Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Sea ice, sea level and permafrost

Recent updates all over the place point out that Arctic sea ice levels are pretty low considering the time of year. Historically, the rate of decline of Winter Arctic sea ice cover (area, extent) is slower than that of the Summer (and the intermediate seasons). This year, the maximum so far (as pointed out at Neven's excellent blog, the finale is not yet concluded for certain, rather like a Tchaikovsky symphony) is below two standards deviation from the long term average. (here)

I don't subscribe to the notion that one season's extent is indicative of following seasons, for the simple reason that the range of inter-seasonal variability exceeds the range of climate variability. In other words, it isn't enough that there isn't much ice now to determine how much there will be at the end of this Summer (if only it was that easy!). But here we see the fortification (or continuation) of an existing and persistent trend, a reminder that we are apparently set into a pattern for the long term.

Meantime, Down South, recent observations (not yet officially published) are that the Larsen C ice shelf, thought to be stable when assessed in 2010, is now showing a big crack comparable to the one which preceded the loss of Larsen B some years back. Unlike some media, I won't publish more till the original is published, but you can check out the discussion paper at The Cryosphere.

Add to this the recent material illustrating the instability of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica, the latest of a run of observations done in different parts of the EAIS showing a trend towards likely destabilisation (At least 4 papers recently on different glaciers).

Looking at a couple of other papers (I'll have to go find the sources at some point) I was caught by surprise when it was noted that the potential for sea level rise from the melting of permafrost is potentially very large (over time and relative to scale) and that permafrost is indeed melting reasonably rapidly across all Arctic landmasses (and, one supposes, potential under the ocean as well).

Which is all apropos of what?

One looks at a range of things and extrapolates a pattern. The apparent pattern is that a lot of the markers which might indicate an accelerated rate of sea level rise are all pointing in the same direction, and furthermore, that the observations of the changes are imminent, not down-the-line projections. For some time I've said, along with Rasmus Benestad and others, that the current 'mainstream' estimates of SLR are on the low side. 

I'd like to see a concerted effort to assess recent developments in observations and evidence as a whole and a review of the conclusions. IMO the odds of a 1 metre rise by the end of the century are now much shorter than they would have been twelve months ago. if a reader can point me to any material on the projected contribution of permafrost melting to SLR, that would be helpful, too.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Legacy problem

This post addresses a key challenge in climate discussions - what kind of future do we want for our descendants and whether we have to choose the lesser of two evils if we are to prosper.

That we are capable of incrementally changing the nature of our planet for the future should now be acknowledged as a given. That our current action pathways are destructive and will, unchecked, almost certainly result in great harm, suffering, damage and destruction to Nature and ecosystems, human societies and the social stability of our society and cultures should also be acknowledged, though even at this level there are divisions among people.

What is unquestionable is that by necessity, in living our lives, we effect the conditions of future lives by default. We are laying down a legacy for our descendants.

The central questions of climate change action relate to the nature and pace of the legacy and the extent to which this legacy can be altered, to decisions about what kind of legacy is preferable. 

Opinions about the nature of what we can or should do are strongly connected to opinions about what the risks are, what the timescales are, and what kind of human society is desirable.

What is generally accepted is that Energy is a key component of both the problems and the answers. So we have to have an idea about what to do about energy if we intend to plot any future scenario.

As things stand, our society is dependent on access to reliable energy, whether it is electricity, gas, full for transport or industrial production. Energy is a part of what we now are and much of what we do. We collectively use a vast amount of energy to support the ways in which live and this creates the first problem: the infrastructure of supply is necessarily vast, much, much bigger than most people realise or understand.

Even if our chosen pathway incorporates plans to reduce overall energy use, the reality is that, if we are to sustain a culture comparable to that of the present we need to produce large amounts of energy in the future. One set of questions arise from the choices we make about how we make use of that energy and how we reduce current levels of consumption. A second set of questions revolve around the extent to which we want to sustain that culture or whether it would be better to permit a degree of regression.

Another set of questions, my focus here, is the practicality of oil and coal divestment and usage, against the practicality of renewable energy and, third, the practicality of nuclear power.

Though there are other energy matters which could be included here, these three options form the basis of possible future energy production.

I work in renewable energy and believe strongly that any relatively cost-effective renewable energy should be encouraged and supported in the vast majority of cases. But I have to acknowledge that even with a vast uptake of renewables for the next thirty years there is still likely to be a shortfall between what can be supplied and what will be needed, however well we improve our energy efficiency.

In the absence of a magic bullet to suddenly solve these problems (all current solutions are partial and specific to certain preconditions), we have to make a difficult choice about how our needs are to be supplemented. That choice is between fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

The time may come in the next ten, twenty years that neither of these is necessary, but that time is not now. Given that we must choose to develop one or the other in the timescale from the present out 25 years, we need to decide which of these represents the better choice in terms of legacy.

Some of the risks associated with Fossil are relatively well understood. The timescales are in question, but the problems are potentially existential, intolerably painful and, in general, unacceptable. Other associated problems are less certain but even worse in their impact. 

For me, the problems with nuclear power are all about legacy. As things stand we have not satisfactorily resolved the problems of what to do to avoid harm completely - after all, in these processes we are creating highly toxic and damaging materials which need to be managed (potential) for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But I feel there is a fundamental difference: the legacy problems associated with fossil fuel use cannot be resolved - once they are in the system, we have no choice but to live with the consequences. In this sense, the legacy (including the uncertain elements) are bound in and unavoidable, unchangeable. What will be will be.

On the other hand, I think that the legacy problems and issues of nuclear energy can be resolved. Since the source of risk is physically constrained (a relatively small amount of highly damaging residue), there is at least the possibility of finding the means by which the legacy can be managed, since the solution is engineerable. Though dreadful in themselves, nuclear incidents are localised when compared to the harms stimulated by climate change from fossil fuel use. The side-effects (ecosystem failure, drought, famine, flooding) of the latter do not arise from the former.

Being a member of the Green Party, I tend towards the view that nuclear weapons have limited justification and the risks that they exist to manage are extremely uncertain. But there is a big difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

So, here is the legacy problem - which of the two energy options is the lesser of two 'evils' for the next twenty five years, and for our legacy? We must assume that our descendants will be living with changes, some of which will be negative, but we must also assume that the direction of our decisions will make a difference to the kinds of threats they will face and the opportunities they have to find solutions.

In the absence of other practical solutions, I am inclined to suggest that nuclear energy is the lesser evil.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


This is a piece of fiction.

It is a popular delusion that wealthy and powerful people feel the need to be members of clubs or secret societies and that they spend their time conspiring to manage the 'World order' to suit their best interests.

There are clubs and societies. Some of them are very exclusive. In some of these clubs, some of the members will sometimes talk about politics, capital, and so forth, quite possible over a bottle of old rare port. But this is no more than ordinary social behaviour. There are no grand conspiracies.

The main reason that this is so is that there is no need for such conspiracies. By and large, the more powerful or wealthy a person is, the more likely he or she is to have a certain set of values, expectations and prejudices, just like everyone else. The shared values and desires of a group of people are sufficient to generate understandings and agreements which do not require contracts, promises or secret meetings. Most of these are clever, or at least cunning people. They have experience, habit, often history, as well as a broad understanding of how the world really works.

So, when I say that in the early twenty-first century there was an agreement, I don't mean to say that anything was made explicit or written down or even directly discussed. Call it instead a feeling, a mutual understanding, a general sense that certain problems implied certain solutions.

Nor need all of these people shared an agenda, world-view or ideology. They did share a knowledge of power and its applications.

The agreement related to Climate Change, or what some people call Global Warming.

There was no serious doubt in these people's minds that this was a real phenomenon, with real risks and a real possibility of a number of social and financial crises attached to it. These people were smart enough to understand that the projections of tens of thousands of scientists was not random and needed to be addressed.

The direst warnings were of social, political, environmental and financial collapses which would cause millions, perhaps billions of premature deaths, large scale extinctions, anarchy, famine, extremism, brutality, the end of the rule of law (in some places).

But there were certain items at risk which could not be let go. Perhaps surprisingly, it was understood that the environment, nature, ecosystems, had to be protected in the long term. Nothing would survive if this was destroyed, so  radial measures to protect the environment from the worst ravages of exploitation were considered justifiable.

Given the nature of the wealth and its sources, the other item at issue was the survival of Markets and Capital, trade and business. Without these, there was no basis on which to generate, protect or justify wealth.

And the agreement was this: let it run its course. Any rational analysis came to the same conclusion; that there were too many people on earth for the planet to sustain, and that the imbalance of resource demand over supply would worsen if population increased as projected. So the solution was reasonably simple: without having to make hard decisions, or get involved in ethical finery, a simple strategy of inertia (no need to rush to change anything) would produce the desired result -  a reduction of the world's population, a reduction on the unsustainable demand on resources, a reduction of poverty by eradicating the poor, rather than the cause of poverty, inequity.

And so, not consciously, nor conspiratorially, the program was set. The usual balance of fine words and half-hearted gestures, of grand plans and good intentions, mixed with the absence of real action or the necessary hard decisions. This was the simple, elegant solution; let what will be come to pass.

And that is how we get to where we are today... the dawn of the Passive Holocaust.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Odds and ends

Hydrogen has been an object of some research recently.

It is no magic bullet. Pres. Bush did it a great disservice by presenting it as the answer to the USA's energy problems many years ago. The expectation has stuck, though the aspiration was always highly suspect.

But R&D has continued, and there are numerous developments which suggest that creative approaches to energy requirements can (and already do) result in positive results for the climate.

In case anyone is wondering, I don't have the historic expertise of a Joe Romm, but I do think his prejudices are based on assumptions which no longer apply, in both engineering and sustainability terms. So here it is: the time has come to review the case for hydrogen within the greater energy debate and place it in context.

There are several reasons for doing this, but foremost is the recent announcement that the Tokyo Olympic village will, post Olympics, become a 'Hydrogen Town'. This is (broadly) an extended community whose varied energy needs are met primarily by hydrogen. Japan has already run a similar pilot project, in Fukuoka. There is an extensive plan for a project in Ulsan, Korea.

Alongside these civic developments are important ones in industry - Hyundai and Toyota both have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs, or FCEVs) in production. California (along with many European countries) is developing a hydrogen fuel network - albeit a bit slowly. But before we get carried away, this blog, being focussed on cars, makes relevant points in a nice style, pro and con, about using hydrogen instead of Gasoline (petrol) or batteries.

Don't be misled into thinking I am promoting hydrogen as a 'better solution' than renewable energy as things stand. But it seems clear to me that many promising and imaginative developments already exist which demonstrate the potential of using it into the future.

There are several features of hydrogen which I particularly like. 

First, assuming a renewable energy source to hydrolyse it from water, it is amazingly 'clean' in environmental terms. It has been observed that some people may resist 'hydrogen' because of a historic (and incorrect) association with hydrogen bombs. If this refers to you, please be clear, there is no connection whatsoever. Hydrogen as an energy storage and usage solution is incredibly clean and has no link with nuclear tech.

Second, it is a scaleable solution. Not only can factories produce it, or utility-scale energy companies, but domestic-scale plant is already available; that is, a solar or wind installation which can hydrolyse, store, distribute and manage it for an individual property. It is not cheap (yet), but as an off-grid, isolated community or property solution, it offers autonomy from dependence on an unreliable supply chain.

Third, it is flexible. It can be used to heat homes, power cars, drive trains or power stations, generate electricity or whatever.

Fourth, it is often generated from excess capacity in other systems, whether it is an industrial process or excess generated capacity of renewable resources. In other words, rather than being seen as an alternative to these, it should more properly be viewed as an 'additional bonus', in the sense that energy which has been generated but would otherwise be lost to the system ('dumped') can instead be stored in a readily useable form.

The difficulties I do have with hydrogen is that a great deal is already created and almost all of it is already processed and used, for example, in the UK, by BOC. Increasing hydrogen generation to point where it makes a difference to the global energy mix requires a very large uptake in technologies and opportunity realisation. This concern feeds into a more practical concern about current and future cost of energy, which cannot be ignored since it is on a scale which affects national economies.

The observant reader will note that there are projects in the Far East, Europe, Canada, but not in oil-rich countries like the UAE. The USA is an anomaly in that present needs are being met cheaply, but future energy security is a real issue of concern for planners and long-term strategists. There is certainly a limited will to expend resources in catching up with other countries, though should the technology and solutions prove viable, no doubt the USA will catch up rapidly.

My final though might properly be included much higher up the article, but for commercial reasons I am reluctant to discuss this in detail. The implementation of hydrogen fuel cells into rail infrastructure could be one of the more interesting, viable and sustainable solutions of all, but of this, more (maybe) later.

Friday, 16 January 2015

What's going on?

There's no accounting for folk. At the start of 2014, give or take, there were 13,000 paid-up members of the Green Party in England and Wales (The autonomous parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland are effectively the same party, with the same principles, their existence being in part a function of the principles of decentralisation and local engagement).

One of the reasons I joined up, apart from the very obvious one that this was the only political organisation the UK which takes climate change seriously enough to incorporate it into most parts of its manifesto, was that by September 2014 the party had grown to over 20,000 members and was polling better than previously - around 4-5% in the national polls.

During the time that I've been involved, helping out with the local group with PR and fundraising, the party has grown steadily, and opinion polls have rated it anywhere from 5 to 10% on various occasions.

Then, earlier this week, on National TV News, there was coverage of the discussion in Parliament over the protocols for the leadership debates due to be aired in the lead-up to the General Election in May. David Cameron had said he would participate unless the Greens were represented, as a party which was often polling above the Liberal Democrats, who are a part of the current Government, and have representation at all political levels.

This was a response to the statements first by the BBC then OFCOM, that the Green party was a minority group and therefore didn't justify the same rights of coverage as the 'major' parties, which include both the Lib Dems and UKIP.

The public response has been somewhat unpredictable to say the least. We aren't renowned for our political engagement in the UK - only a very small percentage of the population is a member of a political party compared to 50 years ago, and a long tradition of disgust and disenfranchisement has left many indifferent to the process.

Over the last two-and-a-half days more than 7,000 people have become members of the Green Party. So many that the party's website has crashed several times (probably slowing the rate of growth).
On Wednesday, after the TV coverage, more than 2,000 signed up. Yesterday, more than 3,500 joined.

As of 2:40pm today, the number of people who are members of the Green party of England and Wales is just short of 40,000, a number almost certain to be exceeded by day's end. On Wednesday, the Scottish and Northern Irish groups counted around 8,350 members (three times as many as in early 2014). It is likely that combined membership will exceed 50,000 by the end of the week.

You may not be impressed by these numbers, but to place them in context, there was a large surge of membership last year for UKIP (which has since slowed), and it currently has a bit less than 42,000 members. The Lib Dems have around 44,500 members (though it is known that some of these may be lapsed memberships which are still being counted).

Which all means that where, just a year ago, there were only two-and-a-half political shades of grey in the UK spectrum, today there are six parties who are likely to have an impact on our next Government and its structure and policies. Four are Grey, one is Scottish (the SNP has massively increased membership in the wale of the Scottish independence referendum, to almost 100,000 members), the third is a bright shade of Green.

One of the absolute essentials to saving the planet in some form of civilised sustainability is that politicians do more than pay lip service to green issues. This is a change which has to happen now, if we are to have a future which our children can look forward to:

It's no longer sufficient to simply whinge about how everything is going to pot and why doesn't someone do something about it. Many people are working hard to plan for a more sustainable future and at many levels good work goes on. But this is a big problem which needs big responses and only politics (and the corporates) can deliver on these levels. In order to gain leverage to promote action by politicians we need them to realise that inaction will cost them votes. The great the number of obviously environmentally concerned voters there are, the better the chance that change will occur.

By joining a local political group, whether or not it's a Green party, you are registering your engagement and increasing the value of the principles which you wish to see pushed up the agenda. It's another thing we as people can do to move collectively towards greater sustainability. So why not do it?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

What I have (not) been doing

Both of my regular readers will have noticed the paucity of commentary here in the past several weeks. There are a number of causal factors, but the main one is that I have been a bit busy doing other things, like this:

Since we're at the year end and such things have associated traditions, I thought it would be a chance to catch up with what has been going on during the year and what I have done to 'do my bit'. The most obvious change is an increase in my level of direct political engagement. 

For several years it has been easy enough to feel engaged in the process of advocating for action on climate change by blogging and commenting on blogs and media, but the motivation to continue with this has declined a bit, because there are now so many good blogs, with so much good science, that one's own voice tends to get lost in the maelstrom. The other aspect is that in the UK, while there is still some crass denial, especially amongst the government, and thus some advocacy, in particular to combat the pernicious GWPF, by and large the argument seems to have settled into a broad acceptance not only of the facts of AGW but also of the need to actually do something about it.

In September, I finally cracked. During the course of my work as a renewable energy consultant I deal on an every day basis with people's uncertainty about climate change science, and of course their uncertainty about the viability of renewable energy. As a result of this I sensed a change in perception of our global problems and local solutions over time. A friend in the USA declared the intention to go to the Climate Action March in New York and, being a sympathetic type, I thought it was about time I did my bit, so went to Knaresborough. 

That day was transformative because of chance. The march had gathered some supporters but not a large contingent, and there were suggestions that it should be abandoned. I stood on a park bench and said something about why I was there and that I was going to go to the town hall and make my point in solidarity with others around the world. Everyone cheered, then we all marched down the road, disrupted the traffic in a polite, British way, and made a lot of noise, in a very un-British way. Even the drivers going by were appreciative and supportive and everyone who went along seemed to have a good time. Most importantly, we made our point there and then.

This made me realise that there was still work to be done: plenty of people were concerned about action on climate change, but there seemed to be a shortage of leadership and purpose. A few words and some rhetoric later, instead of a follower, I had become a leader of the march. Inspiring me in part were two people from the local Green Party who had turned up with several others to make their voices heard, along with my NY chum who had an altogether more extravagant experience on the day. Within the week I joined the Green Party of England and Wales.

Currently I am the local group's press and publicity and fundraising officer and may stand as a paper candidate in the local elections in 2015. I'm also giving input to the central party's policy discussions on defence and energy (two separate strands, not one). So now I am busy on the facebook page I generated, writing for the local press, and will shortly be blogging elsewhere for the local group. Our (small) membership has grown over 60% since September, but there is a lot of work to do.

This has been my most relevant action during 2014. Engagement in AGW and the ethics of climate and the environment has become more focussed on politics, and more direct. This, along with the plans for the next few months, will probably keep me from blogging more than occasionally here, and more often contributing here: .

Enough about me and the blog. Have a jolly nice time over the next few days of the holiday, and please accept my best wishes for you and yours in 2015. I'll catch up with you later.