Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Warren on the Republican Defection

Elizabeth Warren on  the Republican Derogation of Duty

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to solve a real, honest-to-God problem.

Our health care system was broken. 48 million people in this country had no health insurance. Women couldn't get access to cancer screenings. People with diabetes were denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. People with cancer hit the caps on their health insurance spending. And health spending in this country was growing far too fast.  

So we worked hard, we compromised, and we came up with a solution. A solution that will substantially improve the lives of millions of Americans because that's the way a democracy works.  

It's time to end the debate about whether the Affordable Care Act should exist and whether it should be funded.

Congress voted for this law. President Obama signed this law. The Supreme Court upheld this law. The President ran for reelection on this law. His opponent said he would repeal it and his opponent lost by five million votes. 

Right now, Republicans are taking the government and the economy hostage, threatening serious damage to both unless the President agrees to gut the Affordable Care Act. For days, they even tried to change the law so that employers can deny women access to birth control coverage.

I am the mother of a daughter and the grandmother of granddaughters. I will never vote to let a group of backward-looking ideologues cut women's access to birth control. We have lived in that world, and we are not going back. Not ever.

I see things like this and I wonder what alternate reality some of my colleagues are living in.

So let me be very clear about what is happening in the real world: The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. Millions of people are counting on it people who need health care coverage, people who need insurance policies that don't disappear just when they are sickest.

The law is here to stay, and it will stay.

Now the government is shut down. We haven't fixed the sequester because of all the obstruction. We haven't finished a budget because of all the obstruction. We haven't even passed a single appropriations bill because of all the obstruction.

The least we can do the bare minimum we can do would be to pass a "continuing resolution" to open the doors back up and turn the lights back on. We could ensure that over a million federal workers aren't staying home for no reason. We could end the government shutdown.

But the Republicans have refused to do even that. They have shuttered the government unless the President agreed to de-fund the Affordable Care Act.

The threats may continue, but they are not working and they never will. In a democracy, hostage tactics are the last resort for those who can't win their fights through elections, can't win their fights in Congress, can't win their fights for the Presidency, and can't win their fights in Courts. 

For this right-wing minority, hostage-taking is all they have left a last gasp of those who cannot cope with the realities of our democracy.

The time has come for those legislators who cannot cope with the reality of our democracy to get out of the way so that those of us in BOTH parties can get back to working on solving the real problems faced by the American people.

We have real work to do.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Circle Closes

. The Circle Closes.

            The NY Times closed its environment desk but Tom Friedman has not stopped thinking. Here is one of the most important political insights in recent months. It flings a challenge to science, both in defining the problem and in opening channels for solutions. But governments have to be able to hear, to understand, and to respond. Never previously has the basic knowledge of the biosphere been so important or so forthrightly challenged.  GMW

Mother Nature and the Middle Class

Published The New York Times: September 21, 2013 14 Comments
IF you fell asleep 30 years ago, woke up last week and quickly scanned the headlines in Iran and Egypt you could be excused for saying, “I didn’t miss a thing.” The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are still slugging it out along the Nile, and Iranian pragmatists and ideologues are still locked in a duel for control of their Islamic Revolution. So go back to sleep? Not so fast. I can guarantee that the next 30 years will not be the same old, same old. Two huge new forces have muscled their way into the center of both Egyptian and Iranian politics, and they will bust open their old tired duopolies.
The first newcomer is Mother Nature. Do not mess with Mother Nature. Iran’s population in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution occurred was 37 million; today it’s 75 million. Egypt’s was 40 million; today it’s 85 million. The stresses from more people, climate change and decades of environmental abuse in both countries can no longer be ignored or bought off.
On July 9, Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, an adviser to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke to this reality in the Ghanoon newspaper: “Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran,” said Kalantari. “It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. ... Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.”
He continued: “I am deeply worried about the future generations. ... If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.” Kalantari added: “All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others.” Kalantari concluded that the “deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. ... If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”
In Egypt, soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually.
But just as Mother Nature is demanding better governance from above in both countries, an emergent and empowered middle class, which first reared its head with the 2009 Green revolution in Iran and the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, is doing so from below. A government that just provides “order” alone in either country simply won’t cut it anymore. Order, drift and decay were tolerable when populations were smaller, the environment not so degraded, the climate less volatile, and citizens less technologically empowered and connected.
Both countries today need “order-plus” — an order that enables dynamism and resilience, and that can be built only on the rule of law, innovation, political and religious pluralism, and greater freedoms. It requires political and economic institutions that are inclusive and “sustainable,” in both senses of that word. Neither country can afford the old line that Hosni Mubarak used for so many years when addressing American leaders: “After me comes the flood, so you’d better put up with my stale, plodding but stable leadership, otherwise you’ll get the Muslim Brotherhood.”
That is so 1970s. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, puts it: In the Middle East today “it’s no longer ‘After me, the flood’ — Après moi, le déluge — but ‘After me, the drought.’ ” Syria’s revolution came on the heels of the worst drought in its modern history, to which the government failed to respond.
Iran’s Islamic leadership seems to realize that it cannot keep asking its people to put up with crushing economic sanctions to preserve a nuclear weapons option. Mother Nature and Iran’s emergent middle classes require much better governance, integrated with the world. That’s why Iran is seeking a nuclear deal now with Washington.
And that’s why two of the most interesting leaders to watch today are President Rouhani of Iran and Egypt’s new military strongman, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Both men rose up in the old order, but both men were brought into the top leadership by the will of their emergent middle classes and newly empowered citizens, and neither man will be able to maintain order without reforming the systems that produced them — making them more sustainable and inclusive. They have no choice: too many people, too little oil, too little soil.
And pay attention: What Mother Nature and these newly empowered citizens have in common is that they can both set off a wave — a tsunami — that can overwhelm their systems at any moment, and you’ll never see it coming.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Science Leads Government!


