April 27, 2014

IPCC Overestimates Soil as Carbon Store

From Yale Environment 360: 
As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, soils will likely store less carbon than scientists and climate models had predicted, according to new research published in Science. Scientists have long understood that rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere spur photosynthesis and plant growth, adding more carbon to the soil. Scientists had thought this soil carbon was relatively stable and could remain locked away for centuries. But the new study, from researchers at Northern Arizona University shows that increasing soil carbon actually spurs microbes to produce more CO2. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels added roughly 20 percent more carbon to the soil, through increased photosynthesis, but they also increased carbon turnover by microbes by 16.5 percent. Many climate models had previously assumed that far more of the carbon absorbed by soils stayed there for long periods of time. "Our findings mean that nature is not as efficient in slowing global warming as we previously thought," the lead researcher said. "By overlooking this effect of increased CO2 on soil microbes, models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have overestimated the potential of soil to store carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect."
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"Soils Release Far More CO2 Than Previously Thought, Researches Find," Yale e360 digest, April 25, 2014

April 22, 2014

Anticipating Pandemics

David Quammen here explores the reasons why “strange new infectious diseases” command attention even when the death rate is small; it’s because every outbreak raises the question whether the outbreak heralds “the Next Big One.”

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What I mean by the Next Big One is a pandemic of some newly emerging or re-emerging infectious disease, a global health catastrophe in which millions die. The influenza epidemic of 1918-19 was a big one, killing about 50 million people worldwide. The Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 was biggish, causing at least a million deaths. AIDS has killed some 30 million and counting. Scientists who study this subject — virologists, molecular geneticists, epidemiologists, disease ecologists — stress its complexity but tend to agree on a few points.
Yes, there probably will be a Next Big One, they say. It will most likely be caused by a virus, not by a bacterium or some other kind of bug. More specifically, we should expect an RNA virus (specifically, one that bears its genome as a single molecular strand), as distinct from a DNA virus (carrying its info on the reliable double helix, less prone to mutation, therefore less variable and adaptable). Finally, this RNA virus will almost certainly be zoonotic — a pathogen that emerges from some nonhuman animal to infect, and spread among, human beings.
The influenzas are zoonoses. They emerge from wild aquatic birds, sometimes with a pig as an intermediary host on the way to humanity. AIDS is a zoonosis; the pandemic strain of H.I.V. emerged about a century ago from a single Cameroonian chimpanzee. Ebola is a zoonosis. The Ebola viruses (there are five known species) abide inconspicuously in some as yet unidentified creature or creatures native to Central African forests, spilling over occasionally to kill gorillas and chimps and people. SARS is a zoonosis that emerged from a Chinese bat, fanned out of Hong Kong to the wider world, threatened to be the Next Big One, and then was stopped — barely — by fast and excellent medical science.
And the hantaviruses, of which there are many known species (Andes virus, Black Creek Canal virus, Muleshoe virus, Seoul virus, Puumala virus and dozens more), come out of rodents. The species of hantavirus at large in Yosemite is called Sin Nombre — “nameless” — virus, and is the same one that erupted famously, and lethally, at the Four Corners in 1993. Its primary host is the deer mouse, one of the most widely distributed and abundant vertebrates in North America. The virus makes its way from dried mouse urine or feces into airborne dust, and from airborne dust into human lungs. If that happens to you, you’re in trouble. There’s no treatment, and the fatality rate for hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, the infection in severe form, runs at about 40 percent.
You don’t have to go to Yosemite and sleep in a dusty cabin to put yourself close to a hantavirus. Although one expert, recently quoted by Scientific American, called it a “very rare” kind of virus, that view doesn’t square with the studies I’ve read or the testimony of hantavirus researchers I’ve interviewed. The virus seems to be relatively common, at least among deer mice. A 2008 study done at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite found that 24 percent of local deer mice had the antibody for the virus, signaling a past or current infection. One mouse in four is worryingly high. Among these mouse populations nationwide, the prevalence of the antibody seems to vary from as low as zero to as high as 49 percent, or one in two mice.
The question this raises is: Why aren’t more people dying from Sin Nombre virus? The answer seems to be that, although very dangerous when caught, it’s not easy to catch, despite its presence in mouse-infested sheds and trailers and garages and barns across much of America. This is because it doesn’t pass from person to person — only from mouse to mouse, and from mouse excretions to one unlucky person or another, each of whom represents a dead-end host. (The “dead” of that “dead-end” may be figurative or literal.) It’s not a “very rare” virus; it’s a common virus known only rarely to infect humans, and with no ramifying chains of human contagion. So the Next Big One is not likely to be Sin Nombre.
Nor is it likely to be Ebola, which is transmissible from human to human through direct contact with bodily fluids, but can be stopped by preventing such contact. Furthermore, Ebola burns so hotly in its victims, incapacitating and killing so quickly, that it is poorly adapted to achieve global dispersal. Only one human has ever been known to leave Africa with a rampant Ebola virus infection — and that was a Swiss woman, evacuated in 1994 to a hospital in Basel. If you want to be grateful for something today, be grateful for that: Ebola doesn’t fly. . . .
Among the other unsettling disease news this summer, you’ve probably seen mention of influenza, that old familiar zoonosis, quite capable of devastation and melodrama all its own. Yes, there’s a new flu bug, a nasty variant of the H1N2 strain, suspected now to be traveling through pigs at state fairs. The influenzas are protean and explosive. Keep your eyes on that one. . . .
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David Quammen, “Anticipating the Next Pandemic,” New York Times, September 22, 2012.

The Incredible Shrinking Society

Nicholas Eberstadt presents in this essay a fascinating analysis of the demographic pressures facing Japan. With deaths now outnumbering births, Japan has become a “net mortality society.” What this coming depopulation will mean for central aspects of Japanese society and institutions is brilliantly explored by Eberstadt, whose piece “Japan Shrinks” appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Wilson Quarterly.  These excerpts constitute about a third of the original essay.

