Lack of Environment

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

Posts Tagged ‘Requiem for a Species

Humanity will not be able to say it was not warned

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This post is to mark the impending publication of the latest book from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, entitled The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View From the Future.  The authors have already published a summary of this book’s thesis and purpose in the academic journal Daedalus.  However, in July, the book itself will be published by Columbia University Press, who summarise it thus:

In this haunting, provocative work of science-based fiction, Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway imagine a world devastated by climate change. Dramatizing the science in ways traditional nonfiction cannot, the book reasserts the importance of scientists and the work they do and reveals the self-serving interests of the so called “carbon combustion complex” that have turned the practice of science into political fodder. Based on sound scholarship and yet unafraid to speak boldly, this book provides a welcome moment of clarity amid the cacophony of climate change literature.

I was tempted to recommend readers look at all previous posts in my ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ or ‘Collapse’ categories. However, this would take quite a long time.  Therefore, if you have not read them before, I will just limit myself to recommending that you read:
The first of two sequential posts in January 2012 about Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; and
One of my earliest posts from September 2011 (reproduced in slightly modified form below), in which I mention the Civilisation: Is the West History?  book and TV series by Niall Ferguson.

Taking these three books – from Diamond, Ferguson, and Oreskes and Conway – together, the one thing humanity will not be able to say is that it was not warned…


The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of Dagon

I firmly believe that you do not need to be an adherent to any faith to find value in religious texts; and this is one of my favourite historical stories from the Old Testament: It tells of the Philistines (i.e. now Palestinians) capturing the Ark of the Covenant and – eventually – returning it to the Jews because of all the trouble having it caused (see 1 Samuel Chapters 5 and 6 if you’re interested). I think the moral of this story may be twofold: It tells us (1) that God can look after himself; and (2) we should not raise any object to the status of an idol.

Personally speaking, learning the first lesson from this story eventually convinced me in the mid-1980s that there was no point trying to persuade my devoutly-atheistic teachers at Portsmouth Polytechnic (as it was then) that not all Christians were Young Earth Creationists… However, globally speaking, learning the second lesson from this story will be necessary before humanity can dig itself out of the hole it is now in – as a result of (1) pride (in our own resourcefulness); and (2) complacency (regarding the Earth’s sensitivity to our activity)…

This was the warning given by E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful (1973) and, most-recently, by James Lovelock in Revenge of Gaia (2006). Karl Marx called it “money fetishism” and Herman Daly called it “growthmania” but, whatever you want to call it, we need to renounce it; and acknowledge that all human actions – most important of all being waste production – have consequences… Therefore, more than anything else, this is a plea for anthropogenic humility, intellectual honesty, moral courage, and determined action. This is because if we fail to act soon then, yes, I do firmly believe that we face an environmental catastrophe.

If all of the above merely convinces you that environmentalism is a new religion, so be it but, I think you are wrong: I think consumerism is the new religion and, on the contrary, environmentalism is just a natural response to the realisation that humanity is having a terrible impact on the planet; and needs to change its ways before its very existence – in anything like current numbers and at current average levels of affluence – is seriously compromised.

Authors will have to forgive me if they feel I have here plagiarised any of their work, because this is an amalgamation of many different things I have seen or read. However, above all, it is influenced most-recently by watching Civilisation: Is the West History? by Niall Ferguson; and reading Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton… I do not believe either of these two men has been ideologically “captured” by any political agenda; they are merely being (at times painfully) honest and objective about the predicament in which we now find ourselves (though to be fair we were warned almost 40 years ago but chose not to listen).

In their latest book, Oreskes and Conway suggest that collapse will occur in 2093. Sadly, I suspect it will be a lot sooner than that. However, far from being mere pessimism, this conclusion is based on a great deal of scientific research.  Research that shows that environmental change is now in the process of accelerating beyond our capacity to mitigate it:
What on Earth are we doing? (19 February 2013).
A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al. (11 October 2013).

