Archive for 2006 February

“Largest Insect Epidemic in North American History”

That’s according to the Canadian Forest Service. Hat tip to the Washington Post, for an excellent story about the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle, a tiny little critter that for eons has been controlled by cold winters…but no longer.

"It’s pretty gut-wrenching," said Allan Carroll, a research scientist at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria, whose studies tracked a lock step between warmer winters and the spread of the beetle. "People say climate change is something for our kids to worry about. No. It’s now."

The Canadian Forest Service estimates that 80% of the pines of British Columbia will be dead within seven years, and fears that the beetle will spread eastward and southward.

Sorry to be so depressing! Believe me, I get no kick from this news. Charles Keeling, the Scripps scientist who more than any other individual discovered global warming, joked in his autobiography that "Perhaps convincing proof will be acknowledged to have arrived when a substantial number of US Congressman are discovered to have secretly purchased real estate in northern Canada."

Along those lines, my wife and I had vague hopes of summering in B.C. in our dotage. Now even that half-fantasy doesn’t look so good now.


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FEMA Makes Changes

As someone whose property was torn up by the floods of January 05 in California and applied for a loan for repairs from FEMA, I can attest in some small measure to exactly how screwed up this agency is. It’s really worse than a joke. Many months after we gave up hope for the overpriced loan, they called my mother to ask if I was related to her. True story. Still, on the six-month anniversary of Katrina, the time has come to ask the priceless The Onion what sort of changes FEMA has made:


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Another Positive Post

As mentioned a month or so ago, this blog wants to challenge the notion that enviros are inherently doom and gloomsters. Yesterday came an actual rash of semi-good news on the topic of pollutants, which is not what most folks think of when they want to perk up their day. But the fact is, there are simple things we can do to eat well and stay safe, and maybe even mercury can be compensated for:

–In the LATimes (reg. required), a big story about a seafood company that is launching a new division built around the idea of rigorous testing of big predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, and tuna.

–From Newsday, a story about a study from the University of Rochester (reg. required) that surprised researchers by showing that mothers from the Seychelles Islands, where women eat about ten times the amount of mercury as do women in the U.S., bore children who showed no ill effects by the age of sixteen, despite high levels of mercury in the hair samples of mothers.

–From Environmental Health Perspectives, a study showing that children can reduce pesticide loads in the body by has much as fifty percent after just five days of an organic foods diet.

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New Orleans to White House: We’ve Just Begun to Fight

In a fairly stunning column for the NYTimes (that I’m not allowed to repost in full) a New Orleans native and novelist named John Biguenet reveals that not only is the ruined city not happy with Federal response to Katrina, but that chances are good it will have legal recourse:

Listen to David Vitter, Louisiana’s Republican senator, who, writing in the Washington Post last week, tried to make clear to President Bush what actually happened here:Most of all, he [the president] has to understand that the great majority of New Orleans’s catastrophic flooding occurred because of breaches in levees that were not overtopped by water but that failed from below because of gross design mistakes made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” But so far, the president has failed to grasp that an agency of the United States government is responsible for the destruction of a major American city, and, of course, for the deaths of hundreds of citizens.

Mr. Vitter has been described by the National Journal as the most conservative of the Senate’s seven Republican freshmen, so the Bush administration cannot dismiss such an assessment as partisan. Mr. Vitter’s conclusion is supported by a string of forensic engineering studies and documents that confirm that the design failures were identified in 1990 by the Vicksburg office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but ignored. And it suggests that the country may soon face an extremely expensive day of reckoning.

For New Orleans, this legal recourse may be the only silver lining to Hurricane Katrina, given that charity is fast running out, and that according to Don Powell, appointed coordinator of the Gulf Coast recovery effort last fall, "There are many, many needs that the federal government cannot cover."

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“It Can’t Be Our Fault. We’re the Good Guys.”

For all the Internet’s flaws–including its ability to keep people like myself inside the house, when they should be outside, tending to their spring gardens–I adore its ability to bring forward pure ideas.

Here’s a question that’s been bothering me for years. Why it is that so-called conservatives are resistant to the idea that humans could change the climate? We’ve changed the landscape of the planet, obviously. Is it so crazy to suggest that we could change the climate too?

(Rush Limbaugh was recorded bellowing on this subject, claiming that environmentalism was a religion, because he claimed–ironically–that "there is no evidence that we could destroy ecosystems." Well, now that that’s settled.)

I’ve been waiting for some brilliant writer to come along and explain this bizarre right-wing faith in our ineffectuality, but no such essay has yet appeared on the horizon.

