Sierra Daily: February 2011

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26 posts from February 2011

Feb 28, 2011

"Facts are stupid things."

Books Who would have guessed back in 1988 that Ronald Reagan's humorous slip of the tongue (he meant to say "stubborn") would blossom into a political movement? It has taken some time, but by now the cord connecting millions of people to the fact-based world has been severed. One of our first inklings that this was happening was in Ron Suskind's famous 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." A then-anonymous Bush aide (now widely believed to have been Karl Rove) dismissed the author as being stuck in the "reality-based community."

''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' 

Rove comes to mind after reading Dave Roberts in Grist on "What we have and haven't learned from 'Climategate.'" Roberts reviews the five independent inquiries into the much-ballyhooed theft of climate-science emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, each one of which completely exonerated the researchers.

It's a numbingly familiar pattern in media coverage. The conservative movement that's been attacking climate science for 20 years has a storied history of demonstrable fabrications, distortions, personal attacks, and nothingburger faux-scandals -- not only on climate science, but going back to asbestos, ozone, leaded gasoline, tobacco, you name it. They don't follow the rigorous standards of professional science; they follow no intellectual or ethical standards whatsoever. Yet no matter how long their record of viciousness and farce, every time the skeptic blogosphere coughs up a new "ZOMG!" it's as though we start from zero again, like no one has a memory longer than five minutes.

The reason is that a very large sector of the American public no longer cares what careful, reality-based, independent inquiries have to say; they prefer their own version, created by Beck, Limbaugh, and Fox. In the latest New York Times Magazine,Judith Warner addresses this "a troubling new reality: the rise of the Tea Party and its anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-elite worldview has brought both a mainstreaming and a radicalization of antiscientific thought."

[S]ince taking over the House of Representatives, the Republicans have packed science-related committees with lawmakers who refute such basic findings as the reality of global warming and the threats of climate change. Fred Upton, the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said outright that he does not believe that global warming is man-made. John Shimkus of Illinois, who also sits on the committee — as well as on the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment — has said that the government doesn’t need to make a priority of regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, because as he put it late last year, “God said the earth would not be destroyed by a flood.”

That's the mainstreaming part. The radicalizing part is described by Roberts:

In effect, the modern right has created is a closed epistemic loop containing millions of people. Within that loop, the implausibility or extremity of a claim itself counts as evidence. The more liberal elites reject it, the more it entrenches itself. Standards of evidence have nothing to do with it. The notion that there is a global conspiracy by professional scientists to falsify results in order to get more research money is . . ."a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe." Once you have accepted that shibboleth, anything offered to you as evidence of its truth, no matter how ludicrous, will serve as affirmation. (Even a few context-free lines cherry-picked from thousands of private emails.) . . . .American society now contains within it a large, well-funded, tightly networked, and highly amplified tribe that defines itself through rejection of that society's "lamestream" truth claims and standards of evidence. How should society relate to that tribe?

Reasoning with them doesn't work. Lord knows making fun of them doesn't work. Maybe you've got an idea? Leave it in the comments.

--Paul Rauber

Feb 25, 2011

World's Weirdest Use for Solar Power

We learn via Green, the New York Times' energy and environment blog, two amazing things:

#1--The California company GlassPointSolar is building a solar facility in Kern County, the steam from which will be used to extract the last drops of oil from a depleted oil field.

#2--Perverse as that may sound, this is actually a plus for the environment insofar as the usual method for producing steam to extract the last drops of oil from depleted oil fields is to burn natural gas. In fact,

Rod MacGregor, GlassPoint’s chairman, said that burning natural gas to make steam for oil recovery was the largest single use of natural gas in California. About 40 percent of California’s oil is produced through such “enhanced oil recovery,” and the steam can account for as much as two-thirds of the production cost of such oil, according to GlassPoint. The amount of steam needed to produce a barrel of oil varies according to the age of the field, but two million B.T.U. per barrel is typical.

Emphasis added just because it is such a mindblowing factoid. Too bad we can't just use all that solar power and natural gas to get beyond oil.

