Archive for 2006 April

Bak Sun

As Winnie the Pooh (or was it Piglet?) used to say: "Bak Sun"

Back on Tuesday; probably post again on Wednesday. We’re off to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday in spring in Ventura County’s back country. Believe it or not, sometimes it looks like this:


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“My Life is My Message”

Went to Santa Barbara last night to hear Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, speak. She is the first environmentalist given the award, and said more than once that she believed she was given the award because the prize committee wanted to awake people to the connection between peace and sustainability.

Maathai, a sturdy woman with an beaming, unlined faced, spoke simply but powerfully about the importance of "embracing our problems."

She focused on how we must help people look at issues directly, and returned again and again to a favorite phrase: "The bottom is heavy." She helped launch the Green Belt movement that has planted thirty million trees in Kenya and other nations in Africa, but insists that her greatest achievement is not planting the trees, but making sure they survive, and for that, she says, we need to provide motivation, understanding, and incentives to local people, most of whom are poor and uneducated.

When the movement first began, they would go into a community and organize three-day seminars. On the first day they would ask people: "What are the problems in your community?"

And people would list problems.

On the second day, they would ask people: "Where do these problems come from?"

And the people would say: "It is the government." But the Green Belt people would continue to ask questions, such as, why is the water dirty? Because it rains very hard. Yes, but it always rains very hard; why is it the river dirty now? Because people live too close to the river. Why do people live too close to the river? Because they need the water. They cannot cultivate further away from the river, because the soil has washed away? Why has the soil washed away? Because the trees are not there to protect it. Why aren’t the trees there to protect it? Because they have been cut down. Why have they been cut down? And so on…until the solution became plain: They must plant trees.

The seminars were an exercise in "breaking the inertia" and motivating people to plant trees, and grow crops using furrows and terraces, Maathai said. When it came time to plant trees, she succeeded in motivating women (but not men, who refused to work on this new project). She went to train them with Kenyan foresters, but discovered something:

"A lot of professional people can be very complicated."

So she found ways to teach women how to plant trees without using technical terms and jargon. "And what do you know, when the trees grow up? They look just like the other trees!"

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to fully report on the speech, but here are some other wonderful quotes from Maathai, whose appearance was well-attended…even Oprah Winfrey was in the crowd!

"You know, when people are really rich, you sometimes don’t know what to tell them."

(As my wife Val pointed out, a notable hush fell over the Santa Barbara crowd at that moment.)

She talked about visiting Japan, and helping the Environmental Minister there rediscover an ancient Japanese concept–Mot Tai Nai–which is roughly comparable, she says, to the American concept of Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.

She mentioned a discussion about the Kyoto Protocols while in Japan, and said that "millions of Americans are living by the spirit of the Kyoto Protocols, so never mind what is happening in Washington, D.C."

My personal favorite? She talked about the dangers of consumerism, which she pithily pointed out can result in making purchases and coming home and discovering that: "You have not what you really need, but what you want."

Below the fold is a version of the speech she gave after winning the Nobel Prize (just one of her many, many honors).

I asked her if she thinks there’s a connection between our fast-paced Western style of life and the difficulty we have living in harmony with our planet, and our home. She wasn’t sure about that, but pointed out that in the Book of Genesis, God spends six days making our home, and all the other animals, and making sure their lives are good. Only then, at the last minute–"almost as an afterthought"–does he create Man. She added that the plants and the animals could survive very well without us, but we could not survive without them. Good point, Wangari!


Nairobi, Kenya –

When I was growing up in Nyeri in central Kenya, there was no word for desert in my mother tongue, Kikuyu. Our land was fertile and forested. But today in Nyeri, as in much of Africa and the developing world, water sources have dried up, the soil is parched and unsuitable for growing food, and conflicts over land are common. So it should come as no surprise that I was inspired to plant trees to help meet the basic needs of rural women. As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya in the early 1970’s, I listened as women related what they wanted but did not have enough of: energy, clean drinking water and nutritious food.

My response was to begin planting trees with them, to help heal the land and break the cycle of poverty. Trees stop soil erosion, leading to water conservation and increased rainfall. Trees provide fuel, material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade and beauty.

As household managers in rural and urban areas of the developing world, women are the first to encounter the effects of ecological stress. It forces them to walk farther to get wood for cooking and heating, to search for clean water and to find new sources of food as old ones disappear.

My idea evolved into the Green Belt Movement, made up of thousands of groups, primarily of women, who have planted 30 million trees across Kenya. The women are paid a small amount for each seedling they grow, giving them an income as well as improving their environment. The movement has spread to countries in East and Central Africa.

Through this work, I came to see that environmental degradation by poor communities was both a source of their problems and a symptom. Growing crops on steep mountain slopes leads to loss of topsoil and land deterioration.

Similarly, deforestation causes rivers to dry up and rainfall patterns to shift, which, in turn, result in much lower crop yields and less land for grazing.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, as I was encouraging farmers to plant trees on their land, I also discovered that corrupt government agents were responsible for much of the deforestation by illegally selling off land and trees to well-connected developers.

In the early 1990’s, the livelihoods, the rights and even the lives of many Kenyans in the Rift Valley were lost when elements of President Daniel arap Moi’s government encouraged ethnic communities to attack one another over land. Supporters of the ruling party got the land, while those in the pro-democracy movement were displaced. This was one of the government’s ways of retaining power; if communities were kept busy fighting over land, they would have less opportunity to demand democracy.

Land issues in Kenya are complex and easily exploited by politicians. Communities needed to understand and be sensitized about the history of land ownership and distribution in Kenya and Africa. We held seminars on human rights, governing and reducing conflict.

In time, the Green Belt Movement became a leading advocate of reintroducing multiparty democracy and free and fair elections in Kenya. Through public education, political advocacy and protests, we also sought to protect open spaces and forests from unscrupulous developers, who were often working hand in hand with politicians, through public education, political advocacy and protests.

Mr. Moi’s government strongly opposed advocates for democracy and environmental rights; harassment, beatings, death threats and jail time followed, for me and for many others.

Fortunately, in 2002, Kenyans realized their dream and elected a democratic government. What we’ve learned in Kenya — the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable management of natural resources and democratic governance — is also relevant globally.

Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy and democratic space are denied.

I believe the Nobel Committee recognized the links between the environment, democracy and peace and sought to bring them to worldwide attention with the Peace Prize that I am accepting today.

The committee, I believe, is seeking to encourage community efforts to restore the earth at a time when we face the ecological crises of deforestation, desertification, water scarcity and a lack of biological diversity.

