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The scale of the Katrina tragedy offers a painful portal into our very heart and soul, the way we think about ourselves, one another and our world. In the rubble of homes and lives and businesses, Katrina provides a potent teachable moment for society.
The evolutionary success of Homo sapiens as a species depended on our ability to learn and to act on that knowledge. When we recognized a threat -- predators, weather, lack of resources, etc. -- we learned to act to avoid or prepare for it. In this context, Katrina has much to teach.
First, prepare for the worst. It is a historic, national disgrace that we did not do better. Katrina was a well-predicted flood disaster, a well-predicted storm and, to those observers of government bureaucracies, a well-predicted failure of government altogether.
Next, prevent disaster to the extent possible.
...The threat was perfectly clear, the solution was perfectly clear, yet government did nothing. To officials, these warnings were typical of "environmental alarmists" and government had other more immediate priorities. When Katrina hit, this government attention deficit came tragically due.
Herein may lie our potential evolutionary downfall -- our modern inability to act decisively and cooperatively to avert certain disaster.
In this way, Katrina may provide -- in fast-forward microcosm -- a vision of the very future of Homo sapiens itself. The transcendent lesson of this perfect storm may be that the natural environment is ignored only at our own peril. As Katrina swept away lives and life-support systems on the Gulf Coast, the tragedy may give focus to the deteriorating condition of the essential environmental services the planet provides for the health and welfare of all 6.5 billion of us -- air, freshwater, food, shelter, energy, medicines, nutrient recycling, waste processing, enjoyment, etc.
History is littered with fallen civilizations that ignored their deteriorating environmental condition -- the Anasazi, Maya, Greenland Norse, Easter Islanders, etc. And like Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl and Bhopal, Katrina will now take its place in history as one of the seminal, time-compressed disasters that provide an overnight glimpse of the long-term degradation of the life-support systems of our home planet.
On this larger issue, the science is perfectly clear. We are dangerously degrading our biosphere, and for decades policy-makers have been warned of the dire consequences of ignoring this systemic environmental decline...
Richard Steiner is professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska.
(21 September 2005)
The most damaging types of hurricane are getting more frequent
AMID the handwringing that has followed the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, a persistent question whispered in the background has been whether hurricanes are getting worse. A paper in this week's Science, by Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, and his colleagues suggests that they are, but only in one, specific way.
Hurricanes can form only over oceans that have a surface temperature above 26°C. That is well known. What is debatable is what effect, if any, raising the temperature beyond that has. It might increase the number of storms, the length they last, their maximum strength or the proportion that are strong. Or it might have no effect. Since average ocean-surface temperatures have risen by about half a degree since 1970, this is not an idle question, and it has, indeed, been asked in the past. But it has been asked largely of the North Atlantic and North Pacific, because they are fringed by countries that can afford to do the asking. Dr Webster, by contrast, has looked at the whole planet—or, rather, the six ocean basins on its surface that act as hurricane nurseries.
...What there was, however, was a doubling around the world of the proportion of storms in the most destructive categories (4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale usually employed by meteorologists). And, although the exact rise in that proportion varied from basin to basin, all of them saw a significant increase.
What caused that increase is, of course, debatable—and since the second-largest percentage increase was in the Southwest Pacific, where no significant temperature rise was observed, leaping on changes in sea-surface temperature as the sole cause might be premature. But what Dr Webster and his colleagues have shown beyond much doubt is that something rather nasty has been happening. Time, perhaps, to batten down the hatches.
(15 September 2005)
Europes killer heatwave reversed carbon fixation
Temperate forests went from carbon sinks to carbon sources
Tim Radford, Guardian
Europe's great heatwave of 2003, which claimed an estimated 35,000 lives and cost the continent's economies an estimated £7bn altogether, may also have fuelled further global warming. A team of more than 30 scientists reports in Nature today that the scorching temperatures and prolonged drought have stifled Europe's forest growth and released huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to feed still warmer summers in future.
Philippe Ciais from the Laboratory for Climate Sciences and the Environment at Gif-sur-Yvette, France and colleagues from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Finland and Portugal, took a snapshot of plant life across Europe using satellite data to measure the sunlight being absorbed by beech woodland and pine and oak forests, as well as grassland and stands of spruce.
