Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘energy crisis’ Category

A personal exchange of email with LEGO

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In my original email to LEGO (via the Greenpeace website), I tried to be as brief as I could. Sadly, all I got was a generic reply that did not address the issues I was raising. Here is the correspondence to-date (any further responses from Lego will be appended as comments by me):

—–Original Message—–
From: Martin Lack
Sent: 04 July 2014 19:48
To: Responsibility
Subject: Invest in the future not the past – stop sponsoring Shell

Dear LEGO,

Fossil fuels are a 19th century technology and a finite resource. A post-carbon era is inevitable, the only question that remains is whether 10 billion humans will be able to share in it.

I’m really disappointed to learn that you have agreed to help Shell clean up its image, while it helps to endanger the environmental biodiversity of the Arctic.

You claim that it is your ambition to protect children’s right to live in a healthy environment, both now and in the future. If that is true, please cut your ties with Shell now.

Yours faithfully,

Martin Lack

———————

On 17 July 2014 10:08, CustomerResponseTeam@LEGO.com <CustomerResponseTeam@lego.com> wrote:

Dear Martin Lack,

Thanks for getting in touch with us.

I’m sorry to hear you feel so strongly about our co-promotion with Shell. We really appreciate you taking the time to write and share your concern with us, and I’ve passed your thoughts and opinions to our promotions team.

We’re determined to help make the world that children will inherit a better place. Our unique contribution is to inspire and develop children through creative play. By entering a co-promotion like the one with Shell, we can put LEGO® bricks into the hands of even more children around the world. This allows more children to develop their imagination and creative skills through building and creating models with LEGO bricks.

The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in one specific part of the world. We expect that Shell lives up to their responsibilities wherever they operate and that they take appropriate action to any potential claims should this not be the case. We’re sad to see the LEGO brand used as a tool in any dispute. We believe this is a matter where Greenpeace and Shell must work out their differences between themselves.

For more information, you’re welcome to read our CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s comment on this Greenpeace campaign. There’s also more information about our responsibility agenda in this area of LEGO.com. More information on the environmental targets that we have set for ourselves can be found here.

Please let us know if you need anything else.

Kind regards,

Tanja
LEGO® Service

———————

Dear Tanja/LEGO,

Thank you for taking the time to personalise your response to me; and for explaining LEGO’s thinking in working with Shell. I understand and accept that, since Lego is itself a product of the petrochemical industry, such a “co-promotion” makes good business sense.   However, the Arctic is not just a “specific part of the world” in which Shell is operating. In order to preserve a habitable planet for future generations, the Arctic is somewhere that Shell should not be operating!  Even if it were good, therefore, this makes Shell’s operational safety record (etc) irrelevant.

The only reason it is now possible to operate in the Arctic is because the ice is melting; and most of the ice is melting because of the exponential growth of fossil fuel use since the Industrial Revolution.  Humans may well use fossil fuels to make all sorts of things (including Lego) but this does not make it right for us all to disregard the long-term consequences of continuing to pump geospheric carbon (i.e. that derived from fossil fuels) – in the form of CO2 – into the biosphere (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans).  In combination with deforestation and the exponential growth of livestock farming, global warming and ocean acidification were therefore an inevitable result of the exponential growth of the human population on this planet since the Industrial Revolution. However, now we know we are in a hole, is it not time we stopped digging? See my blog post regarding the Rio+20 Summit: ‘When in hole keep digging?’ (21 June 2012).

If LEGO truly wants to preserve a habitable environment and planet, it should place conditions upon its support for Shell.  Given that the vast majority of relevant scientists agree that there are now 5 times more fossil fuels left on this planet than it would ever be safe for us to burn – something the IEA, IMF, OECD and Pentagon all acknowledge – LEGO needs to encourage Shell to find alternative means to meet (or reduce) global demand for fossil fuels. As such, although “turkeys will never vote for Christmas”, the petrochemical industry needs to invest in finding non-fossil alternatives for its current products.  Such things definitely exist (e.g. biosythetic fuels and energy from waste products).  What is lacking is the corporate will or political incentive to pursue them.  Things that are worth doing are rarely the easy option.  Shell’s exploration in the Arctic is both the wrong option and the lazy option; one that is collectively endangering the future habitability of this planet.

