Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What If The Permafrost Thaws?

Music theme this week: "Only an Expert" by Laurie Anderson

Gas pipelines in Siberia are rising out of the ground, while in Alaska oil pipelines sag.

Houses and factories built on permafrost are tipping. Evergreens are slanting in so-called "drunken forests". Under the whole north, land is becoming unstable as the climate warms.

I'm Alex Smith. We're going to find many answers to a simple question: What if the permafrost thaws?

I attended a conference session on that very subject, with expert scientists, at this year's meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. We'll hear the latest.

But it was rough going. After the session, which was technical and carefully hedged with scientific doubts, I ran into the soil expert for the European Union, Luca Montanarella. I told him, in spite of all I'd heard, I still didn't know whether we should be worried or not.

"You'd like to worry, wouldn't you?" Luca replied, "But we have many more things to worry about now, further south."

Of course Luca is Italian. There were riots in the streets of Italy. The government had fallen, and the banking system might soon follow.

In the course of preparing this program on permafrost, I ran into as many opinions as experts. The permafrost may thaw over hundreds of years. The carbon stored there will come out slowly, one said. Another suggested when that thaw comes, it will already be too late for our civilization, ruined by a changed climate further south.

Other scenarios predict 50 to 80% of permafrost will thaw during this century. Maybe the released greenhouse gases will only equal ten or twenty years of our current emissions, one of our guests says. Only!

Another brand new scientific paper suggests permafrost melt may have caused the great mass extinction 55 million years ago.

We've never seen it. The frost was supposed to be permanent, and has been during human time on Earth. Now the signs of big changes are all around in the Arctic. What is coming? We can only model the future, with very imperfect tools, and guess the rest.

Before we dive into expert level testimony about the latest science, let's start with a more user-friendly Radio Ecoshock interview.

See my detailed notes below on my interview with Antoni Lewkowicz from the University of Ottawa. He's one of the world's recognized experts on permafrost, and yet quite good at explaining these issues to the public.

See my detailed notes from the Lewkowicz interview below. Our theme music this week is from Laurie Anderson's latest album.

The big question for this program, and for the world, is "What if the Permafrost thaws?"

I was unable to find a figure for the amount of the world soil and rock that is frozen. The BBC clip we ran earlier claimed 60% of Russia is permanently frozen ground. There is some permafrost in the Andes of Chile, but most is obviously in Russia, Canada, and Alaska. The United States Permafrost Association estimates about 25% of Earth's surface is frozen, and permafrost may account for up to 40% of all soils on the planet.

As you hear from Dr. Lewkowicz, interest in these frozen northern soils and rocks dropped - until scientists began to calculate a carbon budget for the world. The Wikipedia entry, which is still under construction, says this:

"The most recent work investigating the permafrost carbon pool size estimates that 1400–1700 Gt of carbon is stored in permafrost soils worldwide. This large carbon pool represents more carbon than currently exists in all living things and twice as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere."

Maybe so, but as we'll learn from our next expert, not all of that will reach the atmosphere. And we don't know how long it could take to get there.


Dr. Charles Koven is a permafrost and soils expert in the climate sciences department of the Berkeley National Lab in California. Along with the renowned Canadian northern soils expert Charles Tarnocai, Dr. Koven was asked to present at the February meeting of the National Academy for the advancement of Science session called "What If The Permafrost Thaws?"

I recorded that session in Vancouver. You can order the whole recording as an mp3 from aven.com as item number AS219.

I'm going to play you some select audio from the Charles Koven talk. It isn't easy, for you and me. First of all, Koven was speaking to experts, not the public. Second, to be frank, neither Koven nor Tarnocai are good public speakers. I think it's too much to ask of our best scientists that they also be master speakers. They spend years in a forbidding field, literally in the cold, and more years working through tedious data in the lab. Their many scientific papers are their voices.

So I've selected the best, and edited out some of the repetitions and pauses, for better radio listening.

Before we begin, you'll also need to understand a few phrases and tools used when trying to answer these difficult problems of permafrost. Dr. Lewkowitcz gave us a leg up. We found out there is no sharp dividing line on a map where permafrost ends, but fingers and islands jutting out from a completely frozen polar area. There is now a free book "The Soil Atlas of the Circumpolar Region" available from the European Union.

There are three different major types of soil, and that matters, since each releases more or less carbon when exposed to decay. As a group these are called Cryosols, in the World Reference Base for Soil Resources, or sometimes Gelisols in official soil lingo.

Complicating it all: the permafrost can be shallow, or very, very deep. You might think that once ancient plant material is buried many feet or meters below the ground, below the reach of living roots, it would stay there. But as anybody in cold winters knows, the soil is always heaving. In the Arctic, with summer surface melt and extreme winter cold, soil layers are tossed about in a process called "cryoturbation". You'll hear about that in the Charles Koven talk.

In the program, I play you a quick clip from Steven Chu, currently the Secretary of Energy for the United States, in the Obama administration. Dr. Chu explains that once the permafrost reaches a certain pace of thawing, it will continue to feed more warming and melting, no matter what humans do. Obviously he takes thawing permafrost seriously, as should we all.