--Paul Rauber

And the Eco-Oscar Goes To…

Gasland_5Full.png 2.0 One of two environmental documentaries could walk away with a statuette at the Academy Awards on Sunday. Up for awards in the feature documentary category are "Gasland," which explores the impacts of extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, and "Waste Land," which follows artist Vik Muniz as he creates art with the help of garbage scavengers in a landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. (Gasland was reviewed by our own The Green Life blog. Read the Sierra Club's take on hydraulic fracturing  here.)

All that Hollywood bling is nothing to sniff at: An Oscar win in 2006 for Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" propelled the issue of global warming into mainstream public consciousness.

--Reed McManus

Feb 24, 2011

To Save the Planet, Eat a Bug?

MA11-Cover If you’ve read Sierra’s two current features ("Endangered? Who Cares?" and "Interview with a Bug-Eater") and still aren’t convinced that the strangest-looking bugs are worth saving for their own sake and/or for eating, try this: Consuming them may be a fine way to address climate change.

According to a report in livescience.com, researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands compared the greenhouse gas emissions from five species of insects (mealworms, house crickets, migratory locusts, sun beetles, and Argentine cockroaches) with those of cattle and pigs. The envelope, please: “The insects generally produced less methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia both per unit of body mass and per unit of mass gained than pigs or cattle.”  As entomologist Dennis Oonincx told livescience, “It proves the hypothesis that insects can be a more efficient source [of protein], and I definitely believe there is a future for edible insects. It may not be as the animal as such but regarding protein extraction there is a lot to be learned and a lot to be gained.”

And you think your Prius shows people that you care?

--Reed McManus

The Eagle of Distinction


A 25-year-old bald eagle, the second oldest in Alaska and one of the oldest ever recorded, was electrocuted by a power line in the town of Kodiak. According to the American Bird Conservancy, the eagle had been captured and banded in 1989 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. "That eagle survived one of Mother Nature's harshest climates for 25 years," said ABC president George Fenwick, "only to find death on a man-made utility pole."

The ABC is concerned that new power lines from wind farms and other alternative-energy installations around the country will lead to many more such scenes. "Unless buried or properly insulated," warns Fenwick, "those power lines can electrocute large birds such as bald and golden eagles that perch on poles and lines while hunting."  

Cue "Where Do We Go From Here":

Did you hear about the eagle of distinction/The one that came on every Friday afternoon/Well it seems that eagle has near flown into extinction/Descending to the sand/His biggest enemy being man/Have you ever seen the freedom on the wing?

--Paul Rauber

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


"I'm Big Oil and I Approve of This Candidate"


Back in those innocent days last spring in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United, some wondered whether it was really going to be such a big deal after all.

 "The big question is whether they are actually going to use this new tool that has been given to them," says Dave Levinthal, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics. Corporations already often give to candidates on both sides of the aisle. If they choose sides, he points out, they'd better be sure they pick the winner. And businesses might be leery of aligning with a particular political party, since presumably they'd still welcome customers from both.

Not! First came the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's record spending in the 2010 midterm elections. Now, via Think Progress, we learn that the American Petroleum institute, Big Oil's lobbying arm, will start contributing directly to candidates this year. Here's Dan Weiss from the Center for American Progress:

While ExxonMobil, BP, and other large oil companies run their warm and fuzzy clean energy ads on television, API wields brass knuckles behind closed congressional doors to get special treatment. API wants to drill in fragile, sensitive places, keep government tax breaks, expand offshore drilling without reforms, and block global warming pollution reduction requirements.

API's first order of business is to block President Obama's proposed repeal of $46 billion in subsidies to the oil industry. So far so good from their point of view: Instead of repealing the handouts to Dirty Energy, the supposed deficit hawks in the House of Representatives are looking to defund Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting instead.

--Paul Rauber

illustration by Victor Juhasz

Feb 23, 2011

To Save the Planet, Build Bigger Ships?


