Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Shift

Taking a different approach to a classic hymn, exemplified by Franz Schubert's German version of Ave Maria, reveals another variation of the holiday song, of which there are many versions not originating from Gounod's 1859 melody. Originally Schubert didn't even use the traditional Catholic prayer in Latin, but a German translation of some lines in Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake" (1825). Traditional words were added later by those who wanted to make it more appropriate for religious occasions, but it doesn't include the Hail Mary prayer.

A shift in the interpretation, phrasing and musical form within a theme is universal in the expression of song and meaning throughout the history of music. In Principles of musical form:

Music exists in time; as an aesthetician, Susanne K. Langer, put it in Feeling and Form, “music is time made audible.” The proper perception of a musical work depends in the main on the ability to associate what is happening in the present with what has happened in the past and with what one expects will happen in the future. The frustration or fulfillment of such expectations and the resulting tensions and releases are basic to most musical works.

This evolution of tension and change over history in time is happening now with our global dialogue - over how we're changing our climate and impacting our planet. The dialogue at the moment is a cacophony of technologies, trade, history, politics, science and the recent evolution of global finance. We don't currently have the tools to resolve these issues; old climate plans are outdated in the wake of COP21 in Paris.

We're also dealing with the end game of destructive resource extraction through wars and political dominance that have given rise to the military-industrial complex that leads to endless conflict for profit, power and planetary destruction. Yet now we seem to recognize that our higher responsibilities lie in organizing our societies and our laws so that we can fully face this issue, and deal with it constructively or we'll be ending our world as we know it. Each country, the United States in particular, will need to revise its laws accordingly to face this unprecedented situation and craft frameworks that respond effectively to our situation. There are many, many ways that these solutions will impact the global system of policies of energy and trade, and there's no way to predict how they will play out.

It's no longer limited to simple statecraft, a single treaty or one melody. The decision has been made that it must all point to one outcome:  the explicit goal to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C by 2100, pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, and aim for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Lacking a framework at the moment, our challenge is to craft our human orchestral response in harmony with the natural world as it is able to support our existence.


Friday, December 18, 2015

A Seventh Year, Rain to Come?

This year is supposed to be a big one for rain in Southern California; up in the Pacific Northwest the El Nino is beginning to hit with full force. The North Coast Mountain ranges are now covered in a good snowpack with more on the way. This is a relief, but not a reprieve from the serious drought plaguing the US Pacific Southwest. Everything has changed this year, with the water allowances cut back by 25% and the lawns turning brown and now disappearing. The Los Angeles region is a major urban center that now relies too much on the rains of an earlier generation, and can no longer pull the vast amounts of distant water from the the three big aqueducts that were built in the early to mid 1900's.

We don't know yet how our climate issues will play out. With the culmination of the COP21 Paris climate agreement on Saturday December 12, we're now faced with a necessarily rapid turnabout in our carbon emissions.

To quote Michael Mann:

Finally, global energy policy is beginning to reflect the clear message of climate change research. We have only one atmosphere, shared by developed and developing countries. We have only one planet, and the steady upward march in greenhouse gas concentrations and the consequent warming of the planet and attendant rise in sea level, expansion of drought and increase in destructive extreme weather events will spare none from its impacts. With the Paris summit, we finally have an agreement that holds all countries accountable for taking action on climate.

This means that many, many things will have to happen across the globe and at home in our myriad countries. This is summarized in an article from the World Bank.This is simply a beginning that will encompass every sector of life in all countries.

This means that hope for our common planetary future, while faint now, is still alive for us.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The New Beginning

The season of Advent is a quiet Christian meditation on the event of the dawning light of 2000 years ago, symbolized by the lighting of candles on a wreath. Most consider lighting of the first candle to symbolize expectation, while the second symbolizes hope, the third joy and the fourth purity. A central candle is lit on the 25th of December in a moment of reverence.

This season is unquiet, with the negotiations at COP21 in Paris moving full tilt with dialogues at the UNFCCC about adoption of a global framework for carbon emissions reductions. The California contingent is moving ahead rapidly with Governor Brown's presence in the U.S. ambassador's residence on Sunday to commemorate an international agreement he's promoted between states, provinces and cities. The governor has nearly two dozen events scheduled over five days.

Will this unprecedented meeting of the world's representatives and corporations finally reach a consensus?
Will the knowing of the true dangers that face our planet finally bring us to the light of reason?

This critical threshold has been recognized for many years, and we must now act.

Update 12/6/15: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was in Paris on Dec 4 to speak with world leaders about the pLAn Climate Action for the city of Los Angeles.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Paris in the Crosshairs

As COP21 in Paris gets underway, Jim Hansen has come out of his corner punching, publishing in an editorial on November 28 that Obama had stonewalled his attempts to have a discussion about the crucial factors creating climate change. The problem, as Hansen sees it, is that the pervasive optimism in the lead up to the climate talks is only so much hot air, the desired result of spinsters in Washington who are promising change while hedging their bets on ineffectual climate policies, in other words, bullshit:

"Hansen, a NASA alum who put global warming on the map in a big way with his congressional testimony in 1988, is no stranger to controversy: he’s called out NASA for censoring his data on climate change, he’s been arrested twice at the White house for protesting the Keystone pipeline, and he’s called for a trial of the CEO of ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel magnates for “high crimes against humanity and nature.” While his latest foray into pot-stirring is less flamboyant, it doesn’t mean the issues at hand are any less pressing."