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In 2006, Japan reached a demographic and social turning point. According to Tokyo’s official statistics, deaths that year very slightly outnumbered births. Nothing like this had been recorded since 1945, the year of Japan’s catastrophic defeat in World War II. But 2006 was not a curious perturbation. Rather, it was the harbinger of a new national norm.
Japan is now a “net mortality society.” Death rates today are routinely higher than birthrates, and the imbalance is growing. The nation is set to commence a prolonged period of depopulation. Within just a few decades, the number of people living in Japan will likely decline 20 percent. The Germans, who saw their numbers drop by an estimated 700,000 in just the years from 2002 to 2009, have a term for this new phenomenon: schrumpfende Gesellschaft, or “shrinking society.” Implicit in the phrase is the understanding that a progressive peacetime depopulation will entail much more than a lowered head count. It will inescapably mean a transformation of family life, social relationships, hopes and expectations—and much more.
But Japan is on the cusp of an even more radical demographic makeover than the one now under way in Germany and other countries that are in a similar situation, including Italy, Hungary, and Croatia. (The United States is also aging, but its population is still growing.) Within barely a generation, demographic trends promise to turn Japan into a dramatically—in some ways almost unimaginably—different place from the country we know today. If we go by U.S. Census Bureau projections for Japan, for example, there will be so many people over 100 years of age in 2040, and so few babies, that there could almost be one centenarian on hand to welcome each Japanese newborn. Population decline and extreme population aging will profoundly alter the realm of the possible for Japan—and will have major reverberations for the nation’s social life, economic performance, and foreign relations. Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction. It is not clear that Japan’s path will be a harbinger of what lies ahead in other aging societies. Over the past century, modernization has markedly increased the economic, educational, technological, and social similarities between Japan and other affluent countries. However, Japan has remained distinctive in important respects—and in the years ahead it may become increasingly unlike other rich countries, as population change accentuates some of its all-but-unique attitudes and proclivities. . . .
Japan’s postwar fertility plunge has been so steep that it can be described as a virtual collapse. In 2008, barely 40 percent as many Japanese babies were born as in 1948. In fact, the country’s annual birth totals are lower today than they were a century ago—and if current projections come to pass, Japan will not have many more newborns in 2050 than it did in the 1870s.We can get a sense of the shape of things to come by comparing Japan’s current population profile with an estimate for 2040. Not even 30 years from now, more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older. Japan is already the world’s grayest society, with a median age of almost 45 years. By 2040 its median age, to go by U.S. Census Bureau projections, will rise to an almost inconceivable 55. (By way of comparison, the median age in the retirement haven of Palm Springs, California, is currently under 52 years.)
This aging society, of course, will also be shrinking. By Tokyo’s projections, Japan’s population will decline from about 127 million today—the 10th largest in the world—to about 106 million in 2040. The working-age population (ages 15–64) will plunge 30 percent, from 81 million to 57 million. In 2040, by these projections, the total population will be declining by about one percent annually (roughly one million people per year), and the working-age population by almost two percent annually.
But there is more. Japan’s historically robust (if perhaps at times stifling) family relations, a pillar of society in all earlier generations, stand to be severely and perhaps decisively eroded in the coming decades. Traditional “Asian family values”—the ideals of universal marriage and parenthood—are already largely a curiosity of the past in Japan. Their decay has set in motion a variety of powerful trends which virtually ensure that the Japan of 2040 will be a country with far greater numbers of aged isolates, divorced individuals, and adults whose family lines come to an end with them.
At its heart, marriage in traditional Japan was a matter of duty, not just love. Well within living memory, arranged marriages (miai) predominated, while “love matches” (renai kekkon) were anomalies. Love matches did not exceed arranged pairings until 1970—yet by 2005, only six percent of all new marriages fit the traditional mold. The collapse of arranged marriage seems to have taken something with it. Remarkably enough, there is a near perfect correlation between the demise of arranged marriage in Japan and the decline in postwar Japanese fertility.
Unshackled from the obligations of the old family order, Japan’s young men and women have plunged into a previously unknown territory of interpersonal options. One consequence has been a headlong “flight from marriage,” as Australian demographer Gavin Jones describes it. Increasingly, men and women in modern Japan have been postponing marriage—or avoiding it altogether. Between 1965 and 2005, for example, the proportion of never-married women in their late thirties shot up from six percent to 18 percent. Among men, the proportion rose even more steeply, from four percent to 30 percent. Many of these single adults still have not left home, creating a new breed of parasaito shinguru, or “parasite singles” . . .
Despite salutary trends in “healthy aging,” Japan’s extraordinary demographics can only mean that a rapidly growing share of the country’s population will be frail in the years ahead—and that public pension allowances, health and medical services, and long-term care will be ever more pressing priorities for Japanese society. Not the least of the problems may concern Alzheimer’s disease. A study commissioned by Alzheimer’s Disease International suggests that, on current track, the prevalence of dementia in the Japanese population could rise to five percent by 2050—one person in 20. The caregiving implications of such an outcome are staggering—and given the coming erosion of the Japanese family, a steadily decreasing proportion of senior citizens will have children to turn to for support. Under such circumstances, an increase in long-term institutionalization among the elderly seems inescapable. . . . 
For better or worse, depopulation and pervasive graying look to be Japan’s lot for as far as our imaginations can stretch. In one sense, this may simply make the Japanese a “pioneer people”: Many other nations and populations may likewise eventually find themselves to be shrinking societies, too. Japan’s efforts to cope with the problems posed (and also to capitalize on the opportunities presented) by a prosperous and orderly depopulation may prove exemplary for the rest of the world. On the other hand, as Japanese themselves are so often the first to point out, their own minzoku—an emotive and heavily freighted term meaning “tribe,” “race,” or “nationality”—is in important ways unique. “Depopulation with Japanese characteristics” may therefore turn out to look different from prospective depopulations elsewhere—and Japan may face special, self-imposed constraints in dealing with its impending appointment with this demographic future. In either case, making the most of the new demographic realities that lie in store in the decades ahead could be one of this great nation’s very greatest trials.
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April 19, 2014

Climate Skeptics Weigh In

The recent release of a new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was met with the publication of a new report by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a group founded by Fred Singer in 2003. The report is over 1,000 pages; Doug Hofmann of The Resilient Earth recounts here the main points from the report’s executive summary:

• Global climate models are unable to make accurate projections of climate even 10 years ahead, let alone the 100-year period that has been adopted by policy planners. The output of such models should therefore not be used to guide public policy formulation.
• Neither the rate nor the magnitude of the reported late twentieth century surface warming (1979–2000) lay outside the range of normal natural variability, nor were they in any way unusual compared to earlier episodes in Earth’s climatic history.
• Solar forcing of temperature change is likely more important than is currently recognized.
• No unambiguous evidence exists of dangerous interference in the global climate caused by human-related CO2 emissions. In particular, the cryosphere is not melting at an enhanced rate; sea-level rise is not accelerating; and no systematic changes have been documented in evaporation or rainfall or in the magnitude or intensity of extreme meteorological events.
• Any human global climate signal is so small as to be nearly indiscernible against the background variability of the natural climate system. Climate change is always occurring.
• A phase of temperature stasis or cooling has succeeded the mild warming of the twentieth century. Similar periods of warming and cooling due to natural variability are certain to occur in the future irrespective of human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Hoffman also reproduces a chart much beloved of climate skeptics, showing actual temperature change alongside that predicted by the models. Climate hawks counter that the “missing heat” is to be found in the oceans, but there remains a remarkable disparity between the predictions of fifteen years ago and what actually happened.

