IBI Watch 9/22/13

22 09 2013

Preemptive Prefabrication //

The impending IPCC update on the climate crisis, due this week, has generated a lot of buzz, and a good deal of anti-science creativity as well. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), a fundamentally conservative organization, will state more forcefully than ever that climate change – a documented rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, causing – so far – nearly a one-degree C. temperature rise, accelerating ocean acidification and melting glaciers and ice sheets, plus many other joyful phenomena – is due to humans’ burning our addictive joy juice, i.e. fossil fuel. Here is a concise explanation from the Live Science site of the consensus-driven, cautious process followed by the IPCC.

The IPCC has a high profile – its leaders won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 – so it is not really surprising that the denialist forces are seizing the opportunity for some “first-strike” messaging. It’s not hard to find writers trumpeting a supposed lull in planetary change as proof that climate change is not real, not human-caused, and not something deserving concern. Here’s the strategy. Pick any combination of those three assertions, falsely present the scientific consensus on climate change as predictive of a linear, lock-step process, and presto, you further inoculate the public against pushing for sustainable energy and environment legislation. So goes policy paralysis. Here is a survey of denialist commentary from the likes of Fox News, the Junk Science site, and  Matt Ridley, writing in the Wall Street Journal. At that last link, you will find an oft-heard assertion from the denialist crowd, that far from being a cause of concern, climate change offers benefits. Shades of the Heartland Institute.

If you suspect a coordinated, full-court press here, you are not alone. So does Joe Romm, writing on his Climate Progress site. Pay careful attention to his graphics on carbon pollution and the seven planetary boundaries. He also cites a particularly egregious example of vacuous, tech-supreme, happy talk that I linked to just last week. (Scroll down to “The Magical Techno-Fix.”). And for some succinct analysis of this pre-emptive campaign, I like the Guardians’ climate commentators, John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli. This duo has posted a new article reminding us of the stages of climate denial, all of which are on display to varying degrees in the latest round of denialist commentary.  For the record, here are the stages:

  • Deny the problem exists
  • Deny we are the cause
  • Deny the scientific consensus
  • Deny it’s a problem
  • Deny we can solve it
  • Sorry, it’s too late to solve

Here is an assignment steeped in futility, a sort of mission impossible (should you choose to accept it). Analyze the commentary linked above, and determine which articles represent which stages of denial. Then, strategize on how to change the minds of the commentators. Right, impossible.

This course is far wiser – concede that a completely melted, transformed planet will never be enough to convince these guys. That includes an ice-free summer Arctic, which is definitely on the way (current denialist trumpeting alleged ice “recovery” notwithstanding), with chaotic weather pattern consequences. Understand that denialism is not really about skepticism (which implies a willingness to see things differently) and give up the idea of every winning over the likes of Bjorn Lomborg, George Will and Lord Monckton (and our own well-funded, powerful deniers inside Congress). And support the following organizations, which are working hard to sway public opinion in the direction of sensible, sustainable energy and climate policy:

Boulder: the Arctic Connection

It is not possible to blame a particular destructive storm on manmade climate change. That includes hurricanes, even monsters like Katrina and Sandy. And it even includes the freakish storm complex that gouged Boulder, Colorado last week. That storm, called a “thousand-year flood,” dumped many months worth of rain in the space of a few days, killing at least four people and washing away houses, roads and bridges. Worse, it came on the heels of a persistent drought. For a look at just how outside the norm the event was, check this well-supported Time.com article from Bryan Walsh.

Since we have one planet, interconnected, it is wise to study how planetary forces influence weather patterns. The original research of Rutgers University scientist Jennifer Francis got new attention this week, on NPR’s Science Friday. Francis – whose work I have previously linked to (see “Wacky, Wobbly Weather”)– looks at documented changes in jet-stream patterns and resultant weather phenomena. That includes “stuck” weather, i.e., systems that come into an area and stall for days on end. Those seem to be related to the slowing, bulging, dipping jet stream. That in turn is related to the well-documented, rapid warming of the Arctic.

Our response? Take a deep sigh, and check those “stages” above.

Animated States of Income Inequality

There’s nothing like a moving picture to tell a story. Check this Washington Post animation. Despite bizarre color choices, it depicts how income inequality has grown in the past 33 years across the continental US. Intriguing. Makes me want to learn more by watching the most recent Moyers and Company installment, featuring an extended interview with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. As you probably know, he is one of the major advocates on behalf of economic justice. Here is the trailer for the movie Reich and Moyers discuss, Inequality for All – about to be released. And if all that makes you want to explore where you fit into the economic puzzle, NPR’s Marketplace has a new interactive data game – Income Upshot. You know you want to try it. Just enter your income and zip code, and prepare for some eye-opening facts. Then, compare your situation with such real-life scions as Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon, and even fictional folk like Homer Simpson and Marge Gunderson. Remember her? (Think “wood chipper.”)  And then learn even more about the financial crisis – which has served to further push the extremes of income inequality – at this list of documentaries posted by Moyers. I am sure they are all worthwhile, but from experience I can strongly recommend An Inside Job.

