World’s oceans drowning in plastic sludge

Below, my piece from the latest edition of ‘Village’ magazine. If you haven’t done so yet, dash out and buy it. Village is among the last vestiges of the non-corporatised media still standing in Ireland. It deserves, demands, our support.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
 Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
– WB Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

One place you probably might expect to be about as far from a rubbish tip as could be imagined is the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s the world’s largest body of water – and it also has the unwelcome distinction of being the planet’s biggest floating dump.

Scientists in recent years have made an astonishing discovery of a gigantic ‘plastic soup’ of waste, reckoned to consist of around 100 million tons of mostly plastic debris. This floating or semi-submerged slurry is estimated to cover an area of the ocean equivalent to roughly twice the entire land mass of the US.

The Hawaiian islands are in the middle of this opaque ‘soup’. Despite its enormous size and extent, its existence has until quite recently remained largely undocumented. It does not, for instance, show up on satellite imagery or aerial photos. An area known as the north Pacific gyre was discovered around 15 years ago by American oceanographer Charles Moore. He was returning from a yacht race when he strayed off course and found himself right in the middle of this floating dump.

“Every time I came on deck, there was trash floating by,” he said. “How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?”, he said in an interview with environmental journalist Stephen Leahy.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now identifies marine debris as “one of the most pervasive pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways.”

Globally, around 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, comprising tens of billions of individual items. Only 10% of this is recycled. That leaves a staggering 270 million tonnes of discarded plastic – over five million tonnes a week. Of this, around seven million tonnes finds its way into the sea each year. Over time, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, until it forms a difficult-to-spot soupy mass of almost microscopic fragments.

These tiny pieces are swallowed in huge quantities by a wide range of marine life, which mistakes it for food. A recent US study noted that fish in the North Pacific ingest as much as 24,000 tonnes of plastic mulch a year.

Plastics are for all intents and purposes indestructible and non biodegradable. Instead, the action of sunlight causes plastic to break into ever smaller particles. As they do so, harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), styrene and phthalates are leached into the water. In humans, these chemicals are known carcinogens; phthalates are also endocrine disruptors, affecting the onset of puberty in girls as well as being linked to breast cancer. Dioxin is formed in the manufacture of PVC, and is internationally classified as a ‘known human carcinogen’

These toxic plastic wastes have been accumulating in the world’s oceans for many decades; material discarded since as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s is still bobbing about in the oceans, trapped in one of the world’s five major gyres, and being added to daily by mountains of new waste.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that plastic debris causes the deaths of over a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes and biros have been found inside the stomachs of hapless seabirds, which mistake them for food.

Midway Island in the Pacific is 1,200 miles from the nearest major human settlement. It is the breeding and nesting ground for 1.5 million Albatrosses. Scientists surveying the island found that every Albatross chick they examined has been fed plastic waste mistaken by its parents for food. One in three Albatross chicks are now dying as a result.

Plastic makes up around 90% per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. Every square mile of ocean on earth contains, on average, 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. A 2012 study published in the journal Biology Letters found that plastic debris in the area popularly known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ has increased an astonishing 100-fold over the past 40 years, leading to changes in the natural habitat of animals and to widespread contamination and ingestion by a range of marine species.

Humans are not immune either. Sitting as we do at the apex of the marine food chain, human health is threatened by ingesting fish and other marine foods which have been contaminated by our plastic wastes. International efforts at reducing plastic wastes are routinely stymied by corporate interests who, as with climate change, are keen to do anything to help, as long as it’s nothing that is actually useful, or that could conceivably interfere with profits.

Charles Moore, the man who put this issue on the media map in the late 1990s is depressed that, despite what we now know, nothing is being done to stop, let alone, reverse, the avalanche of plastic and other debris making its way into the world’s oceans.

His solution? “We have to withdraw from the corporate materialistic economy. You can’t work within, it doesn’t work. We have to leave it behind and create local, sustainable communities that have no need for plastics or packaging,” he told Leahy.  To help the oceans recover, what is really needed is to “shut down the spigot of stuff we’re making. You don’t bail out an overflowing bathtub without turning off the tap first.”

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Sustainability | 1 Comment

The Anthropocene – Age of the Sociopath

First off, this quite wonderful short animated piece by Steve Cutts. I showed it on a large screen by way of a little, ahem, light relief during a meeting earlier this week and it went down a storm, so here, for the record, it is, all three and a half glorious minutes:

This clip came to mind earlier tonight, when reading a short essay by Derrick Jensen, entitled Age of the Sociopath and published in the Earth Island Journal. I think it’s worth reproducing in its entirety below:

THE TERM Anthropocene not only doesn’t help us stop this culture from killing the planet – it contributes directly to the problems it purports to address.

First, it’s grossly misleading. Humans aren’t the ones “transforming” – read, killing – the planet. Civilized humans are. There’s a difference. It’s the difference between old growth forests and New York City, the difference between 60 million bison on a vast plain and pesticide- and herbicide-laden fields of genetically modified corn. It’s the difference between rivers full of salmon and rivers killed by hydroelectric dams. It’s the difference between cultures whose members recognize themselves as one among many and members of this culture, who convert everything to their own use.

To be clear, the Tolowa Indians lived where I now live for at least 12,500 years, and when the first of the civilized arrived the place was a paradise. Now, 170 years later, the salmon are being driven extinct, redwoods have been reduced to 2 percent of their range, and the fields (formerly forests) are full of toxins.

To be even more clear: Humans don’t destroy landbases. Civilized humans destroy landbases, and they have been doing so since the beginning of civilization. One of the first written myths is of Gilgamesh deforesting what is now Iraq – cutting down cedar forests so thick the sunlight never touched the ground, all so he could make a great city and, more to the point, so he could make a great name for himself.

All of this is crucial, because perpetrators of atrocity so often attempt to convince themselves and everyone else that what they’re doing is natural or right. The word “Anthropocene” attempts to naturalize the murder of the planet by pretending the problem is “man,” and not a specific type of man connected to this particular culture.

The name also manifests the supreme narcissism that has characterized this culture from the beginning. Of course members of this culture would present their behavior as representing “man” as a whole. The other cultures have never really existed anyway, except as lesser breeds who are simply in the way of getting access to resources.

Using the term Anthropocene feeds into that narcissism. Gilgamesh destroyed a forest and made a name for himself. This culture destroys a planet and names a geologic age after itself. What a surprise.

They say one sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns. Well, members of this culture must not be very smart. We’ve had 6,000 years to recognize the pattern of genocide and ecocide fueled by this culture’s narcissism and sociopathy, and the behavior is simply getting worse. Members of this culture have had 6,000 years to recognize that the cultures they’re conquering have often been sustainable. And still they come up with this name that attempts to include all humanity in their own despicable behavior.

The narcissism extends beyond disbelieving that other cultures exist. It includes believing that nothing else on the planet fully exists, either. It’s like the bumper sticker says: “We’re not the only species on Earth: We just act like it.” I recently heard an astronomer trying to explain why it’s important to explore Mars. The exploration will, he said, “answer that most important question of all: Are we all alone?” On a planet brimming with beautiful life (for now), he asks this question? I have a more important question. Is he insane? The answer is yes. He’s a narcissist, and a sociopath.

Of course members of this culture, who have named themselves with no shred of irony or humility Homo sapiens, would, as they murder the planet, declare this the age of man.

The Anthropocene gives no hint of the horrors this culture is inflicting. “The Age of Man”? Oh, that’s nice. We’re number one, right? Instead, the name must be horrific, it must produce shock and shame and outrage commensurate with this atrocity of killing the planet. It must call us to differentiate ourselves from this culture, to show that this label and this behavior do not belong to us. It must call us to show that we do not deserve it. It must call us to say and mean, “Not one more Indigenous culture driven from its land, and not one more species driven extinct!”

If we’re going to name this age, let’s at least be honest and accurate. Can I suggest, “The Age of the Sociopath”?

From Earth Island Journal

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology | 3 Comments

How climate change is destroying the Earth

A picture, they say, can be worth a thousand words. I was contacted recently by a group of volunteers who design and research material to help communicate climate change to the general public. They suggested the infographic below might be of interest to ToS readers, and I’m happy to include it below and let you decide whether or not it’s of interest. Infographics have become a very popular way of visually communicating complex messages.

