Book review: Alice Bell’s “Our Biggest Experiment”

Cover Alice Bell' Our Biggest Experiment

The experiment in question is, of course, climate change. It is an experiment because humanity is largely conducting the experiment on itself and seeing what happens. Humanity knows how to stop it, but it seems either too curious about the result of the experiment, or too addicted to the drugs to stop it.

My reading and viewing in recent years has covered most of the themes discussed in this book. Andreas Malm’s book, Fossil Capital, deals with coal (Bell cites the book in recognition of his clinical account). Iain Stewart’s 3-Part TV documentaries, Earth: The Planet Wars and Planet Oil, do climate change and oil pretty well and David Wallace-Wells comprehensively spells out the future scenarios for humanity in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth. Bell adds considerably to my knowledge about gas and, in particular, the quest for light in the night. I am now also armed with a knowledge about meteorology, its origins and purpose (obsessive and competitive individuals and trade).

Climate change as Biography

There is an extensive cast of characters. It is through these that the story is so compellingly told. For example, Joseph Priestly grappled with the question of what is heat. Phlogiston was the “substance” that made fuels (and all else) burn; for example, whale oil, marsh gas, coal were pure pholgiston. Phologiston was eventually dismissed as a serious scientific idea after experiments created water from so-called flammable air (hydrogen) and dephlogisticated air (oxygen). An explosion was expected as the hydrogen should have burned well in the oxygen!

Daniel Fahrenheit who, in 1724, etablished the eponymous scale for measuring temperature based on the temperature of an armpit and a bucket of ice/water (pp56/57). He also popularised mercury as the liquid of choice for thermometers. Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, a couple of outsiders of science’s aristocracy, who studied the formation and melting of glaciers in the Alps in the 1850s. Tyndall’s work on trapped heat arising from the properties of different gases, however, overlooked the work of Eunice Foote – the first person, in 1856, to observe the heating potential of carbon dioxide (p68), though, as was common in those times, women’s science discoveries were overlooked. Consequently, Foote’s male peers (e.g. Tyndall) were credited and cited.

The cast of characters is wonderfully extensive, and I recommend Bell’s book for its attention to such detail. She tells us who knew whom. Who made the seredipitous discoveries. Who took what money. And so on.

The things we remember in our lifetimes (says a late middle-ager)

James Hansen

Former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the Left’s nemesis. For a brief time she was an advocate for green house gas emission reductions. It is what Bell calls Thatcher’s “climate moment”. But it was more than that. As a description, that is more in line with Stewart’s explanation in which Thatcher was eventually nobbled by her party and guided away from a progressive approach to climate transition. As a chemist herself she was affected, like many others, by James Hanson’s 1988 US Senate testimony, Thatcher addressed the Royal Society in which she posited the idea that the Earth was being stressed by population (growth), agricultural practices and the burning of fossil fuels. She described it as potentially “a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” (p312). A year later she was at the UN calling for an international convention on climate change! However, Bell, probably correctly, rejects the idea that it was the scientist in her that was the motivation for her speeches. Rather it was the Hayak economist in her. Her solution was, of course, more market, more capitalism and less state. She may also have sought to de-leftify climate change!

The oil industry

The oil industry is, in many respects the history of empire. BP has its origins in Iran/Persia and had its interests expropriated or nationalised (depending on whether you are British or Iranian). Iain Stewart tells the story of the coup d’etat executed by the British and the Americans to see off the architect of the nationalisation, Iran’s PM, Mohammad Mosaddegh (left), in a campaign of disinformation and public disorder. The nationalisation was executed because the British were not prepared to renegotiate oil concessions in the country and to share the wealth that it generated, as the Americans had done in Saudi Arabia.

