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May 6, 2012, 2:52 am
From Bark to Bottle – a Cork Story
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
For the second year, I’ve co-taught a documentary production course at Pace University in which a team of graduate and undergraduate communication students travels on spring break not to lounge on a beach, but to shoot a short film with an environmental theme. Last year’s film focused on an American woman working for decades in Belize to farm shrimp with limited environmental impacts​.
This year, the destination was Portugal and the subject cork:
For centuries, this versatile material — harvested by stripping the bark from a certain oak species once every decade or so — was the only choice for sealing wine bottles. At its peak, the trade supported thousands of workers, from bark-stripping crews in the rural communities around the forests to the factory workers in towns like Coruche, in southern Portugal.
It also sustained ecosystems that, while heavily shaped and exploited by humans, have long been a haven for wildlife, from the critically endangered Iberian lynx to the imperial eagle.
But in recent years, wine producers, concerned about quality control and cost, started shifting to plastic stoppers and plastic-lined aluminum screw caps, which ended up capturing about a third of the billion-dollar wine-closure business​. The competition prompted the cork industry, led by the company Amorim​, to improve its operations, develop new lines of products and push back with an offbeat online marketing campaign centered on the comic actor Rob Schneider​. Read more…
May 4, 2012, 7:42 pm
The Short Hot Life of Heartland’s Hateful Climate Billboard
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
The online spin cycle on global warming has become so fast and toxic that an electronic billboard in Chicago can flash an ultra-offensive message designed to draw attention to a conference of climate contrarians, then generate a global burst of Web traffic and then be withdrawn 24 hours later as “a necessary price to make an emotional appeal to people who otherwise aren’t following the climate change debate” (the statement this afternoon from the Heartland Institute, the group that paid for the messages).
Hopefully that necessary price will include Heartland losing a few more of its shrinking pool of corporate contributors​. (The group issued a longer statement tonight on its “realist” message.)
If you haven’t followed this exploding/imploding story carried out at the most extreme, and loudest, fringe of climate discourse, the basics were broken by Leo Hickman of The Guardian early today and then aggregated by Keith Kloor, Joe Romm, Anthony Watts, Jason Samenow and others. [May 5, 10:40 a.m. | Updated | I forgot to include a link to my critique of a climate campaign's equally loathsome 2010 video.] Read more…
May 3, 2012, 4:00 pm
A Student’s Conversation With Michael Mann on Climate Science and Climate Wars
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Casey Doyle, a student at Warren Wilson College who writes for the Swannanoa Journal​, the publication of the school’s Environmental Leadership Center, had the opportunity to speak with the climate scientist Michael Mann when he visited the campus to speak about his book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.”
Here’s their exchange, which counts as a Dot Earth “Book Report” (you are welcome to contribute one as well, when you find some book, new or old, particularly relevant to the discussions on this blog): Read more…
May 3, 2012, 3:00 pm
Secretary of Defense on Climate, Foresight and the National Interest
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
It’s worth noting Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s remarks on energy, climate and security last night at an Environmental Defense Fund event honoring the Defense Department for its work on the intersection of these issues. Here’s an excerpt:
Our mission at the Department is to secure this nation against threats to our homeland and to our people. In the 21st century, the reality is that there are environmental threats which constitute threats to our national security. For example, the area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security: rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
I was pointing out the other day that with the polar cap melting, we now have problems with regard to who claims the area in the polar region. And very frankly, one of the things I hope we get a chance to work on is to finally get the United States of America to approve the Law of the Seas treaty, which has been hanging out there for so long. We are the only industrialized nation that has not approved that treaty. It’s time that we did that.
The quest for energy is another area that continues to shape and reshape the strategic environment – from the destabilizing consequences of resource competition to the efforts of potential adversaries to block the free flow of energy.
These strategic and practical considerations weigh heavily on us at the Department of Defense. They weighed heavily on us as we developed our new defense strategy. In crafting that strategy, we decided that this could not just be an exercise in budget cutting. It had to give us the opportunity to look to the future, and decide what is the Defense Department going to be, not only today but in the future. And that meant we have to be efficient, we have to be innovative, and we have to invest in the technologies of the future.
