Tag Archives: global warming

Climate Change Is Hot Topic at Last

All it took was a $50 billion “super storm” and hundreds of blog posts, articles, and columns–and, let’s face it, a presidential election with the right outcome. Already on November 7, calls for Obama to put climate change high up on his agenda abounded. One that struck me: In a letter to the New York Times editor  Peter Kalmus of Altadena, CA, called for the President to make climate change his legacy: “A Green New Deal would be America’s ticket to jobs, security, economic recovery and renewing our position of global leadership. . . . Here’s hoping that Mr. Obama finally finds the courage to stand firm against the oil and coal barons and lead us, our children and future generations away from the brink of climate disaster.”

What an excellent idea: a new New Deal for the environment, with climate change as the focus. I planned to post links to many other calls for the President to make slowing global warming a priority,  by celebrities, columnists, and politicians, even some conservative ones, But Grist beat me to it by listing and quoting the highlights of the most important bandwagon-riders in a post by Lisa Hymas on November 12 titled “Climate should be Obama’s No. 1 priority, say lots of people who aren’t tree-hugging enviros.” Those quoted and/or cited include The New Yorker‘s editor, David Remnick; Republican and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman; former Obama official Cass Sunstein; and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Hymas ends by asking, “Might climate change break out of the environmental ghetto for good this time?” We can help to keep it front and center.

A positive sign is that even conservatives are discussing the idea of a tax on carbon. See the AP story entitled “Global Warming Talk Heats Up, Revisits Carbon Tax,” which includes this news: “On Tuesday, a conservative think tank held discussions about it while a more liberal think tank released a paper on it. And the Congressional Budget Office issued a 19-page report on the different ways to make a carbon tax less burdensome on lower income people.” Stay tuned. And do what you can to keep the pressure on Obama–insist that he reject the Keystone Pipeline for starters.

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Earth on the brink

It has taken me awhile to figure out how to call attention to some really scary climate news while keeping to my goal of publishing posts that are 50 percent positive. Some news, such as the record high temperatures across the US this spring, I can balance with a good-news story: the US has cut its carbon emissions significantly and is on track to hit President Obama’s commitment to reduce global warming pollution between 2005 and 2020 by 17 percent. But in the case of the June 6 paper published in Nature warning that Earth may be fast approaching a tipping-point, a shift to a much-less-hospitable ecosystem, it takes work to be optimistic. And so I follow the lead author of the study in viewing the warning itself as good news. As Anthony Barnosky, a paleoecologist, told an interviewer from Wired, “There have been big, planetary shifts before.” The difference is, we know that one is imminent. Unlike us, “the dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming.”

The study, in which 22 scientists warn of impending and irrevocable major changes in the biosphere, is behind a paywall, but summaries abound in blogs. I recommend starting with David Roberts’ post on Grist or the Wired write-up, or one of the few front-page news stories, in the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because Barnosky is from nearby UC Berkeley). Most accounts refer to a tipping point for Earth, but the paper itself uses the term “status shift”–an irreversible transition of an ecological system from one state to another. Many such transitions are localized, but there have been global ones, such as the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago. It’s not just the warming of the planet that is leading to a status shift, say the scientists; it’s the explosion of population, which means ever-more resources for the extra billions to consume. More people means habitat destruction, the disappearance of plant and animal species, over-exploitation of energy resources, and more carbon emissions, producing more warming.

Here’s a video of lead author Anthony Barnosky, of UC Berkeley, on the findings:

James H. Brown, a macroecologist who is one of the authors, is quoted in the Times‘s Green blog as saying,  “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.” How we can gently deflate the bubble is what the commentators explore in the posts. Common to all the scenarios for avoiding the brink are the need to dramatically slow population growth,  get off fossil fuels and onto alternative forms of energy, develop more efficient food production, and practice better ecosystem management.

The analysis includes reaction from climate scientists with different perspectives, such as those who would greatly expand the time frame of these changes (the paper warns that they may occur within a few generations),  To keep away from what would tip this blog toward doom and gloom I seized on the judgment of those who say this shift is neither imminent nor inevitable, which echoes Barnosky’s belief expressed in the video and in interviews that humanity can pull together and avoid the doomsday scenario. In an interview with the Green blog’s Justin Gillis, Barnosky pointed out that “while many species are threatened directly and indirectly by human activity, the number actually driven extinct in the last 200 years is estimated to be only 1 to 2 percent of all species on earth. ‘We still have almost all the species that we regard as valuable out there to be saved. . . . We as people have it in our power to do that.’”

I’ll give the final word in this post to  David Roberts, in a June 11 post in Grist, who stated the goal in larger terms–namely, that we have to conceive of ourselves as global citizens, not just as members of a family, or a tribe, as  Thunder or Heat fans. Even thinking of ourselves as North Americans isn’t  enough. We are “those who live on Earth”; our fellow tribe members are all human beings.  Only in this way will we be able to “envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.” By this, I take him to mean we ought to go beyond technological fixes like geoengineering, which has recently become a hot topic. More about this in upcoming posts.

Tar Sands Oil Must Be Left in the Ground!

“If Canada proceeds [to exploit its vast tar sands reserves], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” So writes Jim Hansen of NASA in a May 9 New York Times op-ed. (If you’re not a Times subscriber, read it here.) He was responding to President Obama’s comment that we can’t do much because Canada will get the oil out even if we don’t build a pipeline to bring it down to the Gulf for refining and export. Examples of apocalyptic game-enders that would result if we ignore the warnings and do not insist on true, game-changing leadership are “the disintegration of the ice sheets,” rising sea levels that would destroy coastal cities, “intolerable” global temperatures, extinction of up to half of the world’s species, and economic meltdown that would put civilization at risk of breakdown. Even in the short term, Hansen predicted, if the Tar Sands oil is extracted and we do not drastically reduce emissions, “More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

Do I have your attention?

Even if you know what’s behind this dire warning but have pushed it to the back of your mind, you need to bring it front and center, for Hansen is not just crying doom; he has a solution, but we must all put pressure on our leaders to make it happen. He proposes that President Obama first prevent any pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast and then introduce “economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.” His recommended method is to institute a tax on carbon that would come back to all Americans every month.

This is the latest of a perfect storm of calls for action to slow the warming we are causing: the May 5 Connect the Dots campaign demonstrating the causal link between extreme weather events and climate change, the EPA’s recent landmark proposal to set the first nationwide emissions standards to slow carbon pollution, and a new bill launched May 10 in Congress to end $113 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry.

Another important point of the op-ed: the science is settled. There’s no use wasting time trying to convince deniers. Here are Hansen’s final sentences:

Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.

This conclusion is not controversial; what is debatable is Hansen’s solution, a tax on carbon, which many economists and scientists say (a) can’t get enacted and (b) won’t work. They counter with a call for so-called cap-and-trade legislation. Watch for the resurfacing of the old argument between proponents of the two approaches from a few years ago, when Congress was considering–and we almost got–a cap-and-trade bill. I’ll link to those posts as they are available. Meanwhile, here are highlights of the earlier debate: Times columnist Paul Krugman said on his blog that Hansen “doesn’t understand the economics of emissions control” and took him to task for closing the door on cap and trade in late 2009, when such a bill seemed a real possibility. (Hansen had just published an op-ed calling for a fee on carbon instead.) The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists invited advocates for both systems to weigh in; nearly a dozen did so in 2008. In 2009 McKinsey Publishing invited two experts to argue the two sides and then invited comments from readers; those led to expansion of the argument, which is  summed up here. Back in 2007 Grist posted a guest essay by  Bill Chameides, chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund, in which he too argued for cap-and-trade over a carbon tax, giving these reasons:

Unlike a tax, [cap-and-trade] encourages innovation by creating incentives and rewarding those who lower emissions at the least cost. And most importantly, a cap — unlike a tax — guarantees the necessary cuts to stabilize the climate. All a tax does is discourage emissions; it doesn’t specify an emissions target that must be met.

Finally, he argued from history: there was a precedent for a cap-and-trade system, for that’s what brought about the reduction of the sulfur oxide emissions that lead to acid rain. And, he added, ” we were able to do it quickly and cheaply.”

Note: At Think Progress, Joe Romm quotes large chunks of Hansen’s op-ed as he emphasizes the attack on Obama for failing at leading on climate change; he doesn’t go into the proposed solution, but he provides a graph that supports Hansen’s doomsday scenario.

Poll Shows Americans Are Taking Climate Change Seriously

The New York Times reported April 17 on a new poll showing an uptick in the number of people who are connecting the dots between extreme weather events and global warming. That’s good news, because more Americans may be willing to join the mass movement spearheaded by 350.org to put pressure on leaders to take dramatic action to slow carbon emissions, the main cause of climate change. Connect the Dots just happens to be the motto for 350.org’s next international day of action,  May 5, Climate Impacts Day, designed to call attention to the link between weather extremes and climate change. Sign up for an action near you or start one in your community. The NYT article, with a great photo of one of last week’s tornadoes, is here; if you want to read just a summary, go to the 350.org  blog.

Can we win arguments with climate deniers?

Should we make the effort to counter those who flat-out deny the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming? David Roberts at Grist thinks it’s a waste of time to try to persuade climate-change contrarians; but take heart, he says. They will die off, and sooner rather than later, given their age. He cites the effect of “cohort reduction“: social change comes about when leaders of an organization, culture, or profession give way to those in the next generation who have different beliefs and values and new frameworks of thought. Because the deniers are for the most part older white conservative men, this is the best hope for those of us who recognize how close the world is to the climate tipping point. He notes,  “People rarely change their minds, especially about matters core to ideology and identity. But they do die!”

Despite the provocative headline and opening gambit, Roberts knows that we can’t wait for this cohort to be replaced. They can do too much damage, as witnessed by the leaked plans of the nonprofit group the Heartland Institute to undermine teaching about global warming in public schools. If the group’s plans to insert any part of this body of non-evidence and pseudo-science into the curriculum succeeded and climate change was discredited, the aging cohort’s denialism would live on after their demise, just as science educators still have to fight attempts to require the teaching of the unscientific theory of creationism.

There’s no time to waste while waiting for the shift to happen through attrition, especially given the funding available to the deniers and the dysfunctional Congress that supports their cause. Roberts recommends several actions climate hawks should take: ratchet up the intensity of argument, build political coalitions, organize those who have shown they “get” climate change,  and don’t spend any effort on arguing with a group “unmoored from reality.” (Roberts describes in more detail how we can  mitigate the damage done by these contrarians in a 2011 Grist post.)

To this I’ll add the opportunities for the non-scientists among us to become knowledgeable about climate change through films and DVDs, books and blogs, and courses like Open Climate 101, a course taught at the University of Chicago by David Archer that the university has made available on line for free. Watch a video lecture and read a sample chapter from his text at the Dot Earth blog; then go to the course website to register for free.

Stopping the tar sands pipeline–for now

Will delaying the Canadian company’s plans to build the pipeline through the US, as seems likely now, slow global warming? Read the fascinating news analysis in the New York Times. Bill McKibben thinks that something that buys time is good, as it makes it possible for leaders to begin to face the reality of climate change.