Posts Tagged ‘climate change’
Our weather systems are entirely driven by the laws of science.
“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.“
So wrote William Wordsworth.
The last twelve months has been a period of untypical weather in many parts of the world. It’s easy to scratch one’s head with puzzlement and blame it on the most convenient and fashionable theory of the moment. Unusual jet stream pattern; polar vortex; aliens! You get the idea! However, the principle behind what is happening to the weather systems across our planet is very straightforward. Our weather systems are described by the laws of science.
Thus it is a great pleasure to offer the following guest post from a scientist: Martin Lack. Martin should be no stranger to readers of Learning from Dogs; his most recent contribution was the major three-part essay From Environmentalism to Ecologism.
Conserving mass, water, and energy
I must admit that I am rather fond of quoting Sir Arthur Eddington as having once said, “…if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” Without quibbling over the detail, the Law of Conservation of Mass is pretty darn close; but what, you may ask, has this got to do with climate change denial?
Conservation of mass of water
Well, consider for a moment that scientists seem to agree that there has been a 4% increase in the average moisture content of the Earth’s atmosphere since 1970. That being the case, I am bound to say that this extra 4% is making its presence felt in the UK at the moment! This year we have had the wettest 3 months (April – June) in over 100 years; the wettest June on record; the rain is still falling (sometimes as much as 80mm in a day); and – we are now being told – there is no change anticipated in coming weeks. So, if you’re coming over for the Olympics, expect to get wet!
However, whilst the UK suffers from near Biblical levels of flooding, if the Law of Conservation of Mass is to be upheld and – all other things like terrestrial ice volume remaining equal(!) – the volume of water in the oceans is to remain constant, then it must be failing to rain somewhere else. If so, is there any evidence to support this
theory Law? Well, funnily enough, there is: Whilst the UK continues to receive more rain than it wants or needs (all hose pipe bans and drought restrictions have now been lifted), many parts of the World continue to suffer from persistent drought (in sub-Saharan West Africa) and/or record-breaking temperatures (in most of North America).
Sadly, none of this seems to stop self-confessed scientifically-illiterate English graduates such as James Delingpole from ridiculing the entire notion of global warming simply because it is raining a lot here at the moment. It may seem that he has just got a nasty case of tunnel vision and/or short-term memory loss but this is what the fake sceptics always do; they never look at the big picture: Rather than look at daily, monthly, or even annual average temperatures over multi-decadal periods to determine significant long-term trends; they just cherry pick data to reach fallacious conclusions such as “global warming stopped in 1998″.
I am therefore left hoping that the 57% of the British adult population that seem to fall for this kind of nonsense will soon decide that it is time to stop running down the up escalator and, by embracing the reality of what is happening, decide to become part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. If not, climate change denial may well lead to a failure to conserve mass; with the mass in question being the sustainable number of humans this planet can support in the long-term.
Conservation of mass of carbon
If the Law of Conservation of Mass explains why anthropogenic
global warming climate disruption is not invalidated by any amount of cold weather or torrential rainfall in one place; can it be used to validate concern regarding a 40% increase CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere? Funnily enough, it can: Since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th Century, a vast amount of fossilised carbon has been burnt; with the carbon it contained combining with oxygen in the air to form CO2. Note here that the oxygen was in the air anyway; whereas the carbon had been out of circulation for hundreds of millions of years. All this new carbon has to go somewhere and, given that it will be many more millions of years before any of it gets taken back out of circulation by nature, it is either making the atmosphere warm-up or it is reducing the pH of seawater (just enough to make life very difficult for corals and shellfish).
So then, what is the human response to all this? Shall we stop burning the fossil fuels now we know we’re causing a problem? It doesn’t look like it! It seems far more likely that we shall gamble the future habitability of all the planets diverse ecosystems on finding a way to defeat the Law of Conservation of Mass by artificially removing this carbon from the biosphere: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). And do you know what I find most astonishing about CCS? It is the fact that our governments are spending huge sums of money on long-term tests to simulate the effects of CO2 leaking from a submarine CCS repository – to see if it has any noticeable effects on marine life?
Errr, hello-oh? If any CO2 ever escapes from any CCS repository, the entire exercise will have been a complete waste of time and money! The CO2 will be back in circulation and the Law of Conservation of Mass will have won (again). If the genie will not stay in the bottle we will all be in big trouble: Rather than being likely to“collapse in deepest humiliation”; such a failure to defeat the Law of Conservation of Mass will probably result in the collapse of the entire planetary ecosystem; because of our other big problem – the Law of Conservation of Energy: The reason the atmosphere is warming up in the first place; more energy is coming in from the Sun than is getting out into Space!
So, this year’s weather should be a wake-up call to all of us: Irrespective of the actual kind of extreme weather being experienced in any one place, the impacts on agriculture seem to be equally destructive and spiralling food costs the inevitable end result: All just as was predicted by people dismissed for decades as doomsayers: People like Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Dennis Meadows, E.F. Schumacher, William Ophuls, Mathis Wackernagel, Ernest Callenbach, and Lester Brown… It looks like that darn ‘wolf’ finally showed up!
Funnily enough, it turns out that a doubling in the size of the global human economy every 50 years is not sustainable after all; and worshipping at the Temple of the God of Growth has got us in some serious trouble; otherwise known as a global debt crisis (see the short video embedded below). We thought we could just lend imaginary money to each other indefinitely but someone blinked and the spell was broken. Sadly, it turns out the Emperor was naked after all; it’s just a shame that by the time we realised this we were all completely sold on the latest fashion ourselves: The New Clothes are everywhere; and we have all been left looking for fig leaves to cover our genitals.
Just as The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al) predicted all those years ago, the Earth is running out of the ability to cope with the effects of our chronically dysfunctional mis-management of it. This was why, as I pointed out six months ago, the failure of food harvests in 2010 led to the Arab Spring of 2011… Are you, like me, wondering what is going to happen this time around? My prediction is that some economist such as Tim Worstall will get himself on TV and tell everyone that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a load of old rubbish; and that technology will save us from the consequences of our selfish pursuit of profit at any cost; and from our failure to recognise that we humans are not superior to nature – we are part of it – and we cannot survive without it. Or, to put it another way, as a Native American tribal leader once did:
When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
I can add nothing to the above other than to thank Martin for giving me the opportunity to republish his post.
Funny how things go around!
: the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (as similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality —used especially in the psychology of C. G. Jung
That seems sufficiently apt to warrant the choice of title for today’s post.
Yesterday, Chris Snuggs left a comment to my post Unconditional love. Essentially, Chris made the argument that much of what we see as wrong with the world is not new; not new at all [my insertion of the image of and link to the Great Fire of London].
What I mean is, the danger of thinking that today’s events are somehow special and different in kind than throughout history, a feeling generated by the fact that WE are living NOW. However, is it not true that ALL ages of Mankind have seen disasters, wars, dangers, catastrophes, including natural ones? How must those have felt who lived through the 30 Years War, the plague, the Great Fire of London, Stalin’s purges and of course the holocaust?
Even in these present times, Chris doubted that mankind had not been here before [my emphasis]:
WHAT then is special about OUR era? Well, Patrice is and rightly very concerned about the kleptocracy. The staggering statistic that emerged the other day about 85 individuals having as much wealth as 3,5 BILLION people was yet another wake-up call, especially as history seems to tell us that A) there have ALWAYS been kleptocracies and B) they ALWAYS end in revolution, dictatorship or social collapse. But the point is, this is nothing NEW. On the contrary, it has in many societies been the normal progression of things for millenia.
So what about Global Warming, as in man-caused? Chris wrote:
No, all my uncertainties lie in the area of GW. It’s pretty clear that there Is global warming, but A) Is it our fault? B) What should we DO about it? and C) Is it too late anyway?
The notion that it is too late to prevent widespread, major consequences from the heating of our planet is widely shared; I sing the siren’s song myself.
So when an item came along yesterday from Transition Network’s blog courtesy of Rob Hopkins pointing out that Chris, me and many others may be wrong to sing the ‘doom and gloom’ song, it naturally caught my eye. A quick call to the Transition Network team in Totnes, Devon gave me permission to republish on Learning from Dogs, so here it is. Thanks TN team. (My thoughts follow the TN piece.)
Lipkis on Holmgren: “Our job is to make viable the alternative and have it ready”
You know how sometimes someone will just put something you were thinking far more eloquently and clearly than you would have been able to? On Thursday we’ll be posting an interview with Andy Lipkis of TreePeople in Los Angeles. When I talked to Andy last week, it was 80°F, and a state of drought emergency had just been declared (in LA, not Totnes, it was raining here, as usual). At the end of the interview, I asked for his thoughts on the recent debate sparked by David Holmgren’s Crash on Demand article. I asked him “Can we achieve the action on climate change that we need within the existing paradigm, or do we need to deliberately bring the economy down, to deliberately crash it?”. Here’s what he told me.
“This system is so armoured to defend itself from a deliberate crash that much of our resources and intelligence networks are focused on exactly stopping that. On the flip side, the crash is already happening. We don’t have to engineer it: it’s already been engineered into the system. Check it out: Infrastructure systems are in breakdown in major cities around the world, with severe climate exceeding the designed capacity for storms, floods, water shortages, heat events resulting in increasing numbers of people being dislocated, injured or killed. In the US, taxpayers are unwilling or unable to pay for the rapidly inflating costs for upgrading and climate-proofing the outmoded infrastructure systems, all the while, climate change denial campaigns prevent communities from preparing for and protecting themselves from the impacts.