As one of the largest landowners and energy consumers in the world, our drive is to be more efficient and environmentally sustainable. We have to be able to have the potential to transform the nation’s approach to the challenges we are facing in the environment and energy security. We’ve got to look ahead to try to see how we can best achieve that. Teddy Roosevelt once said that “in utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the Nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight.”
Read the rest here.
May 3, 2012, 12:19 pm
A Fresh Look at Clouds, and Heat, in the Greenhouse
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Here’s a deeper look at some of the points explored by Justin Gillis in his article earlier this week on the persistent questions, and hints of answers, surrounding how clouds will respond as concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise. (The graphic that accompanied the article is well worth a deeper look, too. Click here to expand on what you see to the right.)
Much of the heated discussion of the article on the Web focuses on its treatment of the skeptical stance of Richard Lindzen​, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist who has long been a hero of those fighting efforts to restrict greenhouse gases.
The Lindzen focus is a distraction, to my mind. Anyone thinking that the erosion of Lindzen’s credibility will somehow build societal enthusiasm for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is probably overly optimistic. This was expressed bluntly in Mother Jones by Kevin Drum, who wrote that clouds (and Lindzen) aren’t “deniers’ last hope,” adding, “Human greed and self interest are their last hope, and there’s very little chance of that diminishing anytime in the near future.”
More importantly, though, it’s a distraction from the issues surrounding how clouds might amplify or blunt human-driven warming. The range of possible consequences of this warming runs from manageable to catastrophic. The uncertainty has been durable, resisting many years of concerted research and analysis, but Gillis wrote that there are signs of progress. (Gillis dives in deeper on the science in a subsequent Green Blog post.)
After reading the initial article, I sent a query to Anthony D. Del Genio, a NASA climate modeler long focused on the cloud question. In Gillis’s story, Del Genio was the prime voice of optimism. Here’s our exchange (with some e-mail shorthand cleaned up):
Q.
It always amazes me how even a very long climate article (by me, Justin Gillis or anyone else) still only seems to scratch the surface. I was wondering what findings or research prospects led to your tone of optimism [on clarifying the role of clouds in greenhouse-driven climate change]?
A.
Justin asked me the same question. Here was my answer, copied from an email I sent him after we spoke:
I feel that we’re * on our way * (not there yet – but starting to see a path forward and a few signs of success) to doing a lot better because:
- We have realized how sensitive convective storms (thunderstorms and other heavy rain events) are to the humidity of the air around them, and we are beginning to account for that in our climate models
- These storms should penetrate higher as climate warms according to the models, a positive feedback, and satellite data looking at cloud height changes over El Nino time scales show something similar and show the models getting that about right also, for physical reasons we think we understand
- The midlatitude storm tracks are predicted to shift poleward as climate warms (an expansion of the tropics), a positive feedback, observations are beginning to show evidence of that too, and there are several good explanations for why that should occur
- Now that we have almost 3 decades of satellite cloud data, people (e.g. Joel Norris of UC San Diego) have begun to see an overall trend of more cloud near the equator, less cloud in the subtropics and midlatitudes, and the models are beginning to reproduce that general pattern
A big reason we’re not there yet is the subtropical cloud decrease part – satellite trends seem to show it, many models (including ours) predict it, but I think the physics of low subtropical marine stratocumulus and shallow cumulus clouds is not yet represented well enough by the models to be confident that if we are getting it right, we are getting it right for the right reason.
But I’m optimistic about the rest of it because we now have viable physical mechanisms for why the other types of clouds should change in a particular way as climate warms and some tentative observational evidence that this is correct.
That was my attempt to summarize the state of things in bullet form (as close to bullet form as I can get, I tend to be wordy), but if you’d like to know anything about any of these points, let me know.
Q.
This is incredibly helpful additional information…. I still see a question here, though. You say we’re “on our way,” but where? The description of tropical shifts you include in this note doesn’t get at the question of the resulting global (or regional) mix of positive and negative influences on the planet’s energy balance from such shifts in cloud patterns.
