Archive for 2006 June

Bush Administration to Salmon, Fisherman: Drop Dead

The salmon industry on the West Coast is dying. The Bush administration–and Karl Rove in particular, as this story from the Wall Street Journal shows–helped kill it.

For more on what happened and what is happening, including pictures and audio links, see this great story from Mother Jones a couple of months ago.

But what’s especially infuriating to fishermen, Democrats, and reporters is the administration’s tactic regarding this and many other environmental issues. They simply refuse to respond to any questions.

It’s called stonewalling.

The administration won’t even consider disaster relief for suffering fishermen, despite the pleas of  many Congressman and the Republican governor of the nation’s most populous state.

"I am at a loss as to what further information you need so that our fishing-dependent communities can become eligible to receive disaster assistance," Governor Schwarzenneger said.

As The Oregonian said yesterday in an editorial:

The West Coast salmon fishing industry is nearly dead in the water, and everybody can see it’s going to hit the rocks. But so far, the Bush administration is unwilling to lift a finger to help.


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A Test of Our Character

Maybe the most encouraging book I’ve read this year is by a young conservative columnist named Rod Dreher. It’s called Crunchy Cons and in this book he argues, to put it in a nutshell, that so-called conservatives who choose efficiency and profit over livable cities, good honest food, beauty, and the health of the planet, aren’t really conservatives at all.

I hope to write a feature on this book, which I think has a lot to say to this nation, and which I hope will be taken seriously by the right and left, but for now (while I’m trying to catch up on about nine different studies and papers) let me just quote a representative passage. In this passage he mentions about another book along the same lines, called "Dominion," by another young conservative named Matthew Scully, who has spoken scathingly of Dick Cheney’s style of hunting.

In "Dominion," Matthew wrote that when we look at an animal (and, he might have said, a forest) and see it only in terms of what practical use it can be to us, we are not seeing what’s really there, only an extension of ourselves. Conservatives see quite clearly the danger of sentimentalizing the natural world; hence our dismissive attitude toward those environmental extremists who see no essential difference between a redwood tree, a spotted owl, and a human being. But we on the right don’t see so well is the cost, moral and otherwise, of our hardheaded so-called realism.

Take factory farming. If we only think of farm animals, say, in terms of their ending up on our dinner plates, there’s no logical objection to industrialized meat production of the sort that crams thousands of animals into cramped pens, never lets them see daylight, and jacks them up with antibiotics to avoid infection from their unhealthy confinement, and hormones to boost their growth. But people recoil from films and photographs depicting the ugly reality of factory-farming methods, because there is something within us that cannot abide treating creatures this way–even creatures we plan to slaughter for food. Again, this paradox is hard to explain to vegetarians, but responsible hunters and livestock farmers know it instinctively. It’s about respect.

"Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship," Matthew wrote. "We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they stand unequal and powerless before us."

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Hiking With Job

"A nature hike through the Book of Revelations" was how Al Gore described life in a world with a climate forever changed by global warming.

It’s a great line, and it appears that it resonated not just with me, but with the great Tom Toles as well.


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Save the Flag, Burn the Planet

Yes, I exaggerated a little in the headline.

In fact, the nation didn’t save the flag. (I’ll leave aside the question of how threatened it was.)

Regardless, the "flag-burning" measure passed the House, has been given a head-nod by the States, and failed in the Senate by a single vote. The President said he wanted to sign it.

By contrast, a moderate measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions failed to win even a majority in the Senate a couple of years ago, never even came up for a vote in the House, and would have been vetoed by the President, if by some miracle it reached his desk.

Logically it follows then, if we can trust the "100 top climate scientists" contacted by the AP about the science in An Inconvenient Truth, than continuing to emit greenhouse gases means we will all too soon begin Al Gore called "a slide towards destruction."

Is it an exaggeration to say our elected representatives would rather save the flag than the planet?

Please, show me the flaw in my logic. I want to see it.

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Huge Storm Forces Bush To Say “Global Warming”

Hurricane Katrina couldn’t force President Bush to say the words "global warming," but a huge storm that has drenched the East Coast just did — thanks to an elm tree dropped in front of the White House.

Interestingly, Bush claimed in a brief statement that he has "consistently said" that global warming is a "serious problem," even though just last fall, according to a book by his adoring biographer Fred Barnes, Bush met with author Michael Crichton and declared himself "a dissenter on the theory of global warming." 

Is he readying a climb-down from stage one of the four stages of climate change denialism?

For more, take a look at this devastatingly sharp report by Bill Blakemore of ABCNews. The first three graphs read:

June 26, 2006 — A perfect storm of drenching rain, irony, political rancor, public fear and — at the last minute like a fierce stroke of lightning — word from the highest court in the land, descended on the nation’s capital today.

