Time to sign up for the climate change war

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times. There has been a pretty strong reaction thus far on Twitter (not that much uptake on Facebook) and quite a useful online discussion accompanying the piece on the Irish Times site – well over 150 postings to date.

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Randall Truman got his 15 minutes of fame in early 1980. A long-term resident on Mount St. Helens in Washington State, Truman (83) scoffed when authorities began evacuating the region.

“Nobody knows more about this mountain than me”, he told reporters. “This goddamed mountain won’t blow. Scientists don’t know shit from apple butter”. His folksy defiance made him an unlikely media star.

When, as predicted, Mount St. Helens blew up on May 18, 1980, Truman was buried under 46 metres of volcanic debris.

It’s easy to dismiss the tragic folly of one old man’s stubbornness in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Yet, when it comes to climate change, we are today a society of Randall Trumans, sitting defiantly on our collective front porch, watching the distant smoke plumes rising, feeling the tremors, while all the time decrying those scientific know-alls who keep trying to scare us or tax us with all their waffle about carbon dioxide, melting icebergs, deforestation, biodiversity loss and assorted other eco bugaboos.

We instinctively know better than the actual experts. So do our politicians, economists and media commentators. Are we worried? Hell, no. Just like old Randall, we’ve seen it all before. Assuming that the future will be much the same as the past was a fatal error for Truman, yet this mistaken view is widely held, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

“We climatologists, like other scientists, are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies”, said Prof. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University. “Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that it poses a clear and present danger to civilisation”.

This apocalyptic prescription is rapidly going mainstream. The World Bank described the projected 4C+ of global warming this century as “a doomsday scenario”. The US military now believes climate change “will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we talk about”, as US Admiral Samuel Locklear put it.

Geophysicist Brad Werner produced a recent paper entitled: ‘Is Earth F**ked’? Despite the provocative heading, it was a sober analysis, with a chilling conclusion: the looming collision of infinite and expanding human demands with a finite and declining biosphere sees the arc of human history bending towards catastrophe.

Nor does Dr. Werner believe this crisis is amenable to ‘top-down’ solutions, as transnational corporations and their billionaire chiefs are the prime drivers of this process, and they either directly own, dominate or finance the bulk of the world’s political and media systems.

You might imagine our ruling elites would be too wise, or at least too self-interested to preside over a complete unraveling of human progress. You would be wrong. In 1938, on the eve of another great crisis, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued this blunt warning: “the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, at its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group”.

Seven decades later, transnational corporatism, turbocharged by neoliberal economic theory, has reached its global apotheosis and, freed at last from the constraints of either human moral agency or state oversight, is in the process of destroying the very civilisation it purports to serve.

This theme was taken up forcefully recently by Pope Francis, who experienced at first hand the disaster visited on his native Argentina by financial speculators. He lambasted trickle-down economics as a sham that heightens injustice and inequality.

Support of neoliberal economics “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system” he wrote. “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market”.

All that remains is resistance. “Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers and other activist groups”, Dr. Werner suggests, is the last hope of at least arresting the runaway growth machine before it destroys us and our children’s future. Politicians may respond to, but will never initiate, this resistance.

Slowly, more and more scientists are doffing their white coats and taking to the streets to demand that society acts on the overwhelming evidence to mitigate the worst of the coming climate calamity. Prof Gus Speth, retired dean of Yale University’s environmental school described his jail cell following his arrest at a climate protest as the most important position he had ever held in Washington.

Financier Jermey Grantham published an unusual open letter to scientists in the journal ‘Nature’ urging them to get off the fence and join the fight. “This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave”.

Resistance is not for the faint-hearted, as it will be met by fierce coercion. The Arctic 30, comprising jailed environmental activists and journalists, have felt the vicious backlash of the Russian petro-state. As resistance intensifies, so too will suppression and counter-propaganda. Climate change may not feel like your fight today, but that too will change. Make no mistake, this is, quite literally, the fight of our lives. Success is far from certain, but when you consider the stakes, it is surely morally indefensible to countenance not even trying.

Should we fail, author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut suggested this wry message to posterity: “Dear future generations: please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum”.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Economics, Global Warming, Psychology, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Billionaire baddies bringing us to the brink

Below is my article, as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine. I’ve long been fascinated by denial and our seemingly limitless power to delude ourselves about unpleasant or unpalatable realities. This was brought home to me yet again yesterday, when attending a funeral mass in a Catholic church in Dublin.

The entire occasion was a ritualised flat-out denial of the the most rudimentary of all facts of life – death itself. The deceased was little more than a prop in this macabre theatre. After all, if we can even deny our own mortality, it’s not much of a stretch to see how uniquely well equipped we are psychologically to quash other existential conundrums by ignoring and denying them out of existence.

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As evil plutocrat villains go, Australia’s Gina Reinhart is straight from central casting. The daughter of a mining tycoon, she is now regarded as the world’s wealthiest woman, with an estimated worth of around $20 billion. Her fantastic wealth is all inherited; her parents’ vast fortune was made by exploiting Australia’s mineral wealth.

Reinhart is also quite outspoken. Last year she bemoaned the fact that Australians were not prepared to work for less than two dollars a day, unlike African workers. This fact made the multi-squillionaire “worry for this country’s future”.

Reinhart, whose wealth is entirely serendipitous, is not shy of advice for other people who would like to get ahead. They should, she says, “stop whingeing” and “Do something to make more money – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working”. Mind you, at the two dollars an hour wage she prefers, the average Australian would have to work for approximately five million years to match the pile Ms Reinhart got handed by daddy and mummy.

Reinhart is also, shock, horreur, a climate change denier. In the last three years, tired of all the left wing whining in the media, she has taken the step that more and more billionaires, both home and abroad, have discovered is foolproof in dramatically improving your media profile – and that is, to start hoovering up newspapers and broadcasters. She is now the largest shareholder in Fairfax media.

Journalists were reportedly openly fearful that Rinehart would turn them into a “mouthpiece for the mining industry”. That was, I suspect, the last time said Fairfax journalists were openly commenting about anything to do with their new boss’s commercial interests.

Her best buddy is the ultra-corrupt Rupert Murdoch (net value: $13.4 billion) the tycoon who uses his web of media interests to grossly interfere in politics and undermine democratic oversight and accountability around the world. The influence of Murdoch’s odious Fox network in polarising and debasing US politics and demonising science, specifically climate science, is now well understood.

According to Forbes magazine, there are 1,426 billionaires in the world. Collectively, their combined wealth is around $5.4 trillion – $5,431,810,000,000 in longhand.

The net worth of energy industry mega-tycoons the Koch brothers is around $68 billion – around the same as the entire GPD of Cuba, a country with a population of over 11 million. The Koch brothers invest some of their vast wealth in funding anti-climate change disinformation and astroturfing groups. They are also now dabbling in buying up media companies.

Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine our 1,400-odd billionaires were planning to head off, in a fleet of luxury aircraft, on a flight path that would take them thousands of miles from land and crossing through some hazardous airspace along the way. First off, you can be certain they would insist the aircraft had been thoroughly checked prior to departure. This work would have been entrusted to the best engineers. Similarly, plotting their course, getting detailed weather forecasts and ensuring their planes’ fuel supplies were adequate, all this work would be placed in the hands of the leading experts in their field.

Similarly, if they decided to bring along an in-flight medical team, these would be hand-picked based on experience, expertise and their status among their peers. You get the picture. The world’s billionaires generally know how expensive it can be to take the counsel of numbskulls.

And yet. When it comes to the Big One, i.e. whether or not industrial civilisation can survive the next couple of decades, and whether humanity itself can escape the jaws of an encircling trap comprising resource exhaustion, biodiversity collapse, ecosystem failure and climate catastrophe, the world’s richest people can hardly be accused of doing nothing.

Quite the opposite: their funding, media access and moral support is enabling an international cabal of climate deniers, liars and assorted numbskulls to befuddle and bamboozle with impunity. What these patrician geniuses appear to have entirely misunderstood is that we (and yes, that includes the super-rich) really are all in this leaky tub known as the biosphere together.

Wealth, even humungous wealth, is of little value when international trade has collapsed, the electrical grid is permanently down, the global economy is dead and food production has been destroyed by chaotic weather. All of these scenarios are odds-on in a world in which average surface temperatures have shot up by over 4C this century.

The controversy-averse IPCC routinely low-balls risks by excluding real but difficult-to-measure threats such as permafrost methane releases, yet it still says we have no better than a 50/50 shot at avoiding an impending 4C global warming calamity. And that slim shot assumes we all act now to slash emissions.

You and I can fret, we can lobby, we can make our plans, but in reality, as individuals, we remain almost powerless. Our billionaire betters, on the other hand, have power and influence almost beyond measure. Yet, rather than acting to save even their own necks, many of them work diligently and spend freely to actually hasten our collective appointment with mass extinction.

Let’s conclude with an update to that ancient Greek quotation: ‘those whom the gods would destroy, first they make filthy rich’.

John Gibbons is a specialist environment writer and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics | 1 Comment

The oceans: cradle and graveyard of life on Earth

My first newspaper environmental column appeared in mid-March 2008, headlined: ‘Out of our depth in tackling overfishing disaster’. In researching the piece, I was staggered to read a quote from a senior UNEP official to the effect that even if human impacts on the marine world stopped immediately, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”.

Trying to summarise the situation back in early 2008, I wrote: “A lethal cocktail of climate change, overfishing and pollution is causing severe strains on fish stocks worldwide, with the total collapse of commercial fish stocks now predicted to be just four decades away”.

While the main focus of that piece was the lunacy of taxpayer-funded industrial overfishing, it was hard, even back then, to see the catastrophe somehow not extending far beyond the shoreline.

I signed off that opening column as follows: “Unless a radical conservation-led approach to managing the world’s fisheries is quickly put into place with binding and enforced international agreements, the calamity will not be limited to the marine ecosystem. If we simply to carry on our current path, ‘market forces’ will, left unchecked, do the rest and complete the maritime holocaust exactly as scientists are predicting”.

I may have been vaguely expecting an angry mob to march on Government Buildings that day, crumpled Irish Times in hand, demanding that the Irish State “do something” to stop the carnage. If so, that piece was to be the first of many such disappointments over the last six years or so.

No amount of environmental or ecological ‘bad news’ can, it seem, pierce the invisible carapace that appears to shield the public, media and political classes from the breathtaking realities of our predicament. Many column inches have been shed, here and elsewhere, trying to unpick the flaw in our ability to collectively reason that has allowed a mass extinction scenario to steal upon humanity with barely a whimper of either recognition or outrage.

Reporters whose job it is to bring us the stories from war zones and humanitarian disasters, often become cynical about the litany of misery and horror that is their job to relate. Taking that home with you is a recipe for depression, or worse.

South African photographer Kevin Carter in 1993 shot to international attention with a harrowing photo of a starving African child trying to drag herself to a nearby feeding station. In the background, a vulture stood, apparently waiting. That image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize but it also seemed to haunt him. Within a year, he was dead.

Part of his suicide note read: “I am depressed… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”. (Carter’s angst was immortalized in the eponymous song by the Manic Street Preachers).

Writing and researching environmental and ecological issues from the bloodless safety of a computer in suburban Dublin is a long, long way from the front lines that Carter and many others have risked so much to cover, yet the horror still comes crashing through from time to time, no matter how remote you may wish to imagine it.

I had such an experience early this morning when reading a report on ocean acidification by the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey. She was reporting on the release of an international audit (State of the Ocean) of the health of the world’s oceans, by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

I have read and written on this subject on numerous occasions, yet was still left gasping at the import of this audit. The current acidification “is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun”.

According to Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth”.

The same article quoted Trevor Manuel, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, describing the report as “a deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans…unless we restore the ocean’s health, we will experience the consequences on prosperity, wellbeing and development. Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important”.

The last major global extinction event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), occurred around 55 million years ago. The current rate of carbon release into the world’s oceans is today ten times faster than those that preceded the PETM extinction event. “The IPSO scientists can tell that the current ocean acidification is the highest for 300 million years from geological records”, Harvey’s report added.

Overfishing and deoxygenation as a result of run-off of fertilisers and sewage into the oceans is making a desperate situation worse. The IPSO report projects that the average oxygen content of the world’s oceans may fall by some 7% by 2100. Phytoplankton, single-celled plants that live at or near the ocean surface, produce 40-50% of the world’s atmospheric oxygen.

Without the quiet industry of trillions of these organisms, you and I and all our fellow mammals would, quite literally, suffocate. Yet the epic pressures human actions, from hydrocarbon burning to overfishing to wholesale marine pollution are placing on the ecology of the oceans threaten this fine equilibrium.

“People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems”, Alex Rogers of Oxford added. “Phytoplankton produce 40% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90% of all life is in the oceans”.

All life began in the oceans. Our ancient ancestors first crawled or heaved themselves onto the shores around 400 million years ago. The oceans are and remain the cradle of all life on Earth. Destroying this cradle, either intentionally or through carelessness or hubris, means our own sure and certain destruction.

