Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

– From The Handmaid’s Tale

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was still a teenager and it had a profound effect on me. I have read it several times since. The above bit of dialogue is what comes to mind first whenever I think of the book and its relevance to our current society. Which do we want? Freedom to do as we please as long as we’re not causing harm to others (or maybe even if we are, according to the judgment of some), or freedom from a subjective list of harms that could befall us? Obviously there is a very messy line between the two, and potential for a lot of overlap, but in my mind the conceptual difference between them is vast.

I live in Chicago, a city that recently has gotten some attention for its infamous and failed ban on foie gras, and also for its recent designation by Reason Magazine as the country’s worst nanny state:

Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America’s freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it’s quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London’s.

Chicago also has banned handgun ownership (and has made no move to reexamine said ban in light of the recent Supreme Court decision), limits trans fats in restaurants, has only 1,300 bars (compared with over 7,000 in the 1940s). I will also include in this category the unfortunate city of Bensenville, which has the tragic honor of being adjacent to O’Hare airport, and atop the new expansion site. It is now a ghost town of boarded up houses and businesses, awaiting its final and inevitable fate at the hands of the courts (let’s call this one “freedom from property”). I should also mention the ban on cell phone use, but not cosmetics application, newspaper reading or picking one’s nose, while driving (“freedom from distraction by cellular communication”), and Mayor Emperor Richard Daley’s approval and support of relocating the Chicago Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park. Grant Park’s 1836 mandate describes it as “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever” (“freedom from open public space”). Chicago is even considering a ban on text messaging while walking in intersections (“freedom from death by idiocy, OMFG, LOL”).

Nationally, to this list I’ll add our expensive misadventure in Iraq (“freedom from the presence of Islamic dictatorships in strategic oil-rich regions”), the likewise expensive and ultimately ill-fated border fence (“freedom from feeling like the government isn’t doing anything about the immigration problem”), the war on drugs (“freedom from mind altering chemicals without a prescription excluding caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and chocolate”), the government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with other bailouts and corporate subsidy programs including the Farm Bill (“freedom from capitalism”), and some dubious social programs and “incentives” (“freedom from personal responsibility”).

Add to this a plethora of local and municipal fees and regulations, vehicle and pet registration dues, sin taxes, bottled water taxes and taxes to fund mismanaged, woefully inadequate prisons and public school systems (“freedom from liquidity”).

Personally, I would like to live in a nation where “freedom to” is the guiding principle. I would like to live in a city where owners of private businesses are free to allow their customers to smoke cigarettes, with thanks to those who, thinking like entrepreneurs, also offer well-ventilated, smoke-free areas. I would like to live in a city where, in accordance with the Second Amendment, I am free to legally own a hand gun, just like city officials currently are. I would like to live in a state where I am free to decide if my child is tall enough or weighs enough to safely ride in the car without a car seat. I would like to live in a city where, while driving, I am free to take or make an important phone call. I would like to live in a state where I am free to send my child to private school using my un-property tax money. I would like the freedom, as a law abiding citizen, to talk on the phone with confidence, knowing that the government respects my right to privacy. I would like the freedom, here where I live, to breathe unpolluted outdoor air, to drink pharmaceutical and chemical-free water and to have access to a renewable energy grid. Most importantly, though, I would like my country to preserve my freedom to live under a faithfully observed Constitution, and likewise to preserve my freedom from tyranny, including from laws that attempt to protect me from myself. I’m doin’ just fine, thanks.

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Lots of people, including me, have fantasies about just ditching it all and moving to some wild, untamed place and living off the land. For me it is the proverbial “cabin in the woods,” but for others it is a cottage by the sea (either on a tropical island or on some pristine northern coast), an Airstream in the desert, or a lodge up in the mountains.

At this point in my life, I’d be happy with a rustic little cottage in the Wisconsin woods, but for a long time I had a mild obsession with Alaska and all points north and acceptably harsh and remote. I read and reread Jack London, Farley Mowat, Gretel Ehrlich, watched Northern Exposure religiously (as if a network comedy-drama would give me a realistic idea of what life in the Alaska wilds might be like), and watched every relevant documentary and nature program I could find.