Hansen is correct that the cap-and-trade mechanism is a failure, Europe's experience with the market has shown this. His argument is for a straightforward carbon tax, which can work as a mechanism but unfortunately will never reduce the carbon emissions sufficiently unless it's tied to some kind of framework agreement that is stringent in principle yet flexible enough to accommodate the changing emissions structures over time. This is the heart of the problem since Kyoto: asking nations to commit to some kind of specific number has resulted in the failure of a global agreement. For this reason, the negotiations are starting "bottom up" this time around, which unfortunately has fallen far short of the necessary reductions in carbon.

In September of this year, a letter sent to Obama, signed by climate leaders, major organizations and individuals (it carries my signature as well), called for him to take leadership on strong emission reduction targets. It cites "Laudato Si" from the Pope as a moral imperative and emphasizes the call for urgent action by the USA.

Politically Obama's options are limited. The USA has long been the monkey wrench in earlier climate negotiations, which have proven to be dialoguing at cross-purposes. Much of it had to do with the demands by third-world countries for financial support in the transition to carbon-free energy sources, embedded in the Kyoto agreement in a way that would have been impossible for the USA to comply with. There were pie-in-the-sky requirements that would have generated immense failures in attempting to extract money from the northern countries in lieu of unobtainable negative carbon goals (below zero!!).

At this conference, Obama is attended by a California state delegation that includes Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon among others. This group is funded by corporate money, and is proposing a cap-and-trade scheme that is already in place, including Canada, China and India. California has been building this trade agreement structure for several years now. Thus Brown has taken the lead on this trade agreement structure, with the assistance of former Secretary of Commerce John Bryson in cooperation with the Obama administration. Brown has shown great capability in forging this collective approach, but the local citizenry has begun to take a dim view of some of his policies. As he is in his second two-term governorship in California, and his tactics have worn thin for many people.

The New York Times goes into a summary of the potential options for "deep decarbonization", realizing that it will be difficult to achieve the necessary reductions in time to stave off the worst effects of global warming, especially since the planet has already hit the 1C degree temperature increase which is halfway to the absolute 2C maximum goal of these talks. Unfortunately it fails to note that the success of these efforts, and the agreements that underlie them, rely on a framework structure that can equitably balance the emissions measurements against global benchmarks in an internally consistent manner that is also transparent. I can only hope that the Contraction and Convergence structure will ultimately be engaged as the means to that end in a global partnership. It's flexible and incorporates feedback emissions as well as real-time reduction efforts and the critically necessary reforestation that acts as a carbon sink. It is able to calculate and verify the various scenarios under discussion. And the online CBAT is here for public use.

Let it be so.

Update 12/1/15: 'Whole System' Approach Needed to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Experts Say at Climate Meeting 

Update 12/2/15: Jerry Brown - a little history

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Searching for Unicorns in India

Throughout history, the ancient legend that unicorn horns could counteract poison and purify water led to a frenzy of counterfeit potions. At its height, “unicorn horn” was literally worth 10 times its weight in gold. In 1560, German merchants sold a unicorn horn for an astronomical 90,000 scudi—then about £18,000—to the pope. Pharmacies in London sold powdered unicorn horn as late as 1741.

Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology, but rather in the accounts of natural history, for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of unicorns, which they located in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them. The earliest description is from Ctesias (5th Century BC) who, in his book Indika ("On India"), described them as wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half (700 mm, 28 inches) in length, and colored white, red and black.

This rare legend existed for two thousand years; the magical properties for which we now have technologies to filter and purify the elements are no longer sought out in powders and salves derived of unfortunate animals such as narwhals and rhinos.

The collapse in oil prices this year has upended the fossil fuel business, which has inverted the calculus on the investment in this sector. Countries like China and India have previously insisted on being able to pollute their economies into development and growth. How can these processes be purified and cleaned of carbon? What magic can be wrought that rapidly brings down the lethal emissions that threaten our global future? The elixir may be that of of the diminishing value of carbon fuels, and how that is turned on its head.

From India has actually removed subsidies on fuel and transitioned into taxing them since 2014. Citing research from the World Bank, Mr. Subramanian says that India is essentially taxing carbon somewhere on the order of $60 per ton of CO2 for petrol and $42 per ton for diesel, “substantially above what is now considered a reasonable initial tax on CO2 emissions” of $25 to $35 per ton.

That provides India with a lot to brag about heading into the international climate negotiations later this year in Paris. Or as Mr. Subramanian puts it, “India – especially with a new PM – can credibly repudiate its past perceived image as a recalcitrant negotiator, focused on asking others to contribute without offering contributions of its own.”

