McKibben On The Race Against Warming

A rousing op-ed by MoJo's contributing writer Bill McKibben in today's Washington Post—just in case you're unclear on what Bush's tepid and untimely global warming conference is really about. Some highlights:

It's the oldest and most clichéd of metaphors, but when it comes to global warming, it's the only one that really works: We're in a desperate race. Politics is chasing reality, and the gap between them isn't closing nearly fast enough.

Shaken scientists see every prediction about the future surpassed by events. As Martin Parry, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told reporters this month, "We are all used to talking about these impacts coming in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Now we know that it's us."

The panel's chair, Rajendra Pachauri, offered the planet an absolute deadline: We need to be producing less carbon dioxide—which is to say burning less coal, gas and oil—by 2015 at the latest, and after that we would need "very sharp reductions" or else there is no hope of avoiding an eventual temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius and the accompanying prospect of catastrophe.

Such news has finally begun to penetrate the bubble of denial that has surrounded Washington for two decades. President Bush, after ignoring the issue for six years, has convened a conference of the major carbon-emitting nations to begin considering . . . something. Bush said in a speech yesterday that "we acknowledge there is a problem," but few expect the process to amount to much; cynics see it as a way to derail ongoing U.N.-sponsored talks for a firm agreement on reducing emissions.

The only real hope is for decisive legislation from Congress; activists are calling for a law that commits the United States to early cuts, closes all coal-fired power plants and auctions the right to pollute so that we can raise the revenue to fund the transformation of our energy system. President Bush won't sign such a law, so it doesn't have to pass this fall; we're working to set the stage for 2009, when a new leader takes over.

It will take a movement to force that kind of change—a movement as urgent, and one to which people are as morally committed and willing to sacrifice, as the civil rights movement was a generation ago. Last spring, I worked with six college students to put together In the course of 12 weeks, with almost no money, we helped put together 1,400 rallies in all 50 states demanding action. This fall we're trying again.

I've blogged before. Check it out. Better yet, participate. —Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, to read from her new book "The Fragile Edge" and other writings…

Arctic Lands Slumping From Heat

Temperatures got so hot in the Arctic this summer that researchers are scrambling to revise their forecasts—fast-forwarding to a future they thought was decades away. On Melville Island, site of a Queen's University study, July air temperatures soared over 20ºC (68ºF). Average July temps run 5ºC (41ºF). The team watched in amazement as water from melting permafrost lubricated the topsoil, causing it to slide down slopes, clearing everything in its path and thrusting up ridges at the valley bottom that piled up like a rug. Scott Lamoureux, leader of the International Polar Year project, and an expert in hydro-climatic variability and landscape processes, described: "The landscape was being torn to pieces, literally before our eyes. A major river was dammed by a slide along a 200-metre length of the channel. River flow will be changed for years, if not decades to come. If this were to occur in more inhabited parts of Canada, it would be catastrophic in terms of land use and resources." Well, guess what? It is going to occur in inhabited parts of Canada. It's going to occur in your neighborhood, too, wherever you live, whatever your local variant of catastrophe: flood, drought, thaw, freeze, cyclone, or strange, mutant combinations thereof… On a personal note, I just got back from the high Sierra (Nevada), where the glaciers have dwindled to dirty icefields and the creeks run with dust and hungry bears are biting sleeping tourists, then getting killed for it. Makes you want to cry. JULIA WHITTY

Gray Whales Grow Thinner, Fewer

The Pacific gray whales' near-miraculous return from the edge of extinction (twice) may be more precarious than we thought. From the AP a couple of days ago, notice of a new DNA study out of Stanford estimating we've underestimated the whales' historic population by a factor of five. In other words, there weren't 20,000 or 30,000 whales pre-whaling, but 100,000. Worse, our current (supposedly recovered) population is starving. The National Marine Fisheries Service reports this year that at least 10 percent of gray whales are underweight and hungry. It seems our increasingly impoverished ocean can no longer support the whales it once did. Why not? Well, let's start with that ugly symbiosis between food shortages and climate change. Then factor in the more than one billion of us—that's right, one in six people on Earth—who are overweight, 300 million of whom are clinically obese, according to the World Health Organization. Add the fact that humanity gobbles more than a quarter of the planet's natural resources. Presto! The lardass equation: more of us equals less of them. JULIA WHITTY

Bangladeshis Take To Boats

While we weren't looking, the future got here. A story in today's Washington Post describes Bangladesh's brave new future as a Waterworld. In response to extreme flooding and sea level rise (yup, climate change, melting glaciers, monsoonal changes), schools and libraries are being relocated to boats, with plans to float villages, gardens and hospitals as well.

