Roger Helmer was first elected as Conservative MEP in 1999, but defected to UKIP last year. Not surprisingly, therefore, he is “sceptical” about climate science. He is, as David Suzuki has recently described it, one of many that elevate economics over the biosphere. In other words, if asked to choose between science and economics, he would choose to trust economics every time. As such, he is one of the politicians that features in my book.
On his WordPress blog, in response to yet another irrational diatribe against renewable energy and the green economy, I recently tried to point out to him that his scepticism is unwise and unjustified. However, just in case my comment never appears on his blog, I reproduce it here:
Dear Mr Helmer,
When considering the remarks that follow, please bear in mind that I am a Conservative voter.
In a speech to the European Parliament on 4 February 2009, you claimed, in characteristically robust terms, that the EU was:
…planning to spend unimaginable sums of money on mitigation measures which will simply not work, and by damaging our economies will deny us the funds we need to address real environmental problems. As a British journalist, Christopher Booker, has remarked, global warming alarmism is the greatest collective flight from reality in human history.
According to Andrew Grice in the Independent newspaper (2 Dec 2009), you have even accused the Church of England of having “abandoned religious faith entirely and taken up the new religion of climate change alarmism instead”.
Given that you are not a climate scientist – or indeed any kind of scientist – you would appear to have allowed your belief in free-market economics to prejudice your approach to the science and/or you have uncritically accepted the opinions of a handful of similarly prejudiced scientists (or indeed non-scientists) who say that climate change is either a scientific conspiracy to perpetuate research funding or a political conspiracy to install worldwide socialist government.
So far, you have the International Energy Agency, the US Department of Defense, the International Monetary Fund, and the Committee on Climate Change, all saying that further delay in the decarbonisation of power generation systems will be a false economy. Therefore, please forgive me for being so blunt but, how much more evidence will it take to convince you, a non climate scientist, that climate scientists are not “just in it for the money”…?
Martin C Lack BSc(Hons) (Geology), MSc (Hydrogeology), MA (Environmental Politics).
With permission, I am delighted to be able to hereby reproduce this recent article, on the Making Science Public blog, by Professor Brigitte Nerlich at the Institute for Science and Society, which is based within the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.
I am extremely grateful to be in touch with Brigitte Nerlich – and Riley Dunlap (Oklahoma State University) and Stephan Lewandowski (University of Bristol) – something that might never have happened were it not for the fact that a PhD student in Sydney NSW stumbled upon my book. Thanks Elaine!
On Friday 17 May I was at the Science Communication Conference 2013, organised by the British Science Association. I participated in a session on ‘Bridging theory and practice’ coordinated by Paul Manners, Director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and Helen Featherstone, Project Manager (Public Engagement) for the CATALYST project at Exeter University. Huw James, an experienced science presenter, communicator and engager, and I were there as what Paul called two ‘caricatures’: the practitioner of science communication and the thinker about science communication.
Three types of science communication
Helen kicked off the session with a provocation, that is, a powerpoint slide representing three ways of doing science communication. Currently we have a community of science communicators with a long history of collective and collaborative learning. Alongside this is a diverse group of academics researching the relationships between science and society, plus scientists who communicate. There is a risk of a divide emerging between these three groups, yet each hold valuable expertise and insight. Helen and Paul wanted to find out how learning between all parties can be facilitated and what the barriers may be. The participants in our session were asked to discuss this tripartition and the issues surrounding it and report back to us. After that Huw and I were invited to talk briefly about a typical week in our lives and how science communication of whatever type fitted into it or not. The audience then discussed some more provocative questions, and Huw and I were left alone on the podium for ten minutes.
