Friday, November 06, 2015

Keystone, Paris and The Fulcrum of the Future

If a moment can be the fulcrum of the future, it may have been today, when President Obama announced that the federal government would not issue a permit for the construction of the Keystone tar sands oil pipeline through the US.

It wasn't so much the pipeline itself as the reasons, the context, the timing and the ramifications.

The reason was that the pipeline adds nothing to the American economy, and adds too much to greenhouse gases--as Bill McKibben was quick to point out, making President Obama "the first world leader to turn down a major project on climate grounds."

The timing was with little more than thirty days to save the world--that is, before the Paris conclave on climate.  This single act emphasizes American determination to lead the efforts to address the causes of global heating, specifically in Paris beginning at the end of this month.  It adds even more credibility to President Obama's own leadership, and strengthens his hand at the negotiations, as Bloomberg put it.

The context was provided succinctly by President Obama's brief statement as he made the announcement, flanked by Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.  He made a bit of other news, by relating a conversation with the new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, who officially (if not enthusiastically) backed the pipeline project, which would take Canadian oil through the US to be exported on ships.  Trudeau "expressed his disappointment, given Canada’s position on this issue, we both agreed that our close friendship on a whole range of issues, including energy and climate change, should provide the basis for even closer coordination between our countries going forward. And in the coming weeks, senior members of my team will be engaging with theirs in order to help deepen that cooperation."  This obviously refers to Paris.

The President began by rebutting the arguments that the pipeline would help the economy or lower gasoline prices.  He got to note that today's employment report was unexpectedly strong--with job growth and a drop in the unemployment rate to 5%, the lowest since before the Great Recession.  He contrasted the few jobs the pipeline might bring, to the thousands of jobs and longterm economic benefits of  "a serious infrastructure plan" to repair and replace aging, inadequate and sometimes dangerous infrastructure.

The pipeline would not help American energy security. "What has increased America’s energy security is our strategy over the past several years to reduce our reliance on dirty fossil fuels from unstable parts of the world. Three years ago, I set a goal to cut our oil imports in half by 2020. Between producing more oil here at home, and using less oil throughout our economy, we met that goal last year -- five years early. In fact, for the first time in two decades, the United States of America now produces more oil than we buy from other countries."

Moreover the transition to clean energy is proceeding faster than "experts" ever believed. "Since I took office, we’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025; tripled the power we generate from the wind; multiplied the power we generate from the sun 20 times over. Our biggest and most successful businesses are going all-in on clean energy. And thanks in part to the investments we’ve made, there are already parts of America where clean power from the wind or the sun is finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power."

"The point is the old rules said we couldn’t promote economic growth and protect our environment at the same time. The old rules said we couldn’t transition to clean energy without squeezing businesses and consumers. But this is America, and we have come up with new ways and new technologies to break down the old rules, so that today, homegrown American energy is booming, energy prices are falling, and over the past decade, even as our economy has continued to grow, America has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth."

Today, we’re continuing to lead by example. Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.

As long as I’m President of the United States, America is going to hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world. And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can.

That's the fulcrum of the future.

And yes, the video does give the President a mantle of green leaves across his shoulders.  I'm sure that was an accident.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Forty Days to Save the World (Part 3) : Fire

Over the years we've been learning what global heating can do to the climate and the weather: more violent storms, forest fires, flooding, drought.  Melting of polar ice, melting of permafrost, sea level rise swamping coasts.  Acidification and other big problems in the oceans, plus the possible shift of major ocean currents.

We've learned about consequences of a general rise in global temperature, such as disease-bearing insects moving northward, threats to the survival of entire species of plants and animals, for which the polar bear has become the poster child.  (Joined perhaps by the snow leopard.)

But in learning about these and the possible social, political and economic ramifications, the most direct consequence has not been so widely discussed.  That is, that global heating means: heat.

But a study published in Nature dealt with at least the economic consequences of heat--that is, of the relationship of hot temperatures and productivity.  As one report put it: The warmer it gets, the less productive a country’s economy will likely be.

Economic performance, the UC Berkeley and Stanford researchers found, tends to decrease when the average temp rises above 55F.  They correlated the countries where this would be so if global heating continues "unmitigated": 77 percent of countries in the world would see a drop in per capita incomes relative to current levels, with global incomes falling 23 percent by 2100.  That's a 23% drop in this century.

