I wish it would rain

We (or at least some of us) rightly feel apprehension and alarm at the prospect of melting glacial and polar ice. There are new reminders that we should be equally alarmed at the prospect of Amazonian drought. Joe Romm has written a lengthy post on Climate Progress drawing attention to the 2010 drought which may prove more widespread and severe than the 2005 drought, itself identified as a 1-in-100-year type event.  He quotes an email to that effect from forest scientist and Amazon expert Simon Lewis (he of the Sunday Times fightback and subsequently granted apology).

Lewis recommends an article in the Global Post which is well worth reading.  It refers to three scientists. Oliver Phillips, a tropical ecology professor at the University of Leeds, speaks of his concern that parts of the Amazon may be approaching a threshold point beyond which the eco-system can’t go. He led a team of researchers who studied the damage caused by the 2005 drought which caused a massive die-off of trees and led to the forest expelling carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it. He’s worried that another severe drought is following so soon after the last one.  Greg Asner, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, points out that some tropical forests in the world now are starting to be exposed to temperatures they’ve never experienced. His studies show that higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall could leave as much as 37 percent of the Amazon so radically altered that the plants and animals living there now would be forced to adapt, move or die. Foster Brown, an environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre, comments that drought has made ecosystems so dry that instead of a being a barrier to fire, the forest became kindling.

Nikolas Kozloff’s book No Rain in the Amazon which I reviewed earlier this year refers to much-cited scientist Philip Fearnside of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, who for some years has observed the connection between drought and El Niño-like conditions which are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming. He too is concerned that the Amazon might dry out and be placed in jeopardy as a result of climate change. Kozloff also reports the belief of some researchers that warming sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean are linked to Amazon drought.

In an October press release Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) comments:

“The drought of 2010 still hasn’t ended in the Amazon and could surpass that of 2005 as the region’s worst during the past four decades… Even if this doesn’t occur, the forest will have already experienced three extreme dry spells in just 12 years, two of which occurred during the past five years: 1998, 2005 and 2010. And this is not including the drought of 2007, which affected only the Southeastern Amazon and left 10 thousand sq. km. of forest scorched in the region…`The Amazon that had wet seasons so well-defined that you could set your calendar to them – that Amazon is gone,’ says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of IPAM…”

Deforestation of the Amazon by humans has long been a major international concern, and Simon Lewis’s communication with Jo Romm indicates that there is a degree of good news on that front in that since 2005 deforestation rates have been radically reduced. But the droughts are bad news. They kill trees and promote damaging fires, “potentially leading to a drought-fire-carbon emissions feedback and widespread forest collapse”. Lewis expresses particular concern that while two unusual droughts clearly don’t make a trend, they are consistent with some model projections made well before 2005: “that higher sea surface temperatures increase drought frequency and intensity, leading later this century to substantial Amazon forest die-back.”

Hot Topic commenter Tony on a previous post linked to an Al Jazeera video clip (which I’ve posted below), with the observation that if anything should motivate a sense of urgency in Cancun, what it portrayed should. Simon Lewis also linked what may be happening in the Amazon to the Cancun conference. Not with any great expectation, but with a dry reminder that the risks to which we are exposing humanity don’t diminish because we ignore them. “While little is expected of the climate change talks in Cancun next week, the stakes, in terms of the fate of the Amazon are much higher than they were a year ago in Copenhagen.”

I hope it doesn’t appear as incidental if I note before concluding that the droughts affect not only the forest and through it the welfare of the whole planet but also the local populations whose livelihood and wellbeing is jeopardised. The Global Post article reports the anxiety of village chief Mariazinha Yawanawa. Her people are sustained by the forest. They hunt in the woods, fish the rivers and grow crops in the clearings where they live.  “Everything has changed. We don’t know when we can plant. We plant and then the sun kills everything. If it continues like this, we expect a tragedy

[The Temptations]

World leaders pretend

Apparently the American Geophysical Union’s readiness to speak out on climate change which I reported in a recent post was not as the LA Times portrayed it.  Joseph Romm has written of his disappointment that the AGU is constrained by a determination to veer away from anything that could be construed as advocacy. They state that the email exchange forum they have set up for journalists is designed to answer questions about the current state of scientific knowledge, with a special emphasis on the physical sciences that relate to climate change. Non-science questions such as those relating to policy, ethics, or economics will be returned to sender for refinement.

