Notes from a warming world

Temperature Gauge

Stunt Man

Earlier this year, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson – the thrill-seeking head of Virgin Atlantic Airlines – once again grabbed the media’s attention when his company conducted the first test flight using biofuels. A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, powered in part by coconut oil and the nuts from the Brazilian babassu palm, took off from Heathrow Airport and, 40 minutes later, landed in Amsterdam. Branson called the event an “historic occasion” and a “biofuel breakthrough.”

Sounds promising – until you crunch the numbers. Three of the plane’s four tanks were filled with normal jet fuel, while the fourth tank contained a mixture that was 80 percent jet fuel and 20 percent biofuel, meaning that only five percent of the plane’s power came from biofuels.

The biofuel mix used in the test flight is unlikely to be used commercially. Some 150,000 coconuts were required to make the oil for the Virgin experiment. And babassu palms are not available in large numbers.

Tim Jones of the World Development Movement sums up the situation: “There is no technology available that allows us to fly without making emissions.”

Calculating Disaster

Dealing with global climate change will either be relatively cheap, or hugely expensive – depending on whether we take action now, or wait until later.

According to a new report by the Environmental Defense Fund, reducing US greenhouse gas emissions will account for less than two percent of household budgets over the next 20 years. The bottom line? Making meaningful reductions in carbon emissions won’t break the economy.

Inaction, on the other hand, will be expensive. A study by the National Council of Churches finds that faith organizations will have to substantially increase giving due to climate change-related problems. The Council estimates that over the next 30 years, churches’ funding for refugee settlement will have to increase six-fold, while funding for food security in developing countries will have to double. As the Reverend Michael Livingston put it, “Global warming is a threat multiplier, making our work that much more difficult and costly.”

Warming up the Skeptics

Al Gore speking photoBrett WilsonGore has climate change skeptics hot under the collar.

In March, global warming skeptics gathered for a conference in New York City sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian organization committed to a “free-market perspective.” The meeting was billed as an important forum to display the dissenting science on human-driven climate change. The only problem? Very little science.

When asked why environmentalists were promoting compact fluorescent lightbulbs even though they contain mercury, conference speaker Steven Milloy, publisher of, said it was because green groups want the mercury to leak out … so they can sue manufacturers and retailers. During one panel, an audience member said that Al Gore wants to keep developing nations from using more electricity because “he’s for the genocide of poor people.”

A demonstration of the forum attendees’ credentials occurred when, after the meeting’s lunch, a conference organizer asked for all of the scientists in the group of several hundred people to move to the front of the room for a group picture. Nineteen people did so.

Whether Maps?

For many people, planting a garden is a rite of spring, and for many gardeners, the US Department of Agriculture’s color-coded climate zone map is a handy way of knowing which plants will thrive where. But with global warming causing noticeable changes in weather patterns, the USDA’s map, last published in 1990, is out of date, causing some green thumbs to grumble.

As temperatures rise, the hardiness zones for many plants is shifting northward. The Southern magnolia, for example, was once limited to a zone from Virginia to Florida, but can now grow well as far north as Pennsylvania. Kiwi vines may now bear fruit in Missouri.

But the USDA has refused to update its map. USDA meteorologists prepared a new map in 2003, but it was rejected by agency higher-ups because, some say, of opposition from farmers concerned about losing crop insurance tied to the old map.

To fill the gap, the Arbor Day Foundation has published its own map that shows a significant northward movement of the climate zones. The American Horticultural Society has also posted on its Web site a draft of the 2003 map rejected by the USDA.

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