The Climate Show #26: All the news that fits

Aafter a busy month of harvesting (Gareth) and breakfast broadcasting (Glenn), the Climate Show returns with all the latest climate news: from the thinning of Antarctic ice shelves and the intensification of hydrological cycle (floods and drought, that is) to satellites capturing solar energy and beaming it down to earth, we’ve got it all. And if that weren’t enough, John Cook looks at a new paper that explains the apparent lag between warming and CO2 increase at the end of the last ice age, and tips us off about an excellent outtake from ABC’s recent I Can Change Your Mind about Climate documentary, featuring Naomi Oreskes.

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Paul Nurse: science under attack

Paul Nurse is the new President of the Royal Society. His predecessor Martin Rees was firm in his insistence on the seriousness of climate science and climate change, and Nurse is equally so. In a striking BBC Horizon documentary Science Under Attack he examines why public trust in scientific theory appears to have diminished, especially in relation to  climate change. The documentary is not available from the BBC for viewers outside the UK, but it has been uploaded to YouTube, broken into six segments. It is well worth an hour of viewing, but I’ll offer some comment on it here for those who don’t have the time.

Nurse is a geneticist and cell biologist, distinguished for his work in the discovery of the control which regulates cell division, for which he shared a Nobel Prize in 2001, and which is relevant to a better understanding of diseases like cancer.  In this documentary he steps outside his lab to investigate how it is that climate science has come under attack and whether scientists are partly to blame.


The documentary opens and closes in the archives of the Royal Society which include among their books the manuscript version of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, presented to the Society by the author. Nurse and the librarian pause over these two outstanding examples from the Society’s past of science fundamental to our understanding of the world, a useful backdrop to the programme’s investigation of why a well-established science, as climate science now is, should be leaving many people unconvinced or thinking it is exaggerated.

He visits NASA and talks with Robert Bindschadler, who shows him in visualisation how satellites (16-18 from NASA and a similar number from other agencies) circling the globe are gathering enormous amounts of data related to climate. Three quarters of a degree of warming over the last fifty years will be matched by at least another three quarters of a degree over the next fifty even if we do nothing more to modify the climate. Asked whether this could be a natural fluctuation Bindschadler acknowledges that there have been times in the past when the Earth has been warmer than it is today, with less ice and higher sea level, and times colder than it is today, with much more ice and lower sea level. However in the past climate changed very gradually whereas it’s now changing really fast, and it’s the pace of change that is so important in the climate change that we’re living through right now.

Nurse considers not only the NASA data but also the work of seven decades of research from scientists across the globe and concludes that the extent of the data gives us reason for confidence in the idea that the globe is warming and we are causing the change. Yet this evidence is clearly not convincing a substantial part of the wider public. And those who are sceptical turn to other scientists.  Enter Fred Singer, who meets with Nurse over a cup of tea in a café and explains his theory that solar activity, not CO2, is the cause of warming which he regards as variable.

Nurse talks to viewers about the importance of the wider picture, which Singer ignores in his cherry picking. Things need to make sense together.  Solar activity needs to be looked at in the context of all research.  You cannot ignore the majority of available evidence in favour of something you would prefer to be true. Bindschadler comments that small variations in solar activity today don’t match up with the climate data. There’s no doubt, he says, that the sun is not the primary factor driving the climate change that we’re living through. It has to be the huge amounts of carbon dioxide our fossil fuel burning is putting into the atmosphere. You need to stand back and look at the big picture and there’s really no controversy if you do that.

“Who do you believe?” asks Nurse. If you’re not a scientist then ultimately it’s a question of trust. At this point he goes to the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University and talks with Phil Jones, the scientist who was accused in headlines, on the basis of stolen emails, of being at the centre of one of the worst scientific outrages of all time. Nurse points out there was no scientific scandal, as enquiries have established. At worst there was an understandable but perhaps less than wise resistance to meeting obviously engineered requests for information.

Nurse then visits James Delingpole, one of the journalists prominent in proclaiming the climategate email scandal. He is perfectly polite with Delingpole, but his gentle questioning elicits from the interviewee the brash certainties of a man who has no knowledge of the solidity of the scientific consensus on the causes of global warming but is an articulate and bellicose proponent of the theories of the deniers, accepting the few scientists among them as authoritative interpreters of the peer reviewed science which he himself doesn’t read. Nurse is surely right to see an unholy mix of the media and politics as distorting the proper reporting of science.

