Saturday, December 29, 2012

Holding the Media accountable on Climate Change

 

OldMediaOf course ‘the media’ is not a single entity, but a bewildering mishmash of local print, digital editions, blogs, social media, and even email lists at the state, national and international levels. But despite the vast increase in the way news is being shaped today, many still believe that eventually the Truth will percolate up through this democratization of news. But for the public to navigate rapidity in a changing world the news must quickly tend towards an accurate model of reality or, like one of your senses, you’re in trouble. It’s why people get eye glasses.

How the media has handled the three-decade-old issue of human-caused Climate Change is like (using the eye-glasses analogy) wearing an old set of glasses even though your eyes are aging. You’re going to bump into things. We are bumping into extreme weather, longer growing seasons, and the migration of flora and fauna right under our feet, but are unable to see them as Climate Change through the lens of a media ill-adapted to seeing the long-term (in human time) and controversial (in political terms) physics of Climate Change.

A new report “Emerging Consensus Shows Climate Change Already Having Major Effects on Ecosystems and Species ” put out by the US Geological Society in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and Arizona State University highlights how the media (and I think I can throw most ‘media’ into this gross generalization here) is ill-adapted to handle Climate Change. This report was released on December 18, 2012, which is long enough back to note that it has received little media attention. And even those media that do mention the report tend not to explain its importance.

It’s instructive, before mentioning the details of what’s in the report, to understand why it was written. This report is part of the federal obligation to report to the President and Congress on what has been learned thus far about Climate Change under the Global Change Research Act of 1990.

Federal law requires that the U.S. Global Change Research Program submit an assessment of climate change and its impacts to the President and the Congress once every four years. Technical reports, articles and books – such as this report -- underpin the corresponding chapters of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment, due out in 2013. This technical report is available at the USGCRP website, as are other completed technical reports. Additional lead authors of this report include Shawn Carter, USGS: F. Stuart Chapin III, University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy; and Mary Ruckelshaus, Natural Capital Project.

This report is an advanced release which will be part of this year’s Our Changing Planet (OCP), a series of official reports from 1991-2012 that include how these branches of government understand and will respond to Climate Change: Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Human Services, NASA, National Science Foundation, The Smithsonian Institution, US Agency for International Development, United States Department of Agriculture, and The Environmental Protection Agency.

The report says, among other things, that our “Biodiversity and ecosystems are already more stressed than at any comparable period of human history. “ If you cannot read the whole report, you should at least read these two pages (S-1 & S-2) Key Findings. When read and thought about objectively they provide a great insight into the nature of Climate Change and the level of human response needed. Clearly and officially, anything short of a massive effort to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change is irresponsible.

This report and the series of reports by our government and to our government on what is actually happening to our environment and what our government plans to do (despite all the hue and cry in the media) about Climate Change is not the usual stuff. These reports are not opinion polls, blog posts, local investigative reports, environmental action group reports, nor the studies of an international body not responsible to our government. They are official reports demanded by our own government so it can see Climate Change clearly. Astonishingly, the gulf between these official reports and what the media is reporting on our environment is wide indeed.

The media tends to report on polls of what the US population thinks of Climate Change at any one time, forever putting their finger to the wind to assess their journalistic objectivity. If they mention these reports at all, they tend to not connect the dots between what is stated and predicted in these official reports.

Why on an issue of physics, where we are all equal and subject to the same rules, is there such a deep chasm between what our government is telling itself about Climate Change and what our media is telling our citizens? Climate Change is like no other issue humanity has ever faced. Our media must change their role in our lives to reflect a world that is warming, no matter how unpleasant and inconvenient that may be to their subscribers.

That media which continues to spew doubt and inaction on a matter our government already understands as a clear and present danger should be held accountable. Accountable in the sense that you discard those old eyeglasses that no longer serve you well.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Towards a healthy environment yard by yard in a time of Climate Change

One of the assumptions that are used in Climate Change studies is that our present environment is healthy and should be used as a baseline for preserving into the future.

My guess is that this assumption is wrong and that our present environment is not healthy because of development in the New World since the arrival of the Europeans, where massive alterations to our environment—the destruction of wetlands, pollution, massive loss of biodiversity, and many more environmental issues—have put our environment in extreme stress.

