Book Review – Barnabas Calder, Architecture From Prehistory to Climate Emergency

Regular readers will know that I have much regard for the work of Andreas Malm. His book Fossil Capital was influential in my thinking about how to reframe my teaching of business strategy at my university. It tells the story of our addiction to fossil fuels. It posits the idea that it did not need to be so; the addiction arose primarily from the owners of capital using technology to outflank organised labour on the one hand, and competitors on the other. Organised labour was quite powerful in the British mill towns of the 18/19 Centuries because of the static nature or source of motive power – flowing rivers. Steam, generated by burning coal and heating water was so much more flexible and, what’s more, the owners could be confident the government would intervene to crush organised labour when called on. But equally, water was a shared resource and the owners proved themselves to be unable to agree how to share it.

Calder has made me think again in his extraordinary book (right). Calder is a historian of architecture, but very particular kind. In every building he sees energy. In the prehistory it is in the food that provides the energy to build shelter. In later periods of human advancement – particularly in respect of agricultural efficiency and yields – excesses meant that labour could be siphoned off by kings and emperors to build the great vanity projects of history such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. With the advent of fossil fuels, not only was more labour displaceable from the land, but the building materials themselves were innovated as well as construction techniques. That bundle of stored energy found in coal and oil liberated architects, builders and clients. Later they were aided and abetted by information technologies that were able to do the calculations that legions of humans could not realistically handle (Calder offers the example of the challenge to realise Jørn Oberg Utzon’s vision for the Sydney Opera House and the pioneering work of Ove Arup crunching the necessary numbers).

The first part of the book examines culture, energy and architecture interesting pairings. Greeks and Persians; Rome and the Song Dynasty – different places, different times. Though he also uses this technique for the 20th Century in comparing New York and Chicago (chapter 9 – good value even if one does not read the rest of the book – difficult to keep Donald Trump out of the mind, however). In all cases through history, powerful men are deliberately trying to outdo one another. Rightly, we are constantly reminded about infrastructure, bridges, water supply and sewerage.

Photo: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Teli, Pays de Dogon

What are some of the curiosities? I learned (always a good indicator of a worthwhile read) from prehistory, Dogon village houses (Mali, left) have low height forcing occupants to sit. This specifically prevents men from fighting one another. Uruk (in modern-day Iraq) is perhaps humanity’s first city. Not everyone worked the land and hence specialisms developed – bronze casting, currency and writing. The transformative agricultural technology was animal-drawn ploughs and, of course, irrigation. We are talking 5000 years ago. 2000 years ago, 172 men pulled crafted stones of 58 tonnes with a lone individual throwing water to keep down the friction. Though 200 tonnes was not unheard of as manageable by human strength – though the men needed to be fit and, crucially, well fed.

For the Parthenon, Calder tells us why the columns are not evenly spaced (of course, Doric order!), reveals that it bends upwards to the middle, there are other distortions too (entasis) and that these are a deliberate manifestation of intellectual debate and democracy prevalent in Athenian society.

Photo: by MM in

I learned about opus incertum (random), Opus recitulatum (standard square bricks), opus latericium (like a brick wall – rectangular fired bricks that overlap, right). I did not know about Roman concrete and that the Pantheon’s dome is made of it and that it gets lighter as the dome extends so that the whole structure does not collapse. It is impressive, notes Calder, that it has survived 1900 years!

Not surprisingly, religious buildings feature highly in the prose. There is a chapter on mosques and some insights on the architecture of what is now Istanbul (the text is not limited to Istanbul, there is an extensive section on the Great Mosque of Damascus – the initiative of Caliph al-Walid I c705-15 and the mosque in Timbuktu c1320, the product of Mansa Musa’s great wealth as emperor of Mali). I have visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, as well as the near-adjacent Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), a private enterprise that, on cost grounds, sourced materials much closer to home than the builders of its neighbour. For Christian buildings (notwithstanding the Hagia Sophia’s regular changes of denomination), Calder discusses the 13th Century cathedral in Bourges, so big that it breached the city walls and so tall it reached to what we would now identify as 10 storeys high. To the locals living in tiny dwellings shared with animals the internal cleanliness, order and light, Calder says, would have seemed astonishing. But Cathedral building was not immune to ego – the next one needed to be bigger: Notre Dame, Reims, Amiens and Beauvais (left) all bigger than the rest. Though there were limits, Beauvais repeatedly collapsed under its own weight.

