Lack of Environment

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

Posts Tagged ‘Bill McKibben

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!”.

We need a global power shift

with 14 comments

Yesterday, I received the email below from May Boeve at Bill McKibben’s 350.0rg. I have received others before and would love to get involved but, having investigated to see what they are looking for, was left with the distinct feeling that they are not looking for middle-aged, unemployed people with no network of physical connections in a geographic area…  Maybe, however, you are different?

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The links below have now been de-personalised. Therefore, if you clicked on them in the first hour after this post was originally published, you will need to do so again now – and thereby register in your own name (rather than as me – which at least one person has done).  - Thanks to Pendantry for alerting me to my error.



2012 was the year of Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bopha, and unprecedented droughts and wildfires the world over. Global food prices rose by 6% and we hit 333 consecutive months of above-average temperatures, as half the Arctic ice disappeared into the ocean.

In short, 2012 was the year of extreme weather and climate change. And that’s why 2013 must and will be year zero in our fight against it.

This will be the year we look back upon when everything changed – when we rose up to meet the challenge of climate change at the scale that it required, and the world rose with us.

Global Power Shift will be the starting point, and we’ll need all hands on deck. Are you in?

Already, we’ve begun to ramp up in a big way. The Fossil Free divestment campaign has rapidly spread to over 200 college campuses across the U.S. and we’re not stopping there. Soon, this divestment campaign will be in Canada, Europe, and beyond.

This June, 500-600 of the most capable and fired-up youth leaders from around the world will be meeting in Turkey to spark a Global Power Shift. The basic plan is this:

  1. They’ll train in grassroots and digital organizing, share their stories, and chart an aggressive strategy for the coming year
  2. Attendees will then return to their home countries in teams to organize mobilizations
  3. These national or regional events will be launchpads for new, highly-coordinated campaigns confronting the fossil fuel industry and promoting strategic solutions to climate change

And that’s just the beginning. From there, we will continue to grow bigger and gain steam until — town by town, and country by country — we come together to win the kind of planetary transformation that this climate crisis demands.

Pledge to shift the power:


May for the GPS Team

The frack-heads are dangerously deluded

with 12 comments

Yesterday, in the UK’s Observer newspaper, Andrew Rawnsley highlighted an important delusion currently infecting a large proportion of – the senior partner in the UK’s coalition government – the Conservative Party.

In his article, entitled ‘The fracking dream which is putting Britain’s future at risk’, Rawnsley proposes the name “frack-heads” for people seduced by the idea that hydraulic fracturing will be “a remarkable bonanza of cheap energy” – because “[b]elievers in shale gas have a tendency to rave about it as if they are using a mind-bending substance“.

In recent months, I have posted a number of items about hydraulic fracturing on this blog; many of them prompted by what Grist blogger Dave Robert has written about it; and by the films of Josh Fox (i.e. Gasland and The Sky is Pink).  Most recently, of course, Bill McKibben has reminded the World that we have five times more fossil fuels than it would be safe to burn and, burning all of them is therefore gambling the future habitability of this planet on making Carbon Capture and Storage work.  I remain convinced that we should be making more effort to decarbonise our power generation systems as soon as possible.

But what of Rawnsley’s article; what has he got against fracking?  Well, initially, it is not clear, because parts of his article read like some twisted April Fool’s Day joke; such as when he points out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has:

“…paved the way for drilling by trailing tax breaks to incentivise the exploration of shale gas and announced a new regulatory outfit, the Office for Unconventional (Shale) Gas, dubbed Ofshag…

So, Rawnsley correctly boils-down the enthusiasm of the frack-heads as being the pursuit of perpetuating the delusion of cheap energy; and a determination to insist that there is such a thing as a free lunch.  However, sadly, on his way to explaining why he thinks fracking is risky, Rawnsley gets a bit confused:  He rightly observes that climate change deniers “are prominent among the frack-heads” but then spoils it all by asserting that fracking “seems to offer something to greens because shale gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal.” However, in all of what remains of Rawnsley’s article, he never once even comes close to pointing out the inherent danger of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because we can.

So, as I said, what is it that Rawnsley thinks is risky?  Well, just in case you can’t be bothered to read his article, he basically re-states the position of the UK government’s advisors – that it probably can be done safely.  Despite this pragmatism, however, Rawnsley foresees a great deal of popular opposition to something that will, nevertheless, be far more intrinsically dangerous – and therefore unpopular – than wind turbines.  Rawnsley then makes the point that UK geology is very different from that in the USA; which may make shale gas even harder to extract here than it has there.  However, all this is just a pre-amble to Rawnsley’s penultimate paragraph, in which he almost pulls together a coherent and comprehensive argument (emphasis mine):

The risks of this “dash for gas” are multiple. It locks Britain into a continued reliance on an expensive, polluting fossil fuel. Money spent on gas diverts investment from renewables, which is especially bonkers when the green energy sector is one of the few parts of the British economy that is currently displaying good growth. It makes it less likely that we will meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions. Should shale gas truly turn out to be viable, there would be dividends. But if, which seems much more likely at the moment, the claims made for it prove to be false, then Britain is going to be even more exposed to future price shocks and blackmail by foreign suppliers. We are already hazardously dependent on imports from Russia and the Middle East. Much of our gas comes through the Straits of Hormuz from Qatari platforms just outside Iran’s territorial waters. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel terribly secure. Nor do I sleep easier at night when I think about Vladimir Putin’s finger hovering over our national light switch.

I therefore agree with Rawnsley that this is “fracking crazy” –  I just think it is a shame he failed to mention Bill McKibben!

The ethics of fossil fuel use

with 19 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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