Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘Civilisation’ Category

Are we all Britain haters now?

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Here in the UK, the Daily Mail has got itself a lot of publicity for printing an article last Saturday entitled “Man Who Hated Britain”.  The article was about the late father of Ed Milliband, who is the current leader of the Labour Party (and could therefore be our next Prime Minister).  For the avoidance of any doubt, I must declare that I think such an eventuality would be a disaster for Britain.  However, I digress…

Basically, the Daily Mail’s argument is that, if for no other reason than that he died in 1994, many people may not realise that Ralph Miliband was a passionate believer in the political philosophy of a certain Karl Marx (oh and, yes, he was Jewish as well).  Choosing to ignore the fact Milliband senior joined the Royal Navy and settled down to married life here after the War, the Daily Mail based its entire article on something he wrote in his diary when he arrived here as a refugee from the Nazis (at the tender age of 17).

Despite asking for and being given a right to reply, Ed Milliband has had to put up with the Daily Mail refusing to apologise and – indeed repeating its criticism of his father.  In essence, therefore, the Daily Mail’s position is that you cannot love Britain if you are a Socialist.  However, this is nothing new; this has always been the position of the Daily Mail – they have just never found such a blunt way to say it before.  The Independent newspaper has helpfully summarised the whole story in this article yesterday.

Unfortunately for the Daily Mail, this is an easily falsifiable argument; especially when you consider that the newspaper routinely uses xenophobic headlines to attract readers:  It does not matter whether the subject is radical Islamic preachers, environmental protestors, or climate scientists – according to the Daily Mail they all hate Britain.

With regard to radical Islamic preachers in Britain, I agree it does seem somewhat hypocritical to criticise the country in which you have chosen to live.  However, to be entirely fair, they have chosen to work here; and they are living here in the hope that they can turn the UK into an Islamic state.  Does this mean that they ‘hate’ Britain?  No it does not; it just means they don’t like it the way it is.

Exactly the same logic applies to environmental campaigners and climate scientists.  To label them as anti-British (anti-Western or anti-progress) is grossly unfair.  They are not anti-British – they just believe Britain would be better if it was not at war with Nature.

So what is the Daily Mail up to?  I think it is essentially peddling xenophobia.  This may well have originated as an evolutionary survival mechanism.  However, today, in the absence of any predators, xenophobic tribalism is essentially a maladaptive coping strategy:  It is a method of absolving oneself of responsibility for anything; and shifting the blame for everything on to somebody else.

This is essentially what climate change denial is:  Many of those of a religious persuasion tell themselves humans cannot be changing the Earth’s climate (because God won’t allow that to happen).  Many of those of a humanist persuasion tell themselves that we are not changing the Earth’s climate (because that would require us all to admit we have made a mess of things).

Seen in this light, we would all appear to be planet haters now.  If we can admit this to ourselves and to each other; I think that this might be the first step on a long road towards doing something about it.

In the meantime, my response to those who think there is still something inherently evil about Communism is as follows:

It is amazing how so many – who no doubt consider themselves to be very much right-of-centre politically – forget that the first people to be called “Christians” would today be described as Communists.* So, I think a little less contempt is called for; and a lot less hypocrisy.

Marxism is essentially Industrialism without the Capitalism. Whereas Marxism prioritises production; Capitalism prioritises consumption. As such, both are deeply mired in the unsustainable delusion of ‘growthmania’.  It may be that Capitalism has proven itself far better at wealth creation, but, neither system has proven to be very good at providing equal opportunity for all.

* The Bible makes it clear that, in the very earliest years at least, Christians formed a self-supporting community of people within which property and food were shared. Therefore, those who think there is something inherently evil about Communism have got stuck in the past: McCarthyism never did do anyone much good; and it is now at least 50 years out of date.

Having said all that, I am still not a ‘Watermelon’ (i.e. green on the outside but red on the inside).  I remain a (non-financial) supporter of the Conservative Party and, as such, I live in the hope that one day soon it may stop allowing ideology to prejudice its attitude to science; and accept what climate scientists are telling us will happen if we do not take radical steps to decarbonise our economies by 2050.  For goodness sake, even business leaders are now saying we must do this.  What the hell are we waiting for?

