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Christmas gift ideas: Thinking of our grandchildren Ken Perrott Dec 07

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Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

Climate change is a pressing issue – and one which attracts a lot of politically inspired misinformation. Hansen’s book provides a lot of the science, but also the history of the science..


Book Review: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen

Price: US$16.50*
Hardcover:
320 pages
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA (December 8, 2009)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
1608192008
ISBN-13:
978-1608192007

Climate change contrarians and deniers love to hate James Hansen. He’s up there alongside Al Gore, Michael Mann and Phil Jones. And of course their hatred is no more justified in Hansen’s case than it is for the others.

Others criticise Hansen for his ’activism.’ His willingness to warn politicians and the population in general of the dangers we face if we continue with a ’business as usual’ approach to fossil fuel and CO2 emissions. They suggest this could discredit his science. Scientists must always be objective and should limit their pronouncements to the scientific facts alone.

This is not an old problem for scientists — remember their activism after the first use of nuclear weapons and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. Scientists often confront ethical issues arising out of their work.

Enlivening the science

This book does reflect these two features of Hansen’s contribution, though. The scientific and the ’activism.’ This helps enliven the story. Rather than just presenting the dry scientific facts, the information is woven into a narrative.

Starting with Hansen’s appearance before a Vice-Presidential Climate Task Force in 2001 we get to learn about other appearances. Both before political committees and publicly at conferences and in the media. We hear of Hansen’s doubts and self-criticism of his effectiveness in these situations. He covers the arguments used by his detractors such as Richard Lindzen, and their style of presentation. We also get to learn about the political attempts to silence him. Manoeuvres by the White House to censor reports and prevent communicatiing the science of climate change. (’NASA press releases related to global warming were sent to the White House, where they were edited to appear less serious or discarded entirely’). The role of the Public Affairs office of NASA in this which even went so far as altering a mission statement on the NASA website. (The first line ’to understand and protect our home planet’ was removed in 2006 after Hansen used it to support his actions).

But even the science has a narrative about it. We learn about the areas where knowledge is lacking, recent new discoveries, and so on.

Hansen’s comments on the science

I liked his willingness to provide opinions on the science. For example he turns out to be hard on models, despite using them. He makes clear that they have limitations as well as specific capabilities and their sensible use should always keep these in mind. Hansen suggests that evidence for anthropogenic climate change and mechanisms of global warming has come most usefully from palaeoclimate studies, followed by ongoing modern observations and thirdly by computer models.

Hansen describes our lack of information on aerosol forcing in climate change. He had been instrumental in including aerosol measurements in the planned Climsat satellite mission . Unfortunately this was never launched and we still lack sufficient information in this area.

His analysis of the palaeoclimate evidence and the lessons we can draw from it is interesting. We see many disciplines coming together to produce evidence for different events (such as the methane release causing the Palaeocene-Ecocene thermal maximum about 55 million years ago). And the overall conclusion is the atmosphere CO2 has been the major, but no the only, driver of global temperature changes.

Debunking an old denier myth

The fact that natural climate oscillations in the record precede changes in temperature (see figure) is an old story climate change deniers like to quote as ’evidence’ CO2 cannot cause global warming. This is one of the first bits of palaeoclimate evidence Hansen discusses. He describes how natural climate changes arise from, for example, perturbations in the earths orbit or tilts in the earth’s spin axis. One of the feedback effects from a temperature increase is the release of CO2 from the oceans. This then becomes a major driver for further temperature increases by the greenhouse effect.

Nowadays, humans provide new sources of CO2 emissions which can themselves initiate temperature increases. Human derived sources currently emit at a rate 10,000 times greater than the planet’s natural sources. Human made effects now dominate over the natural forcing. And this means the ’global cooling trend needed to cause the slow feedbacks that would take earth into its next ice age no longer exists.’ ’Humans, by rapidly burning fossil fuels, have caused global warming that overwhelms the natural tendency toward the next ice age.’

Differences with IPCC

Hansen has had differences with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and his criticisms have at times led to problems with officials and journal editors. Some of this relates to his warnings about the stability of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the fact this wasn’t considered in determining lower limits of greenhouse gas concentrations. I suspect that with time more scientists are coming over to Hansen’s view on this. He has also been less than glowing in his comments on the effect of international agreements like the Kyoto Treaty and the proposals considered as Copenhagen.

