Tag: Nick Turse

Will the New Year be a profound ‘wake-up’ call?

2013 may be the year that ends any uncertainty about what we are doing to our planet.

Introduction

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs will be familiar with the occasional posts that are presented here, courtesy of Tom Engelhardt of Tom Dispatch.  I am so grateful to Tom’s blanket permission to republish essays from a Tom Dispatch author.  So it is that today sees the republishing of a recent essay on Tom Dispatch by Rebecca Solnit.  It articulates beautifully what 2013 might represent.  So without further ado, here’s Rebecca’s essay prefaced by Tom’s introduction.

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Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, 2013 as Year Zero for Us — and Our Planet

[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  It’s that time again.  Another year-ending moment for this website, which began as a no-name listserv in October 2001 and went online as TomDispatch in December 2002, thanks to Ham Fish of the Nation Institute.  It’s been plugging away ever since as a “regular antidote to the mainstream media,” doing its best to connect the unconnected dots in our world.  (Click here to check out a little piece I wrote for the Moyers & Company website this week about what I call “isolation journalism” in the mainstream media where connections are seldom made.) 

With today’s post, we’re closing down for 2012, but expect us back on January 3rd renewed and ready for a new year full of surprises.  In the meantime, profuse thanks are due to the stalwart crew who keep TD going: Managing Editor Nick Turse, who will continue to follow the U.S. military as it garrisons the planet in 2013 and will have a remarkable new book on the Vietnam War published as well; Associate Editor Andy Kroll, who will again be on the economic beat for us; Dimitri Siavelis and Joe Duax, who keep the site miraculously shipshape and ready to roll; Christopher Holmes, proofer-extraordinaire who holds error eternally at bay (or at least to a surprising minimum) in our dispatches; and Erika Eichelberger, our maestro of social media, who has brought TD Facebook page and Twitter feed alive this year.  (Check us out there if you haven’t yet!)  Special thanks are due as well to Andy Breslau, Taya Kitman, and the rest of the staff of the Nation Institute, who continue to stick with us through thick and thin, and finally to Lannan Foundation, which may be last in this list but is certainly first in what it’s done for TomDispatch.  Surrounded by such a crowd, life couldn’t be better. 

Finally, of course, my deepest thanks to TomDispatch readers all over this country and around the world, whose readership and support make all the difference. Your emails to this site offer tips, catch errors, offer criticism, and reveal unknown worlds to me.  They are always read (even when, hard as I try, I’m too busy to answer).  What more could I ask? Have a good holiday. See you all in 2013! Tom]

In weather terms, 2012 in New York City began for me with crocuses.  On an early February day in a week in which the temperature hit 60 degrees, I spotted their green shoots pushing up through the bare ground of a local park on a morning walk — just as if it were spring.  The year was ending last weekend as I wandered with a friend past a communal garden in the same park and noticed that, in a December week in which the temperatures were in the mid-50s, the last few roses were still in bloom.

In between, in that park on a dark night in late October I watched a white-capped Hudson River roiling like some enraged beast, preparing for a storm surge that would flood lower Manhattan, plunging it into darkness and so turning it into “little North Korea,” briefly making true islanders out of New Yorkers and flooding out whole communities.  That, of course, was Hurricane Sandy, the Frankenstorm surprise of New York’s year (though anything but a worst case scenario).  And then, there was the American 2012 in which heat eternally set records and we experienced something close to an “endless summer.”

If climate change had a personality in this year of so many grim records — wildfiresdroughtheatcarbon dioxide emissions — it would definitely be saying: “I’m not the thing your grandchildren will have to deal with, I’m yours!”

In such a new world of upheaval, tradition matters.  And there is one inviolable tradition at TomDispatch: Rebecca Solnit has the last word — as she has for years, peering into the future, sizing up the past, weighing alternatives to what is, and last year considering a season of being Occupied.  Now, for the first time in a long while, weather and climate change are a growing American preoccupation.  Of course, climate change is an area long occupied by the giant energy companies whose compassion extends no further than their bottom lines (which, like the heat, continue to set historical records).  Solnit in her year-ending, TomDispatch-closing piece suggests that it’s time for us to occupy the topic ourselves, and do our best to ensure that this planet, 2013 and beyond, remains a habitable place for us, our children, and our grandchildren.  There could be no more powerful New Year’s wish. Tom

The Sky’s the Limit 
The Demanding Gifts of 2012
By Rebecca Solnit

As this wild year comes to an end, we return to the season of gifts. Here’s the gift you’re not going to get soon: any conventional version of Paradise. You know, the place where nothing much happens and nothing is demanded of you. The gifts you’ve already been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you asked for, and I wish it were otherwise — but to do good work, to be necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least there’s still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.

Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger.  This is a terrible thing to say, but not as terrible as the reality that you can see in footage of glaciers vanishing, images of the entire surface of the Greenland Ice Shield melting this summer, maps of Europe’s future in which just being in southern Europe when the heat hits will be catastrophic, let alone in more equatorial realms.

For millions of years, this world has been a great gift to nearly everything living on it, a planet whose atmosphere, temperature, air, water, seasons, and weather were precisely calibrated to allow us — the big us, including forests and oceans, species large and small — to flourish. (Or rather, it was we who were calibrated to its generous, even bounteous, terms.) And that gift is now being destroyed for the benefit of a few members of a single species.

The Earth we evolved to inhabit is turning into something more turbulent and unreliable at a pace too fast for most living things to adapt to. This means we are losing crucial aspects of our most irreplaceable, sublime gift, and some of us are suffering the loss now — from sea snails whose shells are dissolving in acidified oceans to Hurricane Sandy survivors facing black mold and bad bureaucracy to horses starving nationwide because a devastating drought has pushed the cost of hay so high to Bolivian farmers failing because the glaciers that watered their valleys have largely melted.

This is not just an issue for environmentalists who love rare species and remote places: if you care about childrenhealthpovertyfarmersfoodhunger, or the economy, you really have no choice but to care about climate change.

The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come.  But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.

Unwrapping the Victories

“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo famously says in Bertold Brecht’s play about that renegade scientist, but at least, the hero has the possibility of doing something about that unhappiness, as, for instance, the Sierra Club has. It’s led the fight against big coal, helping prevent 168 coal-powered plants from opening and retiring 125 dirty coal plants.  The aim of its Beyond Coal campaign is to retire all 522 such plants in the United States, which would be a colossal triumph.

Its’ victories also capture what a lot of our greenest gifts look like: nothing. The regions that weren’t fracked, the coal plants that didn’t open, the mountaintops that weren’t blasted by mining corporations, the children who didn’t get asthma or mercury poisoning from coal emissions, the carbon that stayed in the Earth and never made it into the atmosphere.  The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline bringing the dirtiest of dirty energy from Canada to the Gulf Coast might have already opened without the activists who ringed the White House and committed themselves across the continent.

In eastern Texas, for instance, extraordinary acts of civil disobedience have been going on continuously since August, including three blockaders who this month crawled inside a length of the three-foot-in-diameter pipeline and refused to leave. People have been using their bodies, getting in the way of heavy equipment, and going to jail in an effort to prevent the pipeline from being built. A lot of them are the same kind of robust young people who kept the Occupy encampments going earlier in 2012, but great-grandmothers, old men, and middle-aged people like me have been crucial players, too.

Meanwhile in British Columbia, where pipeline profiteers were looking into alternate routes to transport their climate-destroying products abroad, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation evicted surveyors and politely declared war on them. In Ohio and New York, the fight against fracking is going strong. Across the Atlantic, France has banned fracking, while Germany has made astounding progress toward using carbon-neutral energy sources. If solar works there, we have no excuse. And as Ellen Cantarow wrote at TomDispatch of the anti-fracking movement in New York State, “Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban.”

Everywhere people are at work to build a better world in which we — and some of the beauty of this world — will be guaranteed to survive. Everywhere they are at war with the forces threatening us and the planet. I usually avoid war metaphors, but this time it’s barely a metaphor. Our side isn’t violent, but it is engaged in a battle, and people are putting their bodies on the line and their lives behind the cause. The other side is intent on maximizing its profit at the cost of nearly everything.

My father, a high-school student during the Second World War, followed the campaigns closely with pins on a wall map to represent troops and battles. You could map North America that way now and see, when you added up the struggles against drilling in the Arctic, fracking, mountaintop removal, and the various other depredations of big coal and big oil, that remarkable things are already being done. In this war, resistance has been going on for a long time, so overlooked by the mainstream media it might as well be as underground as the French Resistance back then.

A lot of it is on a small scale, but if you connect the pieces you get a big picture of the possible, the hopeful, and the powerful. Think of each of those small acts of defending the Earth as a gift to you. And think of your own power, a gift always latent within you that demands you give back.

If you’re reading this, you’re already in the conversation. No matter who you are, or where, there is something for you to do: educate yourself and others, write letters, organize or join local groups, participate in blockades and demonstrations, work on divestment from oil corporations (if you’re connected to a university), and make this issue central to the conversations and politics of our time.

