The Future Gets Worse and Worse

So, this happened:

Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.

Basically, just as people have been saying over and over, if we don’t do something about global climate change, it will happen. We have not done something, and things keep getting worse.

Check this out:

from the Washington Post article linked above
from the Washington Post article linked above

Now, knowing US politics, I would put my money on the red line. This is just horribly tragic.

Biofuels Won’t Fix Everything

For many decades, oil was available to meet all of our energy needs. It flowed from the earth; the challenge was to extract and refine it. The supply itself has only recently become a problem, and governments and businesses are scrambling to find a new source of energy that will once again allow us to power all our beloved technology without worries.

There is a problem with this hope, though. It is based on a worldview formed under an illusion. The oil reserves of our planet have functioned like a huge savings account, which we have been drawing from thirstily since we learned how to do so. Now that we are within sight of the end of the savings, we have to realize that another such supply does not exist on our planet.

Biofuels are a recent darling of the misguided hope for endless energy. Burning them for energy produces less pollution than burning fossil fuels. They are renewable, coming as they do from plants. At first blush, biofuels certainly do seem like a solution.

There are, however, problems. This New York Times story, for example, describes the growing trepidations in Europe over biofuels:

There is increasing evidence that the total emissions and environmental damage from producing many “clean” biofuels often outweigh their lower emissions when compared with fossil fuels. More governments are responding to these findings.

The problem, it turns out, is that the plant stock used to make the biofuels must be grown and processed. The land on which it is grown, the methods of planting and harvesting the crop, and the system of processing it into biofuel, are all factors that must be accounted for.

A recent AP article also highlighted these concerns:

But in recent months, scientists, private agencies and even the British government have said biofuels could do more harm than good. Rather than protecting the environment, they say energy crops destroy natural forests that actually store carbon and thus are a key tool in the fight to reduce global warming.

Our ravenous appetite for free energy is the problem, not any particular shortage of fuel sources. For decades we were living off the accumulated energy savings of millions of years. That kind of bounty won’t come again. We need to reorganize our way of thinking about energy, including funding for light rail transport systems, funding for the lowest impact energy sources (solar and wind), and public education about the problems of our current energy lifestyle.

Good News from NASA

I was very happy to see this:

NASA will send a space shuttle and seven astronauts to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope as soon as May 2008, overturning an earlier decision that the complex mission posed too much of a risk.

I firmly believe that one of the most important strengths of the United States is our commitment to science and technology. The Hubble telescope is a tremendous achievement of engineering, one we should be proud of, and one which can produce scientific advances no other device could.

Republicans Promote Gore’s Movie

I was delighted this morning when I read this piece by Sebastian Mallaby at the Washington Post website. I have criticized him in the past, but here he makes a very good point about the relationship between current Republican policies and the growing interest in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth:

Ordinarily this film would never have been made, let alone scheduled for release in hundreds of theaters. But President Bush and the congressional Republicans have created a Ross Perot moment: a hunger for a leader with diagrams and charts, for a nerd who lays out basic facts ignored by blinkered government. By their contempt for expert opinion on everything from Iraqi reconstruction to the cost of their tax cuts, Republicans have turned Diagram Gore into a hero.

Everyone is getting tired of the factual relativism. People are getting tired of GOP delay tactics, like calling for more research, or making ever more bizarre claims about the ulterior motives of Americans who want to protect the environment. We want our government to face reality with creativity and confidence, not dithering and doublespeak.

Mallaby also nails the CEI ads I wrote about earlier:

In other words, the ads are nonsense. So are some of the assertions on the CEI Web site. The group suggests, for example, that polar bears have nothing to fear from the melting of their habitat. But the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment , a top-notch peer-reviewed source on this subject, has something different to say: “the reduction in sea ice is very likely to have devastating consequences for polar bears.”

The piece is full of references to actual scientific resources, and is worth reading in full. The Republicans are going to have to figure out a better way to face the challenges of global climate change than pretending it isn’t real. It’s real. Evidence will only continue to accumulate.

Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth

I have been looking forward to An Inconvenient Truth ever since I heard it was being made. Al Gore’s book, Earth in the Balanceamazon, had a huge impact on me when I first read it during the runup to the 2000 election, and I have always admired his tenacious advocacy for the environment whether it was politically popular or not.

It was heartening, therefore, to see this column from Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, in which Cohen correctly highlights the importance of the film:

I promise, you will be captivated, and then riveted and then scared out of your wits. Our Earth is going to hell in a handbasket.

Those of us who have been paying attention to global warming are already terrified, of course, but for most Americans climate change has never attained the sense of urgency that would allow the necessary societal changes. There are two reasons for this. First, climate change is not simple or instantaneous, so that the many small changes over time don’t seem to be alarming. Second, groups who make money in industries that cause climate change have been busy spreading disinformation so that the climate issues will seem awfully confusing, thus supposedly justifying endless spurious debates as a technique to maintain the status quo.

The film answers these two challenges with a wonderfully American solution: a movie with vivid, horrifying images:

You will see the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps melting. You will see Greenland oozing into the sea. You will see the atmosphere polluted with greenhouse gases that block heat from escaping. You will see photos from space of what the ice caps looked like once and what they look like now and, in animation, you will see how high the oceans might rise. Shanghai and Calcutta swamped. Much of Florida, too. The water takes a hunk of New York. The fuss about what to do with Ground Zero will turn to naught. It will be underwater.

We will see what kind of impact the film has, but I suspect that these images will be enough to impel people who haven’t been sure to make up their minds. Another interesting point that Cohen makes in his piece has to do with science and politics:

But it is the thought that matters — the application of intellect to an intellectual problem. Bush has been studiously anti-science, a man of applied ignorance who has undernourished his mind with the empty calories of comfy dogma. For instance, his insistence on abstinence as the preferred method of birth control would be laughable were it not so reckless. It is similar to Bush’s initial approach to global warming and his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol — ideology trumping science. It may be that Gore will do more good for his country and the world with this movie than Bush ever did by beating him in 2000.

Truly, one of Bush’s most long-lasting legacies will be the damage he has done to science and intellectual pursuits in our nation. I am happy that Gore is out there, speaking about a real problem that faces us all, and encouraging the use of ingenuity, ethics, and responsibility to solve it.

More Bad News on Global Warming

This Washington Post story details the new challenges Inuit people are facing as a result of the warming climate. Hunting methods that have worked for generations are suddenly failing. Animal species the Inuit have never seen are moving north into their territory. The article contains many vivid examples, like this:

“These are things that all of our old oral history has never mentioned,” said Enosik Nashalik, 87, the eldest of male elders in this Inuit village. “We cannot pass on our traditional knowledge, because it is no longer reliable. Before, I could look at cloud patterns, or the wind or even what stars are twinkling, and predict the weather. Now, everything is changed.”

There are many troubling examples. This one is particularly troubling to me:

In this month’s issue of the journal Science, a team of U.S. and Canadian researchers said the Bering Sea was warming so much it was experiencing “a change from arctic to subarctic conditions.” Gray whales are heading north and walruses are starving, adrift on ice floes in water too deep for feeding.

Walruses starving! I can’t bear to think of it.

Global warming has begun. We have got to address this in our national discourse, or the next mammal starving could be us.

Oh, and in case you’re inclined to doubt global warming, let me present this graph (source):

global warming
Notice the trend?

Also, for more on the hilarious White House approach to this problem, see this previous entry about Greenhouse Gas Intensity.

Bush’s War on Science

There is an excellent article in the New Yorker this week, but it is not available online. “Political Science,” by Michael Specter, investigates this administration’s unprecedentedly ideological approach to science. Happily, a Q & A session with the author is available online, and it gives a taste of the article itself:

No Administration is eager to hire people who are virulently opposed to its goals. Yet, in the past, there has usually been a general feeling that scientists are above, or at least on the sidelines of, politics, and that they should be given jobs based purely on their ability to carry them out. That is a little utopian, and, of course, it doesn’t always work that way. But this Administration, more than any in memory, seems very aggressive about making certain that its scientific advisors support its ideas. And, if they don’t, their advice is often ignored.

