Saturday, February 17, 2007

Pittsburgh this week. If this is taken from where I think it is,
a house I once lived in is in the picture. Photo PGH Post Gazette.
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Thursday, February 15, 2007


Don't miss the Rolling Stone profile of Barack Obama.

Torture, torture porn and "24" at Soul of Star Trek. (Okay, there's a little about a Star Trek episode too.)

If you haven't checked out the Boomer Hall of Fame recently, there are some new colors and the start of a series on Saturday morning sci-fi. Like most of my blogs now, this site is searchable using the labels. There's a list of them on one sidebar or another of most of the blogs--just click on the label and all the posts from the past on that topic (with that label) will come up on your screen. Same at this site, of course.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

southwestern sunset with Comet McNaught
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The Climate Crisis Future

The Next Hundred Years

One of the biggest challenges in dealing with the Climate Crisis future is the complexity. It is a future that must be anticipated to be addressed, yet the factors involved and their interactions are more complex than anything humanity has been forced to face. This truly is the test of our evolution, in both the strict Darwinian sense and in the more common sense of "evolved," meaning that if we've gotten better, more able, more developed as a species, then this will be the proof.

The future is always a kind of fiction, because by definition it has not yet happened. So scientists adopted the language of drama in developing "scenarios" which they constructed using mathematical tools of forecasting and projecting, and the mathematically-based models they develop. The IPCC fourth assessment was able to apply more precise measurements, more ingeniously developed data and refined models, tested by their ability to "predict" the past.

The assessment is not the only set of projections and models out there that bear upon the Climate Crisis future. Some say it is among the most conservative. But even with all the data, all the attention, all the models, the various scenarios of the future are still frustratingly sketchy, at least as far as I can determine from my small researches. That's partly because of the nature of climate science, the nature of the future, and the unprecedented need and nature of what we're dealing with. But it may be that someone can construct some kind of timeline, pretty soon.

What do we think we know? Climate scientists have been measuring what's been happening, especially in the past decade, when the global temperature has been noticeably rising, with noticeable effects: longer and more intense heatwaves in Europe and much of North America, for example; the heating of the Arctic and melting of ice at both poles; the first signs of effects on wildlife and vegetation, and the first signs of new patterns of disease.

What does the future hold and when? The keys are how high the temperature rises, and how much of the greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere. Out of the facts and informed speculations, there are some dates and forecasts that stand out.

The IPCC assessment summary forecasts for the 21st century, and says that "Warmer and fewer cold days and nights" and "warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas" are "virtually certain," while more frequent heat waves and heavy precipitation are "very likely" and an increase in areas affected by droughts, an increase in intense tropical cyclones, and increased incidence of extreme high sea levels are "more likely than not."

According to news accounts, a draft for a IPCC report that will be issued later is more precise about effects and time: "The report estimates that between 1.1 billion and 3.2 billion people will be suffering from water scarcity problems by 2080 and between 200 million and 600 million more people will be going hungry."

The Stern Report in England, which focused on economic impacts, had this to say:

"Climate change threatens the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food, health, and use of land and the environment. On current trends, average global temperatures could rise by 2 - 3°C within the next fifty years or so,1 leading to many severe impacts, often mediated by water, including more frequent droughts and floods.

• Melting glaciers will increase flood risk during the wet season and strongly reduce dry-season water supplies to one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China, and the Andes in South America.

• Declining crop yields, especially in Africa, are likely to leave hundreds of millions without the ability to produce or purchase sufficient food - particularly if the carbon fertilisation effect is weaker than previously thought, as some recent studies suggest. At mid to high latitudes, crop yields may increase for moderate temperature rises (2 – 3°C), but then decline with greater amounts of warming.

• Ocean acidification, a direct result of rising carbon dioxide levels, will have major effects on marine ecosystems, with possible adverse consequences on fish stocks.

• Rising sea levels will result in tens to hundreds of millions more people flooded each year with a warming of 3 or 4°C. There will be serious risks and increasing pressures for coastal protection in South East Asia (Bangladesh and Vietnam), small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and large coastal cities, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Calcutta, Karachi, Buenos Aires, St Petersburg, New York, Miami and London.

• Climate change will increase worldwide deaths from malnutrition and heat stress. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever could become more widespread if effective control measures are not in place. In higher latitudes, cold-related deaths will decrease.
• By the middle of the century, 200 million more people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, heavier floods, and more intense droughts, according to one estimate.

• Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15 – 40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming. Strong drying over the Amazon, as predicted by some climate models, would result in dieback of the forest with the highest biodiversity on the planet.

The consequences of climate change will become disproportionately more damaging with increased warming. Higher temperatures will increase the chance of triggering abrupt and large-scale changes that lead to regional disruption, migration and conflict.

• Warming may induce sudden shifts in regional weather patterns like the monsoons or the El NiƱo. Such changes would have severe consequences for water availability and flooding in tropical regions and threaten the livelihoods of billions.

• Melting or collapse of ice sheets would raise sea levels and eventually threaten at least 4 million Km2 of land, which today is home to 5% of the world’s population. "

In a recent speech, NASA climate expert James Hansen said this:

Global warming of 2-3°C will occur if we follow business-as-usual, we are sure, because the sensitivity of climate is well-constrained by its history. Such a scenario threatens even greater calamity, because it could unleash positive feedbacks such as melting of frozen methane in the Arctic, as occurred 55 million years ago, when more than 90% of species on Earth went extinct. An alternative scenario, with additional warming less than 1°C is possible, but it requires that CO2 emissions decrease about 25%by mid-century and about 75% by the end of century.

So what can we say about the Climate Crisis future, just based on these findings of probabilities, possibilities, contingencies and projected effects? A great deal, actually, even though this is very incomplete, and requires explanation, extrapolation and details of alternate scenarios.

Here is my basic understanding of what we're talking about, and the basis for my speculations to come: we are in a Climate Crisis, and we will be living in its effects for the rest of our lives. For the next few years, depending on where we live, we will experience unusual weather and longer term effects of new climate trends, such as the dying of certain tree species that New Englanders are already noticing, new wildlife patterns, including insects that may bring diseases to new areas. There will be definite impacts of storms and floods and dry seasons.

Other effects will be cumulative. The strain on medical and social systems as cities experience more frequent killer heat waves, for instance. Or drought, as parts of the U.S. and Africa are already experiencing. And the effects of melting and higher temperatures in near-Arctic regions, with cumulative effects on fish and animals, already noticeable in areas where the ecology is very delicate. And the changes in growing seasons, migration patterns and so on that go with a shift in when seasons begin and end, and their different character. All this changes daily life and a lot more. Things that seemed forever--like the weather that keeps California wineries in business--may fade relatively quickly, with all the economic and social effects and upsets.

Whatever effects we will have, we will have them for the next three decades no matter what we do to control new greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the IPCC suggests that the rate of rise in temperature will increase every decade. There will be variations from year to year perhaps, but the planet will be on average hotter than it was the previous decade. So we ain't seen nothing yet.

If we do control those emissions and otherwise address the causes of the crisis, we may avoid the starving billions in 2080, and the end of life as we know it on the planet beyond this century. But we won't avoid everything--some effects will be with us for a thousand years, the IPCC says. And even if we avoid billions going hungry and thirsty, we still may have millions, perhaps even well before 2080. And that's from the direct effects of climate--not including how humanity will react. Some say that part of the future is being forecast by what's happening in Darfur.

So what does all that mean for public awareness and public policy? To be continued.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cups in Place #2. BK photo.
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The Climate Crisis Future

What Is This Future?

It's a big subject. What is the Climate Crisis future? What we've been learning for at least 20 years now, but especially in the last few years, tells us that the Climate Crisis will certainly be in the world's future for a long time (the new IPCC report summary says a millenium at least) and probably will drive what happens in the extent of future we can imagine.

But what is "the future?" I've been trying to start quantifying that in terms of what the Climate Crisis may bring and when, but it's a difficult project when one can't devote total attention to it. But we can say a few things, and more importantly, we can start thinking about what we should prepare for, in general if not specific terms.

A few things we can say: in the last period of time that "the future" was an absorbing topic, from the 1950s through the 1970s say, several frameworks were developed. Herman Kahn and his fellows at RAND who got lots of federal dollars to figure out what might happen to the U.S. should there be nuclear war, came up with the concept of "scenarios," which were outcomes of sets of causes organized as a story--the number of megadeaths, for instance, and who, if anyone, won. Before Kahn, "scenario" was a term of art in the theatre only.

The implication of "scenarios" based on "war games" was the not too surprising yet (to some people) revolutionary thought that there wasn't one single fated future, or even two possibilities. There were many. Now this revelation came to "science" once computers made it possible to figure out the outcomes of a lot of variables and their interactions. Of course, your literary types--including the writers of pulp science fiction for the past century or so--knew this already. But scientists formalized it as the doctrine of "alternative futures."

The idea that you could use science to figure out the future, or various possible futures, (which HG Wells had proposed in 1901, and then thought maybe not in 1904) left the land of RAND and entered academia (where computers were no longer so rare) in the 1960s, at the same time as the anxiety over how fast things were changing and how dangerous (or short) the future was looking, entered the popular imagination (through McLuhan, for one) and radical/cultural politics, with peace and environmental activists.

It was probably in the 1970s then, when Buckminster Fuller and other "futurists" were writing best-selling paperbacks and futurist organizations were springing up in Washington and everywhere in the world, and futures studies courses likewise, that the concept of "desirable alternative future" caught on. That is, figure out a future you want, and then figure out how to reverse-engineer it.

That turned out to be a task beyond human and computer ability at the time, so it floundered, but the idea is still there, and it's implicit in, for example, this response to the growing awareness over the Climate Crisis by Bruce Sterling on the Viridian Design Movement blog.

It is in fact pretty fascinating that the latest IPCC summary and leaks from the reports in progress have inspired both doomsaying and a certain energetic if not optimistic response.
In her extraordinary testimony about the IPCC summary before a Senate committee, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this: “You have opened a window into our future. Looking through that window, we see a future in which global warming will reshape our planet and society. We also see a future in which harsh consequences could be blunted by our prompt action."

This is the general hope: that "prompt action" of the right kinds can blunt the harshest consequences (although probably not all "harsh" ones.) But that's where the questions only begin. What most focus on as prompt action amounts to lessening the amount of greenhouse gas we spew into the atmosphere. That alone is a staggeringly large prospect, which would transform our economies and our lives. But that's not even the only set of technical challenges (there's reducing the CO2 already in the atmosphere, and especially mitgating the actual effects of global heating: terrible storms, floods, droughts, diseases, killer heat waves, food shortages, etc.)

And while the near-term politics of addressing the longterm Climate Crisis are shaping up nicely around the enormous benefits of clean energy, and new clean energy technologies and the businesses they can create, there are many more issues to be addressed, in terms of attitudes, conceptualization and addressing the dangers that the Climate Crisis future may well have in store.

We haven't even begun to address our original question, yet this is a necessary preliminary. When we begin to imagine the Climate Crisis future, we will be talking about possible futures, about alternative futures, and always about desirable futures, and what we can do now to get there. We'll begin playing with a few numbers, next time.