Good News for Polar Bears (Or Maybe Not)

By David L. Brown

Hooray! According to Reuters, polar bear researchers have determined that the iconic bears may not be doomed after all. Here’s the lead from the article, which you can read here:

(Reuters) – All is not lost for the polar bear, despite the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice that they need to survive, researchers reported on Wednesday.

The study was reported by a leading polar bear expert associated with the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the prestigious journal Nature, so it’s gotta be good solid science, right? Well, of course. This is great news, because last we heard the bears were headed toward extinction. So let’s see what’s changed in  their favor. Um, the article goes on to state:

[the] new study concludes that significant curbs in carbon emissions would effectively cool the planet, rebuild ice and save the Arctic habitat and the bears in it.

Polar bear facepalm
Polar bear facepalm

Well, there you have it. Simple, really. Why didn’t I think of that. It’s a real Homer Simpson Doh! moment that somebody didn’t figure this out before. All we need to do is reverse global warming, by dramatically reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere, thus allowing the Arctic ice to rebuild, and voila! No problemo for those white bears. Heck, we can probably do that by tomorrow, or at least by Wednesday.

And while the article doesn’t mention it, I expect that fairies will  appear to make sure there are plenty of seals for the bears to eat, and unicorns will be seen prancing among the ice floes spreading multi-colored confetti to brighten the picture even more. For the polar bears, everything will be fine, just fine, so we don’t have to worry about that anymore, do we? Whew!

Seriously, sometimes you have to wonder don’t you? Personally, I’m still standing by the prediction I made about five years ago that the Arctic Ocean would become essentially ice free in the summer of 2015. You know,  due to reality and all? Yeah, that, the inconvenient thingy.

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California Stays the Course on Green Energy

By David L. Brown

Another example of the way in which energy moguls work to block development of sustainable, clean energy was the recent introduction of Prop. 23 in California. This proposition, which came to a vote on November 2, quite simply was aimed at dismantling the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2006. Also known as AB 32,  the GWSA calls for the state’s producers of greenhouse gas to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Many initiatives are well under way to replace fossil fuels, create greater efficiency in existing technologies, and move the state toward a cleaner “green” future. Beginning to take effect in 2012, the act will require about a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from present levels by the target date ten years from now.

This seems a moderate goal, perhaps even less than might be hoped. But nonetheless, it had drawn fire from the usual suspects, who organized Prop. 23 to demand that AB32 be suspended until the state’s employment rate dropped below 5.5 percent for a full 12 months. Because this is an unlikely event (that level has been reached only three times in the past 40 years), the proposition in reality was a move to permanently gut the GWSA.

And who was behind this end run to set California up to continue down the dead end path toward oblivion as resource depletion continues to undermine the old economic infrastructure while forward-looking nations such as China and Germany stake their futures on rapid development of alternative energy? Why, the usual suspects, of course. Although the California Republican and Libertarian Parties signed on to support the proposition, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger strongly opposed the proposition and was joined by GOP candidates Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman among others, proving that the party structure is increasingly at odds with its own candidates.

But politicians weren’s the real conspirators behind the proposition. The individuals and corporate entities that acted in support of the proposition wrapped themselves in a cloak of deception, claiming to be concerned with jobs. In fact, they called their effort the California Jobs Initiative. And yet, a look at the list of major donors to the movement tells a different story. Top contributor was a company called Valero Energy ($4.05 million), followed by (among others) Tesoro ($1.525 million), Flint Hills Resources, LP ($1 million; this is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, a major supporter of anti-global warming initiatives); Occidental Petroleum ($300K), National Petrochemical and Refiners Assn. ($100K), Tower Energy Group ($200K); World Oil Corp. ($100K); Southern Counties Oil ($50K); Frontier Oil ($50K);  Murray Energy ($30K); and Berry Petrochemical ($30K).

Hmm, do we see a pattern here? Are these leading supporters of a move to block California from improving its greenhouse gas footprint acting out of concern for the jobs of Californians—or from their own self-interested desire to continue to profit from fossil fuels and the destruction of the environment? It’s rather clear that the answer is the latter, the profit one, the evil one, rather than the charitable desire to protect jobs. for ordinary Californians. In fact, suspending the act would have put paid to at least 50,000 new jobs relating to clean energy initiatives.