Unless we properly manage resources like forests, water, land, minerals and oil, we will not win the fight against poverty. And there will not be peace. Old conflicts will rage on and new resource wars will erupt unless we change the path we are on.

To celebrate this award, and the work it recognizes of those around the world, let me recall the words of Gandhi: My life is my message. Also, plant a tree.

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Cheap Shots and Harsh Realities

A week ago, in a column in the LATimes, a careless young faux-conservative named Jonah Goldberg mocked the idea that we need to fear climate change. Here was one of his big "gotchas":

For example, Gore blames the disappearing snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro on global warming, but a 2003 study in Nature identified the clear-cutting of surrounding moisture-rich forests as the culprit.

Ah, well, thank God for that!

But, of course, it’s not that simple. I almost wish it was.

Here’s the full story on Kilimanjaro; its vanishing glaciers, its diminishing forests, the drought, and its vanishing rains, via Salon and a journalism program at the University of California at Berkeley. It’s written by Kate Cheney Davidson. It’s also available as a radio program at Living on Earth.

Personally, I prefer the secure retrieval and searchability of text, and will take the liberty of posting the story below the fold.

You’ll note nowhere in the story anyone sneeing at what is happening today on the mountain, unlike distant, oblivious, know-it-all Goldberg.


KIFURU JUU, Tanzania — This is not the place William Kiwali remembers from when he was a child. A thin man with good posture and stained teeth, Kiwali gestures to the steep hillside below him, where rows of parched cornstalks lean at oblique angles, brown and shriveled under the equatorial sun. "Our corn is very dry now," says Kiwali, "because the winter rains did not come." This is the third year his community has gone without the crucial late-autumn rains. A generation ago, the area was characterized by reliable rain, thick fog and generous streams. "The rivers were full," Kiwali says, and his family’s coffee, corn and bananas thrived. Now the rains are irregular, many streams run dry, and the corn, a staple food for Kiwali and his neighbors, doesn’t thrive as it once did.

Kiwali looks over his shoulder at the sleeping volcano, which looms more than 14,000 feet above his village of Kifuru Juu, just half a mile from the trekkers’ paradise of Kilimanjaro National Park. For over 250 years the legendary snows, rains and forests of Mount Kilimanjaro have sustained families living along the verdant slopes in the mountain’s rain shadow. Now, Kifuru Juu and hundreds of other communities that blanket the mountainside are suffering from the changes to their environment. "When I was little, there was a lot of snow on the mountain," Kiwali says. "Now there’s not much snow and the water has dried out."

Within the next 15 years, the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro are expected to disappear completely, and with them, some climate experts and government officials fear, a crucial portion of the region’s water supply. Over 1 million people who inhabit the lower reaches of Kilimanjaro, including Kiwali and his neighbors, depend on this water for their crops, livestock and domestic purposes. Conflicts over water shortages have already broken out between water users on the mountain, and some villages have been nearly cut off by their upstream neighbors. With declining precipitation levels driving glaciers toward extinction and threatening the area’s forests, scientists, environmental organizations and even the Tanzanian government are turning their attention to a complex set of questions: How will water resources, and the humans who depend on them, respond if the ice and trees disappear? What will happen as the world’s carbon levels continue to rise? For researchers and policymakers, the answers to these questions may be of academic interest or political concern, but for people like William Kiwali they are a matter of survival.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Bouncing along a rutted dirt road lined with flat-topped acacia trees, renowned climatologist and Ohio State University professor Lonnie Thompson looks out of place in his chinos and running shoes. Thompson is internationally known for his ambitious expeditions to extract ice-core samples from some of the highest glaciers on earth, and for his no-nonsense talk about climate change. "The tropics are an extremely important area to understand for two basic reasons," says Thompson. "For one, you’ve got 50 percent of the surface area of the planet in the tropics, and two, 70 percent of the earth’s 6.5 billion people live there. So you really need to understand natural climate variability in this area, as well as the human-induced changes that are taking place."

Kilimanjaro’s glaciers have fascinated explorers and scientists for centuries, but only recently have scientists begun to take detailed, quantitative measurements of the glaciers’ retreat. This is Thompson’s third expedition to study Kilimanjaro’s glaciers in the last seven years. "This trip we’ll be spending about 20 days up there," he says, lowering his head to get a better view of the ice-capped summit through the Land Cruiser’s dusty front windshield.

Located 200 miles south of the equator and rising more than 3 miles above the dry plains of northern Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro comprises three separate volcanoes. The tallest of the three, Kibo, stretches 19,340 feet above sea level and wears a crown of glaciers. When German geographer Hans Meyer made the first documented ascent of the peak in 1889, the glaciers dominated Kibo’s crest. Today, they cover less than 1 square mile, about a tenth the area they covered in Meyer’s time. Some glaciologists predict they will disappear entirely in the next 10 to 15 years, and Thompson says it could even happen sooner.

In 2002, Thompson and 10 of his colleagues published an article in the journal Science. The paper confirmed what many already knew: that Kilimanjaro’s famous cap of glacial ice is shrinking rapidly, with nearly 80 percent having disappeared between 1912 and 2000. What stunned readers, as well as the Tanzanian government, was that the article gave the glaciers an expiration date. Based on six ice cores drilled to bedrock and a comparison of aerial photos of the summit dating back to the early 20th century, Thompson and his colleagues concluded that "the disappearance of Kilimanjaro’s ice fields, expected between 2015 and 2020, will be unprecedented for the Holocene." In other words, not since the birth of the glaciers almost 12 millennia ago have the glaciers been in danger of disappearing — until now.

Before the fabled snows of Kilimanjaro fade, glaciologists like Thompson are in a race against time to understand fully the glaciers’ response to climate change. On this trip, Thompson and his team of researchers will document changes to the summit glaciers and collect water samples from various points on the mountain, to determine how much glacial water is present at different elevations. "If you go back 100 years on this mountain," says Thompson, pointing out the window at the broad-shouldered massif, "the whole summit was covered with glaciers. Since then, they’ve been retreating, and that water’s being discharged into the groundwater system. So it’s possible that a lot of water currently being consumed is older than 100 years, in which case the loss of the glaciers could have a very important impact on water supplies in this region."

And the problem goes beyond Kilimanjaro. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored research group composed of thousands of international experts, warns that key forest-health factors like runoff and soil moisture will be adversely affected throughout Africa as a result of global warming.

