The WP’s Brad Plumer talks with Elizabeth Kolber about her new book, The Sixth Extinction, and the many grim portents for life on our planet these days. “I think many scientists would say that what we’re doing to the chemistry of the oceans is the most significant. One-third of the carbon-dioxide that we pump into the air ends up in the oceans almost right away, and when CO2 dissolves in water, it forms an acid, that’s just an unfortunate fact.”
For the Toronto Globe and Mail, author Ian Brown and photojournalist Peter Power take an ethnographic expedition into the changing Canadian North. “You in the south talk about human time and space. We don’t think about it that way. Our space is vast, and time for us stretches over centuries.” As with the Dock Ellis pitching story a few years ago, worth visiting for the presentation alone.
In Slate, Paul Bogart describes (and laments) the end of night all across the world. “With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular, [the] implications are enormous.”
A new scientific analysis estimates the global cost of the melting Arctic, and it’s extremely terribad — $60 TRILLION bad. “Many experts now say that if recent trends continue and Arctic sea ice continues its ‘death spiral,’ we will see a ‘near ice-free Arctic in summer’ within a decade. That may well usher in a permanent change toward extreme, prolonged weather events ‘such as drought, flooding, cold spells and heat waves.’” So, hey, instead of working to address this multi-trillion dollar crisis before it hits, let’s just spend years and years and years sweating the deficit. Now, that’s leadership.
Update Per Mother Jones, the potentiality of such a methane bomb is in some dispute: “Bear in mind that there are many good reasons to be skeptical of a methane disaster — it is hardly a matter of scientific consensus that this is a real concern. And that stands in stark contrast to the issue of climate change in general, an issue on which scientists are overwhelmingly aligned (and where the solution remains incredibly obvious: cutting carbon emissions).”
Carbon concentration in the atmosphere veers dangerously close to the dubious milestone of 400 part per million. (The revised reading came out at 399.89.) “For the previous 800,000 years, CO2 levels never exceeded 300 ppm, and there is no known geologic period in which rates of increase have been so sharp. The level was about 280 ppm at the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, when the burning of fossil fuels began to soar.”
In any case, Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013. As I said when Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms passed, I’m of the Hunter Thompson on Nixon school when it comes to political obits. Let’s not diminish what Thatcher passionately stood for throughout her life by engaging in ridiculous happy talk at the moment of her death.
This Prime Minister has lot to answer for, from bringing free market absolutism and trickle-down voodoo economics to England, with all the readily preventable inequality it generated, to supporting dictators and tyrants around the world — Pinochet, Botha, the Khmer Rouge — to, of course, the Falklands War.
Much as with Reagan here in America, England still lives under Thatcher’s shadow. To quote today’s Guardian, “her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.” But to her credit, at least Thatcher (a chemist by training) was very vocal about the threat of climate change in the last years of her life.
Update: Salon‘s Alex Pareene has more evidence for the prosecution, including graphs of the rise of inequality and poverty on Thatcher’s watch:
“Britain no longer ‘makes’ much of anything, and when those lost jobs were replaced, they were replaced with low-wage, no-security service industry work…Really, it’s hard to argue with former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who remembered Thatcher on Sky News yesterday: ‘She created today’s housing crisis. She created the banking crisis. And she created the benefits crisis…In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact that she was fundamentally wrong.’” (Last quote also birddogged by Dangerous Meta.)
PPP polls America’s taste for various conspiracy theories. “37% of voters believe global warming is a hoax, 51% do not. Republicans say global warming is a hoax by a 58-25 margin, Democrats disagree 11-77, and Independents are more split at 41-51. 61% of Romney voters believe global warming is a hoax…20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, 51% do not.” Sigh. Don’t blame me, I voted for Lizard People.
Well, that’s that then. While Washington and our change president continue to fiddle, new data from 2012 suggests we are now flying past the two-degree rise threshold we set for ourselves to alert a global calamity due to climate change. “‘The prospects of keeping climate change below that (2-degree goal) are fading away,’ Tans says.”
|Some context: So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.)
Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”
At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.” When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, “One degree, one Africa.”
