Saturday, June 28, 2008

Not Just Fog

This is smoke along the Big Sur coast, where the
big fire raging for days is 3% contained. But it
might as well be Trinidad or elsewhere along the
North Coast, as the smoke from fires on three sides
of us becomes part of our air. Posted by Picasa

Friday, June 27, 2008

Fires This Time

click to enlargePosted by Picasa

California Burning

Saturday night update: It cleared a bit Saturday, but prospects for the coming week in the region don't look too good. "On Saturday, President Bush issued an emergency declaration for California and ordered federal agencies to assist in firefighting efforts in many areas. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had made the request on Friday."

Saturday update: Smoke has reached us, mixed in with the high fog at the moment. We're under an air quality alert. But every place inland, both north and south, is in the National Weather Service's "Red Flag Warning" zone. Dangerous smoke in many areas, and the weather is primed for more dry lightning storms. Big fires in the central coast areas are still raging.

Friday night--
Wildfires moved closer to our North Coast enclave. Highway 299 is closed 60 miles east because of fire and smoke. There are fires to the south of us, too, maybe closer than that. But elsewhere in California, it's much worse. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: As of Thursday afternoon, officials had identified 1,088 fires in Northern California that covered 159,000 acres and destroyed at least 18 homes. More than 12,500 state and federal firefighters were on the job, with 68 helicopters and 14 airplanes dropping water and retardant liquid. Closures were in place on Highways 32, 36, 70, 89 and 96 and 299." There are numerous fires as well in the Los Angeles area and in the rest of southern California.

But much more of the state is affected by smoke, and even the pollution that we can't necessarily see or smell. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District said it expects pollution levels to remain unhealthy today in portions of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. People who are very young or old, or suffer from lung or heart disease, are most at risk. Of particular concern, said agency spokesman Aaron Richardson, are smoke particles smaller than 1/20th of the diameter of a human hair that are not filtered out of the body by the nose or throat, and may pass into the bloodstream." Smoke and pollution are apt to affect us most directly here this summer, which is just getting started.

But this weekend, much of Northern CA area faces the same weather pattern--including dry lightning--that sparked 800 fires in one day. The Midwest is facing the same curse--the same pattern of more rain and storms in already flooded areas. Plus storms that moved farther west Friday into Nebraska, cutting power, and up into Michigan, dumping an inch and a half of rain on Detroit during rush hour.

More frequent and intense wildfires were predicted by climate scientists as effects of global heating. But as Dan Shapely points out at the Daily Green, it is the size of the fires that is most telling. Not only persistent patterns of intense weather as predicted by global heating models, but bigger fires--as we have now in California--as evidence of heating: dry and dead wood, dry brush so early in the summer in places that normally would not burn so readily and so fiercely.

This is no longer much disputed. Shapely points out: "Even the Bush Administration's science advisers recently endorsed these conclusions in a sweeping report that predicts more bouts of extreme weather in the United States and across North America."

Resources to fight fires, to deal with drought, to repair from floods and other disasters--and several of these at once, like now, happening more frequently-- must be recognized as national needs. At the very least, we've got to get our National Guard and their equipment back from Iraq.

But long term, we have to deal with the Climate Crisis. The state of California has taken another step in its process this week, when it "outlined for the first time the broadest U.S. attempt to regulate greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, calling for the creation of a new emissions-trading program and increased renewable-energy production."

The plan also outlines a cap-and-trade emissions program like those used in Europe that could generate an estimated $3.6 billion market, tougher energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, incentives to grow trees that act as sponges for carbon and encouragement for local governments to develop cities in ways that provide shorter commutes."

"By 2050, the state plans to reduce emissions by 80 percent, the amount many scientists say is needed to avoid the most severe effects of climate change."

As the SF Chronicle said in an editorial, Now comes the hard part...[T]he first serious look at these challenges was presented this week by state policy makers. The answers are encouraging. ..The state Air Resources Board, charged with carrying out the climate-change mandates, believes it's found a balance that spreads the pain, injects incentives in the right spots and puts California on track to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent in 12 years.
Mary Nichols, who heads the board, is mindful of another critical factor: Getting it right in a way that convinces the region, nation and even the planet to follow. Global warming can't be solved by California alone, and mistakes here could set back efforts immeasurably.

The plan gets costed out in the next year, but preliminary figures show that the effect will be to slightly grow the California economy by 2020. And there are those who are much more optimistic. Who believe that dealing with the Climate Crisis is the key to economic growth, and although it will mean change in how we live, it may well mean we will live better. Less wasteful, more mindful, but in the end, better, healthier lives, engaged in our communities and taking more control of our lives, working with others in the adventure of creating a better present and a greater future.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"The future is ours, not to predict, but to create."
Al Gore
Posted by Picasa

Intelligence on the Climate Crisis

Morning newspapers will report Thursday on a new study by U.S. intelligence agencies linking the Climate Crisis and its potential to lead to armed conflict. The Los Angeles Times: "Global warming is likely to have a series of destabilizing effects around the world, causing humanitarian crises as well as surges in ethnic violence and illegal immigration, according to an assessment released Wednesday by U.S. intelligence agencies. Rising temperatures could weaken already fragile regimes around the world and create a new set of national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades, the report warns.

The report represents the U.S. intelligence community's most comprehensive assessment to date of the long-term security consequences of global warming. It also marks a reluctant foray into a politically charged topic. Democrats and environmental activists praised the assessment, calling it formal acknowledgment by a key part of the government that the threat of rising temperatures is real."

The AFP story is more specific: "Climate change will have sweeping consequences for US national security by 2030 aggravating global poverty and destabilizing fragile countries, a US intelligence report said Wednesday. "We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years," Thomas Fingar, deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis, told US lawmakers.

Fingar testified to the House of Representatives that in some countries, global warming and its impacts could affect stability and spark regional conflicts such as over access to water as it grows more scarce. He presented the findings of 16 US intelligence agencies gathered in a National Intelligence Assessment, based primarily on research done by the United Nations inter-governmental panel on climate change."

Though their story on this report opens with a false choice, it at least got the attention of the Wall Street Journal: One of the biggest conundrums facing lawmakers is that solutions to global warming often hurt another of their top priorities: ensuring the availability of affordable energy, for example. But on Wednesday, as the U.S. intelligence agencies weighed in, they heard about the cost of doing nothing: It may incubate terrorism and civil conflict.

Concluding that climate change will have wide-ranging impacts on U.S. security in the coming decades, a classified report complicates an already tangled debate by providing urgent new reasons to address the problem of global warming at a time when American voters are anxious about $4-a-gallon gas."

However, the reasons aren't really new, and this isn't the first time that a defense-oriented study commissioned by the Pentagon or other U.S. government agencies has recognized large-scale problems likely to be caused by a growing Climate Crisis. But this time, with Americans focused on energy issues, perhaps this one will make an impression.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

8,000 Lightning Strikes, 800 Wildfires (with Updates)

Lightning is so rare on the North Coast that
when it struck here, the major Eureka daily's story about it that led the front page of its Sunday edition misspelled the word in the headline. And again in the first paragraph. Note to editors: though "lightening" of the sky is a physical phenomenon which happens every day (usually called "dawn") it doesn't normally cause fires. But lightning does and did, not only in Arcata but across Northern California over the weekend, and it was no laughing matter. Some 8,000 lightning strikes resulted in some 800 fires, adding to the wildfires already raging over the past week or so. That's more lightning-caused fires in a day than usually happen in a year.

The lightning was especially unusual because it was "dry lightning," without rain, a rare phenomenon at any time but especially this early in the summer. But since California is in the grip of a drought, dry woods fueled fires, scorching tens of thousands of acres. Another case of separate phenomena, at least partly caused or made worse by global heating, that operated to destroy, suddenly and extensively. Speaking of which, flooding continued in the Midwest, despite predictions, and another levee broke, while several governors of affected states "pleaded with the White House on Tuesday for more help to counter billions of dollars in damages from floods that drowned parts of the U.S. farm heartland and drove thousands from their homes."Posted by Picasa

Updates: Fires continued to spread and join up Tuesday(while some are under control) over a large area of California and in other western states. Smoke is causing serious breathing problems in a number of areas, including in parts of Oregon. Also Tuesday, "A new round of storms dumped a half foot or more of rain across parts of the U.S. Midwest on Wednesday, dealing fresh trouble to a region already struggling with billions of dollars in flood damage." Between new rain and the sheer volume of water, flood waters in some places which have crested are not receding.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Posted by Picasa

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

...but it wasn't Sergeant Pepper asking the band to play---it was James E. Hansen telling the U.S. Congress to get serious about global heating, because he was 90% sure it was happening, and it threatened the future.

Dr. Hansen was a climate scientist at NASA. As anniversary stories today in the Washington Post and NY Times recall, June 23, 1988 was a very hot day in Washington--the Post says it was 98-- during a sweltering summer in the eastern half of the U.S. Counting that year, five of the previous 9 years broke records as the hottest years ever recorded for the planet. So people paid attention when Hansen said, “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Global heating wasn't a new idea among scientists and others. Arthur C. Clarke mentioned it to Arthur Miller in the 1960s. But Hansen had more facts, more authority and a dramatic moment. And for awhile, it seemed that humanity might even be up to the challenge. By 1990, books were sounding a general alarm (Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, Dead Heat by Michael Oppenheimer and Robert H. Boyle among them) and released internationally was what remains for me the best television production with the widest context, James Burke's brilliant After the Warming.

That TV production, and books like Dead Heat, lamented that crucial time had been lost but that bold action on a large scale might avert the worst. But it was a long-term, slow motion crisis, and present changes were distant enough to ignore and incremental enough in the weather to be absorbed as the latest normal. Now global heating records are broken every month, every year, and it barely gets a mention.

Perhaps the science wasn't settled enough, the politics not easy enough, or the nature of the crisis just too challenging emotionally and conceptually. But mostly it was that dealing with it meant shifting power and money away from those who felt entitled to it, and who had the power and money to effectively oppose any threat to their dominion. And for 20 years there has been lots of hot air, and very little action.

So on June 23, 2008, twenty years later, James Hansen is a senior scientist at NASA and probably the most respected voice in the scientific community on the topic of global heating. And he's back before Congress, with the same damn message, only more so. Hansen summarized his message at Huffington Post, comparing that day 20 years ago and today:

"Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control.

Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals.

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible.

It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year."

In twenty years, the science has become more precise, the effects of global heating more obvious, and political leaders as well as the public around the world understand the Climate Crisis better, and the urgency to address it.

But we don't have another twenty years to fool around. We have 2009. If the U.S. doesn't undertake the mission to lead a global effort, beginning with a national transformation, then the future of the planet is dire, perhaps beyond even our most active apocalyptic imaginings.

Though a few years ago I determined to make hope a moral position, and to enact that hope for the future by advocacy in the present, I wouldn't have bet on the likelihood of the necessary change. But now the economic constraints just beginning are clearly related even in the public mind to fossil fuels and the society centered on them. There's a recognition of the need to change.

We also have an emerging leader with a good chance of becoming President, who has the intelligence and the vision and the ability to inspire that could start us through this. Electing Barack Obama, and using the power of the people he insists is central to his vision to keep his attention on what needs to be done to address the Climate Crisis, seems like our last best hope. What's amazing is that at this late date, that hope is real.