Hansen is clear that historically greenhouse gases have played a key role in climate changes. Usually by feedback mechanisms rather than direct initiators. However, today greenhouse gases have an initiating role. The resulting changes are rapid. And the prime cause is the release of emissions from fossil fuel. So he clearly focuses his arguments on the fossil fuel. As he expresses it, humanity must do all it can to leave these fuels in the ground. Unfortunately a ’business as usual’ approach will inevitably lead to their complete extraction. There is pressure to recover even the most recalcitrant fuels, fuels like shale oil, which turn out to be more polluting.

He considers improvements in energy efficiency (quite effective) and other energy sources such as clean coal (CO2 capture and storage — which he considers as not economically practical) and nuclear power. On the later he supports a return to research into new reactors which are more efficient and produce less waste.

Cap and Trade or Fee and Dividend?

Hansen argues strongly against the cap and trade approach being adopted by most countries and internationally. This goes back to his experience interacting with politicians and policy makers. As he sees it the problem is Washington. Special interests have too much power. This influence bureaucrats and inevitably policies are manicured to serve those special interests rather than the people. He thinks this is particularly true of the cap and trade approach.

In contrast Hansen argues for a Fee and Dividend approach. This involves increasing the price of fossil fuels at source, with a fee or tax. On the other side the collected revenue is returned to the whole populations. Personally he argues for a green cheque — a payment to each individual. However, others prefer the revenue is used to reduce payroll tax.

He argues this method would enable the increase of fossil fuel prices, thus encouraging decline in their use and investment in alternatives. On the other hand the green cheque would reduce the effect on the individual. They would have an interest in reducing use of fossil fuels and increasing alternatives, such as power saving. There would be a personal interest, rather than a knee-jerk opposition. And there would be less chance for gerrymandering by special interests.

Personally, I don’t have the political or economic skills to evaluate the different approaches. However, I am attracted to Hansen’s ideas and it is a pity there isn’t more public debate about these issues. Really that is where the debate should be — how to handle the problems of climate change. Instead the deniers have tended to dominate and work to discredit the science. Shooting the messenger rather than acting on the message.

This is a great book, both for the lay person and those more familiar with the science. While he does get technical at times he warns the reader and suggests they jump the section if they feel it is beyond them. This advice from an author is always useful, I find.

While being scientifically informative and sound Hansen does bring the issue down to the politics and economics of solutions. And he drives home an ethical message. Because, as the title makes clear, this book is about his grandchildren. Actually all our grandchildren. If we do nothing, allow ’business as usual,’ they face a bleak world. ’Business as usual’ will probably mean rising sea levels. This together with the storms and unstable weather systems resulting from climate change will present them with a chaotic world.

And that’s only the natural global chaos. Just image the social and political results!

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This is scary! Ken Perrott May 31

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Well it must be for citizens of Louisiana and the surrounding US states on the Gulf of Mexico.

There are nearly 4,000 active oil and gas platforms in the area! Obviously an accident just waiting to happen. Well actually we might expect several accidents.

As PZ Myer points out (A constructive suggestion for retribution against BP):

Everyone is fixated on that one burning mess in the Gulf, which is probably exactly what the oil companies want – they are probably sweating pungent carcinogenic petrochemicals at the thought that someone might look around and notice all of those other rigs, which almost certainly have a paper trail of shortcuts and risks and shoddy management.

He is suggesting that the US administration should be also paying attention  to these other platforms.

That image puts it into perspective for me. We have a real problem with fossil fuels and it’s not just CO2 emissions.

Image credit NOOA.
See also: Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill . The US and Europe ignore it

Climate change and the integrity of science Ken Perrott May 07

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Here is the lead letter published in today’s issue of Science magazine. It’s signed by 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE INTEGRITY OF SCIENCE

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial– scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5bn years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14bn years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected.

But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world’s scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business- as-usual practices. We urge our policymakers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy- like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

The signatories are all members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences but are not speaking on its behalf or on behalf of their institutions.

