Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"When the mind reaches out to know, the space of desire opens."

Anne Carson

This is the Way Our World Ends

image by sive
I've been waiting to post on this extraordinary study.  It was covered by major newspapers and other news outlets the other day, but I've noted the silence from the usual sites that deal with climate science and climate crisis news.  I'll speculate on possible reasons for the silence so far, but first, the substance of the story.  And it's big.  Very big.

Using existing data on five climate variables (3 from the atmosphere, 2 from the oceans) from 1860 to 2005, and some 39 models for future climates,a study published by the University of Hawaii determined for various locations around the world "the projected timing of climate departure from recent variability."  One major measure is the "projected year when annual or monthly air temperature means move to a state continuously outside annual or monthly historical bounds."  Note the word "continuously."  Basically what it means is determining the year when the climate changes, for all practical purposes, permanently.

The change is measured basically in this way: when the coldest years are warmer than the warmest years in the past. (This is in fact the headline of the New York Times story on the study.)  The conclusion is that this change will happen very soon.

The changes they project will happen from south to north, beginning in tropical countries.The study has two sets of conclusions: the first based on carbon pollution continuing at projected rates, the second on carbon pollution being reigned in.  In the "business as usual" scenario, the first set of cities reaches this tipping point in the 2020s, including Kingston, Jamaica.  The change is projected for New York City, Washington, DC and many other U.S. cities in 2047.  It may take until 2071 to reach Anchorage, Alaska.  (The study is based on a margin of error of plus or minus 5 years.)

Though these conclusions are accompanied by the usual call for action now to curb carbon pollution, the second set of numbers is not much farther in the future. The 2047 date for much of the world becomes 2069.
Effects of the climate crisis are already occurring, but this is the most obvious and important effect: the change to a new climate for all the life on this planet.  Various stories sought out climate scientists for comment, and some called this study conservative. For instance: "Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said the research "may actually be presenting an overly rosy scenario when it comes to how close we are to passing the threshold for dangerous climate impacts. By some measures," he said, "we are already there."  One of those measures, the study's authors note, may well be ocean acidity, which may have passed the tipping point in 2008 or so.

The most salient quote in the stories I saw is this one, from the Washington Post: “I think people don’t appreciate the fact that one of the metrics we are most familiar with, and definitely have the most difficulty dealing with, extreme heat, is coming down the track,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University."

A few late 1980s/early 90s extreme heat waves in Pittsburgh more than convinced me that unrelenting extreme heat is the worst: it makes thinking clearly very difficult, or controlling impulses, or conquering lethargy and despair.  I assume one of the reasons people "have the most trouble with" this "metric" is that it is so terrifying.

So basically what this study says is that the world changes--that for practical purposes, our world begins to end--well within the lifetime of adults living today.  In the earliest cases, just 7 to 10 years from now, when this heat hits millions of the poorest people and poorest societies in the world.  And 20 or so years later, when it completely transforms daily life everywhere in North America except the northernmost areas.

The study also looks at what species are most vulnerable when.  And that's not a pretty picture either.  As humans we are dependent on the life around us, even if that doesn't seem so clearly to be so.  It will become obvious.

The implications include how societies will cope, will even survive.  Temperature and related climate factors affect not only nature as natural resources but elements of the familiar.  The animals, the trees, the winters, the birds, the skies we know now will be different, or no more.  Food sources from the sea are especially vulnerable, but so are all food resources in this stretched-out global society, where food comes from great distances and must feed huge populations, every day.  Many people alive today will see this change as it happens.  The next generation will probably not even know many aspects of our world.

So why have newspapers like the aforementioned NY Times, Washington Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette done this (admittedly one-day) story, as well as USA Today TPM etc but not Climate Progress, Real Climate and other such sites?

One possibility is that they are still examining the science, from scientists they don't know.  Another is that the conclusions run up against the political and fundraising stance of working to "solve" or "stop" or "reverse" climate change, or simply the deflating effect of futility, of despair.

But there is much that can and must be done to prepare for the change, as a society and as individuals and families.  In order to face these tasks and this future while living in the now while we have it--and all the other challenges, can't even be approached without confronting the implications of this probable near future.  There is much to be done to save even worse effects in the farther future--effects that are not survivable for much of existing life--by drastically reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas pollution.

This very hard future has been suggested in recent books such as Mark Hertsgaard's Hot, Bill McKibben's Eaarth, David Orr's Down to the Wire and Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption, among others.  (And these are probably the most optimistic or at least gentler treatments.)  Now there are dates associated with this new world.

So far however the trend of denying and avoiding the implications holds.  If it continues, the prophesy of T.S. Eliot becomes ever more salient:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Update: There is a brief story at Live Science.

Canada's Nobel Lit Laureate

I must admit this one caught me completely by surprise, at least when I started reading the speculation on the leading candidates. Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.  She wasn't my Canadian candidate, but the one who was--Margaret Atwood--explains why Munro deserves this recognition.

Atwood among others has that combination of distinguished writing in several literary forms plus an active involvement in issues of the day that would seem to qualify her.  But the Literature prize is also given to writers whose accomplishments are in a single literary form, with little regard for geopolitics or nationality.

At the age of 80, Munro has announced that she's published her last book of stories.  So this is recognition of a career.

I also must admit that I don't know her work.  Here's a suggestion from Slate on where to start.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Quakeup Call

I was online this afternoon here in Arcata, and pretty simultaneously heard an explosive sound and felt a force pass beneath my chair, and some shaking.  Then another wave of shaking, not a lot but enough to visibly wobble and shake my computer screen.

I headed for the usual US gov site to see what happened but it was shut down--the shutdown.

Other sites were operating though and it's officially now a 4.9 earthquake about thirty miles off the coast between Eureka and Trinidad.  It was felt throughout the area, even into southern Humboldt. Some people felt objects and themselves lifted off the ground, saw trees swaying, but so far no damage or injuries reported on the local sites. The HSU seismograph is reproduced above.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Wait For Next Year

The Pittsburgh Pirates remarkable season ended in St. Louis on Wednesday.  Once they lost the 4th game at home 2-1, the structural disadvantage of being the Wild Card team made the 5th game a very tough climb.  The Cardinals were able to use their ace pitcher twice in 5 games, and Adam Wainwright won both.  The Pirates could use their ace only once, because they had to use him to win the Wild Card game with the Reds.  And as division winners the Cards had home field for the final game.

Still, three of their starting pitchers pitched valiantly, including the losing pitchers of the last two games.  Pedro Alvarez hit 3 home runs in the 5 games, and together with the wild card game became the first player in major league history with RBIs in all of his first six playoff games.  Andrew McCutchen had a scorching post-season--though he was the potential winning run for the series when he popped out to end the 4th game.

But the Bucs pushed a perennial championship team to the limit, and became a national story in the process.  Most of all they made baseball fun again in Pittsburgh.  The beautiful PNG Park is a great place to enjoy a baseball game, but such a great baseball park is made for fans hanging on every pitch and at-bat with a winning team.  Pittsburgh has that now.

 This story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes something else that is making the Pirates a Pittsburgh favorite--tickets to games are relatively affordable and available, in contrast to tickets for the Steelers and Penguins.  (That great photo above--taken outside PNC Park where fans gathered to cheer their Pirates and watch the 5th game on a jumbotron-- also comes from this Post-Gazette story.)  See you next year.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Missiles of October 2013

The United States economy is threatened with destruction not by a foreign power but by domestic terrorists who apparently control the government through Speaker John Banal.  His missiles are aimed at us all.

  Today President Obama held a press conference in which he explained the current missiles of October crisis--the negative missiles of votes not taken on the government budget and authorizing the Treasury to pay outstanding debts--in much the same terms as in his recent speeches. (Here's a summary.)  He explained why he can't give in to government by extortion.  He said no one would expect him to do so if the extortion was coming from a foreign power, and sure enough, John Banal responded later in the day by saying he won't put these matters to a clean vote because that would be "unconditional surrender."  So now he's head of a party at war with the United States?

If he had been listening closely, he might have noticed that President Obama gave him a face-saving out: simply vote to reopen the government and pay the bills, for even a short amount of time, and attach to that bill something to the effect that once these are done, the President and Congress will hold negotiations on--practically anything they want.

Banal says all he wants is a conversation.  President Obama has offered it.

But as President Obama pointed out, so far Banal's definition of a conversation is a list of Rabid Right demands followed by the President and Dems in Congress saying, "okay, we'll pay your ransom."

There is not much time left before the economic equivalent of the dogs of war are unleashed--much easier to start than to stop.  It's 9 days until the Secretary of Treasury says the government will run out of money to pay all its debts, but it won't take that long.  When this starts to look real to investors, governments holding US debt and just people with money in the bank, the downward spiral begins.

Where does it go? I've seen informed speculation that default could mean an immediate spike in interest rates to 12%, an unemployment rate of 25% by Christmas, gas and other prices sky high overnight, and even with some sort of panic fix, the damage will continue for years.  And that's possibly just the beginning, because the effects ripple out to the world economy, and then ripple back.  The missiles of this October are not thermonuclear, but they are still extraordinarily destructive to almost everyone.

Deadly Delusions

National Journal:
"In interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers, the Republicans rejected the notion that Washington could default on its debt unless a borrowing increase is approved before Oct. 17. For the United States to actually default, these Republicans argue, the Treasury Department would have to stop paying interest on its debts—something GOP lawmakers claim is inconceivable."

