Saturday, July 25, 2009

it's the end of the world as we know it (...and I feel fine) (1)

Probably few saw this meltdown coming. We have come to view human progress as a given, and an ever growing economy and living standard as an entitlement.

Certainly, the US and world economy has proven to be less robust than the most ardent skeptics would have thought, outside perhaps the peak oil group. Current talk is of green shoots and the V-shaped recovery. However, the next wave of trouble is likely to be the commercial sector, with apartment and office leasing under pressure from the highest jobless rate in 26 years.(2) Who will be around to buy up these assets?

Congress is initiating a commission to determine the causes of the crisis, which already seem to stem from the regulatory lapses of a freewheeling era as well as risk build-up from perpetual and unstemmed exuberance.

The economic costs so far are $1.4 trillion in financial industry losses, $700 billion in U.S. taxpayer cash infusions and loans to businesses, and $37 trillion in destroyed world stock market value since October 2007.(3)

One factor that seems to be overlooked is the run up of oil prices in the face of worldwide demand. Our nation was built on a model of cheap oil, having been the Saudi Arabia of the world until the 1950s, when the OPEC nation took over the world leading oil exporter. The US crisis precipitated the world economic crisis. The world economy runs on oil, and high prices seem to take the wind out of the proverbial sails.

That run up culminated on July 11, 2008, when the price of a barrel of oil hit a record $147.27 in daily trading. That same month, world crude oil production achieved a record 74.8 million barrels per day.

Prior to that record, during the period from 2005 to 2008, though oil’s price steadily rose, production remained essentially flat. Though new sources of oil were coming on line, they barely made up for production declines in the older fields due to depletion.

In the wake of the following crisis, both prices and production fell as demand for oil collapsed. Since then, up to $150 billion of investments in oil production capacity have evaporated. Apparently, oil companies and oil producing nations can afford to expand or at least maintain production around 75 million barrels per day, collectively, but the world economy cannot afford oil at $150 a barrel.(4)
What's all this? I thought we didn't have to worry about oil until 2050. Its a problem for the grandkids to figure out, right?

In November, 2008, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a turnabout in its World Energy Outlook. This, from a generally conservative agency.

The opening paragraph:

The world’s energy system is at a crossroads. Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable - environmentally, economically, socially. But that can - and must - be altered; there’s still time to change the road we’re on. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution.

In preparing this report, the IEA performed a comprehensive study of 800 of the world's largest oil fields. It concluded that without massive investment in discovery and drilling, the current world oil production will decline by over 9% per year.

To use another source, on May 4 of this year, Raymond James Associates, a brokerage specializing in energy investments, issued a report stating, “With OPEC oil production apparently having peaked in 1Q08, and non-OPEC even earlier in 2007, peak oil on a worldwide basis seems to have taken place in early 2008.” This conclusion is being echoed by numerous other analysts.

There seems to be a widespread tendency to discount oil's value to humanity. We treat it like a commodity, right next to pork bellies, which are, in fact, renewable. Oh, we say, we'll just go back to horses. We'll just to go to electric cars. Or, someone will think of something.

Let's address these three points, as they are ubiquitous.

Firstly, we could not grow enough hay to feed that many horses, at least not without clearing the remainder of the nation's or world's forests. Already, one third of the planet's forests have been cleared, resulting in about half of anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide emissions, which by the way is a green-house gas.

Secondly, in a collapsed world economy, we would not all be able to afford electric vehicles, and if we could, the dilapidated electrical grid could not support the new load without browning out or collapsing.

Thirdly, this is capitalism, unless as Newsweek has stated on a cover, that we are all socialists now. So if someone could think of something so brilliant that it could usurp the laws of physics and thermodynamics, they would patent it and make trillions overnight. Besides, I think socialism requires its practitioners to possess at least some feeling of wellbeing towards the other members of a society, so right off, we would suck at it, rather badly; whereas in capitalism, its all been chalked up to “just business.”

Oil under girds the world economy, and was primarily responsible for our population growth and prosperity.

In essence, we have been too successful for our own good. Like a lottery winner, we don't know when to stop.

In the case of world population, scientists estimate a sustainable number to be between one and two billion. Sustainability should be thought of as a mode in which resources are not being used up at a rate faster than they are renewed, resulting in a subsequent population crash.