Full Text |   PDF
Supporting Online Material – Signatories and their affiliations|

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Thinking of our grandchildren Ken Perrott Apr 30

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Book Review: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen

Price: US$16.50*
Hardcover:
320 pages
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA (December 8, 2009)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
1608192008
ISBN-13:
978-1608192007

Climate change contrarians and deniers love to hate James Hansen. He’s up there alongside Al Gore, Michael Mann and Phil Jones. And of course their hatred is no more justified in Hansen’s case than it is for the others.

Others criticise Hansen for his ’activism.’ His willingness to warn politicians and the population in general of the dangers we face if we continue with a ’business as usual’ approach to fossil fuel and CO2 emissions. They suggest this could discredit his science. Scientists must always be objective and should limit their pronouncements to the scientific facts alone.

This is not an old problem for scientists — remember their activism after the first use of nuclear weapons and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. Scientists often confront ethical issues arising out of their work.

Enlivening the science

This book does reflect these two features of Hansen’s contribution, though. The scientific and the ’activism.’ This helps enliven the story. Rather than just presenting the dry scientific facts, the information is woven into a narrative.

Starting with Hansen’s appearance before a Vice-Presidential Climate Task Force in 2001 we get to learn about other appearances. Both before political committees and publicly at conferences and in the media. We hear of Hansen’s doubts and self-criticism of his effectiveness in these situations. He covers the arguments used by his detractors such as Richard Lindzen, and their style of presentation. We also get to learn about the political attempts to silence him. Manoeuvres by the White House to censor reports and prevent communicatiing the science of climate change. (’NASA press releases related to global warming were sent to the White House, where they were edited to appear less serious or discarded entirely’). The role of the Public Affairs office of NASA in this which even went so far as altering a mission statement on the NASA website. (The first line ’to understand and protect our home planet’ was removed in 2006 after Hansen used it to support his actions).

But even the science has a narrative about it. We learn about the areas where knowledge is lacking, recent new discoveries, and so on.

Hansen’s comments on the science

I liked his willingness to provide opinions on the science. For example he turns out to be hard on models, despite using them. He makes clear that they have limitations as well as specific capabilities and their sensible use should always keep these in mind. Hansen suggests that evidence for anthropogenic climate change and mechanisms of global warming has come most usefully from palaeoclimate studies, followed by ongoing modern observations and thirdly by computer models.

Hansen describes our lack of information on aerosol forcing in climate change. He had been instrumental in including aerosol measurements in the planned Climsat satellite mission . Unfortunately this was never launched and we still lack sufficient information in this area.

His analysis of the palaeoclimate evidence and the lessons we can draw from it is interesting. We see many disciplines coming together to produce evidence for different events (such as the methane release causing the Palaeocene-Ecocene thermal maximum about 55 million years ago). And the overall conclusion is the atmosphere CO2 has been the major, but no the only, driver of global temperature changes.

Debunking an old denier myth

The fact that natural climate oscillations in the record  precede changes in temperature (see figure) is an old story climate change deniers like to quote as ’evidence’ CO2 cannot cause global warming. This is one of the first bits of palaeoclimate evidence Hansen discusses. He describes how natural climate changes arise from, for example, perturbations in the earths orbit or tilts in the earth’s spin axis. One of the feedback effects from a temperature increase is the release of CO2 from the oceans. This then becomes a major driver for further temperature increases by the greenhouse effect.

Nowadays, humans provide new sources of CO2 emissions which can themselves initiate temperature increases. Human derived sources currently emit at a rate 10,000 times greater than the planet’s natural sources. Human made effects now dominate over the natural forcing. And this means the ’global cooling trend needed to cause the slow feedbacks that would take earth into its next ice age no longer exists.’ ’Humans, by rapidly burning fossil fuels, have caused global warming that overwhelms the natural tendency toward the next ice age.’

Differences with IPCC

Hansen has had differences with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and his criticisms have at times led to problems with officials and journal editors. Some of this relates to his warnings about the stability of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the fact this wasn’t considered in determining lower limits of greenhouse gas concentrations. I suspect that with time more scientists are coming over to Hansen’s view on this. He has also been less than glowing in his comments on the effect of international agreements like the Kyoto Treaty and the proposals considered as Copenhagen.

