Archive for 2009 November

Pessimists, But Happy Ones

A lovely photo essay on food and American history, from artist Maira Kalman:

Pessimists, but

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Climate: Too Big a Problem to Get Excited About

Last week the Democrats in Congress agreed with no apparent debate to forget about trying to do anything to preserve climate stability this year, and, in effect, to move the issue to the back burner. 

In the widely-quoted words of Senator Claire McKaskill:

After you do one really, really big, really, really hard thing that
makes everybody mad, I don't think anybody's excited about doing
another really, really big thing that's really, really hard that makes
everybody mad. Climate fits that category.

Tom Toles isn't too happy about this, but has kept his sense of humor. And that's good — right? 


h/p: Ezra Klein: Why Solve Problems?

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Terrorists Attack Again! Well, Sort of…

I think this, from the irrepressible Ted Rall, is really funny. Is that wrong? Terroristsattackwtchole

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Global Warming: Top Phrase of the Decade

So alleges The Language Monitor, which claims results based on a "proprietary algorithm that tracks words and phrases in the
media and on the Internet, now including blogs and social media (such
as Twitter). The words are tracked in relation to frequency, contextual
usage and appearance in global media outlets, factoring in long-term
trends, short-term changes, momentum and velocity."

Okay, then, must be true. I would have put my money on "whatever," but…whatevs.

Here's their top ten list, with their brief comments included:

The Top Words of the Decade from 2000 – 2009

Word (Year) Comments

1. Global Warming (2000) Rated highly from Day One of the decade

2. 9/11 (2001) Another inauspicious start to the decade

3. Obama- (2008 )The US President’s name as a ‘root’ word or ‘word stem’

4. Bailout (2008) The Bank Bailout was but Act One of the crisis

5. Evacuee/refugee (2005) After Katrina, refugees became evacuees

6. Derivative (2007) Financial instrument or analytical tool that engendered the Meltdown

7. Google (2007) Founders misspelled actual word ‘googol’

8. Surge (2007) The strategy that effectively ended the Iraq War

9. Chinglish (2005) The Chinese-English Hybrid language growing larger as Chinese influence expands

10. Tsunami (2004) Southeast Asian Tsunami took 250,000 lives

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Climate Stability to Vanish in the 2020’s: Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters, a scientist, hurricane watcher, founder of a national Internet weather site, and as respected as any meteorologist in the public eye known to this journalist, predicts when climate stability will collapse:

There were 88 presentations on
arctic sea ice at the 2008 AGU [American Geophysical Union] conference. None of the presenters
expressed the view that the current long-term decline in arctic sea ice
was almost entirely natural, or that we can expect the decline to
reverse this century. Sea ice experts do blame part of the decline on
natural variability in the weather, but we wouldn't be where we are now
without the warming caused by human-emitted greenhouse gases. One view (Stroeve et al., 2007)
is that human-emitted greenhouse gases are responsible for 47 – 57% of
the arctic sea ice loss since 1979. Heat-absorbing black soot from
fires and pollution settling on the white ice is thought to also be a
significant contributor.

The consensus I heard at the AGU
conference among arctic sea ice experts was that the summertime sea ice
will be gone by 2030. If they are correct, we can expect a period of
significantly accelerated global climate change to begin 10 – 20 years
from now. Arctic sea ice is one of the critical components maintaining
the stability of our current climate. Once the the ice is gone, the
climate will become unstable, with highly unpredictable results.
It is
true that Earth's past has many examples of warmer climates that
evolved due to natural causes where life flourished, and we shouldn't
fear the new, stable climate we will eventually arrive at centuries
from now. However, life on Earth is adapted to the current climate. The
changes that will occur during the transition will be extremely
disruptive to Earth's ecosystems and the humans that rely on them for
life. If one were to rate the destructive capability of climate change
the way we rate hurricanes, I would rate current climate change at the
"Invest" or "tropical disturbance" stage–the climate change storm is
just beginning to organize. But the coming climate change storm is
destined to hit our children with the full fury of intensifying

If Masters is right we have about ten years to get ready for a different planet.

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Acorns Abundant This Fall: El Nino On the Way?

According to climatologists, it's going to be wet this winter.

Experts on El Niño, the well-known global weather circulation pattern that often brings warm winters and heavy rain to the West Coast, recently released a chart showing the El Niño Southern Oscillation  (ENSO) strengthening across the Pacific. This is good news for those of us in SoCal hoping for rain.

Here's a recent satellite picture, from the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, showing the elevation of a Kelvin wave building along the equator as of two weeks ago. 


JPL's forecaster extraordinaire Bill Patzert, who earlier this year doubted that El Nino would significantly increase our chances of rain, now sounds convinced.

