Lest we forget, the goal set by the Kyoto Protocol is a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized countries of 5.2% from 1990 levels. According to the World Bank's Little Green Data Book 2007, actual worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading manmade greenhouse gas, have increased by 19% above 1990 levels, as of 2003. While emissions from China and India are rising sharply, the wealthy countries still account for half the total greenhouse budget. A whopping 22 percent of worldwide emissions came from the United States, which failed to ratify Kyoto. The world's leading producer of greenhouse gases, the US also has, far and away, the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions of any major nation. Just something to keep in mind as we head into the G-8 meeting in Germany next week.
NASA has been cutting back on earth observation programs even as it continues to pursue expensive boondoggles -- most notably manned missions to Mars and a permanent moon station (both pet projects of the president's). NASA Chief Michael Griffin (a rocket scientist with an MBA who once served as technology officer for the highly controversial Strategic Defense Initiative) spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep this morning and defended his agency from critics. If you had any doubts about where NASA's priorities lay, the following exchange should put them to rest.
Inskeep: It has been mentioned that NASA is not spending as much money as it could to study climate change — global warming — from space. Are you concerned about global warming?
Griffin: I'm aware that global warming exists. I understand that the bulk of scientific evidence accumulated supports the claim that we've had about a one degree centigrade rise in temperature over the last century to within an accuracy of 20 percent. I'm also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down — pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of that is manmade. Whether that is a longterm concern or not, I can't say.
I recommend listening to the whole interview, but that gives you the gist. To sum up: The man who heads the world's leading space agency says he's 'aware that global warming exists' but 'can't say whether that is a longterm concern or not.' !!!!!!!!!
I don't know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people making habitats on asteroids. We've got places that humans will go, not in our lifetime, but they will go there. ... I don't know the date -- but I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond.
"I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
-- Thomas Edison, 1931
I found the quote in a piece on climate change from, of all places, AARP Magazine, written by, of all people, New York Times science correspondent Andy Revkin. AARP, which claims the world's larest circulation, casts the problem of climate change as a "legacy issue for older Americans: what type of planet are we leaving our children?" To echo Edison, let's hope we don't wait 'til we run out of oil and coal to tackle that question.
Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist who has devoted his life to collecting and analyzing ice cores from the world's highest mountains, has been named to receive a National Medal of Science from the White House. A reluctant mountaineer, Thompson has almost certainly logged more time in what alpinists the "death zone" -- that is, elevations above 18,000 feet -- than any man alive. Some of his ice cores, which are kept in refrigerated storage at his lab at Ohio State, date back 750,000 years. His work, much of which he undertook with his wife and colleague, the geographer Ellen Mosley Thompson, shows that the last half-century has been warmer than any period in recorded history. In a release, Thompson, who initially set out to become a coal geologist, says,
The loss of our glaciers is the most visible evidence of global warming we have. They store the history of many of the climate's most crucial variables that affect the earth’s systems, and their loss is easily apparent to anyone who might take notice.
Poverty is the majority condition in this world, where billions live on a few dollars a day or less. They have many pressing needs and problems in urgent need of solutions, and yet the world's best designers spend all their time solving the problems of the richest 10 percent of humanity. A new exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York aims to shift that emphasis. Called Design for the Other 90%, it focuses on affordable, elegant designs that address the needs of the world's poor -- inventions like the rolling water drum, that helps women and children in the normally back-breaking chore of hauling water; the nested pot cooler that uses evaporative cooling to help farmers keep their vegetables fresh longer; and charcoal made from sugar cane bagasse, that reduces deforestation pressures in places where food is still cooked over wood fires. Not all these designs will stand the test of time, of course; some will never catch on and many will be outdone. But isn't it refreshing to see ingenuity put to higher purpose than, say, the the latest MP3 player or the various gewgaws in the Sharper Image catalog?
By the way, if you're intrigued by the kind of thing highlighted in the design exhibit, allow me to suggest the 1998 book, Gaviotas, by Alan Weisman, about a village in the Colombian llanos founded by a group of environmental engineers led by the visionary Paolo Lugari. If you've already read Gaviotas, you might be interested in Weisman's newest title, The World Without Us, in which the journalist tries to envision a post-human planet.
