Thursday, September 27, 2012

Can we destroy creation? Hubris and self-destruction

We can't destroy creation. Alpha Centuri is going to be just fine, climate change or not. We can't even destroy the planet. It's survived meteors, tectonic upheavals and ice ages. It's a pretty durable lump of rock.

Nonetheless, I frequently see people claiming that it is arrogant to think that tiny little humans are having such a large impact of the functioning of planetary-scale systems as is implied by the mainstream science of climate change, ocean acidification, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and so on. Sometimes this objection has a dose of piety injected: God is in charge of the world; we can't damage it (at least, not more than superficially or locally).

But isn't it arrogant (and historically ignorant) to think that our capacity for destruction does not extend to wiping out entire ecosystems? We have done so on colossal scales in recorded history. Vast forests have disappeared in the face of the axe and bulldozer; seemingly endless prairies have all but disappeared under the plough. Haven't we grown to seven billion and rising, spreading into every continent and visibly altering huge tracts of the earth's surface? Why would we be surprised at anthropogenic climate change or ocean acidification or biodiversity decline when we consider our collective effects in a wide range of areas? Aren't our nuclear arsenals capable of obliterating the vast majority of life on earth at a moment's notice? Haven't we fundamentally altered the appearance, behaviour and distribution of species through millennia of domestication and exploration? Haven't we sent thousands of recorded species (and likely tens or hundreds of thousands of unrecorded species) extinct? Haven't we damned and/or diverted the majority of the world's great rivers, and even (almost) dried up what was previously the fourth largest lake in the world? Haven't we flung craft into orbit that can monitor many of these changes in astonishing detail?

If human civilisations (even ones who considered themselves Christian) have risen and fallen in the past, why would we assume that ours will be immortal? And if human actions have contributed to historical collapses, why would we rule out such influence today?

If we have done all this, then if we have also dug up and burned over 300 billion tonnes of fossil hydrocarbons, might not here, as in so many other places, our capacity for altering our surroundings be manifest? If we have changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans in measurable and statistically significant ways, might not these changes have far-reaching consequences and implications for life (human and otherwise) throughout the atmosphere and oceans? If we can measure the changes in radiation that occur as a result of these alterations, if we can measure shifts in the timing of flowerings, growing seasons, hibernations and migrations, observe massive and alarmingly rapid alterations to the frozen places of the planet, notice systematic and unprecedented shifts in humidity, precipitation, temperatures over land and sea (and in the waters) and rising sea levels - if we can observe these changes occurring and have an excellent theory that accounts for all the data and which has withstood every criticism levelled against it, seen off all competing explanations and gained the acceptance of every single relevant scientific body of national or international standing in the world, then what is to be gained by withholding judgement? And if we have good reason to be deeply concerned about the already manifest and likely future consequences of the observed, modelled and projected trends, if these consequences threaten the habitability of the planet and its ability to provide sufficient food for our societies and habitat for all our fellow creatures, if our neighbours are deeply vulnerable to these changes, if the most vulnerable are also those who have done least to contribute to the problem (the poor, future generations and other species), then might not Christian discipleship embrace humble acceptance of our predicament and an earnest search for responses that express repentance, care and prudence?

Furthermore, if many of the social and personal changes required are not simply consonant with, but already actively required by, Christian discipleship due to the rejection of idolatry, greed and consumerism, if the infrastructural changes are both affordable and viable, if those most vocally opposed to these changes have a history of engaging in less than honest advocacy and have a business practice that currently kills millions of people annually, then might we not have a strong case for prophetic witness in defence of the goodness of the created order, in pursuit of justice for the suffering, in the hope of wise care for our children's future?

There are no merely local famines

In a globalised society, there are no merely local famines, or revolutions, or failed states.

Many of our most severe ecological threats converge on the stability of the global food supply. The most explosive consequences of food shortages are not population decline from starvation, but civil unrest and conflict (as well as increasing vulnerability to disease/pandemic). During the 2008 food price spikes, there were riots in sixteen countries. And the most visible political consequence of the 2010 food price spike was the Arab Spring (though again there were protests and riots in many other countries). Yes, of course there are other underlying factors in every country affected, but the spike in the price of bread was the initial spark in nearly every country that saw significant instances of civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The protests that ultimately brought down governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (and possibly Syria) all had the price of bread as their trigger (as did those in Bahrain and elsewhere). And why were prices so high in 2010? Again, all kinds of systematic reasons (biofuels taking an increasing share, changing diets, speculation, government hoarding in response to an initial rise), but the short term trigger was almost simultaneous crop losses from extreme weather events in Argentina, Australia, Pakistan and Russia (which famously stopped exporting wheat after its six sigma heatwave). Food price spikes are inconvenient in the west, where we spend less than 15% of our income on food, but disastrous in the many places with otherwise somewhat stable governments where large parts of the population spend more like 75%+ of their income on food.

