Archive for the ‘Sustainable development’ Category
The Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change has today published its 2014 progress report. The report considers preparedness to climate change in England related to major infrastructure, business, public health and emergency planning. It also provides an update to the ASC’s previous analysis of flood risk management.
This report is the last in a series that will feed in to the ASC’s first statutory report to Parliament on the National Adaptation Programme in 2015.
A copy of the report can be found on our website at: www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Final_ASC-2014_web-version.pdf
The associated news story is available at: www.theccc.org.uk
The 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:
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*)
We 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)
This 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)
Subtitled ‘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.
Sad to say it but, having reached cross-party consensus and implemented the Climate Change Act in 2008, the UK has now:
— failed to honour the promise this contained;
— failed to listen to the advice of its own scientific experts;
— failed to dismantle the subsidies that support fossil-fuel production;
— failed to provide certainty for investors in renewable energy (at any scale); and
— failed to take a lead to encourage other countries also to work towards a sustainable future.
I therefore think John Ashton, a former Foreign Office climate expert, was right to conclude recently that no-one who has voted for this new Energy Bill can be considered to be taking the threat of anthropogenic climate disruption seriously.
Here is the latest email from Greenpeace UK summarising what happened in the UK’s Parliament yesterday:
The vote was this afternoon and was amazingly close. But we lost.
MPs have just rejected a clean power future – and I thought you’d want to be the first to know.
It’s been a tense few days as we waited for MPs to vote on a clean power target in the Energy Bill, and it’s not the outcome we all wanted.
But there is a silver lining.
Thousands of us told our MPs to back clean electricity, and as a result the rebellion against George Osborne’s dirty, costly dash for gas continued to grow steadily right up to the vote.
We lost by just 23 votes. That’s the third closest vote since the election. If just 12 more MPs had switched sides, we’d have won.
Osborne may have won this round, but the Energy Bill will now go to the House of Lords. There will be another vote, which gives us another chance to secure our clean energy future.
The battle for Britain’s energy future is far from over.
Over the next few days, we’ll be thinking about where to take the campaign next. But right now we’re recruiting for our core volunteer lobbyists – the people who go and challenge their MPs face-to-face, in their constituency offices.
We need as many of these volunteers as possible to make sure we get the political impact we need. You’ll be trained for free and given all the support you need to become an effective lobbyist – for the good guys.
Let’s use today’s news to make us stronger. Volunteer for the Greenpeace lobbying network now.
P.S. In two days, 21 people will be sentenced for occupying one of George Osborne’s dirty gas power stations. Some of them are facing prison sentences. Please follow [i.e. 'Like'] the Facebook page of Greenpeace’s No Dash for Gas campaign for updates.
This post was therefore not published yesterday (i.e. International Workers’ Day).
Since publishing my book, I have been contacted by a number of academics in a variety of countries who are doing – or have done – research into climate change scepticism (i.e. similar to that which I did for my MA – the basis of my book). As well as being very enthusiastic about my research, they have all asked me why I did not get it published in an academic journal. However, the answer to this question is simple: I did not rate my chances as an unknown, sole author, while not doing a PhD. I am therefore now actively pursuing the possibility of doing both.
However, to get to the point, having established these contacts, it is obvious to me that, along with ‘Agenda 21’, the concept of a ‘New World Order’ conspiracy is one that I did not mention in my dissertation two years ago. Although one is merely a subset of the other, Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with these terms:
– Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. It is an action agenda for the UN, other multilateral organizations, and individual governments around the world that can be executed at local, national, and global levels.
— The common theme in conspiracy theories about a New World Order is that a secretive… elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government… Significant occurrences in politics and finance… and current events are seen as steps in an on-going plot to achieve world domination through secret political gatherings and decision-making processes.
Christopher Monckton, the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is fond of mentioning Agenda 21 in his speeches (e.g. here and here), but I have still not come across anyone (maybe I have just not looked hard enough) who frequently refers explicitly to the New World Order (NWO). Having said that, NWO conspiracy theory is the basis of James Delingpole’s stupid Watermelons books.
The trouble is, of course, that, whereas the organised nature of the campaign to discredit climate science and scientists is a very well-documented conspiracy fact, the idea that there is a global conspiracy to bring about an NWO is a delusion. Indeed, it may even be a form of vestigial anti-Semitism. I say this because Hitler believed the Jews were intent on establishing an NWO. However, as well as being entirely discredited long before the start of World War Two (WW2), this idea was – and is – entirely intellectually incoherent. In the decades preceding WW2, Jews were simultaneously accused of plotting to bring about an NWO and derided for being obsessed with making money. Despite this, even today, anti-Semitic organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood indoctrinate their followers into believing that there is an NWO conspiracy – they just call it ‘Zionism’. But that is another story.
Certainly, from the beginning of the Cold War onwards, belief in an NWO and/or characterisation of the USSR as the “evil empire” or “Red Menace”, acted as a recruiting sergeant for libertarians and free-market economists everywhere. Furthermore, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have clearly documented, in their book Merchants of Doubt, it was a bunch of neo-conservative physicists, whose worldview was forged in the Cold War era, who laid the foundations of the campaign to dispute climate science for ideological reasons. In the twilight years of the USSR (before the Berlin Wall came down), it was they who convinced President George Bush to resist much of what the first Rio Earth Summit sought to do in 1992… The USA had decided that the new enemy was “environmentalism”. People may think this is simplistic but the German Minister for the Environment at the time, Klaus Topfer, is on record as having said this is how he perceived the USA’s position at the time (See Timothy Luke’s ‘A Rough Road out of Rio’ (2000) – PDF available here).
Sadly, the idea that environmentalism is the enemy of progress is complete bullshit.
I’m sorry to be so blunt but, there really is no better word for it. However, this is sad for a variety of reasons:
— So many have been – and still are – convinced that concern for the environment is a form of Communism (or Fascism).
— This powerful delusion has been responsible for the failure of international efforts to prevent the environmental catastrophe that is now unfolding.
— The failure of climate scientists to explain their message in such as way as to shatter this delusion may result in things getting much worse than they might have done.
— The World’s politicians are yet to wake up to (or admit) the reality that simply curtailing the increase in global CO2 emissions will never solve the problem.
What we needed was ecological modernisation (i.e. modifications to the way we do things so as to make them more ecologically-friendly and environmentally-sustainable). Instead, what we have got is economic stagnation (because perpetual growth in consumption and accelerating resource depletion was always going to run into trouble eventually).
The questions that therefore remain are whether climate change sceptics are going to continue to try to perpetuate:
— The myth that Communists realised they could not win power in Western democracies so therefore invented the Green Party instead.
— The myth that there is a left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer).
— The myth that we need not worry about the finite nature of the Earth’s mineral resources or its ability to deal with our pollution simply because of human ingenuity (Prometheanism) or Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism).
I really do think it is time to admit that the game is up, the NWO does not exist:
— The only environmental conspiracy is that which seeks to deny the truth that human activity is irreversibly altering the Earth’s climate.
— The only political conspiracy is that which seeks to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).
— The amount of energy received from the Sun is effectively constant and therefore, by powering industrialised civilisation using the fossilised energy received by the Earth over millions of years, the Carbon Era has been neither physically nor environmentally sustainable.
So, then, the NWO conspiracy does not exist. However, that is not the end of the story.
Sadly, as I pointed out three months ago now, the CO2 fairy does not exist either: Given the history of exponentially growing demand for fossil fuels (and therefore CO2 emissions), it will be a very long time until carbon capture and storage (CCS) could possibly begin to solve our problem. Indeed, the technology is still at the experimental stage and, even once the best method of CCS is identified, it will then have to be made operational on a global basis such that sequestration exceeds emissions. Only then would the atmospheric concentration of CO2 begin to fall. This will therefore never happen unless global emissions are massively reduced.
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; and we have a limited carbon budget that we simply cannot exceed and expect to retain a habitable planet. Therefore, wherever their use is easily substitutable, we need to phase out the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. And, yes, that is the end of story.
Today’s post is that which was intended for last Monday. However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which is the best summary I have yet seen of the insidious problems caused by exponential growth. Even if you think you understand the maths – and are familiar with concepts such as doubling time and illustrations such as 264 grains of rice on a chessboard – it is still worth watching the a series of eight 9-minute videos, or entire presentation, posted on YouTube. This is primarily because of all the evidence Bartlett presents, which suggests that anyone who says exponential growth and/or resource depletion is not a problem is either stupid or a liar. It really is that simple.
However, I should also wish to draw attention to two further happy coincidences – two recent posts by fellow bloggers that are well worth reading:
1. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – another post about Bartlett’s presentation by Jules Bywater-Lees.
2. The Great Unmentionable by George Monbiot – a self-explanatory post by Paul Handover.
Today, then, I will finally get round to summarising the recently-published paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. As I said on Monday, the abstract is viewable on the Science journal website, but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University. Here, then, is my summary of the paper:
‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’, by Partha S. Dasgupta and Paul R. Ehrlich.
Introduction (in lieu of Abstract)
The authors start by pointing out that externalities (i.e. unintended consequences) in economics are widely acknowledged but generally relate to human use of the natural environment. Thus, people talk about our collective failure to value the essential ecosystem services Nature provides. In strict contrast to this, the authors suggest that the adverse consequences of resource consumption and population growth are generally not acknowledged.
The authors then begin by suggesting that birth rates in Europe began to decline 400 years ago as a result of improvements in the standard of living of most people because, almost counter intuitively, it led to people delaying marriage and childbirth until they could afford to set up their own household. However, birth rates in developed countries have since fallen much further and faster with improvements to the education and emancipation of women; and the advent and acceptance of contraception.
The authors note that, today, population growth is greatest in poor countries. However, unlike Bartlett, they do not acknowledge that per-capita rates of consumption make modest population growth in wealthy countries even more problematic. Instead, the authors focus on the factors that continue to encourage high birth rates in poor countries (in sub-Saharan Africa in particular).
Under the title ‘pro-natalist institutions’, the authors discuss societal norms such as the fostering of children by non-biological parents; communal land tenure (as opposed to the division of land amongst children that could discourage large families). Although seemingly careful not to mention the effect of religious beliefs, the largely “unmet need” for family planning is acknowledged. The authors also seem to be optimistic that lowering birth rates can be achieved faster through increasing access to contraception than it may be by improving education. Irrespective of how it is achieved, the authors acknowledge that achieving it will be essential to halting global human population growth. Notwithstanding, for the moment, that the ecological carrying capacity of the planet may have already been exceeded, the authors point out that whether or not global human population growth stabilises depends mainly on average family size in the future.
Under the title ‘conformity’, the authors discuss the reality that people continue to have large families long after the original reason for doing so (e.g. high infant mortality and lack of good healthcare or social welfare) has diminished or disappeared. On a more positive note, the authors suggest that the desire to conform can be broken if a big enough minority can be encouraged to modify their behaviour (i.e. and defy convention).
Under the title ‘breakdown of the commons and the added need for labour’, the authors discuss the externalities arising from the predominance of subsistence economies. These are the things that keep poor people poor, such as the labour intensive nature of many agricultural practices in the absence of mechanisation; and the fact that children who are fetching water, gathering fuel, working the land, or looking after animals are often missing out on being educated as a result.
The authors start by stating the obvious: the consumption (and depletion) of resources has consequences for both current and future generations. In terms of consequences for people alive today, the most obvious adverse consequence of resource consumption – or rather pollution by the waste being generated – is highlighted as being ongoing global climate disruption. The authors then focus on what drives us to consume things and to do ‘competitively’ and ‘conspicuously’ (i.e. to equate consumption with progress, fulfilment, and happiness). Here too, the authors highlight the troubling reality of social conformity as a driver of persistently self-destructive behaviour.
Once again, the authors acknowledge previous discussion (in academic literature) of anthropogenic impacts upon the environment and choose to focus on those that are detrimental. They suggest that these can be categorised as either unidirectional or reciprocal: the former being impacts the authors describe as “externalities each party inflicts… on all others, as in the case of unmanaged common property resources”. The authors then highlight that, unlike commonly owned resources at a local level, global resources that are not owned by anybody (such as the atmosphere and the fish in the sea) tend to be become polluted or over-exploited.
Difficulties in Enacting Policies to Counter Externalities
The authors begin their discussion of all of the above by lamenting the popular misconception by economists of Nature as something that is “a fixed, indestructible factor of production”. This rather opaque statement incorporates a variety of fallacies, including that Nature has only instrumental value; that it has an infinite capacity to provide resources for our use; and that it has an infinite capacity to assimilate (or recycle) the wastes we generate. These are all serious misperceptions of reality: Nature’s resources are finite and its essential ecosystem services are non-substitutable. For example, if human activity continues to decimate bee populations, at what point will it start to impact upon our ability to grow fruit and cereal crops? Indeed, is this not already happening?
As in many other discussions of the environment, the authors highlight the non-linearity of many processes in Nature; and the existence of positive (i.e. self-reinforcing or mutually-destructive) feedback mechanisms. Thus, they construct the population consumption environment nexus as three corners of a triangle with each having an effect upon – and being affected by – the others. Towards the end of their discussion, the authors highlight the fact that 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were found to be either degraded or currently subjected to unsustainable use.
Even more worryingly, they cite the conclusions of numerous other studies that, if all 7 billion of the people on the planet today were to squander resources at the rate at which those who are already wealthy do, “at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone on a sustained basis”. Considering the consensus view of UN statisticians that, on its current trajectory, the world population could exceed 10 billion by 2050, the authors make the obvious point that, if realised, “the demands made on the Earth system will prove to be even more unsustainable”.
So it is, then, that the authors end their discussion of the issues by considering the prospects for technology alone to solve this problem. They start by noting that technology does not operate in a vacuum (i.e. it too consumes resources) and that innovators respond to incentives (so government policies are important). Reflecting recent pronouncements by the IMF, the authors highlight the fact that Nature’s essential ecosystem services are currently grossly under-valued (e.g. the price of fossil fuels does not currently reflect the damage our use of them does to our environment). The authors also cite historical and empirical evidence that suggests that innovation and technology has historically increased unemployment; and archaeological evidence that past civilisations collapsed as a result of degradation of their environment or an inability to respond fast enough to environmental change. This should be of great concern to all humans alive today, because the current rates of environmental change are almost certainly unprecedented in the period of time over which such civilisations have existed.
I will let the authors’ conclusion speak for itself:
Although their magnitudes are likely to differ across societies, owing to differences in societal histories, institutions, customs, and ecologies, the reproductive and consumption externalities we have identified here share striking commonalities. Moreover, the analysis has uncovered reasons why technological innovations since the Industrial Revolution have been rapacious in their reliance on natural capital. We have shown that the externalities studied in this paper are not self-correcting. Therefore, the analysis we have presented points to a spiralling socio-environmental process, giving credence to the presumption that the pattern of contemporary economic growth is unsustainable.
Please do not worry that I am suddenly turning all Evangelical on you. Far from it. I just cannot get over how relevant the following words seem. They were written by former Pharisaic Jew, Saul – known to Christians as St Paul – to his young protegé, Timothy, in 66-67 AD.
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… (2 Tim 3: 1-4)
I am trying hard to fend-off a potential Messiah complex with regard to environmentalism but it seems, to me at least, an incontrovertible aspect of modernity that we have now fulfilled this 1950 year-old prophecy. However, as regular readers of this blog may well be able to guess, what concerns me more is that the greatest failure of modernity arose out of the Age of Enlightenment: This seventeenth-Century revolution in natural philosophy meant that Western science emerged from the Dark Ages but, from it, along with all the positive benefits of building on Chinese and Islamic scholarship, we sadly inherited the idea that humans are superior to Nature – rather than part of it. This is a fallacy that underlies the inability of many to accept the reality of ACD (i.e. anthropogenic climate disruption). Either that, or they are deluded into thinking that:
1. Humans are incapable of affecting their environment (despite the precedents of industrial pollution causing Acid Rain and CFCs creating the hole in the Ozone layer); or
2. God will not allow humans to trash the Environment (due to infantile reliance upon things like Genesis 9:15: “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” Yes, Senator James Inhoffe [R-OK], I am looking at you).
This post has been prompted by an exchange of comments I have been having with Patrice Ayme – on my previous post (i.e. here) – that I feel deserves wider exposure and/or appreciation. However, if you have not the faintest idea what I might be on about, please be patient: This post is not too long and, if you read to the end, I believe all will become clear.
The image shown here is the cover of one of the two main course texts I had to buy in order to do my MA in Environmental Politics at Keele University in 2010-11. It is an excellent introduction to the subject of environmental politics and the concept of discourse analysis.
It is in this book that John Dryzek puts forward his own particular method of discourse analysis – analysing the things people say or have written – suggesting examination of: (a) the basic entities people recognise or appear to construct; (b) the assumptions they make about natural relationships; (c) the agents they recognise and motivations they assume; and (d) the key metaphors and rhetorical devices they use.
In the sphere of environmental politics, Dryzek suggests that it is possible to classify people on the basis of whether they appear to believe sustainability can be achieved by reformation of the status quo; and the extent to which they are thinking “outside the box”; as follows:
After Dryzek Box 1.1 on page 15 of The Politics of the Earth (2005).
In essence, economic rationalists assume market forces can be used to solve environmental problems; whereas ecological modernisers think it will take more than that.
This then was the starting point for my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism, which I have now published as The Denial of Science. However, in order to propose a similar classification of climate change scepticism, it was necessary to take Dryzek’s basic idea and combine it with what I have called the ‘Six Pillars of Climate Change Denial’ that I extracted from Robert Henson’s The Rough Guide to Climate Change:
The atmosphere may not be warming; but if it is, this is probably due to natural variation; but if it isn’t, the amount of warming is probably not significant; but if it is, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages; but if they don’t, technology should be able to solve problems as they arise; but if it can’t, we shouldn’t wreck the economy to fix the problem (after Henson 2008: 257).
As I explain in my book, I simplified this summary of the positions adopted by those who are supposedly sceptical, in order to produce my Dryzek-style classification of climate change denial, as follows:
(1 – ACD is not happening)
(4 – ACD is not worth fixing)
(2 – ACD is not significant)
(3 – ACD is not problematic)
Contrarians are those refuse to acknowledge the nature of reality.
Cornucopians are those (like Julian Simon) who do not believe action is yet required to address any anticipated effects of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). They are named after Cornucopia, the horn of the goat Amalthea in Greek mythology, which Zeus endowed with a supernatural power to provide an unlimited supply of food etc.. As such, Cornucopians have unlimited confidence in the abundant supply of natural resources; the ability of natural systems to absorb pollutants; and their corrective capacity to mitigate human activities.
Economic Rationalists are defined and discussed by Dryzek (2005: 121-42) but, for the sake of argument, can here be taken to be synonymous with Karl Marx’s “money fetishism” as cited in Elster (1986); and/or Herman Daly’s “growthmania” (1974).
Prometheans are those (like Bjorn Lomborg) who propose radical technological solutions including environmental stabilisation of the atmosphere by means of geo-engineering. They are named after Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek mythology, who stole fire from Zeus and so vastly increased the human capacity to manipulate the world. As such, Prometheans have unlimited confidence in the ability of technology to overcome environmental problems.
In a nutshell, my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism (i.e. the most prominent climate change sceptics in the UK) appears to suggest that the majority of these “sceptics” are either contrarians or economic rationalists. However, I suspect that as the outright denial of reality and the need to address the problem of ACD both become increasingly untenable, I think more and more people will try and find solace in either cornucopian or promethean beliefs.
In the discussion that I alluded to at the outset of this post, Patrice Ayme did not like the way in which I appeared to disparage the importance of human ingenuity (by suggesting that people who believe in both Cornucopianism and Prometheanism are deluded). I am pleased to say that we have now resolved any misunderstanding by agreeing that Prometheanism is the best option. However, crucially, we also agree that, in order to avert an ecological catastrophe, we will also need to modify our behaviour. That is to say, neither faith in Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism) nor faith in human ingenuity (Prometheanism) should be used to deny our responsibility for causing the problem or to abdicate responsibility for doing everything we can to minimise its consequences.
Great stuff, hey? All we need to do now is get those with the power to make policy decisions to do the right thing.
(In conversation with a “technological optimist”)
I was so impressed by the ‘Growth Delusion’ article by Nick Reeves (published on this blog on Monday), that I decided to bring it to the attention of members of my extended family and to one person in particular (who has asked to remain anonymous). What follows is just over 2000 words in length but it made no sense to me to arbitrarily divide it up into pieces (you will either be interested or you won’t)…
I started by pointing out what I feel sets this article by Nick Reeves apart – the facts and figures that he has compiled in order to back-up his argument that human civilisation cannot survive in the long term unless it acknowledges that technology alone cannot solve our problems. Here are two examples:
— Agriculture: It is true that, globally, we waste an awful lot of food. Therefore, we could feed a lot more people if we eliminated this waste. However, as Nick Reeves points out, global agriculture today is an industry that converts oil into food. Therefore, what will it do when the Earth runs out of hydrocarbons (and phosphorus)?
— Industry: The era of cheap energy has come – or is coming – to an end. Meanwhile: how can China consuming 53% of the World’s cement production; 48% of the World’s iron ore; and/or 47% of the World’s coal… be described as anything other than unsustainable?
In response, my anonymous relative insisted that Nick Reeves facts were nothing of the sort; and implied that he/she thinks I am misanthropic and unduly pessimistic. My anonymous relative is very clearly a technological optimist, but I prefer to think of myself as an environmental realist.
What follows are 10 points made by my anonymous relative; with my refutation appended to each one in bold text:
1. He [Reeves] claims that the economic crisis was a consequence of dangerous speculation on the part of the banks. This is not a fact. The alternative hypothesis is that it was a consequence of rotten policy-making by government leaders who believed that they knew what was best for society at large. I hope this is not a statement of faith in some vague global conspiracy to install global socialist government (of which I too would disapprove). I hope also that you are not suggesting that the solution would have been weaker regulation.
2. He attributes short-term trends in commodity prices solely to demand considerations, but gives no corresponding analysis to what might happen on the supply side, simply taking it as a given that reserves will wither and making no reference to the possibility of finding new reserves at any point. Thankfully, Antarctica is protected from exploration (which I am sure will one day become viable). Sadly, the Arctic is not so protected. I hope your faith in technology and human ingenuity can keep pace with increasing demand.
3. His “facts” about the growth of China are also disingenuous. He refers to a historical growth rate of 10% pa and then projects that this will continue, even though the available evidence shows that this growth has not continued and may well soften further over the coming years. Thankfully, China’s growth rate has dropped from 10%pa to 7%pa, which means the doubling time for its economy has increased from 7 to 10 years. This is still nowhere near being environmentally sustainable.
4. Likewise, his estimates of Chinese cement, iron ore, and coal use are all based upon an enormously imbalanced economy in China, where government policies have long repressed consumption and incomes among ordinary Chinese workers in order to drive through massive infrastructure projects, many of dubious value – a model of uncertain merit, but which some experts have deemed to be economically unsustainable. Consumption of resources is the problem – it does not matter who is doing the consuming. Think of all the rare earth metals required to give everyone in China a new mobile phone.
5. The claim that lost-cost hydrocarbons will be a distant memory by 2050 may prove true, but until we get a little closer to that date, this is not a fact, but rather an assertion, and one with considerable uncertainty attached given the volume of known coal reserves in the world. Higher retail prices for hydrocarbons increases oil company turnover but a fivefold reduction in EROEI for unconventional fossil fuels does beg the question as to when you stop flogging a dead horse.
6. The idea likewise that a depleted supply of hydrocarbons risks global economic collapse is also open to debate. Even if one agreed with his view (unproven) that we are about to run out of hydrocarbons, I would still question the inevitability of economic collapse. Everything would depend upon the timeframe and upon the extent to which prices throughout the journey are left to reflect the realities of supply and demand, as opposed to the political priorities of people who think they know better. Your questioning of it does not make it any less likely to happen. The last financial meltdown was triggered by lending money to risky people. The next one will be a global debt crisis resulting from the end of the era of “cheap” energy (which has made the success of the last 200 years possible). If we do not plan – and put into place – a transition, collapse is almost inevitable. This is a lesson we should learn from population dynamics in biology.
7. Similarly, his point about the recycling of metals is hardly a statement of facts. If these commodities were so precious as he makes out the fact is we would be recycling more of them, and many of our consumer products would have much shorter replacement cycles. To make these claims with no consideration either of the estimated reserves of un-mined metals still under the ground or of the history of metals exploration is surely a significant oversight? Please remember that I am a geologist, [name redacted]. I find it deeply depressing to admit that much of what my fellow geologists do is, in effect, treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation. However, denial is not a river in Egypt; and a business that is selling its assets to generate turnover will eventually be bankrupted.
8. The risks to food supply, to a greater extent than is true of other resources, I am inclined to take seriously. However, many of the issues here are not about resource constraints, they are about political constraints – immoral European subsidies, an unwillingness to support the development or application of GM crops, the shameful subsidies to turn sugar and corn into ethanol, and the diversion of water resources away from agriculture for environmental purposes are all excellent examples from the developed world. As a hydrogeologist, I am already aware that groundwater mining is a reality in almost every arid country in the World. Food supply problems are a little more distant but, just as a spike in food prices contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings two years ago, increased extreme weather events of all kinds are going to make such spikes more frequent in the future.
9. And his solution to the food problem – organic farming – is just hilarious. Every serious scientific study I have ever seen on this subject tells me that global-scale organic farming would lead to mass starvation. What is wrong, I ask with just letting prices do their work? In a resource-starved world, I would expect a much greater proportion of the world simply to go vegetarian. Now I have no problem with organic practices, but you tell me that the facts here speak for themselves. So where is his evidence that organic farming can do the trick? His comment here is again just an assertion. I am not opposed to GMOs because they could damage the environment. I am opposed to them for the same reason I disapproved of Nestle selling powdered baby milk to mothers perfectly capable of breast-feeding their babies. Technology may be very useful but it is useless if you have no fuel to use it. On a global scale, therefore, low-tech solutions locally-sourced may well prove more resilient.
10. The fact is, at every turn, he is looking for the angle, not the fact. Arctic ice levels are indeed very low – and lower than some (but not all) models predicted 15 years ago. But if he is going down this route, why just pick this piece of evidence? Why not also talk about the trends in temperature? Are they tracking ahead of schedule too? When one reads something like this, and detects zero scope for uncertainty, it is hard to take the presentation of his “facts” seriously. I am not sure what models predicted faster collapse of Arctic sea ice. The reasons for the hiatus in global surface temperature rise in the last 14 years (or so) are well understood. You are just parroting junk science peddled by merchants of doubt. I would like to see you dismiss all the other positive feedback mechanisms now starting to make their presence felt – such as thawing permafrost which last year released more CO2e that humans did in 2010.
I could go on, but I am not sure much would be served by it. Martin, you and I come at the world with very different world views, and also with different knowledge sets. When I read something like this piece, I am afraid I don’t see facts and logic. I see emotion and anger. I also see a lack of faith in humanity as a whole, a distaste for our species and for our civilisation that is frankly not only misguided but also profoundly depressing. I do not presume to understand your world view (apart from that imposed on you by your chosen career). However, for the record, I am neither a progressive nor a liberal, and I do not believe in ‘big government’. I just believe humans should take more responsibility for their actions. I am socially and politically conservative with the sole exception that I do not believe in the delusion of growthmania or that technology can and will invalidate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What I find depressing is that so many think we can win the fight modernity has picked with science. The history of human civilisation is replete with examples of those who – whether they understood it or not – lost just such a fight.
Despite having rebutted all the points made, my anonymous relative responded by ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of climate scientists; focussing on what he/she repeatedly referred to as significant uncertainty; and personalising all predictions of near-term problems as if they were merely my opinions.
And so it went on, with emails backwards and forwards. I tried very hard to point out that: I am merely reflecting the opinions of the vast majority of climate scientists; the uncertainty is now vanishingly small; the IPCC has spent decades under-reporting the scale of the problem we face; and there is an ongoing business-led campaign to discredit the science and the scientists. However, the harder I tried to do this, the more (it seems to me) my anonymous relative appeared to feel I was attacking him/her personally.
I was told my moral certainty (about the need to act) was a cause for concern: I responded each time by referring to the facts of history and the opinions of the World’s professional bodies. However, each time, it was as if I was accusing my anonymous relative of personally orchestrating the campaign of denial.
When I highlighted my concerns regarding Richard Lindzen’s misleading and hypocritical presentation in the Palace of Westminster over a year ago (of which I had first-hand experience), I was told I was being “preposterous”. My suspicion of Lindzen was countered with suspicion of some (un-named) mainstream scientists.
When I cited the Geological Society’s carefully-worded public statement regarding climate change, I was told that believing my “doomsday scenario” to be suspicious did not require the invocation of conspiracy theory. What I never got, however, was any valid reason to dispute the scientific consensus.
Finally, my anonymous relative suggested that it would be best to bring our exchanges to a close but only after once more insisting that climate science is uncertain and/or corrupted and that I am misanthropic (with my final observations added [in square brackets]):
Nonetheless, climate science has implications that are clearly political rather than scientific [I agree]. This is true really of any area of science where the stakes are high and the uncertainties are significant [repetition of a lie does not make it true]; and this, unfortunately, does tend to encourage people to talk about things that are really based upon personal value judgements [yes it sure does], as if they were scientific fact. I have seen this, not just within the public domain, but in scientific establishments and within professional scientific bodies [i.e. equating consensus with the corruption of science]. You do it too, by discounting uncertainties [what uncertainties?], by interpreting everything as a contest of two polar-opposite world views [because they very probably are], and in your distaste for modernity [my distaste is for the collateral damage modernity has caused].
This is unbelievably frustrating, it is as if I have just wasted a fortnight trying to explain something to someone who is physically incapable of listening.
* “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.
This is great news but, what we really need is an International agreement (like that which protects the Antarctic from resource exploitation). If we need to despoil the Arctic to get fossil fuels, then we are very clearly far too dependent on them: The time has come to invest in and/or subsidise the pursuit of renewable (i.e. infinite) alternatives. Here is the appeal for help from Greenpeace.
Last night, Shell announced it’s giving up on plans to drill for oil in the Arctic in this year.
It’s amazing news, because it means no drilling in the pristine waters of Alaska this year. And the pressure you put on Shell helped make this possible.
Right now I’m thrilled, this is a huge success for the Arctic. But the fight isn’t over. We’ve got a real opportunity to stop industrial exploitation in the Arctic, forever.
Last month, President Obama ordered a sweeping review of Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic. Meanwhile, Shell was found to have 16 safety and environmental violations on their rig that ran aground in Alaska. Now it’s time for Obama to abandon the idea of Arctic drilling completely.
I’m sure you won’t want the good news to stop here, and that in the days ahead you’ll still be part of the movement to keep Shell out of the Arctic forever.
But for the moment it’s all about enjoying what we’ve accomplished together. Thank you so much for all the work you have done to protect the Arctic.
Greenpeace Executive Director
P.S. This is great news, but there is much more to do. Our Arctic campaign and all the work we do to protect the environment depends entirely on your support. Can you make a donation now to help make a protected Arctic a reality? (Link to Greenpeace UK website here.)