Archive for 2007 May

Bush Calls For Global Goals on Emissions Reductions

That’s the headline. Crtics have been quick to reject this as a "do-nothing" strategy, pointing out that the U.S. has refused to sign on to Germany’s proposal to reduce emissions sufficient to hold warming to 2 degrees C, which may be necessary to avoid disaster.

They have a strong point. But if this is a do-nothing stance, at least it’s a new do-nothing stance, and one that does call for international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

When Vaclav Havel and other dissidents were battling the Soviet Union, he often pointed to laws on the books that gave individuals civil rights. He knew–everyone knew–that these laws weren’t enforced. But asking the powers that be to live up to their promises had a cumulative effect, like the proverbial water on a stone, as his subsequent popular takeover of the Czech Republic proved.

It’s too soon to dismiss this shift on the part of the Bush administration. Calling for action, even if it’s not enough, is not the same as saying action is unnecessary, or pointless, or will "wreck" the economy.

This is a new day, and a new speech. It’s mostly about technology–nuclear and the fabled "clean coal"–but still, given that Bush was a "dissident" on global warming not so long ago, it’s a step.


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We Are the Frog, Says Toles

Having just posted on the climate change metaphor question, I am all but obligated, I think, to include maestro Tom Toles thoughts on the subject. From yesterday:


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Washington Press Corps Does Ask a Question About Global Warming

Following hints that Tony Blair has dropped repeatedly, a White House reporter named Sheryl (perhaps Sheryl Stolberg of the NYTimes) does ask a question about climate change. My mistake. To wit:

Q Scott, Tony Blair, in an interview with the BBC, apparently said that we might see, "the beginnings of action on global warming and climate change at the G8," that he feels the U.S. might sign up to some kind of early action. Any response to that?

MR. STANZEL: I haven’t seen his comments, but certainly as a matter of principle, the President has long understood that global climate change is occurring, humans are having an impact on that. We’ve dedicated over $35 billion of funding to climate research. We just had a report — I believe it was earlier this week — that CO2 emissions in this country have gone down. We’re well on our way to meeting the President’s goal of cutting CO2 emissions — greenhouse gas intensity, that is — by 18 percent by 2012. So we look forward to those talks.

Q But does the President aim to sign an international agreement on global warming at —

MR. STANZEL: You know, we look forward to working with our partners on that important issue; however, it’s important that all parties be addressed when talking about multilateral agreements. And we have had concerns in the past about countries not being involved, and countries that do have a large impact on global climate change.

Q Was Tony Blair wrong?

MR. STANZEL: I haven’t seen his comments, so I trust that your BlackBerry is accurate — (laughter) — but I haven’t seen his comments.

(This is not the first time Tony Blair has tried to pressure the Bush administration on the issue with public statements about his hopes for a deal, but unfortunately, it’s not working. In fact, according to a Financial Times story earlier this month, the  U.S. is trying to "water down" a G8 plan to hold global warming to 2 degrees Centrigrade this century with CO2 emissions reductions limits. No real action is expected to come out of negotiations next week, and Germany’s top climate official warns that if no quantifiable limits on emissions are set, the G8 summit "will have failed completely."

Instead of following up Blair’s weak hopes for action, maybe a reporter could follow up on the Germans’ bluntly realistic threats of inaction? Especially since the summit will take place in Germany?)

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Tax Carbon Now, Says LA Times

Despite being under tremendous pressure from their corporate overlords, the denizens of the LATimes continue to put out a remarkably good newspaper. Yesterday they ran the best editorial on reducing carbon emissions this reporter has ever seen, with a terrific lede:

If you have kids, take them to the beach. They should enjoy it while it lasts, because there’s a chance that within their lifetimes California’s beaches will vanish under the waves.

That’s defining the stakes clearly, isn’t it? The editorial went on to explain the options to reduce carbon emissions–"command and control" regulation, "cap-and-trade," and the carbon tax–and showed why a carbon tax is the best and fairest option, even if it’s not yet popular with politicians.

What I like especially is the way the editorial dug into the flaws of a cap-and-trade system. To wit:

Cap-and-trade would also have a nasty effect on consumers’ power bills. Say there’s a very hot summer week in California. Utilities would have to shovel more coal to produce more juice, causing their emissions to rise sharply. To offset the carbon, they would have to buy more credits, and the heavy demand would cause credit prices to skyrocket. The utilities would then pass those costs on to their customers, meaning that power bills might vary sharply from one month to the next.

