Texas Burning

Prayers and overly-stylized prayer services aside, this is not funny.

Raging wildfires destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Texas over the weekend and thousands of residents were evacuated from the most-threatened areas. Ten new fires labeled “large” by theTexas Forest Service cropped up Monday night across the state.

Drought conditions, high winds, and large amounts of dry, combustible brush are ultimately to blame for some 21,000 wildfires that have hit the state since December.

The loss of homes in the rocky hill country highlights how the addition of 2 million residents every five years has pushed urban sprawl into wildfire danger zones, or as former Austin assistant fire chief Kevin Baum calls it, the “top of a matchstick.”

Apparently, Dallas, Houston and SA are all in some extreme fire zone. And housing developments sprawling into wildfire zones does not a sustainable economy make. It doesn’t even do much for a non-on-fire economy. These failings are indicative of many thing, not the least of which is the easy-to-mischaracterize issue of climate change. Easy to demagogue. Easy to childishly refute (It’s freezing in Florida! in February!). But the earth is just as dry and the fires just as hot, as the climate changes and the effects thereof are just as severe and damaging – whether they choose to believe in it or not.

What externalities?!

The Wearing of the Funny Hat

The Vatican is shrill.

We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life. We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.

So there’s that. The Pontiff makes all kinds of pronouncements all the time and is also against birth control of any kind, so I’m not sure what kind of impact this will have. And besides, I don’t endorse his/their views on all things just because he agrees with me on this one thing.

But you do wonder about the role this kind of endorsement has on the low-lying populace. JR calls it the ‘pray for science’ approach.

Saw it first here.

Green Culture Wars

Sure, Republican presidential contenders are going to roll out the DADT/Abortion carpet all over Iowa in their quest to be the Rightest of the Wrong. It’s what they do. It’s all they do. And Democrats might welcome their inclination to secure the 27-percenters.

But as this keeps happening over and over again, it might occur to us that the culture war idea is in need of expansion. After all, if the Kochs are going to fund movements and candidates to secure their right to pollute, they’re probably happy to keep people focused on these supposedly ‘values-oriented’ issues – that motivate the base of one side, and use up limited resources on the other – instead of fighting back in the green ground game.

Do you believe global warming is real? Do you support wind and solar energy projects? Should we incentive utilities and reward them for getting us to use less electricity? These are questions worth sparring over. And developing this ‘culture of life’ will probably be funner.

We’re playing catch- up on refocusing the big questions. Abortion? Or stabilizing atmospheric carbon levels? Culture of Life?

Just sayin’.

Renewable You


AFP – Getty Images

The whole idea of renewable energy sources – wind, solar, tidal, pedal – has only been in our viewfinder for a short while. This is because fossil fuels have become increasing problematic – not only in terms of long-term ecological catastrophe, but also human error-plagued bottom line-oriented short cutting and, not to be left out, geopolitical events that compromise our ability to secure said fuels. On top of this and not unrelated to the last point, the physical infrastructure, economy and energy policy of the United States were all developed when the country was a net exporter of fossil fuels.

Needless to say, nothing has changed and we continue to do things the same way, perhaps not even yet expecting different results, as one way of hanging to the last vestiges of any semblance of sanity.

And yet an expectation of different results is very much needed. As the above plus the nuclear meltdowns as a result of the devastating earthquakes in Japan attest, the need to pick up the pace in advancing toward a renewable energy present will not wait. The low-info dead-enders rising political stars waste capital and human resources debating settled issues at our collective peril and should be considered armed clueless and dangerous.

To repeat an unpopular refrain: these things are connected.

Spending their Dime

Climate Progress has both the skinny and the ‘gras’ on what the Koch brothers are getting for the quarter mil they dropped on members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday to discuss blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.  We can expect the same old half-truths, misstatements, and outright lies from the new majority, with an extra dose of special interest pandering.

So… they line up a slew of paid contestants people to testify that it’s all a hoax, but how does this come off? What does it look like to the average non-Fox viewer, non-Rush listener? What about the perception that they might be protesting a little too much? Do they begin attacking teh Globalwarmingisrealism as a threat to America that must be eliminated? Into the mike? You and I might think this is already happening but… this is a formal committee process where these charlatans have to speak clearly  and on the record. I think it will take more than a mere refutation of the facts as construed to get the Koch brothers’ point across; they’ll feel the need to go on the attack to stop the traitorous EPA from protecting the common right of access to clean water and air. Because it won’t be enough to merely hold the line and play one side, and because that’s what they actually are paid to believe. And to do.

I smell overreach.

New Dual Suspension, Now with More Disbelief

The Economist, today:

By itself, as we always say, one hot year doesn’t prove anything. The fact that every one of the twelve hottest years on record has come since 1997 is a little harder to wave away. 2010 was also the wettest year ever, corresponding to the expectation that higher heat means more water vapour. More countries set national high-temperature records in 2010 than ever before, including the biggest one, Russia. Arctic sea ice in December was at its lowest level ever, temperatures across a broad swathe of northern Canada have been 20° C higher than normal for the past month, the record temperatures are coming despite the lowest levels of solar activity in a century and a La Nina effect that should be making Canada colder rather than warmer, and so on. It is of course possible that global warming plateaued this year; it’s also possible that it plateaued this morning. One can always hope!