Hansen is clear that historically greenhouse gases have played a key role in climate changes. Usually by feedback mechanisms rather than direct initiators. However, today greenhouse gases have an initiating role. The resulting changes are rapid. And the prime cause is the release of emissions from fossil fuel. So he clearly focuses his arguments on the fossil fuel. As he expresses it, humanity must do all it can to leave these fuels in the ground. Unfortunately a ’business as usual’ approach will inevitably lead to their complete extraction. There is pressure to recover even the most recalcitrant fuels, fuels like shale oil, which turn out to be more polluting.

He considers improvements in energy efficiency (quite effective) and other energy sources such as clean coal (CO2 capture and storage — which he considers as not economically practical) and nuclear power. On the later he supports a return to research into new reactors which are more efficient and produce less waste.

Cap and Trade or Fee and Dividend?

Hansen argues strongly against the cap and trade approach being adopted by most countries and internationally. This goes back to his experience interacting with politicians and policy makers. As he sees it the problem is Washington. Special interests have too much power. This influence bureaucrats and inevitably policies are manicured to serve those special interests rather than the people. He thinks this is particularly true of the cap and trade approach.

In contrast Hansen argues for a Fee and Dividend approach. This involves increasing the price of fossil fuels at source, with a fee or tax. On the other side the collected revenue is returned to the whole populations. Personally he argues for a green cheque — a payment to each individual. However, others prefer the revenue is used to reduce payroll tax.

He argues this method would enable the increase of fossil fuel prices, thus encouraging decline in their use and investment in alternatives. On the other hand the green cheque would reduce the effect on the individual. They would have an interest in reducing use of fossil fuels and increasing alternatives, such as power saving. There would be a personal interest, rather than a knee-jerk opposition. And there would be less chance for gerrymandering by special interests.

Personally, I don’t have the political or economic skills to evaluate the different approaches. However, I am attracted to Hansen’s ideas and it is a pity there isn’t more public debate about these issues. Really that is where the debate should be — how to handle the problems of climate change. Instead the deniers have tended to dominate and work to discredit the science. Shooting the messenger rather than acting on the message.

This is a great book, both for the lay person and those more familiar with the science. While he does get technical at times he warns the reader and suggests they jump the section if they feel it is beyond them. This advice from an author is always useful, I find.

While being scientifically informative and sound Hansen does bring the issue down to the politics and economics of solutions. And he drives home an ethical message.  Because, as the title makes clear, this book is about his grandchildren. Actually all our grandchildren. If we do nothing, allow ’business as usual,’ they face a bleak world. ’Business as usual’ will probably mean rising sea levels. This together with the storms and unstable weather systems resulting from climate change will present them with a chaotic world.

And that’s only the natural global chaos. Just image the social and political results!

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The climate change denial industry Ken Perrott Mar 26

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Book review: The climate denial industry and climate science – a brief history of attacks on climate science, climate scientists and the IPCC by Cindy Baxter
Publisher: Greenpeace International (24 March, 2010)
Number of pages: 25
Publishers description: This report describes 20 years of organised attacks on climate science, scientists and the IPCC. It sets out some of the key moments in this campaign of denial started by the fossil fuel industry, and traces them to their sources.
Download Document

Anyone interested in the current “climategate” clamour will find the report interesting. It’s a must read. It’s brief (25 pages) and available as a free pdf download.

Dealing in Doubt has just been released by Greenpeace international. The report provides a brief history of attacks on climate science, climate scientists and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It starts with the 1990s, describing the prehistory of the organisations involved (campaigning against the science on the dangers of tobacco) and the formation of the denial networks. And the history is described up until the last few weeks.

Even little old New Zealand gets a mention:

“The campaign has made it to New Zealand, where the Business Roundtable has regularly hosted a slew of denial tours, from Fred Singer in the early ‘90’s to Lord Lawson as recently as 2007134. The New Zealand government’s international stance on climate change is one of the weakest in the industrialised world.

The New Zealand and Australian deniers have joined forces with Canadian deniers to form the International Climate Science Coalition. The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, formed in 2006, has given international fame to a small group of retired colonels and scientists, who managed to get the Heartland Institute to pay for them to attend conferences, and were supported, in part, by Heartland to go to the Bali climate negotiations in 2008.”

