Sunday, March 7, 2010

Various Bubblings

— Icelander Eiríkur Bergmann, to The Irish Times

Two bubblings have been pounding at our attention this week. The first is the bubbling of anger and resentment, primarily from masses of people being disenfranchised from their acquired entitlements. They resent having spent lifetimes, whether those be long and arduous or still fresh and relatively easy, under the expectation that all this stuff around them was more or less permanent and just the way things are.

They resent it when they get a bill for their utilities that doubled from what it was last year (or last month). They resent being washed over in the real estate tsunami and being told their underwater house is now worth less than their mortgage. They resent health insurance premiums rising faster than the cost of medical treatment. They resent being sold a glowing promise on hybrid cars that have to have batteries changed out at a third the cost of the new car, or whose acceleration won’t stop even when you turn off the key and stand on the brake. They don’t like losing their job, or getting out of college and discovering no one is hiring, or trying to get a loan to start a business and being turned down. They are angry. They want to blame someone.

So they poke sticks at government. They poke sticks at bankers. They poke at the media. They poke at scientists, liberals, right wingers, Al Gore, Halliburton, the Federal Reserve, Congress, election finance, the drug lobby, Israel, the hippies, Jimmy Carter, or talk radio.

They point at schoolteachers. Anyone they can blame for feeding them a pack of lies — material wealth will make you happy; hard work will make you materially wealthy; everyone can find a job if they look; any child can become a president or an astronaut; save more than you spend and you will become rich; and our system is the best on earth.

This past week thousands of Greeks stoned their parliament after being handed a 25% sales tax, stripped of pensions and vacation time and taking a drop in wages in the public sector. The trade unions called for public works stoppages, strikes and daily marches

Across the United States the clash is over the school system, with nearly every State raising tuitions, canceling scholarships, freezing hiring and cutting programs. Net result: students with no place to left to go and plenty of time to protest. In Mexico they have begun charging children to attend public school, even down to the kindergarten level. As in the US, parents will find they now have the children staying home (like their parents) and eventually that will dumb down the population so that they understand even less about who is to blame, and so waste even more time pointing fingers and protesting (although it is at least arguable that they were getting dumbed down faster in school or at work).

In Iceland citizens are protesting having to pay back the investors in the UK and Europe who sank billions into Icelandic Ponzi bank schemes. This makes good sense. Caveat emptor, investors! It is such a good idea that Congressman Barney Frank was heard to effuse that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should deliver similar haircuts to their bondholders.  Nobody seems to have mentioned to the Congressman that the bondholders in the main are the Chinese government, which holds about 1 trillion in US sovereign debt, followed by Japan at 750 billion.

Japan would not have much it could say if given a haircut by the US home mortgage market, but China would probably have quite a bit to say, and one thing would be to say nothing, just stay away from the next T-bill market, and the next, and the next.

More interesting, really, is who stands third in line at that barber shop — the oil exporting countries. If you insist on giving them a haircut, they can just sell their oil elsewhere, to China and Japan, for instance. What does one imagine would happen to schoolteachers, salaries, vacation time, pensions and sales taxes then? Can you throw a brick through the window of Kuwait?

Our second ominous bubbling is occurring in the Arctic, and it was something we predicted in our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, although we have to say we did not expect to see it this soon.

Last summer we reported observing the bubbles coming up in methane “chimneys” off the coast of northern Norway. Now we are noting chimneys off Alaska on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

The bubbles are from the frozen clathrates on the ocean floor. They were formed by the decomposition of organic matter in those sediments over millennia, and perhaps from abiogenic sources bubbling from farther down, but until now the oceans have been cold enough to keep the methane trapped in submarine permafrost. Davy Jones’ hold is an Ice Locker.

The permafrost chimney effect only works in shallow seas. Elsewhere the bubbles dissolve before they reach the surface. We’ve been observing ocean acidity rising at least 10 times faster than was previously thought, and the negative effects that is having on shellfish species, coral reefs and the entire marine food chain. We’ve been warned by the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity that the ocean acidity could increase 150 percent just by mid-century.

"This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems," the UN committee said.

One explanation of the acidity is how much CO2 is being rained out as industrial emissions fill up the atmosphere. Ocean acidity is now higher than it has been in 65 million years.

A more ominous explanation is that the acidity is caused in part by the methane being produced from deep clathrates.

A fifth of world coral reefs are dead and the rest may be lost in 20–40 years because of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification. Last year the world ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any June–August season since 1880. If we burn all the fossil fuels — the gases released by fracturing, the oil shales and tar sands, all the deepest deposits, many gigatons of carbon — where do we get to? There’s some chance of getting above Cretaceous levels, where the seas could reach 38 degrees Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the human body. Today sea surface temperature is 16.4 degrees C, or 61.5 degrees F. We have quite a way to go to get to the Cretaceous, but the speed at which we are moving is breathtaking.

Of course, as we have noted here before, warmer oceans, methane from permafrost and clathrate bubblings are all tipping points that accelerate climate change and are multiplicative — 2 or 3 orders of magnitude times anthropogenic emissions, once their threshold is crossed. Earth, meet Venus. The toxic gas fireballs rolling across Kansas, destroying and poisoning everything in their path, are described in Peter Ward's book, Under a Green Sky. As Wallace Broecker says, "The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks."

Somehow the four principal drivers of our civilizational collapse in progress — overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, and military adventurism — while they are getting the notice of some scholars and military think tanks have yet to come to the notice of schoolteachers.

Maybe they should be fired.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suppose lighting a candle would be to actually get into the government and change it.

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