Scientific American: Overfishing and pollution have pushed life in the high seas to the brink of collapse, according to a new report from the Global Ocean Commission. “The oceans are a failed state,” David Miliband, co-chair of the commission, told Reuters. The commission has implored governments to set a five-year deadline to deal with threats to the health of the high seas, which are marine waters outside national coastal zones; these seas cover almost half the globe.
Fishermen catch around ten million tons of fish from the high seas every year, with a value of $16 billion dollars. It’s a vast ocean of resources only recently made accessible by advances in fishing technology. The report warns that a combination of technology and big fuel subsidies have enabled industrial fishing fleets to heavily exploit 87% of the fish species there. Eighteen countries hand out billions of dollars in subsidies; the United States bestows fleets with $137 million for a catch worth $368 million.
Pollution, largely from plastics, also endangers ocean health. The abundance of plastics in the marine environment has risen tenfold every decade in some locations, and poses a hazard to sea life when they eat it or get entangled in it. Habitat destruction, climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss also pose a danger to ocean ecosystems. [Continue reading...]
Bill McKibben writes: We may be entering the high-stakes endgame on climate change. The pieces — technological and perhaps political –are finally in place for rapid, powerful action to shift us off of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the players may well decide instead to simply move pawns back and forth for another couple of decades, which would be fatal. Even more unfortunately, the natural world is daily making it more clear that the clock ticks down faster than we feared. The whole game is very nearly in check.
Let us begin in Antarctica, the least-populated continent, and the one most nearly unchanged by humans. In her book about the region, Gabrielle Walker describes very well current activities on the vast ice sheet, from the constant discovery of new undersea life to the ongoing hunt for meteorites, which are relatively easy to track down on the white ice. For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to winter at 70 degrees below zero, her account will be telling. She quotes Sarah Krall, who worked in the air control center for the continent, coordinating flights and serving as “the voice of Antarctica.” From her first view of the landscape, Krall says, she was captivated:
I felt like I had no place to put it…. It was so big, so beautiful. I thought it might seem bare, but that b word didn’t occur to me. Antarctica was just too full of itself.
Describing her walk around the rim of Mount Erebus, the most southerly active volcano on the planet, Krall adds: “It’s visceral. This land makes me feel small. Not diminished, but small. I like that.”
In another sense, though, Antarctica is where we really learned how big we are, if not as individuals then as a species. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: The Renewables 2014 Global Status Report released earlier this month has good news for the environment, namely that an estimated 22.1% of the world’s electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2013. That percentage is expected to rise as countries across the globe pour money and resources into alternative, clean energy.
The U.S. ranks second, after China, for annual investment in renewable energy and for generating electricity from renewable sources, yet the U.S. has a lower share of energy (13%) generated from renewable sources than the world average of 22.1%, according to the data compiled by Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, an international, government-supported institute that supports renewable-energy development. That’s because the U.S. uses a lot of electricity and resources in general. [Continue reading...]
DeSmogBlog reports: Politicians should not look to science and engineering for a relatively quick fix to effectively deal with climate change caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions, a new academic study has determined.
The only solution to global warming is a massive rejection of toxic fossil fuels, vastly improved energy efficiency and substantially altered human behavior, found the recently released study — An interdisciplinary assessment of climate engineering strategies.
“In light of their limitations and risks, climate engineering approaches would best serve as a complement to — rather than replacement for — abatement, and the latter should remain a focus of climate-change policy for the foreseeable future,” said the study written by six academics in the U.S. and Canada. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Business lobbies and conservative thinktanks have carried out a series of pre-emptive strikes aimed at wrecking Monday’s launch of Barack Obama’s historic climate plan.
The new rules – the first to cut carbon pollution from power plants – will define Obama’s environmental legacy and could break open negotiations for a global deal on climate change.
But well before their release, they set off duelling spin campaigns on the costs and benefits of the new rules, and their impact on climate change.
The new rules, which were written by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will for the first time cut carbon pollution from the country’s power plants – the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change. [Continue reading...]
Scientific American notes: Media reports have suggested that EPA will implement the standards over two phases, starting out slowly and then requiring more aggressive cuts—up to 25 percent—past 2020. But a key component to how hard states have to work could be in the base-line year EPA uses. If the agency chooses to count reductions against a high-emissions year like 2005, a 25 percent reduction could be much easier than if it’s counted against 2012, said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University.