Complete with a nice graph. But is this thing settled? Far from it apparently. Can’t begin to do anything that might be too expensive until every last numb-nut is convinced, every last remote possibility that nothing is happened vanquished. Then what? A study group? They don’t believe in human-caused global warming because of the same reason they don’t believe in making Medicare universal – it’s un-American. Yes, it’s that incoherent. If you think you’re reasoning with people who can be convinced, you haven’t been listening to what they have been saying. And so amateur deniers and professional politicians continue to propose cuts to clean energy, yell about business regulations strangling growth and about how the debt is the evil to end all evils.

I think Republicans believe that we can keep doing things the way we always have (only with way lower taxes) and get much the same wholesome results. It’s this point that is already frustrating them in ways, besides race, that I don’t believe have actually set it in with the folks who carry the water. And until they can openly say they don’t like the results without another of their team calling them America-haters, they just have to keep professing to love the results.

Meanwhile, ticktock… and the incremental, practically unnoticeable damage will continue until it becomes more noticeable and there’s a special Fox News report on the real news that global warming actually hurts liberals and helps Republicans. And so it must be real and irreversible. And then it finally will be.


Too Things

1. This stuff is easy to miss: China learns at the knee(s) of the master… or do they?

Thanks to the Dandong plant and hundreds others like it, China is in the midst of unprecedented economic growth—and an unprecedented surge in the use of energy, primarily from burning coal. Coal is the fuel of China and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. As a result, China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, along with all the other noxious by-products of coal burning. At the same time, the Chinese government has committed to reducing its CO2 emissions per economic unit by at least 40 percent by 2020. Tasked with ensuring that the nation delivers on that goal is the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the government agency that essentially sets Chinese energy and industrial policy.

“In Manhattan, lights are lit 24 hours and China will never do that,” says NDRC vice chairman Zhang Guobao via a translator, although the lights of this border town abutting North Korea blaze well into the night, illuminating businesses that tout their names in both Chinese and Korean characters. “China can never learn from the United States in terms of lifestyle. Per capita energy consumption is five times that of China and suppose, one day, that we learn from the U.S.A.: Can you imagine what the world will be?”

And then this talk, by Leslie Hazleton on reading the Qur’an.

Nothing to See Here

So just move along. Yesterday in L.A.:

Meteorologist Jeff Masters notes “a station in the foothills at 1260? elevation near Beverly Hills owned by the Los Angeles Fire Department hit 119°F yesterday–the hottest temperature ever measured in the Los Angeles area, tying the 119°F reading from Woodland Hills on July 22, 2006.”

Weather historian Christopher C. Burt has a great post at Weather Underground, “The Remarkable Summer of 2010,” which concludes, “it is probable that no warmer summer in the Northern Hemisphere has ever been experienced by so many people in world history.”

Some further encroaching news in the continuing story of how ‘Obama is the greatest danger to our way of life’ brought to you by your friends at Shell, BP, NewsCorp and the Southern Company.

Objective Annihilation

As objective annihilation passes into more or less likely scenarios dependent on what actions we take – vs. other scenarios (Cold War) which had to take into account the actions others might take against us, we begin to look for signals about how the culture is handling the ‘actions we take’ thing. In the round, it’s largely what this blog is, or should be, about.

Certainly, many now say that terrorists belong to the later scenario outlined above. But their actions have done nothing if not emphasize their belief in the former as the best way to bring western society to its knees.

But whether we’re taking measures to change things, and whether these even measures matter, becomes a matter of great concern, locally but especially to corporate business interests highly invested in selling us things. The perceptions of either might even be considered more important than the answer on both, at least to these larger, multi-tentacled entities.

Which is all to ask, what do people believe about corporate attempts/postures on ‘going green’? Even that term is still evolving, slower than we’d like, of course – we want to see change in 140 characters or we’re convinced it isn’t happening. But it is, maybe becoming more plain and tangible or more insidious, depending on how you brew your cynicism.

But is it still growing, or was it just a fashion and have we seen the zenith of eco-concern? (Annihilation vogue?) This is a real question, pointing to perception beyond the actual events. The hockey stick has been re-confirmed again, for example, but the constant badgering of the fossil fuel confederate right wing has an affect. Most Republicans now believe the president is a Muslim, after all.

The question of ‘do you think it’s working’ confers a much more nefarious kind of survey.

The Price of Bored Journalists

Oh, damn. When you consider the forces arrayed against you, or whatever your idea of civilization stands for, you want to imagine a squadron a magnificently outfitted bombers with their ideologies pruned and sharpened to inflict the most pain possible from yours, a force to battle that does you the honor of being as elegantly disciplined and thus terrifying as possible, and perhaps from sheer engagement sharpens your own blades. But, alas, I don’t even have to write the next part.

