Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Solar highways: ingenuity to build roads and make electricity

We don't lack technology, we lack political will. This is very clever technology. Asphalt roads becoming expensive due to oil prices.

See video here.

A geologist discusses the anthropocene

The concept of the anthropocene takes seriously humanity's impact as a geological force on the planet. Read an interview with Jan Zalasiewicz, a senior lecturer in the Geology Department at the University of Leicester in Britain on the idea here.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I bought a new car - should I feel guilty?

The time has come, I bought a new car on Saturday. I drove my dad's car for 15 years - a 1981 Mazda 323. It was time for a change, the car was old, fuel inefficient and with a twice or more reconditioned carburetor I suspect a big producer of pollution. So I bought a new Mazda, but did I need to?

Each of us needs to ask the question: ever since seeing the documentary What would Jesus Drive? I've realised cars are a big idol in the west, a symbol of our control over nature, our own pleasure (how many car adds are about benefits and lifestyle instead of features) and individual autonomy. People who live in a city like Melbourne with (for all its faults) an extensive public transport system can afford to get by a lot without using your car too often. I love the tram and am able to get into work via it, also sports events, concerts etc. Shopping, my sporting involvement and church (from an Anglican point of view I live outside the parish I attend).

How will I drive virtuously? By using it less, especially when public transport is sufficient. Car pooling and offering lifts are also good activities to use a car for. Finally, partly due to car repayments but also given the emissions from air travel, some of our holidays will involve use of the car rather than air. It will be a constant tension - at least until electric cars are mainstream.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Peter Singer, preference utilitarianism and climate change

An interesting article from The Guardian here about how Singer recognises the inability of preference utilitarianism to deal with climate change, or perhaps indeed with any problem.

Encounter program: Consuming creation

"We're consuming creation and evangelical Christians want to us to rethink our theology of the planet. Climate change raises deep theological questions and a 're-tooled' theology will help us face the challenges ahead. At a recent conference at Melbourne's Ridley College, evangelical Christians gathered to hear theologian and environmental ethicist, Michael Northcott, propose a way ahead. As well as Professor Northcott, who is Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, this Encounter features various conference participants discussing the significance for climate policy of theological issues such as justice, creation, incarnation and hope."

Producer: Chris Mulherin

Link to program is here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

recent environmental press releases

Invasive species
A recent press release on the Mediterranean shows that the continued introduction of invasive species (something that happens via ballast water but also of course the Suez Canal) can have serious impacts on local ecosystems.

Species extinctions are often tied to modern society with land clearing, over hunting or fishing etc. However, a recent press release here and the free to public study here, show that the Polynesians were responsible for the extinction of a Hawaiian land crab over 1000 years ago. These crabs are major predators, control litter decomposition and help in nutrient cycling and seed dispersal. Their disappearance was caused by the arrival of humans to the islands and resulted in large-scale changes in the state's ecosystem.

Emissions trading
Recent work in emissions trading has shown that pollution hotspots have not been created in poor and minority areas in the US. In particular, it appears as if the sulfur dioxide allowance trading program appears to be working well, and not to the detriment of the poor.

Impacts of ocean warming
A recent report shows that surface water temperatures in the Tasman Sea have risen by nearly 2°C over the past 60 years. The study finds that "ocean warming has pushed the banded morwong -- which inhabits temperate reefs in waters 10-50m deep -- past the point where increasing temperatures are beneficial to growth." This is one of the first studies that shows the impacts of ocean warming on fish in our region.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

welcome IPCC reforms

After some (admittedly only a few) bungles in the last IPCC report and the storm in a tea cup Climate Gate, the IPCC, the body responsible for producing assessment reports on climate change/global warming has announced some reforms. Large bodies of course should always be looking for ways to improve, including such a public (and to some controversial) body as the IPCC. These reforms include:

* Forming of an executive body to oversea daily operations
* A conflict of interest body (note that accusations against IPCC chair in this regard were found to be baseless)
* A protocol for dealing with errors (e.g. the famous melting Himalayas error)

The IPCC has done a sterling job in the past with regards summarising the climate change literature. This changes can only but improve upon it.