Science Leads Government!

Science and the Purpose of Government
A  Crumbling Biosphere  II

          The purpose of government is rarely debated yet it is before us daily in legislatures, committees, boards of selectmen, our courts and in all the news. And purpose changes profoundly with time, with the growth of the human population, with technology and with experience and aspirations.  There is no doubt: the purposes of government are manifold and complex and ever mutable. And they are tested ever more intensively as  the biosphere comes under greater pressures.  For the moment, however, for simplicity I focus on civil rights, the protection of each from the activities of all, and all from the activities of each. The golden rule in some form has been the core of governmental purpose for all of time in every civilization worthy of respect. It has many formulations. Much of the world recognizes it as the principle of Sic Utere  (Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas)“Carry yourself in such a way as not to interfere with others”

            That charge has stood the tests of time and continues to emerge as the core of civil rights whose protection we steadfastly assign to governments the world over.

            Yet the world of the 21st Century is a new world,  crowded beyond precedent with 7 billion humans whose numbers continue to expand. It is changing drastically as humans disrupt  climates globally and change the chemistry of air, water and land, and invent ever new ways of interacting and communicating with one another. The mechanical demands of life in this new crowded world are ever more stringent, esoteric, difficult to interpret, let alone to see through to a just conclusion protecting the interests of all.

            That point became abundantly clear in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s as  the world recognized for the first time that humans had made an indelible mark on the earth with radioactivity and a global contamination with agricultural poisons and industrial chemical wastes.  The US government responded wisely with famous legislation that became a model for the world. We established the Environmental Protection Agency and a series of laws designed to protect air and water and land and people from industrial and other poisons.    Recognizing the technical difficulties, the Congress also established within itself and for its own support in legislating, a special Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. The office accumulated a superb staff of specialists who functioned in helping the Congress develop insights and laws in a more and more complex world, quite beyond the ken of most citizens and lawmakers. It was a brilliant move and a very valuable agency until short sighted, conservative interests in the Congress in 1995 managed to snuff it out in favor of allowing industrial interests greater license to intrude on human welfare for profit. 

            Meanwhile, the issues become more intensely threatening, more complicated, more subtle. Large corporations have money enough to control government at the cost of the public welfare. Corporations can effectively claim and use the entire global atmosphere for their wastes and extract a subsidy from the global public in the form of  a disastrously eroding climatic system. The exploitive interests thrive on public and governmental ignorance.  And government, too, becomes an offender as various agencies pursue their missions with narrow purpose. The Navy, for instance, enters the oceans with very high energy, low frequency sound used to detect submarines, and kills marine mammals over large areas. . There are many other effects of that intrusion , difficult to determine, but real enough.  The counter-pressures in the public interest come from non-profit, non-governmental agencies such as the conservation law groups, some, such as the NRDC and  the EDF, brilliantly staffed with  scientists and  lawyers  who struggle with the  politically possible moment by moment. They cannot change the context, only modify the direction at the moment. Changing the context requires much more fundamental insight, scientific power, and persistence in advancing basic ecological facts..

            I use these as examples of the complexity and range of interests in  environment that emerge as the human occupancy of the earth intensifies. There is no easy flow of information on how the world works supporting legislators, who, no matter their academic experience, are bound to be behind the frontiers of demand for information. Their sources are limited. By far the bulk of the scientific community resides in universities whose purpose, not surprisingly, is to offer students as wide and interesting a menu in education as possible. It is not focused specifically on issues before the government, although universities can do anything they wish. But the point is that the university has an educational mission, not a public service mission in government, whatever the needs of government at any time.

