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Global Warming – One Freeze Frame at a Time

CCTV cameras on Tate Britain wharf via Flickr.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have come up with a new use for all those security cameras that have proliferated across the globe in recent years: They’re using public, Internet-connected webcams to monitor the effects of global warming across the globe.

It turns out that the local street views, so to speak, provide a better picture than satellite imagery that’s also used for this purpose. I learned about it this morning, via Mother Jones, which linked from the Conservation Maven site. And, here’s the paper, if you’d rather read the long version. Unfortunately the site is password protected, so be prepared to shell out some cash.

According to the abstract:

“Public cameras had an equivalent or higher ability to detect spring compared with satellite-based data for corresponding locations, with fewer numbers of poor quality days, shorter continuous bad data days, and significantly lower errors of spring estimates. Manual image segmentation into deciduous, evergreen, and understory vegetation allowed detection of spring and fall onset for multiple vegetation types.”

What insights the researchers are gleaning from the cams isn’t mentioned in the abstract. Perhaps it’s too early for them to provide a clear picture of the webcam images they are analyzing. Once they do start comparing images of local cams around the globe, the new approach could make the impacts of global warming much more real to people locally by showing them the changes in their own communities.

But one has to wonder if we really need more evidence that global warming is real, as much as a game plan for addressing it. The climate change deniers have had quite a run lately, but if you believe Yale’s Six Americas study, a sizable number of people are convinced that climate change is real. According to the Yale researchers, 18 percent would chacterize themselves as “alarmed,” while another 33 percent are “concerned” about climate change. That’s more than half the country but the political solutions we’ve been offered so far are all about political action as opposed to actual action.

The climate bill gaining steam in the Senate right now would reduce carbon emissions by just 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. That’s way below what climate scientists say in necessary if we are going reign in runaway climate changes before its too late. It’s going to be too late, very soon – within the next couple of years. Yet, people keep talking about what’s politically feasible, rather than what’s necessary. Sens. John Kerry, (D-Mass.,) Joseph I. Lieberman, (I-Conn.,) and Lindsey Graham, (R, S.C.,) who have teamed with the country’s leading Big Green environmentalists to push this woefully inadequate climate legislation this year,  may be able to negotiate a deal that both sides can claim as a victory. But nature doesn’t cut backroom deals.

What will it take to shift our thinking so that “political reality” includes keeping the climate from slipping beyond what’s “liveable” – not just for some cuddly endangered species, but for us humans? Some say the country needs a new civil rights movement to demand environmental sustainability. What do you think?


Stepping Back to Move Forward on Global Warming?

The big news yesterday was that Obama kept his campaign promise and moved forward with plans to drill for oil in off the country’s coasts. This news was largely met with celebratory tones and running commentary on the great compromiser skills of the U.S. president. What received less play were two stories about the climate change debate.  The Associated Press reports here that the scientists embroiled in the “climategate” email scandal have been cleared of any wrongdoing by a British parliamentary panel. Meanwhile, The Huffington Post covered a new Greenpeace report that followed the money – nearly $50 million since 1997 – paid by Koch Industries to finance a campaign of climate change denial.

Having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees?

What do these developments mean for the climate change debate?

OK, so, we learn investigators found no evidence that UK climate scientists have “cooked the books” to make global warming look worse than it is; news that underscores that climate change is not just real, it’s going to get very bad unless we do something and the time for action is quickly slipping by. On the same day this report comes out, we get a peak inside the “climate denial machine” and its a view into a well-oiled, well-financed campaign paid by corporate interests that stand to lose a lot if our politician were ever to act to reign in runaway global warming. But Koch, Exxon and other denial financiers apparently aren’t in any immediate danger. (See story news item one.)

Democracy Now Show Today on Big Greens Standing in the Way of Climate Progress

The buzz created by Johann Hari’s hard-hitting article, The Wrong Kind of Green,  in The Nation magazine is finally generating some much needed attention for the outrageous behavior of some of our leading environmental groups. This morning, Amy Goodman of Democracy now interviewed Johann and me about Big Green groups such as Conservation International, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and The Nature Conservancy – that are endorsing the climate policies sponsored by their corporate donors and allies in Washington. There is just no getting around the fact that the proposals backed by these groups will do little to head off runaway climate change. As Hari pointed out this morning, some of these policies will actually encourage more logging in tropical rainforests, despite ample evidence that we need those trees standing to sop up climate changing greenhouse gases.

Hari was very effective exposing these false solutions but left things on an optimistic note by mentioning the creative nonviolence campaigns climate activists have unfurled in the UK. I wish there had been more time so that I could have mentioned that the real grassroots of US enviornmentalism – not the big national groups that have been coopted by Washington’s deal making mentality and corporate donations – are also experiencing an encouraging growth spirt.

In doing some research for a magazine article and possibly a new book, I’ve been talking to activists all over the country in the last few weeks.  Julia “Judy” Bonds, who has been fighting mountaintop removal coal mining in her Appalachian community for a dozen years, says “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” In the last five years, she says a movement has begun to take shape and it’s just a matter of time before it sparks change. She likened the tense standoff between coal miners and mountaintop removal foes like herself to the bloody civil rights struggle started in Selma, Alabama in 1963 that  was widely credited with helping pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Author Bill McKibbon is calling for people to take to the streets and join the civil disobedience campaign he launched. Tim DeChristopher, the guy who threw a wrench in the Dec. 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases on public lands, says we have to throw ourselves into the machine that’s threatening our existence.  McKibbon, DeChristopher, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, Mike Rosselle and many other activists have set up small radical groups that are all advocating that people – the average citizens like you and me – take to the streets to demand that President Obama and other lawmakers address global warming.

Considering how little we protest today, it’s hard to image the country will rise up and demand environmental sustainability. But they are doing it in the United Kingdom, so why not here? And if we don’t, who will? Bonds says her activism has shown her that politicians don’t lead, they merely follow the will of the people. It’s time for the people to take their fate into their own hands, she says.

Coal Astroturf Group Offends Again image

I received a creepy email yesterday from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. It’s the Astroturf group funded by the coal industry that landed in hot water earlier this year for sending Congresspeople phony letters opposing the Climate Bill. Well, this group is the chief PR maven supporting “clean coal,” as well.

“Clean coal” is an experimental technology that promises to cut coal’s climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero (although the Coalition does what it can to expand the concept to include any coal plant that happens to be in compliance with the US Clean Air Act. Decades after passage of that law, you might think that would be all US power plants, in which case you would be wrong! But that’s fodder for another post.)

Anyway, most people refer to the new technology, also known as Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, when they utter the words “clean coal.” CCS is already chugging away at a few small, experimental power plants but don’t expect it to save the planet anytime soon. Experts say it would take decades and trillions of dollars to convert the country’s coal-burning power industry, which provides about half of  the country’s electricity today. That would be decades longer than we have to reduce carbon emissions. This reality hasn’t daunted the Obama Administration, which revived funding to a “clean coal” demonstration project in Illinois. The previous administration had pulled the plug on the same undertaking a few years ago, after cost overruns and questions about its commercial viability.

Also unfazed by clean coal’s apparent limitations is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which continues to cheer boisterously, despite the group’s own embarrassing PR setbacks this year.  Now, it has offended again; this time pissing off a group called Operation Free for apparently trying to piggyback on the Veterans Day buzz surrounding the organization, which represents men and women in the US armed forces who believe addressing climate change is central to the country’s national security.

“Yesterday, we sent an email to you which some folks felt implied that the group Operation Free supports clean coal technology, an issue which they have not taken a position on. That was not our intention,” wrote Joe Lucas, Senior Vice President – Communications for America’s Power, a web portal that’s part of the Coalition’s online empire. The apologetic missive continued:

“This event did give me a chance to talk to the folks at Operation Free. I owed them the call because it should be common courtesy to check with an organization before you mention them in an e-mail – and we didn’t do that. I also committed to making an attempt to remove any confusion from the previous e-mail, and I hope this does that. But moreover, it gave us an opportunity to understand more clearly that we share the common goal of promoting greater energy independence,” Lucas wrote, wrapping up by expressing “profound respect, on this Veterans Day,” for the country’s soldiers.

Despite all that sucking up, Coalition efforts to clean up coal’s image – but not its smokestacks – appear to be failing. What do you think?

Sustainabilty Roundup: The Fate of Chesapeake Restoration, the Climate Bill + Garbage Islands

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its draft cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, triggering the start of a 60 day comment period.

With the Climate bill back in the Senate limelight, there have been a flurry of stories assessing its fate. Here are a couple: The New York Times gives the latest play by play. This Reuters‘ story out of Paris warns U.S. energy bills will double in the future if Congress doesn’t pass legislation that starts to wean the country off of dwindling and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

The EPA  is moving ahead on plans to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Greenpeace is turning the screws to Newsweek. It wants to know how much money the magazine makes from running ads for Big Oil‘s largest lobbying group.

NPR’s Morning Edition has a story on how dust particles floating in the air are bad for your health.  Meanwhile, Reuters reports on new research suggesting that extremes of temperature and heavy air pollution lead to heartatacks.

The New York Times has an article and slide show on the islands of garbage foating around the planet’s oceans.

Sustainablity News from around the Web

Rapid changes to our environment threaten the foundations of human health, according to a new study, reported here.

Another study has found folic acid supplements taken by pregnant women may reduce asthma risks in the child.

“Clunker” trade-ins were mostly used to purchase pickup trucks with nearly as bad environmental impacts.

Federal officials are pressing Maryland and other states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay to get serious about cleanup efforts.

MoJo is reporting that “It’s Official: No Climate Bill This Year”

WAPo has a piece on why more than 3.4 million acres of land that farmers used to set aside as part of a federal conservation program are being plowed again since September when the contracts expired. At risk are “millions of acres of habitat for quail, pheasant, prairie chickens and other wildlife and established filter strips and forested buffers to protect streams, lakes and rivers from sedimentation and agricultural runoff.”

Environmentalists are fighting the Obama Administration’s appointment of a lobbyist as its  chief agricultural trade negotiator.

DC Morning Coffee

A roundup of green news and rants posted on DC blogs.

The blogs are abuzz about plans to bring back streetcars. But the most comprehensive post is here, at Greater, Greater Washington.

The Prince of Petworth has this worthy screed against litterbugs and a tribute to some anonymous neighbors who installed their own trash bin in a park.

On transportation wonk blog, The Bellows, muses about what the country would be like if we spent as much on rebuilding our decrepit roads, bridges and other infrastructure as we do on defense.  He quotes a figure of $680 billion.

Miles Grant stumps for the climate changes bill that’s still kicking around the Senate.

The City Fix blog mines recently released Census data showing that two-thirds of Washington area workers drive alone to work in a post about traffic congestion and its consequences.