Although my Alaska ardor has cooled quite a bit in recent years (pun intended – it definitely has something to do with growing less cold tolerant as I get older), I still love a good wilderness read. A few years ago, after it was comfortably in paperback, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. For the three people who haven’t heard of it, it’s a biography of a recent college graduate from an upper middle-class family who, in the early 1990s, after donating his life savings to charity, went on a solo two-year cross-country odyssey, picking up odd jobs as needed, hitchhiking once his car gave out, and basically living the life of a vagabond. His adventure, psychologically and physically, culminated in a trip to Alaska, where he stepped into the wilderness and never returned. He died of starvation, likely exacerbated by eating poisonous foraged seeds that he mistook for edible ones. He tried to return to the main road, but the trickling, snow banked stream he crossed to get to his camp in early spring was a meltwater-fueled torrent by late summer. He was only a couple of miles from a park shelter with food and other emergency supplies.

The story both frustrated and stuck with me. While I could certainly relate to his existential angst and Thoreau-ish disdain for modern society, I just couldn’t help but wonder about his lack of practicality. I’m a preparer, a planner. If I were to decide to abandon my city life and move to the wilderness, I’d make sure I had a few basic things. Plenty of food, for starters (he wandered into the woods with a bag of rice and a local plant identification guide). A map and compass. Fishing gear. Tools. A plan for shelter. Ample cold weather clothing and gear. One of the things that frustrated me most about the story was when, deep into the warm, buggy summer and already suffering from hunger, he happened upon an old moose and shot it. Problem was, he had no real plan for preserving the meat. So a thousand pounds of life-sustaining flesh literally rotted away while he nibbled on berries and toxic seeds. His plan was not to have a plan, that plans were too restrictive, that he could somehow survive on berries and the magical Alaskan ether. See, one of the reasons I’ve never fulfilled my dream of living off the land in Alaska is that I too am a college-educated, middle-class urbanite and, frankly, I probably don’t have what it takes. I realize this about myself. One cannot eat romantic notions and despite its beauty, Alaska is a harsh place that doesn’t put humans above any other creature that is trying to survive. In fact, humans are at a distinct disadvantage being that we are slow, naked and prone to frostbite.

Just last year, as a teacher looking for something interesting for my students, I came upon a quiet little documentary called “Alone in the Wilderness.” It is completely self-filmed by Dick Proenneke who, in 1967 at the age of fifty, built a cabin on the shores of a remote Alaskan lake. He lived there, alone, for the next 30 years. The documentary chronicles the construction of the cabin, and of Dick fashioning everything from door hinges and locks to furniture, counter tops, shelves and utensils, all out of wood, all using hand tools that he brought with him for that purpose. In already snow-covered late fall, the appropriate time to deal with large amounts of meat, he killed a sheep and, using his already constructed, ready and waiting smoke tent, cured the meat so it would last him the winter. He fished regularly, gardened, and had arrangements with a local bush pilot to arrive twice yearly with needed staples. While he certainly had in common a shared urge to leave behind civilization and contemplate the meaning of life, unlike Chris McCandless, or as he called his searching self, Alex Supertramp, Dick had a Midwestern kind of sensibility that I could relate to. Here is a guy who could make a plan, who had a naturalist’s sense of wonder but also an engineer’s practicality and precision.

The other day I saw Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild, which is based on the Krakauer book, and that sense of frustration about Chris and his story resurfaced. It’s a strange tale, about a seemingly brilliant and friendly kid who, troubled by family secrets and betrayals and his tight-lipped suburban D.C. upbringing, decides to intentionally disappear from and divorce his family, only to realize at the bitter end that solitude and loneliness are not the same, that idealism without a plan can be dangerous. Both the film and the book know this ahead of time, both were written by men with a little of the wild in them, enough to relate and feel drawn to Chris’s story, but apparently not enough to share his fate.

Part of me wishes I was like Chris, willing to give up everything save the clothes on my back to have a wild, uncharted adventure. This, I’m sure, is the source of some of my frustration with him. What a less complicated, likely unknown, story it would have been if he had walked out of the woods, a changed and enlightened man. I know though, that of the two I’m more like Dick Proenneke. Practical, simple and rapidly outgrowing whatever little sense of invincibility I ever had. Proenneke’s story will probably never be on the New York Times bestseller list, and mine is even less likely to. Even the most adventurous of us usually have the sense not to squat on our spurs.

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Did you know that there is a washing machine out there that can actually supply drinking water? I didn’t think so either until I saw this advertisement in the Chicago Tribune:

“A Bosch washer could supply a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people.”

