Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Obama is a moderate Republican, and other stories

Obama and the polarisation of US politics: According to Dave Roberts, the left's gone left but the right's gone nuts. US politics has become more polarised, but not equally so. By the standards of just a decade or two ago, Obama truly is a moderate Republican. As one illustration of Obama's centre-right approach, consider the fact that his recent attacks on Romney over rapacious capitalism are quite hypocritical from a President who has done very little other than to encourage such behaviour. Some may be interested in a comparison of Obama vs. Romney on environmental policy. Of course, Romney and Obama are not the only candidates.

Who drinks the most soft drink? The answer may surprise you. OK, maybe not.

Assessing Australian climate action: David Spratt offers a sober assessment of our situation. This is the first in a series: part two and three. I have a lot of sympathy for most of his account.

What's in a name? We should stop calling them "mobile phones" and start calling them "trackers", according to this piece. The little electronic devices in our pockets reveal much about our behaviour to all kind of people you probably didn't realise.

Food in Australia: The draft National Food Plan, set up at the urging of corporate interests and tailored to their perspective assumes business as usual is a smart idea for Australia's food production. Instead, the goal is not simply more food at whatever cost.

The End Game: Raoul Pal offers some tips for traders wishing to maximise their profits during these last few months before catastrophic global economic collapse. Cheery stuff: make sure you get yours before we all what's coming to us. That kind of thing.

A history of democracy: Noam Chomsky takes us on a whirlwind tour from the signing of Magna Carta through the US Constitution, Civil War and into drones, rendition of terror suspects and climate change. Compulsory reading for US exceptionalists.

Monday, July 30, 2012

It's a sin

"To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands [...] for humans to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances - these are sins."

- Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Does anyone want to dispute this? Can we really silence the voice of countless species, shift the global climate to a less hospitable state, pollute the air and water that our neighbours breathe and drink, plunder the oceans of their bounty, irreversibly transform unique ecosystems into much less complex states, cause animal suffering on an industrial scale through cruel and unnecessary treatment - and do all this largely for the sake of unnecessary luxuries - and yet maintain a clear conscience before our Creator?

When was the last time you heard such blasphemies against the Spirit of Life mentioned in a sermon? When were you last exhorted to turn to the One through whom and for whom all things were made in order to seek forgiveness and to find a new way of being human in a groaning world?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Waking the Green Tiger


Here's a documentary I'd really like to see. A home-grown Chinese environmental movement is one of those important developments the world needs right now. Even better would be for it to make good connexions with the Christian church in China, which has all kinds of excellent reasons for being concerned about how we treat God's good creation

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Droughts and flooding rain

A couple of years ago, I used to notice - amongst the usual flotsam and jetsam of half-baked semi-truths, muddled confusion, conspiracy theories, ideological axes, pay-per-comment outright deception and opportunistic spin that passes for much of online climate science dissent - some commenters mocking the idea that a warming world might bring both more droughts and more floods. Now some managed to get past the initial intelligence test by realising that one location might get wetter while another becomes drier, but the second hurdle was realising that the mainstream prediction is (and has been for some time) that in some instances, increased droughts and increased flooding might be likely to occur in the same location.

But today - after the severe Australian drought of the naughties being followed by the wettest 24 months on record, a rare hosepipe ban and widespread drought in England followed by the wettest April and June on record and last year's record Mississippi floods prior to recent reports of grounded barges from river levels 15m lower than a year ago - I don't seem to hear that comment much anymore.

A warming world doesn't just mean a hotter world, but one capable of all kinds of greater extremes.
Image by JKS.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A little exercise: when will we run out?

Following on from my recent post about the must-read Bill McKibben piece in Rolling Stone, here's a little exercise.

1. Take McKibben's 2nd number (565 Gt of CO2 as the global carbon budget to have 80% chance of staying under 2ºC) and let's call it the somewhat sane global carbon budget: SSGCB. It is only somewhat sane since a 2ºC rise is no walk in the park, but already represents straying into territory agreed by all world governments as representing "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".
By the way, 1 Gt equals one billion tonnes. Current global emissions are above 31 Gt each year - and rising. Also, remember that there is a difference between emissions and atmospheric concentrations.

2. In this list, find your country's current population and its proportion of global population.

3. Imagine that this percentage is your country's fair share of that total carbon budget. Admittedly, this ignores past emissions and so pretends that some countries haven't been hogging far more than their fair share for as long as we've known about this problem. But let's go with it for the moment to keep the picture from getting unmanageably complex and just remember that the results will be skewed in favour of those countries with a long history of fossil fuel use.

4. So multiply 565Gt CO2 by that percentage you found in step to find your country's actual share of the SSGCB. This is how many Gt of CO2 your country can emit between now and, well, pretty much forever, but let's just say 2050 for now, since that seems to be about as far ahead as any national government cares to think.

5. Now find your country's annual emissions in this list. It's a few years out of date, but it will do for the sake of this exercise. This is in thousands of tonnes (kt), so divide it by one million to convert to Gt. We're also going to assume, for the sake of simplicity, that national emissions are not changing (neither are populations). Since most countries' emissions (and populations) only change by a small percent each year, this isn't too much of a stretch for a ballpark exercise like this.

6. Now divide your country's actual share in the SSGCB (from step 4) by annual emissions (step 5) and see how many years it will take you to blow through your entire budget. After this point, all future emissions are stealing from everyone's else's right to emit.

For Australia, we'll be all done by late 2016.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dodging tax: a £13 trillion issue

If avoidance is legal, how can it be wrong?
There is an important legal distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance. The former means practices that reduce the tax one contributes and which are actually illegal; the latter means practices that reduce the tax one contributes, which are technically legal, but morally dubious, even repulsive. There is an important moral distinction between tax avoidance and proper use of provisions within tax law that attempt to make tax fairer. It is important to keep these distinctions clear.