No matter how ambitious the standards are, the move is unlikely to do much for climate change on its own, say scientists. For that, there needs to be coordinated global action to reduce greenhouse gases. [Continue reading...]
Bruce Falconer writes: In July 2012, a commercial fishing charter called Ocean Pearl motored through the frigid waters of the North Pacific. It carried 100 tons of iron dust and a crew of 11, led by a tall and heavyset 62-year-old American named Russ George. Passing beyond Canada’s territorial limit, the vessel arrived at an area of swirling currents known as the Haida eddies. There, in an eddy that had been chosen for the experiment, George and his crew mixed their cargo of iron with seawater and pumped it into the ocean through a hose, turning the waters a cloudy red. In early August, the ship returned to port, where the crew loaded an additional 20 tons of iron. They dumped it near the same Haida eddy a few weeks later, bringing to an end the most audacious and, before long, notorious attempt yet undertaken by man to modify Earth’s climate.
The expedition was grand in its aims and obscure in its patronage. Funding George’s voyage was a village of Haida Indians on Haida Gwaii, a remote Canadian archipelago about 500 miles northwest of Vancouver. George and his business partners had gained the town’s support for a project of dumping iron dust into the ocean to stimulate the growth of a plankton bloom. The plankton would help feed starving salmon, upon which the Haida had traditionally depended for their livelihood, and also remove a million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (In algae form, plankton, like all plants, absorbs CO2 through photosynthesis.) The intended result: a replenished fish population—and millions of dollars’ worth of “carbon credits” that could be sold on the international market.
Back on land, in Vancouver, George and his associates drafted a report on the expedition. It claimed that Ocean Pearl had seeded more than 3,800 square miles of barren waters, leaving in its wake “a verdant emerald sea lush with the growth of a hundred million tonnes of plankton.” According to the account, fin, sperm, and sei whales, rarely seen in the region, appeared in large numbers, along with killer whales, dolphins, schools of albacore tuna, and armies of night-feeding squid. Albatross, storm petrels, sooty shearwaters, and other seabirds had circled above the ship, while flocks of Brant geese came to rest on the water and drifted with the bloom.
But George did little to publicize these findings. Instead, he set about compiling the data in private, telling people that he intended to produce a precise estimate of the CO2 he had removed from the atmosphere and then invite an independent auditor to certify his claims.
If that was the plan, it quickly fell apart. In October 2012, the Guardian of London broke the news of George’s expedition, saying it “contravenes two UN conventions” against large-scale ocean fertilization experiments. Numerous media outlets followed up with alarmed, often savage, reports, some of which went so far as to label George a “rogue geoengineer” or “eco-terrorist.” Amid the uproar, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent accused George of “rogue science” and promised that any violation of the country’s environmental law would be “prosecuted to the full extent.”
George, for his part, spoke of media misrepresentation, and he stressed that he was engaged in cautious research. Amid the controversy, in an interview with Scientific American, he was asked whether his iron fertilization had worked. “We don’t know,” he answered. “The correct attitude is: ‘Data, speak to me.’ Do the work, get the data, let it speak to you and tell you what the facts might be.” While most commenters seemed to think George had gone too far, some expressed sympathy—or at least puzzled ambivalence. A Salon headline the following summer asked, “Does Russ George Deserve a Nobel Prize or a Prison Sentence?”
George’s efforts place him in the company of a small but growing group of people convinced that global warming can be halted only with the aid of dramatic intervention in our planet’s natural processes, an approach known as geoengineering. The fixes envisioned by geoengineers range from the seemingly trivial, like painting roads and roofs white to reflect solar radiation, to the extraterrestrial, like a proposal by one Indian physicist to use the explosive power of nuclear fusion to elongate Earth’s orbit by one or two percent, thus reducing solar intensity. (It would also add 5.5 days to the year.)
Because its methods tend to be both ambitious and untested, geoengineering is closely tied to the dynamics of alarm—feeding on it and causing it in equal measure. [Continue reading...]
AlterNet: What’s in a name? According to a recent Yale University Poll, quite a bit. In fact, the poll found that the public greatly prefers the term “global warming” over “climate change” when referring to the world’s epic climate shift.
The pollsters found that the term “global warming” is associated with “greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term ‘climate change.’”
And not only is the term “global warming” preferential, the term “climate change” appears have been a bad public-relations shift for scientists and environmentalists, at least in the short term.
