Friday, March 30, 2007

It's the End of the World As We Know It

Global warming is not only in progress, it is now unavoidable. There is no turning back. There is no way to prevent the continual heating of our planet before it reaches equilibrium, before Earth is a much different world from the one we know. When Earth reaches equilibrium, sea level will be much higher, climate zones will have radically changed, land that is now home to many millions of people will no longer be habitable.

That is the gist of Elizabeth Kolbert's presentation last night here in Albany. But she emphasizes that there is still hope for human civilization. We can continue on our current path of resigning ourselves to a catastrophic fate, maybe hoping for divine intervention. Or we can commit ourselves to the radical changes that are absolutely essential to make global warming manageable.

Numbers aren't as important as trends. You can find countless numbers relating to global warming, numbers that people will eternally argue over, revise, hypothesize, predict, prove, disprove. But the trends are irrefutable evidence of what is now taking place and what will happen in the future. You can easily find the evidence from many sources, including Elizabeth Kolbert's book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Since she wrote the book, Elizabeth says that many of the estimates regarding time and degree of global climate change have been shown to be conservative. Change is happening much more quickly than originally anticipated by the leading experts.

So it comes down to determining just how radically we need to alter our lifestyles and how to accomplish the task. Elizabeth thinks that Americans (by far the largest producers of greenhouse gases) need to reduce their impact by a whopping 80%. That seems almost impossible to accomplish given the current attitude of nearly all Americans. Certainly there is much greater awareness and commitment to doing something, but how will it be possible to get so many people to do so much, and soon?

We not only need to convince individuals to change their ways... that will not by itself prevent catastrophe. We need to institutionalize radical change. We need an entirely new framework of energy use. We need to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. We need a huge investment in technology (if only we had the money that was sunk into the destruction of Iraq). We need bold planning for larger, denser cities well above sea level. We need investment in infrastructure that doesn't rely on the internal combustion engine. We need local food everywhere. We need new ideas.

There is so much that needs to be done and can be done if we are willing to avoid catastrophe. I'll do what I can as a regional planner but I can't do it alone. Who's with me?


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Inside the Secretive Plan to Gut the Endangered Species Act

by Rebecca Clarren
March 27, 2007

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is maneuvering to fundamentally weaken the Endangered Species Act, its strategy laid out in an internal 117-page draft proposal obtained by Salon. The proposed changes limit the number of species that can be protected and curtail the acres of wildlife habitat to be preserved. It shifts authority to enforce the act from the federal government to the states, and it dilutes legal barriers that protect habitat from sprawl, logging or mining.

"The proposed changes fundamentally gut the intent of the Endangered Species Act," says Jan Hasselman, a Seattle attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, who helped Salon interpret the proposal. "This is a no-holds-barred end run around one of America's most popular environmental protections. If these regulations stand up, the act will no longer provide a safety net for animals and plants on the brink of extinction."

In recent months, the Fish and Wildlife Service has gone to extraordinary efforts to keep drafts of regulatory changes from the public. All copies of the working document were given a number corresponding to a person, so that leaked copies could be traced to that individual. An e-mail sent in March from an assistant regional director at the Fish and Wildlife Service to agency staff, asking for comments on and corrections to the first draft, underscored the concern with secrecy: "Please Keep close hold for now. Dale [Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] does not want this stuff leaking out to stir up discontent based on speculation."

Many Fish and Wildlife Service employees believe the draft is not based on "defensible science," says a federal employee who asked to remain anonymous. Yet "there is genuine fear of retaliation for communicating that to the media. People are afraid for their jobs."

Chris Tollefson, a spokesperson for the service, says that while it's accurate to characterize the agency as trying to keep the draft under wraps, the agency has every intention of communicating with the public about the proposed changes; the draft just hasn't been ready. And, he adds, it could still be changed as part of a forthcoming formal review process.

Administration critics characterize the secrecy as a way to maintain spin control, says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group. "This administration will often release a 300-page-long document at a press conference for a newspaper story that will go to press in two hours, giving the media or public no opportunity to digest it and figure out what's going on," Suckling says. "[Interior Secretary Dirk] Kempthorne will give a feel-good quote about how the new regulations are good for the environment, and they can win the public relations war."

In some ways, the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act should come as no surprise. President Bush has hardly been one of its fans. Under his reign, the administration has granted 57 species endangered status, the action in each case being prompted by a lawsuit. That's fewer than in any other administration in history -- and far fewer than were listed during the administrations of Reagan (253), Clinton (521) or Bush I (234). Furthermore, during this administration, nearly half of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who work with endangered species reported that they had been directed by their superiors to ignore scientific evidence that would result in recommendations for the protection of species, according to a 2005 survey of more than 1,400 service biologists, ecologists and botanists conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization.

"We are not allowed to be honest and forthright, we are expected to rubber stamp everything," wrote a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist as part of the survey. "I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been."

The agency has long seen a need to improve the act, says Tollefson. "This is a look at what's possible," he says. "Too much of our time as an agency is spent responding to litigation rather than working on recovering the species that are most in need. The current way the act is run creates disincentives for people to get involved with recovering species."

Kempthorne, boss of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has been an outspoken critic of the act. When he was a U.S. senator from Idaho in the late 1990s, he championed legislation that would have allowed government agencies to exempt their actions from Endangered Species Act regulations, and would have required federal agents to conduct cost-benefit analyses when considering whether to list a species as endangered. (The legislation failed.) Last June, in his early days as interior secretary, Kempthorne told reporters, "I really believe that we can make improvements to the act itself."

Kempthorne is keeping good on his promise. The proposed draft is littered with language lifted directly from both Kempthorne's 1998 legislation as well as from a contentious bill by former Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. (which was also shot down by Congress). It's "a wish list of regulations that the administration and its industry allies have been talking about for years," says Suckling.

Written in terse, dry legal language, the proposed draft doesn't make for easy reading. However, the changes, often seemingly subtle, generally serve to strip the Fish and Wildlife Service of the power to do its stated job: to protect wildlife. Some verge on the biologically ridiculous, say critics, while others are a clear concession to industry and conservative Western governors who have long complained that the act degrades the economies of their states by preventing natural-resource extraction.

One change would significantly limit the number of species eligible for endangered status. Currently, if a species is likely to become extinct in "the foreseeable future" -- a species-specific timeframe that can stretch up to 300 years -- it's a candidate for act protections. However, the new rules scale back that timeline to mean either 20 years or 10 generations (the agency can choose which timeline). For certain species with long life spans, such as killer whales, grizzly bears or wolves, two decades isn't even one generation. So even if they might be in danger of extinction, they would not make the endangered species list because they'd be unlikely to die out in two decades.

"It makes absolutely no sense biologically," wrote Hasselman in an e-mail. "One of the Act's weaknesses is that species aren't protected until they're already in trouble and this proposal puts that flaw on steroids."

Perhaps the most significant proposed change gives state governors the opportunity and funding to take over virtually every aspect of the act from the federal government. This includes not only the right to create species-recovery plans and the power to veto the reintroduction of endangered species within state boundaries, but even the authority to determine what plants and animals get protection. For plants and animals in Western states, that's bad news: State politicians throughout the region howled in opposition to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into Arizona and the Northern Rockies wolf into Yellowstone National Park.

"If states are involved, the act would only get minimally enforced," says Bob Hallock, a recently retired 34-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service who, as an endangered species specialist, worked with state agencies in Idaho, Washington and Montana. "States are, if anything, closer to special economic interests. They're more manipulated. The states have not demonstrated the will or interest in upholding the act. It's why we created a federal law in the first place."

Additional tweaks in the law would have a major impact. For instance, the proposal would narrow the definition of a species' geographic range from the landscape it inhabited historically to the land it currently occupies. Since the main reason most plants and animals head toward extinction is due to limited habitat, the change would strongly hamper the government's ability to protect chunks of land and allow for a healthy recovery in the wild.

The proposal would also allow both ongoing and planned projects by such federal agencies as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service to go forward, even when scientific evidence indicates that the projects may drive a species to extinction. Under the new regulations, as long as the dam or logging isn't hastening the previous rate of extinction, it's approved. "This makes recovery of species impossible," says Suckling. (You can read the entire proposal, a PDF file, here.)

Gutting the Endangered Species Act will only thicken the pall that has hung over the Fish and Wildlife Service for the past six years, Hallock says. "They [the Bush administration] don't want the regulations to be effective. People in the agency are like a bunch of whipped dogs," he says. "I think it's just unacceptable to go around squashing other species; they're of incalculable benefit to us. The optimism we had when this agency started has absolutely been dashed."

Copyright ©2007 Salon Media Group, Inc.

San Francisco First City to Ban Plastic Shopping Bags

by Charlie Goodyear
San Francisco Chronicle
March 28, 2007

Paper or plastic? Not anymore in San Francisco.

The city's Board of Supervisors approved groundbreaking legislation Tuesday to outlaw plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets in about six months and large chain pharmacies in about a year.

The ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, is the first such law in any city in the United States and has been drawing global scrutiny this week.

"I am astounded and surprised by the worldwide attention," Mirkarimi said. "Hopefully, other cities and other states will follow suit."

Fifty years ago, plastic bags -- starting first with the sandwich bag -- were seen in the United States as a more sanitary and environmentally friendly alternative to the deforesting paper bag. Now an estimated 180 million plastic bags are distributed to shoppers each year in San Francisco. Made of filmy plastic, they are hard to recycle and easily blow into trees and waterways, where they are blamed for killing marine life. They also occupy much-needed landfill space.

Two years ago, San Francisco officials considered imposing a 17-cent tax on petroleum-based plastic bags before reaching a deal with the California Grocers Association. The agreement called for large supermarkets to reduce by 10 million the number of bags given to shoppers in 2006. The grocers association said it cut back by 7.6 million, but city officials called that figure unreliable and unverifiable because of poor data supplied by markets.

The dispute led to a renewed interest in outlawing the standard plastic bag, which Mirkarimi said Tuesday was a "relic of the past." Under the legislation, which passed 10-1 in the first of two votes, large markets and pharmacies will have the option of using compostable bags made of corn starch or bags made of recyclable paper. San Francisco will join a number of countries, such as Ireland, that already have outlawed plastic bags or have levied a tax on them. Final passage of the legislation is expected at the board's next scheduled meeting, and the mayor is expected to sign it.

The grocers association has warned that the new law will lead to higher prices for San Francisco shoppers.

"We're disappointed that the Board of Supervisors is going down this path," said Kristin Power, the association's vice president for government relations. "It will frustrate recycling efforts and will increase both consumer and retailer costs. There's also a real concern about the availability and quality of compostable bags."

Power said most of the group's members operating in San Francisco are likely to switch to paper bags "simply because of the affordability and availability issues."

Mirkarimi's legislation is one in a string of environmentally sensitive measures -- such as outlawing Styrofoam food containers and encouraging clean-fuel construction vehicles at city job sites -- adopted by the city in recent months.

"It's really exciting," Jared Blumenfeld, director of the city's Department of the Environment, said after the vote on Tuesday. "We're thrilled. It's been a long time in the making."

Blumenfeld said it takes 430,000 gallons of oil to manufacture 100 million bags. Compostable bags can be recycled in the city's green garbage bins and will make it more convenient for residents to recycle food scraps, he said.

Recycling of paper bags also is far more active today than it was when the plastic bag was first introduced to U.S. consumers.

The lone dissenting voice in the board chamber on Tuesday was Supervisor Ed Jew, who noted that 95,000 small businesses in San Francisco will continue to use plastic bags. Jew, who in his third month in office has taken to critiquing his colleagues for being too quick to burden residents and businesses with new mandates, complained that Mirkarimi's legislation has taken too much of the board's time.

"We need to move on to address the larger issues in San Francisco," Jew said shortly before he voted against the ordinance.

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who introduced amendments this month that will subject pharmacy chains to the legislation, said many large businesses in San Francisco already participate in recycling programs.

"The target of this legislation is the bags themselves and improving the environment," she said.

Plastic bags by the numbers

180 million
Roughly the number of plastic shopping bags distributed in San Francisco each year.

2 to 3 cents
Amount each bag costs markets, compared with anywhere from 5 to 10 cents for a biodegradable bag.

4 trillion to 5 trillion
Number of nondegradable plastic bags used worldwide annually.

430,000 gallons
Amount of oil needed to produce 100 million nondegradable plastic bags.

Source: S.F. Department of the Environment; Worldwatch Institute

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Corn Can't Solve Our Problem

By David Tilman and Jason Hill
The Washington Post
March 25, 2007

The world has come full circle. A century ago our first transportation biofuels -- the hay and oats fed to our horses -- were replaced by gasoline. Today, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybeans have begun edging out gasoline and diesel.

This has been hailed as an overwhelmingly positive development that will help us reduce the threat of climate change and ease our dependence on foreign oil. In political circles, ethanol is the flavor of the day, and presidential candidates have been cycling through Iowa extolling its benefits. Lost in the ethanol-induced euphoria, however, is the fact that three of our most fundamental needs -- food, energy, and a livable and sustainable environment -- are now in direct conflict. Moreover, our recent analyses of the full costs and benefits of various biofuels, performed at the University of Minnesota, present a markedly different and more nuanced picture than has been heard on the campaign trail.

Some biofuels, if properly produced, do have the potential to provide climate-friendly energy, but where and how can we grow them? Our most fertile lands are already dedicated to food production. As demand for both food and energy increases, competition for fertile lands could raise food prices enough to drive the poorer third of the globe into malnourishment. The destruction of rainforests and other ecosystems to make new farmland would threaten the continued existence of countless animal and plant species and would increase the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Finding and implementing solutions to the food, fuel and environment conflict is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. But solutions will be neither adopted nor sought until we understand the interlinked problems we face.

Fossil fuel use has pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide higher than at any time during the past half-million years. The global population has increased threefold in the past century and will increase by half again, to 9 billion people, by 2050. Global food and fossil energy consumption are on trajectories to double by 2050.

Biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn, have the potential to provide us with cleaner energy. But because of how corn ethanol currently is made, only about 20 percent of each gallon is "new" energy. That is because it takes a lot of "old" fossil energy to make it: diesel to run tractors, natural gas to make fertilizer and, of course, fuel to run the refineries that convert corn to ethanol.

If every one of the 70 million acres on which corn was grown in 2006 was used for ethanol, the amount produced would displace only 12 percent of the U.S. gasoline market. Moreover, the "new" (non-fossil) energy gained would be very small -- just 2.4 percent of the market. Car tune-ups and proper tire air pressure would save more energy.

There is another problem with relying on a food-based biofuel, such as corn ethanol, as the poor of Mexico can attest. In recent months, soaring corn prices, sparked by demand from ethanol plants, have doubled the price of tortillas, a staple food. Tens of thousands of Mexico City's poor recently protested this "ethanol tax" in the streets.

In the United States, the protests have also begun -- in Congress. Representatives of the dairy, poultry and livestock industries, which rely on corn as a principal animal feed, are seeking an end to subsidies for corn ethanol in the hope of stabilizing corn prices. (It takes about three pounds of corn to produce a pound of chicken, and seven or eight pounds to grow a pound of beef.) Profit margins are being squeezed, and meat prices are rising.

U.S. soybeans, which are used to make biodiesel, may be about to follow corn's trajectory, escalating the food vs. fuel conflict. The National Biodiesel Board recently reported that 77 biodiesel production plants are under construction and that eight established plants are expanding capacity.

In terms of environmental impact, all biofuels are not created equal. Ethanol is the same chemical product no matter what its source. But ethanol made from prairie grasses, from corn grown in Illinois and from sugar cane grown on newly cleared land in Brazil have radically different impacts on greenhouse gases.

Corn, like all plants, is a natural part of the global carbon cycle. The growing crop absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so burning corn ethanol does not directly create any additional carbon. But that is only part of the story. All of the fossil fuels used to grow corn and change it into ethanol release new carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The net effect is that ethanol from corn grown in the Corn Belt does increase atmospheric greenhouse gases, and this increase is only about 15 percent less than the increase caused by an equivalent amount of gasoline. Soybean biodiesel does better, causing a greenhouse gas increase that is about 40 percent less than that from petroleum diesel.

In Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane produces about twice as much ethanol per acre as corn. Brazilian ethanol refineries get much of their power from burning cane residue, in effect recycling carbon from the atmosphere. The environmental benefit is large. Sugar-cane ethanol grown on established soils releases 80 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline.

But that isn't the case for sugar-cane ethanol or soybean biodiesel from Brazil's newly cleared lands, including tropical forests and savannas. Clearing land releases immense amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, because much of the material in the plants and soil is broken down into carbon dioxide.

Plants and soil contain three times more carbon than the atmosphere. The trees and soil of an acre of rainforest -- which, once cleared, is suitable for growing soybeans -- contain about 120 tons of organic carbon. An acre of tropical woodland or savanna, suitable for sugar cane, contains about half this amount. About a fourth of the carbon in an ecosystem is released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when trees are clear-cut, brush and branches are burned or rot, and roots decay. Even more is lost during the first 20 to 50 years of farming, as soil carbon decomposes into carbon dioxide and as wood products are burned or decay.

This means that when tropical woodland is cleared to produce sugar cane for ethanol, the greenhouse gas released is about 50 percent greater than what occurs from the production and use of the same amount of gasoline. And that statistic holds for at least two decades.

Simply being "renewable" does not automatically make a fuel better for the atmosphere than the fossil fuel it replaces, nor guarantee that society gains any new energy by its production. The European Union was recently shocked to learn that some of its imported biodiesel, derived from palm trees planted on rain-forest lands, was more than twice as bad for climate warming as petroleum diesel. So much for the "benefits" of that form of biodiesel.

Although current Brazilian ethanol is environmentally friendly, the long-term environmental implications of buying more ethanol and biodiesel from Brazil, a possibility raised recently during President Bush's trip to that country, are cloudy. It could be harmful to both the climate and the preservation of tropical plant and animal species if it involved, directly or indirectly, additional clearing of native ecosystems.

Concerns about the environmental effects of ethanol production are starting to be felt in the United States as well. It appears that American farmers may add 10 million acres of corn this year to meet booming demand for ethanol. Some of this land could come from millions of acres now set aside nationwide for conservation under a government-subsidized program. Those uncultivated acres absorb atmospheric carbon, so farming them and converting the corn into ethanol could release more carbon dioxide into the air than would burning gasoline.

There are biofuel crops that can be grown with much less energy and chemicals than the food crops we currently use for biofuels. And they can be grown on our less fertile land, especially land that has been degraded by farming. This would decrease competition between food and biofuel. The United States has about 60 million acres of such land -- in the Conservation Reserve Program, road edge rights-of-way and abandoned farmlands.

In a 10-year experiment reported in Science magazine in December, we explored how much bioenergy could be produced by 18 different native prairie plant species grown on highly degraded and infertile soil. We planted 172 plots in central Minnesota with various combinations of these species, randomly chosen. We found, on this highly degraded land, that the plots planted with mixtures of many native prairie perennial species yielded 238 percent more bioenergy than those planted with single species. High plant diversity led to high productivity, and little fertilizer or chemical weed or pest killers was required.

The prairie "hay" harvested from these plots can be used to create high-value energy sources. For instance, it can be mixed with coal and burned for electricity generation. It can be "gasified," then chemically combined to make ethanol or synthetic gasoline. Or it can be burned in a turbine engine to make electricity. A technique that is undergoing rapid development involves bioengineering enzymes that digest parts of plants (the cellulose) into sugars that are then fermented into ethanol.

Whether converted into electricity, ethanol or synthetic gasoline, the high-diversity hay from infertile land produced as much or more new usable energy per acre as corn for ethanol on fertile land. And it could be harvested year after year.

Even more surprising were the greenhouse gas benefits. When high-diversity mixtures of native plants are grown on degraded soils, they remove carbon dioxide from the air. Much of this carbon ends up stored in the soil. In essence, mixtures of native plants gradually restore the carbon levels that degraded soils had before being cleared and farmed. This benefit lasts for about a century.

Across the full process of growing high-diversity prairie hay, converting it into an energy source and using that energy, we found a net removal and storage of about a ton and a half of atmospheric carbon dioxide per acre. The net effect is that ethanol or synthetic gasoline produced from this grass on degraded land can provide energy that actually reduces atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

When one of these carbon-negative biofuels is mixed with gasoline, the resulting blend releases less carbon dioxide than traditional gasoline.

Biofuels, if used properly, can help us balance our need for food, energy and a habitable and sustainable environment. To help this happen, though, we need a national biofuels policy that favors our best options. We must determine the carbon impacts of each method of making these fuels, then mandate fuel blending that achieves a prescribed greenhouse gas reduction. We have the knowledge and technology to start solving these problems.

David Tilman is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Jason Hill is a research associate in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Got rbST in Your Milk?

by George Raine
San Francisco Chronicle
March 25, 2007

Richard Cotta, CEO of California Dairies Inc., the nation's second-largest dairy cooperative, is guided by a simple business philosophy: "If you want milk with little blue dots, you'll have it, as long as you are willing to pay for it.''

So, when a string of major customers, including supermarket giant Safeway, came to his co-op saying they would no longer accept milk from cows treated with a genetically engineered growth hormone, the co-op bowed to the inevitable.

In January, California Dairies' board voted to ask its members not to inject synthetic bovine growth hormone into their cows. If they do, their milk will have to be segregated and they'll pay a surcharge.

"Consumer demand is obvious,'' Cotta said.

The action by a co-op that ships 50 million pounds of milk every day is part of a sweeping, consumer-driven agricultural makeover, in which suppliers are forced to adapt to a changing marketplace. Demand for natural foods is rising, while increasing numbers of consumers are avoiding products that rely on antibiotics or growth hormones. And food retailers are listening.

Recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration 14 years ago. Injected every two weeks into cows, it sustains lactation by stimulating cows' appetites so they eat more and produce more milk, perhaps an extra 5 quarts per day.

The hormone supplements the natural bovine somatotropin (bST), or bovine growth hormone, produced in a cow's pituitary gland. St. Louis' Monsanto Co., which developed the synthetic hormone known by the trade name Posilac, says the increased milk output translates to an average increase in net profit for dairies of $100 a year per cow.

The synthetic hormone may have been used in 20 to 30 percent of the nation's cows since it became available in January 1994, according to some estimates.

But what may be a significant value to dairies can't compete against the growing attractiveness of the natural foods movement.

"Many customers have called to ask us to eliminate the use of hormones,'' said Teena Massingill, a spokeswoman at Safeway, which is based in Pleasanton. "Our goal is to provide customers products they want,'' she said.

Safeway eliminated rbST in its Northern California milk brands, Lucerne and Dairy Glen, in 2004. Safeway stores in Washington, Montana, Idaho and Texas are also rbST-free, as are its Genuardi's stores in Pennsylvania.

Indeed, the vast majority of milk sold in Northern California is rbST-free, Cotta said. Southern California was slower to change but is catching up, he added.

Safeway's Vons stores in Southern California recently told California Dairies it wants milk it orders from the co-op to be rbST-free by Aug. 1. Costco has made a similar order.

Starbucks spokeswoman Sanja Gould in Seattle said the company is already rbST-free in stores in Northern California, New England, New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. That represents 37 percent of its dairy volume. The company will be free of bovine growth hormone in other markets as supply becomes available, Gould said.

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

Read "rBGH Revisited" for more about genetically engineered growth hormones in milk.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Heat Invades Cool Heights Over Arizona Desert

by Timothy Egan
The New York Times
March 27, 2007

High above the desert floor, this little alpine town has long served as a natural air-conditioned retreat for people in Tucson, one of the so-called sky islands of southern Arizona. When it is 105 degrees in the city, it is at least 20 degrees cooler up here near the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon.

But for the past 10 years or so, things have been unraveling. Winter snows melt away earlier, longtime residents say, making for an erratic season at the nearby ski resort, the most southern in the nation.

Legions of predatory insects have taken to the forest that mantles the upper mountain, killing trees weakened by record heat. And in 2003, a fire burned for a month, destroying much of the town and scarring more than 87,000 acres. The next year, another fire swept over 32,000 acres.

“Nature is confused,” said Debbie Fagan, who moved here 25 years ago after crossing the country in pursuit of the perfect place to live. “We used to have four seasons. Now we have two. I love this place dearly, and this is very hard for me to watch.”