To put this in further perspective, let’s take a closer look at some of those supporters of the proposal to block the green act. No. 1 contributor Valero operates two oil refineries in California. No. 2 donor Tesoro is the 24th largest producer of air pollution in the United States. And Koch Industries, the third largest contributor, is one of the top 10 corporate polluters in the nation.

What more can we say, except to applaud the wisdom of California voters who soundly defeated Prop. 23 by a 22 percent margin, approximately 61 percent to 39 percent. The Golden State may face deep and serious problems but at least its people have the courage to stand up against polluters and those that Ayn Rand called “looters,” the corporate highway robbers who want to continue their nasty ways at all costs.

California, and the world at large, needs to vastly expand support of alternative energy programs. It’s not the time to listen to those who advise us to inserting our heads into the sand in ostrich-like denial.

In an editorial written prior to the election, Science magazine editor Bruce Alberts had this to say:

The public and private investment in energy innovation now totals only about 0.3% of U.S. energy expenditures. California’s Proposition 23 needs to be soundly defeated, sending a clear signal to Washington that the people of the United States are ready and willing to mobilize its considerable resources in the vital drive to a sustainable energy future.

To which I add, bravo! And thanks to California voters the message has been sent.

Posted in Age of Oil, Climate Change, Conservation Issues, Economics, Energy Technology, Fossil Fuels, Melting Planet, Politics, Pollution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on California Stays the Course on Green Energy

Those Strange Climate Change Deniers

By David L. Brown

Global warming/climate change deniers are strange fellows indeed. Despite the overwhelming evidence that human-caused global warming is real and may seriously harm our planet, they continue to raise doubts. One of their arguments is that most scientists refuse to admit that global warming has been absolutely, positively proven once and for all. Well, if that’s the case, then obviously there’s a lot of room for doubt, right?

Well, not really, because you see nothing in science is absolute. A scientist can absolutely believe that any theory is correct, but the very nature of science is to question. That’s why centuries after Galileo and Newton the theory of gravity is still being examined, studied, tested and refined. It doesn’t mean that scientists deny the force of gravity, but that they constantly seek to advance knowledge about it.

Science, unlike so many other things, is not based on assumptions and “faith,” but only upon that which can be demonstrated over and over again. Just as Einstein moved our understanding beyond that of Newton, the enormous Large Hadron Collider now being ramped up at CERN has as one of its most important challenges to find something called the Higgs Boson, a proposed exotic particle that may hold the secret of gravity. Gravity is not absolutely, positively proven and as a scientific theory it never will be because that is the very nature of science.

So no responsible scientist will state that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is absolutely, positively, 100 percent proven. It’s just not the way science works. Asking a scientist to state otherwise is like asking a husband if he has stopped beating his wife yet. There is no proper answer, because it is an inappropriate question that’s being asked.

So we can conclude that all responsible scientists believe there is a small chance that AGW is wrong. A very small minority of serious scientists think there are real problems with the theory, of greenhouse warming and that’s fine because they are acting in the true tradition of science. However, the vast majority are virtually certain it is a valid theory, and that’s where the deniers get their chance to confuse the issue. “Virtually certain” and “absolutely certain” are not the same thing. If the uncertainty is extremely small, chances are that it will be assumed to be true, and that’s where we stand with most climate scientists today. But if you pinned down an astronomer to state with absolute certainty that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow, he or she must of necessity hedge the answer., no matter how slightly. We don’t know how, why, or whether it’s possible that event might not occur, but the uncertainty exists, even if it’s one chance in a centillion (that’s 10 to the 303rd power, or 1 with 303 zeros after it).

This reminds me of the paradoxes of the ancient Greek Zeno of Elea who jerked his fellow philosophers around by arguing that Achilles, no matter how fast he ran, could never catch a tortoise in a race. He explained that each time Achilles reached the point where the tortoise was, the tortoise would have already advanced further, leaving Achilles behind.

This kind of reasoning fits the logic often used by climate change deniers. They say that since the theory has not yet been proven, then it must be false. Their tortoise moves ahead of every argument, and since the experts are held to the rigor of the scientific process it appears to the uninitiated that the deniers have a point.

They love to remind the general public that AGW is “only a theory,” without explaining that the definitions of “theory” in science and in everyday life are quite different. A scientific theory is a model that has been rigidly tested and challenged and continues to be refined, like the theory of gravity. An everyday theory such as you might hear in a corner bar or from the mouth of a denier is just about anything you can imagine, no matter how unlikely or counter intuitive. There are those who believe the Earth is flat, and they stand by their opinion to the bitter end.

