Tuesday, December 6, 2011

12/5 and 12/6

Climate change is most definitely still under way, and it's not slowing down:
A new analysis confirms that global warming actually shows no sign of slowing down. That's according to Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, and his colleague Grant Foster.

Focusing on 1979-2010, the pair compared the five most important databases of global temperature: three based on surface weather stations, and two based on satellite measurements of temperatures in the lower troposphere. All of them show warming of 0.014-0.018 °C per year.

Rahmstorf and Foster then factored out three phenomena that temporarily affect temperature: the El Niño Southern Oscillation, volcanic eruptions, and changes in the sun's brightness.

With these out of the picture, the overall warming trend is even clearer, and there is no sign of a recent slowdown. In fact, in the adjusted data 2009 and 2010 are the hottest years in all five datasets.
And no, that warming signal is not natural, says yet another study — this one using a different “fingerprinting” method than others, but coming to the same conclusions as all other attribution studies:
Knutti and Huber found that greenhouse gases contributed 0.6–1.1 °C to the warming observed since the mid-twentieth century, with the most statistically likely value being a contribution of about 0.85 °C. Around half of that contribution from greenhouse gases — 0.45 °C — was offset by the cooling effects of aerosols. These directly influence Earth's climate by scattering light; they also have indirect climate effects through their interactions with clouds.

The authors calculated a net warming value of around 0.5 °C since the 1950s, which is very close to the actual temperature rise of 0.55 °C observed over that period. Changes in solar radiation — a hypothesis for global warming proffered by many climate sceptics — contributed no more than around 0.07 °C to the recent warming, the study finds.

To test whether recent warming might just be down to a random swing in Earth’s unstable climate — another theory favoured by sceptics — Knutti and Huber conducted a series of control runs of different climate models without including the effects of the energy-budget parameters. But even if climate variability were three times greater than that estimated by state-of-the-art models, it is extremely unlikely to have produced a warming trend as pronounced as that observed in the real world, they found. 
And that warming trend is sure to continue, since GHG emissions are continuing essentially unabated:
Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.

The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.


On the surface, the figures of recent years suggest that wealthy countries have made headway in stabilizing their emissions. But Dr. Peters pointed out that in a sense, the rich countries have simply exported some of them.

The fast rise in developing countries has been caused to a large extent by the growth of energy-intensive manufacturing industries that make goods that rich countries import. “All that has changed is the location in which the emissions are being produced,” Dr. Peters said.
But we've got plenty of time, right? Um, no:
It's simple: If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale. That means moving to emergency footing. War footing. "Hitler is on the march and our survival is at stake" footing. That simply won't be possible unless a critical mass of people are on board. It's not the kind of thing you can sneak in incrementally.

It is unpleasant to talk like this. People don't want to hear it. They don't want to believe it. They bring to bear an enormous range of psychological and behavioral defense mechanisms to avoid it. It sounds "extreme" and our instinctive heuristics conflate "extreme" with "wrong." People display the same kind of avoidance when they find out that they or a loved one are seriously ill. But no doctor would counsel withholding a diagnosis from a patient because it might upset them. If we're in this much trouble, surely we must begin by telling the truth about it.
Well, at least The Onion can get some laughs out of the black humor of it all:
If the 2006 deadline isn't met, climatologists warn the world will eventually experience planet-wide cataclysms, including massive shortages of potable water, insufficient crop productivity, the extinction of numerous species, and unprecedented outbreaks of famine and pandemic disease.

"The picture by the end of the 21st century becomes quite bleak, frankly," Dr. Tumminelli said. "I, for one, would not want to live in the world this report describes: entire Asian cities underwater from monsoon flooding, mass human diasporas, wars fought over the scraps of habitable land still remaining—hell on earth, basically. Our only hope is for the nations of the world to put aside their individual interests and take decisive action by 2006." 
And while there's obviously far more to it than communicating the results of the science to the public (after all, the debates over how much we should pay, who should pay, and what should be protected are not questions of science), when it does come to sharing the results of scientific work on climate change, NASA has put together a nice graphic of how to better convey findings in illustrated form. (h/t Jon Foley.)