In the article itself, Specter recounts a conversation he had with Gerald T. Keusch, who “served at the N.I.H. as the director of the Fogarty Center, which concentrates on international health” from 1998-2003. Keusch describes this experience, which he had while trying to fill vacant seats on his board with qualified applicants:

I was told that Torsten [Wiesel] was rejected because he has signed open letters that were critical of the President . . . Geeta [Rao Gupta] was rejected because her organization is not opposed to abortion “which, we should not forget, is legal in the United States. And Jane Menken sat on the board of the Alan Guttmacher Institute . . . That is literally what was said to me. Then I received a bunch of C.V.s in the mail. One of them was from a professor emeritus of economics at an obscure college in California that I had never heard of. His entire publication record consisted of pieces in the Christian Science Monitor and a Catholic monthly that took politically charged positions. That was typical of the calibre: there was nothing scientific, nothing peer-reviewed.

This administration, for various reasons, has problems with facts. Scientists try to discover and describe facts. This conflict leads to the disastrous situation described above. The administration defines competence, not as the ability to perform a job well, but as ideological sympathy with the President. Thus Brownie can do a heckuva job, but eminently qualified scientists are not considered qualified. Disgusting.

Meanwhile, as David Ignatius points out at The Washington Post things here in the real world are deteriorating:

Every week brings new evidence that global climate change is real and that it’s advancing more rapidly than scientists had expected. This past week brought a report in Science that the Antarctic is losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year. Last month researchers reported that glaciers in Greenland are melting twice as fast as previously estimated. One normally cautious scientist, Richard Alley, told The Post’s Juliet Eilperin he was concerned about the Antarctic findings, since just five years ago scientists had been expecting more ice. “That’s a wake-up call,” he said. “We better figure out what’s going on.”

Unfortunately, the real world will continue to operate in a fact-based manner, no matter what Bush wishes were true. Either we embrace science, and let real scientists do their jobs, or we continue on the path of ignorance, which leads to disaster.

If there are any conservatives out there, reading this, I’d like to take a moment and remind you: it’s Conservative Amnesty Month. You have the chance to be forgiven for the past, all it takes is voting Democratic one time.

Global Warming is Here Now

This story from the Washington Post is full of terrible news about Canada’s (soon to be formerly) lush pine forests, which are the foundation for its logging industry. From the story:

Millions of acres of Canada’s lush green forests are turning red in spasms of death. A voracious beetle, whose population has exploded with the warming climate, is killing more trees than wildfires or logging.

. . .

“It’s pretty gut-wrenching,” said Allan Carroll, a research scientist at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria, whose studies tracked a lock step between warmer winters and the spread of the beetle. “People say climate change is something for our kids to worry about. No. It’s now.”

More and more, recently, it has become apparent that the gloomy predictions of the past thirty years are beginning to happen. I blogged here about the acceleration of glacial melting that exceeded even the direst predictions. As the man says, Global Climate Change is here, now. It is occurring, with disastrous results.

The tiny beetle has always lived in high areas from Arizona to northern British Columbia, and occasionally populations have grown in limited outbreaks. In Canada, where the beetle’s favored lodgepole pine thrives, it has been controlled by winters with early cold snaps or long killing spells of 20 degrees below zero. But for more than a decade, forestry experts say, the weather here has not been cold enough for long enough to kill the beetle.

. . .

the beetle is moving eastward. It has breached the natural wall of the Rocky Mountains in places, threatening the tourist treasures of national forest near Banff, Alberta, and is within striking distance of the vast Northern Boreal Forest that reaches to the eastern seaboard.

