Friday, May 29, 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wake up time

Timothy Garton-Ash (Pin them down) gets it just about right. On House of Lords reform, I support the 'Athenian option' advocated by Anthony Barnett and others. Also, stop calling them 'Lords'.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Boston Molasses Disaster

Making the responsible attention choice, however, is not always easy. Here is a partial list, because a complete one would fill the entire magazine, of the things I’ve been distracted by in the course of writing this article: my texting wife, a very loud seagull, my mother calling from Mexico to leave voice mails in terrible Spanish, a man shouting “Your weed-whacker fell off! Your weed-whacker fell off!” at a truck full of lawn equipment, my Lost-watching wife, another man singing some kind of Spanish ballad on the sidewalk under my window, streaming video of the NBA playoffs, dissertation-length blog breakdowns of the NBA playoffs, my toenail spontaneously detaching, my ice-cream-eating wife, the subtly shifting landscapes of my three different e-mail in-boxes, my Facebooking wife, infinite YouTube videos (a puffin attacking someone wearing a rubber boot, Paul McCartney talking about the death of John Lennon, a chimpanzee playing Pac-Man), and even more infinite, if that is possible, Wikipedia entries: puffins, MacGyver, Taylorism, the phrase “bleeding edge,” the Boston Molasses Disaster. (If I were going to excuse you from reading this article for any single distraction, which I am not, it would be to read about the Boston Molasses Disaster.)
-- from In Defense of Distraction by Sam Anderson

Frugal futures

A startling new report for the UK government’s own Sustainable Development Commission by Professor Tim Jackson, entitled Prosperity without Growth, explores [the very contemporary collision between an easy assumption of a kind of legalised excess, and the emergent politics of climate change] with a verve and passion you would not expect from a government-sponsored initiative. Prof Jackson regrets that “the role of government has been framed so narrowly by material aims and hollowed out by a misguided vision of unbounded consumer freedoms”.
-- Harry Eyres tries to pick up where Michel de Montaigne left off. A few days ago Richard Reeves wrote:
Progressive austerity means vigorously defending the spending that helps the poor, ruthlessly cutting elsewhere and taking the opportunity presented by the crisis to build a fairer tax system. None of this is straightforward. But it is easy to be progressive when there is money in the bank – the real test comes when the coffers are empty.
But John Lanchester is bleak:
I get the strong impression, talking to people, that the penny hasn’t fully dropped. As the ultra-bleak condition of our finances becomes more and more apparent people are going to ask increasingly angry questions about how we got into this predicament. The drop in sterling, for instance, means that prices for all sorts of goods will go up just as oil and gas prices have spiked downwards. Combined with job losses – a million people are forecast to lose their jobs this year, taking unemployment back to Thatcherite levels – and tax rises, and inflation, and the increasing realisation that the cost of the financial crisis is going to be paid not over a few years but over a generation, we have a perfect formula for a deep and growing anger.
Gideon Rachman is unimpressed by the actions so far of two 'Anglo-Saxon' governments:
Rather than taking the axe to public spending, the British and American governments are borrowing madly, with no sign of any credible long-term plan to balance the books. The US, according to the Congressional Budget Office, now has an annual structural budget deficit of 5 per cent of gross domestic product. In Britain, public debt as a proportion of GDP is set to double.

Both countries are in the fortunate position that the markets will still lend to them. In spite of last week’s warning from Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, about rising public debt, Britain has (so far) retained its triple A credit rating. Despite President Barack Obama’s stern words earlier this year that a “day of reckoning has arrived” in which America would finally have to address “critical debates and difficult decisions”, the US is planning to run huge budget deficits for the next decade and beyond.
Nick Paumgarten quotes the financier Colin Negrych:
The idea that you can have something for nothing. It's the human nip. It's the hereafter, here on earth.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Closed democracy

And now MPs are feeling morose. Tough! They've had plenty of opportunities to do the right thing by parliament and by the people. At every juncture they behaved in the worst possible way. They refused legitimate requests, they wasted public money going to the high court, they delayed publication, they tried to exempt themselves from their own law, they succeeded in passing a law to keep secret their addresses from their constituents so as to hide the house flipping scandal ...

I think in order to begin the clean-up, it is necessary to get rid of those who created the mess in the first place. Only then can we have a parliament of which we are proud.
-- Heather Brooke

Friday, May 08, 2009


One of Ballard's key insights is that an atrocity one is powerless to prevent becomes a kind of spectacle.
-- James Warner
Some carvings are at least 30,000 years old and it is even possible that the site is twice the age of the famous Lascaux cave paintings. But there are plans to site a liquid natural gas plant here, and parts of the area have already been destroyed, with images either pulverised or ripped away from where they belong. When this happens, Aboriginal people say, part of a songline is destroyed forever, it is "like our Bible torn apart".
--Jay Griffith

Seeing things

Dot Earth on and other visualizations.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Planet of doubt

Further to trillion tonne baby, I mentioned Hyrnyshyn's post to a few people. One, an activist, replied:
[Perhaps] the calculation was based on the trillionth tonne of “fossil” carbon – as opposed to including forest/ag/land use change emissions, because the ag/land use totals already have a (poorly defined) fossil fuel component. But split the difference and call it 30 years. I reckon the threshold that really matters is what happens over the next investment cycle for key infrastructure decisions. It used to be 100 months, but I reckon we’re down to around 82. Is that meme compatible with the trillionth tonne meme? Oh-oh, mixed memes.
Another, Chris Goodall, wrote:
The numbers below may be helpful or not.

I’ve taken them from AR4 for 2004 and rounded them crudely. (I haven’t gone back to the Nature papers to check how many gt they say we have left).

Annual emissions (Carbon equiv)

CO2 from man made sources – inc CaCO3 - 8gt
CO2 from ‘land use’ changes and rotting vegetation – 2.5gt
CH4 - 2gt
N20 - 1gt
Fgases – a bit

= circa 12.5gt

Expressed another way, CO2 from man made sources is just under 60% of Kyoto gases.

So if we have 400 gt left, there’s about 50 years. The inclusion of other Kyoto gases would take this down to about 30 years.

But I suppose you could say that F gases will stop soon (we hope) and that N2O will fall as we get better at managing fertilizer use and that CH4 will fall (perhaps) as we reduce cow numbers and wetland abuse. We should, with any luck, be able to reverse land use changes (??) probably by improving/restoring soil carbon.
Dave Frame responded directly to Hrynyshyn here. An extract:
Regarding the emissions scenarios - we treated the emissions of CO2 as net emissions (in our future scenarios) and didn't try to partition them by source. We tried to steer clear of the conversations regarding negative emissions - sequestration by forestry or other means... to me the nice things about the Allen et al paper are that (1) it find a better-constrained relationship between emissions and peak temperature; (2) which exploits the fact that long timescale processes, which are responsible for much of the uncertainty in ECS, can be ignored if the forcing is short compared to those long timescales; (3) and this results in a nice "exhaustible resource" reframing of the problem which; (4) happens to be pretty tractable for economists.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Oops, oh dear, oh dear!"

The continuing toll in civilian casualties has been a principal factor in turning many Afghans against the war to defeat the Taliban.
-- High Afghan Civilian Toll Seen in U.S. Raid.

See "Words alone cannot begin to express our regret and sympathy".

Trillion tonne baby

James Hrynyshyn (The radical "trillionth ton" meme) suggests there may be just 20 years of emissions at business-as-usual rates, not 40, because initial estimates do not take account of emissions from agriculture and forestry. At present I don't know if this is right. [1], [2]

Hrynyshyn also likes the following from the lead authors of the "trillionth ton" papers in the Nature climate package (previously noted here):
A tonne of carbon is a tonne of carbon, whether released today or in 50 years time. Emitting CO2 more slowly buys time, perhaps vital time, but it will only achieve our ultimate goal in the context of a strategy for phasing out net CO2 emissions altogether.
At some point in the past few years, without any fanfare, we burned the half-trillionth tonne. Somewhere out there, in a coal seam, hydrocarbon reservoir or some as-yet-undiscovered exotic form of fossil carbon, lies the trillionth tonne. Its fate, perhaps more than any other consequence of climate-change policy, is inextricably linked to the risk of dangerous climate change. Where will it be in the twenty-second century?
But here's another question. The trillionth tonne 'meme' (would 'frame' be a better word?) takes its energy from the idea that there is something especially significant - fateful - in the odds of a global average temperature increase of more than 2 C crossing a threshold to above one in four. Why?

Aren't the odds already unacceptably high? A one in a twenty chance of, say, a plane crashing would probably keep you off the plane -- unless the downside of not getting on the plane was almost certainly worse (crazy men with guns swearing to kill you right now, for example). What eventualities can we see as likely to be worse than those resulting from a more than 2 C rise this century, and how might they be affected by sharply reducing emissions very soon, or reduced by not doing so?


[1] George Monbiot makes an estimate of how much fossil fuel we can burn. Clearly, it is less than known reserves. As the Stern Review (2005/06) pointed out:
Increasing scarcity of fossil fuels alone will not stop emissions growth in time. The stocks of hydrocarbons that are profitable to extract (under current policies) are more than enough to take the world to levels of CO2 concentrations well beyond 750ppm, with very dangerous consequences for climate-change impacts.
[2] (added 7 May) See Planet of doubt

More than the photos date the only Americans who have been prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment for the criminal policies that emanated from the highest levels are ten low-ranking servicemen and women—those who took and appeared in the Abu Ghraib photographs, and embarrassed the nation by showing us what we were doing there. Charles Graner is the only one remaining in prison, serving ten years. His superior officers enjoy their freedom, and C.I.A. interrogators, who spent years committing far worse acts against prisoners than Graner did even in the darkest days at Abu Ghraib, have been assured immunity.

But, if full justice remains impossible, surely some injustices can be corrected. Whenever crimes of state are adjudicated—at Nuremberg or The Hague, Phnom Penh or Kigali—the principle of command responsibility, whereby the leaders who give the orders are held to a higher standard of accountability than the foot soldiers who follow, pertains. There can be no restoration of the national honor if we continue to scapegoat those who took the fall for an Administration—and for us all.
-- from Interrogating Torture by Philip Gourevitch.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The press and sympathy

One of several questions raised by an exchange between George Monbiot and Hazel Blears is what 'ordinary citizens' really care about and why. Blears says she works on 'bread and butter' issues for the people in her Manchester constituency: education, jobs, health-care, a better future in their neighbourhoods and the like. She will not, or sees no need to, tackle HMG's relationship with Islam Karimov, and other 'complex' affairs in the interview.

Some of those seeking to build a bigger and more inclusive sense of concern around issues such as climate change look to the example of the anti-slavery movement in the British Isles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. At that time, large numbers of ordinary people in cities such as Manchester, most of them without the vote, organised on behalf of people in bondage half a world away. Why was this?

In Bury the Chains, a tremendous history of the emancipation movement, Adam Hochschild suggests that there was a factor over and above the strength of its civil society that set Britain apart from other slaving nations such as France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, Denmark and the young United States. Press gangs were almost continuously on the rampage in Britain, seizing men against their will for years of service in the Royal Navy. During the American Revolutionary War alone, for example, 'the press' kidnapped more than eighty thousand men, provoking bloody riots in at least twenty-two British seaports. "As with the outrage at Britons taken prisoner overseas," writes Hochschild, "more than a century of public anger at the press gangs strengthened the idea that violently capturing other human beings to put them to work was cruelly unjust - and could and should be fought against". This, he suggests, was a vital factor in making possible "the leap of empathy" to black African slaves.

Nothing remotely comparable to press gangs directly and immediately threatens the lives of ordinary people in developed countries today -- except, perhaps for Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross. Arousing masses of people to concerted action may therefore be even harder. That does not mean it's necessarily impossible, or that politicians cannot be proactive in moving against atrocity.

The darling buds

The flowers of the apple are perhaps the most beautiful of any tree's, so copious and so delicious to both sight and scent. The walker is frequently tempted to turn and linger near some more than usually handsome one, whose blossoms are two-thirds expanded.
-- Henry David Thoreau (1862)