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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Sky Really Is Falling

LOGO: Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines. A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.

The Sky Really Is Falling

Posted on May 30, 2011
AP / Lori Mehmen

Global climate change has made for freak storms and more intense weather. The result is Hurricane Katrina, this month’s devastating tornadoes and floods, and routine forest fires in California. Here, a tornado touches down in Iowa in 2008.

By Chris Hedges

The rapid and terrifying acceleration of global warming, which is disfiguring the ecosystem at a swifter pace than even the gloomiest scientific studies predicted a few years ago, has been confronted by the power elite with two kinds of self-delusion. There are those, many of whom hold elected office, who dismiss the science and empirical evidence as false. There are others who accept the science surrounding global warming but insist that the human species can adapt. Our only salvation—the rapid dismantling of the fossil fuel industry—is ignored by both groups. And we will be led, unless we build popular resistance movements and carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience, toward collective self-annihilation by dimwitted pied pipers and fools.

Those who concede that the planet is warming but insist we can learn to live with it are perhaps more dangerous than the buffoons who decide to shut their eyes. It is horrifying enough that the House of Representatives voted 240-184 this spring to defeat a resolution that said that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” But it is not much of an alternative to trust those who insist we can cope with the effects while continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Horticulturalists are busy planting swamp oaks and sweet gum trees all over Chicago to prepare for weather that will soon resemble that of Baton Rouge. That would be fine if there was a limit to global warming in sight. But without plans to rapidly dismantle the fossil fuel industry, something no one in our corporate state is contemplating, the heat waves of Baton Rouge will be a starting point for a descent that will ultimately make cities like Chicago unlivable. The false promise of human adaptability to global warming is peddled by the polluters’ major front group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which informed the Environmental Protection Agency that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” This bizarre theory of adaptability has been embraced by the Obama administration as it prepares to exploit the natural resources in the Arctic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced recently that melting of sea ice “will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves.” Now that’s something to look forward to.

“It is good that at least those guys are taking it seriously, far more seriously than the federal government is taking it,” said the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben of the efforts in cities such as Chicago to begin to adapt to warmer temperatures. “At least they understand that they have some kind of problem coming at them. But they are working off the science of five or six years ago, which is still kind of the official science that the International Climate Change negotiations are working off of. They haven’t begun to internalize the idea that the science has shifted sharply. We are no longer talking about a long, slow, gradual, linear warming, but something that is coming much more quickly and violently. Seven or eight years ago it made sense to talk about putting permeable concrete on the streets. Now what we are coming to realize is that the most important adaptation we can do is to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere. If we don’t, we are going to produce temperature rises so high that there is no adapting to them.”

The Earth has already begun to react to our hubris. Freak weather unleashed deadly tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It has triggered wildfires that have engulfed large tracts in California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. It has brought severe droughts to the Southwest, parts of China and the Amazon. It has caused massive flooding along the Mississippi as well as in Australia, New Zealand, China and Pakistan. It is killing off the fish stocks in the oceans and obliterating the polar ice caps. Steadily rising sea levels will eventually submerge coastal cities, islands and some countries. These disturbing weather patterns presage a world where it will be harder and harder to sustain human life. Massive human migrations, which have already begun, will create chaos and violence. India is building a 4,000-kilometer fence along its border with Bangladesh to, in part, hold back the refugees who will flee if Bangladesh is submerged. There are mounting food shortages and sharp price increases in basic staples such as wheat as weather patterns disrupt crop production. The failed grain harvests in Russia, China and Australia, along with the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, have, as McKibben points out, been exacerbated by the inability of Midwestern farmers to plant corn in water-logged fields. These portents of an angry Gaia are nothing compared to what will follow if we do not swiftly act.

“We are going to have to adapt a good deal,” said McKibben, with whom I spoke by phone from his home in Vermont. “It is going to be a century that calls for being resilient and durable. Most of that adaptation is going to take the form of economies getting smaller and lower to the ground, local food, local energy, things like that. But that alone won’t do it, because the scale of change we are now talking about is so great that no one can adapt to it. Temperatures have gone up one degree so far and that has been enough to melt the Arctic. If we let it go up three or four degrees, the rule of thumb the agronomists go by is every degree Celsius of temperature rise represents about a 10 percent reduction in grain yields. If we let it go up three or four degrees we are really not talking about a planet that can support a civilization anything like the one we’ve got.