Shell/Royal Dutch, too, is founded on Dutch imperialism. In 1890, the Dutch king pledged support for Royal Dutch to drill in the Dutch East Indies (Sumatra). Royal Dutch Shell as a company was the effective takeover of Shell, the British shipping concern of Marcus Samuel (there is a Rothchild Bank story here, too). Though originally it had literally been a shell merchant company. Shell as in crustaceans! The company is the pioneer of the oil tanker and critically, achieved safety approval for its ships to bring oil safely from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal, mainly, at that time, for lighting. This act outflanked Standard Oil; the rapacious vehicle of J.D. Rockefeller’s wealth generation. Moreover, the automobile had not yet entered to arena and given additional/new value to oil, as electricity was overtaking oil as the main source of artificial light in cities and homes.

Talking of Standard Oil, as is common knowledge, in 1911 the company was ordered by the US Supreme Court to be broken up. Three companies emerged – Standard Oil New Jersey; Standard Oil New York, and Standard Oil California. The latter became Chevron, the New York company, Mobil, and the New Jersey beast became Exxon. Arguably, the breakup was hydra-like with three monsters being created as a result. Exxon and Mobil are now back together, interestingly. Chevron has an unenviable record on climate change (though in 2021 found itself the attention of activist shareholders similar to Exxon).

Exxon has invested considerable sums in climate change scepticism and/or critical science (effectively challenging the the premise of the developing evidence base for planetary warming. The company employed many of the tactics of the tobacco industry before it disputing the causal relationship between smoking and cancer – fighting science with science to spread doubt. This involved employing reputable scientists and the heavyweight PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. The ultimate of regressions.

Wallace Broekner

In 1977, Exxon got serious and employed Edward David Jr, a veteran of Bell Labs, to head up their research labs (pp302/3). David was receptive to building a specialist scientific team around carbon dioxide research. The company fitted out a supertanker to do ocean research and brought in Wallace Broekner (left, the man behind the term, global warming, and a reputable climate scientist/oceanographer) and University of Columbia scientist (Doherty Earth Observatory), Taro Takahashi. Bell rightly notes that these scientists did not sell their souls to the Devil as it might seem at first look; rather they may have felt that they could lead Exxon’s transition from oil to renewables. It was not to be.

In the case of climate scepticism there was, notes Bell, a generation of scientists with cold war DNA. Their seeming hatred of the Left arising from marginalisation of military science on campuses around the USA and a residual loathing of Rachel Carson whose book, Silent Spring, saw off DDT whilst simultaneously challenging military strategy (as it was used as a “defoliant” in the Vietnam War). Bell identifies three “angry old men” (p319): Bill Nierenberg (former director of Scipps Institute of Oceanography and veteran of the Manhatten Project), Frederick Seitz (former President of the National Academy of Sciences) and Robert Jastrow (founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Together they founded the George C Marshall Institute that initially concerned itself with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative but graduated to climate scepticism as witnessed in the pages of their book, Global Warming: What does the Science Tell Us?

In addition, the company Exxon’s scientists also oversaw the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report in 1990.

The Road to Now

There is also room for Al Gore (right) in Bell’s account of this period. Gore had had two stints as Vice President of the USA and had more than a look in to make president in the election year of 2000 (controversially defeated by George W Bush and who went on to take the USA out of the Kyoto Agreement, much as Trump did with the Paris Agreement 18 years later). Gore had drawn on the work of the so-called Granddaddy of climate science and oceanography, Roger Revelle. His PhD studies undertaken in the early 1930s examined the extent to which the oceans absorbed carbon dioxide and concluded that it was much less than previously thought and calculated (about 50 per cent and not the 98 per cent accepted wisdom). Revelle was hugely networked, including with the US Navy. He was, in the 1950s, employing a new technique of carbon dating, initially in connection with measuring radioactivity, but equally useful in studying tree rings that revealed isotopes that were closely associated with the burning of fossil fuels. This knowledge was re-applied to oceans by Revelle who had observed a phenomenon called buffering whereby the oceans expel carbon dioxide to avoid acidification. So initial calculations needed to be revisited to capture the significant expulsion and further concentration of carbon dioxide in the air rather than being absorbed by the oceans (p226).

