Saturday, April 07, 2007

cups in place #7
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Climate Munich?

More emerges on how the pols softened the IPCC climate crisis report. From AP:

"There was no split in the science — they were all mad," said John Coequyt, who observed the closed-door negotiations for the environmental group Greenpeace.

In the past, scientists at these meetings felt that their warnings were conveyed, albeit slightly edited down. But several of them left Friday with the sense that they had lost control of their document. At one point, NASA's Cynthia Rosenzweig filed a formal protest and left the building, only to return, make peace and talk in positive tones. Others talked about abandoning the process altogether.

One weapon the diplomats used was endless talking. At one point, the translators had to be sent home because the deliberations were over budget.

The result: A comparison of the original document, written by scientists, and the finished paper showed major reductions in forecasts for hunger and flooding victims. Instead of "hundreds of millions" of potential flood victims, the report said "many millions." A key mention of up to 120 million people at risk of hunger because of global warming was eliminated.

All of this will be in the technical report issued by the scientists themselves. According to the AP's viewing of the technical summary not included in what's already been released:

"More than one sixth of the world population live in glacier- or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by decrease of water volume." And depending on how much fossil fuels are burned in the future, "262-983 million people are likely to move into the water stressed-category" by 2050.

• Global warming could increase the number of hungry in the world in 2080 by anywhere between 140 million and 1 billion, depending on how much greenhouse gas is emitted into the air over the next few decades.

• "Overall a 2 to 3 fold increase of population to be flooded is expected by 2080."

• Malaria, diarrhea diseases, dengue fever, tick-borne diseases, heat-related deaths will all rise with global warming. But in the United Kingdom, the drop in cold-related deaths will be bigger than the increase in heatstroke related deaths.

• In eastern North America, depending on fossil fuel emissions, smog will increase and there would be a 4.5 percent increase in smog-related deaths.

• Because global warming will hurt the poor more, there will be more "social equity" concerns and pressure for governments to do more.

Whether these stark conclusions to what many view as an already unbearably stark report would have changed the generally weak media coverage is debatable. The report was barely mentioned on TV news channels on Friday. They had more important things to talk about.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Climate Crisis

Feeling the Heat

News through the night (U.S. Pacific Coast Time) was of contention and possible postponement, but the latest Reuters report indicates that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue its report forecasting effects of the Climate Crisis today, as scheduled.

Though some scientists still say the executive summary has been watered down (especially by objections from the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia--why I am not surprised at those names?), it still provides, in Reuters words: the bleakest U.N. assessment yet of the threat of climate change, predicting water shortages that could affect billions of people, extinctions of species and a rise in ocean levels that could go on for centuries. .. climate change could cause a sharp fall in crop yields in Africa, a thaw of Himalayan glaciers and more heatwaves for Europe and North America. The IPCC report says climate change is no longer a vague, distant threat. "The whole of climate change is something actually here and now rather than something for the future," said Neil Adger, a British lead author of the report.

An AP report earlier said that much of the internal debate was over some charts that showed effects in various specific places according to possible temperature rises--apparently too graphic for some politicians. The charts have been called a "highway to extinction" because they show that with every degree of warming, the condition of much of the world worsens -- with starvation, floods and the disappearance of species. Those charts "tell us there's a danger in the future," said Belgian delegate Julian Vandeburie, who is in the science policy branch of his government.

Vandeburie compared the world's current situation to the Munich peace conference in 1938, when Britain and France had a choice between confronting Hitler and appeasing him: "We are at the same moment. We have to decide on doing something or not."

It will be interesting to see how this is covered today and this weekend, although my impression is that so far, not only the U.S. government but the U.S. media is softpedaling these conclusions, highlighting the most conservative and near term predictions. In Europe, where public and political awareness is higher, the emphasis has been different. For instance:

Draft versions seen by BBC News warn it will be hard for societies to adapt to all the likely climate impacts. The report is set to say that a temperature rise above 1.5C from 1990 levels would put about one-third of species at risk of extinction. More than one billion people would be at greater risk of water shortages, primarily because of the melting of mountain glaciers and ice fields which act as natural reservoirs. The scientific work reviewed by IPCC scientists includes more than 29,000 pieces of data on observed changes in physical and biological aspects of the natural world. Eighty-five percent of these, it believes, are consistent with a warming world.

There's also reference in the BBC story to the conceptual conflict over whether to concentrate on the "Fix It" phase of dealing with the effects rather than the "Stop It" phase of forestalling worse heating in the farther future by cutting carbon emissions drastically now:

Some observers of climate issues have long maintained that action on climate change should focus on protecting societies and natural systems against impacts such as floods and drought, rather than on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The IPCC, however, is set to conclude that "adaptation alone is not expected to cope with all the projected effects of climate change, and especially not over the long run as most impacts increase in magnitude".

In other words, we have to do both.

