Loud and clear

by Bryan Walker on March 31, 2011

There is a strange difficulty in talking publicly about the enormity of the danger which human-caused climate change threatens for human civilisation. Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding discuss it in the introduction to their paper One Degree War Plan, referred to by Gilding (pictured) in his book The Great Disruption (reviewed here).

They speak appropriately of the sense of the surreal. Vast issues such as self-reinforcing runaway loops in climate change, geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation, figure in the thinking and the private conversations of those who appreciate the full seriousness of climate change as it will unfold if we allow it. The prospect is fearful. But it seems too fearful for daily intercourse. “It’s a very strange thing to calmly pontificate the realistic risk of the collapse of civilisation and then go back to work!”

Experts have veered away from the hard public conversations, the paper suggests, partly through fear of generating a backlash and partly through not wanting to be written off as too extreme, or at a personal level to lose motivation. Publicly they have put a positive slant on their warnings, urging action but holding back on the full consequence of inadequate action.

Meanwhile the scientific evidence has become overwhelming and with few exceptions has tilted all the uncertainties the wrong way.

“The Arctic melting way ahead of all previous forecasts including worst case scenarios, the constantly increasing forecasts for sea level rise, the accelerating species loss, the worsening droughts, the melting glaciers, the tragic fires and so on, all take us to the unavoidable conclusion – things are indeed, to use that delightfully understated English term, rather grim.”

It is hard to believe that things can be as bad as they are shaping up to be. I’ll leave Randers and Gilding briefly and turn to an article published this week in Yale Environment 360.  The author, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes editorially for the New York Times, ponders on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as reminders of the vast stretches of geologic time. Although the 10,000 or so years of human civilisation have been relatively uneventful geologically speaking we are merely a moment in the ongoing migration of the tectonic plates. The Tohuku earthquake reminds us that in geologic time catastrophic events capable of dwarfing our outposts of civilization do occur.

Uneasily, Klinkenborg goes on to reflect that when we look at the spectre of climate change unfolding and try to grasp the shifting, accelerating likelihoods, in fact “we’re looking at potential change of a kind normally associated with geologic time”.

We run the risk of raising global average temperature at a rate faster than any time of the past 50 million years (5 degrees by 2100).  Among the consequences of the melting of the ice masses and rising sea levels he includes that “the load on the Earth’s crust will change, with the likelihood of what is gingerly called ‘geospheric response’ – ie. more earthquakes and volcanoes.  This is a subject only beginning to be understood by geologists.”

He speaks of the terrible uncertainty that follows a major earthquake. We have to live with such uncertainty and it dies down after a time.

“But there’s a more terrible uncertainty in how we live and where we’re headed — the uneasy feeling that we’re entering geologic time in a way we’ve never known before.”

Klinkenborg expresses the sheer magnitude of the changes we seem increasingly likely to be causing. He’s not saying anything that would come as a surprise to those who follow the science, merely highlighting its implications. But it’s very hard to find at the centre of public life voices which squarely and unequivocally put those implications before us. There’s nothing like the focus one would think appropriate to such a threat in government or the media.  Here in New Zealand we have suffered the shock of a major earthquake and are facing up to the costs of rebuilding, with much talk of preparedness in advance for such events. No one is saying we can’t afford to rebuild, or to build with earthquake preparedness. But when it comes to the widespread and profound risks associated with climate change we ignore, or deny, or make only token gestures towards a risk which, unlike earthquakes, can be lessened if we choose.

Returning to Randers and Gilding, they next tackle the question of whether it is already too late.

“…given the physical momentum for change already in the climate system and the continuing lack of action on the scale and with the urgency required, it is now too late to prevent major disruption and damage in the decades ahead, as a result of inaction over the past several decades. We believe there will now be an ecological and economic crisis, of a scale that is significant in the history of human life on earth.

“But we certainly do not believe it is too late to prevent the collapse of the global economy and civilisation.”

This is the point at which they talk about the level of mobilisation required, some of which I indicated in my review of Gilding’s book. I won’t develop it here, but pause on their characterisation of the level of required mobilisation as “so far beyond the current debate that it will seem incomprehensible to most readers”.

There’s the rub. Nothing in public discourse has prepared the population for the kind of measures that would be needed to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So far as I was aware as a child during World War II no-one questioned the need for the drastic wartime restrictions that were imposed. It was called it the war effort and it was woven into our lives. We knew how much depended on it. A mobilisation today to fight global warming would be much less demanding, but currently even the tiniest moves in that direction evoke vociferous and bitter opposition.

Randers and Gilding consider a ”Great Awakening” will occur before too many more years pass, whether because of a climate event or political leadership or the sheer mass of evidence, and at that point public perception will change rapidly and demand rapid intervention. Let us hope so. But in the meantime, and towards that end, those who understand the best scientific evidence should surely overcome any lingering hesitation to be publicly forthright. We need scientists and politicians and media people who will say loudly and clearly that the risks in global warming are extremely high and we must do what is necessary to avoid them.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Kiwiiano March 31, 2011 at 10:14 pm

WWII had clear focal points, the attacks on Poland & Pearl Harbour, plus courageous politicians who could see what was coming and start making plans. Our current lot seem competent (at least some of the time) but don’t apparently focus on anything much beyond the next elections.
Meanwhile, Christchurch has some golden opportunities to make some differences. For example, all new houses built, particularly in the eastern suburbs should be modular and able to be uplifted and moved inland if/when need be. It must be noted that the high water mark on the Avon is just above the Barbados St bridge, well within the CBD, so the same criteria should apply to all new constructions, with good hard thought put into where we should be building at all.
Why is that little pink birdy up in the tree going “oink! oink!”?

John D March 31, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Kiwiano
If you are from Christchurch,and you are concerned about “climate change, sea level rise” and all that stuff, then it seems to me that this is a golden opportunity to abandon the city and relocate it inland.

The fact is, ChCh was built on a flood plain, on a swamp prone to liquifaction.This is even on most LIM reports if you bothered to check..

I find it hard to reconcile those who wish to shut down our economy with carbon taxes with those that try to keep a dead city alive

[Snipped because I find it offensive: GR]

Thomas April 1, 2011 at 8:03 am

Once again John, you creating propaganda: “… those who wish to shut down our economy…”.
Nobody wishes to shut down our economy. To the contrary, those who argue for a sustainable future wish to preserve this planet to be able to carry us and future generations forward.
So stop making these statements which are straight from the scripts of the school of propaganda…..

bill April 1, 2011 at 11:31 am

It’s not only dishonest, it’s really, really tedious.

RW April 1, 2011 at 11:36 am

It certainly is tedious. Wake me up when that tendentious hyper-boring promulgater of bad science runs out of verbiage – if he ever does.

John D April 1, 2011 at 11:46 am

“Hyper-boring”

Oh Sorry “bill” and “RW” if I bore you.

So we are not “shutting down our economy”, yet you support proposals to phase out flights to NZ, and to reduce emissions by 100% by 2050, which would at the very least require the phasing out of all ruminant stock, removal of all internal combustion engines, and remove most manufacturing industry.

Yet none of you, NOT ONE, can provide any kind of numbers or strategies on how this can be achieved

bill April 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm

You know, “John”, you have this bizarre, persistent habit of telling me that I support X when I have never made any comment regarding X. There’s the endless ‘you’re deliberately destroying the economy’ bullshit. You’ve also referred to us all as Nazis. Repeatedly.

Do you actually have any commitment to veracity? Is there any piece of cheap histrionics that you might feel is beneath you?

And I ask you again; what good do you imagine you are doing for your cause? A question you really should be asking yourself. Because like the buffoons holding up the ‘Juliar, Bob Browns [sic] Bitch’ signs behind Tony Abbott the other day your behaviour fits the worst stereotype of the reactionary crank, and does your cause no credit.

And another question; do you think the recent absence of any other denier/’skeptic’ commenters on these pages might have anything to do with it being embarrassing to be associated with your tactics and, ahem, ‘arguments’?

You, of course, are an active – nay, passionate – proponent of causing death by starvation, massive disruption, homelessness, disease, and untold misery for millions. Sauce/Goose = Sauce/Gander.

John D April 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm

You, of course, are an active – nay, passionate – proponent of causing death by starvation, massive disruption, homelessness, disease, and untold misery for millions.

Am I? Are you confusing me for someone else?

John D April 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm

It certainly is tedious. Wake me up when that tendentious hyper-boring promulgater of bad science runs out of verbiage

The key difference between me and you, RW, is that I try to back up my points with references, and I do my best to use “Approved sources”

You, on the other hand, have no points to make.

bill April 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm

See, John, this begs the question of how disingenuous your ‘comprehension issues’ really are. Your really can’t see that I’m mimicking your own persistent hyperbolic absurdities? Or you’ve abandoned any pretence of integrity and just bat around any old perversity culled from Reactionary Talking Points 101 that leaps to mind? In the hope of what, I wonder? Who do you imagine might be convinced?

adelady April 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm

johnd, what’s so sacred about the internal combustion engine? It’s a crude, inefficient 19thC process no matter how much it’s dressed up with fancy, schmancy modifications and modernisations to try to overcome its gross deficiencies in converting raw materials into useful energy.

EVs both for individual cars and for most buses is a much, much more efficient driving force. And something very appealing to me if noone else. It’s elegant. Having something set up so that it can exchange energy rather than merely hold (fuel in a tank) and use it is a much more sensible arrangement.

John D April 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Er no adelady.

Actually, the internal combustion engine is a much more efficient way of generating energy for the car than making it somewhere else, and then transporting it to the car for consumption, as in the case of the standard EV

A much better idea is the hydrogen fuel cell where the generation is local to the consumption.

Thomas April 1, 2011 at 6:20 pm

OOps John, no, you are wrong. And you are talking to people here who know what they are doing.

Internal Combustion Engines have an efficiency of about 20% fuel to kinetic energy. 80% is converted to heat. The efficiency of thermodynamic engines is limited by the Laws of Physics.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_combustion_engine#Energy_efficiency

Electric motors convert electric energy directly into kinetic energy and have efficiencies more like 85%.
Even if you burned Oil in a thermal power plant (efficiency much better than ICE) and send it by wire to a car’s battery charger the overall efficiency is better than burning it in the ICE in the first place!
However in NZ we have a 64% renewable electricity generation already and we can go to 100%.

bill April 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Ah, mere facts: John (“John”), however, is made of sterner stuff!

Thomas April 1, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Yea, mere facts or the truth won’t keep John awake at night because:

““If you tell a lie big enough(to yourself) and keep repeating it, people (you) will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the Establishment (you) can shield the people (yourself) from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the Establishment (You) to use all of its (your) powers to repress dissent (within), for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the Establishment.”” (Adapted slightly, Infamous quote from Goebbls)

John D April 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Well,I would be quite surprised if burning an equivalent amount of fossil fuel in a central power station, using steam to generate electricity, and then transmit it through the power grid (losses and all), is more efficient than converting to directly to energy in the IC engine.

I am prepared to accept that you are right, if you can provide equations and numbers to support your hypothesis.

I don’t really find quoting the chief propagandist of the German National Socialist Party of the 1940s particularly helpful or relevant to the discussion.

Thomas April 23, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Here is the math for you:

ICE engine: 20% efficient, 80% waste. Many sources support this. Its basic thermodynamics of heat engines of that sort.
Example: http://mb-soft.com/public2/engine.html

Combined cycle power plants: Efficiency 50%
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined-cycle#Efficiency_of_CCGT_plants

Electrical Energy remaining: 50%
Transmission losses: 10%
Arriving at home: 45%
Charger losses: 10%
Remaining: 40.5%
Electric motor efficiency: 80%, losses 20%
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car#Energy_efficiency

Power to road: 32% of the original energy in the oil.

Compared with ICE: 32/20= 1.6 times or 160% more efficient!
Bingo!

Now if you do not use fossil fuels but hydro, wind, solar or geothermal or tidal energy to make your electricity its even much much better!

John D April 23, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Hi Thomas,
I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my question with numbers.

This, in my view, is the correct approach to any rational argument regarding climate change or energy policy decisions.

Of course, I am not accepting your analysis without further investigation, but it is a starting point for which we may proceed,

happy easter!

Kiwiiano April 1, 2011 at 12:21 am

I am from ChCh and in fact the majority of the city had little or no liquifaction, in spite of the news media’s hysterical claims. And I wouldn’t get too cocky, there aren’t too many cities in NZ that would be rock solid in a similar record shaking. Yes we are on a flood plain/swamp, like Invercargill, Dunedin, Greymouth, Nelson, Wellington, Hutt, Wanganui, Napier, Hamilton and parts of Auckland. We are also build (IMHO) perilously close to the coast, as in below the 100m contour, which would include all of the above (and more) except Hamilton.
Since you mention carbon taxes, have you any better ideas? Have calculated the cost of NOT restricting the unrelenting release of fossil carbon into an atmosphere that is clearly* under strain?
(*to all but those who don’t want to see)

cyclone April 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm

“the majority of the city had little or no liquifaction, in spite of the news media’s hysterical claims”

That’s great to hear, the rest of Christchurch should then have no trouble coping with the rebuild and I’ll put a stop on my cheque to the Red Cross.

I think you are guilty here of using similar arguments to what deniers do in downplaying for example the impact of CO2 rise, by pointing to its very small fraction of total gases in the atmosphere.

Maybe, its differnet in Christchurch, but it doesn’t seem to me that the media have been “hysterical”.

Kiwiiano April 1, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Quoting Cyclone: “That’s great to hear, the rest of Christchurch should then have no trouble coping with the rebuild and I’ll put a stop on my cheque to the Red Cross.”
It’s your money. Note tho, the liquifaction was only part of the problem. Damaged buildings and infrastructure will linger on for years.

“I think you are guilty here of using similar arguments to what deniers do in downplaying for example the impact of CO2 rise, by pointing to its very small fraction of total gases in the atmosphere.”
You lost me there….

“Maybe, its different in Christchurch, but it doesn’t seem to me that the media have been “hysterical”.”
We were getting a bit pissed off with the endless images of the trashed CBD on TV in particular*, creating the impression that the whole city had been destroyed. It is bad, but 60-70% of the city has had only limited damage if any. The destruction will cost us, emotionally and financially, so many of our touchstones are gone forever, but we’re not all basket cases.

*TV has that terrifying dynamic of needing to keep the images rolling in case someone tunes in. Somehow the relentless stream of information we get each day from the newspapers is a comfort, however distressing the items may be. TV, with its infotainment aspect, quickly becomes tedious then bloody irritating.

cyclone April 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm

OK – I think I understand your original comment better now. TV 7 (Freewview) news at 8 o’clock seems to eschew that infotainment aspect.

Doug April 1, 2011 at 12:48 pm

The other issue is that even if you ignored climate change relying on fossil fuels to sustain and grow our [global] economy is not going to happen. Four reasons
1 There isn’t enough
2 The extraction costs are increasing and will continue to do so. Our current economy is underpinned on the presumption of cheap energy think of transport
3 The non climate change environment costs are significant (mainly water contamination, but also local air pollution)
4 The social costs are increasing, ask the people of West Virginia.

You can pick your fossil fuel of choice be it lignite, tar sand, shale gas, heavy oil, CTL, deep sea oil and the the numbers don’t stake up.

I am reading the IEA World Energy Outlook 2010 at the moment and comparing it to earlier versions. Even the IEA ,an energy sector focused organisation, is moving towards admiting that making the numbers line up between supply and demand is getting harder unless there is unpresidented increase in energy efficiency and conservation, which implies some kind of major lifestyle change.