Therefore, I hope I may look forward to LEGO placing conditions upon its future support for Shell, which needs to adopt a long-term business strategy that does not contradict the science and economics underlying the call for humans to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. For more information, please see this recent blog post: ‘Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change’ (2 May 2014).

Yours very sincerely,

Martin Lack

Written by Martin Lack

23 July 2014 at 12:00

Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change

with 9 comments

GeoscientistMay14The Geoscientist is the Fellowship magazine of the Geological Society of London.  With the Permission of the Editor of the magazine, I hereby republish extracts from three items in the most recent issue (cover image shown here) of the magazine:

(1) The Soapbox item (i.e. guest op-ed) by Roger Dunshea;
plus Book Reviews of:
(2) William Hay’s Experimenting on a Small Planet; and
(3) Jermemy Leggett’s The Energy of Nations.

There will, no doubt, be howls of protest from all the ‘climate ostriches’ within the Geological Society – those who dispute the problematic nature of the reality that:

(a) the Earth’s fossil fuel resources are non-renewable and finite;
(b) burning them is the primary cause of ongoing climate disruption; and
(c) feeding 10 billion humans will be very hard without fossil fuels.

Sadly, however, reality is not altered by our refusal to face it!

——-

(1) The Only Way is Ethics (Opinion piece by Roger Dunshea*)

dunsheaWe all know geology is the most enjoyable of sciences, bringing together a differential of maths, a wave of physics, a whiff of chemistry and a gene of biology…  Our science combines analytical techniques in the laboratory with equally important observation, sampling and experimentation in the field…  We grapple with the fundamental structures of this planet, its minerals and history, and the enormous magnitude of time it has taken us to get to where we are now. As a group of scientists we are in a unique position to appreciate that this planet’s rock-based economic resources are essentially finite and that their replacement is either not possible or may take at least mega-millennia…

These resources have delivered abundant power and materials, resulting in outstanding increases in agricultural and industrial output, as well as some glinting adornments for the celebs. The average lifespan of Homo sapiens has been transformed and global numbers have increased at an astounding rate…

Geologists specialise in different areas of the science…  Geology has made a major contribution to global society but do we risk threatening the prospects of future generations due to the current unsustainable levels of extraction?  Should geologists start thinking more about helping the long term economic prospects of Homo sapiens?

So while our peers in the medical and life sciences are developing new ethical standards to protect the wellbeing of current and future generations, is it not now time to start discussing and developing a set of geological scientific ethics that can support very long-term global economic sustainability?

(*Roger Dunshea spent most of his career in the UK public sector in managerial and financial roles)

(2) Experimenting on a Small Planet (by William Hay)

bookcoverhayThis thick and well-illustrated volume is a highly readable tour through the multidisciplinary science behind Earth’s oceanographic and atmospheric warming and cooling on both geologic and anthropogenic timescales, by a major contributor with a phenomenal grasp of the whole…  Many of these topics are neglected in mainline global-warming work, and professionals as well as outsiders will find much that is new to them…

The decreasing temperature gradient south from the Arctic has already made the northern jet stream slower, more frequently erratic, and much more likely to stall in place with the weather masses it controls. Extreme weather is steadily increasing as a result, and more and worse would be coming even if greenhouse gas emissions stop immediately (which of course will not happen). Predicting the specific great changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulations is confounded, however, because there has been no documented past occurrence of an icy Antarctic and an ice-free Arctic from which to reason by analogy, and north-south interconnectedness is uncertain, nor has there been anything comparable to our geologically instantaneous increase of greenhouse gasses to levels unknown for 35 million years.

