Blame Canada (and Australia!)

I’ve just finished another transcript related to climate change, this time with Lord Deben (the politician formerly known as John Gummer, UK Member of Parliament) being interviewed by RTCC. Lord Deben is also President of GLOBE International, which you’d think might be a shadowy-sounding organisation straight out of James Bond but is actually a shadowy-sounding organisation committed to “developing and overseeing the implementation of laws in pursuit of sustainable development”. (“Who elected them?” you ask. Well, shush.) They have produced a report this year, the 4th edition of the GLOBE Climate Legislation Study, which assesses the extent to which different nations are festooning themselves with climate red tape – Portugal, Mexico and South Africa get good marks from his Lordship, but Canada and especially Australia come in for some epic finger-wagging:

Sophie Yeo: How much do you think Australia’s attempts to repeal the Carbon Tax has resonated across the rest of the world?

Lord Deben: Oh, I think Australia is seen as being a very, very odd exemplar. You know, it’s – it’s very sad, and it’s, and it’s, and it’s something I feel very personally about, because I think it just lets down the whole British tradition. That a country should have become so selfish about this issue, so that it’s prepared to spoil the efforts of others, and to foil what very much less – very much less rich countries are doing. Because all that pollution which Australia is pushing into the atmosphere, of course, is changing my climate, I mean this is a real insult to the sovereignty of other countries.

Yes, how sad it is when other countries won’t follow Britain over the cliff into economic oblivion – how dastardly and selfish they are! But how nice it is that the UK is leading the world in at least two ways, according to Lord Deben: the Climate Change Act and also the Committee on Climate Change, “which has real responsibilities and which lasts and produces the necessary budgets to lead us to 2050″, and whose Chairman is – Lord Deben. How very fortuitous! Truly, we are blessed.

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Name of the Game?

My latest audio transcript is a segment from Tuesday’s Newshour programme on the BBC World Service – it’s about whether there should be “any limits on what can be said about climate change”, basically about whether climate sceptics should be censored or not, although there’s also mention of the upcoming Steyn vs Mann legal battle, which is more about defamation of character, specifically. The Newshour item, which features Dr Judith Curry and Bob Ward from the Grantham Institute, is fascinating and repays close listening/reading.

Tim Franks: But I want to broaden it out, from the issue of libel, or potential libel, against a particular person, into the broader debate, as to whether – do you think that the climate change is of such a pressing, immediate issue to people, that actually what you would consider to be irresponsible claims, irresponsible denials of that should not be allowed to be made freely?

Bob Ward: I think that arguments between experts, for instance people who are publishing academic papers, then it’s perfectly legitimate to have those arguments and disagreements aired. I think, however, in this particular case, where you’ve got essentially a political actor attacking a climate scientist and calling into question their professional credibility, that’s not quite the same, and I think that in this particular case, the claims were, in my view, inaccurate – in this particular case, that individual being really had committed fraud, there would have been action taken against them.

Tim Franks: Judith Curry, what do you say to that point? That actually there is a sort of defence of public interest here, and if the weight of science is on one side of that division of opinion, the media should respect that.

Judith Curry: Well, I think where the public interest lies, in this whole debate, is very uncertain. We do need to have an open, public debate on these issues, and trying to censor or limit certain people’s access to the media, or trying to control what political commentators have to say, I think is a very, very dangerous path.

Those who know my views will not be too surprised to learn that I’m resonating more with Judith Curry’s arguments than with Bob Ward’s. I’m also – as always – very appreciative of the irony that seems to be a constant accompaniment to the climate debate. During the segment, Bob mentions the Royal Charter of the BBC, which requires it to be accurate (“Accuracy is the name of the game”) and yet the Newshour presenter has just introduced Mr Ward as a climate scientist, which he is not! (This has, in fact, set off a sort of mini cascade of wrongness in the media, with Bob Ward becoming more climatically and scientifically qualified with every day that passes, as Paul Matthews has highlighted). Well, it keeps me entertained.


Organic Chairs and Other Quasi-Lifeforms

There’s an interview in The Register with MIT professor Timothy Lu, in which he describes the creation of complex materials by putting to work various strains of E. coli bacteria – in effect, programming living cells to make stuff. This has some potentially far-reaching possibilities, including future chairs, for instance, which might resemble some sort of synthetic lifeforms, drawing energy from sunlight and adjusting their shape to please human occupants.

Lu imagines a long-term future where scientists (and later, companies) can create materials which can extract energy from the world around them.

“Linking up to other easily accessible resources in the environment could be one way of making materials that could self-sustain themselves in the real world,” he explained.

Given this breakthrough, what could a potential application of this research field be? Lu’s “most radical” idea is a living chair, he said.

I recall that there’s living furniture in some of the later Dune science fiction novels by Frank (and Brian) Herbert – “chairdogs”, which are genetically modified dogs, in fact, rather than the quasi-life described in the Register article, but would be otherwise quite similar. Why stop at chairs, though? Living shoes, for instance, I’d have thought would be rather nice, moulding themselves faithfully to their owner’s feet (rather than the other way round) and delivering reflexological therapy with every step. Another, darker, thought occurs to me – in a room where the curtains were constantly drawn, would not sunlight-starved items of living furniture become desperately hungry after a while, and perhaps even be a menace to their owner?

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Peanuts to Space

I’ve been out and about today, with limited internet access, and so will have to content myself with a quick post about some news in this week from the high plateau of Antarctica, where a bunch of scientists with a telescope have apparently discovered gravity waves from the dawn of the universe, thus vindicating Einstein, providing proof of the Big Bang and showing that countless parallel dimensions could exist, vast numbers of them possibly containing duplicates of this world, and indeed ourselves. Douglas Adams gets a mention (as he also does in a post the day before yesterday by Tim Worstall, with some fun commentary). Here, I thought a timeless quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be apt:

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

So there we are. Imagine, if you will, a distant dimension in the multiverse where another Alex – amazingly intelligent, witty and erudite – was not out and about today, with limited internet access, but had the time and opportunity to write an incredibly deep and significant post about the meaning of existence. He would also, at the very least, make some sort of clever (perhaps even uproariously funny) comparison between “cosmic inflation” and the mundane sort of inflation we often hear about in the business news. Unfortunately, though, I am not him. Sorry.

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It’s possible that by the time you read this, an answer to the riddle will have emerged, but to date, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is still missing. A Boeing 777 jet airliner with 239 souls aboard it has apparently vanished from the face of the earth, something very strange to think about in an age of satellites, ubiquitous mobile phones and a global communications network that at times seems to be omnipresent, all-seeing, all-knowing. The most likely answer is that the plane crashed out of the sky and is now somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. However, there are quite a few additional twists which will need investigating, as an article in CNN sets out:

One way to hide a plane’s flight information from air traffic controllers would be to turn off the transponder. Experts give conflicting opinions about what the transponder shutoff could mean: One theory points to someone – perhaps a hijacker – wanting to hide the plane before changing course; another theory is the transponder could have stopped transmitting because of a catastrophic power failure.

Mystery piles on enigma – the transponder switching off, the change in course, the utter communications blackout after cryptic message “All right, good night”, the (so far) fruitless searches by planes and ships from 25 nations, the flurry of odd and fanciful rumours (some involving aliens or the Illuminati) in the absence of fact. Hopefully, the world will shortly have some solid answers – the affair is, after all, only 11 days old. Rob Schwartz over at the Stranger Dimensions website lists some well-known long-standing unsolved mysteries of the air, and I’m hoping that Flight 370 will not be added to their number, also that – against the odds – there will be survivors. My thoughts are with the families of the missing plane’s passengers and crew.

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The Fires of Orthanc

There’s a podcast on the website of the New York Academy of Sciences, by University of Bristol climate modeller Dan Lunt, who poses as Radagast the Brown, wizard and minor character from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I haven’t listened to it yet (although might do so after fortifying myself with a few alcoholic beverages), but the description goes as follows:

Climate wizard Radagast the Brown patiently explains the methodologies used to study Middle Earth warming to a denialist orc.

University of Bristol climate scientist Dr. Dan Lunt studies paleoclimatoglogy. The analysis and interpretation of ancient climates involves modeling an Earth that looked very different than it does today. This fact inspired Dr. Lunt to write a brilliantly nerdy/nerdily brilliant mock paper, published under the name of Radagast the Brown, comparing the simulated climate of Tolkien’s Middle Earth to the climates of modern and Cretaceous actual Earth.

In that vein, Dr. Lunt (a.k.a. Radagast the Brown) clarifies the modeling techniques employed by climate scientists and some the findings from the last IPCC report to one of Saruman’s angry, misinformed minions.

If Radagast the Brown (Dr. Lunt) were to descend from his wizard’s ivory tower and read David Rose’s article in the Mail on Sunday about biomass, he might realise that the “angry, misinformed minions” are surely those who support climate policies that result in trees being chopped down in their millions and turned into woodchips to feed the furnaces of “green energy”, in large-scale industrial operations that would make Saruman’s Isengard look like a model of eco-friendliness. I’m generally supportive of industry, but this makes no sense, economically or environmentally – it’s a perfect storm of wonky science, stupid laws, vested interests, vacuous politicians, unintended consequences and sweet reason turned upside down. As Treebeard would have said: “It must stop!”

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Down to a Sunless Sea

Technovelgy is a site I like to visit sometimes – it has regular articles that link current science and technology stories to works of fiction where these developments have been somehow heralded or foreshadowed – and a recent item has connected Stephen Baxter’s 2008 novel Flood to some recent speculation that deep in the Earth’s mantle there is a body of water, possibly equal in volume to all of the world’s oceans put together. (Flood, by the way, is about rampant catastrophic climate change and I haven’t read this yet, but it sounds entertaining in a Roland Emmerich sort of way).

The ultimate origin of water in the Earth’s hydrosphere is in the deep Earth – the mantle. Theory and experiments have shown that although the water storage capacity of olivine-dominated shallow mantle is limited, the Earth’s transition zone, at depths between 410 and 660 kilometres, could be a major repository for water, owing to the ability of the higher-pressure polymorphs of olivine – wadsleyite and ringwoodite – to host enough water to comprise up to around 2.5 per cent of their weight.

In the annals of science fiction, there are several works with instances of underground seas that I can immediately think of, including Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of Pellucidar and the 1935 novel Land Under England by Joseph O’Neill. However, I expect that in reality, this stupendous underground reservoir would be not as navigable as the subterranean oceans of fiction (as it is presumably just made up of water molecules bottled up inside ringwoodite crystals). You certainly couldn’t sail across this great layer of watery minerals on a raft, or voyage through it in a submarine or perhaps even a subterrene. It would definitely be pitch dark, down there, and very hot. And there are unlikely to be any dinosaurs.

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More Greens, Sir?

Here’s a beautiful example of what Donna Laframboise was writing about (see yesterday’s missive) when she compared our leaders to overzealous waiters – the Liberal Democrats’ Green Manifesto for next year’s general election, described in predictably positive terms on and somewhat less glowingly in the Daily Mail. For non-UK readers, the Liberal Democrats are the junior partner in our current Coalition government, and though their share of the vote appears to be dwindling fast, I wouldn’t rule out the outside possibility of their remaining in government after 2015, perhaps with Ed Miliband’s Labour. Look at two bullet points, for example, taken from page 14 of the Manifesto:

* Set a target of 2040 for the date after which only ultra-low carbon vehicles will be permitted on UK roads for 
non-freight purposes.

* Replace air passenger duty with a per-plane duty, charged in proportion to the carbon 
emissions created by that journey; make effective use of existing airport capacity and oppose any plans for additional runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted or for a Thames Estuary airport.

As well as effectively banning petrol cars from the roads and stunting aviation, the LibDems aim to introduce “energy efficiency measures street by street” (possible code for dimming street lights), “variable waste charging for households” (code for a “pay as you throw” bin tax) and to “commission a ‘Stern Report’ for reducing the UK’s consumption of natural resources” (a green light, no doubt,for goodness knows what dismal eco-shenanigans). Should all of the above proceed as planned, those more observant customers amongst the UK electorate will probably begin to protest “This wasn’t what I ordered!” at some stage. But then I’m sure the waiters will just respond imperturbably with “More greens with your greens?”

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La La La, Not Listening

Donna Laframboise has written an article I thought was very good, called The Climate Change Express: Ignoring Your Views at Every Meal, comparing the general tone-deafness of governments, on the subject of the public and climate change, to that of catering staff on a train journey stubbornly serving vegetarian meals to all customers, no matter what they had actually ordered. In my experience, climate change tends to come near or at the bottom of any list of voter concerns, not that you’d know it by listening to our dear leaders. One of Donna’s examples is an eye-opener – a survey by the UN across 194 countries, where “Action taken on climate change” is one of 16 priorities to be listed in order of importance.

Action taken on climate change is among the 16 things people can choose as a top priority. How important do we think it is compared to jobs, education, and healthcare worldwide? Bottom-of-the-barrel.

In June 2013 it was dead last. In September it was dead last. And today, it remains the very last concern out of a possible 16 priorities.

Hilary Ostrov has more about this survey in another very good article, written last summer. Granted, the UN poll is ridiculously flawed, with no way of preventing participants from voting as many times as they like. But the results are still striking. And it’s interesting to read activists’ comments from around the web: “Very disappointing that the energy industry propaganda works so well”, being an example. No, I don’t think it’s “energy industry propaganda” that is causing people in 194 countries to place climate change at or near the bottom of the list; it is that people seem to be putting greater value on things like education, healthcare and jobs – only to receive a great dollop of “Action taken on climate change” instead, regardless.

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Missing Nemesis Mystery

Not about chocolate this time, although “nemesis” is, I suppose, the sort of word the killjoys like to use when promoting the sugar scare. No, it’s the news about there being no “Planet X” (aka “Nemesis” or “Tyche”) beyond the orbit of Pluto – that is, according to NASA’s WISE survey, which has failed to detect anything like it. I have a book on my shelf called Nemesis: The Death Star and Other Theories of Mass Extinction by Donald Goldsmith, published in 1986, describing a hypothetical giant planet (the eponymous “Death Star”) which might periodically divert swarms of comets sunward from the Oort Cloud and thus have caused the suspiciously regular-looking pattern of mass extinctions throughout prehistory (with the next one due soon, ominously enough.) However, according to the Register:

“The outer Solar System probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star,” said Kevin Luhman of the Centre for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University and author of a paper on WISE results for the Astrophysical Journal.

From a science fiction point of view, that’s a shame, because it would be a great scenario for a disaster story, in a rather Roland Emmerich (2012) sort of way. However, from a real life point of view, it’s reassuring news for those such as myself who have no desire to undergo the massive planetary inconvenience multiple comet impacts would undoubtedly cause. We are now left with a host of other, less scary things to fret about, such as obesity plagues, zombie epidemics and ordinary people having far too much freedom and fun.

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