02 November 2017
It is "extremely likely" that human activities are the "dominant cause" of global warming, according to the the most comprehensive study ever of climate science by U.S. government researchers.
It is "extremely likely" that human activities are the "dominant cause" of global warming, according to the the most comprehensive study ever of climate science by U.S. government researchers.
Hundreds of New Mexicans waited in Santa Fe outside the Jerry Apodaca Building on Monday morning. They were there to share their thoughts about the statewide science standards proposed by the Public Education Department's (PED) acting Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski.
A new scientific study published Tuesday has found that warm ocean water is carving an enormous channel into the underside of one of the key floating ice shelves of West Antarctica, the most vulnerable sector of the enormous ice continent.
The Dotson ice shelf, which holds back two separate large glaciers, is about 1,350 square miles in area and between 1,000 and 1,600 feet thick. But on its western side, it is now only about half that thickness, said Noel Gourmelen, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the lead author of the research, which was just published in Geophysical Research Letters.
The reason is the same one that is believed to be shrinking glaciers and pouring ice into the ocean across West Antarctica — warm ocean water located offshore is now reaching the ice from below.
In Dotson’s case, it appears the water is first flowing into the deep cavity beneath the shelf far below it, but then being turned by the Earth’s rotation and streaming upward toward the floating ice as it mixes with buoyant meltwater. The result is that the warm water continually melts one part of the shelf in particular, creating the channel.
“We think that this channel is actually being carved for the last 25 years,” said Gourmelen, whose research team detected the channel using satellite observations. “It’s been thinning and melting at the base for at least 25 years, and that’s where we are now.”
The work was conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh along with colleagues at other institutions in France, Norway, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
The newly discovered channel is three miles wide and 37 miles long, and the scalloped region at the base of the floating ice shelf is mirrored by a long depression on its surface.
Dotson ice shelf as a whole has been thinning at an average rate of more than eight feet per year since 1994, even as the speed of ice flowing outward through the shelf has increased by 180 percent. But the thinning in the channel has been far greater. The research calculates that 45 feet of ice thickness is being subtracted annually from the channel.
The new study calculates that as a result of this highly uneven melting, the Dotson ice shelf could be melted all the way through in 40 years, rather than 170 years, which would be the time it would take if the melt were occurring evenly. And it speculates that as the thinning continues, the shelf may not go quietly or steadily any longer — something dramatic could occur, such as a breakup.
“Any carpenter knows: you’re going to cut through a block of wood a lot faster with a saw than with a sander,” said Ted Scambos, an Antarctic expert with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, who commented on the study by email (he was not involved in the research). “What they’ve shown is that warm ocean water reaching the Antarctic coastline beneath the ice does not just remove the ice uniformly, it cuts deep gouges in the ice from below. The channels are weak spots in the floating ice (ice shelves).”
Meltwater from this process streams outward into the Amundsen Sea in front of the Dotson ice shelf and the channel, which has large downstream consequences. The water carries nutrients, such as iron, that have also spurred sharp growth of marine microorganisms in the region — another sign of the major changes in the region.
“This study reveals the complexity with which the ocean interacts with Antarctic ice shelves, and will be of value in assessing the future of the ice-ocean-biology system of the Antarctic coastline, and its sensitivity to changes in climate,” said Dan Goldberg of the University of Edinburgh, another of the study’s authors.
Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said the new research highlights the importance of a European Space Agency satellite called CryoSat-2, which she said is “currently the only satellite monitoring Antarctica’s ice shelf thickness.”
“It gives us data at incredibly dense coverage, which is allowing us to map small-scale features like basal channels,” Fricker said. “These are regions of higher basal melt, and could cause the ice shelf to weaken much sooner than the average melt rates imply. It is vital that we keep monitoring these ice shelves.”
There could be numerous other such channels across the Antarctic continent, Gourmelen said.
In the particular case of Dotson, the ultimate fear is that the undermining of the shelf will increase the flow of ice outward from the glaciers behind it, named Smith and Kohler, which contributes to sea level rise. If the ice shelf collapsed, that would speed up even further.
To see why that matters, consider this map of what the overall region looks like, where “DIS” refers to Dotson ice shelf:
In the long term, the greatest fear perhaps is that Smith glacier ultimately connects to Thwaites glacier, the largest in West Antarctica, as you can see above. Thwaites runs backward all the way into the heart of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains about 10 feet of potential sea level rise.
“The nature of the impact is not really known” if Dotson is lost, Gourmelen said. “But they are essentially part of the same large basin.”
Arthur B. Robinson, renegade chemist, failed politician, grandpa of the climate skeptics — and maybe, just maybe, our nation’s next scientist-in-chief — padded across the carpet of his homemade lab in a pair of white athletic socks. “This room, everything you see here, was built by my own sons with their own hands, including the concrete,” he said. Robinson raised and home-schooled six children in this tawny valley scratched into the hills near the town of Cave Junction, Oregon. Now his wife is dead and one of his daughters has moved away, but the rest of his kids — two veterinarians, a biochemist and a pair of nuclear engineers — remain nearby. They’ve got a lot to do: Feed the animals; maintain the lab; ward off cougars; publish their popular home-school curriculums; manage Robinson’s repeated, unsuccessful congressional campaigns; and, of course, perform high-stakes research into medicine and biochemistry.
A stuffed antelope with curly horns stares across the lab at a bank of instruments with flashing lights. “That’s a rectifier, and this machine measures the rotation of light,” said Robinson, a spritely 75-year-old in pleated khakis and a button shirt, with white hair parted neatly on his small, round head. Then he pointed at a massive cylinder, about the size of a hippopotamus and groaning like a locomotive. “And this,” he said, beaming — “this is our miracle in a box.”
Lo, the Robinson family spectrometer — a $2 million, 7-tesla magnet super-cooled by liquid helium and used for analyzing chemicals. It’s not the sort of thing one would expect to find in private hands, let alone in a DIY laboratory on a modest sheep ranch in a rural corner of the Pacific Northwest. But Robinson and his scientific colleagues — that is to say, his children — have big plans for the hulking, gray device with strands of a cobweb tethered to its back. They believe it will provide a novel way to diagnose disease and then, perhaps, to extend the human lifespan.
Here at what Robinson calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the family has been assembling an archive of human urine. Eventually they hope to gather 50,000 samples, drawn from 5,000 volunteers across a five-year span. The pee is kept in cryogenic vials and stored in dozens of military-grade, minus-80 freezers on the property. Robinson and his kids have already started placing tiny urine samples, each not much bigger than a raindrop, into the family spectrometer, so they can record its chemical fingerprint — the set of peaks and valleys corresponding to its thousands of component parts. Once their catalog of prints has gotten big enough, they’ll start sifting through for hidden patterns in the data, anything that might provide a hint about our health. According to Robinson, these records could contain the telltale marks of, say, early-stage breast cancer or an approaching heart attack, or they might allow him to track the effects of treating those conditions in real time. Once the details have been worked out, he said, this cheap and noninvasive test — a tiny dab of urine fed into the hippopotamus — could spit out a dossier of diagnostic information.
Whatever you think of this endeavor, let alone its chances of success, the mere fact of its existence is remarkable. At a time when almost all biomedical research flows from either major public grants or industrial R&D;, Robinson has made the choice to strike out on his own. Instead of taking money from bureaucrats in Washington, he’s been raising millions for his big-data research from a set of ultra-wealthy donors who share his conservative values and wariness of government intrusion.
That is to say, Arthur B. Robinson is not some lonesome crank tinkering in his garage. He’s something more unusual: an extremely well-connected crank, with ample funding and an influential perch at the wild outskirts of both politics and science. If he once seemed destined for a respectable career in academia — 45 years ago, he was a young professor on the tenure track at the University of California, San Diego, working side-by-side with the legendary double-Nobelist Linus Pauling — he’s long since cut all ties to conventional research institutions and remade himself as a cowboy chemist, if not an oracle frontiersman for what might be termed America’s “alt-science” movement.
One could view his setup with idle curiosity: the science maverick on his ranch, with a seven-figure budget for his indie urinalysis. But the movement in which Robinson belongs (as a member, if not a shepherd) has nudged a few steps closer, in recent months, to the center of our national politics. Alternative theories of climate change — that is to say, those at odds with mainstream science — are now ascendant at the highest level of government, along with deep suspicion of environmental regulations. And other alt-science points of view — on vaccination, nuclear power, intelligent design — have been showing signs of purchase in the Trump administration. Even Robinson himself may soon be making tracks for Pennsylvania Avenue. Chief among his financial backers are the Mercers — hedge-fund billionaire Robert and his daughter Rebekah — who are better known these days for their avid right-wing activism and sponsorship of Steve Bannon. In March, reports emerged that Rebekah Mercer had made the case for Robinson to be the nation’s new national science adviser. “It would be an honor to do it,” he told me.
“He’s one of the founders of this whole movement,” says Joseph Bast, CEO of the Heartland Institute, which has served for 20 years as the leading think tank of the push to challenge climate science. Last year, when Robinson joined Heartland’s board of directors, Bast called him “as bold and brave a person as I have ever met.” Now Bast says that courage has been vindicated. “Time will tell,” he promised, “but it certainly seems like Robinson’s views are winning the day.”
