Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tricksters – adapted for survival

Charles Darwin wrote that,
It is not the strongest nor the most intelligent of the species that survive, it is the one most adaptable to change.
Many oral traditions have stories about those most adaptable characters – tricksters. American Indian cultures have Coyote, a trickster character characterized by paradox, duality, cleverness, shape-shifting, duplicity, and a knack for survival. Islamic cultures have the wise fool, Mulla Nasreddin.

Tricksters teach essential truths and survival skills using an array of indirect methods.

Canadian artist Franke James gives reign to her inner trickster to produce delightful visual essays that advocate for action to address climate change. Here are some of her images.

Are humans up to the job? Can we adapt to the changing climate in time? Or are we stuck in a Businss as Usual framework?

Perhaps we can take heart from news that Toyota Prius was the the world’s third best-selling car line in the first quarter of 2012. A sign of adaptation?

Take a minute to soak in the wonderfully creative visual essays of Franke James. And commune with your inner trickster to find ways that you can adapt.

Image Credit: All images are the work of Franke James.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair

Picture us in our separate towers, or bubbles, or bunkers, facing off against those with different views. The longer we stay in our tower, the more isolated we become and the less we are able to communicate with people outside our tower.

Unfortunately, we're not likely to get broad support for the rapid decarbonisation of the economy if we stay in our towers throwing missiles at those with other views. 
When climate scientists come out of their towers and communicate widely, or invite contrarians into their domain, Leo Hickman calls them Rapunzel scientists. He notes that Professor Richard Betts, a climate scientist who is head of the climate impacts research team at the Met Office Hadley Centre, has reached out to communicate with contrarians.

The climate debate has been so acrimonious at times that I'm sure Richard Betts feels like Kofi Annan in a meeting with Syria's Assad. Kofi Annan knows that if diplomacy is to be effective, Rapunzel has to reach out to the witch and be nice to her.

Of course, something is required from the witch as well. If she waltzes in and trashes the place, it's not very constructive. The trouble is – being unconstructive is an effective strategy for some vested interests. 

Industries with big investments in fossil fuels don't want economies to decarbonise. They prefer that society is divided into separate camps that are busy arguing, persuading, negotiating.

In the same way, it seems to suit Assad to host yet another visit from Kofi Annan, to prolong negotiations, agree to a cease fire, and then to carry on killing his citizens. Why does Kofi Annan keep doing it? Because until someone intervenes with firepower, diplomacy is the only game in town.

With climate change, the different towers will continue to play out their game until the evidence before our eyes causes contrarian towers to crumble. A good section of the Heartland Institute tower crumbled away this month. No Rapunzels were involved, just a stealth attack and a Unabomber own goal.


One of the most compelling pieces of evidence of damage caused by CO2 emissions is the acidification of the ocean.   

A recent report from EPOCA (European Project on Ocean Acidification) observes that ocean acidification is as high as it has been in 800,000 years. This is because the oceans have absorbed 30% of the CO2 humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the past 150 years.

In absorbing those emissions, the oceans have buffered humanity from the worst effects of a warming planet. This protection has come at a price as oceans become increasingly hostile for many of the little creatures at the bottom of the marine food web. In more acidic oceans critters relying on calcium carbonate for a home  – from corals to mollusks to the sea snail – have a harder time manufacturing their shells.

If snails, corals and mollusks collapse, entire ecosystems threaten to literally crumble away. Coral reefs support about 25% of all marine life, while sea snails account for more than 45% of the diet of fish like pink salmon.

Here's a 6-minute video that shows how all marine life depends on the pH value of oceans. Who'd have thought that oysters are not just for eating?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Boom and bust the natural way

History is littered with examples of animal populations that expanded when new resources were found. Farmers know about the good seasons that result in mouse plagues.

It is typical for populations to boom during good years and then collapse suddenly in bad years, or when they overrun the resource base. It's the natural boom and bust cycle.

Human populations have boomed and busted throughout history, and resource depletion has been an important factor. Jared Diamond's book Collapse examines the boom and bust effect in eight historic and four contemporary societies.

It is clear that human population has been booming over the past 200 years, as illustrated in this graph based on UN 2010 projections.

The resource that has underpinned this population boom is the energy from coal, oil and gas which has allowed billions of people to be fed, and to live lives of unimaginable wealth.  This wealth has brought immense riches to the top 1% and also health, education, comfort and civil society for general populations.

Right now, we are at the point of overrunning the resource base. The biggest whammy is that fossil fuel supplies cannot keep up with demand as shown by rising prices. Can't argue with that. There's a limited supply of the stuff.

This graph shows that oil prices have risen when spare capacity has fallen.

The next chart shows that natural gas prices are rising in Europe and Japan, though US prices are held down by a current production boom and a warm winter.

Natural gas prices in the United States, Europe, and Japan, based on World Bank Commodity Price Data

Even coal, the most abundant fossil fuel, is rising in price.

Not only are coal, oil and gas supplies unable to keep up with increasing demand, but we know that we can't keep using even the reserves that we have, due to the damage they cause through the greenhouse gases they emit. As the damage from climate change becomes ever more apparent, countries will act to cut carbon emissions. Fossil fuel reserves are looking more and more like stranded assets.

The Dinosaur Economy, based on fossil fuels, will end. It will be followed by a new Clean Energy economy. If we manage to build a bridge between the old and the new, we have a chance to avoid the ghastly impacts of the Bust part of the cycle. 

If we don't build that bridge, we'll fall into a chasm where we have very limited energy resources for a period of time. In that chasm, all the horrors of the Bust cycle will be unleashed – starvation, displacement and war as people fight for limited food, water and shelter. Walls will go up between the haves and the have-nots. Populations will collapse and those that are left will adjust to the new, lower resource base.

That's the natural Boom and Bust cycle.

If we do manage to build a bridge, or ramp or something, across to the other side, we can minimise the inevitable disruption. We can adjust to the new resource base as we go along. It's already happening as countries move to replace fossil fuel with renewables.

If we avoid the Boom and Bust cycle, we won't be a plague upon the earth, instead we'll be more like responsible custodians. They're much more lovable than a plague.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Shelling peas builds resilience

When we see the scale of the climate change disaster unfolding before us, the slow responses to it, and the obstacles in the path, it can feel overwhelming.

That is the time to call a friend, or join a community group. To add to the words of Joan Baez (h/t ClimateBites):
Action is the antidote to despair (and the foundation of change).

When my grandmother called us to help fold laundry or shell peas, she'd say "Many hands make light work." She didn't know it, but she was teaching us resilience.
We need to do it ourselves, but we don't have to do it alone.

Visit my Take Action page for suggestions about things you can do in your everyday life to reduce your personal carbon emissions and to leverage systemic change. It includes links to community groups where like-minds work together to bring about the change we want to see.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bailing with a thimble

Who are these intrepid sailors in their home-made boat?

They certainly have good team spirit. You can hear snatches of their team song.
Our little boat is flimsy, the rush of waters strong,
The mighty River Science carries us along.
They like to think of themsevles as scientists, though they don't collect data. Instead, they spend their time picking over the details of other people's science. Without serious skills in maths or any of the science disciplines, at best they are "backyard tinkerers".

They tend to hang out together in online forums and blogs where they sing songs of mutual solidarity, bound together by opposition to mainstream science. 
But we’re not going lightly, we know that they are wrong.
Paddle harder boys and join me in our song.
They are the the oddball world of climate change denial, fighting a rearguard action against the massive flow of evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They put a brave face on their efforts to save the world from mainstream science.
Bailing with a thimble, 
Paddling with a toothpick 
Our minds and hearts are nimble 
Their Science makes us sick. 
Perhaps it was nausea that caused one of the sailors aboard the little boat Denial to fall overboard this week. After their own-goal with the Unabomber billboard, the Heartland Institute announced that they don't have the funding to continue running their deniala-palooza conferences.

We would laugh at the little boat Denial, paddling against the mighty flow of River Science, if they were harmless. The trouble is, there are a few of them bumping around in the river, spreading lies and confusion.  Some are paddling to the tune of "It's not happening" while others are paddling to various different beats like "It's happening but it won't affect us" or "Go slow, we just don't know".

They're going around in circles, but they've managed to create doubt and apprehension about the transition to a low carbon future.

It helps if we recognise that their 'toothpick and thimble' approach to science is fairly useless. This may discourage others from getting aboard the little boat Denial.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Subsidies – specks or logs?

We have set out on this long journey towards a low carbon future.

We know that the cost of doing nothing will be enormous in money, goods, homes and lives. So we are prepared to pay to avoid catastrophe. Of course, we don't want to pay more than we have to, and we don't want to pay more than the other guy. So everyone is busy with their calculators and measuring rods making sure we pay as little as possible, making this transition look like a slow bicycle race.

The situation is ripe for vested interests to say, "Hey! Those guys are getting too much money. It's not fair."

This happened recently with respect to Chinese solar panels exported to the U.S. The U.S. Department of Commerce decided that the manufacturers had an unfair advantage due to big subsidies from the Chinese government. To level things up, they slapped a tariff on them.

Fossil fuel industry supporters often complain that governments are giving too many subsidies to renewable energy projects. Industry associations and lobbyists are counting on their fingers and toes to tally all the subsidies, big and little, for renewables.

The very reputable International Energy Agency (IEA) found that countries worldwide paid $66 billion in subsidies to encourage the development and deployment of renewable energy in 2010.

That sounds like a lot, but it is just a speck compared with the $409 billion that governments paid to subsidise fossil fuel in the same year, according to the IEA.

Fatih Birol, exceptional economist with the IEA says, 
Energy markets can be thought of as suffering from appendicitis due to fossil fuel subsidies. They need to be removed for a healthy energy economy. Energy is significantly underpriced in many parts of the world, leading to wasteful consumption, price volatility and fuel smuggling. It's also undermining the competitiveness of renewables.

Australia doesn't get a mention in this very excellent Guardian article about fossil fuel subsidies, but I note that after floating the idea of reducing the $2 billion diesel rebate, the Australian government caved in to industry lobbying and it didn't get a mention in the recent budget.

When fossil fuel interests criticise the subsidies given to renewable energy, they need to look at the log in their own eyes before complaining about the speck in other people's eyes.
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7.3

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A life tenancy with a full repairing lease

To let with a full repairing lease

In Britain, many commercial premises are let on leases that require the tenant to pay for routine property maintenance. This is called a "full repairing lease".

Margaret Thatcher used this analogy several times.
I remember saying in my Royal Society speech that we had a full repairing lease on this Earth. With the work done by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, we can now say that we have the Surveyor's Report and it shows that there are faults and that the repair work needs to start without delay. The problems do not lie in the future—they are here and now—and it is our children and grandchildren, who are already growing up, who will be affected.