This shifting global economic picture will have a significant impact on the discussions in Paris at the COP 21 negotiations later this year. In addition to the possibility of removing subsidies from all fossil fuel industries, this also allows the true pricing of carbon to take place alongside that of the clean technologies and renewable energy sources. Once the tipping point is reached in the pricing structure, the downward slope of carbon use can become very steep very rapidly as a matter of economics as well as of necessity for our survival. This then becomes a natural process of moving from old industries to new industries, just as the horse and buggy almost completely faded from urban life in the space of about 50 years from the invention of the automobile. An even more rapid transition is entirely possible and profitable with the current state of clean technologies.

This diagram from Aubrey Meyer shows the nature of this necessary reduction, and the immediate shift that requires either the magical properties of a unicorn or the simple very rapid transition in the economic calculus to reflect the actual values of these purified energy sources. The unicorn does appear to be in India.

Update 10/23/15:   Getting to Zero Emissions - Paul Allen on where dreams meet reality. Speaking at the UN climate talks in Bonn, Paul Allen of the Center for Alternative Technology talks about developments in modelling and innovation that show we can make a speedy transition to clean energy world by 2050.

Update 10/24/15: How The Petrodollar Quietly Died, And Nobody Noticed

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Measure of Drought

Our one-degree warmed planet is deteriorating rapidly. That's a .85C temperature increase since 1880, following the impact of the industrial revolution. We're on the path to 4C right now. Oceans are rising, and the sea is becoming too acidic to support abundant sea life.

Along with the rapid ice melt in the Arctic and Antarctic including the scientific studies of the ice shelf collapses, there is much documentation now of the rapid impact of drought conditions in the recent past and now-imminent future. A summary of data is updated at the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. There's no question that the man-made climate change from fossil fuel use has triggered the collapse of the global ecosphere and set off the runaway climate change that is fueled by natural processes of carbon and methane emissions. NASA is comprehensively compiling the data that will allow us to watch our planet extinguish its life processes.

Drought Global Information System
Water tables dropping worldwide per a NASA study
Scientists warn of unprecedented damage to forests across the world
Mother Jones on the fate of global forests
World Resources Institute examines the impact of local water supplies

Looking down into some of the regional biospheres and how they're enduring under the global heating of the planet from carbon emissions turns up many articles examining local conditions in 2015:

Sao Paulo drought
South America drought
California drought
Arizona drought
Nevada drought
Oregon drought
Washington drought
Mexico City drought
India drought
China drought
North Korea drought
South Africa drought
Ethiopia drought 
Zimbabwwe drought
Indochina drought
European drought 
Spain drought
Peru drought
Australia drought
Australia climate
Papua New Guinea drought
Middle East drought
Yemen drought
Cuba drought

All of this so that these destructive fossil fuel companies can continue to make their profits, enabled by the worldwide governmental subsidies of fossil fuels at their disposal. The drastic impact on a universal by-right resource is simply expendable to these entities. As Bill McKibben posits in his summary of Laudato Si:

Take water, which the pope addresses at length. We probably should not need his words to know that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival.” We all know it should not be wasted, and yet we continue to waste it because doing so is beneficial to the rich and powerful: for instance, insurance companies have planted enormous almond groves across California in recent years even as water supplies have started to shrink, and agribusiness planters have drawn down the aquifers of the Midwest.

The global water crisis has triggered a conference on this issue. World leaders, water experts and development professionals have gathered in Stockholm to discuss and jointly find solutions to the world's several escalating water crises.The 2015 World Water Week, themed Water for Development, welcomes over 3,000 participants from more than 120 countries to the Swedish capital, representing governments, academia, international organizations, civil society, the corporate sector, and many others.

Update 9/17/15: Bloomberg article: Tracking the Curse of Global Drought 

Update 2/15/16: Four billion people affected by severe water scarcity

Update 3/22/16: Ten Civilizations that collapsed from drought

Update 4/5/16: The current instability and unpredictability of the world water cycle is here to stay

Update 4/10/16: World Drought Map 2016

Update 5/5/16: World on 'Catastrophic' Path to Run Out of Fresh Water

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Different COP in 2015

Almost 20 years ago in 1997, US Vice President Al Gore made a dramatic appearance during the second week of the COP3 conference. He asked the delegations to do their best to come up with a workable agreement involving realistic and binding targets and announced that he had instructed the US negotiators to "show their increased flexibility". At the very end of the conference, many hours after it was supposed to adjourn, more than 150 nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol. This unprecedented agreement committed the industrialized nations (including the US) to make legally binding reductions is their emissions of GHG's, generally with cuts of about 5 percent below 1990 levels. This fell far short of the originally proposed 10 percent reductions. In exchange for US support via Gore, the EU caved in to halving their proposed emissions limits.

The file linked here is the summary of the debate about emissions trading that happened in the early hours of December 11th 1997 at COP3. The emissions trading issue was about how the global energy supply would be shifted to non-carbon sources through a trading scheme rather than setting carbon emission limits with annual reductions, thus deleting a critical part of stopping climate change.