Rock climbing and scaffolding
Huw works, amongst many other things, with young people on the science of rock climbing; so I asked him how that was done and how or whether he used ‘theory’ in this context. He said that sometimes, after seeing what he did, people would tell him what ‘theory’ that practice would come under. He then went on to explain that when engaging youngsters with the science of rock climbing, he found that they just wanted to climb and not come down once in a while to ‘engage’ with the science. So he had to think about how to structure this engagement better. I jokingly proposed that he might want to put little labels with bits of science at various stages up the climbing wall. He said that’s exactly what they did, and I replied that this reminded me of a theory called ‘scaffolding’. I explained a bit what I thought this metaphorically framed theory meant, i.e. the way adults and children, experts and novices collaborate in learning in such a way that the help or scaffolding provided by the expert is gradually withdrawn and the learner or novice gains independent mastery of a task. I went on to say that this way of thinking about learning also overlaps with Vygotsky’szones of proximal development. Huw in turn found that this reminded him of a concept he used, namely ‘knowledge progression’, which he then explained to me using a metaphor, and as everybody who reads my blog posts knows, I love a good metaphor. In his own words: “I sum up knowledge progression as the wooden planks of a rope bridge. Each new step is as familiar as the last but also unknown. It’s up to those who have gone before to show the way but without creating the right links and laying the planks of the wood bridge, you cannot go forward, one cannot progress”
So, while participants were engaged in a lively discussion about how and where there were bridges and barriers between the theory and practice of science communication, Huw and I discovered various bridges between theory and practice, which was quite satisfying and, indeed, instructive.
Valleys and ladders
When I got home I continued the learning process, both about science communication and about scaffolding. First of all I learned that I had been slightly wrong when saying to Huw that scaffolding theory was a metaphor invented by Jerome Bruner. I found out that the term had actually been introduced in 1976 in an article co-authored by Bruner, Gail Ross and one of my old Nottingham colleagues, David Wood, with David as the first author. The article was entitled ‘The role of tutoring in problem solving’. I believe some aspects of scaffolding theory could be applied to rethinking public engagement with science and also science communication itself. Thinking that through would however need another blog post.
I also found out that Huw has a nice metaphor for science communication which highlights the plurality of understandings that surround that word, a plurality we should cherish and preserve. In an interview with Julie Gould for Speaking of Science in February this year, he said: “I often describe Science Communication as one of the Welsh Valleys. Whenever anyone says ‘the valleys’ to me, I automatically think of mine. But there are many valleys, and others will think of theirs. Whenever someone says Science Communication to me, I think of Live Shows in Schools and at Festivals. That arm is important to give teachers and parents something they don’t have time, energy and resources to do. We’re an aid to the curriculum, an aid to learning.”
Many shapes and forms and functions of science communication are beginning to blossom. Let us hope they don’t become too disconnected from each other through mutual misunderstanding, divergent languages, politics or prejudice. Let’s keep building bridges and scaffolding and ladders. But most importantly, lets throw the metaphors away at some point and replace them by realities. As Wittgenstein said in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”
GEORGETOWN – Sussex County Council members are not on the same wave length regarding the debatable issue of sea level rise.
At the May 7 council meeting, Susan Love, a planner with the Department of Environmental Control and Natural Resources’Coastal Management Program, delivered an update on progress made by the state’s Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee…
Words are not really necessary to accompany this image but, if you want some, feel free to go and read ‘The Last Time CO2 Was This High Humans Did Not Exist” by Andrew Freedman on the Climate Central website.
However, what I would really like to know is how anyone could possibly think that, since the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s climate would not have been impacted by:
– a sevenfold increase in the the human population;
– a similar increase in the number of methane-producing livestock;
– a super-exponential increase in the burning of fossil fuels.
Therefore, those who still dispute the reality of anthropogenic climate disruption have not only picked a fight with history; they have picked a fight with science – the Laws of Conservation of Energy and Mass and the concept of Entropy in particular. Defeat is therefore inevitable. The only question that remains is how bad do things have to get before they are willing to admit they are wrong?
I am afraid this may be the last post on this blog for a while because – what with the all the willful blindness and ideological prejudice that seems to stop people from recognising what an Eff-ing mess humanity is in – and my as yet unresolved employment situation – I am feeling somewhat emotionally drained. However, please don’t cancel your subscription (as who knows how quickly I may recover).
Addendum (10:00 hrs BST 4 May 2013)
I would also recommend that reader take a look at this excellent post, ‘The “hockey stick” slaps back’, on the Skepticblog website. This takes readers on a journey back in time, looking at all the palaeoclimatic reconstructions that have been done for the last million years. Somehow, I managed to be the first person to post a comment on this piece, which reads as follows:
Why not go back even further by looking at sea floor sediments too? As in, for example, Zachos et al. (2001), ‘Trends, Rhythms, and Aberrations in Global Climate 65 Ma to Present’, Science 292: 686-93.
For those that are really interested, you can get a PDF of the whole paper here. It includes many fascinating diagrams, but one of the more complicated ones has been helpfully simplified by James Hansen in his book, Storms of my Grandchildren. All the figures from the book are available here but, with regard to Zachos et al (2001), Figure 18 is the one to which I refer. This too needs few words to convey its importance:
This post was therefore not published yesterday (i.e. International Workers’ Day).