But will we do either? Even if we can't quite accept the bleakest assessments, will we take enough action in time? And what does "in time" actually mean?

I mean to address those questions as best I can in continuing the Climate Crisis Future series here. I keep adding chapters to this series, so I won't make any further promises on how many more are to come. But I do think next time I'll take a step back and look at all of this from the perspective of 1989. Why that year? Come back and see.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a quote on the interference and the final report:

As a result, the final document was “much less quantified and much vaguer and much less striking than it could have been,” said St├ęphane Hallegatte, a participant from France’s International Center for Research on the Environment and Development.

Several U.S. news outlets, like the Times and the Washington Post via AP are emphasizing, as the Post headlines, "Poor Will Suffer Most." Well, apart from the axiom that in any major crisis the poor suffer most (so that's a duh deal) it is true that areas of Africa immediately endangered by drought (some of which has begun) and places most vulnerable to sea-level rises like Bangladesh are poorer on average, the comfort that the affluent Post reader might derive from this headline is deceptive. Some of the apparently suppressed graphs showed potential devastation within the U.S., and reportedly data on hurricanes were also kept out (while an active season is predicted this year by weather people.) A new report predicting a long and devastating drought in the U.S. Southwest (already well underway) is separate from the UN document, but eventually everybody is going to feel this.

The Post does quote Greenpeace: "This is a glimpse into an apocalyptic future." Apocalypse may not be an equal opportunity employer right away, but eventually...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pelican nebula from a San Francisco backyard
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The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“ If societies were incapable of surprising shifts and turns, if religions and philosophies, language and clothing never changed, we’d surely have to grimly crunch away in the same old story, and certainly drown in some sort of Blade Runner-type movie.”

Gary Snyder

More on his new book of essays at Books in Heat, or with more photos at Boomer Hall of Fame, where there's also a new something on Captain Midnight.
"The Boomers Are All Right" Manifesto at 60's Now.
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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Antarctic ice fish--one of many recently discovered species.
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The Court and the Climate

The TV babbleheads could prattle on about nothing else yesterday but the obscene amounts of money various presidential campaigns accumulated so far, and what those amounts "mean." (Hint: not much.) Of course, most of that money by far ends up paying the salaries of those very same babbleheads, as the millions are poured into TV commercials. That's what the world needs: more TV commercials.

Meanwhile, they largely ignored the news that could make a great deal of difference to the world: the Supreme Court decision that said the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, because they cause global warming. And despite the fact that the Bushites currently in charge of that agency said they couldn't, and don't want to.

By a 5-4 decision, the Court found the EPA offered "no reasoned explanation" for why it can't regulate these emissions. Just as importantly, the Court sent the matter back to the EPA to prove that these emissions don't contribute to global warming. Otherwise, they not only can regulate them, under the law they MUST regulate them.

That's the next legal step. The significance for the moment is that states like California that have moved to regulate emissions can't be stopped by the feds. But this is important also because it's the first climate crisis decision from the Court, and it sets a precedent that has the Court on record as endorsing the connection between greenhouse gases and global heating.

It's a glimmer of hope in a week of very bad climate news that's likely to get worse, as draft reports for the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to be issued in May.
But more on that anon.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

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Hillary Dumps Bill--Elopes with Rosie O'Donnell!

While supposed statesmen like John McCain and Lindsay Graham claim Baghdad is safe, American soldiers and correspondents in the field laugh at them. One veteran reporter said that everyone knows an American alone wouldn’t last twenty minutes anywhere in Baghdad—if not killed, then kidnapped for politics or money. Meanwhile, "The Surge" that's meant to help Iraqis take over their own war has resulted in twice as many dead American soldiers in March (81) as Iraqis. As they stand up, we fall.

Meanwhile, millions are homeless and hundreds of thousands dying in Africa in wars invisible here, while Americans obsesses over the final resting place of a model. The fate of civilization and the health of the planet are in grave jeopardy, according to a scientific consensus nearly as strong as that suggesting there are laws of gravity, but in the leading nation of the world deniers rule and no action is taken, as every moment brings future generations closer to a cursed and inevitable fate.

Hah hah—didn’t mean it! April Fool!

Hah hah—didn’t mean that! It’s true! So who’s the April Fool now?

April Fool’s Day has roots in many cultures that reach as far back as history goes, and probably farther. Part of its complex pedigree is a fairly direct relationship to the Bill of Rights.

The historical roots of the day include ancient festivals of spring which often had some component of comedy, trickery and release from ordinary rules, which in the western world at least usually included orgies of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual licentiousness. The probable direct ancestor of April Fool's Day is more specific—when France adopted the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century, New Year's moved from April to January 1. But old habits are hard to break, especially those beginning in 45 B.C., which was when Julius Caesar set up the old Julian calendar. Some gullible Parisians were tricked by clever neighbors into celebrating New Year's on what was now the wrong day.

