Archive for 2008 December

Dick Cheney vs. Laura Bush: Who Will Win Bush’s Vote?

Okay, so according to Juliet Elperin, the Wa-Po's top-notch enviro reporter, the Prez is considering designating a vast area of the Pacific, stretching more than 2,000 miles across the Marianas, for "no-take" protection as a "marine monument."

Interestingly, Laura Bush likes the idea, and has even requested briefings on the matter from scientists, but — predictably — Dick Cheney hates the idea. In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times argues:

Bush should designate these monuments, and impose the maximum allowable
protections, because it's the right thing to do — enhancing
biodiversity and helping to ward off the threats of overfishing and
pollution to our oceans. But if that's not enough to convince him, he
should consider that he doesn't have to sleep next to Cheney for the
rest of his life.

Ah, editorial boards. By their profession, they must pretend to believe that the powers that be want to do the right thing. But we've heard this tune before, and we know how it'll probably end.

In Angler, Barton Gellman recounts how Cheney scuttled Christie Whitman's efforts as head of the EPA early in Bush's first term to reduce CO2 emissions. Even though Bush had specifically promised in a major speech on the campaign trail in 2000 to regulate CO2, and even though Whitman had confirmed that promise with the White House before repeating it to a conference in Italy, she returned to D.C. to find that Cheney had somehow walked Bush back from his own pledge.

How Cheney brought the president around on global warming was a mystery to most of Bush's lieutenants. It did not hurt, officials said, that Cheney and the energy task force portrayed the scientific debate as complex, unresolved. Bush hated wading into that sort of thing, and usually told experts to come back when they had hammered out their facts.

That's our Prez: a man who hates to think for himself. Here's Toles on his exit…

Bush rides off into the sunset

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Time and the Sea

From Rachel Carson’s notebooks, collected in Lost Woods:

Saw tracks of a shore bird — probably a sanderling, and followed them a little, then they turned toward the water and were soon obliterated by the sea. How much it washes away, and makes as though it had never been. Time itself is like the sea, containing all that came before us, sooner or later sweeping us away on its flood and washing over and obliterating the traces of our presence, as the sea this morning erased the footprints of the bird.

An appropriate end of the year thought, no?

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Drought in the Southwest Can Last for Decades — or Centuries

One of the interesting reports coming out of the American Geophysical Union conference this year was on "abrupt" climate change. For a long time the Dust Bowl droughts of the l930's, which were indeed severe, were considered the worst the Southwest could expect. But now, based on tree-ring and pollen "proxy" studies, scientists can with confidence state that the past two millenia suffered droughts considerably worse than we saw in the Dust Bowl. Even if we choose to ignore the 18 out of 19 general circulation models that forecast a poleward shift of the winds that bring the Southwest rains, we have reason to believe that droughts in our region can last for decades — or centuries.

Here's a brief discussion from the paper (released by the US Climate Change Research Program) with a helpful graphic to follow [pp172]:

…a period of elevated aridity was found in the A.D. 900-1300 period that included four particularly widespread and prolonged multi-decadal megadroughts (Fig. 3.8). This epoch of large-scale elevated aridity was corroborated by a number of independent, widely scattered, proxy records of past drought in the West (Cook et al., 2004). In >addition, the four identified megadroughts agreed almost perfectly in timing with those identified by Woodhouse and Overpeck (1998), which were based on far fewer data.

These findings were rather sobering for the West because they (1) verified the occurrence of several past multidecadal megadroughts prior to 1600, (2) revealed an elevated background state of aridity that lasted approximately four centuries, and (3) demonstrated that there are no modern analogs to the A.D. 900-1300 period of elevated aridity and its accompanying megadroughts. This is clearly a cause for concern because the data demonstrate that the West has the capacity to enter into a prolonged state of dryness without the need for greenhouse gas forcing.

Aridity in West since 800

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Why This Global Warming Book is Different: A Review of Dire Predictions

More books on global warming have been published in the last couple of years than anyone in their right mind (or even, anyone in the field) would want to read. Many of them are very good: Australian biologist Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers tells the story from an evolutionist's point of view with great passion — and impeccable science.

But global warming — which many scientists prefer to call climate change, knowing that the warming will not be uniform around the planet, and its effects will not be predictable — is arguably a story best presented not in words but with data. Keeping that in mind, this year two eminent scientists from Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann and Lee Kump, published a different kind of global warming book.