One way to try and restore the abundance, resiliency, and healthiness of our present environment is to try—yard by yard—to restore our environment to a time before massive development. Of course, this will be impossible to achieve completely. But our environment 500 years ago is a more accurate example of a healthy environment than the present environment, which is challenged enough without the specter of Climate Change.

We really need a longer scope of our environmental past before we can project healthy environmental solutions for our future.

Nature knew what it was doing for four billion years. Human development in the past 500 years was not done so with environmental health in mind.

Here’s an example of how yard-by-yard might happen:

In Midwest, Bringing Back Native Prairies Yard by Yard Across the U.S. Midwest, homeowners are restoring their yards and former farmland to the native prairie that existed in pre-settlement days. The benefits can be substantial — maintenance that uses less water and no fertilizer, and an ecosystem that supports wildflowers and wildlife. David Read is a big guy, six-foot-two, but the grass behind him inches above the crown of his khaki fisherman’s hat. He gestures off toward his house across a swishing, dancing expanse of stems, leaves, and early-autumn wildflowers, and smiles. “We wanted to sit on our back porch and watch grass swaying in the wind,” he says. Which is exactly what it’s doing this September day, finally. It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s when he and his wife Alisande bought this property, 38 acres in exurban Dexter, Michigan, it was fallow farmland slowly succumbing to invasive shrubs. In 2003, after retiring, they set about restoring 11 acres of it to native prairie.  (December 24, 2012) Yale 360

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sending the Great Lakes over the cliff

 

GreatLakeDrIt’s hard to imagine an environmental region under more pressure from Climate Change than the Great Lakes. This series of five great lakes was gouged from the receding Laurentide Ice Sheet around 13,000 years ago. In that span, this 94,250 square mile watershed that has produced a healthy, abundant, and resilient ecology is in a lot of trouble. Trouble for us: those who live near it, bathe, drink, dump, fish, boat, and get a lot of our weather (lake-effect storms) from this massive hydrological system. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that in only five hundred years we have managed to screw up a system that contains 21% of the fresh water on the planet, but there you are.

Threatening the Great Lakes are invasive species (like the Asian carp and Zebra Mussels); pollution from combined sewer overflows, micro-beads of plastics, toxic algae, agricultural runoff (phosphorus from fertilizers), and pharmaceuticals (none of our wastewater treatment plants can filter out these drugs once they’ve passed through our bodies). And like a lot of other stuff, much of it ends up in the fish. One way to measure this threat is to measure what bioaccumulates inside Great Lakes fish. Read Up to the Gills: 2009 Update on Pollution in Great Lakes Fish, by Environmental Defence.

To get a visual on what’s stressing the Great Lakes check out this map, from a great new media out of Buffalo, the Investigative Post. If you live in the Rochester, NY area, take a close look at all the red on the map. Red, in this instance, is not a good thing. We’re in trouble.

But there are two other threats to our Great Lakes that will overshadow and ramp up the negative effects of all of the above threats: Water scarcity and Climate Change.

A beautifully crafted documentary Last Call at the Oasis “Illuminating the vital role water plays in our lives, exposing the defects in the current system and depicting communities already struggling with its ill-effects…“ gives you an overview of how fresh drinking water shortages around the world will change our lives because other folks are going to want our water. The Rochester Regional Group of the Sierra Club focused on water privatization at last year’s forum: 14th Annual Environmental Forum “Our Water’s Fragile Future: Hydrofracking, Climate Change, & Privatization.” (Check out the video of the forum.) They intend to continue this educational forum this year:

15th Annual Environmental Forum: Protecting the Great Lakes Forever |Thursday, April 25 (evening), with workshops on Friday, April 26 A stop on Maude Barlow’s “The Great Lakes Need Great Friends” US Tour Location(s) TBA |Join us to hear internationally renowned speaker, Maude Barlow on tour in support of her publication, “Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Foreverr.” This report is intended to serve as a background and a call to understanding and action on a new proposal to designate the Great Lakes and its tributary waters as a lived Commons, to be shared, protected, carefully managed and enjoyed by all who live around them. Maude is also the author of the highly-acclaimed book, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water.” | Please email Wayne Howard at greatlakes@newyork.sierraclub.org  if your organization may be interested in partnering with us to plan or co-sponsor this high profile event!

