Browsing the archives for the environment category.

The Pope’s Encyclical

environment, Religion

The first thing I noticed about Pope Francis’s Encyclical is that the following people are screaming at him to shut up:

Ross Douthat thinks Papa Francisco is an alarmist who hates modernity. He especially objects to implications that Capitalism is hurting the poor, because even poor people have toothbrushes now, or something.

Rich Lowry criticizes the Pope’s “bizarre ramblings” and “apocalyptic climate alarmism.” Oh, and the Pope doesn’t appreciate modernity. I think Douthat and Lowry may have cribbed off each other.

Michael Goodwin of the New York Post says the Pope is out of touch. Well, Goodwin would know out of touch. Goodwin says that “­archaeological researchers found plaque on the teeth of people who lived 400,000 years ago,” and this proves the Pope is wrong. And you can’t argue with that. No, really. You should just walk away from it and hope for his sake Goodwin isn’t carrying sharp objects.

Some guy named Tim Worstall at Forbes says the Pope has gone “horribly wrong with his economics.” But Worstall misses the point. As Worstall says, economists don’t think the earth’s resources are infinite. But business and industry certainly behave as if that’s exactly what they think, and that’s what the Pope was addressing.

And so on.

This is not to say I don’t have issues with the encyclical also. His Holiness is still opposed to population control measures — still nixing birth control and abortion — and he threw in what sounds to me like an utterly unnecessary dig at transgenderism.

However, I appreciate that he feels taking care of the earth is a moral and religious imperative, not just a nice sentiment for Earth Day. He understands that, yes, capitalism does hurt the poor, and “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” Basically, our consumerist culture is causing depletion of earth’s resources while not providing for the basic needs of the poor, like water. Addressing this will require a real shift in our values and how we do business with each other. Yeah, pretty much.


The Cognitive Dissonance, It Burns

environment, science

Science just dismantled a favorite climate change denialist talking point.

Over the last couple of years, the conservative movement, which loves science, has had a completely scientific-based reason for skepticism about climate change. The Earth’s temperature seemed to be rising at a slower rate than scientists had predicted. The global warming “pause,” as it was inaccurately called — it was actually “getting warmer at a slower-than-expected rate,” rather than an actual pause — served as grist for a massive flow of coverage expressing skepticism about scientific models and climate change. …

… The importance of the global-warming pause, conservatives explained, was that we needed to get the science right. “One lesson of the IPCC report is that now is the time for policy caution. Let’s see if the nonwarming trend continues, in which case the climate models will need remodeling,” explained the Journal’s editors.

But fortunately we now have an answer. A new paper released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finds that the apparent slowdown in warming was an artifact of mis-measurement. The Earth is not warming at a slower rate. It’s warming at the same fast pace as it did the previous decade. …

Not really a surprise, considering the last few summers have broken heat records.

Conservatives placed so much weight on the apparent existence of this pause that there’s no way they would just immediately switch over to some other justification for their same skepticism, like some kind of reflexive ideologues.

Ahem. And how does the Right respond to getting the science right?

NOAA Fiddles With Climate Data To Erase The 15-Year Global Warming ‘Hiatus’

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have found a solution to the 15-year “pause” in global warming: They “adjusted” the hiatus in warming out of the temperature record.

To avoid dealing with the actual science, the Daily Caller went to the go-to science denial team of Bob Tisdale and Anthony Watts, who have been occupying the apparently lucrative niche of pretending to be experts on earth temperature and writing a lot of pseudo-scientific papers denying climate change. Tisdale is a man with no known scientific background who calls  himself an ““independent climate researcher.” Watts is a former broadcast weatherman who doesn’t have a college degree, although he did take some undergraduate meteorology classes, which puts him ahead of Tisdale.

A sampling of rightie blogs reveals that this is the story they’re going with — evil scientists “fiddled” with the data. Can’t trust those scientists with, you know, science. Anyway, here’s an article in the Washington Post that, in brief, explains that the old data showing a “hiatus” was flawed mostly because of issues with data reporting.

Update: Some pretentious whackjob calling himself Christopher Monckton of Brenchley today published a “report” saying there has been no global warming at all since December 1966. And he has charts to prove it! And rightie bloggers are quoting him as an expert! Lord Monckton is a certifiable looney tune. According to Sourcewatch,

Monckton has made various false claims in the past such as that he is a member of the British House of Lords.[2], a Nobel Prize winner, inventor of a cure for HIV, winner of a defamation case against George Monbiot and writer of a peer-reviewed article. He was deputy leader of the far right United Kingdom Independence Party(UKIP) before being sacked from the party in 2013.

