Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Climate Skeptics Edition (Part 2)

Two weeks ago, I laid the foundations for this post.  Yes, there is debate among climate scientists about many things.  No, there’s no scientific debate about whether the earth is warming, or whether human activities are driving it.  And no, there’s no serious debate about the permanent impact (for the next few hundred years, at least) about the greenhouse gas emissions we will emit in the next decade.

But that doesn’t mean everybody snaps to attention when climate scientists issue new findings about global warming.  For example, last November, New Jersey’s straight-talking Gov. Chris Christie told the world that he was skeptical.  “But you know – 'cause I’ve seen arguments on both sides of it that at times – like I’ll watch something about man made global warming, and I go, 'Wow, that’s fairly convincing.'  And then I’ll go out and watch the other side of the argument, and I go, 'Huh, that’s fairly convincing too.'  So, I got to be honest with you, I don’t know.”

Honesty’s a good thing right?  Well, in the seven months since then, Gov. Christie’s learned a thing or two.  Last Thursday, in a speech devoted to killing a regional carbon trading compact, the governor admitted what the world’s leaders have been saying since the mid-1990’s:  “When you have over 90% of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts.”  [Click here for full text.]

But even with Gov. Christie on board (in a very strange sense), there are still plenty of folks who imagine all kinds of things.  In a striking example, California congressman Dana Rohrabacher last Wednesday stated at a House committee hearing that he believed that we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by clear-cutting the rain forests.  (Really, I’m not making this up.  Read for yourself here.)
“Seriously confused”, “crazy” and “whacky” were among the adjectives offered by climatologists and foresters in reaction to the congressman’s statement.  The point is, even our leaders still say all kinds of things about climate change.

So it’s no surprise that the CR’s own readers have asked for some more clarity on a few basic questions.  Here they are:

Question: What about recent centuries when the climate has changed without the burning of fossil fuels (like the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age that followed it)?
Short answer:  Every millennium has warmer and cooler periods caused by volcanic dimming, changes in ocean currents and fluctuations in solar output. Today’s warming is not related to such events.

Question:  Aren’t lots of scientists climate skeptics?
Short answer:   Not really, except you can always find people who will say remarkable things when money’s at stake.

Question:  Since there’s so much carbon below the surface, wasn’t it once all in the atmosphere?
Short answer:   No, never.  Less than 1% of the world’s carbon is in the atmosphere today.  If you could somehow get it all up there, no living thing would remain on earth.

Question:  Since plants use CO2, isn’t more of it likely to make a greener world?
Short answer:  Your teacher was right – Plant photosynthesis does use CO2. But higher CO2 concentrations destroy plant growth as well, through desertification, drought and salinity. Only the Arctic tundra is likely to be greener in the coming carbon age.

Question:  Didn’t I read somewhere that climate scientists had “cooked the books?”
Short answer:  Yes, you did, and it made great press for a week or two.  But every serious inquiry into “Climategate” has confirmed the scientific findings.  Even the leading skeptic scientist testified to Congress that the climate data and related research was “excellent.”

The Little Ice Age…
Sometime during the 13th century, glaciers began expanding in Europe and Greenland, following a couple of centuries in which Scandinavia and Greenland enjoyed warmer and milder temperatures.  Most researchers note that these were not synchronous global events, but they happened over the earth in irregular patterns.  But to be sure, the Vikings grew abundant crops and settled the southern tip of Greenland at one point; and Hans Brinker could use his silver skates all over Holland’s canals a few centuries later.

What caused these fluctuations?  Any honest treatment would say that the science has a lot of room for development here.  But most researchers see changes in solar radiation, changes in volcanic activity (ash dims the sunlight and cools the earth for years at times) and changes in ocean circulation.  But throughout all these periods, CO2 concentrations were level at 280 parts per million.  Today, our warming is accompanied by CO2 concentrations approaching 400 ppm.  And viewed in the context of the longer climate records, these climatic events are hardly noticeable.  