I’ve started working directly on various projects with 350.org, whose global impact and reinvention of activist tactics I’ve long admired.  Its creator Bill McKibben has evolved from a merely great writer to a pivotal climate organizer and a gift to all of us.

The world you live in is not a given; much of what is best in it has been built through the struggles of passionate activists over the last centuries.  They won us many freedoms and protected many beauties. Count those gifts among your growing heap.

Drawing the Line

Here’s another gift you’ve already received: the lines in the battle to come are being ever more clearly drawn. Clarity is a huge asset. It helps when you know where you stand, who stands with you — and who against you.

We have returned to class war in conflicts around the world — including the Chicago Teacher’s Strike of 2012 and the Walmart protests in this country (which led to 1,197 actions nationwide in support of that company’s underpaid workers on Black Friday), as well as the great student uprisings in Quebec and Mexico City.

There has, of course, been a war against working people and the poor for decades, only we didn’t call it “class war” when just the rich were fighting hard. We called it corporate globalization, the race to the bottom, tax cuts and social-service cuts, privatization, neoliberalism, and a hundred other things.  Now that the poor are fighting back, we can call it by its old name. Perhaps what the conservatives have forgotten is that if you return us to the grim divides and dire poverty of the nineteenth century, you might also be returning us to the revolutionary spirit of that century.

This time, though, it’s not only about work and money.  The twenty-first century class war is engulfing the natural world on which everything rests. We can see how clearly the great environmental battle of our time is about money, about who benefits from climate destruction (the very few) and who loses (everyone else for all time to come and nearly every living thing). This year, Hurricane Sandy and a crop-destroying, Mississippi-River-withering drought that had more than 60% of the nation in its grip made it clear that climate change is here and it’s now and it hurts.

In 2012, many have come to see that climate change is an economic issue, and that economics is a moral and ecological issue.  Why so little has been done about the state of the climate in the past three decades has everything to do with who profits. Not long ago, too many Americans were on the fence, swayed by the oil company propaganda war about whether climate change even exists.

However, this month, according to the Associated Press, “Four out of every five Americans said climate change will be a serious problem for the United States if nothing is done about it.” That widespread belief suggests that potentially broad support now exists and may be growing for a movement that makes climate change — the broiling of the Earth — central, urgent, and everybody’s business.

Ten years ago too, many people thought the issue could be addressed, if at all, through renunciatory personal virtue in private life: buying Priuses, compact fluorescents, and the like. Now most people who care at all know that the necessary changes won’t happen through consumer choice alone.  What’s required are pitched battles against the most powerful (and profitable) entities on Earth, the oil and energy companies and the politicians who serve them instead of us.

That clarity matters and those conflicts are already underway but need to grow.  That’s our world right now, clear as a cold winter day, sharp as broken glass.

Putting Aside Paradise

When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts of it that were Paradise — and I also see all the little hells. I was a kid in California when it had the best public education system in the world and universities were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it changing any time before the next ice age.

That was, however, the same California where domestic violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion and racism.

Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was neglected — including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation, corporate power, and working hours — slid into hell.

When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don’t, you always lose.

Here’s another gift we have right now: the young. There are quite a lot of heroes among them, including the Dreamers or Dream Act activists standing up for immigrants; the occupiers who challenged Wall Street in its home and elsewhere around the country, became the unofficial first responders who aided the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and have camped out on the doorstep of Goldman Sachs’s CEO these last few months; the young who blockaded that tar-sands pipeline, supplied the tremendous vitality of 350.org globally, and have just begun to organize to pressure universities to divest from fossil fuel companies on 192 campuses across the country.

In 2012, they rose up from Egypt and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from the powers that be.

Paradise is overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And we are made to travel, not to sit still.

Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms, what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies, what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and their discovery of a world we think we know. All these are gifts as well.

Ice Breaking Up

As you gear up for 2013, don’t forget that 2012 has been an extraordinary year. Who ever thought we’d see Aung San Suu Kyi elected to office in her native Burma and free to travel after so many years of house arrest? Who expected that the United Nations would suddenly vote to give Palestine observer state status? Who foresaw that the silly misinterpretations of Mayan prophesy would be overtaken by the Mayan Zapatistas, who rose once again last Friday? (Meanwhile, Canada’s Native people started a dynamic movement around indigenous rights and the environment that has led to everything from flash-mob dances in an Edmonton Mall to demonstrations in Ottawa.)