That kind of price volatility, which has been endemic to both the American and European cap-and-trade systems, doesn’t just hurt consumers. It actually discourages innovation, because in times when power demand is low, power costs are low, and there is little incentive to come up with cleaner technologies.

That’s so clear even I may be able to remember it. Thank you, LATimes…and here’s a picture of a Western coal plant, about which New No. 2 has a plaintive question.


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The Dangerous Country

A prominent Eastern poet, Elizabeth Spires, has been writing about the natural world lately. In this poem, published by Ploughshares last year, she identifies with an ancient sea creature, the Coelacanth, which was long thought to be extinct, only to be brought up abruptly from 1500 feet below the surface.

She concludes:

You and I, we live in depths profound and ceaseless,

we swim against cold currents until, netted

and gasping, we are shocked to find out
not what we are,
but what we have never been.

I love her ability to see beyond the obvious, to see a blindness both in our omnipresence and this curious creature’s obscurity.

And here’s an even more interesting poem, just published in The New Criterion.

You have flown to the dangerous country,

how easily you have left this life behind,

this street, this quiet city street,

where letters arrive each day dependably,

where trees make a canopy in summer,

and winter, it is winter now, possesses a cold clarity.

But in the place where you are there is heat,

there is hunger, and the trees have been cut down,

and dogs, there must be dogs, slink out of the night’s

blackness, teeth bared, and the sound of drumming penetrates

your sleep even when there are no drums. And slowly,

you begin to forget the words we are used to saying here,

they speak another language there, a language that has no place

for words like snow and safety, a language I will never know

because I have never been to the dangerous country,
                                                  and I do not think I will go.

That’s just the start. Sounds kinda like…


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Now that Bush Has Threatened Our Kids with Osama, Can We Ask Him About Global Warming?

John Dickerson in Slate notes that when his Iraq strategy was questioned in a press conference, the Prez resorted to threatening the children of reporters with al-Qaida:

"They are a threat to your children, David," he said to NBC’s David Gregory . It’s an understandable instinct [writes Dickerson]. To persuade, we try to appeal to common experience. Policy debates can get abstract. Mention someone’s children, though, and they get concrete fast. The president found this such a useful tool that he used it a second time in the same press conference. "I would hope our world hasn’t become so cynical that they don’t take the threats of al-Qaida seriously, because they’re real, and it’s a danger to the American people," he said in response to a question about the war from Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times. "It’s a danger to your children, Jim."

Pardon my obviousness, but if the Prez can sic Osama bin Laden on our children, couldn’t the Washington press corps ask him how he can justify doing nothing about global warming?

As James Lovelock points out in "The Revenge of Gaia:"

Past and present atmospheric pollution with carbon dioxide and methane is similar to the natural release of these gases fifty-five million years ago, when comparable quantities of carbon entered the atmopshere. Then the temperature rose about 8 degrees Centrigrade in the temperate northern regions and 5C in the tropics; the consequences of this heating lasted 200,000 years. 

Lovelock foresees this happening within fifty years, baring huge changes made starting now. He’s a little ahead of the climatological consensus, but only by two or three decades, and he’s known for his ability to see the work of life on the planet as a whole.

Give me a choice between a few thousand religious fanatics in robes who want to attack the symbols of our dominance, and an atmosphere shifting to a new mode likely to doom our way of life in these United States, and I’ll take the terrorists. Call me an environmental whacko, but I kinda like our climate as it is.

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Rachel Carson: This Particular Instant of Time

Sunday was the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, the science writer who more than anyone else awakened the world to the risk of what the New Yorker once called our "effluent society."

The U.S. Senate was prepared to honor her this year, but that effort was blocked by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, because Carson spoke out against DDT and other pesticides. In a nice post sent in Deborah Byrd of the big and extremely informative Earth and Sky science radio program, Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear, points out on the show’s site that Carson never called for a ban on DDT or any pesticide.

And as the great E. B. White put it, in an appreciation written after Carson’s death in l964:

American justice holds the accused person innocent until proved guilty; somehow this concept has crept over into industry, where it doesn’t belong, and has been applied to products of all kinds. Why should a poison dust or spray, however greatly it may advantage a grower or a housewife in a private project, enjoy immunity while there is any reason to suspect that it may endanger the public health or damage the natural scene? Rachel Carson posed this question and spent years of hard work documenting her thesis. She was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man. No contributor to these pages more effectively combined a warm passion for nature’s mysteries with a cool warning that things can easily go wrong. We take her words seriously, and we’d like to see government departments set aside their jealousies and declare poison guilty until proved innocent.

