Welcome to Lack of Environment (established 10 August 2011).
Although scientifically trained (with degrees in Geology and Hydrogeology – see my About page), this blog arises from my having also got an MA in Environmental Politics and, as such, as the tagline indicates, is a blog on “the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems”… I hope you will take this on board; and enjoy the discussion.
“There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation” – Herman E. Daly (former World Bank economist). For more information on this, please see my It doesn’t have to be like this (21 May 2012).
I recently became aware of an article published on The Conversation website over a year ago, written by James Painter, author of Poles Apart: the reporting of international scepticism. The article, entitled Enough scientific certainty exists on climate change to challenge media sceptics (4 March 2014), is still worth reading if you haven’t seen it. Here is the crux of his argument:
So when sceptics stress the “nobody knows” narrative, they are misrepresenting the existence of any uncertainty at all as meaning that, for example, no action to reduce carbon emissions is necessary. It’s the nature of climate science that there are lots of uncertainties, but this doesn’t mean scientists know nothing, or are simply speculating.
However, it should be noted here that Painter uses the terms ‘scepticism’ and ‘sceptics’ solely for convenience: As is self-evident from what he writes, he does not accept this is an accurate term for those whose statements he analyses.
If you do not understand what I mean, perhaps the following will help:
Having read the above article, I decided to look at the comments, amongst which I found this from someone going by the name goldminor sanchez:
Here is another way to look at co2. Human emissions of co2 equal approximately 4% of the yearly release that goes into the atmosphere, the other 96% is natural. Co2 itself constitutes 400 parts per million of the atmosphere. So we have only added a tiny fraction of the total amount of a fractional gas. If the Earth was that sensitive to such a tiny change, then man and most life forms would have been wiped out many billions of years ago. That is something to consider.
This comment is so misleading, or simply betrays an astonishing level of scientific illiteracy, that I felt compelled to respond (even though over one year late). I also reported sanchez for being misleading.
Therefore, just in case his comment is removed, I have included it above. However, for ease of reference, here is my response (which explains what real sceptism is):
Here is yet another way to look at it… “Natural” CO2 is in constant circulation between the biosphere and the atmosphere (as is water), whereas “unnatural” CO2 has been out of circulation for millions of years. Thus, humans are well on the way to adding all this geospheric carbon back into the biosphere in just 300 years (thousands if not millions of times faster than the Earth can recycle it).
There have been 5 mass extinctions in geological history, all of which have resulted from climatic changes that occurred faster than organisms could adapt. Post-industrial change is about ten times faster than any “natural” change in geological history. That is why biologists have concluded that the 6th mass extinction is already underway.
To be sceptical is to accept that all our beliefs about reality are potentially falsifiable by contradictory evidence. Therefore, rejecting all evidence contrary to your antecedent beliefs (as young earth creationists do) is the opposite of being sceptical.
Given all of the above, it should be clear that disputing the primary human responsibility for ongoing climate change is not consistent with some very basic physics,* the totality of what we should learn from the Earth’s geological history, and the philosophical roots of genuine scepticism.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced that Australian taxpayers are now going to finance attempts to disprove the need to decarbonise our global power generation systems as fast as possible (see yesterday’s article on the Guardian website). However, Lomborg’s position is very confused (and confusing):
Lomborg: “Natural science has undeniably shown us that global warming is manmade and real. But just as undeniable is the economic science which makes it clear that a narrow focus on reducing carbon emissions could leave future generations with major costs, without major cuts to temperatures.”
Reality: Natural science has undeniably shown us that global warming is real and predominantly manmade. Just as undeniable is the economic assessment that any further delay in reducing carbon emissions will make it harder and more expensive to mitigate and/or adapt to increases in global temperatures.
My suggestion to both Lomborg and Abbott is that they should take time out to read the assessment of the formerly-skeptical Yale Professor of Economics, William D. Nordhaus:
‘Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong’ by William D. Nordhaus (2012).
Writing in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal signed by sixteen fossil fuel-funded ‘Merchants of doubt’ (including Richard Lindzen), Nordhaus began thus:
I have identified six key issues that are raised in the article, and I provide commentary about their substance and accuracy. They are:
— Is the planet in fact warming?
— Are human influences an important contributor to warming?
— Is carbon dioxide a pollutant?
— Are we seeing a regime of fear for skeptical climate scientists?
— Are the views of mainstream climate scientists driven primarily by the desire for financial gain?
— Is it true that more carbon dioxide and additional warming will be beneficial?
As I will indicate below, on each of these questions, the sixteen scientists provide incorrect or misleading answers. At a time when we need to clarify public confusions about the science and economics of climate change, they have muddied the waters. I will describe their mistakes and explain the findings of current climate science and economics…
Therefore, if anyone is inclined to think Bjorn Lomborg’s position on climate science has any credibility, I would suggest that they need to read (or if necessary re-read) what Nordhaus wrote over three years ago.
I have been looking back at some of my earliest posts on this blog; and have decided that now would be a good time to pull together some of the key points I have highlighted over the years – regarding anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). I prefer the use of ‘ACD’ because it is far more accurate than more popular terms such as ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’.
Firstly, then, ACD is an observed multi-decadal reality that cannot be explained by natual causes (i.e. sunspot cycles or volcanic eruptions, etc). See:
Comfortably numb is not good enough (3 September 2012).
The reason we keep getting double six (7 August 2012).
Secondly, climate science is not complicated or contentious, it is simply inconvenient for big business to accept. This is why the fossil fuel industry has spent the last 50 years trying to perpetuate the myths that it is both of these things. See:
Climate science in a nutshell – Part 1 (31 October 2011) (see also Part 2 that followed it).
Peddlers of doubt – monkeys or organ-grinders (20 Feb 2012).
Thirdly, and most importantly, the key thing to which the title of this post alludes: Research by a team at the University of Oxford published in 2009, which I first referenced in the first month of this blog’s existence (August 2011). This research shows that it is the total (i.e. cumulative) amount of fossilised carbon that we (have and will) put into the atmosphere that will determine the temperature change we will see over the next 50 years or so.
As per the Climate Change By Numbers programme on BBC4 Television, climate scientists are agreed that, in order to avoid irreversible and unsurvivable changes to the Earth’s climate, humans need to avoid adding 1 trillion tonnes of fossilised carbon (1000 GtC) to the atmosphere.
It therefore strikes me now, looking again at the above graph, that limiting global cumulative emissions of fossilised carbon to 1000 GtC will only be feasible if emissions peak within the next 10 years and the later the peak the more rapid the phase-out needs to be to keep the area under the graph the same (i.e. equivalent to 1000 GtC).
Governments around the world were very slow to react to the existential threat of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last year. Evidence is now growing that, in taking over 25 years to take decisive action to minimise ACD, our governments have endangered the future survival of the vast majority of species on the planet (see biological and financial evidence below).
This is an avoidable tragedy. What our governments have lacked is a public mandate to act. I really hope this will soon emerge because, if it does not, evidence is growing that the sixth mass extinction of speies is already underway. See:
‘Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?’ (Nature, 471, 51–57, 3 March 2011).
That being the case, given the glacial pace at which progress has been made thus far, I think it is fair to say that humanity is rapidly running out of time to act. Furthermore, the problem is compunded by the fact that, under pressure from government-appointed scrutineers and/or sock-puppets of the fossil fuel industry, the UN/IPCC have consistently underestimated the costs of adapting to climate change. See:
‘Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change’ (IIED, 2009).
I know I have been a bit slow but, I have now signed the Guardian’s new climate change petition.
Indeed, I was – and am – very pleased to see editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger leading their campaign to phase-out institutional investment in the fossil fuel industry over the next five years, which includes an online petition, at:
Alan begins by pointing out that:
The world has much more coal, oil and gas in the ground than it can safely burn. That much is physics… Anyone studying the question with an open mind will almost certainly come to a similar conclusion: if we and our children are to have a reasonable chance of living stable and secure lives 30 or so years from now, according to one recent study 80% of the known coal reserves will have to stay underground, along with half the gas and a third of the oil reserves…
He then goes on to explain why divestment campaigns are working based on two arguments; one moral and the other financial.
The basis of the moral argument for divestment is summarised as follows:
The moral crusaders… see divestment from fossil fuels in much the same light as earlier campaigners saw the push to pull money out of tobacco, arms, apartheid South Africa – or even slavery. Most fossil fuel companies, they argue, have little concern for future generations. Of course, the companies are run by sentient men and women with children and grandchildren of their own. But the market pressures and [their duty to their shareholders] compel… [directors to pursue…] business as usual, no matter how incredible it may seem that they will be allowed to dig up all the climate-warming assets they own…
As such, there is a moral imperative to demand an end to the enormous subsidies that enable fossil fuel companies to pursue such an insanely short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive business strategy.
The pragmatic basis of the financial argument for divestment is summarised as follows:
If… the companies cannot, for the sake of the human race, be allowed to extract a great many of the assets they own, then many of those assets will in time become valueless. [Therefore, people…] managing endowments, pension funds and investment portfolios… will want to get their money out of these companies before the bubble bursts…
However, Alan makes it clear that:
The intention is not to bankrupt the companies, nor to promote overnight withdrawal from fossil fuels – that would not be possible or desirable… Divestment serves to delegitimise the business models of companies that are using investors’ money to search for yet more coal, oil and gas that can’t safely be burned. It is a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels.
Finally Alan explains why the Guardian‘s campaign is focussed on two organisations:
The Wellcome Trust handles a portfolio of more than £18bn and invests around £700m a year in science, the humanities, social science education and medical research. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of $43.5bn. Last year it gave away $3.9bn in grants towards health and sustainable development… Because both foundations are a) so progressive in their aims and actions and b) have human health and science at the heart of everything they do, we hope they, of all institutions, will see the force of the call for them to move their money out of a sector whose actions, if unchecked, could cause the most devastating harm to the health of billions [see footnote]… We understand that fund managers do not like to make sudden changes to their portfolios. So we ask that the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years… [and] immediately freeze any new investment in the same companies.
If you have not done so already, I would encourage all to read the full article and sign the petition at:
Footnote: See a landmark report by the Lancet and University College London, which concluded in 2009: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
As reported on the DeSmog blog, in Florida, acceptance of climate science has been equated with mental illness…
Barton Bibler is a long-time DEP employee who now serves as Land Management Plan Coordinator in its Division of State Lands. He attended a Florida Coastal Managers Forum on February 27, 2015 at which climate change and sea-level rise were discussed among a mix of public attendees. Mr. Bibler’s official notes on this meeting reflected all of that discussion. He was directed to remove any hot button issues, especially explicit references to climate change, and then was given a letter of reprimand for supposedly misrepresenting that the “official meeting agenda included climate change.”
As he was given the reprimand on March 9th, Mr. Bibler was told to not return to work for two days which would be charged against his personal leave time. Two days later he received a “Medical Release Form” requiring that his doctor supply the DEP with an evaluation of unspecified “medical condition and behavior” issues before being allowed to return to work.
Addendum (1800 GMT, 27 March 2015):
Having compiled it, I think my response to Catweazle (below) is worth adding here. This is because it includes references to useful sources that validate acceptance of climate science as objective and its denial as ideological, as follows:
I accept that hydrocarbons are essential to modern life (as demonstrated by the way the oil price affects the price of almost every commodity money can buy). However, the IEA, IMF and OECD all accept that those who have a genuine choice to divest from fossil fuels should do so wherever possible.
Sadly, even this agreement is based on a significant underestimate of the costs of futher delay in taking effective action to mitigate and/or adapt to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
If the disputation of ACD were based on truly objective and scientific scepticism it would not have such a clear ideological and political bias (Painter, 2011).
A feature-length documentary, based on the content of the Merchants of Doubt book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, went on general release at movie theatres in the USA this weekend.
As Desmogbog.com points out, it has already attracted the attention of an odd mixture of ideologically-motivated deniers of the reality of anthropogenic climate disruption.
I say “odd” because, as per the above link, those who prefer to see climate science as a conspiracy to raise taxes (and install worldwide Communist government via the united Nations, etc.) include both longstanding disputers of inconvenient science like Fred Singer (who questions whether the movie is defamatory) and self-confessed non-experts like James Delingpole.
Both of the above would have done well to watch a recent BBC Four (television) programme – Climate Change by Numbers. In contrast to just about every other programme about climate change that you might have seen, this one is presented by three mathematicians. A 30-second trailer is inserted below but, if you have not seen the full 74-minute programme (opens in a new window), I really would recommend it.
The programme focuses on three numbers:
— 0.85 Celsius – the rise in average global surface temperatures since the 1880s.
— 95% – the certainty of the scientific community that this is primarily human-caused.
— 1 trillion tonnes – humanity’s carbon budget to avoid 0.85 increasing to 2 Celsius.
Along the way, the programme highlights the early work of Svante Arrhenius – who determined that a halving of atmospheric CO2 could cause a 4 Celsius drop in temperature (and therefore that a doubling of CO2 will cause a 4 Celsius rise).
With regard to the accuracy of computer models, the programme highlights the way in which this has been proven by their ability to predict the cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions.
With regard to our carbon budget, the programme highlights the fact that humanity has already burnt 0.5 trillion tonnes and, unless radical changes are made to global trends, will burn the remaining 0.5 trillion tonnes within 30 years. It also points out that, as ongoing events might well suggest, even 2 Celsius could have severe and pervasive impacts (as the IPCC described them last year).
All very inconvenient for libertarians everywhere, I guess.
Addendum (17 March 2015):
The final third of the programme includes a discussion of ‘extreme value analysis’ (EVA), which Wikipedia helpfully describes as “a branch of statistics… [that] seeks to assess… the probability of events that are more extreme than any previously observed”. Flood defences like the Woolwich Barrier on the Thames estuary were designed using EVA. However, crucially, EVA assumes that average parameter values do not change over time. Therefore, given that climate change invalidates this assumption, it is now accepted that London will need greater protection from flooding in the future. This is why I included a link to (my blog post about) the ‘Climate Departure’ reseach of Mora et al. (i.e. below), which estimates the regional variation in the date by which future climates will have departed from what has hitherto been considered normal.
This graph, as compiled by Dr Ed Hawkins (Reading University/Met Office), featured in an article by Damian Carrington, on the Guardian website yesterday, which highlighted the fact that:
2014 will be the warmest year in Central England for over 300 years (since records began)
(From where the above image has been copied.)
However, the article also highlights many other pertinent facts, such as:
— The whole world has had a warm year and global data, released later on Wednesday, is likely to indicate a new record.
— The likely record warmth in 2014 would end a period of relatively slow rises in global surface temperatures (which has been portrayed by climate sceptics as a halt in global warming).
— Greenhouse gases, however, continue to trap heat with over 90% of it being absorbed by the oceans.
In addition to all of this, it is worth noting that NASA has calculated that global average monthly temperatures have now been above their 20th Century average values in every month since 1985. There is, therefore, no longer any excuse (other than ideological blindness) for being sceptical about either climate change or the reality that what is now happening is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Given the accelerating effect of all the positive feedback mechanisms we can now see (i.e. such as the melting of terrestrial ice and the release of methane from thawing permafrost), there is no longer any excuse (other than what Herman E. Daly called “growthmania”) for delaying the rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use in every context where this is now technologically possible.
In most contexts, humanity has alternatives to fossil fuels. What we seem to lack is an industrial elite willing to admit that burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels (simply because they are there) is likely to wipe out a significant proportion of all life on the planet (because climate change is now accelerating faster than many species can adapt to it).
Above all, now that historically-rare weather events of all kinds (i.e. hot, cold, wet and dry) are occurring every year, we need to stop talking about “natural climate variability” and start talking about “unnatural climate change” (and what we are all going to do about it before it is too late).
Is it too much to hope that our supposed world ‘leaders’, currently meeting at the UN’s COP20 summit in Peru, will actually stop listening to industrial propaganda (that there is no need for radical policy change); and start acting on the implications of the scientific consensus (that there is an urgent need for radical policy change)…?