Time Magazine blog: 
With no end in sight to the current budgetary impasse, Congress has a ten-day window to approve measures that would allow for the extension of the nation’s debt ceiling. If both the House and Senate fail to forge a deal before 0ct. 17, experts warn that the self-induced crisis would surpass the 2008 recession in its effects.

Tim Bitsberger, a former aide to George W. Bush, said during an interview with Bloomberg published today that a potential U.S. default on its debt “would blow Lehman out of the water” — a reference to the investment bank collapse that spurred the 2008 financial crisis."

Sunday, October 06, 2013

America's Number One Terrorist

"To weaponize the debt ceiling, you must be willing to inflict harm on millions of innocent people. It is a shockingly powerful self-destruct button built into our very system of government, but only useful for the most ideologically hardened or borderline sociopathic."
Jonathan Chiat

Over the weekend US forces raided sites in Libya and Somalia to capture known terrorists.  Meanwhile the world's foremost terrorist went on national television to assert that the United States is on a direct path to default, which he and his GOP congressional cronies are causing.  Just as they have caused the federal government to stop working.  And he won't stop it, by simply putting it to a vote.

If Speaker Banal and his cronies continue and accomplish default, they are in all practical terms guilty of sedition.  At the moment they are terrorists, terrorizing the American people with unparalleled power to make good on their threats.  What they have been unable to accomplish through democratic means, they mean to accomplish through extortion.

Someone suggested a little thought experiment be put to them: if Democrats threatened to shut down the government and drive the world's most economically crucial nation into default unless Republicans in Congress got rid of the sequester, voted for a much needed infrastructure program, passed effective gun control and raised taxes on the rich--would they consider that a legitimate strategy?

I recently suggested the possibility that there's money behind this callous insanity: This is one case where a billionaire or two--no matter what their agenda might be, corporate greed or crypto-religious apocalyptic anarchism--can start the process that ends up in a national and world economy in shambles, and real anarchy in America.  That turns out to be true in a way, and it's the Koch brothers, of course.  The conspiracy reportedly began as the second term agenda for thwarting Obama, with this exact scenario  in mind: shut down the government to destroy Obamacare. The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort, says the New York Times.

Chiat writes further:

The standoff embroiling Washington represents far more than the specifics of the demands on the table, or even the prospect of economic calamity. It is an incipient constitutional crisis. Obama... now has to crush the practice completely, lest it become ritualized. Obama not only must refuse to trade concessions for a debt-ceiling hike; he has to make it clear that he will endure default before he submits to ransom. To pay a ransom now, even a tiny one, would ensure an endless succession of debt-ceiling ransoms until, eventually, the two sides fail to agree on the correct size of the ransom and default follows.

This is a domestic Cuban Missile Crisis. A single blunder could have unalterable consequences: If Obama buckles his no-ransom stance, the debt-ceiling-hostage genie will be out of the bottle. If Republicans believe he is bluffing, or accept his position but obstinately refuse it, or try to lift the debt ceiling and simply botch the vote count, a second Great Recession could ensue."

Update: If you're not already anxious and depressed, read Josh Marshall's perspective on what's happening and what's ahead.  The weak Speaker overwhelmed by events sounds like a Shakespearian screenplay, if there's an economy left to support one when this is over.

We Had 'Em All the Way!

In a tense back and forth game on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 5-3 in their division playoff series, with 2 runs in the 8th inning to break a tie.  The Pirates now need to win one of the next two games.  Monday's is at home, where they--and all of Pittsburgh--would love to see them end it.

For the fourth game the Pirates pitch veteran Charlie Morton, who battles rather than overwhelms.  The Cardinals pitch their rookie phenom Wacha, who was one out shy of a no-hitter his last outing. He's never started at PNC Park.  Morton on the other hand has been shaky lately, and hasn't pitched in 8 days.  So much of the third game was counter to stats and expectations it's impossible to speculate, except that the Pirates should the advantage in the late innings because of more experienced relievers and a better bench, and at least on Sunday that proved out.

The Pirates are on a roll--5 straight wins against the Reds, 2 against the Cardinals with just one loss in between.  It's their time.

The R Word

The longstanding controversy over the racist nicknames of certain professional and college sports teams has gone mainstream in the past year, mostly centered on the Washington team of the National Football League, and their use of the R word to identify themselves.  Better than the N word some might say, but that it's pretty much in the same league is really the point.

It's so mainstream that ESPN has openly discussed it, and several news outlets have officially refused to use it in their coverage.  But it reached a new level over the weekend, first because Oneida Indian Nation held a conference on the Washington name in Washington, in the same hotel where the National Football League team owners were also meeting.

Then Sunday it went to still another level when President Obama joined his name with many others--prominent and not--who agree that the nickname is perceived as insulting and the Washington team ought to change it.