Finally, here’s some eye candy to add to the argument that deniers come from a strange place, an editorial cartoon from USA Today:


What indeed if we create a better world, and all for nothing. What a tragedy that would be.

Posted in Astronomy, Climate Change, Essays and Opinion, Melting Planet, Politics, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Those Strange Climate Change Deniers

Drought Likely to Spread, Perhaps Soon

By David L. Brown

Note: This item is cross-posted from Ag Dead End (

Drought is already rearing its head in many parts of the world, most recently in north China, Australia, and Russia and the Ukraine. Experts say we can expect more in the coming years. Here’s a snippet from an article from Reuters posted on the Scientific American website:

Increasing drought has long been forecast as a consequence of climate change, but a new study from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research projects serious impact by the 2030s. Impacts by century’s end could go beyond anything in the historical record, the study suggests.

The study warns that by 2100 unprecedented drought can be expected in some of the world’s most populous areas, including southern Europe, northern Africa, the western U.S. and much of Latin America. Some areas, including much of Canada and Russia may see increased rainfall — which isn’t necessarily a good thing since rain in excess can be as damaging to farm production as drought. Just this year heavy rains significantly reduced crop yields in Canada, and last year’s harvest in the eastern Corn Belt was plagued with wet conditions.

How serious can things get in those regions threatened with serious drought in the coming years? The article explains:

To get an idea of how severe the drought might get, scientists use a measure called the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI. A positive score is wet, a negative score is dry and a score of zero is neither overly wet nor dry.

As an example, the most severe drought in recent history, in the Sahel region of western Africa in the 1970s, had a PDSI of -3 or -4.

By contrast, the new study indicates some areas with high populations could see drought in the -15 or -20 range by the end of the century.

We don’t have any concept of how serious drought of that severity would be, since it is beyond our experience. The only thing we can conclude is that it will not be good.

Climate change is a serious threat because our civilization has been built (and in fact has over-built) upon conditions as they have been in recent centuries. Significant change in climate patterns, something that is probably already taking place, has the potential to gravely impact human society. The most important message is that those changes might be taking place faster than expected, and with the possibility of tipping points the picture could change even more quickly. Drought, excess rainfall, more serious storms, hotter temperatures—all these will undermine the ability of farmers to produce enough food to feed an increasingly hungry world.

Posted in Agriculture Issues, Climate Change, Famine | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Drought Likely to Spread, Perhaps Soon

My New Book

By David L. Brown

depcovercropI am pleased to announce the publication of my new book DEAD END PATH: How Industrial Agriculture Has Stolen Our Future. This work, in the form of an extended essay, is the result of a lifetime of experience and study. It is written in an easy-to-read style and thoroughly documented with more than 250 footnotes and a bibliography of nearly 150 volumes included in its nearly 300 pages.

DEAD END PATH is unusual in that it is part essay, part memoir, part speculative journalism and part research-based analysis. It examines the serious challenges that face the human race, including the unhappy facts that as human population continues to grow the resources on which our technological civilization depends are being depleted through runaway “progress” and “development,” code words for the destruction of the environment in the interests of profit for the few.

Many of the ideas in this book have been discussed in this weblog, including population issues, resource peaks, and economic considerations. The main argument of DEAD END PATH is that while most of the structural problems of our civilization can be traced to over-population, that core fact itself rests on the short-sighted use of industrial methods to produce more food in the short term than the Earth can sustain. As resources peak and begin to decline, a food crisis looms ahead of us at the terminus of the path we have taken.

To give you the general flavor of this work, here is the official description from the publisher’s website:

DEAD END PATH is an important book because it describes in simple, jargon-free words the critical dangers facing humanity, including many facts that the media seldom report. It’s an extended essay on how industrial agriculture has led us down an unsustainable path that threatens our very civilization. The danger is real and looming before us in the here-and-now. Our petroleum-based technology is reaching its limits and the coming collapse will likely trigger a domino-like food crisis that will change the world forever.