            There is a new and urgent need for science in the public service, specifically aimed at protecting the public welfare.  Although buried in confusion and complexity, respect for the golden rule persists and requires well focused attention in the context of biophysics. That realm is the scientific world of environmental research, ecology, and it sets the requirements for governmental effectiveness. . It is, or should be,  the realm of the national laboratories with specialized missions such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the one-time Nuclear Energy Laboratories of the Department of Energy, the NOAA laboratories and the EPA research programs.

            It is also an array of non-profit laboratories and agencies that address specific environmental topics from energy and basic ecology to the global oceans.  Laboratories in Woods Hole fit that class, especially The Woods Hole Research Center,  The Ecosystems Center, and The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution,  for examples. The Carnegie Institution of Washington has long served that function, although its recent programs have been more limited than in the earlier years when they made major advances over decades in basic ecology, agriculture and land management.  The Rocky  Mountain Institute serves those purposes in energy magnificently. These scientific enterprises define purpose, methods and success in government. Economics and politics are tools, not objectives  per se.

            Once again there is a screaming need for insights into the issues of ecology now emergent as issues of global human welfare. The most important is the restoration of the integrity of function of the biosphere as a whole. That array of topics requires the development of experts cultured deliberately over time. It may take private financing for they will be challenging corporate interests at every turn, forcing the government to do its core job in protecting the public interest over corporate interests. This argument is not for the fusion of such interests into the university structure. Quite the opposite. It is for the proliferation and encouragement of such independent laboratories operating with the  express purpose of providing scientific insights into global biophysics. It is a tragedy that we do not have arguments raging at this moment and searing the skin of political leaders who are reluctant to take the steps needed immediately to reverse the climatic disruption. The scientific community should be up in arms and offering the steps to effectiveness. Instead they are wilting into a suicidal policy of Adaptation. The industry could not ask for more!

            The human future now entrained assures the melting of all the ice in the world and a sea level rise of 225 feet. No one knows for sure the time schedule. The melting is proceeding far more rapidly than anticipated as are other transitions. Problems exist now and will only be intensified in years to decades. There are not many who would set that transition as an acceptable objective for the common purposes of mankind, already challenged by seven billion people. Avoiding it requires action now, concerted action in reversing current global trends. Science has defined the problem and must be engaged in developing a plan for a New World that can assure support for a vigorous human presence into the foreseeable future. Defining that world and how to build it is an urgent mission. It will not flow easily from the free-enterprise science of the university system. Nor will it flow from conservation interests focused on “biodiversity” in all of its myriad meanings and forms commonly preserved in parks and refuges. It must become a core purpose of government, assigned as a responsibility to each nation to preserve the functional integrity of its land and water in the interest of preserving a biosphere as the habitat of all life. Success is not simply defined for the chemistry required is in fact detailed and demanding.  Many industrial processes rely on dumping wastes that are inconsistent with these interests and must be abolished or changed fundamentally.   

            Science has s big role in defining purposes, methods and tools of government in meeting its obligations in protecting the public welfare, now and into the future. That role is not the business of universities, although they can and do claim it on occasion. And it  does not necessarily flow automatically from government or governmental agencies which become from time to time political tools and must be redirected.  There is now a new,  soaring need not only for non-governmental environmental action agencies pursuing conservation law  (NRDC, EDF, CLF) but adjunct agencies defining the essential qualities of the biosphere and how to restore and protect them. Those are biophysical essentials, some esoteric such as pheromones and some as common as bees and pollination.    

            Scientists have a large new job to pursue on an emergency basis. Our institutional  job is leading that transition. Well defined  it will be well supported with private as well as public funds.

                                                                        George M. Woodwell
                                                                        Woods Hole
                                                                        August 8,  2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Saving the Earth from Climatic Disruption

Saving the Earth from Climatic Destruction

George M. Woodwell* and Richard A. Houghton**

The annual tax on GDP around the world from the climatic disruption has now reached well into the hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of early deaths. While economists have hardly led the world in acknowledging the emergency and in deflecting it, their recent annual field day in Davos produced some lucid and welcome insights. They had a World Bank report and a new World Bank president calling for immediate action.[1]  Christine Lagarde of the IMF was unequivocal in her response to a question:  “Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”[2]   The question is what to do.

The popular discussion seems to revolve around accepting a two-degree C rise in the global temperature as tolerable and controllable. The suggestion is that the two-degree goal has been blessed as safe by a consensus of science. It is not a consensus of scientists nor is it correct that a rise to two degrees would be benign. The two-degree threshold was emphasized in the negotiations during the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009.  It was an economic and political compromise that appeared to offer some room to establish effective action in reducing emissions globally. It does not have a scientific consensus behind it. It is, unfortunately, an attractive trap in that the current atmospheric burden exceeds the 1992 agreement under the Framework Convention to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.
The warming to date has been about 0.8 degree C and the effects are conspicuous. The glacial melting in particular is moving more rapidly than most scientists had anticipated and considerably more rapidly than assumed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[3]  A thoroughly detailed report by the US Geological Survey compiled over years and dealing with the world’s glaciers observes that “… since the late 19th century, all of Iceland’s glaciers have decreased in area and thickness…. Since 1995…the decrease has been quite dramatic…. [They] will virtually disappear by 2200.”[4]   The Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps are also melting much more rapidly than earlier predictions. They contain in total as much as forty feet of sea level rise.[5]  A continuation of the accelerating rise in temperature will melt all the glacial ice and raise sea level by 75 meters, more than 225 feet.