Next on Calder’s list is the impact of plague on European civilisations. Bubonic plague devastated populations in the 5th and 6th centuries leading to reduced cultivation and construction. With no surplus, building returned to basics and bricks were no longer fired. The Black Death did wonders for pay rates and educational opportunities. There is room, too, for the Renaissance, the Vatican and the Reformation. These are gems for readers of this blog to explore without my help.

Source: Wikipedia; original source not specified

Into modern times, and into territory that is really Calder’s heartland, modernism and concrete. There is rightly an extensive review of the work and life of Le Corbusier (asa Edouard Jeanneret). His influences included Giacomo Matté-Trucco’s Lingotto factory (Fiat’s manufacturing plant in Turin with its roof racing track, right). Le Corbusier was quite a self-publicist, it seems like he sold more books about his architecture and the attendant vision for concrete, steel, glass and electricity), as he did design buildings. I certainly did not know how awful the buildings were to occupy. Concrete and glass enabled a very particular spacious and well-lit living and work spaces, but with no insulation and relatively poor heating, the houses had serious condensation problems. It is not surprising that one famous building – Villa Savoye – ended up as a barn after its occupant-family fled the Nazis. Nor was I aware that the beautiful Bauhaus building in Dessau was similarly afflicted by intense heat loss rendering it totally unsuitable for its use as a workshop. Le Corbusier is, however, celebrated for his Unitè d’Habitation in Marseille – a huge block of 337 flats with a row of shops half way up. It’s founding principles as a community with its roof garden for children is visionary and only possible because of new building materials and the fossil fuels that generate the energy to make cement from limestone and steel from iron ore (Calder gives us the figures to demonstrate their consumption). The Barbican in London was a later manifestation of this principle.

My own alma mater – the University of East Anglia – gets a mention for its Ziggurat-shaped student accommodation (which was my home for some of my university career) for its modular design and manufacture. Concrete remained in the 60s the building material of choice for the new inclusiveness captured in school and university buildings. It is true, the building I studied in was one continuous block of concrete. Magnificent it was, too.

And so to conclusions. Calder is clear, we need more renovation of failing properties. Demolition might be a viable business proposition using current measures, but the energy needed cannot be justified in a carbon-reducing world. Calder does not find too many exemplars. Even buildings like the Blomberg HQ in London falls far short of being sustainable. Calder introduces us to the Cork House in London. Built from cork as the name suggests. But its limitations are such that it cannot accommodate current and future needs for buildings.

On his own sustainability, Calder tells us early on that some of the buildings he writes about he has not actually visited, to do so would have been to make the carbon problem worse. This is a brave statement and one that sets a standard. Modern technology gives us unprecedented virtual access to so many cultural artefacts, sufficient to be a scholar and produce work of this quality. If your summer is short of reading, this is 20 GBPs well spent.

Book Review – Super Charge Me: Net Zero Faster by Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers

If you have a spare evening, buy this book and join the conversation between two wonderful dinner guests, Eric Lonergan and and Corinne Sawers. That said, I’m not sure that you’d get a word in edgeways, even if you wanted to. I suggest just listening and learning.

In the first instance, the format spooked me. It genuinely is written as a dialogue. The two conversationalists flesh out their arguments – they do not challenge one another, rather they develop one another’s points – or invite further development: “go on…” says Sawers, to avoid a cliff hanger. Unless one is paying absolute attention, it is not clear who is speaking, such is the mutual expertise revealed in the exchanges. The book can be read in one sitting.