Readers will learn how machine technology has transformed food production and pitted the human race against Nature herself. Topics include over-population, resource depletion, climate change, economic realities and the long-term outlook for human survival. Part journalism, part history, part memoir, part essay — this book aims to entertain and inform curious readers in non-technical language. The subjects of this book are possibly the most important issues of the 21st Century, a stark reality that is little reported by the media and largely ignored by world leaders. Every thinking person should be aware of this looming threat to civilization, the real-life story that unfolds in the pages of DEAD END PATH.

To help bring the message of DEAD END PATH to a wider audience, I have begun to create a new website at It is only partially constructed, but you may find it interesting to visit it now to read the text of the Author’s Note from the book in which I explain my personal life’s journey and how it resulted in the writing of this book. Please bookmark and return to it as it takes form. It will contain news and commentary relating to the subject of the book.

Posted in Agriculture Issues, Book Reviews, Desertification and Soil Loss, Economics, Essays and Opinion, Famine, Fossil Fuels, Politics, Resource Depletion, Technology | Comments Off on My New Book

World Food Disaster Continues to Loom

By David L. Brown

Coming soon: Billions and billions of Australian Plague Locusts.

Coming soon: Billions and billions of Australian Plague Locusts.

According to the poem by Robert Frost, some think the world will end in fire, some in ice… Well, ask an Aussie and he’s more likely to bring up drought and plagues of locusts. We know that Oz has been suffering years of relentless drought, leaving the Murray-Darling river system virtually dry. Now, at last some relief has come in the form of rains. Good news, right? No worries, eh? Well, that’s as maybe, according to an article today from the British newspaper The Independent.

Australia’s Darling river is running with water again after a drought in the middle of the decade reduced it to a trickle. But the rains feeding the continent’s fourth-longest river are not the undiluted good news you might expect. For the cloudbursts also create ideal conditions for an unwelcome pest – the Australian plague locust.

The warm, wet weather that prevailed last summer meant that three generations of locusts were born, each one up to 150 times larger than the previous generation. After over-wintering beneath the ground, the first generation of 2010 is already hatching. And following the wettest August in seven years, the climate is again perfect. The juveniles will spend 20 to 25 days eating and growing, shedding their exoskeletons five times before emerging as adults, when population pressure will force them to swarm.

It is impossible to say how many billions of bugs will take wing, but many experts fear this year’s infestation could be the worst since records began – 75 years ago. All that one locust expert, Greg Sword, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, would say was: “South Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria are all going to get hammered.”

The article, titled “Australia Faces Worst Plague of Locusts in 75 Years,” predicts that the coming disaster “is expected to cost farmers billions.” Well, yeah, that it might — but what’s more important, the amount of money farmers make or the number of people who starve in the famine that is slowly strangling the planet? Hmm, I guess money and profit once again trumps human lives.

Meanwhile, the U.S. corn and soybean harvest is under way and agri-business leaders are crowing about the wonderful news of higher commodity prices. The reason: The harvest doesn’t look so good. This report today from explains what’s up with that:

With an already tight carryover projected for next year, corn’s supply noose seems to tighten by the day as the market looks for news to ensure corn supply for the coming year. Soybeans are following suit as demand is increasing for that crop and it appears the market must begin to bid up acres. This is creating an “unbelievably bullish market.”

Corn carryover, projected to be the lowest since the 1995-96 marketing year before USDA’s September USDA’s Crop Production Report, looks to be the noose around the necks of grain buyers. Daily reports of lower-than-expected yields and mounting bullish demand news are combining to paint a fundamental and technical picture that will shoot corn and soybean prices considerably higher, says Jerry Gulke, Top Producer marketing analyst and president of The Gulke Group.

The title of the article, “Unbelievably Bullish Corn and Soybeans” tells the story. Yeah, bullish is good and bear markets are bad—for traders and investors. But that’s actually a load of bull because it’s crop failure that lies at the bottom of the story. And for a world in which a billion or more people are already living in the looming shadow of famine this wonderful bull market isn’t good news at all.

And as always, while grain traders profit no matter what, for the farmer it’s a crapshoot. Those who luck out and are able to harvest good yields will cash in from the high prices. Those others whose failures contribute to the shortfall … well, they’re stuck on the horns of the bull.

In the wake of disastrous drought and heat in Russia and Ukraine, wheat prices have already shot upward this year and remain at more than $7 a bushel. Now yields of corn and soybeans  seem to be disappointing, too, causing the present bull stampede. Remember, too, that the harvest has a long way to go and weather problems could cause even today’s pessimistic crop outlooks to be revised downward.