The Medieval Warming and Little Ice Age hardly show up in overall climate records
Aren’t Lots of Scientists Skeptics?
Former-skeptic Gov. Christie put the scientific climate consensus at 90%.  Sounds generous, but it’s really not.  Whenever a great industry’s profits are put at risk by new awareness, there’s inevitably a battle of supposed experts.  It happened with electric utilities and acid rain.  It happened with the aerospace industry and nuclear “star wars” under Pres. Reagan.  It happened with the tobacco industry and lung cancer.  And it happened long before with the British maritime industry and the African slave trade.  In each instance, long after the experts knew the facts with little doubt, opposing forces could produce supposed experts to offer contradictory testimony.  (See the April 6, 2011 CR for how this can backfire on the industry that purchases such testimony.)

The debate over climate change is no exception, except that the skeptic-experts generally aren’t actual researchers.  For example, in 2004, the University of California San Diego conducted a detailed review of the prior decade’s scientific journals:  They examined all 928 articles published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 having key words "climate change" that were listed in the ISI database. Not a single paper in this group disagreed with the consensus position that humans are responsible for at least part of the currently observed climate change. [Click here to read the report.] 

More recently, in May 2010, 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the prestigious academy of America’s most accomplished and authoritative scientists, wrote to Congress saying:  “There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.”  [Read it here.]
And this year, the NAS itself reported to Congress that “climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment. These risks indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare for adapting to its impacts.”  [Read it here.]

Cigarettes "recommended" by doctors for years
So had the skeptic-experts folded?  Not at all.  On February 8, 2011, a group of 41 scientists replied, rebutting everything that the NAS had said.  41 scientists!  Now there’s a real controversy, right?  Well, look a little closer.  Only two of the 41 skeptics were members of the NAS.  And 18 of them were retired. You can dress them in white lab coats for the cameras, but few of them are doing the research.  In fact, the institute that produced their report has been funded by ExxonMobil in the past (although it no longer discloses its funding sources).  [Read the report here.]
And in case anyone’s offended by my historical denial-for-hire analogies, one of the two men in this skeptic group who is an NAS member continues to deny links between tobacco and lung cancer.  In this one case, the smart money is with Gov. Christie.

Wasn’t all the Carbon once in the Atmosphere?
We won’t spend long on this.  99.9% of carbon on earth (not including the earth’s mantle and core) is trapped in sedimentary rocks and sea beds.  The oceans contain 52 times more carbon than the atmosphere (although they’re getting dangerously acidic from all the carbon they're absorbing from the air).  Fossil fuels contain 5.2 times more carbon than the atmosphere.  So let’s not talk seriously about returning all that stuff into the precious air we live in.

More CO2, a Greener World?
The plants of the earth can only use just so much carbon.  Every year, humans generate 9-10 billion metric tons of CO2 from burning fossil fuels and by changing land use.  Of that amount, 2.3 billion is absorbed by the oceans (although this can’t go on forever, given rising acidity).  The land – including all plants – uses 3.0 billion of it.  It can’t do any more.  That leaves an extra 4 billion tons added to the atmosphere every year.  If you’re hoping for a new carbon-rich Eden, you’ve already got it.  The earth’s plants are sucking up all they can, and only offset about a third of what we’re emitting.

Cooking the Books?
You remember, the science world recently had its own WikiLeaks scandal.  In the summer of 2009, thousands of private emails among scientists from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (in Britain) were leaked to the public.  The CRU is one of the key groups that collect real-time temperature data from stations around the world.  You’d think that this stuff would be boring, but it was explosive.

The skeptic blogosphere had a great time with leaked memos
The reason?  The CRU data was part of the foundation of the “hockey stick”: a graph of global temperatures over the last century that showed basically flat trends until the last few decades, when temperatures shot up with rising CO2.  Lots of people, especially skeptic bloggers, wanted to get their hands on the CRU data to prove it false.  The freedom of information policies that govern British universities required disclosure, and the CRU was flooded with them from a number of prominent bloggers.  Some thought that the bloggers were attempting to prevent them from conducting their daily work.

