The Worth of Ice

We never know the worth of water, until the well is dry.

Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia #5451 (1732)

This week’s featured article is “Climate Denial is a Sunday Truth“.

This week everybody was talking about Antarctic ice

The apparently slow pace of climate change creates the comforting illusion that we have time to dawdle before we respond: The worst outcomes aren’t due for a century or so, so surely it won’t matter if we twiddle our thumbs for another few years.

But there’s also a long lag time between action (burning fossil fuels) and response (higher temperatures). And so we can pass a tipping point without realizing it: The carbon already in the atmosphere may already make certain outcomes inevitable, even if they take decades to arrive.

Two recent reports say that the melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet has now passed such a tipping point. As NASA’s press release puts it:

the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica “have passed the point of no return,” according to glaciologist and lead author Eric Rignot, of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The new study has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. These glaciers already contribute significantly to sea level rise, releasing almost as much ice into the ocean annually as the entire Greenland Ice Sheet. They contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 4 feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected.

In The Guardian, Rignot elaborated:

We announced that we had collected enough observations to conclude that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica was unstoppable, with major consequences – it will mean that sea levels will rise one metre worldwide. What’s more, its disappearance will likely trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which comes with a sea level rise of between three and five metres. Such an event will displace millions of people worldwide.

Two centuries – if that is what it takes – may seem like a long time, but there is no red button to stop this process.

Chris Mooney at Mother Jones called this “a holy shit moment for global warming“. But it’s also typical in this sense: The Amundsen ice looks more-or-less the same today as it did last week, when we didn’t know it was doomed. Plus, it’s metaphoric: The real damage is happening on the underside of the Antarctic glaciers, where we can’t see. As the glaciers melt, they get lighter and their seaborne edges ride higher. That lets more water seep underneath, and lifts the glaciers away from insulating land, melting them faster.

These kinds of feedback loops are what tipping points are all about. (Another one that’s in the offing, though nobody can date its arrival, is when methane trapped in the Siberian permafrost starts escaping into the atmosphere. Methane is itself a greenhouse gas, so once the escape starts it will warm the planet and accelerate the escape.)

Steven Colbert captured the moment’s dark humor:

Unstoppable melting, it’s out of our hands now. I mean, what a relief! I didn’t think it would happen, but we finally ran the clock out on the possibility of my personal sacrifice making a difference.

The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert makes the connection to our dysfunctional political debate:

Of the many inane arguments that are made against taking action on climate change, perhaps the most fatuous is that the projections climate models offer about the future are too uncertain to justify taking steps that might inconvenience us in the present. The implicit assumption here is that the problem will turn out to be less serious than the models predict; thus, any carbon we have chosen to leave in the ground out of fear for the consequences of global warming will have gone uncombusted for nothing.

But the unfortunate fact about uncertainty is that the error bars always go in both directions. While it is possible that the problem could turn out to be less serious than the consensus forecast, it is equally likely to turn out to be more serious. In fact, it increasingly appears that, if there is any systemic bias in the climate models, it’s that they understate the gravity of the situation.

Try to think of any other risk we treat this way: We’re going to do nothing about it until we’re 100% sure that we’re headed for disaster.

and the VA

VA hospitals have been making veterans wait ridiculously long for appointments, and then have falsified data to hide their systemic poor performance. So far, everyone from Congress to the president to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki claims to be “mad as hell” about the situation, but it’s not clear what happens next.

Somebody who has been criticizing the VA for years is Rachel Maddow. She’s the one I’ll be watching

and the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision

Saturday was the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that proclaimed the end of “separate but equal” as a defensible legal concept.

The best discussion of this I saw was on Chris Hayes’ show, where he interviewed some surviving members of the Brown family.

and the apparent dwindling of the Tea Party

In case you missed it: Friday, tens of millions of “patriot” protesters descended on Washington for an “American Spring“. They overthrew the federal government and sent former President Obama to Gitmo. Or at least that was the plan. The actual turnout was more like a few hundred — far less than what liberal Moral Mondays can turn out in North Carolina. The government is intact and President Obama remains at large.

Chris Hayes interpreted this non-event as end of the Tea Party’s ability to turn out big crowds: “As a grass roots movement, it is no more.”

Similarly, the media narrative for this spring’s round of Republican primaries has been the victory of the Republican establishment over Tea Party challengers. (Notable exception: Ben Sasse in Nebraska, who is being billed as “the next Ted Cruz“.) Establishment figures like Mitch McConnell no longer need to quake in their boots over the prospect of a Tea Party primary opponent.

But while all this is true, one piece of the story is often left out: The Tea Party is vanishing because it won. The “establishment” candidates who are winning these primaries — like North Carolina’s Thom Tillis — have done so by agreeing down-the-line with Tea Party positions on the issues. You’ll know the Tea Party has actually lost if John Boehner brings the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill to the floor, or if Republicans work with President Obama to get the corporate tax reform both sides want. Don’t hold your breath.

and you also might be interested in …

Rockford, IL in 2009

Wednesday, Rachel Maddow did a marvelous piece on the history of tank-car explosions like the recent one in Lynchburg, VA, and the NTSB’s decades-long unsuccessful battle to get safety upgrades to the DOT-111 car that is used for 70% of the energy industry’s rail shipments. As I watched one scene after another of giants balls of flame erupting in various places around the country, I kept thinking: What if Al Qaeda were rolling tankers full of crude oil into our towns and cities, and blowing them up with the same frequency that these tankers are blowing up on their own? What would we be willing to spend to make that stop?


Poor, persecuted Tim Tebow

Remember that televised same-sex kiss (that I posted a picture of last week) after Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams? Well, it generated a new round of Christian persecution claims: The media has a double standard because Sam is getting positive coverage for being gay, while Tim Tebow got negative coverage for his conservative Christianity. (More accurately: Tebow got less than 100% positive coverage; a lot of Tebow-mania was downright worshipful. For a more balanced view of Tebow’s image, listen to another outspoken Christian quarterback, Kurt Warner.)

Rachel191 explains the difference Sam and Tebow:

[T]here is a distinct difference between sharing a celebratory kiss during a special moment with a significant other, and Tebowing. Now, if Michael Sam somehow manages to turn every appearance on the field into a demonstration or endorsement of his sexuality, yeah, they’ll be similar. But nothing of the sort has happened (or is even likely possible).

… Existing as a gay man, including having a family, is not “evangelizing” for homosexuality. It’s just existing. And being uncomfortable at the sight of gay men existing is not evidence that homosexuality is being “forced” on you. It’s evidence that you have issues you need to work through.


If during a blockbuster movie you ever find yourself wondering “How much of that is real and how much is computer generated?”, listen to Godzilla director Gareth Edwards narrating one of his scenes.


Republicans warned you that ObamaCare would cause organizations to shut down. Finally we have an actual example: the Rotacare Free Clinic in Tacoma, Washington. It closed its doors because its volunteer doctors and nurses aren’t needed now that its former patients have real insurance.

 “It happened very quickly. We had to start telling our providers not to come because we didn’t have enough patients,” Mary Hoagland-Scher, a Tacoma family practitioner who served as the clinic’s medical director, told TPM. “It just dried up. Poof.”


Last Monday, a Republican Senate filibuster killed a bipartisan energy efficiency bill that the Republican House had previously passed. The Energy Efficiency Improvement Act was a baby-step forward: It raised efficiency requirements on government buildings, while creating a voluntary certification program for private buildings.

But even that was too much to ask. Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider it without tying it to approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Grist’s Ben Adler elaborates:

When the bill passed the House, I concluded that energy-efficiency measures could win Republican support if they avoided any mandates on the private sector and any spending of government money. After all, there is nothing for conservatives to oppose about making government more efficient and offering voluntary programs to help companies save money.

Well, now you can add another condition to the list of Republican demands: Even a modest energy-efficiency measure cannot be passed without including unrelated giveaways to fossil-fuel industries.

And there’s one other motive behind the filibuster: The names attached to the Senate version of the bill are Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. Shaheen is running for re-election this year, and being challenged by Massachusetts import Scott Brown. Brown lobbied his former Republican colleagues in the Senate not to give Shaheen an accomplishment to run on.

and let’s end with a big dream

What if the roads were paved with solar panels, creating a decentralized power grid?

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Comments

  • Matt Harris  On May 19, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    I am diggin that solar panel road idea

  • samuraiartguy  On May 20, 2014 at 12:20 am

    When I saw the reports about the Ice Sheet collapse, and it playing out by… around 2100… Well, there is hardly a politician in Washington that gives a rat’s naked tail about 2100. And neither do a lot of Corporate Executives, but my Insurance broker is State Farm, and they are WELL aware, as they have been paying out BIG time damages. There are businesses in harbor and coastal towns who have had their premiums TRIPLE.

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