Working with the "information architects" at the innovative DK Publishing, they brought out Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming (large file).

This could be described as a book written by two particularly thoughtful experts for National Geographic. Not only does the slim volume of 207 pages rely mostly on brilliantly executed visuals to get its ideas across, but the prose is simple and honest.

Let me give you an example that deals with a point often raised by those who question global warming. Skeptics often point out that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere do not always precede rising temperatures and ask: How can there be a cause and effect relationship between CO2 levels and global temperatures? Mann and Kump reply:

Data from ice cores demonstrated that fluctuations in CO2 and temperature have gone hand in hand for at least the last 400,000 years. Feedback loops in the carbon cycle make the question of whether CO2 is driving climate changes or vice versa virtually impossible to answer [but] computer models only simulate the observed cooling when input with low atmospheric CO2 levels.

This kind of honesty makes the book trustworthy. The authors don't try to skew the data, but dig into the details. At the same time, they take a sane, no-nonsense approach particularly well-suited to educators, insisting we need to change, and not just to reduce energy consumption, but also to save life-giving resources, such as water. They call for "no-regrets" changes in dealing with water management, such as replenishing ground-water supplies, increasing storage capacity, and expanding rainwater storage — music to the ears of my pals at TreePeople.

Here's an example of a page from the book. Highly recommended.


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Climate Change in CA: What Has Happened Already

From the California Department of Water Resources White Paper, pdf, dated 10/08:

While the exact conditions of future climate change remain uncertain, there is no doubt about the changes that have already happened. Analysis of paleoclimatic data (such as tree-ring reconstructions of streamflow and precipitation) indicates a history of naturally and widely varying hydrologic conditions in California and the west, including a pattern of recurring and extended droughts. The average early spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevada decreased by about 10 percent during the last century, a loss of 1.5 million acre-feet of snowpack storage (one acre-foot of water is enough for one to two familes for one year). During the same period, sea level rose seven inches along California’s coast. California’s temperature has risen 10 F, mostly at night and during the winter, with higher elevations experiencing the highest increase. A disturbing pattern has also emerged in flood patterns; peak natural flows have increased on many of the state’s rivers during the last 50 years. At the other extreme, many Southern California cities have experienced their lowest recorded annual precipitation twice within the past decade. In a span of only two years, Los Angeles experienced both its driest and wettest years on record.

And here's one (just one) of the central problems forecast for the state's future:

CA snowpack at 2050 

Okay, enough ominousity for one year…on to happier topics in the days remaing ahead.

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It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now (Cheap Oil mix)

From Toles, of course,

The problem with cheap oil

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“I Used to Have a Really Cool Job”

An interesting thing about the on-coming economic crash is that this is old news for lots of people, some of them impressively articulate, in both the music biz and the music criticism biz.

Last year a wonderful magazine about what is now known as Americana music called No Depression gave up its print run. They've gone on-line, but if you happened to hear the editors talk about it on NPR, you heard them say they have no illusions that the web version will be as good as what they had in print, for the simple reason that almost no one wants to read essays on computer monitors.

I was really touched by this essay about the demise of No Depression and life as a music critic by a Northwesterner not previously know to me named Grant Alden. Once he was a critic, watching Nirvana and hanging out with Radiohead, now he's a barista. But he still has a really cool job. Take a look:

Nothing on the web is permanent, including the music now housed there. Someday, somebody might find a copy of No Depression
and wonder what the hell that was and who we all were, and why none of
the artists we wrote about so lavishly ever amounted to much. I’m not
sure how they’ll find the music of the new downloadable age…not in
thrift shops, in any event!

In an hour, I will turn off this computer and walk down the street
to a coffee shop. There I will try not to botch a vanilla frappé for
one of my neighbors (they’ve gotten over occasionally seeing me on
national TV), and to keep the dishes clean. Later, if I’m lucky, I will
drive to my father-in-law’s place and try to spend an hour or two
cleaning up the garden and feeding the chickens.

I used to have a really cool job. Someday I’ll have to explain it
to my daughter. Right now, she’s all too happy listening over and over
and over again to the first song on Lucinda Williams’s new album, and
she doesn’t believe me for a minute when I tell her Buddy Miller is
just as good.

