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Michael Klare, How to Fry a Planet

6:37 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Solar Panels

Will we focus on renewable energy in time to save the Earth?

Look at it any way you want, and if you’re not a booster of fossil fuels on this overheating planet of ours, it doesn’t look good.  Hardly a month passes, it seems, without news about the development of some previously unimaginable way to extract fossil fuels from some thoroughly unexpected place.  The latest bit of “good” news: the Japanese government’s announcement that natural gas has been successfully extracted from undersea methane hydrates.  (Yippee!)  Natural gas is gleefully touted as the “clean” fossil-fuel path to a green future, but evidence is mounting that the newest process for producing it also leaks unexpected amounts of methane, a devastating greenhouse gas.  The U.S. cheers and is cheered because the amount of carbon dioxide it is putting into the atmosphere is actually falling.  Then Duncan Clark at the British Guardian does the figures and discovers that “there has been no decline in the amount of carbon the U.S. is taking out of the ground. In fact, the trend is upwards. The latest year for which full data is available — 2011 — is the highest level on record.”  It’s just that some of it (coal, in particular) was exported abroad to be burned elsewhere.

In the meantime, the next set of articles come out of scientific circles suggesting that the results of all this are far from cheery.  An example: a recent paper in the prestigious journal Science indicates that “climate change is now set to occur at a pace ‘orders of magnitude more rapid’ than at any other time in the last 65 million years,” and we should prepare for a wave of species extinctions. In other words, the much-ballyhooed coming of North American energy “independence” is an upbeat way of saying that we will continue to heat the planet till hell boils over.  Of course, those who run the giant energy companies, the politicians in their pay, and their lobbyists and associated think tanks — the real global “terrarists” for their urge to make historic profits off the heating of the planet — will, of course, continue to cheer.  Though it is notoriously hard to claim climate change as the author of any specific weather event, in the ever-hotter continental U.S., the experience of what’s being called “extreme weather” — from drought to record wildfires, record heat waves to devastating tornadoes — is increasingly part of the warp and woof of everyday life.

In this context, the latest post by Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, is singularly important, if also singularly unnerving.  Klare, who has long been ahead of the curve in his work on energy and resources, offers a clear-eyed look at the energy road chosen, and the view to the horizon is anything but pretty. Tom

The Third Carbon Age
Don’t for a Second Imagine We’re Heading for an Era of Renewable Energy
By Michael T. Klare

When it comes to energy and economics in the climate-change era, nothing is what it seems.  Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables, just as oil had long since superseded the Age of Coal.  President Obama offered exactly this vision in a much-praised June address on climate change.  True, fossil fuels will be needed a little bit longer, he indicated, but soon enough they will be overtaken by renewable forms of energy.

Many other experts share this view, assuring us that increased reliance on “clean” natural gas combined with expanded investments in wind and solar power will permit a smooth transition to a green energy future in which humanity will no longer be pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  All this sounds promising indeed.  There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down.  The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables.  Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called “unconventional” oil and gas reserves.

The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables.  Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.

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William deBuys, Goodbye to All That (Water)

6:58 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Colorado River

“How long will the water hold out?”

Martha and the Vandellas would have loved it.  Metaphorically speaking, the New York Times practically swooned over it.  (“An unforgiving heat wave held much of the West in a sweltering embrace over the weekend, tying or breaking temperature records in several cities, grounding flights, sparking forest fires, and contributing to deaths.”) It was a “deadly” heat wave, a “record” one that, in headlines everywhere, left the West and later the rest of the country “sweltering,” and that was, again in multiple headlines, “scary.”  The fire season that accompanied the “blasting,” “blazing” heat had its own set of “record” headlines — and all of this was increasingly seen, in another set of headlines, as the “new normal” in the West. Given that 2012 had already set a heat record for the continental U.S., that the 10 hottest years on record in this country have all occurred since 1997, and that the East had its own sweltering version of heat that wouldn’t leave town, this should have been beyond arresting.