Update: More fuel for the pyre: The Earth’s temperature graphed over 10,000 years. “‘What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand,’ he said. ‘In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we’ve seen in the whole Holocene,” referring to the current geologic time period, which began around 11,500 years ago.’”
Economist Dean Baker argues that, while fiddling around on the fake deficit problem, our Beltway Establishment is ignoring the real crisis we face: climate change. “In reality, the campaigners are spewing utter nonsense when they imply that the well-being of future generations will be in any way determined by the size of the government debt that we pass on to them…[But] Neglecting the steps necessary to fix the planet out of a desire to reduce the deficit is incredibly irresponsible if we care about future generations.”
I’ve posted this before, but see also Bill McKibben on climate change in Rolling Stone over the summer. “June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – 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.“
And how does our Democratically re-elected president propose to lead the world in tackling this looming crisis? As Will Oremus pointed out in Slate, with rhetorical lamentations and no real action of consequence. “what’s obvious is that no one should expect a serious push for a comprehensive climate policy from the White House anytime soon.” In other worse, second verse, same as the first. But, hey, maybe eventually we’ll get some tax credits for swim lessons or something.
In related news and per this post, a high-school friend sends along these similarly distressing charts of arctic ice melt>. And here, via The Guardian, are the 100 most endangered species on the planet. “Some of the creatures on the list are down to the last few individuals. For example, numbers of the saola – an antelope known as the Asian unicorn, so rarely is it sighted – have been whittled down to the last few tens in existence.“
With a fortnight left in the melting season, Arctic ice hits a record low. Oh, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, just like the 327 months in a row of above-average temperatures we’ve had of late. Nothing to see here, move along. (Picture via here.)
“Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, several massive earthquakes wreaked havoc worldwide, Vancouver hosted a successful Winter Olympics, and so much more. Each photo tells its own tale, weaving together into the larger story of 2010.” Boston’s consistently impressive Big Picture gives us the Year That Was in photographs.
“[W]e are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space. We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years, but if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space.“
Once again, Professor Stephen Hawking makes the case for manned exploration, sooner rather than later — as in living off-world within the next century. In other words, we need to get busy living, or get busy dying.
Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call: In a decent companion piece to James Fallows’ foray on the subject earlier this year, The New Yorker‘s George Packer tries to figure out what the hell is wrong with the Senate. And one of the best answers is buried in the middle of the piece: “Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, ‘Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising.’“
The other big and much-needed solution: Filibuster reform. But with a handful of Democratic Senators already balking at the idea, that’ll be a tough climb this coming January, and no mistake. Nonetheless, it is very much a fight worth having. “[O]ver the past few decades the reflex has grown in the Senate that, all things considered, it’s better to avoid than to take on big issues. This is the kind of thing that drives Michael Bennet nutty: here you’ve arrived in the United States Senate and you can’t do fuck-all about the destruction of the planet.“
Republican Rep. Joe Barton, the Ranking Member of the Energy & Commerce committee, decides to use the out-loud voice and genuflects before BP’s Tony Hayward, causing all kinds of messaging trouble for Republicans today. (Then again, if they had a problem with Barton openly professing his fealty to his biggest donor, maybe they shouldn’t have put it in today’s talking points.) In any case, this one was right over the middle of the plate for the WH today. [Pic via Greg Greene.]
“‘The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation,’ said Frank Donaghue, the CEO of PHR, a nonprofit organization of health professionals.“
A new report by Physicians for Human Rights suggests the CIA conducted human experiments on detainees, including “monitoring the effects of sleep deprivation up to 180 hours” and testing out new forms of waterboarding on them. Once we’re all happy with the president’s visible anger levels toward BP, perhaps we can get some wrath-of-God fury — and criminal prosecutions — directed towards these atrocities committed in our name also? Thanks much. [Update: Here's the Mother Jones story.]