It appears that “he has TWICE been asked by Republicans to testify about climate change before committees of the U.S. Congress,” according to this blogger.


Why We’re Doomed, Part XXXVII


Between fracking and climate change, water deprivation is becoming a real concern. So the Obama Administration through the EPA has moved to protect water resources from being irreparably depleted or polluted by greedy corporations.

Naturally, the Right is outraged.

The Obama administration announced new protections Wednesday for thousands of waterways and wetlands, pushing ahead despite a fierce counterattack from powerhouse industries like agriculture, oil and home-building — and their supporters in Congress.

On its face, the Waters of the United States rule is largely a technical document, defining which rivers, streams, lakes and marshes fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. But opponents condemn it as a massive power grab by Washington, saying it will give bureaucrats carte blanche to swoop in and penalize landowners every time a cow walks through a ditch.

The Sheep who oppose whatever the right-wing echo chamber tells them to oppose would feel ill-used if their own drinking water dried up or if their grandchildren were born with three heads because of bleep knows what in the water. But in their minds if monied interests drain the aquifers and pollute the rivers to make more money for the 1 percent, that’s not “grabbing,” but if the government tries to protect resources for posterity it’s tyranny.

Pay Attention: There’s a Drought in California


Yesterday after Sunday service at the Zen Center while people were milling about with tea and cookies, I overheard someone mention the drought in California. Oh, there’s a drought in California? a young man replied, politely, with the same tone of voice one might use to say  Oh, you put pickle juice in tuna salad? Or, oh, Thanksgiving is on the 26th this year?

I’m sure lots of people not in California don’t know there’s a drought in California, but the Zen Center tends to draw an ecologically hip crowd of college-educated people who refuse to use plastic shopping bags and who compost food scraps for eventual use in some community garden. Or I assume that’s what they’re doing with the compost, although maybe they’re shipping it to poor farmers in Iowa. It occurs to me that Brooklyn could generate enough compost to cover Iowa every year, if it tried hard enough.

Yes, peeps, there’s a drought in California. Pay attention.

There’s an article in today’s New York Times that ought to be alarming the stuffing out of all of us.

As a drilling frenzy unfolds across the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, the consequences of the overuse of groundwater are becoming plain to see.

In some places, water tables have dropped 50 feet or more in just a few years. With less underground water to buoy it, the land surface is sinking as much as a foot a year in spots, causing roads to buckle and bridges to crack. Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water.

Scientists say some of the underground water-storing formations so critical to California’s future — typically, saturated layers of sand or clay — are being permanently damaged by the excess pumping, and will never again store as much water as farmers are pulling out.

“Climate conditions have exposed our house of cards,” said Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist in Pasadena who studies water supplies in California and elsewhere. “The withdrawals far outstrip the replenishment. We can’t keep doing this.”

California really does supply the majority of the fruits, vegetables and grains we eat in the U.S., and while new food suppliers could be found seems to me there could be additional cost. The loss of California as a food-producing powerhouse could have wide-ranging effects, on the economy as much on in our diets.

And it’s not just California. Aquifers in the Midwest, the Great Plains especially, are running dry, also, which could affect corn and cattle production. Probably will affect them, actually. Fracking doesn’t help.  Charles Pierce wrote in 2011:

Make no mistake. You screw with the Ogallala Aquifer and you screw with this nation’s heartbeat. Twenty percent of the irrigated farmland in the United States depends upon it. Pumping the water from it is all that has kept the Dust Bowl from coming back, year after year. Any damage to it fundamentally changes the lives of the people who depend on it, their personal economies, the overall national economy, and what we can grow to feed ourselves. Absent the aquifer, and the nation’s breadbasket goes back to being a prairie, vast grasslands that the people who first crossed them referred to as a desert. You end up with dry-land corn and some dry-land wheat. And the aquifer is far easier to empty than it is to fill. The technology to fully exploit it has existed only since the 1950’s, and portions of it are already dangerously low. It won’t be fully recharged until the next Ice Age.

Let’s just say we aren’t making smart decisions about resources these days. I doubt most people know this is happening. We should be paying attention.


Joy in Rightieville Over a Faux Climate Change Scandal


Did you know there is a global warming scandal? A novelist with no known scientific background named James Delingpole writes for Breitbart that he knows for a fact that organizations like NASA and NOAA are falsifying the data people are going by to make claims of global climate change. This claim has been picked up by The Telegraph, no less, which I’ve noticed publishing science denialism propaganda in the past. And the whole right blogosphere is eating this up and crowing about the “scandal,” utterly oblivious to the flagrant hinkyness of their source.

