Archive for the 'Climate Change' Category

Lovelock: lifeboat nations

James Lovelock has obviously been reading my blog.  Just a shame he didn’t link to it really.  Anyway he answers the question I posed in a recent post: in a world where climate change is rapant, where do you go to live?

He suggests either Canada or the UK, or perhaps Siberia.  From Futurismic:

Lovelock’s point seemed to be that we should give up on trying to save the planet and the entirety of the human species by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and focus instead on equipping “lifeboat nations” with the necessary infrastructure (schools, roads, houses) to support swarms of climate refugees.

The UK and Canada are lifeboat nations, in case you’re wondering. Probably Siberia too. Basically, anywhere that will be relatively cool and have water in a world that is on average 5°C warmer than it was 100 years ago.

I have to say, if he thinks the people of Britain are likely to welcome hordes of climate refugees, he’s not met many Brits.  The average Brit’s fellow feeling barely extends to himself, let alone the poor and huddled masses of other countries.

In my mind I can see Sun readers, on the beaches, clubbing parched refugees to death like baby seals whilst humming WWII songs and claiming it’s all just like the blitz.

Anyway, now I know where to build my fortified survivalist camp.  Thanks Mr Lovelock.

Increasingly pessimistic

Over on the Long Now blog a few weeks ago Stewart Brand posted some climate change calculations taken from a talk by Saul Griffith.

The aim of the calculations is to work out what needs to be done about climate change:

What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hanson, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

The conclusions are in line with my understanding of the current best guesses of climatology in general:

The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

He calculates the level of new power plant production using mixed technologies to replace those 11.5 terawatts of power:

  • 2tw Photovoltaic: 1200 square miles of solar cells per year.
  • 2tw Solar thermal: 600 square miles a year.
  • ½tw Biofuels: 15,250 square miles of algae a year.
  • 2tw Wind: 105,000 turbines a year.
  • 2tw Geothermal: 1,095 steam turbines a year.
  • 3tw Nuclear: A 156 nuclear power plants a year.

And we’d have to do all of these together every year for the next 25 years.  And this only gets us to the 450ppm value, where there’s still a lot of stress, massive movements of climate refugees etc.  The land area of all of these measures together is around the size of Australia, devoted entirely to renewable energy.  If we did it all with nuclear, which is right now the most plausible option, we’d need to build around 600 nuclear power plants per year, and we’d end up with 15,000 plants.

Meanwhile we need to stay at 16 terawatts total energy consumption worldwide.  That means that as the poorest parts of the world increase their energy consumption, the rest of us need to reduce ours.  That means pretty much everyone in the rich world needs to stop flying, throw away their car, stop eating meat and stop buying stuff.

Being realistic for a second: what do you think the chances are that this is all going to happen?  As a species do we have the will and the ability to build 600 nuclear plants a year and throw out all our cars and become vegetarians?

Apologies to those who think we’re somehow optimally made in the image of God, but we blatantly are not.  We have proved only just smart enough to master agriculture – and that’s smart enough to have delivered the technological improvements we see around us.  But as a group we’re barely able to cooperate enough to run an economy that functions.

I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about our potential to meet this potential extinction threat as a species, and the more data that comes in about climate change, the scarier it gets.

So, answers on a postcard please, where should I plan to live when in 25 years the world is 4 degrees hotter?

The real “epic fail”

The environmental movement has finally achieved many of it’s marketing goals. A movement that until recently regarded as a home for crackpots now achieves regular prime time news slots. The chattering classes (of Europe at least) regard environmentalism as a valid subject for their attention, and they sign up enthusiastically with it’s messages. However, I think the movement has dropped the ball at the worst possible moment.

The environmental movement is, at it’s core, a moral movement. It contends that we have a moral responsibility to look after the environment around us. This goes right back to one of the seminal works of environmentalism, the 1949 book A Sand County Almanac.

For most of human history the environment has been the greatest possible resource to exploit. It’s diffuse nature and ancient provenance have, throughout the world, led to it being owned explicitly by those with the most to gain from ruining it, or implicitly (through nation states and international agreements) by those who have no direct interest in protecting it. This has been a winning strategy (hence it’s worldwide adoption), and until recently you’d have been considered insane to suggest leaving this vast resource untapped.

Chomsky put the central dilemma well:

“Take the Kyoto Protocol. Destruction of the environment is not only rational; it’s exactly what you’re taught to do in college. If you take an economics or a political science course, you’re taught that humans are supposed to be rational wealth accumulators, each acting as an individual to maximize his own wealth in the market. The market is regarded as democratic because everybody has a vote. Of course, some have more votes than others because your votes depend on the number of dollars you have, but everybody participates and therefore it’s called democratic.