We might add that for her efforts, Carson was hounded by Monsanto, American Cyanamid, and (according to Time) the whole American chemical industry, and called "probably a Communist" by a former Secretary of Agriculture.

White also includes a lovely quote from Carson, in which she contrasts her perception in "this particular instant of time that is mine" against the overwhelmingly vast sweep of the sea. A true naturalist, her thoughts inevitably go to the bigger picture…


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Good News Friday: A Georgia Exec Does the Right Thing

Well, I’m a day late, but my friend Aug sends in a story perfect for my oft-neglected "good news Friday" feature. This one is about Ray Anderson, a highly successful carpet manufacturer based in Georgia.

Back in the 90’s, Anderson came to a sudden realization about his business:

I was running a company that was plundering the earth. I thought, "Damn, some day people like me will be put in jail!" It was a spear in the chest.

Since then he’s completely changed the way his company does business, from the bottom up, but the results have been better than he ever would have guess.

Our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they have ever been. Our people are motivated by a shared higher purpose — esprit de corps to die for. And the goodwill in the marketplace — it’s just been astonishing.

Read the whole thing, by Cornelia Dean, in the NYTimes. It’s called "Executive on a Mission: Saving the Planet." Anderson now even has a consulting firm, helping other businesses go green. Go Ray!

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Abrupt Climate Change Drowns Land in North Sea

An English friend, Oliver Butcher, alerts me to a fascinating/alarming story that came out of the University of Birmingham in the UK last month. Turns out that about 8,000 years ago, global warming induced sea levels to rise, swallowing up a prehistoric culture that lived on land that is today beneath the North Sea.

Research Vince Gaffney, using new seismographic techniques, has mapped that vast area. He told the BBC that it was like finding another country. He also said the discovery foreshadows the "scale of impact" we face with global warming, because homelands could disappear quickly, he said:

At times this change would have been insidious and slow – but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people. It would be a mistake to think that these people were unsophisticated or without culture… they would have had names for the rivers and hills and spiritual associations – it would have been a catastrophic loss.

In 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6,000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years.

For more, see the story in the BBC. Here’s a map of what this land looked like. Kinda different…


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“A Friend Acting Strangely” — Smithsonian Exhibit on Arctic Changes Avoids Global Warming

Someday we will look back on this Bush administration era of global warming denialism in Washington and shake our heads and ask: What were we thinking? How could we let that happen?

Except that some writers don’t have to look back. Some noticed when it was happening.

This week a former Smithsonian museum offical, Robert Sullivan, said the natural history museum in an exhibit last year on climate changes in the Arctic self-censored the exhibit. This came as no surprise to super-popular reporter and blogger Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, who reviewed the exhibit with his usual sharp humor, pointing out how badly it was named ("Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely") and how mindlessly the facts were presented.

For example, here’s the opening from the overview, which is still available on line:

The Arctic’s climate has been changing. Spring thaws are earlier. Fall freeze-ups are later. Sea ice is shrinking. Unfamiliar species of plants and animals are appearing. Intense storms are more frequent.

Notice anything missing? Perhaps some context? A reason why we’re seeing these changes?

To exhibit the changes in the Arctic today without talking about global warming is a little like showing the changes in San Francisco in l906 without talking about the earthquake.

But that was the plan. According to an AP story:

William Fitzhugh, a museum anthropologist and co-curator of the project, said the exhibit achieved what was intended — to show the impact of climate change on Arctic cultures. It did not, however, discuss the link between the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide and global warming.

Or, as Achenbach put it:

Is there any controversy about climate change? Not at the Smithsonian! The National Museum of Natural History has found a way to open two new climate change exhibits, starting Friday, without a single smithereen of contentiousness. We get just the facts: Planet’s getting warmer, arctic ice is melting, Inuit are out of sorts, Siberia is thawing. The future? "Models predict different outcomes," a sign says.

Right. No connection between atmospheric change and Arctic changes. No reason to worry. Or think.

The Internet version of the exhibition reveals other efforts to soft-pedal climate change. For instance, for a discussion of how global warming will affect the Northeast, the first line of the exhibit reads:

Warm weather sports, like hiking, increase; cold weather sports, like skiing, decrease.

So why worry, right? Hiking can be just as much fun as skiing.

Or, try out this new metaphor for global warming…ride the climate rollercoaster! Woo-hoo! Must be THIS TALL to ride! Have fun now!


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