Archive for 2007 July

Thinking of Red Desert

Some people–the brilliant few–do not let a lack of means prevent them from making true art. The late Michangelo Antonioni was one of those few. His movies are fascinating, exasperating, mysterious, but never cliched. For the environmentally minded, his Red Desert–featuring the beautiful Monica Vitti in an industrial wasteland, is not to be missed. Rest in peace, Mr. Antonioni.


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Cloudy with a Chance of Chaos

Tom Englehardt, of TomDispatch and The Nation, brings us a terrific essay by a Utah writer named Chip Ward. It focuses on what has gone wrong with bees in this country, with unusual depth (and grasp of the English language), but also offers a way forward different from our present path, and touches on the other disasters encircling our destructive way of life, such as climate chaos.

Think the way nature thinks: Surprises happen. Resilience matters. Control is impossible.

Think modularity.

I also have to link because Englehardt in his introduction makes the same point I’ve been making about the floods these past few weeks in England, now considered the worst in 200 years. He writes:

No American media figure, for instance, has wondered publicly whether,
someday, England could become, in Gore-like "inconvenient truth" terms,
the partially sunken Florida
of Europe (along undoubtedly with Holland and other low-lying areas of
the continent). It’s no less true that a season of startlingly
widespread and fierce wildfires, based on long-term drought in the
West, Southwest, and Southeast has been a news leader for months — the
TV news just adores the imagery of storms and fires — again, most of
the time, with little linkage to larger possible changes underway. We
are, it seems, a resistant species when it comes to thinking about the
need to truly reorganize ourselves on this fragile, but resilient, planet of ours.

(HT: JMG, of Grist)

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Sunday Morning on the Planet: If This Isn’t Nice…

"I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid
brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest
life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And
his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so
seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking
lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, or talking lazily
about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would
suddenly exclaim, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is." So I do
the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please
notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some
point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’"

– Kurt Vonnegut

(HT: The Mississippi Project)

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Floods Show Global Warming, Says Conservative British Paper

Echoing the liberal Prime Minister, the conservative British broadsheet the Daily Telegraph runs a long story arguing that "the worst floods to hit England in 200 years" show that global warming has arrived.

Here’s the heart of the piece, by environmental editor Charles Clover:

I have covered the subject of climate change, in what I hope has been a relatively neutral way, since around the time Margaret Thatcher asked if we had begun a giant experiment with the planet in 1988. I would suggest no year has been more joltingly significant in
    our coming to terms with the reality of what is now happening than the past 12 months.

It began with Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on climate change last autumn. There followed an extraordinary scientific reaffirmation of the predictions made in the late 1980s and early
    1990s by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).

And all the while there have been numerous tangible signs visible to everyone in our own latitudes that our climate is changing in ways that politicians in Europe now realise can only be explained by human activity.

Many were already sure we were talking about the effects of climate change after 4.1in (103.1mm) of rain was measured in 24 hours at Fylingdales in Yorkshire last month, a one-in-80-year event that inundated Doncaster, Hull and surrounding areas.

Hull has the largest number of homes on the flood plain of any city other than London. The run-off from the rivers met high groundwater levels caused by run-off from the permeable chalk on the Yorkshire Wolds.

The city’s 19th-century sewerage system overflowed with rainwater and sewage. The foul water had nowhere to go, other than into the 6,500 homes now estimated to have been damaged by the resulting flood.

The Met Office says sea-surface temperatures over a large part of the North Atlantic have been above average this year, a likely consequence of the exceptionally warm weather conditions over north-west Europe in the winter and spring.

The air is warmer in summer and can hold more water vapour. The warm summer combined with the stronger jet stream may be the reason for the heavy rain we have experienced.

By an extraordinary coincidence, the unprecedented summer floods that struck Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire this week overlapped with the publication in the scientific journal Nature of a study that compared rainfall levels predicted by climate models involving only natural trends and those taking into account
    human activity.

While studies have previously found that human activities have altered air temperatures, sea levels and ocean temperatures, this one, by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre and authors including the American chairman of the scientific working group of the IPCC, Susan Solomon, was the first to show clear evidence of an overall increase in precipitation in the models that included human activity.

The overall trend for Britain identified by the computer models as a result of global warming was wetter winters and drier summers. However, Dr Peter Stott, a climate scientist at the University of Reading and another of the paper’s authors, said more intense rain storms in wetter years would also fit into the pattern.

"Generally speaking, the models are tending to show a drier trend in summer in the UK," he said. "Nevertheless, when it rains it can rain harder, because the atmosphere can contain more moisture in a warmer world."

