Monday, 30 November 2015

Explainer: How Scientists Know Climate Change is Happening

English: The image shows how stabilizing emiss...
English: The image shows how stabilizing emissions of carbon dioxide at present levels will not lead to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide being stabilized. The graph on the left shows emissions of carbon dioxide being stabilized at a constant level over time. The graph on the right shows what effect emissions stabilization has on the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide over time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Mark Maslin, UCL, The Conversation:

The Paris climate conference will set nations against each other, and kick off huge arguments over economic policies, green regulations and even personal lifestyle choices. But one thing isn’t up for debate: the evidence for climate change is unequivocal.

We still control the future, however, as the magnitude of shifting weather patterns and the frequency of extreme climate events depends on how much more greenhouse gas we emit. We aren’t facing the end of the world as envisaged by many environmentalists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but if we do nothing to mitigate climate change then billions of people will suffer.

Causes of climate change

Greenhouse gases absorb and re-emit some of the heat radiation given off by the Earth’s surface and warm the lower atmosphere. The most important greenhouse gas is water vapour, followed by carbon dioxide and methane, and without their warming presence in the atmosphere the Earth’s average surface temperature would be approximately -20°C.

While many of these gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, humans are responsible for increasing their concentration through burning fossil fuels, deforestation and other land use changes. Records of air bubbles in ancient Antarctic ice show us that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are now at their highest concentrations for more than 800,000 years.

The black vertical line on right isn’t the end of the graph - it’s 200 years of rapid CO2 increases. Scripps Institution, CC BY-SA

Evidence for climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents six main lines of evidence for climate change.
  1. We have tracked the unprecedented recent increase in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
  2. We know from laboratory and atmospheric measurements that such greenhouse gases do indeed absorb heat when they are present in the atmosphere.
  3. We have tracked significant increase in global temperatures of at least 0.85°C and a sea level rise of 20cm over the past century.
  4. We have analysed the effects of natural events such as sunspots and volcanic eruptions on the climate, and though these are essential to understand the pattern of temperature changes over the past 150 years, they cannot explain the overall warming trend.
  5. We have observed significant changes in the Earth’s climate system including reduced snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere, retreat of sea ice in the Arctic, retreating glaciers on all continents, and shrinking of the area covered by permafrost and the increasing depth of its active layer. All of which are consistent with a warming global climate.
  6. We continually track global weather and have seen significant shifts in weather patterns and an increase in extreme events all around the world. Patterns of precipitation (rainfall and snowfall) have changed, with parts of North and South America, Europe and northern and central Asia becoming wetter, while the Sahel region of central Africa, southern Africa, the Mediterranean and southern Asia have become drier. Intense rainfall has become more frequent, along with major flooding. We’re also seeing more heat waves. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) between 1880 and the beginning of 2014, the 19 warmest years on record have all occurred within the past 20 years; and 2015 is set to be the warmest year ever recorded.

What the future holds

The continued burning of fossil fuels will inevitably lead to further climate warming. The complexity of the climate system is such that the extent of this warming is difficult to predict, particularly as the largest unknown is how much greenhouse gas we keep emitting.

The IPCC has developed a range of emissions scenarios or Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) to examine the possible range of future climate change. Using scenarios ranging from business-as-usual to strong longer-term managed decline in emissions, the climate model projections suggest the global mean surface temperature could rise by between 2.8°C and 5.4°C by the end of the 21st century. Even if all the current country pledges submitted to the Paris conference are achieved we would still only just be at the bottom end of this range.

Global average surface temperature change. IPCC, Author provided

The sea level is projected to rise by between 52cm and 98cm by 2100, threatening coastal cities, low-lying deltas and small island nations. Snow cover and sea ice are projected to continue to reduce, and some models suggest that the Arctic could be ice-free in late summer by the latter part of the 21st century.

Heat waves, droughts, extreme rain and flash flood risks are projected to increase, threatening ecosystems and human settlements, health and security. One major worry is that increased heat and humidity could make physical work outside impossible.

Global mean sea level rise IPCC, Author provided

Changes in precipitation are also expected to vary from place to place. In the high-latitude regions (central and northern regions of Europe, Asia and North America) the year-round average precipitation is projected to increase, while in most sub-tropical land regions it is projected to decrease by as much as 20%, increasing the risk of drought.

In many other parts of the world, species and ecosystems may experience climatic conditions at the limits of their optimal or tolerable ranges or beyond. Human land use conversion for food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in species extinctions some 100 to 1000 times higher than background rates. Climate change will only speed things up.