Then there’s Captain Planet (p311), the brainchild of Ted Turner, CNN’s founder. For the 1989 series, he signed up stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum and Sting to voice the multi-national characters who appeared in the “Planeteers”. I’ve seen better animation, but it reminds me of shows like “The Tomorrow People” of my youth, featuring a band of kids/young people with special powers, such as telepathy, to help others deal with the agonies of life as well as those regular issues involving extra-terrestrial life (presumably to make the series more interesting). Crucially, the Tomorrow People were unable to take human life. Most of us wanted to be a Tomorrow Person (well I did), but a Planeteer, two decades later, makes a lot of sense. The best I can do is write a blog and teach students climate awareness.

Still from the Restless Sphere (Sir James Wordie (r), Sir David Brunt (l) and Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, centre)

Revelle was a major recipient of IGY (International Geophysical Year – starting June 1957) funding. Imagine this: a funding stream solely dedicated to studying the planet for its own sake and fostering international scientific collaboration (one wonders whether EU funding such as Horizon 2020 is not modelled on the ICY). On 30 June 1957, the BBC actually broadcast a documentary about the ICY called, interestingly, The Restless Sphere.

Alice Bell can be heard talking about her book on the Bunker Daily Podcast (4 July 2021). But this book goes on the reading list for my students because of one particular comment in the conclusion. History matters. It helps us to understand not only where we came from, but what factors got us to where we are today. Bell does this with aplomb. It is important for my students to realise that

[m]ost of us are pretty clueless about how we built this world in the first place, and so struggle to work out where to start rebuilding it. This cluelessness is far from just a problem for energy. It is a price we pay for modernity; there’s so much stuff to know we have to live our lives in a lot of ignorance.



Mohammad Mosaddegh – circa 1952/53 By –, Public Domain,

Standard Oil logo pic: Pat Hawks

Wallace Broekner:

Planeteers: (The Planeteers: Kwame (Africa, power – earth). Wheeler (Brooklyn, New York City, United States: power – fire). Linka (Soviet Union: power – wind). Gi (Asia. power – water). Ma-Ti (Brazil. power – heart)

Travelling in Europe at the height of a pandemic

Covid 19 – picture CDC

Omicron is remarkable. A month ago we were unaware of it, now it threatens – single handedly – to “cancel” Christmas; for some reason, the politicians’ worst fear. It has thrown up a problem for me. At 2300 on 19 December 2021, Germany closed its border with the UK because – yet again – the UK is a considerable source of infection and has to be controlled. A mere 8 hours after the closure of the border, I was to set off on a journey to cross the border.

I am vaccine boosted (but that is no longer enough). I needed a negative PCR test. Bearing in mind it was only 24 hours earlier that the German Government announced the new restrictions, my journey got a whole lot more difficult. I had to search for a PCR test that could be delivered in super-quick time. The recommended testers by Eurostar had no appointments, and even if they did, they had to be done before 1300 for delivery by midnight. That was pushing my itinerary a bit.

I did actually find a company in London with appointments – Concepto Clinic. They have various locations in the UK. I went to the facility in the Hilton Hotel at Canary Wharf on the understanding that the day’s test result would be delivered overnight. It was. On that basis alone, I recommend the experience, despite the expense (all equivalents are similarly priced).

It was necessary. A negative test was required to board the Eurostar in London. Also necessary was a passenger locator form for Belgium (Eurostar terminus is Brussels). The form is online and is validated with a code either sent to the traveller’s email address or mobile phone. The locator form was checked again at Brussels by border police.

 German Emperor Wilhelm II, viewed from Hohenzollern railway bridge, Köln, Germany

I have additionally filled out a locator form for Germany. This form, for the new regulations, asks for a reason for travel. Visiting close relatives is a valid reason to travel. There is also a section on vaccine status, and being able to prove it. It is not entirely clear at the moment whether two jabs constitutes being vaccinated, or whether a booster is required. The form is online and is also validated with a code. My form was accepted by the system, though not checked despite border police being on the train.

One more thing about travelling with Deutsche Bahn, if a connection is missed (which in my experience is pretty common), the train managers do not seem to care that one is on an unscheduled train. There is no explaining to do, they point their machines at the QR code and move on.