Domestic abuse on a planetary scale

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The UK Home Office is currently running a hard hitting campaign to highlight the common truth that both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse cannot recognise (or admit) the nature of their situation.  The campaign is entitled, ‘If you could see yourself would you see abuse?’  Here is an example:

Is this where humanity is at today?  Are we in denial about what we have done – and are doing – to the planet?  I think many of us are.  Therefore:
— On Monday, I re-published an article written by the Executive Director of CIWEM, Nick Reeves, highlighting the modern delusion that perpetual growth can be sustainable.
— On Wednesday, I published a summary of a conversation with a technological optimist who seems to want to insist that human ingenuity means that resources are effectively infinite.
— Today, I want to bring things full-circle to consider the ultimate problem, the numbers of human beings on the planet.

How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?
This was the title of a BBC Horizon programme first broadcast just over a year ago, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  If you have never seen it – and even if you have – it is well worth watching.  However, at nearly an hour long, many may not watch it, so I will summarise it below.

In his own lifetime, octogenarian, Sir David has witnessed the human population of the planet triple.  It is now seven times what it was before the Industrial Revolution; and the UN predict that, unless ecological limits intervene to prevent it, there could be anything between 9 and 15 billion by the end of this Century.  A great deal depends on the education and emancipation of women:  Given the health and freedom to choose, well-educated women choose not to have big families.  Therefore, authoritarian government policies including enforced sterilisation and fines for having more than one child are not required.

However, all that is required to ensure that there will be over 9 billion humans by 2050 is for all the teenagers alive today to survive to be grandparents.  This is the problem; and the programme examines three reasons why it is a problem, namely: Water, Food, and Energy.

This is what the mismanagement of water resources looks like

The programme points out that there is no more water on the Earth today than there was 4600 million years ago:  Most of it is salty and will kill you if you drink it; and most of the 1% that is fresh water is locked-up in glaciers and ice caps.  Already, today, 1 billion people do not have access to clean water.  Is it really sensible to suggest that water scarcity is not going to be a problem in the future when it is already one now?

Growing food needs lots of water; a very significant proportion of available freshwater is already used for agriculture.  In the last 50 years land-locked surface water drainage systems like those that feed the Aral Sea (in the former USSR) and Lake Chad (in Africa) have been so over-exploited for agricultural purposes that, today, both bodies of water have almost disappeared (i.e. they are about 10% of their former size).

The mechanisation of farming and the widespread use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers (derived from hydrocarbons and phosphate) enabled massive increases in agricultural productivity and efficiency.  In the last half century alone, such technology has resulted in a fivefold increase in crop yields.  Surely, it is delusional to think this can continue indefinitely?  To borrow a phrase from the sphere of stock market traders, “past performance does not guarantee future returns on your investment”.  Talking of investment, many governments (like China) are already buying up land in other countries to feed their own people:  This has already produced the insane situation in which countries like Ethiopia (that cannot feed their own people) are being used by foreign governments to grow food that is then exported to be consumed by others.  Where is the justice in that?

More humans will use more energy and, unless each one of us starts using much less of it, there will soon not be enough to go around.  This is already a genuine concern to many governments around the World (although many do not admit it publicly).

Here in the UK, we face record high energy prices and increasing energy insecurity as a result of the failure of successive governments to plan ahead; and encourage as many people as possible to become energy-independent (by generating their own electricity from renewable sources).  Had they done this, we would not now need to consider implementing massive new power distribution networks that will disfigure our countryside far more than do any number of windfarms.   Therefore, with the possible exception of the long term implications of an ageing population, the failure to facilitate the decentralisation and decarbonisation of our power generation systems is probably the greatest political failure in modern Britain.

On a global scale, therefore, it is little wonder that Clive Hamilton has described the anthropogenic climate disruption that we now see unfolding around us as “a failure of modern politics”.

Towards the end of the programme, Sir David Attenborough cites the work of Professor William E. Rees at the University of British Columbia.  It is Rees that first came up with the concept of ecological carrying capacity.  Attenborough summarises Rees’ work by saying that the Earth might be able to support 15 billion people if everyone was living like people in many poor countries today but only 1.5 billion if everyone was living like people do in the USA.  There are many who think even this is insanely optimistic:  This is because the greater the amount by which we humans exceed the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity, the greater the amount by which that capacity is ultimately reduced.  That being the case, the fact that the Earth supported 1 billion humans for tens of thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution may well now be irrelevant.,ecological_scarcity.html

So, then, is it about time that we humans admitted that we have been guilty of domestic abuse on a planetary scale?  I for one think that it is.

Does that make me anti-human, anti-progress, anti-Western, or anti-Capitalist?  No, it does not:  As I said on Wednesday, it just makes me an environmental realist.  It just makes me someone who recognises that, unless we stop abusing our environment, we will eventually make life impossible for many millions if not billions of our fellow humans; and consign a significant proportion of all known life-forms to the pages of our natural history textbooks.  As one of my regular readers, Pendantry, would undoubtedly point out, I think we really are living in The Age of Stupid.

Views of Doha

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The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the UN’s Framework Convention on climate Change (UNFCCC), ended in Doha (Qatar) last weekend.  Sadly, this event was not considered newsworthy in the mainstream media in the UK.  Irrespective of the outcome of COP18, the X Factor and the tragic death of a nurse following a hoax phone call were considered far more important than the diminishing prospects for international cooperation to avert a climate catastrophe.

Back in the real world – as opposed to the sweet-smelling rose garden of our celebrity-obsessed media – the consequences of the UNFCCC’s failure to prevent continual growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 20 years have been reported by a wide range of bodies.  The news is not good.

Even before COP18 had ended, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, was on record as having told the AFP news agency:

If we make a judgment based on what we’ve seen in these negotiations so far, there is no reason to be optimistic. – Fractious Doha talks bode ill for 2020 deal, observers say

Writing for the website of the Global Travel Industry News website – let’s not talk about its carbon footprint for now – Wolfgang H. Thome (a PhD from Uganda) reported the outcome of COP18 as follows:

In spite of the writing now being clearly on the wall, and climate change projections suggesting an average rise of temperatures by 2 degrees C 40 years from now, and up to 5+ degrees C by the end of the century, the main polluters have once again succeeded to push tough decisions into the future. – Doha’s failure spells doom for Africa

A team of observers from the Center for American Progress website, introduced their summary of events as follows:

The end of this year’s UN climate summit last weekend in Doha, Qatar, marked a period of transition… to… a three-year process to create a new comprehensive climate treaty, which will be applicable to all countries and cover 100 percent of global emissions. – See here for the full briefing on the outcome.


There is just one problem with the glacial speed of the UNFCCC’s progress towards a Treaty to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol – unlike glacier melting in the real world – it is not accelerating in response to the increasingly obvious warming of the planet.

With my thanks to fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to it – via his most recent post – the Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media has reported that the renowned British climate scientist – and prominent critique of UK government policy – Professor Robert Watson, recently told a California audience that:

Fundamentally, we are not on a path toward a 2 degree world…  Average global temperatures could rise 2 to 7 degrees C by the end of the century, driving a litany of environmental change…  Therefore, we must adapt… – Forget About That 2-Degree Future

What scares me about this is that, as Clive Hamilton suggested (in Requiem for a Species), believing that we can adapt to the accelerating change that our leaders are ignoring is very probably a fanciful delusion in itself. –

We have failed to heed the warning signs and therefore, just as William Ophuls predicted (in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity), we are currently in the process of reducing the Earth’s long-term ecological carrying capacity. Furthermore, the longer our political “leaders” take to acknowledge – and respond to – this fact, the greater the collateral damage is going to be. –,ecological_scarcity.html

In the long run, unmitigated climate change is almost certainly going to cause genocide on an unprecedented scale – at least 100 times greater than the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis 70 years ago. As was the case back then, an awful lot of people seem to be just standing around allowing it to happen.

Can we avoid the catastrophe of indifference?

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This is a slightly modified version of an item I wrote for Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs blog; first published yesterday under the title ‘Avoiding the catastrophe of indifference’. As well as being a summary of the raison d’etre of this blog (i.e. “On the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all environmental problems”), this also provides a summary of the reasons why many formerly-placid scientists think that widespread civil disobedience now may be the only way to prevent a permanent reduction in the ecological carrying capacity of planet Earth, and significant extinction of species, before the end of the 21st Century.


In 2010, the Australian social anthropologist Clive Hamilton published Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth About Climate Change – one of the scariest but most important books I think I have ever read. Reading Hamilton’s book was one of the reasons I decided, as part of my MA in Environmental Politics, to base my dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK.  In the process, I read much but Hamilton’s book was one of very few that I actually read from cover to cover – I simply did not have time to read fully all the books for my research. However, because I have a background in geology and hydrogeology, my greatest challenge was learning to think like a social scientist.

Having said all that, I must also admit I have also learnt a whole load more cary stuff as a result of subscribing to Learning from Dogs; Lester Brown’s World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse being just one that comes to mind!  Then, of course, there is what David Roberts himself says, which is just as scary. I think we have good reason to be scared.

However, as Hamilton points out, we must move beyond being scared, which is simply debilitating, and channel our frustration into positive action.  Because if we do not, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that civilisation may well fail. If that means engaging in acts of civil disobedience, as it has done for James Hansen and many others, well, so be it. I suspect that nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without someone breaking the law in order to draw attention to injustice:  The abolition of slavery and child labour; the extension of the right to vote to all men (not just landowners) and – eventually – to women also.

This is the conclusion Hamilton reaches; that civil disobedience is almost inevitable (p.225): Just as turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, our politicians are not going to vote for climate change mitigation unless we demand that they do so.

So it was the steer from my dissertation supervisor that lead me to read David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History, and much more about psychology. All of which guided the Introductory section of my dissertation, which summarised the philosophical roots of scepticism, the political misuse of scepticism, and the psychology of denial; as summarised on my blog recently (starting here).   This then is an elaboration of the last of those topics, the psychology of denial.  Indeed, it formed the preamble to the concluding chapter of my dissertation (not previously published).

To help me research this (to me unfamiliar) subject, my dissertation supervisor sent me a PDF copy of a paper written by Janis L. Dickinson in 2009 and published in the Ecology and Society  journal.  It was called ‘The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change’ and dealt with a challenging, almost taboo subject, namely our own mortality.  Despite my initial reluctance to learn about psychology, the more I read the more I realised just how central psychology was to explaining why we humans have failed to address the problem of climate change.  As such, I eventually summarised the work of Dickinson, together with other sources of material, in the following manner:

In considering reasons for the collective human failure to act to prevent anthropogenic global warming (AGW), a number of authors appear to have been influenced by Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973). For example, Aaronovitch proposed that we try to avoid the “catastrophe of indifference” that a world devoid of meaning or purpose represents (p. 340). Hamilton suggested that climate disruption “has the smell of death about it” (p. 215).Janis Dickinson elaborates a little more, exploring what she describes as “…one of the key psychological links between the reality of global climate change and the difficulty of mobilizing individuals and groups to confront the problem in a rational and timely manner”, then referring to what psychologists call terror management theory (TMT) – Dickinson also categorises denial of climate change; denial of human responsibility and immediacy of the problem as proximal responses (Dickinson 2009).

Furthermore, as referenced here, both Dickinson and Hamilton suggest that other distal TMT responses, such as focussing on maintaining self-esteem or enhancing self-gratification, can be counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Dickinson summarises the recent work of Tim Dyson by saying “[b]ehavioral response to the threat of global climate change simply does not match its unique potential for cumulative, adverse, and potentially chaotic outcomes” (ibid).

Based on my research into the most frequently used arguments for dismissing the scientific consensus regarding climate change, I eventually summarised my findings (in the Abstract to my dissertation) as follows:

Having analysed the output of such UK-based Conservative think-tanks (CTTs), along with that of scientists, economists, journalists, politicians and others, it would appear that the majority of CTTs dispute the existence of a legitimate consensus, whereas the majority of sceptical journalists focus on conspiracy theories; the majority of scientists and economists equate environmentalism with a new religion; and politicians and others analysed appear equally likely to cite denialist or economic arguments for inaction.

As I find myself saying quite frequently, the most persistent arguments against taking action to mitigate climate change are the economic ones.

However, as all the authors mentioned have suggested, or at least inferred, I think it is undoubtedly true that the most potent obstacle to people facing up to the truth of climate change is our psychological reluctance to accept responsibility for something that is obviously deteriorating – namely our environment!

Nevertheless, all is not yet lost.  We do not all need to go back to living in the Dark Ages to prevent societal and environmental collapse but we do need to accept a couple of fundamental realities:
1. Burning fossilised carbon is trashing the planet. Therefore, fossil fuel use must be substituted in every possible process as rapidly as possible. Unfortunately, it is not substitutable in the most damaging process of all; aviation.  That merely increases the urgency of substituting where we can (i.e. power, lighting and temperature control).

2. Poor people in developing countries have a legitimate right to aspire to having a more comfortable life but the planet definitely cannot cope with 7 to 10 billion people living like we do in the “developed” countries.

Once we accept these realities, we will learn to use less fossil fuels and, if we can become self-sufficient using renewable energy sources, we can have a flat-screen TV in every room and leave them on standby and the A/C on full power 24/7 and still have a clear conscience. However, we must get off fossil fuels ASAP.

Goodbye Goldilocks Planet?

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Is it time to say goodbye to the Goldilocks Planet?
I hope not, because the next-nearest one yet discovered is 600 light years away! However, if we are indeed now passing a tipping point (i.e. as the widespread rapid thawing of Siberian permafrost suggests) both mitigation and adaptation will be almost impossible. Therefore, if we cannot reverse the damage already done (i.e. how can we make permafrost re-freeze or reverse the retreat of mountain glaciers?), we may have to accept that temperatures will eventually rise to a level at which the Antarctic first became glaciated 35 million years ago; and that sea levels will now rise continuously for several centuries – making any permanent settlement anywhere near the coast impossible (see James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren).

If your response to all this is to accuse me of being alarmist, all I can say is that I am afraid denial is definitely not a good evolutionary survival mechanism. Furthermore, as American high school science teacher – and now climate change activist – Greg Craven has said, “Unfortunately, the experiment is already running; and we are all in the test-tube!” I believe we must therefore hope that humanity will not repeat the folly of the former inhabitants of Easter Island; who chopped down all their trees for firewood and allowed all the decent soil to be washed away so they could not grow anything.

I think it is fair to say that 2011 was a difficult year for humanity and the planet; and 2012 could be worse. We now seem to be facing both a financial and an environmental crisis: Even at the tender age of 46, I can appreciate that the prospect of 6 years of austerity measures (here in the UK) is completely without precedent; worse even than the great depression of the 1920s. In the UK, public sector workers have been demanding a better pension! What about a better economic system, or even a better planet? If necessary, please forgive my impertinence but, how can people demand justice for themselves whilst ignoring all the injustices we are inflicting on those least able to adapt; and/or bequeathing to our descendants?

This is almost as pessimistic as my recent answer on ClimateSight to the question “Why are people who want to reduce – and possibly eliminate pollution – and create a safer world, considered obstructionist naysayers?“, which is… “If everyone lived as we do in ‘the West’, the planet’s ecological carrying capacity would only be about 3 billion [Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1996)]. Therefore we cannot solve poverty without allowing a lot of people to die or by wealthy people agreeing to moderate their over-consumption of the Earth’s resources. Sorry to be so blunt but, this is the simple answer to the question.” …Despite what detractors say this is not misanthropic eco-Socialism, it is reality. There is not enough decent farmland and/or resources of every kind for 7 billion people or more to live like we currently do in ‘the West’. If we are not going to deny the legitimate aspirations of poorer peoples to attain a better standard of living, we will have to moderate our over-consumption and/or pollution of the Earth’s resources. We cannot have it both ways.

If we continue to burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels – just because they are there and because we can – we will most certainly have to say good bye to our Goldilocks Planet. However, now that we know that what we are doing is causing the problem, would it not be a good idea to stop doing it? You know: When in a hole, stop digging, etc… As the Good Book says, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11).

Suggested New Year’s Resolution:
If we want things to change, I believe we must acknowledge that Clive Hamilton is right: climate change is a failure of modern politics – representative democracy is not working! Therefore, we must all take a much more active role in the process of government – this is called participatory democracy – and we must start by demanding that our politicians dismantle (or at least stop being misled by) the fossil fuel lobby who do not want their business as usual programme interrupted.

Having said all that, I would still like to sincerely wish you all the best for 2012 (although I hope the Mayan Calendar is wrong).

UNFCCC 1, Planet 0

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And so the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Durban have ended with yet another decision to put-off necessary decisions for anything up to 8 years.

This is yet another vindication of Clive Hamilton’s 2010 description of climate change as “a failure of modern politics” (p.223 of Requiem for a Species). However, Garrett Hardin described the problem perfectly in his seminal 1968 article entitled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin used the example of medieval common land (not owned by anybody but used by everybody) to make the point that, unless collective action can be agreed by all, no individual will chose to act alone to prevent over-grazing because to do so would be to disadvantage oneself: “Ruin is the destination to which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons“…

Therefore, it does not matter whether the global resource considered is the oceans or the atmosphere; we seem destined to over-fish one and pollute the other – simply because we cannot agree that everyone should simultaneously stop taking the restorative capacity of the environment for granted! This prophecy has now been conclusively proven to be valid because, despite being unequivocably told that time is running out, our schizophrenic politicians have decided that what the scientists are telling them is necessary (i.e. that we must stop burning fossil fuels) is politically unacceptable. James Hansen would also appear to be right – they are lying to themselves and us. If not, then they must be relying on the dangerous myth of Carbon Capture and Storage as means by which the fossil fuel lobby would have us believe we can carry on burning fossil fuels and achieve emissions reductions. If so, this may well prove to be the last and most ill-considered Faustian Bargain in human history.

Meanwhile, Sir David Attenborough is apparently being attacked for just stating facts – i.e. the climate is changing. For example, by highlighting the astonishing retreat of glaciers in South Georgia since they were photographed over 90 years ago by Ernest Shackleton’s expedition. However, as Attenborough says, the reason we should be concerned is because most of the melting has occurred in the last 30 years: See The final episode of the BBC’s Frozen Planet series (view from 32 minutes and 03 seconds).

Where shall we go from here?

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(or “Climate science in a nutshell – Part 4”)

This will be the last of my posts on the scientific basis for concern over anthropogenic climate change based on James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren. Although, I am barely half way through it, it is stuffed full of information everyone should know and I would not want to stop you reading the book yourself because you think you know what it says. Therefore, after today, I will just post one more item based on its content (regarding Richard Lindzen’s prominent role in perpetuating prevarication) and that will be it.

So, to summarise the story so far, Hansen was one of the first to use models to aid our understanding of the mechanics of the atmosphere, but sees palaeoclimatic study as the key to understanding what we are doing to our planet, and blames special interests [i.e. the fossil fuel lobby (FFL)] for interfering in politics and persuading politicians to second-guess (or ignore) science and scientists. (For those that are interested, this is the focus of Mark Bowen’s Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming, which you can hear both Hansen and Bowen discussing here.) For example, on first becoming President in 2001, Bush had said (in his first Rose Garden speech) that his administration would treat CO2 as a pollutant and “be flexible to adjust to new information”. Whereas, in point of fact, he broke that promise within two months of taking office and spent the rest of his eight years in power ruthlessly suppressing inconvenient information. Furthermore, on more than one occasion, Hansen asserts that our problem is that government Energy departments around the world seem to believe it is a “god-given fact that humanity will proceed to burn all fossil fuels”. Whereas, even though it seems easier to get someone to stop picking their nose, we must stop burning fossil fuels.

There are actually two kinds of palaeoclimatic evidence upon which Hansen relies to reach this conclusion. These are (1) ice core data (covering less than the last million years); and (2) sea floor sediment data (covering the last 65 million years). However, the really clever bit of Hansen’s analysis has been to interpret the CO2 and temperature (i.e. oxygen isotope) data derived from the latter by reference to what we know about plate tectonics and the positions of the continents at any given point in geological time. Thus, he shows that the rise in the Earth’s global average temperature between 60 and 50 million years ago was due to the subduction of large amounts of carbonate seafloor sediments as India approached Asia. Conversely, the fall in global average temperature between 50 and 35 million years ago was due to the collision causing the formation and subsequent erosion of the Himalayas. The precise mechanisms for introducing CO2 to – and removing it from – the atmosphere are complicated, but it should be borne in mind that there is no other explanation that fits the facts: The Sun’s overall energy output has risen by less than 0.5% over the last 65 million years, whereas the natural forcings known to have caused the glacial – interglacial oscillations of the last 1 million years have only become effective in the absence of other factors and operate over much shorter timescales.

So where does that leave us today? Well, up until about 4 years ago, Hansen was convinced that humanity should aim to keep atmospheric CO2 below 450ppm (the conditions which induced Antarctica to become glaciated 35 million years ago). However, Hansen has since revised the safe limit down to 350ppm (compared to the current level of 390ppm) to which we must somehow return the atmosphere. Why has he done this? Well, the detail is in Hansen et al (2008) but, the main reasons are based on the (now familiar?) observation of thawing permafrost; melting sea ice, mountain glaciers and ice sheets; bioclimatic zone migration, and dying coral reefs. Some of these are simply threats to biodiversity but some are evidence of the amplifying feedbacks that threaten to accelerate change way beyond human ability to control, mitigate, or adapt: If we allow CO2 to reach 450ppm we will be unlikely to stop it continuing to rise to 650ppm, which would invoke sea level rise 1-2 metres per century for several centuries; and an eventual rise in temperature of at least 6 Celsius (i.e. until the Earth’s energy balance is eventually restored). In other words, an end to civilisation as we have known it for 7,000 years.

Hansen believes we can still avert disaster but only if we can derail the misinformation campaign being waged by those in favour of “business as usual“; and refuse to accept the greenwash being promulgated by even the greenest of governments. Hansen is quite blunt. He seems to believe that all governments (with the possible exception of Iceland) are in denial about the consequences of burning all fossil fuels simply because we can; and in denial about our ability to stabilise “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (Article 2 of the UNFCCC) simply because we are already doing exactly that. Certainly, the UK government has already failed this reality test by allowing Cairn Energy to drill for oil in the Arctic, whereas President Obama faces his moment of decision in the next few days: Will he approve or refuse permission for the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Clive Hamilton says that anthropogenic climate change is a “failure of modern politics” but I think it is collective “failure of imagination” and/or a “classification error”. We just don’t seem to be able to grasp the potential consequences of our current actions (or don’t want to accept the reality of them). Quite what historians will make of it, and how many people will be left to read what they write, no-one seems to care. It is the ultimate human folly: Everyone seems too busy exercising their right to Carpe Diem to stop and ask Quo Vadis?


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