Posts Tagged ‘climate change’
Continuing the examination of two views on AGW.
Readers will recall that this post opened yesterday. That Part One closed with Martin writing this:
Much of what Oakwood writes is an attack upon the Hockey Stick graph of palaeoclimatic temperature reconstructions first produced in 1998 (MBH98).
However, the fatal flaws in Oakwood’s scepticism regarding MBH98 are as follows:
- MBH98 has been validated by at least 14 other reconstructions (as cited in IPCC AR4 in 2007) using a wide variety of other proxy data(see Wikipedia for relevant links)
- Hockey Stick-shaped graphs turn up in reconstructions of CO2 levels and temperature – now going back over thousands of years – because they are not ‘statistical noise’ -
- Arguments about splicing instrumental data onto proxy data only serve to challenge the extent to which the speed of late 20th Century warming is unprecedented.
- Such arguments do not invalidate the conclusion that it is now almost certainly warmer than it has been at any time since the last Ice Age (i.e. a period of relative climate and sea level stability that has made agriculture, urbanisation and civilisation possible).
However, this is no reason for us to be complacent because, as Oakwood must know, the 50 to 100 metres of sea level rise that will be caused by the melting of terrestrial ice sheets will necessitate the mass migration of millions of people. This makes his concerns about current poverty and starvation (i.e. the main reason he eventually cites for not believing action is yet necessary) look very trivial indeed.
So continuing ….
The argument that the ‘divergence problem’ does not bring into question proxy studies is just one example of supposed ‘settled’ evidence in the case for AGW. There are others which collectively bring down the case to one of opinion.
After a lengthy attempt to assert that the “hide the decline” controversy was or is significant, Oakwood eventually moves onto attack the significance of MBH98; and to claim that ACD is no more than a matter of opinion. It is only possible to reach this conclusion by dismissing the majority of climate scientists as being stupid, sloppy, or sinister.
Here are a few others:
- Mann et al’s original hockey stick (1998) (as well as a number of other studies) shows an unprecedented temperature rise in the first half of the 20th century, a temperature change that most climate scientists believe can be explained by natural phenomena, such as the Sun (while failing to reproduce the man-made rise in the 2nd half of the century, due to the divergence problem explained above).
However, Climategate and, more especially Climategate 2.0 merely served to demonstrate how deliberate and organised are the attempts to discredit climate science and derail international attempts to tackle the ACD problem.
Thus, we are expected to believe there was both an unprecedented NATURAL temperature rise and unprecedented MAN-MADE rise in the same century. Not impossible, but statistically highly unlikely.
Oakwood suggests that assertions about early 20th Century warming are statistically highly unlikely (i.e. that climate scientists are stupid to make them). However, the real statistically highly unlikely suggestion is that 30 years of monthly average temperatures exceeding their long-term average values could be a consequence of natural variation. Unlike early 20th Century warming, this is definitely not capable of being explained by natural causes (such as cyclical solar activity or random volcanic eruptions).
- The ‘record’ (in just 35 years) of minimum summer ice in the Arctic is repeatedly presented as evidence for impending doom. However, the record MAXIMUM ice cover in the ANTarctic, at the same time, is dismissed with ‘we have another explanation for that’.
Trying to shift the focus away from the accelerating rate of ice loss in the Arctic is very lame indeed. The Arctic is surrounded by land and (now) increasing amounts of warming water. The reasons for the ice loss are well understood and it is happening faster than was predicted even 5 years ago. The Antarctic is surrounded by a huge expanse of cold ocean and is also being kept cold by the human caused hole in the ozone layer. The reasons why its ice is not melting so fast are therefore also well understood. In addition, it should be noted that the Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest warming place in the southern hemisphere.
- Whatever the weather, blame global warming. A few years ago, milder winters and earlier springs in the UK were hailed as evidence of AGW. But now we get lots of snow, and appalling spring, cooler summers, etc, and guess what, its due to global warming.
- Hot/dry weather and floods around the world are routinely highlighted as ‘more evidence’ whereas as cold weather extremes and records are dismissed as ‘just natural variation’ – again, and again and again.
Oakwood‘s remarks about extreme events are also very misleading. The number of records being broken for hot and/or dry events is many times greater than the number of records being broken for cold and/or wet events. As Hansen et al explained last year, in their review of historical data for the last five decades, natural variability does not explain the steady shift in average temperatures and the broadening of the range of conditions experienced in any one place.
I really can’t believe that Oakwood is so parochial in his outlook that he dares to mention the cold weather the UK has experienced recently. We may have had the coldest Spring for 50 years, but, that does not change the fact that global average temperatures are still the highest ever in recorded history. Furthermore, it does not change the fact that the analysis of Hansen et al (2012) continues to be validated by events such as those in Central Europe at the moment – where 1 in 100 year flood events have recurred after only 10 years. Not impossible – just statistically highly unlikely.
Those who highlight the lack of rising temperature for the past 10-15 years are routinely dismissed as deniers and liars. We’re told, ‘but the last decade is the warmest in a 100 years’. No-one disputes that. Given the world warmed by 0.8 degC in 100 years, that’s perfectly reasonable, and is not a defence against the fact that warming has at least paused.
- We’re told: ‘but the heat is going into the ice caps and the deep oceans and atmospheric heat is just a small percentage of the total’, How convenient. In the 1980s and 1990s, atmospheric temperature was enough for ‘proof’ of serious AGW. We didn’t hear anything about ocean heat then. No-one suggested that perhaps the warming was due to a release of previously ‘hidden’ ocean heat. Or that we shouldn’t read too much into a small atmospheric temperature rise.
- We see again and again, whatever happens, whatever the data show, the theory is revised to ‘show’ that nothing has changed. This is simply not plausible science.
- We’re told, the physics of CO2-induced global warming is just that, ‘physics’, and we can’t change that however much we dispute it. No-one disputes the physics. But, the atmosphere (believe it or not) is very complicated. We have the physics that says aerosols reflect the Sun’s heat, that clouds may increase and also reflect more heat. We now hear the relationships with the oceans is very important (which we didn’t hear before). Thus the debate is not about the reality of the CO2-global warming physics. Its about the sensitivity of the system and which physical phenomena will dominate.
