Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Game of Clue

Here it is mid-afternoon and little of consequence has been accomplished at Wit's End, other than feeding the cats and birds.  I had barely crawled out of bed this morning when tumult on the intertubes ensued, so this post is going to veer in a dizzy swinging odyssey from the political to the environmental and back again - because they are simultaneously even more inextricably entwined in the past 24 hours or so than I would have thought possible.
A couple of days ago I puzzled over my usual question about which gaseous weapon is to blame for the increasing background levels of ozone that are killing trees so quickly and virulently, and discussed the potential contribution from biofuel emissions.  Yesterday, evidence about the other primary culprit, methane, exploded from several directions, as did some inflammatory issues around policy, both foreign and domestic.
One comment to Chris Hedges' article describing his lawsuit against Obama for approving the notorious National Defense Authorization Act ("Homeland Battlefield Bill") observed that if we had better voters, we'd have a better government.  Given the abominable deceptions and mendacity from the Defense Department, the State Department, and the rest of government - all beholden to corporate interests - is that really true?  Who is guilty for the precarious mess we're in?

Is it the military?
The banksters and corporate moguls?
The ostentatious, insatiable greed of the 1%?
Those crazy scientists unleashing technology that humans are hopelessly incompetent to manage?
The unskilled, uneducated tea-partiers who vote against all logic and even their own self-interest?
Does it really matter who or what is at fault?  Isn't tomorrow just another day?
One of the first articles I read early was written by a Republican meteorologist, a self-described convert to comprehending climate change, wishing that his party would stop being full of catatonic zombie deniers (he didn't call them that, of course).  Here was my comment:
It's a good article as far as climate change goes, but I get rather tired of Republicans who seem to not understand that today's party of buffoons and haters isn't an aberration, it's the logical outcome of years of "benevolent", propaganda driven consumer-oriented fascism. Now that the empire is crumbling, it's a little more difficult for them to maintain the façade. The only reason people like Paul Douglas were able to think of themselves as nice people while propping up the right wing is because they just weren't paying attention to the seamy side, because things were temporarily so prosperous for America, they didn't have to.
Frank Rich writes about their war against women, but it's a terrific piece in more general political terms.
The notion that we are going to techno-fix our way out of the planetary emergency is just as dangerous as outright denial. There are too many people on the world. There are too many resources that are essential to industrial civilization that are irreplaceable and running out. The burden of pollution in the air and in the ocean is snuffing out life itself.
We are on a fast track for mass extinctions. If we wanted to drastically conserve - meaning, make real sacrifices in our standard of living, our ability to procreate at above replacement, our ability to travel and trade over long distances - we could buy some time and maybe spare some species from extinction.
But there is no magic wand that will fix ocean acidification, sea level rise, melting polar ice and glaciers. Those are already set in motion and unstoppable. So is ecosystem collapse if we continue to use the atmosphere as a sewer for fuel emissions, which are toxic to all forms of life.
I do realize that it's not just republicans to blame - it's an evil and exploitative system which both parties perpetuate.  Here's a striking example which I came across while still sipping my coffee, which is absolutely nauseating.  It's about the collusion of US and British governments decades ago, to forcibly evacuate the inhabitants of the island of Diego Garcia, in order to create a Navy staging ground still used for incursions into Iraq and well as other nefarious activities that wouldn't stand scrutiny.  That America is a vicious imperialist nation hypocritically masquerading as a democracy is not a new notion to me, but it is still shocking to find out that something this repellent happened when I never even heard the least hint of it before.

What is particularly outrageous and shaming is to consider that, although I'm far from a historian or expert in anything, I have been an avid follower of news and politics since I first learned to read.  Before I realized that the NYT and NPR had been taken over by their advertisers' propaganda, I was a faithful follower of both, more than once a day, every day.