China Limits Coal

A new report from Greenpeace (The End of China’s Coal Boom) reports on the new targets for restricting coal consumption that the state announced in September 2013. If implemented, they would make a huge contribution to reducing CO2 emissions—exceeding, Greenpeace suggests, the emissions savings expected from the EU and the US. Herewith some selections from the Greenpeace report:

China is the world’s largest energy consumer and the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2013, coal accounted for 65% of China’s overall energy consumption, making it the most coal-dependent country among top energy consumers.
China accounts for almost half of global coal consumption and from 2000 to 2010 its coal use and emissions grew on average at 9% a year. In 2010 alone, China’s increase in coalfired power generation capacity equaled Germany’s existing generating capacity.
But recently adopted air quality policies and the growth of renewable energy show signs of a major change in trend. Given China’s major role in global emissions, this is of global significance. . . .
In September 2013, China’s State Council, or cabinet, released an “Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan” in which the Chinese government recognised that tackling the air pollution crisis will require significant reductions in coal consumption. The plan was accompanied by specific coal consumption targets in provincial action plans. For the first time, the plans introduce coal consumption caps for provinces. Furthermore, many provinces are now committing to reverse the trend of rapid growth in coal use and cut their coal consumption overall in just four years. . . . If achieved, the measures will not only fundamentally shift the coal consumption trajectory of the world’s largest coal consumer, but also significantly re-shape the global CO2 emission landscape. . . .

Assuming a business-as-usual scenario where all Chinese provinces maintained 2/3 of their average rates of growth in coal consumption between 2006-2011, in line with expected slowdown in GDP growth, then the coal control measures imply reductions in coal use of 350 million tonnes by 2017 in the provinces concerned. If we assume the rate of decline was to continue between 2018 and 2020, the measures would cut 655 million tonnes of coal use from the business-as-usual scenario.
When translated into CO2 emission reductions, these reductions equal to about 700 Mt in 2017 and 1,300 Mt in 2020. (To compare, 1,300 Mt is equal to Canada’s and Australia’s total emissions combined). . . .

Implementing the existing coal control measures as planned would significantly slow down China’s CO2 emission growth. The expected reduction from business-as-usual development from the 12 regions alone (about 700 Mt by 2017 and 1,300 Mt by 2020) would bring China’s projected CO2 emissions in 2020 close to a trajectory that the International Energy Agency says would be in line with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. To get to the trajectory altogether, which would imply peaking of global energy emissions well before 2020, other big polluters will have to deliver on their emission cuts too.
China’s annual growth in coal consumption slowed to 2.8% in 2012. While this still led to significant CO2 emissions, it represented a significant deceleration from the trend over the past decade in which the country’s use of coal grew at 9% per year.
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April 18, 2014

Godzilla Makes Comeback

The high cost of fossil fuels has forced the Japanese government into a policy that entails restarting many of Japan’s nuclear plants, despite widespread public opposition. The following report from Reuters on Japan’s nuclear quandaries includes the estimate that two thirds of the country's some 50 reactors will probably stay closed, despite the government's change of course.

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Japan's cabinet on Friday approved an energy policy reversing the previous government's plans to gradually mothball nuclear power plants, a move likely to be unpopular with a wary public following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
But the plan may be too little too late for Japan's moribund atomic industry, which is floundering under the weight of estimated losses of almost $50 billion, forcing two utilities to ask the government for capital last week.
Plant operators have had to pay out almost $90 billion on replacement fossil fuels, with domestic media saying they have also spent an estimated 1.6 trillion yen ($16 billion) on nuclear plant upgrades to meet new safety guidelines.
A recent Reuters analysis shows as many as two-thirds of the country's 48 idled nuclear reactors may have to be left closed because of the high cost of further upgrades, local opposition or seismic risks.
"I think it is unavoidable that the Japanese utilities will write off most of their nuclear 'assets' and move on," said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based independent energy consultant.
The plan defines nuclear as an "important baseload power source" meaning it can feed constant power to the grid to meet minimum requirement. But the policy document did not specify the share of nuclear in the nation's energy mix.
"Given the slim realistic prospects for a major nuclear share, the challenge will be flexibility and the whole baseload concept flies out of the window," Schneider said.
The government also named coal and hydro power as baseload sources. . . .
Japan will do as much as possible to increase renewable energy supplies, Motegi said. The government has set up a ministerial level group to study boosting such energy sources.
In the plan on Friday, Japan said it would aim to surpass renewable energy targets in past plans.
A footnote in the document said previous plans had set a target for renewable energy sources to contribute 13.5 percent of total power generation in 2020 and around 20 percent in 2030. Renewable energy sources, including hydro power, contributed around 10 percent of the country's energy by 2012.
The decision to reinstate nuclear power is likely to be unpopular and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had to spend months convincing skeptical members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well as coalition partner New Komeito, which opposes atomic energy, to accept the final draft of the plan.
The public has turned against nuclear power after watching Tokyo Electric Power Co's struggle to deal with the disaster at its Fukushima Daiichi station following a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The crisis was the worst since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and all reactors in Japan have been shut for safety checks with no schedule for restarts. . . .
Recent polls put opposition to nuclear restarts at about two-to-one over support. An Asahi newspaper poll last month found that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed supported a gradual exit from atomic power. 
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Japan approves energy plan reinstating nuclear power,” Reuters, April 11, 2014

Hydrofrenzy: China's Dam Building

The map is a snapshot of an interactive presentation by the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., under the title "Do China's Dam Plans Hold Water for Low Carbon Development."  A few notes from the Wilson's Center's presentation:

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The country is currently planning to build at least 84 major dams in its southwest regions. This interactive map shows the scale and number of these planned, under construction (33), existing (40), and cancelled (14) major dams. (Click on pins on map to see the information on individual dams.) These and other dams nationwide will increase China’s hydropower capacity to 284 GW—more than that of Europe— by 2015, and 380 GW (more than that of Europe and the United State combined) by 2020. . . .

More than 70 of the dams planned or being constructed are located in areas that Conservation International has identified as biodiversity hotspots. In this particular region, the three parallel rivers—the Nu, Lancang, and Jinsha (upper Mekong, Salween, and Yangtze, respectively)—construct corridors that connect tropical rainforests to the Tibetan Plateau. These corridors—sometimes referred to as climate refugia—allow species to easily migrate to cooler, more suitable climates as temperatures rise, assisting species to more easily adapt to climate change. The cascades of dams, however, will submerge parts of these corridors, dewater tributary river stretches between dam reservoirs, and make them less suitable habitat for many plant and animal species. Reductions in the diversity and overall robustness of ecosystems will in turn negatively impact the human communities that depend on those ecosystems. Moreover, large dams flood large areas of land adjacent to the river, land that is usually highly fertile and valuable to local farmers.

Many of the existing, planned, and under construction dams in China’s southwest lack comprehensive environmental and social impact assessments to fully evaluate their true benefits and costs. Undervaluing ecosystems and their services has resulted in the prioritization of pressing carbon reduction goals in China, while ignoring the significant ecological, social, and economic impacts of these hydropower projects. Notably, Chinese dam developers have often failed to respond to concerns over their build-out’s impact on downstream Southeast Asian countries, by limiting or outright refusing to share data on water and sediment that are critical for understanding how downstream riparian habitats will change. At the same time, developers must be especially attentive to the negative impacts on local communities in southwestern China, who face social and economic challenges after resettlement.

