Tuesday, May 01, 2007

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Captain Toothpaste Returns

at Blue Voice.

Captain's Log at Soul of Star Trek.

UpDATe: 5/03: So I am in fact Elsewhere--in a cafe in western PA, and therefore safe and sound.

And soon, hours from now, I shall be Elsewhere, though where that might be is open to question. I'm supposed to be flying across the country, on what's forecast as a very stormy day. I've had a week disrupted by my bedroom being the site of destruction and construction, so I'm weak from lack of sleep, and since I carried those six boxes of fifty pound boards, my back hasn't been the same. So I'm setting out weakened and hurting for what looks like it well could be quite a trial. The last time I flew across country I wound up literally deaf for about a month from a cold and sinus infection that the airplane pressure made worse. I'm to be up at 5, flying out at 730 am, and scheduled to arrive at 9pm eastern, though that requires getting out of Arcata in the rain, into and out of San Francisco in the rain, into and out of Chicago where severe thunderstorms are forecast, and into Pittsburgh, where the thunderstorms should be coming with me.

Then supposing I arrive intact, there's the question of Internet service on the other end. So you may be dreaming up without me, whoever you are.

Monday, April 30, 2007

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Climate Crisis Future

Will We Save the Future? (Part II)

The scientist who has probably produced the most dire prediction for the Climate Crisis future is James Lovelock, best known for his championing of the Gaia Hypothesis. His book, The Revenge of Gaia, looks at the interaction of phenomena that other scientists mostly study separately, and he sees the Earth inevitably changing because of greenhouse gases to a condition more like Mars--a barren desert, where fewer people than now populate the US may survive in a few isolated areas.

Bill McKibben, not a climate scientist but a writer thoroughly conversant with the science, and whose judgment I respect, describes Lovelock's position in the New York Review of Books:

He argues that because the earth is already struggling to keep itself cool, our extra increment of heat is particularly dangerous, and he predicts that we will soon see the confluence of several phenomena: the death of ocean algae in ever-warmer ocean waters, reducing the rate at which these small plants can remove carbon from the atmosphere; the death of tropical forests as a result of higher temperatures and the higher rates of evaporation they cause; sharp changes in the earth's "albedo," or reflectivity, as white ice that reflects sunlight back out into space is replaced with the absorptive blue of seawater or the dark green of high-latitude boreal forests; and the release of large amounts of methane, itself a greenhouse gas, held in ice crystals in the frozen north or beneath the sea.

As McKibben notes, not many scientists go this far, and Lovelock's book has not convinced many with its data or argument. Still, he does describe possible "feedback" and interrelated effects, that could happen. And as McKibben notes: Lovelock's flashes of insight about Gaia illuminate many of the interconnections between systems that more pedestrian scientists have slowly been trying to identify. Moreover, for the past twenty years, the period during which greenhouse science emerged, most of the effects of heating on the physical world have in fact been more dire than originally predicted.

McKibben doesn't dismiss Lovelock's intuitions about the interactions of Gaia. And when he turns to a climate scientist, a specialist with stronger data and a more solid reputation, NASA's James Hansen, he finds that Hansen says the world isn't doomed yet--we have "until 2015 to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere before we cross a threshold and create a 'different planet.'" He doesn't say Mars, but it's close enough.

McKibben reviews several other, more hopeful books: on the rise of solar energy, on transformation in China and elsewhere in the world, and calls for political will as well as community involvement. But he also notes that the Climate Crisis is actually gaining speed, in the sense that its effects are being felt and observed sooner than expected, and its getting worse faster, as well as the increasingly faster rate our knowledge of what's happening is increasing.

And as a kind of addendum to the previous post about 1989, in a March New York Review piece, he notes that Hansen first warned about global heating's potentially catastrophic effects in 1988, but the words of arguably the foremost climate expert in the U.S. did not lead to quick action. McKibben interprets a section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as saying: if world leaders had heeded the early warnings of the first IPCC report, and by 2000 had done the very hard work to keep greenhouse gas emissions from growing any higher, the expected temperature increase would be half as much as is expected now.

He calls the IPCC report "remarkably conservative," yet it forecasts: if we don't take the most aggressive possible measures to curb fossil fuel emissions immediately, then we will see temperature increases of— at the best estimate—roughly five degrees Fahrenheit during this century. Technically speaking, that's enormous, enough to produce what James Hansen has called a "totally different planet," one much warmer than that known by any of our human ancestors.

