Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dirty diggers

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg highlights a new book by Guy Pearse called High and Dry which looks as if it is well worth a read beyond Australia's shores too.

The strange love of Gordon Brown

Some but not all of what George Monbiot writes in [Gordon] Brown's contempt for democracy has dragged Britain into a new cold war looks about right. On the face of it, it does look sneaky, at best -- although not surprising -- that Des Browne disclosed that Menwith Hill will be used by the U.S for its missile defence system in a written statement just before Parliament went into recess. And the point about endless pork for American defence contractors has been well argued elsewhere.

But I wonder, among other things, about the claim that "the most likely strategic purpose of the [U.S] missile defence programme is to mop up any Russian or Chinese missiles that had not been destroyed during a pre-emptive U.S. attack". Arguing against this:

* (so far as I know) Russia has the capability to launch large numbers of missiles from submarines, and so has a retaliatory capacity not vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack of this kind. China may be in the same position within the next one or two decades -- the kind of timeframe on which the Pentagon is presumably planning -- if it is not already.

* Look at a globe rather than a flat map, and you'll see that the flight paths for missiles from Iran to most parts of the United States go over central Europe and the northern U.K., where the U.S. wants to locate the counter-measures. Missiles from Russia or China (assuming they were land-based in somewhere such as the Urals or remoter parts of China, which, as previously stated, they need not necessarily be) would more likely head over the 'top', in an arc from about Trondheim in Norway to about Opala in Kamchatka. (Dr Strangelove, we miss you!)

* listen to what they are actually saying: Rice has just repeated that the U.S. sees Iran as the biggest threat US[-Israeli] interests in the Mid-East. [The U.S. junta may be wrong in this -- imagine, as they say, how Americans would feel if the Soviet Union had occupied Canada and Mexico and had two or three battle groups just off Miami, and you may better understand how the Iranian theocracy/police-state sees the U.S presence on its borders at present -- but that does seem to be what they feel.]

* (and here's the 'I drank the Kool-Aid' bit) I think Gordon Brown may actually be serious about some returning powers to the Westminster Parliament, among other things, but is playing a careful game with regard to the U.S.-U.K. military-industrial complex.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Chinese floods

Xinhua is said to report that floods, mostly in southern and eastern China, have destroyed 452,000 homes and affected 119 million people. Chinese experts 'say the extreme weather conditions are all the result of climate change. The chief forecaster at China's meteorological administration, Wang Yongguang, said abnormal weather would continue to plague most parts of China this summer and in the years to come'.

So if this is what comes with about 0.7 C temperature rise, how will China cope with 2 or 3 C (see The New Normal)?

Even one of the least difficult, first best and most profitable options for reducing emissions -- increasing efficiency in the building stock -- seems to be beyond achievability in China at present (see Building for a cooler planet).

[See also Extreme weather brings flood chaos roud the world.]

The Last Laugh

A bullet wound is clean. Shrapnel will tear you all to pieces. He was laying there in a pool of blood. As we got to him, he said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human aid. Before we could pull out the revolver to shoot him, he died. I was with him in the last seconds of his life.
-- Harry Patch, aged 109, on an incident at Passchendaele. Patch, who didn't speak about the war until he was 100 years old, says war is the "calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings".

Sunday, July 29, 2007

'We are walking repositories of the lost'

When we talk about ghosts, we are speaking in layers of metaphor. We are not usually speaking about wispy bodies in rotting shrouds, but about family secrets, buried impulses, unsolved mysteries, anything that lingers and clings. We are speaking of the sense of loss that sometimes overtakes us, a nostalgia for something that we can't name. There is a way in which the question "Do you believe in ghosts?" is unnecessary to ask: we all know a few, and they walk at all hours, if only through our memories. Our ancestors are encoded in our genes. Look at your face in the mirror, and one day you will see one of your parents, moving under your own skin; the next day it may be a grandparent who has come to visit. Within you, there are people you have never been able to mourn because you never knew them, people from the distant past; the traces of your animal ancestors still live in your instincts, in your physiology. As products of evolution, we carry all the past inside us; we are walking repositories of the lost.
-- from Ghost Writing by Hilary Mantel.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Unspeakable cataclysm