The truth is, I have a really cool job now: I get to feed my
family. We’re about to double the size of the garden, the orchard we
began a couple years back is coming along nicely, there’s nothing
better than farm eggs, and we put up at least 125 quarts of greasy
beans for the winter. And now I have time to listen to all that music.

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Hansen predicts temps to set record in Obama’s first term

At his presentation after his lecture to the scientific masses at the American Geophysical Union, Jim Hansen was asked this week if, given that 2008 was cooler than a couple of recent years, if he would hazard a prediction for the near future of global temps. He jumped at the opportunity to go on the  record. He said:

During Barack Obama's first term, global temperatures will exceed prior records, and that will help get people to pay attention to the issue, but I hope we don't have to wait for significantly higher temperatures before we act to reduce the risk.

Here's the slide Hansen likes to show of the global temperature average….showing peaks in l998 and 2005, and a slight downturn since…but a clearly upward trend. 

Global Temps since 1880

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Methane Time Bomb — Ticking Louder

At a press conference Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, a Russian scientist who has spent the last fifteen years tracking the release of methane from Siberia was asked if a huge surge he and his team detected this summer constituted "a global emergency."

Igor Similetov did not say no, and did not challenge the premise of the question. He first spoke of the vastness of this little-known area, an undersea shelf totaling in the range of 2 million kilometers, easily visible on photos from space, larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined. He added that he and his team, who sailed the northern coast of Siberia this summer collecting data, had taken only 5000 measurements over the last five years. In a paper he estimated that fifty percent of this shallow shelf is now emitting methane in the summer, with "large clouds of methane bubbles observed in the water column over hundreds of square kilometers."

Yet his struggle with the question was evident. I tracked him down later, and asked if he felt he was the wrong person to be answering such a huge question. He admitted his discomfort, but said he thought it was the best question he was asked, and insisted:

"I am the person responsible for this research, and I think we have to tell people that something is happening now with the subsea permafrost."

Semiletov points out that geologists estimate that the amount of methane stored beneath the Siberian shelf to be on the order of 2000 gigatons. (Keep in mind that methane is a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than CO2, and that total emissions of CO2 today are in the range of 8 gigatons a year.) Semiletov thinks that if just 1% of the ESAS methane is released, it will push total atmospheric methane up to 6 parts per million, and cites researchers such as David Archer in arguing that this would push us past the point of no return, towards runaway global warming.

Leading climatologist James Hansen also gave a talk at the conference, to his usual throng of thousands, about the threat of runaway global warming, and the need to phase out coal plants. He happened to mention that the global atmospheric record showed a slight fall-off in methane for 2008, so I asked him if he was less concerned about this particular threat to a stable climate. Hansen said that on the contrary, the paleontological record probably isn't a good guide to global methane release, because "even though evidence of releases might look like spikes on a plot, they still happened over thousands of years. Human forcings are happening so fast they don't allow for negative feedbacks."

Hansen added that most researchers were confident that methane hydrates would remain stable because "they assume that the heat perturbation would not penetrate the frozen layers, but last summer we saw methane coming up through chimneys in the permafrost, so maybe it doesn't take actually melting the surface to release the gas."

This is a precise description of what the data assembled by Similetov's team shows, along with evidence from isotope analysis that this methane is coming from deep reservoirs.

Similetov added:

"We are aware that our results showing that the permafrost is no longer an
impermeable barrier to methane release have not been duplicated by
other researchers at this time. But it is high time to warn people."

He stopped for an instant and then smiled, before adding:

' We can do nothing about it, of course."


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Rosemarie Dewitt Will Break Your Heart

And that's a promise. Take a look at her and tell me if it isn't true.

Rosemarie Dewitt in Mad Men

This is from the show Mad Men, about which way too much has already been said.

It's a good show, but if you want to fall in love again, if just for an hour or two, with a woman of overwhelming smarts and impossible beauty, run don't walk to see her, Rosemarie Dewitt, in Rachel Getting Married.

The movie is at times a battle between the movie stars (including Anne Hathaway, playing the troubled addict sister, and Debra Winger, playing the estranged mother) and the virtual unknowns, such as the extrardinarily compelling Rosemarie Dewitt as the sister upon whom all in the story depend.

Dewitt's the real star of the picture, and they say she has a chance at a Supporting Actress nod from Oscar. That would be wonderful to see, but she will be long remembered for this performance, with or without the little statuette. 

In the picture below, she is the pretty woman, the real one with the earring, not the movie star.


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