It’s early afternoon, and the Land Cruiser ferrying Thompson’s group has climbed far above the savannah, through a wide swath of cultivated land and up into the park itself. Above the forest belt, giant purplish heathers reach out across the road to sweep the truck’s sides. Thompson and his team perk up as the cool mountain air moves over their flushed faces.

Julius Minja sits in the front seat of the Land Cruiser, chatting with the driver in Swahili as the vehicle jostles its way up the last section of road. Minja is one of the most experienced climbing guides on Kilimanjaro and has served as lead guide on all three of Lonnie Thompson’s expeditions. At 45 years old, he has visited the summit of the mountain over 800 times in a 15-year period, and witnessed drastic changes to the mountain’s ice fields. Now, he says, much of the ice has disappeared.

"When people ask me about the changes on the glaciers," Minja explains, "I can put a map there, and show them. Do you see the glacier [I ask them]? This glacier used to be there, but just the name is left, nothing more."

Normally, monsoons create two periods of precipitation in this part of East Africa: the short rains, which arrive between mid-October and mid-December, and the long rains, which fall between mid-March and the end of June. Like Mount Rainier in Washington and Mount Shasta in California, Kilimanjaro acts as a rainmaker, gathering moisture into clouds around its base, and then wringing it onto its summit cones and steep slopes in the form of snow and rain. As the glaciers steadily retreat and the world’s temperatures warm, scientists are noticing that, at least for now, this rainmaking capacity appears to be decreasing.

Today the Kilimanjaro region, along with most of eastern Africa, is in the grip of a severe drought. International aid organizations warn of an impending large-scale famine, saying that the spring rains are doing little to alleviate an increasingly desperate situation. Periods of drought are common for this part of Africa, but local residents say this one seems different, and has prompted subtle but seemingly permanent changes to their way of life. Fireplaces now sit dormant in local homes, residents no longer wear sweaters even during the coldest months and dry spells last multiple years instead of just one.

For William Kiwali, these changes are most evident in his village’s irrigation ditches, which are now reduced, for the first time in his memory, to mere trickles. The ingenious system of furrowed waterways, which once carried water to farms up to 10 miles away, now reach nowhere near that far. Since the winter rains stopped coming, Kiwali says, the eight rivers and seven springs that normally feed this area are starting to dry up. About five years ago, according to Kiwali, people in his village of Kifuru Juu began to clash over water; some of the fights involved machetes. "This is not normal," says Kiwali, shaking his head sadly. "People never used to do this, but five years ago they starting fighting over who gets water."

Scientists and political leaders in Tanzania fear that the dwindling water supplies in places like Kifuru Juu will only get worse. The region’s declining precipitation is not only contributing to the glaciers’ demise, but is dramatically changing the forests as well. Some scientists say damage to the forests will have a more devastating impact on Kilimanjaro’s water than even the disappearance of the glaciers.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

"Shall we go into the forest?" asks Andreas Hemp, rolling up a large topographical map of the mountain in his spacious home office. Trim and energetic, Hemp is a German ecologist who has been studying the forests on Kilimanjaro for over a decade. This year, he is back to check on the dozens of rain and temperature gauges he has placed at various points on the mountain. Over time, Hemp has observed a decline not only in rainfall, but also in the forests’ ability to retain and percolate moisture into the soil. This climatic trend, he says, could have an enormous impact on the region’s water resources.

We load his once-white Nissan four-wheel drive and climb another 2,600 feet up a relatively smooth dirt track, past Old Moshi, the village where he rents a house next to a century-old Lutheran mission. Hemp looks admiringly at the neatly cultivated farms, much like those of Kiwali and his neighbors to the west. "It’s an agroforestry system," he explains, which mimics the ecosystem of a forest with complementary layers of plants that keep the soil moist. Near the ground, they plant potatoes and beans, then coffee, bananas and finally trees. Only now, says Hemp, the farms are half the size they used to be. He blames population growth for the shrinking farms, as well as for contributing to the area’s declining water supplies.

We enter the forest preserve, a section of the forest set aside in 1921, a full 50 years before Kilimanjaro National Park was established. In the last 70 years, the mountain has lost nearly a third of its forest cover to fire and deforestation. In the preserve, people can offset the trend by planting pine trees and cypress for timber production. But the strip is not used properly, and too many young trees are being chopped down, says Hemp.

"They should have properly paid forest officers, but they don’t, so the forest officers have to earn extra money and they sell the trees and timber of the forest." Illegal logging is rampant all over the mountain, and, along with human-triggered fires, has contributed to the deforestation on Kilimanjaro. "It’s a general problem in Tanzania," he explains, shrugging his shoulders. "The salaries are so low, no one can live on them."

This February, in an attempt to prevent further deforestation, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete placed a ban on cutting trees and harvesting timber in the forest preserve.

Hemp attributes the increasingly harmful effects of fires and logging to a drier climate; the region’s precipitation levels have been declining for the last 100 years. "Without this dry climate, the fires would be much smaller and not so disastrous as they are now," he says.

Hemp’s main concern, however, is how the loss of forest cover could contribute to the decimation of the mountain’s biggest source of fresh water. In a process called "fog-stripping," large, leafy trees in the upper mountain capture water vapor and funnel it in the form of droplets down to the forest floor. But when large chunks of forests are lost, there are fewer trees to milk water from the air, which, Hemp believes, could cause local water levels to plummet.

According to Hemp’s rain gauges, the annual loss of fog water roughly equals the yearly water needs of the entire population living on Kilimanjaro. In fact, the combined fog-water and rain yield for the upper forest belt is about 500 times the volume of the glacier runoff, so Hemp doubts that the glaciers contribute significantly to Kilimanjaro’s water resources. And if increasing population, declining precipitation and deforestation continue to plague the area, Hemp believes Kilimanjaro may lose all its high-altitude forests at the same time its glaciers disappear. "It’s a parallel trend," he says.

This prediction has Jacob Mushi, a retired forest officer who grew up on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, extremely worried about food security. Drought will put additional pressure on all the forests, he says, on the savannah as well as the mountain’s upper elevations. As formerly reliable water sources dry up, agriculturalists across the Kilimanjaro region are at the mercy of the rains. "When food is scarce and it’s the dry season, more people move into the forests to look for food," explains Mushi. "Without the trees," he says, "the water level really goes farther down. Forests are necessary for water conservation." The vicious feedback loop Mushi describes is already being played out in at least one community.

Like many of her neighbors, Rispaeli Jonas goes into the forest to chop down the trees. She worries that this practice is contributing to the drought, but she doesn’t have much choice. "For three years, we haven’t gotten any rain to grow food, so when the dry season comes, people just go to the forest to chop down the trees and make charcoal to buy food. Maybe the drought was caused by the forest being chopped down? I don’t know."

