Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘Intergenerational injustice’ Category

This is what water scarcity will look like

with 24 comments

With my thanks to for alerting me to this piece of news:

As reported in the Washington Post newspaper recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is warning that by 2030 nearly half the world’s population could be facing a scarcity of water, with demand outstripping supply by 40 percent.

For those of us in the grip of unseasonally cold weather this may seem hard to grasp but, this is where we are heading. However, even without climate change, providing enough water for everybody would be difficult. Climate change will just make it near impossible.

Written by Martin Lack

27 March 2013 at 00:02

You know we’re in trouble when…

with 8 comments

The Sunday Telegraph starts advocating polices that will accelerate anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).

Two days ago, one of Britain’s oldest and most-respected broadsheet newspapers decided to shred the last few bits of credibility it might have had by publishing an anonymous editorial piece calling for the Climate Change Act 2008 to be repealed.

I am therefore sorry but, I just had to post this response:

Thank goodness the Sunday Telegraph is not a widely-read newspaper.  This kind of advocacy for policies that will accelerate anthropogenic climate disruption is short-sighted to say the least.

If you don’t like our countryside being despoiled by windfarms, new sets of National Grid power lines, and new nuclear plants…  What you should be advocating is greater subsidies for households that install solar PV panels on their roofs, which will reduce UK demand for centrally-generated electricity of all kinds.

Oh and, by the way, shale gas is not low-carbon intensity:  Because of the methane release it involves, it is extremely high-carbon intensity.  Now we know we need to reduce our global CO2 emissions and that further delay will mean greater ultimate cost (i.e. Sir John Beddington, today)… the international push to extract shale gas – and all other unconventional hydrocarbons –  is completely irrational.

If anyone is curious, the pronouncements of the UK Government’s Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington, to which I referred above, can be seen and heard in this video on the BBC website.  This was a fascinating development, coming, as it did, on the same day that the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) announced that it was willing to enter into discussions with the Royal Society – to try and resolve the fact that the two organisations hold diametrically-opposed views regarding the validity of the scientific consensus that ACD is already happening.

This prompted me to send the GWPF’s Director, social anthropologist Benny Peiser, the following email:

Dear Dr Peiser,

I note, with genuine interest, your acceptance of the offer by the Royal Society to put the GWPF in touch with mainstream climate scientists.

I note also the public statement by the Sir John Beddington – who says evidence of anthropogenic climate disruption is now unequivocal and further delay in reducing emissions will mean harder and more expensive policy changes in future.

I should therefore be very grateful to know how much longer you think the GWPF is going to continue to insist that the science is uncertain and that calls for action are politically motivated.  For example, how long will it be before the GWPF accepts that we need to decarbonise our power generation systems – by implementing a revenue-neutral Fee and Dividend system as proposed by Dr James Hansen and many others.

Yours very sincerely,

Martin Lack

No answer as yet.

Memo to Osborne, Merkel, Cyprus and the World

with 26 comments

Dear George Osborne, Chancellor Merkel, EU Commission, Citizens of Cyprus, and people everywhere,

I would like to hereby remind you of what Richard Heinberg said in his book The End of Growth.  Here is a quick audio-visual summary:

Please accept my condolences for your loss(es) and my sincerest wish that you will now stop lying to yourselves; and face-up to the nature of reality.


Martin Lack.

Further to the comment by Lionel Smith (below), this is what page 159 of Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell looks like:
universe in nutshell p159
This is the problem that we have with exponential growth.

The dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments?

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proceed with cautionOnce again, as I did in my previous post, I must credit xraymike79 as the source of the title for this offering, as it also featured in the quotation from his recent post.

For ease of reference, however, here is the relevant part of that quotation once again:

…Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.

So, then, what are these “failed evolutionary experiments”; and why might we be about to join them in the dustbin?  Indeed, what does it mean to suggest there is a dustbin?  I ask this latter question because, as I often seem to find myself saying, the concept of waste disposal is an illusion: Nature does not do waste disposal; it only ever does recycling.

However, there is an even more fundamentally-challenging aspect to xraymike79’s turn of phrase, which is the suggestion that the emergence of complex life on Earth is the result of an unguided process.  Jean-Paul Sartre’s question “Why is it that there something rather than nothing?” is answered with the following equation: Nothing + Time + Chance = Something.

Some scientists, such as George Smoot (Wrinkles in Time) and Paul Davies (The Mind of God) have asserted that the Universe appears to be perfectly designed to accommodate us – effectively a statement of the Anthropic Principle.  However, I find it hard to refute the argument, made by people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, that we are here because the Universe is the way it is – effectively a statement of existential Selection Bias.

For people of a theistic persuasion (like me for example), such notions are very challenging.  However, I dislike the arrogance of people like Dawkins and Hawking, who – rather than just assert that they do not believe in God – appear to want to insist that they have proven that God does not exist.  Although they present cogent arguments and justifications for their atheism, I prefer the position adopted by Stephen J. Gould – that science and religion represent non-overlapping magesteria.  This is the proposition that science seeks to answer “how” questions, whereas religion seeks to answer “why” questions.  If so, it would appear to be self-evident that trouble ensues when either party steps outside the boundaries of their legitimate enquiry.