Are there already hints in this mix of findings that the climate’s sensitivity to a CO2 buildup is at the higher, lower or mid-range of what’s possible? Or are you saying there are hints of research directions that could, in the long haul, narrow the bounds of the question a bit?
A.
Right. I say that we’re on our way, but not there yet, because a decade or so ago, (a) the only observational evidence was about other types of current climate variability in clouds rather than trends, (b) no one had yet demonstrated a relationship between that behavior and climate change, (c) there were few if any accepted physical mechanisms for why specific types of regional cloud feedbacks occur. Now we have a couple of mechanisms that seem realistic for several specific types of changes such as the cloud height feedback, and we have some observational confirmation of a general latitudinal pattern of feedbacks that many models seem to get, more so than was the case a decade ago. So we’re beginning to feel we are doing *something* right, and we are starting to zero in on the most important questions that still need to be addressed in a way that I don’t think was true a decade ago.
But as you say the spread is still there because the relative magnitudes of the different regional feedbacks differ among the different models, so one model’s mix of + and – feedbacks will differ from another. So the fact that a pattern seems to be emerging, in both observations and models, which was not the case a decade or so ago, is encouraging. And the physics behind some aspects of those patterns is beginning to be understood. But not all the mechanisms are well enough understood yet (e.g., low clouds as probably the biggest nagging issue), so the spread is still there.
And of course just like cars, not every climate model is good, yet to date we just quote the entire spread among all models. The challenge is to define meaningful metrics to evaluate the models (probably different ones for different climate questions — climate sensitivity and southwest U.S. drought may respond primarily to very different things). This much harder to do for climate than for weather.
The community hasn’t yet done enough of that hard work to accomplish that. Instead, the tendency has been to just look at static mean geographic patterns of things, which has been shown over and over again not to have much predictive value, with a couple of exceptions (e.g. see a nice 2010 paper by Trenberth and Fasullo [​summary here] that relates one chronic model mean cloud error to climate sensitivity). You have to watch clouds change in response to a change in the environment – a dynamic view – to get better insights. What the emerging patterns and mechanisms do for us is to give us a research path to perhaps define truly useful metrics of that sort, not easily calculated metrics that do not help us. Whether that’s long haul or short haul, hard to tell…not only for science reasons.
As a scientist, I of course wish some of what we know about clouds now could get into print, but for most people it seems to be an arcane subject. But it’s not the hunt for the Higgs boson, which everyone now seems to know about.
May 2, 2012, 12:40 pm
Exploring How Communication Can Smooth the Human Journey
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
I’ve been giving a lecture in recent months in which I explain the upside of humanity’s fast-evolving and expanding menu of ways to share and shape ideas — what I call the “​Knowosphere​.” Here’s a particularly good recording, made at Santa Monica College​:
This is a more thorough presentation than some I’ve done, so I’ve split it into two parts here. I regrettably don’t have the time or resources to generate transcripts of my talks. (I encourage visitors with the time to watch the videos to post excerpts they feel are worth sharing.)
For more on the potential to use new approaches to communication to make progress on climate and energy, explore the Twitter feed below — generated during a mini-course on climate, the Web and communication that I’m teaching this week at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management of the University of California, Santa Barbara: Read more…
May 1, 2012, 12:04 pm
Polar Bears’ Long-Distance Swimming Skills on Display
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
USGS Polar bears were tracked during long-distance swims in Arctic waters.
An innovative use of radio collars has allowed researchers to gauge the long-distance swimming skills of polar bears in the Arctic Ocean waters north of Alaska. The research, by United States Geological Survey biologists, shows that the predator has a truly formidable ability to routinely cover extraordinary distances in the water. The bear clearly earns its designation under federal law as a marine mammal​.
The researchers tracked 52 females from 2004 to 2009 (I was told that the necks of male bears are too thick to accommodate radio collars), then compared the recorded tracks of the bears with maps of sea ice through the same period. The biologists documented 50 swims with an average length of 96 miles. The paper, “Long-distance swimming by polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of the southern Beaufort Sea during years of extensive open water,” is published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology​.
