Blog Archive

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Richard Pauli on the immorality of paid climate denial comments, in response to the New Yorker article by Toobin

Richard Pauli's comment on the following article in the New Yorker:

Mr Toobin, thank you for this is an important post.

The intensity of the comment responses suggests you have been well targeted by the US version of China's "50-cent Army."  In China, this is the online propaganda operation that targets specific issues of public opinion.  A 50-cent Army is so named because of the fees paid to organizations that generate comments (paid per comment written to deflect criticism and dissent).  This has proved tremendously effective in moving opinions of China's 600 million Internet users.  

A few years ago, in the US, I saw an online recruitment for the formation of a domestic cadre to promote Clean Coal by making personal comments on domestic blogs and newspaper sites.  I declined to join their group. But it proved that widespread use of this tactic is as easy as paying "50 cents per posting," although I have no idea what they had budgeted.  

This leaves the readers here to be more distrusting of comments.  As they should be.  This is an easy public relations manipulation (see also the mass communications theory for the Spiral of Silence).  And for the serious message-manipulation campaign, spending a little cash to salt and sweeten comments is too cheap to pass up.   

Earnest readers will notice that the tone and intensity of comments will appear at different times and places on the Internet.  However, in this case, for this subject, their appearance only works to validate your point: there is big money influencing this very issue.  It translates into public opinion and legislative action, or inaction, that directly impacts the coal and oil industries.  Serious carbon investors might even demand this kind of PR move.  (Is there a fiduciary responsibility/liability there?)  

The difficulty of their task is made great and more expensive on this issue because the assigned 50-cent Army must fight both reality and science.  (For now, that differs on how commenting may be used in China - which may be for pure ideological purposes.)  As global warming climate destabilization increases, the comments will likely become more shrill and numerous.  Anxious readers will dig deeper, searching desperately for some message that says "this is not really happening," like a cancer patient desperate for a different diagnosis.  There will be plenty of comments that deliver on the desperate fantasy, and many readers eager to follow the false cure of alternative medicine.   

But your account is of the unified Republican machine - fully subcontracted out to the Koch  coal and oil interests.  We have full ethical contempt for the legislative response to global warming.  The abrogation of congressional responsibility to protect citizens is immorality amounting to treason against our future, a sabotage of human interests. This is horribly disappointing to learn that people can be so united in a sell-out of others. With this issue it applies globally, even affecting the future of the politicians who squabble over the garments they grab.

Such purchased ignorance comes easily to the very structure of our representative government.  Anyone charged with delivering a safe future to younger people would find this shocking. How do we fix this? Can we?

In facing such a 50-cent Army of Commenters, all we can do is leave the dreck and stick to the articles, and then personally collect the reality of climate and weather changes for ourselves.  And we should remember that for now, it appears the unified Republican Party only makes itself a larger opponent in any election.  We can vote them out, but since their ethical lapses translate into real pain for the future, it will be difficult to forgive. Our anger should not be bitter, but neither must we forget.

New clue to Antarctic food-web puzzle: phytoplankton blooms, krill, penguin guano

by Tim Radford, Climate News Network, July 16, 2014

A landmark research study that shows one species of penguin is thriving while other populations are in rapid decline offers new insight into how climate change is affecting Antarctica.

LONDON - Good news from Antarctica: the continent may be warming, the ice shelf may be at risk, and the food chain may ultimately become precarious, but the Adélie penguin population – at least for the moment − is higher than ever before.

The news does not suggest that global warming and climate change are actually good for this important indicator species, which has certainly been in decline on the Antarctic Peninsula. But it does represent an advance: for the first time, a comprehensive study has concluded with a full census of the species.

Heather Lynch, assistant professor of ecology and evelotion at Stony Brook University in New York, and Michelle La Rue, research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geopspatial Center, used high resolution satellite imagery to measure levels of penguin guano – the fertiliser industry’s preferred term for seabird excrement – on the continent.

They then used that as the basis for calculating the numbers of birds in a colony necessary to account for all that digested and evacuated seafood.

They report in a journal called The Auk: Ornithological Advances that they identified at least 17 populations of Adélie penguins not previously known to exist, but failed to pinpoint 13 already-recorded colonies, and declared 8 of them eradicated.