“[T]he use of the term “climate change” appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines,” the poll found. “Within the Weather category, global warming generates a higher percentage of associations to “extreme weather” than does climate change, which generates more associations to general weather patterns.” [Continue reading...]
The Telegraph reports: Russia is launching a strategic drive to unlock its shale oil wealth as crude output stagnates and reserves run low in the West Siberian fields, aiming to replicate America’s technology leap in a near total reversal of policy.
The Kremlin has launched an “action plan” to master fracking methods and lure investors into the Bazhenov prospective, a shale basin the size of France to the east of the Urals. Officials are no longer dismissing shale’s promise as a mirage. “We are clearing away the administrative barriers to exploration. This is the urgent challenge we are now facing,” said Kirill Molodtsov, the deputy energy minister.
The US Energy Department estimates that Russia has 75bn barrels of recoverable shale oil resources, the world’s largest deposits. The Bazhenov field is 80 times bigger than the US Bakken field in North Dakota, which alone produces 1m barrels a day.
BP joined the scramble on Saturday by signing a deal to explore for shale in Volga Urals with Rosneft, even though Rosneft’s chairman Igor Sechin is on the US sanctions list. [Continue reading...]
“The industry’s position was that there was no ‘proof’ that tobacco was bad, and they fostered that position by manufacturing a ‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it.” Using a handful of scientists as their expert witnesses, the major tobacco companies also denied the science linking cigarette smoking and cancer and claimed that anti-tobacco findings were driven by a political agenda. Using publicity outfits, think tanks, and those “objective” scientists in their pay or thrall, they put their money where their mouths were and financed a massive campaign of what, in retrospect, can only be called disinformation on the effects of tobacco smoking on human health. In this way, they created the doubt and debate they wanted, successfully postponing a reckoning for their industry for years.
Sound familiar today? It should. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway documented in their classic book Merchants of Doubt, the seeding of doubt into the cigarette controversy proved a brilliant move. The two authors call it “the tobacco strategy.” It was so successful for the cigarette companies that it would be imitated and replicated in similar encounters over acid rain, the ozone hole, and finally global warming, a “debate” still ongoing and, as Oreskes and Conway make clear, with the same tiny cast of doubting scientists, who have moved conveniently from one issue to the next (without themselves doing original work), ending up in league with the fossil fuel industry. It’s quite a tale of men representing whole industries who have ended up repeatedly on the wrong side of science. On the effects of tobacco, acid rain, and the chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer, they were notoriously wrong and yet, for the industries that supported them, notoriously right. It’s clear enough how the fourth of these “debates” on climate change will be decided. The question is only when — and on that question hangs human health on a global scale.
In the meantime, Big Energy has never stopped learning from Big Tobacco’s successes. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left, reveals today, they are once again adapting and exploiting the latest tobacco strategy in a new and devastating way. It couldn’t be a more shameful tale and no one has told it — until now. Tom Engelhardt
Let them eat carbon
Like Big Tobacco, Big Energy targets the developing world for future profits
By Michael T. Klare
In the 1980s, encountering regulatory restrictions and public resistance to smoking in the United States, the giant tobacco companies came up with a particularly effective strategy for sustaining their profit levels: sell more cigarettes in the developing world, where demand was strong and anti-tobacco regulation weak or nonexistent. Now, the giant energy companies are taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook. As concern over climate change begins to lower the demand for fossil fuels in the United States and Europe, they are accelerating their sales to developing nations, where demand is strong and climate-control measures weak or nonexistent. That this will produce a colossal increase in climate-altering carbon emissions troubles them no more than the global spurt in smoking-related illnesses troubled the tobacco companies.
The tobacco industry’s shift from rich, developed nations to low- and middle-income countries has been well documented. “With tobacco use declining in wealthier countries, tobacco companies are spending tens of billions of dollars a year on advertising, marketing, and sponsorship, much of it to increase sales in… developing countries,” the New York Times noted in a 2008 editorial. To boost their sales, outfits like Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco also brought their legal and financial clout to bear to block the implementation of anti-smoking regulations in such places. “They’re using litigation to threaten low- and middle-income countries,” Dr. Douglas Bettcher, head of the Tobacco Free Initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO), told the Times.