An article in The Economist looks at the rapidly changing Canadian Arctic and the plight of its inhabitants (according to the story, 104,000 of Canada's 33 million people live north of the 60th parallel), who find that climate change is bringing both terrible hardship and (double-edged) opportunity -- in terms of increased shipping, mining, and oil and gas exploration -- to the region. As the article points out, residents of the far north have been warning of climate change for decades, and many are now miffed to see more concern focused on wildlife than them. Says Inuit leader Mary Simon, "It's not about polar bears. It's about people."
When it comes to scarcity of natural resources, most of us are inclined to think immediately of fossil fuels like oil (which we are told is either at or past its peak production level) and coal (which is plentiful but which is being consumed at a staggering rate). Some of us may even think of uranium, which has just reached record-high prices amid supply shortages. Seldom do we think about, say, platinum, the extremely rare element we use as the catalyst in smog-cutting catalytic converters as well as fuel cells. According to this article in New Scientist, "Earth's natural wealth: an audit" (subscription only, sorry), "It has been estimated that if all the 500 million vehicles in use today were re-equipped with fuel cells [an enormous 'if' to be sure], operating losses would mean that all the world's sources of platinum would be exhausted within 15 years." But, the article continues,
It's not just the world's platinum that is being used up at an alarming rate. The same goes for many other rare metals such as indium, which is being consumed in unprecedented quantities for making LCDs for flat-screen TVs, and the tantalum needed to make compact electronic devices like cellphones. How long will global reserves of uranium last in a new nuclear age? Even reserves of such commonplace elements as zinc, copper, nickel and the phosphorus used in fertiliser will run out in the not-too-distant future.
Any way you slice it, this is bad news. Just really terrible. Researchers say the world's carbon dioxide emissions are increasing at a rate that outstrips even the "worst-case" assumptions upon with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, bases it's most pessimistic projections. Where emissions in the 1990s averaged growth of 1.1 percent per year, between 2000-2004 (the period studied), rates were three times as high, at 3.3 percent per year.
About a third of the world's population -- roughly 2 billion people -- go without adequate affordable light. That's right: Light. When the sun goes down, they're in the dark or dependent upon smoky kerosene lamps, wood or charcoal fires or perhaps intermittent power from noisy diesel generators. Enter Mark Bent, ex-Marine and former State Department diplomat. Bent started BoGo Light, which sells solar flashlights that use highly efficient LEDs (light emitting diodes) to provide as much as five hours of illumination on a 10-hour charge. BoGo means Buy One Give One. While the lights generally retail at $20, for $25 plus shipping you can get one for yourself and have one donated. Recipients include groups as diverse as the UN Refugee Agency and the troops in Iraq. You get to choose. While the program may seem more humanitarian than environmental in nature, in reality it's both; the eco-upside is significant, as the lights have the potential to reduce carbon emissions, contamination from discarded batteries and deforestation. It's one of those simple, potentially world-changing ideas.
Here at the Sierra Club, we've long felt that the key to effective organizing was good beer. Well, one key anyway. So, it's with some measure of satisfaction that I found the new New Belgium Brewery website. Called Follow Your Folly, it celebrates nuttiness and neat ideas -- recycling, composting, bicycling, beer drinking, etc. -- in such a way that even the most determined teetotaler will enjoy it. Seriously: No dour preaching here, just wacky good times from the Fat Tire folks. Cheers y'all!
It has become fashionable in some circles to attack Rachel Carson, the celebrated scientist and author of Silent Spring and other classics of the environmental canon. The charge against Carson goes like this: By spearheading the ban on DDT, she doomed millions of people in the developing world to death by malaria. Some particularly irresponsible people have gone so far as to accuse her of mass murder.
Because of Carson, the agricultural use of DDT was banned, but not the anti-malarial use of DDT and it has continued to be used to this day.
... banning the agricultural use of DDT saved lives by slowing the development of resistance. Furthermore this is exactly the case Carson made in Silent Spring, warning that overuse would destroy the effectiveness of insecticides.
This is not to say that the popular reaction against DDT didn't get carried away. As in any debate, the truth is more in the middle than on the margins. And, as with any technology, the trick is to use it judiciously.
Mountaineer and documentary film maker David Breashears has wryly referred to May as Everest Awareness Month. The world's highest peak was first summited by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953. These days, climbers on Everest and across the Himalayas are increasingly aware of rapid climate change in the region and the impact it has on their sport. As Ang Tsering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association tells the BBC:
Climate change has made the weather conditions extremely unpredictable across the mountains. For example, in seasons when we don't normally expect any snowfall, we see heavy snowfalls. And in seasons when we expect heavy snowfalls, we have no snowfalls at all. We are worried.