The IPCC report does not take into full consideration the emerging study of the possible effects of melting polar ice, which is happening more rapidly than predicted--more rapidly than some scientists could even imagine. This melting is a good candidate for the tipping point factor--the phenomenon that interacts with others to send the planet on a self-reinforcing course of heating that nothing can stop.

We don't know that yet, and though we may have a much better idea about it in the near future, we probably won't be certain for decades. What we do know is that if we don't cut our current carbon emissions--the consensus is now that we need to cut them by 80% by 2050--we are likely to turn Earth into Mars.

There is more political movement to do so in the U.S. and in much of the world than ever before. But what if we don't? What will 2050 and subsequent years look like? If we act like we have for the last century or so, it will not be pretty.

from The Guardian
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The Long Hot Crisis

How it's going to end up is a guess. That it's going to keep getting worse until mid century at least no matter what we do is just about certain. So what might it be like?

Millions of people driven from their homes, thirsty, starving. Unknown numbers of deaths and diseases related to Climate Crisis phenomena--everything from frail elders dying in heat waves to even more babies with malaria. The IPCC says all this, though not that boldly.

But old people are old and the ones who will die will probably be poor. Money and/or a rich industrialized society will help insulate Americans--not so many starving here. But...let's remember the social equivalent of Gaia. We live in an increasingly dependent society--we're dependent on more and more outside our homes and communities, and at the same time, on fewer and fewer resources and institutions. Global GPS goes out and we're all literally lost. Our public health in particular is so shoddy now, our government so lax in protecting our food and water and medicines, that small crises can become big ones, and persistent problems can fray the fabric until it breaks.

War. That's what the military is worried about. Over water, probably. Darfur may already be largely about that. How about India and Pakistan, with nukes?

It's not only the climate crisis: the effects on the planet of industrial gases and chemicals, the destruction of forests and sealife and life in general--all combine with climate change to make the future very dicey. We're in the midst of a major wave of extinctions unlike any since the dinosaurs, even apart from the polar bears and penguins. That could well affect us in ways we can't predict and may not be able to control. Right now there's the mystery of the honeybees dying off. That may not seem like a big deal, but as Einstein once pointed out, if the bees disappear and pollination stops, the human race could die out in a few years. It's not just a matter of being kind to animals and hugging trees, though we might be more worth saving if we did that. Keeping life flourishing is about our survival.

But if we're speculating about the future, let's go to a futurist, and a science fiction writer as well. In his 202 nonfiction book, Tomorrow Now, Bruce Sterling wrote that "The greenhouse effect is the dirty little sister of nuclear Armageddon." He writes that humans in poor places will suffer food shortages, but that the rest of life on the planet will bear the brunt. If we ignore the problem and just try to survive, we'll do so using more fossil fuels until the whole planet looks like Blade Runner.

But Sterling is more specific, more graphic and more apocalyptic on the Internet, on a site called the Viridian Design Movement. At the moment the post at the top is crowing victory. This year, he writes, we've turned the corner and we are going to confront the Climate Crisis. But for what that means for the future, you need to read further, and look at some back notes.

Even in victory he warns: The 2012 deadline for Kyoto is already a dead letter, because Kyoto was far too weak and too slow. We are going to see a series of monstrous efforts by large enterprises: private, local, state and national, to save whatever can be saved of the previous natural order. The primary motivator of this effort will be fear. The climate is changing much more quickly and more severely than anyone suspected it would. A rapid, ruthless, headlong clean-tech techno- revolution – in fact, a series of them – is the only global option with a ghost of a chance to save our smoldering planetary bacon. That's coming; it is under way.)))

In an earlier post: In the 2060s, damage from climate change is supposed to outpace the planet's entire GNP. That means ALL the funding and ALL the focus get used up by one issue: climate crisis.)))

Sterling's style in these "notes" is to add his interpolations to some other text. Perhaps his most provocative prediction is for the rise of what he calls the "khaki green" For example, responding to Bush's comment that crises like Katrina may require the Army taking charge, he agrees that the Climate Crisis future will overwhelm "the pretense of civilian capacity. It's not about Bush power versus government power. We don't yet have a society capable of responding to genuine Greenhouse enormities." The reason is: The organizational problem at hand would be much better understood as a train of Katrinas. It's not that a big storm comes and you pass the blame buck. It's that big storms come all the time.)))

