A Siberian giant virus and the butterfly effect

Omulyakhskaya and Khromskaya Bays lie along the northern Siberian coast, where permafrost blankets the land around the bays. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Omulyakhskaya and Khromskaya Bays lie along the northern Siberian coast, where permafrost blankets the land around the bays. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.

“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.

It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it? — Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder, 1952

As one of the massive and probably irreversible consequences of climate change, the melting of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost is not an example of the butterfly effect. Yet the discovery of a giant virus which has come back to life after 30,000 years of frozen dormancy, suggests many possibilities including some akin to those envisaged by Ray Bradbury is his famous science fiction story.

Whereas his narrative required that the reader suspend disbelief by entertaining the idea of time travel, the thawing tundra may produce a very real kind of time travel if any viruses or other microbes were to emerge as new invasive species.

Rather than being transported geographically as a result of human activity, these will spring suddenly from a distant past into an environment that may lack necessary evolutionary adaptations to accommodate their presence.

We are assured that Pithovirus sibericum poses no threat to humans — it just attacks amoebas. But our concern shouldn’t be limited to fears about the reemergence of something like an ancient strain of smallpox.

The rebirth of a pathogen that could strike phytoplankton — producers of half the world’s oxygen — would have a devastating impact on the planet.

BBC News reports: The ancient pathogen was discovered buried 30m (100ft) down in the frozen ground.

Called Pithovirus sibericum, it belongs to a class of giant viruses that were discovered 10 years ago.

These are all so large that, unlike other viruses, they can be seen under a microscope. And this one, measuring 1.5 micrometres in length, is the biggest that has ever been found.

The last time it infected anything was more than 30,000 years ago, but in the laboratory it has sprung to life once again.

Tests show that it attacks amoebas, which are single-celled organisms, but does not infect humans or other animals.

Co-author Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS, said: “It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba – but it won’t infect a human cell.”

However, the researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in Siberia’s permafrost.

“We are addressing this issue by sequencing the DNA that is present in those layers,” said Dr Abergel.

“This would be the best way to work out what is dangerous in there.”

The researchers say this region is under threat. Since the 1970s, the permafrost has retreated and reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further.

It has also become more accessible, and is being eyed for its natural resources.

Prof Claverie warns that exposing the deep layers could expose new viral threats.

He said: “It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from.”

He told BBC News that ancient strains of the smallpox virus, which was declared eradicated 30 years ago, could pose a risk. [Continue reading...]

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Climate change and world history

f13-iconChristopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas, Austin, interviews Sam White, Department of History, the Ohio State University:

Rose: Your first book, which is called The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, explores the far reaching effects of the severe cold and drought in the Middle East during the so-called Little Ice Age, and your current research looks at how New World settlement was affected during the same period. I want to start off by asking a really broad question: what is the importance of understanding climate and climate change in the broader field of world history?

White: That’s an excellent question. The importance is really twofold. One point is the importance of climate for history as history. Climate was something that past historians generally were not focused on, they were looking for political history, for social history, for economic history, really looking for everything but the environment. Environmental history as a field has really taken off over the past generation, that is to say, looking at ways that humans have changed the environment in the past, and the ways that environmental factors have affected the course of human history.

Climate, though, was not a large part of that discussion. There were some exceptions — I could name some important scholars of the past couple generations who have looked at it — but in the mainstream, even of environmental history, climate was not much considered. Now, though, with rising concern over global warming, climate is really starting to enter the picture. This is for two reasons. One is that historians, like all other people, have become aware of climate simply as a force in human affairs. Second is that, along with the rising concern over global warming, there has been a great deal more research into reconstructing past climates, so that we can know about climate much more than every before.

Now, with that greater understanding, we can see ways that climate fits into greater history in much more details and a much more convincing way than ever before. We can see how large scale climate changes have affected large scale developments, particularly in more extreme climates, particularly at the edges of settlement or agriculture, either in Arctic lands or deserts, and also in more particular short term ways as major climatic extremes have influenced the course of human events, as I discussed in my book about the Ottoman Empire. So, with that in mind, we can see climate really as an actor in history for really the first time.

The other part of this equation, too, is what does looking at the climate of the past — what does looking at the past experience of climate change help us understand about our current predicament, about how the world will face global warming now. Here, I have to say, we’re not going to give exact policy predictions. We can’t raise the bar too high, as it were. But, I do think there are wider lessons — wider parables, perhaps, that we can gather from looking at the experience of climate change in the past. With that in mind, we can look to see if there are bigger patterns in how people handle climate change and whether we can relate that to the present day. [Continue reading...]

