Friday, August 31, 2012

Economic crisis and what to do about it

This little animation (complete with Australian accent) is a great summary of one narrative gaining steam in certain circles. It outlines an analysis of economy, energy and environment that draws a picture of three converging crises as shaping the coming decades in quite dramatic ways that are likely to take the form of a global sustained Greater Depression, complete with economic deflation, energy supply constraints and political instability. As a positive response it suggests re-localisation, social resilience, trust building, and power-down innovation (such a permaculture). This is what the Transition Movement is all about and this animation is in many ways one accessible and cogent expression of that movement.

I am very attracted to certain elements of this account. I accept that there are grave threats in these systems (though I would characterise some of them differently) and that they could interact in complex ways. I also agree that rebuilding local communities of trust is a critical part of a health response to our present predicament. Where I'm perhaps most hesitant about an account like this is that I feel it is somewhat naïve about the likelihood of larger political events overwhelming merely local efforts. That is, very often such localism involves an explicit ignoring of national and international entities as doomed to fail anyway. I think that while such entities gain their legitimacy through acts of collective imagination (and so a widespread adoption of re-localist principles would indeed see them hollowed of clout), the path from here to there is never going to be smooth. Government and corporate powers hold sufficient cards to make life very difficult for localist movements if and when they are perceived as growing to a point where they might begin undermining their legitimacy. And even beyond such deliberate opposition, the capacity of a globalised economy and wounded ecological order to deliver sudden and catastrophic blows to a local community is easily underestimated.

So let's get serious about nurturing local communities of trust, about adjusting our expectations away from high energy consumption, about building resilience into our economic and social systems. But let's not take our eye off the ball of the macro-scale political and economic order or abandon the field to the plutocrats, deniers and techno-optimists.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two cheers for coercion, and other stories

Coercion: Do we ever think coercion might be a good thing? Brad contemplates what a cheating athlete can teach us about the place of law in public life.

Magic economics: The economy is a Pied Piper - a delightful and insightful image from Gillian.

Debate vs argument: What's the difference? And what difference does it make to recognise the distinction?

Peak coal: John celebrates the 140th anniversary of the death of William Stanley Jevons, an English writer who foresaw the end of British coal-expansion from way back in 1865 (and who also gave his name to the Jevons paradox). Jevons was aware that relying on finite resources brought a false complacency to social questions by enabling the deferral of questions of distributive justice. If we expect the economy to keep growing, then we can skirt of over gross inequality, trusting that a rising tide will lift all boats. If we accept that the global economy faces certain physical limits within timeframes of human interest, then the deferral of questions of distributive justice can no longer be maintained. In short, faced with limits to growth, there is a certain sense in which it becomes incumbent upon us to make wealth history (which is also the name of this excellent blog, in which Jeremy wrestles with the economic and social implications of this insight).

Mortality: Ben Myers is dying.

Chalk wars: Chalk it up to the suppression of dissent; increasingly, people are being arrested for chalking pavements, at least in the Land of the Free™. The Edinburgh Festival would go out of business if this attitude were introduced over here. And Arthur Stace (a.k.a. Mr Eternity) would have gone to gaol.
H/T Gordon for the final observation.

Twenty questions: The questions that the US press ought to asking of those who oppose climate action. These questions, from climate ethicist Donald Brown, would make for some interesting discussion starters for groups wanting to wrestle with some of the ethical implications of climate change.

Growth myths: Herman Daly walks us through eight fallacies about economic growth. A very useful and insightful summary of some of Daly's contributions to these discussions.

Last words: The final unpublished letter from eco-author Ernest Callenbach, discovered after his death. His top tips? Hope, offer mutual support, gain practical skills, organise, learn to live with contradictions.

Climate intro: The basics of climate science. It's worth posting pieces like this from time to time, since I am constantly reminding just how common it is for otherwise intelligent people to have some basic misunderstandings (myself included!).

Compliance: You never know you're in prison until you try the door. Glenn Greenwald reflects on why oppression and tyranny are often invisible when close to home.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Surely it's a job for Robin?

Since I haven't seen the film, here is a Batman comic of almost zero relevance to anything except the ongoing catastrophe that is industrial civilisation.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead"

It is refreshing to find a journalist who has done a little bit of homework prior to an interview and is ready to question spin, half-truths, strategic inexactitudes and "misstatements" from political leaders.

Rather than contribute another dissection of this particular interview, instead I thought I'd gather a few thoughts on the Australian carbon price and its place in contemporary Australian politics.

As Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott is so fond of reminding us (especially when facing an interviewer turning the screws on his own truthfulness), Australian PM Julia Gillard did indeed say during the 2010 election campaign, "there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead". Yet one of the signature pieces of legislation from this minority government has been the introduction a price on carbon coupled with income tax reform.

A straightforward broken promise? Yes and no.

It is axiomatic that a minority government will need to compromise its electoral platform in order to get the support of other parties or independents required to govern. If a party could gain the support of enough MPs without altering its policies, then the extra MPs would just join the party. It is abundantly clear in this case that the price on carbon was the top item on the Greens agenda (and also on the radar of the independents) and so compromise was necessary. Once the election results were known, that such legislation would be the price of Greens support (needed by either party to govern) was entirely predictable.

As far as I can see, there were really only four other alternatives: (a) for the Greens to have dropped this demand, which was considerably more core for them than a promise made once on the campaign trail (did Gillard make this claim more than once? If so, I am not aware of it), (b) for the Greens to have negotiated an agreement with the Coalition, which would have faced the same sticking point (along with likely even more disagreements on other policies), (c) for the two parties who were against a carbon price (Labor and the Coalition) to have made this the sine qua non of their respective positions and so come to a power-sharing agreement between them in order to prevent the Greens from introducing such an idea, or (d) for no agreements to be reached and a new election called.

As I've said before, too much is usually made of campaign promises. Governments exist to execute wise political authority, not merely to implement the majority will.

While it is a minor point, it's worth noting that the carbon price is not a tax. The current system is based on carbon credits that are sold to the five hundred or so largest polluting companies in a market mechanism that spends the first few years with a fixed price and unlimited credits in order to give business certainty and then shifts to a fixed number of credits (declining each year) and a moving price (with a floor and ceiling imposed). It may well have been better as a direct tax at the point of extraction with proceeds distributed equally to all Australian citizens (tax and dividend), but that is not the system that was chosen. Now it is quite arguable that most Australians do not understand the difference, but that is because there has been such an effective effort by the Opposition to muddy the waters and no effort on the part of the government to explain it. Public ignorance is assumed and reinforced by both sides.

More importantly, the current legislation is way too unambitious, with tiny targets that put Australia towards the back of industrial counties in its level of ambition and which, if adopted by all advanced economies, would most likely see us sail past two, three and four degrees. Furthermore, current legislation does not including our massive coal exports, which are already the largest in the world and are planned to double in the next decade (blowing any domestic reductions out of the water), nor the embodied carbon in imported goods, nor international aviation or shipping. It provides extremely generous free credits to many industries to soften the initial burden. And it includes international offsets, so that we can continue to emit locally while paying someone else to make changes elsewhere that Treasury does not actually expect domestic emissions to decline very much, if at all.

Yet perhaps the greatest failure by the government regarding this legislation has been the failure to make use of its introduction to keep raising climate literacy, explaining the basics of climate science (which are still widely misunderstood), why serious action of carbon emissions are morally justified (getting beyond short-term cost-benefit analyses) and necessary at every level (personal, local, national, international), why Australia must do its bit (which is considerably more than most other nations, not less) and why this battle is worth fighting, even if it looks like we're currently losing.

So be assured that I am no particular fan of the present legislation or government, but repeating Gillard's broken promise - while it may be a satisfying way of expressing anger at a government that has had its fair share of controversies while being surprisingly effective at getting more than an average amount of legislative work done - is doubly misguided.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tropical fish in Tasmania, and other stories

Australian waters: Climate change is measurably affecting marine ecosystems in Australian waters, including tropical fish being seen near Tasmania.

Ocean health index: The health of the global oceans has been rated, and given a 60/100. That's (still) a pass, but not very impressive, and most of the indicators are heading south. I'm not persuaded by every aspect of this study (the tourism section, for instance, just seems daft), but mainly it is about trying to set a baseline against which future ocean health can be measured. So the absolute score is probably less important than whether it rises or falls in future.

Carbon and farming: Australian farmers leading the way? I admit I still don't have much of a handle on the details of agricultural practices and carbon sequestration. Yet my impression is that it can only ever be a sideshow, since any carbon sequestered remains in the active carbon cycle, albeit in a phase of slightly reduced activity when compared with the carbon in the upper oceans and atmosphere. Whatever the place of agricultural practices, the centrepiece of any carbon strategy has to be leaving the vast majority of fossil hydrocarbons buried deep underground. This is the only place where excess carbon can be safely stored more or less permanently.

Food crisis: Letter from Jeremy Grantham, a fund manager with his finger on the pulse of where the real threats to the global system lie. Hint: they converge in the stomach.

Flooding: 750 million to be vulnerable to flooding by 2025 in rapidly developing Asian cities, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Hot water: Thermal power stations need cooling water to operate, yet they return that water to its source at a higher temperature than they take it. This means that when rivers and lakes get too warm for marine creatures to live, plant operators and regulators face a choice between power cuts and dead fish (and potentially ruined ecosystems). Even plants using ocean water are not immune. This is a growing problem in a warming world. Solutions include moving away from thermal power plants (thermal plants are those that rely on a source of energy being used to boil water in order to drive turbines and so include coal, gas, oil, nuclear and solar thermal) or building air cooling towers so that the heated water is not returned to the waterway.

Economist vs physicist: A dinner conversation. I linked to this piece in a recent post on growth, but it's worth mentioning again on its own.

Overfishing: Plenty more fish in the sea? The NEF has calculated that the UK has just exhausted the annual productivity of its domestic fisheries and effectively relies on imports of cod and haddock for the rest of the year...

Overconsuming: ...on almost the same day that humanity exhausted its annual budget of global resources.
H/T Donna.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Winning battles, losing the war

"Today, we have more environmental groups and less forests, more 'protected areas' and less species, more carbon taxes and greater carbon emissions, more 'green' products and less green space."

- Rex Weyler, Nature: A system of systems.

Fewer forests, fewer species. "Less" qualifies mass nouns; "fewer", count nouns. Less sloppiness; fewer errors. Less pedantry; fewer readers. Sometimes, no matter how many times I correct grammatical confusions, I think I'm waging an unwinnable war. But I pick myself up and fight on. What else can one do?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Growth is for babies: the limits of decoupling on a finite planet

Once we acknowledge that we are living on a sphere with a finite surface, we are faced with a conundrum for traditional economics based on the desirability of economic growth. Historically, economic growth has been associated with all kinds of wonderful things: greater longevity, lower infant mortality, better nutrition, wider horizons, political stability. Some go further and claim that, historically, growing economies have generally correlated with more open, more socially mobile and more democratic societies, while economic decline has been accompanied more often than not by repression and intolerance. Certainly, growth enables questions of distributive justice to be deferred. If everyone is getting better off, then inequalities in the rate of improvement can be ignored.

Yet if we wish economic activity to keep growing, there are planetary limits of just how much stuff we can process and consume. Smart economists quickly point out that an economy is not limited to material consumption. It is possible, they suggest, to decouple economic growth from material consumption such that GDP can still rise while material consumption falls or is stable. Such a goal is the economic holy grail, an absolute necessity if we wish ongoing economic growth. This is absolute decoupling. There is a more modest half-way house, relative decoupling, in which growth in material consumption is slower than GDP growth. The graph below illustrates the point. The x-axis is GDP growth and the y-axis is growth in material consumption. Each dot represents the changes experienced by a nation between 1980 and 2008. Light blue means GDP growth while material consumption declined. Purple means GDP grew faster than material consumption. Yellow means Material consumption grew faster than GDP.
The source is a fascinating SERI report filled with more figures and diagrams than you can poke a stick at. Thanks to Jeremy for the graph and for pointing out the report. Both the report and Jeremy's reflections are worth reading.

Most economies are in relative decoupling. But as long as material consumption continues to rise, planetary limits will inevitably kick in sooner or later. Even those nations that fall into the blue area manage to do so by only a small margin. Perhaps these are but the early days of more ambitious dematerialisation of economic growth. Or perhaps such decoupling is only available to economies that have exported their heavy industries to somewhere else. Since ecological threats are global in extent, no nation is truly an island (despite the conspiracy of cartographers claiming otherwise). Therefore, it is the global economy that needs to decouple, not simply a few richer nations.

First, the rate of decoupling is key. We are already exceeding the ecological capacity of the planet, drawing down on resources faster much faster than they are replenished. Therefore, slowly easing down our demands on ecosystems isn’t going to cut it. The rate of decoupling, according to Tim Jackson's calculations, needs to exceed anything previously accomplished by something like an order of magnitude.

Second, slower consumption will still ultimately exhaust non-renewable resources. Even if we managed to get back below planetary limits for renewable resources like wood or fish, this still leaves non-renewable resources. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is all well and good, but we've already picked the low-hanging fruit. From here on, the energy, expense and likely damage increase for any further exploitation (as we’re already seeing in deepwater, Arctic and non-conventional drilling operations). Fossil groundwater in much of Saudi Arabia is now basically depleted after just a few decades of intensively irrigated wheat production. Slowing their consumption of wheat per unit of GDP won’t particularly help with this problem, which now means more crops needed elsewhere.

Third, even if we manage to achieve absolute decoupling, even if this is fast enough to get below planetary boundaries before ecological damage is so severe as to prevent further GDP growth and even if we quickly wean ourselves of all non-renewable resources, there is still a yet more fundamental theoretical problem, explained in more detail here. In short: continued growth of population will reach a limit, continued growth of energy will reach a limit (some fascinating details in the discussion here) and so with fixed population and fixed energy but growing GDP, energy will occupy an ever smaller portion of GDP, until it becomes small enough to be arbitrarily cheap – "But if energy became arbitrarily cheap, someone could buy all of it, and suddenly the activities that comprise the economy would grind to a halt."

At some point, the global economy will stop growing. This need not mean that human flourishing ceases or that no further improvements are possible. On the contrary, there are things better than growth. But it is critical that we acknowledge that growth is good for the early stages of an organism but pathological once it reaches maturity.

Growth is for babies (infinite growth is for tumour cells). Let us be grown ups.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Designed for yesterday's climate, and other stories

Climate adaptation: Trillions of dollars of infrastructure is designed for yesterday's climate (and sea level, for that matter). In warmer temperatures, railways buckle, highways crack, asphalt melts, cooling ponds overheat, electrical grids overload. "In general, nobody in charge of anything made of steel and concrete can plan based on past trends".

Groundwater depletion: Almost one-quarter of the world’s population lives in regions where groundwater is being used up faster than it can be replenished".

Arctic sea ice: Sea ice decimated by huge Arctic storm. There are all kinds of things going on here and the full effects of the week-long storm in the Arctic are yet to become apparent. Why do we care about a storm in the Arctic? Haven't they happened before? Yes, but not with sea ice this thin. Arctic sea ice is considerably thinner than at any time in recorded history, being up to 70% thinner during the summer months than it was back in the 70s. Thin ice is able to be broken up and moved around by large storms more easily. Without the protective cover of ice, storms also churn up the water more, mixing the very cold, fresher surface water (colder and fresher since it is just under the ice) with the warmer, saltier water further down. Warmer, saltier water is much more effective at melting ice.

Biofuels: George Monbiot laments once more the crazy logic of biofuels, which take food out of the mouths of the poor in order to make the rich feel less guilty about a problem to which it is probably a net contributor, rather than any genuine help.

US Drought: The future of drought. "Indeed, assuming business as usual, each of the next 80 years in the American West is expected to see less rainfall than the average of the five years of the drought that hit the region from 2000 to 2004."

Extinction: North American freshwater fish are going extinct at 800 times the background rate.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fossil energy costing Australia billions in health problems

"Coal-fired power triggered lung, heart and nervous system diseases estimated to cost Australia $2.6 billion a year, while the annual health costs of pollution from oil-fuelled vehicles were put at $3.3 billion a year. Switching from vehicle transport to cycling or walking to work would reduce obesity, which would significantly reduce risk of heart disease, breast cancer and mental illness. Reductions in consumption of meat from cattle and sheep, which were big contributors of greenhouse gas in Australia, would not only reduce pollution but also reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer. The report says: "In Australia, air pollution is estimated to kill more people every year than the road toll.""

- Mark Metherell, "Health impact of rising carbon levels said to be costing $6b a year", SMH, August 2012.
H/T Peter.

So, actually, the immediate costs of our high emissions just in Australia greatly exceed $6b a year, since the first two items alone account for that. There are plenty of other fascinating figures in the report that the SMH article skips over (and it entirely ignores one whole section of the report on the benefits for natural ecosystems):
  • Motor vehicle-related air pollution is believed to be responsible for between 900 and 4,500 cases of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and bronchitis each year in Australia, and between 900 and 2,000 early deaths.
  • Reductions in red meat consumption in Australia from the (current) average of 100g to 50g per person per day have been predicted to reduce annual emissions from livestock by 13.3 MtCO2-e (about 22 per cent) as well as cutting the incidence of colorectal cancer by 11 per cent.
  • Globally, 3.2 million deaths each year can be attributed to physical inactivity. [...] Longtitudinal studies reveal cycling for transport is associated with 30-40% lower mortality rates, and cycling and walking projects provide high value for money, with the health gains returning a benefit:cost ratio of 5:1. The likelihood of becoming obese increases by 6 per cent for each hour spent in a car each day.
Indeed, I think the SMH article missed the most politically sensitive number from the report, which is that if we simply take the public health costs of greenhouse emissions (and ignore climate costs), then the price of carbon ought to be at least $45/t CO2e, rather than the current price of $23/t CO2e. Let me repeat that: if the climate dissenters turn out to be right, and anthropogenic climate change is non-existent or not particularly injurious, it would still make sense to put a price on carbon emissions at almost double the present rate purely for the public health benefits.