I would take issue with a number of their stats, however. ’30 million people won’t have enough food by 2050′ is odd, given that hundreds of millions of people today don’t have enough food, a situation that will likely reach well into the billions by mid-century. It adds that ’100 million people will die from droughts, storms and diseases caused by climate change’, but unhelpfully doesn’t mention a time scale. On the other hand, their 100-year time scale for projected extinction of the polar bear seems extremely optimist. Sometimes, in trying to make a message easy to grasp, the danger is of over-simplification, but for all that, it’s a useful graphic. Continue reading

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The psychology of bracing for very bad news

Below is my second article from Village magazine’s special issue on climate change:

Once upon a time the people wearing the sandwich boards proclaiming that ‘The End is Nigh’ were a reassuringly small, fringe group of individuals, many clearly suffering from psychiatric issues or in some cases, a surfeit of end-times religiosity.

Then something very strange indeed happened. Today’s doomsayers are more likely to be physicists than priests and projections of wide-scale collapse and chaos have escaped from the pages of science fiction and are now the standard output of the world’s leading science academies.

A new sub-genre of fiction entitled ‘cli-fi’ has emerged to begin to flesh out the heart-stopping implications of a world engulfed by a series of unstoppable catastrophes as it lurches violently towards a new, much hotter ‘normal’.

Coming to terms with the ecological noose that now encircles us all requires something well beyond simply an intellectual grasp of the issues. The crunch comes when this knowledge completes the long, difficult journey from the head to the heart. Once you finally open up and accept them emotionally, quite simply, there is no going back.

This process mirrors the five stages of grief famously described by Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her landmark 1960s book ‘On Death and Dying’. The first step is denial of the reality of a predicament. Denial is a powerful self-defence mechanism and the more people in denial, the more reassuring it is to fellow deniers. Today, our corporate institutions, governments and most of the media are firmly lodged in this first stage.

Second, comes anger. As the evidence of a crisis begins to overwhelm denial mechanisms, many people will become angry – with themselves, with humanity as a whole, with the politicians and corporations who lied to them. The third phase, bargaining, is where, in desperation, we cast around to make any deal, pay any price, in the search for a ‘fix’. This phase is, I believe, rapidly approaching for western civilization. The search for ‘techno-fixes’ to climate change is a classic example of bargaining.

The fourth phase on Kübler-Ross’s scale is depression, where we slump into an apathetic state, overwhelmed by the enormity of the realisation of our fate. The final phase is acceptance, as we begin to come to terms with our radically altered new realities. The transition is anything but linear. Even committed ‘early accepters’ like this author often slip back and forth between states of excited bargaining, tub-thumping anger (sorry), black depression and stoic acceptance – and sometimes all in the same day.

Sociologists use the term ontological security to describe our innate sense of the continuity of life and our notions of who we are, what our values are, and what the future holds. We derive much of our mental stability from the strong belief in there being an order, a pattern and continuity in our lives. This innate sense is threatened by chaos and extreme anxiety. Vast, terrifying and seemingly intractable problems like climate change naturally corrode this security.

So what does an early accepter do to beat the blues and stay as a mostly positive, functioning individual? “Getting involved can be an antidote to the depression that arises from the overwhelming realisations that we face,” according to Paul Epstein of the Harvard Medical School. It certainly works for me. Meeting with like-minded people, listening, networking and sharing experiences and insights can be enormously therapeutic. As a journalist, the very act of writing about these issues is oddly cathartic. They say a problem shared is a burden halved. Sounds trite, but I have found it to be the case.

Psychological preparation is one part of the journey. There are also plenty of practicalities to consider. At a very minimum, how would any of us cope with a loss of electrical power for, say, five to seven days? This would mean no running water, flushing toilets, loss of light, heat and most likely cooking facilities.

Assuming this loss was widespread, there would quickly be no ATMs, supermarkets, restaurants or filling stations operational. The internet, landlines and perhaps even mobile networks could be inoperative in this (unspecified but temporary) crisis. If the crisis recurred, or became permanent, what then? Public administration, central government, local authorities as well as critical services, from hospitals to fire, waste collection and policing could quickly become patchy or even collapse entirely.

If in particular you live in an urban area, how do you plan to provide for yourself and your dependents if these services disappear? What skills do you think might be critical to your well-being in these scenarios? Have you considered a ‘Plan B’, ie. is there somewhere you and your family could de-camp to in the event of a prolonged crisis?

If you take the science of climate change seriously, if you are aware of the realities of resource depletion, biodiversity collapse and the likely effects of these rolling crises on the complex systems, both ecological and societal, upon which we depend for our collective welfare, then none of the scenarios in the preceding paragraphs will seem at all far-fetched.

These, and many related topics keep early accepters engaged and focused. There’s an old Irish saying that the day of the big wind is not the day to go thatching. Achieving resilience in times of crisis requires plenty of planning well in advance, but you won’t even start this process if you find yourself stuck somewhere on the first couple of rungs of Kübler-Ross’s ladder.

In his inaugural address, in the depths of the Great Depression, FDR famously told the US public: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. That was then. Now there is in fact a lot to fear, but we have lost much time already, and time is no longer our friend. We simply cannot become paralysed by fear, depression, apathy or anger and lose the precious opportunities that remain to be prepared.

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The human race is almost run

Below, one of my articles from the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine….

‘Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

I like people; indeed, some of my best friends are humans. As individuals, as families, even as communities, we have much to offer. The creative output of talented individuals and groups in the arts, sciences, in technology rank among the wonders of the world. As a species, quite apart from our intellectual prowess, our sheer inventiveness is probably unique in the half a billion years that that complex life has existed on this planet.

All this serves to deepen the irony, on the other hand, that the greatest blight ever to blacken the face of this Earth is, yes, this same humanity – organised, murderous, atavistic, superstitious and, more recently, driven literally insane by the organised greed we call neoliberal capitalism. To blame any one system is to miss the point entirely.

The brilliant US physicist, Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which successfully developed – and detonated – the world’s first nuclear weapons. Reflecting on what he had done in later years, Oppenheimer said: “We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few cried, most were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Eleven years ago, the book ‘Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was published by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. An expert in botany, geology and paleobiology, he concluded that mankind may be much closer to extinction than previously thought. Nor is this specifically about climate change or peak oil. This is the altogether more mundane reality of what happens to any species when it overwhelms the carrying capacity of the ecological systems upon which it depends.

But what really stuck in my mind was a BBC interview he gave some years later. Speaking more in regret than anger, he said: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet. The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

It was, for me, an electric moment. His comments were clearly not some kind of PR stunt. This quiet-spoken academic simply and calmly spelled out, for anyone with ears to listen, that the human race is almost run. The evidence is piling up around us, in our atmosphere, in our poisoned oceans, in the rapidly diminishing biological diversity as some of the world’s most valuable ecosystems, from rainforests to coral reef systems, collapse under the weight of human encroachment.

Rainforest clearance is continuing at the rate of around 6,000 acres an hour, that’s close to 50 million acres a year. Apart from their many other critical functions, rainforests process 28% of the oxygen in circulation on Earth. Kill them, as we assuredly will, and every aerobic organism is going to be literally gasping for breath.

And, as Ireland convulses in ritual angst over the humanity of cystoblasts and foetuses, globally, some 80 million more humans, one more precious and unique than the next, are born each year than die. It took all of human history until the 1804 for our population to reach the one billion mark. We now casually add that mind-boggling number every 12 or 13 years.

The great broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Environmentalists believe that we are in a battle to avert calamity. Yes and no. I believe the evidence that humanity will become either entirely or virtually extinct in the coming decades is almost overwhelming. What is less certain, of course, is how exactly this will pan out, and over what time scale. It’s hard to imagine it will be anything other than a wrenching, horrible affair, on a par with any of the very blackest moments in our species’ brief, blood-soaked history.

Still, could our collective fate be much worse than that of the tens of millions of indigenous peoples of the Americas whose populations, within decades of the first arrival of rapacious Europeans, crashed by 95% on average in a pulse of relentless savagery and theft on an epic scale. The golden palaces of imperial Europe, from London and Paris to Madrid and Rome were built on the systematic rape and plunder of half the world. This is what we humans do.

Who now remembers the Guanches, the indigenous population of the once-verdant Canary Islands? The entire population of 80,000 were exterminated in less than a century by the invading Spaniards, who left the islands the barren wasteland that greets today’s sun-seekers. This same grisly story, from Tasmania to the Belgian Congo, is repeated to a lesser or greater extent. The problem with living on a globe is that, sooner or later, you come full circle.

