Archive for 2005 June

Line of the Week

"Occupations always fail."

…from Tim Robbins’ character in "War of the Worlds"…

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The Green Alps Theory

A young Swiss scientist named Ulrich Joerin and his colleagues at Institute for Geological Science at the University of Bern have been making news in climate circles with an exciting new theory. (See the well-written article from Der Spiegel: highly recommended.)

Essentially, the idea is that during the last few thousand years, glaciers have come and gone from the Alps repeatedly. When Hannibal crossed the Alps, Joerin and his doctoral advisor believe, there were no glaciers. Only in a brief period (from roughly 1650-1850, known as the Little Ice Age) does Joerin believe these high mountains were fully cloaked in ice. He bases his theory on analysis of chunks of long-downed ancient trees found at the bases of contemporary glaciers. He believes these trees originally were found much higher in the mountains, before the Little Ice Age.

He calls this idea the Green Alps Theory.

Although glacier experts like Hanspeter Holzhauser have been collecting remains of plants in the vicinity of glaciers for years, they only began systematically analyzing the finds about 13 years ago.

At first, he and his students collected over a thousand little chunks of wood and shreds of turf on their excursions along the glaciers, from the Engadin in the east to the Unterwallis in the west, from the Forno and Stei Glacier to the du Mont Mine Glacier. Finds include the remains of birch trees, willows, Norway spruce, pines, larch and a lot of the resilient Swiss stone pine.

There is a simple deduction that lends support to the Green Alp theory: The bits of trees that have been washed out of the glaciers must come from further up the mountain. And if trees grew up there, then the mountains could not have been covered by glaciers.

Not everyone agrees with this theory; one expert cited in the piece points out that it doesn’t match three other evidence samples, from ice cores, pollen samples, and ocean sediments.

But it’s an intriguing idea, and artists already have begun depicting it. Still,before we put global warming in the category of "Why worry? It’s happened before" we might listen to a warning from the climatologist on the subject. Joerin points out:

"Our findings so far could also be seen as giving the exact opposite of a climatic all-clear. If we can prove that there were ancient forests where the glaciers are today, it means one thing in particular: that the climate can change more suddenly than we thought."

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On Thimerosal, Says The New York Times, We Can Trust Our Doctors

A flood of lawsuits from parents of autistic children and a potent piece by Robert F. Kennedy arguing that the recent upsurge in autism is linked to vaccines using a form of mercury called thimerosal (published in Salon last week, and referenced below here and in many other blogs) as a preservative has prompted a strong response from The New York Times  (registration required).

The newspaper quotes an impressive number of doctors and public health authorities on the issue that see no link between the vaccine and the disease, but also finds a dramatic scene, in which an outraged mother of an autistic child confronts a Midwestern state public health official. The catch? The state official defending thimerosal in vaccines herself has a child with autism.

The story goes on to lay out five lengthy studies of thimerosal given in four countries involving over a half million children that show no causal link between thimerosal and autism.

But the dispute over thimerosal hides a deeper, more troubling reality accepted by both sides:

Diagnoses of autism have risen sharply in recent years, from roughly 1 case for every 10,000 births in the 1980’s to 1 in 166 births in 2003.

Most scientists believe that the illness is influenced strongly by genetics but that some unknown environmental factor may also play a role.

Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health, said: "Is it cellphones? Ultrasound? Diet sodas? Every parent has a theory. At this point, we just don’t know."

The pain in that–"Every parent has a theory"–haunts me a little.

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Battle of the Grandpas

Three of this country’s best-known grandfathers are at odds on the issue that may well turn out to be the biggest news story of our time.

Here’s the perspective of Vice-President Dick Cheney. Sean Hannity of Fox News asked him about global warming at the end of a flattering conversation last week. (To call it an interview would be inaccurate. It’s closer to a massage…with words.)

HANNITY: I got one last question, if you’ll indulge me. Some people — this is for a FOX News special they’re doing — some people predict the world is going to suffer irreversible damage from global warming trends that have been measured. What is your position on that, and what is the Bush administration’s position?

CHENEY: I think we need to look at the facts. And clearly, there has been some warming. It’s not clear exactly what caused it, how much of it’s cyclical, how much of it’s caused as a result of the activities of man.
But I think it needs to be addressed through technology. We spend more money on research in this area than anybody else in the world. And we need to continue to work on it.
But I also don’t think of it as a crisis. I don’t think we need to be in a panic mode. I think that technology and strong economic progress is the way for us to go.
We produce twice as much output per unit of energy today as we did 25 years ago. We’re twice as efficient as we used to be, in terms of the energy consumption. That’s major progress. That helps things like global warming. So I’m an optimist. I think this is a set of circumstances that we can deal with going forward.

