Sunday, September 5, 2010

Nunc Scio Quid Sit Amor

Here comes a long, muddled, incoherent ramble...Another loose and baggy monster!
There are a few videos, and diverting links...but let's start off with these pretty pictures.
If you don't mind some mournful music, you can listen to Handel's "Total Eclipse" - while you read the rest.
Remember when Dorothy left the Emerald City and bade farewell to her friends, and the weeping rusting Tin Man lamented, "Now I know I have a heart, because it's breaking."?
This is what I was feeling when I climbed atop the lovely hill above Wit's End, where from the vantage in the center of a field, it is possible to see long magnificent views no matter the direction.
How I have loved this spot for the past 30 years, trekking out countless times, to marvel at the vista of an entire world, bursting with the bounty of nature. There isn't a road to be seen, and the only manmade intrusions other than farmed fields and fences are just a very few distant, charming homes on faraway hills, and the steeples of churches protruding from the villages, snuggled below in the valleys.
The forest and wetlands stretching for miles around have always been bursting with berries, and mushrooms, and cattails, and wildflowers...and foxes and flocks of birds.
The Indians never built seaworthy boats to seek territory beyond the horizon, because these shores had such bounty, there was no need...A click on the next picture and you can see one of the many butterflies I found soaring in the meadow, in the foreground.
When the Europeans arrived in America, the beaches were crawling with lobsters and crabs, fish were leaping out of the rivers and seas, the trees were raining delectable nuts and fruit!
Now look at how we have degraded such cornucopia...this pathetic Queen Anne's lace is a shadow of a healthy flower.
This is true for almost every species, wild or cultivated - the flowers and leaves are a fraction of the size they should be.
Past this row of dying trees, to the south and east, the steeple of the Lamington Church is visible.
And beneath the treeline below, looking to the west, is the church steeple in Oldwick.
Scientific American has an article that asks the question, "If the World is Going to Hell, Why are Humans Doing so Well?" referring to a study about the "Environmentalist Paradox" published in the journal BioScience. There are interesting perspectives on this which can be found at the UK Guardian, and Survival Acres.

The author of the first review responds with his own questions:

"Can the environmentalist's paradox be explained away by the fact that there is a time lag between when we degrade our finite natural resources and when our well-being begins to be negatively affected? If so, what is this period of time likely to be? And will the transitional descent - when/if it finally begins - be slow or rapid?"
I worry about these questions constantly. Going to the grocery store or a farm stand is bewildering to me. I know that ozone is damaging crops - the EPA itself estimates annual losses in the billions of dollars...and yet to go to a store and see such massive amounts of luscious produce, it's easy to see why very few really believe ozone is an existential threat.
Shopping now entails anxiety. Before I became "enlightened" I loved to plan and cook elaborate meals.
Now I have the panicky urge to buying everything I see but of course, it's impossible to store a life-time's worth of food for my children...and impossible to protect any supply from hungry marauding hordes, anyway!
I suspect that much of the reason we still have juicy fruit and plump vegetables is related to the vast amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides (all derived from a limited resource - petroleum) with which farmers contend against the array of insects, disease, and fungus that proliferate from ozone exposure.
I decided to walk out to my own little orchard - untreated - to compare. I haven't been there all summer - it's too depressing. I followed Tom Kitten home along the path that is littered with leaves falling so fast, when a breeze comes up it looks like a snow flurry.
Sure enough, the horrible canker that is disfiguring fruit trees at an increasing rate has colonized the largest apple tree.
The fruit is mis-shapen.
It is also mottled in a most unappetizing array of bruised hues.
They look as though they have been attacked by a multitude of plagues.
And the few leaves that still cling are wizened and pockmarked.
Back at the farmstand, the large old trees are turning fall color early - and it's NOT from drought!!
These young potted nursery saplings that have been watered are just as damaged.
Thin crowns are indicative that the root system is similarly shriveled.
It's nice that they provide tents because there aren't any big old trees to make shade.
I received an email from a Wit'sEnd reader, Rita, who lives in the Midwest. She said, "I notice you travel a lot. I wonder how you feel about that?"

