Wednesday, February 21, 2007

the Baiji, one of four freshwater dolphins, now extinct.
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Taegan Goddard's Political Wire is soliciting "reviews" (doubt that he's getting any bad ones--he's offering $100 Amazon gift certificates for his favorites, manna to us book drunks) but even so, the truth is that I've been going to his site first thing for longer than just about anywhere else in the blogosphere.

Political Wire offers nuggets, not just blurbs. It's fun to scan for the political Zeitgeist stuff of the day but what I find most valuable are the summaries of polls and studies, and not just the usual suspects. These sometimes support impressions you get from the news, but sometimes they are quite different, showing that perhaps the conventional wisdom has got it wrong about how voters think and feel.

Again, it's not just that these summaries are short and sweet, with links to the full presentation. It's what's in the summaries. Beyond the obvious headline, they often highlight the most interesting and key facts that may be buried in the data. Political Wire has been my secret weapon for years. Too bad I had to out myself, but that's what the possibility of $100 in books and DVDs will do.

Also elsewhere:

A consideration of playwright Carol Churchill on sexual and other politics at
Stage Matters. Some thoughts on regret at the reformatted Blue Voice, and on ergonomics at the reformatted Shopopolis.

The Daily Babble

The Outrage Basket

The Injoy basket is empty, but as usual the Outrage basket is overflowing. A few of the items tumbling over the top and onto the floor:

A federal court Tuesday, in perhaps the most legally torturous (in both senses) decision since the Supremes played Bush V. Gore, formally stripped detainees of their rights. So we're going to continue to pretend that "24" is reality, and that due process is some prissy thing we can't afford anymore, torture is necessary, torture works, and it's good for you, too--although there's the inconveniently authentic account in the Washington Post by Eric Fair, about his own experiences doing his country's dirty work, his current nightmares and self-recriminations:

I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

But at least he's not an amputee dumped in an abandoned motel across from Walter Reed hospital, although judging the relative pain of traumatic stress for life versus traumatic head injuries for life is as debased as this war has always been. The Iraq war is creating a generation of physically, psychologically and mentally maimed people who will be around long after the last haunted Vietnam vet has faded completely out of existence. And there are people who with a straight and noble face are proposing a new Draft.

But then we're deep into government by hyperbole. Countdown quoted some right wing radio nut job as saying that teachers unions are a worse threat that al Qaeda, and a Repub Florida congressman who is also a party campaign official as saying that he doesn't really care if the lies he spread about Speaker Pelosi were true or not. Unfortunately I don't think he's lying about that.

We've heard about the ideological extremes this administration has gone to, in hiring people for those inconsequential jobs reserved for political favors, like running the Iraq occupation and FEMA. But it wasn't until I ran across a column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times that I realized there was a playbook involved. (I would read everything Krugman writes online except he's part of the "times select" group of columnists, and I can't bring myself to pay for Dowd and Friedman, who are also a mandatory part of the package.) So I saw this in the print edition. Krugman quotes a Heritage Foundation document that instructs the administration to "make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second." Which of course the Bushites took one step further by eliminating the second consideration altogether.

So it shouldn't be surprising that a story in today's New York Times notes that: Scholars say Mr. Bush has been more strategic than most presidents in sprinkling loyalists throughout the administration. Paul C. Light, an expert in public service at New York University, says it has created an “echo chamber” in which the president gets advice he wants to hear.

Krugman's column (from 2/05) also notes that privatization, another ideologically driven obsession of this administration, may have added to the amount of government work hired out to corporations, but not to the competition for contracts. Competitive contracts have nose-dived from nearly 3/4 of the total to less than 1/2. No word on how many of those Halliburton got. And of course, contractors are often getting paid far more than ordinary employees of government would be. Especially if they don't vote Republican.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hermitage 1918 by Paul Klee. From ABC Gallery.
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The Climate Wisdom of Dr. Solomon

To focus attention and action on the Climate Crisis, the issue needs effective advocates. Al Gore has been by far the best so far, but he can't be the only one. For one thing, he's identified with his political party, which can play into this insane status of the Climate Crisis as a political and ideological issue.

But a new advocate may be emerging in the person of Dr. Susan Solomon. As a NOAA scientist and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she's said to be the impetus behind the strong statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which says in part:

We need an aggressive research, development and deployment effort to transform the existing and future energy systems of the world away from technologies that emit greenhouse gases. Developing clean energy technologies will provide economic opportunities and ensure future energy supplies.

In addition to rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is essential that we develop strategies to adapt to ongoing changes and make communities more resilient to future changes. The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: we are already experiencing global climate change. It is time to muster the political will for concerted action. Stronger leadership at all levels is needed. The time is now. We must rise to the challenge. We owe this to future generations.

At the Association's ongoing annual meeting in San Francisco, Solomon managed to sound notes of hope and optimism along with very succinct expressions of the tasks ahead.

What she's optimistic about is the public acceptance of the truth about global heating. As Reuters reports: I'm incredibly encouraged," Susan Solomon beamed after speaking to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Don't underestimate the power of an encouraging smile. But she accompanies it with wisdom.

Changes already under way will require adaptation in the short term, Solomon said, while efforts to reduce or reverse change will only occur on a long term. (There it is: Fix It and Stop It in one sentence.)

"I am personally an optimist" about increased governmental and public understanding of the problem, Solomon said. But, she added, "It is complicated. You can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't taste it."

She likened understanding of global warming to that of the ozone hole a few years ago. Once scientists were able to tell the story clearly, the public understood it, she said. Now science is on the same track with climate change.

"We are forcing the climate system in a new way, outstripping the sun," Solomon said. Overall there are more warm nights and fewer cold ones, a change that affects crops and animals as well as people. Detecting change can be difficult in one place, she said, because local changes one way or the other can vary widely from the average changes around the world.

"It requires you to think beyond your own backyard," she said.

Solomon is quoted speaking in simple yet striking images that may communicate more than the scary headlines, jargon and rhetoric on both sides. What's missing in these quotes is reference to lag time and time frames in general, but she is pointing out that understanding this crisis requires different concepts. It may be as important to get that message across as any specific scientific data or political proposal.

Monday, February 19, 2007

This looks like a job for... everybody.
Still, a well-designed cover.
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The Climate Crisis Future

More on the "Fix It" Component

It's unlikely to be much consolation for those currently in the deep freeze of a late and fierce winter, but according to the figures just in, the world has just experienced the warmest January ever recorded. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit (0.85 Celsius) warmer than the 20th-century average of 53.6 degrees F (12 C) for January. Land surface temperature was a record 3.40 F (1.89 C) warmer than average. The combined land and ocean figures surpass the previous record set in 2002 at 1.28 F (0.71 C) above average.

That there's more trouble ahead was further emphasized by a story in today's Guardian that asserts: New studies of Greenland and Antarctica have forced a UN expert panel to conclude there is a 50% chance that widespread ice sheet loss "may no longer be avoided" because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere... Such melting would raise sea levels by four to six metres, the scientists say. It would cause "major changes in coastline and inundation of low-lying areas" and require "costly and challenging" efforts to move millions of people and infrastructure from vulnerable areas. The previous official line, issued in 2001, was that the chance of such an event was "not well known, but probably very low".

In a way this is the sound of another shoe dropping, since the IPCC summary for policymakers didn't include the effects of ice sheet loss in their estimates of future sea level rise. Some scientists criticized the panel for this. But this is unlikely to be the last news coming out of the full report.

The full effects of melting ice sheets and rising sea levels may not be felt for centuries--but some very serious effects will likely be felt much sooner. Just what that means can be illustrated by a local example--a set of maps of the projected effects of Climate Crisis rising sea levels in the San Francisco Bay, assembled by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission for a major feature in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle.

According to these maps, Parts of Corte Madera, San Rafael, Hayward and Newark and much of the Silicon Valley shoreline would be under water, including a portion of Moffett Field, the site of NASA Ames Research Center, where Google wants to build a 1 million-square-foot campus. Also threatened are the locations of proposed new stadiums for the San Francisco 49s and Oakland As.

But also: Wastewater treatment plants for more than a dozen cities in the South Bay, including San Jose, and the industrial ponds for the Valero oil refinery in Benicia and the Chevron refinery in Richmond, would be inundated by the projected rise in the bay.

The projections are based on rise level rise that is a fraction of the ultimate possibility of 6 meters. Most of them concern a 1 meter rise, which could occur in several decades. The article points out that the construction of seawalls and levees could limit that damage, but the cost in construction and maintenance would be in the billions of dollars. The decisions of what to do, when and how to do it, are the kind of decisions that communities and government on all levels are going to have to face.

But such specific problems also may help focus on the need to do the "Stop It"(from getting much worse in the future by slashing greenhouse gas emissions) actions at the same time as the "Fix It efforts (fix what needs to be fixed now or in the near future, from the already inevitable effects). Those studying these problems in San Francisco are saying that ultimately the extent to which big fixes are needed will be governed in part by how high the sea levels get, and that in turn may yet be governed by global heating caused by future emissions. So in the long run it may cost less to Fix It, if the Stop It strategies are successful.

Even the 1 in 2 chance that "widespread" melting of ice reservoirs will occur means that the worst, or perhaps even the very bad, can be averted. In fact, the 50% odds are themselves a good metaphor for what we need to do: we need to work on the Fix It and Stop It components with equal committment.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cups in place #3. BK photo.
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The Human Touch

Here in America, land of geographically and socially separated enclaves of experts where only one "brand" per person is permitted, British writer Michael Frayn would be not only an anomaly but a suspicious character. As a playwright, he wrote "Noises Off," the international hit that critic Frank Rich called "the funniest play written in my lifetime," and "Copenhagen," a drama about quantum physicists, another international hit. Frayn is also an accomplished journalist, novelist, translator, screenwriter and writer of nonfiction, including philosophy, of which "The Human Touch" is the latest example. Moreover, it is not the "how to win friends" or just "how to win" sort of philosophy, but serious analysis of what we know and how we know it, particularly concerning the nature of scientific knowledge, as well as the nature of reality.

For more on Michael Frayn's new book, click here for my review in today's San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

The Next 30 Years: Fix It and Stop It

It's not just the magnitude of the Climate Crisis that challenges humanity, but the conceptual complexity. And I don't mean just the technical complexity of the data, the interrelationships over time that go into creating models of future conditions governed by probably the most complex phenomena on the planet: the weather and the climate.

I mean the concepts that are needed just to understand the Crisis itself. This isn't simply a matter of observing a threatening situation and putting a stop to the danger. Though global heating is present and operating right now, the greatest threats that could be produced are in the future. They must be anticipated as well as observed.

In the past, we might know when a bad situation might get worse, and might lead to utter catastrophe. That was the impetus for stopping Hitler for many people. But even that took a long time to sink in. This time we have to take several more conceptual steps to grasp what the future might bring.

To understand this crisis involves concepts that we haven't had to apply to past crises. There's the concept of "feedback," when effects combine to reinforce causes, and create bigger problems. Like heat waves caused partly by the CO2 in the atmosphere, that dry soil so that they release more CO2, which feeds back to create more heat waves, which dries more soil, which... But it's more than reinforcing; the phenomenon gets bigger. Heat waves last longer, become droughts; winter starts later and ends sooner, hot weather insects have longer to spread disease, and so on.

Or the melting of Arctic ice, as one scientist described it: "What we're seeing is a process in which we start to lose ice cover during the summer," he said, "so areas which formerly had ice are now open water, which is dark. "These dark areas absorb a lot of the Sun's energy, much more than the ice; and what happens then is that the oceans start to warm up, and it becomes very difficult for ice to form during the following autumn and winter. It looks like this is exactly what we're seeing - a positive feedback effect, a 'tipping-point'."

And there's another of those concepts: when some processes--usually very large ones--get going, and feedback starts and continues, until the point of no return, the tipping point is reached, after which the process continues until it is completed, or until an opposite feedback effect can very slowly reverse it. The new IPCC reports are talking about feedback that's already ongoing, and tipping points that have already been passed, meaning that some processes are going to continue for at least a thousand years.

The greatest Climate Crisis danger we face is that global heating and the resulting feedback effects push some very large processes, like the melting of all the major ice reservoirs, past their tipping point, which would mean such an extreme change in climate that it's doubtful human civilization could survive, not to mention planetary life as we know it.

To understand feedback and the tipping point--both concepts concerning the behavior of systems, or systems dynamics--is crucial to understanding why preventing the conditions that get them started is so important. But there is another concept that is especially important right now, if we're going to get the next 30 years right, let alone the farther future.

That concept is lag time, or the time-lag. This is not a crisis we can fix by doing something and then things quickly return to normal. The cause of the Climate Crisis was and is cumulative over time. What's done to cause it occurs decades before the effect.

And ending the crisis, changing the effect, is not a matter of slowly subtracting the stuff that caused it. Because once the effect is caused, it takes on a life of its own. So the first factor is lag-time: the time between the cause and effect. In this case, the lag time is measured in decades.

