Friday, December 08, 2006

Our Beautiful Planet And The Little States Upon It

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I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble. We have to learn to live happily in the present moment, to touch the peace and joy that are available now.

---Thich Nhat Hanh

To fill the hour---that is happiness; to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.

---Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: Humility is endless.

---T.S. Eliot

It's an unusually full and urgent Thursday for news. I don't know why but so many things are bursting forth on this Pearl Harbor Day. Yes, of course the necessary stories about Iraq, that Russian spy case, recent water on Mars (will some alien be looking for traces of water on Earth someday?), the tragic dad in snowy Oregon, Jennifer Aniston's happiness and all the new movies, poor Tony Blair deserve our attention. But there are a few beneath the surface that don't get headlines this morning and that we might miss---like the startling images that illustrate this message. What are they? The top is surface ocean temperature and the bottom is phytoplankton productivity. So what? Please read on~~~

Every day, more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide are drawn from the atmosphere into the ocean by billions of microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton during photosynthesis. In addition to playing a big role in removing greenhouses gases from the atmosphere, phytoplankton are the foundation of the ocean food chain.

For nearly a decade, the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) has been making global observations of phytoplankton productivity. On December 6, 2006, NASA-funded scientists announced that warming sea surface temperatures over the past decade have caused a global decline in phytoplankton productivity. This pair of images shows changes in sea surface temperature (top) and phytoplankton productivity (bottom) between 2000 and 2004, after the last strong El NiƱo event, which occurred between 1997-1998. Places where temperatures rose between 2000 and 2004 (red areas, top image) are the same places where productivity dropped (red areas, bottom image). In general, the reverse situation was also true: where temperatures cooled, productivity rose. The sea surface temperature image is based on data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Why do warmer temperatures have a negative influence on phytoplankton growth? The most likely explanation is that the warmer the surface waters become, the less mixing there is between those waters and deeper, more nutrient-rich water. As nutrients become scarce at the surface, where phytoplankton grow, productivity declines. The effect is most obvious in the part of the world’s oceans that scientists describe as the permanently stratified ocean, bounded by black lines in the images. “Permanently stratified” means that rather than being well-mixed, there is already a distinct difference in the density of warmer, fresher water at the surface and colder, saltier water deeper down.

In this situation, with “lighter” (i.e., less dense) water on top, and “heavier” (denser) water below, there is little vertical mixing, and nutrients can’t move to the surface. As surface water warms, the stratification, or layering, becomes even more pronounced, suppressing mixing even further. As a result, nutrient transfer from deeper water to surface waters declines, and so does phytoplankton productivity.

“Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere play a big part in global warming,” said lead author Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University, Corvallis. “This study shows that as the climate warms, phytoplankton growth rates go down and along with them the amount of carbon dioxide these ocean plants consume. That allows carbon dioxide to accumulate more rapidly in the atmosphere, which would produce more warming.”

“The evidence is pretty clear that the Earth’s climate is changing dramatically, and in this NASA research we see a specific consequence of that change,” said oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It is only by understanding how climate and life on Earth are linked that we can realistically hope to predict how the Earth will be able to support life in the future.”

References: Behrenfeld., M., O’Malley, R., Siegel, D., McClain, C., Sarmiento, J., Feldman, G., Milligan, A., Falkowski, P., Letelier, R., and Boss, E. (2006). Climate-driven trends in contemporary ocean productivity. Nature, 444, 752-755. Images by Jesse Allen, based on data provided by Robert O'Malley, Oregon State University.

If such planetary developments urge you to action, consider joining MoveOn's campaign to organize house parties on Saturday, December 16th, to view An Inconvenient Truth and to talk by hookup with Al Gore and ask him questions. I guess the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters are joining other groups in this campaign as well. As this point MoveOn just is trying to get people to volunteer the homes for the project. The link to do that is here...I think, although it may be members only (there are 3.2 million of those right now)~~~

Then we have Robert Scheer's disturbing article and photo of Jose Padilla's confinement and torture, as further revealed by The New York Times this week. Mr. Padilla is a US citizen caught in the distorted web of "Terror War" confined in our network of detention centers and brigs for the last 3 1/2 years, and now declared so mentally ill he couldn't stand trial even if he were allowed one. Take a look at the comments as well that follow this TruthDig column...and maybe add one yourself. This is a very moving piece about freedom and liberty.