Greenhouse Generators

Here is a quick check on sources of greenhouse gases that are accumulating in the atmosphere – carbon dioxide and methane for two. One finding is a bit surprising – and seems easy to influence. The other is not surprising at all. Good luck influencing that one.

Shut Up and Sing?

This pictorial tribute makes me want to buy more recordings from all of these outspoken musical artists. Well, most of them anyway.

Help the Oceans Clean Themselves – A Boy’s Bright Idea

A video like Boyat Slat’s TedX Talk is enough to give an old environmentalist hope for the future. His bright idea offers a solution to a seemingly insoluble problem that is a product of our modern throwaway life – the Pacific garbage patch.

“The more we exploit nature, the more our options are reduced, until we have only one: to fight for survival.”

Morris K. Udall


Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 2/17/13

17 02 2013

What the People Want //

In the January/February Mother Jones, editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery laid out arguably the biggest legacy choice faced by President Obama in his second term. The multitudes massing in the nation’s capital right now point to that choice – it is whether his strong words in the State of the Union message will translate into action to do everything possible to mitigate and reverse climate change.

What struck me most in the Bauerlein/Jeffery essay was this – a Yale/George Mason poll from 2012 that detailed public opinion on climate legislation. Here are a few highlights: 63 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents and 43 percent of Republicans said climate change was a key issue in their vote. And in 2011, a Stanford study reported 77 percent of the public would support a candidate who said climate change is real, humans are the cause and cleaner energy is needed.

This is powerful. It is also simultaneously encouraging and perplexing. Encouraging because it says – Heartland Institute, Limbaugh, Inhofe, etc. be damned – people understand this issue. Perplexing because – with this level of public awareness, why the policy paralysis? Why would many expect President Obama’s oft-cited “all of the above” energy/climate policy balance sensible protections with the explosion of the biggest carbon bomb yet, the Alberta tar sands? Here is one prominent commentator, Bonnie Blodgett, who expects just that cave. I cannot disagree with her analysis, and yet I hold out hope. The climate disaster that Blodgett describes is just what will result from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is the target of the Washington demonstration.

Two guests on this week’s Moyers and Company, Dan Cantor and Jonathan Soros, did not mention climate change a single time. And yet, their message holds the answer to why progress has been nigh impossible on this crucial issue. It’s the corporate money that pollutes and overwhelms our political system. The two men come from very different backgrounds, but have landed on the same cause – get political power back into the hands of the people. And they have successes to boast of – particularly a victory by a populist candidate in a squeaker of a New York State Senate race. Cantor and Soros are founders of a SuperPac, Friends of Democracy. I highly recommend the Moyers segment, which runs 30 minutes. It includes several imbedded videos, and of course an inspiring message. Cantor and Soros are emphatic on this point – the biggest barrier to replacing one dollar, one vote with one person one vote is the all-too-familiar one – apathy.

Removing corporate influence over elections has long been a Moyers cause – here is his latest essay on the topic. I like his take on the “golden rule of politics.” Here are two more groups fighting to get corporate money out of our elections – The Move to Amend and the Center for American Progress.

Climate Commitment is Building

Regular IBI Watch readers know that I like to collect and share the latest climate change research findings. For a change of pace, let’s stay away from shocking new findings and instead look at a few hopeful signs.

First – Senator Barbara Boxer, much more widely known and influential than progressive crusader Senator Bernie Sanders, is introducing legislation calling for a carbon fee/dividend system. The article treats this idea as a “new twist,” but of course James Hansen, Bill McKibben and others have championed this approach for some time. Second – the Sierra Club, an organization I have long supported, has abandoned its longtime refusal to engage in civil obedience. Its current leader, Michael Brune, got himself arrested in a protest at the White House. Watch him hold his own here against a hostile Fox interviewer who leads a tag team trying to drag this guy into the mud. Third – there is a major institution in the US that is not waiting for the do-nothing, corporate-ruled Congress to act. That would be the US military. The current Mother Jones has an excellent cover story on how the military is leading the charge on renewable fuel. (It’s not linkable on line just yet.) And why not? They are the ones who have to fight our endless petrol wars.