Nuclear winter

Nuclear winter is the idea that the pollution from the resulting fires will produce aerosols which reflect sunlight and cause cooling, with a dramatic impact on life on Earth (apart from the radioactivity). Something similar has occurred in the past with the large bolide (comet) that collided with the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous (KT event). Large scale collapse of photosynthesis saw the demise of many large animals, including the dinosaurs.

A recent comment in Nature shows that even a small scale conflict could have dramatic effects in the form of a nuclear winter - say for example India and Pakistan. The author notes that advances in computer models have shown that the problem is worse than first understood:

"By 2007, models had began to approximate a realistic atmosphere up to 80 kilometres above Earth's surface, including the stratosphere and mesosphere. This enabled me, and my coauthors, to calculate for the first time that smoke particles would be heated by the Sun and lifted into the upper stratosphere, where they would stay for many years. So the cooling would last for much longer than we originally thought."

To go back to the India and Pakistan case, if 50 Hiroshima-size bombs were dropped on the largest cities in each country, five million tonnes of black carbon smoke would be emitted into the upper troposphere and then into the stratosphere by solar heating. Temperatures would be lower than during the 'Little Ice Age' (1400–1850), during which famine killed millions.

So in short, no nukes is good nukes!

Coasts, oceans and greenhouse gases

An interesting piece has appeared in today's Nature magazine about the state of play of conservation issues in Brazil, namely coastal areas such as mangroves and sea grasses. Brazil contains 80% of the remaining Amazon forest and has been the focus of efforts to protect them but at the same time commercialise them. I won't go into arguments about the commercialisation of such rainforests except to say that Brazilians won't settle for a lower level of living compared to the rest of the developed world - which raises issues about our standard of living and whether it is sustainable.

But as the article states, while much emphasis has been placed on rainforest, what about coastal ecosystems such as mangroves? These swamps store large amounts of carbon in their thick, gelatinous mud. They cover just 0.5% of marine areas, but are among the largest carbon sinks in the ocean. Typically, they store up to 15 times more carbon per hectare than terrestrial soils, absorbed over hundreds or even thousands of years, and sequester carbon 10–50 times faster than terrestrial forests.

Sadly, between 30% and 50% of mangroves have disappeared in the past 50 years; about 30% of the world's seagrasses are gone; and half of the global coverage of salt marshes has been destroyed. Stresses include agriculture run off, fisheries and of course straight out land clearing. As well as storing carbon, mangroves are fish hatcheries. A greater emphasis needs to be placed on their preservation in climate talks and controls on the local and global scale.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Our nuclear past - truly scary

An animation of all of the nuclear tests conducted around the world. We are truly insane.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coming rapture - dualism in the modern church

Are you ready for Christ's return? You should be as he will come like a thief in the night! Will it happen how a church in the US is expecting this weekend? I dunno but I dunno how they know either?

See this excellent blog article by Kurt Willems.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ethos Environment on Encounter 29 May

During the Consuming Creation conference, a lot of material was recorded from the talks by Michael Northcott, as well as a round table discussion between some of the attendees (myself included). Today I went to ABC studios to record a little more material. The program will be on the 29th of this month at 7.10pm and online some time after. See http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Poster from Motifake


Hope for creation: A day of prayer on climate change

Had another great meeting with the working group on this day of prayer which coincides with the international day of prayer organised by Tear Fund UK.

We are currently working on collating and composing resources for the day, prayers, liturgy, information, etc. A website should appear soon. Watch this space.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cereal killers - global warming and the end of the agricultural miracle

Thomas Malthus predicted a time when there would be too many people to feed on the planet. In the 70s the Club of Rome with people like Paul Elrich said similar but were mocked and shown to be wrong. Fossil fuels, chemical fertilisers etc saw an agricultural boom, but dead zones in our oceans, toxic algal blooms and depleted soils should point to this being a mixed blessing. Likewise, nitrogen ends up as NO2, a greenhouse gas. Humans fix more nitrogen for agriculture than all other sources.

