Archive for 2006 November

LA Times Hints Supremes Will Split Difference on CO2 as Pollutant Ruling

The LA TImes is under tremendous pressure this fall. Circulation fell nearly 9% in the last quarter alone, the publisher and the editor were fired, and its owner, the Tribune Company, itself is on the market and likely to be sold off (in parts or as a whole) before the end of the year.

For those interested in reporting in the Western U.S., this is troubling news, because no other publication on the West Coast has the resources or the history of this newspaper, for all its flaws, and because despite its challenges, it has done a superb job reporting on political and environmental news the last couple of years.

Lately front-page stories have taken a different tack. In an effort–I think–to distinguish itself from the wire services that lesser papers rely on, and to compete with aggressive Internet speculation and rumor-mongering, the paper has begun featuring stories that hint at where events are trending.

This is tricky, because it requires inside knowledge but doesn’t fall back on sourcing, which would take the story into a this spokesman-said-but-then-this-other-spokesman-said direction, which becomes long and dull. This tack also asks readers to recognize and reward subtlety, which is a perilous business indeed in today’s media culture.

Nonetheless, the paper accurately hinted that Pombo (R-Tracy), would not survive his battle for re-election, for one, and also accurately suggested that the spinach contamination by the 0157 e. coli bacterium would be linked to cattle farming not far from the spinach growing. (An easy guess? Perhaps, but not to those of us who didn’t know.)

Now in a front-page story by David Savage, the newspaper suggests that the Supreme Court will split the difference on the crucial question of regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, it’s possible that the court will follow the language of the Clean Air Act, which does call for the EPA to regulate "any physical, chemical (or) biological … substance or matter which is emitted … into the ambient air." After all, the law of the land does define "the public’s welfare to include effects on "climate" and "weather."

This right-wing court likely will not dare defy go that far. But because it includes some liberals and at least one moderate with a well-established interest in enviro matters, David Souter, it will instead, Savage hints, "rule that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, but that the EPA’s administrator is free to decide whether to issue new emissions standards for it. In the past, the court has been very reluctant to require an agency to issue new regulations.

A split decision would not force the federal agency to regulate greenhouse gases, but it could clear the way for California and the states to do so on their own."

Last week I reported that esteemed oceanographer Tim Barnett said that to stablize the atmosphere and prevent global heating beyond what is already "in the pipeline," we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60%. That’s not going to happen under this court, obviously. But a split decision would allow states to begin to act where the Federal goverment has failed. It’s an imperial gesture, infuriating in its arrogance (we’re not going to do anything, but if you peons feel you must, we won’t stop you).

But it’s a start.

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“Eco-Thug” Loses to Idealist, Helped by President Bush

A charming story yesterday in the LA Times by Faye Fiore looks at how an idealist named Jerry McNerney, unwanted by the Democratic Party, living off his savings, backed by over a thousand volunteers, defeated the "eco-thug" Richard Pombo, the notoriously anti-enviro Congressman from the Tracy area in CA, despite millions of dollars spent in his district by Republicans.

How did he do it? Well, he had the backing of the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Fund, and numerous other enviro organizations…and over a thousand volunteers.

Plus, the President came to the district. With Bush’s poll ratings in California well below the one-third approval mark, that probably was a bad idea…but of course, the Current Occupant seems to think that he can overturn bad ideas with the sheer force of his personality.

We all know what happened. But we didn’t know until this story what McInerney said to Bush and Laura when he shook hands with them at the White House after his victory.

Not intimidated by authority, [McNerney] shook Bush’s hand at the White House soiree and thanked the president and the first lady for visiting his district, which he believes helped him more than it helped Pombo.

That had to sting.

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"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness," wrote John Muir (in a posthumous collection of his notes called John of the Mountains).

For years I’ve heard that saying of Muir’s echo in my mind. Only occasionally would the question creep in–yes, but why? Why does a wild forest take us into the universe more surely than the open sea? Or even more than a vast metropolis teaming with all sorts and types of people?

This month in Orion the critic and novelist John Berger takes a crack at that implicit question in an essay called Between Forests. His essay, which takes the forest photographs of Czech photographer Jitka Hanzlová as a point of departure, is unfortunately not posted, but just a glance at one of Hanzlová’s mysterious photographs from her Forest series gets across Berger’s essential point, which is that they have been taken "from the inside" of the forest. He writes:

[Audience, by Jitka Hanzlová]


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Sunday on the Planet (but not always in the morning)

Who can say what this signal really means? The skies of late have been a little mysterious, but gorgeously so…


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The 06-07 El Nino: A Wuss?

A couple of days ago, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center predicted a warmer-than-usual winter, with El Nino conditions bringing a likelihood of increased rainfall to California and the West Coast. But an excellent follow-up story from Rob Krier at the San-Diego Union-Tribune points out that November in San Diego for the last forty years has been completely dry, unlike previous decades, and he went on to raise questions about not just the predicted rainfall  this winter, but the El Nino itself.

Krier quotes two experts, Nathan Mantua, at the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group,
and my helpful climatological friend Bill Patzert, at JPL. Mantua said:

“The El Niño in the tropics is doing its thing, and the jet stream in the Northern Pacific is doing its thing. My suspicion is that sometime this winter, the El Niño pattern will develop. It might not happen until January, February and March.”