Reading on, we learn that the scandal was “broken” by a retired accountant named Paul Homewood who has made something of a name for himself by writing inane science-denialist articles for pseudo-science websites.

In brief, wingnuts, wake us up when you’ve got scientific, peer-reviewed data. Otherwise, just keep playing in traffic. Thanks much.


Keystone Cop-outs

Canada, Congress, disasters, natural and unnatural, environment, Obama Administration, Republican Party

Along with dynamic scoring, aka fantasy budgeting, another issue to be pushed by congressional Republicans is approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. There’s a nice op ed in The Hill explaining why Keystone XL is not in our national interest. The main points.

It’s not much of a jobs-creator. “The pipeline company, TransCanada, told the U.S. State Department the pipeline would create 35 permanent U.S. jobs. That’s about half as many workers as it takes to run a McDonald’s.” Further, it will create fewer than 2,000 temporary constructions jobs, and if those are such great jobs why don’t we spend some money and put people to work fixing public infrastructure, hmm?

For that matter, remember when righties cheered when Gov. Chris Christie killed the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail tunnel that would have gone under the Hudson River and provided better connections between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan?

The project would have eased overcrowding in Penn Station by building a new rail station at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue on the West Side of Manhattan, and it would have generated 5,700 construction jobs and 44,000 permanent jobs, and increased home values in towns that would now have one-seat service to Manhattan, the study noted.

Yes it cost money, buckets of which the feds had already handed over for the project, and much of which Christie had to hand back. It would have been good for the economies of both New Jersey and New York City and added a lot of value to a lot of businesses. Not to mention lightened the aggravation factor of trying to commute into Manhattan, which half of New Jersey seems to do every day.

And keep in mind that New Jersey under Christie has had terrible job growth numbers. Under Christie, New Jersey jobs growth has been among the slowest in the nation. I’m pretty sure New Jersey beats Kansas, but not many other states. Most damning is that New Jersey has lagged way behind all its neighboring states in jobs growth, especially Delaware and New York.

But we’re talking about the Keystone XL Pipeline. Noting that a lot of the same people who applauded Christie’s killing of the tunnel project are now claiming that Keystone XL is needed to provide jobs, let’s go on to the next point.

The Keystone XL oil is not going to provide more gas for U.S. cars. The oil isn’t for us; it’s meant to be refined and shipped overseas. I think most of the people who support it have some notion that as soon as the pipeline is built all kinds of cheap gas will show up at the local Shell station. It won’t.

If something goes wrong, it could go really really awful bad wrong and cause long-term disaster. The tar sands oil is really dirty oil, the article says, and if it spills or leaks it’s even harder to clean up than most oil. The pipeline is intended to go through many critical wetlands and agricultural areas, and a leak or spill could do huge amounts of damage that no doubt would cost U.S. taxpayers dearly to clean up.

In Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, the pipeline would run within a mile of more than 3,000 wells that provide drinking and irrigation water. It would also cross 1,073 rivers, lakes and streams — from the Yellowstone River in Montana to the Platte River in Nebraska — along with tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. Pipeline blowouts are not rare events, and the transport of tar sands oil threatens all those resources. Between 1994 and late 2014, there were nearly 6,000 pipeline blowouts or other serious incidents, spilling a cumulative 100 million gallons of oil and other hazardous liquids. A spill of tar sands crude, which has proven more damaging and difficult to clean up than conventional oil, would make matters worse.

Bottom line, it’s a hugely risky project that would provide very little benefit to the United States and its citizens. Note that a many Canadians want to stop the tar sands oil extraction because it’s doing a lot of environmental damage in Canada.

A pro-pipeline article argues that absent a pipeline, the crude oil is being transferred by train, which (it argues) is even less secure than a pipeline. Also making the oil available on the world’s oil economy would stop OPEC from messing with prices. And, of course, the real long-term answer to that is to learn to be less dependent on fossil fuel, period. Between the deep ocean drilling that caused the contamination of the Gulf of Mexico that still hasn’t been cleaned up properly to the Keystone disaster-in-the-making, we’re basically tearing our planet apart trying to wring every last bit of fossil fuel out of it already. Is there anyone out there foolish enough to think this isn’t going to have to stop sometime, somewhere?

Well, yes, unfortunately. I guess there are.


Polar Bears Are Coming to Eat You


Yes, 2014 was the hottest year on record, and watch out for hungry polar bears.


The Relativity of Science

environment, science

We are nearing the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Yes, I know we’re all tingly with anticipation. But I do have a point.

Einstein had published a special theory of relativity in 1906, and both the special and general theories go way over my head, so I will not be explaining them. All I can tell you is that the famous E = mc2 equation came out in 1906.