What got me started on the fate of this island on the other side of the world was an article circulated by an Occupier on our listserve, titled "The World War on Democracy" written by John Pilger.  I highly recommend the entire thing, and his other investigative reports.  When I first read this with mounting dismay  - especially the scene about the pet dogs - I thought perhaps it was some sort of exaggeration or hyperbole.  Then I googled it and learned this well-known sordid episode is no longer secret, and the litigation is ongoing - although the woman quoted, Lizette, has recently died:

"In the early 1960s, the Labour government of Harold Wilson secretly agreed to a demand from Washington that the Chagos archipelago, a British colony, be 'swept' and 'sanitised' of its 2,500 inhabitants so that a military base could be built on the principal island, Diego Garcia.  'They knew we were inseparable from our pets,' said Lizette, 'When the American soldiers arrived to build the base, they backed their big trucks against the brick shed where we prepared the coconuts; hundreds of our dogs had been rounded up and imprisoned there.  Then they gassed them through tubes from the trucks' exhausts. You could hear them crying.'" 

"Lisette and her family and hundreds of islanders were forced on to a rusting steamer bound for Mauritius, a distance of 2,500 miles. They were made to sleep in the hold on a cargo of fertiliser: bird shit.  The weather was rough; everyone was ill; two women miscarried. Dumped on the docks at Port Louis, Lizette's youngest children, Jollice, and Regis, died within a week of each other. 'They died of sadness,' she said. 'They had heard all the talk and seen the horror of what had happened to the dogs. They knew they were leaving their home forever. The doctor in Mauritius said he could not treat sadness.'" 

"This act of mass kidnapping was carried out in high secrecy. In one official file, under the heading, 'Maintaining the fiction', the Foreign Office legal adviser exhorts his colleagues to cover their actions by 're-classifying' the population as 'floating' and to 'make up the rules as we go along'. Article 7 of the statute of the International Criminal Court says the 'deportation or forcible transfer of population' is a crime against humanity. That Britain had committed such a crime -- in exchange for a $14 million discount off an American Polaris nuclear submarine - was not on the agenda of a group of British 'defence' correspondents flown to the Chagos by the Ministry of Defence when the US base was completed. 'There is nothing in our files,' said a ministry official, 'about inhabitants or an evacuation.'" 

"Today, Diego Garcia is crucial to America's and Britain's war on democracy. The heaviest bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched from its vast airstrips, beyond which the islanders' abandoned cemetery and church stand like archaeological ruins. The terraced garden where Lisette laughed for the camera is now a fortress housing the 'bunker-busting' bombs carried by bat-shaped B-2 aircraft to targets in two continents; an attack on Iran will start here. As if to complete the emblem of rampant, criminal power, the CIA added a Guantanamo-style prison for its rendition victims and called it Camp Justice."

"What was done to Lisette's paradise has an urgent and universal meaning, for it represents the violent, ruthless nature of a whole system behind its democratic facade, and the scale of our own indoctrination to its messianic assumptions, described by Harold Pinter as a 'brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.'  Longer and bloodier than any war since 1945, waged with demonic weapons and a gangsterism dressed as economic policy and sometimes known as globalisation, the war on democracy is unmentionable in western elite circles. As Pinter wrote, 'it never happened even while it was happening'.  Last July, American historian William Blum published his 'updated summary of the record of US foreign policy'.  Since the Second World War, the US has: 

- Attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of them democratically-elected.
- Attempted to suppress a populist or national movement in 20 countries.
- Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
- Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
- Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders."

The link I next came across was this one "Diego Garcia: British–American Legal Black Hole in the Indian Ocean?", an analysis of the legal cover used to shield secret renditions and stockpiles of illicit land mines - and the tragic nexus between these shadowy military evasions of the laws with the concurrent destruction of the fragile tropical ecosystem:

"Environmental risks from US military construction on the atoll of Diego Garcia (British Indian Ocean Territory) since 1971 include damage caused by large-scale ‘coral mining’, the introduction of invasive alien plant species, continuous transits of nuclear material and unreported major fuel spills; these risks are now compounded by those of sea-level rise and ocean acidification due to global climate change. The US and UK governments have evaded accountability by way of a persistent ‘black hole’ strategy, contending that some national laws and international treaties for the protection of human rights and the environment do not apply to the island—a position confirmed by a controversial appellate judgment of the House of Lords in October 2008, essentially relying on ‘prerogative’ colonial law. This article draws attention to the fallacy of the black-hole syndrome, and to its potentially fatal consequences for the British claim to a 200-mile environment protection zone in the Chagos Archipelago."

