Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Long time passing: NASA on the fate of the Milky Way

NASA simulation of future night sky on Earth.

Data from NASA's Hubble space telescope reveals that the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will collide with each other, beginning about 4 billion years from now. The two galaxies will merge into one, over the course of the subsequent three billion years. By which time, Earth will have been swallowed by its aging red giant sun.

The night sky in the few million years before the collision will look like the picture above, according to NASA. The swirl of light is the Andromeda galaxy, filling our sky, stretched by gravitational forces to a much different shape.

Whether through evolution or catastrophe, human beings won't be around to see the sight. But we imagined it, in the time we had.

None of which has anything to do with ecological crisis or the other topics of this blog. Except maybe in the broad, philosophical sense. Nothing lasts forever. Not the stars, or the sky, or those who look up.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A million moving north, forever: CBS News on the impact of climate change

The video linked above is a two-minute editorial by M.A. Sanjayan, chief climate scientist at The Nature Conservancy. Sanjayan's piece ran recently on The CBS Evening News.

It's a great example of how to make the most of a visual medium to convey complex scientific information quickly. I could quibble with aspects of Sanjayan's commentary, but overall I found it an effective message for a general audience. If mainstream media organizations like CBS ran this sort of piece more often, such a steady stream of information might eventually begin to influence the dynamics of public opinion and political debate on climate change.

For now, that's not the case. Eventually, though, physical reality will become too great deny. The way our society talks about climate and the future will begin to change, because in the end physical reality can't be ignored. Perpetual motion machines don't work. Perpetual attempts to believe in a free lunch come to naught. Unending insistence that the weather isn't changing will be defeated by the manifest changing of the weather. The passing of summer into autumn can't be willed away. The change in the air becomes too great not to notice, and so too the change in color of the leaves. People notice, and stories that the change is all a great lie will become not credible. So too with the stories that the change is limited, something we can control, nothing we haven't seen before, no cause here for alarm. Past a certain point, as the trees go bare and the skies turn gray and the snows begin to arrive on the wind, the stories of endless summer become ludicrous.

Things that can't go on, don't.

For now, the denial continues. The insistence on normalcy prevails. But the weather is changing, a harbinger of the new era, coming inevitably but we known not when. Perhaps soon.

Sanjayan's commentary hints at the scale of what's happening already. My favorite anecdote from his report is about Texas. Withering under a brutal drought that shows no sign of ending, ranchers in the broiling dead plains of the Texas interior have begun sending their cattle north. One million head of cattle, Sanjayan relates, have now left the state for literally greener pastures, over the horizon to the north. Those cattle, he notes, will not be back.

A harbinger. Eventually, human beings living in the great arid, dying expanses of the American Southwest will face the same choice.

* * * * *

The question remains, haunting like a spirit: what are we going to do? What happens when an ending is preordained, as catastrophic, planet-reshaping climate change has now become? When multiple related catastrophes stemming from human energy and expansion are arriving at the same time?

In the face of such an outcome, perhaps a certain kind of denial is to be expected. Maybe even welcomed. Individual human lives must face the reality that each life will end. Human beings have always found a way to exist with this knowledge, for as long as they've been on the Earth. We live in foreknowledge of death. And we go on with life anyway. Loving each other, or losing ourselves in petty conflicts, doing something to pass the time. Until the time is no more.

Our civilization flatters itself that it has transcended the limits faced by human individuals. Human beings die, we say, but human civilization will continue, evolving and expanding forever. Outliving the limits once imposed by the Darwinian constraints of life on the Earth.

Except the harbingers tell us this isn't true. What now? Some communities have begun searching for answers. Sub-cultures devoted to simpler living speak of living within limits, adapting to the age beyond abundance. Some of the technical specialists who supervise the infrastructure of a global civilization quietly confer on what it will mean to face a multi-meter sea level rise; or annual weather patterns where the storm of the century happens every year in a hundred places and more; or water supplies ancient beyond reckoning have simply gone away.

What are we going to do? Almost two years since I started to write here and I still don't know. No one does, really. But in some places, the answers are sought.

For now, that will have to be enough.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

An economy that works -- without "jobs"

Cleveland, Ohio, home of the Evergreen Cooperatives.
.From Wikimedia Commons

From Frank Joyce, President of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an argument that widespread, permanent unemployment in America is creating a new underground economy based on new forms of labor and production.

