Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Today in the Guardian, I note...

That the risk of sea eagles nabbing lambs is a higher byline than new evidence on methane hydrates gassing into the atmosphere. This says it all about our idiot culture. Here follows an essay I did in 2002 for my MA that covers many of the basic points on the risks and feedback mechanisms that make global warming rather more scary than people often think. Apologies to Al Gore if he covered the same ground. I got there first, and couldn't be arsed to watch the bandwagon follow suit!


The Interlocking Nature of Sustainability. 2002.

Many, if not most, educated people now accept that climate change is the most serious problem of our age. Despite this awareness, the mechanisms of climate change are poorly understood, and few people are aware of the full implications. Discuss why this general awareness is not translating into direct personal action to prevent climate change.

‘We need an energy bill that encourages consumption.’ - George Bush, Trenton, New Jersey, 23/09/02.

The problem with the phrase ‘educated people’ is in its definition. If it is taken to mean ‘the top 1% academically’, then climate change has at least a chance of being recognised as a problem, if not necessarily the ‘most serious of our age.’ But if it hopes to include more than that, say the top 30%, then it is evidently erroneous. The over-riding impression I have gleaned from talking to people is that many do not consider climate change to be a serious problem that affects them personally; and others believe it to have been brought more or less under control by measures taken over the last decade. The doomsayers are nowhere to be seen. These attitudes do not, however, imply a resistance to education or lack of interest in the issues when brought to their attention. The crux of this state of mind perhaps lies in humankind’s tendency to be of necessity optimistic in its gambling habits.

‘In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in [anthropogenic] greenhouse gas concentrations.’ (IPCC 2001, p.10).

This statement from the IPCC, though hedged about somewhat by provisos, still manages to state the case fairly plainly. However, it is my opinion that the traditional scientific presentation of probabilities and likelihoods can fail miserably to convince policy makers of the possibly fatal consequences of global warming. In an industrialised society such as the UK, where international markets influence both government and media, and where the entire social structure is now geared to consumer growth at the expense of little else, the economic contraction that global warming demands is necessarily bound to be unwelcome.

‘Formulating a policy response to global warming is, at heart, an exercise in risk assessment. Perhaps the world’s policy-makers have not been able to agree on a plan of action partly because we scientists have not fully explained the nature of the threat – particularly the possibility that a worst-case scenario might develop.’ (Leggett 1992).

This essay attempts to set out the case for the reality and dangers of climate change in terms of the complications that bedevil attempts to convince policy-makers and citizens to act effectively to counter it. These complications can be roughly divided into difficulties of science (how accurate are the forecasts and models), difficulties of scale/time (how can we tell whether the variation is important when viewed within the geological timescale), difficulties of implementation (how can we ethically rein in our energy greed), and difficulties of acceptance (how can we make ourselves believe in something so huge and horrendous as a possible extinction event).

Global warming, being just one measurement of the behaviour of many interlinked and interdependent systems is by its nature impossible to remove from its context. In fact, to talk about systems in the plural is erroneous in that all physical processes depend on each other to a degree.

‘The Earth’s climate is an extremely complex system with wind, cloud, temperature, ocean current, vegetation, terrain, and the polar ice caps all interacting to determine the weather. Higher temperatures alter air and ocean circulation, the location and frequency of clouds, the distribution and vitality of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and the area of glaciers and sea ice cover.’ (Jardine 1994).

By attempting to see global warming as a single process, such as anthropogenic greenhouse gases, we tend to diminish its significance, and more importantly, we ignore the amplification of its effect through positive feedback with the climate. By making the process easy to understand, we also make it seem smaller.

The action of greenhouse gases (i.e., gases that easily allow the passage of visible and ultra-violet radiation but inhibit infra-red radiation) in themselves is understood by some of the educated populace. The idea of a ‘blanket’ around the earth, trapping heat in, is easily taken on board. However: explanations of this sort tend to degrade the seriousness of the problem to the level of ‘blankets’ or ‘greenhouses’ etc. Firstly, they imply blanket-sized solutions. They also, by utilizing metaphor, take some of the reality of the problem away. We know that ‘the blanket’ is a convenient fiction: unfortunately, that knowledge compromises our belief in the existence of the underlying reality.