"In the American west, where we are struggling under serious drought
conditions, this late-fall charge by El Niño is a pleasant surprise,
upping the odds for much-needed rain and an above-normal winter
snowpack," he said.

But of all the experts who look to natural history to predict the weather, the most intriguing may be the research scientists specializing in oak trees. That's because in California two species of oaks bet their reproductive lives on being able to match a massive outpouring of acorn seed to a good rain year.

Of course, you don't have to be a scientist to look at oak trees, notice a heavy acorn fall, and wonder if the trees could sense an oncoming wet winter. People have been doing that for years, myself included.

But it's less easy to sample acorn production every fall in California at fourteen different sites around the state, publish the results for over a decade, and try to understand how and why millions upon millions of blue oaks around the state can agree that this is the year on which to produce a massive acorn crop. That's what scientists Walt Koenig and Jean Knops have done in the California Acorn Survey:

Discussing acorn production and "masting," in which some species of oak trees produce massive amounts of acorns in synchrony with fellow trees, responding to an unknown signal, Koenig wrote:

The results vary among species but clearly show considerable synchrony [trees deciding en masse to produce vast quantities of acorns on the same year]. Consider blue oaks, which are one of the most extensively distributed trees in California. They grow in foothill regions around the Central Valley over an area of some 20,000 square kilometers, about five percent of the state’s total land area… In other words, synchrony in acorn production extends to pretty much every blue oak, a population of 100 to 200 million individuals.

That's from Koenig's 2005 fascinating article in The American Scientist, The Mystery of Masting in Trees.

Masting is an extraodrinary phenomenon, known and studied for hundreds of years, but still mysterious to humans. Although Blue Oaks have been shown to synchronize their acorn production across California, and Valley Oaks also produce a widely-varied number of acorns, other species are less variable.

Some oaks surveyed by Koenig haven't produced well in decades; some always produce well.

Still, in The American Scientist piece, Koenig points to a remarkably good correlation of acorn production across the state by blue oaks. He assumes, as do most researchers, that the warm, wet winters typical of El Nino drive the production of acorns the next fall.

He doesn't assume that oak trees anticipate an El Nino. He believes a past El Nino tend to make for favorable conditions — plenty of moisure in the ground, and warm weather in the spring — to produce a good crop the next year. 

In the words of Victoria Sork, a tree scientist at UCLA who studies pollen dispersal patterns, and finds Koenig's work persuasive: 

If there is a lot of rain this year, it could affect next year's crop.
 However, one of two things could happen.  If there is too much rain
during pollination (March and April) then fertilization will be poor.
 Or, the rain will be good for the trees and they will mature a large
portion of the fertilzed flowers, resulting in a good crop.

But acorn-watchers such as myself like to look at acorns on the ground, and speculate about the winter to come.

Is that wrong?

Surely such a correlation could be true, even if we can't yet understand it.

And since last winter was not good for rain at all, the trees cannot be responding to last year's rain to produce a good crop this year (although they could be responding to a warm, dry spring).

I've been asking around, and my neighbors report this year has been very good for acorn production. A friend who lives in the heavily wooded Camp Bartlett tells me they're "everywhere you look."

(Cross-posted at the Ojai Post)

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Fossil Fuel Lobbyists Smoke Enviromentalists in Congress

Before criticizing enviros too harshly for their ineffectiveness, as I did yesterday, and numerous others have as well, perhaps I should have looked at the numbers. The Center for Responsive Politics  has done just that, and the results are sobering. Here's how it looks for the environment in the 3rd quarter:

A high-profile area for new legislation and reform, the energy and natural resources sector,
like the health sector, remains an influential force on K Street.
Between January and September, these companies and groups spent $300
million on federal lobbying — an increase of about six percent
compared to the same period last year.

Of the main industries within this sector, electric utilities and oil and gas companies
spent the most. Electric utilities spent about $37 million during the
third quarter, which represents a six percent increase compared to the
second quarter — but these companies have spent about eight percent
less on lobbying in 2009 than they did during the first nine months of
2008. Oil and gas companies, meanwhile, spent about $38 million between
July and September — a modest increase over their second quarter
spending. They have now spent about 26 percent more this year than
during the same timeframe in 2008.

The industry within this
sector that has experienced the greatest percentage increase compared
to the first three quarters of 2008 has been the alternate energy production and services industry.
They have only spent about $23 million on federal lobbying so far this
year, but this represents a 40 percent increase over their lobbying
between January and September last year.

Meanwhile, the environmental lobby
has been advocating for reforms opposed by many groups within the
energy sector. Their lobbying is up 14 percent from last year. Still,
they've spent just $6 million on federal lobbying during the third
quarter and about $16 overall between January and September.