Finally, I put my faith in the young people. A fine example is this video from SciShow. The young narrator is informed, world-weary and entertaining. I like the attitude here.

Rising Waters

Sorry, I broke my promise. But hey, I am not running for office, so cut me some slack. If you have been puzzled – as I have – about how global-warming-induced sea rise could vary by coast and region, here is what seems like the story. A friend pointed me to this link about the latest research on the slowing Gulf Stream (part of the great ocean conveyor belt, properly called the thermohaline circulation). And another friend sent this in-depth article on what is at stake in the Keystone XL battle. Michael T. Klare – author of Resource Wars, Blood and Oil, and Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy. makes a persuasive case that denying approval to Keystone will deal a body blow to tar sands exploitation. Approve, and accelerate global warming and all its ill effects – which are already playing out faster than scientists projected several decades ago. And finally, here is a provocative article suggesting that hydraulic fracturing of rock to yield previously unavailable deposits of natural gas may not be the climate savior it is fracked up to be.

Explosion-Induced Tone Deafness

Remember the earlier theme – about the people stifled by powerful financial interests? Listening to the assertions of NRA leaders David Keene and the better-known Wayne LaPierre yields the conclusion that these guys will forever choose not to hear the people’s will. Why this selective deafness? It’s not the effect of nearby gunshots for sure. Maybe it is the financial power of the gun and ammunition manufacturers and merchants who pay these guys’ salaries.

I choose instead to follow the researchers who have continued research into the impact and implications of America’s problem of gun violence – such as those at Johns Hopkins University. More important, I choose to hear the survivors and families of innocent victims of the seemingly endless toll – Kim Odom, who lost her son to gun violence; the family of Hadiya Pendleton, victim of a gang war in Chicago; former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, gun owners themselves who are courageously turning their tragedy into a struggle for reasonable gun regulation.

Change will not be easy, and there is no guarantee of success. In fact, when organizations speak up in favor of reason, they end up here. (Note – a friend had sent me that original link, which was indeed tossed down the NRA memory hole.) But – just like with climate change – people understand this issue. For proof, I leave you with this video on the incredible outpouring of sympathy for the shattered community of Newtown.

Yes, the Sky is Falling

It is hard to top the cosmic timing. On the very day that a predicted fly-by of a large asteroid occurred on schedule, a sudden, unannounced visitor exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia.  Though it sounds way-put, we should be planning and preparing for such events. The consequences of not preparing are grave, and we have the technology to divert disaster. This Space.com article brings it all together nicely and has some eye-catching, concise videos to boot.

For the Birds

We humans strut around like we own the place. And of course, for better or worse (too often the latter), we do. Just consider how we continually expropriate more and more of the natural world for our own use. Hey, there are more and more of us all the time (seven billion and ever mounting, but who’s counting?!) – so what do you expect? But putting all that aside for another day, I have two items that remind us that nature can still strike back. First – maybe these vultures are trying to tell us something. Second – I challenge you to watch this very brief video of an unexpected wildlife display in an unusual space and not root for its protagonist.

Best Jeopardy Answer Yet

Back when I (seemingly) had more time to burn, I was a Jeopardy junkie. This affliction struck early – I would race home for lunch in the third grade and watch Art Fleming (predecessor to the long-tenured Alex Trebek). I in fact tried out for the show in Chicago some years ago. I didn’t quite make it (damn!), but then there is always the looming senior tournament. But I have never seen anything quite like the display of guts and wit in this segment from the venerable quiz show’s current teen tournament.  Will it have a happy ending? You will just have to watch.

“Environmental justice for all is civil rights in the 21st century.” – Majora Carter

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper, Brendan Murphy, Lucinda Plaisance, Tammie Stadt


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 1/20/13

20 01 2013

Let’s Internalize Externalities  //

Recently in Beijing, it’s been hard to tell night from day. Pollution from coal-burning power plants has long been a terrible environmental and health problem, but it has jumped to what are being described as off-the-chart levels. This video gives you a good idea of what the people are going through – a situation some residents call “living inside chemical warfare.”

“Whew,” we might say. “Glad it’s not like that here in the old USA.” And it is true – no matter how bad it gets in LA or New York, smog and ground ozone can’t approach these choking levels. But think. How much of that coal is burning to power Chinese factories that make stuff headed to American shores? And that pollution – surely it can’t get here, across that vast Pacific Ocean. Think again. Hey, maybe all that cheap stuff isn’t so cheap after all, and maybe the cost – health and environmental – is not really “externalized” after all.

Externalities,” of course, is the term used to describe costs that are not imbedded in an item’s purchase price. A positive externality is research and development. A negative is, naturally, pollution.

Inbound pollution is not new. Yes, this second story is a different sort – dust whisked into the air and whirled across the ocean because of desertification. And why is that desertification – in China in particular – happening? Funny how it always comes back to the ultimate negative externality, carbon pollution causing climate change.

Environmentalists and activists have struggled for a long time to come up with the best way to make the actual price of carbon-based fuels include that external cost to society. The original answer – cap-and-trade – is a gigantic bust that could not gain enough support and even in its purest form could not make meaningful reductions in climate-changing greenhouse emissions. Ah, but the carbon tax or a fee-and-dividend approach? Now we are talking progress. This can work.

NASA’s James Hansen is the best-known promoter of a carbon fee and dividend system. Here is an article in which he, with considerable energy and wit, explains this idea.  That article runs five pages, and is worth your time. Not sure you want to invest the time? See this excerpt.

“We must stanch a pervasive defeatism that is about. Humanity is not a bunch of lemmings marching unstoppably toward a cliff. There is such a thing as free will. It seems that many people have slipped into an unhelpful resignation, ultimately leading to a way of thinking that accepts fossil fuel industry propaganda.

People please wake up! For the sake of young people, future generations, and other life on our planet, don’t settle for what some “experts” say is the best we can do. In fact, we can move on to clean energies and energy efficiency, but only if we are wise enough to put an honest rising price on carbon emissions. It is equally clear, I submit, that the public will only allow an adequate rising price on carbon if the system is simple and transparent with the proceeds distributed to the public. That will provide the public with the resources required to make the needed changes as we move to cleaner energies and a bright future that preserves the planet and life that we know.”


How Long Can This Go On?

The answer is – as long as we are fossil-foolish enough to let it!

It may be cold here in the Twin Cities right now, but more news is coming out daily about just how warm 2012 was historically. That link also includes a slide show detailing the Midwest’s dual struggle with heat and drought. Before we take any comfort in 2012 being “only “ the tenth warmest year on record, look carefully at how those warmest years are clustered in the last 20. You can also see the trend in pictures, like this one posted by James Hansen. And these two maps show the global nature of the problem –

A global drought monitor and an interactive, color-coded map of temperature trends in 20-year periods going back to 1893. Looks like blue is an endangered species.

It’s clear that we need a “sweltering planet agenda,” as described in this Washington Post editorial. And a move to renewables – with fossil backup – is difficult though not impossible, as Germany is finding out. This World Wildlife Fund report says that land requirements for complete solar power – more or less – are not as huge as we have believed.

For general inspiration on climate change solutions, I recommend a movie I just watched – Carbon Nation. The movie – about two years old – is promoted as a “climate change movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.” From carbon farming, to white roofs, to energy savings, to “greedy bastards who just want cheap power” that happens to be green, the movie really delivers. Recommended.


Shivering Suspense

If you like this sort of thing, we have an interesting weather situation developing here in the Twin Cities over the next few days. You see, weather forecasters are (sort of) promising to restore our bragging rights. For the longest time on record, as reported here by NOAA – we have not had a single day in Minneapolis – St. Paul with a high temperature below zero. From the time I moved here in 1986 until about 10 years ago, this was pretty much an annual occurrence. Predictions are that at least one day this week will feature a high below zero. We shall see. Now before you assume a masochistic streak on my part, note that I am not saying deep cold is good or bad – just that it is nearly extinct here in what used to be universally regarded as a very cold place.

University of Minnesota professor and meteorologist Kenny Blumenfeld – a local resource on climate change and extreme weather – goes all poetic on us in this excerpt from his most recent posting. Kenny, I’m with you on this one.

“During this reasonably cold outbreak, when you are suffering, and cursing the nastiness, just keep in mind that this all used to be pretty routine.  -10s in Minneapolis, are you kidding me?  That’s nothing.  It’s something now.  In fact, it’s the only thing–the only thing left to remind us of what once was.  I’m not merely being nostalgic and melodramatic; the winters we grew up with are all but gone, and reminders of them will become increasingly sporadic and soft-hitting.  Our iconic season is terminally ill, and we are witnessing it in a badly weakened state, its glory days receding deeper into the past with every new season.  I am a sentimental guy, so I plan to bundle up, and spend some time outside in the cold, hanging out with my sick but beautiful old pal, winter.  In one or maybe two decades, even this kind of cold will be nothing more than hard-to-convey memories.”

I will report next week on whether we actually get any of that promised real cold. This is one thing I am really skeptical on these days, with good reason.


Denying Denial

If you have a friend who distrusts climate science – especially for ideological reasons – you may find this useful. I just could not resist turning my personal reply to some typical denial points into an article for this space. No names, of course.