The lesson that an economics reporter at the LA Times takes from this is that the cost of "mitigation" (dealing with the causes of global heating by cutting back carbon pollution severely) now has an economic justification: it will cost more not to do it than to do it.

Whether this particular study is valid or not, it's striking that it tries to quantify only the factor of heat and its effect on human beings, the factor that is seldom discussed directly.  Is that because it is actually the scariest prospect of all?

Because ultimately it is about more than economics.  It's about incessant extreme heat that threatens life, that threatens the ability to think clearly, to control emotions, to move physically.

A different report, done by researchers at three universities and published last week in Nature Climate Change (in the words of the Washington Post story) "warned that Persian Gulf cities could experience extreme summer temperatures that are literally too hot for human survival. But scientists say climate change will inevitably lead to hotter, longer heat waves and higher rates of heat-related deaths across large swaths of the planet."

This study surprised even some climate experts by showing that such heat is possible in this century.  But once again, the study suggests that dealing with the causes of global heating--as proposed for the Paris conference--could limit the heat.

heat wave in Pakistan that killed hundreds
Yet another report cited in the Guardian confirmed that: "South-east Asia over the next three decades could lose 16% of its labour capacity due to rising heat stress, which could cause absenteeism due to dizziness, fatigue, nausea and even death in extreme cases, the British firm Verisk Maplecroft said."

All of this follows a study issued in July officially by the EPA combines economic analysis with ecological and other effects to show the dire cost of global heating left unchecked.  It includes killer heat waves in the US as well as elsewhere.  A report issued in May concluded:

The risk of exposure to extreme heat could be as much as six times higher for the average U.S. citizens by the year 2070, compared with levels experienced in the last century, researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the City University of New York found. The projected change carries significant implications for Americans’ health, as extreme heat kills more people than any other weather-related event, the study’s authors report in the journal Nature Climate Change.

When writers like Eric Holthaus at Slate suggest that we're doing enough on addressing causes of global warming to avoid the worst outcomes, and now we should concentrate on dealing with the effects ("adaptation", in the jargon), it sets up truly nightmarish possibilities.  Like the dwindling number of people who can afford it, hunkering behind more and more fossil fuel-driven air conditioning, "adapting" while the future is condemned.

This is precisely why I use the terminology of causes and effects--because they are not separate, and must never be separated.  The terminology of "mitigation" and "adaptation," besides being imprecise, abstract and obscure, are fatally flawed because they are not linked, as if one has nothing to do with the other.

 But in reality the causes and effects are always linked. The causes and effects of the climate crisis must each be addressed, and they must both be addressed.  Before the heat gets to us, and we end in violence, and it's the fire this time.

In related news, the UN continues to raise the stakes for Paris with a report that quantifies likely severe damage to the world's food supply caused by global heating, which could send an additional 600 million people into malnutrition by 2080.

The new Prime Minister of Canada was sworn in, as was his Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna  (the Climate Change part was restored after the previous government dropped it.)

 According to the CBC report: "The appointment comes less than a month before the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris that begins November 30. McKenna said Canada will come up with a plan for a "huge reduction in emissions" and will play a "constructive role" with governments."

So it is less than thirty days until the Paris conference begins.  And less than forty days all told to save the world.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Forty Days to Save the World (Part 2): Ice

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in melting ice.  There's significant news concerning melting in Greenland and especially the Antarctic.

A New York Times web story is less about news than a feature about on-the-ground findings in Greenland, worth a look if only for the spectacular video banner and other graphics.  They're so big in fact that I'm unable to navigate past them.  The conclusion though is that on site research is showing previously unknown mechanisms for melting, suggesting the situation is even worse than previously believed.

The major news concerns the Antarctic. "It may be the biggest climate change story of the last two years," the Washington Post story begins:

In 2014, several research groups suggested that the oceanfront glaciers in the Amundsen Sea region of West Antarctica may have reached a point of “unstoppable” retreat due to warm ocean waters melting them from below. There’s a great deal at stake — West Antarctica is estimated to contain enough ice to raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters, or well over 10 feet, were it all to melt.

The urgency may now increase further in light of just published research suggesting that destabilization of the Amundsen sea’s glaciers would indeed undermine the entirety of West Antarctica, as has long been feared.