But the US had insisted that emissions trading be made part of the Kyoto Protocol. The Developing Countries – led by the Africa Group, India and China – insisted that the quid-pro-quo had to be equal per capita-based “Contraction and Convergence”. Except that the version offered as an equity protocol was the GDR version produced and lobbied by Tom Athanasiou that imported a GDP metric on top of the carbon allowances which forced a "negative emissions" formula that translated into cash flows from the developed countries to the developing world.

The US therefore did not sign the Kyoto Protocol after promising to do so. GCI has provided a rather full documentation of the COP 3 interactions.

A summary of the process since then is recounted in a white paper, Expectations for a New Climate Agreement:

In 1997, the nations followed through, producing the Kyoto Protocol which—among other provisions—included a set of legally binding national emissions targets to be achieved in a 2008-2012 accounting period. By 2005, a sufficient number of countries had ratified the Protocol to put it into force (even without the United States, which never submitted the Protocol for ratification). There has followed years of struggle within the COP to try to bring all nations under some form of emissions obligation (including the United States and other developing countries with significant emissions), and to decide if and how to extend Kyoto Protocol commitments beyond 2012. During this time, Canada withdrew from the Protocol, and Japan, Russia and New Zealand have stated they would not participate in a second commitment period.

We now know that even the RCP 2.6 scenario is far in excess of what is survivable by the planet This white paper example uses 530-580 ppm when we know that anything in excess of 350 is disastrous, and we're now over 400 ppm and the planet is overheating to failure.

What's happening now: The US is preparing for COP 21 by setting up separate TRADE deals with China and India on local pacts with the western US states and Canada that will force an emissions trading arrangement in Paris in December, just as in 1997. For example, California has made non-binding agreements with other states and countries. This is a corporate strategy that allows continued pollution via these trade pacts (TPP is part of this). This means that the planet will not recover from climate change because we never get back to 350 PPMV at 2100. The emissions don't really get stopped, per the GCI CBAT calculations. The metric needs to be based upon carbon alone, not corporate profit protection strategies.

The version of the sequence of events from the New Yorker paints a slightly different picture of Kyoto and its ramifications:

In the lead-up to Paris, each country has been asked to submit a plan outlining how and by how much it will reduce its carbon output—or, to use the Saudis’ preferred term, its emissions. The plans are known as “intended nationally determined contributions”—in U.N.-speak, I.N.D.C.s. The whole approach has been labelled “bottom up,” which, by implication, makes previous efforts to cut carbon—in particular, the Kyoto Protocol—“top down.” Even those who, like Figueres, argue that the goal is still achievable acknowledge that the I.N.D.C.s aren’t nearly enough to achieve it.

In another take on the global process,  “No Precedent in Human History”, Ruth Greenspan Bell writes on why climate change demands more than the UNFCCC agreement can achieve. This is essentially John Bryson's Wilson Center perspective, which assisted the Obama administration in crafting trade positions around emissions via agreements with China and India. James Hansen assisted in providing highly distorted carbon metrics. So they plan to dispense with the goals entirely and doom our planet using multiple trade agreements rather than a final carbon budget, and bypass UNFCCC altogether. GDP remains as a metric, even though it's an inadequate metric that will devalue rapidly in the future. Eventually the world will no longer trade in the petrodollars established by the World Bank. Hence these agreements will rapidly fail as an economic scheme based upon an antiquated measure, particularly since GDP doesn't account for damages involved with carbon emissions.

So we shall see this "bottom up" approach crafted by corporate control of the US Congress and the Administration lead our world to its final stages of the destruction of human existence, along with everything else.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Canticle of the Sun

Laudato Si (“Praise be to You, O my Lord!”)
St. Francis of Assisi - Anglican version

Yes, be praised in all your creatures
brother sun and sister moon
in the stars and in the wind,
air and fire and flowing water.

For our sister mother earth,
She who feeds us and sustains us;
For her fruits, her grass, her flowersfor the mountains and the oceans

Praise for those who spread forgiveness,
Those who share your peace with others,
Bearing trials and sickness bravely!
Even sister death won’t harm them.

For our life is but a song,
And the reason for our singing
Is to praise you for the music;
Join the dance of Your creation.

Praise to You, Father Most Holy,
Praise and thanks to You, Lord Jesus,
Praise to You, Most Holy Spirit

The encyclical released by the Vatican today (hosted on GCI's site) appears on the heels of a leaked draft of this position by the Church a few days ago. It's led to speculation that Francis’ remarks on it will not only say climate change is real and caused by humans, but will explain how that happens according to the vast majority of scientists. Which of course is a stunning change of direction for this institution, but it highlights the critical nature of the planetary crisis that we're heading into. The Church also embraces the idea that people of faith and people of science can complement one another.

Upon its release today, the New York Times has signaled it as a call for swift action on climate change from an increasingly popular world religious leader. The encyclical is seen as an unsubtle nudge for action, even as it provides support for leaders faced with tough choices in countries with large numbers of Catholics. It goes on to outline an analysis of key portions of its statements in an interactive online format.

The Vatican has done significant outreach with climate researchers and other governments in order to forge a strongly collaborative position and frame it within the broad parameters of Catholic theology. A very large tent, in other words, which creates a space within which the moral parameters of addressing climate change can be done by people all over the world.

Update 6/19/15: This encyclical will trigger a long over-due “global conversation of, how do we even define prosperity? Is it just accumulating more dollars or do we have to factor in being accountable for our impact on the planet and all people that live on it?”

Update 6/20/15:  Pope Francis attempted to start a global conversation yesterday with his new encyclical on the environment. Unlike most encyclicals, it was addressed not to Catholics, but to "every person living on this planet", and embraces science as part of its policy.

Update 6/30/15: Responses to the encyclical
Aubrey Meyer: Degrowth to avoid extreme damages
David Suzuki: Shift away from growth model
Herman Daly: New Theology of Creation is degrowth 

Update 7/13/15:  In one sense, Laudato si is a critique of 21st century capitalism and as a consequence also of the philosophical underpinnings of the industrial revolution.
After the encyclical, lessons for climate activism?

In thinking we were ensuring our survival, we created the conditions for our own destruction, as is now obvious in the actuality of climate change and of unsustainable production and consumption.

The ethical conundrum, from Don Brown (Oct. 3, 2015):
Ethics and Climate

And so, for 30 years, the opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in framing the climate debate in a way that ignores obvious ethical and moral problems,  Surprisingly both environmental organizations and the US press have failed to bring attention to the obvious moral problems with the arguments made by opponents of US climate change policies

Update 4/13/16:  "We have created a ‘throwaway’ culture which is now spreading.” Pope Francis 2013 Evangelii gaudium

Friday, June 12, 2015

Back to the Future

So what is drought? As discussed earlier, it's a condition where the population's requirements for water outrun the resources of a region or country. The MAHB covers this as well, noting that Taiwan is dealing with a severe water shortage, and we see this in devastating impacts in Kathmandu and Sao Paulo as well. It's a worldwide issue that we've seen coming for decades.

In California, the drought conditions are exacerbated by overuse of water from a formerly abundant system of water supply pipes and rivers from the Bay Delta and the Colorado River. It's a massive system of hydraulic engineering developed since well over 100 years ago to bring water into the drier areas of the state. This is a complex picture with no easy solutions and a lot of exhausted old ideas about how water is supplied and the way to keep the water supply system functioning without the environmental devastation that comes from the needs of nearly 40 million people, as well as the farming industry's demand of a significant portion of it. Devin Galloway, a scientist with the geological survey, sees devastation of a historic proportion returning to California. He says that even if farmers stopped pumping groundwater immediately, the damage already done to aquifers now drained to record-low levels will trigger sinking that will last for years, even decades.

A big part of the problem is the water contracts within this system, and as the chart above shows, the demand for water has now begun to outstrip the actual supply. Unfortunately the contracts held by the water suppliers in this system significantly exceed the actual supply of water, and are thus oversubscribed. But since these contracts are not adjusted, this "paper water" will continue to be sold to new water meters as development continues in the state. This slide is part of a presentation given by Bill Patzert, a climatologist with Caltech’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He presented it at the beginning of this month, which is covered in an interview at LA Magazine. To quote him: "The biggest change is not a global warming-related increase in temperature. The biggest change stems from the extreme makeover we’ve done in California. In L.A., the average temperature has changed more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 150 years."

The public response to this drought has been a multiple-broadcast presentation by Governor Jerry Brown via television and internet media this last week, in a conversation at USC. He held forth about the need to deal with water resources intelligently. “The metaphor is spaceship Earth,” Brown said. “In a spaceship you reuse everything. Well, we’re in space and we have to find a way to reuse, and with enough science and enough funding we’ll get it done.”

So, our Governor Moonbeam is back, and in the driver's seat. Given his rhetoric, he's evidently aiming for COP 21 and a leadership position with the agreements he's forged with the western states, Canada, China and India. This should prove to be a very interesting year.

Update 7/14/15: Historical background of California’s water crisis; the “paper water” principle is similar to financial derivatives, as paper water can be traded without the need for any tangible collateral. Real estate speculators saw this as a true chimera, enabling them to build virtually anywhere, regardless of the presence of water.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another World Environment Day

Today, World Environment Day (WED) is celebrated every year on 5 June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth. It is run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).It was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 on the day that United Nations Conference on the Human Environment began.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon makes very clear that “Humanity continues to consume far more natural resources than the planet can sustainably provide,” and invites the world's citizens to become agents of change to our capitalist system that's destroying the environment.

This is a strong counterpoint to the emerging thought in the Ecomodernist Manifesto sponsored by the Breakthrough Institute. It takes a position that rejects the idea “that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” and instead argues that what is needed is a reliance on technologies, from nuclear power to carbon capture and storage, that allow for a “decoupling [of] human development from environmental impacts.” A group of over fifteen researchers from the degrowth scholarship community has written a detailed refutation of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which assumes that growth is a given, decouples growth from impacts, and it ignores the lessons of ecology and thermodynamics, which teach us that species (and societies) have natural limits to growth. Ecomodernism is condescending toward pre-industrial, agrarian, non-industrialized societies, and the Global South. It's basically a justification for greenwashing.

Another variant on this perspective is "Greening of Capitalism" by John A. Mathews of Macquarie University's Graduate School of Management in Sydney. The final chapter of this book brings together all the elements of the green that is emerging in the 21st century, where the firm itself can grow but the system as a whole remains within its ecological limits. But the assumption that the circular economy proposes here doesn't address the impact of growth on planetary resources, and, frankly, the continuing emissions created by all human activities driven by energy growth: even wind, solar, tide, geothermal and hydroelectric. A system re-designed to operate in this fashion doesn't reverse the damage that we've done fast enough to keep the planet from undergoing ecological disintegration.

The UN is quite evidently trying to steer a path for human civilization that avoids the worst of what's upon us and allows the human community to engineer a sustainable path to a smaller and regenerative civilization. This December's COP 21 agreement should prove to be a critical point on that path.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Its Keeling Over

Climate change has already passed the tipping point, as has been documented by NASA and many other scientific sources. We're headed for some drastic and possibly unsurvivable climate impacts by 2050, let alone the projection framework of 2100 on the table at COP 21 in Paris this year. The video above explains the famous graph that we've been seeing for many years now. It's very, very simple and very stark. We've passed the safe limit of 350 PPMV of carbon in the atmosphere, and are now above 400, rising rapidly.

Is there a way to avert dangerous climate change at this point? That's a position taken by Aubrey Meyer and his calculations in the CBAT online tool, which uses the Contraction and Convergence structure to compute the necessary equitable reductions per capita.  The diagram below shows one scenario that tries to get the planet back onto a survivable temperature curve by means of a drastic carbon reduction strategy (click to enlarge). Check out this tool and see what it involves to keep us from going into an irreversible and runaway climate change.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Deal with It

The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Drought Monitor has a portal for the current global drought conditions. The status as of right now is this:

By the end of March 2015, a preliminary look at drought indicators points to a general degradation in drought conditions throughout the month.   Europe was mostly wet in March with the exception of the Iberian Peninsula and the Great Britain. Conditions around the Mediterranean  and Black Seas have improved during the past few months.  In Asia, drought continues to be focused in the eastern part of the continent.  Very dry conditions exist from Russia, through Mongolia and China, and into northern India and Southeast Asia.  In Taiwan, water restrictions are in place and two northern cities are experiencing a stop to their water supply service two days a week.

A recent report on Taiwan reveals that water rationing is underway. Water supplies will be cut off entirely for two days each week, on a rotating basis, in several northern cities due to lack of rainfall. In São Paulo the primary reservoir at Cantareira feeding much of the metropolitan city is nearly bone-dry. People in São Paulo are resorting to deliveries from bicycle riders carrying jugs of water. Others are digging their private wells on their own land or even in basements, which can lead to contamination issues. Those who can afford it are hoarding water, and the more resourceful are using cisterns and building rainwater catchment systems.

We're seeing a global impact on water supplies as areas of very high population experience drought as the planet warms up and dries out. The snow and glaciers no longer provide the spring water supplies that many areas rely on because of the lack of precipitation over the winter. In the United States, the western pacific states, particularly California, are in extreme drought, which is bad news for the California central valley that provides most of the produce sold across the country and about 28% of the crop that is exported to countries such as China, as well. Central Valley farmers are unlikely to receive water from the region's major irrigation project this summer, which means that growers will probably have to idle more land — and produce fewer crops — because there is simply not enough water for all of their fields.

So what is drought? It's a condition where the population's requirements for water outrun the resources of a region or country. California's drought is a periodic phenomenon with a historic record showing its fluctuations, documented by a report from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). It's an excellent study dated February 2015 (large file). But it's also exacerbated by the climate change that severely reduces the snowpack that's critical for the water supply in the Central Valley as well as the urban areas of the state. The urban areas have their own issues of inefficiencies and waste, consider the ongoing freshwater supply pipe breakage because of a deteriorating infrastructure in Southern California, especially in the city of Los Angeles, with regular flooding from water main breaks. California Governor Jerry Brown has therefore declared 25% water reductions in urban areas by executive order, emphasizing that climate change impacts are not a hoax.

A very good summary of the arguments developing over water in this state between agriculture and the large urban populations is summarized in an article in Grist magazine. It's not a simplistic problem that can be reduced to the blame game or pie-in-the-sky technology fixes; the best approaches to solutions involve far better management of lands and watersheds as well as recycling and reducing demand. It's a search for resilient solutions to the problem of limits. It's also a shift in expectations that the local populace has about their lifestyles, namely, the "English estate" lifestyle versus the reality of a dry Mediterranean climate. This inevitably leads to a discussion of population reduction or relocation, which still seems to be the "third rail" in climate dialogue and resource allocation negotiations.

Three agencies will implement a first-of-its-kind federal commitment to support resilience of the nation's natural resource via landscape partnerships at the national level. The Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative is a key part of the Obama Administration’s Climate and Natural Resources Priority Agenda, a first of its kind, comprehensive commitment across the federal government to support resilience of America’s natural resources. This is the necessary level of effort required of nations and regions in order to face the climate change impacts that have now become inevitable.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Southern California Classic

A new book about Smith and Williams has been published by the Getty Press, reflecting an exhibit that was staged at UC Santa Barbara in 2013 and documented the work archived there by Whitney Smith. It's an interesting look back at some of the many projects done by this firm, including a brief look at the Community Facilities Planners office in South Pasadena that served as the office for this firm. It mentions in passing the roots of the firm's practice within the USC group that produced a significant body of work covered in Esther McCoy's documentation of The Second Generation of California architects.

The Case Study Houses 5 and 12 are mentioned, also a subject of an exhibit and a McCoy publication, which made use of the lath, or "screen" that became so prominent in their work as an integration of exterior and interior spaces. These became ancillary spaces to the formal structure of the collective smaller buildings themselves, as was used in the Neighborhood Church campus as an organizing element before the trellises and small buildings were demolished for a very large addition, amputating the entire site plan concept and overshadowing the existing historic Greene and Greene home on the campus (Cole House) as well as the adjacent Gamble House. This unfortunate overdevelopment obliterated the spatial qualities of the campus and erased the integration of the gardens and structures, resulting in a significant loss of coherence in the site design.

A few mentions in the book are made of post-1973 projects by Whitney Smith, but omitted is one of his last projects completed before he relocated to the pacific northwest. This small complex is located in South Pasadena as well, and makes a completely different kind of reference to the locally traditional mexican courtyard style vocabulary. He also made extensive use of skylights in the same way he did with his own separate office building designed after 1973, also in South Pasadena and not listed in this book. It's an example of the strategy of an adapted vernacular that has evolved dramatically in the profession today.

Main entrance off of the side alley
Birdseye view
The firm itself arose out of the collaborative process between many architects and professionals, and some of  that's covered in this blog as well as in another paper written by Tim Gregory as research for a residential project in San Marino. Whit started his practice with homes in this community. A further compilation of the Smith and Williams legacy and the exhibit is online here, courtesy of John Crosse.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Sound of Silence

"Fools," said I, "you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Many more conservative voices are beginning to join the chorus of progressive warnings over the impact of the changes taking place on our planet. The small voices we heard forty years ago are swelling in alarm at the rapid shifts that we're seeing now in climatology, oceanography, geography and the enlarging drought plagued lands across the continents. The willful blindness of governments and industries about the impact of fossil fuels are beginning to crumble. Willful blindness is a legal concept which means, if there's information that you could know and you should know but you somehow manage not to know, the law deems that you're willfully blind. 

Or perhaps we now see that we're suffering a collective form of implicatory denial because of the overwhelming risks clearly before us, and now that denial is no longer possible or realistic. It has become too evident that swift changes must come and are coming to our economy because of the clear impact that carbon emissions are having on our planet.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies now hosts a website for their project on Climate Change Communication: Bridging Science and Society. It consists of research, outreach and a synopsis of possible actions that people can take to speak out and take action on restricting the carbon emissions that are changing our planetary systems and degrading the ecology that supports life.

A group that's spending millions of dollars to actively promote the need for engagement in the discussion of climate risk is the Risky Business Project, whose members are presenting research to business groups that highlights how the effects of climate change, like increased flooding, as in the streets of Queens, N.Y., could hurt business and the economy. This group uses the Clinton Global Initiative as a platform to influence public policy.

The Aspen Ideas Festival this coming June will engage conversation on this critically important issue, including "Our Environmental Future" which is a look at the manifestations of climate change as seen through extinction, drought, and natural resource development, juxtaposed with the trailblazing technologies and ideas that can reverse trends and rethink human interaction.  The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues. It's influential on public policy through the press and the Atlantic Magazine.

The sound of silence has begun to shatter.

Update 2/25/15: Denial dries up: Americans finally seeing the light on climate change

Update 3/11/15: Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure

Thursday, February 19, 2015

California Climate Leadership?

On Feb 10, several members from the California State Senate introduced a package of legislative proposals that will strengthen California's leadership in powering a new clean-energy economy. The proposals include historic benchmarks for pollution reduction, energy efficiency, and petroleum use that will spur innovation and investment and maintain California's lead in creating jobs in the advanced energy sector. This will be the first series of bills introduced by Senate Democrats to combat climate change and preserve the environment.

Details of the proposals along with bill language, charts, articles, and statements from a broad coalition of supporters are online at the State Senate page.

Our Governor Jerry Brown wishes to attend COP 21, as the state's big utility providers are all aware. Brown hopes climate policy advances in California and other states can be used to pressure heads of state during international climate talks in Paris in December. Per the Sacramento Bee, “We call this policy the road to Paris, because the governor wants a seat at the table in Paris,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. “We want to be supportive – we told them that – but we’ve got to have a policy that provides balance.”