This kind of advertising drives me nuts. It is more than a little insulting that the marketing people at Bosch think that American citizens consumers are too ignorant to know the difference between water supply and water consumption. A washing machine does not supply water. A washing machine uses water. What they could have said was, “A Bosch washer could save a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people compared to less efficient models.”

Of course the ad was all in the context of touting the company’s environmental friendliness, and that is my larger point. Manufactured products are not generally “environmentally friendly.” Products that are efficient compared to other products are less environmentally damaging, but they still have an impact – they are still using nonrenewable resources, both in their manufacture and in their operation. Now that it is cool to be “green” I’ve noticed a lot of false and misleading advertising that basically wants the consumer to believe that their product is not just more efficient, but is in fact friendly to the environment. I like my washing machine as much as the next person, but I’m not going to fool myself into believing that dumping in a load of dirty laundry and a capful of detergent, and turning on a machine that uses hot water and electricity (and then dumps the used detergent and dirty water down the drain), is friendly to the environment. Even the energy star washers still work in the same way, even if they use a little less of everything.

Companies will naturally take any marketing angle and run with it, including jumping on the “green” bandwagon. But wild claims of machines actually being suppliers of natural resources? That’s low.

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Several months ago the National Geographic featured a picture from photographer Edward Burtynsky’s project titled, succinctly enough, “China.” It was of the inside of a poultry processing plant – hundreds of workers, all in pink scrubs, blue aprons, shower caps, plastic gloves and masks, each working over a plastic tub of chicken parts. At the time I felt a little guilty about all the times I ever felt sorry for myself – even though I didn’t like my job, or my car was on the fritz, at least I didn’t have to do that for a living. For some reason the image has stayed with me, and I’ve often consoled myself with the thought, “at least you’re not a Chinese poultry worker.”

Then the other day I was reading a little blurb in the November/December Orion magazine about the typical journey of a Chinook salmon, from the cold north Atlantic waters to your dinner plate. When the salmon is caught, it is frozen and loaded onto a ship waiting in a Norwegian harbor. The ship then sails, er, motors, to either Rotterdam or Hamburg where the fish is loaded onto a huge international container ship, which then sets off for China. About a month later, the frozen salmon arrives in China, most likely the northeast coast, home to most of China’s fish processing plants. The fish is trucked to one of these plants, is defrosted and on a large industrial floor, is skinned, boned, filleted and refrozen. Then it is loaded back onto a ship, destined for a U.S. or European supermarket. “Fresh” salmon, anyone?

The reason for this very long, very circuitous route is this: salmon have tiny little bones, called “pin bones” that the big filleting machines miss. They have to be plucked by hand using pliers or tweezers. Apparently labor costs make this too expensive/not profitable enough in the U.S. and Europe, so we ship the fish to China, where labor is cheap and productivity is high.

While I was reading this story, the first image that popped into my mind was the photograph of the Chinese poultry workers (you can see it here). The Orion article described the fish workers in basically the same way:

“In a large, neon-lit industrial space are ranks of tables, each with dozens of brightly colored plastic trays on top of them. Standing at the tables, dressed in white coats and caps and wearing latex gloves and cotton masks, are hundreds of factory workers – most of them young women from rural villages.”

If you were to tell this story to someone who was unfamiliar with the concept of global economies, he’d probably shake his head in disbelief. I mean, it just sounds so incredibly inefficient. How on earth can it be cheaper to send a fish around the world to have its bones plucked, when for a few dollars more an hour, you can have somebody do it right here? Or, conversely, how much can the Chinese factory workers possibly be making if it is cheaper to send it around the world than to do it ourselves? A dollar an hour? A dollar a day?

Give me a salmon fillet with pin bones, please. I will happily fetch my little pair of pliers (to hell with the apron and gloves) and pluck them out myself. For free.

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James Howard Kunstler is my favorite curmudgeon. When I discovered him, I was elated to find a kindred spirit in terms of how I view the modern world. His writing, for better or worse, plays right into my deepest suspicions that the human species is headed for unprecedented peril in the coming years. He also shares my dismay about what has been going on in the building industry since the end of WWII. Things are ugly out there. Strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, big box retail chains…welcome to the new American landscape.

