Tuesday, September 24, 2013


I submitted a piece to Comment is Free at The Guardian. They didn't take it. Here it is.

Into the Labyrinth

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges has many monsters. Among them is the Minotaur, half bull and half man, who is born of the furious passion of Pasiphae, Queen of Crete, for a white bull that Neptune had brought out of the sea. Daedalus, the engineer and craftsman who invented the artifice that carried the Queen's unnatural desires to gratification, builds a labyrinth to hide her monstrous son. But the consequences of her act cannot be confined. The Minotaur feeds on human flesh and every year seven young men and seven maidens must be thrown into its lair.

The relevance of this old myth to anthropogenic climate change and the new [27 September 2013] report from Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is not obvious. The IPCC report is the best effort of the international scientific community to summarise current understanding of the complex phenomena involved. Like all such endeavours, it is necessarily provisional and imperfect. But, notwithstanding the distortions and lies manufactured and propagated by the fossil fuel lobby and its friends, it is a small triumph of cooperation and the rational method that are hallmarks of the Enlightenment and progressive thought. It may even, in combination with much else, help deliver effective responses to one of the greatest challenges any generation has faced.

Ancient myths, by contrast, resonate with our emotions and the associative parts of our minds, but their meanings are often slippery and can disappear if we try to confront them directly. They seldom offer clear markers as to what to do. But myths that have endured are still with us for good reason. They contain profound truths about the human condition. They allow us to inhabit alternative worlds or forgotten corners of experience. And they are open to divergent, inconclusive interpretations.

You can see this in Pablo Picasso's work. In Minotauromachy, etched in March 1935 some fifteen months before Spain waded into the bloody nightmare of civil war, a terrifying figure with the head of a bull and the body of a massively powerful man has gored open a horse which carries a bare-breasted and unconscious or dying torera (a female bullfighter) on its back. A Christ-like figure flees up a ladder while from a window onlookers do nothing. Only a young girl, holding a bunch of flowers and a candle lit against the darkness, stands in the monster's path. Elements of this etching prefigure the famous 1937 painting Guernica. But at the same time that he created Minotauromachy, Picasso was also celebrating the Minotaur in a series we know as the Vollard Suite in which the hybrid beast embodies disruptive male sexuality, and even vulnerability and tenderness.

The relevance to manmade climate change is that even when things look grim we cannot know for sure how they will turn out. This is not because the science is faulty but because in science and human affairs uncertainty is inevitable. Climate science can only assign a range of probable outcomes under a given scenario such as the doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Human behaviour, which may result in concentrations significantly higher or lower than that, is much harder to predict.

The IPCC report estimates that the global average temperature is likely to rise by between 1 and 4 ºC [CHECK] for a doubling of CO2. Even at the lower end of these projections of what is known as climate sensitivity, we face a massive risk management challenge. Already, before the change has kicked in, we are seeing extreme weather events and rapid regional warming that suggest more formidable challenges ahead. (Climate change may be a factor behind the  conflict in Syria: according to the UN, two to three million of Syria’s ten million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty by an exceptionally severe drought between 2006 and 2010, with large-scale anger and unrest a result.) And towards the upper end of the IPCC range, which the report deems no less probable, the prospects are far more disturbing.

Moreover, there is evidence that assumptions on climate sensitivity made in the latest IPCC report underestimate the role of some amplifying feedbacks that intensify climate impacts. In other words, reality may be vastly more disruptive than the IPCC suggests. Paul Wignall, professor of paleoenvironments at Leeds University, reckons the current rate of change is a good match for the beginning of the end Permian extinction 251 million years ago when the temperature rose by around 6ºC and 95% of species died. If this sounds almost incredible consider that the additional accumulation of heat in the oceans since the 1870s due to human activity is equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. Half of that energy has been added since 1970 at an average rate of about 4 atomic bomb detonations per second. “The climate system is an angry beast,” observed the distinguished scientist Wally Broecker in 2008, “and we are poking it with a sharp stick.”

The world in which we evolved is filled with almost endless forms of life most beautiful and most wonderful: beings so astonishing in their variety and sophistication that, for all our science and ingenuity to date, we have still barely imagined them. In the words of the science writer David Biello, “butterflies hold answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask yet.” Another mass extinction will destroy huge resources of knowledge and wonder.

Life has survived at least five mass extinctions in the distant past. Each one opened opportunities for marvelous new forms to evolve. The rise of the mammals after the demise of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago is the best known example. But recovery – in our case the evolution of a world with great whales, stunning coral reefs, more than ten thousands bird species, and ourselves – took millions of years.  De-extinction technology may resurrect a few iconic species, and perhaps more, but it is no substitute for responsible stewardship of the fantastic complexity and beauty we already have.

Almost everything depends on what we do now. Theseus had to be brave when he entered the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur but bravery alone was not enough. He also needed the technical means to escape – a thread provided on the advice of Daedalus by prince Ariadne. In our time, a vision for justice is essential but so is technical advance. Rational people can negotiate over priorities but they are likely to include radical transformations in the energy system such as the delivery of PV at less than a dollar a Watt, a new vision for land use and ecosystem management. Perhaps we will need to get serious about a plan B: geo-engineering.

In one of his more pessimistic moments Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “I fear that the animals see man as a being who in a most dangerous manner has lost his animal common sense – as the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal.” It is up to us to create a different reality. Regarding situations that looked hopeless, the economist Albert O. Hirschman talked of “possibilism” – a state of mind that allows one to discover paths that “however narrow, [lead] to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.”  Hope, not least in defiance of the terrific power of vested interests and the dismal influence of climate contrarians, is our greatest resource.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The good old days

From report to Parliament in 1842 (quoted here):
Collieries.—“I wish to call the attention of the Board to the pits about Brampton. The seams are so thin that several of them have only two feet headway to all the working. They are worked altogether by boys from eight to twelve years of age, on all-fours, with a dog belt and chain. The passages being neither ironed nor wooded, and often an inch or two thick with mud. In Mr. Barnes’ pit these poor boys have to drag the barrows with one hundred weight of coal or slack sixty times a day sixty yards, and the empty barrows back, without once straightening their backs, unless they choose to stand under the shaft, and run the risk of having their heads broken by a falling coal.”—Report on Mines, 1842, p. 71. “In Shropshire the seams are no more than eighteen or twenty inches.”—Ibid., p.67. “At the Booth pit,” says Mr. Scriven, “I walked, rode, and crept eighteen hundred yards to one of the nearest faces.”—Ibid. “Chokedamp, firedamp, wild fire, sulphur, and water, at all times menace instant death to the laborers in these mines.” “Robert North, aged 16: Went into the pit at seven years of age, to fill up skips. I drew about twelve months. When I drew by the girdle and chain my skin was broken, and the blood ran down. I durst not say anything. If we said anything, the butty, and the reeve, who works under him, would take a stick and beat us.”—Ibid. “The usual punishment for theft is to place the culprit’s head between the legs of one of the biggest boys, and each boy in the pit—sometimes there are twenty—inflicts twelve lashes on the back and rump with a cat.”—Ibid. “Instances occur in which children are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age, sometimes at five, not unfrequently at six and seven, while from eight to nine is the ordinary age at which these employments commence.”—Ibid. “The wages paid at these mines is from two dollars fifty cents to seven dollars fifty cents per month for laborers, according to age and ability, and out of this they must support themselves. They work twelve hours a day.”-Ibid.