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Archive for the ‘politics and environment’ Category

Along with death and taxes, if I can count on the certaintude of anything it would be that unusually cold weather will bring out snarky comments from my global-warming-skeptic friends—like the one that appeared today within minutes of my posting a Facebook status update hoping for snow this week.

So I’m passing along a great post from The Vine blog about the difference between climate and weather.  It can be a tedious waste of energy to try to explain the concept to someone who doesn’t really care to understand, but the following graphic does a nice job of quickly and clearly putting this cold snap into perspective:

Sure we still have record lows (and will continue to have them).  And we’ll continue to have more record highs.  That’s called weather.  The trend in the relative ratios, that’s called climate.

Another item from the blogosphere today . . .  I was interested in seeing this post—Why Believe in Manmade Climate Change?—on science writer David Appell’s blog Quark Soup, the first of what he plans as a regular series of interviews with actual scientists on the subject.   I was most intrigued to see him ask a variation of the question I posed here not too long ago: What would make you change your mind?  It will be interesting to hear how scientists answer that one, what evidence and metrics they would look for.

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In my RSS reader this week, thanks to the blog children: nature: play, I came across the following quote from the late theologian and philosopher Thomas Berry :

We have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. To achieve this perspective we must first make them autistic in their relation with the natural world about them. This disconnection occurs quite simply since we ourselves have become insensitive toward the natural world and do not realize just what we are doing. Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them.

Alas this weekend was yet another weekend in which my kids became a little more “autistic in their relation with the natural world about them.”  A cold drizzle falling outside, they stayed indoors and watched a string of Christmas movies on the television while I caught up on some school work and Belinda baked cookies.  We made one major outing to a local outfitter to prepare for a ski trip later this week (yet another opportunity to buy more stuff).  I suppose it wasn’t a bad weekend, all told, but weekends like this have a way of stringing themselves together into months and entire seasons.  I realize with a shock that I’ve let an entire autumn slip by (my favorite season) without really getting outside with the boys for much more than their Saturday morning soccer games.

Berry’s assessment of us is dead on, I’m afraid.  Is it any wonder that our culture cannot reach consensus around caring for the natural world?  That we can reduce the environment to political abstraction?  That we don’t react the same to ecological warnings as we would for potential threats to our families?

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I have absolutely no intentions of becoming a full-time climate change blogger, but while the whole Copenhagen thing is going on, I suppose it’s topical.  Last weekend I even had a colleague corner me at a Christmas party to get my take on the latest news.  Nonetheless, because it’s a topic that’s either dull or depressing or both, I’m glad to pass along this little bit of brilliance even if I can endorse only the creativity and not the message.

Enjoy!  It’s not likely to have a long shelf life.

Oh, and by the way, the skeptical colleague that prompted me to first post about ClimateGate last week, well he gave me an answer to my simple question of “What would make you change your mind?”

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A few days ago, I posted the following in reaction to the whole ClimateGate controversy:

Nonetheless, if these emails do expose some sort of grand conspiracy, the skeptics are absolutely right that the whole global warming “house of cards” will collapse now that the secret is out.  Such a collapse won’t be evidenced by increased screaming in the blogosphere or lots of I-told-you-so “expert” commentary on Fox news.  Collapse will look like organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science being forced to take new positions or lose their credibility.  And I’ll adjust my opinions accordingly if they do.  But if the American Association for the Advancement of Science (and these other organizations) stands firmly behind the consensus view even given this increased scrutiny, then this whole ClimateGate affair will not change my opinion but do just the opposite.

Well, the AAAS has responded:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has reaffirmed the position of its Board of Directors and the leaders of 18 respected organizations, who concluded based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway, and it is a growing threat to society.

The vast preponderance of evidence, based on years of research conducted by a wide array of different investigators at many institutions, clearly indicates that global climate change is real, it is caused largely by human activities, and the need to take action is urgent,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science . . .

“AAAS takes issues of scientific integrity very seriously,” Leshner said. “It is fair and appropriate to pursue answers to any allegations of impropriety. It’s important to remember, though, that the reality of climate change is based on a century of robust and well-validated science.”

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I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy trying to get up to speed on the charges and counter charges flying around the blogosphere over the past week regarding the stolen ClimateGate emails.  It’s been kind of fun; I have learned a lot about the science.

