Repeating Collective Failure, Long After the Great War

wwi-italian-frontAlmost a century after the start of World War I, Italy is still recovering bodies of those killed in action high in the Alps. Starting in the 1990s, the Earth’s mounting temperatures melted enough ice to free some of those long-frozen souls.

In recent weeks, Britons got to read in their newspapers a war of words between Education Secretary Michael Gove and actor Sir Tony Robinson, over the latter’s TV representation of the first world war as a colossal, tragic mistake.

Sadly, that was indeed a fairly accurate summary of a war that began almost accidentally and rapidly involved every European country that had nothing to do with it.

A local assassination, excessive hubris, illogical military plans and a general unwillingness to stop a war’s wheels from grinding into action let things get out of control faster than any diplomats could rein in it – even if they wanted to.

Soon, officers were ordering wave after wave of young men into barbed-wire-tangled moonscapes, as machine guns raked across their ranks and shells exploded around them. The metric for victory became a few feet of meaningless dirt.

It is a cliché to note that the “War to End All Wars” was certainly far from the last conflict, but it seems to have become accepted wisdom that no countries could be so foolish a century later as to initiate a cascade of mistakes on that scale.

The irony, of course, is that the recently recovered Austrian and Italian bodies from the mountain front were likely only disgorged due to the melting of glaciers and once-permanent snow packs as a result of man-made global warming. Will unrestrained climate change be 2014’s tragic answer to the epic, collective failure of 1914?

The phenomenon has until recently been, in effect, a slow-motion collision of the different economic plans of nations everywhere. Our diplomats had more warning this time – but again had no support from their home governments to negotiate a solution that might head off the impact.

Every vanishing glacier that once served millions with drinking water now serves only as a catalyst for more squabbling over limited resources. Every new factory in one nation must be answered with a factory in its competitor. There is no partial mobilization of resources when economic primacy is at stake.

The world’s marginal places – the societies literally living on the margin between existence and extinction from one harvest to the next – are finding themselves drier and more prone to catastrophe than ever. They are an ecological and human powder keg that rivals last century’s Balkans.

The rapidity of South Sudan’s recent collapse – or that of nearby Central African Republic – or northern Mali in 2012 – even the wheat-driven Arab Spring – should be seen as a bigger warning of what is yet to come than any anarchist bomb or gunshot.

This warming is upon us and we are its primary cause. We can ignore the signs until an avoidable global tragedy is fully unleashed once more or we can commit our diplomats, strategists and resources to a collaborative counter-effort that will benefit all mankind.

This summer, as Europe swelters through commemorations of the Great War, we should heed the heavy cost of 1914’s chain of errors or past will again be present.

 
This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.

Global Warming, Snow, and Arctic Chills

Whenever there’s a severe winter whether event, the conservative cranks start crowing about how this means there’s no such thing as global warming. This view starts from a pretty silly baseline — obviously there will always continue to be outlier events in either direction because that’s what outliers are and weather is not exactly the same as climate — and ignores the other obvious point that winter is typically associated with cooler temperatures than the rest of the year in higher latitudes (nearer the poles than the equator), even if the annual average is rising.

But then there’s just the relatively simple science that explains not only why global warming can exist simultaneously with severe winter weather but how it can cause it to be even more frequent and more severe. This post will explain the basics of two types of events, in the context of global warming.

1. Heavier snow storms
During the course of a year, global warming is evaporating moisture from drier climates. (Right now, for example, we’re seeing record droughts in California instead of winter rainfall to replenish water tables.) During the summer months at each pole, the warming trends are also evaporating meltwater from the ice sheets. This means that, overall, there’s more moisture going into the atmosphere — and it’s going into an atmosphere which is warmer than in the past. The warmer the air (relative to normal temperatures at that time), the more capacity it has to hold moisture.

When the capacity is reached or if the temperature of the air drops suddenly (which reduces capacity), precipitation occurs. In warmer regions or during the non-winter months, this occurs in the form of rainfall. This is why severe rainstorms and flooding have occurred all over the world, even as water shortages are happening right nearby. The moisture is sucked up into the atmosphere on one side of a geographic zone (or not dropped in the first place due to higher carrying capacity) and then dumped out very quickly on the other (usually colder) side, often on opposite sides of a mountain range.