The consequences of political unrest are not confined to the poor country. To pick one consequence: our taxes here in the UK recently went towards funding war in Libya, despite an austerity programme of slashing government services in response to the worst recession since the Great Depression. Refugee flows from all the various places involved have also increased. Major protests in the US and elsewhere this time last year questioned the direction of the present economic order. These explicitly drew both inspiration and organisational links from elements of the Arab Spring before being brutally suppressed - perhaps not as brutally as in Syria, but if you had your eyes open last autumn there was plenty of state-sponsored violence happening against protesters in free(r) countries, much of which was never acknowledged or addressed by the justice system.

This is not at all to claim that climate change "caused" the Occupy movement in any straightforward way, simply to chase one strand of causal links as an illustration of the global implications of crises in a single region.

Failed states have all kinds of knock-on effects on their neighbours and the rest of the world. Think about the extra costs to global shipping due to Somalian piracy (leading to many shipping companies eagerly awaiting the further opening up of Arctic shipping lanes to avoid the area entirely), about the seedbed of terrorism that Afghanistan has represented since the US turbo-charged the factions against Soviet invasion, about the effect on global oil prices (and hence the global economy) of war in Libya (or Iran...), about the ongoing repercussions of the Arab/Israeli conflict partially driven by the planned failure/sabotage of the Palestinian state. And so on. The global system can handle a few failed states, but since it does so by distributing the costs across the whole system (UK taxpayers paying for wars in Libya), it does so by increasing the stress on the system as a whole. Electricity grids are a good analogy here, actually - grids can handle the sudden failure of a certain number of elements in the grid, but do so at the cost of placing the entire grid at greater risk of collapse. Globalisation is a super-grid for economic and political stability: failure in one part can be accommodated by increasing stress across the board. But only to a point.

This is why Joseph Tainter says in the final chapter of his intriguing and seminal book, The Collapse of Complex Societies that there can be no local collapses in a global system. The term "catabolic collapse" is sometimes used, which refers to a collapse in one part of a system becomes self-reinforcing and ends up taking down the whole show (see here for a much more detailed and insightful discussion of this concept by John Michael Greer).

So when you read about the coming food price spike of late 2012 as the effects of the US drought kick in, don't just think about poor Indians struggling to put food on the table, but also think about the $700b-odd the US spends on its military (over $1t on "national security" as a whole), about the possible break-up of the EU (troubles in Greece are complex, but one of the causes/manifestations/worsening of their crisis is the fact that they receive per capita more refugees and undocumented immigrants fleeing struggling MENA countries than almost anywhere else in the EU and it has seen a big jump in recent years), about deforestation in Indonesia and elsewhere (which is linked, in complex ways, to food prices), and so on.

Global crises require global (as well as local, provincial, national, regional) responses. We can't simply pull up the drawbridge and hope to weather the storm.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Coal world

Covers a lot of ground in 2 minutes, but there is a lot of ground that is planned to be uncovered in the coming years (to get at the coal underneath).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Twenty Nile rivers, and other stories

Water stress: By 2025, to feed growing populations, the world will need to find extra fresh water equivalent to the flow of twenty Nile rivers.

Extreme weather: Bill McKibben ponders just how strange this year has been.

Junk food: George Monbiot concludes that a possible link between Alzheimer's and poor diet might be more than sensationalist media spin.

Heat: 2013 tipped to break more records. With a good chance of an El Niño forming in the coming months, combined with the ongoing warming trend from greenhouse gases, next year could be one for the record books. At least until the next El Niño...

Mangroves: Per hectare lost, mangrove destruction is three times worse for greenhouse gas emissions than deforestation.

NB The following articles are eighteen months out of date, but I neglected to post them earlier and they are interesting.
Malthusians beware: Blame the World Bank and IMF (amongst others) for famine in the Horn of Africa, but don't blame overpopulation.

Deep sea fishing: Is any deep-sea fishing sustainable? The short answer is "almost none". Deep-sea fisheries tend to regenerate very slowly, given the small amounts of energy entering the system. Many of the creatures down there are older than your grandmother.

Organic farming: It can be more profitable than conventional farming over the long term, even if organic premiums drop by 50%.

Climate panic: What we can all be doing about climate change. The Onion nearly always hits the key issue on the nose.


I've just discovered that a couple of days away combined with a forced "upgrade" in the behind the scenes Blogger functions lead to a couple of posts looking decidedly odd on some browsers for a few days. Rest assured, I think I now have the problem in hand. Please let me know if my new formatting has any issues (and if so, which browser you're using).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Non-habeas corpus

The game show where everyone wins. And by everyone, I mean the military-industrial complex.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Arctic is melting: 18 reasons to care

Arctic sea ice has once again smashed all kinds of records - for extent, area and volume. Every year a huge amount of ice melts in summer and refreezes in winter, but the trend over the last few decades has been strongly downwards, especially during the summer months. In fact, this year, the extent of ocean with at least 15% sea ice cover declined to a level less than half of what it used to average just twenty years or so ago. Through it is harder to measure, the volume of summer sea ice is down by about three quarters from what it used to be. I posted an introduction to sea ice area, extent and volume back here.

When compared to our best reconstructions of the history of Arctic sea ice over the last 1450 years, the last few decades are, well, unusual. The graph above, which shows the ups and downs of summer sea ice extent over the years gives a sense of just how staggeringly quickly this part of the world is changing. Indeed, the collapse in sea ice is so rapid that it continues to stun even the scientists who have been watching it closely for decades. Back in 2007, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report said that it was unlikely the Arctic would be seasonally free until after 2100.* Now, the UK Met Office says it is likely sometime between 2040 and 2060, most other Arctic organisations speak about sometime around 2030, while a handful of individual experts warn that, depending on weather conditions, it could be as early as the next Olympics in Rio. There is almost no evidence that this has occurred for at least the last few hundred thousand years (estimates range from 700,000 to 4 million years). *There are different definitions for what "ice-free" means. The most common is when extent drops below one million square kilometres, meaning that there might still be some ice clinging on around the north Greenland coast or in bays and inlets in the high Canadian Arctic, but effectively, the main ocean is free of ice.

Whatever the precise timing, why do we care? So what if some polar bears drown? Why does it matter to me what is happening thousands of miles away in the middle of an ocean amidst a deserted wilderness? Because the Arctic is closer than you think. The effects of declining summer sea ice are many. Here are eighteen reasons to care about the likelihood of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean in the coming years. Only one is polar bears:

1. Polar bears: And walruses, seals and all the other unique Arctic wildlife that depend on sea ice. Seasonal sea ice loss threatens the unique and endemic Arctic biota. The polar bear is an photogenic icon, and as the largest terrestrial predator it instantly commands widespread respect and attention, but there is so much more at stake than simply polar bears.

2. Cultural loss. The loss of sea ice undermines the way of life of various indigenous groups in the Arctic, who rely on hunting and the ice for their livelihood and culture.

3. Infrastructure damage: As the Arctic region is warming, the permafrost that covers the land is both melting and being rapidly eroded. There are many structures and roads built on the permafrost that are already suffering severe damage.

4. Albedo change: Less floating white ice means more exposed dark water, which absorbs more solar radiation, increasing the total incoming heat flux of the planet, and specifically of the Arctic Ocean. The reflectivity of the planet's surface is called its albedo, and the decrease in albedo caused by loss of Arctic ice during the period when it is receiving 24 hours of sunlight is considered by many scientists to be the greatest single threat on this list.

5. Permafrost methane: A warming Arctic Ocean and atmosphere speeds the melt of permafrost in Canada, Siberia and Alaska, not only threatening infrastructure (see #3), but also releasing stored methane (CH4), a highly potent greenhouse gas that degrades into carbon dioxide, making it both a short term climate nasty and a long term headache. The total amount of frozen methane is vast and although it unlikely to all melt quickly, it is soon likely to become a significant and sustained drag on efforts to cut emissions. More emissions from thawing permafrost means less room and time for us to make our own transition away from carbon-intensive energy systems.

6. Submarine methane: Warmer waters increase the rate at which vast submarine deposits of methane clathrates found along the Siberian continental shelf destabilise and are released to the atmosphere, giving a further kick to warming. Some observers are petrified this "clathrate gun" could end basically all life on earth in matter of years through a catastrophic self-perpetuating release. As I've noted previously, scientists are yet to see a convincing geophysical mechanism for this being a sudden and catastrophic release (with consequent spike in global CH4) rather than a progressive leak resulting in an elevation of CH4 with rising CO2. This represents further drain on our carbon budgets, though the precise scale and timing of these emissions are less understood than those from terrestrial thawing.

7. More available heat: To convert ice at 0ºC to water at 0ºC takes energy, even though the temperature has not changed. The considerable energy involved in this phase change is called latent heat. Without ice in the ocean sucking up extra energy during summer, the solar energy that previous went into melting ice can go into the oceans (and later be released to the atmosphere). This is like removing a handbrake, though my back of the envelope attempts to quantify it suggest it will be significantly smaller effect than albedo change (#4). I'd like to see these calculations made by someone who knows what they are doing.

8. Wacky weather: This is something of a wild card and could prove to be the biggest danger to human society. Losing the ice is already changing wind patterns around the Arctic, which in turn affect the weather throughout the northern hemisphere. There is some evidence that more exposed water in the Arctic and a decreased temperature difference between the equator and pole (since the Arctic region is warming much faster than further south) is increasing the amplitude of the meanders in the jet stream. In turn, this slows down progression of the meanders, leading to "blocking patterns", where one region gets "stuck" in a certain weather pattern, whether heatwave, drought or flood. The 2010 Moscow heatwave that killed 11,000 people and sent the price of wheat skyrocketing (in turn helping to spark the Arab Spring), the 2010 Pakistan floods that displaced 20 million people, the 2010/11 record cold winters in Europe and parts of the US and the 2012 US heatwave and drought have all been linked to unusually persistent blocking patterns. Losing the ice may mean we see more of these kinds of things. The jury is still out on this theory, but if not precisely like this, the loss of Arctic sea ice will almost certainly affect wind circulation patterns and so weather both regionally and hemispherically.

9. Greenland melt: Over the long term, this may be the biggest change. The warmer the Arctic Ocean gets, the warmer Greenland is likely to get, and the faster its glaciers slide and melt into the sea. While floating sea ice doesn't affect sea levels (and there's relatively little of it anyway), there's enough ice on top of Greenland to raise sea levels by 7.2 metres (on average). As I read it, glacial draining and calving of the ice sheet is a larger sea level rise contributor than straight melting (thus the recent fracas over dramatic surface melt may not be the key issue for Greenland - remember, this recent melt event cut centimetres off a sheet that averages over two kilometres thick). The real danger is the acceleration of ice flow dynamics (i.e. the ice cube is more likely to slide off the table before it has finished melting). And the largest boost to glacier acceleration is from warming oceans meeting marine terminating glaciers. No one is entirely sure how long this will take, but it is a process that once it is underway in earnest, is likely to have a momentum of its own, meaning that our descendants will be committed to ever rising sea levels for centuries to come. The somewhat good news is that it is also a process that (on present understandings) is assumed to have some physical constraints due to friction (i.e. there are speed limits for glaciers, even in very warm conditions). The West Antarctic ice sheet, being largely grounded on bedrock well below sea level is actually more plausibly in danger of catastrophically sudden break-up, though warming in the Antarctic is currently only a fraction of what is being observed in the Arctic.

10. Resource conflict: An increasingly ice-free Arctic opens up a geopolitical minefield as nations scramble to take advantage of the resources previously locked away under the ice. The starter's gun for this race has well and truly fired, with various oil companies sending rigs to begin drilling for oil and gas this season. As one signal of the seriousness with which this is now taken, meetings of the Arctic council (comprised of nations bordering the Arctic) now attract Hillary Clinton rather than a minor government official.

11. More oil: The presence of significant amounts of oil and gas under the Arctic Ocean has been suspected and known for some time. Less ice means that fossil hydrocarbons that were previously off limits now become economically viable to extract, thus increasing the pool of available carbon reserves and so worsening the challenge of keeping most of them underground.

12. Fishing: Another resource now increasingly able to be exploited due to the loss of seasonal sea ice. Pristine (or somewhat pristine) marine ecosystems are thus exposed to greater exploitation (and noise pollution).

13. Shipping lanes: The fabled North West passage through the remote islands of Canada has been open to commercial shipping without icebreakers only four times in recorded history: 2011, 2010, 2008, 2007. The North East passage has also been open in recent years. These previously inaccessible Arctic shipping routes reduce fuel needs of global shipping by cutting distances (a negative feedback) but also brings more diesel fuel into the Arctic region, leaving black soot on glaciers (a positive feedback). I'm not sure which is the larger effect overall.

14. Toxin release: For various reasons, certain toxins and heavy metals from human pollution seem to accumulate in Arctic sea ice. As it melts, they are being released once more into the environment.

15. Invasive species: Melting ice reconnects marine ecosystems that were previously separated by ice, enabling migration of species into new regions, with unpredictable ecosystem changes as a result. This is already occurring.

16. Ocean circulation? These last three points are more speculative and I'm yet to see studies on them. But loss of sea ice could well change the patterns of ocean currents in the great global conveyor belt known as thermohaline circulation. This drives weather patterns throughout the entire globe.

17. Acidification acceleration? By increasing the open ocean surface area for atmosphere-ocean gas exchange, the rate of ocean acidification could slightly increase. Would this make any difference to ocean capacity to act as CO2 sink or rate of acidification? This could well be irrelevant, but it is a question I have.

18 Political tipping point? The loss of virtually all perennial Arctic sea ice would be a highly visual and difficult to dispute sign of rapid and alarming climate change, representing a potential tipping point in public awareness and concern. If we are waiting for that, however, before we make any serious efforts to slash emissions (especially if it doesn't occur until 2030 or later), we'll already have so much warming committed that we'll pretty much be toast. At best, therefore, this point might consolidate public support for massive rapid emissions reductions already underway. These eighteen reasons can be summarised in five broad headings:
  1. Direct effects upon local wildlife, human communities and infrastructure (1, 2, 3, 12, 14, 15);
  2. Positive feedback affects that accelerate the warming process (4, 5, 6, 7, 11);
  3. Changes to human economic and political systems through the opening up of previous inaccessible resources and routes (10, 13, 18);
  4. Disruptions to the great atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns that shape the experience of billions of people directly (8, 16);
  5. Acceleration of long term threats (9, 17).
The loss of Arctic sea ice will not suddenly be the end of the world, but it represents a major milestone on the path to self-destruction along which we are currently hurtling with accelerating speed.

UPDATE: My opening graph needs some important further clarification. The unamended graph is a 40 year smoothed average, while the additional material displays year-on-year changes and so is not comparing apples to apples. However, using only 40 year averages to capture the dramatic changes of the last few years is also likely misleading. There is further discussion of this image here, here and here.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Surviving Progress to be screened on ABC

A couple of months ago I posted a few thoughts about the excellent and intriguing documentary Surviving Progress. I've just realised it was shown in Australia by the ABC a few hours ago. If you missed it, there is a repeat at 11:05pm this Wednesday (19th September). It is also available (for Australian viewers) on iView.
H/T Dave Lankshear and Mick Pope.

Musical interlude: our biggest challenge

For those whose attention span does not extend to the length of the previous video.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Lines of evidence: How do we know about climate change?

For anyone still confused as to how we know that the climate is changing and that the changes are largely driven by human activities, this 26 minute video from the US National Academies gives an excellent and authoritative overview of the evidence. None of this is remotely controversial amongst the world's peak scientific bodies, despite much obfuscation and confusion through the media and blogs for political, economic and ideological purposes.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Do rivers have rights?

I spawn fish and I vote
A New Zealand court has recognised that a river has personality sufficient for it to have legal representation in order for its interests to be considered and its rights respected. The move is made in a deliberate echo or parallel of the legal "personhood" of corporations.

In both cases, corporations and natural entities, the personhood that is legally recognised is not identical with that of a "natural person", though it was the idea that corporations are persons that lay behind the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Citizens United that effectively removed any spending cap on corporate political "speech".* This is not the place for a detailed consideration of the history and myriad implications of this legal metaphor. My usual brief reply to this idea is that as long as the US starts applying the death penalty to corporations who commit grave offences, then they can continue with this somewhat odd word games.
*Also lying behind the decision was the equation that campaign money is a form of speech and so falls under the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech. I find both assumptions dubious.

In truth, I don't really know what to make of this development in New Zealand. It seems like an extension/application of the move made in 2009 by the new Bolivian constitution, which acknowledges that nature has rights. There may have been other ways of doing it, but I do think it is imperative that the ecological damage we are doing is brought more clearly and fully into our legal system. There are all kinds of difficulties with this task and I doubt there is a perfect solution. I would be very interested to hear reflections from lawyers (and anyone else) on the possible pros and cons of this precedent.

A variety of theological observations support some kind of legal recognition of creatures (and I'm not confining this word to living beings, but include rivers, mountains, atmosphere, oceans, etc.). The created order is declared "good" in the absence of humanity (Genesis 1); it is sustained and designed for goods that are not exhausted by human projects (Psalm 104); God cares for it simply because he made it (Matthew 6 & 10). In short, non-human creatures have intrinsic, not merely instrumental, worth and cannot rightly be appropriated by or subordinated to human projects without this being given due weight.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ross Gelbspan summarises our climate predicament

This is a twenty-three minute talking head video that you can basically put on as an audio since there is practically nothing to see. But the grasp of our situation by this investigative journalist - who has spent fifteen years grappling with climate science, politics, journalism and ethics and published two major books on these matters - is superior to that of many other commentators I've come across. It is now a couple of years old, but still extremely relevant.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Cooling in a warming world, and other stories

Air-con: Cooling a warming world. Air-conditioning's role in the energy demand that leads to climate change is increasing. While the US has long used more air-con than the rest of the world combined (indeed US air-con uses more electricity than the total electricity demand of Africa), rapidly industrialising countries are catching up quickly.

Oz gas hub: Walmadan or James Price Point, a remote headland on the coast of Western Australia, is the proposed site of the second largest natural gas hub in the world, a mega project costing AUD$34-40b. Described by the state premier Colin Barnett as "unremarkable", the piece of coast in question has been recommended by various government agencies for National Park status on no less than six occasions over the last five decades. The environmental impact report for the proposed development has left a lot to be desired. Once again, the impact of dumping hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane pollution into the atmosphere are not even included in the assessment process.

Sea shock: Marine extinction risks. "Life in the world's oceans faces far greater change and risk of large-scale extinctions than at any previous time in human history, a team of the world's leading marine scientists has warned." Original article is here.

Fracking: Sean Lennon summarises the arguments against the US increasingly relying on fracking for natural gas: climate (natural gas is still a fossil fuel), climate (methane leaks make fracking perhaps as bad as coal), water use, water pollution, land seizure and industry spin (from the PR firms that brought you safe cigarettes).

Genetic effects: A new study has found that certain plastics (such as BPA) have effects at a genetic level. Exposure to the BPA begins in the womb and has effects that last generations.

Gaza water: Gaza strip will soon be unliveable (even more than it already is) due to water crisis. On current trends, the aquifer supplying water to the 1.6 million inhabitants will be ruined and undrinkable by 2016. Water drives considerably more of the conflict in Israel/Palestine than is widely recognised and there are huge disparities in access.

Bugs: Twenty percent of invertebrates are at risk of extinction. Invertebrates include 97% of the world's animals.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Australian carbon policy makes coal plants more profitable

"Australia's highest-emitting brown coal electricity generators are between $400 million and $1 billion better off than they would have been if there were no carbon tax, new modelling shows."

- Lenore Taylor and David Wroe, Carbon tax [price] leaves big polluters better off, SMH, 6th September 2012.

Some days, I think Australia's climate policy is a joke: a sick joke to be aiming for a 5% reduction from 2000 levels by 2020 when the UK has legislated targets for a 50% reduction from 1990 levels by 2027, and a sick joke to allow a majority of that target to come from international offsets, and a sick joke to plan on doubling Australian coal exports over the next decade when we are already the largest coal exporter in the world (and our coal exports don't count towards our targets). Australians have the highest per capita carbon footprint in the OECD (even ignoring our coal exports) and yet our targets for emissions reductions are some of the weakest.

This is indeed a major Gillard failure, taking baby steps when we need to be running. It is an even bigger failure of Australian culture, since we collectively choose (and vote for) short term personal acquisitiveness (a.k.a. greed) over justice and prudence (a.k.a. doing our fair share of working for a habitable planet).

Fortunately, the good news of Jesus has a lot to say to those who steal from their neighbours and can't see very far.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

And now for the weather report

Perhaps a few more weather reporters giving this kind of context could help public understanding, since studies indicate that weather reporters remain one of the primary sources of information about climate (despite many reporters having little or background in climate themselves).

Very helpfully, the American Meteorological Society has updated its statement on climate change to reflect scientific research completed since the last one in 2007. The new statement is considerably stronger in its language than its previous one. Here are a few tastes of the new statement:

