Going to hell on a handcart

I was pretty staggered to learn that our use of coal in the UK is now actually on the increase.

Given everything we know about global warming, its causes and its consequences for our own children and grandchildren, this is a bit like discovering that, while supposedly fighting a war on terrorism, we were actually busy funding Al-Qaeda.

All those movies where the hero saves the world from an existential threat, and then a real threat comes, and we just shrug and sleepwalk towards it!

Contemptible Boris

I try to avoid liking or disliking people simply on the basis of their politics.  I think it’s important to recognise that honest and decent people may hold views and understandings about society that are radically from our own.  And for this reason, and I suppose because of his obvious personal charm, I was rather slower than many people to come to a negative judgement about Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.  But this article, which he wrote in the Telegraph back in January, has been preying on my mind ever since I came across it a couple of months ago, and it has finally ended any last vestige of respect I still had for him.

In this piece, adopting his carefully honed, faux-humble ‘what do I know?’ persona, he casts doubt on the idea of global warming.  (Not, of course that he for a moment wishes to ‘dispute the wisdom or good intentions of the vast majority of scientists’, oh dear no!  He no more wishes to do that than Mark Anthony wished to dispute that Caesar was an honourable Roman).  He offers as evidence for his doubts his own observation that winters have been pretty cold lately (ignoring record-breaking average temperatures across the globe). He makes the fatuous comment that it is the sun that warms the earth, not the atmosphere (which is obviously the case, but the same sun feels pretty different, doesn’t it, when you’re inside a greenhouse than it does when you stand outside in the shade of a tree?), and he suggests that ‘we human beings have become so blind with conceit and self-love that we genuinely believe that the fate of the planet is in our hands’.

But it isn’t conceit and self-love that tells us that carbon dioxide levels are rising.  Nor is it conceit or self-love that tells us that carbon dioxide has the greenhouse effect of trapping heat.   On the contrary this information only exists because some people have had the humility not to assume that they know things when in fact they don’t.  It exists because some people have taken the trouble to actually study and measure things and figure out how they fit together, and it comes from years of meticulous, tedious, painstaking work, like extracting gas from tiny bubbles in the Antarctic ice.

None of this touches Johnson.  Here is a man whose own conceit and self-love is so great that he feels able to take the platform available to him as one of the best-known politicians in the UK, and use it, not to communicate the facts about a real global threat (which wouldn’t be hard to do: he’s a bright man and he surely has people who can look things up for him), but to blur, muddy and confuse them.

To obtain so much power and then to exercise so little leadership!

I don’t mean to be a bore, but…

Anyone looking through this blog would see that there are a lot of items about climate change.   I’ve become very interested  in this topic, and I’m going to write a novel about it (Slaymaker), which should come out in 2015.

What fascinates me in particular is the psychology of it.  Have you noticed that, even if you have taken on board that this is a real threat, it’s extremely difficult to hold that fact in your mind?   Or that to mention it too often feels like bad manners?  ‘I’m sorry to trouble you,’ I feel like saying even as I write this, ‘I don’t mean to be a bore, but would you mind if I mentioned just once again that we’re plunging headlong towards a precipice?’

Somehow a whole battery of psychological defences come into play (the very defences, perhaps, that allow us to distance ourselves from the fact of our mortality) and these defences cause us to constantly sideline climate change as if it just were a detail, or some sort of minor irritant, rather than an existential threat to our civilization.  On Monday, for instance, on the Today Programme on Radio 4, there was a discussion about the unprecendently weird weather in the UK in 2012 (not just in the UK either but in many other places including Australia) and the fact that we should expect this to continue.  Later in the same programme there was an interview with Conservative MP Tim Yeo about nuclear power, shale gas and energy policy in general: yet no connection at all was made between the two items, and climate change wasn’t even mentioned as a factor to consider when weighing up the options.

On Wednesday, there was an item about biofuels on the same programme, in which an eminent scientist (Sir David King), questioned whether they really helped reduce carbon emissions, even though they could be used to meet our commitment to produce energy from renewable sources.  John Hayes, the Energy Minister, told him that his concerns were ‘bourgeois’ and that he himself was a practical man whose main concern was to ‘keep the lights on’.   The clear implication was that being concerned about climate change was a bit wet and middle class, and while he was prepared to toss a few sops towards the climate lobby, he wouldn’t offer more than that.

Well, of course many interest groups can be tamed with the judicious use of symbolic placation.  But the physical world isn’t a lobby or an interest group, and it has no interest in symbolic gestures.   We either do something about climate change or we don’t.  It’s all the same to nature either way.  The trouble is that it won’t be all the same to us.

Fermi’s paradox solved?

The galaxy is vast, the number of planets enormous, so how come we never hear from any alien life forms?

Professor Galacticus proposes the following explanation:

There is a lot of life in the galaxy, and he surmises that all of it will be carbon-based and all of it originate in water.   As a result, in every planet in which life takes root, deposits of carbon and hydrocarbons will build up over millions of years as organisms die, form sediments, and are subjected to various geological forces.

In a relatively small proportion of living planets, Galacticus suggests, the process of biological evolution will have resulted in symbol- and tool-using intelligence.   This in turn brings into being a newer and much faster secondary evolutionary process, corresponding, roughly speaking, to what we call culture.

At a certain level of development, culture stumbles upon the vast reserves of chemical energy that built up millions of years before it came into being.  By exploiting these reserves, culture is able to massively accelerate its own evolution – Galacticus speaks of ‘putting on seven-league boots’ – because the enormous increase in the productivity of each individual allows large numbers of individual to cease to be involved in meeting the basic physical needs of the species and thereby become available for other work.

In such a context, highly complex activities such as space travel become possible: activities which require individuals to devote themselves to doing things with no immediate practical benefit at all.  And when cultures embark on the project of space travel, they naturally begin to contemplate the possibility that other cultures, on other planets, are doing likewise, and begin to develop means of searching for, and communicating with, those putative others.

However all this occurs in a very narrow window for, unknown at first to the individuals who make up these cultures, they have set in train a force that will destroy them.  This force is not nuclear weapons, as some have surmised it might be, nor poisonous pollution, but something seemingly entirely innocuous: a very common substance, and one that is not merely non-toxic but actually essential to life. Carbon dioxide.

By the time the danger becomes evident, cultures are already so massively committed to fossil fuels that change is difficult.  It is not technically impossible – the explosive development of technological knowledge which the ‘seven-league boots’ have made possible means that a switch to some combination of alternative energy sources is entirely feasible in purely engineering terms – but it is psychologically and sociologically very difficult indeed.  Almost every one of the intelligent life forms in the galaxy has gone well past the point of no-return – or will do so – before they have fully taken on board the nature of the threat.

And then the physical world takes over, positive feedback loops of various kinds kick in, and, very rapidly, the culture, what is left of it, is reduced to a precarious existence in which the very idea of attempting to communicate with aliens, just for the sheer fun of it, is simply laughable.

‘Hence,’ says Professor Galacticus, ‘the silence from the sky.’

*  *  *

‘You may think,’ he adds, ‘that I am making far too many assumptions about the psychology and sociology of unknown life forms, but I don’t think I am.  You see, their basic psychological equipment is always going to be the product of a biological evolutionary process.   We know how creative such a process is, and we know the diversity it has achieved, but it has one deep limitation.  It is reactive rather than teleological.   It is not aimed at anything, but is simply based on the accumulation of a kind of trial and error knowledge, and this makes it very weak at dealing with an unpredented threat.

‘I would, however, be very pleased to be proved wrong.’

What runaway truck, you liberal pinko?

This article describes a huge, concerted hundred-million dollar effort by wealthy American conservatives to discredit the evidence that climate change results from human activity. 

But why?  Doesn’t being conservative mean wanting to keep things the way they are?  And wouldn’t it logically follow that conservatives would want to protect their country, its cities, its farmlands, its way of life, from the depradations of hurricanes, floods, droughts and worldwide turmoil?   Self-interest might seem to explain it, but I don’t think it really does.

Revealingly, the picture at the beginning of the article shows an American conservative holding up a sign: ‘I don’t believe the liberal media.’

That’s it really, isn’t it?  There’s been a category error, and this has come to be seen as a partisan political issue, when it is really a straightforward threat from the material world.

It’s as if a driverless truck was hurtling down a hill towards the town square, and someone shouted out a warning to a bunch of people who were standing there talking.  But no one agreed with his political views so they all thought it best to ignore him.

‘Don’t come whining to us about runaway trucks, you liberal pinko!’

Saliency or efficacy

By way of footnote to previous post.  Thought this post about the impact of images on the way we think about climate change was interesting.  It connects well with some thoughts I’ve had about the difficulty of writing fiction about climate change.  Images of the effects of climate change get the message over about the threat (saliency), but make people feel fatalistic.  Images of attempts to mitigate climate change make people feel something can be done about it (efficacy), but don’t get over the seriousness of the threat.   Tricky!

Giant wind turbine at Nigg Yard by John Wright

The Politics of Climate Change, 2nd ed, by Anthony Giddens

In a previous post, I discussed this video clip of an American woman, emerging from a cinema after seeing the film ‘Chasing Ice.’   She’s clearly on the conservative side of the  American political spectrum.  ‘I love Bill O’Reilly,’ she says (he’s a right-wing commentator on the Fox News channel), ‘I watch Bill O’Reilly every day, and I’m proud to be an American, but…’

It’s the ‘but’ that fascinated me, the ‘but’ that she felt obliged to insert before she went on to say how badly she’d been shaken by the movie and how, in spite of previous scepticism, she now recognised climate change as a reality and a threat.   Why a ‘but’ rather than an ‘and’?   If you are proud of your country, doesn’t it logically follow you’d want to protect it from being ravaged by drought, storms and global chaos?  Surely protecting a thing is something you do because of your love for it, not in spite of it?

I’m only pretending to be surprised though.  Politics is a very tribal thing.  All of us (liberals and lefties as much as conservatives) tend to subscribe to approved clusters of beliefs, rather than working out for ourselves what we think about each individual issue.  The newspapers we read, peer group pressure, our own inertia – all tend to have the effect of homogenising these clusters of beliefs, so that we end up with a comforting ‘us’ and ‘them’ (and thus a linear dimension – left-right, liberal-conservative –  to represent the entire multi-dimensional space of possibilities).  These are ‘our’ views.  Those are ‘theirs’.  And of course ‘their’ views are always based on ignorance, fear, self-interest, or a refusal to face reality, while ‘ours’ are always based on wisdom, courage, decency and deep understanding of the world.

It so happens that a concern about climate change has come in America and elsewhere to be associated with the political left.   Research cited by Giddens in this book shows that Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans to believe that global warming is a reality, and more than three times as likely to believe that it is the result of human activity.  That’s why the woman in the clip says ‘but’.  She knows this is an idea that is associated with ‘them’, and she wants to make clear that her essential loyalties remain, nevertheless, unchanged.   (I know how she feels.  It’s uncomfortable to admit to a view that doesn’t fit the consensus of the group that assumes you are ‘one of us’.)

One of things that I appreciated about this book is that Giddens identifies this as a problem.   A concern about climate change really should not be associated with a particular political position:  (a) because a change in the global weather system is going to affect everyone’s children and grandchildren, whatever they happen to believe about the appropriate mix in society between state and private enterprise (and all the other issues on which we disagree politically), (b) because nothing useful is going to happen if this remains just another political football to be kicked back and forth between two teams:

“Responding to climate change should not be seen as a left-right issue.   Climate change has to be a question that transcends party politics, and about which there is an overall framework of agreement that will endure across changes of government. (p 74)”

In the same vein, Giddens also argues that we need to be very careful not to automatically conflate climate change with the usual ‘green’ concerns.  Being ‘green’ is of course another cluster of beliefs and lifestyles, which are assumed to all belong together but may in fact need to be disaggregated:

“For example, a key green value is that of ‘staying close to nature’ – or, more briefly put – conservation.  It is a value that has a certain aesthetic quality to it.  It is very possibly important to the good life, but it has no direct relevance to climate change.  Clashes can easily occur between conservationist values and policies relevant to global warming – for example, conservationists might resist the building of a nuclear power station, or a wind farm, in a particular area of the country.”

Greens of course (with a few exceptions) usually hate nuclear power, and Giddens acknowledges that “the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the possibility of nuclear terrorism and the difficulty of disposing of nuclear waste” but one of the overall thrusts of this book is that “no course of action (or inaction) is without risks; and that, consequently, there is always a balance of risks and opportunities to be considered in any policy context.”

He calls this ‘the percentage principle’ (as opposed to the precautionary one).  I know it well from my career in social work. We can’t eliminate the possibility of nasty thing happenings, not least because reducing the risk of one nasty thing typically increases the risk of others.  If we are to avoid the worst consequences of runaway climate change, therefore, we will be need to willing to take some risks, and to accept some changes that, in themselves, we don’t particularly welcome.

I wouldn’t say this was a great book.  It helped me to crystallise a few existing thoughts, rather than providing me with new ones that had never occurred to me.  But it was worth reading.

Climate change is an odd kind of threat, as Giddens points out:

“Since the dangers… aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, many will sit on their hands and do nothing…  Yes waiting until such dangers are visible and acute… before being stirred to serious action will be too late.”

He calls this Gidden’s paradox.  I’m not sure the thought is so original as to justify him naming it after himself, but the problem is real enough.   The way to get round it is to keep foregrounding the issue, and for that reason, as much as any other, I think this book is to be welcomed.

Belgium’s doughnut island

In order to move away from fossil fuels, we need to move towards either nuclear or renewable energy .   Both of these, for different reasons, create problems of inflexibility of supply.  Nuclear can’t just turned on and off to respond to fluctuations in demand (actually, this isn’t so easy with gas or coal stations either), and renewables are dependant on sources outside of human control.   Gloomier souls sometimes suggest that renewables, for this reason, are very little use.

But there just needs to be a way of storing surplus energy when demand is lower than supply.  Dinorwig power station in N Wales is an example of a large-scale solution to this problem.  It pumps water uphill at times of surplus power, and then lets it run downhill again to generate power when extra power is needed.

I’m no engineer,  I’m not even someone that likes to fix his own bike, but I enjoy thinking about these problems, and what interests me is that it isn’t so very hard, even for a not-particularly well-informed lay person, to dream up solutions.  I wondered whether fly-wheels could be used, for instance, and when I did a little internet search, it turned out that one fairly large fly-wheel-based plant actually does exist.

A more fanciful idea of mine (or so I thought) was to construct a large doughnut-shaped island in the sea out of which water could be pumped and then allowed to flow back in again.  I’ve just found that the Belgian government really does propose to build just such an island (Details here.)

I’m not suggesting here that flywheels and doughnuts islands are ‘the answer’.  I’m saying that, if even I can think of solutions, then this really isn’t such an insurmountable problem.

Climate change denialists are one thing, but climate change fatalists are also pretty dangerous: the ones who say that change is happening alright but it’s just too difficult to fix.  That could so easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and therefore yet another one of those dangerous positive feedback loops that threaten to exacerbate the problem.

Look at the resources, brainpower and effort that is now put into extracting petrochemicals from ever more difficult places (tar sands, the arctic, mile-deep ocean beds).   Is it really so difficult to imagine that a low-carbon economy could not be achieved by the same kind of commitment and effort?

150 slaves

“If we were to add together the power of all the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compared that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has over 150 ‘energy slaves’ working for us twenty-four hours a day.”

Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over, p 31.

How empty and worthless is the power of kings

At first glance, it is hardly surprising that oil companies and the like fund efforts to debunk the science on climate change.   It’s in their interests to do so, right?  Just as it was in the interests of tobacco companies to try to debunk the evidence of links between smoking and cancer.

But then you think, hang on, don’t oil executives have children and grandchildren, the same as the rest of us?

This is something more complex than cynical self-interest.  It’s a deep category error.   Climate change is being seen as an essentially political threat, a thing to be outmanoeuvred, fobbed off, discredited, or managed through spin and symbolic placation.   There’s a failure to understand that this isn’t about interest groups, it isn’t about the politics of left versus right.  It’s about air, and water, and ice.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Canute is supposed to have said, when the tide refused to obey his command to stop, and began to wash around his feet.