Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘fossil fuels’ Category

Fracking off in Lancashire (and elsewhere?)

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Elysium (2013)

Elysium (2013)

I know this is very late but, it is such significant moment, I feel I must comment on the recent decision of Lancashire County Council to refuse to allow fracking to proceed in their county.

Never mind that their decision was primarily the result of NIMBYism… spurious worries about earth tremors; slightly-less spurious worries about groundwater contamination; and probably-valid worries about methane escaping into overlying aquifers (rather than being sucked out of the ground)… this was a great result for anti-fracking campaigners all around the world.

This decision sets an important precedent that I hope will not be overturned by the inevitable appeal by Cuadrilla; and/or over-ruled by the same national government that has promoted the cause of NIMBYism when it comes to opposing onshore wind turbines and solar farms.

Our supposedly “greenest government ever” could and should therefore be decried as hypocritical if they try and go against the wishes of local people in Lancashire.

Long-standing readers of this blog, written as it is by someone with a geological and hydrogeological background, may recall some of my previous posts on the subject of fracking. However, in a nutshell (or perhaps I should say “in a drill casing”), my opposition to fracking has hardened over time. Initially, my opposition was based on the same logical grounds as that against drilling for oil in the Arctic: Having established that burning fossil fuels is changing our climate, humans should now be trying to stop burning them as soon as possible.  Now, however, I am also against it because it has been proven to give rise to methane contamination of groundwater; and because as little as 3% of the gas will actually be recoverable.

Given that China has now announced that it intends to make its carbon emissions peak within 15 years, can the G7 now be shamed into doing the same? We can but hope.

However, I digress from fracking (and Lancashire): In May this year, I was delighted by the appointment of Amber Rudd, as the new Climate Change Minister. This was partly because she is a woman.  However, I was mainly pleased because, unlike so many totally ill-qualified, ‘sceptical’ non-experts — with Degrees in subjects like economics (Lord Lawson), Sociology (Benny Peiser), English (James Delingpole) or Classics (Christopher Monckton) — Amber Rudd accepts that the IPCC is not part of a global conspiracy to foist environmental alarmism upon a credulous world.

Amber Rudd, in common with the vast majority of relevant experts with a history of producing peer-reviewed scientific research, has concluded that the growing disruption to the Earth’s climate is being predominantly caused by the burning of fossil fuels in the last 200 years.

The only people now disputing this (as-near-as-science-ever-gets-to) certain fact are those with a vested interest in the perpetuation of the oil industry… and a handful of credulous (or wilfully blind) economists and journalists who perpetuate the myth that the science is uncertain.

Sadly, whether deliberately or otherwise, these very same people have, just as they did for the tobacco industry, succeeded in delaying for decades the effective regulation of an environmentally-damaging product.

That being the case, investment in fossil fuel companies should not only be seen as financially unwise; it should be seen as corporately irresponsible and socially unacceptable. We can but hope.

However, in the UK at least, there is of course the problem of the Energy Gap: The UK is being forced to close down it’s ‘dirty’ (i.e. high carbon intensity) coal-fired power stations.  Unfortunately, the mix of low-carbon and renewable sources (i.e. wind, solar, tidal, and nuclear) — which even the fossil fuel executives of 50 years ago thought would have become dominant in the power-generation sector by now — is nowhere near to being in a position to replace coal.  This leaves the UK importing huge amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

As a quick aside, I would like to encourage all non-scientific types not to be intimidated by jargon. Take “carbon intensity” as an example. This is merely a reference to the number of carbon atoms in the product being burnt. As such, mining tar sands is ‘highest’ and burning methane is ‘lowest’.

Sadly, however, none of this changes the fact that burning any fossilised carbon increases the total amount of CO2 circulating within the biosphere, which is warming the planet as a result of the basic Laws of Physics.  To make matters even worse extra atmospheric CO2 is slowly reducing the pH of seawater, which is making it harder for shellfish of all kinds to live and grow.  This is a much more serious problem because they are the only means Nature has for removing excess carbon from the biosphere (by the processes that created the fossil fuels in the first place)…

Getting back to LNG: Clearly, it would be much better if the UK did not have to do this. However, if we accept the science, we do not have the luxury of taking decades to phase-out fossil fuel use.

China is right and the G7 should follow their lead.

As many economists have now pointed out, humanity needs to treat climate change as an existential threat — far more potent than any Earthbound terrorist group — that requires mobilisation of the military-industrial complex to minimise and/or adapt to it.  Sadly, far too much of the military-industrial complex is still fighting a rear-guard action to perpetuate its own existence — rather than on trying to safeguard the habitability of planet Earth for future generations.

World-famous film director, James Cameron, might well have cited the ill-fated MS Titanic as an analogy for humanity today. However, I am sure we would all rather that money would be invested in minimising climate change; rather than on constructing Elysium.

We can but hope.

The need for positive action

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I often used to tell people, “If you can’t say anything positive then don’t say anything at all!”.

When it comes to this blog, however, I have repeatedly failed to take my own advice.

I therefore think I may have to stop blogging unless or until I can be more positive.

In the meantime, I would encourage all those who can to make their voices heard by engaging in positive collective action and/or peaceful public protest.

In the UK, there is an opportunity to do this next week – on June 17 – and I do hope it remains peaceful.

For the record, however, I have also added an addendum to my last post, which includes this link to an attempt by The Carbon Brief to be positive about the G7’s latest statement of intent:

Sadly, it too makes sobering reading – highlighting the similarities with the [then] G8’s pronouncements in 2009 and the fact that the [now] G7 produce less than 20% of global CO2 emissions. I would therefore agree with former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who suggested recently that the larger G20 must drive the planned global climate deal.

Whatever happens, I hope we do not see further nefarious and/or criminal acts to prevent progress (e.g. such the entirely bogus ‘Climategate’ scandal in 2009).

Written by Martin Lack

11 June 2015 at 00:02

Why is the G7 still ignoring what scientists and economists say?

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Image credit: Yale Climate Connections

Image credit: Yale Climate Connections

Despite the scientific and economic consensus – that 80% of known fossil fuels must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid allowing climate change to become unstoppable and irreversible (IEA, IMF, IPCC, OECD, etc.) – the best the G7 can do is propose that we stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the century…

If the BBC report of the second day of this week’s G7 Summit in Germany is to be believed, this may be due to more tangible fears of a Greek exit from the Euro-zone and/or emerging threats like Islamic State.

However, I suspect that our global politicians are simply unwilling or unable to face the reality that such a proposal – that humanity can take 85 years to wean itself off its hydrocarbon addiction – is not a strategy that a significant proportion of species on Earth are likely to survive…

But please don’t take my word for it, just Google “80% of species face extinction by climate change” and take a look at the results you get, like this one: One in six species faces extinction as a result of climate change (i.e. even 17% would be significant).

The above article, on The Conservation website, cites research recently published by the author, Mark Urban, in the Science journal; the abstract of which reads as follows:

Current predictions of extinction risks from climate change vary widely depending on the specific assumptions and geographic and taxonomic focus of each study. I synthesized published studies in order to estimate a global mean extinction rate and determine which factors contribute the greatest uncertainty to climate change–induced extinction risks. Results suggest that extinction risks will accelerate with future global temperatures, threatening up to one in six species under current policies. Extinction risks were highest in South America, Australia, and New Zealand, and risks did not vary by taxonomic group. Realistic assumptions about extinction debt and dispersal capacity substantially increased extinction risks. We urgently need to adopt strategies that limit further climate change if we are to avoid an acceleration of global extinctions.
Urban, M.C. (2015), ‘Accelerating extinction risk from climate change’, Science 348 (6234) pp.571-573

17% may be a lot less than 80% but, as this most recent synthesis of available research states, previous estimates of the risk “vary widely” and – given the complexity of ecological systems upon which we rely for food production (etc) – I think most biologists would agree that 17% is still very significant.

The scientific and economic consensus is that global CO2 emissions must peak within a decade in order to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect taking hold.  Is failing to do this really a risk that humanity should be taking?

As the BBC has pointed out, the G7’s stance may well signal (to investors) that the end of fossil fuel era is approaching.  However, whereas the G7’s mid-century target is for emissions to be cut 40-70% globally compared with 2010, the scientific and economic consensus makes the G7 appear reckless and/or complacent in suggesting that we can afford to burn fossil fuels at all past 2050.

Ultimately, I think the reason for humanity’s collective failure to address the urgency of the need for action on climate change comes down to psychology.  After all, being in denial is cheaper than being in therapy.


Also worthy of note is this attempt by The Carbon Brief to be positive about the G7’s communique:

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:

Written by Martin Lack

30 April 2015 at 17:30

Peak carbon by 2025 or mass extinction of species

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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

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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 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:


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