The story opens with a helicopter shot of London landmarks standing in water almost worthy of a disaster movie. I’m not allowed to copy that, but here’s a nice photo from a fellow Flickr subscriber Lazlo Woodbine as compensation.


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Jet Stream Shift Over Europe: Climate Change…or Not?

Below is a nice map, courtesy of the BBC, showing the shift in the jet stream bringing unprecedented rain and flooding to the UK. As Kim Murphy put it for the Los Angeles Times today:

Few scientists are ready to immediately blame the quirky weather on
global warming. For one thing, current climate change trends predict
just the opposite in Britain: warmer, drier summers and wetter winters.

thing to remember is that what seems to be indicated [with global
warming] is much more variability in the climate," [Jon Finch of Oxford U.] said. "So this
event, which basically looks like it’s a 1-in-200-year event, may with
a change in climate come down to a 1-in-50-year event. But that’s just

The jet stream displacement is expected to right
itself in the coming weeks, and stay that way through the rest of
summer, said Jim Dale, a meteorologist with British Weather Services in
High Wycombe.

But note the caveats: "few scientists are ready to immediately blame…" Of course not! No scientist worth his salt is ready to attribute without causal evidence.

But those of us who watched the weather maps in Southern California during our record breaking floods of 2005 saw a similar phenomenon — an unexplained swing in the jetstream that surprised even the most experienced of climatologists. Usually the jetstream in the winter turns eastward over the West Coast far north of SoCal, but in December and January of 05, it swooped all the way down to Catalina Island…for weeks at a time, causing huge floods, vast damage, and killing quite a few people.

Now reputable climatologists (such as Kelly Redmond) say that swing was "not inconsistent with" global warming, in the murky double negative phrasing that scientists prefer. 

Why not drop the "speculation" and say, as we can with assurance, that in the 21st century a warming ocean and atmosphere means increasing overall variability with a far greater chance of climate chaos?


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Good News Friday: Coal Plants Cancelled Nationwide

According to the Wall Street Journal, the coal industry is struggling to build new plants, because of fear of climate change. It’s a long story, so I’ll put a couple of other excerpts (one relating to Florida) below the fold, but here’s the lede:

From coast to coast, plans for a new generation of
coal-fired power plants are falling by the wayside as states conclude
that conventional coal plants are too dirty to build and the cost of
cleaner plants is too high.
As recently as May, U.S. power companies had announced
intentions to build as many as 150 new generating plants fueled by
coal, which currently supplies about half the nation’s electricity. One
reason for the surge of interest in coal was concern over the higher
price of natural gas, which has driven up electricity prices in many
places. Coal appeared capable of softening the impact since the U.S.
has deep coal reserves and prices are low.

But as plans for this fleet of new coal-powered plants
move forward, an increasing number are being canceled or development
slowed. Coal plants have come under fire because coal is a big source
of carbon dioxide, the main gas blamed for global warming, in a time
when climate change has become a hot-button political issue.


It’s hard to say how many proposed plants will never
be built. Some projects suffer public deaths when permits are denied.
Many more simply wither away, lost in the multiyear process of
obtaining permits, fending off court challenges and garnering financing.

In the wake of the fading coal proposals, and others
that are expected to follow, Citigroup downgraded the stocks of
coal-mining companies last week, noting that "prophesies of a new wave
of coal-fired generation have vaporized." On Monday, Steve Leer, chief
executive of Arch Coal Inc., said some of the power plants he had
expected to be built "may get stalled due to the uncertainty over
climate concerns."


The rapid shift away from coal shows how quickly and
powerfully environmental concerns, and the costs associated with
eradicating them, have changed matters for the power industry. One
place where sentiment has swung sharply against coal is Florida.
Climate change is getting more attention there because the mean
elevation is only 100 feet above sea level, so melting ice caps would
eat away at both its Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.

In mid-July, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist convened a
climate-change summit to explore ways the state could improve its
environmental profile. In June, he signed into law a bill that
authorizes the Florida Public Service Commission to give priority to
renewable energy and conservation programs before approving
construction of conventional coal-fired power plants.

The law was bolstered by a recent report from the
nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy that found
Florida could reduce its need for electricity from conventional
sources, like gas and coal, by 29% within 15 years if it implemented
aggressive energy efficiency measures.

On the eve of the governor’s summit, backers of a
major power-plant proposal said they would suspend development
activities for an 800-megawatt coal-fired plant proposed by four
city-owned utilities including the one serving the state capital,
Tallahassee. (One megawatt can power 500 to 1,000 homes.) The backers
cited environmental issues.

