Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Climate Is Getting Too Damn Hot

With so many consumers of the fertility of the earth, and so little attention to the means of repairing their ravages, no one can be surprised at the impoverished face of the country; whilst every one ought to be desirous of aiding in the work of reformation. — James Madison, 1818

 
President Obama announced a sweeping set of policies to combat climate change on Tuesday, June 25, at Georgetown University. On the same day, the Georgetown Climate Center reported the results of a poll revealing that three-quarters of the American public “now say there is solid evidence that the average temperature has been getting warmer in recent decades.”

“Our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late,” Obama declared at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 19, during an unseasonably warm day. Chancellor Angela Merkel had joked that the Germans were giving a warm welcome.

For the first time since his second inaugural address, Obama gave voice to the urgency of now about the mounting problem. “Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet,” he said to the gathered throng. “The effort to slow climate change requires bold action.” He added,

The grim alternative [to not taking action right away] affects all nations — more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise. This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time.

This issue is no longer on the margins; it has been taken up by elites that cannot be dismissed, like the military and big business. Large corporations and the military-industrial complex are taking serious note of the mounting danger of climate change. Goldman Sachs saw the writing on the wall as late as May 2009, shortly after a new president took the oath of office. “Society’s awareness of the threats climate change presents, its causes, and willingness to take action to drive the changes needed to avert the worst effects … are strengthening quickly,” declared the so-called Vampire Squid.

Their global investment research arm continued, “Technologies exist to achieve the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required to limit the risks of temperature rises to manageable levels, but their adoption must accelerate in coming years.” The de facto head of Wall Street announced that the weight of the scientific judgement was correct.

We believe scientific and social consensus has aligned on the understanding that the climate is changing, that man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are responsible, and that action can be taken to avoid its worst effects.

Goldman Sachs examined two scenarios: a “baseline” in which we do nothing, and another where “action is taken to stabilize” the carbon levels at 450 parts per million (ppm), which will “imply a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases of ~60% by 2030.”

But don’t take their word for it. Two weeks ago, the International Energy Agency reported that global “energy-related carbon dioxide emissions” rose to a “record high of 31.6 billion tons.” (The good news, though, is that US emissions dropped four percent.)

The “energy sector accounts for about two-thirds of global emissions” of CO2, the IEA added. Associated Press reporter Karl Ritter observed that while current “climate talks are aimed at keeping the temperature rise below 3.6 degrees F compared with pre-industrial levels,” the new data project that “the world is on track for an increase” of 6.5 to 9.5° F.

What about the controversy? Among scientists, it does not exist. There is “overwhelming consensus among scientists that recent warming is human-caused,” reported Environmental Research Letters in May: “There is a gaping chasm between the actual consensus and the public perception,” said the lead author, John Cook. A poll taken last year found that more than half of the American public either disagrees or is ignorant of the fact “that scientists overwhelmingly agree” about the climate.

Last November, Forbes, not recognized as a hippie rag, ran an editorial that posed the question, “Is it time to divest from Exxon?” David Ferris wrote up a speech by Bill McKibben, the legendary eco-activist, who has called for all-across-the-board divestment from the major fossil fuel corporations. McKibben has been pushing to reduce the levels down to 350 ppm, not seen since the late 1980s: “We simply may have waited too long,” he wrote.

From the military’s perspective, this warming planet is not simply an environmental problem, but is also a security threat. There seems to be a consensus among members of the military establishment that during the next 20 years, “global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests,” as former National Intelligence Council chairman Thomas Fingar wrote.

“Our oil addiction, I believe, is our greatest threat to our national security,” according to former logistics chief for Gen. Petraeus, Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson.

“Rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said former defense secretary Leon Panetta. “Over the next 20 years and more, certain pressures — population, energy, climate, economic, environmental — could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability,” Bob Gates, Panetta’s predecessor, said. “Climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror” was the judgement of retired Navy admiral Joseph Lopez.

According to a report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, “Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004.” The biggest slice of the growth of emissions “has come from the energy supply sector.”