Who thought that Occupy Wall Street, roundly dismissed by the mainstream on its one-year anniversary, would spawn two superhero projects, Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt? (Who among the police officers clubbing and tear-gassing the young Occupiers in 2011 thought that a year later these would be the people with the power and the generosity to come to their aid when a climate-fed storm wrecked their homes?) Keep it in mind: the future is not predictable.  Sometimes, the world changes suddenly and in profound ways. Sometimes we make it do so.

Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a reminder about what it means to fight for what matters most. Permanently freeing five million slaves and abolishing slavery forever meant renouncing a cheap power source in use for more than 200 years. Doing so was initially inconceivable and then a matter of indifference except to the slaves themselves and small groups of abolitionists.  Next, it was daringly radical, then partisan, with the whole nation taking sides, the fuel for a terrible war.  Finally, it was the law of the land. Today, we need to give up on, or at least radically reduce our reliance on, another set of power sources: oil, coal, and natural gas.

This is, among other things, a war of the imagination: the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.

They are already at war against the wellbeing of our Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.

Rebecca Solnit has seen salmon migrate and polar bears nap, and she’s seen blockaders defend foreclosed homes and shut down oil refineries: all of it was beautiful. She is the author of A Paradise Built in Hell, among many other works. She has been writing TomDispatch’s year-end essays since 2004 and she hopes to see you in the streets in 2013 and at the White House on February 17th.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch 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 2012 Rebecca Solnit

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A fascinating look at the coming New Year.  What interesting times we live in.

What part of the word ‘no’ are you having trouble with?

So long overdue to saying ‘no’ to more drilling for oil and gas!

Just five days ago, I republished an essay from Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch fame called The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.  Despite Tom’s permission for me to republish any of the essays that appear on TomDispatch, I do try to be very selective and not republish too often.

However, what was published by Tom on the 18th, just three days ago, is so powerful that it requires the widest readership possible.  That’s why Tomgram: Ellen Cantarow, “Little Revolution,” Big Fracking Consequences is being republished on Learning from Dogs today and tomorrow.  The reason I have split the essay into two parts is because I want to add some other material. Tom’s publication is in one part so if you can’t wait for my sequel tomorrow, then click here.

Here’s something that I want to draw your attention to:

If you’re 27 or younger, you’ve never experienced a colder-than-average month

By Philip Bump
This image sums up 2012, temperature-wise.

Nowhere on the surface of the planet have we seen any record cold temperatures over the course of the year so far. Every land surface in the world saw warmer-than-average temperatures except Alaska and the eastern tip of Russia. The continental United States has been blanketed with record warmth — and the seas just off the East Coast have been much warmer than average, for which Sandy sends her thanks.

I saw this on the Grist website yesterday.  Here are the next couple of paragraphs from that Grist article:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration summarizes October 2012:

The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63°C (58.23°F). This is 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature.

If you were born in or after April 1985, (i.e. now 27 years old or younger), you have never lived through a month that was colder than average. That’s beyond astonishing.

You might want to go to the NOAA State of the Climate report just issued to read more.  Indeed, go to read this: (my emboldening)

The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63°C (58.23°F). This is 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature. The last below-average month was February 1985. The last October with a below-average temperature was 1976. The Northern Hemisphere ranked as the seventh warmest October on record, while the Southern Hemisphere ranked as second warmest, behind 1997.

So with all that in mind, here’s the first half of Ellen Cantarow‘s essay including the ‘must-read’ introduction from Nick Turse.

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Tomgram: Ellen Cantarow, “Little Revolution,” Big Fracking Consequences

Posted by Ellen Cantarow at 5:59pm, November 18, 2012.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Back in May 2005, this site posted “Against Discouragement,” a graduation speech by the late, great Howard Zinn.  Though it hardly needs be said, it was, of course, inspiring.  I also interviewed him for TomDispatch and hewrote for the site.  A last book of his has just been published, Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches (1963-2009).  How could I not recommend it?  After all, he still speaks to us all. 

Also a reminder for TD readers: we don’t encourage you to become Amazon customers, but if you already are, and you go to that site via a TomDispatch book link like the one in the previous paragraph (or any book cover image link on the site), we get a modest cut of anything you buy, book or otherwise.  It’s a way to support this site at absolutely no cost to you!  Tom]

To say the Central Intelligence Agency has had an uneven record over its 65 years would be kind.  It found early “success” in plotting to overthrow the legitimate governments of Iran and Guatemala (even if it did fail to foresee the Soviet Union going nuclear in 1949).  Then, it had a troubled adolescence.  The Bay of Pigs.  Vietnam.  Laos.  Spying on Americans.  As the Agency matured, it managed to miss all signs of the oncoming Iranian revolution — the natural endpoint of its glorious 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power — and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  (It did, however, manage to arm America’s future enemies there, sowing the seeds of 9/11.)  Then there was the Reagan era Iran-Contra affair, the failure to notice the fall of the Berlin Wall until it was on CNN, the WMD “intelligence” of the Iraqi leaker codenamed “Curveball,” the Iraq debacle that followed, and…

Well, you get the picture.  Recently, however, things seemed to be looking up.  The most popular general in a generation or two, a soldier-scholar-superman who could do no wrong, became its director.  Just before that, the Agency helped take out America’s public enemy number one in a daring night raid about which Hollywood is soon to release a celebratory movie.