Evolution is unsentimental. From its narrow standpoint, humanity is a dangerous aberration, a defect that will either kill or be overwhelmed by its host. The race is on. Wherever you choose to put your money, neither outcome bodes well for homo sapiens.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | 3 Comments

IPCC AR5 set to reiterate bleakest of messages

Below, my article as it appeared in yesterday’s Irish Times. I had a bit of a swipe at Fine Gael’s former Environment spokesman, Simon Coveney, having sat down recently to re-watch a clip I recorded for Climatechange.ie back in January 2008 at a conference chaired by Duncan Stewart in which each of the main parties were asked to set out their stall on climate change. In hindsight, Coveney’s performance can best be described as darkly comic. (To get directly to Coveney’s spiel, go forward to around 8 minutes 16 seconds).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is probably the largest international scientific and policy collaboration in history. Later this month, it begins publication of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). More than 830 expert authors have contributed to this titanic project, with the final report running to thousands of pages.

You could, however, sum its findings up in just four words: “the world is defrosting”. This is how Prof Neville Nicholls of Monash University, Australia put it. Human impacts, according to a leaked draft of the report, are changing the planet in ways “unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years”.

Of course, we already know this, since the last IPCC report, issued in 2007 in a blaze of media publicity and political gesturing, set out the extreme dangers of a business-as-usual emissions trajectory for all life on Earth. Back then, the IPCC warned the world’s leaders that we are now collectively supping at the Last Chance Saloon.

Today, six years and a global recession later, and instead of being reversed, greenhouse gas emissions are literally steaming ahead, at over three per cent a year. “We’re heading rapidly in the wrong direction”, says Dr David Victor of the University of California.

Earlier this year, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels breached 400ppm, their highest levels in at least three million years, and representing an astonishing 30% increase in the amount of this potent heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere in barely 50 years. There is simply no historical analogue for changes on this scale happening so quickly. The time lag here is crucial. During the Pliocene Epoch, fuelled by similar CO2 levels to today, global sea levels rose by a massive 20 metres.

This is only for starters. By mid-century, the world is on target to have doubled the pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2, to well over 500ppm. Global temperatures track CO2 levels closely, so we can expect average surface temperature rises of around 2C by that time, with much more heating effectively “locked-in” as what are known as positive feedbacks overwhelm the lag in the climate system’s inertia.

With this, the current 10,000 year interglacial period of generally mild, stable climate that allowed human civilisation and the agriculture that supports it to flourish comes to a dramatic end. To lock in this apocalyptic scenario requires nothing more than maintaining our present path just a short while longer. “The decisions we make in the next decade or so are decisions that will determine the fate of the planet for thousands of years”, says Prof Kerry Emanuel of MIT in Boston (meanwhile, ThinkOrSwim soared to new heights today by having its humble scribblings picked up by WattsUpWithThat, the world’s number one climate denier website)

The oceans too are under assault. Acidification is “virtually certain” to increase, the IPCC warns, and this “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems, from phytoplankton to coral reefs and from Antarctic systems… to many human food webs”. The scenario of acidified, oxygen-starved oceans teeming with jellyfish and almost nothing else is edging from science fiction to climate science fact.

Sea level rise is now projected to be in the range of one metre this century, but the rapid accumulation of CO2 means longer term sea level rises of 5-10 metres and beyond are now looking increasingly certain. This means the abandonment over time of most of the world’s coastal cities and settlements and the loss of millions of square kilometres of land to future generations. In hindsight, our seemingly benign pursuit of relentless “economic growth” may come to be seen as the most dangerous ideology ever to bewitch human society.

Any hope that the IPCC report may err on the side of alarmism is misplaced. For instance, the real-world rate of disintegration of the Arctic ice mass is currently some three decades ahead of the IPCC’s conservative model projections. Controversially, the IPCC report actually excludes modelling of the effects of melting Arctic permafrost, which has the potential to add enormous additional methane emissions and move the needle much faster than the Panel’s published projections.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity”, WB Yeats wrote in ‘The Second Coming’. He could have been describing the forces ranged today on either side of the battle to save humanity from its own hubris.

In one camp are the billionaire energy and media moguls spending freely to buy off politicians, subvert regulatory oversight and befuddle the public. The recent election of a new Australian government headed by a climate denier in the pocket of tycoons Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart was another timely reminder of the capture of politics by the trillion-dollar energy industry.

Closer to home, Murdoch’s Sunday Times recently ran a wildly inaccurate spread under the lurid headline: ‘The joy of global warming’. The neoliberal assault against public understanding of even the most basic scientific facts may yet turn out to be the world’s deadliest undeclared war.

In January 2008 I witnessed Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney deliver a powerful, passionate speech in Dublin in which he demanded the FF/Green government set “ambitious targets” for emissions reductions, admitting to having had “my own worst fears confirmed” as to the scale of the climate crisis. This is, he added, “Ireland’s challenge, and we need to meet it”.

That was then. And older and no doubt wiser Agriculture Minister Coveney was recently quoted as stating that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”. The future of humanity itself cannot, its seems, compete with the more pressing short-term business of keeping the IFA sweet and a political career on track.

Coveney is no backwoods politician; to the contrary, he is smart, has a young family and doubtless knows the real score on climate change. When even this generation of leaders has abandoned us, you know it’s time to be very, very worried.

John Gibbons is a specialist writer on climate and the environment and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Psychology | Leave a comment

Sensationalist ice-age story may betray covert media agenda

[This is a slightly extended and fully referenced (hyperlinked) version of an article which first appeared in Village Magazine on 14th August 2013.]

GHOST: But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
List, list, O, list!

— Hamlet. Act 1, Scene V.

On Friday, 12th July, Irish Times readers were treated to a truly extraordinary front page headline: “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. The implication was immediate and unmistakable: if the world is heading into “another ice age” then, by definition, it cannot simultaneously be globally warming. Some fatal flaw must have been found in the theory of global warming, such that it has been decisively refuted. Given that this theory has surely been by far the most intensively studied and comprehensively tested theory in human history, and has robustly survived all those tests to date, this would be simply the most extraordinary revolution in our scientific understanding. Ever. And not just a scientific revolution either — it would have dramatic social and political ramifications. Globally, we could stop worrying about emissions of (so-called?) “greenhouse gases”.

In Ireland, we could safely exploit any and all fossil fuel resources we can dig, drill or frack, anywhere in or around the national territory. Yes, we’d still have the little matter of an “ice age” to adapt to instead, but with all that ice having to form, surely that could only happen very slowly? In any case, the apocalyptic visions of impending collapse of human civilisation promoted by those climate change “alarmists” had clearly been finally debunked. Dr. Pangloss was vindicated and all really is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Except, of course, that none of this was actually so.

To see this, we will have to unpick the story carefully. It’s not a pleasant or pretty exercise, and certainly not one that an ordinary reader should be expected to embark on; but the stakes are high (could hardly be higher) so maybe it is worth the effort.