Pope Francis makes biblical case for addressing climate change: ‘If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us’
Climate Progress: Pope Francis made the religious case for tackling climate change on Wednesday, calling on his fellow Christians to become “Custodians of Creation” and issuing a dire warning about the potentially catastrophic effects of global climate change.
Speaking to a massive crowd in Rome, the first Argentinian pope delivered a short address in which he argued that respect for the “beauty of nature and the grandeur of the cosmos” is a Christian value, noting that failure to care for the planet risks apocalyptic consequences. [Continue reading...]
Michael White writes: We’ve invested heavily in research institutions in order to understand the risks of climate change; those institutions are now telling us the situation is dire. But rather than use these assessments to develop evidence-guided policies to address the urgent challenges identified, our elected officials are attempting to kill the messenger by attacking the resources and the credibility of those institutions.
Two weeks ago the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to pass an appropriations bill that singles out climate change research for cuts. In this bill, the NSF would get a total budget increase of 3.2 percent, well above the expected rate of inflation, but the NSF Geosciences Directorate, which funded one of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet studies, is deliberately excluded from this increase. NASA would be slated for a modest boost, but that would largely be targeted to planetary science programs focused on the Solar System, with offsetting cuts to earth science. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association budget would decline relative to inflation, and climate change research at the agency would get reduced by $36 million. The cuts to climate change research in this bill are in line with the spending priorities laid out last month by Paul Ryan and the House Budget Committee, and with earlier efforts to chip away at funding for climate change research. [Continue reading...]
Climate change as a weapon of mass destruction
By Tom Engelhardt
Who could forget? At the time, in the fall of 2002, there was such a drumbeat of “information” from top figures in the Bush administration about the secret Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so endanger the United States. And who — other than a few suckers — could have doubted that Saddam Hussein was eventually going to get a nuclear weapon? The only question, as our vice president suggested on “Meet the Press,” was: Would it take one year or five? And he wasn’t alone in his fears, since there was plenty of proof of what was going on. For starters, there were those “specially designed aluminum tubes” that the Iraqi autocrat had ordered as components for centrifuges to enrich uranium in his thriving nuclear weapons program. Reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon hit the front page of the New York Times with that story on September 8, 2002.
Then there were those “mushroom clouds” that Condoleezza Rice, our national security advisor, was so publicly worried about — the ones destined to rise over American cities if we didn’t do something to stop Saddam. As she fretted in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on that same September 8th, “[W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No, indeed, and nor, it turned out, did Congress!
And just in case you weren’t anxious enough about the looming Iraqi threat, there were those unmanned aerial vehicles — Saddam’s drones! — that could be armed with chemical or biological WMD from his arsenal and flown over America’s East Coast cities with unimaginable results. President George W. Bush went on TV to talk about them and congressional votes were changed in favor of war thanks to hair-raising secret administration briefings about them on Capitol Hill.
In the end, it turned out that Saddam had no weapons program, no nuclear bomb in the offing, no centrifuges for those aluminum pipes, no biological or chemical weapons caches, and no drone aircraft to deliver his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (nor any ships capable of putting those nonexistent robotic planes in the vicinity of the U.S. coast). But what if he had? Who wanted to take that chance? Not Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly. Inside the Bush administration he propounded something that journalist Ron Suskind later dubbed the “one percent doctrine.” Its essence was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty.
Here’s the curious thing: if you look back on America’s apocalyptic fears of destruction during the first 14 years of this century, they largely involved three city-busting weapons that were fantasies of Washington’s fertile imperial imagination. There was that “bomb” of Saddam’s, which provided part of the pretext for a much-desired invasion of Iraq. There was the “bomb” of the mullahs, the Iranian fundamentalist regime that we’ve just loved to hate ever since they repaid us, in 1979, for the CIA’s overthrow of an elected government in 1953 and the installation of the Shah by taking the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage. If you believed the news from Washington and Tel Aviv, the Iranians, too, were perilously close to producing a nuclear weapon or at least repeatedly on the verge of the verge of doing so. The production of that “Iranian bomb” has, for years, been a focus of American policy in the Middle East, the “brink” beyond which war has endlessly loomed. And yet there was and is no Iranian bomb, nor evidence that the Iranians were or are on the verge of producing one.
Finally, of course, there was al-Qaeda’s bomb, the “dirty bomb” that organization might somehow assemble, transport to the U.S., and set off in an American city, or the “loose nuke,” maybe from the Pakistani arsenal, with which it might do the same. This is the third fantasy bomb that has riveted American attention in these last years, even though there is less evidence for or likelihood of its imminent existence than of the Iraqi and Iranian ones.