When I was ten my family moved from a big, old rented house in an urban suburb (closer to the edge of the city) to a tiny little cape cod in a WWII neighborhood that, at the time, was in a more far-flung suburb that abutted wide swaths of open space and farmland. Once I had my driver’s license, one of my favorite things to do was to go for a solitary ride on a summer twilight, out past civilization and into what felt, to me anyway, like the middle of nowhere. Enter the Housing Boom about five years later. It happened so fast that coming home from a two week vacation was disorienting. New strip malls, new housing developments, even new streets, were sprouting up overnight. I hate overusing the word “literally,” but I mean literally overnight.

And the houses. Commonly referred to as McMansions (my grandmother calls them “Big Uglies”), they are like giant behemoths rising from the prairie, their faces blank and expressionless. They are located in subdivisions with names like “Fox Run Estates,” “Huntington Grove,” “Lake View Manor,” and “Deer Path Village.” Never mind the fact that a fox, a grove of trees (they were all cut down), a lake (it’s a flood retention pond) or a deer would never be seen by the residents of the so-named developments. In these developments, there are maybe four housing styles (“The Tudor,” “The Windsor,” “The Edwardian,” etc.), but they all essentially look the same. They smell like drywall, like the VOCs radiating from the nylon wall-to-wall carpeting, like contractor-grade latex paint. They have hollow core doors and fake brass fixtures. They start falling apart before the ink dries on the closing documents.

I’ve always wanted to live in a really old house. Really old. As old as possible. I am even sometimes disappointed that I didn’t grow up in New England, where I might possibly live in a house built in the 18th century. Here in Chicago, the oldest house was built around 1836, and it would be next to impossible to find anything anywhere near that vintage on the market. I like the spicy, hardwood smell of old houses; I like the way the floorboards creak and groan. I like the wavy leaded glass windowpanes, and the fireplaces that kept ladies with petticoats and hoop skirts warm on cold winter evenings. I like the impenetrable plaster walls, the graceful archways and the possibility of finding an ancient relic in a long-forgotten corner of the attic.

My great-great grandfather built such a house. Out of stone. With his bare hands. It still stands today (albeit with an unfortunate 3-car garage added on by the current owners). It is graceful, solid and strong. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The windowsills are 24 inches deep, a perfect spot for my great-grandfather, as a boy, to gaze outside or take a nap. It sits amid the flat farmland on the upper tip of “The Thumb” in Michigan, a somewhat overlooked part of the state, where my relatives were among the first European settlers. I can hardly imagine living in a world where people built their own houses, houses that were as unique as their owners, with their very own idiosyncrasies etched into the stone, timber, mortar and brick. These houses have history. These houses are alive.

Which one would you choose?


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Autumn seems to be a favorite season for many people (myself included), especially in the Midwest. After enduring mind-boggling heat and humidity levels on a par with the Deep South, we finally get some relief. The air feels crisp, fresh and alive. Fall is filled with new smells – out with the fetid garbage languishing in the alleys, and in with the spicy smells of oaks, the woodsmoke from chimneys and the first whiffs of holiday baking. Kids walking home from school go out of their way to schlump through the leaves, and…wait a minute…where are the leaves?

I know there is no such thing, really, as “normal” weather. Chicago, and the Midwest in general, is known for its weather extremes. Twenty below is cold, a hundred above is hot, and we’ve had both and everything in between. But things really do seem to be changing. It used to snow, for example. Now it rains in January. I have witnessed hail on four occasions in the past year and a half, and only remember seeing hail a handful of times in my life prior to that.

I like weather; I like living in a place where the seasons change, and often dramatically. Ever since I was a kid, weather and seasonal changes have been important to me. I haven’t taken any official polls or anything, but I think I might be a little more preoccupied with the weather than your normal average person. Over the years I’ve noticed some things, one of them being that November 1st, the day we’re busy nursing our candy hangovers and trying to scrub off the last remnants of face paint, almost perfectly coincides with the falling of the last few lonely leaves. The wind starts to blow, sending little mini-tornadoes of leaves scattering down the sidewalk and then, whoosh – in what seems like the blink of an eye, it suddenly looks like…November. Except for this year. This is what it looks like from my back balcony today (well, yesterday afternoon, but it still looks like this):


Granted, there are several glorious gold and red maples up and down the street, but that just started happening in the past ten days or so. It just feels so…wrong. Monday was 66 degrees, yesterday was 60 and…it’s halfway to December! I’m not usually impressed one way or the other when people use their own weather memories and experiences to guide them in their feelings about climate change. So this isn’t really about that. It’s just…I miss fall.