Danish shipping line Maersk is building a fleet of supersized cargo ships that it claims will slash the per-container carbon emissions of shipping on China-Europe routes. The company says that its Triple-E (“economy of scale, energy efficiency and environmentally improved”) ships, each carrying 18,000 20-foot-long containers, will emit half the average amount of carbon dioxide per container compared to other ships. The new boats are so large that only 8 ports (three in Europe, one in Egypt, and four in Asia) can handle them.

Given worldwide demand for bananas and flat-screen televisions, it's no surprise that the carbon impact of the shipping industry will soon be surpassed only by that of cars, housing, agriculture, and industry. For starters, the shipping industry traditionally burns cheap but heavily polluting “bunker” fuel, and today's average cargo ship consumes 200 tons of fuel per day. (The megaships purportedly halve that.) As recently disclosed by the UK's Guardian, a leaked UN study contends that annual emissions of carbon dioxide from the world’s merchant fleet have reached 1.12 billion tons, or nearly 4.5 percent of all global greenhouse-gas emissions. The aviation industry is responsible for about 650 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

--Reed McManus

Deadbeat Fuels, Part 1: Nuclear


Imagine the fifty years ago, you had a delightful little baby boy, full of hope and promise. You spared no expense in bringing him up: private tutors, piano classes, fancy summer camps. You raided your retirement fund to pay for his college education, financed his travels around the globe, even put off retirement when he needed to move back into the house after being unable to find a job. Now he's 50, playing Grand Theft Auto in the basement, and asking what's for dinner.

That's pretty much the story of the nuclear industry in the United States. A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subisidies," details the more than 30 different subsidies that are lavished on nuclear power at every stage of its production. Taken together, these subsidies "often have exceeded the average market price of the power produced." That is, it costs more to prop up the industry than its product is worth. What if we subsidized clean energy instead?

--Paul Rauber

 Image: iStock

Feb 22, 2011

Southerners Love Their Football…and Their Trees.

Southern love of collegiate football is no fiercer than in Alabama, where fans of the University of Alabama and Auburn University share a more-than-casual enmity.  Last year was particularly hard on Alabama fans. Auburn’s Tigers beat Alabama’s Crimson Tide in the annual to-the-death match-up known as the Iron Bowl, then continued on to secure a berth in the BCS National Championship Game in January, a contest that Alabama had won handily the previous year. (Some Alabama fans couldn’t bring themselves to rally behind a team from their own state, instead throwing support to some team from Out West called the Oregon Ducks, modifying their famous “Roll, Tide, Roll!” chant to “Roll, Ducks, Roll!” It didn’t help. Auburn won.)

But Southerners also love their trees, and when it became public that an over-the-top Alabama fan, irate that his team lost in November’s Iron Bowl, had poisoned two 130-year-old oak trees on the Auburn campus that had long served as the focal point for post-game celebrations, football fans throughout the state turned into tree-huggers.  An Auburn student took to Facebook and organized a “tree hug” that elicited more than 8,000 RSVP’s, while Alabama fans created their own Facebook page in support of Auburn's oaks.  As of Tuesday,  the joint efforts of Auburn and Alabama fans had collected more than $39,000 to help preserve the trees or replace them if arborists deem them beyond help.

Facebook: It spurs a revolution in Egypt and harmony in Alabama.

--Reed McManus

Feb 17, 2011

Record Melting in Greenland


Here's what I think: The knuckle-dragging foolishness about global warming of the sort we're seeing in Montana or hearing on NPR isn't going to last much longer, because things are going to get very serious very soon. This image from microwave data from NASA's invaluable Earth Observatory shows anomalous days of melting for 2010--a new record, 50 days more than usual. 

Melting ice in Greenland freshens the seas near the Arctic and contributes to rising sea levels around the world. It is unclear just how much melting ice from Greenland will push sea levels up, largely because the melting is occurring much more quickly than scientists predicted. Current estimates call for an increase of up to 0.6 meters by 2100.

That's two feet. The consequences of even a one-foot rise in global sea level will get everyone's attention in a hurry. If we don't want to go there, though, we've can't afford to dawdle now.

--Paul Rauber



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