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 | 18 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

Posted in Global Warming, Sustainability | 1 Comment

The Anthropocene – Age of the Sociopath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Earth Island Journal

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology | 3 Comments

How climate change is destroying the Earth

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

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

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The psychology of bracing for very bad news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The human race is almost run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Global Warming, Psychology, Sustainability | 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy new year – and welcome to our future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steady as she goes: global climatic denial guarantees chaotic future

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanity’s killing spree about to come full circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandy has the last word in a bitter election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Global Warming, Media | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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