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This blog really is going to be about more than climate change. Really, I swear. But it was the BIG THING on my mind (before the missiles started flying between Israel and Lebanon, anyway) when I started it. I’m going to attempt to put this topic to rest for now (at least for myself), with an examination of some of the myths and truths regarding the science of climate change, and what what the facts are (and are not).

As best as I can tell, these are the most common arguments against responding to climate change, each followed by critique and explanation:

1) We all know that the earth’s climate is cyclical in nature, and that it has been both warmer and cooler in the past than it is now.

Remember how in elementary school, your teacher told you that if a question contains even one false statement, you must mark “false” on the test? We must keep this in mind, and consider three important facts:

a) We are experiencing unprecedented warming, not just a routine incline on the graph. For instance, the “medieval warm period” is often cited as being warmer than it is today. This assertion has proved to be incorrect (and was based on such “observations” as Norwegians in Greenland and vineyards in England). It is warmer now than it was then. In fact, what has stood the test of rigorous science is the fact that the “Little Ice Age” of the 15th-19th centuries was cooler than the “cool” period of the mid-20th century.

b) The climate record of the past several thousand years shows a very small range of variability – a “warm” period can be distinguished from a “cool” period by less than a degree (think of your own body temperature – a couple of degrees is the difference between sickness and health), and both can have environmental impacts. The current warming trend is set to increase 1990 level temperatures by at least three degrees this century.

c) The climate does not change all by itself. It is changed by things. This is a common, yet flawed, understanding of the “cyclic nature” of our climate. The climate is a system that is influenced by what is happening globally – it is not some sort of moody character that changes its disposition on a whim. These occurrences and conditions that cause changes in the climate are called “forcings.”

2) Since the climate is cyclical in nature (see above), there is no way to prove that humans are causing global warming.

We should all know that “coincidence” means “the state or fact of occupying the same relative position or area in space.” When scientists and laypeople look at historic and current temperatures, and compare them to historic and current atmospheric CO2 levels, they will notice a startling thing: the graphs are nearly identical. We know that humans are responsible for this rise in carbon dioxide levels – this is fairly uncontroversial. So how do we know that more carbon dioxide causes higher temperatures, besides relying on coincidence? It’s actually pretty well established. However, if a record of 650,000 years of greenhouse gas concentrations doesn’t impress you, you can always research greenhouse gases, starting here and here.

3) CO2 is a naturally present gas, which can be absorbed in many ways by the planet. Heck, I read somewhere that more CO2 is good for plants, and will cause our agricultural yields to increase. Things will adapt.

This is one of my pet arguments “against” global warming, and the most obviously circular one that the title of this post refers to: 1) Global warming is not caused by humans (increased atmospheric CO2). 2) Even if it is, it’s probably a good thing. Which is it? We aren’t causing it, or we are?  

First off, I’m rather proud of my little analogy about human body temperature and variability. I’ll stretch it out a bit here. When you have a temperature of around 100F, you might not feel so good. “Low grade fever” is usually what we think of here. When you discover that you’re at 102, you generally feel pretty lousy. And when you are at 104 or above, it’s time to go to the hospital. Much higher than that, and the enzymes in your body will begin to denature. Can your body adapt to a 107F internal temperature? Can we just assume that plants and animals, which have evolved over many millennia of fairly constant temperatures, will be able to adapt to comparatively sudden changes in global temperature? Does this make sense, given what we know about evolution? The issue is not a very gradual warming over a very long time – that we could probably handle. It is the rate of warming that we need to be concerned about. Sudden changes are not so easily adapted to and, contrary to what it seems, three degrees in a century is sudden. Many of the mass extinctions in history have been attributed to rather sudden changes in climate (before you think, “See! You’re proving my point about the natural cycles of the climate!” please see here).

We know that our current plants have evolved with a fairly constant level of atmospheric CO2. We also know that plants absorb CO2. Many people use this information (and a “more is better” mentality) to postulate that more CO2 is good for plants and will help them grow better, meaning a boon for agriculture. However, this is another case of things being more complicated than they seem, with recent studies indicating that increased CO2 levels will not increase crop yields, and will actually result in less nutrient-rich yields. 

4) Besides, it would be devastating to the economy to put measures in place to reduce CO2 emissions. The economy is more of an immediate concern than the environment.