To sum up, the strange thing about end-of-the-world-as-we’ve-known-it scenarios from Washington, post-9/11, is this: with a single exception, they involved only non-existent weapons of mass destruction. A fourth weapon — one that existed but played a more modest role in Washington’s fantasies — was North Korea’s perfectly real bomb, which in these years the North Koreans were incapable of delivering to American shores.
UC Irvine: Greenland’s icy reaches are far more vulnerable to warm ocean waters from climate change than had been thought, according to new research by UC Irvine and NASA glaciologists. The work, published today in Nature Geoscience, shows previously uncharted deep valleys stretching for dozens of miles under the Greenland Ice Sheet.
The bedrock canyons sit well below sea level, meaning that as subtropical Atlantic waters hit the fronts of hundreds of glaciers, those edges will erode much further than had been assumed and release far greater amounts of water.
Ice melt from the subcontinent has already accelerated as warmer marine currents have migrated north, but older models predicted that once higher ground was reached in a few years, the ocean-induced melting would halt. Greenland’s frozen mass would stop shrinking, and its effect on higher sea waters would be curtailed.
“That turns out to be incorrect. The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice,” said lead author Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist. “This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.” [Continue reading...]
Shane Shifflett and Kate Sheppard write: In 2011, a tsunami sent waves as high as 49 feet crashing over the seawalls surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, causing meltdowns at three of the plant’s reactors. After that incident, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered nuclear facilities in the U.S. to review and update their plans for addressing extreme seismic activity and potential flooding from other events, such as sea level rise and storm surges. Those plans aren’t due until March 2015, which means that many plants have yet to even lay out their their potential vulnerabilities, let alone address them.
During the 1970s and 1980s, when many nuclear reactors were first built, most operators estimated that seas would rise at a slow, constant rate. That is, if the oceans rose a fraction of an inch one year, they could be expected to rise by the same amount the next year and every year in the future.
But the seas are now rising much faster than they did in the past, largely due to climate change, which accelerates thermal expansion and melts glaciers and ice caps. Sea levels rose an average of 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, or about 0.06 inches per year. But in the last 20 years, sea levels have risen an average of 0.13 inches per year — about twice as fast.
And it’s only getting worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has laid out four different projections for estimated sea level rise by 2100. Even the agency’s best-case scenario assumes that sea levels will rise at least 8.4 inches by the end of this century. NOAA’s worst-case scenario, meanwhile, predicts that the oceans will rise nearly 7 feet in the next 86 years.
But most nuclear power facilities were built well before scientists understood just how high sea levels might rise in the future. And for power plants, the most serious threat is likely to come from surges during storms. Higher sea levels mean that flooding will travel farther inland, creating potential hazards in areas that may have previously been considered safe. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, flooding threatened the water intake systems at the Oyster Creek and Salem nuclear power plants in New Jersey. As a safety precaution, both plants were powered down. But even when a plant is not operating, the spent fuel stored on-site, typically uranium, will continue to emit heat and must be cooled using equipment that relies on the plant’s own power. Flooding can cause a loss of power, and in serious conditions it can damage backup generators. Without a cooling system, reactors can overheat and damage the facility to the point of releasing radioactive material. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on Monday. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries.
Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said.
The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.
“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, said in an interview. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. [Continue reading...]
Mongabay.com: It could be the plot of a horror movie: humans wake up one day to discover that chemical changes in the atmosphere are dissolving away parts of their bodies. But for small marine life known as sea butterflies, or pteropods, this is what’s happening off the West Cost of the U.S. Increased carbon in the ocean is melting away shells of sea butterflies, which are tiny marine snails that underpin much of the ocean’s food chain, including prey for pink salmon, mackerel, and herring.
“We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades,” said William Peterson, Ph.D., an oceanographer at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who co-authored the findings in a paper for the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Sampling sea butterflies in the species Limacina helicina off California, Washington, and Oregon in the summer of 2011, researchers found that over 50 percent of onshore sea butterflies suffered from “severe dissolution damage,” according to the paper. Offshore, 24 percent of individuals showed such damage.
The shells of sea butterflies are dissolving due to increased acidification in the oceans caused by society’s CO2 emissions. [Continue reading...]