Mark Hertsgaard explained this well a couple of years ago:

"At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of the debate likes to talk about: It is already too late to prevent global warming and the climate change it sets off.
Environmentalists won't say this for fear of sounding alarmist or defeatist. Politicians won't say it because then they'd have to do something about it. The world's top climate scientists have been sending this message, however, with increasing urgency for many years. "

By now, some of the effects of global heating are becoming obvious--it's here, no matter how we'd like to deny it. But Hertsgaard's point still hasn't quite sunk in. He writes:

The problem is that Kyoto governs only future emissions. No matter how well the protocol works, it will have no effect on past emissions, which are what have made global warming unavoidable. Contrary to the impression given by some news reports, global warming is not like a light switch that can be turned off if we simply stop burning so much oil, coal and gas. There is a lag effect of about 50 to 100 years. That's how long carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere after it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home furnaces and industrial smokestacks. So even if humanity stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet would continue warming for decades. "

He concludes:

Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on how to prevent it -- for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol... But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. No matter how many "green" cars and solar panels Kyoto eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain amount of global warming is inevitable.

The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them. "

But that strategic shift hasn't yet been made, partly because the deniers are still trying to cast doubt on the basic premise of global heating caused by greenhouse gas emission with catastrophic long-range consequences if continued, and so everyone else is still trying to refute their denial. But delaying the realization is dangerous: the Climate Crisis is two crises. And if we don't understand this, and if we don't act simultaneously on both crises in the next 30 years, there may well be no continuous human future on planet Earth.

I say that because the lag time of what's already going to happen because of past greenhouse gas emissions and their effects is estimated to be from 30 to 50 years for the processes that might decline and eventually stop in the next century or so, if we do what's necessary to stop it.

In other words, most of what's being talked about now to address the Climate Crisis--reversing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions through individual, corporate and government action, and instituting clean energy--won't make any difference for the next 30 years, apart from social, cultural, economic and health changes not directly related to climate changes.

We're talking almost exclusively about what I call the Stop It strategies--efforts that are necessary to save the future, not the present or the next 30 years. But sometime soon, almost certainly in the next five years, that's going to change. When devastating phenomena--deadly heat waves, droughts, floods, hurricanes, epidemics, famine--finally get recognized as being caused by global climate shifts, then the hue and cry will be to Fix It --and fix it now.

There are already preliminary tremors, noted here on this blog in August: a debate between Fix It and Stop It advocates. Sterling Burnett, of a conservative "free market" think tank, wants to concentrate on the Fix It crisis: like building seawalls on threatened coasts and innoculating people in Africa who are in greater danger of malaria because of the spread of mosquitos in the regions getting hotter. Environmentalist Drake Hamilton wants to concentrate on the Stop It crisis: reduce greenhouse gases by 60% by 2050 to "protect against the most dangerous consequences" farther in the future, which according to scientists could include the end of civilization and a planet scoured of most life as we know it.

The answer is obvious: we must Fix It and Stop It simultaneously. But don't underestimate the difficulty of conceiving that commitment and the courage that will be necessary to insist on it. First of all, Burnett is likely not the last business-oriented conservative who will drop the global heating denials and insist that we devote all our efforts to fixing the effects of past emissions. There is a lot of power in that position, and a lot of money to be made by companies and their powerful lobbyists. The same fear tactics that got Halliburton all those contracts in Iraq can do the same for that company and others.

The temptation to drop long-term efforts will be given additional strength when those efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions and to develop and use clean energy, all of which may entail sacrifices, lifestyle changes, economic dislocations and stress, aren't paying off in any obvious ways. In other words, what happens when we've cut emissions way back, and the climate keeps getting hotter, the droughts, hurricanes, diseases, etc. continue? And people are desperate and dying?

What happens when the cry arises to forget that useless activity, power up the generators and get to work on fixing the crises of the present? Does the future lose? If society doesn't understand the lag time involved in the Climate Crisis, and the need to simultaneously work to Fix It now and Stop It for the future , then one or the other is going to lose, and lose big.

Consider how difficult it's been, how long it is taking, just to accept the need to address the Climate Crisis at all. And we've hardly begun doing anything more than arguing. (There's substantial innovation, of course, and that may pay off very fast with the right leadership.) Consider how easy it's been to panic the American public by invoking 9-11. Consider that we're still fighting over Darwin vs. the Bible. And most of all, consider how our politics, our media and our way of thinking is all predicated on either/or choices. The leap to "both" is even more necessary than it is to understand the concepts of lag time, feedback and the tipping point, although a general public understanding of those concepts can go a long way to getting us to both Fix It now and Stop It for the future.