Their estimate for the total Adélie population in and around the Southern Ocean stands at 3.79 million, which is 53% higher than all previous estimates.

Useful evidence

The researchers call their work a “landmark” study, and see it not as evidence that climate change is going to work for the benefit of one particular species, but more as a useful piece of the great food-web puzzle in a changing climate.

Penguins have been in rapid decline in the West Antarctic Peninsula, which has become one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet. Warmer weather and increased rain have already started to take toll of Magellanic penguins in Argentina, and researchers recently predicted long-term decline for the iconic Emperor penguin on Antarctica itself.

But this is only long-term decline. As long as Antarctica stays cold and the ice shelf stays stable, the researchers say, the population could, in the short term, actually rise.

That is because what matters most to the species that nest in Antarctica is the supply of fish and krill around the continent’s edge. The health and resilience of the Adélie population – and the Emperor penguin, the leopard seal, the cetaceans, and so on – ultimately depend on how the krill and fish populations respond to climate change.

Humans, too, fish for commercial supplies of Antarctic krill, which provides a source of food for fish farms.

“Our finding of a 53% increase in Adélie penguin breeding abundance, compared to 20 years ago, suggests that estimates of krill consumption by this species may be seriously underestimated,” Dr Lynch said. “Leaving enough prey for natural krill predators is an important element in ensuring fisheries proceed sustainably.”

But a second team confirms in Nature Communications that there are strong links between climate and marine life, and that changes in factors such as wind speed and sea ice can have knock-on effects right around the Antarctic food web.

Since 1990, scientists aboard US research vessels have been conducting annual surveys along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, measuring populations of photosynthetic algae.

These peak every 4-6 years, according to changes in atmospheric pressure between the mid-latitudes and Antarctica itself.

Glacial meltwater

In winter, when cold southerly winds blow across the Peninsula, the winter ice extends. Winds drop from spring to summer, reducing the retreat of the ice. So the water column in summer then is stable, and the phytoplankton multiply, fed by iron-rich glacial meltwater.

The blooms of phytoplankton are what the krill need to multiply, and when the krill are around in huge volumes, the Adélie and other penguins, fur seals, baleen whales and albatross don’t have to go so far to find food.

But marine scientist Grace Saba, who did her research while with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, before moving to Rutgers University, New Jersey, reports that these ideal conditions – negative phases of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), to give it the technical terminology – are not guaranteed in future. If the world goes on burning fossil fuels, conditions will probably change.

“Projections from global climate models under business-as-usual emission scenarios up to the year 2100 suggest a further increase in temperature and in the occurrence of positive-SAM conditions,” Dr Saba said.
“If even one positive SAM episode lasted longer than the krill lifespan – 4-6 years with decreased phytoplankton abundance and krill recruitment – it could be catastrophic to the krill population.”

Europe faces cereals crop crash from drought and higher temperatures

by Tim Radford, Climate News Network, June 2, 2014

Two new studies raise concerns that Europe’s wheat and barley yields could be heading for a serious fall as a result of temperature rise and an increase in extreme weather

LONDON, 2 June − Harvests of wheat and barley across Europe could be 20% lower by 2040 as average temperatures rise by 2 °C. And by 2060, European farmers could be facing very serious losses.

As the likelihood of weather extremes increases with temperature, the consequences of lower yields will be felt around the world. Europe produces, for example, 29% of the world’s wheat.

Two consecutive studies in Nature Climate Change examine the challenges faced by the farmers − the first of the reports being by a team led by Miroslav Trnka, of the Czech Global Change Research Centre in Brno.

They considered the impact of changing conditions in 14 very different wheat growing zones − from the Alpine north to the southern Mediterranean, from the great plains of Northern Europe to the baking uplands of the Iberian peninsula, and from the Baltic seascapes of Denmark to the fertile flood plains of the Danube.

It is a given that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and that crops are vulnerable to unseasonal conditions. But a rise in average temperatures of 2 °C is likely to increase the frequency of unfavourable conditions.

Incidence of drought

The researchers, therefore, factored in such data as the numbers of days with very high temperatures, the incidence of drought, late spring frosts, severe winter frosts with too little snow, spells with too much rain, spells when the weather is too cool at the wrong time.

Altogether, they totted up 11 sets of adverse conditions that could blight winter wheat in all 14 sample environments. They then used climate models to simulate the probability of things going wrong once, and also more than once, in any single growing season. And they found that, by 2060, the occurrence of adverse weather conditions would increase for all environments.

“This is likely to result in more frequent crop failure across Europe,” they conclude. “The study provides essential information for developing adaptation strategies.”

Adaptation strategies − according to Frances Moore and David Lobell, of Stanford University, California, in the second of the Nature Climate Change studies − are exactly what European cereal farmers should be thinking about.

They analysed the yield and profit records from thousands of European farms between 1989 and 2009. They then matched the data with climate records to test performance under a suite of different weather histories, and ran simulations using 13 different climate models.

“The results clearly showed that modest amounts of climate change can have a big impact on yields of several crops in Europe,” Moore said.

“This is a little surprising because the region is fairly cool, so you might think it would benefit from moderate amounts of warming. Our next step was to measure the potential of European farmers to adapt to these impacts.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should, in theory, be good for crops – fertility should increase – but a procession of recent scientific studies has painted a different picture.

Plant protein levels

With extra heat comes a greater likelihood of drought to slash maize yields.  And even when the extra carbon dioxide increases growth, it may reduce the levels of all-important plant protein in the yield.

In addition, extremes of heat at the wrong time in the growing season could devastate crops, while the change in average temperatures will open the way for invasions of new kinds of pest.

The Stanford researchers argue that what matters most is how quickly farmers in Europe can adapt, and how crop yields will respond.

“By adaptation, we mean a range of options based on existing technologies, such as switching varieties of a crop, installing irrigation, or growing a different crop,” Lobell said.
“These things have been talked about for a long time, but the novelty of this study was using past data to quantify the actual potential of adaptation to reduce climate change impacts.”

Saharan desert dust feeds deep ocean life

by Tim Radford, Climate News Network, July 14, 2014

US scientists have found that dust from the Sahara desert provides most of the iron found in the Atlantic ocean.

LONDON − Marine scientists have measured levels of iron dissolved in the Atlantic ocean, and at the same time worked out where it came from.

In the course of doing so, they have helped explain in more detail why the deep ocean is blue while coastal waters are usually green, and at the same time helped answer more complex questions about the ocean’s role in the great carbon dioxide question.

And in the course of settling these points, they have also answered questions about North Africa’s importance to the rest of the world. It keeps the oceans and the Amazon supplied with valuable dust.

Tim Conway and Seth John of the University of South Carolina report in Nature that they devised a way to sample large volumes of seawater to identify the content of dissolved iron in the water, and then to distinguish the ratio between different isotopes of that iron.

An isotope is a natural variant of an element, and often indicates a different source of origin. Iron is a vital trace element: without it, mammals cannot make haemoglobin to transport oxygen around the bloodstream and plants cannot make chlorophyll to photosynthesize tissue from air and sunlight.

Missing iron

The deep oceans have everything needed for plant growth – sunlight, carbon, nitrogen and water – but they don’t have iron. That is one reason why they tend to be blue while nutrient-rich coastal waters are green.

Estuaries and deltas are rich in iron and other nutrients and good for algal growth. Because ocean phytoplankton (microscopic plants which sustain the marine food web) cannot get enough iron, there is a limit to the carbon dioxide they can absorb from the atmosphere. So iron is an element in the great carbon cycle. And it doesn’t need to be available in huge quantities.

“I did a calculation once on a ton of sea water. The amount of iron in that ton of water would weigh about as much as a single eyelash,” says Dr John. “The key reason that everybody cares about iron is because it limits the growth of phytoplankton such as algae, in maybe a fifth of the ocean.”

The researchers collected 600 samples of sea water during a cruise across the North Atlantic on a research ship, and set to work trying to identify the origin of the few billionths of a gram of iron in every litre of the water collected.

Saharan source

They found that a measurable proportion of oceanic iron seeped up from deep within the crust through hydrothermal vents along the mid-ocean ridge. A fraction came from sediments on the African coast, and more than 10% came from oxygenated muds on the American coast.

But they also found that the answer had been blowing in the wind. Somewhere between 71% and 87% was delivered by dust storms from the Sahara desert.  That is, life in the deep ocean depended on an annual delivery of fertiliser from one of the world’s emptiest and most parched regions.