So moving in fact, that if you read next Jesse Jackson's reminder Tuesday about impeaching Bush, you may be ready to march. I know we've all read articles before about impeachment, but somehow Reverend Jackson's puts the case so precisely and concisely that it's among the best and briefest I've seen yet. The chronicle of this President's alleged crimes is becoming easier all the time to memorize and recite around the workplace. It's here~~~,CST-EDT-jesse05.article

And on the bright side of the news---yes, we want to end with a kicker---sincere congratulations to the happy couple expecting their first child after 15 years together. You know, it really helps to get to know each other well before you decide to have a baby. Best wishes Mary and Heather! and perhaps the LA Times' A Pregnant Pause In Right Wing tells it best~~~,1,3293192.story?coll=la-news-politics-national&track=crosspromo

1 comment:

jazzolog said...

Bob Sheak, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Sociology at Ohio University, replied to this entry with an article he coincidentally just completed. It probably will be published elsewhere in an edited version, but you get it first~~~

Global Warming:
Dismiss, Dither, Despair, or Do Something
December 6, 2006
Bob Sheak

Our individual and collective futures are being ominously shaped by global warming. Over a decade ago in 1995, the world’s community of scientists “determined that the warming is, undeniably, due to human activities” (Gelbspan, p 24).

The human activities in question are linked to the carbon emissions that come from burning coal, oil, and gas in electric utility plants, from the emissions released by combustion engines in cars and trucks. There is also a strong link between human diet and methane emissions from livestock, according to the United Nation’s Environmental Program’s Unit on Climate Change. Specifically, the 2004 State of the World notes, “Belching, flatulent livestock emit 16 percent of the world’s annual production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas” (Brook). Vast stretches of Arctic and Siberian permafrost are melting, also releasing huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere.

Climate changes, already well underway, are fundamentally altering the ecologically-based habitats of human and non-human life alike and threatening a monumental degradation of life on this planet, if not the very existence of life. And, unless serious action by nations, corporations, and other organizations are mounted soon, the effects will be irreversible. James Hansen, the head of NASA’s top institute studying the climate and perhaps the world’s leading research on global warming, believes that global warming is accelerating. According to an interview conducted with Hansen by Scott Pelley, “Hansen says his research shows that man has just 10 years to reduce greenhouse gases before global warming reaches what he calls tipping point and become unstoppable.”

The accumulating evidence is based on the best scientific research and is reflected in rising average global temperatures and a host of specifically documented environmental effects and political conflicts. Depending on many factors, including whether governments move quickly to reduce emissions, global temperatures are projected to rise in this century from 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit (see Hanley). Even now before the global temperature has reached such levels, there are catastrophic effects (e.g., a massive extinction of species related to the effects of global warming on habitats).

One of the principal sources of this evidence comes from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC includes 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations “in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history” (Gelbspan, 24).

Rajendra K. Pachauri, an Indian climatologist and current chair of the IPCC refers to some recent information on global warming in an interview with Charles J. Hanley, a correspondent with the Associated Press. Pachauri says that the next multi-volume Assessment Report of the IPCC is due out in early 2007. It “will offer significantly more evidence on sea-level rise, the melting of glaciers and the growing scarcity of water.” The Assessment will also document that world temperatures “have risen to levels not seen in 12,000 years.”

Ross Gelbspan provides a further glimpse in seven “snapshots” of some of the more prominent and disheartening effects of global warming, as follows.

(1) The melting away of the Earth’s ice cover, as huge ice shelves break up in the Arctic and Antarctic, as the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean shrinks, as mountain glaciers melt more rapidly that expected (19).

(2) “All over the world species are traveling toward the poles in an effort to maintain temperature stability” (33). For example, two major studies were published in early 2003 that scientifically documented that “warming was accelerating the migration of species around the globe. One study found that “animals had shifted north an average of nearly four miles per decade.” The second study documented that “animals are migrating, hatching eggs, and bearing young an average of five days earlier than they did at the start of the 20th century….” (33). This migration is due to climate changes that affect habitats and species adaptations. The changes will worsen, so, for example, “one-third of the world’s habitats could disappear or change beyond recognition by the end of this century” (36).

