Lack of Environment

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

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The art of being misleading (or maybe just mistaken)

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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.

————-

* See:  https://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/conserving-mass-water-and-energy/

Written by Martin Lack

30 April 2015 at 17:30

Peak carbon by 2025 or mass extinction of species

with 11 comments

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.

Myles Allen's graph of 1 trillion tonne emissions curves

Extract of paper presented at ‘4 Degrees and Beyond’ conference (2009)

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).

The argument for leaving fossil fuels in the ground is overwhelming

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Alan Rusbridger in London, for the launch of the Guardian’s climate change campaign. Photograph: David Levene

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:

The argument for divesting from fossil fuels is becoming overwhelming (Guardian website, 16 March 2015)

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:

The argument for divesting from fossil fuels is becoming overwhelming (Guardian website, 16 March 2015)

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.”

Merchants of Doubt need to do the math

with 5 comments

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.

See also:
https://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/greedy-lying-bar-stewards-guilty-of-crimes-against-humanity/
https://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/a-summary-of-the-climate-departure-research-of-mora-et-al/

A personal exchange of email with LEGO

with 5 comments

In my original email to LEGO (via the Greenpeace website), I tried to be as brief as I could. Sadly, all I got was a generic reply that did not address the issues I was raising. Here is the correspondence to-date (any further responses from Lego will be appended as comments by me):

—–Original Message—–
From: Martin Lack
Sent: 04 July 2014 19:48
To: Responsibility
Subject: Invest in the future not the past – stop sponsoring Shell

Dear LEGO,

Fossil fuels are a 19th century technology and a finite resource. A post-carbon era is inevitable, the only question that remains is whether 10 billion humans will be able to share in it.

I’m really disappointed to learn that you have agreed to help Shell clean up its image, while it helps to endanger the environmental biodiversity of the Arctic.

You claim that it is your ambition to protect children’s right to live in a healthy environment, both now and in the future. If that is true, please cut your ties with Shell now.

Yours faithfully,

Martin Lack

———————

On 17 July 2014 10:08, CustomerResponseTeam@LEGO.com <CustomerResponseTeam@lego.com> wrote:

Dear Martin Lack,

Thanks for getting in touch with us.

I’m sorry to hear you feel so strongly about our co-promotion with Shell. We really appreciate you taking the time to write and share your concern with us, and I’ve passed your thoughts and opinions to our promotions team.

We’re determined to help make the world that children will inherit a better place. Our unique contribution is to inspire and develop children through creative play. By entering a co-promotion like the one with Shell, we can put LEGO® bricks into the hands of even more children around the world. This allows more children to develop their imagination and creative skills through building and creating models with LEGO bricks.

The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in one specific part of the world. We expect that Shell lives up to their responsibilities wherever they operate and that they take appropriate action to any potential claims should this not be the case. We’re sad to see the LEGO brand used as a tool in any dispute. We believe this is a matter where Greenpeace and Shell must work out their differences between themselves.

For more information, you’re welcome to read our CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s comment on this Greenpeace campaign. There’s also more information about our responsibility agenda in this area of LEGO.com. More information on the environmental targets that we have set for ourselves can be found here.

Please let us know if you need anything else.

Kind regards,

Tanja
LEGO® Service

———————

Dear Tanja/LEGO,

Thank you for taking the time to personalise your response to me; and for explaining LEGO’s thinking in working with Shell. I understand and accept that, since Lego is itself a product of the petrochemical industry, such a “co-promotion” makes good business sense.   However, the Arctic is not just a “specific part of the world” in which Shell is operating. In order to preserve a habitable planet for future generations, the Arctic is somewhere that Shell should not be operating!  Even if it were good, therefore, this makes Shell’s operational safety record (etc) irrelevant.

The only reason it is now possible to operate in the Arctic is because the ice is melting; and most of the ice is melting because of the exponential growth of fossil fuel use since the Industrial Revolution.  Humans may well use fossil fuels to make all sorts of things (including Lego) but this does not make it right for us all to disregard the long-term consequences of continuing to pump geospheric carbon (i.e. that derived from fossil fuels) – in the form of CO2 – into the biosphere (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans).  In combination with deforestation and the exponential growth of livestock farming, global warming and ocean acidification were therefore an inevitable result of the exponential growth of the human population on this planet since the Industrial Revolution. However, now we know we are in a hole, is it not time we stopped digging? See my blog post regarding the Rio+20 Summit: ‘When in hole keep digging?’ (21 June 2012).

If LEGO truly wants to preserve a habitable environment and planet, it should place conditions upon its support for Shell.  Given that the vast majority of relevant scientists agree that there are now 5 times more fossil fuels left on this planet than it would ever be safe for us to burn – something the IEA, IMF, OECD and Pentagon all acknowledge – LEGO needs to encourage Shell to find alternative means to meet (or reduce) global demand for fossil fuels. As such, although “turkeys will never vote for Christmas”, the petrochemical industry needs to invest in finding non-fossil alternatives for its current products.  Such things definitely exist (e.g. biosythetic fuels and energy from waste products).  What is lacking is the corporate will or political incentive to pursue them.  Things that are worth doing are rarely the easy option.  Shell’s exploration in the Arctic is both the wrong option and the lazy option; one that is collectively endangering the future habitability of this planet.

Therefore, I hope I may look forward to LEGO placing conditions upon its future support for Shell, which needs to adopt a long-term business strategy that does not contradict the science and economics underlying the call for humans to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. For more information, please see this recent blog post: ‘Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change’ (2 May 2014).

Yours very sincerely,

Martin Lack

Written by Martin Lack

23 July 2014 at 12:00

Corporate interests lean on YouTube to delete Lego-Shell video

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But Greenpeace UK will just keep re-posting it… Here is the latest email from their Head of Arctic Campaigns, Ben Ayliffe:
———-

Hi Martin,

I think we might have offended someone. This morning we were shocked to learn that our viral video calling on LEGO to break its lucrative partnership with oil giant Shell has been REMOVED from YouTube!

This controversial new clip has amassed more views and shares than any other video in Greenpeace history. Today, corporate interests are trying to stifle our efforts exposing the LEGO-Shell partnership for what it really is.But we won’t give up that easily. We’ve just reposted the video and it’s ready for you to share far and wide right away! Click here to watch the video they don’t want you to see. Then, if you haven’t already, add your name to the growing global call telling LEGO to stop covering for Shell’s Arctic oil plans.BANNED from YouTube
More than 3 million people have viewed this video in less than three days. People everywhere are sharing it with friends and loved ones, shocked to learn that this dearly-loved children’s toy brand is helping Shell clean up its image. Now our important message is being attacked, and it’s time to ramp our efforts and fight back.Our ad might have offended the likes of LEGO, Shell, and its corporate pals. But this is nothing compared to what Shell wants to do to our beautiful Arctic. Despite the real risk of a terrible and unstoppable oil spill, it continues to forge ahead to plunder every last drop of oil it can from this pristine environment.

The only reason Shell can get away with it is by forming public partnerships with the brands we all love. And we’re sorry to say this includes LEGO. Their deal involves everything from incentivising fuel purchases with free Lego kits, to plastering the Shell logo on the side of millions of children’s toys.

If Shell had its way, it would drill for oil in every corner of the planet. So it’s up to people like you and me to make sure that doesn’t happen. Not now, not ever. Ask Lego to stop its partnership with Shell today. 

In the past we’ve helped delay Shell’s plans in the Arctic and opened up the public’s eyes to their dangerous plans. Now Shell is desperately trying to rebuild its reputation by partnering with beloved brands like LEGO. But LEGO doesn’t have to play along.

Please watch this video and send your message to LEGO right away. Let’s move one step closer to kicking Shell out of the Arctic.

Thanks for getting involved.

Ben Ayliffe
Arctic Campaigner
Greenpeace

Written by Martin Lack

11 July 2014 at 12:28

Mapping the evolution of climate change ‘scepticism’ in British newspapers since 1990

with 23 comments

This was supposed to be my latest attempt to explain my research idea to a lay audience. However, it has been pointed out to me that, in what follows, I spend more time highlighting the seriousness of the problem the motivated rejection of science has caused than actually describing how I will research the ways in which it has (or has not) evolved over time. This is unfortunate because the former is clearly not the purpose of my research. However, it is the raison d’etre of this blog. Therefore, I have decided to post this here anyway…

———-

If you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier. – Stephen H Schneider

DSCF1826xWhere did this idea come from?
In 2011, I completed an MA in Environmental Politics at Keele University. As part of this, I chose to research and write my dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK. My inspiration for choosing this topic was reading two books:
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth of Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway; and
Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth About Climate Change, by Clive Hamilton.

DenialOfScienceMy research involved analysing and categorising the arguments put forward by prominent think-tanks, scientists, economists, politicians, journalists and others that dispute the reality, reliability and/or reasonableness of the scientific consensus that humans are now the primary cause of ongoing climate change. I decided then that I would like to pursue this further as a PhD. Sadly, this proved harder to achieve than I had imagined but – having attracted a great deal of academic attention by starting my Lack of Environment blog on the subject and publishing my research as a book (see its Facebook page for details) – I am now doing just that. Well, sort of…

The key was finding the right PhD supervisor but, finding the right supervisor has meant focussing my research on newspapers; specifically the output of journalists and other commentators who seek to influence public opinion.

what ifWhat’s this all about?
I intend to research the historical development of the disputation of climate science in British newspapers since 1990. This will be done by keyword searches of online databases of newspaper content at specific times over the last 25 years. These will include the time of significant publications (e.g. IPCC reports) and events (e.g. extreme weather). The intention is to document the arguments of – and the counter-factual claims made by – those who dispute the reality, reliability and/or reasonableness of the scientific consensus (that ongoing change is primarily a consequence of the post-industrial burning of fossil fuels); and whether or not these have changed in response to increasing scientific confidence in that consensus.

Why does this interest me?
I believe this research will be of great societal benefit because the fossil fuel industry has spent much of the last three decades disputing the science indicating that our burning of its product is damaging the environment.

In so doing, it has copied a strategy invented by the tobacco industry to delay the effective regulation of its business; and a large proportion of humanity appears to have failed to learn from this recent history. Consequently, disputing the reality, reliability or reasonableness of the modern consensus regarding climate science can only be justified by the invocation of scientific or political conspiracy theories.

globalwarming_theoriesWhere is the conspiracy?
Conspiracy theory has been defined as the invocation of a more-complicated explanation for something (based on little or no evidence) in preference to the simplest-possible explanation (taking all evidence at face value).

However, there is simply no evidence for a left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer). Whereas, there is a great deal of evidence for a right-wing conspiracy to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).

Therefore, whereas there is no precedent for the global scientific community conspiring to manufacture alarm simply to perpetuate scientific research (i.e. conspiracy theory), there is a precedent for global industries conspiring to manufacture doubt regarding very inconvenient science (i.e. conspiracy fact).

sust devt iconWhat does this matter?
I shall leave the final word to James Hoggan, the author of Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, and co-founder of the DeSmogBlog website.

“Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy. There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.” – James Hoggan.

Written by Martin Lack

1 June 2014 at 00:02

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