In December 2013, a group of Chinese environmental NGOs released “The ‘Last Report’ on China’s Rivers.” (Read the English executive summary here.) The report is a comprehensive assessment of China’s rivers and the lessons of past unchecked hydropower development. Chinese environmental groups advocate for an urgent determination of ecological redlines for China’s rivers, ambitious promotion of renewable energy, and a major push for ecological conservation legislation. How China can balance hydropower development and ecological protection in the coming years will have far-reaching consequences for China’s sustainable development, the environment for its future generations, and the wellbeing of mainland Southeast Asia. . . .

The map is part of the China Environment Forum-Circle of Blue Choke Point: China initiative. Special thanks to China Rivers Network —and its founder Dr. Yang Yong—and Conversation International for providing data. . . .

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h/t Yale e360 digest

Activist Turned Collapsitarian

Paul Kingsnorth, a one-time British environmental activist, is the subject of a profile by Daniel Smith in the New York Times Sunday magazine. Kingsnorth’s manifesto, “Uncivilization,” has attracted much attention and criticism (though I admit I had never heard of it before today).

His views are officially fringe, as he would be the first to acknowledge. However, they are interesting, especially to those of us trying to scope out the apocalypse.

These excerpts are about a third of the original article, “It’s the End of the World as We Know . . . And He Feels Fine.” (April 17, 2014)

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The Dark Mountain Project was founded in 2009. From the start, it has been difficult to pin down — even for its members. If you ask a representative of the Sierra Club to describe his organization, he will say that it promotes responsible use of the earth’s resources. When you ask Kingsnorth about Dark Mountain, he speaks of mourning, grief and despair. We are living, he says, through the “age of ecocide,” and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face.
Kingsnorth himself arrived at this point about six years ago, after nearly two decades of devoted activism. He had just completed his second book, “Real England,” a travelogue about the homogenizing effects of global capitalism on English culture and character. “Real England” was a great success — the first of his career. All the major newspapers reviewed the book; the archbishop of Canterbury and David Cameron (then the opposition leader) cited it in speeches; Mark Rylance, the venerated Shakespearean actor, adopted it as a kind of bible during rehearsals for his hit play “Jerusalem.” Yet Kingsnorth found himself strangely ambivalent about the praise. “Real England” was a painful book to write. For months he interviewed publicans, shopkeepers and farmers fighting to maintain small, traditional English institutions — fighting and losing. Everywhere Kingsnorth traveled, he saw the forces of development, conglomeration and privatization flattening the country. By the time he published his findings, he was in little mood to celebrate.
At the same time, he felt his longstanding faith in environmental activism draining away. “I had a lot of friends who were writing about climate change and doing a lot of good work on it,” he told me during a break from his festival duties. “I was just listening and looking at the facts and thinking: Wow, we are really screwed here. We are not going to stop this from happening.”
The facts were indeed increasingly daunting. The first decade of the 21st century was shaping up to be the hottest in recorded history. In 2007, the Arctic sea ice shrank to a level not seen in centuries. That same year, the NASA climatologist James Hansen, who has been ringing the climate alarm since the 1980s, announced that in order to elude the most devastating consequences, we’d need to maintain carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a level of 350 parts per million. But we’d already surpassed 380, and the figure was rising. (It has since reached 400 p.p.m.) Animal and plant species, meanwhile, were dying out at a spectacular rate. Scientists were beginning to warn that human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — was driving the planet toward a “mass extinction” event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.
“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
The first thing that Kingsnorth did was draft a manifesto. Also called “Uncivilization,” it was an intense, brooding document that vilified progress. “There is a fall coming,” it announced. “After a quarter-century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall . . . Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis.”
The initial print run of “Uncivilization” was only 500 copies. Yet the manifesto gained widespread attention. The philosopher John Gray reviewed it in The New Statesman. Professors included it on their reading lists. An events space in Wales invited Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, Dark Mountain’s co-founder, to put on a festival; 400 people showed up. Doug Tompkins, the billionaire who started the outdoor-apparel company the North Face, and his wife, Kristine Tompkins, the former C.E.O. of Patagonia, offered financing and invited Kingsnorth and his family to spend two months on land they own in southern Chile.
There were others, however, who saw Kingsnorth’s new work as a betrayal. With waters rising, deserts spreading and resource wars looming, how could his message be anything but reckless — even callous? He and his sympathizers were branded “doomers,” “nihilists” and (Kingsnorth’s favorite epithet) “crazy collapsitarians.” One critic, a sustainability advocate, published an essay in The Ecologist — a magazine Kingsnorth once helped run — comparing Dark Mountaineers to the complacent characters in the Douglas Adams novel “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”: “Diners [who] enjoyed watching the obliteration of life, the universe and everything whilst enjoying a nice steak.”
Kingsnorth regards such charges with equanimity, countering that the only hope he has abandoned is false hope. The great value of Dark Mountain, he has claimed, is that it gives people license to do the same. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?”
Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible. Kingsnorth has admitted to an ex-activist’s cynicism about politics as well as to a worrying ambivalence about whether he even wants civilization, as it now operates, to prevail. But he insists that he isn’t opposed to political action, mass or otherwise, and that his indignations about environmental decline and industrial capitalism are, if anything, stronger than ever. Still, much of his recent writing has been devoted to fulminating against how environmentalism, in its crisis phase, draws adherents. Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.” . . .
For Kingsnorth, the notion that technology will stave off the most catastrophic effects of global warming is not just wrong, it’s repellent — a distortion of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world and evidence that in the throes of crisis, many environmentalists have abandoned the principle that “nature has some intrinsic, inherent value beyond the instrumental.” If we lose sight of that ideal in the name of saving civilization, he argues, if we allow ourselves to erect wind farms on every mountain and solar arrays in every desert, we will be accepting a Faustian bargain. . . .
Kingsnorth and Hine’s aspirations for their manifesto weren’t revolutionary, but neither were they nihilistic. Each man draws a distinction between a “problem,” which can be solved, and a “predicament,” which must be endured. “Uncivilization” was firm in its conviction that climate change and other ecological crises are predicaments, and it called for a cadre of like-minded writers to “challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality and the myth of separation from ‘nature.’ ” . . .
“People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’” Hine compared coming to terms with the scope of ecological loss to coming to terms with a terminal illness. “The feeling is a feeling of despair to begin with, but within that space other things begin to come through.” . . .
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This is not exactly Smiling Through the Apocalypse, but it's getting there.

There was an extended debate in 2009 on these issues between Kingsnorth and George Monbiot, columnist at The Guardian.

April 17, 2014

Plagues, Pandemics, and Politics

An important theme in the study of plagues and pandemics is the effect they have on political life. The following passages—one from William McNeill, the other from Thucydides—illustrate this impact in two notorious episodes. The Spanish conquest of the 1520s, argues McNeill, cannot be understood apart from the effect that disease had on the religious and political attitudes of Amerindians. Thucydides’ depiction of the plague also has sharp political overtones, as the effects of the plague on the human personality closely resemble those of the civil wars that befell most Greek cities in the course of the Peloponnesian War.  