When the internal emails were finally leaked, you had all-too-human interchanges reflecting a tribal attitude in the climate wars.  Us-vs.-them was evident in many letters.  It didn’t look like the peer-review process we’re all expecting from science,  in which neutral scientists replicate another’s  work before publication.  The skeptic blogosphere went into overdrive.

An excellent book on this episode was written by Guardian columnist Fred Pearce.  [Find it here for $13.]

Several inquiries have been conducted, exonerating the CRU scientists.  You might be skeptical about some sort of ole’ boy network at work, right?  But the ultimate test occurred in early April 2011, when climate skeptic Prof. Richard Muller of Berkeley took the CRU data, and ran his own numbers, to eliminate what he thought was their biased approach.  The result?  Same conclusion.  He reported his confirmation to Congress, to the horror of coal-supported lawmakers who invited him to testify.

But at a more basic level, allegations of vast scientific scams are generally made by people who don’t understand the scientific community.  No one earns his or her PhD by simply affirming what has gone before.  Every doctoral candidate has one motive: challenge, refine, debunk, or improve upon what was “known” beforehand.  The idea that a few manipulative geniuses can control the science – and that no one will make a name for himself by disproving them – is science fiction, not science.

Well, if you’ve made it this far, Congratulations!  You’ve reached the end.  I will trouble you no more with explanations of arcane details few of us ever think about.  But who knows: Maybe you’ve heard something you’ve always wondered about.  I hope so!

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mr. Clothesline Goes to Washington

Actually, not really Washington.  It was really just Philadelphia.  But it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the CR was offering its first Federal testimony on matters of environmental protection, at the request of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

What was at stake?  The EPA has developed national standards for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Coal plants emit all kinds of harmful toxins, but many of them can be controlled with existing technology (not CO2, but many).  One of the real nasties is mercury, which gets washed into watersheds by rainfall, and concentrates in fish.  One of the best foods in the world has now become a major source of risk to humans.

Mercury: worst for unborn babies
And while mercury is very bad for everyone, it's unbelievably bad for babies in the womb.  Between one-in-six and one in twelve American pregnant mothers have unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies.  That means every year 700,000 American babies are born with the risk of a host of neurological and other diseases linked to mercury poisoning. (Click here to learn more about mercury poisoning and its victims.)

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to stop emitting mercury.  The state of New Jersey has cut its mercury emissions by two-thirds over 16 years.  Some plants have reduced it by 97%.  It has been done, and can be done.  But in many states, the coal industry has sued or lobbied to block these efforts, and so we all continue to be highly exposed.  

Now the EPA wants to act, and industry again wants to stop them.  So we felt it was time to speak out in defense of unborn and nursing babies, and their moms -- especially the 700,000 American children born every year in serious peril.  So here's what we told the Feds:

Public Hearing on National Standard for Mercury Pollution from Power Plants:
Philadelphia, PA
Testimony of John Elwood

Good afternoon.  

I am speaking to you today as a citizen of the State of New Jersey, and as a board member of the Evangelical Environmental Network, an organization of Christians who advocate care for God’s creation. I live in Andover, New Jersey, where I also operate a sustainable produce farm.  Andover is located in Northwest New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify in support of the EPA's proposed standards on mercury emissions. 

Every state has mercury warnings
In New Jersey, we have made great strides in reducing mercury contamination.  Since 1992, our state has reduced its mercury emissions by more than two-thirds, from more than 9,000 lbs. in 1990, to about 3,000 lbs. in 2006.  And the goal for 2011 is a reduction of 85% below 1990 levels. 

This result has been achieved by across-the-board improvements including improved incineration of municipal and medical waste, iron and steel manufacturing, and coal-fired electricity generation, among many others.   The greatest impact has come from implementing proven, mature emissions technologies.  As an example of our success, our state’s largest steel mill has reduced mercury emissions from 900 lbs. in 2005 to only 30 lbs. in 2009.  And our municipal waste incinerators now emit 97% less mercury than they did in 1990.