During the winter, in high latitude places, we’re seeing warmer winter months interrupted periodically by very severe snowstorms. During the warm weeks, the atmosphere is collecting a higher than usual amount of moisture. When the temperature finally does dip suddenly, this moisture is released in the form of heavy snowfall (i.e. the much colder version of the heavy rainstorms in the rest of the year). And that’s how we can get an increase of severe snowstorms in some regions during winter, because of (not despite) global warming.

2. Deep freezes
arcticThis past week, the continental United States experienced a very deep and widespread freezing, even stretching sub-freezing temperatures as far down the latitudes as the deep American South. The more northern, higher latitudes had (depending on one’s location) windchills ranging from 15-50 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero. In some places, exposed skin froze within a minute. Very dangerous, very cold weather.

The American media didn’t do a great job explaining how this was happening, in terms of meteorological process, let alone why it was happening (i.e. that it can be linked to global warming). This left the conservatives to snark once again that this was somehow proof that global warming is a myth. But there’s a concise explanation from the blogs of Scientific American.

Essentially, melting Arctic ice in summer, due to global warming, evaporates meltwater into the (warmer than usual) atmosphere. This weakens and disrupts polar wind patterns — known as the polar vortex — that normally “lock” the cold air into the Arctic Circle (or close to it) during winter. Once released, this cold air then pushes southward, way past where it usually is found during these months.

 
Unfortunately, both of these types events will become more frequent in the near-term due to global warming, as long as there’s still ice to melt up there during the rest of the year and as long as the temperatures are still sometimes getting cold anywhere during the winter.

Individual episodes of these weather events can’t always be tied specifically to global warming. But as a whole, in terms of trendlines, we can correlate them statistically to rising average global temperatures. And by understanding weather science, we can see how there’s also a plausible causal link. So the parallelism of the trends isn’t coincidental. And the near-universal view of the professional climatology community is that global warming is increasing and results directly from human activities such as industrialization of production and agriculture.

 
Note: This analysis is intended to help lay readers understand the general concepts involved. It is not intended to be a 100% technically rigorous article. Some shortcuts and elisions in the science have been made for ease of mass communication.

Carbon pricing and “economic uncertainty”

American Conservatives these days spend a lot of time insisting in the media that policy-induced economic “uncertainty” — i.e. being uncertain as to whether Congress plans to raise or lower taxes in the long run, which is inherently unknowable* but is used to argue for “permanent” cuts — but the solution to this “uncertainty” from the corporate perspective has always been obvious.

Companies can plan for scenarios with higher fees & taxes and go forward accordingly. If Congress does raise the taxes, then they’re already prepared. If Congress doesn’t raise the taxes after all, then there’s no real harm done to the companies (and they might even find savings while hunting for ways to cut costs to keep profits up).

We are seeing this in action now according to a New York Times article about how several dozen major U.S. corporations are preparing for scenarios where Congress imposes some kind of industry-scale carbon pricing or tax system. Although not currently being seriously considered in the immediate future, given the makeup of Congress at this particular moment, this pricing would eventually likely be put into place to discourage high carbon footprints on a wide scale and probably to pay for some of the damage caused by unmitigated carbon outputs in the past.

More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.

[…]

A new report by the environmental data company CDP has found that at least 29 companies, some with close ties to Republicans, including ExxonMobil, Walmart and American Electric Power, are incorporating a price on carbon into their long-term financial plans.

Without carbon pricing, dirty fuel and power sources like oil, coal, and natural gas are essentially given a big cost break compared to cleaner renewables by forcing everyone else to pay for their environmental damage (and health consequences) — a practice known as “externalizing” the cost. Carbon pricing aims to end the harmful externalities and force dirty fuel sources to compete fairly against cleaner competitors. It also forces companies to find ways of becoming more energy efficient to save money and reduce their tax burden.

So rather than dithering around being “uncertain” as to when or how exactly Congress will get its act together and establish carbon pricing schemes, major U.S. firms are solving the problem by preparing for the more expensive scenarios now, so they aren’t taken by surprise later. Poof! No more policy-driven uncertainty harms! And that’s why it’s never a valid argument that policy decisions should be undertaken solely to reduce uncertainty in the markets and business world.

Well, that and the simple reality that uncertainty is a basic fact of capitalism, so that’s understood to be part of the rules and risk of going into business.