After you get your head around water scarcity, examine how Climate Change will affect the Great Lakes. Check out this expert video that explains Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region by Dr. Donald Scavia with the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center and the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. To get a quick look at how Climate Change will affect our area of the Great Lakes, read this two-page summary Region Impacts on New York Communities and Ecosystems which is a part of Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2003. For later reports check out: National Climate Assessment: Midwest Technical Input Report , International Upper Great Lakes Study, Great Lakes National Parks in Peril The Threats of Climate Disruption , and On Thin Ice: Warming Winters Put America’s Hunting and Fishing Heritage at Risk.

I know, it’s a lot of stuff to absorb. Probably take you hours, maybe days to get through it all. But there’s nothing for it as we’ve been letting this slide for a long, long time. Now we are going to have to solve all the various environmental issues in the Great Lakes while at the same time protecting our waters and doing all this as everything warms up. Sadly, we keep passing critical points for taking action on Climate Change (Forget About That 2-Degree Future), and instead of things getting better, they get worse. As I write, we’re about ready to throw the Great Lakes over a cliff, as it were, because of our politically manufactured fiscal cliff (Fiscal cliff could dump sewage into Great Lakes) is being given a higher priority.

But to prioritize fiscal health over our freshwater supply is whacky. If Climate Change is a “serious problem” to 68% of Americans, then they better start proving it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our media is evolving, hopefully in time

 

I’ve been writing and posting environmental stories on the Internet since the mid-1990’s. What’s most impressed me over that time is that our environmental information has vastly increased and our environment issues more dire (especially with Fracking and Climate Change).  But US mainstream media has been totally inept at keeping the public informed on why they need to pay attention to this information. 

Mainstream media doesn’t connect the dots between Climate Change and Fracking and environmental issues like plastics in our Great Lakes.  The editors of mainstream media are still operating on the model that the public has to be pandered to with nonsense they don’t need but make them feel good—sports scores and political shenanigans.  These editors have no idea of what objective journalism means on a planet that is warming.  They still think our environment just another special interest. 

I have been watching EcoWatch for some time and I believe they are an excellent example of the new media.  They know how to write articles full of links to backup points made and connect the dots to other environmental issues that are related.  They know how to include actions that folks can do, instead of being overwhelmed by the bad news.  They provide stories from experts from all fields. They know how to connect with social media and get folks moving.  

Our media needs to become more like EcoWatch and less like mainstream media because if we don’t we are going to become blind to the kind of consequences a deteriorating environment and Climate Change bring.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Climate Change is not just another business risk

 

KettleFishA couple of news stories this week focused on a new study that predicts hard times for winter tourism: Report: Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. Last year’s warm Northeast winter must have given the winter tourism industry the jitters, which is odd because many Climate Change studies have been predicting warmer winters and less snowfall in the Northeast for quite some time:

  • “Outdoor recreation regions and communities dependent on natural resources may be negatively affected by higher temperatures and reduced snowfall or snowpack as the result of climate change. Communities in the Adirondacks region that depend on tourism associated with cold-water fisheries (e.g., trout) or wintertime snow-based activities (e.g., skiing and snowmobiling) may be particularly vulnerable.” (Page 68, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) funded by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (2011))
  • “Communities whose economies depend on skiing and snowmobiling will be negatively affected by higher temperatures and reduced snowpack. Communities that depend on tourism associated with coldwater fisheries such as trout could be particularly vulnerable, although there could be increases in warmer water fish species that could help offset these losses.’ (Page 26, New York State Climate Action Council Climate Action Plan Interim Report New York State Climate Action Council Interim Report 11-9-10)
  • “Other activities are likely to be harmed by even small increases in warming, such as snow- and ice-dependent activities including skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.” (Page 88, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States | The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)  2009)

What’s tragic about this present focus on a billions-of-dollar a year industry, which includes skiing, skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and all the ancillary business associated with them, is that it’s probably too late to save them. Because of the lag-time associated with Climate Change, where the emissions of greenhouse gases stay in our atmosphere and oceans for many, many years, saving these winter businesses should have started long ago. That stored heat, as physics demands, must play out.

This explains the urgency behind the failed Climate Talks at Doha, Qatar last week. The efforts to keep global temperature at or below 2 degrees Celsius ended with only the extension of the Kyoto Protocol that the US didn’t even sign on to, and little more.

A series of reports released during the Doha talks said the world faced the prospect of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2F) of warming, rather than the 2 degree (3.6F) limit that nations adopted in 2010 as a maximum to avoid dangerous changes. (December 9, 2012) Reuters )

This high emissions scenario means that because we are not looking into the near future, but only at our immediate self-interests, it will be too late to stop the inevitable consequences of Climate Change. Like the Northeast winter industries, there will be a lot job losses, failed businesses, not to mention an accelerated warming that will ripple through all levels of our environment because we failed to act in time.