The play between dust and life has fascinated scientists for more than a decade. In 2006, Israeli researchers found that more than half the dust needed to fertilise the Brazilian rainforest blew in from just one desiccated valley in Chad.

Two years later a team in Liverpool in the UK confirmed the role of Saharan dust as a mineral source for the Atlantic ocean and in 2007 Swiss and German microbiologists analysed dust samples collected by Charles Darwin.

They found that wind-blown dust could transport microbes from West Africa all the way to the Caribbean. An estimated 50 million tons of Saharan dust is blown across the Atlantic to the Amazon every year.

Explaining the past

So the South Carolina research is just another example of science in action; a painstaking increment to human knowledge rather than a breakthrough. It adds quantifiable figures to a picture already taking shape. It is a reminder that intercontinental migration is as old as life itself. And it also helps explain a little bit more about the global climate machine.

Researchers have already theorised that airborne dust must play a role in cloud formation – and therefore in rainfall and drought – and even that dust storms may play a role in damping down hurricanes.

If more dust in the oceans and the forests means more carbon uptake from the atmosphere, then cycles of superstorms of dust could also help tweak the global thermostat. “It could help us understand past climate change, like glacial-interglacial cycles,” Dr John says.

“There would have been huge changes in dust fluxes to the ocean in glacial times, and so understanding how much iron comes from dust in the modern day helps us figure out whether that was an important driver of glacial
interglacial cycles.”

UK doctors vote to end fossil fuel funding

by Alex Kirby, Climate News Network, July 1, 2014

The British medical profession’s influential national organisation has sent out a strong message about climate change by deciding to withdraw its funds from the fossil fuel industry and to support renewable energy instead.

LONDON − The body that represents doctors in the UK has voted to end its investments in fossil fuel companies − making it the first national medical organisation in the world to do so.

A motion passed at the annual representatives’ meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA) − in effect, its annual general meeting − marks its commitment to withdraw financial support for fossil fuels and to pursue instead a corresponding increase in its investments in renewable energy.

This is in keeping with the statement by the recent Lancet Commission that climate change “could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

The BMA motion is understood to have been passed by a majority of about two-thirds, as part of a broader motion calling for a switch to renewable energy and the creation of a new alliance of health professionals focusing on the health effects of climate change.

Growing support

Tabled by members of the BMA’s Retired Members’ Forum and several of its local committees, the motion is part of growing support for the fossil fuel divestment movement, both internationally and in the UK.

Supporters of disinvestment argue on two main grounds. They say avoiding the worst impacts of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels; and if world leaders agree to do this, they say, most oil and gas will have to be left in the ground as unburnable, becoming “stranded assets.”

There were some dissenting voices during the debate on the BMA motion, but most of those who opposed it questioned how affordable and achievable it was likely to be, rather than expressing misgivings about what it set out to do.

The clause that called for divestment passed as a “reference,” meaning that the spirit and intent are kept but the BMA’s Council is not required to adhere to the exact wording. However, BMA watchers insist that it does represent a clear commitment to divest.

During the debate, the BMA's Chair of Council and its treasurer said the Association would seek to divest “carefully and properly,” and not “only if [they] feel like it.”

An editorial published in the British Medical Journal in March called for divestment from fossil fuels because of the “scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health and wellbeing” posed by unmitigated climate change.

The health charities Medact, the Climate and Health Council and Healthy Planet UK, which represent health professionals and medical students, have since called on other UK health organisations to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the Climate News Network: “The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing divestment movement, including universities, cities and theological institutions and foundations around the world.

“There is a growing body of evidence that many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can improve health in the near term as well.

Principled position

“Undoubtedly, the principled position of the BMA will encourage other institutions to do the same and increase the likelihood that a strong agreement on climate change can be negotiated by the end of 2015.”

Isobel Braithwaite, a medical student who is the co-ordinator of Healthy Planet UK, told the Network: “In a sense, this vote is symbolic, because unless an organisation has billions to invest it can't by itself make a huge difference.

“But we think that the leadership the BMA has shown will help to encourage other health organisations, in the UK and elsewhere, to follow suit.”
David McCoy, a doctor who chairs Medact, said: “In the same way that ethical investors choose not to profit from tobacco and arms sales, the health community worldwide is correctly calling for divestment from another set of harmful activities.”