The big issue that forecloses limiting an increase in mean global temperature to 2 degrees C, or even the present 0.8 degree, is the warming itself, most threatening in the Arctic.  It is a double threat in that the warming is greater in the higher latitudes than elsewhere and the Arctic contains a massive quantity of carbon potentially vulnerable to release as carbon dioxide and methane. The largest carbon pool is in the soils and peat of the tundra. There is also a significant pool in the soils and vegetation of the boreal forest. Both are circumpolar. Much of the peat in these landscapes is several too many feet deep. Some of it, containing an estimated 1700 billion tons of carbon,[6] twice the current amount in the atmosphere, has been frozen in permafrost for thousands of years.  Thawed, the carbon in peat and mineral soils is vulnerable to decay with the release of both carbon dioxide and methane.  Substantial quantities of methane have accumulated through slow decay over thousands of years in frozen soils and are released as the thawing proceeds.[7] Some is in crystalline form in shallow coastal waters that are also vulnerable to the warming. The total quantities of carbon dioxide and methane available from these sources are uncertain. They are, however, large enough to affect the current atmospheric burden and to be a major factor in the array of positive feedbacks associated with the warming.[8] 

While the Earth has warmed by less than 1 degree C, the Arctic has warmed by 2-3 degrees, more in some places, and the process of thawing long frozen soils is underway. The thawing of soils is a significant immediate source of methane. If organic decay is also stimulated, it has the potential for flooding the Earth with carbon dioxide far beyond any capacity we have for controlling it by reducing human emissions. 

The alternative is an overt, immediate, effort to stop the warming and ultimately to re-freeze the Arctic.  The first step is a rapid stabilization of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as agreed to by all the nations in 1992 when they signed and ultimately ratified the Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The action now requires reductions in human emissions from deforestation and combustion of fossil fuels.  Ultimately, a reduction in the heat-trapping gas content of the atmosphere will require abandonment of fossil fuels and a major effort at reforestation of the earth to sequester as much carbon as possible over the next decades.

It may not be possible. The Arctic release may not be controllable at this late date.  There is no alternative to attempting to check the process by cooling the earth now with the most powerful and safe methods.

The following are the facts. The total current releases from human activities are more than 10 billion tons of carbon from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation and degradation of, largely, tropical forests. The deforestation is contributing more than one billion tons of carbon. Burning fossil fuels is the rest, about 9.5 billion tons in 2011.[9]

Of those ten billion tons between 4 and 5 billion tons accumulate in the atmosphere. This accumulation is the immediate problem. It is rising. In the past year it was more than 5 billion tons, the second highest ever.[10]  The remainder of the 10 billion ton release is absorbed into the oceans and into terrestrial vegetation, largely forests. Those marine and terrestrial “sinks” amount currently to about 5 billion tons of carbon annually.  They are vulnerable, of course. Forests are vulnerable to disease and fire and drought as temperatures rise. The oceans absorb less carbon dioxide as the surface waters warm and become more acidic. And yet, we can, at this moment take advantage of the present circumstance to, first, stabilize the atmospheric composition, and, ultimately, to reverse the trends in climate.

There is no escape from reducing the use of fossil fuels. On the other hand, management of land and forests to conserve carbon is essential and will be significant. The first step is to stop further degradation and destruction of primary forests globally.[11]  That single step would remove more than 1 billion tons of carbon from the current emissions and from the annual accumulation.  Second, natural forests can be restored to deforested lands in the normally naturally forested zones.  A newly forested area of 2-4 million square kilometers stores, conservatively, about a billion tons of carbon annually during the phase of maximum growth of trees. Such an area or more can be found globally. Those two steps, desirable in any analysis of beneficial land management policies, would account for more than 2 billion tons of carbon annually from the 5 billion tons in excess currently. Thirdly, in an emergency, harvesting of secondary forests globally could be curtailed to avoid carbon releases during a transition period to ease pressures on use of fossil fuels. The combined effects would absorb and store in plants and soil 3-5 billion tons of carbon, annually, a major increment in starting the return toward the 300 ppm of the atmosphere at the beginning of the 20th century. Simultaneously, reductions in use of fossil fuels are essential, beginning at once.

