Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The people of liberty

I don't know what the left wants [but] we are ready. If they want conflicts, I have 300,000 men always on hand.
-- Umberto Bossi quoted in Cries of 'Duce! Duce!' salute Rome's new mayor.

P.S. 2 May: good analysis by Tobias Jones.


The McCain-Clinton gas holiday proposal is a perfect example of what energy expert Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network describes as the true American energy policy today: “Maximize demand, minimize supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most.”
-- from Dumb as We Wanna Be by Tom Friedman.

But increasing supply is not the answer either, especially if - as Brown wants in the UK - one is overwhelmingly looking at oil and gas. We need to regulate for, and invest in clean energy and more intelligent use (including but not limited to efficiency gains) and other actions to reduce climate risks. Bla bla..

Holy crap 2

In The holy crap factor, I mentioned two examples of what look like dangerous positive feedbacks in the carbon cycle, and talked about the pessimism these tend to engender.

In a comment on the post, Oliver Tickell raised the question of whether boreal forest die back might actually contribute to cooling, if only in the short term, as albedo increases [assuming snow is still falling!]. I said it would surprising if the math(s) has not already been done on this and results published in a major journal, with subsequent blog commentary at RealClimate or elsewhere. If someone knows of this, please enlighten us! [Chris Goodall, meanwhile, notes another recent paper, by Zavala et al, which finds that increase in carbon dioxide compromises plant defense against invasive insects.]

In The pine beetle and carbon cycle feedbacks, Simon Donner doesn't directly address Tickell's question but does advise, "be wary of the hyperbole. Not all positive feedbacks are made equal".

On the second potential feedback, methane hydrates, I wrote, "whether the Russians have evidence to indicate this may happen more quickly than previously thought, and so whether this is really a news story, may remain to be seen." For now, we should bear in mind what Tim Lenton has written in the note on tipping points which I cited:
Under the ocean sediments resides a large reservoir of frozen methane hydrates, perhaps of order ~10,000 PgC. As mentioned above, in the PETM warm event 55 Myr ago, a large amount of carbon may have been lost from this reservoir (and subsequently replenished). However, existing models and understanding suggest that such loss takes the form of lots of small release events rather than one big one. Hence it’s not clear it is a tipping element. Furthermore the release is estimated to occur over many thousands of years and therefore it may fall outside of the ‘ethical time horizon’ considered in present policies, even thought it could be started within the ‘political time horizon’ of this century.
Still, even if both these feedbacks prove to be less significant than some fear, there remains plenty to be concerned about, both (as Mitchell Anderson mentioned in his original post) with regard to earth system sensitivities and (as Clive Bates outlines compellingly in his comment on my post) the human capacity to act effectively.

In the 31 March Guardian science podcast the science journalist Fred Pearce said he was optimistic about the human ability to tackle climate change. The technology was there, and the economics made sense, he said. But he was more pessimistic about tackling extreme poverty. And in Can democracy save the planet? (, 24 April), Johns Elikington and Lotherington are also optimistic, citing Ian Christie's suggestion of a "People's Kyoto".

Well, maybe. Clearly it is not helpful to talk and feel one's way into hopelessness. As Kenan Malik has said, "It is when we stop thinking of ourselves as conscious agents, with the capacity rationally to change the world...that we unleash the monsters." But optimism needs to come under relentles scrutiny if it is to survive in a strengthened form. See, for example, this.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The 'realist'

For John Hulsman, this is not irony:
Like America after the Iraq War, the mafia empire that Michael inherits after the hit on Sonny possesses a system of alliances on the brink of collapse.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Jihadi don't surf

Among the images in the video sequence here: helicopters creating clouds of dust into which they disappear; a women whose leg is only held together by the soft tissue; and armoured Humvees crawling back over a hill looking as vulnerable as Soviet era convoys.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


"Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer", says Leon Wieseltier reviewing Martin Amis.

Friday, April 25, 2008

High hopes

I saw Happy-Go-Lucky last night. I can see some people will find the film inane but I liked it. Mike Leigh and his collaborators do something that is at first sight small in ambition, well. They also illustrate a point articulated as follows by Raymond Tallis (in The Hand, drawing on Kenan Malik and others):
Committed primary school teachers and nurses are as real as concentration camp guards or their tragic victims.

Violence: clan, sect, state and the individual

Yared Diamond writes:
Daniel explained to me that Handas are taught from early childhood to hate their enemies and to prepare themselves for a life of fighting. “If you die in a fight, you will be considered a hero, and people will remember you for a long time,” he said. “But if you die of a disease you will be remembered for only a day or a few weeks, and then you will be forgotten.” Daniel was proud both of the aggressiveness displayed by all the warring clans of his Nipa tribe and of their faultless recall of debts and grievances.
Mohammed Siddique Khan said:
Look after your mother, she needs looking after. Maryam be strong, learn to fight - fighting is good. Be mummy's best friend. Take care of mummy - you can both do things together like fighting and stuff.
Willi Schludecker, who flew 120 bombing sorties over Britain, says:
I had to come [back to say sorry]. The past is coming back to me and we should never forget all that. We did not realise what we had done at the time.

The holy crap factor

For a while I had a T-shirt from The Onion which read Holy Shit! Man Walks on Fucking Moon. It made a lot of us laugh (and it was almost certainly stolen by a man called Pete Lucas. Pete, if you're out there, please tell me this isn't so).

Related, but different, is what Mitchell Anderson, blogging a paper by Werner Kurz et al in Nature, calls the holy crap factor (Anderson is Canadian, hence the politeness).

Mistah Kurz, he bring bad news: in this case that warming in western Canada, likely to be anthropogenic, has unleashed a chain of events that will release close to one billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by 2020. The 'holy crap' part is that this may be just one several unplanned accelerations of climate change by human agency.

The Nature paper is new research, of course, but as a media piece it is of a familiar type, certainly for anyone like me who has been trying to keep up with the issues since the late 80s. I happened to read it on the same day as I read a piece from Der Spiegel, circulated by Paul Ehrlich, on melting methane in Siberia. The broad brush strokes of this second piece will be familiar to anyone aware of the tipping point hypothesis:
The permafrost has grown porous, says [Natalia Shakhova Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok] and already the shelf sea has become "a source of methane passing into the atmosphere." The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelvefold. "The result would be catastrophic global warming," say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.
Whether the Russians have evidence to indicate this may happen more quickly than previously thought, and so whether this is really a news story, may remain to be seen. What's sure is that when taken in combination with the relentless daily accretion of evidence that the appetite for new sources of carbon-based fuel is relentless (be it in Japan, India, Brazil or wherever), such stories do not encourage optimism.

I wonder how much is my own weakness, cynicism and learned helplessness (flaws perhaps already well established before my brain turned half to mush during the last year or so) and how much, if any, is sound judgement when I see the situation as close to desperate (Paul Kingsnorth caught some of the issues quite well here; but this is probably completely insane). Asked to take part in a workshop next month with good people who think it may be possible to take capital out of carbon, I wonder: who am I kidding?

[P.S. 30 April: See also Holy crap 2]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The stuff of life


A pile of skulls

...Such groups weren't just angry; they weren't merely resentful -- although they were that, too. They were disturbed enough, naïve enough, desperate enough, inventive enough, desiring enough, deluded enough -- some still drawing cultural nourishment from the fading homesteads and workshops of pre-industrial America -- to believe that out of all this could come a new way of life, a cooperative commonwealth. No one really knew what exactly that might be. Still, the great expectation of a future no longer subservient to the calculus of the marketplace and the capitalist workshop lent the first Gilded Age its special fission, its high (tragic) drama.

Fast-forward to our second Gilded Age and the stage seems bare indeed...
from The Great Silence by Steve Fraser.


They said she would stop at nothing to win the Presidency. That extends to a threat to obliterate more than seventy million people, it seems. But guess who will be pleased?

Of course, with all those people gone, somebody would have to protect the oil and gas.

P.S. Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, April 21, 2008

'Beyond a failed state'

The seven men tossed overboard the next day were already dead. Forced to sit in the engine-hold due to lack of room on the deck, they had suffocated after their screams for air were ignored...

...UN figures show that about 1,500 people died or disappeared trying to reach Yemen from Somalia last year, one for every 20 that attempted the journey.

An island no more

Roa Bastos described Paraguay as 'an island surrounded by land', notes John Gimlette.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror.
-- from Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand

What would Jack do?

Philippe Sands's account looks to be thorough, but how much is new? For example, with regard to 24 one can go back to a least this.

P.S. 28 Apr: Sand is informative and incisive in the 28 Apr edition of Start the Week.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The poor eat mud

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”
-- Marc Lacey, NYT

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Discretion and dictators

The bitter lesson of the past decade has been that in being openly critical, the West has done more harm than good in Zimbabwe.
Peter Greste, BBC.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sandy Macaulay

I am shocked and sad to learn of the death of Sandy Macaulay. I only met him once, about a dozen years ago when preparing a BBC radio report on environment and employment in Shetland. But he was a wonderful guide for a memorable few days in what may be the best islands in the world.

[The same paper carries an obit of John O'Donohue.]


Days before the collapse of Bear Stearns, the bank’s chairman, James E. Cayne, paid $25 million for a 14th-floor condo at the Plaza Hotel.

He, too, is invited to the May 10 party at the Plaza. It will feature a dozen female string musicians made up to look like statues and clothed in dresses of fresh flowers, like roses and gardenias. There will be caviar and Cognac bars, as well as a buffet designed to visually replicate 17th-century Dutch paintings from the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, “The Age of Rembrandt.”
-- NYT

P.S. 16 Apr: Billion-dollar paydays.

P.S. 22 Apr: Steve Fraser on The Great Silence.

Perversion and power is safe to say that Britain does not have a monopoly on what the high court referred to as "the impotence of the law"...
-- Craig Unger

Thursday, April 03, 2008


Martin Rees here.

[According to Joe Romm: One [Socolow and Pacala] wedge of coal with carbon capture and storage means storing the emissions from 800 large coal plants (4/5ths of all coal plants in 2000) — a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. That’s right — you have to re-create the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure.]

That's alright, then

Maiming a detainee, defined as disabling or cutting out the nose, eye, ear, lip, tongue, or limb, was deemed a defensible interrogation tactic if the military could prove it had no advance intention to maim.
-- from Memo exposes US powers on interrogation.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Quite interesting

Bjork's Wanderlust video.

Bomb bomb surprise

...NAAAT! (as Borat would say)
Energy companies cannot be charged a fully commercial price by the government for disposing of nuclear waste without “killing the prospect” of a new generation of reactors, a government adviser will warn on [27 March].
-- from Waste cost threat to UK nuclear plans, FT, 26 March. Oh, but er:
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on [2 April] will appeal to industry for help in dealing with the UK’s 100-tonne stockpile of plutonium, and in deciding whether to treat it as waste or reuse it as fuel for nuclear reactors.
--from Help sought on 100-tonne plutonium stockpile, FT, 2 April.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Demos against dumb, and more

Well done at The Coal Hole, just one of the actions on Fossil Fuel's Day.

Elsewhere, James Hansen calls for action on coal (Mr. Rogers and Darth Vader), while Stephen Schneider walks through some of the uncertainties (Modeling the future):
While we say it's likely (there's at least a 2 in 3 chance) that it won't go up above four and a half degrees, there's a 10-20 percent chance that we could have blown it already and we'll end up at the catastrophic end of the bell curve of uncertainty.
Meanwhile in the other/real world, China offers Nigeria $50bn credit -- a great boost for oil and gas.

Here's hoping Al Gore is right.

P.S. Yesterday, Joe Romm posted the first part of an enlightening run-through of whether 440pp or less is politically possible.


Amazingly, some commentators on a report that polar bears are to be moved to Antarctica believed it.

Energy Wasting Day