"For Bangladesh, boats are the future," said Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who started the boats project here and who now oversees it as executive director of the nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a name that means self-reliance. "As Bangladeshi citizens, it's our responsibility to find solutions because the potential for human disaster is so huge. We have to be bold. Everyone loves land. But the question is: Will there be enough? Millions of people will have nowhere to go."

Do I smell the next tourist wave? Floating travels through quaint Third World Venices? Well, let's hope the Bangladeshis can capitalize on our noxious emissions—something that'll be a little harder for those flooded out of more northerly climes. Check out the photo essay in the current MoJo, Sea Change (first subscribe, swabbies), on sea level rise in Alaskan native villages. JULIA WHITTY

Real Trouble In The Arctic

On the heels of yesterday's back-handed good news on the Amazon come this pair of troubling reports from NASA on Arctic ice. In the first, melting sea ice has now shrunk so far below the minimum set in 2005 that researchers, speaking between the lines, clearly fear we may have already passed a tipping point. From Waleed Abdalati, head of NASA Goddard's Cryospheric Sciences Branch:

This year, the amount of ice is so far below that of previous years that it really is cause for concern. The trend in decreasing ice cover seems to be getting stronger and stronger as time goes on. . . The longer this process continues, the less likely recovery becomes. The implications on global climate are not well known, but they have the potential to be quite large, since the Arctic ice cover exhibits a tremendous influence on our climate.

And from Josefino C. Comiso, senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland:

When there is less sea ice in the summer, the Arctic Ocean receives more heat. The warmer water makes it harder for the ice to recover in the winter, and, therefore, there is a higher likelihood that sea ice will retreat farther during the summer. This process repeats itself year after year.

The second study found that 2007 has seen an overall rise in melting over the entire Greenland ice sheet, with melting in high-altitude areas reaching the greatest extent ever observed, at 150 percent more than average. The amount of snow melted this year in Greenland would cover the surface size of the U.S. more than twice. Apparently melting icecaps are as bad as melting sea ice, only in a different way. This from Marco Tedesco at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology:

When snow melts at those high altitudes and then refreezes, it can absorb up to four times more energy than fresh, unthawed snow. This can affect Earth's energy budget by changing how much radiation from the sun is absorbed by the Earth versus that reflected back into the atmosphere. Refrozen snow can also alter the snow density, thickness and snow-water content. [Furthermore] increases in the overall melting trend over Greenland have an impact that stretches beyond its icy shores. Aside from contributing to direct sea level rise, melting especially along the coast can speed up glaciers since the meltwater acts like a lubricant between the frozen surface and the bedrock deep below. The faster glaciers flow, the more water enters the ocean and potentially impacts sea level rise.

So why is it exactly that Bush is asking for $195 billion more to fight the wrong war at exactly the time we need to be spending unprecedented amounts on the battle to save the only climate we know how to live with? JULIA WHITTY

When the Gales of November Turn Balmy

Lake Superior, one of the world's largest bodies of fresh water, is not only at its shallowest point in 81 years, it's also warming at twice the rate of the air around it, according to an interesting story in the October issue of Minnesota Monthly. The piece quotes scientist Jay Austin, of the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, who says average water temperatures have increased 4.5 degrees since 1979. He relates the change to a significant decline in winter ice cover, which ordinarily reflects heat-making sunlight back toward the sky. The ice decline is, it seems, related to global warming.

With the lake's summer season lengthening from 130 to 160 days, some sections of water recently reached a balmy 75 degrees (barely breaking 60 is more the norm). A warmer Lake Superior could mean dramatic changes in aquatic-life, and could open the door to dread invaders like sea lampreys and Quagga mussels. On the brighter side, with a lessening of Superior's bone-chilling "lake effect," Duluth, perhaps, will no longer be known as "the air-conditioned city."

Austin explains that it's hard to anticipate exactly how Superior will change in the coming decades. Predicting the effects of global warming, he says, is "like turning all these knobs at the same time. It's anyone's guess whether Lake Superior will turn into a big bass-fishing lake or a big desert."