This one, for me anyway, causes a dumbfounded, “Huh?!?” kind of reaction. But that, of course, is not very scientific, so let’s inject some common sense: Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. Eventually we will need to develop an economy based on different sources of energy. How far away is “eventually”? I don’t have an answer for that, but given that we are nearing or have arrived at peak oil, I am inclined to think that it is necessary to immediately begin aggressively pursuing alternative fuel sources. I have used this quote in another post:

But in my view, tackling global warming is extremely unlikely to damage the American economy. What’s required is another industrial revolution. America is rather good at these. Britain led the first (coal and steam), but America has pioneered the rest (the internal combustion engine, telecommunications, computers). Each one only adds to our prosperity, and it will be the same once again.

But there is an important difference from previous industrial revolutions. This one requires political leadership; the market on its own won’t do it. As an Englishman I am often impatient with the notion of America as “the indispensable nation,” but on this occasion I think that it is. To combat global warming, the world desperately needs U.S. leadership.

While I am fairly pessimistic about our willingness to pioneer a new fuel revolution in time, I do think that if we had the will, we could accomplish it, to the benefit of the economy, the environment, and our health. Why do we so closely link consumerism and material wealth with happiness (more on that in another post)? How can the economy be more important than the health of the planet, our only viable address? Why do people think like this? Why can’t we see this as an exciting new challenge, rather than a foregone impossibility?

5) And, by the way, this whole global warming panic is being promulgated by a bunch of liberal commies who just want to scare people into adopting their anti-capitalist ideology. These people scared us in the ’70s, only that time we were facing another ice age.

I cannot speak for political ideology in this debate, as I attempt to steer clear of -isms. However, I do acknowledge that the implications of the science are sobering and yes, a little frightening, in their own right and without comment. I happen to believe that people tend to operate as crisis managers, resisting change until there is no other option. The “alarmists,” it seems to me, are not hoping that the earth will descend into environmental apocalypse – they are trying, as best they know how, to raise awareness to bring about change. What concerns me about people like Senator Inhofe and others who deny the reality and urgency of this issue, is that people who are looking for an excuse for complacency actively search out contrary “evidence” to put their minds at ease. It is interesting to note that much of the skepticism about global warming is reactionary, emotional and incredulous (I reference the the latter link as a common example of citing, in particular, two – and only two – climate scientists, John Christy and Richard Lindzen, in an attempt to downplay the reality of anthropogenic climate change). Interestingly, however, both Christy and Lindzen acknowledge that global warming is real, and is in part caused by human activity (oh, the power of agenda-driven quote mining!) The links above provide more information on this.

Finally, as for the “alarmists” of the 1970s, thankfully others  have taken on this task and you can read the piece below, and browse through contemporary scientific publications to see for yourself what the scientific community was saying.

The state of the science at the time (say, the mid 1970’s), based on reading the papers is, in summary: “…we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate…” (which is taken directly from NAS, 1975). In a bit more detail, people were aware of various forcing mechanisms – the ice age cycle; CO2 warming; aerosol cooling – but didn’t know which would be dominant in the near future. By the end of the 1970’s, though, it had become clear that CO2 warming would probably be dominant; that conclusion has subsequently strengthened.

 What do I make of all of this? Honestly, I’m not sure that drastically reducing CO2 emissions will be the great cure-all for our environmental problems. I think the fundamental issue is how we view our environment – right now, with few exceptions, it’s simply a moneymaker, something to be exploited. I also think that, deep down, we have a collective sense of guilt, but aren’t sure how to reverse a centuries old mentality – it is madness to deny that human beings have had a detrimental effect on the planet. One of my favorite lines concerning our relationship with the earth is, “woe to the creature that soils its own nest” (author unknown). Here are a few more:

The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope” ~Wendell Berry

The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them. ~Albert Einstein

After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say ‘I want to see the manager.’ ~William S. Burroughs

Environmentally friendly cars will soon cease to be an option…they will become a necessity. ~Fujio Cho, President of Toyota Motors

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money. ~Cree Proverb  

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. ~Aldo Leopold

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. ~Benjamin Franklin

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On a July 28, 2003 senate floor speech, Senator John Inhofe suggested that global warming is “[t]he greatest hoax perpetuated on the American people.” This became an assertion on his January 4, 2005 “Climate Change Update” in which he relies partly on Michael Crichton’s fictional novel, State of Fear, in an attempt to debunk the reality of climate change. For critical analysis of this speech, click here and here.