Using a new climate model (and the knowledge of how melting works gained by research in Greenland and other places) a study concludes: "if the Amundsen Sea Sector is destabilized, then the entire marine part of West Antarctica will be discharged into the ocean.”

This would result in massive sea level rises, though probably over a very long time period before they reach maximum.  But the article is careful to note that more on site research must be done to confirm these findings, and there are major uncertainties that affect the time frame.  Some scientists fear that serious effects will be felt much sooner.

This story followed by a day the stories about a NASA study that found that ice is currently being added to the Antarctic that outweighs the losses to glacier melting.  This study was immediately exploited by the usual suspects as evidence that global heating isn't happening after all, but that's not the conclusion the NASA scientists draw.

The study found that a long-term trend that increased snowfall in parts of the Antarctic was still adding ice, so that technically the continent does not have less ice than before.  But it's a race between the melting and the ice created by snow, and pretty soon, the melting will likely be winning:

But it might only take a few decades for Antarctica's growth to reverse, according to Zwally. "If the losses of the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica continue to increase at the same rate they've been increasing for the last two decades, the losses will catch up with the long-term gain in East Antarctica in 20 or 30 years - I don't think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses."

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Forty Days to Save the World (Part 1): Overview, Paris and Energy

The November issue of National Geographic is devoted to the climate crisis, and it is well worth checking out.  There's an  online version, which has the advantage of some moving pictures, in both senses.  But the print magazine itself has its own visual splendors, and thoughtful articles and reporting to savor.  It's a keeper.

  It clarifies the crucial questions and what answers there are.  There are maps and charts and so on, but the photos of people in places makes it real, for it is the ultimate story of humanity in the natural world.  Robert Kunzig's opening essay, "This could be the turning point," sets the stage for Paris.

Meanwhile, as the Paris climate talks approach, the dialogue gets more specific.  The UN issued an assessment on levels of carbon reduction pledged by nations so far, and found (in the words of the Washington Post): "And the upshot is both that countries have raised their climate ambitions greatly, but also that even by 2025 or 2030, global emissions are expected to still be rising despite their best efforts."

More to the point, these pledges are unlikely to result in staying below the 2C limit.  As the story points out, all this is based on assumptions that could be off, but by the usual measurements, the global temp will rise to 2.7C, at best.  The good news is that the rate of growth will drop (and in fact is dropping.)  Nobody really knows where the tipping point might be for runaway global heating--it might even be below 2C, or above it.  But that's the announced goal.

  A day later, Eric Holtshaus at Slate opined that the pledges meant that: While most close climate watchers—myself included—have bemoaned the fact that the 2-degree goal is probably no longer possible, there’s a huge achievement on the horizon in Paris that’s clearly worth a victory dance: The nightmare worst-case scenario, in which the planet warms by 4.5 degrees or more, is now likely off the table."  But the lesson he takes from this is dangerous in a way I will write about later. 

So the UN says nations must try harder in Paris.  The more positive spin, from the White House and some environmental groups, is that this is a good start:

“The foundation has been poured, but to build from this the Paris agreement must deliver transparency and accountability against these pledges, and ensure that countries accelerate their ambition over time,” added the Nature Conservancy’s director of international government relations Andrew Deutz in reaction to the new report.

Or, as Kunzig writes, "We don't have to be able to see the whole road ahead to a happy end--but we have to believe we can get there."

More generally, support for climate action seems to be solidifying.  This Detroit column sums up the case pretty well.  Activists are gearing up for a big climate march in Paris November 28, with other demos etc. around the world.  After the Dalai Lama's statements on the climate crisis, an organization that goes beyond Buddhism in one country or region--the Global Buddhist Climate Collective--produced a declaration encouraging action signed by leaders of Buddhists everywhere.

Ending the carbon era requires replacement by clean energy.  Making this kind of a world happen has become the mission of Bill Gates, as explained in this interesting interview in the Atlantic.  (Though National Geographic seems more optimistic on the prospects for a clean energy future.) Progress and expansion in renewable energy is still ongoing, says this analysis, despite falling oil prices that might make staying with fossil fuels more attractive.