The American Southwest has been warming for nearly 30 years, according to records that date to the late 19th century. And the region is in the midst of an eight-year drought. Both developments could be within the range of natural events.

But what has convinced many scientists that the current spate of higher temperatures is not just another swing in the weather has been the near collapse of the sky islands and other high, formerly green havens that poke above the desert.

Fire has always been a part of Western ecology, particularly when the land is parched. But since the late 1980s, the size and reach of the fires have far exceeded times of earlier droughts. And the culprit, according to several recent studies, is higher temperatures tearing at a fabric of life that dates to the last ice age.

“A lot of people think climate change and the ecological repercussions are 50 years away,” said Thomas W. Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “But it’s happening now in the West. The data is telling us that we are in the middle of one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States.”

And it comes at a time when millions of Americans are moving to these places. Since 1990, more than eight million homes have been built in Western areas that foresters call “the urban-wild land” interface, also the focus of recent federal firefighting efforts.

The fear is that what happened to Summerhaven is a taste of things to come. As heat-stressed ecosystems provide fuel at the edges of new homes, catastrophic fires could become the new normal. Dr. Swetnam compares it to new developments in hurricane-prone areas in the Southeast.

Others say the projections are overly alarmist, and note that fuel buildup is a legacy of fire repression, not necessarily higher temperatures. They also say the higher reaches of the West may simply be evolving into less alpine settings, and could resemble life that exists at lower elevations.

Still, there is a broad consensus that much of the West is warmer than it has been since record keeping began, and that changes are happening quickly, particularly in places like the sky islands.

“The West has warmed more than any other place in the United States outside Alaska,” said Jonathan T. Overpeck, a University of Arizona scientist and co-author of the recent draft by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last month in Paris.

A trip up to any one of the 27 sky islands shows the ravages of heat on the land. The forests are splotched with a rusty tinge, as trees die from beetle infestation. Frogs with a 10,000-year-old pedigree have all but disappeared. One of the sky islands is the world’s only habitat for the Mount Graham red squirrel, an endangered species down to its last 100 or so animals.

For the squirrel, the frog and other species that have retreated ever higher, there may be no place left to go.

“As the climate warms, these species on top of the sky islands are literally getting pushed off into space,” Dr. Overpeck said.

The Coronado National Forest, which includes Mount Lemmon and Mount Graham, lists 28 threatened or endangered species. Heat has greatly diminished the web of life that these creatures depend on, and they “have not evolved to tolerate these new conditions,” Forest Service officials wrote in a report on the declining health of the sky islands.

For people moving to the breezy pines to escape desert heat, the fires that swept through places like Summerhaven can be terrifying. Fire comes much earlier, and much later, in the season.

“You can tell the weather is changing,” said Michael Stanley, head of the water district here, which lost two-thirds of its customers after the fire. “The snow melts earlier. The fires are big. It makes life very interesting.”

On her regular hikes around Mount Lemmon, Ms. Fagan has noticed many changes. She recently saw a type of rattlesnake that usually lives in the lowlands, and — while hiking over snow — was surrounded by gnats.

“I’m standing on snow while swatting away gnats,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, what are these guys doing out in the winter?’ ”

Last year, wildfires burned nearly 10 million acres in the United States — a record, surpassing the previous year. The Forest Service has become the fire service, devoting 42 percent of its budget to fire suppression last year — more than triple what it was in 1991.

The current drought is not nearly as bad as the one in the 1950s, or one in the mid-16th century, but it has caused a huge forest die-off.

The only difference this time around is higher temperatures, said David D. Breshears, co-author of a study published by the National Academy of Sciences on the subject.

The increased heat, Dr. Breshears believes, is the tipping point — stressing ecosystems in the Southwest so quickly that they are vulnerable to prolonged beetle infestation and catastrophic fires.

“The changes are so big, and happening so fast,” Dr. Breshears said. “We saw it happen all the way up the elevation grade and across the region.”

Dr. Swetnam, who said he used to be skeptical about some of the projections on Western landscape changes, came to a different conclusion after studying fires. Since the mid-1980s, about seven times more federal land has burned than in the previous time frame, he found, and the fire season has been extended by more than two months.

Dr. Swetnam laments the loss of areas unique to the Southwest.

“The sky islands have existed since the Pleistocene,” he said, “and now with these huge fires you stand to lose some unique species.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The President’s Prison

by The New York Times
March 25, 2007

George Bush does not want to be rescued.

The president has been told countless times, by a secretary of state, by members of Congress, by heads of friendly governments — and by the American public — that the Guantánamo Bay detention camp has profoundly damaged this nation’s credibility as a champion of justice and human rights. But Mr. Bush ignored those voices — and now it seems he has done the same to his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, the man Mr. Bush brought in to clean up Donald Rumsfeld’s mess.

Thom Shanker and David Sanger reported in Friday’s Times that in his first weeks on the job, Mr. Gates told Mr. Bush that the world would never consider trials at Guantánamo to be legitimate. He said that the camp should be shut, and that inmates who should stand trial should be brought to the United States and taken to real military courts.

Mr. Bush rejected that sound advice, heeding instead the chief enablers of his worst instincts, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Their opposition was no surprise. The Guantánamo operation was central to Mr. Cheney’s drive to expand the powers of the presidency at the expense of Congress and the courts, and Mr. Gonzales was one of the chief architects of the policies underpinning the detainee system. Mr. Bush and his inner circle are clearly afraid that if Guantánamo detainees are tried under the actual rule of law, many of the cases will collapse because they are based on illegal detention, torture and abuse — or that American officials could someday be held criminally liable for their mistreatment of detainees.

It was distressing to see that the president has retreated so far into his alternative reality that he would not listen to Mr. Gates — even when he was backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, like her predecessor, Colin Powell, had urged Mr. Bush to close Guantánamo. It seems clear that when he brought in Mr. Gates, Mr. Bush didn’t want to fix Mr. Rumsfeld’s disaster; he just wanted everyone to stop talking about it.

If Mr. Bush would not listen to reason from inside his cabinet, he might at least listen to what Americans are telling him about the damage to this country’s credibility, and its cost. When Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — for all appearances a truly evil and dangerous man — confessed to a long list of heinous crimes, including planning the 9/11 attacks, many Americans reacted with skepticism and even derision. The confession became the butt of editorial cartoons, like one that showed the prisoner confessing to betting on the Cincinnati Reds, and fodder for the late-night comedians.

What stood out the most from the transcript of Mr. Mohammed’s hearing at Guantánamo Bay was how the military detention and court system has been debased for terrorist suspects. The hearing was a combatant status review tribunal — a process that is supposed to determine whether a prisoner is an illegal enemy combatant and thus not entitled in Mr. Bush’s world to rudimentary legal rights. But the tribunals are kangaroo courts, admitting evidence that was coerced or obtained through abuse or outright torture. They are intended to confirm a decision that was already made, and to feed detainees into the military commissions created by Congress last year.

The omissions from the record of Mr. Mohammed’s hearing were chilling. The United States government deleted his claims to have been tortured during years of illegal detention at camps run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Government officials who are opposed to the administration’s lawless policy on prisoners have said in numerous news reports that Mr. Mohammed was indeed tortured, including through waterboarding, which simulates drowning and violates every civilized standard of behavior toward a prisoner, even one as awful as this one. And he is hardly the only prisoner who has made claims of abuse and torture. Some were released after it was proved that they never had any connection at all to terrorism.

Still, the Bush administration says no prisoner should be allowed to take torture claims to court, including the innocents who were tortured and released. The administration’s argument is that how prisoners are treated is a state secret and cannot be discussed openly. If that sounds nonsensical, it is. It’s also not the real reason behind the administration’s denying these prisoners the most basic rights of due process.

The Bush administration has so badly subverted American norms of justice in handling these cases that they would not stand up to scrutiny in a real court of law. It is a clear case of justice denied.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Are We Politicians or Citizens?

by Howard Zinn
The Progressive
May 2007 Issue

As I write this, Congress is debating timetables for withdrawal from Iraq. In response to the Bush Administration’s “surge” of troops, and the Republicans’ refusal to limit our occupation, the Democrats are behaving with their customary timidity, proposing withdrawal, but only after a year, or eighteen months. And it seems they expect the anti-war movement to support them.

That was suggested in a recent message from MoveOn, which polled its members on the Democrat proposal, saying that progressives in Congress, “like many of us, don’t think the bill goes far enough, but see it as the first concrete step to ending the war.”

Ironically, and shockingly, the same bill appropriates $124 billion in more funds to carry the war. It’s as if, before the Civil War, abolitionists agreed to postpone the emancipation of the slaves for a year, or two years, or five years, and coupled this with an appropriation of funds to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.
We who protest the war are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress.

We who protest the war are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress.

Timetables for withdrawal are not only morally reprehensible in the case of a brutal occupation (would you give a thug who invaded your house, smashed everything in sight, and terrorized your children a timetable for withdrawal?) but logically nonsensical. If our troops are preventing civil war, helping people, controlling violence, then why withdraw at all? If they are in fact doing the opposite—provoking civil war, hurting people, perpetuating violence—they should withdraw as quickly as ships and planes can carry them home.

It is four years since the United States invaded Iraq with a ferocious bombardment, with “shock and awe.” That is enough time to decide if the presence of our troops is making the lives of the Iraqis better or worse. The evidence is overwhelming. Since the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, and, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, about two million Iraqis have left the country, and an almost equal number are internal refugees, forced out of their homes, seeking shelter elsewhere in the country.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant. But his capture and death have not made the lives of Iraqis better, as the U.S. occupation has created chaos: no clean water, rising rates of hunger, 50 percent unemployment, shortages of food, electricity, and fuel, a rise in child malnutrition and infant deaths. Has the U.S. presence diminished violence? On the contrary, by January 2007 the number of insurgent attacks has increased dramatically to 180 a day.

The response of the Bush Administration to four years of failure is to send more troops. To add more troops matches the definition of fanaticism: If you find you’re going in the wrong direction, redouble your speed. It reminds me of the physician in Europe in the early nineteenth century who decided that bloodletting would cure pneumonia. When that didn’t work, he concluded that not enough blood had been let.

The Congressional Democrats’ proposal is to give more funds to the war, and to set a timetable that will let the bloodletting go on for another year or more. It is necessary, they say, to compromise, and some anti-war people have been willing to go along. However, it is one thing to compromise when you are immediately given part of what you are demanding, if that can then be a springboard for getting more in the future. That is the situation described in the recent movie The Wind That Shakes The Barley, in which the Irish rebels against British rule are given a compromise solution—to have part of Ireland free, as the Irish Free State. In the movie, Irish brother fights against brother over whether to accept this compromise. But at least the acceptance of that compromise, however short of justice, created the Irish Free State. The withdrawal timetable proposed by the Democrats gets nothing tangible, only a promise, and leaves the fulfillment of that promise in the hands of the Bush Administration.

There have been similar dilemmas for the labor movement. Indeed, it is a common occurrence that unions, fighting for a new contract, must decide if they will accept an offer that gives them only part of what they have demanded. It’s always a difficult decision, but in almost all cases, whether the compromise can be considered a victory or a defeat, the workers have been given some thing palpable, improving their condition to some degree. If they were offered only a promise of something in the future, while continuing an unbearable situation in the present, it would not be considered a compromise, but a sellout. A union leader who said, “Take this, it’s the best we can get” (which is what the MoveOn people are saying about the Democrats’ resolution) would be hooted off the platform.

I am reminded of the situation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, when the black delegation from Mississippi asked to be seated, to represent the 40 percent black population of that state. They were offered a “compromise”—two nonvoting seats. “This is the best we can get,” some black leaders said. The Mississippians, led by Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, turned it down, and thus held on to their fighting spirit, which later brought them what they had asked for. That mantra—“the best we can get”—is a recipe for corruption.

It is not easy, in the corrupting atmosphere of Washington, D.C., to hold on firmly to the truth, to resist the temptation of capitulation that presents itself as compromise. A few manage to do so. I think of Barbara Lee, the one person in the House of Representatives who, in the hysterical atmosphere of the days following 9/11, voted against the resolution authorizing Bush to invade Afghanistan. Today, she is one of the few who refuse to fund the Iraq War, insist on a prompt end to the war, reject the dishonesty of a false compromise.

Except for the rare few, like Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Lynn Woolsey, and John Lewis, our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be “realistic.”

We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do.

© 2007 The Progressive

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Anti-War Dems Near Defeat on Spending Bill

by Josephine Hearn
The Politico
March 21, 2007

The most outspoken critics of the $124 billion wartime spending bill in the House are facing withering support in their fight to defeat it.

California Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Lynn Woolsey said that many of their liberal colleagues were caving under pressure from Democratic leaders who, according to at least one congressman, have threatened to block requests for new funds for his district.

They also cited's endorsement of the measure Monday as a blow to their efforts.

"This is the process: people who feel strongly about this issue hold out as long as they can," said Waters. "A lot of pressure comes to bear and they can't hold up under the pressure."

The $124 billion emergency spending bill, backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), includes not only more funds this year for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but also new military readiness standards, benchmarks for the Iraqi government and an Aug. 31, 2008 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

A floor vote is planned for Thursday.

Democratic leaders have also added billions in funds not related to wartime spending in a bid for more support.

That additional money was attractive for at least one lawmaker, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), an Out of Iraq Caucus member. His spokeswoman, Danielle Langone, cited $400 million for a one-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

"That's pretty vital for our district, so we'll be voting for the bill," Langone said.

Waters said that she and other opponents of the spending measure had entered the weekend with 20 to 25 members on their side but that they had suffered "a lot of damage" as Democratic leaders aggressively urged members to support the bill.

Vowing to step up her efforts to hold the opposition, Waters said it was clear that Democratic leaders were mounting an all-out whip effort beyond the earlier informal surveying by Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.).

"This is a vote of conscience," Waters said. "Jim Clyburn said he was doing an assessment, so that's what I was doing. Now that he's whipping, I'm going to start whipping."

Clyburn disputed her assertion. "That's not what she told me," he said. "I beg to differ that there's anybody whipping against this bill."

One congressman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from leaders, bristled at how aggressively he was being pressured to vote for the bill, singling out Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as especially forceful.

"I really resent this," the lawmaker said. "Rahm Emanuel told us a vote against this bill is a vote to give the Republicans victory."

The congressman also noted that Democratic leaders had "made clear" to him that they might yank funding requests he had made for projects in his district if he did not support the measure.

Democratic whips, all deputies of Clyburn, approached members on the House floor Monday night.

A jovial Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger went up to fellow Maryland Rep. Albert Wynn as he sat off the floor with a reporter and told Wynn that a vote against the bill was a vote for Republican victory. He waved a copy of the press release backing the measure.

"Have you seen this?" Ruppersberger asked.

"Yeah, who did that?" replied Wynn, a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus.

"Some people we asked to put out a press release to get you to vote for the bill," Ruppersberger joked. He razzed the noncommittal Wynn a few moments longer, pretending to twist his arm, then headed off to reprise the routine with another Out of Iraq Caucus member, Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.

Other undecided Democrats were also feeling the heat. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) said she had been approached several times and was "still very undecided."

"This will establish to a large degree who I am. ... I'm really trying to make sure I have an understanding of the supplemental in practicality and balancing that with my own concerns about the war and my constituents who are very opposed to the war," Clarke said. "The sentiment I'm getting from my constituents is that I'm beyond benchmarks now. …The administration has proven to be untrustworthy."

Some anti-war activists assailed's approach to the Iraq bill, alleging that the organization had used a skewed poll to conclude that 85 percent of its members backed the measure.

"MoveOn put out a dishonest poll that did not offer its members a real choice to end the war, and now the peace movement is lobbying activists to reform MoveOn or drop off its list," David Swanson, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, said in an e-mail to The Politico. "I unsubscribed from MoveOn this morning."

In the poll, gave its members a choice of supporting, opposing or being "not sure" of the plan proposed by the Democratic leadership, according to an e-mail sent to members Sunday by official Eli Pariser.

It did not mention a more aggressive withdrawal proposal backed by Woolsey, Waters and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Pariser said had held out as long as possible before backing the leadership proposal.

"We were basically declining to take a position as long as we could to strengthen the hand of the progressives. We did the poll at the last time we felt we could have an impact on the final vote."

He said he would support the progressive proposal if it came to a vote. "We'll encourage people to vote for that and for the supplemental," he said. "We are trying to end the war. That's the mandate."

Democratic leaders are pressing hard on the bill even though some members of their whip operation are themselves opposed. Waters, one of nine chief deputy whips, has said she will not whip for a bill she staunchly opposes.

But other members have been more willing to help. Rep. Diane E. Watson (D-Calif.), who remains "solidly" opposed to the bill, was still serving as a regional whip.

"I told Jim Clyburn I'm a team player. I'm a whip. I'll do the whipping," Watson said. But, she added, "My whipping is just a survey. … If I believed in what I was whipping on, I'd do more."

© 2007 Capitol News Company, LLC

A Job for the U.S.: Make Economy Fair

by Jesse Jackson
Chicago Sun-Times
March 20, 2007

A job for every person willing and able to work -- this is the definition of a decent economy. But the United States does not adhere to what most might consider a basic economic right. Over the last three decades, instead of creating jobs for those able to work, the United States has built jails for those unable to find work. And African Americans and Latinos are the direct targets of this decision.

The current economy is considered just about ideal by the nabobs who run the Federal Reserve. Unemployment is less than 5 percent; inflation is low. Incomes aren't doing so well, but profits and productivity are up.

But this economy leaves out too many. David R. Jones, the president of Community Services Society in New York City, reports that 40 percent of all black men in New York City are jobless. For those who don't graduate from high school, the situation is at deep Depression levels. A hearing chaired by Sen. Chuck Schumer reported that among African-American men who are high-school dropouts, jobless rates over the last few years range from 59 to 72 percent (compared with 29 percent for white high-school dropouts).

Over the last three decades, the United States has essentially abandoned the effort to generate sufficient jobs. Federal investment in job training has been cut by about 75 percent as a percentage of the GDP since the 1970s. Businesses have turned to immigrant labor -- often undocumented workers paid sub-minimum wages.

Jail has taken the place of jobs. Over the last three decades, the federal government and the states have ratcheted up sentences for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug crimes. Instead of spending money on education, the states spend it on prison and prison guards, with incarceration costs rising faster than any other category of spending. America locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.

The prison population expanded 10 times from 1973 to 2003, from 204,000 in 1973 to 2.2 million in 2003. Nine percent of black men ages 25 to 29 were in prison at the end of 2003, according to a report by Adolphus G. Belk Jr. for the 2006 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, titled "Men of Color and the Prison Industrial Complex." The federal government's spending on prisons soared from $541 million in 1982 to $5.2 billion in 2001, according to the report.

Violent crime hasn't driven this rise; it has been tending down. No, driven by law-and-order politicians, the United States decided to throw the book at nonviolent offenders, limiting early release, imposing mandatory sentences, cracking down particularly on drugs like crack cocaine that are prevalent in the cities.

Jail isn't a solution. It is simply a very expensive, immoral contribution to the problem. Once someone has been sentenced to prison, chances of getting a job plummet. Training and education, rehabilitation and psychological counseling in prisons have been slashed. Increasingly the only skills learned in prison are those that prepare inmates for a life of crime.

We do know what works: early childhood health care, nutrition and learning. Intervention to train pregnant young single women for motherhood. Preschool. Skilled teachers and smaller classes in the early years. Affordable housing and health care. And most of all, stable jobs that provide hope and opportunity. It costs money and energy and commitment. But it doesn't cost as much as cleaning up after the human damage has been done. Prenatal care, day care and preschool on the front side of life are a lot less expensive than police, jails and crime on the back side.

Why do we choose what we know doesn't work? Here's where race and politics intertwine. Politicians -- from Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" to George Bush's Willie Horton to Bill Clinton's Rickey Ray Rector -- learned that they might benefit by posturing tough on crime. Now, just like the president's squandering of lives and resources in Iraq, we're wasting lives and billions of dollars in the prison-industrial complex -- while the jobs and education programs that might work face ever deeper cuts. Will no leader be courageous enough to speak this truth?

© Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group

Defense Spending Soars to Highest Levels Since World War II

By James Rosen
McClatchy Newspapers
March 19, 2007

As the Iraq war enters a fifth year, the conflict that President Bush's aides once said would all but pay for itself with oil revenues is fueling the highest level of defense spending since World War II.

Even with past spending adjusted upward for inflation, the $630 billion provided for the military this year exceeds the highest annual amounts during the Reagan-era defense buildup, the Vietnam War and the Korean War.

When lawmakers approve a nearly $100 billion emergency spending bill in the next few weeks, Congress will have appropriated $607 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with about 75 percent going to Iraq, according to a new Congressional Research Service study obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.

Less than three months after assuming control of Congress, Democrats are moving away from their election campaign pledges to restrict or eliminate funding for Iraq.

"Nobody wants to be labeled anti-military for the crime of cutting the budget," said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It makes supporting whatever the military services request a political necessity amongst both Democrats and Republicans."

Bush appealed to lawmakers Monday to pass the war supplemental measure without adding troop withdrawal dates.

"They have a responsibility to get this bill to my desk without strings and without delay," Bush said.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, responded: "This week's House debate on the supplemental appropriations bill offers an opportunity to change the current course in Iraq by demanding accountability and beginning a phased redeployment of U.S. troops, which is a step that serves the interests of both the United States and Iraq."

No one disagrees that a lot of money is being sucked up in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the relentless violence grinds up tanks, planes and other aging equipment.

Beyond the immediate war costs - accelerated by the 30,000-troop increase Bush has dispatched to Iraq - defense analysts inside and outside the government cite several factors that they say are driving military spending:

-Pentagon funding declined in the 1990s, under the first President Bush and President Clinton, as Americans enjoyed what would prove to be a short-lived "peace dividend" after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

-Aging weapons systems fell into disrepair and weren't replaced at what would have been bargain-basement prices by today's standards.

-Military health care and pension costs are soaring as the recruits and officers who formed the volunteer armed forces after the Vietnam War retire and begin to age.

-Pentagon planners are replacing several generations of major weapons systems simultaneously in the Army, Navy and Air Force; the new high-tech tanks, ships and planes are as much as 10 times more expensive, on a per unit basis.

-Congress is likely to approve Bush's request for an increase of 92,000 soldiers and Marines in the country's active-duty forces, the largest growth spurt since the Cold War ended.

About 300,000 American troops are deployed outside U.S. borders - roughly half in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other half in 76 other countries.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee last week that winning the war on terror will require still greater resources.

"The country's not mobilized," Schoomaker said. "Less than one-half of 1 percent of the people are participating in this. And I absolutely believe that we've got to get people out of the spectator stands and onto the field. ... I believe that this is a very long, serious fight that's going to continue to get more and more dangerous."

Already, the United States is spending almost as much on its military as the rest of the world spends on combined armed forces.

Some analysts wonder whether the torrent of money is being channeled in the right directions.

"Since we are outspending the rest of the world on big-ticket weapons systems, we really don't need to worry about an enemy who fights us with those sorts of weapons," said Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute outside Washington.

"The place where we seem poorly equipped is in unconventional conflicts," he said. "Maybe instead of spending billions of dollars on high-tech networks to fight wars like Iraq, we might spend a more modest amount of money on teaching our soldiers just to speak the (Arabic) language."

The Green Guide Acquired by National Geographic

March 12, 2007

As part of its ongoing mission to inspire people to care about the planet, National Geographic today announced the acquisition of The Green Guide, a comprehensive website ( and bi-monthly newsletter that offers practical advice for people on how to lead a more environmentally sensitive life. The announcement was made by Tim Kelly, president and CEO, National Geographic Ventures (NGV), the taxable subsidiary of the 118-year-old National Geographic Society.

NGV takes on The Green Guide as National Geographic expands its efforts to provide the public with meaningful content and valuable information related to the environment. From the National Geographic Channel to National Geographic magazine to, the Society will speak with one voice around the world on urgent environmental issues, especially climate change and global warming.

"We want to offer creative and practical ways to protect the planet," said Kelly. "This is a terrific marriage that joins The Green Guide's actionable editorial with the deep resources of National Geographic. We believe that, together, we can help make a difference."

Under the umbrella of, The Green Guide will publish new and expanded online content. The Green Guide online is free to the public and easy to use. It will retain the look and feel of both the print and online original publications while offering a series of new features to consumers.

• The critically acclaimed and highly popular National Geographic News, already a leading provider of environmental news, will expand its online coverage in this category to a daily online report.

The Green Guide, in partnership with National Geographic's award-winning short-form video production unit, will launch several joint initiatives, the first of which will be Green Homes, a "how to" series of videos, accessible via and will be available for download and as podcasts.

The Green Guide will have access to National Geographic's abundant editorial assets, including research, video and still images.

Since it was founded in 1994 by publisher Wendy Gordon, M.S., a former scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Green Guide has been committed to offering the average consumer straightforward answers about environmental issues and their relevance to our daily lives. Over the years, the publication's expert editorial staff has spent countless hours sifting through the latest in environmental news, scientific research and green consumer products—food, household, personal care and more—to help readers separate fact from fiction and false claims from legitimate ones.

"From the start, The Green Guide's goal was to provide consumers with a trusted, unbiased resource," Gordon said. "Our mission has always been to educate readers, and we see our new position within the National Geographic family as the next logical step in expanding our brand and our mission."

Also from National Geographic this spring under the "green banner" are two books, True Green: 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet, which identifies six areas in everyday life where even small changes pay huge environmental dividends, and From the Bottom Up: One Man's Crusade to Clean America's Rivers, the story of author Chad Pregracke's journey from one-man rubbish remover to internationally renowned river campaigner. Both will be available wherever books are sold April 10, 2007.

About National Geographic

National Geographic Ventures (NGV) is a wholly owned subsidiary of National Geographic Society, which was founded in 1888 and today is one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations in the world. NGV holds and manages the Society's equity interest in the National Geographic Channel. NGV also includes National Geographic Television (NGT) production and distribution, both National Geographic Films and National Geographic Giant Screen Films, Kids Entertainment, National Geographic Home Entertainment, Digital Media business development, as well as National Geographic Maps. NGV creates and distributes content across multi-platforms and media providing outlets for the hundreds of scientific and expedition-based grants awarded each year. is the award-winning Web site of the National Geographic Society and attracts 4.3 million unique visitors a month. combines National Geographic's video, photography, and maps with in-depth information and interactive features about animals and nature and destinations and cultures.'s news service, National Geographic News, publishes daily stories about science and discoveries and produces electronic newsletters for more than 650,000 subscribers. Information about advertising on is at

National Geographic Digital Media's video production unit produces short-form video for broadband markets, including for mobile and gaming markets, and Web sites.

About The Green Guide

The Green Guide is a comprehensive Web site and bi-monthly newsletter that offers objective information and practical advice for consumers on how to lead a greener life. Produced by an expert team of writers, editors and researchers who make it their full time job to sort through the hype surrounding everyday products and behaviors, The Green Guide has established itself as the most reliable source of environmental information for the average consumer since its founding in 1994. For more information, visit

© 2007 National Geographic Society

Monday, March 19, 2007

Iraq and the Media: A Critical Timeline

March 19, 2007

It's hardly controversial to suggest that the mainstream media's performance in the lead-up to the Iraq War was a disaster. In retrospect, many journalists and pundits wish they had been more skeptical of the White House's claims about Iraq, particularly its allegations about weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, though, media apologists suggest that the press could not have done much better, since "everyone" was in agreement on the intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons threat. This was never the case. Critical journalists and analysts raised serious questions at the time about what the White House was saying. Often, however, their warnings were ignored by the bulk of the corporate press.

This timeline is an attempt to recall some of the worst moments in journalism, from the fall of 2002 and into the early weeks of the Iraq War. It is not an exhaustive catalog, but a useful reference point for understanding the media's performance. The timeline also points to missed opportunities, when courageous journalists—working inside the mainstream and the alternative media—uncovered stories that should have made the front pages of daily newspapers, or provided fodder for TV talk shows. By reading mainstream media critically and tuning into the alternative press, citizens can see that the notion that "everyone" was wrong about Iraq was—and is—just another deception.

September 1, 2002
— In a Baltimore Sun column calling for the resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq, former inspector Scott Ritter points out that earlier inspections had been able to verify a "90 percent to 95 percent level of disarmament," including "all of the production facilities involved with WMD" and "the great majority of what was produced by these facilities.”

September 6, 2002
— In a story entitled "Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials," Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay report that "senior U.S. officials with access to top-secret intelligence on Iraq say they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle East stability."

Click on FAIR for the rest of the timeline.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Race to the Finish

by Bill McKibben

The most overused image for the fight against global warming is the "race against time." Still, it's one of those ideas that grabs you on occasion and won't let go. (And not just because here at Step It Up 2007 we're passing the 30-days-to-April-14 mark and working essentially around the clock to organize our rallies.) It's a metaphor that lingers for a reason.

This week the Bush administration admitted what everyone had known: its official projections show our greenhouse-gas emissions increasing 1 percent per year through 2020. In global-warming terms, that's essentially forever -- well past the point where the barrel goes over Niagara. Meanwhile, the early drafts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change impact reports began to leak, full of predictions about the imminent onset of ecosystem collapse, the spread of malaria, and shortages of water. We're stuck in the same cycle we've been in for 20 years -- emitting more carbon even as we understand more clearly the danger.

And each day -- well, each day a day passes. We get that much farther along without doing anything of substance at all -- at least on the federal level, where, ultimately, action is most needed. Nothing deflects the trajectory of our path. Tuesday is worse than Monday by a few hundredths of a part per million of CO2, a few ticks up on the thermometer.

That's why we need something sharp. We need April 14 to be a day of real passion, of peaceful but firm commitment to changing that trajectory. And it's why we need our presidential candidates and our congressional representatives to sign on to the target of 80 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction by 2050. (Or, better yet, raise the bidding and go for something even better.) That's the kind of target that might shock our economic system into delivering a set of new approaches, new investments, and new technologies. It might shock us into developing a few new habits.

Another shopworn phrase in the global-warming battle is "business as usual." It's usually employed to describe the emissions scenarios in a future where we make no attempt to do anything new or useful. That 1 percent growth a year? That's pretty much business as usual. But environmentalists can fall into business-as-usual mode too. The long round of papers and books and conferences and proposals is, on the one hand, vitally important -- we need the ideas and the networks -- and on the other hand lulling; it can cause us to imagine progress where it isn't happening.

That's why, when moments come along that allow us to step outside the normal flow and make a loud, heartfelt noise, we should do it. That's why more than 850 communities have decided to Step It Up, and why most of the big environmental groups have lent such a huge helping hand. Now we have a month to collectively figure out how to make our shout echo as loudly as possible, and make April 14 one of those moments when business as usual ceases -- one of those moments outside of regular time when the race suddenly looks winnable.

Bill McKibben is spearheading the Step It Up 2007 campaign. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience on climate change, and the forthcoming Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He serves on Grist's board of directors.

©2007. Grist Magazine, Inc.

Debunking the New York Times' Sloppy Hit Piece on Gore

by David Roberts
March 13, 2007

Yesterday, Drudge breathlessly reported a coming "hit on Gore" from The New York Times. Today that hit has come, in the form of a state-of-the-art piece of slime from Bill Broad.

This may be the worst, sloppiest, most dishonest piece of reporting I've ever seen in the NYT. It's got all the hallmarks of a vintage Gore hit piece: half-truths, outright falsehoods, unsubstantiated quotes, and a heaping dose of innuendo. As usual with these things, unless you've been following the debate carefully, you'll be left with a false impression -- in this case, that scientists are divided over the accuracy of Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth.

I find it difficult to believe that Broad doesn't know exactly what he's doing here. (See RealClimate for a discussion of one of his previous travesties.)

I could go almost sentence by sentence, but let's just run through some of the highlights. I apologize for the length, but there's really a lot of trash here to shovel through.

Here's the central thrust: "... part of [Gore's] scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous."

All right, so let's see some exaggerated and erroneous claims, right?

Things start promisingly, as the article names one of these critics: Don J. Easterbrook, professor of geology. Easterbrook said, "there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing [from Gore], and we have to temper that with real data." What inaccuracies? Astoundingly, the article doesn't cite a single alleged inaccuracy until 28 paragraphs later. It's this:

[Easterbrook] hotly disputed Mr. Gore's claim that "our civilization has never experienced any environmental shift remotely similar to this" threatened change.

Nonsense, Dr. Easterbrook told the crowded session. He flashed a slide that showed temperature trends for the past 15,000 years. It highlighted 10 large swings, including the medieval warm period. These shifts, he said, were up to "20 times greater than the warming in the past century."

But Gore never said (as far as I know, no one has ever said) that the temperature swing in the last century is the widest temperature swing ever. Gore's point is that the global average temperature has never shifted so much so quickly -- about ten times faster than previous swings. That speed, after all, is the primary evidence of human involvement.

So we have exactly one "inaccuracy," and it's based on a thuddingly obvious misunderstanding.

Here's something else you never hear about Easterbrook in the piece: he doesn't believe human GHG emissions are causing current global warming. That's fine. More power to him. But it puts him way outside the scientific mainstream; the recent IPCC report put confidence in the culpability of human GHGs at between 90-99%. Does Easterbrook's ... idiosyncratic stance on the basic science of climate change not warrant a mention, since he is the critic most prominently featured? Apparently not.

Moving on. Many of Gore's critics, the piece says, "occupy a middle ground in the climate debate, seeing human activity as a serious threat but challenging what they call the extremism of both skeptics and zealots."

Sound familiar? You just know what's coming next, right? Yup, brace yourselves for Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee:

Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, said he sensed a growing backlash against exaggeration.


"[Gore]'s a very polarizing figure in the science community," said Roger A. Pielke Jr., an environmental scientist who is a colleague of Dr. Vranes at the University of Colorado center.

Let's be frank here. Vranes -- Robin to Pielke Jr.'s Batman -- is a climatologist only under a strained definition of that term; he's published little peer-reviewed work and mainly blogs (like me!). The only reason anyone knows his name is that he once had a "sense" that scientists had "oversold" climate science -- a sense not shared by other climate scientists. Why is Vranes' sensation worth reporting? God knows, but google around a bit and you'll see it's made Vranes famous.

As for the next 'graph, where to begin? First, Roger Pielke Jr. is not an "environmental scientist." He's not a scientist of any kind, though he's got a track record of encouraging that misapprehension. RPJr. is a policy guy who spends most of his time blogging and getting quoted in the media. Given that he's not a scientist, why should anyone care what he thinks is going on "in the science community"? Shouldn't we hear from an actual scientist about that?

I know Gore "polarizes" the conservative political community, with whom RPJr. incessantly plays footsie, but as this trainwreck of an article illustrates, there aren't too many mainstream scientists willing to talk about how polarizing Gore is.

OK, let's take stock. So far, to establish that "part of [Gore's] scientific audience is uneasy," we have a gross misunderstanding from one scientist who doesn't believe GHGs cause global warming, and the unsubstantiated quotes of two well-known media hounds. And that's what Broad led with.

Some 12 paragraphs in, we finally hear from mainstream climate scientists. What do they say?

"He has credibility in this community," said Tim Killeen ... director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a top group studying climate change. "There's no question he's read a lot and is able to respond in a very effective way."

Kinda puts a new spin on things, huh? At least for the three people who read this far into the piece.

©2007. Grist Magazine, Inc.

Chemicals May Play Role in Rise in Obesity

by Elizabeth Grossman
The Washington Post
March 12, 2007

Too many calories and too little exercise are undeniably the major factors contributing to the obesity epidemic, but several recent animal studies suggest that environmental exposure to widely used chemicals may also help make people fat.

The evidence is preliminary, but a number of researchers are pursuing indications that the chemicals, which have been shown to cause abnormal changes in animals' sexual development, can also trigger fat-cell activity -- a process scientists call adipogenesis.

The chemicals under scrutiny are used in products from marine paints and pesticides to food and beverage containers. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found one chemical, bisphenol A, in 95 percent of the people tested, at levels at or above those that affected development in animals.

These findings were presented at last month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A spokesman for the chemical industry later dismissed the concerns, but Jerry Heindel, a top official of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), who chaired the AAAS session, said the suspected link between obesity and exposure to "endocrine disrupters," as the chemicals are called because of their hormone-like effects, is "plausible and possible."

Bruce Blumberg, a developmental and cell biologist at the University of California at Irvine, one of those presenting research at the meeting, called them "obesogens" -- chemicals that promote obesity.

Obesity has become a major health concern as people in the United States and around the world have become increasingly overweight, raising their risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, stroke and certain cancers. The World Health Organization estimates that more than a billion adults worldwide are overweight and 300 million are obese. Scientists have begun examining a wide range of possible causes beyond eating too much and exercising too little -- including possible chemical exposures.

Blumberg began to suspect a link while trying to pinpoint how one endocrine disrupter, tributyltin, affects genetic mechanisms in the reproductive system. Tributyltin is used as a marine and agricultural fungicide, an antimicrobial agent in industrial water systems, and in plastics; it can cause serious sexual abnormalities in marine animals.

"What we discovered," Blumberg said, is that tributyltin disrupted genetic interactions that regulate fat-cell activity in animals. "Exposure to tributyltin is increasing the number of fat cells, so the individual will get fatter faster as these cells produce more of the hormones that say 'feed me,'" Blumberg said. The exposed animals, he added, remain predisposed to obesity for life.

Retha R. Newbold, a developmental biologist at the NIEHS, has seen similar lifetime effects in her work with diethylstilbestrol (DES), a potent synthetic estrogen she has studied for 30 years.

Newbold's research has shown that mice exposed to DES during early development produced more fat cells, larger fat cells, and more abdominal fat than those not exposed. Exposed mice became obese adults and remained obese even on reduced calorie and increased exercise regimes. Like tributyltin, DES appeared to permanently disrupt the hormonal mechanisms regulating body weight.

"Once these genetic changes happen in utero, they are irreversible and with the individual for life," Newbold said.

DES was widely prescribed for women during pregnancy from the 1940s until 1971, when it was withdrawn after being linked to cancer. Taken by perhaps 8 million women, DES has caused reproductive abnormalities in children and grandchildren of women who took it. Whether its effects include promoting obesity has yet to be determined, but its effects on animal metabolism -- it is also used to fatten livestock -- are similar to those caused by bisphenol A, a chemical most people now encounter daily.

"Exposure to bisphenol A is continuous," said Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Bisphenol A is an ingredient in polycarbonate plastics used in many products, including refillable water containers and baby bottles, and in epoxy resins that line the inside of food cans and are used as dental sealants. In 2003, U.S. industry consumed about 2 billion pounds of bisphenol A.

Researchers have studied bisphenol A's effects on estrogen function for more than a decade. Vom Saal's research indicates that developmental exposure to low doses of bisphenol A activates genetic mechanisms that promote fat-cell activity. "These in-utero effects are lifetime effects, and they occur at phenomenally small levels" of exposure, vom Saal said.

Steven Hentges of the American Chemistry Council said his organization's review of the scientific literature found that a preponderance of the bisphenol A studies have shown no adverse effects, including no increased body weight. "Our conclusion is that there is no risk to human health," said Hentges.

But many scientists disagree, including vom Saal, who called the ACC's statements a "blatant lie."

Research into the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on obesity has been done only in laboratory animals, but the genetic receptors that control fat cell activity are functionally identical across species. "They work virtually the same way in fish as they do in rodents and humans," Blumberg said. "Fat cells are an endocrine organ."

Ongoing studies are monitoring human levels of bisphenol A, but none have been done of tributyltin, which has been used since the 1960s and is persistent in the marine food web. "Tributyltin is the only endocrine disrupting chemical that has been shown without substantial argument to have an effect at levels at which it's found in the environment," Blumberg said.

Concern over tributyltin's reproductive effects on marine animals has resulted in an international agreement discontinuing its use in anti-fouling paints used on ships. The EPA has said it plans next year to assess its other applications, including as an antimicrobial agent in livestock operations, fish hatcheries and hospitals.

Bisphenol A is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in consumer products, and the agency says the amount of bisphenol A or tributyltin that might leach from products is too low to be of concern. But the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, is reviewing bisphenol A, and concerns about its estrogenic effects prompted California legislators to propose banning it from certain products sold in-state, a move industry has fought vigorously.

Researchers said the next step is to learn if these apparent animal "obesogens" are affecting people.

"Our job is to follow the science, and based on these animal studies, this is worth taking a look at," said Heindel of the NIEHS.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company