Post #49 – “I’m Not a Scientist, But…”

The People’s Climate March in New York City and (so it was declared) in 155 other countries has come and gone. Climate change, unfortunately, parades on. While people marched—an estimated 400,000 of them in New York—diplomats gathered at the UN Climate Summit, prepared to do the absolute minimum in response to perhaps the most pressing international security issue we face. They didn’t disappoint.  No doubt the so-called climate deniers were delighted.  They are the people who used to say that climate change is a figment of the imagination, but now they have a new line: “I’m not a scientist” (see Dawn Stover’s article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 26, 2014, http://thebulletin.org).

I’m not a scientist either, but I don’t disregard scientific facts or pretend that bad news is someone else’s problem.  My blog posts #1 and #8 reported on the dire warnings we have had about climate change and related environmental threats.  Here is an update, with some good news to go with the bad, since those posts.

Climate Change

National Audubon Society scientists report that over roughly the next 70 years, more than half the bird species in North America will be forced from their usual habitats by climate change. Many species won’t make it.

From a Washington Post article of September 9: “Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans,” according to the World Meterological Organization. One of its chief scientists said: “The changes we’re seeing are really drastic. We are seeing the growth rate rising exponentially.” The level of atmospheric carbon is now just about at its limit—400 parts per million—and when it exceeds that limit, as is expected in another two years, dramatic climate-induced changes are likely.

For an uplifting video of our beautiful planet, and what our children and their children stand to lose, take a look at www.upworthy.com/it-might-be-the-most-mind-boggling-photograph-humanity-has-ever-taken?c=upw1.

Fracking

“A problem dressed up as a solution,” one demonstrator said of fracking (hydraulic drilling or fracturing). The Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org), reporting on the Halliburton fracking site spill into a tributary of the Ohio River, points out that both the US and Ohio environmental protection agencies “had to wait five long days before they were given a full list of chemicals used” at the Halliburton site. In the meantime, Ohio residents downstream of the spill faced hazardous conditions and tens of thousands of fish died.  “More than 15 million Americans now live within one mile of a fracking site,” NRDC claims. (More on NRDC below.)

Meantime, a new study of the effects of hydraulic drilling on water supplies has found numerous additional organic and inorganic chemicals in the waste water that are dangerous to human health. While one of the study’s authors said the findings weren’t as bad as anticipated, they are certainly bad enough.  In fact, water treatment techniques now being used in fracking may actually worsen the problem because of the way bacteria interacts with the chemicals. (A summary of the study is in Andrew Revkin’s blog at http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/a-new-study-clarifies-treatment-needs-for-water-from-fracked-gas-and-oil-wells/?_php.)

People all across the Midwest who are living in the path of proposed pipelines are battling the companies that seek to lay pipelines on their land or take the rights by eminent domain.  For a compelling story from Pennsylvania, see Ann Neumann, “A Pipeline Threatens Our Family Land,” www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/opinion/sunday/a-pipeline-threatens-our-family-land.html.

Carbon Tax

Someone called it Australia’s “tobacco moment”: The Tony Abbott administration reverse course on a carbon tax. Abbott is the first national leader to nix the tax, arguing that he would never put Australian businesses, workers, and families at a disadvantage by taxing them. (Bravo for shortsightedness!) As one Australian newspaper writer put it, “A major reform, established in law and largely working, has been rescinded.” There are no longer necessary emission targets, no longer pressure on industry to reduce emissions (www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/tony-abbott-battles-the-future-by-axing-carbon-tax-20140710-zt2d2.html). So long as Abbott’s administration is populated with climate deniers, Australia is simply going to be out of step with Europe and even with his own (and the US) military. As Andrew Wit reports (“US Pacific Climate Change and Collaborative Security,” The Asia-Pacific Journal,August 25, 2014, at www.japanfocus.org), Australia’s armed forces, as well as the US Pacific Command, are moving ahead on the security challenges posed by global warming.  Leaving their countries’ domestic politics behind, these military leaders understand that increasing hurricanes, storms, rising sea levels, and floods will put added pressure on humanitarian and other missions.

Leaders elsewhere in Asia are planning national markets for carbon permit trading to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  China, which accounts for about 30 percent of global emissions, has five trial markets right now, and plans to start nationwide carbon permit trading in 2016. If China follows through, its carbon trade market would be the world’s largest—much larger than Europe’s.  Other Asian countries also operate or are planning carbon markets: Kazakhstan, New Zealand, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

While China is going to be relying on coal for a long time to come, the Obama administration is getting kudos for seeking to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants. In June, the administration proposed new pollution rules that would probably shut down a number of these plants. Decrying this “war on coal,” Republicans in the US Congress have launched an investigation into the NRDC’s influence over crafting of the proposal. (The charge is probably true, and thank heavens for that! For some reason, however, the Republicans don’t seem nearly as agitated over the Koch brothers’ ownership and financing of dirty coal and its central role in the “I’m no scientist” propaganda.)  A New York Times article on July 29 gives another perspective, however. US coal exports are nullifying gains in reducing carbon emissions. The administration’s rationale for supporting such exports is similar to the usual justification for weapons exports—the other guy is doing it, so we have to keep pace—and let US gains become another country’s loss.