He acknowledges the problem of uncertainties, particularly in projecting the future and particularly in projecting cloud formation. But a fascinating picturing at NASA displays how the uncertainties are reducing. Bindschadler shows him a screen, along the upper half of which real global cloud data is pictured and in the lower half what the models predict would be happening at the same time. It’s a test of the models, and the level of their accuracy is astonishing to Nurse. Binsdschadler is clear there will always be some uncertainties because there are processes which are not fully understood, but by the measure of reducing uncertainties the science is making extraordinary progress.

There’s much more in the documentary than I have covered here, but hopefully this gives a sense of the thoroughness and reasonableness which marks Nurse’s investigation. He’s a person of intellectual substance who, in his own words has “an idealistic view of science as a liberalising and progressive force for humanity.”

I’ll conclude with a section of quotes I’ve transcribed from the latter part of the documentary, where he sums up what he has been seeking to communicate. First, on the centrality of peer review (irretrievably corrupted according to Delingpole) and the importance of scientific scepticism:

“As a working scientist I’ve learnt that peer review is very important to make science credible   The authority science can claim comes from evidence and experiment and an attitude of mind that seeks to test its theories to destruction…Scepticism is very important…be the worst enemy of your own idea, always challenge it, always test it   I think things are a little different when you have a denialist or an extreme sceptic. They are convinced that they know what’s going on and they only look for data which supports that position and they’re not really engaging in the scientific process. There is a fine line between healthy scepticism which is a fundamental part of the scientific process and denial which can stop the science moving on.  But the difference is crucial.”

On complexity:

“There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that says we are warming our planet but complexity allows for confusion and for alternative theories to develop.  The only solution is to look at all the evidence as a whole.  I think some extreme sceptics decide what to think first and then cherry pick the data to support their case.  We scientists have to acknowledge we now operate in a world where point of view not peer review holds sway.”

That means taking trouble to communicate:

“Scientists have forgotten that we don’t operate in an isolated bubble. We cannot take the public for granted. We have to talk to them. We have to communicate the issues. We have to earn their trust if science really is going to benefit society.”

It matters for the world:

“Over the next few years every country on the globe faces tough decisions over what to do about climate change. I’ve been thinking how scientists can win back the confidence we’re going to need if we’re going to make those choices wisely.”

He turns to the record of the Royal Society:

“350 years of an endeavour which is built on respect for observation, respect for data, respect for experiment. Trust no-one. Trust only what the experiments and the data tell you. We have to continue to use that approach if we are to solve problems such as climate change.”

That brings responsibility with it:

“It’s become clear to me that if we hold to these ideals of trusting evidence then we have a responsibility to publicly argue our case because in this conflicted and volatile debate scientists are not the only voices that are listened to.”

Politics enters the picture but scientists have to keep their focus:

“When a scientific issue has important outcomes for society then the politics becomes increasingly more important. So if we look at this issue of climate change that is particularly significant, because that has effects on how we manage our economy and manage our politics, so this has become a crucially political matter and we can see that by the way the forces are being lined up on both sides. What really is required here is a focus on the science, keeping the politics and keeping the ideology out of the way.”

But that doesn’t mean disengaging:

“Earning trust requires more than just focusing on the science. We have to communicate it effectively too.  Scientists have got to get out there. They have to be open about everything that they do. They do have to talk to the media even if it does sometimes put their reputation at doubt because if we do not do that it will be filled by others who don’t understand the science and who may be driven by politics or ideology. This is far too important to be left to the polemicists and commentators in the media. Scientists have to be there too.”

Paul Nurse has certainly put himself there in undertaking this documentary. Needless to say it cut no ice with the affronted James Delingpole, but surely many viewers will have been impressed with the evidence urgently yet reasonably presented by this distinguished scientist, and equally impressed that he goes to such trouble to make it all accessible to the general public.

Rees: scientists are citizens too

The BBC’s HARDtalk interviewer Stephen Sackur engaged this week with the eminently reasonable Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society. The interview covered a range of topics, and climate change was among them.  It could hardly not be, given the seriousness with which Rees regards it.  Sackur chose to introduce the subject by suggesting that some of the confusion over climate change among the general public may be “because some scientists can’t decide whether they’re scientists – completely impartial, independent, guided only by data – or whether they’re campaigners”. Who he had in mind he didn’t say, or more likely didn’t know. Perhaps he was suggesting Rees falls into that category.