The IPCC report also weighs in on geoengineering, commenting that plans to seed the oceans “to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere” or block the Sun “remain largely speculative and unproven” and carry “the risk of unknown side-effects.” There is “medium agreement, limited evidence” for this, however. The global body of scientists ran the most scenarios on a range between 485 and 570 ppm (by century’s end), yielding 3.2 to 4°C. The worst-case scenario was simulated the least number of times, which seems to indicate their belief that the worst may yet be averted: they estimate 660 to 790 ppm and project the world will be 4.9 to 6.1°C warmer.

Data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mauna Loa Observatory.

Data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mauna Loa Observatory.

These numbers are from an index of carbon dioxide p.p.m. (as of July, to measure the highest level recorded) covering more than a half-century into the past.

Decade by decade, the ppm increases are striking: from 1958-’68, it rose by 8.28 ppm; from 1968-’78, by another 12.40 ppm; from 1978-’88, yet 15.84 ppm more; the next decade, 1988-’98, saw only another 15.26 ppm; and for 1998-2008, a record 18.63 ppm more in the atmosphere.

Not only are the raw numbers going up, they are in fact accelerating. It would be quite conservative to estimate an annual increase of 1.5 ppm. By this minimal projection, we get to 450 by 2046 and to 500 before 2080. Hopefully nothing too dramatic happens around 425 ppm because that arrives ca. 2030. Trying to find a conversion ratio of degrees to ppm but so far pulled up an article about the Keeling Curve that says the last time the atmosphere had 415 ppm the temp was 5.4-7.2°F hotter than today, and that was millions of years ago. Sea level was estimated to have been 16-131 ft. higher.

NASA graphic based on NOAA data. (Evidence derived from ice-core samples.)

NASA graphic based on NOAA data. (Evidence derived from ice-core samples.)

Justin Gillis reported last March that global temperatures haven’t been this high in 4,000 years and quoted climate researcher Michael Mann as saying, “The unprecedented speed with which we’re changing the climate … is so worrisome.” Andrew Revkin reported in 2008 that atmospheric chemist Sherwood Rowland said the ultimate limit will be 1,000 parts per million (1 part per 1,000). Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said avoiding the worst means “an utter transformation of the multi-trillion-dollar energy system.” Justin Gillis reported on May 10 that the Scripps Institution of Oceanography gauged the level at 400 ppm, which is a “concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.”

This is corroborated by environmental reporter John Broder, who wrote last October that “any serious effort” to deal with the problem “will require a transformation of the nation’s system for producing and consuming energy and will, at least in the medium term, mean higher prices for fuel and electricity.”
“Powerful incumbent industries … are threatened by such changes and have mounted a well-financed long-term campaign to sow doubt about climate change,” Broder adds casually.

What about the prospect of changing the planet so we can continue life as is? This is the geoengineering option, a very tentative science at best. Clive Hamilton wrote that the idea of “seiz[ing] control of the planet’s climate system, and regulat[ing] it in perpetuity” is fraught with moral hazard.

“The concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere recently surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in three million years,” Hamilton wrote. “If you are not frightened by this fact, then you are ignoring or denying science.” Yet the solution, “the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system to counter global warming or offset some of its effects,” is full of doubt. What if it is the only option we will eventually have?

Regardless, Hamilton challenged our “unwillingness to confront the deeper causes of global warming: the power of the fossil-fuel lobby and the reluctance of wealthy consumers to make even small sacrifices.”
If the world cannot get their carbon emissions under very serious control, “temperatures could rise by 5°C (9°F),” which is “a likely tipping point altering all ecosystems and causing massive population displacement,” according to an info-map in National Geographic.

The political climate around the actual climate intensified quickly over the span of four months following the hottest days of last summer. For the first time in recorded history, Greenland’s ice sheet melted in a rapid burst, says climate scientist Thomas Mote, who described the event as “really unprecedented.”

Calving “of this magnitude is seen only every 10 or 20 years,” Mote wrote. During the hottest days of last summer, the breakup “expanded from 40 percent of the ice sheet to 97 percent, according to scientists who analyzed the data from satellites deployed by NASA and India’s space research institute.”

Michael Webber is a mechanical engineer and associate director at the University of Texas Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. He wrote that water is crucial for generating energy, increasingly and precariously so: “About half of the nation’s water withdrawals every day are just for cooling power plants.” Droughts thus threaten our energy grid. “Climate-change models … suggest that droughts and heat waves may be more frequent and severe,” he writes, counseling the need for “new carbon emissions standards” to “help save water.”

The chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chris Kojm, announced that “there were certain reliable indicators that genocide or mass killing would occur, including unmet demand for food, water and energy … Demand for all of those is on the rise, and by 2030, nearly half of the world’s population will live in areas of ‘severe water stress’ … thus increasing the likelihood of mass killings.”

The summer of 2012 brought to two-thirds of the United States record-breaking drought, which led to global rise in food prices. That is only a harbinger of things to come, according to respected resources specialist Michael Klare. He noted that “it’s becoming evident that the Great Drought of 2012 is not a one-off event in a single heartland nation, but rather an inevitable consequence of global warming which is only going to intensify.”

“As a result, we can expect not just more bad years of extreme heat, but worse years, hotter and more often, and not just in the United States, but globally for the indefinite future,” wrote Klare. That future promises “food riots, mass starvation, state collapse, mass migrations, and conflicts of every sort, up to and including full-scale war” if no action is taken now.

“Unfortunately,” announced Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center last September, “climate models do not seem to be good at coping with the Arctic. The melt is happening much faster in reality than it does in computer programs.”

The National Research Center released a report in November “commissioned by the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies” that said global warming “will place unparalleled strains on American military and intelligence agencies in coming years” as “more frequent but unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains and public health systems.”

The head author, John Steinbruner, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, anticipates that “states will fail, large populations [will be] subjected to famine, flood or disease will migrate across international borders, and national and international agencies will not have the resources to cope.”

The 2010 edition of the National Security Strategy of the United States spells it out: “The danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.”

A Pentagon study released in 2009 described “the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migrations and pandemics.” In 2008, the National Intelligence Council had “concluded that climate change by itself would have significant geopolitical impacts around the world and would contribute to a host of problems, including poverty, environmental degradation and the weakening of national governments.” Gen. Anthony Zinni said, “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or we will pay the price in military terms.”

The International Energy Agency reported that more than “two-thirds of today’s proven reserves of fossil fuels need to [remain] in the ground in 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change.” The IEA report notes that this basic building block of all life “is essential to the production of energy, and the energy sector already accounts for 15% of the world’s total water use. … In some regions, water constraints are already affecting the reliability of existing operations and they will introduce additional costs.”

The World Bank commissioned a study by the Potsdam Institute which says we are on track for an increase in average global temperatures of 4°C by century’s end, which they say is going to be disastrous.

There is a strong likelihood of “three feet or more of sea-level rise by 2100, more severe heat waves, and regional extinction of coral reef ecosystems.” What is more, “Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and parts of Africa would … see large tracts of farmland made unusable by rising seas.” The World Bank-funded study adds that this projected warming track “simply must not be allowed to occur.”

The study, “Turn Down the Heat,” says the scientific judgement is

Unequivocal that humans are the cause of global warming, and major changes are already being observed. … There is an increasing risk of substantial impacts with consequences on a global scale, for example, concerning food production. … The rate of changes in overall ocean biogeochemistry currently observed and projected appears to be unparalleled in Earth history. … The largest increase in poverty because of climate change is likely to occur in Africa, with Bangladesh and Mexico also projected to see substantial climate-induced poverty increases. … A 4°C world will pose unpredecented challenges to humanity.

Whether we are doomed or not is completely up to us. We are running out of time. The point of no return is on the horizon.

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Benjamin Franklin, ‘War on Terror’ Pundit

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Chances are you have seen this lately. But what does it come from? What’s the bigger picture? Does it really have relevance to our world now, what with terrorism and the concern for civil liberties?

“In fine,” Franklin said,

We have the most sensible concern for the poor distressed inhabitants of the frontiers. We have taken every step in our power, consistent with the just rights of the freemen of Pennsylvania, for their relief, and we have reason to believe, that in the midst of their distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther. Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.[1]

The fuller context for this popular quote, which has been popping up all over the place in the wake of the recent surveillance revelations, is quite elaborate. Franklin spoke these words in the Pennsylvania Assembly during the French and Indian War, which was a horror-show of terror attacks by native tribes, allied with France, on the frontier colonists of territories that would not become America for another generation. At hand was a bill backed by the British Crown to establish a standing militia to protect the “back counties” against the depredations and brutality of the Delawares and Shawanese.

Franklin was hardly a pacifist, having organized popular resistance in the thousands against the Indian threat to the homeland. The issue was that certain people known as the Proprietaries, a small minority of wealthy landowners in the Pennsylvania colony, were to be exempted from the taxes that would need to be raised to fund the new army. Franklin and other future revolutionaries thought this was an outrage to self-governance, which is an interpretation offered by a scholar in the early 1900s named Sydney George Fisher.

Fisher records that “as the war was being waged for the defence of [the 18th century equivalent to corporate elites, e.g. ‘the 1%’] as well as all the other property of the country, the Assembly and the people in general were naturally very indignant when the governor refused his consent to any bill which did not expressly exempt [William Penn’s and other families’ lands] from taxation.” What followed then is the genesis of the famous Franklin aphorism. “The proprietors, through the governor,” he explains,

offered a sort of indirect bribe in the form of large gifts of land, — a thousand acres to every colonel, five hundred to every captain, and so on down to two hundred to each private, — which seemed very liberal, and was an attempt to put the Assembly in an unpatriotic position if it should refuse to exempt the estates after such a generous offer. But the Assembly was unmoved, and declined to vote any more money for the purposes of the war, if it involved a sacrifice of the liberties of the people or enabled the proprietors to escape taxation.[2]

Several paragraphs earlier, Franklin offers us another quip, one that seems to be less in usage: “The populace are never so ripe for mischief as in times of most danger.”[3] There was plenty of danger; in September and October of 1755 there was “a terrible invasion of the Indians, who massacred the farmers almost as far east as Philadelphia,” according to Fisher’s account, so “evidently something more was necessary to protect the province.”[4] The means of raising money for that defense force formed the crux of the issue.

In a sort of timeless way, money and power shaped the debate the assembly and its royal patrons held between the existential need for self-defense and the cost, not only monetary, of a standing armed force — an alien concept to founding revolutionaries like Franklin, and for others. We have no idea what the citizen-statesman-playboy would make of contemporaries like drone strikes, wiretaps… or, for that matter, hijacking airliners (flying machines, after all).

Scholars like Benjamin Wittes recognized that the way people interpret the quote, i.e. as a trade-off between freedom and security, is almost totally wrong. Yet that does not mean no parallels to our time can be allowed. There are plenty of differences with our current fight against extreme Islamists and the wars between the colonists and the natives, but the sense of fear and threat was all the more visceral then — and even with those conditions, Franklin declared that free people cannot so easily buy, literally “purchase,” their safety without selling off their status as free people. (It makes one wonder what Philly’s most famous resident would have thought about private security contractors.) The colonists would end up displacing and decimating the indigenous nations — including the Delaware and Shawnee who had raided the province, posing a menace to pre-revolutionary homeland security.

Our leaders today are faced with a much less elemental threat, though violent extremism is serious. On top of that, we would be well-served to look at our own violent extremism.


[1] American Politics Before the Revolution: The Works of Benjamin Franklin, vol. II (Philadelphia: William Duane, 1809), p. 253. Italics in original.

[2] The True Benjamin Franklin, 5th ed. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1903), p. 205.

[3] The Works of Benjamin Franklin, p. 245. My emphasis.

[4] The True Benjamin Franklin, p. 206.

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