“I have sympathy for those who are trying hard to figure out how to adapt, but they are behind the curve of the science by a good deal,” he said. “I have less sympathy for the companies that are brainwashing everyone along the line ‘We’re taking small steps here and there to improve.’ The problem, at this point, is not going to be dealt with by small steps. It is going to be dealt with by getting off fossil fuel in the next 10 or 20 years or not at all.

“The most appropriate thing going on in Chicago right now is that Greenpeace occupied [on Thursday] the coal-fired power plant in Chicago,” he said. “That’s been helpful. It reminded people what the real answers are. We’re going to see more civil disobedience. I hope we are. I am planning hard for some stuff this summer.

“The task that we are about is essentially political and symbolic,” McKibben admitted. “There is no actual way to shut down the fossil fuel system with our bodies. It is simply too big. It’s far too integrated in everything we do. The actions have to be symbolic, and the most important part of that symbolism is to make it clear to the onlookers that those of us doing this kind of thing are not radical in any way. We are conservatives. The real radicals in this scenario are people who are willing to fundamentally alter the composition of the atmosphere. I can’t think of a more radical thing that any human has ever thought of doing. If it wasn’t happening it would be like the plot from a Bond movie.

“The only way around this is to defeat the system, and the name of that system is the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable industry in the world by a large margin,” McKibben said. “Fighting it is extraordinarily difficult. Maybe you can’t do it. The only way to do it is to build a movement big enough to make a difference. And that is what we are trying desperately to do with 350.org. It is something we should have done 20 years ago, instead of figuring that we were going to fight climate change by convincing political elites that they should do something about this problem. It is a tactic that has not worked.

“One of our big targets this year is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the biggest front group for fossil fuel there is,” he said. “We are figuring out how to take them on. I don’t think they are worried about us yet. And maybe they are right not to be, because they’ve got so much money they’re invulnerable.

“There are huge decisive battles coming,” he said. “This year the Obama administration has to decide whether it will grant a permit or not for this giant pipeline to run from the tar sands of Alberta down to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That is like a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet. We have to figure out how to keep that from happening. The Obama administration, very sadly, a couple of months ago opened 750 million tons of western coal under federal land for mining. That was a disgrace. But they still have to figure out how to get it to port so they can ship it to China, which is where the market for it is. We are trying hard to keep that from happening. I’m on my way to Bellingham, Wash., next week because there is a plan for a deep-water port in Bellingham that would allow these giant freighters to show up and collect that coal.

“In moral terms, it’s all our personal responsibility and we should be doing those things,” McKibben said when I asked him about changing our own lifestyles to conserve energy. “But don’t confuse that with having much of an impact on the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. You can’t make the math work one house or one campus at a time. We should do those things. I’ve got a little plaque for having built the most energy-efficient house in Vermont the year we built it. I’ve got solar panels everywhere. But I don’t confuse myself into thinking that that’s actually doing very much. This argument is a political argument. I spend much of my life on airplanes spewing carbon behind me as we try to build a global movement. Either we are going to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and put a price on carbon or the planet is going to heat past the point where we can deal with it.

“It goes far beyond party affiliation or ideology,” he said. “Fossil fuel undergirds every ideology we have. Breaking with it is going to be a traumatic and difficult task. The natural world is going to continue to provide us, unfortunately, with many reminders about why we have to do that. Sooner or later, we will wise up. The question is all about that sooner or later.

“I’d like people to go to climatedirectaction.org and sign up,” McKibben said. “We are going to be issuing calls for people to be involved in civil disobedience. I’d like people to join in this campaign against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s very easy to sign up. If you don’t own a little business yourself, you probably shop at 10 or 20 of them a week. It’s very easy to sign those guys up to say the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me. We can’t take away their [the Chamber’s] money, but we can take away some of their respectability. I would like people to demonstrate their solidarity with people all around the world in this fight. The next big chance to do that will be Sept. 24, a huge global day of action that we’re calling ‘Moving Planet.’ It will be largely bicycle based, because the bicycle is one of the few tools that both rich and poor use and because it is part of the solution we need. On that day we will be delivering demands via bicycle to every capital and statehouse around the world.