If so, Rees didn’t rise to the bait but took the opportunity to affirm that there is wide acceptance in the scientific community that climate change is a matter for serious concern and that nothing that has happened in the last year weakens the evidence for this.


He acknowledged, however, that there is plenty of scope for debate as to what we should do about it because we have to decide what sacrifices we make now in order to guard against risks of uncertain magnitude in the future.

Incidentally, when Rees mentions the uncertainties of future predictions it should be noted that he means that it is uncertain whether the level of warming this century will be two degrees or as much as a catastrophic five or more degrees.

Confronted with Monbiot’s latest fear that climate enlightenment is dead Rees replied that he wouldn’t go as far as that but hoped rather that the debate could be reinvigorated. At this point he mentioned the article he and Anthony Giddens have just written and which has now been posted on Hot Topic. Sackur pounced, asking how that can be done by scientists who must follow the data rather than campaign.

Rees patiently agreed that it is important to separate out the science, which is the basis for the policy decisions, from the policy decisions themselves. As a scientist “I see it as my job to ensure that the science with all its uncertainties is made available to politicians.”

But then came the telling aspect of scientific responsibility: “But as citizens I think we want to make sure that issues which are longer term and important don’t always get trumped by the urgent and immediate.”

“Scientists need to get noisier do they?” asked Sackur.

“Not just scientists, but many people who are concerned about the long-term future of the environment and the climate need to urge our politicians to give some weight to long-term issues.”

Behind the politeness and carefulness of Rees’s statements there is clearly a refusal to accept the foolishly simplistic notion that climate scientists should be corralled in the domain of their science and should leave the policy makers of the world to work out for themselves whether they are going to respond to the science and how. The fact of the matter is that politicians need to be constantly challenged to face up to the seriousness of the issue. And scientists are citizens with the same interest as the rest of us in an appropriate level of political response to a grave threat.

The dichotomy which Sackur used to get the discussion under way is a false one. It’s also a very tired one. I was surprised that an accomplished interviewer such as Sackur wasn’t ready with an approach which showed a more alert awareness of why scientists like Rees are impelled to sound alarms. It seemed to fit with a critical Climate Progress post from Joseph Romm recently on what he discerns as a decline in the BBC’s coverage of climate change. In the post he  reports hearing from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say”!

Reinvigorating the debate, Rees’s preferred path, is not going to be made easy. But we can be thankful that he and other scientists are committed to the effort.

Hook, line and stinker

homer.jpgRichard Treadgold has been attempting a sceptical deconstruction of Professor Keith Hunter’s new statement on Science, Climate Change and Integrityfor the Royal Society of New Zealand. It’s not a pretty sight.

Professor Hunter should be ashamed of this shoddy piece of research. The lowliest undergraduate would do better than he.

The senior scientists who’ve made misleading public statements about global warming include Peter Gluckman, David Wratt, James Renwick, Brett Mullan, Andrew Reisinger and Jim Salinger. Their cheeks are smooth and their mouths are smiling but their breath stinks.

Meanwhile, “tenacious” Ian Wishart issued a press release entitled Errors in Royal Society of NZ climate change paper:

The Royal Society of New Zealand has again nailed its sorry little tail to the mast of a sinking global warming ship, with a statement designed to convince news media, politicians and the public that the science behind climate change is sound.

That’s the “sorry little tail” of the nation’s leading scientific society, but Wishart’s not finished. He sums up:

If this is the best evidence the Royal Society of New Zealand can muster in support of climate change, God help the Key administration and his beleaguered science advisor Peter Gluckman, because the people advising National and Gluckman on climate are NIWA and the Royal Society.

New NZ CSC chairman Barry Brill weighed in with his own devastating critique. Prepare to be savaged by a dead sheep:

The paper is unusual in that Professor Hunter lays out the scientific arguments for all to see. But what is even more unusual is the rather obvious fact that the arguments are transparently wrong – to the point of being a serious embarrassment for both your author and your Society.

Treadgold piles it on:

That Hunter presents his statement under the imprimature(sic) of the Royal Society does not imbue it with authority but debases the Society. A mud pie made by the King is still just a mud pie.

Together they give Professor Hunter nowhere to hide. His egregious statement has no leg to stand on and he can only withdraw it and apologise.

There’s blood on the floor — but it’s Treadgold, Wishart and Brill’s blood clogging up the drains, because in their rush to dismantle Professor Hunter’s statement, they not only get their facts wrong, but they have demonstrated the very point Hunter was making:

Debate, and scepticism are healthy and to be encouraged, as is transparency of information. However, vicious personal attacks on the integrity of experienced scientists, and indeed their critics, serve only to detract from the real issues and are out of place in a rational society.

