Friday, December 28, 2007

Plastic planet

In one of the few places on Earth where people can rarely be found, the human race has well and truly made its mark. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a floating garbage patch twice the size of Britain. A place where the water is filled with six times as much plastic as plankton. This plastic-plankton soup is entering the food chain and heading for your dinner table.
-- from The plastic killing fields.

See also Even Tiny Plastic Pieces Can Carry Pollution Throughout the Oceans.

Us, worried?

"Our assessment is that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is under control," said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Gary Keck. "At this time, we have no need for concern."
-- Pentagon readies plans for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

P.S. David Remnick quotes Mary Anne Weaver's 1993 description of Benazir Bhutto:
She is part Radcliffe and Oxford, with an extremely well-stocked mind, full of feminist literature, peace marches, the Oxford Union, and with a very liberated social life. She is also part feudal Sindh, a haughty aristocrat, the daughter and granddaughter of immensely wealthy landlords, whose inheritance gave her the right to rule. . . . She is an Eastern fatalist by birth, a Western liberal by conviction, and a people-power revolutionary—who has carefully modelled herself on Evita Perón and Corazon Aquino—through sheer necessity. She is an expensively educated product of the West who has ruled a male-dominated Islamic society of the East. She is a democrat who appeals to feudal loyalties.
P.S. 30 Dec: Sound analysis, as ever, from William Dalrymple, who writes that Bhutto, a product of elective feudalism, failed to pass a single piece of major legislation during her first 20-month premiership.

Monday, December 24, 2007

One more

I do not know how useful or true this is, but it is beautiful.

and the good news

There is the end of a life in my family this week so I am mostly offline. But it's nice to read some good news for a change. So this blog records that some people are finally standing up to the shits (Firm quits Sicily to spurn Mafia), and that the idea of healing the world persists even though people keep trying to kill it (Scotland, home to...the wild beaver).

The smiling Lomborg

Simon Donner notes the attack of the climate skeptics, part XII. Is he right to call this Imhofe's "last stand"? Maybe, if Andy Revkin and many others continue respond effectively to a suggestion by C. Reeves.

Like Scientology, "climate scepticism" may not actually die, but it may be containable.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Song of the sea

The dolphins often made a particular flat-toned whistle when they rode the waves created by [the] boat, and it's tempting to speculate that the whistle is the equivalent of a child going "wheeee!".
-- from Dolphins use contextual 'language', which reports a study by Liz Hawkins of Southern Cross University who has identified 186 different types of dolphin whistle.

[Some other notes about cetaceans worth a look can be found at: Of Humans, Oil, and Whales, while Nature has a neat video on ancient whale evolution]

P.S. 21 Dec: 'Japan drops humpback whale hunt'.

Bye bye Kyoto?

One barely discussed element is that the Kyoto protocol appears to have been consigned to the dustbin of history even before its main provisions come into force in January. Nobody talks about a second round of Kyoto targets any more. The Bali roadmap mentions the protocol only once, noting that the new negotiations "shall be informed by... experience in implementing the... Kyoto protocol".

This provides a face-saving way back into the climate fold for Kyoto-refusenik, the US. Nobody is saying so, but it may also wipe the slate clean for countries likely to fail their Kyoto targets. Canada in particular is expected to have emissions 38 per cent above 1990 levels by 2010, rather than the promised 6 per cent cut. Moreover its government has said that it will not, as required by the protocol, buy carbon offsets to make up the difference.

Under the protocol, Canada faced swingeing penalties in a future round of emissions targets. It may now escape them. Likewise Australia, which finally signed up to the Kyoto protocol in Bali seemingly unconcerned that it has no hope of even approaching the target it agreed back in 1997.
-- from How the climate drama unfolded in Bali by Fred Pearce. But:
On Saturday afternoon [15 Dec] the EU gained an unexpected victory. Canada, Russia and Japan had been set against dictating clear emissions targets during the talks but, in a set of discussions including the developed-country Kyoto parties but excluding the US, the three countries changed their minds and signed up to cut their emissions by 25-40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020. This goes much further than the original protocol, which asked for 5 per cent cuts by 2012
-- from Who bears the load? by Fiona Harvey and John Aglionby.

Hopeful Hansen

...The tendency of the media to continually report bad news on climate change and the human-made factors that drive climate change sometimes paints a picture that is bleaker than that shown by careful analysis. Such information is often misleading about the true status of the Earth, and the impression created may be harmful if it leads to despair about the prospects for achieving a relatively stable climate with a cleaner atmosphere and ocean...

...There is tremendous potential for reducing atmospheric CO2 via reduction of deforestation, improved forestry practices, and improved agricultural practices that increase carbon storage in the soil. If governments were to encourage such practices, rather than the converse, and if coal use were phased out except where the CO2 is captured, it would be possible to literally roll back the net human-made climate forcing to levels below those defining critical tipping points...
-- says James Hansen in a letter to Gordon Brown.

CCS doubts

There are plenty of experts who still doubt that capturing carbon dioxide and putting it in cold storage will ever work at a meaningful scale. Vaclav Smil at the University of Manitoba has calculated that capturing, compressing and storing just 10 percent of current CO2 emissions — here and now — would require as much pipeline and plant infrastructure as are now used worldwide to extract oil from the ground. And oil is a pricey commodity while carbon dioxide is a waste gas.
-- from The (Energy) Future Is Not Now by Andy Revkin.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bali and baloney

John Elkington is probably at least partly right with this.

Andrew Dobson writes about state failure. But that doesn't quite get it. Often "the state" can be surprisingly responsive. Unsurprisingly, it responds first to the most powerful or best-organised pressure, such as that from German car makers.

So how do you convince the men at the Audi film club?

[P.S. 20 & 21 Dec: The Auto battle goes on in the U.S. too. See E.P.A. Says 17 States Can’t Set Emission Rules and EPA chief is said to have ignored staff]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Yes-ish, but

George Monbiot brings up some good points in We've been suckered again by the U.S.

One hears repeatedly that campaign finance reform has for a long time been identified as the number one goal by people serious about making change for the better in the U.S. But how can this become a reality? Barack Obama, for example, may have remarkable qualities, but major change-maker may not be one of them, and (most unfortunately) he looks to me like a prime candidate for assassination.

Even with reform, almost any greenhouse gas cap and trade is likely to be vulnerable to abuses. Other systems can be gamed too, of course. The point is to learn from those mistakes, and there is some evidence of this happening with CDM and EUETS.

Also, it's not only the U.S. that plays fast and loose. See UK's official CO2 figures an illusion.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Eating the forest

Garimpeiros work from daybreak to sundown and sleep in hammocks on site. Even though they live with the hope of striking it rich, the reality is that their lives are spent in what is almost bonded labour. The workmen are entitled to only a 30% share of the gold found at the mine. The rest goes to the owner of the motor, usually a businessman living in a city miles away.

One typical mine being operated by a handful of men was producing just 15g (half an ounce) of gold a day - almost £200 - leaving less than £10 a day each for the workers.