“I wish there was some easy ‘end around,’ some backdoor through which we could go to get done what needs to be done,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen. That became clear at Copenhagen and last summer when the U.S. Senate refused to take a vote on the most mild, tepid climate legislation there could have been. We are going to have to build a movement that pushes the fossil fuel industry aside. I don’t know whether that’s possible. If you were to bet, you might well bet we will lose. We have been losing for two decades. But you are not allowed to make that bet. The only moral action, when the worst thing that ever happened in the world is happening, is to try and figure out how to change those odds.

“At least they knew they were going to win,” McKibben said of the civil rights movement. “They didn’t know when, but they knew they were going to win, that the tide of history was on their side. But the arch of the physical universe appears to be short and appears to bend towards heat. We’ve got to win quickly if we’re going to win. We’ve already passed the point where we’re going to stop global warming. It has already warmed a degree and there is another degree in the pipeline from carbon already emitted. The heat gets held in the ocean for a while, but it’s already there. We’ve already guaranteed ourselves a miserable century. The question is whether it’s going to be an impossible one.”

Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”

Worst Ever Carbon Emissions Leave Climate on the Brink


Exclusive: Record rise, despite recession, means 2C target almost out of reach

by Fiona Harvey

Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.

Economic recession has failed to curb rising emissions, undermining hope of keeping global warming to safe levels. (Photograph: Dave Reede/All Canada Photos/Corbis) The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" – is likely to be just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.

"I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions," Birol told the Guardian. "It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say."

Professor Lord Stern of the London School of Economics, the author of the influential Stern Report into the economics of climate change for the Treasury in 2006, warned that if the pattern continued, the results would be dire. "These figures indicate that [emissions] are now close to being back on a 'business as usual' path. According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's] projections, such a path ... would mean around a 50% chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than 4C by 2100," he said.

"Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce."

Birol said disaster could yet be averted, if governments heed the warning. "If we have bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding," he said.

The IEA has calculated that if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, annual energy-related emissions should be no more than 32Gt by 2020. If this year's emissions rise by as much as they did in 2010, that limit will be exceeded nine years ahead of schedule, making it all but impossible to hold warming to a manageable degree.

Emissions from energy fell slightly between 2008 and 2009, from 29.3Gt to 29Gt, due to the financial crisis. A small rise was predicted for 2010 as economies recovered, but the scale of the increase has shocked the IEA. "I was expecting a rebound, but not such a strong one," said Birol, who is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost experts on emissions.

John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said time was running out. "This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world's last remaining reserves of fossil fuels – even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don't put out a fire with gasoline. It will now be up to us to stop them."

Most of the rise – about three-quarters – has come from developing countries, as rapidly emerging economies have weathered the financial crisis and the recession that has gripped most of the developed world.

But he added that, while the emissions data was bad enough news, there were other factors that made it even less likely that the world would meet its greenhouse gas targets.

• About 80% of the power stations likely to be in use in 2020 are either already built or under construction, the IEA found. Most of these are fossil fuel power stations unlikely to be taken out of service early, so they will continue to pour out carbon – possibly into the mid-century. The emissions from these stations amount to about 11.2Gt, out of a total of 13.7Gt from the electricity sector. These "locked-in" emissions mean savings must be found elsewhere.

"It means the room for manoeuvre is shrinking," warned Birol.

• Another factor that suggests emissions will continue their climb is the crisis in the nuclear power industry. Following the tsunami damage at Fukushima, Japan and Germany have called a halt to their reactor programmes, and other countries are reconsidering nuclear power.

"People may not like nuclear, but it is one of the major technologies for generating electricity without carbon dioxide," said Birol. The gap left by scaling back the world's nuclear ambitions is unlikely to be filled entirely by renewable energy, meaning an increased reliance on fossil fuels.

• Added to that, the United Nations-led negotiations on a new global treaty on climate change have stalled. "The significance of climate change in international policy debates is much less pronounced than it was a few years ago," said Birol.

He urged governments to take action urgently. "This should be a wake-up call. A chance [of staying below 2 degrees] would be if we had a legally binding international agreement or major moves on clean energy technologies, energy efficiency and other technologies."

Governments are to meet next week in Bonn for the next round of the UN talks, but little progress is expected.

