Climate & Energy

Wanted: climate disaster rapid response

Greens should talk about climate disasters when people are listening

As Matt Stoller pointed out at Open Left, environmental groups haven't been very quick off the mark in responding to the California wildfires and framing them as a climate disaster. Whether it's Katrina, Rita, the 2003 wildfires, 2004 Florida hurricanes, or any of the numerous other climate disasters of recent years, environmental groups have been slow. It's true that you can't tie any particular climate disaster directly to global warming -- but it's easy enough to acknowledge that and then talk about how these kinds of disasters will become more frequent and more intense as the climate crisis worsens ... and then turn the conversation to solutions. (photo: Kevin Labianco, Flickr) Mostly, environmentalists have been timid because they're afraid right wingers will accuse them of "exploiting" the tragedies, but environmental groups shouldn't decide what to say or not say on the basis of a few fringe anti-environmentalists. Framing these events as climate disasters directs the conversation and forces the media to address the question, rather than continuing with the "Mother Nature strikes again" stories they usually run. If we let the right wing define what we say, we'll be 100 percent mute, 100 percent of the time. It's kind of a ridiculous strategy.

Lyin' and Steven

Fox pundit blames wildfires on federal government

60 Minutes ran a spectacularly well-timed feature this past Sunday on wildfires in the Western states, entitled "Expert: Warming Climate Fuels Mega-Fires." Predictably, climate change denier Steven Milloy, who runs a website and serves as a pundit for Fox News, was quick to criticize the news report. His press agent at Advocacy Ink issued a release for him, in which Milloy claimed that, "There's no evidence that man-made climate change is playing any role whatsoever in the current Western forest fire season." I called the press agent, Audrey Mullen, to check on the quote, and to ask to interview the Fox pundit. She promised he would return the call within the hour; predictably, he did not. But Milloy's outrageously false claims still demand a challenge -- especially for those of us threatened by wildfires. In truth, the 60 Minutes report itself did a superb job of laying out the evidence for the role that global warming plays in wildfire in the West, beginning by saying -- as virtually all fire experts agree -- that the past national policy of total fire suppression was a mistake. As far as Milloy is concerned, that's all that need be said: Smoky the Bear was wrong, end of story. But this is now conventional wisdom among fire experts, and has been for many years. In fact, where I live in Ventura County, "fire planners" work year round preparing "prescribed burns" designed to reduce the risk of fuel build-up and let wildfires not threatening homes burn freely, as they are right now in the backcountry. "Current drought conditions and poor timber management practices are the primary causes," Milloy goes on to claim from his offices in Maryland. Milloy ignores the fact that, as the 60 Minutes report showed, the fire season today in the west is far longer than in past years. Reporter Scott Pelley talked to researcher Tom Swetnam, who has the largest collection of tree ring data in the world and has shown authoritatively that the fire season in the high mountains is far longer today than in the past. Swetnam said:

The debate heats up

Is geoengineering worth a second look?

Until recently, I was under the impression that scaling back carbon emissions 80% by 2050 might forestall the worst of effects of global warming. But with news like yesterday's,  with California up in flames, and with the Arctic ice cap shrunken to an all-time low, I'm beginning to wonder if we've already done so much damage that a technological fix might be necessary. In today's Times, Ken Caldeira, of the Global Ecology Department at Stanford makes his case: If we could pour a five-gallon bucket's worth of sulfate particles per second into the stratosphere, it might be enough to keep the earth from warming for 50 years. Tossing twice as much up there could protect us into the next century. Geoengineering has never received much love from environmentalists, and understandably so. Too often it just diverts attention from the core problem: that our fossil-fuel fed lifestyles are unsustainable. Surely, if we're going to consider these types of projects at all, they must be one weapon among many in our arsenal. And Caldeira agrees: This is not to say that we should give up trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ninety-nine percent of the $3 billion federal Climate Change Technology Program should still go toward developing climate-friendly energy systems. But 1 percent of that money could be put toward working out geoengineered climate fixes like sulfate particles in the atmosphere, and developing the understanding we need to ensure that they wouldn't just make matters worse. What do you think?

Sprawling homes susceptible to flames in California

The impact of the still-raging California fires on humans and their homes is tragic and lamentable — but far from unexpected, thanks to homeowners’ tendency to sprawl out and nestle right up to the fire line. Some two-thirds of new building in southern California in the past decade was on tinder-dry, fire-susceptible land, says historian Mike Davis. “You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans,” he says. Many homeowners are not deterred. “We’ll stay,” says Richard Sanders of Escondido from a fast-food restaurant, awaiting news of how his house fared. “We like the community, we like the …

A taste of what's to come

Global warming and the California wildfires

Global warming makes wildfires more likely and more destructive -- as many scientific studies have concluded. Why? Global warming leads to more intense droughts, hotter weather, earlier snowmelt (hence less humid late summers and early autumns), and more tree infestations (like the pine beetle). That means wildfires are a dangerous amplifying feedback, whereby global warming causes more wildfires, which release carbon dioxide, thereby accelerating global warming. The climate-wildfire link should be a special concern in a country where wildfires have burned an area larger than the state of Idaho since 2000. I write this as my San Diego relatives wait anxiously in their hotel room to find out if their Rancho Santa Fe home has been destroyed. This is a beautiful home that I lived in for a month when I moved to the area in the mid-1980s to study at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Can we say that the brutal San Diego wildfires were directly caused by global warming? Princeton's Michael Oppenheimer put it this way on NBC Nightly News Tuesday:

Slow down

China has not officially endorsed a carbon price

As I mentioned yesterday, a new report from the InterAcademy Council advocates for a price on carbon (among many other things). I started reading it last night, and it’s fantastic — more on it later. The report was commissioned by China and Brazil. The foreword is by Lu Yongxiang, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Somehow, our own Charles Komanoff extracts from this slender evidence that "China has put its weight behind a carbon tax — or a carbon cap-and-trade system that would also impose a carbon price." Next thing you know, says "China approves of cap-and-trade" and …

Energy storage, anyone?

Some good news for wind and solar

For those who have long been frustrated with the pace of progress in energy storage for electricity, we are happy to finally report a bit of good news. Two weeks ago, Jason moderated a panel at "Investing in Energy Storage Technologies," a conference in New York City sponsored by Financial Research Associates, LLC. Unlike most industry conferences on storage (meetings where we all sit around preaching to the already converted), bona-fide, real-life energy tech investors attended this one. Plus -- and here's where it gets exciting -- there were actually two presentations that together could very well signal the increase in interest and investment needed to commercialize energy storage technologies for our electricity grid.

Pearce on Gore

Socially progressive publishing house Beacon has a new blog, Beacon Broadside, where its authors post. One of the first posts is from Fred Pearce, author of, among other books, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. It’s called "Al and Me,” and defends Gore against the charge that he exaggerated the dangers of climate change in his movie. Quite the contrary, says Pearce.

Armenia and global warming

Climate change signals in the Caucasus Mountains

The following is a guest essay from Eric Pallant, professor of environmental science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and codirector of the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Integrated Water Resources Management. He is reporting from the National Disasters and Water Security conference in Yerevan, Armenia. ----- October 20, 2007 The last time there was dramatic climate change in Armenia, Noah built an ark, floated for 40 days and nights, and disembarked on Mount Ararat. Armenians insist they have a piece of his old boat in a local museum. Mount Ararat serves as a useful backdrop, snowcapped and picturesque, for the NATO meeting on Natural Disasters and Water Security. Mount Ararat makes an appearance in the morning light. (Photo: Eric Pallant)

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