To begin, we can hardly blame the headline editor; for s/he has just taken a cue from the article lead — which itself is a model of journalistic brevity:

The sun is acting bizarrely and scientists have no idea why. Solar activity is in gradual decline, a change from the norm which in the past triggered a 300-year-long mini ice age.

Now admittedly, we’ve already clarified (retreated?) to a mere “mini” ice age; but still definitely some form of “ice age” nonetheless. So still, presumably, global cooling, advancing glaciers, all that stuff? Definitely a contradiction of this global warming nonsense we’ve been tortured with. And wait, read on — this is all breaking news, and on the highest scientific authority:

Three leading solar scientists presented the very latest data about the weakening solar activity at a teleconference yesterday in Boulder, Colorado, organised by the American Astronomical Society.

So clearly, these three “leading scientists”, with the benefit of the “very latest data” have just predicted an impending (mini) ice age; notwithstanding all the extraordinary disruption of mainstream climate science that such a claim entails.

Or at any rate, a reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking that that’s what she had just read. But such a reader would be sadly mistaken. For these first two paragraphs are actually a model of misdirection: not exactly false, but certainly not meaning what they seem to say on the surface.

In fact, as far as I have been able to establish, the only parts of the Irish Times article properly deriving from the teleconference (actually hosted from Bozeman, Montana, not Boulder, Colorado) are the technical details on the projected evolution of the current and immediately forthcoming 11-year solar cycles. For solar science buffs this is, of course, a genuinely interesting story. The current solar cycle is really quite different from immediately preceding cycles. But in itself, this is hardly breaking news. For example, two years ago (June 2011) we could read in a press release from the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division (AAS/SPD):

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

The more recent teleconference featured by the Irish Times is still important, because it updates and refines this ongoing projection of solar activity. But where’s the big “ice age” story that brought the dramatic front page headline?

Well here the plot thickens. In fact, that June 2011 press release was also followed by a flurry of media coverage that linked this aberration in solar activity to a possible new “ice age”. To such an extent that one of the authors at that time, Frank Hill, had to explicitly repudiate this inference:

… a lot of reports have come out and said that we have predicted a new ice age. That is making the leap from low sunspot activity to cooling. We did not predict a little ice age. What we predicted is something that the sun will be doing, not what the Earth’s climate will be doing. That has been the major inaccuracy that I have seen in the media at this point.

One might have imagined that even minimal background research by an alert journalist could have located that previous story, and sensitised him or her to the potential for serious mis-communication here. But apparently not.

Still, perhaps we might blame the scientists themselves for poor communication: maybe they were unclear or ambiguous in what they announced? Well no, apparently not. On the contrary, one of them, Dr. Giuliana de Toma, is explicitly quoted (much later in the article) as saying that the current data:

… did not mean the earth was heading for another “Maunder Minimum”. This was a time between 1645 and 1725 when solar activity was extremely low or nonexistent, a situation which caused a mini ice age. [emphasis added]

Yes, you read that correctly: one of the “leading scientists” whose teleconference was identified as providing the basis for this whole story, is quoted within the text of the article itself as saying that the results do not indicate that the Earth is heading for a (mini) ice age (or, more precisely, for a “Maunder Minimum” — but that apparently amounts to essentially the same thing? or at least that seems to be the Irish Times’ interpretation …).

When contacted independently and asked to comment on this Irish Times story, Dr. de Toma reiterated this position, and for more detailed clarification, she recommended an article which appeared in New Scientist magazine on 12th July 2013 (the same day as the Irish Times coverage). This New Scientist article — reporting on exactly the same scientific data as the Times — carried the headline “Sun’s quiet spell not the start of a mini ice age”!

So: who did make the inference that this change in solar activity may presage “another ice age”? Well, the Irish Times article switched abruptly from the original AAS teleconference participants to offer us commentary from “Irish solar science specialist”, Dr Ian Elliott, who is directly quoted thus:

“It all points to perhaps another little ice age,” he said. “It seems likely we are going to enter a period of very low solar activity and could mean we are in for very cold winters.”

Note carefully that some unspecified number of “very cold winters” (in Ireland? Europe?) is a very far cry from the “ice age” (a global cooling phenomenon) of the article headline. As to a “little ice age” (or “mini ice age” as the Irish Times would apparently have it), this is strictly a term of art with a very different, narrow, and limited meaning. Historically, it denotes a period which overlaps with, but is far from identical to, the previously mentioned Maunder Minimum. Despite the name, it is not properly an “ice age” in the conventional sense at all. None of this would be apparent to the layperson, and is not clarified in the article. We will return to that point (which will turn out to be the nub of this whole disastrous miscommunication). But before that, let’s ask on what basis does Dr. Elliott make this prediction?

And now our already thickening plot positively congeals!

The final, and key, actor in this labyrinthine dramatis personae is revealed as Prof Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading. And the decisive quote is this:

Research by Prof Mike Lockwood at the University of Reading showed how low solar
activity could alter the position of the jet stream over the north Atlantic, causing severe cold during winter months.

Now let’s be clear that Prof Lockwood doesn’t seem to be associated in any way with the recent teleconference or the scientific team that was the ostensible trigger for this article (any more than Dr. Elliott). Nor is he directly associated with Dr. Elliott. Nor, as far as I can tell, does Prof. Lockwood himself suggest that his work allows a connection between the teleconference news and a prediction of “another ice age”. In fact, it’s not even clear whether Prof. Lockwood was actually consulted in the preparation of this article at all. But again, a casual reader could easily suppose that all of these people are part and parcel of a single story, encapsulated as “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. This seems to me to be extraordinarily sloppy reporting (to put it at its kindest).

But let us park all that: does Prof. Lockwood actually claim what he’s reported as claiming? And if so, what should we make of it? The Irish Times article does not give precise sources (of course?), but it seems to be referring to a paper published by Prof. Lockwood and colleagues in the academic journal “Environmental Science Letters”, in the Apr-Jun 2010 issue. From the abstract of that paper, we read:

… We stress that this [anomalous cold winters] is a regional and seasonal effect relating to European winters and not a global effect … the results presented here indicate that, despite hemispheric warming, the UK and Europe could experience more cold winters than during recent decades.

So not “another ice age”. Not even a “Northern hemisphere ice age”. Not even an annualised cooling on a hemisphere basis (remember: “despite hemispheric warming”!). No, none of those things; just somewhat more frequent cold winters in Europe than during recent decades. Maybe. And the full extent even of this dependent on whether we really do enter a Maunder Minimum. Which the “very latest data” explicitly contra-indicates, at least according to the one leading scientist actually quoted on this point.

