Archive for the ‘International’ Category

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.

p343

Pics:

Mohammad Mosaddegh – circa 1952/53 By iichs.ir – http://www.iichs.ir/Upload/Image/2017/04/Orginal/e45d0dae_cf8b_45b0_8d37_7af37789d5ff.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66301280

Standard Oil logo pic: Pat Hawks

Wallace Broekner: https://climatestate.com/2017/04/18/rivers-of-the-sea-global-ocean-survey-studies-geosecs-1975/

Planeteers: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10837084 (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)

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: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/16/cop-26-big-business-climate-crisis-neoliberal

Pic: Palácio do Planalto – https://www.flickr.com/photos/51178866@N04/49695919452/

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:

Dear,
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

Protecting nature from nature

We’ve all seen them, those plastic spheres around newly planted trees, protecting them from…well, what exactly? Had me fooled, but a recent article by Richard Mabey, challenged my assumption that those who plant the trees actually know what they are doing. I’m not trying to challenge experts; my goodness, too many experts have been inexpertly challenged in recent years. But ask yourself, does someone go round and take off those plastic covers when the saplings are strong enough to cope with the elements? Seemingly not. They just stay there and either strangle the tree/plant or break off and add to the plastic problem of the countryside.

Of course saplings need protecting against the wind. Well, no actually. The history of our planet is littered with examples of saplings coping with wind quite well. Very well, in fact. Better, in fact. Trees and shrubs exposed to wind seemingly root better, because they have to. “Protecting” them does them a disservice.

What about grazing animals? Surely, the plastic protects against being eaten before they get established? Perhaps if they were higher than a sheep or deer, but they tend not to be. So sheep will eat them as they pop over the top of their protection. Actually, when they are planted because they are rarely totally “protected”.

Mabey highlights another feature of this replanting. It is monoculture. The variety being planted is a fraction of that from the past; often it is just hawthorn. I love hawthorn, but diversity is better – ash, aspen, sycamore, wild cherry and sweet briar. A mix attracts a range of other creatures, birds and insects.

This is not universally the case. On the Combe Valley in Hastings, UK, thousands of trees have been planted, many of them Hawthorn (right). These trees were given their own stick to offer support. Many of them have happily outgrown the sticks which will, in their own time, return to the earth.

The other thing that we notice in the autumn is the absolute brutality of the hedge trimming. The cutting equipment used could lay waste to the Amazon, let alone a roadside hedge. Let’s be kinder and more inclusive.

I’m now on the lookout for these protective tubes, not far from Combe Valley I did find a spot where they have clearly been removed from trees, but not removed from the landscape (left).

Book Review: Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

This is an extraordinary book. It is not quite what I was expecting. And like all good books, I completed it with lots of questions, dilemmas and fears. When the UK voted to leave the EU, the BBC commissioned a number of public thinkers to provide commentaries. John Gray wrote that the populism that we are now experiencing is the norm. The period of liberal democracy, he argued, was always a blip and would not be sustained.

The same, it seems, is true of climate change. Whilst I had read before that ice bores from Greenland reveal that the climate that we have traditionally regarded as normal, is not. The present era – which is soon to change dramatically – is also a blip. It has been long enough to create human civilisation which, ironically, has also been long enough for civilisation to destroy the equilibrium that gave rise to civilisation.

This book charts a particular human history. It is a technological history in which human beings have clever solutions to all the world’s problems. Clever, but not clever enough. For every clever “solution” there is an unintended consequence. Many of these solutions spring from human beings introducing alien species into local environments with the consequential loss of biodiversity.