Such unpredictable conditions can make an already risky venture all the more perilous, as in October 2005 when a massive avalanche on 6,981m-high Mount Ganguru took the lives of 18 expedition members. Ang Tsering Sherpa pointed to unseasonably heavy snowfall as the cause. "Normally we don't have snow in October."
From The Guardian comes a colorful and disturbing map purporting to show where some of the great cities of Europe will be, climate-wise, in 2071. Paris, for instance, will have a climate that today would be somewhere south of Madrid. London heads to Portugal. And so on. Perhaps most dramatic are the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm and Oslo, which find themselves somewhere on the Iberian peninsula. I won't be around to see it -- but some of you might.
Anyone seen something similar for the US? How much worse can New York City get in the summer?
New Scientist magazine -- think Scientific American for Brits -- has tackled 26 common climate myths and misconceptions, carefully debunking and correcting each one. Even those of us who are convinced that current warming is driven primarily by anthropogenic greenhouse gases will gain from reading their "guide for the perplexed," because, let's face it, climate is a complex subject and some of this stuff really is perplexing. As the editors write:
With so much at stake, it is right that climate science is subjected to the most intense scrutiny. What does not help is for the real issues to be muddied by discredited arguments or wild theories.
It smacks of Photoshop tweakery, but the image above is purportedly real and undoctored. The shot was snapped by one Captain Jocke Berglund, who deservedly won a photography award for his effort from the London Natural History Museum. (The entire exhibit is well worth a browse.) The online citation explains:
When Hurricane Gudrun thundered across southern Sweden in January 2005, it left around 100,000 people isolated and without electricity. Deep snow, fallen trees and severe temperatures meant several people died before help could reach them. Flying over Småland photographing the devastation, Jocke—who specializes in aerial photography—saw this 'remarkable oak tree print'. It was formed partly by the storm brush of nature and partly by the impact on the soil of the forestry machines retrieving logs. 'It's as if the heavens had sent a message to the forest industry reminding them that, in this area, deciduous trees would have withstood the winds much better than pine. It's also another stark reminder that global warming will lead to regular and stronger storm winds.'
One reason I took on this job in Chicago is—each year they have a different theme—this year the theme is going to be “Peace and War.” It wasn’t my choice but I can easily live with that. I get to choose next year, and what I want to do is call it “Climate of Concern.” And I want to talk about global warming, but not the science of it and not the politics of it. I want the top people in the country. I want the Philip Roths and the E.L. Doctorows. I want Anne Hamilton. I want people to come and talk about, “Is this happening? Is this for real?” I am convinced that global warming is the thing at the forefront of all of our thinking, constantly. In the mode of, “Don’t think about that.” In the mode of, “Take two steps and then pull away.” Any thought you have about it goes two or three steps and then it stops.
I confess I'm not entirely sure what he's trying to say there, except perhaps that global warming has seeped into the collective consciousness to such an extent that it demands to be talked about in a less technical, more (for lack of a better term) humanistic way. We have warming on the brain, in other words, but it hasn't made it to our lips. And the reason is it's just too big and frightening to put into words. In the mode of, "Is this really the end of the world as we know it?" Weschler again:
This was not the first time we have thought we were living at of the end of the world. But having said that, something is going on.
There are 17,000 of them, give or take, and the majority are just 1 meter above sea level. Environment officials fear sand mining and sea level rise could reduce the total number to more like 15,000 by 2030.
Endangered Species Call Attention to Endangered Species
Since I basically own the 'out-of-place critters' beat, I feel obligated to highlight the appearance of two humpback whales in the Sacramento River, not far from the Port of Sacramento. Not your usual humpback habitat, to say the least, but not unprecedented either; in 1985, a humpback dubbed Humphrey spent a month in the Delta before being lured back out to sea with acoustic signals (whale songs) that were employed by rescuers. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the number of humpbacks along the Pacific Coast at around 1300, with some 30,000 distributed worldwide. They are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
This Friday, by the by, is Endangered Species Day. Coincidence?
Mainstream climatologists who have feared that global warming could have the paradoxical effect of cooling northwestern Europe or even plunging it into a small ice age have stopped worrying about that particular disaster...