This is not, be rest assured, one of those “I’ve read this so that you do not have to” reviews. I have been known to write these. Readers are invited into a conversation that needs full engagement (my copy has plenty of page markers for future reference, top left). In addition, if we are in luck, the shelf life of this book will be short. If we, our governments, and the global community more widely, make the transition, the book will have served its purpose and become a cherished museum exhibit.

I’ve reviewed some other books – Alice Bell’s wonderful, Our Biggest Experiment, for example – that reveal how we got to where we are. What we could have done; how we could have avoided the precipice that humanity has now perched itself upon. Those perspectives inevitably lead to despair and inaction. Lonergan and Sawers are future-oriented. There is little dwelling on the past. They discuss a bright future: one that is fair and safe. Readers do not even have to have that much knowledge about climate change because a couple of to-the-point sentences – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – “avoid all that mucking about in hyperspace” and gets readers up to speed. There is no time to waste. It is just better to start using the language of Super Charge Me straight away: appropriately-named EPICs (extreme positive incentives for change) and Mini Musks (those intractable problems – aviation and cement, for example).

What are EPICs? They are extreme because moderate does not change behaviour. They are positive because the behaviour change cuts carbon emissions. They incentivise (never think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives, says Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-standing business partner, p172). It is all about change. In particular, change that reduces carbon emissions.

But what are they in reality? I have been led astray, it seems. It has been known for me to advocate carbon taxes. My dirty vehicle is taxed – the vehicle licensing cost is high for that reason and it costs more for my on-street parking than for cleaner vehicles. But I still have it. The incentive to ditch is not sufficiently extreme. I’ve learnt recently, that keeping it is potentially better for the environment than buying a new electric vehicle, thanks to a recent BBC show, Sliced Bread. But this is the wrong thinking. I should not be replacing it, I should be using a substitute. I do not because there is no incentive provided by the relative price of that substitute. For example, to visit my family tomorrow using the train would cost me £153. Even with the high price of fuel, my dirty vehicle could do it for half that cost, and I could take two people and unlimited luggage (it is a van) with me. The substitute, if I read the authors right, needs the EPIC treatment by Government. It is their job to fix the relative price and provide the incentive to switch. More generally, it may need investment in infrastructure to do it (more trains/capacity), a change in work practices allowing slower and shared commutes or fewer and, ultimately, a change in the norms of behaviour – actually it is a bit passé to drive a dirty white van rather than take the train. What, no photovoltaics on your roof?! Etc.

These are obviously EPICs for individuals, but there are EPICs for states. EPICs are responsible for the collapse in the cost of solar/photovoltaics and wind power. My new favourites that are going straight into my curriculum are captured in the Green Bretton Woods and Green Trading Agreements. The institutions of the Bretton Woods post-war agreement include the IMF and the World Bank. In the context of the transition, Lonergan cheekily says that “I am not sure that the World Bank is up to the task” (p144), but credits the designers of the post-war economic system with bestowing upon the IMF a “magic power” that was apparently leveraged in the banking crisis of 2008 and more recently in the global response to Covid-19. This power is manifested in a “special drawing right” (SDR). Readers can discover the magic for themselves, but I would entirely concur with Lonergan that the designers of the Bretton Woods institutions covered all bases insightfully and provided utility well into the future.

Thanks also to the conversation, I now also know about Export Credit Agencies (they’d somehow passed me by). These agencies mitigate credit risk for banks lending to low-income countries. The authors argue that they can be repurposed towards carbon-reducing investments. They have served the fossil-fuel industry well in the past and can serve transition economies well, too, into the future.

The book also provides an strong argument for countering the “stranded assets” challenge. Stranded assets are long-lived assets that, if economies transition to net zero with haste, will lose their value and become redundant before their time. Shareholders will lose money. It is true, they will, but it is not really an argument against stranding them if it makes the difference between a liveable and non-liveable planet. Rather, the losers will be an energy elite who have made lots of money from the carbon economy in the past. Being an elite, they are so few in number and the impact overall is small. There is about $4 trillion locked up in fossil-related assets. A lot to us, but small in relation to overall assets in the global economy.

Be prepared to be (re)educated about how money is created, interest rates, why China is cleaner than it may seem, how to stop free-riding, leveraging state borrowing capability, why inflation is good (within reason), contingent carbon tax, sovereign wealth funds, border taxes and why activism is not futile. And trees.

An evening well spent. And no one noticed the food was vegan.

Ukrainian refugees

Regular readers know that I have been writing daily to my MP, Sally-Ann Hart (left), to raise the prospect of opening the UK border to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the warzone.

Ms Hart has now posted a message about all the measures taken by the government to support Ukraine both militarily and with sanctions. Whilst some of these are laudable, others are totally inadequate, particularly with respect to refugees – the focus of my emails in recent days. Here is an extract:

“Finally, and alongside the letter (below) that I was proud to add my name to as a signatory calling on Ministers to seek a flexible and pragmatic approach to those Ukrainians wishing to gain temporary refuge in the UK, I strongly welcome the humanitarian support package announced by the Home Secretary yesterday [1st March 2022]. With changes already announced that will allow an estimated one hundred thousand close family members of British nationals or other people in the UK to come here immediately, the Government has taken the laudable step of offering even more assistance. The Ukrainian Family Scheme will significantly expand the ability of British Nationals and people settled in the UK to bring family members to the country, extending eligibility to adult parents, grandparents, children over eighteen, siblings and all of their immediate family.
This Scheme is free and those joining family in the UK will be granted leave for an initial period of at least 12 months during which these individuals will be able to work and access public funds, and it will be compliment by the Home Office opening a Ukrainian Sponsorship Humanitarian Visa Offer too. This will provide a route to the UK for Ukrainians who do not have family ties here, and they will be matched with individuals, businesses, community organisations, and Local Authorities who are willing and able to act as a sponsor.”

I am pleased to see at the end of this statement that Ms Hart has put her name to a letter asking the Prime Minister to open the borders to Ukrainians. I take that as a positive. Ms Hart has been a firm supporter of government policy since the last election.

Full statement:

There is a long way to go, though, with respect to dirty money in our economy and in the coffers of the Conservative Party.

War in Ukraine

I feel helpless in this situation. Though the British Government is responding as we might expect with an unserious politician at the helm.

I have decided to write to my MP, Sally Ann Hart (right), every day about the situation. Short, so the message is clear. Here are the first three:

Dear Ms Hart,

Once again your Government embarrasses us in the international arena. Notwithstanding the failure to clean up London and indeed your party, my current understanding that visa applications for Ukrainians are closed at a time when their country is being extinguished by a foreign power creates a new low bar.

25 February 2022

Your PM lit Downing Street in yellow and blue last night while blocking entry to our country to fleeing Ukrainian women and children. Is that virtue signalling or solidarity?

26 February 2022

I hope that you are enjoying your weekend. The sun was glorious yesterday, and it looks like we might have a repeat performance today. It is great to see the people of Hastings and beyond enjoying the promenade, and even ice cream. Fortunately, there are no bombs, missiles or tanks in evidence unlike in Ukraine. The people fleeing Putin’s war are not looking for a holiday, they are looking for sanctuary. Your government is blocking entry to refugees. Please remove visa restrictions and open the border.

27 February 2022

Dear Ms Hart,

This is my fourth missive, as you are probably aware. I have repeatedly asked for your government to open the border to Ukrainians, but it remains closed to all but a select few who are related to British nationals. This is not good enough. Brexit was supposed to be about agile decision making, but the EU seems to be able to make decisions much faster and incorporate the humanitarian need and current situation.

Please open the borders.

28 February 2022

Easyjet and climate change

Regular readers know that I have been a major customer of easyJet over the years. So much so that they enrolled me on their frequent flyer special privileges list, known as Flight Club. However, when I could, I took the train; but this was rare, because most of my flights were for weekends only. I did not have two days to commit to travel and still work. I was not alone in this; at least ten of the people at the front of the boarding queue were weekend travellers with family in Munich. We were familiar to one another.