These are Margaret Thatcher's words when opening the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in 1990.   

As Margaret Thatcher pointed out, we don't own the earth, we are tenants who are responsible for its upkeep.

Like old buildings, the Earth doesn't negotiate about the work that needs doing.  If the roof leaks, you fix it or take the consequences.

Margaret Thatcher's words are very similar to the American Indian proverb.
Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.

Peter Sinclair allowed Margaret Thatcher to do the talking in this video (10 mins) that critiques the  Heartland Institute's "Murderers, tyrands and madmen" billboard and shows that Heartland has positioned itself at the extreme right. No wonder their sponsors are leaving them in droves.

True conservatives aren't looking for a free ride. They understand responsibility and full repairing leases.

Audrey walks her dogs in Paris

When Audrey walks her dogs, she follows an elegantly economical route to the park, pausing only to admire and be admired. But not Tozer and Chic. They're erratic and energetic, sniffing to the left, sniffing to the right, circling trees, running ahead or pulling back.

Tozer and Chic are Temperature Change and they are all over the place. Up one day and down the next.  Without Audrey (Climate Change) they would get nowhere and we'd be seeing the same weather patterns our grandmothers saw.

However, Audrey is making sure they get to the park. The trouble is – the park is a wasteland of drought, extreme weather, rising sea levels and ocean acidification.

Check out this neat animation of a dog and his owner. It illustrates the difference between variance (i.e. weather) vs. trend (i.e. climate). It shows that there are hot years and cold years, but climate change is driving the graph upwards with more record highs than ever before.

Source: Video from Siffer, Teddy TV. Animator: Ole Christoffer Hager

And check out this 2-minute gem where Richard Alley graphs temperature change for different periods of his life. It shows the same upward trend. It's getting hotter.

And finally, I need to apologise to Audrey for making her the villain of this piece. To redeem myself, I invite you to enjoy some eye candy of the delightful Audrey Hepburn and her beloved dogs, none of which was called Tozer or Chic as far as I know.

Audrey in Rome with her dog called Famous. 1961.

H/T Hager video: Climate Bites

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Trapped in a bubble

Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a bubble. Actually, we all live in our own custom-made bubbles that are shaped by our life experience and our education.

The world in my bubble is different from the world in your bubble. The TV show Madmen makes good dramatic use of this.

In an early episode, Betty comes home with her drycleaning. After a few minutes, the kids come running out of the bedroom playing at being spacemen. Sally has the thin plastic dry-cleaning bag over her head and body.  Betty gets mad, as any mother would at this shocking sight. She chides Sally,
If the clothes from that dry-cleaning bag are on the floor of my closet, you're going to be a very sorry, young lady.

How times have changed! Betty is oblivious to our concerns about suffocation, and we're blind to her focus on well-pressed clothing.

When it comes to climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy, there are some very strong bubbles built largely on the capacity of the internet to foster colonies of like-minds.

There's a whole anti-AGW blogosphere bubble promoting the notion that climate science is not settled and 'do nothing' is the best course of action. There are virtually no practising climate scientists in this bubble, though there are related professionals like weathermen and engineers along with lots of backyard 'thinkers'.

There's also a pro-AGW bubble that posts evidence, debunks fallacies and corrects errors. This bubble has quite a number of practising climate scientists, along with science communicators, news media, business interests, enthusiasts and various interest groups.

Meanwhile, the usual practice of science continues through peer reviewed papers in academic journals.

How do we speak to each other across these bubbles? As a first step, we need to spend more time hanging out with people who live in different bubbles from ours. Natually, this is not as comfortable as hanging out with like minds. You have to make an effort and be prepared for some abrasion.

We can also make efforts to see the world from someone else's point of view. Why does Betty Draper ignore the suffocation risk when Sally puts the plastic bag over her head?

To see the world from someone else's point of view we need to listen with respect, as Katharine Hayhoe says,
If we approach this issue with mutual respect, with a desire for identifying what we most have in common rather than where we differ, and if we are prepared to listen and have two-way communication, rather than just coming in there to instruct, then we can make some progress.
Without these efforts, we remain trapped in our bubble, our echo chamber. That makes us lousy communicators. More like Betty Draper than Katharine Hayhoe. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mother nature does not negotiate

I didn't realise how much I try to negotiate my way through life until I had a baby. Babies do not negotiate. You feed them, or they cry. You walk them, or they cry. You keep them warm, or they cry.

My garden is like that too. If I don't water it, the plants die.

It's true for the whole biosphere. We live by nature's rules, she doesn't live by ours. The notion of 'conquering nature' is as ridiculous as an earth-centred solar system.

We have learnt to give up the idea that the sun goes around the earth, but we haven't given up the notion that our relationship with the earth is negotiable. We imagine we can 'conquer' nature with impunity. We act as though the earth's resources are endless.

Our economies are based on the false notion that we will never come to the end of the earth's resources. Our economies depend on growth. When they stagnate or shink a bit, people get unhappy and governments fall.

Right now, we're at a critical point in history where we are hitting some limits. One is the limit of oil production. World oil production plateaued around 2005 but demand keeps growing and this is sending prices up. By 2014, production is expected to fall short of demand. (Note: see update at end of this piece.)

The other is the limit on the amount of greenhouse gases we can pump into the atmosphere. Scientists say that 450ppm of CO2-e gases in the atmosphere will give us a 50% chance of keeping average global temperature increase down to 2C. Others argue that 450ppm is dangerously high.