But just as things were looking up, the rock star general was caught with his pants down, resigning in disgrace after an extramarital affair became public.  That titillating development overshadowed another more serious one: a cry for help about a looming threat from the Agency and its brethren in the American intelligence community (IC).  In late October, the National Research Council was toissue a report commissioned by the CIA and the IC.  Superstorm Sandy intervened and so it was only recently released, aptly titled “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.” And what a dire picture it painted: security analysts should, it explained “expect climate surprises in the coming decade… and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate… It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events… will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response.”

Think failed states, water wars, forced mass migrations, famine, drought, and epidemics that will spill across borders, overwhelm national and international mitigation efforts, and leave the United States scrambling to provide disaster response, humanitarian relief, or being drawn into new conflicts.  That’s bad news for everyone, including the intelligence community.  Even worse, the 206-page report calls for more study, more analysis, and more action — and yet none of that is likely to happen without the assent of Congress.

Keep in mind that Republican members of Congress opposed even the creation of a CIA climate change center and tried starve it of funding while, as Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones noted last year, “Republican lawmakers — including the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees, respectively — have also expressed skepticism about the CIA’s climate work.”

In other words, add Republicans to the list of those who, like Cuban and Laotian communists of yore, have worked to thwart the Agency.  And cross the CIA off any list of potential environmental saviors.  In fact, when it comes to the health of this planet, saviors seem distinctly in short supply.  As TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reports from the frontlines of a full-scale climate conflict, the only hope for the environment may come from unlikely groups of people in the unlikeliest of places fighting a shadow war more important than any ever waged by the CIA. Nick Turse

Frack Fight
A Secret War of Activists — With the World in the Balance
By Ellen Cantarow

There’s a war going on that you know nothing about between a coalition of great powers and a small insurgent movement.  It’s a secret war being waged in the shadows while you go about your everyday life.

In the end, this conflict may matter more than those in Iraq and Afghanistan ever did.  And yet it’s taking place far from newspaper front pages and with hardly a notice on the nightly news.  Nor is it being fought in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia, but in small hamlets in upstate New York.  There, a loose network of activists is waging a guerrilla campaign not with improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades, but with zoning ordinances and petitions.

The weaponry may be humdrum, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may hang in the balance.

All summer long, the climate-change nightmares came on fast and furious. Once-fertile swathes of American heartland baked into an aridity reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of fish dead in overheated streams. Six million acres in the West consumed by wildfires.  In September, a report commissioned by 20 governments predicted that as many as 100 million people across the world could die by 2030 if fossil-fuel consumption isn’t reduced.  And all of this was before superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the New York metropolitan area and the Jersey shore.

Washington’s leadership, when it comes to climate change, is already mired in failure. President Obama permitted oil giant BP to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while Shell was allowed to begin drilling tests in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.  At the moment, the best hope for placing restraints on climate change lies with grassroots movements.

In January, I chronicled upstate New York’s homegrown resistance to high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, an extreme-energy technology that extracts methane (“natural gas”) from the Earth’s deepest regions.  Since then, local opposition has continued to face off against the energy industry and state government in a way that may set the tone for the rest of the country in the decades ahead.  In small hamlets and tiny towns you’ve never heard of, grassroots activists are making a stand in what could be the beginning of a final showdown for Earth’s future.

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The second part of Ellen’s essay will be published tomorrow.

Ellen Cantarow first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. A TomDispatch regular, her writing has been published in The Village Voice, Grand Street, Mother Jones, Alternet, Counterpunch, and ZNet, and anthologized by the South End Press. She is also lead author and general editor of an oral-history trilogy, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change, published in 1981 by The Feminist Press/McGraw-Hill, widely anthologized, and still in print.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch 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 2012 Ellen Cantarow

The West in flames

Yet another stunningly powerful essay on TomDispatch.

Introduction

I do hope that as a result of Tom Engelhardt giving me written blanket permission to republish essays that appear on TomDispatch, for which I am ever grateful, many readers have gone across to the TomDispatch website and, consequently, quite a few of you have subscribed.  The regular flow of essays from major names across the many fields of life is impressive.