Jonas lives in the small village of Mwangaria, on the dry savannah below Kilimanjaro. To get there, one must travel rough, dusty roads past large plantations of sugar cane and rice framed by graceful acacia trees. Closer to the village, the trees thin, leaving large patches of dry, brown grass to sizzle in the hot sun. Most of the houses here are made of thin pieces of wood chinked with brown mud.

It’s late afternoon, and Jonas is sitting with a group of older women in the shade of a small stand of trees. Her hair is plaited in cornrows straight back on her head. She wears a multicolored kanga, a traditional African wrap skirt, below a black T-shirt. On her farm, Jonas grows beans and corn. "We planted for the short rains, but it was very little, and the seeds did not grow." Now, she says, they are preparing to plant for the long rains, which traditionally begin in March, but they are not sure if they can count on them.

Farmers in Mwangaria did not always rely on the rain.

"For now, we don’t have any place to get water for our crops because it was taken away," says Mwangaria’s chairman, Rhamadhani Mdoe, in rapid-fire Swahili. Beginning in the late ’70s, Mdoe says, a Japanese-owned rice plantation bought the water rights to the Rau River and began diverting it away from Mwangaria and into their paddies. Within a few years the village no longer had enough water for the people of Mwangaria to water their crops. To compensate, the villagers cut their own ditch to a spring over 7 miles away, but the ditch was poorly engineered and the water didn’t reach Mwangaria. Aside from a few shallow wells that locals say make them sick with amoebas, typhoid and diarrhea, locals rely on one working water pump, which the Red Cross installed in the late ’90s. But it is not enough water for their crops.

"All we count on is rain. After they cut down the Rau River, and we couldn’t get water from our ditch, our people really began to suffer," Mdoe says.

When she was young, Jonas says, there weren’t droughts like this one. "We didn’t go hungry when I was a young girl. Now there’s too much sun, it’s too hot and people are going hungry." When her children ask what they are going to do, she tells them, "We are just going to have to live this way. I think Jesus says we have to live this way and pray."

As water resources dwindle, Mwangaria’s plight is being repeated in many downstream communities. And anecdotal reports from Kilimanjaro’s arid north side, near the Kenyan border, suggest that many villages there are being hit even harder by the prolonged drought. Frinmene Massawe, a schoolteacher from Rombo, on Kilimanjaro’s northeastern side, says that "In Rombo, it can take people six hours to go and find water for drinking." In response, the Tanzanian Ministry of Water and several non-governmental organizations have joined together in a conservation project that could help people prepare for a drier, less predictable future.

"Climate change is a global issue," says Sylvand Kamugisha, the coordinator for the new initiative, called the Pangani River Basin Management Project. "So what is happening outside of Tanzania has an impact on our environment and the rains that trickle down to the basin. According to our records, our rivers are not flowing as they used to be."

"One of our big messages in this project is we’re not just in a period of a few bad years," says Kelly West, an American scientist with the World Conservation Organization, which is helping to fund the new initiative. "People are still in the mentality, we’re just having a bad year, but we’re not going to have the rains they remember from their childhood again. Climate change is happening and people need to change the way they use water."

The project, which is expected to take two more years, targets several key weaknesses in the government’s ability to regulate and conserve water. The goals include maintaining accurate data on available water and allocating it to users via a fee-based system. To avoid future conflicts over water, they hope to involve small water users in formulating water policy, and educate people to view water as a part of a larger ecosystem sensitive to climate change and local human activities. But while adaptive measures like these will help local communities manage their dwindling resources, area residents may have to make major adjustments to cope with diminished water levels.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Neil Baker, a British expatriate and longtime Tanzanian resident, has spent years dealing with Kilimanjaro’s water as part of his work as an engineer. "I came here to build power stations, and then I got involved in water, selling water pumps and installing water projects," he says. Until recently, he was also a farmer on Kilimanjaro. A wiry man with brilliant blue eyes, Baker struggles to sit still before his cup of tea.

It’s late afternoon outside a hotel in Moshi, a small city on the south side of the mountain.

In the late 1990s, after careful research on water rights and production yields, Baker and his wife, Liz, purchased a coffee plantation on Mount Kilimanjaro’s southwest flank. In their second year on the farm, the short rains failed and the Bakers ran out of water in February of 2000 despite owning two water rights. The next year was better, but 2002 was dry again and they lost 11,000 seedlings. To make matters worse, the price of coffee collapsed, so the Bakers switched to growing sugar snap peas and baby carrots for a European market. Though they knew these crops required a lot of water and were sensitive to warm temperatures, the Bakers figured they’d be all right. According to historical records from the farm going back nearly 50 years, May-September would be cold enough for a good crop.

"But it just didn’t happen," says Baker. "The temperatures we were recording were considerably higher that year." Shortly thereafter, the Bakers gave up and sold their farm.

Baker’s tanned face tightens with the memory of losing his farm, but he knows he’s lucky. He was able to pull out and move on — not an option shared by people like Kiwali or Jonas, or even, perhaps, for Baker’s own grandchildren. Still, Baker says, the ultimate impact climate change will have on Mount Kilimanjaro and its people remains unclear.

"I don’t know. Does anybody know at this stage? Apart from the White House, everybody agrees there’s a problem. But measuring it, quantifying it, proving it. Perhaps in 30 years’ time, someone’s going to look back and say, yeah, look at all this data. Where are we going to be in 30 years’ time? I’ve got three grandchildren right now, and they’re going to be having their own children. So my great-grandchildren are going to be primary school kids and this mountain is going to be … can I swear? It’s going to be fucked. It’s well on its way."

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Forget the Middle East…

Had the interesting experience last week of being interviewed by a good journalist (and friend) named Nomi Morris, formerly a bureau chief in Jerusalem for Knight-Ridder, and in Berlin for Time. Somehow she was able to get accurate and telling quotes out of me with just a few scrawls on a notebook. I’m envious, Nomi!

She writes a column for the Santa-Barbara News-Press. I’d link to it, but they’ve put up a firewall for all but subscribers, so it wouldn’t do you much good. It’s posted below the fold: Please read!

Here’s a taste:

A new survey in the National Journal showed that only 23 percent of Republicans in Congress believe humans are causing global warming. But Time’s poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe the mainstream science and want controls enacted. This means that by 2008, whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, environmental policy will change. 