It’s heavily referenced for any reader who wants to dig deeper. The resources listed include useful blogs and some excellent books.

There are lots of details in this report but it still only skims over the surface of the climate denjial networks and their funding. I would love someone to dig deeper into the New Zealand situation. To reveal the links between the ACT Party, The Climate Science Coalition, the Climate Conversation Group , and the Centre for Political Research. These organisations certainly coordinated their activity recently in attacking New Zealand NIWA scientists. They will also be  linked to the usual overseas conservative organisations like The Heartland Insitute and conservative media like The American Thinker, and Quadrant.

But this report is a great start.

See also:
Dealing in doubt: 20 years of attacks on climate science
Greenpeace Says Climate Denialism a 20—Year Industry

Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony

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Environmental movement needs pragmatism Ken Perrott Dec 09

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Book Review: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

Price: US$17.153
Hardcover: 336 page
Publisher: Viking Adult (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0670021210
ISBN-13: 978-0670021215

Stewart Brand is an invigorating and challenging writer. He has a long history in the environmental movement. His green credentials are undeniable. But he is not afraid to think outside the box. To challenge current environmental thinking. And to fight against the destructive role of ideology which can be such a limitation in political movements.

This book has two clear messages for environmentalists and ’greens’:

1: Discard ideology.

2: Cities are green, nuclear energy is green, genetic engineering is green.

Brand proposes a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the ecological and environmental problems we face today. In the process he has to critique some ideas he formerly promoted, and some of his allies still promote.

The book effectively deals with four areas. The role of cities, shanty towns and slums, the problem of anthropological contributions to climate change, the problem of energy and the role of nuclear power, and the resistance to solutions using genetic engineering.

Cities, countryside and slums

Brands discussion of the role of cities, slums and shanty towns is fascinating. It’s easily to be concerned about slums and shanty towns. But Brandt takes a positive view. He sees them as an important step in urbanisation. And urbanisation as an important step in improving the standing of living and cultural life of humanity. He opposes any romantic vision of villages which he describes as traps of ignorance and poverty.

Slums and shanty towns can be a hive of fervent commercial activity. Where people are busy making a living, carrying out a business (usually illegal or using illegal resources), educating their children and improving their income. All to enable them to make a transition to the city. To improve and incorporate technology into their own lives. ’The worlds slums are the first urban environments to shape themselves around the cellphone’.

Sure, these areas can be breeding grounds for crime. But governments should do what they can to inhibit this and encourage the positive features. Another problem is that religions play a stronger role in slums than often realised. Brand refers to Planet of Slums by Mike Davis who says that:

’Populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early-twentieth-century socialism and anarchism.’

Such groups can often be the real government and supplier of services in the slums.

Greenhouse gas emissions

On the climate change issue Brand is clear. It is a real problem that humanity must confront. Market forces cannot solve the problem for us. We do need to take action. We need to intervene.

I liked his warning that underground sequestration of CO2 is not a solution. Personally, I would like someone to argue for diversion of CO2 away from emission into other manufacturing processes as a raw material. I find it silly that we could be considering underground storage of CO2 while effectively continuing to burn natural gas to produce CO2 in the manufacture of urea and methanol.

To my surprise, he argues for consideration of geoengineering solutions to global warming. Thankfully, he doesn’t deny the huge problems with this approach, the high possibility of unforeseen outcomes. However, his point is that this shouldn’t stop research in this area. After all, despite our best attempts we may be unable to exert enough control of greenhouse gas emission to prevent unavoidable disastrous outcomes. It would be wise to have geoengineering technology we could fall back on.

Brand likens this to the fact that people often resort to abortions when all attempts at normal birth control methods fail. A necessary evil.

I loved his speculation at the end of the book where Brand puts geoenginnering into context by considering possible future ’solar system engineering.’ We may, for example, mine for raw materials outside the earth, particularly in asteroids. We could also do much of our processing of minerals off the planet.

Energy and nuclear power

Brand promotes nuclear power as an essential contributor to humanity’s energy needs. This is often a controversial issue in the environmental movement. However, more and more greens are changing their minds on this, in the face of the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming. Many now see it as a ’necessary evil.’