This storm — pulling in many parts of the global warming emergency — also broke through the White House perimeters and helped bring down a century-old elm tree, laying it across the driveway.

Even President Bush was drawn into the storm this morning, talking about climate change in a way he may find difficult to explain.

If there’s one piece of good news regarding global warming of late, it’s the increasing willingness of the national media to talk bluntly about the issue. More on this soon.

For now, let’s remember this tree for doing what it could to awaken us to the crisis.



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Happy Birthday, George

George Orwell is a great writer, period, and if you ask yours truly, his greatness comes through in "l984" not  just in the prescience of his thought, but in the passion of Winston and Julia. Surely they are the sexiest of all couples in political literature.

I do wonder why on earth he changed his name from Eric Blair to George Orwell. Yes, it’s a pen name, but the second name’s no more memorable than the first. I’ve asked a couple of English friends, assuming it must be some sort of secret apparent only to Brits, but no one seems to know.

One of Orwell’s many charms is his ability to write extraordinarily well not just as a novelist and essayist, but casually, off the cuff. Here’s a column on the common toad that I treasure, which includes, characteristically, a great big dollop of common sense:

I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

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Fire and Ice

Of all current issues, climate change dominated in the LATimes this Sunday.

Does that count as good news? (I wish.)

Fire in the Southwest worst in years…in June. "Could be a season of historic severity." Key paragraph:

That lack of precipitation created the conditions that are causing so many large fires. Meteorologists believe the West is in the grips of a severe drought cycle — the kind the region experiences only once every half a century. Some experts think climate change also may be reducing Western precipitation.

Ice melting in Greenland far faster than expected (in a very well-written story by Robert Lee Hotz). Key passage:

University of Texas physicist Ginny Catania pulled an ice-penetrating radar in a search pattern around the camp, seeking evidence of any melt holes or drainage crevices that could so quickly channel the hot water of global warming deep into the ice.

To her surprise, she detected a maze of tunnels, natural pipes and cracks beneath the unblemished surface.

"I have never seen anything like it, except in an area where people have been drilling bore holes," Catania said.

No one knows how much of the ice sheet is affected.

But, realistically, readers of the LATimes probably already mostly accept climate change.

Even more encouraging, in the national conservative pull-out Parade magazine that comes with the Sunday paper, is a story by Eugene Linden, a former Time science writer (whom I interviewed a couple of months ago) called Why You Can’t Ignore Climate Change. Key paragraph:

From the Fertile Crescent to the Yucatan peninsula, past civilizations made the fatal mistake of assuming that good weather would continue. An abrupt shift to drought in Mesopotamia 4,200 years ago probably spelled the doom of the Akkadian culture, which united city-states into the first known empire. Others see the fingerprints of climate in the collapse of the Mayans around 900 A.D., the disappearance of the Anasazi from the American Southwest a few centuries later and the end of Norse expansion into the New World in the 14th century. A recurrent pattern of history has been for civilizations to take root and flourish while the weather is good, only to fall when the weather suddenly changes.

More than any popular writer I know, Linden has brought forward the risk of global instability, or what he calls "a flickering climate." This flickering has been detected in the distant past, but in the most recent 10,000 years (with a couple of brief-but-alarming exceptions) our climate has been remarkably stable. Quite probably, that stability has contributed enormously to the success of what we call civilization. Do we really want to pull the rug out from under ourselves? Maybe better not…



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Sunday Morning on the Planet (Remembering the Solstice)

I’m embarrassed: I forgot to mark the solstice on this blog.

Fortunately, the wonderful Earth & Sky radio program, which works closely with many wonderful scientists, and thankfully posts its reports, did not overlook this blessed day.


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Art v. Bird Flu

Yesterday, the World Health Organization confirmed the first known human-to-human transmission of avian flu, a disease which some fear could become a pandemic comparable to the deadly Spanish flu of l918-l919. (Although many scientists consider that unlikely: for more, see the stunningly thorough Fluwiki.)

The good news is that this single case of avian flu transmission, from a son to a father in Indonesia, was not duplicated among over fifty others in his family, despite a month’s opportunity, so doctors are confident it doesn’t transmit easily.

But speaking of stunning! Take a look at this extensive story on "the mad scientist as artist" in Salon. (Non-subscribers will have to look at an ad to see the whole story, but it’s worth it.) Natalie Jeremijenko, a former neuroscientist and Australian rock concert promoter, has turned her phenomenal energy, command of technology, and sheer brain power towards using science to open people’s eyes to the natural world.

Birds–wild and robot–and their voices introduce visitors to her exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York to the idea that healthy populations of wild birds are necessary to stop the spread of the disease. (When wild birds land on a perch, they activate the recorded voices.) Healthy wild birds require healthy wetlands.

