Saturday, February 02, 2013

Deadly Beauty

Those lovely blue blobs in the foreground of this photograph of a lake are frozen methane, which are now solid but will melt into air.  Methane is one of the more potent of the greenhouse gases.

Climate, Politics and Evidence

In covering Hillary Clinton's last day as Secretary of State, Rachel Maddow on Friday quoted her AP exit interview in which Clinton reflected on the Bengazi controversy by noting that there are too many people in politics and the media who simply refuse to  " live in an evidence-based world."  This segment ends with Chris Hayes talking about the particular danger of the political power wielded by those who are rigidly not evidence-based to addressing the problem that the new Secretary of State John Kerry calls a major global issue: global heating and the climate crisis.  When nations of the world gather to negotiate climate treaties, Hayes said, they know that the United States Senate which must ratify such a treaty (with a two-thirds vote no less) is clotted with climate crisis deniers for whom no evidence will ever be relevant, let alone convincing.

The climate crisis is the most comprehensive crisis humankind has faced since humans first spread across the globe.  It is first of all a challenge to the sophistication of our knowledge and our understanding, because it is about effects that will happen or are happening long after their causes.  And those effects will eventually challenge the interrelationships of our natural planet and our increasingly interdependent civilization, so that dealing with these effects will require timely, complex, careful and simultaneous efforts, for a long time.

It would be a daunting challenge even if we were at our best--that is, the best we've been so far.  Unfortunately our politics and much of our society is as reactionary and primitive as any I've seen in my lifetime.  That's not because people with these views didn't exist before.  They simply weren't as powerful and as accepted as normal and legitimate in our public life.

At a time when we need to be better, we've fallen back.  But that's not the whole story.  There is an even greater divide in our country than between rich and not rich.  It is the divide between the rabidly reactionary and the common sense progressives.  And an even greater divide between the intentional ideology of ignorance and those with knowledge and skills beyond any before.

Progress on addressing the climate crisis is happening apart from the political circus.  It's happening in universities and industries, in cities and states and regional groups.  It's happening in departments of the federal government.  And as Chris Hayes noted, it is happening in other countries.

Here in America it may well take the political power of the citizenry, expressed in some old ways (like the march on Washington scheduled for February) and in new.  There is no clear way forward past the barrier of the Senate and the intentionally delusional--not as long as they keep making money and financing their campaigns by publicizing their delusions (which, hypocrites as many are, they probably don't even believe.)  But as the previous post indicates, there are only a few years left to find that way.    

Climate, Crisis and Time

NPR's Ira Flatow interviewed a group of prominent American climate scientists on Friday.  Radio interviews have their disadvantages: they can hop from brief answer on one topic to brief answer on another topic without the necessary length and depth on each.  But they also can have the salutary effect of getting experts to say things plainly and succinctly, especially in answer to pertinent questions we'd all like to ask.

Here's one such exchange, between Flatow and the very prominent climate scientist, Michael Mann:

FLATOW: So we are set on some kind of climate change course that is irreversible at this point?

MANN: Well, we're committed to a certain amount of additional warming of the globe. We've already warmed a little under one degree Celsius. We're probably committed to at least another half a degree Celsius just because of the heating that we've already put in the pipeline. So that means that we don't have a whole lot of wiggle room if we're going to avoid two degree Celsius warming of the globe relative to pre-industrial time, that's three and a half degrees Fahrenheit.

That's what most scientists who study climate change impacts say is sort of where we enter into the red zone, the danger zone, where we start to see some of the most severe impacts of climate change play out.

FLATOW: And what time, what part of the century might that happen?

MANN: Well, we only, as it turns out, have a matter of a few years to bring our global carbon emissions to a peak and begin to ramp them down pretty dramatically if we are going to avoid crossing a threshold in terms of the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere where we are committed to that warming. So there is still time to avoid that dangerous threshold, but there isn't a whole lot of time. There's an urgency to the problem."

Flatow then goes immediately to the extent of the problem, which emphasizes its urgency:

FLATOW: Are these future projections of four to five degrees Celsius, are they averages for the planet, the entire planet, the land surfaces, just which parts?

MANN: Sure, yeah, in the event where we basically pursue business as usual, where we don't enact any policies to bring down our carbon emissions, we're probably committed to somewhere between four and five degrees Celsius, that's seven to nine degrees Fahrenheit, warming of the globe by the end of this century.

That is just a global average. It turns out that the land warms faster than the ocean. So we'll see more warming than that where we live, on continents. And in the Arctic, we'll probably see twice that much warming. So if you're worried about the shrinking polar icecap, if you're worried about the Greenland ice sheet and the potential destabilization of that ice sheet and the associated sea-level rise that would come from that, we are headed on a course where we will see those things play out if we don't enact some changes now."

As other guests join in, the conversation turns to China and its aggressive, huge but schizophrenic energy policy.  I'll save that part of the interview for another time, can just follow the link to the source.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Right to Life

Lessening gun violence may be politically hard to do, and even operationally a bit difficult, but the reason for it is very simple.  Gabby Giffords short statement is eloquent in so many ways.  Thanks to gun violence, she can only speak simple sentences, but more complicated ones are hardly needed.

Also very direct was another statement made on Wednesday was this one by David Wheeler, father of one of the first graders massacred in New Town, who testified before the Connecticut legislature’s Bipartisan Task Force on Violence and Public Safety.  He quoted the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that governments are created to secure certain inalienable rights, and the first of these is simply "life."  The right to life of his six year old son, and of all others massacred or killed while laughing with friends, as was a girl in Chicago Wednesday who had marched in the Inaugural parade.

No one knows what Connecticut will come up with, but at least Mr. Wheeler wasn't heckled, as was another father of another slain New Town boy earlier in the week.