Nuclear Energy

I recently attended a conference at The Australian National University in Canberra where several experts provided devastating critiques of nuclear energy’s relevance in Australia and Southeast East Asia.  While China moves ahead with ambitious nuclear energy plans, seemingly oblivious to the lessons of Fukushima and Chernobyl, other countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and probably Indonesia, have either rejected nuclear power or are strongly leaning in that direction. Contrary to the notion that the future of nuclear power is bright as climate change takes hold, these experts’ opinion is exactly the opposite.  Australia, in fact, is in the enviable position of being able to rely entirely on renewable energy sources in the not-too-distant future.  But that change of direction is going to have to await the removal of Tony Abbott as national leader.  He’s a coal guy, and feeding China’s coal habit is uppermost in his mind.

The costs and potentially devastating consequences of reliance on nuclear energy plants haven’t changed Japan’s course under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.  His Nuclear Regulatory Agency has certified the safety of two nuclear reactors, which mean they will come back on line when Abe gives the green light, probably in December. That decision should be understood as political, not scientific.  It ignores concerns about radiation leaks since the Fukushima meltdown. One piece of research that suggests what those leaks can mean over time is the effect on birds.  Prof. Tim Mousseau at the University of South Carolina is a renowned authority on this topic, having spent years monitoring the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on birds and other wildlife.  His troubling findings may be viewed on YouTube in a presentation before the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo (http://youtu.be/8IcTGUMwVtU).  Besides observing how radiation has caused deformities in birds, Mousseau also notes the deliberate distortion of evidence by a United Nations agency, whose supposedly expert investigation reported no such problems.

What Works Dept.

Paul Krugman’s September 19 New York Times op-ed, citing reports of the International Monetary Fund and the New Climate Economy Project, writes that simultaneously reducing greenhouse gases and maintaining economic growth are entirely possible  (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/19/opinion/paul-krugman-could-fighting-global-warming-be-cheap-and-free.html). And we don’t have to wait for an international agreement to move rapidly ahead.  A carbon tax or cap-and-trade is especially feasible now that solar power’s costs have come dramatically down.  The health care and productivity gains from reduced emissions will significantly offset supposed economic losses from new regulations.

Germany is not waiting for others: Its energy picture is now 30 percent reliant on renewables (twice the US rate).  German utility companies are taking a major hit as the cost of wind and solar power goes rapidly down, thanks in no small part to Chinese manufacturers of solar panels.  Power company executives, the New York Times reports, “are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans” (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/science/earth/sun-and-wind-alter-german-landscape-leaving-utilities-behind.htm).   Take a look at the chart in that article: nuclear power is still very important in France and South Korea, coal in China, and natural gas in Russia and the US; but the wave of the future is hydro, solar, and biofuels.

Preserving coral reefs is another very serious problem: As we’ve known for some time, loss of coral in the Pacific and the Caribbean due to overfishing, runoff from land, something called “development,” and climate change are all responsible in some part.  But two writers report some good news (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/opinion/we-can-save-coral-reefs.html). Local actions (in Bermuda among other places) are saving much of the coral and making it resistant to climate change by preventing overfishing and excessive catering to tourism. Here again is a demonstration that we don’t have to await an international agreement in order to act.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Lots of good stuff in there Mel. I would add about nuclear power that China’s continuing research (since about 2010 if I recall) in thorium nuclear energy may be a boon in the future. I’m not a scientist, but if the thorium specialists are correct, it may be an abundant and safe form of nuclear power, without the waste, proliferation or meltdown problems of current uranium based technology. This is of course decades away, but long-term, nuclear may not get such a bad rap, if we humans learn not to propagate its negative qualities.

  2. I never thought that I would come to think that we were in such dire straits that we would have to oush the pedal harder toward power from a newer form of ‘nuclear’ but I begin to think that it might be the only practical alternative that the world reality will allow to happen with a ghost of a chance to be in time. Damn!

    1. Damn indeed! I suppose it could come to that, someday well beyond our generation and with radically different technology. But needless to say, the down side of nuclear is so great for the foreseeable future that I hope we continue focusing on energy conservation and renewables. Let the French and Chinese press ahead with nuclear; the global trend is in the opposite direction.

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