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said the global emissions figures showed that the link between rising GDP and rising emissions had not been broken. "The only people who will be surprised by this are people who have not been reading the situation properly," he said.

Forthcoming research led by Sir David will show the west has only managed to reduce emissions by relying on imports from countries such as China.

Another telling message from the IEA's estimates is the relatively small effect that the recession – the worst since the 1930s – had on emissions. Initially, the agency had hoped the resulting reduction in emissions could be maintained, helping to give the world a "breathing space" and set countries on a low-carbon path. The new estimates suggest that opportunity may have been missed.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ocean Acidification Is Latest Manifestation of Global Warming


Published on Sunday, May 29, 2011 by The Observer/UK

Carbon dioxide pollution adds to threat to world's oceans and marine species

by Robin McKie, science editor

The infernal origins of Vulcano Island are easy to pinpoint. Step off the hydrofoil from Sicily and the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide strikes you immediately. Beside the quay, there are piles of yellow sulphurous rocks and chunks of pumice; the beach is made of thick, black volcanic sand; while the huge caldera that dominates the bay emits a constant stream of smoke and steam.

By the middle of the century there will probably be only a few pockets of coral left, in the North Sea and the Pacific. Millions of species of marine life will be wiped out. (Photo: Vladimir Levantovsky/Alamy) According to legend, this was the lair of the Roman god of fire, Vulcan, who gave his name to the island and subsequently to all other volcanoes. An early eruption here also provided history with one of the first recorded descriptions of a volcano in action.

But Vulcano's importance today has nothing to do with the rock and lava it has spewed out for millennia. It is the volcano's output of invisible carbon dioxide – about 10 tonnes a day – that now interests scientists. They have found that the gas is bubbling through underground vents and is making the island's coastal waters more and more acidic. The consequences for sea life are grim with dozens of species having been eliminated.

That discovery is highly revealing, and worrying, because Vulcano's afflictions are being repeated today on a global scale, in every ocean on the planet – not from volcanic sources but from the industrial plants, power stations, cars and planes that are pumping out growing amounts of carbon dioxide and which are making our seas increasingly acidic. Millions of marine species are now threatened with extinction; fisheries face eradication; while reefs that protect coastal areas are starting to erode.

Ocean acidification is now one of the most worrying threats to the planet, say marine biologists. "Just as Vulcano is pumping carbon dioxide into the waters around it, humanity is pouring more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," Dr Jason Hall-Spencer, a marine biologist at Plymouth University, told a conference on the island last week.

"Some of the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide we emit each year lingers in the atmosphere and causes it to heat up, driving global warming. But about 30% of that gas is absorbed by the oceans where it turns to carbonic acid. It is beginning to kill off coral reefs and shellfish beds and threaten stocks of fish. Very little can live in water that gets too acidic."

Hence science's renewed interest in Vulcano. Its carbon dioxide springs – which bubble up like burst water mains below the shallow seabed – provide researchers with a natural laboratory for testing the global impact of ocean acidification. "These vents and the carbonic acid they generate tell us a great deal about how carbon dioxide is going to affect the oceans and marine life this century," said Hall-Spencer. "And we should be worried. This problem is a train coming straight at us."

Scientists estimate that oceans absorb around a million tonnes of carbon dioxide every hour and our seas are 30% more acidic than they were last century. This increased acidity plays havoc with levels of calcium carbonate, which forms the shells and skeletons of many sea creatures, and also disrupts reproductive activity.

Among the warning signs recently noted have been the failures of commercial oyster and other shellfish beds on the Pacific coasts of the US and Canada. In addition, coral reefs – already bleached by rising global temperatures – have suffered calamitous disintegration in many regions. And at the poles and high latitudes, where the impact of ocean acidification is particularly serious, tiny shellfish called pteropods – the basic foodstuff of fish, whales and seabirds in those regions – have suffered noticeable drops in numbers. In each case, ocean acidification is thought to be involved.

The problem was recently highlighted by the head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr Jane Lubchenco. She described ocean acidification as global warming's "equally evil twin". It is a powerful comparison, though it is clear that of the two, the crisis facing our seas has received far less attention. The last UN climate assessment report was more than 400 pages long but had only two pages on ocean acidification – mainly because studies of the phenomenon are less well advanced than meteorological and atmospheric research in general.

The workshop, held last week on Vulcano, is part of the campaign to understand the likely impact of ocean acidification. Dozens of young oceanographers, geologists and ecologists gathered for the meeting run by the Mediterranean Sea Acidification (MedSeA) programme. Dr Maoz Fine, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, reported work on coral reef organisms that had been exposed to waters of different levels of acidity, temperature and light in his laboratory.

"We found that species of coral reef respond differently to rising carbon dioxide levels," he said. "Bigger corals suffer but survive while smaller, branching varieties become less able to fight disease and die off. That sort of thing just makes it even more difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen to our oceans."

Few scientists doubt that the impact on reefs will be anything short of devastating, however. The Caribbean has already lost about 80% of its coral reefs to bleaching caused by rising temperatures and by overfishing which removes species that normally aid coral growth. Acidification threatens to do the same for the rest of the world's coral reefs.

"By the middle of the century there will probably be only a few pockets – in the North Sea and the Pacific. Millions of species of fish, shellfish and micro-organisms will be wiped out," said Fine.

Acidification has affected the oceans in the past. However, these prehistoric events occurred at a far slower rate, said Dr Jerry Blackford of Plymouth Marine Laboratory. "The waters of the world take around 500 years to circulate the globe," he said. "If carbon dioxide was rising slowly, in terms of thousands of years, natural factors could then compensate. Sediments could buffer the carbonic acid, for example."

But levels of carbon dioxide are rising much faster today. By the end of the century, surface seawater will be 150% more acidic than it was in 1800. "There is simply not enough time for buffering to come into effect and lessen the impact," said Blackford. "The result will be significant acid build-up in the upper parts of the oceans which, of course, are the parts that are of greatest importance to humans."

A vision of the seas we are now creating can be seen at Vulcano. On the eastern side of its main bay, beyond an open-air thermal spa filled with elderly bathers wallowing in volcanically heated mud, there is a long stretch of black sand.

Just offshore, in about four feet of water, silver beads of carbon dioxide stream up from stones that lie over an underground vent. The water, although cold, looks like a huge, frothing Jacuzzi. Water here is highly acidic and there is no marine life around the vent – not even seaweed.

"The acidity here is far greater than even the worst ocean scenario for 2100, so we have to be careful about making comparisons," said Dr Marco Milazzo, of Palermo University. "However, currents carry that acid water round the bay and it becomes more and more dilute. We can then study waters which reflect the kind of acidity we are likely to get at the end of the century."

Milazzo and his colleagues have placed open boxes containing coral and other forms of marine life in the waters round the bay and monitor the effects of the different levels of acidity in the sea water on these samples and also on the bay's natural marine life. "When I look one way, out to sea, where there is little acidity, the plant life is rich in reds, whites, greens and other colours. There is abundance and variety in the habitat," said Milazzo.

"However, when I look the other way – back towards the carbon dioxide vent – that habitat gets less and less varied as the water gets more acidic. It is reduced to a dark brown bloom of macro-algae. There is no richness or variety here. In effect I am looking at the oceans of tomorrow. It is profoundly depressing."


Acidity is measured by its pH (power of hydrogen) value. Fresh water has a pH reading of 7. Readings below that are considered to be acidic. Those above 7 are alkaline. Surface sea water had a reading of 8.2 a century ago. Today it has dropped to 8.1 because so much carbon dioxide has been absorbed by the world's oceans. That may seem a small amount but the pH scale is logarithmic which means that 0.1 difference actually represents an increase in acidity of 30%. By the end of the century, the pH of surface sea water could have dropped to 7.8, which represents a decrease in alkalinity – or an increase in acidity, depending on your viewpoint – of around 150%.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Killer Tornadoes: How Devastating Extreme Weather Is Linked to Human-Caused Climate Change


News audiences are seeing an increasing number of "severe weather" warnings on TV, but little connection has been made to the role humans have played in driving climate change.
NASA's Terra satellite images show an epic winter storm that buried more than a third of the United States in drifting snow, sleet and ice.
Photo Credit: AFP
2011 has already become the deadliest year for tornado outbreaks in the United States since 1953, with more than 500 people killed. Extreme weather has made headlines across the world, as well, with megafloods occurring in Colombia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Australia, even as the Amazon just faced its second hundred-year drought in the past five years. News audiences are seeing the warning "severe weather" increasingly flash across TV screens, but little connection has been made to the role humans have played in driving climate change. We speak with environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots climate campaign, 350.org. "We’re making the earth a more dynamic and violent place," McKibben says. "That’s, in essence, what global warming is about."

JUAN GONZALEZ: Extreme weather across the United States has been dominating the news for weeks, from tornadoes to floods to drought. This is just a sampling of some recent news reports.

PETER MANSBRIDGE, CBC: Now more than 1,500 people are still unaccounted for following Sunday evening’s tornado in Joplin, Missouri. The storm killed at least 122. Both huge numbers, given how many people live there.

CBS REPORTER: The massive tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, Sunday, flattening entire neighborhoods and claiming an untold number of lives. Eleven bodies were pulled from just one location alone. The storm was so powerful, it reportedly ripped the bark from trees as wind speeds approached 150 miles per hour.

REPORTER: The latest information I have from Oklahoma City is that there are now two confirmed dead in the state of Oklahoma tonight, 122 confirmed dead in Joplin, Missouri, from the storm that hit there Saturday, 1,500 missing, according to a fire captain in Joplin. And the tornadoes are said to be still breaking out tonight. ....

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is how environmentalist Bill McKibben begins his piece in the Washington Post this week. "Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

"It is [far] better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas—fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been—the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected."

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of Bill McKibben, as he begins his Washington Post piece this week. Bill McKibben is founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and author of many books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Bill is joining us from Long Island, New York, though he is a Vermonter.

Bill, your state is making history today, about to pass single-payer healthcare, and you’ve been doing that quite a while on the issue of the environment, as you travel the world to bring attention to two words that we don’t see screaming across our TV screens. We see "severe weather." We see "extreme weather." We see the horrible scenes of destruction. But we don’t see the words "climate change." Talk about these connections.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Look, what’s happening is we’re making the earth a more dynamic and violent place. That’s, in essence, what global warming is about. We’re trapping more of the sun’s energy in this narrow envelope of atmosphere, and that’s now expressing itself in many way. We don’t know for sure that any particular tornado comes from climate change. There have always been tornadoes. We do know that we’re seeing epic levels of thunderstorm activity, of flooding, of drought, of all the things that climatologists have been warning us about.

And of course they’re not confined just to our continent. You know, even in the last week, the Chinese have pointed out that they’re suffering through the worst drought in the center of the country that they have on record. In Colombia, the president went on TV last week to say, "We’ve gotten so much rain in the last year, it’s washed away so much of our infrastructure that it’s as if we haven’t been doing any development work for the last 10 or 20 or 25 years."

The scale of this stuff is immense. And as long as we just think about it as just a series of one-off, isolated disasters, we probably are not asking ourselves the most important questions. What can we do to stop this destabilization before it gets much worse?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill, you’ve also—you also mention in your article what’s happened in the past year in Pakistan and Australia and other parts of the world. Could you talk about that, as well?

BILL McKIBBEN: Flooding is probably, Juan, the biggest example of what we’re doing. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. On average, the earth’s atmosphere is about four percent wetter than it was 30 years ago, which is an astonishingly large change in a basic physical parameter. What it does is load the dice for downpour and deluge and flooding, and one country after another has been crapping out in the last year, throwing snake eyes.

I mean, you saw the pictures from Queensland in Australia, because Queensland in Australia has a lot of white people and TV cameras. You didn’t see similar pictures from Sri Lanka, from Vietnam, from the Philippines, from Brazil northeast of Rio, where they’ve had similar kinds of megafloods, now Colombia. There were some pictures from Pakistan, because it was such an epic event. There were, last year, last summer, about a quarter of that country under water. The Red Cross said in February that there were still four million homeless people from those floods in Pakistan. Of all the big things that have happened in Pakistan in the last year, the biggest one, by far, was that epic, biblical flood that came pouring down the Indus.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, in your piece, you go on to talk about, well, the connections you shouldn’t make. And you say, "Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year drought in the past five years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the past decade—well, you might have to ask other questions. Such as: Should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal mining?" And you go on with a series of questions. First, talk about the Amazon. This is always what is linked, raised, on those who are questioning climate change. You’re talking about a drought in the Amazon, and you’re talking about these massive floods. "Obviously there is no connection," they say. But talk about government policy under President Obama.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. First of all, just two connections. The atmosphere gets moister. That means that in some areas there’s more evaporation, and hence more drought. And in other areas, that stuff is coming down.

Now, to President Obama, look, the guy has done a better job on climate change than George Bush. That’s not an enormous claim to make, but, you know, happily, he’s doing something. He’s also doing a lot of things that are very, very damaging. He has opened this vast swath of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to coal mining. The early estimate is there’s enough coal there to be at the equivalent of having 3,000 coal-fired power plants running for a year. His administration is currently considering allowing a permit for a huge pipeline across the center of the country that will run from Canada from the tar sands in Alberta down to refineries in Texas. That’s the equivalent of lighting a fuse on the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.

So, we need the President and the rest of his administration to focus a lot harder on climate change. It’s nice that they’ve talked about green jobs, and so on and so forth, but we need them to understand that global warming right now is the most difficult problem that we face, and we can’t do anything that will make it worse. The Congress, at the moment, is clearly preventing us from doing much that will make it better, but we’ve got to do everything we can to engage that battle. That’s what we’re doing at 350.org now, and with some increasing success, I’m happy to say. The movement itself, at least, is building. It’s not big enough yet to defeat the fossil fuel industry, but we’re getting larger.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bill, you mentioned Congress, and yet this spring the House of Representatives voted by a 50-vote majority against a resolution that says climate change poses a significant risk to human health. Where are our political leaders?

BILL McKIBBEN: They were more—I mean, they voted by that 50 votes to basically say that climate change wasn’t real. I mean, we’re entering one of those moments. You know, it’s like Lysenko in the old Soviet Union or something, when there are too many people willing to believe that their ideology can trump physics and chemistry. That is a painful delusion to be laboring under. It’s one that we won’t labor under for very long, but these are crucial years, and we really, really have to engage this battle. By that, I mean since we’re never going to outspend the fossil fuel industry—and that’s what owns Congress—we’re going to have to figure out some other currency to work in. It’s not going to be money. It’s going to be bodies and creativity and spirit.

So, at 350.org, we’re in the midst of planning for this next huge global day of action. It’ll be September 24th, and it’ll be mostly on the backs of bicycles all over the world. We’re calling it "Moving Planet." We’re in the middle of this big fight against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the number one front group for the fossil fuel industry. And we’re getting thousands upon thousands of small businesses across America to simply say, "The U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me," because they’re being—they’re the reason that Congress is being as willful and blind as they are. We’ve got to engage these big forces, and we’ve got to do it very dynamically, because the time, as this chain of freak weather events makes clear, is running out.

And it’s making it clear, by the way, not just to scientists and not just to activists. The head of one of the country’s biggest insurance companies was quoted just a week or so ago as saying, "Look, it’s very clear to us that the level of thunderstorm activity across the country is off the charts. We’re going to have to be raising our premiums, and there’s going to be lots of places where we’re not going to be able to underwrite anymore, simply because the earth is changing so fast."

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, 350.org, the significance of the name of your group?

BILL McKIBBEN: Three-fifty is the—good question, Amy. Three-fifty is the most important number in the world. The NASA scientists told us three years ago that any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million was not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted. That is strong language. It’s stronger still when you know that everywhere, outside your studios, up on top of Mount Everest, in the Antarctic, right now we’re at about 390 parts per million CO2 and gaining fast. That’s why this is not some future problem. It is the most pressing present crisis that we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, I want to thank you for being with us, founder of 350.org. His new piece, "A Link between Climate Change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!" appears in the Washington Post, and we will link to it.

Also, just this small point, though it’s a big point for us, is that Democracy Now! broadcasts from the greenest internet/TV/radio studios in the country. We have gotten LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. It’s the highest level of green building that can be done in this country.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Link Between Climate Change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!


Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been — the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected.

If you did wonder, you see, you would also have to wonder about whether this year’s record snowfalls and rainfalls across the Midwest — resulting in record flooding along the Mississippi — could somehow be related. And then you might find your thoughts wandering to, oh, global warming, and to the fact that climatologists have been predicting for years that as we flood the atmosphere with carbon we will also start both drying and flooding the planet, since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air.