Given the massive inertia in the climate system (which guarantees decades of future temperature rise even if CO2 emissions were completely halted today), there is no reason for us to be complacent about the fact that we have only seen a rise of 0.8C since the Industrial Revolution. The scientific consensus remains that equilibrium climate sensitivity is somewhere in excess of 2C and that such a rise in temperature will not be good for the vast majority of life on Earth. On the evidence of the ACD that we are already experiencing, I think there is very good reason to agree with that conclusion.
Again, I am astonished that Oakwood even dares to mention the ‘global warming has stopped’ canard. This misconception has been debunked so many times; there are even debates about who has written written the best rebuttals. Here is a summary: Whilst surface warming may have paused, the warming of the ocean (which is driving the increased frequency of extreme weather events of all kinds) has continued. Given that oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface, is this something really worth arguing about?
Climate scientists are therefore not changing their story to accommodate inconvenient new data. Only climate change sceptics do that. The only implausible science on offer today is that which seeks to explain all the data without acknowledging that CO2 is the main driver. Sure, CO2 does not explain everything but, you cannot explain all the data unless the primacy of CO2 is accepted.
Some will respond: ‘but all of these arguments have been debunked many times’. All they really mean is another opinion or speculation has been given by an AGW believer. Nothing wrong with these, but don’t claim they represent settled science.
However, I should like to re-iterate the importance of the recently-published results of investigations at a lake in the NE of Arctic Russia. What this new 3.6 million year continuous palaeoclimatic record tells us is that current warmth is not unprecedented (if you go back to an era in which humans did not exist – 400 or 1,100 thousand years ago). This demonstrates that good scientists do not change their story when they get unexpected results.
I have no problem with scientists believing in AGW and believing it a serious threat. But when so much of their case is based on weak arguments, I do have a problem with claiming the case is ‘settled’ and that anyone who questions or challenges it is a liar, denier, conspiracy theorist, etc.
Both sides of the debate have their extremists and nutters. My interest is in the rational middle ground. To suggest an ‘eccentric’ like Christopher Monckton is ‘typical’ of all AGW-sceptics is just like claiming all Conservative voters are fascist and all Labour voters communist. It has no place in informed and educated debate.
Oakwood claims arguments for concern over ACD are “weak” but, in making this assertion, the only information he has referred to is very much out-of-date (such as IPCC AR4 in 2007). Oakwood moves on to discuss unhelpful labels such as “liar” and “denier”.
I do not think I have ever suggested that anyone who professes to be ‘sceptical’ is lying. However, I do think that, just like the tobacco executives whose ‘modus operandi’ they are copying, the executives of fossil fuel companies know more than they care to admit. There is also a great deal of evidence to indicate that climate change ‘scepticism’ is in fact being driven by unscientific economists aided in their anti-science cause by a handful of friendly scientists who tell them what they want to hear. This is not scepticism, it is ideological prejudice.
The term “denier” was introduced with the intention of associating AGW-sceptics with Holocaust Deniers. That is to say, AGW-sceptics are putting millions of lives at risk through their lies and ignorance. Given the weakness of the AGW case, the use of the labels ‘denier’, ‘deny’, denial’ seems to represent an insult to every victim of the Holocaust.
I agree that use of the term ‘denier’ is generally not helpful, but, given all the evidence that conflicts with their position, I do think that those who remain ‘sceptical’ about the primary cause of ongoing climate change are being irrational. If your beliefs require you to dismiss any and all evidence that conflicts with them, that is not scepticism, it is wilful blindness; it is what Young Earth Creationists have to do in order to protect themselves from wicked and ungodly scientific ideas.
Therefore, even if Oakwood does not do it, many who are ‘sceptical’ do rely upon conspiracy theories to dismiss all the evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. This includes dismissing most scientists as stupid, sloppy or sinister.
And why is it not time to act now? I am an environmentalist and see many environmental and social problems that need addressing. In particular, the need for ‘sustainability’ in all we do. There remain millions dying each year from such things as malnutrition, lack of safe drinking water, malaria, etc.
These are hard facts with zero room for any doubt. Given the weakness in the AGW-case, it is not a priority. I see some benefits in acting. For example, in many cases a reduction in CO2 emissions leads to much improved energy-efficiency, and less pollution. However, the case is not made for diverting money and effort from the more immediate priorities, covering pristine countryside in wind farms to satisfy urban energy demands, or using more biofuels at the expense of more hunger.
Having wasted so much time trying to falsify MBH98, Oakwood finally gets round to the important bit of my question: Why does he think the time to act has not yet arrived?
Failing to address the point that a wide range of industrial, political and economic organisations now agree that it is time to act, Oakwood opts instead to simply re-state his belief that attempts to mitigate the ACD problem will do more harm than good. All the evidence I have seen suggests that he is mistaken. To-date, I think the most compelling evidence is that contained in the IIED’s 2009 report , ‘Assessing the costs of Adaptation to Climate Change: A review of UNFCCC and other recent estimates’ (PDF available here), which begins with the following very sobering executive summary:
Several recent studies have reported adaptation costs for climate change, including for developing countries. They have similar-sized estimates and have been influential in discussions on this issue.
However, the studies have a number of deficiencies which need to be transparent and addressed more systematically in the future. A re-assessment of the UNFCCC estimates for 2030 suggests that they are likely to be substantial under-estimates. The purpose of this report is to illustrate the uncertainties in these estimates rather than to develop new cost estimates, which is a much larger task than can be accomplished here.
The main reasons for under-estimation are that: (i) some sectors have not been included in an assessment of cost (e.g. ecosystems, energy, manufacturing, retailing, and tourism); (ii) some of those sectors which have been included have been only partially covered; and (iii) the additional costs of adaptation have sometimes been calculated as ‘climate mark-ups’ against low levels of assumed investment. In some parts of the world low levels of investment have led to a current adaptation deficit, and this deficit will need to be made good by full funding of development, without which the funding for adaptation will be insufficient. Residual damages also need to be evaluated and reported because not all damages can be avoided due to technical and economic constraints.
