Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

From the Treaty of Rome to the Tragedy of the Commons

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This post has been prompted by recent comments on an old post on another blog. That blog is Learning from Dogs, and the old post – dating from December 2011 – was about the financial crisis in Greece… Yes, it really has been going on that long!

For reasons I cannot now recall, I was not impressed by the humorous nature of the original post – entitled ‘Financial bailouts explained!’ – preferring instead to focus on the seriousness of the crisis.

However, a recent response to my original comment – no doubt prompted by the events of the last week or so – led me to try and clarify my opposition to the idea of a European superstate.

What we now refer to as the European Union (EU) was formerly the European Communities (EC) and, originally, the European Economic Community (EEC). This was formed by the Treaty of Rome in 1958. Originally envisaged as a way to prevent the resurgence of extreme nationalism, it is interesting to note that concerns about the erosion of national sovereignty appeared very early in the EEC’s history:

“Through the 1960s, tensions began to show, with France seeking to limit supranational power.” — Wikipedia

Anyway, in attempting to justify my opposition to the idea, I suggested that a European superstate was not necessary to prevent another war in Europe; offering the Battle of Waterloo as evidence (because it was followed by 99 years of peace in Europe). However, upon further reflection, I realised that this does not validate my argument… and so began a train of thought that led me back to Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is an essay written by Hardin, which was published in an academic journal in 1968 (a link to which is provided below). In this essay, Hardin used a medieval analogy – of the over-grazing of land held in common ownership – to warn of the dire consequences of unbridled self-interest on an over-populated planet with finite resources.

What now follows, therefore, is that train of thought, which all started with The Treaty of Rome:

To be honest, my reference to Waterloo is probably a logical fallacy… and peace in Europe since WW2 is probably due, in large part, to the Treaty of Rome that created the EEC. However, it is not the only reason; others would include the dominance of the US and USSR during the Cold War era.

Like many others, I am in favour of European co-operation and free-trade (etc) but not in favour of political and fiscal union of widely divergent economies. Despite this, I think Europe-wide legislation is a good thing when it comes to tackling environmental issues such as the over-fishing of our seas, global warming and ocean acidification – all of which are consequences of treating the Earth like ‘a business in liquidation’ (Herman E. Daly).

Given that the EU has an admirable record in promoting climate change mitigation, some may find it odd that I would oppose the construction of a European superstate. However, I think it is entirely reasonable to make a special case for global environmental issues that do not respect national boundaries. As Isaac Asimov once said, “It is important that the World get together to face the problems which attack us as a unit.”

The problem is that, because our survival as a species is endangered by global warming (etc), humanity is now self-harming. Furthermore, until libertarians stop denying the nature of reality, we will continue down the road to what Garrett Hardin called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). As with the problem of global over-population, so it is with global warming: Libertarians everywhere need to acknowledge the reality of the problem and, therefore, recognise that it is in the best interests of every individual that we all exercise self-restraint.

Clearly, it would be good if the Treaty of Rome can be used to help prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. However, what concerns me is that free trade is used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to enrich those who already have far more than their fair share of the Earth’s finite resources:

“The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a comprehensive free trade and investment treaty currently being negotiated – in secret – between the European Union and the USA. As officials from both sides acknowledge, the main goal of TTIP is to remove regulatory ‘barriers’ which restrict the potential profits to be made by transnational corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Yet these ‘barriers’ are in reality some of our most prized social standards and environmental regulations, such as labour rights, food safety rules (including restrictions on GMOs), regulations on the use of toxic chemicals, digital privacy laws and even new banking safeguards introduced to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.” — War on Want

If you are a European citizen, I hope you will register (or have registered) your opposition to TTIP by signing one (but only one) of the many petitions on the Internet. One of these can be reached via the above link to the War on Want website.

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:

Polite suggestion for Bjorn Lomborg and Tony Abbott

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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.

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.”


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