Henhouse Fox Returns to Lair

Last week a White House official named Philip Cooney, proven to have rewritten scientific reports on global warming by The New York Times, abrupt resigned. A White House spokesperson said he had accrued vacation time and wanted to spend it with his family. This week it was revealed he will go to work for ExxonMobil, the same corporation that investigative reporter Chris Mooney showed has spent over fifty-five million dollars in the last few years funding groups of spokespeople eager to cast doubt on the reality of climate change.


Fox Misses His Family

Two days after being revealed as an official inside the White House who rewrote scientific research reports on climate change in 2002 and 2003, lawyer Philip Cooney resigns. A White House press secretary said he wanted "to take the summer off to spend the time with his family.”

His departure was "completely unrelated" to the disclosure, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said (according to the AP).

If we were feeling cynical, we might ask: Who will take over the rewriting-the-scientific-reports-on-global-warming chore inside the White House now?

More to the point, Cooney’s vanishing goes back to what Republican pollster Frank Luntz has been warning the White House for years: "Green issues are killing us." It’s tough to call for a policy based on "sound science" (a favorite White House phrase on this issue) when people find out that a former oil industry lobbyist is writing the White House version of "science."

Watching the Fox in the Henhouse

In a front-page story in today’s New York Times , the invaluable Andy Revkin shows exactly how the Bush adminstration White House treats news it doesn’t want to hear on climate change. Here’s a paragraph from the U.S. Global Climate Research Program’s report in late 2002:

Warming will also cause reductions in mountain glaciers and advance the timing of the melt of mountain snow pack in polar regions. In turn, runoff rates will change and flood potential will be altered in ways that are currently not well understood. There will be significant shifts in the seasonality of runoff that will have serious impacts on native populations that rely on fishing and hunting for their livelyhood. These changes will be further complicated by shifts in precipitation regimes and a possible intensification and increased frequency of extreme hydrological events. Reducing the uncertainties in current understanding of the relationship between climate change and Artic hydrology is critical…

This became, two months later, after being rewritten by the White House:

Warming could also lead to changes in the water cycle in polar regions. Reducing the uncertainties…

Eight months later, when the report was released in July 2003, the paragraph was omitted.

Who was the fox in the henhouse? Philip Cooney, a lawyer. His credentials? He’s a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute.

The irony? When asked about climate change in a four-question "press conference" with Tony Blair, Bush took credit for the money being spent on the global climate research program…research his administration is doing everything possible to obscure, obfuscate, and deny.   

If an Oak Tree Falls in Your Yard, Will It Kill You? Or Damage Your Property?

A big oak tree — nearly three feet wide at the base, and about forty feet high — split and dropped three-quarters of its trunk in our yard last week. Our neighbor Chris Nottoli came out to look at the massive remains on the ground that night and shook his head. Just a day before he had planted a squash near the tree, under a screen to protect it from the dogs. He figured the squash was probably squashed under the debris, and warned me to watch out for it as I attempted to clean up with a chainsaw.

I told him I wasn’t so sure. Oak trees — as dominating, as massive, and as heavy as they are — don’t seem to cause as much damage as one might expect when they fall. I went Googling looking for examples and found only two deaths listed, and that was because two people in a car in Georgia ran into a tree that had just fallen in a storm. Of course a less scientific method of research could hardly be imagined, but according to a USDA Forest Service chart from l982, the live oak is among the varieties of trees most resistant to storm damage — only longlife pines fare better.

Later in the day Chris Wilson, who has worked with trees in Santa Paula and Ojai for years, and is widely admired among those around here who know about trees and wood-working, came out to look at our situation and our other trees. He pointed out that the oak that fell had been severely wounded decades ago. He looked at the numerous other oaks overhanging structures in our area and shrugged. Even though they towered directly over the buildings, he said they looked healthy.

"I’d live there," he said. "I’d let my kids live there." He added that in his experience, healthy oaks rarely fall, and even when oaks do fall, they tend to cause less damage than people expect.

"They might poke a hole or two in your roof," he said. "But their weight is well-distributed. I’ve never seen an oak bring down a bearing wall."

