Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ Category

Now is no time for climate change scepticism

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This graph, as compiled by Dr Ed Hawkins (Reading University/Met Office), featured in an article by Damian Carrington, on the Guardian website yesterday, which highlighted the fact that:
2014 will be the warmest year in Central England for over 300 years (since records began)
(From where the above image has been copied.)

However, the article also highlights many other pertinent facts, such as:
— The whole world has had a warm year and global data, released later on Wednesday, is likely to indicate a new record.
— The likely record warmth in 2014 would end a period of relatively slow rises in global surface temperatures (which has been portrayed by climate sceptics as a halt in global warming).
— Greenhouse gases, however, continue to trap heat with over 90% of it being absorbed by the oceans.

In addition to all of this, it is worth noting that NASA has calculated that global average monthly temperatures have now been above their 20th Century average values in every month since 1985.  There is, therefore, no longer any excuse (other than ideological blindness) for being sceptical about either climate change or the reality that what is now happening is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Given the accelerating effect of all the positive feedback mechanisms we can now see (i.e. such as the melting of terrestrial ice and the release of methane from thawing permafrost), there is no longer any excuse (other than what Herman E. Daly called “growthmania”) for delaying the rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use in every context where this is now technologically possible.

In most contexts, humanity has alternatives to fossil fuels. What we seem to lack is an industrial elite willing to admit that burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels (simply because they are there) is likely to wipe out a significant proportion of all life on the planet (because climate change is now accelerating faster than many species can adapt to it).

Above all, now that historically-rare weather events of all kinds (i.e. hot, cold, wet and dry) are occurring every year, we need to stop talking about “natural climate variability” and start talking about “unnatural climate change” (and what we are all going to do about it before it is too late).

Is it too much to hope that our supposed world ‘leaders’, currently meeting at the UN’s COP20 summit in Peru, will actually stop listening to industrial propaganda (that there is no need for radical policy change); and start acting on the implications of the scientific consensus (that there is an urgent need for radical policy change)…?

See also:
A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al. (11 October 2013).

Climate change is here and now (31 March 2014).

Apologies for absence

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… but this is no time for climate change scepticism!

For me, the last 12 months have been something of an emotional rollercoaster; and the ride has not yet come to an end. However, if I have any regrets about embarking upon research for a PhD, they are these:
1. I have lost the time and/or motivation to continue blogging.
2. I should have worked out how I was going to finance doing the research before starting it.

Neither self-employment nor paid employment has proven sufficient to cover my living costs and pay even part-time tuition fees. Therefore, having tried and failed to secure external funding, I have now had to suspend my registration as a student. Furthermore, unless I win the lottery, I am fairly certain I will have to withdraw my registration completely. I am also fairly certain I am not going to win the lottery. This is mainly because I do not play it!

But that is not why I am posting an item on my blog today. The reason for this post is merely to clear the way to post something more substantial tomorrow about the fact that:
2014 will be the warmest year in Central England for over 300 years (since records began)
(From where the above image has been copied.)

 

Written by Martin Lack

3 December 2014 at 17:22

Humanity will not be able to say it was not warned

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This post is to mark the impending publication of the latest book from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, entitled The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View From the Future.  The authors have already published a summary of this book’s thesis and purpose in the academic journal Daedalus.  However, in July, the book itself will be published by Columbia University Press, who summarise it thus:

In this haunting, provocative work of science-based fiction, Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway imagine a world devastated by climate change. Dramatizing the science in ways traditional nonfiction cannot, the book reasserts the importance of scientists and the work they do and reveals the self-serving interests of the so called “carbon combustion complex” that have turned the practice of science into political fodder. Based on sound scholarship and yet unafraid to speak boldly, this book provides a welcome moment of clarity amid the cacophony of climate change literature.
http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-16954-7/the-collapse-of-western-civilization

I was tempted to recommend readers look at all previous posts in my ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ or ‘Collapse’ categories. However, this would take quite a long time.  Therefore, if you have not read them before, I will just limit myself to recommending that you read:
The first of two sequential posts in January 2012 about Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; and
One of my earliest posts from September 2011 (reproduced in slightly modified form below), in which I mention the Civilisation: Is the West History?  book and TV series by Niall Ferguson.

Taking these three books – from Diamond, Ferguson, and Oreskes and Conway – together, the one thing humanity will not be able to say is that it was not warned…

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The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of Dagon

I firmly believe that you do not need to be an adherent to any faith to find value in religious texts; and this is one of my favourite historical stories from the Old Testament: It tells of the Philistines (i.e. now Palestinians) capturing the Ark of the Covenant and – eventually – returning it to the Jews because of all the trouble having it caused (see 1 Samuel Chapters 5 and 6 if you’re interested). I think the moral of this story may be twofold: It tells us (1) that God can look after himself; and (2) we should not raise any object to the status of an idol.

Personally speaking, learning the first lesson from this story eventually convinced me in the mid-1980s that there was no point trying to persuade my devoutly-atheistic teachers at Portsmouth Polytechnic (as it was then) that not all Christians were Young Earth Creationists… However, globally speaking, learning the second lesson from this story will be necessary before humanity can dig itself out of the hole it is now in – as a result of (1) pride (in our own resourcefulness); and (2) complacency (regarding the Earth’s sensitivity to our activity)…

This was the warning given by E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful (1973) and, most-recently, by James Lovelock in Revenge of Gaia (2006). Karl Marx called it “money fetishism” and Herman Daly called it “growthmania” but, whatever you want to call it, we need to renounce it; and acknowledge that all human actions – most important of all being waste production – have consequences… Therefore, more than anything else, this is a plea for anthropogenic humility, intellectual honesty, moral courage, and determined action. This is because if we fail to act soon then, yes, I do firmly believe that we face an environmental catastrophe.

If all of the above merely convinces you that environmentalism is a new religion, so be it but, I think you are wrong: I think consumerism is the new religion and, on the contrary, environmentalism is just a natural response to the realisation that humanity is having a terrible impact on the planet; and needs to change its ways before its very existence – in anything like current numbers and at current average levels of affluence – is seriously compromised.

Authors will have to forgive me if they feel I have here plagiarised any of their work, because this is an amalgamation of many different things I have seen or read. However, above all, it is influenced most-recently by watching Civilisation: Is the West History? by Niall Ferguson; and reading Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton… I do not believe either of these two men has been ideologically “captured” by any political agenda; they are merely being (at times painfully) honest and objective about the predicament in which we now find ourselves (though to be fair we were warned almost 40 years ago but chose not to listen).

In their latest book, Oreskes and Conway suggest that collapse will occur in 2093. Sadly, I suspect it will be a lot sooner than that. However, far from being mere pessimism, this conclusion is based on a great deal of scientific research.  Research that shows that environmental change is now in the process of accelerating beyond our capacity to mitigate it:
What on Earth are we doing? (19 February 2013).
A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al. (11 October 2013).

The radiating face of Gaia

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I decided that my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006, was dragging on a bit, so have decided to finish it off.  This is therefore the fourth and final part (and thus longer than normal posts).

Having explained what Gaia is (part one), discussed the need to decarbonise our economies (part two), and discussed the various sources of renewable energy available to us (part three), we must now confront ‘the radiating face of Gaia’.  The possibly surprising reality is that almost half the book is taken up by Lovelock discussing the sensibility – if not inevitability – of the widespread use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.

As before, some may consider this a self-contradictory position to adopt because, as indeed Lovelock concedes, the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth in a post-carbon age is unlikely to be greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution.  That being the case, why would such a small population (of say one billion humans) need nuclear energy; and who is to say they would be capable of harnessing it?  When the history of human failure (to see the writing on the wall) has finally been written, catalogued and left in the library long enough to be coated in dust, some may well wonder if today’s nuclear power plants will become the curious prehistoric monuments of a distant, post-carbon, future.

However, I see Lovelock’s pro-nuclear stance as part of the technological optimist side of his split personality:  Whereas his pessimistic side laments the unintended ecocide being caused by human arrogance, greed and stupidity; the optimistic side of Lovelock assumes humanity will somehow avert the approaching environmental catastrophe and will, therefore, need lots of energy to power a post-carbon civilisation.

However, to be fair, Lovelock has always been in favour of nuclear energy.  In this respect, he is probably very unusual amongst those concerned with issue of environment degradation.  He may never have quite been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but the truth of the matter is that most pro-nuclear environmentalists have not always thought as they do now (e.g. Mark Lynas and George Monbiot).  Nevertheless, however and whenever they came to be so, they join with the likes of Tom Blees, Stewart Brand and James Hansen – in being pro-nuclear.  Personally, I think it is much more accurate to describe them as ‘ecopragmatists’ (and would count myself as one too).  Indeed, Brand’s most recent book sounds like it is worth reading: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

As such, all would agree that nuclear energy will have to be the main source of power in decades to come if billions of humans survive the approaching environmental meltdown, which we are causing by burning fossil fuels.

Before continuing, I think it is worth drawing attention to a couple of things recorded by Brand in the online Afterword he is maintaining in relation to this book. (i.e. as quoted on the Wikipedia page for the book – as per the above link):
(1) Brand quotes Lovelock as having repudiated his alarmism because “Something unknown appears to be slowing down the rate of global warming”.  This would appear to suggest that Lovelock was not satisfied by the answers that climate scientists have given, namely that: (a) warming is being offset by ‘global dimming’ (caused by other forms of atmospheric pollution); and (b) the ‘missing’ heat will be found in the deep ocean (because it must have gone somewhere).
(2) Brand has appears to admit having been influenced by the ‘global warming has stopped’ myth that has been peddled so fiercely by the fossil fuel lobby.  He has therefore suggested that maybe nothing (more) will happen as a result of the accumulating greenhouse gases.  However, he also chose to add that doing nothing about our CO2 emissions would be “like playing Russian Roulette with five cylinders loaded”.

As I have now said quite a few times, although sympathetic to the overall message, I am concerned by intellectual incoherence, selective blindness and a tendency to exaggerate, which Lovelock appears to display in the writing of The Revenge of Gaia.  Although not limited to his remarks about radiation and nuclear power, these traits are certainly very much present.  This is a shame, in my view, because Lovelock also makes some very valid points about the irrational way most people assess the chances of either good or bad things happening.  For example, the chances of any individual winning a lottery is extremely small but, even so, a great many people waste an awful lot of money trying to do so.  Similarly, the risk of any individual dying as a result of travelling in a car is much higher than that of flying in an aeroplane but, even so, how many of us worry about the former more than the latter?

Lovelock, correctly in my view, blames widespread anti nuclear sentiment today on fears, stoked by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), over mutually assured destruction that grew out of the insanity of the Cold War.  Such fears were entirely justified but, as Lovelock says, the demonisation of the civil nuclear power industry was not.  Just because it was a by-product of military programmes to build atomic bombs does not make it inherently bad.  Mobile Phones were a product of military surveillance technology, but they are generally accepted as being beneficial (apart from those who blame them for killing bees and causing brain cancers).

Cancer is another subject about which Lovelock has a lot to say; but here also, I think he takes his argument too far.  It is undoubtedly true that cancer is very common; that very little of it is caused by radiation; and that even less is caused by artificially-created radiation.  Lovelock makes the point that the whole planet was irradiated as a result of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s but the only deaths linked to such tests have been among those who witnessed them.  Lovelock also recalls the reactor fire at Windscale (now called Sellafield), which also irradiated the entire UK but has not been linked to any deaths.  Most famously of all, of course, Lovelock cites the meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in what is now Ukraine.  Estimates vary but, given the amount of hysteria caused in Europe about radiation clouds, the numbers of people killed as a result (i.e. as determined how many more people have died than might otherwise be expected to die) is really not that great.  This is not intended to belittle the suffering of individuals; merely to suggest that people put these things in some proper perspective:  Perspective that might include considering how many people are shot dead every day; or die in car accidents every year; or how many were killed in wars in the last decade; or died as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic nearly 100 years ago.

However, Lovelock goes further; and the point at which I think he ceases to be reasonable is this:  He suggests that oxygen is a carcinogen.  Noting that – whereas some photosynthesising plants can live for hundreds of years – humans tend not to live for much more than 100 years, he argues that oxygen is a carcinogen because it of its involvement in biochemical processes at the level of individual cells (i.e. respiration).  This may be true but, if so, it would also be true to say that eating causes constipation.  However, that does not mean that we should be worried about eating!  Furthermore, there are also scientific studies that have linked the development of cancer with oxygen-deficiency at cellular level.  Far more importantly still, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the risks of any individual dying of cancer are dramatically increased by their inherited DNA and lifestyle choices they make (such as excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco smoking).  For all of these reasons, I find Lovelock’s argument about oxygen being carcinogenic to be misleading; if not disingenuous.

Nevertheless, I agree with Lovelock that civil nuclear power should not be feared in the way it is (in many minds); and it should not have been abandoned in the way it has (in many countries).  However, I remain bemused by the conflict between Lovelock’s misanthropic pessimism (most recently echoed by Bob Geldof) and his technological optimism, which ignores the geologically unprecedented rate of both CO2 rise and warming that has occurred in the last 200 years.

In addition, there remains the problem that the global use of civil nuclear power would likely be a new form of technological dependency (along with the widespread use of GMOs) that will probably not reduce inequality of opportunity because the ‘trickle-down’ effect does not seem to work.

There is also growing evidence that time is no longer a luxury that humanity has.  The relatively stable sea level and climate that has made agriculture, civilisation, urbanisation and modernity possible has now been brought to an end by the folly of humans believing they were superior to nature; rather than part of it.

We have fouled our own nest; and we appear to be running out of time to clean it up.

Help end 1 trillion USD of corporate tax evasion

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In advance of the G8 Summit to be held in Northern Ireland, Avaaz is asking people to sign a petition to help encourage President Obama and Canadian PM Harper do the right thing.

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Dear friends,

In days, world leaders will decide whether to plug a gigantic $1 trillion per year corporate tax loophole – and get enough money to end poverty, put every child in school and double green investment! A deal is close, but US President Obama and Canadian PM Harper are being lobbied and on the fence – let’s press them to stand up to corruption and end the massive yearly heist:

Sign the petition

In days, governments will discuss whether to plug a gigantic $1 trillion per year corporate tax loophole – enough money to end poverty, put every child in school, and double green investment! Most governments want powerful multinationals to pay these taxes, but the US and Canada are on the fence. To get a deal, we need them to feel the pressure.

$1 trillion is more than every country combined spends on their military. It’s bigger than the budgets of 176 nations. It’s $1000 each for every family on the planet. And believe it or not, it’s the amount that our largest corporations and wealthiest individuals evade each year in taxes.

This should be a no-brainer. To massively boost our public finances in a time of painful cuts and debt, all we need to do is ensure that everyone pays the taxes they’re supposed to.  But big US corporations are fiercely lobbying to protect their dodgy practices. A massive public campaign will help identify and hold accountable the two leaders – President Obama and Prime Minister Harper, who are considering siding with corruption over this gigantic step forward for the planet. Let’s get to one million voices and then Avaaz will deliver our call to leaders and the media in the middle of the negotiations:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/g8_tax_havens_r/?bSkdncb&v=25627

Apple, one of the world’s wealthiest companies, paid basically $0 in tax on $78 billion they made in recent years by setting up shell corporations in low-tax countries and posting profits abroad. This kind of global tax evasion gives multinational firms a huge advantage over smaller domestic companies. It’s as bad for a healthy market economy as it is for democracy and economic stability.

But in days, governments will consider a plan that would make it harder for companies and individuals to evade taxes by hiding their money offshore and in tax shelters. The plan would require countries to share information to expose where the money is hidden and require “fake” companies to reveal who’s really behind them. If talks go well this week, the G8 could agree to the whole thing later this month.

In hard times, when governments everywhere are cutting spending on vital social priorities, it’s particularly galling that the wealthiest get a free pass from paying their fair share. (Even more so when the hard times were caused by massive government handouts to bail out banks owned by the same people). Governments are finally getting serious about plugging these holes in our finances, but the US and Canada are falling sway to powerful business lobbies.

A large public petition that’s well covered by the media will help highlight which countries are blocking the agreement, and make this a political issue for Obama and Harper to deal with. A powerful call from the world’s people to choose to give a massive boost to our planet instead of preserving corrupt loopholes will also help these leaders to find their consciences and good sense. We can’t let the lobbyists win this one in the shadows, let’s bring the spotlight of public attention to this massive decision for our planet:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/g8_tax_havens_r/?bSkdncb&v=25627

Every week, our community strives in and often wins fights for human rights, democracy, conservation and more. But some decisions have the power to affect thousands of causes at once, often preventing many problems from ever happening. $1 trillion per year in public funding would make a massive difference in the lives of children who could go to school, lives that could be saved, peace that could be built, habitats that could be protected, and so much more. For the sake of all these future struggles that we might not need to fight, let’s win this one.

With hope,

Alex, Jeremy, Christoph, Marie, Ian, David, Paul, Ricken and the whole Avaaz team

PS – Many Avaaz campaigns are started by members of our community! Start yours now and win on any issue – local, national or global: http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/start_a_petition/?bgMYedb&v=25479

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MORE INFORMATION:

Europe’s push against tax fraud gains momentum (BBC)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22627330

The Corrosive Effect of Apple’s Tax Avoidance (New York Times)
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/24/business/making-companies-pay-taxes-the-mccain-way.html

Factbox: Apple, Amazon, Google and tax avoidance schemes (Reuters)
http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/05/22/eu-tax-avoidance-idINDEE94L07Z20130522

Tax havens are entrenching poverty in developing countries (The Guardian)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/14/tax-havens-entrenching-poverty-developing-countries

The missing $20 trillion (The Economist)
http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21571873-how-stop-companies-and-people-dodging-tax-delaware-well-grand-cayman-missing-20

Europe’s lost trillion in taxes (CNN)
http://money.cnn.com/2013/05/21/news/economy/europe-taxes/index.html

Military spending by country (The Economist)
http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/04/daily-chart-9

The Business Case Against Overseas Tax Havens (ASB Council)
http://asbcouncil.org/sites/default/files/library/docs/taxhaven_report.pdf

Irreversible but not yet unstoppable

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irreversible not unstoppableWith regard to ongoing climate change, this is currently an important distinction.

However, as highlighted by Joe Romm on the Think Progress website on 17 March 2013, it is not one that will always be true. With the author’s kind permission, this article, entitled ‘The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible’, is reproduced in full below.

If you have not already read it, I would very much recommend that you do so. However, by way of a summary, here are the key points as I see them:

1. The burning of fossil fuels is causing change that will not be reversible in any timescale meaningful to humans: Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say this will be at least 1000 years, the Geological Society of London (GSL) has warned it could take at least 100 times longer than that to undo the damage we are now doing. That being the case, the longer we fail to address this issue the greater the likelihood that the GSL estimate will be correct.
2. Warming will only ever stop if total CO2 emissions are less than the rate of CO2 removal; and one is already twice the other. Any change (current and future) could only be reversed if the CO2 content of the atmosphere were to be reduced (i.e. if removal exceeds emissions). Artificial carbon capture and storage (CCS) is almost certainly impossible to achieve safely, at scale, and within the timescale required (to prevent unstoppable change). That being the case, change is effectively irreversible; and we must stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
3. Wait and see is no longer a survivable option; we need to decarbonise our power generation systems as fast as possible. Burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels without CCS is very likely to cause unstoppable climate change (i.e. what is called a “runaway greenhouse effect” resulting from feedback mechanisms now observed to be mutually-reinforcing the change human activity has already caused).

Here, then, is Joe’s article in full:

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The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”

The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.

We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.

This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.

First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).

Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going very slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!

Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.

The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”

It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:

Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.

McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?

Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.

For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions.Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.

It’s also worth reading RealClimate’s piece “Climate change commitments,” based on a Nature Geoscience letter by Mathews and Weaver (sub. reqd.), which has this figure:

Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.

Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.

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With my thanks once again to Joe Romm, for permission to republish the above, all that remains for me now is to wish you all a pleasant [Passover/Easter/Spring Equinox] festival of renewal!

Climate Change: First Wake-Up Call in 1910?

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I was looking for something else in the Letters to the Editor section of the Geological Society website, when I came across this very short but massively powerful letter. I knew instantly that I must draw it to the attention of the widest-possible audience. The “letter” is from someone I have known since 1998 – Chris King, Professor of Earth Science Education at Keele University – and it is, in fact, almost entirely composed of a quotation from a peer-reviewed article published over 100 years ago.

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Sir,

‘Our interest in the evolution of the atmosphere and of climate is of more than theoretical interest… Van Hise, on what he regards as a moderate estimate of the coal the human race will burn per annum during the present Century, estimates that in 812 years the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be doubled. According to the view of Arrhenius such a change would greatly ameliorate [see Update appended below] the climate of the world. This view of the heat-holding effects of an increase of CO2 is not undisputed, but so large a change in the constitution of the atmosphere, by the hand of man himself, may well cause him to investigate, with serious persistence, the terrestrial consequences of his own deeds…’ From: ‘Scenery, Soil and the Atmosphere’, by A P Banham: Popular Science Monthly, June 1910, pp.570-580.

I feel that absolutely no comment is necessary.

Chris King.

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With the greatest of respect to Chris, however, for the benefit of a non-expert audience, I feel that further comment is necessary:

This letter demonstrates that there was scientific concern over the potential consequences of doubling atmospheric CO2 concentrations over 100 years ago. However, what many may not realise is that, when account is taken of all anthropogenic gasses in our atmosphere, we have doubled the effective CO2 content of our atmosphere in 100 years. Indeed, we have done this so fast that the Earth has yet to catch up: Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, the Earth would continue to warm for decades.

There is also the problem of positive feedback mechanisms and tipping points. That is to say, self-reinforcing change and the possibility that we have now triggered irreversible change. Even if it is reversible, it is unlikely to be so in any timescale relevant to an individual human lifetime: Glaciers that have been stable for decades will probably all be gone within 100 years. How long do you think it took them to form in the first place? The answer is almost certainly at least two orders of magnitude longer (i.e. 10 thousand years).

In the face of risks such as these, does it not also seem unreasonable to you that, here in the UK, our Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Finance Minister), George Osborne, should be trying so hard to ignore the warnings of the Government’s own scientific advisors and, instead, listen to climate change scpetics who say “there is no cause for alarm” and that we can indeed “have our cake and eat it”…?

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/media/press-releases/tory-mp-tables-crucial-2030-decarb-amendment-energy-bill-20130208

This story is not over by a long way yet…

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UPDATE: 18 Feb 2013 2130hrs – After much semantic discussion about the appearance of the word “ameliorate” in the above quotation, it has been confirmed that this is correct: Being a Scandinavian, Svante Arrhenius considered that it would be a good thing for the climate to warm up a bit. This adds yet another layer of irony to the waywardness of the 1910 prediction about time required to double the CO2 content of our atmospherere.

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