Of Rodents And Men  

Posted by Big Gav

It appears that bubonic plague may be making a re-appearance, courtesy of global warming.

Climatic changes could lead to more outbreaks of bubonic plague among human populations, a study suggests. Researchers found that the bacterium that caused the deadly disease became more widespread following warmer springs and wetter summers.

The disease occurs naturally in many parts of the world, and the team hopes its findings will help officials limit the risk of future outbreaks. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis is believed to have triggered the Black Death that killed more than 20 million people in the Middle Ages.

Bill McKibben has an elegant article on the plight of the honey bee in Orion magazine.
Honey is their fuel—a bee gets about 7 million flight miles to the gallon.

Bees pollinate more than ninety fruit, vegetable, nut, and seed crops—a third of the human diet in many countries.

And this, for budding writers: along with providing propolis (once employed in the varnishes that gave the great violins of antiquity their tone), beeswax (useful for candles), and honey (which tastes good), bees are a valuable source of metaphors. I mean, they are busy, they form hierarchies, they have division of labor, and despite their association with sweetness they sting. (See also: thorn on rosebush.) Bees also give each other directions by dancing, which is of less use for metaphor, in that you’d be hard-pressed to do it yourself.

But honeybees live their lives next to ours, and have ever since they were first domesticated about seven thousand years ago. And so when things go askew with our society, those problems can cross, quite literally, into the hive. Consider, for instance, the varroa mite, a microscopic parasite that can devastate a bee colony. It was, for many years, confined to regions of the world where it had long coevolved with bees, allowing them to develop a certain resistance. In the twentieth century it began to spread around the globe, however, and in the 1980s it got to Florida —no one knows quite how, but when every commodity on Earth is traded far and wide every day, such things happen. From there it infested hives the length and the breadth of the country, including those that were also being taken over by nasty hybridized African bees released by accident by Brazilian researchers. But that’s another story. Anyway, the varroa mites, following on the heels (perhaps not a very apt mite metaphor) of the less devastating but equally exotic tracheal mites, decimated all kinds of beehives, and threatened all kinds of crops. This spring almond growers in California were flying in beehives from Australia to service their $5 billion harvest. The National Academy of Sciences is apparently considering adding honeybees to the endangered species list. It is, more or less, a disaster of the kind that we’re becoming all too used to.


Kirk Webster’s secret—the way that he’s managed to produce hives that can now withstand the varroa mite—is to do pretty much what the mites did when faced with Apistan. He helps the few survivors meet each other, and through their interbreeding and the careful introduction of bees with natural resistance from other countries, he manages to produce hives with winter survival rates of 70 percent or greater. Even if some good organic controls emerge, he says, he probably wouldn’t use them. He claims his “varroa mites are much more valuable to me alive than dead,” helping cull the weakest bees.

Big beekeepers might have trouble emulating his approach because it’s labor-intensive. The whole point of American agriculture for the last century, after all, has been to produce more with fewer people, a process that has progressed about as far as it’s possible to imagine. And the rest of us will have trouble emulating his approach in our own lives, and in our civic life together—we’re as addicted to the quick fix, the stopgap, the shortcut as it’s possible to get. Fossil fuel, for instance, is the ultimate cure-all for us, solving every problem cheaply and easily. Our own CheckMite. Except that we’re going to raise the planet’s temperature five degrees this century unless we figure out how to do without it.

What Webster makes clear is that we’ve taken the wrong lesson entirely from the hive, picked the wrong metaphor. It’s industrious, like we are. But, with a little gentle help from beekeepers who understand how to undo some of our earlier mistakes, it’s also beautifully in balance. And that’s its real secret.

Also at Orion, a three part interview with Peter Matthiessen on "Our political environent" and an excellent summary of the debate over wind power called "Whither Wind" by Charles Komanoff (by and large I think its past time for any more debating the benefits of wind farms - the more wind power the better - it will take a lot of wind farm construction before the trade offs start to become relevant and we aren't any where near that point yet).
FIGHTING FOSSIL FUELS, and machines powered by them, has been my life's work. In 1971, shortly after getting my first taste of canyon country, I took a job crunching numbers for what was then a landmark exposé of U.S. power plant pollution, The Price of Power. The subject matter was drier than dust—emissions data, reams of it, printed out on endless strips of paper by a mainframe computer. Dull stuff, but nightmarish visions of coal-fired smokestacks smudging the crystal skies of the Four Corners kept me working 'round the clock, month after month.

A decade later, as a New York City bicycle commuter fed up with the oil-fueled mayhem on the streets, I began working with the local bicycle advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, and we soon made our city a hotbed of urban American anti-car activism. The '90s and now the '00s have brought other battles—"greening" Manhattan tenement buildings through energy efficiency and documenting the infernal "noise costs" of Jet Skis, to name two—but I'm still fighting the same fight.

Why? Partly it's knowing the damage caused by the mining and burning of fossil fuels. And there's also the sheer awfulness of machines gone wild, their groaning, stinking combustion engines invading every corner of life. But now the stakes are immeasurably higher. As an energy analyst, I can tell you that the science on global warming is terrifyingly clear: to have even a shot at fending off climate catastrophe, the world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fuel burning by at least 50 percent within the next few decades. If poor countries are to have any room to develop, the United States, the biggest emitter by far, needs to cut back by 75 percent.

Although automobiles, with their appetite for petroleum, may seem like the main culprit, the number one climate change agent in the U.S. is actually electricity. The most recent inventory of U.S. greenhouse gases found that power generation was responsible for a whopping 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Yet the electricity sector may also be the least complicated to make carbon free. Approximately three-fourths of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal, oil, or natural gas. Accordingly, switching that same portion of U.S. electricity generation to nonpolluting sources such as wind turbines, while simultaneously ensuring that our ever-expanding arrays of lights, computers, and appliances are increasingly energy efficient, would eliminate 38 percent of the country's CO2 emissions and bring us halfway to the goal of cutting emissions by 75 percent.

To achieve that power switch entirely through wind power, I calculate, would require 400,000 windmills rated at 2.5 megawatts each. To be sure, this is a hypothetical figure, since it ignores such real-world issues as limits on power transmission and the intermittency of wind, but it's a useful benchmark just the same.

What would that entail?

The ABC's Lateline program had some interesting global warming related interviews this week - first some wise words from Ross Gelbspan on the global warming denial industry, then Queensland Premier Peter Beattie making all sorts of pathetic excuses on behalf of the local coal industry, which has the east coast state governments in its pocket it would seem.
TONY JONES: Indeed. In the story we've just seen the local scientist Jonathan Nott who's an expert in extreme climate events has been sort of a lone voice in that city of Cairns for a long time. He's been making this argument that terrible things could happen. People thought he was crazy and now they're starting to listen to him.

ROSS GELBSPAN: I'm glad people are starting to listen. It's interesting that since global warming really was established by the scientific community in the early '90s its first consequence is more extreme weather and that's been universally agreed upon, as the atmosphere warms we have more frequent heatwaves, we have more intense downpours, we get much more of our rain and snow in these severe downpours. We have more protracted droughts and much more intense storms and that's the first earmark of global warming, basically.

TONY JONES: Can I ask how you got deeply involved in this issue? You're not an environmentalist, are you? You've written you don't love trees, you tolerate them.

ROSS GELBSPAN: That's right. I really didn't get into this issue because of a love of nature. I personally got into this having been an investigative reporter because I found out that the coal industry was paying a handful of scientists in the US to say climate change isn't happening and I said, "If there's this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?" There went the next 10 years of my life. But basically you're right, the impulse that propelled me into this work has nothing to do with a love of nature. It really comes from a deeply-held belief upon which I based a 30-year career as a journalist that in a democracy we need honest information and in this case I found that very large interests were stealing our reality and I think, and I know in my bones from all my experience that really bodes very badly for the democracy. And as we've learned since it also bodes very badly for the planet.

TONY JONES: In fact, you've said, you've written, that the world was effectively blindsided by the pace of climate change. And I'm wondering if you actually believe that was a deliberate policy?

ROSS GELBSPAN: No, I don't believe it was a deliberate policy. I think there has been this resistance, but I also think that the scientific community in no way expected this to happen as quickly as it has. As you've said we've been blindsided by the speed with which this has taken place. Global warming wasn't even on the radar screen in the US until 1988, that's when the governments of the world formed the inter-governmentalpanel on global warming change. It's when we went before Congress to say global warming is at hand. A mere 18 years later we're being told we're either at, or beyond or approaching the point of no return. And that is way more quick, way more rapid than any of the scientists anticipated. Dr Paul Epstein at Harvard University said to me recently, we are seeing impacts now that we did not project to occur until 2085.

TONY JONES: Indeed the parameters of the debate have changed rapidly, too. It's not so long ago that the big coal-producing nations like Australia and the US refused to accept the idea of climate change. Now they both do in their official policy. The interesting thing is they have very different solutions. They have coal or fossil fuel solutions that they're putting forward to fix these problems. This is happening in Australia. The Australian Government believes it's possible to have cleaner coal, and also to have carbon sequestration. In other words, pump the carbon gas underground from these coal stations. Where do you see these technologies going?

ROSS GELBSPAN: Basically I see them as a real attempt to keep alive the fossil fuel component of our energy diet and I feel that's extremely wrong-headed and extremely destructive. First of all, you cannot clean the carbon out of fuel, you can clean the low-level air pollutants out of coal, but not take the carbon out of coal, otherwise it wouldn't burn. In terms of sequestration where you draw the carbon dioxide from power plants and try to bury it under ground, essentially I see that as a public works employment for companies like Bektel and Halliburton. But on a substantive basis there's no evidence that the carbon dioxide will stay down there and there is new evidence that the carbon dioxide once it's pumped into these receptacle areas underground produces toxic chemicals that erodes the limestone and sandstone that's supposed to be capturing it. It really strikes me as a way of avoiding what we need to do which is make a rapid transition to clean energy, to wind and solar and tidal and wave power and eventually to hydrogen and this is essentially an effort by the fossil fuel industry to stave off that inevitable transition.

Carbon Sink has been following the local debate over global warming and how to deal with it - recent posts on the topic include a less than impressed look at Peter Beattie on Lateline, Some scary global warming graphs, Ian Macfarlane is dangerous fool, and must be stopped and You gotta love Mungo.
Mungo MacCallum critiques the Howard government's petrol-pricing policy (reproduced in full from the Byron Shire Echo):
Once more John Howard’s opportunism, mendacity and humbuggery have come back to haunt him.

As petrol prices rise inexorably towards the $1.50 a litre mark and the public anger grows, our Dear Leader pleads for understanding: it’s all a matter of supply and demand, it’s because China’s demand for energy is insatiable, it’s because of hurricanes in America and instability in the Middle East (though not, of course, his war in Iraq), it’s an international problem and he’s really, truly, honestly not to blame.

He’d just love to bring the cost to the motorist down, he recognises it as his greatest problem, but there’s absolutely nothing he can do, fair dinkum cross my heart.

And people just don’t believe him. They don’t believe him because they know if they carry on loudly enough and for long enough that Howard will make the price come down, and the reason they know this is because it has all happened before. When the price rose at the beginning of 2001 there was a huge outcry, and the government, already somewhat spooked by unfavourable opinion polls, went into a flat panic. Not only did the bush receive a veritable cornucopia of fuel subsidies ranging from the easily rortable through the utterly inequitable to the frankly unworkable, but Howard knocked a sizeable chunk off federal government excise and abandoned the indexation of excise altogether.

This sent a firm signal to the industry that petrol was king and would continue to be king until it ran out altogether: there was to be no serious attempt to ration an increasingly scarce resource through the use of the market, and the search for alternatives was to be seen as an unnecessary frippery.

And if the message didn’t get through in 2001 it was heavily reinforced three years later when Howard offered a pre-election bribe of another $1.5 billion in subsidies both to off-road farm vehicles and to long-haul transport, a policy which became abbreviated as Cheap Diesel for Big Trucks. Just fill up at the nearest pump and don’t worry about the cost; the government will look after it.

But although the main beneficiaries of this squandermania were the farmers and the truckies, the message was clear to all motorists – indeed, to all consumers: if you just make enough fuss, if you hold your breath till you turn blue in the face and then scream and scream and scream till you’re sick, Johnny will buy you an ice cream. He’ll keep telling you no, but he doesn’t really mean it.

The problem is that this time he does mean it; he really has to. He simply can’t afford to lose any more of the excise; as he himself has pointed out, to cut the excise by even ten cents a litre would cost the budget around $4 billion a year and with the price of petrol likely to keep rising it would do very little political good. There are more profitable ways of spending $4 billion in the lead up to an election year (extra funds for political junk mail, for instance) and there have to be cheaper ways to divert the public’s attention.

It is probably too late to try and educate them to the fact that Australia has cheaper petrol than almost anywhere outside the United States and the middle east itself, or to tell them that they were silly to buy that huge four wheel drive gas guzzler just to drive the kids half a kilometre from the McMansion to the local private school: Howard has pandered to the greed of the electorate for far too long to start preaching restraint now.

The tokenism of a touch of ethanol in every tank appeals, once again, to the farmers but does almost nothing to reduce costs to the motorist and absolutely nothing to promote fuel conservation, which is the real problem. The subsidy for those who already overuse their vehicles to convert to gas is another piece of panic-driven economic nonsense: it will simply push up the price of gas (supply and demand again, Prime Minister) and in any case, the gas is to become subject to excise in a few years so the price will rise anyway. It is, after all, a by-product of the same crude oil from whichwe refine our petrol, and will run out at the same time.

Having posted some articles about crumbling infrastructure a fw days ago, I was interested to see WorldChanging predicting an investment boom in fixing the aforesaid crumbling relics of an age when public investment and planning for the future were considered a good thing.
We tend to ignore, even forget about the infrastructure which supports a contemporary developed world life. That holds doubly true for our sewers. This is too bad, as much of it is poorly designed, from an ecological perspective, and, especially in North America, much of it is decaying or groaning under the burden of its use.

Now, companies are lining up to cash in on the repair of crumbling infrastructure:
Because of these risks, EPA inspectors are aggressively monitoring and citing water systems -- mostly run by local governments or mom-and-pop operators, neither of which has the money to fund the upgrade of water systems. From its perch, the EPA estimates we need to spend $500 billion over the next 20 years. That’s $250 billion to replace pipes, tanks, valves and treatment plants in the water infrastructure, and $250 billion to upgrade the sewage system.

In short, we’re potentially at the start of a massive spending cycle -- always an interesting place for investors to hunt for long-term investment plays.

$500 billion is a lot of pipe. Perhaps its time to start re-imagining our options?

Also at WorldChanging, an update on Sweden's plan to be oil free by 2020.
"Fossil-fuel free by 2020." That was the amazing national goal announced by Prime Minister Göran Persson at the launch of the so-called "Oil Commission", an advisory body whose purpose is to chart a pathway to reach that goal.

In June, the Commission (the full title should be translated as "The Commission to End Oil Dependency by 2020", but the government translates it a bit erroneously as "The Commission on Oil Independence") released its first major report, with the nitty-gritty policy recommendations. To end its dependency on oil -- which is rather vaguely defined not as completely getting rid of the stuff, but dramatically reducing its use to the point where Sweden does not "need" oil anymore -- Sweden would need to do the following in just fourteen years:

• Increase energy efficiency throughout the entirety of Swedish society by 20%

• Reduce the amount of gasoline and diesel used in Swedish vehicles by 40-50% (with a combination of efficiency and a faster switch to renewable and biofuels)

• Reduce oil consumption in industry by 25-40%

• Eliminate oil completely in home and office heating systems

People familiar with energy issues generally can already guess how all this needs to happen: with a mixture of increased new and existing alternative/renewable fuel sources, efficiency technologies, and the policies to drive change in this direction. Fortunately, Sweden has plenty of each already, and plenty of room to develop them further.

Ross Gittins has a look at the economics of carbon taxes (the holy grail) in the "World fiddles while the planet burns".
CLIMATE change is getting to be like that old joke about the weather: everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything. Except that last week the state governments did propose to do something - which, they assured us, would neither cost us much nor do much to slow the economy's growth.

There wouldn't be many people left who still doubt the reality of global warming. According to a report by the CSIRO, Australian agriculture is likely to be affected by reduced rainfall, a greater likelihood of extreme weather events (droughts, floods, cyclones and storms), reduction in the quality of pasture and an increase in the populations of pests such as fruit flies, apple moths and ticks.

The CSIRO also predicts bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, possibly to the point of destruction, reduction of snow cover in the Australian Alps and loss of habitat for many species in northern and south-eastern Australia.

Scientific evidence indicates we can combat climate change if the world can achieve substantial reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly from burning fossil fuels) by the middle of the century.

The trouble is that to have much effect on global emissions we need almost all countries - and, certainly, all the big ones - taking part. Without the involvement of the US, China and India, nothing any individual country achieves will make much difference.

And the trouble with this is that, while ever the big three aren't on board, the rest of us have an excuse for not getting on with it.

Another problem is that, depending on how you go about it, achieving a big reduction in emissions could involve significantly higher costs to consumers and losses of economic growth and jobs.

The economic risks are heightened for Australia because we're such a big exporter of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas and coal, as well as that "congealed energy" known as aluminium. Were we to get tough with our energy-dependent export industries before other countries, we could simply drive them offshore.


So much for the Howard Government's scaremongering about how the scheme would lay waste the economy. Why are the costs so manageable? Because you're not pulling down power stations, you're just moving over time to reduce waste and adopt less polluting ways of producing power.

But would it be a smart thing to do? Well, it would get us started on a process of adjustment that could be a lot more painful if we waited until it was forced on us. It would give some degree of certainty to businesses considering new investments in the energy sector.

It would increase the incentive for people to find better technological solutions. Internationally, it would add to the momentum for progress, demonstrate our bona fides and strengthen our negotiating position.

The biggest doubt is whether the states could agree among themselves to actually do it. The scheme would be much better run by the Federal Government.

I fear that when the history of our times is written, John Howard will be judged to have worried far too much about terrorism and far too little about global warming.

Labor Environment spokesman Anthony Albanese has done a good speech on "The Energy Debate: Climate Change and Energy Options for Australia" to the Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society and the Menzies Foundation
at the University of Melbourne.
People used to say: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it”. That’s not true any more.

Humans have become a force of nature. We are changing the climate and affecting the weather.

Earlier this month, the journal Science published two startling pieces of research: Firstly, that Greenland’s ice sheets are melting three times faster than scientists have previously thought. Secondly, that Antarctica is failing to lock up increased moisture from climate change, resulting in a more rapid increase in sea levels than scientists have previously thought.

The truth is that governments cannot afford to be frozen in time while the world warms around us.

Almost daily, new scientific reports are shining the light on the shocking reality of climate change. From the North Pole to the South Pole, and everywhere in between, climate change is unfolding.

We have, as Al Gore has paraphrased Sir Winston Churchill, entered “a period of consequences”. The critical question is: can we enter a period of real solutions?

This is the great nation building challenge of the 21st Century:
• Avoiding dangerous climate change;
• Preparing our economy for a carbon constrained world;
• Getting our energy mix right;
• Ensuring we are world leaders in seizing the opportunities that this global challenge will bring.

Continuing on the local theme (lots of good content around this week), John Quiggin at Crooked Timber asks "Is Peak Oil here already ?" (with TOD's Prof Goose leading the peak oiler charge in the comments thread - there's a man who keeps a weather eye on his referrer logs).
There’s been a lot of discussion about claims that world oil output is going to reach a peak some time soon. If you look at the recent numbers, there’s a pretty good case to be made that world all output has already reached its peak at about 73 million barrels a day, a level reached in mid-2004, and sustained for the past two years.

Now there are lots of local factors that explain weak output in particular countries (not mentioning the War!). Still, if the claims made by those who think oil output can keep on growing were correct, I would have expected the massive increase in prices (from a brief low of $10/barrel and a medium-term price of $20/barrel in the late 1990s to $75/barrel today) to produce a substantial expansion in supply.

This argument is pretty robust to whether oil producers believe that there is plenty of oil (implying that prices will come down again) or not. If prices are going to come down, then there’s a strong incentive to pump more in the short term, use secondary recovery from depleted wells and so on. If prices are going to stay high, there’s a strong incentive to bring large new fields online, even if they are in high cost locations. As far as I can see, neither of these things is happening.

Supposing that oil output has peaked, the obvious point to be made is that Peak Oil isn’t so bad. Sales of Hummers are plummeting, apparently, and lots more people are using buses (at least in Brisbane). And of course, the less oil there is to burn, the easier it will be to stabilise CO2 emissions (though we can’t just rely on Peak Oil – apart from anything else, there’s almost unlimited coal in the ground, far more than we can burn without frying the planet in the process).

From the BBC's "Planet Under Pressure", via Past Peak:

I don't know if this has anything to do with global warming or not, but this tale reminded me a little of some Russian squirrel weirdness I noted last year - "The Psycho killer raccoons of Olympia" (hopefully MonkeyGrinder hasn't been conducting any strange experiments involving raccoon powered vehicles that has sent the beasties round the twist).
A fierce group of raccoons has killed 10 cats, attacked a small dog and bitten at least one pet owner who had to get rabies shots, residents of Olympia say.

Some have taken to carrying pepper spray to ward off the masked marauders and the woman who was bitten now carries an iron pipe when she goes outside at night.

"It's a new breed," said Tamara Keeton, who with Kari Hall started a raccoon watch after an emotional neighborhood meeting drew 40 people. "They're urban raccoons, and they're not afraid."

The war on science continues, with the latest battle taking place in the Vatican - this time the pope has sacked the papl astronomer for believing in evolution.
Pope Benedict XVI has sacked his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution.

He has removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after the American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Holy See's endorsement of "intelligent design" theory, which essentially backs the "Adam and Eve" theory of creation.

Benedict favours intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwin’s original theory which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest.

But Father Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, is an outspoken supporter of Darwin’s theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity.

In an unwanted exhbit of synchronicity - having just started reading "Confessions of an economic hitman" and listened to John Pinchbeck talking to RU Sirius yesterday - I find RI is posting today on John Perkins and applied paraphysics in "Confessions of an Economic Shapeshifter"
There's a school of liberal American thought - one that serves a gated community - that says John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is about as deep as it gets. If there is a conspiracy, so that mindset goes, then it goes this far: the cheating of nations of their inheritance by persuading their rulers to take on massive developments contracted to US industry, paid for by enormous loans, that in turn become the weapon of indebtedness to buy a government's allegiance. The story Perkins tells in Hit Man is that of the privateering ruin of the world, coordinated by the deniable aegis of covert statecraft, and it's as good as it goes. But it's not Perkins' only story.

Perkins has written other books about his time spent in the wild places of the world, but they're the kind of books liable to embarrass the reader who thinks Hit Man is tell all. He's taken ayahuasca and seen the holy anacondas; discovered the power of dream and learned principles of shapeshifting from the shamans. In fact, "he is currently working with several major corporations to introduce the concepts of shapeshifting and tribal wisdom into the highest levels of executive thinking."


I am with you on the Wither Wind? issue. Wind power is the cheapest, renewable electric power generator, aside from Hydroelectric. Unfortunately, the opponents to Wind Power have more fervor than the majority of wind supporters.


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