instead, we can expect waves of rain and thunderstorms this evening and overnight, with the strongest storms possibly producing some small hail or gusty winds.  Given these wind fields, a brief tornado is still possible, but nothing violent or long-lasting–unless the moisture levels jump dramatically.

Many Happy Gift Returns

You may have heard Mitt Romney’s explanation for his loss in the recent election. Once again, Jon Stewart calls it.

“The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single entity in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.” – David Suzuki

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

Contributed links to this posting – Jeanine Bontrager, Allyson Harper





IBI Watch 11/4/12

4 11 2012

Play Dumb or Act Smart – Time to Choose  //

This week’s latest monstrous weather disaster on the eastern seaboard is yet one more lesson from Mother Nature – who always bats last.  We have not heeded those warnings in the past.  Could Hurricane Sandy be the tipping point?  It would have been a lot ‘easier’ if we had listened to the smart people, i.e. the overwhelming majority of scientists who for the past few decades have warned of climate change.  But aside from a few positive steps – home energy efficiency incentives and recent increases in fuel economy requirements being two – we have largely continued with our ‘business as usual’ approach to fossil fuel-powered energy.  That means atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to accumulate, the planet continues to warm, and weather grows more extreme.  And, depending on Tuesday’s election outcome, we may jam down the accelerator even harder.  This will continue what I call our national energy policy – ‘Find lots more coal and oil, and burn it all up, fast!’

Some want to continue with playing dumb, or what I call ‘pignorance.’ (Pignorance = pretend ignorance.)  They look for uncertainty – including the fossil-fuel-tycoon-manufactured uncertainty reported last week by Frontline – and use it to block sustainable policy.  This comparison critiques this approach.  Let’s say you have heart disease.  You go to 100 doctors.  98 of them say you need bypass surgery.  Two say take two cheeseburgers and rest in your lounge chair.  The denialists want us to savor the cheeseburgers and hope for the best.  How about you?

Here is an example of what I am talking about – a comment I received on last week’s post.  “Warming is accelerating? REALLY? Then why did the Met Office in Britain just state there has been zero net warming over the last 16 years? By the way, hurricanes in late October are not all that rare and are certainly not a sign of climate change. In fact, in our record of storms spanning 1851 – to present, October ranks 3rd in terms of months with both the most hurricanes/tropical storms and the number of landfalling hurricanes/tropical storms. Hardly rare. Hardly a harbinger of…anything. Please stop the propaganda – the SCIENTIFIC facts don’t back you up.”

Do you see the straw man?  Nowhere in last week’s post do I suggest that an October hurricane is unusual or by itself proof of climate change.  But the confluence of factors – a late-season hurricane fueled by warmer-than-average ocean waters merging with a nor-easter and Arctic air, and pushed west by a blocking pattern over the warmer Arctic, is EXTREMELY unusual, and absolutely consistent with predictions by climate scientists.  And all that accelerating warming in the Arctic – if it is not our greenhouse gases, then it must be the sunspots, or a polar bear barbecue, or Santa opening more coal-powered sweatshops or something scientific like that.

But back to the Sandy question.  It is certainly a teachable moment, though it is sad that so many have to suffer so grievously for our collective pignorance.  The title of Bloomberg News’ cover story, written by Paul Barrett and reported here in Democracy Now! says it all.  Here, Chris Mathews takes on the continuing denialists (or ‘pigs’ as he calls them.  This AlterNet piece rightly points out that Sandy is a wake-up call if there ever was one.  And Seth Borenstein concisely covers all the issues here – Sandy’s weird path, documented sea rise that gives storm surges a vertical head start, and also mentions cutting-edge research that is hinting that unprecedented Arctic melting may be radically changing storm behavior in the Northern Hemisphere.  Heck, even Fox News offered a platform for climate scientist Michael Mann in Sandy’s wake.

So what is changing?  Well, for one thing, scientists (and mainstream journalists, we can only hope!) seem to be moving away from the reflexive caveat – the one about ‘no individual weather event can be tied to global warming, etc.’  See here for evidence of that change.  And here is a new attempt to explain a complex relationship – what we are doing to the atmosphere on the one hand and individual weather phenomena on the other.  George Lakoff and Chris Mooney took part in a panel discussion on Huffington Post that covered ‘systemic causation.’  Lakoff adds more detail here.

A new realization seems to be dawning as well that climate change is here and how and must be dealt with. Now that would be acting smart.  Aside from the madness of geoengineering (surveyed with concern here by Naomi Klein), this means two things. First – drastically cutting our greenhouse emissions.  The best idea I have seen on that front is ‘fee and dividend,’ as promoted by James Hansen.  Second – dealing with current and inevitable effects.  For threatened cities like New York, that means either ‘resilience’ or some kind of ocean barrier.  Neither is simple – or cheap.  Resilience means building up infrastructure, piece by piece.  Laborious, costly and extremely difficult – and beginning right now.  A more likely outcome in the long term – some kind of sea wall or barrier system.  Andrew Revkin covers the choices in this Dot Earth piece.  It looks expensive, but look at the long-term payback.   Probably the only thing that would cost more would be to do nothing – like North Carolina.

OK, I was going to leave Sandy for other topics and rants, but just before posting, I heard a Weekend Edition Sunday story that proves a couple of my points.  It is a story about the insurance industry and its exposure in the face of ever more extreme weather.  It includes some impressive statistics about the increase in extreme weather (and unrelated seismic) disasters that have hit North America in the last few years.  But it is not a very good story.  Why?  Though it is not a story about global warming per se, it has to include the old false equivalence that plagues such stories.  The reporter turns it into a story about how MANY hurricanes occur rather than the nature of such hurricanes.  And, since I like to give credit where it is due, I nominate one of the story’s sources for what I call the Poo-Poo Squad (an award I give to those public figures who, despite mounting evidence, continue to feed the Merchants of Doubt in their quest for business-as-usual, full-speed-ahead fossil fuel burning.).  Listen to how Karen Clark insists on playing dumb before a vast audience. “We’re not that smart,” she says.  Indeed.  Hardly any mention of  just what makes Sandy such an aberration – rising sea levels, storm track, width of wind field, slow storm progress, and on and on.  There’s another straw man.  A story like this does NOTHING for waking up the public to the need for rational, sustainable energy and climate policy.  That’s up to you and me, dear reader.  And if you want a graphical representation of Sandy, the frankenstorm for the ages (at least until the next one comes along in a few months or years), watch the short video of the week from Science Friday.  It’s a CAT scan of a monster.  Harder all the time to play dumb in the face of this evidence.  Hard, but alas, not impossible.

How to ‘Win’ an Election

Generally, you have to win more votes.  But there are other ways.  Remember 2004?  The current marathon, near its end, feels like that year to me.  Though Nate Silver of the 538 Blog continues to post a high probability of an Obama victory, I remain skeptical.  Remember, the GOP has the virtually all the big, Supreme-Court-blessed corporate money on its side, and so many more sophisticated tools at its disposal this cycle.  Investigative reporter Greg Palast has a new book that goes into all the demonically brilliant strategies – Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.  This ten-minute interview goes into all the ‘vote-culling’ tactics.  And even on the entirely legal side, there is always the odd sales pitch for Romney.  How about the one highlighted by Paul Krugman – elect Romney, or we will continue to obstruct Obama.  In other words, ‘Nice country you got here.  It’d be a shame if something bad happened to it.’

Of Civility and Thuggery

There has been much talk of civility – or its absence – in recent years.  This is no surprise, considering the creeping polarization of our national politics.  For commentator Bonnie Blodgett, it’s a distraction keeping us from dealing with the most important issues, and providing an opportunity for the power elite to concentrate their power.  Her Star Tribune column has a great punch line.  This same theme – in three parts – was the focus of this week’s This American Life.  Follow stories of friendships devastated by political disagreement, clandestine Democrats in red states, and an appalling display of in-your-face, take-no-prisoners politics in New Hampshire.  Listen to the whole one-hour program – Red State Blue State – right here.

Energy/Climate Progress – Two Stories

First – a good-news story from Denmark.  Second – despite the two presidential candidates falling all over themselves to tell us how much they love coal, there is some very good news on solar energy.

When the Going Gets Tough . . .

I have not been a big fan of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  But he is clearly the star of this Jon Stewart segment on ‘institutional competence.’  Do you think Willard and his team might be a little bit sorry he did not choose this guy for veep?  Watch for the segment from Fox News.  Priceless.

“The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do.” – Joseph Stalin

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper