Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wisdom in the wild, and other stories

Orion: Wisdom in the wild. What are the effects of removing the aged from a population? Are our hunting and fishing habits not only decimating numbers, but also breaking the cultural continuity of animals?

Guardian: My son, the terror suspect. A father tells the brutal and moving story of his son's conversion to Islam, travels to Pakistan, experiences fighting for the Taliban and eventual capture and suffering at the hands of his own government.

Common Dreams: One more reason why mountaintop removal is really stupid - along with poisoning rivers, destroying forests, levelling mountains and contributing to the destruction of a livable climate, it also doubles cancer rates in the local area.

Bright Green: What's happening in Somalia is no natural disaster.

And the prize for best rant on the Australian carbon price goes to this piece of inspired prose (which comes with a language warning).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

This is what hope looks like

Read this moving final statement from environmental activist Tim DeChristopher to the court before he was sentenced to two years in prison for a creative protest he made in 2008 against the illegal sale of federal US land to fossil fuel interests. Rousing stuff. If you read to the end, you'll find why I thought of Archbishop Tutu.

If you're not familiar with DeChristopher's story, then you can get a summary here or much more detail here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Prisoners of hope

The former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say, "we are prisoners of hope", echoing the prophet Zechariah (9.2). That is, in the midst of apartheid South Africa, the archbishop and the Christians with him felt that they were hemmed in, restricted, compelled, prisoners – but not prisoners of the racist laws that saw black people treated as less human than white people – Tutu was a prisoner of hope. It was hope in God that hemmed him in, restricted him, compelled him. He was not free. He was not free to give in to despair, to give up, to lie down, to blend in. He was not free to live his life in fear, because he was a prisoner of hope.

Now this might sound like mere pious sentiment, but it was powerfully expressed one day when Archbishop Tutu was preaching in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Suddenly, during the middle of the sermon, a large armed squad of the notorious South African Security Police broke into the Cathedral and surrounded the congregation, whom they outnumbered. They did not attack, but instead, some of them pulled out writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever Tutu said, thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances or political comments he might make. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in gaol for several days to make the clear point: religious leaders who speak out about apartheid will be treated just like any other opponents of the regime.

What would you do in such a situation? Stop the sermon? Just keep going? Continue criticising the regime and get arrested or worse? Now maybe even the thought of standing in front of a congregation giving a sermon is scary enough, but what would you have done if you were a congregation member? What would you have been hoping Tutu would do? One misstep could land you all in gaol.

According to eyewitness Jim Wallis, the Archbishop looked intently at the intruders for a few moments as they stood there with their guns, notepads and tape recorders then he said, “You are powerful, very powerful. But I serve a God who cannot be mocked. Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation was transformed by this extraordinary challenge to political tyranny. According to Wallis,
“From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshippers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began… dancing. (What is it about dancing that enacts and embodies the spirit of hope?) We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid, who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshippers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”

- Jim Wallis, God's Politics (Oxford: Lion, 2006), 353.

This is an extract from a sermon a few years ago. My next post will make clear why I thought of this story recently.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

With friends like these...

The great big tax on everything* based on absolute crap science* that has put the Greens in charge of government policy* and which will result in economic armageddon* has been given the thumbs up by the most powerful conservative leader in the world. Will David still get his Christmas card from Tony this year?
*These are all direct quotes from the opposition leader.

However, the endorsement also highlights the weakness of the plan. The UK is aiming at a 50% reduction from 1990 levels by 2025 (and has already managed a 28% reduction between 1990 and 2009, though with this important proviso). Gillard (and Abbott, officially) are aiming at 5% below 2000 levels by 2020. As I have said before, I think there are serious problems with the proposed Clean Energy Scheme. Criticising the opposition ought not be confused with uncritical endorsement of the government.

It is of course quite possible to pay too much attention to governments, and to find in their failures a salve for our own consciences or in their dramas a welcome distraction from our own inaction. But the reverse is also possible.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

John Stott (1921-2011)

John Stott, the grandfather of evangelical Anglicanism, died today, aged 90. I grew up being taught by people whose vision of Christian theology and discipleship was more often than not significantly shaped by Stott, and my own introduction to theology included a number of his books; The Cross of Christ made it into my top 20 theological influences a couple of years ago.

His death and the many tributes flowing in from all over the world have prompted me to consider again the question of how we honour our parents and ancestors (spiritual as well as biological and cultural). I hope to pull together some thoughts on this at some stage in the coming days. But for now, I will simply join my voice to those who thank God for John Stott's life and ministry. May he now rest until the day when death is no more.

UPDATE: this site has been set up as a hub for online memorial and contains a growing number of useful links to his life and work the various ongoing ministries that he helped establish. Feel free to post more links to obituaries or interesting articles in the comments.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A sense of proportion

The problem is not capitalism.

It is not the exploitation of fossil fuels. It is neither corporations, nor government taxation and spending. It is not wealth. It is not political donations and special interest lobbying. It is not economic growth. It is not consumption (though consumerism is always wrong, no matter the ecological situation). It is none of these things per se. The problem is a loss of our sense of proportion. All these things may have their place in a healthy society. But we have lost a sense of their appropriate place and scale. We have taken good things and thought that by maximising them, then the common good would enlarge. We have thus enabled each of these things to become hideously deformed, metastasizing throughout the body politic at a pace and scale that threaten our collective life. We have taken certain goods and ideas and fashioned them into idols.

What horizon of reference can help us to regain our bearings and a feel for the relative weight of different claims upon our attention? When our actions and hubris have ballooned into reshaping the sky and oceans and earth, what backdrop can highlight our grotesque distortions of priority and probity? Against whom can we measure a life that is properly creaturely, aptly humble, truly human?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Take the mic away from the speakers...

Here's another climate feedback: More frequent and severe heat waves, such as the one breaking all kinds of records in the US at the moment, are one of the most likely effects of continued climate change. More severe/frequent heat waves mean higher peak electricity demand, which means more power stations being built, which means more capacity in the system, which means more impetus to use it, which means (barring widespread and rapid implementation of cleaner energy) more greenhouse gas emissions, which means - well, you get it by now.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Collective responsibility

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

- Voltaire (attributed).

"Australia produces less than 1.5 per cent of the world's carbon emissions but will pay the world's biggest carbon tax."

- Claim of recent Australian ad campaign
funded by the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance.

Is Australia but a bit player in the carbon game? Are our emissions irrelevant on the world stage? I intend to write more in the coming days about this line of thinking. So far I have identified twelve possible faults with the statistical or ethical assumptions behind it. So, for a little exercise over the weekend, I'd love to hear how readers respond to the ATI ads (see below) and this claim about Australia's role in particular.

I am mainly interested in the first half of the claim (with its implication that Australian emissions are too small to be worth causing any economic pain). The second half of the quote ("the world's biggest carbon tax") is refuted here without even mentioning the fact that Sweden has had a carbon price since 1991 that is now around 150 AUD per tonne (the price in the proposed Clean Energy Plan starts at 23 AUD per tonne).

Friday, July 22, 2011

This blog is my filing cabinet

In the absence of anything more organised, I have for some time now been using this blog as a filing cabinet for links to posts, news stories and relevant publications that relate to the topic of previous posts. Many posts continue to gather dozens of such links in the comments. If this is useful to others, then good. It is useful to me. I don't necessarily endorse everything said in every link; they are just things I have found interesting. Sometimes, they include significant arguments against something I said in the post.

Corporate failure: more than a few bad apples

With all the current discussion about News International and its parent company News Corp, many pixels are being devoted to a discussion of just how things went so wrong. After a string of recent revelations, the claim, maintained by News executives for years, that it was one (or then a few) bad apple(s) in an otherwise honest company now appears as either deluded, deceitful or the result of seriously deficient oversight. Since it is nearly always better to assume incompetence rather than conspiracy, at best Tuesday's parliamentary inquiry revealed a string of failed leaders - spanning media editors, senior corporate executives, police and politicians - who remained dangerously out of touch with what was going on around them. At worst, collusion, corruption and cover up on an industrial scale dwarf the significance of the original criminal data acquisition. Whatever the true nature of the rot, it goes beyond a couple of apples, whether at the top or bottom of the pile.

When confronted with misdeeds on this scale, a common reaction (which I notice in my own instincts) is to seek to put a face on the problem, a single individual who can be held ultimately responsible. We want the buck to stop somewhere. The legal pursuit of the questions of who knew what when is important and such investigations are likely to take some time. In the meantime, an impatient public desires visible signs of justice. If we cannot get convictions just yet, we will settle for resignations.

We so desperately want to be able to find someone to blame, some focus for our fury at the damage caused by a system of corruption in which media, police and politicians were too close and saw their own good in terms of a small circle than the national interest they claimed to be representing. We want to know that our violated trust is being taken seriously. Resignations serve as symbolic steps in this direction; they speak to a collective desire to start again and are a metaphor of what it looks like for an organisation to repent.

But there are deeper questions at stake. Individuals did indeed commit crimes and moral failures (either of commission or omission). Many participated in looking the other way, being willfully blind to what was going on because it was more convenient to maintain deniability (or perhaps they continue to mislead political authorities). But to leave the analysis at the level of individuals fails to take account of the dynamics that can exist at a supra-individual level. The whole can often be greater than the sum of the parts. If the only lessons we take away from this saga involve the need for greater personal integrity, we miss the opportunity to ask how the very structures might have served to sideline, subvert or dilute integrity.

There are individual failures, but also failures of structure, failures of collective imagination. They are failures of systems that are based on seeking the wrong kinds of inclusion, systems that punish those who speak up while rewarding those who conform without questioning the quality of what is shared. Whether a for-profit corporation can simulatenously claim to be serving its shareholders and the common good is an interesting question, as is whether a political system in which an MP is required to win more votes than any other candidate every five years encourages a myopic and image-driven politics.

When a corporation is accountable to its shareholders' interests and those interests are understood in narrow financial terms (as they usually are), then the only place that ethical considerations enter into it is the impulse to avoid anything unethical insofar as it hurts the bottom line. Therefore, the recent fall in News Corp shares is the real crime Rupert and his various officers have committed.

But of course that way madness lies, and the reaction of the public to this scandal is partly media-driven hysteria (the very same hysteria that News have used to successfully to drive sales) and partly genuine moral outrage that speaks to a standard other than the bottom line. There is more to living well than making a profit and there is more to a flourishing nation (or world) than a growing GDP. Therefore, there must be more to a healthy company than a rising share price. Let us resist the colonisation of our ethical thought by cost-benefit risk analysis that seeks to put a price on everything. The language of money cannot adequately translate the full complexity and richness of our moral existence and to rely on it to do so is to abdicate our responsibility for pursuing good and shunning evil.

Amidst the repeated failure of not just scattered individuals but of our most trusted social institutions - of corporations and parliaments, banks and police, sensationalist newspapers and a reading public that buys them - it may be worth considering again the apostle Paul's exhortation to his readers in Rome, who were at the heart of a vast empire with powerful cultural incentives to fit in: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12.2 NRSV). This is addressed not simply to the individual believers, but to the church as a whole. It is an invitation to a way of corporate existence based on the good news of God's mercies (verse 1). The church, of course, is not immune from moral failure. Yet the good news here is an invitation to discover anew a source of belonging that does not require us to narrow our moral vision lest we stick out, but which gives us permission to find fresh ways of thinking and seeing amidst a culture that has lost its way. The church has no monopoly on wisdom, has not cornered the market in corporate governance or collective integrity. Yet in its practices of humility, confession, forgiveness and love of neighbour to the glory of God, in its memory of Jesus accepting the outcast and breaking bread with the traitor, in its grasp of the promise of a Spirit who leads into both honesty and new begingings, it has something that is genuinely different and worth rediscovering and sharing by each generation.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The theology of Harry Potter #7: book vs film

Brad Littlejohn has an excellent exposition of the theology of the final Harry Potter book in comparison to the final film (which doesn't stack up so well). If you ever wanted someone to demonstrate that there was much more going on christologically in Rowling than the all too common and wearily superficial assumption that her depiction of magic equalled a nefarious seduction of young minds into Satanic arts, then read his piece.

Warning: film plot spoilers.

Two naughty (Aussie) boys

In the last twelve months, two of the biggest news stories* have had some remarkable parallels. The best known character of each was male, born in Australia, worked in journalism and widely perceived to be arrogant and controlling. Both published secret information (allegedly) obtained by illegal means that others wanted kept private and which proved controversial and explosive. In both cases, the original source of the secret information was incarcerated. In both cases, the events opened the lid on the seedy underbelly of power acting in its own interests. In both cases, the Guardian played a major role in bringing the story to light and in both cases the subsequent legal drama played out in the UK (and to a lesser extent, the US).
*Biggest in terms of media attention they have received, not necessarily the most important at either an immediate or protracted scale.

But the two cases could also not be more different. In the first, an almost unheard of nobody took information that was leaked to him for free, which was of obvious public interest and revealed the double standards, corruption and abuses of power associated with some of the most world's most powerful polities. In the second, a household name and one of the most powerful people in the world owning and leading the world's largest media group was in charge of a newspaper in which a significant culture of double standards, corruption and abuse of power was rife, and which systematically stole and paid bribes for information that was very frequently not in the public interest from thousands of individuals and which was published for titillation and profit. The first, for all his faults, was holding power to account for its manifold abuses. The second, for all his strengths, is responsible for an immensely powerful organisation guilty of manifold abuses, repeatedly denied and (allegedly) illegally suppressed (and he apparently pays no tax). And yet some continue to compare or conflate the two as though they are both simply stories about "illegal hacking".

The outcomes in each case could also not be more different. Julian Assange was quickly labelled a terrorist, pressure from the US government on PayPal, Mastercard and Visa cut off WikiLeaks' funding, there were widespread calls - even from senior US politicians - for his assassination, he was condemned by his own Prime Minister without trial and, ironically, Murdoch media joined in and helped magnify the character assassination on multiple continents. Yet, as far as I am aware, none of those whose abuses he revealed have been charged or resigned. In contrast, so far, Rupert Murdoch has had his next plaything taken away, fielded some embarrassing questions, received professional PR advice to eat humble pie, and taken another kind of pie in the face. Arrests and resignations continue to happen to other people. If we take his repeated professions of ignorance at face value, then my conclusion is that a corporation that has grown too large for the boss to take responsibility for a culture of systematic abuses within it is a corporation that is too large. Julian Assange is not the Messiah; Rupert Murdoch is far more than just a naughty boy.
Image by ALS.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A parable

Every day while walking up the 193 steps to my desk I pass the smallest nature reserve in the country, a tiny locked garden that thrives with all manner of wee, sleekit beasties.

Today as I walked past, a man, slightly inebriated, climbed over the fence, stumbled through a couple of low bushes, exclaimed loudly to his two friends who had remained behind "It's beautiful! No, I mean seriously, it's really beautiful!" and then proceeded to unzip his pants and relieve himself.

Whether the point of this parable is as an illustration of so many of our interactions with the created order, or is related to the fact that I kept on walking, thinking this was someone else's problem, I am not entirely sure.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Exorcism at the Tate: BP and the pollution of the arts

This occurred yesterday afternoon at the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. Rev Billy and his "church" have been developing this kind of protest against various abuses of consumerism for the last five years or so. Combining street theatre with the discourse and imagery of gospel revivalist preaching and song, they encourage people to think about what our consumption is doing to our ecosystems, society and souls.

I would love to hear what people think of this as a form of creative protest. Is it effective? Distracting? Humourous? Counterproductive?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Every second of every day

Greenland is losing around 9,000 tonnes of ice every second. But we're doing our best to mitigate this problem by removing 9-10,000 tonnes of fish from the ocean every hour. And, of course, by dumping 62,500 tonnes of heat-trapping emissions into the earth's atmosphere every minute. The radiative forcing of the carbon dioxide human activities have put in the atmosphere is the equivalent of adding the energy of more than ten Hiroshima bombs every second.

Climate Central: Extreme events related to climate change threaten three US nuclear facilities.

Guardian: UK oil and gas rigs creating spills at least once a week in 2009 and 2010. Remember, the UK claims to have some of the world's highest standards in regulation of off-shore drilling safety. Now take these operations into freezing Arctic waters, where microbes won't be so quick to deal with spills as there were in the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and where extreme conditions prevent the kind of response available there. Arctic drilling is doubly suicidal: It brings new risks to relatively untouched ecosystems and ensures more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere for thousands of years. And the only reason these waters are opening up to this exploitation is the decline of the sea ice caused by the combustion of fossil fuels in the first place.

Grist: In the worst drought in Texas history, 13.5 billion gallons of water used for fracking. Fracking is the controversial process used to exploit reserves of shale gas, a fossil fuel touted in some circles as a cleaner alternative and as a silver bullet solution to US energy security, but which is worse than coal or conventional oil when gas leaks are included (since natural gas is a very potent greenhouse gas and degrades over time into more carbon dioxide), has been associated with the poisoning of groundwater, and which may well prove commercially unviable much faster than expected according to a recent NYT report (while Stoneleigh offers an even bleaker outlook).

Independent: The plight of the big cats. According to Dereck and Beverly Joubert, leading big cat conservationists, "There were 450,000 lions when we were born and now there are only 20,000 worldwide. [...] Leopards have declined from 700,000 to 50,000, cheetahs from 45,000 to 12,000 and tigers are down from 50,000 to just 3,000."

CP: Food prices hover at historic highs.

IPS: Rising temperatures melting away food security. The impacts of climate change on food production are not limited to heat stress on crops (which may suppress global yields by 5-10% per degree of warming), but also include disruptions to precipitation patterns (i.e. floods and droughts), inundation (or salination) by rising sea levels, loss of glacial melt water (a critical factor, according to this article), increased erosion and shifting distribution of pests and invasive species.

Yale360: Wasting phosphate. "It takes one ton of phosphate to produce every 130 tons of grain, which is why the world mines about 170 million tons of phosphate rock every year to ship around the world and keep soils fertile. [...] We could hit “peak phosphorus” production by around 2030. [...] Presently, there simply are no substitutes for phosphorus."

Reuters: As CO2 levels rise, land becomes less able to curb warming, claims new study in Nature.

Mongabay: The unexpected effects of removing top predators. Another new Nature paper claims that "The loss of these animals may be humankind’s most pervasive influence on nature".

Energy Bulletin: Dilithium crystals and tomorrow's energy needs.
Image by CAC.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Evangelicals ought to be greener than the Greens

Guest post by Mick Pope

What does the gospel say about caring for creation?
Evangelicals should be at the forefront of creation care, regardless of the issue. The Bible is far greener than the Greens can ever be precisely because we don't "hate humanity" (as the Greens are sometimes accused of doing) but should have a proper biblical anthropology in which humanity is made by God from the good dirt and called by God to the noblest of tasks. However, one of the problems with some strands of Evangelicalism at various points of history is that it hasn't taken biblical anthropology seriously enough. Because we belong with the dust from which we were made and will be bodily resurrected, matter matters, including matter that isn't human.

Genesis 1 makes it clear that the Earth is the divine temple and that humans are the idols/images in that temple (interestingly, the word used for "image" in the ancient Greek translation of Genesis 1.26-27 is the same word elsewhere used for pagan idols), representing God to the rest of creation. This rules out any negative views towards the dominion mandate, since it is in God's image that we are to rule.

Psalm 104 is oft neglected and makes a couple of things clear. Firstly, God cares for creatures that (at the time) lay outside of the human economy, indeed for creatures like lions that were often harmful to the human economy, because he took delight in them for their own sake. It is a Psalm in praise of God's own creative wisdom. Notice too how the Psalmist places human economic activity alongside that of his care of the rest of creation. It is a small step to see that if God cares for and tends the wild places, we have no right to interfere with that, and as we carry out dominion in his name we should be also caring for wilderness, not to our own detriment but not to its neglect either.

The third important passage is Romans 8:19-25, which shows how intimately our future and that of the non-human creation are tied together. Creation groans for its own liberation as it has suffered under human misrule because of our idolatry. Note a solid biblical critique of materialism and paganism - we can't afford to leave creation care to atheists or pantheistic Greens since it is our calling. Still, when those groups take caring for creation more seriously than us they shame us. Note too that if creation waits for liberation we don't "save the Earth" but we do act in hope for the future. Just as when we seek to be more holy we don't save ourselves but live in hope of our final sanctification.

So caring for creation matters for Evangelicals.

What about climate change? Is it disingenuous for Christian organisations like Ethos to support the mainstream scientific view without giving equal time to those who are sceptical? As a meteorologist and a PhD who has followed the debate I'd say the science is pretty sound, and that we at Ethos are following the understanding laid down by one hundred and fifty years of direct observation of temperatures, at least a thousand years of proxy data from various independent sources, the best models of the day that can only reproduce the twentieth century trends with greenhouse gases included in the model, and a whole slew of research based on various observations of temperature extremes, changes in rainfall patterns, melting glaciers, spreading tropical diseases and so on.

Addressing climate change is part of a much larger project. Evangelicalism has much to repent of (in my opinion) and has and continues to miss its mission of creation care and opportunities to live out the gospel.

Dr Mick Pope is a meteorologist and coordinator of Ethos Environment. An earlier version of this post appeared as a comment on the Ethos site.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On track for 4ºC

At Copenhagen in 2009 and then once more in Cancún in 2010, the nations of the world agreed on the goal of limiting global warming (the most talked about part of climate change and a rough indication of the overall severity of change) to a rise in average surface temperature of no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. We are already almost 0.8ºC up, with something like another 0.5ºC already committed due to the time lag between emissions and their effects. To have a 75% chance of keeping overall warming under 2ºC by 2100 would require us to emit no more than a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2000 and 2050. How much is a trillion tonnues? Well, simplifying matters somewhat, and given that we've already used a fair chunk of that, the bottom line is that it woud require us to leave more than half of the economically recoverable fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) in the ground. That is: no more searching for new fields; no further exploitation of the non-conventional sources (shale gas, tar sands, methane hydrates); no inclusion of fields currently too expensive to exploit. And we leave more than half of what is already known and can already be removed profitably in the ground.
Those interested in the fine print of the numbers used in these calculations can consult this quite technical study.

Two degrees would still bring all kinds of very undesirable consequences. It would be likely to mean virtually no summer sea ice in the Arctic, the loss of most coral reefs around the world, potentially dramatic declines in total ocean productivity (at least as far as fish are concerned; jellyfish may do quite well), the eventual extinction of hundreds of thousands or even millions of species, significant suppression of total global crop yields (when total food demands are likely to double by 2050), sea level rises of 50-100 cm by 2100 and of many metres over the coming centuries, changes in precipitation patterns leading to both worse droughts and floods, a more fragile Amazon and already the possibility of passing thresholds that could precipitate sudden and irreversible changes. Two degrees is no walk in the park.

While the world agreed that 2ºC ought to be treated as an upper limit (except low-lying island nations, for whom 2ºC would already likely be a death-sentence), the pledges made as a result of these negotiations put us on track for a world that is more likely to be around 4ºC warmer by 2100, and more than 6ºC warmer during the following century. Note that these pledges are in some cases aspirational and lack any legislative framework to accompany them. In Australia's case, our pledge (lying quite firmly at the less ambitious end of the scale) is dependent upon the implementation and success of the Gillard government's proposed scheme to put a price on carbon. So even were we (and all other nations) to implement successfully our plans, we are still far more likely to be at 4ºC by 2100 than anywhere near 2ºC.

If a 2ºC world sees us suffering from a wide range of very difficult and worsening challenges that will stretch our ability to cope, a 4ºC world would be unrecognisable. A conference this week looking at the likely impacts on Australia of a four degrees rise suggested that Australia, the world's sixth largest food exporter, may no longer be able to feed itself. The difficulty of understanding just how different such a world would be is illustrated by the following quote from 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). In March 2009, Schellnhuber said that on a four degree world the planet’s “carrying capacity estimates [are] below one billion people.”*

Just let that sink in.

Or find ways to avoid thinking about it.
*Carrying capacity is a complex and contested notion and obviously depends on a range of assumptions about average standard of living. The point is not to suggest that one billion is a fixed limit, but simply to highlight how severely compromised the systems on which we rely for a world of seven billion people may be in a four degrees warmer world.

UPDATE: Kevin Anderson, until recently the director of the U.K.’s leading climate research institution, the Tyndall Energy Program, had this to say about four degrees: “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an 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.”

Incompatible with an organised global community. Parse that how you will, it ain't pretty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

If Superman listened to economists

There are smarter ways of fighting crime.

The Conversation: media done better

I frequently complain about the quality of mainstream media (for example, see yesterday's post or last Thursday's). Today I have a brief recommendation of an Australian-based alternative.

One of the (many) major problems with much contemporary commercial media is declining standards of journalistic expertise. This has numerous causes, including the rise of the 24/7 news cycle culture (blame the interwebs) and declining advertising revenues in traditional media (blame the interwebs). But the effect is that more and more news stories are barely re-hashed corporate press releases (known as churnalism) and even those that are not are frequently written by individuals with little background in their subject, making them more prone to shallow, inaccurate and falsely balanced reporting.

Wouldn't it be nice if real experts were to write stories on some of the complex topics we face? Wouldn't it be nice if articles were not simply filling the space between ads? Wouldn't it be nice if contributors' conflicts of interest were made more transparent? Wouldn't it be nice if readers were treated as more than the product being sold to the advertisers?

The Conversation aims to do just that. Just three months old, The Coversation is a not-for-profit independent news source where all the main contributors are academics at universities or the CSIRO. Writers can only contribute on topics they are actively researching or have a history of researching. Conflicts of interest, corporate funding or associations with think-tanks have to be acknowledged upfront. Anonymous comments are banned (indeed, one needs to have an academic email address to even contribute a comment). There are no ads.

One highlight is a recent series of fourteen articles called Cleaning Up the Climate Debate. Each of the articles is given a one paragraph summary here. They are worth more than a causal glance.

I have no conflict of interest in writing this post. It is just a good site.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rupert's pollution: What does UK phone hacking have to do with Australia's carbon debate?

Two apparently very different stories have been dominating the news in the land of my birth and where I currently live.

In the UK, the News of the World phone hacking saga continues to snowball, with more revelations promised. There are now over 4,000 targets identified (including royalty, celebrities, politicians (even Prime Minister Brown), police, as well as bereaved relatives of soldiers, homocides and terrorism victim), but the story has grown much larger as it becomes clear that the real issue is the cover up. The phone hacking itself was illegal and shockingly callous, representing an abuse of society's willingness to grant journalistic freedom in the pursuit of truth (compare the Wikileaks saga, where the revelations are of much greater social significance and the methods used by the media apparently legal). But knowing that the practice was indefensible, it is becoming clear that News of the World apparently went to great lengths to prevent the full extent of the abuse from becoming public: making payments to police, seeking to pay for silence from early victims in a way that would remove evidence from police investigations, obstructing those investigations by foot dragging, destroying evidence, making misleading statements under oath and contributing substantially to a culture of fearful self-protection amongst politicians who might speak out about the problem. It is not yet clear how far up the chain of authority blame lies, but it seems fair to say that if some of the people currently denying knowledge of what was going on are speaking the truth, then they have become immensely successful while simultaneously being willfully neglectful and culpably negligent. The relative portions of blame to be assigned to journalists, editors, owners, police, politicians and the reading public are still unclear, but the problems are systemic.

It is, however, hard to deny that a hefty portion of the culture in which such abuses can occur can be traced to a situation in which a single man owns such a large chunk of the media that he can threaten political careers and so create the complicit silence in which police corruption can flourish and his underlings feel untouchable. Numerous politicians, including Cameron himself, have been emboldened by the events of the last week to admit their fear of Murdoch had lead them to silence or a soft tread.

So my hunch is that such systemic wickedness arises not so much due to the press being under-regulated, as from its being too concentrated. The crimes and wrongdoings that occurred at News of the World (and likely at other major papers) occurred not simply through lack of oversight, but because editors felt that they were in certain senses above the law, that public figures who openly questioned their modus operandi could be crushed in the court of public opinion through the very media they would be trying to shine a light upon.

Removing that dangerous sense of invincibility includes diluting the power of any one individual through diversifying media ownership. And this, of course, is where the BSkyB deal is intimately related to the whole scandal. Not only ought it be thrown out in light of the revelations of widespread illegality and contempt of the rule of law operating within News Corp, but the appropriate response ought to include the break-up of Murdoch's existing empire into smaller pieces to prevent the kinds of concentration of power that help to generate such pervasive corruption.
And to make Murdoch and News Corp pay their taxes. They are amongst the worst offenders for tax dodging. Murdoch has personally dodged hundreds of millions of pounds of taxes, possibly billions. Of course, this doesn't stop his papers offering lectures on the need for austerity measures to balance the budget.

What does this have to do with the carbon debate in Australia? While phone hacking is getting some coverage, the antipodean front pages are filled with claim and counterclaim about atmospheric chemistry and tax reform. The link is Rupert.

Murdoch's media empire spans four continents and is, by some margin, the largest news media conglomerate in the world. And from Fox News to the Australian, from The Wall Street Journal to The Daily Telegraph (the Sydney tabloid, not the UK broadsheet), Murdoch publishes a huge share of the denial, false balance and misinformation about climate change to be found in the mainstream media (as documented here, here, here and many other places). This is not to say that he only publishes denial, but many of his organisations are the worst offenders at giving equal weight to the claims of highly reputable scientific institutions and ideological think-tanks with significant funding from major fossil fuel companies. It is clear that this is often deliberate policy in order to sow confusion and thus delay and dilute effective collective action.
Murdoch is not, of course, the only wealthy individual deliberately throwing (bull)dust into the air.

This is part of the insidious effect of hyper-capitalism upon democracy. Rather than generating competition and diversity, the concentration of extreme financial wealth in the hands of the few that defines hyper-capitalism risks enabling the further conformity of politics to the interests of the ultra-wealthy. Media plurality is a necessary condition of a free society. So is the avoidance of extreme inequality.

And a postscript: stories like this give me hope. A young TV reporter with a dream career ahead of him makes an important realisation.
H/T Rod Benson.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The price of carbon

"The good news is that the modest carbon price announced yesterday will neither impoverish Australians nor bankrupt our economy. The bad news is that the modest carbon price announced yesterday won’t save the planet either."

- The Australia Institute, Has the PM "knocked the brick wall down"?

The minority Labor government in Australia has announced the details of a long-awaited scheme to put a price on carbon. The basic outline is quite helpfully explained in the animation above, and summarised in greater detail here.
I speak of a carbon price, because it is not a tax, but an emissions trading scheme with a fixed price for three years. This is not simply a matter of playing with words, as explained here.

The scheme is modest in ambition, with only a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020,* despite Australians having the highest per capita emissions of all advanced economies and the 10th largest aggregate emissions overall (it would be interesting to see figures on aggregate per capita emissions, but I haven't been able to find them anywhere). However, unlike Kevin Rudd's defeated ETS, this target is not locked in, but can be raised by an independent Climate Commission anytime from 2015 when the carbon price shifts from being directly set by the government to being dependent upon the auction of a set number of emissions permits. Furthermore, the target for 2050 has been raised from 60% to 80%.
*From a 2000 baseline, which Australia continues to use, despite a global agreement to use 1990 as the benchmark. Therefore, Australian targets cannot be directly compared to those of most other countries. The later baseline makes them less ambitious than a similar figure from a 1990 baseline.

The price for tradable permits will start at a set price of $23 per tonne, rising slightly until 2015, when the number of permits will be capped and the price determined by the market. Only the largest five hundred or so companies will be involved, who together emit the vast majority of Australian emissions. Agriculture and petrol are excluded from the scheme. The former because monitoring of agricultural emissions are too complex; the latter because petrol prices are too politically sensitive (despite this weakening the social, economic and ecological benefits of the scheme). Most households will receive compensation in the form of tax rebates and a raising of the minimum tax threshold will simplify matters for the tax office and for about a million Australians who will no longer need to lodge a return. Only the wealthiest households will be worse off (or rather, only the most carbon-intensive wealthy households).

Many experts see the scheme as representing a decent first step of what was politically possible with a few regrettable compromises. This piece gets into more of the details than I have time or inclination to do at the moment.

A few brief thoughts: with the vast majority of Australian households projected to be better off and the administrative burden falling on about five hundred major companies, the threat of bureaucratic and economic armageddon waved around by Tony Abbott will hopefully be quickly rejected.

Yet with all the focus (by both sides of politics) on what it will mean for the average household budget, most people don't seem to understand that the point of the system is encourage behavioural change. If you don't want to pay more for your energy bills, then switch to renewable power and implement some basic energy efficiency and conservation measures. If you don't want to pay more for your food, then switch to eating local and organic produce. If you don't want your small business to pay more for its inputs, then consider lower-carbon alternatives for your business model. Whether the price will remain too low to encourage these changes directly through the hip pocket remains to be seen. It may be that the primary benefit of the system in the short term will be to provide some needed stability to the renewables market.

From a political perspective, the claim that the Greens are not interested in environmental issues ought to be put decisively to rest, given the political costs Gillard has borne over the last few months during negotiations. What these demonstrate is that without the Greens pushing her, she would not be here of her own free will. This was the price the Greens and independents demanded of Gillard after the hung parliament, and it is clear that this is therefore at the heart of what the Greens hoped to achieve with their new-found political influence. Whether they were right to block Rudd's proposed scheme back in 2009 (which was superior in a couple of ways to the current proposal, though clearly inferior in many others) is a more difficult question. Hindsight offers a perspective of the enormous fallout of that earlier decision (change of leadership in both parties, an early election, a protracted chance for the opposition to pursue large swings in popular support for a carbon price), little of which was obvious at the time.

The Greens' shift from principled opposition to pragmatic support of a least worst viable option represents a difficult yet crucial debate. The proposed scheme may represent the best that was actually available, that is, politically palatable, under current conditions (and so requiring plenty of sweeteners for some of the worst polluters), yet it is important to admit and repeat that it falls far short of what is necessary to avoid some very bad outcomes. Under such circumstances, is a small step better than nothing? Does this represent the strategic establishment of a system that can be scaled up as the political will builds over time? Or can much ado about very little ultimately prove a distraction from or substitute for more radical change, locking in assumptions about the viability of the status quo without addressing the root causes of the problem in our consumerist idolatry and myopic pursuit of further economic growth?

UPDATE: Ethos have kindly published a version of this post on their site, and there has been further discussion over there.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Can Christians ignore climate change?

"It is well past time for those of us still at the carnival of climate denial to exit the gates and allow the love of God to help us see and face the truth about climate change or global warming and the need to act. Once we do, we will discover that overcoming global warming presents us with tremendous opportunities to love God back and create a better world. Let me clarify things right up front: climate inaction is no longer an option for those who have the love of God in their hearts."

- Rev Jim Ball, Leaving the Carnival of Climate Change Denial
to Join the Next Great Cause of Freedom
H/T Liz.

Inaction on climate change is no longer an option for faithful Christians. So says Jim Ball in this brief and polemic piece addressing various barriers to action that rich Christians may face. While somewhat simplified (it is only a short piece), identifying such barriers is a good exercise. Where are you stuck at?

Perhaps we could even suggest a few more: ignorance of what actions to take; distraction by other good things; despair over the inadequacy of our possible actions. Indeed, back here I considered nine such barriers and suggested ways in which faith in God, love for Jesus and hope from the Holy Spirit open new paths for us through them.

It is encouraging to see a Christian leader in the US publish such an article in a widely-read forum. Ball has also written a book that I haven't got to yet, called Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian discipleship and climate change. He is not a lonely voice; an increasing number of books have come out in the last couple of years offering Christian accounts of ecological responsibility. Yet there are still plenty of Christian leaders all too willing to speak up on behalf of the fossil fuel companies, and too many followers of Jesus who haven't yet heard the good news of Jesus applied to an increasingly damaged world.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

News of the World 0; Guardian 1

Extraordinary. The world's most read (and most loathed?) English-language newspaper, in existence for 167 years, is to cease publication this Sunday after the rapidly developing events of the last couple of days. Rupert Murdoch's sensationalist tabloid News of the World has faced escalating revelations of wicked and illegal behaviour, including hacking the phones of up to four thousand people - royalty, politicians, celebrities, murder and terrorism victims and their families, soldiers killed in Afghanistan and those of their relatives - as well as interfering in police investigations, paying police for information, lying under oath and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the rest of this list) hacking the phones of those involved in the investigations into their own misdeeds.*
*I would provide links to each of these, but it would take all day. There is extensive coverage here and just about everywhere.

Credit must go to the years of investigative work by Nick Davies at the Guardian, who kept following the story despite threats from NotW and scorn or lack of interest from many other mainstream media sources.

The fallout will continue for some time. There will be retrials, public inquiries, reform of how the media are (self-)regulated, questions about how one of the editors at the heart of the scandal ended up working for the Prime Minister, reviews in the role of police corruption and very serious questions (hopefully) about the BSkyB takeover that looked set to give Murdoch even more control over British media (and which ought to be rejected on media plurality grounds alone).
UK voters can sign a petition against the takeover and/or contact your MP.

I have no illusions that this will be the end of bad journalism, nor that Murdoch will be likely to change his ways, or lose his malign influence on the politics of too many continents. A publication like NotW doesn't get to where it was without an extensive public willing to pay good money to read gossip and slander. Those malformed desires will not disappear overnight. Other publications will quickly fill the void.

Nonetheless, perhaps this whole episode is a chance for us to stop momentarily and consider what really counts as news, and whom we trust to tell us about it.

Let us also remember that the self-righteous and vicarious schadenfreude offered by the gutter tabloid press at the failings and foibles of the famous is all too easily replaced with self-righteous and vicarious schadenfreude at the humiliation of that very press's flagship. So let us not rejoice at a black eye for Murdoch, but mourn for our own myopic moral vision that all too often secretly wishes to be kept in the dark.
"And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed."

- John 3.19-20 (NRSV).

"When the Pentagon and Greenpeace are on the same page, you know things are getting serious."

"Picture a map of the world. Picture the areas we’re most concerned about; where poverty, instability, and conflict meet. Parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Pockets of sub-Saharan Africa. Delicate borders on the Asian subcontinent. Now picture the areas where climate change will strike hardest. The overlap is uncanny – and unnerving."
Chris Huhne, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave an speech today in which he pointed out the systemic nature of the threats posed by climate change. Rather than directly causing problems, climate change exacerbates existing threats, making food more difficult to grow, water more difficult to distribute, public health more difficult to manage, infrastructure and lives more vulnerable to extreme weather events and, crucially, where tensions already exist in the geopolitical system, generally taking us closer to violence. It was not a ground-breaking address, but summarises why climate change is not "just" an environmental problem.

Huhne concludes with these words:
"Desperate people take desperate measures. Instability is now a national problem; soon it will be a regional one. Migrants surge outwards, searching for survival.

"This is the nightmare scenario. Yet it is already tragically familiar. We have already seen civil wars compounded by water stress, in Darfur. Regional conflicts fuelled by resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Food prices prompting riots in Bangladesh.

"Climate change is the force that threatens to unify and magnify these pressures. It will focus and concentrate existing tensions, fracturing states and destroying societies. So far, we have not done enough to stop it. We still have time to mobilise: but that time is rapidly running out. Doing nothing is not an option."
Full speech available here.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Joined up life - the blog

Andrew Cameron, whose recent book I reviewed back here, has now started a blog to continue to reflect on how we navigate our way through life.

Friday, July 01, 2011

If Brazil has to guard its rainforest, why does Canada/U.S. get to burn its tar sands?

Bill McKibben: If Brazil has to guard its rainforest, why does Canada/U.S. get to burn its tar sands? McKibben has joined with ten other prominent US and Canadian activists and scientists in calling for large-scale civil disobedience over a proposed new pipeline to deliver Canadian tar sands oil to the US.

SMH: The deadliest form of food fight, perhaps the best short piece in a mainstream media outlet on this topic. The Carbon Brief has a useful list of links on climate change and food security (more links are here).

Guardian: At the same time as they put forward a "what peak oil?" report, the UK Government had a second, far less rosy, peak oil report compiled a few years ago. It was not published, until now.

Scientific American: a three part series on the links between climate change and extreme weather. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Politicians and pundits may pontificate and procrastinate, but the insurance industry takes this very seriously, with more places becoming uninsurable.

Oxford University: Elephant numbers have halved in the last forty years across protected areas in West and Central Africa.

Climate Central: Extreme events related to climate change threaten three US nuclear facilities. Of course, the usual caveats apply to attribution, but the point remains: nuclear has been widely touted as a low-carbon baseload energy solution, yet we are entering an increasing unstable world (climatically, ecologically, and most likely economically and politically). Is it really so wise to build nuclear plants that require rich, stable governments and predictable weather?

CP: Senator Inhofe, perhaps the most outspoken critic of climate science in US politics (a stiff contest), was forced to cancel his appearance at the flagship denier conference due to being "under the weather" after swimming in a blue-green algae bloom exacerbated by drought and a heatwave in Oklahoma. I hope he gets better soon.

Telegraph: warming oceans cause largest marine migration in two million years.

BBC: World's oceans in "shocking" decline. I recently attended a popular open-air lecture by a marine biologist who was presenting unusual creatures from the Norwegian Sea. It was a lighthearted lecture illustrated with a variety of critters and curios in small tanks. During question time afterwards, I asked what changes were evident in the ecosystems she studied. Within seconds of beginning to answer, she was fighting back tears and had to cut short her response.