Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to talk to a climate change denier (dissenter)

George Marshall offers six strategies for engaging in constructive, rather than merely heated, dialogue: (a) finding common ground; (b) expressing respect; (c) clearly holding your views; (d) explaining the personal journey that led to your own understanding; (e) speaking to people’s worldview and values, and (f) offering rewards that speak to those values. A referenced paper discussing the research behind this video can be found here.

I'm struck by the similarities between these suggestions and the kinds of tips often given in evangelism training courses in how to engage in conversations that open up deeper questions of belief rather than closing them down or degenerating into yelling matches. Most of this advice is relevant to all conversations about potentially sensitive topics.

I admit that I frequently honour many of these suggestions more in the breach than the observance. My temptation is to jump straight into the details of the controversy, when exploring the reasons behind the disagreement may well be more fruitful.

I recommended a longer lecture from George Marshall back here. He also wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian a while back about the dangers of tokenism that I've just come across.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Justice is coming. Let's practice justice"

A short video from World Vision Australia with some familiar faces discussing matters of faith and action, or as John Dickson puts it, the logic of the kingdom. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The problem with Rowan Williams, and other links

Ben Myers: The problem with Rowan Williams. And some opposing thoughts from Michael Bird.

AlterNet: A history of the 40 hour working week. Why less is often more. Some evidence to back up the call to spend less, earn less, work less.

The Conversation: Oh the morality - Why ethics matters in economics. "An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability."

The Inquisitr: Corruption in the USA. Eight states given an "F" and zero receive an "A".

Chomsky: Losing the World: American Decline - Part One and Part Two - The Imperial Way: American Decline in Perspective.

Liz Jakimow: What does table fellowship have to do with global justice? Quite a lot.

BGS: Kony 1984. There have been plenty of things written about the Kony 2012 viral video. I thought this was one of the more interesting ones, highlighting the way the film relies on the pursuit of peace through war, just like in 1984.

Reuters: Reports of smoking's demise are greatly exaggerated. Reports of smokers' demise are not. While rates of smoking (and associated mortality) in the developed world are in decine, they continue to grow rapidly in the developing world: "if current trends continue, a billion people will die from tobacco use and exposure this century - one person every six seconds."

The (en)rich list. One hundred inspirational people "whose contributions enrich paths to sustainable futures". Their "net worth" is measured in Google hits, which is perhaps just as arbitrary as counting dollars.
H/T Jeremy.

BWAA: The end of greed. A resource for a five week sermon series and/or Bible study that reflects on "consuming as if God, people and the planet matter". I haven't looked in detail at the contents, but I like the outline.
  1. Consuming as if God matters: Rejecting consumerism, embracing the kingdom
  2. Consuming as if People matter: Rejecting greed, embracing generosity
  3. Consuming as if People matter: Rejecting exploitation, embracing justice
  4. Consuming as if the Planet matters: Rejecting destruction, embracing care
  5. Consuming as if Animals matter: Rejecting cruelty, embracing kindness
H/T Liz.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Advertising on blogs: how to make me laugh

Almost every week I get unsolicited emails offering me money to place ads or "sponsored posts" on my blog. To be clear, I will basically always refuse such offers since my opinion is not for sale. Sometimes, however, the content of the offer make me grin and shake my head in wonder. I just received this email:


I'd like to inquire about doing a sponsored blog post - about 150-300 words that talks a little bit about cars and automobiles and links back to our site [site address redacted]. We are a car dealership and thought we might be a good fit for your readers/visitors on*

Here's a list of some blog post titles we've done in the past:
- What To Look For When Buying A New Car
- 2012 Cars That Look Good And Saves You Gas
- Reasons Why Buying New Cars Is Better Than Used

Our budget is around $15 for the post. Is this something you'd be open to?

Also we might be interested in a small banner ad if the price is right.
Our budget is $40/year - something like this:
[banner address redacted]
Let me know if you'd be open to either or both of these.
Also if you have some other sites just send them over and we might be
interested in doing a sponsored post on there as well!

*Note unnecessary line break to ensure form letter is easily spammed.

Normally, I wouldn't even respond to such spam in order to avoid attracting more through confirming the fact they found an active address, but on this occasion I made an exception:
Greetings Phil,

I can't help but laugh - have you ever even looked at my blog?

A quick check of posts tagged "cars" might lead you here. Or here. Or here.

Thanks for brightening my day.