(3) Water covers two-thirds of the planet, and rising temperatures are affecting this water as far as two miles down. Warming surface waters are already affecting marine populations, coral reefs, and whole countries (63). Consider the following examples: the warming of the Tejo River estuary in Portugal has “caused cold-water species such as founder and red mullet to almost disappear in the last two decades”; “Pacific salmon may no longer find a suitable habitat in Pacific Ocean”; there have been detrimental affects on plankton, penguins, polar bears; 58 percent of the world’s coral reefs are threatened, with some reefs shrinking by 90 percent; diseases affecting marine life are flourishing, increasing, for example, blooms of toxic algae; the entire ecosystem of the North Sea is in a state of collapse; and record temperatures are killing off the plankton on which all life in the sea depends (Gelbspan 64-66)

(4) Fossil fuel burning is affecting the world’s oceans in at least three additional ways. First, rising temperatures are changing the pattern of El Ninos, the ocean’s way for expelling stored heat. As the ocean in the tropical western Pacific becomes warmer, the “recharge phase has speeded up while the intensity of El Nino is stronger now than ever in the last hundred years. Second, the acidity of the earth’s oceans is increasing as they absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide. Third, there are “potentially catastrophic oceanic changes from warming-driven disruptions in the normal flow of deep-water currents that determine climatic conditions in much of the world” (Gelbspan, 87)

(5) Insects thrive on the global warming, as it extends their range, and it accelerates the maturation of the pathogens they carry. The World Health Organization projects that “millions of people will die from climate-related diseases and other impacts in the next few decades” (Gelbspan, 119). The greatest of disease may result from a relatively small number of emergent pathogens whose range increases with global warming, including Rift Valley fever, Easter oyster disease, tree-killing bark beetles, and more mobile mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. In addition, “weather extremes serve to intensify flooding and droughts that create breeding grounds for insects whose desiccated eggs remain viable and hatch in still water” (Gelbspan, 120-123)

(6) Looming threats of malnutrition. “Warming temperatures, as well as altered rainfall patterns and more extreme droughts, are beginning to take a devastating toll on the world’s food crops.” Two factors stand out. As temperatures go up, the soil will dry out more quickly. And “altered rainfall patterns will result in significantly less rain falling during critical summer growing season.” Most food crops will, consequently, “become more fragile and unreliable.” (Gelbspan, 148).

(7) The number of environmental refugees will rise. Thus, in November 2000, “officials began the permanent evacuation of more than 40,000 people from their traditional home on the Duke of York Islands off Papua New Guinea” (171). “Small island nations from Jamaica to the Philippines are threatened by rising sea levels.” Some large nations will also be drastically affected: “a rise of one meter would submerge 17.5% of Bangladesh [and] 6% of the Netherlands” (Gelbspan, 171-172).

Gelbspan’s list is extensive, but it does not pretend to be exhaustive. One should also add to the list that global warming is also a major factor in the mass extinction of species, leading perhaps to “the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, and the only one to be caused by another species, man” (Taking Notes 18).

In addition to the environmental effects of global warming, there will also be political effects. Michael T. Klare comments on two relevant sources. First, “In a major London address, British Defense Secretary John Reid warned that global climate change and dwindling natural resources are combining to increase the likelihood of violent conflict over land, water and energy. Climate change, he indicated, “will make scarce resources, clean water, viable agricultural land even scarcer”—and this will “make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely.” The other source is a report from “a California based consulting firm in October 2003,” prepared for the U.S. Department of Defense. “The report offers an equally grim prognosis: “Military confrontation may be triggered by a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water rather than by conflicts over ideology, religion or national honor” (Klare).

U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have done much too little to stem the ongoing potentially cataclysmic rise in global warming. However, the Bush administration has been among the worst. It has dismissed the evidence on global warming as inconclusive and argued that only absolutely verifiable evidence is acceptable, a standard that is impossible to attain. It has taken steps to suppress and stifle the research findings of dozens of federal agencies and federal contractors (see Pelley). It has taken the position that the economic costs of reversing global warming would undermine the economy, and that the health of the economy takes precedence over the health of the earth. It has refused to sign the Kyoto Accord or to take a constructive role in curtailing global warming. And the administration has done nothing to limit the continued growth of the fossil fuel industry. Here is just one recent example. In Texas, TXU, Inc. is “planning a $10 billion investment in eleven new coal-fired power plants over the next several years.” These plants “will use outdated and highly-polluting technology,” even though “far more advanced technologies are commercially available and affordable.” When these plants become operational, “they will produce a total of 78 million tons of carbon dioxide each year – the equivalent of the emissions from 10 million Cadillac SUVs – which will continue each year of the plants’ expected 25 to 35 years of operations” (Act for Action).