That’s in part a reference to this study, brought up by Roger Pielke, Jr at Prometheus.

Also in the piece is a glancing reference to an important story in The Washington Monthly called "The  Emerging Environmental Majority." The piece says that the reason a bill designed to sell off public lands brought forward in the present-giving season last year by Richard Pombo and his slimy cohorts failed was that duck hunters and other "hook and bullet" users of the wilderness no longer disliked environmentalists as much as they feared far-right anti-environmental zealots. True, I think, and I hope Christina Larson is right when she argues that global warming will provide a new working consensus for the movement…although to write a brief history of the environmental movement and not mention John Muir and his inspiring presence? Mystifying.

Hinted at but not discussed in Nomi’s piece is the aspect of climate change that is most alarming and least understood: The possibility of big climactic swings. Here’s a good discussion from earlier this month in Scientific American. As the piece mentions at one point, "a conservative interpretation of the data [from the Cretaceous period] is worrisome enough," and adds:

In short, CO2 seems to pack a bigger punch than expected, perhaps because the warming becomes self-reinforcing.

Forget the Middle East.

The most urgent international issue facing Americans, as we celebrate Earth Day this weekend, is global warming. Finally — and justifiably — it is gaining traction as a top-tier news story and political concern. Time magazine dedicated a special issue to the topic, headlined: "Be worried. Be very worried." Vanity Fair’s current cover posed an elfin Julia Roberts and a worried George Clooney together with Robert Kennedy Jr. and Al Gore, all of them air-brushed green. "A threat graver than terrorism" blared its headline. In Santa Barbara last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned 450 business leaders that "the clock is ticking on global warming."

Although we’ve been hearing about the greenhouse effect for 25 years, the focus on climate change has sharpened recently. This is in part because ordinarily cautious scientists have ratcheted up the alarm meter since last summer, stating that the ill effects are already happening — and at a quicker pace than they previously believed. At the same time, shocking images from Hurricane Katrina and our lack of preparedness hit home for many of us.

Add to that the impending release of "An Inconvenient Truth," a well-reviewed documentary on Al Gore’s quiet campaign for action, along with three weighty books on the subject: Australian author Tim Flannery’s "The Weather Makers," Elizabeth Kolbert’s "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" and former Time science writer Eugene Linden’s "The Winds of Change." Suddenly the global warming crisis — and potential remedies — are being described in terms we can grasp.

The term "global warming" refers to carbon dioxide and other gases raising the Earth’s temperature to the point where it melts polar ice and upsets our planet’s natural balance. The greenhouse effect has grown alarmingly since industrialization stepped up the burning of fossil fuels more than 150 years ago. In that brief span, mankind has returned to the atmosphere the amount of carbon dioxide that it took the Earth’s flora 500,000 years to extract. Almost daily, there is a new report alerting us to odd weather patterns and the extinction of animal and insect species that can be linked to this trend.

Walrus pups are found dead in the Arctic because their mothers can’t make it to the next ice patch to give them food. Polar bears are drowning and could be wiped out by the year 2060. There will be no glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park by 2030. If Greenland’s ice sheet continues to melt at an accelerated rate, most of Florida, Boston and Manhattan could be underwater within our grandchildren’s lifetimes. In this decade, Jet Stream changes could cause what leading climatologist James Hansen calls a "Super El Niño" that would make the biblical rains that Southern California experienced in 2005 seem like a spring shower.

In China, glaciers feeding the Yellow River, which has been called the "cradle of civilization," have shrunk 17 percent over 30 years. Europe is cooling and a further weakening of the Gulf Stream could put it into a deep freeze. Last month, Cyclone Larry hit Australia at speeds of 180 mph, raising fears that it, too, was a link in the chain.

It all sounds very scary — because it is. The crux of the current "debate" is that the debate itself is over. There is scientific consensus on global warming and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We know the climate is changing. What we don’t know is how catastrophic it will be," said Kit Stolz of Ojai, who collects some of the most salient writings on the topic on his eclectic Web site, A Change in the Wind (

Skeptics — including many in the Bush administration — have set back management of the threat by perhaps 15 years. Mr. Gore compares federal dithering to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler prior to World War II. Others draw parallels to the tobacco industry’s stubborn efforts to dispute scientific evidence. Unfortunately, many who consider themselves economic conservatives reflexively resist information they associate with liberal environmentalists.

But this is no partisan issue. It is an existential threat that many businesses, churches, hunters, branches of the Republican Party — and even Fox TV — have begun to heed. A new survey in the National Journal showed that only 23 percent of Republicans in Congress believe humans are causing global warming. But Time’s poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe the mainstream science and want controls enacted. This means that by 2008, whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, environmental policy will change.

It has to. The United States is responsible for nearly 25 percent of global emissions. It has so far rejected the 163-country Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to lower emissions to below 1990 levels. But Kyoto or no Kyoto, concerned citizens are no longer waiting for federal leadership. The mayors of Chicago and Miami, as well as Santa Barbara’s Marty Blum, are among 224 mayors representing 40 million Americans who are enacting plans to lower output of offending gases. It isn’t just about preserving the fuzzy polar bear.

On the geopolitical level, climatic events will stoke regional tensions that already worry us — including the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. Weather conditions affect food and water supplies. Coastal flooding affects population movements. How that all affects conflict between ethnic groups and nations will determine issues of war and peace from the second half of this century onward.

A key point will be whether Western countries help China and India adopt "carbon-catching" technologies to harness their exploding demand for coal and other fossil fuels in a way that will make their quickly developing economies part of the solution rather than the problem.

On the local level, we can applaud ourselves just a little — and not just because there are 140 booths at today’s South Coast Earth Day Festival. California produced Patagonia and many other pioneers in the field of green business practices. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is among the more progressive politicians on the issue. And what happens in California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is extremely influential.

"If California wants a certain kind of car, Detroit will make it," says Mr. Stolz, who recently purchased a hybrid. He says that those who wish to take individual action should look at their household consumption of power: your car, your electricity and your heat. Ethanol-powered engines and other new technologies are on the way. But curtailing energy use or switching to "green" power is something most of us can do now.

For those who doubt we can alter the nation’s business model, Mr. Stolz points to three inspiring examples that show it can be done. In the 1980s, caps on sulphur dioxide emissions sharply reduced acid rain, allowing East Coast lakes to recover their health. When scientists warned about the hole in the ozone layer, we phased out much of our Styrofoam and aerosol use. And in 2000, Californians managed quickly to cut electricity use by 11 percent when utility deregulation threw the state into crisis.