Well, suppose that we believe what we are taught. It follows that if there are dollars to be made, you destroy the environment. The reason is elementary. The people who are going to be harmed by this are your grandchildren, and they don’t have any votes in the market. Their interests are worth zero. Anybody that pays attention to their grandchildren’s interests is being irrational, because what you’re supposed to do is maximize your own interests, measured by wealth, right now. Nothing else matters. So destroying the environment and militarizing outer space are rational policies, but within a framework of institutional lunacy. If you accept the institutional lunacy, then the policies are rational.”

– Interview by Yifat Susskind, August 2001

This “institutional lunacy” still represents the status quo.

We have reached a point where it’s not our grandchildren who will be harmed, it’s us and our children, and suddenly we’re paying attention. For some this might be a strong claim. Personally I am now reasonably convinced that we are heading for environmental catastrophe within our lifetimes. It is very difficult to predict the precise effects of climate change. However the rate of change now seems so high that, even if the final destination is a stable, survivable biosphere, the pending changes in the climate will be enough to kill or displace hundreds of millions worldwide and inundate vast swathes of land.  And that’s just for starters.

While environmentalism remained a moral movement it was unlikely ever to gain the mainstream, because so many people have vested interests in exploiting the environment. As a question of the survival of perhaps civilization itself, you’d hope it the environmental movement would be leading the way in policy decisions worldwide. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Many people blame politicians for this, but really I think the movement has signally failed.

Environmentalism is a very broad church, covering many issues, and they all compete for attention. In addition the original moral message of environmentalism is still very strong, and this contributes to the idea that all environmentalism is equally worthy. As long as you are living the good life, then you have done your bit. Which is incredibly unfortunate, because most of the activities promoted by environmentalism don’t make an iota of difference.

This of course is just what our cherished vested interests like to see – a movement that could cause them vast trouble, and cost them huge sums, instead diverted into trivia.

Here, for example, we have an advertisement from Toyota:

Here’s what it says:

We’re all striving for a greener world and one way we can achieve this is by getting in sync with our immediate environment. What better way to explore the virtues of nature than to tune into Nature on PBS, the television program that captures the spendors of the natural world – from the plains of Africa to under the Antarctic ice. Join Diane Keaton as she celebrates the beauty found all around us.

Diane Keaton celebrates the nature all around her by doing her to part to keep our world a greener place by picking up items left on the beach, buying antiques, and driving a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. She believes the key to living green is small gestures that might become habits, “encouraging a new way of accepting responsibility for the well-being of our planet.”

So. The greatest environmental crisis our species has ever encountered, and the correct course of action?

  1. pick up things left on beach
  2. buy antiques
  3. buy a new car

And you know what, Toyota published this in the clear expectation that people would nod their heads and go “yup that’s great, I’ll watch a documentary on lions, pick up some drift wood and then I’m green. Oh and maybe I need a new car.”

This trivialisation of the core messages of environmentalism is a by-product of it’s beginnings as a moral movement. It’s possible for everyone to jump on the bandwagon with their issue de jour, and on what grounds do you disagree? What’s more important, saving the whales or recycling used bottles? Well of course they are both equally important, as long as you feel you are doing the Right Thing. It’s a short step from this sort of reasoning to start buying antiques to save the planet – if it makes you feel justified, it’s got to be good. Right?

What the environmental movement needs to provide is clear leadership, and I’m afraid they are failing badly. Yes, whales are very pretty. But no, saving them is not, right now, our number one priority. Sorry. Nor are recycling cardboard, GM food, chinese dams, river dolphins or any of the other issues that get people exercised. Yes they matter, but do they matter as much as the impending disaster of climate change? Clearly not. It’s looking increasingly likely that there will never again be whales, river dolphins or indeed cardboard if we don’t act, globally, to reduce CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases.

Dealing with climate change requires concerted, coordinated effort. While people believe that whether or not to build coal-fired power plants is of equal importance to recycling that bottle of Beaujolais they had last night then they’ll choose the recycling. But I’m afraid recycling that bottle, whilst proving you are a nice person, will make no difference. If that’s your total contribution then you are sitting on the sidelines. You are as involved in saving the planet as a football supporter in the stands eating a pie and drinking a cup of Bovril is involved in the football match. You sure feel involved, but the result of the match would be just the same as if you’d decided to go to the pub instead.

It does sound as if it’s all pointless, and if we’re going to hell in a handbasket we might as well just get on with it.  Which might even be true – my faith in the wisdom of capitalist democracies is not high. However, we owe it to ourselves, and our children, to try. All of the critical actions can be taken by governments, and there are mechanisms for influencing governments.  Which leads to getting involved in the grubby, unsatisfactory world of politics.  Funding groups that do marketing and lobbying.  Writing to your MP.  Get involved in collective action.  Which is far less satisfying than picking things up off the beach, but really actually might help save the planet.

The politics of collective action

One of the comments in today’s Guardian “Blog Watch” was about the new London Congestion Charge prices for large cars. It’s a comment I’ve heard a few times now, and it’s one that has some large implications for how people think.

The commenter said “What is the point in London making these changes, we are only a tiny country and it’ll have no overall effect on the climate”.

This is pretty much identical to why, economically, it’s not worth voting. In a UK Parliamentary election each constituency has around 70,000 people. If 40% of them vote, that’s 28,000 votes cast. With so many votes, it is extremely unlikely that your vote will be the casting one. Basically, whether you vote or not has no effect whatsoever on who is elected.

Now as a bare fact it is perfectly true that reducing the number of 4x4s in London will have very little effect on the climate directly. It is also true that voting is pointless with respect to who gets elected. Yet there are other reasons you should perhaps do these things.

When I have expressed the voting argument to people in the past, their general response has been “Well what if everyone else thought that!?”. They often say it with some finality too, as if this was an unassailable argument. It is of course a very silly argument. Whether I vote or not has no effect on whether other people vote. Our actions are *independent*. In fact, me not voting makes it **more** likely my wife will vote, since I can look after the kids while she goes to the polling station. If I choose to vote (which I do), it’s not because it encourages others to vote – It’s because I rather enjoy it. For a brief moment I feel as if I have some effect on the governance of the country, even if I don’t. I quite enjoy that feeling. It’s all rather civic.

The opposite is true of actions taken against climate change. Saying to India or China that they should burn less coal, or have less traffic, but we aren’t going to bother is hypocritical and foolish. If we really want other countries to make changes we must lead by example, and put our money where our mouth is.

Of course Ken Livingstone has managed to make **other** people put their money where his mouth is. But that is the way of the sucessful politician ;)

Christopher Monckton in the Telegraph

[This sort of article]( really gets my goat.

Christopher Monckton advances a thesis that the worldwide concensus on climate change is a conspiracy of left-wing statist scientists who wish to decieve the public into believing that there is a potential pending climate disaster, and that they can use this to make people do unspecified “things” that they otherwise wouldn’t. This might include creating a world government, he implies.

Abolishing the medieval warm period

If you look at the article, it’s full of graphs. This isn’t a bad thing I suppose – the problem is they are provided with little or no context. For example, have a look at this one:

This image is presented to support his contention that climatologists are maliciously hiding a temperature rise during the middle ages. Certainly if you just glance at it, it looks really suspicious too. The problem is, they are graphing completely different things. So different that running them side by side like that is practically an attempt at deception itself.


Our amateur climatologist later claims that the UN have “repealed a fundamental law of physics”, in their use of the **Stefan-Boltzmann Law**:

> You don’t need computer models to “find” lambda. Its value is given by a century-old law, derived experimentally by a Slovenian professor and proved by his Austrian student (who later committed suicide when his scientific compatriots refused to believe in atoms). The Stefan-Boltzmann law, not mentioned once in the UN’s 2001 report, is as central to the thermodynamics of climate as Einstein’s later equation is to astrophysics. Like Einstein’s, it relates energy to the square of the speed of light, but by reference to temperature rather than mass.

Sounds good doesn’t it. It’s got suicide for scientific principle. it even mentions Einstein. The problem is, the value of lambda derived is only correct for [Black Bodies]( The Earth is not a Black Body (an ideal black object), so although it’s an interesting exercise using Stefan’s Law to discover that the temperature of the earth is roughly 300K (27 °C) that isn’t *massively* useful on it’s own when trying to work out whether the temperature is changing or not.

I do not presume to be a climatologist, but I know bullshit when I see it.


The real problem here is that the Telegraph is giving a platform to Margaret Thatchers ex-PR man to use screwy science to dispute what really is a global concensus amongst scientists. It’s probably a good thing to have a debate — the problem is that so many people have a vested interest in ignoring climate change, perhaps even including some of Mr Monckton’s current or former clients.

Scientists are not generally given to rushing into a concensus (although once in it they are painfully difficult to get out of it again). They are also not given generally to forming global governments, at least as far as I can remember.

PR men are however given to punting phoney nonsense in newspapers for the purpose of furthering their careers. To play this sort of game with something so potentially serious is very poor, very poor indeed.