“I’m ordinarily smart,” Robinson likes to say, as if that means he were no more clever than the average man. In fact, he has an extraordinary gift for selling average men on his ideas, and for making even subtle science seem like common sense. He’s been raising private money for his research since the 1970s, mostly on the basis of his grit-and-wit appeals to reason. Robinson is, if nothing else, a master simplifier. It’s a skill he learned from Linus Pauling: He’s the sort of guy who can flatten any topic, no matter how abstruse, into a pair of axes hand-drawn in the air. He mimes the X and Y dimensions with his fingers as he talks, explaining, for example, how samples of a person’s urine, taken over time, could yield a running readout of their health. “When you hear about a scientific subject that is said to be very, very complex, with lots of things to know, and only the expert can approach it,” he tells me, “you know they’re blowing smoke in your eyes.”
In the late-1990s, when Robinson first got into questioning the evidence for human-caused climate change, he spent six months reading through all the science he could find on atmospheric carbon dioxide. His final report, written with his son Zachary (the veterinarian) and two other scholars, cited about 150 academic papers and concluded — in a characteristic plain-spoken manner — that human activity “has not harmfully warmed the Earth.” In fact, Robinson and his colleagues went further still, claiming both in their review and an attached petition that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 would produce “a host of beneficial effects” for the planet. (His belief in the likely benefits of global warming makes Robinson somewhat unusual even among his cohort of contrarians.)
That review of climate science has been hugely influential among climate skeptics, says Bast, precisely on account of its simplicity. “It was a standard reference tool and an important publication,” he explains. “Art was one of the first to say, ‘This isn’t too hard for the layman to figure out.’ … You can go through it, even though you’re not a scientist, and say, ‘You’re right, that doesn’t make sense.’”
The same approach — simplify, clarify, persuade — has been on display for more than 20 years in Access to Energy, a libertarian newsletter that Robinson writes for 3,500 annual subscribers. (Robert Mercer is a reader.) The publication’s subject matter ranges far beyond the power grid: Robinson says it’s meant to serve as his corrective for all manner of irrational and unscientific thought; to counteract panics over pesticides and freak-outs over global warming; to teach its readers, as he puts it, “not to ‘trust and parrot’ the politically motivated statements of the press, politicians, and other self-interested parties” on scientific matters; to preach data directly to the people, so they can reach their own conclusions instead of being force-fed their ideas by science-policy elites in Washington. That is to say, Access to Energy has functioned as the house organ for Robinson’s peculiar brand of science populism — as if Breitbart had been crossed with Discover.
“Science is entirely a populist subject,” he tells me. If we don’t need some expert committee to tell us whether the atmosphere is warming, then we certainly shouldn’t let ourselves be bullied by whatever “custom and culture” happens to prevail in any other scientific circle. Custom and culture: these are dirty words for Robinson, representing the creaky machinery of public science, funded by the government through rusted peer-review committees and indifferent to nonconformists like himself. We can cast aside the custom and the culture, he says, and learn about the science for ourselves. That’s alt-science in a nutshell: It’s the freedom to draw one’s own conclusions from the facts.
Robinson has made ample use of that freedom. He currently serves as vice president of the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness — an outré association of science-minded nonconformists, conspiracy theorists and dissenters (also funded by Robert Mercer). “Art is revered by those people,” says Bast, who has attended several of DDP’s annual meetings. At this year’s event, which took place in August on the theme of “Restoring Greatness in American Science and Health,” presenters spoke about the bullying of climate skeptics, the widespread use of phony global-warming models, scientific misconduct at the Environmental Protection Agency and the story of Chernobyl and other “radioactive fairytales.” Robinson himself gave a talk on the “vaccine controversy” — he believes they’re given too early in a child’s life, as a rule — and there was a banquet reception for the infamous anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield. Earlier meetings have attacked the science linking HIV and AIDS and questioned claims that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction.
Several of these radical positions were aired in a contentious interview between Robinson and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2010. Four years later, Maddow said Robinson “currently leads for The Rachel Maddow Show hall of fame balloting for weirdest interview on this show ever.”
“Science is entirely a populist thing,” Robinson says again. “It’s a way of using the individual human mind. That means one man can be right, and everybody else can be wrong.
“And if he’s right?” he continues. “Well, then, their ideas are going to fall.”
In a dusty and defunct building on the Oregon ranch, what used to be a mouse room now is home to a handful of flies. In the old days, Robinson would irradiate his lab animals, frying their backs with ultraviolet light until they developed squamous cell carcinoma. Then he’d check to see how their cancers might respond to changes in their diets. “We could vary the growth rate of cancer by tenfold, according to what we fed ’em,” he said, describing the results of some 40 experiments going back to his time on the faculty of the Salk Institute at UC-San Diego in La Jolla.1 “The poorer you feed ’em, the poorer the cancer grows.”
Robinson’s elfin face perks up whenever the subject turns to science, and he likes to punctuate his stories with a wheezy, blurted exclamation of delight. It wasn’t just that poor nutrition stopped the cancers’ growth, he said; according to his research, a wholesome diet seemed to make the mouse tumors more robust. “Take a gram of vitamin C per day, and it improves your health, but it’ll make your cancer grow faster, too. Heeeh!”
This alarming result — that eating well can feed the thing that kills you — all but wrecked Robinson’s career, he said: “I worked with Linus Pauling for 15 years, and then he and I got in a fight over those mice.” Pauling had been insisting that a daily mega-dose of vitamin C could prevent or cure three-quarters of all cancers; now Robinson had data that pointed in the opposite direction. “That experiment was the end of our collaboration. The 15 years were over.”
One can say the break with Pauling set the stage for much of what followed: Robinson’s decampment with his family to this secluded ranch; his turn toward radical conservatism; his reinvention of himself as a cowboy scientist; his pursuit of longer life in freezers full of urine; and now, finally, astoundingly, the prospect of his going to the White House.
It took only the slightest interrogatory nudge for Robinson to launch into a wistful account of his relationship with his former mentor, starting with the moment when they met, while Robinson was still an undergraduate at Caltech in the early 1960s.
It was right around the time that Pauling won his second Nobel Prize. The first had been for chemistry; the second, a Nobel Peace Prize, recognized Pauling’s anti-nuclear activism. In 1958, the world-famous chemist had submitted a petition, signed by 9,000 scientists (including 35 other Nobel Prize winners), to the United Nations, calling for a ban on nuclear-weapons testing.
But Pauling’s activism — and sympathy for left-wing politics — had repercussions for his career. Though he was still a member of the faculty, Pauling didn’t have access to a lab at Caltech. So instead he found a bunch of undergrads to run experiments for him while school was not in session. And in 1962, he hired Robinson — a young man from Texas with a natural gift for laboratory work — to supervise the summer research.
Back then, Robinson never read the newspaper and paid no mind to Pauling’s politics, nor in fact to politics of any kind. He’d been “raised a normal American,” he said — the only child of a homemaker and a senior engineer for Union Carbide: “My father was in love with petrochemical plants, and my mother was in love with him, and that was it.” When he got to California and started taking classes, he found himself ensorcelled by Professor Pauling’s brilliance and enthusiasm.
A few years later, their paths would cross again at UC-San Diego, where Robinson had been hired to the faculty as a biochemist. Pauling, who arrived there in 1968, was about to make a sharp left turn in his career, to pursue an alt-science theory of his own: Though his ample expertise had been in biophysics, he’d lately grown obsessed by the healing power of vitamins. One day he came into Robinson’s office with a paper that he’d written for Science magazine. Pauling already held a strong belief that large doses of vitamin C would yield enormous benefits for health; now he was proposing, in the nation’s most prestigious scientific journal, that nutritional supplements might also be a salve for mental illness.
Robinson’s idol, and one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, was asking him for help in pursuit of this unusual idea. Pauling would be the theoretician and Robinson the experimentalist. The two began by running simple tests to figure out what happens to your body when you mega-dose with vitamins. Robinson would analyze samples of his subjects’ urine so he could figure out how much of each nutrient would be excreted — and thus how much had been absorbed. What he and Pauling really wanted, though, was a global readout of well-being — a yardstick they could use to optimize their dosing. That’s when Robinson had the thought to measure all the metabolites in urine that he could and to try to use the pattern as a master-code for diagnosis, a “metabolic profile” that could serve as a holistic estimate for health.
The two would spend so much time together on this project, hashing out ideas at Pauling’s ranch in Big Sur, that Robinson — whose parents had passed away quite suddenly and tragically just a few years prior — began to think of Pauling as a second father. Eventually the two men hatched a plan to start a private institute where their out-there studies could be financed through direct appeals to donors. For Pauling, at the end of his career, the move off-campus was not so risky. For Robinson it would be a leap of faith. At just 31, he’d already been told by his department head in San Diego that he was close to getting tenure. Yet the promise of the work with Pauling, and of their search for gold in human urine, proved irresistible. So in March 1973, Robinson resigned from UCSD and kicked in $100,000 from his family inheritance to rent out a small, brick building on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. This would be the site of the duo’s new nutrition labs, at what they dubbed the Institute for Orthomolecular Medicine.
Robinson and Pauling had always been a mismatched pair: the older man, a brilliant theoretician from the Pacific Northwest, and his earnest protégé, a whiz-kid experimentalist from Houston. Pauling wore a beatnik’s black beret; Robinson favored jeans and button-shirts in situations where others might be wearing suits. Their differences went still deeper: Pauling leaned toward socialism; Robinson turned out to be a vocal libertarian. Pauling was an atheist, Robinson a faithful Christian.
