Posted by Big Gav
The SMH reports that carbon dioxide is eating the planet.
The global level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has alarmed scientists by growing strongly for the last four years in a row. "That's unprecedented," said Paul Fraser, chief research scientist at the CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research division.
Describing the trend as "a clear manifestation" of the world's increasing hunger for fossil fuels, Dr Fraser said: "We are in line for the carbon dioxide future that we hope to avoid, a one-to-three degree rise in temperatures over the next century."
Last year carbon dioxide levels grew by two parts per million, or 0.54 per cent, twice the rate of the early 1980s. Atmospheric nitrous oxide, produced by fertilisers and land clearing, also soared last year, rising one part per billion, or 0.3 per cent.
And artificial greenhouse gases, including hydrofluoro-carbons, introduced during the 1990s to replace chlorofluorocarbons, set a growth record, up seven parts per trillion, a 5.3 per cent increase.
The CSIRO said 2005 "was a record for increases in green-house gas heating, the main driver of increasing surface temperatures". Dr Fraser said that with carbon dioxide emissions, "normally we have one or two years of high growth, followed by one or two years of lower growth". This comes from the oceans and the biosphere - including trees and plants - soaking up enough of the gas to take the edge off increases.
However, sampling by the Bureau of Meteorology in Tasmania showed the normal pattern of higher and lower growth rates, called modulation, had failed to appear in the last four years. Instead, annual carbon dioxide increases had been consistently above average. "That's a surprise," said Dr Fraser, adding it would be extraordinary if the modulating effect of the oceans and the biosphere failed to kick in this year. However, the environment's ability to absorb the gas could eventually be overwhelmed. The only solution was "emitting less carbon dioxide", he said.
For those who don't understand what is happening (George, Johnny, Dick - stop fighting with those other kids and pay attention !), Jonathan at Past Peak explains the concept of "Big-System Hysteresis".
I've just started reading Elizabeth Kolbert's global warming book Field Notes From a Catastrophe (excellent so far), and I came across this arresting passage:The effect of adding CO2 to the atmosphere is to throw the earth out of "energy balance." In order for the balance to be restored — as, according to the laws of physics, it eventually must be — the entire planet has to heat up, including the oceans, a process, [a panel of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences] noted, that could take "several decades." Thus, what might seem like the most conservative approach — waiting for evidence of warming to make sure the models were accurate — actually amounted to the riskiest possible strategy: "We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable."
The fundamental problem is the scale of the Earth's global climate system. Because it's huge, it moves slowly. It has built-in time lags — what scientists and engineers call hysteresis — that mean that by the time global warming effects become pronounced the system is already in a critical phase. Effects are delayed, but when they begin, the transition to a new equilibrium is likely to be quite sudden. This is especially true of the climate system because of the suddenness of phase changes — e.g., ice to water.
The BBC reports that global warming is set to (further) devastate coral.
Rising ocean temperatures look set to cause lasting devastation to coral reef systems, a study suggests.
An international team of researchers looked at reefs in the Seychelles, where an ocean warming event in 1998 killed much of the live coral. The group found the oceanic reef had experienced fish extinctions, algal growth, and only limited recovery. Details have been published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The 1998 event saw Indian Ocean surface temperatures rise to unprecedented levels, killing off - or "bleaching" - more than 90% of the inner Seychelles coral. Coral bleaching has been described as a vivid demonstration of climate change in action.
"[Bleaching events] are becoming more frequent and are predicted to become more severe in coming decades. They are directly linked to increases in sea surface temperatures," said lead author Nick Graham, of the University of Newcastle, UK.
Grist has a post on the hot new spring break destination of the future - the arctic.
If you've been planning a trip to the Arctic, better buy your tickets now, because it's a-meltin' fast. (Perhaps you've heard?) A record low amount of ocean froze over this winter -- a reduction of over 115,000 square miles of sea ice from last year. Researcher Walt Meier of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center says there is "a good chance" that the Arctic has reached a tipping point: ice decline has accelerated since 2003, and if the trend continues, the Arctic could be ice-free by 2030. The U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California plans to publish computer simulations showing that in summertime the Arctic could be ice-free within a decade. Loss of ice could have a huge impact on Arctic animals like polar bears (not to mention Santa Claus). Said Meier, "If we are heading for an ice-free Arctic, it's a really dramatic change and something that is unprecedented almost within the entire record of human species." Eek.
Sydney Peak Oil points to NSW Greens MLC Ian Cohen's latest peak oil speech in parliament.
In November last year I made a speech on peak oil. I wish to return to this issue. Honourable members should be well aware of the concept. Peak oil refers to the point at which 50 per cent of any given oil reserve has been depleted. It can refer to a single oil well or the entire planet's oil supply, but this 50 per cent figure is significant because as the amount of oil decreases, so does the rate at which the oil can be extracted. Essentially it is like scooping water out of a bucket – easier to do when it is two-thirds full than when it is one-third full. Essentially once peak oil occurs, our rate of supply gets slower. The obvious economic result is that a dwindling supply will result in significantly increased prices unless accompanied by a parallel reduction in demand. If demand increases or continues as is, the average family will soon be unable to afford to run their car on petrol, especially as increasing fuel costs will lead to price rises in other areas as well.
The issue of oil supply is out of our control: the issue of demand is not. This requires our most urgent attention. There is conjecture as to exactly when the world's oil supply will have reached the peak oil point, but most analysts predict that it will be in the next five to 10 years, if it has not happened already. It is not a point at which a great announcement will be made, or trumpets will sound. Its effects will slowly and increasingly take hold. By the time they become dire, it will be too late to do anything about it. We should realistically have been looking at alternative sources of transport and energy at least a decade or so ago. Some areas of government have made small attempts to address this issue, but what we have done so far amounts to little more than rearranging the proverbial deckchairs on the Titanic. We have had plenty of warning and failure to act would be reprehensible.
Obviously, transport is responsible for much of society's oil consumption, but oil is far more pervasive than that. It is used in many manufacturing processes and as a raw material in many items, including pesticides and herbicides. All families will suffer financial hardship, but farming families will suffer more than most, and I would especially encourage members representing rural electorates to carefully consider their response to this issue. To that end, it is crucial that the solutions we come up with are effective and long term. We must reject fossil fuels outright. We must also reject stopgap options such as ethanol. We must be wary of ethanol as a fuel in its own right. It is less energy efficient than petroleum. Also, crops that are grown to produce it could otherwise be producing food.
By being primarily useful only as an additive, ethanol effectively exacerbates the problem by prolonging our dependence on oil. In addition, ethanol also has a number of negative environmental impacts in its own right. Research by Tad Patzek of the University of California clearly shows that the fossil fuel input to ethanol exceeds by a wide margin its energy content. It is false to call ethanol a renewable fuel. The crops from which it is derived are energy intensive and erode soil much faster than they can rejuvenate it. The same research shows that even inefficient solar cells produce more than 100 times the electricity produced by ethanol. We need to be looking at renewable sources of energy...
There was an interesting (albeit a bit sophomoric at times) discussion at Jeff Vail's blog about the EROEI of solar PV panels. Jeff is (a little surprisingly to me) not a fan of PV at all it seems - unfortunately his argumentative (and tinfoil capped) opponent doesn't put up a very good line of reasoning, so its hard to get a good sense of where the boundary lies for a positive energy payback on an investment in PV. Personally I find it hard to believe there isn't a long term pay off, and I also have a lot of hope for thin film PV technology (not to mention lower tech and higher EROEI solar alternatives like stirling engines and concentrator type approaches).
I agree completely that "All the EROEI information one needs is contained in the input prices compared with the value of the output of the Total System." But rather than just throwing that out there and assuming that it supports your point, let's actually do the analysis (which is what us Bachelor of Science types do). Turns out it proves you wrong:
Take a look at Kyocera's top-of-the-line 120watt PV panel:
It costs $685, but just to be really, really lenient, let's cut that to $300 (WELL below wholesale).
That cost includes the market's estimation of the total energy embodied in the product--to include the energy of the raw materials extraction, the transportation energy, the energy to support the humans involved in the chain all the way along, etc.
Now a 120W panel will, over a very GENEROUS 2000 hours of maximum solar power through the year, provide about 240,000W-hours, or 240kilowatt hours of electricity.
Nationwide, electicity averages $0.04/kilowatt hour (KWH). So that PV panel's whopping 240 KWHs has a market value of $9.60. That means that it will take 31 years to produce enough electricity to pay for itself, and that is NOT including the time value of money, nor the cost of any of the battery, converter, etc. required to make such a system work. Batteries alone--which are far less long-lived than PV--will double this payback time. And this is with very generous assumptions--in reality, the situation is probably 2-4 times worse.
So what does this mean? By your own suggestion to use price as an EROEI indicator, solar PV has an EROEI of somewhere between 0.25 and 0.5. Not very impressive.
Now, is there a role for PV in our future? Certainly--those applications that require ELECTICITY to function, mainly communication related, will continue to work off of some kind of PV/Wind/Hydro composite. But beyond a cell phone and a laptop (both low-powered DC appliances), electricity is a very poor format for energy. Other sources are far better at providing the real energy needs of our society: heat, propulsion, etc.
Clean Break has a post on "Crossing the $1 per watt barrier" for solar energy.
Tom Astle from National Bank Financial has put out a "solar for dummies" report that I found quite useful as a summary of how solar PV works, the economics, who are the players, and where the market is heading.
One interesting comment: "If the solar market continues to grow at more than 20 per cent and the benefits from volume continue to be found, it is predicted that the cost of solar module power could drop below $1/Watt within the next 15 to 20 years." Then in brackets, Astle adds: "We think it could be sooner."
He cites current prices being $3 to 3.50 per Watt. He said if the modules fell to $1/Watt and you assumed another $1/Watt for balance of plant and installation, "solar power could become cost competitive with baseload generation at $0.10/kWhr or less." That, against the backdrop of rising fossil fuel prices, looks pretty damn encouraging.
Astle, who I remember from his days of providing analyst coverage for the telecom sector (and that sick puppy Nortel), also predicts some major industry consolidation come 2008. "According to our estimates, the capacity of solar producers is set to increase well in excess of silicon supply. Once that silicon supply bottleneck is fixed in 2008, we can expect a price war for solar modules and solar cells," he writes. "We suspect that industry players have two years to get it right before competitive pressure mounts. Investors should watch this closely."
WorldChanging has a post on green cities of the future - "Why Density is Green, Closed-Loop Cities".
CSM writer Patrick Chisholm lays out the basics of the argument that compact cities are green cities, in clear, precise terms:A few years ago the extremist group the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a $50 million arson that destroyed a five-story apartment building under construction in San Diego. If the group was trying to make a statement about helping the environment, it was a dumb move. High-rise residential buildings enable hundreds of people to live on only a couple of acres of land. That frees up lots of extra space for animals, forests, and other natural habitat.
Hundreds of people living in single-family homes, by contrast, require dozens of acres of land. Apart from squirrels and birds and the like, the natural habitat of animals is destroyed or disrupted. ...
The United States is expected to expand by about 100 million people over the next 40 years. It potentially means consuming millions of acres of additional open space in order to accommodate them all. But that could be remedied if we build up, rather than out.
Meanwhile, the Cascadia Region Green Building Council is sponsoring a terrific design competition, Closing the Loop:Current design, construction and manufacturing processes are based on a linear system, from production, to use, to waste; we build disposable buildings and products. We pump energy in, CO2 out. We pipe water in, sewage out. Construction consumes 40% of materials produced, and accounts for 40% of our waste stream. Of materials used to create products, 6% ends up as the product itself, and 94% ends up as waste material and 80% of all products produced end up in a landfill within 6 weeks. Additionally, the majority of environmental impacts are locked into design before the pencil touches the paper.... Because a building or community can only be as sustainable as its components, the competition focuses on elements and systems in the built environment.
The criteria for the competition are practically a stroll through the most exciting developments in bright green cities. That's excellent, because mere density alone is not enough -- we need density-plus: density plus livability, say, or in this case, density plus greatly more sustainable systems, systems which include ideas like design for disassembly (or even active disassembly), zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle and closed loop systems, life-cycle thinking, product-service systems, and the whole sustainable design ball of wax.
Bruce Schneier notes that Mothers Day is the NSA's favourite day (lots of jokes in the comments too).
This is the line that's done best for me on the radio: "The NSA would like to remind everyone to call their mothers this Sunday. They need to calibrate their system."
A pithy post from Dave Winer on the changing media landscape:
Mark Cuban: "99 percent of blogs are about what someone has to say. 99 percent of traditional media is about making money.
Billmon is in good form again lately (he too has observed the changing media world - though we shouldn't forget that parts of the MSM provide much of the grist for our mills, as it were), taking a couple of looks at the NSA surveillence scandal. First "Leviathan", which also veers down the path discussed recently in "The Predatory State".
I’m certainly no technical expert, but I find it really hard to believe that collecting such a staggering horde – 2 trillion call records since 2001 – will yield useful intelligence about a relatively small and increasingly amorphous newtork of clandestine operatives who by now have almost certainly learned not to use the phones. We’ve already had FBI agents complain about being bombarded with false leads, and now experts in the very kind of network analysis the NSA program is supposed to be doing are saying the same thing:"If you're looking for a needle, making the haystack bigger is counterintuitive. It just doesn't make sense."
However, it definitely doesn’t take much imagination to see how handy a database like that could be to a bunch of would-be police state captains – for everything from political dirty tricks to tracing the phone calls of suspected whistleblowers and reporters. In fact, it doesn’t take any imagination at all, not when the RNC, the Justice Department and the CIA are already doing just those things.
But phone records, of course, are just the electronic frosting on Big Brother’s birthday cake. The NSC program is simply one of a horde of data mining organisms cloned from Admiral Poindexter’s original Total (as in totalitarian) Information Awareness program, which predates 9/11. To protect the program from Congress’s feeble attempts to kill it, Rumsfeld apparently broke it down and shipped the pieces to other provinces in his empire, with the NSC (not surprisingly) inheriting the core functions. (When Rumsfeld jotted down that note on 9/11, reminding himself to “sweep it all up; things related and not,” we should have realized he was speaking literally.)
William Arkin has posted a list on his Washingtonpost.com blog of some 500 different DoD data mining packages, which appear to cover everything -- financial records, medical records, e-mail headers, fingerprints, insurance investigation files, news reports, and God knows what else.
Some of these data sources are in the public record, and many of the tools listed are standard commercial packages. But when you add it all up -- in its Totality, so to speak – you can see the Pentagon is amassing an internal surveillance capability that could, if put through all its paces, outclass anything the old Soviet Union ever brought to bear on its own citizens – at least in terms of the ability to aggregate and analyze vast amounts of personal data very quickly. It may not be quite as good as putting two-way telescreens in every living room (or bedroom) but this warning, from the IT journal Ars Technica, does not sound implausibly paranoid:
The NSA has the tools and the will to compile a shockingly thorough profile of the communications and habits of every American citizen, not at some point in the future, but right now. Go back and read everything you can on Poindexter's TIA, and know that it is now a reality and has been for some time.
Again, this is alarming not because – or at least, not just because – it’s part of a deliberate conspiracy to turn the United States into a high-tech police state, but because it reflects some powerful, built-in trends that are driving the national security Leviathan in that very direction. These include, roughly in ascending order of importance:
* The U.S. intelligence community’s traditional faith in technology as the all-purpose solution to its obvious deficiencies in human intelligence gathering.
* The even more long-standing tradition – at work since the first Europeans arrived on the continent – of substituting cheap capital (processor chips) for expensive labor (spooks.)
* The economic need to stuff the giant, gaping maw of the defense industry with IT contracts, and the willingness of guys like Brent Wilkes to hand out poker chips and pussy in order to obtain same.
* The complete lack of any countervailing force in American politics, to the point where it is no longer possible to imagine any president – much less a retired general – standing up to warn his fellow citizens about the growing power of the military-industrial complex.
* The replication of the behavior and values of that same complex throughout corporate America and in American society as a whole.
On the Job Training
That last bullet point strikes me as the most important in many ways. It’s one possible explanation for why popular opinion remains so blasé about the NSA’s Orwellian strip tease act – even though at some point soon it could reveal some really naughty bits. The millions of Americans, like yours truly, who work in the corporate or public sector white collar world have already grown accustomed to a loss of personal privacy and a degree of social control that make Pentagon data mining look like an ACLU fundraising dinner.
We know our phone calls and emails may be and often are monitored, that company net nannies will stop us from visiting certain web sites (and not just porn pages: I’ve been blocked out of labor union sites, progressive political sites – even that notoriously subversive left-wing web magazine, Slate.) We know that if we say the wrong thing to a company snitch it could be reported to our supervisors, that those reports could end up in our personnel files, and that really serious thought crimes could cost us our jobs. We know the security cameras may record when we walk in the door and when we leave. We know we can’t make certain jokes or raise certain topics because they might be construed as sexual harassment. We know how to smile and feign enthusiasm when the pointy-haired boss has a really dumb idea. We know what a cult of personality looks like, because it looks like our CEO.
Blue collar workers, of course, have always had their own authoritarian regimes to contend with -- tougher in some ways (I’ve worked under both) but easier in others. At least most shops don’t expect the rank and file to act like the smiling idiots in the latest corporate training film (not unless the Total Quality Management gurus have seized power.) But in cubicle world it’s Outer Party rules all the way – even if the cafeteria food and the Victory gin are both better.
It’s true that however bad it may be, the corporate workplace is only an 8-hour police state, one you can tunnel free of every night. But it is a training ground of sorts, a place where habits of thought and social roles are acquired and reinforced – patterns that are then reflected in the popular culture. The lesson learned is submission to authority, or at least the passive acceptance of hierarchical relationships. It teaches people to be good bureaucrats, and good bureaucrats understand that if the organization is tapping phones – or infecting test subjects with syphilis or dumping toxic waste in rivers or shipping undesirable people off to concentration camps – it must have a good reason.
Next from Billmon, a trip back to Watergate with "Plumber's Helper".
Earlier I referred to the ongoing revelations about the Cheney administration's domestic spying operations as an Orwellian strip tease act, and now it looks like the panties are finally coming off:senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.
"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.
ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.
Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.
It appears the "terrorist surveillance program" has undergone a bit of mission creep. And it's not Ross who needs a bunch of disposable cellphones -- Big Brother already knows who he is -- but his sources.
That "creep" reference was actually a lame attempt at a pun. Watergate buffs probably recall the origin and history of the original Plumbers Unit, created by the Nixon White House in 1971 to track down (and punish) Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. (I know this is all may be Greek to a lot of Gen-Xers, but bear with me here.)
And on to the last one from Billmon - this time on those troublesome Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that got lost somewhere along the way - must have fallen down an oil well...
I'd call them crooks and liars, but that brand name is already taken:A year after Bush administration claims about Iraqi ''bioweapons trailers'' were discredited by American experts, U.S. officials were still suppressing the findings, according to a senior member of the CIA-led inspection team.
At one point, former U.N. arms inspector Rod Barton says, a CIA officer told him it was ''politically not possible'' to report that the White House claims were untrue. In the end, Barton says, he felt ''complicit in deceit.''
This is hardly the first time the Cheney Adminstration's culpability -- not to mention legal liability -- in the case of the mythical mobile bioweapons labs has been aired in public. The secret findings of the secret inspection by a secret team from the secretive Defense Intelligence Agency were reported in the Washington Post last month:A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq . . . had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement.
Time to take the wayback machine out for a spin:We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories. You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said, Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons. They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two."
George W. Bush
Interview with TVP Poland
May 29, 2003We have teams of people that are out looking. They've investigated a number of sites. And within the last week or two, they have in fact captured and have in custody two of the mobile trailers that Secretary Powell talked about at the United Nations as being biological weapons laboratories."
Infinity Radio Interview
May 31, 2003But let's remember what we've already found. Secretary Powell on February 5th talked about a mobile, biological weapons capability. That has now been found and this is a weapons laboratory trailers capable of making a lot of agent that -- dry agent, dry biological agent that can kill a lot of people. So we are finding these pieces that were described."
June 3, 2003"I would put before you Exhibit A, the mobile biological labs that we have found. People are saying, 'Well, are they truly mobile biological labs?' Yes, they are. And the DCI, George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence, stands behind that assessment.
Fox News Interview
June 8, 2003"We know for example that prior to our going in that he had spent time and effort acquiring mobile biological weapons labs, and we're quite confident he did, in fact, have such a program. We've found a couple of semi trailers at this point which we believe were, in fact, part of that program."
Interview with NPR
January 22, 2004
I realize that at this point I'm kind of beating a dead horse -- or a dying administration's dead crediblity, as the case may be. But I think it's important to keep wailing away, particularly since Big Media seems perfectly content to let them do it again.
On one count, though -- whether Shrub knew at the time that his babbling lies about the Flaming Winnebagos of Death were, in fact, lies -- I actually tend to believe the White House spin. I don't think he had a single clue one way or the other, as this report in Time (from that time) indicates...
While the rapidly growing police state's Stasi like obsession with building a database containing a record of the minutiae of all human activity and communication is thoroughly depressing (unless you're hoping they're going to provide a service to help you find that old email you just can't locate any more), one information accumulation exercise with a more positive outcome is the digitisation of the world's library collections - a virtual library of Alexandria (via WorldChanging).
Worldchanging ally (and book contributing writer) Kevin Kelly has a terrific piece in this week's NYT magazine about the implications of the digitization of the world's libraries' collections, why copyright as currently enforced is crazy and why the business model for creative industries is bound to change:
"This is a very big library. But because of digital technology, you'll be able to reach inside it from almost any device that sports a screen. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have "published" at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow's technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet — if it doesn't plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what's taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.)'
And to close, a link from Kevin Kelly's "Cool Tools" site on the "Xtracycle".
This kit transforms a regular bike into an SUB (sports utility bike) by extending back the rear wheel and adding a seat and baggage platform. I've had my SUB for two years now. I find it makes owning a car completely unnecessary! I've transported my folding kayak on it. I've taken my girlfriend and her Australian Blue Heeler on it. I've moved furniture. It's crazy how stable it is. In many ways I prefer how it handles to my regular bike! And for giving people tours around NYC people just LOVE it.