Good News From a Drier Amazon

Sometimes things unfold better than we imagine. Apparently drought-stricken regions of the Amazon forest grew particularly vigorously during the 2005 drought, according to new research from the University of Arizona. A prominent global climate model predicted the Amazon forest would "brown down" after just a month of drought and eventually collapse as the drought progressed—one of John Schellnhuber's scary tipping points.

Detailed, long-term observations from two NASA satellites (one mapping the greenness of vegetation, one measuring rainfall) gave the researchers seven to nine years of observations. They compared "normal" years to the 2005 drought, and found that intact areas of Amazonia that received below-normal rainfall in 2005 had above-average greenness.

Apparently the drought did not accelerate global warming, as feared. In fact, during the 2005 drought, Amazonia's trees flourished in the sunnier-than-average weather, most likely by tapping water deep in the forest soil. By continuing to grow, they consumed more carbon dioxide, drawing down atmospheric levels, and in theory, at least, producing a negative feedback loop that might have actually slowed global warming.

Lest Limbaugh Rush bolster his feeble argument against climate change, these new data do not undermine the science of global warming. Rather they caution that we can't afford to substitute opinion for observation. Our planetary systems are hugely complex, our grasp of them fragile, even as Earth struggles to maintain equilibrium. Unlike the naysayers out there, I still see nature as our ally. JULIA WHITTY

Bush Opts Out of U.N. Global Warming Talks

Guess who's coming to dinner?

In the case of today's U.N. climate talks, it's President Bush. Too bad he's skipping the rest of the day.

Yes, that's right, in yet another my-way-or-the-highway climate move, the president has declined to participate in a daylong U.N. meeting. The meeting's goal? To bring world leaders together to fight climate change. But instead of joining the party, President Bush is throwing his own, with a different theme: He wants each of the world's most powerful nations to set up its own carbon emissions standards. The embarrassing message: The U.S. doesn't want to cooperate, and neither should anyone else!

Does Eco-Tourism Encourage Child Labor?

There may be no way to travel guilt-free.

For a while, carbon offsets looked promising—we were told (and we told ourselves) that by paying a little extra, we could make it as if our long-haul flights never happened at all! Well, as it turns out, not quite.

The latest bad news about carbon offsets: In some cases, child laborers may be paying for our supposedly ethically sound vacations. Climate Care, a British company that finances sustainable projects in the developing world, is at the center of the scandal:

Climate Care uses the money to help persuade give up labour-saving diesel pumps and buy human-powered treadles instead. It claims that by using the treadle, a family will save money on diesel and hire charges, earn more from increased crops and cut the carbon emissions that would have been produced by the pump.

And in many of these families, the human that powers the treadle is a child (the London Times found a family who, because of financial circumstances, had a six-year-old child working half-hour shifts on the treadle).

So much for guilt-free.

Park Your Greenery by the Curb


Folks today were "parking" themselves—and plants and flowers, wheel barrows and benches—in parking spaces throughout San Francisco, a dozen other U.S. cities, and a dozen more cities worldwide as part of PARK(ing) Day.

Some guys from a San Francisco architecture firm that had taken over a parking space near Mother Jones' offices told me that the whole idea is get people to think about the concrete jungle they inhabit and to consider new, greener urban planning ideas. So I pulled up a bench surrounded by temporarily-placed indigenous plants and shrubs—and carbon monoxide-spewing cars and trucks whizzing by— and chatted them up.

Didn't this concept conflict with the basic nature of architecture (you know, building things, which usually requires steel and concrete and fuel-burning machines)? They were quick to say no. Buildings in urban areas, they explained, can and should always include more green park space and, in some instances, roofs from which grass and plants can grow.

Of course, in a small, compact little city like San Francisco, it's pretty easy to live a car-less life where parking spaces can be used to make a political statement; in huge urban sprawls like Los Angeles where public transportation is lousy and everything is at least 20 minutes away (by car), not so much.

PARK(ing) Day folks say more than 70% of most cities' outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle while only a fraction of that land is allocated to open space for people. For citizens who want to take back the pavement, they offer advice on creating temporary street intervention tool kits and slightly less plausible ideas like the Parkcycle.

For another reporter's take on Park(ing) Day, see Josh Harkinson's post below.