Friday, March 05, 2010

The First Stage of Grief

The first stage of grief is denial, and at the moment when the mortal threat to our beautiful planet is so painfully but definitely manifesting, the denial is most assured and quietly hysterical. That the same people who are so fixated on evolution are now involved in this denial, isn't surprising perhaps, but it's all immensely sad.
As is the latest study from the UK Met Office, which examined climate findings since the 2007 UN report, and says the evidence is now even stronger that human-caused climate change is upon us.
The study, which looks at research published since the IPCC's report, has found that changes in Arctic sea ice, atmospheric moisture, saltiness of parts of the Atlantic Ocean and temperature changes in the Antarctic are consistent with human influence on our climate.
"What this study shows is that the evidence has strengthened for human influence on climate and we know that because we've looked at evidence across the climate system and what this shows very clearly is a consistent picture of a warming world," said Dr Stott.
And another study suggests that methane is venting from part of the Arctic shelf. A significant release from the vast store of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from under the melting permafrost could set off abrupt global heating and runaway climate change (Climate Collapse.) This would likely happen if methane set off a feedback effect, which so far hasn't been detected. But the danger is clear, because it is past and current global heating that is releasing methane from the Arctic. So while grief--especially conscious grief--is appropriate, so is conscious determination and action toprevent the worst, and prepare for the worse.
Update: a RealClimate post urges caution on the methane research, and the whole question of methane's impact on climate change.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

...And a Time to Vote

President Obama on Wednesday called for Congress to vote on health care reform within the next few weeks, with doctors and nurses who support his bill; (bottom photo) one of many demonstrations--this one in New York--saying the same. More about this and its importance to the future in the post below.

What Kind of Country

Almost exactly one year after launching his effort to effectively reform health insurance and health care in America, today President Obama called for a vote on the bill based on the legislation that both houses of Congress passed.

Not only is health insurance reform crucial to the lives of millions of Americans, and to the American economy, and to the federal budget, but it is a crucial step to a better future-- and a crucial test of whether this country can move towards that future. And by better, I mean better than what it will be if this isn't done, as well as with better health care for millions of Americans.

The process has been ugly and the legislation is imperfect. But it does address needs, and it can be the basis for more reforms. President Obama outlined what the legislation does:

Essentially, my proposal would change three things about the current health care system. First, it would end the worst practices of insurance companies. No longer would they be able to deny your coverage because of a preexisting condition. No longer would they be able to drop your coverage because you got sick. No longer would they be able to force you to pay unlimited amounts of money out of your own pocket. No longer would they be able to arbitrarily and massively raise premiums like Anthem Blue Cross recently tried to do in California -- up to 39 percent increases in one year in the individual market. Those practices would end.

Second, my proposal would give uninsured individuals and small business owners the same kind of choice of private health insurance that members of Congress get for themselves -- because if it’s good enough for members of Congress, it’s good enough for the people who pay their salaries..."

Finally, my proposal would bring down the cost of health care for millions -- families, businesses, and the federal government.

The bottom line is our proposal is paid for. And all the new money generated in this plan goes back to small businesses and middle-class families who can't afford health insurance. It would also lower prescription drug prices for seniors. And it would help train new doctors and nurses and physician assistants to provide care for American families."

To walk away from this now is to give in to the extreme and cynical demagoguery that has been inflicted on these minimal yet important reforms, stopping unconscionable abuses and restoring fairness and humanity. If that kind of opposition succeeds now, it will be used again and again to kill the future.

President Obama ended his remarks with what's at stake:

" In the end, that's what this debate is about. It's about what kind of country we want to be. It's about the millions of lives that would be touched and, in some cases, saved by making private health insurance more secure and more affordable.

So at stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem, but our ability to solve any problem. The American people want to know if it's still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future. They are waiting for us to act. They are waiting for us to lead. And as long as I hold this office, I intend to provide that leadership. I do not know how this plays politically, but I know it's right. "

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A Teachable Moment

The news has given us examples of politicians making despicably distorted use of the snowstorms in the eastern U.S. to stupidly mock the onrushing reality of global heating. But it occurred to me that for younger and more inquiring minds, these snows presented a great opportunity for science teachers. Kids love to unlock apparent paradoxes, to see how things are not always what they seem. So I hope that legions of science teachers are demonstrating to perhaps temporarily attentive students just how a warming planet can produce more snow, how their cities can grind to a halt--even Washington DC!--in what is likely to be the warmest February on record.
These students should be receptive, for even a Republican Senator recognizes that the young are attuned to the message of the Climate Crisis. "I've been to enough college campuses to know," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, "if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It's a value."
Update: Maybe I should say clearly what I implied by this suggestion: the physics and chemistry involved in explaining these snows in a warming world is so basic that children can understand it.