Right now, we're at 396 ppm and increasing by almost 2 ppm each year. That gives us about 25 years to shrink our emissions to zero.

Paul Gilding describes our situation as one of unavoidable crisis where a long series of major economic shocks will gradually bring our consumption of resources into balance with the limited supply.

Just as a baby will cry when it is hungry, so these economic shocks signal that something is wrong. Each time we address one of the shocks, we get a clearer picture of another way we are out of step with nature.

For Gilding, the global financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring of 2011, and now the Greek debt crisis are evidence that we are in the midst of a system that is breaking down. He warns that we need to give up the idea that these are glitches that can be overcome. We need to start the transition to a different system.

We need to recognise that we can't negotiate with nature. 
Unlike human law, the laws of nature can be read, but not redrafted.

There's no borrowing from Nature without repayment. Greece has been negotiating with its banks and they have written off billions of dollars of debt, and still people are rioting in the streets because they don't want to pay.

Nature doesn't care if we riot. Riots are pointless tantrums.  We will have to repay our debts to Nature in full. We will have to live with the full extent of the damage our actions have caused. 

Paul Gilding describes these as apocalyptic times. He questions our childish wish to negotiate with Nature and asks:
What do we want to be when we grow up – when humans grow past adolescence? We'll be growing up in war. It's a war for civilisation itself.

Here is his inspiring 10-minute TED talk. 

Check out his book, The Great Disruption.

UPDATE: 30 July 2012. A report by by Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs concludes that oil supply capacity is growing worldwide and might outpace consumption, potentially leading to a glut of overproduction and a dip in oil prices. The report also notes that at prices of $US70/barrel major new oil reserves (like shale oil) have become economic and this is what has added to capacity. In effect, this puts a floor under the price of oil. If oversupply causes prices to drop below $70 a barrel, the more expensive wells will be mothballed till prices rise again.

As many have noted, 'peak oil' is best understood as a pointer to the limits on cheap oil. Oil supply won't suddenly fall of a cliff, instead it will be squeezed by ever-increasing prices as the easy to reach reserves are exhausted and only the more expensive supplies are left.

Those advocating for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions hoped that high oil prices would drive the uptake of renewables. Many will be disappointed to read this report and its suggestion that instead of rapid price increases, the price of oil is likely to move around the $70-90 mark for the next decade.  Source: ClimateSpectator.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Fossil fuel dependence: A dead end

Fossil fuel dependence is a dead end, though you'd never know it the way the mining industry carries on.

Mining lobbyists like to scare politicians and the public, but global statistics for trends in new power generation show a dramatic decline for fossil fuels. Maybe the miners are stridently fighting a rear guard action?

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the International Energy Agency, investment in renewables for power production rose from $50bn in 2004 to $260b in 2011. Over the same time investment in fossil fuel power production fell from $250b to $40b. It looks like this.

This gives a clear picture of the road to the future. Personally, I find it very heartening to see that the world is moving towards renewables at a rapid rate. It's exactly what economists say we ought to do.

Climate Spectator (14 May 2012)has more detail: King Carbon.

This Bloomberg article (10 May 2012) says,
On the way to a renewable energy future, a funny thing has happened: Big Oil has become the biggest investor in the race to create green fuels. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Houses on flimsy foundations

Lobby groups that deny the planet is warming have built their structures in vulnerable locations. Their positions are being eroded by every new piece of evidence.

As their foundations wash away, their time runs out and they become unsteady and more strident. Witness the recent own-goal by the Heartland Institute with its offensive Unabomber billboard. The billboard marked a dramtic shift to the extreme right. It lasted less than 24 hours, but it washed away a sizeable chunk of Heartland's foundations – 11 sponsors worth more than $800,000, board members, all the staff in their Washington DC office, several speakers at a forthcoming conference and a number of notable experts.

If we are patient, we can wait for the evidence of rising temperatures, rising sea levels and ocean acidification to wash away more of these noxious pests. This is the expensive option. Economists warn that the longer we leave it to reduce greenhouse emissions, the more expensive it will be to make the necessary reductions and to cope with the damage.

So, any time you get a chance to chip away at their flimsy foundations, go ahead and do it. You'll be speeding up the inevitable and doing everyone a favour.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Linedancers avoid false balance

Responsible journalists try to present a range of views on a topic. Called 'balance', this has become accepted practice in mainstream media.

And a good thing too. Without balanced reporting, we would get only single-sided world views. Unfortunately, the principle of balance comes unstuck when lobbyists and extremists dominate the field of available commenters. We have seen anti-vaccination campaigners offering alternate views on vaccination, and we often see deniers offering alternate views on climate change.

This might not matter if the alternate view was clearly labelled 'unsubstantiated personal opinion' or 'industry spokesperson', but that is not usually the case. Most alternative views are presented as having some credibility.

Programs like I can change your mind on Australia's ABC that give equal time to climate change contrarians are accused of false balance because they give unrealistic prominence to discredited views. America's PBS Newshour attracted the same criticism after allowing the extreme right lobby group Heartland to give its point of view in a report.

The phenomenon of media "Balance as Bias" has been thoroughly documented by Max & Jules Boykoff, and others.

So, how should the media address topics like vaccination and climate change where there is, in effect, no credible and informed alternative to the basic science?

Nicole Hashem found a way in this Sydney Morning Herald article, Climate sceptics and sympathisers put heat on Flannery. For the climate contrarian view, she quoted a linedance teacher as saying,
I try not to believe [in climate change] because I don't like to believe the worst.
That works for me. Climate change contrarians who engage in denialism rather than good faith scepticism have as much credibility on the subject as linedancers.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Apollo and Neptune are growing tomatoes

As societies turn away from fossil fuels towards renewables will the dark carbon gods of coal and oil give way to mankind's original gods of sun, wind and water? Will we see a shift in cultural practice?

Already, we see beauty in solar installations like Gemasolar, near Seville in Spain, where the layout of the mirror array is guided by the patterns of seeds in sunflower heads.

And wind generators are entering beauty contests.

New technology can be very techie, but as I have discussed, renewables are very lovable.

What's not to love in this new farming system that uses solar power to desalinate water and produce greenhouse crops in the desert. Sundrop Farms have developed the technology that uses trough mirrors to heat oil that boils sea water to run turbines to generate electricity. It also desalinates the water. The electricity, heat and water are used in greenhouses to grow vegetables. In 2010-2011 Sundrop trialed the high-tech system in the desert near Port Augusta. The trials went very well and in 2012 they will expand  to have 8 hectares under greenhouses.

You can take a site visit –

The cool language of technology needs to meet the life-affirming language of love.  Surely the capacity to grow nourishing food in the desert is nothing short of miraculous?

Where is our sense of wonder? Apollo and Neptune have joined forces to grow tomatoes in the desert of South Australia.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On safari - watch out for rhinos!

There I was, on safari in Tanzania. Matt was driving, and we were barrelling down the road at full speed. Matt was a good driver and managed to swerve around most of the holes and washouts. Occasionally, we hit one with a mighty thump. Then we would slow down and recover a bit before Matt's foot went down on the accelerator again.

We were making good time when Matt's phone rang. He asked me to answer it.

It was Matt's safari business partner, Jeff. He warned me that a small herd of rhinoceros has been reported on the road outside the next village. Apparently, they'd settled in to enjoy a dust bath and were taking their time.

I thanked him and passed the news on to Matt. "Sure, OK," he responded as he continued at full speed.

After a while, I began to wonder when he would slow down.

Then I began to fidget. Finally I asked him.

"Oh, don't worry," he replied, "Jeff's a bit of an alarmist. We've never seen rhinos taking dust baths on this road before. And there's not much chance that one will walk out just as we come along. We'll be OK."

"But," I asked, "he said somone had seen them. What if he's right?"

Matt pushed that thought away, "People say all kinds of things. I don't see any rhinos. It'll be alright. And if we do happen to come across any, I'm sure I can handle it."

On we went, watching the shadows lengthen and the sky soften with shades of coral and lavender.

Suddenly, we rounded a corner and there they were. Black hulking monsters filling the dusty road.

Matt braked hard and swerved to avoid a head on collision with them. The truck rolled. The rhinos lumbered to their feet and two of them charged us in the overturned truck while the others trotted off into the bush.

The truck was a write-off, though the villagers found it useful for spare parts. Matt was dead and I spent months in hospital.

Next time somebody shrugs off warnings about rhinos in the road, I'm going to tell them where to get off.

__________ o O o ___________

This is an allegory for climate change. When powerful people ignore the warnings of competent scientists, they endanger the safety of all of us. I'm going to tell them where to get off.

__________ o O o ___________

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thank God the alarm worked, it saved our lives.

Are you an 'alarmist' and a 'warmist'? That's what climate change deniers call scientists, politicians, activists and anyone in the general public who accepts the evidence for climate change.

When they call everyone who accepts the science an 'alarmist', they try to say that we're like the boy who cried wolf. They want to discredit the warnings made by responsible people who recognise the evidence.

Where they are wrong is that the wolf is very real. Multiple strands of evidence point to the warming planet and the role of greenhouse gas emissions. There is abundant evidence for:

Alarms do much more than wake you up in the morning, though that is useful. Burglar alarms and car alarms protect property and many alarms save lives. Smoke detectors; tsunami warning systems; heart attack alarmsshark alarms; patient monitoring alarms all save lives by warning against imminent danger.

So next time you're called an 'alarmist', stand tall, point to all the evidence that says climate change is a real threat, and mention that alarms are good things – they save lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Trouser fashions

Climate change deniers hope that the current scientific consensus is a fad that will pass in time. They hope to obstruct action long enough for the scientific consensus to change. 

Scientists, on the other hand, point out that every passing year adds more evidence that the planet is warming and the consequences will be catastrophic. They point to warnings made in the 1960s by scientists who probably wore bell bottom trousers. The scientists no longer wear bell bottoms, but their science has stood the test of time and become more robust.

Today, every national government and every national science academy in the world accept the evidence for climate change and the role of human activity causing it. For example, the American Physical Society (the association for physicists) says:
The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.
If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.

Every few months we hear announcements about impacts like record breaking heat in the U.S. and record-breaking rain in Australia where 2010-2011 was the wettest two-year period on record. So it's good that we also see regular reports of actions to reduce carbon emissions, like the recent announcements from South Korea and Mexico for carbon pricing that will help their economies move away from polluting fossil fuels.

What do forward-looking fashionistas see in this situation?
  • NASA says "Bright is the New Black" in this report about roof tops in New York city.
The dark, sunlight-absorbing surfaces of some New York City roofs reached 170 degrees Fahrenheit on July 22, 2011, a day that set a city record for electricity usage during the peak of a heat wave. But in the largest discrepancy of that day, a white roofing material was measured at about 42 degrees cooler. The white roof being tested was a low-cost covering promoted as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's effort to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030.
Companies that voluntarily issue press releases disclosing their carbon emission information see their stock prices rise significantly in the following days.
  • The National Wildlife Federation observes that species that depend on camouflage to blend in with snow in the winter face unique threats from climate change. Are they fashion victims or climate change victims?
…Winter is becoming less white: The extent of snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by approximately 3 to 9 percent since 1978, with especially rapid declines in the western United States. Climatologists expect these trends to continue, and they project that by the end of the century, parts of the Northeast will lose as many as half of their snow-covered days each year.
And what is the fahion industry doing in response to climate change?
  • Industry observers note  an increase in lighter weight clothing for warmer temperatures, and more 'cruise' collections. Harriet Quick, fashion features editor of Vogue says, "It's climate-related. You can now buy lighter things all year round."
  • Designers are working with activist organisations to promote responsible action. 
Vivienne Westwood is working with the Environmental Justice Foundation to support their No Place Like Home campaign, which is raising awareness for the plight of people who have been forced from their homes due to climate change.
  • And then there is Eco-fashion, the trend towards sustainable lifestyle products that encompasses fair trade, organic, vegan, recycled, vintage and ethically produced products. It's a trend supported by thousands of small-scale producers as well as high profile fashionistas like Stella McCartney.
While climate change is driving some fashion trends, the enduring impact of unmitigated global warming is an underlying constant. Climate change is not a passing fashion, like bell bottom trousers, instead it is the new black – here to stay.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Stranded whales

A dead whale on the beach is big and smelly. It is no use to itself and it spoils the beach.  So when whales get stranded on beaches, hundreds of people turn up to help get them back to sea before they die and the beach is a stinking mess.

In a similar way, fossil fuel interests are fighting to prevent their coal, oil and gas assets from becoming stranded assets. Their main tactic is to dig up as much as they can as fast as they can, before the world cottons on and puts strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative reveals the scale of climate risk. To limit the chances of exceeding the UN's agreed warming limit of 2C to 20%, the amount of CO2 that can be emitted between now and 2050 is 565 gigatonnes. But the known fossil fuel reserves declared by energy and mining companies is equivalent to 2,795 gigatonnes of CO2. That means, if the world acts on its climate change pledges, 80% of those reserves can never be burned and are stranded assets.

The IEA has said that if concerted action is not taken as early as 2015, then 45 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel plants would have to close early over time to meet the 2°C scenario.

There is growing risk that money invested in coal mines, oil, tar and gas reserves, and their associated pipelines, train lines, ports and shipping facilities will be closed before their productive life is realised. They will become pipelines and train tracks to nowhere.

Banks and investment funds are beginning to take climate risk into account in judging whether or not to invest in big new fossil fuel infrastructure. Experts warn that the huge reserves of coal, oil and gas held by stock exchange-listed companies are ''sub-prime'' assets.  HSBC says that the declining ceiling of allowed emissions intensity should force more capital into lower carbon technologies.
As the urgency increases, we expect more banks and institutional investors to factor 2°C targets into their financing decisions.
Countries like Canada are strenuously resisting efforts to count the carbon cost of their fossil fuel reserves. Canada is resisting EU initiatives to account for the higher carbon footprint of their tar sands compared with regular oil. They fear that their tar sands will be stranded as uneconomic assets if the true cost was recognised.

In contrast, countries like Ecuador recognise that their oil reserves are valuable if they are NOT tapped. They are  seeking payment for not drilling in the Yasuní National Park which is regarded as one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. They have asked for $3.6 billion, about half the estimated value of the reserves, to leave the oil in the ground and protect the Yasuní.

In effect, Ecuador is trying to prevent healthy whales from beaching. In contrast, the vehement efforts of the Koch brothers and Australia's mining magnates, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, to promote mining at any cost, will serve to drive more whales onto beaches and leave them stranded there.

Australian poet, John Blight (1913-1995), wrote this sonnet in the 1960s. It captures beautifully how hard it is for humans to care about very big subjects, even if they are potentially devastating.

Death of a Whale
When the mouse died, there was a sort of pity;
The tiny, delicate creature made for grief.
Yesterday, instead, the dead whale on the reef
Drew an excited multitude to the jetty.
How must a whale die to wring a tear?
Lugubrious death of a whale; the big
Feast for the gulls and sharks; the tug
Of the tide simulating life still there,
Until the air, polluted, swings this way
Like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse.
Pooh! pooh! spare us, give us the death of a mouse
By its tiny hole; not this in our lovely bay.
-- Sorry, we are, too, when a child dies:
But at the immolation of a race, who cries?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Slow bicycle race or Tour de France?

A slow bicycle race is a novelty event found mainly at school fetes and community events. The winner of the race is the person who takes the longest time to cover the course.

The current trend towards bicycling lifestyles, downsizing and the general slow movement is bringing a resurgence in this old favourite. The slow bicycle race has even been used as a teaching tool for university physics.

It's a pity that so many nations have treated the transition to a low carbon economy as a slow bicycle race. Somehow, they imagine that being the last to decarbonise will give them a competitive advantage.
Yes, it's necessary. A very good idea. We should do it. You go first.
 This is like saying,
  • We're shocking polluters, but look! those guys are too. We won't fix our pollution till they fix theirs.
  • Sure, we've got a poverty problem, but they have too, and we won't fix our poverty problem till they fix theirs.
Other countries are going first. Countries like Germany, Denmark, Spain and Great Britain took the lead by implementing renewables even when wind and solar were much more expensive than fossil fuels. Then transition countries like China joined the race with strenuous efforts to implement renewables, placing them neck and neck with Germany and the U.S. in 2010.

In recent weeks, South Korea and Mexico have announced carbon pricing schemes. California and New York are connecting their carbon markets and the upper Amazon state of Acre is negotiating with California to participate their cap-and-trade system.

Do you know those velodrome races where everybody hangs back, jostling for position, then suddenly, heads down, legs pumping, they're racing flat out to the finish line? Is this what is happening now?

Are countries  on the cusp of realising that it's not a slow bicycle race, it's the Tour de France? Countries that are late to decarbonise will be the losers in the longer term. 

Dylan's words apply again...
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The teddy bear of energy sources

Solar power is the teddy bear of energy sources. What's not to like about the sun, the source of all life? Best of all: No wars have ever been fought over solar power (though I'm sure that teddy bears have been at the centre of a good few sibling battles).

Eric Curren gives a comprehensive round-up of the status of solar power at Transition Voice as at November 2010, in the U.S.

He notes that solar is cute and lovable right now because it is mostly small scale and individuals can have their own pet systems.

This will change when large scale solar becomes more common as countries like Saudi Arabia (investing $109 billion in solar over the next 20 years) start to roll out big solar generators in desert areas and upgrade their national grid networks. In Australia, Beyond Zero Emissions advocates for Concentrating Solar Thermal in their Stationary Energy Plan.

Schemes are being sketched to augment Europe's power supply from large scale solar plants in North African and Middle Eastern (MENA) countries connected to Europe by HVDC transmission lines.

Source: 2050 Desert Power report (click to enlarge)

Locals in MENA countries who see industrial scale solar generators and the transmission lines carrying the power to rich northern neighbours may not see solar as a lovable teddy bear. If they are given a share of the power at a price they can afford, they are likely to see solar more like a fairy godmother.

Continuing the teddy bear metaphor, Eric Cullen asks:
What will it take to help the solar teddy bear grow into a thousand-pound grizzly, ready to rip to shreds high energy costs, polluting fuels and dangerous nukes?
Now THAT'S a future I want to see!


The 2050 Desert Power report is discussed at ReNewEnergy. You can download the report here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hug the monster

“Hug the monster” is a metaphor taught by U.S. Air Force trainers to those headed into harm’s way. It's a technique that helps individuals act constructively in terrifying situations by channelling their fear into action. Without a technique like this, fear can be paralysing.

Bill Blakemore on Nature's Edge, an American ABC News blog, uses the metaphor to observe that in recent years scientists and media have held back from talking about the dire consequences of unmitigated climate change. Perhaps the denier tactic of labelling honest discussion as 'alarmist' was a factor, and perhaps there was some concern about public levels of anxiety or panic.

To avoid the unpleasant, scary bits, the strategy has been to focus on the upside of mitigation and adaptation strategies, also call bright-siding. In this approach (there's an example here) the focus is on clean energy jobs, greater efficiency, and fuel security. 

Michael Tobis sketched this schematic in 2010 to illustrate the discrepancy between informed opinion and public discourse.

Schematic by Michael Tobis

Blakemore observes that the avoidance phase seems to be coming to an end with a turn towards more realistic discussion.
Established scientists, community and government leaders and journalists, as they describe the disruptions, suffering and destruction that manmade global warming is already producing, with far worse in the offing if humanity doesn’t somehow control it, are starting to allow themselves publicly to use terms like “calamity,” “catastrophe”, and “risk to the collective civilization.”
Of course, climate scientists have been 'hugging the monster' for the decades they have been working to collect the  evidence. Over time, they have come to recognise the catastrophic consequences of BAU climate change. Recently, their sense of urgency has increased and scientists like James Hansen and Jason Box have become activists, getting arrested in protests against fossil fuel mining.

I couldn't maintain my self-respect if I didn't go. This isn't about me, this is about the future. Just voting doesn't seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also, because this is a democracy after all, isn't it?
Jason Box, climatologist at Ohio State University, in the Guardian

Michael Mann's book about the The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars reveals the tactics that have constrained public discussion and public policy.

David Spratt observes that bright-siding is a tactical mistake because it leaves out the most compelling reasons for action. Why bother with solar power at all if you aren't aware of the dire consequences of business as usual fossil fuel burning?

He notes that all great behavioural change campaigns have two elements, first they point to the downside of current behaviour and then they recommend a feasible behaviour change.
  • Road accidents cause injury, seat belts save lives, buckle up!
  • Smoking causes cancer, take up <this remedy> to stop smoking.
  • Drunk driving causes car accidents, have a designated driver.

Now that the tactics of the denier camp are becoming more visible, thanks to books like The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars and Heartland's own-goal with unsavoury billboards, we can look forward to more forthright talk about the consequences of climate change.

We'll need to fortify ourselves to be able to look realistically at what lies ahead. There are monsters to hug.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tennessee fireman solution to denial

Climate change deniers are worse than householders who refuse to pay their annual $75 fire protection fee because not only do they not pay the fee,  they advocate strenuously that no one else should pay it either.

Fire services in Tennessee have taken to standing back and watching non-subscribers' houses burn, while ready to protect neighbours' properties. City officials hope that householders get the message and pay the fee.

Steve Zwick, here and here, says that climate change deniers should be asked to pay a penalty for advocacy that blocks and delays action to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

He's getting a lot of heat for it! From the denier commetariat of course.

In June, you can attend or follow to conferences like the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, or the Florida Summit on Sea Level Rise where responsible parties (governments, scientists, citizens) are acknowledging climate change problems and working together to mitigate and adapt. Or you can hang out at the Heartland denier conference where those who acknowledge global warming are called "murderers, tyrants and madmen".

I'm with Steve Zwick as he says –
... the ideal solution is to get our collective act together and prevent [climate change] from happening, but we need a fall-back – a mechanism that puts responsibility for damages on the shoulders of the shirkers and deniers who cause it and profit from it, and we need to build that mechanism before the damages materialize.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Sith Lords

The men from Koch — and the groups, politicians, and  disinformation they fund — are now the Sith Lords of climate and clean energy inaction in the country.

It is no coincidence that countries with large mining sectors have the lowest levels of public support for the transition to a low-carbon economy. Renewables have been implemented most strongly by European countries with limited fossil fuel reserves and small mining industries. As a result, they have no home-grown propaganda industry to restrain investment in renewables.

Public opinion in the U.S., Canada and Australia has been strongly influenced by propaganda campaigns and misinformation as well as fear mongering and lobbying by the mining sector.

These miners protect their own interests at the expense of the wider community and the whole ecosphere. As well as direct political ads and lobbying, miners regularly fund climate change deniers and support their attack campaigns.

Paul Gilding describes the Koch brothers as "the corporate bad guys from central casting".

Little wonder that Joe Romm calls corporate deniers the Sith Lords. In Star Wars mythology, the Sith Lords represent the dark side – the forces of destruction, division, selfishness, and chaos.

Mother Jones reports on 'Dark Money' – the secretive funding for U.S. political campaigns. 

In the climate wars, the forces for good are ranged against the forces for evil.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Murderers, tyrants and madmen

Climate change deniers claim that "the most prominent advocates of globabl warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants and madmen".

Do they mean it literally or metaphorically? Who knows?

They throw caution and logic to the wind as they unleash these blind and crude insults in a living example of the Climate Wars.

How to respond? This is not a time for reason, or for the finesse of metaphor. The most effective retaliatory action is to demand that responsible corporations withdraw their financial support from the offensive Heartland 'Institute'.

Forecast the Facts has an online petition saying:
Below is the petition we will send to the CEOs of Microsoft, State Farm, Pfizer, and every other corporation that funds the Heartland Institute.
All corporations should immediately pull their funding from the Heartland Institute in light of Heartland's ongoing and extreme support of climate change denial.
You can add your name here. A previous Forecast the Facts petition was successful in getting General Motors to withdraw funding from Heartland, so there's a good chance that this petition will be effective too.

But only with your help!

And after you have done that, check out the parodies this foolish billboard has generated. Heartland pulled the billboard after 24 hours because it "angered and disappointed many of Heartland’s friends and supporters".  This lapse of judgement has associated them with the loony fringe and made them a figure of fun. Very satisfying. [You DID sign the petition, didn't you?]

UPDATE: Johnny Walker and Moet and Chandon owners, Diegeo, will no longer fund Heartland. (Why did they ever??)

Scott Mandia's open letter to his insurance company, State Farm, a Heartland donor, is eloquent and powerful.  Your letter can be as brief as a postcard. It only takes a postcard and a couple of sentences for customers to have an impact.

UPDATE: 8 May, State Farm announced on Facebook that: "State Farm is ending its association with the Heartland Institute. This is because of a recent billboard campaign launched by the Institute." They're getting lots of approving comments.

E&E Publishing report that this gaffe has cost Heartland hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurance companies and alienated key staff. They quote Brad Kading, president of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, as saying:
The billboard just crystallized what the divide was. It just means the brand is tarnished and there really is no way to separate yourself without just leaving.
UPDATE 14 May: Eli Lilly, BB&T and Pepsi will no longer support the Heartland Institute. That brings the number of companies dropping Heartland to 11. According to Forecast the Facts, more than 150,000 citizens have weighed in against the organization’s messaging strategy. Board members, staff and 'Heartland Experts' have also left the organisation. Source: Climate Progress.

UPDATE 17 May: Peter Sinclair made this brilliant 11-minute video to debunk Heartland nonsense by presenting some of the key advocates for climate change since 1950s. The video is framed around Margaret Thatcher's key speech on global warming.

Click 'share'... it deserves to go viral.

UPDATE 24 May: The Heartland Conference (an annual gathering of climate change deniers and disinformers — mostly hardcore libertarians — who attempt to spread doubts about climate science) was a washout. Cancellations and no-shows resulted in attendance of about 170, compared with 800 in some previous years. Heartland announced that they will not run the conference again.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The $20 note that doesn't exist

Some people reject new systems and technology saying, "If it worked it would already have been done".

This is like the economist who says that the twenty dollar note lying on the pavement doesn't exist, because if it were there, someone would already have helped themselves.

We are in the midst of a massive decarbonisation of world economies that is bringing rapid and dramatic changes to technology and systems. Things that weren't feasible 10 years ago are not only possible now, they are highly desirable. Look at how affordable solar PV has become.

Note: 'Today' = 2009. Source Emmanuel Sachs (MIT)

To see a $20 note on the ground, we only need to open our eyes. To decarbonise the economy we have to look for opportunities, not obstacles.

Thanks to Jonathon Maddox for this metaphor.