Waking the Frog

Canadian Tom Rand is an enthusiastic promoter of the clean technologies which are fully capable of saving us from the worst ravages of climate change. He’s also an investor in the field – a capitalist, he happily acknowledges. And importantly for his readers he’s a lively and thoughtful writer with a knack for striking observation. Waking the Frog: Solutions for our Climate Change Paralysis [Amazon] is partly an attempt to understand why we have stepped back from what looked in the early 1990s like a promising start to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. It is also an affirmation that we have the means to move rapidly away from fossil fuels if we have the will.

Rand hopes that the fact that he is a capitalist operating within the system he critiques will lend credibility to his criticisms.

“I’m not an outsider looking in but an insider looking ahead.“

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Global Climate Change: A Primer

Global Climate Change: A Primer may be a book for beginners, but those with an understanding of the issue will find interest in the wide-ranging exposition provided by geologist Orrin Pilkey  and his lawyer son Keith. Pilkey’s research area has been shorelines and coastal geology, with a special focus on barrier island coasts, and his previous book The Rising Sea, which I reviewed here, gave clear warning of the possible magnitude of sea level rise this century. This primer has been written to provide a brief and simple account for the layperson of the science of global climate change. The guided tour the authors provide is well managed in terms both of the straightforward language they use and the topics they select to survey.

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More lunacy from Lomborg

Lomborg.jpgNewsweek recently carried an article by Bjorn Lomborg entitled “A Roadmap for the Planet.” His basic thesis, by now familiar to all, is that “exaggerated environmental worries—and the willingness of so many to believe them—could ultimately prevent us from finding smarter ways to actually help our planet and ensure the health of the environment for future generations.” This is because we have successfully dealt with similar issues before. “Although Westerners were once reliant on whale oil for lighting, we never actually ran out of whales. Why? High demand and rising prices for whale oil spurred a search for and investment in the 19th-century version of alternative energy.”

According to Lomborg, we have for generations “consistently underestimated our capacity for innovation.” The fact is that “would-be catastrophes have regularly been pushed aside throughout human history, and so often because of innovation and technological development. We never just continue to do the same old thing. We innovate and avoid the anticipated problems.”

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Handle with care

Who is to temper the message of climate science to fit the psychology of those who receive it?

According to a report in Science Daily a forthcoming study will show that people may discount the evidence for global warming if it threatens their fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. On the other hand they may get past their scepticism if the findings of climate science are not presented apocalyptically and solutions to the problem are offered. Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and doctoral student Matthew Feinberg have co-authored the study which will appear in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.


I won’t report the details of their experiments, which are outlined in the Science Daily report for any who would like further information. The claim that people don’t respond to doomsday themes is common enough, though the study’s investigation of how this is related to their view of the world as just and fair may well be illuminating. What I found myself thinking as I was reading the report of the study was not so much whether it is revealing as what it is supposed to imply for those who practise climate science.

I can’t really see that it carries any implication at all for the scientists. Their work is to report what they detect is happening and will happen in the future if we continue to overload the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. There’s no way in which what they discover can be communicated as anything other than serious in its consequences.  I wrote some months ago about the unedifying spectacle of Bjorn Lomborg attempting to downplay the seriousness by talking about “balanced information” and moving away from end-of-the-world stories. He was on a climate change panel at a PEN conference and his address immediately followed James Hansen’s. Hansen had said that if we burn all of the fossil fuels we are guaranteed to pass tipping points, the most imminent major one being disintegration of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Lomborg didn’t address the science at all, but simply said that “apocalyptic information” turns people off and is part of the reason why we’ve seen a decline in public concern about global warming. The sombre warnings of the scientist were simply swept away by the economist. Easy. But not an option for the scientist who can hardly moderate the message because it might turn people off. In fact the possible public response cannot be allowed any influence on the studies climate scientists are conducting.

However there are solutions which come hand in hand with the serious findings of the science, and there’s nothing to say we can’t embrace the solutions without dwelling on the consequences of what will happen if we don’t. I notice that Arnold Schwarzenegger in his planned new role of environmental activist is likely to avoid mention of the words climate change or greenhouse gas emissions, which he thinks are a turn-off for some people. “You’ve got to make it hip. You’ve got to make it sexy to be part of this movement.” I hope he meets with success. Nevertheless he is launching on his role because he is aware of how great a threat climate change poses to the human future. It’s there as background reference for him.

I wonder how the experiments described by the psychologists would turn out if they were administered to the population of a Pacific island threatened by sea level rise. Or to Peruvian or Bolivian farmers hit by glacier retreat. Their sense of stability and safety has already been eroded and is hardly likely to interfere with their estimation of the evidence for climate change. They’re not turned off by information that the effects of climate change are potentially catastrophic. They can see that. It’s seemingly the wealthy and protected societies which require communication so delicate that it won’t arouse any sense of fear.

Any approach that will result in drastically lowered emissions and green energy is to be welcomed. But the science is implacable. There’s no way of making it unthreatening.

[Traveling Wilburys]

Bjorn again: Lomborg’s convenient change of heart

Climate protestors at AberdeenBjorn Lomborg is in the news again. He’s changed his tune, says a Guardian headline, announcing the forthcoming publication of a new book edited by him, Smart Solutions to Climate Change: Comparing Costs and Benefits. That was a pretty quick change, I thought, recalling what I heard him say on a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival, back in May. He followed the famed Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder and the leading climatologist James Hansen. I wrote about it on Hot Topic at the time. Neither the passion of Gaarder nor the scientific logic of Hansen was for him. He admittedly presented himself as an advocate for tackling global warming, but without a shred of scientific reference he spoke of the need for “balanced information” and a move from the end-of-world kind of story.  “Apocalyptic information” turns people off, he said, and is part of the reason why there has been a decline in public concern about global warming over the past year. That, plus problems in the IPCC report such as those relating to the Himalayan glaciers. In other words, it’s the scientists who point to the great danger we are in who are to blame for the lack of public concern. The relentless denialist campaign seemingly has nothing to do with it. As I listened I simply thought you obviously haven’t bothered to follow the science. You’ve sniffed out a strategic political position, safely positioned between science and denial. Perhaps that was unfair of me. But I’d reviewed Howard Friel’s painstaking book The Lomborg Deceptiona few weeks previously, and what Lomborg was saying fitted Friel’s analysis.


Then just last month he produced an article (accessible from here) claiming that we have the capacity to readily adapt to even a 6 metre sea level rise. Only 400 million people would be affected, about 6% of the world’s population, and most of them live in cities where they could be protected relatively easily.

“94% of the population would not be inundated. And most of those who do live in the flood areas would never even get their feet wet. […] The point isn’t that we can or should ignore global warming. The point is that we should be wary of hyperbolic predictions. More often than not, what sound like horrific changes in climate and geography actually turn out to be manageable – and in some cases even benign.”

This hardly presaged a change of tune. I haven’t seen a copy of the new book, nor will I be seeking to. But books take time to publish and the things that an author is saying and writing in the months preceding release are unlikely to be at variance with what the forthcoming book will have to say.

Joe Romm, who is deeply unimpressed by the news of the book, quotes from its penultimate paragraph:

“It is unfortunate that so many policy makers and campaigners have become fixated on cutting carbon in the near term as the chief response to global warming.”

“Seriously” is Romm’s one-word response.

It’s not that Lomborg thinks we can avoid responding to global warming. It’s rather that he has a better way than cutting emissions. His final paragraph:

“If we care about the environment and about leaving this planet and its inhabitants with the best possible future, we actually have only one option: we all need to start seriously focusing, right now, on the most effective ways to fix global warming.”

That involves using money raised by a carbon tax (a small one of $7 a ton, in case that alarms anyone).

“Investing $100bn annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate change problem by the end of this century.”

Sounds like good news. And in some ways it is. The areas that Lomborg and his fellow writers propose spending money on include research and development of clean energy options, planting more trees, reducing soot and methane, and investigating geo-engineering projects such as “cloud whitening”. There’s little to argue with there, and presumably that’s how he managed to get a commendation of the book from Rajendra Pachauri, who welcomed Lomborg’s statement that we have ‘long moved on from any mainstream disagreements about the science of climate change’.

So it looks like a change of emphasis from Lomborg, though he maintains he has never denied anthropogenic global warming. He even acknowledged to the Guardian reporter that there could be “something really bad lurking around the corner”. But it’s hardly change enough. Cutting carbon emissions is our only hope of avoiding really serious multiple consequences from global warming. That is the clear message of the science. The notion that we can get by without seriously addressing that need is not founded on science. Lomborg’s message is welcomed by fossil fuel vested interests because it suggests we can carry on doing what we are at the same time as covering any damage we may be laying up for the future. Gerry Brownlee’s draft NZ Energy Strategy fits very nicely into that delusion.

I’ll give Howard Friel, writing in the Guardian, the last word.

“Lomborg still argues in this book, as he did in the others, that cost-benefit economics analysis shows that it is prohibitively expensive for the world to sharply reduce CO2 emissions to the extent required by the scientific evidence.

“…what will happen to the earth and human civilisation when atmospheric CO2 concentrations rise – essentially unchecked, if we followed Lomborg’s recommendations – to 450 parts per million, 550ppm, 700ppm, 800ppm; and when the average global temperature rises by 2C, 3C, and 4C to 7C?

“Climate scientists have set 350ppm and a 2C average temperature rise (from 1750 to 2100) as the upper range targets to prevent a global climate disaster. Since we are already at 390ppm and since a 2C plus rise is a near certainty, how does Lomborg’s appeal to forgo sharp reductions in CO2 emissions reflect climate science? He argues that there are ‘smarter solutions to climate change’ than a focus on reducing CO2. This is hardly smart: it’s insanity.