It was for this reason that Young Earth Creationism had been rejected by the vast majority of Christian theologians even before Charles Darwin was born.  They had, in essence, followed the advice of St Augustine (354-430AD) in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74AD) in Summa Theologica.  For example:

Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, [and] one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing… (Thomas Aquinas, 1273AD)

As I said to my son recently, “just as scientific theories like evolution should not be used to reject religious beliefs; Biblical texts should not be used to reject scientific facts”.  I hope you will agree that this is a nice turn of phrase too, but, it belies the fact that all knowledge in science is provisional.  However, in my defence, I must protest that “should not be used to reject things most scientists consider to be beyond reasonable doubt” …does not sound quite so good.

So then, back to big question:  Is evolution a random process with no pre-ordained purpose; or has it been guided by someone or something?  Well, I think I am going to dodge the bullet on that one; but I will say this:  I was astonished recently to learn about the ‘Maximum Power Principle’ – as proposed by Howard T. Odum – that suggests that Darwinian-style natural selection tends to produce organisms “that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency”.  For background to this, please see this comment (and those that follow it) by Paul Chefurka on Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last blog.

If you look at Chefurka’s comments, you will see that he blames the ‘Maximum Power Principle’ for the fact that humanity seems set on a path to self-destruction (and unintended ecocide), i.e. that our consumption of resources is biologically-driven.  Some may say, as I did initially, that this explains an awful lot but, upon further reflection, I am inclined to think that this could be used as an abdication of ultimate responsibility for our not leaving this Earth in as good a state as we were fortunate enough to find it.

Be that as it may, the evidence from the fossil record suggests that the vast majority of species that have ever lived are probably no longer with us today.  However, that does not make them “failed evolutionary experiments”.  Indeed, I would argue that some species that have survived through to the present time look like failed evolutionary experiments (and I do not mean humans).  What sense is there in that?  Why do some species appear to have got stuck in a time-warp?  Is it enough just to say they are adapted to their niche environments?

I am therefore ambivalent about the question of whether evolution must be seen as purposeful or self-selecting process.  However, I think xraymike79’s turn of phrase is useful because it has the potential to shake us from our anthropocentric complacency.  Furthermore, I think it almost demands that – instead – we embrace the ecocentric reality around us:  Apart from a few dairy cows that might experience some significant discomfort for a while – most of life on Earth would not even notice if we humans disappeared.  As Edward O. Wilson observed, we may be the most intelligent life form on Earth – and we may be at the top of every conceivable food chain – but humans are not the most important life form on Earth.  That honour probably goes to fungi – Nature’s most effective and efficient recyclers.

Unfortunately, we humans seem determined to go down fighting and, unless we wake up to the reality that we cannot subdue and dominate Nature – we must seek to live in harmony with it – it seems increasing likely that we will cause the widespread breakdown of many essential ecosystem services upon which all life on Earth depends.  This is because we are currently in the process of deconstructing the benign and stable environment that has made life possible.  As such, the Hockey Stick may have now turned into a Scythe:

That being the case, we must all hope this does not herald the arrival of the Grim Reaper himself. :-(


See also:

The nonsense of “Sustainable Growth”*

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“Sustainable Growth” is a term invented by World Leaders last year at the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil.  On a finite planet with finite resources, it is a physical impossibility; it is an oxymoron; to talk about it is as delusional as pretending you will live for ever.  I’m sorry, but, as with climate change, denying the nature of reality changes nothing.

As an experienced geologist and hydrogeologist, I am a Fellow of the Geological Society of London (GSL) and a Member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).  As such, the GSL has previously published a 500-word “soapbox” item written by me, entitled ‘Know Your Limits!’, in their Geoscientist magazine.

However, I believe this has now been surpassed by an article written by CIWEM’s Executive Director, Nick Reeves, just published in CIWEM’s monthly WEM magazine.  Having obtained the permission of both author and publisher, I am delighted to reproduce the article, entitled ‘The Growth Delusion and Handlebar Tape’in full below.

Other than to say that Nick Reeves has an admirable track-record for speaking his mind and saying things very few people in positions like his are willing to say – such as his support for Latin American style environmentalism in ‘The Human Rights of Mother Earth’ (July 2011) – I do not really want to comment further at this point.  However, the conflict between notions of sustainable development and resource depletion will be picked-up in another longer-than-normal post later this week.  Therefore, without further ado, here is the 1800-word article by Nick Reeves:



The world is running on empty says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves

How do you successfully break a mistaken and destructive intellectual and economic consensus? How do you persuade world leaders that 21st century problems cannot be fixed with 20th century economics?

The UK is no longer a front-line developed nation and has fallen behind Brazil in the league table of economic powers.  It will take a lot more than handlebar tape to get a grip on things.  We need to think in different terms and get a proper fix on our place in a world that is running on empty.

The economic crisis of 2007 was a car crash in slow-motion.  The driver wasn’t fit.  And it was frustrating because nobody warned us and the banks danced to the speculative tune.  Now economists can calculate a much more dangerous event that is being greeted with even less concern: our world is rapidly running out of resources – of water, energy, metals, phosphorous and food.  The data is not in dispute.  The market is reflecting what our leaders ignore.

The Industrial Revolution allowed us to make technological progress in delivering resources, outweighing the increasing marginal effort to dig ever deeper and chase lower-quality ores, for instance.  The average price of 33 commodities (equally weighted) declined by 70 per cent (after inflation) between 1900 and 2002.  Then, abruptly and without any particular crisis, prices reversed and in ten years the average commodity tripled to give back the advantage of the previous 100 years.  It is perhaps the most important ‘phase’ change of modern times, yet it attracted, remarkably, little attention or concern.

The causes are not hidden: there has been an explosion in population and consumption since 1800 and the birth of the ‘Hydrocarbon Age’.  Global population has increased from one billion to seven billion, tripling even in my lifetime.  At the same time, consumption of hydrocarbons and some metals increased one hundredfold.  Initially, with few people and extensive high-grade resources, this did not show in prices, but more recently, with population growing still faster than ever in absolute terms, we have had to absorb an unprecedented surge in demand per capita from India, with its 1.2 billion people (growing at over seven per cent a year) and China, with almost 1.3 billion (growing for over 20 years at ten per cent a year), a rate that will double consumption every seven years.  China last year accounted for a jaw-dropping 53 per cent of the world’s cement use, 48 per cent of its iron ore and 47 per cent of all the coal used.  How could reserves not wither away under this attack and prices not rise? We have every reason to be fearful.

Low-cost, high-grade coal, oil and natural gas – the backbone of the Industrial Revolution – will be a distant memory by 2050.  Much higher cost remnants will still be available but they will not be able to drive our growth, our population and, most critically, our food supply, as before.  Conventional food production is dependent desperately on oil for insecticide, pesticide and fertiliser, and for transportation over thousands of miles.  Modern agriculture is an industry that converts oil into food.

It will require brave political decisions to survive the loss of depleted hydrocarbons without risking economic collapse.  If we permit the population to grow to the levels predicted, and if we don’t curb our greed, we must find the capital – while we still have it – to build very large-scale, very smart electricity grids, across Europe and North America, fed by increasingly efficient wind and solar power and other renewables that may come on stream.

Once they are built, the marginal operating cost will be much lower than our present hydrocarbon-dependent system and, critically, cost will be constantly falling while hydrocarbon costs rise.  This will be a great threat to the giant hydrocarbon multi-nationals, several of which fund well-organised obfuscation and propaganda campaigns to reinforce our wishful thinking.  Carbon dioxide has lost its greenhouse effect, they say, and coal is clean! In the US, even larger investments are made: Congress is bribed (legally) to ignore both climate science and the logic of finite resources.

Metal resources are the stuff of nightmares because entropy is merciless.  Every time you use a metal, some is lost.  European countries recycle between 40 per cent and 80 per cent – the US is worse – yet at even 90 per cent these precious resources will slip through our fingers.  So frugality is needed, because even an economy with zero increase in physical output will slowly lose its metals.  But which politician has the nerve to talk about the necessary zero growth in population and physical output?

The most immediately threatening shortage is in our food supply, and not just from oil constraints.  The bigger threats lie in four limiting inputs: water, soil, potassium and phosphorus.  We build homes and grow food in deserts and over-pump irreplaceable underground water.  (Already, about 300 million Indians and Chinese, among others, are fed by over-pumping reserves that will inevitably run out.) We waste over half our global water supply and we totally mis-price it.  For most countries, all of this can be fixed.  Yet some over-populated, poor nations have a more intractable problem and water scarcity will cause increasing friction for them.  Water wars is here.  It’s happening now.

Land availability and erosion are also limiting our ability to grow food.  Over the millennia, we have lost about one-third of our land, turning it into desert and stone.  We build new cities on our best river valley soil, which is replaceable only with more marginal land.  There are no New Worlds or new Midwests.  The land we have – eroded by wind and water – loses one per cent of its soil each year, about 100 times the rate of natural replacement.  If sustained, this erosion would bring our species to its knees.  But the problem can be solved relatively easily by moving towards no-till, in which crop residues protect the soil against the elements.  We need to move rapidly, though: to 100 per cent from less than ten per cent, globally, today.

The limits on phosphorous and potassium are terminal potentially.  They are elements and cannot be made.  There is no substitute for them.  They are vital for the growth of all living things, vegetable or animal (we humans are one per cent phosphorus by body weight).  And these irreplaceable nutrients on which modern agriculture depends are mined and are steadily depleting.  So what will happen when the reserves run out?

The only glimmer of hope would be if the world went organic – nurturing the soil with worms, fungi and complex micro-organisms and avoiding use of pesticides and insecticides.  Organic farming extends critical fertiliser resources many times, perhaps at best approaching the rate of natural replacement from bedrock.  However, organic farming is just one per cent of the agricultural total, and we will, typically, wait for a greater crisis in fertiliser prices before we move.

Finally, global warming’s most reliable consequence is weather extremes – droughts and floods, which have badly hit production, will continue to do so.  Far from being alarmist, scientists have consistently under-predicted the speed of environmental decline, failed to address population growth, and so we slalom our way to hell.  Scientists, with a few brave exceptions, are fearful of being criticised as doom-sayers and exaggerators – a terrible academic crime – even though underestimating, in this case, is far more dangerous and irresponsible.  (Arctic ice-melt is already at levels that, 15 years ago, were predicted for 2050.)

Both population and yield per acre for grains are growing at 1.2 per cent a year.  A stand-off? You bet.  Population growth will slow, but so will productivity as we approach the limits of each grain species.  How, with no safety margin, will we find the extra grain necessary to produce meat for the growing middle class of developing nations when a single pound of dressed beef displaces 30 pounds of grain?

There will be a single painful answer to all of these questions – rationing through price.  We the rich nations can and will be careless with our resources for decades longer, but only at the cost of pushing prices up unnecessarily fast and thereby inadvertently forcing the poor into malnutrition and outright starvation.  A typical developed country now spends ten per cent of its income on food; Egypt spends 40 per cent.  You can see easily that, if food prices triple again in the next 30 years as they did in the past ten, the numbers will not compute.  A growth-reducing and lifestyle-eroding irritant for us will become life and death for them.

Greater income equality in such countries and better education, especially for women, would help lower population growth and increase productivity.  Less corruption and more efficient distribution of the food available, especially in India, would buy decades of time.  But this is who we are: a species given to corruption, incompetence and self-interest.  Capitalism sucks because it believes that its remit is exclusively to make maximum short-term profits – come hell or high water.

We could solve all our problems if only we were the efficient, rational human beings of standard economic theory and had politicians willing to think in the long-term interest of their people rather than their own.  Perhaps later, as the crisis grows, as failing states threaten to destabilise global politics (resource pricing already played its part in the Arab spring) and China throws its increasing weight around in its correctly perceived great need for more resources, the developed world will act with resolve, as the US, the UK and others did so well in the World War II.  We must hope so.

Fortress North America with (per capita) five times the water and seven times the arable land of China, has the capability and willingness to ignore this global problem for now.  Yet eventually it, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming into world turmoil – just as it feared would happen in the 1930s – and share the pain.

In the meantime, countries such as Egypt, with surging populations, escalating food import bills and widening trade deficits, cannot afford to feed their people.  Who will do it for them? We rich countries cannot even make the tough political decisions required to keep our own resource prices down, let alone worry about others.  This attitude is epitomised by the use of one-third of the US corn crop (the world’s biggest) for desperately inefficient ethanol production as a subsidy for already rich farmers.  To fill a 4×4′s tank once would displace enough maize to feed one Indian farmer for a year.  One day, this will be seen as the moral equivalent of shooting some of the world’s poorest people, but more painful.

Closing Down Sale - Everything Must Go

What on Earth are we doing?

with 37 comments

I appear to have a habit of posting items starting with the words “What on Earth..”.  Here, then, is another one to add to that list

A few weeks ago, one of the regular contributors to discussion on this blog (Pendantry), brought the work of Professor Guy McPherson (University of Arizona) to my attention. I must admit that I was a bit lazy and just watched the video embedded on Pendantry’s blog. However, in my defence, that was partly because I was shocked by what I saw and heard. Even though I have since embedded the same video on this blog, I had still done little more than scratch the surface to examine the huge amount of research to which McPherson refers. Here and now, I intend to put that right.

Having worked out how to get Professor McPherson’s attention (by inserting a link in my post to a specific post on his blog), he has since graciously joined the discussion. In welcoming him to my blog, I said this:

…Thanks also for providing a link to the new article on your brilliantly-named Nature Bats Last blog… I had thereby also found the Think Progress article by Joe Romm, highlighting the fact that, even today, the IPCC is still not incorporating the effects of positive feedback mechanisms into its projections. This would be truly incredible, were it not for the fact that I understand the pressure the IPCC is put under to avoid being “alarmist”… What amazes me, therefore, is that there are not more scientists like you who are speaking out about the way in which humanity is sleepwalking to catastrophe. However, I know, you say this is because they want to keep their jobs. What about [preserving] the lives of their children? By 2030, I will have reached retirement age, but my children will only be in their early 30s; they may even still be childless…

So, then, I am reluctantly coming round to Professor Guy McPherson’s view that both mainstream climate scientists and climate change sceptics are equally guilty of believing what they want to believe and seeing only what they want to see. This is because, when you investigate the ten positive feedback loops that McPherson has recently highlighted (see below) you realise that, in doing so, he is referring to the results of peer-reviewed research; all of which is already in the public domain.

The problem is that the vast majority of mainstream scientists are refusing to join the dots and admit that these 10 feedback loops are going to interfere with – and mutually reinforce – each other. It also does not help that the IPCC is still not incorporating these feedback loops into its projections (link below).

I started by reading what is currently the most popular post on McPherson’s blog, Climate-change summary and update, which starts by listing a nasty-looking trend in large-scale projections of global average temperature rise:

  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
  2. Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
  3. United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
  4. Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
  5. Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C by 2100
  6. International Energy Agency (November 2010): 3.5 C by 2050
  7. United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050

Having done this, McPherson then goes on to list the 10 Positive Feedback Mechanisms that he has identified from recent research. Below, I have reproduced his list and, where they were missing, inserted links to more information in each case.

10 positive feedback mechanisms:
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010)
Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011)
Siberian methane vents have increased… to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the USA in 2010 (Science, February 2011)
Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Comms., November 2011)
Methane is being released from the Antarctic (Nature, August 2012)
Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012)
Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (J. of App. Physics, October 2012)
Exposure to sunlight increases [is] accelerating thawing of the permafrost (PNAS, February 2013)
Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012

Having listed these, McPherson then points out that the only one of these over which humanity has any control (and can therefore choose to stop or reverse) is the decision to drill for oil in the Arctic. The same could be said for all unconventional fossil fuels. However, acknowledging this reality, McPherson then adds… “Because we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else).”

For the sake of brevity, I will not comment on all of these mechanisms but, for those that are interested, here are some of the more notable responses I found (both dismissive and concerned) on the Internet.

Dismissive responses:

Concerned responses: (includes a good list of references);; and (discussed below).

As intimated above, I want to focus on the fact that the IPCC is still not including any of these positive feedback mechanisms and is therefore continuing to be overly optimistic (i.e. under-reporting the nature, scale and urgency of the problems we have now created by failing to decarbonise our economies already).

Why is the IPCC being unduly optimistic?
Writing in the Scientific American magazine 6 years ago, in an article entitled ‘Conservative Climate’, David Biello gave us all the answer:

By excluding statements that provoked disagreement and adhering strictly to data published in peer-reviewed journals, the IPCC has generated a conservative document that may underestimate the changes that will result from a warming world, much as its 2001 report did.

The IPCC was set up by conservative political leaders in the 1980s (Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachov) but its hands were tied from the start; its complicated internal and external review process (i.e. government-appointed reviewers) ensuring that it never publishes anything that is too scary. By refusing to countenance the possibility that more pessimistic opinions amongst the scientific community might actually be coming from those that are being the most objective, it has completely inverted the well-respected precautionary principle; and promoted instead the wait and see approach of climate sceptics everywhere.

However, the IPCC has not just wasted 6 years, it has wasted 20 years; and things are now getting serious: If you are not convinced, then I would invite you to read what Joe Romm on the Think Progress website has to say about all of this: He starts by informing the reader that the thawing of the permafrost will release “a staggering 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere, much of which would be released as methane… 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 to 100 times as potent over 20 years!”

Carbon emission (in billions of tons of carbon a year) from thawing permafrost
[from Schaefer et al, 2011]

Therefore, with reference to the above graph, the thawing permafrost is already releasing 0.2 Gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere on an annual basis. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that, in the short term, even this has the warming potential of 20 Gigatons of carbon, which is twice the global anthropogenic carbon emissions in 2010. Given that the thawing of the permafrost is something we cannot now stop; and it is not going to be possible to capture and burn all this methane, the fact that the quantities being released are projected to quadruple between now and 2030 is not good news.

It is little wonder, then, that Dave Roberts posted an item on the Grist website almost a year ago, entitled: Climate change is simple: We do something or we’re screwed.

If you have not done so already, please join Bill McKibben’s and/or join a local group promoting sustainable responses to the approaching socio-economic meltdown: To me, and many others who are not ideologically blinded to the nature of reality, this now seems to be the inevitable consequence of the refusal of our carbon-based civilisation to acknowledge the impossibility of perpetual growth on a finite planet.

I therefore fear that it may be time to “brace for impact!”.

Please help save the Ecuadorian Jaguar…

with 9 comments

…and the Amazon jungle; and stop Ecuador’s President from being a total hypocrite!

This courtesy of Avaaz:

Dear friends,

There is one area of the Ecuadorian Amazon that is so pristine that the whole ecosystem has been preserved and even jaguars roam free! But the government is now threatening to go in and drill for oil.

The local indigenous people have been resisting, but they are afraid that oil companies will break up the community with bribes. When they heard that people across the world might stand with them and make a stink to save their land, they were thrilled. The president of Ecuador claims to stand for indigenous rights and the environment, but he has just come up with a new plan to bring oil speculators in to 4 million hectares of jungle. If we can say ‘wait a minute, you’re supposed to be the green president who says no one can buy Ecuador’, we could expose him for turning his back on his commitments just as he is fighting for re-election.

He doesn’t want a PR nightmare right now. If we get a million of us to help this one community defend their ancestral land and challenge the president openly to keep to his word, we could start a media storm that would make him reconsider the whole plan. Sign the petition now and tell everyone — let’s help save this beautiful forest:

After Texaco and other oil companies polluted Ecuadorian waters and irreversibly devastated precious ecosystems, Correa led his country to be the world’s first nation to recognize the rights of “Mother Earth” in its constitution. He announced Ecuador was not for sale, and in Yasuni National Park promoted an innovative initiative where other governments pay Ecuador to keep oil in the ground to protect the rainforest rather than destroy it. But now he’s on the verge of selling out.

Shockingly, the Sani Isla Kichwa land is partly in Yasuni National Park. But even more shocking is Correa’s bigger plan — in days government officials begin a world tour to offer foreign investors the right to drill across 4 million hectares of forest (an area larger than the Netherlands!) Ecuador, as any country, may argue it has the right to profit from its natural resources, but the constitution itself says it must respect indigenous rights and its amazing forests, which bring millions in tourist dollars every year.

Right now, Correa is in a tough fight to win a second term as president. It’s the perfect time to make him honour his environmental promises and make this green constitution come to life. Sign now to stand with the Kichwa people and save their forest:

Our community has fought year after year to protect the Amazon in Brazil and Bolivia, and won many victories standing in solidarity with indigenous communities. Now it’s Ecuador’s turn — let’s respond to this urgent call for action and save their forest.

With hope and determination,

Alex, Pedro, Alice, Laura, Marie, Ricken, Taylor, Morgan and all the Avaaz team

More Information:

Ecuadorian tribe gets reprieve from oil intrusion (The Guardian)

Ecuador adopts rights of nature in constitution (Rights of Nature)

How oil extraction impacts the rainforest (Amazon Watch)

Drilling for oil in Eden: initiative to save amazon rainforest in Ecuador is uncertain (Scientific American)

Ecuador’s indigenous leaders oppose new oil exploration plans in Amazon region (Earth Island Journal)

I am not a pantheist or animist. However, I feel the Western world has much to learn from the attitude of the South American people towards their environment. Former CIWEM President, Nick Reeves, agrees:

Written by Martin Lack

25 January 2013 at 11:09

Methane from fracking could trigger irreversible* change

with 6 comments

* UPDATE: With thanks to fellow-blogger Pendantry for alerting me to this video of Guy McPherson (University of Arizona), note that research published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2009 concluded climate change is already irreversible!

Having recently discovered the WordPress blog of international environmental journalist Stephen Leahy, he has now given me permission to also re-publish, in full, an article about hydraulic fracturing (i.e. “fracking”), which he originally published nearly a year ago and has just updated. It is from this recent update (inserted at the top of the original piece) that the title of my blog post here is derived. However, apart from thanking Stephen for permission to re-publish this – and urging all readers to take note of the recent research regarding methane released by fracking – I think further words from me would be superfluous.

This and all images below are taken from

UPDATE Jan 2013:

Yet another study reveals fracking has a huge problem of gas leaks. Up to 9% of the gas pumped out of the ground leaks into the atmosphere according to a study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Nature this week. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas. If these leaks are widespread, fracking is worse than burning coal, accelerating global warming.

In Jan 2012 I detailed new research in the article below showing that replacing coal with natural gas from fracking does little to fight climate change (see below). Now two studies published that since then make an even stronger case that fracking for natural gas is a HUGE MISTAKE:

From Nature: ‘Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field’. Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas.

From Environmental Research Letters:New study demonstrates switching to natural gas is the path to climate disaster’. What’s needed is an aggressive deployment of zero-carbon technologies and conservation. Joe Romm explains. — Stephen

Shale Gas Worse Than Coal Study Finds

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 24, 2012 (IPS)

Hundreds of thousands of shale gas wells are being “fracked” in the United States and Canada, allowing large amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere, new studies have shown.

Shale gas production results in 40 to 60 percent more global warming emissions than conventional gas, said Robert Howarth of Cornell University in New York State.

“Shale gas also has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than oil or coal over the short term,” said Howarth, co-author of a study called “Venting and Leaking of Methane from Shale Gas Development” to be published in the journal Climatic Change.

(Audio of news conference)

Download: of%20news%20conference

This latest study follows up on Howarth and colleagues’ controversial April 2011 paper that provided the first comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing. That study found that when gas wells are “fracked”, they leak large amounts of methane and pose a significant threat to the global climate.

“We stand by the conclusion of our 2011 research,” said Howarth.

That research undercuts the logic of energy sector claims that shale gas is a “bridge” to a low-carbon energy future. Those claims are based on the fact that natural gas (which is mainly methane) has half the carbon content of coal, and when burned for electricity it is more energy efficient than coal.

This independent journalism depends on public support. Click here learn more.

However, those climate gains are more than negated by methane leaks both at the well during the fracking process (called flow-back), and through the gas delivery and distribution system. Howarth and colleagues estimate that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of all shale gas produced leaks – called “fugitive emissions” – into the atmosphere, making it worse than burning coal or oil.

Methane has 105 times the warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year time frame, after which it rapidly loses its warming potential. If large amounts of methane are released through fracking – as seems likely with hundreds of thousands of new wells forecast in the next two decades – Howarth says global temperatures could rocket upward from 0.8C currently to 1.8C in 15 to 35 years, running the risk of triggering a tipping point that could lead to catastrophic climate change.

“Our primary concern is that methane emissions over the coming two decades will drive the entire climate system past a major tipping point,” he told IPS.

A study by the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) last September also concluded that methane leaks meant that natural gas provided little advantage over using coal. Even if leaks are one to two percent, far less than the Howarth estimates, it would only be slightly better than continuing to burn coal, the “Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage” study concluded.

Fracking involves drilling vertically 500 to 3,000 metres into gas- bearing shale rock and then horizontally for 1,000 metres or more along the shale formation. Then chemicals and large amounts of water are pumped underground at high enough pressure to fracture the shale, releasing the gas into the pipeline.

The first uses of hydraulic fracturing were in Texas in the early 1990s, but were very limited. However, new technologies developed in the last eight years have made it possible to get at deep, widely dispersed deposits of gas.

The George W. Bush administration’s 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted fracking from regulations under the U.S. Clean Water Act, clearing the way for the shale gas gold rush. In recent years, shale gas production has grown 48 percent per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There are now an estimated 400,000 wells in the continental U.S. and tens of thousands more planned in the next year or two. Public concern has risen over water and air pollution, water shortages, disruption of rural neighbourhoods, and even earthquakes.

Ohio halted fracking this month in one part of the state after a series of small earthquakes were linked to injecting fracking wastes underground. Fracking a well requires injecting 10 to 15 million litres of water and 200,000 litres of chemicals and the resulting wastewater is often too contaminated to be reused and is pumped deeper underground or left in wastewater ponds.

Although the gas industry long denied that fracking contaminates drinking water wells and aquifers, hundreds of claims have been made over the years. However, very little independent research has been done.

Last year, researchers at Duke University looked at 68 fracking sites and found groundwater with methane concentrations 17 times higher than in wells located where fracking was not taking place. Some of the levels were higher than “immediate action” hazard levels.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally began to conduct its first in-depth study of the risks to drinking water. Preliminary results released late last year revealed drinking water contaminated by benzene, a known carcinogen and one of the chemicals used in fracking.

From a climate perspective, shale gas is certainly worse than conventional gas, said Zeke Hausfather, an energy expert at Efficiency 2.0 in New York, which works with power utilities. However, Hausfather disputes Howarth’s findings that shale is worse than coal since the latter emits more CO2 and while methane has a life of only 10 years in the atmosphere, CO2 stays for thousands of years.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about methane leakage and much of it is based on estimates,” Hausfather told IPS.

Howarth’s range is on the high side, with his upper estimate of 7.9 percent, 400 percent higher than estimates for conventional gas leakage, he said. However, reducing methane leakage from shale gas is an important issue that regulators should address.

In the face of strong industry resistance, the EPA has proposed regulations to require capture of methane at the time of well completion. Regulations are necessary since economic considerations alone have not driven such reductions, said Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University and one of Howarth’s co-authors.

However, plugging the methane leaks downstream from the wellhead in transmission pipelines, compressor stations, and decades-old distribution pipelines under the streets of cities and towns throughout the U.S. and Canada would be extraordinarily expensive, Ingraffea said.

“Would the capital be better spent on constructing a smart electric grid and other technologies that move towards a truly green energy future?” he asked.

First published as Shale Gas a Bridge to More Global Warming – IPS

My earlier article on this topic:

“Fracking” for Shale Gas: The Bridge to Global Warming Disaster

(Copyright 2012/2013 Stephen Leahy)
This independent journalism depends on public support. Click here learn more.

I said further words from me would be superfluous. Therefore, instead, I would like to recommend these words from Paul Handover - of Learning from Dogs fame - which include a summary of some of the most significant projections of the new US National Climate Assessment (report issued in draft for public comment); and some wise words also from Grist blogger David Roberts.

Written by Martin Lack

18 January 2013 at 00:01

What the Keystone XL people don’t want you to know

with 3 comments

Re-blogged from the Oil Change International website:

Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands

JAN17 , Oil Change International, January 2013

Download a PDF of the report

The Canadian tar sands have been called the “most environmentally destructive project on earth”, with good reason. Extracting tar sands bitumen from under the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada requires huge amounts of energy and water. It has cleared vast tracts of forest, left scars on the land that are visible from space and threatened the health and livelihoods of indigenous First Nations communities across the region.

It is a well established fact that full exploitation of the tar sands is a grave threat to the climate. Emissions from tar sands extraction and upgrading are between 3.2 and 4.5 times higher than the equivalent emissions from conventional oil produced in North America.On a lifecycle basis, the average gallon of tar sands bitumen derived fuel has between 14 and 37 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average gallon of fuel from conventional oil.

But as bad as these impacts already are, existing analyses of the impacts of tar sands fail to account for a byproduct of the process that is a major source of climate change causing carbon emissions: petroleum coke – known as petcoke. Petcoke is the coal hiding in North America’s tar sands oil boom.

Petcoke is like coal, but dirtier. Petcoke looks and acts like coal, but it has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal.

  • On a per-unit of energy basis petcoke emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal.
  • A ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal.
  • The proven tar sands reserves of Canada will yield roughly 5 billion tons of petcoke – enough to fully fuel 111 U.S. coal plants to 2050.
  • Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands or conventional oil production and consumption. Thus the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted.

Petcoke in the tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories.

  • There is 24 percent more CO2 embedded in a barrel of tar sands bitumen than in a barrel of light oil.
  • 15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen can end up as petcoke, depending on the upgrading and refining process used.
  • Of 134 operating U.S. refineries in 2012, 59 are equipped to produce petcoke.
  • U.S. refineries produced over 61.5 million tons of petcoke in 2011 – enough to fuel 50 average U.S. coal plants each year.
  • In 2011, over 60 percent of U.S petcoke production was exported.

Keystone XL will fuel five coal plants and thus emit 13% more CO2 than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.

  • Nine of the refineries close to the southern terminus of Keystone XL have nearly 30 percent of U.S. petcoke production capacity, over 50,000 tons a day.
  • The petcoke produced from the Keystone XL pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year.
  • These petcoke emissions have been excluded from State Department emissions estimates for the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Including these emissions raises the total annual emissions of the pipeline by 13% above the State Department’s calculations.

Cheap petcoke helps the coal industry.

  • As a refinery byproduct, petcoke is “priced to move”, selling at roughly a 25 percent discount to conventional coal.
  • Rising petcoke production associated with tar sands and heavy oil production is helping to make coal fired power generation dirtier and cheaper – globally.
  • From January 2011 to September 2012, the United States exported over 8.6 million tons of petcoke to China, most of which was likely burnt in coal-fired power plants.

“PetKoch”: The largest global petcoke trader in the world is Florida based Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch – the brother of Charles and David Koch.

  • Oxbow Carbon has donated $4.25 million to GOP super PACs, making it the one of the largest corporate donors to super PACs.
  • Oxbow also spent over $1.3 million on lobbyists in 2012.

To date, the impacts of petcoke on the local and global environment have not been considered by regulatory bodies in assessing the impacts of the tar sands. Petcoke’s full impacts must be considered by the European Union in its debate on the Fuel Quality Directive, by the U.S. State Department in its consideration of the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline, and by Canadian, American, and European governments in tar sands policies across the board.

Increasing petcoke use is a clear result of the increasing production of tar sands bitumen. Petcoke is a seldom discussed yet highly important aspect of the full impacts of tar sands production. Factored into the equation, petcoke puts another strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.

We have the cure for our ailing planet…

with 12 comments

…so can we please use it?

Here reproduced in full, with the kind permission of the author, is international environmental journalist Stephen Leahy’s prescription to save us all from unintended ecocide – it’s called renewable energy.

I think it's time to take evasive action!

I think it’s time to take evasive action!


For an Ailing Planet, the Cure Already Exists

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 1 2012 (IPS) - The planet’s climate recently reached a new milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the Arctic.

The last time Earth saw similar levels of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) was three million years ago during the Pliocene era, where Arctic temperatures were 10 to 14 degrees C higher and global temperatures four degrees C hotter.

Research stations in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia all broke the 400 ppm barrier for the first time this spring, scientists reported in a release Thursday.  A global average of 400 ppm up from the present 392 ppm is still some years off.

If today’s CO2 levels don’t decline – or worse, increase – the planet will inevitably reach those warmer temperatures, but it won’t take a thousand years.  Without major cuts in fossil fuel emissions, a child born today could live in a plus-four-degree C superheated world by their late middle age, IPS previously reported.  Such temperatures will make much of the planet unliveable.

In a four-degree warmer world, climate adaptation means “put your feet up and die” for many people in the world, said Chris West of the University of Oxford’s UK Climate Impacts Programme in 2009.

This week the International Energy Agency reported that the nations of the world’s CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent in 2011 compared to 2010.  This is precisely the wrong direction: emissions need to decline three percent per year to have any hope of a stable climate.

By 2050, in a world with more people, carbon emissions must be half of today’s levels.

Impossible?  No.  A number of different energy analyses show how it can be done.

Dutch energy consulting firm Ecofys published a technical study in 2010 called “The Energy Report” that demonstrates how the world could reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Greenpeace has a plan called “Energy [R]evolution“.  Even the International Energy Agency has one: it’s called the “450 Scenario“.

There is no lack of technical knowledge about how to cut emissions and still keep the lights on.  Some countries have already started.

Germany, a modern industrialised country, generated more than 30 percent of its energy from solar power one bright sunny day last week. Instead of using 20 or more climate-wrecking coal plants, Germany used the energy from more than one million solar panels on houses, buildings, along sides of highways – even those ugly highway sound barriers have solar panels.

Although hardly known for sunny weather, Germany has more solar panels than all the rest of the world combined.  It gets four percent of its total annual electricity needs from solar.  Germany could increase its solar output by a factor of five or 10, experts say, especially with recent drops in the cost of solar panels.

The difference in Germany is leadership. Hermann Scheer, a minister of economics in the German government, created the now famous feed-in tariff in 2000 that launched Germany’s renewable energy revolution.

The outspoken Scheer had to both champion and defend this policy for many years to prevent successive governments from gutting it.  He died suddenly in 2010.  Other German politicians, supported by environmental groups and the public, have continued to push for more.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her support for nuclear power following huge public protests following the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants in 2011.  Germany will close its 17 nuclear plants by 2022. Renewables and energy efficiency are to replace that lost energy under an ambitious plan called “Agora Energiewende“.

If successful, as much as 40 percent of Germany’s energy will come from renewables by 2022.

German energy prices have risen and large power users, as well as the politically powerful energy sector, oppose Merkel’s plan.  The chancellor will need strong public support even though Germany’s renewable energy sector now employs more people than its vaunted automobile industry.

Globally, the renewable energy sector now employs close to five million workers, more than doubling the number of jobs from 2006-2010, according to a study released Thursday by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty, concluded the study, “Working towards sustainable development”.

Only 10 to 15 industries are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of CO2 emissions in the industrialised countries, the report discovered.  And those industries employ just eight to 12 percent of the workforce.  Even with policies forcing major reductions in emissions, only a fraction would lose their jobs.

“Environmental sustainability is not a job killer, as it is sometimes claimed,” said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia.  “On the contrary, if properly managed, it can lead to more and better jobs, poverty reduction and social inclusion.”

(Copyright 2012 Stephen Leahy)

By way of explanation, I should perhaps just say that this (re-posting of Stephen Leahy’s article) was inspired (if that is the right word) by the insanity of yet another anonymous idiot (called ‘jdey123′ on the Met Office blog) commenting that current snowfall in the UK is the return to the weather of his/her youth.  To which I responded as follows:

What we are now experiencing is not the return to the weather of anyone’s youth.  This is because the last time atmospheric CO2 exceeded 400 ppm was three million years ago.

Unless we stop adding to the CO2 in the biosphere (and start removing it) excess atmospheric CO2 will eventually lead to the Antarctic becoming ice-free once more (800 ppm 35 million years ago). Such a transition may well take hundreds of years but we should not delude ourselves that it will not happen; or that now doing nothing is a survivable option (for significant proportion of all life on Earth).

As a geologist, I know that climate change may well be natural. However, what is now happening is predominantly unnatural. The only people who dispute this are those with a short-sighted vested interest in the continuance of business as usual and/or an ideologically-impaired ability to accept what atmospheric physicists have been telling us for over 50 years.

For more background information on this subject, please visit:’s_atmosphere


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