I think our job is to make viable the alternative and have it ready. If we’ve really done our homework, we could scale this thing in a flash in California right now because this crash is upon us. And I hope we’re going to be able, perhaps within months…I invented a cistern that could replace the backyard fence or wall, that could hold 5,000 – 20,000 gallons and could be manufactured locally. The City’s going “hey, maybe we should do that now”. Now. Because it’s going to rain again, even if this drought lasts some years, we could deploy them quickly, just as they did in Australia’s 12 year drought.
I think we’ve been trained to spend time on these battles, on the negativity, and we lose people. We’ve lost precious decades. The crash is on its way. We don’t have to do anything. We need the time to convert people and move people. We need to use examples of Australia and what’s happening now in California to tell those stories, because I agree, denial, defending the system is keeping it pumping. But as you saw from Snowden and all the evidence, for those of us who went through the ‘60s and ‘70s in protest, I don’t think that’s going to succeed. If we focus on that our best leaders are going to end up in jail for too long.
When you look at how fast people change when you add inspiration, when you add attraction, people change on a dime! When we were growing up, there were – I don’t know if you had The Munsters? One of the only people who we all knew who was doing yoga and eating yoghurt was Uncle Fester. But when we started seeing beautiful, sexy male and female bodies doing that, it started selling, moving people by the millions and then billions to choose these lifestyles.
I’m not saying the marketplace is the only answer, I’m just saying that if we choose attraction and inclusion we can create those markets, as you’re starting to do. Your stories over and over again on what’s happening with local currency – it’s time to tell the stories better and use those market forces, because people will choose those because they’re less painful and more attractive. And to be smart, to say wow, yeah.
The Bush administration was ready for all Americans to be protesting to try to stop the Iraq war. They expected that, they built that into their design. I was so amazed that they could say they didn’t care what the people said, that I had to think through why they did not care about that. How did they make it resilient? Because all they cared about was as long as people kept consuming, especially petroleum, their objective was being met. They were counting on no-one changing lifestyles.
The most radical thing sometimes that you can do is actually vote with your feet and vote with your dollars. I was going – “wow, yeah, they’re counting on people complaining”. Protesting and not changing. I started thinking that even the Obama administration is still using the same metrics as the Bush administration was, saying people won’t change on energy. “It’s going to take 35 years to reduce our energy use by 30%”. Well that’s bullshit, because we can choose to do that in a week.
So, I decided that I was going to show that that’s possible even in my own lifestyle. I drive a Prius which is especially fuel efficient, but I’m going to stop driving that car two or three days a week. I told my secretary to book meetings downtown where I could get the bus to. I got out of the car, took the bus, and it actually became a really cool thing. I started investing my dollars in the local bus system. I did it for over two years. I blogged about it. A lot of other people stopped full time car use, and right at the right time as gasoline prices were spiking, a proposal came out to build a new transit system. It’s always been rejected in LA, but the voters at that moment chose to fund 40 billion dollars to build a new subway system in Los Angeles so we could get out of our cars. It’s a radical move, but it’s starting to happen.
So maybe that’s a long complicated answer, but we’ve built the right foundation. Our happiness, our health is the answer. It’s infectious. Our job is to be that much more infectious and inclusive. And don’t put up barriers of titles. Don’t put up barriers of shame and blame. Be open to learning fast and welcoming people in. We’re hacking the system and making it so much better. If we invite that kind of creativity, the generation that’s inheriting this right now is really ready to take this home.
Don’t know about you but I find that compelling. It’s far too easy to wait for others to fix the problems. Too easy to see the issues as insurmountable. Each of us has the ability and the common-sense to make a change in our lives. Whether it is a small, medium or large change in your behaviour, you will make a difference.
So if you have been inspired by this, as Jeannie and I have been, commit to making a difference.
The concluding Part Three of Martin Lack’s guest essay.
Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 3)
Therefore, having now surveyed all the relevant “territory”, we shall now consider the third and final part of the answer to the question as proposed in the Introduction.
Ecologism – Neither left nor right, but out in front?
According to Philip Shabecoff, it was members of the European Green parties that were the first to assert that they are “neither left nor right but out in front” (2000: 109).
For this to be true, ecologism would have to represent a new paradigm that rejects (or at least challenges) beliefs central to conventional politics (of any orientation). This, it is here argued, is indeed the case: In a discussion of the libertarian ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, William Ophuls observed that they “…have not gone unchallenged, but with very few exceptions, liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, and other modern ideologies have taken abundance for granted and assumed the necessity of further growth” (Ophuls 1977: 145).
What is the problem with modernity?
As suggested by Anthony Giddens, modernity encompasses “…modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence” (Giddens 1991: 1).
The problem is that the accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole objective of many people in modern society; and perpetual growth is posited as a means whereby even the poorest might achieve it.
Karl Marx (as cited by Jon Elster) coined the term “money fetishism” to describe the belief that money (and/or precious metals) have intrinsic (use) value rather than just instrumental (exchange) value, which Marx felt was as misguided as the religious practice of endowing inanimate objects with supernatural powers (Elster 1986: 56-7).
However, whereas Karl Marx saw capitalism as the problem, the ideology that he gave his name to is just as guilty of Daly’s “growthmania”. For example, whereas Jack Goody accepts that capitalism has been “…connected with the growth of rationality and of secularisation; more recently with urbanisation and industrialisation”, he also notes that for Marxist regimes “…modern meant industrialisation without capitalism” (Goody 2004: 6).
The terms “use value” and “exchange value” were first put forward by Aristotle (384-322 BC) who, according to Daly, also recognised the danger of focusing on the latter (i.e. whereby the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself) and, alluding to Marx’s criticism, Daly suggested that the paperless economy (where no useable commodities actually change hands) is the logical end-point for money fetishism (Daly 1992: 186).
Finally, on the subject of the consequences of “the problem”, although the centrally-planned economies of the former USSR and China would appear to have had their day, the flaws of the capitalist system they seem so keen to embrace have also revealed themselves in recent time. For example, when John Gray came to write the introduction to the second edition of his book “False Dawn: The Delusions of Modern Capitalism”, he included the following comment:
In the first edition of this book, published in March 1998, I wrote: ‘Today’s regime of global laissez-faire will be briefer than even the belle époque of 1870 to 1914, which ended in the trenches of the first world war’… Not much more than a decade ago this seemed outlandish, but there have since been many signs that global capitalism was heading for a fall (Gray 2009: xii).
Does ecologism provide the answers?
The starting point for ecologism is the concept of carrying capacity (the maximum population of a species) that an ecosystem can support in perpetuity (Dryzek 2005: 27). In this instance, the species is Homo sapiens and the ecosystem is the planet Earth. Therefore, in 1968, Hardin suggested that these limits exist and must be faced. In 1993, frustrated by the absence of discussion on population growth in international politics, he pointed out that:
Two centuries of intermittent wrestling with population problems have produced useful insights about the reality and nature of limits… Four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric… From this it must be inferred that someday political conservatism will once again be defined as contented living within limits. The limitless world view will have to be abandoned (Hardin 1993: 5-6).
In 1968, his solution had been “...mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (Hardin 1968: 1247). However, in an apparent reference to the work of an array of scholars including Malthus, Hardin, Meadows, Ehrlich and others, Daly lamented that:
Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done… Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract. (Daly 1992: 185-186).
Much more recently, Daly has reminded us that, “Ecological limits are rapidly converting ‘economic growth’ into ‘uneconomic growth’-that is throughput growth that increases costs by more than it increases benefits, thus making us poorer not richer” (Daly 2007: 39).
So, it would seem that the challenge of living “within our planet’s means” remains significant; one that few politicians are willing to discuss (because there are no votes to be gained in doing so). It is this fact that the environment cannot speak for itself (i.e. it is disenfranchised) that led Goodin to the conclusion that “nature has interests… as deserving of protection as anyone else’s, which must be ‘encapsulated’ as part of a discursive participatory democracy” (Goodin 1996: 835).
Similarly, whereas Goodin used the term “encapsulated interests” (to describe how one party’s interests are incorporated in those of another), Dobson suggested that non-human animals and future generations of humans (and maybe even other species) are “new environmental constituencies” requiring human representatives to look after their interests (Dobson 1996: 125).
All that needs to be decided is who we shall admit into the “community of justice” (i.e. how radical you want to be).
Citing Low and Gleeson (1998) and Baxter (1999), Derek Bell therefore distinguishes environmental and ecological justice as follows: Environmental justice concerns the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among human beings. Whereas ecological justice is concerned with justice between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Bell 2006: 208). Furthermore, Bell also spells out the importance of this distinction (just in case any reader has not appreciated it yet) as follows:
Advocates of environmental justice merely insist that the instrumental value of the environment to humans should be recognised in a theory of social justice or justice among humans. Ecological justice makes the much more radical claim that justice extends beyond relations among humans so that we can talk about ‘justice to nature’ (Bell 2006: 208).
The question that has been addressed herein is whether or not ecologism can or should be regarded as a political ideology in its own right given that both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to some aspects of ecological politics.
In order to provide a defensible answer to this question, it was necessary to define what is meant by ecological politics (i.e. the pursuit of policies that are concerned with the environment; but which are not merely or predominantly anthropocentric) and ecologism (i.e. the pursuit of environmental policies that are biocentric or ecocentric). This therefore highlighted the fact that the two are not the same thing; and that ecological politics also includes anthropocentric environmentalism.
However, it has been demonstrated that, rather than being a simple dividing line within the field of ecological politics, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism represent opposite ends of a spectrum along which it is possible to adopt a variety of philosophical positions. Furthermore, although it has also been demonstrated that it is very difficult to be entirely one thing or the other, when faced with difficult policy decisions, almost everyone (both socialists and conservatives included), tends to favour self-preservation. Therefore, the default position of all humans tends to be towards the anthropocentric end of the spectrum.
Nevertheless, to avoid the tautological response to the question (“ecologism must be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right because it is!”), it was deemed necessary to demonstrate how and why both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to ecological politics (although the majority of both socialists and conservatives do not do so) and, therefore, how and why the ecologism that both find so challenging must be regarded as a political ideology in its own right.
In so doing, it has been shown that some socialists find common cause with those that seek equal rights for the environment; whereas some conservatives may do so in pursuit of maintaining the status quo. However, both generally assume the necessity of further growth (Ophuls); what Daly called ‘growthmania’. Furthermore, capitalism is fixated upon the inherent value of things we may consume; whereas Marxism (an extreme form of socialism) is fixated upon the inherent value of things we may produce. However, ecologism insists that nature has inherent – if not intrinsic – value in and of itself; independent of our finding a use for it.
Ecologically-minded scientists and economists have pointed out that the Earth is finite and its capacity to accommodate humans is finite; whereas the evidence of at least the last 40 years is that many prefer to refuse to accept this reality and, as Schumacher pointed out, are spending environmental capital as if it were income. Therefore, because ecologism demands justice that is ecological (ecocentric) – not just environmental (anthropocentric), it represents a fundamental challenge to conventional politics and, as such, must be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.
Baxter, B. (1999), Ecologism: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Bell, D. (2006), ‘Political Liberalism and Ecological Justice’ [online], Analyse & Kritik 28, pp.206-22. [Paper originally presented at ECPR General Conference, Marburg, 18–21 September 2003]. Available at <http://analyse-und-kritik.net/2006-2/AK_Bell_2006.pdf> [accessed 18 April 2011].
Daly, H. (1992), Steady State Economics (2nd edition). London: Earthscan.
Daly, H. (2007), Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Dobson, A. (1996), ‘Representative democracy and the environment’, in Lafferty, W. and Meadowcroft, J (eds), Democracy and the Environment: Problems and Prospects. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.124-39.
Dryzek, J. (2005), The Politics of the Environment (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ehrlich, P & Ehrlich, A. (1996), Betrayal of Science and Reason. New York: Island Press.
Elster, J. (1986), An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Giddens, A. (1991), The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Goodin, R. (1996), ‘Enfranchising the earth, and its alternatives’, Political Studies, 44, pp.835-49.
Goody, J. (2004), Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gray, J. (2009), False Dawn: The Delusions of Modern Capitalism, 2nd edition. London: Granta.
Hardin, G. (1993), Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Low, N. and Gleeson, B. (1998), Justice, Society and Nature: An Exploration of Political Ecology. London: Routledge.
Malthus, T. (1798), An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J Johnson.
Ophuls, W. (1977), Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. San Francisco: Freeman & Co..
Shabecoff, P., (2000), Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century, Washington DC: Island Press.
I know a good number of readers have followed Martin’s essay since Tuesday and I would like to thank Martin, on my own account and on behalf of all LfD readers, for giving me the opportunity to republish the essay.
Part Two of the three-part guest essay by Martin Lack.
The background to this major essay was covered yesterday, in the introduction to Part One.
Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 2)
A question of values
According to Carter (2007: 14-15), there is no consistent use of terminology regarding the value ascribed to different entities, so it would seem sensible to use that which he outlines:
Instrumental value: The value which something has for someone as a means to an end (also known as utility value).
Inherent value: The value which something has because it is considered desirable (e.g. precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum).
Intrinsic value: The value which something has because of what it is – typically essential for the existence of life (e.g. sunlight, clean air, and clean water).
As Carter points out (2007: 15), as well as being inconsistently applied to individual entities by those doing the valuing, these terms are not mutually exclusive (i.e. “being valuable in one way does not preclude being valuable in another way”). However, what is clear is that the value judgements that any individual makes will determine their attitude towards consumption and/or pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.
In setting out his “Green Theory of Value”, Robert Goodin boldly acknowledged that, ideally, it should “tell us both what is to be valued and why” (Goodin 1992:19). However, before explaining his own theory of value, Goodin identifies the two main alternatives as capitalist (consumer-based) value; and Marxist (producer-based) value (Goodin 1992: 23-4). Goodin’s green theory of value is thus distinct from both of these because the value-imparting properties are neither those of the consumer nor producer; they are (or at least should be) “natural resource based”; although he specifically does not claim that his theory “is correct utterly to the exclusion of all others” (Goodin 1992: 25-6).
Applying Carter’s typology of value (above) to Goodin’s argument, capitalists would appear to be focussed upon the inherent value of things they consume; and Marxists upon the instrumental value of the things they produce. In contrast to both of these, Goodin seeks to justify the assertion that nature itself should always be considered, independent of the presence or activity of humans, to have inherent – if not intrinsic – value. However, he seems to shy away from the logical conclusion of his argument; that all nature has intrinsic value that does not require the presence of valuers (Goodin 1992: 42-45). This is presumably part of an appeal to reason, which such an extreme view would probably not have.
A question of perspective
If anthropocentrism is a way of thinking “…that regards humans as the source of all value and is predominantly concerned with human interests”, then, in simplistic terms, ecocentrism is one “…that regards humans as subject to… ethical, political and social prescriptions… equally concerned with both humans and non-humans” (Carter 2007: 14). However, as with most things in life, it is not as simple as these definitions imply. For example, from an anthropocentric perspective, it is possible to be concerned about the welfare of individual domesticated animals; and yet not be concerned about the survival of entire endangered species.
Equally, one of the biggest debates in ecological politics may revolve around how one defines “moral persons” (Rawls, 1972: 504-5); or legitimate “recipients of justice” (Garner 2003: 11), although many would probably agree with what Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said: “The question is not, can they reason? Not, can they talk? But, can they suffer?” (cited in Dobson 2006: 220-1). However, the contentious and unresolved nature of this debate has led to the appearance of terms such as “shallow” and “deep”; which may be applied to anthropocentrism and ecocentrism alike (with “deep” denoting a more extreme position in either case). Therefore:
Rather than define different perspectives according to which side of the ecocentric/anthropocentric divide they lie, they can be located along a continuum, which moves from ecocentrism through various gradations of anthropocentrism to ‘strong anthropocentrism’ (Carter 2007: 36).
Once it is recognised that there is a range of possible positions that may be adopted (rather than a choice that has to be made), it is possible – as Eckersley has done – to characterise at least five different positions, which are as follows:
Resource conservation – the wise use of natural resources for human benefit: Eckersley suggests that the conservation movement was founded upon the Judeao-Christian notion of humans having “dominion” over the Earth; rather than any duty of “stewardship”, as exemplified by Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the US Forest Service) (Eckersley 1992: 35).
Human welfare ecology – an appeal to enlightened self-interest: Eckersley cites Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecology”as (1) everything is connected to everything else; (2) everything must go somewhere; (3) nature knows best; and (4) there’s no such thing as a free lunch (Eckersley 1992: 37-8).
Preservationism – seeking the aesthetic preservation of wilderness areas: Whereas Gifford Pinchot wanted to preserve nature for development (i.e. maximise the utility of natural resources for human benefit), John Muir (of the Sierra Club) wanted to preserve nature from development (i.e. minimise the human impact on the natural environment) (Eckersley 1992: 39).
Animal liberationism – the prevention of cruelty to certain animals: A comparatively modern, radical, development; which can trace its heritage back to “humane” societies formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the RSPCA (Eckersley 1992: 42).
Ecocentrism – seeking the preservation of nature for its own sake (Eckersley, 1992: 46).
With regard to the latter, given that Eckersley recognised the fact that these positions lie upon a “wide spectrum of differing orientations towards nature”, whose end-points are anthropocentrism and ecocentrism (1992: 33), this could be better defined as deep ecocentrism. However, even using these five labels, it is not hard to see why it is difficult to categorise people: For example, the human welfare ecologists could be regarded as quite ecocentric (if they recognise the validity and/or importance of each and every one of Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecology”); whereas animal liberationists could be regarded as quite anthropocentric (if they are only concerned about domesticated pets and/or individual animals).
The ecocentric end of the spectrum has also been described as that of “deep ecology” (Devall and Sessions 1985: 70), and “biospherical egalitarianism” (Naess 1989: 170). However, whilst preferring the term “biocentric egalitarianism” for the latter, Carter points out that – as indeed was conceded by Naess (1989: 28) – food is an essential requirement for life and, therefore, an entirely egalitarian position is untenable:
Certainly, any principle along the lines of biocentric egalitarianism would be impossible to implement. Taking it to the extreme, how could a human justify killing any animal or fish, or consuming a vegetable, bean or berry? All involve some restraint on another entity’s capacity to live and flourish (Carter 2007: 36).