Finally, since we won't know the climate impacts of permafrost melt until it's much too late, the best we can do is make models from huge masses of scientifically collected data. Talk of complex climate models can turn off a lot of radios, I know. I'm only including a short bit on that, from Dr. Koven, because I think you need to get a feel for what we know and don't know. And how good the guesses are so far.

There are at least a dozen serious teams of climate modellers, some running football field sized buildings stuffed full of super computers. Everything from weather records, ocean temperatures, chemical formulae, ice formations, soil types, and even areas of permafrost are fed into these computers, trying to forecast what happens if we burn all the oil, coal and gas, or just some of it.

The results, as you know from the periodic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are divided into possible scenarios, with varying levels of confidence. Dr. Koven quickly references the latest models used for the upcoming IPCC assessment - called CEMa, short for Climate Envelop Matching. He also talks about the RCP Level 5 scenario, which is a "moderate" projection of 500 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere by the year 2100. And the RPC 8.5 scenario, which would take us beyond 4 degrees of warming by 2100 - the pedal to the metal scenario of human greenhouse gas emissions.

Hang in there through that modeling talk, and you will be rewarded by some courageous assessments of what really happens if the northern lands thaw. Plus a surprising and controversial suggestion that Arctic methane may not be the boogeyman some suggest.

Good luck to us all. Here are selections from Charles Koven speaking at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science meeting, on February 19th, 2012.


When we think of planet Earth, we don't picture a frozen planet. But a huge area underground is always icy. We call it the permafrost. You won't find it in your backyard, unless you live in the far north.

Geologists and other scientists have only begun the task of cataloging this underground world. Now, as Earth warms, we all need to know. Because if all the carbon locked up in the north is released, our climate, and our civilization will change beyond recognition.

Professor Antoni Lewkowicz is a central figure unraveling this mystery. From the Department of Geography at Canada's University of Ottawa, Lewkowicz studies, leads doctoral researchers, and advises international groups on permafrost. He's a co-author on a new paper on the impacts of climate change on permafrost in Canada.

Why care about the permafrost? 3 reasons

1. it's a good thermometer. Unlike measuring air temperatures, which is tricky, measuring deeper in the ground is more solidly known. We know the melting is real, permafrost doesn't lie, proves global warming is happening.

2. Large emissions of carbon could result from melting, but we don't yet know how much. It will affect people all over the world. We know there are massive stocks of carbon locked up there - but how long will it take to be released?

3. It costs money. Governments, corporations, and individuals have to spend money to protect infrastructure or deal with changes in the ground, from "drunken forests" to sagging pipelines, to tipping buildings and sinking roads.

For example within 100 miles of the border between the Canadian Yukon and Alaska, the Alaska Highway is full of dips and rises from melting permafrost. That highway is a huge investment by both countries and continuing costs will be high. It already costs tens of millions to maintain the Alaska Highway.

Coastal erosion, as frozen ground gives way, is also a huge problem. Most of the Northern settlements are on the coast. The First Nations aboriginal people were dependent on fishing and hunting sea mammals - now their settlements are either tipping over, or in some cases, falling into the sea with coastal erosion.

Longer ice-free season can lead to bigger waves and more storms. Erosion can be tens of meters per year in some cases.

The depth of permafrost is quite variable. At the far northern tip of Canada at Ellesmere Island the permafrost is several hundred meters thick, probably five to seven hundred meters thick. Its temperature is about minus fifteen.

As you go south, it gets thinner. In the far north, the permafrost is continuous, under everything. Further south, some places have permafrost, others not. It becomes dispersed and localized.

Again, in some areas the organic material, which could be released as either carbon dioxide or methane, has been accumulating for thousands of years. In other areas it may be just hundreds of years. It’s like a jig-saw puzzle with many different pieces.

Parts of Alaska were not glaciated in the last great ice age, and continued growing plant life. Those accumulated much more organic material. This was gradually incorporated in the frozen ground, to be stored without decay.

Lewkowicz is a lead author of a new paper published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. The title is "Climate and Ground Temperature Relations, Sites Across the Continuous and Discontinuous Zones in Northern Canada, with co-authors Jennifer Troop and Sharon Smith, from the Geological Survey of Canada. As part of the International Polar Year, which ended in 2009, they developed a new series of bore hole temperature readings.

As you would suspect, the climate does determine ground temperatures. While some of the far North is still very cold under the surface, a little further South is just below zero, on its way to melting. These scientists were able to form a continent-wide reading of the permafrost.

I raised the fascinating videos showing up on You tube of thousands of new small lakes appearing in Siberia as the permafrost thaws there.

Although there is very strong warming in Canada, particularly in the Mackenzie Valley, Professor Lewkowitcz doesn't think Canada is experiencing the rather sudden appearance of so many lakes as in Siberia. In the Western Canadian Arctic average annual temperatures have risen by as much as a degree Celsius in a decade.

Some Canadian peat lands are decaying relatively rapidly and you can see that through satellite photos.

In one area of discontinuous permafrost areas in the Southern Yukon and Northern British Columbia, half the sites measured have thawed since 1964.

But if we go to the extreme North, like Alter Bay, the ground may be a degree warmer, but it has only moved from about 14 degrees below zero C. to perhaps 13 degrees. It is relatively warmer, but now where close to thawing yet.

Scientists prefer to use the word "thaw" rather than "melt". Lewkowicz gives the example of a frozen turkey. If you thaw a turkey, you still have it to eat. If you melt something, it's gone. Permafrost isn't just ice. It can be only frozen rock for example. That may thaw without melting. Technically, "permafrost" is defined by sub-zero temperature for two or more years, no matter what is frozen under the surface. Professor Lewkowicz just attended a post Polar Year conference in Montreal. The hot topic was: how much carbon will be released as the permafrost melts? There is a lot of new research into this question, partly because we don't yet have firm answers. We don't know.

We do know that where the organic material decays without water, it will release carbon dioxide. If the decay happens in water, methane is released instead. So there are many further calculations about how much comes out of lakes, bogs, and swamps - versus how much material will thaw and rot in simple exposed ground.

The second big question is: how fast will it happen?

Again this is complex, and one factor is water. If ponds form, as they do in Siberia, that water efficiently transfers the heat from the Sun and warmer air down into the ground. More greenhouse gases will be released there. This can become a positive feedback effect, where smaller ponds warm to form larger ponds, and so more warming.

Regarding the coming greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost, Lewkowicz says "We don't have the answer yet, but we know it's a really, really serious question."

There is a potential for a positive feedback effect, where thawing permafrost releases warming gases which melts more permafrost, increasing that cycle at a faster rate.

Like the melting Arctic Sea Ice, "it's difficult to imagine how we can revert to a previous condition" [of permafrost]. "It's quite difficult to thaw ground, but it's actually quite difficult to freeze ground... once we thaw it, I don't know how we are going to freeze it again."

I think this is a key point about thawing permafrost. There isn't any realistic geo-engineering scheme to reverse it. The area of permafrost is so huge, and the amount of energy require to freeze it so gigantic, this process is beyond human control, once we initiate the warming and thawing process. It is an irreversible change to the planet.

Lewkowicz says there will still be permafrost left in all our lifetimes. The question is how much, and what will the impacts of the thawing be?

Listen again to this show, or pass it around as a free mp3, from our program archives at ecoshock.org.

Should we worry about the permafrost thaw? Maybe not today or tomorrow. The big thaw is happening slowly. It will define the history of the planet. As the Russian expert Sergei Kirpotin of Tomsk University says: the process is already underway. We can delay it, with smarter energy choices, and greenhouse gas control, but unless a miracle happens, over the next century or three, planet Earth will thaw.

I'm Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. I appreciate your patience and your brain power. Thank you for caring about your world.

Monday, May 21, 2012

As Darkness Flourishes

Josh Tickell, Director of "The Big Fix" reveals the continuing BP Gulf oil spill cover-up. S. Dutta on mega coal plant construction binge in India. "GM Food Song" by Superweed. Conclusion of tar sands speech by independent scientist Dr. David Schindler.


From the high desert, from the dry falls of ages past, this is Alex Smith. We have a full menu of audio for you this week.

You'll start out with a main course of awful truth about the continuing BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Director Josh Tickell joins us for a look at his dark reality pic "The Big Fix".

Then we go to the coal disaster you never hear about. The government of India has teamed up with one of its biggest corporations to build some of the largest coal plants on the Planet. S. Dutta reports from Delhi about the Tata Mundra mega plant. Their lives and your climate in one big story.

I'll play you a fine activist song about GM foods and wrap up with more from my recording of Dr. David Schindler's breakout speech against the Canadian Tar sands.

Bon appetite.


Sales of oil and gas leases are the second largest source of revenue to the United States government. About forty percent of that happens in the Gulf of Mexico.

As we learn in this interview with Josh Tickell, only the Internal Revenue Service brings in more (from taxes, with a much bigger overhead). Is it any wonder the fossil fuel industry has so much control over the government?

There is hardly any oversight. That is why BP was allowed to drill in deep waters on the edge of a ridge in the Gulf of Mexico, even after companies like Exxon had abandoned drilling efforts there. The area was known to host pools of explosive gas as well as the oil.

Tickell goes over a long list of illness suffered by cleanup workers and many residents of the Gulf states. Skin rashes, asthma, and many other chronic conditions popped up after BP poured millions of gallons of the toxic oil dispersant Corexit into the Gulf. Exactly how many million gallons is still in dispute.

The Corexit was carried toward the shorelines, where waves and winds whip it up into water droplets which hit Gulf residents, to this day.

Tickell says despite the multi-million dollar advertising campaign saying the beaches are all clean, there are still workers cleaning beaches, and popular beaches have closures now and then. Tickell, who grew up in Louisiana, in a Cajun family, dug into "cleaned up" beaches and found lots of oil deeper in the sand. It isn't just a metaphorical "cover up", he tells us, but the oil is really just covered up for now.

We go into the Obama deception, the multibillions of shareholder profits paid out by BP even during and after the spill, why the military was co-opted by BP and more.

Josh Tickell first came to prominence after driving his grease-powered "veggie van" across America. That became the film "fuel". Now with wife Rachel, "The Big Fix" is winning acclaim at film festivals around the world. It got a standing ovation at Cannes. Our Radio Ecoshock correspondent in Washington D.C., Gerri Williams, saw it at a film festival there. She said the audience was wowed, and recommended this interview with Josh Tickell.

Since many standard theaters are afraid of blowback from the powerful oil industry, it may not play near you. Fortunately, the DVD will be available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Netflix and ITunes in June. Or you can get it directly from the film web site, after the June release, at thebigfixmovie.com


You know Americans are blowing tops of Appalachian Mountains for dirty coal power. Warren Buffet's endless coal trains flow from the America West.

In early May, activists from Vancouver, including two prominent academics, Dr. Bill Rees of the ecological footprint, and energy expert Mark Jaccard, were arrested stopping a coal train there.

Everybody knows China built a coal plant a week. So why don't we hear about the mega mega coal plants springing up in India? Now you will.

Mr. S. Dutta joins us for an in-depth report from India about the growing coal binge there.

The coal mining industry is mainly nationalized, run by the government of India. Politicians have promised to electrify the country, and coal is their main fuel, even as India is hit hard by climate-driven drought, floods, and heat waves.

The center of attention now is the giant 4 gig watt Tata Mundra plant in Northwest India (Gujarat State). It is right on the coast, in one of the most ecologically sensitive and productive areas. Further inland is the great desert, so most people live and work on the coast.

The poorest people, small farmers and fisher people, will be most directly hurt by construction and operation of the many coal plants planned at Tata Mundra.

I ask Mr. Dutta to compare the many anti-coal plants there, and the Occupy movement in the West. Although many people have been arrested at both, there are major differences. The coal-powered electricity will benefit the middle and upper classes, so they are supporting it. The many poor people are those protesting. They do not speak Hindi, the language of their government, and are not consulted or compensated. These poor people need the help of non-profits like the one Mr. Dutta works for.

We go into the larger energy picture of India with lots of facts and figures which may surprise you. Along with the many coal plants either under construction or planned, goes a lot of corruption of land sales. The power will go to fuel shopping malls, which the poor people can never dream to visit. It's a deep interview, with many angles you should hear.

Before we go to our exclusive recording of Dr. David Schindler on the Tar Sands, you'll want to hear this smart new song about a dangerous idea: genetic modification of your food. From You tube, here is the band Superweed.


A few weeks ago I played you part of a daring speech by one of Canada's most prominent and honored scientists, Dr. David Schindler. He spoke out about the many dangers of the Canadian Tar Sands, in a speech to a packed audience at the Wosk Centre in Vancouver. Here is David Schindler wrapping up, about the deformed fish, the fake restoration promoted on TV, and the lasting cost to us all.

For example, The First Nations people of Northern Alberta, who depend on fish to live, complained they were finding some too deformed to eat, or even feed to their dogs. Schindler set up a collection point, and in just the first year found fish with tumors, fish with two tails, fish with one big eye and so on. He concludes these are the product of embryos poisoned by tar sands waste.

Still on the subject of fish, we hear another scandal. When a mine pit is finished, the big corporations are allowed to fill them in with tailings, and then add 10 meters (about 32 feet) of water. They call this restored "fish habitat" - even though nothing can live in them. Starting 17 years ago, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans have approved over 25 of such "fish lakes". The first one from 17 years ago shows no signs of life, much less fish, but the Federal government doesn't care, Schindler says.

The Caribou stocks of the Tar Sands area have been wiped out. Under the law, they should have been treated as endangered species, but the Minister in charge says Canada has lots of caribou - we'll just stuff in some new ones later, when the lands are restored.

Schindler says very little has been restored, and even those projects are an ecological failure. Supposed forests are sparsely treed. The companies try to restore peat bogs - but the tailings are too salty, at least ten times too salty, to host the peat bogs. Instead of 300 species, the "restored" lands are lucky to host a few dozen.

Meanwhile paid "green" spokespeople like Patrick Moore appear on TV and You tube showing off the restored lands. Schindler says real biologist laugh when Moore points out a pleasant yellow plant as an example of new growth. The plant is exotic, shouldn't be there, and is known to accumulate cyanide.

The whole "restoration" game is a Ponzi scheme. The oil companies have saved about 10% of the cost to restore the easiest lands, those built up with removed top soil (not the toxic tailings). Schindler says Canadians under forty years of age will be stuck with the cleanup bill in years to come.

I doubt restoration will ever happen. As the oil runs out, or becomes too expensive for an industrial economy, these ravages lands will be abandoned, with their toxic lakes and pits, a scar the size of a small European country, left on the planet, as signs of a past oil age.

My thanks to Simon Fraser University for permission to record this speech. Dr. David Schindler is an award winning Canadian scientists, of international renown. That he would speak out at this point shows how bad the Canadian Tar Sands situation has become.

The big fix on the Gulf oil spill, the push for coal in India, Tar Sands propaganda - the fossil fuel industry is flourishing - while the species and climate thrash toward catastrophe.

Now you know, but knowing is only half the battle. Action is up to you.

I would say knowing is less than half the battle - but the with all the propaganda paid for by the fossil fuel industry, and the bought-out mainstream media, it is a bit of work to find out what is really going on. That is why I do Radio Ecoshock. To help you know.

Visit our new web site at ecoshock.org.

From Wi-Fi somewhere in America, I'm Alex Smith, thank you for listening and caring about your world.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Why Are Forests Dying?

A startling documentary from the public broadcaster ABC Australia explores dying forests. It is happening around the world, in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and all down the West Coast of North America. Call it bugs, call it fungus, call it drought and record heat. Call it climate change and plain old pollution.

Whether it's satellite photos, or walking through the dying woods, it's heart-breaking. Why are forests dying around the world?

I'm Alex Smith. I've covered climate change in so many Radio Ecoshock programs. Later in this program we'll talk to a key scientist, Lisa Ainsworth, about misplaced expectations that rising carbon dioxide levels will green the planet and feed billions more people.

But first we are going to ground with a citizen activist from New Jersey. Her trees, and all our trees, are weakened and dying from a much simpler cause: plain old pollution. The air looks cleaner, but all that industrial exhaust is still deadly to plants - and our lungs.

The trees are talking to us, but we just aren't listening.

Gail Zawacki is speaking out on the pollution that is killing trees, shrubs and crops - despite all the government back patting on supposedly cleaner air.

First we have to remember there is good and bad ozone. The saying is "Good in the sky, bad nearby." The ozone in the upper stratosphere protects all living things from harmful ultraviolet light from the sun. That was the worry of the ozone hole.

Lower down near the ground, we have what is called "tropospheric" ozone. That is part of the smog, but ozone itself is invisible. It's a type of oxygen, but it has three oxygen atoms instead of two.

As Gail tells us, there are no factories spewing ozone - that is what makes it so difficult to control. Tropospheric ozone is created in an air-borne reaction with other chemicals called "precursors". The main precursor is nitrogen - and we are the nitrogen civilization. We release it from burning fossil fuels, but laying billions of tons of nitrogen on farm fields as fertilizers, and many other sources.

Another precursor is a group of "volatile organic compounds" also known as VOC's. Our industrial society creates plenty of VOC's, especially from the chemical and refinery industries. Some consumer and household products, including paints, also release VOCs.

It turns out trees can release VOC's as well. That is how Ronald Regan was infamously able to claim that trees cause pollution. However, natural forests existed for millions of years without producing harmful smog or dangerous ozone levels. We do that.

Ozone is a "reactive" substance. It oxidizes everything from plant leaves to granite monuments, all of which begin to deteriorate.

Please listen to the Gail Zawacki interview to learn how ozone impacts trees, shrubs and crops. (It also harms our lungs, especially anybody with breathing problems. That's another whole story.)

The leaves begin to shut down. You can find black stippling, or sometimes they "bronze" - turning color well before the fall. Then the plant cannot perform the photosynthesis it needs. As a result, trees and shrubs are weakened, and less able to prevent diseases (like a fungus) or insect pests from doing damage.

We may see the immediate cause of tree deaths as caused by a fungus or boring beetle, but the tree is weakened by ozone damage. Zawacki, and the Australian documentary, compare the dying tree situation to HIV. The AIDS damaged immune system may die due to pneumonia, but the real driver was HIV.

Agricultural agencies, and forest departments, know all about ozone damage. They have pictures on their web sites. But other government agencies hardly ever talk about it. We have been told air pollution in the West is all cleaned up, but really the ozone plague goes on and on.

Gail has wrapped up all her research on the ozone threat in a really great document titled "Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC (A Global Glut of Invisible Trace Gases is Destroying Life on Earth)" It has lots of illustrations and links. You can download it as a free .pdf - or buy the print version from Amazon. It was a real education for me, and part of the reason we asked her to come on Radio Ecoshock.

Gail writes: "This is really well known to the USDA, and by the international scientific community. In fact the USDA in cooperation with many academics at universities has been engaged in research for years, trying to develop ozone "resistant" or "tolerant" crops.... Ozone is also of concern for farmers, not only because it reduces the yield but also quality of protein, minerals etc. - so it also means ruminants like cows and pigs are getting less nutrition for the amount eaten."

In the Journal Nature, I found a paper saying tropospheric ozone has increased 35% over the last century.

The 2003 paper by Wendy Loya and others says increased ozone levels hurts both forests and crops, even when carbon dioxide is increased, as we expect in the coming decades. They conclude "Our results suggest that, in a world with elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, global-scale reductions in plant productivity due to elevated ozone levels will also lower soil carbon formation rates significantly."

You can also keep learning from Gail by visiting her blog "Wit's End".

At the close of our interview, I ask about her continued support of the Occupy movement. Gail tells us the mainstream media totally failed to report the May 1st Occupy march in New York City. It was at least tens of thousands of people, filling major avenues as far as you could see. Newspapers and TV played it down, saying the protest "fizzled". Hardly what those attending experienced.

When I asked Gail about solutions to the ozone problem - we had a pause. We would need to cut down on nitrogen use, and nitrogen-producing crops like soy and peas. Chemical factories would need different processes, and the whole fossil fuel burning society would have to find clean alternatives. It's a huge job. I suppose awareness of the problem is a good start.

Here is another of Gail's sites on dying trees.

I also recommend this article from her blog, with a critique of the Australian TV documentary.

In this Radio Ecoshock program you hear a couple of clips from the ABC Australia television program Catalyst which aired on April 26th 2012. Find the the video and a transcript here.

Our theme music this week is Canadian folk artist Bruce Cockburn, "If A Tree Falls" performed live in Montreal in 2005. We also heard brief clips of "I Talk To The Trees" by Thomas L. Thomas in 1950, and updated by Masha Qrella from her album "Speak Low" Berlin 2007


Whether you accept climate change science or not, nobody disputes the fact that carbon dioxide levels are growing in the atmosphere, as we burn fossil fuels. That changes the way plants grow.

Various experts, including some climate modelers, count on increased plant growth as carbon dioxide rates go up in the atmosphere. Others have promised that is how we will feed a more heavily populated planet. Is it true?

Our guest is Lisa Ainsworth, Assistant Professor of Plant Biology and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Crop Sciences, at the University of Illinois. She is co-author of one of the most cited papers on the effects of increased carbon dioxide on plant growth.

She is working with the FACE method of spraying increased carbon dioxide up around the trees, which are more or less in a wild setting. This is better than the former greenhouse methods, because the open air setting allows for real variables such as rain, sunlight, and wind. The official meaning of FACE is "Free Air Concentration Enrichment"

Early climate models depended on greenhouse measurements of extra plant growth with added carbon dioxide. They projected up to 30% increase in plant growth on earth by 2100 with CO2 at 550 parts per million. With the ever-increasing fossil fuel use, scientists now project we will reach 550 ppm CO2 by 2050 instead.

However, the FACE testing shows extra growth due to increased CO2 is less outside, than in greenhouse settings. The increase might be 15%, and it varies according to the crop. The difference is important, because early climate models assumed extra plant growth would soak up a lot more carbon than will really happen.

It turns out plants have worked out several different ways of handling carbon dioxide intake, as evolution continued. For example, most trees have not yet reached their saturation point. If the CO2 increases, they can use more of it. Dr. Ainsworth describes how this works, for what are called "C4" type plants. They will benefit from more CO2, and so will such crops as rice and wheat.

Contrast that with plants like corn and sorghum. These developed a type of super-concentrator for CO2, before it goes into photosynthesis. They are already getting as much CO2 as they can handle. Adding more to the atmosphere will NOT increase their growth. The same applies to the grasslands of the Savannas - one of the largest biomass types on the planet.

One of the limitations of the FACE method is it has only been studied in Western-type countries like the US, Japan, and New Zealand. There have not been open-setting tests in the tropics, where most of the biomass of the planet is. That leaves a huge hole in our knowledge, and a big question mark about how tropical forests and savanna lands will respond to more CO2. We'd better find out quickly, because it takes at least a decade of testing, and 2050 is not that far away.

Not only do we want to know if the extra CO2 will help us feed the expected new billions of people arriving on the planet. We also want to know how it will affect all the natural plants, from forests to grasslands. Plus, there is a feed-back effect that could help us, or not, if plants can soak up more of that carbon dioxide. Add in the predicted droughts and desertification around the sub-tropics, and the forest die-offs we covered earlier, and we see that extra plant growth may not reduce our carbon dioxide laden atmosphere. They may even add to it, becoming a carbon source rather than a carbon sink.

There is so much we do not know, but we have discovered a closer look at the coming reality through FACE, and through scientists like Lisa Ainsworth.


the FACE experiments (Ainsworth et al)

Also, recommended by Ainsworth in interview: SoyFACE (Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment) at University of Illinois

and at the Oakridge Nat'l Lab (database of results)

Find out more about rising CO2 levels and plants in this Nature article. Here is a worrying article: Australia's trees may not survive excess carbon dioxide

And see this Sydney Morning Herald video of the FACE experiments in Australia.


As reported by the BBC, Spring is coming earlier than ever, and plants are blooming sooner, according to new research just published in the journal Nature. British scientific bodies and nature lovers have kept such records going back to 1875. Spring is now at least 5 days earlier, with some plants flowering eight times faster than climate models predicted.

The insects are keeping pace, breeding earlier and more often.

In the Australian documentary "Dying Trees", there is a shot of a forest in Spain that suddenly died. The whole thing. Even though I've seen millions of dying trees with my own eyes, right here in British Columbia, I was shocked. That one photo, and all it means, hurt me deep inside.

I'm Alex Smith, your reporter. As I limp off to lick my green wounds, the forests call out to us. Will anybody hear?

Don't forget our new web site, at ecoshock.org

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is It Too Late for Environmentalism?

Give up hope and exit out of environmentalism? In the UK, deep greener Paul Kingsnorth says he's leaving the climate movement, which is lost anyway. Who else is on the way out the door?

This week we'll hear a challenging interview with one of the co-founders of Greenpeace International. Michael M'Gonigle has been battling since the late 1960's. He teaches environmental law at the University of Victoria in Canada. Two hosts from the podcast "The Extra Environmentalist" interview Michael for Radio Ecoshock - about his new strategy which he calls "Exit Environmentalism". Just in case, we'll top that off with a shot at techno-optimism.

But first, I'll talk with chemical engineer and biofuels specialist Robert Rapier

We go at the fundamentals of the energy crisis - peak oil, Asian demand, speculation and all that. Rapier compares greenhouse gas emissions from Asia to an unstoppable hurricane. I don't agree with everything all our guests say, but Robert takes me closer to "exit environmentalism" with his clear cold logic about the real world we live in.

Brain stimulation from Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith.

Download just the Robert Rapier interview (CD quality 22 min)

Download just the Michael M'Gonigle interview (26 min CD Quality).


How realistic are biofuels as a replacement for oil? Are we headed for energy independence - or an energy crash?
Robert Rapier would know. He's got 20 years’ experience as a chemical engineer, working with all kinds of fuels. Currently Robert is Chief Technology Officer at Merica International, a renewables and forestry company based in Hawaii. Rapier is also Managing Editor of "Consumer Energy Report", and a regular guest on mainstream media. His latest book is "Power Plays, Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil".

I called up Robert after reading his article "Why the Debate Over Global Warming Is Academic". It's a new perspective, and I grilled him on it. Here is part of Robert's reply in the Radio Ecoshock interview:

"What is likely to happen is our emissions will probably continue to decline somewhat from here. But Asia-Pacific's emissions are going to continue to grow unabated.

It's not only Asia-Pacific. Africa, the Middle East, South America - all these developing regions are rapidly increasing their fossil fuel consumption. I say it [climate change] becomes "academic" because while we debate and debate how we're going to get our emissions down, the emissions just continue to climb.

The reason I liken it to a hurricane - you know we can talk about whether climate change is going to be really bad and disastrous and so forth, just like when we watched hurricane Katrina come in. The night before it came in, I told my wife, I said 'I'm afraid this is going to destroy New Orleans.' But one thing we didn't talk about is 'Well, how do you stop the hurricane?'

And that's what I see in Asia-Pacific right now. The reason I say it's "academic", I don't see a viable way to stop them from increasing their fossil fuel consumption because they are already at such a low level per capita. So I've likened it to a rich person trying to tell a poor person to live within their means. The poor person is just trying to scratch out a living and increase their standard of living, while the rich person has already done that. We've already increased out emissions from a very low level, and we've gotten to a very high level. We just don't have nearly as many people as they do.

The technology does not exist. No country has developed to a high level of development without fossil fuels. So to imagine that it can be done, we are imagining something that has never been done before.

I offer two points of minor disagreement. First, the people of China and other countries are suffering terribly from air pollution. They may begin to demand clean energy just to preserve their health and their lives. Second, there is a limited amount of oil, and even coal, left. Eventually the pressures generally known as "peak oil" may limit the amount of fossil fuels, and make them uneconomical to use.

I could have offered more reasons, such as an utter economic collapse - which always cuts emissions, or severe and continuing damage from a destabilized climate, which either convinces people and governments to change, or again destroys the infrastructure required for supporting the food system and or industrial society.

Finally, there is always the dreamer's hope that humans will come to understand they are wrecking the future and make a choice to do otherwise.

Robert Rapier offers us some tough realities though. The average American uses 22 barrels of oil a year. To give up one or two barrels may not be that difficult, with some not too painful lifestyle choices. The average Chinese person uses two barrels a year, Rapier tells us. That second barrel may be used for things like the tractor, the irrigation pump, or heating a home. Nobody is going to want to give that up, almost no matter what the cost is. Low fuel consumers are going to be willing to pay much higher prices per liter or gallon, and keep burning it, because they need it so badly.

Frankly, it's very discouraging news in the context of fighting climate change. Rapier is not alone in feeling that battle is lost. I begin the program with a quote from Paul Kingsnorth, the UK deep green thinker behind The Dark Mountain Project.

"And also coming to the conclusion, and it was a very difficult conclusion to admit to myself, but I think lots of people are starting to admit it to themselves now - coming to the conclusion that a lot of the problems that we are facing can't be solved, in the sense that we would like to solve them.

For example, we're not going to stop the climate changing. We're not going to stop the mass extinction event that we're in at the moment. Hopefully we can prevent it from getting any worse than it has to get but we're in it, and it's happening and it's too late to do a lot of things about it.

Is that realism or pessimism? The quote comes from an Orion magazine podcast that I hope to play for you later this season on Radio Ecoshock.

As I have a grandchild that I love, I cannot give up. We are in it. It is happening. But we must do all we can to prevent the worst from happening, and I believe we can.

Continuing with Robert Rapier, I draw on his expertise in biofuels. Can biofuels replace fossil fuels? Absolutely not, he says. The maximum we can expect is ten to twenty percent replacement. Rapier isn't shy about discussing the negative trade-offs with some biofuels, like corn ethanol. He suggests the "holy grail" of biofuels is algae production. That doesn't use up land space, and may be biologically sound. However, so far algae production is not economical on any meaningful scale. More research and development needs to be done.

We also discuss the difference between methanol and ethanol. Methanol is derived from natural gas, so it is not a substitute for fossil fuels. It was tested fairly widely in California a couple of decades ago, and found to be a good fuel. The industrial production methods for methanol are well known. But methanol had less political support. Ethanol has the widespread support of the farm lobby, so politicians like it.

Both ethanol (which is derived from plant material) and ethanol are more corrosive than the gasoline we use now.

At one point, U.S. taxpayers were subsidizing European fuels containing ethanol. The subsidized fuel was blended in the U.S. and then exported to Europe. That ended when the subsidies for ethanol expired at the end of last year.

I ask Robert Rapier about the media hype that America will re-emerge as a world energy giant, due to the "trillions of barrels" of reserves in places like oil shale. Rapier says the U.S. will always be an oil importer, as long as it is able. The so called "reserves" are really rocks containing the beginnings of oil, left unfinished by geological processes. It takes a lot of energy just to finish the process.

Rapier compares these "reserves" in the oil shales of the West, in places like Utah and Wyoming, to the gold in the sea. Yes, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of gold flakes in the oceans. No, we don't have any economical way to retrieve that. Ditto the inflated dreams of billions of barrels of potential oil locked up in the stones of the West.

I highly recommend the Robert Rapier interview. Here is his regular column at Consumer Energy Report.


I first heard Michael M'Gonigle's talk on "Exit Environmentalism" in a badly recorded You tube video speech at the University of Victoria. It seemed too important to waste. Seth Moser-Katz and Justin Ritchie volunteered to do this interview for Radio Ecoshock, as part of their longer podcast called "The Extraenvironmentalist". Just Google that, or go to extraenvironmentalist.com.

University of Victoria You tube "Exit Environmentalism" Part 1 61 minute delivered October 27, 2011.

Part 2 Critique and answers 63 min

Be sure to check The Extraenvironmentalist web site for an extended version of this interview with Professor M'Gonigle.

In the interview done for Radio Ecoshock, M'Gonigle questions several aspects of the green model of expectations. For example, we protest and lobby for legislation to be enforced by governments. But that regulation seldom happens - because the legislators depend on the polluters for campaign donations, but even deeper, because governments themselves are the biggest spenders on the growth model that needs to be kept in check. It's pretty profound when a University teacher of green law says the legal system can't work to save us from environmental catastrophe.

I've known Michael M'Gonigle's work for some years. He was one of the founders of Greenpeace International, and then Chair of the Board of Greenpeace Canada. We interviewed Michael about his push to green universities around the world, as models for our next generation of leaders. But M'Gonigle might be the first to say, despite his lifetime of work, we have failed. Mass extinction is already developing, and the climate is already spinning up, possibly out of any control. He works his way through our fallacies, trying to reach new answers. Check out this powerful interview.

In this Radio Ecoshock show we had time for just a quick sample from another podcast from The Extraenvironmentalist. Seth and Ritchie interview Dr. Michael Huesemann author of the book "Techno-Fix". That is Episode number 37.

The Techno-fix podcast runs 1 hour 54 minutes, and I've sliced out a couple of sample running less than 10 minutes. It's definitely just a scratch of the surface, a teaser to encourage you to hear the whole thing.

Still wondering what to think? Is it realistic and cool to hope? Even if the ship is sinking, I must keep on bailing. We'll have more dialogs on the way forward in coming Radio Ecoshock shows, plus news about the three crises: climate change, the energy crisis, and the fragile economy. Keep tuned to Radio Ecoshock at our new web site, at ecoshock.org.

I'm Alex Smith, thank you for listening.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


http://bit.ly/JpmhuZ I record a lot of speeches, and listen to many more. This talk by Dr. Kathleen Dean Moore of Oregon State University is one of the best speeches of 2012.

The title was "It's Wrong to Wreck the World: Climate Change and the Moral Obligation to the Future". The presentation was organized by Simon Fraser University, in their Continuing Studies in Science and Environment program.

Kathleen spends every summer on a remote island off the coast of Alaska. She's in touch with Nature there, and at home in Oregon. In this artful, moving speech, we get some readings from her work - examples of why her books are so popular.

Find out more about Kathleen Dean Moore at her blog at riverwalking.com

Her latest book, a collection of 1500 short essays about our obligation to the future, is called "Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril." The writers are among the most famous people in the world, all speaking for the rights of the next generation(s).

"Morality" sounds boring. This speech surprised and moved me. It will do the same for you.


The program also premieres a new original song by Libby Roderick: "The Lifeboats Are Burning", and a song inspired by a Radio Ecoshock Show - "We Are" by the new band Tempting Eve in Sydney Australia.