Why Climategate doesn’t matter (VIII)

Henry David Thoreau

The series explained.

Since the 1850s, when Henry David Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, the mean annual temperature in the Concord area has risen by 4.3 degrees. And that warming has had an effect.

According to a study by scientists from Harvard University and other research institutions, 27 percent of the native plant species that Thoreau documented have gone missing, and another 36 percent are under threat, Carolyn Johnson reports in the Boston Globe.

Explains researcher Charles Davis, quoted by Harvard Magazine: “Climate change will lead to an as-yet unknown shuffling of species, and it appears that invasive species will become more dominant.”

What makes the situation at Walden unusual is that Thoreau kept meticulous records, making it possible for scientists to document changes in ways that just can’t be done in most parts of the country. As University of Wisconsin researcher Mark Schwartz told Wired.com back in 2008, when the study was being conducted:

Whenever you have an opportunity to get a dataset where someone who has made very careful efforts to observe things in a systematic way, it gives you a snapshot of a particular time period and lets you make comparisons.

And before you say “global warming is good for you,” take a look at this assessment from Harvard scientist Davis:

Invasive species can be intensely destructive to biodiversity, ecosystem function, agriculture, and human health. In the United States alone the estimated annual cost of invasive species exceeds $120 billion. Our results could help in developing predictive models to assess the threat of future invasive species, which may become greatly exacerbated in the face of continued climate change.

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Why Climategate doesn’t matter (VII)

Click on photo for GlobalPost slideshow

The series explained.

Ashar Chor, an island that’s part of the desperately poor nation of Bangladesh, is literally drowning, as rising seas eat away at the shore. Within 25 to 30 years, according to GlobalPost, the island could be gone.

“Ten years ago we lived three kilometers farther out to what is now sea, but now we have to move our houses back once or twice a year as the sea takes more of the island,” according to Deb Mondol, described in the GlobalPost report as someone who has worked on the island for 15 years.

The GlobalPost report consists mainly of a photo essay by Khaled Hasan, who provides graphic evidence of Ashar Chor’s watery fate. But the island is far from being the only part of Bangladesh being affected by global warming. Earlier this year, Anuj Chopra wrote in U.S. News & World Report that Bangladesh’s fresh water is being contaminated by sea water, ruining drinking-water supplies and rice paddies.

Bangladesh has been identified by the Global Climate Risk Index as the country most threatened by climate change. But unlike rising industrial powerhouses like China and India, whose output of carbon dioxide rivals that of the United States, Bangladesh contributes very little to global warming. In 2008 Fakhruddin Ahmed, the then-head of Bangladesh’s interim government, was quoted in the Guardian:

There is every reason to feel angry and upset. The least developed are suffering the most. It is unfair. We are suffering the most from climate change, but we did not contribute [to it] at all. We are prepared to do our part, but we require, and demand, access to a large amount of investment, resources and technologies that will be needed to adapt.

According to GlobalPost, Bangladesh has asked that the industrialized countries reduce their CO2 emissions by as much as 40 percent over the next 15 years — a goal that is almost certainly unattainable. Yet if the reduction is not achieved, Ashar Chor may disappear. And the suffering of Bangladesh will grow.

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Green hypocrites

From the you-can’t-make-this-up department: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has filed a bill that would prevent solar panels and wind farms from being built in the Mojave Desert. I hope this wrecks her 92 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Meanwhile, one of Feinstein’s principal critics is the noted environmentalist (and would-be Mojave developer) Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who says, “This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Sen. Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review.”

No, she shouldn’t. But if you recall, Kennedy — like other members of his family, including, unfortunately, his late uncle Ted — has been a staunch opponent of Cape Wind, our very own Mojave Desert when it comes to untapped energy potential.

OK, here’s where I could say something snarky about “environmentalists.” Sorry. The vast majority of environmentalists favor clean energy projects of all stripes, most definitely including Cape Wind. But save us, please, from politicians and celebrities.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (VI)

Adélie penguin
Adélie penguin

The series explained.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, the environmental journalist Fen Montaigne reports on the decline of the Adélie penguin in the northwest Antarctic Peninsula — a decline directly traceable to a catastrophic loss of sea ice in recent decades, compounded by an increase in snowfall, which interferes with the penguins’ ability to protect their eggs.

Unfortunately, the article is not online, though you can listen to Montaigne talk about it here and here. But Montaigne includes a litany of disturbing statistics in his report:

  • The average annual temperature in the region is nearly 5 degrees warmer today than it was in 1951.
  • Winter temperatures have risen 11 degrees during the past 60 years, an increase that is five times higher than the worldwide average.
  • Sea ice off the peninsula arrives 54 days later in the fall and melts 31 days sooner in the spring than was the case in 1979.
  • Eighty-seven percent of the glaciers along the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating.

Although the Adélie population has collapsed in the warmer parts of Antarctica, the penguins continue to thrive in colder regions. But if the warming trends continue, extinction is a real possibility.

The problem, according to Bill Fraser, the research scientist who is Montaigne’s principal source (and the subject of a book Montaigne is writing), is that changes that might normally take place over the course of centuries are instead being compressed into a few decades, making it impossible for the Adélies to adapt.

“What we’re looking at here is an entire ecosystem that is changing, and it’s not changing in hundreds of years, which is what we used to be taught,” Fraser tells Montaigne. “It’s changed so quickly that it has encompassed the research lives of a few people who have spent a lifetime here.”

Addendum: In an earlier installment, I noted that Sarah Palin was rather late to global-warming skepticism. As it turns out, her move to the far right on this issue was considerably more dramatic than I had realized. Check out these quotes from September 2007, when she signed an order creating a panel to prepare for climate change. Said the then-Alaska governor:

Many scientists note that Alaska’s climate is changing. We are already seeing the effects. Coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice and record forest fires affect our communities and our infrastructure. Some scientists tell us to expect more changes in the future. We must begin to prepare for those changes now.

Of course, Palin in 2007 was not as interested in impressing the Republican right as she is today.

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Photo (cc) by Robert Nunn and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (V)

The series explained.

Maple syrup, a New England staple since Colonial times, may become an exotic import as a result of global warming. Sap production from sugar maples is dependent on warm days and freezing nights. But climate change has been accompanied by earlier and earlier springs — and a smaller window for producing maple syrup.

Back as 2004, the Associated Press reported on this trend as documented by the Clark Sugar House in Acworth, N.H., in business since 1896. According to Clark family records, sugar maples were never tapped before March until the mid-1980s. Then, as spring began arriving earlier each year, the timetable was moved back to February.

Three years later the New York Times checked in with Vermont maple-sugar farmers, including Burr Morse, who said he’d missed out on at least 300 gallons of sap because even February had proven to be too late.

“You might be tempted to say, well that’s a bunch of baloney — global warming,” Morse told the Times. “But the way I feel, we get too much warm. How many winters are we going to go with Decembers turning into short-sleeve weather, before the maple trees say, ‘I don’t like it here any more?’ ”

Indeed, according to the Times, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that winter temperatures in the Northeast had risen by 2.8 degrees between 1971 and 2007. The Times story also finds that though the main effect of global warming now is that maple-sugar season takes place earlier in season, eventually sugar maples will be crowded out by trees more suited to a warmer climate.* The New England Climate Coalition has posted state-by-state data here.

Quebec already dominates the maple-syrup industry. If present trends continue — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — then New England’s maple-sugar farms could soon be reduced to museums. Or Wal-Marts.

*Sentence added for clarity.

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Photo (cc) by Melissa and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (IV)

The series explained.

Carbon dioxide is killing the world’s coral reefs in two distinctly different ways. Indirectly, the human-caused build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere has led to global warming, which pushes these fragile ecosystems outside the narrow range of temperatures in which they can thrive.

In 2006, National Geographic put it this way: “Small but prolonged rises in sea temperature force coral colonies to expel their symbiotic, food-producing algae, a process known as bleaching.”

But CO2 kills the reefs directly, too. Because much of what doesn’t end up in the atmosphere is sequestered in the ocean, where it turns the water more acidic. As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday, Jeffrey Short, a scientist and environmentalist, told delegates at the Copenhagen conference on global warming that carbon-dioxide emissions should be drastically cut even in the unlikely event that they are not contributing to global warming.

Damage to the coral reefs, the nearest of which are off the coast of Florida, is not theoretical. They are already dead and dying, and some experts believe there’s little chance of their bouncing back. (The Miami Herald reported in 2006 that 90 percent of the reefs in that area had already died.) The reefs are important breeding grounds for fish. According to a study conducted several years ago, National Geographic reports, “fish diversity has tumbled by half in some areas.”

A particularly catastophic event took place in 1998, when a strong El Niño season led to devastating ocean warming. Yes, such natural occurrences show that there are limits to what humans can accomplish. But it also dramatized the effects of long-term, human-caused warming.

As David Adam wrote in the Guardian three months ago:

Within just a few decades, experts are warning, the tropical reefs strung around the middle of our planet like a jewelled corset will reduce to rubble. Giant piles of slime-covered rubbish will litter the sea bed and spell in large distressing letters for the rest of foreseeable time: Humans Were Here.

All this during a week when the World Meteorological Organization reported that the current decade appears to be the warmest on record — warmer than the 1990s, which in turn was warmer than the 1980s. The New York Times reports that the study “largely meshes with an interim analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.”

Which brings me back to 1998. Global-warming skeptics such as syndicated columnist George Will are fond of saying that the earth has been cooling since 1998. Essentially what Will and others are doing is pointing to an unusual El Niño year and using it as their baseline. They’re playing a dishonest game, and the new studies make that clear.

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Photo by Sarah Olmstead (a.k.a. Queen Esoterica) and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (II)

House falling over in Shishmaref, Alaska
House falling over in Shishmaref

The series explained.

For hundreds of years, the small village of Shishmaref, an Alaskan village on the Arctic coast, has survived, if not exactly thrived, because it was frozen for much of the year. Now it is literally melting away, as the permafrost that had propped it up for generations turns to mud. Offshore, the nearly year-long ice has given way to water.

The fate of Shishmaref is told by Boston Globe reporter Charles Pierce (lately the scourge of Tiger Woods) in his book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.” Pierce writes:

The formation of the ice allowed the people of Shishmaref to go out on the sea and hunt. The permafrost guaranteed they would have a place to which they could return. Nowadays, though, the ice is late and soft. The permafrost is thawing. And Shishmaref is falling, bit by bit, in the Chukchi Sea….

There is no question about the cause of Shishmaref’s whittling away. Global climate change — specifically, what has come to be called global warming — is gradually devastating the Arctic. Alaska’s mean temperature has risen five degrees in thirty years and the permafrost is receding everywhere. The Arctic Ocean’s ice pack … is shrinking about 10 percent a year, and the pace of that shrinkage is accelerating.

In February 2008, Tom Kizzia of the Anchorage Daily News reported on what global warming was doing to Shishmaref and other northern villages, writing, “Alaska has lagged behind some other states in targeting emissions, even though the effects of rising temperatures have been pronounced here.”

And at that time, Kizzia wrote, then-governor Sarah Palin was looking into ways of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in Alaska. Things change.

Update: For more on Palin’s rightward journey on global warming, see the addendum to this post.

You can learn more about the issue from the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, whose Web site is the source of the above photo.

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (I)

For the past several weeks, conservative commentators have been buzzing about “Climategate” — hacked e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit in Britain that show some scientists may have been cooking the books in an attempt to bolster the case for global warming.

“Assuming the e-mails are genuine, they are nothing short of scandalous,” writes Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, a prominent global-warming skeptic. And, inevitably, Climategate enthusiasts are demanding to know why the big, bad mainstream media are ignoring the e-mails.

I am not going to deal with the e-mails. As I recall a prosecutor once telling a jury, I don’t have to prove that Mr. Doe is the sort of person who’s capable of murdering his wife if I can prove that he, in fact, murdered his wife.

In the same vein, I don’t have to defend scientists who may have been mucking with the data to boost the case for global warming if I can show that the earth is actually warming. So today I present the first of 10 stories, some of which you’ve probably seen before, that are grounded not in data or computer simulations, but in the reality of global warming.

If you have any nominations, please pass them along. I’ll probably stop when I get to 10.

And if you really want to know more about Climategate, I recommend the excellent Climateprogress.org blog, written by Dr. Joe Romm. And so we begin:

On Sept. 10 of this year, the New York Times reported on a quest by two German ships to become the first to traverse the Arctic Ocean — a journey that would not have been possible were it not for the thinning of the Arctic ice cap.

“It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route,” Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the German shipping company, told the Times.

As the story makes clear, mariners have dreamed of using that passage for hundreds of years, as it would save a considerable amount of time, and, thus money. But it was only recently that the ice became thin enough to make it a reality.

She’s changing the climate. Ask her how!

gasguzzler_20090829Greta Browne is a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who’s traveling the country in hopes of raising public awareness about global warming. By her own telling, the unconvinced remain unconvinced. And though she calls her journey a walk (OK, there is some walking involved), her actual mode of transportation is what she calls “a disgusting gas guzzler.”

I have some advice for Browne: Go home. And stay there.

Photo of Browne’s “gypsy wagon” is taken from her blog, For All the Grandchildren.

The Washington Post versus George Will

In my latest for The Guardian, I take a look at the insurrection with the ranks of the Washington Post over George Will’s repeated mischaracterizations of the scientific evidence for human-caused global warming.