Development has not erased traditional values: in fact, selective abortion has been accelerating in a globalising India. Wealthier and better-educated Indians still want sons. A survey revealed that female foeticide was highest among women with university degrees. The urban middle classes can also afford the ultrasound tests to determine the sex of the foetus.
-- from Foetuses aborted and dumped secretly as India shuns baby girls by Randeep Ramesh. He notes that around 10 million girls are estimated to have been aborted in the past 20 years. An article earlier this week reported that there are thought to be over 11 million abandoned or orphaned children in India, 90% of them girls.

My reading list includes Martha Nussbaum's The Clash Within
Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hot tips from the Pontiff

For [Avraham Burg,] the so-called head of the Zionist movement to say all this—to say, ‘Get another passport for your kids,’ It’s like the Pope giving sex tips...

...The question is, is [Israel] a good enough place to come back to when they are married and have children? Finally, the Israeli government has to confront its own crazies and create a national consensus on democratic ideals, enact a secular constitution, and really confront the settlers. So far, the government is only willing to say that it is making ‘painful’ moves. We are told that we have to grieve with the settlers, think about making deals, but quietly let on that we actually think these are the real Israeli pioneers. Bullshit. Avrum Burg might not express the need to change in the most effective way, but at least he has the courage to insist on it.
-- Avishai Margalit, quoted by David Remnick in Letter from Jerusalem: The Apostate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ETS 'scandal'

The power sector is especially annoying because it actually passes [the] costs on to the consumer, even though it doesn't actually pay for the permits, which are mostly given away in the EU system...They can pull this trick off because they are an oligopoly and don't face competition from producers outside the system. So even allowing for the permits that they have to buy because they are given fewer allowances than they need, the power companies profit from this by €1.8 billion.
-- from Emissions trading - notes on a scandal by Clive Bates.

(See also Tax not trade).

The good news from all this may be that the issue is extremely 'campaignable': not hard to construct a sense of political purpose around the outrage and (maybe) channel the energy into support of a tax regime that can serve the public good.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Some planet

On my way back from the library this afternoon I stopped by the Museum of the History of Science where, at about 3pm, just yards from objects from Tradescant's cabinet of curiosities and right next to Islamic and European sundials and astrolabes, Alexis Lemaire derived the 13th root of a 200 figure number in about 106 seconds, a new world record.

The 200 digit number he selected to derive a root from was one of several hundred generated randomly generated by a computer, but -- if I saw accurately -- the only one of which the last approximately 16 digits were zeros.

Lemaire describes some of his work and interests as follows:
Je prépare actuellement à Reims un doctorat en informatique sous la direction de Francis Rousseaux intitulé "Application de singularites de calcul mental vers la resolution de problèmes d'intelligence artificielle generale: test d'immortalité et test de Turing". Il s'agit de realiser un telechargement d'esprit reciproque entre l'esprit et un programme informatique (test d'immortalite) par l'imitation reciproque de moi-même ou d'une personne donnée par la machine, dans le cas du test de Turing cette personne est indéterminée.

Je suis computationniste, transhumaniste/posthumaniste et immortaliste.

L'objectif de la these est de permettre a terme d'atteindre la singularité technologique, l'immortalité, de realiser la téléportation et le voyage spatio-temporel.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Kabul, no bull

Rather than throwing more troops at Afghanistan and turning it into a second Iraq, we should use it as a model for a lighter, smarter approach.
-- says Rory Stewart (Where Less is More), reiterating a point he has been making since at least September last year (noted on this blog here), and probably much longer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The new normal

Tibet is ' warming up faster than anywhere in the world'.

I heard that the Chinese national climate change strategy (which I have not read - aargh) assumes a 2 to 3 C temperature rise for 2050.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It was not climate change wot made them do it

Climate change and the lack of rain are much less important than the land-use patterns promoted by the government of Sudan and the development policies of World Bank and I.M.F., which were focused on intensive agricultural expansion that really mined the soils and left a lot of land unusable...that was probably the principal impetus for a lot of intra-Darfur migration in the decades leading up to the conflict in Darfur.
-- John Prendergast, a founder of the Enough Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress and the International Crisis Group to abolish genocide and mass atrocities, quoted in A Godsend for Darfur, or a Curse?, which looks at the implications of the underground megalake recently discovered beneath northern Darfur.

(See also It was climate change wot made me do it)

[P.S. 27 July Simon Donner finds there is no lake beneath Darfur]

Friday, July 20, 2007


Some of the poems [by the monks of Enlli and places like it] read like jotted lists, or field-notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the dark wild torrent'...

...For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind them is among the earliest testimony to a human love of the wild.
-- from Robert Macfarlane's extract Island, published in Archipelago.

Homem do furo

...friends and family are gone. Everyone else you have ever known has vanished. Forever. The loneliness seems unimaginable. But this is reality for one solitary native Brazilian Indian living on a small island of Amazon rainforest amid a sea of cattle ranches and soya plantations.

Virtually nothing is known about him, except that he seems to be the last survivor of his group or people. He has been nicknamed the Man of the Hole because he digs holes a metre wide and 3 metres deep inside little houses that he builds from palm leaves. No one quite knows why he does this. Could they be bolt holes? He also builds huge holes lined with spikes in the nearby forest to trap large animals.
-- from New Scientist (also here).

Not denial, but short-termism

Much is made of irrationality and unwillingness of people in wealthy countries to change destructive consumption patterns. Hands are wrung over 'denial'.

And there plenty of is evidence that many if not most are willing to ignore evidence and cling to demonstrably false beliefs rather than face up to difficult realities, such as the need to reduce emissions rapidly. Paranoid conspiracy theories can be one of the ways in which people try to impose order on unpredictable events (see The Lure of the Conspiracy Theory).

But even in the most tooth-and-claw societies, people sometimes recognise the need for laws and government (see James Galbraith) that 'save' us from our own shorter term and more destructive desires, and the unethical businesses that feed the craving and so help create circumstances in which short-sighted behaviours are rewarded. Here are two examples.

In Fuel for thought James Surowiecki suggests that:
In calling for a law requiring better gas mileage in our cars...[U.S.] voters are really saying that they’re unhappy with the collective result of the choices they make as buyers. Sometimes, they know, we need to save ourselves from ourselves.
And in Obviation Not Generation (part of the Heat and Light NS supplement), Roger Levett suggested that:
[U.K. consumers taking advantage of absurdly cheap flights] had no trouble distinguishing sensible, individual action to exploit available opportunities from the question of whether those opportunities ought to be available.
[P.S. If this report in Mother Jones is right, it sounds as if John Edwards 'gets' this more than other candidates for the U.S. Democratic presidential candidacy. See also The Economist's profile of Edwards.]

Coming to a country near you

In the coming decades, close to 500,000 Afghani males will reach fighting age each year. Almost all of these young men want to prove themselves in the traditional warrior spirit of their homeland. Since 1945, every Afghan father who has retired from the battlefield has left his unfinished fighting to three or four sons. Almost none of these sons can find a legal job, i.e. in opium-free agriculture or within the army and police units financed with western money.
-- Gunnar Heinsohn, The demographics of rage.

I recall Emmanuel Todd, shortly after the publication of After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order back in 2001, making some disturbing projections for Pakistan on the basis of its demographic and sociological trends.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ins Unbetretene

The most difficult of [our] three assignments is the first, which is to know what it is that we want. The problem is that we don't know who we are. We don't know any longer what it means to be a human. Almost every day there is some news from researchers that forces us to reevaluate a fundamental aspect of our existence. Are we different from animals? Are we even real? Is consciousness real, or special, or a mere commodity? Do we have limits, should we have limits?
--from The Technium and the 7th Kingdom of Life: Kelvin Kelly (Edge 217)

The edge of the Pakistani knife

It is true that the lawyers’ movement, if it destroys Musharraf, could create more problems than it solves. The fall of Musharraf could well lead to the rise of violent political Islam. I certainly believe that no civilian government on its own can put that genie back in the bottle. But, if idealism is naïveté, then so be it. It is ideals that move history forward—think of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Many thought they were politically naïve, but it was they, not the realists, who succeeded in changing the course of history.
-- Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher of the Friday Times, talking to William Dalrymple (Days of Rage).

[P.S. 16.30 BST: Meanwhile, Paul Rogers notes, the U.S. makes ready the Reaper.]

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Business as usual

This cartoon from Tom Toles suggests he shares my puzzlement regarding the Murdoch/Bancroft hoo hah.

[P.S. 19 July Revealed: Blair's talks with Murdoch on eve of war and Open Secrets]

Six years on

in a dark and strikingly candid two pages...the National Intelligence Estimate suggests...the threat of terrorist violence against the United States is growing worse, fueled by the Iraq war and spreading Islamic extremism.

...[but] one...notable bright spot for the United States: jihadist sentiment has so far turned out to hold little attraction for American Muslims, by contrast with those in Europe generally and the United Kingdom in particular, with its large population of South Asian immigrants.
-- from 6 Years After 9/11, the Same Threat.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Brothers grim

Peter Galbraith writes:
We need to recognize...that Iraq no longer exists as a unified country. In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, we should withdraw. But there are still three missions that may be achievable -- disrupting al-Qaeda, preserving Kurdistan's democracy, and limiting Iran's increasing domination. These can all be served by a modest U.S. presence in Kurdistan. We need an Iraq policy with sufficient nuance to protect American interests. Unfortunately, we probably won't get it.
James Galbraith writes:
The function of the government...is to foresee [the] dangers [such as climate change, cultural infantalisation, etc.], and avert them. The powers of the government exist to permit the mobilization of resources required. And only government can hope to do the job.

This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush’s FEMA, is no one’s idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government—the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics—has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.

Arctic tale

A film with some of my favourite animals -- reviewed here.

Does discount?

There's a useful exchange of views in the Policy Forum of Science (13 July) between William Nordhaus (Critical Assumptions in the Stern Review on Climate Change) and Nicholas Stern and Chris Taylor (Climate Change: Risk, Ethics, and the Stern Review).

Nordhaus concludes:
The Stern Review's unambiguous conclusions about the need for urgent and immediate action will not survive the substitution of assumptions that are consistent with today's marketplace real interest rates and savings rates. So the central questions about global-warming policy--how much, how fast, and how costly--remain open.
Stern and Taylor say:
In addition to revisiting the ethics, we also incorporated the latest science, which tells us that, for a given change in atmospheric concentration, the worst impacts now appear more likely. Further, the science also now gives us a better understanding of probabilities, so we could incorporate explicit risk analysis, largely overlooked in previous studies. It is risk plus ethics that drive our results.

...Traditionally, the discount rate has been applied to policies and projects involving small changes with direct benefits and costs over less than one generation (say a few decades at most), which means that people are feeling the impact of their decisions in their own lives. However, climate change is an intergenerational policy issue, and thus, we must see as a parameter capturing discrimination by date of birth. For example, applying a 2% pure time discounting rate ( = 2) gives half the ethical weight to someone born in 2008 relative to someone born in 1973. Surely, many would find this difficult to justify.

...as people become richer and environmental goods become scarcer, it seems likely that, rather than fall, their value will rise very rapidly, which was an issue raised in chapter 2 of our review and has been investigated in later analyses. And the flow-stock nature of greenhouse gas accumulation, plus the powerful impact of climate change, will render many consequences irreversible. Thus, investing elsewhere and using the resources to compensate for any later environmental damage may be very cost-ineffective.

...Many of the comments on the review have suggested that the ethical side of the modeling should be consistent with observable market behavior. As discussed by Hepburn, there are many reasons for thinking that market rates and other approaches that illustrate observable market behavior cannot be seen as reflections of an ethical response to the issues at hand. There is no real economic market that reveals our ethical decisions on how we should act together on environmental issues in the very long term.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Articles 38 and 39

[T]he great privilege of habeas corpus, and of trial by jury, which are the supreme protection invented by the English people for ordinary individuals against the State . . . —The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law and particularly to deny him the judgement of his peers—is, in the highest degree, odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian governments . . . Extraordinary powers assumed by the Executive with the consent of Parliament in emergencies should be yielded up, when and as, the emergency declines . . . This is really the test of civilisation.
—Winston S. Churchill, Nov. 21, 1943. (Hat tip Scott Horton)

A picture of addiction

The reality is probably no worse than most other boom towns, but somehow the drug abuse in this Alberta Boomtown on a bender seems to speak of a larger madness:
Many of the thousands of workers who live in barrack-like accommodation at nearby mines and construction sites come to [Fort McMurray] at weekends, to drink a beer or ten, brawl, and buy sex and drugs. “This town is awash in cocaine,” says one long-time resident. Marijuana, crack and crystal meth are also widely used. Drug abuse in the northern oil patch is more than four times the provincial average.
Where best to find leverage to turn Canada away from the destructive path likely to come with tar sands? Perhaps, as noted in Building on sand, from progressive legislators responding to informed consumers:
California and 11 other American states are planning to adopt pollution laws that would ban the sale of petrol from emissions-intensive sources.
But can this be the answer?:
Shell and other big investors in the oil sands hope to meet such requirements by siphoning off emissions from their mines and storing them underground—although the technology to do so is still in its infancy.

Bells in winter

Werner Herzog's film Bells from the Deep opens with an extraordinary, hallucinatory image of people crawling on the surface of a frozen lake, peering through the ice, as though in prayer to some unseen god. In fact, as Herzog narrates, they are looking for a great lost city called Kitezh that lies buried under the ice of this bottomless lake. The city had been sacked long ago by Tartar invaders, but God sent an archangel to redeem the inhabitants by letting them live on in deep underwater bliss, chanting hymns and tolling bells.

The legend exists and the image is hauntingly beautiful. It is also entirely fake. Hertzog rounded up a few drunks at a local village bar and paid them to lie on the ice. As he tells the story: 'One of them has his face right on the ice and looks like he is in very deep meditation. The accountant's truth: he was completely drunk and fell asleep, and we had to wake him at the end of the take.
-- from Herzog and His Heroes by Ian Buruma.

Feedback fun

Even if they escape the chainsaw, Indonesia's embattled tropical forests face a serious threat from drought-induced fires. That's the conclusion of researchers who have been monitoring fire-damaged plots in the south of Sumatra.

By studying the year-by-year recovery of [ fire-damaged plots in the south of Sumatra] - some of which had also been burned in an earlier El Niño in 1982 - Margaret Kinnaird of the Wildlife Conservation Society and her colleagues developed a model describing how the forest regenerates. This shows that if El Niños matching the 1997 event occur twice a decade, the prospects are dim: a 46 per cent loss of forest cover over the next century..

Unfortunately, El Niños seem to be getting more frequent and severe, so this is plausible. Protecting the forests is possible, says Kinnaird. "But you've got to have good fire management. Indonesia doesn't have that."
-- from Indonesia's forests could go up in smoke.

Red lines, dead lines

"The red line is not in Iran. The red line is in Israel. If Israel is adamant it will attack, the US will have to take decisive action...The choices are: tell Israel no, let Israel do the job, or do the job yourself." --Patrick Cronin, International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Almost half of the US's 277 warships are stationed close to Iran, including two aircraft carrier groups. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise left Virginia last week for the Gulf.
-- from Cheney pushes Bush to act on Iran.

TomDispatch says that according to a recent ARG poll, 54% of Americans now favour the launching of impeachment hearings against the Vice President, while 40% oppose this.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Muslims are entitled to establish political parties ... on condition that the parties are based on the [creed] of Islam and their adopted rules are [divine rules] ... Any party not established on the basis of Islam is prohibited.
Article 21 in the Draft Constitution by Hizb ut-Tahrir - pointed out by Brian Whitaker.

For an analysis of canny taqqiya by nationalists and Islamists see Tom Gallagher.

Harry's Place draws attention to this article by Shiraz Maher.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Los desastres de la guerra

What if your buddy got his meal-ready-to-eat standard spoon and asked you to take a photo of him pretending to scoop the brains out of a dead Iraqi?

Read The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness from Chris (War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) Hedges and Laila Al-Arian.

Dumping on Mandela

BAE deal shakes SA democracy - another excellent report from Peter Marshall.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Norwegian good

The Norwegian government has forbidden the advertisement of any car as 'environmentally friendly', because no car is ever going to be environmentally friendly in the first place.
-- Kaarin Taipale in a forthcoming article.

In case you didn't get that

Q. Do you want to overthrow the British Government?

A. Of course.

Spokesperson for British Oppression, answering Riazat Butt on Islamaphonic (Guardian Unlimited), 28 June

CDB banned

China bans influential NGO newsletter

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

'After three billion years the Darwinian interlude is over'

I see a close analogy between John von Neumann's blinkered vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs secretly at midnight. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations...

...Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.
-- from 'Our Biotech Future' by Freeman Dyson

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The day after

People will rarely acknowledge that an accustomed way of life is unsustainable except in the face of prolonged, devastating failure.
It may not come as a surprise to some who know me that I like this observation. Reducing the chance that it describes the current predicament with regard climate change (but not only this) is probably a central task in moral and political thought and in activism. What, then, to do?

Al Gore has been trying to build an effective approach in the U.S. since at least the early 1990s. The Live Earth concerts yesterday which he inspired are supposed to help build mass awareness among as many as two billion viewers, or nearly one in three people on the planet. He is asking people to demand that all governments join an international treaty within the next two years that, by 2050, results in greenhouse gases cuts of 90 per cent in developed countries and more than half worldwide.

At least two criticisms are made of Gore's approach by those who share his concern. The first is that he goes too far in building alliances with those who are too much a part of the problem to be a part of the solution, including SUV manufacturers for sponsors, and celebrity rock stars whose message of 'revolution' is falsified by super high consumption life styles and role as icons of a culture of instant gratification. See, for example The artists formerly known as huge carbon footprints (how, by the way, does Madonna reconcile her belief in the scientific method with a faith which says sperm ejaculated in onanistic practice are abandoned souls that become demons?).

A second, less common, criticism is that the Gore's suggested emissions reduction target is insufficent. This sobering note from Clive Hamilton (which continues a dialogue noted and linked here) might be used to support such a critique. Hamilton notes that the report of IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (WGI) suggests stabilisation of atmospheric greenhouse gases below about 400 ppm CO2 equivalent is required to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial temperature. Since a concentration target of 400 ppm CO2(e) equates to a target of around 350-375 of CO2 and the current concentration is [about] 380 ppm, "we are already past the two degree threshold, and will without question go well beyond it. Even three degrees is looking very hard to avoid".

I support Gore’s pragmatism: you have to rally wealth generators to your side, and somehow wean them away from destructive practices of wealth generation; but I think there is something to both criticisms. Certainly, they speak to a gap between where things are and where they need to be. But being clear about the scale of the challenges and being an optimist-idealist that there may be solutions doesn't necessarily mean being dogmatic about what those solutions will be. What looks like a solution now may be superceded by events. Consider three technical(-political) issues and one political(-technical) one.

Nuclear power is endorsed by some who consider themselves environmentalists, while carbon capture and storage and geo-engineering are not. But these positions are probably wrong. While there may be some inaccuracies in the Oxford Research Group report Too Hot to Handle?, the fundamental points -- including that nuclear power is likely to increase the availability of plutonium in an unstable world, and that it ties up large amounts of capital that could be far more effectively deployed to reduce emissions in other ways -- are likely to stand the test of time. Both CCS and geo-engineering are sometimes described as 'get-out-of-jail-free cards' for the bad guys (although always not by the same people, and some apply the label to one but not the other). In my view (as outlined here and elsewhere), they probably be necessary evils.

[By they way, the use of probabilities to guide policy, which I adopted here, is strongly criticised by David Stainforth et el in Confidence, uncertainty and decision-support relevance in climate predictions and Issues in the interpretation of climate model ensembles to inform decisions -- Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A (2007) 365. See also Footnote 1]

Turning to a political(-technical) example, Kyoto 2 may offer a useful, pragmatic advance on the idealism of Contraction and Convergence. It 'parks' but does not abandon 'equity now' by allowing in the near term for rights to emit (under a declining cap) to go the highest bidder at auction. By not requiring that the rich world hand over lots of money to the poor world 'right away', it may be more politically workable than C&C and may offer a more effective route to reductions with lower transaction costs than the existing Kyoto Protocol and its likely successors. [To implement Kyoto2 would, of course, be hard and it could be as vulnerable to subversion by vested interests as some other approaches, but it is worth further consideration, as are carbon taxes. See here and here.]

Some of what ‘we’ (by which I mean self-defined progressives) do in the days after 07/07/07 is articulated in agendas like the one outlined by I Count. Even more essentially, ‘we’ need to go a lot further to combine (among other things) subtlety of thought, broad-mindedness and firmness of purpose.

Subtle thought because the insufficiently fine-grained kind can lead into traps such as a form of determinism. Thomas Homer-Dixon comes perilously close to it in the book in which he quotes the words I have put at the top of this post: by, for example, buying into the peak oil red-herring (see footnote 2).

Broad-mindedness because the challenges of climate change are seldom likely to be apparent on their own, but (like the three-dimensional chess game that Joseph Nye has described – see second item here: Imagining War) will rather be tied up with many other challenges requiring negotiation and struggle (see, for example, It was climate change wot made me do it). It’s vital, also, to fully acknowledge the limits of liberal democracies and the attractions and dangers of alternatives such as technocracy: a tension well explored by Louis Menand in his recent review of Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.

And firmness of purpose because, informed by what science indicates about ecological limits, ‘we’ must stick to core humanist values. Where cultural traditions, including the Abrahamic triplets and other religions, accord with these (through, for example, a genuine and lived commitment to the imperatives of justice, balance, knowledge and loving kindness) they can be allies, but forget any Deus ex Machina: people living in freedom have a responsibility to sort out this mess and help others adapt or die trying.

Footnote 1: See also Another Global Warming Icon Comes Under Attack (Science, 6 July) reporting work by Robert Charlson, Stephen Schwartz and Henning Rodhe which argues that future warming could be much worse than most the climate modeling used by the IPCC suggests, or even more moderate.

Footnote 2: Homer-Dixon also leans towards fatalism/determinism in suggesting that migration and the demographic transition in Europe is necessarily a recipe for extreme instability. The dangers are clear, but precisely this can concentrate minds on renewing alliances for progressive politics which will include but not be limited to confronting brutal practices such as ‘honour’ killing and other kinds of subjugation which reinforce oppressive and destructive behaviour.]

Chinese water and ice

A profile of Chinadialogue.net contributor and advisor Ma Jun:
Ma's institute's online China Water Pollution Map - ipe.org.cn - names and shames the worst offending regions and companies. It is a symbol of a new kind of social activism in China: pragmatic rather than idealistic, and relying more on maps and data than votes and speeches to lobby for change.
On a different but related topic, see Guanli Wang on Everest’s dying glaciers

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Wenlock Edge

The holy wells and sacred springs, the ponds and pools and boggy flushes, the streams and brooks which stitch the land to rivers - all these have meaning, a poetry of forgotten names and an ecological significance which is sometimes greater than our own. They are also more than a metaphor for the flow of life and a passing through this world that we all must make. We may have lost our respect for the wild waters, but that may be about to change.
-- from County Diary by Paul Evans

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

'Cosmic Forgetfulness'

Assumptions (or prejudice) will remain necessary for knowing the precise state of the Universe, which cannot be fully justified within science itself.
-- What happened before the Big Bang? by Martin Bojowald (reported for non-specialists here).

Monday, July 02, 2007

Headline of the week

is here.

Smoking lessons

Clive Bates draws some wider lessons from the smoking ban in England: value the "slow wins"; aim for culture change; don't be paralysed by the losers; create good examples; and discount business scare tactics.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.
-- Hassan Butt