Category Archives: Environment

So The Summer Will Be Ending Just The Way The Summer Began

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

An oil rig off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico has exploded, sending all 13 oil workers into the Gulf, one of whom remains missing. A search and rescue effort by the U.S. Coast Guard is already underway. The explosion comes shortly after oil finally stopped flowing into the Gulf (for the moment) from another rig that had been severely damaged by a large explosion. Fortunately, early reports say this explosion occurred at an oil rig that is not currently producing, drastically reducing the potential for further environmental damage.

Despite strong encouragement from many liberals and environmental activists, that crisis did not secure sweeping energy reform legislation or the full Democratic backing of long-sought cap and trade proposals. Even President Obama’s offshore drilling moratorium was initially knocked down by a state court. In the wake of that long and difficult episode, many are greeting this most recent event with deep, almost macabre cynicism about our ability to learn from disaster.

Michelle Malkin:

Pray for the workers. Brace for the political aftermath.

Allah Pundit:

DHS claims that the rig wasn’t producing oil and gas when the explosion hit. Time to breathe easy? Maybe not: CNN’s Ed Henry is hearing from the Coast Guard that the platform was in production and that it … wasn’t equipped with a standard blowout preventer. (The crew did, however, allegedly start emergency shutdown before bailing out.) As of an hour ago, the rig was still on fire but I’m not sure what the status is now. Jindal is set to speak within an hour or so. Stand by for updates galore.

Update: WDSU says that because it’s a platform, not a rig, it’s not actively engaged in drilling.

Update: A tip from a reader who, unlike me, knows what he’s talking about:

If the platform is not a drilling platform then it doesn’t need a traditional blowout preventer. The difference being is that with drilling the oil is being forced out at a high rate, therefor need a blowout preventer that can hold back all that pressure. If this platform is a production platform, all it needs is something to stop the flow in the pipes which is flowing with much lower pressure.

Update: How much oil and gas was the platform churning out? CNN:

“Mariner has notified and is working with regulatory authorities in response to this incident,” the statement said. “The cause is not known, and an investigation will be undertaken. During the last week of August 2010, production from this facility averaged approximately 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate.”

Update: Oh boy. Here we go:

The Coast Guard is saying that a mile-long oil sheen is spreading from the site off an offshore petroleum platform that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.

The site of the explosion is west of where BP’s massive spill occurred.

Update: Ah, a comforting explanation for the sheen. It’s not oil bubbling up from the seabed; it’s oil that had already been captured and stored on the rig.

Also, Mariner indicated that the fire — which was first reported to the Coast Guard by workers on a nearby rig around 9:20 a.m. (10:20 a.m. ET) — was not sparked by an explosion. It started at one of the platform’s seven active wells, the company said, though its cause is under investigation…

Jindal said that Mariner has told him that all seven wells have been closed off and that what is burning now is from fuel in storage, and not from an active leak.

Jonathan Cohn at TNR:

The Coast Guard says it has rescued all 13 workers and, so far, it looks like we’re not in for a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to New Orleans Times-Picayune. This rig, which is owned by Mariner Energy, was in much shallower waters–340 feet deep rather than a mile.

And while the well was producing oil, Mariner officials say that workers shut down the operation before evacuating. The officials also said they observed no leaking oil during a flyover, conducted while the rig was still burning.

The Times-Picayune reports that the drilling “had nothing to do with the drilling operations that fell under the government’s controversial moratorium after the BP spill.” But oil and gas industry officials remain worried this incident will set back efforts to end the moratorium:

…oil and gas industry insiders, who have fought for months to get the moratorium lifted, are concerned that the accident will be perceived as something that a moratorium would prevent.

“It’s certainly disheartening, and it is going to be yet another challenge for the industry,” said Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association.”We were making some progress on the moratorium. This certainly will complicate matters.”

Yes it will. And I can’t say it upsets me. While this incident may not strengthen the case for the existing moratorium, it should certainly remind people that there are hazards inherent in offshore oil operations–and that we should be working harder to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Update: Coast Guard officials are now saying they did not see an oil slick on the water, following reports suggesting they had.

Mary Katherine Ham at The Weekly Standard

James Joyner:

Aside from snark about the irony that this didn’t happen when oil men Bush and Cheney were at the helm, I’m not sure what to make of this.  Clearly, federal regulation of Gulf oil drilling has been spotty — and that certainly extends to the Bush-Cheney tenure, when this well was drilled.  And some companies seem to have markedly more violations than others, with no meaningful penalty.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Why should we care? We all know that oil apparently just goes away. Just like Gulf War I prepared us for Gulf War II, so has Gulf Spill I inured me to this latest.

Also I don’t really need to think about the fact that Mariner Energy, which owns the blown-up oil rig, has at least two top executives who worked at Enron, right?

Richard Lawson at Gawker:

Luckily, it was non-producing and there are no reported deaths. But man, oil companies really shouldn’t have listened to that sinister Explode-O-Rig 5000™ salesman.

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Bringing Out The Hockey Sticks At The End Of August

Rosalind Helderman at The Washington Post:

An Albemarle County Circuit Court judge has set aside a subpoena issued by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to the University of Virginia seeking documents related to the work of climate scientist and former university professor Michael Mann.

Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. ruled that Cuccinelli can investigate whether fraud has occurred in university grants, as the attorney general had contended, but ruled that Cuccinelli’s subpoena failed to state a “reason to believe” that Mann had committed fraud.

The ruling is a major blow for Cuccinelli, a global warming skeptic who had maintained that he was investigating whether Mann committed fraud in seeking government money for research that showed that the earth has experienced a rapid, recent warming. Mann, now at Penn State University, worked at U-Va. until 2005.

According to Peatross, the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, under which the civil investigative demand was issued, requires that the attorney general include an “objective basis” to believe that fraud has been committed. Peatross indicates that the attorney general must state the reason so that it can be reviewed by a court, which Cuccinelli failed to do.

Peatross set the subpoena aside without prejudice, meaning Cuccinelli could give the subpoena another try by rewriting the civil demand to better explain the conduct he wishes to investigate. But the judge seemed skeptical of Cuccinelli’s underlying claim about Mann, noting that Cuccinelli’s deputy maintained in a court hearing that the nature of Mann’s fraud was described in subsequent court papers in the case.

Jillian Rayfield at TPM:

Mann, who now works at Penn State University, left UVA in 2005. As TPM previously reported, Mann was one of several climate change researchers who were connected to the “Climate-Gate” emails that “showed some scientists discussing ways to keep views skeptical of global warming out of peer-reviewed journals, among other things.”