As it turns out, scathing criticism was also written in the UK Guardian by Fred Pearce, exposing the capitulation to pressure by the IUCN and other supposedly conservation-oriented NGO's.  They declared the area around Diego Garcia a "nature reserve", on the pretext of preserving the environment - when plainly the intent of the designation was to prevent the indigenous people from returning.  That, too is worthy of a full read but since this blog is about ozone killing trees, can it be merely coincidence that just yesterday the same Fred Pearce published an interview, about - can you believe the cosmic circularity of this? - Methane.  Here it is:

"Peter Cox at the University of Exeter, UK, was speaking at the Planet Under Pressure meeting in London, where more than 2800 scientists gathered to discuss fears that Earth's life-support systems are under intense stress from human activity."

"The trick, he says, is to widen our attack on greenhouse gases from carbon dioxide to include the second most significant greenhouse gas - methane. 'Methane is a more important control on global temperature than previously realised. The gas's influence is much greater than its direct effect on the atmosphere,' says Cox. Curbing methane, he adds, may now be the only way to prevent dangerous warming."

"We release methane in many ways - leaks from gas pipelines and coal mines, from landfills, the guts of livestock and rice paddies. Curbing these emissions would bring a manifold benefit for climate, says Cox."

"He has studied the way CO2 and methane influence plant growth, and says that these feedback mechanisms mean action on methane could have twice the expected punch."

"An atmosphere containing less methane but more CO2 would encourage forests and other vegetation on land to absorb more carbon. This would happen in two ways. First, the extra CO2 would itself act as a fertiliser for vegetation, so it would grow faster and absorb more CO2. Second, less methane would minimise the formation of tropospheric ozone, which damages plant growth.
These mechanisms are well known, but Cox is the first person to calculate their collective impact on the amount of CO2 that can be released while keeping global warming below 2 °C - the widely accepted threshold for dangerous climate change."

"He told the conference that a 40 per cent reduction in human-caused methane emissions would permit the release of an extra 500 gigatonnes of CO2 - a third more than previously thought - before we exceeded 2 °C warming. 'That is a 15-year breathing space at current CO2 emission rates,' says Cox, who admits there are uncertainties in his calculations."

"'It looks extremely unlikely that we can stop global warming at 2 °C just by reducing CO2 emissions,' he told New Scientist. 'That probably requires peaking emissions by 2020. But drastic action on methane would make the task much more feasible.'"

"Cox says most governments have become fixated on combating CO2 emissions, and while that remains essential, the benefits of action on other greenhouses gases have been ignored. He stresses that this is not an excuse to burn more coal. 'Nothing in the study contradicts the view that stabilising climate will require large reductions in CO2 emissions, but it does show the unexpectedly large importance of other gases.'"

"Cutting methane emissions is cheaper than cutting CO2 emissions, and brings other benefits.  Besides boosting vegetation, reduced tropospheric ozone will increase growth rates for many crops and cut health risks, such as asthma, from air pollution."

"John Reilly, an expert on non-CO2 greenhouse gases at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees that a 40 per cent cut in methane emissions is feasible at relatively low costs. It could be done primarily by curbing leaks from gas fields and pipelines, and emissions from coal mines and landfills. But he warned that to limit warming to 2 °C, 'we need to accelerate our efforts on everything'. Even allowing for a 15-year breathing space, Reilly says, 'it's not either CO2 or methane, it has to be both'."

"If the good news is that reducing methane emissions can have a better-than-expected effect on curtailing global warming, then the bad news from Cox's calculations is that a continued rise in methane emissions would have a more damaging effect than previously supposed. If you let methane go up a lot, then less carbon can be stored in land sinks, Cox warns. Methane is, in effect, the unseen control on how much CO2 can be safely put into the atmosphere."

