Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tortoise fight

After viewing a wide range of animals with several members of the party in trepidation at close approach to big potentially dangerous animals, guess which ones we had to give way for until they stopped fighting.

What it’s all about

I don’t think these pictures taken at Amakhala Reserve about 40km outside Grahamstown need further comment. You should get a slide show if you click on any of the pictures.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Australian Greens 2011 celebration

2011 was a good year for the Australian Greens, the oldest green political party in the world. Here is their list of 11 achievements for the year.

Naturally in South Africa some priorities would be different, but Australia in many ways is a similar country to South Africa, with strong coal and nuclear lobbies, water-poor ecologically sensitive sites threatened by mining and a disadvantaged indigenous population. Just as with South Africa, the dominant economic theory is neo-liberalism, and the union-aligned Labor party is increasingly abandoning their base.

The Greens in Australia have moved beyond protest and started to appeal to a wider demographic because they have stuck to their principles, when other parties have increasingly gone the route of opportunistic vote-seeking, and selling their policies to the highest bidder. A stark example of this is how the previous Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to introduce a minerals resource rent tax, a fairer basis for retaining a share of the profits from mining for the public sector than the previous system, a fixed royalty per tonne. The mining industry rebelled, and funded an expensive advertising campaign that destroyed his numbers in the opinion polls. Labor panicked, and ditched him for Julia Gillard, the current prime minister, who pushed the tax proposal through but at a much lower rate, after narrowly failing to lose the subsequent election.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Climate Science Briefing

If you have time to sit through about an hour of watching a video, Ben Santer’s keynote at the American Geophysical Union Fall 2011 meeting, a tribute to Stephen Schneider in which he explains clearly how we arrive at some of the key conclusions of climate science and why some of the “sceptic” arguments are wrong, is well worth the investment. (Go to the video here if it the embedded version doesn’t play on your web browser.)

Steve Schneider, who died in 2010, was a leader not only in climate science but  in communicating with the public. Shortly before he died, he appeared before a panel of climate “sceptics” on Australian television and politely answered all their questions. No doubt he didn’t win over many of them because they were pretty hard core, but any objective viewer had to be impressed.

You can find more about the video clip in the Ben Santer talk here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some Pictures

To put the whole COP17 fiasco into perspective I thought a few pictures would talk louder than words. Play this movie, from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) web site, which illustrates temperature changes from 1880 to 2010:
Can you see any difference in recent decades?

One thing that causes a lot of confusion is the differences in various temperature trends, particularly satellite versus ground-based measurements. Using different instruments measuring temperatures at different places may give different short-term measures, but the trend should be the same. A recent paper (by Foster and Rahmstorf) illustrates that much of the difference is in the extent to which short-term variations like El Niño are picked up by these very different forms of measurement. You’ll find more discussion on Tamino’s blog and on RealClimate. These short-term variations do not change the trend, but cause more ripples in shorter time-scales. Once these short-term effects are eliminated, the trends line up very nicely:
What’s more, rather than the alleged slowdown in warming since 1998, the trend remains remorselessly up. So why the alleged slowdown? Let’s look at what they’ve subtracted out of the raw data:
MEI is multivariate el Niño index, AOD is aerosol optical thickness data, representing mainly the cooling influence of volcanoes and TSI is total solar irradiance, representing variations in the sun.
Contrast the adjusted graph with one of the best-known temperature records, that produced by NASA GISS:

Here, the 2010 data point is no longer unequivocally a maximum. But it’s still one of the highest points on the chart despite the fact that the solar cycle is clearly a lot lower in 2010 than in 1998.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Clean Coal Myth

Alex Lenferna reports that “clean coal” is being touted among other crazy options at COP17.

Coal is an inherently dirty fuel, releasing many pollutants besides CO2 when it burns, including heavy metals and radioactive elements. Part of the mythology around “clean coal” is that more modern power stations are better. They are slightly less bad. It is possible to wash the coal to remove some of the pollutants, but that requires a lot of water, and the pollutants don’t vanish. But let’s focus on the CO2. A low efficiency coal power plant has an efficiency of about 30%; the best designs in current use may improve this to up to 40%. In other words, 60-70% of the energy released burning coal in a power station disappears up the chimney. You can achieve higher efficiencies with gas, and there is research into increasing the efficiency of coal power stations to up to 50%, but all of this of course does not eliminate the problem of CO2 emissions.