This may just seem like King-of-the-World hubris, but Cameron is a smart and demanding technical innovator who has spent a great deal of time over 25 years studying deep-sea technology.) I’d at least hear what he had to say. “‘The government really needs to have its own independent ability to go down there and image the site, survey the site and do its own investigation,’ he said. ‘Because if you’re not monitoring it independently, you’re asking the perpetrator to give you the video of the crime scene,’ Cameron added.“
“The relationship between the federal government and the oil company has been an awkward collaboration all along — “We have them by the neck,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said of BP in congressional testimony last week — but it reached a turning point Monday when the administration said it no longer wants to share a podium with BP at the daily briefing in Louisiana. Instead, the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, will give a solo briefing wherever he happens to be.“
With “Top Kill” a failure, the way forward murky, the environmental impact likely irrevocable, and oil still flowing into the Gulf at a rate three times what BP tried to spin, the Obama administration begins to move toward a more confrontational footing, including having Attorney General Holder look into a possible criminal investigation. Yeah, I’d say there’s a case there. And it’d be a much better use of Justice’s time than its flat-out reprehensible war on whistleblowers. (Aquaman cover via Graphic Policy. And Spongebob fared little better.)
Update 2: “‘We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, anyone who has violated the law,’ Holder said. ‘This disaster is nothing less than a tragedy.’” I’m all for it — Let’s get some accountability here for once. But, hey, you know what else is a tragedy? Torture. And you know what else? Indefinite detentions. And you know what else? The fraud-fueled Wall St. meltdown. As I noted above, the only folks this Justice Dept. seems to have been cracking down on so far, in full defiance of 2008 campaign promises about transparency, are whistleblowers. Their priorities have seemed awfully screwed-up thus far, to say the least.
“‘This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.’ So wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to his one time collaborator, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann in 1920.“
A recent history-of-science paper by a Jeroen van Dongen of Utrecht University looks into the anti-relativity theory movement of the 1920′s, and how it compares to today’s climate change denialism. “Anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas.” (See also: Evolution and Scopes.)
As the Gulf runs black, it’s the same old story: FDL’s David Dayen brings us up-to-date on the idiotic and/or corrupt shenanigans coming to light in the wake of the (still-gushing) Deepwater Horizon gusher. “This is all a consequence of aggressive deregulation by industry, the maneuvers whereby powerful interests save billions in safety costs. They follow the rules at their discretion, they practically own the regulatory agency. It’s amazing how much this mirrors the problems on Wall Street. And just like with Goldman Sachs, the criminal justice system may get involved.” (Pic via TBP.)
Update: “‘We don’t have any idea how to stop this,’ Simmons said of the Gulf leak. Some of the proposed strategies — such as temporarily plugging the leaking pipe with a jet of golf balls and other material — are a ‘joke,’ he added. ‘We really are in unprecedented waters.’“
In Britain’s New Statesman, John Naish looks at the national security and job implications of our falling behind on green tech. “The more the military thinks about green technology, the more it sees how it goes hand in hand with improving operational effectiveness…Afghanistan is the principal driver for Nato nations. Resupply convoys can be eight miles long and they in effect say: ‘Please hit me with a roadside bomb.’ Up to 60 per cent of the convoys carry fuel and water. If you reduce that need for supply, you save lives.”
See also the “clean energy is a national security issue” argument made by Operation FREE (mainly in terms of Iran and its $100 million a day in oil profits): “‘There’s no greater threat to our national security than our dependence on oil.’ Marine veteran and Operation Free member Matt Victoriano told Kerry.‘” To be honest, I could really do without the implicit saber-rattling involved with some of this argument. But let’s face it, that’s how we got a space program.
Well, I say “the Fates,” but it sounds like Halliburton may have royally screwed up also. But, hey, maybe they’ll acquire another no-bid clean-up contract for their troubles. And speaking of our old friends on the right, it seems the “Drill Baby Drill!” camp has gone mysteriously silent…for now. [Image via Boston's Big Picture.]
Update: “The problem with the April 20 spill is that it isn’t really a spill: It’s a gush, like an underwater oil volcano. A hot column of oil and gas is spurting into freezing, black waters nearly a mile down, where the pressure nears a ton per inch, impossible for divers to endure. Experts call it a continuous, round-the-clock calamity, unlike a leaking tanker, which might empty in hours or days.” It’s even worse than it sounds, and that’s assuming the wellhead isn’t lost. [Track the spill here.]