Current population is now almost 7 billion, which is 3 and a half times the upper limit of a sustainable number. To use another analogy, the capacity of a Honda Odyssey is 8 people (with 3 point seat belts for all, actually). Would we pack 28 people into an Odyssey? Do we believe that would that be wise? Hey, all 27 of you...pack in!!! We're going bar hopping!!!

The results of our short-term thinking are becoming obvious, although we were warned repeatedly in the 70s (in a lot of ways, the hippies and vegetarians have been right all along).

We are running out of oil. Our oceans are over-fished and acidified from excess atmospheric carbon dioxide uptake. Our forests are being pulled down, reduced to scorched earth and cattle fields. Our little experiment of loading the atmosphere with 150 million year old carbon is resulting in a warming and changing climate. The plants and animals that we share this planet with are dying off at 1000 times the historical background extinction rate, caught between over-fishing, over-hunting, land use change and climate change. Monsanto is playing God with genetics, then suing farmers for stealing when the wind blows Monsanto's transgenic seed's pollen into that farmer's neighboring field, infecting the hapless farmer's organic canola plants. (Oh, Joy!) And the model of modern industrial agribusiness is playing a significant role in the destruction of planet Earth. It goes on and on and on....this is the tragedy of the commons, on a planetary scale. Everyone is responsible, and no one person is intractable problem.

Certainly corporations aren't responsible... they are only doing what we designed them to do. We should not act surprised or indignant. Would a scorpion change its character? That would not be logical.

As Americans and as a species, we need to develop some degree of awareness of these issues. There is oblivious and then there's oblivion.

We need a world free of Monsanto s.(5) Its either corporations or humanity.

Show me a garden, that's bursting into life.(6) It is likely that we will still need to eat in the imminent collapsed world economy.

We face an uncertain future, one we should at least be aware of and then approach with some degree of resolution. After all, Lenny Bruce is not afraid.

(1)R.E.M. – Document album
(2)U.S. Office Vacancies Near 4-Year High on Job Losses, Reis Says - Bloomberg
(3)U.S. House Approves Panel to Probe Causes of Financial Crisis - Bloomberg
(4)Richard Heinberg -
(5)Combat Monsanto -
(6)Snow Patrol – Chasing Cars

Saturday, March 14, 2009

ExxonMobil Smokes Crack: exploring motives behind funding of the misinformation campaign regarding global warming

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some, that the most profitable company in the world would smoke crack. Many of us fuel up there every day, obliviously. You know, you just never know.

Given an understanding of the actions of the corporation, and the consequences resulting from these actions, it is clear that some impairment of judgment has been demonstrated.

Although few are aware, ExxonMobil is behind a massive misinformation campaign intended to mislead the public about the most important issue in the history of mankind – global warming. (I believe this is the point where the reader is supposed to scoff “global warming!” - as if someone just said NASA faked the moon shot.)

Initially launched as an attempt to defeat the Kyoto Protocol, since 1998 ExxonMobil has spent somewhere between $17 and $23 million to fund front groups which attempt to discredit real scientists and obfuscate the issue. As was made public by the New York Times in 1998, an ExxonMobil memo laid out a plan to "identify, recruit and train" a small team of unknown scientists and declared that: "Victory will be achieved when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom" for "average citizens" and "the media."

As science is a process in which people objectively search for answers, the people representing these front groups are not scientists, by definition. Real scientists do not get paid money by an oil or coal company and then literally just make some stuff up. So these front groups funded by ExxonMobil, such as The Heartland Institute, are not deniers, they are liars. Professional, paid liars. They are very good at what they do. And junk science is not science at all.

As this campaign has been modeled on the wildly successful campaign by the tobacco companies to mislead the public and Congress about the known dangers of tobacco use, the coal companies and ExxonMobil have waged an equally effective campaign to muddy the waters regarding this issue.

In the case of tobacco, those companies delayed by four decades a financial accounting for the additional health care costs incurred by states as a result of tobacco use. This delay was achieved by questioning the link between smoking and cancer.

As with the tobacco campaign, this misinformation campaign has been remarkable effective. The effectiveness is in part due to the average citizen's apparent difficulty in discerning the impostor from the real scientist, and the media's myopic, erratic focus. By ExxonMobil's own criteria, they have achieved “victory.”

As it is a complex web of front groups and pseudo-scientists and politicians, the campaign is best understood displayed graphically, as documented by a Greenpeace project, At the hubs of this interconnected web are many well-known so-called “think tanks,” such as the George C. Marshall Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Frontiers of Freedom Institute and Foundation, the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise and the CATO Institute- to name just a few of the 43 groups which are either puppet front groups or organizations funded by ExxonMobil.

Oh!, what an tangled web ExxonMobil weaves, when they first practice to deceive!

When included by the media in a discussion of this global warming “debate,” the media always fails to mention that the group is funded by ExxonMobil. Normal journalistic integrity should dictate that such a conflict of interest should be revealed.

Despite all the confusion, the current situation is plain and clear. Humanity does not have three more decades to “debate” what is apparent and obvious.

The polar ice cap is melting, and at the current rate of summer meltback will vanish in the next 5 to 7 years, at least during summer months. The polar ice cap serves to reflect much of the solar irradiance back into space, and as an integral function for the species which depend on it. This loss will devastate a thriving ecosystem, cause the extinction of arctic animals, and accelerate global warming. An arctic without ice has has been compared to a garden without soil.

Glaciers around the world, including Greenland and Antarctica, can be visually seen to be melting. Greenland, for example, lost an estimated 55 cubic miles of ice in 2006. For comparison purposes, this is 55 times the volume of oil that the world economy uses in one year.

All this melting is occurring in a epoch in which the planet would without man's interference be going into another ice age. Positive (warming) climate forcing due to accumulation of man-made greenhouses gases is now more significant than climate forcing from natural cycles, such as the Earth's tilt in space or orbit around the sun, or solar output, as has been shown by James Hansen and colleagues at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report forecasts a warming of as much as 6 degrees Celsius by century's end if current business as usual trends continue. This is a rate and amount of warming that could kill off many of the species that we share the planet with, now estimated to number 10 million species. Mass extinctions, more than half the Earth's species, have already occurred several times in the Earth's history as a result of a similar amount of rapid warming, so the concern is not just conjecture.

Already, extinctions are occurring, with a rate estimated to be between 100 and 1000 times the normal background rate. Is is impossible to say with certainty, but somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 species are vanishing every year, depending on the source. Land use change and habitat destruction have been the primary driver, but rapid warming and climate change will play a much larger role in these extinctions.

With consideration of the trends of climate change and energy depletion, scientists now estimate that by century's end human population will drop to between one and two billion people. James Lovelock, for instance, a prominent scientist and author of the idea of Gaia, has placed his estimate at one billion by century's end.

Assuming population rises to7 billion from the current 6.7 billion before the die off phase begins, and population stabilizes at 2 billion, this is 5 billion non-natural deaths by century's end. Two billion people is about the carrying capacity of the planet without the subsidy of carbon-based fuels, anyway.

To try to comprehend the scope of this challenge, the closest analogous situation may be the second world war. In WWII, an estimated 50 million people died. Climate change and energy depletion will kill off about 100 times the war related loss, or 5,000 million. So over the rest of the century, this will average out to about an entire WWII every year. Besides, human beings are just one species. The loss of many or even most of the species we share this planet with is no less lamentable.

The planet's energy balance and thus climate system has now been sharply tipped toward a much warmer planet. The rate of warming will be beyond what most species can survive. Our progeny will now inherit a planet bereft of much of its biodiversity. Humanity, or what will be left of it, will be left bereaved.

So to hear these groups which have effectively stopped national and international movement towards addressing this situation for their own financial gain, is a little frustrating. For want of a quarterly report, the planet was lost.

In light of the obvious signs of climate change and warming, and under pressure from stockholders of the corporation, the public, respected scientists in the U.S. and the U.K., groups like Exxpose Exxon and U.S. policy makers, ExxonMobil has begun to nuance its message. It has cut some funding to some groups, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The current CEO, Rex Tillerson, still emphasizes the “uncertainty” about climate science, while still funding most of the astroturf front groups which continue to muddy the waters.

James Hansen, the climate scientist referenced earlier, in his testimony to Congress in June 23, 2008, has stated that the CEOs of these corporations, for their roles in misleading the public and delaying a response to the climate crisis, “should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

In a complex world, attributing culpability to the involved parties is difficult. In the developed world, we have all used resources and created greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap infrared energy. We all have a carbon footprint. We all have played a role. So who should determine the role, if any, of these deceivers, like Rex Tillerson and ExxonMobil, and the rest of the deniers? The answer is, The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

The ICC is a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Although, the United States has not yet joined the ICC.

Given the magnitude of what is happening, and what is about to happen, it is clear that these liars are operating with impaired capacity, quite possibility from smoking crack or banana peels or something. Either that, or a conscious and deliberate decision has been made to place quarterly reports and compensation packages ahead of all humanity and the biosphere entire. Surely, ExxonMobil smokes crack.

There's wrong. And there's dead wrong.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Biosphere. Chapter 1: Squirrels

(Note:This is a submitted Crossroads Chronicle article, a Cashiers, NC paper. The column is entitled Living Green. We'll see if they publish it. Its just slightly ridiculous, by design.)

All around us, there are all kinds of critters. God only knows what some of them are, but most of us can at least identify the common ones by at least their common names.

In this first installment of this probably much unanticipated and also unsolicited series, The Complete Idiot's Guild to the Biosphere, we examine the critter known as squirrels (also called tree rats), their role on the planet, and their propensity to venture out of their habitat and onto the gasoline tax supported roads of this nation. Finally, we will conclude with a theory as to why squirrels is sooo dumb.

By way of disclosure, it should be noted that the author is not an ecologist, or even an evolutionary biologist. However, it seems that a lack of knowledge or appropriate background is not currently preventing anyone from opining on any subject with 100% absolute confidence. So it is in this absolutely-anything-goes environment that the scope of this column can be both justifiably and reasonably expanded into subject areas about which the author knows absolutely nothing.

Now, and with the foregoing, the author did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

According to Wikipedia, a squirrel is one of the many small or medium-sized rodents in the family Sciuridae, whereas rats are various medium sized, long-tailed rodents of the superfamily Muroidea. "True rats" are members of the genus Rattus. However, when a squirrel tail is Photo Shopped onto a rat picture, the resemblance is completely uncanny. Is it a squirrel, or a rat with a puffy tail? Impossible to tell.

The relationship among the members of an ecological web is complex and interdependent. While squirrels eat insects and other critters which are considered pests, there is one service which these jittery-friends provide which is of paramount importance. Squirrels, in all their endearing busyness,
in and of the eating and burying of nuts, often forget the location of some of these buried treasures. These nuts, so carefully and lovingly planted, go on to become fully grown trees, minimizing erosion and restarting forests on slopes clear-cut by man.

Partially offsetting this benefit to humanity is squirrels annoying propensity to venture outside of their designated habitat and fritter about in the road system. The boundary between our road system and wilderness is clearly identified with a solid white line. Only the dumbest of animals would not recognize this visual barrier and maintain the balance in the Force.

This petroleum based game of “chicken” is no doubt a very familiar occurrence with the reader. The squirrel goes left, we go right. The squirrel goes right, we go left. The squirrel screams. The animals in the forest look on in a kind of paralyzed trance. Spllattcrunchbumpbump. We reassure ourselves with that common refrain,'there's a million of them.' We feel better. They don't make X Box games like this. Besides, we pay road taxes when we fill up, darn it all. Squirrels don't. So.

The loss of any one individual in an interconnected ecosystem is not the end of the ecosystem. One animals loss may be another's gain, in a circle of life kind of way. Natural systems work best, and there is no waste in nature; as crows, 'possums, and the Lord knows what else flies, crawls or squiggles over to partake of the recently departed.

In defense of squirrels, there is no natural situation comparable to this modern game of chicken. No animal in the ecosystem weighing 7000 pounds bears down at 50 miles per hour on a squirrel. There is no natural situation to serve as preparation in the form of either instinct or adolescent training.

If bears weighed this much and ran that fast, they would not be eligible for the tax credit as SUVs are anyways, so what would be the point in expending so much energy on a little squirrel? Perhaps if bears started a lobbying group, they could receive credits or even a bailout.

In addition, petroleum powered vehicles have only been around for a hundred years or so. And critters like our protagonist have been around for millions, so the modern marvels are relatively new. Already, squirrels seem to be getting better at it.

If squirrels can hold out for just a few more decades, their greatest road borne threat will be reduced to bicycles, light electric cars, horse drawn buggies or the shoes of the bipeds. If squirrels can adapt to climate change, they may very well outlast the bipeds entirely in just a century or two. However, one or two hundred years is far outside the scope of a 30 second attention span. What were we talking about?

Some groups are very fond of pointing out that everything works in cycles. In the case of modes of transportation, they are probably absolutely right. You know, even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while.

It all makes you wonder... who is it that is really so dumb?