From science to ethics to action

I’ve been reading the admirably lucid report of the Australian Climate Commission which Gareth highlighted recently, and reflecting on its restrained exposition of the current state of the science. One couldn’t ask for a clearer or more accessible statement within its 70 page range.

At the same time I’ve started reading a book by philosopher Stephen Gardiner (pictured). It’s titled A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change and I’ll be reviewing it in due course. Why I mention it here is because the first proposition he sets out in his preface accorded with what was floating around in my mind as I read the Commission’s report. He notes that we are currently accelerating hard into the most serious environmental problem humanity has ever faced. Yet, after twenty years of awareness we are neither slowing down nor stabilizing, let alone reducing our output to the problem. Rather we are continuing to add more fuel to the fire, ever faster. “This, arguably, is the most striking fact of our time.”

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Treadgold gets it (nearly, but for $30bn) right

Don’t get too excited, but I agree with Richard Treadgold when he says of the gazetting of a ’50 by 2050′ emissions target by the New Zealand government that:

Noting that 39 years remain in which to achieve these so-called “reductions”, the gazetting strikes us as primarily a marketing exercise rather than a sincere attempt to influence the climate.

Full of hope and joy at this unwonted sagacity I read on to where Treadgold complains about a lack of references:

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Alley’s documentary: upbeat and optimistic

Richard Alley’s book Earth: The Operators’ Manual, which I reviewed recently, was written as a companion to a PBS documentary of the same name. The documentary has recently screened in the US and is now available for viewing here. The broad themes are the same as those of the book. They’re not complicated: taking our energy from fossil fuels has caused climate change, but there are clean energy alternatives more than adequate to human needs and the sooner we move to deploy them the better.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the documentary takes Alley to many places and countries, including New Zealand. He dwells on the human need for energy, the kind of energy demands a growing population will make, and the ultimate inability of fossil fuels, a limited resource, to meet that demand even if we could carry on burning them with impunity. But we can’t, and Alley explains why. A visit to the Franz Josef and Tasman glaciers, with some great photography, is part of what he uses to explain the real world impact of changing levels of CO2. A fascinating visit to the national ice core laboratory in Denver, Colorado demonstrates that today atmospheric CO2 is at a level not seen in cores that go back as far as 400,000 years – far above them, in fact. Then it’s back to New Zealand as, against the background of Rotorua thermal activity, Alley explains the isotopic evidence that backs up the relative volume measurements to confirm that the increased CO2 is the result of burning fossil fuels, dwarfing natural volcanic processes.

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Engaging the Public with Climate Change

Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and CommunicationClimate scientists and those working in associated fields have established a clear picture of human-caused climate change and what it is likely to mean in the future. The basic information is readily understandable. It’s alarming in what it portends and a rational human society would by now be well on its way to the change of direction which would reduce the need for alarm. But we are not well on the way and there’s little urgency in our approach to the issue. Wide public alarm is rarely even voiced, let alone a stimulus to determined action. The science may be clear, but its appropriation by society at large is obviously no straightforward matter.

Can the social sciences help us? I was attracted by the title of a recently published book, Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, edited by three academics, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill and Irene Lorenzoni. In its twelve chapters a couple of dozen social researchers and practitioners look at how climate change can be constructively woven into public perception and action. The writers are clear about the urgent need to tackle climate change, but the book doesn’t offer strong advocacy so much as close investigation of the dynamics at work in obtaining and supporting positive public engagement.

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Lignite: dirty brown forbidden fruit

Two items during this week highlighted the continuing progress of Solid Energy’s intentions to develop the Southland lignite fields. I therefore provide this depressing update to two Hot Topic posts on the issue late last year. Don Elder (left), CEO of state-owned enterprise Solid Energy, appeared before the Commerce select committee during the week and announced that the proposed lignite developments will be worth billions. And it appears that this will be the case even if they don’t receive free carbon credits under the ETS, which they appear to nevertheless hope for. There was a slight acknowledgement that there were carbon footprint issues still to be resolved and some soothing suggestions, reported in the Otago Daily Times, that approaches such as mixing synthetic diesel with biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and planting trees, could reduce the net emissions. With a convenient fall-back – that the company could pay someone elsewhere in the world to do this for it. There is little evidence that carbon capture and storage will feature as anything more than talk in this scenario. The wildest extremity of the CCS option was touched on outside the committee when Elder spoke of the possibility of eventually piping carbon out to sea and pumping it into sea-floor oil or gas wells, after the Great South Basin has been developed.

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