Or, for another perspective, the interested reader (or engaged journalist!) might consult the highly respected skepticalscience.com site. Filed there, under (debunking of) “Are we heading into global cooling?”, there’s this useful summary:

The Lockwood quote supposedly about global cooling simply discusses that decreased solar activity may impact winter weather in Europe, and has nothing to do with global temperatures whatsoever. Lockwood has performed numerous studies concluding that the Sun is not responsible for a significant amount of the recent global warming, and has not predicted global cooling.

So: this “story” as dramatically presented (spun?) by the Irish Times turns out to be essentially without any solid scientific foundation to speak of. But the damage has still been well and truly done. The Irish Times readership have, by now, moved on — but those who retain any lingering impression of this story will surely be that significant bit more confused, more disbelieving, more cynical about any future coverage of climate change: “Ah sure, last week it was supposed to be an ice age on the way — that climate change stuff is just a load of oul’ green guff.” Even more critically, the article itself lives on, for the Internet never forgets. It is already a featured link across the climate denialist blogosphere — indeed, precisely because it carries the full authority and credibility of a national “newspaper of record”, this article is virtual manna from heaven for that audience.

And now we come to the rub. Could this all have been an honest journalistic error (or rather, blunder)? Or equally, is it conceivable that the Irish Times was an innocent — albeit credulous – victim of a cleverly disguised denialist sting? In either of these cases, significant damage limitation would still be absolutely possible, simply by publishing a frank retraction and correction — in print, but also incorporated retrospectively into the archived online article. This would immediately turn the ongoing denialist linkage to the story back on itself and help significantly to undermine this particular denialist trope for the future. However: in the absence of such good faith remedy, we may have to seriously consider the alternative interpretation: that the sensationalist construction, presentation and placement of this story was in fact a manifestation of a conscious, deliberate, yet entirely covert, editorial line. If the latter proves even partly the case, then the judgement of our children, and their children in turn, will surely be harsh.

Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks to Phil Kearney, John Gibbons, Paul Price and Duncan Stewart for additional research and critical feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Of course, errors remain the author’s sole responsibility.

Barry McMullin is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University.

Postscript

On the same day as this critique appeared in Village magazine (14th August 2013), the same Irish Times article was also comprehensively discredited by Dana Nuccitelli, writing in The Guardian newspaper. Nonetheless, as of 18th August, the Irish Times article remained online in its original form without retraction or qualification. However, an apparently unrelated Irish Times story (published on 16th August) blared: “Ireland to experience huge temperature rises, says expert”. The latter represents a welcome step back toward scientific reality (though still managing to implicitly echo another denialist trope, namely that while the world may be warming this is happening “regardless of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit into the atmosphere”). And in fairness to the Irish Times, it has been pointed out to me that there has, in the past, been a clearly overt “editorial line” that explicitly acknowledges and recognises the scale of the climate change challenge, such as represented by this editorial from February 2013. But for the present purposes, suffice it to note that the comments section of the more recent (“huge temperature rises”) piece immediately attracted the mischievous, but inevitable, contrarian observation that “… not so long ago scientists said we could be heading into a mini Ice Age … will they ever make up their minds[?].”

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

Who’d want to live in a world without us? (hint: everything else)

World Population Day earlier this month threw up some portentous figures. Here’s one to conjure with: today, there are 1.8 billion people between the age of 10 and 24 – almost as many humans as were alive at the beginning of the 20th century. The number increases by a million every four days – that’s the entire population of Ireland added in not much more than a fortnight.

Notions that the ‘population crisis’ has somehow or other played out, or was a temporary little demographic glitch have, by now, been well and truly laid to rest. The global population juggernaut blasted through the 7 billion barrier around October 2011. And here we are, less than two years later, with another 200 million humans added to our ever-burgeoning numbers.

Where next? US State Department data suggest we’ll add another billion in the next 12 years (by 2025) and, barring disasters, roll on towards 10 billion humans by 2050. Only the deeply deranged or truly delusional can see this as anything other than a one-way ticket to Hell on Earth.

An elegant insight into the extraordinary times we live in was published in the form of a vast thought experiment by science journalist Alan Weisman in his book, The World Without Us. If you haven’t encountered it, the book’s premise is that humans have, somehow, all simply disappeared. What then? How would nature adjust? What would remain of our great cities, bridges and architecture 10, 50, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years after humans had disappeared?

How would nature manage with to clean up the quite spectacular mess humanity has carelessly made of almost every square kilometre of the Earth’s surface, from the remotest glaciers to the ocean’s depths?

Weisman sagely sought to maintain journalistic objectivity throughout, but in his concluding chapter he was blunt on the consequences of the exponential increase in human population. “Since we can’t really grasp such numbers, they’ll wax out of control until they crash, as has happened to every other species that got too big for this box.”

Then he made a suggestion that was both bold and simple: “It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal…to henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one”. In essence, this is a global expansion of China’s oft-reviled but strikingly effective one-child policy.

Park your indignation at this appalling intrusion on our god-given freedom to over-breed ourselves into extinction for a moment, and let’s do the numbers (and why not, since pretty much every other option that’s actually on the table eradicates our most fundamental freedoms and takes us clean off the ecological cliff in a matter of decades).

By 2075, instead of powering towards 8.5 billion, this one measure would instead see human numbers fall back to 3.4 billion. A quarter century later, as 2100 dawns, it would be greeted by, in total, some 1.6 billion, that’s fewer than there are 10-24 year olds on the planet today.

It gets better. By 2150, the total number of humans on Earth would be just below 500 million – the lowest figure since 1650. “At such far-more-manageable numbers, we would have the benefit of all our progress, plus the wisdom to keep our presence under control”, says Weisman.

“That wisdom would come partly from losses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful. The evidence wouldn’t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human’s window, where refreshed air would fill each season with more birdsong”.

A quirk of evolution handed homo sapiens one or two critical advantages over our cousin primates – and, in time, over pretty much every living thing that ever walked, flew, grew, swam or crawled over any part of the world. Evolution (a little like peer-reviewed science) has long been understood to be a ruthlessly self-correcting system. It makes mistakes, but is unerringly good at sorting them out – in time.

Homo sapiens is shaping up to be evolution’s most catastrophic misadventure in perhaps half a billion years. Through an unlikely combination of ingenuity and serendipity, we have thus far eluded a dramatic correction of our numbers. But, crucially lacking the self-awareness to sense the trap closing, we have instead plunged ever forward, blindsided by our extreme good fortune and deafened by assorted ideologies to the low but unmistakable rumble of the gathering storm

There are two scenarios looming: either humanity somehow escapes the clutches of medievalist magicians and pyramid salesmen, be they bishops, billionaires, bankers or economists, and squarely addresses the existential corner we have painted ourselves into – or we don’t. If you are fond of a flutter, I’d suggest the odds in favour of the latter scenario run at around 50-1 on.