The Bee goes on to note: One month after Gov. Jerry Brown proposed dramatically expanding California’s greenhouse gas reduction laws, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced legislation on Feb. 10 to enact the proposal. In a move to blunt opposition from business interests and moderate Democrats, de León cast the package of environmental measures as a jobs program. The legislative package includes measures to cut petroleum use in half by 2030 and to expand, from one-third to one-half, the proportion of electricity California derives from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Yet the Governor got called out on his environmental grandstanding by a protest march this Feb 7, which calls for a ban on the increased fracking that is taking place in the state and poisoning groundwater supplies during a historic drought.

Across the country, Governor Jerry Brown benefits from the widely-held notion that he is a leader on climate issues, a legacy from his ecologically-framed "Governor Moonbeam" first two terms of 1974 - 1982. But over the last four years, Governor Brown has not delivered on his promise to put our water and health first in order to carry California into a new clean-energy economy. Instead, he’s chosen to expand extreme oil and gas extraction, which harms our communities and undermines his own greenhouse gas reduction goals for California. In March of last year, a protest march was held in Sacramento to urge the Governor to end fracking, and this issue has created tremendous public opposition activity to oppose the expansion of this destructive technology.

So, his new moniker has become "Big Oil Brown" to note the shift, and he is also favoring legislation that will drain water from the San Francisco Bay area with gigantic twin tunnels to direct water to the central valley agriculture community. For which the voters in Southern California are being asked to disproportionately to pay the bill. It's tragic that his legacy now consists of unsound environmental practices that directly counter his political posturing for the global climate movement, and critically undermines his credibility with the climate leadership in the US and throughout Europe.

Update 6/15/2015: Governor Brown isn't following through with the prudent approaches he has publicly outlined to California's climate and water issues.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Remember Me

A paean to the natural world, Vangelis' "Beautiful Planet Earth" is included in this gorgeous production that revels in the natural environment as it exists with us in this moment. Vangelis has been celebrating our planet and its creatures with music for over 45 years now, and as the hymn begins to fade and its notes dim, perhaps now we shall conscript it to memory?

L'Apocalypse Des Animaux is Vangelis' masterpiece recording for a French ecological/wildlife film documentary series by director Frederic Rossif, produced in 1972. Over forty years have gone by since the recording of the remarkable beauty of each of the tracks that make up this, Vangelis' second solo album, after leaving the progressive rock band, Aphrodite's Child.

Especially poignant are the atmospheric 10-minute epic, "Creation du Monde" (Creation of the World), the liquid "La Mer Recommence" (The sea begins once again) and the three most luminous tracks of the album: "La Mort du Loup" (The death of the wolf), "Le singe bleu" (The blue monkey) and one of Vangelis' most eternal works, "La Petite Fille de la Mer" (The little girl from the sea.)

Hymne is a resplendent track in the Opera Sauvage (L'Enfant) released in 1979 as the score for the nature documentary by the same title, again by French filmmaker Rossif. Years ago,“Hymne” was used by a Barilla commercial in Italy.Since then, it became the “Barilla song” for all things Italian, as well as for a Gallo wine commercial in the US in the 1980's.

This music penetrates our consciousness with the harmonic flows of natural rhythm and its rich textures, now beginning to thin and fray. As these notes echo and fade into the dimmer recesses of memory, we come starkly to the realization of what we have wrought and its implications for the future of life as we know it. Scientists, who have documented these changes and their human sources for decades, are now sharing their grieving process. Their failure to give a vehement, clear voice to the lost regenerative power of natural things has hurt deeply.

"I don't know of a single scientist that's not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost," Parmesan said in the National Wildlife Federation's 2012 report. "It's gotten to be so depressing that I'm not sure I'm going to go back to this particular site again," she said in reference to an ocean reef she had studied since 2002, "because I just know I'm going to see more and more of the coral dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae."

Friday, January 16, 2015

Casablanca - We'll always have Paris


News has hit the wire that the planet is rapidly becoming hotter than ever, and the destruction of our ecosystem, water supplies and food continue unabated. My astonishment at the lack of response or concern by the international leadership is also laced with grief. The chart above (Time history of atmospheric CO2) shows the definitive science research on the atmospheric carbon that our post-industrial civilization as punched into the atmosphere, creating unprecedented rapid heating in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Welcome to the anthropocene. Could be a short epoch.

A rational response to the predicament that we're creating for ourselves, coming from some industry groups, is encouraging. The rapid ramping down of fossil fuel use, as well as a severe reduction in our human impact over the next few decades is the only thing that might get us out of this jam; a WW II style global mobilization. A couple of examples of these include:

Does 2015 mark the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era? It seems to be the earliest indications of a remarkable progression in the necessary rapid reduction in fossil fuel use, as Architecture 2030 lays out in its notations of remarkable changes.

The Rocky Mountain Institute in partnership with the Carbon War Room summarizes the Top 10 Clean Energy Developments of 2014. It notes some significant changes in the approach to energy development over the last few years, providing a means of alternative investment in renewable and non-carbon fuels.

Aside from that, we shall have to see if Casablanca really does happen in Paris.