However, the story goes, Einstein wanted to incorporate gravity into his theory. So he thought and thought, and then he came up with some mathematical equations to show how all this stuff he was thinking about might work. According to Wikipedia, “These equations specify how the geometry of space and time is influenced by whatever matter and radiation are present, and form the core of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” Einstein presented these equations to the Prussian Academy of Science in 1915, and he published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916.

At that point, it was all arithmetic, using approximation methods, whatever those are. After the equations were published, more physicists studied and elaborated on the equations and came up with other mathematical models to explain stuff like black holes and the Big Bang. Einstein also kept working, and in 1917 he came up with a theory called the cosmological constant that assumed the cosmos is static, which later was shown to be not true. So the cosmological constant theory was tossed. But scientists continued to work on general relativity.

At the time Einstein published his general relativity equations, there was hardly any empirical data to corroborate them. Einstein had thought way outside the box and pushed concepts of the laws of physics way beyond what that had actually been tested or observed. That’s largely because at the time there was no way to test most of it.

As time went on a few things were observed that seemed to fit Einstein’s model, but serious testing of some parts of the theory didn’t begin until the 1950s, at a point technology made testing possible.  Through the years various tests and observations made possible by advances in technology have confirmed that matter and energy and whatnot do behave as Einstein had predicted they would.  And testing continues. In 2013 news stories announced that physicists had observed more stuff in space that provided an “unprecedented” test of Einstein’s predictions, and the predictions held. However,

Scientists know general relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915, isn’t the complete story. While it does very well describing large, massive systems, it’s incompatible with quantum mechanics, which governs the physics of the very small. For something extremely small, yet extremely massive — such as a black hole — the two theories contradict each other, and scientists are left without a physical description. [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]

So after all this time, gravity partly remains a mystery. Scientists are still not sure in all particulars exactly how gravity works. There’s still a lot about the universe that confounds the models and catches people off guard. Stephen Hawking wrote,

Despite having had some great successes, not everything is solved. We do not yet have a good theoretical understanding of the observations that the expansion of the universe is accelerating again, after a long period of slowing down. Without such an understanding, we cannot be sure of the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand forever? Is inflation a law of Nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again? New observational results and theoretical advances are coming in rapidly. Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We are getting close to answering the age old questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from?

I think Hawking is overstepping science with the “why” question, but I concede he’s a lot smarter than I am.

Science being what it is, it’s likely someday some physics nerd will publish a theory that shows how the discrepancies between Einstein’s work and quantum mechanics might be resolved, and then they’ll spend a century or so testing it. Science at this level is never settled.

Now on to today’s most contentious science issue — climate change. (I bet you can see where I’m going now.)

A Harvard professor on the history of science named Naomi Oreskes says that scientists today are being way too cautious with their climate change predictions.  “The year just concluded is about to be declared the hottest one on record, and across the globe climate change is happening faster than scientists predicted,” she writes.

Of course, in popular media we are perpetually being told that climate change is not happening at all, but let’s go on. Professor Oreskes continues,

Science is conservative, and new claims of knowledge are greeted with high degrees of skepticism. When Copernicus said the Earth orbited the sun, when Wegener said the continents drifted, and when Darwin said species evolved by natural selection, the burden of proof was on them to show that it was so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this conservatism generally took the form of a demand for a large amount of evidence; in the 20th century, it took on the form of a demand for statistical significance.

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence. Typically, scientists apply a 95 percent confidence limit, meaning that they will accept a causal claim only if they can show that the odds of the relationship’s occurring by chance are no more than one in 20. But it also means that if there’s more than even a scant 5 percent possibility that an event occurred by chance, scientists will reject the causal claim. It’s like not gambling in Las Vegas even though you had a nearly 95 percent chance of winning.

Compare/contrast to the infamous “one percent doctrine” of Dick Cheney – if there is even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction the United States must act as if this were a certainty.  So we just need 1 percent proof to launch a war, but the Right now demands 100 percent proof before lifting a finger to address climate change.

Oreskes argues that scientists have been so well trained to avoid jumping to conclusions that practically no amount of empirical proof is good enough to dispel the qualifiers and the caution. In other words, in the world of science, nothing is ever settled. No scientific theory, even stuff that’s been accepted for generations and observed and tested to within an inch of its life, is ever placed beyond all doubt.

And the absolute worst sin, the thing that will get one booted out of the Science Club, is being thought of as too credulous. So no matter how many tons of empirical evidence one may collect to support one’s theories, lectures and published papers are always embroidered in language that gives the scientist an escape hatch if part of it is challenged by new data.