“‘This is something you’re going to tell your grandchildren about,’ the spokeswoman said on a recent tour of the lab. “You were here when they were about to get fusion ignition. ‘It’s like standing on the hill watching the Wright brothers’ plane go by.’” CNN’s John Sutter checks in with Livermore Labs’s National Ignition Facility, a few months shy of a long-awaited experiment in nuclear fusion.
If it works, it’ll be big doings, obviously, although we’re still several decades away from a miracle energy source even by the most optimistic predictions. “‘One gallon of seawater would provide the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline; fuel from 50 cups of water contains the energy equivalent of two tons of coal,’ the Livermore project’s website says.“
Ok, first off, the administration official who uttered the last sentence should be filed away next to Mr. Left of the Left and Ms. Pajamas as people who should no longer speak for the White House in any capacity whatsoever. Full stop, end of story. Putting my speechwriter cap on for a second: In most any political situation, ridiculing the dreams of an entire generation does not make for particularly good messaging.
Anyway, anonymous WH official aside, NASA administrator Charles Bolden sounded a better note about all this: “We’re not abandoning anything. We’re probably on a new course but human space flight is in our DNA. We are not abandoning human space flight by any stretch of the imagination. We have companies telling us they’re excited to get humans off this planet and into orbit. I think we’re going to get there and perhaps quicker than we would have done before.“
And, to be clear, the administration’s NASA budget increases the agency’s funding by $6 billion over the next five years. The new budget ups research and development spending into cheaper heavy launch mechanisms, emphasizes more robotic exploration missions and observational experiments into climate change, extends the life of the ISS (although, with only five more shuttle missions remaining, other nations will have to help service it), and works to promote the various commercial space enterprises moving along right now.
All of this is well and good, but it would be nice to see some recognition of the civic importance of manned space flight by this administration. In their words, NASA is scrapping Constellation on account of it being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.” And, given that we still had a lot of the expenditures before us, I suppose now was as good a time as any to kill the program if it’s not the right direction to go in.
That being said, how many more times are we going to do this? We keep stopping and starting and stopping and starting our post-Shuttle plans for space, so that now, after five final shuttle missions this coming year, we will longer have the capability anymore as a nation to send men and women into orbit. “If implemented, the NASA a few years from now would be fundamentally different from NASA today. The space agency would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts.” Forty-one years after we first reached the moon, that’s just plain sad.
Ultimately, the central finding of the Augustine commission’s final report, released this past October after extensive study of NASA’s current situation, is a sound one: “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” In other words, we’ve been trying to talk the talk without walking the walk. If we’re going to get serious about manned space flight, we need to stop piecemealing NASA and start making manned exploration a funding priority.
In total, the agency is slated to get $100 billion over the next five years. To put that number in perspective, that’s less than a fifth of our defense budget for 2011 alone, and that’s going by the most conservative numbers around — NASA’s five-year budget could be closer to a tenth of next year’s defense spending. (For its part, the Augustine commission set a price tag of $3 billion a year to get serious about manned exploration.)
If we had put anywhere near that kind of money into exploration and R&D over the years, would we now be in this position, where we face the Hobson’s choice of replicating expensive 50-year-old launch tech or being completely grounded as a nation? The lack of thinking about our long-term priorities sometimes is staggering to me. I’ve said this before, but I still believe it holds true: Short of possibly genomic research and advances in AI, nothing we do right now will matter more centuries or millennia hence than establishing a presence off-world…if we even have that long. Not to get all Jor-El up in here, but we really have to start getting serious about this.
“The Chamber spent much of its money in 2009 on campaigns that worked — it scared the Senate away from considering a version of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation, and an argument can be made that its cutting ads on health care (with money taken from some insurance companies) helped to undercut support for the legislation.” You think? In a shape-of-things-to-come moment even before Citizens United goes into effect, the Chamber of Commerce outspent both political parties in 2009.
“According to The Center for Responsive Politics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its national subsidiaries spent $144.5 million in 2009, far more than the RNC and more than double the expenditures by the DNC.” But corporate spending isn’t a problem or anything.