a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

"If you want to know what Miami’s going to look like 100 years from now…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th August 2007

…go to New Orleans today.” That’s Mike Tidwell (Bayou Farewell, The Ravaging Tide), speaking on a typically excellent Bill Moyers Journal:

MIKE TIDWELL: What gives me optimism in the face of this overwhelming challenge, and, you know, Katrina really is a curtain-raiser. If you want to know what Miami’s going to look like 100 years from now, go to New Orleans today. Below sea level, behind levees, battered by huge storms– if we don’t stop global warming. This climate crisis is here now. The Great Lakes are dropping in water levels. Texas has got too much rain. The Carolina’s too little. Hurricanes are getting– it’s here now. It’s not a my kinda sort of a maybe thing in the future that computer modeling says is coming. It’s already deeply here.

So, the fact that it’s here, that this giant climate system with all the momentum built in it toward warming, it’s already unpacking its bags. What could possibly give us the optimism and hope that we can now respond at this late stage, strongly and fiercely enough to hold it in check? And the thing that I come back to is, when we decide to change, we tend to change explosively. You know, look at the great changes in World War II and all these things that have happened in the 20th Century. I believe that this issue of climate change and sustainable– sustainability, which also implies questions of human rights, and fairness. When this light bulb finally goes on, and it’s going on.

You know, I think Katrina opened the door, Al Gore walked through it. And the zeitgeist changes a lot more. But once we finally really get serious, we’re going to change really fast.

Tidwell was joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell. While at the University of Chicago, she co-authored the “2005 Racial Attitudes and the Katrina Disaster Study.”

BILL MOYERS: What have you learned, the two of you, about politics, American politics from the Katrina disaster?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I often say that Hurricane Katrina and it’s political aftermath is the 2006 win of the democrats in the mid-term elections. And it–


MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I know it seems odd.


MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Because it’s not as though Katrina is at all even talked about in the 2006 elections. But you’ll remember that from September 11th, 2001 until August 28th of 2005, one was unpatriotic if you criticized the Bush administration or really any of the actions taken by our government. So, the Democratic Party and much of the American media was quite timid in terms of its critique of the administration.

But what Katrina and the bungling of Katrina does is it provides a wedge that opens the door. And the criticisms start to flow from CNN, from– and then from the Democratic Party. Now, the sad and scary thing is that all of these issues, urbanism, race, class, environmentalism which were the true core issues that made Katrina possible get lost. Because what the Democratic Party makes the choice to do is to use that wedge as an opportunity to critique Iraq. Not that it’s– I mean, it’s fine, right? But they use that. And so then Iraq becomes the story of the 2006 elections.

BILL MOYERS: At the expense of Katrina?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: At the expense of Katrina. And all the lessons that Katrina had the capacity to teach us about domestic politics.

I think there’s a lot to that, and I’ve also argued that Katrina was the key turning point for Bush’s political fortunes. It’s sad to see how little the Democratic leadership has done with the opportunity; it suggests they haven’t understood much of anything about the last six years.

There was — and maybe there still is — an opportunity for tying it all together. I’m no political consulting whiz, but it might be something like for real security at home, against vainglorious and selfish politics abroad, for a sustainable future, against circling the wagons and living life under siege, for recommitting to the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the people of the United States, against sliding towards a national security and surveillance state run by and for corporations and political elites.

And for impeaching Bush and Cheney for their crimes and their neglect of their duties to the Constitution and the people of the United States, and against spending any more time finding excuses not to.

Anyhow, more excerpts at Recording Katrina — or just go watch the whole thing.

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Department of followups: terraforming, Wal-Mart, Bosnia, coffee, Gilliard

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th May 2007

An occasional review of further developments in stuff I’ve written about before.

# Terraforming Today, October 19, 2002 — As I wrote in 2002, it’s been established for some time that phytoplankton “blooms” — surges of growth of marine single celled plants– can be caused simply by adding relatively small amounts of iron to areas of open ocean. (Iron is a trace element the organisms need to grow and multiply.) Much of the biomass that isn’t converted into plankton-eaters eventually settles to the bottom of the ocean. The questions have been whether this could result in significant net removal of carbon from the atmosphere — and even if it did, would it be a good idea? Now we can add another one: is it commercially viable as a “carbon credit” scheme? In early May, the New York Times’ Matt Richtel reported in “Recruiting Plankton to Fight Global Warming“:

In an effort to ameliorate the effects of global warming, several groups are working on ventures to grow vast floating fields of plankton intended to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carry it to the depths of the ocean. It is an idea, debated by experts for years, that still sounds like science fiction — and some scholars think that is where it belongs. […]

In Europe, where there is a market for carbon credits, it is now worth only $2 to offset a ton of carbon emissions. But not long ago, that figure was $35, and it is expected to rise again as the limits imposed under the Kyoto Protocol on global warming start to bite. Planktos believes that it can make a healthy profit if it receives $5 a ton for capturing carbon dioxide. […]

….[but] one unresolved question is whether regulatory bodies will even endorse iron fertilization as a valid means of carbon sequestration that would be allowed under any so-called cap-and-trade system to limit global warming gases.