Examples are to be found, Joyce points out, in old Rust Belt cities like Detroit.
The stark reality is that the problems are structural and cumulative. The old job system isn’t coming back to Detroit. Ever. The stark reality is that Detroit is not some one-off fluke. Detroit is just the canary in the coal mine. Virtually every dynamic that was in play in Detroit over the last several decades is now at work planet wide. Paralyzed “leadership”; persistent racism; and growing inequalities of wealth, income and power and shrinking democracy aren’t just features of Detroit. They apply to the nation and many other places throughout the world.  
Help from the system that is failing is definitely not on the way. All the superficial debates about high taxes or low taxes, individual mandates or no individual mandates, big government or small government, contraception or no contraception will not put Humpty Dumpty together again.  
For many this is understandably both depressing and disorienting. But for others it is liberating. “Solutionaries” are creating a different kind of economy. There may be no jobs, but there's plenty of work to be done. Victimology is not welcome here.  
Since a Reimagining Work conference held in Detroit last fall, new economy energy and enthusiasm have intensified. There are growing efforts in food production and distribution, education, media, supporting the formerly incarcerated, transportation, community policing and manufacturing. 
Wright describes the emergence of worker-owned cooperatives as a key response to poverty and the disintegration of the conventional economy. Wright points to Cleveland's Evergreen Cooperatives as a notable example. They're a pilot project launched by universities, hospitals, and non-profits in Cleveland, with help from the city. Only a few dozen people work there for now, but the participants hope the project will offer a model for future work programs that can be scaled up. 

Since there is likely never going to be a second New Deal, or anything close, people have to help themselves locally. Models for how to do that exist. They will be needed as the corporate-dominated mainstream economy continues to leave more and more Americans behind.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Drought slashes Mexico food production 40 percent

Drought relief station, Chihuahua, Mexico, April 2012
From New America Media

From Climate Progress, citing Latin American sources:

While the Texas drought has gotten much of the attention in this country, what has happened in Mexico is equally devastating. Since Mexico is projected to suffer even worse warming-driven Dust-Bowlification in the coming decades — and that will certainly have consequences for the United States — it’s worth looking in a little more depth at what’s happening to our neighbor to the south:
The severe drought affecting 22 of Mexico’s 32 states has caused a 40 percent drop in agricultural production, opening the way for food shortages over the next few months, the National Peasants Confederation, or CNC, said….
The drought has ravaged Indian communities, destroying crops and forcing thousands of peasants to leave their ancestral lands and head to the cities.
“As of last November, corn production was at barely 42 percent of the volume projected for 2011, and bean production was only 41 percent,” CNC president Gerardo Sanchez said.
Corn and beans are staples in the Mexican diet and shortages could lead to speculation, sending the prices of these commodities soaring, the CNC said.
“Of the 4.2 million people who fell into food poverty from 2008 to 2010, nearly 75 percent (about 3 million)” live in rural areas, the CNC said.

Species extinction foreshadows threat to human food supply

Honey bee at work, from Wikimedia Commons.

According to the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, current models suggest that at least 40 percent of species in nature will be driven extinct by the year 2100 at our current emissions pace (to four degrees Celsius or more above pre-industrial levels).

From Grist and the Pesticide Action Network, an example of how the loss of a single species can threaten the viability of an entire sector of human agriculture.

Although news about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has died down, commercial beekeepers have seen average population losses of about 30 percent each year since 2006, said Paul Towers, of the Pesticide Action Network. Towers was one of the organizers of a conference that brought together beekeepers and environmental groups this week to tackle the challenges facing the beekeeping industry and theagricultural economy by proxy.
“We are inching our way toward a critical tipping point,” said Steve Ellis, secretary of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board (NHBAB) and a beekeeper for 35 years. Last year he had so many abnormal bee die-offs that he’ll qualify for disaster relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In addition to continued reports of CCD — a still somewhat mysterious phenomenon in which entire bee colonies literally disappear, alien-abduction style, leaving not even their dead bodies behind — bee populations are suffering poor health in general, and experiencing shorter life spans and diminished vitality. And while parasites, pathogens, and habitat loss can deal blows to bee health, research increasingly points to pesticides as the primary culprit.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hansen on national climate policy

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, September 11, 2005
From U.S. National Weather Service.

From yesterday's New York Times, James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on what the correct overall approach to a national climate change policy would look like:

We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price. 

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling. 

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

IMF study acknowledges peak oil as energy factor for next decade

Fawley Oil Refinery, United Kingdom. December 17, 2005
From Wikimedia Commons.