And then when powerful monied factions, such as the fossil fuel industry, find science inconvenient, the simplest way to discredit it is to point to the qualifiers and the caution. Scientists aren’t certain yet, so it’s too soon to act.

But scientists are never certain. They might be certain of a particular fact, like the boiling point of water, but on the level of theory they are never certain. There’s always something more that could be learned, on some level. That’s the catch.

It’s also the case that theories are big, complicated beasts that could be partly right and partly wrong, like Einstein’s General Relativity probably is mostly right except on a quantum physics level, where it seems to be missing something. So if data come in showing that some parts of a projection are not working as anticipated, this doesn’t necessarily mean the entire model is wrong. If several scientists independently come up with different projections that don’t match in all particulars, that doesn’t mean they have no idea what they’re doing and we should just ignore them.

As I understand it, climate change theory really didn’t get off the ground until the 1970s, which makes it relatively new. Data collected by satellites and such have provided scientists with huge amounts of information about the Earth’s climate and what affects it that wasn’t available before, and so even as they collect data and formulate predictions they’re still facing a huge learning curve. So it’s no wonder they don’t speak in absolutes, but with some caution.

At the same time, the denialists seize on every uncertainty and wave it around as “proof” that climate change science is entirely debunked. For example, although the earth keeps breaking heat records every year, for the past 16 years atmospheric temperatures have not changed. As far as the denialists  (I refuse to call them “skeptics”; skeptics are people who doubt and question, and denialism is just knee-jerk dogma) are concerned, this is “proof” all models showing climate change are just a hoax. Scientists actually have several explanations for why atmospheric temperatures are stable and expect the “hiatus” to reverse itself, possibly soon.

I started this post by talking about Einstein. Recently I had an exchange with a denialist who told me that science is “black and white” and based on empirical evidence,  and (he said) there is no empirical evidence for climate change. Actually there’s tons of empirical evidence; the challenge isn’t getting the evidence, but interpreting it. Unlike Einstein’s theory, which began as ideas expressed in mathematical equations that mostly weren’t tested with any thoroughness until after the great genius had died, and which still haven’t been completely proved after a century, climate change science grew out of the empirical evidence.

But when I brought up gravity as something that still isn’t understood in any “black and white” way, this individual claimed Einstein’s theories were entirely empirical, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. I even explained the testing history of the Theory of General Relativity and provided a dictionary definition of “empirical” — based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic. He wouldn’t budge. Because Einstein’s theories have been proved correct today, he said, they were “empirical” all along.

And, you know, when someone is sunk that deeply into pure illogic, there’s not a whole lot one can do to change his mind. But while it’s futile to discuss any of this with the dogmatic denialists, I think it’s important to keep talking about this, because there are people out there who are not dogmatic denialists but just haven’t heard all the facts who might be persuaded.

BTW, this year might be the Year the Pope Stopped Being Catholic, as far as the Right is concerned. His Holiness Pope Francis is expected to issue either an edict or an encyclical, according to various news sources that probably don’t know the difference between an edict and an encyclical either, that climate change is a moral imperative that Catholics must address. Already Fox News has declared that Pope Francis has aligned himself with “environmental extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth distribution.” I project sooner or later they will declare the Pope is a God-hating liberal. With righties, either you’re with ‘em, or you’re the enemy.


Are There Hats?

environment, science

Finally, a sane debate on climate change.


Persistently Ignorant


We go through this every winter. Every snow fall, every cold snap, and the Right hoots derisively that this proves global warming is a hoax.

And then scientists attempt to patiently explain why global warming actually makes cold snaps worse. Cold snaps and global warming go hand-in-hand, even. And, of course, the Right will have none of that.

It’s fascinating that the Right is so certain all those scientists sounding the alarm about global warming are only saying that because they are being paid to say it. I’m not sure who stands to gain from all this largesse. I don’t see the green tech companies having enough cash to pay off 97 plus percent of the world’s climate scientists. The fact that the petrochemical industry really does have a lot of cash and stands to lose much future income if fossil fuels are phased out doesn’t seem to get their attention.

And while I’m there — see “Dark Money” Funds Climate Change Denial Effort in Scientific American.

The denialism on the Right takes two forms. One, you’ve got the usual cretins (I’m convinced one must have a negative IQ to write for Newsbusters) who don’t look at the science at all but instead pick apart comments made by non-scientist news personalities. The other is to point to disagreements among climate scientists as to precisely how global climate change functions.

Apparently, until scientists are 100 percent in agreement about the cause and nature of a particular phenomenon, we can just ignore the science. By that logic, since scientists are still struggling to understand how gravity works, maybe we can persuade the Koch Brothers to step off a cliff.

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