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UPDATE:   On 1 October 2013, in a welcome attempt to put the record straight, The Daily Telegraph has re-published its very fair-minded obituary of Professor Ralph Milliband from its edition of 7 June 1994.  (H/T  Roger Davies [@4589roger] on Twitter).

Music for 21 December 2012

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Following on from yesterday’s post of an R.E.M. classic (It’s The End Of The World As We Know It), here is more of my choice of music inspired by the fact that the World is NOT going to end today…

Incidentally, this makes me inclined, as I did back on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, to quote Carl Jung:

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift; that is why we call it ‘the present’.

…So then, here’s my choice of music for this day in history (from U2)…

Walk On (All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

…and…

Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World

Written by Martin Lack

21 December 2012 at 12:36

Is it the end of the World as we know it?

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No it is not; but thanks to R.E.M. for the inspiration!

Written by Martin Lack

20 December 2012 at 12:00

How a post-carbon World might look

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Yesterday, on Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs, Paul Handover posted the 4th and penultimate part of his serialisation of the recent work of Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute under the title ‘Down is the new up‘.  As Alexander himself says, it “…is a challenging mixture of utopian and dystopian speculation”.  However, whatever else it may be, it is an amazingly thorough analysis of our predicament.  Here are my main take-aways:

4.1  Water – it’s the reason I first got into hydrogeology – and the statistics presented here are very sobering “…we could live with dignity without showering or bathing in the accustomed fashion… high water consumption is really a product of wastefulness…”

4.2  Food – Air transportation is one activity where fossil fuel use is not substitutable.  However, what I had not considered before was the fact that localism is essential in food production because the current globalised system “will not be economically sustainable as oil continues to get more expensive.”

4.3  Clothing – At last I have found someone who shares my distaste for the fashion and advertising industries that sell only discontent.  However, an organised boycott would simply put a lot of people out of work… But, of course, they will be needed to cultivate the land… Oh boy, is this going to be a hard sell…

4.4  Housing – Sadly, much of the UK’s Victorian housing has been demolished in the misguided belief that new is better.  It might be if the new stuff was being built to the highest-possible energy efficiency standards but often it is not – and it is unlikely to be as long-lasting as that which it replaced.  Refurbishment is the much better option; it is a form of recycling.

4.5  Energy“energy consumption per capita in a sufficiency economy may be in the vicinity of half that of Western European economies today” – now there’s a challenge!  Here again, Dr Alexander appears to endorse Schalk Cloete’s arguments (see yesterday’s post on this blog) regarding the implications of the end of the era of cheap, abundant and dense forms of energy (i.e. fossil fuels) – “The major obstacle in the way of completely decarbonising the economy is the fact that, currently, fossil fuels are required to make renewable energy systems, such as the solar panels and wind turbines.”

4.6  Transport – Again, yet more unemployment seems an inevitable consequence of the end of globalisation.  Freight transport by air appears doomed but Tourism is not even mentioned.  However, its demise seems to be assumed – this too will be a hard sell.  Electric cars are expensive; and making them requires the use of fossil fuels.

4.7  Work and Production – Dr Alexander’s vision of the future looks like a return to medieval feudalism. If so, there are an awful lot of young people wasting racking up ludicrous levels of debt to get themselves a Tertiary education that will be totally useless.

4.8  Money, Markets and Exchange – An interesting conflict appears inevitable between the hitherto relentless advance of technology towards a paperless economy (i.e. electronic funds transfer) and a return to much older forms of trade (i.e. bartering).  What is certain is that Alexander conceives globalised Capitalism as destined to become the economic equivalent of a cosmological Black Hole – “It may be that as economies are suffocated by expensive oil in coming years, and find themselves at the ‘end of growth,’ debt-based systems which require growth will collapse under the weight of their own debts and the alternative system will arise in a very unplanned, ad hoc, and possibility decentralised way.”

