Environment shock: how the pace of environmental change destabilises

Originally posted here.

Let me begin with an idea that many will find shocking, outrageous or even inconceivable.

In order to maintain our complex industrial civilisation it may be necessary for us to entertain the inconceivable: that we have the power to manage the planet’s climate and environment. Indeed, this decision is being forced upon us as the planet warms and we reach critical “boundary thresholds“. We may have no choice in the matter if we wish to preserve our civilisation.

We will be compelled to become planetary engineers.

We can see the impact of our civilisation in every aspect of the Earth’s climate and environment: from the CO2 warming the planet, the mass extinction of species and the acidification of the oceans. And while it is hard to conceive our actions having such a profound impact on the Earth, the evidence from science is both compelling and overwhelming.

And yet as individuals and societies, how to we treat this new knowledge: do we accept it, or do we deny it?

Perhaps we are in a kind of shock?

Environment shock: the response to technological and environmental change

We often talk about the dizzying pace of technological change in our lives, and as individuals and societies we struggle to “keep up”. Institutional change – whether it is in private industry or government – is notoriously slow. People and societies are often caught unaware when change comes.

Thus our laws and social habits are often conflict with the changes wrought by technology. For the individual it can be disorienting and confronting.

Forty years ago Alvin Toffler termed the phrase “future shock“. He used it describe the stress societies undergoing profound technological changes experience:

“…Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change overwhelms people, he believed, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. “

Similarly, our societies are struggling to meet the challenge of climate change and environmental collapse.

Perhaps what we are experiencing is a kind of “environment shock”.

Defining “environment shock”: shock precedes inertia

I can only offer a tentative definition, but I see parallels between the tension our societies experience with rapid pace of technological change and rapid environmental change.

“Environment shock” could be defined loosely as:

As the environment undergoes rapid and enormous change individuals, societies and institutions struggle to both a) assimilate and understand this information and b) develop effective strategies to both contain and manage rapid environmental change on a global scale.

Case in point climate change: despite decades of overwhelming evidence and the good intentions of many governments, emissions continue to rise and no effective means to control carbon emissions exist. It may be our existing institutions are insufficient to meet the challenge environmental change presents.

Thus “environment shock” prompts some unsettling and hard questions :

  • How do we manage a planet?
  • Who governs the process of managing the planet?
  • Who provides the funding for planetary management schemes?
  • How do we balance the self-interest of nations and individuals against the “common good” of managing the planet?
  • What is the role of governments and trans-national institutions?
  • What is the role of industry?

Perhaps we are still in a state of shock as the implications of these ideas.


The God Species review: managing the planet via economic growth, genetic engineering and nuclear energy (Part 1)

Summary: Mark Lynas is a noted science author, environmental activist and has even acted as a policy advisor for the Maldives. His latest work, “The God species: how the planet can survive the age of humans” is an important contribution to the discussion on adapting to climate change (and other environmental challenges). It is bound to court controversy, as Lynas challenges environmentalists to reconsider their views on genetically modification and nuclear energy. Lynas has raised some important questions, and at the very least his work represents an attempt to formulate a science-based response.

Note: this was originally intended for Gen Adaptation blog but I’ve had some PC issues. Also cross-posted on Watching the Deniers

In “The God Species” Mark Lynas has produced a work bound to inspire some, challenge the preconception of others and spark debate. Given the enormity of the challenges our civilisation faces this is vitally necessary.

Indeed, this very reason for Gen Adaption is help spark debate and encourage discussion. Thus I was very eager to read “The God Species”.

Lynas is the author of the well received “Six degrees: our future on a hotter planet” (2007), which examined the Earth’s geologic and climate past in an attempt to see what our future may look like should global temperatures rise anywhere between 2-6 degrees (see a good summary by the author here). I read the work several years ago, and was impressed with the work. It was a very good meta-analysis of the science, and helped inform my understanding of the risk climate change poses.

Lynas earned the ire of some environmentalists in an 2010 article in “The New Statesmen” titled “Why greens keep getting it wrong”. In it Lynas criticised environmentalists for “getting it wrong’ on the issues of genetically modified foods and nuclear energy. In particular, Lynas was scathing on green opposition to nuclear energy.:

“In all these areas environmentalists were successful because they followed science – both in understanding the dangers and designing solutions. It is where greens part company from science, as with nuclear power, that problems arise. I have now concluded that all the main objections raised against nuclear power are bogus, or overhyped, or solvable, yet the established environmentalist position – because of a herd mentality as well as deeply held ideology – remains opposed.

…As a result of three decades of successful anti-nuclear campaigning, tens of billions of tonnes of carbon have accumulated in the atmosphere, thanks to proposed nuclear plants being replaced by coal.”

It was accompanied by a documentary on the Uk’s Channel 4. Guardian journalist George Monbiot was scathing of Lynas and his co-presenter Steward Brand. You may also wish to see a video reply from Friends of the Earth to the claims made in the documentary. Interestingly, Monbiot has since become a supporter of nuclear energy, seeing it as a necessary evil in the fight against climate change.

I’d also note that Bill McKibben, James Lovelock and James Hansen, amongst the most prominent luminaries in the climate change “movement”, are also advocates for nuclear power.

With these considerations in mind, I wanted to approach “The God species” with an open mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect: a shrill denouncement of the “green movement” and pean for the wonders of technology or a nuanced discussion on how to respond to the challenge of climate change?

Fortunately Lynas has delivered a well researched and thoughtful text. If there are errors in the book, they weren’t glaringly obvious – thus if any readers come across them I’d been interested.

