Thursday, July 15, 2010

First Half of 2010 is the Warmest on Record

June 2010 was the hottest June on record, 1.22°F above average. So was the period of April-June, 1.26°F above average. And January through June - the entire first half of 2010 - were also the hottest on record, 1.22°F above average. A trifecta!

jan-june 2010 world temperature map

Pop quiz: what do these facts, and the giant oil spill and ecosystem carnage in the Gulf of Mexico, and the environmental damage and civil unrest in the Niger Delta, among many other sordid, disturbing facts about life on Earth in the early 21st Century, have in common?

George Will, among others, would say: nothing. Nothing at all. Because he does not believe that the world is warming due to our burning of fossil fuels; indeed, he does not believe we are in a period of global warming at all, as he argued in an editorial last year. He stated there that
according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.
This assertions was factually incorrect - the WMO said no such thing - as were pretty much all of Will's assertions in the editorial. But what would make Will not only believe this assertion, but decide to broadcast it to the world from his extremely authoritative position as an editorialist for the Washington Post? Perhaps it was his interpretation of the fact that the ten warmest years on record, according to NOAA, have been, in order, 2005, 1998, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004, 2001, and 2008. Or perhaps it's just his reading of this chart:

These data points pretty strongly suggest that the world is in a period of warming, and the record for 2010 is clearly continuing the trend. But to correctly understand the data that are being represented here, you have to meet at least two sriteria: 1) Have the statistical acumen and general intelligence of at least a second-grader; and 2) Not be a disingenuous toady for the fossil fuel industry. On at least one of these points, Will has obviously failed.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Coming Heat Wave Wave

The weather where I live - a large East Coast metropolis somewhere between Bridgeport, CT and Trenton, NJ - was notably warm last week, as it was for much of the East Coast. At Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin links to a study that predicts many more such heat waves in the future.

hot seasons us global warming map

On the study:
"Using a large suite of climate model experiments, we see a clear emergence of much more intense, hot conditions in the U.S. within the next three decades," said Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford and the lead author of the study.

Writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), Diffenbaugh concluded that hot temperature extremes could become frequent events in the U.S. by 2039, posing serious risks to agriculture and human health.

"In the next 30 years, we could see an increase in heat waves like the one now occurring in the eastern United States or the kind that swept across Europe in 2003 that caused tens of thousands of fatalities," said Diffenbaugh, a center fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. "Those kinds of severe heat events also put enormous stress on major crops like corn, soybean, cotton and wine grapes, causing a significant reduction in yields"...

In the study, Diffenbaugh and Ashfaq used two dozen climate models to project what could happen in the U.S. if increased carbon dioxide emissions raised the Earth's temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) between 2010 and 2039 – a likely scenario, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

In that scenario, the mean global temperature in 30 years would be about 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) hotter than in the preindustrial era of the 1850s. Many climate scientists and policymakers have targeted a 2-degree C temperature increase as the maximum threshold beyond which the planet is likely to experience serious environmental damage. For example, in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord, the United States and more than 100 other countries agreed to consider action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius."

But that target may be too high to avoid dangerous climate change, Diffenbaugh said, noting that millions of Americans could see a sharp rise in the number of extreme temperature events before 2039, when the 2-degree threshold is expected to be reached.

"Our results suggest that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial conditions may not be sufficient to avoid serious increases in severely hot conditions," Diffenbaugh said.
The study predicts that "an intense heat wave – equal to the longest on record from 1951 to 1999 – is likely to occur as many as five times between 2020 and 2029 over areas of the western and central United States." In other words, imagine you are 60 years old or so, and think of the absolute most extreme heat wave you've experienced in your entire life.

Twenty years from now, such heat waves will be occurring once every year or two.

And needless to say, there is zero evidence that we are prepared to seriously address the problem of global warming sufficiently enough to actually achieve the 2-degree goal. This is because we are a short-sighted, greedy, and not-quite-intelligent-enough species, and the world we bequeath to future generations will be severely damaged as a result. Very likely we will go down in history as a generation of obnoxious assholes who were too enthralled with our SUVs and plastic tchotchkes to make even the most minimally adequate moral calculations about our actions.

And if you think things might change once the effects of global warming actually start showing up in earnest... well, I have my doubts. Here is Revkin quoting social scientist Robert Brulle:
I’m up in New Hampshire, and the signs of climate change are everywhere, should you choose to see them. The strawberry season has already passed (it usually comes in late July), and you can now get fresh blueberries (3 weeks ahead of normal). The lake I am staying at has lost a lot of water clarity due to an excessive amount of tannic acid. The lake had its earliest ice out this year in memory, and so the leaves had had a longer time to decompose, thus releasing more tannic acid to the water. The water looks more like what you see in the Pine Barrens than in New Hampshire. These changes are all just taken in stride. Climate change remains something abstract and far away, both in time and space. In short, these changes are being normalized.
Cloudier lakes in New Hampshire today, an inundated Bangladesh tomorrow, and everything changing at the rate of one very slowly boiling frog. This is just a very difficult sort of calamity for our species to respond to.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Company You Keep

A provocative series of maps from Esquire's politics blog depicts the countries of the world according to a couple of controversial policies:

gays military capital punishment world map

The countries that ban gays in the military, according to Esquire, are Cuba, China, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, United States, Venezuela, and Yemen

The countries that execute people are Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, China, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Korea, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe

And the countries that do both:

countries ban gays in the military and execute people

That is some pretty rarefied company for the United States: Cuba, China, Egypt, Iran, Jamaica, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, and Yemen. The US's only company in the Western hemisphere are Cuba and Jamaica. Other than that it's just a handful of countries in Africa, a handful of countries in the Muslim Middle East, and a few in East Asia. No European countries on the list. The only other developed country is Singapore.

But all this is likely to change as the gears of the military bureaucracy seem to be slowly but inexorably grinding towards repeal of Don't Ask-Don't Tell. In which case the US will join only one other country in the executes-people-but-allows-gays-in-the-military pile: Israel.

What I find most interesting here, though, is the matter of American exceptionalism. To the extent that this term refers to the tendency of the US to embrace more authoritarian-conservative policies, it turns out the US isn't all that exceptional - except within the Western World (i.e., for these purposes, Europe + Latin America + Anglophone settler countries). It joins with a geographically coherent coterie of nations in clusters across parts of Africa, the Middle East, and much of South and East Asia.

But these areas couldn't be more unlike eachother - politically, culturally, linguistically, historically, religiously, geographically... They just tend to be alike in embracing more authoritarian policies. This consistent authoritarianism just seems to be independent of any other variable. Odd. (Of course, you could also take the view that the anti-authoritarianism of Europe and Latin America and perhaps part of Africa is exceptional, and what needs explaining.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Universe

Listen, I know it may be tough to keep up with my blistering blogging pace of late, but just bear with me... Here I give you a map of everything:

planck telescope universe map

The image is from a BBC News article about mapping done by the European Space Agency's Planck Telescope:
This is the extraordinary place where we all live - the Universe.

The picture is the first full-sky image from Europe's Planck telescope which was sent into space last year to survey the "oldest light" in the cosmos.

It took the 600m-euro observatory just over six months to assemble the map.

It shows what is visible beyond the Earth to instruments that are sensitive to light at very long wavelengths - much longer than what we can sense with our eyes.

Researchers say it is a remarkable dataset that will help them understand better how the Universe came to look the way it does now.

"It's a spectacular picture; it's a thing of beauty," Dr Jan Tauber, the European Space Agency's (Esa) Planck project scientist, told BBC News.

Dominating the foreground are large segments of our Milky Way Galaxy.

The bright horizontal line running the full length of the image is the galaxy's main disc - the plane in which the Sun and the Earth also reside.
One book I'm currently reading is Edward Casey's Getting Back into Place, which discusses the nature of place from a philosophical perspective. One of the book's themes is that our lived experience 1) always occurs in discrete places (as opposed to abstract space, for instance) and 2) our understanding of, or feel for, place is inherently a function of embodied experience. That is, it is only by virtue of being embodied beings that we understand places in the way we do. (To give one example, the verticality of certain buildings - think of the soaring cathedrals of Europe - evoke the natural verticality of the human form, and so we experience such buildings as inherently dignified, aspirational, and literally uplifting.) (Yes, I know that is a little broad and might sound vague or just weird. There's just no way to really do much more than gesture broadly like this. But check out the book if you're intrigued by this kind of stuff.)

And of course, one of the places we all share, and a place we are always in, is the universe. But what's odd about this place (well, among other things) - or in particular, what's odd about our experience of this place, is that it seems to totally baffle our intuitions as embodied beings. The scale is just so vast, it's literally incomprehensible. I mean, I can sort of imagine myself circumnavigating the globe. In fact, I have flown clear to the other side of the world. Which seemed like a very far way to go, but it was nonetheless a scale to which I could (barely) relate my own body: I can sort of imagine the world divided up into chunks on the scale of like a landscape that I might behold from a ridge, say, and thereby imagine the whole as constituted of so many chunks. Does that make sense?

Okay. But the universe is just so obviously beyond that scale. We can't imagine what a light-year is - we can't relate it to the scale of our sensory experiences in the way I just tried to do with the Earth as a whole (which was already pushing it). And it's 4 light-years to the nearest star. And the numbers! Are there 100 billion stars in the universe? 50 quadrillion? It really doesn't matter, because again, the numbers are so far beyond anything we can imagine in terms of our embodied experience that they are just meaningless. We hear numbers like this and we just think: really big number. We don't comprehend them in the way we can comprehend "3" or "8" or "100" or even "10,000."

Anyways, what's great about the map above (and the accompanying BBC video might help you to "read" it) is that it represents this greatest possible whole, the universe itself, in a way that makes it sort of comprehensible. Of course, the scale of the universe reamins beyond the ken of our intuitions as embodied beings. But this representation at least helps us to imagine the whole - to take it in, in a sense, like we would a landscape. And this must be to the good: this place is our home, after all. We ought to get to know it as well as we can.