It’s simple. If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up

30 04 2017

I occasionally publish articles by George monbiot. At times I have labelled them ‘Monbiot at his best’, even if I disagreed with bits of it….. but this time, he utterly nails it. There’s very little regulars to this site will learn from this, but it is a good piece of writing, and it needs to be shared far and wide, because we truly need this revolution. It’s two years old, but even more relevant now than when he wrote it.

Found on the Guardian’s website…..

'The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots.'
‘The mother narrative to all this is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots.’ Photograph: Alamy

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

On Friday, a few days after scientists announced that the collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable, the Ecuadorean government decided toallow oil drilling in the heart of the Yasuni national park. It had made an offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You could see this as either blackmail or fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil deposits are rich. Why, the government argued, should it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colourful record of destruction and spills, will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of North America.

Almost 45% of the Yasuni national park is overlapped by oil concessions.
Yasuni national park. Murray Cooper/Minden Pictures/Corbis

The UK oil firm Soco is now hoping to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo; one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the south-east, the government fantasises about turning the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it’s changing the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people. These new reserves solve nothing. They do not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that fantasies about colonising space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.

As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we miraculously reduced the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.

The Fingerprints of Sea Level Change

18 02 2015

I tip my hat to the follower of this blog who calls him/herself rabiddoomsayer for pointing to this excellent video featuring Jerry Mitrovica, an Australian physicist who specialises in rising sea levels.  It never ceases to amaze me how much can be learned on the internet.  I hope you find this as fascinating as I did…..

Jerry X. Mitrovica

Jerry X. Mitrovica joined Harvard in 2009 as a Professor of Geophysics. His work focuses on the Earth’s response to external and internal forcings that have time scales ranging from seconds to billions of years. He has written extensively on topics ranging from the connection of mantle convective flow to the geological record, the rotational stability of the Earth and other terrestrial planets, ice age geodynamics, and the geodetic and geophysical signatures of ice sheet melting in our progressively warming world. Sea-level change has served as the major theme of these studies, with particular emphasis on critical events in ice age climate and on the sea-level fingerprints of modern polar ice sheet collapse.

Mitrovica is the Director of the Earth Systems Evolution Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He is a former J. Tuzo Wilson Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto, where he also received his Ph.D. degree. He is the recipient of the A.E.H. Love Medal from the European Geosciences Union and the Rutherford Memorial Medal from the Royal Society of Canada. He is also a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a past Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a former Visiting Miller Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Compounding problems for sea level rise…

28 01 2015

Another guest post by Mark Cochrane…..

One of the larger concerns in recent years has been the question of just how fast sea levels might rise due to collapsing ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. In the IPCC AR4 report (2007) there was considerable furor because the 2005 cut off for literature and the natural conservative nature of the ‘consensus’ interpretation resulted in estimates of sea level rise that were known to be too low at the time of publication: specifically, from 0.18 to 0.59 m by 2100, depending on which scenario you chose and the low-to-high extremes. In the more recent AR5 report (2013), they conclude that for the best of emissions cases, if we start immediate and extensive carbon emission reductions (RCP 2.6), sea level is expected to rise by 28-61 cm by 2100, while in the worst of cases (RCP 8.5) sea level rise is expected to be 52-98 cm. This is still conservative but much better than the AR4 estimates.

The real question is whether sea level rise occurs at close to a linear rate (fixed amount per year) that is slow and easily projected, or if it is increasing at a nonlinear rate (fixed percentage per year) that could yield unpleasant surprises in future years? Dr. Richard Alley (2010) compared projections of sea level rise going forward and basically found that most included 1m within their error range, with the exception of one serious outlier at 5m made by Dr. James Hansen (2005, 2007, 2012). Hansen’s predictions have not been well-received by the community of experts on ice sheet dynamics. They point out that, so far, there has been nothing like the amount of sea level rise observed that would be necessary to reach 5m in a linear fashion. Hansen however premises his ideas of rapid ice sheet collapse on nonlinear phenomenon caused by things like glacial melt water being transported to the base of the ice sheets and acting as a lubricant to speed their movement dramatically.

In the mean time, more traditional approaches to looking at glacial melting rates have had values centered more on 1 meter, to maybe 2 meters under worst conditions, of sea level rise by 2100 (NOAA 2012). Hansen has been intransigent in his estimations and the rates of sea level rise keep exceeding the best estimates of the ‘experts’. Glacial melt within dynamic ice sheet models has typically been modelled based on simple top down melting with unchanging processes for explaining the ongoing flow of ice sheets. However, the accelerating rates of observed ice sheet flow and disintegrating ice shelves have led to reappraisals of what is going on. As I recently detailed (post #2340), warmer ocean waters have been melting ice sheets from underneath in some regions, removing the stable grounding lines and now the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is in irreversible collapse (Rignot et al 2014, Joughlin et al. 2014).

Similarly, Pollard et al. (2014) have recently tried to improve continental ice sheet models by adding the processes of oceanic melting and hydrofracturing (melt water from the surface pouring into cracks and forcing them further apart) and also account for ice cliff failures (when they get so large the ice face crumbles). Both processes they added are based on observations made in the field in recent years. They looked at the effects on both the WAIS and the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS). The interesting thing (to me at least) is that cliff failure and hydrofracture combine to cause very large changes in expected sea level rise that either process alone does not create. By itself, cliff failure does little to accelerate collapse over the standard model representation. Conversely, hydrofracturing, by itself, causes expected sea level rise to roughly double from 2 to 4 m over thousands of years. When both processes are included though, the sea level rises by 17 m, with about 4 m happening in the first 100 years! Clearly the two processes interact to strongly enhance the collapse rate.  The EAIS collapses slowly over thousands of years but the WAIS collapses in decades.

The Pollard et al (2014) paper is not expressly addressing our future as it was aimed at explaining formerly unexplainable sea level rises during some previous interglacial periods – which their results ended up matching fairly closely. They forced their model using 400 ppm CO2 so it isn’t wildly different from what we currently have though.  In the model, roughly 3 m of sea rise come from the WAIS alone, within 100 years. If you add the much slower response of the EAIS and the undiscussed but very similar ice sheet collapse from Greenland, suddenly Hansen’s 5 m sea level rise call doesn’t look so outlandish after all. Interestingly, the senior author on the Pollard et al. paper is none other than Richard Alley who previously did not see how such rapid ice sheet collapse could be occurring.

This still doesn’t mean that we definitely will get 5 m of sea level rise in this century (let’s pray that we don’t!) but it certainly increases the perceived risks of much larger sea level rises than the IPCC AR5 report states (again). It also helps explain the increasing rates of sea level rise from 1.0 mm/yr to 3.0 mm/yr in recent decades. Things seem to be proceeding in a decidedly nonlinear way.