Research shows that cost-conscious consumers and corporations are adaptable. DuPont Chemicals, for one, is way ahead of the White House, pledging to reduce its emissions to 65 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010.

A writer and outdoorsman, Mr. Stolz refers to the world we know as "our wonderful climate." Global conditions over the last 11,000 years, he told me, have nurtured life and beauty more than any time in the past 250 million years. Until recently, I was noddingly aware of global warming, but was content to let other good people deal with it.

Those days are over.

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Consensus Builds on Global Warming

The journey of a thousand miles…begins with a single consensus.

Remarkably, despite the opposition of the White House, a consensus on the need to reduce the rising levels of CO2 emissions right here in the U.S. appears to be forming.

Here’s a news story from Bloomberg, quoting numerous Republicans, including moderates (Christine Todd Whitman, former chief of the EPA in Bush’s first term), conservatives (such as Lindsay Graham from South Carolina), and likely presidential candidates, such as John McCain, on the need for legislation now.

The change is palpable in the Senate. Graham, who has said in the past that he was “on the fence” about climate-change legislation, became a stronger advocate for taking action after a trip to Alaska in August with McCain and Senators Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat. They heard from Native Alaskans who are experiencing melting permafrost, coastal erosion and other effects of climate change.

"Seeing is believing,” says Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop. Bishop says Graham believes global warming is a problem that must be addressed, while declining to say if Graham would support specific legislation such as the McCain-Lieberman measure.

"When you have the overwhelming evidence from eminent scientists on one side, and a few skeptics on the other, we are guided by the thoughts of the overwhelming, not the few,” says Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, who heads the House Science Committee.

Below the fold I’m posting a much deeper story by Amanda Griscom Little, on the particulars of the bills coming up for action. A vigorous debate among enviros has broken out about the bills being brought forward, by the likes of Dianne Feinstein, Jeff Bingaman, and John McCain and Joe Lieberman, among others. For those who think the movement isn’t going far enough, here’s a thought from the story:

"Even if climate advocates defy the odds and manage to break through the congressional impasse, it’s all but inevitable that Bush is going to veto whatever they manage to push through," says Sierra Club analyst Brendal Bell.

[Little adds]:

If that’s the case, why not push the debate in a greener direction and try to build support for the kind of legislation that could make a difference?

pril 24, 2006 | A small crop of new climate bills is sprouting up in Congress, and none too soon.

Earlier this month, a number of influential energy execs called on Congress to regulate industrial greenhouse-gas emissions. And earlier this week, the EPA quietly released dismal new figures showing that U.S. emissions are steadily rising.

The new bills are intended to tackle these challenges, but will they go as far as environmentalists — or even business bigwigs — think they should?

Leading the pack of new proposals is the Strong Economy and Climate Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is expected to introduce it soon after Congress returns from spring recess next week. A longtime ally of the green community, Feinstein has repeatedly voted for strong mandatory carbon caps. That’s why some enviros are disappointed to see her pushing a proposal that is cautiously middle-of-the-road — indeed, it may take the climate debate as many steps backward as forward.

Her bill would establish a mandatory cap-and-trade system — much like that called for by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., in their Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act — which would allow industry to buy and sell the right to pollute in the form of carbon credits. But while the McCain-Lieberman bill, for which Feinstein has voted in the past, would require carbon dioxide emissions to be cut to 2000 levels by 2010, Feinstein’s would extend the timeframe by a decade, calling for emissions to be 7.25 percent lower than today’s levels by 2020.

Still, that’s a more ambitious target than the one in the bill that Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced last June, which proposes to merely slow and then halt the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, without actually reducing them. Bingaman’s bill has become the center of the climate-policy debate and is being revised with Energy Committee Chair Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; if anything, a new version is expected to relax this goal even further.

David Doniger, policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, applauds Feinstein for introducing a "declining cap" that shrinks over time, requiring reductions of half a percent per year for five years, and then 1 percent per year thereafter.

"This is a very important new idea," Doniger says. "If the annual decline in the cap were extended indefinitely past 2020, then at some point it would do more than McCain-Lieberman."

Other enviros, though, stress that Feinstein’s target, as articulated in the draft proposal, doesn’t adequately address the urgency of the climate crisis (never mind Bingaman’s).

"The science overwhelmingly shows that we have to reduce emissions by at least half by mid-century to avoid catastrophic consequences," says John Stanton, vice president of National Environmental Trust. "This isn’t gonna get us even close, or started on the right foot."

Doniger is more optimistic that Feinstein’s strategy could yield meaningful reductions, but he does raise concerns. A key one is that the bill would allow industrial polluters to meet emissions goals by buying unlimited carbon-offset credits from the agriculture and forestry sectors, whose flora-rich lands act as sinks for carbon dioxide. The apparent aim is to attract political support for the bill from farm-state senators such as Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

While McCain and Lieberman would allow companies to meet just 15 percent of their emission-reduction goals by buying carbon credits, Feinstein would let them meet 100 percent with credits, meaning companies could achieve standards without reducing their direct emissions at all. And they wouldn’t have to buy those credits from other industrial facilities that have cut their emissions more than required because there would be an unlimited supply of carbon credits available from farmers and foresters who take steps such as protecting forest and wildlife habitat from development, using tilling methods that release less carbon from the soil, planting trees on low-value rangelands, and growing crops like corn and switchgrass that can be made into ethanol.

Some wildlife advocates are delighted by this approach, reasoning that protected forestland means protected creatures. Says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, "We applaud Sen. Feinstein and are pleased to see a provision to protect wildlife" in her bill.

Doniger acknowledges that forest preservation and conservation tillage are good outcomes, but worries that using carbon credits to promote these activities would come at the expense of crucial investments in clean technology.

"Many of these methods would be parlayed into incredibly low-cost offsets, as low as $1 to $2 [per ton of carbon dioxide] — far cheaper than the carbon credits that could be purchased from utilities in the market-based trading program," he says. This would drive down the cost of all carbon credits — lower even than the $7-per-ton price limit proposed in the Bingaman bill, which is itself less than a fifth of the current price on the European carbon-trading market, about $36.

Doniger also points out that many of the activities that would qualify for farm offsets — such as planting corn and using better tilling methods — are being undertaken by farmers anyway.

"It would simply be a waste of dollars to invest in farming practices that are already under way," he says — dollars that could otherwise be invested in next-generation technologies that would lay the foundations for a new energy system.

Other climate bills expected to be unveiled or resurface in the coming months are a mixed bag, say enviros.

