Tuesday 8 August 2017

Cars, Carbon, Energy, Monbiot, Scribbler, Tesla and the rest

Robert Scribbler likes EVs, especially the new Tesla. He thinks that these vehicles will help reduce emissions and thereby reduce the effects of a changing climate. I agree. But they won't make as much difference as many of us hope in the bigger picture. Where they make the most difference is in how we as individuals can pass on responsibility for the future by 'doing our bit'.

George doesn't like EVs so much. Perhaps more accurately, he isn't keen on the social/environmental pathway implied by a continuing commitment to personal vehicles and thinks that there are better ways to do things. As usual, he has a point, but in common with most (all?) thinkers about the future, he struggles with finding the best way to get from here to there; I don't disagree with many of the things he says or proposes, but there is a disconnect between the present state of affairs and the desired endgame position (his views on re-wilding also struggle with this).

Elon has put his money where his mouth is; making (and very successfully promoting) stuff which doesn't spew out toxins (directly), in large volume. But as George points out, when it is resource exploitation which is a part of the problem, more resource exploitation can't really be the solution.

More critically, Elon's solution (EVs) only works under one condition; the means of generating the energy required to operate them must be exclusively either renewable or nuclear, otherwise, EVs merely move the emissions problem rather than solving it.

And all of these need to be put into context. The BIG Carbon problem is Energy. We have created a society which depends utterly on the readily available supply of cheap energy with which everything else in our society is possible. Personal transportation is a problem and doing something about this particular problem is a good thing, no doubt, but it is only a small part of the problem, and an even smaller part of the solution.

Energy isn't the only very important societal/environmental problem, though. Pollution, deforestation, waste, inefficiency and biodiversity busting all represent problems which are already biting us and will continue to do so. In some cases, there is no connection between these and the energy problem, but in many cases, there are underlying connections which can be addressed, most specifically, the way in which we perceive our World, our lives and our needs. 

This is the big target of George's issues with EVs; it isn't that EVs can't help some, but that seeking solutions like this don't address deeper and more difficult problems, such as why we need personal vehicles in the first place, and why we keep imagining that we can fix the problems caused by overexploitation by doing some more exploitation, only differently.

In my next post I'll propose some ideas for breaking the energy log jam. Meantime, I'll make a simple point. Electric, Hybrid or low-emissions cars are a good way forward in dealing with the problem of energy and emissions related specifically to cars - they're better than what we have at the moment, IF and ONLY IF they source their power for the batteries from renewable sources. That's a small plus and a move in the right sort of direction, but it ain't gonna save the World.

Sunday 2 July 2017

How to be a moral actor on climate change

Clear the air: Individual action in itself is not enough, corporate action or system-scale action to mitigate and adapt to climate change is needed. And yet, 'what is the ocean but a multitude of drops?' - every bit of energy left unused (Carbon left unreleased) is a gain, every bit wasted is a loss. 

Some people I know have complex relations with climate change action. They want to be 'good' about it, often for the sake of their own children, but also in a more general context, for the avoidance of harm to unknown others. (Are we all not siblings?)

There is no obligation for any given individual to act such as to reduce their carbon impact. This is and will always be a personal choice. It is essential that individuals are allowed to retain the right to their own opinions, regardless of our personal opinions of their opinions.

If you are one of those people who believe, or, more generally 'feel' that it is right for you to at least try to make an effort on the side of not making things worse than they already are, then you may, like the aforementioned friends, want to know what is a good way to act, what are the useful actions, and which the 'greenwash'. For you, here is a list of suggestions:

1.1  Buy less stuff.
1.2  Buy less plastic stuff.
1.3  Avoid buying c**p.
1.4  Educate yourself on which necessary products and goods are more or less environmentally sound. Product labels do not tell the whole story, but can sometimes help.
Summary: Be a mindful consumer.

2.1  Waste less stuff.
2.2  Try to get the full use out of a product, rather than replacing it for fashion, vanity or victim-consumer habits. Stuff does wear out, some quicker than others (see 1, above). It's okay to replace stuff, but a new computer, phone or tv every years or so is NOT necessary in most cases.
2.3  When you get stuff, if you spend wisely, you can the spend your time appreciating the stuff you have, rather than worrying about what you don't have. Example: I recently bought a classical guitar. I spent more on it that I possibly should. However, it will cherish it until my dying day, it will always be as good as any guitar I could have bought, and it will return its cost in both value and utility for as long as I could want. 
2.4  Instead of throwing away stuff you don't need or want any more, but which is still useable, try giving it away, or selling it. This allows the carbon cost of a product to be spread over a longer period, avoids material wastage, and allows other people to share the pleasure you once had when the thing was new to you.

Summary: waste is a state of mind, which is often careless, thoughtless. Be a mindful chucker-out of stuff.

3.1  Try to learn how to fix, repair, maintain or care for the stuff you have. Even keeping some things clean can extend their life by months, even years. Two generations ago, every poor bachelor or young woman was taught how to sew, stitch, make do and mend.

3.2  There are things which can no longer serve their original purpose. This does not mean they are useless. Some things can be repurposed, adapted, adjusted or slightly altered to suit another purpose. When something 'breaks', think about what alternative use it might have. Example: a Wellington boot with a hole in it is not much use as a Wellington boot, but makes a useful 'plant pot'.

Summary: the longer that stuff has an utility, the less waste there is, and the less need there is to use up even more resources. be creative.

4.1  Don't beat yourself up for what you can't change. 
4.2  If you do even a little bit of the stuff above, which is only a starter list, then you are 'doing good'. 
4.3  You have a carbon footprint. Get over it. It is commensurate with your lifestyle, occupation, the world around you as it is, and other things. You can't eliminate it completely, but you can make it earn its place.

Summary: You don't have to live in a cave to do something good. Every small effort is a net good in itself, and the avoidance of a net bad - a double-win.

Final thoughts: If you want to be a moral actor in a modern world, you mainly need to be more thoughtful and less lazy about your actions, choices and decisions. It's mostly a state of mind which needs to change to get into 'better' habits. Is it worth it? You are one of seven billion. If a small percentage of the people who say they want a change in attitude did some of the above, and other things, this would, in collective consequence, represent a revolution. It would change the markets, undermine the worst excesses of the corporate system, and cause a reconsideration of the relationship between people and stuff.

This is a taster. There's a million more things to be offered, but let's start easy.

Monday 20 February 2017

Some "alt-names" for Trump

Inspired by John Oliver's most recent observations about Tango Man, for the time being I will be referring to POTUS 45 as "President Ping Pong". This is because his observations reminded me of the wonderful Phoenix Nights, Peter Kay's first great comic series, and in particular, this (go to 39 seconds if you can't wait), the 'auditions' strand which ran at the end of every episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5EA2g3nZWo

Since it seems impossible to take the person concerned too seriously, for the time being, I'm just going to follow the crowd and, in the English (Cockney) vernacular, Take the piss...

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Time to get used to the stupidity and move on

As per, The Guardian tries to keep abreast of developments in climate science. Though at times the headlines are irritatingly provocative, in general it does a decent job.

This morning's piece on Wm Happer, here, contained a quotation from the latter which is so stupid I thought it deserved a mention:

“There’s a huge amount of money that we spend on saving the planet,” he said. “If it turns out that the planet doesn’t need saving as much as we thought, well, there are other ways you could spend the money."

Though the stupidity is self-evident to some of us, I'll try not to take anything for granted and just unpack this a bit.

First off: "there's a huge amount of money we spend on saving the planet"

Okay, Mr Happer, please provide examples of these 'huge amounts' of money. Now, compare the amounts with the 'huge amounts' we spend trashing the planet; how do these figures compare?

Beyond this, why does anyone think that the planet might need saving in the first place? 

Is it, perhaps, because some people have identified a number of risks? Is it because decades of analysis from insurance companies, military think tanks, corporates and, on top of these, academics and specialists, have led these people to think that some types of human interaction with the planet is a risk, not just to the planet but, more meaningfully, to the people who live here?

Trying to find an analogy is challenging, because there is really very little comparison to be made - we only have one planet. We need it. We need the living things besides us which live on it. We need its atmosphere and oceans. We'd quite like to keep hold of most of the people on it, too, for a decent lifespan.

Then we need to ask; what is it that people think the planet needs protecting from? What is the source of these risks? It is us, our activities, exploitation, misuse, abuse, destruction, pollution, chaotic and entropic dissolution of that which we once inherited. 

Happer's point is easy to unpick: the administration is going to remove not just protection but also monitoring. The mistreatment of 'the planet' is not a risk - not enough of a risk - to justify reining back its continuation, or the corporates who profit from it, despite the endless, depressing, ongoing warnings from pretty much every direction that if we go on like these we really will be screwed.

This isn't an argument for inaction - it is way too stupid to be graced with the title of 'argument'. It is an excuse. Happer may as well have said : "we aren't going to even try to improve things because it might make some of us less rich".

Get used to it. This is going to continue for a while. It has been going on in the UK for several years, with government using any excuse to justify its systematic ideology-driven demolition of all the social systems which we have already paid for, simply to reduce its revenue commitments and pass on the problems and solutions into private (and often international) hands.

The current administration will provide spurious and trivial justifications for stupid decisions which bear no relation to the reasons for them.

Get used to it, and move on. If the chimps are throwing their caca at the visitors, go enjoy the penguins instead, while you still can.

Friday 10 February 2017

23 minutes to kiss the planet goodbye

Waking up in the middle of the night, the World Service was interviewing Myron Ebell.

I hope friends in the US can access this from the BBC World Service: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04rq0fk#play

If you feel in the slightest depressed, don't listen till you are more cheerful. I haven't slept in the three hours since the show was broadcast, it's now around 06:30am.

A couple of sample take homes for the lazy:

  1. The EPA is to be gutted (staff cut by 2/3 and budgets slashed)
  2. The hiatus proves that there is no connection between CO2 and warming
  3. roughly: " it has recently been shown that the temperature record is a hoax". No, really.
Can you spot the glaring inconsistency? Others already have.

Really should go back to bed, but time seems to be getting more precious every day these days...

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Climate change - why the fuss?

Sometimes it is hard to remember why people make a fuss about climate change and global warming. In the politically charged arena of online advocacy the language of the issues has been framed by the denihilist procrastinators, so that most discussions of consequences revolve around whether or not climate change is 'catastrophic', whether or not warnings are 'alarmist' (crying wolf), whether or not projections of harm with large uncertainties are useful for policy discussions.

All of these, deliberately, miss the point, the reasons why action to mitigate and adapt are urgent, and reveal the moral vacuum which is inhabited by too many people these days.

So, here is a reminder of why I bother to have a blog and to comment on websites and fora such as Quora. These are my reasons. Some co-bloggers will have similar motives, others will have their own, but for me, this is the bottom line.

People will suffer.

Recent work has shown the link which already exists between both emergency and systemic situations and their consequences. Not just storms, floods and wildfires, which make dramatic TV and therefore feature in the media, but drought, seasonal shifts threatening food supply chains, evapo-transpiration effects, disease vector changes; there is really quite a long list.

Inasmuch as these measured effects are either affected or exacerbated by the changing climate -  and the argument is not that they are not affected, but the extent to which a measurable difference can be identified and isolated - the problems which exist now are overshadowed by the problems which will exist soon.

So, people have already suffered, and more people will suffer. Many more.

There is a strong general agreement that, whilst balancing other social factors, a move to reduce the upper limit of the changes down the line (through mitigation) will actually reduce the extent and degree of suffering.

Recent discussions on Quora have enlightened me to contemporary attitudes to the harm expected from climate change; there are people who think this is not important, that the suffering of others does not matter.

At the more radical end, it would be surprising if others hadn't worked out what I have calculated and reached the conclusion that by the end of this century, and quite likely well before this, many millions of people will have either died or been permanently displaced by the various upheavals which result from and are magnified by climate change. For some people, this is perceived as a 'good thing'.

So there are already two opposing forces pulling in different directions when it comes to the question of why climate mitigation is necessary.

On one side, we have identified that people are suffering and will suffer, and that at least some of this suffering is preventable. Our duty/responsibility is clear - if we can act to reduce the suffering of others, we should act. This is a baseline in the very notion of society. There is a further principle too, that if we choose not to act when we have the means to do so, then we are culpable in that suffering. Most particularly, our political leaders, who have executive power and common responsibility, are on the line for allowing suffering without intervention or assistance, where these would prevent it.

On the other side, we are conscious that population stress is another magnifier of suffering and that environmental and ecological problems, along with infrastructure problems, in part exist because of the strain put on them by increased consumption demand purely from the pressure of numbers. An analyst taking the very long view might conclude that allowing a degree of suffering for the time being, so that population pressures are eased down the line, could be a better solution.

But this is very harsh on the victims. One reason why climate impact projections focus on economic or environmental damage is that these have a degree of measurability and are thus amenable to modelling. Conversely, the extent and degree of human suffering - people being harmed, is much more difficult to quantify, since it is also affected by a cluster of magnifiers and causes which are more or less connected to climate. Nonetheless, the IPCC, WHO, UNEP and UNHCR. along with other agencies, have placed their analysis in the public record, and it makes for ugly reading.

The more recent projections suggest that there will be several million additional premature (and unnecessary) deaths from climate related impacts by 2050 alone. The current estimates include 160,000 per year already in the system, rising to 250,000 a year out to 2030-2050.

Later, I'll write about the error we make in assessing the personal consequences of climate inaction, but there is still a lot more to say.

For the time being, let this sink in. Not very long ago, there was no doubt that the untimely deaths of six million people as a consequence of a state policy was such an appalling crime that the perpetrators with command responsibility were tried and executed for their decisions. This was the Holocaust.

What is the material difference, especially to the victims, between that situation and this? What is the moral difference between that situation and this? For those who promote caution or outright denial of the issues linked to climate change, I ask - are you, morally, any better than those people? Are you, in effect, wearing a symbol-laden armband in support of the unspeakable? How will you be judged?

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Do you want ice with that?

A popular pastime amongst those of us who have an interest in what's going on with the climate is to try to guess how much Arctic sea ice there will be each season when the annual minimum is reached.

For anyone reading who thinks this might interest them, there is an almost endless ongoing source of information, graphs and analysis at the excellent Arctic Sea Ice Blog/ Forum/Graphs.

There is also a science program which collects various predictions, from the technical (model-based) to the amateur (heuristic), called SIPN (used to be ARCUS).

Part of the fun of this is to try to work out the different factors which may or may not affect future sea ice level down the line. On a long time scale, this is easy enough, if you simply reference the climate data since 1979 and look at the history of decline in Summer sea ice levels. It is quite possible to do a 'rough fit' with historic data and come up with a prediction which is not far off the mark, though this is going to be more by chance than reason.

One of the most popular sources of data and information is the NSIDC dedicated sea ice and cryosphere pages. These focus on the measured data rather than prediction, but contain a wealth of useful graphics and links.

On the recent page you will notice a reference to a recent piece of research conducted by some of the members of the team, Serreze M. C. et. al., JGR (2016).

This paper demonstrates a connection which has an effect on the annual minimum:

"...They found that 68 percent of the variance in the date that ice retreats from the continental shelf break in the Chukchi Sea in spring can be explained by fluctuations in the April through June Bering Strait oceanic heat inflow..."

So, one way in which we can now make a more reliable prediction in relation to one part of the Arctic is in place.

Then, I noticed (not reported widely elsewhere yet) that others of the team have been involved in a different piece of research at the opposite side: Fram Strait sea ice export variability and September Arctic sea ice extent over the last 80 Years. (Smedrud et.al.). Here we find the useful:

"...Increased ice export during winter will generally result in new ice growth and contributes to thinning inside the Arctic Basin. Increased ice export during summer or spring will, in contrast, contribute directly to open water further north and a reduced summer sea ice extent through the ice–albedo feedback..."

and: "...We find a general moderate influence between export anomalies and the following September sea ice extent, explaining 18 % of the variance between 1935 and 2014, but with higher values since 2004...".

These two useful recent pieces of work add to our understanding of two of the mechanisms which contribute to Arctic Summer minima. They don't give the whole picture; the number and range of the variables are such that we don't have a full picture of all of the teleconnections or causes.

What we can do, though, is look at these two parameters and add some inferences to our other observations. If Fram export has been relatively high recently, then the September minimum is likely to be lower than the long term average. If Bering Sea heat input is higher than usual during the Spring, then the September
minimum is likely to be lower. 

If both cases occur simultaneously, it is reasonable to infer that there is a high likelihood of a reduced minimum, if the other other known variables (such as the Arctic oscillation - AO) do not contradict this, and if the historic patterns of weather and overall seasonal temperature anomalies are also in alignment.

This is an example of how ongoing scientific research and information collecting adds to our understanding of the ways in which the climate can vary, and the trends which show how the climate is changing relative to the past.