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The math that predicted the revolutions sweeping the globe right now

f13-iconBrian Merchant writes: It’s happening in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Bosnia, Syria, and beyond. Revolutions, unrest, and riots are sweeping the globe. The near-simultaneous eruption of violent protest can seem random and chaotic; inevitable symptoms of an unstable world. But there’s at least one common thread between the disparate nations, cultures, and people in conflict, one element that has demonstrably proven to make these uprisings more likely: high global food prices.

Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index — a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time — and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.

Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient — 2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that’s when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sown. [Continue reading...]

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Globally, January was the fourth warmest and fifth driest on record

n13-iconU.S. News and World Report: Believe it or not, last month was the warmest January since 2007 and the fourth warmest on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.

It also marked the driest month for the contiguous United States since 2003, and the fifth driest since records started being kept in 1880.

The global average temperature for both land and ocean surfaces was 54.8 degrees last month, about 1.17 degrees above the 20th-century global average.

Notably, while “below-normal” and “much-below-normal” freezing temperatures swept across the eastern half of the United States, warm temperatures “engulfed” much of west, as well as Australia, Argentina, Austria, China, France, Spain and Switzerland, NOAA said.

California, Nevada and Arizona, in particular, also saw temperatures “much-above-normal.”

Precipitation, meanwhile, was below normal for more than 30 states, and at record lows for New Mexico, which received just 5 percent of its average January rainfall. The drought, overall, expanded to 37.4 percent of the contiguous United States, up from 31 percent at the beginning of the month.

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If climate change is a ‘weapon of mass destruction,’ why promote carbon proliferation?

o13-iconZoë Carpenter writes: On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a call for climate action that attracted considerable attention because of its forcefulness. Speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia, Kerry rebuked climate deniers, referring to them as “a tiny minority of shoddy scientists…and extreme ideologues.” He described the economic costs and catastrophic implications of inaction. Most strikingly, he suggested that climate change is “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

“It doesn’t keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal, while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists,” Kerry said. Similarly, a serious response to climate change requires that all countries break their fossil fuel addiction. “At the end of the day, emissions coming from anywhere in the world threaten the future for people everywhere in the world,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s nuclear analogy is useful for understanding the Obama’s administration’s climate agenda — and its glaring omission. The plan is built on three pillars: curbing domestic carbon pollution (or, securing our own nuclear arsenal), preparing for the impacts of climate change (building fallout shelters) and leading efforts to address climate change internationally (encouraging disarmament.)

All of that nonproliferation work would be undercut if the US sold weapons-grade uranium to the countries it was asking not to build a bomb. In effect, that is what the United States is doing with fossil fuels. [Continue reading...]

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Obama plays water-guzzling desert golf courses amid California drought

n13-iconTime reports: President Barack Obama traveled to California on Friday to highlight the state’s drought emergency at two events near Fresno, calling for shared sacrifice to help manage the state’s worst water shortage in decades. He then spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the hospitality of some of the state’s top water hogs: desert golf courses.

Vacationing with DVDs of his favorite television shows and multiple golf outings with his buddies, the duffer in chief played at two of the most exclusive courses in the Palm Springs area. On Saturday, Obama played at the Sunnylands estate, built by the late billionaire Walter Annenberg, which features a nine-hole course that is played like 18 holes. The following day he golfed at billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s 19-hole Porcupine Creek. On Presidents’ Day, Obama hit the links at Sunnylands once again.

The 124 golf courses in the Coachella Valley consume roughly 17% of all water there, and one-quarter of the water pumped out of the region’s at-risk groundwater aquifer, according to the Coachella Valley Water District. [Continue reading...]

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Climate change is threatening the entire marine food chain

f13-iconPeter Brannen writes: At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, snowdrifts piled up outside shuttered T-shirt shops, and wind and whitecaps lashed vessels tethered to empty piers in the harbour. The flood of sun-tanned tourists and research students that descends on this place in summer was still months away. The only visitor was a winter storm that hung over the coast, making travel in and out of the cedar-shingled town impossible. In a research building downtown, at the end of a dimly lit hallway, Peter Wiebe sat with a stack of yellowed composition notebooks, reliving a lifetime spent on the ocean. Wiebe, a grizzled scientist emeritus, is transcribing his research cruise logs, which go back to 1962. His handwritten notes archive a half-century of twilit cruises in the Antarctic and languorous equatorial days surrounded by marine life.

‘It’s quite clear to me things are changing,’ he told me, after I asked him to think back on his decades on the ocean. ‘As a graduate student on one cruise, my logs talk about a hammerhead and two whitetips following the ship the whole time. On other cruises, we would fish for mahimahi and tuna, and occasionally catch a shark. Now we hardly ever see any big fish or sharks at all.’

Indeed, in oceanography, the big story over the past half century – the span of Wiebe’s career – has been the wholesale removal of the seas’ top predators through overfishing. But the story of the oceans for the coming century may be a revolution that starts from the bottom of the food chain, not the top.

‘I won’t be around to see it,’ Wiebe told me. ‘I wish I were.’

Plankton (taken from the Greek word for wanderer) are the plants, animals and microbes that are unable to overcome the influence of ocean currents, either because they’re too small, like bacteria, or because, as in the case of the indifferent jellyfish, they can’t be bothered. Wiebe’s speciality is zooplankton, the kaleidoscopic, translucent animal world in miniature, much of which feeds on even smaller photosynthetic life called phytoplankton. To make the jump from photosynthesis to fish, birds and whales, you have to go through zooplankton first.

Wiebe is part of a body of researchers worldwide working feverishly to find out how these grazers will be affected by an increasingly unfamiliar ocean, an ocean that absorbs 300,000 Hiroshimas of excess heat every day, and whose surface waters have already become 30 per cent more acidic since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

‘When I first started, the idea that you could actually change the pH of the ocean just wasn’t there – no one expected us to be able to do it,’ Wiebe told me. ‘Certainly, no one expected us to be able to do it at the pace we’re doing it, at a pace that far surpasses anything natural that has ever happened.’ [Continue reading...]

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Going ‘green’ is more than shopping at Whole Foods and driving a Prius

o13-iconMarc Bamuthi Joseph writes: As environmentalism goes mainstream, corporations are marketing the word “green” as a panacea for the world’s climate crisis. Today the word describes a set of prescribed, mostly consumerist actions: buy local, organic and fresh; go vegan; eat in season; skip the elevator, take the stairs. “Green” has come to mean shopping at Whole Foods and possessing a Prius. Meanwhile, leading corporate polluters like BP and ExxonMobil place commercials on CNN advertising their “green” practices.

It should come as no surprise, then, that “green” lifestyles don’t resonate with low-income communities; being “green” involves a set of behaviors that are financially or culturally inaccessible to millions of Americans. This presents a major problem for the environmental movement. If it is going to be successful, environmentalism simply cannot afford to be demographically segregated or isolated from the pathos of economic disparity.

The environmental movement needs to do a better job of connecting issues of race, class, poverty and sustainability; in short, it has to become a broader social movement. And people of color need visibility in the movement. By that, I don’t mean Barack Obama presiding over environmental policy from the White House or Lisa Jackson heading the Environmental Protection Agency during Obama’s first term. I mean the recognition that sustainable survival practices in poor communities are just as significant as solar panels and LED lights. Ultimately this is where the citizenry of the planet can and must come together in order to move forward. [Continue reading...]

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How Arctic warming is causing bitter winters

a13-iconAFP reports: A warmer Arctic could permanently affect the pattern of the high-altitude polar jet stream, resulting in longer and colder winters over North America and northern Europe, US scientists say.

The jet stream, a ribbon of high altitude, high-speed wind in northern latitudes that blows from west to east, is formed when the cold Arctic air clashes with warmer air from further south.

The greater the difference in temperature, the faster the jet stream moves.

According to Jennifer Francis, a climate expert at Rutgers University, the Arctic air has warmed in recent years as a result of melting polar ice caps, meaning there is now less of a difference in temperatures when it hits air from lower latitudes.

“The jet stream is a very fast moving river of air over our head,” she said Saturday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“But over the past two decades the jet stream has weakened. This is something we can measure,” she said.

As a result, instead of circling the earth in the far north, the jet stream has begun to meander, like a river heading off course.

This has brought chilly Arctic weather further south than normal, and warmer temperatures up north. Perhaps most disturbingly, it remains in place for longer periods of time.

The United States is currently enduring an especially bitter winter, with the midwestern and southern US states experiencing unusually low temperatures.

In contrast, far northern regions like Alaska are going through an unusually warm winter this year.

This suggests “that weather patterns are changing,” Francis said. “We can expect more of the same and we can expect it to happen more frequently.” [Continue reading...]

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Climate change is here now and may lead to global conflict

f13-iconNicholas Stern writes: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last September pointed to a changing pattern of extreme weather since 1950, with more heatwaves and downpours in many parts of the world, as the Earth has warmed by about 0.7C.

The IPCC has concluded from all of the available scientific evidence that it is 95% likely that most of the rise in global average temperature since the middle of the 20th century is due to emissions of greenhouse gases, deforestation and other human activities.

The upward trend in temperature is undeniable, despite the effects of natural variability in the climate which causes the rate of warming to temporarily accelerate or slow for short periods, as we have seen over the past 15 years.

If we do not cut emissions, we face even more devastating consequences, as unchecked they could raise global average temperature to 4C or more above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

This would be far above the threshold warming of 2C that countries have already agreed that it would be dangerous to breach. The average temperature has not been 2C above pre-industrial levels for about 115,000 years, when the ice-caps were smaller and global sea level was at least five metres higher than today.

The shift to such a world could cause mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people away from the worst-affected areas. That would lead to conflict and war, not peace and prosperity.

In fact, the risks are even bigger than I realised when I was working on the review of the economics of climate change for the UK government in 2006. Since then, annual greenhouse gas emissions have increased steeply and some of the impacts, such as the decline of Arctic sea ice, have started to happen much more quickly.

We also underestimated the potential importance of strong feedbacks, such as the thawing of the permafrost to release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as tipping points beyond which some changes in the climate may become effectively irreversible.

What we have experienced so far is surely small relative to what could happen in the future. We should remember that the last time global temperature was 5C different from today, the Earth was gripped by an ice age.

So the risks are immense and can only be sensibly managed by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which will require a new low-carbon industrial revolution. [Continue reading...]

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The new Dust Bowl: ‘epochal’ drought hits California’s Central Valley

f13-iconThe Telegraph reports: On the road into the small California farming community of Mendota the signs read “Stop – dust bowl!” and “Save Water” as farmers in orchards are busy bulldozing withered almond trees.

It didn’t used to be like this here. Until recently this town of 11,000 people was proudly known as the “Cantaloupe Capital of the World”. Of all the many local crops its melons were most prized. Mendota’s farmers have been growing them since the 1920s, when Greek immigrants arrived and found the soil was perfect. The lush fields used to provide 70 per cent of America’s cantaloupes.

But today Mendota is becoming known for another reason. It sits at ground zero in an unfolding, slow motion billion dollar disaster, what climatologists are calling an “epochal” drought. Analysis of the rings in ancient sequoia trees suggests the region is experiencing a lack of rain not seen since 1580, around the time Sir Francis Drake reached the California coast and claimed it for Elizabeth I.

In a neat and modern town hall, built in the good times, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva shakes his head ruefully as he looks at the latest unemployment figures. It stands at 34 per cent and is likely to top 50 per cent as farmers leave more fields fallow in the next few months.

“We will soon have the highest unemployment in the nation. Things are really not good,” Mr Silva says understatedly. “There’s going to be a lot of dust flying around all over the place here.” On the streets outside workers in cowboy hats loll on benches under a baking sun, not a cloud or a job in sight. Times are so bad the 99 Cents store has competition from a 98 Cents store, and people are queuing for donated clothes at the youth centre.

Similar scenes are evident in towns up and down California’s Central Valley. The scale of the drought is staggering. The Central Valley is known as the “breadbasket of America” and covers a vast area half the size of England. It produces 50 per cent of the fruit and vegetables in the United Sates. For several years the resolute Mr Silva has been writing to the White House pleading for help. In December he wrote: “Dear President Obama. Our cities, businesses and residents desperately seek immediate relief.”

It now appears someone finally read one of his missives. Mr Obama was due to helicopter in on Marine One to a farm near Mendota yesterday. At the customary photo opportunity he was due to propose a major new $1 billion (£600m) fund to mitigate the impact of climate change, including $100 million aid for stricken livestock farmers, $60 million for food banks to supply hungry families, and 600 sites that will give out free meals this summer in drought-hit areas.

For farmers there was relief that their plight has been noticed, and gratitude that Mr Obama was prepared to stand in a field on Valentine’s Day. But there was also, among some, a feeling that the president has been slow to address this crisis. He has visited Los Angeles countless times to glad-hand movie stars and political donors, but it was his first ever trip to California’s farming heartland. Mendota is four hours’ drive, and a world apart, from Hollywood. [Continue reading...]