In response, the nightly primetime news came up with its own convenient set of new terms to describe all this: “extreme” or “severe” heat.  Like “extreme” or “severe” weather, these captured the eyeball-gluing sensationalism of our weather moment without having to mention climate change or global warming.  Weather, after all, shouldn’t be “politicized.”  But if you’re out in the middle of the parching West like TomDispatch regular William deBuys, who recently headed down the Colorado River, certain grim realities about the planet we’re planning to hand over to our children and grandchildren can’t help but come to mind — along with a feeling, increasingly shared by those in the sweltering cities, that our particular way of life is in the long run unsustainable. Tom

Never Again Enough
Field Notes from a Drying West
By William deBuys

Several miles from Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon, Arizona, April 2013 — Down here, at the bottom of the continent’s most spectacular canyon, the Colorado River growls past our sandy beach in a wet monotone. Our group of 24 is one week into a 225-mile, 18-day voyage on inflatable rafts from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. We settle in for the night. Above us, the canyon walls part like a pair of maloccluded jaws, and moonlight streams between them, bright enough to read by.

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Chip Ward, Rewilding the West

6:59 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Bird watchers

The changing face of conservation brings the environmental concerns of groups like birdwatchers to the foreground.

Here’s a nifty trick that’s been on my mind lately. In case you hadn’t noticed, the weather news this season has been pretty grim. Tornados so large and destructive that they would have given Dorothy pause, 500-year European floods, massive rainstorms rolling across the land, record heat in California and Alaska, late snowfalls that boggle the imagination, wildfires that dwarf past ones in the American West. I could go on, but why bother since anyone who has been watching primetime TV news can’t but notice that staggering weather has been the lead or second story much of the time all spring and into the summer.

You’re probably wondering right now: But what’s the trick? I’m surprised you haven’t noticed yourself. All of this weather has a new, made-for-TV label. It’s now regularly called “extreme weather” or “severe weather.”  And that’s anything but inaccurate. The weather has been both “severe” and “extreme” this spring. The trick is that, as a label, “extreme weather” has managed (with rare exceptions) to obviate the need even to mention that any of this could have the slightest thing to do with climate change, with our overheating, over-greenhouse-gassed planet. Think of it as a fabulous form of recognition and denial wrapped in the same package.

The TV news gets all the benefits of night-after-night, eyeball-gluing drama in which the weather goes nuts, houses are destroyed, and people weep (or are stoic) about ruined lives. It gets to bring in the tornado watchers and the weather people in their raincoats and waders.  (Have you noticed that the TV news can’t report a flood without putting some reporter with a mic knee-deep in water?) It gets to focus nightly on those daunting weather maps with their blazing red danger zones, and offer warnings about what potential disaster tomorrow might have to offer, all the while remaining in official, blissful denial about what’s happening on this planet of ours. Somehow, it has managed to incorporate the possible effects of climate change into the nightly news as a major story, while excluding just about all serious discussion of it. Tell me that isn’t a doubly nifty trick!

Of course, if there’s nothing but “extreme weather” happening and that weather has no extreme context, no extreme meaning, then none of us have to worry our little heads about what’s to be done. Those trying to remedy the degradation of conditions on this planet can also be ignored, which is why we couldn’t be more pleased that TomDispatch regular Chip Ward introduces us to such a person today. Tom

Trek West for the Big Picture
Saving the Land One Footfall at a Time
By Chip Ward

My home sits at the gateway to a national park in Utah, a source of envy among tourists who gather along Capitol Reef’s “scenic drive.” But after 40 years of living in one desert or another, I know firsthand that America’s iconic desert landscapes, places like Monument Valley and Arches National Park, are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we dig up, dump on, dam, bomb, drill, over-graze, and otherwise abuse our deserts, most of them public lands owned by you, the taxpaying citizen. Generally, our management of the nation’s public lands is a disgrace and deserts are exhibit A.

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Engelhardt: The Biggest Criminal Enterprise in History

6:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Terracide and the Terrarists 
Destroying the Planet for Record Profits 
By Tom Engelhardt

We have a word for the conscious slaughter of a racial or ethnic group: genocide.  And one for the conscious destruction of aspects of the environment: ecocide.  But we don’t have a word for the conscious act of destroying the planet we live on, the world as humanity had known it until, historically speaking, late last night.  A possibility might be “terracide” from the Latin word for earth.  It has the right ring, given its similarity to the commonplace danger word of our era: terrorist.

The truth is, whatever we call them, it’s time to talk bluntly about the terrarists of our world.  Yes, I know, 9/11 was horrific.  Almost 3,000 dead, massive towers down, apocalyptic scenes.  And yes, when it comes to terror attacks, the Boston Marathon bombings weren’t pretty either.  But in both cases, those who committed the acts paid for or will pay for their crimes.

Global Warming

Global Warming

 

In the case of the terrarists — and here I’m referring in particular to the men who run what may be the most profitable corporations on the planet, giant energy companies like ExxonMobilChevronConocoPhillipsBP, and Shell – you’re the one who’s going to pay, especially your children and grandchildren. You can take one thing for granted: not a single terrarist will ever go to jail, and yet they certainly knew what they were doing.

It wasn’t that complicated. In recent years, the companies they run have been extracting fossil fuels from the Earth in ever more frenetic and ingenious ways. The burning of those fossil fuels, in turn, has put record amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Only this month, the CO2 level reached 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. A consensus of scientists has long concluded that the process was warming the world and that, if the average planetary temperature rose more than two degrees Celsius, all sorts of dangers could ensue, including seas rising high enough to inundate coastal cities, increasingly intense heat waves, droughts, floods, ever more extreme storm systems, and so on.

How to Make Staggering Amounts of Money and Do In the Planet

None of this was exactly a mystery. It’s in the scientific literature. NASA scientist James Hansen first publicized the reality of global warming to Congress in 1988. It took a while — thanks in part to the terrarists — but the news of what was happening increasingly made it into the mainstream. Anybody could learn about it.

Those who run the giant energy corporations knew perfectly well what was going on and could, of course, have read about it in the papers like the rest of us. And what did they do? They put their money into funding think tanks, politicians, foundations, and activists intent on emphasizing “doubts” about the science (since it couldn’t actually be refuted); they and their allies energetically promoted what came to be known as climate denialism. Then they sent their agents and lobbyists and money into the political system to ensure that their plundering ways would not be interfered with. And in the meantime, they redoubled their efforts to get ever tougher and sometimes “dirtier” energy out of the ground in ever tougher and dirtier ways.

The peak oil people hadn’t been wrong when they suggested years ago that we would soon hit a limit in oil production from which decline would follow.  The problem was that they were focused on traditional or “conventional” liquid oil reserves obtained from large reservoirs in easy-to-reach locations on land or near to shore.  Since then, the big energy companies have invested a remarkable amount of time, money, and (if I can use that word) energy in the development of techniques that would allow them to recover previously unrecoverable reserves (sometimes by processes that themselves burn striking amounts of fossil fuels): fracking, deep-water drilling, and tar-sands production, among others.

They also began to go after huge deposits of what energy expert Michael Klare calls “extreme” or “tough” energy — oil and natural gas that can only be acquired through the application of extreme force or that requires extensive chemical treatment to be usable as a fuel.  In many cases, moreover, the supplies being acquired like heavy oil and tar sands are more carbon-rich than other fuels and emit more greenhouse gases when consumed.  These companies have even begun using climate change itself — in the form of a melting Arctic — to exploit enormous and previously unreachable energy supplies.  With the imprimatur of the Obama administration, Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has been preparing to test out possible drilling techniques in the treacherous waters off Alaska.
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Engelhardt, The Last Empire?

6:21 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

And Then There Was One 
Imperial Gigantism and the Decline of Planet Earth 
By Tom Engelhardt

A battleship flying a US flag

Tom Engelhardt on the rise of American empire and the decline of America and the world.

It stretched from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea, from the middle of Europe to the Kurile Islands in the Pacific, from Siberia to Central Asia.  Its nuclear arsenal held 45,000 warheads, and its military had five million troops under arms.  There had been nothing like it in Eurasia since the Mongols conquered China, took parts of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, and rode into the Middle East, looting Baghdad.  Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, by far the poorer, weaker imperial power disappeared.

And then there was one.  There had never been such a moment: a single nation astride the globe without a competitor in sight.  There wasn’t even a name for such a state (or state of mind).  “Superpower” had already been used when there were two of them.  “Hyperpower” was tried briefly but didn’t stick.  “Sole superpower” stood in for a while but didn’t satisfy.  “Great Power,” once the zenith of appellations, was by then a lesser phrase, left over from the centuries when various European nations and Japan were expanding their empires.  Some started speaking about a “unipolar” world in which all roads led … well, to Washington.

To this day, we’ve never quite taken in that moment when Soviet imperial rot unexpectedly – above all, to Washington — became imperial crash-and-burn.  Left standing, the Cold War’s victor seemed, then, like an empire of everything under the sun.  It was as if humanity had always been traveling toward this spot.  It seemed like the end of the line.

The Last Empire?

After the rise and fall of the Assyrians and the Romans, the Persians, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Germans, and the Japanese, some process seemed over.  The United States was dominant in a previously unimaginable way — except in Hollywood films where villains cackled about their evil plans to dominate the world.

As a start, the U.S. was an empire of global capital.  With the fall of Soviet-style communism (and the transformation of a communist regime in China into a crew of authoritarian “capitalist roaders”), there was no other model for how to do anything, economically speaking.  There was Washington’s way — and that of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both controlled by Washington) — or there was the highway, and the Soviet Union had already made it all too clear where that led: to obsolescence and ruin.

In addition, the U.S. had unprecedented military power.  By the time the Soviet Union began to totter, America’s leaders had for nearly a decade been consciously using “the arms race” to spend its opponent into an early grave.  And here was the curious thing after centuries of arms races: when there was no one left to race, the U.S. continued an arms race of one.

In the years that followed, it would outpace all other countries or combinations of countries in military spending by staggering amounts.  It housed the world’s most powerful weapons makers, was technologically light years ahead of any other state, and was continuing to develop future weaponry for 2020, 2040, 2060, even as it established a near monopoly on the global arms trade (and so, control over who would be well-armed and who wouldn’t).

It had an empire of bases abroad, more than 1,000 of them spanning the globe, also an unprecedented phenomenon.  And it was culturally dominant, again in a way that made comparisons with other moments ludicrous.  Like American weapons makers producing things that went boom in the night for an international audience, Hollywood’s action and fantasy films took the world by storm.  From those movies to the golden arches, the swoosh, and the personal computer, there was no other culture that could come close to claiming such a global cachet.

The key non-U.S. economic powerhouses of the moment — Europe and Japan — maintained militaries dependent on Washington, had U.S. bases littering their territories, and continued to nestle under Washington’s “nuclear umbrella.”  No wonder that, in the U.S., the post-Soviet moment was soon proclaimed “the end of history,” and the victory of “liberal democracy” or “freedom” was celebrated as if there really were no tomorrow, except more of what today had to offer.

No wonder that, in the new century, neocons and supporting pundits would begin to claim that the British and Roman empires had been second-raters by comparison.  No wonder that key figures in and around the George W. Bush administration dreamed of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and possibly over the globe itself (as well as a Pax Republicana at home).  They imagined that they might actually prevent another competitor or bloc of competitors from arising to challenge American power. Ever.

No wonder they had remarkably few hesitations about launching their incomparably powerful military on wars of choice in the Greater Middle East.  What could possibly go wrong?  What could stand in the way of the greatest power history had ever seen?

Assessing the Imperial Moment, Twenty-First-Century-Style

Almost a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, what’s remarkable is how much — and how little — has changed.

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Ellen Cantarow: Big Energy Means Big Pollution

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Hydrofracking aftermath

Gary Judson had just been removed from his shackles when they slapped the handcuffs on him.  The 72-year-old Methodist minister had chained himself to the fence surrounding a compressor station — part of the critical infrastructure associated with hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking — a stone’s throw from Seneca Lake in upstate New York.  The sheriff and his deputies freed him only to arrest him for trespassing.

“They don’t have the right to do this — to put the lake in jeopardy. We’ll all end up paying for their mess,” Judson told a small group of supporters on hand to witness his act of civil disobedience.  The “this” he was protesting, Sandra Steingraber recounts in a recent issue ofOrion magazine, was the plan of Missouri-based Inergy Midstream to turn abandoned salt caverns beneath the lake’s shores into storage areas for millions of barrels of natural gas piped in from Pennsylvania’s fracking fields.  “Inergy has been in violation of the Clean Water Act at this facility every single quarter for the past three years,” Judson said. “Since 1972, there have been fourteen catastrophic failures at gas storage facilities. Each one of them has been at a salt cavern.”  A “failure” at Seneca Lake could be particularly catastrophic because, Steingraber writes, it provides the drinking water for 100,000 people. (Last month, Steingraber was jailed for 15 days for her own act of civil disobedience against Inergy.)

In Pennsylvania, where gas is currently being forced out of the shale rock in which it’s resided for millions of years, “failures” are already an everyday affair, as TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reports in the latest in her series of articles from fracking’s front lines.  Once upon a time, coal miners, tunnel workers, and “radium girls” faced the horrors of their dangerous trades in seclusion, deep below ground, inside mountains, or hidden behind factory walls.  They worked and died unseen and unheard.

Today, industrial safety issues have come home — literally.  Toxic chemicals aren’t just reserved for Superfund sites; they are increasingly in our houses, our water, and our food.  When something goes wrong at a fertilizer plant, it doesn’t just mean workers are in danger any more, but also — as in the case of the town of West, Texas — a nursing home, a school, an apartment complex, and five blocks of residences in a small town.  As Cantarow writes, Pennsylvania farming communities are being turned into huge, open-air laboratories by energy companies eager to make North America a twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia, with ordinary people serving as its guinea pigs.  And those people are paying a heavy price: mystery illnesses, dead animals, polluted water, land made worthless, and the loss of a way of life.  In the midst of this new hell, however, there’s also hope. Like Gary Judson in New York, Pennsylvanians are speaking up, organizing, and doing what they can in the face of long odds and tough times. Nick Turse

The Downwinders 

Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania 
By Ellen Cantarow

More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.

Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging  industry pushes the next wonder technology — in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”

Michael Klare: The Coming Global Explosion

6:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Rusty Oil Derrick

Author Michael Klare paints a disturbing picture of upcoming resource scarcity.

In his pathbreaking 2001 book Resource Wars, Michael Klare wrote: “Natural resources are the building blocks of civilization and an essential requirement of daily existence.  The inhabitants of planet Earth have been blessed with a vast supply of most basic materials.  But we are placing increased pressure on those supplies, and in some cases we face, in our lifetimes, or those of our children, the prospect of severe resource depletion.”  More than ever, as he points out today, this remains a planetary reality with which we have still not truly come to grips.  Since the beginning of this new century, however, climate change has joined resource scarcity in a way that will make for a far more combustible and explosive reality in the coming decades.

As John Vidal reported recently in the British Observer, leading scientists now believe that, by 2050, the pressures of climate change — of record floods, intensifying extreme heat, and droughts — could change the face of farming on this planet and lead to a doubling of prices for food staples, the very basics of life, as populations continue to rise.  This, in turn, will undoubtedly mean destitution or worse for millions of the poor, particularly in Africa and Asia.

On a planet rapidly changing in ways that have not been part of our repertoire in the rest of human history, TomDispatch has been, and will be, asking some of its regulars to peer into the murkiness of the human future and offer us a sense of what we may face.  From the next stages of weaponry in the American high-tech arsenal and the future aridification of the American Southwest to Washington’s limited view of a world roaring toward 2030, our writers have already begun doing so.  Today, Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What’s Left, and a man always ahead of the curve, offers his views on a world too potentially explosive not to be attended to. Tom

Entering a Resource-Shock World
How Resource Scarcity and Climate Change Could Produce a Global Explosion
By Michael T. Klare

Brace yourself. You may not be able to tell yet, but according to global experts and the U.S. intelligence community, the earth is already shifting under you.  Whether you know it or not, you’re on a new planet, a resource-shock world of a sort humanity has never before experienced.

Two nightmare scenarios — a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate change — are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict.  Just what this tsunami of disaster will look like may, as yet, be hard to discern, but experts warn of “water wars” over contested river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence), and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of states.  At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia, and other areas of the underdeveloped South, but in time all regions of the planet will be affected.

To appreciate the power of this encroaching catastrophe, it’s necessary to examine each of the forces that are combining to produce this future cataclysm.

Resource Shortages and Resource Wars

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Bill McKibben: How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Democrats?

6:24 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Bill McKibben

Is the Tar Sands Pipeline a "Stonewall" moment for the climate movement? Bill McKibben responds to Time.

At 72, climate scientist James Hansen is retiring as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies to work even more actively on climate-change issues. Keep in mind that, in congressional testimony in 1988, he first put climate change on the national map.  “It is time to stop waffling so much,” he told the congressional committee members, “and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”  He then went on to suggest a future “probability of extreme events like summer heat waves… and the likelihood of heat wave drought situations in the Southwest and Midwest.”  (Any of that sound faintly familiar a quarter-century later?)  It was, at the time, a startling statement.  Recently, in an email to the members of 350.org, the environmental organization he helped to found, former New Yorker reporter Bill McKibben wrote: “If 350.org has a patron saint, it’s Jim [Hansen]. It was his 2008 paper that gave us our name, identifying 350 parts per million CO2 as the safe upper limit for carbon in the atmosphere.”

That’s no small praise from the writer who, only a year after Hansen spoke up, first put global warming on the map in a popular book, The End of Nature.  He was at least a decade or more ahead of the rest of us, and more recently he’s led the popular charge on climate change and especially, in the last year, on trying to block the building of Keystone XL.  That’s the pipeline slated to bring tar sands, a particularly “dirty” (and in carbon terms, dirty to produce) form of crude oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Just the other day, as if to provide a little exclamation point on his energetic campaign, during which Hansen has been arrested twice in acts of civil disobedience, a pipeline through which Exxon was already running Canadian “heavy crude” (reputedly a particularly corrosive form of oil) burst in an Arkansas town.  The neighborhood affected, according to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” was left “looking like a scene out of the Walking Dead.”

As a scientist and an activist, Hansen has proven a remarkable figure.  (He will soon be awarded the prestigeous Ridenhour Courage Prize.)  After a February arrest protesting the Keystone pipeline, he told the Washington Post, “We have reached a fork in the road,” adding that politicians have to understand that they can “go down this road of exploiting every fossil fuel we have — tar sands, tar shale, off-shore drilling in the Arctic — but the science tells us we can’t do that without creating a situation… our children and grandchildren will have no control over, which is the climate system.”

Recently, there was a striking New York Times portrait of him by Justin Gillis headlined “Climate Maverick to Retire From NASA.”  That word “maverick,” while by no means wrong, might be a little deceptive in 2013, since a maverick is a loner, an outlier, and in climate-change terms these days, there is nothing terribly mavericky about Hansen’s suggestions that climate change is likely to radically transform this planet unless we begin to get our greenhouse gas output under control soon.  These days, in fact, he’s surrounded by a worried mass of scientists.

In Gillis’s piece there was a passage that, despite everything I’ve read, managed to shock me, and I thought it worth citing here before you read TomDispatch regular McKibben’s latest post.  Writing about how early Hansen highlighted the dangers of global warming, and how he was doubted at the time, Gillis added, “Yet subsequent events bore him out. Since the day he spoke, not a single month’s temperatures have fallen below the 20th-century average for that month. Half the world’s population is now too young to have lived through the last colder-than-average month, February 1985. In worldwide temperature records going back to 1880, the 19 hottest years have all occurred since his testimony.”

Think about that for a moment and imagine where we’re still going as greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere at record rates. Tom

Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the “Stonewall” of the Climate Movement?
And If So, Is That Terrible News?
By Bill McKibben

A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.

Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the “environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline.  And there’s good reason to put pressure on.  After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.

Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown DC.)

It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body.  In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.

Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.

Fiddling While the Planet Burns

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William deBuys: Exodus from Phoenix

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Phoenix Cityscape

Phoenix, AZ offers a troubling example of the effect of the environmental crisis.

We’re not the first people on the planet ever to experience climate stress.  In the overheating, increasingly parched American Southwest, which has been experiencing rising temperatures, spreading drought conditions, and record wildfires, there is an ancient history of staggering mega-droughts, events far worse than the infamous “dust bowl” of the 1930s, the seven-year drought that devastated America’s prairie lands.  That may have been “the worst prolonged environmental disaster recorded for the country,” but historically speaking it was a “mere dry spell” compared to some past mega-droughts that lasted “centuries to millennia.”

Such events even happened in human history, including an almost century-long southwestern dry spell in the second century AD and a drought that was at least decades long in the twelfth century.  These were all events driven by natural climate variation.  Climate change adds a human factor to the equation in a region already naturally dry and short on water.  It ups the odds of bad events happening.  In the coming century, how habitable will parts of the bustling desert Southwest turn out to be?  Already, in the face of heat and drought, small numbers of people from small towns in the region are leaving.  And this, too, has happened before.  There are sobering previous examples of what it means when extreme climate stress hits this area.

Chaco Canyon was abandoned by its native population during that twelfth-century drought, and 150 years later, the Hohokam native culture of what is now central Arizona, whose waterworks in the dry lands of that area were major and impressive, also abandoned its lands, possibly due to drought, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys recounts in his recent book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.  “At some point,” he writes, “Hohokam society passed a threshold: the number of able-bodied workers it could muster was no longer sufficient to meet the challenge of rebuilding dams when they washed out and cleaning canals as they inevitably silted up. Eventually the hydraulic system collapsed, and the society that depended on it could no longer exist. The survivors turned their backs on their cities and scattered into the vastness of the land, doing what they could to survive.”

As you read deBuys’s latest post, it’s worth remembering that even the greatest hydraulic engineers have their limits when the water dries up.  When the Anglo farmers of the Phoenix Basin first started using the local rivers, they found themselves “reopening the canals the Hohokam had left behind.”  Who knows what monumental works we, too, might someday abandon? Phoenix, anyone? Tom

Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs
We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries
By William deBuys

If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.

Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.

In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?

And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time — New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy — may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures — grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.

Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so — the aptly named Valley of the Sun.

In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.

If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.

In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104°F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100°F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110°F: there were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.

In Flight From the Sun

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Lewis Lapham: Going the Way of the Great Auk

7:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A Koala in a tree

Not a cuddly animal. Has humanity lost its understanding and connection to the animal world?

If you walk through the painting collection of a great museum like the Metropolitan in New York City, heading from the twentieth century into the past, one thing may strike you sooner or later: animals and birds, domestic and wild, appear ever more frequently on canvas.  This, no doubt, reflects how much closer to nature and a wilder world we all once were.  In this sense, my 1950s childhood in a great modern city was typical of how unnatural we had become.  I was an only child and the closest I got to the animal kingdom was my dog.  Jeff was the name I gave him, perhaps out of a desire for a younger brother, and I treated him accordingly.  (Yes, I do now regret repeatedly tying his ears atop his head.)

Otherwise, I visited zoos, and that was about the only way I saw wild animals (regularly dozing in their cages), unless you count pigeons and rats.  It’s not that you can’t find the wild in an urban setting, but who was looking then?  Not me.  Not until I was 12 and visited a friend who had a house in “the country” — a somewhat suburbanized part of nearby Connecticut.  There, while walking along a road, I saw a flash of red that stunned me.  As it happened — and how rare must this have been then — my friend’s parents had a bird book and flipping through the pages I was amazed to discover that I had seen a male cardinal.  I mean, who knew?

Cardinals are a common enough bird, quite visible in New York City’s parks if you wanted to look for them, but until then I hadn’t.  I went back to school the next week and for Mrs. Casey’s class I wrote a little paper about that bird.  Somewhere in the distant reaches of my closet, I still have it.  Yes, I know now that a scarlet tanager makes a cardinal look almost colorless, but somehow that one flash of unexpected brilliance changed my relationship to the natural world.  Jump a few years ahead and my best friend and I were sneaking out to Central Park on weekend days, especially in spring migration season.  (The flyway goes over the city and if you’re there at just the right moment, exhausted, hungry birds drop like so many jewels into that park.)  Members of the Audubon Society (who were indeed little old people in tennis sneakers back then, as I am now) would show us wonders: orchard orioles, black-throated blue warblers, red-eyed vireos, egrets, and night herons.  Again, who knew?

This was, mind you, the single most secretive part of my childhood.  Admit, in 1960, that you spent time looking at birds and you had just ensured yourself of being summarily drummed out of the corps of boys.  So I kept it to myself, but I’ve never stopped looking.  That one cardinal, that one glance, opened an urban wildness to me.  New York City has undergone some rewilding in recent decades, but one day in this world of ours, those massive migrations, which still populate Central Park in the spring, may grow ever sparser.  North American bird populations are significantly in decline, thanks to loss of habitat and also, it seems, climate change.

In his usual fabulous way, Lewis Lapham takes up his own — and our — already semi-extinct relations with the animal world and the threat of far larger kinds of extinction to come in his introduction to “Animals,” the spring issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, which, four times a year, brilliantly unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at his piece, slightly adapted for this site. Tom

The Conquest of Nature
And What We’ve Lost
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in "Animals," the Spring 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

London housewife Barbara Carter won a “grant a wish” charity contest, and said she wanted to kiss and cuddle a lion. Wednesday night she was in a hospital in shock and with throat wounds. Mrs. Carter, forty-six, was taken to the lions’ compound of the Safari Park at Bewdley Wednesday. As she bent forward to stroke the lioness, Suki, it pounced and dragged her to the ground. Wardens later said, “We seem to have made a bad error of judgment.”

– British news bulletin, 1976

Having once made a similar error of judgment with an Australian koala, I know it to be the one the textbooks define as the failure to grasp the distinction between an animal as an agent of nature and an animal as a symbol of culture. The koala was supposed to be affectionate, comforting, and cute. Of this I was certain because it was the creature of my own invention that for two weeks in the spring of 1959 I’d been presenting to readers of the San Francisco Examiner prior to its release by the Australian government into the custody of the Fleishacker Zoo.

The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper, the features editor not a man to ignore a chance for sure-fire sentiment, my task that of the reporter assigned to provide the advance billing. Knowing little or nothing about animals other than what I’d read in children’s books or seen in Walt Disney cartoons, I cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Phascolarctos cinereus, ash-colored fur, nocturnal, fond of eucalyptus leaves), but for the most part I relied on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, the tales of Brer Rabbit, and archival images of President Teddy Roosevelt, the namesake for whom the teddy bear had been created and stuffed, in 1903 by a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn.

Stouthearted, benevolent, and wise, the koala incoming from the Antipodes was the little friend of all the world, and on the day of its arrival at the airport, I was carrying roses wrapped in a cone of newsprint. The features editor had learned his trade in Hollywood in the 1940s, and he had in mind a camera shot of my enfolding a teddy bear in a warm and welcoming embrace. “Lost child found in the wilderness,” he had said. “Lassie comes home.” The koala didn’t follow script. Annoyed by the flashbulbs, clawing furiously at my head and shoulders, it bloodied my shirt and tie, shredded the roses, urinated on my suit and shoes.

The unpleasantness didn’t make the paper. The photograph was taken before the trouble began, and so the next morning in print, there we were, the koala and I, man and beast glad to see one another, the San Francisco Examiner’s very own Christopher Robin framed in the glow of an A-list fairy tale with Brer Rabbit, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winnie-the-Pooh, all for one and one for all as once had been our common lot in Eden.

The Pantomime of Brutes

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