The DB Navigator app is a bit of a curiosity. I travel paperless, so the ticket and itinerary are stored within and read by the train managers’ devices. The app informs you whether you are likely to meet your connections. If not, it offers alternative suggestions. I have found these to be not so wise to take up. Today, for example, I was offered a train from Köln involving some regional services as well as intercity. I think that unless one is terribly stuck, regional services point you in the right direction, but not much else. When booking, however, some of the real bargains on offer involve regional services, but when the booking is exclusively intercity, as mine was, they can extend journey times significantly.

Vaccination against Covid-19

Yesterday (14 December 2021) I had my third vaccination to protect against Covid-19. I went to a vaccination centre in Eastbourne, England. Despite the booking chaos prompted by the Prime Minister’s impromptu address to the nation the previous Sunday, the process was ordered with most people arriving with an appointment at the right time.

My two previous vaccinations were Astra Zeneca (AZ) which, it seems, offers little protection against Omicron, hence the need for a “booster”. This time it was Biontech/Pfizer (BPf).

Side effects – AZ (1) made me feel quite unwell. I’d had it administered on a Friday evening, just in case I had a not-good reaction. It is fair to say that regular visits to my bed were required on the next day, a little better on the Sunday. AZ (2) was light by comparison. Life went on as normal.

I am now just short of 24 hours since BPf was injected into my arm. I can report disturbed sleep. I had four hours’ sleep before I roused. Sleep was fitful after that. I now feel a little light-headed, but not in that pleasurable drunk sense. My arm hurts (way worse than AZ). I have just had breakfast. My porridge was welcome and the coffee tasted good, though provided slightly less of a kick than normal. By which I mean, on a normal day, a cup of coffee truly kick starts the day. I sense today that I am going to be a bit lethargic.

COP26 – success or failure?

I’d been counting down the days to COP26 on my twitter feed (@ClimateDaily1). I’d given thought to how to engage with the actual event at my university. I will be joint organising an event in the Business School for which I work on the implications for business. Watch this space.

The implications, however, are different to what I expected. I genuinely thought that COP26 would deliver on banishing fossil fuels from our economies. And that climate mitigation (measures to reduce and eliminate green house gases – GHG – from firms’ accounts) would be the challenge for all firms. Firms would be mandated to do so because of states’ legal commitments to a binding international treaty. But alas not.

I know it is complicated. This is geopolitics after all. Just look at the slow pace of negotiating World Trade Organization trade agreements. I’m told that I should be reassured that for the first time a COP has recognised the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Not just recognised, but also written-in to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The world leaders have signed up to a phase down of coal. Though, it seems that an hour before the final announcement at the COP plenary (13 November 2021), the world had agreed to phase out coal. One word makes a huge difference. I’m told that I should not pay too much attention to that. Coal is finished. Will any bank finance a future coal mine in light of this? Let me hold that thought.

Subsidies – in the 21st century despite years of neo-liberal economic management, we still talk of subsidies. State subsidies for fossil fuels, at least. We would not subsidise fair transitions for working people (mining industry in 1980s Britain, for example), but perfectly happy to do so for Big Oil. Interestingly, the COP drew a distinction between efficient and inefficient subsidies. So not only are we still talking about subsidies, but we now recognise that some subsidies are inefficient. I am not sure that I can get my head around that. Does that mean that states – their finance ministries – (knowingly) support projects with money that does not deliver the stated benefits?

The analogy: bovines are a source of protein for humans, but they are hugely inefficient as a transfer/conversion mechanism. It’s much easier to feed humans the soya protein currently fed to cattle. But still humans do it with state subsidies. In the process those subsidies contribute to deforestation and excessive methane (bovines are methane machines), amongst other. Is that inefficient? What about the huge subsidies that go into the motor industry? Then there is nuclear power. As a means of huge amounts of zero carbon electricity, they are hard to match. Nuclear plants take so much longer to build, even longer to decommission and leave a not-inconsiderable problem with waste. Notwithstanding that, in the UK, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimates (2015) that the electricity generated by nuclear is one-third more than onshore wind (offshore is more expensive), 10 per cent more than large-scale photovoltaic (the UK is not the sunniest country in the world). Though it is cheaper than gas-generation from plants with carbon capture technology fitted. Even that is old thinking. The future is not in national/regional grids; the future is local generation, distribution and storage.

