Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Deniers' Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It's been obvious for years that climate change deniers are not motivated by respect for evidence but by something else; almost certainly hostility to the policies that they suppose to be needed to stop climate change. Last week New Scientist's Feedback column gave a rare insight into this hostility. It reports the hostility of various US local authorities and right-wing pressure groups to the UN because, to quote one, it has a plan to "destroy the sovereignty of the United States of America".

Of course, that sounds like arrant nonsense. But is it?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992. It aimed to to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent catastrophic climate change. That, we now see, was about 25 years before the date by which those concentrations needed to reach their peak. If the nations had acted promptly there would have been enough time to solve the problem by a judicious mixture of carbon taxes, permit trading, investment in renewables, low-energy building design, etc. This would have been demanding and mistakes would have been made. But there would have been time to correct them in ways that are quite normal in a democratic society. Nothing in this required a transition to a command economy; indeed many corporations would now be enjoying healthy profits from low-carbon investments.

There are many reasons that this did not happen and opposition by right-wing American groups is just one, though an important one.

But look at the consequences of this opposition.

We are now past the point at which the ordinary processes of democratic politics and international negotiation can solve the problem. So either the problem will go unsolved or it will be solved by some nation or group imposing a solution, as in my Emergency Braking scenario.

If it's unsolved catastrophe will follow. Climate zones will move north, extreme weather events become more common, etc. The US will probably become unable to feed its population and will certainly be unable to sustain its current standard of living. Latino immigration will increase whilst the rich and the smart relocate to Canada. Since similar changes will happen throughout the world resource wars will increase and the US will likely be forced to support the UN in controlling them.

But effective action will create some similar demands. Since geo-engineering will be part of the solution - the time for less drastic measures to be sufficient having passed - and since such measures have global effects there will be pressures to bring these measures under international control.

Thus those who oppose effective action on climate change because it would undermine US influence will have made it likely that the US is ultimately subject to foreign influence. In the circumstances I foresee this influence will not be benign and the achievements of the West in establishing democracy, human rights and the rule of law will be undermined or lost.

Some rightwing extremists may expect their cause to benefit from this. Perhaps a few plutocrats and military strongmen really will benefit. But it will undermine the values they claim to espouse.

Truly, "be careful what you wish for".

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Biggest Elephant – No realistic strategy for climate change

[A version of this post was submitted to Compass in response to its call for essays about the 'elephants in the room'.]

No-one, left, right or centre, has a realistic strategy for climate change.

Of course we think we have a strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Our strategy is for all nations to act together to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions before we have driven their levels in the atmosphere so high that catastrophe is inevitable. This, we say, will require some mixture of reduced energy use, decarbonisation of energy supply, lower meat consumption and so on. Associated changes include better building insulation, less driving, less flying and higher fuel prices.

It was a decent strategy when we created it ten years ago. It was affordable and it promised success with only limited cuts in our standard of living. Given good leadership democracies might vote for it. Coercion would not be needed. But I have news for you that isn’t really news.

It’s failed.

Need I prove this? Most nations give this strategy no more than lip service and the biggest polluters – Canada, China and the USA do not even do that. China is increasing its coal use. Canada is mining tar sands. The USA is developing new gas fields.

The UK has the Climate Change Act but Labour planned a third Heathrow runway, the Coalition has trashed the solar panels business and GHG emissions have not been reduced.

Worldwide, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rising. In 2009 a group of Nobel Laureates said that GHG emissions need to peak by 2015 and fall rapidly thereafter. Now technically that just might be possible. If the major polluters experienced Damascene conversions and mobilised their economies NOW and if their populations accepted more years of austerity then it might be done. But none of that will happen. The US government is in thrall to Big Oil and frightened by the loony right. The Chinese government has a desperate need to keep delivering growth. And no government could be democratically re-elected if it followed these policies.

Baseline – evasion and catastrophe
So the starting point, the datum line for a realistic strategy, must be the failure of the strategy we do have. Persisting in this strategy will accelerate the existing trends – rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. These in turn will trigger positive feedback effects such as increased polar warming due to loss of ice cover and release of major deposits of trapped methane. These effects could drive global climate change MUCH faster than the IPCC scenarios, which exclude them, suggest. A timescale of decades not centuries is conceivable.

The effects of accelerated climate change will include floods, droughts, water shortages, starvation and disease. Resource wars – both reactive and pre-emptive – seem certain. In this context almost every evil – from plague to religious fanaticism – becomes entirely plausible.

Because the timescale is so uncertain we can’t be sure whether we will face problems that we can, just, overcome or a catastrophe that cannot be resisted and which only the rich and lucky will survive. The uncertainties are real but even the possibility of the worse case should weigh heavily because the worst case is just so bad.

Therefore we need either a realistic strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change or a strategy – in fact a set of strategies – for coping with catastrophe. There is no real alternative except the Ostrich gambit – stick head in the sand and hope for the best.

The strategy we need
A realistic strategy must address two questions:

  1. What technical means must be added to those we already support to get GHG levels down?
  2. How will we get the USA and the major developing economies to support those means?
Technical means
The possible technical means fall into the general category of geo-engineering. Many forms of geo-engineering have been proposed and some will doubtless prove impractical. Almost all have serious disadvantages and all risk further undesirable climate changes. They should not be considered unless the alternative is worse.

But the alternative – as I’ve indicated above – IS worse. We just have to find the least bad option. I do not expect to like what we find.

Gaining support
The technical stuff is daunting but the politics is horrendous. I do not see how the US Republicans, the European nations and the Chinese population can be won to the case for change. I do not even see how necessary changes could be imposed on them (supposing that all else had failed and that that was practical and morally defensible).

Nonetheless that must be a key part of out strategy. Perhaps, as the chief executive of a climate change thinktank remarked, we must hope that the USA is struck by a sufficiently severe and unambiguously climate change-driven disaster. It’s not exactly a policy is it?

The failure option

Finally, since success is very far from certain, what should the UK do if catastrophe occurs? How will we cope with rising temperatures, rising sea levels, falling food production, disruption of world trade and vast flows of refugees?

And if we take the steps needed to survive how much of our democracy and human rights will we be able to preserve?

Climate and collapse

Historians generally dislike theories that ascribe social change to physical change. No time for a proper report but I note that Jared Diamond took a different view in his book Collapse. More recently Michael Marshall published an article in New Scientist (4 August 2012) noting that:
  • The late Bronze Age collapse (ie the collapse of the Hittite empire, Mycenean Greek culture and the Egyptian New Kingdom) coincided with the start of a dry period lasting from 1200 to 850 BC. That is roughly the time of the Greek Dark Age.
  • The collapse of Tang dynasty in China and the Maya in central America both occurred around 900 AD. Recent research shows that rainfall in central America in the following century was 40% down on the preceding century. There was a similar shift in China.
 These points are contested and there are always competing views. But since the likely scale of upcoming climate change is much greater than that in either of these periods it is not encouraging.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Good News 3: Sun's output may now fall

The Sun's behaviour is causing puzzlement - not for the first time. It's northern hemisphere seems to have reached peak output for the current cycle whilst the southern may not do so till 2014. Very odd.

Some scientists think these oddities presage a reduction in solar output such as the Maunder Minimum (1645 to 1715) which caused the Little Ice Age. Others doubt this. No-one is sure.

The Little Ice Age was 0.3 to 0.7 degrees Celsius cooler than later times - enough to offset a large fraction of the global warming we have already experienced. A new cool period would therefore  buy us valuable time to deal with climate change.

Unhappily the scientific uncertainty won't be resolved until long after we have to fix our problem. This is not a good excuse for inaction.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Obama and Romney: The Contemptible Two

This blog has always had a pessimistic flavour. That's because the climate problem is so great whilst the efforts being made to address it are so feeble. In Europe, leaders give only lip service to the need but in the US there's not even that.

In the second presidential debate President Obama said "So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment ... we still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make it a priority for us to go after natural gas... So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production." So Obama is claiming CREDIT for increasing the use of fossil fuels and promises to do more. It's hard to think of a more irresponsible policy.

Yet that wasn't enough for Mitt Romney:  "what I’m planning on doing, ... is getting us energy independent ...  by more drilling, more permits and licenses ... I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas.".

Now despite appearances these are not stupid men. Each has a history of real achievement. So they understand that burning more coal, oil and gas will drive up greenhouse gases and that this will warm the planet. They've both said so in the past though Romney claims to have changed his mind.

So each has decided that he cannot be elected if he tells the truth about climate change. That's not because the American people disbelieve in climate change; three quarters of them get it. It's because the Republican elite and some sections of the media, and their billionaire backers, don't want the policies that will solve the problem.

These villains put their personal advantage ahead of the survival of human civilisation. And Obama and Romney are their lackeys.

Contemptible, both.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Greenland icecap melts

It's not only the Arctic sea ice that has melted this year. An almost unprecedented 97% of the Greenland ice also melted. This is not an actual catastrophe. It's only the surface that's melted (the ice sheet is up to two miles thick) and it has happened before.

But it is very rare. It happens about once in 150 years. The last time the melting reached Summit Station was 1889!

The reasons are perhaps more worrying than the simple fact. Thomas Mote of the University of Georgia blames the melting on the presence of a pocket of warm air over Greenland. In most years such pockets move away fairly quickly but this year has seen blocked weather systems so this year in stayed put.

Since these blocked weather systems are themselves attributed to climate change what we have here is another positive feedback effect: Global warming => blocking => local warming => melting => reduced albedo => warming.

If we get blocked weather systems next year - itself not unlikely - then we may have to throw away that 'once in 150 years' stuff.

The effects of increased surface melting may go beyond a simple loss of surface ice. When surface water enters crevasses it may lubricate the bottom of the icesheet and accelerate the movement of glaciers. More positive feedback.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Climate change to kill many Americans

Though US politics remains in denial about the need to act against climate change US scientists are doing what's right. In June the US Natural Resources Defense Council published a report called Killer Summer Heat. This tapped the literature to show that by the end of the century climate change will have caused a great increase in extreme heat events in US cities. This, in turn, will cause 150,000 extra deaths.

Frankly, I'm surprised it's not more.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

How trade is killing amphibians

The disease Chytridiomycosis has been found in 287 species of amphibians in 36 countries. It is responsible for the extinction of several species of amphibians and threatens the survival of many more. Chytridiomycosis is due to infection of the skin by a fungus, Batrachochytrium Dendrobatidis (Bd), and was first diagnosed in 1998.

Related fungi are fairly benign and feed on decayed plants rather than live animals. Bd, by contrast, has hundreds of genes that produce proteins that can digest amphibian skin. Genetic studies have shown that samples of Bd from around the world are very similar and that the most dangerous variety has existed for less than century. So Bd is a single, recently evolved, highly anomalous, variety that has spread rapidly.

This suggests two questions:
  1. How has BD spread so fast?
  2. How did a meat-eating fungus evolve from plant-eating ancestors?
The first question is the easier. Mathew Fisher, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, says "trade is getting this thing from continent to continent ... it doesn't survive in salt water, and, as far as we know, has no airborne stage". The most likely kind of trade is a trade in amphibians and there are two main possibilities - the African clawed frog and the North American bullfrog. Both can act as carriers because they are relatively resistant to Bd. The clawed frog is used in research whilst the bullfrog provides the frogs' legs used in some cuisines. Circumstantial evidence from the UK and the Phillippines points to the bullfrog.

So how did it arise? This is less clear but the the farming of bullfrogs creates high population densities that favour highly virulent varieties. With international trade bringing different varieties together in conditions that promote virulence the appearance of a virulent hybrid variety is no surprise - and has been seen in salamanders raised for bait.

So trade has spread this deadly disease and probably contributed to its existence. That, given the continued growth in world trade, is bad news. But there may be worse to come. The same factors that created and spread Chytridiomycosis are found in all trade in animals and plants. They may yet create new, highly virulent, diseases of chickens, pigs or even wheat.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Good News 2: Recycling nuclear waste

Nuclear waste is nasty. It's poisonous and very long-lived. There isn't a whole lot of it compared, say, to spoil from coal mines, but it's a lot nastier. And there will be more, even if we build no more nuclear power stations.

Discussions so far have concentrated on surface storage followed, eventually, by disposal underground. There's an unsurprising reluctance by most people to have it stored under their ground. But is that the best we can do? Can it be reused or recycled?

Turns out we can do better - and there are several ways.
  1. We can bombard the waste with high-speed neutrons from a particle accelerator. This causes the radioactive nuclei in the waste to split (fission) creating much shorter-lived elements. These are easier to deal with since we only have to store them safely for centuries, not millenia.
  2. We can add Thorium to the waste before bombardment. The mix will then generate power much as a Uranium reactor does except that it will consume waste and will probably be safer.
  3. We can design the reactor to create its own fast neutrons and omit the accelerator top get a new design of power-generating reactor.
Though the basic physics is well understood the engineering is not and it will take at least a decade, maybe two, to fix that. Perhaps they will never work.

But to know this we need research. The first accelerator-driven research reactor was commissioned in Tokyo in 2009 whilst Europe's own reactor, Guinevere, went live in Paris last January. Let's hope the problems can be solved. We badly need nuclear reactors that don't leave us with long-lived radioactive waste if we're to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Casino tail wags the environmental dog

The press is full of banking this week. The Barclays LIBOR scandal has reminded all of us that banking reform is unfinished business - just what the bankers want it to stay. Two things should be obvious:
  1. The banking system has created the current recession and will create another unless reformed.
  2. The culture of the major banks tolerates, even encourages, fraud. Customers cannot trust their banks.
The first hardly needs evidence. In support of the second I'd mention LIBOR, interest rate collars, payment protection insurance and pension mis-selling. A financial journalist could doubtless triple that list without drawing breath. So what's needed is comprehensive systemic change embracing regulation, leadership, culture, bonus structures, risk management systems, compliance and much else.

