The year, alphabetically
When it comes to global warming and the environment, everything seemed to change in 2006 — at least in terms of public awareness. Here’s an A-to-Z accounting of just some of those changes:
A is for An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s scientific but surprisingly human documentary on the threat of climate change, which was expected to take in at most $6-7 million at the box office but went on to gross over $45 million, the biggest documentary of the year and the third-largest of all time.
B is for biofuels, which went from becoming a hippies-only fringe product to a highlight of the State of the Union address. To date, Washington has been focused mostly on ethanol, but other fuels requiring much less fossil energy to produce are coming to the fore and proving surprisingly popular. Or as the bumper sticker says: “Biodiesel: No war required.”
C is for California, which set a new standard for pollution control by passing a bipartisan package of bills designed to cut tailpipe greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016 (and many other measures). For this, Iain Murray, a fossil fuel-funded think tank writer for the far-right National Review, declared: “It is hard to escape the conclusion … that what California has done is to decide to join the Third World.“
D is for the Day fire, or as the firefighters called it, “The Day After Day After Day After Day Fire.” It burned for over three weeks in Southern California’s Los Padres forest, consuming thousands of acres and millions of dollars in firefighting funds, but in the end — thanks to mostly mild winds and massive firefighting efforts — caused little property damage.
E is for the Esperanza fire, an arson fire that burned for nearly a week near Palm Springs, consuming 40,000 acres, dozens of buildings, and the lives of five firefighters.
F is for fossil fuels, the burning of which fills the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Although much despised by both environmentalists (who worry about global warming) and politicians (who worry about dependence on unstable foreign regimes), petroleum powers 98% of the world’s cars, trucks, and planes, according to a recent Pentagon survey.
G is for "The Governator," Arnold Schwarzenegger, who surprised nearly everyone by turning against what he called the “Stone Age … backward” views of his own party regarding global warming. Rumor has it he is building a platform on which he plans to run for the Senate in 2010 against Barbara Boxer.
H is for James Hansen, "the U.S. government’s top climatologist." In January, he made headlines by complaining that the Bush administration tried to prevent him from talking about global warming, and in September he made headlines by reporting that the earth will soon be as hot as it has been in a million years.
I is for the insurance industry, which this year acted on the real threat of Katrina-sized hurricanes hitting Florida and the East Coast by making insurance in Florida and on the shoreline of the East Coast more expensive and less available. Fearing a $100 billion direct hit on New York that could send a “wall of water perhaps 15 feet tall” up Broadway toward Wall Street, Allstate has stopped writing new homeowner policies in the region.
J is for the Japanese auto industry, which thanks to huge investments in fuel conservation (Toyota invested over $1 billion to come up with the Prius), is thriving in the 21st century while America’s automakers are crashing. Next year Toyota will become the world’s largest automaker, according to the Wall Street Journal.
K is for the Kyoto Protocol, a "cap and trade" international agreement signed by over 150 nations designed to stabilize the climate by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions below l990 levels. Although some nations — such as the U.K. — are on course to meet their Kyoto targets, two of the biggest emitters, the U.S. (at about 25%) and China (at about 15%) have refused to sign on.
L is for James Lovelock, the chemist, inventor, and ecologist famous for formulating the Gaia Hypothesis, who thinks we are headed for the earth’s "second stable state," which will be about 14 degrees hotter than today. He says that "means roughly that most life on the planet will have to move up to the Arctic basin, to the few islands that are still habitable and to oases on the continents." Yikes.
M is for methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as CO2. Untold millions of tons of methane lie frozen in permafrost in the far Siberian north and under the sea as clathrates. A study published in Nature in September warned of the possibility of "a climate time bomb" if these frozen gas deposits are released, as could happen with the softening of the permafrost.
N is for negawatts, which work to "squeeze out" fossil-fuel consumption between increasing innovation (e.g., moving from fluorescent lights to LED lights) and alternative energies like wind, solar, and geothermal. California has proven this concept viable, despite a botched attempt at energy deregulation, and utilities statewide will spend $2 billion in the next two years convincing Californians to save power, thus avoiding the construction of three power plants, the equivalent of taking an additional 650,000 cars off the road.
O is for our oceans, which are already in crisis, even before the likelihood of acidification due to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, which threatens pteropods, a crucial underpinning of ocean life.
P is for Pombo, the Republican Rep. who worked to dismantle the Endangered Species Act, make deals with Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay, and sell off public lands — and was dismissed from his conservative district by outraged voters.
Q is for (Council on Environmental) Quality, which became infamous in 2005 for allowing a former oil industry lobbyist to rewrite scientific reports on the Arctic. In 2006, the White House CEQ became famous for … absolutely nothing.
R is for Rupert Murdoch, who, under the influence of Bill Clinton, surprised the right-wingers on his FOX News channel by expressing fears of global warming. "If there is even a thirty-per-cent chance that the experts are right, we should do everything we can to insure against a bad outcome," he told The New Yorker. Prediction: FOX News will soon stop scoffing and begin running tabloid-style global warming disaster scenarios.
S is for (climate) sensitivity, a probabilistic measure of how much the planet will warm due to energy already stored in the atmosphere and oceans. If respected researcher James Annan is right and the international consensus is wrong, we may avoid the worst scenarios.
T is for Terry Tamminen, the anti-petroleum advocate who inspired AB 32 and Schwarzenegger’s greenhouse-gas emissions-reductions platform.
U is for the utility industry, which despite a handful of forward thinkers calling for a carbon tax (like Paul Anderson of Duke Energy) has taken a "see no carbon, hear no carbon, speak no carbon" position on global warming.
V is for the voters of America, who by turning the Congress over to the Democrats will allow the nation to face the facts of global warming, which was almost impossible under Republican control.
W is for Anthony Westerling, a brilliant young researcher now with UC Merced. whose huge study linking global warming to wildfire, and showing dramatic increases in wildfire in pine forests in mountain states, made headlines across the West.
X is for … I’m thinking, I’m thinking.
Y is for Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame, whose chart-topping, Grammy-nominated solo outing The Eraser was the first good record about global warming.
Z is for General Tony Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander, now retired from the Marines, who harshly criticized the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq and speaks now about climate change and the need for "environmental security." Some want to see him on a presidential ticket with Al Gore in 2008.