Plus I want to harp back to a theme that I touched on during my introduction to Dianne Gray’s guest post on the 25th last, Dogs and life.  That is that the vision of Learning from Dogs is to remind all of us that we have no option in terms of the long-term viability of our species than to acknowledge the power of integrity, so beautifully illustrated by our closest animal companion for tens of thousands of years, the domestic dog.

So with that in mind, settle back and read,

Tomgram: William deBuys, The West in Flames

Posted by William deBuys at 9:20AM, July 24, 2012

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Check out my hour on Media Matters with Bob McChesney on Sunday, where he and I talked about the militarization of the U.S. and of American foreign policy, and I discussed my latest book, The United States of Fear, as well as the one I co-authored with Nick Turse, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.  Tom]

The water supply was available only an hour a day and falling.  People — those who hadn’t moved north to cooler climes — were dying from the heat.  Food was growing ever scarcer and the temperature soaring so that, as one reporter put it, you could “cook eggs on your sidewalk and cook soup in the oceans.”  The year was 1961 and I was “there,” watching “The Midnight Sun,” a Twilight Zone episode in which the Earth was coming ever closer to the sun.  (As it was The Twilight Zone, you knew there would be a twist at the end: in this case, you were inside the fevered dreams of a sick woman on a planet heading away from the sun and growing ever colder.)

In 1961, an ever-hotter planet was a sci-fi fantasy and the stuff of entertainment.  No longer.  Now, it’s the plot line for our planet and it isn’t entertaining at all.  Just over a half-century later, we are experiencing, writes Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, “the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.”

Speaking personally, this summer, living through a staggering heat wave on the East coast (as in much of the rest of the country), I’ve felt a little like I’m in that fevered dream from The Twilight Zone, and a map of a deep-seated drought across 56% of the country and still spreading gives you a feeling for just why.   Never in my life have I thought of the sun as implacable, but that’s changing, too.  After all, the first six months of 2012 in the U.S. were 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term norm and Colorado, swept by wildfires, was a staggering 6.4 degrees higher than the usual.  TomDispatch regular William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, catches the feel of living in a West that’s aflame and drying out fast.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses where heat, fire, and climate change are taking us, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

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The Oxygen Planet Struts Its Stuff 
Not a “Perfect Storm” But the New Norm in the American West 
By William deBuys

Dire fire conditions, like the inferno of heat, turbulence, and fuel that recently turned 346 homes in Colorado Springs to ash, are now common in the West. A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire’s “perfect storm.”

They are only half right.

This summer’s conditions may indeed be perfect for fire in the Southwest and West, but if you think of it as a “storm,” perfect or otherwise — that is, sudden, violent, and temporary — then you don’t understand what’s happening in this country or on this planet. Look at those 346 burnt homes again, or at the High Park fire that ate 87,284 acres and 259 homes west of Fort Collins, or at the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico that began in mid-May, consumed almost 300,000 acres, and is still smoldering, and what you have is evidence of the new normal in the American West.

For some time, climatologists have been warning us that much of the West is on the verge of downshifting to a new, perilous level of aridity. Droughts like those that shaped the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the even drier 1950s will soon be “the new climatology” of the region — not passing phenomena but terrifying business-as-usual weather. Western forests already show the effects of this transformation.

If you surf the blogosphere looking for fire information, pretty quickly you’ll notice a dust devil of “facts” blowing back and forth: big fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago.

All of this is hair-raisingly true. Or at least it was, until things got worse. After all, those figures don’t come from this summer’s fire disasters but from a study published in 2006 that compared then-recent fires, including the record-setting blazes of the early 2000s, with what now seem the good old days of 1970 to 1986. The data-gathering in the report, however, only ran through 2003. Since then, the western drought has intensified, and virtually every one of those recent records — for fire size, damage, and cost of suppression — has since been surpassed.

New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains are a case in point. Over the course of two weeks in 2000, the Cerro Grande fire burned 43,000 acres, destroying 400 homes in the nuclear research city of Los Alamos. At the time, to most of us living in New Mexico, Cerro Grande seemed a vision of the Apocalypse. Then, the Las Conchas fire erupted in 2011 on land adjacent to Cerro Grande’s scar and gave a master class in what the oxygen planet can do when it really struts its stuff.

The Las Conchas fire burned 43,000 acres, equaling Cerro Grande’s achievement,in its first fourteen hours. Its smoke plume rose to the stratosphere, and if the light was right, you could see within it rose-red columns of fire — combusting gases — flashing like lightning a mile or more above the land. Eventually the Las Conchas fire spread to 156,593 acres, setting a record as New Mexico’s largest fire in historic times.