We don’t have much time left

This is the challenge our world leaders face. To keep global temperature rise below the agreed 2°C, global carbon emission must peak in the next decade and from 2070 onward must be negative: we must start sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Despite 30 years of climate change negotiations there has been no deviation in greenhouse gas emissions from the business-as-usual pathway, so many feel keeping global warming to less than 2°C will prove impossible. Previous failures, most notably at Copenhagen in 2009, set back meaningful global cuts in emissions by at least a decade. Paris, however, offers a glimmer of hope. 

This is an updated version of an article first published in November 2014.

Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Signs of a Dying Society

by Paul Buchheit, Common Dreams:

Decline in violent crimes, yet number of prisoners has doubled (PRCJ/file)
While Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou are vilified for revealing vital information about spying and bombing and torture, a man who conspired with Goldman Sachs to make billions of dollars on the planned failure of subprime mortgages was honored by New York University for his "Outstanding Contributions to Society."

This is one example of the distorted thinking leading to the demise of a once-vibrant American society. There are other signs of decay:

1. A House Bill Would View Corporate Crimes as 'Honest Mistakes'

Wealthy conservatives are pushing a bill that would excuse corporate leaders from financial fraud, environmental pollution, and other crimes that America's greatest criminals deem simply reckless or negligent. The Heritage Foundation attempts to rationalize, saying "someone who simply has an accident by being slightly careless can hardly be said to have acted with a 'guilty mind.'"

One must wonder, then, what extremes of evil, in the minds of conservatives, led to criminal charges against people apparently aware of their actions: the Ohio woman who took coins from a fountain to buy food; the California man who broke into a church kitchen to find something to eat; and the 90-year-old Florida activist who boldly tried to feed the homeless.

Of course, even without the explicit protection of Congress, CEOs are rarely charged for their crimes. Not a single Wall Street executive faced prosecution for the fraud-ridden 2008 financial crisis.

2. Unpaid Taxes of 500 Companies Could Pay for a Job for Every Unemployed American

For two years. At the nation's median salary of $36,000, for all 8 million unemployed. Citizens for Tax Justice reports that Fortune 500 companies are holding over $2 trillion in profits offshore to avoid taxes that would amount to over $600 billion. Our society desperately needs infrastructure repair, but 8 million potential jobs are being held hostage beyond our borders.

3. Almost 2/3 of American Families Couldn't Afford a Single Pill of a Life-Saving Drug

62 percent of polled Americans said they couldn't cover a $500 repair bill. If any of these Americans need a hepatitis pill from Gilead Sciences, or an anti-infection pill from Martin Shkreli's company, they will have to do without.

An AARP study of 115 specialty drugs found that the average cost of a year's worth of prescriptions was over $50,000, three times more than the average Social Security benefit. Although it's true that most people don't pay the full retail cost of medicine, the portion paid by insurance companies is ultimately passed on to consumers through higher premiums.

Pharmaceutical companies pay competitors to keep generic drugs out of the market, and they have successfully lobbied Congress to keep Medicare from bargaining for lower drug prices. The companies claim they need the high prices to pay for better medicines. But for every $1 they spend on basic research, they invest $19 in promotion and marketing.

4. Violent Crime Down, Prison Population Doubles

FBI statistics confirm a dramatic decline in violent crimes since 1991, yet the number of prisoners has doubled over approximately the same period. Meanwhile, white-collar prosecutions have been reduced by over a third, and, as noted above, corporate leaders are steadily working toward 100% tolerance for their crimes.

5. One in Four Americans Suffer Mental Illness, Mental Health Facilities Cut by 90%

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 25 percent of adults experience mental illness in a given year, with almost half of the homeless population so inflicted. Yet from 1970 to 2002, the per capita number of public mental health hospital beds plummeted from over 200 per 100,000 to 20 per 100,000, and after the recession state cutbacks continued. That leaves prison as the only option for many desperate Americans.

There exists a common theme amidst these signs of societal decay: The super-rich keep taking from the middle class as the middle class becomes a massive lower class. Yet the myth persists that we should all look up with admiration at the "self-made" takers who are ripping our society apart.

Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, an active member of US Uncut Chicago, founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (,,, and the editor and main author of "American Wars: Illusions and Realities" (Clarity Press). He can be reached at

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Buying Begets Buying: How Stuff Has Consumed the Average American's Life

A woman photographs French artist Christain Boltanski’s No Man’s Land
Boltanski’s No Man’s Land (S Honda/AFP/Getty)
by , The Guardian:

The personal storage industry rakes in $22bn each year, and it’s only getting bigger. Why?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because vast nations of hoarders have finally decided to get their acts together and clean out the hall closet.

