Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘James Hansen’ Category

The radiating face of Gaia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for global warming being beneficial

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Hansen et al (2012) Figure 2

Figure 2: Temperature anomaly distribution: The probability of occurrence (vertical axis) of local temperature anomalies (relative to 1951-1980 mean) in units of local standard deviation (horizontal axis). Image credit: NASA/GISS.

Last year, James Hansen (et al), pointed out that extreme weather events of all kinds (hot, cold, wet and dry) are becoming more frequent. In fact, their statistical analysis of historical data (as opposed to computer modelling of future events) demonstrated that extreme events (i.e. more than 3 standard deviation above or below average) are now ten times more likely than they used to be. As the authors put it:

We illustrate variability of seasonal temperature in units of standard deviation (σ), including comparison with the normal distribution (“bell curve”) that the lay public may appreciate. The probability distribution (frequency of occurrence) of local summer-mean temperature anomalies was close to the normal distribution in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in both hemispheres (Fig. 2). However, in each subsequent decade the distribution shifted toward more positive anomalies, with the positive tail (hot outliers) of the distribution shifting the most.

Last year it was the USA and Australia, today it is India that is suffering from a heatwave, with temperatures approaching 50C. Above 50C/120F, in dry air, proteins begin to break down (and plants die). Furthermore, a Wet Bulb temperature of 35C (which causes animals to die because they overheat) is reached at 40% relative humidity.

So much for global warming being beneficial.

If, like me until recently, you struggle with all this meteorological stuff, here is a nice graph from Wikipedia that tells you all you need to know about Wet and Dry Bulb temperatures and Relative Humidity.

I know this chart is complicated but, the important bit is the pale blue line with a “35” next to it. The top right corner of the graph (beyond this line) is therefore what you could call the “death zone” and the higher the Dry Bulb temperature (vertical lines in green) the lower the Relative Humidity (curves in red) required to enter it.

Written by Martin Lack

30 May 2013 at 00:02

The mother of all hockey sticks

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Image credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Words are not really necessary to accompany this image but, if you want some, feel free to go and read ‘The Last Time CO2 Was This High Humans Did Not Exist” by Andrew Freedman on the Climate Central website.

However, what I would really like to know is how anyone could possibly think that, since the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s climate would not have been impacted by:
– a sevenfold increase in the the human population;
– a similar increase in the number of methane-producing livestock;
– a super-exponential increase in the burning of fossil fuels.

Therefore, those who still dispute the reality of anthropogenic climate disruption have not only picked a fight with history; they have picked a fight with science – the Laws of Conservation of Energy and Mass and the concept of Entropy in particular. Defeat is therefore inevitable. The only question that remains is how bad do things have to get before they are willing to admit they are wrong?

I am afraid this may be the last post on this blog for a while because – what with the all the willful blindness and ideological prejudice that seems to stop people from recognising what an Eff-ing mess humanity is in – and my as yet unresolved employment situation – I am feeling somewhat emotionally drained. However, please don’t cancel your subscription (as who knows how quickly I may recover).


Addendum (10:00 hrs BST 4 May 2013)
I would also recommend that reader take a look at this excellent post, ‘The “hockey stick” slaps back’, on the Skepticblog website.  This takes readers on a journey back in time, looking at all the palaeoclimatic reconstructions that have been done for the last million years.  Somehow, I managed to be the first person to post a comment on this piece, which reads as follows:

Why not go back even further by looking at sea floor sediments too? As in, for example, Zachos et al. (2001), ‘Trends, Rhythms, and Aberrations in Global Climate 65 Ma to Present’, Science 292: 686-93.

For those that are really interested, you can get a PDF of the whole paper here.  It includes many fascinating diagrams, but one of the more complicated ones has been helpfully simplified by James Hansen in his book, Storms of my Grandchildren.  All the figures from the book are available here but, with regard to Zachos et al (2001), Figure 18 is the one to which I refer.  This too needs few words to convey its importance:

Storms Figure 18

Why we will probably fail to prevent catastrophe

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Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, was interviewed by offbeat TV presenter Eddie Mair on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday on BBC1.

Salmond’s comments about energy policy highlight the intellectual incoherence and dishonesty to which our politicians are driven by growthmania.

Although Salmond should be commended for standing up to Donald Trump’s opposition to offshore wind farms, he still appears to be basing his aspiration for a future independent Scotland on future revenue from extracting crude oil and gas from beneath what would be its territorial waters.

Scotland may well already be near the top of the international list of countries with the greatest percentages of installed renewable energy generation, it may well be the home of European research and development into Tidal power, but, its would-be independent government still appears to be assuming it will be OK to generate revenue from oil production over the next 50 years equivalent to those of the last 50 years.

This does not sound like a good idea to me.  It is one very good reason not to vote for Scottish independence.

Scottish independence does not look like it will be compatible with preventing anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).  Furthermore,  ACD is probably making its presence felt right now across the UK in the form of unusually cold weather.  Sure, it is not possible to attribute any single event to ACD but, all the same, ACD was predicted (from a basic understanding of atmospheric physics) to give rise to wider range of more extreme weather events of increased frequency and intensity.  This is exactly what we are now observing.  In fact, we have been observing it for about 50 years but, until quite recently, it had not been that obvious.  This is what James Hansen and his colleagues showed us last August:  The climate dice are now loaded – which means we get double-six a lot more often (and a few more double ones than we used to as well).

Electronic toys of mass distraction

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I must credit recent subscriber xraymike79 with apparently coining this term, in his recent post, entitled ‘Mankind’s Infantilism and the Death of the Planet‘. However, before clicking, please note that this contains adult themes that some might find disturbing.  For example, here is just a snippet:

This Earth is all we really have. Start caring for it and respecting it with the same reverence and homage we pay to our electronic toys of mass distraction, i.e. TV, iphones, video games, computers, etc.. 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.

Now is probably not a good time to admit that I have been tempted back to Sky with a 75% reduction on my subscription for 9 months.  However, the above chimes with an item written by John Hulburt, posted on Learning from Dogs yesterday, entitled ‘E Pluribus Unum’.  For example, take this:

We know we’re in trouble when our legislatures have been purchased, when faith in our financial system has been willfully damaged, when political leaders engage in childish tantrums to get their way regardless of anything or anyone else, when awareness of moral reality has become meaningless and when we fail to appreciate the depths of a looming abyss. What do we gain by purposefully destabilizing our economy, reopening settled social issues and blatantly risking our inclusive future as a species for a mess of pottage?  Who do we think we are?

Good questions, gentlemen. Who do we think we are; and when are our politicians going to stop lying to themselves and us?  Here is a quote from James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren:

Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets they have nominally accepted. (p.184)

Hansen then goes on to at least six ways that governments are planning to fail (because they assume carbon capture and storage can be made to work fast enough to prevent catastrophe), by encouraging (1) construction of new coal-fired power plants; (2) construction of new plants to turn coal into oil; (3) development of tar sands (the dirtiest of all unconventional fossil fuels); (4) exploration for fossil fuels in wilderness areas; (5) hydraulic fracturing despite methane release; and (6) opencast coal mining everywhere. For more on this topic see: ‘Hansen says we should FART‘ (i.e. fundamentally alter resource trajectories).

It is little wonder, then, that Thomas L Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, said this:

Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.

What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.

Friedman’s ambivalence to hydraulic fracturing (elsewhere in his piece) may be deeply flawed but, sadly, I think his analysis of recent history and prediction of what Obama will now do are both probably right.

Therefore, it is also little wonder that James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend system is not being taken up: because it is not in the interests of big business to take it up. It is only in the interests of the Environment; and the Environment does not seem to matter. See Hansen’s recent ‘Fork in the Road’ [PDF].

The Earth is being sold to the highest bidder and most of its inhabitants are too busy distracting themselves to even notice. The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Climate Science – Room 101

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A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and – as atmospheric physicists have been warning us for over 50 years now – this will result in more frequent and more extreme weather events of all kinds.

A recent opinion poll in the USA suggested that people who were skeptical of scientists are being convinced by the evidence of their own eyes. About time too, people; welcome to reality!


A big (possibly historic) winter storm just hit the Northeast of the United States — and climate change played a role in making it stronger.

Unusually warm ocean surface temperatures put more energy and more moisture in the storm, making a mess of roads and power grids.

This graph shows how climate change is making big storms more likely.

Still not convinced?  How about this from James Hansen (et al) last July [PDF]:

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is probably the natural
variability of local climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the
notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?…

Hansen et al (2012) Figure 2

Hansen et al (2012) Figure 2

We illustrate variability of seasonal temperature in units of standard deviation (σ), including
comparison with the normal distribution (“bell curve”) that the lay public may appreciate. The
probability distribution (frequency of occurrence) of local summer-mean temperature anomalies
was close to the normal distribution in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in both hemispheres (Fig. 2).
However, in each subsequent decade the distribution shifted toward more positive anomalies,
with the positive tail (hot outliers) of the distribution shifting the most.

Figure 2. Temperature anomaly distribution: The frequency of occurrence (vertical axis) of local
temperature anomalies (relative to 1951-1980 mean) in units of local standard deviation
(horizontal axis). Area under each curve is unity. Image credit: NASA/GISS…

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

What then should we learn from all this analysis of historical weather data?

We should not be surprised by the storm that has just hit the NE of the USA.

Written by Martin Lack

10 February 2013 at 00:02

Paying the price of UNFCCC failure

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Photo credit: Greenpeace International

I have been somewhat pre-occupied with the task of ending my unemployment recently.  However, I found myself pondering the above subject on my drive home from a couple of job interviews in London yesterday.

I know I have blogged about the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) before (and the Kyoto Protocol to which it led in 1997); and – in particular – how we (all human beings on this planet) are now so clearly in breach of Article 2 of the UNFCCC:

The ultimate objective of this Convention… is to achieve… the… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.  

However, driving from London to my home in the NW of England yesterday on part of the UK’s motorway network, I was astonished to see almost every single river valley covered by floodwater.  Some parts of the UK have been very wet this year (bringing to an end a record-breaking 18-month drought).  However, on the 180-mile journey home yesterday, I was really impressed by the fact that – as the BBC have reported – this flooding is now affecting such a large part of the country.

Meteorologists and climate scientists have a phrase for what we are witnessing – it’s Global Weirding.  I believe James Hansen spoke for the majority of reputable climate scientists when, in August this year, he provided irrefutable historical statistical evidence for a reality that atmospheric physics has made inevitable:

A warming atmosphere containing more moisture more of the time will lead – and has led – to the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events of all kinds.

I think all decent human beings owe it to their children and grandchildren to face up to the facts of history; and accept the nature of reality:

So-called “climate sceptics” (i.e. those ideologically prejudiced against admitting human activity is responsible for any and all environmental degradation) have dismissed the warnings of climate scientists over several decades as attempts to justify and perpetuate research funding.  In a vain attempt to prevent having to pay for the environmental cost of its pollution, the fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has denied that it is the cause of the problem for decades…  They have sought to perpetuate doubt and uncertainty; and have even accused climate scientists of crying “wolf”…  However, the truth of the matter is that much more money has been spent denying science than has been spent on research and, just as it did in the morality tale, the wolf has now turned up.

What I really object to is that my children and grandchildren are going to be the main ones that have to pay the price for the shortsightedness of fossil fuel executives who have succeeded in ensuring the UNFCCC has achieved absolutely nothing.

Over the last 20 years of UNFCCC meetings, there has been a great deal of talk and very little action.  Despite Hurricane Sandy and President Obama’s fine words on the night of his re-election this month, I suspect COP18 in Doha (starting next week) will be no different:  Sadly, I think real action will only start to be taken when events like Hurricane Sandy become an annual occurrence.

Therefore, although I do not wish such things on anyone, I suspect I may look forward to concerted action becoming a reality before the end of this decade.  By then, as any decent insurance company will admit to you, it is now very likely that we will all be paying the price of the failure of the UNFCCC process.


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