4.9  Miscellaneous – Both Marxism and Anarchism are critiqued.  However, Alexander fails to note the fact, which many other authors have pointed out,  that Marxism is merely growthmania without the Capitalism:  It is focussed on production rather than consumption; but it still pre-supposes quantitative economic growth as the only way to measure progress (and has thus always failed).  Alexander seems to see localism and grassroots revolution as the most likely way in which a post-carbon era will emerge.  To me, this seems to pre-suppose the institutional failure of globalised Capitalism but, I guess we shall soon find out…

The ethics of fossil fuel use

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I am grateful to Schalke Cloete, of One in a Billion blog fame, for alerting me to this public debate, which was held on Monday at the privately-financed Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina (the US State that has passed a Law that makes accelerating sea level rise illegal).

The debate appears to have been arranged at the behest of one of the two protagonists, Alex Epstein (founder of the Center for Industrial Progress) – whose challenge Bill McKibben (350.org) clearly accepted.

The video below runs to nearly 100 minutes in length so, I suspect, only very few will watch it.  Anyone who does will find it very rewarding but, for the majority that probably will not watch it, I have summarised its content below.

To start with both speakers are given 10 minutes to put their case, they are then given opportunity to respond to the points made by the other; to cross-examine each other; and to put forward closing arguments.

Bill McKibben went first and started by stating that fossil fuels were good for us but that the advantages of their continued use are now outweighed by the disadvantages and, therefore, wherever we can, we should stop using them.  He then provided fact-based evidence for twelve risks we face if we do not do this:
1. Ocean acidification which will kill corals and endanger a wide variety of shellfish.
2. Melting Ice caps and permafrost (sea level rise and methane release).
3. Increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events of all kinds.
4. Reduced crop for crops of all kinds and consequential increases in food prices.
5. Mass extinction of species (that cannot migrate or whose habitats are degraded).
6. Inundation of coastal cities (with all the collateral damage and disruption that will cause).
7. Increased frequency and severity of forest fires.
8. Increasing numbers of deaths resulting from atmospheric pollution and heat waves.
9. Economic growth and development will be hindered by increased expenditure on mitigation.
10. Socio-political instability and insecurity arising from all of the above (see the Pentagon’s QDR).
11. Libertarian desires will be endangered by the increasing need for autocratic responses.
12. Democracy itself is endangered by policy inaction being promoted by the fossil fuel lobby.

In response to all of this, Alex Epstein insisted that the risks were unproven.  This being North Carolina (where accelerating sea level rise has been outlawed), he insisted that there is no evidence that things will get that bad.  He then proceeded to point out that climate-related deaths (whatever they are) have gone down over time, whilst CO2 levels have gone up.  Despite the fact that he did not himself offer any evidence, he dismissed all of McKibben’s well-referenced arguments as mere speculation.  He then trotted out numerous climate denial classics including the mutually contradictory arguments that (a) global warming has stopped and (b) technology will enable us to solve the problem.  Alex repeatedly referred to fossil fuels as affordable abundant energy; and repeatedly referred to it as real energy (implying that somehow renewable energy is not real?)

Bill McKibben responded to all of this by pointing out that correlation is not proof of causation; and provided yet more evidence to back up his original assertions.  He questioned why anyone would champion increased fuel use rather than promoting the reduction of demand through improved energy efficiency.  He questioned why Epstein was so defeatist about the prospects for renewable energy; and pointed out that many of the problems he cited had in fact already been solved.  Renewable energy is real energy and, since the alternatives to fossil fuel exist, its use should therefore be maximised as fast as possible.

Epstein responded by asserting that all environmentalists are anti-progress because they are anti –hydroelectric projects and anti-nuclear.  He therefore challenged McKibben to endorse the legitimacy of both as potential solutions.  He then trotted out yet more climate change denial classics such as (i) CO2 is a trace gas (citing the rise from 0.03% volume to 0.04% volume as insignificant – even though that would actually represent a 33% increase); and (ii) climate model predictions have proven to be unreliable (when in fact they have proven to be overly optimistic).  Despite the fact that Epstein – Philosophy and Computer Science major –  is clearly no expert in the natural sciences, he even tried and failed to refute the fact that ocean acidification is not happening (by claiming they are becoming less alkaline and more neutral).