It’s also not because we’re short on space. In 1950 the average size of a home in the US was 983 square feet. Compare that to 2011, when American houses ballooned to an average size of 2,480 square feet - almost triple the size. And finally, it’s not because of our growing families.

This will no doubt come as a great relief to our helpful commenters who each week kindly suggest that for maximum environmental impact we simply stop procreating altogether: family sizes in the western world are steadily shrinking, from an average of 3.37 people in 1950 to just 2.6 today.

So, if our houses have tripled in size while the number of people living in them has shrunk, what, exactly, are we doing with all of this extra space? And why the billions of dollars tossed to an industry that was virtually nonexistent a generation or two ago?

Well, friends, it’s because of our stuff. What kind of stuff? Who cares! Whatever fits! Furniture, clothing, children’s toys (for those not fans of deprivation, that is), games, kitchen gadgets and darling tchotchkes that don’t do anything but take up space and look pretty for a season or two before being replaced by other, newer things - equally pretty and equally useless.

The simple truth is this: you can read all the books and buy all the cute cubbies and baskets and chalkboard labels, even master the life-changing magic of cleaning up - but if you have more stuff than you do space to easily store it, your life will be spent a slave to your possessions.

We shop because we’re bored, anxious, depressed or angry, and we make the mistake of buying material goods and thinking they are treats which will fill the hole, soothe the wound, make us feel better. The problem is, they’re not treats, they’re responsibilities and what we own very quickly begins to own us.

The second you open your wallet to buy something, it costs you - and in more ways than you might think. Yes, of course there’s the price tag and the corresponding amount of time it took you to earn that amount of money, but possessions also cost you space in your home and time spent cleaning and maintaining them. And as the token environmentalist in the room, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that when you buy something, you’re also taking on the task of disposing of it (responsibly or not) when you’re done with it.

Our addiction to consumption is a vicious one, and it’s stressing us out. I know this because I’ve experienced it, having lived in everything from a four-bedroom house to my current one-bedroom flat I share with my daughter - but I’m also bringing some cold, hard science to the table.

A study published by UCLA showed that women’s stress hormones peaked during the times they were dealing with their possessions and material goods. Anyone who parks on the street because they can’t fit their car into the garage, or has stared down a crammed closet, can relate.

Our addiction to consuming is a vicious one, and it’s having a markedly negative impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.

Our current solution to having too much stuff is as short-sighted as it is ineffective: when we run out of space, we simply buy a bigger house. This solution will never work, and the reason it will never work is that possessions seem to hold strange scientific properties - they expand to fill the space you provide for them.

This is why some normal adult human beings can live in houses just 426 square feet (like my lovely mother, in her floating home in Victoria, Canada) and others find that not even their 2,500-square-foot McMansion feels big enough. It’s almost never the amount of space that’s the problem, but the amount of stuff.

So if bigger homes aren’t the solution, what is? I suggest heading in the exact opposite direction: deliberately choose a life with less. Buy less and instantly you have less to store; you use less space. Eventually you can work less to pay for all of this stuff. Soon you will stress less too and, above all, your life will involve less waste.

Are you wondering where to begin? Don’t. You know exactly where this journey starts. It starts with the stuff that makes you feel guilty, stressed or overwhelmed when you look at it. The clothing with price tags still on them, the toys no one plays with, the boxes and boxes of stuff you’re storing in your attic, basement and garage, just in case. Get rid of it; recycle it, donate it, sell it on Craigslist. And when you’re done getting rid of it, stop buying more.

Because when it comes to stuff, I promise you, you don’t need more labels or better systems or complicated Pinterest tutorials - all you need is less.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Bernie Sanders is Actually Quite Serious About This ‘Political Revolution’ Thing

Bernie Sanders
Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo / Charlie Neibergall)
by John Nichols, The Nation: 

Des Moines - When William Lloyd Garrison launched his crusading abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1831 - at a time when Congress refused even to debate the issue of slavery, and three long decades before America would finally confront the sin of human bondage - he acknowledged that his call for the “immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves” was going to upset the polite politics and empty calculations of the elites.

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?” Garrison wrote. “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

After Bernie Sanders delivered a fiery address to the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night, in which the independent senator contrasted his record with that of more cautious politicians, the official Twitter account of the Democratic presidential contender featured the last line from Garrison’s declaration.

At a pivotal point in the long competition for the Democratic nomination, when many pundits are writing a next narrative for the 2016 presidential race, in which front-runner Hillary Clinton is again recognized by political and media elites as the prohibitive favorite, Sanders is signaling that he intends not just to fight on but to wage an edgier, more aggressive campaign that will not equivocate. With musicians singing truth-to-power songs, a raucous march, and a fiery speech, Sanders told the first-caucus state of Iowa that the insurgent intends to remain an insurgent.

The simple shorthand of most pundits saw evidence that Sanders is finally engaging in some compare-and-contrast campaigning with Clinton - and there was some of that. But the fight in Iowa (and the rest of the country) is not so much against other candidates, says Sanders, as it is for “a political revolution” that engages citizens who would not otherwise participate in caucuses, primaries or even the 2016 general election.

When Sanders speaks of that political revolution, he is asking Americans - especially younger Americans like the crowds of Iowans in their teens and twenties who packed the Sanders bleachers in Des Moines’ Hy-Vee Hall for the Jefferson-Jackson dinner - to believe that electoral politics might actually change something. Sanders knows that won’t happen unless people who are frustrated and disengaged and disenchanted see him as a candidate who is distinctly different from the rest.

So Sanders ramped up his rhetoric over the weekend, offering more of a sense of who he is and of the fights he has made as a civil-rights campaigner, a labor activist, a mayor, a congressman, and now a senator. And he pointed out that those fights have not merely been with Republicans but with cautious Democrats.

In his remarks at a #RockinTheBern rock show that drew a cheering crowd of more than 2,000 to a Davenport concert hall on Friday night, at a rally and march across downtown Des Moines’s Women of Achievement Bridge on Saturday afternoon, and in his closely watched speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday night, Sanders embraced the movements and the messages of outsiders seeking a way into the political process.

What he said at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner was thoroughly parsed by the pundits. But what Sanders said after rock legends such as Wayne Kramer of the MC5 and songwriter Jill Sobule performed on his behalf in Davenport, and as he prepared to march in Des Moines, sent the actual, and far more significant, signal of the weekend.

No matter how well he does in the polls, no matter how much the Democratic race is framed as a contest between him and Clinton, Sanders will continue to portray his run not as a competition with another candidate but as a challenge to a political process that tens of millions of Americans see as broken.

“What this campaign is about is not just electing a president, it is transforming America,” the candidate told the crowd of young people, labor and community activists that assembled to march him into the hall where the dinner was to be held. “To do that we need millions of people - people who have given up on the political process, people who are demoralized, people who don’t believe that government listens to them. We need to bring those people together to stand up loudly and clearly and to say ‘Enough is enough.’ This country belongs to all of us, not just wealthy campaign donors.”

“In a few minutes we will be marching. This march will not only get us to the event tonight, it is a symbolic march,” Sanders continued. “It makes me think about the great marches for civil rights, immigration reform, social justice, addressing our environmental crises. This is a march which will end up in a year when you will join me in the White House.”

That was the takeaway message from a weekend of high-stakes politics in which Sanders positioned himself as a candidate whose long-term commitment to progressive ideals, and whose willingness to act on those ideals even in the most challenging of moments, suggested not just “authenticity” - to borrow the buzzword of the moment - but a context in which Democrats might assess his promise to “govern based on principle not poll numbers.”

“I pledge to you that every day I will fight for the public interest not the corporate interests,” Sanders told the Jefferson-Jackson dinner crowd, as his young supporters answered with thunderous applause. “I will not abandon any segment of American society - whether you’re gay or black or Latino, poor or working class - just because it is politically expedient at a given time.”

The proposition Sanders offered was clear enough: While others might make promises, he can be counted on to stand firm for economic and social justice, for peace and the planet.

Pundits heard a sharper critique of Clinton - and there were reasonably obvious notations to differences between the records and approaches of the candidates on issues ranging from marriage equality to trade policy to the Iraq War. But the speech was, more precisely, a critique of contemporary politics that spoke to the frustration - among liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and especially among young people - with petty partisanship and a so-called ‘pragmatism’ that invariably rewards Wall Street rather than Main Street.

Clinton has tapped into that frustration, by articulating increasingly progressive positions on many of the economic, financial and trade policy issues that Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have been highlighting over the years.

The front-runner’s speeches have grown steadily more populist rhetorically. There was plenty of talk Saturday night about economic fairness in an address that drew enthusiastic cheers from thousands of Clinton backers at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. “We’re going to build an America where there are no ceilings for anyone, where no one gets left behind or left out …,” declared Clinton, who announced she was “running as a proud Democrat” - a wink-and-nod reference to Sanders’s status as an independent who is only now running his first race as a Democrat.

Clinton celebrated her resurgent candidacy - following a strong performance in the first Democratic debate and an even stronger performance at the House hearing on Benghazi - with pop star Katy Perry and a former president named Bill Clinton.

Before the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a critical juncture on the calendar leading up to each presidential election, Clinton rallied with her husband and Perry outside the Des Moines hall where more than 6,000 Iowans would gather to hear the remaining contenders for the party’s nomination - Clinton, Sanders, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley - make pitches that will frame a hundred-day run from late October to the February 1 caucuses that begin the formal process of selecting a nominee.

Clinton has always led the national race, and generally led in Iowa. But the lead seemed tenuous as summer turned to fall. Now, however, she’s surging - moving up in the polls, collecting key endorsements, and seeing off Republican critics with the steady determination and studied good humor that invites the use of the word “presidential.”

Two of her Democratic rivals (former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee and former Virginian senator Jim Webb) have quit the competition, and a Democrat who posed a more serious threat (Vice President Joe Biden) has decided against making a 2016 bid.

O’Malley, with his message sharpened and his status as a continuing contender strengthened by the exits of the other candidates, delivered a polished and professional speech to the gathering of definitional Democrats in Iowa. He may still be polling in the low single digits, but his speech and his organization leading up to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner was smart and professional.

The same went for Clinton’s presence. She did everything right, and then some. Her backers were enthusiastic - many of them Iowa members of the National Education Association, which recently endorsed her candidacy; many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “Hill Yes!” They packed the sections of the hall reserved for the Clinton team, and they were already talking about how and where they will caucus.

Plenty of Clinton backers expressed regard for Sanders, but they also cheered a none-too-subtle dig at her chief rival. “It’s not enough to just rail against Republicans and billionaires - we have to win this election,” she jabbed.

Clinton did not get personal. She did not criticize Sanders by name. Nor did Sanders get personal, or criticize Clinton by name.

What Sanders did was highlight a series of issues on which, more often than not, he split with prominent Democrats - including Clinton - to take positions that were considered politically dangerous.

Sanders pointed to his relatively lonely opposition in the 1990s to the Defense of Marriage Act, which he dismissed as “simply homophobic legislation,” and to gutting bank regulations with attacks on the Glass-Steagall Act. He explained his opposition to authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to take the country to war in Iraq, earning loud applause when he told the crowd, “I am proud to tell you (that) when I came to that fork in the road, I took the right road, even though it was not the popular road at the time.”

He mentioned his long crusade for a serious response to climate change and his early opposition to the Keystone pipeline, arguing that, “Honestly, it wasn’t that complicated. Should we support the construction of a pipeline across America and accelerate the extraction of some of the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world? To me, that was a no-brainer and that is why I have opposed the Keystone Pipeline from the beginning.”

On the issue of trade policy, Sanders was particularly blunt: “After I came to Congress (in 1990), corporate America, Wall Street, the administration and virtually all of the corporate media: they said you’ve got to vote for this NAFTA trade agreement … I didn’t believe their arguments I voted against NAFTA. I voted against CAFTA. I voted against PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) with China. And history has proven those of us who opposed those agreements were right - because, in the last 14 years, this country lost 60,000 factories and millions of decent-paying jobs.

“And let me be clear about the current trade deal that we are debating in Congress, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That agreement is not now, nor has it ever been, the gold standard of trade agreements. I did not support it yesterday. I do not support it today. And I will not support it tomorrow.”

That reference to “the gold standard” recalled a 2012 speech in which then-Secretary of State Clinton, who now criticizes the TPP, told an Australian audience, “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

Sanders and his team had to know that the “gold standard” reference would catch the ear not just of labor and environmental activists who organize on trade issues but of pundits who are always listening for political fireworks. But something else caught the ear of the young Iowans in the Sanders bleachers at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the ones who weren’t eating at the main tables where the party leaders were seated. They were on their feet shouting their approval of the “not … yesterday, not … today, not … tomorrow” steadiness of Sanders’ stance.

“Can Sanders win Iowa? I think the answer is yes,” explained Ed Fallon, a former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, as he looked at the crowd of young Sanders backers in the bleachers Saturday night. “But to do that, he has to get these people to the caucuses. He has to get a lot of people to the caucuses who aren’t happy with politics as usual. The way to do that is by making it very clear that he’s never been a typical politician and that he’s not going to be a typical politician now.”

John Nichols Twitter John Nichols is The Nation’s National Affairs Correspondent.