It's a short question that deserves a longer answer, and so I am going to mix my thoughts with the pictures I have taken over the past few days, while I was mulling over my response. These are pictures of trees with transparent crowns; turning autumn colors at least a month prematurely; leaves with symptoms of exposure to ozone; and earth that is barren of any vegetation.
The answer is, I usually feel terrible, not just about traveling but many other things. Rita has done far more than I to reduce her carbon footprint, and pollution.
Here are my excuses for travel - almost all of my travel is done to see family. If I had my 'druthers, we would all move to northernmost Maine and learn how to grow our own food, live off the power grid, and not travel - but none of them is convinced anything that drastic will be necessary, certainly not in the foreseeable future.
Knowing that the entire enterprise of human civilization is in peril anyway, and there being very little I can do to affect the outcome, spending time with my family is the main thing I care about, personally. The next reason I travel has to do with meeting people to strategize about climate change, or to protest as a group. I also have traveled for work, when it is clear if I didn't make a trip, somebody else would instead, so why not. I have gleaned important information from it - such as tropical places like Costa Rica have the same ozone impacts as New Jersey - which shocked me to learn.
Ever since I realized that trees are dying from ozone, and the climate is dangerously destabilizing from greenhouse gas emissions, it has become agonizing to reconcile so many practices once considered ordinary - and still considered ordinary by the vast majority of people. For instance, paying a service to mow the lawn...or having pets, considering the annual carbon footprint of one medium-sized dog is equal to driving a mid-size SUV 35,000 miles per year. I've been responsible for acquiring so many pets, never mind horses, over the years. And that's to say nothing of raising the three children, who I encouraged to explore the world, one of whom has visited every continent including Antarctica! Children are by far bigger carbon consumers than flying or driving or leaving all the Christmas lights on for a month every year.
Having said all that, it's important to remember that the vast and severe impacts of climate change are never going to be improved because individuals, even many many individuals, voluntarily decide to "go green". As Barack Obama said, "It isn't going to make any difference if I change a fucking light bulb..It's a collective thing."
While it's important - and also makes a statement - to do whatever we can individually to reduce our carbon footprint, to recycle, to curtail our pollution...still it is a wholly inadequate substitute for international government action. Individuals, no matter how numerous and well-intentioned they may be, cannot fix our collapsing ecosystem and climate racing out of control by riding bicycles or becoming vegan or buying local farm produce or putting up solar panels or installing geothermal heating and cooling, beneficial as those attempts may be.
To imagine that is the solution is to grotesquely underestimate the dimensions of the fundamental challenge. To the extent people do such things and then virtuously feel as though they have done their part, it is a dangerous delusion that actually is more harmful than helpful.
The ONLY way out of this predicament (assuming there actually IS any) is collective action. And in order to foment collective action, it is necessary to fly on planes to meet other activists, print out pamphlets using tree-killing paper and toxic inks - and use computers to do the science - and travel to protests. Put another way, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Scientists - like the one who narrated the video about ocean acidification posted just prior to this one - travel all over the world to study and report on the effects of CO2 emissions. It's vital information, without which certainly, nothing would ever be accomplished to avert the worst global catastrophes.

In fact, the whole notion of offsetting carbon by planting a tree for every mile traveled, or painting your roof white, is almost a self-defeating notion, nourished by wishful thinkers who refuse to understand the scope of the problem, and make themselves feel like they are "making a difference" because they change lightbulbs, or buy an electric car, or an energy-star appliance, or even write their Senator.


What we must have is a mass uprising of citizens around the world demanding that governments restrict the use of fuel. It must be rationed on a totally fair, per-person basis, and for only the most essential purposes. No more driving up to New England to admire the foliage, or leaving the doors of a shop open so the air conditioning billows out to the sidewalk to entice customers on hot days. No more puttering around on motorboats, no more flying on vacations or "business conferences". No more heating swimming pools, or even running their filters. No more flat-screen teevees, and video toys. No more laptops (SOB).

And you can't buy and sell the allotment of electricity and gas. Everyone gets an ID card with an allotment, enough to cook food, and heat their (small) home, and that's that. If your home is too big to heat with your ration of fuel - share it with a climate refugee!!

Oh, does that sound Draconian, and impossible to enforce? How about the alternative - starvation, enforced by Mother Nature?

You can't, famously, argue with Her.
Here is a flowering tree that has lost almost all of its leaves.
The bark is encrusted with lichen and splitting apart - BALDing - Bark Atrophy Lichen Decline.
Strange phenomena occur now on a regular basis. It looks as though this bark is meant to be the typical smooth, laterally striated fruit bark - but is becoming roughened through some mysterious process.
In spite of having practically no leaves, it is re-blooming! Also, many plants are doing exactly what they did last year - producing new leaves late in the season that are much larger and lighter than those that have been on the branches through the summer. Go figure.
The never-boring Left Coast correspondent, RPauli, unearthed this gem about ozone from a 2007 RealClimate post. The sentence in the second paragraph states:
"It’s well known that increased ozone levels – particularly downwind of cities – can be harmful to plants, and in this new study with a carbon-climate model, they quantify how by how much increasing ozone levels make it more difficult for carbon to be sequestered by the land biosphere."
I have noted before that there is an unfortunate inability for scientists fixated on rising temperatures from greenhouse gases to allow any effects of ozone to intrude upon their obsession with CO2. So in this instance, RealClimate is interested in the plant-destroying ability of ozone only to the extent that it will ultimately be a potential climate forcing and increase CO2, as plants no longer sequester carbon...the author doesn't give a fuck about trees. But what is fascinating to me, because I DO care about trees, is this next sentence:

"Actually it’s even more complicated. Methane emissions are one of the principal causes of the rise of ozone..."
This deserves attention because there has been a rapid, abrupt, and extreme acceleration in tree "decline" - over the past few years - and recently not just long-lived species like trees that have been exposed to decades of exposure to ozone, but annual plants, whether crops, weeds, or ornamentals, are suddenly having the same symptoms. Something egregious has changed. I have speculated perhaps, radiation from cell phones and towers, or increased UV radiation, or the particular precursers from ethanol...? But, maybe it's the methane being released from warming and thawing permafrost?

Who knows???

In any event, seeing this post which admits that ozone is harmful to vegetation reminded me of this particularly annoyingly dismissive response I got from Gavin Schmidt, which is at the very least, ignorant, and at the worst, disingenuous - and is followed by my original query:


Thanks for your note. Unfortunately, I don't know of any pollution issue that would be responsible for this, and I am inclined to follow the statements of the people quoted in the piece that this is a combination of effects related to pests and drought. Sorry I can't be more help.


On Mon, 2009-11-02 at 18:39, Wit's End wrote:

Dear Dr. Schmidt,

I just read an article about your study of the interactions of various gases in the atmosphere. No doubt to a serious scientist such as yourself my observations are at best quaint, however, I thought perhaps you might take a look at this article just out in the Boston Globe. Briefly, it is about the massive dieoff of trees on Martha's Vinyard and Cape Cod.

Granted, the researchers don't attribute the decline to atmospheric pollution - neither do those who are studying Sudden Aspen Decline, the pine bark beetle infestation, and Sudden Oak Death in California. And except for a very few other people practically nobody has even noticed the widespread, actually now universal, symptoms of foliar poisoning in New Jersey and other Eastern states.

But I'm convinced that fossil and biofuel emissions are interacting in some way to suddenly produce much worse, in fact lethal, damage. It is so widespread now that no other limited cause, such as a pest or disease or even warming and drought, can explain it. And of particular interest, plants in pots and aquatic plants have had this past summer symptoms identical to those growing in the ground - so drought and warming from climate change cannot be the primary cause. This problem is urgent but being almost entirely ignored or misdiagnosed.

Since you know about atmospheric gases can you think of any process that could be responsible for the recent rapid impacts?

I have thought it might be the relatively recently mandated addition of ethanol to gasoline, but it appears that the toxic soup is such a complicated mix that perhaps there is some other process I don't know about.


Gail Zawacki

Next, because Joe Romm snipped my comment about Andy Revkin, I'm going to post a comment I left on my newest favorite blog:

First, and painfully, I gave up on the NYT, my bible for everything from movie and book reviews to recipes to news - because of the lies about WMD in Iraq...and even MOSTLY, that egomaniacal mountebank and environmentalist poseur, Andy Revkin of infamy.

Shortly thereafter, having become enlightened as to the dire and obvious threat of climate change to human civilization, not to mention every other species on earth, I got a tad disillusioned about the objectivity of NPR, which is doing an abysmal, nay criminally negligent job, of reporting on the science of global warming.

Thank you for this honest - and entertaining! - blog.

In this episode of Letterman, it's obvious that he gets the message Bill is sending...but does Bill? When he talks about the urgent need to address our fuel emissions, why doesn't he include ozone, which is a far more immediate threat to survival than the slower-moving train wreck of climate change?

Next...I think we can stop wondering about bee colony collapse and blame it on agricultural insecticides.

"Honeybees, bumblebees and many other insects are being slowly poisoned to death by persistent insecticides used to protect agricultural crops. Small doses of the toxic chemicals accumulate over time, meaning that there is no safe level of exposure...

That statement and the next passage could just as well apply to ozone!

The researchers found that the total dose of insecticide required to kill the insect was smaller if administered over a longer time period (Ecotoxicology (2009) 18:343–354). In the case of honeybees, up to 6000 times less insecticide was required to kill them if it was administered in multiple tiny doses over a long time period.
This is reminiscent of the debate at the EPA about whether to use background levels or short high episodes to determine how to measure allowable ozone limits!

According to Henk Tennekes, a researcher at Experimental Toxicology Services (ETS) in the Netherlands, these findings make perfect sense. “Start by considering a high exposure level,” he said. “It may cause an early effect, such as cancer or mortality. At a much lower exposure level you may get a late effect. However, as it turns out, in the latter case you need much less of the stuff (in total) to produce the effect.”

ClimateChange: The Next Generation, is Tenney Naumer's terrific resource that compiles all the latest news and information. She posted this fascinating discussion, well worth watching. Yes Bill, we need a movement, but it's not going to happen because phytoplankton are disappearing, or people in Pakistan are flooded! Joe Six-Pack just doesn't care! If you want a movement, you have to scare the people out of their wits!!

Here was my comment after watching the video:
What I would ask climate "skeptics" or "deniers" is: if your doctor and 2000 other doctors you consulted, other than 3 quacks, told you you had a lethal brain tumor that had to be removed, would you go with the quacks and take herbal supplements? Or would you undergo all the pain and trauma and expense of surgery?
It has been a good summer for butterflies.
I cannot shake the feeling that perhaps their high numbers reflect the fact that the bird population has plummeted...this last picture is out of focus, but I like the sense of motion:

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