Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Other Fateful Number--and the Green Energy Advantage

There are two numbers that the climate science and climate crisis communities use as the primary indicators of the climate future.  The first is the 2 degrees C discussed in a prior post, the maximum temperature rise it's thought we can cope with, which is almost certain to be exceeded, probably by mid-century.  Even a degree higher could well have catastrophic effects affecting everyone.

The other number is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measured as parts per million, or ppm.  As this AP story puts it, "Years ago, it passed the 350 ppm mark that many scientists say is the highest safe level for carbon dioxide. It now stands globally at 395."  The goal of many climate activists is to get below that 350 ppm mark to limit future damage.  But the latest evidence is that the number is still rising, and faster than ever, according to scientists studying atmosphere in the Arctic at labs like the one pictured here.  This same story:

"The world's air has reached what scientists call a troubling new milestone for carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant. Monitoring stations across the Arctic this spring are measuring more than 400 parts per million of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere...So far, only the Arctic has reached that 400 level, but the rest of the world will follow soon."

Globally, the average carbon dioxide level is about 395 parts per million but will pass the 400 mark within a few years, scientists said. The Arctic is the leading indicator in global warming, both in carbon dioxide in the air and effects, said Pieter Tans, a senior NOAA scientist."This is the first time the entire Arctic is that high," he said.Tans called reaching the 400 number "depressing," and Butler said it was "a troubling milestone."

"It's been at least 800,000 years — probably more — since Earth saw carbon dioxide levels in the 400s, Butler and other climate scientists said. Until now...It's an important threshold," said Carnegie Institution ecologist Chris Field, a scientist who helps lead the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It is an indication that we're in a different world."

"Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas and most of it lasts about 100 years in the air, but some of it stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Some carbon dioxide is natural, mainly from decomposing dead plants and animals. Before the Industrial Age, levels were around 275 parts per million. For more than 60 years, readings have been in the 300s, except in urban areas, where levels are skewed. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal for electricity and oil for gasoline, has caused the overwhelming bulk of the man-made increase in carbon in the air, scientists say."

Though the climate fate of the earth for the next century as it is affected or determined by CO2 is set for the next century (whatever that fate may be), to eventually get that number below 350 ppm is still a goal--to get at the cause of future heating, and give the far future a chance.

Green energy is the most obvious place to start, and despite the continuing failure to deal directly with causes, this is the one area of real positive activity.  Part of the reason is its coherence with the present state of the world economy (as the world measures economy), that is in profitable industries and jobs.  The UN figures that green jobs could add as many as 60 million jobs globally.

Another piece of this puzzle is the visionary and conscientious entrepreneur who applies the technology, like this one:

"When the developer, Voltaic Solaire, finishes a $1 million rehabilitation of a 19th-century brownstone at 367 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope next year, the facade will be covered with a solar skin and a solar awning will sit on the roof. The panels will generate 18,000 kilowatt hours of energy throughout the year, enough to power all six units in the 7,000-square-foot building. Voltaic Solaire is so confident in its ability to create a “net-zero” building that utilities will be bundled into the rent."       

We are also learning (or re-learning) a host of simple measures that add crucial increments to the puzzle of using energy with minimum damage to the climate.  One example is simply buildings having white roofs, which reflect rather than absorb heat.

 In February, researchers at Concordia University estimated that painting one percent of the world’s urban surfaces white (rooftops and pavement) could reduce CO2 emissions by 130 gigatons over the next 50-100 years. In 2011, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached 31.5 gigatons."

One activist estimates:"painting 5% of the world’s rooftops white per year by 2030 could save enough emissions to equal the world’s carbon output in 2010.“That would essentially turn off the entire world for an entire year,” he says.

Reducing energy used for air conditioning by 20% is significant for this one change, which is deep in folk knowledge anyway, in hot countries.  Besides scientific innovation, economic opportunity and particular visionary acts of conscience, there is the willingness and eagerness of ordinary people to make changes to save energy and money, which recent polls (and my anecdotal knowledge) confirm is widespread--perhaps the most universal positive possibility, requiring only information and leadership.

Such changes can conceivably make the near future better than it would otherwise be, and they can contribute to getting these fateful numbers going in the right direction, possibly helping the far future. (Though these numbers inevitably will go back down, if or when human civilization breaks apart.)  Such incremental changes are not in themselves sufficient.  Nothing now will reverse the changes already underway.  The time lag in the events of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, their active lifetimes which stretch from months to centuries, and the unknown feedback loops, tipping points and cumulative effects are the very definition of fate, though we cannot know precisely what that fate will be.  But we must do what we can.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Can Money Buy You Your Own Reality?

The Romney campaign is shaping up to be the weirdest presidential campaign ever.  Like so much about this election, it is the ultimate of something.  That something in this case would be the GOPer campaigns since 1988, the Atwater/Rove era.  They are all about creating and selling an alternate reality, very much what advertising tries to do much of the time, but on a much larger, more complete scale.  Not just part of reality, but all of reality that might determine a presidential election.

They do it by lying.  By creating lies, putting a lot of energy and power and money behind them until a lot of people are convinced they are not lies but the hidden truth.  They start with the power of right wing talk radio and their very own television network, Fox.  These outlets spend much of their time convincing their listeners and viewers that only they are telling the truth, and the rest of the media lies.

They use their power with the rest of the media, too, to always get time to tell their lies.  They are GOPers and their supporters are the owners of the corporations that own the media, and the corporations that support the media through advertising. 

By buying a controlling interest in the Supreme Court, they got the go-ahead to use virtually unlimited amounts of money to finance their lies.  This past week, a group of their billionaires committed to spend a total of a billion dollars on crafting and telling their lies.

A billion dollars.  What I wonder is the combined budget of the news divisions of the television networks, plus the news coverage of the major newspapers and magazines?  Over the six months until the election?  I'm pretty sure it's considerably less.

The superpacs will carve out their own target electorates.  The gutter sleazoids, the overt racists, will concentrate on nailing down the racist base.  The others will support the alternate reality that candidate Romney is going out and saying: that President Obama's stimulus and other policies created no jobs at all, that he's vastly increased federal spending and federal regulation and the size of government, that he is vastly contributing to the deficit with no plan to control it,  that he has no foreign policy successes, that he goes around apologizing for America, etc. etc.  Not one of which is factually true.

But if these are generalizations that are untrue, Romney is adding specific lies of a kind that are truly scary.  He did so on Thursday when he stated as a fact that "an independent Inspector General" has investigated the Obama administration investment in the Solyndra firm and "concluded" that money had gone to "friends and family, and campaign contributors."  This is an absolute and complete lie on a verifiable matter of fact, as Rachel Maddow pointed out.

So a presidential candidate is saying that the President of the United States was found to have used public money in an act of corruption to defraud the government and commit other crimes by distributing government funds to "friends and family" (which it seems would be nepotism) and to campaign contributors, which is a more nebulous charge, but nevertheless, an important one if a federal investigation had so concluded.  And none of this is true.  No investigation, no conclusion. But it is repeated in campaign ads which lots of dollars will make sure that lots of people see and hear. It is a short step to saying that the President was found guilty of murder, and then spending millions of dollars to make that the accepted truth.

The charge in itself is somewhat laughable coming from Romney, whose friends and family are in the kind of businesses he would be able to funnel millions of dollars to. (As Governor of Mass., he also spent millions on public money on tech startups that failed. Update: including a solar power company that just went bankrupt.)  Who is President Obama going to funnel money to?  His brother-in-law the basketball coach?  Malia?

But it is not laughable coming from the nominee of the other party in a presidential election, the one with a billion dollars to throw around just on media.  It is not a laughable charge as it plays into unspoken prejudices, that President Obama favors blacks, his "friends and family." 

But something else happened Thursday, something as weird but as potentially dark and unsettling as a bland candidate blandly lying.   The Romney campaign did two weird but connected things.  They rounded up reporters and put them on a bus to go to the Solyndra event, because they didn't want to give the Obama campaign the opportunity to disrupt the event.  And the Romney campaign deliberately disrupted an Obama campaign event in Chicago, preventing David Axlerod from holding a press conference by shouting him down, playing loud instruments and so on.

And the Romney campaign--and Romney himself--said both of these were deliberate, and related.  The Maddow blog reported:

  Romney apparently kept the Solyndra press conference a secret because of paranoid fears about White House sabotage.
"We knew, if word got out, that Solyndra would do everything in their power, and the Obama administration would do everything in their power, to stop us from having this news conference, "an unnamed adviser told reporters, per CNN.
Reporters raised the question of how this devious plot to derail the event would work given that the freedom to hold a press conference in public is a fairly basic right.
"Well, he's only the president of the United States," the adviser replied.... Romney alluded to similar concerns personally in his press conference.
"I think there are people who don't want to see this event occur, don't want to have questions asked about this particular investment," Romney told reporters when asked about the secrecy behind the event, according to the New York Times.
And Romney admitted his campaign organized and sent the people who prevented David Axlerod from speaking: "If the president is going to have his people come in to my rallies and heckle, why, we'll show them we conservatives have the same kind of capacity he does."

Unless the Romney campaign has actual evidence that the Obama campaign has officially sent hecklers to his events, and that they planned to disrupt his Solyndra event, he's lying.  But as laughable as these antics seemed to political reporters, they are way too reminicient of 20th century fascist tactics, striking at the heart of the public democratic process.  This is close to being right out of the Hitler electoral playbook.

Why isn't all this laughable?  Because people aren't laughing.  They are taking Romney seriously--if the polls are to be believed, a lot of women are forgetting why they would be voting against themselves if they support Romney, a lot of veterans are really deluded about who is looking out for them, etc.  And the GOPer stranglehold on the federal government makes it impossible for President Obama to do what he knows needs to be done to create jobs and improve the economy.  Unemployment is still high, and if this month's report out this morning isn't significantly better--and it isn't expected to be, though the economy (particularly housing) has shown signs of growth-- then people are going to be in the mood to listen to an alternate reality where everything is Obama's fault and there is an easy and simple solution that will make it all better.  And they are going to get a lot of opportunity to be bathed in that phony reality, especially in the swing states.

Not So Fast

 The U.S. Justice Department has demanded that the GOPer state government of Florida stop its latest effort to destroy voting rights--by purging voters from the rolls.  It's a technical decision in a way--Florida must clear such changes to voting procedure with the Federal Courts and Justice Department under provisions of the Voting Rights Act, so that the Justice Department can determine whether such a change threatens minority voting rights.  The TPM story adds:

DOJ also said that Florida’s voter roll purge violated the National Voter Registration Act, which stipulates that voter roll maintenance should have ceased 90 days before an election, which given Florida’s August 14 primary, meant May 16.
Five of Florida’s counties are subject to the Voting Rights Act, but the state never sought permission from either the Justice Department or a federal court to implement its voter roll maintenance program. Florida officials said they were trying to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls, but a flawed process led to several U.S. citizens being asked to prove their citizenship status or be kicked off the rolls.

According to the Miami Herald's study of the voters being purged, most were Democrats and/or Latinos.

A second victory for voting rights on Thursday was a Federal Court judge's injunction against elements of the new registration rules in Florida:

"Judge Robert Hinkle said the law imposes "a harsh and impractical" metric for voter registration organizations, referring to record-keeping requirements and a 48-hour deadline to turn registrations in to the state. Failing to adhere to the "prompt" deadline could result in fines for organization.

The suit was brought by three third-party voter registration organizations: League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida Public Interest Research Group and Rock the Vote."

These were not the only actions taken by Florida to deny voting rights,  and a scandalous number of other states have similarly outrageous anti-American laws.  There is little question that these efforts are designed to suppress Democratic votes for the 2012 election.  Those efforts go on in most of the states, and even in Florida, they have already been successful in suppressing new registrations, and some citizens have already been denied their right to vote.

The Obama campaign and the Democratic Party and allies are aware of what's going on, and devoting resources to overcoming the obstacles and getting people registered.  There's online tools and information at the new website,

Other tools and links are here at the Nation magazine.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Behind the Apocalyptic Fog

There is something that might be called the apocalyptic fog.  It may be generated by a societal unconscious (an aggregation of different responses but equally obscuring), our high-distraction speed freak culture, both, and more.  In any case, even science is susceptible.  It obscures what may be ahead.

There's a story that the National Resource Defense Council is pushing, with their study of the likely increase in heat-related deaths in selected American cities due to the climate crisis.  It's a user friendly format with a U.S. map.  You click on the city you want to know about, and up pops a figure, over a button that you hit to "take action" against the climate crisis. 

If you go to the actual report to get the complete figures, it estimate deaths due to summer heat by mid century and by the end of the century.  For example, Pittsburgh now has 5 days of "excessive heat" each summer.  By around 2050, the estimate is for 52 days.  By the end of the century, 59.  While there are an average of 19 heat related deaths each summer now, by mid-century it will be 38.  By the end of the century, about 1200 additional heat related deaths in total are predicted.  Taken together, these 40 U.S. cities add about an additional 150,000 deaths. The report emphasizes that it is a conservative estimate, and based on present trends continuing.

As alarming as these figures might be--and the idea of 52 days of excessive heat in Pittsburgh every summer is pretty alarming to me--they are so "conservative" when compared to more global estimates of 2050 that they seem almost surreal.

This past week the International Energy Agency released figures on global C02 emissions for 2011.  They showed an increase of 1 gigaton over the previous year, bringing the yearly output to 31.6 gigatons.  Despite all the talk, carbon emissions outpaced the growth in GDP.  Much of the growth (45% coal) came from China, which partly explains why China has resisted carbon treaty controls, although is some ways it is doing more to recognize the reality of the climate crisis than the U.S. 

So there's a different set of numbers, and here's what they may mean.  The generally accepted figure for the maximum increase in global temperature from pre-industrial times that civilization can cope with is 2 degrees centigrade.  In order for the planet to stay within the 2C limit, carbon output has to level off at 32.6 gigatons no later than 2017, according to this report.  But right now the industrial world is about one year's increase away from that, with no plan to decrease it.

From a news report on these figures: "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet," Fatih Birol, IEA's chief economist told Reuters."  Correction: Reuter's corrected this quote to the effect that the 6 degree Celsius would be reached by the end of the century, not 2050.  That affects the numbers in my comment, but not the outcome.  And it does not affect the numbers in Blakemore's quote or the slightly higher estimate by Dr. Carter.  Note that the effects threatening human civilization may begin at 3C and 4C.  

Six degrees C is three times the estimated safe level.  It is 11 degrees F.  This is by 2050 [2100] or so--less than 40 years away.  And it doesn't happen suddenly--it may come in fits and starts, but it will be felt and consequential along the way.  And if present trends continue, it doesn't end there.  The effects, once begun, will continue for thousands of years.  But if the temperature continues this rise, it's not clear that human civilization as we know, life on Earth as we know it, makes it to 2100. 

We've heard all this in outline, but always with vague timelines.  This is a more defined perspective.

Here's what Bill Blakemore at ABC wrote this week:

“Estimates heard in private conversations with scientists and economists reach even into the billions of people who could perish well within this century if the warming is not somehow controlled.

This reporter has heard figures in measured conversations, for example, such as this: If humanity does not now manage somehow to drastically cut carbon emissions so that the global temperature levels off at around 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial times, but reaches instead 4 degrees centigrade, it could mean some 4 billion people dying within this century because the world couldn’t grow enough food in such heat and the drought it will bring—rice harvests, for one, would be decimated.”
Four degrees C, four billion people.  Quite a difference from the thousands of deaths from excessive heat.  And we're heading rapidly for 6 degrees C at mid-century[by the end of the century.]  (Of  course, some of this could be accounted for by the geographically specific U.S. study, for it is likely the first mass deaths would be in already poor countries.  On the other hand, everybody has to eat. So heat-related deaths may not be the major problem.)
Climate Progress posted on this IEA report, and the comments make it one of those threads that is like a snapshot of what people are thinking and feeling right now.  The comments begin with a cry of despair from a 17 year old, and a number of people trying to be helpful to him or her, with the gamut of suggestions.  Especially interesting to me are the references to apocalyptic movies, like Doctor Strangelove and On the Beach.  I do think these stories are how we feel our way into this unthinkable future prospect.

But one response, from a Dr. Peter Carter, also spells out the implications more specifically (he's using an estimate of 7C by 2100):

"We are ending almost all life and yet only a handful of people are calling for the acknowledgement of the dire planetary emergency we are all in. Make no mistake this 7C by 2100, due to current investment in more of the very worst polluting fossil fuels, is a real commitment being made today and its much worse than 7C. It is a full long term commitment of about 12C due to the ocean heat lag. At 3C all crops in all regions have declined below baseline yields (IPCC NRC UK Met Office). At 4C 75% of species are committed to extinction (IPCC). At 7C the planet is uninhabitable if there are any humans left."

Again, these are not dates on which things happen.  They will happen over years.  I will soon be 66 years old.  2050 is less than 40 years away, less than 2/3 the years of my life so far.   I was born just after World War II, the last major event of widespread disaster and death.  It killed some 66 million people, to lead history in "multicide," according to a book that is the actual subject of Blakemore's post, linked above.  Most of the global population is younger than me, and while many places in the world have experienced horrors in the past generation or two, the vast majority here in America especially has no experience dealing with anything like that.  World War II itself didn't affect the U.S. so directly as most of the rest of the world, but the homefront got a taste of emergency, preceded by the Great Depression.

Even Europe has had about a half century of relative peace and prosperity.  There is little in people's experience to prepare them for what may be ahead.  Drowned coastal cities, devastating economically and culturally perhaps, are the least of it.  Dire shortages of food and water, and overwhelming heat in places, in a world awash in lethal weapons.

There are other very worrisome aspects in coping with the difficulties of even the near future.  The fragile nature of what keeps this huge global economy going, dependent on electrical grids and satellites, cheap and fast transport.  The strange blind march towards the new Dark Ages is more than symbolized by libraries destroying books in favor of digitizing and encoding them, making access of knowledge dependent on frail technologies.

Another difference of this extended crisis is the other species that will likely precede us in extinction, starting with other primates but also including others that are deep in our genetic experience on this planet. Nobody knows what this will do to us, or indeed, what it is slowly doing to us already.

Meanwhile in North America we seem to be marching resolutely towards the abyss.  Our upcoming election pits a man who represents those economic and political interests intent on absolute denial about the real dangers ahead, against a man who isn't talking about them.  And the political pundits are now unanimous in predicting a close election, because significant elements of the electorate are lining up behind the candidate who speaks nothing but lies and denial.

So in the end this post is about cognitive dissonance, even among those who see the climate crisis as a mortal threat.  It suggests a crisis that is acknowledged by few, and yet may be driving our response to everything.  And it is about getting the possibilities straight in your mind, right down to the time frame.  The future is never certain until it is the present.  And these possible or probable futures are part of our present, but not all of it.  It may well be that doing a lot of relatively little things adds up to changing this future.  It may be that there are factors not known or not correctly figured.  We can only do what we can do.  But absorbing these possibilities into us now is part of the soulmaking of the future. The stories we tell ourselves is a part of that process, for each of us, and for us to share.

Soul is about depth, and it includes sadness and all those emotions we would rather not have.  Humanity had a challenge--to anticipate and prevent a mortal danger, one that it largely caused.  So far it is failing that test.  Losing civilization as we know it may well be the penalty.  But between here and there, now and 2050 or 2100, the challenge of life gets more profound.  It includes wrapping our heads around the worst of the real possibilities.  And hoping our hearts will guide us.

top photo: fog by bikephotomusic. Painting by Andree Tracey.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dark Ages as Elective

"According to a new study by Farleigh Dickinson University, Fox viewers are the least knowledgeable audience of any outlet, and they know even less about politics and current events than people who watch no news at all."

Ben Adler at the Nation

When breezing through Fox on the way to ESPN, as careless of brain cells as that might be, I've noticed one innovation of recent years: lots of comely young women, mostly blond, showing lots of leg.  Something that CNN seems to be copying.  The obviousness of the poses that we're not supposed to acknowledge pretty much says it all.

My Money Trumps Your Life

As per results of the Texas primary, Richie Richney is more or less officially the nominee for President of the Grand Old Racists Party, the Rabid Right and More for Me billionaires' choice, eager to bring their special mixture of plutocratic lazy fare and 21st century fascism to an eager America.

He chose today to kiss up to Donald Trump and his ever shriller charges that President Obama is not legally the President of the United States, and to emphasize his nod nod wink wink by releasing his own birth certificate.  So America--or at least that preselected portion of it who will be permitted to vote this time--can endorse the most craven candidate imaginable, a world class coward who seems incapable of uttering a sentence that does not depend on a lie.   Leading the charge of the billionaires who will be spending millions spreading those lies from now until November.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Only imagination can see a small distance beyond the walls of mortality."

Patrick Kavanagh

painting: Vincent Van Gogh