When Covid struck, easyJet took most of their aeroplanes out of service. The British Government compounded the whole thing by forbidding Britons from leaving the country unless they had a funeral to attend or, oddly, some property to sell!

When borders opened up again, easyJet’s flights remained few in number. But post-lockdown, many things had changed, not least my ability to work more flexibly and hence take the train more often. It takes about 11 hours or so to make the journey from London to Munich, connections permitting. I am hoping that I never need to fly this route again. The train is way superior.

But easyJet’s CEO, Johan Lundgren, is looking forward to services returning to pre-Covid levels for the summer. With the requirement for PCR and LTF tests being removed to enter the UK, mobility becomes easier and cheaper (both tests are expensive because they are only valid if undertaken by a private company/laboratory). The implications for aviation returning to pre-Covid levels are significant. Aviation contributes about 3.5 per cent of annual emissions of greenhouse gases. That does not sound much, but with a diminishing annual global carbon budget, that is 3.5 per cent the planet could do without.

Lundgren has an answer (of sorts). He claims that, whilst we are waiting for hydrogen-fuelled planes in 2035 (promised by Airbus), we can offset carbon. He does not tell us how the company is offsetting. Though the website states the following: “we offset all the carbon emissions from the fuel used, by supporting projects that protect against deforestation, plant trees or drive the uptake of renewable energy. These projects either avoid the creation of new carbon elsewhere, or directly remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

Offsetting is a flawed concept. The company knows it. Why else would they state on the website that it is not a long-term solution? The principle is that we calculate how much carbon dioxide is emitted per flight and then match that with something that absorbs or compensates that amount of carbon dioxide. Compensation takes the form of investing in solar and wind energy and projects that prevent deforestation.

The most obvious offset mechanism in the absorption category is provided by trees. Unfortunately, even if trees are planted to offset the emissions, many more trees are being destroyed to enable cash crops to be grown, particularly palm oil and soya, despite offsetting funded by airlines such as easyJet. The Amazon is under hourly attack sanctioned by the Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro. He is not the only one.

I calculated that to offset the emission caused by 100 desktop computers, we need to plant nearly 5 football pitches of trees per year to absorb the carbon. Imagine that scaled up to airlines. Just see how many aeroplanes are in the air currently – February when volumes are low and even lower because of reduced demand and capacity (right).

Offsetting by planting trees is not credible. What about carbon capture? Well I, probably stupidly, pay to sequestrate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by a company called Climeworks. Climeworks charge US$1100 per tonne to sequestrate carbon dioxide. From my understanding, a round trip flight from London to New York (economy) generates 1.8 tonnes CO2. The price to sequestrate, therefore, becomes $1980 (€1680) on top of the ticket price. In the case of easyJet, a low-cost airline is unlikely ever to offset in this way, even if the capacity to do so existed.

There is another problem with Mr Lundgren’s approach. It is echoed by climate change deniers. And that is, there is a technological fix (hydrogen powered planes) just around the corner, or 2035. Even if easyJet can offset its emissions, I’m pretty sure the rest of the aviation industry will not. And the chances of Airbus delivering planes to all airlines by that date, is unlikely. Moreover, Airbus is working on planes that are ok for short haul, but not feasible for longer flights. There will remain a gaping hole in the carbon neutral aeroplane portfolio. We might ask, also, whether the airports will have in place the infrastructure to service these new planes. In addition, Boeing is going for biofuel and retrofitting existing planes. These are not carbon neutral and threaten to contribute to deforestation because the fuel needs land on which to grow.

There is one more dimension to Mr Lundgren’s arguments. While train travel is feasible – albeit with extended journey times – Mr Lundgren indicates that the European rail networks are insufficiently developed and have capacity constraints. Unlike with airlines, it is not possible just to commission a new aeroplane to meet demand. New trains and supporting infrastructure take time.

All of these airlines – but many more companies besides – are looking for business-as-usual when that is simply not possible if we are to stay within the planetary boundaries. The world has changed. It has heated up. Mr Lundgren, your planes have to stay on the ground.

easyJet plane Pic: Adrian Pingstone

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.