"Warming of the climate system now is unequivocal [...] many of the observed changes noted above are beyond what can be explained by the natural variability of the climate. It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases [...] Since long-term measurements began in the 1950s, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been increasing at a rate much faster than at any time in the last 800,000 years. [...] Climate is potentially predictable for much longer time scales than weather for several reasons. [...] A helpful analogy in this regard is that population averages of human mortality are predictable while life spans of individuals are not. [...] Future warming of the climate is inevitable for many years due to the greenhouse gases already added to the atmosphere and the heat that has been taken up by the oceans. [...] Global efforts to slow greenhouse gas emissions have been unsuccessful so far. However, were future technologies and policies able to achieve a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — an approach termed “mitigation” — this would greatly lessen future global warming and its impacts. [...] In the 21st century, global sea level also will continue to rise although the rise will not be uniform at all locations. [...] Atmospheric water content will increase globally, consistent with warmer temperatures, and consequently the global hydrological cycle will continue to accelerate. [...] changes in precipitation patterns are expected to differ considerably by region and by season [...] more severe droughts and floods [...] significant regional shifts in precipitation patterns [...] heavy precipitation events will continue to become more intense and frequent [...] longer dry spells between precipitation events in the subtropics and lower-middle latitudes [...] Widespread retreat of mountain glaciers is expected to eventually lead to reduced dry season flows for glacier-fed rivers. Drought is projected to increase over Africa, Europe, and much of the North American continental interior, and particularly the southwest United States. [...] more extreme warm periods and fewer cold periods are expected [...] more severe episodes of extreme heat. Critical thresholds of daily maximum temperature, above which ecosystems and crop systems (e.g., food crops such as rice, corn, and wheat) suffer increasingly severe damage, are likely to be exceeded more frequently. [...] It is unclear if the land biosphere and oceans will be able to continue taking up carbon at their current rate into the future. [...] Another unknown is the amount of methane that will be released due to high-latitude warming. There are indications that large regions of the permafrost in parts of Alaska and other northern polar areas are already thawing, with the potential to release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere beyond those being directly added by human activity. The portion of the increased CO2 release that is absorbed by the world ocean is making the ocean more acidic, with negative implications for shell- and skeleton-forming organisms and more generally for ocean ecosystems."
If you're pressed for time, or already familiar with recent climate research, then you can just skip to the conclusion. Here it is in full:
"There is unequivocal evidence that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities. This scientific finding is based on a large and persuasive body of research. The observed warming will be irreversible for many years into the future, and even larger temperature increases will occur as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Avoiding this future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The ongoing warming will increase risks and stresses to human societies, economies, ecosystems, and wildlife through the 21st century and beyond, making it imperative that society respond to a changing climate. To inform decisions on adaptation and mitigation, it is critical that we improve our understanding of the global climate system and our ability to project future climate through continued and improved monitoring and research. This is especially true for smaller (seasonal and regional) scales and weather and climate extremes, and for important hydroclimatic variables such as precipitation and water availability.

Technological, economic, and policy choices in the near future will determine the extent of future impacts of climate change. Science-based decisions are seldom made in a context of absolute certainty. National and international policy discussions should include consideration of the best ways to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. Mitigation will reduce the amount of future climate change and the risk of impacts that are potentially large and dangerous. At the same time, some continued climate change is inevitable, and policy responses should include adaptation to climate change. Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life."
There is much to commend in this new statement. It clearly and unambiguously affirms the three basic pillars of climate science: (a) the planet is warming rapidly; (b) humans are the dominant cause; (c) the consequences are a serious threat. There is not a relevant scientific institution of national or international standing that questions any of those three claims.

At the same time, the new AMS statement acknowledges many areas of lower confidence, where research is ongoing, including: the precise sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gases; the precise role of clouds and aerosol particles; the precise distribution of disruptions to the hydrological cycle; the ongoing effects of natural variation within the larger trends; the rate of ice sheet disintegration and sea level melt; the potential negative side effects of geo-engineering proposals; and perhaps most importantly the uncertainties in the human systems that cause and are impacted by climate change: how fast will we continue to modify the chemical composition of atmosphere and oceans? And how well will we respond to the risks and threats these changes will bring?

Given the uncertainties, both in the geophysical systems and especially in the human systems that drive and respond to them, the AMS statement remains agnostic about the most important debate regarding the threat of climate change: does climate change represent a level of risk that is merely disastrous or truly catastrophic?

The closest it comes to addressing this question is in the very interesting final sentence: "Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life." We're not talking merely about losing the polar bears, or an acceleration of species extinctions more generally, or even severe economic disruption or a rising threat of climate-related conflict. Implicitly at least, this statement acknowledges that what is at stake is the ongoing capacity of the planet to sustain human life.

UPDATE: The scriptwriter for the video above shares his thinking behind the clip.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Pope and the Cardinal: Hamilton on climate ethics and the Catholic Church

"Simple principles and a modicum of self-sacrifice can slice through the most difficult ethical tangles. The simple principles are known; the only thing missing is a little selflessness or even enlightened self-interest. So the big question to ask is why it has been in such short supply?

"I think there have been a number of factors at work. Let me here comment on two of the most telling, leaving aside the exercise of brute political power by fossil fuel corporations.