In fact, according to Sterling, these weather-related crises (monster storms, forest fires) will require more than the Army. (((I'd be guessing we run out of soldiers well before the ocean runs out of storms.))) There's no cure for demolished cities that a contemporary army can give. A plethora of Katrinas doesn't mean Army control of evacuation. You can't park the populations of drowned cities somewhere off camera while Delta Force rebuilds their town. The only effective response to really savage and continuous weather violence has got to be vigorous civil defense and a paramilitarized general populace. Those millions of evacuees who were cluttering highways this week – they're the labor force. They and no one else are the ones who will have to do the heavy lifting, because it's their cities and their world that has been destabilized by climate change.)))

This is the "khaki green" concept--more than a little chilling in this formulation. While there's an image there of a total society working together, it also conjures images of local warlords and national dictators as well as paramilitary justice.

Sterling sees this as a result of fear--so very realistic in terms of what seems to motivate our politics now. But this is not the only way this would have to go. It could also be people helping people out of community and compassion, organized and directed by democratic government. More like what the National Guard is supposed to be. (Perhaps the real realism is a combination of these.)

But there are so many tasks ahead that the vision of a fully mobilized society, or at least a completely transformed culture, is a possibility worth pondering. Beyond responding to these spot crises, there are the other ongoing ones: building seawalls, dealing with epidemics, feeding people, monitoring during heat waves. So another model may be more of NGO relief agencies, only ones that don't leave their own country. Or the model of the volunteer militias of the states in American Revolutionary times, only with shovels and medicines instead of guns. A real domestic Peace Corps, Volunteers in Service to America. Or the ideals of dedication, service and selflessness, wedded with high degree of organization and training, and an ethic of watching out for each other: the kind of ideals that antimated Robert Heinlein's dream of the Space Patrol, or Gene Roddenberry's of Starfleet. Force as the last resort, not the reason for being. And not on the high frontier. Right here.

All that is pretty certain is that changing your lightbulbs is not going to be the extent of the changes required to confront the Climate Crisis. Understanding that, getting prepared for all the issues that could arise, is the reason to contemplate such extremes now.

In describing the despicable machinations of Senator Inhofe, who peddles his fossil fueled denialism relentlessly while his own state of Oklahoma suffers from extended drought, one recent commentator suggested that Inhofe doesn't care about the future consequences of his actions because he will soon be dead. That may be so. But these visions are about a future that I will not see much of either. I may live to see the American culture so transformed as to make today seem like a twisted fantasy--I believe that could happen in the next decade or two. But getting older can also make the present more precious, the past more real, and the future--the future we won't see--more important.

But I do understand the natural tendency, particularly of younger people, to resist such visions of doom, or alternatively, to wallow in them. Dealing with visions of doom has been a large and difficult task for my generation, and speaking for myself, with mixed results. The end of the world as we know it is pretty overwhelming. But there are reasons not to push away the possibility. First, because what people do now may prevent the worst of it. Second, because things are happening now, and are going to keep happening, that are part of this crisis, and if we are to cope with it at all, and deal with it intelligently, it's best to understand what's really going on.

However, it's not all happening at once. Unlike nuclear apocalypse, it will play out over many years, and probably centuries. That is both comforting and daunting. But it is very likely the truth.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

the sun's surface, using some of that extreme ultra-violet
imaging, man.
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Climate Crisis Future

Will We Save the Future? (Part 1)

One can imagine the next US President galvanizing the nation, leading a concerted effort to address the Climate Crisis as the ultimate challenge to human civilization that many reputable observers believe it well may be. Or even if it is a lesser threat, the effort to mitigate its effects and stop the likely critical threat to future generations, become a national and finally a truly international priority.

One can imagine the American public responding to such leadership--beginning perhaps with transforming their homes and businesses with solar power, once the government puts real incentives in place, as is happening now in Germany. Or taking advantage of other incentives to buy fuel efficient cars and use different fuels, while supporting those manufacturers who respond to their incentives, as well as responding to the carbon caps some major corporations have already requested.

One can imagine thousands of new jobs in new industries that address the Climate Crisis locally, and nationally, and globally. One can imagine this President appearing weekly on TV and the Internet to report on progress, new efforts and new science, and everyone watching and listening, and talking about it. And watching commercials that advertise products and services based on their energy efficiency and innovation, and how they work together to create new relationships of community and culture.

One can imagine it because one did imagine it, more or less, in 1970. I recall accompanying a friend to an auto repair shop in Buffalo, New York, a few days before the first Earth Day, and somehow in the discussion that ensued with people who worked there, outlining just such a vision. Talking about it in terms of responding to environmental needs, as both opportunity and response to crisis, like the national response to World War II, which involved the kind of work people did, their attitude towards it, and such aspects of everyday life as recycling and conservation. And having one of the skeptical mechanics say, "Now you're getting me excited about this."

One can even argue with some ready justification that the public is much more ready for that today, and despite the misgivings expressed in the New York Times poll this week, that people are ready to adopt change, as long as it makes sense to them. (Things that cost them directly have to make sense to them. That nothing Bush does seems to cost anyone at the moment is the secret of his former success. )

So is it likely? Will we save the world? Well, let's just say, one can find plenty of reasons to say no. [Continued below.]

more coronal music
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What Isn't Happening

Though it might seem (as Al Gore promises) that just about any candidate for President in 2008 of either party is going to address the Climate Crisis in much more realistic and positive terms than the Bushite denialists, that may not be enough. There has to be a real change in the political dialogue, the political direction and perhaps in politics itself. And there is scant sign this is happening.

Yes, there are encouraging signs--in the states, the regions, in certain powerful Democrats in Congress, in the advocacy of Al Gore, John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry, and Bill Clinton, as well as celebrities who've made this their cause. But is it enough to provide weight and momentum to leadership? I wonder. I worry.

Let's take this week's first debate among Democratic candidates for Prez as exhibit the first. There were no questions on the subject of the Climate Crisis or the environment, just as there seldom were in the past two elections. There were actually more answers than questions--a couple of candidates mentioned environment and at least one even mentioned global warming. But there was no indication it is anyone's priority. There was no sense of urgency.

More importantly than even this depressing lack of focus, was the general tenor of the campaign's beginning. That Iraq is sucking most of the oxygen (but not the CO2) out of the political atmosphere isn't surprising. But in the debate there was that question about what each candidate would do as President if there were two simultaneous terrorist attacks on U.S. cities. Hillary Clinton got a big bounce out of using the word "retaliate." It proves she's tough enough to be president, that she'll "keep us safe." The media conventional wisdom was fawning all over her for this.

Haven't we learned anything? We've been pathetic sheep following Bush over the cliff because he claimed he was tough. And apparently we're ready to do it again. Does anybody seriously believe any of those candidates would be "weak" (you know, reading a children's book while the Towers fall) or wouldn't respond? But of course that isn't the point. The point apparently is that all we care about is bombing terrorists.

How discouraging is that? Hillary said this would be a "change election", but I didn't see it. I saw this as yet another fear election. And this was not all manufactured by the media, for apparently Hillary's people are actually attacking Barak Obama for not being violent enough in his response.

Keep us safe? What are we--infants? Apparently, yes. We need Daddy or Mommy to save us from the mean mean terrorists, who killed three thousand of our people on one day six years ago. Not from the health insurance terrorists, the credit card terrorists, the forget Habeas Corpus terrorists, the forget your retirement terrorists, not the destroy an entire country terrorists, inprison people you're afraid of without trial terrorists, build concentration camps for Mexicans at the border terrorists, kill more than 3,000 of your own young and maim thousands more plus hundreds of thousands of foreign innocents for a preemptive quaqmire born of lies and greed terrorists, and meanwhile the blatant thieves embodied and empowered by this administration who've stolen the future from babies not yet born.

Our politics remains infantile. Our ignorance has been carefully cultivated and nurtured by those who profit from that ignorance. For a brief shining and apparently illusory moment--the late 50s and 60s--we in America looked like we might be growing up. But we've actually gone backwards. Martin Amis called the 80s the "moronic inferno," and we've been swimming in the ashes ever since. We've gone backwards in the direction of the Dark Ages (only this time with Blackberries) intellectually, culturally and morally. Our culture and much of our government and military are in the grip of totalitarian fundamentalists, for whom their particular brand of Christianity and their particular reading of the Bible is the only truth. They are the mirror image of the totalitarian fundamentalists wreaking havoc in other parts of the world.

Individually, in families and maybe communities (physical and virtual), we can be sophisticated in our judgments and tolerant, generous and compassionate. But as a polity, as a nation, we're hopeless. Our politics as well as our commercial culture evoke our worst traits: fear, greed, hate, anger, sentimentality, laziness and conformity. And the industrialized commercial culture we've unleashed globally vies with totalitarian fundamentalism for apocalyptic potential.

Because of its nature and extent, the Climate Crisis calls for a leap forward in realizing our potential as human beings together on this planet. It's within our grasp. But we seem to be mostly going in the direction of becoming more simplistic, self-righteously selfish and willfully stupid. This is certainly the impression one gets from the newspapers and particularly from cable TV. Maybe it's distorted. One can only hope so.

But of course debating "will we save the future" is nonsense unless it's still possible to save the future. Is it?

Continued tomorrow.