I’ll leave the science itself aside for now. What I would like to point out is Inhofe’s clear lack of objectivity and respect for science on this subject. He has done what I most detest in debate: he has formed his opinion first, and then looked for the “science” to back him up. He was “happy to report” that Chrichton’s book was on the NY Times bestseller list. He judges from the “welcome success” of the book that the “real story” behind global warming is reaching the American public. He consideres man-made global warming to be “an article of religious faith,” and dismisses the “scientific consensus” as “alarmist.” Inhofe turns on its head the idea of people historically questioning (and murdering) scientists who reject a religious worldview:

This is, it seems to me, highly ironic: aren’t scientists supposed to be non-conforming and question consensus? Nevertheless, it’s not hard to read between the lines: “skeptic” and “out of the mainstream” are thinly veiled code phrases, meaning anyone who doubts alarmist orthodoxy is, in short, a quack.

This is strangely out of synch with the reality that the idea of global warming was unpopular years ago, and only fairly recently have the “quacks” become the “mainstream” in terms of support within the scientific community. This is a case of people finally coming around, of advances in science supporting what the “quacks” have been saying all along. Inhofe has it backward.

More recently, Inhofe has responded with press releases to both Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and to the Discovery Channel’s special, “Global Warming: What You Need to Know,”  hosted by Tom Brokaw. In the former release, Inhofe ignores the overall scope of the documentary, and instead picks at details. He refers to Dr. Michael Mann’s “now discredited ‘hockey stick,'” a record of past temperatures that has been controversial, but is far from discredited. Other independent studies have produced nearly identical results. Interestingly, in every Inhofe document I’ve read, Michael Mann is the only scientist he targets by name who supports the theory of global warming (everyone else in the non-skeptic scientific community is labeled as “alarmists” and purveyors of “bad science”). I’m not sure what to make of this.

In his release responding to Tom Brokaw and the Discovery Channel special, Inhofe challenges Brokaw’s objectivity because of his “reliance on scientists who openly endorsed Democrat Presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and who are financially affiliated with left wing environmental groups.” Scientific American’s blog has this to say about that:

These few remaining skeptics, led by Senator James Inhofe, impugn Mr. Brokaw’s objectivity by noting in a press release that he nearly got a job in the Clinton cabinet and that two of the scientists he interviews actively supported John Kerry in the last presidential election. He also points to James Hansen’s article in our March 2004 issue as a confession of just such a manipulation. Unfortunately that confession seems to be missing from the actual article.

I would like to point out that while in office Inhofe has received over one million dollars in contributions from the energy and natural resources sector. Hm.

Science is very different from journalism. The American public has come to demand a certain level of objectivity in news reporting – it wants both sides of the story. The problem with this is that, in science, there often aren’t two sides. The earth really is round, and to give print space to, say, the Flat Earth Society, would be a waste. In science, the line between objectivity and subjectivity is in a different place than it is in journalism. The “we don’t know how this works” pile is separate from the “we know this for sure and we can prove it” pile. While there are still questions about the effects and severity of global warming, the fact that it is happening, and that human activity is a factor, goes in the “we can prove it” pile. It’s time to use what we know to take action. 

James Inhofe is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Judging from the majority press releases, it’s pretty clear that the committee is hostile to the reality of global warming. However, digging a little deeper, one can see that the ‘majority’ does not necessarily mean ‘majority opinion.’ The following statements have been made by fellow committee members:

Along similar lines, in an effort to protect the public from the dangerous trend of global warming, I have actively supported initiatives to cap carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, and legislation to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation, industrial, and commercial sectors. ~Senator Lincoln Chaffe (R-RI)

In their June 30 letter accepting the invitation to join the Dialogue, Lieberman and McCain wrote: “We believe it is important for legislators, business leaders and public interest organizations from the G8 and +5 nations to come together outside of formal negotiating structures to discuss a post-2012 International agreement to curb global warming.”

“It is with great pleasure we accept your kind invitation to join the Legislators Forum of the G8+5 Climate Change Dialogue,” they continued. “We will support the Forum’s efforts to generate productive ideas and exert a positive influence on the inter-governmental negotiations over a global response to climate change. We look forward to the Dialogue’s February 2007 meeting here in Washington D.C.”  ~July 7, 2006 press release.

It is high time to stop relying on technicalities and finger pointing to avoid action on climate change. Science tells us we must begin to act soon if we are to have a chance of minimizing the growing effects of climate change. ~Excerpt from Senator Jim Jeffords’ (I-VT) reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to review the Clean Air Act case regarding CO2 emissions.

