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Plant matters: Is photosynthesis the best defense against climate change?

The Earth's plants and soils already hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere does.
halfrain
The Earth's plants and soils already hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere does.

A gigantic, steaming-hot mound of compost is not the first place most people would search for a solution to climate change, but the hour is getting very late. “The world experienced unprecedented high-impact climate extremes during the 2001-2010 decade,” declares a new report from the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, which added that the decade was “the warmest since the start of modern measurements in 1850.” Among those extreme events: the European heat wave of 2003, which in a mere six weeks caused 71,449 excess deaths, according to a study sponsored by the European Union. In the United States alone, 2012 brought the hottest summer on record, the worst drought in 50 years, and Hurricane Sandy. Besides the loss of life, climate-related disasters cost the United States some $140 billion in 2012, a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded.

We can expect to see more climate-related catastrophes soon. In May, scientists announced that carbon dioxide had reached 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, humanity is raising the level by about 2 parts per million a year by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and other activities.

At the moment, climate policy focuses overwhelmingly on the 2 ppm part of the problem while ignoring the 400 ppm part. Thus in his landmark climate speech on June 25, President Obama touted his administration’s doubling of fuel efficiency standards for vehicles as a major advance in the fight to preserve a livable planet for our children. In Europe, Germany and Denmark are leaving coal behind in favor of generating electricity with wind and solar. But such mitigation measures aim only to limit new emissions of greenhouse gases.

That is no longer sufficient. The 2 ppm of annual emissions being targeted by conventional mitigation efforts are not what are causing the “unprecedented” number of extreme climate events. The bigger culprit by far are the 400 ppm of carbon dioxide that are already in the atmosphere. As long as those 400 ppm remain in place, the planet will keep warming and unleashing more extreme climate events. Even if we slashed annual emissions to zero overnight, the physical inertia of the climate system would keep global temperatures rising for 30 more years.

We need a new paradigm: If humanity is to avoid a future in which the deadly heat waves, floods, and droughts of recent years become normal, we must lower the existing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To be sure, reducing additional annual emissions and adapting to climate change must remain vital priorities, but the extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has now become an urgent necessity.

Under this new paradigm, one of the most promising means of extracting atmospheric carbon dioxide is also one of the most common processes on Earth: photosynthesis.

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The worst part about BP’s oil-spill cover-up: It worked

A C-130 Hercules sprays Corexit onto the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. Air Force
A C-130 Hercules sprays Corexit onto the Gulf of Mexico.

"It’s as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid.” That’s what Jamie Griffin says the BP man told her about the smelly, rainbow-streaked gunk coating the floor of the “floating hotel” where Griffin was feeding hundreds of cleanup workers during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the workers were tracking the gunk inside on their boots. Griffin, as chief cook and maid, was trying to clean it. But even boiling water didn’t work.

“The BP representative said, ‘Jamie, just mop it like you’d mop any other dirty floor,’” Griffin recalls in her Louisiana drawl.

It was the opening weeks of what everyone, echoing President Barack Obama, was calling “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” At 9:45 p.m. local time on April 20, 2010, a fiery explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had killed 11 workers and injured 17. One mile underwater, the Macondo well had blown apart, unleashing a gusher of oil into the gulf. At risk were fishing areas that supplied one-third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., beaches from Texas to Florida that drew billions of dollars’ worth of tourism to local economies, and Obama’s chances of reelection. Republicans were blaming him for mishandling the disaster, his poll numbers were falling, even his 11-year-old daughter was demanding, “Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?”

Griffin did as she was told: “I tried Pine-Sol, bleach, I even tried Dawn on those floors.” As she scrubbed, the mix of cleanser and gunk occasionally splashed onto her arms and face.

Within days, the 32-year-old single mother was coughing up blood and suffering constant headaches. She lost her voice. “My throat felt like I’d swallowed razor blades,” she says.

Then things got much worse.

Like hundreds, possibly thousands, of workers on the cleanup, Griffin soon fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments. By July, unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws. In August, she began losing her short-term memory. After cooking professionally for 10 years, she couldn’t remember the recipe for vegetable soup; one morning, she got in the car to go to work, only to discover she hadn’t put on pants. The right side, but only the right side, of her body “started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled -- my ankle would get as wide as my calf -- and my skin got incredibly itchy.”