Out of this was born the classic cry, April Fish! Which is something that did not cross the Atlantic when the calendar was later changed in America. No one is quite sure what the fish thing is about. Still, the first April Fool's Day jest was probably, "Happy New Year!"

But the more important aspect of this history relates to the tradition of the licensed fool. For centuries, most European and some Asian countries had them, popularly known as court jesters. From imperial Rome through the medieval period and the Renaissance, official fools were not only a popular and well known presence in royal courts, but for part of that time were also employed by cities, clergy and wealthy families.

Their duties ranged from song and dance to pratfalls and acrobatics, ribaldry and general foolishness. At times no fashionable dinner party was complete without a fool hired to insult the guests. But the key element of the "allowed fool" was his (and occasionally, her) freedom to do and especially to say anything to anyone.

The official fool also has roots in an aspect of the aforementioned festivals, which featured a Lord of Misrule— a commoner who took on the trappings of the king or bishop or town mayor for a day. As far back as the tenth century, these became elaborate performances, mixing entertainment with social comment, and topical plays or burlesque sermons that satirized the real rulers of state and church, who had to at least pretend to enjoy it. These events became hugely popular, but nobody was fool enough to criticize the powerful if there were going to be reprisals. So the tradition included immunity for the fool.

When kings hired permanent court jesters, political satire as well as pointed personal remarks were part of their repertoire, and the tradition of immunity came with them. Archibald Armstrong, one of England's last and most political jesters replied, "No one has ever heard of a fool being hanged for talking, but many dukes have been beheaded for their insolence." So it happened that the only people in Europe with the absolute right of free speech were kings and queens, and fools.

This fact was not lost on others who were agitating for that kind of freedom for all. The original document of the Magna Carta, England's first great challenge to absolute royal power in 1215, was decorated with the figure of a court jester. From the late 15th century until well into the 17th, "societies of fools" flourished in France, composed of young men who criticized the government and agitated for freedom while wearing the traditional court jester motley.

America never had court jesters, though some of its first expressions of freedom and identity were in the foolery tradition, from the burlesque of the Boston Tea Party (a bunch of Anglos badly costumed as Indians who struck a blow for political independence by dumping tea into cold water) to some early symbols such as Yankee Doodle and Uncle Sam. "Yankee" was a British ethnic slur which New Englanders turned into a badge of honor, and Yankee Doodle Dandy was a clown figure (what else can you say about a guy who sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni?) made immortal in the song sung at key moments in the American Revolution, including at the British surrender. A similar figure, a Yankee "wise fool" stock character popular in early American stage comedies, was a source for Uncle Sam.

Americans also pride themselves on being straightforward, so there's also a tradition of mistrusting the tricky. But today our Zeitgeist depends so heavily on some forms of deceit--spin, disinformation, oversimplifying and the straight-faced lie--that selectively moralizing about other forms rings hollow. Historians are dishonored for missing quotation marks, but not if the history they write is dishonest bunk. Injustice wears clothes of obscurant nomenclature, and success by any means necessary is our guiding morality. Mendacity is a trick of power.

The heart of the fool's relation to free speech is speaking truth to power. For awhile we may have thought that serious journalism was going to speak truth to power, but when the most powerful owns the most presses, and the line between editorial and advertising becomes more and more imaginary, it's looking like a piquant hope.

The rich and powerful can easily ridicule the countrified (the original meaning of "clown") and unsophisticated, but the figure of the fool deflects the ridicule back upon the pretentious and corrupt. Freedom to criticize the powerful is at the heart of both the fool tradition and free speech.

The pretensions of power are automatic, perhaps the inevitable product of consciousness equipped with opposable thumbs. Our particular social systems depend on some forms of deceit while moralizing about others. Historians are dishonored for missing quotation marks, but not if the history they write is dishonest bunk. Injustice wears clothes of obscurant nomenclature, while paradox or irony shade into hypocrisy as we deny freedoms in the name of protecting freedom.

Today April Fool's Day is just about our only nod to this tradition. You can play tricks on people any day of the year, but the idea is that on this day, you are allowed to. This year it falls on a Sunday, so the usual office trickery is shall we say a bit trickier. Yet the Internet more than makes up for this as a celebration of intentional foolery that unintentionally looks like every other day on the Internet. This is the scarier side of information without authority, and often wthout conscience.

Since laughter seems to override anger, wit is often its own protection, at least temporarily. The cosmos itself seems designed with persistent uncertainties, which is perhaps why many religious and cultural traditions make the trickster a major myth.

Historically and perhaps in practice, the freedom of the fool makes way for freedom of speech in all its aspects. Humor often seems to make the truth clearer and perhaps easier to acknowledge. We have to be tricked into seeing what we would rather not see. We can have tricksters without truth, and in our entertainment-dominated society we mostly do. But rarely can we fallible humans have truth without tricksters.