The world is going to have to do with less fossil fuel energy whether or not its take CC into account.

However, by not taking CC into account we are going to make a bad situation economically and socially worse.

P.S. IMO people that say there is no alternative to a high energy consumption fossil fueled lifestyle have a lack of vision and are probably the reason why NZ’s economy has been static for so long.

Kiwiiano April 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Quoting John D: …yet you support proposals to phase out flights to NZ….
By coincidence they’ve just realised that the water vapour in jet contrails is doing more harm on a daily basis than the CO2 jets leave in the atmosphere. I remember noting at Lake Tahoe in California that the skies each day were clear at 7am, but by 2pm the contrails had coalesced to form a flat, solid strato-cirius cloud cover, no blue at all.
Another factoid (unsubstantiated) was the observation that a 747 load of tourists flying from LA to Cairo to visit the Great Pyramid of Cheops consume more energy than was needed to build the pyramid originally.

….and to reduce emissions by 100% by 2050, which would at the very least require the phasing out of all ruminant stock…
Not necessarily, it can be argued that livestock are part of the planet’s normal carbon cycle, esp NZ’s grass-fed animals. Highly industrialised American and European stock are another matter. They apparently outnumber the planet’s original stock of ruminants by an order of magnitude or so.

….removal of all internal combustion engines….
By another coincidence, the Archdruid just today pointed out that a US train locomotive can (translated into NZ figures) move approx 5 adults & their luggage, the length of NZ on 3.7L of diesel ($6.20 not counting road tax). (No wonder they’re considering restoring the Otago Rail Trail Rail.)
IC engines per se are not the villain, it’s our choice of fuel for them and our profligate assumption that we can go on using them willy-nilly.

….and remove most manufacturing industry….
A lot of that is on borrowed time anyway, given the perilous state of our global stocks of raw materials. It’s sheer lunacy that we ship our e-waste to Korea or where-ever instead of stockpiling it against the inevitable shortages.

….Yet none of you, NOT ONE, can provide any kind of numbers or strategies on how this can be achieved….
It’s hardly within the bounds of this comments column. It may well be that the numbers and strategies at best won’t look good, that we may need to face radically changed lifestyles & expectations, but I haven’t heard any suggestions from your denial camp on how we will get out of the poo we’re headed for, apart from unrelenting denials that anything is wrong or that scientists are worth listening to.

John D April 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

but I haven’t heard any suggestions from your denial camp on how we will get out of the poo we’re headed for

Actually, I recently quoted from Roger Pielke Jnr’s book “The Climate Fix” which is absolutely jam-packed with numbers and scenarios

No one is interested though.

On your comments on ruminant methane, I actually happen to agree with you that this is part of the natural carbon cycle. Methane breaks down to CO2 within a few years, and there is little or no increase in methane globally. When I raise the question as to why NZ is going alone on taxing farmers, I get the response that it is “fair”

[Your comment on the level of discussion here is snipped. You’re getting a great run, so stick to the substance. BW]

John D April 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm

By coincidence they’ve just realised that the water vapour in jet contrails is doing more harm on a daily basis than the CO2 jets leave in the atmosphere.

Interesting, I saw this on WUWT on a post by Roger Pielke Snr.
The possible implications here, which you seem to miss, is that if contrails are causing more warming than CO2, then maybe we are chasing the wrong dragon?

Kiwiiano April 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Quoting John D: ….he possible implications here, which you seem to miss, is that if contrails are causing more warming than CO2, then maybe we are chasing the wrong dragon?….
No, it just means that airliners are much worse than we had assumed. You have to sum the two effects, not select one or the other.
Re the taxing of NZ farmers, that’s politics, not science. It’s politically ok to hobble cockies because they don’t have enough voting clout, it’s NOT ok to increase the tax on fossil fuels even though they are the cause of most of the problems because the voters will crucify you come November.

pmagn April 2, 2011 at 7:44 am

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