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: https://www.facebook.com/rcgreensyorks?ref=hl .

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.

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.

http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/business/reports 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.

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/circular-economy 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.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Every voice matters - the climate march in Knaresborough

It would have been lazy not to turn up, so checked the local options, to find that the nearest were at Newcastle or Knaresborough.

For those who don't know, Knaresborough is a small, pretty, historic town close to Ripon in North Yorkshire. It's a polite, quiet, well-mannered kind of town. Nice castle ruins, several nice pubs and coffee shops. Not exactly a hotbed of climate action passion, you would think.

But around 100 people turned up, including the local Green Party candidate for next year's election, Shan Oakes, who did most of the organising, by the look of things, and has posted some pictures here. The Canon of Ripon Cathedral, (didn't get your, name, sorry your reverence) was a prominent presence in his red garb, and gamely supported and joined in.

There were a couple of local church groups, a substantial anti-fracking group, and various others, including a number of ordinary Joes like you know who.

For a while it looked like the march was going to fizzle out before it started, when it was suggested that the numbers were too small to bother with the marching, but with a very little persuasion, it was clear that everyone very much wanted to march, so off we set from the castle green to the Town Hall, via the High Street, providing some small inconvenience for a few people in the traffic that built up behind us.

What was most impressive was the noise. These polite, terribly British (undemonstrative) marchers made a lot of noise, loud and proud, all the way back from the Town Hall to the Market Square, where after a few talks several folks headed of to the local parish for tea with the vicar - er -  canon.

It was a small gesture, as gestures go, but it was a part of a much bigger gesture, and clear that almost everywhere there are people who care enough about the future to give up their Sunday, stand up, and get counted.

Two police officers kept us company; thanks to them the march looked quite official, so gratitude for their forbearance.

Next up? back to the other bits of life for a day or two.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Scottish Question

I was born in Scotland (Dundas Street in Edinburgh). My birth mother is a Scot. Both my adoptive parents were Scots, from Glasgow and Aberdeen - father claimed lineage from the MacKinnons of Skye. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc - all Scots. At one time, the family owned Glasgow's biggest butcher's business. I last visited Scotland in July, Inverness, to be precise. I live about an hour away from the border.

But I was not brought up in Scotland. I don't speak with a Scots accent and I don't live (nor ever have) in Scotland, so I have no say in Scotland's future. No vote for me, in spite of my Scottish name, ancestry and heritage. I am officially as Scottish as the average Canadian.

I can see and understand arguments both for and against independence. My heart encourages romanticism and autonomy, my head considers the history of Scotland prior to Union and I go into a cold sweat. But enough is enough. Here are some thoughts from a real thinker:

 19    Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
 20    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
 21    To the last syllable of recorded time,
 22    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
 23    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
 24    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
 25    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
 26    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
 27    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
 28    Signifying nothing.

that but this blow
  5   Might be the be-all and the end-all — here,
  6   But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
  7   We'd jump the life to come

                                                        Nought's had, all's spent,
  5    Where our desire is got without content;
  6    'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
  7    Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that Tesla in your hand?

Some notable environmentalists have been ‘against’ Hydrogen as a possible energy solution for a remarkably long time – Joe Romm’s ‘The Hype About Hydrogen’ goes back ten years now, to 2004. The RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute) isn’t keen. In the meantime, other energy solutions have made progress, in particular, as Romm points out in his recent series on ClimateProgress, in the field of personal transportation. But even on that site, Ryan Koronowski reports on developments at Toyota and Hyundai which look promising (here).
In 2006, Romm’s main criticism was summarised nicely in the Scientific American article ‘Hybrid Vehicles’, and usefully quoted by him in one of his articles;

For policymakers concerned about global warming, plug-in hybrids hold an edge over another highly touted green vehicle technology — hydrogen fuel cells. Plug-ins would be better at utilizing zero-carbon electricity because the overall hydrogen fueling process is inherently costly and inefficient. Any effective hydrogen economy would require an infrastructure that could use zero-carbon power to electrolyze water into hydrogen, convey this highly diffuse gas long distances, and pump it at high pressure into the car -– all for the purpose of converting the hydrogen back to electricity in a fuel cell to drive electric motor.
The entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel-cell conversion would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor. In a plug-in hybrid, the process of electricity transmission, charging an onboard battery and discharging the battery would leave 75 to 80 percent of the original electricity to drive the motor. Thus, a plug-in should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could.

