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.



One consequence of the whole Superfreakonomics fiasco, which has been thoroughly reported elsewhere in the blogosphere, is that I’ve changed my mind about geoengineering ideas. Up until now, I was of the opinion that the various proposals to check climate change by doing various things to the atmosphere or the oceans were no substitute for reducing CO2 emissions, but they were worth at least studying in order to have an emergency reserve option. And in fact, I always liked the stratospheric sulphur one because it didn’t involve massive space structures and it was, at least theoretically, reversible – the stuff rains out within weeks to months, so it’s possible to switch the thing off.

I’ve never had much trust in geoenginering. We’ve managed to fuck up the planet enough accidently for me to have trust in doing so deliberately and it’s sheer arrogance to imagine that we know enough to start fiddling with the climate directly when our accidental track record is so bad already. History is riddled with well intentioned human interference with ecosystems, none of which worked out well — just ask any Australian.

Heat – George Monbiot

Cover of Heat

George Monbiot
277 pages including index
published in 2006

Thanks to the climate change camp in London held this past week, global warming is back on the news agenda again. Despite the rear guard action fought by the Exxon-Mobile sponsored climate change denial groups, the media has sort of accepted the reality of it over the past two years, but as Alex Harrowell fulminates against, it’s largely treated as a consumerist, lifestyle issue:

As with most British media green pushes, there’s little sign of any interest in anything physical or lasting. Not an inch of rockwool. Everything is about changing your behaviour, and specifically micro-behaviour what you buy, or turning off lights, not how you work or where you live or how society works. Worse, it’s a demand for entirely free-floating behavioural change — nobody seems to be suggesting any way of monitoring or measuring the change, or any incentives. This isn’t going to work. And, again, it’s all consumer guff.

This is not something you can accuse George Monbiot of doing here. In Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning he quickly dismisses consumer driven solutions like the 10:10 campaign in the introduction. The entire point of the book is that we cannot solve the problem of climate change with lifestyle choices, but only through solutions that apply to everybody, not everybody else, as he puts it. He starts with the assumption that the only way to migate the consequences of global warming, as we cannot prevent it anymore, is to keep runaway climate change from happening and that can only happen if we can keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees celsius (above pre-industrial levels) in 2030. If not, major ecosystems begin collapsing as the ability to absorb excess carbon dioxide is exhausted. To keep this rise from happening we can’t just switch incandencent lightbulbs for LEDs, we need to cut 90 percent of our CO2 output. The challenge Monbiot sets himself in Heat is to show that we can do this without giving up our post-industrial lifestyles, by taking the United Kingdom as his test subject and looking at various aspepcts of our lives to see how CO2 output can be reduced in them. It is not a complete blueprint for change of course and you may not necessarily agree with all his solutions, but it is a genuine attempt at putting together a national plan of action that could be implemented relatively quickly and doesn’t require all of us to piss in hayboxes.

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Why am I not suprised?

It’s long been demonstrated, by such purveyors of wingnuttia like Alicublog and Decent Leftspotters like Aaronovitch Watch, that wingnuts tend to run in circles. Get slightly dotty about the Muslims and before you know it you don’t believe in evolution anymore, think giving women the right to vote was a bad idea and abortion a crime against humanity. It’s not enough to just believe in one patently false evil belief, no, once you go wingnut, you go wingnut all the way.

So it came as no suprise when, according to DutchNews, one of the Islamophobes of Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration party is revealed to be clueless about climate change as well, denying the melting of the Arctic:

‘Our schoolchildren should be learning to spell and do sums not that pathetic polar bears are drifting around on ice floes because we go on holiday by plane,’ the paper quotes him as saying.

And yet this party won nine seats at the last elections and is consistently predicted to do even better next time. Makes you proud to be Dutch.

Rivers in Time – Peter D. Ward

Cover of Rivers in Time

Rivers in Time
Peter D. Ward
315 pages including index
published in 2000

Rivers of Time is a new edition of The End of Evolution, a book originally published in 1994, roughly around the same time as E. O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life, with which it overlaps to some point. Like that book, Rivers of Time mixes exploration of the Earth’s evolutionary past with concern for the
present, focussing on the historical three mega extinctions as well as the one currently under way. Unlike E. O. Wilson’s book however, this is not a call to arms. Ward is much more resigned to the great extinction than Wilson is.

Partially this may be because in Ward’s view, this great extinction has already happened, with the disappearance of the megafauna of Europe, North America, Australia and many parts of Asia and Africa during the last 15,000-20,000 years, coinciding with the rise of modern humanity. The extinctions still taking place now are just the aftermath of this. I’m not sure how much I agree with this, but at the very least it puts the current destruction of ecosystems in place like Brazil or Borneo into a new perspective, when you realise the same thing had already happened in Europe thousands of years ago.

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It’s David Brin’s Earth; we’re just living in it

Yesterday Norway officially opened what’s been called a “Noah’s ark for plant life”:

Dug deep into the permafrost of a remote Arctic mountain, the “doomsday” vault is designed by Norway to protect the world’s seeds from global catastrophe.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a backup to the world’s 1,400 other seed banks, was to be officially inaugurated in a ceremony Tuesday on the northern rim of civilization attended by about 150 guests from 33 countries.

The frozen vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples from around the globe, shielding them from climate change, war, natural disasters and other threats.

For those of us that have read David Brin’s 1990 novel Earth, this sounds eerily similar to the “Arks” he used as part of the background, wildlife refuges for animal and plant species that were dying out in the wild. Brin set his novel in 2038, but reality seems impatient. Brin must’ve been particularly well inspired when he wrote Earth, as these arks are far from the first “prediction” from it that have come true, as the Wikipedia article linked to above shows. What’s more, Brin put them together into a coherent vision of the near-future that to some extent seems to be coming true. Not in all particulars of course; science fiction cannot predict the future after all.

Brin wrote his novel at a time when, like now, environmental awareness was high. Acid rain had been known since the early eighties at least, while the disappearance of the ozone layer was common knowledge at the end of the decade and was finally acted upon then, decades after it first had been discovered, while global warming and the disappearance of biodiversity were just entering public awareness. That was a time when a fair few science fiction novels, unlike now, tackled climate change.

Coincindentally there’s a recent thread on torque Control on why it is that so few sf authors currently seem unwilling or unable to tackle climate change other than as background fodder. Perhaps because most of us, other than hardcore denialists, seem convinced it is happening and it can’t be stopped only migitated. Climate change as part of the consensus future, too big to ignore but also too immediate to make writing about it fun perhaps, unlike fifteen-twenty years ago.