The first passage is from William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor, 1998 [1976]), 215-17.
Wholesale demoralization and simple surrender of will to live certainly played a large part in the destruction of Amerindian communities. Numerous recorded instances of failure to tend newborn babies so that they died unnecessarily, as well as outright suicide, attest the intensity of Amerindian bewilderment and despair. European military action and harsh treatment of laborers gathered forcibly for some large-scale undertaking also had a role in uprooting and destroying old social structures. But human violence and disregard, however brutal, was not the major factor causing Amerindian populations to melt away as they did. After all, it was not in the interest of the Spaniards and other Europeans to allow potential taxpayers and the Indian work force to diminish. The main destructive role was certainly played by epidemic disease.
The first encounter came in 1518, when smallpox reached Hispaniola and attacked the Indian population so virulently that Bartoleme de Las Casas believed that only a thousand survived. From Hispaniola, smallpox traveled to Mexico, ariving in 1520. It affected Cortez's Tlaxcalan allies on the coast as well as those who had attacked him; but exact details of its overland transmission cannot be reconstructed. All the same, the outbreak in Tenochtitlan some four months after Cortez had been forced to withdraw looked very like divine punishment for those who had attacked the Spaniards. As a result, when Cortez returned to central Mexico, the peoples living around the lake decided to join him. This was important, since Cortez's Spanish forces remained tiny, and his Indian allies from the coast were insufficiently numerous to isolate Tenochtitlan from the surrounding communities that customarily supplied the capital city with food. Hence, once their lakeside subjects abandoned them, the Aztecs' fate was sealed, despite their brave, and indeed suicidal, resistance.
Clearly, if smallpox had not broken out when it did, Cortez's victory would have been more difficult, and perhaps impossible. The same was true of Pizarro's filibuster into Peru. For the smallpox epidemic in Mexico did not confine its ravages to Aztec territory. Instead, it spread to Guatemala, where it appeared in 1520, and continued southward, penetrating the Inca domain in 1525 or 1526. Consequences there were just as drastic as among the Aztecs. The reigning Inca died of the disease while away from his capital on campaign in the North. His designated heir also died, leaving no legitimate successor. Civil war ensued, and it was amid this wreckage of the Inca political structure that Pizarro and his crew of roughnecks made their way to Cuzco and plundered its treasures. He met no serious military resistance at all.
Two points seem particularly worth emphasizing here. First, Spaniards and Indians readily agreed that epidemic disease was a particularly dreadful and unambiguous form of divine punishment. Interpretation of pestilence as a sign of God's displeasure was a part of the Spanish inheritance, enshrined in the Old Testament and in the whole Christian tradition. The Amerindians, lacking all experience of anything remotely like the initial series of lethal epidemics, concurred. Their religious doctrines recognized that superhuman power lodged in deities whose behavior toward men was often angry. It was natural, therefore, for them to assign an unexampled effect to a supernatural cause, quite apart from the Spanish missionary efforts that urged the same interpretation of the catastrophe upon dazed and demoralized converts.
Secondly, the Spaniards were nearly immune from the terrible disease that raged so mercilessly among the Indians. They had almost always been exposed in childhood and so developed effective immunity. Given the interpretation of the cause of pestilence accepted by both parties, such a manifestation of divine partiality for the invaders was conclusive. The gods of the Aztecs as much as the God of the Christians seemed to agree that the white newcomers had divine approval for all they did. And while God thus seemed to favor the whites, regardless of their mortality and piety or lack thereof, his wrath was visited upon the Indians with an unrelenting harshness that often puzzled and distressed the Christian missionaries who soon took charge of the moral and religious life of their converts along the frontiers of Spain's American dominions.
From the Amerindian point of view, stunned acquiescence in Spanish superiority was the only possible response. No matter how few their numbers or how brutal and squalid their behavior, the Spaniards prevailed. Native authority structures crumbled; the old gods seemed to have abdicated. The situation was ripe for the mass conversions recorded so proudly by Christian missionaries. Docility to the commands of priests, viceroys, landowners, mining entrepreneurs, tax collectors, and anyone else who spoke with a loud voice and had a white skin was another inevitable consequence. When the divine and natural orders were both unambiguous in declaring against native tradition and belief, what ground for resistance remained? The extraordinary ease of Spanish conquests and the success a few hundred men had in securing control of vast areas and millions of persons is unintelligible on any other basis.
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The second passage comes from book two of Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translation by Benjamin Jowett. The plague that befalls Athens in the second year of the war follows closely on the heels of Pericles’ eloquent funeral oration, in which he glorifies the men fallen in the course of the war and the city for which they made the ultimate sacrifice. Soon after,  

