Tag: Global warming

The changing North Atlantic.

The vastness of the seas and the immensity of their influence over all of us.

This is an introduction, a rather long one I’m warning, to a republication of a recent post by Patrice Ayme. An introduction that offers a deeply personal memory of the Atlantic ocean.

Many years ago, I spent 5 years living on a boat; a wonderful heavy-displacement ocean-going yacht of a type known as a Tradewind 33.

Tradewind 33 - Songbird of Kent.
My home for five years – Tradewind 33:  Songbird of Kent.

There is a place in my mind to which I can so easily travel; a memory of a dark night out in the Atlantic ocean one time in the Autumn of 1969. But first let me set the scene from almost fifty years ago.

The call of the open ocean

Those first few hours were utterly absorbing as I went through the whole business of clearing the yacht harbour at Gibraltar and heading out to the South-West hugging this unfamiliar coastline of Southern Spain. It was tempting to move out to deeper waters but the almost constant flow of large ships through the Straights of Gibraltar soon quashed that idea. Thankfully, the coastal winds were favourable for me and my single-masted sailing yacht.

After such a long time sailing in the relatively confined waters of the Mediterranean, it was difficult for me to imagine that in a few hours time the southern-most point of Spain would pass me by and the vastness of the Atlantic ocean would be my home for the next few weeks.

Soon the city of Tarifa was past my starboard beam and the Spanish coastline was rapidly disappearing away to the North-West. The horizon ahead of me was already approaching 180 degrees of raw, open ocean.  There was just a flicker of a thought that whispered across my mind: “Oh Paul, what have you gone and done” as slowly but persistently the coastlines of Spain to the North and of Africa to the South became more and more distant and fuzzy.  It was at 15:30 that I made an entry in my yacht’s log: “No land in sight in any direction!

Now was the time to make sure that my bunk was made up, flashlights to hand, and my alarm clock ready and set. Alarm clock? Set to go off every twenty minutes during the night! For this was the only way to protect me and my yacht from being hit by one of those gigantic container ships that seemed to be everywhere. It took at least twenty minutes from the moment a ship’s steaming lights appeared above the horizon to crossing one’s path!

It was in the early hours of my first morning alone at sea, when once again the alarm clock had woken me and I was looking around an ocean without a single ship’s light to be seen that more of Les’ words (see footnote) came to me. I remembered asking Les: “What’s the ­appeal of sailing?” Les replied without a moment’s hesitation: “It’s the solitude. When you’re out at sea on your own, there’s no government or bankers to worry about. You’re not ­responsible to anyone but yourself.

Yes, I could sense the solitude that was all around me but it was an intellectual sense not an emotional one. That would come later. Inside, I was still afraid of what I had let myself in for.

Remarkably quickly however, the pattern of solo life aboard a thirty-three-foot yacht became my world. Frankly, it staggered me as to how busy were my days. Feeding myself, navigating, trying to forecast the winds, staying in touch with other yachties via the short-wave radio, keeping the boat tidy and a zillion other tasks meant the first few days and nights just slipped by.

But it was a sight on my fourth night at sea that created the memory that would turn out to remain with me for all my life. The memory that I can go to anytime in my mind.

That fourth night I was already well into the routine of waking to the alarm clock, clipping on my harness as I climbed up the three steps that took me from my cabin into the cockpit, scanning the horizon with my eyes, checking that the self-steering had the boat at the correct angle to the wind and then, if no ships’ lights had been seen, slipping back down into my bunk and sleeping for another twenty minutes. Remarkably, I was not suffering from any long-term tiredness during the day.

It was a little after 3am that fourth night when the alarm clock had me back up in the cockpit once again. Then it struck me.

Songbird was sailing beautifully. There was a steady wind of around ten knots from the south-east, almost a swell-free ocean, and everything set perfectly.  Not a sign of any ship in any direction.

Then I lifted my eyes upwards. There was not a cloud in the night sky, not a single wisp of mist to dim a single one of the million or more stars that were above my head. For on this dark, moonless night, so far removed from any shore-based light pollution, the vastness, yet closeness of the heavens above was simply breath-taking. I was transfixed. Utterly unable to make any rational sense of this night splendour that glittered in every direction in which I gazed. This dome that represented a vastness beyond any meaning other than a reminder of the magic of the universe.

This magic of the heavens above me that came down to touch the horizon in all directions. Such a rare sight to see the twinkling of stars almost touching the starkness of the ocean’s horizon at night. A total marriage of this one planet with the vastness of outer space.

I heard the alarm clock go off again and again next to my bunk down below. But I remained transfixed until there was a very soft lightening of the skyline to the east that announced that another dawn was on its way.

I would never again look up at the stars in a night sky without being transported back to that wonderful night and the memory of a lonely sea and sky.

I did warn you it would be a long introduction!

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Non-Linear Cold Blob Rising Over North Atlantic

The reason life survived on Earth for so long, and blossomed into animals, and now mind, is that the planet is equipped with homeostatic mechanisms (homeo means similar in Greek, and stasis, standing still). However, those mechanisms tend to be geological.

Human civilization is now having an impact on the biosphere of a violence probably never seen before. The changes are faster than what geology, or even life, can accommodate.

Some will brandish the impact of the Yucatan asteroid, and claim that was worse; however that’s just a theory: the biosphere was clearly under stress at the time from the Deccan Traps eruptions, and had been under that stress for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. At its worst, the Asteroid was just the straw which broke the Camel’s back.

2015 will be the warmest year since the end of the Eemian, 115,000 years ago. So why are record low temperatures appearing just south of Iceland? Yes, record lows, lower than ever recorded.

While The Rest Of Planet Is At Record Warmth, Off Iceland, Record Colds Are Achieved!
While The Rest Of Planet Is At Record Warmth, Off Iceland, Record Colds Are Achieved!

That was fully expected, and a demonstration of Non-Linearity of the incipient global warming. A phenomenon is linear when it looks like a line. Global warming is not going up like a line, as some places are warming at a rate ten times higher than the average, and some regions are cooling (and some are cooling spectacularly, off Iceland and some seas around Antarctica, for reasons related to warming).

The Dryas events were extremely fast and pronounced cooling events which happened several times during the period 10,000 years to 15,000 Before Present. Some lasted around a millennium, others, just a century. They vanished as fast as they came. They are named after a tundra flower, the Dryas. In Scandinavia forests were replaced by tundra graced with Dryas (hence the name). In Britain, average temperature collapsed to minus 5 degree Celsius, and glaciers formed at elevation.

These spastic events of drastic cooling, while, overall, de-glaciation was going on, long remained a mystery. Overall, the great glaciation which had brought glaciers down to New York, was on its way out, the planet was globally, irresistibly warming. So why would temperatures collapse in some places around Greenland by 15 degrees Celsius? The solution to the Dryas events’ spastic glaciation riddle? The same as always! Warming is non-linear.

What’s the theory? The details are uncertain, but we know that the Gulf Stream (aka the North Atlantic “Conveyor”) shorted, literally: analyses of deep sea sediments have shown this. The conveyor sends an enormous current of warm tropical waters northward.

When the warm tropical waters become very cold between Iceland and Spitzbergen, they sink to the bottom of the sea, and head south. This sinking, plus the pushing by trade winds in the tropics, is what provides the energy of the Gulf Stream.

However, if the warm tropical waters are capped by a very cold, but light sweet(er) water lid, they will get cold early, and sink before Iceland. This is what happened in the Dryas events.

And It Is Happening Again, Albeit On A Smaller Scale.
And It Is Happening Again, Albeit On A Smaller Scale.

Was it in response to a sudden influx of fresh water from Lake Agassiz and deglaciation in North America, and Greenland? Sudden freezing there would have removed the freshwater lid, hence the brutal switchback to warming after the brutal cooling. By the way, the sea level rising speed responded quickly, by a factor of three. After the typical Dryas cooling, oceanic rise rebounded to 18 millimeter per year right away (this shows that those who expect a slow rise of sea level rise are deluding themselves, or, more to the point, are trying to delude us!)

Nowadays a Dryas-like mechanism would have to rest on the melting of Greenland alone (that’s the only place with significant ice). This is, of course, insufficient, but summer 2015, cool and rainy over the northern North Atlantic is evidence that the effect is on. Scientific analysis confirms it. See: “Exceptional Twentieth Century Slow Down of Atlantic Ocean Overturning Circulation” (Nature, 23 March, 2015).

The exact nature of what is going on at this point is a matter of debate among experts. What is sure is that something is going on.

The Atlantic Conveyor Is A Subtle Thing, Yet Dominates Glaciation In The Arctic.
The Atlantic Conveyor Is A Subtle Thing, Yet Dominates Glaciation In The Arctic.

A similar situation beckons in Antarctica, where ice shield melting creates a freshwater lid all around which in turn freeze, extending the ice cap in the Austral winter.

When considering nonlinearity, subtlety and surprises are of the essence. This is true in physics, as it is in psychology, history, or politics.

And the morality in all this? The USA has played god. The European Union made a honest to goodness effort to reduce CO2 emission, while the USA, paying lip service to the opposite of what it was doing went right ahead, with its factory, the Plutocratic Republic of China, to use and abuse fossil fuels as never before.

So now what? Is god still American, as usual? At first it seems so: the USA started to frack massively and massive amounts of fossil fuels were extracted from the USA’s generous soil. When American companies tried the same in Poland, it failed: the underground god (Pluto?) did not cooperate: Polish soil is adverse to fracking.

Here comes the punchline: sea level has been rising fast along the Eastern seashore of the USA. Actually, three to four times faster than the world average. That’s more than one centimeter per year.

Why? Imagine a traffic jam. Or rather a crash ahead: things come to a halt, cars, water piles up behind. Maybe the Washington politicians will soon have to learn to swim, and not just against the tide of world public opinion.

The USA is going to be punished with its own instruments. Meanwhile 20 countries formed the V20, a group of twenty countries whose existence is immediately threatened by global warming, although they caused it not.

A Two Degree Celsius rise of temperature is indeed way too much: nonlinearity is upon us. Evil is always nonlinear.

Patrice Ayme’

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Footnote: The Les referred to is Les Powells, the yachtsman who sailed solo three times around the world. He and I became good friends when we met up at Larnaca Marina in Cyprus.

 

Les Powells book

 

Climate Change and Humanity

A powerful essay by Tom Engelhardt from his blogsite TomDispatch.

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs know that essays from TomDispatch often find their way onto these pages.  They are republished with the generous permission of Tom and I endeavour to select those essays that shine a new light on a current issue.   No less so than with today’s essay, first published over on TomDispatch on May 22nd, 2014.

Just a note before you start reading Tom’s very important essay.  That there are many links to papers, articles and other references throughout the essay.  (I know, they took me a couple of hours to set up!)  Could I recommend strongly that you ‘click’ on each link and make a note of the references you wish to read at a later time.  I shall be referring to some of them next week when I comment more generally on this fabulous essay.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?

The 95% Doctrine

Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction 

By Tom Engelhardt

Who could forget? At the time, in the fall of 2002, there was such a drumbeat of “information” from top figures in the Bush administration about the secret Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so endanger the United States. And who — other than a few suckers — could have doubted that Saddam Hussein was eventually going to get a nuclear weapon? The only question, as our vice president suggested on “Meet the Press,” was: Would it take one year or five? And he wasn’t alone in his fears, since there was plenty of proof of what was going on. For starters, there were those “specially designed aluminum tubes” that the Iraqi autocrat had ordered as components for centrifuges to enrich uranium in his thriving nuclear weapons program. Reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon hit the front page of the New York Times with that story on September 8, 2002.