Some question whether this latter distinction is meaningful. Mitt Romney, for instance, insists that he has paid every cent that he is legally obliged to pay, and not a cent more. This is a common refrain from very rich individuals and massive corporations. Their claims amounts to: I have not broken the law of the land. That may well be a true claim, but it is not the point of the accusation that one has engaged in morally repugnant, even if technically legal, tax avoidance.

Such a legally watertight claim has a certain intuitive ring to it. Why would I not claim deductions for which the law has made provision? Presumably, such provisions were made in order to avoid a potential injustice from which I might otherwise suffer and so my use of them could even be argued to be a moral good, allowing me to dispose of my income to bless others in ways the government could not dream of and for which the government has already planned ahead of time. And put this way, I agree, such moves can indeed be a blessing.

But that there exists legitimate use does not ensure that no abuse is possible. Alcohol has a legitimate use as a good blessing of God, yet there is such a thing as getting drunk. And while the state may legitimately take interest in placing limits of certain forms of drunkenness (such as driving a vehicle while having a blood alcohol limit above a given determinate figure), it will not necessarily legislate against getting drunk and then making a fool of oneself or being rude and obnoxious to one's family while intoxicated. So we can affirm legitimate use while noting illegal extremes and yet still desire to speak of legal - yet morally dubious, even repulsive - drunkenness.

And as with drunkenness, it is not always easy to pick the precise point where a cheery dram with companions becomes drunken offensiveness, and the distinction may not even always be purely a matter of quantity. But when inebriated revellers stagger down the street at three in the morning yelling abuse at each other and waking everyone within earshot (to pick a hypothetical example), then it doesn't take a finely tuned moral compass to determine something is awry.

Likewise, when an individual or corporation is hiding sums larger than most people will make in a lifetime from the taxman's view by pretending to have some business connexion to a microstate whose primary export is being a known tax haven, then speaking of such practices in a very different moral tone to the teacher who claims a deduction for the purchase classroom materials is no great leap of moral imagination.

And when it is revealed that it is likely that at least £13,000,000,000,000 is hidden in such havens (or more than the combined GDP of Japan and the USA), then moral outrage from the teacher who faces worsening conditions due to budget constraints is neither illogical nor untoward.

Someone who said because the law is not interested in the difference between a relaxed pint over dinner and passing out in a pool of one's own vomitus therefore there is no relevant moral distinction to be drawn would be gently reminded that the point of political authority is not to legislate every morally relevant occasion. Neither should we have any qualms about being willing to distinguish between legitimate tax deductions and the egregious abuse of legal loopholes to avoid sharing the burden and privilege of serving the common good through contributing one's fair share.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Our climate challenge in three numbers

"When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn't yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers."

- Bill McKibben, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math.

Apart from missing "s" in the title and a dodgy stat in the opening paragraph, McKibben's compelling 5-page piece is a good summary of some important elements of the challenge we face. The bottom line of his three numbers is that, according to our best understanding, if we want at least an 80% chance of staying under the internationally agreed (but still very dangerous) 2ºC limit we can only burn about 20% of our current fossil fuel reserves (not resources, but reserves, i.e. what is known and could be profitably brought to market under present conditions). This is the kind of statistic that can really serve to focus the attention. We need to leave four out of every five known and already profitable barrels of oil, tonnes of coal, cubic metres of natural gas underground.

Of course, the great difficulty is that no one country wants to do anything other than burn every last molecule of fossil hydrocarbon that can be brought to the surface unless all other countries agree to limit themselves also. And when some countries have far larger reserves (and so far more at stake economically in leaving 80% of them in the ground), then reaching such an agreement is basically impossible under present political assumptions. If you look at where the blockages in international negotiations are coming from, then it's no great surprise that these are also the countries with the largest reserves of fossil hydrocarbons: China, USA, Russia, Australia, Canada, various middle eastern states. Countries with tiny (or largely depleted) reserves are the ones at the forefront: small island nations, non-oil-based African nations and the EU (esp UK and Germany, which have historically had huge fossil carbon deposits, but have already burned most of their easily accessible stuff).

And so we are left with an international multi-player game of chicken, with no country wanting to blink first and lose market advantage, ensuring that all countries suffer horrendously as a result. The fact that those with least to contribute to the problem generally have greater vulnerability only serves to entrench both the injustice and the intractability of the issue.

The slim silver lining in recent extreme weather in the US is that it might bring home to US voters and policymakers that there are no winners in a game of chicken. Even if others are going to suffer more and sooner, the US is far from immune, especially to precisely these kinds of threats (droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, water stress). Russia is facing its own wildfires and floods. China has had large areas in drought almost constantly for the last five years and a flood this week has a death toll that could pass 100. Canada has simultaneously faced deadly floods and serious drought in the last couple of months. Middle Eastern petro-states are all too aware of their dire water situation as they rapidly go from grain exporters to zero wheat production within a decade (Saudi Arabia) after basically exhausting their fossil water. And Australia has all too quickly forgotten its own droughts, bushfires and floods just a couple of years ago.

Further complicating the picture is that it is not simply countries that are making these decisions. Apart from some nationalised oil companies, most of these reserves are held by for profit corporations with very, very deep pockets and who are generally not shy at throwing their weight around, spending up big on lobbying, misinformation and propaganda at every level in order to convince us all that without them we'd be living in caves and that they are struggling to get by in tough conditions.

Yet according to the most recent data, fifteen out of the thirty most profitable companies in the world are directly fossil fuel related (many of the remaining fifteen also have significant, if slightly less direct, links).
1. Gazprom: US$44.5b
2. Exxon Mobil: $41.1b
4. Royal Dutch Shell $30.9b
5. Chevron: $26.9b
8. BP: $25.7b
11. Vale: $22.9b
12. Petronas: $21.9b
13. VW: $21.4b
14. Ford: $20.2b
15. Petrobras: $20.1b
22. China National Petroleum: $16.3b
26. GE: $14.2b
27. Statoil: $14.1
29. Rosneft Oil: $12.5b
30. ConocoPhillips: $12.4b
The bottom line is that until a very wide audience grasps just how dire our situation is and starts to demand something different from our corporate and political leaders, then none of key climate numbers are likely to improve.

For me, the most telling number in McKibben's piece is the one that he doesn't mention. McKibben is an author with a string of respected publications about environmental and economic issues. He was the first popular writer to publish a book on climate change back in the 80s. Yet in the last three or four years he has re-invented himself as an activist after becoming convinced that writing alone is too slow to effect the changes that need to happen. He has built and become the public face of the world's largest climate movement, a movement named after and dedicated to a number: 350. His organisation, 350.org, refers to the highest concentration of CO2 in parts per million considered "safe" by some of the world's leading climate scientists. We are currently over 390 ppm and rising rapidly. For most commentators, 350 ppm is seen as a pipe dream, an impossibility, well outside the realm of the thinkable, let alone the achievable. International negotiations talk about 550 and occasionally 450, but many commentators think we'll be lucky to stay below 650 and our current path is heading for 750 or significantly higher. In this context, McKibben and 350.org have served as a witness to how far from a just and sustainable world we are currently travelling. And yet here, in one of his highest profile pieces to date, he doesn't mention the number to which he has dedicated the last few years of his life and of which he is a relentless promoter. Is this because he has been so successful in publicising 350 ppm that he felt he could move on? Or because he decided that this idea is now so detached from reality that he needed to lower his sights?
Image by ALS.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What can we afford?

"Why can we afford to tackle so many problems, yet we can’t afford to tackle climate change? [...] We can’t possibly imagine tackling something like climate change because we are busy actually causing that climate change with the world’s biggest mining boom"
[...]
"[W]hy [can] Melbourne [...] subsidise a car race but [...] no longer afford to subsidise fresh fruit in public schools? Why [can] Sydney afford to host the Olympics but not house the homeless?"
[...]
“It is very hard to get on mainstream TV talking about issues of Indigenous disadvantage, but gee it is easy every night to get 30 seconds about the Hang Seng and the Nikkei-Dow. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have an economics degree who even knows what the Hang Seng is! Do you really think that the people who need to know are tuning in to the Channel 10 News to find out? So what is it doing there on the news every night? It is telling you that big, important things that greater minds than yours have puzzled over are happening in the world. And you might think we can afford to spend more on health, you might think we can afford to spend more on education, and you might think we might do something sensible like tackle climate change, but you don’t even know what the Hang Seng is. So why should we listen to you?"

- Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute,
Address to 13th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia.
H/T Peter Lockhart.

What we can or can't afford is always a matter of priorities. Scarcity is not the problem.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The virtue of Curiosity and the seven minutes of terror


As a socially-awkward young lad, I grew up reading more than a little sci-fi. For many years, stories of the real life exploits of astronauts just didn't cut it in comparison to the realm of the imagination. Yet as I've come to appreciate a little more of just how complex, demanding and risky working in space actually is, so my respect for rocket science has grown. It is indeed rocket science, after all.

At the same time, I've become increasingly suspicious of pinning any of our hopes on the (for many) cherished dream of one day colonising other planets. Indeed, the two developments reinforce each other. Learning more of the challenges raises both admiration regarding what has been achieved and the barriers to the Star Trek interstellar techno-utopian dream. Not only are interstellar distances staggeringly large, but the technical challenges at every stage are enormous. This video gives a sense of the many difficulties involved in just one step in an operation to get an unmanned rover to our second-nearest planet, a project we've been working on for forty-odd years (with many failures and some stunning success).

I don't begrudge the space programmes their funding. I think Curiosity is a great name for this project; curiosity and wonder are at the heart of knowledge's raison d'être and learning about the cosmos needs no further justification. Furthermore, even from a purely instrumental perspective, NASA's work with satellites looking back at our own planet has been one of the vital ingredients helping us raise our sights from local to global impacts as we've sought to grasp the scale and pace of changes wrought by human activities. So I will be holding my breath in the early hours of 5th August waiting for news of a successful landing (ok, maybe I'll be asleep, but holding my breath in spirit). I too am curious.

But as we seek to understand more about the worlds beyond our world, let's not get carried away by unlikely dreams. Those other wonders of astronomical investigation, telescopes, may have been revealing a growing list of earth-like planets throughout our galaxy over the last few years. Yet the nearest of these, Gliese 581g is still something like 192 trillion km away. At that distance, the fastest space craft we have yet built would take a mere 87,000 years or so to reach it.

For some, the idea of interstellar travel is an inspiring long term goal. In principle, I have no particular problem with this. Yet I get the impression that as the magnitude and proximity of our various ecological threats becomes increasingly apparent to more people, so the dream of escaping from here to start a new life elsewhere has grown. In this form, as potential salvation from our self-inflicted termination, the idea of colonising exo-planets is an illusory psychological defence mechanism, a dangerous distraction from the task of caring for our neighbours and preserving what we can of a habitable world. Yes, perhaps with some currently unimaginable silver-bullet technical breakthrough perhaps we'll be jetting off at significant fractions of the speed of light at some stage. But let us acknowledge that as a way of keeping (a tiny fragment of) the human race alive in a cosmic insurance policy, it is, quite literally, the longest of long shots.

We look to the stars, but our feet remain on the only planet we can realistically inhabit in the timeframes relevant to our self-destructive trajectory.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Whistling in the dark

Coral reefs: More than 2,600 marine biologists have signed a Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs, warning of the unprecedented challenges faced by coral reefs from warming, acidifying and rising oceans (due to CO2 emissions), overfishing, sedimentation, pollution and habitat destruction.

Coral reefs (again): A world without coral reefs is coming, probably much sooner than you think, according to ANU ecologist Roger Bradbury, who thinks the statement mentioned above is a form of collective denial. "It’s past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation."

Perverse incentives: Why the US Farm Bill just encourages more of the same mistake.

US Drought: the largest agricultural disaster area ever declared, covering more than half the lower 48. This US summer has been off the charts, but on our present trajectory even the hottest summers of the late 20thC will be cooler than the coolest summers of the mid-late 21stC in much of the inhabited world. And you don't want to know what the 22ndC then has in store, since if we get that far, warming is unlikely to stop there.

Chernobyl: It's not over yet. Half the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is forest, mainly highly flammable pine forest, radioactive flammable pine forest. A major fire could send radioactive particules high into the atmosphere and across much of Europe. Again.

UK floods: It didn't take much foresight to see that cutting the budget for flood defences was not a smart move in a nation predicted to get wetter. And the victims are not confined to dwellers in low-lying houses.

Australia in denial: Joe Romm's popular climate blog highlights the precarious position of Australian climate policy, where the tiny baby steps so far made could soon be undone. From one perspective, the current climate legislation might actually be functioning as a distraction, given its lack of ambition yet the tepidness of popular support for anything stronger. But I suspect that the repeal of the legislation would only shift public opinion further into the sand.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Graphs can be terrifying: Getting a grip on CO2


H/T Gareth.
This soundless little presentation from NOAA's Carbon Tracker shows atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations over time. The first half of the video shows on the left hand side the yearly rise and fall of CO2 concentrations around the world since 1979. The various dots along the line each represent a different location around the globe, arranged by latitude, with the blue dot on the far left being the south pole and the dots at far right representing measurements in the Arctic. The dots rise and fall in a regular pattern as time passes. This is because trees "breathe in" CO2 during the northern spring/summer as leaves photosynthesise and then "breathe out" in autumn/winter as leaves decay, meaning that atmospheric concentrations rise and fall a little each year in a natural cycle. The annual variations are far more pronounced in the north hemisphere (the right end of the line that bounces up and down) since there is a much greater mass of land (and so trees) up here than in the southern hemisphere. So the concentration is never exactly the same at every point in the world or on every day of the year. And yet, along with the annual cycle there is something else happening. The overall movement is unmistakeable: up, up, up. If we look at the right hand side of the display, which shows the famous "Keeling curve" of average CO2 concentrations going back to 1958 when precise records first began to be kept (by Prof C. D. Keeling at Moana Loa in Hawaii), we can see that the annual rise and fall of the natural carbon cycle is superimposed on and ultimately dwarfed by a relentless upwards rise, which represents the human contribution to the situation. Each year we dig up literally billions of tonnes of carbon that had been safely stored for millions of years underground and burn it to power our lightbulbs and laptops, our concrete and cars, our fridges and flights.

Once the period 1979-2011 has been shown (up to about 1:40 in the video), we begin to zoom out, seeing further back in time. Initially, we are introduced to the earlier progress of the Keeling curve as it wobbles up and down back to 1958 (the green part of the cuve, spanning roughly 1:40-2:00 in the video). Then we suddenly begin zooming out much more quickly, and the green curve becomes a series of yellow dots spanning back to the time of Christ (2:00-2:20). Since the apostles were not measuring CO2, these measurements are "proxies", reconstructions of historical concentrations from a wide range of sources that have preserved a natural record of atmospheric concentrations. From 2:20-3:00, the blue curve represents a record of pre-historic CO2 concentrations going back 800,000 years (ka = thousand years; BCE = Before Common Era = BC) preserved in the ancient sheets of Greenland and Antarctica (Antarctica has the deepest ice and so the oldest records). The line here jumps up and down over many thousands of years as the world went into and out of glaciations (commonly, though incorrectly, known as "ice ages"). When CO2 concentrations were low (below 200 ppm), huge sheets of ice covered vast areas of land in the northern hemisphere. We have very good reasons for believing that CO2 concentrations played a crucial (though not exclusive) role in previous natural changes in climate.

The units used to measure CO2 concentrations are parts per million (ppm), that is, the the y-axis (vertical axis) represents the number for CO2 molecules for every million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, so 300 ppm means 0.03% of the atmosphere was CO2. These seem like tiny amounts and it is true that CO2 is a trace gas, but the effects of even small changes in some trace elements can be very large. If we were adding arsenic to a cup of coffee, then a mere 300 ppm would be sufficient to kill you. So don't be fooled by those who point to the "small" numbers involved. Changing the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm (as it was prior to the Industrial Revolution) to today's level of approximately 395 ppm represents the addition of more than a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

So what does this all mean? This presentation very usefully shows the very large natural atmospheric changes in the earth's "recent" experience (recent by geological standards, since the earth itself is 4.5 billion years old). Notice that the difference between glaciers thousands of metres thick covering most of the UK and more temperate periods during which life can flourish on these isles was only about 100 parts per million.

Human agriculturally-based civilisation has only existed in the most recent 10,000 years (known as the "Holocene"), during which time CO2 concentrations (and so climate) have been fairly stable. Or had been.

So what we see (or is at least hinted at) in this video is (a) the ability of relatively "small" changes in a trace gas like CO2 to produce huge, world-changing effects on climate, (b) the relative stability (CO2 and climate-wise) of the period during which human civilisation has developed and (c) the dramatic and very sudden jump in CO2 concentrations during the last 150 years or so, accelerating rapidly over the last six decades. Compared to all previous changes, the rate of change we're seeing is off the charts. In comparison to even the steepest rises and falls during glaciations and de-glaciations, the last century or so has been basically a vertical rise, almost the equivalent of a de-glaciation in the blink of an eye. And we're already in uncharted waters, at concentrations not seen for at least 800,000 years (indeed other proxies that go back even further - albeit with lower levels of confidence - suggest that CO2 concentrations have not been this high for at least 20 million years). And if you look at the numbers on the y-axis, keep in mind that our current trajectory, in the absence of either global economic collapse or a massive energy and/or cultural revolution, will take us above 800, 900 or even 1,000 ppm during Aurora's expected lifetime. We ain't seen nothing yet.

And carbon, once removed from the stability and safety of underground storage, sticks around in the oceans, atmosphere and soils (the "active carbon cycle") for a very long time. We'll see elevated levels of carbon for hundreds and even thousands of years after we reduce human emissions to zero. It's important to keep clear in your mind the difference between emissions and concentrations. Emissions are like income going into your bank account, concentrations are like your account balance. So if we get to a concentration of, say, 700 ppm and decide to go on a crash diet of zero emissions, things won't return to "normal" for tens of thousands of years.
One recent study pointed out that CO2 released by pre-industrial deforestation continues to affect climate today, albeit on nothing like the scale of industrial activities.

Why is this a problem? Many serious and senior researchers believe that life as we know it is incompatible with CO2 concentrations above 450 ppm. In the long run, many think that anything over 350 ppm is too high since 450 ppm could well trigger the extinction of literally millions of species, perhaps a third of all those currently on the planet. Remember, we're currently at about 395 ppm and rising by more than 2 ppm each year.

Yet the insidious thing is that the effects of elevated CO2 concentrations are not immediately apparent. It can take decades for global temperatures to respond to shifts in atmospheric composition, centuries before the full effects are visible and millennia before sea levels will stabilise. So that means the crazy shifts we're already seeing are merely the result of where CO2 concentrations had reached back in about 1980 or so. Even with the best efforts, things are going to get worse for some time after we start taking this problem seriously. Thus any generation that chooses to forgo the seductive and wondrous benefits of fossil fuels will not immediately reap the rewards. We can always kick the can down the road for a few more years, but in doing so, we condemn our children (and their children and as many generation as we can imagine) to an increasingly hellish existence.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Nature is not a temple, but a ruin"

"Yet there is a serious problem with our idea of sacred nature, and that is that the idol is a false one. If we experience the natural world as a place of succor and comfort, it is in large part because we have made it so. Only 20 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is still home to all the large mammals it held five hundred years ago, and even across those refugia they are drastically reduced in abundance. The seas have lost an estimated 90 percent of their biggest fish. For decades there were almost no wolves, grizzly bears, or even bald eagles in the lower 48 [states of the US], and modern recovery projects have brought them back to only a small fraction of their former ranges. Scientists speak of an “ecology of fear” that once guided the movements and behavior of animals that shared land- and seascapes with toothy predators—an anxiety that humans once shared. In much of what’s left of the wild, that dread no longer applies even to deer or rabbits, let alone us. The sheer abundance and variety of the living world, its endless chaos of killing and starving and rutting and suffering, its routine horrors of mass death and infanticide and parasites and drought have faded from sight and mind. We have rendered nature an easy god to worship."

- J.B. MacKinnon, False Idyll.

This is a fascinating essay describing the evolution of our attitudes towards the natural world under the effects of our de-naturing of it. In short, the argument is that Romantic idealisation of Nature as sublime other is only possible (and necessary) after the de-wilding of wild places, the enormous upheaval that human presence or actions have effected upon the vast majority of the planet, especially the destruction of large predators that pose a direct physical threat to humans. Almost no predator larger than a dog has escaped losses in excess of 80-90% due to human activities. "There is little public awareness of impending biotic impoverishment because the drivers of collapse are the absence of essentially invisible processes [...] and because the ensuing transformations are slow and often subtle, involving gradual compositional changes that are beyond the powers of observation of most lay observers." We are bringers of profound change, and yet the changes we effect are often hidden from our own eyes, only registering gradually in large cultural shifts in our attitudes.

It is a false humility to pretend that humans are too puny to be shaping the world and its geophysical and ecological systems in profound ways. Humility means honestly facing the truth about our impact and making our political and ethical deliberations in light of it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Story of Change: put down the credit card


Another brief, simple (simplistic? Perhaps, but you've got to start somewhere) animation from the people who brought you The Story of Stuff. This six minute video tackles the question of how social change is effected by groups of committed citizens taking action around an idea.

I entirely agree with the cynicism towards ethical consumerism as a change-making force. Sustainable consumerism is an oxymoron. Yes, buy stuff responsibly, and yes for some people it is a door into thinking more seriously about the world, but don't expect that ethical consumerism (a.k.a. light green thinking) will change the world. I have an upcoming post outlining five problems with ethical consumerism. More on that later.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Change is here. We need more than hope

An open letter from Moms Clean Air Force:

DEAR Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – if I may be so familiar, as you are with me in your fund-raising emails.

You are campaigning for our nation's highest office in a year of record-breaking heat waves, droughts, floods, and monster storms. More than half the contiguous U.S. is under drought conditions. In June wildfires destroyed 1.3 million acres across the country. More than 40,000 daily heat records were broken-by July.

Climate scientists tell us that the signals are loud and clear: We are experiencing global warming – NOW. Our climate is changing, more and more rapidly – because of greenhouse gas pollution. We have compromised the thin layer of atmosphere that protects our lives on this planet.

The weather is sending us a clear message: Danger. Danger. Danger.

Sirs: What is your message?

American families are looking to you for leadership on climate change--before it becomes catastrophic climate chaos.

I'm a mom, and like all parents, I want to do everything I can to keep my children out of harm's way. I assume you feel the same way about your beloved children. What is your plan to talk to Americans about the urgency of climate change, not only for us, but for the world our children – and your children – will inherit?

What is your plan to lead the country into a new era of energy efficiency? What is your plan to cut the carbon and methane pollution that is contributing so heavily to the atmospheric "blanket" that is trapping heat?

Whether we are Republicans or Democrats or Independents-waiting for more information about our candidates to decide how we vote – we are all in this together. Please, talk to us about global warming.

Give us more than hope. Give us a plan of action.

Change is here. Climate change.

Give us a plan to end greenhouse gas pollution. NOW.

Thank you.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Guilty vs guilt: the path to liberty is honesty

Do you feel guilty about the effect your actions are having on the planet? Are you in fact guilty of having mistreated the community of creation to which we all belong?

There are two meanings to the term "guilt" and its cognates. The first is objective guilt, the state of having committed an offence. The second is the subjective feeling of regret, remorse and unease over the perception of having done wrong. The two do not necessarily go together. It is quite possible to feel guilty (subjective) without actually having committed any wrongdoing (objective). Conversely, it is also possible to commit an offence and so bear objective guilt without any corresponding subjective feeling of guilt, due to some combination of ignorance, insensitivity, acculturation and denial.

An interesting new poll reports that when 17,000 people across 17 countries were surveyed regarding both their subjective feelings of eco-guilt and their objective ecological impact, there was a strong negative correlation between the two. Those doing most to mess the place up feel least angst about it. Those most ridden by guilty feelings are objectively least to blame.


I have argued previously that a Christian response to feelings of eco-guilt can avoid legalism and self-righteousness through a proper focus on the liberating good news of Jesus (and I also discussed eco-guilt in these three posts). Yet while we do not need to be paralysed in self-accusation (or distracted by self-righteous condemnation of others), some brutal honesty about our contribution to planetary failure is essential. The Christian response to feelings of guilt is neither wallowing nor suppression, but sober judgement concerning the cause of the guilt: am I objectively guilty? And if so, then there is but a single Christian response: repentance.

And so let us face up to the fact that if the average lifestyle of a citizen of the developed world were to be shared with the rest of the world, we would need something like three planets. Our consumption of finite resources, our apathy towards the origin and destination of our goods, our acquiescence in the face of a political and economic system that behaves like a tumour cell, our wilful blindness to the cumulative consequences of our quotidian choices, our unwillingness to look beyond the next pay-check or election cycle, our insensitivity to the present and future suffering and destruction required for our luxuries: let us be honest with ourselves. Where we remain ignorant, let us discover what is the case, what is the true cost of our "cheap" consumption. Only the truth will set us free: the messy, complex and sometimes brutal truth about ourselves; the surprising, simple and energising truth about God's abundant graciousness towards us in Christ.

“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in The Brothers Karamazov, to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lack of environment: a blog recommendation

• Australian? Check.
• Blogger? Check.
• Christian? Check.
• Living in the UK? Check.
• Deeply concerned that we're collectively heading into very dangerous waters as we burn every last scrap of fossil carbon we can get our hands on in order to run our shiny throw-away toys that distract us from the insanity of pursuing endless growth on a finite planet? Check.

Given that we share so much in common, I warmly encourage you to check out Lack of Environment, the blog of Martin Lack in which he rants, ruminates and reports on "the politics & psychology underlying the denial of all environmental problems".

I haven't been keeping up with a host of recommendations for blogs I've discovered over the last few years. Perhaps I will try to scatter a few more around, but you can also check out some of the links in the sidebar.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Technology and the church: an analogy

Following the reflections on technology vs. technologism I posted a week ago, I thought I'd offer an extended analogy to tease out what I think are some of the implications for the church of rejecting such technologism in relation to our ecological predicament.

The AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is a large and wicked* social problem. Its causes are complex and involve (amongst others) both individual lifestyle choices and broader cultural assumptions. It is a slow-burn problem, with cases multiplying in largely invisible ways (that is, infection is not an experience that a subject is usually aware of at the time) and symptoms only really becoming manifest years later. It is also a problem where the accumulation of individual cases generates further complex social realities (AIDS orphans, child-headed households, a culture of stigmatism and so on). In South Africa, for quite some time, the government held a position of officially denying the link between HIV and AIDS, holding back implementation of various policies that, while being very unlikely to "solve" the problem, nonetheless could have significantly reduced the spread of the disease and hence the resulting human suffering.
*Wicked in the technical sense, that is, a complex and multifaceted problem without a single "solution".

I'm just sketching a little and I'm going to assume that the parallels to a number of ecological problems are more or less obvious to those paying attention to such matters.

The point I'd like to make concerns the role and limitations of technology. In this case, I have in view both the very low tech option of condoms and the considerably higher tech option of antiretroviral drugs. Widespread adoption of safer sex practices would very significantly slow down the spread of the disease. Therefore, government and NGO programmes that promote such harm minimisation are, to my mind, basically a no-brainer. The widespread provision of antiretroviral drugs is slightly more complex, involving various economic implications and calculations, though still clearly a good idea on balance. These do not cure the disease, but they do slow its progression in an infected individual, and so increase his/her life expectancy. Now, in this situation, technology serves to provide real social and personal goods, and any responsible government ought to be implementing such actions amongst their many priorities.

Nonetheless, such provisions, while reducing the pace and severity of the crisis, do not by themselves decisively solve it. Huge damage has already been sustained and more is in the pipeline in the form of millions of carriers whose lives are likely to be shorter than they would otherwise be, and whose future sexual activities will be conducted under a shadow. Grief remains a healthy and appropriate response, not as a replacement for these policies, but simply out of emotional honesty.

Furthermore, implementing these policies doesn't remove the moral evaluation (at both personal and cultural levels) of the failures that enabled the problem to spiral to such magnitude. It would be easy to indulge in cheap and simplistic condemnation of the lax sexual ethics of many of those who end up infected (though of course, many spouses and children may contract the condition entirely innocently), and this would be reductionist if that were the extent of one's response. Conversely, not to comment on the sexual sins as a spiritual problem manifest in grave social harms would also be to miss an important component of the situation.

Now the analogy is not perfect and I'm sure there are all kinds of important differences between AIDS and ecological crises, but perhaps this example may illustrate the possibility that technological responses of real social benefit do not render the problem less wicked (in the technical sense) and do not sidestep the need for careful moral evaluation of the situation.

Now, consider the position of a Christian church facing an AIDS epidemic amongst the congregation. There are all kinds of possible responses, and a healthy one will include many facets: caring for the sick and orphaned; seeking honesty and reconciliation in relationships damaged by sexual misdeeds; helping the congregation understand the nature of the disease including causes and its likely effects; calling on governments to implement responsible social policies; planning for a future in which more families are broken and child-headed households increase. Amidst this, I presume that it would be a good idea to lay out sensitively the good news of sexually committed exclusive covenant relationships (within a full-orbed proclamation of the gospel of grace, repentance, forgiveness, freedom and reconciliation). Now, to speak of the goodness of sexual relationships as they were intended may not "cut it" as a social policy, and nor need this proclamation imply ecclesial support is restricted purely to abstinence/chastity programmes. But if the church does not recognise that one of the significant contributing factors to this epidemic is the eclipse of scriptural sexual ethics, then it would only be doing part of its job. Ultimately, the church will be praying and working towards becoming a community within which healthy sexual relationships of trust and commitment are the norm, where failures are handled sensitively and graciously, where reconciliation and stronger relationships are the goal. And even if to some observers it appears foolish, naïve or old-fashioned, it will hold onto the possibility of the partial and provisional healing of desire amidst a sinful world that at times shows little evidence of such a message being effective. It will hold onto the hope of eschatological healing, yet without confusing this with any sort of divine guarantee for miraculous deliverance from the consequence of our actions today.

Similarly, while technology may offer certain paths that reduce the pace and severity of ecological harms, and while governments may well be wise to consider various options carefully and responsibly (rather than the present mix of short term opportunism, denial and misguided or cynical tokenism), nonetheless, the church cannot but notice that behind our ecological woes are certain assumptions and patterns of behaviour: a reckless indifference to the consequences of our pursuit of ever higher levels of consumption; an insatiable acquisitiveness that desperately tries to find meaning in stuff; a foolish arrogance that claims to wield ultimate mastery over matter; a short-sighted willingness to sell our children's inheritance for a quick thrill today coupled with an inordinate unwillingness to let go of luxuries; and an ignorant inattentiveness to the plight of our fellow creatures. Noting these roots needn't remove the possibility that the church will support responsible technological mitigation of our crises, but the church will continue to hold out - despite the apathy and scorn of the surrounding culture - a picture of human communities not based primarily on acquisition, of a good life that is not built primarily around consumption or material wealth, of a heart that is content and generous and which desires neither poverty nor riches. It will speak out against the personal and systemic greed whose manifestation is a destabilised and scarred planet. It will grieve over the damage already done, and the more that is in the pipeline. It will speak of grace, forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation - and of a divine eschatological healing of a groaning world, yet without assuming that this implies we will not face the more or less predictable consequences of our present failures and so not at all neglecting the task of both caring for victims and advocating on behalf of those without a voice in the matter: the global poor, future generations and other species.

In short, the church is not unmindful of the potential benefits of technology, but it is called to be free from the slavish fascination that treats it as our saviour. A world in peril needs more than a renewable clean source of power; it needs a renewed and cleansed heart.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The case against growth, and other stories

The case against growth: Ted Trainer (UNSW) makes the case that very few people are taking seriously the full economic and political implications of the concept of limits to growth: "The growth problem is not just that the economy has grown to be too big, now depleting resources and damaging ecosystems. The more central problem is that growth is integral to the system. Most of the system's basic structures and mechanism are driven by growth and cannot operate without it. It is not that this society has a growth economy; it is that this is a growth society. Growth cannot be removed leaving the rest of the economy more or less as it is. Unfortunately people in the current 'De-growth' movement tend to think growth is like a faulty air conditioning unit on a house, which can be taken away and the house will function the way it did before."

Peak stuff? Fred Pearce investigates the claim that consumer societies are becoming post-industrial. Based on various metrics that have actually started to decline in many rich countries (for example, car use is waning in most developed countries), some commentators look forward to the "dematerialisation" of the economy proving the silver bullet that saves us from ourselves. As others note, however, such evidence is patchy, and fails to account for the fact that we've still got decades of massive consumption growth if the developing world is to approach our present consumer lifestyles. Even if there is a point at which such development reaches a natural plateau in per capita consumption, it is not at all clear that reaching that plateau won't involve massively overshooting various planetary boundaries (as outlined effectively in the "case against growth" above).

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Climate Change: Brad Littlejohn offers some dark humour reflecting on our obsession with novelty. Discussion in the comments ponder further about the place of novelty and humour in our ecological deliberations.

Fossil fuel glut: Much noise has been made about developments in the fossil carbon extraction business that ensure these companies are not about to go out of business anytime soon, with claims that "peak oil" is disproved or that the US will lead a fossil fuelled renaissance. The reality is that these non-conventional carbon pools are only now economically available due to a high oil price, and that unless the price stays high, they will not be extracted. So we have indeed very likely seen the end of rising production of cheap, easily accessible conventional oil. That doesn't mean we run out of oil, just that energy gets expensive, which still has all kinds of economic implications. And if we insist on remaining addicted to fossil carbon, pursuing non-conventional sources is leap out of the frying pan of energy insecurity into the fire of climate chaos.

Economic growth and ecological health: It has become popular in certain circles to argue that as countries get richer, they clean up their environmental problems and that therefore the solution to our ecological woes is to grow the global economy as fast as possible (sometimes called an environmental Kuznets curve). This piece is a sustained critique of that idea.

How Money Makes People Less Humane. Some really interesting research on the effects of money (either having it, wanting it, thinking about it or even having it subconsciously suggested) on empathy. The upshot is that, statistically speaking, money functions to disconnect us from those around us, making us less caring, less sensitive, more suspicious and more individualistic. Or, as the scriptures would say: "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6.10).

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Head in the sand: coastal property prices and sea level rise

If you own property in vulnerable low-lying coastal areas and yet have been keeping your head in the sand about sea level rise, you probably deserve to face the crippling loss of value and insurance premium hikes coming your way. Moves like this from Gosford council are an attempt to delay the inevitable. For the record, I think the NSW government ought to give clear direction to councils on such matters, but radical shifts in property values are ultimately inevitable. Trying to keep this fact from potential buyers through lobbying councils or any other means is a form of fraud. The best thing that most owners concerned about loss of value can do is campaign hard for aggressive mitigation and so prolong the period before retreat becomes necessary. There will be social tipping points on this issue as more people wake up to the fact that certain locations are increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and salt water intrusion. At some point, these properties will become unsellable, uninsurable and then, ultimately, unliveable. Some areas may have sufficient resources to afford coastal defences, but this is never going to be feasible for every piece of coastline. And even with the most aggressive and effective emissions mitigation, we are still going to see multi-metre sea level rise over the next few centuries, including probably something like a metre this century. Without such mitigation, it will be many times worse and is likely to continue rising for millennia.

This is one of the "sunk costs" of our failure to act on the knowledge we've had for decades about the dangers of basing our lives on the accumulated solar energy of eons past.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Shiver or swelter? Why Edinburgh beats Sydney

When we first announced we were moving to Edinburgh back in 2008, by far the most common reaction was some variant of "you'll be cold!". As someone who detests Sydney summers, I found this a slightly odd thing to say. I much prefer 5ºC than 35ºC. Having now lived here for almost four years, through four winters, I can confidently say that Edinburgh's climate is superior to Sydney's. While both have (more or less) nine months of reasonably pleasant weather, Edinburgh has three months of cold and dark (and actually, the dark is worse than the cold - perhaps a topic for another post) while Sydney has three months of hot and humid. It is much, much easier (and generally more pleasant) to keep oneself warm than to cool down. Mulled wine, extra layers or some physical activity are more attractive than heat lethargy, shade-hopping and the impossible task of finding an appropriate clothing compromise between sweat and sunburn.

And now, a Washington Post article has found a medical expert who agrees: freezing to death is considerably less painful than heat sickness.
“You start having severe muscle cramps,” explained Michael Kerr, an emergency doctor at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney. “Then, severe abdominal cramps. Nausea and vomiting start. Your muscles break down. Mental confusion. Maybe renal failure. Heat coma. Then, death.”

Freezing to death, this is preferable.

“Dying in the cold is very painless,” said Kerr, an experienced outdoorsman who likes camping in Montana and northern Idaho. “When you are out in the cold, you start getting confused, disoriented. You literally go to sleep.”
I rest my case.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Available land

According to this 2005 article of the total of 13 billion hectares of land area on Earth, cropland accounts for 11 percent, pastureland 27 per cent, forested land 32 percent, and urban lands 9 per cent. Most of the remaining 21 percent is unsuitable for crops, pasture, and/or forests because the soil is too infertile or shallow to support plant growth, or the climate and region are too cold, dry, steep, stony, or wet.

These numbers are not static. Forested land is declining (deforestation still outstrips reforestation), unsuitable land is increasing (due to erosion, soil degradation and desertification), urban land is increasing and so, critically, cropland and pastureland is both declining and being forced to rely on more deforestation to prevent further decline. And that's all before we consider sea level rise.

We share one planet between seven billion of us and something like eight million other species. Does my way of life demand more than a fair share?

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Test tube hamburgers, and other stories

Artificial meat: closer than you think? Would you eat meat grown in a test tube? If not (and you eat meat), are you satisfied with your knowledge of how your meat is produced?

Air Con: As the world warms, we'll just crank up the air con, right? Wrong. Since 1987, new air conditioners are no longer a threat to stratospheric ozone, but the replacement for ozone-destroying CFCs have been a range of climate-disrupting alternatives, each far worse than CO2 molecule for molecule: "The leading scientists in the field have just calculated that if all the equipment entering the world market uses the newest gases currently employed in air-conditioners, up to 27 percent of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050."

Land grab: An area of agricultural land larger than Texas in developing nations (80% in Africa) has been bought up by foreign governments and corporations over the last few years, according to a new study from the Worldwatch Institute. Some of this has been European corporations keen to make a profit from biofuels regulations, some has been from large nations with serious and growing domestic food security issues, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Flatter highlands: At least in biodiversity terms. Climate change is flattening the biodiversity found in the Scottish highlands.

China: The fastest growing economy in the history of humanity is not making a happy nation.

House sizes: Australians have some of the largest houses per occupant in the world. This is a significant part of the reason why we have the highest per capita carbon footprint in the OECD.* Large houses not only require more energy-intensive building materials (concrete and steel are both associated with very high emissions), but - all other things being equal - have larger energy needs than smaller dwellings. It doesn't help that we have one of the most coal-reliant electricity systems in the world.
*And that's even before we consider our imported manufactured goods or our exported coal. We export more coal than any other nation.

Solved: Four significant ecological issues have been adequately addressed since 1992. Only another eighty-six to go.

Fracking: the real danger. I wholeheartedly agree and am glad to finally see someone in the mainstream press pick up on this. There are all kinds of legitimate questions about the safety of fracking shale for non-conventional gas, but the biggest one is most rarely addressed, namely, tapping into this resource massive expands the available pool of fossil carbon we will be moving from safely underground and into the active carbon cycle where it can mess with ocean pH and the climate.

Endangered species: The International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List is widely regarded as the most authoritative attempt to account for the level of extinction threat faced by the world's species. Species are categorised according to the degree of severity - Least Concern, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct - yet of all the world's species, the IUCN estimates it has only assessed 4% so far. Of the dangers faced by the other 96% we have as yet little clear idea.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

On flying

The seven year old standing on the roof of his house believes that in stepping off and flying, he will be free. While he plunges through the air, the wind in his hair may be exhilarating, but the freedom in which he passionately believes and on which he has staked his future is an illusion. Freedom means discovering that we have two feet planted on the ground.

The "free" market, insofar as this requires belief in the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, is perhaps the largest exercise in unfreedom humanity has ever conducted. Can you feel the wind in our hair?
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, 'If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
"He will command his angels concerning you",
    and "On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone."'
Jesus said to him, 'Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."'

- Matthew 4.5-6 (NRSV).