It was a stunning event. Its heat was so intense that, in some of the canyons it torched, every living plant died, even to the last sprigs of grass on isolated cliff ledges. In one instance, the needles of the ponderosa pines were not consumed, but bent horizontally as though by a ferocious wind. No one really knows how those trees died, but one explanation holds that they were flash-blazed by a superheated wind, perhaps a collapsing column of fire, and that the wind, having already burned up its supply of oxygen, welded the trees by heat alone into their final posture of death.

It seemed likely that the Las Conchas record would last years, if not decades. It didn’t. This year the Whitewater Baldy fire in the southwest of the state burned an area almost twice as large.

Half Now, Half Later?

In 2007, Tom Swetnam, a fire expert and director of the laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, gave an interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes.Asked to peer into his crystal ball, he said he thought the Southwest might lose half its existing forests to fire and insects over the several decades to come. He immediately regretted the statement.  It wasn’t scientific; he couldn’t back it up; it was a shot from the hip, a WAG, a wild-ass guess.

Swetnam’s subsequent work, however, buttressed that WAG. In 2010, he and several colleagues quantified the loss of southwestern forestland from 1984 to 2008. It was a hefty 18%. They concluded that “only two more recurrences of droughts and die-offs similar or worse than the recent events” might cause total forest loss to exceed 50%. With the colossal fires of 2011 and 2012, including Arizona’s Wallow fire, which consumed more than half-a-million acres, the region is on track to reach that mark by mid-century, or sooner.

But that doesn’t mean we get to keep the other half.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast a temperature increase of 4ºC for the Southwest over the present century. Given a faster than expected build-up of greenhouse gases (and no effective mitigation), that number looks optimistic today. Estimates vary, but let’s say our progress into the sweltering future is an increase of slightly less than 1ºC so far. That means we still have an awful long way to go. If the fires we’re seeing now are a taste of what the century will bring, imagine what the heat stress of a 4ºC increase will produce. And these numbers reflect mean temperatures. The ones to worry about are the extremes, the record highs of future heat waves.  In the amped-up climate of the future, it is fair to think that the extremes will increase faster than the means.

At some point, every pine, fir, and spruce will be imperiled. If, in 2007, Swetnam was out on a limb, these days it’s likely that the limb has burned off and it’s getting ever easier to imagine the destruction of forests on a region-wide scale, however disturbing that may be.

More than scenery is at stake, more even than the stability of soils, ecosystems, and watersheds: the forests of the western United States account for 20% to 40% of total U.S. carbon sequestration. At some point, as western forests succumb to the ills of climate change, they will become a net releaser of atmospheric carbon, rather than one of the planet’s principle means of storing it.

Contrary to the claims of climate deniers, the prevailing models scientists use to predict change are conservative. They fail to capture many of the feedback loops that are likely to intensify the dynamics of change. The release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost, an especially gloomy prospect, is one of those feedbacks. The release of carbon from burning or decaying forests is another. You used to hear scientists say, “If those things happen, the consequences will be severe.” Now they more often skip that “if” and say “when” instead, but we don’t yet have good estimates of what those consequences will be.

Ways of Going

There have always been droughts, but the droughts of recent years are different from their predecessors in one significant way: they are hotter. And the droughts of the future will be hotter still.

June temperatures produced 2,284 new daily highs nationwide and tied 998 existing records. In most places, the shoe-melting heat translated into drought, and the Department of Agriculture set a record of its own recently by declaring 1,297 dried-out counties in 29 states to be “natural disaster areas.” June also closed out the warmest first half of a year and the warmest 12-month period since U.S. record keeping began in 1895. At present, 56% of the continental U.S. is experiencing drought, a figure briefly exceeded only in the 1950s.

Higher temperatures have a big impact on plants, be they a forest of trees or fields of corn and wheat. More heat means intensified evaporation and so greater water stress. In New Mexico, researchers compared the drought of the early 2000s with that of the 1950s. They found that the 1950s drought was longer and drier, but that the more recent drought caused the death of many more trees, millions of acres of them. The reason for this virulence: it was 1ºC to 1.5ºC hotter.

The researchers avoided the issue of causality by not claiming that climate changecaused the higher temperatures, but in effect stating: “If climate change is occurring, these are the impacts we would expect to see.” With this in mind, they christened the dry spell of the early 2000s a “global-change-type drought” — not a phrase that sings but one that lingers forebodingly in the mind.