But what has this to do with climate?

Let's go back to basics. Human life depends first on our abilities to find water and to gather food and then, in most societies, on getting fuel with which to cook it. After that we need safety, shelter, clothing and warmth. For all these things we need a supportive community and once they're secured we'd like some luxuries.

We have had some of these things for tens of thousands of years but in the last two hundred years we have created an extraordinary industrial system that provides them in abundance to many - though far from all - of the Earth's now greatly increased population. Industry and industrialised farming provide food, clothing, housing and many luxuries. To support both we have a large service sector and this includes financial services such as cheques, savings, loans and insurance.

Now in getting to this point we've moved a fair way from picking apples and herding sheep, or even making cars; that is from the activities that meet people's needs and wants. But there is still a connection. I pay a shop for my groceries. I take out a mortgage to buy a house. I borrow money to buy a new lathe for my business. I save spare money for retirement. Financial services facilitate activities that meet needs and wants. So the businesses and people who provide these services have to have some understanding of the ordinary activities they enable.

But attached to ordinary banking we find casino banking. Casino banking is essentially very high stakes betting in which successful traders are highly rewarded for using other people's money to bet against each other. Volumes are enormous and almost unrelated to the activities that meet most people's needs and wants. Casino banking is a parasite on farming and industry, even on ordinary banking itself. It draws money from these businesses to deliver huge profits to its owners and huge bonuses to the most successful traders and executives. Casino banking has become so profitable that it increases inequality and holds governments to ransom. It lobbies vigorously for policies that suit it. The casino banks are not merely too big to fail - they are also too big to regulate!

The dominant position of casino banking should be offensive to all democrats and to anyone who wants avoid being victimised by the banks but it's particularly offensive to anyone who cares about our environment. For it distracts attention away from the real economy and the real environment. It fixes attention on a fantasy world made real only in computers. And it has corrupted ordinary banking - substituting clever 'products' for real understanding and making profit the only measure of value.

Neither a healthy environment nor a healthy economy matters to the casino bankers or to ordinary bankers who see the money they make. If money is the master measure, the only true goal, then everything else - customer service, social responsibility, ethics, even the health of the planetary environment - seems trivial. That's the exact reverse of the values we need to reverse climate change.

To misquote John Dunning, 1st Baron Ashburton, "the influence of the banks has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished".

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Competing at the speed of light

How do banks compete? 

If they want your money or mine they might offer cheaper mortgages or higher returns on investments or better customer service. Or just persuade you that they're nice people. (Hmm - that could be hard.) But the big profits are made in investment and casino banking. How does competition work there?

Casino banking is about complex derivatives and getting to the deal first. Now speed matters in lots of businesses but casino banking is a world apart. Last year Hibernia Atlantic anounced a plan to spend $300 million on the first new transatlantic cable in a decade. Apparently getting messages from London to New york in 65 milliseconds just isn't fast enough. Financial institutions are expected to be keen to use it.

And the current delay between New York and Chicago - 6.55 milliseconds - is also too long. New Scientist reports that 10 firms want to build microwave links between those cities; reducing the transit time by a whole 2.4 milliseconds.

This obsession with speed is symptomatic of the way in which casino banking is detached from the ordinary world - even the ordinary world of loans and savings. It's a pathological growth that should be separated out from ordinary, necessary, banking and then greatly reduced by taxing it as the gambling that it is.

Rioting against climate change?

There is a connection between climate change and last year’s English riots. Both are the result of a socio-economic system that is out of control. That system – you might call it capitalism though I don't find that helpful myself – demands constant growth. It's the nature of that growth to drive consumption, waste and inequality. Naomi Klein (in The Shock Doctrine) has pointed out that prior to the end of 'communism' some of this – especially the growth in inequality – was restrained by the need for the West to compete with communism for the allegiance of the third world and its own working class. So, at risk of gross over-simplification, consumption grew but the benefits were spread widely.

After the end of 'communism' the West no longer felt that need – hence accelerating inequality, etc. since 1990. And, of course, recession and the cuts make social conditions worse. (By contrast, notice how well luxury brands are doing? Even Waitrose which is hardly the preserve of millionaires.)

We MUST tame this system, humanise it – even if that reduces average consumption.

That’s an easy conclusion for a retired management in a London suburb but how can it be reconciled with social justice? How can we expect members of the Tottenham underclass – let alone the poor in countries such as Somalia – to accept it?

The Old Left answer is redistribution from the rich to the poor and that must be part of the answer. The other part is to recognise that the poor, both nationally and globally, are the greatest victims of the current socio-economic system.

The West wants to grow the economic cake. The Left wants to divide it equally. Greens want produce a better cake – one that will not so degrade our planetary environment that our grandchildren starve.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Fiddling the numbers

The Coalition inherited a scheme under which energy companies were obliged to pay a 'feed-in tariff' (FIT) to anyone who installed solar photovoltaic panels (PV). For most of 2011 it was paid at 43.2p/kWh provided they didn't have more than 4kW of panels installed. However, and this made the scheme really attractive, the rate is indexed so it will rise each year in line with inflation. The money to pay the FIT is raised from energy consumers generally. It is not paid by government.

Last year the government started a consultation on reducing the FIT but cut the FIT before the consultation period had ended. This produced a great rush to install solar panels with 30,000 installations in the last week of the old tariff. That's six times as many as the previous rate.

The Court of Appeal held this hastiness to be wrong in law. The government appealed to the Supreme Court. It said it had made the appeal because delay would have cost energy consumers £1.5 billion over 25 years.

The first nonsense
£1.5 billion over 25 years is £60 million per year. That's a small sum by government standards. It's also only £1 per person per year - which is clearly trivial. So this cannot be the reason for cutting the FIT - particularly with such unseemly haste.

The second nonsense
Because the FIT is both paid by and paid to energy consumers this cannot be the net cost to consumers. There are administration costs which are a net burden on consumers but these should not be more than a few percent of the money that is collected and paid out.

Current episode
In February Caroline Lucas asked the government to state the assumptions used to create that figure. She got a reply from Gregory Barker, minister for climate change in the Department for Energy and Climate Change, on February 20th.

I wrote immediately to Barker challenging his figures and pointing out the second nonsense. In replying the Department for Energy and Climate Change addressed the detail inadequately but ignored the second point.

A further challenge by me under the Freedom of Information Act (the date was now April 13th) produced the reply that they would have to “extend the time limit for responding by 10 days because of the complexity of the request”. So, a calculation that was sufficiently solid to justify a ministerial reply to Caroline Lucas in February was not fit to show me in May.

Why am I not surprised?

Watch this space for more.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Good News 1: Green clouds!

In Information Technology 'cloud' is the coming thing. With cloud services an individual or business can use IT services without having to buy, manage and support the necessary hardware and software (other than your PC or smartphone). The hardware and software is the responsibility of a service company - users just use the service (and pay a fee). Just like Hotmail or Facebook in fact.

I'm mentioning this because it looks like a win for the climate according to Ian Bitterlin, whose company runs large computer centres, blogging for the British Computer Society here. Bitterlin starts from the fact that many existing corporate computer centres are rather inefficient in energy terms; it's not unusual for them to consume two kilowatt-hours of electricity for every one kilowatt-hour used by the computers, etc., in the facility. Higher ratios are not unknown.

New data centres run by specialist companies offering cloud services tend to be more efficient in both their use of electricity, wasting only 10-20%, and in getting useful work from that power. Bitterlin puts the likely savings at 74% which I find over-optimistic. But 60% seems plausible.

But that's 60% of the energy use for IT services that transfer to the cloud. That's an entirely speculative fraction of the 7.5 gigawatts used by IT. It might be 2%, or 40%, or some other number.

But whatever the proportion we can expect energy savings as it happens. 

But not, let's note, for wholly new cloud services such as Google and Facebook were not so many years ago. Qualified good news then.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Where have all the plankton gone?

Research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, believe that the amount of phytoplankton - the plants at the base of the oceanic food chain - has declined by 40% in the last 40%. (Nature, vol 466, p591) They see this decline, which is based on over half a million observations, in eight out of ten oceanic regions.

Not every oceanographer agrees. As New Scientist reported on 7 April others have performed data analyses which show increases, at least in some oceans, and though some climate models forecast the decline others don't.

But there's another thing. There are more levels in the food chain in the tropics than in temperate seas. Since 90% of the captured solar energy is lost as you rise one level tropical seas host less fish than temperate ones. (That's why whales go north each year.) And the boundary between the two kinds of sea in the North Atlantic has moved 1,000 km north in recent decades.

However you look at it, this is not good.