The only remaining uncertainty is just how long it will take the severely damaged and weakened biosphere to recover anything approaching the astonishing diversity that existed before the Age of Man. One UN estimate says the oceans could take up to a million years to recover from the damage already inflicted.

While our fate as a species is sealed, there remains an outside chance that human impacts may trigger runaway global warming, as happened eons ago on Venus; this led to a vicious cycle as soaring atmospheric CO2 levels caused the planet’s oceans to literally boil away, leaving a lifeless steaming cauldron behind.

Still, since this is human nature, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for merely being ourselves. Philosopher Immanuel Kant put it thus: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.”

 

Posted in Global Warming, Psychology, Sustainability | 7 Comments

Safe bet that this year will be one of the hottest yet

Below, my article from today’s Irish Times, where I took a slightly different tack and asked the ‘real experts’ on risk, i.e. the bookies, to give the odds on 2013 being yet another year for the record books. The results are, at least to the uninitiated, surprising. Some interesting comments on the Irishtimes.com site, and lots of feedback via Twitter. I was particularly chuffed when a long-time hero of mine, Bill McKibben, author and climate change campaigner par excellence tweeted: “What an amazing column, I’m going to spread it around!”

EVERY January for the last several years I’ve written articles looking back at the impacts of climate change on the preceding year and its likely consequences in the year ahead. And every year without fail, the picture gets clearer and, frankly, more disconcerting.

True to form, 2012 delivered another series of weather extremes. Our nearest neighbour, Britain began the year with the most severe drought in a generation. This was followed by weeks of torrential rain and widespread flooding, leading to 2012 being its second wettest ever. Globally, 2010 and 2011 were, respectively the wettest and second wettest years since records began.

What goes up, comes down again. Every 1C of temperature rise leads to a seven per cent increase in how much water vapour the air can hold. Add in increased evaporation in drought conditions and you have a recipe for more regular severe flooding events. “It’s basic physics that warmer air can hold more water, so when you get rain, it’s likely to be heavier”, said Dr Vicky Pope of the UK’s Met Office.

Ireland, on this occasion, has been spared, but cast your mind back to our epic ‘once-in-800-year’ flooding event in 2008 – and then again in 2009, leading to widespread disruption and economic losses of well over €100 million. What are the odds that we will have to endure yet another ‘once in a generation’ flooding event within, say, the next couple of years?

Meanwhile, the United States sweated through its hottest year ever, with near-permanent drought conditions in many areas and thousands of weather records smashed. Superstorm Sandy battered the US east coast in late October, leaving a $60 billion trail of wreckage – and blew climate change back onto the political agenda. Last July saw the most dramatic melt across Greenland in over a century, affecting 97 per cent of the surface of the giant glacier, while on September 16th last, the Arctic sea ice pack collapsed to its lowest level in millennia.

Polar climatologists now project the complete disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice within 5-7 years, ushering in a turbulent new climatic era in the northern hemisphere. More ominously for sea levels, researchers reported in November that the west Antarctic shelf is heating at three times the global average. Between 1958 and 2010, the region warmed by a dramatic 2.4C.

Expert assessments about our increasingly restive climate system are inevitably couched in the measured language of scientific uncertainty and probability. Climate deniers and media blow-hards on the other hand suffer no such qualms in dismissing hard evidence out of hand, clinging instead to conspiracy theories, and a seething distrust of ‘authority’.

Instrumental global temperature records stretch back over 160 years, to 1850. All other things being equal, you might reasonably assume the odds of 2013 being among the ten hottest years since 1850 would be roughly one in 16.

Rather than contact the usual experts for yet more boring “evidence”, this year I took a different approach and headed instead to those most unsentimental of prognosticators, the bookies. What odds would Paddy Power offer me for a wager that 2013 will be among the top 10 hottest years globally since 1850? Instead of the 16-1 that random chance suggests, my odds were over 1,200 times worse, at 1-80.

In other words, I’ve just bet 80 euros this week and, if I win, I’ll get my stake back, plus a solitary one-euro coin in winnings next January. That’s how absolutely confident Paddy Power are about a year that is just one week old. Of course, bookies aren’t infallible, but would you seriously bet against them? The same firm offered me odds at 7/2 of 2013 being the outright hottest year ever globally, while the Arctic ice minimum hitting yet another all-time low is priced at 11/8.

For the last 30 years, global temperatures have been rising at the rate of 0.16C per decade. Eleven of the 12 hottest years have all occurred since 2000. February 1985 was the last month when temperatures dipped below average for the 20th century.

Regional cooling episodes, such as the 2008 and 2011 La Niña events in the Pacific, slightly lowered the rate of temperature increase. This year, however, an El Niño warming event is forecast, which, if it is strong, could make the 7/2 odds on 2013 begin the hottest year ever, very good value indeed. In just the first week of January 2013, Australia has endured its five hottest days in history, forcing its Bureau of Meteorology to add a new colour to national temperature charts to represent scorching new highs.

Happy new year – and welcome to our future.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“You must feel vindicated, what with Hurricane Sandy and the way the weather and climate change has gone this year”. That’s how a business acquaintance of mine put it the other day during a pre-Christmas lunch. Her point was that now, at least, most people were no longer pretending climate change was some academic debate about what might or might not happen at some unspecified time in the comfortably distant future. It’s about now, and it’s about our immediate future.

Some vindication. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: nothing would make me happier than to be completely and utterly wrong about just about everything I’ve written here and elsewhere over the last five years and more. The scientific facts remain as stubborn as they were in 2007, and, as yet another tumultuous year of global weather extremes bears out, ‘facts on the ground’ overwhelmingly bear out the predictions of the climate modellers.

They are genuinely entitled to feel professionally vindicated, even if, as human beings, they feel little more than rising horror as they trace their modelling projections forward another five, 10, 20-plus years.

In recent weeks I’ve been collating some of the material I’ve published in this area over the last four or five years with a view to both updating and trying to hone it into a more coherent, relevant volume. Re-reading archive material also plunges you back into the mind frame that shaped each piece. In my case, this charts a chaotic zig-zag journey from problem-solving towards predicament-facing. There is a chasm between these two positions that is as difficult to describe as it is to bridge.

Back in the real world, the last five years have seen our existential crisis deepen yet our collective will remains as paralysed as ever. The disconnect between what we need to do versus what we are prepared to even contemplate is almost absolute.

A concrete example of this is the recent publication by the World Bank of a report entitled ‘Turn Down the Heat’. It argued persuasively that humanity’s predicament is dire in the extreme. “We’re on track for a 4C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim described the projected 4C rise this century as “a doomsday scenario”.

Clearly, only an organisation of lunatics or imbeciles would, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence they manifestly accept, continue to fund fossil fuel projects generally and coal-burning power plants in particular. The World Resources Institute points out that the World Bank “has actually increased lending for fossil fuel projects and coal plants in recent years.” Right now, it’s assessing whether to provide finance for a new coal-powered plant in Mongolia.

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink is nothing more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

The Autumn meeting of the American Geophysical Union featured a paper with an eye-catching title: ‘Is Earth F**ked?’, presented by geophysicist Brad Werner in response, he says, to questions from friends depressed about the future of the planet. The answer to the question he poses is, yes, it’s pretty much fucked, and yes, we all of us are responsible. “What happens is not too surprising: The economy very fast chews up the environmental resource, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in significant economic damage”

Stepping outside the usual parameters of scientist-as-observer, Werner posits that the only conceivable forces that could be brought to bear that might alter this trajectory with disaster are: “Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists, and other activist groups.”

Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s most respected experts on glaciers and paleoclimatology said in a speech to behavioural scientists back in 2010: Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

My postings to ThinkOrSwim have tailed off somewhat in 2012, but the articles do continue elsewhere, be it the Irish Times or Village magazine. The reason is not a loss of interest on my part in the subject, quite the opposite in fact. It perhaps reflects the almost radioactive nature of the subjects being covered.

Thinking about coming calamities is tough enough, reading about them is trickier still, but for me, hardest of all is writing about them, because then the demons become real and it’s impossible not to be pulled into the grim vortex of imagining or visualizing the awful harbingers of what lie ahead, out of sight yet close enough as to be a living, breathing presence in the daily lives of those you might call the “early accepters”.

