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

IBI Watch 9/30/12

30 09 2012

Real Climate Gates   //

No, this is not about ‘Climategate,’ that pseudo-scandal whipped up around climate scientists’ emails.  This is about real gateways that our  changing climate is zipping through, thanks to our pumping 90 million tons of carbon dioxide daily into the atmosphere.  These are one-way gates.  The global climate will not go back to anything like it was in human lifetimes – many human generations in fact.

The recent record summer Arctic ice melt (obliterating the 2007 record) got me thinking again about an important concept I learned from Tim Flannery’s excellent book, The WeatherMakers.  There is no doubt that the melting Arctic ice cap is one of those gates.  It will have wide implications that will become clearer in the very near future.  Here is one view.  And it turns out that the summer ice is not all that is melting in the Far North.  To no great surprise, springtime snow is melting faster – as reported by NPR this week.  All this melting builds feedbacks.  Why?  It’s the albedo, or reflectivity of surfaces.  Darker surfaces – land and ocean (i.e. surfaces covered until recently by snow and ice) absorb more heat, causing more melting, producing more dark surfaces, and on and on.  What is the most reflective, (atmosphere-cooling) surface?  Snow covering a glacier.  Uh-oh.

But back to those climate gates.  Here are a few documented by Flannery:

  • Western Pacific ocean temperatures – from 1945-55, those temps were often below 66.5 degrees F.  Since 1976, they are rarely below 77.
  • Also since 1976, the balance between El Niño and La Niña has been off, in favor of El Niño (warmer Pacific waters, surprise!)
  • Since 1998, the western Pacific temps have jumped again, so they are now often above 86 degrees F.
  • Also since 1998, the jet stream has moved toward the North Pole, and recently has become more wobbly.

And to top it off, here is another feedback angle – what happens when peat burns on a massive scale in Siberia?  Hint, the effects drift way beyond Siberia.

So why does all this matter?  It becomes clearer by the day, with extreme weather becoming the norm.  And here are some looks at the impact on people.  First, a new report on climate vulnerability, i.e., those most at risk in this new era of manmade climate chaos.  Next, a projection of the incredible level of human suffering that has already begun.  Third, a summary of effects posted by the Environmental Defense Fund – a deserving organization.  And finally – I have long thought that when the insurance industry starts taking notice, policy may finally start shifting toward the sustainable.  Well, at least the first part of that change is happening, as reported in Mother Jones.

Now, with a crisis of this proportion, one would think that a rational, proportional response would be well under way.  One would think.  To be sure, good work is being done to wake people up and turn the massive ship of policy.  Here are a few examples.  First, check this article covering the recent certification training presented by the Climate Reality Project – attended by this blogger. And here is a short video presented by chief spokesperson for that group – former Vice President Al Gore.  Of course, not everything being done or contemplated can be called ‘good,’  From the insanity desk, for instance, we have the prospect of deliberately messing with the climate system in a hubristic, flailing attempt to right the wrongs we have done to the earth that has nurtured us.  Did I mention that I think geoengineering is collective suicide?  But returning to positive responses, here is a well-thought article from Grist (excellent source, that site is) covering three categories of actions to take.  And finally, from elsewhere in the same site, an entertaining and informative quiz to test your preparedness to take on the thankless task of changing Fox ‘News’-addled minds on the reality of the climate crisis.

More Junk Food for Cows; Better Health for People and the Planet

Thanks to a persistent and deepening drought in the American heartland, cattle are ‘enjoying’ some new diet enhancements.  Of course, there is a bright side to this odd story.  These foodstuffs – surplus gummy worms, ice cream sprinkles, etc. – are at least being put to some use.  And that means the resources used in their production are not completely going to waste.  But this reminded me of one of the single most important things we can do to benefit the environment.  As changes go, it is also pretty easy to make – eat less meat.   You may be surprised at the size of the difference that will make.  And it also reminded me of a group that I have been meaning to feature.  Operation Missing Link protested outside the Climate Reality training in San Francisco.  I stopped and chatted, and told them I supported their cause.  I also told them I would link to their site.

ALEC – Impressive, Destructive

I have written about the American Legislative Exchange Council before.  The group has finally been getting more well-deserved attention lately.  The power wielded by this organization virtually screams for attention.  If you have not heard of ALEC, this introduction from their web site can help . . . sort of.  The American Legislative Exchange Council works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.

Sounds good, eh?  Who can argue with a process that involves partnership and ‘the general public?  Moving beyond the propaganda, Bill Moyers’ latest Moyers and Company does an impressive job explaining what these guys are up to – flying an under-the-radar mission to turn America into a permanent corporatist ‘paradise.’  The ultimate goal here, of course – one the group has made significant progress on – is the privatization of virtually everything.  I like to think of it this way – if there is something, anything, that is ‘public,’ it means some megamillionaire is being ‘cheated’ out of the chance to make more millions.  Pity, that.  Probably the most amazing thing about ALEC’s rise and striking success is this – it is not treated as a lobbying organization, but an ‘educational’ group.  You will know enough about ALEC to be aghast after watching the Moyers show.  This adds to an excellent interview from Terry Gross’s Fresh Air a while back.  A memory from that interview for me was the absolute sham of public involvement in this corporate horse-trading market.  Both the Moyers and Gross treatments might make you ask the question posed by this new book.

ALEC is near the center of what I consider the biggest challenge facing the American system – corporate money in politics.  I was happy to hear of a new initiative at the end of the Moyers show – ALICE.  Meet ALICE here and here.  Not a corporate shill in sight.  It also seems a good time to plug one of my favorite causes – the Move to Amend.  Our democracy – what is left of it – depends on reversing Citizens United.  And that is just for starters.

Obama Victory Projected?  Not so Fast!

Most recent polls show President Obama widening his lead in several key battleground states, most notably Ohio.  Things are looking good for the Democratic incumbent.  But some of us remember the deep past, like 2004.  Expect a raft of dirty tricks, not limited to voter suppression, er, ah, that is voter ID enforcement.  The New York Times’ Charles Blow agrees.  I particularly liked the nod to Donald Rumsfeld.  Think it can’t happen?  If you have the chance, ask Senator John Kerry.  Or just check this link.  Remember which candidate the massive piles of Supreme-Court-empowered corporate cash are supporting.  Yup, there’s that money-in-politics thing again.

Indentured Servers

The high-and-mighty financial masters of the baseball universe (long ago and far away, my favorite baseball team in the universe), find themselves mired in yet another greed-entangled mess.  It seems that, in order to protect that mountain of profits, they have to cheat their humblest workers out of their tips.  What is chump change to this elitist institution is big bucks to waiters.  Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of haughty capitalists.  Ah, it brings back fond memories of 2009.  Every empty seat costing the empire $2500.  This new story reflects that nostalgia, and tells how the greed beat goes on.  Anybody seen Gordon Gekko lately?

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.”  – Mark Twain

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

Contributed links to this posting –Jeff Carlson, Allyson Harper