Still, as an interested layperson who is unable to fully evaluate the sometimes complex scientific back-and-forth or separate a legitimate scientific question from a spurious politically-motivated smokescreen, I stand by my thoughts from my last post about whom to trust.  In an age when anybody can present anything on the internet and every claim has a counterclaim, the major scientific organizations—who are scientifically conservative by nature when their institutional credibility is on the line—have the last word for me.

Progressively louder blogosphere shouting doesn’t carry anywhere near the same value as when the American Meteorological Society weighs in:

The beauty of science is that it depends on independent verification and replication as part of the process of confirming research results.  This process, which is tied intrinsically to the procedures leading to publication of research results in the peer-reviewed literature, allows the scientific community to confirm some results while rejecting others.  It also, in a sense, lessens the impact of any one set of research results, especially as the body of research on any topic grows.  The AMS plays an important role in the scientific process through its peer-reviewed publications, as well as through its many other activities, such as scientific conferences.  The Society strives to maintain integrity in the editorial process for all its publications.

For climate change research, the body of research in the literature is very large and the dependence on any one set of research results to the comprehensive understanding of the climate system is very, very small. Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true — which is not yet clearly the case — the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.

You can read their entire position statement on the science of climate change here, which ends with the following conservative (in my opinion) warning: “Prudence dictates extreme care in managing our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.”

And whom should I not trust?  Well, could it be any clearer?

Gets pretty funny when it turns to the actual scientific literature.  And the English teacher in me loves hearing the phrase “febrile nitwits” used in a public forum.

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I’m still working on revising “down the river with Edward Abbey, part three,” but that’ll have to wait for the moment while I talk about something timely.

I’ve got a friend and colleague who loves to needle me with the latest broadsides from the climate denier camp, and as expected I got an gloating email from him about the current “ClimateGate” controversy, an email that begins with “I knew you would be proved wrong.”  Indeed, whole segments of the blogosphere are abuzz with breathless pronouncements of ClimateGate as “the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming.’”

I don’t intend here to sort through the details of what the stolen emails contain and what significance the skeptics attach to these various “smoking guns,” but there is, of course, an unambiguous response from the climate science community, which can be seen herehere, and here.  It’s quite clear to me that the anti-AGW political noise machine (and echo chamber) is conveniently ignoring a whole universe of context when it cherry-picks and presents tidbits from these emails, and I both recognize and deplore this practice as intellectually dishonest in the extreme (leaving aside the ethics of illegally hacking into and publicizing emails intended for private consumption.)  At the same time, I also don’t want to ignore or minimize any potentially unethical behavior on the part of the scientists involved or the climate science community in general; bad behavior on the part of the accusers does not grant blanket absolution on the part of the accused.  There are, perhaps, important lessons to be learned.  In particular, I agree with the thoughtful and measured critiques of this affair offered by Peter Kelemen at Columbia (a must-read) and, closer to home, Judith Curry at Georgia Tech.

I’m more interested in thinking about the divergent reactions we have to this kind of story.  My colleague received this news as “proof” of his oft-stated contention that global warming is some sort of hoax; it fit his preconceived narrative of an eggheaded leftist conspiracy, and that was that.  He would no doubt describe the climate science responses that I linked to above as little more than self-serving cover-up.  I seriously doubt he will look at them objectively but will instead gravitate toward further commentary that merely reinforces his preconceived beliefs.  To be fair, however, I don’t often read the links he sends me any more, either, at least not carefully.  Perhaps I am the one trying to protect a preconceived narrative?

The fact is that neither of us are climate scientists, and neither of us are really qualified to sort through the various claims and counter claims and make sense of where the objective truth might lie.  We can bury each other with convincing cut-and-paste links until the cows come home, but it would be awfully hard for us to sort out which ones are credible and which ones are rhetorically impressive but basically bogus.  Nor do we really have the time. So what is the average lay-person to do?  Confronted by the bewildering and contradictory flood of information and misinformation about the issue, is it acceptable to throw your hands in the air and just ignore the issue?  Many do. Cling to a preconceived narrative because it suits your ideological leanings? Many do that, too.  But are either of these positions responsible, given the stakes?  After all, we stand to lose (depending on how the issue is framed) a healthy planet and/or our cherished freedoms and capitalistic system.