But Patzert was more skeptical, suspecting that the Sea Surface Temperatures in the tropics will decline, and doubting that this El Nino will lead to a wet winter at all:

“This is definitely not a clear-cut, unambiguous El Niño. It looks like it’s holding, but certainly not intensifying. In 1997-98 [the last major El Niño year], the SST anomalies were the most positive in November. Then they started to weaken and break up.  Whatever happens this year [to the SSTs] will not be enough to give us a wet January, February and March."

Hmmm. Here’s the latest set of SST anomalies from NOAA. It’s a bit difficult to read, but as you can see, some of the projections tail off sharply in the months to come.



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Extreme Enviro Bathrooms

A wonderfully warm, funny piece from Orion and Nicole McLelland. The can’t miss quote:

"So where do you pee?" I asked Brian.

"It’s especially good for the trees, if you’d like to do them the service, Dan," he said, turning his gray-bearded grin toward my companion. I waited, but he didn’t address me. I appealed to Sally.

"Where do you pee?" I asked her.

Oh, we have a special toilet just for women, I hoped Sally would say, then direct me to an immaculate bidet down the hall. Instead she gestured vaguely around her.

"Wherever," she said, looking out the window into the yard.

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The Bush Plan: Burn All the Fossil Fuels as Fast as You Can

Tim Barnett, a leading oceanographer just retired from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this Monday gave a talk to a convention of fire ecologists in San Diego called Future Climate of Earth: A Sneak Preview.

Barnett began by saying that he had seven grandkids, and he didn’t like to think about the world they were going to inherit from us. He then went on to succinctly explain why we know global warming is human-caused. Most of the warming in the earth is stored in the oceans–84%, Barnett said–and we have exact measurements of that warming, from millions of observations collected at various depths by over 3,000 buoys in oceans around the world over the last fifty years.

Because global temps have begun to soar in recent years, even as solar radiation has varied little, the sun can be eliminated as a cause, as can volcanic activity.

And if you look at the chart below, which tracks observations of warming in oceans around the world, you will see that natural variability does not come close to matching the observed warming, and that variability in a greenhouse gas scenario matches well. This is one reason scientists are confident that greenhouse gases are the cause of the recent warming of the planet.


Or, as Barnett put it in his talk: "The models got it right, and in six different oceans," each with its own warming.

But what troubles Barnett is that these  models, which are already predicting huge climate changes, do not consider "the physics" of two known warming factors. Neither of these planetary changes was a significant factor in the past, which is why they are not incorporated into today’s models, but both are likely to become major problems soon, if they are not already.

One is the break-up of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which James Hansen discussed–with alarming slides–last year.

The other is the vast amount of methane, a greenhouse gas over twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short run, being released by permafrost melting in warming Arctic regions. Barnett pointed out that in Alaska, travel over roads in the Arctic tundra passable only when frozen is now down to 100 days a year or less, from 200 days a year just thirty years ago.

"That’s the "olden times,"" Barnett noted. "Thirty years ago, the olden times." He had a number of other striking remarks.

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McCain Challenges Bush Admin Official on Global Warming Data

Numerous, even countless, examples of the Bush administration’s eagerness to shove the global warming issue under the rug can be cited, but one of the most obvious has been its flat-out refusal to have NOAA file the decadal data, as required by the act that authorized the US Global Change Research Program. Yesterday John McCain made an issue of that: a Talking Points Memo post expertly summarizes the controversy. For more on the subject, keep an eye on whistlerblower Rick Piltz’s Climate Science Watch.

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Depression: Beyond a Little Pill

Probably the best book I’ve read this year is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which begins as a look at the New Yorker’s writer’s horrifying and almost inexplicable struggles with depression after publishing a novel. The book becomes a years-long exploration into all aspects of the disease: medical, historical, psychological, personal, cultural. It’s a tour de force, and a great book. My readers tend to be people unafraid of seriousness, to their credit, and in my experience, serious people tend to be people vulnerable to and often familiar with depression, which is not sadness, but something far more deeply rooted, and far more frightening.

But I’ll stop blathering now and recommend a column in todays NY Times by Solomon called Our Great Depression, which offers a great idea to help. Solomon begins by pointing out that depression is the most common cause of disability worldwide, and that suicide is the 11th most common cause of death in the U.S. We must take this disease more seriously, without fear or shame. A model exists:

We need a network of depression centers, much like the cancer centers established in the 1970s.

Through the National Cancer Institute, federal funds were dispersed to interdisciplinary centers like Memorial-Sloan Kettering in New York and M.D. Anderson in Houston. The idea was to make sure that 80 percent of the American population lived within 200 miles of such a center.

As this network of institutions took root, the quality of cancer treatment advanced dramatically. The centers brought researchers and clinicians under one roof, ensuring that basic science was applied to achieve medical results. Scientists communicated both within and between centers, so that everyone could make use of everyone else’s work to accelerate progress.

The amazing thing about depression is that although it can leave physical scars in the brain, the disease nonetheless can be overcome, and we’re starting to understand exactly how. It’s time we as a people stopped pretending that a disease this prevalent and this serious is a guilty secret. 


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A Heated Question

From Stuart Carlson at the Washington Post:


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