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Salon on Global Warming
Jamais Cascio, 4 Nov 05

salonfaces.jpgSalon.com, well-established as a progressive political outlet, is increasingly finding its voice in the world of environmental politics, as well. They regularly publish articles by Grist's Amanda Griscom Little, and today their lead story focuses on the people leading global efforts to fight against the effects of global warming -- along with a short essay by Al Gore demonstrating what an environmental "call to arms" looks like. As with all Salon pieces, access to the full articles requires either a paid subscription or viewing of a brief advertisement.

The names and faces populating the "Climate Warriors and Heroes" article cut across disciplines and positions. Readers won't agree with all of their choices -- I certainly don't -- but the spectrum of roles and actions the list encompasses is broader than many might expect. Established names like Gore and Amory Lovins rub shoulders with global figures like director of the China Automotive and Technology Research Center Zhao Hang, University of Iceland hydrogen specialist Dr. Bragi Árnason, and chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Sheila Watt-Cloutier. The list leans a bit too heavily for my tastes on mainstream politicians (such as John McCain, Tony Blair and Arnold Schwarzenegger), but succeeds in demonstrating that concern about and action against global warming is not isolated to scientists and activists.

Gore's essay also strikes a mainstream chord, repeatedly linking back to Winston Churchill's statements in the era leading up to World War II. The piece is clearly not meant to lay out any new initiatives or draw any new conclusions about the climate; instead, it's meant to rally those who know enough to be concerned about the environment, but don't quite grasp the seriousness of the situation:

We know that hurricanes are heat engines that thrive on warm water. We know that heat-trapping gases from our industrial society are warming the oceans. We know that, in the past 30 years, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally has almost doubled. It's time to connect the dots:
  • Last year, the science textbooks had to be rewritten. They used to say, "It's impossible to have a hurricane in the South Atlantic." We had the first one last year, in Brazil. Japan also set an all-time record for typhoons last year: 10. The previous record was seven.
  • This summer, more than 200 cities in the United States broke all-time heat records. Reno, Nev., set a new record with 10 consecutive days above 100 degrees. Tucson, Ariz., tied its all-time record of 39 consecutive days above 100 degrees. New Orleans -- and the surrounding waters of the Gulf -- also hit an all-time high.
  • This summer, parts of India received record rainfall -- 37 inches fell in Mumbai in 24 hours, killing more than 1,000 people.
  • The new extremes of wind and rain are part of a larger pattern that also includes rapidly melting glaciers worldwide, increasing desertification, a global extinction crisis, the ravaging of ocean fisheries, and a growing range for disease "vectors" like mosquitoes, ticks and many other carriers of viruses and bacteria harmful to people.
  • All of these are symptoms of a deeper crisis: the "Category 5" collision between our civilization -- as we currently pursue it -- and the Earth's environment.

    The essay comes down a bit too much in the "America can solve the problem" camp (rather than arguing that America needs to be a part of the solutions, but this needs to be a global transformation), but that's forgivable. Most of Gore's readers will be in the US, and -- to be blunt -- that's where a great deal of the eduction needs to happen.

    Many of us watching the course of the 2004 presidential election in the United States were saddened and frustrated by the lack of significant discussion about the environment, and global warming in particular, from either of the leading candidates. But that was the pre-Katrina world; political figures no longer have the luxury of believing that the climate doesn't matter. With Salon more forcefully taking up the charge that climate disruption has to be a key issue for political leaders, we may well see the subject show up as part of the 2006 congressional campaigns. We are certain to see it be central to the 2008 presidential race. Hopefully, that won't be too late.

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    Comments

    Kerry demonstrated his lack of seriousness about GW. He also still has $18 million of campaign contributions, including mine, in his kitty. Time for a refund. As for Bush, well, we expected, and got, nothing.


    Posted by: t on 4 Nov 05

    Yes, a very well done pair of articles - note that the "warriors and heroes" report was done in cooperation with Rolling Stone magazine.

    I was particularly taken with their portrayal of Hiroshi Okuda of Toyota - "the Bill Gates of the auto world." - I think we'll be hearing a lot more about him in coming years.

    And I appreciated that they included my good friend Marty Hoffert - last on the list, but an inspiration to many of us. I only wish Richard Smalley was still around to be included (he passed away about a week ago) - his talk here last year was a very powerful call to action; I wish I'd known he was battling cancer at the time...


    Posted by: Arthur Smith on 4 Nov 05

    Is Salon a magazine with a big American audience? I had never heard of it. How does it compare with, e.g. Time magazine?


    Posted by: Lorenzo on 4 Nov 05

    Salon & Rolling Stone give us "Drive-through environmentalism" -- you can save the planet without ever getting out of your car!

    That's the uninspiring overall thrust of this collection of essays. While the article notes that 70% of US energy goes to transportation, not a single one of your environmental heroes proposes a fundamental change to the transportation system. Instead we are treated to palid proposals for hybrid SUVs.

    Currently, our cars waste about 99% of the energy they burn. The engines operate at about 20% thermal efficiency, and then nearly all the resulting power goes to moving the car itself, which weighs 20 times as much as its typical cargo load. So only about 1% of the energy in the fuel is actually utilized to move a passenger.

    Amory Lovins, the "Visionary" of the Salon/Rolling Stone crew, has an answer. His "Revolution" SUV would increase average fuel economy by an astounding factor of 400%. So when his Revolution is done, an auto will use 4% of its energy to move its occupant, and only waste 96%.

    In the meantime, high-paid policy wonks and Hollywood high-rollers will trade in their SUVs for flashy new hybrids. Middle-income working people will buy the used SUVs and drive them for another 15 years. Over a couple of decades, the average fuel wastage of the entire American fleet will creep down ever-so-slowly, while in China, the number of cars increases by a factor of 10.

    But the entire supply chain of the auto-industrial complex will roll on undisturbed, widening roads, molding plastic dashboards, and designing ever more expensive child-restraint seats to safeguard the motorists of tomorrow.

    The article gives no hint that there are thousands of environmentalists who are working on ways to drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the use of cars. The next time you introduce "28 leaders who are fighting to stave off planetwide catastrophe", could you include at least one who dares to say that cars are killing us?


    Posted by: Bart Hawkins Kreps on 4 Nov 05

    We recently we're asked to vote on an inititive to "save" Colorado. Amendment C changed the way the state computes increases in revenues so that more could be available to run state government.
    C passed, which I supported. Amendment D asked permission to borrow billions of dollars to fund state infrastructure. The vast majority of the funds were for roads. D failed.

    I find this a hopeful sign since it seems to show that the citizens were telling the auto lobby to go pack sand.

    Citizens, at least in Colorado, are willing to raise taxes to fund necessary government expenditures, but, when given a choice, have indicated they would like to deprioritize road building.

    Bart is right; we need to create a society that doesn't depend on the auto, even autos that get 66 mpg.


    Posted by: tom on 4 Nov 05

    To access the article I viewed an an for Infiniti cars and SUVs. Given that global warming, air pollution, sprawl and a host of other problems are a direct result of the automobile it's a wonder that reducing or eliminating car use wasn't noted. But I guess Salon knows who's feeding them.


    Posted by: Fritz on 4 Nov 05

    Fritz- that's really ironic.

    The craziest thing is people like Lovins have pushed the Hypercar, but always mentionning that we also need to change the way we build cities to make the car less necessary.

    Not that many people want to listen to the full message of our visionaries... we'd have to do radical things like living in human-scale neighbourhoods. We would know who our neighbours are! Can't have that.


    Posted by: Daniel Haran on 4 Nov 05

    Bart, you're using Lovins' numbers on the efficiency of cars, but they're completely inappropriate. For something more efficient than cars, for instance mass transit, it's not 99% of the energy that goes to "waste", but 99.9%, according to the way Lovins calculates it. It's simply a meaningless statistic. For more on that, see my review of Lovins' recent Scientific American article here: Amory Lovins Misleads with Numbers.

    More and better mass transportation would be good though, but I'm not sure I know anybody who's pushing for that in the US or around the world at the moment. But those who say we should eliminate transportation altogether are quite off-base - I'd suggest a look at the "Oil Drum" numbers: Driving Recessions: the less we travel, the poorer we are, for some still mysterious reason.


    Posted by: Arthur Smith on 5 Nov 05

    Bart might be a little alarmist but I think his basic premise is right.

    I think the pressures are there. People are slowly realizing that you don't have to move atoms around as much as you used to.

    There are lot of industries built around moving atoms around though and we have to work to reduce the need for them:

    1) Business conventions. Do we really have to fly to Vegas? Isn't telepresence (blogging, e-mail, chat, mobile phone cameras and so on.) supposed to eliminate this? If a doctor can do surgery remotely by robot, why do I have fly to SxSW "to be seen?"

    2) Express shipping. How many things have to express shipped. Really? Can't personal fabrication advance to a point where you can just e-mail plans to my desktop factory?

    3) Business meetings. How many of these are really necessary? E-mail or teleconference.

    Obviously more work needs to be done with personal fabrication and telepresence. It would nice to virtually hunch over the shoulder of a customer whose computer I'm troubleshooting--sometimes ssh and rdp aren't enough.

    But I think the technology is emerging. Now it's a political and economic problem.


    Posted by: Pace Arko on 5 Nov 05



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