My colleague and I cannot both be right.  AGW cannot simultaneously be both a serious threat and complete hooey.   So if we are to honestly debate the subject, we have to first admit two salient facts: 1) we don’t really know enough personally about the science to know the truth for sure and 2) one (or both) of us will turn out to be wrong.  Assuming both of us have the intellectual integrity to modify or abandon our positions based upon credible conflicting data, I think it a fair (and productive) question to ask:

What would make you change your mind?(more…)

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Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”    —Albert Einstein

When I left for the Futaleufu, I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip.  Now, fully in thrall of the most enchanting landscape and culture I’ve ever visited, I ache to return.  I want to run the bigger water I haven’t made it to yet.  I want to learn some more Spanish and feel less like an alien.  I want to bring my family.

If my only barriers were time and money, I’d feel pretty confident that the chance will come around again, that my trip-of-a-lifetime could evolve into a repeat pilgrimage.  Sadly, however, time may be running out for the Futaleufu Valley as the government of Chile edges toward a course of massive multi-river hydropower development that would profoundly alter all of Patagonia.  The Futaleufu itself has two proposed dam sites that would not only submerge the river’s whitewater but also destroy the local economic base of ranching and tourism.

It’s a depressingly familiar story—the local people stand to lose their lands, their livelihoods, their way of life, and their connection to their heritage, all in the name of economic development for people living elsewhere.  The whole HidroAysen project would both drown the major rivers draining Patagonian Chile and create in the world’s largest clearcut in the form of a 1200 mile long high-voltage transmission corridor.  The audacity of such a scheme in a region as remote and beautiful and culturally unique as Patagonia is nothing short of breathtaking.  I’d compare it to the kind of thinking in this country that led to proposals for dams and reservoirs in the Grand Canyon only forty years ago, culminating in an environmental battle that seems patently preposterous today.  Chileans, I am told, love Patagonia with the same sort of national pride that we have for our own signature National Parks; will the HidroAysen proposal be the undoing of unspoiled Patagonia or a catalyst for its sustainable future?

Even as opposition grows throughout the region, however, the latest headlines detail new proposals by the Chilean government to throw around enough money to try to hush the locals.  “Here, tell us what you think of this idea—we’ll take away your honest livelihood, destroy your way of life, and rape the landscape you call home, but you get to live on energy-project-supported welfare from this day forward.”

Now, I understand Chile has its own energy crisis to deal with and is in desperate need for solutions.  And I appreciate that hydropower is a renewable and “clean” energy source.  But before you try to sell me on the need for and the righteousness of damming the Futaleufu, can we try some simple alternatives?  Madam President Bachelet, for the cost of one dam, how many inefficient light bulbs in Santiago could be replaced with CFL or LED technology?  How many roofs could be fitted with solar panels?  How many homes could be insulated?  What about large-scale solar-thermal generation in the Atacama Desert or geothermal development anywhere in your narrow country (which sits smack-dab on top of the infamous Ring of Fire)?

Forty years from now, I think future generations of Chileans will look back and find it preposterous that we could even contemplate damming the Futaleufu.  I just hope they don’t look back in sorrow for our lack of vision.  That said, I’ve got one or two quick emails to send.

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One of the RSS feeds I follow comes from the website SustainableBusiness.com, their news feed being the best layman’s source I’ve found for following developments in environmental technology and green business. In a time when news from the climate science community seems to get progressively gloomier, it’s reassuring to get news that some of our best minds are thinking about viable solutions.  And occasionally, we get word of a potential breakthrough like the potential of “biochar” as both fuel source and carbon sink—this news courtesy of the good folks at my beloved University of Georgia.  Money quote in the article, from UGA’s Christoph Steiner: “The potential of biochar lies in its ability to sequester—capture and store—huge amounts of carbon while also displacing fossil fuel energy, effectively doubling its carbon impact.

Now I’m nowhere near qualified to scrutinize his research or portend the implications, but the premise is simple enough.

The appeal of bioenergy is that it is theoretically carbon neutral—burning biofuel simply returns to the atmosphere much of the same carbon dioxide that growth of the plant stock had pulled out (as opposed to liberating carbon from fossil fuels pulled from deep within the earth).   The problems have been (as I understand them) that 1) some types of biofuel (read ethanol) actually generate a sizeable carbon footprint because processing is energy intensive, 2) competition for plant stock (corn) between food and energy production has resulted in serious global food shortages, and 3) repeated production and removal of biomass from agricultural land causes soil depletion (you just can’t escape the basic ecology of nutrient cycles) that itself requires energy and carbon intensive measures to rectify (I didn’t realize until recently that much industrial fertilizer essentially comes from processed natural gas).

Evidently the biochar process 1) not only produces renewable, non-fossil fuel bioenergy but can potentially sequester billions of tons of carbon for hundreds if not thousands of years, 2) does not compete with food production, and 3) actually recycles nutrients back to the soil.  Perfect.  I don’t know that this or any other scientific breakthrough will be the single silver bullet to get us out of the mess we’re in, but I sleep better knowing that we have an ever-growing field of partial solutions at hand.  We just need to muster the political will to reach for them (maybe a good cap-and-trade regulatory system might lead Georgia Power to tear down the dirty coal plant across the river from my neighborhood and replace it with a sustainable power plant that runs off of peanut shells or chicken poop).

We’ll see.  At least come January 20 we won’t have myopic paranoids like this guy essentially setting our nation’s energy (non)policy any more.

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I’ve been thinking about acorns a lot over the past several weeks.  Having tromped around the Southern Appalachians for a couple of decades now, I can’t recall ever having seen as heavy a crop of acorns as there is this year.  On my last two outings with my boys on the A.T., I found myself crunching as many as a dozen with any given step.  I also found myself under constant assault.  At any given spot on the trail, you could bend down and quickly fill both hands with ammunition, and so Will and Andrew gleefully bombarded me for miles (they particularly favored acorns from chestnut oaks—big and glossy and weighty).  I didn’t exactly mind, as this was a mutually beneficial arrangement; their giggling pursuit of a steadily moving target meant that they covered a good bit of distance without dawdling or asking to rest, without any complaining whatsoever.

And so two weekends ago, whilst enduring this onslaught, I found myself thinking about the ecology of oak trees.  I had read somewhere that oak trees only produce big acorn crops every several years as a clever evolutionary adaptation to outwit squirrels, their primary herbivorous predators.  During most years, a light acorn crop serves as a limiting factor on squirrel populations, ensuring that squirrel numbers are low when the next prolific acorn year rolls around.  As a result, much of the eventual bumper crop remains uneaten—ideally, squirrels will carry away and cache acorns like crazy but never get around to eating all of them and thus effectively disperse (and plant) the seed crop.  Pretty clever, no?  Of course, this evolutionary scheme only works if all of the oak trees in a given area of forest are on the same acorn production schedule (no sense producing a meager crop if your tree neighbor floods the market), but there’s no clear understanding as to how oaks end up coordinating their outfits, so to speak.

The most likely explanation, of course, is that all the oaks in a forest will respond to the same climatological trigger.  Well, if Sir Isaac Newton could reach scientific epiphany from being hit on the head with a falling apple, maybe a fusillade of thrown acorns might work the same magic for me.  I suddenly realized, having recently had an oak tree behind my house succumb to thirst and flatten my car, that our current “exceptional” drought might potentially open a lot of holes for sunshine in an otherwise solid forest canopy.  What better time to produce a heavy mast crop than just before a period of heavy tree mortality?  I went from thinking “Wow, what a great autumn to be a black bear” (bears being heavy mast consumers) to having the disquieting notion that the underfoot crunch I’d been enjoying might actually foretell ecological woe.

And then last week I read in the Washington Post that folks up north are also worried about acorns . . . because their trees evidently didn’t produce any this year.  None!  The Post quotes field botanist Rod Simmons, worried that he’s witnessing a climatic event: “Let’s hope it’s not something ghastly going on with the natural world.”  Isn’t that typical of us tree-huggers?  We each see opposite ends of a continuum but suffer from the same gloomy speculation.  Maybe there is no divination to be had from acorns, after all.

Even so, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to and ask questions of our natural surroundings.  Distressingly few people do.

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I’m trying to stay away from politics.  Really, I am.  But here’s a short, smart post from Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection (remind me to send in my renewal).  Money quote, from Utah Governor Jon Huntsman: “If we’re going to survive as a party, we need to focus on the environment. There’s a fundamental tone deafness with our party when it comes to the environment … The last place we can be as a party is to be viewed as the anti-science party. That’s not a model for the future.”

Maybe, at long last, the right will listen to voices like Huntsman?  Did anyone pay attention to the results of this last election?

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