There is an urgent need for more detailed assessments of these costs, including case studies of costs of adaptation in specific places and sectors.
Thus, belief in AGW is not a simple moral argument which some would want to believe – good vs evil, or capitalist vs environmentalist, etc.
Oakwood says he does not think this is a good-vs- evil or a capitalist-vs- environmentalist issue. I would agree. However:
- I am not the one who is allowing my political beliefs to prejudice my approach to the science;
- I am not the one who is accusing most scientists of being stupid, sloppy or sinister in order to dismiss what they are telling me; and
- I am not the one changing my story or my preferred argument whenever something I have formerly relied upon is shown to be unreasonable.
Although it is a shame that he is part of a minority within the UK’s current Coalition Government, I will conclude by quoting from a recent speech by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Edward Davey:
Of course there will always be uncertainties within climate science and the need for research to continue… We make progress by building on what we know, and questioning what we don’t. But some sections of the press are giving an uncritical campaigning platform to individuals and lobby groups who reject outright the fact that climate change is a result of human activity. Some who even deny the reality of climate change itself… By selectively misreading the evidence, they seek to suggest that climate change has stopped so we can all relax and burn all the dirty fuel we want without a care…
Oakwood says he opposes action to curb ACD because there are bigger problems we need to solve. If this were likely to be true, it would be an admirable position to take. Unfortunately, the bulk of the evidence suggests that ACD is a problem unlike any other and, unless we make serious attempts to minimise it, its consequences will dwarf all other problems we face.
This is because basic physics tells us that allowing the Earth to warm up will cause terrestrial ice to melt and sea levels to rise. It was predicted and it is now happening. The time to act to stop it is now. Millions of people cannot and will not adapt to having their land and their cities submerged under water.
Well I think that the agreement of Oakwood and Martin to set out their positions is fabulous and very worthy.
If readers will forgive me, tomorrow I will offer my own personal reflections on what has been offered by Martin and Oakwood today and yesterday.
Learning from Dogs is not a blogsite about climate change!
Why, you may ask, do I start today’s post with that sub-heading? Because, I am conscious that many of my posts do touch on this subject. For example, just two days ago there was Breaking news. Then there was the piece about the climate implications for Phoenix, Arizona. Followed the next day by the changes in the flow of the jet stream across the North Atlantic with all the weather implications for North-West Europe.
Indeed, as the heading to today’s post makes clear, this is also about the changes going on to our planet.
Learning from Dogs is about a different way of living and behaving. A campaign, if one wants to call it that, to show that the way that modern man is living is corrupt. Not with a big ‘C’ but still in the sense of living a dishonest life. Learning from Dogs attempts to show that our wonderful dogs, a source of so much love and pleasure for so many millions, offer us an example of a life in and of this planet.
If there was ever a time in the history of man when we needed being reminded of our frailty and vulnerability, it is now. As the following so starkly illustrates.
A new study of ocean warming has just been published in Geophysical Research Letters by Balmaseda, Trenberth, and Källén (2013). There are several important conclusions which can be drawn from this paper.
- Completely contrary to the popular contrarian myth, global warming has accelerated, with more overall global warming in the past 15 years than the prior 15 years. This is because about 90% of overall global warming goes into heating the oceans, and the oceans have been warming dramatically.
But what really jumped off the page was this graph. It is truly scary!
I’m not going to republish the whole piece, although Peter Sinclair kindly gave permission, because I want to move on. But please do go to that article here and take in the conclusions; for all our sakes. Conclusions such as:
Their results in this respect are very similar to the main conclusion of Nuccitelli et al. (2012), in which we noted that recently, warming of the oceans below 700 meters accounts for about 30% of overall ocean and global warming. Likewise, this new study concludes,
“In the last decade, about 30% of the warming has occurred below 700 m, contributing significantly to an acceleration of the warming trend.”
and such as:
Most importantly, everybody (climate scientists and contrarians included) must learn to stop equating surface and shallow ocean warming with global warming. In fact, as Roger Pielke Sr. has pointed out, “ocean heat content change [is] the most appropriate metric to diagnose global warming.” While he has focused on the shallow oceans, actually we need to measure global warming by accounting for all changes in global heat content, including the deeper oceans. Otherwise we can easily fool ourselves into underestimating the danger of the climate problem we face.
What I want to move on to is a recent item highlighted on Grist. This was an essay by David Roberts under the heading of Two reasons climate change is not like other environmental problems. David opens by saying:
If you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious: Most people don’t understand climate change very well. This includes a large proportion of the nation’s politicians, journalists, and pundits — even the pundits who write about it. (I’m looking at you, Joe Nocera.)
One reason for the widespread misunderstanding is that climate change has been culturally coded as an “environmental problem.” This has been, in all sorts of ways, a disaster. Lots of pundits, especially brain-dead “centrist” pundits, have simply transferred their framing and conception of environmental problems to climate. They approach it as just another air pollution problem.
David writes that firstly carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants, for example like air particulants. Then later goes on to say:
The second difference is that climate change is irreversible.
As Joe Romm notes in a recent post, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera slipped up in his latest column and referred to technology that would “help reverse climate change.” I don’t know whether that reflects Nocera’s ignorance or just a slip of the pen, but I do think it captures the way many people subconsciously think about climate change. If we heat the planet up too much, we’ll just fix it! We’ll turn the temperature back down. We’ll get around to it once the market has delivered economically ideal solutions.
But as this 2009 paper in Nature (among many others) makes clear, it doesn’t work that way:
This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. [my emphasis]
The article is really best read in full. Because it’s a reminder that the way we presently behave is, in so many ways, a scary legacy for future generations.
So, back to dogs!
When dogs were living as wild dogs, thousands of years ago, a typical pack size was between 40 to 50 animals. The ‘head’ dog was the alpha dog, always a female. Next in status was the beta dog, always a dominant male. The last one in terms of status was the omega dog, or clown dog. Those genetic traits still survive in the domestic dog.
The alpha dog had two important roles as ‘leader of the pack’. She had first pick of the male dogs, for obvious reasons. (Only much later in life do we human men come to understand that it’s always the woman who chooses!)
