Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gore making a difference

The success of Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” gets a lot of credit in the US press for helping to elevate public awareness of, and concern for, the problem of global warming. I haven’t seen any actual data on this, but the fact that the movie is the third-highest grossing documentary of all time is pretty good supportive evidence.

More evidence comes from Australia: I subscribe to Google Alerts for “Global Warming” and “Climate Change.” That means that I get a daily email with a list of every news article on either subject that Google can find. In early September, Al Gore was in Australia for the opening of his movie, and engaged the government there (which is very Bush-like in its approach) in a public debate about global warming. Australia gets a couple of mentions in his movie, one because Australia is the only industrialized nation besides us that refused to sign the Kyoto agreement, and another because Australia figures to be a major loser (increasing drought and wildfires, the death of the Great Barrier Reef) if the planet keeps heating up.

Not surprisingly, during the time of Gore’s visit the number of news citations on global warming and climate change with an Australian dateline shot up dramatically. What's amazing is that Australian news coverage of global warming has stayed high. Yesterday, a third of the global coverage on the issue emanated from Down Under.

I’d say Al Gore is making not just a splash, but a difference.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Global Warming is not coming soon...

It’s here. That’s the message that needs to get out. It’s here right now.

Here are a couple of reminders from the news today:
  1. Current temperature readings in the Alps show that they are the warmest they’ve been in at least 1200 years. The warming trend began in the 1980s, about the same time that the hockey stick graph of global temperatures shot upwards.

  2. We know the oceans are warming, and now we have hard evidence of what one of the consequences will be. A study published in Nature provides a direct link between warmer water temperatures and the shrinking of phytoplankton production – a double whammy since they are both the base of the ocean’s food web and a major carbon sink.
Add this data to the abundance of evidence that species are migrating because their habitat is getting too hot, the current loss of both sea and glacier ice, the measured rise in sea level, the increasing fury of ocean storms…how big does stack have to get? This isn’t tomorrow’s problem, it’s today’s problem.

Most worrisome, of course, is that we’re seeing the evidence today – and we’re already locked into several decades of further warming even if we immediately stop pumping CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

Where is Chicken Little when you need him?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

We have met the enemy...

“When the subject is global warming, the villain is usually the United States.”

This was the lead sentence in an article in the Economist this week. The Economist, for those who don’t know, is a highly regarded weekly news magazine published in England. Sort of like Time or Newsweek, but with brains. And the courage to call it like it is.

Notice that is was the lead sentence in an article. Not an opinion piece. As far as the world is concerned, our shameless refusal to own up to our massive contributions to global warming (25% of the world’s CO2 output, for example) is a fact, not an opinion. The greatest crisis facing the planet, and our government has its collective head in the sand.

Monday, December 4, 2006

It's never simple

Just when you thought it was safe to bet on hydropower for clean energy, there’s new evidence that the reservoirs created behind dams in tropical countries may emit as much – or more – greenhouse gasses than their fossil-fuel counterparts.

In a report in the September 30th issue of Nature, Jim Giles reports on a growing body of research that shows that both carbon dioxide and methane are emitted in large quantities from the water trapped behind, and flowing from, dams in tropical countries. Studies at one site in particular, the Balbina Dam in Brazil, have concluded that the environment would in fact have been better off if they’d built a conventional fossil fuel plant instead.

The problem is organic matter in the reservoir behind the dam: plants submerged as the reservoir is formed and plant matter that gets washed in and trapped later. As the organic matter decays – rapidly in those warm tropical waters – carbon dioxide and methane are produced. There is still disagreement on a formula for calculating how much of these gases are released, and by what mechanism: more research is definitely needed, and urgently.

But the evidence we do have is enough that future construction of hydroelectric facilities in tropical countries needs to be approached with caution. Giles notes that the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows developed nations to fund clean-energy projects in developing countries as a way to earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, may need to be revised as well.

Even more scary, though, is that greenhouse emissions from tropical dams are not included in current climate models, and projections using existing evidence mean we are pumping around 20% more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than we thought, bringing the day of reckoning that much closer.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Bush change of heart?

There are increasing hints in Washington that Bush is finally going to change his stance on CO2 emissions and possibly push for some kind of regulatory response to global warming. Nope – NOT because of the midterm elections – although I’m sure they may provide him some political cover for his “change of heart.” He’s changing his stance because Big Oil is changing theirs.

What? Big Oil is now FOR regulating CO2 emissions at the federal level? Well, yes and no. Of course they’d rather have no regulation at all, but if they must…. And why must they? Here’s where change is happening from the bottom up.

Turns out that the voting public is by and large (70%) convinced that global warming is a serious problem and are worried about the U.S.’s lack of action on that front. Because of this lack of action from the politicos in Washington, politicians at the state and even local level have responded to increasing pressures from the voting public and instituted measures to regulate CO2 emissions in their jurisdiction. When Republican Governor Schwartzenegger of California signed a major piece of CO2 emission legislation, Big Oil could see the handwriting on the wall.

In effect, the voters did an end run around the oil companies’ highly successful Washington lobbying efforts. Bravo for us!

These state-sponsored efforts create huge headaches for the big oil companies in two ways:
1. They would have to wage their head-in-the-sand battle against global warming measures on 50 fronts instead of one – expensive and difficult. Better to have the regulations come from Washington, where they can concentrate their efforts and lobbying funds.
2. Washington politicians are by definition less connected to the will of the people, the goings-on there are less transparent, and therefore it’s easier to secretly buy influence and water down regulations at the national level than at the state and local level.

Big Oil is agreeing to regulation so that they can return the regulatory efforts to Washington where they can have more control over it. Simple as that. Sure they may have to make a concession or two, but they’re experts at crafting legislation that looks like it’s accomplishing a lot but actually requires very little.

So, although it looks like Bush is having a change of heart on global warming, don’t you believe it. His heart still belongs to Big Oil. And where Big Oil leads, George will follow.