Three major UK investigations have since exonerated the “Climate-Gate” scientists of any wrongdoing. Mann himself was additionally let off the hook after an investigation by his employer, Penn State.

Cuccinelli’s probe had been denounced by climate change believers and skeptics alike as a “witch hunt” and a threat to academic freedom.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress:

Mann is one of America’s top climatologists.  Few if any climate scientists in the world have been as falsely accused — and thoroughly vindicated — over both their academic practices and scientific results as Dr. Michael Mann (see Much-vindicated Michael Mann and Hockey Stick get final exoneration from Penn State — time for some major media apologies and retractions and Final ‘forensic’ UK report on emails vindicates climate science and research underlying the Hockey Stick).

Here is Dr. Mann’s response to this ruling:

Continue reading

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Filed under Education, Environment, Political Figures

A Hostage Situation At Discovery Communications Building


Police shot and killed a man armed with several bombs who held three hostages Wednesday at the Discovery Communications building. Authorities said the hostages were safe.

At least one device on the man’s body went off when he was shot inside the building in suburban Washington, D.C., Montgomery County police Chief Thomas Manger said. Police were searching the building for other explosive devices.

Manger said no one was believed to have been injured other than the gunman, whom SWAT officers shot about 4:50 p.m. ET because officials “believed the hostages were in danger.” The building in the close-in suburb of Washington was safely evacuated, including the Discovery Kids Place day care center, police said.

An NBC News producer who called the building to find out what was going on had a brief telephone conversation with the man when he came on the line unexpectedly. He identified himself as James J. Lee and said, “I have a gun and I have a bomb. … I have several bombs strapped to my body ready to go off.”

NBC News informed Montgomery County authorities of the conversation as the producer spoke to the man for about 10 minutes. NBC News did not report the conversation until the hostage situation had been resolved.

Michelle Malkin:

There’s been a breaking hostage situation at the Discovery Channel office in Silver Spring, MD all morning. The alleged gunman reportedly has explosives strapped to his body and there have been reports of at least one hostage. The office has been evacuated, including many children at a day care in the building.

WUSA 9, a local TV affiliate, in DC is pointing to this website called “Save the Planet Protest” as the site of the alleged gunman’s unconfirmed demands.

In case the site goes down, here’s the manifesto in full:

The Discovery Channel MUST broadcast to the world their commitment to save the planet and to do the following IMMEDIATELY:
1. The Discovery Channel and it’s affiliate channels MUST have daily television programs at prime time slots based on Daniel Quinn’s “My Ishmael” pages 207-212 where solutions to save the planet would be done in the same way as the Industrial Revolution was done, by people building on each other’s inventive ideas. Focus must be given on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution. A game show format contest would be in order. Perhaps also forums of leading scientists who understand and agree with the Malthus-Darwin science and the problem of human overpopulation. Do both. Do all until something WORKS and the natural world starts improving and human civilization building STOPS and is reversed! MAKE IT INTERESTING SO PEOPLE WATCH AND APPLY SOLUTIONS!!!!

2. All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions. In those programs’ places, programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed. All former pro-birth programs must now push in the direction of stopping human birth, not encouraging it.

3. All programs promoting War and the technology behind those must cease. There is no sense in advertising weapons of mass-destruction anymore. Instead, talk about ways to disassemble civilization and concentrate the message in finding SOLUTIONS to solving global military mechanized conflict. Again, solutions solutions instead of just repeating the same old wars with newer weapons. Also, keep out the fraudulent peace movements. They are liars and fakes and had no real intention of ending the wars. ALL OF THEM ARE FAKE! On one hand, they claim they want the wars to end, on the other, they are demanding the human population increase. World War II had 2 Billion humans and after that war, the people decided that tripling the population would assure peace. WTF??? STUPIDITY! MORE HUMANS EQUALS MORE WAR!

4. Civilization must be exposed for the filth it is. That, and all its disgusting religious-cultural roots and greed. Broadcast this message until the pollution in the planet is reversed and the human population goes down! This is your obligation. If you think it isn’t, then get hell off the planet! Breathe Oil! It is the moral obligation of everyone living otherwise what good are they??

5. Immigration: Programs must be developed to find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that. Find solutions to stopping it. Call for people in the world to develop solutions to stop it completely and permanently. Find solutions FOR these countries so they stop sending their breeding populations to the US and the world to seek jobs and therefore breed more unwanted pollution babies. FIND SOLUTIONS FOR THEM TO STOP THEIR HUMAN GROWTH AND THE EXPORTATION OF THAT DISGUSTING FILTH! (The first world is feeding the population growth of the Third World and those human families are going to where the food is! They must stop procreating new humans looking for nonexistant jobs!)

6. Find solutions for Global Warming, Automotive pollution, International Trade, factory pollution, and the whole blasted human economy. Find ways so that people don’t build more housing pollution which destroys the environment to make way for more human filth! Find solutions so that people stop breeding as well as stopping using Oil in order to REVERSE Global warming and the destruction of the planet!

7. Develop shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race. Talk about Evolution. Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people’s brains until they get it!!

8. Saving the Planet means saving what’s left of the non-human Wildlife by decreasing the Human population. That means stopping the human race from breeding any more disgusting human babies! You’re the media, you can reach enough people. It’s your resposibility because you reach so many minds!!!

9. Develop shows that will correct and dismantle the dangerous US world economy. Find solutions for their disasterous Ponzi-Casino economy before they take the world to another nuclear war.

10. Stop all shows glorifying human birthing on all your channels and on TLC. Stop Future Weapons shows or replace the dialogue condemning the people behind these developments so that the shows become exposes rather than advertisements of Arms sales and development!

11. You’re also going to find solutions for unemployment and housing. All these unemployed people makes me think the US is headed toward more war.

Humans are the most destructive, filthy, pollutive creatures around and are wrecking what’s left of the planet with their false morals and breeding culture.

For every human born, ACRES of wildlife forests must be turned into farmland in order to feed that new addition over the course of 60 to 100 YEARS of that new human’s lifespan! THIS IS AT THE EXPENSE OF THE FOREST CREATURES!!!! All human procreation and farming must cease!

It is the responsiblity of everyone to preserve the planet they live on by not breeding any more children who will continue their filthy practices. Children represent FUTURE catastrophic pollution whereas their parents are current pollution. NO MORE BABIES! Population growth is a real crisis. Even one child born in the US will use 30 to a thousand times more resources than a Third World child. It’s like a couple are having 30 babies even though it’s just one! If the US goes in this direction maybe other countries will too!

Also, war must be halted. Not because it’s morally wrong, but because of the catastrophic environmental damage modern weapons cause to other creatures. FIND SOLUTIONS JUST LIKE THE BOOK SAYS! Humans are supposed to be inventive. INVENT, DAMN YOU!!

The world needs TV shows that DEVELOP solutions to the problems that humans are causing, not stupify the people into destroying the world. Not encouraging them to breed more environmentally harmful humans.

Saving the environment and the remaning species diversity of the planet is now your mindset. Nothing is more important than saving them. The Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Elephants, Froggies, Turtles, Apes, Raccoons, Beetles, Ants, Sharks, Bears, and, of course, the Squirrels.

The humans? The planet does not need humans.

You MUST KNOW the human population is behind all the pollution and problems in the world, and YET you encourage the exact opposite instead of discouraging human growth and procreation. Surely you MUST ALREADY KNOW this!

I want Discovery Communications to broadcast on their channels to the world their new program lineup and I want proof they are doing so. I want the new shows started by asking the public for inventive solution ideas to save the planet and the remaining wildlife on it.

These are the demands and sayings of Lee.

Another D.C. tv news affiliate, WJLA, says that police scanner traffic indicates that the gunman is an “Asian male” and possible ex-employee of Discovery.

David Weigel:

This is the kind of thing that sparks a three-part reaction in the opinionoverse.

1) Investigation. Who is this guy? Right and left partisans immediately worry that it’s one of their team (defined loosely — a white liberal might worry that it’s a Muslim radical who’ll prove Frank Gaffney right).

2) Revelation. The identity of the perp is discovered — in this case, we find that it’s an anti-human population activist. Everyone pretends that their previous theories about what might be happening were never really serious.

3) Polarization. The people whose ideology most matches the perp cry loudly that he is crazy and has nothing to do with them. The people whose ideology is antithetical to the perp’s — in this case, conservative skeptics of environmentalism — subtly hint that the perp is too representative of the other team. Oh, sure, they’re not saying that. But every time someone goes crazy on the other side, they get blamed, so it’s only fair.

In 24 hours or so, a few articles will be pitched and sold about the political meaning of the story. Everyone else will forget about it and feel vaguely dirty for having thought so hard about it at all.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up

Andrea Nill at Think Progress:

Lee’s immigration screed bears a troubling resemblance to views and policies espoused by anti-immigrant groups such as NumbersUSA, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Progressives for Immigration Reform, and others. Just this past month, FAIR released “The Environmentalist’s Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy.” The report connects immigration to “pollution, sprawl, congestion, and ecological degradation,” complaining that “so-called environmentalists pretend as if this connection does not exist.” As usual, FAIR prescribes an overall reduction in immigration as the solution to the country’s environmental woes (in slightly more diplomatic terms).

It’s not a coincidence that many of these are amongst the same groups that have always supported changing the 14th amendment to deny “anchor babies,” or the American-born children of undocumented immigrants, citizenship — long before the debate entered the political mainstream this summer. Read more about Lee and the anti-immigrant environmental movement at the Wonk Room.

Mark Hemingway at The Washington Examiner:

The question is, to what extent will the media note that this violence was spurred by a radical left-wing environmental agenda, or that eco-terrorism is not a new phenomenon and is arguably the America’s biggest domestic terrorist threat?

Then again, maybe the gunman is just angling for a job in the White House. Consider the book Ecoscience, written by Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren:

Even more troubling: Over the weekend, a blogger at unearthed a book written over 30 years ago by John Holdren, President Obama’s “science czar.”

The book, Ecoscience, was co-written with neo-Malthusian prophet of doom and scientific laughingstock Paul Ehrlich. In it, Holdren advocates a series of bizarre and horrifying measures to deal with an overpopulation threat that never materialized.

Among the suggestions in the book: Laws requiring the abortion or adoption of illegitimate children; sterilizing women after having two children; legally requiring “reproductive responsibility” to those deemed by pointy-headed eugenicists to “contribute to general social deterioration”; and incredibly, putting sterilizing agents in the drinking water.

Naturally, these population control measures would be enforced by “an armed international organization, a global analogue of a police force.” Very recently, Holdren was still listing the book on his C.V.

Sound familiar?

Mary Katherine Ham at The Weekly Standard:

His username is also connected to a meet-up group for Daniel Quinn devotees called the “Friends of Ishmael.” A man named Lee, with a misterfifteen e-mail adress  seems to have started his own chapter in San Diego in 2006, called “World Guardian Voices.” The site for his group is archived here, with a notice of an upcoming meeting at a Borders book store to talk about global warming and overpopulation.

He even offered his e-mail address for anyone who’d like to “schedule a speech.”

Lee’s MySpace page offers similar rants, and an odd array of pictures, mostly of owls, apes, Darth Vader, and Bugs Bunny. He lists among those he’d like to meet, “Environmentalists, scientists, readers of Daniel Quinn, and people who want to work toward a real change.”

Allah Pundit:

Max Fisher of the Atlantic somehow read this post to mean that I think (a) Lee was a liberal and (b) because liberals relentlessly politicize “lone nut” incidents involving right-wingers, conservatives should do the same to them. (His tagline in summarizing this post at the Atlantic is “Hang This Attack Around Liberals’ Necks.”) On the first point, I don’t know if Lee was a down-the-line doctrinaire liberal or not; my point was simply that the green concerns that motivated him are typically identified with the left and therefore many people will conclude that he’s some species of liberal. By the same token, when someone bombs an abortion clinic, no one waits to find out the bomber’s opinion on, say, Iraq and federal spending before identifying him with the right. It’s the motive that defines the suspect politically in incidents like these. As for the second point — and I’m frankly amazed that anyone might have misunderstood it — what I’m saying is that liberals and environmentalists shouldn’t be blamed for this. Don’t politicize the incident by hanging the actions of a lunatic around their neck. What I meant up top about reminding them of this the next time they politicize something done by a right-wing nut was merely how this proves that there are crazies of all stripes and that I didn’t try to score a cheap political point against them today when the opportunity presented itself. Is this really that complicated?

Ann Althouse


Won’t Al Gore please stop it with his extremist, eliminationist rhetoric before he inspires still more violence?

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Filed under Crime, Environment, TV

Faster, Static! Kill! Kill!

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Bryan Walsh at Time:

BP stopped pumping heavy mud into the blown well around eight hours after beginning on Tuesday afternoon, saying that the procedure had achieved its “desired outcome.” Here’s part of the press release from BP:

The well is now being monitored, per the agreed procedure, to ensure it remains static. Further pumping of mud may or may not be required depending on results observed during monitoring.

The start of the static kill was based on the results of an injectivity test, which immediately preceded the static kill and lasted about two hours.

That doesn’t mean things are over—BP vice president Kent Wells told reporters yesterday that he wasn’t sure if mud alone would be enough to fully plug the well. But the fact that BP was able pump drilling mud into the well—at the weight of about 13.2 lbs. per gallon—means that its physical structure is likely still in good condition. And that should clear the way for the relief well, still set to be completed by mid-August. Most importantly, though, more than 100 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, it’s hard to imagine oil flowing from BP’s well again.

And it may turn out that the 4.9 million barrels of oil that did spill from BP’s well may leave less of a mark on the Gulf than first expected. According to the New York Times, the government is expected to announce today that nearly three-quarters of the oil has already evaporated, dispersed, been skimmed or burned—and that what’s left isn’t likely to do further damage, as White House energy czar Carol Browner told NBC’s Today show this morning:

The oil was captured. It was skimmed. It was burned. It was contained. Mother Nature did her part. And that’s good news.

According to the government’s report, a full quarter of the oil dispersed on the surface of the Gulf or dissolved in seawater, and another 16% dispersed naturally as the oil gushed out of the well. The actual cleanup played a smaller role—5% of the oil was removed in controlled burns, and 8% was broken up using chemical dispersants. The warm Gulf ecosystem—accustomed to breaking down oil—was the more significant factor.

Joel Achenbach at WaPo:

The static kill is underway. Whether it will kill, slightly impede, or merely pester BP’s Macondo well remained unknown late Tuesday, as engineers and scientists at BP’s headquarters in suburban Houston scrutinized pressure readings from the hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal officials huddled in BP’s operations center are trying to manage expectations, saying that even if the static kill goes as hoped, Macondo won’t be kaput until it is intercepted and cemented by a relief well that’s been three months in the drilling.

“You want to make sure it’s really dead dead dead. Don’t want anything to rise out of the grave,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told The Washington Post late Tuesday afternoon.

BP initiated the process of pumping mud into the blown-out Macondo well at about 4 p.m. Tuesday. The static kill is not a quick operation by design, pumping mud at a leisurely rate of 2 barrels per minute. About 2,000 barrels will be needed to fill the well, engineers have calculated.

Ben Popkin at The Consumerist:

Doesn’t BP know the power of language? I don’t think the use of intense code names for the various operations has really helped assuage the public consciousness throughout this whole fracas. “Static Kill,” “Top Kill,” “Junk Shot,” really, much too exciting. How about “Containment Orocedure # 74 or “Earthen Inflowment Filling Process”? They should catch up on the collected works of your native son, Orwell.

And a new report says that 3/4 of the escaped oil has been burnt off, skimmed off, chemically dispersed, evaporated, or dissolved in the ocean, “like sugar.” That leaves only, ohh, about 53.5 million gallons floating around in the Gulf. Ballpark, that’s about 5 times the Exxon Valdez disaster. In the words of Borat, great success!

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

There’s a strange amount of good news coming out of the Gulf today. Not only has the vast majority of the leaked oil now been wiped from the face of the Earth, but BP’s latest violently named leak-stopping effort is being declared successful. First there was the top kill, and now, the static kill, in which more of that heavy drilling mud we always hear about was pumped into the well to stabilize the pressure within.

BP called it a “significant milestone,” while CNN said it was “the biggest development in the long-running saga involving BP’s ruptured well since a tightly fitting cap was placed on it in mid-July, stopping oil from flowing into the Gulf for the first time in almost three months.”

The leak won’t be truly dead for good, though, until BP’s ultimate kill maneuver — the “bottom kill,” otherwise known as the relief well — is complete. Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, explains, “The static kill is going well, but ultimately, it’s the relief wells we ordered drilled that will be the ‘final kill-kill.'” You can tell by the nomenclature that they really are not very fond of this leak.

Dan Froomkin at The Huffington Post:

The Obama administration on Wednesday delivered an upbeat verdict on the fate of the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed out of BP’s blown out well in the Gulf of Mexico, saying that most of it has either been dispersed, burned off, skimmed up, directly recaptured through containment efforts, evaporated or dissolved.

Relatively little, they announced, remains on the surface of the Gulf.

That last part is certainly cause to celebrate. But much of the dissolved or dispersed oil may still be causing massive environmental damage beneath the surface, even if it can’t easily be seen.

So along with the 26 percent of the oil that federal scientists still can’t fully account for, that means more than half could still be posing a serious and present danger to sea life and Gulf ecosystems.

A new report, which was authored by senior officials from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, was based on findings from government and non-government scientists. The underlying measurements and methodology were not made public, however, leaving much of it looking like so much guesswork. It did, however, include this neat graphic


President Obama himself weighed in earlier in the day. “A report out today by our scientists shows that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water,” he said.

But that’s a big “or”.

Under questioning by the White House press corps, Lubchenco was somewhat less upbeat. “No one is saying it’s not a threat anymore,” she said. “Diluted and out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean benign.”

She said the subsurface oil is biodegrading rapidly, but nevertheless may already have had a devastating effect on the young of many species — for instance, it may have wiped out a whole year’s worth of bluefin tuna eggs.

“I think the common view of most of the scientists inside and outside government is that the effects of this spill will likely linger for decades,” she said. “The fact that so much of the oil has been removed and in the process of being degraded is very significant and means that the impact will not be even worse than it might have been. But the oil that was released and has already impacted wildlife at the surface, young juvenile stages and eggs beneath the surface, will likely have very considerable impacts for years and possibly decades to come.”

Lubchenco also said that dissolved oil (like “sugar into your coffee or your teacup”) is not necessarily less dangerous than dispersed oil (“broken up from large chunks into smaller chunks”).

But there was a definite sense of triumphalism in the briefing room. “I think it is fairly safe to say that because of the environmental effects of Mother Nature, the warm waters of the Gulf and the federal response, that many of the doomsday scenarios that were talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition because of that,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

“I think the original scenario was off the coast of Delaware and halfway to England by September, if I’m not mistaken.”

Lubchenco announced that there is “virtually no threat to the Keys of the East Coast remaining.” And she and White House environmental advisor Carol Browner refused to entertain the notion that their estimates might end up being off.

“We have a high degree of confidence in them,” Lubchenco said of the findings.

“The likelihood of large-scale change is very, very small, because we have so much certainty in some of the numbers,” Browner said.

One particularly unresolved issue, however, remains how much risk there is that dispersed oil will get into the Gulf’s food chain — and eventually to the dinner table.

Lubchenco notably ducked two food-chain questions on Thursday.

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Phytoplankton Numbers Are Phalling

Lauren Morello at Scientific American:

The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.

The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world’s oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet’s carbon cycle.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.

The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.

Ed Yong at Discover:

Graduate student Daniel Boyce focused on some of oceans’ smallest but most important denizens – the phytoplankton. These tiny creatures are the basis of marine food webs, the foundations upon which these watery ecosystems are built. They produce around half of the Earth’s organic matter and much of its oxygen. And they are disappearing. With a set of data that stretches back 100 years, Boyce found that phytoplankton numbers have fallen by around 1% per year over the last century as the oceans have become warmer, and if anything, their decline is getting faster.  Our blue planet is becoming less green with every year.

Meanwhile, post-doc Derek Tittensor has taken a broader view, looking at the worldwide distributions of over 11,500 seagoing species in 13 groups, from mangroves and seagrasses, to sharks, squids, and corals. His super-census reveals three general trends – coastal species are concentrated around the western Pacific, while ocean-going ones are mostly found at temperate latitudes, in two wide bands on either side of the equator. And the only thing that affected the distribution of all of these groups was temperature.

Together, the results from the two studies hammer home a familiar message – warmer oceans will be very different places. Rising sea temperatures could “rearrange the global distribution of life in the ocean” and destabilise their food webs at their very root. None of this knowledge was easily won – it’s the result of decades of monitoring and data collection, resulting in millions of measurements.

Boyce’s study, for example, really began in 1865, when an Italian priest and astronomer called Father Pietro Angelo Secchi invented a device for measuring water clarity. His “Secchi disk” is fantastically simple – it’s a black-and-white circle that is lowered until the observer can’t see it any more. This depth reveals how transparent the water is, which is directly related to how much phytoplankton it contains. This simple method has been used since 1899. Boyce combined it with measurements of the pigment chlorophyll taken from research vessels, and satellite data from the last decade.

Boyce’s data revealed a very disturbing trend. Phytoplankton numbers have fallen across the world over the last century, particularly towards the poles and in the open oceans. The decline has accelerated in some places, and total numbers have fallen by around 40% since the 1950s. Only in a few places have phytoplankton populations risen. These include parts of the Indian Ocean and some coastal areas where industrial run-off fertilises the water, producing choking blooms of plankton.

On a yearly basis, the rise and fall of the phytoplankton depends on big climate events like the El Nino Southern Oscillation. But in the long-term, nothing predicted the numbers of phytoplankton better than the surface temperature of the seas. Phytoplankton need sunlight to grow, so they’re constrained to the upper layers of the ocean and depends on nutrients welling up from below. But warmer waters are less likely to mix in this way, which starves the phytoplankton and limits their growth.

Michael O’Hare:

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.

Kevin Drum:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can’t possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action. As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you’d rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

Megan McArdle:

The die-off of most of the phytoplankton would be a huge catastrophe.  However, here are some reasons that we shouldn’t succumb to outright panic quite yet:

1.  It’s one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they’re using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we’re now using.  That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we’re burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we’re burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction.

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen; I’m not a fan of tampering with large, complex systems that I don’t really understand, which is why I tend not to support much direct government intervention in the economy–and why I do, nonetheless, support a hefty carbon tax.

But there’s a certain tendency to ignore mitigating offsets, such as the fact that higher carbon concentrations make terrestrial plants grow more lushly, sucking up some of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At least, as long as we don’t turn them into biofuels, that is.  There’s also a tendency to ignore mitigation rather than reduction, on the grounds that emissions reduction is “easier”.  Well, I suppose it is easier if you assume away the political problems.  But no matter how hard I assume, I keep waking up in a world where we’ve made no meaningful progress on emissions reductions.  At this point, I’ve got more faith in America’s engineering talent than in her ability to conquer fierce political resistance to reductions at home and abroad.

Brad Plumer at TNR on McArdle:

She’s partly right. Not every side effect will be negative. Just this week, The New York Times ran a piece about how marmots will thrive in a hotter world. So, three cheers for marmots. But the bad news tends to far outweigh the good. As the IPCC concluded in 2007, “Costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will vary widely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.” No one’s ignoring the upsides. They’re just focused on the larger downsides. For instance, McArdle suggests that more CO2 in the air will boost plant growth, which in turn will help suck more carbon out of the air and ameliorate things somewhat. It might surprise her to learn that scientists are perfectly well aware of that fact. But recent modeling suggests that this effect will likely be offset by other plant-related factors—like changes in evaporation—and the net result will likely be more warming, not less.

One main point to note here is that, on the whole, global warming will be neutral for this round little rock adrift in the ether that we like to call Earth. You could even say this is an exciting time for Mother Nature. Big changes are afoot. Some species will thrive and many others will die. Evolution will proceed apace. There will still be some forms of life around even if the planet heats up by 5°C or 10°C. As McArdle rightly notes, there have been periods in the past, millions of years ago, when carbon concentrations in the atmosphere were even higher than today, and, to quote Jurassic Park, life found a way.

The problem here is for one very particular life form: people. As I wrote in this TNR piece on planetary boundaries, we big-brained hominids have enjoyed a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years—a geological period dubbed the Holocene. Sea levels have been kept in check. Temperatures have fluctuated around a narrow band. And that relative predictability has enabled us to stay rooted in one location, to set up farms and cities, to plan for the future. We’ve adapted very well to the planet we have, and we’ve grown quite used to it. Most of our infrastructure has been built under the impression that the planet will basically look the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. That means that wrenching shifts in our ecosystem run the risk of being extremely painful—in the same way a big disruption to our financial system was extremely painful.

The second problem is that we just don’t know what’s in store. By belching up millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re running a massive science experiment on the planet, one that can’t really be reversed. Maybe this phytoplankton stuff is just a blip. Or maybe it’s part of an ominous trend that’s going to rearrange the face of the oceans as we know it—oceans we’ve come to rely on for our survival. That doesn’t strike me as a gamble worth taking.

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Duelling Banjos Or Duelling New York Times Columnists

Ross Douthat at NYT:

Cap-and-trade’s backers are correct to point the finger rightward. If their bill is dead, it was the American conservative movement that ultimately killed it. Climate legislation wasn’t like health care, with Democrats voting “yes” in lockstep. There was no way to get a bill through without some support from conservative lawmakers. And in the global warming debate, there’s a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.

To understand why, it’s worth going back to the 1970s, the crucible in which modern right-wing politics was forged.

The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity. According to a chorus of credentialed alarmists, the world was entering an age of sweeping famines, crippling energy shortages, and looming civilizational collapse.

It was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions — a government-run energy sector at home, and population control for the teeming masses overseas.

Social conservatives and libertarians, the two wings of the American right, found common ground resisting these prescriptions. And time was unkind to the alarmists. The catastrophes never materialized, and global living standards soared. By the turn of the millennium, the developed world was worrying about a birth dearth.

This is the lens through which most conservatives view the global warming debate. Again, a doomsday scenario has generated a crisis atmosphere, which is being invoked to justify taxes and regulations that many left-wingers would support anyway. (Some of the players have even been recycled. John Holdren, Barack Obama’s science adviser, was a friend and ally of Paul Ehrlich, whose tract “The Population Bomb” helped kick off the overpopulation panic.)

History, however, rarely repeats itself exactly — and conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.

Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fearmongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.

But this doesn’t mean that we should mourn the death of cap-and-trade. It’s possible that the best thing to do about a warming earth — for now, at least — is relatively little. This is the view advanced by famous global-warming heretics like Bjorn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson; in recent online debates, it has been championed by Jim Manzi, the American right’s most persuasive critic of climate-change legislation.

Their perspective is grounded, in part, on the assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime.

But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose.

Jim Manzi at The American Scene:

Ross Douthat has a column in today’s New York Times in which he kindly mentions me, but far more important, manages to make a multi-layered argument for why an informed rational observer should oppose cap-and-trade legislation within the length restrictions of an op-ed. In my view, the position that Ross presents – basically, that the cure is worse than the disease – is the rationally persuasive argument that won the day in recent legislative debates in the Congress.

I believe the debate and politics of this issue have, so far, played out along lines I set forth a couple of years ago. That doesn’t mean, however, that the debate is permanently settled. Nothing in American politics ever is, and the attempt to introduce cap-and-trade through legislation, regulation and/or judicial rulings is likely to continue for many years.

David Leonhardt at NYT:

Mr. Douthat mentions Mr. Ehrlich in his column today, to explain why Republicans have blocked action on global warming:

The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity. According to a chorus of credentialed alarmists [including Paul Ehrlich], the world was entering an age of sweeping famines, crippling energy shortages, and looming civilizational collapse.

It was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions — a government-run energy sector at home, and population control for the teeming masses overseas.

The analogy to global warming is obvious. Just as ingenuity came to the rescue in the past, allowing people to use resources more efficiently than they ever had before, it could do so again — providing us with ways to emit far less carbon for every dollar of gross domestic product.

And I — like many others, I imagine — would be thrilled if that were what the future held. But I think there are two big reasons to doubt that we’re on another Ehrlich-Simon path when it comes to global warming.

The first is basic economics. When the problem is resource scarcity, companies and individuals have a powerful incentive to become more efficient. It keeps their costs down. Mr. Simon understood this, and it’s the fundamental reason he won the bet.

But global warming is different. The fact that carbon emissions are warming the planet doesn’t make it more expensive to produce those emissions. So companies do not have an ever-increasing incentive to emit less — the way they would if the problem were, say, a lack of oil. Global warming doesn’t solve itself the way that resource scarcity does.

The second reason is the accumulation of evidence. Almost as soon as Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Simon made their bet in 1980, Mr. Simon’s prediction started looking good. In 1981, as Mr. Tierney wrote, “grain prices promptly fell and reached historic lows during the 1980s, continuing a long-term decline.” (Mr. Tierney noted that an ally of Mr. Ehrlich ignored this trend at the time and focused instead on “blips in the graph.”)

In recent years, though, anyone who had bet against global warming would look as wrong as Mr. Ehrlich did. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking at an accelerating rate. Scientists have recently revised upwards their predictions of sea-level rises. The planet’s 10 hottest years on record, according to NASA, are: 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001 and 2008. This year is on pace to displace 2005 as No. 1.

Matthew Yglesias:

[…] I’ll have a go at this one:

[Conservative opposition to carbon pricing legislation] is also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose.

Two objections. One—ACES certainly had its Rube Goldberg qualities, but it hardly “swamped its original purpose” of reducing the risk of climate catastrophe at small economic cost.

Two—if Republican members of congress looked at ACES and thought “nice try, but too many side deals” they were, of course, free at any time to introduce an alternative piece of legislation. They did not. And you can tell by the rhetoric of the broader conservative movement (”cap and tax,” “job-killing energy tax,” etc.) that there was no openness to this kind of effort to find more optimal ways of pursuing environmental goals. On the contrary, every move congressional Republicans have made—from adopting a House posture that made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats to adopting a Senate posture that ensures carbon regulation will be left primarily to the EPA—has tended to simultaneously undermine the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also making the economic impact of the regulations more costly.

The reality is that I don’t think American conservatives need a reason, as such, to oppose effective policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Siding with the Chamber of Commerce against proposed new environmental regulation is just what the conservative movement does. Insofar as any particular person wants to dissent from that judgment in a vocal and persistent way, that person would simply be read out of the movement. The extent to which the conservative movement has its grip on any particular politician (or, indeed, newspaper columnist) can change from year-to-year or day-to-day but there’s no real opening for a conservative person or institution to make a genuine effort to help environmentalists without turning apostate. Things are different in Denmark, but that’s true of many subjects.

Brad DeLong

Douthat responds to Leonhardt and Yglesias:

There are important lessons to be drawn from the doomsday scenarios of the 1970s, but conservatives who expect the warming trend to suddenly reverse itself have almost certainly overlearned them. I would offer two caveats, though. One is that while the economics of resource scarcity did militate in favor of conservation in a way they don’t with carbon emissions, the same wasn’t obviously true of population growth, where many serious people were convinced that the economic incentives were leading the whole world straight into a disastrous Malthusian trap. In hindsight, what we know about demographic transitions suggests otherwise — but that was much less clear in, say, 1969 or so than it is today. (Which explains, in turn, why that era was marked by various proposals and policies that effectively treated “excess” children the way cap-and-trade treats carbon emissions: As something to be regulated or taxed or otherwise coerced out out of existence.)

The second is that the Simon-Ehrlich bet that Leonhardt references took place in 1980, after more than two decades of exponential population growth and population alarmism (and, of course, various disastrous and inhumane policy experiments). So Paul Ehrlich probably thought he had a fair amount of historical evidence on his side when he made it. And if there were an equivalent bet on climate — which, to be clear, I wouldn’t make, since I expect temperatures to continue to rise — it would be taking place now, or a couple of years ago, rather than in 2000 or 1990.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, Matt Yglesias criticizes me for saying that the cap-and-trade bill’s various buy-offs and giveaways “swamp its original purpose.” It’s a good point: I should have said threaten to swamp its original purpose. We know that the buy-offs and giveaways ended up swamping the bill’s secondary purpose (raising revenue, that is), but we don’t know how they’ll effect the primary purpose of reducing emissions: That depends, among other things, on just how imperfect (or corrupt, or easily gamed) the system of “carbon offsets” ends up being. (After several years of implementation, it’s still unclear how well Europe’s emission-trading system works.) In theory, though, Yglesias is right: The legislation as passed by the House could achieve reductions in American emissions in spite of all the side deals and horse-trading. These projected reductions are woefully small in the global scheme of things (if there’s a more optimistic estimate than the one Jim Manzi cites here, please let me know), but they’re substantial in the domestic context.

Yglesias goes on to argue that Republicans are to blame for the giveaways and buy-offs anyway, because it was their intransigence that “made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats.” I’m not sure I agree with this: A world where a bloc of Republicans had come on board would probably have been a world where even more Democrats jumped ship (this was not an obviously popular piece of legislation), and you might have just ended up with a slightly different set of side-deals.

Paul Krugman at NYT:

Never say that the gods lack a sense of humor. I bet they’re still chuckling on Olympus over the decision to make the first half of 2010 — the year in which all hope of action to limit climate change died — the hottest such stretch on record.

Of course, you can’t infer trends in global temperatures from one year’s experience. But ignoring that fact has long been one of the favorite tricks of climate-change deniers: they point to an unusually warm year in the past, and say “See, the planet has been cooling, not warming, since 1998!” Actually, 2005, not 1998, was the warmest year to date — but the point is that the record-breaking temperatures we’re currently experiencing have made a nonsense argument even more nonsensical; at this point it doesn’t work even on its own terms.

But will any of the deniers say “O.K., I guess I was wrong,” and support climate action? No. And the planet will continue to cook.

So why didn’t climate-change legislation get through the Senate? Let’s talk first about what didn’t cause the failure, because there have been many attempts to blame the wrong people.

First of all, we didn’t fail to act because of legitimate doubts about the science. Every piece of valid evidence — long-term temperature averages that smooth out year-to-year fluctuations, Arctic sea ice volume, melting of glaciers, the ratio of record highs to record lows — points to a continuing, and quite possibly accelerating, rise in global temperatures.

Nor is this evidence tainted by scientific misbehavior. You’ve probably heard about the accusations leveled against climate researchers — allegations of fabricated data, the supposedly damning e-mail messages of “Climategate,” and so on. What you may not have heard, because it has received much less publicity, is that every one of these supposed scandals was eventually unmasked as a fraud concocted by opponents of climate action, then bought into by many in the news media. You don’t believe such things can happen? Think Shirley Sherrod.

Did reasonable concerns about the economic impact of climate legislation block action? No. It has always been funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, to watch conservatives who laud the limitless power and flexibility of markets turn around and insist that the economy would collapse if we were to put a price on carbon. All serious estimates suggest that we could phase in limits on greenhouse gas emissions with at most a small impact on the economy’s growth rate.

So it wasn’t the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it?

The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

But the truth is that public opinion played a major role as well. It’s not that Americans oppose action on greenhouse gas emissions — most polls show they favor it. It’s that they lack strong enough convictions to support the dislocations that any meaningful bill would impose. An AP poll, for instance, found that 59% of Americans would oppose any climate bill if it would cause their electricity bill to rise by even $10 a month. In an environment like this, opponents have a huge advantage in the battle for public opinion.

None of this is to say that a climate bill would be impossible without stronger public support. It’s the kind of issue that requires responsible elites. You would need Republicans to decide that the issue was vital and work with Democrats to craft a mutually-acceptable solution. Instead they positioned themselves to fan the flames of public opposition to any sacrifice or dislocation. The combination of a public with soft views on the issue and an opportunistic GOP made a bill impossible.

My other difference with Krugman is that I don’t think the failure of a bill means the planet will burn. I think it means that the Environmental Protection Agency will take over the issue. This isn’t ideal from an economic point of view. But it is ideal from Congress’s point of view — or, at least, the conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who hold the deciding votes in Congress. Decreasing economic efficiency by limiting carbon emissions through regulation, rather then a more efficient cap and trade bill, in order to let the Senate avoid voting on the issue is a win for Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe.

If Obama can hang tough on carbon emissions, he can force the energy industry to put real pressure on Congress to pass a climate bill. Obviously the threat is too abstract right now. But liberals need to get used to the idea that the EPA is the short-term solution and start figuring out how to make that work. the death of legislation in 2010 is not the death of a solution.

David Roberts at Grist:

With the climate bill officially dead, there’s already a trickle of “who’s to blame and what they should have done differently” pieces. I expect it will soon become a flood.

Most of these pieces will focus in the wrong places. Take Lee Wasserman’s new op-ed, “Four Ways to Kill a Climate Bill,” an instant classic of the genre. Wasserman doesn’t like the way Dems talked about the issue and he doesn’t like the policy framework they put forward, which is of course his right. But the implication of the piece is that if Dems had talked the way he wanted them to talk, and put forward the bill he wanted them to put forward, the outcome would have been different. There’s just no reason at all to think that’s true.

Expect to see all sorts of pieces arguing that better “messaging” could have saved the day, e.g., this piece on Daily Kos. Others will argue that their particular policy pony — carbon tax, or cap-and-dividend, or massive R&D money — would have been victorious. Others will argue that demonizing energy incumbents to fire up the base would have worked. Others will blame Obama for not riding to the rescue (Randy’s got a roundup of these).

All this is well-meaning, but it misses the biggest impediments. I don’t think messaging, policy design, or base mobilization are irrelevant — I’ve written plenty about all of them — but their effects were marginal relative to other structural factors. Were I doing an autopsy on the death of the bill, here are the causal factors I’d single out, listed in order of significance:

1. The broken Senate

The U.S. Senate is already an unrepresentative institution: Wyoming’s two senators each represent 272,000 people; California’s two senators each represent 18,481,000 people. On top of this undemocratic structure is a series of rules that have been abused with increasing frequency.

The main one, of course, is the default supermajority requirement that’s been imposed by abuse of the filibuster. I’ll have much more to say on this soon, but suffice to say, the supermajority requirement has perverse, deleterious consequences that extend much farther than most progressives seem to understand.

For a complex, contentious, and regionally charged issue like climate change, the supermajority requirement presents a virtually insuperable barrier to action. I don’t think we would have the climate bill of our dreams if only 51 votes were required, but I’m fairly sure something along the lines of Waxman-Markey or stronger could have made it over the finish line.

2. The economy

You may have noticed that Americans aren’t in a very good mood right now. Unemployment is high and people are suffering. Given that most people don’t follow politics very closely, or at all, that translates to anger and suspicion toward whoever’s in power (despite the fact that, yes, it’s Bush and the Republicans who are responsible for both the economic downturn and the deficit).

Yes, the left could have done a better job of framing a climate/energy bill as an economic boost — mainly by starting earlier and being much more consistent — but the fact is, the environment-vs.-economy frame has been established by a well-funded 40-year campaign on the right. It can’t be overturned in two years. The American people were just bound to be indifferent and/or suspicious of grand environmental initiatives during a time of economic pain.

Those two are the biggies

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Wait, This Article Didn’t Appear In Slate?

Michael Grunwald at Time:

President Obama has called the BP oil spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the “catastrophe along the Gulf Coast,” while CBS, Fox and MSNBC are all slapping “Disaster in the Gulf” chyrons on their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted that the spill was an “environmental catastrophe.” The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it “the leak” — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.

Well, Limbaugh has a point. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak; it’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana. (See pictures of the Gulf oil spill.)

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we’ve heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region’s fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana’s disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but so far, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year. (Comment on this story.)

The disappearance of more than 2,000 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.” (See TIME’s interactive graphic “100 Days of the BP Spill.”)

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who’s working for a spill-response contractor, says, “There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.” Van Heerden, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden’s assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I’ve ever seen that were actually black. “It comes back fast, doesn’t it?” van Heerden said.

Rich Lowry at The Corner:

I said last week that I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a major story in the mainstream press in the months ahead saying that the spill isn’t going to be as much of a disaster as advertised. And here come those stories, much sooner than I expected. First, we had the New York Times saying that the spill, at least on the surface, has gone missing. And, now, we have Time magazine reporting the environmental damage has probably been exaggerated (h/t Mike Allen’s Playbook)

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones:

In short, the story is classic man-bites-dog, knee-jerk counterintuitivism. In reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is. The federal government is still only in the early stages of a natural resources damage assessment, a process to determine the full extent of the destruction. The government hasn’t even come up with an estime of how much oil leaked into the Gulf. And BP hasn’t yet finished the relief wells, meaning the disaster isn’t over yet. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of the natural gas that has also been seeping into the Gulf remain unclear. And the article gives scant attention to the nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant applied by BP to break up the spill, which the country’s top environmental official has acknowledged is a science experiment of monumental proportions.

“The amount of oil and toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf is unprecedented, and we know the marine impacts will be massive, we simply don’t know how long it will take for the ecosystem to rebound, and how significant the decrease in productivity will be until it recovers,” says Aaron Viles, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network.

Referring to the Time article’s author, Michael Grunwald, National Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit says, “I’m not sure what boats he’s been out on. When I went out from Plaquemines Parish two weeks ago, there were oiled marshes as far as the eye could see, plus all the islands we saw were oiled. I would agree that it’s too early to say what the long-term effect of that oiling will be, but by the same token I don’t think anyone can credibly say that there will be little or no effect.”

The article mentions the 488 dead sea turtles found in the Gulf, but says “only 17 were visibly oiled.” What it doesn’t mention, however, is that nearly 80 percent of those dead turtles are Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world. “When you get to that level of peril, every individual makes a difference,” says Doug Inkley, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation who was in the Gulf last week. Nor does a turtle need to be visibly oiled to die because of it; ingesting the oil, and the oil-dispersant mix, can also be deadly. And then there are the turtles that may have been burned alive.

I have quite a bit of respect for Grunwald, whose work on the Army Corps of Engineers and Hurricane Katrina was spectacular. But if he’s going to criticize folks for making premature doomsday predictions, then he, too, shouldn’t engage in making preemptive declarations that the problem is exaggerated, either. Doing so not only lets BP off the hook, but also contributes to the already waning interest in the disaster among the American public—nothing to see here, folks, back to your regularly scheduled environmental apathy.

Tom Maguire:

The oil was light, the water warm, and the bacteria feasted.  I recall a lot of talk that comparisons to the Valdez made no sense because Prince William Sound is so much colder, but still.

Here is a Rush flashback:

“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there,” Limbaugh said. “It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”

Well, doing nothing made no political sense, and I assume all the skimming and booms accomplished something.  That said, the after-action reports will be compiled by the same people that insisted Something Be Done, so the results may not be entirely unbiased.


Rush Limbaugh has been saying the oil spill is nothing more than a little leak that has caused almost no damage. Time Magazine is backing him up saying since the news that the slick “disappearing” evidence points to the fact that the whole thing was over-hyped for ratings and fundraising by environmental groups. (Seriously.)

But perhaps “disappearing” the wrong word. The right word is “dispersing.” And there are just a few niggling issues to discuss about that


BP seems to have ably headed off the worst of the PR disaster by keeping the worst of the oil more or less off the shoreline. The actual disaster may have been made worse by the use of toxic chemicals. So it’s all good.

James Joyner:

It’s a fascinating contra-conventional wisdom story, although the bottom line seems to be not so much that the disaster was hyped but that we just don’t have the ability to forecast the effects of these incidents with great confidence.   And that nature seems to have enormously strong coping mechanisms.

Let’s hope this is right.

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