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New York Times op-ed ‘The Dustbowl Returns’ never mentions climate change

o13-iconJoe Romm writes: In yet another example of how the New York Times is mis-covering the story of the century, it published an entire op-ed on the return of the Dust Bowl with no mention whatsoever of climate change.

It stands in sharp contrast to the coverage of the connection between climate change and extreme weather other leading news outlets and science journals. Consider the BBC’s Sunday article on the epic deluges hitting the UK, “Met Office: Evidence ‘suggests climate change link to storms’.” Consider the journal Nature, which back in 2011 asked me to write an article on the link between climate change and “Dust-bowlification”…

As James Hansen told me two weeks ago, “Increasingly intense droughts in California, all of the Southwest, and even into the Midwest have everything to do with human-made climate change.” [Continue reading...]

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Michael Klare: In the carbon wars, Big Oil is winning

We now have an answer to why global temperatures have risen less quickly in recent years than predicted in climate change models. (It’s necessary to add immediately that the issue is only the rate of that rise, since the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.)  Thanks to years of especially strong Pacific trade winds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, much of the extra heat generated by global warming is being buried deep in ocean waters.  Though no one knows for sure, the increase in the power of those winds may itself have been set off by the warming of the Indian Ocean.  In other words, the full effects of the heating of the planet have been postponed, but are still building (and may also be affecting ocean ecology in unpredictable ways).  As Matthew England, the lead scientist in the study, points out, “Even if the [Pacific trade] winds accelerate… sooner or later the impact of greenhouse gases will overwhelm the effect.  And if the winds relax, the heat will come out quickly. As we go through the twenty-first century, we are less and less likely to have a cooler decade. Greenhouse gases will certainly win out in the end.”

Despite the slower rate of temperature rise, the effects of the global heating process are quite noticeable.  Yes, if you’re living somewhere in much of the lower forty-eight, you now know the phrase “polar vortex” the same way you do “Mom” and “apple pie,” and like me, you’re shivering every morning the moment you step outside, or sometimes even in your own house.  That southern shift in the vortex may itself be an artifact of changing global weather patterns caused at least in part by climate change.

In the meantime, in the far north, temperatures have been abnormally high in both Alaska and Greenland; Oslo had a Christmas to remember, and forest fires raged in the Norwegian Arctic this winter.  Then, of course, there is the devastating, worsening drought in California (and elsewhere in the West) now in its third year, and by some accounts the worst in half a millennium, which is bound to drive up global food prices.  There are the above-the-norm temperatures in Sochi that are creating problems keeping carefully stored snow on the ground for Olympic skiers and snowboarders.  And for good measure, toss in storm-battered Great Britain’s wettest December and January in more than a century.  Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, there’s heat to spare.  There was the devastating January heat wave in Australia, while in parts of Brazil experiencing the worst drought in half-a-century there has never been a hotter month on record than that same month.  If the rains don’t come relatively soon, the city of São Paulo is in danger of running out of water.

It’s clear enough that, with the effects of climate change only beginning to take hold, the planet is already in a state of weather disarray.  Yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, the forces arrayed against dealing with climate change couldn’t be more powerful.  Given that we’ve built our global civilization on the continuing hit of energy that fossil fuels provide and given the interests arrayed around exploiting that hit, the gravitational pull of what Klare calls “Planet Carbon” is staggering.

Recently, I came across the following passage in Time of Illusion, Jonathan Schell’s 1976 classic about Nixon administration malfeasance.  Schell wrote it with the nuclear issue in mind, but today it has an eerie resonance when it comes to climate change: “In the United States, unprecedented wealth and ease came to coexist with unprecedented danger, and a sumptuous feast of consumable goods was spread out in the shadow of universal death.  Americans began to live as though on a luxuriously appointed death row, where one was free to enjoy every comfort but was uncertain from moment to moment when or if the death sentence might be carried out. The abundance was very much in the forefront of people’s attention, however, and the uncertainty very much in the background; and in the government as well as in the country at large the measureless questions posed by the new weapons were evaded.” Tom Engelhardt

The gravitational pull of Planet Carbon
Three signs of retreat in the global war on climate change
By Michael T. Klare

Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, it would have been easy to conclude that we were slowly but surely gaining in the war on climate change.  “Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet,” the president said.  “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.”  Indeed, it’s true that in recent years, largely thanks to the dampening effects of the Great Recession, U.S. carbon emissions were in decline (though they grew by 2% in 2013).  Still, whatever the president may claim, we’re not heading toward a “cleaner, safer planet.”  If anything, we’re heading toward a dirtier, more dangerous world. 

