Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Lance?

Big Yellow Taxi: Notice the sheen of oil on the flood waters
Charles Sykes, AP/NYT
As I wrote recently in Frosty Denial, the United States remains singularly committed to ignorance in the area of climate science. Nobody has offered a plausible alternative description of the physics that explain a growing constellation of facts, but politicians, media, and a sizable slice of the general public remain convinced that there are two sides to the question of whether humans have been changing the climate.

This week, one of the most expensive storms ever to strike the United States has ravaged New Jersey and New York City a week before a presidential election that will decide whether the next four years will bring relative inaction or absolute inaction on climate change. (Sadly, our range of choices is not very wide, excepting Jill Stein.)

In much of the world -- even in some circles in the United States -- people who have actual planning responsibilities recognize that they can no longer afford to pretend that the atmosphere is not changing in problematic ways. I am working in a small way with the tea industry, for example, as tea scientists and policy makers try to discern the best way to advise farmers whose plants should remain productive over a period of decades. Closer to home, state governors have long been ahead of their more partisan counterparts at the federal level. Neither insurance companies nor the investors who set their stock prices can afford to deny the obvious, as has already been made clear by Hurricane Sandy.

This image is not genuine. I should have checked Snopes, which
refutes a lot of the images currently circulating.
Stark images abound that illustrate the unusual scope of Hurricane Sandy -- a slow-moving storm almost a thousand miles wide -- but a couple from New York are especially poignant. Not since Hurricane Katrina have images of rising water been so prominent within the United States. The automobiles sitting helpless in the flood waters, covered with a film of oil, remind us that our individual dependence on fossil fuels contributes to a growing assortment of collective risks. The (apparently false) image shared by Occupy Wall Street -- of a Scuba diver under Times Square -- reminding me of the similarly outfitted cabinet meeting held in Maldives in 2009.

This morning, a BBC announcer openly questioned the long-term viability of New York City as a human settlement, and although that reaction might seem a bit premature, it is certainly the case that large population centers near sea level (which is where most of the world's large population centers are) will are now subject to increasingly frequent and severe threats.

Bill McKibben and the movement have been using a "connect the dots" metaphor for the past couple of years, encouraging people to draw the most plausible -- and useful -- conclusions they can from a rapidly growing body of evidence.

Hurricane Sandy -- and the attendant blizzards, storm surges, power outages, and deaths -- have proven to be such a large DOT that it is actually bringing discussions of climate change back into political discourse (where it rightly belongs). The policy questions that are emerging fall into two categories. The New York Times, for example, has cited the need for a strong federal role in disaster response. Governors and mayors -- most notably Gov. Christie of New Jersey seem grateful that FEMA has adequate funding and a director with actual qualifications.

At this point, some readers might be wondering why the title of this post suggests a renaming of the hurricane. The idea is inspired by a collection of excerpts relating the super storm to climate change, which appeared during the storm on Treehugger. I recommend reading it for all of the interesting questions and analogies it raises, but the most intriguing is this:
Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is “caused” by steroids.
In light of recent attention to bicyclist Lance Armstrong, this is particularly apt. Just as the distinction between his individual performance and the enhancement of that performance cannot be clearly made, the contribution of climate change to this week's mayhem cannot be calculated in detail. The timing of the storm probably contributed as much to the catastrophic coastal flooding as did sea-level rise, but the fact is that both contributed.

Of everything I have read this week, however, it is a speech based on the work of Alfred Wegener that I found most interesting. A century ago this month, Wegener began to revolutionize the study of geology with a seemingly elementary observation. The coastlines of eastern South America and western Africa appear to have been connected at some point in the past. From this simple observation arose the theory of plate tectonics, which initially earned Wegener nothing but scorn. Beyond the usual, healthy skepticism about new theories, he endured scorn from those for whom his ideas were inconvenient.

In New Frontiers, Wegener biographer David Lawrence gives an eloquent -- and alarming -- description of America as a nation that has always been conflicted about science. We gladly accept the productive innovations that arise from science, but are too quick to dismiss scholarship that conflicts with our profits or ideologies. Quoting Isaac Asimov, Lawrence calls out the now widespread notion that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Last-minute addition: Today the radio program Fresh Air included a very informative interview with Radley Horton, a scientist who serves on New York City's climate-change panel. He does not claim that climate change "caused" the storm, but he does talk about some ways that the general trend and the specific event are related. Later in the day, All Things Considered aired an equally important interview with Andrew Hoerling, who explains that climate change does not seem to be changing the frequency, intensity, or track of hurricanes, though it is correlated with many other kinds of extreme weather. Both interviews bear careful listening, because it is easy to extrapolate too far from either set of statements.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Frosty Denial

As I mentioned in my Hot or Not post this summer, neither major political party in the United States advocates a serious response to climate change, even as the urgency of the problem becomes increasingly obvious. Quite simply, substantial doubt about climate change exists only in the United States, while most of the rest of the world (aside from China) has moved on to trying either to slow it down, to adapt to it, or both.

Climate of Doubt is new Frontline documentary that describes how public opinion in the United States has been manipulated to support inaction in the face of mounting evidence. Not surprisingly, the documentary has already drawn vociferous objections in online forums from those whose delusions it describes.

In the face of mounting evidence that humans have seriously altered the climate, all manner of strange theories are angrily espoused, either denying that the change is occurring or blaming the change on natural factors, or both.

The statistical evidence for human-induced climate change was -- until recently -- somewhat subtle, and the denial theories focus on the aspects of the evidence that are most complicated. The physics involved are quite simple, however, and I have never seen the basic physical processes explained away.

:How simple is the problem? Have a look at Frosty.

Thanks to The Haunted Closet for the Frosty screen captures.
What material does the magician employ as he pursues his dastardly scheme to melt the snowman? Glass.

Just like the glass on my south-facing porch, greenhouse glass is nearly transparent to visible light, but somewhat opaque to infrared (infra-red) energy. Most of what is emitted by the sun is visible; most of what is emitted by the earth (and objects at earth-like temperatures) is infrared.

Because of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor, the earth's atmosphere behaves in a similar fashion. Most incoming solar radiation (visible or shortwave) gets in, but some of the outgoing terrestrial radiation (infrared or longwave) gets trapped. This greenhouse effect occurs without humans, and we should be grateful for it!

What humans began to do about two hundred years ago, though, is to increase the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by taking the elements out of long-term storage and putting them in short-term storage -- for example converting coal that had accumulated over millions of years into gases that were released in dozens of years.

The effect is like thickening the glass on a greenhouse, or adding a blanket to a bed. It does not create heat, but it increases temperature in a specific location -- inside the greenhouse, under the covers, or in the case of the planet as a whole, within the troposphere. Those who decide that they do not "believe" in climate change are not able to explain this away, just as no other explanation can be offered for Frosty's puddleness.

For more information and resources, see my climate change web site, or see all climate change articles on this blog.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Hawaiian Beauty

This morning my friends at Mirasol's Café posted this landmark video by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, a reminder to slow down and enjoy some beauty -- of the human spirit and the natural world -- on this beautiful morning. We first learned of Iz a couple of years ago, and included a link to a nice interview with him on our Celebrating the States project. So even if you are not having Hawaiian coffee this morning, you can have a beautiful slice of Hawaii with your coffee.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Elite Coffee Limits

Most of my friends and acquaintances -- and even people who happen to see the family car -- know that I care a lot about coffee. In fact, a favorite part of my web site is the Caring for Coffee page, where I provide details about how to get the best flavor from the brew. I must admit that I care about the coffee for some of the same reasons I care about other foods and beverages -- I have learned to appreciate differences that result from the selection of ingredients and approaches to preparation for many foods. Our food blog celebrates many of those discoveries.

As with foods, however, the appreciation of good coffee also has a lot to do with wanting a better life for farmers and a better relationship with the land. If coffee tastes terrible, it is probably grown and traded under conditions that were not good for soil, water, or farmers. Conversely, if the coffee is very good, the chances are improved that the farmer and the land have been treated fairly.

For a variety of reasons that I discuss in some detail in my courses (and elsewhere on this blog), the free market does not always (or even often) treat labor and land fairly. For that reason, social and environmental certifications have emerged that create "fair" markets that can often improve the treatment of both. These have empowered us to act as consumers where we have failed as citizens. That is, where the political process has not succeeded in protecting human rights and the environment, we can "vote with our wallets" to affect change far from home.

The limitations of this approach are three-fold: first, those with an interest in justice have far fewer dollars to spend than those who either do not care or those who have an active interest in injustice. Second, and related to the first, the certifications themselves are susceptible to being "captured" by those who are thriving in the free market. Witness recent changes in Fair Trade certification brought about by Starbucks and other heavyweights.

Third -- and the impetus for this post -- certification programs help commodity producers only by taking them out of commodity markets. This is helpful for those producers of coffee, tea, cocoa, and the like who are in a position to improve their quality and therefore their livelihoods, but it does nothing to change the lives of millions for whom these products will always be commodities. And it does even less for the people and places responsible for all of the goods that will almost certainly remain commodities -- corn, wheat, copper, and the like. 

I have seen first-hand the ways in which attention to quality has helped farm families and the land, so I remain committed to good coffee and the good it can do. But I am also convinced by the argument of blogger @nickcho, who argues that an extreme focus on the pinnacles of coffee quality can turn coffee advocates into coffee snobs, members of the One Percent (or, really, the Point Zero One Percent), for whom boutique coffee can become an end, rather than a means.

Where does all this lead us? Coffee paralysis? I do not think so. In the short run, we should get to know as much as we can about our roasters. What have they had to say about changes in fair trade? What are they actually doing in the field? 

In the long run, however, we need to take more responsibility as citizens than we do as consumers. We need to push politicians -- regardless of party -- to prioritize human rights and the environment when they negotiate trade agreements and other areas of domestic and international law and diplomacy.