Grim Now, Grimmer Later: Time to Act

Official launch on Tuesday July 7th — ‘Solving the Grim Equation’, published by Cambria Books and written by me, Pat Dodd Racher

Upstairs at The Angel, Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo, at 7.30pm.

Author and One Planet Council patron David Thorpe will lead a question and answer session and discussion.

The Grim Equation means that increased consumption now will result in lower consumption in the future.

Exciting pioneer projects in Wales show that families can reduce consumption dramatically and use less energy, and still live happily. Pioneers have had to battle against hostility in local government, but thanks to the Welsh Government’s ‘One Wales One Planet’ policy the chances of projects being approved are increasing.

The One Planet Development policy, and guidance in Technical Advice Note 6, and the establishment in Wales of the One Planet Council, can give Wales a leading role in the inevitable One Planet future — because we have only one planet on which to live.


The longer we wait, the more uncomfortable the fall

Cyclone Pam Is Just The Beginning

Here is an extract from my forthcoming book Solving the Grim Equation, soon to be published by Cambria Books. A hotter world is also a violently stormy world. Every barrel of fossil oil which we extract, every ton of coal we mine and burn, make it less likely that Earth will be a habitable planet within a very few generations. Cyclone Pam has roared through Vanuatu in the Pacific, flattening people, buildings, vegetation. Do we care enough to start changing our lifestyles, immediately? 

“Surface seawater at 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) puts enough heat energy in the atmosphere to trigger a hurricane.[i] The hotter the water is, the greater the potential energy. Hurricanes start in tropical latitudes, where the ocean water is warm. The top 300 metres of the world’s oceans warmed about 0.5 degree C between 1965 and 2005, during which time the destructive power of North Atlantic hurricanes doubled. The Mexican tourist resort of Cancún suffered from this power in 2005 when hurricane Wilma blew its beach – its main attraction for tourists – completely away. Wind and water both erode topsoil, which is being destroyed at least ten times faster than the natural replacement rate.[ii]


A terrifying consequence of global warming: Cyclone Pam. Image credits as displayed.

The top 300 metres of so of the oceans are only a small part of the story, though. Scientists have discovered that, since the millennium, deep ocean water is heating much faster than near the surface. That heat can escape only in a few instances where deep water mixes with surface water, and so everywhere else the heat builds up and up.

Methane leaking from melting permafrost is another powerful greenhouse gas, over a 20-year time span some 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.[iii] Quite apart from the effects on global climates, methane is a light gas which can cause ships to sink and aircraft to crash. Ship disappearances in the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ have been blamed on the anti-buoyancy effect of methane.[iv]

Arctic sea ice melting has multiple impacts, according to Dr Jeff Masters, meteorological director of the Weather Underground blog He put it this way:[v]

“The dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice in recent years has created a fundamental new change in the atmospheric circulation in the Northern Hemisphere that has sped up sea ice loss and is affecting fall and winter weather across most of the Northern Hemisphere, according to several recent studies. Arctic sea ice loss peaks in September and October, exposing a large area of open water that heats the air above it. This extra heat has helped drive September-November air temperatures in the Arctic to 1 degree C or more above average over about half of the depth of the lower atmosphere. This deep layer of warm air has grown less dense and expanded, pushing the top of the troposphere (the lower atmosphere) higher. The result has been a decrease in the pressure gradient (the difference in pressure) between the North Pole and mid latitudes. With not as much difference in pressure to try and equalize, the jet stream has slowed down in the Arctic, creating a major change in the atmospheric circulation for the Northern Hemisphere.”

The previous atmospheric pattern, the North Atlantic Oscillation, was present at times but shared the Arctic region with a new pattern, the Arctic Dipole. The Dipole has high pressure over the North American Arctic and low pressure over the Eurasian Arctic, resulting in winds blowing from south to north, bringing more heat into the Arctic, a positive feedback further speeding the disappearance of ice.

The pallor of ice reflects solar radiation back out of the atmosphere, in so far as the rapidly thickening blanket of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases permits. Dark ocean, in contrast, absorbs radiation, thus quickening the warming process, and accelerating the rise in sea level. During the 20th century, sea levels rose between 4.4 and 8.8 inches,[vi] and the rise was concentrated in the latter years of the century. Paradoxically, warmer oceans might make the British Isles colder. The rush of cold fresh water from melting glaciers leads to changes in the pattern of ocean currents. In the North Atlantic, that means a dilution of the Gulf Stream that warms the UK and Ireland.