"First, there is the intensely materialistic nature of affluent societies like ours. In societies where consumerism reigns, people's identities become bound up in how much and what they consume. In these circumstances it becomes easy for opponents of measures to cut carbon emissions to frighten people into thinking they may have to adjust their lifestyles, or make significant sacrifices, for then it seems like a threat to their sense of self. So the psychological pressures of consumerism come into conflict with our desire to be good citizens. Each time an Australian political leader responds to the public demand to "do something" about climate change, he or she attracts resentment and is punished. Most Australians want symbolic actions that make them feel good about themselves but which have no discernible effect on their way of life.

"The second source of moral corruption is the influence of those who repudiate the science of climate change. They portray themselves as "sceptics," but they are more accurately described as deniers. A sceptic is one who carefully filters received knowledge to see which propositions stand up to independent scrutiny. But one thing we immediately notice about the contributions of climate 'sceptics' is the absence of a quizzical, thoughtful approach. Among those who debate the science of climate change they are the ones who profess to be most certain, insisting vehemently on the falsity of the claims of climate scientists and convinced of the correctness of their own opinions."

- Clive Hamilton, The church and the ethics of climate change.
H/T Peter Lockhart.

A better title for this piece might have been "The Roman Catholic church and the ethics of climate change" since, after a lengthy introduction justifying the idea that climate is a moral issue, much of the article is a comparison of the respective positions and mindsets of Sydney's Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Pell is well known in Australia for his vociferous denial of climate science, part of a broader rejection of everything associated with environmentalism as a false religion. In stark contrast, Pope Benedict has continued the insistence of his predecessor John Paul II that how we treat God's creation and care for those most vulnerable to ecological degradation are non-negotiable elements of Christian discipleship today.

Clive Hamilton's contributions to climate ethics are always worth reading, and the other book he quotes in this article (A Perfect Moral Storm by Stephen Gardiner) is also a quality piece of work, filled with a sensitivity to our capacity to fool ourselves. All too quickly, we subvert our moral responsibilities in ways that serve our self-interest, a process that Gardiner terms "moral corruption". This is especially true in all kinds of interesting ways with regard to climate change. Such self-serving delusions come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the holy scriptures. Gardiner's attentiveness to this tendency is the kind of sensitivity that Christian belief and practice ought to inculcate. I'm not sure of Gardiner's religious convictions or background, but his insights here are excellent.

Hamilton takes Gardiner's observations but wants to deny that they form any kind of convenient excuse. While the details of responding well to climate change are incredibly complex, the basic outline of who is responsible to take the lead in addressing it has already been clearly drawn by international negotiations. Therefore, our collective paralysis cannot be blamed purely on the complexity of the ethical disputes. And here, Gardiner's insights into moral corruption are highly appropriate.

What both Hamilton and Gardiner lack is a compelling account of how we are to deal with our moral corruption (though, to be sure, they both have insights to offer on this as well), let alone how to live amongst a morally corrupt people.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

If only Jesus had read Adam Smith, or perhaps Ayn Rand

The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man

1. As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 2. And Jesus said to him, “What have you done so far?” 3. And he said to Him, “Well I was born into a wealthy family, got into a good school in Galilee because my parents donated a few thousand talents for a building with a nice reed roof, and now I have a high-paying job in the Roman treasury managing risk.” 4. Looking at him, Jesus felt an admiration for him, and said to him, “Blessed are you! For you are not far from being independently wealthy." And the man was happy. Then Jesus said, "But there is one thing you lack: A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you will have a treasure indeed. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice." The disciples were amazed. 5. Peter asked him, “Lord, shouldn’t he sell all his possessions and give it to the poor?” Jesus grew angry. “Get behind me, Satan! He has earned it!” Peter protested: “Lord,” he said, “Did this man not have an unjust advantage? What about those who are not born into wealthy families, or who do not have the benefit of a good education, or who, despite all their toil, live in the poorer areas of Galilee, like Nazareth, your own home town?” 6. “Well,” said Jesus, “first of all, that’s why I left Nazareth. There were too many poor people always asking me for charity. They were as numerous as the stars in the sky, and they annoyed me. Second, once people start spending again, like this rich young man, the Galilean economy will inevitably rebound, and eventually some of it will trickle down to the poor. Blessed are the patient! But giving the money away, especially if he can’t write it off, is a big fat waste.” The disciples’ amazement knew no bounds. “But Lord," they said, "what about the passages in both the Law and the Prophets that tell us to care for widows and orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about the many passages in the Scriptures about justice?” 7. “Those are just metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don’t take everything so literally.”

- James Martin, SJ, The Not-so-Social Gospel.

There are a couple more where that came from: The Lazy Paralytic and The Very Poorly Prepared Crowd. Evidently, Jesus needed to take Economics 101.