Wednesday, 5 November 2014

is Doomerism doomed?

Republicans take over the running of the USA in yesterday's mid-terms and no doubt there will be those who feel that this is it; the beginning of the end.

Any chance that the USA will contribute meaningfully and positively to next year's Climate Summit, already identified as being crucial to the well-being of us and our planet, is probably vanishing pretty fast. And without strong positive input from the USA, there isn't likely to be unilateral movement from other key players in the climate policy debate.

A lot of people are already pretty downbeat about where humanity is going vis-a -vis the planet and Nature, and this is more fuel to the fire of underlying doom-mongering, that the end of civilization as we know it has come a step closer, a step sooner.

It's good that lots of people are now aware of the many issues which arise in relation to a changing climate and are worried about what the future might bring. It's less good when people promote the idea that we might as well give up any hope of progress and work on the basis that we are, fundamentally and inevitably, fucked.

This isn't just because of the 'negative waves' which rebound from such consciousness, though. There is a very tricky problem, which connects environmental doomerism to its political antithesis, objectivist libertarianism.

The assumption of many people who write, blog or produce journalistic pieces on Climate is that the readers all agree and understand that the future which is being projected in social terms is self-evidently 'Bad', or 'Evil', or otherwise morally unacceptable. Speaking personally, I find it enormously worrying that the human victims of climate change around the world are barely considered in considerations of many bloggers and writers, when in the end, the consequences of an unmitigated warming of the planet will be comparable to the Holocaust (there, I said it).

The problem is, that whilst our 'friends' and online audience will agree with us that the moral implications are appalling, it is likely that our opponents will be inclined to think the complete opposite. How could this be?

You need to understand the underlying 'vision' of Randian and Objectivist Libertarian Philosophy. The ideal society envisioned by these world-views is one in which a minority (the meritocratic plutocracy of intellectuals - consider the conflicts there) is the only meaningful object of value and benefit, at the cost of the unwashed, illiterate, worthless majority. The Libertarian world exists to satisfy the needs of the empowered individual, to permit that person's liberty to pursue meaningful intellectual activity and behave responsibly in making decisions which impact on others (without giving those ignorant others a say in what they think is good for them).

So, a world of the near future in which millions of Africans, Asians, South Americans, Poor people, vulnerable populations, all are at great risk, and likely to suffer and die, is not necessarily a 'bad thing'. Because it means there is more to go round for the deserving/empowered/justified. Because it means that the 'natural order' of society as envisioned by the unspeakable Rand may come to pass.

Under these conditions, it's very hard to see what the point of being 'doomerist' could possibly be. Your opponents are singing from a fundamentally different song-sheet, and your natural allies, who push for mitigation and adaptation to preserve and protect future generations, well, they just get depressed.

Maybe the mid-terms are just more evidence that we are too stupid to save ourselves from the 'big crash'. Maybe it is clear that Business As Usual has too much inertia to stop it. But this is not going to stop me for fighting for a better, more just, more equitable, more sustainable world. I'm going to keep fighting for this in whatever small ways I can. Because it is the right thing to do.

You are likely, reading this, to agree with me that the kind of future scenarios painted in the IPCC summary report are things we don't want to happen, that are morally unacceptable. So, what do you want to do about it? If its wrong, you can choose either to give up and hope it doesn't hurt too much when it comes, or perhaps imagine that you will somehow miraculously find the means or luck to survive the coming breakdown of civilization and be part of a new, better re-creation of the Next Social Order, or you can stand up for your principles and say to yourself; "No, this is wrong, and I'm going to fight it. I'll write to my local press and TV stations, my politicians and representatives. I'll be active in local environmental campaigns and, if necessary, stand in the streets and shout about injustice. I'll campaign for better answers and make as much damn noise as I can make."

Sometimes, the realities of politics, human society, human nature, come and bite us on the ankles. Even more reason to get back up, dust ourselves down, and get on with what we believe must be done.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Do I have Ebola Virus or a Hangover?

I feel hot. my head aches, I'm sweating, my muscles and joints ache, my throat is sore, and I can't seem to move. Am I sick?

The planet is warmer than it used to be, has heavily polluted oceans and atmosphere, is experiencing sea-level rise and Arctic sea-ice decline, is losing forests and biodiversity, seems to be experiencing more extremes of weather (in impact, if nothing else). Is it sick?

There are good reasons why doctors accumulate evidence before proceeding to diagnosis, even while sometimes treating symptoms. Two things are important: context and range of symptoms.

Why context? Take the first example. If I've been working as a nurse in a hospital in Liberia and I exhibit the symptoms described, one potential diagnosis which requires evaluation is the Ebola virus. Which would be bad.