By another pure coincidence I had written to a scientist at NOAA yesterday morning, about methane.  He quickly replied.  Our correspondence is copied below (minus his real name):
Dear Dr. Dolittle, 
I am writing to ask if you know of any graph like the [2006] attached that is up-to-date with more recent data?  I saw it in the NOAA archives and if you have the time, can you also tell me if you think that background ozone from methane - as described in the excerpt copied below - could have a significant role in the reduction of crops which you described in your paper "Global Crop Yield Reduction" of last year?  I'm particularly interested in this topic of background ozone derived from fugitive methane emissions from fracking, possibly, as it would appear that trees are rather abruptly and rapidly dying off (which I have been documenting to the best of my ability here and here). 
"Until recently, methane was considered irrelevant for addressing surface ozone pollution because its long atmospheric lifetime (8-9 years) prevents it from contributing to the rapid photochemical production which leads to high ozone episodes. Rather, methane plays a role in contributing to background tropospheric ozone. Increases in methane will thus raise the baseline ozone level in air globally, including at the surface. Ozone episodes, fueled by the traditional short-lived ozone precursors that are regulated in the United States (nitrogen oxides and non-methane hydrocarbons), then build on top of this baseline." 
Thanking you in advance for your attention, etc. 
His answer was as follows:

"Hi Gail,

There is an updated version of this plot available at NOAA's website:

As you can see from the plot, observed methane concentrations have been increasing over the past few years, after having leveled off for a few years.

"As we said in our paper, ozone produced from methane elevates the background concentrations of ozone. Any enhancement from local pollution adds to this background. So, the background does contribute to peak concentrations of ozone, and would likely have an effect on crops (and other vegetation), which respond to integrated exposure to ozone concentrations over a certain threshold."

"Thanks for sending me the links to your website and blog. It looks like you have posted a lot of interesting material there."

"By the way, I see that you are from Oldwick. The farmland up there is just beautiful -- I have relatives in Tewksbury, and love getting to visit the area."

Dr. Dolittle

I left the personal notes in just because it's so nice (and rare!) to see that there might be a scientist who doesn't seem to think I'm a complete lunatic.  In fact maybe he even thinks there is something to the idea that trees are dying from ozone but can't come out and say so.  I will probably never know.
I later asked him where the bulk of methane is coming from and he replied that is uncertain, but referred me to an article in the NYTimes about fugitive emissions from fracking, and also answered my question about variations with this:

"As for the seasonal cycle shown in the graph, this is mostly from the effects of the methane loss rate. Methane loss (by reaction with the hydroxyl radical, OH) is fastest in the summer and slowest in the winter, driven by the amount of sunlight. So, the seasonal cycle mostly reflects changes in the sink (loss) of methane, not the source (emissions)".

It's also important that he wrote of the effects of ozone on vegetation:  "...which respond to integrated exposure to ozone concentrations over a certain threshold" because according to John Reilly, who was also quoted in the article by Fred Pearce above, that "certain threshold" of background level above which plants are damaged is 40 ppb, which happens to have been breached in many if not most places, even remote rural regions, on earth already.

So as usual, from the interview - "...reduced ozone will boost vegetation and increase growth rates..." - the scientific perspective is afflicted with optimism bias, by emphasizing the calculus of what we will SAVE or GAIN by regulating emissions, and steering clear of the reality of what we are currently losing and will lose absent drastic and immediate reductions.

I think of this perspective as a malevolent (albeit unintentionally so) version of the delectable upside-down Tarte Tatin, which if you are so deprived you don't know, is a sublime culinary concoction that begins with a layer of hard caramelized butter and sugar, coating the bottom of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, covered with sliced apples, topped with a round of puff pastry which is all baked until golden, and then, with careless abandon, flipped onto a serving platter, the luscious caramelized syrup frothing in hot rivulets down the crispy edges.

Only this methane recipe doesn't taste nearly as good.

False hope walks in lock-step with denial and results in either inaction, or misplaced, well-meant...inaction.  Following is a charming but vapid production from the conference "Planet Under Pressure", where Cox presented his methane results, which wound up in London today:

Welcome to the Anthropocene from WelcomeAnthropocene on Vimeo.

The mere fact that anyone would WANT to be welcomed into the Anthropocene strikes me as surreal.  An earlier article by Hedges is more to the point, "Murder is Not an Anomaly in War", which was accompanied by a Mr. Fish illustration (who is, by the way, brilliant - browse his comics and videos here).
Because here's the thing.  The official reaction revealed in the following clip from "A Fierce Green Fire" - a soon to be released history of environmental activism - is typical of the past, and approximates what can be expected in future, when citizens turn to their leaders for relief.  Nada.

photo credits here, here, here, here , here

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