One objection to the “Geritol tablet” global cooling theory are that at least some of the biomass settling to the bottom of the ocean may wind returning to the atmosphere later on as methane or nitrous oxide, both of which are worse greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Another problem is that large scale carbon and biomass dumps to the deep sea might well change the chemistry of the deep sea environment, disrupting ecosystems there.

Meanwhile, though, at least two companies — Planktos and Climos — are looking at the idea. Planktos is sending a ship, Weatherbird II, to the Pacific Ocean area near the Galapagos Islands to measure carbon uptake after iron releases.

# Wal-Mart wins another one, February 25, 2005;, July 17, 2005; Employee Free Choice Act, June 13, 2005 — Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published a study of Wal-Mart labor practices this month — Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of US Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association. From the introduction:

Wal-Mart is a case study in what is wrong with US labor laws. It is not alone among US companies in its efforts to combat union formation, following the incentives set out in unbalanced US labor laws that tilt the playing field decidedly in favor of anti-union agitation. It is also not alone in violating weak US labor laws and taking advantage of ineffective labor law enforcement. But Wal-Mart stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus and actions.

Between January 2000 and July 2005, even the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) found 15 labor law violations by Wal-Mart. The next closest “competitor” was Kroger — with 2. The HRW report describes a variety of illegal Wal-Mart anti-labor tactics in detail, including Discriminatory Hiring, Firing, Disciplining, and Policy Application; Union Activity Surveillance; “Unit Packing” and Worker Transfers to Dilute Union Support; Addressing Worker Concerns to Undermine Union Activity; Threatening Benefit Loss if Workers Organize; Interrogating Workers about Union Activity; Illegal No-Talking Rules; Discriminatory Application of Solicitation Rules; Illegal No-Solicitation Rules; and Confiscating Union Literature. There’s also a chapter on the Loveland, Colorado case I wrote about a couple of times back in early 2005 (see “Wal-Mart wins another one”.)

# ICJ: Srebrenica was genocide. Serbian police were involved… (yet Serbia cleared of genocide), February 26, 2007 — In early April, the New York Times’ Marlise Simons reported “Genocide Court Ruled for Serbia Without Seeing Full War Archive“:

Lawyers interviewed in The Hague and Belgrade said that the outcome might well have been different had the International Court of Justice pressed for access to the full archives, and legal scholars and human rights groups said it was deeply troubling that the judges did not subpoena the documents directly from Serbia. At one point, the court rebuffed a Bosnian request that it demand the full documents, saying that ample evidence was available in tribunal records. […]

As part of its ruling, the court said that the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, a designated United Nations safe haven in eastern Bosnia, was an act of genocide committed by Bosnian Serb forces, but that it lacked proof in this case that the forces were acting under Serbia’s “direction” or “effective control.”

The ruling raised some eyebrows because details of Serbian military involvement were already known from records of earlier tribunal cases. For instance, evidence showed that in late 1993, more than 1,800 officers and noncommissioned men from the Yugoslav Army were serving in the Bosnian Serb army, and were deployed, paid, promoted or retired by Belgrade.

These and many other men, including top generals, were given dual identities, and to help handle that development, Belgrade created the so-called 30th personnel center of the general staff, a secret office for dealing with officers listed in both armies. The court took note of that, but said that Belgrade’s “substantial support” did not automatically make the Bosnian Serb army a Serbian agent.

However, lawyers who have seen the archives and further secret personnel files say they address Serbia’s control and direction even more directly, revealing in new and vivid detail how Belgrade financed and supplied the war in Bosnia, and how the Bosnian Serb army, though officially separate after 1992, remained virtually an extension of the Yugoslav Army. They said the archives showed in verbatim records and summaries of meetings that Serbian forces, including secret police, played a role in the takeover of Srebrenica and in the preparation of the massacre there.

I’ve meant to write about this in its own post, but couldn’t figure out what else to say beyond spluttering in disgust. So rather than lose sight of it altogether, I’m just putting down a marker here. It seems to me there’s a back story waiting to be reported on this. One involves the “controversy” of whether Serbia and Montenegro could be held to account under international law, since this “rump Yugoslavia” was not strictly the former republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in and of itself. A second, deeper controversy involved some judges’ 1996 opposition to the whole idea of holding nations — rather than individuals — accountable for genocide:

In [Judges Shi Jiuyong’s and Vereshchetin’s] view, the Convention on Genocide was essentially and primarily designed as an instrument directed towards the punishment of persons committing genocide or genocidal acts and the prevention of the commission of such crimes by individuals, and retains that status. The determination of the international community to bring individual perpetrators of genocidal acts to justice, irrespective of their ethnicity or the position they occupy, points to the most appropriate course of action. Therefore, in their view, it might be argued that the International Court of Justice is not the proper venue for the adjudication of the complaints which the Applicant has raised in the current proceedings.

A remarkable view for a judge on the International Court of Justice! This view didn’t prevail in 1996, but it was co-authored by a judge (China’s Shi Jiuyong) who was among the majority finding against Bosnia this February. As before, it seems to me that justice for Bosnians and Srebrenicans has foundered on legal pedantry and shortsightedness.