And such benefits are by no means confined to Australia:
"Globally, air pollution [from coal and oil] kills 1.34 million people each year. [...] The 2012 OECD Environmental Outlook report suggests that without policy action, air pollution will become the biggest cause of environmentally-related deaths worldwide by 2050.
The report also notes that the black carbon (i.e. soot) pollution from burning biomass in poor countries kills more than two million each year "from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and pneumonia."

A somewhat similar study in the US by Harvard Medical School estimated that US public health costs of burning coal (it didn't even look at petroleum) run into the hundreds of billions annually. Total externalities for coal were estimated at between 300 and 500 billion dollars annually. If the price of coal-fired electricity included these costs (as it ought, in a well-designed economic system), coal no longer looks "cheap". It is cheap only to the moment you burn it, then it is nothing but costs.

Another report from the EU found that reducing carbon emissions 30% from 1990 levels by 2020 could save €80b annually in public health costs alone. For comparison, Australia's carbon scheme will actually see our emissions still rise between 1990 and 2020, though we use 2000 as our benchmark in order to hide this fact. And remember, all these studies are looking at countries with semi-decent pollution controls already. China and India's costs - burning much dirtier coal with little pollution control - are measured in millions of lives lost, shortened and worsened.

Two gripes with the SMH article:
  1. It is criminal that online newspapers do not provide direct links to reports on which they are reporting. Here is the report in question.
  2. The headline is misleading, not only in lowballing the true figure, but also in saying these are the costs of "rising carbon levels". The article makes clear they are the immediate health costs of burning dirty fossil hydrocarbons. The climate costs are likely to be much, much greater, but they are harder to get a handle on (either statistically or emotionally) because they are deferred and operate through highly complex causal chains.
However we slice it, the practice of burning fossil hydrocarbons has huge implications. There are all kinds of ways we can easily and quickly reduce our reliance on them, and taking such first steps is a no brainer even in the absence of climate concerns. When we acknowledge the shared understanding of 19 national science academies of OECD nations (which is contradicted by no scientific body of national or international standing in the world) that our greenhouse emissions are dangerously altering the climate then the demands of justice and prudence call us further than just the easy and obvious reductions. We should have started many decades ago, but today is better than tomorrow.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

In praise of... the Environmental Protection Agency

Hurray for the EPA
The US Environmental Protection Agency is one of the most successful government programmes in the history of the US government. It has saved millions of lives and avoided tens of trillions of dollars of unnecessary health spending (for a tiny fraction of that price), as well as helping preserve and restore scores of endangered species and habitats. It was set up under arch-environmentalist Richard Nixon forty-two years ago (with a 99-1 vote in the Senate), but has come under greater attack in the last couple of years (basically, since Citizens United) than at any prior point in its history.

The Democrats are only marginally better, in many ways differing from the Republicans more in tone than substance, so I'm not trying to push any partisan agenda here (NB there are more than two parties in any case), simply noting that this organisation provides a generally excellent model of how governments can seek to wield their authority for the common good, preventing or at least reducing the abuse of the weak by the powerful (which is basically the structure of most pollution in and by rich nations: powerful corporations offloading the true costs of their polluting activities onto poorer communities). Long may it endure.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Birds without Wings: a musical interlude

Brett sent me these lyrics (music available for download), saying they seemed to echo some of my sentiments here. I agree.

Wishing that something would happen
A change in this place
'Cos I'm tearing off the fancy wrapping
Find an empty package

Take for a while, your trumpet from your lip
Loosen your hold, loosen your grip
On your old ways that have fallen out of step
In a changing time

Hoist a new flag
Hoist a new flag

Angry sun burn down
Judging us all
Guilty of neglect and disrespect
And thinking small

And death by boredom
And death by greed
If we can’t stop taking
More than we need

Well across the fractured landscape
I find the same things
Tired ideas
Birds without wings

Birds without wings
Birds without wings

And these are just thoughts
On lack-luster times
I've no interest
In excuses you can find

Like you've had a hard day
Now you've too tired to care
Now you're too tired to care
You've had a hard day

Well across the fractured landscape
I see the same things
Tired ideas, broken values
Many with the notion that to share is to lose

A hollow people bound by a lack
Of imagination and too much looking back
Without the courage to give a new thing a chance
Grounded by this ignorance
(And the cat comes)

We're just
Birds without wings
Birds without wings
Birds without wings

- David Gray, "Birds without Wings", 1993.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Bauckham: Ecological hope in crisis?

A while ago I mentioned I would be attending a conference titled Communicating Hope: Hope in an age of environmental crisis. I never got around to writing a review, but it was an excellent gathering of scientists, activists and theologians chewing the fat over the nature and implications of Christian hope in a post-Copenhagen world.

There were three main talks: (i) a summary of the latest science from Dr. Martin Hodson; (ii) theological reflections from Prof. Richard Bauckham; (iii) an exploration of opportunities for action from Andy Atkins, Director of Friends of the Earth, UK.

For me, the highlight of an excellent couple of days was undoubtedly Prof Bauckham's talk, which is now available online. Here's the opening:

"The church has frequently had to think afresh about Christian hope in changing contexts. It’s not that the essence of Christian hope – the great hope, founded on Jesus Christ, for God’s redemptive and fulfilling renewal of all his creation - changes. But if Christian hope is to retain its power to be the engine of the church’s engagement with the world, if it is to be more than an ineffective private dream, hope itself needs renewal as the world changes."

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Does nature have a price? and other stories

Pricing nature: George Monbiot highlights the myopia of attempting to include "ecosystem services" within mainstream neoliberal economic thought. The initial government report noted that some of the services provided by natural ecosystems "may in fact be infinite in value". You don't say.

Ten Billion: A "play", reviewed here and here, in which noted Cambridge scientist Stephen Emmott plays noted Cambridge scientist Stephen Emmott. The only set is a recreation of his messy Cambridge office and the drama is Emmott delivering a lecture on our current predicament. describes himself as a "rational pessimist" and lays out the daunting, perhaps impossible, task before us in the coming decades where we face multiple converging crises. He concludes that the only rational way forward is radical cultural change with widespread embrace of lower consumption and fewer children (this is pretty close to what I think, with nuances regarding children), but thinks it is not going to happen (this is also basically what I think, though with all kinds of reasons why it is still worth trying). Given that those who will hear this are those willing to pay through the nose for a night of "theatre" more disturbingly horrifying than any fictional film, it's probably better to avoid reading too much into fact that all performances are sold out. Attempts such as this to piece together the various disparate pieces of information that float around the internet and scientific journals are to be valued. That people come away terrified ought to be entirely unsurprising. What is needed is a moral vision capable of surveying such a situation and finding reasons to throw ourselves "once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more".

Australian coal: A victory as one proposed coal plant is shelved.

Hunger games: Coming soon to a future near you. Future heat, drought, food costs and global unrest. I have long been saying that such secondary and tertiary effects of climate change are at least as dangerous as any direct physical effects, though they may not generate headlines that mention climate.

Planetary boundaries: "Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere", a recent paper in Nature includes this in its abstract: "Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence."

Solastalgia: The word is a neologism coined by psychologist Glenn Albrecht in 2003 and is gaining some recognition. It refers to nostalgia one feels for a place being lost even while you're still there, a homesickness while you're still at home, but home is becoming less hospitable. In Albrecht's own words, it is "emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a loved home environment". I think it is a useful concept, even if I'm not convinced by the etymology.

Extreme weather: Extreme heat events experienced in many places in recent years are very, very unlikely to be unrelated to climate change. A new study by James Hansen on the attribution of extreme weather events does not use models, but is a statistical study based on observed changes that argues that the increase in what used to be extreme events (three standard deviations above the 1950-80 average) to now cover something like 10% of the globe's surface at any given time (rather than about 0.1% during 1950-80), is strong evidence that such events are vanishingly unlikely to not be related to climate change.

Overheated economy: Temperature rises correlate with declines in economic indicators and political stability, at least in developing nations. Good thing we're not expecting any discernable pattern in global temperatures over the next few decades and centuries then.

The West in Flames: The US West and Southwest is projected by most climate models to get hotter and drier. This has all kinds of implications, but this article by the author of A Great Aridness summarises the implications for trees and wildfire. It's not pretty.

400ppm CO2: Last time CO2 levels were this high. A study investigating conditions 15 million years ago found that "The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8-5.6ºC) higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet (22.9-36.6m) higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland".

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Pissing in the wind: symbolic actions and the dangers of tokenism

There is some debate whether small symbolic actions are a useful "easy" first step to get people taking a little bit more responsibility for the ecological consequences of their consumption, or a distraction that serves to draw attention away from the true scale of changes called for and inoculate people against genuine repentance.

Now perhaps sometimes we need to take the steps that are currently available, while working towards those that are ultimately desirable. Perhaps for some people, learning to recycle is the start of a journey in which they awaken to the fact that there is no "away" to which we can throw things, and that all our actions take place within a finite planet on which the actions of seven billion (one billion of whom live better than ancient royalty) have serious cumulative effects.

Where there is a tension between the short term tactical victories and long term strategic goals, then it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether immediately obtainable harm minimisation ought to prevail or long term hopes. For instance, should we decriminalise the use (not production) of hard drugs and treat addiction as a medical illness in order to reduce the criminalisation of end users, or would this undermine the message that ultimately we hope for a society in which no one is addicted to dangerous substances? Alternatively, would attempting a too stringent ban on smoking tobacco lead to a long term backlash against such regulation and so undermine the short term gains in smoking it may achieve?

Where I'm currently at is that while on many topics the precise balance between tactical, currently possible steps and strategic currently impossible goals may be difficult to navigate, there are elements of the situation with regards to our ecological predicament that seem somewhat obvious (at least to me). As long as we are mainly talking about plastic bags, recycling and more efficient light bulbs, we've already lost.

The goal is not a society free of plastic bags, or one that recycles assiduously and ensures lightbulbs meet the latest standard. That is far, far too small. The goal is a society that is no longer destroying the conditions of possibility for its own existence (and the existence of the biosphere as we know it and all future human societies). Plastic bags are one relatively tiny piece of that puzzle. And so while it is right to wonder whether premature regulation of, say, plastic bags causes a backlash that is counterproductive, there are bigger fish to fry. To return to the smoking analogy, it's a little as though the entire discussion is whether it would be a good idea to raise the legal age of smoking to 18 years and one month (or some other very marginal action that might slightly alter smoking stats). Whether or not this would provoke a backlash may be a relevant consideration, but given the scale of the problem, the fact that so much energy is spent discussing what is ultimately a relatively tiny piece of the puzzle actually serves to leave the status quo intact.

Cultural change does often come in small steps under sustained and creative social pressure, but the long term goals need to be clear from the outset. We don't want to be pissing in the wind.

US abandons 2ºC target? No, but it's still almost impossible under current assumptions

UPDATE: It seems my original headline and intro jumped the gun, at least on official US policy, relying on a secondhand and partial reading of the speech in question. My apologies. The rest of the post still holds and the paralysis of the US political system remains one of the largest roadblocks to any reasonable climate outcome.

The Obama administration has now abandoned the one piece of significant agreement to have come out of seventeen rounds of international climate negotiations, namely, the idea that the world was committed to aiming to keep warming below 2ºC. This temperature rise refers to the global average surface temperature's rise above pre-industrial levels* and covers a wide range of actual average temperature changes (and an even wider range of changes in temperature extremes) in various locations.
*Some documents use other baselines, such as the "climatological period" i.e. 1950-80, or even more recent periods of three decades. It is important to note whether a given temperature rise is based on pre-industrial baseline or a more recent one. Since temperatures rose by around 0.5ºC between the pre-industrial period and 1950-80 (and more since then), then discussions of future rises need to be adjusted accordingly. International negotiations have generally used the pre-industrial period as a baseline, even though the precise global temperature figures are a little sketchier.

The idea that 2ºC is a "safe" guardrail has a complex history, but it is fair to say that more recent climate science has shifted our understanding of just how dangerous 2ºC is. The expected impacts that were thought to arrive at 2ºC back when it was first established as something of a de facto line in the sand between safe and dangerous climate change are now expected to arrive much sooner, at somewhere between 1 and 1.5ºC. So if the developing consensus ten or fifteen years ago was that impacts associated with 2ºC were a valid danger limit, then really, if we are going to be honest and keep our judgements about what is dangerous, we ought to think that anything much above 1ºC is dangerous.

Unfortunately, going well beyond 1ºC is already guaranteed due to inertia in the climate system. What the US has now publicly acknowledged is what has been widely known for years - that inertia in the political and economic system has rendered 2ºC impossible within current economic and political assumptions.**
**The extent to which decades of failure from US leadership on this issue has rendered such a target politically impossible ought not to be underestimated. Despite featuring prominently in his campaign and inauguration, since coming into office, Obama has barely mentioned it and now puts out ads in support of coal.

To this, I say, "so much the worse for those assumptions". But the status quo would not be the status quo if it didn't try to protect itself from having to change. Unfortunately, climate change by definition rules out the possibility of no change. Our current trajectory is inherently unsutainable, which doesn't mean that polar bears are threatened by it, it simply means it will be not be sustained. Something must give. I would rather that be our political and economic assumptions than the habitability of the planet for as many generations as we can imagine.

We are on track for 4ºC if all nations stick to their current aspirational targets, and something more like 6ºC on our current trajectory, according to the normally conservative IEA. Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain, says that a rise of four degrees would likely be "incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond 'adaptation', is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level)." No one really knows what six degrees would mean, though sober-minder scientists start discussing human extinction as more than a theoretical possibility.

So, who's happy with six degrees? No takers? What about four degrees? Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chair of the German Scientific Advisory Council, advisor to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) was quoted back in March 2009, saying that on a four degree world the planet’s "carrying capacity estimates [are] below one billion people." So, who's happy to retain our present political and economic assumptions that make 2ºC seem impossible?

Basically, even with our best efforts, on the most optimistic path possible, we are in serious trouble. Facing these realities means shock, grief, fear, anger, guilt and feelings of helplessness. But until we face our situation honestly, we're living a lie. So let us be honest, grieve and then find reasons to fight even a losing battle.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bolt vs Curiosity: it's no match

More than a few news sites this morning selected Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, as their lead story. Bolt broke an Olympic record and ran the second fastest 100m ever recorded to win gold in London, recording a top speed of something like 45km/h.

Meanwhile, humans landed a small truck on Mars.

Every little boy (and plenty of little girls, I'm sure) dreams of running fast. And Bolt's 9.63s sprint was probably about two, three or four times as fast as most young children can run. I remember the first time I ran 100m against the clock, I came in at roughly 20s. I won't say how old I was...

Meanwhile, humans landed a small truck, weighing almost a ton, on Mars.

Bolt raced in front of a crowd of 80,000 at the stadium and hundreds of millions around the world. He is an international celebrity whose endorsement is worth millions to any brand and whose face is recognised by countless fans everywhere.

Meanwhile, humans landed a small truck, capable of finding evidence of extra-terrestrial life, on the ruddy surface of another planet.

Bolt's top speed was about 45km/h, the fastest any human has ever run. Curiosity's top speed was about 21,200 km/h. Bolt's speed was roughly double that of my boyhood efforts. Compared to my boyhood efforts at launching myself into space, Curiosity surpassed my - let's be generous and say 50cm - jump by a factor of 1.12 billion, travelling roughly 560 million kilometres from the surface of Earth to that of Mars. Bolt has trained for years in order to get every last detail correct: working on his running style, his start, his finish, his crowd-pleasing theatrics. Humans have been trying to work out whether there is or has been life on Mars for centuries and this mission has been in planning for eight years and en route for eight months, with scores of highly trained rocket scientists planning every last detail of a mission out of the Earth's gravity well, through the irradiated void of space and which culminated in seven minutes of terror, a hugely complex multi-stage precision landing procedure that had to be entirely automated, given the fact that signals from Mars to Earth take fourteen minutes and the entry only took seven. Imagine getting an almost one tonne truck to slow from over 21,000 km/h to zero in seven minutes while falling through a thin atmosphere with relatively strong gravity and landing on a precise spot on the far side of a planet without kicking up any dust or breaking billions of dollars worth of delicate scientific equipment. Wow.

So well done Mr Bolt. But what kind of planet do we live on where many of the major news organisations think that a man doing what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years (just very marginally better than anyone else) is bigger news than landing a space laboratory capable of reconstructing the deep history of another planet and searching for evidence of extra-terrestrial life on the surface of a planet 560 million kilometres away? Well done NASA. You deserve all the gold medals today, for an achievement that leaves every olympian, no matter how awesomely superhuman, in the shade.

Knowledge is superior to strength, skill to speed, carefully planned and executed cooperation to isolated brilliance. Yet better even than knowledge is wisdom. Though don't hold your breath for the day that the pursuit of wisdom makes a news headline ahead of a photogenic man running quickly at a corporate-sponsored event. Nonetheless, if Curiosity finds what it is looking for, we'll need plenty of wisdom to grasp it.
She [Wisdom] is more precious than jewels,
    and nothing you desire can compare with her. [...]
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
    those who hold her fast are called happy.

- Proverbs 3.15, 18 (NRSV).

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Killed for crossing a corporation?

Environmental activists in the developed world risk being added to no-fly lists or infiltrated by undercover police who break rules prohibiting sexual relations with those they are monitoring, illegally act as agents provocateurs and even lie under oath.

Environmental activists in the developing world risk assassination. According to a recent report from Global Witness, over the last decade there have been 711 recorded cases of activists being murdered, and that is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, given the poor level of reporting for most of the world. In Brazil alone, where stronger monitoring institutions exist, 365 deaths were recorded, yet less than 10% of case were brought to trial and barely 1% resulted in a conviction.

Journalists who report on such matters become targets of harassment and violence.

Anyone who has studied Christian history or the experience of the global church just in the last 100 years knows that being killed for standing up for justice and the truth is hardly unusual.

Keeping people in the dark is profitable.