Our corporate overlords, in conjunction with our B-schools and J-schools, have proffered a generation (now firmly into power-wielding adulthood) of bored journalists. I think I would prefer hucksters. Via CP, the perspective of former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne, which seeks to explain where/how the BBC is coming from on climate is reducing its coverage of climate change. And if the BBC won’t cover climate…

As a former BBC foreign correspondent (Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing) during the Cold War, and former World Service editor now struggling with the monumental failure of contemporary journalism on climate change (Nicholas Stern’s 2007 comments about the market are just as relevant for the news media), I have to agree with recent commentators on Climate Progress who see the roots of this failure more in newsroom culture and subtle peer expectation than in a direct and explicit response to political or commercial demands (although those play their part, of course).

My former colleagues at the BBC, including Richard Black and others whom I know as good men and women all, remain trapped like most Western-style journalists in the old paradigm of news as event, not process, always needing to be shiny, new and different.

As a correspondent, and later at every nine o’clock morning editorial meeting at the World Service on every weekday through the 1990s, I and my colleagues would grapple with this – how to tell a complex story in just a few lines, with enough of a news peg to interest our listeners. And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.

So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.

Given our human evolutionary need for primal reassurance that we are safe, and that bad things are happening over there and not here, the events that journalism reports tend to focus mainly on conflict, ideally involving stories of the dramatically dead. World Service news bulletins would often drip with blood, as do the standard news agendas of most Western media. If it bleeds, I’m afraid it does lead.

That’s factor one. Consider then how the editorial decisions of each news editor are taken in the context of those made by his or her immediate predecessor on the last shift, and by the shift and the week and the months and the years before that. As I know from my years in the field, it’s very, very hard to go against the received news agenda wisdom.

Add in, as a third factor, the post-1960s, post-modernist, post-Watergate (especially) but actually quite arrogant self-belief of Western journalists as brave, embattled warriors fighting for truth against devious authority, and I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the news business finds the climate story so hard to tell.

Bear with me a little longer to see how this all plays especially at the BBC, as a public service broadcaster funded by a domestic licence fee that’s essentially a tax on anyone with a television. (The World Service is funded directly by the Foreign Office.)

At the Corporation, despite its fiercely-defended principles and charter of journalistic independence, the sense of ordinary journalistic embattlement is compounded many times over by pressure (think Tony Blair and the Iraq war, or, even harder to deal with and much more relentless, think Israel and Palestine) from very vocal, insistent and well-organised interest groups.

The BBC’s programmes, domestic and international, are under quite extraordinarily intense daily scrutiny. Editors and journalists respond, both consciously and less so, with a desperation to appear balanced, and fair, and objective.

On climate change, that BBC journalistic urgency to be seen to be fair now means, after a period between Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the disaster of Copenhagen when global warming was everywhere in the output, that the Corporation has been bending over backwards to reflect the opposite, sceptical view.

Journalists at the BBC know that the mood has shifted – for the time being, anyway. My old colleague and the Corporation’s first environment correspondent Alex Kirby emailed me this week to agree that Richard Black, sharply criticised elsewhere on CP for his recent reporting of the current state of Arctic sea ice, was most probably, as Alex put it, “a victim of the BBC wishing to demonstrate its ‘even-handedness’ by being, if not sceptical, at least much more questioning about the science, even though 99% of it stands up.”

(The determination to be “fair” to all sides on all stories can at times go to such absurd lengths that Allan Little, one of our best reporters with hard experience of covering Sarajevo in the mid-90s and much more, speaks of the analogy of two men at a bar, one saying that two plus two equals four, and the other that two plus two equals six. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.)

This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert – yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

Coming towards the end of these thoughts, I quit daily journalism in 2002 after 30 years to work as a psychotherapist (same job, listening to people, but where I get to stay with the story week after week without having to simplify it beyond recognition for the evening bulletin).

As such, I often ask myself — and, obsessively, others — what it will take to get Western-style, ratings-and-profit-led journalism, reflecting as it does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion, to take climate change and sustainability as seriously as it deserves, as a present, existential threat to the very survival of our species.

Putting it bluntly, I regret to have concluded that this will only happen once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.

The Pakistan floods were shocking, as were the Russian summer peat fires and the landslides in China. But in order for enough of humanity to wake up (as we all ultimately, or course, will), not enough people died. Ouch.

This is how we are programmed by evolution, to pay attention or not. It has to be personal, people-related. And for most of us, including our newsrooms, things just aren’t hot enough yet, or sufficiently and personally uncomfortable. (Ecocide of almost every other species and the collapse of ecosystems already observable doesn’t, I fear, hit home emotionally.)

Until something Very Very Big happens (we must hope, in Sir Crispin Tickell’s description, for catastrophe that is benign), I do not believe that mainstream journalism, as indeed mainstream politics and economics, will change. The financial crash wasn’t big enough. Nor was the Eurasian summer of 2010. One shudders to think what might (and will) be.