Archive for 2013 June

19 firefighters in Arizona killed in wildfire/heat wave

Global warming casulties

Story at the top of the front page of the New York Times doesn't mention the heat wave, which drovetemperatures to 120 degrees in Phoenix, nor any possible link to global warming, but does note that since 1955, a total of 21 firefighters have died battling fires in Arizona. Which means this was the worst day in history of firefighting in the state.


Rancher John Hays, 85, lives in the heart of Peeple's Valley. He said
the fire is burning the edge of his property line, but as of 9:30 p.m.,
it was burning only brush.

"You can't believe the fierce winds we're having and how dry it is —
I've never seen it so erratic — the fire turns back and forth," Hays
said. "The horror is that people have died trying to put it out. It's
heartbreaking. It's tragic."

Seems to be a journalism tradition not to discuss causes immediately in the aftermath of a tragedy. Perhaps that's respectful. 


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An “intensification of the hydrological cycle”: CA

This is a scientific cliche describing a central fact of climate change. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, about 4% more, which leads to more extreme weather. It's an idea that Kevin Trenbeth, who has published more than 400 scientific papers in climatology, has for a decade been translating into conversational English as "the wets get wetter and the dries get drier."

It's a well-understood phenomenon that this week in California took an interesting turn. 

Here we have a surprisingly wet couple of days , in fairly heavy rains that hit the Bay on 6/24:

And here we have a huge drying out, as in a heat wave that looks likely to set all-time highs across the entire West, blankets the entire West just four days later:


The purple on the latest warnings map for some reason stands for red flag warnings. 

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Texas legislature turns back clock to outlaw abortion

It's like science fiction for reactionaries.

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When the GOP cared about air pollution: Obama

Today President Obama gave a speech on climate, and reminded the world that once we had a political consensus on the need to reduce pollution in our atmosphere. 

Forty-three years ago, Congress passed a law called the Clean Air Act
of 1970
.  (Applause.)  It was a good law.  The reasoning behind it was
simple:  New technology can protect our health by protecting the air we
breathe from harmful pollution.  And that law passed the Senate
unanimously.  Think about that — it passed the Senate unanimously.  It
passed the House of Representatives 375 to 1.  I don’t know who the one
guy was — I haven’t looked that up.  (Laughter.)  You can barely get
that many votes to name a post office these days.  (Laughter.) 

It was signed into law by a Republican President.  It was later
strengthened by another Republican President.  This used to be a
bipartisan issue.

Six years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are
pollutants covered by that same Clean Air Act.  (Applause.)  And they
required the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, to determine
whether they’re a threat to our health and welfare. In 2009, the EPA
determined that they are a threat to both our health and our welfare in
many different ways — from dirtier air to more common heat waves —
and, therefore, subject to regulation.

Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our
power plants.  But here’s the thing:  Right now, there are no federal
limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into
our air.  None.  Zero.  We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like
mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants
can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for
free.  That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop. 

It's a good argument, and polls support action. (From the Georgetown Climate Center [pdf]). 


It's enough to make a person hopeful of change. 

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The problem with temporary solutions: Kludgeocracy

Steven Teles of John Hopkins points out, the problem with our government is not that it's too big or badly intentioned. The problem is that it tries to find temporary solutions to permanent problems. 

You can’t solve a problem until you can name it. We have names for one axis of our politics — right vs. left, big versus small government. But voters and politicians have no name for what should be an equally important set of questions that cuts straight through those ideological divisions, which is complexity versus simplicity. The name, for a lack of a better alternative, is kludgeocracy.

The dictionary tells us that a kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes.

Example? How about our government's Byzantine attempt to do something about climate change? Matt Yglesias in Slate details how the Republican Right's successful efforts to turn action on climate change into a partisan effort means that the Obama administration is forced to regulate unfairly. 

Back in the winter of 2008–09, environmentalists and members of the
Obama transition team never would have imagined aggressive use of Clean
Air Act
regulation as the centerpiece of their climate-change policy—for
the very good reason that it’s a bad way to make climate-change policy.
The idea, instead, was that the threat of EPA regulation would bring
stakeholders to the table and lay the groundwork for a comprehensive
bill. The exact same logic pertains today.

The basic problem with the EPA approach is that any new rules that
will have a meaningful environmental impact—rules that would require
existing coal-fired plants to shut down or curtail their operations—are
going to have large financial costs. And those costs will not be borne
evenly. Some parts of the country have a much more coal-based power grid
than others and will see disproportionately higher prices.
Manufacturing firms that use a lot of electricity face the risk that
pollution will be essentially “outsourced” to less regulated countries.
Most of all, higher electricity prices affect different households very

According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey,
the poorest one-fifth of households spends about half as much per year
on electricity as the richest one-fifth of households. But that richest
one-fifth earns about 15 times more money and spends four to five times
as much on an annual basis. For regulations to have a big impact they’ll
need to shut down some of the dirtiest plants and at least temporarily
increase electricity prices—a move that will have a much harsher impact
on the poor, the Southeast, and the Midwest than on prosperous people on
the low-carbon West Coast.