Here’s what it sounds like, via Salon’s Kevin Berger:

"Tick, tick, tick. That’s the sound of genetic mutations, of the avian flu becoming a deadly human flu," says a professorial male voice. "Do you know what slows it down? Healthy sub-populations of birds. Increasing biodiversity, generally. It is in your interest that I’m healthy, happy, well fed. Hence, you could share some of your nutritional resources instead of monopolizing them. That is, share your lunch."

Next comes a female voice. "You have such a strange relationship to ownership that holds across species. I’d like to suggest that we share the land and its productive capacity — the worms, the plants, the future generations of seeds, the nesting grounds. Do you think you own this too?" The haughty voice continues. "You know those mute swans now dying all over Europe? They don’t normally migrate," she says. When it comes to bird flu and human deaths, "You’re bringing it on yourselves. But that means you can fix it. The first step is to give me a little bit of that bar."

These are some brainy birds. They’re telling us how the destruction of biological diversity is a crime against nature and increases the risk of disease. Jeremijenko explains that wild birds in Europe and Asia, fleeing ailing wetlands, are forced to roost near scummy ponds on farmlands, where they come in contact with infected chickens.

Yet rather than preserving wild lands, she laments, the international response has been the "mass slaughter of millions of birds," which only fans the flames of the flu.

"The birds are arguing that the reason we have diversity in nature is to protect us against disease," she says. "The birds are arguing that if we were to address the problem effectively, with a systems-level view, we would increase the health of domestic and wild birds, and that would be our best protection." Her birds, she says, also remind us we don’t live in plastic bubbles.

"The greatest vectors of bird flu have been freeways, airports and railways. People get on with infected birds, get off, and trade at stops along the way. It’s human migration that is transmitting this disease, not the migration of wild birds themselves."

Jeremijenko always sounds like an excitable activist. But she does do her homework. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme concluded, "Restoring tens of thousands of lost and degraded wetlands could go a long way towards reducing the threat of avian flu pandemics." Ecologists at the University of Georgia, as reported by New Scientist, "have shown that killing wild animals with a disease like flu could actually lead to more infected animals, not fewer."


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Well-Connected Conservative Predicts Bush Administration Shift to Reduce CO2 Emissions

Irwin Seltzer, despite his prominent post among as house economist and contributing editor for the far-right Weekly Standard, is a good writer and not an ideologue. (Like Eric Blair, I find these two traits often go together.)

Seltzer endorsed a carbon tax earlier this year, and told me in an email that "he felt there was enough evidence to warrant prudential activity."

For a conservative economist, that’s akin to shouting "Emergency!" and "Help! Help!" from a rooftop.

Now Seltzer, who often casually mentions inside political moves from Republican circles in his column, reports that newly-designated Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson may at long last move the Bush administration to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

Then there is the environment, a policy
area in which the Bush administration is in something of a time warp. No honest person can with certainty assert that global warming is a threat. But any responsible person can see that the evidence is sufficient to suggest that it might be, and that some action to contain emissions of greenhouse gases is an insurance policy worth having. Paulson is Wall Street’s greenest titan, chairman of the Nature Conservancy, a bird-watcher, an advocate of a greenhouse gas emissions trading system for the United States and of mandatory curbs on emissions if voluntary action proves inadequate. At Goldman, he allocated $1 billion for investment in renewable energy and energy-saving projects. He is likely to make his voice heard in an administration that is said to be ready to move from its justifiable opposition to the Kyoto treaty to more positive proposals for emissions reduction.

To the far right, of course, the slight possibility of a Bush administration acting sensibly to preserve our lovely climate is worrisome.

But although this news this gives me some hope, I still have doubts that Paulson, despite his good intentions, will get anywhere in this mulish administration.

For one, our famously faith-based president has met privately with Michael Crichton, who calls global warming a hoax, to talk about climate change. According to Bush’s worshipful biographer, Bush came out of the meeting calling himself a "dissenter" on the "theory" of global warming.

That would put him at the first stage of global warming denialism; the "it’s not happening" stage. (That position was undercut again, for what seems to be about the 500,000th time, with the long-overdue confirmation of Michael Mann’s famous "hockey stick"  graph, showing that the global average temperatures, after a thousand years of relative stability, have been rocketing upward in the last thirty years, in concert with rising levels of CO2.)

And Bush trusts energy policy to Dick Cheney, who judging from this adoring interview with Sean Hannity, is stuck on the second stage of global warming denialism (it’s happening, but it’s not our fault).

Bringing these two to reason won’t be easy. As Dorothy Parker once said: "You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks."

But we wish you luck, Henry. We’re all going to need it.

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