Looks so good -- but often contains deadly mercury
And yet, despite these accomplishments, the Archives of Environmental Health have reported that in New Jersey, 13% of pregnant women – one out of eight – have mercury levels considered unsafe for child-bearing.  And in further defiance of our progress, the New Jersey DEP has analyzed mercury concentrations in fish and found “no apparent trend in mercury concentrations” as recently as 2006.  

 In the words of NJDEP scientist Michael Aucott:  “Mercury is a metal that just won’t go away.”

But New Jersey’s mercury problem is not ours alone:  We share a 190-mile border with Pennsylvania.   And while our coal-fired power plants emit only 284 lbs. of mercury per year, Pennsylvania’s plants emit 15,550 lbs. – 55 times more than our state.  Not surprisingly, our neighbor’s mercury emissions are not regulated.  In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a ruling that overturned the state’s attempt to reduce mercury emissions, presumably because the EPA was supposed to be carrying out this function itself.  In New Jersey, we live downwind of the country’s worst mercury-polluting state, unable to do anything about it since the courts have found that only the EPA can come to our aid.
Almost pretty: America's worst mercury polluting plant in Shelocta, PA

My family has a poignant reminder of this on a weekly basis.  Every Sunday, I take them to our church in the town of Knowlton.  Directly across the Delaware River from Knowlton is the Portland Power Plant in Mt. Bethel, PA.  The Portland Plant uses few if any smokestack emission controls, and the prevailing winds carry its coal pollutants across the river and into New Jersey.   The plant emits 369 lbs. of mercury per year.  Compare that – from only one plant – to the 284 lbs. emitted by all of New Jersey’s power plants combined. 

Portland, PA plant: more mercury than all in NJ combined
In the words of New Jersey’s top environmental officer: “It is unacceptable to have a single power plant on our border emitting more sulfur dioxide and mercury that all of New Jersey’s coal-, oil- and gas-fired power plants combined.”  

I am also pleased to speak on behalf of the Evangelical Environmental Network.  As you have heard from prior testimony, we seek to represent Christians in their efforts to protect the creation, and the creation’s most vulnerable children.  Evangelical Christians often speak out in defense of the unborn, and we are all fully aware of the harm that mercury poisoning does to unborn children.  The Bible often teaches that, in His justice, God has a special concern for the poor, for the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, the oppressed, and for little children.  In other words, Christian justice demands that we give special attention to those whom Jesus calls “the least of these brothers of mine” – those least able to protect themselves.

We have read of an estimated 700,000 defenseless children who are born every year in the United States with physical impairments resulting from exposure to mercury.  On behalf of the gospel of Christ, we at EEN urge you to consider the requirements of justice as embodied in the Christian faith, and act to defend those least able to defend themselves.

Elwood testifying to EPA: Lindsey and Clara watching
Eighteen months ago, my daughter Lindsey Burns brought us the wonderful news that she was pregnant with our first grandchild.  She was determined to make every effort to protect her child from mercury, so she religiously avoided all but the safest fish, and that very sparingly.  Happily, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. 

We have brought her with us today: Clara Mae Burns.  

But on the day Clara was born, and every day in New Jersey, one out of eight babies is born with some neurological damage because mercury remains unregulated in many places.

Today, we ask you to remember the thousands of other children in our country who are just like Clara, except for unregulated mercury poisoning. 

Thank you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Whack-a-Mole: U.S. Army Style

Imagine a world in which virtually every region looks like today’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Sudan.  A world where the likes of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Qaddafi and Kim Jong-il are working their mischief everywhere all at once.

Impossible?  Not so, say the U.S. Armed Forces.  In fact, very, very likely.  It’s like the arcade game Whack-a-Mole, where the little creatures keep popping up with ever greater frequency.  Only in this game, the moles are whacking you.

When it's a game, it's pretty fun
Like me, you were counting on a nice “peace dividend” with the hoped-for wind down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, right?  Maybe Libya and the Arab world would settle down peaceably.  Maybe the pirates in the Horn of Africa, dictators on the Korean peninsula and jihadists with nuclear ambitions would permit us to get our own house in order?

Don’t count on it, say the generals.  Just the opposite:  Every region of the world is likely to be drawn into greater conflict – and pretty much all at once.