The polar split extended even to each one’s fundamental sense of purpose. Pauling saw the world in pain and said it was his mission to diminish human suffering. Robinson arranged his goals around the sanctity of human life and any means that he might use to increase its quality, quantity and length. The bylaws of their institute tried to span this philosophical divide: The purpose of its research, they declared, was both to extend people’s lives and also to make those lives less miserable.
For a time, the rival forces of their personalities seemed to foster a productive tension, like the pulling of the cables on a suspension bridge. Then their partnership collapsed. Robinson claims the falling-out began with that mouse experiment — the one in which he showed that too much vitamin C could make a tumor grow instead of shrink. In contemporary press reports, Pauling called that work “amateurish.” Pauling’s wife, Ava Helen, had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and Pauling was convinced that he could save her with 10-gram doses of ascorbic acid — more than 150 times the recommended daily amount. (She died of the disease in 1981, five years after her diagnosis.) Others say the rift between the men had nothing much to do with those experiments or with Ava Helen’s cancer; rather it arose from administrative disagreements. In any case, in late-summer 1978, Pauling had Robinson removed from his position as the president in Menlo Park.
The man who once felt like Pauling’s surrogate son now found himself orphaned for a second time. He responded to his firing with a $25 million lawsuit that would drag on for another half-decade, while his work on metabolic profiling — the reason he’d quit his job at UCSD and the centerpiece of his plan to save the world — came to a sudden halt. According to Robinson, a thousand cryogenic urine samples drawn from newborn infants, along with 200 magnetic tapes and 15 filing cabinets full of paper records, were summarily tossed out. “We lost everything,” he told me.
By the age of 36, Robinson had turned his back on academia and been evicted from the institute he’d helped create. Now he set off into the wilderness with a plan for starting over.
The more he tried to pull away from Pauling, though, the more it seemed their fates were drawn together. It was as if the falling-out had left Robinson with a driving need to be his former mentor’s mirror-opposite — a Pauling anti-particle, flung into a rival orbit. In 1980, Robinson took his family to Oregon — where Pauling had grown up — and built a lab so he could finish up their research on his own. He brought along the sign that had been out in front of his and Pauling’s place on Sand Hill Road: The same letters that once spelled out INSTITUTE OF ORTHOMOLECULAR MEDICINE were now scrambled and affixed (with a few new ones added) to the front wall of his homemade laboratory: OREGON INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE AND MEDICINE.
Robinson’s politics,2 like his science, also seemed to bloom in Pauling’s shadow. Pauling and Ava Helen had been terrified at the prospect of a nuclear war, and they’d spent a major portion of their later years organizing to abolish nuclear testing. Robinson and his wife (and research partner) Laurelee were also scared of nuclear devastation, but took a different tack: Starting in 1985, they became involved in “civil defense” and the disputed notion that a war with the Soviets would be survivable in shelters. From their ranch in Oregon, they started building these shelters in trailers and selling them to FEMA. They also worked on developing a nuclear-fallout diet and distributed a book on “Nuclear War Survival Skills,” which gave instructions for how to make a radiation meter from an old beer can, among many other patched-together doodads.
And where Pauling had been vocal on the health risks posed by radiation — in 1958, he participated in a famous televised debate on this topic with the theoretical physicist and Manhattan Project pioneer Edward Teller — Robinson spoke out in favor of nuclear energy. He forged his own, more cordial relationship with Teller and became an advocate for the unconventional theory of “radiation hormesis,” which holds that small doses of ionizing radiation are actually a boon for public health.3 It’s not coincidental that half of Robinson’s children have Ph.D.s in nuclear engineering: As the years went by, the Robinsons have been exactly as devoted to atomic power as the Paulings were against atomic weapons.
Then there was the Paulings’ influential 1958 petition, signed by 9,000 scientists, calling for an end to nuclear-weapons testing. (This would be the activism for which Pauling won his Nobel Peace Prize.) In 1997, Robinson organized his own petition, applying Pauling’s method to a different cause — that of climate-change skepticism. Robinson sent around his take on atmospheric science with the petition, with a cover letter from the well-known physicist, contrarian and tobacco-industry consultant Frederick Seitz. Eventually this mailing would yield 31,000 signatures, including that of Pauling’s adversary, Edward Teller, and many of the nation’s other leading skeptic scientists. Among these were a set of deregulatory pundits, the so-called “Merchants of Doubt,” who had spoken out for years on behalf of conservative think tanks and big business: Seitz, as well as Fred Singer, William Neirenberg and Robert Jastrow.
Robinson’s petition would be just as influential, in its way, as Pauling’s work on nuclear testing. Sen. James Inhofe, author of “The Greatest Hoax” and the Capitol’s leading climate-change skeptic, has described the document as “one of the first things [he] looked at” as his doubts developed, and he’s referenced it repeatedly on the floor of Congress, in claiming that the notion of “consensus” on the matter is a fraud.
“I think [the petition] was tremendously important,” another signer, the Princeton physicist and noted climate-change contrarian William Happer, told me recently. “It showed there are lots of highly credentialed scientists who really know a lot about the details of the science and don’t agree with the alarmists.” (In the past few months, Happer, like Robinson, has been short-listed for the job of science adviser to President Trump.)
Those climate skeptics are still in the minority: In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 87 percent said climate change was mostly due to human activity. But Robinson’s work has been instrumental to the others.
“Art Robinson is the reason many of us are in this room,” the Heartland Institute’s Bast told a conference of climate skeptics several years ago, in reference to the 1997 review paper and petition. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here.”
The Robinsons served me lunch across the gravel road from their homemade lab and urine freezers, in the home where Robinson still lives with his two unmarried sons, Noah and Matthew. There’s an embroidered sign posted on the wall beside the kitchen: “The more laws, the less justice.” The living room feels somewhat wedged between a large wood stove that heats the house and a full-size church organ, about 15 feet wide with lanky pipes that loom into the rafters where dust bunnies dangle to their metal tips from a skylight.
“This was made in 1878,” Noah told me. He bought the instrument for several thousand dollars from a beautiful stone church in Vermont after he’d come across a listing on eBay. “It’s a little out of tune, but it plays.”
Matthew gave a demonstration, briefly banging out a spell of dirge-like music that reverberated throughout the house. “It’s a nice hobby,” Robinson said when his son had finished playing. The boys have been picking up colossal and unwanted instruments from churches all across the country; by now, they’ve accumulated six or seven, toting them back to Cave Junction in pieces, then assembling them on-site. “Laurelee loved the pipe organ,” he added. “She would have loved to have had a pipe organ.”
The loss of Laurelee was the next of Robinson’s misfortunes, following his falling-out with Pauling. In the fall of 1988, not so many years after Ava Helen succumbed to cancer of the gut, Laurelee started feeling ill. One night she felt a pain inside her abdomen before she went to bed. By sunrise her pancreas, diseased and inflamed, had secreted digestive enzymes onto a nearby artery, boring through its wall. Laurelee bled to death before anyone had any idea of what was happening.
The tragedy left Robinson a hypochondriac. With every minor ache, he worried that he might die and leave his kids as he had been, without a parent. Again, it seemed to him there ought to be a simple diagnostic tool — a quick and easy way for people to obtain a global readout of their health. “My wife was sitting here with a very bad stomachache, and any profiling tool could have immediately diagnosed her, and surgery would have saved her,” he said, referring to the technology that he’d been working on with Pauling and which he’s once again pursuing on the ranch. “I brought Laurelee up here and we built this place,” he said. “I don’t know where she got that disease, but my guess is that if we’d stayed in La Jolla, she’d still be alive. It would have been a different life. So I look at all this, and I know I’m lucky — I’ve got six wonderful young people working here, and they’re all brighter than me so I’m having fun. But she’s dead and the profiling was delayed for many, many years. So if I could do it over again …”
He paused. If he could do it over again, he might have kept his job at UCSD and tried to to do some work on profiling on the side. Or else he might have figured out a way to stave off Pauling’s “self-destruction” and continued with their work in Menlo Park.
That’s not what happened, though. The split from Pauling, and the death of Laurelee, sent Robinson hurtling further out into the fringe, where he found a small but ardent caucus of contrarians: scientists, like him, who had abandoned — or been ejected from — the normie, left-leaning research community and who made common cause in puncturing prevailing views on smoking, DDT, radiation, depletion of the ozone hole and changes to the climate. When his old life fell apart, Robinson had to find a new and different one, and a new and different way of doing science.
After lunch — a plate of watermelon slices, with cream of mushroom soup poured over white rice — Robinson told me more about his urine project. It sounded like the end point of his long, peculiar journey as a scientist and the knotty nexus of his life’s loose ends. While much of Robinson’s philosophy and many of his scientific views are informed by his politics, the work on profiling seems to float above all that, buoyed mainly by the goal that he put forth so many years ago when he started work with Pauling: to increase the quality and quantity of human life. But then it’s also anchored in the grief and grievance that cast him out into the wilderness, almost 40 years ago.
We headed back across the gravel road, past the schoolhouse building where Robinson used to sit and do his work, after Laurelee had died, while his kids did theirs with barely any supervision. When it got too cold in there, he put UV lights above the children’s heads to keep them warm. From there we strolled by a dilapidated chicken coop and a truck-sized billboard for one of his congressional campaigns, and then back into the lab with its hippopotamus spectrometer.