Then there were those “mushroom clouds” that Condoleezza Rice, our national security advisor, was so publicly worried about — the ones destined to rise over American cities if we didn’t do something to stop Saddam. As she fretted in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on that same September 8th, “[W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No, indeed, and nor, it turned out, did Congress!

And just in case you weren’t anxious enough about the looming Iraqi threat, there were those unmanned aerial vehicles — Saddam’s drones! — that could be armed with chemical or biological WMD from his arsenal and flown over America’s East Coast cities with unimaginable results. President George W. Bush went on TV to talk about them and congressional votes were changed in favor of war thanks to hair-raising secret administration briefings about them on Capitol Hill.

In the end, it turned out that Saddam had no weapons program, no nuclear bomb in the offing, no centrifuges for those aluminum pipes, no biological or chemical weapons caches, and no drone aircraft to deliver his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (nor any ships capable of putting those nonexistent robotic planes in the vicinity of the U.S. coast). But what if he had? Who wanted to take that chance? Not Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly. Inside the Bush administration he propounded something that journalist Ron Suskind later dubbed the “one percent doctrine.” Its essence was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty.

Here’s the curious thing: if you look back on America’s apocalyptic fears of destruction during the first 14 years of this century, they largely involved three city-busting weapons that were fantasies of Washington’s fertile imperial imagination. There was that “bomb” of Saddam’s, which provided part of the pretext for a much-desired invasion of Iraq. There was the “bomb” of the mullahs, the Iranian fundamentalist regime that we’ve just loved to hate ever since they repaid us, in 1979, for the CIA’s overthrow of an elected government in 1953 and the installation of the Shah by taking the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage. If you believed the news from Washington and Tel Aviv, the Iranians, too, were perilously close to producing a nuclear weapon or at least repeatedly on the verge of the verge of doing so. The production of that “Iranian bomb” has, for years, been a focus of American policy in the Middle East, the “brink” beyond which war has endlessly loomed. And yet there was and is no Iranian bomb, nor evidence that the Iranians were or are on the verge of producing one.

Finally, of course, there was al-Qaeda’s bomb, the “dirty bomb” that organization might somehow assemble, transport to the U.S., and set off in an American city, or the “loose nuke,” maybe from the Pakistani arsenal, with which it might do the same. This is the third fantasy bomb that has riveted American attention in these last years, even though there is less evidence for or likelihood of its imminent existence than of the Iraqi and Iranian ones.

To sum up, the strange thing about end-of-the-world-as-we’ve-known-it scenarios from Washington, post-9/11, is this: with a single exception, they involved only non-existent weapons of mass destruction. A fourth weapon — one that existed but played a more modest role in Washington’s fantasies — was North Korea’s perfectly real bomb, which in these years the North Koreans were incapable of delivering to American shores.

The “Good News” About Climate Change

In a world in which nuclear weapons remain a crucial coin of the realm when it comes to global power, none of these examples could quite be classified as 0% dangers. Saddam had once had a nuclear program, just not in 2002-2003, and also chemical weapons, which he used against Iranian troops in his 1980s war with their country (with the help of targeting information from the U.S. military) and against his own Kurdish population. The Iranians might (or might not) have been preparing their nuclear program for a possible weapons breakout capability, and al-Qaeda certainly would not have rejected a loose nuke, if one were available (though that organization’s ability to use it would still have been questionable).

In the meantime, the giant arsenals of WMD in existence, the American, Russian, Chinese, Israeli, Pakistani, and Indian ones that might actually have left a crippled or devastated planet behind, remained largely off the American radar screen. In the case of the Indian arsenal, the Bush administration actually lent an indirect hand to its expansion. So it was twenty-first-century typical when President Obama, trying to put Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine in perspective, said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

Once again, an American president was focused on a bomb that would raise a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. And which bomb, exactly, was that, Mr. President?

Of course, there was a weapon of mass destruction that could indeed do staggering damage to or someday simply drown New York City, Washington D.C., Miami, and other East coast cities. It had its own efficient delivery systems — no nonexistent drones or Islamic fanatics needed. And unlike the Iraqi, Iranian, or al-Qaeda bombs, it was guaranteed to be delivered to our shores unless preventive action was taken soon. No one needed to hunt for its secret facilities. It was a weapons system whose production plants sat in full view right here in the United States, as well as in Europe, China, and India, as well as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and other energy states.

So here’s a question I’d like any of you living in or visiting Wyoming to ask the former vice president, should you run into him in a state that’s notoriously thin on population: How would he feel about acting preventively, if instead of a 1% chance that some country with weapons of mass destruction might use them against us, there was at least a 95% — and likely as not a 100% — chance of them being set off on our soil? Let’s be conservative, since the question is being posed to a well-known neoconservative. Ask him whether he would be in favor of pursuing the 95% doctrine the way he was the 1% version.

After all, thanks to a grim report in 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know that there is now a 95%-100% likelihood that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming [of the planet] since the mid-20th century.” We know as well that the warming of the planet — thanks to the fossil fuel system we live by and the greenhouse gases it deposits in the atmosphere — is already doing real damage to our world and specifically to the United States, as a recent scientific report released by the White House made clear. We also know, with grimly reasonable certainty, what kinds of damage those 95%-100% odds are likely to translate into in the decades, and even centuries, to come if nothing changes radically: a temperature rise by century’s end that could exceed 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading species extinctions, staggeringly severe droughts across larger parts of the planet (as in the present long-term drought in the American West and Southwest), far more severe rainfall across other areas, more intense storms causing far greater damage, devastating heat waves on a scale no one in human history has ever experienced, masses of refugees, rising global food prices, and among other catastrophes on the human agenda, rising sea levels that will drown coastal areas of the planet.

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From two scientific studies just released, for example, comes the news that the West Antarctic ice sheet, one of the great ice accumulations on the planet, has now begun a process of melting and collapse that could, centuries from now, raise world sea levels by a nightmarish 10 to 13 feet. That mass of ice is, according to the lead authors of one of the studies, already in “irreversible retreat,” which means — no matter what acts are taken from now on — a future death sentence for some of the world’s great cities. (And that’s without even the melting of the Greenland ice shield, not to speak of the rest of the ice in Antarctica.)

All of this, of course, will happen mainly because we humans continue to burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate and so annually deposit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at record levels. In other words, we’re talking about weapons of mass destruction of a new kind. While some of their effects are already in play, the planetary destruction that nuclear weapons could cause almost instantaneously, or at least (given “nuclear winter” scenarios) within months, will, with climate change, take decades, if not centuries, to deliver its full, devastating planetary impact.

When we speak of WMD, we usually think of weapons — nuclear, biological, or chemical — that are delivered in a measurable moment in time. Consider climate change, then, a WMD on a particularly long fuse, already lit and there for any of us to see. Unlike the feared Iranian bomb or the Pakistani arsenal, you don’t need the CIA or the NSA to ferret such “weaponry” out. From oil wells to fracking structures, deep sea drilling rigs to platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the machinery that produces this kind of WMD and ensures that it is continuously delivered to its planetary targets is in plain sight. Powerful as it may be, destructive as it will be, those who control it have faith that, being so long developing, it can remain in the open without panicking populations or calling any kind of destruction down on them.

The companies and energy states that produce such WMD remain remarkably open about what they’re doing. Generally speaking, they don’t hesitate to make public, or even boast about, their plans for the wholesale destruction of the planet, though of course they are never described that way. Nonetheless, if an Iraqi autocrat or Iranian mullahs spoke in similar fashion about producing nuclear weapons and how they were to be used, they would be toast.

Take ExxonMobil, one of the most profitable corporations in history. In early April, it released two reports that focused on how the company, as Bill McKibben has written, “planned to deal with the fact that [it] and other oil giants have many times more carbon in their collective reserves than scientists say we can safely burn.” He went on:

The company said that government restrictions that would force it to keep its [fossil fuel] reserves in the ground were ‘highly unlikely,’ and that they would not only dig them all up and burn them, but would continue to search for more gas and oil — a search that currently consumes about $100 million of its investors’ money every single day. ‘Based on this analysis, we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become “stranded.”‘

In other words, Exxon plans to exploit whatever fossil fuel reserves it possesses to their fullest extent. Government leaders involved in supporting the production of such weapons of mass destruction and their use are often similarly open about it, even while also discussing steps to mitigate their destructive effects. Take the White House, for instance. Here was a statement President Obama proudly made in Oklahoma in March 2012 on his energy policy:

Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

Similarly, on May 5th, just before the White House was to reveal that grim report on climate change in America, and with a Congress incapable of passing even the most rudimentary climate legislation aimed at making the country modestly more energy efficient, senior Obama adviser John Podesta appeared in the White House briefing room to brag about the administration’s “green” energy policy. “The United States,” he said, “is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world. It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. For six straight months now, we’ve produced more oil here at home than we’ve imported from overseas. So that’s all a good-news story.”

Good news indeed, and from Vladmir Putin’s Russia, which just expanded its vast oil and gas holdings by a Maine-sized chunk of the Black Sea off Crimea, to Chinese “carbon bombs,” to Saudi Arabian production guarantees, similar “good-news stories” are similarly promoted. In essence, the creation of ever more greenhouse gases — of, that is, the engine of our future destruction — remains a “good news” story for ruling elites on planet Earth.

Weapons of Planetary Destruction

We know exactly what Dick Cheney — ready to go to war on a 1% possibility that some country might mean us harm — would answer, if asked about acting on the 95% doctrine. Who can doubt that his response would be similar to those of the giant energy companies, which have funded so much climate-change denialism and false science over the years? He would claim that the science simply isn’t “certain” enough (though “uncertainty” can, in fact, cut two ways), that before we commit vast sums to taking on the phenomenon, we need to know far more, and that, in any case, climate-change science is driven by a political agenda.

For Cheney & Co., it seemed obvious that acting on a 1% possibility was a sensible way to go in America’s “defense” and it’s no less gospel for them that acting on at least a 95% possibility isn’t. For the Republican Party as a whole, climate-change denial is by now nothing less than a litmus test of loyalty, and so even a 101% doctrine wouldn’t do when it comes to fossil fuels and this planet.

No point, of course, in blaming this on fossil fuels or even the carbon dioxide they give off when burned. These are no more weapons of mass destruction than are uranium-235 and plutonium-239. In this case, the weaponry is the production system that’s been set up to find, extract, sell at staggering profits, and burn those fossil fuels, and so create a greenhouse-gas planet. With climate change, there is no “Little Boy” or “Fat Man” equivalent, no simple weapon to focus on. In this sense, fracking is the weapons system, as is deep-sea drilling, as are those pipelines, and the gas stations, and the coal-fueled power plants, and the millions of cars filling global roads, and the accountants of the most profitable corporations in history.

All of it — everything that brings endless fossil fuels to market, makes those fuels eminently burnable, and helps suppress the development of non-fossil fuel alternatives — is the WMD. The CEOs of the planet’s giant energy corporations are the dangerous mullahs, the true fundamentalists, of planet Earth, since they are promoting a faith in fossil fuels which is guaranteed to lead us to some version of End Times.

Perhaps we need a new category of weapons with a new acronym to focus us on the nature of our present 95%-100% circumstances. Call them weapons of planetary destruction (WPD) or weapons of planetary harm (WPH). Only two weapons systems would clearly fit such categories. One would be nuclear weapons which, even in a localized war between Pakistan and India, could create some version of “nuclear winter” in which the planet was cut off from the sun by so much smoke and soot that it would grow colder fast, experience a massive loss of crops, of growing seasons, and of life. In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.

Though on a different and harder to grasp time-scale, the burning of fossil fuels could end in a similar fashion — with a series of “irreversible” disasters that could essentially burn us and much other life off the Earth. This system of destruction on a planetary scale, facilitated by most of the ruling and corporate elites on the planet, is becoming (to bring into play another category not usually used in connection with climate change) the ultimate “crime against humanity” and, in fact, against most living things. It is becoming a “terracide.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (from which some of this essay has been adapted). He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

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There are so many strong and fundamental points raised in this essay from Tom that I am going to return to them next week.  (Will give it a rest for July 4th!)