In Weisman’s ‘voluntary’ scenario outlined above, there are at most 500 million humans living in a bruised but largely functioning biosphere by the middle of the 22nd century.  The growth economy has been jettisoned in favour of ‘steady state’, and conspicuous consumption is strictly taboo. Biodiversity has been battered, but is now rebounding. We humans have figured out our limits, and the safe limits of our planetary home. Fantasy? Perhaps, but a pleasant one, and infinitely less grim than any other prospective scenario you could care to contemplate.

While we need nature, the reverse is absolutely not the case. The greatest favour we can do to any biological system is to simply withdraw from it, and let it find its own equilibrium. Learned humility could yet turn out to be our smartest evolutionary adaptation since leaving the savannah.

But there’s me indulging in unfounded optimism again. Dmitri Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse is recommended reading for anyone wondering how the next several decades are likely, in practical terms, to pan out. Don’t expect too many feel-good moments, but then that’s not really Orlov’s style (I aim to post a full review of this book separately).

When humans developed language and symbolic reasoning, the writing may have already been on the wall. “In the final analysis, perhaps we, and all life on Earth, would have been safer if humans had not evolved language. Perhaps the use of knowledge that language enables, taken to an extreme only allows us to achieve a higher overall level of suicidal stupidity”, Orlov wryly suggests.

Having lived through the chaotic disintegration of the USSR, Orlov is better qualified than most to write about collapse, yet oddly, reading Orlov brings to mind the title of Homer Dixon’s best-known book, The Upside of Down.

Seriously tough days are coming down the line. Some of us will be prepared (however inadequately), but most will sleepwalk into disaster, waiting for Someone Else to switch the lights back on, re-stock the supermarket shelves or re-boot the empty ATMs. These scenarios grow less theoretical by the month.

Nobody knows with precision the year, or day, that the globalised systems upon which our collective welfare utterly depend reach the point of degeneration and cascading collapse that what we used to describe simply as ‘civilisation’ simply stops working. Permanently. In all likelihood, we’ll only truly grasp that this has happened in hindsight.

Only then perhaps will that simplest, most painful, of lessons become ineffably clear: you can’t have your planet and eat it.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Obama turns up the heat on climate change denial, inaction

It has been a long time coming, but it was – just about – worth the wait. Last Tuesday, President Obama finally put climate change front and centre on his critical second term agenda. It was perhaps apposite that he had to repeatedly wipe the sweat from his brow during the course of his 45-minute address (or full transcript here) about our warming planet delivered on a sweltering afternoon in Georgetown University.

Just because some politician reads lines off a teleprompter about the environment by no means guarantee they mean a syllable of it. Who can forget David Cameron and his Arctic photo op with huskies, where he cynically promised to deliver the “greenest government ever” to the UK.

Then there was our own Brian Cowen who, back in September 2009 at a UN climate conference in New York warned that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. You could almost hear the guffaws all the way back to Tullamore as Cowen mouthed this meaningless bilge. Let’s face it, the closest Cowen came to green was his facial pallor during that infamous Morning Ireland interview.

So, let’s agree that words are cheap, and all the words in the world don’t mean that it ain’t necessarily so. This week was, I reckon, different. Obama’s speech ran to some 6,000 words. It was “by far the best address on climate by any president – ever”. That’s the considered verdict of the best US president the environment never had: Al Gore.

David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defence Council was quoted as describing it as the speech environmentalists have waited 20 years to hear delivered. Famed climate scientist Michael Mann described it as: “the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years”. Even Bill McKibben, a noted Obama critic, appeared to reckon that the president was deadly serious this time.

I confess to having been a chief cheerleader all the way back to 2008 for Obama as perhaps the only US politician capable of grasping the existential challenge of widespread environmental collapse.

Therefore, some five years and no action later, it’s hard not to feel entirely foolish in believing any politician spawned by the Tweedledumb-and-Tweedledumber US political system could ever even contemplate taking on the vested interests of Big Energy and perma-growth based capitalism to actually make a stand for the common good. After all, who’s making a buck out of clean air, drinkable water, a healthy biosphere or a stable future climate anyhow?

I watched the speech in full. For me, it was indeed the real deal. Obama the master orator repeated the phrase “carbon pollution” almost 30 times throughout his speech. It’s a hell of a better phrase that “carbon dioxide”, which nobody beyond the scientific community seems to actually understand.

It opened with an unfamiliar but powerful tale: from Christmas 1968, when the astronauts of Apollo 8 did a live broadcast from lunar orbit. “Later that night, they took a photo (‘Earthrise’) that would change the way we see and think about our world”, said Obama, who was just about old enough to remember, as a child, this momentous broadcast.

“It was an image of Earth — beautiful; breath-taking; a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds, rising over the surface of the moon.

“And while the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time. Imagine what it looked like to children like me. Even the astronauts were amazed. “It makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

From here, Obama explained the century and a half of scientific investigation and discovery that led to growing concerns that the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “might someday disrupt the fragile balance that makes our planet so hospitable”. That was the view of the US National Weather Service, which began systematic recording of global atmospheric CO2 levels in 1958 under Dr Charles Keeling.

His eponymous Keeling Curve stood at just over 300ppm of atmospheric CO2 in 1958. This was, historically, anomalously high, well beyond the 180-280ppm range that global atmospheric CO2 levels have oscillated within in the course of the past million years or so. Since 1958, the Keeling Curve has climbed ominously.

On May 9th last, it broke the 400ppm level – almost certainly the highest level of atmospheric CO2 level in the last three million years. This represents an increase of over 25% in atmospheric CO2 levels in just over half a century – a rate of increase for which there is no analogue in the geological record.

“That science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind”, said Obama. “The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record — faster than most models had predicted it would. These are facts.”

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren…I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Obama then turned to address the near-certain responses of the special-interest funded naysayers by pointing out that every major environmental initiative, from the 1973 Clean Air Act to the Montreal Protocol on eliminating CFCs in 1987, to tacking leaded petrol, carcinogens in plastics or regulating tobacco, has been fought by the same cabal of monied interests whipping up a media storm by threatening apocalyptic economic consequences – that simply never come to pass. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth society”, is how the president himself memorably put it.

An environmental movement pioneered by Bill McKibben that is gathering some strength is divestment. Put simply, “you can have a healthy fossil fuel industry or a healthy planet, but not both”. The divestment movement targets investors, large and small, to get their money out of dirty energy. Universities, faith groups, pension funds, among others, are being challenged to get their money out of industries that are in the business of destroying the biosphere.

Obama took this movement centre stage when he said: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest”.

Probably the single most dangerous thing humans do today is burn coal. Every year some 8 billion tonnes are consumed, producing over 20 billion tonnes of CO2 in the process, as well as millions of tonnes of heavy metals, toxic fly ash, arsenic, low level radiation, SO2, carbon monoxide (CO), mercury and much else besides. If you charged an ecocidal maniac with responsibility for coming up with a global power source, that person would undoubtedly choose coal as the ultimate weapon of collective self-immolation.

Coal burning is an ugly relic of the 19th century industrial revolution, and should have long ago been consigned to the slag heap of history. But coal is dirt cheap, plentiful, and, as long as you aren’t paying for its environmental wreckage, it’s also hugely profitable. Those profits buy a lot of political and media leverage, and so Old King Coal keeps on killing – and making a killing – decade after decade.

Cleaner new technologies, like renewables and nuclear, are expensive (at least initially) and are frequently under attack from both the political Left and Right – an unholy alliance that plays right into the hands of the hydrocarbons industry.

There is an excellent series of expert commentaries on Obama’s landmark speech collated by the Science Media Centre. These include Prof Nicholas Stern, Bob Ward and Prof Myles Allen. Overall, there is a strong, albeit guarded, welcome for his specific initiatives, but particular praise for the return of the most sorely missing component – political leadership – to a crisis that is, at its heart, a crisis of politics and society at least as much as science and ecology.

We humans have caught ourselves in an elaborate trap of our own construction – we have painted ourselves and much of life on Earth into a stark evolutionary corner. I would sum up Obama’s message as follows: either we apply our considerable collective ingenuity to resolving this impasse, or our only lasting legacy to posterity will to have been the instigators – and victims – of the Sixth Extinction.

* As a postscript to this article, I was surprised to open the Irish Times the following day (Weds/26) to find not a mention of this speech, which did get a few paragraphs in some of our other dailies, as well as some limited pick-up by RTE. (The major US networks didn’t bother carrying it live). Thursday and Friday passed, and still nothing in the Paper of Record. I did try the limited means at my disposal to encourage the Irish Times to pick up the story, including offering an analysis piece, but to no avail.

 

 

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Media | 8 Comments

Science does not support rigid anti-nuclear stance

Below, my article, as it appeared in this Thursday’s Irish Times. To date, it has attracted over 180 comments on the site, with a strong pickup on both Facebook and Twitter. Having grown accustomed to having the online discussion of any of my Irish Times articles being hijacked by the usual rump of denier boo-boys, the discussion this time is surprisingly vitriol-free, generally constructive and well worth a read in itself.

To any regular ToS reader who may be under the impression that I’ve converted to techno-optimism, rest assured this is not the case. There is an enormous question mark hanging over the likelihood of a sustained, serious global response to the climate crisis. Such a response would entail massive decarbonisation of all our energy systems on a scale never contemplated other than in a wartime mobilisation. This would have to start now, not in 5, 10 or 20 years’ time, it would likely need to achieve compound annual CO2 output reductions greater than 5%, and this would have to continue for the next 40 years without letting up. 

Can such a miraculous transformation be achieved? That, ultimately, is at least as much about politics as it is engineering or physics. Let’s dream for a moment and imagine that the world’s governments decided to act to save the future. The idea that such an energy revolution could be achieved without including a massive scaling up of nuclear power, especially the newer generation technologies, is pure fantasy.

Environmentalists who are determined to ‘save the planet’ need to work through the frightening facts regarding how our entire electromagnetic civilisation still depends utterly on the burning of hydrocarbons on a massive scale and the uncontrolled release of GHGs, most notably CO2 resulting from this activity. Renewables, for all their many virtues, cannot, repeat, cannot under any rational scenario, be scaled up to replace fossil energy, even allowing for major energy efficiency gains and demand reduction. So, in a nutshell, nuclear is either a major part of the ‘post-carbon’ energy mix, or you can be quite certain that the ‘post-carbon’ era will involve few, if any, humans.

11/6/2013: As a fascinating and entirely unexpected postscript to this article, a letter was published in the Irish Times today, from Mary Finnegan, who is Chairperson, Friends of the Children of Chernobyl (a charity separate to Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International). Here’s what she wrote:

“As a Chernobyl worker, I found myself agreeing with John Gibbons (“Science does not support critics of nuclear power”, Opinion, June 5th).

There was an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer for the first few years, but no evidence of major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 25 years after the event. This is not a popular thing to say, but it’s based on scientific fact.

Our charity was founded in 1993 to aid Belarusian children who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster. However over a period of 20 years we came to the realisation that the illnesses affecting many of the children of Belarus were primarily due to the consequences arising out of poverty, deprivation and the ignorance of basic hygiene standards to maintain a healthy standard of living. Poverty is the big problem in Belarus in 2013: I have seen children with physical and intellectual disabilities (whose parents sometimes are ashamed of them), living in appalling conditions, with mothers in dire straits. They have no home help, no respite, no hoists, and very little assistance from the state.

I am neutral in the nuclear debate. As a nurse in care of the elderly, I see the results of breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel burning. My final point is that all Chernobyl charities should be realistic, and tell it as it is”.

———————————————–

“There is no such thing as a ‘pro-nuclear environmentalist’,” says the US-based lobby group ‘Beyond Nuclear’. “Environmentalists don’t support extractive, non-sustainable industries like nuclear energy, which poisons the environment; releases cancer-causing radioactive elements and creates radioactive waste deadly for thousands of years”.

This was in response to a new documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, which charts the almost Pauline conversion of five well-known environmentalists from bitterly opposing to strongly advocating nuclear power. What’s most likely to get us into trouble, Mark Twain observed, is not what we don’t know, “it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”.

There are few subjects on which so many people, from politicians to rock stars, NGOs and environmentalists passionately and confidently espouse views that are so completely at variance with observed reality as nuclear energy.

The cultural roots of this antipathy run deep. For instance, the iconic cartoon series, The Simpsons has been mercilessly lampooning nuclear power as corrupt and unsafe for over 20 years.

Still, after the which thousands of people reportedly died horribly, with hundreds of thousands more deaths and birth defects in the last quarter century, small wonder people are terrified. These fears spectacularly re-surfaced in Fukushima in March 2011.

Now, take a moment to re-read the previous paragraph. It sounds like the death knell for nuclear power; and it would be, were it true. Certainly, lobby groups from Greenpeace to Chernobyl Children International (CCI), have worked tirelessly to propagate this apocalyptic appraisal. The scientific evidence has been, to put it mildly, uncooperative.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) has extensively reviewed the evidence post-Chernobyl and concluded that total fatalities were around 50. Yes, 50. These were mainly among emergency workers, as well as a handful of fatal childhood thyroid cancers.

The greatest long-term threat to affected populations post-Chernobyl is not, Unscear found, from any epidemic of cancers or birth defects, but “widespread psychological reactions to the accident, which were due to fear of the radiation, not to the actual radiation doses”. People have been quite literally frightened to death by radiation scare stories.

The CCI website today carries photos of limbless children, which the charity clearly intends to portray as current victims of an ongoing epidemic of deformities. “In the first instance, there was no increase in birth defects, even in the affected regions. None. Zero”, according to cancer specialist Prof. John Crown. “The children whose deformities are highlighted by the charities did not get them as a result of radiation”.

Despite the Unscear report being by far the largest international medical and scientific review of the Chernobyl disaster, I failed to locate a single mention of it on the CCI website. As for Fukushima, a total of zero of the 19,000 or so fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami are accounted for by radiation.

Even accepting that fears of nuclear accidents have been grossly exaggerated, why risk it and instead simply concentrate on renewables and energy conservation? Having run the numbers, environmentalist Michael Shellenberger said in Pandora’s Promise: “I ended up feeling like a sucker. The idea that we’re going to replace oil and natural gas with solar and wind, and nothing else, is a hallucinatory delusion”.

This position has a powerful ally in Dr James Hansen of Nasa who has consistently urged for a radical decarbonisation of global energy supplies as our last shot at averting catastrophic climate change. While strongly supporting renewables, he adds: “it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to phase out coal unless nuclear power is included in the energy mix”.

A Nasa paper published in April pointed out that some 1.8 million lives have already been saved globally in recent decades where nuclear power has replaced fossil fuels. Ironically, fly ash produced by a coal burning plant like Moneypoint in Co. Clare emits around 100 times more radiation than a similar sized nuclear power plant. Globally, some 3,500 people a day, many aged under five, die as a result of breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel burning.

The ongoing gross misrepresentation of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy as a power source has perhaps been the single greatest factor stymying the development of ‘next generation’ technologies, including molten salt and pebble bed reactors that offer more efficient and much safer alternatives.

Prof David McKay of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change recently endorsed a novel solution for dealing with its problematic 100 tonnes of plutonium and 35,000 tonnes of depleted uranium wastes. Rather than being buried, this waste material could fuel a new generation of “fast breeder” reactors and provide enough zero-carbon energy to power Britain for up to 500 years.

McKay is adamant that such research is complementary, rather than a threat, to renewable technologies.

Pandora’s Promise throws down the gauntlet to set aside our preconceptions and come up with workable solutions on a massive enough scale to address the most dangerous crisis humanity has yet faced.

Famed environmentalist Bill McKibben accepts that nuclear must be part of any serious push towards zero-carbon, but admits being reluctant to say so in public as “it would split this movement”. And that is the nub of the matter.

Environmentalists have done such a thorough job of demonising nuclear energy that many now feel unable to retreat from these positions without serious loss of face. The roots of this hostility go back to the Cold War, where the environmental and anti-war movements converged in opposing nuclear weapons.

That battle is largely over, but humanity’s deadliest foe is now CO2. New threats will not be vanquished by repeating old slogans.

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

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Nuclear | 19 Comments

Ecological Ponzi scheme ignores natural capital

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times:

AT THE weekend, I took a load of junk from the garden shed up to the local recycling centre. Use of the Ballyogan facility costs €30 per car. Of course, there are always cheaper options. I could have headed instead for the Dublin mountains, found a quiet spot, and dumped my detritus there instead. Moral scruples apart, the prospect of a €3,000 fine or a 12-month prison term tips the scales against a moonlight fly-tipping escapade.

The “polluter pays” principle is a concept most people accept as self-evidently reasonable. It is also a strong deterrent to excessively wasteful practices. Yet this is almost precisely the opposite of how the world’s major industries operate today.

This is hardly surprising. Deregulation and the globalisation of capital has made it easier than at any time in history for industries to maximise profits while washing their hands of the messy “externalities”.

It’s an axiom in business that what is not measured cannot be managed. And the world’s most egregious non-measurement is the impact on ‘natural capital’ of human activities. Natural capital is defined as ecological services such as clean water, biodiversity and a stable atmosphere, which businesses benefit from but, as these are “unpriced”, do not pay towards.

The UN’s Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) commissioned a major report to quantify these, and the results are simply staggering. When economically costed, natural capital is being consumed, degraded or exhausted with a price tag of $7.3 trillion – annually. To grasp the enormity of this figure, it’s more than 100 times greater than the €64 billion the Irish government sunk into our toxic banks.

The study found that most of the world’s ‘high impact’ businesses are in fact hopelessly insolvent when the true costs are included. For example, coal-fired power generation in eastern Asia and the US generates $690 billion in annual revenues, but the environmental price tag is $768 billion – or more than $70 billion greater than the entire gross revenues.

Cattle ranching and farming in South America earns $16.6 billion a year, but its impacts run to $350 billion – or 19 times greater. Wheat and rice farming in southern Asia generate revenues of around $100 billion, but deplete $500 billion of natural capital in the process.

“We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP”, is how ethicist Paul Hawken famously described it. By far the biggest contributor to our annual overconsumption of natural capital is the emission of greenhouse gases. The study values the social cost of emitting one tonne of CO2 at $106. Annually, this comes to a whopping $2.7 trillion to account for present and future damages from climate change. Worryingly, the study actually excluded costing for “catastrophic events”. Depletion of global fresh water and land use contributes another $3.7 trillion in annual losses imposed by unsustainable business and agricultural practices.

The main focus of the TEEB study, ‘Natural capital at risk: the top 100 externalities of business‘ was to quantify the costs and risks for to investors, businesses and governments as these “external” costs begin to rebound and re-internalise in the shape of weather disasters, ecosystem collapses and spikes in global food prices.

“If unpriced natural capital costs are internalised, a large proportion would have to be passed on to consumers”, the report authors note. “The risk to agricultural commodity prices is particularly striking, where the costs are universally higher than the revenues of this sector”.

What this report has identified is in essence a global ecological Ponzi scheme that dwarfs even the 2008 financial bubble. The world economy, and by extension, our current and future prosperity, depends utterly on a functioning biosphere and a stable climate. Greenhouse gas reduction is expensive, but the cost of irreversible climate destabilisation is beyond calculation. Unsustainable business practices and the ideologies that sustain them may well be the greatest threat civilisation has ever faced.

The world’s top five hydrocarbon energy companies earn $375 million – every day – by privatising their profits while fly-tipping the risks onto humanity, including future generations. This cash purchases political acquiescence, science denial and media collusion. With great wealth comes epic hubris. Exxon Mobil’s CEO, Rex Tillerson dismisses the climate change his industry is fuelling as “an engineering problem”.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Biodiversity, Economics, Global Warming, Sustainability | 1 Comment

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

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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

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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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