Saturday, January 12, 2013

Assessing the Climate Crisis 2013

The draft report of the Third Climate Assessment by 240 scientists, business and academic leaders was released Friday.  The LA Times story on it began: "The impacts of climate change driven by human activity are spreading through the United States faster than had been predicted, increasingly threatening infrastructure, water supplies, crops and shorelines, according to a federal advisory committee.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," the report says. "Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer."

NPR's printed report added:

Temperatures will continue to rise in America, "with the next few decades projected to see another 2 degrees [Fahrenheit] to 4 degrees [Fahrenheit] of warming in most areas," according to the latest National Climate Assessment, which came out Friday afternoon.

That means we can expect to see more "extreme weather events," according to the report, such as heavy precipitation — particularly in the Northeast and Midwest — and intense Atlantic hurricanes. Other parts of the U.S. will experience heat waves and droughts, especially in the West.
By 2100, U.S. temperatures are projected to rise 3 to 5 degrees, under the most optimistic estimates — and 5 to 10 degrees if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase."

The report says that evidence for climate crisis effects is now strong:

"Many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience. So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation."

The Guardian story noted this:

"Future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100F (38C), with climate change on course to turn the country into a hotter, drier, and more disaster-prone place.

"Climate change is already affecting the American people," the draft report said. "Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense including heat waves, heavy downpours and in some regions floods and drought. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting."

By the end of the 21st century, climate change is expected to result in increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, and mass transit shutdowns, and possibly shortages of food.

"Proactively preparing for climate change can reduce impacts, while also facilitating a more rapid and efficient response to changes as they happen," said Katharine Jacobs, the director of the National Climate Assessment.

"As climate change and its impacts are becoming more prevalent, Americans face choices," the report said. "Beyond the next few decades, the amount of climate change will still largely be determined by the choices society makes about emissions. Lower emissions mean less future warming and less severe impacts. Higher emissions would mean more warming and more severe impacts."

As the report made clear: no place in America had gone untouched by climate change. Nowhere would be entirely immune from the effects of future climate change."

Here's the White House summary of this report, which is now open to public comment.

Outside of this report, the reality of  U.S. rising temperatures in 2012 is quantified here.  Note that temperatures were higher than normal for 16 months straight.

But North America is hardly alone in feeling the effects.  A New York Times report Friday notes that "Around the world, extreme has become the new commonplace.

"China is enduring its coldest winter in nearly 30 years. Brazil is in the grip of a dreadful heat spell. Eastern Russia is so freezing — minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and counting — that the traffic lights recently stopped working in the city of Yakutsk.

Bush fires are raging across Australia, fueled by a record-shattering heat wave. Pakistan was inundated by unexpected flooding in September. A vicious storm bringing rain, snow and floods just struck the Middle East.  “Each year we have extreme weather, but it’s unusual to have so many extreme events around the world at once,” said Omar Baddour, chief of the data management applications division at the World Meteorological Organization, in Geneva. " [Note: photo is of the Australian fires from space.]

In the UK, the Times reports, "The Met Office, Britain’s weather service, declared 2012 the wettest year in England, and the second-wettest in Britain as a whole, since records began more than 100 years ago. Four of the five wettest years in the last century have come in the past decade (the fifth was in 1954). The biggest change, said Charles Powell, a spokesman for the Met Office, is the frequency in Britain of “extreme weather events” — defined as rainfall reaching the top 1 percent of the average amount for that time of year. Fifty years ago, such episodes used to happen every 100 days; now they happen every 70 days, he said. "

There is more excellent reporting in the Times piece, but it comes on a day with bad news for the future of such much needed reporting.  A few days ago, the New York Times setting up a dedicated beat on the climate crisis and the environment was hailed as one of the bright spots in journalistic coverage of the topic in 2012.  Now comes word that the Times is closing its Environment desk.  The paper issued the standard reassurances that this won't affect coverage, but that's a very hard sell.

The weakening and the demise of real news gathering organizations like the New York Times as well as the slipshod reporting on the climate crisis up to now is only one of the debilitating factors in the necessary attention to this crisis, now and in the near future.  An active media goading government and helping to spread information is part of what's needed.  And the decline of that capability and focus is yet another reason to doubt that we're adequately addressing these challenges.

What should be happening now is that a sufficiently informed and motivated public is supporting a very informed and motivated U.S. government in a two track effort: to prepare for and deal with the present and near future effects of global heating, and to go after the causes of global heating in the farther future by severely reducing the greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere. 

In particular, the U.S. should be using the current economic situation--relatively high unemployment and very low borrowing costs--to make substantial investments in both efforts, which would employ more Americans and stimulate economic activity as well.  Use the fact that infrastructure is neglected and aging to replace it with energy efficient and low-carbon infrastructure.  Help regional and state entities prepare for their specific challenges, like sea level rises or the physical effects of extreme weather.  Invest in public health to deal with outbreaks of diseases when and where they haven't occurred much before, due to temperature changes that affect disease-bearing insects as well as plant ecologies and even atmospheric changes that are unprecedented challenges but could have very sudden effects.  And so on.