No such equivocation attends a Goddard Institute for Space Studies appraisal of the heat wave that assaulted Texas, Oklahoma, and northeastern Mexico last summer. Their report represents a sea change in high-level climate studies in that they boldly assert a causal link between specific weather events and global warming. The Texas heat wave, like a similar one in Russia the previous year, was so hot that its probability of occurring under “normal” conditions (defined as those prevailing from 1951 to 1980) was approximately 0.13%. It wasn’t a 100-year heat wave or even a 500-year one; it was so colossally improbable that only changes in the underlying climate could explain it.

The decline of heat-afflicted forests is not unique to the United States. Global research suggests that in ecosystems around the world, big old trees — the giants of tropical jungles, of temperate rainforests, of systems arid and wet, hot and cold — are dying off.

More generally, when forest ecologists compare notes across continents and biomes, they find accelerating tree mortality from Zimbabwe to Alaska, Australia to Spain. The most common cause appears to be heat stress arising from climate change, along with its sidekick, drought, which often results when evaporation gets a boost.

Fire is only one cause of forest death. Heat alone can also do in a stand of trees. According to the Texas Forest Service, between 2% and 10% of all the trees in Texas, perhaps half-a-billion or so, died in last year’s heat wave, primarily from heat and desiccation. Whether you know it or not, those are staggering figures.

Insects, too, stand ready to play an ever-greater role in this onrushing disaster. Warm temperatures lengthen the growing season, and with extra weeks to reproduce, a population of bark beetles may spawn additional generations over the course of a hot summer, boosting the number of their kin that that make it to winter. Then, if the winter is warm, more larvae survive to spring, releasing ever-larger swarms to reproduce again. For as long as winters remain mild, summers long, and trees vulnerable, the beetles’ numbers will continue to grow, ultimately overwhelming the defenses of even healthy trees.

We now see this throughout the Rockies. A mountain pine beetle epidemic has decimated lodgepole pine stands from Colorado to Canada. About five million acres of Colorado’s best scenery has turned red with dead needles, a blow to tourism as well as the environment. The losses are far greater in British Columbia, where beetles have laid waste to more than 33 million forest acres, killing a volume of trees three times greater than Canada’s annual timber harvest.

Foresters there call the beetle irruption “the largest known insect infestation in North American history,” and they point to even more chilling possibilities. Until recently, the frigid climate of the Canadian Rockies prevented beetles from crossing the Continental Divide to the interior where they were, until recently, unknown. Unfortunately, warming temperatures have enabled the beetles to top the passes of the Peace River country and penetrate northern Alberta. Now a continent of jack pines lies before them, a boreal smorgasbord 3,000 miles long. If the beetles adapt effectively to their new hosts, the path is clear for them to chew their way eastward virtually to the Atlantic and to generate transformative ecological effects on a gigantic scale.

The mainstream media, prodded by recent drought declarations and other news, seem finally to be awakening to the severity of these prospects. Certainly, we should be grateful. Nevertheless, it seems a tad anticlimactic when Sam Champion, ABC News weather editor, says with this-just-in urgency to anchor Diane Sawyer, “If you want my opinion, Diane, now’s the time we start limiting manmade greenhouse gases.”

One might ask, “Why now, Sam?” Why not last year, or a decade ago, or several decades back? The news now overwhelming the West is, in truth, old news. We saw the changes coming. There should be no surprise that they have arrived.

It’s never too late to take action, but now, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, Earth’s climate would continue warming for at least another generation. Even if we surprise ourselves and do all the right things, the forest fires, the insect outbreaks, the heat-driven die-offs, and other sweeping transformations of the American West and the planet will continue.

One upshot will be the emergence of whole new ecologies. The landscape changes brought on by climate change are affecting areas so vast that many previous tenants of the land — ponderosa pines, for instance — cannot be expected to recolonize their former territory. Their seeds don’t normally spread far from the parent tree, and their seedlings require conditions that big, hot, open spaces don’t provide.

What will develop in their absence? What will the mountains and mesa tops of the New West look like? Already it is plain to see that scrub oak, locust, and other plants that reproduce by root suckers are prospering in places where the big pines used to stand. These plants can be burned to the ground and yet resprout vigorously a season later. One ecologist friend offers this advice, “If you have to be reincarnated as a plant in the West, try not to come back as a tree. Choose a clonal shrub, instead. The future looks good for them.”

In the meantime, forget about any sylvan dreams you might have had: this is no time to build your house in the trees.

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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 (Oxford, 2011). 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. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses where heat, fire, and climate change are taking us, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2012 William deBuys