Saturday, February 26, 2011

Interview with a Climate Zombie

  David Brin, Contrary Brin 11 Feb 2010

On February 16th, we were interviewed by a student. Her questions provide a glimpse into why we’ve been so keen to promote Gaia University as an alternative to what currently passes for higher education.

Student:  How urgent and concerning of a matter do you think current global warming is?

Mr. Bates: Climate change is the greatest threat that humans have ever faced. I would put the chances of human extinction at 99.9 percent within 500 to 1000 years. Saving polar bears is useful to focus attention on the problem, but in reality, mammalian life is unsuited for even the climate change now likely to be experienced this century, never mind the centuries still to unfold once pending tipping points are passed.

Student:  Do you believe current warming is caused by human actions?

Mr. Bates: Yes, like the vast majority of the serious scientists, I think that has been well established as a fact now. To think otherwise is to appeal to faith, not science.

Student:  Do you find flaws in the Greenhouse gas theory or do you think it is a completely accurate explanation for the changing climate?

Mr. Bates: Greenhouse warming is no longer a theory. It passed through that phase more than 100 years ago. If there were not a greenhouse effect, there would be no life on Earth.

I have written about this before. In my book, The Biochar Solution, I tell the story this way. In 1824, while working in a Paris laboratory on observations of the Earth, Joseph Fourier described the greenhouse effect for the first time: “The temperature [of the Earth] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.”

It was a remarkably prescient discovery, given the science of the time. We know now that “heat in the state of light” arrives as high-energy shortwave radiation, able to penetrate atmospheric clouds (or glass windows), and is transformed by contact into infrared, or what Fourier called chaleur obscure (non-luminous heat), which attempts to depart as low-energy long-wave radiation, only to bounce back if obstructed (such as by airborne soot or clouds of greenhouse gases). Fourier appreciated the infrared effect from the work of a contemporary, William Herschel, and was quick to realize that how you warm the Earth is the same as how you warm a greenhouse.

Thirty-seven years later, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that water vapor is one of the important components of Earth's greenhouse shield. “This aqueous vapour is a blanket more necessary to the vegetable life of England than clothing is to man,” Tyndall remarked.

In 1898, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius warned that industrial-age coal burning would magnify the natural greenhouse effect. In the 1930s British engineer Guy Callendar compiled empirical evidence that the heat effect was already discernible.

By the 1950s, measuring equipment had improved to the point where Gilbert Plass could detail the infrared absorption of various gases; Roger Revelle and Hans Suess could show that seawater was incapable of absorbing the rate of man-made CO2 entering the atmosphere; and Charles David Keeling could produce annual records of rising atmospheric carbon levels from observatory instruments in Hawaii and Antarctica.

In 1965, an advisory committee warned Lyndon B. Johnson that the greenhouse effect was a matter of “real concern.” With estimated recoverable fossil fuel reserves sufficient to triple atmospheric carbon dioxide, the panel wrote, “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment.” Emissions by the year 2000 could be sufficient to cause “measurable and perhaps marked” climate change, the panel concluded.

Since then, every President has been warned by the best scientists in the world that the problem is serious and getting rapidly worse. None except Jimmy Carter has done anything to even slow the problem, and Jimmy Carter demonstrated that it is a political liability to try.

That is why it is so certain that humans will go extinct. Our political systems do not evolve even as slowly as our scientific understanding.

Student:  Please comment on the opinion that global warming is caused completely by a naturally fluctuating climate cycle. If this is your view, do you acknowledge any additional human impact or no?

Mr. Bates: We are trending precisely the opposite from the naturally fluctuating climate cycle, so no, one cannot attribute rapid global climate change to natural processes. It is caused by an imbalance in the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycles that will take tens of thousands of years, possibly millions, to correct, assuming it does correct and we don't just go the way of Venus.

Student:  Do you think the intensity of the current warming period has surpassed all previous warming periods or is this level of warming nothing new in Earth‘s history?

Mr. Bates: At this moment we are only a degree warmer than normal, and that is not dissimilar to the Medieval Maximum, when the rapid  deforestation going on in many parts of the world contributed to a significant warming in Africa and Europe (leading the Moors to invade Spain and parts of France). The Medieval Maximum was finally reversed in the 15th to 18th centuries when initially the burst of reforestation from the Black Death and then the depopulation of the Americas so increased the leafy biomass cover of the planet that it brought about the Little Ice Age in Europe.

However, one degree is not what has been predicted going forward. On May 19, 2009, Woods Hole Research Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study involving more than 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate data currently available. Conclusion: the effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago, and the probable median of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2°C, compared to a finding of 2.4°C as recently as 2003. Moreover, the study rated the possibility of warming to 7.4°C by the year 2100 (and still accelerating thereafter) at 90 percent.