“These are the same symptoms experienced by soldiers who returned from the Persian Gulf War with Gulf War syndrome,” says Michael Robichaux, a Louisiana physician and former state senator, who treated Griffin and 113 other patients with similar complaints. As a general practitioner, Robichaux says he had “never seen this grouping of symptoms together: skin problems, neurological impairments, plus pulmonary problems.” Only months later, after Kaye H. Kilburn, a former professor of medicine at the University of Southern California and one of the nation’s leading environmental health experts, came to Louisiana and tested 14 of Robichaux’s patients did the two physicians make the connection with Gulf War syndrome, the malady that afflicted an estimated 250,000 veterans of that war with a mysterious combination of fatigue, skin inflammation, and cognitive problems.

Meanwhile, the well kept hemorrhaging oil. The world watched with bated breath as BP failed in one attempt after another to stop the leak. An agonizing 87 days passed before the well was finally plugged on July 15. By then, 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude had escaped into the Gulf of Mexico, according to government estimates, making the BP disaster the largest accidental oil leak in world history.

Yet three years later, the BP disaster has been largely forgotten, both overseas and in the U.S. Popular anger has cooled. The media have moved on. Today, only the business press offers serious coverage of what the Financial Times calls “the trial of the century” -- the trial now underway in New Orleans, where BP faces tens of billions of dollars in potential penalties for the disaster. As for Obama, the same president who early in the BP crisis blasted the “scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and government regulators two years later ran for reelection boasting about how much new oil and gas development his administration had approved.

Such collective amnesia may seem surprising, but there may be a good explanation for it: BP mounted a cover-up that concealed the full extent of its crimes from public view. This cover-up prevented the media and therefore the public from knowing -- and above all, seeing -- just how much oil was gushing into the gulf. The disaster appeared much less extensive and destructive than it actually was. BP declined to comment for this article.

That BP lied about the amount of oil it discharged into the gulf is already established. Lying to Congress about that was one of 14 felonies to which BP pleaded guilty last year in a legal settlement with the Justice Department that included a $4.5 billion fine, the largest fine ever levied against a corporation in the U.S.

What has not been revealed until now is how BP hid that massive amount of oil from TV cameras and the price that this “disappearing act” imposed on cleanup workers, coastal residents, and the ecosystem of the gulf. That story can now be told because an anonymous whistleblower has provided evidence that BP was warned in advance about the safety risks of attempting to cover up its leaking oil. Nevertheless, BP proceeded. Furthermore, BP appears to have withheld these safety warnings, as well as protective measures, both from the thousands of workers hired for the cleanup and from the millions of Gulf Coast residents who stood to be affected.

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Missing the point of the cap-and-trade defeat

It's a baffle. While reanalyzing the cap-and-trade fight and responding to Theda Skocpol's controversial paper on it, my esteemed colleagues Bill McKibben, David Roberts, Joe Romm, and Eric Pooley have evidenced some sharp, and sharply worded, differences with one another. But all appear to agree that one big reason cap-and-trade “crashed and burned” on Capitol Hill, as Pooley phrased it, was the lack of public support: If only there had been a vibrant popular movement out in the country demanding serious action on climate change, things might have ended differently. For the record, I suspect this is true (though I also agree with Romm that other key reasons for cap-and-trade's failure were outside of environmentalists' control, particularly the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate imposed by filibuster threats from climate change-denying Republicans).

"no new coal" protest
Rainforest Action Network
Activists in front of the Texas Capitol.

But here's what I don't get. There actually was a popular movement out in the country demanding serious action against climate change during Obama's first term. In fact, this movement was not only demanding action, it was winning it big time. I'm referring to the grassroots movement that helped to prevent the construction of 174 (and counting) new coal-fired power plants, thereby imposing a de facto moratorium on new coal in the United States. Blocking construction of these plants -- and therefore of the greenhouse gases they would have emitted over their 40-plus-year life spans -- limited future U.S. greenhouse gas emissions almost as much as the cap-and-trade bill would have done. (And this calculation assumes that cap-and-trade would have worked as well as proponents claimed, hardly a sure thing considering how weakened the bill was during congressional horse trading.)