The strength of North Atlantic currents decreased by around 30% between 1992 and 2004, according to research published in the journal Nature[vii] in 2005. Measuring Atlantic water flows at 25 degrees North had been done for only 50 years, and so there was not a longer-term historical context in which to assess the findings, but they did appear to herald a certain chill. Perhaps the British climate would become more like that of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, at roughly the same latitudes, between 50 and 60 degrees North. January in Labrador has day temperatures around –10 to –15 degrees C (14 to 5 degrees F). The summer is short, and in July the temperature at the coast may reach 10 degrees C (50 degrees F), up to 15 degrees (59 degrees F) inland. Over most of Labrador, half of the 800 millimetres (31 to 32 inches) of precipitation falls as snow. The whole province of Newfoundland and Labrador covers 156,483 square miles but only 513,000 people live there, just nine per square mile. The harsh climate deters settlement.

Reporting in 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, of which the Gulf Stream is part, is likely to weaken by 20% to 44% by 2100, disrupting the weather patterns we have come to accept as ‘normal’ and cooling British temperatures by about 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F).

We do not know the extent to which a cooling Gulf Stream would be offset by higher air temperatures resulting from greenhouse gases, or exactly how these changes would affect our environments and activities, but the prospects of sudden shifts mean that we must be prepared to make rapid and drastic adjustments in our economies and lifestyles.”

[i] A hurricane is called a typhoon in the western Pacific north of the equator and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean.

[ii] The USA National Academy of Sciences, in ‘The lowdown on topsoil: it’s disappearing’ by Tom Paulson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer,, January 21st 2008.

[iii] ‘The tipping point in action: twice as much methane released due to seabed permafrost melting’ by Christine Lepisto, November 26th 2013,

[iv] ‘Methane gas in Bermuda Triangle’,, introduces arguments for and against theories of methane causing boat and plane disappearances.

[v] Weather Underground,, December 11th2009.

[vi] US Environmental Protection Agency, data updated August 19th2010.

[vii] ‘Slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation at 25degN’ by H Bryden, H Longworth and S Cunningham, Nature 2005 Vol.438 pps.655-657.


Environmental Round-up from ‘Under the Pecan Leaves’

Reblogged from Under the Pecan Leaves — the week’s environmental news:

including — Canadian government forbids meteorologists to talk about climate change; USA awards Gulf of Mexico leases to ExxonMobil.

Instead of slowing down as we approach the cliff edge, we are running faster.



Hanging on by our fingernails


Location of Lake Toba in Sumatra. Map from Wikipedia

Climate has almost extinguished mankind in the past.  The Pleistocene, the seventh major Ice Age that geologists have recorded, started perhaps some 1.7 million years ago, although scientific opinions differ and the cooling may have begun much earlier. About 73,500 years ago, during the Pleistocene, a super-volcanic eruption in the Lake Toba region of the Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered severe further cooling.[i] The vast clouds of gases and ash emitted from the volcano included sulphur dioxide which was converted to sulphuric acid in the upper atmosphere. This formed a barrier between Earth and the sun’s energy, sending heat straight back. The eruption may have cooled the Earth by 3 to 5 degrees C, a cataclysmic event resulting in species extinctions and probably a drastic reduction in the numbers of humans. They died from suffocation by ash and gases, and from the long-lasting catastrophic impact on their food sources.

The ecological recovery from the Toba eruption was probably slow because of the cold climate over much of the world. The Pleistocene itself ended 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, at the dawn of our historical memory when some humans lived in settled communities, and no longer spent their time as nomadic hunter gatherers. As the ice sheets receded, new lands appeared and humans colonised them.

Any significant climate alteration, no matter how it is caused, can threaten the viability of life as we know it. The strands of natural and human-generated climate change are exceedingly complicated to unravel, but over the span of geological time, natural changes have been colossal and, in our terms, both catastrophic and unstoppable.