A report published under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund concedes that geological conditions will have an influence on the future price and availability of oil, possibly in the next decade. The report does not represent the views of the IMF, only the authors. But it is another indication that talking openly about physical limits on oil supply, rather than assuming they will expand indefinitely for all time to meet all human needs, is no longer taboo in mainstream circles.

The abstract of the report:

We discuss and reconcile two diametrically opposed views concerning the future of world oil production and prices. The geological view expects that physical constraints will dominate the future evolution of oil output and prices. It is supported by the fact that world oil production has plateaued since 2005 despite historically high prices, and that spare capacity has been near historic lows. The technological view of oil expects that higher oil prices must eventually have a decisive effect on oil output, by encouraging technological solutions. It is supported by the fact that high prices have, since 2003, led to upward revisions in production forecasts based on a purely geological view. We present a nonlinear econometric model of the world oil market that encompasses both views. The model performs far better than existing empirical models in forecasting oil prices and oil output out of sample. Its point forecast is for a near doubling of the real price of oil over the coming decade. The error bands are wide, and reflect sharply differing judgments on ultimately recoverable reserves, and on future price elasticities of oil demand and supply.

Monday, May 7, 2012

ABC news: journalists and scientists increasingly see climate change as existential threat to civilization

"Apocalypse," by Albert Goodwin, 1903.
From ABC reporter Bill Blakemore:

Global warming’s “risk to the collective civilization” (meaning global civilization) has been continually spoken of in secret or unofficial or private conversations among engaged climate scientists and government and policy leaders around the world.

Such terms — catastrophe, threat to civilization itself — have been commonplace in carefully worded private discussions among peer-reviewed experts that this reporter and other journalists have often experienced and sometimes engaged in.

Careful not to prompt destructive panic, nor to lose credibility, responsible experts have been careful to temper their public depictions of what the world’s climate science has been revealing about the worst effects — if humanity does not handle the problem immediately — of the rapid climatic and oceanic changes already under way.

But clearly, with so enormous and inclusive a truth as this one, the proven details of which are widely available to anyone with access to the Internet, “the truth will out, we see it day by day,” as English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote long ago.

And so, inevitably, experts and leaders around the world are beginning to be more open about the frightening prospects.

However, in doing so, they are also beginning to demonstrate how to hug this monster — to embrace the fear it instills. They need to have done so to speak with credibility...

As a growing number of professional journalists around the world are finding, the story of manmade global warming (and the other evil twin of excess carbon emissions, the rapid acidification of the oceans) is unprecedented in its scale, almost “too big to cover,” and frightening.

But there are now signs that, little by little, voices and personalities are beginning to emerge around the world who are starting to hug this monster, manage the fear, and turning the emotions it causes into action.

NSF study: biodiversity loss drives plant destruction

Wildfire near Los Alamos, New Mexico, June 28, 2011
Courtesy of Washington Post.

From a National Science Foundation press release on an NSF-supported study published in Nature:

"This analysis establishes that reduced biodiversity affects ecosystems at levels comparable to those of global warming and air pollution," said Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research directly and through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. 
"Some people have assumed that biodiversity effects are relatively minor compared to other environmental stressors," said biologist David Hooper of Western Washington University, the lead author of the paper. 
"Our results show that future loss of species has the potential to reduce plant production just as much as global warming and pollution." 
Studies over the last two decades demonstrated that more biologically diverse ecosystems are more productive.
As a result, there has been growing concern that the very high rates of modern extinctions--due to habitat loss, overharvesting and other human-caused environmental changes--could reduce nature's ability to provide goods and services such as food, clean water and a stable climate...
"Loss of biological diversity due to species extinctions is going to have major effects on our planet, and we need to prepare ourselves to deal with them," said ecologist Bradley Cardinale of the University of Michigan, one of the paper's co-authors. "These extinctions may well rank as one of the top five drivers of global change."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Global cooling by realpolitik: what effective international climate action would look like

Crack in Pine Island glacier, West Antarctic Ice Sheet, October  26, 2011
From Wikimedia Commons

From Paul Gilding, green business leader and former CEO of Greenpeace, and Jorgen Rogers, co-author of the 1972 Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth, we have a 2009 paper entitled "The One Degree War Plan." It describes in some detail what kind of action would be necessary to hold global temperature rise to one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

PDF download is available here. An excerpt:

Clearly agreement to a One Degree War Plan is hard to imagine in today’s world. However in both WWII and the current financial crisis, there are clear examples of how
fast things can change and how strong opposition and resistance can quickly evaporate. In the case of WWII the speed of response by the US was quite extraordinary. For example, whereas in 1940, defence spending was just 1.6% of the economy (measured as GDP), within three years it had increased to 32%, and by 1945 to 37%. But the GDP increased itself by 75% in that time, making the observed increases even more extraordinary. The war effort demonstrated a tenfold increase in (inflation adjusted) dollars spent in just the 4 years from 1941 and 1945. Similarly extraordinary political decisions were made to take control of the economy. For example just 4 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the auto industry was ordered to cease production of civilian vehicles. 

