More proof that climate change is real — as if any was needed

Found via Alex, here are two Dutch climate researchers at Realclimate, who found a 1981 climate prediction by denialist bogeyman James Hansen:

To conclude, a projection from 1981 for rising temperatures in a major science journal, at a time that the temperature rise was not yet obvious in the observations, has been found to agree well with the observations since then, underestimating the observed trend by about 30%, and easily beating naive predictions of no-change or a linear continuation of trends. It is also a nice example of a statement based on theory that could be falsified and up to now has withstood the test. The “global warming hypothesis” has been developed according to the principles of sound science.

Which is another indication that even more than thirty years ago the implications for climate change were known or at least suspected. That we’re still talking about the climate change “controversy” is purely due to political machinations by economic interests who have a financial interest in denying climate change. Thirty years onwards the evidence is now undeniable, yet the same well funded “skeptics” are still obstructing progress towards mediating climate change. Unlike with the destruction of the ozone layer, where we did manage –barely– to start reversing the damage just in time (and it will still take decades to completely restore the ozone layer) climate change is too far to be stopped or reversed easily and the best we can do now is just migitate the consequences.

Most of the blame for that has to lie with the skeptics: there was a worldwide consensus at the end of the eighties that climate change was real and needed to be combatted. Yet effective measures have remained rare, due to the lobbying efforts of the industries that would be most affected by such measures. They took the lobying infrastructure set up earlier to help out the tobacco industry and used it to discredit climate change as a concept. The end result is thirty years of wasted time as we had to wait until climate change was undeniably real, even for (some) Republicans. Climate change was in any case unavoidable, as it was already ongoing when we first started to suspect it, but we could’ve used those three decades to make the end point less bad.

Should we worry about science fiction’s denial of climate change?

Mark Charan Newton worries about the cult of science fiction and how this influences the debate on climate change:

There’s so little time to hold back anthropogenic climate change (assuming you accept the unequivocal science in the first place). Leave it too long, and it will be too late to bring back CO2 concentrations to the necessary levels, causing a huge variety of issues that I’ve gone on about many times before. Dreaming up science fiction, Big Ideas, will not address the actual problems of dumping huge amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere in the first place. Moreover, this SF is diverting attention, political and financial resources away from urgent action. What this also does is play right into the hands of corporate lobbyists who will use it as an argument to delay such urgent action even further, usually to the benefit of [insert polluting organisation here].

I do agree with Mark on his broader point, that it is pointless and counterproductive to look for a quick technofix as the solution to climate change, but worrying about the pernicious influence of science fiction in this is worrying about the tail wagging the dog. Yes, science fiction readers and writers alike are constitutionally more keen on technowizardry as the solution to all our woes than the normal run of the population, but we’re not the ones driving the debate. It’s the ExxonMobil and Philip Morris sponsored think thanks we have to worry about, these are the ones that are fueling the deniers.

In fact, what’s so disappointing about those science fiction writers who are in the denial camp is how much they follow the recieved wisdom there, rather than come up with original ideas of their own. See for example Mark’s criticism of Neal Asher’s ideas about climate change and it’s clear Asher has nothing new to add to the debate. It’s all hockey sticks, cherry picking and (deliberate) misunderstandings of what certain scientists mean with “tricks” in the context of statistical analysis. (I’m glad that Asher for the most part doesn’t feel the need to pollute his fiction with such long debunked nonsense. Love his fiction, don’t agree with his politics on climate change, don’t mind at all if these two are kept separate.)

So unlike Mark, I think most prominent climate change deniers in science fiction like Asher are followers rather than leaders, a symptom rather than the disease. We do need to worry about misplaced faith in technological solutions to climate change so that we don’t remain passive while waiting for a cost free, pain free solution, but science fiction is the wrong place to combat it.

Climate change denial hits Dutch government

Government party VVD wants to stop funding the KNMI, the Royal Meteorological Institute because it actually takes climate change seriously. According to member of parliament René Leegte the KNMI is a partisan organisation that listens too much to the IPCC (Dutch). What’s more, according to him twenty percent of the KNMI’s researchers work for the IPCC and are therefore certainly not to be trusted.

A shocking display of truthiness, roundly mocked in the Dutch media, but these accusations are done in the context of a debate about the possible privatisation of the KNMI. By throwing doubts about its independence and realibility Leegte attempts to make it easier to sell the idea of getting rid of it to parliament and the voter. It’s done very clumsily, but that it’s done at all is worrisome. More and more our rightwing parties are using Republican tactics to force through their ideologically driven policies.

Holland’s sad renewable energy record

renewable energy's share of total energy production per EU country

The Open Knowledge Foundation kids held themselves an EUStat Hackday a few days ago, exploring European energy data. Of the various infographics they created, the above one is the most striking to me, seeing how renewable energy production in the Netherlands largely flatlined in the last decade (1998-2008). Only the UK, Norway and Poland were as bad or worse. In the context of the EU’s stated goal of having 20 percent of energy consumption being from renewable sources it means this decade has been wasted, no success booked in getting renewables off the ground. Not surprising, with the kind of governments we’ve had these past ten years, who if not quite actively hostile to the whole idea, never did much to encourage the growth of green energy. Subsidies have been laughable, direction lacking and every time decisions had to be made, the wrong ones were made. One example being the liberalisation of the Dutch energy market, in which energy suppliers and energy network companies were forced to separate, which immediately let to takeovers by foreign companies, leaving government that much less able to influence or direct energy policy.

Which explains why the three biggest new powerplants to be build are the coal fired plants E.on, Electrabel and RWE/Essent want to build in Rotterdam and Eemshaven — and yes, all three are foreign companies. These plants do not quite fit the EU’s plans for reducing carbon and sulphur emissions, now do they? The European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate general seems to agree, in their advice to declare the permits given for these plants illegal. It all fits the hidebound, stupid policies of previous and current governments, who have been happy to let the industry take the lead and may now have to pay the price for such shortsightedness.

Vertical farming

With the increasing awareness of climate change not just as a real threat, but as a threat that can’t really be solved by lifestyle adjustments, all kinds of radical ideas have moved into the limelight. One of which is vertical farming. The idea is simple: take industrial scale farming out of the countryside and into the city into proper factories while making it sustainable through control of the environment. The advantages of vertical farm, according to CBC News:

  • Conventional farms waste water. Despommier says irrigation accounts for 70 per cent of worldwide water use, and much of that is wasted as runoff, but because it’s contaminated with silt, pesticides and fertilizers, it can’t be captured and reused. Vertical farms would grow crops hydroponically, in a water-and-nutrient solution, or perhaps aeroponically, using a mist of nutrient-laden water. The approach could grow the same crops with as little as 10 per cent of the water used in traditional agriculture, Despommier argues.
  • Vertical farms would make it easy to grow food without chemicals. There is growing concern about the environmental effects of pesticides and fertilizers used in traditional agriculture. Some see organic farming as the answer, others argue organic farming can’t deliver the yields necessary to feed the world. But vertical farming would virtually eliminate the need for pesticides because air coming in could be filtered to keep pests out, and whatever fertilizers were used could be kept within the system and out of lakes and rivers.
  • Growing fresh produce in cities would make it more accessible to poor city-dwellers. As a public-health professor, this one particularly interests Despommier. “It’s very difficult to find fresh produce in inner cities,” he said, so people who live there tend to eat less nutritious foods. “The data is overwhelming,” he added: If healthier food is available, people will eat it.
  • Growing food close to where it’s eaten would reduce transportation needs, which would cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Reduced use of fossil-fuelled farm machinery would also help cut emissions.
  • Vertical farms would improve air quality in cities by consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Some of these advantages are a bit dodgy; the problem with getting fresh produce into inner cities has little to do with how and where it is grown and more to do with supermarket policies. It’s the usual overselling of a project that mainly exists on the drawing board; everything positive that concievably could be attributed to the project has been included to make it more attractive. A pity, as vertical farming doesn’t need such obviously wrong arguments to sell itself.

That is, as long as the main disadvantage can be solved:

On his blog, Avent points out that steel-and-concrete buildings, without fancy finishing, cost $300 per square foot or more in large cities. That works out to about $13 million per acre, compared with $3,000 per acre for farmland in Indiana.

Tracing this statement back to the source I couldn’t see what this estimate is based on and whether or not this is a cost per square foot on ground level, or per floor. If the former, the higher you build the lesser the cost per farmer acre, if the latter it wouldn’t matter how high you build. Of course you need not have to build entirely new buildings, but could also adapt existing ones to vertical farming use; plenty of disused office blocks are waiting for a new destiny.

Another problem is light sources. Can a vertical farm actually gather enough light to produce crops on all its floors? Or will it need a lot of artificial lights? In which case of course much of the advantage it might have over “natural” farming might be lost again, not just because of increased cost, but also on environmental impact…

Personally I would love to see the idea of vertical farming as viable, but I’ve learned that personal or aesthetic preferences should not be a guide for these sort of things — we never got our L5 space colony either. So far vertical farming is still very much an experimental technology, with only a few trial setups in existence, including one in Paignton for some reason. More research is needed before it can become a reality.