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CNN is spun right round, baby, right round
Posted on January 26, 2009 at 3:42 pm ET

RealClimate .org

With the axing of the CNN Science News team, most science stories at CNN are now being given to general assignment reporters who don't necessarily have the background to know when they are being taken for a ride. On the Lou Dobbs show (an evening news program on cable for those of you not in the US), the last few weeks have brought a series of embarrassing non-stories on 'global cooling' based it seems on a few cold snaps this winter, the fact that we are at a solar minimum and a regurgitation of 1970s vintage interpretations of Milankovitch theory (via Pravda of all places!). Combine that with a few hysterical (in both senses) non-scientists as talking heads and you end up with a repeat of the nonsensical 'Cooling world' media stories that were misleading in the 1970s and are just as misleading now.

Exhibit A. Last night's (13 Jan 2009) transcript (annotations in italics).

Note that this is a rush transcript and the typos aren't attributable to the participants.

DOBBS: Welcome back. Global warming is a complex, controversial issue and on this broadcast we have been critical of both sides in this debate. We've challenged the orthodoxy surrounding global warming theories and questioned more evidence on the side of the Ice Age and prospect in the minds of some. In point of fact, research, some of it, shows that we could be heading toward cooler temperatures, and it's a story you will only see here on LOU DOBBS TONIGHT. Ines Ferre has our report.


INES FERRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Will the day after tomorrow bring a deep freeze like that shown in the movie? Research more than 50 years ago by astrophysicist Milanchovich (ph) shows that ice ages run in predictable cycles and the earth could go into one. How soon? In science terms it could be thousands of years. But what happens in the next decade is still up in the air. Part of the science community believes that global warming is a man-maid threat. But Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute predicts the next 20 to 30 years will actually bring cooling temperatures.

Dennis Avery is part of the 'science community'? Who knew? And, while amusing, the threat of 'man-maids' causing global warming is just a typo. Nice thought though. Oh, and if you want to know what the actual role of Milankovitch in forcing climate is, look at the IPCC FAQ Q6.1. Its role in current climate change? Zero.

DENNIS AVERY, HUDSON INSTITUTE: The earth's temperatures have dropped an average of .6 Celsius in the last two years. The Pacific Ocean is telling us, as it has told us 10 times in the past 400 years, you're going to get cooler.

For those unfamiliar with Dennis Avery, he is a rather recent convert to the bandwagon idea of global cooling, having very recently been an advocate of "unstoppable" global warming. As for his great cherry pick (0.6º C in two years - we're doomed!), this appears to simply be made up. Even putting aside the nonsense of concluding anything from a two year trend, if you take monthly values and start at the peak value at the height of the last El Niño event of January 2007 and do no actual trend analysis, I can find no data set that gives a drop of 0.6ºC. Even UAH MSU-LT gives only 0.4ºC. The issue being not that it hasn't been cooler this year than last, but why make up numbers? This is purely rhetorical of course, they make up numbers because they don't care about whether what they say is true or not.

FERRE: Avery points to a lack of sunspots as a predictor for lower temperatures, saying the affects of greenhouse gas warming have a small impact on climate change. Believers in global warming, like NASA researcher, Dr. Gavin Schmidt disagree.

I was interviewed on tape in the afternoon, without seeing any of the other interviews. Oh, and what does a 'believer in global warming' even mean?

DR. GAVIN SCHMIDT, NASA: The long term trend is clearly toward warming, and those trends are completely dwarf any changes due to the solar cycle.

FERRE: In a speech last week, President-elect Obama called for the creation of a green energy economy. Still, others warn that no matter what you think about climate change, new policies would essentially have no effect.

FRED SINGER, SCIENCE & ENV. POLICY PROJECT: There's very little we can do about it. Any effort to restrict the use of carbon dioxide will hurt us economically and have zero effect on the Chicago mate.

Surely another typo, but maybe the Chicago mate is something to do with the man-maids? See here for more background on Singer.

FERRE: As Singer says, a lot of pain, for no gain.

Huh? Try looking at the actual numbers from a recent McKinsey report. How is saving money through efficiency a 'pain'?


FERRE: And three independent research groups concluded that the average global temperature in 2008 was the ninth or tenth warmest since 1850, but also since the coldest since the turn of the 21st century.

DOBBS: It's fascinating and nothing — nothing — stirs up the left, the right, and extremes in this debate, the orthodoxy that exists on both sides of the debate than to even say global warming. It's amazing.

This is an appeal to the 'middle muddle' and an attempt to seem like a reasonable arbitrator between two opposing sides. But as many people have previously noted, there is no possible compromise between sense and nonsense. 2+2 will always equal 4, no matter how much the Hudson Institute says otherwise.

FERRE: When I spoke to experts and scientists today from one side and the other, you could feel the kind of anger about --

That was probably me. Though it's not anger, it's simple frustration that reporters are being taken in and treating seriously the nonsense that comes out of these think-tanks.

DOBBS: Cannot we just all get along? Ines, thank you very much.

Joining me now three leading experts in Manchester, New Hampshire, we're joined by Joseph D'Aleo of the International Climate and Environmental Change Assessment Project. Good to have with you us.


DOBBS: He's also the cofounder of The Weather Channel. In Washington, D.C., as you see there, Jay Lehr, he's the science director of the Heartland Institute. And in Boston, Alex Gross, he's the cofounder of Good to have you with us.

Well that's balanced!

Let's put a few numbers out here, the empirical discussion and see what we can make of it. First is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has very good records on temperatures, average temperatures in the United States, dating back to 1880. And here's what these numbers look like. You've all seen those. But help us all ? the audience and most of all me to get through this, they show the warmest years on record, 1998, 2006, and 1934. 2008 was cooler, in fact the coolest since 1997. It's intriguing to see that graph there. The graph we're looking at showing some question that the warming trend may be just a snapshot in time. The global temperatures by NOAA are seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. The ten warmest years have all occurred since 1995.

So let me start, if I may, Joseph, your reaction to those numbers. Do you quibble with what they represent?