Some shrug this dreary scenario off by a slavish devotion to economics as it is practiced today. “Climate change is like any other business risk – it will create opportunities for some, misfortune for others.” (from Warmer winters threaten Northeast's smaller ski areas) Under a system of economics that only understands the environment as an externality, this is called creative destruction. Creative destruction is economics’ way of saying that you should be thankful to the drunk driver who ran over and paralyzed you because otherwise you wouldn’t have written that book about your experiences and made millions. (True, perhaps, but hopelessly depraved.)

What the idea that ‘Climate Change is just another business risk’ misses is…, well, everything. Climate Change isn’t just another risk; it’s a different kettle of fish altogether. When the whale oil industry, which slaughtered millions of the ocean’s keystone species for their oil to light our lamps, died at the beginning of the Civil War, the other kind of oil (from the ground) took off and now rules the world. Nice for fossil fuels: bad for the whale oil industry. But Climate Change isn’t like the switch from whale oil to petroleum. Climate Change, like a Biblical flood, will take everything in its path—animals, plants, businesses, water, air, agriculture, and our future. There’s no business model for that. There’s not even a nifty economic term for it. The 4 degree Celsius rise in global temperature by the end of this century that we are headed for is ‘uninhabitable’—a term that doesn’t ever appear in economics textbooks.

Keeping our global temperature at or below 2 degrees Celsius is the hard reality we are up against. Nothing short of it will do. Even creating cap and trade schemes, which pays bankers nicely, probably won’t work. Read Storms of My Grandchildren's Opa 13 December 2012 James Hansen. Or listen to this great podcast from Climate One: James Hansen Receives the Stephen Schneider Climate Science Communication Award. Dr. Hansen nails it.

No amount of denial, foot dragging, small efforts, despair, rationalization, dismissals, blame, or wild business-speak ideas will get the global temperatures back to the Holocene, where we thrived.

In the end of one of the articles I was reading this week on the possible collapse of the winter tourism industries, a commenter lamented, “Every week now, there’s at least one article on Climate Change. How about some real news?” Ya gotta laugh. Inept as many mainstream media outlets are today on covering Climate Change, they won’t be covering this issue less. More awakenings, like the winter tourism industry, are in the pipeline for the future.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Negative Climate Change positive feedback loops

 

NoArticYou have to appreciate the fantastic dissonance this week caused by the juxtapositioning of the ho-hum Doha Climate talks and the rapid melting of the Arctic. On the one hand you have a major Climate talk failing to deliver action (yet again) on Climate Change. And, on the other, you have a major feature of our planet disappearing before the very eyes of our satellites because of our inaction. This dysfunctional absurdity of ours got me thinking about positive feedback loops.

A positive feedback loop occurs when stuff happens in sync with the stuff that’s already happening, increasing the likelihood that the stuff will happen even more. Scientist use these ‘loops’ to explain the phenomenon of accelerated anthropogenic warming that is melting Arctic ice, which in turn will warm our planet’s atmosphere even more because the reflective surface of ice —the albedo effect--will soon be replaced by dark ocean, which absorbs heat.

How did we get to this bottleneck in our history where our actions have actually threatened our environment and we cannot find it in ourselves to solve this problem? Perhaps, like the natural mechanisms that cause Climate Change, we ourselves create positive feedback loops in our own systems that cause us to become less aware of our human-caused planetary threat.

Oh, I forgot, there’s another critical part of the positive feedback loop, the Butterfly Effect. A slight disturbance in the initial stages of a system can turn out to be quite dramatic later on. For example, in our artificially-crafted economic models we chose not to include environmental resources or damages (externalities). Centuries ago, there seemed to be no limit to the amount of food and water provided by Nature and no limit to the amount of stuff we could throw into our land, water, and air without it coming back to bite us. But now we know that to be complete and utter nonsense. Our environment that evolved over many billions of years is extremely sensitive to every perturbation—the emitting of heat trapping gases being but one of them. This small oversight has created an environmental juggernaut, and our notions of exceptionalism (see below) won’t let us entertain a carbon tax.

Our media, the system tasked with informing us about what’s going on, has created another positive feedback loop together with our own interesting butterfly effect. The ‘butterfly’ is our disinclination to hear stuff we don’t want to hear. If you only listen to a media that only presents you with a world that panders to your beliefs and desires, then you not only miss stuff, but fail to interpret events in a rational way. For example, if you only listen to FOX News, you’ll think all the evidence from around the world that our atmosphere is warming is a ‘commie plot’ or a hoax. You’ll tend to think the real deciding factor ruling our existence is not the laws of Nature, but clever talking points from a well-paid pundit.

Politics in the United States is well on its way to producing a positive feedback loop where it becomes more likely that we’ll do less about solving Climate Change the more obvious is becomes that we need to do more. American Exceptionalism, the butterfly in this case, cannot allow us to entertain the idea that other nations, especially the developing nations, want to have the same standard of living we enjoy, but if they do it in the same way we did (burning fossil fuels and polluting our environment) there will be no habitable environment for anyone. At this year’s climate talks the developing nations are trying to say that they want a chance to grow and are willing to do that without doing what we did and all they need is some help. And we’ve created a system where we cannot hear them.

The difference between the positive feedback loops created by our artificial creations and those produced in nature is that we can decide to stop our man-made ‘loops’.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Climate Change talks in Doha, Qatar: ya gotta laugh

 

NotMyFaultOne of the more startling moments in Plastic Ocean comes when Captain Moore (the book’s author) reveals the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to world leaders and they tell him to prove that it’s doing any harm. Ya gotta laugh. That’s like discovering a bomb in the nation’s capitol and having the police dismiss you because they don’t think bombs do any damage. Another amazing point in the book is learning that chemical companies in the US have to pull their products off the market only if their studies prove their product’s toxicity, which means these companies have zero incentive to do their own studies. How their products radiate out into our environment is anyone’s guess.

This all comes to mind as I review this week’s amazing environmental news. There’s a study that proves our Great Lakes are filled with plastic bits. Besides making pseudo food for birds and fish that provides no nourishment but fills them up, plastic bits have a nasty habit of attracting and accumulating toxins. Another story deals with the dropping lake levels this year, but fails to mention Climate Change being a factor in determining lakes levels, even though one of the studies used for the article includes just that. Then there’s a story about how difficult it is to rid our drinking water of pharmaceuticals because our wastewater treatment plants were not designed to remove the myriad drugs that fill our Great Lakes. And, pharmaceuticals are not even the half of it; our Great Lakes are filled with Chemical Pollutants.

Ok, what that says to me is that we have some potentially significant public health issues before us. So you have to wonder why Governor Cuomo is keeping the Fracking process moving along that will finalize the regulations so drilling permits can be issued in New York State, instead of waiting until the health review is completed. (I know, this Fracking debacle is all very bewildering: Check this great summary: DEC to take public comments on fracking regs from December 12). The skinny is Fracking takes a lot of our precious fresh water (most which comes from the Great Lakes) and we really ought to find out if we have enough fresh clean water to spare for an industry that has hijacked our state’s energy program—especially during anticipated droughts in our region because of Climate Change.

That brings us to Climate Change itself. If you’ve only been listening to mainstream media, you probably haven’t heard much about this year’s Doha Climate Change Conference. You can watch the proceedings yourself, unfiltered by pundits with their own loony agendas, by going here: UNFCCC Webcast. If you do, you can get a free book that you can download or read online Climate, Development and Equity about equality and Climate Change. Because, when you come right down to it, Climate Change is about giving everyone, everywhere, and for all time, an equal chance at living while addressing a world-wide warming.

How are those talks going? Just about everyone thinks the Doha Climate Change Conference is going to fail, except UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres. Anticipating that, the folks over at 350.org have sent an open letter to the world leaders to get off their duff. It’s quite a conundrum because the more Climate Change takes hold, with melting glaciers and more extreme weather, the less likely we’ll get even modest gains at our increasingly ineffective climate talks because as time passes the solutions become costlier --while most of the world, who don’t enjoy our standard of living, dig their heels in deeper into the fossil fuels gig to get where we got—even though it’s warming the planet.

All this intractable implacability sounds eerily familiar as I watched Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s the scene where Lincoln asks the couple if they would encourage their senator to pass the thirteenth amendment if Lincoln could win the war without it. No, they said, they’d just as soon have slavery and no more war. Humans. Ya gottoa laugh. We all want our cake and eat it too, but we cannot.