Carbon obfuscation in New York Times

Amid the current UN climate talks and massive march for action on climate change in New York City, the New York Times runs an oh-so-naughty op-ed by Nadine Unger, an assistant professor of atmospheric chemistry at Yale, entitled "To Save the Planet, Don't Plant Trees." Now, if she had reversed the title as "Don’t Plant Trees To Save the Planet," she might have had a bit of a case. We ourselves reject the "carbon trading" scam that gives corporations a license to pollute if they plant trees—despite the fact that they often don't even plant the trees, but just grab forested lands from indigenous peoples, and (worse) the burninng of fossil fuels releases carbon that had been more thoroughly "locked" than that in trees, which do eventually die and rot. This is indeed a point that "carbon trading" and "biofuels" boosters seek to obfuscate. But this is not Unger's point. Instead, she is literally loaning legitimacy to Reaganoid nonsense that "trees cause pollution." To wit:

Climate scientists have calculated the effect of increasing forest cover on surface temperature. Their conclusion is that planting trees in the tropics would lead to cooling, but in colder regions, it would cause warming…

Worse, trees emit reactive volatile gases that contribute to air pollution and are hazardous to human health. These emissions are crucial to trees — to protect themselves from environmental stresses like sweltering heat and bug infestations. In summer, the eastern United States is the world's major hot spot for volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) from trees.

As these compounds mix with fossil-fuel pollution from cars and industry, an even more harmful cocktail of airborne toxic chemicals is created. President Ronald Reagan was widely ridiculed in 1981 when he said, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." He was wrong on the science — but less wrong than many assumed.

So what do the "climate scientists," who Unger ingenuously invokes without actually naming any, have to say about this? Some 30 of them—actually named, and with better bona fides than Unger—respond in an an open letter on the rainforest news site Mongabay:

1) Forests have a cooling effect on our climate because they store vast amounts of carbon in tree trunks, branches, leaves and soil. They keep this carbon out of the atmosphere for as long as they remain healthy, intact forests. If they are cleared or degraded, there is a net flow of carbon to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Slowing forest clearing and degradation is precisely the focus of the UN's mechanism for encouraging tropical nations to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Unger’s statement confuses this fundamental aspect of forest carbon dynamics.

2) Forests also cool the atmosphere because they convert solar energy to water vapor, which increases sky albedo (or reflectivity) via cloud formation. This effect is particularly strong in the tropics, where the UN mechanism is focused. Unger neglects to mention this effect. She correctly points out that forests often reflect less solar energy than snow, rock, grassland or soil, but ignores the effect of forests on increasing the albedo of the sky above the land, which is the stronger effect in the tropics.

3) Unger's recent global study of deforestation suggests that the removal of trees reduces emissions of naturally-occurring chemicals called biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOC). Although Unger opined that BVOCs cause global warming, her science indicates that BVOCs have anywhere from a cooling to a warming effect. Her study also found that any potential cooling effect generated by reducing BVOC emissions through tree removal is outpaced by the larger warming effect of carbon emissions from deforestation.

So is Unger distorting her own research in order to get a sexy headline in the Times op-ed page? She herself calls her findings "counterintuitive." That's putting it rather mildly.

Meanwhile, the authors of the repudiation letter, alas, buy into some of the carbon-utopianism, boasting: "Brazil has reduced deforestation rates in the Amazon region by 70%, for example, keeping 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere since 2005 and elevating this nation to global leadership in climate change solutions." Yes, except that the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 28% between August 2012 and July 2013, after years of decline. What nobody, either the carbon-utopians or the carbon-skeptics, can admit is that any strategy against climate change is a mere holding action at best as long as we live under an economic system predicated on endless growth. Better to keep us arguing about whether trees cause pollution than demanding a public expropriation of the hydrocarbon and automotive industries.

  1. Global warming ‘pause’—getting it wrong

    An antidote to the junk op-ed the Times shamefully ran boosting Reaganoid "trees cause polution" crap is provided by the Washington Post's Sept. 19 opinion, "Trees offer a way to delay the consequences of climate change" by historian Joseph J. Ellis and forest ecologist Peter Ellis. Among its sobering points: "We inherited a planet with 6 billion hectares of forest. About 4 billion remain. If we continue at our current rate of forest loss, (19 million hectares a year, an area the size of Washington state), we will have destroyed more than half of the Earth’s forests within a century… Every year, between 10 percent and 15 percent of the carbon released into the atmosphere (5 billion tons of carbon dioxide) comes from deforestation, about the same amount of pollution produced by automobiles, trains, ships and airplanes combined."