It is probably not a coincidence that oil prices fall when clean energy threatens to achieve a self-perpetuating growth.  Oil companies are hardly above that kind of manipulation.  Or apparently above attempting to intimidate journalists who report on Exxon's supression of its own climate crisis research, and paid millions to deny what they knew.

The latest desperate, cynical move in that industry comes from Canada, where builders of the Keystone pipeline suddenly requested that the State Department put off deciding whether to approve the pipeline in the US--perhaps (it seems obvious to many) long enough to allow the possibility of a Republican President who might approve it.  Update: Nice try.  President Obama announced he will make the Keystone pipeline decision before he leaves office, rejecting the request for suspension.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Happy Holy Day

Today is All Saints Day.  In the Catholic Church, it's a twofer this year: a holy day of obligation, which means practicing Catholics must attend Mass, but also Sunday, so they have to attend Mass anyway.

"Holy days of obligation" have changed since my childhood indoctrination.  Now the holy days change from year to year.  They're also different by country and state and even diocese.  In the US three of the traditional holy days (including All Saints) cedes its obligation if it falls on a Saturday or Monday. But this year (and next) the usual six are all obligations.

What "obligation" means has also changed.  Today's doctrine states that missing Mass on such a day might be a venial or a mortal sin (apparently if it's part of a pattern.)  My childhood catechism is unequivocal: it's a moral sin.  Assuming it's intentional and not subject to the many mitigating circumstances we used to discuss and invent in religion class, if you die in that state, you go directly to Hell.  So if you're wondering, there are no bonus points for non-Sunday holy days, but having one on a Sunday means just one day a year less on which you could invite eternal damnation.

Next up in the holy day of obligation calendar is the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas (Dec. 25), then January 1, which used to be called The Circumcision (not the most appealing subject for meditation), now called Solemnity of Mary.  Which actually changes the balance, so that the Virgin Mary now has three holy days of obligation (including Immaculate Conception, Assumption on August 15.)  Jesus Christ is the subject of two now, and the other two Members of the Trinity still get zilch.  November 1 is the only one reserved for human beings.

Halloween derives from All Hallows Eve, the vigil of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day.  November 2 is All Souls Day, which includes the dead who aren't saints, and is traditionally a day of remembrance for family members.  These three days are linked by their focus on the departed.  (Saints must be long dead before becoming official saints.)

Halloween absorbed its current traditions by being superimposed on "pagan" days of observance, as so many Christian holy days are.  The traditions in part derive from rituals to propitiate with food and gifts the dead who return on this one day of the year.

 In part what we now call Halloween is a day that marks the beginning of winter with rituals.  Our ritual this year--since it fell on a Saturday-- is the switch from the summer's Daylight Saving Time to the gloomier Standard Time, when six pm arrives in darkness.

Halloween is a big deal around here.  The stores begin promoting it in late September, but I've noticed that some homes have Halloween decorations up for the entire month of October, which is longer than some display their Christmas gear. The costume aspect is very big.  I passed the university library on Friday and saw through a window a huge rabbit at its desktop computer.  Margaret was in Arcata during the day on Saturday, and reports that Wonder Woman was a very popular look, princesses for little girls, and one man who appeared to be wearing a garbage can, with a large puppet down his back who seemed to be carrying the can he was in.

This business of holy days is the etymological origin of "holiday."  Holy days--especially those superimposed on older celebrations--were once days of festivals. And so the general idea of holiday.  Even in today's Catholic Church, a holy day of obligation also carries with it the obligation to refrain from work.

Looking up this etymology I learned something interesting.  The greeting "Happy Holidays" originated in England, but it referred to the summer holidays from school.  In America, Happy Holidays was first applied to the Christmas/New Years etc. period in a 1937 ad for Camel cigarettes.  Talk about your ancient "pagan" traditions.

  These ads used all the greetings--Merry Christmas, Seasons Greetings and happy holidays in an effort to make cigarettes a frequent Christmas gift.  Which it turned out to be.  I recall people giving and receiving cartons of cigarettes in the 50s and afterwards, along with the occasional box of cigars or tin of pipe tobacco (though not always Prince Albert, "the national joy smoke" in this ad. That's a different kind of smoke these days.)  In any case, Happy Holidays and "the holiday season" has been associated with the Christmas/New Years and everything in between or close enough season ever since.

Happy Holydays!