Summarising the problems that all AFVs have, Joe usefully produces a list:

1. High first cost for vehicle
2. On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range)
3. Safety and liability concerns
4. High fueling cost (compared to gasoline)
5. Limited fuel stations: chicken and egg problem
6. Improvements in the competition (better, cleaner gasoline vehicles).
7. Problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions

Some recent research, though, has led me to question some of the assumptions which lead away from Hydrogen as a viable energy ‘solution’, and to reach the conclusion that, done in the right way, hydrogen has the potential to help move our society much closer to the ideal ‘zero carbon world’. Here is some of that evidence.

Before the detail, though, I should point out that there is no real disagreement with Romm’s arguments – he knows what he’s talking about – especially in respect to FCVs and FCEVs. And some of his criticisms may need to be fleshed out in more detail later, otherwise this piece could be endless. On the other side of the coin, as with electric hybrid technology, things have moved on a pace, and at least some of the problems are already close to resolution. Hyundai has the new ix35 FCEV, with a range of 360 miles. Nissan has new fuel cell stack technology, as do Hitachi, who are working on CHES storage (Carbon Hydride) amongst other things. There’s a new Honda on the way, too.

The biggest obstruction to generic hydrogen use is the problem of distribution. So let’s get rid of it. Instead of hydrolysing at a distance, follow the Toshiba model (below), and produce locally. As well as being a by-product of some existing factory processes, hydrogen can be produced direct at the site of a wind-farm (which also means the maximal use of the energy generated, in the sense that there is no distribution loss from the transformer to the end-use). A small (but commercially viable) local wind farm will be practicable in plenty of places (though not all – for example in Africa, where the long-term mean annual wind speeds in the centre of the continent just won’t do the job), where anything from 1-50MW capacity local farms will produce electricity almost as cost-effectively as on the really big ‘Texas-scale’ farms. For the majority of the time, the energy from these goes direct to a local ‘island’ or national grid infrastructure for direct use. But there are always times when supply exceeds demand. What to do with the excess? Store it as hydrogen.

Using a suitable piece of engineering, it is simple enough to then transfer the gas, suitably pressurised, into rail tenders purpose built for this. The tenders can then be towed down the line to a rail head or terminal where they can be simply linked up to the rolling stock. This means the expense and consumption implied in Romm’s model is reduced to a sufficiently low level that the relative inefficiencies are compensated for.

This is one area where I think hydrogen has real potential for solving some of the problems Joe and others bring up, in the rail network. Though it is underfunded and still not fully realised, some good work has been going on for years, and several projects are running around the world. Hydrail has a useful links page and some summaries of what is happening here. Or, you could look at this article from Future Rail magazine.

In Japan (where else?), several companies have been working on Hydrogen for a variety of purposes. Toshiba have an ongoing demonstration project in Kitakyushu, in which hydrogen as a by-product of steel production in a nearby factory services homes, fuel stations and local businesses. There’s a promotional demo here, which includes a grumpy kid and a cute puppy, so don’t switch it on if you’re easily nauseated. There’s a lot missing from the demo video, so let’s not pretend that all the answers are there now. But there’s more…

Here’s a pdf of a presentation on the work done recently at Ulsan and Insheon in Korea, with heavy involvement from Hyundai. It’s useful for some real numbers, demonstrations of distribution plans, and the absence of kids and puppies. In upstate New York, GE has a new domestic energy hydrogen research facility working to roll out products by 2017.
Which leads me to the ‘obvious’ link up. If it is possible and effective to generate at a wind farm, store in tenders, and link to the transport (rail) system, could we do the same for personal transportation? I see no reason why not. This is how it might work.

A hydrogen management system is installed (much as an oil tank or gas tank is put in already) outside the home. Solar panels (where wind is not practical) on the garage roof, or the house roof, generate electricity which can be switched on demand to the household system, battery backup systems, the hydrolysis ‘machine’, and, if relevant, the grid. The hydrogen ‘terminal’ contains loadable fuel cell units which can be transferred to a car/auto, a stove, or whatever. Plastic gas pipes can feed into the house, where a combined heating and ventilation system can be operated. There may even be a hose point to feed a car’s storage, so when you get home in the evening, you can fill it up in three minutes. All of the technology to deliver this (with some modification) already exists – nothing new has to be invented. Safety levels are now very high – probably better than domestic propane systems, at a guess – and the renewable energy generated is used where it is needed, when it is needed, without so much wastage or loss.

The novelty here, such as it is, lies in three elements – one, the synthesis of energy needs for the average person – home, heat, transport – two, the transferability of the energy storage medium between uses, and three, the removal or reduction of pretty much all of that list of reasons why it didn’t used to work, in particular the problems of distribution and infrastructure. And so the average Jo or Joe can maintain a modern lifestyle (whilst being energy efficient, of course), independence, and achieve some payback on energy saved, gas saved, utility and domestic costs.

Which leaves three unanswerable issues from the list. The initial cost, which is determined by the cost of technology and demand volume. Improvements in other technologies, which are happening all the time, but can be seen as complementary or alternative solutions which will work better in some cases. And, finally, the achievable cost-effectiveness of the whole package. Which I can’t answer. Because it depends on comparative energy costs, ratio of energy usage, which will vary depending on lifestyles, and other factors which as things stand are incommensurable.

It may not be the final word, but it really is starting to look, to me, like the day of Hydrogen is on the way, if not as the ‘magic bullet’, then at least as another in the mix of energy solutions which will help get us out of this mess.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

This is not a review of 'The Bone Clocks' by David Mitchell

Because other writers, experienced reviewers and interested parties, like Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian (here), will do a decent job of it; though I found the New Yorker's extended piece somewhat over the top, with too much in the way of spoiler, and possibly missing the point, though that's probably just me.

This is a blog about climate change, philosophy, and whatever I say it is about, so why the sudden urge to discuss literature? Like my previous discussion of the writing of James Morrow, the urge is because I think it is pertinent and useful to read David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian, though the comedian is my kind of amusing, too).

If you are reading this because you share my interest in the near future of humanity, read the book, with a focus on the last seventy or so pages, which paints a picture which is both credible and frightening; it contains what is for me the best description to date of what we might expect (included the fascinating but flawed vision offered by Kim Stanley Robinson in the recent '2312' (also worth a read).

The Bone Clocks is connected in a casual but conscious manner to some of Mitchell's previous writings, most notably for me, Cloud Atlas, but also Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In both novels he plays with time and narrative, and incorporates two themes dear to my heart - the Future in a world changed by a changing climate, social order and politics, and Human Nature, in particular, the struggle to do good in a difficult world.

A part of Mitchell's appeal is that he is covering these subjects in ways which match mine to a large degree, so that, on these matters we share a vision of the future and our role in leading to it. There are times during reading when I stop and find myself thinking 'I could have written this' (which is not a presumption of talent on my part, but a recognition of material). The last time I had similar, regular experience of this was in the 1980's and early 90's, when I read a considerable amount of Michael Moorcock's work, and kept finding myself uncovering a narrative which I had just finished writing in my head a few weeks before - so frequent was this occurrence that it was almost spooky. When I told Moorcock about this, I think it freaked him out slightly, too.

It is interesting to note that the two authors share other features, most particularly, the persistence across time and narrative of certain core characters - metacharacters, consciously so, like Moorcock's Eternal Champion or Jerry Cornelius, or Mitchell's Dr Marinus - and the idea of the persistence of narrative patterns (in this, both are post-modern, post-deconstructionist writers).

Most significant, for this blog, is Mitchell's fairly consistent imagining, glimpsed in the background in Song Mi's story in Cloud Atlas, more fully rounded here in the Bone Clocks, in the later two chapters, set in 2025 and 2042 respectively. It is clear to me that I share something with David Mitchell here - our research, understanding, interpretation of the near future is very closely paralleled. We both imagine a future of bleaker weather, vastly divided social groups, and a strong distinction between life in the remnants of 'civilisation' (drawn out in Mitchell's more distant Shanghai, more proximate Iceland), and the residue of the 'uncontrolled' world, a place of violence and lawlessness. Much of the detail is inferred, hinted at, slightly nebulous - this isn't the epic prose of a vast sci-fi style future vision, but a more subtle, more open-ended imagining.

The other area of interest, and what lift's Mitchell's work into the traditional concept of the literary, is his concern with human nature, and the nature of good and evil. There are touches of this in his earlier work, but in The Thousand Autumns and here, the Bone Clocks, this is a pretty transparent theme. We know this from the presence of the narratives of the Horologists and the Anchorites. We can see it in the moral choices made by all of the characters, to whom (without presuming the author's intention) we can attribute certain internal dynamics which shape our empathy and their moral compass. Holly could said to stand for love, in particular, the love of the family, Hugo for the Ego - he could so easily have stepped out of 'Atlas Shrugg'd' - Crispin as the somewhat detached, ivory-tower self-isolator; they all have moral ambiguities, but there is no question about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Reviewers (apart from Le Guin) seem to have struggled with the 'fantasy' element of the novel, but few have observed that this is a core metaphor - and Mitchell's decision to spell it out as narrative rather than leave it embedded in the text for the reader to puzzle out, is also a very post-modern approach to the concept of meaning in Narrative, something also featuring in Moorcock's writing. The reader is presented with at least three (I'll be honest, I can't really fathom out Ed's moral position, yet) different human ways of being - the loving, the distant, the selfish - seen in the context of a battle between the non-authoritarian, laissez-faire little acts of salvation undertaken by the Horologists, and the Murderous, self-perpetuating selfishness of the vampiric Anchorites.

There are other interesting sub-metaphors in play here, too ; science/reason vs mysticism, the other vs the self, lives lived conscious of meaning and its absence, engaged in the being lived. There is anough content and suggestion in the story, as there is in Mitchell's other work, to justify (and more or less, in my case, guarantee) a second or third reading.

So, if you want to know where much of my posting is directing itself towards over the past several years, read the book, and get a better, more engaging description than I could ever manage for myself. Just don't expect a happy ending.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Why has Hansen become an 'Advocate'?

One of the reasons its been quiet here is because yours truly has been busy mixing it at the Guardian. Occasionally, the odd little gem has poppped out of the cabbage patch and been reasonably well received.

Just now, someone else left a post on a John Abrahams article (here) which I felt the need to respond to. I'm quite pleased with the result, so here are the two comments:

In truth, I prefer the harder science, but frankly these do not get as many page views as the debunking posts.
Is how many page views your blog posts receive what you are interested in? Is that the primary reason for your participation in this blog? If so, then by all means follow more closely to your colleauge's approach. But beware that that is not a scientific blogging approach so much as it is a publicity approach in a sciency genre. Not really science communication in even a loose sense of the term.
A problem for all science communicators and the public who are their target, is that their scientific credentials are often projected onto their activist writings. Take Dr. Hansen for instance, a brilliant and well qualified atmospheric physicist he may well be, however his advocacy for, or protest against any given solution to the technical problem which is high atmosheric CO2 concentrations is no more qualified than any other intelligent layman. He is not a politician or an economist and solutions for the CO2 problem all require considerable expertise in these arenas. However, more often than not he is awarded the respect he has earned as a scientist for his socio-economic/political solutions. We are told we are not listening to "science" if we do not agree with his proposed solutions. Yet when discussing his solutions his scientific credentials hold no more weight than anyone else who accepts the concensus scientific position on AGW.
So you have to ask yourself, is this blog about science communication, which you are well qualified to author? Or is this blog about advocacy for or protest against highly complex socio-economic/political solutions, which you are no more qualified to author than any other intelligent layman?
If you choose the later, just remember that you are not communicating science and cannot project your scientific expertise onto your opinions about other matters.
  • Fergus Brown Smith1867
    First, I think it is important to point out that the blog is a part of John's journalistic work, into which his science work feeds. As a journalist, he needs to earn his crust by bringing an audience into the Medium that pays him, so hits matter.
    On the main points you make: Let's say for arguments' sake that you, a scientist, along with a number of colleagues, spend several years working on a hypothesis and reach the conclusion that it really is likely to change the World as we know it, and furthermore, that the consequences could be devastating, and beyond this, that a certain course of action could reduce risks and harm considerably.
    So, of course, you publish. Then, for twenty years, nobody does anything about your findings apart from whinge and get abusive. The evidence mounts up, but the clock is ticking. Your original conclusions have been validated many times over, but still nobody seems to want to do anything to stop the harm or the potential devastation.
    So, what do you do?
    Firstly, as a scientist, you keep on proving your point, testing your work, and keeping up to date. You develop some kudos. Then, as a human being, you start advocating loudly and publically. Because talking about it scientifically and reasonably didn't work. But it still matters. It matters more than ever. So you shout, you protest, you publish, you lobby, and you do everything in your power to get the message across that this is serious, and it ain't gonna go away.
    No, bollocks. If it was me, I would have lost my patience years before Hansen did. Any normal, rational human being would do the same.
    Along with which, I'd get really pissed off with people who told me I had no right to meddle in politics or that my opinions had no validity.
    I think I've made my point...