One example they provide is the question, “Is current U.S. infrastructure adequate for sea level rise?”  Such a question will be returned to sender on the grounds that judgments of adequacy involve tradeoffs in risk and in policy. The scientists will only answer the question if it is changed to “What amount of sea level rise might occur this century?”

It’s a stark contrast with climatologist  James Hansen, who recently delivered an open lecture in Japan on the occasion of his being awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize. The text and powerpoint charts can be accessed on his website. He doesn’t hold back. Here are the opening words:


“Human-made climate change is a moral issue. It pits the rich and the powerful against the young and the unborn, against the defenseless and against nature.

“Climate change is a political issue. But politics fails when there is a revolving door between government and the fossil fuel-industrial complex.

“Climate change is a legal issue. The judiciary provides the possibility of holding our governments accountable for their duty to protect the public interest.”

The accompanying slide has a footnote that statements relating to policy are personal opinion.

Of course Hansen then proceeds with the science of climate change, explaining the current position with his usual clarity.

“It is difficult for the public to recognize that we have a crisis, because human-made global warming, so far, is small compared to day-to-day weather fluctuations. Yet the fact is: we have an emergency. Because of the great inertia of the ocean, which is four kilometers deep, and the ice sheets, which are two to three kilometers thick, the climate system responds slowly to climate forcings such as increasing greenhouse gases. But this inertia is not our friend, because it increases the danger that we may pass tipping points, beyond which the dynamics of the climate system takes over and rapid changes occur out of humanity’s control.”

He offers three examples of tipping points. The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, especially the West Antarctic ice sheet, are one. If an ice sheet is weakened to the point that it begins to collapse then the dynamics of the process take over. Another non-linear problem is the extermination of species which can accelerate because of the interdependencies among species. A third is methane hydrates, essentially frozen methane. If they begin to disintegrate the process could become self-sustaining. He notes these tipping points have all occurred during Earth’s history in conjunction with warming climates.

At this point in his lecture he again crosses into the kind of territory that the AGU eschews for its scientists.

“Climate inertia and tipping points give rise to potential intergenerational injustice. Today’s adults enjoy the benefits of fossil fuel use, but the impacts will be borne by young people and future generations. Our parents did not know that their actions would affect future generations. We do not have that excuse. We can only feign ignorance. It is called denial.”

There was a lengthy period following Hansen’s testifying to Congress in the 1980s during which he decided to concentrate on research and leave public communication to others. He tells how  it was the arrival of his grandchildren combined with the growing gap between what was understood of the science and what was known by the public that brought him back to public communication. In 2004 he gave a carefully prepared public talk titled “Dangerous anthropogenic interference: a discussion of humanity’s Faustian climate bargain and the payments coming due”.

His public lecture in Japan is the latest example of his readiness to couple the communication of the science with clear assessment of the risk and with concrete recommendations as to how that risk may yet be avoided.  As his lecture proceeds he explains the basis of our current scientific understanding. It depends most of all on Earth’s paleoclimate history, then on ongoing global observations showing how climate is responding to rapid changes of atmospheric composition, and finally on climate models and theory which are helpful in interpreting what is happening and needed to predict future changes. There’s a pile of interesting material which follows which I won’t try to summarise here, save to say that he points out that the human-caused rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide is occurring at a rate 10,000 times faster than the natural geologic change of the Cenozoic era of the past 65 million years. He also explains his assessment that a level of no more than 350ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide is required if we wish to preserve the planet on which civilisation developed.

He’s not backward in spelling out policy implications. We must halt all coal emissions in 20 years, not develop tar sands, oil shale or methane hydrates, and not pursue the last drops of oil in polar regions, deep sea drilling or pristine land. “In other words, we must move on to the clean energy future now, rather than using all the remaining fossil fuels.”

There’s as yet no sign of our doing so:

“But what is really happening? The United States has signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry tar sands oil to Texas. New coal plants are being built all around the world, some being financed by the World Bank. Environmentally destructive mountaintop removal continues. Oil is pursued in pristine places. The environmentally destructive practice of shale fracturing is being developed and implemented to find the last bits of gas.

“There is a huge gap between government rhetoric and policy reality. Leaders say that we have a ‘planet in peril’, yet their proposed policies barely differ from business-as-usual. Greenwash is plentiful, but the leaders follow a path of appeasement of fossil fuel special interests. There is no Winston Churchill willing to stand up and tell the truth about what is needed.”

Hansen then moves to his policy prescriptions which include a rising price on carbon, government regulation, and technology development driven by the certainty of the carbon price. He is not diffident in offering them, but his audience would have no difficulty recognising when he has moved from presentation of the science to advocacy of a particular response.

The notion that a scientist’s responsibility ends where a politician’s begins is simplistic. Politicians often enough show little sign of fully appreciating the reality of the science, and even if they do they appear to have an endless capacity to shy away from appropriate action. Are scientists like Hansen supposed to stay in their sanctums and be satisfied with issuing bulletins on the state of the science? And when they see the mayhem created by industry denial and media confusion and political timidity are they supposed to just shrug their shoulders and get on with their research? Even though they know what that research indicates for the human future if we carry on as usual?

Hansen’s record makes it quite clear that advocacy doesn’t mean compromising research. His scientific work continues and wins respect in its own right. Joe Romm has  reason to be disappointed that the AGU has put such stringent limits on its scientists’ communication with journalists.


Democracy under strain

I have recently often found myself thinking of a sentence in the late Stephen Schneider’s book Science as a Contact Sport, reviewed on Hot Topic a year ago. Towards the end of the book he reflected on the greed and short-term thinking which has led business interests to advance a campaign of confusion and doubt on the science of climate change, aimed at stalling action. It didn’t surprise him, but what worried him was that so many decent people are still taken in by it. Then came the sentence which reverberates almost daily for me:

What keeps me up at night is a disquieting thought: ‘Can democracy survive complexity?’


It is the run-up to the US mid-term elections which has ensured Schneider’s sentence nags so insistently. Candidate after candidate (mostly Republican) asseverates “I don’t believe in manmade global warming” or “I have not been convinced” or “I am sceptical about the science” or any of numerous similar positions which can be coupled with an assurance that he or she won’t back action to reduce emissions, and may even move aggressively to prevent it. As I read or, if I can bear it, listen, to these confident deniers, many of them articulate and well presented, I wonder where they find their assurance. Generally speaking they seem ignorant of the science. In fact their confidence seems in inverse proportion to their knowledge.

The clear message from the science simply doesn’t flow through society to these would-be decision makers. It is intercepted and at best muddied, at worst completely blocked. What is a coherent picture, supported by the vast majority of scientists with expertise in relevant fields, attested by highly reputable national academies of science and international  science organisations, somehow emerges in the hands of political candidates as variously highly debatable, deeply uncertain, or even the product of a vast conspiracy.

It is tempting to dismiss the candidates as a bunch of contemptible liars who cynically set the goal of gaining power well ahead of any regard for truth or human welfare. Maybe some of them are. But some of them no doubt genuinely think they are speaking truthfully when they voice their scepticism. They inhabit an intellectual world from which the real science has been excluded and they are unaware of the fact. The misinformers have done their work and constructed an alternative reality undisturbed by the need to take action against the threat of rising carbon emissions.

It’s a temporary alternative, and it only appears real.  Sooner or later the bitter truth will assert itself. But in the meantime the country on whom so much depends for effective action against global warming appears likely to spend a few more years in delay to the perceived benefit of vested interests.

To be elected these politicians need voters. They wouldn’t be saying the things they are about climate change if their sentiments weren’t shared by a wide slice of their constituencies.  Whole sectors of society have been taken in by the misinformation industry and its false assurances.