Take silver carp, for example. The opening chapter describes the extraordinary measures taken to prevent these fish from entering the great lakes in the USA. There are huge electric barriers that repel the fish optimised to their size so that other fish are less electrocuted. Then there is the extraordinary case of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, all 93 of them. The whole world population lives in this flooded hole in the Nevada Desert – the biggest hole on the planet. At first read, one thinks that the Devil’s Hole is some top secret geological site, but not so. It has a Wikipedia entry and a viewing platform. Humans managed to introduce a beetle into the water. The beetle took a fancy to the eggs of the fish. As these fish produce a single egg, reproduction was heading negative. All sorts of interventions have been made to protect what is left of the species, including hand removal of the beetles when the eggs are sat on an exposed ledge.

Jacques Coutseau, 1971

The book also explores the world of coral. This had an effect on me that I remembered in my childhood watching an Australian TV series called “Barrier Reef”. I went looking for it on youtube. Of course it was there. I watched the first episode and discovered that the whole plot of the show revolved around attempts to exploit the reef and its natural resources (minerals, oil, etc.). This, of course, passed me by as a child, I was just mesmerised by the reef and fish. Whilst this show is not cited in the book, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” is. Another favourite of my childhood. Post-childhood I’d revised my view of Cousteau and viewed him almost as a Megalomaniac cod scientist given airtime. But actually, he was a polymath and had a significant impact on a generation of children sharing his extraordinary adventures onboard The Calypso. Though clearly not enough.

The early chapters in the book were simply taking us to an endpoint – geoengineering. The white sky relates to how the sky will look when – eventually – “powers” intervene to cool the planet by throwing into the stratosphere particles of some – as yet – undetermined mineral or compound (diamond is favoured). As one scientist tells the author:

People have to get their heads away from thinking about whether they like solar geoengineering or not, whether they think it it should be done or not. They have to understand that we don’t get to decide. The United States doesn’t get to decide. You’re a world leader and there’s a technology that could take the pain and suffering away. You’ve got to be really tempted. I’m not saying they’ll do it tomorrow. I feel like we might have 30 years. The highest priority for scientists is to figure out all of the different ways this could go wrong.

Quote from Dan Schrag, Director of Harvard University Center for the Environment

So, we have a perfect storm. Populism and climate catastrophe. My generation was far too worried about nuclear weapons and insufficiently so about geoengineering. It’s political.

Pictures – Jacques Cousteau: Peters, Hans / Anefo. – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/abe56934-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84

Climate watch: UK leading the way in disingenuousness

Deepsea Delta oil drilling rig in the North Sea.

The UK Government is deluding itself on its climate leadership ahead of COP26 in November. Notwithstanding the ignominy of trying to open a new deep mine for coal in Cumbria, in North West England and the debacle of the Green Homes Initiative, the Government has now granted licences to oil and gas companies to search for – and extract – new reserves in the North Sea. The justification, as far as I can see, is that by some amazing jiggery pokery, the oil industry will become carbon neutral and reduce carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the end of the decade. The Government will, meanwhile, invest £16bn to help the industry meet these targets while supporting 40,000 jobs.

Here we go again. First, no public investment should go into fossil fuel firms – public money needs to go into sustainable technologies and into retraining and building opportunities in a sustainable economy rather than subsidise unsustainable industries that will lead to climate collapse.

Second, even if the industry can meet emission targets, what about the fuel that they extract? When it burns, it will release its carbon. Where is that accounted for?

Third, the Government needs to get to grips with the UK financial services sector that continues to invest in fossil fuel companies. I draw here a quote from the Guardian Newspaper:

US and Canadian banks make up 13 of the 60 banks analysed, but account for almost half of global fossil fuel financing over the last five years, the report found. JPMorgan Chase provided more finance than any other bank. UK bank Barclays provided the most fossil fuel financing among all European banks and French bank BNP Paribas was the biggest in the EU.

The Guardian, 24 March 2021

I’m sure leaders of countries attending COP26 will remind the UK Government just how uncommitted it is.

Picture: Erik Christensen (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

The reply from my MP, Sally-Ann Hart

Not that I had much expectation in the reply, but to read that the police violence is justified because of the pandemic – no mention that the man arrested and charged with the murder of Sarah Everard is a serving police officer. No attempt to justify the inconsistency between free speech being imposed in universities whilst being withdrawn from civil society. But we have to get the balance right between people going about their lawful business and the right to protest (a right that existed previously), but now has to be balanced with silence.

Dear Mr Grantham,

Thank you for your email and taking the time to contact Sally-Ann. Please see her response below on the issues you raised in your email regarding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Thank you for contacting me about protests and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
In this country, we have a long-standing tradition that people can gather together and demonstrate, and the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental part of our democracy.

As you will be aware, however, a national lockdown is currently in place. This means we must all stay at home and only leave for a small number of essential reasons as outlined in law. Everyone is required to follow these rules and it is for the police, in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service, to determine whether an action warrants possible criminal proceedings. We must not confuse current coronavirus regulations with a new Bill which introduces sensible measures to deal with disruptive behaviours whilst maintaining a right to peaceful protest.
.
Thankfully, due to the impact of the lockdown in England, as well as the ambitious vaccination programme, the Prime Minister has now outlined a roadmap out of lockdown. This outlines a safe and gradual lifting of restrictions culminating in hopes for an end to all legal limits on social contact from 21 June. I absolutely understand the strong desire to fully reinstate our civil liberties, and I would like to make clear that as soon as it is safe to do so this is something that I will wholeheartedly support. In the meantime, we must continue to follow the Prime Minister’s safe and gradual roadmap out of lockdown to help protect the NHS and save lives.

More generally, I would like to make clear that under no circumstances do I believe that protests should become violent. The rights to a peaceful protest do not extend to harassment, intimidating behaviour or serious disruption to public order.
Of course, the responsibility for the maintenance of public order lies with the police, who have a range of powers to manage protests. How they deploy their powers and the tactics they use are rightly an operational matter for the police but I am pleased that we live in a country where policing is done by consent.

Over recent years, I have been concerned by the extensive disruption that some protests have caused. In particular, stopping people getting on with their daily lives, hampering the free press and blocking access to Parliament. I welcome the fact that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect. These powers will allow the police to safely manage protests where they threaten public order and stop people from getting on with their daily lives. It is welcome news that the Government is taking action to ensure the crucial balance between the fundamental right to peaceful protest and the rights of people to get on with their daily lives is maintained.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this important topic and Bill.

Kind Regards, 
Sally-Ann Hart MP”

Book Review: What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries

This book essentially says, if humanity had paid more attention to how nature deals with the uncertainties of life on Earth, then we might have avoided some of its calamities – for want of a better word. Of course, there are two so-called calamities afflicting humanity at the moment; namely, a global pandemic and climate change.

One can often tell the whether the author truly has something to say in the final chapter. Can the content be summarised and rendered coherent? Does it hang together? In this case, I am not entirely sure. In fact, the author herself admits it:

In a fit of writer’s block for this final chapter, I ventured downtown to the New York Public Library to see for myself the tiny Hunt-Lenox globe with medieval-style etchings of dragons and strange sea creatures…etched pictures of dragons and monsters signalled seas and lands not yet seen by European eyes, although other peoples had lived in those lands for eons.

(p151)

The dragons, of course, represent all of the things that humanity has not yet discovered. But in getting to where humanity sits currently, the global commons have been well-and-truly “over-grazed” and pathogens serially mis-managed, despite the lessons of history, let alone nature. I’ll return to the calamity shortly, but DeFreis does discuss what humans have learned, though probably inadvertently.

Ancient trees had arteries and veins in their leaves that if severed by a pest – or just something that ate them – the effect on the overall plant would be significant in a detrimental way. The ancient tree is the Gingko, which eventually evolved a toxin to put off insects. But other plants and trees evolved alternative approaches such as “loopy veins”. In the event of part of the leaf succumbing to insect lunch, the sugars created in the leaves could still be delivered to the rest of the tree because they could be re-routed. The most obvious human-created analogy of this is the internet’s packet system whereby the data generated by this blog are put into small packages and sent on their way, often taking different routes and then reconstituted in the reader’s computer and browser. However, much of the human world is hub-and-spoke; i.e. centralised. When things go wrong, bottlenecks occur and all things – commodities, manufacturing components, finished products, foodstuffs – get jammed. In the case of food, hunger ensues.

DeFreis (right) writes extensively about pathogens and viruses in the human and animal world. In the human world, in the absence of politicians, viruses have been dealt with and eradicated by science on the one hand, and (disease) management on the other. Management here is track-and-trace as well as equitable global distribution of vaccines and other technologies. As with Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, we can learn from ants, bees and termites. Ants, famous for living cheek-by-jowl, secrete disinfectant into their nests collected from wood resin. Termites spread their own faeces in their nest benefitting from antimicrobial properties (that seems counter-intuitive). Bees can kill pathogens by flapping their wings! And so on. Ultimately, though, highly social creatures can isolate their kin should they succumb to disease. Primarily, this is to protect the queen and not for the benefit of the sick individuals.

Moving on from viruses and disease, DeFreis talks about the commons – the atmosphere, the seas, water and land. I had not previously been aware of Garrett Hardin, a man who believed that the solution to the commons was to de-commonise them, enclose them and “protect” them from over-exploitation. DeFreis counters his work with a celebration of the studies of Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated that human beings can adequately manage and protect the commons. They do not need permission by a central authority. However, one size does not fit all; what works in one place, does not in others. This is, of course, part of the problem. People have to be given the space and time to work things out, set quotas and agree sanctions for those who either free-ride or break the rules.

Talking about breaking the rules, I had equally not previously been aware of the Biosphere experiment in Oracle, Arizona, back in 1991. Three men and three women entered a CELSS – closed ecosystem life support system – and stayed there for two years testing whether it was possible to replicate the Earth’s life support systems (with a view to building one on the Moon or a planet). It was funded by a Texan billionaire, Edward P Bass, the Elon Musk or his time, perhaps. It took 11 years to build. Nothing that was not already in the CELSS when they entered would be added. It was not plain sailing – crops were blighted by pests and the air became thin as the plants generated carbon dioxide and oxygen mysteriously disappeared.

And so back to what nature would do. Nature is parsimonious. The limiting factor is always energy. All energy is derived from the sun. First in plants, then animals and humans. Most animals conserve as much energy as they can. Certainly through a winter, food can be in short supply. However, nature also builds in redundancy. Those loopy leaves use more energy to build, but when under attack, they are a life saver. Some humans have adopted this principle in their products. Most aeroplanes have redundancy – if one part fails, another kicks in. Apollo 11 would not have made it to the moon had it not been for Margaret Hamilton’s redundant computer code! But our economy is parsimonious – global supply chains do not react well to disruption, something that is increasingly occurring.

Pumpjacks, Kern River Oil Field, California

Our economy is different in another way, too. It is extractive. Its whole rationale is perpetual growth. Its metrics – productivity, GDP – are just wrong. They perpetuate the extraction and ignore wellbeing. Moreover, instead of generating energy sustainably – from the sun as plants do – we draw on stored reserves of energy in fossil fuels. Growth is only possible by doing that. Nature does not do that. Nature is not capitalist. It does manage its commons – or it did until homo sapiens disrupted the equilibrium. DeFreis does not engage with this. The reality of an economic system that destroys not only itself by undermining the life-support systems of the planet is glossed over. There is no system change needed, only a closer attention to what nature would do.

I can see why this is not tackled. Authors who do end up being criticised like Andreas Malm was on publication of his book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is not pretty. But neither is climate change.

Pictures:

Ruth DeFreis: By One Earth Future – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiU0AlDsiPgPeace in the 21st Century: Ruth DeFries, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96380874

Pumpjacks in Kern ROF, California: By Antandrus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16373401