Since publishing my book, I have been contacted by a number of academics in a variety of countries who are doing – or have done – research into climate change scepticism (i.e. similar to that which I did for my MA – the basis of my book). As well as being very enthusiastic about my research, they have all asked me why I did not get it published in an academic journal. However, the answer to this question is simple: I did not rate my chances as an unknown, sole author, while not doing a PhD. I am therefore now actively pursuing the possibility of doing both.
However, to get to the point, having established these contacts, it is obvious to me that, along with ‘Agenda 21’, the concept of a ‘New World Order’ conspiracy is one that I did not mention in my dissertation two years ago. Although one is merely a subset of the other, Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with these terms:
– Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. It is an action agenda for the UN, other multilateral organizations, and individual governments around the world that can be executed at local, national, and global levels.
– The common theme in conspiracy theories about a New World Order is that a secretive… elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government… Significant occurrences in politics and finance… and current events are seen as steps in an on-going plot to achieve world domination through secret political gatherings and decision-making processes.
Christopher Monckton, the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is fond of mentioning Agenda 21 in his speeches (e.g. here and here), but I have still not come across anyone (maybe I have just not looked hard enough) who frequently refers explicitly to the New World Order (NWO). Having said that, NWO conspiracy theory is the basis of James Delingpole’s stupid Watermelons books.
The trouble is, of course, that, whereas the organised nature of the campaign to discredit climate science and scientists is a very well-documented conspiracy fact, the idea that there is a global conspiracy to bring about an NWO is a delusion. Indeed, it may even be a form of vestigial anti-Semitism. I say this because Hitler believed the Jews were intent on establishing an NWO. However, as well as being entirely discredited long before the start of World War Two (WW2), this idea was – and is – entirely intellectually incoherent. In the decades preceding WW2, Jews were simultaneously accused of plotting to bring about an NWO and derided for being obsessed with making money. Despite this, even today, anti-Semitic organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood indoctrinate their followers into believing that there is an NWO conspiracy – they just call it ‘Zionism’. But that is another story.
Certainly, from the beginning of the Cold War onwards, belief in an NWO and/or characterisation of the USSR as the “evil empire” or “Red Menace”, acted as a recruiting sergeant for libertarians and free-market economists everywhere. Furthermore, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have clearly documented, in their book Merchants of Doubt, it was a bunch of neo-conservative physicists, whose worldview was forged in the Cold War era, who laid the foundations of the campaign to dispute climate science for ideological reasons. In the twilight years of the USSR (before the Berlin Wall came down), it was they who convinced President George Bush to resist much of what the first Rio Earth Summit sought to do in 1992… The USA had decided that the new enemy was “environmentalism”. People may think this is simplistic but the German Minister for the Environment at the time, Klaus Topfer, is on record as having said this is how he perceived the USA’s position at the time (See Timothy Luke’s ‘A Rough Road out of Rio’ (2000) – PDF available here).
Sadly, the idea that environmentalism is the enemy of progress is complete bullshit.
I’m sorry to be so blunt but, there really is no better word for it. However, this is sad for a variety of reasons:
– So many have been – and still are – convinced that concern for the environment is a form of Communism (or Fascism).
– This powerful delusion has been responsible for the failure of international efforts to prevent the environmental catastrophe that is now unfolding.
– The failure of climate scientists to explain their message in such as way as to shatter this delusion may result in things getting much worse than they might have done.
– The World’s politicians are yet to wake up to (or admit) the reality that simply curtailing the increase in global CO2 emissions will never solve the problem.
What we needed was ecological modernisation (i.e. modifications to the way we do things so as to make them more ecologically-friendly and environmentally-sustainable). Instead, what we have got is economic stagnation (because perpetual growth in consumption and accelerating resource depletion was always going to run into trouble eventually).
The questions that therefore remain are whether climate change sceptics are going to continue to try to perpetuate:
– The myth that Communists realised they could not win power in Western democracies so therefore invented the Green Party instead.
– The myth that there is a left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer).
– The myth that we need not worry about the finite nature of the Earth’s mineral resources or its ability to deal with our pollution simply because of human ingenuity (Prometheanism) or Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism).