Climate science and the policies to respond to its message are complex, but hardly to the extent that they are incommunicable to the public at large. It is the “deliberate special interest distortion” and the “knee-jerk media balance” which Schneider saw as compounding the complexity and making it hard for democracy to deal with. Too hard, he sometimes feared. Many in America are probably sharing that anxiety right now.

I don’t know of any clever strategy to counter what we are seeing in the US. One hopes it will be largely confined there, though even if it is its effects will be felt throughout the world. All I can see is the need to continue to assert the key points, which were recently splendidly summarised by climatologist Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Joe Romm at Climate Progress reproduced them from the original essay in the journal Climatic Change. Somerville makes six points:

  1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm.
  2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity.
  3. Our climate predictions are coming true.
  4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over.
  5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals.
  6. The leading scientific organisations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results.

These are the bare bones. You can read the fuller and eloquent statements on Climate Progress or in the original longer essay. But the essential logic and plain good sense is apparent in the extract I have made. It seems to me to display the framework of what must be reiterated for as long as it takes for a democratic society to see clearly where the science is at and decide what should be done to address the threat it points to. Misinformation can only be answered with the truth of the matter.

Climate action: the moral dimension

Joseph Romm sounded the theme of moral obligation in a post on Climate Progress this morning as he directed readers’ attention to an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University. Appiah was reflecting on what future generations might condemn us for. He instances practices in the past which are now regarded with abhorrence. Men dutifully beating their wives and children, the execution of homosexuals, the practice of slavery, denying women the vote, lynch mobs, are among his examples. We look back and ask: What were people thinking?

What in our own time are our descendants likely to look back on and ask what we were thinking? Appiah identifies four contenders, some which go beyond the scope of Hot Topic’s focus, but before he does so he suggests three signs that a particular present practice may be destined for future condemnation. What especially attracted my attention was his use of the institution of slavery to illustrate the signs.

“First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

“Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)

“And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.”

I have often detected parallels between the struggle to get action on climate change and the past struggle to have slavery abolished, but have tended to draw back from pointing to them because the content of the struggles is different and the comparison may seem rather harsh on the opponents of climate change action. However the three signs Appiah nominates seem to me apposite to climate change inaction, and I hope I can point this out in sufficiently general terms to avoid appearing to accuse anyone of gross inhumanity.

First, we have been aware of the dangers of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, not for centuries admittedly, but for long enough for governments to be apprised of the information.  The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has been in force since 1994 and enjoys near universal membership.

Second, many of the arguments against effective action invoke economic necessity ahead of environmental responsibility.  In the case of the slave trade and slavery the argument was strongly urged that economic ruin and decay would result. Somehow that trumped any humanitarian issues. In the case of climate change the issues are not presented so starkly. We are assured that the environmental questions are not overlooked, just pushed down the list. But the obstinate fact remains that the economy comes first, and moreover the economy as it is presently conducted and understood, not as it might become when greened.

Thirdly, strategic ignorance is deeply involved in the continuance of many of our present climate unfriendly activities. It relates to those in poorer countries already suffering the effects of climate change as well as to our grandchildren and their children who will be struggling with the massive problems we are bequeathing them.  If anyone tries to make a connect between the floods of Pakistan or the wildfires of Russia and our greenhouse gas emissions they are accused of falsely attributing natural phenomena to human causation. If they point to the storms ahead for our grandchildren they are dismissed as alarmist.

The Quakers had an honourable part to play in the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. I was interested a year ago to read a book by a group of modern Quakers, academics and entrepreneurs, on the kind of changes needed to produce an ecologically sustainable and socially just economy. Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy was its title and I reviewed it on Celsias. Why I mention it here is because the authors deliberately place themselves in the tradition of the 18th century Quakers who engaged in the campaign to end British participation in the slave trade and abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. They see their book as a moral challenge to today’s growth-driven economy, and take inspiration from their Quaker predecessors who “eventually won the day and brought down the economic interests that argued for the ‘natural law’ of profit over all”.