So it can be done, if we ever decide to act. But how will it be done? It is unlikely that the One Degree War will result from a universal global agreement. More likely a small
number of powerful countries, a kind of “Coalition of the Cooling”, will decide to act and then others will follow. Some will follow in order to align with the major powers, and some under military, economic and diplomatic pressure. In a technical sense this process is quite easy. A full 50 % of global climate gas emissions will be covered if 3 “countries” (China, US and EU-27) agree to act. If we add another 4 countries (Russia, India, Japan, and Brazil) the coalition will control 67 % of global emissions.
So the issue is not humanity’s capacity to act, but the conditions being such that humanity decides to act. This will be when it is broadly accepted that the threat posed by not acting is greater than the threats posed by strongly acting.

Core to our argument therefore, is that the physical momentum for change in the climate system is now so strong that it is inevitable the public view will change. This is because physical reality will overcome the current and proposed attempts at adaptationand mitigation, which are, relative to the problem, feeble and certain to create little impact. When the dominant view becomes that climate change threatens the viability of civilisation and the collapse of the global economy, a crisis response will rapidly follow. Then society’s framework will change from “what is politically possible” to Churchill’s “what is necessary”. 
While we contend this transition is inevitable, the timing is certainly debatable. It is our view that these conditions will emerge before 2020. For planning purposes, we are assuming 2018. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Citizens Climate Lobby

Last night, I attended an interesting talk by Mark Reynolds, executive director of a group called the Citizens Climate Lobby. The Eugene/Springfield Solidarity Network, an alliance of labor unions and community groups, is trying to get a chapter of that group started here in the Eug.

The CCL is a lobbying group, with an interesting take on the process; rather than fund-raise to pay professional lobbyists to campaign for climate change action on the Hill, they train citizens to lobby members of congress from their own states and districts. The idea is that, by putting organized and coordinated pressure on politicians, directly from members of their constituencies, it is possible to go toe-to-toe with the sort of immense monetary resources fossil fuel lobbies can throw into the fight. I'm dubious about that, since I'm infinitely cynical about how congresspersons are bought and paid for, but the CCL has won some encouraging victories in state level battles.

Currently, they are advocating for H.R. 3242, the "Save Our Climate Act," introduced to the House by Pete Stark (D-CA) last October. The act would initiate a "carbon fee and dividend" mechanism, whereby producers or importers of fossil fuels pay a flat fee per ton of potential green house gasses that fuel would emit when burned (in terms of CO2 equivalents); 100% of the proceeds from this fee, initially proposed to be $15 per ton CO2 equivalent, would be passed on to US citizens as a dividend. This will supposedly offset the increase in energy costs for about 2/3 of US families, and will reduce the consumption of fossil fuels by making alternative sources more competitive. It's an interesting approach, less likely to be abused by the tertiary economy than "cap and trade" systems that SCREAM for speculation. It still does nothing to directly force the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, though, and the CCL bases their alternative power scenarios on a study by Marc Jacobson of Stanford University that they claim shows that alternative power sources can fully replace fossil fuels in the modern industrial economy. I think that is entirely too optimistic, but I'm not familiar with Jacobson's work. Expect an analysis of that study in another post soon!

Regardless of my reservations, the CCL is a rapidly growing, grass-roots climate initiative that refuses to give up on a governmental intervention on the climate change predicament. And most impressive to me is this quote from their website:

Most impressive is the work of the Citizens Climate Lobby, a relatively new, fastgrowing, nonpartisan, nonprofit group with 46 chapters across the United States and Canada. If you want to join the fight to save the planet, to save creation for your grandchildren, there is no more effective step you could take than becoming an active member of this group. - Dr. James Hansen
Dr. Hansen is arguably the foremost world expert on the science of climate change, and he has been fighting out fight for over 25 years. If his praise for the Citizens Climate Lobby is that luminescent, I'll be paying attention to them, and I recommend that you do so as well!