The study was too limited to clarify whether the warming Arctic climate and related summer expansion of open water in the Arctic Ocean is necessitating more long swims — or whether that is reducing the bear’s survival rate or reproductive success. The paper notes that cubs accompanied mothers on a number of the marathon swims. In a phone interview this morning, the lead author, Anthony Pagano, noted that the bear population in the study region, the southern Beaufort Sea, appears to be stable at about 1,500 animals. I asked him to consider these findings in relation to the much-discussed​reports of drowned polar bears a few years ago. He said that mortality appeared linked to a powerful storm, but said “generally speaking, polar bears seem capable of swimming amazing distances.” Pagano said there is concern that the stresses from continuing ice retreats could threaten the bears’ prospects in the long run. Still, this is quite a different picture of the issue than that painted by some climate campaigners in years past.
An agency news release has more details on the work. Here’s an excerpt: Read more…
April 29, 2012, 3:54 pm
Worth Watching: ‘African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes’
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Thanks to a Facebook post by Cameron Sinclair, the executive director of Architecture for Humanity and co-editor of “Design Like You Give a Damn,”
I found this fine effort to get beyond the Hollywood vision of the African man:
I encourage you to watch and share the short clip, created by the nonprofit group Mama Hope. There’s quite a contrast between the movie imagery and the identities of the young men featured in the video.
The tendency to focus on the grim side of any issue, or group, goes far beyond the movies, of course. In 2009, when I posted on the billion-teenager “youth bulge,” I first chose a photo of African child soldiers, then switched (publicly) to a photo of African school girls when some readers complained. Of course, there’s a fine line here, as one reader noted, complaining about the schoolgirl photo.
The bottom line, for me, is that there is a great opportunity for nonprofit groups, university communication and journalism programs and creative individuals to step in to the gap left by Hollywood and the media and find ways to tell the up side of the human story. This is one such attempt. What else is out there?
April 27, 2012, 5:20 pm
A Critique of the Broken-Record Message of ‘Green Traditionalists’
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Andrew Revkin Demonstrators at 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen.
Keith Kloor, building on a post on his blog, Collide-a-Scape, has an essay posted on Discover, titled “The Limits to Environmentalism,” that is well worth reading.
[May 1, 10:55 a.m. | Update | Kloor has offered a long (and to me convincing) response to his many critics (including those who, for some reason, dare not name him, in a fresh piece titled "​Occupy Environmentalism​."]
Here’s the introduction and a link to the [original piece]:
If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper​, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.
Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity.
For example, you may have heard that a bunch of scientists produced a landmark report that concludes the earth is destined for ecological collapse, unless global population and consumption rates are restrained. No, I’m not talking about the UK’s just-published Royal Society report, which, among other things, recommends that developed countries put a brake on economic growth. I’m talking about that other landmark report from 1972, the one that became a totem of the environmental movement. [Read the rest.]
April 26, 2012, 9:18 am
Making Information Matter in a Noisy Age
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
I was invited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this week to outline my notion that it is possible, amid the reverberating noise and distraction, to use the Web and other emerging communication tools and networks to make the world a better place.
Here’s my talk, “Building the #Knowosphere: How new ways to share and shape ideas can help build durable progress on a finite planet”:
MIT Tech TV
Here’s more on this notion of Knowosphere​, which sounds like a new word but has roots in the early 20th century, and even as far back as Darwin.
I also encourage you to read “Too Big To Know.” The author, David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, says our task, in an age of networked intelligence, is to learn how to build “smart rooms.” Here’s a great talk by Weinberger and his engaging blog.
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By 2050 or so, the human population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life. In Dot Earth, which recently moved from the news side of The Times to the Opinion section, Andrew C. Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits. Conceived in part with support from a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Dot Earth tracks relevant developments from suburbia to Siberia. The blog is an interactive exploration of trends and ideas with readers and experts.
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