For the opposition by the gun profit lobby and the gun obsessed remains fierce. Giffords appeared before a Senate committee, but even the Democratic majority is already dismissing the chances of a renewed ban on assault weapons, perhaps even high capacity magazines, hoping for universal background checks as the optimal outcome.

How did we get here?  It seems obligatory for every advocate of gun regulation to pronounce a steadfast belief in the broadest interpretation of the second amendment as guaranteeing the right to own as many guns as you can acquire.  They take pains to assert they shoot guns themselves--they're hunters, or skeet shooters.

Sometimes actual hunters can add something effective to the discussion, like Rep. Mike Thompson (who had to wait until he was no longer my congressman to make a name for himself) who pointed out that right now by law, duck hunters are limited to weapons firing three rounds.  That's to protect the duck and migratory bird population.  But protecting the life of people, apparently not permitted.

But why should those who want to lessen gun violence have to crow about being gunslingers?  What's happened to this country?  I even heard that CNN Brit who is a gun control proponent describe the tradition of Americans owning guns for personal protection.  That's simply not true.  I doubt it was even true in the 18th century or in much of the country in the 19th century, and certainly not true in most of the 20th century.

When and where people hunted for food or were isolated, sure. They kept a rifle, prized for accuracy and durability.  They might keep a shotgun for heading off trouble. But town people and city people, not really.  I grew up in western Pennsylvania, when every fall I was aware of just when rabbit and pheasant and deer seasons were.  Men hunted, and took their sons.  But if any of them kept weapons "for personal protection," they didn't say so.  It just wasn't part of civilized life.

It's possible to live a full life in the U.S. and never fire a gun.  Is that so impossible to believe?  Are we that far gone?  Don't we even aspire to being a civilized people anymore?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Waste, Fraud and Abuse

A new UK study suggests that global heating can only be successfully addressed by using less cement, plastic, steel and other materials, and by cutting down the energy used to make what we need to make.  That could be classified under the category of efficiency, or also as cutting down on waste.

Waste is nature's biggest and most important product, but at least it's mostly organic.  Waste is also an alarmingly large part of human civilization these days.  There is tremendous waste in making things, because what's wasted is temporarily cheaper than the cost of wasting less.  But water, land, a host of metals and trace minerals, not to mention energy, will get expensive enough to curtail waste only when they're dangerously close to running out or running dry.

There is mind-boggling waste in making way more stuff than is strictly necessary.  And then there is waste when those products are "thrown away," and claim more resources--either the resources to dispose and recycle them, or the resources they poison, or the human and public health costs when they poison people, and the natural resources people depend on.

A lot of progressives are nodding their heads.  But could you suggest that they eschew a new smart phone or other electronic device?  Or consider what the apparently magical Internet actually costs in energy and materials?  All those miles of servers holding your clouds, so you can share millions of photos of --what exactly?

Sure, new technologies with new functions enhance lives.  And certain technologies are changing so fast that yesterday's is obsolete.  But that's not all that's happening.  There's fashion and addiction, and with both, there is denial.

And the basis is the same market capitalism that sells everything else. I saw a commercial today in which a father was shamefacedly shopping at Radio Shack for a new phone with more and better features, because his current cell phone embarrasses his children.  So there you are.  That's consumer capitalism  in a nutshell.

Ewaste is a huge problem--Americans toss out 100 million cell phones a year.  That's one discarded cell phone for about every three people, a year.  We discard over 41 million computers a year.  And only about 13% of all ewaste is recycled.

It's no better elsewhere.  The EU countries produce 10 million tons of ewaste annually, and it's growing fast.  China disposes of 100 million cell phones a year but that figure is set to rise dramatically--7 times over 2007 levels of ewaste annually by 2020. Worldwide, the UN estimates that ewaste could well rise by 500% over the next decade.

But recycling is itself a huge problem, when the materials are dumped in poor countries and the recycling process involving toxic materials is unsafe.  It's not impossible but it takes admitting there is a problem.

If we wasted less energy just by insulating buildings, smarter design, etc. it would cut carbon emissions substantially.  Remember REDUCE, REUSE and recycle?  More with less?  Or maybe just less. But the psychology of waste is basic to contemporary culture, even as it has a certain desperate quality.  That has to be dealt with.

So does fraud--the fraud perpetrated by fossil fuel companies, their obscene government subsidies and well funded lying.  And so does abuse--abuse of the planet.  You want to cut waste, fraud and abuse?  Here you go.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

If It's Sunday, There is No Climate Crisis

According to a Media Matters study:

Since 2009, climate coverage on the Sunday shows has declined every year. In 2012, the Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate change, down from 9 minutes in 2011, 21 minutes in 2010, and over an hour in 2009. The vast majority of coverage -- 89 percent -- was driven by politics, and none was driven by scientific findings.

In 2012, the Sunday shows did not quote a single Democratic politician on climate change. Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming "junk science" on ABC's This Week. More than half of climate mentions on the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to address climate change.

In Four Years, Sunday Shows Have Not Quoted A Single Scientist On Climate Change. Of those who were asked about climate change on the Sunday shows, 54 percent were media figures, 31 percent were politicians and not one was a scientist or climate expert. This is consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis which found that none of the Sunday shows quoted any scientists on climate change between 2009 and 2011.

Sunday Shows Obscured Scientific Consensus On Climate Change. Not only did the Sunday shows shut out those who accept the science of climate change, but they also failed to inform their audiences that the vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and is driven by human activity. Only 11 percent of coverage implied that scientists agree on global warming, while 44 percent failed to correct a guest who questioned the science."

However, outside the study, on the MSNBC cable channel, the Up with Chris Hayes weekend program frequently covers the climate crisis, including Sunday morning today, and Saturday.