Epstein was then invited to rebut McKibben’s arguments. In so doing he repeated his mantra about the folly of giving up on the most affordable and abundant energy source we have, which would prevent progress; and unnecessarily condemn millions to a life of misery.  He asserted that fossil fuels had made modern agriculture possible and solved the problem of world hunger that people worried about 40 years ago.  Furthermore, given the growth in human population since then, he suggested that we now need fossil fuels in order to prevent widespread malnutrition and starvation.

In rebutting Epstein’s arguments, McKibben started by repeating that fossil fuels had made many good things possible in the past but that the risks of their continued use now outweigh the disadvantages.   Climate change has already resulted in more food being eaten than grown in 6 of the last 11 years; and that unabated increase in fossil fuel use will only make it increasingly hard to grow crops.  McKibben also questioned the wisdom of trying to refute the opinions of the World’s leading ecologists by asserting that our oceans are not actually turning into acids.

In their closing speeches, Epstein and McKibben recapped their main arguments:  Epstein questioned the validity of all the evidence McKibben had presented (but presented none himself); and questioned the integrity of McKibben – accusing him of misrepresenting the situation (for what motive?).  In complete contrast, McKibben did not use such language and, being careful not to attack Epstein personally, repeated his main point that the fossil fuel industry is the only one that does not pay to dispose of its waste.  He then concluded by suggesting that fossil fuel companies need to decide to become energy companies instead; and embrace the use of all the alternatives that we have.

The crime of Socrates

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(or is it the curse of Cassandra?)

Andrew Marr’s History of the World is the latest BBC programme featuring the eponymous presenter (although the word Human is clearly missing from the title somewhere). The second installment was broadcast in the UK on Sunday night and, I have to say, it was an improvement on the first.  Some may ask, “If you thought the first was bad then why did you watch the second?”  Well, the answer is that I was almost willing Andrew Marr to prove me wrong.  You see, I suspect he is peddling a libertarian agenda; but I am hoping that he is not.

The first programme in the series covered the emergence of Homo sapiens from Africa 70,000 years ago – and their subsequent conquest of the entire planet (and the extinction of Neanderthals in the process) – up to the emergence of agriculture, urbanisation and civilisation 7,000 years ago. The worst thing about the programme was the repetitive – and almost subliminal – message that climate change is natural and we cannot stop it.  Wheareas Marr emphasised the way in which Homo sapiens were almost wiped out by natural changes in climate; he appeared to gloss over a complementary truth:  Modern civilisation only came about – and has only persisted – because of the relative stability of sea levels and temperature over that last 7,000 years.  I suspect, therefore, that Marr has been having too many lunches with the likes of Lords Monckton and Lawson.  Whatever the case may be, episode 1 does not seem to have impressed Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent newspaper either.

In the second programme, this ‘climate change is natural’ meme made a brief appearance at the start; only to be juxtaposed with the suggestion that, although nature has been a tough adversary, human beings are their own worst enemy.  Even though I not misanthropic, I am much more content with this assertion than the one that says climate change is natural and/or we must adapt to it:  This is an utterly fallacious argument that can only be sustained by ignoring the fact that the change now underway is much faster than all previous natural change because human activity is causing most of it.

Nevertheless, I think Andrew Marr redeemed himself somewhat in this second episode:  With his usual amiable style of delivery, he talked the viewer through the history of human civilisation, visiting places like the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the Persian city of Babylon, the Lydian city of Sardis, and the Greek city of Athens.  Also thrown into the mix were brief accounts of the rise and fall of the Phoenicians as a maritime trading empire; the emergence of Buddhism in India and of Confucism in China; and Alexander the Great’s admirable early attempts at cosmopolitanism and globalisation (nice ideas; shame about the outcome).

However, as indicated by the title of this post, the thing that grabbed my attention was the emergence of what we now call democracy in Greece (i.e. in Greek, Demos = people; and Cratos = power); and how contingent our concept of democracy is…  If the Persians had not gone down to such a highly-implausible defeat in a battle 26 miles from Athens, we might be missing a lot more than just a name for the longest event on the athletics schedule at the Olympic games:  Had the Persians beaten the Athenian army at Marathon, the course of human history would have been very different indeed!