It’s far smarter to repeat to yourself the comforting mantra that no single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change. There have been tornadoes before, and floods — that’s the important thing. Just be careful to make sure you don’t let yourself wonder why all these record-breaking events are happening in such proximity — that is, why there have been unprecedented megafloods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in the past year. Why it’s just now that the Arctic has melted for the first time in thousands of years. No, better to focus on the immediate casualties, watch the videotape from the store cameras as the shelves are blown over. Look at the news anchorman standing in his waders in the rising river as the water approaches his chest.

Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year drought in the past five years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the past decade — well, you might have to ask other questions. Such as: Should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal mining? Should Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sign a permit this summer allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta? You might also have to ask yourself: Do we have a bigger problem than $4-a-gallon gasoline?

Better to join with the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted 240 to 184 this spring to defeat a resolution saying simply that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Propose your own physics; ignore physics altogether. Just don’t start asking yourself whether there might be some relation among last year’s failed grain harvest from the Russian heat wave, and Queensland’s failed grain harvest from its record flood, and France’s and Germany’s current drought-related crop failures, and the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, and the inability of Midwestern farmers to get corn planted in their sodden fields. Surely the record food prices are just freak outliers, not signs of anything systemic.

It’s very important to stay calm. If you got upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies. If worst ever did come to worst, it’s reassuring to remember what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent filing: that there’s no need to worry because “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” I’m pretty sure that’s what residents are telling themselves in Joplin today.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, co-founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joplin Meets Global Warming

May 23, 2011 at 10:39:00

No Global Warming in Joplin

Or Tuscaloosa for that matter.

By Dante DeNavarre (about the author)

Joplin tornado by By Afredoilde

Strongholds of conservative scorn for global warming are just beginning to pay the huge price for their folly, born from utter ignorance of the exquisite equilibrium nature achieves in the magnificent chaos system of climate, and a complete misunderstanding of how finely tuned that precious equilibrium is. When the titanic forces of sunlight and planetary rotation interact with the colossal masses of air and water enveloping our world, a chaotic system on an immense scale is born, and the great miracle is that any order or regularity emerges at all, that there can be a precarious balance of these untamable forces, and just how delicate that balance is.

What many people don't realize is that when the average worldwide temperature is forced to rise just one degree, the finely tuned equilibrium of worldwide weather is disrupted and thrown back into its natural base state, chaos. To achieve that one modest degree of change, climate everywhere undergoes extreme change and extreme variation as the balanced patterns of circulation plunge into disorder in the necessary process of finding a new equilibrium, which takes years, even if that one degree is all the heating that has to be digested, which sadly, is only the beginning. There will be unexpected changes to all norms - draught in wet climates, floods in dry ones; freezes in warm places, heat waves in cool ones. This is exactly what happens when climate changes. It is not smooth and steady in the least. The deniers laughed when we had one of the coldest, snowiest winters last season, not realizing that too is an effect of the imbalance and a warning of things to come, just as increasingly violent hurricanes and tornadoes are. Changing the PC term to Climate Change reflects this slow-to-dawn understanding, but make no mistake, it's still global warming that drives it.

Unable to accept that unlimited willful destruction of nature by humans could possibly affect God's sacrosanct domain (which is everything too big and complex to understand), they are left to blame God for their misery, or resort to even deeper conspiracy theories about how the elite are controlling the weather to trick us into believing global warming is real to bring about the New World Order so they can enslave us all with windmills and solar panels. They know how powerful those sneaky environmentalists are. They fail to see that we are already enslaved by a very real out-in-the-open conspiracy by Big Oil and Big Banks and Big Military to drill, baby, drill and fight, baby, fight endless war until the oceans are dead and the fires are out of control and we're buried in mudslides and avalanches and the storms blow it all away. The controlled demolition of the WTC was a real conspiracy to keep us on that track and create the surveillance police state. Those same interests are screaming conspiracy about global warming because gee, that threatens the fossil fuel profit free-for-all. People make conspiracies, nature doesn't. Nature just is, and nature Responds.

I don't wish these weather tragedies on anyone; the ignorant and the innocent and the aware all suffer alike. The irony of where these last events happened is just a trigger that underscores the folly of denial. We all got it coming, kid.