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

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.

They came from the sky

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UPDATE 2300 hrs UTC: I have amended this post to include a Russian TV news report and explanation of events. The commentary states that the DA14 asteroid is the size of an olympic swimming pool (i.e. 50m in length).

On the day that we were waiting expectantly for an asteroid to come within 17 thousand miles of the Earth’s surface (i.e. a distance equivalent to about twice its diameter), the poor DA14 asteroid has been completely upstaged by a meteorite (shower?) in Russia.

The main meteor streakes across the early morning sky burning up in the process:

How the events were reported on Russian TV:

James Hansen has described anthropogenic climate disruption as an approaching asteroid that we have failed to see and failed to prevent impacting the planet.

If I were a superstitious person, I must confess I would be tempted to ask whether this near miss of an asteroid and actual impact of a meteorite are some kind of warning.

Written by Martin Lack

15 February 2013 at 19:22

End ecocide in Europe (and the World)

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I am not sure what good it will do unless the whole World decides to stop self-harming as well but…

Image credit : End Ecocide in Europe

If you live in the EU please sign-up here to help stop ecocide in Europe (thanks Pendantry).

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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).

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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.

Views of Doha

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The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the UN’s Framework Convention on climate Change (UNFCCC), ended in Doha (Qatar) last weekend.  Sadly, this event was not considered newsworthy in the mainstream media in the UK.  Irrespective of the outcome of COP18, the X Factor and the tragic death of a nurse following a hoax phone call were considered far more important than the diminishing prospects for international cooperation to avert a climate catastrophe.

Back in the real world – as opposed to the sweet-smelling rose garden of our celebrity-obsessed media – the consequences of the UNFCCC’s failure to prevent continual growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 20 years have been reported by a wide range of bodies.  The news is not good.

Even before COP18 had ended, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, was on record as having told the AFP news agency:

If we make a judgment based on what we’ve seen in these negotiations so far, there is no reason to be optimistic. - Fractious Doha talks bode ill for 2020 deal, observers say

Writing for the website of the Global Travel Industry News website – let’s not talk about its carbon footprint for now – Wolfgang H. Thome (a PhD from Uganda) reported the outcome of COP18 as follows:

In spite of the writing now being clearly on the wall, and climate change projections suggesting an average rise of temperatures by 2 degrees C 40 years from now, and up to 5+ degrees C by the end of the century, the main polluters have once again succeeded to push tough decisions into the future. - Doha’s failure spells doom for Africa

A team of observers from the Center for American Progress website, introduced their summary of events as follows:

The end of this year’s UN climate summit last weekend in Doha, Qatar, marked a period of transition… to… a three-year process to create a new comprehensive climate treaty, which will be applicable to all countries and cover 100 percent of global emissions. – See here for the full briefing on the outcome.

———–

There is just one problem with the glacial speed of the UNFCCC’s progress towards a Treaty to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol – unlike glacier melting in the real world – it is not accelerating in response to the increasingly obvious warming of the planet.

With my thanks to fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to it - via his most recent post – the Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media has reported that the renowned British climate scientist – and prominent critique of UK government policy – Professor Robert Watson, recently told a California audience that:

Fundamentally, we are not on a path toward a 2 degree world…  Average global temperatures could rise 2 to 7 degrees C by the end of the century, driving a litany of environmental change…  Therefore, we must adapt… – Forget About That 2-Degree Future

What scares me about this is that, as Clive Hamilton suggested (in Requiem for a Species), believing that we can adapt to the accelerating change that our leaders are ignoring is very probably a fanciful delusion in itself. - http://www.clivehamilton.net.au/cms/media/documents/speeches/launch_speech_for_website.pdf

We have failed to heed the warning signs and therefore, just as William Ophuls predicted (in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity), we are currently in the process of reducing the Earth’s long-term ecological carrying capacity. Furthermore, the longer our political “leaders” take to acknowledge – and respond to – this fact, the greater the collateral damage is going to be. - http://www.greatchange.org/ophuls,ecological_scarcity.html

In the long run, unmitigated climate change is almost certainly going to cause genocide on an unprecedented scale – at least 100 times greater than the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis 70 years ago. As was the case back then, an awful lot of people seem to be just standing around allowing it to happen.

The reason we keep getting double-six

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Dr James Hansen had an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post newspaper last Saturday – under the title: ‘Climate change is here – and worse than we thought’.  In it he mentions a paper, which was published yesterday (6 Aug 2012) in the weekly Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) magazine.  For those without a subscription, a brief précis of the paper is also available on the Columbia University website.

James Hansen's climate dice

James Hansen’s climate dice

Having emailed Dr James Hansen and pleaded poverty through unemployment, he has taken pity on me and provided me with a PDF copy of the final proof of the article (as approved by him for publication).  For this, I am – and will remain- extremely grateful. However, in what follows, so as not to be seen to be taking liberties or risk breaching copyright, I will quote mainly from the Washington Post and Columbia University pieces (rather than the PNAS).

As many others have noted, Hansen has a wonderfully down-to-earth way of communicating complex ideas; and his writing often displays a conversational style.  He opens his Op-Ed by reminding readers of another very warm summer – 1988 – when he first testified before US Senate about the consequences of humanity’s unabated burning of fossil fuels, to which he now adds bluntly… “I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.”

It was in 1988 that Hansen first introduced the concept of climate dice, to try and help people understand his message:  That the change then expected (and now observed) is not the result of natural variability, because the burning of fossil fuels is changing the nature of what is normal. In effect, Hansen was suggesting that normal climate dice would have two sides with a one (representing cooler-than-normal weather); two sides with a three (representing normal weather); and two sides with a six (representing warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would have an equal chance of throwing a one or a three or a six.

However, by upsetting the dynamic equilibrium of our atmosphere by adding CO2 from previously-fossilised carbon, we have now loaded the climate dice so that now only one side is cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even now, we may get the occasional cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter; but the chances of weather being warmer than (what was previously) normal are now much greater.

In summarising this newly-published analysis of six decades of global temperatures (co-authored with Makito Sato and Reto Ruedy), which concludes that “for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change”, Hansen emphasises that this “is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened”.

Having looked back over this data (for the northern hemisphere), Hansen et al 2012 finds that extreme hot weather events (greater than 3 standard deviation [+3 StdDev.] warmer than local average) covered 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the Earth’s surface at any one time during the reference period for the study (1951 to 1980).  However, while the average temperature has slowly risen over the last three decades, extremely hot weather events now cover 10 percent of the Earth’s surface.  This means that, in any given summer, they are between 50 and 100 times more likely to occur than they used to be.  Again, this is not a prediction or a model; this is just statistical analysis of weather that has occurred.

Our climate is changing – and we will indeed have to live with it or, if we are unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, die because of it.  As Hansen et al point out; the heat wave in Europe in 2003 killed 50 thousand people.

columbia.edu (2012) Figure 2

columbia.edu (2012) Figure 2

The piece on the Columbia University website includes some helpful colour illustrations such as this one (Figure 2) showing temperature anomaly distribution curves.

The frequency of occurrence (vertical axis) of local temperature anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere (NH) relative to the 1951-1980 baseline, in units of local standard deviation (horizontal axis).  Image credit: NASA/GISS.

Hansen et al describe this increase in the frequency of extremely hot weather events as “the emergence of a subset of the hot category” defined as anomalies exceeding +3 StdDev..  Included among these events are the heat wave and drought in Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico in 2011; and a larger region encompassing much of the Middle East, Western Asia and Eastern Europe (including Moscow) in 2010.

Hansen et al conclude that widespread reluctance to attribute these events to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is no longer justified.  This is because, as already stated, it is now 50 to 100 times more likely that any given event is indeed attributable to ACD.

Despite all this, as Hansen et al acknowledge, the distribution of seasonal temperature anomalies (Fig. 2) also reveals that a significant portion (about 15 percent) of the anomalies are still negative, corresponding to summer-mean temperatures cooler than the average 1951-1980 climate.  Thus, people should not be surprised by the occasional season that is unusually cool. Cool anomalies as extreme as -2 StdDev. still occur, because the anomaly distribution has broadened as well as moved to the right. In other words, as well as getting generally warmer, our climate now encompasses a wider range of extremes.

This is bad news; and saying “it ain’t necessarily so” will not change the probability that it is.

Written by Martin Lack

7 August 2012 at 00:02

I think it is time to connect the dots, people!

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Record-breaking rainfall in the UK, unprecedented storms and temperatures in Washington DC, record-breaking droughts, floods, landslides, and bush-fires all around the world… Will the fake sceptics admit they are wrong when we see 1-in-100 year floods every 5 years? Or must we wait until they are an annual feature? Just how much longer must we wait for people to admit they are wrong; and that this is not normal?

There is none so blind as those who will not see” (Jeremiah 5:21)

People of the world, for God’s sake, please open your eyes!

The world may not be about to end but, are the signs that it is past its best not clear enough to see? This is not random weather; this is what happens when we ignore what scientists have been telling for over 150 years.

Please Connect the Dots!

Written by Martin Lack

1 July 2012 at 23:00

Tragedies – Shakespearean and Greek

with 15 comments

It’s the weekend so, to celebrate, here is a special offer: Two posts for the price of one (i.e. nothing).

A Shakespearean Tragedy in the making
Last night I stumbled upon the second and final part of the BBC’s Simon Schama’s Shakespeare. Here is the trailer for it:

I think very highly of Schama; and this programme did not disappoint. This second episode (I will have to get the DVD) covered the latter years of Elizabeth the First and the early years of James the First – a time during which Shakespeare was extremely daring in the plays he presented (in many cases premiered) to the Monarch – such as Henry V and Richard II (to Elizabeth) and Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear (to James). Of all of these, Hamlet was the most astonishing because the only difference between James the First and the fictional Hamlet is that James did not exact revenge upon his uncle for killing his father.

However, the reason I mention all this is that, towards the end of the programme, Schama, with the help of an array of fine actors delivering Shakespearean monologues to camera, comes to Macbeth. To my shame, Macbeth is the only Shakespearean play I know well (having studied it for O Level when I was 16). However, although it was fascinating to see how Macbeth was a product of its time (as were all the other plays); the viewer was also invited to re-interpret the plays in a modern context. It is therefore very tempting, for me at least, to identify with the plight of Macbeth; who seems to be stuck on the set of the movie Groundhog Day. To me this is where humanity has got stuck. We (or at least a sizeable proportion of us) know that what we are doing is wrong, but we seem powerless to change the course of history; and must watch the tragedy unfold…

…Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth – Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)

———————

A Greek Tragedy we made earlier
Last Monday, I missed but, thanks to Paul Handover, have now watched the BBC Panorama programme about Greece, entitled Life and Debt: A Greek Tragedy. This is essential viewing for all those (like me) inclined to blame the Greeks for the mess they are in. Someone has posted the 30-minute programme on You tube (embeddd here) but, if pushed for time, a synopsis is appended below…

The programme is presented by veteran BBC News anchor, John Humphrys, whose Son has lived in Greece for 20 years and who has himself now got a house in the Peloponnese. In the course of the programme, Humphrys tours Greece interviewing people about how the crisis is affecting them; and how they feel it should be solved. However, before all of that, Humphrys explains the recent history: Nazi occupation, monarchy, civil war, military rule and democracy… It is easy to forget but, by its own standards at least, Greece was quite prosperous before it joined the Euro Zone in 2000. As Humphrys puts it, “Greece cooked the books in order to get in and the EU turned a blind eye… and lent them the money anyway” (paraphrased). Since then, exports have gone down and imports have gone up; the proportion of Greeks involved in fishing or farming has gone from 17% to just 3%; unemployment has risen to 20%; and the proportion of people living in relative poverty is heading towards 40%. In short, the EU has done to Greece what the Common Agricultural Policy has done to Africa – it has made it dependent upon the EU rather than helped it to become self-sustaining.
See my If the CAP does not fit we should not wear it (27 January 2012).

However, possibly the most revealing interview Humphrys conducts is that with a Greek hero of WW2 (who risked his life in an act of defiance to pull down the swastika on the Acropolis). To many in Greece, like this cultural icon, it seems the EU is nothing more than a cover-story for German Imperialism. Having failed to dominate Europe by military force, Germany is seeking to dominate it by stealth. Does this indeed explain why Germany seems remarkably content to bail-out so many European countries (on its own terms of course)? As the economy of every other nation fails one-by-one, will Germany end up ruling over a United States of Europe? If so, although plenty of shots will have been fired (plastic bullets and tear gas only of course), Germany will achieve what Hitler could not; and will do so without declaring war on anyone or anything. The only casualty will be effective and efficient government; and any illusion of representative democracy.

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