HANNITY: Mr. Vice President, always good to see you.

CHENEY: Sean, thank you very much.

HANNITY: Thank you.

CHENEY: Pleasure, as always.

HANNITY: A lot of fun. Lynne, I was too tough on him.

Here’s what Walter Cronkite said for the stopglobalwarming,org "virtual march on Washington."

I am joining the hundreds of thousands who shall be marching in the Virtual March on Washington to Stop Global Warming in order to demonstrate the concern that we all hold for the future of our planet and all the living things — flora, fauna, human and animal — that exist upon it. The governments of the world have tarried long enough, and the United States is scarcely without doubt the greatest culprit among them.

We the people have the strength to bring our country from our weak-kneed stumbling gait in the last ranks of reason to the leadership of the great march to environmental victory.

I want to be in that parade and if there is a place up front I’d wish to lead the band or at least be assigned a big bass drum to help pound out the rhythm of glorious success.

But most interesting of all, at least for yours truly, is what John McCain said, for the same organization:

Dear Fellow Marcher,

Today the Stop Global Warming Virtual March on Washington arrives in my home state of Arizona, where global warming will make normal, seasonal droughts longer and more severe. Ranches in my state recently endured six long, dry years that devastated grazing lands. Many were forced to abandon land they’d worked for generations, and others saw long-profitable and proud businesses pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. This spring, the rains returned, but the climate change that made this drought so severe threatens us still. Read more about what is happening in my home state and the ranchers’ plight at

Joining us on the March this week is the world’s most respected newsman, Walter Cronkite. As you can see, the March continues to grow and is supported by our country’s most visionary leaders and experts on global warming.

Joining the March is a powerful way for you to have your voice heard in the fight to stop global warming and I hope you will join me in reaching out to friends, family and colleagues to march with us. If we all work together as one voice, we can shift the debate on this issue this year.

Sen. John McCain


McCain’s statement is interesting not just because he obviously takes the issue far more seriously than does the White House, but because he connects global warming not to some melodramatic disaster in the far future, but to changes that — yes, folks — are happening right now.

This is the reality: global warming is here. According to the National Assessment from 2002, the multi-billion dollar research program run by the U.S. Global Climate Research Program, for example, average temps in California are expected to be three or four degrees hotter, on average, annually, by 2030. No big deal? Make that claim to the California wine industry.

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Why Can’t We Believe Our Doctors?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last week posted an important story in Salon about the dangers of a common vaccine that included a form of mercury called thimerosal. It’s well-written and well-researched and anyone with kids — and especially anyone concerned about the astounding rise in autism and related disorders in recent years — should read it. But what struck me about the piece was Kennedy’s honesty about his reluctance to get into the issue. Like a lot of us, including well-regarded Congressman Henry Waxman, he wanted to believe the best about doctors and medical firms supplying vaccinations for our children.

As an attorney and environmentalist who has spent years working on issues of mercury toxicity, I frequently met mothers of autistic children who were absolutely convinced that their kids had been injured by vaccines. Privately, I was skeptical. I doubted that autism could be blamed on a single source, and I certainly understood the government’s need to reassure parents that vaccinations are safe; the eradication of deadly childhood diseases depends on it. I tended to agree with skeptics like Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, who criticized his colleagues on the House Government Reform Committee for leaping to conclusions about autism and vaccinations. "Why should we scare people about immunization," Waxman pointed out at one hearing, "until we know the facts?"

It was only after reading the Simpsonwood transcripts, studying the leading scientific research and talking with many of the nation’s preeminent authorities on mercury that I became convinced that the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real.

Read the piece and get the facts.


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Global Warming “A Few Centuries Off,” Says Wall St. Journal

According to a editorial in The Wall Street Journal, global warming is a problem "a few centuries off."


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White House Feels the Heat

In the current White House, giving lobbyists (such as Mark Rey, a former timber company official) responsibility for overseeing public lands is business as usual. But when Philip Cooney, a top official on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was caught rewriting scientific reports on the threat of global warming and resigned, supposedly to spend time with his family, but actually to take a job with ExxonMobil, the White House press corps  woke up and started asking questions.

Q My second question is, The Guardian Newspaper in England has reported FOIA documents released to Greenpeace show that the White House views Exxon Corp. as one of the leading opponents of the Kyoto protocol, leading opponents of binding controls on greenhouse emissions. You now have Philip Cooney going to Exxon, after a period in which he served as Chief of Staff on the Environmental Council here at the White House, in which he edited scientific documents coming out of the administration that appeared to water down conclusions about global warming. Is there any connection here between a guy who worked in the White House editing out conclusions about global warming going to work for a corporation that opposed it?