# Starbucks Challenge, November 20, 2005 — Just got a comment to this post alerting me to the documentary “Black Gold,” by Nick and Mark Francis, about Ethiopian coffee farmers and their struggle to get a decent price for their crop:

Tadesse Meskela, the representative of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Southern Ethiopia, seeks to circumvent the global commodity exchanges by tirelessly traveling the world selling premium grade coffee directly to coffee roasters who will pay more for his high grade product and who support the idea of paying farmers a living wage. He returns the profits to the cooperative members who use the extra income to build the schools and infrastructure needed to develop their communities.

At the Cancun conference, one African delegate explains, “Trade is more important than aid.” Seven million Ethiopians are dependent on aid and Africa exports a smaller percentage of world trade today than 20 years ago – only 1%. If that figure only doubled it would represent 70 billion dollars, five times the amount of aid the continent receives.

# Send some good thoughts Steve Gilliard’s way, March 9, 2007 — Mr. Gilliard is not getting better; a post-operative “system-wide infection” has him back in the ICU at his hospital. In addition to good thoughts, consider visiting his web site and clicking through on some ads, donating some money, or buying some of his handsome “Fighting Liberals” or “We Fight Back” t-shirts, coffee mugs or other items.

NOTES: “Recruiting Plankton” item via Enrique Gili (“commonground”), who also linked my 2002 post (thanks); Human Rights Watch Wal-Mart report via Jonathan Tasini. Gilliard via digby and Avedon Carol.

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U.S. reactions to terrorism and climate change

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd June 2006

A couple of weeks ago I watched An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s movie warning about global warming. In it, Gore asks the question,

Is it possible that we should prepare for other serious threats in addition to terrorism? Maybe it’s time to focus on other dangers as well.

Speaking to The Nation’s David Corn this May, Gore predicted:

Six months from now … you and I will agree that the period between the spring and the beginning of winter was a period when the country changed dramatically on global warming. Now, I have felt in times past that we were close to a tipping point, and I’ve been wrong. I don’t think I am wrong this time.

On Thursday Brett Marston, who watched the movie with me, pointed out an academic paper, On the Divergent American Reactions to Terrorism and Climate Change, by the well-known policy and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, that touches on some of the issues those two statements raise. From the abstract:

Two of the most important sources of catastrophic risk are terrorism and climate change. The United States has responded aggressively to the risk of terrorism while doing very little about the risk of climate change. For the United States alone, the cost of the Iraq war is now in excess of the anticipated cost of the Kyoto Protocol. The divergence presents a puzzle; it also raises more general questions about both risk perception and the public demand for legislation. (emphasis added)

And that’s without even getting into the relevance of the Iraq war to reducing — rather than exacerbating — the risk of terrorism.

Sunstein’s article is very interesting and well researched; it’s a superb introduction to the topic. Unlike Gore, however, Sunstein is skeptical that Americans can be mobilized any time soon to support meaningful policies to counter climate change, unless a 9/11-like event changes American perceptions of their own vulnerability to this threat, or until the costs of global warming risk reduction improve.

In one study he cites, American respondents appear to have an exaggerated perception of their own personal risk from terrorism, reckoning the likelihood of (presumably lifetime) personal serious harm from a terror attack at 8.27%, or about the same as rolling an “3” or less with two dice. By contrast, a 2006 Gallup poll showed two in three Americans believed global warming would not create a serious danger in their lifetime — despite a majority being convinced it is already underway; a second study showed only 13% of Americans were most concerned about the direct impact of global warming on their family or community, as opposed to its impact on the U.S. as a whole, people throughout the world, or nature. Sunstein:

…doubts about the personal benefits of climate change policies help to explain divergent public reactions. As I have emphasized, legal initiatives are more likely if the citizenry is fearful; and Americans are far more fearful of terrorism than they are of climate change. The pattern of regulation is a natural product of this fact.

Now it doesn’t take a brainy academic to come up with that; Sunstein’s real work is in trying to explain the mechanisms leading to these different fear levels. Choosing between various economic/psychological models (“cultural cognition,” psychometric, “rational choice”), Sunstein settles on a behavioral economics account, which permits and expects a certain amount of biased and even irrational behavior. In a passage that begs for less jargon and more clarity, he explains:

…it emphasizes the extent to which the public demand for regulation is based on intuitive cost-benefit analysis, affected by bounded rationality. In that analysis, both costs and benefits very much matter, but their assessment is influenced by heuristics and biases, including the availability heuristic and an undue emphasis on short-term effects.

Translating, “bounded rationality” seems to imply a narrow focus on immediate consequences while ignoring wider issues, while “availability heuristic” apparently means something like “ignoring problems for which one doesn’t have enough information.” Fair enough, I can buy that.

Trouble is, I don’t know what to do with it. Surely, at the pragmatic level Sunstein is aiming for, the question is how American risk perceptions might be recalibrated to something resembling accuracy. The model (like it or not) is Europe, where governments and citizenries have by and large not gone completely overboard with expensive, misguided, and/or immoral solutions to terrorism, and have reacted constructively to the challenge of global warming.

To Sunstein, the greater European readiness to support climate change risk-reduction efforts is simple to explain. It’s “because the analysis is much more favorable to risk reduction in Europe” — citing MIT economists Nordhaus and Boyer,* whose economic models suggest Europe would be the major beneficiary of the environmental effects of reducing emissions, while the US would be a net loser. While Sunstein accepts their findings at face value, or at least without further discussion, at least two critics of the Nordhaus/Boyer approach claim those results stem in part from subjective and somewhat startling valuations of the enjoyment of warmer temperatures:

Nordhaus and Boyer propose, on the basis of relatively slim evidence about warm versus cold-weather recreation in the US, that the subjective enjoyment of the climate is maximized at a year-round average temperature of 20°C. This is roughly the temperature of Houston or New Orleans, cities where anyone who can afford it uses air conditioning for most of the year…

South Florida after 1m sea level rise; click to enlarge.
Map generated by the Univ. of Arizona Dept. of
Geosciences Environmental Studies Laboratory (DGESL).

More importantly, Ackerman and Finlayson argue the Nordhaus/Boyer estimates ignore the greater climate variability (and consequently climate severity) expected and observed under global warming. If so, one or two more Katrinas or “Hurricane Epsilons” might cause American perceptions of climate change costs to catch up and even surpass European ones in a hurry — especially as rising sea levels heighten vulnerabilities to such storms.** (The median expert estimate is that sea levels will rise one half meter by 2100.)

This isn’t to accuse Nordhaus (or Sunstein, for that matter) of being a shill for Exxon — these are hard things to think about and model; you start simple and work your way up. It’s only to say that issues like this that make me take Sunstein’s analysis with several grains of salt. To his credit as a social scientist, he is trying to be somewhat agnostic about the accuracy of risk perceptions, but he can’t avoid trying to peg those perceptions to “reality” benchmarks — when those benchmarks are necessarily riddled with assumptions of their own, and seem to be trending worse and worse as new data and analyses are added to our knowledge of global climate change and its likely effects.

Remarkably, given the title of his article, Sunstein seems to overlook something I (and my fellow scholars here at the Newsrack Institute of Public Policy) think might be particularly important: the degree to which very big issues like terrorism and global warming crowd eachother out in people’s thinking.

I can’t back this up with a knowing reference to some classic of public opinion research, but it seems likely to me most of us have room for one or two major issues we are ready to take or at least demand some action about. After that, it’s usually either overload (maybe yet another way of saying “availability heuristic”), or unfocused, low level anxiety about “all the other crap going wrong out there” (maybe yet another way of saying “blogging”). If so, overestimating the importance of Huge Issue #1 may lead, in the aggregate at least, to underestimating the importance of Huge Issue #2 — and in that case, Sunstein has performed a huge service just by introducing the Kyoto-Iraq comparison, which has received wide attention.

Sunstein is open to the notion that leadership can affect public opinion and not just reflect it, writing, “there is no question that … it would be possible to increase the salience and hence the level of concern about the risks associated with climate change, and hence to magnify the public demand for a regulatory response.” In discussing political and policy options for leaders concerned about climate change , Sunstein frequently refers to Daniel Abbasi’s Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action, one result of a October, 2005 conference sponsored by Yale University and attended by over 100 experts from both the “science” and “action” realms. What’s interesting (and heartening) to me is that I recognize many of the action recommendations made there —

  • recognize climate change as an urgent and moral issue, not just a scientific or environmental one…
  • execute a public education campaign…
  • communicate the scale and urgency of the issue…
  • convene dialogues free of economic and political compromises…

— all carried out or echoed in a certain well-known movie by a certain former vice president.

Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Gore was there, too.

* Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming. William D. Nordhaus, Joseph Boyer. MIT Press, 2003.
** Note that catastrophic flooding need not always occur for the price to be paid — it seems likelier to me we’ll simply see continuous and quickening levee construction and repair costs as the 21st century continues, punctuated by occasional catastrophic failures such as in New Orleans.

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The Great Communication: Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and 2008

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th June 2006

As I’ve mentioned, I had a chance to see “An Inconvenient Truth” last weekend, and want to share a few thoughts about it.

First and foremost, it is a must-see movie; well done, persuasive, honest, and as many have mentioned, surprisingly watchable for being a slideshow, however whiz-bang that presentation may be. And that’s because it isn’t just a whiz-bang slideshow, but one designed to (paraphrasing Gore) “explode one barrier after the other in people’s minds” standing between them and taking global warming seriously enough to do something about it. Gore has researched, refined, rehearsed, and brought his facts and arguments to the public perhaps a thousand times, and the result is honed to razor sharpness.

But the slideshow is also spliced to a documentary about someone who is driven to show that slideshow over and over again. It’s that marriage of facts and someone who won’t quit working to teach those facts that is both persuasive and inspiring.

The struggle I’ve had in thinking about the movie is whether or not to view it in the context of Gore’s political past and future. In one sense, it’s a silly question. This is Gore’s political future, whether it leads him to a White House bid or not. There’s more than one way to have an impact on the national politics, and Gore has found a great way to maximize his own impact right now, regardless of what comes next.

The question is, what should come next? Would a return to politics distract from or sully the cause of educating the public about this issue? Maybe. But suppose Gore is right in predicting to David Corn, “Six months from now … you and I will agree that the period between the spring and the beginning of winter was a period when the country changed dramatically on global warming. Now, I have felt in times past that we were close to a tipping point, and I’ve been wrong. I don’t think I am wrong this time.”

Now, say he’s right — would that be enough? Might not settling for that be a premature declaration of victory — a “Mission Accomplished,” so to speak? It would be odd for Gore to work so hard to prepare the field of public opinion about global warming — and then leave the critical “harvest” of turning that opinion into concrete action to others.

So I think that, yes, this could be the opening salvo of Gore 2008 — and that there’s nothing wrong with that: the activist outlook of the movie itself demands it. And between Gore’s message, the efforts of others, and the steady accumulation of facts on the ground about global warming, there could be a voting public rightly ready and willing to entertain a “global warming” candidate.

“An Inconvenient Truth” could prove similar to the Douglas-Lincoln debates or Reagan’s nomination speech for Ford in 1976: a “Great Communication” planting the seeds for future victory in the ashes of defeat. If all goes well with the public opinion he wants to affect, Gore will have laid the foundation for a landmark, issues-driven presidential campaign that would be truly his own.*

* What’s more, it’s not as if Gore has nothing else worth saying; he’s been a steady opponent of the Iraq war, and made a memorable Martin Luther King Day speech about Bush administration lawlessness.

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An Inconvenient Truth

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st June 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

We’re in, tomorrow in Bethesda — thanks, Brett! More after I’ve seen it.

Here are some previous posts about global warming and climate change at this blog:

More valuably, here are some other good sites that are focused on the issue of climate change:

…it is an inspiring film, and is decidedly non-partisan in its outlook. […]

For the most part, I think Gore gets the science right, just as he did in Earth in the Balance. The small errors don’t detract from Gore’s main point, which is that we in the United States have the technological and institutional ability to have a significant impact on the future trajectory of climate change. […]

I’ll admit that I have been a bit of a skeptic about our ability to take any substantive action, especially here in the U.S. Gore’s aim is to change that viewpoint, and the colleagues I saw the movie with all seem to agree that he is successful.

In short this film is worth seeing.

Emphasis and knocks on wood added.

* This is about the RGGI, or Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Maryland joined in later.
UPDATE, 6/1: Good article about Gore and the movie, “Gore Warms Up,” by David Corn. See also Tom Toles’ cartoon, and Gore ex-roommate Bob Somerby‘s review and thoughts:

In parts of the film which we thought were too brief, we sit beside the Caney Fork River on the Gores’ Tennessee farm (You know? The farm that doesn’t exist? The farm which proved that Gore was “delusional?”) and Al Gore, speaking directly and quietly, tells us why he loves that river, the river he swam in as a child. For ourselves, we thought we finally understood something about Gore as we watched those fleeting passages: No one acquires that much erudition unless he deeply and massively cares. Al Gore cares about these topics–about the stewardship of that small river.


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Waah — Gore challenged professor 14 years ago

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd May 2006

Just saw this on the FOX “news” site, and had to click through:

Climate of Fear?
Is Al Gore silencing dissent on global warming?

The piece features Paul “Bourgeois Riot” Gigot interviewing one Richard Lindzen of MIT. Re the alleged “climate of fear,” well, here’s what Lindzen wrote for the Wall Street Journal in April:

In 1992, [Gore] ran two congressional hearings during which he tried to bully dissenting scientists, including myself, into changing our views and supporting his climate alarmism.

Oh my goodness — a smoking gun for “Al Gore is silencing dissent” if ever the crack global warming news team at FOX saw one. You can see why they didn’t go with “Was Al Gore questioning scientists about global warming 14 years ago?” — that practically reads like a Gore 2008 commercial.

Gigot didn’t look too happy with this rather more mealymouthed assessment from Lindzen:

The pressure is not so much to get on board the alarm, but to agree that there is sufficient uncertainty that alarm is possible.

I’d take Lindzen’s claims of “climate of fear” more seriously, or at least reserve judgment, except for the rest of his evidence on that score, which amounts to another Gore anecdote, a book he doesn’t like, and complaints about the bruising reception a climatological theory of his received from his peers.

Given how sensitive Lindzen is to all that peer pressure and all those things Al Gore has done, you’d think he’ve a little prudential concern left over for the possibility of alarm about global warming, but we’re all cut from different cloth. So maybe that introduction should have read,

“Did Al Gore question one thin-skinned meteorologist about global warming 14 years ago?
More after this word from our sponsor.”

EDIT, 5/22: New title; prior one (“You laugh, but those Dutch rubs really do kinda hurt”) was, umm…. dumb.
PREVIOUSLY on “Waah”: Waah — big government made us do it; Waah — they made Alito’s wife cry.
UPDATE, 5/24: Nothing if not inconsistent — FOX interviews EXXON shill Sterling Burnett, who compares Gore’s global warming message to Goebbels’ rants. “Climate of brotherly love”? NB: I’ve found similarities between a specific comment made by a “White House aide” and a specific comment by Goebbels. That’s not what Burnett does, he just calls Gore a Goebbels: “You don’t go see Joseph Goebbels’ films to see the truth about Nazi Germany. You don’t go see Al Gore’s films to see the truth about global warming.” Tristero (“Hullabaloo”) replies in kind.

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Cool stuff

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th April 2006

# Wikocracy — Sick of the same old boring Digital Millennium Copyright Act? USA Patriot Act? U.S. Constitution? Rewrite your own, wiki-style! “Over time, this platform could reflect a collaborative statement of what we think the law should be. Or it could reflect a moment-by-moment statement of the most recent editor’s views. This will be as bloody or as civil as you make it… This is only a test.” — There are four new amendments to the Constitution so far.

# Connexions — Possibly more of a future in this Wiki-like collaboration system for writing textbooks. “Our Content Commons contains small “knowledge chunks” we call modules that connect into courses. “

# Antarctic ice collisionIn 2000, several large pieces of the shelf broke off and wandered around in the Ross Sea, breaking into several smaller bergs over the next few years. Among the survivors of the initial calving event is piece C-16. In late March 2006, C-16 worked its way northward along the coastline and plowed into the tip of the Drygalski Ice Tongue. The collision knocked loose a chunk from the tip of the ice tongue.

# Self-propelled liquid droplets“This phenomenon is called the Leidenfrost effect (or film boiling) and occurs beyond a surface temperature called the Leidenfrost point (about 200 – 300 C for water on flat surfaces, depending on surface quality). … We discovered that film-boiling droplets move at speeds of several centimeters per second when placed on asymmetrically structured surfaces (movie), such as a piece of brass with periodic, saw-tooth shaped ridges (see highspeed movie).” — The author thinks pumps and other devices could be powered by the effect.

# Tune in and prosper — unusual Star Trek footage over at Gary Farber’s “Amygdala.”

# Estimate the effect on North America of a 7m rise in sea level. — Things get even more exciting when you zoom in. You can switch to other parts of the world. Elsewhere, a 3/24/06 Scientific American article warns:

Experts predict that at current levels of greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide alone is at 375 parts per million–the earth may warm by as much as five degrees Celsius, matching conditions roughly 130,000 years ago. Now a refined climate model is predicting, among other things, sea level rises of as much as 20 feet, according to research results published today in the journal Science.

NOTES: Liquid droplets via sofa. rites de passage; Connexions via Savage Minds, sea level simulation via Making Light “Particles”.

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Specialty blogwatch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th October 2005

This is just a quick survey of recent posts from some of the interesting, specialized blogs I read now and then from my “specialty” blogroll — maybe you’ll start reading one or the other of them, too.

Schneier on Security — Those tiny little yellow dots you never noticed? They’re Secret Forensic Codes in Color Laser Printers: Many color laser printers embed secret information in every page they print, basically to identify you by. Here, the EFF has cracked the code of the Xerox DocuColor series of printers.

Mystery PollsterGetting Past the Noise: Bush Slide Continues (10/19/2005): The bottom line: the President’s approval has fallen all year, declining about 1% every month since January. But since August we’ve seen a sharper drop. Call it the “Katrina effect.”

Lunar DevelopmentShall McArthur return?: “Russia has met all the engagements on transferring NASA employees to the ISS. Formally, we even do not have to return McArthur to the Earth,” Russia’s space agency Roskosmos senior official Alexey Krasnov said.[] Karen Cramer writes that the story is connected to the Iran Non-proliferation Agreement as well.

Savage Minds — No more “Bushmen of the Kalahari.” Bushmen expelled from Homeland: All but a few of the Bushmen living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve have been forcibly removed from their homes in recent days in what spokesmen for the affected communities said is a final push by the government to end human habitation there after tens of thousands of years. [Washington Post, 10/10/2005] … Before forced removals started in the late 90s, there were over 2,000 Bushmen living there.

The Panda’s Thumb — Covering the “intelligent design” case in Pennsylvania with Waterloo in Dover: The Kitzmiller v. DASD case: The defense needs to defeat the plaintiffs’ arguments concerning both the purpose and the effect of the “intelligent design” policy. For the second, they are most likely to try to convince Judge Jones that “intelligent design”, and specifically the policy adopted by the DASD, are scientific in character, and thus have a place in the science curriculum regardless of any secondary effect they might have in the way of having implications for religious belief. DASD is the Dover Area School District, which is trying to enforce ‘intelligent design’ teaching in biology classes. The post is now updated with new developments every couple of days or so as the case proceeds.

RealClimateGlobal Warming On Earth discusses the latest NASA Goddard Institute surface temperature data analysis: The 2005 Jan-Sep land data (which is adjusted for urban biases) is higher than the previously warmest year (0.76°C compared to the 1998 anomaly of 0.75°C for the same months, and a 0.71°C anomaly for the whole year) , while the land-ocean temperature index (which includes sea surface temperature data) is trailing slightly behind (0.58°C compared to 0.60°C Jan-Sep, 0.56°C for the whole of 1998).

Chris Mooney — Henry Waxman (D-CA-30) is Busy, busy on a number of Bush vs. science fronts, including avian flu, misinformation about sexual health on a government web site, and the ongoing Plan B “morning after pill” fiasco at the FDA. On the latter: The chronology ends with yet another resignation: that of Frank Davidoff, a former FDA advisory committee member who voted for the approval of Plan B and who wrote, “I can no longer associate myself with an organization that is capable of making such an important decision so flagrantly on the basis of political influence, rather than the scientific and clinical evidence.” (link added)

BlogrelReturn to Gyumri: What lessons could Pakistan learn from Armenia’s sputtering reconstruction process, which, 17 years later, has 3,500 families in the city still living in “temporary accommodation” – a euphemism for shacks, metal containers and disused railway wagons? [Guardian]

Effect MeasureYou can’t stop a wrecking ball in mid-swing: As state and local health departments gear up to battle a possible avian flu outbreak, they face a sharp cut in funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the loss could be fixed through funds intended to cover the costs of controlling a pandemic, added as an amendment to the 2006 Defense Department Appropriations bill.

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Global warming, coming soon to a coastline near you

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st September 2005

Elizabeth Kolbert recently published a three-part series on global warming in the New Yorker.* After Katrina hit the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf coast, she wrote:

Katrina was so destructive—whole towns and cities devastated, and their traditions swept away—that anyone who would presume to comment on it has a heavy burden. A disaster of this magnitude seems to demand not dispassionate analysis but simple human empathy. To use it as an occasion to point out the folly of U.S. energy policy, as, for example, the German environmental minister, Jürgen Trittin, did, is to invite the charge of insensitivity, or even worse. … But, callous as it may seem to say so, America’s consumption of fossil fuels and catastrophes like Katrina are indeed connected. […]

In a paper published in Nature just a few weeks before Katrina struck, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that wind-speed measurements made by planes flying through tropical storms showed that the “potential destructiveness” of such storms had “increased markedly” since the nineteen-seventies, right in line with rising sea surface temperatures.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s NOAA News Online:

The June-August summer season was the tenth warmest on record for the contiguous U.S., while precipitation was above average. Global temperatures were second highest on record for the boreal summer, which runs from June 1 through August 31. Twelve named tropical systems formed in the Atlantic by the end of August, including Hurricane Katrina, which was among the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S., according to scientists at the NOAA National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. […]

The average global temperature anomaly for combined land and ocean surfaces for the June-August season (based on preliminary data) was 1.1 degrees F (0.6 degrees C) above the 1880-2004 long-term mean. This was the second warmest June-August since 1880 (the beginning of reliable instrumental records). The warmest June-August was in 1998 with an anomaly of 1.2 degrees F (0.7 degrees C) above the mean. Warmer-than-average conditions covered most land areas of the world.

NASA Earth Observatory explained a couple of days ago (“Warm Waters Provide Fuel for Potential Storms”) that hurricanes over the Atlantic pull deeper, colder water up in their wake, making it harder for new hurricanes to form for a while. Unfortunately, the story is different for the relative wading pool that is the Gulf of Mexico:

When a storm tracks into the Gulf of Mexico, however, the situation is different. Although the Atlantic has cool water beneath the surface waters, the shallower Gulf does not; its entire water column is warm. Katrina did leave a cool-water trace near the Florida coast, but that trace has since been swallowed up by the Gulf’s warm waters. The widespread orange colors across the Gulf indicate the temperature has reached the hurricane-temperature threshold of about 28 degrees Celsius; the Gulf is once again capable of brewing a strong tropical storm.**

The historical record of the increasing warmth of the Earth’s sea waters appears to be best explained by human “forcings” — 20th century greenhouse gas emissions — on the Earth’s climate, according to a recent study mentioned here, “Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications,” by James Hansen et al. If so, ever more monster hurricanes like Katrina are likely to be in our future.

In fact, the next one may be this week. NOAA reported at 5PM today that Hurricane Rita — only just upgraded from tropical storm status — is already at Category 2 hurricane strength, with maximum sustained winds near 100mph, and was just passing south of Key West into the Gulf of Mexico. A discussion concludes:


Nature looks ready to bowl another strike at the United States Gulf coast, with Houston more or less squarely in the kingpin position.

As Houston resident Aziz Poonawalla points out, the real heart of the American oil economy is in Houston. I hope that all the areas to be hit by Rita will be spared the destruction and loss of life that Katrina wrought three weeks ago. It will be the least immediate of our worries, but otherwise hurricanes may do what Washington would not — impose an involuntary energy “policy” on an unwilling nation, and an involuntary constraint on greenhouse gas emissions that may well be fueling more frequent and powerful storms.

* Mentioned on this blog in “Every day is Earth Day” and “Earth’s albedo falling.” EDIT, 9/21: bowling metaphor unmixed.
** “Image by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, based on data gathered by the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer-EOS (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on September 18, 2005.”
UPDATE, 9/21: Washington Post, “Rita is Gaining Force in the Gulf“: “Forecasters expect Rita to swell on Wednesday into a Category 4 monster, carrying 131-mph winds, as it gains strength from the warm Gulf waters and spins westward toward an anticipated landfall Friday near Galveston, Tex.”
UPDATE, 9/21: Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment. P. J. Webster, G. J. Holland, J. A. Curry, H.-R. Chang. Science, Vol 309, Issue 5742, 1844-1846, 16 September 2005. The scientists agree global warming may well be behind a definite uptick in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes over the last 30 years, but say they don’t have enough data to be completely sure:

We conclude that global data indicate a 30-year trend toward more frequent and intense hurricanes, corroborated by the results of the recent regional assessment. This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones, although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially, a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.