And who’s the villain behind this dour outlook?  Global jihadism?  Nuclear proliferation? Peak oil? Dr. Strangelove?  No, no, no and no.  The common thread that worries our military leaders turns out to be that most ignorable warning of scientists and environmentalists – global climate change.

Influx of North African refugees strains Italy's capacities
The generals warn us that climate change now threatens our nation’s security.  “On the simplest level, it has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today. The consequences will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope.”

The warning comes from the Military Advisory Board, a blue-ribbon panel of eleven of the country’s most senior and accomplished officers from all branches of the armed services.  The Board’s report (download it here), titled Security and Climate, highlights the ways in which climate change multiplies existing threats, creating the conditions for extremism and terrorism, resulting in “multiple chronic conditions occurring globally within the same time frame.”

In this Whack-a-Mole game, all the moles pop their heads up at about the same time.

You’re wondering:  Did all our fighting men suddenly become radical environmentalists?  Not at all.  Take Vice Admiral Richard Truly, a space shuttle commander and NASA administrator:  “I wasn’t convinced by a person or any interest group—it was the data that got me.  As I looked at it on my own, I couldn’t come to any other conclusion. Once I got past that point, I was utterly convinced of this connection between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change.  And  I  was  convinced  that   if  we didn’t  do  something  about this,  we  would  be  in deep trouble.”

Or take the blunt practicality of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan: “We seem to be standing by and, frankly, asking for perfectness in science.  People are saying they want to be convinced, perfectly.  We never have 100 percent certainty.  If you wait till you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

Something bad?  What do these fighting men have in mind?  Here are a few of the perils that the officers see in connection with climate change:

Major global losses of arable land due to drought, flooding, desertification, sea level rise and failing rivers…
… leading to devastating shortages of food and water …
… igniting resource conflicts over ever-scarcer water and farmland …
… and driving waves of human migration across national boundaries…
… aggravating existing tribal, national and sectarian hostilities …
… and placing unbearable stresses on weakened governments …
… thereby creating breeding grounds for extremist elements …
… or justifying the rise of authoritarian states.

Regional tinderboxes include the Middle East, where the scarcity of water has become as important to the future as the abundance of oil …
… the African continent, where climate is driving conflicts over water and farmland in the face of advancing deserts …
South Asia, where glacier-fed rivers are failing even as rising sea levels are destroying once-fertile deltas and contaminating once-fresh aquifers  
Southern Europe – itself suffering from severe water shortages – which is increasingly preoccupied with defending its borders from waves of environmental refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, and …
… portions of the Americas and the Caribbean, where violent storms and rising sea levels are threatening many coastal and island communities.

Here's a simple graphic summarizing the linkage the officers see between greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of American lives...

The Board notes that the U.S. Armed Services will surely be dragged into crises created by these conditions, either for humanitarian purposes or to prevent chaos and war which could threaten our nation’s security.  However, our own military bases – Norfolk, Pensacola, Diego Garcia, Guam, Long Beach and many more – will likely be inundated by the same climatic forces our greenhouse gases have unleashed.  Our Navy will be tasked with patrolling the previously frozen Arctic coastlines.  Our Coast Guard will have its hands full helping American seaside communities face the advancing waves. 
As the generals see it, at the very time when global climatic forces demand our active presence to save and defend ourselves and our friends, those same forces will severely limit our military capabilities.

A pretty bleak picture, no?  But the generals think there are things we can do to head off the worst of these outcomes.  Two, in particular, stand out.  First, we must now commit to multinational efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our country and the world.  It’s a global problem, and it needs a global solution.  Second – and these are soldiers, not nuns, speaking – we need to seriously help less developed countries adapt to climate impacts, especially in Africa. Aid may be costly, but it’s not in the same league as the cost of a failed state like Afghanistan or Somalia.

Sounds expensive, right?  General Anthony Zinni, former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command, put it this way, with all the delicacy you’d expect from a top Marine:  “We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.”

Thank God for straight-talking soldiers.  Are the politicians listening?  Are we listening?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood