Thursday, April 30, 2009

'One in four of less than two at under a trillion'

If no climate policies are implemented (red) global warming will cross 2°C by the middle of the century. Making sure we don't emit more than 1 trillion (1000 gigatons) of CO2 in total (blue) would limit the risk of exceeding 2°C to 25%. -- M. Meinshausen et al.

(larger image)
If governments are serious about accepting the risks of escalating emissions...they will find ways to keep emissions within "safe" bounds.

If they are not serious, it doesn't matter how you slice up the problem - it won't be solved.
-- Richard Black.

See: A 21st century greenhouse gas budget? (Feb 07).


Mr. Cheney's politics of torture, Mark Danner says, looks, Janus-like, in two directions:
back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.
Obama chooses to take this bull by the horns:
I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British, during World War Two, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said 'we don't torture', when all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

But the narrative gets a little more complicated if you recall that Churchill sanctioned the area bombing of civilian populations in Germany.

P.S. 2 May Dowd on corrosion of character

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The American Century

In Farewell, the American Century Andrew Bacevich almost sounds like the Archbishop of Canterbury:
we [the United States should ] apologize to them [Cuba, Japan, Iran and Afghanistan] for our own good -- to free ourselves from the accumulated conceits of the American Century and to acknowledge that the United States participated fully in the barbarism, folly, and tragedy that defines our time. For those sins, we must hold ourselves accountable.

To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really are. And that requires shedding, once and for all, the illusions embodied in the American Century.
David Hayes and I would have added Iraq to the list.

Paul Collier observes:
Chinese aid to the US has been like EU aid to Chad, but on the grand scale: China paid for Iraq.


Baseline scenarios applies a Bourdieu-ian lens to the culture of Wall Street:
I have no reason to believe [Tim Geithner] is corrupt. Instead, the simplest explanation that he has internalized a worldview in which Wall Street is the central pillar of the American economy, the health of the economy depends on the health of a few major Wall Street banks, the importance of those banks justifies virtually any measures to protect them in their current form, large taxpayer subsidies to banks (and to bankers) are a necessary cost of those measures - and anyone who doesn’t understand these principles is a simple populist who just doesn’t understand the way the world really works.

[Geithner] got the cultural education that rich people get, except instead of just going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, he was educated in the culture of Wall Street. Just like an education in art history is a marker of class distinction that is used to perpetuate class distinction, an education in modern finance is a marker of distinction that sets off those who understand the true importance of Wall Street for the American economy. As long the powerful people in Washington, including the regulators who oversee the financial industry, share that worldview, Wall Street’s power and ability to make money will be secure.


The rate of increase is much faster than only 10-20 years ago. You can almost see the changes taking place. Never before have CO2 levels increased so fast.
-- Johan Strom, Norwegian Polar Institute, in a report on yearly increases of 2 -3 ppm.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Create, not consume

We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered was the Earth.
-- Barack Obama quotes Bill Anders

Friday, April 24, 2009

Civilization discontents

Further to the Ballard connected comments at Dark Patrons, this from a substantial essay by Terry Eagleton:
The kind of automated, built-in consent [advanced capitalism] seeks from its citizens does not depend all that much on what they believe. As long as they get out of bed, roll into work, consume, pay their taxes, and refrain from beating up police officers, what goes on in their heads and hearts is mostly secondary. Advanced capitalism is not the kind of regime that exacts much spiritual commitment from its subjects. Indeed, zeal is more to be feared than encouraged. That is an advantage in “normal” times, since demanding too much belief from men and women can easily backfire. But it is much less a benefit in times of political tumult.

"Words alone cannot begin to express our regret and sympathy"

It's true that we forget these killings easily -- often we don't notice them in the first place -- since they don't seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country.

One problem, though: the forgetting doesn't work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don't forget.
-- Tom Englehardt

(The Weapons That Kill Civilians — Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003–2008 is online here.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Suicide bombers presumably would be in for a disappointment if they reached the pearly gates and were presented 72 grapes.
-- Nicholas Kristof.

Climate cheer and fear.

We must not give in to pessimism, says Nick Stern.

Close to 100% CCS appears feasible, if expensive, as demonstrated in France and Germany. But it requires the right kind of politics, which is still lacking in the UK.

Attitudes of many people in the U.S. may be moving in the opposite direction from those of the administration , but there's a chance of limited progress in China.

P.S. 24 April: more from Stern et al.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Feed me!

I am not exactly keeping up with the times, but this is too good to miss:

John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, is speaking to Screaming Lord Christopher Monckton of the Monster Raving Loony Party. He argues that because plants need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, limiting anthropogenic emissions would actually kill the world's plants.

The exchange was recently highlighted by James Kwak (sic) at Baselinescenarios.

Oxfam takes a different view.


 Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore
-- Paul Krugman 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dark patrons

The Dark Mountain Project may seek neither god nor master, but for secular prophets in its own country could consider D H Lawrence and J G Ballard.

In a short remembrance for Ballard this morning, Iain Sinclair said "our last conversation was about the Westfield Shopping Centre, this amazing reef that brings the cathederal of nonidentity to its perfect apogee".[1]

And here's Lawrence back in 1925 (Morality and the Novel):
The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe, at the living moment. As mankind is always struggling in the coils of old relationships, art is always ahead of the 'times', which themselves are always far in the rear of the living moment...[2]

[1] (added 23 April): Chris Petit writes:
Boredom underpins consumerism. It defines leisure (and desire), which collapses into shopping. Boredom invites terror (as its only cure).
[2] (added 25 April) I had been looking for the short essay on poetry from which this comes:
This is the momentous crisis for mankind, when we have to get back to chaos. So long as the umbrella serves, and poets make slits in it, and the mass of people can be gradually educated up to the vision in the slit: which means they patch it over with a patch that looks just like the vision in the slit; so long as this process can continue, and mankind can be educated up, and thus built in, so long will a civilization continue more or less happily, completing its own painted prison. It is called completing the consciousness.

A finite pool of worry

[Elke] Weber’s research seems to help establish that we have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem — a plunging stock market, a personal emergency — comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out. And even if we could remain persistently concerned about a warmer world? Weber described what she calls a “single-action bias.” Prompted by a distressing emotional signal, we buy a more efficient furnace or insulate our attic or vote for a green candidate — a single action that effectively diminishes global warming as a motivating factor. And that leaves us where we started.
-- from Why Isn’t the Brain Green? by Jon Gertner

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Debating climate risks

A useful discussion hosted by Andy Revkin

Pointing fingers

Discover magazine features a gallery of images of Man's Greatest Crimes Against the Earth. These include, it seems, Bhopal, air and water pollution in China, mountaintop removal for coal and the illegal trade in bushmeat. Deforestation in Indonesia is also on the list; it makes the country the world's third largest contributor of greenhouse gases, we are helpfully told.

But there is no mention is made of emissions of greenhouse gases from the production and consumption of oil.

These 'nine saddest pictures on the planet' are sponsored by the ConocoPhillips Energy Prize.

In 2007 ConocoPhillips, the world's fifth largest refiner, produced 1,880,000 barrels of oil equivalent. [1]


1] 2007 Factbook, . Includes Syncrude but excludes LUKOIL.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What is to be done?

John Sauven is right encourage climate campaigners, now released, not to be intimidated.

And so long as there is no significant risk that interrupting operations at coal-fired power stations will jeopardise electricity supplies to vital institutions such as hospitals, peaceful protests should continue.

Such actions could be a little like a strictly non-violent version of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. They are needed to shake others into awareness and action. And we need shaking. [1] As Andrew Simms recently put it:

Imagine that every day of your life you have taken a walk in the woods and the worse thing to happen was an acorn or twig falling on your head.

Then, one day, you stroll out, look up and there is a threat approaching so large, unexpected and outside your experience that can't quite believe it, like a massive gothic cathedral falling from the sky.


[1] By the way, I agree with the part of this comment which holds that peak oil is a red herring.

[2] Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thoreau did not hesitate to meet with John Brown. One hundred and sixty years ago he wrote:
There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them...They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.
In conversation with Rana Mitter, Slavoj Zizek recently got close. (My faulty transcription):
Terror is for me another name for ethics. The most noble of terror that's how I think of it. Let’s say you’re in a situation where you have a nice life and so on, but you know that you have to do something, you simply must. If you don't do it you will betray yourself. That’s terror for me. Terror for me in the most noble sense. Ethical acting doesn't come easy.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Chinese approach

Isabel Hilton circulates a note:
We thought you might be interested in this three-part opinion article, just published on about China's climate-change policy -- by leading Chinese economist Hu Angang.

The current classification of nations as either "developed" or "developing", he writes, does not reflect reality and is preventing a fair agreement being reached climate change. Instead, Hu proposes two new principles. First, nations should be assigned to one of four categories according to their Human Development Index (HDI) ranking. Second, major greenhouse-gas emitters should be made to bear greater responsibility for emissions reduction. He then calculates the emissions reductions China should make and proposes a “road map” for use within China.

Read the full article here: A-new-approach-at-Copenhagen 1, 2 & 3

I hope you find it of interest
warm regards

P.S. 10 Apr: Evan Osnos reports on cooperation between the U.S. and China on climate change and energy. And here is what Orville Schell wrote in February.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Alternative sets of procedures

Mark Danner does a useful job on government sanctioned torture (US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites, The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means). One can see the violence inherent in doublethink at work. As George W. Bush asked, 'What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"?'

Less publicized, perhaps, has been the widespread use of solitary confinement in U.S prisons and the ramifications of this practice, which is a form of torture. In his remarkable investigation, Hellhole, Atul Gawande observes:
With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door

'The Quiet Coup'

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.
--Simon Johnson on becoming a banana republic.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Fear and trembling

One night last week I had a terrible dream. My little daughter and I were walking on giant rusty bridge high above a seaway. [1] We went too close to the edge and fell to our deaths.

Dreams (never mind waking life) can be slippery and unfixed, but I find it almost impossible not to assign a meaning to this one: that the future for my daughter may be catastrophe. The previous day I had read an article about evidence of rapid climate change in the Arctic, and it struck me more than such things usually do. [2]

We have long known, if we have been paying attention, that scientists studying earth systems and climate change believe there are significant risks of changes with potentially dire consequences. We have long known that these risks include positive feedbacks, including a rapid release of methane. [3] And we have known for nearly two years that a recent increase in atmospheric concentrations of methane could be a sign of that particular feedback kicking in. We have long known that rapid and effective action to reduce and (quite soon) eliminate emissions is the only sensible option. But this particular article shook me deep down.

The usual response is that despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s not over until it’s over. And the usual response may be the right one. [4]

But other thoughts arise: Isn’t this optimism of the will actually just another form of denial? [5] Much of human history suggests that - however wise some institutions and individuals may be, societies are very poor at anticipating and heading off complex and intractable dangers they cannot immediately see. Greed and short term thinking are so deeply embedded in the way we organize and are organized that nothing will shift them in time. The solutions don’t have a hope, whispers a little voice. We’re not going to get our act together, [6], [7] and even if we do it may be too late. Terrible suffering and death is coming, and this actually means you and all you care about. [8] The idea that we have moved beyond the worst horrors that the 20th century could throw at us such as genocide and the threat of nuclear annihilation is going to prove laughable.

I have pretended to be mostly hard-boiled, less-deceived [9], at least when not feeling bewildered by low-level indifference and stupidity, rage at those who tell the big lies and do the big crimes, or self-disgust that I am not doing more to make things better. But there has usually been an element of distance in this: the wrong end of the telescope, the sound muffled by water.

Now, it seems, the 'lessons' of the great tragedies which a duffer like me studied long ago may actually apply to us, to me. I would not mind too much if that was just for myself, but I'm not sure I can stand it for my little daughter [10], who I love more than I can say and who ties me to life and the future in a way I cannot escape. [11]

So here we stand, perhaps close to the brink of catastrophe, carrying on as if it was not there. I plant seeds and listen to the spring birdsong.


[1] It resembled the Menai, a symbol of the first industrial age and itself built about 50 years after The Iron Bridge and more than 100 years after the Atmospheric Engine. I had this dream a few days before the news came through of the collapse of an ice bridge in Antarctica.

[2] Arctic meltdown is a threat to humanity by Fred Pearce, New Scientist 25 March 2009, is a short feature, well put together. Pearce has form as reporter and author of several books on climate change, water and other issues. The article begins:
"I am shocked, truly shocked," says Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "I was in Siberia a few weeks ago, and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them."

Back in 2006, in a paper in Nature, Walter warned that as the permafrost in Siberia melted, growing methane emissions could accelerate climate change. But even she was not expecting such a rapid change. "Lakes in Siberia are five times bigger than when I measured them in 2006. It's unprecedented. This is a global event now, and the inertia for more permafrost melt is increasing."...
[3] See also CO2 rise continues, but check out methane and
Methane prime suspect for greatest mass extinction. Feedbacks, or tipping points, are thought to be a risk. Not everyone agrees they are certain. See debate.

[4] A typical recent example is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy by George Monbiot. Guy Dauncey’s new blog is yet another brave effort in the solutions vein. I spent more than fifteen years working on such things myself. [Added 16 April: see, too, Facing Climate Change. Thanks VS for this link.]

[5] See, for example, Dishonest campaigning for paltry solutions by Paul Kingsnorth

[6] (added 22 May): How's this for real politics:
On May 15th Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, the Democratic point-men on climate change in the House of Representatives, unveiled a bill that would give away 85% of carbon permits for nothing, with only 15% being auctioned. The bill’s supporters say this colossal compromise was necessary to win the support of firms that generate dirty energy or use a lot of it, and to satisfy congressmen from states that mine coal or roll steel.
[7] Another thought: what if the best scientists are wrong, not because the so-called skeptics (who are fraudsters, fools and criminals) are right but because the science turns out to have been more complex than foreseen, with results that somehow turn out to be more benign, or because there do turn out to be get-out-jail-free cards such as energy-related and/or geo-engineering technologies that deliver much more than they destroy?

[8] Schellnhuber contemplates a human population reduced to about one billion. James Lovelock talks about a 'cull'.

[9] See Tidings by Czelaw Milosz.

[10] Concluding a review of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon writes:
What emerges most powerfully as one reads The Road is not a prognosticatory or satirical warning about the future, or a timeless parable of a father's devotion to his son, or yet another McCarthyesque examination of the violent underpinnings of all social intercourse and the indifference of the cosmic jaw to the bloody morsel of humanity. The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent's greatest fears. The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with. The fear of one day being obliged for your child's own good, for his peace and comfort, to do violence to him or even end his life. And, above all, the fear of knowing—as every parent fears—that you have left your children a world more damaged, more poisoned, more base and violent and cheerless and toxic, more doomed, than the one you inherited. It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which The Road extends the metaphor of a father's guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader.
[11] See, for example, this from Waterland by Graham Swift:
The Here and Now, which brings both joy and terror, comes but rarely - does not even come when we call it. That’s the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space.

My babe so beautiful ! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee
-- Coleridge

P.S. 14 April: World will not meet 2C warming target, climate change experts agree and To stop a climate catastrophe we must first believe we can make a difference.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Who is saying sensible things about the economic-environmental 'crisis', and what to do next?

Margaret Atwood (reviewed by John Gray) almost certainly.

Geoff Mulgan is almost convincing.

But what about Saskia Sassen, who sees conspiracy , or David Brooks, who goes (predictably) for cock-up.

David Hayes puts together some mostly UK voices from civil society