Another report, released in 2009 by the Global Humanitarian Forum, found that 300,000 deaths per year are already attributable to climate-change-related weather, food shortages, and disease. That figure could be called our baseline, or background count — of the 20th-century-long experience of a temperature change of less than 1°C.

At 5 to 7 degrees by 2100, the current trend would take us to something similar to the Eocene epoch, when crocodiles roamed the arctic regions. However, we have moved the carbonization of the oceans and atmosphere far beyond the levels that pre-existed the Eocene, principally with the extraction of 500 million years of fossil hydrocarbons but also by reckless land use and desertification. It will take centuries or millennia for the effects of those human-induced factors to fully manifest and so, it now seems probable that what is coming will be far hotter than the Eocene. That is why the Venus Effect has to be taken seriously.

Student:  Do you think there’s a hidden political agenda behind the global warming debate? If so, to what extent do these hidden motives affect the topic?

Mr. Bates: Yes, of that there is little doubt. Science has already reached a consensus, although it took thousands of scientists many decades to reach it, something, by the way, that has never occurred like that before. The debate is now a political one. The principal drivers are the oil and coal interests (Exxon, the Koch brothers, Saudi Arabia, etc.) that have almost unlimited money to spend buying political favors. By almost unlimited, I mean billions of dollars each year, many, many times the amounts that are usually spent on political campaigns. The success of unknown politicians with wacko views in this last election is a direct result of that. It is no accident that the key Congressional committees charged with addressing climate change have been disbanded, the EPA is under attack for regulating carbon, and President Obama's climate advisor resigned. The Koch brothers paid for that. The corruption of the US Supreme Court (specifically the Koch Brothers buying the votes of Justices Scalia and Thomas in the Citizen's United case last year — see this week's New York Times) has now allowed direct and secret donations to climate deniers to come into the US political process from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrein, UAE and others. Big Oil and Big Coal have proven far more powerful than Big Science. That is another reason I put such low odds on human survival.

Student:  In your opinion, should federal action be taken to control greenhouse gas emissions in the United States? Would this achieve enough success in order to offset disadvantages such as possible harm to the U.S. economy?

Mr. Bates: The US economy would benefit from emissions control. Coal costs the U.S. $500 billion per year in externalized social costs. Other countries (China, South Korea, Germany, Denmark, South Africa, Brazil) have already discovered a little secret: the faster you go green, the greater your competitive advantage. Those that can go completely carbon neutral by 2030 (like Germany and the UK) will have a strong economic advantage over those who wait until 2050 (like Canada and Australia) or don't go at all (like the US and India). There is an international race on, with real winners and losers. The US has been losing that race for 20 years, which is why our economy is tanking, and that will only get worse. The phony "War on Terror" is really just a futile oil grab while creating a security state at home in anticipation of food and price riots. So far, Brazil has been winning this economic game, but South Korea is making a strong challenge to catch up. Their economies may be several times the size of the United States in a few years, while we are already at negative net worth and going trillions deeper by the year.

Of course, carbon neutral is not enough, and we need to seriously begin thinking about carbon-negative economies, which is the subject of my new book. It seems likely that is where Brazil may become totally dominant, since carbon-negative agriculture originated there 8000 years ago. And in that is the one tenth of one percent chance that we might still survive as a species, although in a much warmer world.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fishing the Yucatán Channel


 For all the changes in fishing technology, for the typical Mayan fisherman little has changed in the past 200 years. Daid is fairly representative of the younger generation, those that learned to fish from their fathers and grandfathers as soon as they were old enough to walk. In this village they rise well before dawn to be out on the grounds in the Straits, in the lagoon, or near the mouth of a river when it gets light enough for their would-be catch to see the bait sparkling close to the surface in the rising sun.

Everybody has their favorite places but anywhere along this coast the fish are almost certain to be biting unless a cold thermal has driven them south towards warmer waters. The Straits of Cuba are a vast conveyor belt returning schools from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico, there to mate and spawn and return new fry to the Atlantic. Where the channel narrows like a funnel at Cabo Catoche the catch is always good. The migratory route feeds the tourists in Cancún today just as it fed the Mayan Empire 1000 years before.

When he gets to a good location to begin his day, Daid tosses out his line, a simple monofilament with a hook knotted at one end, baited with a small fish gathered the previous day, using a hand-held, hand-knotted net.