So why have I focussed on the case of Socrates, who was effectively accused and convicted of being dangerously subversive in 399BC and, having been found guilty, was required to kill himself by drinking poison…?  Well, leaving aside the bizarre method of “execution”, what exactly was his crime?  According to Andrew Marr, Socrates merely raised questions regarding the limitations of democracy and/or how dissenters should be dealt with.  According to Wikipedia (link above), Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of the city and of impious acts (namely “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”).   Socrates philosophical musings were clearly seen as subversive and anti-democratic.  However, all Socrates appears to have been guilty of is being one of the first to recognise the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas.  He basically challenged the notion that majority opinion will always be right; and championed the idea that expert opinions should carry more weight. He also held unusual religious views.  He was, in essence, a free thinker, a non-conformist, and anti-Establishment.

Modern science has much for which it should be grateful to Socrates; and so have Environmentalists:  In essence, environmentalism is the consequence of thinking outside the box; it arises from pursuing the consequences of science wherever they lead; and refusing to be prevented from reaching any particular conclusion simply because it may be politically inconvenient.

Nowadays, fortunately, those who challenge the received wisdom of our political leaders are not executed (by poisoning, hanging, beheading or any other unpleasant means).  Unfortunately, however, we just seem to be ignored instead.

Therefore, even though all we are really doing is embracing the Newtonian reality that all actions have consequences (especially when it comes to issues surrounding waste, pollution, and recycling), we seem to have swapped the philosophical legacy of Socrates for the mythological curse of Cassandra (whom no-one would believe).

Iceland – a clear and present danger

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Climate change represents a clear and present danger to human civilisation (which we could have prevented).  However, the volcanoes of Iceland actually represent a much greater – or at least a much more imminent – danger (which we cannot prevent).  Here is how Jeremy Irons describes the threat in the opening sequence to the episode of the excellent Life on Fire television documentary series dedicated to looking at them:

Like many other islands, Iceland is a product of volcanic activity.  However, Iceland is the most volcanically-active island on Earth; and many geologists consider it to be home to some of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.  Indeed, Iceland has at least 30 active volcanoes but concern is now focussed on about half a dozen of these, http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Imgs/Gif/Iceland/Maps/map_iceland_volcanoes.gifwhich are located beneath or in close proximity to ice.  Of these, Grimsvotn, Hekla, and Katla appear to be the most dangerous.

Grimsvotn is the most active, erupting almost every year.  Fortunately(?), it is buried beneath part of the largest permanent Ice Cap in Europe – Vatnajokull…  Incidentally, we tend to describe these things as permanent but, I feel compelled to point out that bare rock of peaks in the Austrian Alps and the Rocky Mountains in the USA – previously considered “permanently” covered in snow or ice – are now being exposed as a result of global warming

Anyway, to get back to Iceland, Grimsvotn is buried beneath several thousand feet of ice but it is remote; and the outpourings of glacial melt-water the eruptions cause do not seem to do too much damage.  By contrast, Hekla is not so remote and is not buried beneath an ice cap (just a small glacier).  However, although known to have a history of violent eruptions, Hekla is not thought to be ready to erupt (like all Icelandic volcanoes it is being routinely monitored for signs of activity).  The really big concern is Katla, which is known have a history of violent eruptions and its underlying magma chamber is known to be full (rather than empty).  Therefore, although it could erupt within weeks or not erupt for 10 years, it is considered – due to the regularity of its historic eruptions – to be ready to erupt and likely to do so in the near future (at least as one measures time in the context of the lifecycle of active volcanoes).

When Katla erupts it will make the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 (which it normally follows; and which caused so much disruption to aviation) seem insignificant by comparison:  The scientists estimate that Katla (with a 10km-wide Caldera buried beneath 750 metres of ice) will be 50 times more powerful eruption than Eyjaf… that of its close neighbour in 2010.  In December 2011, the BBC News website picked up on the increasing levels of seismicity around the summit of Katla, reporting that New Icelandic volcano eruption could have global impact.  One thing seems certain, an eruption at Katla will send much larger quantities of ash much higher into the atmosphere – such that they will stay there for years and disprupt weather patterns on a global scale.

The last time anything remotely similar happened – the Laki fissure eruption of a dozen or more separate volcanoes – in 1783, it is estimated that 300,000 people died in Europe from the short-term effects (i.e. much of Europe was blanketed in a noxious mixture of poisonous and acidic gases).  Furthermore, it has been estimated that 1 million people died as a result of longer term effects (i.e. the failure of harvests and colder-than-normal winters in each of the three years following the eruption), which are thought to have been partly responsible for causing the French Revolution.

Given that the global population at the time was less than 1 billion, it does not take a mathematical genius to work out that, notwithstanding the fact that this will not be a surprise when it happens (thanks to all monitoring being done), the effects of an eruption of this magnitude today will be somewhat greater than interrupting a few people’s business or holiday plans.  Basically, our modern industrial globalised civilisation has not witnessed anything like it and it will affect the whole of the northern hemisphere if not the entire planet.  Here’s how the British, normally-unflappable, Daily Telegraph newspaper reported the news to its readers on the second anniversary of the 2010 eruption (earlier this year):

Iceland volcano: and you thought the last eruption was bad…

So all I can do now is echo the famous words of Edward R Murrow, and say, “Good night and good luck!”

Or maybe, if I can be permitted a little gallows humour:

Knock, knock?

Who’s there?

Armageddon!

Armageddon, who?

Armageddon out of here!

(i.e. I think it really is time I made good use of my Dual Nationality and emigrated to Australia!)

Written by Martin Lack

17 September 2012 at 00:02

Seeing plants as Nature’s essential alchemists

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We humans have achieved some amazing things:  Harnessing fire, refining metals, and generating power from steam were all important achievements in their time.  Understanding the structure of the atom and devising The Periodic Table of Elements (before many of them had even been identified) was pretty darn clever too.

Periodic Table of the Elements

Whilst not wishing to put anyone off reading further by getting bogged down in chemisty or atomic physics, it should be noted that the atomic number of each element shown here is the number of protons in its nucleus. With this in mind, I would invite you to consider that one thing we have failed to do is turn one substance into another.  Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we cannot use heat or pressure to do this:

5 Al + Si = Au        (i.e. 5 times 13 = 65, and 65+14 = 79)

Is it not therefore amazing to consider that turning one substance into another is something Nature does very well? Fortunately, without appearing to try very hard at all, plants are able to use light to do this:

6CO2 + 6H2O  = C6H12O6 + 6O2         (i.e. Photosynthesis)
(C6H12O6 here being glucose = energy!)

It is just as well really, because we would not be here to wonder at their achievement if they did not do it. This is the point made in this brilliant video:

Furthermore, in the absence of sunlight, bacteria living near hydrothermal vents on the sea floor can do this sort of thing:

6CO2 + 6H2O + 3H2S → C6H12O6 + 3H2SO4         (i.e. Chemosynthesis)

Chemosynthesis may be capable of supporting life below the surface of Mars, and on Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.  Indeed, it has even been suggested that, at temperatures well below freezing, other substances in liquid form could form the basis of cryogenic ecosystems – such as liquid methane on Titan – one of Saturn’s moons.

Whatever the case may be, life on Earth would not be possible without photosynthesis, but fortunately, we humans don’t have to stand around all day extracting our energy from the Sun; we don’t even have to stand around all day extracting it from plants (although the number of humans on the planet is now beginning to make that seem attractive).  We have, of course, found much more concentrated sources of energy to use:
— In order to fuel our metabolism, we have become accustomed to eating meat; and
— In order to fuel our civilisation, we have become accustomed to burning fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, because of the rate at which both are now being done, neither is now sustainable in the long term:  We simply do not have enough fertile land on which to graze livestock for increasing numbers of humans to eat; and the Earth simply does not have the capacity to recycle the waste generated by our burning of fossil fuels.

There is no such thing as a free lunch – and our burning of fossil fuels is having adverse consequences.  It would therefore seem that, on Earth at least, nothing lasts forever; be it fossil fuels or civilisations:  Fossil fuels will run out eventually; but burning them is endangering all life on Earth.  Trees cannot migrate; and neither can fertile soils.  Even if CO2 were just plant food, this would not change the fact that rising temperatures; shifting climate zones; more and more unpredictable and extreme weather of all kinds; and the inundation of fertile lands by rising sea levels… are all going to reduce our ability to feed ourselves.

The only question that remains is therefore this one:

Which do we want to run out of first – fossil fuel or fertile land?

Is there intelligent life on Earth?

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

—————

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

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

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

—————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What on Earth are people protesting about?

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It seems to me that an awful lot of people are protesting about the wrong things:

People protesting about solutions
In the course of yesterday’s post, ‘Ignorance is the enemy of humanity’, I linked to an item on Climate Denial Crock of the Week that highlighted a report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper suggesting that a group of ultra-conservatives “is ramping up an offensive on multiple fronts to turn the American public against wind farms and Barack Obama’s energy agenda” .
See http://climatecrocks.com/2012/05/09/its-clean-cheap-and-creates-jobs-and-that-is-exactly-why-windbaggers-hate-it/.

Therefore, it seems, in addition to having to deal with an organised campaign to deny the reality of the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), we must now deal with an organised attempt to prevent the implementation of solutions to that problem? Just how crazy can things get?

Sadly, I fear they could get a whole load more crazy yet: The prudent path towards a sustainable future for humanity and the unintended ecocide of many other species (as a consequence of atmospheric pollution, habitat destruction and ocean acidification) – not to mention the wilful over-fishing of our seas – appears to be strewn with many obstacles including pride, arrogance, stubbornness and ideological adherence to the principle of the free market.

When it came to preventing a hole in the ozone layer from getting out of control, the international community demonstrated that it could act appropriately in order to prevent ecological catastrophe. However, what many do not realise is that this was only possible because the multi-national manufacturers of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs – that had done and were doing all the damage) already had alternatives ready to replace them. For some reason, senior executives in the Energy business seem remarkably reluctant to do the right thing and – just as we did when we realised how dangerous asbestos is – stop mining fossil fuels.

The reason of course is money: Up until now, there have been huge profits to be made in the refinement and commoditisation of fossil fuels; and no incentive to spend money to make alternatives financially viable. However, the solution to their profits being squeezed should not be to make customers pay ever more ridiculous prices; the solution should be to find a cheaper and sustainable product to sell.

People protesting about trivia
If you want to know whether what you are worrying about is important, ask yourself if it will matter in 100 years time. Some things that would have passed this test were the abolition of slavery; and all efforts to extend the right to vote to adults irrespective of wealth or gender. Things that fail this test include pension provision and retirement age (as per the protests in London yesterday).

What is the matter with all these people? Just how bad do things have to get before people will stop worrying about the petty issues of their individual lives; and start worrying about how the way in which we all live our brief lives is impacting on the almost unimaginably long history of life on Earth? Like a person in a car locked in an air-tight garage with the engine running, the Earth’s entire ecosystem is slowly being asphyxiated. How is it possible for people not to notice what is happening? What possible reason do we have for not turning the engine off?

Since we cannot spend our way out of a debt crisis, economic growth may be our only hope. However, we need to wake up to the fact that the only people who think perpetual growth on a finite planet is sustainable indefinitely are economists. No-one is demanding that we all go back to living in caves but, unless we take significant action to prevent ACD, that may well be where our descendants will end up. Despite the brain (as opposed to bowel) evacuations of people like Simon Carr on the website of the Independent newspaper, ACD is not like the Millennium Bug (or any other manufactured scare story). As James Hansen said in a recent article in the New York Times newspaper, “Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. “. Focussing on the insanity of not pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels now that we know burning them is causing the problem, Hansen says:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies… Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

Anyone who has witnessed an outdoor cremation will be familiar with the smell, which is enough to put you off barbecues for quite a while… Therefore, bearing that thought in mind, I will leave you with another:
It is time for humanity to wake up and smell the coffee because, unless we do, we may instead soon wake up and smell the toffee!

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