That's a relief. Now we can all get back to worrying about incessant heat waves, snowless Alps, and the watery fate of the Netherlands.
Here's a factoid from the site of the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit currently underway in New York, NY: In 2006 the combined population of the world’s eight largest cities — Seoul, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Jakarta, Moscow, Istanbul and Mexico City — was just under 75 million people.
California will begin labeling motor fuels according to their carbon output. While the formula for determining carbon output is not yet public, it will reportedly account for life cycle inputs; so, in the case of biofuels, to take an obvious example, the calculation will factor in the fertilizers and fuel used to grow the feedstock. The development is part of a larger plan in California aimed at cutting carbon from motor fuels by 10 percent as of 2020. Beginning in 2010, by current timetables, producers of low carbon fuels could earn credits which they could sell to companies that don't comply with new carbon caps.
In the past 125 years, the Athabasca Glacier has lost half of its volume and receded more than 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles), leaving hills of rock in its place. Its retreat is visible in this photo, where the glacier’s front edge looms several meters behind the tombstone-like marker that indicates the edge of the ice in 1992. The Athabasca Glacier is not alone in its retreat: Since 1960, glaciers around the world have lost an estimated 8,000 cubic kilometers (1,900 cubic miles) of ice. That is approximately enough ice to cover a two-kilometer-wide (1.2 mile-wide) swath of land between New York and Los Angeles with an ice sheet that is one kilometer (0.62 miles) tall.
I've always been a sucker for this "what the candidates are reading" non-story that seems to be a standard of every election cycle. Part of the fun is knowing that they're probably not really reading what they say (or rather, what their handlers say) they're reading, then wondering why they chose to emphasize that particular title. Is the McCain camp, for example, trying to send a not-so-coded message in naming Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms?" If so, what is it? Two selections that will jump out at Compass readers from the latest poll: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson says he's reading "The administration's energy plan," and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo says he's got his nose buried in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." Interesting. Tancredo, you may remember, was one of the three candidates who, in the first Republican debate, raised their hands when asked whether any of them did not believe in evolution.
The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season has already been downgraded to a mere depression. Andrea was initially classified a subtropical storm; the low pressure system formed outside the tropics but resembles a tropical storm in most other respects. Firefighters hope the storm will bring much-neeeded rain to drought-stricken Florida where 225 wild fires are currently burning in 52 (out of 67) counties. Hurricane season does not officially begin until June 1.
In the May 14 edition of the New Yorker, Michael Specter profiles Sir Richard Branson, the man behind the Virgin empire, tracing the arc of the British billionaire's career from his early days running with the Sex Pistols to his current (thanks to Al Gore) obsession with global warming and the development of biofuels. The piece paints Branson as a likeable-enough, attention-grabbing gambler -- a man with an unusually high tolerance for risk, boatloads of gumption, and more than his share of good luck.
Branson, who is dyslexic and never finished school, operates more by instinct than intellect, and his gut tells him that biofuels are a good bet. As Specter is careful to note, there is plenty in Branson's dream to warrant skepticism. Branson, however, sees only promise. When Specter asks him whether he sees the world through an "unusually optimistic lens," the magnate replies, "I don't know any other way to look at it."
Richard is willing to say, 'This affects my airlines, my trains and my income.' And he knows how to get people to pay attention to him. Of course, the environmental movement contains some of the last true puritans, and those people call him selfish, because he will clearly earn money if this works. But, for God's sake, so what? The man is willing to pull the trigger. I know other people who are just as affluent and they are totally constipated about what to do. Richard is not. he will move from one interesting risky proposition to another. Some will fail--just as some of his businesses have failed. But he keeps moving forward.
Writing in a May 7 "Talk of the Town" piece, New Yorker staffer Elizabeth Kolbert writes about Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to implement "congestion pricing" in the Big Apple. She explains:
The basic idea behind congestion pricing is simple: make motorists pay to use the busiest streets. Under the Mayor’s proposal, an invisible line would be drawn around Manhattan from Eighty-sixth Street south to the Battery. Vehicles crossing this line on weekdays between 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. would be charged a fee—eight dollars for cars, twenty-one dollars for trucks. (Those travelling only within the congestion zone would pay half price, while taxis and livery cabs would be exempt.) The fees would be assessed electronically and could be paid either with a toll pass or over the phone or the Internet.
Not only does congestion pricing free up traffic, it also cuts carbon emissions. Stockholm and London have already embraced the practice, to great acclaim. But, say critics, it isn't fair. As with the much-discussed (and much-dismissed) idea of a gas tax, they argue that it would hurt the poor and middle class, while the rich could blithely continue polluting.
Kolbert counters by arguing that the poor can't afford to drive in Manhattan under current circumstances and that proceeds from the program would buttress public transport, thereby benefiting the lower economic classes; and the net effect of the system would be good for the economy, since nobody's making money stuck in traffic. In the end, of course, the only reason the program works is precisely because it hurts. As Kolbert writes:
Any meaningful effort to address the problem will have to include incentives for low-emitting activities (walking, biking, riding the subway) and costs for high-emitting ones (flying, driving, sitting at home and cranking up the A.C.). These costs will inconvenience some people—perhaps most people—and the burden will not always be distributed with perfect fairness.
Which seems like a good excuse for a poll. What do other folks think?
While aviation currently only accounts for about 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, it is the fastest growing source (expected to roughly double by 2025), and one not accounted for in the Kyoto treaty. Moreover, airplane emissions have a greater warming effect, pound for pound, than do land-based emissions, as they occur at altitude.
Laurie David, the woman who brought Al Gore to a 'theater near you,' is profiled on NPR as part of its Climate Connections series. There's also an excerpt from her 2006 book, Stop Global Warming: The Solution is You. Having quickly scanned it, it seems pretty lightweight, but judge for yourself. Next year, she'll publish another book -- this one aimed at kids and called, "Down to Earth."
David has received her share of criticism, most notably for flying around in a private jet while denouncing SUVs. Media critic Eric Alterman was the writer who first took her to task on this in the Atlantic Monthly. But he tells NPR, "If you judge Laurie on how one citizen holding no office has managed to reach millions of people, then she deserves an enormous amount of credit. After Al Gore, she's probably done more than anyone in America." Much the same dynamic is at play with Gore himself, of course.
So, I'm curious. What do you think? Answer our first-ever Compass poll.
In case you haven't yet, be sure to read the May/June issue of Sierra -- now online and on newsstands. Of special interest is the feature story in which a diverse panel of experts sit down to hammer out "a practical agenda for the next Congress that would stabilize the climate." The panelists include: Duke Energy's Paul Anderson; former Sun Microsystems CEO and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla; climatologist Stephen Schneider; Dan Reicher, director of Google's climate and energy initiative; Bettina Poirier, Senator Barbara Boxer's senior policy advisor on global warming; and Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. You can also see video from the forum here.
Seville, Spain in Andalusia could become the first city in the world to get all its electricity from the sun -- not from photovoltaics, but from a project that concentrates the sun's thermal energy with hundreds of giant mirrors in order to boil water and create steam, which then propels turbines to generate electric current. Already, the otherwordly plant -- a 40-story concrete tower that appears to glow with a kind of heavenly aura due to the illumination of dust and water vapor in the air -- produces 11 megawatts, albeit at three times the cost of conventional power. As it's the first of it's kind, the project developers believe costs will come down as the technology matures. And if nothing else, it looks incredibly cool.
How much will it cost the world to avoid the most drastic effects of climate change? Not so very much, according to the IPCC's latest report. Shave up to three percent off global GDP per year to 2050 and there's a good chance we could stay safely out of the danger zone. As The Economist magazine stresses, mitigation is a bargain, but the real problem is not price. The real problem is politics.
Big news, metal fans! Word on the street is the boys of Spinal Tap -- Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls, and David St. Hubbins -- have reunited to play Wembley for LiveEarth, the "Concert for a Climate in Crisis." In case you haven't heard the dirt on LiveEarth yet, it's gonna be seven shows in seven countries all happening on August July 7th. That's 7x7 on 7/7/07. Get it? Mmmmm, me neither. Anyway, Tap -- the loudest band on Earth -- will reportedly hit the stage with a new song called "Warmer Than Hell." For more on this most excellent development, check out the mini-mockumentary on the MSN Live Earth page.
NPR and National Geographic have teamed up to create Climate Connections, a year-long program focused on Earth's rising temperature. The round-the-world reporting project launched this morning on NPR from Greenwich, England -- zero degrees longitude. The prime meridian. The program promises to offer a good, 'everything you need to know about warming' approach to the subject, starting with a very short dissertation/animation on carbon atoms -- the "duct tape of life."
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