Name Q3 Lobbying Q2-Q3 Change 08-09 Change
Alternate Energy $6,579,242 -25.3% 40.5%
Oil & Gas $38,351,477 1.7% 26.2%
Electric Utilities $37,419,570 6.4% -8.1%
Coal Mining $3,590,270 -8.8% -16.3%
Mining $6,312,045 -12.2% -18.9%
Environment $6,066,978 14.2% 14.0%

In other words, environmentalists — even if we include ethanol advocates in that group — are getting outspent by fossil fuelists by an 8-to-1 margin.

No wonder Congress is turning a deaf eaf to the climate bill.

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Environmentalists Accused of Climate Denialism

Great to see a writer without a famous name roil the blogosphere, as Adam Sacks sets off a storm with an accusation flung in the face of fellow environmentalists on Grist:

We're deniers every time we say “80 percent by 2050,” or
even “80 percent by 2020”; every time we refer to tipping points in the
future tense; every time we advocate substituting “clean” energy for
“dirty” energy; every time we buy a squiggly light bulb or a hybrid
vehicle; every time we advocate for cap-and-trade, or even a carbon tax; every
time we countenance the mention of loopy geoengineering schemes;
every time we invoke the future of our children and grandchildren and ignore
the widespread suffering from global climate disruption today.

Every time we say these things and more, we’re promoting
denial of dire climate reality, the reality that’s spinning out of our grasp so
fast that we conduct our frenetic climate “solutions” efforts in a
kind of stupor, obsessing with parts-per-million statistics, keeping
desperately busy to ward off our own utter collapse borne of despair.

The reality we’re denying? 
We’re denying that we’ve put so much carbon into the atmosphere already that
positive feedback loops are well on their way to amplification hell.[1] We’re denying that time lags between carbon
emissions and their effects are frighteningly relevant, and that the disastrous
effects we’re seeing now are from emissions of 30 years ago.  We’re denying that non-linear responses of
physical systems cannot be calculated and therefore are perilously ignored.
We’re denying that our consumption and waste have far exceeded planetary
capacity, possibly irreparably so.

He's got a point. If it's up to environmentalists to preserve our current climate, we may have a problem.

At one time we could claim that it's not our fault, we weren't driving…but we've been driving for approaching a year now, and hardly seem to have changed course. As Ted Rall impolitely points out:


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Who Will Be the Last Human to Eat Bluefin Tuna?

Barry Estabrook asks a great question:

There is a strong likelihood that someone in this generation will be
the last human to eat a bluefin tuna. By most scientific accounts, the
species hovers on the brink of extinction, if it hasn’t already crossed that line.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Probably it will be a Japanese person…the Bluefin Tuna is loved to death there.

h/t: Mark Bittman's great food blog

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Why China Needs to Think About Climate

James Fallows, a wonderful writer and blogger for the Atlantic, is not one to panic, but when it comes to the ice at the roof of the world — upon which hundreds of millions of people depend — he sounds scared.

Here's his post from today, on what Obama should be talking about on his trip to China, but isn't:

Thirty years from now, the most important aspect of Barack Obama's
interaction with China will be whether the two countries, together, can
do anything about environmental and climate issues. If they can, in
2039 we'll look back on this as something like the Silent Spring/Clean
Air Act moment in American history, which began a change toward broad
environmental improvement. If they can't….

Today the Asia
Society's "China Green" project ran a full-page ad in the New York
Times — good to see support for the print media! — and launched
another online display dramatizing why such cooperation matters. This
one is called On Thinner Ice
and documents the accelerating disappearance of the glaciers on the
Tibetan plateau that feed nearly all the major rivers of Asia.
(Previous Asia Society displays on this topic here.)

The "On Thinnner Ice" video is very good, about eight minutes long, but being the impatient sort that would rather read than sit and watch, I'm going to link instead to one of the featured speakers in the mini-doc, China expert Orville Schell, and a piece he had in August in The New York Times.

He makes the same point Fallows does, from the other side of the problem:

President Hu, by promising this week to try to cut carbon dioxide
emissions per unit of gross domestic product and to increase the share
of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption, signaled his
willingness to act. China can’t solve this problem alone, and President
Obama’s scheduled visit to Beijing in November presents an opportunity
to forge a bilateral alliance on climate change. After all, the ice
fields in the majestic arc of peaks that runs from China to Afghanistan
are melting in large part because of greenhouse gases emitted thousands
of miles away.

It's called The Thaw at the Roof of the World

Sadly, Obama seems to feel he cannot raise the question, because Congress won't follow his lead.

Seems we the people need to lead on this issue…by reducing our carbon footprint, and thus showing that we care about the planet. So argues TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis argues in his most recent post

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