But thanks to a discussion on TPM Cafe, the truth has finally come out. A commentator and concert violinist named Tom Wright explains:

I was going to say I didn’t understand the resistance to accepting we are affecting the climate, but there is an easy answer. I heard this sentiment from my conservative sparring partner (and business partner): "Some people just want it to be our fault, like we’re inherently evil or stupid." The converse is that he wants to believe humans are inherently good and smart so it can’t be our fault. For humans read "Americans." The same sentiment supports our foreign policy. It can’t be our fault, we’re the good guys.

It seems a little like wanting to be the chosen people but if we’re screwing the planet then we aren’t anointed by God, but just another animal pooping in its nest.

In a brief email discussion, Wright added another example of this right-wing myopia, from a commentator on the same site named Primob:

I am unconvinced that the people inhabiting the planet can have such a destructive impact on the Earth’s climate over such a short period of time. Such presumption borders on pathological arrogance.

Note that Primob assumes the worst; not just that we as a species are changing the climate, but that we are destroying it. In fact it’s not that black and white, as scientists like James Hansen continue to insist. It’s possible for us to change the climate, but not destroy life as we know it. If we can only open our minds to new possibilities, including the possibility that we are not heroes…

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Models of Ice Sheets Useless–A Thousand Years Too Early?

Last week in Science two researchers reported on the Greenland ice sheet, which is melting about twice as fast as expected ten years ago. American’s leading climatologist, James Hansen, wrote in the UK’s Independent (archived here) about what this means for us in the temperate zone:

Today’s forecasts of sea-level rise use climate models of the [Greenland] ice sheets that say they can only disintegrate over a thousand years or more. But we can now see that the models are almost worthless. They treat the ice sheets like a single block of ice that will slowly melt. But what is happening is much more dynamic.

Once the ice starts to melt at the surface, it forms lakes that empty down crevasses to the bottom of the ice. You get rivers of water underneath the ice. And the ice slides towards the ocean.

Dr. Jeff Masters Wunderblog discusses the issue in depth, and makes the same point as Hansen:

The most worrying aspect of the paper’s findings is that we are told that the computer models used to estimate how long it will take Greenland’s ice will melt are significantly in error–and in the wrong direction!

Exxon/FOXNews hack Stephen Milloy eagerly agrees with "Calamity Jim" that circulation models:

are not the tools for the [predictive] job and we have little prospect of developing such tools in the foreseeable future.

But he waves off the idea that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could be a problem, declaring:

Gosh Jim, there’s a lot of noise here but seems precious little substance…

In his post, which is highly recommended, Masters discusses the same "noise" of conflicting studies as Milloy mentions, but he’s significantly less reassured:

However, the doubling in glacier flow observed in the past ten years comes as a major shock. The models used to come up with the 1000 year estimate do not account for changes in glacier speed at all! The unexpected increase in glacier flow probably occurred in response to the lubrication effect of melt-water penetrating down to the glacial bed, as well as other poorly-understood processes. The paper concluded: "Current models used to project the contribution to sea level from the Greenland Ice Sheet in a changing climate do not include such physical processes and hence do not account for the effect of glacier dynamics." In other words, the models were wrong. Climate change skeptics are find of criticizing computer models, and cite their inadequacy as grounds for dismissing the threat of climate change. Well, it works both ways. Climate change models can be off in the wrong direction–as we also saw with the Antarctic ozone hole, which was completely missed by the models. These new results imply that if Greenland warms significantly (at least 3° degrees C), Greenland’s ice could melt in a few centuries, not 1000 years. With 20 feet of sea level rise locked up in its ice, sea level rises well beyond the capability of humans to handle could occur later this century.

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The World We Have Known

David Roberts at Gristmill catches a great letter to the NYTimes from James Speth, a dean at Yale in Forestry and Environmental Studies:

The world we have known is history. A mere 1 degree Fahrenheit global average warming is already raising sea levels, strengthening hurricanes, disrupting ecosystems, threatening parks and protected areas, causing droughts and heat waves, melting the Arctic and glaciers everywhere and killing tens of thousands of people a year.

Yet there are several more degrees coming in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

It is easy to feel like a character in a bad science fiction novel running down the street shouting "Don’t you see it!" while life goes on, business as usual.

Climate change is the biggest thing to happen here on earth in thousands of years, with incalculable environmental, social and economic costs. But there is no march on Washington; students are not in the streets; consumers are not rejecting destructive lifestyles; Congress is not passing far-reaching legislation; the president is not on television explaining the threat to the country; Exxon is not quaking in its boots; and entire segments of evening news pass without mention of the climate emergency.

Instead, 129 new coal-fired power plants are being developed in the United States alone, and so on.

There are many of us caught in this story. We must find one another soon.

James Gustave Speth

New Haven, Feb. 20, 2006

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BLM Won’t Let Biologists Outside

Another example of the Bush administration quashing scientists, or another example of the Bush administration raping the land?

You decide.