I really do think it is time to admit that the game is up, the NWO does not exist:
– The only environmental conspiracy is that which seeks to deny the truth that human activity is irreversibly altering the Earth’s climate.
– The only political conspiracy is that which seeks to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).
– The amount of energy received from the Sun is effectively constant and therefore, by powering industrialised civilisation using the fossilised energy received by the Earth over millions of years, the Carbon Era has been neither physically nor environmentally sustainable.
So, then, the NWO conspiracy does not exist. However, that is not the end of the story.
Sadly, as I pointed out three months ago now, the CO2 fairy does not exist either: Given the history of exponentially growing demand for fossil fuels (and therefore CO2 emissions), it will be a very long time until carbon capture and storage (CCS) could possibly begin to solve our problem. Indeed, the technology is still at the experimental stage and, even once the best method of CCS is identified, it will then have to be made operational on a global basis such that sequestration exceeds emissions. Only then would the atmospheric concentration of CO2 begin to fall. This will therefore never happen unless global emissions are massively reduced.
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; and we have a limited carbon budget that we simply cannot exceed and expect to retain a habitable planet. Therefore, wherever their use is easily substitutable, we need to phase out the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. And, yes, that is the end of story.
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!
I know this has been said many times. Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE. If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…
CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article. Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”. However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad“. Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system. However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):
Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.
Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns. Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it. However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:
The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.
This is an important point well made. However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake. Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come… And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:
What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?
Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise. As Reeves puts it:
In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations? It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)
The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable. We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up. Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem. Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.
Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global. However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:
The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were. But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.
Today’s post is that which was intended for last Monday. However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which is the best summary I have yet seen of the insidious problems caused by exponential growth. Even if you think you understand the maths – and are familiar with concepts such as doubling time and illustrations such as 264 grains of rice on a chessboard – it is still worth watching the a series of eight 9-minute videos, or entire presentation, posted on YouTube. This is primarily because of all the evidence Bartlett presents, which suggests that anyone who says exponential growth and/or resource depletion is not a problem is either stupid or a liar. It really is that simple.
However, I should also wish to draw attention to two further happy coincidences – two recent posts by fellow bloggers that are well worth reading:
1. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – another post about Bartlett’s presentation by Jules Bywater-Lees.
2. The Great Unmentionable by George Monbiot – a self-explanatory post by Paul Handover.
Today, then, I will finally get round to summarising the recently-published paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. As I said on Monday, the abstract is viewable on the Science journal website, but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University. Here, then, is my summary of the paper:
‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’, by Partha S. Dasgupta and Paul R. Ehrlich.
Introduction (in lieu of Abstract)
The authors start by pointing out that externalities (i.e. unintended consequences) in economics are widely acknowledged but generally relate to human use of the natural environment. Thus, people talk about our collective failure to value the essential ecosystem services Nature provides. In strict contrast to this, the authors suggest that the adverse consequences of resource consumption and population growth are generally not acknowledged.
The authors then begin by suggesting that birth rates in Europe began to decline 400 years ago as a result of improvements in the standard of living of most people because, almost counter intuitively, it led to people delaying marriage and childbirth until they could afford to set up their own household. However, birth rates in developed countries have since fallen much further and faster with improvements to the education and emancipation of women; and the advent and acceptance of contraception.
The authors note that, today, population growth is greatest in poor countries. However, unlike Bartlett, they do not acknowledge that per-capita rates of consumption make modest population growth in wealthy countries even more problematic. Instead, the authors focus on the factors that continue to encourage high birth rates in poor countries (in sub-Saharan Africa in particular).
Under the title ‘pro-natalist institutions’, the authors discuss societal norms such as the fostering of children by non-biological parents; communal land tenure (as opposed to the division of land amongst children that could discourage large families). Although seemingly careful not to mention the effect of religious beliefs, the largely “unmet need” for family planning is acknowledged. The authors also seem to be optimistic that lowering birth rates can be achieved faster through increasing access to contraception than it may be by improving education. Irrespective of how it is achieved, the authors acknowledge that achieving it will be essential to halting global human population growth. Notwithstanding, for the moment, that the ecological carrying capacity of the planet may have already been exceeded, the authors point out that whether or not global human population growth stabilises depends mainly on average family size in the future.
Under the title ‘conformity’, the authors discuss the reality that people continue to have large families long after the original reason for doing so (e.g. high infant mortality and lack of good healthcare or social welfare) has diminished or disappeared. On a more positive note, the authors suggest that the desire to conform can be broken if a big enough minority can be encouraged to modify their behaviour (i.e. and defy convention).
Under the title ‘breakdown of the commons and the added need for labour’, the authors discuss the externalities arising from the predominance of subsistence economies. These are the things that keep poor people poor, such as the labour intensive nature of many agricultural practices in the absence of mechanisation; and the fact that children who are fetching water, gathering fuel, working the land, or looking after animals are often missing out on being educated as a result.
The authors start by stating the obvious: the consumption (and depletion) of resources has consequences for both current and future generations. In terms of consequences for people alive today, the most obvious adverse consequence of resource consumption – or rather pollution by the waste being generated – is highlighted as being ongoing global climate disruption. The authors then focus on what drives us to consume things and to do ‘competitively’ and ‘conspicuously’ (i.e. to equate consumption with progress, fulfilment, and happiness). Here too, the authors highlight the troubling reality of social conformity as a driver of persistently self-destructive behaviour.
Once again, the authors acknowledge previous discussion (in academic literature) of anthropogenic impacts upon the environment and choose to focus on those that are detrimental. They suggest that these can be categorised as either unidirectional or reciprocal: the former being impacts the authors describe as “externalities each party inflicts… on all others, as in the case of unmanaged common property resources”. The authors then highlight that, unlike commonly owned resources at a local level, global resources that are not owned by anybody (such as the atmosphere and the fish in the sea) tend to be become polluted or over-exploited.
Difficulties in Enacting Policies to Counter Externalities
The authors begin their discussion of all of the above by lamenting the popular misconception by economists of Nature as something that is “a fixed, indestructible factor of production”. This rather opaque statement incorporates a variety of fallacies, including that Nature has only instrumental value; that it has an infinite capacity to provide resources for our use; and that it has an infinite capacity to assimilate (or recycle) the wastes we generate. These are all serious misperceptions of reality: Nature’s resources are finite and its essential ecosystem services are non-substitutable. For example, if human activity continues to decimate bee populations, at what point will it start to impact upon our ability to grow fruit and cereal crops? Indeed, is this not already happening?
As in many other discussions of the environment, the authors highlight the non-linearity of many processes in Nature; and the existence of positive (i.e. self-reinforcing or mutually-destructive) feedback mechanisms. Thus, they construct the population consumption environment nexus as three corners of a triangle with each having an effect upon – and being affected by – the others. Towards the end of their discussion, the authors highlight the fact that 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were found to be either degraded or currently subjected to unsustainable use.
Even more worryingly, they cite the conclusions of numerous other studies that, if all 7 billion of the people on the planet today were to squander resources at the rate at which those who are already wealthy do, “at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone on a sustained basis”. Considering the consensus view of UN statisticians that, on its current trajectory, the world population could exceed 10 billion by 2050, the authors make the obvious point that, if realised, “the demands made on the Earth system will prove to be even more unsustainable”.
So it is, then, that the authors end their discussion of the issues by considering the prospects for technology alone to solve this problem. They start by noting that technology does not operate in a vacuum (i.e. it too consumes resources) and that innovators respond to incentives (so government policies are important). Reflecting recent pronouncements by the IMF, the authors highlight the fact that Nature’s essential ecosystem services are currently grossly under-valued (e.g. the price of fossil fuels does not currently reflect the damage our use of them does to our environment). The authors also cite historical and empirical evidence that suggests that innovation and technology has historically increased unemployment; and archaeological evidence that past civilisations collapsed as a result of degradation of their environment or an inability to respond fast enough to environmental change. This should be of great concern to all humans alive today, because the current rates of environmental change are almost certainly unprecedented in the period of time over which such civilisations have existed.
I will let the authors’ conclusion speak for itself:
Although their magnitudes are likely to differ across societies, owing to differences in societal histories, institutions, customs, and ecologies, the reproductive and consumption externalities we have identified here share striking commonalities. Moreover, the analysis has uncovered reasons why technological innovations since the Industrial Revolution have been rapacious in their reliance on natural capital. We have shown that the externalities studied in this paper are not self-correcting. Therefore, the analysis we have presented points to a spiralling socio-environmental process, giving credence to the presumption that the pattern of contemporary economic growth is unsustainable.
Today is Earth Day 2013, apparently. This would be a good day for everyone on Earth to accept that, given the incontrovertible operational reality of the exponential function in Nature, technological optimism is not a good idea.
I am grateful to a couple of my regular readers who have, completely independently, directed me towards complementary sources of information that go right to the core of what this blog is all about. Before getting into the detail, I will start by simply stating what these two sources of information are, as follows:
1. Thanks to Pendantry, I have discovered an incisive presentation (circa 2002) of Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which High School science teacher Greg Craven (who gave the World the ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ video) has been posted on You Tube as a series of eight 9-minute videos.
2. Thanks to Mike (of uknowispeaksense fame), I have been alerted to the very recent publication of a paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. The abstract is viewable on the Science journal website but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.
Although a daunting task, I will now attempt to summarise both works; starting today with the presentation by Bartlett. So as to do both works justice, I will publish my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich separately.
‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’ by Albert A. Bartlett
Even if you have watched them before, I would encourage all readers to defy the viewing statistics and watch all eight videos. However, here is a summary: Bartlett starts and finishes his presentation by asserting that, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. Somewhat incongruously, he repeatedly describes exponential growth as “steady growth”. This is a shame because exponential growth is anything but “steady”. Exponential growth describes any situation “where the time that is required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant”. This is most commonly expressed as percentage growth on an annual basis. Bartlett then goes on to highlight the curious coincidence of many things that have historically doubled every 10 years by growing at a rate of 7% per annum (including crime in Colorado, inflation in the USA, and the global consumption of oil). Having carefully explained all the mathematics, Bartlett spends a very large proportion of his presentation quoting from a bewildering array of journalists, economists and politicians who are either completely ignorant of – or deeply disingenuous about – the consequences of exponential growth.
Chillingly, Bartlett highlights the reality that, if the human population of planet Earth does not stop growing exponentially, Nature will intervene to stop it. We can either choose to stop it or it will be stopped; and doing the former (whilst involving some very difficult choices) will be a lot better than allowing the latter to happen. Bartlett’s presentation of population dynamics has been repeated many times before and since (but people are still ignoring it). Even more devastating, however, is Bartlett’s presentation of the history of global fossil fuel consumption (which has given rise to many misleading statements and a great deal of misplaced optimism). He points out that, even if it were safe to extract them, all the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic will be consumed by the USA in one year. There is so much in Bartlett’s presentation that I could mention but I will focus on his examination of resource depletion in the face of exponential growth of consumption – it requires the perpetual discovery of double the cumulative total resource consumed. On a finite planet, this is quite simply impossible. Bartlett dismisses the proposition that biofuels could solve this problem by pointing out that Agriculture is an industry that uses land and oil to produce food. Therefore, using agriculture to produce biofuels is likely to be a zero sum game.
However, most sobering of all, is Bartlett’s presentation of Dr M. King Hubbert’s predictions regarding Peak Oil. With regard to US production, history has found Hubbert was correct – production peaked in 1970 and exhaustion can be expected by 2050. Furthermore, since global oil production has now peaked, it is guaranteed to be exhausted by 2100 (because we cannot continue to find double what we have already historically used).
Bartlett’s discussion of Growthmania is devastating and, to me, the logic is incontrovertible: The First Law of Sustainability is that population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. There can therefore be no such thing as sustainable growth. This is not an opinion. On a finite planet, this is mathematical fact. Somewhat surprisingly, in a roundabout way, this leads Bartlett to point out that the country with the World’s greatest problem with regard to population growth is the USA. This is because, in the USA, the per-capita consumption of the World’s resources is four times global average (and some thirty times that of the World’s poorest people).
Towards the end of his presentation, Bartlett counters all the misinformation and misplaced optimism with some telling quotes from a variety of people including Galileo Galileii and Aldous Huxley. However, perhaps the most telling quotation of all is that from Martin Luther King Jr:
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.
At the best part of 1000 words, this may seem like a long summary but, in truth, I have barely scratched the surface of all the information Bartlett presents. Therefore, if any of this is unclear or, in your mind, appears to be unjustified pessimism, please watch the videos.
As promised, my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich’s new paper will appear later this week.
Just over seven months ago, I posted an item about the near-term probability of a catastrophic eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland. Today, sadly, I think I have discovered that this might not be the worst natural disaster in human history (not to have happened yet).
Scientists believe that, when it happens, the Katla eruption could ultimately be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. However, there are many uncertainties; and a great deal of scope for deaths to be prevented. The same cannot be said for a mega tsunami originating in the Canary Islands.
La Palma is one of a group of Spanish volcanic islands off the coast of North Africa. The volcano of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma erupted in 1949 and 1971. It is not like most other volcanoes; it is more like the Laki fissure on Iceland. Previous eruptions have been associated with earth movements; and it is now estimated that another eruption could send a large part of La Palma sliding into the North Atlantic ocean. In fact, it is estimated that another eruption could cause a landslide containing 500 cubic kilometres to slide into the ocean.
Contrary to popular myth, scientists are not prone to being alarmists. However, a wide variety of scientists are actively studying and modelling the consequences of another eruption of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma.
At the end of this post you will find the YouTube video of the BBC/Discovery Channel production “Could We Survive a Mega Tsunami?” Similar to fears over an approaching ecological catastrophe arising from human activity, this fear over a catastrophe emerging from the Canaries is founded on science: It is not just the idle speculation of a bunch of doomsayers. There is evidence of previous tsunamis in the Canaries caused by previous landslides on the islands. What marks the landslide on La Palma (that has not happened yet) is the size of the area that could be affected (and the volume of material that could be mobilised).
The programme (video below) uses Hollywood style CGI, dramatic reconstruction and footage of previous tsunamis to great effect to tell the story of what is guaranteed to happen if the landslide occurs. This has been established using a combination of physical and computer modelling (you need to watch the video to appreciate the reality of all this).
Within 10 minutes, the mega tsunami – travelling at the speed of sound – would hit Gran Canaria, within 60 minutes Morocco, within 90 minutes Portugal, within 3 hours England; within 6 hours the Caribbean. Most devastating of all, however, by virtue of the geography, within 7 hours the entire length of the Eastern seaboard of the USA would be hit almost simultaneously.
Within minutes, social media would alert the World to the disaster but, it is thought, the USA would not take notice until its network of buoys in the North Atlantic indicated a tsunami was on its way. Worse still, psychologists reckon that even after being warned, 50% of urban Americans would ignore the danger (i.e. optimism bias and denial strike again).
In the city of New York, the authorities have already spent 10 years analysing the consequences of a mega tsunami from the Canaries, which will reach several kilometres inland, and have determined that the death toll will be significant. Along the eastern seaboard of the USA, 40 million people live within 40 km of the current seashore and 30 million of those people live within 10 metres of current sea level. By the time the tsunami makes landfall, it is likely to be at least 25 metres high. However, the main problem is that there will not be one wave, there could be as many as 10 waves; and each one has a very long wavelength – measured in hundreds of metres – so it will be like a river of water flowing inland. And what goes in must come out again; and when the water flows back out to sea again it is loaded with debris… Then you have the interruption to basic services, the breakdown of law and order; and the spread of disease… This will make what happened to Japan very modest by comparison.
One member of the US authorities estimates that there could be over 4 million casualties (I am not sure what he means by this). It seems clear, then, that this tsunami would make the death toll of the Indonesian tsunami (250 thousand) seem modest by comparison. Authorities in New York City reckon they could not cope with more than 600 thousand displaced people.
The collateral damage will also be extensive. The tsunami would knock out every single east coast port, which will trigger food shortages everywhere east of the Mississippi…
But enough from me. Watch the video. It will blow your mind…
My book gets a 5-star rating in this review by former Science and Technology Counsellor at the British Embassy in Beijing, Professor Robin S Porter:
This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about climate change and our need to urgently address its causes. Part of the reason for the delay in doing so has been the rise of a debate in recent years in which one side has denigrated the scientific evidence for man’s role in creating the problem. This `denial of science’ by politicians, journalists, economists, people representing vested interests, and even by some scientists, is the focus of this book. Martin Lack documents the personal statements and published arguments of these climate change sceptics, deconstructing them, and finding all too often very little of substance that would undermine the now broad scientific consensus that human industrial and economic activity has contributed very substantially to the process of climate change. While the book deals primarily with climate change scepticism in the UK, the conclusions Lack draws have implications for all of us, wherever we happen to live.
As well as being a tutor for one of the modules on my MA at Keele (looking at the Environmental Politics and Policy in India and China), Robin has also had a book of his own published (via conventional means) on the recent history of China, which is entitled From Mao to Market: China Reconfigured…
As far as my book is concerned, there is still no Kindle version for sale on Amazon but an eBook version is available via AuthorHouse.com for $3.99.