Kludgeocracy in action.

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The loveliness of a violin, with gamelan, from Lou Harrison

According to the late great California composer Lou Harrison: "A good gamelan is the most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet."

His point was proved this spring at the Ojai Music Festival, where a fifteen-person-strong ensemble, called Gamelan San Raras, from UC Berkeley, with Hrabba Attadottir on the violin, played Harrison's meltingly gorgeous Philemon and Baukis. And for free, a gift of the festival!  

Hear here (from a recording available on-line):

The loveliness cannot be overstated. 


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Obama in Berlin calls for action on climate (allegedly)

Today on a 91-degree day in Berlin, Obama makes what has been described by the NYTimes and many others as a major speech on climate. Here's what he said on the subject:

Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet. The efforts to slow climate change requires bold action, and on this, Germany and Europe have led. In the United States, we have recently doubled our renewable energy from clean sources, like wind and solar power. We're doubling fuel efficiency on our cars. Our dangerous carbon emissions have come down, but we know we have to do more. And we will do more.


OBAMA: With a global middle class consuming more energy every day, this must now be an effort of all nations, not just some, for the grim alternative affects all nations: more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coast lines that vanish, oceans that rise.

This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. 


We have to get to work.

All well and good, but the the climate part of the speech adds up to 182 words, while the speech — on the broad theme of peace and justice — totals 3291 words.

So climate adds up to about 6% of the content of the "major speech" on climate. 

John Broder in the Times promises that the White House will soon hand down new regulations on power plant emissions, in an A1 story for today:

President Obama is preparing regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, senior officials said Wednesday. The move would be the most consequential climate policy step he could take and one likely to provoke legal challenges from Republicans and some industries.

Electric power plants are the largest single source of global warming pollution in the country, responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. With sweeping climate legislation effectively dead in Congress, the decision on existing power plants — which a 2007 Supreme Court decision gave to the executive branch — has been among the most closely watched of Mr. Obama’s second term.

The administration has already begun steps to restrict climate-altering emissions from any newly built power plants, but imposing carbon standards on the existing utility fleet would be vastly more costly and contentious.

The president is preparing to move soon because rules as complex as those applying to power plants can take years to complete. Experts say that if Mr. Obama hopes to have a new set of greenhouse gas standards for utilities in place before he leaves office he needs to begin before the end of this year. 

Let's hope he lives up to his aides' promises. Based on his record, one has to wonder. 

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Snow disappearing from Southern California mountains

Don't expect to see pictures below much in the future. From the LA Times

study released Friday projects a significant decline in snowfall on the
ranges that provide a dramatic backdrop to urban Southern California.

By mid-century, the amount of snow draping the mountains
could decrease 30% to 40%, researchers say. If greenhouse gas emissions
continue unabated, the ranges could lose two-thirds of their snow by
century’s end.

That means fewer
and fewer days in coming decades will reflect the classic images of sun
and snow that have idealized life in Southern California since 1920s
citrus-crate labels beckoned to Easterners.

“It kind of cuts to our identity,” said Jonathan
Parfrey, a commissioner with the Los Angeles Department of Water and
who is also executive director of Climate Resolve, a local nonprofit concerned with climate change.

This has been my experience, walking up to the snow in our local mountains (the Topa Topas) every winter. Even at 6000+ feet, it snows less frequently, and when it does snow, it snows less. 

It's impossible to remove the natural variability, thank God, but still — much less snow. 



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How to stop global warming: Ken Caldeira

From a (typically excellent) NPR science story, this one about Ken Caldeira, the Stanford researcher into ocean acidification:

"Decades ago, everybody was smoking cigarettes — and it was acceptable to smoke cigarettes indoors," [Caldeira] says. "And there was a phase change in social acceptability, where it is no longer acceptable to dump your cigarette smoke in air that somebody else is going to breathe. And I think we can achieve the same thing with carbon dioxide emissions, where it just becomes socially unacceptable to dump your industrial waste into the atmosphere."


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The Chumash cure for poison oak: USC Scientist

From my story in the Ojai Valley News:

One of the most common shade plants in Southern California is mugwort, a rangy grey-green perennial with serrated leaves, which also turns out to be one of the plants most useful for healing in the Chumash tradition. That’s according to Jim Adams, a professor in pharmacology at the University of Southern California, who has published hundreds of articles in the scientific press, but on his own spent years learning about Southern California plants from a Chumash mentor named Cecilia Garcia.

“Mugwort is such a useful plant,” he said. “Cecilia was constantly working with it – it was her favorite plant.”

Adams said the Chumash used mugwort for many conditions related to the womb, and he suggests making a tea with it to relieve menopausal symptoms.

But the plant is best known as an antidote for poison oak.

Mugwort“Basically, you get a handful of leaves, 10 or 15, and pee on them,” he said. “Then you rub the leaves on your skin where you were touched by the poison oak. We know this works, and there have been scientific papers written on it, but we still don’t know exactly how.”

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