On the other hand, if I played rugby yesterday in heavy rain, in the scrum, drank ten pints of beer afterwards during a lively singalong in the clubhouse, then walked home, and haven't been anywhere near West Africa or anyone who has been there recently, I might well describe the same symptoms to my doctor, but the diagnosis is most likely to be that a) I'm hung over, b) I'm too old to play serious rugby in the scrum and should know better - how do I expect my body to react? and c) Even if you are too drunk to feel it, walking home in just a shirt in forty degrees may have stimulated a reaction.

It is not just important to look for the context, it is essential. To answer the question 'why' requires proper investigation.

Why range? If I describe just one of those symptoms, say a sore throat, with none of the others, there could be several explanations or diagnoses, but hundreds can be eliminated because the symptom is not tied to any others. A sore throat and a headache might suggest a head cold. Add a temperature and aching muscles, perhaps influenza. Even with a large range of symptoms, placed into a context, a likely explanation is reasonably easy to find.

So, to Climate and the internet. There are very good reasons why it is important to gather evidence for a range of global conditions before attempting a diagnosis. Isolating one element is not very helpful, and cannot provide enough information on which to make any secure conclusions. One way to check out the 'records' is to use the IPCC assessment summaries, since they provide a reduction to readable size of a huge amount of very diverse information.

But you will very often see people arguing about, for example, whether the global temperature record is reliable, or if it is showing that the world is warming, or if the physics of AGW is a reasonable explanation. The reason that many of these people try to focus a reader's attention on any one of the possible 'problems' with the world and attempt to cast doubt on it's validity is because anyone who looks at the big picture cannot possibly be fooled.

As soon as anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence looks at the range of evidence- the symptoms of the health of the world's natural and human systems - it becomes clear that there are a lot of bad signs in all sorts of places, that there are long-term persistent trends in many diverse measurements (the distribution of beetles, the volume of Arctic sea ice, global ocean temperatures, etc etc) -in other words, that the World is sick.

So it is extremely rare to see any genuine 'climate sceptic' looking at all the evidence. Or any of the evidence. Most often, what you will see is a recycled meme picked up second hand and spouted without thought as demonstration (as often as not) of a person's political or metaphysical world-view (okay, I'm being generous here).

So here is a suggestion. When you read a comment stream or argument on the web, ask yourself - is there more than one 'symptom' at question, or a 'single issue' focus? If someone is insisting on dealing with a specific 'fact' (often, these are actually false anyway), ask yourself (or them) whether they are seeing the big picture.

It's not about whether this year is warmer than last year in Alaska, or whether there is more or less ice than the long-term average this year in the Arctic, or whether any one scientist or another is correct. It is, and you know it is, much, much bigger than this.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Emergent Properties of World Views

One of the strange things about politics is that a large proportion of the voting populus seem to make voting decisions based on intuition and 'broad understanding', which is like ignorance, but with a better accent. 

This doesn't make voters dumb - just (frequently) indifferent. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that people learn fairly early on where their 'interests' lie, and where their own world view coincides with the range on offer in their local political spectrum and, having established whether they are more or less liberal or society-oriented, conservative or libertarian, in their morals, standards, ethics and norms, they then stick with their decisions and go for what works for them. On the assumption that the real differences between political ideologies play out in action terms as smallish differences, we tend to get lazy and, eventually, fixed in our ways.

Having an interest in being a bit more rational than this, relying on intuition to guide my choice of representative, I thought it would be worth laying down a few 'policy guidelines' and working out where my actual knowledge and understanding take me in terms of who to support. So, today's post lays out a couple of thoughts about each of a number of issues, then reaches a conclusion about what this implies about 'my' politics.

Energy: pro-renewables, anti-fossil, dubious about nukes and scathing about  fracking.

Climate change: mitigation and adaptation are real and present necessities for future well-being.

Wealth: Each of us should be able to enjoy the benefits of our labours and sustain ourselves and families on a living wage. Taxation should be proportional to earnings. Corporate welfare (profit) should be subservient to general welfare (health, well-being, pollution, etc.). 

Animals & Nature: The general principle is that all of Nature needs protection from exploitation, abuse or harm and that utilitarian measures of least harm should guide actions.

Health: universal healthcare for all, as much as possible free at point of need.

Transport: for local transport, support best local low-carbon solutions, personal or public systems, seek improved solutions for trade/goods transport & logistics.