Those steps would constitute a totally appropriate recognition of the urgency of stabilizing the biosphere, opening a new era in the industrial age with new industries with local foci, new jobs and new economic opportunities globally. There is no question that the human enterprise can be operated successfully and beneficially on renewable energy.  Within the last five years the cost of wind and direct solar energy has dropped to make it attractive in many circumstances on the basis of price alone. The transition must be now and rapidly advanced to deflect the drain on national GDPs from climatic disruptions now underway.  Uncorrected, environmental chaos will consume the last vestiges of global GDP and the world will be redefined by cascading environmental, economic and political catastrophes.[12]  

Notes and References

[1] J.Y. Kim, president of the World Bank, offered a strong statement based on the report:

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.   Rahmstorf, S., Foster, G., Cazenave, A. 2012. Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011. Environmental Research Letters 7:044035. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044035

[4] Williams, R.S., J.G. Ferrigno, B.H. Raup., J.S. Kargel. 2012. Glaciers: The Earth’s Dynamic Cryosphere and the Earth System. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386-A. Washington, DC.

[5] USGS. 2012. State of the Earth’s Cryosphere at the Beginning of the 21sr Century: Glaciers, Global Snow Cover, Floating Ice, and Permafrost and Periglacial Environments. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386-A. Washington, DC. A 461.

[6] Hugelius, G., Tarnocai, C., Broll, G., Canadell, J. G., Kuhry, P., and Swanson, D. K. 2013. The Northern Circumpolar Soil Carbon Database: spatially distributed datasets of soil coverage and soil carbon storage in the northern permafrost regions. Earth System Science Data. 5:3-13, doi:10.5194/essd-5-3-2013

[7] Anthony, K.W., P. Anthony, G. Grosse, J. Chanton. 2012. Geologic methane seeps along boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw and melting glaciers. Nature Geoscience 5:419-426. doi:10.1038/ngeo1480

[8] Woodwell, G.M., F.T. Mackenzie, R.A. Houghton, M.J. Apps, E. Gorham, E.A. Davidson. 1995. Will the Warming Speed the Warming? in  G.M. Woodwell and F.T. Mackenzie (Eds). 1995. Biotic Feedbacks in the Global Climatic System. Oxford University Press, New York. p 406.

[9] Le Quéré et al. 2012. The global carbon budget 1959-2011. Earth System Science Data Discussions 5:1107-1157.

[10] Feb. 2013.

[11] The World Commission on Forests examined that question extensively and found that at that time (the late 1990s) there would be no serious influence on the availability of timber or fiber globally. 1999.  Our Forests Our Future: Report of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. While growth in all aspects of the global economy may have changed that conclusion, the need for action on climate has become acute.

[12] Oreskes, N., and E.M. Conway. 2013. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Daedalus. Winter. p 40.  See also Ehrlich, P R., and A.H. Ehrlich. 2013. Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280(1754):20122845.

*G. M. Woodwell is Director Emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center and currently Distinguished Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.

**Richard A. Houghton is Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center, 149 Woods Hole Road, Falmouth, MA 02540.

Friday, June 7, 2013

What to Do on Climate

What to Do on Climate?

George M. Woodwell

            Bill McKibben and his 350 organization are correct……and as close to effective as anyone can be in pushing a distracted administration to constructive action. 

            But what action? 

            What can we tell the administration to do right now after rejecting the Keystone Pipeline and withdrawing all support for the disastrous Canadian tar sands project?

            The answer is straightforward, well defined, and already ratified by the Congress of the US and by the rest of the world.  We must implement the agreement reached in 1992 when we and all other nations signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change. All agreed to stabilize the composition  of the atmospheric burden of heat-trapping gases at levels that would protect human interests and nature.   While we have passed that level, the objective remains and stabilization remains the first step in correcting a disastrous trend.

            We, the US, can take large further steps in reducing emissions, celebrate the steps already taken that are effective, and announce an aggressive series of policies in moving  rapidly toward other steps.  The steps must include reduction in methane as well as carbon dioxide emissions, but they require no further action by the Congress which has made the Convention the law of the land.

            The moment is now and the initiative is in the hands of our presidential leadership.

            Let’s remind him that he’s in charge and the stakes are very high.

                                                            Woods Hole,  June 7, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

President Obama at the 150th Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences

President Obama at the 150th Meeting of
the National Academy of Sciences

George M. Woodwell

          It was an overflow crowd in the Auditorium in the newly renovated building of the National Academy at 2101 Constitution Avenue on the 29th of April. It was first come, first served and some had been waiting for hours to hear the President of the United States address the Academy on its’ 150th anniversary. Electronics expanded the audience to those far away who could listen as I did.  Many remembered when John F. Kennedy as President had taken the same podium just 100 years after Abraham Lincoln had founded the Academy.   John Holdren, President Obama’s Science
Advisor and a member of the Academy, said a few brisk, well spoken words of introduction before Ralph Cicerone, President of the Academy, introduced Mr. Obama.