At the beginning of COP, Narenda Modi, India’s PM surprised delegates by announcing his country’s intention to be net carbon zero by 2070. This is at least twenty years later than is needed, but again, the first time that India has set a date. It is that very same India that demanded and defended the change from phase out to phase down. Though China fully endorsed it. Of course, neither China nor India are responsible for the historic carbon emissions that warm the planet. The UK, US and Europe are. I am pretty sure that some of India’s low-lying neighbours are not happy about it. I am pretty sure that some of India’s own low-lying cities, too, fear for their own future as sea-levels rise. China, too, has many low-lying cities. So why do they want to keep burning coal? For the same reason that the government led by Jair Bolsanaro (right) continues to sanction the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? Because they can, because money flows to them for doing so, and because of the elephant in the room, the economic system that delivers their continued power, influence and legacies. They are all men. They operate in either undemocratic systems or have spent their time undermining the democratic institutions in their countries. They are popular populists. They enable consumption.

Whilst I would like to advocate for system change, as young campaigners and activists call for, I do think that we have to work with what we have got. My own history is one of activism. I am acutely aware that no amount of token civil disobedience or mass demonstrating will change things from a political perspective. (Though mass civil disobedience is another matter.) Change will come from us. It is up to us. We must decarbonise our own lives. In so doing we will make choices that will affect the bottom-line of the suppliers of the products that we consume. So, when I run my event on the implications of COP for business in the early spring 2022, it will be on that basis. It will still be a basic market self-interest that motivates firms to become carbon zero in this decade.

NB – I am not finished yet. First Nation people, small-island nations and many developing countries came away with little in comparison with the fossil-fuel lobby that seems to have had unwarranted access to delegates at the COP. This is the subject for another entry.

Adam Tooze’s article is also pertinent here:

Pic: Palácio do Planalto –

The state of cigarette advertising in Germany

This blog draws many readers from searches for cigarette advertising. I have absolutely no idea why people search for cigarette advertising, but they do, and some of my poster snaps have been used by others for all sorts of purposes. Certainly since the pandemic – and perhaps more significantly, the growing importance of e-cigarettes and standard packaging with images of diseased lungs – I’ve been starved of content; and the advertising there has been, seems a shade unimaginative.

Take, for example, Winston (left). The end of the packet is shown to avoid the unpleasant images and also to show how fat is the packet, housing as it does enough cigarettes to kill an elephant. There is an inexplicable link made between the number of cigarettes, taste (grosser geschmack) and value (for money). Not much of a narrative. Winston is an ITG brand in the USA (Imperial tobacco) and is a subsidiary of Japan Tobacco in the rest of the world.

Burton goes for a similar approach, though these are selected by smokers because they are “your [killer] cigarette”. I was not previously aware of Burton cigarettes, but according to cigarettespedia (goodness, an encyclopaedia of cigarettes, soon no reason to come to this site at all), it is a Greek and German brand owned by Tabak House. Seemingly, the brand goes for cheap, and appeals to young people. The taste is, therefore, not really an issue. The nicotine is perhaps more important.

It is not all despair, though. Camel is persisting with its primary colours approach with a touch of marketing brilliance (only joking). These sticks are extra long and therefore extra enjoyable. The subtlety of the slogan doesn’t really translate. It it reflexive, which means the cigarettes enjoy themselves being extra long as well as the smoker? Why do I care?

Also back on the high street is Lucky Strike (Luckies). Of course, this advertising campaign is trying to convince someone that cigarettes are green. The filters here are made of paper (rather than cork?), so that is alright then. Strangely, consumers are advised to put the used filters in the regular waste rather than the recycling bin!

And finally, something I have not reported on before (because it is not common in Germany), is loose rolling tobacco. Spirit with Character, whatever that is supposed to mean attached to a product that has known lethal properties, is certainly attractive in packaging terms. American Spirit has been in all sorts of bother over the years in the US. The Truth Initiative reports that the brand has convinced its customers that the product is less-harmful than competitor products because it is organic. But ironically, the organic claim may well contribute to the product being more harmful than competitor brands with more nicotine by means of “more puffs per cigarette”. Hawk-eyed readers may also consider the use of a representation of a native American to sell a distinctly western capitalist product to be at best unsavoury. The brand is owned by Reynolds American, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco.

Living with hernias

I am going to open up – literally – a new thread on this blog. It is going to be about health, or perhaps more precisely, ageing and health. It has been prompted by the discovery of two 3cm long hernias after an ultra-sound scan, conducted by a wonderful NHS ultra-sound practitioner who intuitively found hernias, despite looking for something completely different and, apparently, unrelated. I will come back to the apparently in a subsequent post.

The NHS – the National Health Service – to any non-British readers, does not repair inguinal hernias as a matter of course. The position seems to be, if one can adjust behaviour such that the condition can be lived-with, then invasive surgery is unnecessary and/or ill-advised. But living with hernias requires quite a radical – and in some cases embarrassing – adjustment. The embarrassing is having to ask for help all of the time. Yesterday, for example, I was in a shop with a full shopping basket. I had to ask for help to raise it to the counter. Essentially, though, anything that requires heavy lifting has to go. That is pretty radical in my life.

At the time of writing, I was anticipating to be recovering from surgery. Indeed it was three weeks ago today that I went for a Covid-19 PCR test, to be followed by isolation so as to limit the spread of the disease on checking into the hospital on the morning of 15 September 2021. A call the night before from the nursing sister on the ward that was to receive me, confirmed that I was expected the following day. And when I got there at 0745, my name was on a big whiteboard adjacent to the ward – for want of a better phrase – control room/desk.

I was first visited by a nurse who recorded my blood pressure and temperature. She went through the paperwork and assisted with putting some compression socks onto my feet. I was then visited by a surgeon who drew on my body the arrows pointing to the hernias and, presumably, incision points. He went through my consent form. There was something slightly wrong with it, so a change was made and I counter-signed it. He told me that they do not like doing two hernias in one go, but it was left like that. We talked about the nature of “keyhole” surgery in the context of hernias. My understanding developed a little here. In order to do the keyhole surgery, gas has to be pumped into the body to lift tissue to provide surgical access. “You will be sore”, he said.

Next up was the anaesthetist. She went through the paperwork and advised me of the effects of the anaesthetic. I could expect to feel nauseous. I was then visited by another surgeon. For reasons which are now a little blurred, she indicated that she was not the person who could do the surgery that I had now agreed to. She had to find a colleague who was possibly not on duty. I was asked to wait about 30 minutes or so.

In the end it was about 60 minutes before a third surgeon arrived. She was the right surgeon and she was not dressed for surgery. She and her colleagues had obviously been talking about my case. The third surgeon pulled no punches. She told me that had I gone through her clinic, I would not have got this far. She was not satisfied that I understood fully the risks associated with the surgery. Before she would perform it, that risk was going to be spelled out again.

The risk of failure is 5 per cent. I was aware of that, and was prepared to take the risk in order to fix my hernias. The risk is not just 5 per cent of failure. If the procedure, involving the insertion of meshes, fails, it does not just not work. Failure does not leave a patient back where they started. It leaves the patient in a far worse place than just living with the inconvenience of not being able to lift a basket of shopping. It has to be reversed. The process of failure is not nice. Those meshes are rejected, they become infected. Reversal can take as long as five years; that is not just inconvenient, it is also five years of debilitating pain.

The surgeon looked at her watch and said “we still have time to do it. Why not phone your wife and have a chat with her? I will come back in half-an-hour.” When she returned, I had already put my clothes back on. The operation was cancelled. We revisit in a year. This blog entry, then, is part of a process by which I am coming to terms with not having had the surgery, and the physical and mental challenges that decision generated.

Three weeks on, I do not know whether I made the right decision or not. Whilst 5 per cent is high, 95 per cent is higher. But human bodies are such that no one can predict who will be in the 5 per cent, and who the 95 per cent. And if I was the 5 per cent, my professional life would be trashed. I am just about to publish a book, as some readers know, about business strategy and climate change. I have written the book to make my contribution to positive change in the context of my own university teaching, and that of others who will adopt the book. That would go by the wayside, for sure. Five years is a big chunk of life when one is in their late 50s. The surgery can be done later, and it can be done sooner if the pain becomes intolerable.

Every day, the decision is revisited in my head.

Climate revisionism

I am a subscriber to the Economist; not because I like it – though the writing is excellent – but because its free-market ideology is a constant reminder of the challenge the ideology presents for those looking to foster progressive change. So, when I opened this week’s copy, I was hoping to see one dominant factor, climate change. Note it was hope, not expectation.

The Economist is struggling with climate change. The writers/editors know that it is a challenge to business-as-usual. The IPCC report published earlier this week (9 August 2021), has given the the magazine’s editors a way out: sulphates. Every cloud has a silver lining, and sulphates – or more generically, aerosols – are showing themselves to be a way to justify not changing the system that delivers ever-greater climate change.

The IPCC report shows that in burning fossil fuels, sulphates are released into the atmosphere – the lower atmosphere to be precise. These particles actually reflect heat away from the planet and have contributed something in the order of 0.4 degrees Celsius of cooling. Actually scrubbing fossil fuels when they are burned, takes out the sulphates and, hence, makes warming worse (though the benefits to air quality and hence mortality from air polution are significant but peripheral in the argument). Even more interesting is the discernible decrease in sulphates that occurred after 2015 and is detailed here by James Hansen – a colossus in climate science (left). In other words, without sulphates the planet would have already reached 1.5 degrees Celsius warming since pre-industrial times. Readers may well be able to see where this is going?

The sulphates “solution” is at the heart of solar geo-engineering thinking (see Elizabeth Kolbert’s account). If human beings scatter the upper-atmosphere with sulphate particles, the heat would be reflected and the planet cooled. It seems that geo-engineering is back on the agenda for free-market thinkers, even though it is unthinkable for many reasons: political, unintended consequences (some of which are known), etc. Solar geo-engineering is not a solution for the IPCC, however.

In addition, the Economist has gone for another easy option, methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, something-like 10 times the potency of carbon dioxide. However, it stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter time. The logic, then, is for methane to be targeted rather than carbon dioxide. Moreover, methane can be monetized (it has a market price), therefore it is easier to attract private investment than simple carbon capture. Here is a question, methane can be captured from human industrial processes, but one of the growing sources of methane is that released from melting ice and permafrost. How is that captured? I think the answer is not to release it in the first place. Zero carbon has to be the target. End.

Pic: By NASA –, (archived), Public Domain,

A reply to a reply

Should I, or should I not, reply to my MP after I received the anticipated inauthentic reply?

Yes, I should:

Thank you for your speedy reply; however, I would have been prepared to wait a little longer for an authentic answer.

Let me take a couple of issues – Britain’s world leadership and China. On the former, it is correct that the UK is well advanced in terms of renewable energy, but that is as far as it goes. Oil exploration licences, new coal mines, extensive road building, cold homes, no discernible investment in carbon capture and storage – leaving it to oil companies will not do (and without which there is no remote possibility of meeting the Paris targets on carbon emissions), aviation taxes (indeed the government has taken them away from damaging domestic routes, if I am not mistaken), carbon pricing more generally, cuts in foreign aid, and, critically, no engagement with the population on what is needed for the transition economy. It is not about recycling. A serious government would level with its citizens. And this will matter at COP26 when every other country asks why the UK is not leading. The UK elected to host COP26.

Second, China. Indeed, China emits a considerable volume of carbon into the atmosphere. But why is that? It is the case that China makes all of our stuff. We outsource our carbon to China. It is disingenuous to blame China for the crisis. But to add to the argument, let us aggregate China’s carbon dioxide emissions since pre-industrial times. It is this period that we use to measure the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees Celsius. I think then you’ll find the UK leading the table of carbon emissions. Certainly, Britain is a world leader, but not in the way that you claim. 