To return to Appiah and the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, the environment is one of the areas in which he foresees future generations asking what we were thinking.

“It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions — the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won’t be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.”

Joe Romm’s complementary comment on that paragraph is just right:

“Also, unlike most other condemnable immoral activities in history, by the time this is obvious to all, there will be no undoing it by passing a law or establishing new social norms. And that’s why we all have a moral obligation to condemn what’s happening now in the strongest possible terms.”

It’s the moral dimension which makes it not unreasonable to see parallels between the obstinate refusal or delay to face up to the consequences of our climate inaction and the stubborn persistence of those in the 18th and 19th century who staved off action on slavery for so long.

Technology advances, politicians hold back

In the face of the utterly depressing final confirmation that the proposed energy bill has been abandoned in the US Senate in the face of Republican opposition, and the realisation that Obama has let the opportunity die without a fight, as Joe Romm puts it, I cast around for something cheering this morning.  I found it in an interesting article on Chris Goodall’swebsite Carbon Commentary. The article describes the world’s first molten salts Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plant. It’s not the first to use molten salts, in that many of the newer CSP plants use molten salts storage to extend the plant’s daily operating hours, but it is the first to use molten salts not just to store heat but also to collect it from the sun in the first place. Normally, pressurised oil which heats up to around 390 degrees is used to collect the heat.

Molten salts can operate at higher temperatures than oils, up to 550 degrees, thus increasing the efficiency and power output of a plant. With the higher-temperature heat storage allowed by the direct use of salts, the plant can also extend its operating hours longer than an oil-operated CSP plant with molten salt storage, working, the article claims, 24 hours a day for several days even in the absence of sun or during rainy days.

This feature also enables a simplified plant design, as it avoids the need for oil-to-salts heat exchangers, and eliminates the safety and environmental concerns related to the use of oils.

Significantly, the higher temperatures reached by the molten salts enable the use of steam turbines at the standard pressure/temperature parameters as used in most common gas-cycle fossil power plants. This means that conventional power plants can be integrated – or, in perspective, replaced – with this technology without expensive retrofits to the existing assets. The first plant, a small one of 5 MW, located in Priolo Gargallo (Sicily), is fully integrated to an existing combined-cycle gas power plant.

A small comfort, perhaps. However the writer describes it as a top-notch world’s first, expensive at around 60 million euros but with overwhelming scope for a massive roll-out of the new technology at utility scale in sunny regions like Northern Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the US.

Solar power is certain to play a large part globally in a future of renewable energy, if we don’t destroy that future before it arrives, and the constant improvements in harnessing the power of the sun are highly encouraging.

Meanwhile back in New Zealand the government has today released a draft of its proposed new energy strategy, which Gerry Brownlee announced the need for shortly after becoming Minister of Energy because the previous one  was just “an idealistic vision document for carbon neutrality”.  I’ve only had a cursory look so far, but it certainly looks like the great step backwards that he signalled. In the section headed Areas of Focus the leading item is “Develop petroleum and mineral fuel resources.” This is what it means:

“The country already benefits substantially from the revenue gathered from the development and sale of petroleum and coal resources, and both are significant export earners.

“Further commercialisation of petroleum and mineral fuel resources has the potential to produce a step change in economic growth for the country.”

The document does move on to renewables:

“The Government retains the aspirational, but achievable, target that 90 percent of electricity generation be from renewable sources by 2025 (in an average hydrological year) providing this does not affect security of supply.”

But we’re not going to get carried away with aspiration:

“Achieving this target must not be at the expense of the security and reliability of our electricity supply. For the foreseeable future some fossil fuel generation will be required to support supply security.”

There is some useful stuff on renewables and on new technologies, but the minister is obviously unwilling to face the reality of what continuing to produce and burn petroleum and coal actually means for the climate. It means hell and high water, to use Joe Romm’s words in his book of that title. In that book Romm also said that the global warming problem is a now only a problem of politics and political will. Technologies advance, but politicians lag.