Just as with addressing climate change, addressing water use requires moving past our old patterns of use and thinking about needs, wants, and consumption in new, different ways. As Peter Gleick has succinctly put it before: “[P]eople seek water for goods and services, such as the production of food and industrial items, transportation, communications, and the elimination of wastes. In addition, people want goods and services beyond their basic needs; some of the wanted items are recreation, leisure, and luxury goods. Providing these needs and wants can be accomplished in many ways, which depend on technology, prices, cultural traditions, and other factors, often with radically different implications for water.” But moving past our current thinking regarding consumptive use can be tough, as Gleick points out in a recent blog post that highlights a new paper he and his colleagues from the Pacific Institute (published in Water International) that rebuts the arguments of California agricultural interests who claim that all water use is productive and that efficiency and intelligent use are over-rated:
It is time to get out of the rut and move on to a more useful approach to water management, driven by proper water accounting and incorporation of the concepts of water “productivity” and “co-benefits.”

Research from the Pacific Institute and others, based on on-the-ground experience in California’s farm fields, has demonstrated over and over that a wide range of water stewardship practices improve water quality, improve habitat, cut energy costs, and increase the productivity of California’s agriculture with the water we’re already using. There are no silver bullets to California – or global – water problems. Water conservation and efficiency practices offer one set of tools to reduce pressures on scarce water supplies. Other options, such as increased storage, better groundwater management and conjunctive use, water recycling, and other choices that seek to expand water supplies or reduce demands, are also needed in many regions. Every basin is different, and therefore the mix of demand-side and supply-side solutions will vary according to what is hydrologically, economically, socially, and politically possible. But it is clear that there is still substantial room for improvement and that many innovative farmers and irrigation districts are already achieving far higher water savings than the proponents of the basin approach claim are possible.
Moving beyond our current thinking about what is optimal water use and what is possible is certainly something that we need to be doing more here in the Southwest. In cities like Scottsdale, the majority of residential water use goes to outdoor uses (lawns and pools, primarily) and even the idea of making small changes seems unthinkable to many; in the coming decades of climate change, this attitude will likely lead to tragedy, as William deBuys, author of the recently published A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, notes:
Within the limits imposed by the environment, the history we make is contingent, not fated. But we are not exactly off to a good start in dealing with the challenges ahead. The problem of water consumption in the Southwest is remarkably similar to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. First, people haggle to exhaustion over the need to take action; then, they haggle over inadequate and largely symbolic reductions. For a host of well-considered, eminently understandable, and ultimately erroneous reasons, inaction becomes the main achievement. For this drama, think Hamlet. Or if the lobbyists who argue for business as usual out west and in Congress spring to mind first, think Iago.

So far as getting people to think about the future under climate change and moving policies towards dealing with the inevitable, it sure would help if one of the two main parties wasn't completely in denial of reality:
One senior House Republican who appears comfortable with his positions on climate science is Texan Ralph Hall, chairman of the House Science Committee. Asked if climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer, the lawmaker charged with shaping national science policy responded, “I don’t think it’s the cause. I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Hall said that on the issue of climate science, he is “pretty close” to the stance of his fellow Texan, Rick Perry—believing that climate science may be a conspiracy theory put forth by scientists who are working in concert to receive funding for research. A reporter pointed out that last year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey concluding that 97 percent of climate-science researchers are in consensus that human activities have led to global warming. “And they each get $5,000 for every report like that they give out,” Hall scoffed. He added, “I don’t have any proof of that. But I don’t believe ’em.”

Kaid Benfield raises some very valid points regarding the current discussions on sprawl and carbon emissions — namely that the discourse has too frequently left behind the importance of land-use and land-cover change:
[I]f you attend a meeting of smart growth and environmental advocates, or attend one of the major conferences on smart planning, you will hear relatively little about the loss of the landscape. Much of the conversation within the environmental community is now about rates of driving and associated emissions, particularly carbon – a critically important subject, to be sure – or perhaps urban ecosystems. But it’s a mistake, in my opinion, to neglect the effect of poorly planned development on land -- not only because of its importance to a number of significant environmental issues, but also because the landscape is part of our heritage, our shared culture. It is also the most visible consequence of sprawl, the one that people who are not professional environmentalists or urban wonks are most likely to notice and care about.

At its best, smart growth addresses the issue via a tradeoff: the more development we encourage within our existing communities, the less goes across the countryside. Both sides are important: those who want to preserve the landscape must accept development in cities and towns; and those who want to strengthen cities will serve their cause by endorsing conservation outside them.

It's time to start using more nuanced indicators of development that come closer to actually recognizing sustainable development patterns:
The HDI has set straightforward benchmarks for countries and international organizations for more than 20 years. Its success and influence owes much to its simplicity. The index brilliantly summarizes development and quality of life in a given country using health, education and income levels. Yet it fails to cover an increasingly crucial question: how responsible is that development? With Earth's human population reaching 7 billion in the past month, it is reasonable to question the UN's true commitment to sustainability.

As I noted previously, cops who question ineffective, failed policies like the wars on drugs, immigrants, etc., are being punished for their dissent, while ignorant, vindictive thugs like Sheriff Joe continue to act above the law without impunity. Turns out for Sheriff Joe, his disdain for dark-skinned people outweighs his obligation to enforce the law to such an extent that he and his cronies decided to overlook hundreds of sex crimes because the victims were related to undocumented immigrants. Just when you thought he couldn't be any more despicable, he proves he's even more odious than you could possibly imagine:
In El Mirage alone, officials discovered at least 32 reported child molestations — with victims as young as 2 years old — where the sheriff’s office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases. Many of the victims, said a retired El Mirage police official who reviewed the files, were children of illegal immigrants.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, whose district doesn’t include Arpaio’s jurisdiction, issued a written statement saying the sheriff should immediately resign before more damage is done to public confidence in law enforcement. He and other critics say Arpaio puts too much emphasis on rounding up illegal immigrants at the expense of more important law enforcement responsibilities.

“The picture emerging — no follow-up, no investigation, no prosecution, no justice and a shield of silence after the fact — is not how we conduct law enforcement in this country,” Grijalva said. “Enforcing laws against violent crime, whatever a victim’s legal status, is mandatory and not something we leave to individual communities as an open question. Selective enforcement undermines respect for our brave legal officers and is rightly not tolerated by the public.”

Speaking of lawbreakers, ProPublica has just published a pair of in-depth articles examining presidential pardons and who gets them. The short version? If you're rich, white and connected, wiping away your sins is a whole lot easier:
ProPublica selected a random sample of nearly 500 cases decided by Bush and spent a year tracking down the age, gender, race, crime, sentence and marital status of applicants from public records and interviews.

In multiple cases, white and black pardon applicants who committed similar offenses and had comparable post-conviction records experienced opposite outcomes.

An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender -- a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack - was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.

All of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the pardon attorney's recommendation - 34 of them - were white.

Turning over pardons to career officials has not removed money and politics from the process, the analysis found. Justice Department documents show that nearly 200 members of Congress from both parties contacted the pardons office regarding pending cases. In multiple instances, felons and their families made campaign contributions to the lawmakers supporting their pleas. Applicants with congressional support were three times as likely to be pardoned, the statistical analysis shows.


The most striking disparity involved African Americans, who make up 38 percent of the federal prison population and have historically suffered from greater financial and marital instability. Of the nearly 500 cases in ProPublica's sample, 12 percent of whites were pardoned, as were 10 percent of Hispanics.

None of the 62 African Americans in the random sample received a pardon. To assess the chances of black applicants, ProPublica used the sample to extrapolate the total number of black applicants and compare it with the seven blacks whom Bush pardoned. Allowing for a margin of error, this yielded a pardon rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent.
And knowing the right people sure doesn't hurt:
Since 2000, a total of 196 members of Congress — 126 Republicans and 70 Democrats — have written to the pardons office on behalf of more than 200 donors and constituents, according to copies of their letters obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the letters urged the White House and the Justice Department to take special note of felons whom lawmakers described as close friends.

A statistical analysis of nearly 500 pardon applicants during the Bush administration suggests that advocacy makes a difference. Applicants with a member of Congress in their corner were three times as likely to win a pardon as those without such backing. Interviews and documents show a lawmaker’s support can speed up a stalled application, counter negative information and ratchet up pressure for an approval.
Reflecting on these reports and our system of justice for some, Scott Horton connects all this to our failed war on drugs and why it matters:
America today has risen to a position of leadership among nations in one humiliating category: per capita rate of incarceration. This ranking has been built largely on the basis of nonviolent crimes, in particular those relating to drug use. The laws for these crimes are not uniformly applied. They destroy the lives of minorities and the poor, while whites and those with means find the right lawyers and sympathetic law-enforcement officials, who permit them to sweep the matter under the carpet, or at least to avoid prolonged prison time.
While it's quite irrelevant to the fact that she was a delusional crank spouting off crackpot ideas about the virtue of selfishness and worthlessness of giving a shit about others, it's still worth noting that Ayn Rand was a mean woman with a heart of stone.

Photos from the Global Seed Vault.

Let bacteria grow on you, and then eat it when you're hungry: the survival strategy of a yeti crab.

I'm not quite sure why the Black Keys suddenly broke through to the mainstream after a long series of great albums, but I'm glad they're finally getting the recognition they deserve. The new album is great and they sounded fantastic on SNL:

And now for everyone's favorite feature, Heather's Happy Link of the Day™, has returned. Today, the craziness of underwater worlds.

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