The Climate Future

Following up on some recent posts about climate and the future, as well as the reading that prompted these posts, I've formed a kind of working future history--a kind of outline, that provides a time-framework for thinking about things to come.

This is based on informed speculation but it is also a first attempt, and subject to revision, perhaps early and often. But at the moment it seems realistic to me. Basically it divides the future into three phases:

1. Now to circa 2035: Climate Crisis
During this period, the evidence for human-caused climate disruption increases, as does the evidence for ongoing effects of past greenhouse gas pollution. Awareness and acceptance also grows, but for the rest of the current decade at least, much of the public will (for one reason or another) fail to connect the dots, and Climate Crisis denial will reach a fevered pitch.

However, a minority that recognizes at least part of the crisis will be very active, though in different pursuits. Some will recognize that immediate and long-lasting change is necessary to keep the Climate Crisis from becoming the ultimate catastrophe in the next century. Some will recognize the imminent danger of effects now inevitable in the near future due to past greenhouse gas pollution. A smaller number will realize both. But everyone will choose specific areas in which to concentrate their own efforts.

Some will concentrate on alternative energy, and on developing technologies to deal with effects. Some will try to figure out how to deal with the effects when they become dominant, and the entire society has no choice but to change. Some will work on political change, or try to increase public awareness and acceptance. But due in part to the violence of the denialists, I suspect many will work as quietly as possible to be ready for future changes.

Those changes will probably at first be unrelated responses to specific catastrophes, threats and emergencies. Eventually, the role of climate in these accumulating problems will be accepted. Perhaps that will lead to conscious strategies, and the work of those who were preparing may then see the light of day.

So the tasks of the Climate Crisis period will be: develop and institute the changes necessary to drastically cut greenhouse gases so runaway climate collapse doesn't happen in the far future, while preparing to deal with the effects of inevitable climate cataclysm already beginning, and becoming dominant in...

2035 to 2090: Climate Cataclysm.
Scientists estimate that it takes about thirty years for greenhouse gas pollution sent into the atmosphere to have direct effect on the planet. So the gases now being produced will have impact on climate in 2040. By the same token, the changes in climate today are largely the result of the lesser amounts of pollution that entered the atmosphere in 1980, as well as the cumulative effects of some greenhouse gas pollution prior to that.

And that's what's apparently got scientists and other careful observers really worried. According to their pretty reliable models, the polar ice melts observed in real time now, shouldn't be happening for many years. Which suggests that things are worse than they thought, and are likely to keep getting worse than that for the forseeable future.

Even within the relatively conservative estimates of the most recent UN climate report, the near future is going to have serious problems. A Brooking Institutions report published in 2008 looked at possible consequences of the three climate scenarios (which might be classified as bad, worse and worse yet)--the volume is titled Climatic Cataclysm.

But data since that UN report, particularly the sea ice melts, suggest to some (such as David Orr in Down to the Wire) that the effects are going to be a lot worse: sea level rises wiping out coastal cities, storms, heat and drought, diseases, possibly resource wars, large-scale human migrations, and all the attendant problems of multiple disasters. Futurist and s/f writer Bruce Sterling has been warning for years that the effects will be so extensive that virtually everyone's lives in this future will be completely dominated by climate change.

The dates I selected are a matter of splitting the difference between estimates various scientists have made informally (as for example, here) on when climate cataclysm effects will become undeniable. Some say ten years, some say thirty, and of course, no one knows.

But we are already getting hints as to what the near future may be like. Just in the past month or so, the world has experienced destructive earthquakes in Haiti, Japan and Chile, with significant quakes elsewhere. At the same time as emergencies in Haiti and Chile are ongoing, there have been several record snowstorms disabling the big cities of the North American East Coast and U.S. Middle Atlantic, and killer storms in Europe. Some of these events are climate-related, others perhaps not, but the point is: these are large and complex crises, affecting millions of people, requiring lots of resources and attention, while disrupting normal economic and other activities. As the number and extent of such crises increase, their effects accumulate.

This is partly why Orr and others have adopted Jim Kunstler 's term, the Long Emergency. A lot of small emergencies become one. And also because, once the climate heats up and feedback effects set in, feedback will extend to the social and political effects. It won't be a matter of meeting an emergency and going back to normal. There won't be a normal, or not for long. It's likely to be one Long Emergency, always changing.

It is possible that changes will be made in the interim to make coping with this period not as traumatic: more flexibility from decentralized renewable clean energy, a quicker and more general awakening to what's really happening that motivates societies and maybe even the world to act quickly and consciously. It's possible. Some seeds are being planted in our Climate Crisis era.

On the other hand, we don't really know what will happen when the dominoes start to fall. Already our biodiversity is dwindling fast, and we don't know at what point the web of life that supports us will shatter.

The tasks of the Climate Cataclysm period will be to cope with the effects in real time, as well as resisting the temptation to abandon efforts to end greenhouse gas emissions, even though the climate has clearly changed. Because, if those efforts aren't successful...

2090-12090: Climate Collapse

There's no avoiding the Climate Cataclysm years. We've made that bed. But it may still be possible to avoid the ultimate apocalypse of Climate Collapse--otherwise known as runaway climate change. This would result in a planet so hot that human civilization and perhaps human life will be unlikely, except maybe for a small fraction of today's population. It would be a planet so hot that most animal and plant species on the planet today will be extinguished. This would happen over a century, maybe two, maybe even three. But it will last for hundreds of thousands of years. I made it just one hundred thousand, because I'm so lame at math.

But I repeat: the difference isn't between the climate we have now and Climate Collapse. The climate we have now will very likely be history in the Climate Cataclysm period, and it will not return to this state for at least thousands of years.

So all the efforts to reduce carbon emissions, create a global cap-and-trade market, etc., all the meetings and treaties like Kyoto and Copenhagen and upcoming in Mexico City--they are all bascially about preventing Climate Collapse. Not everybody knows that, or thinks so, but that's the probability, as far as I can tell.

And we don't really know how much time we have to get this done, except that it's probably not very much time, and it may in fact be too late, because we don't really know what effects are going to show up in the next 30 years: basically, how things will interact or create feedback loops, so the effects of global heating accelerate more heating. Scientists like James Hansen have developed what they think is the upper limit, and while we haven't yet reached it, if we keep going as we are now, we soon will.

When I started considering all this, especially as I was reading the Orr book and seeing related conclusions popping up, I was of course pretty shocked. I thought I'd accepted that there were going to be inevitable effects in the near future. I just didn't realize they would be so severe, and especially would last so long. We're changing this planet to something we wouldn't recognize, probably forever! That's incredibly awful, and hard to face with anything but numb despair.

Maybe it's that psychological predisposition to concentrate on the practical aspects and even on the positive elements, once you've accepted that catastrophe is inevitable. But I've found there is plenty to consider and think about, and especially plenty to do, both to prepare for the Climate Cataclysm near future, and to continue trying to forestall the Climate Collapse of the far future. And that's what I'll be writing about, in the very near future.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Today in Schizoid History

On March 1, 1872, the U.S. established Yellowstone National Park, one of the first examples on Earth of protecting a vast natural area as a park. On March 1, 1954 the U.S. detonated a hydrogen bomb off Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, causing one of the worst and most notorious radiation releases in history, leading to, among other things, Godzilla.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Push-Back on Climate Crisis Denial Follies

Some notable push-back on the Climate Crisis denying that is endangering the future by providing excuses for not dealing with either the causes or effects of climate change.

What's getting the most attention is Al Gore's oped piece today in the New York Times. Sympathizing with the impulse of denial, Gore is brutal about the consequences. If only the Climate Crisis weren't real---

"But what a burden would be lifted! We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands."

"I, for one, genuinely wish that the climate crisis were an illusion. But unfortunately, the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, the crisis is still growing because we are continuing to dump 90 million tons of global-warming pollution every 24 hours into the atmosphere — as if it were an open sewer. "

After disposing of the UN panel controversy and the DC snows red herring, Gore notes the record of recent failures:

"Though there have been impressive efforts by many business leaders, hundreds of millions of individuals and families throughout the world and many national, regional and local governments, our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which these emissions are increasing — much less reduce them. And in spite of President Obama’s efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in December, global leaders failed to muster anything more than a decision to “take note” of an intention to act."

The lesser noted but even more direct push-back came from U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, who went after the Senate for failing to even consider the Climate Crisis legislation that the House passed:

" I’m sick of starting with what can we get through the Senate; let’s start with what solves the damn problem. Until the Senate gets its head out of its rear end and starts to see the crisis we’re in, our country is literally at risk."