Other matters:

Personal liberty: each individual retains all rights over their own body and how they choose to use it. Freedom of religion where it does not conflict with the above. Freedom of expression where it does not do harm to the above. Freedom to conduct trade where it does not harm the above or Nature. The right to own property (but land??)

Personal responsibility: inherent in each right of liberty is the responsibility to support or permit the rights and liberties of others and the duty to protect such liberties on the behalf of others as well as oneself.

Looking at these 'principles of a decent society', and then comparing them with the avowed policies and practices of various political parties, I found that the Party which came nearest to sharing my world-view in the UK was - the Green Party. This surprised me, since I am not a vegetarian or vegan, don't fight for animal rights, and though I try to live sustainably, I don't live 'morally'. Till I realised that my assumptions about Greens were based on my own, lazy habits of thinking. I used to be a liberal, have never been a conservative, don't like libertarians at all, and am dubious about socialism, less because of its intentions than its history.

So, by chance, I have discovered that I am, after all, in my tweed and Barbour, public school education, ethical and concerned 'gentle' liberalism, a closet hippie*. Which, on reflection, is fine by me.

The point here being, by actually comparing the values espoused by political groups rather than assuming their prejudices from habit, I have learned something useful about myself and the world. Next time, I'll be voting Green.
*note: spelling changed out of respect :)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Virtuous Circles – a trillion dollar business opportunity that might help save Society

I was quite surprised the other day when an American friend, who is quite active on climate and environment issues, responded to my references to the Circular Economy with 'what's that?'

Since a good proportion of this blog's readers (by the analytics) come from the USA, and since it is anyway a growing, rather than a well-understood concept/practice, I thought a quick introduction might be helpful.

Because the idea is, to my eyes, an important one. As Walter Stahel, the person accredited with first defining 'cradle-to-cradle' industrial process models describes it, this is a paradigm shift in the way we not only do business, but also in the way we understand our relationship with the world as an economically active society.

The basic ideas behind it are summarised on wikipedia, here. The idea is that products and services are designed from the outset to cycle back into their own production processes, creating a system which replicates Nature, by turning what was once called 'waste' into 'reusable material'. It is a long way, almost the opposite to, the idea of a Consumption Economy, which takes resources, makes products (with built in redundancy), then dumps the cast-off.

Not only is a Circular economy (and businesses operating on circular economy principles) hugely better for the planet (since finite resources are used much more efficiently, vastly reducing the dependence on new resource exploitation), but it is also potentially hugely profitable, to the tune of perhap a trillion dollars added to the value of the Global Economy. This alone makes it worth exploring more deeply.

One of the current champions and leaders in the field is a foundation with an implausible central figure, the gamine, 5'2" heroine of global sailing, Dame Ellen Macarthur. There is a nice article on her and her work on euronews, here.

In 2010, this extraordinary person, having conquered the World's oceans and broken numerous records along the way, and having become the youngest Dame in modern history and a Companion of the Legion d'Honneur, put competitive sailing to one side and launched the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (here), designed to promote a Circular economy.

So, some basic resources for you, if your interest is piqued:

 This provides a summary of the main ideas and links to other material. is a core set of reports, compiled with McKinsey, giving detailed information and a considerable amount of inspiration - all three reports are free to download. is one example of a media outlet, The Guardian (UK), both supporting and informing on various initiatives and actions around the World.

The underlying principles are powerful enough that the EU, by 2012, announced that it would be looking at using these concepts to inform future policy decisions. Perhaps it is time in the USA for similar initiative and corporate engagement.

Why this, here, now? Because we are fairly clear that Business as Usual is a really, really, bad idea, for Nature, the environment, poor people, climate change, social order and the future of human society - and this is more than an idea, it is a considered and sophisticated new operating model for a sustainable and healthier society, which might help us turn the corner from what looks like an impending crisis, with real world examples, case histories, financial analysis and substantial corporate engagement.

Hopefully, this will have given you some reason to hope - yes, I think we do need an international agreement to mitigate CO2 emissions, but I also think that our resourcefulness and initiative will move us, step by step, towards the goal of a better kind of world, on the way.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Side note

Any one like to speculate what this graph shows and where it comes from?

Details and credits later...

Well, I'm disappointed by the lack of interest. It comes from here:
Millennial minimum temperature variations in the Qilian Mountains, China: evidence from tree rings
Y. Zhang1, X. M. Shao1, Z.-Y. Yin1,2, and Y. Wang1
1Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
2Department of Environmental and Ocean Sciences, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA 92110, USA

Abstract. A 1343-year tree-ring chronology was developed from Qilian junipers in the central Qilian Mountains of the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (TP), China. The climatic implications of this chronology were investigated using simple correlation, partial correlation and response function analyses. The chronology was significantly positively correlated with temperature variables prior to and during the growing season, especially with monthly minimum temperature. Minimum temperature anomalies from January to August since AD 670 were then reconstructed based on the tree-ring chronology. The reconstruction explained 58% of the variance in the instrumental temperature records during the calibration period (1960–2012) and captured the variation patterns in minimum temperature at the annual to centennial timescales over the past millennium. The most recent 50 years were the warmest period, while 1690–1880 was the coldest period since AD 670. Comparisons with other temperature series from neighbouring regions and for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole supported the validity of our reconstruction and suggested that it provided a good regional representation of temperature change in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. The results of wavelet analysis showed the occurrence of significant quasi-periodic patterns at a number of recurring periods (2–4, 40–50, and 90–170 years), which were consistent with those associated with El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and solar activity. The comparison between the reconstructed temperature and the index of tropical volcanic radiative forcing indicated that some cold events recorded by tree rings may be due to the impact of tropical volcanic eruptions.

I'd have thought at least someone would have been interested enough to note that here is yet another Palaeo study, showing yet another 'hockey stick', but absolutely, entirely and unequivocally distinct from previous studies done anywhere, including the USA.

Might some people find this 'inconvenient'?

Beyond the rhetoric - is Climate Inaction a Crime against humanity?

In my 'speech' I used the term. by coincidence the same expression was used at the UN by the President of the Seychelles: 

"But how does that help us when we continue to ignore the truth? Climate change – on our current, avid path – is a crime against humanity.  We are all guilty.  And we are all victims. But increasingly, SIDS themselves, are refusing to be victims."

The full text of Mr Michel's (short) speech is here. SIDS refers to the Small Island Developing States group, of which Seychelles is a member.

Such a claim is, of course, rhetorically dramatic, but is there any substance to the idea that a Crime against Humanity may be committed, in the event that a binding International Protocol is not adopted at COP21 in Paris next year?

The aim of the next couple of posts, on the legal question of climate obligations aims to explore the idea that a failure of the Body Politic to sign a binding Protocol under the terms of the UNFCCC at Paris next year might constitute a criminal and prosecutable offence.

The meaning of the term has broadened in recent years. Since the Rome Statute in 2002, a 'crime against humanity' is defined thus:

For the purpose of this Statute, "crime against humanity" means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:[25]
(a) Murder;
(b) Extermination;
(c) Enslavement;
(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
(f) Torture;
(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
(i) Enforced disappearance of persons;
(j) The crime of apartheid;

(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health;

 The statute's explanatory memorandum also adds additional content for clarity:
(Crimes against Humanity) are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. However, murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Isolated inhumane acts of this nature may constitute grave infringements of human rights, or depending on the circumstances, war crimes, but may fall short of meriting the stigma attaching to the category of crimes under discussion. On the other hand, an individual may be guilty of crimes against humanity even if he perpetrates one or two of the offences mentioned above, or engages in one such offense against only a few civilians, provided those offenses are part of a consistent pattern of misbehavior by a number of persons linked to that offender (for example, because they engage in armed action on the same side or because they are parties to a common plan or for any similar reason.) Consequently when one or more individuals are not accused of planning or carrying out a policy of inhumanity, but simply of perpetrating specific atrocities or vicious acts, in order to determine whether the necessary threshold is met one should use the following test: one ought to look at these atrocities or acts in their context and verify whether they may be regarded as part of an overall policy or a consistent pattern of an inhumanity, or whether they instead constitute isolated or sporadic acts of cruelty and wickedness.
The most obvious reason to say that 'climate inaction' is not a CAH (crime against humanity) is that the definition specifies an attack and an intent. In this sense it follows the usual logic of criminal law, that a crime requires an agent, a victim or victims, and an intent on the part of the agent.
But there are aspects of the impacts of climate inaction which, from the point of view of the (present or future) victims, have the characteristics of a CAH, without a particular agent. The IPCC AR5 attributes high confidence to climate impacts including death, sickness and other effects on human populations which would certainly fall into the category of 'causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health'.
In addition, it could be said that: ' a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings'... 'are part ... of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy)'...'other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice'... 'in order to determine whether the necessary threshold is met one should use the following test: one ought to look at these atrocities or acts in their context and verify whether they may be regarded as part of an overall policy or a consistent pattern of an inhumanity...' all might be viewed as descriptive of the impacts of climate inaction.
But the definition requires agency and intent. 
However, there are other elements of (International) Law  which might be considered relevant to the discussion at hand. Whilst it would be hard to establish that any individual or state has committed an act with malicious intent which constituted a CAH, one might reasonably ask, since there are an indeterminately large number of 'victims', i.e, people whose experience would include death or 'great suffering or serious injury', as well as a number of specifiable breaches of Human Rights, if the existence of the effect (the 'harm') does not imply the presence of an offence?
There are a number of further considerations which I will look at in the next post. These include - the culpability involved in a 'failure to act to prevent harm', 'nonfeasance', the international concept of the 'responsibility to protect', the ideas of peremptory norms, 'actio popularis', and other matters.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The speech I haven't heard yet - An open message to our leaders

Forty years. More.  However you count it, from whichever moment this started, our so-called leaders have been aware that we are living on borrowed time for decades. And what have they done?

For forty years we have known that this big blue ball, our planet home, the Earth, the natural and human systems which function in it and on it and form all that it means for us to exist, our home is suffering. We, the people of the World, are steadily and inexorably brutalising our home, and now the foundations are trembling.

Now we know, our intelligence and science and experience shows us, our victim, our much-beaten servant Gaia, has a fever. This fever is the warming climate to which we are already committed and which will continue to rage for many decades to come.

We know, as our ‘leaders’ know, that for decades we have been borrowing from the future to pay for our present prosperity. Our capacity to exploit the resources of nature and the resources of our poorer neighbours has now extended to include our ability to exploit the resources of time.

And so the time has come round once again, when our leaders will gather together for the 21st time to talk about what is happening, what might happen, and what might be done. To talk, yet not to act. To argue, yet not to decide. To show us, their citizens, their mandate, that they are ‘taking this problem seriously’, and yet, in making the face and making the noise, doing too little, too late.

If we let them, they will go away from these talks, like all the others, with no agreement, no commitment, no decision to take action. They will set aside the urgency of our problems once again and pass the problem on for future generations.

We need to let them know, in clear terms, that we will not tolerate their indecision any longer. Not in our name, not with our mandate. We are no longer just concerned, no longer worried, we are angry.

In our human history, there have been crimes so brutal, so appalling, that even now, many years after slavery has been abolished and so nearly eradicated, many decades on from the abomination of the Holocaust, these crimes still resonate so strongly that we are reluctant to recall them, we are almost afraid to mention their names. Yet here and now we must.

The evil that is slavery costs the lives of millions of people, and the liberties of millions more.  The evil that was the Holocaust, six million Jews and five million more human lives.

And we see the figures, the statistics and the estimates of those who will be displaced, whose lives will be cut short by disease, famine, drought. The lives already lost and yet to be lost. The dead people, the innocent victims of our polluting, destructive, acidifying, climate changing ways. 

Hundreds of millions.

If we do not demand action to prevent this now, we are signing up, in advance, to another, most brutal, most evil of crimes against humanity. And we should shout this out loud and clear for all to hear:

Not in my name.

Not with my consent.

We must make it clear to our leaders that we hold them to account. This appalling future of suffering, this crime against humanity, can be resisted. It can be reduced. Millions of lives can be saved. But only if we act now. The time to talk is done. We have heard the talk. We are sick of the talk. They must act.

Our leaders have on their shoulders the heavy burden of responsibility for the well-being of us all. But let us be clear; doing nothing, at this point in time, with the cost so transparent, is a conscious decision to permit evil. And so we say to you our leaders; by this measure we will see your true worth. By your decisions we will see the colour of your souls, and pray that they are not as black as oil.

And we must tell them, again, and again – not in my name. Not with my consent. Not with my mandate. 

You are not our masters, you are our representatives. We have entrusted you with the power and the means to act for us. If you will not act, we will judge you, as history will judge you, and we will see you as you truly are, to the depths of your souls. And you will lead us no longer into darkness.

We want you to take action now, in our name and in the name of generations to come. We want you to turn away from the path of evil and fight with us and for us to protect our fellow citizens, our brethren. 

This is our World, our home, these our lives, and we are angry. And if you resist us, we will bring you down. In all the nations of the Earth, we the people will stand for what is good and what is right. You can stand against us, or you can stand with us.

This glorious, magnificent, vital, big blue ball that is Gaia, the Earth – this is our World, and we will fight for it. This planet is our home, and we will defend it. These children are our children, and we will stand before those who threaten them and cherish and protect them. We are the citizens of the World, and we want action. We sisters and brothers, parents and children, rich and poor, we call you now to account, and say to you; we are your justification, your voters, your mandate, and we are telling you our will.

We want you to take action to protect us all against the ravages of exploitation and the abuse of the planet and our climate. 

We want action, and we want it now.