The Climate Story You Don’t Hear About

So while American politicians and environmentalists slug it out over a proposed pipeline, China is stocking its rainy day shale and oil sands fund. Let’s start with the recent news out of Canada:

China will take over full ownership over a Canadian oil sands project for the first time after Athabasca Oil Sands Corp announced Tuesday it sold the remaining 40 percent of the MacKay River oil sands development to PetroChina for US $673 million.

The deal continues a trend that has seen China’s state-owned oil companies invest billions of dollars in exploration or production ventures in Canada, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

Elsewhere is another way of saying the United States, as this other bit of news suggests:

Showing that it isn’t worried about the upswell of angst over hydraulic fracking technology, the Chinese government, through state-controlled Sinopec, today struck a deal with Devon Energy to buy into five prospective new exploration areas in the U.S.

The deal, which includes $900 million in cash upfront and a promise of $1.6 billion in the years ahead to cover drilling and development, gives the Chinese a 33% stake in five of Devon’s fields, and a front row seat to what is effectively the second wave of development of U.S. shale assets. The areas in question include the Tuscaloosa in Louisiana, the Niobrara in Colorado, the Mississippian in Devon’s home state of Oklahoma, the Utica in Ohio and the Michigan basin.

The second wave? Does that mean it washes over us irrespective of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline? Has anybody told environmentalists this? And what about climate activists? Who worries you more at this point: Mitt Romney or China? Oh, Never mind.

Back to that second wave, and how it’s being funded from Chinese cash, see this 2011 must-read from Jonathan Thompson. He writes that, over the last decade,

China has emerged as one of our biggest customers; U.S. exports to China have increased 460 percent since 2000. Compared to British, Canadian or Australian multinational corporations, Asian companies still have a minuscule investment in Western resources. But over the last year, as much of Asia scrambles out of the global recession unscathed and the U.S. continues to wallow, Chinese, Indian and even former Soviet-bloc companies have bought into American oil and gas fields, molybdenum mines and more.

The story of fossil fuels as a much sought after global commodity is the big climate story that climate-concerned activists and bloggers willfully ignore.

Category: China, climate change, Energy

The Big Climate Stories from 2011

In a new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I write:

In 2011, there were numerous themes that ran through climate change media coverage: 1) crazy weather, 2) a litmus test for Republicans, 3) man bites dog, 4) evidence of an actual climate movement, and 5) futility.

What’s that, you think I missed something? I’m all ears.

Category: climate change, Journalism

Countdown to 2012 Doomsday

As you know, the world didn’t end last year, like it was supposed to. By now, this is an old story.

Yet many people continue to be drawn to doomsday alerts. 2012 promises to be another banner year for failed end-of-world predictions. But instead of arbitrary biblical interpretations, attention will shift to a supposed Mayan prophecy. As Mathew Restall and Amara Solari wrote this past weekend in the Washington Post:

What makes 2012ology different is the starring role it gives to the ancient Maya. Among numerous native cultures in the Americas, the Maya seem to have captured the popular imagination. They are cast as a mysteriously wise civilization, one that disappeared into the tropical forests of Central America, taking with it a sacred knowledge that has only recently started coming to light.

So the internet is rife with references to the Mayan Long Count calendar and Dec. 21, 2012 as the latest date of reckoning. As Stephanie Pappas reported in Live Science,

a number of predictions have attached themselves to Dec. 21, from the end of the world via collision with a rogue planet, to the ushering in of a new world era. But neither historians nor astronomers put much credence in these predictions.

Not that that matters much. In their WaPo essay, Restall and Solari ask:

If the evidence for Maya doomsday predictions is so flimsy — if the impending Maya apocalypse is a mere myth — then why are so many people so willing to believe it is true? Why do some seem to want Dec. 21 to be the long-awaited end of the world?

The authors, who teach history and anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, suggest a few reasons:

One explanation is the persistent power of ancient wisdom. All societies are drawn to knowledge that seems time-worn, mysterious, coded — and to the magic of its decoding. That is partly why “The Da Vinci Code” has sold 100 million copies, why people listened to Camping’s predictions about Judgment Day and even, in a sense, why billions are attracted to religion.

That is also why we are drawn to ancient civilizations whose knowledge has been buried — literally — for hundreds or thousands of years. A century ago, ancient Egypt was in the limelight, as archaeologists excavated the tombs of pharaohs. In recent decades, the Maya have taken a star turn, as more of their ancient cities in Mexico and Central America have been unearthed and their hieroglyphic texts deciphered.

Another explanation lies deep within our own Western civilization and religious traditions, which include teachings about the end of the world. In stark contrast to the Maya, medieval Europeans generated a vast body of literature and artwork predicting and describing the world’s end. Nobody questioned that it would come; the issue was how and when. Some were willing — then, as now — to stick their necks out and predict a specific day. When Joachim of Fiore insisted that 1260 would be the end, many thousands in Europe listened. They listened, too, across the English-speaking world when William Miller in Vermont picked 1843 (and then 1844) as our final year. Likewise, Camping generated huge publicity for his 2011 predictions. Apocalyptic imaginings and doomsday gullibility are woven into the very fabric of Western society.

A final explanation lies in the comfort of belief, in the security of taking a leap of faith. The great revolutions in science, industry and technology have profoundly transformed life on Earth. But science has not replaced religion. Instead, the two have developed a complicated relationship. Science is a religion; religion has become a science. Anxiety and skepticism abound. The more answers science offers, the more questions we have. Overwhelmed by the evidence for a phenomenon such as global warming, some choose to believe in it or not

This last graph I find especially interesting (though I suspect some readers of this blog will key in on the last line) and fodder for much debate, such as the part about science and religion having an uneasy, complicated relationship.

A similar exploration of our End Days attraction can be found in this excellent essay by Daniel Baird in the current issue of The Walrus. After taking stock of the various biblical, New Agey and ecological prophecies of doom, he writes:

The difficulty with prophecies — whether based on passages from the Bible or ancient calendars, on solid climate science and economics or the visions of the Mongolian shamans Lawrence E. Joseph visited while researching his books — is that they are almost invariably wrong. Human beings are remarkably bad at predicting even relatively short-term, simple occurrences, such as the weather on Monday or the price of gold on Friday, much less something as vast and complex as the future of humanity.

I imagine that some will take offense at climate science being lumped in with the Mayan Calendar and the Bible. (The point Baird is making pertains not to the science, but the interpretations of it.) On what he concludes, however, there should be wide agreement:

The real problem with the future is that it doesn’t yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance — or ever.

Category: doomsday

Oh, the Horror!

In north Texas, a resident blanches at the idea of major water restrictions kicking in because of the area’s drought:

In Garland, it’s a major concern for resident Charlotte Piercy, who has lived in her neighborhood for 56 years. Piercy already hates her grass looking brown because of the Winter, but she fears, come the spring, it won’t get green again.

“I would hate to see us go to that stage,” said Piercy. “The neighborhood would start looking like grasslands, like dried up prairie lands.”

John Fleck tweets:

Note: You live in a dried up prairie.


Category: drought

Happy New Year

Thanks for being a reader, and thanks to many of you for making this site a lively exchange of interesting perspectives, particularly on climate change related issues. Early next week, I’ll have a post up elaborating on a few new wrinkles to the blog.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you on something. What particular story and/or topic would you like to see given more attention in 2012? (Bear in mind there are editors and reporters who read this blog.) But be as specific as possible. No doubt, a number of you will throw climate change in the mix, which is fine. Just spell out what you would like to see covered differently or in more detail. But I’m especially keen to hear of any science/environmental stories that you believe are underreported in the media.

Lastly, Ed Yong has compiled his top 12 list of “longreads” for 2011. I recommend you check it out. He has great taste and judgment.

Best wishes to you and your families for the New Year.

Category: science journalism

How to Explain Legions of Alt Med Believers?

I have a family member with some apparent gastrointestinal issues. The other night, while visiting, she was belching like a frat house drunkard. The episodes picked up in intensity after dinner. It was quite the entertainment for my two boys, who began gulping their grape juice to keep up with their best imitations.

Amid the barnyard display, I learn this is a recurring problem for my poor relative and that she’s treating it with colonics. I tried to reason with her, explaining that there is no scientific basis for colonic cleanses. It was no use and I eventually (and stupidly) resorted to mockery, which, of course, gave my relative all the reason she needed to tune me out. “You’re always so negative on anything that is a natural health solution,” my relative said to me, which was a reference to our previous discussions on alternative medicine. Yes, she is believer and yes, my previous attempts to undermine that faith fell on deaf ears.

My relative is not uncommon. There are millions of very intelligent people who have bought into the mythology of alternative medicine, especially the claims of homeopathy. The evidence is out there that this stuff is bogus. So why do many believers in alternative medicine discount science? Are they in denial? Not properly informed by journalists? What’s the story here?

Category: colonics, homeopathy

Can We & the Planet Reconcile Competing Values?

The Economist has an excellent article about the “fate of India’s amphibians” and what is a universal conservation paradox:

As economic growth has accelerated so, it appears, has the destruction of  [India's] forests. The Centre for Science and the Environment, a lobby group, reckons that the pace at which clearance permissions have been granted has doubled in the past five years. In 2009 alone, 87,884 hectares (out of a total of 68m hectares of primary and other forest) were approved for clearance.

Yet while growth damages the environment, it also nurtures a countervailing force: rising green consciousness. That tends to happen wherever economic dynamism threatens a country’s natural wealth, but maybe especially so in India. Environmental awareness lies deep in India’s political culture. Mahatma Gandhi was an early green, and the original tree-huggers were Indians: the chipko movement used Gandhian methods to prevent deforestation in the Himalayas in the 1980s. At the same time, India’s growth in the past 20 years has—while leaving many millions in poverty—produced a large, eco-sensitive middle class.

In his book, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945, historian Samuel Hayes wrote that

the environmental drive in modern society stems from new human values about what people want in their lives.

This became evident decades ago in industrialized Western countries, like the United States. The raft of foundational environmental laws (safeguarding air, water, and endangered species) in the early 1970s was the codification of these new human values in the U.S. Since then, however, enforcement (and expansion) of environmental legislation has been met with considerable opposition by parties driven by different values.

What interests me is how these competing values have turned landscapes into battlegrounds. For example, I’ve written a lot about a remote place in Utah called Nine Mile Canyon, where ranching, conservation, oil & gas development and historic preservation have long clashed. I’ve also explored how reconciliation of disparate values has been painstakingly arrived at in more populated locales, where business and real estate interests bumped up against ecological concerns.

India, as the Economist article puts it, is entering similar terrain:

The big question is how concern for the environment and a desire for growth will be reconciled.

That means India’s competing values will have to be reconciled, which, if the last thirty years of U.S. environmental politics is any guide, won’t be pretty. That also means, as the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger said in a recent interview with science writer John Horgan, that there will be uncomfortable tradeoffs people are going to have to accept:

We are now the dominant ecological force on the planet and that means that we must ever more actively manage our environment. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity and it demands that we actually make hard choices. If we want more forests and more wild places, then we’ll need more people living in cities and more intensive agriculture. If we want less global warming, then we’ll need to replace fossil energy with clean energy, including a lot of nuclear energy. If we want to save places like the Amazon rainforest then we have to recognize that, over the next 50 years, a lot of the Amazon is going to be developed. The choices will come down to where we want development, and what we might save in the process.

A larger debate over those choices and the values underlying them would be nice.

Category: environmentalism

The Maya Complex

An archaeologist is peeved about the “craze over the supposed Maya prophecy of the end of the world in 2012,” which he says “is based on bogus, commercialized, fake claims.” Well, blow me down, are there any rational-minded people who would seriously entertain such a prophesy even if it came straight from a Carlos Castaneda book? Wait a second, those were Yaqui Indians and Castaneda was a best-selling fake.

Never mind.

So all this attention lavished on the Maya is grating on archaeologist Michael Smith, in part because the Mesoamerican culture he’s studied gets no respect:

As an Aztec specialist, this whole Maya 2012 nonsense really bugs me. The Maya always get all the publicity, and the Aztecs get very little. The Maya are always on the History Channel or in National Geographic Magazine. Maya, Maya, Maya! We Aztec specialists often get an inferiority complex with respect to the Maya.

The Aztecs actually DID predict the end of the world, but who gets all the credit for ancient prophecies for doom and destruction: the Maya, who didn’t even make such prophecies.

I know! Not fair. The Maya get to be a poster child for eco-collapse and the stars of a brutish, bloodthirsty movie. What are the Aztecs known for? Montezuma’s revenge.

Category: Archaeology, Aztec

Has the Journal Nature Sullied its Brand?

The prestigious journal Nature has published a special supplement on traditional Asian medicine (free access). Financial sponsorship for it came from the Kitasato University Oriental Medicine Research Center and the Saishunkan Pharmaceutical Co, which is described as

a herbal medicine manufacturer which aims to help people make the most of their natural powers of healing and self-recovery.

That’s one big red flag. Of course, Nature duly acknowledges the sponsorship, and appearances notwithstanding, gives this reassurance:

 As always, Nature takes full responsibility for all editorial content.

Nature also explains how it to came to treat traditional Asian medicine as science-worthy:

When the topic of traditional Asian medicine was first mooted, we were sceptical. To a magazine based in Europe and steeped in the history of science, there is much about traditional Asian medical practice that seems mystical and pseudoscientific. Other than well known success stories — artemisinin for malaria, and arsenic trioxide for leukaemia — there seemed to be a lack of scientifically proven remedies.

Yet a bit of probing revealed what a complex story this is. Not only are big efforts underway to modernize traditional medicine in China and Japan, but Western medicine is adopting some aspects of the Eastern point of view too. In particular, modern medical practitioners are coming around to the idea that certain illnesses cannot be reduced to one isolatable, treatable cause. Rather, a fall from good health often involves many small, subtle effects that create a system-wide imbalance.

Orac, unsurprisingly, is aghast, and says the special issue is “chock full” of “atrocities against skepticism and science.”  I’m still making my way through the articles, so I’m going to reserve judgement, for now. Orac, though, has done his own deep dive and concludes that,

to their eternal shame, by publishing this issue, the editors of Nature have become willing shills for the TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] industry. Nature has sold out, and its editors and publisher should be called out for it.

It’ll be interesting to see how other scientists (and science journalists) react.

Category: traditional Chinese medicine

The Good Old Days

Ryan Avent at the Economist gets my nostalgia award for the day with this romanticized dreck:

But turn again to those living 100 or 500 years ago. How would they have viewed civilisation today? Think of all the animals, languages, and societies that have since gone extinct. Modern lives might seem like a vision of hell. The coastal, urban corridor along which I live now is horribly changed from its condition a century ago. Those of us who live along it spend the vast majority of our time indoors and only rarely glimpse anything that could honestly be called nature. The food we eat is highly processed and often unidentifiable as one plant or animal versus another. Many of us rarely see many of our close friends and family, and communicate with them only through the tinny interfaces of our electronic devices. “Some life!”, a resident of the past might conclude. Yet how many of us would switch places with those who lived centuries ago? A century from now, much more of the world will likely have been despoiled. Humans might live in underground bunkers eating lab-grown meat. But who’s to say they won’t prefer their lot to ours?

A reader at the Economist thread tells Avent this is “possibly the dumbest thing you have ever written” and asks:

Have you never read an account of life back in the 1500s? Your teeth would be rotten. Probably would go your entire life without eating a banana. Raw sewage sloshing around in the streets, constantly added to by the emptying of chamber pots and horses crap. Reading by candlelight, if one was even literate and had access to books. Indoor pollution would be horrible, with heat provided by a poorly ventilated fireplace. Bed bugs and other creatures would be the norm. The food would be absolutely disgusting and monotonous. Would own probably, what, 2 pairs of clothes, made of burlap? One would probably never travel more than a 50 mile radius in one’s entire lifetime, and travel, when it did occur, would be via stagecoach over horribly bumpy and potholed roads. I could go on.

Modern day life is quite literally heaven compared to the life of centures past, which was — as Hobbes famously put it — nasty, brutish and short. I’d be surprised if even a single person outside of royalty wouldn’t trade places with your average American.


Category: nostalgia