McCain and Lieberman have indicated that they plan to seek a vote on their climate legislation this spring or summer, but they are not expected to remove the hefty subsidies for the nuclear-power industry present in the last version of the bill.

On the House side, Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., and John Olver, D-Mass., have a bill on the table similar to McCain-Lieberman’s, only without the nuclear component. This is the legislation getting the highest praise from enviros.

Less popular is Rep. Tom Udall’s, D-N.M., Keep America Competitive Global Warming Policy Act, introduced on March 29. Not only would it cap prices for greenhouse-gas credits at about $7 per ton, it fails to set an emissions cap, instead giving the U.S. EPA three years after the date of enactment to set one.

"That’s called a punt," Stanton says. "This bill has no details in it. There’s no reason to take it seriously."

Stanton says he’s disappointed to see green allies offering red meat to skeptical lawmakers, whether it’s in the form of ag incentives or nuke incentives or ambiguous caps.

"There’s a race to the bottom going on," he says. "Because of the ‘just say no’ attitude in Congress, you have lawmakers trying to get to ‘yes’ by negotiating compromises so great they no longer offer meaningful climate solutions."

Counters Doniger, "Some of the people who used to say ‘no’ are now saying ‘maybe,’ and that’s a very good thing. Sure, some people have been trying to find the support for legislation by making it weaker. But there are also efforts under way to make it smarter, so that it solves the global-warming problem but in a way that provides stability and incentives for business."

Feinstein spokesperson Scott Gerber defends Feinstein’s effort to do just that. "Right now in the Senate, it’s very difficult to move any kind of climate initiative forward," he says. "The bottom line for the senator is that she wants some kind of action to be taken, and she believes it’s possible to find a middle ground that a critical mass can agree on."

Still, many activists think now is the time to put forward aggressive proposals, not to offer further concessions. Within the last year, public opinion has shifted markedly in favor of action to stave off climate change. Americans are reacting to a steady barrage of new scientific evidence, to an increasing number of media outlets that are finally reporting global warming as fact instead of disputed theory, and to climate and weather changes that people can see with their own eyes, from devastating hurricanes to melting glaciers to out-of-whack seasons.

"Why, at a time when there has never been more public support for ambitious climate-policy initiative, would climate-policy advocates lower the bar for acceptable solutions?" asks Stanton. "It’s too early in the game for that. They need to stand their ground."

Sierra Club policy analyst Brendan Bell agrees. "Even if climate advocates defy the odds and manage to break through the congressional impasse, it’s all but inevitable that Bush is going to veto whatever they manage to push through," he says. If that’s the case, why not push the debate in a greener direction and try to build support for the kind of legislation that could make a difference?

Doniger is more optimistic about prospects for consequential global-warming legislation, arguing that the climate in Washington is changing as fast as that of the atmosphere: "You can’t underestimate the growing support from industry leaders for meaningful climate policy. We’ve even got Murkowski talking about how bad global warming is for her state," he says, referring to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

As for the possibility that President Bush will come on board, Doniger counsels, "Never say never."

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Happy Birthday, John!

Dear John:

Happy birthday!

I’ll never meet you,  but I feel I know you pretty well. I’ve followed you in your books up some of your trails. I’ve gone out of the city and up into the mountains and I’ve seen some of what you found up there.

Today especially I won’t forget you. Sometimes you said you felt closer to absent friends when away even than when in your company, and sometimes I feel closer to you perhaps than I should.

I’m not alone, of course. Activists, botanists, conservationists, the makers of the national parks, nature lovers and poets and writers from around the world–everyone who knows the Sierras knows you, and many of them know the mountains because of you.

Even as a write, two more of your admirers are following your first great California walk, from San Francisco to the Sierras, the lucky bums.

I shall be quietly content for now to be what another of your admirers, Waldo Emerson, called "an unknown friend." 

You always had a way of asking questions, John. Even before we had the words to describe some of your ideas, you asked us: why not?

"The hall and the theater and the church have been invented, and compulsory education. Why not compulsory recreation?" you wondered, back at the dawning of the age of the outdoor recreation industry. This concept has been translated, dully, into what American schoolkids call "p.e." but some traces of your insistence on beauty and health still remain, in our hikes and parks and wilderness parks. "How hard to pull or shake people out of town!" you reminded us, again and again, in a thousand ways. "Earthquakes cannot do it," nor even plagues."

It’s no better now, John, I write this in a virtual reality almost complete devoid of matter, and yet it pulls us all out of the natural, indoors, away from what you loved most.

Most of all this past month, after reading a book by a mountain scientist, "The Weather Makers," I’ve been thinking about a question you asked about the moutanins that often has been raised by others again, from Michael Cohen in "The Pathless Way," to Frederick Turner in "Rediscovering America." First published in l938, in a notebook you wrote sixty years earlier, you asked:

"I often wonder what man will do with the mountains–that is, with their utilizable, destructible garments. Will he cut down all the trees to make ships and houses? If so, what will be the final and far upshot? Will human destructions like those of Nature–fire and flood and avalanche–work out a higher good, a finer beauty?"

You distinguish between the earth–the rocks–and the life upon the rocks (what scientists call the biosphere). Even at our worst, you remind us, we’re not likely to greatly imperil the earth itself.

Touchingly, with an idealist’s openness to fate, you assume that if we destroy a tree, we will get some use out of it.

John, I must tell you the truth. I believe you would want it. You always wanted to see everything possible to see; storms, the tops of mountains, trees waving wildly in the wind, oceans, bears, dead and alive–nothing terrestrial was ever foreign to you. You first great find was a rare lily in a Canadian swamp far far beyond the reach of the maps of the time. You would want to know.

"The final and far upshot" of the fate of the mountains at the moment is not good.

Somehow, I suspect this won’t surprise you.

"That anyone would try to destroy such a place seems incredible," you wrote of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley, before San Francisco and the Congress drowned it under a reservoir. "but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything."

Of mountains around the world today, Australian scientist Tim Flannery writes in The Weather Makers:

"Nothing in predictive climate science is more certain than the extinction of many of the world’s mountain-dwelling species. We can even foretell which will be the first to go. This high degree of scientific certainty comes from three factors. First, the effect of rising temperatures on mountain habitats is easily calculated, and past adjustments in response to warming are well documented. Second, the conditions that many mountain-dwelling species can tolerate are known. And finally, as the climate warms, mountains species have nowhere to go but up, and the height of mountain peaks worldwide has been precisely ascertained. Given the rate of warming, we can calculate the time to extinction of most mountain-dwelling species." (Chapter 18)

Not only will we destroy the mortal "garments" of the mountains, John, but not for any reason, but out of sheer carelessness.