            Expectations were high. There has never been a moment when a sitting president  faced more intense scientifically defined and obviously dangerous challenges to the public welfare than this president faces at this moment.  The global addiction to fossil fuels has been allowed to run its course beyond the limits of safety to the moment when the climatic change is tipping beyond the point of reversibility. Once that point has been  passed, if it is in fact real as experience suggests and many believe, the feedbacks will be in control and the earth will warm by many degrees despite our attempts to mitigate the process. We will have made a commitment to a rapid warming that can melt all the glacial ice in the world and raise sea level by considerably more than 200 feet.  Continental centers, already afflicted by persistent droughts, will be parched.  Regions will be periodically flooded. Millions will starve. Chaos will reign. The timing for these changes is not the indefinite future. It is now, today, conspicuous, and it is the next decades and the lifetimes of people now living.   

            To deal with this catastrophe we have powerful resources in the form of scientific insights and talents and energy. But all of that must be led and fed with political insights and skill, which is the realm of government. The initiative lies uniquely with the President of the United States and the Congress. It is true that this president has been repeatedly rebuffed by a House of Representatives dominated presently by vandals, a faction of Republicans, who do not believe in government and have done their best to dismantle it. But no one should yield to such vandalism, least of all a president. And a president addressing the pre-eminent scientific institution can assume he is among staunch friends and supporters. He can and must call on those colleagues to join him in a rapid national, and ultimately international, shift away from fossil fuels toward a world of  renewable energy and landscapes carefully managed to preserve their massive carbon stores in plants and soils.  Scientists can, and must, join in leading the way with new technology and existing insights into global biophysics, now ignored.  

             Alas, the President offered none of that. It was friendly talk. No challenge, no inspiration, no hope beyond soft platitudes.  He urged scientists to generate “science-based initiatives to help us minimize and adapt to global threats like climate change”.  It was a gracious, fine talk.  But on the most important scientific issue of his time in office and the next century he gave the day, and possibly the world, to the Republicans and their congressional and corporate friends.

Woodwell is  Distinguished Scientist at the NRDC and Emeritus Founder and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  He is a member of the NAS.e is He is

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Ultimate Subsidy: Giving the World Away

The Ultimate Subsidy:  Giving the World Away

George M. Woodwell

            There has been a great deal of discussion of just how we subsidize the various segments of the fossil fuel business.  The basic assumption is that the energy is a necessary public resource and the corporations providing it do a public service. Access to the  raw material is facilitated at modest cost to the companies. Taxes are often either not assessed  or minimal. And mines and drilling sites are often not regulated or controlled to protect other resources or even the workers. In some cases direct subsidies are provided nominally to encourage production. Mines are notorious for disasters, all of which are predictable and preventable in well run operations. Similarly, oil and gas drilling are noteworthy for spills and  for air and water contamination as well as for serious accidents. The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the worst of many, but was also the product of careless management. These “accidents” all carry public costs that are not assigned to the industry but are virtually all accepted by the public as part of the cost of having the industry and the convenience of  cheap energy. They are in fact, public subsidies paid by all of us, but some more than others..

            In other cases direct financial subsidies have been provided by legislatures, including the US Congress to encourage local businesses.

            But the largest subsidy of all is the acceptance of the wastes of the industry,  the carbon dioxide and methane and black carbon and noxious hydrocarbons dumped into the atmosphere globally at no cost to the industry and without limit.  The cost is appearing now: it is the cost to the public of the corruption of climate globally. Inasmuch as the climates of the earth are both result and cause of the natural communities that are the biosphere,  this corruption undermines all life on earth.  It threatens human welfare globally, destroys agriculture, increases mortality rates, and renders increasing areas uninhabitable for part or all of  the year.  Worse, the warming triggers feedback systems that speed the warming and make it more severe. If the warming continues it will melt all the ice on earth and  raise sea level by more than 200 feet. This subsidy is the ultimate in subsidies, the whole earthly environment, handed free of charge, to the fossil fuel industry to feed industrial profits. And those industries have not hesitated at all to deny the effects, obscure them, and insist on continuing the corruption as long as they can.

            We have handed the fossil fuel industry the entire future of the earth and all of human welfare. And we have done it willingly and openly, accepting the arguments of the industries that it should be that way.

            It is time now for an abrupt change starting with heavy taxes on fossil fuels as we close down their use rapidly and totally. Globally.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dear President Obama

                                                                                                      February 27, 2013
Dear President Obama:

    We are scholars long involved in exploring the causes, effects and potential cures of the climatic disruption  We are certain that you are  aware that the crisis of climate is devouring the GDP’s of nations, and human welfare outside the GDP’s, as inexorably as its swollen storms and rising seas are filling New York’s subways. We deplore the hoax of Adaptation, and its forlorn corollary of muddling through, advanced by corporate interests in preserving the lucrative fossil fuels business as long a possible. We observe that you are, uniquely,  in the most powerful position at this moment to check the momentum and start a correction of the chaos that will end this civilization. The long-term objective, of course,  is a re-stabilized climatic system and a revitalized civilization built around renewable energy.  But for the moment we urge:

1.    Reject immediately the proposal for any pipeline or other innovations to support the tar-sand oil development.
2.    Simultaneously announce a  major US effort to meet the objectives agreed to by all nations under the  1992  Framework Convention on Climate Change, namely, stability in the composition of the atmosphere.
3.    That objective must be supplemented by a national program designed to help all nations join us in reducing the atmospheric burden of heat-trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide, over the next century, to 1900 levels.
4.    That objective will require an abrupt turn away from fossil fuels and their further production anywhere. Developing the alternatives opens large opportunities to industry that the US can subsidize and encourage in various ways, using those opportunities to leap over the fiction of a US financial crisis.
5.    The initiative will require a revision of forest management to the world’s everlasting advantage.  All remaining  primary forests must be preserved to avoid further releases  of carbon from deforestation. Second, forests can be restored to all normally naturally forested regions. That  is a necessary step to provide in part for the continued removal of  carbon from the atmosphere over the next decades. (The human benefits in land and water management globally are prodigious.)

    This transition is an essential turn in human affairs if we are to avoid a cascade of substantially irreversible changes in the structure of the biosphere that will make it far less congenial as a human habitat as the arctic and boreal zones warm over the next years and flood the world with carbon  The world is no longer large enough in proportion to human needs for us to shrug off corporate profligacy  and assume all will be well. Our world is now, as the subways of New York,  yielding and shrinking before a rising sea of troubles.

    Yours truly,     s/ 7.2 billion of us

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


            Guns have one purpose.

            There was a time when I, as a young naval person stood deck watches in port on a small oceanographic ship. The Officer of the Deck normally carried a gun as part of his badge of office. But the rule was never to remove the gun from its very secure holster unless you intend to load it and use it. In my three years of experience it was never removed from the holster by anyone on duty.  

            Several months back I had an occasion to stay overnight in Riverside, California. The morning paper announced that the previous day two young men had been killed, shot dead , by two different police officers  in two different parts of town. Both young men had been driving and each had been stopped for a traffic violation. Each got out of his car carrying a gun. Each police officer, well trained, aware of well defined assumptions about guns and their only purpose, did his duty. Two armed fools died, killed by their own guns.
            Carrying guns does not provide safety or security. It opens a large new realm of hazards, insecurity, that few gun owners have given much thought to at all and the gun culture, gun clubs, and gun salesmen all want to deny. Further it invites the more foolish to treat guns as toys and indulge in play that can easily turn accidentally lethal, if not criminally so.

            And there are guns that should not be allowed at all. Automatic weapons have no use in hunting. Anti-aircraft weapons have no business in public circulation. 

            Cars have the same lethal potential. We register them and license their drivers. We also tax both.  We regulate the quality and safety of cars and the competence of drivers. There is every reason to do the same with guns and those who own or use them for any purpose. And the ammunition can be labeled as well, each projectile and shell can be marked indelibly so there is no question as to ownership. These innovations are not intrusions on freedom. They are an obviously necessary step in protecting the freedom of all, the health and safety of the public. Such regulations are an essential part of civilization, a reason for establishing and maintaining competence in governments.

            The size of the gun lobby and the magnitude of the economic interests in guns only confirm the propriety of putting the entire industry under a clear and fair regulatory regime immediately. We must do that to avoid the obvious dangers we all face from an unregulated industry that is poisoning society as surely as any other unregulated industrial poison that can circulate in the biosphere and corrupt all life.

                                                            Woods Hole. Massachusetts
                                                             January 10, 2013


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

HAITI 2013

 HAITI 2013


            Why does Haiti remain, year after year, leader after leader, hope after dashed hope, program after program, perpetually a candidate for the top place, the most impoverished and wretched of the three or four conspicuously failed nations of the world?  Why is there no reprieve despite the millions, billions in fact, in aid and the activities of  countless benevolent agencies and the sympathy of all the world? Why? Why? Why?

            Philippe Girard, an historian with a background of experience in the French Caribbean, has provided a richly detailed political and economic history of the nation in a 2010 book: Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation.. It is a fluent, astonishing account of the contagion of corruption including mass murders that have dogged successive regimes in Haiti’s 500 year history.  Even Aristide, who started as an humble priest, three times arrived as President and found himself drawn into the murderous culture of his predecessors and competitors in ultimately losing attempts to stay in office.  

            The erosion of public purpose and public welfare in favor of personal interest and welfare was persistent if not universal.  Over-population and a chaotic free market destroyed the landscape, the fuel supply, the water system, the fisheries and ate all the agricultural land under slums and erosion. Storms, the flood of September 19th 2004 following tropical storm Jeanne, washed soils off the treeless slopes and filled valleys with feet of sediments. Three hundred thousand were said to have been left without housing.[1] Fifteen hundred were killed. It was but one storm.

            The earthquake of  January 12, 2010 was worse. It may have killed 250,000. It  left the government and the public in a hopeless chaos of collapsed buildings and homeless citizens, broken families and thousands of severely injured survivors.  Water supplies were non-existent or contaminated with sewage. Early in the efforts at recovery  cholera, not surprisingly, entered the mix and added to the mortality[2]. Haiti, the nation, had no resilience, no capacity to restore itself, no effective governmental leadership and no potential to implement a plan if a plan for recovery were available. The free market system sold food to those who could pay, wherever the food came from. Others starved. 

            Murderous, brutal governmental corruption in Haiti appears to be contagious and universal and extends to the destruction of the government itself and its potential for restoration of the public welfare as a purpose. One cannot avoid a comparison with current political trends in the US as historic barriers are crossed by political leaders in and outside government.  In elections distortions and slander on one side invite similar  responses from opponents. The process moves to a newly depraved low in performance  and in expectations. Inside government, when civil rights are abrogated by an administration, as they have been, a new administration, although committed to correction, finds it difficult to impossible to stop the machinery established earlier and the corruption becomes the new standard, the new status quo. The quality of government erodes and the erosion becomes irreversible.

            Education is ever a victim and has been in Haiti. A viable democracy requires an educated populace aware of the issues and capable of  understanding the reasons for having a government and how a government must behave to assure the public welfare. Starving school systems of money, even closing schools, is an excellent way to destroy all public purpose and deflect resources to enrich those in office.  So, too, in the US efforts to defund school systems and issue “vouchers” to be used in any “school” are clear steps in that direction…. and intended to be.      

            The solutions to the Haitian nadir by historical economists including Girard are stereotyped:  move a simple factory to Haiti and hire the unemployed to build an economic success which will enable a political and economic recovery.   South Korea is the example, a glowing one, so far successful.  But South Korea had not reached the depths of the Haitian debacle with a virtually totally dysfunctional landscape vulnerable to any storm and a complete breakdown of social and political order. There are real environmental limits on economic and political ventures.  One essential resource is a reliable system for supplying clean water. Another is food for all at prices and in circumstances that assure that those who need food are fed.  Both require the functional integrity of the landscape, the physical, chemical, and biotic integrity of land and water. The requirement is even more demanding on an island where resources are obviously finite and the marine resources are a part of the support system of the entire island. In Haiti the marine resources have been destroyed by the siltation of coastal waters carried from the eroding landscape. It is a futile hope that civilization can be restored  through a few jobs from a shot of industrial exploitation without a comprehensive plan for restoring a functional landscape and accommodating all the human population.

            The answer to “why” is too complicated, too expensive, and too intrusive in that it will require a renovation in land use, a restoration of  functional landscapes, drainage basins that are stable, land appropriate for small scale agriculture, the re-establishment of public schooling for all, and rebuilding the infrastructure, the roads and public buildings required for contemporary civilization. And it will require a renewable energy supply system. All of these innovations will be futile if there is no acknowledgement of the necessity for limiting the human population and a plan for doing so. The challenge is of the order of, but far greater than, the original Tennessee Valley Authority, to rebuild a landscape and its occupied places into a sustainable future.

            Interest in success extends well beyond the geographic boundaries of the nation.  The world shares not only the human misery of a failed state but must also respond to the inevitable and continuing hegira in search of alleviation  in any degree.. Few nations are prepared to accept the human overflow which is turned back to intensified misery at home. Beyond that, the nation is a necrotic sore, a  biophysical as well as a social and political and economic burden  on the world as a whole. The world does not need a model of national failure. Quite the opposite. It needs an example of  restoration, the Pearl of the Caribbean restored as a model for the New Post-Industrial World of  self-sufficiency, renewable energy, and closed-cycle living. Where better to do that than on an island? And who can better do it than the wealthy industrial world as it moves into the post fossil fueled age?

            It can be done, but the challenge is a large one, far larger than most economic historians or even practicing politicians are willing to contemplate. It is an appropriate new vision, a mission for science, politicians and economists, all focused on rebuilding civilization in the ultimate failed state. No one is in a better position to show us all how than Jim Kim in the World Bank as he sets forth in the next stage of his longtime mission in advancing human welfare.  The world needs an example of that sort of success.


                                                                        GM Woodwell
                                                                        Woods Hole
                                                                        January 6, 2013


[1] Girard, P. 2005. Haiti. Palgrave Macmillan. New York. p203.
[2] Farmer.P. 2011. Haiti After the Earthquake.  Perseus Books, NY