And now as if all these impacts of intensive agriculture were not enough, a new study reported in Scientific American shows that global warming is producing a decline in cereal yields. It seems while increased CO2 increases yields, increasing temperatures adversely affect yields, particularly wheat. Apparently, this is already evident in increased prices as yields decline.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Recent Scientific American articles

There are a few environment related articles posted recently on the Scientific American website.

One relates to the Martian atmosphere. The study of other planetary atmospheres tells us something about our own. In the case of Mars, being smaller than the Earth, much of its atmosphere escaped some time ago, but a lot of CO2 has been discovered under its surface, enough to warm the planet should temperatures increase. It turns out there could be a regular cycle as the axis of rotation of Mars varies much more over time than our own, due to the stabilising influence of our massive moon (I'm reminded of Genesis 1:16). The change in tilt means from time to time the CO2 buried in the polar regions could melt and hence warm the planet. It is a reminder to us of the power of Greenhouse gases.

Another article examines ice cores for evidence of rapid warming in the geological past. James White has not only found that in the past a change in 100 ppm of CO2 has made the difference between flowers blooming in the Arctic and ice a mile deep over Chicago. The paleo-climate record also shows that dramatic changes have occurred in the past due to warming in a matter of decades, not centuries.

An article on Richard Branson's plan to relocate some endangered lemurs to a couple of his own private islands(!) has drawn flack from conservationists about impacts on the pre-existing species by predation, disease, etc. It opens up issues about how we go about conserving species (Madagascar's forests are rapidly disappearing) and who decides how.

Finally, an article on the Gulf oil spill shows there is still a lot of oil out there in the Gulf, and that drilling will be a part of the economy there for some time to come.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why we disagree about climate change? Summary

I was lucky enough to attend the public lecture last night by Mike Hulme (his webpage is http://mikehulme.org/) titled after his book Why do we disagree about climate change, see here for example.

He initially (using anonymous quotes) identified a number of different voices on the issue, from denial (our perturbations on the climate system are insignificant compared to past natural variability) to apocalyptic visions. He then went on to discuss various metrics (my word not his) of the present debate in society about the issue.

If science is the measure - then the IPCC for all its faults is THE source, reviewing as it does a large body of literature. Hulme noted the increase in confidence that we are largely responsible from 1990 to 2007 (FAR to AR4 in the jargon of assessment reports), and yet a contraction in the projected sea level rise with increased uncertainty in the role of ice sheets. The take home message is that while the scientific consensus is that it is warming and we are largely to blame, there is still uncertainty in the impacts like sea level rise.

If publications is the measure of interest in the topic, well the number of papers in various journals has grown exponentially. Certainly there has been controversies like Climate Gate (where everyone has been absolved of any scent or fraud, cover up or obstructionism) or the errors in the IPCC report (note that the scientific basis or first part did not contain the errors about the Himalayan glaciers that the impacts report did).

There are also various societal measures such as prices from the EU carbon market, where carbon prices per tonne have varied from 8 to 30 euros. There is also language changes, such as the exponential growth since 2005 of the term 'low carbon'. One might also have added terms like 'sustainable development' here.

There is also a measure by literature, with a change from one book per week last decade to one per day most recently. This includes science books, economics, philosophy and fiction (like the average and scientifically misinformed State of fear).

There has also been activity in the religious sphere. A practicing Christian himself (yay!), Hulme warns against ignoring religion on this topic (see also EO Wilson's plea to conservative Christianity in his book The Creation). There is plenty of dialogue that is positive happening in various quarters of the Christian church for example (like Ethos Environment).

There are media reports and representations (again from twisting via Murdoch - Fox, etc to more sympathetic views), peaking with events like Glen Eagles, IPCC reports, the Garnaut Report (in Australia), COP15 negotiations and Climate Gate. Then ther is public analysis like the Six Americas, which has seen a shift to the right, towards apathy and denial from 2008 to 2010.

There is of course also the negotiations themselves.

The kicker in all of this is despite all of our scientific knowledge, chatter and negotiations, emissions of CO2 are accelerating! Only the global financial crisis caused a (temporary) downturn.

So Hulme raised two questions:

1. Why is climate change the mother of all questions?
2. Why is it such a difficult problem to comprehend and tackle?

He uses the idea of framing from social analysis; ways of structuring complex issues and how they affect what is highlighted and what is ignored. For example, the shift in language from gun control to gun safety shifts the issue from freedom to public health. Likewise the change in vocab from biotechnology to frankenfood.

So what are the six frames (there can be more but Hulme lists six. These are important as the frame not only influences how the issue is discussed but the action taken. Note that apart from one of these, science doesn't play a role in deciding which is the one to take, and in a number of cases they are complimentary or at least different ways of looking at the same problem.

1. Market failure. This is the way the Stern (2006) report looks at it. As a friend and fellow Ethos Environment colleague Amar Breckenridge, CO2 is an externality. It is never properly taken into account in the price of things, even though as EO Wilson notes it affects the free ecosystem services we receive. Seen as a market failure, cap and trade of CO2 is seen as the solution.

2. Technology hazard. In this understanding, climate change is a manufactured risk caused by growing humanity, and often inadvertent. The solution is green technology like solar, wind, nuclear (I personally doubt this is green), etc. A paper by Scolow and Pacula (2004) or say Beyond Zero Emissions shows such technologies exist now.

3. Global injustice. This view emphasizes consumption in the west and the difference in what we live off per day versus the developing world. Groups like Rising Tide or people like Aubrey Meyer advocate contraction and convergence so that one day everyone on the planet will have the same environmental footprint.

4. Overconsumption. This is essentially a Malthusian view. Paul Elrich came up with the formula I = P x A x T, impact is a product of global population by affluence and technology. It recognizes there are too many people living the high life with energy intensive technologies. It will clash with frame 1 in that is sees growth and sustainability as illusion, hence groups like The Dark Mountain Project or author Tim Jackson and his book Prosperity without growth?, or groups like the Optimum Population Trust who see condoms as a way to reduce emissions (pardon the pun).

5. Mostly natural. Denialists like Ian Plimer focus on adaptation - recognising that changes are occurring but denying we can influence them, just adapt to them. Groups like NCCARF and the WCC - 3 meeting also recognise the need for adaptation. There is a synergy here with frame 3, since global injustices in the economic system are propagated by the impacts the global poor will feel,.

6. Tipping points. An idea taken from Malcolm Gladwell and made famous by Jim Hansen (also Tim Lenton), this frame sees the problem as so urgent (we are about to slide into irreversible climate change with catastrophic impacts) that the required response is geoengineering at great cost. This can be incompatible with frame 3 for example in terms of spending or 4, but possibly compatible with frame 2.

These frames are important for as Kahan and Braman (2006) note, culture is prior to facts and our world views affect our beliefs about empirical consequences of certain problems like climate change. And so it comes down to cultures of knowing: not just scientific rationalism a la Dawkins, or a two cultures model (CP Snow) or a three cultures model (Jerome Kagan) but of four cultures of knowing.

1. Environmental sciences - bringing us technical data and models.
2. Philosophy and religion - world views and views of humanity and nature
3. Creative arts - inspiration and motivation
4. Social sciences - cultural filters of risk

[See MC Nisbet et al 2010 in Frontiers of Ecology and Environment, 8(6), 329-331.]

How then should we view the pluralism on the issue? Not as a bell curve with believers at one end deniers at the other. Instead, Hulme promotes the model of fatalists, egalitarians, individualists and hierachists to map where people sit on the issue.

Finally, Hulme counsels against looking to Copenhagen etc for our solutions. Instead he favours polycentrism (Elinor Orstom 2010) which emphasises that the problem has to be tackled in different ways, timescales, scales, coalitions etc. Hence, all 6 of the above frames have their place, perhaps not all at once and not for all of us to act.