While in other circumstances this could be an acceptable wage, the garimpeiros never leave the rainforest, face endemic malaria and settle disputes by the law of the gun. Their wages are all spent on food, drink and prostitutes.
-- from Illegal, polluting and dangerous: the gold rush in French Guiana by Alex Bellos

Banging the table

Some people argue that we’re going to sit at a table with [the big drug and insurance companies] and they’re going to voluntarily give their power away. I think it is a complete fantasy; it will never happen.
-- John Edwards quoted by Paul Krugman (Big Table Fantasies).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Group think

A response by Richard Dawkins to David Sloan Wilson and E O Wilson seems sarcastic and harsh. Their reply (for which scroll down from Dawkins's letter) seems moderate and reasoned, but I don't completely follow it (so need to study, I guess!).

By contrast, the responses by David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and Marc Hauser to Jonathan Haidt, and his reply, generally bring more light than heat.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bali low

Some are celebrating that any kind of agreement was reached in Bali. Tom Goreau, a marine scientist and member of the delegation for Jamaica who helped draft the first Framework Convention on Climate Change, is not among them. His comment is here.

[An error in transcription: the EU proposal is to allow (sic) temperature to rise by no more than 2 C (not 3). In Tom Goreau's view, however, this is still insufficiently ambitious.]

P.S. 16 Dec: A version of Tom Goreau's piece has now been published on Dot Earth, along with comments from Timmons Roberts (a co-author of a useful recent paper on the fate of the Amazon, among other things) and several others.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What is the top priority on climate change?

...more R&D into clean energy is probably the highest priority of all. Finding a clean energy source that is cheaper than those currently available is the only politically-plausible way of curbing continuing growth in developing nations’ emissions
-- says Paul Klemperer (quoted previously on this blog here).

This would, presumably, get us out of what Christoph Neidhart calls the Malthusian energy-trap.

And leading contenders are more likely to include solar than biofuels?

And CCS? Kevin Watkins writes that "By accelerating the adoption of best-practice technologies [in the case of coal], it would be possible to make deep cuts in emissions and enhance energy efficiency. By 2030, cuts equivalent to current emissions from Japan and Germany would be possible." More detail on the assumptions made, please, and some numbers on what that would mean for global emissions.

(P.S. 10pm Europe is reported "to have dropped its demands for a 25%-40% cut on 1990 levels by 2020, a proposal that was bitterly opposed by the US".)

Climate change is not Pop Idol

The New Statesman asks us to 'vote for [our] favourite climate framework'. I think this is not very useful, and commented:
1. Where does it get one say that Kyoto has little 'scientific rigour'? That is not what it is designed for: criticising an apple for not being an orange. (bear in mind questions, too, from Myles Allen et al regarding the use of atmospheric concentration targets in the first place for target setting - ref RealClimate).

2. C&C gets more points for 'simplicity'. Why should 'simplicity' be the right answer to one of the world's most complex problems? Walking around downtown Baghdad calling for peace and brotherly love may be simple, but it is unlikely to solve the problem.
and plan to examine the issues in more detail at Global Deal.

Sterner days

In Beyond the point of no return, Ross Gelbpsan writes:
There needs to be another kind of thinking that centers neither on the profoundly dishonest denial promoted by the coal and oil industries, nor the misleading optimism of the environmental movement, nor the fatalistic indifference of the majority of people who just don't want to know.

There needs to be a vision that accommodates both the truth of the coming cataclysm and the profoundly human need for a sense of future.

That vision needs to be framed by the truly global nature of the problem. It starts with the recognition that this historical era of nationalism has become a stubborn, increasingly toxic impediment to our collective future. We all need to begin to think of ourselves -- now -- as citizens of one profoundly distressed planet.
And he recommends policies that include redirecting at least $250bn in subsidies and creating a fund of about $300 billion a year for a decade to transfer clean energy to poor countries (to which John Rynn responds we need to spend trillions) [Interestingly, Gelbspan does not headline large-scale transfer of funds for adaptation.]

I sympathize with much of what Gelbpsan writes, but can't help thinking that the prospects of such a set of changes and policies may be even smaller than the odds of avoiding dangerous climate change. So while working to overcome stubborn nationalism, reduce subsidies and increase investment in green energy and so on, we should not be unduly surprised or dismayed if things continue to go horribly wrong.

I think, therefore, that Patrick Mazza is right to quote Al Gore with regard to political will, and that we should think hard about what that means. A standard trope is to compare the current situation to the (late) 1930s: combine Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" with Churchill's "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."

The changes in the Earth system may well be even more rapid than previously thought (e.g. Arctic summers ice free 'by 2013'), but we do not know for sure that climate catastrophe is a done deal.
They're morbid in Mongolia
And querulous in Quebec,
There's not a man
In Baluchistan
Who isn't a nervous wreck,
In Maine the melancholia
Is deeper than tongue can tell,
In Monaco
All the croupiers know
They haven't a hope in Hell.
In far away Australia
Each wallaby's well aware
The world's a total failure
Without any time to spare.
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Suffering and dismay.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sweet crude

The engineers say there are at least 115 billion barrels of oil in Iraq. There could be more, maybe twice as much, and most of it is light and sweet. What a contrast to the sulphur heavy oils for which the Chinese are scrabbling about to power the current great leap (see Trucks Power China’s Economy, at a Suffocating Cost).

In The Black Box – Inside Iraq’s oil machine, Luke Mitchell writes:
Drivers seldom think about how engines work, just as they seldom think about where they get their power. The foot goes down and the car goes forward. Easy. Indeed, discussion the source of our power has become more taboo than discussing the source of our meat, likely for similar reasons. We say that oil is a commodity. That it could be from anywhere. That it is more appropriately understood as a number on a screen, as an idea. We have allowed ourselves to believe that Iraq is not a nation-sized infrastructure with intricate workings – indeed with many leaky pipes – but a kind of philospher’s stone, as if through our engineering prowess we had found a way to defy the laws of physics as easily as we defy the laws of war, as if we really could flatten the world with a wish or melt all that is solid into the air. This is obviously not true, and it is dangerous fantasy. The mechanism may become increasingly complex, indeed the accelerating system may blur into invisibility, but every system must be understood before it can be controlled.
Mitchell's piece is high on my list of recommendations to anyone for December reading.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Arrogance, ignorance and hypocrisy

Michael Holman sees with a clear eye in African Legacies, a piece about Britain's legacy in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

P.S. 13 Dec: and Richard Dowden presents a compelling set of arguments in Africa's chance.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gambling with the planet

On 10 Dec I gave a short talk to about 300 Italian sixteen to seventeen year olds from three or four schools in Rome. The talk was part of a debate about water management (itself part of a year-long project in which the schools had been working with members of the Italian national research councils and the national civil protection agency). My job was to contribute to an international perspective, especially with regard to climate change, and to encourage the kids to ask questions. The text from which I spoke (with simultaneous translation) is attached as a comment to this post.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Death and shopping

We must read [this book] in the context of a far broader American failing: we no longer expect the government to do its job...We have entered an age of incompetence and drastically lowered expectations. In this context, individualistic, consumerist responses actually make sense, at least as a last resort - and that is what's truly scary.

-- from a review by Chris Mooney of Shopping Our Way to Safety by Andrew Szasz

The real impact of privatization, like welfare reform, deregulation, the technological revolution, and indeed globalization itself, has been to reduce the role of the state in the affairs of its citizens: to get the state "off our backs" and "out of our lives"—a common objective of economic "reformers" everywhere—and make public policy, in Robert Reich's approving words, "business-friendly." The twentieth-century state in its "soul-engineering" guise has surely left a bad taste. It was often inefficient, sometimes repressive, occasionally genocidal. But in reducing (and implicitly discrediting) the state, in forsaking public interest for private advantage wherever possible, we have also devalued those goods and services that represent the collectivity and its shared purposes, steadily "reducing the incentive for competent and ambitious persons to join or stay in state service." And this carries a very considerable risk.

-- from a review by Tony Judt of Supercapitalism by Robert Reich


'1.5 Million Muslims Know Who I Am' by Max Dunbar and George Galloway comes out as a creationist by Johann Hari.

(with thanks to Liberal Conspiracy, which is running a campaign against the extension of detention without charge).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Inclusive civil society

In Chechnya and Ingushetia...99% of residents voted for [Vladimir Putin's] United Russia. “It is an interesting result,” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, “but we have no reason to doubt it.”
-- from The secret policeman's election, The Economist, 6 Dec.

Friday, December 07, 2007

...heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea.

Patching together a world view, the editorial overview for Nature's 'special' on Earth observation refers to the 'long zoom' (a phrase coined by the American technology writer Steven Johnson) which has created a peculiarly contemporary way of seeing:
This is when a camera focused on, say, a human eye appears to hurtle pell-mell through the pupil to the nucleus of a cell — or pulls back from the orbit of the eye to an orbit round the planet.
In the world of the long zoom, says Nature:
the planetary scale has a particular significance. It links every image of the world to the great image of Earth that contains them all.

...The creation of [the] new ways of seeing the world [made possible by earth observation systems] would be a significant aesthetic achievement even if they had no commercial, scientific or strategic use. In fact they have all three — as well as an even greater environmental usefulness.
The 'special' explores perspectives from space, ground level, the future and the past (including, vitally, the Keeling Curve). In Whole Earth comes into focus, Stewart Brand argues that two vastly different but complementary projects could transform our understanding of Earth. The long-standing mystery of how microbes run the world is closer to being solved, thanks to metagenomics — the DNA sequencing of whole populations of microbial life, he says, and if a project to record fluctuations in the solar energy that reaches Earth [the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)] gets back on track, we could begin to predict, and even manipulate, ecological changes on the planetary scale.
In Observing the ocean from within, Quirin Schiermeier reports on the Array for Real-time Geostrophic Oceanography or Argo, which has 3,000 different sense organs spread across seas all around the globe.

Argo's mission is to measure chemical and physical properties including salinity and circulation. But studying, and appreciating, the full range of life and ecosystems in the oceans is an even bigger undertaking.
From the time of Pliny until the late nineteenth century...humans believed that there was no life in the deep. It took a historic expedition in the ship Challenger between 1872 and 1876 to prove Pliny wrong; its deep-sea dredges and trawls brought up living things from all depths that could be reached. Yet even in the twentieth century scientists continued to imagine that life at great depth was insubstantial, or somehow inconsequential.
So notes Tim Flannery in his review Where Wonders Await Us Reviewing Claire Nouvian's The Deep and Tony Koslow's The Silent Deep. Flannery quotes William Beebe on his 1930 Round Trip to Davey Jones's Locker:
"Since...the Phoenicians dared to sail the open sea, thousands upon thousands of human beings had reached the depths at which we were now suspended, and had passed on to lower levels. But all of these were dead, drowned victims of war, tempest, or other Acts of God."

What Beebe saw on that trip—and reported with such vividness—was a glowing world of creatures so astonishing that for decades many doubted his veracity. The clear sea stretched endlessly, and was so full of luminescence that it sparkled like the night sky. Cavalcades of black shrimps, transparent eels, and bizarre fish approached the descending sphere, and when Beebe used his spotlight to see them, great shadows and shifting patches of light hovered just out of view, leading him to postulate the existence of giants in the Bermudan depths. And below the bathysphere? There, said Beebe, lay a world that "looked like the black pit-mouth of hell itself."
What lies beyond? Mark Schrope quotes Ron Douglas, who studies deep-sea vision at City University in London, compares exploration by submersible to
taking a Land Rover and going out into the savannah in the middle of the night with the stereo on full blast, the lights on full, with a rotating siren and expecting to see normal lion behaviour.

P.S. 20 Dec: In New Scientist's year end review, Catherine Brahic summarises:
This year, our life-giver, the Blue Planet, revealed a host of details about herself. We learned where to find the clearest seas, the oldest piece of the Earth's crust, why it hums, and how many volcanoes sit on the ocean floor. We now know how the weather makes the days a tiny bit longer, while climate change will make them shorter. Oh, and Earth is smaller than we thought.

Compassion and reason

"The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with 100 stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day." (Koran 24:2)

...When a 'moderate' Muslim’s sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion. Unless that happens much more widely, a moderate Islam will remain wishful thinking.
-- from Islam’s Silent Moderates by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Q. What would you say is the single biggest issue that needs addressing in Pakistan science and education?

A. I would say two things. First is the idea among our young people that knowledge is something that comes from above, or is something to be copied or memorised, rather than created through human endeavour. This needs to be tackled head-on. It is interesting that Urdu lacks a word or phrase for "creating knowledge". In our society, learning is taken to mean learning by rote. Secondly, teachers in our schools and colleges are utterly authoritarian: your teacher is not just the boss, he is seen as a father figure, someone you do not question. This forces students to accept information instead of thinking about it or questioning it.
-- from Pakistan's voice of reason Pervez Hoodbhoy interviewed by Ehsan Masood.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Humbling, but also enhancing

Observing that other species can outperform us on tasks that we assume we excel at is a bit humbling. Rather than taking such findings as a rare example or a fluke, we should incorporate this knowledge into a mindset that acknowledges that chimpanzees, and probably other species, share aspects of what we think of as uniquely human intelligence.
-- Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University, Ames quoted in Chimps outperform students in a memory game.

Not one millimetre

Comrade Milne writes of Hugo Chávez's "dignified response" to the opposition's victory. Has he seen Chávez, backed a row of army chiefs, calling it "una victoria de mierda" (a victory of shit)? The video is here. Somewhere among the responses to Milne on CiF, a Brazilian ("Mooz432") says:
Come on... there must be critical thought in the british left somewhere. I am brazilian. I want social justice. My country is the world's bad example in this matter... But "caudilhos" and corruption is not the solution... in or out Latin America.

China monologue

[Colleagues] draw attention to Why China cracked down on my nonprofit by Nick Young, formerly of China Development Brief. He writes:
a high-ranking Chinese security official... "in charge of watching terrorism and NGOs,"...[said] I could become an elite propagandist for China, or I would have to leave the country, where I had lived continuously for 12 years, and would never be allowed back...

...Most disturbing is that this primitive "friend or foe" logic is still applied not just to foreigners, but to Chinese people. Recent months have seen heightened surveillance of local NGOs and the forced closure of some, such as a "rural reconstruction" initiative led by the eminent People's University professor, Wen Tiejun. This is the government's way of "killing the chicken to scare the monkey," as the Chinese proverb goes. It's a signal to others to watch their step...

How to get ahead in advertising

George Marshall has a good class of rant about this truly horrible piece of kitsch from GE:

George says:
Well, it’s meant to be sexy but it looks to me like the poor skinny waifs are being worked to death. And how sexy can coal be? I’ll bet that whoever made this ‘ironic’ ad has never been any closer to a coal pit than his electric toaster. My grandfather worked his whole life down a pit until his back was broken in a roof collapse. His lungs rattled with phlegm and coal dust all the way to his premature death . Now that would make a sexy ad.

This is a hard core denial ad. Its aim is to undermine environmental concerns. Its core message is: “don’t believe those whingeing (ugly) greenies- coal is great and will never be banned’’.

'Follow the money'

I have posted an entry titled Follow the money to the Global Deal blog at

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

What would it really take?

On 3 Dec, Andy Revkin asked Are Words Worthless in the Climate Fight?, and posted comments from Tom Lowe of the Center for Risk and Community Safety in Melbourne, Robert Brulle of Drexel University and Roger A. Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado that are worth some attention. A response from Michael Oppenheimer, who "still thinks we’ll get [climate change] under control short of catastrophe", is also worth a look.

On 4 Dec, Martin Wolf examined Why the climate change wolf is so hard to kill off (so we have two rather different wolves here). It's subscription only, but here is an extract: the [United Nations Human Development Report] spells out in compelling detail, the heaviest cost will be borne by the world’s poor. Among the most frightening consequences are those for rainfall and glaciers: water shortages could become severe across large swaths of the globe. Poor people are far less able to cope with climatic disasters than rich ones. But this, if we were honest, is why the rich are unlikely to make the huge reductions in emissions the report demands. The powerful will continue to act without much consideration for the poor. This, after all, is a world that spends 10 times as much on defence (much of it useless) as on aid to poor countries.

How might this change? The answer is that we must appeal at least as much to people’s self-interest as to their morality...

Two things are needed. The first is convincing evidence that the true risks are larger than many now suppose. Conceivable feedback effects might, for example, generate temperature increases of 20°C. That would be the end of the world as we know it. I cannot imagine a rational person who would not seek to eliminate even the possibility of such outcomes. But if we are to do that, we must also act very soon.

The second requirement is to demonstrate that it is possible for us to thrive with low-carbon emissions. People in the northern hemisphere are not going to choose to be cold now, in order to prevent the world from becoming far too hot in future. China and India are not going to forgo development, either. These are realities that cannot be ignored.
He concludes that if people are to tolerate radical change in energy use, they must first be frightened and then they must be offered a good way out. But no country will deliver radical cuts if the US does not do so, too, and no leaps forward in science and technology will occur if the US is not prepared to commit its resources to those ends.

But Simon Donner thinks scaring people is not the answer.

Disease and the descent of man

...nothing provides more convincing evidence for the “theory” of evolution than the viruses contained within our DNA. Until recently, the earliest available information about the history and the course of human diseases, like smallpox and typhus, came from mummies no more than four thousand years old. Evolution cannot be measured in a time span that short. Endogenous retroviruses provide a trail of molecular bread crumbs leading millions of years into the past.

...The only way that humans, in thousands of seemingly random locations, could possess the exact retroviral DNA found in another species is by inheriting it from a common ancestor.
-- from Darwin's Surprise: Why are evolutionary biologists bringing back extinct deadly viruses? by Michael Specter.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Hidden colony of orang-utans is discovered in the forests of Borneo - to read alongside Bog Barons mentioned in previous post.

Also interesting: Fred Pearce's report that Stephen Pacala has shown that half of all the world's emissions of carbon dioxide came from just 500 million people, just over 7% of the world's population.

And since I'm on a reading list for today, add Paul Krugman on Innovating Our Way to Financial Crisis, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on The shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel, The cruellest voyage by Nick Davies, and Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts.


Trying to keep up with the Bali climate conference is daunting. I will be reading Chinadialogue, David Steven at Global Deal, Nature reports climate change, New Scientist's environment blog (plus Fred Pearce's piece on the 'Bog Barons' of Indonesia), and others. Global Voices have a useful selection of environmental bloggers in English. Reuters environmental coverage is another place to look.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Myths, hopes and realities

I had meant to write some days ago (at the time that Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith at CRASSH linked to the online version of my essay on climate change, culture & imagination) that Marina Warner makes some interesting suggestions for myths for our times. But a 29 Nov BBC report, Deep concern over Three Gorges Dam, prompts a thought about a contemporary 'myth', if that's the right word, not mentioned in Marina's piece.

The BBC story appears online as part of a chain that -- in retrospect, at least -- has a sense of ghastly inevitability: Three Gorges dam wall completed was followed by Three Gorges dam money 'missing' followed by Yangtze pollution 'irreversible' followed by China dam 'catastrophe' warning followed by Millions forced out by China dam. There may be some bias in the presentation, of course, and the complexities in the 'real' stories are many (see, for example, Jim Yardley's New York Times articles of 19 Nov and 28 Nov. I selected extracts from the first in What makes a catastrophe at the world’s largest dam?).

The 'myth' I have in mind is zombies. In World War Z (which I have been reading on the recommendation of David Steven), it's suggested that the plague originates in the deep waters behind the dam where the desperate and displaced go 'moon fishing'.

As is the case with much schlock and horror/comedy-horror, the zombie 'thing' does actually draw on some profound concerns. [It has even been suggested that something like them goes as far back as Gilgamesh.] Those concerns can be ill-defined and/or overlapping. An interpretation for the age of ecological limits would be that zombies represent humanity's relentless, driving appetites that, if unchecked, destroy everything in their path. A similar set of associations can be made with the widespread concept of hungry ghosts.

And, as is the case with many myths, this one carries a warning for what happens when a struggle is lost. ('No effective action was taken even though there were sufficient warnings that the challenge could never just be woven into the fabric of public life, and that it was actually a global catastrophe in the making', as it's put in the interview with Grover Carlson in World War Z).

When it comes to climate change, optimists start with the idea that a solution is possible: typically, a framework for a 'global carbon budget' in which "carbon and carbon equivalent gases will have to be priced so that using them reflect their true social cost" (UNHDR). [ I hope to find an opportunity to comment on some proposed frameworks in another post before too long]. Then it's down to the serious business of actual delivery.

Some recent examples of useful and serious analysis with regard to nitty gritty are Brenda Boardman et al on Home Truths in the UK and the new McKinsey Report on Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Alejandro Litovsky helps articulate a few questions regarding national and international 'agency' (who and what institutions will do what, why and how) in The accountability challenge for climate diplomacy. It's a dry piece, but a main point is right: the IPCC can't do the job.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Burn baby, burn

Yadvinder Malhi and his colleagues have published an overview paper, Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon, drawing on work from their valuable conference earlier this year (which I mentioned in my third caveat here).

Some of the introductory faclets are likely to be familiar: Amazonia hosts about a quarter of the world’s terrestrial species. Some may be less so. For example, Amazonia accounts for about 15% of global terrestrial photosynthesis, and its forests been a significant and continuous part of earth system functioning since the Cretaceous.

Predicted temperature changes more than a little dramatic:
In recent decades the rate of warming in Amazonia has been about 0.25 °C per decade. Under mid-range GHG emission scenarios, temperatures are projected to rise 3.3 °C (range 1.8–5.1 oC) this century, slightly more in the interior in the dry season, or by up to 8 °C if significant forest dieback affects regional biophysical properties. At the end of the last glacial period, Amazonia warmed at only ~0.1 °C per century.
But there are scraps that suggest that not all is necessarily unmitigated gloom. For example:
There is mounting evidence …that intact Amazonian forests are more resilient (though not invulnerable) to climatic drying than is currently represented in vegetation-climate models...The probability of significantly enhanced drought under mid-range greenhouse gas emissions scenarios ranges from > 60% in the southeast to <20% in the west.
The authors sketch a climate reslience plan, which includes:
1. Keep the total extent of deforestation safely below possible climatic threshold values (about 30–40% cleared), in a matrix that includes large protected areas with limited fragmentation, and managed landscapes (…).
2. Control fire use through both education and regulation, probably for net economic benefit (…).
3. Maintain broad species migration corridors in ecotonal areas that are most likely to show early signals of climate impacts (…).
4. Conserve river corridors to act as humid refugia and migration corridors for terrestrial ecosystems, sedimentation buffers, and as refugia for aquatic systems (…).
5. Keep the core northwest Amazon largely intact as a biological refuge that hosts the highest biodiversity and is the least vulnerable to climatic drying (…).
They ask whether such a plan is feasible. ‘Recent developments suggest the good governance is achievable’...[but] particular, new financial incentives are needed to act as a countervailing force to the economic pressures for deforestation.’

Friday, November 30, 2007

Alan's list

2009: Wild bison herds roam extensive tracts of North America
2014: Iceland becomes the first country to be entirely fossil fuel free (using hydrogen as an energy vector)
2019: No trees used in the production of paper
2023: The entire world declared free of land mines
2039: Renewable energy supplies all the world's energy needs
2043: Ganges water is clean enough to drink at Banares
2065: There are 25,000 tigers living in the wild
2074: The 'ecological conversion' of all major cities is completed
Unlike J F Kennedy's 1961 vision of a man on the moon within in a decade, none of this needs new technology. Or so said Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, at a lunch today at the House of Lords hosted by John Walton in support of the Earth Restoration Service. Alan imagined his son telling one day his grandson that "it all started with individuals here and there deciding to act. When they began to work with nature, rather than against her, the Earth responded."

The necessity to act is clear, said ERS officers Peter Phelps and Andreas Kornevall, and Mary Kay LeFevour of their partner the Society for Ecological Restoration. They reminded those present of the seriously scary picture in UNEP's recent 4th Global Environmental Outlook, and outlined their ambition to help forge a UN Ecological Restoration Convention to sit beside the Climate Change Convention and the Biodiversity Convention.

The 1992 Biodiversity Convention set 2010 as the year by which the loss of life forms world wide was to be reversed. But the rate of extinctions has increased. I've heard elsewhere that it's been suggested 2010 be called the 'Year of Death'. So it's time to get busy (see this article about GEO4 for a very brief introduction to the idea that biodiversity matters to both rich and poor).

I happened to sit next to Alan Watson Featherstone during the lunch, and mentioned I had volunteered in Glenn Affric in 1993. Among other good memories a male capercaillie that seemed to think it was Daniel Craig.
The bird would block the path of our Landrover and bump up against the front of the vehicle, trying to face us down. Alan said the bird had died sometime in the early nineties, and no capercaillies had been seen in the Glen since. There were now seeing quite a number of black grouse, though.

He also said ERS and its partners were encouraging people to come forward with their ideas for a list of goals in ecological restoration in the 21st century. ERS has a blog here.

SWISH Report (9)

is out here.

Local hero

"It may be incomprehensible to smaller minds, but we have always set high standards" -- George Sorial.

"Hopefully, Trump has now got the message that we're not a bunch of cabbages up here" -- Michael Forbes.

- from Developer Trumped

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hate speech

My friend Paul Kingsnorth has kindly given a slot to Brendan O'Neill on his blog. So it should be clear what we think of him. But Brendan never ceases to fail to surprise, and in his latest contribution to the Guardian (Now racism is disguised as environmentalism - not available online at the time of writing) he accuses those concerned about the resumption of whaling approved by the Japanese government (and that includes me; see this) of one of the great unacceptables of our time.

But a contributor to a debate about the Japanese government decision at DotEarth wrote:
[The New York Times] Week in Review has an article on whaling in Japan that ends with, “Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture,” the (Japan Whaling) association says, “would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chip.” This is totally false statement. I am a middle aged Japanese and I had whale meat once when I was about 8 years old as a sort of a “delicacy.” It tasted just like beef tenderloin so there is no reason to kill these animals for their so called unique taste. And even if it was it’s wrong. It saddens me to think that a very small minority view in Japan is holding up whale hunting and eating as some kind of sacred national ritual. Large scale commercial whaling was brought to Japan by the U.S. fishermen in the 19th century. So not only is whale meat NOT a staple food in Japan, it is not even a ancient ritual. The world should know this and we should pressure the Japanese goverment to ban this illogical, selfish and cruel practice.
The real question, therefore, is what warps people so much that they would rather encourage a greatly increased risk of the permanent eradication of a highly intelligent, unique species than face some basic truths?

That said, there are plenty of hazards for cetaceans that have nothing to do with the Japanese. Take three examples among many. The loss of krill in the waters of Antarctica is sharply reducing the food supply of some species. Noise from human activity could be having significant effects (and I count one of my best bits of radio journalism an investigation on this topic about ten years ago now). And fishing boats driving dolphins to exhaustion in order to hunt the tuna underneath them may be causing many mothers to abandon their young - the tragic downside to discoveries from an otherwise beautiful bit of science reported here: Another reason why infants need their mothers.

P.S.30 Nov: Kenny Young writes to say is trying to get a million people to sign a petition to stop whaling. At the time of writing more than 555,000 people have signed the petition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Human Development Report

The 2007 UN Human Development Report, focussing on climate change, is out! I contributed to this, with a background paper in the spring (a version of which is online here; unfortunately not the final draft!), a box about coral reefs and development, and other inputs, and it's great to see this final result (as well as all the background papers including this one on the role or religions and this one on discounting in the context of climate change economics).

A target of a 50% cut in global emissions by 2050, and a strong critique of the UK government survived into the final report. Newspaper reports include this and this (Robert Mendelsohn's comment at the end of the latter may be worth attention, and some assumptions on which it's based examined).

Meanwhile in another part of the woods Worldwatch releases the optimistically titled Powering China's Development: The Role of Renewable Energy. The blurb says:
In 2006, China burned more than twice as much coal as any other country, according to the latest Vital Sign Update. China's coal use amounted to 39 percent of the global total, followed by the United States with 18 percent. The European Union and India came in third and fourth place, accounting for 10 percent and 8 percent of total coal use...

[Chinese demand]... accounted for more than 70 percent of the global growth in coal use in 2006 and for more than 60 percent of the rise in coal use over the past decade. But China also leads on renewables, and is poised to achieve—and even exceed—its target to obtain 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020.
P.S. An enlightening first response to the UNHDR comes from Marc Levy of Columbia University in this comment on the DotEarth blog. Here is an extract:
The HDR is very well suited to help us reframe climate change as a development problem, because its use of Amartya Sen’s human development paradigm is rooted in human choice and agency, as opposed to more narrow economic development. Typically, when the development agenda gets assessed in light of climate change, you tend to see estimates of loss of GDP, and even the Stern report, which tried very hard to break new ground in this area, ultimately came down to a cost-benefit calculus. What the Human Development report provides is a framework for thinking about how climate change affects the range of options for improving human lives, as experienced through food security, education, health, natural disaster risks, migration, and so on. In addition to framing the impacts in a more coherent manner, it also provides a better framework for prioritizing next steps and evaluating actions.

Unreasonable effectiveness

The last thing that the church would allow would be a rigorous double-blind test of saintly efficacy.
-- Nathan Mhyrvold, a member of the Reality Club, in one of a set of responses to Taking Science on Faith by Paul Davies. All the responses to Davies are worth reading, including Sean Carroll, who writes:
"The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational" is a deeply anti-rational statement. The laws exist however they exist, and it's our job to figure that out, not to insist ahead of time that nature's innermost workings conform to our predilections, or provide us with succor in the face of an unfeeling cosmos.
Good to read these after Simon Conway Morris, who may be an outstanding evolutionary paleobologist but is a poor philosopher. In Towards A Theology of Evolution, the poorly thought-out, poorly argued final chapter of Life's Solution, Conway Morris quotes G.K.Chesterton in support of his idea of Telos:
On [some remote planet] on plains of opal, under cliffs of pearl, you would still find a notice board, 'Thou shalt not steal'.
Would the notice board also say 'Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour's goat, nor his maidservant nor his manservant'?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Failure and hope

The outlines of a two-state solution are...clear. A Palestinian state will be set up. Israel will retreat to its 1967 borders, keeping some of its settlements and swapping them for some land currently inside Israel. The Israelis will at last stop building new settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians will have to accept that the “right of return” for refugees applies only to the new Palestinian state. Jerusalem will be divided.

All of this is well known. But, unfortunately, it is probably not enough. It is equally possible to point to developments since the last failed peace rounds that make success this time even less likely.
-- from Annapolis and a history of abject failure by Gideon Rachman.

Free speech at the Oxford Union

Last month the Oxford Union cancelled a debate involving Norman Finkelstein, a US Jewish academic who is critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
-- Irving and Griffin spark fury at Oxford Union debate.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A tiny risk

Scientists do not mean that nanoparticles are inherently unsafe, only that there is a yawning gap in understanding their effects. Yet safety legislation cannot be expected to work until the products of the technology are better understood. What does it mean to regulate nanotechnology materials when you cannot even measure their release into the environment or agree on how to weigh a nanoparticle?
-- from The risk in nanotechnology , The Economist, 22 Nov.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe.
-- Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, as quoted in New Scientist, 22 Nov. Thanks to the quantum Zeno effect - or so it's argued.

The way ahead

A transition from noncoherent, molecule-to-molecule heat transfer to coherent convection occurs in some heated fluids. During the process more than 1022 molecules come into concert. From a statistical point of view, this is ridiculously improbable. Yet the coherence arises naturally from an applied temperature gradient. Nature creates systems, sometimes quite complex ones, "in order to" get rid of gradients and export atomic chaos into the surroundings. "Centripetal," selflike structures arise from material cycles, energy-driven, self-reinforcing networks. Despite the term selfish genes, genes do not have selves: true selves are cells; without proteins and metabolic networks of recursive amino acids and intermediary molecules, genes are impotent, no more "selfish" than an unplugged toaster.
-- from Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan.

James Lovelock, who like Lewis Thomas and others, has compared the earth as a whole to a cell, says in his review of Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun:
The wonderful thing about science is that nature itself is always the final arbiter. In time, Gaia theory will be confirmed or denied by evidence from the earth. Unfortunately, we do not have time. The evidence so far suggests that the earth is now in rapid motion towards one of its hot stable greenhouse states, perhaps like that of 55m years ago.
So, what about surviving and thriving? Schneider and Sagan quote Alan Watts (although one might as well quote a proponent of systems theory like Peter Senge, who I think has observed something similar in real life):
A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. "I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.
Fine so long as you don't hit your head on a rock. What rocks will there be on the way if/as the Earth switches from one stable state to another, as Lovelock suggests?:
When we change the carbon dioxide content of the air, the earth responds, when healthy, by neutralising our pollution—negative feedback. Now, less healthy, it responds by supplementing our increase with one of its own—positive feedback. The temperature increases rapidly with each addition of CO2 because, over a certain range, temperature and CO2 are directly related and soon the incremental heating from the earth itself will exceed our inputs and then further heating is unstoppable. Fortunately for us, earth history suggests that positive feedback will come to a natural stop and temperatures will stabilise five degrees above the present. The idea that we can stabilise rising temperature at some convenient level, say just two or three degrees above the pre-industrial norm, is probably the delusion of computer modellers. Once positive feedback starts, there may be little that we can do except try our best to adapt to a five-degree hotter earth. Hot enough to make our world a vast desert and starve most of us.
Agricultural practices can obviously adapt to some degree, but only so far.

Rhetoric and climate change

In exchange of letters between Kraig Naasz of the U.S. National Mining Assocation and James Hansen, Naasz objects to Hansen comparing coal cars to those carrying Europeans (sic) to crematoria in World War Two.

Naasz is trying a "have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife?" attack, implying anti-Semitism on Hansen's part by attributing to him a comparison that he did not make (which would, supposedly, trivialise the Final Solution) in order to draw attention away from the actual issue under discussion.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Not time's fool

In his charming version of English, Eduardo Punset has set out a formula for love.

A Muslim 'gap year', and beyond

The UK's Crevice case is illustrative. It was not, as most western media claim, an [Al Qaeda] plot. The [perpetrators] went looking for AQ in Pakistan and had to pay 3500 Euros for a trainer and bring their own supplies.
-- from Terrorism and radicalisation: what to do, what not to do by Scott Atran, who says that, like gangsta culture, skateboarding, post-Madonna belly-button exposure and the hushpuppies fad, "the new wave of terrorism is about 'Youth Culture', not the Koran". 'Al Qaeda in Maghreb', for example, "is a logo, not part of an international organisation". But here is an interesting finding:
Would-be and captured suicide bombers rarely cite personal humiliation as a trigger but almost always cite the humilation suffered by others.
And economists and others should pay attention to this:
Jihadis do not respond to utilitarian cost-benefit analysis...; they respond to moral values...; each death inspires many more young Muslims to join the cause; and a utilitarian perspective [such as the U.S Quadrennial Defence Review which seeks to minimise U.S. costs in lives & treasure, while imposing unsustainable costs on the enemy] plays into the hands of terrorists. The U.S and allies [make a profound error in] try[ing] to reduce people to material matter rather than moral beings...

...Faith in Dreams and Heroes, perhaps more than industry and power, gives impetus to lives and civilisations.

Coup de train

This probably means that the strikers have lost in France. As a New Yorker profile suggested, to understand Nicolas Sarkozy it helps to know the story of the human bomb, whom he faced down. So he probably has the nerve for this situation too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


La libertad, Sancho, es uno de los más preciosos dones que a los hombres dieron los cielos; con ella no pueden igualarse los tesoros que encierra la tierra ni el mar encubre; por la libertad, así como por la honra, se puede y debe aventurar la vida, y, por el contrario, el cautiverio es el mayor mal que puede venir a los hombres (El Quijote, II, LVIII).

Monday, November 19, 2007

What makes a catastrophe at the world’s largest dam?

...the Communist Party is hoping the [Three Gorges Dam] does not become China’s biggest folly. In recent weeks, Chinese officials have admitted that the dam was spawning environmental problems like water pollution and landslides that could become severe. Equally startling, officials want to begin a new relocation program that would be bigger than the first.

The [dam] lies at the uncomfortable center of China’s energy conundrum: The nation’s roaring economy is addicted to dirty, coal-fired power plants that pollute the air and belch greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Dams are much cleaner producers of electricity, but they have displaced millions of people in China and carved a stark environmental legacy on the landscape.

“It’s really kind of a no-win situation,” said Jonathan Sinton, China program manager at the International Energy Agency. “There are no ideal choices.”
--from Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Human Costs by Jim Yardley, with research contributed by Zhang Jing.

By 2020, it seems, China wants to nearly triple its hydropower capacity, to 300 gigawatts. 100 hydropower stations could be built on the upper Yangtze basin within two decades.The article nearly ends with:
...The quality of land is getting worse and worse the higher they go. And there are now more people than the land can sustain....

...Winter is approaching, and [Ms. Lu] is trying to block out cold air — and rats — by pinning down the tent flaps with rocks...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Merry old soul

Strange that the organisers of the first world Coal to Liquids conference in April 08 should advertise their conference on the Climate-L News. Or perhaps not. These fuels look very likely to be almost as bad as can be when it comes to greenhouse emissions (barring, perhaps, biofuels from destroyed rainforests; it would be interesting to see a comparison).

At least we can blow yet another big fat raspberry at the peak oilers.

But before feeling smug, consider the following from an article by Alan Zarembo in the LA Times that Paul Ehrlich circulates with the comment "One of the reasons civilisation has probably had it":
Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is the crack cocaine of the developing world.

..."A gigaton of carbon here, a gigaton there -- we've got a disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality," [says] David Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development...

Leading the coal spree is China, which has more than doubled its CO2 emissions from coal since 2000 to more than 2.7 billions tons a year...more

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bukra fil mish-mish

Things could work out if people put their minds to it. My faith is in the power of people to write history. One of the tragedies is that we very often sit back feeling that we have no power and that all we can do is express is our optimism or pessimism.
-- from Peace is Possible: Sari Nusseibeh in conversation with Ian Black.
At the beginning of the first intifada, in 1988, Israel expelled Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American child psychologist who advocated Gandhian tactics for resisting the occupation. The Israeli government understood right away that nonviolent tactics had the potential to embarrass Israel, and was determined to stop him. In truth, however, the government had no reason to be worried, since Awad made no headway among the Palestinians. I once asked a Palestinian friend why in his opinion Awad failed to convince the Palestinians of the validity of nonviolent tactics. His answer was revealing: nonviolent struggle is perceived by his fellow Palestinians as "unmanly." They are drawn to the slogan "What was taken by force must be regained by force."
-- from Avishai Margalit on A Moral Witness to the 'Intricate Machine', one David Shulman, who writes:
I have always hated the symbolic. It is the cheapest, most meretricious act of the mind, and the furthest away from anything real. But today, as I sift through the brown, moist soil under the eyes of the settlers, even I cannot resist the sense of something horribly symbolic. [The settlers] claim to feel something for this land, yet they treat it—her—with contempt. It, she, interests them mostly as an object to be raped, despoiled, and above all stolen by brute force from its rightful owners. It belongs, in this wild, ravished, ravishing landscape, to the people of the caves.


Four decades ago humpback whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Its conservation status remains "threatened (vulnerable)"The Japanese authorities have announced that a fleet will leave for the South Pacific on 17 Nov, with instructions to kill up to 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks.

I cannot at this moment find words strong enough to express my opposition to this.

But this is not just a Japanese disaster. As Peter Matthiessen recently reported, in Alaska the oil companies are endangering and likely killing bowhead and beluga whales.

[P.S. Ocean's Edge suggests signing the Greenpeace International petition to to set aside 40 percent of the world's oceans as no-take zones: "If we want fish tomorrow, we need marine reserves today. If we want whales tomorrow, we need marine reserves today. If we want to stop bottom trawling, we need marine reserves today. For healthy oceans -- we need marine reserves today"].

[P.P.S. A friend in Alaska, whose business it is to know about this sort of thing, criticises Matthiessen for not reporting that some tribes are actually in favour of further exploration for oil.]

Official: "We're fucked"

“The world is already at or above the worst case scenarios in terms of emissions,” said Gernot Klepper, of the Kiel Institute for World Economy in Kiel, Germany. “In terms of emissions, we are moving past the most pessimistic estimates of the I.P.C.C., and by some estimates we are above that red line.”
-- from U.N. Report Describes Risks of Inaction on Climate Change.
[International Energy Agency] officials have stressed that if a solution was not found to curb the growth of energy use and improve energy efficiency in India and China, the trend would become harder and harder to reverse. China and India are building huge numbers of power plants to meet energy over the next 10 years, and 90 percent will burn coal. Coal is a highly polluting but relatively inexpensive source of power, making it the choice for developing countries. While technology exists to make coal plants somewhat cleaner, it is expensive.

"What choices China and India make will be with us for 60 years," said Fatih Birol, the agency economist. "These are locked in investments."
-- from Dire climate warning linked to China and India.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A friend of Freedom

The most chilling part of this short interview with Arkady Babchenko, author of One Soldier's War in Chechnya, comes towards the end.

In my rough transcript from about three minutes in, we start with a passage from the book:
In one cottage cellar they found a mutilated body: Yakovlev. The rebels had slit him open and used his intestines to strangle him while he was still alive. On the neatly whitewashed wall above him written in his blood were the words Allahu Akhbar -- God is great.
Then Babchenko, via an interpreter, tells Bridget Kendall:
So when Russia went into Chechnya for the second time I don't think the Russian army were perceived by the Chechen people as liberators, but at least they were indifferent to it. They didn't care who was going to establish order. They just craved order. So in the second war were didn't fight the Chechens, we fought gangs that roamed wide - and they were huge gangs, very strong gangs - we fought these criminals.

But the very purpose of the war was not to put an end to this banditry, this gangsterism that was reigning in Chechnya. It was only to bring Putin to power. That was the sole end.
Kendall says:
Clearly this whole experience of the war has scarred you. How much do you think it has scarred Russia? Because the general view in Russia today is that the Chechen war has been put behind them.
And Babchenko replies:
You wouldn't believe it but I'm a cheerful young man with a keen sense of humour. I think the Chechen war had the same effect on Russian society as you would have in a medieval society when a public execution took place. So there are no bans any longer, no taboos, no moral scruples. There is a total cynicism reigning supreme.

Southern victory

An American power company with close financial links to President George Bush has been named as one of the world's top producers of global warming pollution...

A single Southern Company plant in Juliette, Georgia already emits more carbon dioxide annually that Brazil's entire power sector...

...Southern, which earned $14.4bn in revenues in 2006, is using its influence to block the introduction of wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources on the grounds that it would eat into its profits.

Haley Barbour, one of the main lobbyists for Southern Co when President Bush took office, played a crucial role in persuading him to back away from his original campaign promise to reduce CO2 emissions when he first ran for president in 2000...

....The detailed breakdown of the worst polluters comes in the form of an on-line database [CARMA], compiled by the Center for Global Development.
-- from Leonard Doyle (US power company linked to Bush is named in database as a top polluter, The Independent).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Swede and low carbon

Jack Guest writes to say that a trailer for the feature-length preview of A Convenient Truth: A film about the world getting better has just been released. You can see it here on YouTube.

The trailer strikes me as having at least these two messages: 1) the answer is for everyone to be more like Sweden, plus flex-fuel cars; 2) you don't have to be some posh-sounding bloke to go out and do this for yourself, and you can be happy while doing it.

In a piece about Sweden which I wrote for Director (July 06), Roger Levett says:
It would be perfectly possible for any rich, sophisticated country to reduce net greenhouse emissions to zero over 20 or 25 years. Given what we now know about the global climate, this is the only sensible course. Anything else is suicide for our civilisation, if not for our species, although quite possibly that, too.
Vis-a-vis flex fuel cars, and therefore biofuels, Bacon Butty makes a useful addition to recent commentary:
Instead of asking how to reduce transport emissions from road fuel substitution, we should be asking how to make use of land to tackle climate change in the most effective way possible. In coming up with the biofuels targets, policy-makers have asked, and answered, the wrong question.
See too Biofuels bonanza facing 'crash', Indonesia Says It May Take Until 2014 to End Illegal Logging and Vanishing forests a counterpoint to Indonesia's climate crusade, which all take us back to How to destroy a planet.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

One more cup of coffee

A Jesuit at the Osservatorio compares the cosmos to a cappuccino, and it just gets better and better.

Žižek's fancy

In Resistance Is Surrender, Slavoj Žižek argues that the Another World is Possible mindset is just so much bollocks, with 'Subcomediante Marcos’ as QED. Today, he says, "it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state."

And one can see his point.

But for Žižek it is Hugo Chávez, with his "mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees)" who "should be fully endorsed".

So it is a singing-and-dancing petro-dependent president-for-life who rings Žižek's bell?

The Lobby

JC Superstar: Blair turns to Heifetz as key peace advisor.

As Blair said in another context: "I really believe this stuff".

Sceptics and prevaricators

If someone persistently claims to be a great football player, and yet fails to find the net when you put him in front of an open goal, you cannot do other than doubt his claim.
-- Richard Black being sceptical about bias.
Probably the most important reason for [the] absence of urgency is the profound lack of public knowledge in the U.S.] on issues related to climate matters...The serious national media have done a miserable job in educating the public about just what the stakes involved are when it comes to climate change.
-- Kurt Campbell on Why Americans prevaricate.

Knows his place

Paul Kingsnorth lays out the red carpet for a remarkable guest.

Melanie Phillips with a testosterone implant?

A 'troubling imbalance'

The first State of the Carbon Cycle Report finds that the North American continent’s carbon budget is "increasingly overwhelmed by human-caused emissions". A press release says:
carbon sinks may be reaching their limit as forests mature and climate conditions change. And some may literally go up in smoke if wildfires become more frequent, as some climate simulations predict. Planting forests and adopting carbon-conserving practices such as no-till agriculture may increase carbon sinks somewhat, but this would not come close to compensating for carbon emissions, which continue to accelerate.
See also Fire as the dominant driver of central Canadian boreal forest carbon balance by Ben Bond-Lamberty et al (Nature 450). The arctic tundra and boreal forest are the first and second largest carbon stores among terrestrial biomes.

[P.S.: I should have been paying closer attention: Andy Revkin blogged SOCCR yesterday here - but he doesn't pick up the key issue of carbon cycle feedback.]

Double McThink

Perhaps Alex Salmond, whose party claims to be serious about climate change, should recall that, as Dilip Hiro puts it, "the power derived from oil is only temporary".

'Pakistan, Bush and the bomb'

-- from Jonathan Schell.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mudded moderation

Andy Revkin describes Newt Gingrich, Bjorn Lomborg, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger as "centrists" on climate change who eschew the alarmism of the left and the denialism of the right.

But to be alarmed and raising the alarm about anthropogenic climate change is not wrong, any more than it would be wrong to raise the alarm if there is a high probability of an uncontrollable fire on the floor below yours in a building.

In such circumstances, clear thought, determination, organisation and optimism are necessary. So yes to careful consideration of relative priorities and emphasis on solving the problem. But no to ignoring the full nature and extent of the risks and the measures needed to meet them.

Partha Dasgupta accurately describes Lomborg's mistake as "Muddled concreteness".

[P.S. 14 Nov: an exchange between Dave Roberts and Revkin.]

Monday, November 12, 2007

'Sceptics' demolished

In Unravelling the sceptics, Richard Black reports on his attempt to find out what climate sceptics really think. This is likely to prove to be a useful exercise because it looks as if those who actually answered his well-constructed questionnaire do one or both of the following: 1) cite evidence that does not actually contradict the view of the IPCC and that of the Brazilian, British, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Indian, Russian and US scientific academies; and/or 2) make errors or misrepresentations (for example with regard the influence of the sun/cosmic rays/or the urban heat island effect) that can easily be cleared up.

[P.S. 13 Nov: see Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate on the BBC contrarian top 10]

'Tell him he's dreaming'

Call me cynical, but this catchprase from the 1997 Australian film The Castle came to mind in response to comment on a previous post on this site asking why more isn't done to encourage people to take big steps towards a low carbon transformation of their lives. Perhaps my cyncism, if that's what it is, is just a passing moment from reading that both 'debauchism' and 'disapora' tourism will be served by, for example, the hundreds of new jets on order from Boeing and Airbus.

Habeas schmabeas

when the Chinese international news agency reports that Britain has the longest period for detention without trial of any democracy, including Turkey. And the government wants to extend it.

[P.S. 21 Nov: but Alex Carlisle is unimpressed by Liberty.]

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A beautiful idea

The Wilderness Society is a community-based environmental advocacy organisation whose mission is protecting, promoting and restoring wilderness and natural processes across Australia for the survival and ongoing evolution of life on Earth.
Puts me in mind of this from Philip Pullman:
[like religion] the stories of science have moral consequences too, but they convey them more subtly, by implication; we might say more democratically. They depend on our contribution, on our making the effort to understand and concur.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hip trip

It was the perfect brew—an African-American entrepreneur promoting a Polish vodka owned by a French corporation using Chinese performers practicing an Afro-Latin-influenced art form that originated in the inner cities of the United States.
-- from It’s a Hip-Hop World.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Tread Schizo

At the time of writing, The Guardian's Treadlightly site boasts that "3,712 readers have pledged to save a total of 5.33 tonnes of CO2". The Treadlightly home page also carries an ad for "South Africa: unforgettable scenery at Table Bay".

A return flight to Cape Town (12,021 Miles) for one person accounts for 2.82 tonnes (according to one popular carbon calculator). So if just two people among the 3,172 who have so far pledged to "tread lightly" with The Guardian reward themselves with a holiday (a success rate for the advertisers of just over 0.063%), all the emissions saved by the other 3,170 and then some, will be cancelled out.

The front page of this morning's Guardian print edition prominently displayed news of a BEMA award to the newspaper for, among other things, "inspir[ing] readers to alter their lifestyles".

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Great Leaps, ancient and modern

Sun Shuyun writes that the clay soldiers speak of the good and bad of absolute rule, and raises interesting questions which go further in some respects than those I raised in Climate change, imagination and culture, part 3, and less far in at least one respect.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Part and whole

Accepting multilevel selection has profound implications. It means we can no longer regard the individual as a privileged level of the biological hierarchy. Adaptations can potentially evolve at any level, from genes to ecosystems. Moreover, the balance between levels of selection is not fixed but can itself evolve - and when between-group selection becomes sufficiently strong compared with within-group selection in a given population, a major transition occurs and the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right.
-- from Survival of the selfless by David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson. [Image: flock of starlings, U.K.]