MR. McCLELLAN: That’s a pretty absurd question that you just raised, and I think in terms of the reports last week, we went through that and addressed that directly.

Q What does it say about that?

MR. McCLELLAN: The report that was highlighted — one of the reports that was highlighted in some of these news stories was our 10-year plan for climate science research. That was a report that was widely praised by the scientific community. And you talk about — you talk about one individual. We have an interagency review process that involves some 15 agencies throughout the federal government and a number of White House offices, as well, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy that is headed by a highly regarded scientist, the President’s chief science advisor, Dr. John Marburger. And I think I would encourage you to look at the facts and look at the record, because they contradict some of the characterizations you’re referring to.

Q The October 2000 draft, edited, from originally reading, "Many scientific observations indicate that the Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change," to "Many scientific observations point to the conclusion that the Earth may be undergoing" — how is that not watering down a conclusion?

MR. McCLELLAN: You ought to look at the final reports, the 2003 report that was put out on our 10-year plan for climate science research. Again, the National Academies of Science and the scientific community widely praised it. You ought to go back and look at some of what was discussed throughout that interagency process. The interagency process is much more than any one person, and the President is the one who drives policy and makes the decisions. And look at our record and look at our facts, because it’s a strong record when it comes to addressing climate change.

And in terms of some of what you’re referring to, one of the things that he suggested was something that was in the 2001 report by the National Academies of Science. That report talked about how there is considerable uncertainty when it comes to the science of climate change. That report also pointed out — and I would point out to you that that report back in 2001 was something that the President asked for. He wanted the National Academies of Science to take a look at the challenges we face when it comes to climate change. And in that report, I mean, they pointed out that surface temperatures are rising and that a large reason for that is human activity. But they also pointed out that there is considerable uncertainty.

In fact there is no uncertainty about the warming of the planet. Ten years of laborious studies of ocean temperatures, using robots to dive a mile deep, have proven the globe is warming. The only real question in the field today is when it began. Was it with the Industrial Revolution, in the mid-19th century? (That’s the conventional wisdom.) Or was it millenia earlier, with deforestation? (This is the new argument being advanced by William Ruddiman, most recently in the March issue of Scientific American.)

But more to the point, what are we going to do about it? The White House talks vaguely of technological advances, but in contrast to most other nations — who are eager to take action now, before things get worse — White House "environmental" officials continue to drag their feet, if the front page of today’s Washington Post is any guide.


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The “New” Policy — Forest Service Fees for 95% of Visitors

The Forest Service in Southern California has slightly modified its controversial Adventure Pass policy, no longer requiring the pass to be posted on cars parked at trailheads that have no facilities.

"Fee opponents have some reason to celebrate.  Their efforts have led to a number of back country trailheads being dropped from the fee program," said Alisdair Coyne, conservation director of Keep the Sespe Wild, which has worked to oppose the pass policy. The conservation group believes the fee is part of a larger effort to privatize the national forests. But Coyne went on to point out that the change will still mean fees for the vast majority of visitors to the back country.

Visitors to the popular Rose Valley area, for example, who might want to park in order to walk along the river known as the Sespe, or visit the waterfall, will still have to pay a fee, even though camping is no longer allowed at the trailhead by the river. Coyne also points out that "the Forest Service’s statement that 95% of Los Padres Forest will now be fee free, presents no change from before.  The Adventure Pass has only been required up until now along roads in the forest."


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Henhouse Fox Returns to Lair

Last week a White House official named Philip Cooney, proven to have rewritten scientific reports on global warming by The New York Times, abrupt resigned. A White House spokesperson said he had accrued vacation time and wanted to spend it with his family. This week it was revealed he will go to work for ExxonMobil, the same corporation that investigative reporter Chris Mooney showed has spent over fifty-five million dollars in the last few years funding groups of spokespeople eager to cast doubt on the reality of climate change.


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Fox Misses His Family

Two days after being revealed as an official inside the White House who rewrote scientific research reports on climate change in 2002 and 2003, lawyer Philip Cooney resigns. A White House press secretary said he wanted "to take the summer off to spend the time with his family.”

His departure was "completely unrelated" to the disclosure, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said (according to the AP).

If we were feeling cynical, we might ask: Who will take over the rewriting-the-scientific-reports-on-global-warming chore inside the White House now?

More to the point, Cooney’s vanishing goes back to what Republican pollster Frank Luntz has been warning the White House for years: "Green issues are killing us." It’s tough to call for a policy based on "sound science" (a favorite White House phrase on this issue) when people find out that a former oil industry lobbyist is writing the White House version of "science."

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