I’m signing off now for 2012, but will doubtless continue to tweet away @thinkorswim. Let me sign off with a Seasonal thought that I try to keep in mind as I count my many present blessings:

“Learn to appreciate what you have before time makes you appreciate what you had”.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology | 8 Comments

Steady as she goes: global climatic denial guarantees chaotic future

Below is the full, 800-word version of my article, a compressed version of same appears in this morning’s Irish Times, which runs to just 600 words, so a quarter of the original piece fell under the subs’ desk knife. This is my first piece since the paper underwent its recent re-design; I had no idea quite how far-reaching the impact has been in terms of the reduction in content. It’s a challenge to write an analysis piece on a technical subject threading a range of sources together – and keep it to 800 words. Knock another 200 off that again and…well, it’s essentially a different piece entirely. Anyhow, and for the record, here’s what I was trying to say….

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A giant tanker ship carrying 150,000 cubic metres of gas left Norway earlier this month for Japan. The vessel, Ob River, is taking a short cut that will trim several thousand kilometres off the trip. Its historic voyage would, just a decade ago would have been inconceivable even in high summer. The Ob River is travelling through the remnants of the once-frozen Arctic ocean – in the depths of winter.

While 17,000 politicians, NGOs and policymakers gather this week in Doha for the 18th annual talking shop of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), back in the real world, temperatures are rising, ice is melting relentlessly and the planet is quickly slipping into a new, chaotic climatic era that scientific studies have been warning about for decades.

Three separate major reports this month, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into an planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse, it.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths”, according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a (dangerously) warming world – not just 2C, but 4C, and, at our current rates, 6C.”

Even at 2C over pre-industrial levels, the world is likely to have stepped into the abyss of irreversible climate disruption. As that approaches 4-6C, “we are passing through the gates of hell” in the words of one senior scientist. The World Bank Report warned that India would lose half its grain crops and Africa a third of its arable land at just 2C global average temperature increase.

Drought and famines will quickly spread into what are today some of the world’s most important food-producing regions – northern China, the US mid-west, much of the Middle East, as well as India and Pakistan are all facing collapse in water supplies within 10-20 years.

PwC calculates that, to have a 50:50 chance of avoiding the 2C climate ‘red line’, annual carbon emissions reductions of 5.1 per cent will have to be achieved, year on year from now until 2050. In reality, emissions are heading in the opposite direction, currently growing at over 2.5 per cent annually. Not since World War Two have global emissions ever actually declined by this level, and even then, it was for five, not 40 years.

“The new data provides further evidence that the door to a 2C trajectory is about to close”, Fatih Birol, chief economist with the International Energy agency said recently. John Steinbruner, lead author of a study for the US Central Intelligence Agency commented: “climate extremes are going to be more frequent…we’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse”.

The US military, not renowned for environmental alarmism, is now bracing for the collapse of multiple states, as floods, famine and disease triggers involuntary mass migration across international borders, on a scale that will rapidly overwhelm any capacity to respond. Ironically, publication of this CIA study was delayed by 10 days as Hurricane Sandy shut down the US Federal government last month.

“We’re on track for a 4C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise,” according to the World Bank report entitled ‘Turn Down the Heat’. A 4C rise this century is “a doomsday scenario”, World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim acknowledged glumly.

The UN conference in Doha comes just weeks after the expiry of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has had only marginal impact in curbing global emissions. There is nothing on the table at Doha that will have any material impact on staving off calamity. The host country, Qatar, is the perfect metaphor for the paradox of progress, as it depends for its wealth on vast reserves of climate-destroying fossil fuels. Scientists estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves (worth some $20 trillion) must remain in the ground if disaster is to be averted.

We now have no choice but to forego the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and instead switch on a massive scale to low-carbon sources, such as renewables and nuclear power, as well as drastic improvements in energy efficiency. Like it or not, this also means the effective winding down of consumption-based capitalism and big drops in living standards.

Once we finally grasp that the consequences of ‘business as usual’ are unimaginably grim, political and economic changes that today seem unthinkable may soon be inevitable. The global slave trade went, in a matter of years, from an indispensable pillar of the world economy to being morally repulsive. To have a future, humanity’s relationships with fossil energy may very soon have to undergo a similar transformation.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
He is on Twitter: @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 1 Comment

Humanity’s killing spree about to come full circle

With apologies for an uncharacteristic outbreak of navel-gazing, below, my article as it appears in the current issue of ‘Village’ magazine…

My interest in environmentalism is barely 10 years old. For the bulk of my adult life, far meatier concerns occupied me. Breaking into journalism and establishing a publishing business were of infinitely greater concern to me than the state of the rainforests, ozone layer, polar bears or saving the proverbial gay whales. I remember thinking people like Sting, who droned on about these topics, were just out-of-touch elitists who knew nothing about the real world.

In my book, the real world was the world of work, of bills, by-lines and balance sheets. There was room in this world for family and close friends, but little besides. As the years went by and the business prospered, I felt in control, confident. Though unmapped, the future held no great fears.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts”, wrote philosopher, Francis Bacon, “but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”. Sure enough, these certainties came crashing down around a decade ago, around the time of the birth of my first child, when ‘the future’ turned from a vague abstraction into the place my children would one day have to make their way.

Everyone’s epiphany is different. Mine sprung from a chance reading of Something New Under The Sun, a survey of the parlous state of the biosphere in the 20th century by science historian, Prof JR McNeill. Convinced he must be mistaken, I began reading up obsessively on environmental, energy, resource depletion and biodiversity topics, steering clear of the conspiracy theorists and sticking to the peer-reviewed stuff where possible. McNeill, it turns out, was something of an optimist.

Some two dozen books later and, like the character Neo in The Matrix, I finally awoke in a sweat-drenched panic from the vivid dream I had all my life mistaken for reality.

Neo’s nemesis, the relentless Agent Smith explained it thus: “When I tried to classify your species I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure”.

Coming to terms, first intellectually but much later, emotionally, with the wrenching truth of being of a species that can and will destroy both itself and much of the rest of the world has been life-changing. Nor are the timescales encouraging. Even though now in my 40s, unfortunately I’m probably young enough to live to see at first hand the death spiral of industrial civilisation triggering the greatest, most irremediable die-off in all of human history. For many, the relentless rolling global financial crisis that flared up in 2008 resembles a series of arrhythmias presaging a final, fatal event.

What goes around, comes around. Humanity has been on a long killing spree since we first exterminated our cousin primates, the Neanderthals. Our ancient ancestors, with only the tiniest fraction of today’s killing power at their disposal, wiped out much of the megafauna of Australia, Europe and the Americas. As our power has grown, so the carnage has intensified and spread to every corner of the planet, and against every species, including our own.

Barring other calamities, humanity’s hegemony will have committed probably 50% of all species alive today to extinction this century – that’s around 10 million species as genetically unique, even as important, as the genus homo sapiens, driven off the Earth to feed the insatiable appetites and acquisitiveness of just one species.

Consider the leatherback turtle, which has plied the Earth’s oceans since the Cretaceous period 110 million years ago. Today, it is on the brink of extinction, as are most species of sharks. The dominion of these apex predators stretches back over 200 million years before the dinosaurs. The species that is hunting, harrying and poisoning them to oblivion is itself less than a quarter of a million years old.

The only sentient species the world has ever known has waged and is winning its war against the very foundations of life on our small blue planet. To have evolved a god-like capacity for reason, to be the one remarkable branch of life that gave the world Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein – that has even begun to journey into our Solar System – yet to be doomed to die of collective stupidity, is truly the cruellest paradox.

Today, there’s a small but growing band of ‘early accepters’ whose efforts are being channelled into bracing for the inevitable impacts in an as yet unknowable future that confronts us. I’ll return to this in depth.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
and is on Twitter @think_or_swim 

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Sandy has the last word in a bitter election

Ever wonder what, in a world where the media took its cues from peer-reviewed science rather than energy industry shills, the front covers of even our business magazines might look like?

Well, wonder no more. Below, is the amazing cover of Bloomberg Business Week, dated November 5-11, 2012 in the aftermath of the so-called Frankenstorm, Sandy. Maybe it helps that its proprietor, the eponymous Mike Bloomberg is also Mayor of the benighted New York city. Either way, this is extraordinary not in its self-evident message, but rather, in the fact that a major US publishing house owned by a high-profile politician is prepared to stick its head above the rising flood waters and call this (latest) mega-disaster for what it is…

Meanwhile, as the global energy corporations rake in the largest profits in their (extremely profitable) history, inflated further by huge subsidies and tax breaks thanks to the control they exert via lobbying cash over elected politicians, the hapless taxpayers pay for the mega-cleanups for these emissions-stoked disasters. Oil giants Exxon and Shell have already raked in $54 billion in 2012, while benefiting from a whopping $800 million in tax breaks. If ever there was a blatant case of privatising profits while socialising risks, then this, surely is it.