Bill Hay has searched for explanations of the two major stable states of Phanerozoic climates, “greenhouse” and subordinate “icehouse”, and of the switches between them. He has focused on the Cretaceous and early Paleogene, when the poles were mild and temperate and deep oceans were warm, and the middle and late Cenozoic, when Antarctic continental ice and a mostly-frozen Arctic Ocean produced strikingly different regimes because the world’s oceans were dominated by polar-chilled deep water, and the atmosphere by great latitudinal temperature and pressure gradients, a regime that culminated in the waxing and waning continental ice sheets of the past two million years.

Changes due to even ‘present’ atmospheric CO2 levels would continue to develop for millennia before new quasi-equilibria were established. Mankind is facing catastrophe as a rapidly increasing population simultaneously outgrows its resources and enters a more hostile global environment.

(Review by Warren Hamilton)

(3) The Energy of Nations (by Jeremy Leggett)

bookcoverleggettSubtitled ‘Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance’, the risk that Leggett’s book draws to our attention is that because of the demands of nations for us collectively to cut back on the use of fossil fuels (so as to mitigate the effects of global warming caused by emissions of carbon dioxide) eventually the assets that oil companies have in the ground, and that form the basis for their share price, will become worthless because we shall have to stop using them…

“This risk goes completely unrecognised by all sectors of the financial chain” he says. If that realisation comes suddenly rather than slowly, it could “amount to another bubble bursting and a grave shock to the global financial system”. We are looking at what Leggett calls “unburnable carbon”.

Leggett’s argument also revolves around ‘peak oil’. Production has been running at about 82 million barrels/day, but the rise in demand by 2050 will be such that we will need 110 million Bpd. Yet all that industry has been able to do over the past few years is keep production flat in a time of extended oil prices. Where is all that extra production to come from?…

Leggett’s answer is to call for massive investment in what he calls the cleantech energy sources we shall need in the future. Currently we are saddled with a dysfunctional dinosaur and riddled with short-term thinking. The industry may be right to say there will always be gas, and oil, and coal. But the Stone Age didn’t stop because we ran out of stones. Endless growth is a problem on one planet with finite resources. So what can we do about it? We could all start by reading Leggett for ideas, that’s for sure.

(Review by Colin Summerhayes)

——-

Copyright in all of the above remains with Geoscientist.

The Arctic 30 are back – please help Shell say no to Gazprom

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Latest email from Greenpeace:

Hi,
Five months ago, they tried to silence us. They arrested our activists, and threw them in jail for peacefully protesting oil drilling in the Russian Arctic. The oil giants thought they could scare us away with intimidation. But as long as the Arctic is in danger, we’ll take action to protect it. We’re ready to do whatever it takes to prevent an oil spill in the home of the polar bears. This morning, 80 activists confronted a tanker carrying the same oil the Arctic 30 protested against to a refinery in Rotterdam. Seven of the original Arctic 30 joined them. 

Join the action, tell Shell and Gazprom that Arctic drilling is a losing battle.
As dawn broke, a dramatic chase unfolded with the Rainbow Warrior chasing the Russian tanker into Rotterdam harbor and the Esperanza speeding in to support the Warrior. As the tanker slowed down to turn, the more nimble Rainbow Warrior slipped in front and put itself between the tanker and the dock where it was to unload the oil. Dutch police then quickly stormed the Warrior taking control of the ship and arresting the crew. They are safe and are currently in contact with colleagues on the ground. This isn’t just any oil. It’s the first ever Arctic oil extracted from ice-covered waters by Shell’s partner, Gazprom. It comes from the Prirazlomnaya platform, where the Arctic 30 were violently arrested following a peaceful protest last year.No Arctic Oil
These aren’t just any activists. Despite spending two months in jail for their last protest, seven of the Arctic 30 are back, defiantly fighting for the Arctic. Their fellow brave activists witnessed their unjust detention, but refuse to be silenced.They know the Arctic is too valuable to lose. They aren’t alone. You, me, and over 5 million people are standing with them.

Plagued by our daring actions and relentless pressure, oil giants and investors are finally waking up to the risks of drilling in the frozen north. Just last month, Shell backed out of their Arctic drilling plans. If we keep up this momentum, we know we can win. 

As a citizen and consumer, you have the power to resist the destruction of the Arctic. We engage in peaceful civil disobedience because public confrontation is often the only way to get results from billion dollar companies.

But only you, and our millions of dedicated supporters, can amplify our voice.

Click to stand up against Gazprom, Shell, and all Arctic destroyers. 

Wherever they go, we’ll follow. For every plundered drop of Arctic oil, we’ll make sure the other oil giants pay the price of humiliation and infamy. However they try to destroy the Arctic, we’ll be there to stop them. Thank you for standing with us.

Ben Ayliffe
Arctic Campaigner

 

Slow Down Climate Chaos

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slow down climate chaos

On motorways, your car will use about 33% less fuel if driven at 60mph instead of 80mph.

In my car, this equates to approximately 10p/mile instead of 15p/mile.

As such, for me, it has been an easy behaviour modification to make.

However, as so many seem unable to do it, I have decided to put this sign in the back window of my car.

Written by Martin Lack

24 April 2014 at 12:26

BBC Panorama on the Energy Crisis in the UK

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The BBC have very helpfully posted the recent Panorama programme ‘Energy Bills: Power Failure’ on YouTube (as embedded below). Presented by Tom Heap (who regularly does spots on CountryFile), it is very fair-minded and includes contributions from a wide range of people. Therefore, even if you do not live in the UK, I would recommend watching the programme because: it is very good at describing the problems that we all face; and makes it crystal clear that we must find a solution (but does so in a way that somehow avoids being dogmatic).

Some questions I would like help in answering are as follows:
1. What is the instrumental music used in the opening night-time sequence in Blackpool?
2. Why do so many poor people use the most expensive (pay-as-you-go) way to heat their homes?
3. Can we give Angel Gurria (Secretary-General of OECD) a Nobel Prize for plain-speaking?
4. How can anyone avoid concluding that Ed Milliband is an opportunist and a con-man?
5. Why did the CEO of RWE nPower not admit profit margin on generation (as opposed to sales)?
6. Is the need for decarbonisation actually incompatible with power generation being privatised?
7. Why has carbon capture and storage not been made a priority in order to continue burning coal?
8. Is it realistic to think that (in a post-carbon era) energy will ever be cheaper than it is now?
9. When will the UK government admit that fracking is not actually low-carbon and (thus) not the answer?
10. Has Michael Fallon not read the BGS report that says only 10% of shale gas is probably recoverable?

——–

UPDATE (23/12/2013): I think the answer to Q1 is “Burn”  by Ellie Goulding (see comments below).

Don’t panic about population (energy is the problem)

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First broadcast in the UK on Thursday, ‘Dont’ Panic –The Truth About Population’ was the re-assuring title of an absolutely fascinating programme presented by Hans Rosling, a globally-renowned medical doctor and public health statistician.  Amongst other things, Hans Rosling is Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

Here is how the BBC summarises the programme on their BBC iPlayer website:

Using state-of-the-art 3D graphics and the timing of a stand-up comedian, world-famous statistician Professor Hans Rosling presents a spectacular portrait of our rapidly changing world.  With seven billion people already on our planet, we often look to the future with dread, but Rosling’s message is surprisingly upbeat.  Almost unnoticed, we have actually begun to conquer the problems of rapid population growth and extreme poverty.

Across the world, even in countries like Bangladesh, families of just two children are now the norm – meaning that within a few generations, the population explosion will be over.  A smaller proportion of people now live in extreme poverty than ever before in human history and the United Nations has set a target of eradicating it altogether within a few decades.  In this as-live studio event, Rosling presents a statistical tour-de-force, including his ‘ignorance survey’, which demonstrates how British university graduates would be outperformed by chimpanzees in a test of knowledge about developing countries.

From the outset, Rosling is indeed very funny, engaging and, yes, convincing on many fronts.  He presents compelling data to indicate that the ‘population bomb’ has already exploded; and suggests that there remains a great deal of under-used agricultural land in many poor countries around the World.  However, even so, as well as acknowledging that he is not an expert on climate change, he admits that future energy consumption is the biggest problem we face.

The state-of the-art, computerised graphics (projected onto an invisible glass screen) are indeed a very effective way of making complicated historical data – and predictions about the future – seem remarkably simple.  Although I think there are one or two occasions where Rosling overstates his case, in general he presents a wealth of information that suggests that our problems are not only solvable; in many cases they have already been solved.

Nevertheless, as he himself acknowledges in the opening sequence of the programme, given the relentless growth in human resource consumption (even if not population) and what he calls “unpredictable climate change”, humanity now faces “undeniably huge challenges”.  That being the case, you may well ask, how and why is he so positive?  Well the easy answer would be, watch the programme and you will find out.

However, for those of you without the time or ability to watch the programme, which will only be available in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next few days  - and may not stay posted on YouTube for very long – I will try to summarise its content below.

Rosling’s presentation of 12 thousand years of data (mostly just the last 200 years) is interspersed with fascinating video footage of life for very poor people in Mozambique, etc) but, even so, he manages to be almost unremittingly positive.  Along the way, he highlights numerous misconceptions that British people have regarding the extent to which progress has been made on a range of international problems.  Although I suspect that this is because our media tend only to report bad news, I also think that it is a little too early to declare victory.  We may be winning battles, but the war that humanity is waging against Nature is a very long way from being over.  However, I am getting ahead of myself…  As promised, here are the main points of his presentation, which, as stated above begins with the ending of the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago).

Population Growth
Global human population in 10,000 BC is estimated to have been about 10 million.  By 1800 AD it had only grown to 1 billion.  Industrial revolution (mechanisation of agriculture, improved healthcare, etc.) causes doubling to 2 billion by 1920s and 3 billion by 1950s.  By the 1990s it had doubled again but is now slowing (currently 7 billion).

Whereas the global population has doubled in the last 50 years, most growth has been in Asia.  In Bangladesh, for example, the population has tripled from 50 to 150 million in this time.  However, as in developed countries, the number of children women have (i.e. family size or ‘fertility’) reduces with improved education and healthcare.  Since Independence in 1972, Bangladeshi fertility has reduced from 7 to 2.2.  Globally, in the last 50 years, average fertility has reduced from 5 to 2.5.

Life expectancy is more complicated.  The differences between rich and poor countries were much greater in 1963 than they are now.  Life expectancy in poor countries has generally improved from 35 to 50 years.  We clearly live in a much less divided World (compared to 50 years ago).  However, it is simply not true to say – as Rosling does – that “we no longer live in a divided World.”  Such a remark is simply incompatible with the data presented in the programme; and is little more than a rhetorical victory for positive thinking over reality.

Having said that, the demographic transition (towards low birth and low death rates) does appear to be progressing well in most countries.  This is why, in the absence of other complicating factors, global human population is expected to peak at about 11 billion by the end of this Century.

Education and Healthcare
As noted above, family size reduces once women gain improved access to education and healthcare.  Apart from anything else, people choose to have smaller families once they realise that their children are more likely to survive into adulthood.

Pre-1800, 4 out of 6 children died in childhood.  By 1960, however, 4 out of 5 were surviving!  This was the ‘population bomb’.  Today, on average two adults have two children and both survive.   However, global population is still growing because of the increases in life expectancy.

We have reached ‘Peak Child’, there are 2 billion children in the World today and it is expected that there will be 2 billion at the end of the Century; the increased population will be due to there being a lot more older people.  The current baby boom in the UK is a Western anomaly but, not so the prediction that number of people over 80 years will double in the next 25 years.

Population Distribution
As of 2010, the global population comprised 1 billion in the Americas, 1 billion in Europe (including Russia), 1 billion in Africa, and 4 billion in Asia.  Rosling refers to this as “the World’s ‘PIN code’” (i.e. in 2010 it is ’1114′).  Using this shorthand, Rosling suggests that the Word’s PIN code will by ’1125′ by 2050 and ’1145′ by 2100.

Meeting the demand for resources
Professor Rosling acknowledges the huge challenges this inevitable growth will create.  How can we feed all these people; especially if everyone who is now poor is going to become less so?

Before tackling this question, Rosling shows how much life has improved in recent decades for many people in Mozambique (one of the World’s poorest countries).  However, focusing on the poorest of the poor (subsistence farmers), he then paints a startling picture of the long road of technological development:  For subsistence farmers, the first stage in a long progress of self-improvement will be saving up to buy a bicycle.  It is a truly humbling experience to see how significant and revolutionary such a purchase can be.

Still living in a divided World
Of the 7 billion people alive today, the poorest 1 billion live on as little as 1 US dollar per day (1$/day) whereas the richest billion live on 100$/day (or more).  In the middle, the vast majority are in the middle living on about 10$/day.  For those of us who are most fortunate, everyone else seems poor.  However, if you are among the poorest people in the World, the difference between 1$/day and 10$/day is very significant indeed.

Rosling’s favourite illustration is that of improving average national incomes and life expectancies over the last 200 years.  It is true that this shows that all nations are now better off than they used to be.  However, in his characteristically positive way, Rosling focuses on the fact that things are improving fastest for the poorest (rather than on the historical growth of inequality).

Having said that, Rosling does provide compelling evidence to suggest that the UN’s new target – to eliminate extreme poverty within 20 years – may well be achievable:  The ‘only’ things that can get in our way are resource depletion and climate change.

Fossil Fuel Consumption
Rosling admits he is not an expert on how bad the change could get nor how we should minimise it.  However, his presentation of fossil fuel use is very striking:

  • Today 50% is consumed by the richest billion of population; 25% by the 2nd billion; 12.5% by the 3rd billion.
  • This leaves more than half the global population consuming little more than 10%.
  • Given the time it will take for people to drag themselves out of extreme poverty, the problem we face is the growth in demand by those who are already no longer in poverty (extreme or otherwise).

Thus, Rosling suggests that the remaining growth in global population (i.e. from 7 to 11 billion) is not the main problem we face.  However, – and this is where Rosling’s presentation finally becomes quite challenging:  He suggests that those living in richest countries cannot tell others what to do; and that it is entirely legitimate for those who are less fortunate to demand that we moderate our excessive consumption (of both resources and energy).

Conclusions

  1. The problems of extreme poverty and population growth (may well) have been solved.
  2. Climate change is still a massive problem (which we must therefore try to solve).
  3. Excessive per-capita resource consumption in rich countries must now be reduced.

All the data used in the presentation is available at: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/dontpanic

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.

James Lovelock stuck between a rock and a hard place

with 7 comments

Although much delayed and interrupted by other stuff, this is now the third part of my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006.  The first and second parts were published on this blog last month (i.e. here and here).

Once again, I will assume the reader is familiar with the concept of Gaia (as described in part one of my review and on Wikipedia).   Also, as discussed in part two of my review, I will also assume the reader is aware of Lovelock’s subsequent attempts to repudiate his ‘alarmism’ (April 2010) and, even more astonishingly, disavow his faith in the objectivity of climate scientists (June 2012).  However, in all of this, I hope readers will recognise that I am trying to be pragmatic and objective; as opposed to dogmatic and prejudiced.

Previously, I had got as far as Lovelock’s assertion (circa 2006) that humanity needs to get off its addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  Therefore, I now continue by looking at the ways in which he suggests we might (or indeed might not) do that.  However, it must be stressed that Lovelock accepts (or at least accepted) that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will not prevent excessive climate disruption unless we decide to leave most fossil fuels in the ground (or radically reduce the rate at which we are burning them).

Lovelock’s first non-fossil fuel option is hydrogen; and his first point is that, as with electricity, hydrogen has to be manufactured.  In addition to pointing out that it can be manufactured from fossil fuels and in nuclear reactors, Lovelock explains how hydrogen can be produced from water by hydrolysis.  However, the problems inherent in transportation and distribution of hydrogen (e.g. very low atomic mass and high explosive potential) and the low amount of energy return on energy input (EROEI) mean that this is unlikely ever to be commercially viable.

In contrast to this, hydrogen could be widely used in fuel cells (i.e. as used to generate electricity on the command module in the Apollo missions), although this is not without its own problems and dangers.  Wikipedia has a good summary of methods of hydrogen production, from which the important takeaways appear to be that hydrogen is:
(1) mostly produced from hydrocarbons (steam reforming); and
(2) mostly used in oil refineries to derive lighter products from heavy ones (hydrocracking); or
(3) used in other chemical processes to produce other things (e.g. ammonia and methanol).

Both Lovelock and the above Wikipedia article refer to the potential of a hydrogen economy.  Indeed, Lovelock refers specifically refers to the work of Geoffrey Ballard – who pioneered the concept of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. like rechargeable batteries), which would consume hydrogen in use (by driving an electric motor) and generate it when not in use (by being recharged).

Expressing his hope that this technology will become widespread, Lovelock moves on to explain why he hopes that renewable technology will not:  In essence, his objections are based on:
(1) low EROEI (i.e. in manufacture of hardware with a low energy conversion efficiency); and
(2) low energy density (i.e. need for large areas of land to be given over to electricity production).

Lovelock suggests that the concept of sustainable development has been hijacked by those who promote renewable energy as a means of avoiding dealing with the impossibility of perpetual economic development on a finite planet with finite resources.  This is a point on which I would agree – and have agreed (as published here by the Geological Society of London).  However, even so, I find his complaints about the industrialisation of the countryside somewhat tiresome.  The bottom line is this: anything that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels must be a good thing; as must be the use of any fossil fuels consumed in working towards that goal.

Lovelock does himself no credit whatsoever by suggesting that pursuit of wind power is short-sighted because climate change will alter planetary atmospheric circulation.  Such an assertion is almost (but not quite) as stupid as suggesting that harnessing the Earth’s tidal energy is likely to slow the Earth’s speed of rotation (to any significant extent).  Similarly, his suggesting that the UK would need 276 thousand wind turbines (each 100m high) to meet national demand for electricity is nothing more than a straw man argument (because no-one is suggesting that this can or should be the aim and it ignores the agreed need for overall consumption to be reduced).

Lovelock’s comments about tidal energy, pre-date the development and testing of numerous technologies (e.g. around the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland), but he does make the valid point that, as with CCS, it will take decades for any technology to become widely available and implemented.  However, this does not change the fact that it would be almost insane for an island nation such as the UK not to pursue these technologies.  The down-side to all this is that it will require additional power distribution infrastructure to be built.  However, so will micro-generation (as opposed to centralised generation), unless everyone is to become self-sufficient and not feed-in unused power to the national network (the income from which is the main reason most people install the systems).

Lovelock then moves on to consider hydro-electric power (HEP). He makes the point that HEP is not without environmental cost (loss of farmland, enforced displacement of populations, and interference with fluvial deposition patterns including the benefits of regular flooding of farmland).  However, he also seems to ignore the fact that HEP can be of considerable benefit to communities in areas where population density, competition for land and ecological carrying capacity are all low.

On the subject of biofuels, Lovelock merely re-states his objections to the diversion of agricultural land away from producing food (and takes another swipe at those who favour the inherently inefficient use of land for organic farming).  It is on this subject that the intellectual incoherence of Lovelock’s position is most clearly displayed:  being simultaneously pessimistic (about the prospects for so many people living on such a small planet) and optimistic (about the potential for technology to solve all our problems) – especially if we embrace GM crops.

However, given that he could not possibly have heard of it in 2006, Lovelock may be forgiven for not mentioning a new avenue for sustainable biofuel production that emerged in 2010 – namely GM algae that photosynthesise ethanol (instead of glucose).  However, even this may now be eclipsed by the potential of the latest idea – higher mixed alcohol fuels.  These can be produced form any solid, liquid or gaseous waste product and, therefore, could solve all our energy problems (but only if fossil fuel companies don’t buy up the patents to such ideas and then make them disappear).

Finally, in his long preamble to consideration of the future potential of civil nuclear power, Lovelock turns his attention to solar energy:  Here, once again, his argument is primarily based on low EROEI and on the cost of manufacturing the hardware (not to mention all the other finite metallic resources required).

On this front, I must confess I have some sympathy:  Harnessing the energy the Earth receives from the Sun (especially in mid-to low latitude countries where population densities are and probably will remain low) would seem like an obvious choice.  However, pursuing solar power generation on a large scale simultaneously in a large number of countries would have a serious impact on the demand for – and cost of – copper (and other even rarer metals), which is already high as a consequence of the success of hand-held electronic devices such as mobile phones.

As for Lovelock’s justification for his pro-nuclear stance, that will be the subject of the next post in this series (although I am not promising when that will be).

George Monbiot is as incisive as ever

with 9 comments

I admit it, even though I am (or would like to be) socially conservative, George Monbiot is one of my heroes. His long track record of illuminating the stupidity of climate change scepticism was one of the reasons I decided to pursue the subject in my MA research.

In his most recent offering on his blog (and in the Guardian on 20 August), George has brillianly highlighted the astounding double standards at the heart of current UK energy policy:

“The government is introducing a special veto for local people to prevent the construction of wind turbines… [Whereas the] government’s new planning guidance makes [Fracking] developments almost impossible to refuse… If local voters don’t like it, they can go to hell…

It has taken me 20 years and an MA in Environmental Politics to work out why I was so uncomfortable being involved in the extractive industries (i.e. mineral exploitation). George achieved this in little more than a few minutes:

Extracting resources, like war, is the real deal: what politicians seem to consider a proper, manly pursuit. Conserving energy or using gas from waste or sustaining fish stocks are treated as the concerns of sissies and hippies: even if, in hard economic terms, they make more sense.

My final word on Fracking?

with 30 comments

Professor Iain Stewart presenting one of his many excellent TV programmes (this one about the north-west of Scotland).

(Probably not!)

Herewith appended below is an email I sent today to Professor Iain Stewart (and copied to all those named in it).

However, please note that I have just found the BBC TV programme to which it refers has now been posted on You Tube (also appended below).

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Dear Professor Stewart,

I wanted to express my appreciation for the sensitive way in which you handled the issues in last night’s Horizon programme and for all the facts, figures and research findings it contained.  I was particularly interested in the evidence that shale gas has escaped from poorly-constructed wells in the USA.  Even if the UK can improve on the 6 to 7% failure rate in the USA, 100% success (i.e. no failures) is highly improbable.  Therefore, if fracking must be pursued (for whatever reason), this would make it imperative that the British Geological Survey establish baseline monitoring for methane as soon as possible. Would it be possible to get a copy of the transcript of the programme (or a list of References)?

Given my geological background and my MA in Environmental Politics, I have written a great deal about Fracking and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) on my blog.  However, having started out very much opposed to both Fracking and CCS, my position has evolved as a consequence of ‘exchanges of views’ I had last year with Professor Peter Styles (Keele) and with Professor Robert Mair (Cambridge/Royal Society).  As a result of these exchanges – summarised or linked to here on my blog – I would agree with Peter that we probably need shale gas.  However, I believe Peter also agrees with me that we probably cannot afford it*.  I also understand that the remit of the Royal Society specifically excluded the long-term sustainability implications of pursuing fracking.

Nevertheless, this leaves me wondering whether you could encourage the BBC to do a second programme to address the consequences of humans burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because they are there; and/or the need for ‘Western’ per capita energy consumption to be drastically reduced?  Having read David MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air, I think our biggest problem is that most people do not think holistically about the problems we face or, even worse, they seem to think concepts such as ‘ecological carrying capacity‘ are just [eco-Fascist] propaganda.  However, although it would seem that CCS is now going to be essential in order to minimise anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), I think it is also the biggest obstacle to getting politicians to take decisive action to decarbonise our power generation systems.

Even if such a second Horizon programme is not likely, I remain very appreciative of all you have done – and are doing – to raise the profile of ACD as an Earth Science issue that should be of concern to all.

Kind regards, [etc]

* If fracking becomes the new energy boom, it is very hard to see how CCS will ever be able to be rolled-out on a global scale to keep pace with unabated CO2 emissions.

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