Thomas Malthus redux

“It takes a good crisis to get us going. When we feel fear and we fear loss we are capable of quite extraordinary things.”

(Paul Gilding)”

Thomas Malthus got it right. It’s a pity we took a century and a half to admit it..

He pointed out that “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, in other words, you can’t expect continuous growth of consumption on a finite planet. He was vilified in his lifetime with the same fervour that the denial industry applies to climate change advocates today. More so in fact. His predictions of when we’d hit the wall didn’t turn out to be correct so his reputation has been assaulted ever since.

But he was right. His predictions went astray because he had no way of anticipating that the discovery of oil would allow us to extend the illusion of “sustainable growth” for another century or so by mining the sun’s energy from past millenia.

Paul Gilding spells it out in this 17 minute TED talk:

Have we used up all our resources? Have we filled up all the livable space on Earth? Paul Gilding suggests we have, and the possibility of devastating consequences, in a talk that’s equal parts terrifying and, oddly, hopeful.

Paul Gilding is an independent writer, activist and adviser on a sustainable economy. Click through to watch the onstage debate that followed this talk.


Nature in subjection

Where does it all end?

Habitat loss, pollution, desertification, over-population, vanishing topsoil, the resource crunch—it’s not just about climate change…Jonaton Schell

Jonathan Schell is an insightful writer and scholar. A man of many accomplishments. He has elegantly summed up my generation’s legacy to our children’s children in this quote:

“Taken in its entirety, the increase in mankind’s strength has brought about a decisive, many-sided shift in the balance of strength between man and the earth.”
“Nature, once a harsh and feared master, now lies in subjection and needs protection against man’s powers.”
“Yet because man, no matter what intellectual and technical heights he may scale, remains embedded in nature, the balance has shifted against him too, and the threat that he poses to the Earth is a threat to him as well.”

Believe it. Those cupfuls of oil add up. Whether you’re a climate change evangelist, a climate change sceptic or just in denial you can’t escape the fact that we’re fouling our grandchildren’s nest and squandering their heritage. Whether or not you believe that our output of greenhouse gas is contributing to climate change, it’s undeniable that the measures which need to be addressed in order to limit pollution and to husband non-renewable energy sources are the same measures as those which the proponents of anthropogenic climate change promote.

One world, one people, one chance

If nothing else disturbs you, contemplate the source of funding for Al Qaeda, Hamas, Abu Nidal, Islamic Jihad and dozens of other groups. Every time we buy petroleum based fuels we’re contributing to their cause. Those groups obtain most of their funding from oil money: mainly, but not exclusively, from Iran and from the USA’s bosom buddies in Saudi Arabia. We’re funding an openly declared war upon ourselves. A quote from the Middle East Forum in 2003:

“The Saudi government has admitted to spending more than $87 billion over the last decade in an effort to spread Wahhabism. This money has been spent on the creation of Mosques, schools, and other institutions that have constituted the breeding grounds for the foot soldiers of the global Islamic terrorist movement.”

“Political considerations, and oil, have prevented Washington from holding the Saudis accountable for their role in promoting terrorism.
A briefing by Rachel Ehrenfeld September 19, 2003

Eventually, the rising cost of oil is likely to be seen to have been a very good thing in every conceivable way. We only get one bite of the cherry.

Also on mistywindow

See David Roberts from Grist with a convincing climate change update and the resource crunch video:
There’s no tomorrow“,
a half-hour animated documentary about resource depletion, energy and the collision of infinite growth with the brick wall of a finite planet.

Deep disaster

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Jeremy Jackson: How we wrecked the ocean

Jeremy Jackson is the Ritter Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He knows what he’s talking about. His recent talk on is disturbing. I knew that we’ve been busily killing the ocean for a century or so. I didn’t know how successfully and catastrophically. Please watch this vitally important talk:

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We need to listen to Dr jackson and we need to take action.

Now would be good.

TED is the thinking person’s Youtube:

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Climate change scepticism

Lies, damned lies, and statistics – scepticism and denial

Whichever way you look at it, it's getting hot in here.

There’s a world of difference between climate change scepticism and denial. The first is healthy, the second is often one-eyed, fanatical, or both. There are a number of things I don’t understand about the climate change denial industry:

Why do denialists have to be so obnoxious? They invariably use the same sarcastic, sneering tone that Richard Dawkins uses when reviling creationists in his best-selling books. Although I agree with Dawkins’ views on evolution, I suspect that his methods only serve to entrench the beliefs of those whom he belittles—he ends up preaching to the converted and loses an audience of potential converts. The same argument applies with the denial industry. If they have faith in their beliefs, why not state their truth calmly and lucidly and let the facts sway the skeptical?

Ian Wishhart’s recent book Air Con is a case in point. Sneering is the most apt adjective for the tone of the whole book. I tried to read the book in the hope of finding some insight into the denialist case. I was disappointed. After the first 3 or 4 chapters I’d had it with the half-truths, the interminable ramblings and the lies of omission; I gave up on it.

Where’s the problem?

As a denialist, is it not possible to accept that, even if you’re right, the actions promoted by anthropogenic climate change supporters would be good for the planet no matter what the global temperature graph looks like 20, 50 or 100 years on? Why not just get over it?

  • What’s wrong with replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources?
  • What’s wrong with denying the oil producers the wherewithal to continue to fund extremist Islam, anti-Western jihadist, and fanatical terrorist groups?
  • What’s wrong with reducing atmospheric pollution?
  • What’s to like about the coal industry?
  • What’s wrong with creating new hi-tech technologies, new green industries, and new clean jobs?
  • Who doesn’t want much more energy efficient cars. Which transfer the (reduced) pollution they generate from exhaust pipes to power plants far from choked city streets?

Most of all, how can you be so certain? Scratch the most prominent denialists and you’ll find that they’re doing very nicely out of it – like Bjørn Lomborg (a political scientist) with his money-making books and lecture circuit, or they’re like David Evans (a mathematician) who pads his résumé, or they’re working for big oil, or they’re just plain out-there, like the physicist at Auckland University who seemed to claim that the sun must be driving the change because it’s very big! Bjørn Lomborg on the BBC recently:

For me there’s no choice

Most of all I ask the denialists, “What if you’re wrong?” What will you tell your grand-children? If you’re right, it won’t matter too much, we’ll have made some overdue changes to the way things are done and my grandchildren will benefit.

If you’re wrong, and you succeed in sowing enough doubt, you could doom millions, maybe billions, to a far more apocalyptic outcome than would otherwise have been the case.

  • accepts that global warming is real,
  • that it’s man-made,
  • and it’s an important problem.

So he’s gone from denial to saying that we have more important things to worry about.

I’m not a climate scientist, I’m a retired engineer. My past income has depended upon my success in monitoring processes in thermodynamic systems and I can spot a trend as well as anybody.

When the denial industry tell me that the planet’s been cooling since 1998 I know that they’re either mistaken, can’t read a graph, they’re ignorant, or they’re lying. One El Niño induced anomalous year notwithstanding. That tired argument is particularly mystifying when one considers that the last decade is the warmest on record even though we’ve been in a low period of solar forcing for the latter part of it.

When they tell me that Arctic ice cover is increasing while they confuse extent with volume my eyes glaze over.

When the realities of Milankovitch Cycles are ignored and they equate cooling of Pluto with Earth’s climate I smell a very dead and decomposing rat.

Coming soon to a planet near you…

The blue marble… chaos.

The dissenting voices in the Climate Change Debate are fading. Now that even renowned intellectual George Dubbya has bowed to the inevitable, the scientific community is near unanimous in their overall acceptance. There are enormous problems ahead. Even if global warming wasn’t being caused by our profligate ways, it still exists and the problems will still arise.

If we started tomorrow doing everything right, the warming trend will continue for decades anyway, just not as quickly. We aren’t going to do everything right. The global economy, economic growth in newly emerging economies and population growth have so much momentum that the root causes are just going to keep on growing. Nobody understands that continual growth is not an option.

Here’s where it gets nasty

The scientific community have been hiding their lamps under bushels. The IPCC report played down a lot of the bad news under political pressure and because there was no hard evidence for some of the positive feedback mechanisms that could lead to an imminent tipping point and to more rapid growth of greenhouse gas emissions.


  • The ice caps are high albedo areas, i.e. reflective, they reflect a high proportion of solar radiation straight back into space. As the ice caps shrink, and they’re doing just that much more quickly than predicted, the exposed dark sea water and land is much more absorbent of heat.
  • The same applies to snow lines.
  • As the permafrost melts in Siberia and elsewhere, methane starts to be produced in the resulting bogs and enters the atmosphere. Methane is about 25 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
  • Methane release is already happening.

The upshot?

As warming continues, the amount of water evaporation will lead to more water vapour in the atmosphere. Sadly, water vapour is also a greenhouse gas. There will be more rainfall. Sadly again, it won’t be in the same places as it is now. It won’t be right places. The current bread baskets of the world will be drier. The North American mid-West and Canadian prairies, the ex Soviet Republics, the Mediterranean basin, southern Africa and Australia where it’s already started and the mid-latitudes of South America. The world’s food producing areas will move towards the poles. In some cases and for some crops this will be a good thing, overall however we will produce less food.

A lot less. The population is increasing. You work it out.

When there isn’t enough food to go around, those of us sitting in productive and low population density areas like New Zealand will have reason to feel very nervous. If you’re starving in Bangladesh or Indonesia and there’s a big chunk of productive land down south with a tiny population and no significant defences what are you going to do?

There will be hundreds of millions of refugees. It’s time for Australia and New Zealand to do a bit of co-operative planning. It’s time for New Zealand to reverse our short sighted, stupid, selfish attitude to defence spending.

What happens when the snow melt in the big mountain ranges is drastically reduced? What effect will reduced flow in the Ganges have on India, Bangladesh and Pakistan? The Yellow River? The Mekong? the Yangtse?

Bit of a worry.


Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

Dr Gwynne Dyer PhDPublished with permission from Dr Gwynne Dyer

It’s an old joke: everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. The same, unfortunately, is true for the climate.

They ARE talking about it. They were at it again in Honolulu last week, discussing mandatory, internationally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions (although Russia and India refused to allow any mention of that subject in the final statement). At the Bali meeting in December, China even hinted that it might consider something like binding emission caps in the long run. But there is no sense of urgency.

Not, at least, the sense of urgency that would be required to take actions that would invalidate the prediction, in the latest issue of the journal “Science”, that climate change may cost southern Africa more than 30 percent of its main crop, maize (corn, mealies), by 2030. No part of the developing world can lose one-third of its main food crop without descending into desperate poverty and violence.

Even some parts of the developed world would be in deep trouble at that point. One part of the developed world, Australia, is already in trouble, with its farmers facing what may be a permanent decline in the country’s ability to grow food, although Australia’s overall wealth is great enough to cushion the blow. But elsewhere, the mentality of “It can’t happen here” persists.

Over the past couple of years, due to a major shift in public opinion, we have arrived at something close to a global consensus that climate change is a major problem. Even George W. Bush now says that he is concerned about it. But there is no consensus on the best measures to deal with the problem, even among the experts, and the general public still does not grasp the urgency of the situation.

The two Democratic candidates for the presidency in the United States promise 80 percent cuts in emissions by 2050, and John McCain for the Republicans promises 50 percent cuts by the same date, and nobody points out that such a leisurely approach, applied in every country, condemns the world to a global temperature regime at least three or four degrees Celsius (5.5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

Nobody points out that those are average global temperatures which take into account the relatively cool air over the oceans, and that temperatures over land would be a good deal higher than that. Few people are aware that these higher temperatures will prevent pollination in many major food crops in parts of the world that are already so hot that they are near the threshold, and that this, combined with shifting rainfall patterns, will cause catastrophic losses in food production.

And hardly anybody says that it is going to get really bad as early as 2030 unless we get global emissions down by 80 percent by 2020, because “everybody knows” that that is politically impossible, and nobody wants to look like a fool. So we must just hope that physics and chemistry will wait until we are ready to respond.

But here is a bulletin from the front. Over the past few weeks, in several countries, I have interviewed a couple of dozen senior scientists, government officials and think-tank specialists whose job is to think about climate change on a daily basis. And NOT ONE of them believes the forecasts on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just last year. They think things are moving much faster than that.

The IPCC’s predictions in the 2007 report were frightening enough. Across the six scenarios it considered, it predicted “best estimate” rises in average global temperature of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 and 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century, with a maximum change of 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) in the “high scenario”. But the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers that the IPCC examined in order to reach those conclusions dated from no later than early 2006, and most relied on data from several years before that.

It could not be otherwise, but it means that the IPCC report took no notice of recent indications that the warming has accelerated dramatically. While it was being written, for example, we were still talking about the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free in late summer by 2042. Now it’s 2013.

Nor did the IPCC report attempt to incorporate any of the “feedback” phenomena that are suspected of being responsible for speeding up the heating, like the release of methane from thawing permafrost. Worst of all, there is now a fear that the “carbon sinks” are failing, and in particular that the oceans, which normally absorb half of the carbon dioxide that is produced each year, are losing their ability to do so.

Maybe the experts are all wrong. Here in the present, out ahead of the mounds of data that pile up in the rear-view mirror and the studies that will eventually get published in the scientific journals, there are only hunches to go on. But while the high-level climate talks pursue their stately progress towards some ill-defined destination, down in the trenches there is an undercurrent of suppressed panic in the conversations. The tipping points seem to be racing towards us a lot faster than people thought.