Other, more mainstream biochemists have been far too conservative in their attempts to do profiling, he told me, showing off some sample data on a poster, a broad array of spectrographic peaks. Instead of looking at all the different compounds in a sample, and a dataset with thousands of dimensions, they play it safe and study just a handful. “Their papers have one foot in what we’re doing, but they also have one foot in the past,” he said. “I’m sure the field will move, until 50 years from now, it will just be this” — he gestured at his poster — “but the move will be a slow one, because of custom and culture.”
Robinson’s “custom and culture” would seem to be a product of what he sees as the present, fallen age of science, if not of society at large. He likes to talk about the time before “the bureaucracy got control of science,” back when the nation’s “wild cards,” its humble and inventive folks, could still puzzle out their theories over many years of private work. They’d toil in a basement on their own, he said, solving problems for themselves, and then they would appear one day, blinking in the light, to share their big discoveries.
“Progress in science requires freedom to do what you want,” Robinson declared.
Standing there beside him in the hills of Oregon, I was tempted by the epic sweep of this idea. If the government won’t pay to build a giant urine archive, Robinson will build one on his own. Maybe sifting through those drops of pee really will extend our lives, or maybe it won’t. Why not celebrate the fact that someone has the guts to try?
Robinson’s plan isn’t even so far-fetched, at least in principle. Other, more mainstream scientists have pursued the same idea, skimming diagnoses from body fluids using giant reams of spectrographic data. This approach has at times been perilous: In one prominent case from 2002, a team of researchers claimed to have discovered a data pattern in patients’ blood showing whether they had ovarian cancer; that finding, published in The Lancet and cited several thousand times, turned out to be an artifact of statistical noise. Yet many still see promise in this grand approach to data-driven medicine: In April, the life-sciences division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, began a major trial along the lines of Robinson’s. “Project Baseline,” which involves both Stanford and Duke universities and is likely to cost more than $100 million, will follow 10,000 people over four years to see what clues about their health might be gleaned from samples of their blood, saliva, tears and feces.
Indeed, several of the contrarian arguments that alt-science types have championed now seem pretty reasonable, and certain beliefs in Robinson’s portfolio have won out, in a sense, even among environmentalists. It’s no longer off the wall, for example, to suggest that DDT should be used in fighting malaria in Africa, or that we might benefit from greater use of nuclear power (which, after all, is carbon free).
But then, how are we to know which refutations of consensus science will end up seeming more or less correct, and which are nothing more than dangerous denialism? Which diversions from the mainstream path might lead us somewhere fruitful, and which are guaranteed dead ends? Can we really trust Art Robinson to help us make these weighty judgments, just because he’s plain-spoken and persuasive?
Or put another way: If science really is a populist phenomenon, then aren’t we at risk from science demagogues? Take Pauling, another master simplifier. In the 1950s, he convinced a lot of people that nuclear testing was a major risk to public health, based on data that Robinson now claims was “entirely incorrect.” And later on Pauling was nearly as persuasive, for a time, on his theory that vitamin C could eradicate all cancers. What if a great scientist’s skill as a communicator leads us into ruin?
“Linus was a very convincing individual,” Robinson admitted. “This is a failing of human nature that people can be driven by the most effective speaker, and that’s something we have to live with.” But if the wrong guy wins a debate or two, he said, that’s OK, because usually, the truth will come out in the end.
“Suppose I’m a charlatan, but a convincing charlatan,” he continued. “Then some people will voluntarily provide money for my work, and that’s perhaps a loss because they were fooled. But that’s not a big loss. When they earn money, it’s their privilege to spend it as they wish. … That’s a different thing than imposing something from above, something that diminishes the freedom of scientists.”
It occurred to me that the movement Robinson helped create often presents itself as free and independent — as embodying pure and populist resistance to a groupthink status quo, imposed by the elites. Yet I’ve also learned from past experience that scientific-skeptic views are often nurtured with specific ends in mind. Scientists who took tobacco money had a stake in saying cigarettes were not so bad. The Heartland Institute takes aim at mainstream climatology, while critics note its links to ExxonMobil and other companies that benefit from fighting regulation.4 All this to say: Alt-science often doubles as a beachhead for self-interest, if not a vehicle for greed.
Robinson’s ties to Heartland connect him to big business, at least indirectly, and it’s possible that the Mercers, or other wealthy donors, are in his ears on certain matters. (The Mercers did not respond to requests for comment on this story.) Still, I get the sense that he’s secured a different kind of independence. It’s hard to figure how his plans to study pee would carry water for his funders. Working only with his family, raising money as he does, Robinson seems to have walled off a space in which he can set his own alt-scientist’s agenda. On this sheep ranch in the hills, strewn with scrap metal and iron horseshoes, kitted out with electronics purchased second-hand, taxidermy animals and reconstituted pipe organs, his views do not appear to be controlled by any corporation. His way-out research is his own.
That doesn’t mean he’s free, exactly; only that his constraints come from within. His work is tied into a lifetime’s worth of trauma, and a long-held tendency to flout convention. I don’t mean to flatten out a complicated life into a pair of X-Y axes, but sometimes it does make sense to simplify: Robinson has tried to build a private fortress up in Oregon; he’s tried to break apart the shackles of consensus science; he’s tried to liberate his thinking from the so-called experts’ point of view. But in the end, he’s just as stifled and constrained as all the rest of us, wrapped up in the conflicts of his past.
Daniel Engber writes about science and culture. @danengber
Al Gore recently had a telling altercation with a journalist. The Spectator’s Ross Clark wanted to ask him about Miami sea-level rises suggested in the new film, “An Inconvenient Sequel.” The reporter started to explain that he had consulted Florida International University sea-level-rise expert Shimon Wdowinski. Gore’s response: “Never heard of him — is he a denier?” Then he asked the journalist, “Are you a denier?”
When Clark responded that he was sure climate change is a problem but didn’t know how big, Gore declared, “You are a denier.”
I was recently on the receiving end of a similar rebuff from Chile’s environment minister. I’d written an op-ed for a Chilean newspaper that, among other things, quoted UN findings on how little the Paris climate treaty would achieve and argued that vast investment in green energy research and development is a better policy. Marcelo Mena proclaimed, “There is no room for your climate-denying rhetoric in Chile.”
Something odd — and dangerous — is happening when even people who accept the reality of man-made climate change are labeled “deniers.” The unwillingness to discuss which policies work best means we end up with worse choices.
Consider the case of Roger Pielke, Jr, a political scientist who worked extensively on climate change. He believes that climate change is real, human emissions of greenhouse gases justify action and there should be a carbon tax.
But he drew the ire of climate campaigners because his research has shown that the increasing costs from hurricane damage is not caused by storms made more intense by climate-change but by more and pricier property built in vulnerable areas. He took issue with the UN’s influential International Panel for Climate Change over a chart in its 2007 report that seemed to imply causation when there was only circumstantial evidence.
Pielke was proven right, and the IPCC’s subsequent outputs mostly accepted his arguments. Yet, he was the target of a years-long campaign, including a massive but baseless takedown that later turned out to have been coordinated by a climate-campaigning think tank funded by a green billionaire, alongside an investigation launched by a congressman.
Pielke left climate change for other fields where “no one is trying to get me fired.” And sidelining him has made it easier for climate-campaigners to use hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria to argue for carbon-cut policies, even though these will do very little to prevent future hurricane damage.
Pielke finds that we should make relatively cheap investments to reduce vulnerability, like limiting floodplain construction and increasing porous surfaces. Ignoring this means more harm.
“Ten years ago we did ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ Its predictions...
Leaving out dissention echoes the worst of the leaked “ClimateGate” e-mails. In 2004, the head of a leading climate-research organization wrote about two inconvenient papers: “Kevin and I will keep them out [of the IPCC report] somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”
Journalists also ensure debate “purity.” In Scientific American, climate writer and former CNN producer Peter Dykstra stated baldly that “climate denial extends beyond rejecting climate science,” comparing policy questioners to Holocaust deniers and dismissing my own decade of advocacy for a green energy R&D; fund as “minimization.”
This intolerance for discussion is alarming. Believe in climate change but wonder how bad it will be? You’re a “denier,” says Gore. Believe, but argue that today’s policies aren’t the best response? You’re a denier, says Chile’s environment minister. Believe, but point out problematic findings or media reporting? There’s no room for you, say the self-appointed gatekeepers of debate.
The expanding definition of “denial” is an attempt to ensure that public and policy-makers hear from an ever-smaller clique. John Stuart Mill calls this “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion.”
But even if an opinion is wrong, debating it will teach more people what is right. And if the opinion is right, it offers an opportunity to exchange error for truth. Instead, we’re left with just one “right” way of thinking.
With dissidence on the Paris Treaty not allowed, we are on track to lose $1 trillion to $2 trillion annually to achieve what the United Nations finds will be 1 percent of the carbon cuts needed to keep temperature rises under 2°C.
That’s not the right way to solve climate change. Saying so denies nothing but economic illiteracy.
Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.
A TEAM at the University of Bradford has mixed the latest computer technology with an old-fashioned sandpit to create a tool that can predict how climate change can transform civilisations.
The Digital Sandpit allows archaeologists at the University to create their own 3D environments, onto which are projected vegetation, animals and humans, whose movements and actions are run by a computer algorithm. The team can then use the computer to raise or lower the temperature of the virtual landscape, leading to swathes of land being covered in snow or drowned by rising water levels.