the plague broke out at Athens for the first time. A similar disorder is said to have previously smitten many places, particularly Lemnos, but there is no record of such a pestilence occurring elsewhere, or of so great a destruction of human life. For a while physicians, in ignorance of the nature of the disease, sought to apply remedies; but it was in vain, and they themselves were among the first victims, because they oftenest came into contact with it. No human art was of any avail, and as to supplications in temples, enquiries of oracles, and the like, they were utterly useless, and at last men were overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up.
(48) The disease is said to have begun south of Egypt in Aethiopia; thence it descended into Egypt and Libya, and after spreading over the greater part of the Persian empire, suddenly fell upon Athens. It first attacked the inhabitants of the Piraeus, and it was supposed that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the cisterns, no conduits having as yet been made there. It afterwards reached the upper city, and then the mortality became far greater. As to its probable origin or the causes which might or could have produced such a disturbance of nature, every man, whether a physician or not, will give his own opinion. But I shall describe its actual course, and the symptoms by which any one who knows them beforehand may recognise the disorder should it ever reappear. For I was myself attacked, and witnessed the sufferings of others.
(49) The season was admitted to have been remarkably free from ordinary sickness; and if anybody was already ill of any other disease, it was absorbed in this. Many who were in perfect health, all in a moment, and without any apparent reason, were seized with violent heats in the head and with redness and inflammation of the eyes. Internally the throat and the tongue were quickly suffused with blood, and the breath became unnatural and fetid. There followed sneezing and hoarseness; in a short time the disorder, accompanied by a violent cough, reached the chest; then fastening lower down, it would move the stomach and bring on all the vomits of bile to which physicians have ever given names; and they were very distressing. An ineffectual retching producing violent convulsions attacked most of the sufferers; some as soon as the previous symptoms had abated, others not until long afterwards. The body externally was not so very hot to the touch, nor yet pale; it was of a livid colour inclining to red, and breaking out in pustules and ulcers. But the internal fever was intense; the sufferers could not bear to have on them even the finest linen garment; they insisted on being naked, and there was nothing which they longed for more eagerly than to throw themselves into cold water. And many of those who had no one to look after them actually plunged into the cisterns, for they were tormented by unceasing thirst, which was not in the least assuaged whether they drank little or much. They could not sleep; a restlessness which was intolerable never left them. While the disease was at its height the body, instead of wasting away, held out amid these sufferings in a marvellous manner, and either they died on the seventh or ninth day, not of weakness, for their strength was not exhausted, but of internal fever, which was the end of most; or, if they survived, then the disease descended into the bowels and there produced violent ulceration; severe diarrhoea at the same time set in, and at a later stage caused exhaustion, which finally with few exceptions carried them off. For the disorder which had originally settled in the head passed gradually through the whole body, and, if a person got over the worst, would often seize the extremities and leave its mark, attacking the privy parts and the fingers and the toes; and some escaped with the loss of these, some with the loss of their eyes. Some again had no sooner recovered than they were seized with a forgetfulness of all things and knew neither themselves nor their friends.
(50) The general character of the malady no words can describe, and the fury with which it fastened upon each sufferer was too much for human nature to endure. There was one circumstance in particular which distinguished it from ordinary diseases. The birds and animals which feed on human flesh, although so many bodies were lying unburied, either never came near them, or died if they touched them. This was proved by a remarkable disappearance of the birds of prey, which were not to be seen either about the bodies or anywhere else; while in the case of the dogs the result was even more obvious, because they live with man.
(51) Such was the general nature of the disease: I omit many strange peculiarities which characterised individual cases. None of the ordinary sicknesses attacked any one while it lasted, or, if they did, they ended in the plague. Some of the sufferers died from want of care, others equally who were receiving the greatest attention. No single remedy could be deemed a specific; for that which did good to one did harm to another. No constitution was of itself strong enough to resist or weak enough to escape the attacks; the disease carried off all alike and defied every mode of treatment. Most appalling was the despondency which seized upon any one who felt himself sickening; for he instantly abandoned his mind to despair and, instead of holding out, absolutely threw away his chance of life. Appalling too was the rapidity with which men caught the infection; dying like sheep if they attended on one another; and this was the principal cause of mortality. When they were afraid to visit one another, the sufferers died in their solitude, so that many houses were empty because there had been no one left to take care of the sick; or if they ventured they perished, especially those who aspired to heroism. For they went to see their friends without thought of themselves and were ashamed to leave them, at a time when the very relations of the dying were at last growing weary and ceased even to make lamentations, overwhelmed by the vastness of the calamity. But whatever instances there may have been of such devotion, more often the sick and the dying were tended by the pitying care of those who had recovered, because they knew the course of the disease and were themselves free from apprehension. For no one was ever attacked a second time, or not with a fatal result. All men congratulated them, and they themselves, in the excess of their joy at the moment, had an innocent fancy that they could not die of any other sickness.
(52) The crowding of the people out of the country into the city aggravated the misery; and the newly-arrived suffered most. For, having no houses of their own, but inhabiting in the height of summer stifling huts, the mortality among them was dreadful, and they perished in wild disorder. The dead lay as they had died, one upon another, while others hardly alive wallowed in the streets and crawled about every fountain craving for water. The temples in which they lodged were full of the corpses of those who died in them; for the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine. The customs which had hitherto been observed at funerals were universally violated, and they buried their dead each one as best he could. Many, having no proper appliances, because the deaths in their household had been so numerous already, lost all shame in the burial of the dead. When one man had raised a funeral pile, others would come, and throwing on their dead first, set fire to it; or when some other corpse was already burning, before they could be stopped, would throw their own dead upon it and depart.
(53) There were other and worse forms of lawlessness which the plague introduced at Athens. Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder. For, seeing the sudden change,--how the rich died in a moment, and those who had nothing immediately inherited their property,--they reflected that life and riches were alike transitory, and they resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of pleasure. Who would be willing to sacrifice himself to the law of honour when he knew not whether he would ever live to be held in honour? The pleasure of the moment and any sort of thing which conduced to it took the place both of honour and of expediency. No fear of Gods or law of man deterred a criminal. Those who saw all perishing alike, thought that the worship or neglect of the Gods made no difference. For offences against human law no punishment was to be feared; no one would live long enough to be called to account. Already a far heavier sentence had been passed and was hanging over a man's head; before that fell, why should he not take a little pleasure?
(54) Such was the grievous calamity which now afflicted the Athenians; within the walls their people were dying, and without, their country was being ravaged. In their troubles they naturally called to mind a verse which the elder men among them declared to have been current long ago:
    A Dorian war will come and a plague with it.
There was a dispute about the precise expression; some saying that limos, a famine, and not loimos, a plague, was the original word. Nevertheless, as might have been expected, for men's memories reflected their sufferings, the argument in favour of loimos prevailed at the time. But if ever in future years another Dorian war arises which happens to be accompanied by a famine, they will probably repeat the verse in the other form. The answer of the oracle to the Lacedaemonians when the God was asked 'whether they should go to war or not,' and he replied 'that if they fought with all their might, they would conquer, and that he himself would take their part,' was not forgotten by those who had heard of it, and they quite imagined that they were witnessing the fulfilment of his words. The disease certainly did set in immediately after the invasion of the Peloponnesians, and did not spread into Peloponnesus in any degree worth speaking of, while Athens felt its ravages most severely, and next to Athens the places which were most populous. Such was the history of the plague.
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April 9, 2014

Lovelock Recants

Matt Ridley is one of the most prolific of the climate skeptics. A terrific writer who can explain complicated scientific questions to the general public with ease, Ridley is the author, among other works, of The Rational Optimist. In that work, Ridley shows astonishing progress in sector after sector, taking us back to the bestial days before penicillin and other modern medical wonders, and making us appreciate that material progress is not an illusion.

In my course “Smiling Through the Apocalypse,” in May 2013, I used Ridley’s work as a counter to the doom and gloom message percolating through the other readings. With few exceptions (I don’t actually recall any), the students did not like it and did not find it persuasive. (I was persuaded by many, but not all, of his arguments.) Since I am not using his book this year, and don’t want to lose his voice in the conversation, I was anxious to find a short piece expressing his outlook. His most recent posting on James Lovelock's new book admirably fills the bill.   

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This book reveals that James Lovelock, at 94, has not lost his sparkling intelligence, his lucid prose style, or his cheerful humanity. May Gaia grant that we all have such talents in our tenth decades, because the inventor of gadgets and eco-visionary has lived long enough to recant some of the less sensible views he espoused in his eighties.

Eight years ago, at the height of global warming alarmism, Lovelock turned uncharacteristically pessimistic in his book The Revenge of Gaia. He’d been got at by the greens. Despite all our efforts, he thought, “we may be unable to prevent a global decline into a chaotic world ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated Earth”. Billions would die, he said, and the few breeding pairs of human beings who survived would be in the Arctic.

In his new book, he now thinks he “tended to exaggerate the immediacy of global warming”, that “we may muddle through into a strange but still viable new world”, and that we can “keep our cool as the Earth gently warms, and even enjoy it when we can”. He admits that “the global average temperature has not risen as expected”, having “hardly warmed at all since the millennium”, and that he was “led astray” by the ice cores that seemed to imply changes in carbon dioxide were the dominant cause of changes in temperature. He thinks it is a mistake to take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “projections almost as if written in stone”; instead we “need to stay sceptical about the projections of climate models”.

For those of us who have been saying such things for a while, and who were told more than once (as I was by the head of the Science Museum among others), that if Lovelock was very worried so should I be, this is delicious to read. Welcome to the Lukewarmer Society, Jim.

He regrets that huge sums have been “squandered on the renewable energy sources”, many of which are “ugly and hopelessly impractical” and threaten a “green satanic change” to Britain’s landscape. Yup. He thinks that Greenpeace is “a great and powerful negative feedback on all that enlightened technological progress stands for”. Amen to all that.

He still thinks climate change will happen, of course, as I and most people do, but he expects us to adapt to it, especially in the design of our cities. Singapore, he points out, is a very habitable city in a climate far warmer than expected for most of the world by the end of the century. He expects us, by combining our biological and our electronic brains, to “give Gaia to the wisdom to proceed to the next step, whatever that may be, with or without us as the lead species”.

Ah, Gaia. Lovelock famously borrowed this name from Greek theology to label his idea that life alters the physics and chemistry of the planet in ways that are self-regulating. If the planet gets too hot, for instance, living things get whiter, which cools it down. I have always had difficulty with Gaia, because I am never sure how seriously Lovelock wants us to take her. If he means by Gaia that the Earth has a tendency to self-correct, which has kept it lukewarm for billions of years through changes in the atmosphere unconsciously aided by evolution among life forms, I’m with him. But I never quite feel he does enough to disavow the idea that in some sense this tendency has become conscious or mystical. The book does little to clear up my confusion, but there are some fascinating ideas to enjoy along the way.

One of these is that he thinks Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine, invented in 1712, marks a turning point in the history of the planet — when we began to tap the almost limitless energy of fossil fuels, accessing cheap and abundant energy. Thereby we began to transform not only our population and our prosperity, but the ecology of the planet itself. I agree, and would go further, because I think Lovelock misses the fact that this was in effect the first occasion on which we linked heat with work.

Till Newcomen we had heat energy, from wood and so on, and work energy (motion mainly), from wind, oxen and so on, but the twain did not meet — except instantaneously in the barrel of a gun. Today nearly all the work done in the world starts out as heat. That is what has enabled cultural evolution to change at a breakneck pace.

Lovelock is a lone scientist, a species that he says is now “as rare as ectoplasm”, and he values the independence to think that comes with loner status. He comes up with plenty of thoughts that I happen to think are bunk, but no matter: there’s lots of marvellous ideas too. As the autobiographical snippets in this fine book illustrate, he is at least as much an inventor as a scientist, exemplifying in his career the fact that technology drives science at least as much as vice versa.

Roll on Lovelock’s eleventh decade: he’s getting better all the time.

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Matt Ridley, “A Rough Ride to the Future: James Lovelock recants his alarmism,” Matt Ridley's blog, April 8, 2014. 

South Stream Stutters

As geopolitical tangles go, the controversy over pipelines all along the rim of Eurasia can seem pretty daunting to sort out, but at bottom it is not all that complicated. If you rule out Russia as a source of additional gas for Europe, and you assume that Azerbaijan cannot displace Russia by itself, you are left with the following options: Iran, Kurdistan, and Israel and Cyprus. Turkey is needed as a corridor for any of this, so Turkey's relations with these various nations is an important factor to consider. Turkey's position gives it leverage with each of these actors, an unexpected boon from the Crimean crisis. 

The standoff over Ukraine hovers in the back of this controversy; there too a complicated array of pipeline politics is playing out. The Ukrainians can't pay for the Russian gas and are basically flat broke. The Russians are within their rights in raising prices, but Ukraine can't pay even for cheaper gas, so that is less significant than Ukraine's generally bankrupt finances (hence its inability to service the debt for gas previously consumed, estimated by Russian president Medvedev at $16 billion). If the Russians stop shipments of gas intended for Ukrainian consumption, the Ukrainians would then probably follow suit and suspend transits of Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe. To avoid those tumbling dominoes one would need some kind of diplomatic settlement among Russia, the EU and America, but the prospects for that in the short term look pretty dismal. 

Here's the take of Alexander Panin, "New Sanctions May Freeze South Stream Pipeline," writing in the Moscow Times, April 9, 2014: 
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As the EU presses on with sanctions against Russia for seizing Crimea, the $50 billion South Stream pipeline, meant to bring Russian gas through the Black Sea to Europe, may be frozen in favor of other projects.

The European Union is close to freezing the progress of South Stream and has warned Bulgaria, the first country the pipeline would have a link to in Europe, to be very careful and not to interfere with the EU's new toughened position on the pipeline, said European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, The Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday.

On Thursday, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin said in an interview with Reuters that while the standoff between the West and Russia over Ukraine may temporarily disrupt realization of the South Stream gas pipeline, there is no threat to it in the long run.

"Well, generally nobody is putting the project under question, but of course in a time when political relations become more complicated this may affect the speed with which the solutions are to be found," Vigenin said.

While South Stream is still far from receiving all the necessary permits to operate across EU, Guenther Oettinger, the European Commissioner for Energy, earlier said that discussions with Russia on the link were suspended.

South Stream pipeline will transport gas from Russia's Yamal peninsula in the north, across the country to the Black Sea and underneath it to Eastern Europe, bypassing Ukraine.

With a full design capacity projected at 63 billion cubic meters per year, it aims to supply 15 percent of Europe's gas by the end of 2018. Delivery of the first 15 billion cubic meters of gas per year is slated to start already by the end of 2015.

Now, with the standoff over Ukraine, Europe may consider other alternatives. A priority may be switched to gas supplies from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field, Rosbalt news agency said Tuesday, citing European Commission's Barroso.

But this one gas field will not be enough to meet European demand, said Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner and analyst at consulting firm RusEnergy.

Azerbaijan can supply about 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year, which will clearly not cover up for the South Stream, Krutikhin said, adding that other alternatives, if combined, could create a rival to the widely discussed pipeline.

"Iran is increasing the capacity of its pipelines. It is able to transport 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Turkey today and this could be boosted to 20 billion cubic meters and re-exported to Europe," Krutikhin said.

Among other alternatives, he named the Iraqi Kurdistan zone that could supply up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year and excess gas from Israel and Cyprus, which could together provide another 12 billion cubic meters.

"If Turkey agrees to become a transit corridor for all this gas, it could fill the Trans Adriatic Pipeline going through Albania to Italy or there could be a return to the Nabucco West project which aimed to transport gas through Turkey to Bulgaria and Romania toward Austria," Krutikhin said.

Nabucco West was abandoned in 2013 because it lacked gas to fill it to design capacity and it was labelled too expensive and lost support from main stakeholders.

At the same time both Nabucco and Trans Adriatic Pipeline would be economically competitive with South Stream, Krutikhin said, because with a price tag of more than $50 billion for all of its sections it is a "very expensive project that is unlikely to pay off."

South Stream's offshore part under the Black Sea is planned to be built by a consortium of international oil and gas companies led by state-owned Gazprom. Other participants are Italy's Eni, France's EDF and Germany's Wintershall. And most of them so far have voiced their support of the project.

A spokesman for Eni said, citing the company CEO Paolo Scaroni, that "South Stream is a very important project from a commercial point of view and we ought to be in favor of it to avoid the risks of transit [of gas] through Ukraine."

Wintershall agreed that the pipeline will ensure security of gas supplies to the EU and also voiced support for the project.

"Construction of the pipeline is on schedule. We are operating on the assumption that the applications required continue to be duly processed by the authorities responsible," the company said in a statement.

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From David Johnson's Russialist.org,, April 9, 2014. 

Getting Motivated

One would presume that in principle the best way of motivating people to do something about climate change is to frighten them with portraits of a coming apocalyptic world. Not so, say Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, in an op-ed at the New York Times. These two chaps have conducted a long running argument regarding the utility of non-stop-disaster messaging from the environmental movement; they are also big advocates of nuclear power and natural gas displacing coal.

They begin by pointing to Showtime's  new nine part series "Years of Living Dangerously" (the first episode of which is available without subscription.) The first episode is pretty good. It shows Harrison Ford getting educated, amid very sophisticated equipment and astonishing maps, about the basics of climate change. Ford travels to Indonesia, where we learn of the role that deforestation (to make way for palm oil plantations) is playing in exacerbating climate change. Deforestation and burning contributes about 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the contribution made by the transportation sector.

The first episode also features Don Cheadle visiting drought stricken Texas. The heroine is a woman who teaches at Texas Tech, Katharine Hayhoe, who is that most unusual of creatures: an evangelical Christian and a climate change crusader. The local opinion leans heavily toward the idea that God is behind Texas's brutal drought (for which there is abundant evidence), but Professor Hayhoe says that God created human beings so that we could figure this stuff out by ourselves.

The Showtime series, thus far, doesn't really correspond to Nordhaus and Schellenberger's depiction. In fact, I was impressed by the degree to which Showtime intimated that it is impossible to do much of anything--even have a discussion about climate change--without lots of planes, trains, and automobiles hovering in the background.

Still, this question of how to do "messaging" is really interesting. Ultimately, I would prefer it if the advocates on either side didn't screen their advice with a filter that says: "Don't necessarily tell the truth as you see it, but shape the message so that readers and viewers will react appropriately." Most scientists would object to such a filter, but in their attempts to convince the public they have been dazed and confused by the seeming inability of the public to get it. If they want to do something about climate change, many have realized, they have no choice but to enter the arena and play by the somewhat underhanded rules that make for political success.

The producers of the Showtime series (including Joe Romm as one of the two chief science advsiors) are certainly themselves keenly aware of the importance of proper messaging. I haven't looked, but I imagine that Romm has already blasted away at Nordhaus and Schellenberger over at Climate Progress. We'll check in later with that; for now, here is how Shellenberger and Nordhaus present their counter-intuitive case.

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[T]here is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming. And beginning in 2007, as the country was falling into recession, public support for environmental protection declined.

Still, environmental groups have known since 2000 that efforts to link climate change to natural disasters could backfire, after researchers at the Frameworks Institute studied public attitudes for its report “How to Talk About Global Warming.” Messages focused on extreme weather events, they found, made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God — something to be weathered, not prevented.

Some people, the report noted, “are likely to buy an SUV to help them through the erratic weather to come” for example, rather than support fuel-efficiency standards.

Since then, evidence that a fear-based approach backfires has grown stronger. A frequently cited 2009 study in the journal Science Communication summed up the scholarly consensus. “Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.” In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use “dire messages” about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.

Many climate advocates ignore these findings, arguing that they have an obligation to convey the alarming facts.

But claims linking the latest blizzard, drought or hurricane to global warming simply can’t be supported by the science. Our warming world is, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing heat waves and intense precipitation in some places, and is likely to bring more extreme weather in the future. But the panel also said there is little evidence that this warming is increasing the loss of life or the economic costs of natural disasters. “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration,” the climate panel noted, “is the most important driver of increasing losses.”

Claims that current disasters are connected to climate change do seem to motivate many liberals to support action. But they alienate conservatives in roughly equal measure.

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy. But when renewable energy technologies are offered as solutions to the exclusion of other low-carbon alternatives, they polarize rather than unite.

One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

Nonetheless, virtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy, even after four leading climate scientists wrote them an open letter last fall, imploring them to embrace the technology as a key climate solution. Together with catastrophic rhetoric, the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

While the urgency that motivates exaggerated claims is understandable, turning down the rhetoric and embracing solutions like nuclear energy will better serve efforts to slow global warming.

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Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Global Warming Scare Tactics,” New York Times, April 8, 2014

As expected, Joe Romm lit into the authors' argument here: "The Brutally Dishonest Attacks on Showtime's Landmark Series on Climate Change," Climate Progress, April 9, 2014. 

April 3, 2014

Looking for a Needle in a Needle Factory

From CNN, a piece on the world’s toilet:

Another debris field, another new and so-far futile focus in the search for Flight MH370. More than three weeks after the Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared, one thing has been made clear: the ocean is full of garbage, literally."It isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack," Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjayan said of the difficulty in finding the Boeing 777 aircraft. "It's like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean."

Environmentalists like Sanjayan have warned for years that human abuse of the planet's largest ecosystem causes major problems for ocean life and people that depend on it. With the world's eyes now scouring Asian waters for any trace of the plane that was more than 240 feet long and weighed more than 700,000 pounds, the magnitude of the ocean debris problem has become evident. . . .

No definitive records exist, but estimates for how many containers go overboard range from about 700 to as many as 10,000 of the roughly 100 million that the World Shipping Council says get shipped each year. Lost containers are only a minor part of the problem. While ship waste also adds to ocean pollution, most of the garbage comes from land, Sanjayan said. More than a third of the world's 7 billion people live within 60 miles of an ocean coast, and their waste inevitably reaches the water -- either deliberately or indirectly. Estimates from various sources, including the Japanese government, indicate that more than 10 million tons of debris -- including houses, tires, trees and appliances -- washed into the sea in the 2011 tsunami. 

In addition, discarded plastics -- including countless bags like the kind routinely provided by retail stores and fast food restaurants until a movement in recent years to decrease their use -- form huge, churning garbage fields in the rotating currents of ocean gyres. One in the north Pacific is estimated to be at least 270,000 square miles, or an area larger than Texas. Sanjayan said the plastic breaks down in the saltwater to form a kind of "plastic soup" that gets ingested by marine life. Millions of sea turtles die from the plastic each year, he said, and one in 10 small bait fish has plastic in its stomach. That happens in the same waters that provide roughly 15% of the animal protein consumed by people.

"The world does use the ocean as its toilet, and then expects that toilet to feed it," Sanjayan noted. Many island nations and coastal cities lack infrastructure sophisticated enough to deal with all the waste produced, he said. In addition, much of that waste -- such as plastics -- now is so durable that it lasts for decades or longer in any environment.  Sanjayan cited Dhaka, Bangladesh, as an example. Considered the fastest growing city in the world, the capital of 15 million people could expand to more than 20 million people in the next decade, according to the United Nations. Such growth far exceeds the capacity to deal with the garbage and sewage, Sanjayan said, adding: "All that waste in countries like that -- low-lying, prone to flooding -- periodically flushes into the ocean." 

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Tom Cohen, “Plane search hampered by ocean garbage problem,” CNN, April 2, 2014.