It goes without saying that this infestation will damage the economy of Canada–logging is one of its mainstay industries. It is also an incalculable loss of habitat and environmental treasures. Tragedy. I sure wish my government were doing more than making up insane jargon to mask its total disregard for this global problem:

the President also is moving forward on our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas intensity. That’s the amount we emit per unit of economic activity, and we’re committed to reducing that by 18 percent over 10 years. So we are acting and leading the way when it comes to research and development, and investing in new technologies. While we work to continue to grow our economies

I get it. The administration cares more about growing our economy. I certainly agree that that is a worthy goal. But I would submit that it is totally bonkers to measure our greenhouse gas emissions in relation to economic productivity. That relationship has no bearing on climate systems whatsoever. It is as if I said “I want to lose weight, so I will try to reduce amount of pizza eaten compared to time spent watching tv. In this way I can watch more tv and be happier.” Idiocy. Here’s a definition of greenhouse gas intensity for you (halfway down). And here’s why such a measure is thoroughly, thoroughly stupid:

“This town is going to die,” scoffed Pat Karey, 62, who spent 40 years at the sawmill. Other men in the Quesnel cafe — “Smokers Welcome” said the sign in the window — nodded in assent.

“A mill job is $20 an hour, or $30 with benefits. The jobs they are talking about bringing in are $8-an-hour jobs,” said Del Boesem, whose runs a business dismantling heavy logging machinery.

Welcome to the future.

Gasoline Tax Poll

I saw an interesting story in the New York Times, about a gasoline tax, and people’s feeling about said tax. There weren’t very many surprises in the facts of the article. For example:

Eighty-five percent of the 1,018 adults polled opposed an increase in the federal gasoline tax, suggesting that politicians have good reason to steer away from so unpopular a measure.

You don’t say. Not a real shocker that people don’t want to spend more money on gas for no reason, is it? Then:

55 percent said they would support an increase in the tax, which has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, if it did in fact reduce dependence on foreign oil. Fifty-nine percent were in favor if the result was less gasoline consumption and less global warming.

My question here is: what else could a tax increase possibly do? Higher tax would decrease consumption, thus lessening our dependence on all oil, regardless of where it came from, thus reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Similarly, since global warming is caused by carbon dioxide, a byproduct of (among other things) fossil fuel combustion, less use of oil would have to decrease human contribution to global warming. There is no other possible result of an increase in the gas tax, unless perhaps it makes people so excited that they drive their hummers all over the place for no reason. Not likely.

There are actually some legitimate questions about how to enact such a tax, like this:

Because increasing the gas tax is regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford it, Mr. Borenstein would offset the bite by lowering income taxes in a way that would “make most middle and lower income people better off.” But they would end up driving less because of the rising cost of gasoline, some economists believe. By Mr. Borenstein’s calculation, a 10 percent increase in the price of gasoline reduces consumption by 6 to 8 percent “over the long run.”

Absolutely, a regressive tax like this needs to be counterbalanced appropriately, and the specifics of any plan should be debated and amended until the outcome is right. That, however, is not an argument against raising the gas tax. The other concern the article describes is also legitimate:

“The tax would have to be earmarked for certain specific projects,” one of the people polled, Rich Arnold, 54, a Republican . . . he added, “If it was a tax that would sponsor research for fuel cells or alternative fuel sources, I could buy that.”

. . .

Lisa Fisher, a 36-year-old yoga instructor in Chicago who described herself as a Democrat, wants any additional revenue earmarked.

“If the tax is increased and oil companies reap the benefit, I would be against it,” Ms. Fisher said. “But if the tax money went to the development of electric cars, I would favor the higher tax. It is important we are not dependent on foreign oil. We are over there fighting because we are dependent.”

This is another question that could be settled by policy debates. I agree that the extra income would have to be judiciously allocated, when it was not being balanced by tax cuts for the bottom 90 percent of the income scale. All of these micro-scale policy question aside, the article basically shows that a majority of Americans support increasing the gas tax provided the laws of physics and economics do not change drastically. So why aren’t we doing it right now?

Write your representative or senator today and ask them!

Beaver Tailed Sort Of Otter

This enjoyable Washington Post article chronicles the discovery of fossils of a previously unknown mammalian species, an aquatic little fellow who “is the oldest known aquatic mammal, predating the river otter by more than 100 million years.”

Cool stuff! Go check out the article, and remember how science, while it does give us medicinal and technological miracles, is also really, really cool.

Unless you believe that these fossils were put there to test our faith in the 10,00 year old earth, or something.