Lake Toba now: photo by Abang Ringo,

Although scientists’ warnings about climate change become more strident year by year, too many politicians continue to bury the issues as deeply as they dare.

Back in 2006, the World Bank[ii] issued warnings about the impact of natural disasters, both climatic and geological:


“The impact of natural disasters on economic well-being and human suffering has increased alarmingly. In the past year alone, the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed an estimated 200,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless, catastrophic flooding and mudslides in Guatemala killed hundreds of people, and a massive earthquake in Kashmir killed tens of thousands more in Pakistan and India.


“The death tolls are staggering, and the costs to the human and economic development of the affected countries are huge and rising. Natural disasters are becoming more costly: in constant dollars, disaster costs between 1990 and 1999 were more than 15 times higher ($652 billion in material losses) than they were between 1950 and 1959 ($38 billion at 1998 values). The human cost is also high: over the 1984-2003 period, more than 4.1 billion people were affected by natural disasters. The number affected has grown, from 1.6 billion in the first half of that period (1984-93) to almost 2.6 billion in the second half (1994-2003), and has continued to increase.”


Four years later, in 2010, the World Bank and the United Nations jointly published Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: the Economics of Effective Prevention. The report overview makes strange reading, because it assumes that economic growth will continue. The World Bank did acknowledge the threat of climate change, but ignored other hazards such as diminishing fossil fuel supplies, environmental destruction and acute financial instability. The report looked at dangers that are already present, such as monsoon and hurricane flooding, and assumed that the resources to cope will be available. The introductory release on the report quotes task team leader Apurva Sanghi as saying:


“Growing cities will expose more people and property to hazards, but growing cities also suggest growing incomes, which means people are better able to adapt. A rise in vulnerability is not inevitable, if cities are well run.”


The messages are that cities will be larger but wealthier, and that wealth enables people to buy security. The report does not indicate where the new wealth is to come from, but it does offer several “common sense” measures, including better weather forecasting; provision of land titles to individuals, who would thus be encouraged to invest in safer structures; removal of rent controls to give landlords incentives to maintain buildings; and reorientation of public spending on maintenance tasks such as mending potholes, painting bridges and cleaning drains.

In essence the report calls for more financial transfers from the public to private sectors. It has some useful ideas for limiting the impact of disasters in the context of oil-rich civilisation. After all, who would argue against better weather forecasting, or cleaner drains? These responses are nowhere near adequate enough, though, to mitigate future disasters in a crowded, polluted, and thirsty world.

In the UK, Sir Nicholas Stern co-ordinated a review for the Treasury on the impact of climate change. The review, published in 2006, included a discussion paper called ‘What is the Economics of Climate Change?’[iii] The question cannot really be answered because the ecology of the biosphere changes in unpredictable ways. Any system can display “behaviour that is unpredictable from an observation of the interactions of its component parts”[iv] because interactions between system components can create hitherto non-existent emergent properties.

Trying to reduce the complexity of climate change to costs in familiar dollars or pounds, as Sir Nicholas was tasked to do, creates an illusion of control, on the lines of ‘if we can measure the impacts, then surely we are half way to overcoming them…’. But we cannot measure what is impossible to forecast.

Jonathan Sinclair Wilson, former managing director of the publishers Earthscan, made some fundamental points in his written evidence[v] to the Stern Review:


“Climate scientists have proposed various ‘safe’ levels of concentration [of CO2] that will restrict potential temperature rises to no more than 2ºC – at 550ppm,[vi] 500ppm or even a mere 430ppm – but as the whole biosphere is involved, in truth very little is known about the interrelated and cumulative feedback processes that may be triggered at particular levels and temperatures.


“In fact, if the most recent annual increases in CO2 concentrations represent a trend, the rate of increase is accelerating, which itself could be an early sign of positive feedback mechanisms reinforcing the warming process.


“This surely raises the question of whether economic models are able to capture the significance of climatic changes, if those [changes] set limits or constitute threats to the conditions for our collective survival.”


Scientists at the UK Meteorological Office’s ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’ conference in Exeter in 2005 heard from Dr Malte Meinshausen, then of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,[vii] that an atmospheric concentration of 400 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide equivalent would be a probable danger threshold. The measure ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ refers to the carbon dioxide, plus the other greenhouse gases converted mathematically to a carbon dioxide standard. Professor Keith Shine, at Reading University, was reported to have calculated this figure at 425 ppm for early 2006 – already beyond the likely danger threshold.[viii] Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors put the 2010 figure at 467 ppm,[ix] almost 10% higher. In June 2013, the carbon dioxide equivalent was at 478 ppm, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Professor Ron Prinn.[x] That’s a rise of one-eighth since 2006.


“What’s not appreciated is that there are a whole lot of other greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have fundamentally changed the composition of our atmosphere since pre-industrial time: methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons.  The screen of your laptop is probably manufactured in Taiwan, Japan, and Eastern China by a process that releases nitrogen  trifluoride – release of 1 ton of nitrogen trifluoride is equivalent to 16,800 tons of CO2.”[xi]

Emissions of greenhouse gases must be zero by 2200, warned the UK’s Environment Agency and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.[xii] Their report ‘Climate Change on the Millennial Timescale’,[xiii] predicting likely changes to the year 3000, drew attention to the risk of sudden, dramatic climatic shifts which could happen long after emissions have stopped:


“Abrupt changes may be triggered many decades before they actually occur. Even after emissions have completely ceased there is still a legacy from decades past – a ‘sleeping giant’ in the climate system.”[xiv]


Politicians and corporations, with a few exceptions like former US presidential candidate Al Gore, take no notice. They may express intentions to force emissions cuts, but little happens.

Carbon trading is often regarded as a means to reduce emissions. Carbon trading allows organisations to sell  unused portions of their ‘allowances’ of carbon dioxide to those whose emissions are greater than their allocation, and in the European Union a carbon trading scheme for heavy industries began at the start of 2005. The scheme had little impact because the allowances doled out by the EU, for free, were too large and thus many polluters had no need to buy in extra pollution permits. Greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, and emissions trading became another arm of the unsustainably inflated financial derivatives market. An inter-agency report in the USA, published in January 2011, stated confidently that the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (responsible for the emissions ‘market’) could rely on its enhanced authority in the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to regulate the carbon derivatives market in an effective manner.[xv] That is hardly reassuring.  As journalist Jeremy Warner put it,[xvi]


“the carbon market is based on lack of delivery, of an invisible substance, to no one. Since the market revolves around creating carbon credits, or finding carbon reduction projects whose benefits can then be sold to those with a surplus of emissions, it is entirely intangible”. This market in invisibles is, he said, “wide open to abuse and scams”.


The carbon market failed to curb emissions. Countries like the UK reported nominal emissions cuts, achieved as a result of industrial relocations to economies with cheaper labour forces, notably China.

Banks have lost interest. At least ten banks in London had closed or shrunk their emissions trading operations by November 2013.[xvii] Between 2009 and 2013 there was a 70% fall in the number of London-based carbon traders, the Climate Markets & Investors Association reported.[xviii]  Too many permits were issued, and the cost of buying them collapsed. Freedom to carry on polluting.

The Coalition government in the UK prioritised economic growth above emissions curbs. The European Union Commission was, in spring 2014, trying to force the UK government to stop compensating firms for the costs of emissions permits.[xix] Chancellor George Osborne introduced a scheme to reimburse some companies for up to 80% of the costs of the carbon price floor[xx] and the emissions trading scheme. The EU Commission cited rules prohibiting state aid, except in sectors such as iron and steel, chemicals, plastics and paper, where an agreement covers the whole EU.  Industry leaders in the high-energy sectors not covered by EU-wide agreement, such as cement, gypsum, ceramics and glass, made the usual complaints that taxing emissions damaged their competitiveness and their future investment plans.

The logic of imposing emissions payments with one chancellory hand and trying to reimburse the bulk of those payments with the other hand reflects the triumph of style of over substance, of publicising financial penalties for emissions while aiming to subsidise heavily, with public money, those same payments, to promote business as usual.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to explain the risks of paradigm shifts in Earth’s climates. ‘Climate Change 2014’, published by the IPCC’s Working Group 11 on March 31st 2014, listed key risks as

  • Storm surges, coastal flooding and sea level rise
  • Inland flooding
  • Breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, health and emergency services
  • Extreme heat
  • Food insecurity and breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, precipitation variability and extremes
  • Loss of rural livelihoods due to insufficient drinking and irrigation water, reduced agricultural productivity (especially by producers with little capital in semi-arid regions)
  • Loss of marine and coastal ecosystems and biodiversity, affecting fishing communities notably in the tropics and the Arctic
  • Loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems and biodiversity

Even the super-rich will be affected by changes such as these, because their favoured haunts will not escape. Rising seas will swamp low-lying tropical islands. Melting snows in the mountains will launch avalanches. Gated communities are as vulnerable as slums to severe climate events.