The IPCC 2001 Report for Policy Makers forecasts a temperature rise between 1.4 to 5.8 degrees C. This is 0.6 degrees higher on average than the range forecast by the IPCC in 1990. An important aspect not accounted for in the IPCC forecasts is the possibility of a worst-case, runaway warming scenario, driven by positive feedback loops. Leggett describes how in 1990, the worst-case scenario was played down ostensibly for fear of inculcating defeatism in government and media. (Leggett 1999, ch.1). The outcome of this is that our best forecasts make little or no allowance for the worst case. In industry or finance, this attitude would be deemed reckless. In accountancy (following the concept of conservatism) it would be deemed dishonest.

Feedback is an activation of a component of a system by another component. (Leggert 1992). Feedbacks can be positive, where the subsequent effect amplifies the original effect, or negative where the subsequent effect decreases the original effect: this can give a ‘flip-flop’ effect as the subsequent effect tails off, allowing the original effect to re-establish itself, and so on. (Calvin 1998). Positive feedback bears upon global warming in the following ways:

i) Albedo. Ice and snow, being pale, reflect warmth from the sun away from the earth. As warming increases, so ice melts, and the underlying land or sea, being less reflective, absorbs heat more readily. Similarly, cloud cover also reflects the sun’s rays. As the temperature increases, more high altitude clouds form. These contain ice crystals that help trap heat in the atmosphere (see below under water vapour), but they may help stop some heat from penetrating in the first place. (Leggett 1992).

ii) ‘Water vapour is a more important greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and as its atmospheric concentration can vary rapidly, it could have been a major trigger or amplifier in many sudden climate changes. For example, a change in sea-ice extent or in carbon dioxide would be expected to affect the flux of water into the atmosphere from the oceans, possibly amplifying climate changes. Large, rapid changes in vegetation cover might also have added to these changes in water vapour flux to the atmosphere. […] W. S. Broecker suggested that water vapour may act as a global ‘messenger’, co-ordinating rapid climate changes, many of which seem to have occurred all around the world fairly simultaneously, or in close succession.’ (Adams, et al. 1999).

iii) Forests. Carbon fertilization is the stimulation of plant growth by excess carbon dioxide. This extra growth is estimated to take up 290 billion tons of carbon. However, there comes a point when the rising temperature causes the plant to respirate more. This process breaks down photosynthesized sugars and releases carbon dioxide. Another theory is that it is nitrogen from acid rain that is stimulating the tree growth, and leading to increased carbon take-up. Eventually, with the rising temperature, the trees begin to die back; also, the forests become more prone to fire and insect attack (such as the spruce bark beetle, or the spruce budworm): either through fire or decomposition, they could release hundreds of billions of tons of additional carbon. (Leggett 1992). The spruce budworm is quite capable of devastating large areas of forest. The most recent (as of date of citation) budworm outbreak defoliated 55,000,000 hectares of northern boreal forest. (Jardine 1994).

iv) Oceans. As they warm, their ability to absorb carbon dioxide is decreased. Also, they may be losing fixed nitrogen. This allows phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton absorb and fix carbon dioxide, and then sink to the bottom of the ocean. If oceanic nitrogen decreases, then the phytoplankton will decrease, and their important role in taking up carbon dioxide will be lessened. (Leggett 1992). An additional problem is that the ozone holes over high latitudes will allow more ultraviolet-B radiation through the atmosphere during the spring, when phytoplankton are most productive.’ A hypothetical loss of 10 percent of the marine phytoplankton would reduce the oceanic annual uptake of carbon dioxide by about 5 billion tons – an amount equal to the annual emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption.’ (Leggett 1992, quoting unspecified UN Environment Program Report).

v) Thermohaline Conveyor. Cold, dense, salty water in the Norwegian Sea sinks, pushing deep water south, and dragging warm water north from the Gulf of Mexico. Warming of the Greenland ice cap and Arctic pack ice would bring a greater amount of freshwater into the North Atlantic. This fresh water is less dense than salty water, and as such, slows the rate of sinking. (Calvin 1998). This slows the ocean current system, which will also decrease the oceans ability to absorb carbon dioxide. (A side effect of the slowing or stopping of the North Atlantic Conveyor is that Europe could experience a mini ice age. It is estimated that Dublin could have the climate of Spitsbergen within 10 years of breakdown of the current.) (Leggett 1992).

vi) Methane Hydrate. As the Arctic icecap melts, and the sea temperature warms, reservoirs of methane hydrate on the seabed may become unstable, and release huge quantities of methane. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and massive-scale release of it could cause a run-away greenhouse warming effect. Some opinions suggest that the increase of water in the oceans will counteract the warming by dint of the increased pressure on the hydrate. However, the density of the oceans will also be decreased by the addition of freshwater, thereby partly counteracting the full effect of that increase. (Leggett 1992). Furthermore, a localised methane event would heat the atmosphere by a certain degree. A time lag would then take place as the oceans warmed up, which could then trigger further massive-scale methane destabilizations. This is the explanation for the staggered nature of the upward hike in temperature 55 million years ago.

Methane outgassing has been studied in recent geological history. Kennet et al have shown that during the last 60,000 years

‘gas hydrate stability was modulated by intermediate-water temperature changes induced by switches in thermohaline circulation. These oscillations were likely widespread [sic] along the California margin and elsewhere, affecting gas hydrate instability, and contributing to millennial-scale atmospheric methane oscillations.’ (Kennet et al. 2000).

vii) Peatlands and tundra. Rising temperatures are melting permafrost in the tundra regions; this leads to the release of significant quantities of methane. Drying out of peatlands could increase the risk of peatland fires, releasing carbon dioxide.

It is clear that when anthropogenic global warming is put in context that the influence of positive feedback loops could have drastic consequences that could severely compromise the survival prospects of homo sapiens. However, the number, variety and interconnectedness of different processes, although simple enough to grasp, limits the ease and effectiveness of getting the message across to policy-makers.

When we look at global warming in the context of the Quaternary, the timescale and the wide and recurrent variations and swings in climate mask the possible implication of the recent upwards spike in the temperature charts. It is this long-term choppiness of the graph that makes it easy for sceptics to point to recent warming as a natural feature of our climate. However, the scale of carbon concentrations in the atmosphere today (and those expected to be added in the near future) is totally unprecedented: there is nothing over the last few million years to compare it to. Also, ascribing recent warming to natural causes does not invalidate calls for emissions control: indeed, if one concedes a natural problem, then there is an even greater need not to add to it through man-made processes.

An interesting aspect of paleoclimatologists’ work has been the discovery that the transitions between glacials and interglacials rather than being slow and gradual, could have occurred over a matter of decades:

‘[…] these shifts, with their temperature changes of up to 7 degrees C, have occurred within three to four decades – a virtual nanosecond in geological time. Over the last 70,000 years, the earth’s climate has snapped into radically different temperature regimes.’ (Gelbspan 1995).

‘It appears that the climate system is more delicately balanced than had previously been thought, linked by a cascade of powerful mechanisms that can amplify a small initial change into a much larger qualitative shift in temperature and aridity.’ (Adams and Foote ca.1999).

‘[…] sudden shutdowns or intensification of the Gulf Stream circulation might occur under full interglacial conditions, and be brought on by the disturbance caused by rising greenhouse gas levels. To paraphrase W. S. Broecker; “Climate is an ill-tempered beast, and we are poking it with sticks”.’ (Adams et al. 1999).

As discussed earlier, these types of events could lead to Europe experiencing much colder conditions. If Europe’s climate were to match Canada’s, Europe would only be able to feed only one in twenty-three of its population. (Calvin 1998).

These reports of possible localised cooling as a result of global warming have led to a plethora of stories in the media supporting the ‘business as usual’ argument, and portraying climate research as a field that changes its mind every year or so. Sceptics such as Fred Hoyle have claimed that anthropogenic global warming is essential to avert another ice age. (Anon, RisingTide 2002). The fallacious nature of this view may be highlighted by the real possibility that global warming may be the trigger that speeds the next stadial or glacial period on its way. Adams, et al, argue that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions could trigger the climate to enter an oscillating phase in marked contrast to the stable climatic conditions of the last few thousand years. They go on:

‘Such observations suggest that even without anthropogenic climate modification there is always an axe hanging over our head, in the form of random very large-scale changes in the natural climate system; a possibility that policy makers should perhaps bear in mind with contingency plans and international treaties designed to cope with sudden famines on a greater scale than any experienced in written history. By starting to disturb the system, humans may simply be increasing the likelihood of sudden events which could always occur.’ (Adams et al. 1999).

It should be pointed out, however, that a return to ice age conditions is not the worst-case scenario; by dint that mankind has survived those conditions in the past. Mankind has never been faced with runaway warming before. However, desertification in the Sudan and Ethiopia and flooding in Bangladesh and Mozambique may give a likely indication of the widespread initial conditions to be experienced under that climate model.

So far we have seen that firstly, global warming depends on a whole host of climatic factors, and secondly, that its effects may not be straightforward. Rather than human influence slowly tipping the scales one way or another, the degree of ‘tip’ may cause the rest of the weights to slide catastrophically, increasing the ‘lever’ action on the scales. At risk of straining the metaphor: the weights may even slide right off the end of the lever into another set of scales that causes a completely different and unexpected effect. The ‘chaotic’ nature of these processes makes them difficult to translate into recommendations: we do not know enough to confidently predict the nature of the catastrophe, only warn of the likelihood of it if we continue to add these unprecedented quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere.

However, there are many contrary voices, such as Stott, Lindzen, etc. The main thrusts of the sceptics’ arguments is that firstly the science is not clear enough; secondly that the human cost in cutting carbon emissions outweighs the risk (in other words, that the impact of downsizing human behaviour will be as catastrophic as extreme climate change); thirdly that we are playing Canute in trying to change the climate, rather than adapting our behaviour to a changing climate; fourthly, that global warming is the environmentalists perfect stick to drive society towards sustainability.

‘CO2 for different people has different attractions. After all, what is it? - it’s not a pollutant, it’s a product of every living creature’s breathing, it’s the product of all plant respiration, it is essential for plant life and photosynthesis, it’s a product of all industrial burning, it’s a product of driving – I mean, if you ever wanted a leverage point to control everything from exhalation to driving, this would be a dream. So it has a kind of fundamental attractiveness to bureaucratic mentality.’ (Lindzen, no date).

However, it makes sound economic sense to take a conservative approach, and draw our horns in a little.

‘When the state of our planet is at stake, the risks can be so high, and the costs of corretive action so great, that prevention is better and cheaper than cure.’ (Cairncross 1991, p.55-56)

At present, we may have enough evidence to make global warming an issue worth taking a bet on. It would seem sensible to take a cautious line of action (following the precautionary principle), and curb emissions whether or not they are the most important factor involved. If they were, then we would have perhaps halted a possible extinction threat; if they were not, then no matter – we would have journeyed towards sustainability in the process. However, it is obvious at present that policy makers are not likely to take that course of action in any meaningful or effective way. Why is there this resistance to sensible action?

‘[…] resistance is understandable, given the immensity of the stakes. The energy industries now constitute the largest single enterprise known to mankind. Moreover, they are indivisible from automobile, farming, shipping, air freight and banking interests, as well as the governments dependent on oil revenues for their very existence. With annual sales in excess of one trillion dollars and daily sales of more than two billion dollars, the oil industry alone supports the economies of the Middle East and large segments of the economies of Russia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, Indonesia, Norway, and Great Britain. [Not forgetting the U.S.A.] Begin to enforce restriction on the consumption of oil and coal, and the effects on the global economy – unemployment, depression, social breakdown, and war – might lay waste to what we have come to call civilization. It is no wonder that for the last five or six years many of the world’s politicians and most of the world’s news media have been promoting the perception that worries about the weather are overwrought.’ (Gelbspan 1995).

Politicians are all too ready to set the cost of a best-case analysis for global warming against a worst-case analysis for the world economy. Environmentalists, perhaps understandably, tend to reverse the best/worst cases. Sceptics such as Lomberg have calculated the costs to the world economy purely as a cessation of energy production, rather than a transition to sustainable energy sources. (Lomberg 2001). This tends to over-emphasise the cost of change.

A major hindrance to the adoption of emission controls is the dependence of world agriculture (especially, but not exclusively in the developed nations) on fossil fuels, particularly oil. About 2% of the working U.S. population make all of its food (both internally consumed and exported). A century ago, that figure was about 80%. (Youngquist 1999). Giampietro and Pimentel (1994) make the point that the amount of corn produced in one hour of labour in the modern U.S. is 350 times more than the indigenous Cherokee population could grow. Any radical cutting in exosomatic input (fuel use) would inevitably impact upon food cultivation. However, these are problems that will have to be faced within a generation or so as oil production declines.

A major reason for the inaction of governments, corporations, and people, is psychological. A study of social responses to human rights abuses shows that the ways in which people deny things are subtle and various. (Stanley, no date, cited by Marshall 2001). In an article for RisingTide, George Marshall (2001) attempts to apply some of these mechanisms to the human reaction to the fact of climate change.

‘Firstly, we can expect widespread denial when the enormity and nature of the problem are so unprecedented that people have no cultural mechanisms for accepting them. […] Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims. The language of “climate change”, “global warming”, “human impacts”, and “adaptation” are themselves a form of denial familiar from other human rights abuse; they are scientific euphemisms that suggest climate change originates in immutable natural forces rather than in a direct causal relationship with moral implications for the perpetrator. […] Secondly, we diffuse our responsibility.’ (Marshall 2001).

Discussing the ‘passive bystander effect’, Marshall notes that the larger the number of people involved the less likely an individual will feel empowered to act alone. He also notes the standard ways that people try to resolve internal conflicts: psychotic denial; seeking scapegoats; being deliberately wasteful; displacing their anxiety onto an unrelated yet achievable problem; trying to shut out information. He concludes:

‘[…] denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be overemphasised. Environmental campaign organisations are living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge. “If only people knew, they would act.” […] People will never take action themselves unless they receive social support and the validation of others. Governments in turn will continue to procrastinate until sufficient people demand a response. To avert further climate change will require a degree of social consensus and collective determination normally only seen in war time, and that will require mobilization across all classes and sectors of society.’ (Marshall 2001).

The lesson to be learned here is that the informed individual should act to the best of their ability, on an individual level, and a political level, and should act as visibly as they can. People will only believe in the seriousness of the situation when they see others making sacrifices (and/or provision) for the future. But personal action will only make a difference (both through emissions and through pressure on government) when numbers of individuals take action together.

Despite arguments about the ultimate demise of fossil fuels, and how soon they might run out (Campbell 1999), a reasonable assessment would conclude that there is far more potential carbon dioxide remaining in fuel form than we can afford to burn (if not just for climate change considerations, then also as a valuable resource in itself). A logical society would not give itself the luxury of depleting the resource and waiting to see what happens: it would make provision against the worst case.


Adams, Jonathan, and Randy Foote, ca.99. Sudden Climate Change Through Human History. No date, but post 99. http://dieoff.org/page127.htm

Adams, Jonathan, Mark Maslin, and Ellen Thomas. 1999. Sudden Climate Transitions during the Quaternary. Article in press in Progress in Physical Geography. v.23 p.1-36. http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/transit.html

Cairncross, Frances. 1991. Costing the Earth. Harvard Business School Press.

Calvin, William H. January 1998. The Great Climate Flip-flop. The Atlantic Monthly 281 (1):47-64. http://faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin/1990s/1998atlanticclimate.htm.

Campbell, C.J. 1999. The Imminent Peak of World Oil Production. Presentation to a House of Commons All-Party Committee. http://www.hubbertpeak.com/campbell/commons.htm

Cohen, Stanley. States of Denial, Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, cited without detail by George Marshall.

EcoBridge. Climate Roulette: Positive Feedback Loops of Global Warming. http://www.ecobridge.org/content/g_fbk.htm

Gelbspan, Ross, December 1995. The Heat Is On: The warming of the world’s climate sparks a blaze of denial. Harper’s Magazine. http://dieoff.org/page82.htm

Giampietro, Mario, and David Pimentel, 1994. The Tightening Conflict: Population, Energy Use, and the Ecology of Agriculture. No original source given. http://dieoff.org/page69.htm or http://www.npg.org/forum_series/tightening_conflict.htm

IPCC. 2001. Summary for Policy Makers. A report of Working group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Jardine, Kevin. 1994. Edited by Lyn Goldsworthy, Abbie Thomas, Michael Szarbo for Greenpeace International. The Climate Bomb: Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests. http://www.dieoff.org/page129.htm

Kennet, James P, Kevin G. Cannariato, Ingril L. Hendy, Richard J. Behl. 2000. Carbon Isotopic Evidence for Methane Hydrate Instability During Quaternary Interstadials. Science. http://www.sciencemag.org/

Leggett, Jeremy. 1992. Global Warming: The Worst Case. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 85: 28-32. http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/1992/j92/j92.leggett.html

Leggett, Jeremy. 1999. The Carbon War. Allan Lane, The Penguin Press, Chapter 1. http://www.carbonwar.com/chapter1.htm

Lindzen, Richard. http://www.open2.net/truthwillout/globalwarming/global_lindzen.htm

Lomberg, Bjorn. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist. Note: Lomberg has been found guilty of scientific dishonesty by the Danish Commitees on Scientific Dishonesty. (Source, Guardian, 9/01/03).

Marshall, George. 22/9/2001. The Psychology of Denial – Our Failure to Act Against Climate Change. http://www.risingtide.org.uk/

RisingTide. 13/3/2002. Hall of Shame. http://www.risingtide.org.uk/pages/hall_shame.html

Youngquist, Walter. 1999. The Post-Petroleum Paradigm – and Population. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies vol 20, no4, Human Sciences Press. http://www.buddycom.com/ecol/brainfood/oilepic.html


POSTSCRIPT: WE'RE FUCKED! (Ladies and Gentlemen!!!)*

* Homage to Bruce.

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