For example, the Canadian Forest Service reports that "the largest insect epidemic ever to infect North America" is devastating British Columbia and is expected to spread east and possibly south.

The Washington Post reports that lumber mills are running "flat-out" right now but as soon as the "beetlewood" runs out, the mills are expected to close, and the small towns around them degrade. The epidemic is firmly linked to what we call global warming.

We’ve put ourselves in the soup, John, and turned up the heat. The glaciers you found in California and Alaska; well, we’ve burned through a half-billion years of summers heating our houses and driving our smoky cars and trucks and busses and boats and planes. They’re shrinking from our touch. We’ve changed the look of the earth, the magnitude of our forests, strewn lines of clouds in the sky and pollutants in the seas, and now, inevitably, we’ve changed our atmosphere too.

But as I say, perhaps you wouldn’t be too surprised. Once, as a young man, your father had you chip a well through stone eighty feet down, only to have you hit a pocket of "choke-damp."

We call it carbon dioxide. It nearly killed you.

It’s not doing us much good, even at a mere 380 parts per million, though I guess the plants like it.

But you always were one to look for practical solutions–even invented a bed that would put a late sleeper on his feet in the morning. We’re inventing anew, as well, perhaps we’ll be able to work it out. And certainly some people find ways to live in harmony with this earth for some of their lives.

But this much I know: As soon as you came out of that poisoned well, as soon as you got back on your feet, you set out walking and you didn’t come back.

You wanted to see all you could see of this "grand show" of ours, and by God you did.

In your honor, I’m taking the dogs and anyone else around here who chooses to go, and I’m going out for a sunset walk, to see again the vast sweetness of this world.

"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

Happy 168th, John. I’ll see you in the light between the mountains and the stars.

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The Big Burp

The day after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes (sorry, it’s behind a firewall) resorts to horror movie scenarios to awaken law-makers to the risks of climate change.

It’s a dark and stormy night, and deep within the ocean the muddy bottom begins to stir.

Giant squids flee in horror as reservoirs of methane frozen at the bottom of the ocean begin to thaw, releasing bubbles that rise to the surface. Soon the ocean surface is churning and burping gas like a billion overfed infants, transforming the composition of our atmosphere.

That’s a scene from a new horror movie I’m envisioning, called "Killer Ocean."

I’m hoping it might play in the White House and Congress, because it depicts one of the more bizarre and frightening ways in which global warming could devastate our planet — what scientists have dubbed the "methane burp."

Since President Bush is complacent about conventional risks from climate change, such as the prospect that those of us in Manhattan will end up knee-deep in the Atlantic, let’s try fear-mongering.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And thousands of gigatons of methane, equivalent to the total amount of coal in the world, lie deep within the oceans in the form of ice-like solids called methane hydrates.

The big question is whether global warming — temperatures have risen about one degree Fahrenheit over the last 30 years — will thaw some of these methane hydrates. If so, the methane might be released as a gargantuan oceanic burp. Once in the atmosphere, that methane would accelerate the greenhouse effect and warm the earth and raise sea levels even more.

"The juiciest disaster-movie scenario would be a release of enough methane to significantly change the atmospheric concentration," suggests the excellent discussion of methane hydrates by scholars at

One reason for concern about a methane hydrate apocalypse is that something like it may have happened several times in the past. For example, 251 million years ago, there was a catastrophe known as the Permian extinction that came close to wiping out life on earth.

Nobody is sure what caused the Permian extinction, but one theory is that it was methane burps.

And as long as I’m fear-mongering, there was also a better understood warming 55 million years ago, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM. That was a period when temperatures shot up by 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the tropics and by about 15 degrees in polar areas, and many scientists think it was caused by the melting of methane hydrates.

"The PETM event 55 million years ago is probably the most likely example of their impact, though there are smaller events dotted through the record," says Gavin Schmidt, a NASA expert on climate change. He emphasizes the uncertainties, but adds that since we are likely to enter a climate that hasn’t been seen for a few million years, it’s reasonable to worry about methane hydrates.

Hey, reason-based calls for action haven’t had much effect, even though (according to this poll from ABC/TV, Stanford University, and Time, fully 85% of the US population thinks that global warming is happening). Horror movie scenarios are worth a try.

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Remember Ketchup the Vegetable?

Back in the l980’s, the Reagan administration famously categorized ketchup as a vegetable, to meet minimum nutrition requirements for school lunches.

Now the second Bush administration has continued this glorious tradition of Republican prevarication, this time in regard to wetlands.

Check out "Field & Stream" conservation director Bob Marshall’s biting column on the topic. This is how it begins:

The Bush Administration announced last week that the nation is no longer losing wetlands–as long as you consider golf course water hazards to be wetlands.


(HT: Huffington Post)


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Advertising Sustainability

A great image from Australia, the clear winner (according to the quite wonderful Oikos environmental economics blog) in an advertising competition sponsored by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

David Jeffrey sensibly asks:

Why are you interested in environmental issues? Because you’re passionate about nature? Because you’ve visited places that are beautiful and think we can make our backyard a little more beautiful too? Because you can envisage a world that’s healthier and fairer and feel good about trying to give the world a little bump in that direction? Or because you want to ease some of your guilt about existing and eating and breathing and buying nice clothes? I don’t know anyone who does it for the last reason.

Have you ever seen an ad for Diet Coke that says "Stop eating sugar you big fat slob"?. Hardly. They show slim active people having fun and imply that’s what we’ll be like if we drink Diet Coke. Manipulative? Maybe. Effective? Certainly.

(Now let’s see if Typepad can keep this image up…)


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Sing It! “Impeach the President”

According to polls, as Rosa Brooks writes in a column in the LATimes, the people have at last woken up to the lies of the current administration, even if they’re too apathetic to do anything about it.

What would happen if mainstream Americans [demonstrated their opposition]? If the 33% of Americans who think Bush should be impeached took to the streets to peaceably express their views, that would be almost 100 million marchers — enough to wake up even the most somnolent of politicians. If the 47% of Americans who think U.S. troops should leave Iraq ASAP actually marched on Washington, our troops would already be on their way home. If the 60% of Americans who disapprove of Bush’s job performance decided to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the White House, they’d spill over into a dozen neighboring states, and the American political machine would grind to a screeching halt.

Now, Neil Young has taken action, recording a song called, yes, "Impeach the President." It should be out in about two months, with, according to Editors & Publishers, a 100-voice choir.

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