This popular movement called, and still calls, itself "Beyond Coal." And although it was spearheaded nationally by the Sierra Club, it was populated and led by local and regional activists. Most of these activists hailed from, and kicked ass in, supposedly red states in the South and the Midwest, where most of the battles over proposed coal plants played out. Crucially, this movement was not comprised solely of the usual environmental suspects. Its leaders deliberately reached out more widely, and collaborated as equals with, a range of citizens: farmers who didn't want coal plants fouling their agricultural vistas, air, and water; doctors and nurses who knew that burning coal kills at least 13,000 Americans every year while causing tens of thousands of additional heart attacks and asthma afflictions; youth who understood that coal is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels and thus is a dire threat to their futures; public officials, some of whom feared the climate impacts of burning coal but all of whom recognized that coal produces the kind of local air pollution that could discourage other businesses from bringing headquarters, jobs, and economic activity to their jurisdictions; and many more.

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Cycles and cents: One city sets out to prove that bikes are good for business

Cross-posted with The Nation. Look out, Minneapolis and Portland. Long Beach is making its move, aiming to surpass you as America's Most Bike Friendly City. Does that sound odd for a city whose chief claim to environmental fame has been its massively polluting port and offshore oil facilities -- a city that, like the rest of Southern California, has long been in thrall of the car? Bike racks in Long Beach help attract customers to local businesses.Photo: Umberto Brayj Well, all that's changing, and the change is coming from the top. Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, who says he tries …

Read more: Biking, Cities

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New approach to climate deniers: Launch them into space!

Sir Richard Branson in his WhiteKnightTwo aircraft.Photo: Dave Malkoff This story has been corrected and updated since its original publication. See below for details. Here's a new idea for how to deal with climate deniers: Blast them into space. The proposal came yesterday during a freewheeling panel discussion among California Gov. Jerry Brown, Virgin Group Chair Sir Richard Branson, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chair Rajendra Pachauri. Kicking off a conference on "Extreme Climate Risks and California's Future" held at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Brown pledged to protect his state from the "huge problems" posed …

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nyah nyah

Why Seattle will stay dry when your city floods

The Emerald City -- green in more ways than one. This post is adapted from Mark Hertsgaard's new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. If you're a Seattleite, come meet Hertsgaard at a Grist Happy Hour and see him talk about the book at Town Hall Seattle on Feb. 3, 2011. As a father living in the era of global warming, I have my good days and my bad days. The bad days you can probably imagine. Writing this book has taught me more than I'd like to know about our climate dilemma: about how drastically …

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A worldwide Wilberforce

What climate activists could learn from the anti-slavery movement

Cross-posted from The Nation.Students in Portugal.Photo: 350.org From the standpoint of human survival, it makes no sense: Our media and political systems are losing focus on climate change long before the problem is solved -- indeed, while it manifestly continues to get worse. You can help change that on Oct. 10. That's the date of a Global Work Party intended to celebrate climate solutions and press governments for change. Some 4,483 actions (and counting) are planned in 174 countries, says Jamie Henn of 350.org, one of the groups coordinating the event. "To build a grassroots movement that can challenge Big …

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if youth can't stand the heat

Meet Generation Hot

This article is adapted from Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which will be published in January 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It first appeared on Huffington Post. My daughter Chiara, age five, is a member. So is my goddaughter Emily, age twenty-two. So are the thousands of Pakistani children now suffering after record monsoon rains left 20 percent of their country -- an area the size of Great Britain -- underwater. In fact, every child on earth born after June 23, 1988 belongs to what I call Generation Hot. This generation includes some two billion young …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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A heroin addict can't go cold turkey

A deepwater drilling moratorium might be a bad idea for Louisiana

We can’t all go cold turkey.This article is part of a special issue of The Nation magazine about green energy, "Freedom From Oil."  PORT SULPHUR, La. -- Captain Pete, as everyone in town calls him, has been an oysterman nearly his entire life. He started as a boy, learning the trade from his father, who had learned it from his father. Working fourteen-hour days from leased oyster beds in Barataria Bay, 40 miles south of New Orleans, Captain Pete's family supplied the city's premier vendor, P&J Oyster Company. When P&J closed its doors on June 10, it was front-page news …

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Grapes of Wrath

What climate change means for the wine industry

John Williams has been making wine in California's Napa Valley for nearly 30 years, and he farms so ecologically that his peers call him Mr. Green. But if you ask him how climate change will affect Napa's world famous wines, he gets irritated, almost insulted. "You know, I've been getting that question a lot recently, and I feel we need to keep this issue in perspective," he told me. "When I hear about global warming in the news, I hear that it's going to melt the Arctic, inundate coastal cities, displace millions and millions of people, spread tropical diseases and …