I found Brand’s reassessment of the nuclear waste problem convincing. He criticises the fallacy of long-term planning. That we should do things today that solves every future problem. Currently we don’t have a reliable, safe way of eliminating or disposing of nuclear waste. So he recommends a policy of retrievable underground storage. This is a medium term solution. Storage until we have the technology enabling final solutions for recovery and treatment of the waste. Future solutions could include reactor processing, efficient recovery of useful components or long-term effective disposal methods. Obviously security is an issue but this new perspective does reduce the importance of the waste issue.

The possible proliferation of nuclear weapons and material is also a problem with nuclear power. Brand believes we are making progress on antiproliferation treaties. I have also been heartened by US President Obama’s willingness to make progress on nuclear disarmament — which links directly to the proliferation issue.

Development of new and safer technologies, such as microreactors also makes nuclear power more acceptable. However, I feel that Brand in this book may be playing down the health risk of radiation leaks. He argues that we may have been overestimating the harmful effects of radiation. Or that low radiation doses may even have beneficial effects. Maybe he is right, but we shouldn’t be too quick to lower standards in this area.

Genetic engineering

This is the area where Brand is the most critical of his green colleagues. He sees their fear here as based mainly on an attitude that we shouldn’t play god, we shouldn’t interfere with nature, rather than any real evidence of dangers.

This has also motivated opposition to stem cell research and use of transgenic DNA. Brand argues that while commercial and field applications of the technologies must be properly evaluated we should get past the understandable overcautious approach adopted during the early days of research in these areas. He argues that genetic engineering can play an important role in producing more sustainable agriculture products, reducing the use of agricultural chemicals, increasing production and providing much needed nutrition for the world’s population. It is a cure for environmental problems rather than a cause of them.

Brand recognises problems that have arisen through corporate control and intellectual property issues. But he can foresee a time when environmentally oriented people promote genetic engineering. For example he sees a strong possibility of farmers markets promoting GE products and organic farmers adopting this technology.

Questioning ideology

Brand summarises his book with discussion of the problem of ideological agendas in the green movement. This has been the main factor inhibiting the ability of the movement to adjust to new realities like global warming, nuclear power and genetic engineering.

He sees a problem of attitudes aimed at changing behaviours rather than solving problems. Activists who are too prone to confirmation bias. Too willing to harness science to a political agenda.

Personally I don’t think this problem is in any way isolated to the green movement. It’s a common feature of all political movements. And has similar outcomes. People naturally resort to confirmation biases. They develop loyalty to preconceived ideas and political agendas. Natural human intuitions like judgementalism and loyalty get co-opted.

Political movements easily become like religions. This is true of parts of the environmental movement. It’s also true of conservative groups, such as the climate change deniers, who come out against the environmental movement.

Brand’s point is that it is always more important to be right than consistent. One should be prepared to changes one’s previous ideas on things like nuclear energy and genetic engineering. We have to learn to question fables.

I liked Brands parable about the fox and the hedgehog.

’”How you think matters more than what you think,” says political scientist Philip Tetlock. The most important distinction in quality of judgment, he declares, was first expressed by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” Hedgehogs have a grand theory they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand, are skeptical about grand theo­ries, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events. Hedgehogs don’t notice or care when they’re wrong. Foxes learn. Hedgehogs are great proponents, but foxes are invariably better forecasters and policy makers.’

So, Brand argues that in fact — cities are green, nuclear energy is green and genetic engineering is green. He opposes cultural pessimism and believes science is imbued with optimism.

Maybe you doubt this. Maybe you already agree. Either way you will find this book a stimulating read.

For a an overview of the book have a look at the videos below.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUxwiVFgghE

See also: Another video presentation by Stewart Brand at the Q2C Festival, October 2009: The Whole Earth Discipline

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Those ’climategate’ emails Ken Perrott Nov 24

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The current “scandal” erupting around the hacking of servers at the University of East Anglias’ Climate Research Centre is rather predictable. The public release of stolen emails has been seized on by climate change deniers as evidence for their claims of manipulated data and faulty peer-review. Even more dishonestly they have been used to attack the integrity of science, and scientists, in general – quite apart form any climate change issue (see for example WarmingGate, The scientific community and self-criticism, Climate scientists caught lying and How the Global Warming Scientists Really Work at four local religious apologetics blogs). On the other hand, researchers and many newspaper commentators say the emails show nothing more than frank discussion between scientists around the world and details of their collaboration on research projects and journal articles.

Domestic debris and media comments

Anyone interested in the boredom of trawling through such domestic debris can access the stolen emails at Alleged CRU Emails. For some more balanced news media coverage have a look at:
This climate email -hacking episode is generating more heat than light
Global warming rigged? Here’s the email I’d need to see
Climate change email hacking to be looked into by University of East Anglia
Leaked emails mark dangerous shift in climate denial strategy
Climate change champion and sceptic both call for inquiry into leaked emails
Leaked email climate smear was a PR disaster for UEA

And a rather humorous take on “climategate” is available here: Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’

Predictably only the most apparently damning emails have been quoted in the media. While I think some of the language in the emails is disappointing I don’t think it is surprising for informal private communications.  The scientific institutes  involved may well  be adivsed to investigate specific comments, if only to reinforce their scientific integrity in the public mind. But I will be surprised if these comments indicate any real scientific fraud.

The NZ Science Media Centre has released a summary of reactions from UK-based scientists. It originates from their sister organisation, the Science Media Centre in London.

Dr Chris Huntingford, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), said:

“Using the very comprehensive set of temperature measurements available to us, we do know that there has been significant warming over the last hundred years. These datasets have been compiled by independent research laboratories in both the UK and the USA.”Computer model descriptions of the climate system are increasing in their predictive skill, and there are now very good reasons to believe that their output is accurate and can be trusted. These simulations provide compelling evidence of the link between global warming and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“Such state-of-the-art computer models of how the climate functions do also account for natural cycles in the Earth system. However, when the additional influence of humans is not considered, they are unable to explain the rapid rate of warming that has been observed over the last Century. The implication is that to a very high level of certainty, the warming observed in the last Century is not part of a natural cycle.

“Almost all current scientific understanding of how the climate system operates suggests that humankind is having an influence on our climate system.”

Professor John Burrows, Director of the Biogeochemistry Programme, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), said:

“The peer review scientific process was created to try to avoid conspiracies from any side on an issue. Despite the adverse reaction in some quarters the current discussion is a perfect example that whilst it doesn’t always look perfect, an open debate, backed up by peer review,  is what science is all about.

“Whilst not ignoring “emailgate” we should not inadvertently move the public attention from the established scientific consensus to the attempt at character assassination being made by these climate change sceptics.

“The basic physics of global climate change has been known since Arrhenius at the end of the 19th century if not before. The four Assessment Reports from the IPCC are consistent, however, the data since 1990 seems to follow worst case scenarios. To me this is evidence that the scientific community is behaving responsibly and rather cautiously with respect to the science of climate change.”

Professor Piers Forster, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, said:

“Scientists at the Climate Research Unit are leading experts in the world’s temperature record. They do an amazingly hard job of collecting data from lots of counties, looking at errors and putting the different datasets together. They have been under increasing pressure from a few individuals to respond to multiple FOI calls. Like all us scientists they are short of man-power and stretch their resources to the maximum to do as much new science as possible. The need to respond to FOI requests are often too large to make them feasibly achievable and whilst some of the emails show scientists to be all too human, nothing I have read makes me doubt the veracity of the peer review process or the general warming trend in the global temperature record. I know that when errors in their global temperature product have previously been found (e.g. Thomson et al., 2008, Nature), they responded as all scientists should, researching the source of the error with true scientific enthusiasm.”

Dr Stephan Harrison, Associate Professor in Quaternary Science, School of Geography, University of Exeter, said:

“The emails from the Climatic Research Unit which have been published on the internet have been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that scientists are involved in a global warming conspiracy, suppression of dissenting voices and making data up to support a global warming agenda.  We shouldn’t get too carried away, however. Irrespective of what may or may not have been said in some private emails, this doesn’t change the physical properties of carbon dioxide, and doesn’t change the fact that human activity is warming the planet.  There’s a lot of politics in all of this debate, but it is the science that has to drive policy.”

Kathy Maskell, Spokesperson, & Professor Rowan Sutton, Walker Institute, University of Reading, said:

“Throughout the Earth’s history there have been natural changes in climate caused by many factors, including variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, volcanic eruptions, and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. The scientific evidence now shows that people are changing the global climate.

“Climate scientists look at both natural factors that cause climate to change and they look at the effect that people are having on climate. There is no doubt that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels and agriculture, is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This increase in greenhouse gases is causing the globe to warm.

“The current warmth is unusual in the context of the last 1000 years (at least) and is not just part of a natural cycle. Past changes are also thought to have occurred much more slowly than the warming over the 20th century.

“The majority of scientists agree that much of the warming since the mid-20th century is very likely due to increasing greenhouse gases being produced by human activity. Scientists have looked at different possible causes for the warming. Natural changes (like changes in the Sun’s output) cannot explain 20th century warming. The only way to reproduce the warming over the 20th century is to include the effects that people are having on the climate.

“Over the 20th century as a whole there has been a warming trend of 0.7 degrees centigrade and the warming has accelerated since the mid-20th century. The warming has not been steady and there have been periods of cooling. This is exactly what climate scientists would expect. As well as increasing greenhouse gases, natural factors (such as volcanic eruptions and changes in sea surface temeprature in the Pacific called El Nino) are also affecting global temperature. So scientists would expect there to be short periods where there is less warming and even cooling, but overall the trend is towards higher global temperatures.”


Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

Once appropriate action has been taken over the hacking, there has to be some process to assess the substance of the e-mail messages as well. The selective disclosure and dissemination of the messages has created the impression of impropriety, and the only way of clearing the air now would be through a rigorous investigation. I have sympathy for the climate researchers at the University of East Anglia and other institutions who have been the target of an aggressive campaign by so-called ’sceptics’ over a number of years. But I fear that only a thorough investigation could now clear their names.

“There needs to be an assurance that these e-mail messages have not revealed inappropriate conduct in the preparation of journal articles and in dealing with requests from other researchers for access to data. This will probably require investigations both by the host institutions and by the relevant journals. There may also be a role for the UK Office of Research Integrity to advise on any investigation.

“The e-mail messages I have seen posted on ’sceptics” websites do not cast doubt on the basic physical fact that the Earth is warming in response to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. ‘Sceptics’ may seek to wrongly portray these e-mail messages as a smoking gun from a worldwide conspiracy to create a global warming hoax, but that is simply a ridiculous fantasy.”

Dr Andy Challinor, lecturer in Climate Change Modelling, University of Leeds, said:

“Scientists are frequently faced with choices about methods of presenting data. The aim is to represent the underlying facts clearly, and there is rarely a single correct way of doing this. The mechanisms for anthropogenic climate change are established science that is well-understood. The idea that the many scientists across the globe working on climate change could collude in misrepresenting the fundamentals of the science is ludicrous, since it would be both counter-cultural to science and logistically impossible.”

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Industrial Fellow, University of Cambridge BP Institute, said:

“The evidence base for climate change continues to be debated. However, what is disappointing is that there is less debate about what we should be doing morally regardless of the strength of the case for or against climate change being driven by mankind. Even if some people want to dismiss the evidence base, what do they think we should do as responsible citizens? Clearly we should be seeking ways of reducing our impact on the planet – this is irrefutable.

“Improving energy efficiency and switching to non/low-carbon energy sources are vital. In the case of improved energy efficiency, there are strong economic arguments today as to why this should be done now. In the case of switching to non/low carbon energy sources, the economic arguments are longer-term and may involve consideration of the cost of climate change as per the Stern report. In summary, I fail to understand why people want to debate the evidence base for climate change rather than debate what we should be doing anyway to reduce our impact on the planet. The technological advances in energy efficiency need to be adopted by more people, and more quickly, before we invest more time debating climate change! “

(Further Information: To talk to any of the experts quoted above contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: )

I realise these comments will have no influence on the more adamant climate change deniers or those who wish to sneeringly smear and attack science and scientists for their own ideological or religious reasons. But hopefully more reasonable people will be able to see through such attacks and recognise that these stolen emails don’t indicate any widespread conspiracy to deceive.
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