New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo said this week: “we have a 100-year flood every two years now”, adding: ”There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.” To us folks in Europe, this might not sound dramatic, but, from the US, and just days before the election, this is dynamite.

Obama bitterly disappointed his many supporters (including this writer) in his first term by ducking the issue of climate change almost entirely. However, given the toxic level of Congressional opposition by the wave of Tea Party anti-science creationists who have controlled the Houses since 2010, this is, however tragic, understandable.

However, his opponent is a man credulous enough to – literally – believe in magic underwear and whose allegiance is to faith first, fellow plutocrats second and, um, country and wider humanity, somewhere waaay further down the list. Mitt Romney has shape-shifted relentlessly in the course of recent years, and even more so in the months leading to November 6th.

Even by the low standards of modern US politics, Romney has shown himself singularly prepared to say and do absolutely anything, no matter how demonstrably false or contradicory, if it nudges him one millimetre closer to the Oval Office. If he succeeds, it will be a red letter day for market fundamentalism – and a stake through the heart of any remaining ingenue still clinging to the belief that humanity could yet awaken from its stupor for long enough to begin the Sisyphean task of heading off a looming global catastrophe by mid-century.

Mark it well. Tuesday, November 6th is going to be a long night.

Posted in Global Warming, Media | 1 Comment

The Arctic ice cap is melting – and with it goes our future

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times. The piece has ‘gone viral’ via social media, with over 2,500 ‘Recommends’ on Facebook alone, and it was No. 3 in the ‘Most Read’ category of Irishtimes.com last week. Not bad, considering the Irish media collectively seems to have an allergy to covering environmental stories. The above figures would seem to suggest that, yes, there may well be lots of people out there who are able to tear themselves away from Arthurs Day and Celebrity Banisteoir for long enough to consider the  existential crisis that is in the process of engulfing us…

Satellite imagery showing the Arctic summer sea ice minimum in 1980 (left) and 2012

THE TRUTH, as Winston Churchill put it, is incontrovertible. “Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is”.

Scape away the layers of denial, obfuscation and spin that cloud climate change and one unvarnished truth emerges: the Arctic ice cap is dying – and with it, humanity’s best hopes for a prosperous, predictable future.

In the most dramatic reconfiguration of the map of the world since the end of the last Ice Age, the Arctic ice cap is now committed to accelerated collapse. In 2007, the IPCC warned that, unless emissions were drastically curbed globally, the Arctic ocean could be clear of summer sea ice towards the end of this century.

They were, it turns out, hopelessly optimistic. On September 16th last, Arctic sea ice hit its lowest level ever recorded, at 3.41 million square kilometres, barely half the 1979-2000 average. The area of sea ice lost is 41 times larger than the island of Ireland.

While the drop in sea ice extent is alarming, the 72% decline in its volume is worse. Not only is overall ice cover shrinking, the surviving ice is thinning precipitously.

Prof Peter Wadhams of the Polar Ocean Physics Group described the September 2012 figures as a “global disaster”. He now projects the total destruction of Arctic summer sea ice by 2015-16 – more than half a century ahead of the IPCC’s projections. “The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be complete by those dates”, he added.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of what is now unfolding in the Arctic region. The Arctic ice cap used to cover 2% of the Earth’s surface, and the ice albedo effect meant that vast amounts of incoming solar energy were bounced back into space from the bright white ice mass. Losing this ice, and replacing it with dark open ocean creates a dramatic tipping point in planetary energy balance.

“The extra radiation that’s absorbed is, from our calculations, the equivalent of about 20 years of additional CO2 being added by man”, Prof Wadhams added.

With global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions already spiralling far beyond the levels that scientists have warned present grave risks to humanity, the injection of a massive new source of additional energy into Earth systems could hardly have come at a worse time.

The northern hemisphere is already experiencing sharp foretastes of future climate destabilisation driven by the Arctic meltdown. The jet stream, which operates between the cold Arctic and the warmer mid-latitudes, dominates much of our weather, and it is weakening and becoming more erratic as Arctic ice melt accelerates and the region warms.

The severe cold snaps that brought Ireland to a shivering halt in 2010 and again in 2011, as well as this summer’s relentless rainfall are likely connected to Arctic ice cover loss. Jet stream weakness is leading to what are known as blocking events – episodes of extreme weather, be they droughts, freezes or flooding, persisting for unusually long periods.

The Russian heatwave of 2010 and the extreme US drought this summer are two more related events. “We’re in uncharted territory”, says James Overland of the University of Washington. The weakening jet stream means “wild temperature swings and greater numbers of extreme events”.

The last time the Arctic is believed to have been ice-free is during the Eemian period, around 125,000 years ago, when global sea levels were between 4-6 metres higher than today. However, current atmospheric CO2 levels are already far higher than during the Eemian – indeed, you have to go back several million years to find any era in Earth history to match today’s levels of this powerful heat-trapping ‘greenhouse gas’.

Lags in the system mean that we have so far experienced only the very mildest of the effects of the ever-growing heat imbalance in our climate system. In July, another stark regional landmark was recorded. In the course of just four days, surface ice melt spread from 40 to 97 per cent of Greenland. “This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: was this real or was it due to a data error?”, said Son Nghiem of Nasa. Meanwhile, in the period between 2003-2008, more than two thousand billion tonnes of land ice from Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted.

As the Arctic summer ice pack is floating, its melt does not directly raise sea levels, but as it spirals towards final destruction, all bets are off as to the stability of the adjacent massive land-based Greenland ice pack. There is enough frozen water locked up here to raise global sea levels by 6-7 metres over time.

One man’s global catastrophe is another’s commercial opportunity. Governments and energy companies, notably Shell, are busy jostling to be in position to loot the Pandora’s Box of oil and minerals hidden beneath the region’s fast-disappearing ice. In truth, this follows the same perverse logic as setting your house on fire to keep yourself warm.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
He is on Twitter: @think_or_swim

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change

My article, as it appeared in yesterday’s Irish Times. There’s a busy comments section attached, with the usual handful of hard chaws piling in to an otherwise productive discussion…

IT’S REASSURING to imagine we are, by and large, rational beings who base our judgments and decisions on the best evidence we can muster.

The scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

Nowhere can the limits of human rationality be more forcefully encountered than in how we have collectively failed to respond to the existential threat posed by climate change.

Recessions threaten our jobs and income, while fears about terrorism or crime may undermine our sense of well-being. Climate change is uniquely different in that at its heart, it threatens to unravel our most fundamental assumption: that we, as individuals, indeed, as a species, have a future at all.

If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.

Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that “the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon – as an important moral imperative”, according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature – Climate Change.

The researchers identified key reasons why, despite the mountains of hard scientific evidence, we have signally failed to react to the colossal threats posed by climate change.

First, our moral intuitions are strongly driven by emotional responses. For instance, witnessing someone injure a child evokes a powerful visceral moral response. Climate change also threatens our children, but understanding exactly how “requires cold, cognitively demanding and ultimately less motivating moral reasoning”.

Second, the harms arising from pollution and resource depletion are a real but largely unintended by-product of economic activity. Neuroscientific evidence shows that we react much less to actions, however dangerous, if we see them as unintentional. Third, thinking about environmental damage makes us all squirm a little, as we know deep down that our flat-screen TVs, foreign holidays and affluent lifestyles are part of the problem. “To allay negative recriminations, individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimise perceptions of their own complicity.”

In other words, we try to deflect our own feelings of guilt by decrying “corrupt” scientists and, by clutching to trivial errors or controversies, hope to reason away incontrovertible evidence amassed by teams of scientists of the calibre of those remotely operating the Mars rover.

Another roadblock is moral tribalism. People who identify themselves as liberals base their moral priorities around harm and fairness, while conservatives strongly value in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity/sanctity. People’s group identification strongly colours their views on political issues, and once a position takes hold, confirmation bias means we seek out views that support our own and readily dismiss alternate explanations.

This explains how the deliberate politicisation of the science of climate change has allowed many otherwise intelligent, educated people (most notably, conservative white males) to reject objective scientific facts from credible sources in favour of shabby but reassuring conspiracy theories.

The final factor at work is the perception that climate change is a threat that affects others who live elsewhere – either people in distant countries or from future generations. We can easily frame them as out-group members, somehow different from us and, so, less deserving of our concern.

Helpfully, the researchers also developed pointers for communicators to bolster the recognition of climate change as a profound moral imperative. First, they suggest using moral frameworks that appeal to conservatives as much as liberals. Framing environmental damage as profaning creation has traction with some religious conservatives.

Next, psychologists have established that messages focusing on the likely future burdens of unmitigated climate change, from severe weather and coastal inundation to the spread of diseases, are more effective than “selling” the idea of potential future benefits, such as a stable climate. Of course, blunt messaging about the risks of climate change can backfire, with some individuals simply “tuning out” such warnings. Linking action on climate change to positive moral emotions such as pride and gratitude can provoke a pro-social response that rewards respondents with feelings of well-being.

How we discuss the likely victims of climate change matters too. A phrase like “future generations” sounds hollow, but when that becomes “my children or grandchildren”, these victims are no longer quite so faceless or forgettable.

 John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. Twitter:@think_or_swim

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Psychology | 7 Comments

Myths and mischief-making in renewable energy reporting

I couldn’t have claimed to be Ireland’s greatest fan of wind energy. Not because I don’t think it’s a good idea – it is – but rather, my concern is whether it will ever be deployed on a scale sufficient for this country to break its dependence on (imported) fossil energy, while supplying a grid that, at peak, could require up to 7,000mw of energy. Also, what happens when the wind drops entirely?

These are all valid questions, so I was pleased on Sunday last to happen upon an extended feature on wind energy on RTE Radio’s flagship ‘This Week’ programme. It was truly an ear-opening broadcast. The reporter opened by pointing out that there is already 1,700mw (well, it’s actually 1,900mw) of wind power on the system, and that under binding EU emissions mandates, Ireland is committed to getting its renewables up to 40% within the next eight years.

Ken Matthews, CEO of the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) told reporter, Anne Marie Green that around 2,000 people are already employed in our wind energy sector, a figure he suggested could rise to 10,800 if Ireland stays on target for its 2020 renewables commitment. The wind energy already on the grid is already saving Ireland some 21% on its annual bill for imported gas that we no longer need to buy, Minister Pat Rabbitte told Green later in the report.

So, a good news story at last for Ireland – clean, zero carbon energy, produced locally, creating employment, cutting imports and offering Ireland the prospect of independence from the ever more volatile international energy marketplace. Oh, and with the prospect of Ireland becoming, for the first time in its history, an energy exporter (to the UK, via the East-West 500mw interconnector). In these tough economic times, RTE has, it seemed, identified one story that ought to have everyone cheering. Right? Well, not exactly.

Matthews told Green that “a typical 100mw wind farm would have around 20 people employed on an ongoing basis”. Cut to the reporter: “Well that’s not quite true”. Quoting Angus McCrone, described as Bloomberg’s New Energy finance editor, he said that operating wind farms would “only employ 0.1 persons per megawatt, so, with the 4gw programme for Ireland, that’s only 400 people for the entire program”. Back to Green: “So that’s half the number of sustainable jobs the IWEA claimed could be created…while there are considerable numbers of jobs in construction, there’s no guarantee they’ll go to Irish workers”, she intoned darkly.

To support her view, we get the voices of (nameless) members of the community in Moyross, Co. Galway who, says Green, “don’t buy the promise of jobs for the local community”. One local spelled out the shocking truth: “The day we went over there (to the wind farm site) there was a Cork company in there with the crane hire, it’s outside machines, no local people working here, there’s actually a couple of people from Scotland and London in here. No locals”.

Green’s piece was about to , with the introduction of her Star Witness, one Prof Gordon Hughes, economist with the University of Edinburgh, and introduced by RTE as “an advisor on energy policy to the World Bank”. Readers of tabloids like the Daily Express and Daily Mail will know all about Prof Hughes, who has a part-time post in Edinburgh, and otherwise busies himself writing politically loaded anti-environmental ‘reports’ for the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). This is a right wing climate denial think tank fronted by Tory grandee Nigel Lawson that refuses to identify the shadowy sponsors of its voluminous output of pseudo-science aimed at providing the lay press with technical-sounding (but false) ‘alternate’ explanations for climate change. Oddly, neither RTE nor Prof Hughes thought to identify his huge undeclared interest in this matter.

Hughes can be a little creative with his numbers. “Among the more absurd assertions put forward in this [Hughes’s] paper is the contention that wind energy is 10 times more expensive than gas, but his comparison is flawed. He fails to include the cost of gas itself and only includes the cost of building a gas-fired power station and the infrastructure to go with it.” That was the response of Maria McCaffrey of the RenewableUK to one of Hughes’s recent reports.

Hughes is a favourite go-to boffin for the UK tabloids, whose billionaire owners especially enjoy rubbishing environmental and renewable initiatives at every turn. Hughes’ calculation that the average energy bill for a British family would rise by £300 due to the need to subsidise wind power. This turns out to have been one sixth of the estimate by the UK Government’s own Committee on Climate Change.

Digging a little deeper into this expert upon whose opinion RTE placed so much weight on Sunday, I found an eye-opening interview with Hughes, under the alarming heading ‘We can adapt!’. Here’s a nugget on ecosystem destruction: “First of all, replacement of ecosystem services turns out to be not very costly. Secondly, if you want to gauge, for example, the cost of relying upon sea walls instead of mangroves, it is difficult to estimate how much people might pay to protect ecosystems rather than build artificial substitutes. So that is something we haven’t done.” So, flatten the ecosystem, and ‘replace’ its services – viola!

As only an economist can do with a straight face, Hughes talks up all the positive aspects of the coming climate collapse: “Take Brazil… the Southeastern region around Sao Paolo is booming and may benefit from climate change”.

There is no escaping the fact that, even among proponents of renewable energy, there are serious, valid questions to be asked about upscaling large amounts of wind energy onto our national grid. But rather than relying, as RTE chose to do, on an economist who’s in denial about climate change for expert views, I looked instead to a recently published peer-reviewed report by the independent UK think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Their report, entitled Beyond the Bluster examined evidence from Ireland, Spain and Portugal as well as within the UK. The conclusions are surprisingly strong:

“This report shows unequivocally that wind power can significantly reduce carbon emissions, is reliable, poses no threat to energy security, and is technically capable of providing a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity supply with minimal impact on the existing operation of the grid. Claims to the contrary are not supported by the evidence.”

Nowhere over the course of an extended piece did the RTE reporter at any time appear to be aware of the fact that a critical reason for switching our energy systems to renewables is the urgent need to move towards zero-emissions energy. Green referred to turbines as having a “big impact on the landscape”, but Rabbitte tartly replied that “the landscape will be damaged if we don’t address the environmental issues”. That is, quite frankly, putting it mildly. A reporter who does a story on renewable energy while avoiding all mention of emissions is like a sports reporter covering a match but neglecting to mention the score.

While being utterly unaware (or unconcerned) about the two most important reasons why governments are pushing renewables – energy security and emissions reduction – the reporter was instead deeply concerned that, apart from construction, not that many of what she referred to as “sustainable jobs” arise from completed wind farms. This is broadly true. On the other hand, Denmark, which is both a major turbine manufacturer and user of wind power, has some 25,000 people directly employed in wind energy, many of them highly skilled graduate level jobs.

But even if a wind turbine farm produces relatively few jobs, so what? What’s important is the energy being produced. In fact, if only 400-500 people are required to operate and maintain a massive national wind system producing 4gw of power onto the grid, and another, similar sized number of wind farms producing huge amounts of clean power to sell to the UK, what matters is the efficiency, not the numbers employed. For example, a single driver operates an 8-carriage DART. By RTE’s logic (and perhaps reflecting their own historic staffing levels) it would be better to have 10 staff milling around the base of each wind turbine if “job creation” rather than service delivery is your sole measure.

But the truly grim spectre invoked by this RTE report is of the blight of ghost estates of wind turbines, just sitting there… ahem, spinning away, making zero carbon electricity by the bucket load… and earning the easiest of easy money. Or, as Green put it, “it just sounds like the property industry (bubble) all over again…short term working in construction, people digging roads…”. Well no, it sounds like the precise opposite, in fact. Rabbitte dismissed these bizarre, surreal arguments with his own bizarre, surreal response: “people in literature and the arts ought to be concerned about Utopia, but that’s not an argument for not creating jobs”.

Green then went on to bemoan the ‘subsidised’ price of wind energy. “I’m not an economist, but that’s what it seems to me…what is the cost to the state of continuing to subsidise wind farms?”

Cutting to the chase, Rabbitte replied: “The logic of that argument is that you are suggesting we ought to leave ourselves at the mercy of the UK (energy market) in order to meet our energy supply needs, and that would be recklessly dangerous…the UK has a (growing) need for energy and that’s why the prospect of developing an export sector is an win-win for Ireland and the UK”. There is also, he reminded her, the not inconsequential matter of the fact that we are legally mandated by the EU to reach tough renewables targets. Failing to meet them means paying over millions of euros in fines. This inconvenient fact also seems to have entirely escaped any editorial oversight within RTE.

Finally, and for the benefit of any visiting reporters who may be interested in doing a serious pieces on wind energy, here’s a few quick myths you can safely regard as officially debunked by the IPPR report (with thanks to BusinessGreen.com):

Myth 1: Wind energy subsidies push up energy bills

Fact: Renewable energy subsidies do add to energy bills, but “from 2004 to 2010, government support for renewables (in the UK) added £30 to the average energy bill while rises in the wholesale cost of gas added £290″.

Myth 2: Back-up power plants mean wind energy does not deliver net reductions in carbon emissions

Fact: In 2011, wind turbines in the UK provided 15.5 terawatt hours to the grid. Due to its lower marginal cost this power would have displaced fossil fuel power from the grid, meaning that wind energy saved a minimum of 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 if gas was displaced and a maximum of over 12 m tonnes if coal was displaced. “Following this logic we can say that, using government figures about electricity generated in the UK from wind and the carbon intensity of the very best available gas technologies, the CO2 savings from wind energy were at least 5.5 million tonnes in 2011. This is around 2.5 per cent of the emissions the UK is legally obliged to save annually from 2008 to 2012, as required by the Climate Change Act 2008.”

Myth 3: The powering up and down of fossil fuel plants to cope with wind energy intermittency undermines their efficiency and leads to a net increase in emissions

Fact: Empirical studies from US states with a high proportion of wind energy have shown “unequivocally” that wind energy supplies have “significantly” reduced the average carbon intensity of fossil fuel power plants on the same grid. In the Mid West average wind energy carbon savings reached 831kg/MWh, while in Texas they hit 474Kg/MWh.

Myth 4: The “intermittent” nature of wind power makes it impossible to manage

Fact: Wind power is not “intermittent” in that it does not suddenly and unexpectedly turn on and off in the way that fossil fuel and nuclear plants do. Instead it is “variable”, meaning that increasingly accurate weather forecasting makes it possible to predict changes in output ahead of time. This makes wind energy significantly easier to manage as you bring it on to the grid.

Myth 5: Variable wind energy outputs will disrupt the grid and lead to blackouts

Fact: The grid can cope and is coping with variable energy inputs from wind farms across the country. “Statistical analyses of lengthy records of wind farm output data indicate that the most extreme variations are of the order of 20 per cent of total wind generation capacity in half an hour (GL Garrad Hassan 2011).The highest rates of change are similar to the rates of change of electricity demand already experienced by system operators. For example, between 6am and 8am on weekday mornings as people get up, make breakfast and head to work. Therefore short-term changes in the rate of wind power output are easily accommodated in the existing system.”

Myth 6: If we increase our reliance on wind energy a still day will lead to power shortages

Fact: National Grid has stated that “should no changes be made to the way that the electricity system functions, 30GW of wind power can be accommodated on the existing grid”. Current plans for wind energy capacity in 2020 stand at 28GW. Beyond 2020 long, cold, calm spells could present a challenge, but there are several international precedents that demonstrate how grids can manage high levels of reliance on wind energy. For example, both the Iberian Peninsula and Ireland currently manage significantly higher proportional levels of wind energy than the UK and cope easily with calm periods. In addition, engineers are confident smart grid technologies and interconnectors with mainland Europe can provide a cost-effective long-term solution to the problem presented by calm periods. “The risks associated with ‘long, cold, calm spells’ have been overstated”.

Oh, and you probably heard the old yarn that the CO2 involved in manufacturing, transporting and erecting a wind turbine is more than it will save in its entire lifetime. Again, not exactly. A typical turbine will cover those costs in around 6 months of its projected 20-year life span. Not to mention the zillions of defenceless birds and bats slaughtered as they are cut to ribbons by the vicious turbines…and the dreadful, ear-shattering noise these carbuncles on our landscape emit. Et cetera, et cetera etc.

Anyone seriously concerned about energy subsidies in Ireland might start with asking how it can be sane to spend two thirds of Ireland’s PSO (Public Service Obligation) subsidies keeping noxious, inefficient, environmentally insane and legally highly problematic peat-burning plants open? Well, yes, it’s a bit of auld job creation down Brian Cowen’s neck of the country, so that’s alright then?

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Extraordinary, unprecedented – but still not newsworthy?

Earlier this month, something quite extraordinary and unprecedented occurred in Greenland. The satellite image on the left above shows (in red) the area of Greenland which was experiencing summer melt on July 8th. It amounts to around 40% of the island, fairly typical for the summer melt season. Just four days later (July 12th), updated satellite imagery (right) indicated that the melt had extended to blanket some 97% of Greenland.

NASA scientists were incredulous, indeed sceptical. Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was analyzing radar data from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Oceansat-2 satellite when he noticed that most of Greenland appeared to have undergone surface melting on July 12. Nghiem said, “This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: was this real or was it due to a data error?”

According to NASA, this extreme melt event coincided with an unusually strong ridge of warm air, or a heat dome, over Greenland. The ridge was one of a series of such ridges, of ever-increasing strength, that has dominated Greenland’s weather since the end of May. This latest heat dome started to move over Greenland on July 8, and then parked itself over the ice sheet about three days later.

Even the area around Summit Station in central Greenland, which at 2 miles above sea level is near the highest point of the ice sheet, showed signs of melting. Such pronounced melting at Summit and across the ice sheet has not occurred since 1889, according to ice core analysis. A NOAA weather station at Summit confirmed air temperatures hovered above or within a degree of freezing for several hours on July 11-12. These are the temperatures being recorded on top of a two mile high glacier.

NASA, ever wary of being set upon by Tea Party fanatics and right wing Flat Earthers in the US, has been unusually equivocal about what this extraordinary incident may be telling us about the massive Greenland ice shelf. What we do know is that more than two thousand billion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted  between 2003-2008, according to NASA satellite data, which scientists say is unequivocal evidence that global warming is accelerating. We also know that, at just 1.6C of overall global warming, the entire Greenland ice sheet is committed to destruction, and no force on Earth can reverse that juggernaut once it’s rolling. And for the uninitiated, 1.6C is just down the road…

Greenland has locked up sufficient ice to raise global sea levels over time by an unimaginable seven meters, and in the process completely redraw the map of the world. When an ice shelf of this colossal magnitude begins to exhibit dramatic and unprecedented melting, that’s news. Big news. Well, apparently not. The story surfaced on the Irish Times’ website on Wednesday, but failed to make it into the newspaper either that day or today, Thursday, despite a whole ‘Science Today’ page being available.

Likewise, I waited in vain to see RTE pick up the story (which had been running all day on Sky) on its evening bulletins. The comatose state of science reporting – specifically if it has anything to do with climate change – in both the Paper of Record and the national broadcaster is bewildering. The story has quite literally disappeared – almost as fast as the Arctic sea ice cover, in fact. Sea ice in the Arctic has melted faster in 2012 than ever recorded before, according to the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). Figures for June 2012 showed 318,000 square miles less sea ice than the same period in 2007, which had been the year of the most dramatic Arctic ice loss ever.

Understanding how all these events are connected, and then connecting the ever-changing complexities of our weather systems against the backdrop of climate change is a task that even MET Eireann seems to have thrown in the towel on. Dr Gerry Fleming was interviewed last week ahead of the RTE documentary on weather forecasting, and was at pains to dismiss any possible connection between the string of extreme weather events that have battered Ireland in recent years, from record floods and freezes to monsoon-like rainfall and even mini tornados and the driving force of climate change.

Heavens no, what could this possibly have to do with the fact that the global climate system is unravelling? I can only assume that Gerry likes the quiet life, and knows he won’t draw the ire of RTE’s 60-something Angry White Men by suggesting that, whisper it, human forcings (aka dumping 30 billion tonnes of CO2 into a closed atmospheric system annually) may have a teensy tiny little something to do with our weather going haywire.

No no, proper forecasters don’t engage in such idle speculation about, you know, climate science and how it interacts with meteorology, and how the surplus heat accumulating in our atmosphere must inevitably come home to roost somewhere. Not our speciality, sorry. Have you tried Derek Mooney, maybe he’s got a funny angle on the whole thing?

 

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 29 Comments

It’s a race to the bottom – we’re winning as the oceans die

To me, nothing says summer down-time quite like finding a shady spot on a warm day and settling in for a great read. This year, I had the good fortune of picking two exceptional books – ‘The Ocean of Life’ by marine scientist Callum Roberts and ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’ by Penn State palaeoclimatologist, Michael Mann. (I’ll post a separate detailed review of the latter presently, and thread it with an intriguing recent appearance on NewsTalk to take part in the eternal: ‘climate-change-is-it-real-at-all-at-all’ debate that continues to rage in the minds of many Irish journalists).

The two styles contrast sharply, yet their conclusions, from widely different part of the scientific spectrum, are eerily similar. While the denial and denigration of science is at the heart of Mann’s book, it also forms a notable undercurrent for Roberts.

“Over the years I have come across spectacular levels of denial among fishing industry representatives…I have seen them dig their heels in to resist regulations that could help fish stocks recover”. Politicians play along to the well-organised fishing lobby. “The relationship between politicians and the fishing industry in the EU has become like that of a doctor assisting the suicide of a patient”, is how he put it. I sincerely hope Simon Coveney reads this too.

World fisheries is now a globalised Ponzi scheme, with the fishing industry wiping out one area after another in pursuit of short term profit, then simply moving further and further afield in pursuit of new stocks. “Over time, fisheries have eaten up their capital stocks rather than lived within the limits of annual production. But fisheries are now failing (globally) because, like in a Ponzi scheme, they are running out of new capital”.

Overfishing and chronic pollution are just two of the threats to the world’s oceans. Global warming is now reaching into some of the remotest corners of the planet, and thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. Air temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen an astonishing 11F in the last 50 years, leading to a 90% decline in populations of Adélie penguins on this peninsula.

Roberts explains lucidly how susceptible the seemingly mighty ocean is to surface warming. Much of the deeper oceans contain very little oxygen, and life there depends of mixing of the oxygen-rich surface waters, but the greater the temperature difference, the less mixing occurs, leading to the spread of low oxygen zones, which are deadly to almost all marine life. “Mass die-offs of marine life will become a regular feature of future oceans unless climate change can be halted”, he warns.

The last great warming period to rival 21st century projections occurred at the end of the Permian era 251 million years ago. Runaway global warming meant that “life in the sea suffered the one-two punch of anoxia and high carbon dioxide. It took five million years to recover”.

Ocean acidification is rapidly emerging as a threat to the marine world every bit as potent as global warming is for the land. He recalls the very human story of US marine biologist, Joanie Kleypas, a coral reef expert. While attending a meeting on climate change in 1998, Kleypas suddenly came to the full realisation that the world’s coral reefs could be obliterated by the end of the 21st century. She was so shocked she rushed out of the meeting to be sick in the bathroom. A simple doubling of CO2 levels from today’s values is sufficient to commit the world’s coral reefs, which have survived more or less intact for tens of millions of years, to destruction. We can actually trigger this apocalypse under an IPCC low emissions scenario.

Ocean of Life also gives us a glimpse into the wonders of the oceans. Viruses are the most numerous marine life-forms, outnumbering all other life-forms by 15-1. In total, there are an estimated 4 nonillion viruses in the sea. That’s a four, followed by 30 zeros. If all these individual viruses could somehow be placed end to end, “they would form a thread less than one two-hundredth of the thickness of the finest spider gossamer that would stretch for two hundred million light years.” The thread would stretch beyond the Milky Way and by some 60 adjoining galaxies and countless billions of stars.

As if surface warming, gross overfishing and acidification weren’t enough, the world’s oceans have become giant dumping grounds for millions of tons of plastic and other of our wastes. Plastic doesn’t go away, it just breaks down slowly over time into ever-smaller particles, many of which end up being ingested by various forms of marine life.

Phthalates, polystyrene, PCBs, styrene and mercury (mostly from coal burning) are among play the pokies online the many pollutants that find their way in quantity into our oceans. Some are endocrine disruptors, which are strongly implicated in a range of birth defects (in humans as well as other animals). Noise pollution from shipping, military sonar as well as deep sea surveying is another potent threat to cetaceans in particular, as they depend heavily on sound to communicate, feed, hunt and find mates.

If humanity had consciously sat down to draw up a plan to wipe all life from our oceans, we could hardly have accomplished our task more thoroughly. Species including turtles and sharks that quite literally shared the oceans with the dinosaurs, and who have weathered many disasters over tens of millions of years are proving no match for the most voracious and indiscriminate marine predator in all Earth history, homo sapiens.

Here’s one egregious example: “The carnage wrought by bottom trawling and dredging is multiplied from coast to horizon, and beyond. Virtually nowhere above three thousand feet is spared. Some places get hit once every five to ten years, while places where trawling is unusually intense can be trawled five times in a year”. This translates into almost unimaginable carnage: “more than 15,000 square miles of damaged, dead and dying bottom life every day” Annually, that’s a submarine area one and a half times the size of Europe wrecked. Why? Because we can, and because, for now, it’s profitable.

The scale of our ignorance of the multiplicity of connections in the fabric of life is breathtaking, says Roberts. “It would take a thousand lifetimes of research to figure out all of the ways in which we are affecting the species in an ecosystem of even moderate complexity”, he observes darkly.

The world is, he cautions, living on borrowed time. “We can’t cheat nature by taking more than is produced indefinitely, no matter how fervently politicians or captains of industry might wish it…in essence what we have done in the last few decades is to mine fish, bringing them in at rates faster than they can replace themselves”. The price for today’s greed will be tomorrow’s hunger.

The mind-sets propelling these and related environmental disasters, including the unfolding calamity of climate change, present formidable challenges to any effort to put humanity on path towards sustainability. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, Middle Age institutions and God-like technologies” is how Harvard biologist EO Wilson pithily put it.

Defending nature is critical, even if only to protect our own narrow interests. “Nature conservation is too often perceived as a luxury, a view that has become embedded in attitudes and policies…climate change is exposing the folly of our neglect for the ecological underpinnings of life”, argues Roberts. Phrasing this in more human terms, he suggests that if life were a multinational company, “many o fits subsidiaries would have gone under by now as a result of lost productivity. The whole business would be at risk of failure”.

The crushing irony for the fishing industry is that it is busy putting itself out of business by overexploitation and needlessly destructive and wasteful practices. Saving the fishing industry from itself is almost as formidable a task as wider marine conservation. A World Bank Report confirmed the utter lunacy of current fisheries policy and practice by pointing out that the world’s major fish stocks would produce 40% more if we simply didn’t insist on fishing them to the edge of extinction.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity set a 2010 target to turn 10% of the world’s oceans into protected areas. To date, the figure is 1.6%. Roberts estimates that, to have any chance of allowing a recovery of our oceans, some 35% of the world’s oceans need to be off limits to untrammelled exploitation.  That puts that paltry 1.6% figure into its correct perspective.

The Ocean of Life is a masterly survey of the systems that comprise more than two thirds of our planet, yet are misunderstood and abused in almost equal measure. Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at York University is a skilled communicator who, unlike so many of his scientific colleagues, is able and willing to connect the dots, rather than simply beavering away at his own favourite sub-specialty.

What this survey reveals is disturbing, even distressing, but rest assured, the Irish public won’t have been unduly disturbed. Total coverage of this landmark publication to date in the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Evening Herald, Daily Mail, Sunday Independent, Sunday Business Post and on RTE radio or television: zero. Among the Irish media I’ve reviewed, only the Irish Examiner and Sunday Times found it worthy of editorial coverage.

As Roberts concludes: “You can’t cheat nature, however good you may be at spinning a story”.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 4 Comments