Let’s see if I can avoid making vicious personal attacks on Treadgold, Wishart and Brill (TWB) as I point out the errors they make…


TWB concentrate their efforts on Professor Hunter’s list of multiple lines of evidence supporting the case that change is occurring, and that action would be prudent. Wishart objects to this section:

“The amount of extra carbon accumulated in the ocean and the atmosphere matches the known quantity emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels.”

Professor Hunter has set a little trap here, and Wishart falls for it:

Except, he appears to have forgotten that there’s a discrepancy between what’s been emitted and how much remains in the atmosphere, known as “the missing carbon sink”. In other words, the Royal Society is wrong. The emissions don’t match.

Brill attempts something similar:

Rebuttal: Oceanic carbon has never been measured, and cannot be estimated. The biosphere also takes up CO2 from fossil fuels (eg forests). There is a well recognised “missing carbon sink”, estimated to be as high as three trillion tonnes per annum.

Treadgold can only manage incredulity, but devotes a whole post to it.

TWB are wrong, and Hunter’s precise point is correct: the measured increase in carbon storage in the ocean and atmosphere is equivalent to the amount of fossil fuels burned since the beginning of the industrial era. Hunter does not mention other anthropogenic sources of carbon — primarily from chopping down forests — but they are roughly in balance with terrestrial carbon sinks (which have been called “missing sinks” because the exact details have proved hard to pin down). The “discrepancy”, as Wishart calls it, is irrelevant to the central message: that the increase in atmospheric carbon is our fault. In fact the “missing sink” and oceans have been doing us a big favour by storing away a very big chunk of our emissions…

Why Brill thinks we can’t measure or estimate ocean carbon content or uptake is a mystery. We’re certainly never going to be able to count all the carbon atoms one by one, but we do understand a very great deal about ocean chemistry — and Keith Hunter is an expert in that field.

TWB also take exception to Hunter’s comments on ocean heat content:

It is also clear that the oceans absorb about 85% of the excess heat resulting from this radiative forcing by greenhouse gases (as well as about 40% of the carbon dioxide). Detailed measurements of the changes in oceanic heat content, and the temperature rise that accompanies this, agree quantitatively with the predicted radiative forcing.

Wishart thinks the oceans aren’t warming much:

Which would be fine, except that the oceans are not warming up much at all, which the Argo project, discussed in Air Con, found, and which has also been detected in another study last year.

Hilariously, the study he quotes (Towards closure of regional heat budgets in the North Atlantic using Argo floats and surface flux datasets, Wells et al, Ocean Sci., 5, 59–72, 2009 [PDF]) says nothing about global ocean heat content, but is concerned with detailed modelling of the heat budget of the North Atlantic.

Wishart moves on to reference Skeptical Science (an “appalling” site, apparently) on ocean heat content, and chooses to quote the final paragraph, but not the complete final paragraph. I wonder why?

Independent analysis seem to indicate that over last half dozen years, the ocean has shown less warming than the long term trend… but nevertheless, a statistically significant warming trend. [my emboldening of the bit Wishart leaves out]

So the oceans continue to warm… Wishart is careful not to state that there’s actual cooling going on (though he’d love you to leave you with that impression) but Brill, however, goes the whole hog.

Rebuttal: Oceanic heat content has decreased steadily since the ARGO programme commenced measuring it in 2004 – despite sharply rising GHG emissions.

More than slightly out of date, Barry. Try reading Wishart’s reference. Can’t you sceptics agree on anything? Meanwhile, all Treadgold can do is recycle Brill’s comments on it being “physically impossible” for the greenhouse effect to heat the ocean. As ocean heat content has been steadily increasing, it would seem that physics is not on Brill’s side. Here’s a graph TWB would probably prefer you didn’t see:


Not only is ocean heat content increasing, it accounts for the vast majority of the energy accumulating in the system, as Prof Hunter says. (Graph comes from Murphy et al, 2009, via Skeptical Science’s excellent post on measuring the earth’s energy imbalance).

Next, TWB get shirty with Hunter’s assertions about sea level rise. Wishart refers to one of his own posts as a reference that allows him to declare:

If he’s trying to suggest sea level increase is unusual or rapidly increasing, then in a word, “rubbish”.

What Hunter is saying is none of those things, but that observed sea level rise is consistent with the observed increase in ocean heat content. In any event, Wishart’s “rubbish” link is to a “CO2 Science” (sceptic site noted for its creative reinterpretation of what papers actually say) report on a paper by Wöppelmann et al. When you read the abstract, you see it refers to a refinement of the sea level data for the last century, which the authors state is in line with earlier work. CO2 Science adds a gratuitous “Hence, it would appear that 20th-century sea level rise has not been in any way unusual, even over the most recent decade of supposedly unprecedented warmth.” Pure invention, in other words. They just made that up, and Wishart swallowed it whole. Par for the course, I suppose, for the deep throat of climate denial.

Brill’s offering repeats his earlier mistake on ocean heat content, but does include this:

Rebuttal: Sea levels have risen by about 18mm/decade for the past 100 years, having extremely poor correlation with either GHG concentrations or fossil fuel use.

Sea level shows an extremely good correlation with ocean heat content and with global temperature, as a recent paper explains. Both of those things are intimately tied into to atmospheric carbon levels and as recent increases are due to human action, you’d have to say that Brill is 100% wrong.

In one respect, and one respect only, does Brill have a point — and it’s a small one. Hunter’s original statement referred to “outgoing solar radiation reflected off the Earth’s surface”. This was an error, missed in proof-reading (or prof-reading), and has since been corrected to “outgoing infra-red radiation”, which renders Brill’s comments on albedo irrelevant (Wishart didn’t notice the obvious mistake!). Brill goes on to say that the “The “simple physics” of 1.5W/m2 is flat wrong.” Which only proves that he’s flat wrong. It’s straightforward if not particularly simple physics, but the basic principles involved have been understood since Fourier and Tyndall first investigated the subject 150 years ago. Perhaps Barry has trouble keeping up with the latest work…

So what are we left with? Three attempted rebuttals of Keith Hunter’s statement on climate change, each of which makes fundamental errors — misleading or misrepresenting the facts — in service of a scurrilous attack on a respected academic and the nation’s top scientific body. Here’s Brill closing his “open letter”:

It will be with a sense of anticipation that we put our fact-based arguments over the very existence of dangerous human-caused global warming to the gatekeepers of our public science academies and at last expect their reasoned response.

What facts are those Barry? The ones you’ve made up, or the ones other people have made up for you? You’re going to have do a lot better than that if you want the world to take you seriously.

There is an important lesson here for the scientific community in New Zealand. The aggressive ignorance on display in the TWB papers is no longer something you can afford to treat with lofty disdain. These people are playing dirty — happy to publicly impugn your work and reputations, based only on their imperfect and ideologically blinkered interpretation of reality, and happy to see their views echoed in Parliament by Rodney Hide and ACT. What’s at stake is not science itself — that great endeavour is quite safe from the intellectually and morally bankrupt attacks of the sort launched by Brill and his pals — but the public perception of science and its value to society. At a time when we will need all our reason to steer a path through a rocky and uncertain future, scientists cannot afford to sit on their hands. Time to hit back, to show the community at large that the age of reason is not dead.


Seeing Further


Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society

The name of Bill Bryson attracted me and I obtained through the library a copy of his new book Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society, only to find that he is the editor, not the author. But he has done a splendid job as editor, collecting contributions from 21 authors, in an eclectic mix with room for novelists as well as professors. I hadn’t thought to be mentioning the book on Hot Topic, but there are three or four chapters which touch on climate change and which seemed worth reporting.

Novelist Maggie Gee provides a chapter of nicely modulated writing on the ways in which writers explore the possible end of the world and what draws them to do so.  Some of her own novels have been described as apocalyptic and she comments that at a conscious level she uses the threat of apocalypse “to re-focus attention  on the short-term miracle of what we have, this relatively peaceful and temperate present where the acts of reading and writing are possible.” But she is aware that fears of climate change apocalypse are real enough. Contrasting the regular engagement of the Royal Society in the climate change debate with the quietude of her own Royal Society of Literature (of which she is a Vice-President) a little further down the Thames, she posits that writers are like most people in not fully believing it will affect their lives. Those who do take it seriously “are thought slightly mad, or over-intense, unlike the sensible majority who just somehow know things will always go on as they do today.” She follows with a perceptive observation of the resulting inhibitions of climate change believers. “It’s like a religion: don’t bring it up. Belief seems like a claim to virtue, a holier-than-thou-ness which will annoy others. Thus some of us, myself included, become cowards, or lazy.”

That said, she expresses her admiration for the “terrible striving” she sees in some young people, but also her pity and her urge to say to them ‘Be kinder to yourself’. Some of the young “are already assuming all the costs and allowing themselves none of the benefits of life on this planet, whereas others, older and much, much richer, have taken all the benefits and paid none of the costs.”

She offers some interesting comparisons between writers and scientists. Scientists have to vouch for the truth and solidity of what they say, whereas artists “are protected by the worn trench-coat of irony”. [Great line! GR] On the plus side for climate scientists, they have a clear part to play. They are useful. “Writers very often do not feel useful.” Nevertheless they have something to offer, including this: “We can try to defamiliarise the present, make our readers realise afresh how marvellous our living planet is.”

There are also similarities in the roles of scientists and writers. Both have the opportunity to look beyond the demands of the present out to the wide web of life and to the future in its many possible forms.  If we refuse that attempt we run the risk of losing everything. “The laboratories and libraries that we need and love to pursue our crafts are some of the first things that would be lost with the collapse of civilisation.”

Stephen Schneider’s chapter tackles the scientific uncertainties in climate change. Uncertainty has to be part of the science because it is concerned with the future. The question is how large the uncertainties are. Some of them centre around the so-called climate sensitivity, often estimated as the temperature increase due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels from pre-industrial levels of about 280 ppm. The IPCC offers a likely range of 2-4.5 degrees, with a 5-17 percent chance of it being higher and a ‘best guess’ of 3 degrees. Not easily communicated to policy-makers and the public.

It’s also difficult to explain how systems science gets done. Traditional ‘falsification’ controlled experiments are not possible. “What we can do is assess where the preponderance of evidence lies and assign confidence levels to various conclusions.” It would be nice to stick only with empirical data, but the best that can be done is to continually update the underlying data behind predictions and refine predictions as required.

This means that scientists, and policy-makers, grappling with climate science impacts are dealing with risk management. Judging about acceptable and unacceptable risks is a value judgment  which many traditional scientists are uncomfortable with.  Schneider is one of them, “but I am more uncomfortable ignoring the problem altogether”.

The matter is complicated by another feature of systems science difficult to manage: the possibility of ‘surprises’ in future global climate, such as tipping points which lead to unusually rapid changes of state.

Schneider explains how the IPCC worked out a standardised quantitative scale to treat the uncertainties –- low confidence, medium confidence, high confidence and very high confidence, likely, and so on. The aim is to better inform the risk management decisions of policy-makers.

Not all is uncertain in the science. It can be regarded as settled that warming is occurring and virtually settled that human activities are the primary driver of recent changes.  The uncertainties are about how severe warming and its impacts will be in the future. These uncertainties have to be managed rather than mastered.

Oliver Morton in a chapter on Earth’s energy flows and the cycles of the biosphere, comments on the use of ancient sunlight stored in fossil form to drive the engines of industry and civilisation. In itself the amount of energy thus liberated is tiny by planetary scales. But the warming it results in is, in terms of energy flows, about one hundred times larger than the amount of energy released by the fossil fuels.

Energy from fossil fuels ties the flow of energy to the material flow of the carbon cycle in a deeply damaging way. We must simply find other flows to tap. Energy flows through the winds, the currents of the oceans, the rivers, the growing of the grass. It flows out of the ground and down from the sky. Energy of all sorts flows through the world and it’s not hard to imagine new ways in which that energy can do the work of humanity.

Martin Rees, the President of the Royal Society since 2005, looks ahead to the next fifty years. He’s not sanguine.  Along with an exploding human population and its need for food, energy and resources, and along with the extinction threats hovering over biodiversity, he sets the threat from a warmer world and the significant probability that it will trigger a grave and irreversible global trend as in rising sea levels or runaway release of methane in the tundra.  He wants to see plenty of citizen scientists, measuring up to the social responsibility that goes with their scientific work. He ends with a vision of the vast changes in the Earth in the last one millionth part of its history, a few thousand years, including the anomalously fast rise in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s been an unprecedented ‘fever’ less than half way through the Earth’s life.  It will need some wise choices to steer to a safe outcome.

[GR adds: Martin Rees is visiting NZ this month as the guest of the Royal Society of NZ to give two Rutherford Memorial Lectures, in Christchurch on March 22 and Wellington on March 23. Details here. I’d love a report on the Wellington lecture from someone!]