Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CRU Hacking: the end of the world as we know it?

Or, on not being able to see the wood for the trees
Although it may still be too early for a final call, the illegally hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit in the University of East Anglia are yet to turn up anything that comes close to justifying the "conspiracy", "smoking gun" and "final nail" headlines doing the rounds. There are plenty of cherry-picked quotes that initially sound bad, but isn't it important to presume innocence until proven guilty? So where is the proof?

Well, having had a week to find incriminating evidence, there is very little substantially proven beyond some rudeness from a few scientists when discussing those who have dismissed, misrepresented and distorted their work. Most of the "smoking gun" emails currently generating traffic are "shop-talk" taken out of context. Thus far, it would appear that the claims being made of a grand collusion are themselves merely one more conspiracy theory.

I could well be wrong. There may be more information to come to light in the coming days and weeks. There may be some elements of genuine concern. The discussion of freedom of information requests may indicate that certain individuals didn't want to spend yet more of their time answering the same old questions from dishonest opponents and (maybe) considered unethical actions to avoid doing so. There may be a couple of embarrassing revelations of too much spin (though I am yet to see one published paper decisively compromised by the scandal, and all the relevant journals are looking into the situation). Calling denialists "idiots" and so forth may not increase these scientists' chances of receiving a Christmas card from them this year. But the bottom line at this point is that there is no smoking gun, because there is, as yet, no bullet-ridden body. That is, there is no evidence that I have seen or heard about so far to indicate that any published papers were compromised, that any illegal activity took place, that any conspiracy exists. Amidst all the fuss, it is important to not lose the wood for the trees here.

What the emails do illustrate is something of the internal workings of all sciences, filled as they are with political feuds, concern for reputation, ongoing criticism of methods and interpretations of data, petty squabbles and everything you'd expect to find amongst any group of sinful humans trying hard to sort out various questions about how our world works with limited time, budgets and patience.

There is an interesting and often insightful discussion of some aspects of the ethics of the situation here, including the emails that discuss spurning partisan journals. And there is further detailed discussion of many of the more quoted emails that allegedly show "data manipulation" here. Perhaps the most quoted phrase about "hiding the decline" has been repeatedly shown to be a storm in a tea-cup (e.g. here and here).

Now those who were already convinced that one of the most researched and heavily scrutinised fields in contemporary science is all an elaborate conspiracy may see otherwise, but the onus remains on those who think this is much more than a publicity stunt leading up to Copenhagen to give answers to the following questions: What specific studies have these emails discredited? How does even a least charitable reading of these emails, mainly involving around six scientists at one centre, discredit the work of hundreds of contemporary climatologists and other earth scientists related to climate change in dozens of countries? Where are the faults in the more than thirty thousand published papers that comprise the body of work in this science? Answers must be specific and preferably in peer-reviewed journals.*

So what about all those headlines about the end of the world as we know it (for climate research)? Looks like we're back to the end of the world as we know it (for us and our children).
*NB Those who claim that there are four hundred and fifty peer reviewed papers against the generally accepted understanding are once again on very thin ice indeed. The vast majority of these papers are not actually peer reviewed, and/or known to be false, and/or irrelevant, and/or out of date, and/or not supportive of climate change denial. There are of course many legitimate continuing debates about a number of key factors involved in climate change (e.g. cloud formation, glacial movement, feedback mechanisms and more), but these are almost all happening within a widely accepted general framework that accepts alarming anthropogenic climate change.

PS Apologies for the multiple posts on climate change debates recently. It is just that these issues are quite timely with Copenhagen less than two weeks away.

PPS More interesting commentary.

PPPS And a new joint statement from the MET office, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society on the state of climate science.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Soiling our own nest: "ecology" vs "environment"

“More precisely, the crisis is that a now-globalizing culture in nature and wholly of nature runs full grain against it. A virile, comprehensive, and attractive way of life is destructive of nature and human community together – this is the crisis. Soils, peoples, air and water are being depleted and degraded together. (Or, on our better days are being sustained together.) It is not ‘the environment’ that is unsustainable. It is a much more inclusive reality, something like life-as-we-have-come-to-know-it. What we call ‘the environmental crisis’ is a sign of cultural failure, then. It is a failure to submit human power to grace and humility, and to work ‘toward the habitation of the places in which we life’ on terms that respect both human limits and the rest of nature’s. Life-as-we-have-come-to-know-it is eating itself alive. Modernity devours its own children.”

- Larry R. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996), 8.

This is a good short summary of an important point. This is the reason that I generally prefer to use the term "ecology" to "environment". The environment is something around us that perhaps we might be able to imagine is disconnected from our lives. Ecology, on the other hand, comes from the Greek words for "house" (oikos) and "order" (logos), and so speaks of the proper and improper ordering of our home here on earth. Our home is a mess and is falling apart. We are soiling our own nest. We have no other place to go.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why I am pessimistic about Copenhagen

There is a great deal in the media about the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 which will meet in Copenhagen in just over two weeks. A number of people have asked me recently about my take on the matter. While I think that an international agreement of some kind is necessary to reduce global greenhouse gas levels (it won't happen simply by countries acting unilaterally on national interest), my expectations for Copenhagen are pretty low at the moment. Let me briefly outline some of my current perceptions.

• First, it is worth noting that an international treaty of this scale and complexity is a historical novelty. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but it does mean that we're in uncharted waters. I am certainly no expert on international law, but I am aware that the last decades have seen numerous innovations in this field. Yet any treaty that is developed will be something of an experiment, and one unable to be repeated.

• Second, there are deep divisions between the developed and developing world. This was quite predictable. The former have produced by far the lion's share of historical emissions and continue to be much higher per capita emitters than even the industrializing economies of China and India. And while responsibility is not equally shared, neither are consequences. The current effects of climate change are being felt most keenly in developing nations (perhaps Australia will be (or is) the first developed nation to be seriously affected through water shortages during more frequent and severe droughts). These divisions were visible at Kyoto and were part of the reason for the failure of that effort (when the US and other developed nations (e.g. Australia) refused to ratify the agreement that their own negotiators had reached. Despite ten more years of negotiation and massive progress in climate science, these deep divisions remain and were evident in the African bloc of 50 nations boycotting part of the most recent pre-Copenhagen negotiations in Barcelona. They did this due to a perception that the developed world was not really serious about making significant changes.

•Third, there are particular political difficulties associated with the United States. The US has been historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter and continues to be so if consumption of products made elsewhere is included (about a quarter of China's carbon footprint derives from the creation of products for Western markets). And yet for eight years during the Bush administration, it did all it could to stand in the way of any international progress on the issue, refusing to ratify Kyoto and suppressing the warnings of its own agencies. The Obama change-we-could-believe-in has revealed that the US Congress has little faith. There is basically zero chance of any US climate legislation being passed prior to Copenhagen and even when Congress does get around to addressing it, the issue has become increasingly partisan.* The significant Democrat majority in Congress provides no guarantees for Obama's agenda, as demonstrated in the heath care debate. The US is not the only nation to have internal political divisions over the issue, but some of the quirks of the US system ensure that legislation will have particular difficulty in being passed.
*It is quite refreshing to see that it is much less so here in the UK, where the Conservatives are in full support of Gordon Brown's aggressive stance and promising to not make this an election issue (which may be a political move to neutralise a perceived Labour advantage; the actual determination of a (likely) Cameron government to make this a high-priority issue remains to be seen). It is also quite partisan in Australia.

• Fourth, public opinion about climate change remains in some degree of flux (with the numbers who view it as a serious threat declining in at least the US, Australia and the UK). While elected representatives ought to make their own judgements based on wisdom and available evidence, rather than simply seeing which way the wind is blowing), it only seems to be increasingly true that too many politicians follow rather than lead public opinion. And public opinion in some countries seems to have shifted away from seeing climate change as a real and present danger for various reasons. First, the economic downturn is an immediate distraction from a long-term problem like climate change, and provides a convenient excuse for inaction until economic conditions are better. Second, there is a growing and highly successful misinformation campaign of climate change denial that is muddying the waters with outdated, pseudo-scientific and de-bunked claims (and not just about climatology). This is not to say that there are not plenty of bogus claims made by those who see climate change as a serious issue, but the noise-to-signal ratio on each side is not even close to being equivalent. Of course there is a difference between genuine scepticism and denialism. And of course we ought to weigh important claims that made upon our lives and are right to take most things reported by the media with a grain (or five) of salt. However, Andrew Cameron puts it well when he says, “Too little scepticism is gullible, but there comes a time when too much scepticism is a crippling disconnection from reality.” I intend to write more on this at some stage soon.

As crippling as these four point are, none is entirely insurmountable. Together, they combine to mean that negotiations at Copenhagen are unlikely to reach a binding treaty. Indeed, as a result of these and other obstacles, President Obama has recently stated the increasingly obvious: that Copenhagen will not deliver a legally binding deal. Despite all the momentum and build-up, the talks will now become just another stepping stone rather than a finish-line for climate negotiations. Will this matter? Is a bad deal worse than no deal? Will this cripple the possibility of a treaty or just delay it? All that remains to be seen.

However, I have three more reasons for remaining pessimistic that would still be true even if a miraculous 11th hour deal is reached in Copenhagen.

• Fifth, even the most ambitious targets on the table may well be too modest. There is currently around 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The pre-industrial level was about 275 ppm. Twenty years ago, when the issue started to gain more widespread attention, 550 ppm was seen as an upper limit, but this was basically just a doubling of 275 and was not based on much evidence. The general consensus is currently to try to limit average warming to 2ºC (though even this would have significant negative effects) and most of the recent efforts have focused on stabilizing CO2 levels at 450 ppm as a means towards this (though it is difficult to be precise, it seems 450 ppm only gives about a 50% chance of staying below 2ºC warming). This is what is on the table at Copenhagen. Stabilizing levels at 450 ppm will be extremely difficult and will require massive shifts in economic patterns and expectations. The model proposed by Nicholas Stern in his Stern Report included "overshooting" 450 ppm to peak at 550 and come back down from there. However, more recent studies suggest that even 450 ppm may well lead to runaway warming as feedback effects gain pace and a number of scientists are now calling for a goal of 350 ppm.

• Sixth, I am not currently persuaded that the cap-and-trade market based system proposed as the mechanism driving emission reductions will actually work to reduce CO2 levels. From my limited understanding, a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be better and could also be the subject of international agreements. Solving ecological issues through extending the reach of market logic into more spheres of life seems a little like trying to put out a fire by pouring oil on it.

• Seventh, even if politicians fashion a binding agreement (whether in Copenhagen or some time next year) for 450 ppm, we are very unlikely to get there. The required changes are enormous, the momentum behind business as usual is too large. The economic assumptions of centuries (though note that they only arose during the period of modern industrialization) are too deeply entrenched. No leader is talking about anything other than economic growth as their primary goal. No leader is being honest about the fact that stabilizing levels at even 450 ppm would require massive changes on a scale similar to those experienced in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union (the only example in recent history of a nation dropping its emissions at anything like the rate required). Of course, that was (a) unplanned, (b) lasted only a few years rather than decades, and (c) was still not fast enough.

In summary, the Copenhagen conference is an attempt to reach a novel international agreement in a short time frame despite deep political divisions between and within nations and lagging public support, an agreement which may well be too little, too late, using the wrong mechanism and obscuring the true size of the challenge. So call me an optimist.

Nonetheless, politics is the art of the possible and I do not see the conference as either hopeless or useless. Nor, despite my pessimism, do I believe that such pessimism is self-fulfilling. But these points will have to wait for another day since this post is already way too long.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gregorios on survival in apocalyptic times

Survival is not the central issue, especially for Christians, who believe that history has to come to an end some time or other. For humanity, the perennial enemies are sin and death – death of the race, death of the planet, and personal death–or evil and loss of bring. But these are precisely the enemies which have been faced and overcome by the cross and resurrection of Christ. […] We can face the impasses calmly and without panic; but this does not absolve us from the responsibility to join the fight against the powers of darkness and death. [...]

“Yes the times are apocalyptic. There have been many such in the history of humanity. We have survived them. But our apocalyptic age demands that we not look back with detatched calm, but rather recognize the future as foreboding and therefore act in the present in a creatively new way. We dare not take the comfortable and lazy line: ‘We have been through many such crises before; we will muddle through this one too.’”

- Paulos Gregarios, The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature
(Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1978), 13-14.

These paragraphs, written over thirty years ago, capture something very important about placing our fears of societal breakdown. They are not to be displaced through denial, emplaced by despair, nor placated through unthinkingly desperate activism. Instead, they are to be re-placed by and within faith, love and hope in the God who raised Jesus from the dead and whose Spirit brings new life to us even now.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Make wealth history

Two things I ask of you;
     do not deny them to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
     give me neither poverty nor riches;
     feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
     and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or I shall be poor, and steal,
     and profane the name of my God.

- Proverbs 30.7-9

Poverty is no good thing. But wealth is decidedly dangerous: for one's soul and for the planet. If you are reading this, you are wealthy.

Earn less. Consume less. Be less productive. Live more.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Peak Oil and conspiracy theories

It hasn't gone away
Just when you thought discussion of peak oil had peaked, it's back. For those unfamiliar with the debate and why it is important, you might like to check out this brief introduction to the concept. Written back in 2003, it is one of the best short intros I've seen.

Even though global demand for oil has dropped due to the economic downturn, that doesn't mean that some of the underlying causes behind it hitting US$147 per barrel a couple of years ago are not still around. For those who might be new to this debate, the estimates used by governments are usually based on figures from the International Energy Agency. However, even figures inside the IEA question their own numbers (or if you prefer, there is the SMH version).

Peak Oil and Conspiracy Theories
Peak Oil shares a number of features with conspiracy theories. It is held by a minority who reject the "official" version (in this case, the IEA numbers) as hopelessly partisan or influenced by powerful stakeholders. Telling the truth would unsettle these interests and so those in the know seek to spread the world that the world is darker and scarier than we thought.* Think The Matrix: there is a moral responsibility to face the truth, even if it is less pleasant than the "official" story. This is part of the appeal of accepting the alternative account. By doing so, one joins the ranks of the enlightened and is by default on the side of the angels, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against the powers whose interests are served through the truth remaining suppressed. Such heroic skepticism draws on a variety of powerful western narratives from the myth of Promethius, through one popular account of the Enlightenment as the triumph of reason over tradition, to contemporary celebrations of investigative journalism. We've all been told often enough that we ought not to believe everything we've been told.

In this context, is peak oil simply another loopy conspiracy theory put forward by misguided figures who have lost touch with reality? Perhaps.

Yet the basic concept of global oil production one day reaching a high water mark is more or less widely accepted by all sides; the debate is really about when this is most likely to happen. And even the most optimistic numbers from the IEA and oil companies put this within two to three decades at the very best. The darker option is that we are now at the peak or have just passed it, and the current slump in production due to the global economic downturn may not ever decisively turn around.

Either way, there are huge changes ahead, whether we like it or not. And this is what makes peak oil different from other conspiracy theories. Everyone acknowledges uncertainty about the precise amount of oil able to be recovered (and the rates at which it may be extracted); for all kinds of technical and political reasons, the calculations involve too many unknown variables. Yet all acknowledge that oil is indeed a finite and non-renewable resource that is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary society. And so no one is saying that business-as-usual can continue with oil production in terminal decline. Thus, peak oil is not a typical conspiracy theory and cannot be dismissed as such. Even those with the rosiest outlook acknowledge the need to move beyond oil, more or less urgently.

And this is what the debate is really about: the appropriate degree of urgency. The timing and rate of decline are crucial. A slow decline in a few decades could enable a transition to other forms of energy (though nothing is as powerful and easily transportable as oil). A rapid decline from here on would mean long term economic depression, food shortages, spiraling costs, more wars, social instability and governments collapsing.

Some dismiss peak oil as a bad joke. But as with all jokes, timing is everything.
*Even conspiracy theories that apparently claim the world is lighter and less scary than we thought, like Climate Change scepticism, still assume an enormous world-wide cover-up based on self-interest. I will be writing more on CC denial sometime soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Such is life

"Well may we say 'God save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor-general."

- Gough Whitlam

The eleventh of November is famous in Australia for three reasons: Armistice Day commemorating the end of hostilities on the Western Front of WWI in 1918, the hanging of Ned Kelly in 1880 and the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Comment verification back on

With sadness I've turned comment verification back on. I find it annoying and had lived successfully without it for a couple of years with only an occasional spam comment which I deleted. However, overnight, I've received over 350 new auto-generated comments with links in Chinese characters. I don't have the time to fight this battle manually.

In a fallen world, some doors need locks.

UPDATE: Just in the time it took to write this post (which I wrote before actually turning comment verification back on), I received another 100 comments.

2nd update: Now I have over 700 spam comments. I have turned on comment moderation for comments on posts older than 14 days. I'm curious, how many of my readers can read Chinese characters? If I go by the reader stats that I very rarely look at, less than 1% of my readers are from China.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When to use an apostrophe

It's disappointing that in today's world there's little conception of apostrophes' correct and glorious locations.

Since I list misplaced apostrophes amongst my pet peeves, it is only fair that I offer this link to a simple flow chart in order to give you a fighting chance to avoid my ire (or my silent judgement).
H/T Jason. Speaking of links from Jason, this invisible man is also worth, um, seeing.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The most unusual animal in Bristol Zoo

A description of the most unusual animal found in Bristol Zoo (established 1836). H/T Jason.

This reminds me of going to a nature reserve as a young child on a school excursion and learning about the various animals found locally. At the end of the exhibit was a wooden box with a trapdoor in the lid and a sign next to it saying something like, "The world's most dangerous animal". When you opened the trapdoor, you saw this.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Link love

It's been a while since I showed some link love. Some of these are more recent than others.

Andrew Errington has finished an interesting series on the synoptic Gospels and the nature of Scripture in which he explores what the similarities and differences between the synoptics means for our doctrine of Scripture.

Kim Fabricius argues that faith means thinking outside the box.

Brad asks "Is Jesus actually likeable?".

Doug Chaplin ponders what Rowan could have said to Benedict after the latest development in Anglican-Catholic relations.

Other links
A. N. Wilson argues that we no longer know how to die or to grieve.

A quick surf before breakfast: the interwebs uses 10% of US electricity supply, and 5% of global supply.

Four Word Film Reviews. Hundreds of films reviewed in four words or less. For example, Titanic: "Icy dead people". My favourite, Saving Private Ryan: "Brother gets own bedroom".