A series of recent developments highlight the way we are losing ground in the epic struggle to slow global warming.  This has not been for lack of effort.  Around the world, dedicated organizations, communities, and citizens have been working day by day to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable sources of energy.  The struggle to prevent construction of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is a case in point.  As noted in a recent New York Times article, the campaign against that pipeline has galvanized the environmental movement around the country and attracted thousands of activists to Washington, D.C., for protests and civil disobedience at the White House.  But efforts like these, heroic as they may be, are being overtaken by a more powerful force: the gravitational pull of cheap, accessible carbon-based fuels, notably oil, coal, and natural gas.

[Read more...]

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Spike in carbon dioxide linked to world’s largest most sudden mass extinction

end-Permian-extinction

MIT News reports: The largest mass extinction in the history of animal life occurred some 252 million years ago, wiping out more than 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of life on land — including the largest insects known to have inhabited the Earth. Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction, including an asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions, or a cataclysmic cascade of environmental events. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

Now researchers at MIT have determined that the end-Permian extinction occurred over 60,000 years, give or take 48,000 years — practically instantaneous, from a geologic perspective. The new timescale is based on more precise dating techniques, and indicates that the most severe extinction in history may have happened more than 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought.

“We’ve got the extinction nailed in absolute time and duration,” says Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “How do you kill 96 percent of everything that lived in the oceans in tens of thousands of years? It could be that an exceptional extinction requires an exceptional explanation.”

In addition to establishing the extinction’s duration, Bowring, graduate student Seth Burgess, and a colleague from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology also found that, 10,000 years before the die-off, , the oceans experienced a pulse of light carbon, which likely reflects a massive addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This dramatic change may have led to widespread ocean acidification and increased sea temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius or more, killing the majority of sea life.

But what originally triggered the spike in carbon dioxide? The leading theory among geologists and paleontologists has to do with widespread, long-lasting volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps, a region of Russia whose steplike hills are a result of repeated eruptions of magma. To determine whether eruptions from the Siberian Traps triggered a massive increase in oceanic carbon dioxide, Burgess and Bowring are using similar dating techniques to establish a timescale for the Permian period’s volcanic eruptions that are estimated to have covered over five million cubic kilometers.

“It is clear that whatever triggered extinction must have acted very quickly,” says Burgess, the lead author of a paper that reports the results in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “fast enough to destabilize the biosphere before the majority of plant and animal life had time to adapt in an effort to survive.” [Continue reading...]


“The Earth is experiencing climate change now due to changes in the composition of the atmosphere. We think the atmosphere at the end-Permian was changed significantly by output from these volcanoes, and that the chemicals were similar to those going into the atmosphere today.” Siberia Project

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Why this climate scientist’s libel case matters

a13-iconUnion of Concerned Scientists: Back in 2012, after the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review each published pieces that likened climate scientist Michael E. Mann to a child molester and called his work a fraud, Mann fought back with a lawsuit, charging them with libel. Now, in a preliminary ruling, a Superior Court Judge has sided with Mann, paving the way for the case to move forward and potentially setting an important precedent about the limits of disinformation.

The ruling, in essence, reinforces the wise adage attributed to former New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan that, while everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, we are not each entitled to our own facts. But first, some background.

Michael Mann, a world-renowned climate scientist at Penn State University, is perhaps best known as the author of the so-called “Hockey Stick” graph. Some 15 years ago, in 1999, Mann and two colleagues published data they had compiled from tree rings, coral growth bands and ice cores, as well as more recent temperature measurements, to chart 1,000 years’ worth of climate data. The resulting graph of their findings showed relatively stable global temperatures followed by a steep warming trend beginning in the 1900s. One of Mann’s colleagues gave it the nickname because the graph looks something like a hockey stick lying on its side with the upturned blade representing the sharp, comparatively recent temperature increase. It quickly became one of the most famous, easy-to-grasp representations of the reality of global warming.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change featured Mann’s work, among similar studies, in their pathbreaking 2001 report, concluding that temperature increases in the 20th century were likely to have been “the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.” But while Mann’s peer-reviewed research pointed clearly to a human role in global warming, it also made Mann a lightning rod for attacks from those, including many in the fossil fuel industry, who sought to deny the reality of global warming. [Continue reading...]

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Video: 60 years of climate change in 15 seconds

a13-iconThis visualization shows how global temperatures have risen from 1950 through the end of 2013.

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