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.’