That decision followed the rejection by the utility
commission of a proposal by Florida Power & Light Co., a unit of
FPL Group Inc., to build a 1,960-megawatt coal plant in Glades County,
Fla. The commission found that the plant was cost effective in fewer
than half the scenarios examined. One reason for its poor showing is
uncertainty about the future cost to curb carbon dioxide pollution.
Coal plants emit more than twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of
electricity produced as natural-gas-fired plants, but there’s no cheap,
easy way to capture and dispose of the greenhouse gas.

[Ed. note — the story also provides, for the first time I’ve seen, a rough estimate of how much more it costs to build a so-called "clean coal" plant — about a half-billion dollars more to build a plant that will capture 30% of CO2 emissions, and another 600+ million to build a pipeline to send CO2 to deep offshore storage. This would raise the costs of power from so-called "clean coal" to twice the usual figure, at which point it becomes uneconomic. Great story from Rebecca Smith.]

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Graph of the Week

Take a look at this world, as described by a new study on how global warming is leading to substantial increases in rainfall in some regions, substantial decreases in others.

Here’s the abstract in Nature,, and here’s a nice recap from GreenCarCongress, along with a graph from the study by Francis Zwiers and seven coauthors.

[Ed. Note — Yellow bands indicate anomalous dryness vs. the historical record. Grey indicates mixed signals. Green bands show anomalous wetness. Here’s a story in the Guardian re: the recent floods in England. And here’s a spirited discussion of same by scientists and interested observers participating in the the Global Change GoogleGroup.]


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A Cloudland We Can Only Dream About, and…

–Another midday
cloudland, displaying power and beauty that one never wearies in
beholding, but hopelessly unsketchable and untellable. What can poor
mortals say about clouds? While a description of their huge glowing
domes and ridges, shadowy gulfs and cañons, and feather-edged ravines
is being tried, they vanish, leaving no visible ruins. Nevertheless,
these fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the
more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up
and die, and in God’s calendar difference of duration is nothing. We
can only dream about them in wondering, worshiping admiration, happier
than we dare tell even to friends who see farthest in sympathy, glad to
know that not a crystal or vapor particle of them, hard or soft, is
lost; that they sink and vanish only to rise again and again in higher
and higher beauty.

John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, July 23rd, 1872

The pic below come from about a week ago, July 18th, here in Ventura County, SoCal., when we had a couple of lovely days of high clouds and cool days.

As the temps begin to climb, I confess I miss those clouds…


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To Save the Planet, Would You Give Up Tangerines?

That’s the question that came out of the John Edwards campaign, as reported by the New York Times’ refreshingly straightforward op-ed writer Gail Collins. It’s behind the newspapers pay wall, unfortunately, but let me quote a couple of passages:

John Edwards has a plan to cap carbon emissions, while allowing
businesses to buy the right to go over their quotas. Many people regard
this as the most efficient and politically salable way to reduce
greenhouse gases. But they usually acknowledge that it would make some
products — like small orange fruits that have to be transported a long
way to get to market — more expensive.

“I live in North Carolina; I’ll probably never eat a tangerine again,” Elizabeth [Edwards] said.

This created a big stir in the press covering the campaign. Reporters asked:

Was Mr. Edwards prepared to admit that the public might have to
give up tangerines in order to keep the polar bears from drowning in
the Arctic?

“I’d have to think about it,” [Edwards] said during a press conference later that day.

Ever since Jimmy Carter was (politically speaking) burned alive for suggesting that Americans might be wise to conserve energy, politicians have been afraid to go down that road. Can you blame them?

And yet if we cannot conserve energy, we cannot hope to avoid climate chaos. As crunchy conservative Rod Dreher puts it today, writing from the Dallas area:

In north Texas, they’re building McMansions on the sun-baked plain that
will cost a fortune to cool in our punishing summers. And Americans
wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re going to have to crash hard to
change this habit of mind.

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Environmental Riots — and Demonstrations

One of punk’s great anthems was one of the Clash’s first great songs:

White riot
I wanna riot
White riot
A riot of my own.

This was a sincere wish on the late Joe Strummer‘s part, and to some extent, his wish came true.

The punk movement was a riot in music. His audiences were uncontrollable and he liked that, mostly. He saw a few riots and wanted more, to get people stirred up, showing their desires, demanding change.

Could the ferment in present-day environmental interest be showing up in spontaneous demonstrations?

I have seen a few examples in the news of what sounds–at least from afar–like environmental riots. 

This kind of demonstration of environmental rage rarely if ever seems to happen in the this country, so perhaps we–including reporters–aren’t primed to expect it and report on it in this country.

But consider (please see the rest of the post on Grist):

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