D'ALEO: Yes, I do. In fact, if you look at the satellite data, which is the most reliable data, the best coverage of the globe, 2008 was the 14th coldest in 30 years. That doesn't jive with the tenth warmest in 159 years in the Hadley data set or 113 or 114 years in the NOAA data set. Those global data sets are contaminated by the fact that two-thirds of the globe's stations dropped out in 1990. Most of them rural and they performed no urban adjustment. And, Lou, you know, and the people in your studio know that if they live in the suburbs of New York City, it's a lot colder in rural areas than in the city. Now we have more urban effect in those numbers reflecting ? that show up in that enhanced or exaggerated warming in the global data set.

D'Aleo is misdirecting through his teeth here. He knows that the satellite analyses have more variability over ENSO cycles than the surface records, he also knows that urban heat island effects are corrected for in the surface records, and he also knows that this doesn't effect ocean temperatures, and that the station dropping out doesn't affect the trends at all (you can do the same analysis with only stations that remained and it makes no difference). Pure disinformation.

DOBBS: Your thoughts on these numbers. Because they are intriguing. They are a brief snapshot admittedly, in comparison to total extended time. I guess we could go back 4.6 billion years. Let's keep it in the range of something like 500,000 years. What's your reaction to those numbers and your interpretation?



DOBBS: Go ahead, Jay.

LEHR: Lou, I'm in the camp with Joe and Fred Singer and Dennis Avery, and I think more importantly, it is to look at the sun's output, and in recent years, we've seen very, very low sunspot activity, and we are definitely, in my mind, not only in a cooling period, we're going to be staying in it for a couple decades, and I see it as a major advantage, although I think we will be able to adapt to it. I'm hopeful that this change in the sun's output will put some common sense into the legislature, not to pass any dramatic cap in trade or carbon tax legislation that will set us in a far deeper economic hole. I believe Mr. Obama and his economic team are well placed to dig us out of this recession in the next 18 months to 2 years, but I think if we pass any dramatic legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, the recession will last quite a few more years and we'll come out of it with a lower standard of living on very tenuous scientific grounds.

DOBBS: Alex, the carbon footprint, generation of greenhouse gases, specifically co2, the concern focusing primarily on the carbon footprint, and of course generated by fossil fuels primarily, what is your thinking as you look at that survey of 130 ? almost 130 years and the impact on the environment?

ALEX WISSNER-GROSS, CO2STATS.COM: Well, Lou, I think regardless of whatever the long-term trend in the climate data is, there a long- term technological trend which is that as time goes on our technology tends toward smaller and smaller physical footprint. That means in part that in the long term we like technology to have a smaller environmental footprint, burning fewer greenhouse gases and becoming as small and environmentally neutral and noninvasive as possible. So I think regardless of the climate trend, I think we'll see less and less environmentally impactful technologies.

Wissner-Gross is on because of the media attention given to misleading reports about the carbon emissions related to Google searches. Shame he doesn't get to talk about any of that.

DOBBS: To be straight forward about this, that's where I come down. I don't know it matters to me whether there is global warming or we're moving toward an ice age it seems really that we should be reasonable stewards of the planet and the debate over whether it's global warming or whether it's moving toward perhaps another ice age or business as usual is almost moot here in my mind. I know that will infuriate the advocates of global warming as well as the folks that believe we are headed toward another ice age. What's your thought?

Curious train of logic there...

D'ALEO: I agree with you, Lou. We need conservation. An all of the above solution for energy, regardless of whether we're right and it cools over the next few decades or continues to warm, a far less dangerous scenario. And that means nuclear. It means coal, oil, natural gas. Geothermal, all of the above.

DOBBS: Jay, you made the comment about the impact of solar sunspot activity. Sunspot activity the 11-year cycle that we're all familiar with. There are much larger cycles, 12,000 to 13,000 years as well. We also heard a report disregard, if you will, for the strength and significance of solar activity on the earth's environment. How do you respond to that?

Is he talking about me? Please see some of my publications on the subject from 2006, 2004 and 2001. My point above was that relative to current greenhouse gas increases, solar is small - not that it is unimportant or uninteresting. This of course is part of the false dilemma 'single cause' argument that the pseudo-skeptics like to use - that change must be caused by either solar or greenhouse gases and that any evidence for one is evidence against the other. This is logically incoherent.

FEHR: It just seems silly to not recognize that the earth's climate is driven by the sun.

Ah yes.

Your Chad Myers pointed out it's really arrogant to think that man controls the climate.

This is a misquoted reference to a previous segment a few weeks ago where Myers was discussing the impact of climate on individual weather patterns. But man's activities do affect the climate and are increasingly controlling its trends.

90 percent of the climate is water vapor which we have no impact over and if we were to try to reduce greenhouse gases with China and India controlling way more than we do and they have boldly said they are not going to cripple their economy by following suit, our impact would have no ? no change in temperature at all in Europe they started carbon ? capping trade in 2005. They've had no reduction in groan house gases, but a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in the standard of living. We don't want to go that route.

What? Accounting for the garbled nature of this response, he was probably trying to say that 90% of the greenhouse effect is caused by water vapour. This is both wrong and, even were it true, irrelevant.

DOBBS: Alex, you get the last word here. Are you as dismissive of the carbon footprint as measured by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

GROSS: No, not really. But I think in the long term, efficiency is where the gains come from. I think efficiency should come first, carbon footprint second.

DOBBS: Thank you very much. Alex, Jay, and Joe. Folks, appreciate you being with us.

FEHR: Thank you.

In summary, this is not the old 'balance as bias' or 'false balance' story. On the contrary, there was no balance at all! Almost the entire broadcast was given over to policy advocates whose use of erroneous-but-scientific-sounding sound bites is just a cover for their unchangable opinions that nothing should ever be done about anything. This may make for good TV (I wouldn't know), but it certainly isn't journalism.

There are pressures on journalists that conspire against fully researching a story - deadlines, the tyranny of the news peg etc. - but that means they have to be all the more careful in these kinds of cases. Given that Lou Dobbs has been better on this story in the past, seeing him and his team being spun like this is a real disappointment. They could really do much better.

Best wishes for a sustainable 2009
Posted on January 7, 2009 at 6:23 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

Today marks the end of my enviroblogging adventure here at Forecast Earth. It's been a real pleasure to dive deep into the worlds of alternative energy, sustainability, and sensible green strategies for daily life. I feel both smarter and more virtuous. Just because I'm going away doesn't mean you should stop learning all you can. As a parting gift, here are links to the blogs I've depended on most to educate myself and keep up to date. Please bookmark them, visit them, and tell them Don sent you. Happy New Year, everyone!

A spinoff of PC Magazine (where I used to work), this blog is an informative mix of green gadgets and new technologies that promise even better green gadgets in the future. Plus robots.

An immensely readable online magazine about environmental issues. Not too science-heavy, not too crunchy. Just right.

Green Daily
When they say daily, they're not kidding. This has always been one of the freshest blogs on my list. There's something compelling to read about every day.

Tracking the many ways in which your favorite celebrities get sustainability right...or very wrong. They've got great senses of humor.

If you only make one bookmark from this list, make it this one. Treehugger is the first, the biggest, the best. I've learned more here than anywhere else.

Green fashion, home, and beauty from the Washington Post Co., the same place that publishes Slate. Very professional.

Danny Seo
One last shout out to the unrivaled arbiter of sustainable style. Danny was on the case when people equated "green living" with burlap curtains. Today his mini-empire of sensible and economical green style tips touches every aspect of the home. His blog is inspirational.

Posted on January 7, 2009 at 5:45 pm ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

They used to say that the definition of "chutzpah" was killing your mother, and then begging the judge for leniency because you're an orphan. Now there's a new one: Chutzpah is raping the marine ecosystem for profit, and then complaining that it costs you too much to do it.

The Japanese fishing fleet, the New York Times reports, is turning to new technology to save a fishing industry that's been "laboring under the weight of high fuel prices." The article talks about the more energy efficient trawlers the Japanese fleets are putting online, and calls them the "Prius for the sea," because of their hybrid propulsion. Government subsidies make the transition possible.

Of course I'm very happy that marine vessels, long the unregulated giants of the fuel-using world, are finally being tamed by higher oil prices. But if there was ever an environmentally destructive entity, it's the Japanese fishing fleet. Over the last three decades, it's become an increasingly efficient comber of the seas, decimating wild fish populations in every corner of the globe, including its nonstop whale excursions in Antarctica. This can even be extrapolated by two unintentionally helpful graphs accompanying the Times article. One tracks the decline in the number of Japanese fishermen since 1975, from nearly 600,000 to the present 200,000. The other graph tracks a slight decline in fish consumption per person in Japan from around 70 pounds per year to just fewer than 60, over the last decade. That's still roughly five times the average consumption here in the United States.

Fewer fishermen are needed for two reasons: The trawlers, with their 10-mile-long longlines and driftnets now can bring in more fish with less manpower than ever before. And the Japanese are buying record amounts of fish from foreign trawlers. The big money catches are the most endangered fishes, such as bluefin tunas, Chilean sea bass, and groupers. I hope that the New Year brings a positive track for these trends, with a new awareness of sustainable fish consumption in Japan, and an expansion of the new fuel-sipping hybrid technology into more defensible realms of ocean travel.

Happy New Year.

Porsche's diesel era begins
Posted on December 30, 2008 at 7:58 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent


Diesel use in Europe is widespread, as you're all aware. Drivers run the stuff in everything from city cars like the Smart to mainstream economy hatchbacks to the big German luxury sedans. The advantages are pretty obvious: high fuel economy without sacrificing power. Still, there have been some holdouts. Porsche, for example, has made it this far without looking at diesel. As of this week, that's officially over, as the European-market, diesel-fueled Cayenne SUV has gone into production. Understand this: no matter how engaging the diesel Cayenne is to drive (the Cayennes are good trucks, so this one should be quite entertaining), it's probably not something Porsche really wanted to do. But there's no longer much choice in the matter, so here we are.

The engine is the 3.0L diesel also used in the Audi Q7 TDI, and it makes 240 horses and a stout 406 lb-ft of torque. It should be every bit as good, and possibly better, than the 290-hp/283 lb-ft base gasoline V6. It'll also outdo the gasser in fuel economy; figure 25 mpg or so. Down the line, a Cayenne Hybrid will join the range, and that powertrain will get carried into the forthcoming Porsche Panamera four-door GT car as well. Diesel Porsches? Hybrid Porsches? Welcome to the world of ever-more-stringent green standards. Fortunately for Porsche, its product lineup is diverse enough to let them work in these technologies without killing off the bread-and-butter cars it's renowned for. As previously reported here, Porsche is doing a good job increasing efficiency in them without decreasing their awesome factor. And trust me, the latter matters. A lot.

Alex Nunez is associate editor of

Euro drivers get the coolest toys: Jaguar XF Diesel S
Posted on December 29, 2008 at 7:42 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent


Jaguar has unveiled the new XF Diesel S sedan, and it's pretty much a bummer that it's not being offered in the U.S. Americans have to settle for the two V8 flavors: regular and supercharged. Our friends across the pond now have the option of a twin-turbo 3.0L diesel in the XF Diesel S, which dishes out a healthy 275 horsepower and a very, very impressive 443 lb-ft of torque. Zero-to-sixty takes just 5.9 seconds, and all this grunt and performance comes with a projected average fuel economy of 35 U.S. miles-per-gallon based on the European testing cycle.

You know what gets 35 mpg here? Econoboxes. Diesel power really is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it situation. Big, well-equipped luxury cars with legit power and fuel economy that we normally associate with highway mileage can be had -- just not here. And the Europeans' small cars equipped with diesels put up hybrid-style numbers. Wait until their diesel-electric hybrids finally show up...

Drink responsibly
Posted on December 29, 2008 at 7:38 pm ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

Don't blame me if you crash the car this New Year's eve. But I do say drink all you want. There are so many great choices in organic, sustainable, and locally-produced wines , champagnes, and spirits on the market now that you can feel good about consuming a great bevy of beverages.

I learned of a wine shop in Harlem, New York, called The Winery that prioritizes wines produced from grapes grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or environmentally destructive agricultural practices. When I visited the boutique last week, more than one in ten bottles was marked with a green star, indicating sustainable production. Nobu Otsu, the proprietor, said a huge swath of his customers choose green-star bottles over standard bottles. For those of you familiar with West Harlem, you'll recall that this isn't exactly the city's most well-heeled neighborhood. The area around the shop is bustling, but it's economically behind many other neighborhoods in Manhattan. But business was booming, and ecologically sound wines were flying off the shelves.

Mr. Otsu explains his simple philosophy clearly on the store's website:

"Our mission is to research and offer quality wines from producers who carefully craft wines with artful skills and a respect to the nature and the environment.

"Many of our wines are environmentally friendly. Some are organic and biodynamic while others are sustainably grown. Majority of wine producers, however, choose not to print this distinction on their label because the time- and money-consuming approval process is cumbersome. Furthermore, quite naturally, they do not want to lose protective options in case disastrous pests and diseases hit their vineyards.

"We like to enjoy wine as a part of our day-to-day life, so we keep the price under $20 for the most of our selection. For those who want something special, we also offer undiscovered top-notch wines from major appellations.

"The Winery is a community based store. We try our best to support local communities and non-profit charity organizations in this area to help make this community better place to live and work."

That philosophy is a great basis for running a business in a world in need of changing. And it's good reason to celebrate the start of a new year.

How fresh is your air freshener?
Posted on December 29, 2008 at 7:35 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

I'm not big on air fresheners. They never smell all that fresh to me. The bloggers over at The Good Human agree. They are taking Air Wick to task for marketing a new line of Aqua Essences air fresheners with tag lines such as, "Captures the renewed freshness of an open field dotted with flowers after a cool, gentle morning rain" and "Captures the freshness of a blend of crisp papaya, mango and water flowers from a remote island paradise."

While I'd love to "bring the freshness of nature" into my home, this probably aint the way to do it. The bloggers write that "judging by their ingredients, these products are pretty far away from nature and freshness." According to product information sheets, the air fresheners may cause sensitization by skin contact, must not be swallowed, are harmful to aquatic organisms, and may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment."

So what we have here is a textbook case of greenwashing, marketing a decidedly unnatural and potentially toxic product as something "natural." Naughty, naughty Air Wick. One might say that this whole thing stinks.

More thoughts on the Chevy Fuel Cell Equinox
Posted on December 29, 2008 at 7:25 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent


The Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle is NOT for sale. Let's get that established right away, so as to alleviate any confusion. That said, the 100th example has now entered service. "Service" in this case, is participation in GM's Project Driveway program, which places the hydrogen fuel cell-powered SUVs in the hands of private citizens, government agencies (like the U.S. Postal Service), and businesses (like Disney) as part of an ongoing test of the technology's usefulness in day-to-day operation.

There's no national hydrogen infrastructure, so the GM program is centered in targeted areas where the fuel is available -- mainly NY and California, with a smaller program underway in Europe as well. Given GM's financial problems, which are far from over, it's easy to assume that something like Project Driveway is a prime candidate for cuts. Hopefully, it isn't. I briefly drove one of these a few months ago, and was impressed enough that I arranged to have a second, more extended go-round, this time at my house.

Limitations? Sure. If I ran out of fuel, I was stuck -- the closest filling point was 30 or 40 miles from home. I had around 150 miles of range to work with, and I tried to make the most of it. The FCV Equinox, frankly, is one of my personal favorite vehicles I've driven over the last couple of years. Even though it's rated at a meager 126 horsepower, a number I would never have guessed based on driving, 230 lb-ft of instantaneous torque make it feel much more powerful. Frankly, it accelerates as well as a punchy 6-cylinder gas engine. The FCV runs on electric motors, though, so it's Lexus-quiet inside. Behind the wheel, it's no different than driving any other car once you get past the slower startup time(it takes 20 or 30 seconds for the system to get ready after you turn the key). It's as practical as the conventional Equinox sold at local dealerships, with a slight cargo sacrifice, as one of the three hydrogen tanks does gobble a small amount of space in back.

Highway driving is not a problem. I threw my kids in back and headed to the movies one Saturday. The trip up I-95 was completely comfortable (seat heater on, heat cranked, satellite radio on, etc.), and I cruised with the flow of traffic, which was moving at a healthy clip beyond the posted limit. In fact, the whole 5-day visit with the car was that uneventful. I guess that's the point. The technology is great and eminently usable. Now, it needs to be affordable (GM won't say what these FCV's cost apiece to manufacture, but it's probably very well into the six-figures), and the fuel needs to be available before it can become mainstream. This leads to the chicken-and-egg scenario that everyone who works with hydrogen faces. No one'll invest in the infrastructure if there are no vehicles for it, and no one in a position to build vehicles wants to do it on a mass scale unless there's a viable marketplace for them. So we're at a stalemate, and it sucks.

The Chevy Equinox FCV and Honda's FCX Clarity are excellent vehicles -- proof that you can do the zero-emissions thing without giving up a lick of drivability or practicality. Drive one, and you feel like we're so close to something great. But then the drive ends, and you see that there's still along way to go. "My" Equinox? It had to go home on a trailer. Not because it broke down -- it ran like a champ. But I drove it to empty, so its ride back to the mothership came behind a regular truck or SUV drinking the very fuel that the Equinox FCV is designed to help ease us away from. Frustrating? Sure. But these things take time.

Contrary to what some more strident advocates would have you believe, there's no immediate solution. You can't make a massive switch to EV or Hydrogen overnight. These potential (and/or partial) solutions come with their own complexities (infrastructure, production, distribution) which need to be worked out before they're ready for prime time. As such, fossil fuels like gas and diesel will continue to be around and in use for a good long time while we figure out how to get to the next thing. And if hydrogen is one of the next things that eventually makes it to mass acceptance, well, I'm sold.

Alex Nunez is associate editor of

The free market doesn't account for sustainability
Posted on December 26, 2008 at 4:58 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

Ready for a deep think as the year comes to an end. Head to Grist for a crash course on environmental economics that makes one very important point: "The difference between the market prices for fossil fuels and the prices that also incorporate their environmental costs to society are huge." That's the conclusion of Lester R. Brown, who is concerned that the free market continues to operate on 19th-century assumptions that resources are limitless and consuming them has no environmental effect.

"The roots of our current dilemma lie in the enormous growth of the human enterprise over the last century. Since 1900, the world economy has expanded 20-fold, and world population has increased fourfold. Although there were places in 1900 where local demand exceeded the capacity of natural systems, this was not a global issue. There was some deforestation, but overpumping of water was virtually unheard of, overfishing was rare, and carbon emissions were so low that there was no serious effect on climate. The indirect costs of these early excesses were negligible. Now with the economy as large as it is, the indirect costs of burning coal -- the costs of air pollution, acid rain, devastated ecosystems, and climate change -- can exceed the direct costs, those of mining the coal and transporting it to the power plant. As a result of neglecting to account for these indirect costs, the market is undervaluing many goods and services, creating economic distortions."

And economic distortions are a problem. Says Brown, "One of the best examples of this massive market failure can be seen in the United States, where the gasoline pump price in mid 2007 was $3 per gallon. But this price reflects only the cost of discovering the oil, pumping it to the surface, refining it into gasoline, and delivering the gas to service stations. It overlooks the costs of climate change as well as the costs of tax subsidies to the oil industry (such as the oil depletion allowance), the burgeoning military costs of protecting access to oil in the politically unstable Middle East, and the health care costs for treating respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air. Based on a study by the International Center for Technology Assessment, these costs now total nearly $12 per gallon ($3.17 per liter) of gasoline burned in the United States. If these were added to the $3 cost of the gasoline itself, motorists would pay $15 a gallon for gas at the pump."

See the problem? "In reality, burning gasoline is very costly, but the market tells us it is cheap, thus grossly distorting the structure of the economy. So the challenge facing governments is to restructure tax systems by systematically incorporating indirect costs as a tax to make sure the price of products reflects their full costs to society and by offsetting this with a reduction in income taxes." Perhaps. President-elect Obama, it's your move!

Loving ourselves to death
Posted on December 26, 2008 at 4:52 pm ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

The middle school science experiment was simple: Mix dried grass and water in a jar, and look at a drop of the water under a microscope once a week.

Week 1: grassy water.
Week 2: occasional micro-organisms swimming around (amoebae, paramecium, etc.).
Week 3: teeming with life (hundreds of micro-organisms packed into a single droplet).
Week 4: water smells sour, looks murky, and carries only a few surviving micro-organisms.
Week 5: water has become foul-smelling sludge, devoid of life. Micro-organisms have died from living in high concentrations of their own waste in a closed system.

Reality check: We're living in a closed system, increasingly swimming in our own waste. Global human population, which was 2.5 billion in 1950, is now 6.5 billion. If I live to normal life expectancy, I'll survive to see the population exceed 10 billion, unless something dramatic changes. I hope something dramatic changes. We're so attached to our own importance, that the very subject of limiting our population growth is a taboo subject.

This year CNN produced "Planet in Peril" an exquisite series about threats to nature worldwide. Like virtually every nature show that exposes the effects of deforestation, poaching, habitat loss, suburban sprawl, unsustainable farming, industrial pollution, or other manmade threats to wildlife, it couched admonitions about the threats in terms of a lack of education, or poverty. It was because people were poor that they poached endangered species for bush meat, or to sell the parts on the black market. It was because people were ignorant that they fished species to the brink of extinction. It was never because the ever-growig human population simply was an insatiable juggernaut.

Population overload is the elephant in the room in the environmental debate, because so many religions, nationalities, and ethnic mores encourage their adherents to procreate. China's once-child policy is considered an abridgement of human rights, which is roundly criticized in the West. Water shortages, food shortages, squabbles over natural resources, are attributed to poverty again and again, because the word "overpopulated" is too politically hot to touch. Only a handful of organizations dare to address the subject, most notably the nonprofits Population Connection and Negative Population Growth.

I support greater use of organic farming to reduce fossil fuel dependence and cut into agricultural chemical pollution that's wiping out birds, marine life, and other living things. But I also know that the single biggest threat to wildlife survival is habitat loss. And organic agriculture requires more land to compensate for lower yields than conventional (chemically fertilized, pesticide-sprayed) crops. There isn't enough farmland on earth to grow organic food for our 6.5 billion brethren (especially with our growing taste for meat, which requires way more land than plant-based food does).

To all those couples thinking for having that second child, I recommend adoption. For concerned citizens of the world looking or a way to address pollution, shortages, global warming, and most other global environmental issues, I recommend focusing on initiatives to slow population growth. It's the one common thread between all of those issues and many more.

The unknown unknowns
Posted on December 26, 2008 at 4:50 pm ET

James Hrynyshyn, Forecast Earth Correspondent

Dick Cheney said a lot of silly things over the years, but I always thought it was unfair to make fun of his epistemological
, in which he talked about "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." This is actually a relatively well-established
in the sciences: there are some subjects about which we know so little that we don't even have a grasp of which pieces are missing from the big picture.

One of my favorite professors during my time at the University of British Columbia, one Kurt Grimm, made it a central part of his thesis on our understanding of global ecosystems.

Indeed, when it comes to climate change, we are starting to nail down a few important elements. We know enough to know that we should probably stop fiddling with the planet's thermostat. But there's are still plenty of unknowns. Freelance science writer Amanda Leigh Mascarelli has assembled a useful list of both for the journal Nature, and it's freely accessible here.

What we know includes:

  1. Other greenhouse gases are also worrying
  2. Arctic summer sea ice is in rapid decline
  3. Warming is already having an impact
  4. The hockey stick holds up
  5. Sceptics are still out there

While we need more data on:

  1. How much warming is in the pipeline and by when

  2. Where to stabilize emissions

  3. Where the missing carbon is going

  4. Whether warming worsens storms

  5. How fast Greenland is melting

Read the whole thing: it's a great refresher on the state of the science. I would only add that there is almost certainly a fair amount of surprises out there, elements of planetary ecology that we never suspected would have an effect on the climate, and about which we haven't even begun to ask the right questions. As Prof. Grimm wrote a couple of year ago:

The profound uncertainty of abrupt climate change warrants careful reflection and prudent preparation, including assessment and enhancement of household, local and bioregional adaptive capacities.

Once again, Japan blows our minds
Posted on December 26, 2008 at 4:47 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

Japan is just so cool, or, as the Japanese would say, sugoi. The latest mind-bending innovation to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun is an automated, underground bicycle parking garage that has to be seen to be believed. At street level, all you see is a small hatch into which you shove your bike. Then the bike disappears. Below ground, a many-tiered cylinder spins as an elevator deposits the bike into an empty slot within seconds. It's so fast, in fact, that retrieval is guaranteed in less than ten seconds.

For cities that have bike parking problems today (Tokyo and Amsterdam, for example), and for cities that anticipate such problems in the future (New York???), the so-called Eco Cycle seems like a fantastic idea, although to my untrained eye it looks like pricey technology that might demand steep parking fees. In Tokyo, one location charges about $26 per month, which actually isn't so bad.

To see the amazing Eco Cycle in action, check out this site filled with pictures and videos. You'll smile when you watch the amazed Japanese TV reported descend underground to watch the cylinder spin. So cool. So Japanese.

Quality driven
Posted on December 26, 2008 at 4:38 pm ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

On a cold, gray, drizzly Christmas Eve, I wandered into New York's Union Square greenmarket to buy maple syrup. The best stuff is labeled "Grade B," because it's darker than the rest of the run. The seller at the market told me it comes from the end of the season when the sap runs slower. I just like taste better than the amber syrup at mainstream markets.

Even in the chill and slush, urbanites were out there at the outdoor stalls paying higher prices than they'd pay in a warm supermarket for vegetables, breads, preserves, fruits, cheeses, meats, eggs and dairy, flowers, and, of course, maple syrup, all produced within 150 miles of the greenmarket. These are the savviest shoppers. Their buying decisions aren't price driven, even though they make no more money than the shoppers at the supermarket adjacent to the square. Their purchases are quality driven. It's much more rewarding to anoint your breakfast pancakes with superb, locally produced syrup than with factory-made "pancake syrup." Quality is one of the main draws at the farmers markets, and I hope that the slow economy leads more consumers discover the benefits of quality over quantity. We've gone through a period of excess. Now let's take some time to cherish what's really worth saving.

With a crisp apple, some handmade cheddar cheese, and a hunk of crusty sourdough bread that I brought home from the market, I made a knockout sandwich. It was smaller than some other lunches I've had, but I'm totally satisfied.

Powered by lipodiesel
Posted on December 23, 2008 at 9:21 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent

Beverly Hills doctor Craig Alan Bittner is a plastic surgeon and biofuel enthusiast, and he's now under investigation for bringing his work home with him, so to speak. Bittner, you see, would use waste fat from liposuction procedures he performed as the basis for biodiesel he used to fuel his and his girlfriend's SUVs. I know -- gross doesn't even begin to cover this. (And here I thought the soap Tyler Durden made in Fight Club was nasty enough.)

Unfortunately for the good doctor, making biodiesel out of human medical waste is illegal in California. Naturally, he never saw a problem with any of this, quoted in Forbes as saying on his now-defunct website, "The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel--and I have more fat than I can use. Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth."

Delightful. Anyway, Dr. Bittner might have continued making his blubberdiesel unmolested and undiscovered, but he became the target of lawsuits filed by former patients claiming he lipoed out too much fat, leaving them physically disfigured. Oh, and the suits also allege that he performed surgeries without a license. (Don't people check on this stuff beforehand? Just wondering.) The state is looking into matters. In the meantime, Dr. Bittner's car is probably on a new, low-fat diet.

Alex Nunez is associate editor of

On a desert island with Leonardo DiCaprio
Posted on December 23, 2008 at 9:19 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

This is one of those "lesser of two evil" stories. It would seem that the best way to leave a pristine tropical island in its virginal state is simply not to build anything on it. So why would hard core environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio be planning an eco-resort off the coast of Belize on the 104-acre Blackadore Caye island, which he bought for $1.75 million in 2005?

According to The Private Islands Blog, and yes, there is such a blog, "On one hand, you have a sustainable resort that's a premier model for future worldwide projects. On the other, you're effectively developing a pristine island. To skirt the lines, DiCaprio is hoping to effectively balance the two. Structures will be carefully integrated into the landscape so local wildlife and vegetation are disturbed to a minimum, and the island will be a test bed for innovative green technologies such as hybrid power systems. Several banks of solar panels will run down the airstrip which will provide power supplemented by wind power and bio-diesel.
Developments costs are expected to come in at around $30 million."

The argument is that if Leo doesn't do the job, some other developer will swoop in and do it in a far less eco-friendly way. We'll see about that. In the meantime, check out this animation that shows just how gorgeous the resort will be.

Greenwash of the Year?
Posted on December 22, 2008 at 7:36 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent

In my daily Google travels looking for stuff to write about, I came across The Greenwash Brigade, a blog run by the public radio folks. They've announced their "winners" for the 2008 greenwashes of the year, which call out the biggest events that are spun as being "green" but, you know, not really.

Frankly, I find it just as irritating when so-called greens tear their rotator cuffs patting themselves on the back for all the "good" they do, but I was intrigued by one of the brigade's selections for this year: the Detroit CEOs driving hybrids to D.C. for their bailout beg-a-thon. As you're all aware, when these guys jetted in on the company Gulfstreams to tell Congress how poor they were, it was a PR debacle of the first order -- and deservedly so. Of course, PR flacks are also masters of overreaction, so round two saw Rick Wagoner (GM), Alan Mulally (Ford), and Bob Nardelli (Chrysler) all drive (or get driven) from Detroit in whatever eco-tinged vehicles they could pull from the company motor pool.

Mulally came in an Escape Hybrid. Nardelli, somewhat appropriately, came in the D.O.A. Chrysler Aspen Hybrid and also worked in a photo op involving a Jeep Wrangler EV concept. Wagoner drove down in the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, but made his grand arrival in a Chevy Volt engineering mule. Of this theatre, the Greenwash Brigade's Jan Flisrand says, "The only reason I can think of for them to drive hybrids is to make the companies look green."

She's 100% correct, of course. And as a bonus, it was later reported that as all this went on, the automakers flew the execs' co-drivers back and forth on commercial flights anyway. But let's be fair, too. If you watched the hearings, you saw two days' worth of Congressmen and Senators browbeating the CEOs over their plans for, what else, more green cars. Seriously, then -- what the heck else were they going to drive?

The heat will kill ya
Posted on December 22, 2008 at 7:34 pm ET

James Hrynyshyn, Forecast Earth Correspondent

A year or so ago, Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician and former Greenpeace member, wrote that, according to his calculations, global warming will result in fewer weather-related deaths, because severe cold kills more people than does the heat. His conclusion was roundly criticized, in part because it wasn't based on real data and good math, but also because it seemed to ignore the real threats facing the majority of people who will be affected by global warming -- those in tropical countries where cold isn't an issue.

Now comes an actual health study that supports Lomborg's critics. "Spatial patterns of natural hazards mortality in the United States" just appeared in International Journal of Health Geographics. It tries to answer the question of what natural hazards causes the most deaths.

The authors, Kevin A Borden and Susan L Cutter, write that "According to our results, the answer is heat."

There are all sorts of limitations to their study, as is usual in such research. But their data do suggest that we should be worried about heat-related deaths now. "Chronic everyday hazards such as severe weather (summer and winter) and heat account for the majority of natural hazard fatalities. The regions most prone to deaths from natural hazards are the South and intermountain west."

And as the planet warms, we should thinking about how to address what is surely going to be an increase in those numbers. We're now getting very close to putting a face to the threat posed by climate change.

Posted on December 22, 2008 at 7:31 pm ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

One of the most disturbing videos I've seen in years is "Whopper Virgins," the new Burger King program introducing remote peoples to fast food hamburgers so that they could assess the real preference between the Big Mac and the Whopper. In it, an American marketing team, camera crew, and fast food delivery operation travel to isolated places and encourage tribal villagers and ethnic minorities to compare the tastes of Big Macs versus Whoppers, neither of which they have ever encountered before.

Forget for now the awkward (but included) footage of those Hmong test subjects from the Thai highlands who didn't know how to eat a hamburger in the customary Western fashion, and instead ate them piece by piece. Forget the eerie Wagnerian background music that adds an epically tragic tone to the moment of truth. Forget even the creepily cheery commentary by marketing team members about how logistically and culturally difficult it was to get the whoppers into the hands of the virgins. For now, think only of the act itself.

In the final segment of the film, villagers of Budesi Romania thank their guests for bringing a portable Whopper grill to their village by holding a welcoming feast, serving their own local casseroles and grains to the production crew. Locals serve brothy pots of dark green leafy vegetables, hunks of meat that was probably slaughtered right in the village, salads, and vibrantly spiced cabbage and bean stew over rice to the honored producers on sturdy ceramic plates from enameled cookware. One crew member muses, "This is insane," while others note that the food is "wonderful -- so good." No such reactions were registered among the test subjects tasting the fast food burgers.

The very thought of cheerfully introducing a product that is so utterly unsustainable, relying on farming systems that are denuding swaths of rainforest, fouling the planet's air with carbon emissions on a titanic scale, shipping goods worldwide on petroleum transport, and mistreating animals in ways that these test subjects literally can't imagine is just reprehensible. What would the excited BK marketers think about a video of tobacco people bringing cigarettes to tribal areas where no one ever heard of smoking, so that they could compare the taste of Marlboro to Winston?

Dell declares war on excess packaging
Posted on December 22, 2008 at 2:26 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

Over the years, Dell has come up with a number of innovative ways to cut its carbon footprint, even going so far as to become a major Texas tree planter. Now it turns its attention to its own packaging, with a new initiative that will eliminate 20 million pounds of desktop and laptop packaging, a move that may save it $8.1 million over four years.

"The company plans to reduce desktop and laptop packaging materials by approximately 10 percent worldwide, increase sustainable content in cushioning and corrugate packaging by 40 percent and ensure that 75 percent of packaging components are curbside recyclable by 2013."

What's the plan? "Dell is integrating air-filled cushion technology and renewable materials including molded pulp cushions and 100 percent recycled High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) thermal-formed cushions. Milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles are typical materials that comprise the HDPE recycled waste stream. Over the next year, Dell estimates that it will integrate nearly two million recycled milk jugs into cushions protecting its Studio Hybrid system. An estimated 33 million recycled milk jugs will be integrated into desktop and laptop packaging in 2009."

Neat. I've been wondering what happens to my milk jugs. As long as my next Dell notebook makes it from the factory to my house in one piece, Dell can package it anyway it wants to.

Rumormill: Cadillac's Bailout Special, with Chevy Volt tech!
Posted on December 22, 2008 at 2:20 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent


Now that we're all de facto owners of General Motors and Chrysler whether we wanted to be or not, let's talk about what the General is rumored to be bringing to Detroit next month. Maybe. The gang at Autoweek thinks that a Cadillac-branded, Volt-like vehicle might be in the offing, at least as a concept car.

Autoweek, after parsing remarks from GM officials, figures that a range-extended crossover utility vehicle wearing the crest and leaf on its grille would fit the bill. It would make sense for Cadillac to offer a model that uses the technology, since GM might actually be able to price it so it makes money. (In the case of the Volt, the automaker is sure to take a loss on each one it sells, whenever it finally gets here.)

Given that the bailout deal handed to Detroit this morning is essentially a non-binding agreement that the incoming Obama administration will be able to toss in the shredder and re-do as it sees fit, GM may not have much of a choice re: using Volt tech in a Cadillac, or every other division that survives a presumed restructuring. President-elect Obama's green leanings are not a secret, and since the destiny of General Motors and Chrysler are now in his hands (make no mistake here -- today's deal simply kicks the can to him), look for all kinds of conditions to later appear which could effectively mandate a range-extended Cadillac regardless of whether a receptive market exists for it. Welcome to your post-bailout auto industry.

Alex Nunez is associate editor of

Mercurial politics
Posted on December 19, 2008 at 10:51 am ET

Jay Weinstein, Forecast Earth Food Correspondent

As another endgame swipe at environmental protections, the outgoing Bush administration is trying to downplay the proven health risks of mercury exposure from fish in an attempt to give payback to supporters in the fishing industry. The Associated Press reports that the attempt to withdraw health warnings about mercury in certain fish is such a bald-faced pander that even the emasculated Environmental Protection Agency is calling the action "scientifically flawed."

I used to think, "Hey, you could get hit by a truck walking across the street. Trace amounts of mercury in otherwise healthy fish hardly seem worth worrying about." When my dermatologist told me that he was more worried about mercury exposure in his patients than sun overexposure, I began to take the issue more seriously. The airborne mercury that's settling on every square inch of the earth from coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources is settling equally heavily on the oceans. It becomes part of the plankton that's at the base of the marine food web, and it becomes higher in concentration in the flesh of each successive fish up the chain. So top predators like sharks, blue fin tunas, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel end up with dangerously high levels of the toxic metal in their systems.

Children and pregnant women are most at risk form mercury poisoning, which causes nervous system and brain damage. It also leads to learning disabilities in babies born to mercury-carrying mothers. Eight percent of US women of childbearing age already have mercury levels high enough to result in such learning disabilities. Could anyone think that that's not enough?

I'm personally ticked off about the sneaky move to pull warnings about health threats from these fish because I've viewed those warnings as one of the few ways to prevent people from killing off species of fish that are under severe threat from overfishing, such as those tunas, sharks, tilefish, and swordfish. All of them are listed as red-light, eco-disasters by all of the major ocean stewardship organizations. The fact that they're unhealthy to eat might be enough, if word gets out, to pull back some from the wholesale overfishing that's taking them to the brink. Fortunately, we're close enough to the turn of the new administration that even if this venal measure gets passed, it will be immediately eligible for review and nullification by policymakers with some concern for the future of the planet.

Our new climate czar...just don't call her that
Posted on December 19, 2008 at 10:48 am ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

On the heels of the announcement that Carol Browner will be the Obama administration's "climate czar" comes this question from Plenty: what exactly does a climate czar do?

First things first, don't call her a czar. "It's unlikely that Browner's business cards will actually read "Climate Czar", since Obama reportedly dislikes the title's autocratic resonances. Still, the media won't let her abandon the title so easily, and conservatives are already trying to use the appointment to paint Obama as another high-handed, big-government Democrat." So think of her more as a high-powered "adviser to the President." Her tasks: "Browner's precise job description isn't yet clear, but it's likely that she'll serve as a high-level White House adviser, coordinating the work of Cabinet officials and perhaps heading a National Energy Council modeled on Bill Clinton's National Economic Council. That, at least, is the plan put forward by the Center for American Progress, the liberal think-tank that's provided the intellectual muscle for Obama's transition effort (and whose head, John Podesta, is co-chair of Obama's transition team). 'You've got Energy, Interior, EPA, Agriculture, Transport, State?all are going to have something to do with energy and global warming,' says Daniel J Weiss, the group's director of climate strategy. 'This would provide a person who could coordinate those activities.'"

As the longest serving EPA administrator in history?she served through both Clinton administrations?Browner is no stranger to Washington or bureaucracies, but there is some concern that adding an additional layer of oversight will only tangle the government's environmental org chart. We shall see.

It's all about the direct injection
Posted on December 18, 2008 at 3:38 pm ET

Alex Nunez, Forecast Earth Correspondent


Direct-injected gasoline engines are about to become much more prevalent in American cars, and next month's Detroit Auto Show will place a spotlight on the tech, with new engines set to be unveiled under the hoods of some of the 2010 models being rolled onstage. Over at GM, the next-gen Chevy Equinox gets an all-new engine lineup, with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making a 180 horsepower that should give the crossover utility vehicle highway fuel economy of 30 mpg. This will replace the current base engine, a 3.4L V6 that makes only 4 horsepower more than the incoming 4-banger. This is good progress.

The new Equinox's step-up engine also gets upgraded. Out goes the current 3.6L V6 that makes 264 horses. In comes a new 3.0L direct-injected V6 producing 255 horsepower. Direct injection allows automakers to run engines at a higher compression ratio, which translates into increased power and better efficiency, and cleaner emissions.

Ford's in the game, too. With a new, turbocharged, direct-injected V6 headed for a number of vehicles, beginning with the Lincoln MKS. The addition of turbocharging allows the engine to make big, V8-style power without the gas guzzling nature of the larger engines. At Detroit, the automaker is widely expected to announce details surrounding a 4-cylinder turbo DI motor that should offer V6-level power with 4-cylinder fuel economy. The key here with gasoline direct-injected engines is that they help reduce weight, cut fuel consumption, and improve emissions without sacrificing the levels of power we're all accustomed to. It won't be long before this becomes the norm.

Alex Nunez is associate editor of

Cow power comes to a college campus
Posted on December 18, 2008 at 3:35 pm ET

Don Willmott , Forecast Earth Correspondent

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how colleges are going green. Among the feedback I got was a note from Kevin Coburn of the aptly named Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Kevin pointed out that upgrading a physical plant and designing new LEED-certified buildings is one thing, but what about upgrading the curriculum itself? Swapping out light bulbs is fine, but teaching about sustainability matters too.

In addition to updating its courses, Green Mountain College has taken a fascinating step toward sustainability by becoming the first campus to use power generated from the methane produced by cows. It's Central Vermont Public Service's Cow Power program, through which the utility delivers energy created from burning methane from cow manure on Vermont dairy farms. This initiative has reduced the college's carbon emissions by 3500 metric tons so far. It sounds good (but probably smells bad!).

Green Mountain College is also part of the Eco League, a group of five (so far) small liberals arts institutions that are "dedicated to environmental learning and the active pursuit of environmental studies share these values." There may be a bit of a post-hippie vibe to all this, but it certainly seems well-intentioned and headed in the right direction.

2008: The verdict
Posted on December 18, 2008 at 3:25 pm ET

James Hrynyshyn, Forecast Earth Correspondent

It seems to me that releasing a year-end analysis of temperature two weeks before the end of the year is asking for trouble. Not from a scientific point of view, because the likelihood that the remaining fornight's trends will have a significant impact on an entire year's average is practically zero, but because it's the sort of thing that make non-experts skeptical.

However, it turns out that, for analytical purposes involving dividing up the year into discrete seasons rather than a by calendar dates, it makes more sense to measure temperatures from the beginning of December through the end of November. So that explains why the UK's Met Office Hadley Centre and the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia have just released a 2008 temperature report. Their's is just one of several organizations who do this kind of thing, but there isn't a lot of conflict between each report's bottom lines. So let's see what it had to say:

... the global mean temperature for 2008 is 14.3 °C, making it the tenth warmest year on a record that dates back to 1850.... The ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1997. Global temperatures for 2000-2008 now stand almost 0.2 °C warmer than the average for the decade 1990--1999.

Does this prove anything? Not too much, but as usual, putting into a longer term context does suggest that the climate models are essentially correct. Those model predict a long-term warming of about 0.2 °C per decade (nearly 0.4 °F) and they anticipate that 2008 should exhibit a small easing off of the warming trend thanks to the La Niña effect, which redistributes ocean heat away from the surface temporarily.

Here's a useful graph that ranks years by their average temperature.
Note that the rightward trend is down because the warmest years are more recent, and so are grouped at the left. (Click on it for full size.)

As usual, there's a good overview of the science behind these kind of reports at Real Climate.