None of this bodes well for world food security, and how appropriate that the coming Australian summer may bring us video clips of skies darkened by clouds of locusts descending on fields of crops. Stay tuned.

Posted in Agriculture Issues, Famine | Comments Off on World Food Disaster Continues to Loom

Global ‘Food Wars’ Breaking Out

By David L. Brown

According to an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, a bidding war for a potash mining company reveals a looming problem: Finding the resources to feed a world on the brink of hunger

According to the article, which you can read here, the attempted takeover of Potash, Corp., the world’s largest source of potash, by mining giant BHP Billiton:

…lays bare the global struggle for resources on a planet struggling with water and food shortages, overpopulation and pollution. And it highlights a question that overshadows the 21st century: how to provide enough food for a global population that is set to rise from 6.8 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations.

The world is waking up to the coming era of food shortages, with governments and corporations scrambling to gain control of land, minerals, energy, and food markets. The flurry of activity is based on the further prediction by the UN that food production must be increased by 70 percent to meet the needs of the projected population of 2050.

Well, not to rain on anyone’s parade, but there are two comments I want to make.

First, it is troubling to witness global corporations lining up to make huge profits from this “opportunity”. It reminds me of war profiteering, “bad capitalism” run amok.

Second, I have to say that the chance of increasing the world’s food production by 70 percent is about as likely as a 400-lb. Hampshire sow sprouting wings and flying to the Moon. We are running out of resources folks, and our industrial agriculture is built on those very resources. Without increasing amounts of oil, gas, minerals such as potash, and fertile land itself, there is no way that we can increase production, and it would probably be a tremendous achievement even to keep it from peaking and beginning to drop.

Industrial agriculture depends upon increasing amounts of the resources it needs, and the outlook is for those resources to begin to decline just as world population continues to explode. Taking potash, the subject of this latest resource grab, as an example, here’s a graphic from Potash, Corp itself that plots demand, the gray bar, against the major world sources of the mineral.


If there was ever an example of demand running ahead of supply  this is it. Demand is already running far ahead of the supplyNote that from 2008 on world production remained virtually level. That is the indication of a peak, and resource peaks are generally followed by a decline. Meantime, demand will continue to rise. Through extraordinary action production might be able to temporarily get back ion an upward path—but that’s not the point. The question is how much potash do we need to increase food production by 70 percent and, even more important, where is it going to come from? And if population continues to go up, how can harvests keep up?

Many parts of the world are already lagging in food production for want of sufficient potash. For example, here’s an excerpt from The Guardian article about the situation faced by China and other over-populated nations:

Experts say crop yields are low in many regions, partly due to the historical under-application of fertiliser in many developing countries. China has 20% of the world’s population but just 6% of its arable land – which has dwindled as Chinese industry has ruined previously fertile tracts of ground through pollution and heavy industrialisation. The Fertiliser Institute in Washington says China and India use only half as much potash on their fields as American farmers.

Many of these “developing” countries have depended upon purchases of grain and other foodstuffs. As production begins to lag in North America and elsewhere, and with grain crops being diverted to the production of ethanol and biodiesel, those imports cannot be counted upon in the future. To vastly increase domestic production in places such as China would require immense quantities of resources—which are going to be available in declining quantities and at soaring prices. The result: a global outbreak of food wars, waged by the powerful and the desperate, in which resources will be sought at almost any cost. Those wars are already taking place, as this passage from The Guardian indicates:

In Africa, the Chinese are forging mining joint ventures and investments linked to China’s hunt for resources to fuel its fast-industrialising economy. Africa is also seeing a land grab that has been likened to Europe’s carve-up of the continent at the end of the 19th century. An Observer investigation earlier this year established that 50m hectares – more than double the size of the UK – had been acquired in the last few years by foreign governments and wealthy investors with state subsidies.

Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural schemes since 2007. Saudi Arabia is thought to be the biggest buyer as it turns to Africa to meet domestic demand, a move that helps it to conserve water at home.

Charities have complained that foreign expansion has been at the expense of African smallholders and that overseas investment exacerbates hunger as land is increasingly turned over to growing crops for export. There have also been reports of evictions without compensation, bullying and rising crime.