The second role was that she was the one who decided that their territory was unsustainable for her pack and signalled the need to find a new territory.
For man, there’s no other territory to move to. So we will just have to clean up the only one we have!
A review of the recently published book by Martin Lack.
In many ways it would be terribly easy to find fault with this book. If it had been written as a book, been through the edits that a new book requires, then published, those faults would be a significant criticism.
But it was not written as a book! It was originally written as an academic text. As Martin explains in the Preface:
This book is based on research originally undertaken – and a dissertation written – as part of my MA in Environmental Politics from Keele University in Staffordshire (in 2010-2011).
Then in the following paragraph goes on to say:
Academics generally disapprove of the publication of academic research via non-academic, non-peer-reviewed routes. However, I am trying to reach more than just an academic audience.
Three sentences later:
However, this book retains many of the features of a piece of academic research, …. (All quotes from page viii of the preface)
To a person unaccustomed to reading academic research, as is this reader, the structural and presentational differences between a ‘normal’ non-fiction book and a dissertation are significant. That needs to be borne in mind as you turn to page one.
OK, now that I have got that off my chest, on to the substance of the review.
Turning to the outside back cover, one sees Martin clearly explaining that the book is not about climate science, rather an analysis of why some people dispute “the reality, reliability and reasonableness of this science.”
That alone justifies the work that Martin put into his research and dissertation and his subsequent decision to adapt his findings into a book.
The pace and scale of the changes that are being visited on Planet Earth is truly frightening. The number of feedback loops that we are locked into now don’t even bear thinking about. Just take the continuing and accelerating loss of the Arctic ice-cap and extrapolate that for a couple of decades (touched on in my recent post More new tomorrows and see footnote.)
We are not talking of subtle changes over many generations. We are talking about irreversible and irrevocably massive changes to our environment within the lifetimes of just about every living person on this planet. (I’m 70 next year and while I have no idea how many years I have left, I rate it as at least 50:50 that before I take my last breath, the coming destruction of biosphere will be blindingly obvious to me, Jean and 99.9% of the world’s population.)
Makes me want to shout out ……
There is not much time left to leave a sustainable world for future generations. Come on politicians and power-brokers; start acting as though you truly understand the urgency of the situation!
Ah, that feels much better!
Back to the book!
Martin examines 5 categories that display denial behaviours, to a greater or lesser extent. These categories are: Organisations; Scientists, Economists, Journalists and Politicians. Oh, and a 6th catch-all category: Others.
Each section dealing with a category is structured in the same way: Preliminary Research; Key Findings and Summary. Tables are used extensively to allow easy review of the findings.
Again, what needs to be hammered out is that this format is very unlike a typical non-fiction book. Because it’s fundamentally an academic dissertation! But, so what!
What is important is for the widest possible audience to understand the breadth and extent of the denial going on. Denial that is, literally, playing with the future of humanity on this planet; the only home we have.
Let me reinforce that last sentence by picking up on what Martin writes on his closing page (p.76):
Furthermore, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that this scepticism is being fuelled by those with a vested interest in the continuance of “business as usual” by seeking to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of ACD.
Martin Lack’s book may be unconventional in many ways. But as a tool to show how those who deny the science of climate change deny the right of future millions to live in a sustainable manner, it is most powerful. It is a valuable reference book that should be in every library and every secondary school across the globe!
The Denial of Science is published by AuthorHouse 02/23/2013
- To add weight to the points made in this review, do look in on tomorrow’s post.
- I have no commercial links to Martin Lack; indeed, I purchased the copy of the book that I used for this review.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl.
Like many bloggers I enjoy using a quotation to set the theme for a post. Found this on the web; it seemed appropriate.
Over the next two days, I want to range across a number of ideas that, together, point to changes that are underway in every conceivable manner for the vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet.
My musings were prompted by a recent essay on Tom Dispatch. Regulars will know that Tom Engelhardt generously granted me permission to republish essays that appear on his very widely-read blogsite. This particular essay is about Phoenix in Arizona.
But first indulge me as I recount something rather personal, possibly silly but also mysteriously beautiful.
Many will know that Jean and I moved from San Carlos in Mexico to Payson, Arizona early on in 2010. (My long comment to yesterday’s post about poor Lupe explains the background.) Payson is 80 miles North-East of Phoenix and despite being up at 5,000 feet is very much in the same broad weather systems as Phoenix.
With our 14 dogs and 7 cats we quickly settled down and were made to feel very welcome by one and all. Jean and I were married in Payson in November of 2010. We were happy and contented.
One night in June last year, I had this vivid dream about going to the bathroom and finding that no water came from the tap. Where we were living was out of town and our water supplies came from our own well (borehole in English speak!). While the water level in the well was down by about 50 feet there was no question of the well failing; it was drilled to over 180 feet and flow tests were positive.
When I awoke the dream was still very much in the forefront of my mind. I talked about it over breakfast with Jeannie. By chance, we had a guest staying with us and when she heard the tale she said, “If you’re worried about water, you should go to Oregon.“
Again, by chance, a couple of weeks later we had someone offer to house-sit. With our menagerie of animals that was no casual offer!
We accepted, came up to Oregon and found this most beautiful home in Merlin, Southern Oregon complete with 13 acres and Bummer Creek running across the width of the property, a creek that flows for most of the year.
We quickly did the deal, sold the house in Payson and moved in on October 25th 2012, less than 5 months ago.
Keep all of that in mind as you read this TomDispatch essay.
Tomgram: William deBuys, Exodus from Phoenix
Posted by William deBuys at 7:58am, March 14, 2013.
We’re not the first people on the planet ever to experience climate stress. In the overheating, increasingly parched American Southwest, which has been experiencing rising temperatures, spreading drought conditions, and record wildfires, there is an ancient history of staggering mega-droughts, events far worse than the infamous “dust bowl” of the 1930s, the seven-year drought that devastated America’s prairie lands. That may have been “the worst prolonged environmental disaster recorded for the country,” but historically speaking it was a “mere dry spell” compared to some past mega-droughts that lasted “centuries to millennia.”
Such events even happened in human history, including an almost century-long southwestern dry spell in the second century AD and a drought that was at least decades long in the twelfth century. These were all events driven by natural climate variation. Climate change adds a human factor to the equation in a region already naturally dry and short on water. It ups the odds of bad events happening. In the coming century, how habitable will parts of the bustling desert Southwest turn out to be? Already, in the face of heat and drought, small numbers of people from small towns in the region are leaving. And this, too, has happened before. There are sobering previous examples of what it means when extreme climate stress hits this area.
Chaco Canyon was abandoned by its native population during that twelfth-century drought, and 150 years later, the Hohokam native culture of what is now central Arizona, whose waterworks in the dry lands of that area were major and impressive, also abandoned its lands, possibly due to drought, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys recounts in his recent book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. “At some point,” he writes, “Hohokam society passed a threshold: the number of able-bodied workers it could muster was no longer sufficient to meet the challenge of rebuilding dams when they washed out and cleaning canals as they inevitably silted up. Eventually the hydraulic system collapsed, and the society that depended on it could no longer exist. The survivors turned their backs on their cities and scattered into the vastness of the land, doing what they could to survive.”
As you read deBuys’s latest post, it’s worth remembering that even the greatest hydraulic engineers have their limits when the water dries up. When the Anglo farmers of the Phoenix Basin first started using the local rivers, they found themselves “reopening the canals the Hohokam had left behind.” Who knows what monumental works we, too, might someday abandon? Phoenix, anyone? Tom
Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs
We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries
By William deBuys
If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.
Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.
In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?
And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time — New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy — may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures — grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.
Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so — the aptly named Valley of the Sun.
In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.
If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.
In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104°F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100°F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110°F: there were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.
In Flight From the Sun
It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.
Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90°F. Today such temperatures are a commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100°F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures by as much as 10°F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast.
Predictably, the poor suffer most from the heat. They live in the hottest neighborhoods with the least greenery to mitigate the heat-island effect, and they possess the least resources for combatting high temperatures. For most Phoenicians, however, none of this is more than an inconvenience as long as the AC keeps humming and the utility bill gets paid. When the heat intensifies, they learn to scurry from building to car and into the next building, essentially holding their breaths. In those cars, the second thing they touch after the ignition is the fan control for the AC. The steering wheel comes later.
In the blazing brilliance of July and August, you venture out undefended to walk or run only in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The idea for residents of the Valley of the Sun is to learn to dodge the heat, not challenge it.
Heat, however, is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient as the mercury soars. And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems. But then along comes the haboob.
A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but — although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust — the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights — and AC — to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief. So far.
Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.
Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobs of a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).
Water, Water, Everywhere (But Not for Long)
In dystopic portraits of Phoenix’s unsustainable future, water — or rather the lack of it — is usually painted as the agent of collapse. Indeed, the metropolitan area, a jumble of jurisdictions that includes Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Sun City, Chandler, and 15 other municipalities, long ago made full use of such local rivers as the Salt, Verde, and Gila. Next, people sank wells and mined enough groundwater to lower the water table by 400 feet.
Sometimes the land sank, too. Near some wells it subsided by 10 feet or more. All along, everyone knew that the furious extraction of groundwater couldn’t last, so they fixed their hopes on a new bonanza called the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a river-sized, open-air canal supported by an elaborate array of pumps, siphons, and tunnels that would bring Colorado River water across the breadth of Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson.
The CAP came on line in the early 1990s and today is the engine of Arizona’s growth. Unfortunately, in order to win authorization and funding to build it, state officials had to make a bargain with the devil, which in this case turned out to be California. Arizona’s delegation in the House of Representatives was tiny, California’s was huge, and its representatives jealously protected their longstanding stranglehold on the Colorado River. The concession California forced on Arizona was simple: it had to agree that its CAP water rights would take second place to California’s claims.
This means one thing: once the inevitable day comes when there isn’t enough water to go around, the CAP will absorb the shortage down to the last drop before California even begins to turn off its faucets.
A raw deal for Arizona? You bet, but not exactly the end of the line. Arizona has other “more senior” rights to the Colorado, and when the CAP begins to run dry, you may be sure that the masters of the CAP will pay whatever is necessary to lease those older rights and keep the 330-mile canal flowing. Among their targets will be water rights belonging to Indian tribes at the western edge of the state along the lower reaches of the river. The cost of buying tribal water will drive the rates consumers pay for water in Phoenix sky-high, but they’ll pay it because they’ll have to.
Longer term, the Colorado River poses issues that no amount of tribal water can resolve. Beset by climate change, overuse, and drought, the river and its reservoirs, according to various researchers, may decline to the point that water fails to pass Hoover Dam. In that case, the CAP would dry up, but so would the Colorado Aqueduct which serves greater Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the All-American Canal, on which the factory farms of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys depend. Irrigators and municipalities downstream in Mexico would also go dry. If nothing changes in the current order of things, it is expected that the possibility of such a debacle could loom in little more than a decade.
The preferred solution to this crisis among the water mavens of the lower Colorado is augmentation, which means importing more water into the Colorado system to boost native supplies. A recently discussed grandiose scheme to bail out the Colorado’s users with a pipeline from the Mississippi River failed to pass the straight-face test and was shot down by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Meanwhile, the obvious expedient of cutting back on water consumption finds little support in thirsty California, which will watch the CAP go dry before it gets serious about meaningful system-wide conservation.
Phoenicians who want to escape water worries, heat waves, and haboobs have traditionally sought refuge in the cool green forests of Arizona’s uplands, or at least they did until recently. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire consumed 469,000 acres of pine and mixed conifer on the Mogollon Rim, not far from Phoenix. It was an ecological holocaust that no one expected to see surpassed. Only nine years later, in 2011, the Wallow fire picked up the torch, so to speak, and burned across the Rim all the way to the New Mexico border and beyond, topping out at 538,000 charred acres.