Planetary boundaries during the age of the anthropocene: taking science based approach

“The story of the modern era… is the story of our transcendence… For modern humans were to discover a new source of fuel that would allow us to expand both our numbers and our dominance dramatically. This new fuel, in the form of underground deposits of fossilised biological carbon, was to be the energy springboard that catapulted our species – and the planet – into an entirely new geological are, the anthropocene. Using the tool of the gos, we were to become as gods. But unlike Zeus, we still live in ignorance about our true power. And time is running out, for the flames of our human inferno have begun to consume the world…” (The God Species, pg.29)

Underpinning the ideas presented in “The God Species” are three key concepts that have emerged within science during the past decades:

  • earth systems science
  • a proposed new geological age – the anthropocene – that recognises are impact on the planet
  • planetary boundaries

We’ll briefly cover each concept in the next post, as a rudimentary understanding of these are important. It also demonstrates that Lynas is attempting a science and evidence based approach to any of the solutions he proposes (this will become important in discussion about GN, nuclear and geo-engineering).

Whether you agree, or disagree, with Lynas on specific points, “The God Species” is an important contribution to discussion on how we as a species now face the challenge of managing the planet.

One cannot underestimate the enormous intellectual leap one has to make in order to fully grasp just what we as a species have to do.

In essence we need to manage the Earth’s  hydrological cycle, climate, chemistry and biodiversity in order to ensure the continuation of our technological civilization and the well being of a global population currently at 6.8 billion.

We are indeed a global civilisation, with a responsibility to manage the globe.

Thus, in the next series of posts we begin to explore the science underpinning The God Species, and discussing some of the solutions proposed by the author.

Comments and debate is more than welcome – indeed it is encouraged.

The God Species review: managing the planet via economic growth, genetic engineering and nuclear energy (Part 1)

Part one of my review of “The God Species” is up on Generation Adaptation, and I’ve encourage readers to click-on-over to read and comment.

A summary:

Mark Lynas is a noted science author, environmental activist and has even acted as a policy advisor for the Maldives. His latest work, “The God species: how the planet can survive the age of humans” is an important contribution to the discussion on adapting to climate change (and other environmental challenges). It is bound to court controversy, as Lynas challenges environmentalists to reconsider their views on genetically modified foods and nuclear energy. Lynas has raised some important questions, and at the very least his work represents an attempt to formulate a science-based response.

Mike @ Watching the Deniers

Of Plan B and the Hail Mary Pass on emissions: our non-renewable future

(Cross post from Gen Adaptation)

For those of us with a keen interest in adaptation – and possible future scenarios – this week has seen two important developments.

Firstly, the progress – albeit tentative – achieved at Durban. At first glance, it appears as though we may get a binding treaty to supersede Kyoto that includes both developed and developing nations.

The second is the release of the energy futures paper by the Australian government. What is important about this document is its explicit acknowledgement that Australia’s energy sector will remain very much reliant on fossil fuels, and that we’re a long way off from large-scale implementation of “alternative” energy sources.

Was anything achieved at Durban?

Before we get too excited about Durban, let’s consider a few facts:

  • it’s a road map towards the drafting of a treaty yet to come into force
  • under the best scenario (a binding treaty that sees the world attempt to reduce CO2 emissions) temperature rises will continue

Anything past the “2 degree” limit is regarded as more than risky. The kind of targets being discussed will most likely see a 3+ degree rise in temperatures. It’s more akin to playing Russian Roulette with three loaded chambers rather than one. 

A 3.5 rise in temperature greatly increases the risk of positive feedback loops, thus pushing temperatures even higher. For those readers less familiar with the concept, there are vast reserves of CO2 locked in natural “sinks” such as methane clathrates and frozen plant matter in the Siberian tundra.

When temperatures rise, this hitherto sequested CO2 will be released in a massive “pulse” that may (actually most likely) push temperatures well past 3.5 degrees into the more catastrophic 6+ degrees.

If you want to know what a 6+ degree world was like, take a peak at the world during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.

At this point reducing anthropogenic emissions would be the least of our concerns.

Cheer up already, Durban is a great result!

I suppose I could be accused of being unduly pessimistic.

But then recall that under Kyoto greenhouse emissions have been growing in excess of what is regarded as “safe”. It’s also asking future players to commit to emission reductions: we can’t know the future or the individual players.

We’ll be asking them to do the very thing we’ve failed to do for the last two decades: take positive action.

Once more we’re deferring the problem to the future.

Graeme Readfearn in a post on The Drum sums it up:

“… So the cold-hard reality (or should that be increasingly warm and unpredictable reality) is that even if all these negotiations go to plan, the world’s emissions will continue to rise sharply up to 2020. That’s almost a decade’s worth of continues growth in emissions.

… To give the planet (that’s us, folks) a “likely” chance of limiting global warming below 2C, global human-caused emissions need to peak at about 44 Gt of greenhouse gases by 2020.

But those UN analysts and scientists for Climate Analytics, say current pledges on emissions will instead see the world emitting more like 55 Gt by then.

This looks like a commitment to warm the planet by about 3C by the end of the century. BBC science correspondent Richard Black says some analysts are projecting that current pledges will in fact deliver 4C of global warming. Yet the science suggests that a world warmed by 2C, considered the threshold for “dangerous” climate change, is still a radically changed place.

Among some of the probable impacts in a 2C+ world, are widespread coral bleaching, sea level rises of a metre, more extended droughts, decline of crops, dieback of the Amazon rainforest, sharp rises in species extinction rates, more frequent extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves and a broad array of human health impacts…”

Thus I regard Durban as nothing more than a statement of our species aspirations. Well meaning and a much better result than the Copenhagen debacle. But we’re yet to see the holy grail of binding agreements.

Still, Durban did cheer me a little.

Australia’s fossil fuel future and Gillard’s Hail Mary Pass

While the climate change scep… oops, deniers may believe climate change is all part of some massive conspiracy to transfer wealth to hippies so they can cover the globe with wind farms, the recent white paper on Australia’s energy paints a much more realistic picture of our energy future.

If Gillard and the “massive conspiracy” were really keen on destroying the Australian economy and enslaving us in some sort of dystopian future where the electric light-bulb is banned, then tinkering around the edges of the energy industry is not the way to do it.

Afterall, exempting new power stations from emissions targets is a funny way to introduce a one-world-government.

Fossil fuels will continue to dominate well until 2050, while alternative sources with energy sources such as solar expected to contribute a measly amount. One only has to look at Chapter 3 of the white paper to see just how much fossil fuels will continue to dominate.

Oh and in case you missed it, by 2035 coal exports are expected to almost double from >10,000 petajoules in 2010-2011 to <18,000 petajoules in 2034-35:

Note the very, very small drop in consumption.

Yes folks, our future will remain very much depended on Ol’ King Coal.

All this of course makes the claims of the denial movement even more absurd. Gillard & Co envision us producing and exporting even more coal than we do today. Not quite the war on the mining industry and “life-as-we-know-it” is it?

The report also hints that nuclear energy, although not supported (cough) by the government (cough) may be on the table under future governments.

So it remains to be seen whether the Liberals or Labor will take the plunge. At this point my money is on either party committing us to a “nuclear future”.

And please, don’t tell me we can achieve the target of 100% renewable energy in a decade or so.

Its time we gave up that fantasy.

The powers-that-be are too well entrenched, and our political system so fixed in favour of fossil fuel interests, that such a radical approach to changing our energy mix is a still-born strategy.

Consider the fact the Gillard government has dropped the “election promise” to devise rules to limit greenhouse emissions on new power plants: 

“…THE Gillard government has dumped an election promise to introduce rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

Launching a long-awaited energy policy paper, Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said the proposed emissions standards – which Prime Minister Julia Gillard said would mean an end to the building of ”dirty” coal power plants – had become redundant, given Australia was introducing a carbon price.”

Short sighted?


To be expected?

Of course.

The introduction of the carbon price can now rightly be seen as the Gillard government’s “Hail Mary pass” for reducing greenhouse gases. It might – or might not – work, but what the heck let’s give it a shot! At the very least, we’ll have the fig leaf of doing something.

Or as Greg Combert, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, put it in an article in “The Australian” today:

“We have a head start on low-carbon revolution… 

…Some people have claimed that the 2020 timeframe for a new international legal agreement is too far off and that this will be a “do nothing decade”. This could not be further from the truth.”

Yes, some people Greg just don’t get it do they?  

That would be the scientists and those with an understanding of just how risky pumping that much CO2 into the atmosphere is.

But let’s talk what is being ignored, or studiously avoided. We’ve entered the age of climate disruption. It will be hotter, wetter and with more extremes of weather.

And on that basis, your “low-carbon revolution” looks rather underwhelming.

Conclusions: Plan B is now Plan A

Firstly, let me state we should continue to encourage the development and deployment of alternative energy sources. Secondly we should continue to strive for global treaty that seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions.

These are all worthy goals and should be simultaneously pursued.

But taken together, the events of the last week demonstrate once again just how hard it will to restrain emissions, switch our energy sources and avoid an inevitable rise in global temperatures.

We need to accept the near inevitability of an average rise in global temperatures of 3+ degrees before century’s end.

For some time adaptation was seen as a kind of “Plan B” with the hope that we could curtail climate change and emissions the “Plan A”.

Plan A is flailing.

Time for “Plan B” to become the new “Plan A”.

And that means preparing for a very different world.

High confidence, robust evidence: report on a failed experiment in planetary engineering

For some time I ran a moderately successful blog (by internet standards) called Watching the Deniers, and early this year began the Generation Adaptation project.

But as it is apparent, it has been some months since I have written on climate change, climate change denial and the increasingly pressing issue of adaptation to climate change.

It was a break much longer than I intended.

Tim has been bravely forging ahead, patient with my lack of content generation – to which he has my eternal thanks. I had the very good fortune to attend Tim’s wedding a while back, and count him as a true friend.

So why my silence?

Because I could not write.

Every post, every draft seemed inadequate to the task.

Every idea – despite my initial enthusiasm – seemed to quickly ring hollow or trite. At first I thought it was a kind of “writers block”, the kind of hesitant stumbling and self-doubt anyone engaged in writing experiences at some point.

But it was not that.

I thought perhaps I was “exhausted” by the topic.

I asked myself if I was simply a dilettante. Climate change this week, tomorrow “Save the whales!” next?

Or perhaps I was slipping into my own kind of “denial” in choosing to not even think about climate change? I could barely read anything to do with climate change or the words for the denial movement. It prompted feelings of despair and anger.

But that was none of those.

What I needed most was to bathe in the deep, nourishing waters of silence.

Not the silence of non-thinking.

Nor the silence of not caring, or giving up.

No, it was the kind of silence that allowed my thinking to slowly evolve.

I needed to step away from the trench warfare of combating climate change denial and trying the desire to “keep up” with the scientific literature, blogs and articles on climate change. I needed to step away from Generation Adaptation.


After almost three years of immersing myself in the science, the politics and engaging the deniers of climate change I was lead to a very challenging conclusion. It was one that I needed to absorb, test and determine if I was talking myself into despair.

I needed to be silent, to observe and to reflect.

Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom – Francis Bacon

And now I believe I’ve arrived at a reasonably accurate reading of the situation.

It is one I think a number of other writers, bloggers, scientists and thinkers are also arriving at. I see hints of such thinking starting to emerge.

And in many ways the conclusion made me laugh.

The tale of the accidental geo-engineers

At its most simplest my thoughts are this:

  • We will not avert serious climate change
  • We are already feeling its impact
  • Within the next few decades temperature rises will top >2 degrees
  • Most likely we will see a 4 degree (if not 6) rise before century’s end
  • There is no genuine prospect of international co-operation on the issue
  • We will not implement “clean” energy sources on a massive scale
  • There is enormous strain on planetary boundaries
  • There will be more losers than winners

The thought that lead me to these conclusions was both terrifying and yet almost comical:

  • We have been inadvertent planetary engineers for centuries
  • We have only just learnt that fact a few decades ago
  • We are struggling to put into place mechanisms to regulate the climate of a planet.

Looked at from that perspective I think I laughed: not a maniacal “We’re all doomed! Doomed I tell ya!” kind of laugh, but more a chuckle at the hubris of our species.

“We need to manage a planet!” I thought to myself.

Collectively and with wisdom and foresight.

You can see why my response was laughter.

And it helped me understand the denial movement even better.

Why wouldn’t the mind recoil from such a thought? The responsibility it entails, and the certitude that would must likely fail. Can we blame more timid souls for wanting to reject not only the idea of climate change, but that we have become like gods?

That we are now planetary engineers?

Who would not be terrified at that thought?

And so I’ve been mulling on those thoughts for the last six months.

The political and scientific landscape: a house divided

A recent news story that reveals the depths of our failure:

“….Governments of the world’s richest countries have given up on forging a new treaty on climate change to take effect this decade, with potentially disastrous consequences for the environment through global warming.

Ahead of critical talks starting next week, most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

The eight-year delay is the worst contemplated by world governments during 20 years of tortuous negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions, and comes despite intensifying warnings from scientists and economists about the rapidly increasing dangers of putting off prompt action.”

The Guardian, 20 November 2011

The current round of talks between nations at Durban (COP17) will produce nothing of substance. No-one believes otherwise.

Kyoto will not have an effective successor. “Rich” nations are abandoning the process – much to the anger of the developed world. We may get an agreement ratified in 2020. Or not.

Between our species dithering, the simple, elegant algorithm of more CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere will see an inevitable rise in global temperatures.

Last year saw a record 9 billion tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere – despite near universal acceptance of the science amongst the world’s governments. Coal usage is going up:

“…Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and cement production grew 5.9% in 2010, surpassed 9 Pg of carbon (Pg C) for the first time, and more than offset the 1.4% decrease in 2009. The impact of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis (GFC) on emissions has been short-lived owing to strong emissions growth in emerging economies, a return to emissions growth in developed economies, and an increase in the fossil-fuel intensity of the world economy.”

The Hadley Centre in the UK has just released a report stating there are serious risk of catastrophic climate change with a temperatures rising up to six degrees:

“…This report highlights some of the very real dangers we face if we don’t limit emissions to combat the rise in global temperature. Life for millions of people could change forever, with water and food supplies being placed in jeopardy and homes and livelihoods under threat. This makes the challenge of reducing emissions ever more urgent.”

Note to readers, that’s catastrophic:

“…In Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet… Mark Lynas draws on the latest science to describe the world under warming scenarios ranging from 1° (bad) to 6°C (unimaginably bad). He sums up the task with brutal candour: “we have only seven years left to peak global emissions before facing escalating dangers of runaway global warming. I am the first to admit that this task looks hopelessly unattainable.”

However before we chastise our politicians for being “short-sighted” (or negligent) I think we should remember not one civilisation – let alone species – has learnt the art of planetary management.

Could we have really expected any better?

We’ve just witnessed the spectacle of politicians in the US almost allowing their country to default on their national debt.

The reports by individuals – now just emerging – present at COP15 in Copenhagen in that conferences final hours paint a picture enormous division.

Should we be surprised when we’re hopelessly divided on so many issues?

Tens of millions in the US and across the globe reject the basic findings of science (the age of the Earth, evolution, climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines).

Millions can’t agree that women are equal to those of us with penises.

And we’re asking our species to manage an entire planet for the collective well-being of seven billion individuals?

And the countless billions of other lifeforms?

It is more than likely beyond the capabilities of our political systems, science and our best intentions.

To paraphrase the language of IPCC reports there is “high confidence” based on “robust evidence” that will most likely fail in our attempts to act as planetary engineers.

Because there are limits that even our own god-like species cannot transgress.

Goodbye global agreement and “green revolution”, hello Anthropocene

“…Of many wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden…”
– WIlliam Blake

I’m letting go of the Enlightenment belief that progress is inevitable and that a solution will be presented to us as a kind of dues ex-machina.


Because civilisations fall.

Species go extinct.

Because asteroids periodically slam into the Earth.

Because the Earth abides, but very little else.

Because fate is indifferent to our species.

Because we have now entered the anthropocene.

And so I could not write, because I was afraid to think or share that conclusion. Because such a view runs counter the attempts of so many others to remain upbeat and optimistic.

“Don’t sound pessimistic!” is the message that many in the “environmental” movement repeat like a mantra.

I understand why many activists – from grass-roots activists, GetUp!, Greenpeace and activist scientists – are focussed on being upbeat:

  • You can change the future!
  • If we switch to 100% renewable now, we’ll avoid climate change!
  • We need a revolution in people’s thinking!

As they rightly point out, apathy is a kind of death. Individuals will act if they feel that they are making an actual contribution. But now I find such messaging styles nothing more than a steady drip, drip, drip of faux cheerfulness that’s more about marketing a message than reality.

I appreciate the strategy behind such communication campaigns. They need to engage people, and inspire hope.

To which the central message I thought I needed to deliver was…what exactly?

What ever it is, it is the very opposite of the cheery-she’ll-be-right messages of activists and environmentalists.

After silence: Post-climate change Handbook

No wiser words have been spoken:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people
– Marin Luther King

So my “message” that we should give up: should I simply remain silent?

Did not James Lovelock recently declare we should just “drink and be merry” because there is nothing we can do?

“…The man who achieved global fame for his theory that the whole earth is a single organism now believes that we can only hope that the earth will take care of itself in the face of completely unpredictable climate change.”

Interviewed by Today presenter John Humphrys, videos of which you can see below, he said that while the earth’s future was utterly uncertain, mankind was not aware it had “pulled the trigger” on global warming as it built its civilizations.

Not quite: there are many things we can do. But it requires us to relinquish some modes of thought and fixed ideas.

It is something I’m trying to capture in what I’m tentatively calling the “Post-climate handbook”. What I’m arguing for is perhaps somewhat different – perhaps a little radical.

In essence I’m suggesting individuals and activist groups consider the following:

  • Seizing political control at the local level –both at the state government and local government level in order to have control over local resources and planning
  • Abandoning notions of global agreements and “revolutions” in clean energy. Instead, encourage a focus on the 10-20 kilometres around you in order to survive. It is now about the security of food and water supplies and the maintenance of critical infrastructure necessary to support an advanced technology society
  • Fostering the individual’s network within local communities in order to build resilience for climate, food and economic shocks
  • Planning for a less affluent lifestyle in developed countries, as “consumers” will have far less “choice” due to external forces
  • Acting as custodians of the “best” of our species culture: the scientific method, concepts of equality, democracy, our art and poetry: because they are worth preserving for future generations.

Chapter by chapter I hope to publish for open review and criticism of readers.

How the “left” can avoid own goals: vigorous debate is a necessity, but physical attacks on billionaires and destroying the work of scientists should be condemned

For over a year I ran a blog called Watching the deniers highlighting the misinformation, lies and dirty tricks of the climate denial “movement”.

To some the term “denier” is offensive, that somehow I was equating climate sceptics with Nazi’s. Perhaps using the adjective “denier” was as ill-advised when I started my blogging career…

However, I still maintain that the majority of those who reject climate science are “in denial”. Not maliciously so, but generally for ideological reasons.

The science is “settled”. There is a genuine scientific consensus on the issue. To ignore the science, is to be well… in denial.

But, I’ve never called for the “deniers’ to be censored. As much as I personally despise the likes of charlatans such as “Lord” Monckton, he has a right to speak his mind. That he is a blathering inbred anachronism is neither here nor there.

But there are actions that should be condemned. And no, I’m not talking about how nasty climate sceptics are (and they can be).

I’m talking about some recent actions undertaken by my fellow travellors in the so called “left”.

Greenpeace and its “war on science”

An incident that greatly concerns me is the Greenpeace “action” that saw the destruction – with whipper snipper’s – a test crop of GM wheat.

Let me say I’m against such actions.

Both Tim Lambert (Deltoid) and noted economist John Quiggin have called it a “war on science”. I agree. Australia’s scientific community has been united in condemning this act of scientific vandalism.

While I won’t deny Greenpeace have “done some good’ or “have their heart in the right place”, their actions were wrong. There is a place to debate the safety of GM – in the peer reviewed literature.

Imagine if “climate sceptics” broke into the offices of the CSIRO and smashed computers? We’d condemn them as ideological zealots.

Indeed, I put the actions on par with those who hacked into the computers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (Climategate).

Murdoch and the “pie incident”

The second incident has to do with the incredible events taking place in the UK, where Rupert Murdoch’s is rapidly losing control of his control on the British media. Yes, I’m talking about the News of the World scandal.

Following the incredible scandal surrounding their UK paper, News of the World”, Murdoch, and his son James were forced to appear before a joint parliamentary committee to explain themselves.

This is a level of accountability the Murdoch’s aren’t used too. It also appears that Murdoch is on the run…

He’s been forced to close down News of the World; his bid to take over BSkyB in the UK has fallen over; share prices in News Corp are tumbling; there is speculation that he could be replaced; governments in the US and Australia are threatening to look at News Corp entities in their respective countries; his Australian cable deal is on hold; James Murdoch has been accused of “lying” to the committee.

As Rupert and James sat their being “grilled” by politicians, it was clear a shift in power was taking place.

No longer would politicians fear the Murdoch press as much. Rupert was being made to do something he was clearly uncomfortable doing: answering questions and being made accountable. He thumped the table, looked confused and confessed (or lied) he didn’t know a lot about his own company.

And then the proceedings where interrupted by a protestor who decided to try and throw a “cream pie” at Murdoch:

When that protester leapt at Murdoch I knew immediately he’d just helped Rupert and News Corp. It immediately made him a figure of sympathy, turned his wife into a feminist pop-culture icon and distracted everyone from the fact that Rupert Murdoch as being made accountable.

The Committee was forced to apologise to Murdoch, as it made their security look atrocious (which, in fairness it must be to allow such an action).

I’d also note that Murdoch seemed invigorated by the attack.

Where he had appeared confused, out of touch, cantankerous and “humbled” he seemed transformed.

Murdoch, of all people, understands the power of symbols: it made him the “victim”.

Just because it feels good, is no excuse

Now both actions – attacking GM crops and a billionaire – may be personally fulfilling and cathartic for the perpetrators, but ultimately they harm the very causes they are tyring to promote.

Greenpeace’s actions are not only ill-advised by are built upon an opposition to GM technology that has no foundation in the scientific literature.

“Johnnie Marbles” pie attack on Murdoch made him not only look foolish, but shifted the sympathy back to Murdoch and turned his wife Wendi Deng into a cult figure.

Both these actions were intended to reach a national and global audience: they were concieved as PR stunts.

But as PR stunts they failed dismally.

My solution: patience, hard work and carefully amassing evidence

“OK mister smarty pants, what’s your solution to standing up to corporate oligarchs and nasty multinationals huh?” I hear you ask.

We already have proven strategies and models to emulate.

The real “heroes” of the News of the World scandal are the journalists of The Guardian who patiently pursued the story for five years, gathering evidence and not letting the issue be buried.

Then there is a Cynthia Cooper, the accountant who led a team of auditors in uncovering the $3.8bn fraud at WorldCom. Yes, accountants can be heroes too.

Then there is John Abrahams, the scientist whose masterful presentation patiently exposed the lies and distortions of climate sceptic “Lord” Monckton. Since then, Monckton’s credibility has been a downward slide.

The actions of these individuals can be considered “heroic”.

But there is a common theme to each of their actions: respect for the truth; respect for evidence; patient hard work; discipline.

We should never be afraid to speak truth to power.

Throwing a pie at Murdoch or destroying the work of scientists may feel “cathartic”, but in reality it is counterproductive.

In fact, it’s more than that.

It’s lazy.

The actions of The Gaurdian journalists, Abrahams and Cooper have done far more good in the world than all the thrown pies and whippers snippers ever could.

Requiem for the sea: State of the Seas report concludes “negative changes” to the oceans exceed IPCCs worst case scenarios.

Back in my “Watching the Deniers” days I developed a keen interest in the state world’s oceans, as it was through my reading and research I came to have a better understanding of the fragile state of the world’s oceans.

In July 2010 I started to become deeply alarmed: research indicated that since the 1950s over 40% of the oceans phytoplankton had died out due to rising temperatures and acidification.

Now, more bad news: the seas are well and truly dying and time frames for actions are “shrinking”.

The most recent “State of the Ocean” report has just been released and is grim reading indeed.

Some quotes from the report:

…The speeds of many negative changes to the ocean are near to or are tracking the worst-case scenarios from IPCC and other predictions. Some are as predicted, but many are faster than anticipated, and many are still accelerating.

…The magnitude of the cumulative impacts on the ocean is greater than previously understood Interactions between different impacts can be negatively synergistic (negative impact greater than sum of individual stressors) or they can be antagonistic (lowering the effects of individual impacts). Examples of such interactions include: combinations of overfishing, physical disturbance, climate change effects, nutrient runoff and introductions of non-native species leading to explosions of these invasive species, including harmful algal blooms, and dead zones

The report also notes:

…The longer the delay in reducing emissions the higher the annual reduction rate will have to be and the greater the financial cost. Delays will mean increased environmental damage with greater socioeconomic impacts and costs of mitigation and adaptation measures.

…Ecosystem collapse is occurring as a result of both current and emerging stressors. Stressors include chemical pollutants, agriculture run-off, sediment loads and over extraction of many components of food webs which singly and together severely impair the functioning of ecosystems.

Who will mourn the death of the seas myriad ecosystems?

Who will remember the passing of the oceans?

Some of us will.

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History

– The Sea is History, Derek Walcott

Mozart’s Requiem is perhaps the only fitting piece of music to commemorate the loss of the sea.

No silver lining in peak oil: is the realisation we’re running out distorting the global response to climate change?

The recent Canadian elections saw the return the Conservative government of Stephen Harper with an increased majority. For many concerned with climate change, this was dispiriting news. For years Harper’s government has been waging a war on climate science.

DeSmogBlog has been tracking the activities of the Harper government. It makes for depressing reading, as it means Canada has turned its back on global initiatives to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, the Conservatives have accelerated the dirty and environmentally destructive extraction of oil from “tar sands”.

However, it was comment by Michael Tobis on Canada (Only in it for the gold) that got me thinking:

“…There’s enough “peak oil” phenomenology in the mix to clinch this. I suspect few countries, unless they are oil-rich, will sustain GDP growth in the near future. (Canada’s horrifying defection from climate governance shows that at least one government sees the writing on the wall, albeit cynically and maliciously.)”

The basic concept of peak oil is that oil is “running” out, and as demand outstrips supply it will have serious economic and social consequences for a civilisation so reliant on cheap, abundant oil.

An argument could be made that Harper’s government may understand both the reality of climate change and peak oil, and reads it as an opportunity to promote their country’s standing as an “energy super power”.

Many of us assumed that “peak oil” might have a silver lining and act as a kind of dues ex machina, forcing our hand in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. But this may not be the case. As it has already been noted, we’re pushing record volumes of GHGs into the atmosphere.

But here is a scary thought. Peak oil was bad enough as a concept, but perhaps there is no silver lining: governments are reacting cynically across the board.

Recently the International Energy Agency admitted we may have passed peak oil in 2008 (see Guardian interview here).

We’ve been making up for the decline in “conventional oil” (i.e. from the already existing reserves) and from alternative sources such as tar sands.

We may be witnessing is a global game of “beggar thy neighbour”, with fossil fuel dependent countries and exporters willing to put naked self-interest over the common good. Global warming be damned, national sovereignty first. That large multinationals gain is the by-product of the geo-politics of peak oil.

Rather than forcing us to abandon a costly and polluting source of energy, our dependency is so great that countries are now racing to secure supplies.

One would have hoped our dependence on a dwindling source of energy would prompt the exploration and deployment of “cleaner” alternatives.

I fear this is not the case.

What we see is desperate dash to secure supplies across the globe.

Even in Australia the Federal government is prepared to open up the exploration in such pristine and iconic wilderness areas as the Great Ocean Road (Victoria) and Margaret River (West Australia) to oil exploration.

While talks on “controlling” climate change drag on, individual nations are showing resolve and decisiveness in either securing their oil supplies or enhancing their position as producers.

Might not binding treaty on climate change may have the potential prohibit individual nations from exploiting tar sands, opening up new oild fields and exploring other “unconvential” sources of oil? For some governments ignoring the science would be in their self interest.

The realisation that oil really is running out may have induced panic amongst decision makers. The oil is just sitting “there”, and is a proven source of energy. Why not grab the last “few drops” before its gone?

So governments have a choice.

Explore energy alternatives and agree to sign up for binding agreemetns or drill for more.

It would seem the global community has spoken as one: drill, baby drill!

And drill they will.

They’ll drill until a massive pulse of GHGs pushes the climate over dangerous tipping points.

Beggar thy neighbour?

Beggar thyself.

One thing we can confidently predict: they will be plenty of blame to throw around.

A carbon tax is meant to hurt a little, but we have a choice: we can change.

The media’s war over the carbon tax continues to wage, with Melbourne’s Herald Sun leading the charge with the headline “Carbonated!”

The paper breathlessly warns of how the tax will raise a price on everything.:

CONSUMERS face price rises on well-known brands – including Coke, Cadbury, Mars and McDonald’s – as the carbon tax puts the squeeze on retailers and producers.

While the Gillard Government is preparing to deliver significant compensation to households – especially pensioners and low-income families – supermarket managers are predicting across-the-board price rises for everyday food items.

Exporters, already feeling the squeeze from Australia’s soaring dollar, have warned they will be vulnerable and will find it hard to pass on higher energy costs to their international customers.

Herald Sun calculations show that based on the Federal Government’s National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting paper – which details companies’ direct emissions and the pollution produced in supplying the energy they consume – companies would face significant carbon tax costs before any industry compensation that might filter down.

Cue a litany of complaints and fear mongering by coal miners and junk food manufacturers.

Fortunately, a little bit of sanity is provided by Tim Colebatch over at The Age:

The point of a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme is to maximise our long-term welfare – the welfare of future generations, particularly those at risk from rising seawaters (think Bangladesh, or the Pacific islands) or from hotter temperatures and rising evaporation (think farmers in Australia’s food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin).

They work by raising prices.

But remember: when the price of emissions rises, it creates the incentive for producers and consumers to change the way they operate, to shift to technologies or ways of life that produce fewer emissions. You face the full impact of the price rise only if you stand still and change nothing. And the purpose of charging for carbon is to drive change.

John Quiggin does even further analysis and destroys the Herald Sun’s poor arithmetic:

But those of us capable of primary school arithmetic can take things a little bit further. There are 20 million or so people in Australia, so the cost amounts to around $3.50 a year, or 7 cents a week for us. For the archetypal (if unrepresentative family of four) that’s around 30 cents a week or 60 cents a fortnight (an increase of 0.4 per cent for the mother in the example). Looking at the illustrative photo, that’s rather less than the difference between the Kleenex tissues in the shopping trolley and the home brand alternative.

That the Herald Sun get’s it so wrong is really no surprise.

In many respects, this is the debate we that needs to happen, however Quiggin’s post is a salient reminder of just how dishonest and misleading the campaign against the carbon tax is. It is also why I’m disdainful of the “deniers” and media outlest such as the “HUN”.

They preach a mantra of doing nothing, of not changing.

Still, one simply can’t impose a new tax on the electorate without a debate. More telling is that the Herald Sun and The Age continue to fight the same “culture war”.

Gillard & Co’s failure

The real failure lies with the Labor government under Gillard.

They’ve tried to soft peddle this change calling it a “reform” and promising all kinds of hand outs, without spelling out the simple message that the tax is designed to raise prices on certain goods and services.

The message needs to be simple, clear and honest: 

  • Yes, producers will pass on costs. 
  • Yes, consumers will have to bear some of those costs

But, if the “market” works as it’s supposed to then producers and suppliers will work out ways to reduce the consumers expose to the tax by offering new “low carbob” goods and services. The tax is intended to stimulate innovation.

But more importantly the messages need to stress how much choice the individual has:

“You can change”

But rather speak plainly, and explain basic economics Gillard and her government continues to flounder by speaking in a that flat, nasally tone tone about “reform”.

Instead, the messages should be crafted around the individual’s ability to change, to take responsibility and make choices.

One of the most important characteristics of most Australian’s self identify is resilience, pragmatism and toughness. There is no shame tapping into these cultural “myths” and stereotypes”.

Instead Gillard & Co. continue to chant the mantra’s of neo-liberalism. That’s why I distaste this “reform” mantra. It does not speak to the individual. It assumes that we’re all good neo-liberals who believe in the value of the market, and make decisions based on rational basis.

We don’t.

We’re emotional creatures, whose decision making and beliefs are driven more by emotion and values.

So why not say:

“We know it’s going to hurt a little but Australians have always been resourceful and prepared to make sacrifices. That’s what makes us a great nation.

We have a choice to make today: to leave Australia a better place for our children, or to shirk our individual responsibilities. What has made Australia great is the pragmatism of its people.

We know climate change is a challenge. But it is better to face that challenge today, when we can do something about it than wish it away or leave it to our children to try and solve.

What matters is the choices we make today, in the interests of our nation, our families and our future.”

One scary acronym: adaptation at the local level is now our Plan A.

One of the great tragedies of the current debate about the carbon tax in Australia is just how divorced from the reality it is.

While our politicians and media commentariat fight the “carbon tax debate” through the old culture war paradigm (left versus right, Liberal versus Labor, Fairfax/ABC verses News Corp) physics and chemistry blithely continue to do what it does: push global temperatures higher.

Ignore the sideshow in the media – watch the numbers the scientists are telling you.

“The rate of release of carbon into the atmosphere today is nearly 10 times as fast as during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), 55.9 million years ago, the best analog we have for current global warming, according to an international team of geologists. Rate matters and this current rapid change may not allow sufficient time for the biological environment to adjust…”  – Penn State press release

Still, even the most well-intentioned science communicators are afraid to say the truth: things aren’t going to plan.

We should be reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we’re doing the very opposite. As the above Penn State media release makes clear, we are releasing them at a rate higher than what was seen during the Palaeocene-Eocene-Thermal-Maximum, or PETM.

The PETM you ask?

This has to be just about the scariest acronym you’ll ever come across. Worse than AIDs, or SIDs.

Enough CO2 was released into the atmosphere during the PETM to push temperatures up by about 6 degrees over a 20,000 year period. Six degrees doesn’t sound that bad doesn’t it?

I mean it’s rather cold in Melbourne today! Brrrrrrrrr!

A few extra degrees would be lovely. Right?

Well, consider the fact that about 90% of life went extinct during the PETM and tropical forests grew at each of the poles. The PETM took place around 59 million years ago and is often referred to as the “Great Dying”.

As I said, PETM, one scary acronym.

When I read the Penn State media release, I did think it was a tad worrying. We’re pushing CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate faster than what happened then.

No nothing to worry about…

So that’s the bad news: what can you and I do today?

Much of the language framing the carbon tax positions it as a means to prevent climate change. If the messages are more nuanced – such as Tim Flannery’s recent comments that the climate will keep changing for a 1000 years – they still skirt the issue.

The conversation needs to be frank, in fact almost brutal. Too many people are afraid to say what they think: it’s not looking good.

So we have to face to the fact that we’re not going to prevent climate change, but to live on a very different planet.

To quote Bill McKibben in his brilliant book Eaarth:

“…We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways. And these changes are far, far more evident in the toughest parts of the globe, where climate change is already wrecking thousands of lives daily. In July 2009, Oxfam released an epic report, “Suffering the Science,” which concluded that even if we now adapted “the smartest possible curbs” on carbon emissions, “the prospects are very bleak for hundreds of millions of people, most of them among the world’s poorest.”

So what are we to do?


Take control at the local level.

We’ve spent decades trying to educate a public disengaged from the issues, a fact that can be mostly attributed to the mainstream media.

If the media aren’t actively confusing or lying – viz Andrew Bolt, Terry McCrann, Miranda Divine, and Alan Jones – they’ve chosen to titillate us with dancing soap opera stars and reality television.

They’re not going to help. Angry letters to the editor are a waste of time.

I’m not calling for armed insurrection, storming of the barricades or overthrowing democracy.

My advice – which I am doing myself – is to suggest that you get active in politics at the local level. Become a council member, or help others run for council. Get involved with local environment groups, and those interested in adaptation.

Make a difference where you can: it is the sum of our actions that will change things.

If the media and federal government aren’t going to help, there is no choice but to take our own destiny – and that of our children – into our own hands.

“The airwaves are filled with corporate-financed climate misinformation.” But the vanguard of action isn’t waiting any longer. This week, representatives from an estimated 100 cities are meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change. The theme is “Resilient Cities.” As Joplin, Mo., learned in the most tragic way possible, against some impacts of climate change, man’s puny efforts are futile. But time is getting short, and the stakes are high. Says Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University: “Not to adapt is to consign millions of people to death and disruption.” – “Are you ready for more?” Newsweek 

There is so much that can be done that is productive, useful and side steps the meaningless debate taking place.

So, help forge links with groups across the state and share information. Teach others how to grow their own food, reduce their energy usage and install solar panels.

Work to build a network of those thinking about adaptation and how to plan ahead.

Because being frank, we don’t have a choice.

There is no “plan B”.

We simply have to begin the adaptation process now.

Adaptation is Plan A, B and C.