The Natural order.

Back to the basics of life.

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs will recall that just under a week ago I published an essay under the title of A bedtime story for mankind.  The post centred around an essay from Patrice Ayme.  Patrice’s essay could be summarised as follows: “At the present rate of greenhouse gases emissions, within nine years, massively lethal climate and oceanic changes are guaranteed.

Then just last Sunday, Patrice published a second essay reinforcing that first one.  The subsequent essay was called Ten Years to Catastrophe.  I was minded to republish that but upon reflection thought that there was a better option.  That was to explore the deep, core questions that both of Patrice’s essays raised in my mind and, presumably, must be raised in the minds of countless thousands of others.  Questions along the lines of a comment I submitted to that subsequent post from Patrice.

Do you have an idea, even a sense, of when global leaders, elected Governments, the ‘movers and shakers’ in societies, will truly embrace the global catastrophe that is heading our way?

And a supplementary question: What would be the indicators that Governments were acknowledging the task ahead?

Frankly, they weren’t especially good questions but they were an attempt by me to open up a debate on whether or not this is the “beginning of the end” of life for us humans.  Central to what was going through my mind was the core question of how did it all go wrong?

Welcome to Payson, AZ
Welcome to Payson, AZ

On Monday evening, I rang John Hurlburt, a close friend of Jean and me from our Payson, Arizona days and kicked around those questions .  It was a most enlightening conversation.  John is an active founder member of Transition Town Payson and Payson recently welcomed the Great March for Climate Action in their walk from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. (An essay on that event coming soon.)

Anyway, from out of that conversation with John came the idea of a series of essays here on Learning from Dogs about the past, present and future of man’s relationship with Nature.  The aim is to offer an essay on a weekly basis but we’ll see how it goes.  Wherever possible, I will use the essays and posts from other bloggers that reinforce the vision. As always, your feedback in the form of ‘Likes’ or comments will reflect on the value of the essays to you.

After John and I finished the call, he sent me an email with what could be best described as his vision for these essays.  Here is that email [my emphasis].

Integral Vision

Everything fits together. Otherwise, we’d simply be disassociated atoms.

Human beings are a consciously aware component of Nature. We have a DNA-level directive to survive as a species and as individual members of a species …. in that order!

We are consciously aware components of the conscious interaction between energy and matter in a predominently smoothly emerging cyclic universe with departures from time to time into pockets of chaos.

We disconnect from reality when we become self-centered, often during the various stages of our lives. When we are blessed we continue to live and learn.

Issues of ideology, rational thought, economics, politics, religion, history and science become insignificant in comparison to the whelming power of Nature.

Such is life. It comes with the territory. Spirituality, Nature and Science describe the metanexus in which we live.

Maintain an even strain,

an old lamplighter

Ref: Episcopal “Catechism of Creation”

Ideas, feedback and comments, as always, hugely welcomed.

A bedtime story for mankind.

The latest IPCC report is more than dry science; it’s our future!

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs will be aware that yesterday I published a post called A bedtime story for Jimmy.  It was prompted by learning of an eight-year-old who was offered the opportunity of shooting a wild turkey early last Saturday morning.  The penultimate paragraph read as follows:

If we care for nature then we care for the health of our lands, for our forests and for our seas. We are careful with how we live our lives. If we care for nature then as we live our lives we do our best to leave things better for those that come after us.

Little did I know when writing my post that on the same day of publication would be a chilling post from Patrice Ayme; a post that Patrice has generously given me permission to republish in full.

Indeed, little did I know that when I composed my preface to Jimmy’s story and included these words:

However, this eight-year-old lad is facing a future that demands that he and all his generation accept that embracing nature, totally and whole-heartedly, is their only hope of not being the last generation of humans on this beautiful planet.

That less than twenty-four hours later Patrice’s perspective on the latest IPCC report made that sentence of mine far from hyperbole!  Here is that essay from Patrice.

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Terminal Greenhouse Crisis.

A CRASH TECH PROGRAM IS NEEDED, & HAS TO INVOLVE HYDROGEN.

At the present rate of greenhouse gases emissions, within nine years, massively lethal climate and oceanic changes are guaranteed.

Such is the conclusion one can draw from the Inter Governmental Panel On Climate Change of the UN (the IPCC, with its top 300 climate scientists from all over the world). About 78% of the emissions have to do with heating, cooking, and basic, necessary industrial activities, such as making cement.

They are not elective.

As Bad As An Asteroid?
As Bad As An Asteroid?

Notes: CO2 FOLU = CO2 emissions from Forestry and Other Land Use. F-gases = Fluorinated gases covered under the Kyoto Protocol. At the right side of the figure: Emissions of each greenhouse gas with associated error bars (90% confidence interval).

Only a crash program of construction of several hundreds of new technology nuclear fission plants, an all-out renewable energy program, with massive solar plants all over the American South and the (similar latitude) Sahara desert, plus a massive hydrogen economy to store the wind and solar energy could allow us to mitigate the massive lethal change incoming.

In other words, it is already too late to avoid the massive lethal change.

What’s the problem? Simple mathematics. It’s evaluated that human activities in the last century or so released 515 billion tons of greenhouse gases. The IPCC and the best experts believe that 800 to 1,000 billion tons of such gases would bring a rise of global temperatures of two degrees Celsius.

At the present rate, that’s nine years to reach the upper reaches: one trillion tons of GHG.

Most of the temperature rise will be in the polar regions, melting those, and inducing worldwide climate catastrophe, especially if emissions of polar methane turn apocalyptic. The polar regions are the Achilles heel of the Earth’s present biosphere. By striking there mostly, enormous changes can be brought to bear, as they would destroy the Earth’s air conditioning and oceanic circulation.

In 2014, trade winds in the Pacific had four times the energy they usually have, creating abnormally intense ocean upwelling off the west coast of North America, thus a high pressure ridge (thus a drought there), causing a world wide oscillation of the jet stream that dragged cold polar air down the east coast of the USA, before rebounding as continual storms and rain on the west coast of Europe, and so forth.

Nobody can say the weather was normal: precipitation in England beat all records, dating 250 years, whereas most of California experienced extreme drought.

At this point, warm water is piling down to 500 meters depth in the western Pacific in what looks like a preparation for a massive El Nino, similar to the one in 1997-98. If this happens, global temperature records will be smashed next year.

Massively lethal means death to the world as we know it, by a thousand cuts. It means cuts to democracy, privacy, life span, food intake. Some of these are already in plain sight: the Ukraine war is already a war about gas, no less an authority as dictator Putin says so.

Tom Friedman in “Go Ahead, Vladimir, Make My Day.” takes the situation lightly. “SO the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?

Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe. Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.”

It’s not so simple. The investments needed are massive, and all the massive investments so far have to do with fracking… Which is, ecologically speaking, a disaster. 3% methane leakage makes fracking worse than burning coal. And this leakage is apparently happening.

Unbelievably, some of the countries with coal beds got the bright idea to burn the coal underground. Australia, about the worst emitter of CO2 per capita, experimented with that. It had to be stopped, because some particularly toxic gases (such as toluene) were coming out, not just the CH4 and CO the apprentice sorcerers were looking for.

Carbon Capture and Storage does not exist (but for very special cases in half a dozen special locations, worldwide, not the thousands of locales needed). And CSS will not exist (profitably).

What technology exist that could be developed (but is not yet)? Not just Thorium reactors. The hydrogen economy is a low key, and indispensable economy. Water can be broken by electricity from wind and sun, and then energy can be stored, under the form of hydrogen. Nothing else can do it: batteries are unable to store energy efficiently (and there is not enough Lithium to make trillions of Lithium batteries).

The hydrogen technology pretty much exist, including for efficient storage under safe form (one thick plate of a material that cannot be set aflame can store 600 liters of hydrogen).

Another advantage of storing hydrogen is that oxygen would be released. Although it may seem absurd to worry about this, too much acidity in the ocean (from absorption of CO2) could lead to phytoplankton die-off, and the removal of half of oxygen production.

In this increasingly weird world, that’s where we are at.

Oh, by the way, how to stop Putin? Europe should tell the dictator he can keep his gaz. Now. As good an occasion to start defending the planet, and not just against fascism.

Patrice Aymé

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I can’t add anything at a scientific level to what Patrice has written.  But I can offer this.  Each and every one of us needs to make sure the message is spread as far and wide as possible (you are free to share and republish this post) and then do something, however small it may seem, to make a difference. And do it now!

For the sake of all the Jimmys in the world – and all the turkeys!

A bedtime story for Jimmy.

Inspired by hearing a young boy shoot a wild turkey early on Saturday morning.

Preface

Because we have horses, friends living close to us called to warn that early on Saturday morning, a young lad, accompanied by his father, would be experiencing what it was like to shoot a wild turkey at close range.  The turkeys are easy targets; almost pets.

So it was that around 6:30am last Saturday morning that a single shot rang out and we knew that a turkey had been killed. Now in fairness to American history it’s not that long ago that the early settlers relied on hunting to survive.  The first permanent European settlement in Oregon wasn’t until 1811. Thus hunting may be something close to the American’s heart; so to speak.  However, this eight-year-old lad is facing a future that demands that he and all his generation accept that embracing nature, totally and whole-heartedly, is their only hope of not being the last generation of humans on this beautiful planet.

Jean and I thought the following was an appropriate way of expressing our feelings.

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Dear Jimmy,

What was it like to point your gun at that turkey and pull the trigger?  What did you feel as you saw the bullet hit and the turkey fall to the ground?

Now I wasn’t there with you, of course, but I could imagine the thrill and excitement that you would have felt. Not many young lads of your age get to handle a gun and shoot a turkey.

But Jimmy, what we feel as an eight-year-old is a very poor indicator for what we feel when we are much older.  Possibly the only exception is love, which is a golden feeling at any age.

So, if you will forgive this sixty-nine-year old from reading an eight-year-old a very short bedtime story, I will get started.

The world, this enormous world, must seem infinitely huge to you.  Even if you stand on the shoulders of your Dad, your eyes ten feet above the ground, the horizon is just four miles away.  You could run to that horizon in less than an hour.  However, to run all the way around the world at that same speed would take you, dear Jimmy, nearly two hundred and sixty days of running; running twenty-four hours a day!  It’s a very big planet!

Look at this wonderful picture of our planet.  Have you ever seen anything more beautiful!

Planet Earth 1

 

It must seem to you that there is nothing an eight-year-old could do to harm this planet we all live on.

That’s true! There is nothing you could do to harm the planet.

However, when you get older and reach the point where you have a job, drive a car, fly to places on an aeroplane, heat your house and a million other things that we grown-ups do, then all of us together, all the millions of people living on this green planet can hurt it.

Indeed, Jimmy, you may have already heard of things like climate change and global warming being spoken about on the television.  All of the people living on this planet are hurting it.  And the people who are really going to see how we humans are hurting the planet, and how the planet is changing, are all the people who, like you Jimmy, are not yet even finished school.

So what does shooting a wild turkey have to do with caring for your planet throughout the many years ahead for you?

If we care for nature then we care for the health of our lands, for our forests and for our seas. We are careful with how we live our lives.  If we care for nature then as we live our lives we do our best to leave things better for those that come after us.

Jimmy, sleep well my young man. Wake knowing the death of that turkey was not in vain.  Wake with love in your heart. Love for every living creature.

Only love for all creatures will offer all creatures a future.
Only love for all creatures will offer all creatures a future.

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Written and offered with peace.

 

 

 

The natural world.

Hardly seems necessary to say this but natural forces are ‘top of the pyramid‘!

As is so often the case, a few outwardly disconnected events offered a deeper picture; well they did for me!

The first was a recently published post by Alex Jones over on his blog The Liberated Way.  Alex lives in Colchester, Essex, North-East of London, a place where I ran a business way back in the ’80’s’ and lived not far away in the village of Great Horkesley.  Many people, including many Brits are unaware that Colchester, or Camulodunon as the Celtics called it, meaning “the Fortress of Camulos” (Camulos was the Celtic god of war), was the Capitol city in Roman days and that evidence of man’s settlement goes back 3,000 years.

Anyway, back to the thread of today’s post.

That first post from Alex.  A post under the title of Catching a fox.  Alex has generously given me permission to republish it.

Catching a fox.

After two years of hunting I catch a fox with my camera.

fox_colchester
After two years of frustration I finally photograph a fox, which appeared out of nowhere in my garden.

Nature is a shifting tapestry of life, often catching me by surprise with magical manifestations of wildlife that abruptly vanish before I can catch a brief record of its passing through my life. It is a matter of chance that I get lucky with my camera, and I was in luck today.

This morning a fox manifested in my garden. The fox sat looking at me, it had a forlorn look about it, but the fox was content to sit and watch me as it sun bathed in the warmth of a tranquil garden. I had my camera with me, so I made up for two years of frustration by firing off dozens of photographs of my elusive wary model. The fox made my day.

The second event was a chance photograph of a vulture taken two days ago here at home.

Ah, that early morning sun feels good on my back feathers!
Ah, that early morning sun feels good on my back feathers!

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Ah, that sun feels good on my back feathers!
Damn! Thought it was too good to last!

Now I’m sure that readers so far will find these three photographs, of the fox and the vulture, are producing feelings of pleasure; feelings of wonderment about the natural world around us.

That world of nature ‘speaks’ to us.  If we are prepared to listen.

It spoke to South-West England in February earlier this year:

rail-emergency-workers-inspect-damaged-track-along-the-seafront-at-dawlish-in-south-west-england-
Dawlish – Rail emergency workers inspect damaged track along the seafront.

There are signs that Mother Nature will be speaking to us again; fairly soon. From EarthSky:

Warm water in Pacific could spark a monster El Nino in 2014

Scientists are watching a giant mass of sub-surface water in the Pacific. When this water reaches the sea surface, it could set off a powerful El Nino.
Scientists are watching a giant mass of sub-surface water in the Pacific. When this water reaches the sea surface, it could set off a powerful El Nino.

The giant red blob in this image is a huge, unusual mass of warm water that currently spans the tropical Pacific Ocean. Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate, says the volume of water is big enough to cover the United States 300 feet deep. And that’s a lot of warm water, he says. Holthaus also says that, as the sub-surface warm water in the Pacific moves eastward – propelled by anomalous trade winds – it’s getting closer to the ocean’s surface. Once the warm water hits the sea surface, it will begin to interact with the atmosphere. Why? Because Earth’s oceans and atmosphere are always interacting. In this case, the warm water will likely boost temperatures and change weather patterns … and possibly bring on a monster El Nino in 2014. There are signs this is already beginning to happen. Read more at Slate.

If one clicks on the link to that Slate article, one then reads:

By Eric Holthaus

The odds are increasing that an El Niño is in the works for 2014—and recent forecasts show it might be a big one.

As we learned from Chris Farley, El Niños can boost the odds of extreme weather (droughts, typhoons, heat waves) across much of the planet. But the most important thing about El Niño is that it is predictable, sometimes six months to a year in advance.

That’s an incredibly powerful tool, especially if you are one of the billions who live where El Niño tends to hit hardest—Asia and the Americas. If current forecasts stay on track, El Niño might end up being the biggest global weather story of 2014.

The most commonly accepted definition of an El Niño is a persistent warming of the so-called “Niño3.4” region of the tropical Pacific Ocean south of Hawaii, lasting for at least five consecutive three-month “seasons.” A recent reversal in the direction of the Pacific trade winds appears to have kicked off a warming trend during the last month or two. That was enough to prompt U.S. government forecasters to issue an El Niño watch last month.

Forecasters are increasingly confident in a particularly big El Niño this time around because, deep below the Pacific Ocean’s surface, off-the-charts warm water is lurking:

Now I’m not going to post the whole of that article so for that reason strongly recommend you read the rest here. However, I am going to offer a couple more extracts.

Like this:

The warm water just below the ocean’s surface is on par with that of the biggest El Niño ever recorded, in 1997-98. That event caused $35 billion in damages and was blamed for around 23,000 deaths worldwide, according to the University of New South Wales. The 1997-98 El Niño is also the only other time since records begin in 1980 that sub-surface Pacific Ocean water has been this warm in April.

Or like this:

One of the theories put forth by the mainstream scientific community to explain the slow-down since 1998 has been increased storage of warm water in the Pacific Ocean. If that theory is true, and if a major El Niño is indeed in the works, the previously rapid rate of global warming could resume, with dramatic consequences.

As I wrote last fall, the coming El Niño could be enough to make 2014 the hottest year in recorded history, and 2015 could be even warmer than that. The 1997-98 super El Niño was enough to boost global temperatures by nearly a quarter of a degree Celsius. If that scale of warming happens again, the world could approach a 1ºC departure from pre-industrial times as early as next year. As climate scientist James Hansen has warned, that’s around the highest that temperatures have ever been since human civilization began.

Now I’m not trying to be a ‘drama queen’ but there are times when one does wonder what it will take for those who govern us to wake up to the fact that Mother Nature is getting more and more restless.

I shall return to this theme tomorrow.

Trust, truth and community, Pt. Two.

Musings on truth and the corrosive nature of fear.

Yesterday, in Part One, I explored how easy it is to signal to the public that they are not to be trusted.  I used the case of PayPal’s changes to their ‘privacy’ policy which, as Wolf Richter wrote, only partially tongue-in-cheek perhaps, made “the NSA, which runs the most expansive spying dragnet in history, is by comparison a group of choirboys.

Truth

Again, back to Roget’s Thesaurus.

truth noun

1. Correspondence with fact or truth: accuracy, correctness, exactitude, exactness, fidelity, veraciousness, veracity

2. Freedom from deceit or falseness: truthfulness, veracity

So that’s all clear then!

If only it was that easy.  So many aspects of our modern lives are exposed to complex issues.  None more complex than, of course, the issue of humans having a damaging effect on the planet’s climate.  Or if one wants something more esoteric then try the origins of the universe. (So far as the former is concerned, then my personal belief is that mankind is damaging the global climate.  But do I have the scientific background to support that belief? No Sir!)

However, one thing that our complex society does offer is the opportunity to spread fear. Indeed, fear pervades popular culture and the media.  I picked up that theme from an essay published by David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski of Arizona State University.

Just a random example of the spread of fear.

The link to that essay is here. It opens, thus:

Fear pervades popular culture and the news media. Whether used as a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective, an ongoing study finds that the word “fear” pervades news reports across all sections of newspapers, and is shown to move or “travel” from one topic to another. The use of fear and the thematic emphases spawned by entertainment formats are consistent with a “discourse of fear,” or the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of the effective environment. A qualitative content analysis of a decade of news coverage in The Arizona Republic and several other major American news media (e.g., the Los Angeles Times, and ABC News) reveals that the word “fear” appears more often than it did several years ago, particularly in headlines, where its use has more than doubled. Comparative materials obtained through the Lexis/Nexis information base also reveals that certain themes are associated with a shifting focus of fear over the years (e.g., violence, drugs, AIDS), with the most recent increases associated with reports about children. Analysis suggests that this use of fear is consistent with popular culture oriented to pursuing a “problem frame” and entertainment formats, which also have social implications for social policy and reliance on formal agents of social control.

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. [my italics]

That last sentence offers the words of Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and author from over 200 years ago. So, perhaps, nothing changes in this regard!

In my old country, the British press love to sell their newspapers on the back of fear.  Here are some examples of lurid front pages.

horse meat

oooo

meltdown

oooo

autism

However, it doesn’t end there. Fear of the unknown, of forces beyond our control, are behind the incredible number of conspiracy theories, many of them quite famous.  WikiPedia lists dozens of them. One that was voiced by friends of ours concerned HAARP, which is an acronym for High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program.  It was a perfectly legitimate research programme, one that was unclassified, albeit a program that was shut down in July, 2013.

But that didn’t stop it being regarded by many as deeply suspicious, “Many conspiracy theories surround HAARP. Some theorists believe that it is being used as a weather-controlling device that can trigger catastrophic events, such as floods, hurricanes, etc. Others believe that the government uses HAARP to send mind-controlling radio waves to humans.”  Taken from here.

As it happens, this was a programme that I was acquainted with back in my UK days.

OK, time to round this off.

This new, digital world allows the sharing and spreading of information in a manner unimaginable from, say, 25 years ago.  It has many positive attributes, as I will touch upon in tomorrow’s post.  But it also has the power to spread fear and misinformation.  In a world that is becoming more complex and more uncertain year by year, it takes effort by every one of us to stop, think and check on anything that has the potential to upset one.

It takes the power of community to keep us rooted in the stuff of our daily lives, to live calmly and stay in touch with the truth.  More on the power of community tomorrow.

Immediate concern? Try this!

Talk about extreme ends of the spectrum!

Yesterday, I posted about the prediction that in four billion years the Milky Way galaxy would collide with the Andromeda galaxy.  I called the post Not of immediate concern.

Today, I am writing about something that is of immediate concern. That is if you regard the next couple of decades as ‘immediate’.

The post is prompted by an item that was published on the BBC News website two days ago.  It carried the title Climate inaction catastrophic – US

Climate inaction catastrophic – US

By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News, Yokohama, Japan

The costs of inaction on climate change will be “catastrophic”, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr Kerry was responding to a major report by the UN which described the impacts of global warming as “severe, pervasive and irreversible”.

He said dramatic and swift action was required to tackle the threats posed by a rapidly changing climate.

Our health, homes, food and safety are all likely to be threatened by rising temperatures, the report says.

Scientists and officials meeting in Japan say the document is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impacts of climate change on the world.

In a statement, Mr Kerry said: “Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice. There are those who say we can’t afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

Putting to one side the mild irony of a representative of the US Government wringing his hands about what mankind is doing to our climate, the report is valuable and potentially significant.

The report was from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which is, as their website explains:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of human induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for mitigation and adaptation.

Watch this 5-minute video of Stanford professor Dr. Chris Field, co-chair of that IPCC working group, addressing some of the key questions raised by this latest report.  In particular, focus on Dr. Field discussing the potential of the loss of the Greenland ice cap around 3 min 30 seconds.

Back to the BBC report (which you should read in full!).  Back to Dr. Chris Field being quoted as saying:

I think the really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change as a problem in managing risks. Climate change is really important but we have a lot of the tools for dealing effectively with it – we just need to be smart about it.

BBC climate-change-impacts_v2

It would be easy to get into the mindset that humanity is not going to change its ways in time.

But, then again, the pace of growing awareness about what the changes are that we all need to make, and make relatively soon, is dramatic.

Maybe, just maybe, this will turn out alright!

Fingers-crossed1

For all the young people in the world, I do so hope!

 

From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part Three.

The concluding Part Three of Martin Lack’s guest essay.

Part One is here: Part Two is here.

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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).

Conclusions

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.

References

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.

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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.

From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part Two

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.

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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:

  1. 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).

  2. Human welfare ecology – an appeal to enlightened self-interest: Eckersley cites Barry Commoner’s “four laws of ecologyas (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).

  3. 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).

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

References

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.

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The final part, Part Three, will be published tomorrow.