Crucial quote:

The BLM’s pace of issuing new permits to drill in Wyoming and across the West has continued to increase, even though the oil and gas industry — which is chronically short of drilling rigs and skilled workers — cannot drill nearly enough holes in the ground to keep up with the permits that have already been granted. In the past two years, the BLM issued a record 13,070 drilling permits on federal land, but industry drilled just 5,844 wells.

"The pressure comes from Washington," said [Gov.] Freudenthal, [D-Wy.] who said he has assigned more state wildlife biologists to Pinedale and other active drilling areas in an attempt to keep up with the federal push. "As you go up the chain of command of BLM and into the Department of Interior, I am not sure they share our commitment to balance. No matter how large the benefits are from this development, it does not justify turning a blind eye to the environment."

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White House: Climate Change “Private” Matter

After persistent prodding by Chris Mooney, the White House press corps recently actually asked a question to the Bush administration on the subject of anthropogenic global warming.

Predictably, spokesman Scott McClellan gave a non-answer:

I’m not going to get into talking about private meetings [Bush has] had, but look at the initiatives we’ve outlined, look at the leadership the President is providing to address the challenges of climate change.

Of course, the President has made no attempt to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in this country, and this month didn’t even mention climate change while admitting we are addicted to oil.

His administration opposed the one measure that would have an immediate impact: Conservation.

As in: Conservative.

But never mind. In a few recent speeches, Bush has proposed a coal sequestration demonstration plant known as Newgen that will take ten or more years to construct and, according to the Department of Energy, cost about a billion dollars.

That’s ten years from now. This year British Petroleum launched an effort to build, on a site already licensed for power generation, a plant in the Los Angeles area that will cost much less than a billion dollars and produce massive amounts of energy with the same zero emissions.

Instead of Dick Cheney’s preposterous proposal to build a power plant a week in this country for twenty years.

Given this insulting refusal by the Bush administration to face reality today, or to answer questions from the press corps, one of Mooney’s commentators, Harris Contos, suggests the proper response of the White House press corps is a boycott:

If only the major news outlets would have the courage to say in their nightly newscasts, "Our correspondents, and others, are in day seven of the boycott against the White House press office. Once spokesman Scott McClellan has something informative to say, our coverage will resume."

The dramatist in me loves this idea.

Suddenly I can see the encounter in the briefing room making the transition from farce to comedy.

If the national media refused to ask questions as long as the administration refused to answer them, perhaps we’d hear more from one particular gentleman in the press corps on the subject of India and Pakistan. Perhaps others less often heard would find a way to ask questions on other topics.

Perhaps some of the questions would be completely ridiculous, and remind everyone that this whole dull exercise in image management is completely pointless.

Perhaps reporters might put Cabinet officials or other legislators on the record on environmental issues, and perhaps some of those officials would level with the country and help us face the facts. Perhaps even Democrats might get an opportunity to speak and be heard.

Who knows what might happen?


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That Wacky, Wacky Wall St. Journal

The Wall Street Journal is known for its tight focus on the issues of interest to American businessmen, and for the seriousness of its reporting, which doesn’t even allow for photographs on the front page.

But when it comes to climate change, the editorial side of the paper seems to go a little crazy. In an editorial last year, for example, the paper claimed that global warming, if an issue at all, was "a problem that’s a few centuries off."

They take the head-in-the-sand position despite the example of countless American and foreign corporations who are not just convinced of the reality of global warming, but see it as a rich new field for innovation and profit, including heavyweights such as Duke Energy, GE, and British Petroleum.

Not to mention Fortune magazine, the first publication in this country to review Time reporter Eugene Linden’s new book on global warming, "The Winds of Change," which sharply warns of the risks of WSJ-style inaction, to businesses and citizens alike.

This year the WSJ published, an editorial that dismisses the threat of global warming in language so arch that you can practically hear the creaking of the old leather club chairs and get a whiff of cigar smoke just from reading it. It’s behind a subscriber firewall, conveniently for the paper, but was reproduced in an entry in the comments below this Real Climate post on the subject, which is very funny, and posted in its entirety below:

The Wall Street Journal has published another fair and balanced critique of climate change science and negotiations, in a Business World commentary by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr, here. A summary of the arguments is as follows:

1. It will never be possible to prove that global warming is real. In the same way, we point out, it will never be possible to prove that anybody died from lung cancer because of smoking. Did you actually witness that first DNA mutation?

2. The reasonable lay person cannot be expected to read a scientific paper, so the rational response is to ignore the issue.

3. A paper about frogs did not argue convincingly that people cause global warming.

4. People sometimes distort the truth (truly a shocking charge coming from the WSJ).

5. Global change negotiations are stalled in politics, so the science must be wrong.

Final thought: When climate does change, we’ll be able to fix it anyway.

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