“Fundamental Miscalculation”

The BBC’s Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin was talking on the radio last week about a report which the UK government has been strangely reluctant to give much publicity, the reason being that it admits energy generation from biomass could emit, under some circumstances, even more CO2 than coal-fired power stations. That, however, is not the only thing that is problematic about burning wood chips on an industrial scale to generate our electricity, as the RSPB’s Harry Huyton pointed out, in the same radio programme:

But there’s another thing, which is scale. So, at the moment, there’s a couple of million tonnes of wood being burned in power stations, here in the UK. But if Drax converted its boilers and if other power stations follow suit, the sheer scale of demand is going to be immense, so Drax alone, from your figures, Dorothy, it’s around seven million tonnes of wood would be needed – that’s more than the entire UK harvest

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We get far less bang for our buck from renewables, in their current form, than we do from coal, natural gas and nuclear. Which is why – if government is bent on ensuring renewable generation provides much more of our energy than the low percentages that it does at present – that it must take place on a monstrous scale, with rank upon serried rank of wind turbines, hundreds of acres of arable land turned into solar farms and indeed whole forests chopped up and fed into the furnaces.

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“Our Only Hope”

“…it’s our only hope…” Not a line from Star Wars Episode IV, in fact, but part of an address by Prince Charles to the 2014 Earth System Governance Project conference at the beginning of this month, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Now, I share the aims of this conference, not least in addressing the important and neglected matter of how better to sustain the vital life-support systems that support our economy and welfare, but which we so arrogantly take for granted, and hence so dangerously undervalue. Unless people, alive today and still to be born, can find better ways to husband the shrinking living space left by us and our predecessors, surely we cannot pass on the wisdom of sustainability that is our only hope and our most profound legacy.

I wonder what Jacob Bronowski, author and presenter of The Ascent of Man, would have made of that last sentence. Our “most profound legacy” – not mathematics or literature or science or art or language, but a philosophy that could be described as “scraping by, indefinitely”.

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Criminal World

In one of my recent transcripts, Saleemul Huq – who is a senior fellow at an organisation called the IIED, and a bit of a keen CO2 mitigation enthusiast – expresses a wish to crack down on oil, gas and coal companies. He alludes to something called the Carbon Majors study by Climate Mitigation Services, which “offers the most complete picture to date of which institutions have extracted the fossil fuels that have been the root cause of global warming since the Industrial Revolution”.

And the final tipping point is this report that identifies these 90-plus companies that have made trillions of dollars out of selling us a pollutant. Okay? They must pay, they must pay the victims of that pollution. And this is a way of getting them to do that. So when Julie-Anne shared a draft report with me, said “I like everything, I don’t like the title. I don’t like the word ‘Carbon Majors’ – doesn’t mean anything to me. I want them called ‘carbon criminals’.”

That’s what they are. That’s an accurate description of what they are. And I’ll explain why, using the words that Yeb Sano just said. It’s a combination of avarice and arrogance. They know they are extracting and selling a pollutant. They know this pollutant causes harm. They are trying to stop any actions against them polluting, even though they know there’s harm – so in their own minds, they are willing to do a criminal act, they’re continuing with that criminal act – we must make them pay. We must not let them get away with it.

And it’s the responsibility of governments all over the world – rich countries, poor countries, wherever these companies are domiciled, the governments have to hold them to account and make them pay for the pollutants that they are spewing out and making profits off of. If they make profits out of it, then they can afford to pay a little bit for the victims of that.

Then he describes going to the 8th and latest community-based adaptation to climate change conference (CBA8) in Kathmandu.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, in Kathmandu in Nepal, we organised the 8th International Conference on Community-based Adaptation, which is a sort of a term used for these vulnerable groups working around the world. We had over 400 people from over 60 countries come for seven days to Nepal. The first three days they spent in the field, they spent with vulnerable communities, seeing what they were doing, looking at their vulnerability and the adaptation actions they were already doing, and then another four days in the capital city, sharing amongst themselves.

One obvious thing to point out (as many point out, repeatedly – there’s even a hashtag and internet meme, #greensgobyair) would be the irony of hundreds of people regularly flying across the globe to attend conferences dedicated to solving problems allegedly created by hundreds of people regularly flying across the globe.

But the carbon criminality is even more widespread, extending it seems to whole nations! Nepal, for instance, host to the 8th International Conference on Community-based Adaptation (or CBA8) is busy with plans to expand its sole international airport (Tribhuvan in Kathmandu), develop a second one (Gautam Buddha Airport, in Bhairahawa), and also build or extend multi-lane highways to facilitate trade with India. It is difficult to imagine that nefarious fossil fuels won’t somehow play a part in these designs.

The situation becomes even starker when you look at Bangladesh, host of many previous CBAs and Dr. Huq’s own homeland. Iconic poster-entity for sea-level rise and general climatic victimhood, it’s nevertheless proposing to build a new deep sea port at Sonadia, in order to further Bangladeshi ambitions to become a major regional hub for seaborne trade, and also so that shipments of coal (60,000 tonnes of it a day!) from China and Australia can be landed.

The fuel would be destined for the country’s planned 1200MW-1400MW coal-fired power stations at Moheshkhali – so yes, to the consternation of all right-thinking people (and greens, which is the same thing) it appears that Bangladesh is embarking full steam ahead into a new Age of Coal.

Faced with such widespread and blatant carbon criminality, with whole nations colluding with or in many cases actually running organisations that produce, buy, sell and burn fossil fuels, where climate conference-goers are some of the most active users of these horribly addictive substances on the planet, and with the total members of this vast illegal enterprise potentially numbered in billions, bringing the miscreants to book will be no mean feat.

For a start, one major challenge would be to sustainably produce the sets of handcuffs needed for the citizens’ arrests of many millions of people across all the continents of the planet, including all those doing the arresting; another would be the mass construction of zero-carbon jails in which entire populations could be incarcerated.

It is clear that Dr. Huq and his friend Julie-Anne have their work cut out for them.

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Moon Cheese and Death Weather

Let no-one say that we don’t get plenty of entertainment value from the President of the United States. With George W Bush, it was the way he said things, occasionally – putting food on your family, wings taking dream, etc. – well, you kind of knew what he meant. With the present incumbent – who, it has to be said, is somewhat more slick – it’s more about exactly what he comes out with, and the (presumed) thought processes behind these utterances.

Just over a week ago, for example, he devoted an unfathomably large chunk of an otherwise anodyne speech to students at the University of California-Irvine to climate change scepticism, as you do, comparing climate dissenters to hypothetical critics of the US moon landing programme who might have raised objections on the basis that the moon didn’t actually exist or was made of cheese.

The POTUS has upped the ante, it seems. Stefan Lewandowsky famously compared us to conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were a hoax. Obama has now compared us to deluded people who think the moon itself might be either an illusion or solid Camembert (although, technically, “green cheese” would be the correct lunar ingredient.)

Obama has also called us “flat-earthers”, of course, which has made me wonder whether an entire straw-man climate-denier cosmology could be constructed, with a flat earth dominated by natural variation and a (possibly non-existent) cheese moon floating overhead. There’s possibly a team of climate psychologists at the University of Cardiff working on the mechanics of it, this very minute.

Anyway, why is he bothering with all this? Why is anyone, come to that? Could it be, perhaps, because the public are not actually as sold on the idea of climate doom, as Obama and his fellow travellers would like, and he’s having to turn up the rhetorical volume? I say this because there’s an interesting transcript of a recent show on one of New York’s public radio channels, where Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication mulls over possible alternatives for the terms “global warming” and “climate change”.

Here’s the first problem (for Leiserowitz, anyway, perhaps not so much a problem for the rest of us) – those terms are well-entrenched and nothing short of a colossally expensive marketing campaign would completely supplant them (he mentions a hypothetical rebranding of Coke, at this point.) Why is it a problem for him? Well, according to a recent survey, only a minority of Americans answered “correctly” that thousands or millions will die of climate change in the future. Clearly the majority still don’t think the world’s about to end.

The term “global warming” Leiserowitz considers more effective, as it evokes stronger feelings of being threatened. But it’s clearly not threatening enough. Radio host Bob Garfield helpfully tries to suggest a new name that’s “something maybe all inclusive and yet more terrifying”, and comes up with the not altogether serious term of “death weather”.

And here’s the second problem – environmentalists, politicians, bureaucrats and the media have been trying to threaten and terrify the public about global… um… climate… whatever for decades now. And the public’s indifference has remained solid, or even accumulated somewhat in recent years, a bit like Antarctic sea ice. Activists such as George Monbiot are beginning to acknowledge that scary rhetoric is actually alienating and antagonising the very people they want to win over (see this very good article about Monbiot’s volte-face, on Climate Resistance).

Will they be able to change tack, now? The climate conference in Paris next year is looming on the distant horizon, and it might seem politic to assume a new stance, which did not involve demonising dissent and evoking fear and disaster. However, Monbiot’s misgivings aside, I doubt that they are going to turn down the alarm very much between now and then, and suspect that like madmen in the apocryphally Einsteinian sense, they will be unable to resist doing and saying the same things over and over, and hoping against hope for different results.

Like someone who is absolutely certain the moon should be made of green cheese and won’t be told otherwise, they are probably not going to start listening to the indifferent majority, on this matter.

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Poetry, Whatever…

During a Q&A session at the University of Exeter last month, Met Office Chief Scientist Julia Slingo agreed with a member of the audience that art and creativity had a role in the communication of climate change:

I think we increasingly recognise that to reach the general public, and so forth, we have to use all sorts of different channels of communication. And you’re right – it’s not tables and graphs, and sometimes it is through art, through music, through poetry, whatever… And storytelling.

There’s a transcript here. Professor Tim Lenton enthusiastically continued the theme:

And yes, people mentioned storytelling, I mean, what have we been doing – we looked at the projections out to 2100 again, over the last day and a half – that’s what we do, in the scientific sense, we’re telling stories about the future. What we should be telling, collectively, are some positive stories about the future we want to work towards.

My question is: are the scientists’ “stories about the future” and the activists’ “stories about the future we want to work towards” actually separate narratives? (Suspected answer – no, not entirely.)

In the meantime, am awaiting with barely-controlled excitement the first ever Met Office-endorsed anthology of climate poetry. Might even scribble my own modest contribution – would they allow examples of climate-sceptic verse, I wonder?

(Hmm. Probably not.)

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Anthropogenic Apocalypse Averted

“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” (Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.)

Then planet Earth came into being, and things went rapidly downhill. Life arose, only to be clobbered by passing meteorites on a regular basis, blasted by volcanic eruptions and flash-frozen in Ice Ages.

Humans evolved, but not all were happy. “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.” (Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

The reason I mention all this is that in the recent conversation between Paul Ehrlich, co-author Michael Tobias and TV host Josh Zepps (see yesterday’s blog), Tobias hinted at an unspecified disaster about to smite the world that will be worse than anything that has happened so far.

So yes, I concur totally that we’re on the cusp of probably the worst crisis in 4 billion years of life on Earth. But conversely, more and more people than ever in our history are aware that they’ve got to take part in conversations like this, and they can make a difference – they can get out and vote, they can spread small gestures of kindness, of tenderness to everyone at every juncture, every opportunity. This is all good news.

Let’s see if I’ve understood. So we’re about to be hit over the head by something far worse than the Chicxulub asteroid impact 65 million years ago, which destroyed the dinosaurs, and worse even than the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event (aka “The Great Dying”), 252 million years ago, which killed off most species on the planet.

However, all is not lost, for three reasons:

    1) People can have conversations, presumably similar to the one taking place on HuffPost Live that day, or the ones between Paul Ehrlich and Michael Tobias that were turned into their new book Hope on Earth: A Conversation.

    2) People can get out and vote.

    3) People can be nice to other people, wherever and whenever possible.

I would like to add a fourth reason (along with having conversations, voting and being nice).

    4) People can read books of a non-alarmist kind – for example, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, The Angels of our Better Nature by Stephen Pinker, The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg or The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon.

    These will help to put “the worst crisis in 4 billion years” into some much-needed perspective.

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Break Out The Chianti And Fava Beans…

… because “iconic biologist” Paul R Ehrlich has told HuffPost Live that in the future, people will have to seriously consider making a meal of their loved ones, out of necessity. Co-author of ironically titled new book Hope on Earth: A Conversation, Ehrlich was being interviewed by TV host Josh Zepps:

Josh Zepps: Do you suspect, Paul, that in decades or centuries to come, the way that we treat animals and eat, consume them today will be looked back on as a travesty?

Paul Ehrlich: It’s hard to say, because I don’t think there’s going to be the centuries to come, with our kind of civilisation, and with the kind of ethical issues that at least some people in our civilisation are concerned with. I think that the issues are probably more likely to be: “Is it perfectly okay to eat the bodies of your dead, because we’re all so hungry?”

Josh Zepps: Really? We’ll get that bad?

Paul Ehrlich: Oh, I – it’s moving in that direction with a ridiculous speed.

You can watch the whole thing on the HuffPost website, and also read my transcript of it here. Like Josh, I’ll be interested to read the book, at some point, not necessarily to savour the interplay of those “brilliant” minds (as per Mr. Zepps) but to find out just what this mysterious “hope on earth” actually is, that they’re talking about. Hope that dear departed Aunt Agatha will make a tasty ragout?

I’ll be writing again about this truly fascinating conversation. In the meantime, Tim Worstall has applied some rational thinking to some of Dr. Ehrlich’s arguments and found them wanting – as have quite a few others, over the years, without having much of an impact on the good doctor’s fortunes or “iconic” status.

In fact, Ehrlich’s co-author Michael Tobias tells HuffPost Live that:

Michael Tobias: Well, I think Paul’s projections, in fact, were correct. He was criticised in some instances, by some individuals in some very conservative think tanks, for over-stating the projections, but if anything, Paul and his partner and wife Anne Ehrlich not only got it right, they in some ways underestimated how bad it’s gotten, in terms of the demographic numbers, in terms of the rapidity with which these tipping points – one after the other – these ecosystems are collapsing around the world…

Oh well, conservative think tanks were involved – enough said. (Because correct-thinking people know that individuals described as “very conservative” are just bound to be wrong!)

Paul Ehrlich and anthropophagy go back at least to 1969, where he is quoted, in typically upbeat mood, stating that basically human bodies wouldn’t provide good eating, as they would be thoroughly polluted by chemicals:

“It’s conceivable we’ve knocked 10 years off the life of every child born since 1945″, Ehrlich said. “If the same standards were used to judge the milk of human mothers as that of cows, much of it could not be sold because it exceeds the minimum amount of DDT.”

The same, he said, holds true for human flesh, which would make it a dismal world even for a cannibal.

DDT isn’t used as much these days, which means that the palatability of human flesh must have greatly improved – encouraging news! Perhaps that’s the “hope on earth”.

So cheers, Paul! You hopeful old thing, you.

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Reality’s Revenge

It was Earth Day yesterday, an event which seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the media, in the UK at least, and as usual I took a few minutes out to read and appreciate some of the wilder Earth Day prophecies from times of yore (quite a few websites, of course, have handy lists of the more entertaining examples.)

The best one, I think is Paul R Ehrlich’s short science fiction story Looking Backward from 2000 A.D., written for the original Earth Day in 1970 and published in The Progressive Magazine (and after that in a neat paperback volume called The Crisis of Survival, a copy of which is on my bookshelf.)

Ehrlich’s Looking Backward has it all. It is an ecological Book of Revelation in miniature, describing the aftermath of a perfect storm, nay a perfect unstoppable tsunami, of environmental badness, which has overtaken the world – and especially America – between 1970 and the Millennium. Silly numbers of people have died untimely deaths – from famine, from cancer caused by radiation leaks from a nuclear reactor disaster, and simultaneously from deadly attacks by a variant of the Marburg virus – although the not-sinister-at-all Division of Optimum Population now has the situation in hand. Really, this should have been made into a movie.

It’s easy to laugh. What I’m more interested in, however, are the reactions this story might have provoked at the time. Did his readers really believe, back in 1970, that some sort of Biblical-grade catastrophe like this was on the cards? Did Paul R. Ehrlich, himself? I suspect that many of his readers might have done but that he did not, entirely, and that his article – framed deliberately as a work of fiction, and with the disaster dial turned up to 11 – was meant to be a wake-up call and an awareness-raising exercise, rather than any sort of realistic projection.

Looking Backward from 2000 A.D. has some parallels with a project I’m working on at the moment, which is the transcript of a discussion on BBC Radio 4 back in 2006, around the publication of James Lovelock’s book The Revenge of Gaia (hence this post’s “revenge” reference) which was likewise apocalyptic in tone and which was meant by the author to be a wake-up call for the public, on matters to do with the environment and climate change.

Some things, it seems, remain constant, such as the human tendency to spin scare stories for a purpose. And therein lies the rub. Smile though we may at the disco-era utterances of Paul R Ehrlich, Kenneth Watt, Lester R Brown and the rest, being wrong doesn’t seem to have hurt their careers much. Lester R Brown is known to the world as a pioneer of sustainable development, Kenneth Watt is still listed as a Professor Emeritus at UC Davis and Paul R Ehrlich was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2012.

In a world where the prophets of doom are quietly having the last laugh – in spite of said doom repeatedly failing to materialise – it appears that reality’s revenge might be something of a double-edged sword.

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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.

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