An analysis of the problem of global warming like the one developed here is often going to be dismissed with the retort that it is all “gloom and doom.” This dismissive position is sometimes taken by those who are ignorant of the facts, or who accept whatever political leaders assert, or who hold to the view that “god” will look after believers, or who have opportunities to make profits from existing energy policies, or who reject science. There are also informed skeptics or cynics who believe that the problem is so great as to have become insurmountable. There is certainly gloom. However, unlike religiously-based apocalyptic scenarios (see Kirsch), the scientifically-based findings and concerns about the effects of global warming are based on the best scientific methodologies, open to peer review, verifiable, being confirmed by actual events and trends, and can be modified according to new evidence. There is also doom, but the situation is not inevitable. Although time is short, the evidence on global warming helps us to identify policies that can slow it down, stop it, and perhaps reverse it. While the gloomy evidence may lead some to despair or to dither, the slim chance of reversing global warming lead others to do something.

In February of this year, 86 of the country's leading evangelical scholars and pastors signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which is based on the premise that they have a special responsibility to actively work to preserve “God’s creation” (McKibben). Andrew Buncombe notes: “A number of environmental groups have joined with a dozen U.S. states and several cities to try to force the government to make the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate carbon emissions under the framework of the Clean Air Extension Act.” Further, “…Voters in Washington state joined more than 20 other pro-alternative energy states by approving a ballot initiative requiring 15 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources” (Rezvi). Legislation is being offered in the U.S. Congress. For example, Rep. Henry A Waxman (D-CA) has authored the “Safe Climate Act,” that “sets targets and requires the actions that will be necessary to avoid dangerous, irreversible warming of our planet.” (Waxman). Some nations in Europe are managing to reduce their carbon emissions.

These initiatives are worthwhile, but something bigger is required. Ross Gelbspan, who has won awards for his books on global warming, suggests a framework that is up to the magnitude and seriousness of the problem. His proposal involves three interacting strategies to set the stage for slowing down, stopping, and reversing global warming. First, he recommends shifting the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies that now go to oil, gas and coal to conservation and the accelerated development of renewable energy. Second, he calls for the creation of a large fund, based on a tax of one-fourth of a cent on the $1.5 trillion a day in international currency transactions, to transfer renewable energy technologies to developing countries. And, third, he supports a progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard, which would rise by five percent a year.

In short, the growing problem of global warming must be joined at every level with the hope that there is enough time for personal enlightenment and transformation, for the emergence of non-consumerist values, for communities to be rejuvenated, for organizations to be revived and extended, for political parties to embody commitment and visionary agenda, for government policy that is up to the job, for economies to be made sustainable, and for international agreements that foster cooperation across the globe to congeal. Will there then be time and resources for the widespread manufacture and distribution of renewable energy systems, public transportation and low-emission automobiles, the construction of appropriate housing and buildings, the design of super-efficient appliances, and so forth? Perhaps, at some point, people and their leaders will be sufficiently charged to make this happen because there is no real option. On balance, the prospect doesn’t look good.

Selected References:

Act for Action, “Stop Texas Utility from Barbecuing the Earth,” Working Assets, November 30, 2006.
Dan Brook, “Meat is a Global Warming Issue,” August, 24, 2006.
Andrew Buncombe, “Bush Faces Legal Action Over Global Warming,” [originally from Independent/UK], November 29, 2006.
Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point: Basic Books, 2004.
Charles J. Hanley, “Report to Offer Climate Change Evidence,” (orig: Associated Press), November 13, 2006
Michael T. Klare, “The Coming Resource Wars,” March 7, 2006.
Bill McKibben, “The Gospel of Green,”, October 4, 2006.
Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World, 2006.
Scott Pelley, “Rewriting the Science,” CBS News, March 19, 2006.
Harder Rezvi, “US: Climate Change Climate Changing,” (orig:, November 21, 2006.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), “Safe Climate Act: Summary of the Bill,” (this is from Waxman’s website).