And when we looked around in the debris under our fallen oak, we found that all three of the plants that had been living on the fringes of its shade were fine, even though they lay directly in the path of the fallen tree. Branches were all around them, and the trunk lay heavily on the ground, but Chris’s little squash was untouched.


The Usefulness of Hypocrisy

"Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue," said the witty La Rouchefoucauld, back in 1665.

In California in 2005, the governor — a former movie star who more than any other individual popularized the Humvee, an extreme emitter of the prime heat-trapping gas, CO2 — now declares his opposition to global warming.

Because another influential member of the governor’s party likes to pretend that the global climate isn’t changing, for a prominent fellow Republican to state the obvious is considered daring. But that says more about the pathetic state of discourse on the issue of climate change in this country than it does about Schwarzenegger. The fact that Schwarzenegger has no apparent interest in reducing his own energy consumption is immaterial; all he need do is call for others to cut where he will not, and he becomes an environmental hero.

"I say the debate is over. We know the science, we see the threat, and the time for action is now."

That’s what he told a United Nations conference on the subject in San Francisco yesterday.

Nonetheless, as annoying as it is to have to give a prime contributor to global warming political credit for opposing it, the fact remains that California and Californians could make a major difference. As the story in the LA Times referenced above indicates, if we in California succeed in reducing its levels of heat-trapping gasses to year 2000 levels by 2010, an 11% reduction, and to 1990 levels by 2020, a 25% reduction, "it would cut more greenhouse gases than Japan, France, or the United Kingdom."

What’s more, Californians have already proven their ability to cut energy consumption. In 2001 — despite Vice-President Cheney’s scoffing at the time that conservation was of little practical use — we succeeded in reducing electrical energy consumption by between five and ten percent almost literally overnight, according to page forty-three of a 2002 report by the California Energy Commission.

(It’s difficult to exactly quantify electrical power consumption trends, because weather changes from year to year, and it’s necessary to calculate not just a reduction from the year before — about 5.4% from the year 2000 — but also an estimate of the potential energy usage, with population growth, business growth, and so on. Overall power consumption in California was estimated by the Commission to be down by over 9% in 2001, compared to 2000.)

Could California lead the way in a similar reduction of heat-trapping gasses? Why not? The Democrats are pushing an even tougher bill through the legislature, perhaps eager to take credit themselves…and we know leadership on this issue is not going to come from Washington, D.C.

What They Say about the Weather, and What They Don’t Say

In Yosemite, temperatures in the 80’s and rain on the snowpack threatens flooding.

In Colorado, similarly, temperatures fifteen and twenty degrees above normal are melting the snowpack: water levels haven’t been this high in twenty years, according to one kayaker.

And on the East Coast, it’s been a gloomy spring. The third coldest ever, according to a National Weather Service meteorologist.

The connection? All these facts can be seen as examples of a climatological trend predicted years ago by climatologists. For example, James Hansen, perhaps the best known climatologist in the country, has in more than one study argued that in a global warming scenario, the East Coast will actually get colder. Not enormously colder — about two degrees on the average — but measurably and noticeably.

Question: Why is this prediction never mentioned in newspaper stories about unusual weather? Wouldn’t it be worth at least a question to a climatologist once in a while? Then maybe we could have "a conversation" about the issue, as they say in newsrooms.

Just a thought.

“Too Boring for TV”

Nuclear energy is in the headlines again, because John McCain and Joseph Lieberman are soon to float a bill proposing massive subsidies to major corporations — notably General Electric — that want to build nuclear energy plants again. Some notable enviros, such as Steward Brand, support the idea. Others, such as the National Resources Defense Council do not.

Thomas B. Cochran, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program said in The New York Times  (registration required): "The issue isn’t: Do you support nuclear? The issue should be: Do you support massive subsidies to the tune of billions of dollars for nuclear power?" He said, "The answer is no."

One point often overlooked when it comes to nuclear power: the American insurance industry, back in l957, refused to insure these plants. Congress had to pass a law allowing the Federal government to insure the plants berfore they could be built (the Price-Anderson Act). This to me is argument enough against them, given that the insurance industry will, for a price, cover just about any other public activity under the sun.

But "The Onion," as usual, gets to the heart of the matter, with its hiliarious piece from the May 4th issue, entitled "Actual Expert Too Boring for TV."

They quote an expert from MIT thoughtfully discussing the issue, then a segment producer for MSNBC discussing the expert:

"[The expert] went on like that for six… long… minutes," Salters said. "Fact after mind-numbing fact. Then he started spewing all these statistics about megawatts and the nation’s current energy consumption and I don’t know what, because my mind just shut off. I tried to lead him in the right direction. I told him to address the fears that the average citizen might have about nuclear power, but he still utterly failed to mention meltdowns, radiation, or mushroom clouds."

Mine Plans Surprise Ventura County

In the last month, three different companies have announced plans to mine rock and gravel for development purposes near Ventura County. East of the county, Cemex Inc of Arizona announced plans to mine rock on Soledad Canyon Road. As discussed in the Santa Clarita edition of the "Daily News" from last Friday, "the project includes mining 150,000 tons per years of anorthosite ore, a rock mineral that is used to bind concrete for building."

Amazingly, according to Andy Fried, president of the Agua Dulce Town Council, the Forest Service asked for a response from local governing bodies within two weeks, even though it has known about the project for the last five years. Another company, Pacific Industrial Minerals, proposes to build a bridge across the Santa Clara River to mine rock ten miles east of Santa Clarita, generating as many as 25 truckloads a day, according to the proposal.

North of Ojai, on Highway 33, a "new sand and gravel mine threatens to turn Scenic Highway 33 into an industrial thoroughfare," according to the Keep the Sespe Wild newsletter. The Diamond Rock Mine, expected to be a 100-acre industrial site operating 24 hours a day, "would be capable of generating three times as much traffic as the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report suggests," director Alisdair Coyne points out.

Big News: Global Ocean Warming Proven. NASA Scientists call for action now.

If the on-the-ground news of melting ice and permafrost in the Artic wasn’t proof enough,
today a team of scientists led by James Hansen at NASA released a study comparing precise measurements of ocean temperatures against projections based on climatological models. The measurements, taken over a period of ten years, showed that the earth is now absorbing more solar energy than it radiates to space as heat.

The observations tracked with five climatological model runs from the Godard Institute for Space Studies models remarkably accurately. This obviates a great deal of the alleged controversy over global warming, because most of the complaints about global warming have focused on this or that aspect of “math worlds,” arguing that they did not accurately reflect what was happening in the real world. (Much of this alleged controversy was stirred up by papers from foundations backed by ExxonMobil, as Chris Mooney in Mother Jones showed this month, but that’s a topic for another time.)
However, although the study proves that additional global warming is “in the pipeline” already, due to excess heat stored in oceans around the world, the scientists concluded with a different message. As the fifteen scientists said in the study, which is available for free at ScienceExpress :

“This delay provides an opportunity to reduce the magnitude of anthropogenic climate change before it is fully realized, if appropriate action is taken. On the other hand, if we wait for more overwhelming empirical evidence of climate change, the inertia implies that still greater climate change will be in store, which may be difficult or impossible to avoid.”

Scientists tend to speak in quiet understatements: This is the sound of scientists screaming.

Look at Mother Nature…and Neil

An Earth Day item that’s too enjoyable to let pass unnoticed…last Friday the US EPA’s administrator for the West, Wayne Nastri, presented thirty-seven individuals and organizations with an Environmental Achievement Awards for their efforts to preserve the environment in 2004. (The award doesn’t have a cute nickname yet.) Among the winners was a man who has been singing about the environment for decades, Neil Young.

In the words of the EPA: "In 2004 Neil Young launched a month-long concert tour to complement the theatrical release of “Greendale.” Young fueled his trucks and buses with biodiesel, a cleaner burning, alternative fuel made from renewable resources. His tour used B20, 20 percent biodiesel mixed with 80 percent diesel, the most common blend. Additionally, Young has 17 diesel vehicles that run on vegetable oil farmed by American farmers. He plans to continue to use this government approved and regulated fuel exclusively to prove that it is possible to deliver goods anywhere in North America without using foreign oil, while being environmentally responsible."

Young, still recovering from surgery for a brain aneurysm, couldn’t pick up the award personally, but a representative for the EPA press office in San Francisco said that he tried.