Friday, February 06, 2015

Cry Me A River

Here in Arcata we seem to be in the still point of a raining world.  The "atmospheric river" (that's its profile picture above) is dumping rain all around us, causing sporadic flooding, downed trees and power lines, power outages, and some landslides.  Though we've had wind and fairly steady rain, it's had less impact locally.

There's been much more rain to our north (as far as Washington and Oregon) and south (as far as the Bay Area), but so far the coastal whatevers are shielding us from the several inches a day that others are getting.  We even had some sun breaks today.

The latest pulse of rain has just started. The river will deliver more waves of moisture through Monday, though the various weather models differ from one another, and seem to change a lot.  What is indisputably true is that it's stayed warm--8 to 10F above normal--although falling temps and accompanying thunderstorms are expected.  They just keep changing their minds on when.  We may see some heavier stuff yet, whatever the hourly forecasts say now.

Meanwhile the Midwest and East are getting hit with another named storm--Marcus.  It's expected to dump steady snow for several days, though not a lot until it reaches New England.  Boston may get another foot, on top of the two or so on the ground.

So what's with the names?  Easier twitter hashtag?  And if snowstorms get names, why doesn't our river?  Is this prejudice against atmospheric rivers?  A river has to be liquid water in order to have a name?  Is that fair?  Why, you tweet "atmospheric" and you've used up most of your letters.

Update: The river continued to flow right over us.  We got lots and lots of wind but very little of the rain as the Humboldt Bay area remained the still dry point as the rain turned around us in the rainy region.  Looking at the maps of where precip was happening confirmed this impression--at several times there was rain literally all around us, including out at sea.  We got enough rain however to cause a significant mudslide near an HSU dorm.  Still, the several inches first predicted turned out to be less than one inch total, I'm guessing. Now on Monday night there's the supposed chance of a few passing showers before dry sets in officially on Tuesday.

Brian Williams and the Lynch Mob

NBC anchor Brian Williams told a story about an event some 12 years in the past.  His account is untrue.  He admitted this and apologized.

He didn't answer every question that has been raised about this, and now it's open season on his integrity and credibility in general.  Even though most of the noise is coming from people who appear to be doing it for their own political ends, self-aggrandizement and careers.

It's the hysteria that exercises me.  There is a lynch mob mentality that the twitterverse and 24 hour news cycle enables.

Did he deliberately lie?  Is he a bad reporter?  These may be open questions, but the lynch mob has mind up its frenzied mind.  Don't bother with the trial, we know he's guilty.

Brian Williams was on a helicopter in Iraq.  One of the pilots said it took small arms fire, other servicemen apparently aboard say it didn't.  Ahead of them was another helicopter that took significant fire and was forced down.  Williams said he was on that helicopter.  He wasn't.  But he did not say he was at the time.  The story grew over the years.  That's actually fairly normal--we tend to remember the stories we tell rather than the actual event.  It was in an unfamiliar combat situation.  The emotions stay.

What somebody says about something that happened more than a decade ago does not necessarily mean that he habitually lies about events he is covering at the moment, or that he often gets the reportage wrong.  Evidence on these possibilities has not been fully reported, just suggested, just stated as fact.

Everything about a lynch mob mentality is out of proportion. Williams' fish story about a single event is not comparable to politicians who repeatedly claim to voters that they served in Vietnam or Iraq when they never did.  There's a difference between wishful mis-remembering and systematic lies for political gain.

NBC has appointed an investigative unit to examine the evidence, and some other media organizations that might have some residual sense of responsibility to find the facts before they report them might start digging as well.

I for one will wait until there is a credible body of evidence, apart from political agendas which may well include those of former members of the military.  If that ever happens.

But as a major firestorm of a story today, this is just scary.  This is epic scapegoating so far. There are so many more important matters to attend to.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Climate Crisis: Cause & Effect

There's a threat to the future inherent in the language we're using--and not using--about the climate crisis.

For those of us sounding the alarm 20 or even 10 years ago, the climate crisis was something that was very likely to happen in the future if we didn't take steps to address it in the present.  Those steps--the various choices that might have made a difference--were mostly not taken.

Now we see the climate visibly, palpably and in various ways obviously changing.  Scientists tell us that these changes aren't going to change back for a very long time, if ever.  But they also tell us that there might be time to forestall even more severe, even much worse changes in the farther future, that might doom human civilization and end life on Earth as we know it.  There might be time--but not a lot of time--for humanity to finally understand the urgency, and take effective steps.

So now, the climate crisis is a two part crisis.  It is a crisis of the present-to-near future, and a crisis of all of the future.

The greatest danger to that future is that we refuse to see the relationship of the "climate change" of the present and the mortal danger to the human future.

That refusal is happening now, and our scientists and political leaders are letting it happen.  Some leaders are doing so deliberately, and the others--especially those who support efforts to address both parts of the climate crisis-- are making it easier for them.

This past weekend the New York Times published a long story called "Climate Change's Bottom Line."  It begins by quoting the chairman of a large midwestern food conglomerate:

"Mr. Page is not a typical environmental activist. He says he doesn’t know — or particularly care — whether human activity causes climate change. He doesn’t give much serious thought to apocalyptic predictions of unbearably hot summers and endless storms. But over the last nine months, he has lobbied members of Congress and urged farmers to take climate change seriously."

How is it possible for someone not to know or care what causes climate change, and yet urge others to "take climate change seriously"?

It is possible because of the murkiness and misdirection in the language that nearly everyone uses now to describe what we're up against.

Since it became clear that we are dealing with two parts to the climate crisis, two words to describe what we need to do to address each of them have become standard.  Efforts to cut greenhouse gas pollution by various means, including using alternate energy forms, in order to forestall worse consequences to the climate of the future--these go by the title of "mitigation."  Efforts to address flooding, sea level rise, drought and so on where these have become more likely because of "climate change," are called "adaptation."

There are several things very wrong about these words.  As language, they are fuzzy abstractions that are virtually interchangeable.  Maybe environmentalists, public works officials, some scientists etc. can tell them apart, and remember which applies to which set of problems, but for most other citizens, they are almost meaningless--hard to remember, and hard to tell apart.  That alone has political consequences.  At the very least, it doesn't exactly lend urgency to either set of tasks.

The words are weak and not even accurate.  Do we really want to "mitigate" future ruining of the climate and human civilization, species extinction and the creation of a immensely hotter planet?  Or do we want to do what we can to stop it?  Do we want to "adapt" to drought and floods or fix what we can in our social organization, our infrastructure, management, policy and planning?

But the most consequential feature of these words is that they have no relation to each other.  Yet the two parts of the climate crisis do.  And the future depends on keeping that in mind.

Of course there are words that make that relationship clear, and unbreakable.  They are simple words that everyone understands.  The words are "cause" and "effect."

Greenhouse gases are the cause of  climate change.  If they are allowed to continue their access to the atmosphere at current or greater rates, they will continue to cause greater and greater climate change.  Anything that reduces these gases, or that otherwise slows the progress of global heating, addresses the causes.

The effects of "climate change" are sea level rise, flooding, drought, and a host of further problems that can well include higher food prices and the spread of tropical diseases.

But the way we talk about climate does not make this cause and effect connection.  This failure to make that connection is even now aiding those who very much don't want the connection made.

For some corporate leaders (perhaps like this ag guy) and public officials (like those who emphasize "disaster preparedness" without mentioning climate), obscuring the cause and effect relationship is a political dodge, a way of getting support for efforts to deal with effects, even from those who don't accept the causes.

The vagueness of the preferred term "climate change" plays into this, since it can mean the climate change that's happening or is part of a discernible trend (though we don't know why), or it can mean the climate crisis in full.

There's a certain utility in this vagueness, as it doesn't overtly push denier buttons (or at least that's the hope.)  But in the long run it's dangerous.  Because sooner or later some smart Republican is going to say something like what the ag guy said: I don't know and don't care what causes it, what we need to do is deal with these  drought and flooding problems.

It would not surprise me to hear words like this coming from the ample mouth of Chris Christie.  As governor of New Jersey, he witnessed the devastation wrought by the storm called Sandy.  His state is in fact very actively working to deal with such effects.

Some polls are telling Republican presidential candidates that all-out denialism is a loser.  Christie or Jeb Bush could split the difference, talk about adapting to climate change and yet fail to support efforts to dramatically slash carbon and dramatically increase non-carbon spewing energy.  And all other efforts to address the cause.

They might even get away with it.  Why?  Because Democrats, environmentalists and advocates on this very issue won't talk about the relationship, the cause and effect relationship.  Which by now could be clear in the minds of most voters and even the media.

It's not that these advocates were unaware of this possibility of political opponents hijacking the issue in this way.  They've dealt with it in the past by conspicuously avoiding any talk about dealing with effects.  They wanted to emphasize dealing with the causes to such an extent that they talked way too optimistically about how soon dealing with causes would be successful.  Al Gore talked about "solving" the climate crisis.

Now most of them know that we can only solve problems resulting from global heating, and solve problems on how to reduce future global heating.  The climate crisis isn't going away.  For all of us now alive, even just born, the climate crisis is permanent.  And to some degree it will be for many future generations.  We don't really know how bad it might get, and how soon.  But we do know that if we keep injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at our ever-increasing rate, there is an ever-decreasing chance of human civilization surviving more or less intact.

It is still possible--and so easy--to start talking about this sensibly, to start making the connection in every policy statement on every level, by talking about the causes and the effects, thereby linking them together and making them inseparable in the public mind.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Weather Report

Today being February 2, which is famous of course for being...James Joyce's birthday.

(Or were you thinking Groundhog Day, a pseudo-holiday that at least one publicity-seeking mayor may wish to forget.)

The Midwest got hammered by a new winter storm,  now moving into the Eastern US.  Before that started, my friend Mike sent me a photo from central PA, from one of his hikes along the Appalachian Trail.  It's generally been colder than normal there.  I miss my cold weather rambles through the snow.  Within reason, of course.

Here in far northern CA it's been warmer by anywhere from 5-10F.  I posted that after our sunny and bone dry January (the first on record since 1850) I was hoping for a repeat of last year's totally rainy February, and it looks like I'm getting my wish, at least for the next week or so.

It rained through the night and into the afternoon, with a little sunlight late.  That's when I took some pictures of raindrops on the cala lillies near the back porch.

But the total rain was under a half inch.  That's not likely to be the case this weekend however, when an "atmospheric river" is predicted to deliver several inches from Thursday through Sunday.  The Weather Underground is showing more than a inch per day, sometimes more than two.  Higher elevations could get a foot of precip.

This river should deliver rain farther south, at least into the Bay Area, and best of all for them, precip in the Sierras, which depending on temps could replenish the snow pack.

This isn't all risk-free, as so much rain at once can cause lots of problems.  But that's weather for you, especially these days.

Meanwhile, Southern California has its collective fingers crossed that a NOAA long range forecast is correct, and the region will get higher than normal rainfall over the next three months.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Accentuate the Positive

The Pew poll cited in the previous post tended to accentuate the negative when it came to attitudes on the climate crisis.  Now a different study not only accentuates the positive but adds to it.  According to the New York Times (via Boston Globe):

"An overwhelming majority of the American public, including nearly half of Republicans, support government action to curb global warming, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University, and the environmental research group Resources for the Future.

In a finding that could have implications for the 2016 presidential campaign, the poll also found that two-thirds of Americans say they are more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change. They are less likely to vote for candidates who question or deny the science of human-caused global warming.

Among Republicans, 48 percent said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports fighting climate change, a result that Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of political science at Stanford University and an author of the survey, called “the most powerful finding” in the poll."

Somewhat contradicting the Pew study finding: "Overall, the number of Americans who believe that climate change is caused by human activity is growing. In a 2011 Stanford University poll, 72 percent of people thought climate change was caused at least in part by human activities. That grew to 81 percent in the latest poll. By party, 88 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents and 71 percent of Republicans said that climate change was caused at least in part by human activities."

The basic and most powerful finding:

"The poll found that 83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.

On the issue of policies, the poll found that 77 percent of Americans say that the federal government should be doing a substantial amount to combat climate change. Ninety percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Republicans said the government should be fighting climate change."

This last number is actually a bit below what a Yale survey recently found: "56 percent of Republicans support regulating climate-warming greenhouse gases."

Slate reproduces the exact statements that respondents to the poll were asked to evaluate.

The Seattle pi story reporting on the survey gave several recent examples of Republican leaders making aggressive moves to thwart recognition of the climate crisis and government attempts to address it.

Contrast their positions with what an independent voter is quoted by the Times/Globe story as saying: that although he doesn't see it as a more crucial issue than dealing with terrorists like ISIL, he is turned off by absolute denialists, the most prominent and widespread position among Republican leaders:

But, he said of climate change, “if someone feels it’s a hoax, they are denying the evidence out there. Many arguments can be made on both sides of the fence. But to just ignore it completely indicates a close-minded individual, and I don’t want a close-minded individual in a seat of political power.

The Times/Globe story ends with unnamed "political analysts" suggesting that Republicans need to develop a position that speaks to that voter's concerns while not alienating the Koch Brothers.  Good luck with that.  The Kochs have made it known they're going to spend close to a billion dollars in the next election cycle, including money targeted to defeat any candidate--including Republicans in primaries--who don't toe the denialist line.

However, the possibility of some Republicans offering a different approach eventually (and maybe Christie will start this) is a lead-in to what I want to say in my next post.