 

*It’s “inherently unknowable” whether Congress will do anything “in the long run” because the Constitution prohibits any one cycle of Congress from passing a law that cannot be undone at any time by a future Congress. Thus it is impossible to pass a “permanent” tax cut that is truly permanent. So such measures, while enthusiastically received by their advocates, are of limited real benefit for ending alleged “uncertainty.”

Rising seas threaten coastal drinking water

Here’s a global warming impact you may not have considered: saltwater contamination of drinking water in some coastal areas. It’s especially worth discussing, to me at least, because of my longstanding interest in water policy and because I just completed an environmental geology course, where we discussed the science behind drinking water supplies and coastal processes.

Basically, due to rising sea levels brought on by global warming, millions of Americans (and presumably people around the world) face possible destruction of reliable water supplies in low-lying areas. This can happen due to saltwater intrusion into the groundwater — something that has been occurring on Long Island for some time now as wells deplete the aquifers — or by saltwater further penetrating coastal marshes in estuaries, reaching into the non-tidal freshwater marshes. Also individual incidents such as storm surges, which often contaminate drinking supplies and treatment facilities, are going to be exacerbated by higher sea levels.

I’m particularly concerned because the state where I currently live (Delaware) has a coastline that is mainly an estuary, which was the subject of a new study on the impending problem. The potentially affected freshwater found in the coastal regions along the lower Delaware River and estuary provides drinking water for several million people in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I caution you that the blog post I’m about to quote has some glaring errors, but I’ve tried to fix/remove them here:

Fresh water that now is flowing to the sea in the Delaware estuary is threatened by future sea-level rise resulting from rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions, a new study finds. As sea levels rise, salt water will move inland up the estuary.
[…]
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary studied impacts [PDF] on drinking water, tidal wetlands and shellfish like the local oysters and freshwater mussels in “Climate Change and the Delaware Estuary” and how people can adapt to help protect the threatened resources.

Drinking water, tidal wetlands and shellfish are key resources for the estuary; and all three are vulnerable to effects of climate change, including warmer temperatures, higher sea levels and saltier water. Oysters alone brought about $19.2 million into the [region] in 2009.
[…]
Currently a “narrow fringe of freshwater wetlands” protects the freshwater, but the wetland marsh plants are very susceptible to rising salinity.

 

Low-lying wetlands of the lower Delaware River and estuary. Key: Red=Tidal wetland, Green=Nontidal wetland. NVCS map via the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

It looks like there’s a pretty noticeable correlation between some of those freshwater wetlands and the population distribution on the New Jersey side…

If they become tidal wetlands instead of freshwater, that’s a big problem.

If you’re at all familiar with the disaster-ridden English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, then you probably know that, “the colonists soon discovered that the swampy and isolated site was plagued by mosquitoes and tidal river water unsuitable for drinking, and offered limited opportunities for hunting and little space for farming.” While the hunting and farming issue is not as much of a problem for the coastal United States these days, rising sea levels could basically expand a lot of estuaries and make much more of the seaboard’s water “unsuitable for drinking.” I know Jamestown had more problems than its drinking water, but everybody needs clean, freshwater to survive, and there are a lot more of us now living in threatened areas than ever before. We don’t want to repeat Jamestown if possible.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Another Failed Senate Bill Attempt (or Why I Blame Harry Reid)

I had, perhaps foolishly, higher hopes than usual for the latest attempt to pass climate legislation in the US Senate. Harry Reid killed that completely, formally, yesterday. So I was very frustrated for the rest of the day. I’ve been discussing these multi-faceted frustrations with many of the environmental bloggers I know and trying to work out the next course of action, on what I consider to be the most important policy issue of the era. I will be discussing this more during the coming days, in lieu of my planned action/public lobbying posts (I canceled the one on Thursday about calling Senators and won’t be doing the one today about lobbying the White House).

But I think DR Grist (David Roberts) had an excellent post-mortem on the dead climate legislation attempt, in which he made a number of strong points. The two linked points I choose to highlight today are these… first:

Every cowardly senator repeats it like a talisman to ward off the terrible threat of having to act: “We don’t have the votes.” Two things to say about that. First, of course you don’t have votes for something this controversial before you go to the floor and force the issue. Pelosi didn’t have the votes before she took the House bill to the floor. She got the votes by twisting arms and making deals. She forced the issue. That was the only way the Senate vote could ever work — if the bill was put on the floor, the issue was forced, and Dems united in daring the GOP to vote against addressing the oil spill. There’s no guarantee that would have worked, but at least it would have been a political rallying point. It would have put senators on record. And it’s not like the wimpy avoidance strategy is producing better results.