I would be grateful if you would relay these points to Ms Hart.

Kind regards,
Andrew Grantham

IPCC report reply to letter

Yesterday I sent an email to my MP, Sally-Ann Hart with some questions regarding climate change. Seemingly, there is nothing to worry about as the UK is a world leader and it’s China’s fault! And I don’t think I mentioned the weather.

Dear Mr Grantham,

Thank you for contacting me about climate change and weather. 

Tackling climate change is crucial and I am proud of the significant efforts underway to reduce carbon emissions. As the first major economy to legislate to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the UK is a world leader when it comes to tackling climate change and it is important that we as a country continue to take action to help mitigate its effects, which include flooding, costal erosion and other issues caused by extreme weather.  

When we achieve net zero, the UK will have eliminated its contribution to climate change, which as of December 2019 accounted for 1.2 per cent of global emissions. Many other countries will hopefully follow our ambition, particularly those with a much larger share of global emissions, such as China which accounted for nearly 30 per cent. Since 1990 the UK economy has grown by 75 per cent while cutting emissions by 43 per cent. 

As we transition to clean energy, there will still be some role for fossil fuels in the medium term. However, this is not sustainable in the long term and I am pleased that steps have been taken to speed up the transition. In the Energy White Paper, it set out the Government’s future plans for the oil and gas sector. This includes transforming the UK Continental Shelf to be a net zero basin by 2050. In addition, the North Sea Transition Deal creates new business opportunities, jobs and skills as the oil and gas sector works to transition to clean, green energy. I am pleased that the Government will provide opportunities for oil and gas companies to repurpose their operations away from unabated fossil fuels to abatement technologies such as Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS), or clean energy production such as hydrogen. 

Ultimately, the Government is clear that the licensing of domestic oil and gas exploration and production must continue to be compatible with our climate change ambitions. While the Government has supported the sector through the pandemic, which has protected jobs and livelihoods, there can be no ‘return to normal’ due to the context of the UK’s net zero recovery. I am encouraged that oil and gas companies are already responding positively to this challenge. For example, Shell is investing in CCUS technology which acts to capture Carbon Dioxide from fuel combustion and Industrial Process.

Kind regards, 

IPCC report, 9 August 2021

The IPCC reported this morning on the latest evidence on climate change. There’s much to be done. I have little confidence in the British Government, but here is my letter to my MP.

Dear Ms Hart,

In response to the publication of the IPCC 6th report today, the Prime Minister is reported as saying ““Today’s report makes for sobering reading, and it is clear that the next decade is going to be pivotal to securing the future of our planet … I hope today’s report will be a wake-up call for the world to take action now, before we meet in Glasgow in November for the critical Cop26 summit.”
He is correct on many counts:

  • it is sobering reading
  • the next decade will be pivotal
  • it should be a wake-up call to governments worldwide
  • the UK is hosting COP26 in November in Glasgow

On that latter point, one would not know it. Where is the leadership? Alok Sharma is doing good work, but even he is downplaying the urgency when he says that humanity can open up new oil fields and meet targets. That sets a bad example, particularly to crucial G20 countries. Other sources within the governing party are starting to undermine COP26 with the PM’s official spokesperson not fancying an electric vehicle and telling people to freeze bread and not rinse plates before they go into the dishwasher (if they have one)! The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a potential sceptic when it comes to the transition economy and the Sunday Telegraph yesterday echoed that sentiment. Your own party now has a group of MPs, led by Craig Mackinlay, seeking to quash the transition economy on the false grounds that poor people will suffer (they will, but only if your Government wills it to be).

What happened to the Green Homes initiative? Why has the Government issued licences for oil exploration in the Cambo field? Why has the Government not stopped the application for a new deep carbon mine in Cumbria? Why are so many roads being built? Where is the public information about climate change and what a transition economy means and looks like?

I can predict how you will answer these questions. Some authenticity would be appreciated.

Your sincerely,
Andrew Grantham