As the ranking member of the Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety subcommittee, I have advocated for stronger clean air laws and have urged Congress to do something about global warming which stands as probably our greatest environmental challenge of the 21 st Century. ~Senator Tom Carper (D-DE).

Click here for a full list of committee members.

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I spend a lot of time imagining what the future will bring. Being wholly convinced that we are facing major changes on at least two fronts (military conflict and environmental degradation, and the related consequences), I am naturally inclined to entertain nighmarish apocalyptic scenarios. However, I find the need to continually question my instincts and a fairly dim view of humanity’s capability to forge a better future for itself. I’ve come to believe that we must transcend our current situation, not just change direction or tweak things here and there, in order to avoid catastrophe.

People throughout history have generally viewed their particular time as more dangerous, with the most at stake, than any other previous era. I think this has always been true – we are working our way, very quickly, to a global, or planetary society (distinct, of course, from culture). We are discovering the interconnectedness of everything, the way systems (political, biological, technological, etc.) seem to have the tendency to become more and more complex. 

Not only does social complexity and the extent of spatial connectedness increase from one epoch to the next, so does the pace of change. Just as historical transitions occur more rapidly than natural evolutionary transitions, historical transitions are accelerating. This is illustrated in Figure 2 [p.16], which represents schematically the evolution of complexity of the four major historical phases. Since the time-axis is logarithmic, the repetitive pattern suggests that change is accelerating in a regular fashion. The duration of successive eras decreases by roughly a factor of ten—the Stone Age lasted roughly 100,000 years, Early Civilization about 10,000 years and the Modern Era some 1,000 years. Curiously, if the transition to a Planetary Phase takes about 100 years (a reasonable hypothesis, we shall argue) the pattern would continue.

As a result of the observed increased pace of change, we can expect to see vast changes within our lifetimes. What will happen? Will this be an adventure, a bumpy nailbiter but ultimately a great human success story? Will we be able to identify and choose the correct path in time?

To learn about the Global Scenario Group and their work, click here. The long PDF, “The Great Transition,” is fascinating and well worth the time.

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In my ongoing search for a logical explanation as to why some people continue to debate the reality of global warming, I found this at Nova’s website:

There is a third reason why people reject the idea of man-made climate change. It is my observation that on the whole people tend to believe what is convenient to them. Faced with a choice between an awkward fact and a comforting fiction, most people will take the fiction any day. And global warming is certainly inconvenient. Just when we have finally freed ourselves from the tedium of tilling the earth and gotten nice and comfortable with a big TV, central heating, cheap flights to exotic destinations, and an armor-plated all-terrain vehicle for nipping down to the mall, along come some bloody scientists to tell us that we can’t go on as we are and as we like doing.

I have a sneaking sympathy for those conservatives who seem to regard the greenhouse effect as an unwarranted interference with the workings of the free-market economy. But as a bit of a political conservative myself, I have always thought that the guiding spirit of conservatism was the determination to see the world as it really is, to cast away the rose-tinted spectacles. Global warming is nothing less than a fact, and it has to be faced.

In my experience, these skeptics of the third kind are much more prevalent in the USA than in Europe. I think this may be partly to do with a particularly American attitude to money. American rhetoric tends to present prosperity as the natural consequence of political freedom. Like democracy, it becomes a moral good in its own right. Anyone who seems to question the wisdom of unconstrained economic growth risks appearing un-American, if not downright immoral.

Taking the lead

But in my view, tackling global warming is extremely unlikely to damage the American economy. What’s required is another industrial revolution. America is rather good at these. Britain led the first (coal and steam), but America has pioneered the rest (the internal combustion engine, telecommunications, computers). Each one only adds to our prosperity, and it will be the same once again.

But there is an important difference from previous industrial revolutions. This one requires political leadership; the market on its own won’t do it. As an Englishman I am often impatient with the notion of America as “the indispensable nation,” but on this occasion I think that it is. To combat global warming, the world desperately needs U.S. leadership.

I am optimistic enough to believe that we won’t have to wait much longer. The pace of global warming is now quickening to the point where it will soon be obvious to everyone. When you can discuss the question sitting at a pavement café in London in November in your shirtsleeves, you just know something is up, and all skepticism becomes moot.

For more on the science of global warming, click here.

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