Climate change cannot be reduced to a simple action-reaction equation:


“Understanding future vulnerability, exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date. These factors include wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts.”

IPCC Working Group 11, Climate Change 2014, p.11

We are stumbling, blinkered, into the unknown. Will governments take note of Working Group 11’s opinion that “many estimates [of the economic costs of climate change] do not account for catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors”? Will governments also heed the advice that “Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change”?


[i] See, the Oxford University School of Archaeology, accessed November 18th 2010, and ‘Toba supervolcano and climate change’ by Jim Andrews, 13th September 2010,

[ii] Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank, Hazards of Nature, Risks to Development: an IEG Evaluation of World Bank Assistance for Natural Disasters, April 21st 2006. Extract is from the Executive Summary.

[iii] Discussion paper published January 31st 2006.

[iv] Brian Goodwin, ‘From control to participation’ in Resurgence No.201, July/August 2000.


[vi] Parts per million.

[vii] Dr Meinshausen moved to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in 2006 and was researching there and at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2014.

[viii] Professor Shine’s calculation is reported in ‘Greenhouse gases are already past threshold that spells disaster’ by Michael McCarthy, The Independent, February 11th 2006.

[ix], accessed November 20th 2010.

[x] ‘400 ppm CO2? Add other GHGs and I’s equivalent to 478 ppm, by Professor Ron Prinn,, June 6th 2013, accessed April 21st 2014.

[xi] Prinn, op.cit. p.1

[xii] ‘New science shows urgent action needed today on climate change’, release from the Environment Agency and the Tyndall Centre, February 16th 2006.

[xiii] Report to the Environment Agency of Tyndall Centre Research Project T3.18.

[xiv]Tyndall Centre, as above

[xv] ‘Oversight sufficient for US carbon derivatives market: report’,, January 19th 2011.

[xvi] ‘Here comes the next bubble – carbon trading’ by Jeremy Warner,, February 19th 2010.

[xvii] ‘London banks quit carbon trading’ by Jim Pickard and Ajay Makan, November 18th 2013.

[xviii] ‘London banks quit carbon trading’, op.cit.

[xix] ‘EU blow to UK energy-intensive companies’ by Brian Groom, Andy Sharman and Alex Barker,, April 21st 2014.

[xx] The carbon price floor (CPF) was a Coalition government policy for an additional tax on greenhouse gas emissions. It was supposed to be £15.70 per tonne of CO2 equivalent in 2013-14, rising in steps to £30 in 2020-21 and £70 in 2030-31. The Chancellor backtracked in the March 2014 Budget, setting the level at £9.55 a tonne for 2014-15 and £18.08 until at least 2020.

Oh Dear, Historically Speaking this Stormy Weather is Ordinary

…..but floods call into question our rigid planning system

Driving through the drenched saturated-sponge landscapes of the Cothi and Tywi valleys in Carmarthenshire today, windscreen wipers whirring away, the yellow-grey sky heavy with rain, it was a struggle to convince myself that this is not the most dismal winter ever. For people evacuated out of the Somerset Levels by deluge after deluge, it does seem to be the worst in living memory.

I have a book called ‘Agricultural Records AD 220-1977, by J M Stratton and Jack Houghton Brown[1], who brought up to date an 1883 book, ‘Records of the Seasons, Prices of Agricultural Produce, and Phenomena Observed in the British Isles, by Thomas H Baker. ‘Agricultural Records’ is a reminder that the last century has been a period of relatively benign weather in the British Isles, because the weather in history has often been appalling.

In 1236, when Henry III was king, “January, February and early March brought unusually heavy rainfall, consequently rivers rose and caused much flooding. In February it is said that the rain fell for eight days without ceasing. Autumn, too, was very wet with much flooding and high tides along the coasts. There was much loss of cattle and also of human life”.

A great flood in 1287 drowned some 500 people in Norfolk, but over the North Sea in Holland, many thousands, perhaps over 50,000 people, died in the flood which enlarged the pre-existing lake into the Zuider Zee, which remained as open water until the construction of the Afsluitdijk to keep the sea out. This dyke was completed in 1932, the land was reclaimed and is now the province of Flevoland, but keeping the sea at bay demands continual dyke maintenance, for ever .

Back in England, in 1315, after a succession of years with heavy rains, exceptional rains in July and August wiped out the grain harvest. “There was heavy mortality among human beings and cattle, and the situation was aggravated by plague among cattle”, the book says. In 1316 “[p]erpetual rains and cold weather not only destroyed the harvest, but bred a mortality among the cattle, and raised every kind of food to an enormous price”.

The notes from recorded history show that what passes as ‘good’ weather for us – plenty of sun, enough rain for plants to thrive – is by no means normal. Our epoch in geological time, an interglacial in the Quaternary Ice Age, situates us in a relatively ice-light interval of unknown duration. Previous Quaternary interglacials seem to have lasted for an average of about 10,000 years, and if the present one followed that pattern, it would be well into its final phase now, but the colossal escape into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other warming gases, resulting from humans’ use of fossil fuels, may delay the start of the next glacial period, as well as having more immediate repercussions.

Ice cores from Greenland indicate that, during the past quarter of a million years, climate changes have been abrupt. The cores show that the present interglacial is unusual in that the climate has been more stable than in previous interglacials, meaning that although our weather can appear extremely unpleasant to us, if we had been living in the previous interglacial, it would have been even worse.

There is a profound link between climate and civilisation.[2] The relatively benign climate of the interglacial which began about 15,000 years ago – although often miserable and even fatal for us — is an important reason for the continuity of human endeavour and the development of civilisation.  Sad, then that civilisation has enabled us to acquire the destructive power to affect the climatic system, but never to control it.

These days we tend to assume that settlements are permanent, but for nearly all of human history people have been on the move, responding to climate change, extreme weather, the need to find water and food. Current patterns of settlement and home ownership in the UK make it very hard for people to move to sites that are safer, safer in the short term at least. Movement out of hazardous locations is difficult because of rigid planning zones which prohibit construction in safer places unless they have been zoned for housing. Movement out is also difficult because of the amounts of capital that home-owners have sunk into properties that few people will want to move into. How can they move, if they owe a mortgage on a home they cannot sell for anything like the price they paid for it? With one home in every six in the UK estimated to be at risk of future flooding, the problem is huge.

by Pat Dodd Racher

[1] London: John Baker, second edition 1978.

[2] ‘Was agriculture impossible during the Pleistocene but mandatory during the Holocene? A climate change hypothesis’, by P J Richerson, R Boyd and R L Bettinger, in ‘American Antiquity’ 66 (3) pp387-411, 2001

Oh Dear There’s an Asteroid Heading Our Way…..

…but let’s not worry about that yet, say the crowd in the pub.

An asteroid might or might not slam into Earth, but there are more immediate dangers to understand. Richard Heinberg — link below — argues that we must build more resilience into our straining, breaking systems — environmental, social, political, economic…  In ‘Fingers in the dike’ on, Richard Heinberg looks at the unpleasant interactions between energy, money and climate systems:

The ways that we compartmentalise and certificate knowledge are, I think, partly to blame for the difficulty we have in visualising our world as a complex adaptive system in which the linkages between component parts are as critical as the parts themselves. The people who analyse the functioning of broad systems, across the boundaries of traditional ‘subjects’ are often on the receiving end of academic and political marginalisation, sadly.

The Sustainable Development Commission had a greenwash type of name but, led by Jonathon Porritt, it acted as a subtle ecological conscience for the United Kingdom.  It was an advisory link between government departments, and a reminder that systems do not stop at the exits of ministerial domains.

The commission was abolished by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in 2010. In fact, axing the commission was one of this government’s early acts, although the British people were told it would be the “greenest government ever”, a misleading statement which adds to the widespread distrust of politicians, and to apathy.

Both Richard Heinberg and Gail Tverberg (what is it about the bergs?) see clearly how systems form interacting hierarchies that should not be analysed solely in isolation from each other. Gradually the power of their arguments is gaining support from green-minded people.

Pat Dodd Racher

Tim Yeo and the Folly of a Third Runway at Heathrow

by Pat Dodd Racher, August 29 2012

What did Tim Yeo MP, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in the House of Commons, say yesterday? “We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram.”

This startling assertion, accompanying his plea for prime minister David Cameron to renege on his opposition to a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, was based on the belief that the inclusion of aviation in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) is a Panglossian miracle sufficient to magic away the spectre of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other dangerous greenhouse gases accumulating in excessive concentrations.

The Emissions Trading System, which included aviation from January 2012, enables organisations to sell emissions allowances they don’t need, and to buy in allowances if they seek to increase their emissions. As with milk quotas, the EU created a market where none previously existed.  The target is a 21% fall in emissions across the EU between 2005 and 2020.

Yet the ETS scheme does not cover everyone, only about 11,000 industrial polluters across 30 countries in and bordering the EU. The amount of pollution from these plants can in theory be measured from the number of permits used and traded…. but the scheme has attracted fraudsters, and in any case it excludes all but the largest individual emitters of greenhouse gases. For most of the seven years since the ETS began in 2005, much of Europe has been mired in a recession with origins in almost boundless cheap credit and lack of capacity to repay it. Economies are not growing, so there has been little pressure on industry to increase production and thus emissions.

The allowances were dished out over-generously, in fact representing free money to polluters. Alongside recession, the advent of carbon offsets, allowing polluters to ‘neutralise’ their emissions by contributing to ‘clean’ projects such as reforestation and wind and solar energy schemes, is a smothering blanking over the carbon price, which at the end of August 2012 is about €8.25 a tonne. As the International Energy Agency maintains that a price of just on €40 ($50) per tonne will be required to induce polluters to change their habits, it’s clear that €8.25 is not going to achieve much in the way of cleaner technologies.

‘Cleaner’ is not the same as ‘renewable’, either. Switching from coal to somewhat cleaner natural gas means using up fewer emissions allowances, although natural gas is a finite fossil fuel, and the faster it’s burnt, the less remains for future use.

So, what did Mr Yeo mean when he said: “We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram”?

He truncated the argument somewhat. If he had said: “We could cover the whole of Surrey with runways and not increase emissions by a single kilogram within the European Emissions Trading System,” that may have been substantially true, but emissions as reported within the trading scheme are only a fraction of total emissions into the atmosphere.

According to Vincent Swinkels, sustainability consultant based in the Netherlands, it’s likely that “in 10 years’ time about a quarter of all global CO2 emissions will fall under an emissions trading scheme”. He also envisages greenhouse gas reduction policies such ultra-low emissions from new vehicles and continued expansion in renewable feedstocks for energy, but even so he does not think enough will be done to make an impact on climate change. Too many countries will ignore the issue, and even in states trying to make a difference, emission caps will often be nowhere near low enough.

So Tim Yeo appears to have been literally economical with the truth. He has also ignored a critical argument against airport expansion: the absence of affordable fuel for a larger aviation fleet.

Air travel expanded when fuel was CHEAP, when big new oilfields were being discovered, and oil was being drilled at high efficiency. Those days have gone. Oil exploration now is focused on harsh environments like Siberia and Alaska, and in the deep oceans, where spills can do enormous environmental harm, and where the energy expended in obtaining the oil is almost as great as the energy value of the oil itself.

Remember Concorde, that booming but beautiful supersonic aircraft? Concorde gulped fuel at a prodigious rate, 157.6 gallons per passenger between London and New York, assuming a full plane. A jumbo Boeing 747-100 consumed only 57.7 gallons per passenger. Concorde was pretty unaffordable even in the days of cheap oil. As oil transitions into a luxury purchase, fewer people will be able to afford to fly. We won’t need so many runways. In fact, we will probably be rueing the hard surfaces and wishing that the market gardens on the fine agricultural land of Middlesex had never been bulldozed to make way for Heathrow.

Third runway? I’d much rather have a programme to reintroduce organic market gardens in and around London!