So, it would seem that an entirely ecocentric position is hard to maintain, but can the same be said for an entirely anthropocentric position? This, as we shall now see, has been the subject of much debate.
A question of justice
When someone says, “I want justice!” it is normally because they feel they have been wronged in some way; and want what they feel they deserve (i.e. fairness). Hence, Paul Sterba opens his chapter in “Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge” on this subject by saying, “Justice requires giving what is deserved” (Sterba 2006: 148). However, within the sphere of environmental politics, when faced with difficult choices, human beings tend to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect their own kind.
In the introduction to his book “Theory of Ecological Justice”, Brian Baxter uses the example of Sir David Attenborough’s response to the prospect of humans causing species extinctions (i.e. “Surely, it is sad indeed that our descendants should inherit a natural world that is more impoverished than the one we inherited?”) to suggest that all humans are almost incapable of being anything other than anthropocentric (Baxter 2005: 1). However, Attenborough was probably deliberately making the question rhetorical; just as Baxter was probably being provocative in order to retain the interest of readers. Nevertheless, in a wide-ranging consideration of the subject, Baxter discusses the work of numerous authors, to advocate the case for “moral consideration” to be given to sentient non-humans (Baxter 2005: 45).
This would appear to be in accordance with Bentham’s conclusion that it is the ability to suffer that should confer the right to fair treatment. Indeed, one such author Baxter considered, David DeGrazia, proposed the principle of “equal consideration” for all sentient non-humans but pointed out that this could not guarantee justice; merely a fair hearing. He also pointed out that granting equal consideration would not automatically confer upon them the right to moral consideration, but it would be revolutionary; because much animal experimentation (he uses the term “exploitation”) would then seem to be unjustifiable (DeGrazia 1996: 37-38).
Dobson has written a great deal on the subject of justice. In a characteristically thought-provoking contribution to a recent collection of essays on the subject (regarding the difficulties of combining social justice and environmental sustainability; in effect asking “What is to be sustained and for whose benefit?”), he discusses who should be the legitimate “recipients of justice”; and what should be the consequential scope of the “community of justice” thus determined (Dobson 2003: 87-94).
Baxter sees the three main principled objections to the notion of ecological justice as being that justice need only be distributed to (1) those able to voluntarily co-operate to produce and/or preserve environmental benefits; (2) those with property rights; and (3) those capable of reciprocity (Baxter 2005: 77). Baxter deals with the first and last of these reasonably easily, as follows: (1) bacteria are beneficial and slaves were not volunteers (2005: 78-9); and (3) mentally-incapacitated people do not cease to be human because they cannot interact with their surroundings or respond to stimuli (2005: 77-8). However, objection (2) seems a little more intractable (2005: 86). Finally, Baxter concludes that if these objections can indeed be rejected, ecological justice represents a fundamental challenge to the laissez-faire attitude of liberalism (2005: 94).
However, for now, the final word on the question of justice will be given to Dobson, who almost seemed to be responding to Baxter, by saying: “Just who is throwing down the gauntlet here? Is political ecology a challenge for citizenship, or is citizenship a challenge for political ecology?” (Dobson 2006: 216). Whilst acknowledging the historical existence of at least two types of citizenship; namely liberal and civic republican (stressing right-claiming and responsibility-taking respectively), Dobson highlights at least two fundamental challenges to any notion of citizenship (i.e. feminism and cosmopolitanism) (2006: 217-8). However, much more space is given to the ways in which the notion of citizenship is a challenge to ecological politics. Again, this is indicative of the fact that ecologism should be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.
Baxter, B. (2005), A Theory of Ecological Justice. London: Routledge.
DeGrazia, D. (1996), Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Devall, B. and Sessions, G. (1985), Living as if Nature Mattered. Layton UT: Peregrine and Smith.
Dobson, A. (2003), ‘Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet?’, in Agyeman, J., Bullard, R., and Evans, B. (eds.), Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. London: Earthscan, pp.83-95.
Dobson, A. (2006), ‘Citizenship’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.216-231.
Garner, R. (2003) ‘Animals, politics and justice: Rawlsian liberalism and the plight of non-humans’, Environmental Politics, 12 (2), pp.3-22.
Goodin, R. (1992), Green Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Naess, A. (1989), Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Rawls, J. (1972), A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sterba, P. (2006), ‘Justice’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.148-64.
The final part, Part Three, will be published tomorrow.
A guest essay for today and the next two days.
A few days ago, I remarked that for the time being posts on Learning from Dogs were frequently going to be based on the material of others. It was the only way that I could keep this blog going yet at the same time edit (code for re-write!) a 60,000-word novel that was completed, as a first pass, last November.
Martin Lack is one major step ahead of yours truly. Not because he, too, writes a blog but because, unlike yours truly, he is a published author! His book is called The Denial of Science; he blogs under the name of Lack of Environment.
Thus I was extremely grateful when a short while ago, Martin offered a major essay of his as a guest post for Learning from Dogs. Better than that, Martin happily accepted my recommendation to send me his essay in three parts.
It may not be the easiest read out in the ‘blogosphere’ but, trust me, Martin’s essay is profoundly important.
Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 1)
Although it might well be assumed that one does not have to define what is meant by ‘socialists’ or – in UK terms at least – ‘conservatives’, it is certainly necessary to define ‘ecologism’: For the purposes of answering the above question, therefore, the latter should be understood as including thinking, behaviour, and the pursuit of policies that are concerned with the environment; but which are not merely or predominantly anthropocentric (i.e. those concerned with human needs and interests).
In a way, the question is nonsensical because use of the term ‘ecologism’, as coined by Andrew Dobson, appears to pre-suppose that ecological politics is indeed a “new political ideology” (2000: 163). If so, to respond to the above question by saying, in effect, ‘just because both socialists and conservatives (can) lay claim to ecological politics does not change the fact that ecologism is a distinctive political ideology in its own right’, would clearly be tautological. Therefore, to provide a defensible answer “Yes” to the above question – as is the intent herein – it is necessary to explain how and why:
- both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to ecological politics;
- the majority of both socialists and conservatives do not do so; and
- the ‘ecologism’ that both find so challenging must therefore be considered as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.
The Socialist claim
One does not have to be an eco-socialist in order to believe or appreciate that there is a great deal of common ground shared by socialist and environmental politics. Socialism is a broad left-of-centre church that, it could be argued, includes everything from social democrats to communists. However, if socialism can be summed-up in the tripartite “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” motto of France (with its origins in the French Revolution of 1789-99), whose English translation would be “Freedom, equality, and brotherhood”, then it is not hard to see why socialists would find common cause with those whose goal is, in effect, to seek equal rights for the environment.
The “four pillars” of ecological politics are – as cited by Neil Carter – those devised by the German Green Party in 1983: ecological responsibility, grassroots democracy, social justice, and non-violence (Carter 2007: 48). Clearly, grassroots democracy and social justice are part of the socialist agenda. Therefore, despite the global dominance of free-market economics, Mary Mellor has asserted that far from being a challenge to socialism, “ecology greatly enhances the case for a redefined and refocused socialism” (Mellor 2006: 35).
The Conservative claim
Although by no means a monolithic entity, environmental politics is usually seen as being a predominantly left-of-centre entity (e.g. Carter 2007: 78); and it is often seen as being easier to define what it opposes than to define what it seeks. If so, ecological politics is essentially a reaction against anthropocentric thinking and the selfish pursuit of individual gain without regard for others or the environment. However, some philosophers such as Roger Scruton have therefore tried to distinguish between such selfish, libertarian, goals and those of traditional conservatives who, as their name suggests, seek the preservation of the status quo for the benefit of both the current generation and those that will follow (Scruton 2006: 7-8). Indeed, as early as 1993, in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit, Scruton was advocating the need for a radical re-think of right-wing politics:
Conservatives need to explore, with greens and others, as yet unthought-of dilemmas of life in societies which are no longer buoyed up by the prospect of incessant economic growth or by modernist pseudo-religions of endless world improvement” (Scruton 1993: 173).
However, in 1993, the idea that there might be limits to growth was hardly new; being based on Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons article (1968); the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Limits to Growth report for the Club of Rome (Meadows et al., 1972); E. F. Schumacher’s highly influential book Small is Beautiful (1973). For example:
The illusion of [mankind’s] unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production… based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most… A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital… (Schumacher 1974: 11).
Therefore, although the dilemmas were not “as yet unthought-of”, Scruton had, nevertheless, identified the source of the challenge that does indeed, it is here argued, begin to transform ecological politics into the distinctive political ideology that is ecologism.
Limits to Growth – a political and economic challenge
Although much disputed (by those that point to the fact that commodity prices have generally fallen over time, or that dire predictions have not yet come true), the Limits to Growth argument is based on the reality of the physical constraints of the planet on which we live.
For example: “Infinite growth is impossible in a closed system. With continued growth in production, the economic subsystem must eventually overwhelm the capacity of the global ecosystem to sustain it” (Daly & Farley 2004: 64). However, this is merely a comparatively recent re-statement of (former World Bank economist) Herman E Daly’s longstanding belief in the need for steady-state growth.
Furthermore, Daly and Farley cite Rudolf Clausius has having “coined the term ‘entropy’ for the Second Law [of Thermodynamics], derived from the Greek word for transformation, in recognition of the fact that entropy was a one-way street of irreversible change; a continual increase in the disorder of the universe” (Daly & Farley 2004: 65).
This is a fundamental tenet of modern physics; one that Daly has been repeating (like a “voice in the wilderness” proclaiming a message that nobody wants to hear) for a long time: It was over 35 years ago that he began an article entitled ‘The Economics of the Steady State’ with a quote from the famous scientist Sir Arthur Eddington, who once said, “But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation” (as cited in Daly 1974: 15).
With this in mind, perhaps, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” on 18 November 1992, from which the following excerpt is taken:
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair (UCS 1992).
Today, we are now well beyond these limits. According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), humanity is now using the resources of at least 1.5 Earth’s (GFN, 2010). The most recent update to the Limits to Growth report was produced in 2005 and, in a section entitled “why technology and markets alone can’t avoid overshoot”, the authors suggested that:
…the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is in the future to run into several of them at the same time… the [model] does not run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capacity, it runs out of the “ability to cope” [i.e. too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems]… Given enough time, we believe humanity possesses nearly limitless problem solving abilities. [However] exponential growth… shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail (Meadows et al 2005: 223).
Arguably, it could be said that the evidence for this is already becoming clear in the form of widespread social unrest around the globe, as a result of the increasing cost of – or difficulty in gaining access to – food, water, and energy.
For Robyn Eckersley, the reality of limits to growth and the magnitude of the ecological challenge is something from which we need to be emancipated; and it is also the raison d’être for environmentalism:
The environmental crisis and popular environmental concern have prompted a transformation of Western politics… Whatever the outcome of this realignment… the intractable nature of the environmental problems will ensure that environmental politics… is here to stay (Eckersley 1992: 7).
The latest UN projections for global population (published on 3 May 2011) suggests that stabilisation at about 10 billion by 2100AD is still most likely; but use probabilistic methods to account for the uncertainty in future fertility trends. Therefore, depending on changes in fertility rates in differing countries, the press release also indicates that global population could also peak at 8 billion in 2050 and then fall to 6 billion in 2100, or reach 10 billion by 2050 and continue to rise to 15 billion by 2100 (UN 2011: 1).
The key question the UN press release does not address is, “How many humans is too many?” Furthermore, although it depends on average rates of resource consumption, it is quite probable that there are already too many. However, this raises philosophical and/or ethical issues that form the other main aspect of ecological politics, which ensures that ecologism is a distinct political ideology in its own right.
From Environmentalism to Ecologism – the philosophical and ethical challenge
What’s in a name?
In the introduction above, ‘ecological politics’ was, in effect, defined as being environmentally-friendly and ecocentric (i.e. ecologism). For the avoidance of any doubt, therefore, it should be noted that this implies that it is possible to be concerned for the environment but be anthropocentric (i.e. environmentalism). It is precisely because the two things are not the same that Dobson has asserted that “…environmentalism and liberalism are compatible, but ecologism and liberalism are not” (2000: 165). The reason for this is examined below. (Ed. As in tomorrow!)
Carter, N. (2007), The Politics of the Environment (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Daly, H. & Farley, J. (2004), Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington DC: Island Press.
Daly, H. (1974), ‘The Economics of the Steady State’, The American Economic Review, 64(2), pp.15-21.
Dobson, A. (2000), Green Political Thought, (3rd edition). London, Routledge.
Eckersley, R. (1992), Environmentalism and Political Theory. London: UCL Press.
GFN (2010), Living Planet Report 2010: Biodiversity, Biocapacity, and Development. [Online] GFN. Available at http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/2010_living_planet_report/> [accessed 18 April 201].
Hardin, G. (1968), ‘The tragedy of the commons’, Science, 168, pp.1243-8.
Meadows D, et al (1972), The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
Meadows D, et al (2005), Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update, London: Earthscan.
Mellor, M. (2006), ‘Socialism’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.35-50.
Schumacher, E.F. (1974), Small is Beautiful: A study of Economics as if Small People Mattered, London: Abacus.
Scruton, R. (1993), Beyond the New Right. London: Routledge.
Scruton, R. (2006), ‘Conservatism’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.7-19.
UCS, (1992), World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. [Online] UCS. Available at <http://www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html> [accessed 14/04/2011].
UN (2011), World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision – Press Release. [Online] UN. Available at <http://esa.un.org/wpp/index.htm> [accessed 11/05/2011].
Continuing the examination of two views on AGW.
Readers will recall that this post opened yesterday. That Part One closed with Martin writing this:
Much of what Oakwood writes is an attack upon the Hockey Stick graph of palaeoclimatic temperature reconstructions first produced in 1998 (MBH98).
However, the fatal flaws in Oakwood’s scepticism regarding MBH98 are as follows:
- MBH98 has been validated by at least 14 other reconstructions (as cited in IPCC AR4 in 2007) using a wide variety of other proxy data(see Wikipedia for relevant links)
- Hockey Stick-shaped graphs turn up in reconstructions of CO2 levels and temperature – now going back over thousands of years – because they are not ‘statistical noise’ -
- Arguments about splicing instrumental data onto proxy data only serve to challenge the extent to which the speed of late 20th Century warming is unprecedented.
- Such arguments do not invalidate the conclusion that it is now almost certainly warmer than it has been at any time since the last Ice Age (i.e. a period of relative climate and sea level stability that has made agriculture, urbanisation and civilisation possible).
However, this is no reason for us to be complacent because, as Oakwood must know, the 50 to 100 metres of sea level rise that will be caused by the melting of terrestrial ice sheets will necessitate the mass migration of millions of people. This makes his concerns about current poverty and starvation (i.e. the main reason he eventually cites for not believing action is yet necessary) look very trivial indeed.
So continuing ….
The argument that the ‘divergence problem’ does not bring into question proxy studies is just one example of supposed ‘settled’ evidence in the case for AGW. There are others which collectively bring down the case to one of opinion.
After a lengthy attempt to assert that the “hide the decline” controversy was or is significant, Oakwood eventually moves onto attack the significance of MBH98; and to claim that ACD is no more than a matter of opinion. It is only possible to reach this conclusion by dismissing the majority of climate scientists as being stupid, sloppy, or sinister.
Here are a few others:
- Mann et al’s original hockey stick (1998) (as well as a number of other studies) shows an unprecedented temperature rise in the first half of the 20th century, a temperature change that most climate scientists believe can be explained by natural phenomena, such as the Sun (while failing to reproduce the man-made rise in the 2nd half of the century, due to the divergence problem explained above).
However, Climategate and, more especially Climategate 2.0 merely served to demonstrate how deliberate and organised are the attempts to discredit climate science and derail international attempts to tackle the ACD problem.
Thus, we are expected to believe there was both an unprecedented NATURAL temperature rise and unprecedented MAN-MADE rise in the same century. Not impossible, but statistically highly unlikely.
Oakwood suggests that assertions about early 20th Century warming are statistically highly unlikely (i.e. that climate scientists are stupid to make them). However, the real statistically highly unlikely suggestion is that 30 years of monthly average temperatures exceeding their long-term average values could be a consequence of natural variation. Unlike early 20th Century warming, this is definitely not capable of being explained by natural causes (such as cyclical solar activity or random volcanic eruptions).
- The ‘record’ (in just 35 years) of minimum summer ice in the Arctic is repeatedly presented as evidence for impending doom. However, the record MAXIMUM ice cover in the ANTarctic, at the same time, is dismissed with ‘we have another explanation for that’.
Trying to shift the focus away from the accelerating rate of ice loss in the Arctic is very lame indeed. The Arctic is surrounded by land and (now) increasing amounts of warming water. The reasons for the ice loss are well understood and it is happening faster than was predicted even 5 years ago. The Antarctic is surrounded by a huge expanse of cold ocean and is also being kept cold by the human caused hole in the ozone layer. The reasons why its ice is not melting so fast are therefore also well understood. In addition, it should be noted that the Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest warming place in the southern hemisphere.
- Whatever the weather, blame global warming. A few years ago, milder winters and earlier springs in the UK were hailed as evidence of AGW. But now we get lots of snow, and appalling spring, cooler summers, etc, and guess what, its due to global warming.
- Hot/dry weather and floods around the world are routinely highlighted as ‘more evidence’ whereas as cold weather extremes and records are dismissed as ‘just natural variation’ – again, and again and again.
Oakwood‘s remarks about extreme events are also very misleading. The number of records being broken for hot and/or dry events is many times greater than the number of records being broken for cold and/or wet events. As Hansen et al explained last year, in their review of historical data for the last five decades, natural variability does not explain the steady shift in average temperatures and the broadening of the range of conditions experienced in any one place.
I really can’t believe that Oakwood is so parochial in his outlook that he dares to mention the cold weather the UK has experienced recently. We may have had the coldest Spring for 50 years, but, that does not change the fact that global average temperatures are still the highest ever in recorded history. Furthermore, it does not change the fact that the analysis of Hansen et al (2012) continues to be validated by events such as those in Central Europe at the moment – where 1 in 100 year flood events have recurred after only 10 years. Not impossible – just statistically highly unlikely.
Those who highlight the lack of rising temperature for the past 10-15 years are routinely dismissed as deniers and liars. We’re told, ‘but the last decade is the warmest in a 100 years’. No-one disputes that. Given the world warmed by 0.8 degC in 100 years, that’s perfectly reasonable, and is not a defence against the fact that warming has at least paused.
- We’re told: ‘but the heat is going into the ice caps and the deep oceans and atmospheric heat is just a small percentage of the total’, How convenient. In the 1980s and 1990s, atmospheric temperature was enough for ‘proof’ of serious AGW. We didn’t hear anything about ocean heat then. No-one suggested that perhaps the warming was due to a release of previously ‘hidden’ ocean heat. Or that we shouldn’t read too much into a small atmospheric temperature rise.
- We see again and again, whatever happens, whatever the data show, the theory is revised to ‘show’ that nothing has changed. This is simply not plausible science.
- We’re told, the physics of CO2-induced global warming is just that, ‘physics’, and we can’t change that however much we dispute it. No-one disputes the physics. But, the atmosphere (believe it or not) is very complicated. We have the physics that says aerosols reflect the Sun’s heat, that clouds may increase and also reflect more heat. We now hear the relationships with the oceans is very important (which we didn’t hear before). Thus the debate is not about the reality of the CO2-global warming physics. Its about the sensitivity of the system and which physical phenomena will dominate.
Given the massive inertia in the climate system (which guarantees decades of future temperature rise even if CO2 emissions were completely halted today), there is no reason for us to be complacent about the fact that we have only seen a rise of 0.8C since the Industrial Revolution. The scientific consensus remains that equilibrium climate sensitivity is somewhere in excess of 2C and that such a rise in temperature will not be good for the vast majority of life on Earth. On the evidence of the ACD that we are already experiencing, I think there is very good reason to agree with that conclusion.
Again, I am astonished that Oakwood even dares to mention the ‘global warming has stopped’ canard. This misconception has been debunked so many times; there are even debates about who has written written the best rebuttals. Here is a summary: Whilst surface warming may have paused, the warming of the ocean (which is driving the increased frequency of extreme weather events of all kinds) has continued. Given that oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface, is this something really worth arguing about?
Climate scientists are therefore not changing their story to accommodate inconvenient new data. Only climate change sceptics do that. The only implausible science on offer today is that which seeks to explain all the data without acknowledging that CO2 is the main driver. Sure, CO2 does not explain everything but, you cannot explain all the data unless the primacy of CO2 is accepted.
Some will respond: ‘but all of these arguments have been debunked many times’. All they really mean is another opinion or speculation has been given by an AGW believer. Nothing wrong with these, but don’t claim they represent settled science.
However, I should like to re-iterate the importance of the recently-published results of investigations at a lake in the NE of Arctic Russia. What this new 3.6 million year continuous palaeoclimatic record tells us is that current warmth is not unprecedented (if you go back to an era in which humans did not exist – 400 or 1,100 thousand years ago). This demonstrates that good scientists do not change their story when they get unexpected results.
I have no problem with scientists believing in AGW and believing it a serious threat. But when so much of their case is based on weak arguments, I do have a problem with claiming the case is ‘settled’ and that anyone who questions or challenges it is a liar, denier, conspiracy theorist, etc.
Both sides of the debate have their extremists and nutters. My interest is in the rational middle ground. To suggest an ‘eccentric’ like Christopher Monckton is ‘typical’ of all AGW-sceptics is just like claiming all Conservative voters are fascist and all Labour voters communist. It has no place in informed and educated debate.
Oakwood claims arguments for concern over ACD are “weak” but, in making this assertion, the only information he has referred to is very much out-of-date (such as IPCC AR4 in 2007). Oakwood moves on to discuss unhelpful labels such as “liar” and “denier”.
I do not think I have ever suggested that anyone who professes to be ‘sceptical’ is lying. However, I do think that, just like the tobacco executives whose ‘modus operandi’ they are copying, the executives of fossil fuel companies know more than they care to admit. There is also a great deal of evidence to indicate that climate change ‘scepticism’ is in fact being driven by unscientific economists aided in their anti-science cause by a handful of friendly scientists who tell them what they want to hear. This is not scepticism, it is ideological prejudice.
The term “denier” was introduced with the intention of associating AGW-sceptics with Holocaust Deniers. That is to say, AGW-sceptics are putting millions of lives at risk through their lies and ignorance. Given the weakness of the AGW case, the use of the labels ‘denier’, ‘deny’, denial’ seems to represent an insult to every victim of the Holocaust.
I agree that use of the term ‘denier’ is generally not helpful, but, given all the evidence that conflicts with their position, I do think that those who remain ‘sceptical’ about the primary cause of ongoing climate change are being irrational. If your beliefs require you to dismiss any and all evidence that conflicts with them, that is not scepticism, it is wilful blindness; it is what Young Earth Creationists have to do in order to protect themselves from wicked and ungodly scientific ideas.
Therefore, even if Oakwood does not do it, many who are ‘sceptical’ do rely upon conspiracy theories to dismiss all the evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. This includes dismissing most scientists as stupid, sloppy or sinister.
And why is it not time to act now? I am an environmentalist and see many environmental and social problems that need addressing. In particular, the need for ‘sustainability’ in all we do. There remain millions dying each year from such things as malnutrition, lack of safe drinking water, malaria, etc.
These are hard facts with zero room for any doubt. Given the weakness in the AGW-case, it is not a priority. I see some benefits in acting. For example, in many cases a reduction in CO2 emissions leads to much improved energy-efficiency, and less pollution. However, the case is not made for diverting money and effort from the more immediate priorities, covering pristine countryside in wind farms to satisfy urban energy demands, or using more biofuels at the expense of more hunger.
Having wasted so much time trying to falsify MBH98, Oakwood finally gets round to the important bit of my question: Why does he think the time to act has not yet arrived?
Failing to address the point that a wide range of industrial, political and economic organisations now agree that it is time to act, Oakwood opts instead to simply re-state his belief that attempts to mitigate the ACD problem will do more harm than good. All the evidence I have seen suggests that he is mistaken. To-date, I think the most compelling evidence is that contained in the IIED’s 2009 report , ‘Assessing the costs of Adaptation to Climate Change: A review of UNFCCC and other recent estimates’ (PDF available here), which begins with the following very sobering executive summary:
Several recent studies have reported adaptation costs for climate change, including for developing countries. They have similar-sized estimates and have been influential in discussions on this issue.
However, the studies have a number of deficiencies which need to be transparent and addressed more systematically in the future. A re-assessment of the UNFCCC estimates for 2030 suggests that they are likely to be substantial under-estimates. The purpose of this report is to illustrate the uncertainties in these estimates rather than to develop new cost estimates, which is a much larger task than can be accomplished here.
The main reasons for under-estimation are that: (i) some sectors have not been included in an assessment of cost (e.g. ecosystems, energy, manufacturing, retailing, and tourism); (ii) some of those sectors which have been included have been only partially covered; and (iii) the additional costs of adaptation have sometimes been calculated as ‘climate mark-ups’ against low levels of assumed investment. In some parts of the world low levels of investment have led to a current adaptation deficit, and this deficit will need to be made good by full funding of development, without which the funding for adaptation will be insufficient. Residual damages also need to be evaluated and reported because not all damages can be avoided due to technical and economic constraints.
There is an urgent need for more detailed assessments of these costs, including case studies of costs of adaptation in specific places and sectors.
Thus, belief in AGW is not a simple moral argument which some would want to believe – good vs evil, or capitalist vs environmentalist, etc.
Oakwood says he does not think this is a good-vs- evil or a capitalist-vs- environmentalist issue. I would agree. However:
- I am not the one who is allowing my political beliefs to prejudice my approach to the science;
- I am not the one who is accusing most scientists of being stupid, sloppy or sinister in order to dismiss what they are telling me; and
- I am not the one changing my story or my preferred argument whenever something I have formerly relied upon is shown to be unreasonable.
Although it is a shame that he is part of a minority within the UK’s current Coalition Government, I will conclude by quoting from a recent speech by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Edward Davey:
Of course there will always be uncertainties within climate science and the need for research to continue… We make progress by building on what we know, and questioning what we don’t. But some sections of the press are giving an uncritical campaigning platform to individuals and lobby groups who reject outright the fact that climate change is a result of human activity. Some who even deny the reality of climate change itself… By selectively misreading the evidence, they seek to suggest that climate change has stopped so we can all relax and burn all the dirty fuel we want without a care…
Oakwood says he opposes action to curb ACD because there are bigger problems we need to solve. If this were likely to be true, it would be an admirable position to take. Unfortunately, the bulk of the evidence suggests that ACD is a problem unlike any other and, unless we make serious attempts to minimise it, its consequences will dwarf all other problems we face.
This is because basic physics tells us that allowing the Earth to warm up will cause terrestrial ice to melt and sea levels to rise. It was predicted and it is now happening. The time to act to stop it is now. Millions of people cannot and will not adapt to having their land and their cities submerged under water.
Well I think that the agreement of Oakwood and Martin to set out their positions is fabulous and very worthy.
If readers will forgive me, tomorrow I will offer my own personal reflections on what has been offered by Martin and Oakwood today and yesterday.
Learning from Dogs is not a blogsite about climate change!
Why, you may ask, do I start today’s post with that sub-heading? Because, I am conscious that many of my posts do touch on this subject. For example, just two days ago there was Breaking news. Then there was the piece about the climate implications for Phoenix, Arizona. Followed the next day by the changes in the flow of the jet stream across the North Atlantic with all the weather implications for North-West Europe.
Indeed, as the heading to today’s post makes clear, this is also about the changes going on to our planet.
Learning from Dogs is about a different way of living and behaving. A campaign, if one wants to call it that, to show that the way that modern man is living is corrupt. Not with a big ‘C’ but still in the sense of living a dishonest life. Learning from Dogs attempts to show that our wonderful dogs, a source of so much love and pleasure for so many millions, offer us an example of a life in and of this planet.
If there was ever a time in the history of man when we needed being reminded of our frailty and vulnerability, it is now. As the following so starkly illustrates.
A new study of ocean warming has just been published in Geophysical Research Letters by Balmaseda, Trenberth, and Källén (2013). There are several important conclusions which can be drawn from this paper.
- Completely contrary to the popular contrarian myth, global warming has accelerated, with more overall global warming in the past 15 years than the prior 15 years. This is because about 90% of overall global warming goes into heating the oceans, and the oceans have been warming dramatically.
But what really jumped off the page was this graph. It is truly scary!
I’m not going to republish the whole piece, although Peter Sinclair kindly gave permission, because I want to move on. But please do go to that article here and take in the conclusions; for all our sakes. Conclusions such as:
Their results in this respect are very similar to the main conclusion of Nuccitelli et al. (2012), in which we noted that recently, warming of the oceans below 700 meters accounts for about 30% of overall ocean and global warming. Likewise, this new study concludes,
“In the last decade, about 30% of the warming has occurred below 700 m, contributing significantly to an acceleration of the warming trend.”
and such as:
Most importantly, everybody (climate scientists and contrarians included) must learn to stop equating surface and shallow ocean warming with global warming. In fact, as Roger Pielke Sr. has pointed out, “ocean heat content change [is] the most appropriate metric to diagnose global warming.” While he has focused on the shallow oceans, actually we need to measure global warming by accounting for all changes in global heat content, including the deeper oceans. Otherwise we can easily fool ourselves into underestimating the danger of the climate problem we face.
What I want to move on to is a recent item highlighted on Grist. This was an essay by David Roberts under the heading of Two reasons climate change is not like other environmental problems. David opens by saying:
If you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious: Most people don’t understand climate change very well. This includes a large proportion of the nation’s politicians, journalists, and pundits — even the pundits who write about it. (I’m looking at you, Joe Nocera.)
One reason for the widespread misunderstanding is that climate change has been culturally coded as an “environmental problem.” This has been, in all sorts of ways, a disaster. Lots of pundits, especially brain-dead “centrist” pundits, have simply transferred their framing and conception of environmental problems to climate. They approach it as just another air pollution problem.
David writes that firstly carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants, for example like air particulants. Then later goes on to say:
The second difference is that climate change is irreversible.
As Joe Romm notes in a recent post, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera slipped up in his latest column and referred to technology that would “help reverse climate change.” I don’t know whether that reflects Nocera’s ignorance or just a slip of the pen, but I do think it captures the way many people subconsciously think about climate change. If we heat the planet up too much, we’ll just fix it! We’ll turn the temperature back down. We’ll get around to it once the market has delivered economically ideal solutions.
But as this 2009 paper in Nature (among many others) makes clear, it doesn’t work that way:
This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. [my emphasis]
The article is really best read in full. Because it’s a reminder that the way we presently behave is, in so many ways, a scary legacy for future generations.
So, back to dogs!
When dogs were living as wild dogs, thousands of years ago, a typical pack size was between 40 to 50 animals. The ‘head’ dog was the alpha dog, always a female. Next in status was the beta dog, always a dominant male. The last one in terms of status was the omega dog, or clown dog. Those genetic traits still survive in the domestic dog.
The alpha dog had two important roles as ‘leader of the pack’. She had first pick of the male dogs, for obvious reasons. (Only much later in life do we human men come to understand that it’s always the woman who chooses!)
The second role was that she was the one who decided that their territory was unsustainable for her pack and signalled the need to find a new territory.
For man, there’s no other territory to move to. So we will just have to clean up the only one we have!
A review of the recently published book by Martin Lack.
In many ways it would be terribly easy to find fault with this book. If it had been written as a book, been through the edits that a new book requires, then published, those faults would be a significant criticism.
But it was not written as a book! It was originally written as an academic text. As Martin explains in the Preface:
This book is based on research originally undertaken – and a dissertation written – as part of my MA in Environmental Politics from Keele University in Staffordshire (in 2010-2011).
Then in the following paragraph goes on to say:
Academics generally disapprove of the publication of academic research via non-academic, non-peer-reviewed routes. However, I am trying to reach more than just an academic audience.
Three sentences later:
However, this book retains many of the features of a piece of academic research, …. (All quotes from page viii of the preface)
To a person unaccustomed to reading academic research, as is this reader, the structural and presentational differences between a ‘normal’ non-fiction book and a dissertation are significant. That needs to be borne in mind as you turn to page one.
OK, now that I have got that off my chest, on to the substance of the review.
Turning to the outside back cover, one sees Martin clearly explaining that the book is not about climate science, rather an analysis of why some people dispute “the reality, reliability and reasonableness of this science.”
That alone justifies the work that Martin put into his research and dissertation and his subsequent decision to adapt his findings into a book.
The pace and scale of the changes that are being visited on Planet Earth is truly frightening. The number of feedback loops that we are locked into now don’t even bear thinking about. Just take the continuing and accelerating loss of the Arctic ice-cap and extrapolate that for a couple of decades (touched on in my recent post More new tomorrows and see footnote.)
We are not talking of subtle changes over many generations. We are talking about irreversible and irrevocably massive changes to our environment within the lifetimes of just about every living person on this planet. (I’m 70 next year and while I have no idea how many years I have left, I rate it as at least 50:50 that before I take my last breath, the coming destruction of biosphere will be blindingly obvious to me, Jean and 99.9% of the world’s population.)
Makes me want to shout out ……
There is not much time left to leave a sustainable world for future generations. Come on politicians and power-brokers; start acting as though you truly understand the urgency of the situation!
Ah, that feels much better!
Back to the book!
Martin examines 5 categories that display denial behaviours, to a greater or lesser extent. These categories are: Organisations; Scientists, Economists, Journalists and Politicians. Oh, and a 6th catch-all category: Others.
Each section dealing with a category is structured in the same way: Preliminary Research; Key Findings and Summary. Tables are used extensively to allow easy review of the findings.
Again, what needs to be hammered out is that this format is very unlike a typical non-fiction book. Because it’s fundamentally an academic dissertation! But, so what!
What is important is for the widest possible audience to understand the breadth and extent of the denial going on. Denial that is, literally, playing with the future of humanity on this planet; the only home we have.
Let me reinforce that last sentence by picking up on what Martin writes on his closing page (p.76):
Furthermore, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that this scepticism is being fuelled by those with a vested interest in the continuance of “business as usual” by seeking to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of ACD.
Martin Lack’s book may be unconventional in many ways. But as a tool to show how those who deny the science of climate change deny the right of future millions to live in a sustainable manner, it is most powerful. It is a valuable reference book that should be in every library and every secondary school across the globe!
The Denial of Science is published by AuthorHouse 02/23/2013
- To add weight to the points made in this review, do look in on tomorrow’s post.
- I have no commercial links to Martin Lack; indeed, I purchased the copy of the book that I used for this review.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl.
Like many bloggers I enjoy using a quotation to set the theme for a post. Found this on the web; it seemed appropriate.
Over the next two days, I want to range across a number of ideas that, together, point to changes that are underway in every conceivable manner for the vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet.
My musings were prompted by a recent essay on Tom Dispatch. Regulars will know that Tom Engelhardt generously granted me permission to republish essays that appear on his very widely-read blogsite. This particular essay is about Phoenix in Arizona.
But first indulge me as I recount something rather personal, possibly silly but also mysteriously beautiful.
Many will know that Jean and I moved from San Carlos in Mexico to Payson, Arizona early on in 2010. (My long comment to yesterday’s post about poor Lupe explains the background.) Payson is 80 miles North-East of Phoenix and despite being up at 5,000 feet is very much in the same broad weather systems as Phoenix.
With our 14 dogs and 7 cats we quickly settled down and were made to feel very welcome by one and all. Jean and I were married in Payson in November of 2010. We were happy and contented.
One night in June last year, I had this vivid dream about going to the bathroom and finding that no water came from the tap. Where we were living was out of town and our water supplies came from our own well (borehole in English speak!). While the water level in the well was down by about 50 feet there was no question of the well failing; it was drilled to over 180 feet and flow tests were positive.
When I awoke the dream was still very much in the forefront of my mind. I talked about it over breakfast with Jeannie. By chance, we had a guest staying with us and when she heard the tale she said, “If you’re worried about water, you should go to Oregon.“
Again, by chance, a couple of weeks later we had someone offer to house-sit. With our menagerie of animals that was no casual offer!
We accepted, came up to Oregon and found this most beautiful home in Merlin, Southern Oregon complete with 13 acres and Bummer Creek running across the width of the property, a creek that flows for most of the year.
We quickly did the deal, sold the house in Payson and moved in on October 25th 2012, less than 5 months ago.
Keep all of that in mind as you read this TomDispatch essay.
Tomgram: William deBuys, Exodus from Phoenix
Posted by William deBuys at 7:58am, March 14, 2013.
We’re not the first people on the planet ever to experience climate stress. In the overheating, increasingly parched American Southwest, which has been experiencing rising temperatures, spreading drought conditions, and record wildfires, there is an ancient history of staggering mega-droughts, events far worse than the infamous “dust bowl” of the 1930s, the seven-year drought that devastated America’s prairie lands. That may have been “the worst prolonged environmental disaster recorded for the country,” but historically speaking it was a “mere dry spell” compared to some past mega-droughts that lasted “centuries to millennia.”
Such events even happened in human history, including an almost century-long southwestern dry spell in the second century AD and a drought that was at least decades long in the twelfth century. These were all events driven by natural climate variation. Climate change adds a human factor to the equation in a region already naturally dry and short on water. It ups the odds of bad events happening. In the coming century, how habitable will parts of the bustling desert Southwest turn out to be? Already, in the face of heat and drought, small numbers of people from small towns in the region are leaving. And this, too, has happened before. There are sobering previous examples of what it means when extreme climate stress hits this area.
Chaco Canyon was abandoned by its native population during that twelfth-century drought, and 150 years later, the Hohokam native culture of what is now central Arizona, whose waterworks in the dry lands of that area were major and impressive, also abandoned its lands, possibly due to drought, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys recounts in his recent book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. “At some point,” he writes, “Hohokam society passed a threshold: the number of able-bodied workers it could muster was no longer sufficient to meet the challenge of rebuilding dams when they washed out and cleaning canals as they inevitably silted up. Eventually the hydraulic system collapsed, and the society that depended on it could no longer exist. The survivors turned their backs on their cities and scattered into the vastness of the land, doing what they could to survive.”
As you read deBuys’s latest post, it’s worth remembering that even the greatest hydraulic engineers have their limits when the water dries up. When the Anglo farmers of the Phoenix Basin first started using the local rivers, they found themselves “reopening the canals the Hohokam had left behind.” Who knows what monumental works we, too, might someday abandon? Phoenix, anyone? Tom
Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs
We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries
By William deBuys
If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.
Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.
In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?
And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time — New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy — may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures — grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.
Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so — the aptly named Valley of the Sun.
In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.
If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.
In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104°F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100°F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110°F: there were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.
In Flight From the Sun
It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.
Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90°F. Today such temperatures are a commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100°F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures by as much as 10°F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast.
Predictably, the poor suffer most from the heat. They live in the hottest neighborhoods with the least greenery to mitigate the heat-island effect, and they possess the least resources for combatting high temperatures. For most Phoenicians, however, none of this is more than an inconvenience as long as the AC keeps humming and the utility bill gets paid. When the heat intensifies, they learn to scurry from building to car and into the next building, essentially holding their breaths. In those cars, the second thing they touch after the ignition is the fan control for the AC. The steering wheel comes later.
In the blazing brilliance of July and August, you venture out undefended to walk or run only in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The idea for residents of the Valley of the Sun is to learn to dodge the heat, not challenge it.
Heat, however, is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient as the mercury soars. And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems. But then along comes the haboob.
A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but — although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust — the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights — and AC — to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief. So far.
Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.
Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobs of a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).
Water, Water, Everywhere (But Not for Long)
In dystopic portraits of Phoenix’s unsustainable future, water — or rather the lack of it — is usually painted as the agent of collapse. Indeed, the metropolitan area, a jumble of jurisdictions that includes Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Sun City, Chandler, and 15 other municipalities, long ago made full use of such local rivers as the Salt, Verde, and Gila. Next, people sank wells and mined enough groundwater to lower the water table by 400 feet.
Sometimes the land sank, too. Near some wells it subsided by 10 feet or more. All along, everyone knew that the furious extraction of groundwater couldn’t last, so they fixed their hopes on a new bonanza called the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a river-sized, open-air canal supported by an elaborate array of pumps, siphons, and tunnels that would bring Colorado River water across the breadth of Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson.
The CAP came on line in the early 1990s and today is the engine of Arizona’s growth. Unfortunately, in order to win authorization and funding to build it, state officials had to make a bargain with the devil, which in this case turned out to be California. Arizona’s delegation in the House of Representatives was tiny, California’s was huge, and its representatives jealously protected their longstanding stranglehold on the Colorado River. The concession California forced on Arizona was simple: it had to agree that its CAP water rights would take second place to California’s claims.
This means one thing: once the inevitable day comes when there isn’t enough water to go around, the CAP will absorb the shortage down to the last drop before California even begins to turn off its faucets.
A raw deal for Arizona? You bet, but not exactly the end of the line. Arizona has other “more senior” rights to the Colorado, and when the CAP begins to run dry, you may be sure that the masters of the CAP will pay whatever is necessary to lease those older rights and keep the 330-mile canal flowing. Among their targets will be water rights belonging to Indian tribes at the western edge of the state along the lower reaches of the river. The cost of buying tribal water will drive the rates consumers pay for water in Phoenix sky-high, but they’ll pay it because they’ll have to.
Longer term, the Colorado River poses issues that no amount of tribal water can resolve. Beset by climate change, overuse, and drought, the river and its reservoirs, according to various researchers, may decline to the point that water fails to pass Hoover Dam. In that case, the CAP would dry up, but so would the Colorado Aqueduct which serves greater Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the All-American Canal, on which the factory farms of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys depend. Irrigators and municipalities downstream in Mexico would also go dry. If nothing changes in the current order of things, it is expected that the possibility of such a debacle could loom in little more than a decade.
The preferred solution to this crisis among the water mavens of the lower Colorado is augmentation, which means importing more water into the Colorado system to boost native supplies. A recently discussed grandiose scheme to bail out the Colorado’s users with a pipeline from the Mississippi River failed to pass the straight-face test and was shot down by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Meanwhile, the obvious expedient of cutting back on water consumption finds little support in thirsty California, which will watch the CAP go dry before it gets serious about meaningful system-wide conservation.
Phoenicians who want to escape water worries, heat waves, and haboobs have traditionally sought refuge in the cool green forests of Arizona’s uplands, or at least they did until recently. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire consumed 469,000 acres of pine and mixed conifer on the Mogollon Rim, not far from Phoenix. It was an ecological holocaust that no one expected to see surpassed. Only nine years later, in 2011, the Wallow fire picked up the torch, so to speak, and burned across the Rim all the way to the New Mexico border and beyond, topping out at 538,000 charred acres.
Now, nobody thinks such fires are one-off flukes. Diligent modeling of forest response to rising temperatures and increased moisture stress suggests, in fact, that these two fires were harbingers of worse to come. By mid-century, according to a paper by an A-team of Southwestern forest ecologists, the “normal” stress on trees will equal that of the worst megadroughts in the region’s distant paleo-history, when most of the trees in the area simply died.
Compared to Phoenix’s other heat and water woes, the demise of Arizona’s forests may seem like a side issue, whose effects would be noticeable mainly in the siltation of reservoirs and the destabilization of the watersheds on which the city depends. But it could well prove a regional disaster. Consider, then, heat, drought, windstorms, and fire as the four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse. As it happens, though, this potential apocalypse has a fifth horseman as well.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the way a sudden catastrophe — an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado — can dissolve social divisions and cause a community to cohere, bringing out the best in its citizenry. Drought and heat waves are different. You don’t know that they have taken hold until you are already in them, and you never know when they will end. The unpleasantness eats away at you. It corrodes your state of mind. You have lots of time to meditate on the deficiencies of your neighbors, which loom larger the longer the crisis goes on.
Drought divides people, and Phoenix is already a divided place — notoriously so, thanks to the brutal antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross offers a dismal portrait of contemporary Phoenix — of a city threatened by its particular brand of local politics and economic domination, shaped by more than the usual quotient of prejudice, greed, class insularity, and devotion to raw power.
It is a truism that communities that do not pull together fail to surmount their challenges. Phoenix’s are as daunting as any faced by an American city in the new age of climate change, but its winner-take-all politics (out of which has come Arizona’s flagrantly repressive anti-immigration law), combined with the fragmentation of the metro-area into nearly two dozen competing jurisdictions, essentially guarantee that, when the worst of times hit, common action and shared sacrifice will remain as insubstantial as a desert mirage. When one day the U-Haul vans all point away from town and the people of the Valley of the Sun clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too.
One day, some of them may look back and think of the real estate crash of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed with fond nostalgia. The city’s economy was in the tank, growth had stalled, and for a while business-as-usual had nothing usual about it. But there was a rare kind of potential. That recession might have been the last best chance for Phoenix and other go-go Sunbelt cities to reassess their lamentably unsustainable habits and re-organize themselves, politically and economically, to get ready for life on the front burner of climate change. Land use, transportation, water policies, building codes, growth management — you name it — might all have experienced a healthy overhaul. It was a chance no one took. Instead, one or several decades from now, people will bet on a surer thing: they’ll take the road out of town.
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 William deBuys
Just to reinforce the magic of my dream and how Jean and I feel so blessed by our life changes, the photo below was taken on our property the day we arrived in Merlin.
Musings continued tomorrow. Hope you stayed with it so far.