Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm Merely Confused

Even Charles Darwin was initially skeptical when he first read about the views of James Hutton in the 1830's: The Earth might be millions of years old--possibly older! (We know today that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old.) It's hard to believe that less than 200 years ago, even among the educated, the Earth was unquestionably thought to be only some 6,000 years old, as was stated in the Book of Genesis, a collection of stories from the Iron Age.

Although far less well known than figures like Galileo, Newton and Darwin himself, the Scotsman James Hutton in discovering Earth's "antiquity" in the late 18th century, then forgotten about for some 20 years before being rediscovered, deserves to be placed alongside the greatest scientists in human history.

How far have we traveled in the past 200 years? Well, according to a Michigan State University professor ( Jon D. Miller), who conducted a study on science literacy in the United States, about 20 percent of Americans--at least 40 million--think the sun travels around the Earth. Does anyone recall what Galileo almost got burned at the stake for in the 17th century? But if it is of any consolation to American "patriots," Europe and Japan are only marginally better informed according to the report.

But is there a point to any of this? Well if one believes, for example, that global warming might not be an environmental "conspiracy," but a potentially very serious problem for all of us, then there may be an important point to be made.

A joint poll last year conducted by ABC News, Time and two universities learned that less than 40% of Americans think global warming is a serious problem and only 3 out of 10 feel humans have caused it. Americans also are under the impression that there is considerable disagreement among scientists as to whether or not the Earth is heating up.

While the success of industry front groups has something to do with the confusion of many Americans, coupled with the media's misunderstanding of so-called "balanced" news, the profound lack of basic scientific literacy among the majority of people is by far the essential problem, it seems to me. It remains to be seen what we are willing to do to change this. Of course, we first have to realize there is a problem. The late Carl Sagan once said, "Ignorance feeds on ignorance."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Renewables and Gao Trees

What sorts of things should we notice? What slight changes ought we to pay attention to? Is there anything we can learn from a farmer in Africa who lives in one of the poorest countries in the world?

The official name is Faidherbia albida. In English it's sometime called the Ana tree. In Setswana, a language spoken in Southern Africa, it's called Mokosho. Most folks in Niger just refer to it as a "gao" tree.

It is an especially good tree in a country like Niger located in the Sahel, where rainfall is limited and the desert always threatens to overrun everything. Niger is not a country most people would choose to live. The Gao tree is a perennial, which makes it a good tree to halt the advancing desert. It's also a nitrogen-fixing tree, which helps fertilize the soil. Its pale gray-green leaves fall off during the rainy season and become organic fertilizer. Most important in this part of the world the Gao tree is not competing with crops for water.

Some 20 years ago a few farmers realized that the cutting down of trees before planting their crops, such as sorghum and peanuts, was only reducing the land's fertility and speeding up desertification. Slowly they began planting their crops around the trees as well as planting new trees. The Gao tree is merely one type albeit highly suitable to the region.

Twenty or so years later millions of acres have been reclaimed in Niger. This has also led to overall improvements in conservation and livestock practices, as well as the government finally recognizing that trees on farmer's property ought to be the property of those farmers. At one time and apparently going back to colonial times, trees were the property of the state and farmers therefore had little incentive to take care of them.

Adequate rainfall is always precarious in the Sahel, but Niger is now better prepared to deal with changes in weather than it once was. Perhaps the point of all this is that slight modifications in human behavior can frequently have a significant impact in improving the surrounding environment as well as increasing productivity. This occurred in Niger without massive foreign assistance or government help.

In the developed world the "hot" word is renewable. What combination of solar, wind power, geothermal will help us keep the global average temperature from rising more than one degree Celsius? Can the U.S. reduce CO2 emissions 60 to 80 percent by 2050? Can we do all this without a carbon tax? Will we have to include nuclear energy in the mix? Is it worth the large taxpayer subsidy ... and on and on and on?

But if a tree grows in Niger, planted by one observant farmer, that ultimately assists in restoring biodiversity, do we all need to notice those smaller things as well--and perhaps first? How do we learn to observe better?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Take a Step

April 14th is to be the National Day of Climate Action. Its overriding goal is to get the United States Congress to "pledge an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050." At the present time there are some 640 events planned in 47 states. The original idea for all of this started with a group called Step it Up from Vermont. The web site is

Quite clearly the intent is to create a "buzz" that becomes ongoing and that cannot be ignored. Hundreds of rallies will occur throughout the country, encompassing various events and activities. There is no reason why this could not be recreated in cities throughout the world.

Yes here's a chance to take a step. Visit the web site. Start something in your community. Spread the word. Tell us what you'll do.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's Your Problem

A recent article in AlterNet entitled "Who's Funding Global Warming?" offers a perspective of some of the large banks and investment firms that are providing capital to build power plants. Texas, one of the more politically benighted states, is supporting the construction of 11 new coal-fired power plants. TXU, a Dallas utility company, is seeking the permits and the financing to begin construction.

An assortment of environmental groups believe these new Texas plants could generate more CO2 emissions than many small countries, such as Sweden. Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup are the three financial institutions that have, for the moment, agreed to acquire the necessary financing, some $11 billion. It is as yet not a done deal.

At the same time, an ever-increasing number of banks and investment firms are backing away from projects that have a negative environmental impact like the proposed coal-fired plants in Texas. It is clear that pressure needs to be continually applied to those institutions that provide funding for these types of projects. "Following the money" may make more sense in many cases than dealing with weak-kneed, ignorant politicians and shortsighted corporations. Applying pressure worldwide needs to be ramped up, individually and collectively on those that provide the financial wherewithal.

But of course the ultimate problem still exists: Where will alternative energy supplies come from? What are we willing to do to get them? What are we willing to pay for them? What exactly does "low-carbon" growth mean?

Luis da Silva, the President of Brazil, recently stated in no uncertain terms that the developed countries need to "stop preaching" to developing countries like Brazil. His country has no intention of destroying the Amazon da Silva indignantly proclaims. He pointed out that drafting climate agreements are easy and what the developed world likes to do, but at the same time has been reluctant to address global warming in a real sense.

President Bush's recent budget submission cuts 2007 spending for efficiency and renewables by 16%.

Some 263,000 people have been displaced in Jakarta, Indonesia because of flooding.

China says it is the developed world's responsibility. They are the principal polluters; they have the primary duty to reduce greenhouse gases.

Briana Cayo Cotter of Rainforest Action Network says, "There is a growing movement around the world to stop global warming and the U.S. has been at the back of the gang and has been holding things up."

But whose problem is it?