Via Mr. B. at “Bitch, Ph.D.”
UPDATE, 9/21: RealClimate blog (“Hurricanes and Global Warming: Is there a connection?“, by Stefan Rahmstorf, Michael Mann, Rasmus Benestad, Gavin Schmidt, and William Connolley):

The situation is analogous to rolling loaded dice: one could, if one was so inclined, construct a set of dice where sixes occur twice as often as normal. But if you were to roll a six using these dice, you could not blame it specifically on the fact that the dice had been loaded. […] What we need to discuss is not what caused Katrina, but the likelyhood that global warming will make hurricanes even worse in future.

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Terraforming Today

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th October 2002

NASA SeaWiFS image: chlorophyll concentrations in NE Pacific, 7/29/2002
Image via NASA Earth Observatory: “Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor
(SeaWiFS) image shows chlorophyll concentrations in the N.E. Pacific Ocean.
Note the patch of high chlorophyll concentration (yellow and red pixels)
toward bottom center of the image. This patch was created by the SERIES Project
(Subarctic Ecosystem Response to Iron Enrichment Study).

“Terraforming,” for readers who avoid the science fiction shelves in their local bookstores and libraries, is the word coined to describe changing another planet’s characteristics wholesale, obviously with the goal of making that planet more habitable for humans.* The photo to the right might be considered experimental terraforming of our own planet.

As the photograph’s NASA link explains, the image depicts a patch of sea off the Alaskan coast with strikingly different chlorophyll concentrations than the surrounding ocean:

By “seeding” the seawater with trace amounts of iron—the equivalent of one geritol tablet per hundred tons of sea water—scientists stimulated a fairly large phytoplankton bloom. In this patch, the chlorophyll levels are elevated from mid-ocean values of near 0.3 milligrams per cubic meter (blue pixels in this image) to more than 3 milligrams per cubic meter (yellow and red pixels)…

Similar experiments have occurred in the South Pacific; taken together, they largely validate the so-called “iron hypothesis” advanced by Dr. John Martin, which asserted that the “desolate zones” of the open ocean where next to no phytoplankton (microscopic chlorophyll-based life) is found can be explained by these regions’ near-complete lack of dissolved iron, rather than by predation or the lack of other trace elements.

How does this relate to terraforming? Because, as Dr. Martin put it, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” Inevitably, the surge of biomass produced by iron fertilization of a desolate zone will first remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and surface water, and then, upon death, settle into the deep ocean. This net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would contribute to global cooling, just as net additions of carbon dioxide contribute to global warming.

Personally, this seemed like a pretty cool (no pun intended) idea to me: if global warming ever gets too far out of hand, we may have an ace in the hole with Dr. Martin’s suggestion. As the linked biography suggests, though, the idea was quickly controversial; it is also clear that Dr. Martin himself was not advocating the immediate start-up of an iron fertilization program. Rather, he just wanted more research done, and the photo above is a tribute to his success on that score.

What are the possible drawbacks? Some of the experiments have shown less than expected carbon flow to the deep sea, so that the method’s efficacy is not always high; it would take more iron to work, with whatever drawbacks (beyond sheer cost) there are to iron level “spikes” in the upper ocean. Perhaps more importantly, the deep sea environment could change drastically; removing enough carbon dioxide to reverse historical industrial carbon dioxide additions to the atmosphere might well raise deep sea pH (acidity) levels by 0.1 pH,** and deep sea organisms are very sensitive to such changes. As Richard Monastersky of Science News writes in his 1995 account of the “IRONEX” experiment off the Galapagos, the decay of plant matter would rob the upper ocean of oxygen, and might release significant amounts of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Even good friends of John Martin like Sally Chisholm of MIT are among the leading skeptics of the “geritol tablet” option to fighting global warming.

So now I’m not sure about it, except as an emergency measure. I suppose the controversy may someday be, is the emergency already severe enough to warrant trying mass iron fertilization as a last-ditch way out, and who pays for it, and who approves doing it. It was interesting to read about, though. For me at least.

* Among the foremost science fiction novels dealing with the possibility are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). Robinson attempts to make the prospect seem legitimately controversial even for sterile Mars, and largely succeeds; as the titles indicate, that controversy is won by the terraformers.
**It’s been a while, but I believe this equates to about a 25% increase in acidity; not a gargantuan increase, but not as negligible as “0.1” looks at first glance. As the link indicates, “reverse” means to return atmospheric carbon dioxide to twice the pre-industrial level, and not the attempt to return all the way to that level.

UPDATE, 3/24/06: broken link at “occurred” edited to point to “SOIREE: A Phytoplankton Party in the South Pacific.” SOIREE stands for “Southern Ocean Iron Enrichment Experiment.”
EDIT, 12/3/12: new photo image uploaded to, linked from Photobucket account, captioned.

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