 
We will never know if the votes are there or not unless we bring these provisions up for votes. It seems inconceivable to me that the Democrats could be taking a political bigger risk at this point by holding and losing big policy votes than by getting nothing done for two years. After all, the public elects them to cast votes and after a while will lose patience with the idea that they can sit there for six years and not cast any major votes in order to avoid casting risky votes. The Senate Democrats are risking their majority by not getting anything done, and they are not getting anything done because they are sure that they will risk their majority by voting on potentially controversial things and losing… somehow.

Like the House Democrats as a caucus, some individual Senate Democrats have put out themselves on the line publicly supporting climate policy provisions that will be unpopular with special interests, only to find the Senate as a whole isn’t planning to even hold a vote, let alone pass it so they have something to show for their courage. Mark Begich of Alaska, for example, is a moderate freshman Democrat from a conservative oil-producing state and he supported this plan publicly; that kind of willingness to take political risks shouldn’t be rewarded with another failure from lack of even trying.

And to finish quoting David Roberts’ related point:

Second, senators need to stop talking about “60 votes” as though it’s in the Constitution that the U.S. Senate — unlike every other legislative body on the planet — has a supermajority requirement. It’s not in the Constitution. It’s an accident, an informal rule that Republicans have taken to relentlessly abusing, not to extend debate but simply to degrade the Senate’s ability to act. The filibuster is anti-democratic and it is thwarting the country’s will. The American people need to be told this and senators who still want their institution to be minimally functional need to start getting angry about it.

 
This was not only another failed climate bill attempt, but one more failed bill attempt in general for the Democrats because of the myth of 60. The blame for this latest failure lies with them almost as much as with the ever-obstructive Republicans. I have condemned many of these Senate Democrats individually over the past year and half, but I reserve my strongest condemnation of failure for Harry Reid on this one. It was his (great) idea to merge the must-pass Spill Bill with climate and energy legislation. We knew it would be limited, but he got our hopes up by claiming (along with others like Kerry and Lieberman) that the caucus was uncharacteristically totally united behind this effort… and then he failed to deliver on this and by extension the job he is most required to do: lead. Now, having failed to unite his own caucus, let alone gather bipartisan support, he has punted climate legislation to November or beyond, when it will have even less chance of passage.

The extent to which I despise the pathetic failure of a US Senate Majority Leader we have right now has now reached unfathomable levels. I don’t say that lightly. I don’t despise the man himself, but the job he is doing (or not doing, more accurately) as “Leader.” When he uses the phrase “we don’t have the votes” — or lets others in key committee roles use the phrase — or refuses to pursue filibuster reform actively, it’s like he expects that votes will materialize when they feel the time is right, and that if we keep vaguely chopping legislation down without any real give-and-take negotiations, eventually 60 lost Senators will wander back to the fold and agree to vote for whatever half-assed stone soup has been assembled (or still remains).

One never gets the feeling that Harry Reid is shepherding the flock toward anything in particular or that he even has a bell to lead them home. They’re more like free-range chickens. That’s why I say he’s a pathetic failure as Majority Leader. And because his Republican opponent is out-of-her-mind crazy, he’ll be re-elected this year, which means at least another two years of his leadership, since he’s unlikely to step aside and won’t be challenged (or at least not successfully, since his hands-off style is exactly what most of the ego-maniacal Democratic caucus members love in a majority leader). Sure, the White House should get some of the blame too for not taking a more active role in pushing the Senate on these things, and that’s probably a function of President Obama’s tenure as a legislator himself for many years, but Harry Reid’s very title should command some level of reasonable expectation that he will lead the caucus.

For now, it will be time to re-evaluate on climate change mitigation efforts, perhaps by supporting inclusion of a strong renewable energy standard, as DR Grist suggests (although Reid also doesn’t want that), or by defending the Environmental Protection Agency vigorously as it works to regulate CO2 emissions without Congressional action. To be continued, as they say, but I wanted to make some initial comment on this Senate failure first…

This essay was originally published at Starboard Broadside.