The line feeds out with the current and trails the sideways drifting boat. He waits 5 minutes, 10, 15. No strikes, so he pulls in the line and moves to a better place, maybe one shown by circling birds or jumping fish. He repeats the process and this time he gets a strike within 2 minutes, pulls it rapidly hand-over-hand into the boat, resets his hook, and tosses the line again. Then another strike, then another. After a while the sea grows calm, so he moves once more. This process repeats until he has used up his bait, used up his fuel, is satisfied with the catch, or has just been unlucky and now grown bored and hungry.

Most days the men are back in port while it is still morning, with an adequate catch to pay everyone a living wage and take the best fish home to the family to eat.

Some of the fisherman go after bigger commercial fish, but they have to go farther out to sea for that. Some set nets for shrimp, or drop cages for lobster. Some snorkle to spear rays, octopus and squid, or gather conches. Some are drift-netters, and sell their catch to the factory boats, never bringing it ashore. Lately taking tourists along has been a good way to get a newer boat or bigger motor, and you can make big money with deep sea fly fishing or whale shark watching if you can master the competition. Most of these young guys do a little of everything, but the hook and line is their standard.

Daid says the restaurants will buy anything he can bring them in the morning, and sometimes all day. Covina and Mero will fetch 20 pesos per kilo, Corel and Esmadregal 30, Pompano 50. We caught a large Barracuda and asked if we should throw it back. “No,” Daid said, “ceviche.” When he decided we’d caught enough, we pulled up onto a sandy beach and he turned our barracuda into Mexican sushi.

Barracuda Ceviche
Serves 5

5 medium fish (~1 kg fresh weight)
5 limes
2 tomatoes
1 red onion
1 bunch of fresh cilantro
1 habanero pepper
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper

Filet the fish, removing skins, heads, tails, bones and innards. Dice the filets and place them into a large serving bowl. Dice the tomatoes and finely dice the onion, cilantro and habanero pepper. Halve and press the limes, rendering the juice into the bowl. Add salt and pepper and stir. Serve chilled with tostada chips.

Are these fishermen an endangered breed? Yes and no. Yes, because tourism in the Mayan Riviera is driving up the cost of living faster than what people can earn fishing. The breakneck and carefree development is also having a horrific environmental impact on bays, estuaries, rivers, and freshwater breeding grounds. If a catastrophe from offshore oil drilling or a tanker wreck were to happen near here, it would destroy the fishery instantly. Climate change is slowly destroying coastal living in a variety of ways, from stronger storms to eroding beaches. And of course, overfishing by multinational seine-netters to feed distant humans and their pets is constantly making it harder for local fishing village economies.

But no, because the price of oil will be tougher on those big guys than on the little ones, who can still row or sail to their fishing grounds. This place is naturally abundant from a confluence of factors, and, for the most part, these families don’t over-exploit that good fortune. A Mayan fisherman is content when he has caught enough. He doesn’t need to work more than about 4 hours in any day, nor does he have any motivation to work beyond that. He doesn’t have a savings account in the bank unless he is has need to pay off his boat or some other big expense. Neither did his father or grandfather. He is rich not because of what he owns, but because of what he expects.

He expects that tomorrow the fish will come by again, the same as they did today.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Master of his Trade

The man they call “Bananas” is about 20 years old, 5 foot four — a stocky Mayan with a distinctively Roman nose and short black hair done in a greased-up crew cut style. He wears a non-descript blue T-shirt and shorts and flip-flops. His workshop is behind a typical 10-foot by 10-foot palapa of palm poles and rusted tin roof over a dirt floor. It has no sign. People know him by reputation. His backyard is bare dirt with a few coconut trees and further back, beyond the fishing net fence, is a mangrove swamp. The yard is cluttered, as any shop would be, with a detritus of discarded parts, rusty tools, cans of used oil and gas, and an air compressor. Around the perimeter are an assortment of parts for both for bicycles and motorcycles, which he has been repairing to keep busy, although bicycles are his first love.

When I come around the house into the yard there already two fishermen waiting for him to work on their motorscooter and tricycle carrier cart, respectively. Both of those jobs will take more elaborate work than my bicycle, so when I come in, pointing to my deflated front tire, I am bumped immediately to the front of the line. “Aire?” says a man in a red baseball cap, hoping I need only the compressor and the mechanic can get back to his motorscooter. “No, puncta,” I say, and he concedes the inevitable pecking order, repeating, “Ah, puncta.”

Watching the young man work is better than any ballet. With a swift move, he flips the bicycle on its handlebars and seat and reaches to his table for a yellow-handled screwdriver. While continuing a steady and off-color banter with the fisherman perched on the motorscooter and not even looking down at my tire, he breaks the bead around the rim and removes the tube.