    But the good news: "When a tree is cut down, it releases carbon into the atmosphere; when it is allowed to grow, however, it continues to absorb carbon. The environmental impact of forest conservation is double-barreled. The more we cut, the more we compound our problem, but conversely, the more that forests regrow, the stronger our potential for recovery. If we stopped deforestation tomorrow, the total power of forests would offset a third of our human-caused carbon emissions. Until we are prepared to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, forests are a stopgap that allow us to minimize the damage and save us from ourselves."

    Meanwhile, Breitbart is gloating about how the liberal media are ignoring the global warming "pause," as it is being called. BBC News noted Aug. 21 that "global average temperatures have increased by around 0.05C per decade in the period between 1998 and 2012. This compares with a decadal average of 0.12 between 1951 and 2012." So the increase itself has not stopped—it is just that rate of increase has slowed. (As is all too evident.) The explanation may be a "naturally occurring 30-year cycle in the Atlantic Ocean" that caused Ice Age fears when it ocurred between 1945 and 1975. Mother Jones last October also noted: "[T]he year 1998 was a record temperature year, due to a strong El Niño. So by making it the first year of an analysis you're stacking the deck."

  2. End deforestation by 2030?

    Mongabay reports:

    Dozens of companies, non-profit organizations, and governments pledged to work together to halve forest loss by 2020 and end it altogether by 2030. If implemented, the commitment could reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 4.5-8.8 billion tons annually, equivalent to removing a billion cars from the world's roads.

    The New York Declaration on Forests, unveiled Tuesday at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York, is the product of months of U.N.-led behind-the-scenes coalition-building between a wide range of stakeholders.

    In light of Brazil's recent backsliding on its ambitious goals to halt deforestation, some skepicism is warranted here, to say the least…

  3. US carbon emissions rising again

    According to the latest Monthly Energy Review put out by the US Energy Information Administration, the US dumped significantly more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the first half of 2014 than it did in the same period over the previous two years. That's a startling reversal of a decline in emissions from 2010-2012. (KCET, Los Angeles, Sept. 26)

  4. World wildlife populations halved in 40 years

    The global loss of species is even worse than previously thought, the London Zoological Society (ZSL) says in its new Living Planet Index.The report suggests populations have halved in 40 years, as new methodology gives more alarming results than in a report two years ago. The report says populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by an average of 52%. Populations of freshwater species have suffered an even worse fall of 76%. (BBC News, Sept. 29)

    Of course it is verboten to point out the systemic roots of this omnicide.

  5. IPCC: phase out fossil fuels by 2100

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its new Synthesis Report that most of the world's electricity must be produced from low-carbon sources by 2050 to avoid "severe, pervasive and irreversible" damage. The report says that reducing emissions is crucial if global warming is to be limited to 2C – a target acknowledged in 2009 as the threshold of dangerous climate change. Fossil fuels should "phased out almost entirely by 2100." (BBC News, Nov. 2)

    2100? Sounds entirely too optimistic.

  6. Global warming to cause ‘explosive thunderstorms’

    Thunderstorms will become more explosive over the coming years as a result of global warming, scientists have found. Lightning strikes across the US will increase by 50% before 2100, according to research published in the journal Science. David Romps and colleagues from UC Berkeley used precipitation predictions and cloud buoyancy from 11 different climate models to determine what impact warming temperatures will have on lightning strikes. "With warming, thunderstorms become more explosive," Romps said. "This has to do with water vapor, which is the fuel for explosive deep convection in the atmosphere. Warming causes there to be more water vapor in the atmosphere, and if you have more fuel lying around, when you get ignition, it can go big time."

    He added: "Lightning is caused by charge separation within clouds, and to maximize charge separation, you have to loft more water vapor and heavy ice particles into the atmosphere. We already know that the faster the updrafts, the more lightning, and the more precipitation, the more lightning." (IBT)

  7. Economist sees “forest transition curve”

    An optimistic piece in The Economist Aug. 23 also hailed the progress in Brazil (without noting the recent retrogression), and saw it as a global harbinger:

    IN 1998 Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then Brazil's president, said he would triple the area of the Amazonian forest set aside for posterity. At the time the ambition seemed vain: Brazil was losing 20,000 square kilometres (7,700 square miles) of forest a year. Over the next 15 years loggers, ranchers, environmentalists and indigenous tribes battled it out—often bloodily—in the world’s largest tropical forest. Yet all the while presidents were patiently patching together a jigsaw of national parks and other protected patches of forest to create the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA), a protected area 20 times the size of Belgium. Now, less than 6,000 sq km of Brazil's Amazonian forest is cleared each year. In May the government and a group of donors agreed to finance ARPA for 25 years. It is the largest tropical-forest conservation project in history.

    This matters because of Brazil's size: with 5m sq km of jungle, it has almost as much as the next three countries (Congo, China and Australia) put together. But it also matters for what it may signal: that the world could be near a turning point in the sorry story of tropical deforestation.

    Typically, countries start in poverty with their land covered in trees. As they clear it for farms or fuel, they get richer—until alarm bells ring and they attempt to recover their losses. This happens at different stages in different places, but the trajectory is similar in most: a reverse J, steeply down, then bottoming out, then up—but only part of the way. This is usually called the "forest transition curve". Brazil seems to be nearing the bottom. The world may be, too.

    OK… But how can the top three rainforest countries after Brazil be Congo, China and Australia? Congo is plausible, but can China and Australia really be ahead of Indonesia and Peru? Not according to Mongabay. Neither of these countries even make its top 30. Care to either explain yourselves or run a correction, Economist?

  8. Arctic ground squirrels scapegoated for climate change

    Wow, this is almost as good as trees-cause-pollution. Scientists from the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts presented findings to the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco that Arctic ground squirrels are contributing to global warming by breaking up permafrost with their burrowing. (BBC News, Dec. 16) This is another example of science as propaganda. Sure, the squirrels may be contributing to a feedback loop—melting permafrost releasing greenhouse gases which then leads to more melting permafrost. But would this even be an issue if it weren't for the anthropogenic factors? Right, never mind Exxon and General Motors. Its all the fault of fucking arctic ground squirrels!

  9. Climate and capitalism: evidence from Indonesia

    A rather optimistic story in the NY Times of Dec. 24 notes reforestation efforts in Costa Rica, with giant Indonesia pledging to follow suit. Meanwhile, it notes the grim actual situation for tropical forests in Indonesia. Refreshingly, it identifies the problem in terms that implicitly repudiate the popular rank Malthusianism that we have repeatedly called out: "Indonesia is now the world’s hot spot for deforestation, losing more forest each year than Brazil despite being a much smaller country. The purpose of much of the clearing is to grow palm oil for use in Western consumer products like ice cream and soap."

    Not feeding hungry populations, but providing consumer goods for the export market. The problem, even in the NY Times cannot say so, is capitalism.

  10. Climate crisis portends peak food

    PBS News Hour reported Dec. 18 that a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that by 2050, global climate change could cut world food production by 18%. Unfortunately, the study seems to emphasize "adaptation," such as expanding irrigation systems—which could just exacerbate salinization and desertification. And it also plugs a supposed bright side, that northern climates may be able to grow more food. Yeah, perhaps briefly, before desertification takes its toll, as is already starting to happen in China

  11. Academics see imminent apocalypse… again

    We argue about offensive cartoons, and meanwhile capitalism happily goes about its daily business of making the planet uninhabitable for the next generation. The Washington Post reports today on a new paper published in Science by a team of 18 researchers finding that in the coming decades that the Earth could cease to be a "safe operating space" for human beings. The paper contends that we have already crossed four "planetary boundaries"—the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean. "What the science has shown is that human activities—economic growth, technology, consumption–are destabilizing the global environment," said lead author Will Steffen of the Stockholm Resilience Center. Yet of course the WaPo hed is "Scientists: Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine 'planetary boundaries'"—right, "human" activity rather than "capitalist" activity, as if these recent phenomena were inherent to the species.

    The New York Times and Discovery meanwhile note another study just published in Science warning yet again of a massive die-back of marine life—explicitly blaming an "industrialized" model of fishing and fish-farming. "We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event," said co-author Douglas J. McCauley of UC Santa Barbara.

    1. Fuck the Amazon, fuck the krill

      A new report from the University of Helsinki finds that climate change could result in permanent changes to the hydrology of the western Amazon within the  next 10 years, having as much impact on the overall rainforest as deforestation. A drought affecting the region in 2005 was thought to be the worst in a century—and was followed by an ever more severe on in 2010. (Science Daily, Oct. 14)

      A study in the journal Nature Climate Change warns that ocean acidification related to climate change could lead to a total collapse of Antarctic krill by 2030, with impacts leading up the food chain and threatening the the entire world marine ecosystem.

  12. US Senate makes climate denialism official

    From ThinkProgress, Jan. 21:

    The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted 98-1 to approve a resolution stating that "it is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax." Then, about 15 minutes later, the Senate rejected a second resolution that said climate change is real and caused by humans.

    The first resolution was approved — and co-sponsored — by one of the most outspoken climate deniers in the Senate, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a man who literally wrote a book about how climate change is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated." The only Senator to vote against the resolution was Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).

    Sounds too good to be true, right? That's because it is. At the last minute, right before a vote was taken, Inhofe took the floor to state that he would be co-sponsoring and approving the amendment on the grounds that yes, climate change is real, but human-caused climate change is not. "Man cannot change climate," Inhofe said. "The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate."

  13. NYC to face six-foot sea rise

    According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an independent body composed of climate scientists, New York could see a 6-foot increase under a worst-case scenario that has been revised from previous estimates that two to fpir feet would be the maximum rise. The panel also projected a temperature increase as much as 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit and a tripling in the frequency of heat waves in the city by the 2080s. (Climate Wire)

  14. Global CO2 levels reach 2 million-year high

    From the AP, May 6:

    Global levels of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent heat-trapping gas, have passed a daunting milestone, federal scientists say.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that in March the global monthly average for carbon dioxide hit 400.83 parts per million. That is the first month in modern records that the entire globe broke 400 ppm, reaching levels that haven’t been seen in about 2 million years.

    "It's both disturbing and daunting," said NOAA chief greenhouse gas scientist Pieter Tans. "Daunting from the standpoint on how hard it is to slow this down."

  15. World Bank peddles rosy scenario on global poverty

    The World Bank made a media splash with its announcement last week that "extreme poverty" is set to fall below 10% for the first time since they started keeping records. But note for starters that the World Bank's own headline on their findings is incorrect! "World Bank Forecasts Global Poverty to Fall Below 10% for First Time…" The actual text of the press release contradicts that! Some half the planet's population lives in poverty. The 10% figure refers to extreme poverty. This distortion exemplifes the rush to jump on these claims to exculpate capitalism. Predictable utopian blather is served up by Nicholas Kristof and the free-market dogmatists at Reason. A bit disingenuous, given that the World Bank's own assessment thanks "investments in people's education, health, and social safety nets that helped keep people from falling back into poverty" as among the reasons for the supposed good news—the very kind of social programs that the free-marketeers would like to abolish. Of course the WB also cites "strong growth rates in developing countries in recent years"—and this cuts to a more profound point. That "growth" is extracted at an ecological cost that makes it utterly unsustainable. (Scroll up for recent examples.) This supposed progress is merely borrowing from the future

    Alas, this argument has narrowed into a boring debate between two exponents of the political right: the Cornucopians, who see "free markets" bringing endless plenty and solving all problems, and the Malthusians, who see the problem in terms of human numbers and have no critique of "free markets," the planet's yawning wealth divisions, the bourgeois culture of profligacy…

    The one thing we aren't allowed to talk about is capitalism.

    Did you ever ask yourself—why is that?

    1. Oxfam inequality report: eight = 3.6 billion

      From Oxfam America, Jan. 15: "According to Oxfam’s new report ahead of the annual meeting of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity… Public anger with inequality is already creating political shockwaves around the globe, as seen recently with the election of Donald Trump here in the US, and Brexit in the UK. But rather than moving forward with a constructive vision to unrig the rules, we are seeing dangerous, often xenophobic approaches, which blame inequality on the very people who bear its greatest burdens and empowers special interests to rig the rules even more."

      Among the eight are named Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, media magnate Michael Bloomberg, and entrepreneur Carlos Slim. (

      The Sun and The Telegraph jump in with accusations that Oxfam "doesn't understand the global economy," and assurances that inequality is good for everybody.

  16. British Columbia glaciers going fast

    The Castle Creek glacier in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia has receded over 200 meters in the past decade, at a rate of roughly 15 metres a year. Before-and-after photos are online at the CBC. Brian Menounos, a researcher at the University of Northern BC in Prince George, calls the trend a "sad window" into our future, in which the glaciers are gone.

  17. More studies calmly predict imminent apocalypse

    So, let's see… From CommonDreams, Nov. 9:

    With new evidence that the concentration of greenhouse gases broke yet another record in 2014, the head of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned on Monday that the warming planet is hurtling "into uncharted territory at a frightening speed."

    The United Nations weather agency's latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (pdf) reports that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 397.7 parts per million (ppm) in 2014, substantially beyond the 350ppm level deemed "safe" by scientists to avoid global warming.

    WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said this means that we will "soon" be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above the dangerous milestone of 400 ppm "as a permanent reality."

    "We can’t see CO2. It is an invisible threat, but a very real one," Jarraud said. "It means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels, and increased acidity of the oceans. This is happening now and we are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed."

    From CommonDreams, Nov. 3:

    A new study published Monday warns that "unstoppable" melting in West Antarctica could make a three-meter increase in sea level "unavoidable."

    According to researchers at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the vulnerable Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica "has most likely been destabilized." They point to recent studies indicating that this area of the ice continent is "the first element in the climate system about to tip."

    If that is true, computer modeling suggests the consequences could be catastrophic, initiating a process "which is then unstoppable and goes on for thousands of years," said Johannes Feldmann, lead author of the study.

    "The result of this study is an if–then statement," reads the paper, which appears in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "[I]f the Amundsen Sea sector is destabilized, then the entire marine part of West Antarctica will be discharged into the ocean."

    It continues: "The currently observed retreat in West Antarctica hence might mark the beginning of a millennial period of self-sustained ice discharge from West Antarctica and require long-term global adaptation of coastal protection, such as the building or rebuilding or raising of dykes, the construction of seawalls, or the realization of land fills in the hinterland."

    And from The Guardian back on July 10:

    An "induced implosion" of the fossil fuel industry must take place for there to be any chance of avoiding dangerous global warming, according to one of the world’s most influential climate scientists.

    Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an adviser to the German government and Pope Francis, said on Friday: "In the end it is a moral decision. Do you want to be part of the generation that screwed up the planet for the next 1,000 years? I don’t think we should make that decision."

    Schellnhuber was speaking at a major science conference in Paris, taking place before a crunch UN summit in December, also in the city, at which nations must seal a deal on global warming. World leaders were sent a stark message in the communique issued by the conference, which warned that the opportunity to avoid disaster is rapidly diminishing.

    But how are we supposed to implement this "induced implosion," Dr. Schellnhuber—short of a public seizure of the entire planetary industrial apparatus? In a word (a very taboo word, alas): socialism.

    Is the debate finally creeping around to ackowledging this long-forbidden reality?

  18. Do trees cause pollution? (revisited)

    A new study from the Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University finds that due to "degradation and disturbance," tropical forests in Africa, the Americas, and Asia now emit more carbon into the atmosphere than they sequester on an annual basis.

    "This shows that we can’t just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing," said researcher Alessandro Baccini in a statement. "As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more."

    "If we’re to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels, we need to drastically reduce emissions and greatly increase forests’ ability to absorb and store carbon," Baccini said in a statement. "Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects—from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities." (The Guardian, Mongabay)

  19. Trees and climate change: faster growth, lighter wood

    Interesting…. Climate change is making trees grow faster, which means there may actually be more of them on the planet now than a century ago despite dramatic forest loss, especially in the tropics. But climate change is also degrading wood density, which means trees are storing less carbon… According to a press release from a research team at the Technical University of Munich: '[T]he most important finding for practical and political aspects is that the current climate-relevant carbon sequestration of the forests is being overestimated as long as it is calculated with established but outdated wood densities.'