Grace & peace,

Friday, March 23, 2012

Good news, bad news

SMH: The good news is that the US National Intelligence Council thinks "a water-related, state-on-state conflict is unlikely during the next 10 years". The bad news is that after ten years, all bets are off: "as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basi[n?]s will increasingly be used as leverage [...] The use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years". Full report here.

CP: March Madness. The recent North American heatwave is breaking a record-breaking number of records. Between the 9th and 19th of March more than 4,000 US heat records were broken, and only something like 113 cold records, a ratio of about 35 to 1 (the average ratio since 2000 in the US is 2.04:1). Some places set March records higher than April records, some had daily low temperatures that broke previous daily highs, and some had old records broken by as much as 17ºC.

HuffPo: 21stC oil will break the bank and the planet.

Asian Development Bank Says Climate Migration Poses Growing Threat: "In a new report, the bank says more than 42 million people in the region were displaced by environmental disasters over the past two years alone. In 2010, it said, more than 30 million people were displaced, some permanently, primarily by devastating floods in Pakistan and China."

NYT: OECD warns of ever-higher greenhouse gases. This is what we're headed towards without a significant change of direction.

CP: Do trees have rights? Revisiting The Lorax.. In a certain sense, they already do, at least under US law.

SEI: Valuing the oceans: "climate change alone could reduce the economic value of key ocean services by up to 2 trillion USD a year by 2100". I'm more than a little sceptical about such attempts to place an economic value on ecological realities, since they obscure the fact that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. The damage we are doing to the oceans is not simply to be measured in missing dollars, but in broken lives, lost species, a weeping Creator.

Wit's End: Tropospheric ozone - blighted trees, breathing difficulties and pernicious corruption of science. The atmospheric pollution you probably haven't heard much about. This is not the "ozone layer" (stratospheric ozone), in which ozone molecules are precious and save our bacon from frying, but surface level ozone, which is an altogether different and nastier beast: "health costs due to global ozone pollution above pre-industrial levels by 2050 will be US$580 billion (year 2000$) and that mortalities from acute exposure will exceed 2 million."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bob Carr's maiden speech

Bob Carr, the newly sworn in Australian Foreign Minister, used his maiden speech in the Senate to raise an issue close to his heart. What was it?

I say, hurray for a scientifically literate politician, and for one who is not afraid to show it out of fear that it might lose him votes. And hurray for a politician who knows that climate change has a twin that may well be just as evil.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

We ain't seen nothing yet

A short video examining the impacts of climate change on wild species with commentary from Nobel laureate Camille Parmesan. Winter is shrinking and the critters are on the move.
H/T Michael.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Fear! The crack that might flood your brain with light!"

"I want to talk to you about fear. I want to do so because, in my view, the most important issue we face is how we respond to this question. The crisis is now inevitable. The issue is how will we react? [...] We should feel a bit of fear. We are in danger, all of us. [...] Yes, things will get ugly and it will happen soon, certainly in our lifetime."
Paul Gilding has written a book called The Great Disruption. Sounds like I need to read it. He also blogs at the Cockatoo Chronicles and his latest post reflects upon his experience of speaking at TED, bringing a dark message amongst one of the bastions of bright green thinking (which he calls "techno-optimism").

Gilding's examples of humanity's ability to respond well to crises - Pearl Harbor, a life-threatening diagnosis, threat of bankruptcy - all point to what is perhaps our greatest asset at this moment, namely, our freedom to repent. Even at this late hour, it is possible to change course. This may not keep us alive, it may not preserve our way of life, indeed, it may involve further destabilisation of the status quo in the realisation that the status quo is inherently unstable and destructive. But it is our chance to wake up and grow up. Let us take it.

H/T Lou for the video. This post's title is a quote from Tom Stoppard's wonderful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and could well be an epigram for the chapter I'm currently writing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Symptom, threat, feedback

LA Times: Bark beetles - a climate change symptom, threat and feedback. Due to warmer winters, a parasitic beetle that swarms pine trees in North America is multiplying rapidly across much of the west of the continent and has "already destroyed half the commercial timber in important regions like British Columbia".

Stephen Leahy: Forest fires to double or triple in a warmer world. Another symptom, threat and feedback.

Guardian: Rising seas will put 12 of 19 UK nuclear sites at risk of flooding. Once more, a symptom, threat and (insofar as one form of lower carbon energy generation is put at risk and thereby taken offline) feedback.

Bill McGuire: The surprising link between climate change and volcanoes and earthquakes . Until recently, it was thought that at least a few natural disasters could be considered still "natural". But this geophysics professor claims otherwise. The link is in the weight of melting ice. So much ice is now melting (or is likely to soon be) that the shifting weight on the earth's crusts could spur increased volcanism and earthquakes. Symptom, threat and feedback.

Carbon Brief: Ocean acidification proceeding ten times faster than any point in the last 300 million years. Symptom (of high carbon dioxide levels, if not climate change directly), threat and feedback (insofar as rising acidity reduces the capacity of the oceans to act as an atmospheric carbon sink). The threat here is large. According to this paper, left unchecked, we are likely on course for another marine mass extinction.

Yahoo: A piece of better news. US dream homes turning green. More than half of US homebuyers consider energy efficiency and other environmental considerations to be important in the selection of a potential purchase.

The Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO have published the State of the Climate 2012, an update on climate observations from an Australian context. It is summarised here. A summary of the summary: greenhouse gases, land and ocean surface temperatures and sea levels are all still rising. Australia is still heading towards a significantly hotter, drier and more flood-prone future.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bradley Manning's abuse by US military

Whatever the outcome of his trial, whatever the ethics of his actions, the treatment of Bradley Manning in custody has been "cruel, inhuman and degrading", according to the UN special rapporteur on torture. A new report argues that, by keeping Private Manning in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day over an 11 month period, the US military may have breached the UN convention against torture: "imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence".

This follows a letter signed by 250 US law professors that called his treatment illegal, unconstitutional and possibly torture.

I have written in the past about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, though Manning is also a fascinating figure in his own right. His alleged actions, whatever else we may wish to say about them, helped precipitate the Arab Spring, the US withdrawal from Iraq and the ending of that war - amongst many other things. Yet despite the hysteria at the time of their release, the US government admits it still can not point to a single informant who has been harmed by the leaks. Furthermore, various subesequent leaks of information likely subject to higher levels of classification have not been punished.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Barneys update

This blog began days after my old home church, St Barnabas' Anglican Church in Broadway, Sydney, burned to the ground. A number of my earliest posts (such as this one) were reflections on the meaning of this event and the light it might shed on our assumptions about place and community.

For those who have been reading since then, I'm impressed. And for those who have been waiting for an update on what is happening with the rebuilding project, today's SMH has a lovely story about the project as it nears completion.

For those who want to get a taste of what the new building will look and feel like, there are some videos here.
Image by Michael Randall.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Carbon offsetting: de rigueur or distraction?

A few friends have asked me for advice about voluntary carbon offsetting. Here is an edited and somewhat extended version of what I wrote to one earlier today. I freely admit that my understanding of all the finer points of this field remains somewhat shallow and so I am very open to correction, questions and further discussion (as I am on all my posts).

Voluntary carbon offsetting is the practice of paying money to organisations that seek to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (usually at a set price per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent) as a way of reducing our personal climate impact. Voluntary offsets are somewhat distinct from offsets in compliance carbon schemes (such as national or regional carbon markets). The latter probably require their own discussion at some stage.

Voluntary offsetting is most commonly associated with flying, since modern jet-powered aviation is, per hour, the most climate-destructive activity open to the average citizen of the wealthy world.* I plan on posting some thoughts on the impacts and ethics of flying at some point in the future, though let me say here that I don't think that flying is an unequivocal moral evil never to be permitted under any circumstances. I do think that it represents one of the more difficult questions facing contemporary cultural assumptions and habits, not least because, unlike many other activities, few easily substituted alternatives exist.** It also represents, for those who fly more than once in a blue moon, the most obvious point at which significant carbon reductions can quickly be made.
*It may be surpassed by political careers that attempt to thwart responsible climate action, certain kinds of investment banking, or owning factories that produce extreme greenhouse gases such as HFCs, but such activities are not generally available to most people. The main contender for this title, procreation, is a special case since it involves the creation of a new agent.
**Airships anyone?

Some companies or events also choose to pay for carbon offsetting in order to be able to claim that their activities are "carbon neutral" or "zero carbon". Most corporate claims to phrases such as these will be based at least partially in offsetting, since most human economic activities are associated with a carbon footprint of greater or lesser size.

There is a lot of debate around carbon offsetting, some of it around the relative merits of different kinds of offsetting and some about the ethics of offsetting at all.

The tactics of offsetting: evaluating different schemes
Let us first consider the various kinds of offsetting programmes. It is worth noting at the outset that no options are perfect (indeed, some may be only slightly better than nothing, or even worse than nothing), so it remains the case that the only real way of being carbon neutral is avoiding the carbon-intensive activity in the first place. I don't have specific company recommendations (though am happy to receive recommendations in the comments), but I will offer a few thoughts. There are three basic kinds of offsetting:
Forestry schemes (i.e. tree-planting): The idea here is simple. Trees are made (mostly) of carbon that has been sucked out of the atmosphere, so as trees grow, they reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations. More trees means less atmospheric carbon. Well-managed forestry also has a host of other benefits, from supporting biodiversity and local employment to regulating and enhancing local rainfall. I would also include various soil management schemes here. In the past, some forestry schemes had very poor planning or oversight, meaning trees were planted in inappropriate conditions and without ongoing management and thus quickly died, representing a worse than useless investment. There is generally better accreditation today (or so I am told, though I'm not any kind of expert on offsetting accreditation), which is good, since any planting scheme needs to put appropriate species in suitable locations, rather than just plonking anything anywhere. Nonetheless, from a climate perspective, the benefits from tree planting are generally deferred for decades and are highly vulnerable to future changes. If the forest is cut down, or dries/dies out due to climate change, then the benefit is lost. So a tonne of carbon stored in a forest (or potentially stored in a forest in a few decades) is not the equivalent of a tonne of carbon left safely underground as unused fossil fuel, though it is still better than a tonne of carbon floating in the atmosphere and upper ocean. Technically, the carbon is not removed from the active carbon cycle, just placed in a slightly slower part of it.

Development schemes (e.g. supplying renewable energy to developing nations, or supporting energy efficiency programmes): These have many of the same benefits and drawbacks of other forms of international development. While the most popular renewable energy schemes often don't actually reduce current emissions (e.g. building a wind turbine for a settlement without electricity actually adds to short-term emissions), they do represent an investment in improving human flourishing (at least potentially, depending on many other factors) in a way that (hopefully) avoids future emissions (compared to a future in which the same development occurred with fossil fuel power). Probably the best kinds of scheme here focus on long term infrastructure investments with ongoing and self-reinforcing benefits. It is not clear to me that the developed world doesn't owe this kind of assistance to the developing world in any case, and so while voluntary support for good projects is worthwhile, I don't see that it equates in any kind of morally useful way with offsetting one's damaging activities elsewhere.

Permit retirement: These are probably less well-known than other schemes. The idea is for the offsetting organisation to use your money to purchase emission permits in open compliance markets (like the EU carbon market) and then retire them from use, preventing their use by other polluters and so shrinking the total pool of potential carbon use in that market. Though somewhat more abstract than the other options, the benefits are immediate and measurable - as long as the scheme as a whole is working effectively, which is another very complex question for another day (see here for an accessible animated critique of carbon markets).
In general, I would be very hesitant about schemes offered by airlines themselves, who have a vested interest in picking projects with very low prices in order to bolster the idea that the negative impacts of air travel are small. Many airlines have a poor or mediocre track record on selecting quality offsetting schemes. If you are paying only cents or a couple of dollars per tonne of CO2e abatement, then you may well be supporting something that isn't very effective.

The strategy of offsetting: should we be doing it at all?
Second, and more importantly, lying behind questions concerning the relative pros and cons of various offsetting tactics is a more serious strategic debate about the desirability of offsetting altogether in light of its effects on moral culture. On the one hand, offsetting encourages carbon emitters to become familiar with their footprint and take some kind of financial responsibility for it. Yet on the other hand, given that all offsetting options have drawbacks sufficient to render an offset tonne not equivalent to a tonne not emitted in the first place, then the practice of offsetting represents a potential moral hazard insofar as it hides this reality by implying a climatic and moral equivalence between them.

For me, the key question is this: does supporting a culture of offsetting distract members of wealthy nations from the more important tasks of actually reducing our personal footprint and supporting responsible climate politics internationally and in our own backyard?* While I think that offsetting can do some real good and represents a retrieval ethic (trying to salvage something good out of a harmful situation), offsets come a long way down the priority list and if they become anything other than peripheral to our climate strategy then they risk becoming another distracting tokenism from the real challenges. Offsets are not necessary a token effort if people are also facing the hard questions of reducing their personal footprint and supporting responsible politics. But much of the discourse around offsets treats them as get out of gaol free cards, justifying the activity for which the offsets were sought in the first place.
*By responsible, I mean political discourse and policies that take our scientific and ethical situation seriously. This likely means radical changes to our practices (or incremental changes that work in large increments!) in order to minimise radical changes in our climate and biosphere. I know of no major parties in the Anglosphere that hold positions I would consider responsible on this matter. I don't want radical policies; I want deeply conservative policies that aim to conserve the global climate in a recognisable form for our children and grandchildren.

Some have therefore compared offsets to medieval indulgences: a price paid for a clean conscience, which often functions to justify the acts committed in the first place. If my carbon-guilt can be washed away for a small fee later (or even preemptively), then my carbon-intensive assumptions can continue unchallenged.

In sum, I think that probably the best course of action is to reduce one's own footprint as far and fast as possible, to support responsible climate politics, to support thoughtful international development, and then to "sin" boldly (in Luther's phrase) without supporting a culture of modern day indulgences. Nonetheless, I'm not totally opposed to offsetting by those who do so in good faith, via a reputable and accredited organisation. However, this should be done simply as part of one's charitable giving to worthwhile causes rather than in any attempt to assuage guilt or achieve boastful self-righteousness through "carbon neutrality".

Finally, here are some links to other discussions of carbon offsetting that I've found useful (this list may grow in future, especially if people suggest relevant links in the comments).
Dark Optimism. Building the moral case against offsets, with cartoons.
African land grabs and carbon offsets. Stephen Leahy outlines one of the dangers of rich countries relying too much on paying poor countries to offset their emissions.
Cheat Neutral. A thought-provoking spoof on voluntary offsets. It is worth noting that adultery does not equate directly with carbon emissions, which are a cumulative, rather than absolute, evil.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Warragamba is spilling: first time in 14 years

Warragamba Dam, Sydney's main water catchment and storage facility, is now at 100% capacity and started spilling about an hour or two ago. This is likely to contribute to rising floodwaters downstream along the Hawkesbury-Nepean Rivers, which are rising rapidly due to heavy rain. Something like 900 houses are on evacuation alert.

However, in the headlines about localised flooding, let us not lose the wood for the trees. While a full dam is undoubtedly excellent news for the immediate prospects of Sydney's water supply, it is worth remembering that just five years ago, the dam was below 35% and it has not been full since 1998. The situation was threatening enough in 2007 to lead the NSW State government to build a major desalination plant as a precautionary back-up.

Australia has long been known as a land "of droughts and flooding rains". The intensity of our hydrological cycle, regularly bringing both extremes, is one of the challenges faced by our ecosystems (including the human social system). Our familiarity with the dangers of this intensity can numb us to the warnings of climate scientists, that our continued pollution of the atmosphere is likely to bring even more intensity to the hydrological cycle. Simply saying that we've had floods and droughts before does not excuse us from paying attention to the increasing threat these now represent. When combined with rising human population (and rising consumption levels) in a land of fragile soils and ecosystems already significantly modified and degraded by human impact, the implications of these climate projections should not be ignored.

The last 24 months have been the wettest in Australia's recorded history, and they have followed one of our most severe droughts. As always, these have been associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, however, this natural cycle now has a strong warming trend superimposed on it, bringing more moisture into the atmosphere and redistributing it differently in space and time to familiar patterns from the past. We Australians are not immune from the changes our actions are helping to cause.

And if we are tempted to minimise our contribution to this global problem, keep in mind three factors:

(a) Australian per capita emissions are higher than all other countries except some micro-nations and petro-states with heavily subsidised oil prices. Our historical emissions put us in the top ten emitters worldwide (not per capita). These figures exclude both coal exports and our propensity to take frequent overseas flights.

(b) We are the world's largest exporter of coal and have plans to continue greatly expanding our coal production on a scale that will, by 2050, use up more than 10% of the global carbon budget required to have a decent change of keeping us below 2ºC warming. Indeed, expansion of coal exports will lead to carbon dioxide emissions 11 times greater than the projected savings of the recently passed carbon pricing legislation.

(c) As a nation with one of the highest standards of living in the world (being regularly placed in the top ten for quality of life in various surveys), we can afford serious action more easily than almost any other nation, having almost greater freedom from other pressing concerns than anywhere else.

So let us thank God for a full dam, pray for those affected by flooding and love our neighbours in how we use our precious fresh water - and in how we minimise our climate impact.