This is why I came to him. Left to my own I would have inverted the bicycle as he had done and then removed that front tire from the frame, using an adjustable wrench. I would've used a specially curved and coated bike tool to break the bead on both sides of the rim and very carefully extracted the tube. That whole process might have taken me five minutes. While not even stopping talking, he accomplished the same feat in 15 seconds, entirely by braille.

He reached for his air hose and filled the tube. He immediately spotted the leak but with the tube still bound within the front fork of the bike he brought over a bucket and ran the tube delicately through water to see if there were any more. Then he went into a shop and brought out a power drill with a grinding wheel mounted on the front. He carefully sanded the area of the leak, then he reached to his table and got a patch and faster than I could even observe planted it on the tube. He repeated the process of running the tube through the water bucket. Satisfied the patch was good, he quickly deflated and ran the tube back into the tire and, using his bare fingers, reseated the tire into the rim. Once more he used the air hose, filling the tire to a pressure designated by his fingertips. Then he screwed on the nozzle cap, squeezed the back tire, determined it needed a little air too, inflated that, and, still holding the air hose in one hand, flipped the bike back up on its two wheels.

For his five minutes of work I handed him a 50 peso note, a little over 4 dollars. He went to his cashbox and returned me 40 pesos change. The repair had cost me 83 cents. I would have insisted on giving him more pesos but in front of his friends it would have dishonored him.

In a tough economy this artisan will do well, because people will come to him even though they could do the job themselves. They will come to him not just to save themselves time and work, but to enjoy a display of acrobatic grace and poise; to witness a master at his trade.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt’s Demographic Whammy

— former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato

The pyramids of Egypt everyone is looking at these days are not the ones built from sandstone, but those created from excess testosterone, ovulation and the explosion of youth. It is a demographic pyramid; skinny at the top but wide at the 15-to-30-year-old band.

Recently we were in the recording studio taping the audiobook version of The Biochar Solution. We were reading the Introduction ourselves, in first person singular, and leaving the remainder to more professional-sounding narrators.

As we read into the microphone, we had a strange out-of-body experience, transposing with the listening audience, and hearing that chapter for the first time from the point of view of a stranger.

It was a bit worrying.

In the United States in particular, and that is where the majority of sales for the book are expected, there is no general acceptance of the fundamental premise of this book — that climate change is the most serious threat homo sapiens face, more serious in fact than any we have ever faced.

But if you don’t believe you have the disease, its unlikely we’ll be able to sell you the remedy.

Some nervous second thoughts are to be expected, we suppose, but then we have always been speaking to a smaller, presumedly wiser audience — those who read. (And we’re not talking about TV Guide, USA Today or People Magazine, but actual books.) Perhaps, like us, our audience also surfs the web for emerging sector news feeds, and looks to the edges of science and intellectual debate for their perception of the future. They are less concerned with Lindsay Lohan’s latest court date or Gerard Butler’s abdominal exercise regimen than with the effects of the drought in the Amazon, the rising price of grain stocks, or the gitmoization of Bradley Manning.
Recently Peter Coy, of Business Week,  reported on the growing malaise of unemployed youth. “In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall,” he said. “In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they're ‘boomerang’ kids who move back home after college because they can't find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its ‘ant tribe’ — recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.”

This is where population pressure begins to unravel economies. The revolution in the Middle East is being driven by demographics: youth with iPods and a serious case of consumer lust are demanding their share of the American Dream. There is as yet no recognition that the suburban middle class with a two-car garage and cable TV that they watched in movies, growing up, has been purchased at the expense of indigenous peoples and a rich matrix of bioregional ecosystems, both reduced to slavery before being nearly extinguished.

Fifteen- to 29-year-olds account for 34% of the population in Iran, 30% in Jordan, 29% in Egypt and 21% in the USA. As government belt-tightening extends retirement age, shaves public sector jobs and pensions, and cuts benefits to the unemployed, the old eat the jobs of the young.

For every group of disenchanted freeters, there is a corresponding group of extinct species. Mileuristas have been purchased at the cost of cork forests, salmon and Pyrenees bears.
The banal neoliberal prescription from governments hoping to reset to a status quo ante is to provide more education, jobs and a bigger safety net. Dream on. All three of those cures only feed the cancer. The highest rates of youth unemployment — typically a quarter of the population — are now found in the Middle East and North Africa, but that will change. China and India can’t possibly hope to keep pace with booming populations once the cheap energy peak tips into a steep energy decline. Food supply — double whammied by fuel and fertilizer panic and climate chaos — will be the great leveler.

And, in a curious twist, that may be when people come around to reading The Biochar Solution, or getting the audiobook.




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