They measured crop yields and the rate of plant growth to construct a picture of how much carbon was absorbed from the atmosphere, and how much returned.
In temperate climates, forests act as a carbon "sink", with some of the greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels becoming locked away again as wood, leaf litter and buried vegetation. But the picture in the summer of 2003 was dramatically different. Plant growth in Europe dropped that summer by 30% overall, and much of the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere in the previous four years was released again.
"Such a reduction in Europe's primary productivity is unprecedented during the last century," the scientists report. "An increase in future drought events could turn temperate ecosystems into carbon sources, contributing to positive carbon dioxide feedbacks already anticipated in the tropics and high latitudes."
This is the third warning in three weeks that global warming could be moving to a point of no return.
(22 September 2005)
Related story from the BBC: Heatwave makes plants warm planet.
Your Planet: Gift of the green gab
Adrian Turpin, The Independent
Black water, caustic scrubbing, peak oil... If you want to join the debate, you need to know the jargon. Adrian Turpin offers a crash-course in eco talk.
The process that has made the Arctic one of the most polluted places on earth. Pesticides, heavy metals and other chemicals evaporate from fields and rubbish tips in southern latitudes. Carried northwards for thousands of miles by the wind, they condense when they meet cold air. Canadian Inuit mothers have seven times more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS) which cause cancer and birth defects in their milk than women in the country's big cities, while some Inuit are reported to ingest more than 100 times the permitted weekly dose of PCBs by eating seal.
The moment when the extraction of oil from the earth reaches its highest point and starts to diminish. Has it already happened? Is it about to? Nobody seems able to agree, but the most pessimistic forecasts suggest that the disappearing reserves could deliver an apocalyptic blow to western society. Rather frighteningly, the US reached its own point of peak oil in 1971.
(19 September 2005)
A list of important environmental concepts with meaningful definitions. The article is also posted at Red Nova.
Professor documents glacial retreat, warns of global warming's impact
Carrie Spencer, Associated Press via ENN
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Lonnie Thompson started collecting ice samples from the world's glaciers in the 1970s, people were abuzz about a coming ice age. Since then, global warming has become more than an academic concept for the Ohio State University professor. He's watched it.
"It's amazing how quickly the change has come," Thompson told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Some of his ice samples, kept in a Columbus freezer, within the next decade could become all that's left of glaciers that help prevent flooding and provide a steady water supply and hydroelectric power during the dry season for many mountain and riverside communities worldwide.
"There are (South American) villages that the only source of water are the glaciers," he said. Glaciers also form the headwaters of many great rivers -- the Amazon, the Ganges, the Yangtze.
"If you have a disruption in a climate system you will displace people, and those people will have to go somewhere," Thompson said. "As our numbers increase, we become more vulnerable to abrupt changes."
(21 September 2005)
SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson on climate change, Bush
Sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Fifty Degrees Below, is set in a flood-ridden America facing the consequences of global warming. Sarah Crown talks to him about climate change, the power of science and the trials of living under 'the worst president in American history'
... Set in an America of the almost-now, Fifty Degrees Below (and the first volume of the trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain) tells the story of the efforts of a loosely-connected group of scientists, campaigners and politicians to provoke a national response to the crisis of global warming. Unfortunately for them, as environmental aide Charlie Quibbler observes, it's "easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit". It is not until the combination of two colliding storm systems and an unprecedented tidal surge causes Washington's Potomac river to bursts its banks and overwhelm the country's capital at the climax of book one that the world sits up and takes notice. But, by this point, the polar ice caps have already begun to melt in earnest, shutting down the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and creating environmental conditions that could usher in a new ice age. The last ice age, 11,000 years ago, took just three years to start.
These disturbingly convincing, exceptionally well-realised novels are the latest works from one of the undisputed leaders of the field in contemporary science fiction. Justly famous for his epic, award-winning trilogy on the colonisation of Mars, Robinson's brand of imaginative but grounded sci-fi, combined with his gift for riveting narrative, fine evocation of place and flair for acute personal and social observation, has brought him many devotees, from within the genre and beyond. The topical subject matter of his latest novel, particularly in light of its disturbingly prescient depiction of a US under siege from the weather, will no doubt bring him many more.
I phone Kim Stanley Robinson - Stan - at his home in California to talk about his latest novel...
(14 September 2005)
Recommended by Jamais Cascio at WorldChanging.
Katrina Disaster May Stir US Awareness on Climate Change: Green Groups
Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen MacAskill, AFP via Common Dreams
Hurricane Katrina may encourage greater awareness of global warming in the United States, but the prospect of any policy shift by Washington can be ruled out in the near term, environmentalists say.
For the time being, Americans are understandably focussed on the human tragedy of the August 29 storm as well as its estimated 200-billion-dollar bill.
But Katrina may also sow the seeds of a debate on global warming's possible role in the disaster, on the deeper causes of climate change and on America's own responsibility for the problem, they suggest.
"There's certainly been a heightened level of writing and editorializing, but it's too early to tell" about its political impact, said Katie Mandes of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a Washington advocacy group.
"People are asking the right questions, but the focus right now is on short-term problems, on getting people settled."
(21 September 2005)
Clinton Global Initiative
Emily Gertz, WorldChanging
For the next couple days, I'll be blogging from the Clinton Global Initiative -- a huge inaugural confab of political leaders, non-governmental organizations, private businesses and activists, inaugurated by former U.S. President Bill Clinton around four tracks:
# Climate Change: Business Challenge, Business Opportunity
# Governance, Enterprise, and Investment
# The Escape From Poverty: Forging A New Deal Between The Developed And Developing World
# Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation.
What's going to make this conference different from all other conferences? Clinton's stressing that it's not going to be business as usual. To avoid the more-talk-than-action frustration that seems to dot reports from similar gatherings like Davos, folks attending the CGI are going to be asked to make commitments to take an action in the coming year, and then promise it in writing. We're told promises will be announced and posted over the course of the conference.
(September 15 2005)
The WorldChanging site has several recent entries on the conference.
Report sounds warning over aircraft pollution
Pollution from aircraft is set to grow so rapidly that all homeowners, car drivers and businesses will have to reduce their carbon dioxide output to zero for levels to remain safe, a new study warned today.
The study, carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says that even if the growth in air travel were halved, the rest of the economy would need to cut greenhouse gas emissions far beyond the government's target of 60% by 2050.
"If the UK government does not curb aviation growth, all other sectors of the economy will eventually be forced to become carbon neutral," Dr Kevin Anderson, who led the study, said.
His colleague Dr Simon Shackley said the failure of global governments to think about air travel meant the proposed targets would not achieve safe pollution levels.
"No one is underestimating the challenge of implementing policies to deal with climate change," he said. "But the failure of all governments to think about international aviation and shipping has led to a serious underestimation of the actions necessary."
Under current regulations, shipping and aviation are not considered to be part of a country's CO2 output, but the report - entitled Decarbonising the UK - wants this to be changed as soon as possible.
It says aviation is particularly polluting because planes burn vast amounts of kerosene fuel at high altitudes
(21 September 2005)
Related story by Associated Press: Scientists: Cut air travel for environment.
UK minister says tax could cut airline pollution
David Adam and David Gow, Guardian
Environment minister Elliot Morley yesterday promised to press for increased taxes on air travel as a new report from climate scientists outlined the scale of greenhouse gas pollution produced by aviation.
Mr Morley said including air travel in international carbon trading schemes remained his preferred option to limit emissions, but added that he supported interim measures such as raising airport tax to restrict passenger numbers.
He said: "There are a range of fiscal measures that could be applied and I do think we should consider those. It is ludicrous that aviation is completely outside any of the international agreements and other measures relating to emissions control, and it can't go on."
Mr Morley's remarks came after the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change said aircraft pollution meant that all UK householders, motorists and businesses would have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to zero to meet government targets.
The centre's report shows that even if aviation's growth is halved, the rest of the economy will require carbon dioxide cuts far beyond government targets for 2050.
(22 September 2005)