October 27, 2007


The recent Nobel Peace Prizes (awarded in Oslo, remember, not Stockholm) were given to two entities, one an association of climatologists, atmospheric and oceanic scientists, physicists, chemists and related political hangers-on called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And the other to an increasingly rotund megalomaniac with a chronic need for idolatrous attention named Al Gore. Guess which one a grateful world turns its lonely eyes to?

I don't mean to be too hard on Al. Certainly he popularized the issue of global warming in a way that a celebrity-entranced nation needed. He is a kind of supermix of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton when it comes to climate change. Throw in Anna Nicole too if you want. If the world goes into green rehab (crashing its Ferrari on the way there), Al Gore will deserve much of the credit.

I've written before that my first awareness of the problem of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere came about when I read Moment in the Sun back in 1969. I was in Honolulu at the time. Mauna Loa readings recorded a 6% rise in concentrations which were graphed on the Keeling Curve, named after Dr. Charles David Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Gee, too bad we didn't act then, because we understood the basic nature of the problem. It was called the "greenhouse effect." Scientists have spent the ensuing 38 years trying to overcome vested interests who wanted to downplay the significance of turning the Earth's atmosphere into a steam bath. According to "An Inconvenient Truth," this is about the time Al Gore, as a history major at Harvard, became fascinated by the concept, because Professor Roger Revell fired his imagination with his lectures about...blah blah blah. This is Al's back story. I think he understands that his credibility depends on a back story, and this is the one he's got. We're all fortunate that Al took his youthful passion to Washington, because while Al was Vice President, he kept the issue of global warming front and center and would not let Clinton take his eye off the issue for one minute, forcing all those changes which have led to near-universal use of photovoltaics and wind power, the nationally mandated 60 mpg requirement for U.S. cars, and America's extensive high-speed rail network. Imagine if none of those things...I'm sorry, I think I just suffered a transient ischemic attack. Give me a moment while my lucidity returns.

Al's slide show, now of iconic status thanks to the movie, of course went for dramatic effects, such as the 20 ft. rise in sea levels possible if all the ice atop Greenland melts. The less dramatic IPCC tended to center its predictions around 23 inches, because of the uncertainties noted in the formula above. Global temperature rise cannot be correlated linearly to CO2 level increases, at least in any simple way, and in part this is because temperature bears a non-linear relationship to f, which are feedback mechanisms. Within this bland statement may hang the viability of the human species, but its practical effect is that temperature predictions are constrained by this uncertainty principle. A rough doubling of CO2 concentrations by the year 2050 may bring about global temp changes most likely in the range of 2.0-4.5 C; if the change falls outside this bracket, the probability distribution indicates that it is much more likely that the increase will be greater than 4.5 than less than 2.0. This is where the probability estimates cluster; however, because of the "long tail" of probability estimates related to the non-linear relationship between f and temperature, a temperature rise of 11 degrees C is also predictable. Since C = 1.8F, we're talking 19.8 F, or another way of saying what we're talking about: game over for modern civilization.

Al Gore makes an easy target for climate deniers because he's a history major and really has no more of a scientific background than anyone who attended a liberal arts college with a breadth requirement. This asshat named Bjorn Lomborg, whom Sen. James ("the Troglodyte") Inhofe (Idiot-Ok.) likes to call before a Senate panel when he wants to spread a little dangerous misinformation (daily, in other words), has made a career out of attacking Gore's misstatements. Gore says stuff like, "Scientists may disagree with some of my points, but we agree on the main trends." Al, a question: how could you possibly have any of your own points on the science of global warming? It's not a good idea for Al to debate with climate deniers with scientific credentials, but his avoidance of such confrontations makes it look like they have realistic objections when they don't.

I'm not even sure what I'm complaining about. I guess I wish that someone like Steven Chu of Berkeley were allowed to tour the world and take on the deniers. He has a PowerPoint program. He's got slides. He won what you might call a "hard" prize from the Nobel people (physics). He's actually a charismatic, galvanizing speaker, even though he never strains in the slightest for effect and never exaggerates. Imagine if he took his formidable teaching skills to the lectern (or even took a ride in Al Gore's sky bucket) while the cameras roll. He could explain this 1/(1-f) nightmare with perfect clarity, and then the world would see that absolutely, positively, we are dealing with this possibility that business as usual could actually lead to a 20 F degree rise in global temperature within the lives of our children. And no one would be able to refute the statement of that possibility. It would be much like the moment when Woody Allen pulls Marshal McLuhan out of the movie theatre line to trash that blowhard behind him. The power of Chu's explication comes from one main source: he knows what the hell he's talking about. Also, he's in a lot better shape than Al Gore. Alas, that's not how democracy works. Philosopher kings are simply creatures of Greek philosophy.