Some of the African deals have been eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1.2m-hectare deal between Madagascar and South Korea’s Daewoo would have included nearly half the country’s arable land.

The ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” comes to mind. Interesting, indeed, perhaps the most interesting ever. Watch this space.

Posted in Agriculture Issues, Essays and Opinion, Famine, Global Security, Population Issues | 9 Comments

Famine Continues to Stalk the Earth

By David L. Brown

Wheat, the Staff of Life

Wheat, the Staff of Life

We’ve talked here before about the fact that the world’s supply of basic foodstuffs is falling short with production barely able to meet demand. Now wheat prices are soaring due to drought in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Australia, added to excess rain in Canada that has taken 13 million acres out of production this season.

Wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade experienced a 42 percent increase just during the month of July, the biggest monthly percentage gain since the CBOT began keeping records in 1959. Wheat contracts jumped by $1.97 per bu. in July, with September futures closing on Friday the 30th at $6.615 per bu. This is not an all-time high—wheat reached the eight dollar level during the food crisis of 2008—but the end isn’t in sight and more increases are expected as bad news continues to come in about yield expectations and traders keep bidding up the price.

Now as one might expect the press reports on this story raise the specter of, well, higher prices for bread and pasta in the grocery store. Nowhere is the word “famine” mentioned in the stories I read. It’s all about us, you see, and how this might impact our family budgets., a relatively minor fact if you want to know the truth. You may remember we went through a similar period of angst two years ago when the price of wheat was a concern, with reports of rioting in Italy because pasta prices had jumped.

Let me put this in perspective. A bushel of wheat weighs 60 lbs. When wheat prices hit that $8 range in 2008, the North Dakota Wheat Commission estimated that the farm value of the wheat in a typical loaf of bread was about 20¢, up from a previous range of 12-15¢ so the actual cost of a loaf of bread represented by the wheat it contained actually rose by just 5¢ to 8¢ — hardly cause for panic. The March 14, 2008 Wheat Commission news release (read it here) concluded that the extra cost for a family that consumed one loaf of bread and one pound of pasta per week would be about $20 a year. Actually, my calculations are even lower (+8¢ per loaf or packet of pasta, times 2/week times 52 weeks equals just $8.32). This shouldn’t even be considered as news, and little more than a rounding error in family budgets.

But what’s the real story? It’s famine, because it’s not the price of wheat that matters, but the supply. The fact is that a shortfall in wheat production will mean there won’t be enough wheat to satisfy world demand. About a third of the people on our planet rely on wheat as their major foodstuff, the “Staff of Life.” Many of these people live in poor nations and must buy their grain or rely on food aid from rich nations.

The confusion with availability of food and money is a sign of our misguided emphasis on monetary factors. Clearly, when there isn’t enough food to go around, money cannot solve the problem. In other words, actual food cannot be magically transformed from the ether by the application of paper dollars from a printing press. Sadly, humans can’t even eat the money, so there’s trouble ahead for many in the poor regions of the world.

As far as we here in the comfortable West are concerned, the price of wheat will be bid up as is presently taking place until demand drops to meet supply. That occurs when some potential consumers conclude they cannot afford to buy wheat at the higher price. The first to reach that point will be the poorest of the world.

Another way that reports mislead us is by conflating percentages with actual values. Let’s imagine a worst-case scenario in which wheat rises to $20 per bu., or about four times the recent price range. Wheat will sell for 400% of its previous price. Whoa, a terrible disaster, right? Well, maybe not. Using the factor noted above where $8 wheat was equivalent to 20¢ per loaf, at $20 the farm value of the wheat in a loaf of bread would rise to 50¢. That’s a little less scary. And if a premium loaf of bread sells for $3, and other factors don’t change (they will, but never mind), then although the price of wheat will have risen by four times, the cost will add only about 16 percent to the cost of the loaf of bread.

Taking it one more step, if a family consumes one loaf of bread and one box of pasta per week, and the wheat they contain costs an extra 50¢, the cost is just $2 a week or $104 per year. That’s under a worst case assumption that is probably quite a bit higher than wheat prices are likely to reach, because the poor will be priced out of the game before prices reach that lofty height.

Prices even in the range of 2008 would be devastating to several hundred million people who depend on wheat and have few if any alternatives. And to repeat: Money cannot solve the problem; food aid agencies cannot create more food simply by throwing money at the problem. Rich nations will ante up whatever it takes to get as much wheat as their populations demand and others will be left without. For more on this point, see my essay “Money Won’t Solve Looming Famine,” posted June 2, 2009 here.

Not only that, but when the price of one commodity goes up it takes others with it as frustrated buyers seek alternatives. Thus, corn and soybean prices also rose last month, although not nearly not as much as wheat.

The specter Famine

The specter Famine

Folks, we are reaching Peak Food, and with population continuing to rise this is an unfolding tragedy. For the press and politicians to moan and gnash their teeth over the price of bread is beside the point, which is that many people of the world will go without enough to eat. Most of those same people are already malnourished, so a wheat shortfall will push them toward outright starvation.

As resources such as oil and gas decline, famines are probably inevitable. We haven’t seen much of that  ancient scourge of humanity in recent decades, but it’s fated to return, perhaps very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Agriculture Issues, Economics, Famine | 6 Comments

Great Lakes Are ‘Running a Fever’

By David L. Brown

The Great Lakes are artifacts of the last Ice Age, gouged from the earth by massive glaciers that once covered much of Canada and the upper part of the present United States.  They form the largest freshwater system in the world. They are also a harbinger of climate change, because they are growing hotter, thus acting as “canaries in the coal mine” for global warming.

I’m particularly aware of this change because for six years in the 1960s I lived in a high-rise apartment on Chicago’s northside. The building was called Shoreline Towers for the fact that Lake Michigan was right outside my window. Waves sometimes washed over the retaining wall to soak my car in the parking lot. In those days, come winter the lake began to freeze over. Not all the way, but out several miles. When there was a strong east wind the ice would sometimes break up into slabs six or eight inches thick and pile up along the shore.

My friends who live in Chicago tell me that that’s no longer the case today. Lake Michigan does not freeze, and that’s about as clear as any evidence I can think of that the lake is warmer than it was 40 years ago.

Lake Superior, the "canary in the mine"

Lake Superior, the "canary in the mine"

According to an article posted on the Scientific American website (here), this trend has not only been measured, but shows signs of accelerating. All the Great Lakes have been affected, but climate scientists have been keeping a particular eye on Lake Superior, the largest, deepest, and most northerly of the lakes. The canary of canaries.

The article, “Lake Superior, a Natural Global Warming Gauge, is Running a Fever,” quoted Cameron Davis, the senior adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the Great Lakes: “Total ice cover on the lake has shrunk by about 20 percent over the past 37 years, he said. Though the change has made for longer, warmer summers, it’s a problem because ice is crucial for keeping water from evaporating and it regulates the natural cycles of the Great Lakes.”

This year the trend is even more apparent, with Lake Superior on track to reach or exceed its 1998 record-high temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Ominously, data from several buoys that measure temperatures in the lake “reveal that the waters are some 15 degrees warmer than they would normally be at this time of year,” the SciAm article quotes Jay Austin, a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Dr. Austin is associated with the university’s Large Lakes Observatory (link here).

The warming lake waters are not only evidence of global warming, they may be changing the ecology of these freshwater seas by allowing harmful species to gain a foothold there. For example, the charmingly named blood-sucking sea lamprey is spreading through the lakes. Like the vampires of folk myth, these creatures latch onto the sides of trout and hang on, sucking the fish’s blood until it dies.

There are serious concerns about the effect on native American tribespeople who live around the lake and depend upon its waters. Besides threatening their fisheries, increasing warmth threatens their ability to harvest wild rice, a major source of revenue.

When we hear that the waters of a huge lake are 15 degrees warmer than usual, that’s more than just a canary cheeping in a coal mine. Unless, of course, it’s the mythical 500-pound canary from a very old schoolyard joke.*

As I’ve noted in some recent posts, it’s vexing that as evidence of global warming continues to pile up, there seems to be less acceptance of the danger by the general public, not more as one might suspect. Perhaps this is due in part to the short memory horizon of most younger people. Someone who wasn’t around Chicago 40 years ago won’t remember when the ice piled up on the shore each winter. They won’t remember the time in the 1970s when a bitter west wind  created a wind chill in the range of minus 80 degrees, threatening to freeze the pipes in my house even though the furnace was running constantly.

Sadly, those who view events in the world from a short timeline cannot have an accurate indication of any trend. It’s too easy to assume that not much is going on, and that those stories Grandpa told about the frigid winters of the past are just that, stories. This problem of what might be called timeline myopia is particularly true in the case of climate change, which may seem to occur slowly but which in fact is speeding at an unprecedented rate.

We’ve already seen that 2010 is the hottest on record so far, and most months have set records worldwide. We also see that Arctic sea ice has been running at record low levels this year, that the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than ever, and a multitude of other warnings. Other canaries, entire flocks of the little yellow harbingers. Will no one hear them?

* “What does the 500 pound canary say? CHEEEP!” Sorry.

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation Issues, Melting Planet | 8 Comments

Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts!

By David L. Brown

factsThat headline may sound like a joke, but it often seems to be exactly the reaction many people have when faced with facts that may threaten their preconceived notions about how things work. A recent article in The Boston Globe (link here) sheds light on this mysterious effect.

Titled “How facts backfire,” the article is focused on voter opinions about political questions. It makes the unsettling conclusion that most people are unlikely to change their opinions when provided with contrary facts, and may actually tend to cling even more strongly to mistaken ideas. Here’s a take-away from the article:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

This concept helps shed some light on the subject of climate change denial, in which scientists are frustrated by the apparent effect that as they reveal more and more information about the dangers of global warming, large numbers among the public actually seem to become more skeptical. This is not least seen among politicians, broadcast and print commentators and other opinion leaders. It’s not uncommon today to hear or read statements such as “global warming is a hoax,” or “climate change has been disproved.” This is completely contrary to the mass of evidence.

The article points out that people today are deluged with “endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth,” making it easier than ever to be wrong.  It also makes people feel more certain that they are right.

And even more vexing is the fact that the most informed people are the most resistant to changing their mistaken ideas when provided with new information. The article describes a 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University which “showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.”

Hmm, that may explain a lot about some of the stuff you hear coming out of the mouths of supposedly well-informed people on “Meet the Press” and other venues. They appear to be completely confident in their statements, even though to others they sometimes seem more like delusional paranoid ravings than sound opinion.

Thanks to Google I found the original paper by Taber and Lodge, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs” (PDF here), and it adds some interesting perspective to the subject. It seems that even scientists are subject to the backfire effect, as described in their paper:

Physicists do it. Psychologists do it. Even political scientists do it (cites withheld to protect the guilty among us). Research findings confirming a hypothesis are accepted more or less at face value, but when confronted with contrary evidence, we become “motivated skeptics,” mulling over possible reasons for the “failure,” picking apart possible flaws in the study, recoding variables, and only when all the counterarguing fails do we rethink our beliefs. Whether this systematic bias in how scientists deal with evidence is rational or not is debatable, though one negative consequence is that bad theories and weak hypotheses, like prejudices, persist longer then they should.

The backfire effect poses a serious problem for scientists, not only because their profession is fact-based but also due to their human tendency to hold onto their notions. The statement of Arthur Schopenhauer comes to mind: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident.” The concept of backfire also resonates with the maxim of Ben Franklin, who said “So convenient a thing is it to be a rational creature, since it enables us to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to.”

When scientists find it difficult to understand why their increasingly solid data and conclusions don’t seem to change opinions among the general public, the effect described in the Globe article could be the reason. If that’s the case, what can be done about it? Since the problem appears to lie in human psychology rather than the rational processes of logic and reason, the answer can’t be found in the stubborn ranks of the misinformed. And, simply piling more and more facts onto the table doesn’t work and may even have a negative effect. It’s a conundrum indeed.

The author of the Globe article, Joe Keohane, suggests that those who spread falsehoods might be subjected to shame, which could cause them to change their behavior. However, he concludes that the “shame-based solution” runs into the fact that “fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery.”

I’m reminded of how the many magical feats of Moses (plagues of frogs, locusts, serpents, etc.) failed to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrews and that each feat only “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Climate scientists probably face a similar impossible task in trying to convince the public about the importance of their work. In the end, Moses had to simply gather up his people and leave Egypt, thus:


Unfortunately, parting the Red Sea and leaving Egypt is not an option for climate scientists  today. I  guess we’ll have to wait for the jury to come out on global warming and climate change. That’s when the facts will become so manifest that they can no longer be denied.  Unfortunately, that will also be when it’s too late to do anything about it.

Posted in Energy Technology, Politics, Psychology | Comments Off on Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts!