Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Deniers' Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It's been obvious for years that climate change deniers are not motivated by respect for evidence but by something else; almost certainly hostility to the policies that they suppose to be needed to stop climate change. Last week New Scientist's Feedback column gave a rare insight into this hostility. It reports the hostility of various US local authorities and right-wing pressure groups to the UN because, to quote one, it has a plan to "destroy the sovereignty of the United States of America".

Of course, that sounds like arrant nonsense. But is it?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992. It aimed to to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent catastrophic climate change. That, we now see, was about 25 years before the date by which those concentrations needed to reach their peak. If the nations had acted promptly there would have been enough time to solve the problem by a judicious mixture of carbon taxes, permit trading, investment in renewables, low-energy building design, etc. This would have been demanding and mistakes would have been made. But there would have been time to correct them in ways that are quite normal in a democratic society. Nothing in this required a transition to a command economy; indeed many corporations would now be enjoying healthy profits from low-carbon investments.

There are many reasons that this did not happen and opposition by right-wing American groups is just one, though an important one.

But look at the consequences of this opposition.

We are now past the point at which the ordinary processes of democratic politics and international negotiation can solve the problem. So either the problem will go unsolved or it will be solved by some nation or group imposing a solution, as in my Emergency Braking scenario.

If it's unsolved catastrophe will follow. Climate zones will move north, extreme weather events become more common, etc. The US will probably become unable to feed its population and will certainly be unable to sustain its current standard of living. Latino immigration will increase whilst the rich and the smart relocate to Canada. Since similar changes will happen throughout the world resource wars will increase and the US will likely be forced to support the UN in controlling them.

But effective action will create some similar demands. Since geo-engineering will be part of the solution - the time for less drastic measures to be sufficient having passed - and since such measures have global effects there will be pressures to bring these measures under international control.

Thus those who oppose effective action on climate change because it would undermine US influence will have made it likely that the US is ultimately subject to foreign influence. In the circumstances I foresee this influence will not be benign and the achievements of the West in establishing democracy, human rights and the rule of law will be undermined or lost.

Some rightwing extremists may expect their cause to benefit from this. Perhaps a few plutocrats and military strongmen really will benefit. But it will undermine the values they claim to espouse.

Truly, "be careful what you wish for".

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Biggest Elephant – No realistic strategy for climate change

[A version of this post was submitted to Compass in response to its call for essays about the 'elephants in the room'.]

No-one, left, right or centre, has a realistic strategy for climate change.

Of course we think we have a strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Our strategy is for all nations to act together to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions before we have driven their levels in the atmosphere so high that catastrophe is inevitable. This, we say, will require some mixture of reduced energy use, decarbonisation of energy supply, lower meat consumption and so on. Associated changes include better building insulation, less driving, less flying and higher fuel prices.

It was a decent strategy when we created it ten years ago. It was affordable and it promised success with only limited cuts in our standard of living. Given good leadership democracies might vote for it. Coercion would not be needed. But I have news for you that isn’t really news.

It’s failed.

Need I prove this? Most nations give this strategy no more than lip service and the biggest polluters – Canada, China and the USA do not even do that. China is increasing its coal use. Canada is mining tar sands. The USA is developing new gas fields.

The UK has the Climate Change Act but Labour planned a third Heathrow runway, the Coalition has trashed the solar panels business and GHG emissions have not been reduced.

Worldwide, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rising. In 2009 a group of Nobel Laureates said that GHG emissions need to peak by 2015 and fall rapidly thereafter. Now technically that just might be possible. If the major polluters experienced Damascene conversions and mobilised their economies NOW and if their populations accepted more years of austerity then it might be done. But none of that will happen. The US government is in thrall to Big Oil and frightened by the loony right. The Chinese government has a desperate need to keep delivering growth. And no government could be democratically re-elected if it followed these policies.

Baseline – evasion and catastrophe
So the starting point, the datum line for a realistic strategy, must be the failure of the strategy we do have. Persisting in this strategy will accelerate the existing trends – rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. These in turn will trigger positive feedback effects such as increased polar warming due to loss of ice cover and release of major deposits of trapped methane. These effects could drive global climate change MUCH faster than the IPCC scenarios, which exclude them, suggest. A timescale of decades not centuries is conceivable.

The effects of accelerated climate change will include floods, droughts, water shortages, starvation and disease. Resource wars – both reactive and pre-emptive – seem certain. In this context almost every evil – from plague to religious fanaticism – becomes entirely plausible.

Because the timescale is so uncertain we can’t be sure whether we will face problems that we can, just, overcome or a catastrophe that cannot be resisted and which only the rich and lucky will survive. The uncertainties are real but even the possibility of the worse case should weigh heavily because the worst case is just so bad.

Therefore we need either a realistic strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change or a strategy – in fact a set of strategies – for coping with catastrophe. There is no real alternative except the Ostrich gambit – stick head in the sand and hope for the best.

The strategy we need
A realistic strategy must address two questions:

  1. What technical means must be added to those we already support to get GHG levels down?
  2. How will we get the USA and the major developing economies to support those means?
Technical means
The possible technical means fall into the general category of geo-engineering. Many forms of geo-engineering have been proposed and some will doubtless prove impractical. Almost all have serious disadvantages and all risk further undesirable climate changes. They should not be considered unless the alternative is worse.

But the alternative – as I’ve indicated above – IS worse. We just have to find the least bad option. I do not expect to like what we find.

Gaining support
The technical stuff is daunting but the politics is horrendous. I do not see how the US Republicans, the European nations and the Chinese population can be won to the case for change. I do not even see how necessary changes could be imposed on them (supposing that all else had failed and that that was practical and morally defensible).

Nonetheless that must be a key part of out strategy. Perhaps, as the chief executive of a climate change thinktank remarked, we must hope that the USA is struck by a sufficiently severe and unambiguously climate change-driven disaster. It’s not exactly a policy is it?

The failure option

Finally, since success is very far from certain, what should the UK do if catastrophe occurs? How will we cope with rising temperatures, rising sea levels, falling food production, disruption of world trade and vast flows of refugees?

And if we take the steps needed to survive how much of our democracy and human rights will we be able to preserve?

Climate and collapse

Historians generally dislike theories that ascribe social change to physical change. No time for a proper report but I note that Jared Diamond took a different view in his book Collapse. More recently Michael Marshall published an article in New Scientist (4 August 2012) noting that:
  • The late Bronze Age collapse (ie the collapse of the Hittite empire, Mycenean Greek culture and the Egyptian New Kingdom) coincided with the start of a dry period lasting from 1200 to 850 BC. That is roughly the time of the Greek Dark Age.
  • The collapse of Tang dynasty in China and the Maya in central America both occurred around 900 AD. Recent research shows that rainfall in central America in the following century was 40% down on the preceding century. There was a similar shift in China.
 These points are contested and there are always competing views. But since the likely scale of upcoming climate change is much greater than that in either of these periods it is not encouraging.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Good News 3: Sun's output may now fall

The Sun's behaviour is causing puzzlement - not for the first time. It's northern hemisphere seems to have reached peak output for the current cycle whilst the southern may not do so till 2014. Very odd.

Some scientists think these oddities presage a reduction in solar output such as the Maunder Minimum (1645 to 1715) which caused the Little Ice Age. Others doubt this. No-one is sure.

The Little Ice Age was 0.3 to 0.7 degrees Celsius cooler than later times - enough to offset a large fraction of the global warming we have already experienced. A new cool period would therefore  buy us valuable time to deal with climate change.

Unhappily the scientific uncertainty won't be resolved until long after we have to fix our problem. This is not a good excuse for inaction.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Obama and Romney: The Contemptible Two

This blog has always had a pessimistic flavour. That's because the climate problem is so great whilst the efforts being made to address it are so feeble. In Europe, leaders give only lip service to the need but in the US there's not even that.

In the second presidential debate President Obama said "So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment ... we still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make it a priority for us to go after natural gas... So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production." So Obama is claiming CREDIT for increasing the use of fossil fuels and promises to do more. It's hard to think of a more irresponsible policy.

Yet that wasn't enough for Mitt Romney:  "what I’m planning on doing, ... is getting us energy independent ...  by more drilling, more permits and licenses ... I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas.".

Now despite appearances these are not stupid men. Each has a history of real achievement. So they understand that burning more coal, oil and gas will drive up greenhouse gases and that this will warm the planet. They've both said so in the past though Romney claims to have changed his mind.

So each has decided that he cannot be elected if he tells the truth about climate change. That's not because the American people disbelieve in climate change; three quarters of them get it. It's because the Republican elite and some sections of the media, and their billionaire backers, don't want the policies that will solve the problem.

These villains put their personal advantage ahead of the survival of human civilisation. And Obama and Romney are their lackeys.

Contemptible, both.