Archive for the ‘Anthropocene’ Category
Thanks to Professor Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez (Transition Times blog), I have been alerted to an article by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, in which he takes A Closer Look at Moderating Views of Climate Sensitivity (where climate sensitivity is the amount of temperature change expected per doubling of atmospheric CO2).
This even includes an update wherein Revkin reports an exchange of emails with Gavin Schmidt (NASA), in which the latter suggests that Revkin has implied that “the wishful thinking of people like Ridley and Lindzen for a climate sensitivity of around 1 deg C is tenable”. For the record, I think this criticism was unjustified because, at the beginning of his article, Revkin clearly states that:
There’s still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a “benign” situation, as some have cast it.
However, with the greatest of respect to both Revkin and Schmidt, all this arguing about climate sensitivity (to CO2) may be moot, if, as many scientists are now saying, the warming that has already occurred is now very close to triggering widespread methane release:
– from permafrost (which is already happening); and
– sediments on the deep ocean floor (also already happening).
If these things are already happening, it is almost certainly too late to stop them. It is tantamount to trying to stop an avalanche that has already started. This is because, as a greenhouse gas (GHG), methane is over twenty times more powerful than CO2. Therefore, the warming effect of all this methane could be many times more than all the CO2 humans will ever emit as a result of burning fossil fuels. We could of course try and trap this methane and burn it. This would still not be good (but it would be better than uncontrolled release). However, trapping and burning all this methane would make the technological achievement of landing a man on the Moon look like child’s play by comparison.
In essence then, the widespread release of geospheric methane back into the biosphere, which has already started, renders discussion of climate sensitivity to CO2 irrelevant; and means that significant climatic change is now inevitable and irreversible. Sadly, just as Bill McKibben noted over a year ago (thanks to Learning from Dogs for the reminder), we continue to be deafened by:
– climate change denial from the fossil fuel lobby;
– denial of the problem from our politicians.
Whichever way you slice the cake, it is not good news. With my thanks to another British blogger, Pendantry, for alerting me to it, here is the bad news in full from Guy McPherson (ecological biology Professor Emeritus at University of Arizona)…
I guess I should have called this post, “Confessions of an environmental alarmist” but, I do not see that I have much choice because… Denial is not a river in Egypt.
UPDATE (1500 GMT): Thanks to the fact-checking of Jules (see comment below), it has been pointed out to me that the release of methane from the seabed may not be the massive problem McPherson makes it out to be above, because:
Methane emitted at the seafloor only rarely survives the trip through the water column to reach the atmosphere. At seafloor depths greater than ~100 m, O2 and N2 dissolved in ocean water almost completely replace CH4 in rising bubbles (McGinnis et al. 2006). Within the water column, oxidation by aerobic microbes is an important sink for dissolved CH4 over some depth ranges and at some locations (e.g., Mau et al. 2007).
Ruppel, C. D. (2011) Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):29.
However, this does not change the fact that methane is already being released direct to the atmosphere across vast areas of formerly-frozen permafrost in the north of Canada and Siberia.
UPDATE (1845 GMT): In responding to my comment on the NYT website, Andy Revkin claims most scientists doubt that methane release is the game over scenario some claim it to be; and he refers to a David Archer piece on the Real Climate blog a year ago. My response to that would be: So what, this is not – nor was it ever – a reversible laboratory experiment!
With my thanks to the Keep Britain Tidy campaign for inspiring this post.
I believe the time has long since past for us humans to admit that the scale of many of our activities now exceed the capacity of our environment to assimilate and recycle the wastes we produce.
Because it is not just plant food, these wastes include carbon dioxide.
As I have said many times before, a frontier mentality is no longer sustainable: Using a passing river as a source of water, a laundry, and a toilet is OK if you live in a sparsely populated wilderness but; when you live in an overcrowded slum it is likely to lead to premature death.
Many things that we humans now do have become a problem simply because of the scale at which we are now doing them; and that includes the doubling of the CO2 into our atmosphere (which we look likely to achieve within the next few decades).
Is this to be the White Man’s Folly?
I am not sure what good it will do unless the whole World decides to stop self-harming as well but…
One way to stop Ecocide in Europe would be to stop Hydraulic Fracturing from going ahead in your neighbourhood. The best way to do this would be to form or join a local protest group: See the Frack-Off website for details.
As a hydrogeologist who has spent many years working on Landfill sites, I am well acquainted with methane; and how it is better to burn it than to let it escape into the atmosphere. Therefore, even if you discount all the immediate environmental hazards associated with fracking, you should be very concerned about the uncontrolled releases of methane that will occur if fracking becomes common practice. As per my recent blog post, Stephen Leahy explains why here.
Meanwhile, on the subject of those immediate environmental risks, here is the inside story from someone who was, until comparatively recently, directly involved; environmental scientist Jessica Ernst (thanks Christine).
Ultimately, of course, ecocide will only be avoided if we stop doing the things that are causing it. And the main thing we are doing that is causing it – is growing in numbers in the absence of predators; consuming exponentially-increasing amounts of food and water; and producing exponentially-increasing amounts of waste. This is no idle piece of misanthropic rhetoric – it is a cold hard fact.
Louise Gray published a short article on the Telegraph website yesterday, in which she cites Sir David Attenborough as having described humans as a plague on the Earth that need to be controlled by limiting population growth. This has attracted an an awful lot of attention and comment; most of it negative; and some of it very unpleasant. What I find most astonishing is the inability of so many admittedly-self-selected people to appreciate the difference between ideology and science. Furthermore, despite little evidence of scientific training in many of their comments, they seem content to accuse Attenborough of being a bad scientist; a bad person; and of peddling bad ideology. All this reality inversion prompted this comment from me:
Absolutely stupendous amounts of Dunning-Kruger Effect in evidence here: Despite the fact that only 49% of the population can be better-than-average at doing anything — and a far smaller percentage are likely to know what they are talking about in this instance — the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas is clearly the intellectual fortress to which the ideologically-prejudiced retreat when confronted with the scientific realities of Nature.
A few hours earlier I had found it necessary to respond to a particularly stupid assertion (that every human could be given 1000 square feet and there would still be room for plenty more) by saying this:
You need to look up the terms “ecological carrying capacity” and “overpopulation” in a reputable scientific dictionary. The latter is dependent on the former – which is specific to local conditions – so even one person per square mile makes a desert overpopulated.
If you think that a seven-fold increase in the human population since the Industrial Revolution is not a problem – especially as we are running out of the “cheap” energy that facilitated it – you are picking a fight with basic biological science: Populations of any species are limited by food supply and by predation. Humans have no predators but, having ignored (or disputed) the warnings for decades, we are now beginning to see people fighting over access to clean water and food; or at very least complaining about the price of life’s essentials – hence the Arab Spring.
The writing is very much on the wall. We ignore it (or dispute the fact that it is there) at our peril.
…so can we please use it?
Here reproduced in full, with the kind permission of the author, is international environmental journalist Stephen Leahy’s prescription to save us all from unintended ecocide – it’s called renewable energy.
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 1 2012 (IPS) - The planet’s climate recently reached a new milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the Arctic.
The last time Earth saw similar levels of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) was three million years ago during the Pliocene era, where Arctic temperatures were 10 to 14 degrees C higher and global temperatures four degrees C hotter.
Research stations in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia all broke the 400 ppm barrier for the first time this spring, scientists reported in a release Thursday. A global average of 400 ppm up from the present 392 ppm is still some years off.
If today’s CO2 levels don’t decline – or worse, increase – the planet will inevitably reach those warmer temperatures, but it won’t take a thousand years. Without major cuts in fossil fuel emissions, a child born today could live in a plus-four-degree C superheated world by their late middle age, IPS previously reported. Such temperatures will make much of the planet unliveable.
In a four-degree warmer world, climate adaptation means “put your feet up and die” for many people in the world, said Chris West of the University of Oxford’s UK Climate Impacts Programme in 2009.
This week the International Energy Agency reported that the nations of the world’s CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. This is precisely the wrong direction: emissions need to decline three percent per year to have any hope of a stable climate.
By 2050, in a world with more people, carbon emissions must be half of today’s levels.
Impossible? No. A number of different energy analyses show how it can be done.
Dutch energy consulting firm Ecofys published a technical study in 2010 called “The Energy Report” that demonstrates how the world could reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
There is no lack of technical knowledge about how to cut emissions and still keep the lights on. Some countries have already started.
Germany, a modern industrialised country, generated more than 30 percent of its energy from solar power one bright sunny day last week. Instead of using 20 or more climate-wrecking coal plants, Germany used the energy from more than one million solar panels on houses, buildings, along sides of highways – even those ugly highway sound barriers have solar panels.
Although hardly known for sunny weather, Germany has more solar panels than all the rest of the world combined. It gets four percent of its total annual electricity needs from solar. Germany could increase its solar output by a factor of five or 10, experts say, especially with recent drops in the cost of solar panels.
The difference in Germany is leadership. Hermann Scheer, a minister of economics in the German government, created the now famous feed-in tariff in 2000 that launched Germany’s renewable energy revolution.
The outspoken Scheer had to both champion and defend this policy for many years to prevent successive governments from gutting it. He died suddenly in 2010. Other German politicians, supported by environmental groups and the public, have continued to push for more.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her support for nuclear power following huge public protests following the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants in 2011. Germany will close its 17 nuclear plants by 2022. Renewables and energy efficiency are to replace that lost energy under an ambitious plan called “Agora Energiewende“.
If successful, as much as 40 percent of Germany’s energy will come from renewables by 2022.
German energy prices have risen and large power users, as well as the politically powerful energy sector, oppose Merkel’s plan. The chancellor will need strong public support even though Germany’s renewable energy sector now employs more people than its vaunted automobile industry.
Globally, the renewable energy sector now employs close to five million workers, more than doubling the number of jobs from 2006-2010, according to a study released Thursday by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty, concluded the study, “Working towards sustainable development”.
Only 10 to 15 industries are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of CO2 emissions in the industrialised countries, the report discovered. And those industries employ just eight to 12 percent of the workforce. Even with policies forcing major reductions in emissions, only a fraction would lose their jobs.
“Environmental sustainability is not a job killer, as it is sometimes claimed,” said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. “On the contrary, if properly managed, it can lead to more and better jobs, poverty reduction and social inclusion.”
(Copyright 2012 Stephen Leahy)
By way of explanation, I should perhaps just say that this (re-posting of Stephen Leahy’s article) was inspired (if that is the right word) by the insanity of yet another anonymous idiot (called ‘jdey123′ on the Met Office blog) commenting that current snowfall in the UK is the return to the weather of his/her youth. To which I responded as follows:
What we are now experiencing is not the return to the weather of anyone’s youth. This is because the last time atmospheric CO2 exceeded 400 ppm was three million years ago.
Unless we stop adding to the CO2 in the biosphere (and start removing it) excess atmospheric CO2 will eventually lead to the Antarctic becoming ice-free once more (800 ppm 35 million years ago). Such a transition may well take hundreds of years but we should not delude ourselves that it will not happen; or that now doing nothing is a survivable option (for significant proportion of all life on Earth).
As a geologist, I know that climate change may well be natural. However, what is now happening is predominantly unnatural. The only people who dispute this are those with a short-sighted vested interest in the continuance of business as usual and/or an ideologically-impaired ability to accept what atmospheric physicists have been telling us for over 50 years.
For more background information on this subject, please visit:
I happened to turn on the BBC News TV channel over the weekend and caught the tail-end of the video below – entitled India’s Water Crisis. However, upon investigation, I discovered this had been first broadcast over six months ago. If you have not seen this, I really do think you should watch it. It is only 22 minutes long but, if even that would be a challenge, you could watch and listen to this 3-minute audio slide show on the BBC website instead.
As part of my MA, I researched the water supply problems China faces in the Yellow River basin, which I summarised on my blog last year (starting here). In this video, narrated and presented by Jill McGivering, we see a depressingly-familiar picture unfolded in graphic detail; regarding India’s most sacred river – the Ganges: For example, at Varanasi, the River Ganges is now one of the most polluted rivers in the World – due to the amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluent, and cremated bodies that are being continually put into it there. The latter is an issue that I touched upon over a year ago (in ‘The pollution of death’ [14 December 2011]).
The problems the above practices cause are compounded by the fact that the flow in the Ganges is kept very low as a result of the amount of water abstracted from it in order to provide water for cities like India’s capital – New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the groundwater table in rural areas is falling faster than it has ever been known to in the past – not really that surprising given that it is being abstracted faster than ever – because there are more people living in India than ever before.
People who say population growth in the developing world is a non-problem need to watch this video; stop trying to pick a fight with history and science; and start dealing with the nature of reality: All our environmental problems are limits to growth phenomena; and we will not begin to solve them until ideologically-prejudiced economists, politicians, religious leaders – and unduly optimistic people everywhere – stop denying the nature of reality.
If they do not embrace reality soon, I am seriously concerned about the potential for civil disorder and even war that would seem an almost inevitable consequence of water scarcity such as we now see in rural India; where people are already spending a fifth (20%) of their income on water.
I have been somewhat pre-occupied with the task of ending my unemployment recently. However, I found myself pondering the above subject on my drive home from a couple of job interviews in London yesterday.
I know I have blogged about the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) before (and the Kyoto Protocol to which it led in 1997); and – in particular – how we (all human beings on this planet) are now so clearly in breach of Article 2 of the UNFCCC:
The ultimate objective of this Convention… is to achieve… the… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
However, driving from London to my home in the NW of England yesterday on part of the UK’s motorway network, I was astonished to see almost every single river valley covered by floodwater. Some parts of the UK have been very wet this year (bringing to an end a record-breaking 18-month drought). However, on the 180-mile journey home yesterday, I was really impressed by the fact that – as the BBC have reported - this flooding is now affecting such a large part of the country.
Meteorologists and climate scientists have a phrase for what we are witnessing – it’s Global Weirding. I believe James Hansen spoke for the majority of reputable climate scientists when, in August this year, he provided irrefutable historical statistical evidence for a reality that atmospheric physics has made inevitable:
I think all decent human beings owe it to their children and grandchildren to face up to the facts of history; and accept the nature of reality:
So-called “climate sceptics” (i.e. those ideologically prejudiced against admitting human activity is responsible for any and all environmental degradation) have dismissed the warnings of climate scientists over several decades as attempts to justify and perpetuate research funding. In a vain attempt to prevent having to pay for the environmental cost of its pollution, the fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has denied that it is the cause of the problem for decades… They have sought to perpetuate doubt and uncertainty; and have even accused climate scientists of crying “wolf”… However, the truth of the matter is that much more money has been spent denying science than has been spent on research and, just as it did in the morality tale, the wolf has now turned up.
What I really object to is that my children and grandchildren are going to be the main ones that have to pay the price for the shortsightedness of fossil fuel executives who have succeeded in ensuring the UNFCCC has achieved absolutely nothing.
Over the last 20 years of UNFCCC meetings, there has been a great deal of talk and very little action. Despite Hurricane Sandy and President Obama’s fine words on the night of his re-election this month, I suspect COP18 in Doha (starting next week) will be no different: Sadly, I think real action will only start to be taken when events like Hurricane Sandy become an annual occurrence.
Therefore, although I do not wish such things on anyone, I suspect I may look forward to concerted action becoming a reality before the end of this decade. By then, as any decent insurance company will admit to you, it is now very likely that we will all be paying the price of the failure of the UNFCCC process.
Therefore we are already in breach of Article 2 (i.e. the objective) of the UNFCCC:
“…to achieve… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that… prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system…”
As promised yesterday, I want to encourage all those that are not familiar with the issues surrounding deforestation, to explore them in more detail.
Given that humanity seems determined to keep burning fossil fuels simply because they are there, it is now more important than ever that we preserve the Earth’s forests because:
1. Trees photosynthesise – turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.
2. Trees are carbon sinks – they use the carbon to grow (biomass).
3. Burning biomass not used for timber adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Deforestation is therefore bad because it reduces the Earth’s capacity to recycle CO2; it reduces biomass; and it adds to atmospheric CO2. It is bad for many other reasons, including the fundamental issue of habitat destruction leading to species extinction: Habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinction; and in destroying rain forests in particular, we are not only reducing the Earth’s vital lung capacity, we are destroying its most biodiverse ecosystem too.
Many commentators have criticised the UNFCCC and REDD/REDD+ for serving the interests of the global North (i.e. perpetuating atmospheric pollution) and working against the interests of the global South. With REDD/REDD+ being variously described as turning forests into commodities to be traded; excluding indigenous communities; and/or encouraging counter-productive activities, the situation is clearly very complex. But what is the solution? Some say the problem is that REDD/REDD+ is seeking to privatise Nature. Some say that the privatisation of Nature will be its salvation. I think the evidence of history clearly shows that the latter is a libertarian myth. Just as with the Earth’s oceans – and all creatures they contain – we cannot divide them up; assign property rights to them; and then punish individuals that mismanage them. However, must everyone who dares to suggest that property rights and the free market are not the solution to our problems be denounced as a Communist? Garrett Hardin was certainly denounced – if not as a Communist then – as a left-wing bourgeoisie academic… and for what? For suggesting that over-exploitation is the inevitable consequence of an unrestrained free market when dealing with finite resources not owned by anyone. You can see where the libertarian myth comes from: The idea that the tragedy of the commons can be avoided by having no commons. However, this is clearly unachievable. Therefore, we must either exercise collective restraint or we will inevitably destroy the very things that support all life on Earth – namely our oceans and our forests.
In researching this subject, I came across another excellent video – this time a bit longer and involving first-hand testimony from those being adversely affected by REDD and REDD+. So, please, don’t take my word for it, listen to what all these people have to say in this video produced by the Global Justice Ecology Project.
As policies and programs to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and to enhance forest carbon stocks (REDD+) are promoted around the world by global and national elites, Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities are raising the alarm that these programs will have serious negative impacts — and will not reduce the cascading threats of the climate crisis. This 28-minute documentary introduces the many concerns about REDD from the perspective of the people who are most impacted, featuring interviews and testimonies from Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Uganda, India, and California.
Somehow we must find a way to make our politicians change course because, if we do not, I think humanity is doomed. And if anyone is looking for an epitaph, I think I found it many years ago (I just did not realise how it can be applied at a global level):
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)