First the context. My friend kindly watched this Bill Nye video. Afterwards, he raised two common objections – carbon dioxide being too small a part of the atmosphere to be the cause of warming, and a need to look into solar action as the possible cause of climate change.

I am sure there is some truth in the business about carbon dioxide’s reflectivity and also its ability to hold heat, but I approach it from the legal system perspective – is it guilty beyond reasonable doubt?  Based on my extensive reading, that is my verdict.

Here are facts:

  • World temperatures have been rising steadily, with the warmest years on record concentrated over the past 20 years.
  • Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been climbing. Preindustrial levels were about 280 parts per million. They are today at 394 and rapidly climbing –at an increasing rate.
  • Human activity pumps 90 million tons of CO2 into the world’s atmosphere daily. The earth’s climate system is vast and complex, but ultimately closed. Surely such activity would have some significant effect over the long term.
  • Paleoclimatologists have tracked CO2 and temperatures back for millions of years – the first half million through air bubbles trapped in polar ice cores, and many millions back from there via sediment deposits deep under the oceans. They track together.

As for solar flares, scientists have tracked the sun’s effect and found no significant connection. And daytime high temperatures have not been rising as fast as nighttime lows. Surely this shows that the issue is the atmosphere HOLDING heat rather than how much heat energy is COMING INTO the system.

Latching onto that “insignificant carbon” business implies that there is some other mechanism that is causing the rising temperature, melting glaciers and ice caps, and raising oceans  – something that thousands  of very smart scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the climate just have not figured out. I am not buying it. The prime suspect is our carbon dioxide, until something else is discovered – and don’t bet on that.

One more thing – I see zeroing in on some fine detail like that and saying that is what matters differs little from creationists finding some gap in evolution theory and saying that disproves evolution. At best, this is playing dumb. At worst it is magical thinking that, over the long term, puts the whole planetary system on which human life depends at grave risk. Some denialists think I am a way-out wacko with these views, but as John Lennon wrote, “I’m not the only one.”  Far from it – and I will have more to say on that in a moment.

Some sneer at climate science and dismiss it as the result of people entering the field with an ideological bent, and then finding only confirmations to their preconceived hypotheses.  But I say everyone who enters any field – economics, history, even hard sciences – has their own bent. In the case of all science, peer review pretty much takes care of that, thanks very much.

Climate science is nothing more than applied physics and chemistry. I give you several scientists, researchers and journalists to investigate. First, there is Tim Flannery, author of the very impressive book The WeatherMakers. I have met the man. Brilliant, and moreover a self-confessed former skeptic. I give you James Balog, another former strong skeptic, and the photographer whose work is featured in the current movie Chasing Ice.  I give you local meteorologist Paul Douglas, another former skeptic and a staunch Republican to boot.  And finally I give you James Hansen, once content to do his research and stay on the sidelines, but who became politically active only after the Bush II administration tried to muzzle him. Denialists can have their skeptics looking for those fine points, demanding more decades of research, and in general highlighting and exaggerating the controversy in order to halt progress on renewables – Limbaugh, Lomborg, Singer, Hannity, Lindzen, Lord Monckton. I’ll take my guys – the ones I mentioned plus Michael Mann, Joseph Romm, Dianne Dumanoski, Mark Lynas, Bill McKibben, Lonnie Thompson and so many more.


Protecting Kids and Everyone Else

Even after the horrific series of mass murders in our country these past few years (and the constant “routine violence,” no one is talking about banning private gun ownership. It never will happen. But people just might be sick enough to demand reasonable regulation. I like the approach the president and vice-president are currently promoting. Here, President Obama exhorts us to call our Congressional reps to demand action. Heck, I might even call or email my (Republican) Congressman John Kline, for what it is worth. The president also suggests we take on the gun lobby, and this article describes how each of the Obama/Biden proposals could have prevented or blunted the impact of each of the recent highly publicized mass shootings.

And what of that gun lobby? The modern NRA is effectively a marketing and promotion organization, whose purpose is to see that ever more guns and ammunition are sold. It was not always that way.

Today, the NRA fights any reasonable regulation, in the name of protecting 2nd Amendment rights. Jon Stewart calls them out in his inimitable fashion. Even a certain east coast governor – just recently railing at how Republicans were toying with post-Sandy disaster aid – had harsh words for the NRA.

I like this mayors’ group that is taking on the issue.


“Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little” – Edmund Burke


Contributed links to this posting – Kenneth Blumenfeld, Tess Galati, Allyson Harper, Lucinda Plaisance


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN