Seattle, environmentalists hope to put freeze on Shell’s Arctic ambitions

Al Jazeera reports: When a giant Royal Dutch Shell rig arrived last Thursday at the Port of Seattle, it was an unwelcome sight for a number of city officials and environmentalists. The 300-foot tall Polar Pioneer is one of two drilling rigs that Shell plans to use to explore for oil off the coast of Alaska this summer.

Earlier this month, the city declared that the port, where Shell has rented space to store its fleet, would need a new permit to house the rigs. The oil giant responded defiantly, hauling the mammoth platform into port without city approval. On late Monday, Seattle issued a notice of violation to the port, Shell and Foss Maritime, the company leasing the space to Shell.

The notice arrived amid several days of protests over the rig. Earlier on Monday, Seattle city councilor Kshama Sawant, a socialist and former Occupy activist, joined a few hundred demonstrators who blocked the gates of the terminal where the rig is moored. “The eyes of the world are on Seattle this week,” said Margo Polley, a city transportation worker who participated in the protest on her day off. “Hopefully we can build this movement, make it huge and stand up to these fossil fuel giants.” [Continue reading…]

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Dahr Jamail: The Navy’s great Alaskan ‘war’

It isn’t the best of times for the American Arctic and let me explain why.

The world is in the midst of an oil glut.  In the last year, oil prices bottomed out before rising modestly.  A NASA study just offered the news that a massive ice shelf in Antarctica, half the size of Rhode Island, will disintegrate by 2020, and not so long ago Science magazine reported that the melting of that region’s ice sheets is proceeding far faster than expected.  SayonaraMiami Beach!  All of this, of course, is happening thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.  In March, the Obama administration responded to such a world by preparing the way for a rather familiar future.  It lifted a ban on drilling for oil and gas off the U.S. southern Atlantic coast, opening those waters and their untapped four billion barrels of oil and 37 trillion cubic feet of gas to future drilling.  Then, less than two weeks ago, the Interior Department green-lighted Shell Oil, a company with a memorably bleak record of exploration and disaster in the Arctic, to launch this country into a drill-baby-drill future in northern waters. 

If Shell gets all its other permits in place, it will begin drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast.  This will happen under what might be some of the worst weather conditions on the planet in an area “prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, [and] frigid temperatures.”  We’re talking, of course, about another four billion barrels of potentially exploitable oil just in that region, which is also a sanctuary for whales, polar bears, and other species that have no vote in this matter.  Subhankar Banerjee put the environmental problem in a nutshell (or perhaps an ice cube) at this site back in March in a piece aptly titled “Arctic Nightmares.” Of the dangers of letting Shell loose in those waters, he wrote, “Just think of the way the blowout of one drilling platform, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, devastated the Gulf of Mexico.  Now, imagine the same thing happening without any clean-up help in sight.”  Keep in mind that this sort of far north drilling can only go on because the past drilling and burning of fossil fuels has helped melt Arctic sea ice and open up its potentially vast energy reserves to exploitation.  It’s a little like watching the proverbial snake eat its tail.

So, thanks to our environmental president, things look bad off Alaska. And as TomDispatch regular Dahr Jamail reports, in June they’re about to get significantly worse.  The U.S. Navy is arriving in the Gulf of Alaska big time — and we’re not talking about the cavalry riding to the rescue here.  In waters that are starting to seem like Grand Central Station, that service is planning to launch massive war games with a new set of potentially deleterious effects on those seas and what lives in them.  But let Jamail explain.  Note that this is a joint project of TomDispatch and Truthout, the invaluable website where he now works.  Tom Engelhardt    

Destroying what remains
How the U.S. Navy plans to war game the Arctic
By Dahr Jamail

[This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.] 

I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, “the great one.” During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks.  It was there that I took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice, sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground their way toward lower elevations.

Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range in the world and the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons. Species that are classified as “endangered” in other places are often found in abundance in Alaska.

Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of the U.S. military.

[Read more…]

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Monsanto bets $45 billion on a pesticide-soaked future

Mother Jones reports: Once an industrial-chemical titan, GMO seed giant Monsanto has rebranded itself as a “sustainable agriculture company.” Forget such classic post-war corporate atrocities as PCB and dioxin — the modern Monsanto “uses plant breeding and biotechnology to create seeds that grow into stronger, more resilient crops that require fewer resources,” as the company’s website has it.

That rhetoric may have to change, though, if Monsanto succeeds in buying its Swiss rival, pesticide giant Syngenta. On Friday, Syngenta’s board rejected a $45 billion takeover bid. But that’s hardly the end of the story. Tuesday afternoon, Syngenta’s share price was holding steady at a level about 20 percent higher than it was before Monsanto’s bid — an indication that investors consider an eventual deal quite possible. As The Wall Street Journal’s Helen Thomas put it, the Syngenta board’s initial rejection of Monsanto’s overture may just be a way of saying, “This deal makes sense, but Syngenta can hold out for more.”

The logic for the deal is simple: Syngenta is Monsanto’s perfect complement. Monsanto ranks as the globe’s largest purveyor of seeds (genetically modified and otherwise), alongside a relatively small chemical division (mainly devoted to the herbicide Roundup), which makes up just a third of its $15.8 billion in total sales. [Continue reading…]

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A picture of loneliness: You are looking at the last male northern white rhino

sudan-white-rhino

Jonathan Jones writes: What is it like to look at the very last of something? To contemplate the passing of a unique wonder that will soon vanish from the face of the earth? You are seeing it. Sudan is the last male northern white rhino on the planet. If he does not mate successfully soon with one of two female northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta conservancy, there will be no more of their kind, male or female, born anywhere. And it seems a slim chance, as Sudan is getting old at 42 and breeding efforts have so far failed. Apart from these three animals there are only two other northern white rhinos in the world, both in zoos, both female.

It seems an image of human tenderness that Sudan is lovingly guarded by armed men who stand vigilantly and caringly with him. But of course it is an image of brutality. Even at this last desperate stage in the fate of the northern white rhino, poachers would kill Sudan if they could and hack off his horn to sell it on the Asian medicine market.

Sudan doesn’t know how precious he is. His eye is a sad black dot in his massive wrinkled face as he wanders the reserve with his guards. His head is a marvellous thing. It is a majestic rectangle of strong bone and leathery flesh, a head that expresses pure strength. How terrible that such a mighty head can in reality be so vulnerable. It is lowered melancholically beneath the sinister sky, as if weighed down by fate. This is the noble head of an old warrior, his armour battered, his appetite for struggle fading. [Continue reading…]

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Logging threatens one of Europe’s last virgin forests

Der Spiegel reports: It’s not easy to fight for your cause with pepper spray in your mouth and eyes, but Gabriel Paun tried it anyway in front of the gate of a huge sawmill in the Romanian town of Sebes. On that day last winter, Paun had followed a truck loaded with lumber after the vehicle left the Retezat National Park, located in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains — one of Europe’s most beautiful forested regions — and in the heart of a threatened world.

Paun was wearing a brown vest over a camouflage hoodie. He had a buzzed, military style haircut. Paun, an activist with the Romanian organization Agent Green, followed the truck to the sawmill. He had a suspicion and all he had to do was make one phone call to confirm it.

In Romania there is a hotline to check the origins of lumber transports. The system can use the license plate number to track each truckload of wood. Paun dialed the number and an employee at the Environment Ministry’s wood tracking section picked up the phone. Her answer left no doubt: She said the lumber was “illegal.” Paun followed the truck to the entrance of the sawmill, which belongs to Austria’s Schweighofer Group, and informed security guards working for the company. But instead of taking the wood out of circulation, they put Paun out of commission: first with blows, then with pepper spray, causing Paun to fall to the ground. Everything was captured on shaky video images and uploaded to YouTube.

The film snippet is a hit in Romania, where it has become a symbol for the Romanians’ concern for their forests — and for their powerlessness to stop it from disappearing. At stake here is one of the last virgin forests in Europe. These are regions roamed by brown bears, wolves and lynxes, and many of these areas have remained untouched for centuries. [Continue reading…]

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Dead zones — where animals suffocate and die — found in the Atlantic’s open waters

Elahe Izadi reports: Not much can survive in a “dead zone.” These aquatic areas have such a low concentrations of oxygen that marine life either dies or leaves.

Many of these lifeless areas crop up near coastlines, where people live and hazardous chemicals make their way into the water. Now, a group of German and Canadian researchers have discovered dead zones in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which they say is a first. They observed the area for seven years and published their findings Thursday in the journal Biogeosciences.

Researchers found these particular dead zones in tropical North Atlantic waters, hundreds of miles from West Africa. Some of them were spotted north of Cape Verde’s islands.

“It is not unlikely that an open-ocean dead zone will hit the island at some point,” lead author Johannes Karstensen, a researcher at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany said in a statement. “This could cause the coast to be flooded with low-oxygen water, which may put severe stress on the coastal ecosystems and may even provoke fish kills and the die-off of other marine life.” [Continue reading…]

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Climate change threatens one in six species with extinction, study finds

Carbon Brief reports: The risk of Earth’s species becoming extinct will accelerate as global temperatures rise, new research shows.

After reviewing more than one hundred scientific papers, the study finds as many as 16% of plant and animal species on land and in the oceans would be under threat with four degrees of warming.

Climate change could even overtake habitat loss and degradation as the main cause of extinctions, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

The rate at which plants and animals are becoming extinct is now a thousand times higher than before humans inhabited the Earth.

Habitat loss is the principal cause of extinctions, as forests are cleared and urban areas expand. But a new study, published in Science, suggests that climate change could soon become a key threat to species around the world. [Continue reading…]

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What does it mean to preserve nature in the Age of Humans?

By Ben A Minteer, Arizona State University and Stephen Pyne, Arizona State University

Is the Earth now spinning through the “Age of Humans?” More than a few scientists think so. They’ve suggested, in fact, that we modify the name of the current geological epoch (the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago) to the “Anthropocene.” It’s a term first put into wide circulation by Nobel-Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in an article published in Nature in 2002. And it’s stirring up a good deal of debate, not only among geologists.

The idea is that we needed a new planetary marker to account for the scale of human changes to the Earth: extensive land transformation, mass extinctions, control of the nitrogen cycle, large-scale water diversion, and especially change of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases. Although naming geological epochs isn’t usually a controversial act, the Anthropocene proposal is radical because it means that what had been an environmental fixture against which people acted, the geological record, is now just another expression of the human presence.

It seems to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for nature preservationists, heirs to the American tradition led by writers, scientists and activists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. That’s because some have argued the traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.

Given this situation, we felt the time was ripe to explore the impact of the Anthropocene on the idea and practice of nature preservation. Our plan was to create a salon, a kind of literary summit. But we wanted to cut to the chase: What does it mean to “save American nature” in the age of humans?

We invited a distinguished group of environmental writers – scientists, philosophers, historians, journalists, agency administrators and activists – to give it their best shot. The essays appear in the new collection, After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans.

[Read more…]

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Earth Day: Scientists say 75% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in ground

The Guardian reports: Three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if humanity is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, a group of leading scientists and economists have said in a statement timed to coincide with Earth Day.

The Earth League, which includes Nicholas Stern, the author of several influential reports on the economics of climate change; Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a climate scientist and adviser to Angela Merkel; and the US economist Jeffrey Sachs, urged world leaders to follow up on their commitments to avoid dangerous global warming.

Spelling out what a global deal at the UN climate summit in Paris later this year should include, the group demanded governments adopt a goal of reducing economies’ carbon emissions to zero by mid-century, put a price on carbon and that the richest take the lead with the most aggressive cuts.

In its “Earth statement”, the group said that three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if warming was not to breach a rise of 2C, the “safety limit” agreed to by governments. [Continue reading…]

The Earth Statement begins: 2015 is a critical year for humanity. Our civilization has never faced such existential risks as those associated with global warming, biodiversity erosion and resource depletion. Our societies have never had such an opportunity to advance prosperity and eradicate poverty. We have the choice to either finally embark on the journey towards sustainability or to stick to our current destructive “business-as-usual” pathway. Three times this year, world leaders will meet to set the course for decades to come. In July 2015, heads of state meet to discuss Financing for Development. In September 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted. In December 2015, nations negotiate a new Global Climate Agreement. Decisions made in this single year will be the legacy of our generation. In particular, if we do not succeed in tackling climate change, the sustainable development goals, livelihoods in many parts of the world and the wellbeing of our close and distant kin will be threatened.

In 2015, a good climate future is still within reach. If we act boldly, we can safeguard human development. It is a moral obligation, and in our self-­interest, to achieve deep decarbonization of the global economy via equitable effort sharing. This requires reaching a zero-­carbon society by mid-­century or shortly thereafter, thereby limiting global warming to below 2°C as agreed by all nations in 2010. This trajectory is not one of economic pain, but of economic opportunity, progress and inclusiveness. It is a chance too good to be missed. We have just embarked upon a journey of innovation, which can create a new generation of jobs and industries, whilst enhancing the resilience of communities and people around the world. [Continue reading…]

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Consumed: why more stuff does not mean more happiness

By Judith Stark, Seton Hall University

Consumption. By a strange shift of meaning, this 19th-century word describing a serious and often fatal disease is the same word used now for a way of life focused on material goods. Is it time to bring back its negative, and often deadly, associations into our public discourse?

Consumption as reality and metaphor operates on many levels – personal, communal and economic. Most importantly, it causes profound consequences for the planet and its resources.

The forty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day provides a fitting occasion to think more broadly and deeply about what these patterns of consumption mean for us, our communities, and for planet Earth.

Diminishing returns

We all want stuff, but in our overdeveloped, fast-paced culture we seldom challenge ourselves to ask ourselves the one important question: how much is enough?

[Read more…]

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The surprising reason why Arctic warming could be worse than previously thought

Chris Mooney reports: For the most part, we humans can live our lives entirely untroubled by the doings of phytoplankton.

These tiny, largely single-celled marine organisms are, basically, little photosynthesis machines — they contain chlorophyll and process sunlight to create energy. It might sound relatively dull — but according to new research, this simple lifestyle could have major climate change ramifications.

The new study, just out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that as the Arctic Ocean warms and loses its sea ice cover, populations of phytoplankton will boom. This will, in turn, further amplify warming in a region that’s already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet. [Continue reading…]

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Wedge of warm Pacific seawater known as ‘the blob’ blamed for marine havoc

The Los Angeles Times reports: It’s called “the blob,” and some blame it for the thousands of dead seabirds and emaciated sea lion pups that have washed ashore on California beaches since late last year.

Ever since an unusually warm mass of seawater began spreading along the Pacific Coast of North America a year ago — wreaking havoc on the marine food chain — scientists have struggled to explain its presence.

In recent months, however, some experts have argued that this 500-mile-wide, 300-foot-deep wedge of warm seawater may in fact signal an epic cyclical change in the Pacific Ocean — a change that could possibly bring soaking rains to Southern California this winter but also accelerate the rise in global temperatures.

Though researchers disagree over just what this blob portends, the phenomenon is drawing intense scrutiny from climate scientists and oceanographers.

At the center of this debate is a poorly understood pattern of wind, ocean current and temperature variations that some scientists call the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO. [Continue reading…]

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Louisiana five years after BP oil spill: ‘It’s not going back to normal no time soon’

The Guardian reports: To hear BP tell it, the environmental disaster that struck the Gulf of Mexico five years ago is nearly over – the beaches have been cleared of oil, and the water in the Gulf is as clear as it ever was. But how do you spot a continued disaster if its main indicator is the absence of something?

On this strip of land in south-eastern Louisiana, the restaurants are still empty, FOR SALE signs are increasing in store windows, people are still moving away, and this marina on Pointe a la Hache – once packed most afternoons with oystermen bringing in their catch on their small boats, high school kids earning a few bucks unloading the sacks, and 18-wheelers backed up by the dozen to carry them away – is completely devoid of life, save one man, 69-year-old Clarence Duplessis, who cleans his boat to pass the time.

“At this time of day, at this marina, it used to be packed,” Duplessis said. “And now there’s nothing.”

It’s been nearly five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and spilling nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and residents, fisherman, activists and scientists say the cleanup and restoration is far from over. While some phenomena in the Gulf – people getting sick, fishing nets coming back empty – are hard to definitively pin on BP – experts say the signs of ecological and economic loss that followed the spill are deeply concerning for the future of the Gulf. Meanwhile, BP has pushed back hard on the notion that the effects of its disaster are much to worry about, spending millions on PR and commercials to convince Gulf residents everything will be OK. [Continue reading…]

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Chevron whistleblower videos show deliberate falsification of evidence in Ecuador oil pollution trial

DeSmogBlog reports: Chevron has already lost the lawsuit filed against the company by a group of Indigenous villagers and rural Ecuadorians who say Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, left behind hundreds of open, unlined pits full of toxic oil waste it had dug into the floor of the Amazon rainforest.

That hasn’t stopped the oil titan from attempting to retry the case, though, in both the court of public opinion and a New York court, where it counter-sued the Ecuadorian plaintiffs under the RICO Act, claiming their original lawsuit was nothing more than extortion.

But new videos released by an anonymous Chevron whistleblower undermine the company’s entire defense in the original suit as well as its RICO counterattack.

Chevron’s defense in the Ecuador pollution case hinges on the company’s assertion that, before leaving the country when its partnership with state-owned Petroecuador ended in the early 1990s, Texaco remediated a portion of the 350 drill sites and more than 900 associated waste pits, as per its agreement with the Ecuadorean government.

The Ecuadorian plaintiffs argue that, as the sole operator of those drilling operations, Chevron/Texaco is liable for the carcinogenic oil contamination of watercourses, soil and groundwater that leached out of the waste pits and overflowed into local streams and rivers. After inheriting Texaco’s liability, Chevron countered that it had fulfilled its obligations per the terms of its partnership and that the plaintiffs’ real target should be Petroecuador, which Chevron blames for the pollution.

In 2011, Chevron lost the court battle in Ecuador — the venue Chevron itself chose — and was ordered to pay $9.5 billion to clean up its oil pollution in the Amazon. But Chevron had already infamously vowed “We will fight until hell freezes over and then fight it out on the ice,” and the company has been true to its word. Only now has evidence emerged to show just how dirty Chevron was fighting.

“These videos prove Chevron knew full well their ‘remediated’ sites were still contaminated before the trial in Ecuador had even finished,” Amazon Watch’s Paul Paz said in a statement to DeSmogBlog. “Rather than admit that and help people who would be affected, they hid what they knew and denied it to the courts and to the world. Worse than that, they went on to blame the very same people affected by their waste as making it all up to extort money from Chevron.” [Continue reading…]

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More CO2 = more pollen

Climate Central: The arrival of spring is kind of a good news/bad news story. The good news is that spring brings warmer weather and blossoms everywhere, as trees and flowers wake up from hibernation. But that’s also the bad news, at least for anyone who suffers from spring allergies. All of that flowering and leaf-opening means pollen will be filling the air and creating a yellow haze on cars — followed by sneezing, dripping, sinus-clogging misery for millions of Americans. Now here’s the worse news: rising carbon dioxide levels, mainly due to human-induced emissions, are increasing pollen production.

When scientists put plants in a growing chamber to test varying levels of CO2 on pollen production, the changes were significant — as the graphic above shows. Pollen production was more than twice as great when the chamber was set to 1999 CO2 levels (around 370 parts per million, or ppm) as it was when it was set to pre-industrial levels (about 280 ppm). And when the scientists cranked it up to 600 ppm, where things could be heading by the year 2060 (assuming we don’t curb CO2 emissions, that is), pollen production nearly doubled again.

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Navajo Nation dying of thirst

Indian Country reports: For centuries, the Diné people have raised their families and livestock on the high desert lands of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. They have survived even the most difficult of conditions. But as drought has dragged on, more or less for two decades — and the climate continues to warm — some are saying the tribal government needs to better protect its water resources and undertake more long-term planning.

“When you’re living in the desert, you don’t expect it to get even worse,” said Russell Begaye, a Navajo Nation Tribal Council Delegate from Shiprock, NM. He pointed out that reservoir levels are dropping, farming plots are becoming sandier, and the rain- and snowfall have declined.

“Some of our leaders, and some of our people concerned about environmental issues are trying to make people aware,” he said. “It’s going to get progressively worse, we know that. But as a nation, the government, we are simply not ready.”

According to the most recent national climate change assessment, southwestern tribes—such as the Navajo—are among the most vulnerable to impacts from climate change. Published two years ago, that study notes that Navajo elders have noticed declines in snowfall, surface water and water supplies. Certain sacred springs, medicinal plants, and animals have disappeared or declined and dust storms have increased. And while scientists can’t say for sure at this point that extreme weather is tied to climate change, there’s no doubt that the past two years have been challenging—and expensive. [Continue reading…]

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We can avoid mass extinction, but time is running out

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

Humans have caused a 10% reduction in the total numbers of land-based wild animal and plants over the past 500 years, according to a major new study. We’re also responsible for a 13% reduction in the number of species.

These are scary stats, but certainly more reassuring than last year’s Living Planet Index report which contained the jaw-dropping statistic that over the past 40 years the total number of wild animals on Earth has been reduced by half.

So, at first glance the new research published in the journal Nature appears to downgrade the impacts humans have had on other species. However, delving deeper into the article shows large regional differences and provides yet more evidence that we are on a collision course towards mass extinction by the end of this century.

Biodiversity is by its very nature difficult to measure. In order to determine how it changes over time, repeated measurements have to be made using the same methodology in the same region. Not straightforward in remote jungles, mountains or deserts. Consequently, data sets are often very hard to come by.

[Read more…]

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How climate change has amplified California’s drought

Jason Samenow writes: California’s astonishingly low snowpack, a pathetic 5 percent of normal, and the severity of the drought afflicting the state isn’t some fluke. It’s a likely consequence of climate change, specifically the rising temperatures which are intensifying many of the processes causing the state to lose water at an alarming rate.

To begin, let’s make clear climate change is best characterized as a drought amplifier rather than the cause of the drought itself. The climate system has enormous natural variability and several studies and analyses have linked the drought to a randomly occurring configuration of Pacific Ocean temperatures that encourages atmospheric winds to steer weather systems away from the Golden State.

For three years strong, the atmosphere steering flow has hit a road block along the West Coast (dubbed the “ridiculously resilient ridge”), but connecting that to climate change has proven difficult.

But even as climate change probably isn’t driving the weather pattern behind the drought, it is directing the background temperatures: up. Atmospheric levels of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide, due to the burning of fossil fuels, have risen about 25 percent since 1958. [Continue reading…]

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