And of course, investing in energy efficiencies, waste reduction, new technologies and new energy sources and technologies as part of reducing greenhouse gases. 

(As for sea levels, also this week, RealClimate posted a two part assessment of where the science now is on sea level rise. Its general conclusion is that "The recent improvements in understanding have confirmed the concerns of many sea-level experts, namely that the 4th IPCC report has understated the risks of future sea-level rise because the projection models used were not mature."  )

Some cities, states and regions are taking this seriously, within their resources. What the federal government is doing in these areas is being done largely sub rosa, and though a rosa by any other name still helps, it's not sufficient.  But with the federal government gridlocked by an increasingly extreme minority, possessed of a Dark Ages mentality, such sensible commitment seems unlikely in the near future.  Their paranoid fantasies of needing to defend themselves with arsenals of automatic weapons in a chaotic country is pushing us towards that self-fulfilling prophesy.

We'll soon see just what President Obama has in mind for the near term.  The beginning of the end of ruinous military commitment in Afghanistan helps to lessen the unnecessary drain.  But the apparent necessity of fighting political battles of a century ago or more, rather than really facing the future as a society, does not inspire a lot of confidence in adequate government response.  But we can still hope, and make that hope real in what we do.   

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Few on Lew

Nasty GOPers were joined by Bernie Sanders in opposing Jack Lew's appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Sanders was upset that somebody else "from Wall Street" was going to run Treasury.  But Lew's experience seems much more in federal government, as the Budget Director at the end of the Clinton presidency (where he presided over the last 3 surpluses in U.S. history) as well as in the Obama administration.

So here's a link to Rachel Maddow's pretty positive segment on Lew, as well as this story on why he scares GOPers.

Rachel by the way featured President Obama repeating (in his statement thanking outgoing Sec Geitner and introducing Lew) a "saying around the Treasury Department": "No peacocks, no jerks, no whiners."  Rachel suggested it should be translated into Latin and mounted somewhere prominent in Washington.  One of her viewers promptly gave her the translation:

Nulli Pavones, Nulli Turbatores, Nulli Vagientes

To which I can only add:


Wednesday, January 09, 2013


This is said to be President Obama's favorite photo from the White House photographer's selection of his favorites of 2012.  It's the child of a White House staffer at a pre-Halloween party. (I've edited it slightly to fit this page, but it's still too wide.  Click on it to see it larger.)

The previous post notes that people are finally beginning to hear what President Obama has been saying on the debt ceiling.  They might also note what he says on other topics.  There's been lots of debate on whether the fiscal cliff deal is a good one for the economy, the deficit, or politically.  But it was clear from what President Obama said about it that his priority was to make sure the middle class retained its tax cut, so that its vulnerable members are able to better their lives in an era where the rich got very much richer and everybody else fell back.  Similarly, when he appointed Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary, everybody shouted about everything except what President Obama said--that the troops and their families come first, during and after their service.  Only on gun violence were the President's words heard clearly, although he will probably have to repeat his focus on people--on children like the one in this picture--as the gun violence debate becomes more central.

cliffnotes continued, plus Cockroaches More Popular Than Congress

There are three remaining cliffs: the debt ceiling, renewing the funding for the federal government, and the sequestered budget cuts.

For awhile it seemed they might be happening simultaneously, but now, maybe not quite.  It turns out that the U.S. will be unable to pay its bills in mid-February, requiring that the debt ceiling be raised.

President Obama has been saying for some time now that he will not negotiate on the debt crisis.  Before the tax cliff deal, those words were being ignored by GOPers and the media.  They figured President Obama would have to negotiate.  But he kept saying he won't.  And Democrats in Congress kept saying it.  And now, media and GOPers alike are beginning to believe him.  And GOPers are beginning to back away. Commentators on Lawrence suggested that Obama may even get authority for all presidents to raise the debt ceiling on their own, so that this issue will go away forever.

Partly this seems a judgment that the GOP can't win on this.  The polls clearly show that the public believe President Obama handled the tax cliff deal better.  Republicans were even harder on Banal than the public in general.

That Congress itself is reviled isn't news.  But a new PPP poll found that in head to head matchups, cockroaches are more popular than Congress.  So are root canals.  So is Genghis Khan.

How much more reviled can Congress get?  Well, they're still more popular than Gonorrhea.

Climate Crisis Comes Home

A lot of poorer countries already suffering from effects of the climate crisis are justifiably upset that bigger and richer countries--principally the United States--have contributed much more to the crisis but aren't paying much of a price to address it.  Well, there's some solace in a few stats from 2012.

NOAA announced  Monday that 2012 was the hottest year in the contiguous U.S. since its record-keeping began in 1895.  It was 1 degree F hotter than the previous record-holder (1998) and 3.3 degrees hotter than the average year.  It was also a very dry year.

All that had consequences.  According to Climatewire a few days ago, it was also a banner year for weather-causes disasters, mostly in the U.S., with the U.S. sustaining 90% of the insured losses.  The average year is 65%.

Insurers are still tallying the October storm's impact, but it's expected to cost the industry $25 billion or more, surpassing the financial losses of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and perhaps even topping the wreckage of Florida's Hurricane Andrew of 1992. Sandy promises to be the second or third costliest disaster in U.S. history. Its total economic costs are estimated to be more than $50 billion.

But the second most expensive weather related disaster in the world last year was the drought in the U.S. midwest.  Its insured losses topped $20 billion.

Meanwhile, by one measure, media coverage of the climate crisis decreased slightly last year, and by a couple of other measures, increased slightly.  But the increases are interesting.  Many more stories related weather related disasters to the climate crisis, and the New York Times began covering the climate crisis as a beat, not just a subject.  That's a development that should affect U.S. media coverage in general in 2013.

Although this change at the Times has been in the works for awhile, Sandy probably changed forever how the New York-based U.S. media covers the climate crisis.  More effects like those that cost all that money as well as pain and suffering last year will only accelerate that change. Meanwhile, that the U.S. is feeling the impacts is not in itself a cause for joy anywhere, but it may well help this country finally face its twin responsibilities, of seriously addressing both the causes and effects of the climate crisis.

It's oddly like the situation with gun violence in the U.S.  The horror of Newtown was the Sandy equivalent in focusing feeling and attention.  In both cases, what's politically possible will not entirely address the problem, but any positive action may well save some lives, and save some people from pain.  The difference is that what is actually possible could reduce gun violence substantially.  But nothing known is going to prevent further climate crisis effects for many years, nor change what is already happening for centuries.  But the analogy still holds: things can still be done to make things better.  And in the case of the climate crisis, save the far future for humanity and life as we know it on Earth.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Choosing Children Over Guns

When 20 first graders and 6 teachers and administrators were shot dead in a few minutes at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, probably everyone in America experienced it in a terribly personal way.  This is a photo of President Obama when he was first briefed on that massacre.  He called it the worst day of his presidency.

It remains a personal matter to him, and several photos (including this) released as part of White House photographer Pete Souza's choices as his favorite photos he took this year (collected at TPM ) involve this horrific event.  Another is this photo, of President Obama preparing his speech for the Newtown vigil. He is doing so during breaks in a rehearsal he attended, of a school performance of the Nutcracker, which included his 11 year old daughter, Sasha.

This is one of many photos of President Obama with beaming children, who seem to take to him.  But this photo was taken when he visited with families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings.  The children are siblings and cousins of Emile Parker, one of the 20 children killed. (The family gave permission for the photo to be published.)

These photos should remind everyone why this must remain personal, and why (according to this TPM story) President Obama is intent on quickly passing laws to ban assault weapons and high capacity ammunition, as part of a thoughtful, heartfelt and sustained effort to reduce gun deaths and gun violence in America.  Update: a story on how broad this package might be, simply on changes to gun laws.

(I plan to post some of the other Souza picks in the coming days, taken on happier occasions.)

When It's Too Far

There are big changes coming due to the Climate Crisis and over the next decades a lot of them are going to be caused by something that seems to be getting very little notice.  It goes by the neutral name of transportation.

Transportation of goods and people by means of cars and trucks, airplanes, ships and (to a lesser extent) railroad, together account for the largest share of greenhouse gas pollution.  They also cause a lot of other pollution with very real detriments to human health, as well as to other categories of the living environment and even the built environment.

But instead of minimizing the amount of transportation necessary, our global economy has exploded it over the past few decades.  Goods and even fresh food are shipped over immense distances.  Goods that were made in America and sold in America are more often made in China and shipped here (in ships that often go back nearly empty.)  Fruits and vegetables that used to be grown in abundance here in California are now trucked here from Mexico, shipped and flown here from South America and who knows where else.

This transport all contributes to making global heating worse for the future.  As a cause, it cannot go on as it now does.  But probably before it is limited because of its causal contribution--or because it becomes too expensive-- it will lessen because of the effects of global heating.  It is already doing so, especially in foodstuffs from the U.S. because of the current drought in our grain-growing states.

So much is being transported so far because it's cheaper to do it that way that to build or grow nearer to the intended customers.  Capitalism alone cares not for the future and seldom even considers it.  It does not reckon costs to be borne by the future.  Above all it doesn't reward prudence, and it usually ignores redundancy, or an alternative means to achieve necessary ends, especially when the primary means no longer functions.

 For decades and with increasing speed in the past few decades, the world has become structured according to cheap transportation, so that there is less land immediately available to grow food nearer where it will be consumed.  Less capacity to manufacture goods, and so on.

In several ways--felt pretty much all at once--this system will no longer function as it has in recent years.  The poor, especially in other countries, are already feeling this.  Then the effects will move up in class and appear in richer countries.  Some observers have already charged that food riots and other violent manifestations of  food scarcity and drought are seldom reported as such, or news of them is actively suppressed, since these are very threatening to the established order.  But the established order better figure out that these problems are big and real, and start addressing them.