Now, nobody thinks such fires are one-off flukes. Diligent modeling of forest response to rising temperatures and increased moisture stress suggests, in fact, that these two fires were harbingers of worse to come. By mid-century, according to a paper by an A-team of Southwestern forest ecologists, the “normal” stress on trees will equal that of the worst megadroughts in the region’s distant paleo-history, when most of the trees in the area simply died.
Compared to Phoenix’s other heat and water woes, the demise of Arizona’s forests may seem like a side issue, whose effects would be noticeable mainly in the siltation of reservoirs and the destabilization of the watersheds on which the city depends. But it could well prove a regional disaster. Consider, then, heat, drought, windstorms, and fire as the four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse. As it happens, though, this potential apocalypse has a fifth horseman as well.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the way a sudden catastrophe — an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado — can dissolve social divisions and cause a community to cohere, bringing out the best in its citizenry. Drought and heat waves are different. You don’t know that they have taken hold until you are already in them, and you never know when they will end. The unpleasantness eats away at you. It corrodes your state of mind. You have lots of time to meditate on the deficiencies of your neighbors, which loom larger the longer the crisis goes on.
Drought divides people, and Phoenix is already a divided place — notoriously so, thanks to the brutal antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross offers a dismal portrait of contemporary Phoenix — of a city threatened by its particular brand of local politics and economic domination, shaped by more than the usual quotient of prejudice, greed, class insularity, and devotion to raw power.
It is a truism that communities that do not pull together fail to surmount their challenges. Phoenix’s are as daunting as any faced by an American city in the new age of climate change, but its winner-take-all politics (out of which has come Arizona’s flagrantly repressive anti-immigration law), combined with the fragmentation of the metro-area into nearly two dozen competing jurisdictions, essentially guarantee that, when the worst of times hit, common action and shared sacrifice will remain as insubstantial as a desert mirage. When one day the U-Haul vans all point away from town and the people of the Valley of the Sun clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too.
One day, some of them may look back and think of the real estate crash of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed with fond nostalgia. The city’s economy was in the tank, growth had stalled, and for a while business-as-usual had nothing usual about it. But there was a rare kind of potential. That recession might have been the last best chance for Phoenix and other go-go Sunbelt cities to reassess their lamentably unsustainable habits and re-organize themselves, politically and economically, to get ready for life on the front burner of climate change. Land use, transportation, water policies, building codes, growth management — you name it — might all have experienced a healthy overhaul. It was a chance no one took. Instead, one or several decades from now, people will bet on a surer thing: they’ll take the road out of town.
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 William deBuys
Just to reinforce the magic of my dream and how Jean and I feel so blessed by our life changes, the photo below was taken on our property the day we arrived in Merlin.
Musings continued tomorrow. Hope you stayed with it so far.
… but change is also the one constant in life.
For every one of us there is no escaping change. It’s always been been that way; always will be.
Today, however, there’s an additional unsettling element. I’m speaking of the growing realisation that humanity could be facing the perfect storm. The ultimate storm of runaway climate change and the collapse of our global economy.
Therefore, when one comes across the wind of common-sense it needs to be promoted. My reason for promoting the opening speech by Jennifer Granholm at the TED2013 conference.
Because if we are to find a way of avoiding this storm, we have to do it through innovative ways of thinking and behaving. Each and every one of us deciding to work for a better future. (And see my P.S.)
Back in the days of dogs living as coherent packs, one of the key roles of the alpha dog was to decide a change of territory. Then she, because the alpha dog was always a female, would lead the pack to a better place.
So we should learn from our ancient furry friends and take personal responsibility to find a ‘better’ place for ourselves and all our loved ones.
But first Happy Valentine’s Day to you and Cynthia.
(Image courtesy of UK’s Met Office blog post: Top ten romantic weather phenomena.)
My dear Dan,
In a way this stunningly beautiful photograph is a reflection of our long relationship. Over the 33 years that we have been friends you and I have enjoyed many calm moments and tried to make sense of this crazy world. Yes, we have often disagreed about many things but never fallen out; not even come close to it. No better illustrated than me wanting you as my Best Man when Jean and I were married November 20th, 2010.
Your email to me of the 4th February was a difficult one to embrace; the Controversy Continues one. The last thing I wanted to do was to react impulsively because I knew you would disregard such a thoughtless response. After all, we have known each other’s views on the matter of climate change for a very long time.
Thank goodness I did sit on my hands. It allowed a more reflective part of my aged brain to compose a blog post on Learning from Dogs. The post that came out on the 12th under the title of Doggedly seeking the truth.
That post then led to yesterday’s post Truth never follows a straight line. Two essays that gave me much joy. Thank you.
But the plain fact of the matter is that I profoundly disagree with the idea, as expressed in your email heading, that there is any controversy over the question of global warming resulting from man’s behaviours. I know from our years of friendship that you are open to all sorts of ideas. Meaning you wouldn’t be closed-minded to the biggest issue facing Homo sapiens and all the species on this planet, the one of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
So let me offer you some links that make it very clear as to the reality of what is happening to this planet.
Start with this one Why Climate Deniers Have No Scientific Credibility – In One Pie Chart. Or this one IPCC Draft Report Leaked, Shows Global Warming is NOT Due to the Sun.
Then there’s this one A Brief Note on the Latest Release of Draft IPCC Documents and this one Global Extinction within one Human Lifetime as a Result of a Spreading Atmospheric Arctic Methane Heat wave and Surface Firestorm. I could go on and on.
Perhaps the reason that so many intelligent people ‘avoid’ the truth of what we are doing to this planet was voiced in a recent comment by Prof. Guy McPherson on Learning from Dogs, “Perhaps Upton Sinclair had it right, years ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Even though you and I are well past salary days it doesn’t alter the chilling realisation that comes from embracing the truth of climate change and global warming: The undermining of just about everything that we have embraced over our years. No wonder it’s so much easier to stay within familiar comfort zones! To remain hypocrites as Jean and I do!
Let me close with the words uttered by mother Dellarobia to son Preston in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior: ”It won’t ever go back to how it was, Preston.“
In my heart I know that to be the truth.
Jean and I send you and Cynthia our fondest love,
As a dog follows a scent.
I have been pondering about how one gets to the truth of a complex issue. And there’s none more complex nor more essential in terms of the truth of an issue than Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).
It was kicked off by an email received from Dan Gomez. Followers of Learning from Dogs will have seen mention of Dan’s name as he regularly sends me bits and pieces. Indeed, let me refer you to a post that came out last August, Feeling depressed? Join your pals in the pool! and this extract:
Regular followers of Learning from Dogs will know that Dan and I go back a long way; far too long! In fact the occasion of me becoming aware of Mr. Daniel Gomez was at a Commodore Computer dealers conference in Boston, Mass.
I was giving a talk promoting a UK word-processing program that I was marketing for the Commodore. That software was called Wordcraft and I think the year was 1979, possibly 1980. Anyway, I used the word ‘fortnight’, which back in England is a common word meaning two weeks. Immediately, a voice called out from the audience, “Hey Handover, what’s a fortnight?“
The session deteriorated rapidly thereafter! Dan and I became very good friends and his LA company Cimarron became my West Coast USA distributor for Wordcraft. And it was Dan’s sister, Suzann, who invited me down to Mexico for Christmas 2007 which led to me meeting my beloved Jeannie! Funny old world!
Dan is a smart cookie. He holds a degree in psychology, as well as being a very easy guy to get along with. We have been good friends for more than 30 years.
Anyway, back to the theme of the post; determining the truth of a complex issue.
Recently, Dan sent me an email with the subject heading of The Controversy Continues – A couple of Articles for your Digestive Tract….
The first article was:
Report shows UN admitting solar activity may play significant role in global warming
A leaked report by a United Nations’ group dedicated to climate studies says that heat from the sun may play a larger role than previously thought.
“[Results] do suggest the possibility of a much larger impact of solar variations on the stratosphere than previously thought, and some studies have suggested that this may lead to significant regional impacts on climate,” reads a draft copy of a major, upcoming report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
According to Bloomberg News, US carbon emissions are down 13% over the past five years and that they are now the lowest since 1994. In fact, we are more than halfway to President Obama’s goal of a 17% reduction below our peak year of 2007.
Coal has fallen to only 18% of our energy use (down from 23% in 2007) and natural gas is up to 31%. Natural gas has half the carbon emissions of coal.
Evidence suggests that climate change and global warming are happening, but at a much slower rate than doomsday warnings suggested. We are now on track for an increase in global temperatures of one degree centigrade by 2100. This increase is not enough to cause major flooding or rises in sea levels.
Please feel free to read the whole Dick Morris piece here.
So on the face of it, two convincing reports, especially the one from Alec Rawls.
Now let me turn to Professor Guy McPherson; professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. Just take a peek at the professional recognition granted to Professor McPherson.
Guy McPherson writes a blog called Nature Bats Last. It is described thus:
This blog focuses on the natural world, with a particular emphasis on the twin sides of our fossil-fuel addiction: (1) global climate change and (2) energy decline. Because these phenomena impact every aspect of life on Earth, specific topics range widely, and include philosophy, evolution, economics, humanity, politics, current events, and many aspects of the human condition.
Less than 3 months ago, Guy McPherson visited Greenfield Community College in western Massachusetts to deliver his presentation “The Twin Sides of the Fossil-Fuel Coin: Developing Durable Living Arrangements in Light of Climate Change and Energy Decline.“
It lasts for just 40 minutes and needs to be watched. Why do I say needs to be watched? Because tomorrow I delve deeper into the challenges facing ordinary folk and watching the presentation and reflecting on the start of this post are very pertinent to following the scent of truth.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”).
The final of three repostings from a year ago. To recap, I wrote on Monday, “… out of curiosity I wondered what I had published a year ago, in early February 2012. To my amazement what was published was as fresh and relevant as if it had been published today.“
So many vested opinions!
To me the arguments supporting the premise that mankind is engaged in the process of destroying our very being are powerful and convincing. But if there is any serious scientific doubt, then I am reminded of that saying in aviation circles about a risk to the safety of an aircraft, “If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt!” Surely, that’s the stance the climate change skeptics should be taking! Because when the evidence of global warming, pollution, natural resource depletion, species extinctions, and habitat destruction is drawn together and there are no skeptics left, then will the last person left alive please switch the lights off!
Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Why the Energy-Industrial Elite Has It In for the Planet
Posted by Bill McKibben at 9:39am, February 7, 2012.
Two Saturdays ago, I was walking with a friend in a park here in New York City. It was late January, but I was dressed in a light sweater and a thin fall jacket, which I had just taken off and tied around my waist. We were passing a strip of bare ground when suddenly we both did a double-take. He looked at me and said, “Crocuses!” Dumbfounded, I replied, “Yes, I see them.” And there they were, a few clumps of telltale green shoots poking up from the all-brown ground as if it were spring. Such a common, comforting sight, but it sent a chill through me that noticeably wasn’t in the air. Even the flowers, I thought, are confused by our new version of weather.
Later that same week, as temperatures in the Big Apple crested 60 degrees, I was chatting on the phone with a friend in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was telling him about the crocuses, when he suddenly said, “I’m looking out my window right now and for the first time in my memory of January, there’s not a trace of snow!”
Of course, our tales couldn’t be more minor or anecdotal, even if the temperatures that week did feel like we were on another planet. Here’s the thing, though: after a while, even anecdotes add up — maybe we should start calling them “extreme anecdotes” — and right now there are so many of them being recounted across the planet. How could there not be in a winter, now sometimes referred to as “Junuary,” in which, in the United States, 2,890 daily high temperature records have either been broken or tied at last count, with the numbers still rising? Meanwhile, just to the south of us, in Mexico, extreme anecdotes abound, since parts of the country are experiencing “the worst drought on record.” Even cacti are reportedly wilting and some towns are running out of water (as they are across the border in drought-stricken Texas). And worst of all, the Mexican drought is expected to intensify in the months to come.
And who can doubt that in Europe, experiencing an extreme cold spell the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades — even Rome had a rare snowfall and Venice’s canals were reported to be freezing over – there are another set of all-too-extreme anecdotes. After all, in places like Ukraine, scores of the homeless are freezing to death, pipes are bursting, power cuts are growing, and maybe even an instant energy crisis is underway (at a moment when the European Union is getting ready to cut itself off from Iranian oil).
That’s just to begin a list. And yet here’s the strange thing. At least in this country, you can read the “freaky” weather reports or listen to the breathless TV accounts of unexpected tornadoes striking the South in January and rarely catch a mention of the phrase “climate change.” Given the circumstances, the relative silence on the subject is little short of eerie, even if worries about climate change lurk just below the surface. Which is why it’s good to have TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, take a clear-eyed look at American denialism and just what it is we prefer not to take in. Tom
The Great Carbon Bubble
Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Fights So Hard
By Bill McKibben
If we could see the world with a particularly illuminating set of spectacles, one of its most prominent features at the moment would be a giant carbon bubble, whose bursting someday will make the housing bubble of 2007 look like a lark. As yet — as we shall see — it’s unfortunately largely invisible to us.
In compensation, though, we have some truly beautiful images made possible by new technology. Last month, for instance, NASA updated the most iconic photograph in our civilization’s gallery: “Blue Marble,” originally taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. The spectacular new high-def image [see below, Ed] shows a picture of the Americas on January 4th, a good day for snapping photos because there weren’t many clouds.
It was also a good day because of the striking way it could demonstrate to us just how much the planet has changed in 40 years. As Jeff Masters, the web’s most widely read meteorologist, explains, “The U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free, which is extremely rare for a January day. The lack of snow in the mountains of the Western U.S. is particularly unusual. I doubt one could find a January day this cloud-free with so little snow on the ground throughout the entire satellite record, going back to the early 1960s.”
In fact, it’s likely that the week that photo was taken will prove “the driest first week in recorded U.S. history.” Indeed, it followed on 2011, which showed the greatest weather extremes in our history – 56% of the country was either in drought or flood, which was no surprise since “climate change science predicts wet areas will tend to get wetter and dry areas will tend to get drier.” Indeed, the nation suffered 14 weather disasters each causing $1 billion or more in damage last year. (The old record was nine.) Masters again: “Watching the weather over the past two years has been like watching a famous baseball hitter on steroids.”
In the face of such data — statistics that you can duplicate for almost every region of the planet — you’d think we’d already be in an all-out effort to do something about climate change. Instead, we’re witnessing an all-out effort to… deny there’s a problem.
Our GOP presidential candidates are working hard to make sure no one thinks they’d appease chemistry and physics. At the last Republican debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted that he should be the nominee because he’d caught on earlier than Newt or Mitt to the global warming “hoax.”
Most of the media pays remarkably little attention to what’s happening. Coverage of global warming has dipped 40% over the last two years. When, say, there’s a rare outbreak of January tornadoes, TV anchors politely discuss “extreme weather,” but climate change is the disaster that dare not speak its name.
And when they do break their silence, some of our elite organs are happy to indulge in outright denial. Last month, for instance, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The article was easily debunked. It was nothing but a mash-up of long-since-disproved arguments by people who turned out mostly not to be climate scientists at all, quoting other scientists who immediately said their actual work showed just the opposite.
It’s no secret where this denialism comes from: the fossil fuel industry pays for it. (Of the 16 authors of the Journal article, for instance, five had had ties to Exxon.)Writers from Ross Gelbspan to Naomi Oreskes have made this case with such overwhelming power that no one even really tries denying it any more. The open question is why the industry persists in denial in the face of an endless body of fact showing climate change is the greatest danger we’ve ever faced.
Why doesn’t it fold the way the tobacco industry eventually did? Why doesn’t it invest its riches in things like solar panels and so profit handsomely from the next generation of energy? As it happens, the answer is more interesting than you might think.
Part of it’s simple enough: the giant energy companies are making so much money right now that they can’t stop gorging themselves. ExxonMobil, year after year, pulls in more money than any company in history. Chevron’s not far behind. Everyone in the business is swimming in money.
Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology or research and development for the same. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.
When I talked about a carbon bubble at the beginning of this essay, this is what I meant. Here are some of the relevant numbers, courtesy of the Capital Institute: we’re already seeing widespread climate disruption, but if we want to avoid utter, civilization-shaking disaster, many scientists have pointed to a two-degree rise in global temperatures as the most we could possibly deal with.
If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.
Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela).
If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything — including fund an endless campaigns of lies — to avoid coming to terms with its reality. So instead, we simply charge ahead. To take just one example, last month the boss of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, called for burning all the country’s newly discovered coal, gas, and oil — believed to be 1,800 gigatons worth of carbon from our nation alone.
What he and the rest of the energy-industrial elite are denying, in other words, is that the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry. The carbon bubble that looms over our world needs to be deflated soon. As with our fiscal crisis, failure to do so will cause enormous pain — pain, in fact, almost beyond imagining. After all, if you think banks are too big to fail, consider the climate as a whole and imagine the nature of the bailout that would face us when that bubble finally bursts.
Unfortunately, it won’t burst by itself — not in time, anyway. The fossil-fuel companies, with their heavily funded denialism and their record campaign contributions, have been able to keep at bay even the tamest efforts at reining in carbon emissions. With each passing day, they’re leveraging us deeper into an unpayable carbon debt — and with each passing day, they’re raking in unimaginable returns. ExxonMobil last week reported its 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in 2008 at $45 billion.
Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing. That’s why the fight is so pitched. That’s why those of us battling for the future need to raise our game. And it’s why that view from the satellites, however beautiful from a distance, is likely to become ever harder to recognize as our home planet.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth – Blue Marble 2012
January 25, 2012
*Updated February 2, 2012: According to Flickr, “The western hemisphere Blue Marble 2012 image has rocketed up to over 3.1 million views making it one of the all time most viewed images on the site after only one week.”
A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.
Suomi NPP is NASA’s next Earth-observing research satellite. It is the first of a new generation of satellites that will observe many facets of our changing Earth.
Suomi NPP is carrying five instruments on board. The biggest and most important instrument is The Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite or VIIRS.
To read more about NASA’s Suomi NPP go to: www.nasa.gov/npp
Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring