Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Is there intelligent life on Earth?

with 7 comments

I have signed-up as part of Bill McKibbin’s 350.org Social Media Team and, as such, have received my first mission objective – to share with you some important facts (numbers) that Bill thinks we should all be aware of… But first some words of introduction from me and the Monty Python team:

—————

The planet Mars is further from the Sun and smaller than the Earth. Its molten core cooled faster and its volcanic activity ceased and then it lost its atmosphere. There is no intelligent life on Mars.

The planet Venus is closer to the Sun and smaller than the Earth. Its volcanic activity did not stop and the de-gassing of its core triggered a runaway greenhouse effect that has left it with surface temperature and pressure 90 times that here. There is no intelligent life on Venus.

The planet Earth is thankfully where it is, its volcanic activity is moderate and it is big enough to retain its atmosphere; containing enough greenhouse gases to keep the temperature above freezing most of the time. Unfortunately, despite realising over 100 years ago that artificially doubling the CO2 content of the atmosphere would raise average temperatures by at least 2 Celsius, humans are not doing anything to stop this happening. Is there no intelligent life on Earth?

—————-

Over to Bill McKibbin’s numbers – extracted from his article in Rolling Stone magazine – with some additional comments from me thrown-in:

The number 2 – the degrees Celsius temperature rise target we have already missed.
As McKibbin points out, so far we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees (causing more damage than expected), which has led many scientists to conclude that 2 Celsius was not a safe limit. Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”

As David Roberts said on his Grist blog recently, 2 oC is “too low to be safe and too high to be achievable”.

The number 565 – the gigatons of CO2 that will push the Earth beyond that point.
As McKibbin points out, the idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

As McKibbin acknowledges, this is not news. We have known for some time that cumulative emissions are the problem. That is why emissions reductions alone can never work; we must try and stop them. This will probably take decades; but we must start now. We will never eliminate all emissions (unless we can find alternatives for plastics, etc), but we must systematically substitute fossil fuel use wherever it can be substituted. Aviation is one of the most damaging uses of fossil fuels (because emissions are injected where they can do most damage – a bit like intravenous drug use) and is effectively non-substitutable. However, this just makes it all the more important for us all to change what we can change…

The number 2795 – the gigatons of CO2 we will emit if we burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels.
As McKibbin points out, this number goes right to the heart of the socio-economic and political problem we face: It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in globally proven coal and oil and gas reserves (including unconventional fossil fuels). In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn; and it is five times higher than 565.

This is why I get so upset by exploration for unconventional fossil fuels (tar sands, oil shale gas and deep-sea oil). Here is what I said in an email I sent to Shell UK yesterday:

Assuming the CEO of Shell would accept – as does the CEO of Exxon Mobil – that burning fossil fuels is damaging the environment, then it is simply illogical to continue to look for additional fossil fuels to burn; rather than investing in alternative energy sources. I should also wish to put it on record that I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of gambling the entire habitability of planet Earth on our ability to make carbon capture and storage (CCS) work. This is because, in addition to being intrinsically dangerous (i.e. unlike radioactive waste, CO2 has no half-life), CCS is treating the symptoms of our addiction to fossil fuels; it is not addressing the problem.

I hope you will accept that I am not some kind of tree-hugging eco-Fascist; and acknowledge that people with all kinds of political views and academic/professional backgrounds now realise that anthropogenic climate disruption is a real problem that can no longer be ignored. Sadly, I suspect that very little will change until the subsidies that you receive from governments are eliminated (and/or that you are prohibited from spending money on low EROEI* fuels). However, I would also like to think that Shell would recognise that the Carbon Age will come to an end sooner or later; that it would be better for planet Earth for it to be sooner; and that investment in renewable energy is therefore in everyone’s best interests (including employees of Shell).

* EROEI = Energy Return On Energy Invested* For Tar Sands = 5 (compared to 20-25 for conventional fossil fuels). This means it costs five times as much to get 1 barrel of oil out of tar sands in Alberta than it does to get it from a normal crude oil well. Is it not time to be investing in non-renewable energy sources instead? Why wait?

Conclusion
I would encourage to all to read the whole of Bill McKibbin’s article in Rolling Stone magazine. There is much more in it about the political obstacles to bringing about the required de-carbonisation of our energy production that is so urgently required; more than I could possibly do justice to here… Therefore, I will just conclude with this:

If we burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels because we can (i.e. because they are there), significant irreversible change to the Earth’s climate is a “dead certainty” (Hansen); and it will not be good news for anybody or anything. Trees cannot migrate; and most life on Earth will not adapt.

If you have not done so already, please join the 350.org campaign to stop this insanity here.

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7 Responses

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  1. Just one objection, Martin: are tree-huggers really eco-fascists? I am proud to be a tree-hugger, but would not want to think of myself as a fascist of any variety, eco or otherwise…..

    Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

    21 July 2012 at 00:14

    • Ooops! Please accept my apologies for any unintended offence caused… Hopefully the CEO of an oil company will appreciate the point being made (which is that I do not consider myself to be a stereotypical environmental campaigner).

      Actually, the term eco-Fascist could be applied (especially by the CEOs of large companies doing dodgy things) to anyone who tries to force their views upon people and coerce them to do what they think is right. Such people would therefore consider all forms of civil disobedience and direct action to be evidence of eco-Fascist ideology. However, that does not mean that they are correct… :-)

      Martin Lack

      21 July 2012 at 10:22

  2. Excellent article, as is McKibbin’s. My suggestion for consideration is related to this line – “Trees cannot migrate; and most life on Earth will not adapt”… That does not even begin to describe what it will be like!

    One of the reasons for very low public interest in the climate disaster is that almost no one is describing in vivid detail what “life will not adapt” means for humans. For most people who don’t really follow the research, climate change means things get warmer, storms get stormier, and maybe the seas will rise a foot or two. As you and I both know, that would be a miracle if that was all. The chances of hitting the tipping point that takes us to 1,000ppm are getting higher every day.

    I’m waiting for some qualified author to write vividly what it will be like during a mass extinction event. What will it mean for the human population to go below, perhaps way below, 1 billion people on a time scale of 100 – 150 years? People can accept that food prices will rise, but they don’t comprehend that there may be no food at any price. They don’t comprehend the social anarchy of millions on the move and fighting to survive.

    Until they do begin to comprehend those events they will not support the serious disruption of their currently comfortable life style. The indifference of many governments to this issue reflects the public ignorance of the real consequences. So… who do you know that is qualified to write that article?

    Wes Hopper

    24 July 2012 at 17:50

    • Thanks for your visit and comment, Wes. Hopefully it will be the first of many? You are spot-on: The probability that life will not be able to adapt is the “elephant in the room” no-one is talking about; least of all the CEOs of big oil companies…

      I think Jared Diamond has done a good job of writing about the consequences of human refusal to engage with the reality of Earth History and the ephemeral nature of all past sophisticated human civilisations… David Roberts has impressed me recently; as does Bill McKibbin.

      Martin Lack

      27 July 2012 at 20:30

      • Thanks Martin. I can’t even get a response out of folks like McKibbin, and as good as his Rolling Stone article was, it didn’t even begin to describe the consequences in any way that would be relevant to the average uninvolved-in-the-science citizen. We will not get people to interrupt their comfortable lifestyle until they are scared out of their shorts by the alternative. Scientists are too conservative, I guess, so perhaps we need someone more like Stephen King! Too bad Asimov isn’t still around.

        Wes Hopper

        27 July 2012 at 21:04

        • Thanks Wes. I have been criticised for being pessimistic and/or alarmist; and been told that induces “alarm fatigue” – it certainly does not seem to energise members of my immediate family… Unfortunately, like you, I think the situation is alarming and people should be alarmed…

          Martin Lack

          28 July 2012 at 16:04

  3. [...] to what people like Richard Lindzen are probably telling him. – 3. The fact that the Earth has five times more conventional fossil fuel than is now considered safe to burn; and therefore now is not the time to be finding a whole load more unconventional fossil fuels to [...]


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