Environment Forum

March of the beetles bodes ill for American forests

MEDICINE BOW NATIONAL FOREST, Wyoming – From the vantage point of an 80-foot (25 meter) tower rising above the trees, the Wyoming vista seems idyllic: snow-capped peaks in the distance give way to shimmering green spruce.

But this is a forest under siege. Among the green foliage of the healthy spruce are the orange-red needles of the sick and the dead, victims of a beetle infestation closely related to one that has already laid waste to millions of acres (hectares) of pine forest in North America.

“The gravity of the situation is very real,” said Rolf Skar, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace.

The plague has cost billions of dollars in lost timber and land values and may thwart efforts to combat climate change, as forests are major storing houses of carbon, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.

The beetle outbreak, which has taken a lesser, but mounting, toll on spruce trees, could make it that much tougher to meet the ambitious target to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.

Timber! Big trees declining in Yosemite

Large diameter trees are not doing well in California’s Yosemite National Park — there were 24 percent fewer in a recent decade than the 1930s, the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Washington scientists said in a new report. Climate change is the likely culprit they say, cutting snow pack, which cuts available water, which cuts growth of big trees, which cuts production of seeds for new trees, which — you get the idea, but basically the whole ecosystem is strained.Meanwhile, fewer fires has led to growth in the type of trees that are not fire-resistant — so future fires may be particularly bad, especially with warmer, drier conditions.The comparison of trees in 1988-1999 versus 1932-1936 was published in Forest Ecology and Management.California’s Yosemite may not be alone — Polish woods also face an uncertain future due to climate change, according to a new Reuters story.Photo by ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS

Sage, wind and grouse: The “brown” side of clean energy?

CARBON, Wyoming – They used to mine coal in the abandoned town of Carbon. Now this patch of southern Wyoming is a battleground in the debate over what many hope will be the clean energy source of the future: wind power.

At the heart of the dispute are plans to build a network of wind farms in the American West that conservationists fear could disrupt threatened habitat such as sage brush, a dwindling piece of the region’s fragile ecosystem.

This has made the greater sage grouse — which as its name suggests is totally dependent on sage brush — an unlikely poster child for some U.S. environmentalists, in much the same way that the rare spotted owl became a symbol in the 1980s of pitched battles with the logging industry.

The Case Of The Forged Letters – a cap-and-trade mystery


A half-dozen fake letters, signed by people who don’t seem to exist and who work at made-up jobs, are causing a bit of buzz in the environmental world — mostly because the letters urged a Virginia congressman to vote against a cap-and-trade system to curb climate change.

The Sierra Club calls it “dirty tricks.” The Union of Concerned Scientists points out that the PR firm said to be behind the fake-letter lobbying effort has a history of working against climate legislation. Rep. Ed Markey, who chairs a House committee on energy independence and global warming, said the committee will investigate. The Daily Progress newspaper in Charlottesville published a detailed story.

The congressman, Tom Perriello, voted for the cap-and-trade bill anyway. It passed by a slim margin and the Senate is expected to take up this matter in September.

Futurist says dollars mean bright future for solar energy

   Solar power may bring us cleaner air and clearer skies. Nice, yes. But it’s money — not saving Mother Earth — that will catapult solar energy past dirty coal-fueled power plants.

That’s the theory of Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and inventor. At a technology conference on Friday, Kurzweil said billions are being invested into solar power and new advances in the technology are driving down the cost of powering by the sun. 
    “As a result, the amount of solar energy is doubling every year two years,” Kurzweil said. “But ultimately it will be very inexpensive. So what’s motivating (its adoption) is economics.
    “It has the side effect that it’s environmentally much friendlier,” Kurzweil said at the Fortune Brainstorm: TECH conference in Pasadena, California.
    The inventor is far from the first to predict the success of solar power. Some may give more weight to his words: Kurzweil has predicted the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of wireless technology.
    He has his critics as well. Kurzweil, who wrote “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” envisions a future where we can download memory and reverse-engineer the brain.
    (Reporting and writing by Laura Isensee)

      (Picture: Inventor Raymond Kurzweil speaks at the Fortune Brainstorm TECH conference in Pasadena, California July 24, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser)

Seas rise — vast amounts of ice melt for every 1 mm gain

It takes the equivalent of a massive chunk of ice of 390 cubic kms (150 cubic miles) to raise world sea levels by one millimetre, according to David Carlson, director of the International Programme Office of the International Polar Year.

As an example, he says that works out as a lump 39 kms long, 10 wide and 1 km thick. Or I reckon it could be a blockbuster ice cube with sides 7.3 kms long — that would smother most of  a large city such as Paris (top left — you can see the Eiffel Tower in the middle).

David’s numbers give an idea of the scale of the thaw under way — seas have been rising at about 3 millimetres a year in recent years in a trend that almost all climate scientists blame on global warming caused by human activities. That’s equivalent to a rate of 30 cms a century.

Between Bangkok, Barcelona and a big bang (with one eye on Capitol Hill)

For those keeping track, there are five months left before the December meeting in Copenhagen where the world is supposed to agree on how to tackle climate change after crucial aspects of the carbon-capping Kyoto Protocol expire. Before they can agree on anything, they have to have a document to work from, and that’s where people like Michael Zammit Cutajar come in.

He and other diplomats at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will get together next month in Bonn to whittle down a 200-page text to something more manageable. On a visit to Washington, he said he didn’t expect any big breakthroughs at that meeting because “people don’t like to work much in August.” So far, he himself hasn’t read through the whole draft and admits it’s likely to be a tough thing to read: “You pick it up, you look at it, you see three pages, you say ‘interesting,’ you put it down again. It’s not meant to be read top to bottom.”

Zammit Cutajar figures the “crunch issues” are more likely to emerge at a meeting in Bangkok over 10 days in September and October, and at another gathering in Barcelona in November, before the main event in Copenhagen.

Countering the contrarians on global warming

Just how hot is it going to get?

That’s what everyone wants to know, and the focus of a lot of research. But parsing through the science can present some problems, with plenty of opportunity for mischief.

Aaron Huertas has been in this game for a while, so he figured there might be problems as soon as he saw the headline on the release from Rice University: “Global warming: Our best guess is likely wrong.”

The text of the release, which was promoting a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, noted that climate models can’t explain all of the heating indicated in the geologic record of a warm period some 55 million years ago. And one of the scientists who did the research told Reuters that this could mean current forecasts are underestimating how hot Earth’s atmosphere will get in the future.

Sarah Palin’s new focus

Admit it: we all wondered just what Sarah Palin would turn her time and talents to after she announced her resignation from the Alaska governor’s job, and now she’s given what looks like an answer. In an op-ed column in The Washington Post, Palin took a swipe at Washington insiders and the mainstream media for ignoring the economy, and then tipped her hand.

“Unfortunately, many in the national media would rather focus on the personality-driven political gossip of the day than on the gravity of these challenges,” she wrote. “So, at risk of disappointing the chattering class, let me make clear what is foremost on my mind and where my focus will be: I am deeply concerned about President Obama’s cap-and-trade energy plan, and I believe it is an enormous threat to our economy. It would undermine our recovery over the short term and would inflict permanent damage.”

In a brief story about this, we noted that Palin’s plans for spurring the U.S. economy include offshore drilling, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and exploring the possibility of nuclear power in every state.

How much would you pay?

What’s the real cost of global warming? More to the point, how much would you — the person reading this blog — be comfortable paying to stave off the worse ravages of climate change? A hundred bucks to keep the rising seas out of your back yard? A thousand to replenish mountain snowpack? Maybe a few dollars to put more trees back in the rainforest?

Luckily, there’s no shortage of estimates of how much each individual in the United States might have to pay to curb the greenhouse emissions that spur climate change. One particularly pertinent estimate was delivered on Capitol Hill by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at a Senate hearing geared to send the message that, yes, the United States Congress is getting serious about tackling the problem.

As Reuters’ Jasmin Melvin wrote in this story, Jackson said it would cost the average U.S. household about 50 cents a day to fight global warming, though wealthier households would probably pay more. Even if this cost doubled, Jackson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, that would only be a dollar a day. Who wouldn’t pay that?

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