October 25, 2007

No one says the Sahara is in a drought

The Southern California wildfires have been turned into a political football, of course; everything gets turned into a political football these days, since the red/blue, lib/neocon, green/mean divides have become so acrimonious. Whatever happens gets blamed on the other side, and in the case of the wildfires, the controversy has assumed two shapes. On one hand, the Bush Administration has been faulted for depriving California of necessary fire-fighting equipment because of the Iraq War; and on the other, the fires are blamed on global warming, about which Bush doesn't give a flying fuck. America has become like a truly terrible marriage, in which the husband drinks and philanders, and the wife suffers and nags and tries to take care of the children, and pretty soon no matter what happens, the problem gets blamed on the husband's drinking and fooling around. "You see! Do you think those aliens just happened to land in our backyard? Don't you think they're aware you just don't pay attention anymore!"

Sort of like that. The country hates Bush, it's that simple, and if we can discover a way to name his contributing role to any calamity, we'll do it. Meanwhile, back on Earth, or in the troposphere just above it, the CO2 levels continue their inexorable rise. The most recent bad news came in the form of a message from the oceans; they're full up with CO2, and they don't want to absorb anymore. This has led to an acceleration of concentration in the atmosphere. The ocean's laundering service has gone on strike. We're at 380 parts per million, up from 280 in the pre-industrial era, which is a 36% increase. Yet, it still seems so tiny - parts per million, we're talking. Well, get used to it; lots of natural processes run on eensy-weensy margins of error. Your blood needs to stay at a pH around 7.4; you might temporarily survive as low as 6.8 or as high as 7.8, but your body will struggle to get you back to that golden mean of slight alkalinity as soon as it can. Just as the atmosphere strives for a certain mix of gases with the delicate interplay of ocean absorption, photosynthesis, combustion...ah, how beautiful it all was! Don't all you Deists work from the assumption that such perfect balance is the ultimate proof of God? Then why wouldn't you work His side of the table instead of voting for that apostate in the White House?

But I digress. If we assume that the existence of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic relates to global warming, along with the melting state of 75% of the world's glaciers, and the demonstrable rise in sea levels and in average global temperature -- if we assume that all these things have already happened, then it is probably not a great irrational leap to think the intensity of drought across Ameria's southern latitudes, the super-low humidities in SoCal, and the abnormally ferocious Santa Ana winds are too. If some of this stuff is already here (which it is), then it would seem logically inconsistent to think that it's not everywhere, because the atmosphere is a continuous ocean of air without boundaries or walls. Atlanta is down to a 90-day supply of water in Lake Lanier (can you imagine that the city fathers thought that one 38,000 acre lake ought to do the trick for 4 million people?). Northern California had a lousy snowpack last year; L.A. had a record-shattering drought. Also true: the year before it had a lot of rain.

Yet that's what we would expect, too, at the leading edge of fundamental climate change. Chaos and unpredictability as the climate moves from one paradigm to another. Until, of course, the changes settle in. In the meantime, we'll get bailed out by big rainstorms in drought areas, and maybe even the autumn colors will occasionally return to New England, where residents now find themselves playing golf well into December. But someday, and not so far from now, not nearly so far away as we used to think even a few years ago, we'll think of the changed condition as the status quo. No one says the Sahara is in a drought.

October 24, 2007

The burden of proof

I noted recently that the military prosecutors at Guantanamo, faced at last with the actual prospect of trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, have sought the help of the FBI in enhancing and corroborating the evidence against him. The concern of the military, even in such a favorable forum as the kangaroo courts of the Military Commissions Act, is that Khalid was under the jurisdiction of the CIA for almost all of his pre-Guantanamo detention after his capture in Pakistan in March, 2003. During his detention, he confessed to involvement in practically all unsolved crimes of the past century, possibly including the Lindbergh kidnapping, but certainly the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Bojinka plot (Phillipines multiple-plane hijacking), the Millenium Conspiracy (foiled at the Canadian border by an alert guard in 2000), the shoe bombing plot, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He may have been in on the O.J. Simpson hotel room heist of a couple of months back. It's all documented; he copped to it. And given the many restraints on an effective defense, and admissibility of hearsay evidence even when such evidence is extorted through torture or compulsion, what more could they possibly need?

Well - it seems they're nervous. The CIA agents know what they did, and they're very concerned it's all going to come out when they try Khalid. So maybe what they'll try to do is to convict him without using his confessions. Here's an interesting sidebar to the question at hand, one I picked up while studying constitutional law. The doctrine of "fruit of the poisonous tree," which bars use of evidence obtained through violations of the civil or constitutional rights of the defendant (greatly expanded during the years of the Warren court), is based, in the case of extorted confessions, on the 5th Amendment. Interesting, eh? The 5th Amendment declares that a person may not be compelled to be a witness against himself. So if you confine him to an incline board, cover his face with plastic, and start pouring water on his mouth, and then ask him questions about how often he hung out with Osama bin Laden, you might run afoul of this doctrine because you're compelling him to testify contrary to his own interests. Oh sure, I know. Why worry about coddling terrorists, especially after they've just confessed? "Off with their heads!" cried the Queen of Hearts.

So that's an interesting problem, and I wouldn't fall out of my chair if the trial of Khalid was delayed until after a new President is installed in January, 2009. But it does raise another interesting point, which I might limn briefly. If you care to improve your citizenship in our participatory democracy, I commend to you the official government publication "Report of the 9/11 Commission" (short title). In paper, inexpensive, available in lots of places. You will be interested to see just how much the entire case against Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atef and Ayman al-Zawahiri rests on Khalid's "interviews" with the CIA. Of course, in the staff reports of the Commission, no context is given for Khalid's statements. You could get the general idea that he's sitting with a George Clooney-type operative at a riverside cafe in Cairo instead of...where he really was. But the main narrative of the "back story" for the 9-11 attacks, the meetings with Osama and the other plotters, the recruitment of the hijackers, the changes in the plot as it was developed, etc. -- this is almost all KSM data. When you think about it, it starts reading like a kid's "term paper" in the 4th grade, when you're up against the deadline and you know you've only read one chapter from one book, but you're trying to use the footnotes and bibliography to flesh out your "authorities," but it still sounds like, you know, a rehash of one part of one book. "According to KSM," the report will say; "KSM then stated that he met with bin Laden and Atef in Afghanistan," it goes on; "KSM also stated that..." it concludes.

So then you think: wait a minute! The military commissions lawyers have confessions from KSM that they're concerned about using in his own trial under the exclusionary rule, because they might be ruled unreliable or unbelievable; and yet these very same confessions constitute the generally accepted, official version of the 9/11 attacks. In moments of dark doubt, which I know many of us share, I sometimes think that George W. Bush's apparent indifference to capturing bin Laden might not just reflect the military difficulty of the operation. I think he likes the story the way it's been told, and it's not that I buy into any of the 9/11 government conspiracy thinking. I don't. But torturing KSM in the frenzy after 9/11, before we knew about the CIA's black sites and their "enhanced interrogation techniques," was one thing. A capture of bin Laden, where such techniques probably could not now be applied because of the laser-like focus of the world on America's actions, might mean that bin Laden would be free from coercion, and would tell his version of the story in his own terms. And no telling where that might lead.

October 23, 2007

Bush Flies to the Wildfires in SoCal

aboard Air Force One, westbound
From: P.R. Staff, White House
Date: 10/23/07

Mr. President: You have asked for our input on your important trip to Southern California, where you will meet/greet important Calif. leaders and be seen as offering fed. help to stricken area. Dana, Josh and I have met to discuss key points to hit. Some comments are based on way in which Katrina was kicked around the block in 2005. This could be redemption/payback time, and photo-ops could play key role in comeback.

First, some vocab items. "Santa" in "Santa Ana winds" is pronounced just like Santa in Santa Claus. Would urge don't multiply degree of difficulty by going all Spanish-language on it. Be local, act local. Second, wildfires are raging out of control partly because of extreme "relative humidity," in the single digit range. Would suggest respectfully stay away from atmospheric science of water-carrying capacity of warm vs. ...let's just black that out, Mr. President, and just say stuff like "dry air." Sample sentence: "We know these ferocious fires gain strength because of the very dry air, and these Santa Ana winds are challenging the good folks of this region with their ferocious strength." We've foc-group tested "ferocious" and it's a winner. Remember that "winds" when you use it like this is plural, so please stay away from phrases like "Santa Ana winds is a huge part of the ferocious attack of these killer fires." Better yet, just say "Santa Ana winds" a lot without trying to fit it into a complete sentence. It's very reassuring when locals can hear you use their day-to-day words. Part of "reg guy rehab" which has taken pounding with S-CHIP.

Next, we don't know whether the severe drought and high temperatures and Santa Anas are related to global warming, although libs of course are going to try to hang that on you. Suggest stay away from "big picture," and if comes up, turn it around on them and say that "the middle of a ferocious disaster like this is not the time to play partisan politics, but to help these good folks of California to deal with a ferocious fire which is interfering with their love of their region and their freedom to live in the kind of peace they want." We've foc-tested the play-over from Iraq war languaging, and it's a go. If you compare the fire to evil-doing Arabs, the media will back off and most Calif. politcos (Feinstein, particularly) and prob. Arnold will cool it on the attack mode.

We've set you up for a couple of copter rides within a mile or so of actual flames, so good backdrops for photo ops. Don't worry about safety. Telephoto will draw in fire and make you appear right in middle, and we'll give you hard hat with local firefighter logo, of course, but you'll be closer to Wilshire Boulevard than the fire line. You're booked at The Peninsula, btw.

We think it's a win-win, and see no big downsides. It's a big primary early in '08 this year, so Rudy & Mitt will appreciate what we can do, but of course, let's not lose focus. Your loyal staff is naturally looking at what the wildfires can do for you.