They can use this to see how these changes affect vegetation, animal populations, and the impact on the food chain.
Despite the impressive technology behind the piece of kit, it is quite low fi. A wooden sandpit and bag of B&Q; sand is the backdrop for the projections, made by a device from an XBOX 360 games system, hooked up to an everyday desktop.
The computer programme means archaeologists can develop physical environments to visualise the impact of complex equations, and it was on show at a recent open day to inspire future students.
It will be used as part of a major university project, to discover the secrets of Doggerland - a lost area of land that was once part of Britain but now lies beneath the North Sea. The team has spent years studying the site, and the former human settlements there. The sandbox will be used to re-create that site, and look at different theories on how life there changed with the changing climate.
The projections in the Digital Sandbox even show the diet of the virtual humans, reflecting whether they eat vegetables and fruit, deer or fish, meaning the team can see how the environmental changes can lead to major changes in the lifestyles of people living in those areas - with hunters becoming fishermen when animal populations fall due to rising water levels.
Although other similar bits of kit exist at other institutions, the Bradford team is one of the few to use it in this way.
Dr Philip Murgatroyd, Project and Modelling Manager at the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, said: “It helps us to visualise complex simulations. A lot of time in this field you don’t have something graphically you can show people. We hope that when people see this they realise just how closely humans and their environment interact, and how a small change can really alter environments.”
Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), left, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), right, talk with Michael Sparks, the chief executive of the industry group Florida Citrus Mutual, in September. (Tamara Lush/AP)
The Government Accountability Office will look into whether the Trump administration is safeguarding scientific integrity.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked the GAO to investigate the issue on Sept. 25, calling media reports of political appointees screening Environmental Protection Agency grants and officials at multiple agencies purging references to climate change and other scientific information “troubling.”
“It is vital that science be impartial and free from interference, suppression or distortion,” wrote Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
In 2009, President Barack Obama instructed all federal science agencies to develop and adopt scientific integrity policies; by last December, 24 departments and agencies had complied. Nelson requested that GAO assess the status of those policies within the federal government, including how adequate they are in ensuring impartial research and communication, whether “the administration has violated scientific integrity policies” and whether federal scientists are aware of their rights.
GAO informed Nelson on Tuesday that it would accept his request but said the work “will begin in about four months when staff will become available.”
“Reports that administration officials are trying to muzzle and intimidate government scientists, especially those engaged in climate research, are deeply disturbing and must not be tolerated,” Nelson said in a statement. “We have to get to the bottom of this and put a stop to any meddling that occurs. Scientists must be free to carry out their work without interference.”
By HENRY C. JACKSON 10/11/2017 10:42 PM EDT
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President Donald Trump has nominated the CEO of AccuWeather to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a key agency in conducting climate research and assessing climate change.
Barry Myers has served since 2007 as CEO of AccuWeather, a media company in State College, Pennsylvania, that provides worldwide weather predictions. He graduated from Penn State with a degree in business and received a law degree from Boston University, but has no science training.
In a news release, the White House called him “one of the world’s leading authorities on the use of weather information.” Trump has nominated him to serve as the Commerce Department’s under secretary for oceans and atmosphere, which oversees NOAA.
At AccuWeather, Myers has led a global expansion of the company. His significant private-sector experience fits with many of the other high-profile Trump administration appointees.
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NOAA has a vast portfolio that includes the nation's weather forecasts and projecting climate change. The agency oversees the National Weather Service and a vast array of research. It also has responsibility for protecting coastal areas and oceans.
Bob Murray claims Earth’s getting colder (just ignore those rising global temperatures). A Murray Energy lobbyist is now Trump’s nominee for No. 2 at EPA.
BY MARIANNE LAVELLE
OCT 11, 2017
Bob Murray, CEO of the nation's largest privately held coal company, adamantly propounded some common talking points of climate denialism while lauding plans to repeal the Clean Power Plan during an appearance on PBS NewsHour. Credit: PBS NewsHour
The Trump administration avoided making any statement on the science of global warming as it moved to revoke the Clean Power Plan, but one of its most influential coal-industry allies made clear he is pushing outright rejection of the scientific consensus.
"We do not have a climate change problem," Murray Energy Chairman and CEO Robert Murray said Tuesday on PBS Newshour as he lauded the repeal decision. He asserted that "4,000 scientists" had told him that "mankind is not affecting climate change."
This is a level of denial that even the most ardent opponents of climate action in the Trump administration rarely speak out loud, and it flies in the face of the scientific consensus.
But Murray, who is head of the nation's largest privately held coal company, adamantly propounded some of the most common, and thoroughly debunked, talking points of the denialist camp.
"The Earth has cooled for the last 19 years," he said—an utter falsehood.
Murray dismissed all evidence to the contrary as "a natural cycle," not the result of a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mostly from the combustion of fossil fuels, which scientists say is the principal cause.
Coal Baron Urges Trump to Go Farther
Murray said he has counseled President Trump to go further than reversing the power plant rule that is the Obama administration's signature climate change policy; he has also urged repeal of the 2009 finding that greenhouse gases endangered public health and welfare. That finding, grounded in peer-reviewed science, is the underpinning of the Environmental Protection Agency's actions on climate change under the Clean Air Act.
"My stand is that the endangerment finding needs to be repealed, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant," he said.
Although Murray has made similar statements in the past, his latest refutation is more detailed, and comes at a time when his position to influence policy has become increasingly apparent. Last week, President Donald Trump nominated Murray Energy lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator of the EPA. Wheeler, who is also a former aide to hard-core climate denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), must be confirmed by the Senate for the post as No. 2 to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Hearings have not yet been scheduled.
Pruitt, like many in the Trump administration, has stopped short of outright denial of climate change. In his rationale for repealing the Clean Power Plan, he did not discuss science but focused on EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act and its method of cost-benefit analysis.
Hard-line opponents of federal climate policy, like Murray, have argued that that effort will be on shaky legal ground unless the Trump administration rejects the finding that carbon dioxide causes harm. This puts them at odds with a number of industry groups, including other fossil fuel companies, which have urged a more cautious policy—continued engagement in the Paris climate agreement and replacement of the Clean Power Plan with a more narrow set of regulations.
Murray, who supported Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, made clear his advice to the administration now is to dismiss mainstream assessments of climate science as a hoax.
Deeply Invested in a Fossil Fuel Future
Murray has bet heavily on the future of coal through a series of acquisitions over the past decade. With a dozen mines in six states, the company says it has capacity to produce 65 million tons of coal per year, and says it owns three billion "salable" tons of reserves.
Murray has worked assiduously for years to head off federal climate regulation. In fact, emails obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy showed that Murray conferred with then-Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt in 2015 after the Obama EPA announced its plans for reducing carbon emissions from the electric power sector. Inhofe acted as a go-between, arranging a phone meeting between the two.
Murray Energy is a leading plaintiff in the ongoing litigation over the Clean Power Plan.
Murray was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump during last year's presidential campaign; at a time when many fossil fuel executives held off on supporting his campaign, Murray hosted a fundraiser for him in Charleston, West Virginia, weeks before the Republican convention that netted at least $580,000 in donations. Murray also was one of the top donors to Trump's record-breaking inaugural fund, with a $300,000 contribution.
BUSINESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY COAL CLIMATE DENIAL POLITICS
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marianne Lavelle is a reporter for InsideClimate News. She has covered environment, science, law, and business in Washington, D.C. for more than two decades. She has won the Polk Award, the Investigative Editors and Reporters Award, and numerous other honors. Lavelle spent four years as online energy news editor and writer at National Geographic. She also has worked at U.S. News and World Report magazine and The National Law Journal. While there, she led the award-winning 1992 investigation, "Unequal Protection," on the disparity in environmental law enforcement against polluters in minority and white communities.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. PGP key: bit.ly/PGPML15
BLAME THE WIND, if you want. In Southern California they call it the Santa Ana; in the north, the Diablos. Every autumn, from 4,000 feet up in the Great Basin deserts of Nevada and Utah, air drops down over the mountains and through the canyons. By the time it gets near the coast it’s hot, dry, and can gust as fast as a hurricane.
Or blame lightning, or carelessness, or downed power lines. No one yet knows the cause of the more than a dozen fires ablaze around California, but fires start where humans meet the wild forests, where people build for solitude or space or beauty. Things go wrong in those liminal spaces, at the interface between the wilds and the built.
So blame sprawl, or civilization’s cycling of wilderness into rural into exurban into suburban—urban agglomerations with an ever-expanding wavefront.
Blame all of it. There’s a reason the great Californian writer Raymond Chandler called it the Red Wind—winds “that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.” The Santa Anas blast down from the mountains and fan small fires into infernos, and sometimes those infernos maim or kill a city. In 1991 it was in the hills of Oakland. And this past weekend it was Napa and Sonoma, and the town of Santa Rosa. At least 15 people are dead. More than 1,500 houses are gone. The skies of the West are full of dust and ash.
Pushed by the wind, fires can throw burning embers a mile and a half ahead. The fire front starts moving faster than anyone can respond, jumping from ridgeline to ridgeline.
A fire’s progress through the forests and wildlands of North America isn’t exactly formulaic, but scientists understand it reasonably well. In the city, though? “Most wildland firefighters are not trained in structural protection, but the urban fire departments are not trained to deal with dozens or hundreds of houses burning at the same time,” says Volker Radeloff, a forestry researcher at the University of Wisconsin. “When these areas with lots of houses burn, the fires become very unpredictable.”
Buildings, the material bits of cities, don’t burn like woodlands. “A wildfire typically doesn’t last in one spot more than a minute or two. In grass it can be like 10 seconds,” says Mark Finney, a US Forest Service researcher at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. “But structures can burn for a long time. That means they have a long time to be able to spread the fire, to be able to ignite adjacent structures.” They throw off embers as they decompose, and those wide walls emit and transfer heat.
In Southern California, Santa Ana fires push into populated areas more frequently. They kill more people and destroy more buildings. Diablo-powered fires aren't as common in the state's northern half, but they're not unknown.
Fires happen without Santa Anas too, of course, but “they typically don’t grow bigger,” says Yufang Jin, an ecosystem dynamics researcher at UC Davis and lead author on a 2015 paper about the difference. “During summertime in southern California, the typical wind pattern blows from the ocean to inland. The wind speed is usually not that strong, and the relative humidity is usually high.” That can tamp a fire down.
During Santa Ana season, conditions are the opposite. And the particularly bad Diablo winds in the north this year come after the end of a drought that left plenty of fuel. Fire researchers sometimes fight about whether meteorology or fuel conditions are more important to wildfires; this past weekend had both—the perfect firestorm. Cal Fire, the agency responsible for wildfires in the state, has issued another Red Flag Warning for the same conditions later this week. According to a spokesperson, roughly 4,000 firefighters are already deployed.
California housing policies are more likely to push single-family houses out into the edges of communities than encourage the construction of dense city centers. Climate change makes wet seasons wetter and hot seasons hotter—which builds fuel. “Based on analysis using climate model projections, the frequency of Santa Ana events is uncertain,” Jin says. “But all the models agree that the intensity of Santa Ana events is going to be much stronger.”
Models say the same thing about sea level rise and hurricanes. A continent away from the fires in California, cities along the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean have been battered by tropical cyclones, one after the other. This year, ocean water heated by a warming climate, unusually wet weather, and a lack of the vertical wind shear that can tame a big storm combined to produce an anomalous season. It has already been a fire season and a hurricane season that are, as researchers say, consistent with models of a changing climate.
Cities are not immortal. Economics and wars can kill them, but so can storms and fires. That’s especially true if cities aren’t built to resist—if cities are built in ways that make the change worse instead of fighting it.
So keep thinking about blame as northern California rebuilds—if regulations get brave enough to insist on denser cities, less flammable materials, different ornamental vegetation, underground power lines. The risk of fire will never be zero, but everyone knows what would knock a few points off. Whether anyone will make those changes—well, the red wind makes people do crazy things.
Guest post: Interpreting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C temperature limit
10.10.2017 | 2:09pm GUEST POSTS
Guest post: Interpreting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C temperature limit
Dr Joeri Rogelj is a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, and a coordinating lead author of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5C. Dr Carl-Friedrich Schleussner is head of climate science and impacts at Climate Analytics, and is on the steering committee of the initiative Half a degree Additional warming, Prognosis and Projected Impacts (HAPPI).
Long-term temperature limits like 2C or 1.5C above pre-industrial levels have long been used as goalposts for climate change mitigation.
Recently, these limits have received renewed attention in the scientific community, media and general public because of their inclusion in the Paris Agreement and the decision of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to prepare a Special Report on 1.5C.
However, the Paris Agreement itself does not spell out explicitly how such temperature limits should be used in climate policy and practice. These limits are therefore subject to interpretation, leading to confusion when trying to communicate how achievable the 1.5C limit is and the mitigation effort required.
In a commentary paper for the journal Geophysical Research Letters, we show that the temperature limits in the Paris Agreement should be understood as changes in long-term global averages attributed to human activity, which exclude natural variability.
This means 1.5C might be breached in individual years well before the global long-term 1.5C temperature limit has definitively been crossed.
The long-term temperature goal agreed in Paris in December 2015 is enshrined in Article 2.1 of the final text. It outlines the aim to hold rising temperatures to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels” while “pursuing efforts” towards the more ambitious limit of 1.5C.
The Paris Agreement final text. Source: UNFCCC (pdf)
The wording of the text is not without ambiguity (though this was arguably intentional in order to help reach agreement during negotiations). The agreement does not establish two “either-or” temperature goals, but a single goal, yet it does not make explicit how “well below 2C” or “limit to 1.5C” should be interpreted.
In the months since Paris there has been flurry of new journal papers and media articles focusing on the long-term goal – particularly the 1.5C limit – and this has highlighted the different ways in which it is being understood.
Much of the recent peer-reviewed research into 1.5C and 2C has taken the Paris Agreement temperature limits as long-term climatological global averages over multiple decades (see: here, here or here).
In others, the 1.5C and 2C limits have been compared to temperature metrics that look at smaller geographical scales or shorter time periods. These include, for example, looking at land temperatures only or at regional temperatures, or by assessing annual temperatures that include modes of natural variability such as the Pacific Interdecadal Oscillation.
Media articles have also discussed how close record monthly temperatures have come to hitting 1.5C above average.
These widely-different interpretations lead to quite different messages and insights, and have the potential to create confusion around what the long-term goal means and our chances of meeting the challenge.
So, does it matter if the long-term goal is characterised in different ways? The simple answer is yes.
Widely-different interpretations lead to quite different messages and insights, and have the potential to create confusion around what the long-term goal means and our chances of meeting the challenge.
We illustrate this here with a thought experiment by showing how different warming limit interpretations affect the carbon budget for keeping to the 1.5C limit.
(We argue that one misinterpretation of international climate limits is to assume that they apply to global mean temperature rise including interannual natural variability. This is not the case – as will become clear further below – but let’s make this assumption for our thought experiment.)
Even in a stable climate, annual temperatures fluctuate around a long-term global temperature as a result of natural variability, caused by a range of unforced climate phenomena such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, and of variations in natural forcing, including volcanic eruptions, and variations in solar activity.
In a world where human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have taken long-term global warming to 1.5C, there would be a 50:50 chance of annual temperatures in any given year showing more than 1.5C of warming. In other words, you would expect to see more than 1.5C of warming one out of every two years on average over a sustained period of time.
Diverging interpretations of international warming limits, which look at exceeding 1.5C less frequently in individual years, make the challenge of keeping warming below 1.5C much greater.
In our thought experiment, we explore what happens when we reduce the chances of crossing 1.5C in any given year from one in two down to one in five, one in 10, one in 20, or never. The last of these levels, for example, means global temperature virtually never passes 1.5C of warming.
For this we derive annual average temperatures for each annual exceedance frequency using simulations from 24 climate models. You can see the results in the chart below, which shows the likely spread of annual temperatures as a result of natural variability.
So, for example, if we were to interpret the 1.5C limit as exceeding 1.5C of warming once every five years, we would actually need to hold the long-term global average temperature to 1.41C.
The more strictly we take the 1.5C goal, the lower the long-term average needs to be.
If we want to ensure annual global temperature never exceeds 1.5C of warming (see blue curve on the chart), we actually have to hold the long-term temperature to around 1C – a threshold we have almost reached.
Annual global average temperature anomalies from running a 21-year average for 24 climate models and the 1900-2090 period (combined historical and RCP2.6 scenario). Levels shown for four probabilities relating to the 1.5C limit, with the central bold line of each curve showing the equivalent average long-term temperature. Note: this is an approximation of natural variability, as it does not capture low frequency variability, and it also includes variations due to changes in historical natural solar and volcanic forcing. Credit: Joeri Rogelj.
Long-term temperature levels, such as those laid down in the Paris Agreement, provide guidance for short, mid and long-term global mitigation action.
One way they are used is by being translated into specific “carbon budgets” – this is the maximum amount of CO2 humans can emit while still having a good chance of meeting a given temperature limit.
Different interpretations of the long-term goal thus affect the carbon budget for 1.5C.
For example, if annual temperatures can only exceed a long-term temperature limit once every five years, the compatible carbon budget is around 200bn tonnes of CO2 smaller than the budget for once every two years. At current CO2 emission rates, that translates into using up the 1.5C budget around five years earlier.
For 1.5C never to be breached in any given year, the carbon budget would be reduced by more than 1,000bn tonnes of CO2.
This shows that there are substantial real-world policy differences involved in the interpretation of the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal.
Our findings for each annual exceedance frequency are shown in the table below.
Implications of limits to the annual exceedance frequency of 1.5C for equivalent long-term global warming levels and respective carbon budgets, based on a transient climate response of 1.65C per 3664bn tonnes of CO2 (which is the average of the IPCC AR5’s likely 0.8 to 2.5C range). This estimate assumes invariable non-CO2 contributions. Reproduced from Rogelj et al. (2017). Note: the cumulative carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5C relative to 1861-1880 in 50% of the model simulations was reported to be of the order of 2300bn tonnes of CO2 since 1870 in the IPCC Synthesis Report. A recent study, which has also been extensively covered on Carbon Brief and elsewhere online, reported updated estimates for an additional 0.6C of warming above the 2010-2019 average of about 730-880bn tonnes of CO2.
Legal and policy context
So, how can we know the correct way to interpret Paris Agreement temperature levels?
In our article, we show that the answer lies in analysis of the available information and examination of the context – in this case the legal framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – to which the Paris Agreement is a subsidiary legal instrument – defines “climate change” specifically as changes caused by human activity, without natural variability included.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992). Source: UNFCCC (pdf)
Further, the most recent IPCC assessment report provides additional clarity by defining “climate” as the statistical description in terms of the average and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time – with a classical period for averaging being 30 years, also commonly used by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).
In the context of the Paris Agreement, definitions set out by the UNFCCC will apply. In addition, IPCC assessment reports – particularly the most recent one – played a predominant role defining and underpinning the scientific components of the agreement.
Therefore, we argue that the long-term temperature goal in the Paris Agreement should be understood as long-term changes in climatological averages attributed to human activity – excluding natural variability.
Communicating 1.5C – the challenges ahead
Given the sensitive nature of the topic in the public debate, we think it is indispensable for the scientific community working on the topic to be well aware of the legal and scientific characteristics of the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal.
At some point in the near future we will record the first year where the global average temperature is 1.5C warmer than pre-industrial levels. This will undoubtedly generate headlines.
Indeed, even before that, we will likely also see individual months and regions “exceeding” 1.5C.
But this won’t necessarily mean we’ve reached 1.5C of human-caused warming because a single month or year is also subject to natural variability. We need to be clear, for example, that even if a year sees 1.5C of warming, it need not mean that we have failed to fulfill the Paris Agreement – although it will provide an important warning shot.
While there are many challenges for scientists and policymakers in how we communicate climate change, being consistent about what the Paris Agreement temperature goal refers to should not be one of them. It is an essential step for providing relevant information to the public and policy debate alike.
Rogelj, J. et al. (2017) Getting it right matters – temperature goal interpretations in geoscience research, Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2017GL075612
"It's an unavoidable truth: we will need geoengineering by the mid-2030s"
By Laurie Goering
LONDON, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As efforts to cut planet-warming emissions fall short, large-scale projects to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will be needed by the 2030s to hold the line against climate change, scientists said on Tuesday.
Many new technologies that aim to capture and store carbon emissions, thereby delivering "negative emissions", are costly, controversial and in the early phase of testing.
But "if you're really concerned about coral reefs, biodiversity (and) food production in very poor regions, we're going to have to deploy negative emission technology at scale," said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, a science and policy institute.
"I don't think we can have confidence that anything else can do this," the Berlin-based chief executive told a London climate change conference.
World leaders agreed in 2015 an aim of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
Scientists believe this is key to protecting small island nations from sea level rise, shoring up food production and preventing extreme weather.
Carbon-sucking technologies may even be needed to hold the planet to a less ambitious 2 degrees Celsius of warming, said scientists at Chatham House, a British think tank.
The world has already seen an average of about 1 degree of warming, they said.
"It's something you don't want to talk about very much but it's an unavoidable truth: we will need geoengineering by the mid-2030s to have a chance at the (1.5 degree) goal," Hare said, referring to efforts to cool the planet through engineering.
These ideas include planting carbon-absorbing forests across large areas, then harvesting the wood for energy and pumping the emissions produced underground - a process likely to feature in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report next year.
Machines might also be developed to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air and pump it underground or otherwise neutralise it.
But efforts to store captured carbon underground are "showing no progress... and even backwards steps in some cases", said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.
Underground carbon storage has been promoted as part of a push by the United States and other countries to develop "clean coal" technology.
Similarly, planting more forests - a technology known as BECCS, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage - raises questions about food security and land rights, scientists said.
Le Quéré said BECCS is "probably essential to take us to zero emissions" although "it's really difficult to imagine we can use land at the levels required in the models".
She called for experts to focus on proven approaches, such as improving energy efficiency, promoting cleaner transport, eating less meat and scaling up renewable energies.
Many experts fear that launching costly "negative emissions" technologies could reduce the pressure to act swiftly to cut emissions now.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundatio
Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s climate scepticism surged back into the public sphere during a speech in London on Monday evening in which said climate change was “probably doing good”.
Abbott delivered the annual lecture to the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a climate sceptic thinktank. Climate Home was blocked from attending the event.
Abbott told the group the ostracisation of those who do not accept climate science was “the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought-police down the ages”. He also reprised his 2009 assertion that the “so-called settled science of climate change” was “absolute crap”.
When he was prime minister, Abbott said he took the issue of climate change “very seriously”. But since he was deposed as prime minister by his Liberal party colleague and bête noire Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, Abbott has returned to many hardline views he had tempered as leader.
He told the GWPF Australia needed “evidence based policy rather than policy based evidence” and took aim at a 2013 study that showed that 97% of scientists agree humans are driving climate change, “as if scientific truth is determined by votes rather than facts”.
Climate change and energy policy has been a divisive issue in Australia for over a decade, with Abbott consistently at the centre of the division. From the backbench, Abbott has pushed the Turnbull government to reject policies that would favour renewable energy.
In his speech, Abbott blamed Turnbull’s failure to campaign on energy prices during 2016 for the narrowing of the government’s majority at that year’s election.
“After a net gain of 25 seats at the previous two elections, when we had campaigned on power prices, we had a net loss of 14 when we didn’t. And subsequent events have made the politics of power once more the central battleground between and within the two main parties,” Abbott said.
On Monday, energy minister Josh Frydenberg indicated the government does not intend to follow its chief scientist’s recommendation that it should implement a clean energy target. Abbott welcomed that news in London, calling it “belated”.
“Even if reducing emissions really is necessary to save the planet, our effort, however Herculean, is barely-better-than-futile; because Australia’s total annual emissions are exceeded by just the annual increase in China’s,” Abbott said.
Chinese emissions have been flat for the past three years. Recent research from the Australia Institute found Australia was the only wealthy nation still breaking its own energy emissions records.
The GWPF is chaired by Nigel Lawson, who served as Margaret Thatcher’s treasurer in the 1980s. Lawson has been an outspoken critic of climate science and recently incorrectly told the BBC the global temperature had slightly declined in the past decade. The BBC was heavily criticised for leaving his assertions unchallenged.
John Hewson, who led the Liberal party from 1990 to 1994, said Abbott’s speech to Lawson’s group “sees him in like-minded, if disturbingly deluded, company”.
“Tony Abbott has had a long history of playing short-term politics, for his own political benefit, with the existential threat posed by a rapidly changing climate,” said Hewson.
“Abbott was effective in opposition – a man of nope rather than hope. His basic thrust is that if you can’t understand it, don’t believe it, or accept it. When it comes to climate, and the magnitude and urgency of the challenge, Abbott is prepared to deny the undeniable, and to ignore the risks and costs if left to future generations. History will undoubtedly judge Abbott and Howard, and their small band of deniers harshly. When they could have acted on climate and emissions they failed as leaders, miserably.”
Wrong & irresponsible. Climate change is real & man-made. Not only do we owe it to our kids to act, clean growth is trillion $ opportunity. https://t.co/BnZ1o7oktw
— Catherine McKenna (@cathmckenna) October 9, 2017
I know Donald Trump has lowered the bar for idiocy but….. https://t.co/LAYOKJfxFF
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) October 9, 2017
Abbott’s speech – titled Daring to Doubt – contained echoes of Abbott’s mentor and prime ministerial predecessor John Howard, who gave the same annual lecture to the GWPF four years ago. In 2013, Howard said climate “zealots” had turned the issue into a “substitute religion”.
Abbott, who trained to be a Roman Catholic priest, called climate change a “post-Christian theology” and said the decline of religion in society had left a hole in other forms of “dogma” could take root.
Measures to deal with climate change, which Abbott said would damage the economy, likened to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.
“At least so far,” he said, “it’s climate change policy that’s doing harm. Climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm…
“There’s the evidence that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide – which is a plant food after all – are actually greening the planet and helping to lift agricultural yields. In most countries, far more people die in cold snaps than in heatwaves, so a gradual lift in global temperatures, especially if it’s accompanied by more prosperity and more capacity to adapt to change, might even be beneficial,” said Abbott.
A Lancet study in 2015 supports Abbott’s claim that more people die from cold weather than hot. But the World Health Organisation has found that by 2050, climate change will cause 250,000 extra people to die each year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
Abbott would go on to refute many of the central findings of the UN’s climate science body and claimed, without providing evidence, that climate records had been “adjusted” and data sets “slanted”.
“Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s. Sometimes, they do more damage but that’s because there’s more to destroy, not because their intensity has increased,” said Abbott.
“More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”
Scientists often refrain from linking single weather events to climate change, saying only that they fit with what they expect to see more of because of climate change.
But as the earth warms and scientist better understand climate change, weather extremes have been shown to have been made more likely due to greenhouse gas pollution. In Australia, the record hot winter just passed was made 60 times more likely by climate change. Researchers have also linked warming sea temperatures to the catastrophic rainfall and flooding that killed 35 people in Australia in 2011.
Sea level rise is one of the least controversial aspects of climate science. It is progressing at 3.4mm per year globally, according to the Australian government’s Ozcoasts website. Perhaps not enough to appear in photographs against other variables, such as daily tides, but over time scientists agree this will cause problems with coastal housing and infrastructure.
Climate Home asked repeatedly for an invitation to attend the event. Abbott’s spokesperson said the speech was “not considered a media event”. Climate Home understands the Times of London was invited to attend.
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Monday 9 October 2017 18.41 EDT Last modified on Tuesday 10 October 2017 03.15 EDT
A team of scientists is planning an expedition to examine the marine ecosystem revealed when an enormous iceberg broke off the Larsen C ice shelf earlier this year.
In July, the iceberg known as A68 broke off the shelf, leaving the area at its lowest recorded extent. Researchers are now hoping the event may lead to novel revelations from their investigations of the area opened up, which had been hidden under ice for up to 120,000 years.
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will embark on the research ship RRS James Clark Ross in February 2018 to take the first look at the newly exposed ecosystems under the ice – if the conditions work in their favour.
Iceberg twice size of Luxembourg breaks off Antarctic ice shelf
“You can never predict the ice,” said mission leader Dr Katrin Linse. “There are still several hundred kilometres covered in sea ice which has to move and melt. Fortunately this often happens now during the Antarctic summer, so that is why we are hopeful for February.”
If everything works out, the scientists will have the chance to look at 5,800 sq km of sea floor that had been shielded for tens of thousands of years. Planning for such expeditions normally takes several years, but urgent funding schemes are available during such unpredictable natural events, like the volcanic activity over Iceland in 2010.
It is not the first time that scientists have been given the chance to take a look at these hidden marine worlds. After a similar iceberg broke off from the Larsen B shelf in 2002, a team of scientists set out to Antarctica, although it took much longer to get there.
Prof Dr Julian Gutt, a marine ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, was the first to lead a vessel to the area. He said: “We went to the area five years after it broke off. We had to try and learn what lived under the ice shelf when it still existed, so were never absolutely sure if our interpretation was correct.”
This presents a unique opportunity for the BAS team: “The Larsen C break-off is recent, so if the British scientists are successful – under the difficult conditions they are facing – they could really encounter a pristine situation,” says Gutt.
The BAS team expect to find organisms resembling those in deep-sea environments because of the areas’ similar conditions: a lack of nutrients, sunlight and wind.
A short timespan between the breakoff and research is crucial, says Linse.
“What Julian Gutt’s team found there five years after were already pioneer species, which slowly colonise the area. When we go this February, organisms will not have had enough time to settle down and adapt to their new environment,” she said.
The final decision on whether the project goes ahead will be made at the end of the year.
BY DAVID SMILEY
Tomás Regalado is standing nearly knee deep in a murky stream of saltwater when a FedEx truck comes lumbering up Northeast 10th Avenue like a Boston Whaler, sending its wake over his rubber firefighter boots and down his blue slacks.
All around him, a seasonal high tide and steady rain have turned the southeast corner of Shorecrest, a coastal, blue-collar Miami neighborhood, into an extension of the Little River. Before the morning is out, he’ll post pictures of flooding in the city’s financial district on Twitter, announce that the bay is topping seawalls in downtown and compare a water-logged Thursday morning to the flooding caused by Hurricane Irma.
During a summer of extreme weather events, this feels like the new normal for Miami. And, oddly, for the Republican mayor of Miami.
“The city eventually has to deal with this,” Regalado says as a woman and boy across the street hop to a jeep, holding garbage bags around their feet to keep their shoes dry. “And the only way the city can do that is with the bonds.”
Over more than two decades in office, Regalado has built a career around populist stances intuitively crafted to resonate with a small, dedicated voting base that, despite Miami’s overall progressive lean, looks a lot like him: Hispanic, elderly and Republican. As mayor, cutting the tax rate has been among Regalado’s biggest talking points. Climate change not so much.
And yet, in his final days in office, here he is in the middle of a flooded street campaigning for a new tax to facilitate $400 million in government spending, nearly half of which will pay to protect the city from sea-level rise — an issue he admits doesn’t exactly rally his base or resonate with his party.
Spoiler alert. It's climate change
— Tomás Regalado (@Tomas_Regalado) October 5, 2017
“There are areas of heavy flooding. What I don’t know is if the people will have the incentive to vote for the bonds thinking that will protect them,” he told the Miami Herald. “To me, it’s an uphill battle.”
But Regalado’s own experience makes him believe there’s a chance.
The mayor, a 70-year-old former newsman who came to Miami in 1962 as part of the Pedro Pan exodus from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, won the mayor’s seat in 2009 with a simple campaign based on the idea that Miami — left in the depths of a recession and financial crisis despite a historic building boom — was a working-class city and not a metropolis. His platform was built as a rejection of the big-picture administration of predecessor Manny Diaz, at the time the Democratic head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Climate change wasn’t even part of his vernacular when voters elected Regalado to a second and final term four-year term in 2013. But that began to change around the time his youngest son moved back home intent on sharing global lessons of climate change after traveling the world as an underwater photographer.
“I moved back to my house and started waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning when my dad would wake up and that was the only time, about an hour, I would be able to talk to him. I would make him Cuban coffee, I would print out climate change things and little by little I would explain it,” said Jose Regalado, 32. “It was every day, kind of like the tides. Little by little.”
Then, in 2015, the mayor says, a trip to Montreal and conversations with world leaders outside the United States helped clarify the extent of Miami’s existential crisis. By 2016, Regalado was making his own waves, asking Republican presidential candidates during a nationally televised debate to tell Miami what they’d do to address rising seas. Last month, with Hurricane Irma bearing down on South Florida, he called on President Donald Trump to talk about climate change, encouraging a connection between rising surface water temperatures and hurricanes that his Democratic counterparts seemed unwilling to broach.
“They lacked the political courage,” he says.
But Regalado doesn’t have years to ebb away at voters’ skepticism the way his son worked with him. And while his late-blooming climate change activism might have won him national media coverage this summer, it’s done little to carry the water at home, where inattentiveness to sea-level rise earlier during his administration has left the city in an awkward position on the campaign trail.
Five years ago, Miami commissioned an engineering firm to study the city’s storm-water system and come up with a master plan to guide improvements to Miami’s flood-prevention system. That document is now a temporary backbone to the city’s estimated $1 billion in storm-water, sea-wall and flood-pump needs.
It’s temporary because the plan had a critical flaw: it didn’t take sea-rise projections into account. Shorecrest wasn’t identified as a community in critical need of improvements despite the fact that the neighborhood now experiences weeks of extreme tidal flooding every year. Plans to create water systems that rely heavily on gravity to flush water out of the streets had no projections for where water tables would lie 20 and 30 years down the road.
So even as Regalado is campaigning for the bond, the city is vetting firms to decide who will craft a new plan that will help dictate the specific projects the city will pursue and how much money it will need. Though line items were created by Regalado’s administration to show where they intend to spend the money, the basins to be improved and money to be spent are just place-holders until the city can come up with a proper plan.
“People are hesitant to say yes to more money regardless of where it comes from, especially when there’s no accountability,” says Denise Galvez Turros, a candidate running for city commission in the district that Regalado used to represent before he became mayor.
The mood in Hispanic neighborhoods like Little Havana and Flagami will likely prove crucial to Regalado’s campaign. While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost two-to-one in the city, a majority of those voters live in the city’s coastal communities, where sea-rise resonates but there’s no competitive mayor’s race or commission race to also draw them to the polls.
Republicans, meanwhile, turn out to Miami’s local elections in far better numbers than Democrats. The city’s western neighborhoods, where there are active commission races this year, skew Hispanic, Republican and older than 50 — and wary of tax increases. Nowhere is that bent more clear than in Regalado’s old commission district.
That’s a quandary for the mayor because the bonds would be leveraged through a new property tax. The debt would have to be structured in a way that ensures the portion of Miami’s property tax rate related to debt won’t rise higher than it stands today — a promise embedded in the ballot language — but the city’s tax rate related to debt would indisputably drop were the city to not pursue the general obligation bond. Miami’s unions were against putting the bond on the ballot.
“This is clearly a tax, but it’s even worse because it’s a tax without a plan. They don’t know what they’re going to do with the money, or how spending the money will impact flooding in the future,” said Eric Zichella, a local lobbyist who sits as a member of the city’s finance committee, which recommended against the bond issue. “I think the mayor should be careful that he campaigns for this very unpopular tax and it ends up hurting his son,” he added in reference to Tommy Regalado, who is running for city commission in District 3.
But Jane Gilbert, the city official tasked with coordinating its response to rising seas and climbing temperatures, says the key to promoting the bond is acknowledging the city’s challenges and trusting that Miami is working on the details to come up with a good plan. She stresses that a public board would have oversight of bond spending. And at $192 million, the money voters are being asked to approve would essentially be seed money to give the city resources to begin urgent projects and in the meantime seek matching grants.
“We have immediate needs to address our flood-risk problems,” Gilbert said one afternoon in early August next to a pump station under construction in Brickell, which had been flooded dramatically the previous day during a sudden and unexpected deluge that fell during a high tide and left people paddling kayaks in the street. “Our ground [water] level is higher and as we get storm events the whole river and canal systems are higher, as is the bay.”
To help sell the bond, Regalado is relying on the help of a non-profit sea-rise group called the Seawall Coalition, which is promising to spend $200,000 on an informational campaign and spent this past week in Miami gathering material. But Regalado, who has been successfully selling issues to Miami’s voters for decades, is doing his own campaigning.
“I’ve been to Holland and the Dutch have been dealing with sea-rise for hundreds of years. The only difference is they do things,” he said. “We haven’t done anything, yet.”
The painkiller, taken by half of pregnant women worldwide, could be contributing to rising rates of reproductive system problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.
"If we look at the rate of carbon emissions, most is emitted by the developed and industrialized countries, but the problem is poor countries like Bangladesh are the main sufferers."
Working with youth writers on a climate-fiction screenplay has opened my eyes to the power of the arts in confronting environmental crises.