Then there is the “dream” goal of really clean coal, carbon capture and storage (CCS, also sometimes called “sequestration”): burying the emitted CO2 underground. The problem with this idea is that you need to store vast quantities of CO2 underground indefinitely. Even compressed down to a liquid, the volumes amount to cubic kilometres if you want to make a significant difference to worldwide emissions. 27 billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted by industry annually. That quantity if I did my arithmetic right amounts to 35 cubic km per year (CO2 compressed to a liquid weighs 770kg per m3). If we aim for a rather modest 10% of this total, we will have to find space underground to store 3.5 km3 of CO2 every year. Every year until when? Until we run out of coal, or find a cleaner energy source. It strikes me that the proposed solution is a whole lot less practical than the more obvious alternative: a gradual, measured slowdown in coal usage, while increasingly investing in really clean energy alternatives.

Storing and in general handling CO2 in high volumes is extremely hazardous because it is heavier than air. The hot gases out of a high smokestack are mixed into the atmosphere by turbulence. A slow leak at ground level takes time to dissipate. A natural leak of CO2 from an underground source can be fatal, and the quantities that would have to be stored for a coal power station are big enough to be a serious safety hazard. Naturally proponents of the technology claim it’s totally safe, but they said that of nuclear power too, and after the Japan tsunami, the story became “no one could predict that”.

Another big problem with the CCS  “dream” is that it significantly cuts into the efficiency of coal power generation because of the high energy cost of carbon capture, compression and storage.

Several projects around the world have been abandoned, when it is so clearly in the industry’s interest to show it works.

Why then are billions of dollars worldwide being poured into this failed technology? Delay. If the promise of “clean coal” can be held out as an alternative, investment in alternatives can be stalled. Who gains? Only the fossil fuel industry. And even they consist of individuals who need a planet on which to live. The rest of us stand to lose big time not only because of the threat of climate change but because of the much higher cost of a very rapid transition to clean energy, which will be the only option left to us if we wait too long.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

COP17: A Ripple of Hope?

Things on the whole seem pretty hopeless, with climate change denial the de facto guiding principle of most governments’ policies but we should not lose sight of the fact that other struggles for change have started out the same way. We ended slavery. We ended apartheid. We can win this one too.

The Problem
Here’s another view on what needs to be done (Farhana Yamin, Climate Change Portfolio Manager for The Children's Invenstment Fund Foundation, London).

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was a good start towards a worldwide legal framework for regulating emissions, but that is all it was meant to be. Instead, it has become something of a high water mark.

Obstructive governments of countries like Canada are selling out their own future, let alone that of the rest of the planet. Let’s keep up the pressure for change.

Politically, selling solutions to climate change is hard for two reasons:
  • the fossil fuel industry has managed to plant the myth that there are only two options: their way or the stone age
  • the effects of climate change are very slow, and hard to separate out from natural variability
In reality, whatever we do, we will eventually run out of fossil fuels. Rather than 200 years of supply (some put coal at up to 300 years, but that has to go down for a variety of reasons, including replacing oil, which runs out much sooner) at current rates of use, we need to compound for increased demand. Taking that into account, we have less than 100 years of fossil fuels left, even less if currently undeveloped nations develop using fossil fuels. Over that period, fossil fuels will not just disappear gracefully, but become increasingly expensive and hard to extract, as the easy sources dry up and worldwide demand increases (you may have noticed this effect already when you refuel your car). The net effect of all this is a succession of economic catastrophes as various industries adapt to the new reality of their energy source becoming unaffordable.

Observing climate change in the real world is a bit like trying to watch your toenails grow. No matter how hard you look, you can see nothing happening, but check back after long enough and something is different. Worse, the effects of the current level of emissions will take years to be felt, because longer-term effects like reduction in Arctic ice will continue to unfold for decades or even centuries, even if emissions do not increase. Ice reduction is important because ice is much more reflective than most other surfaces on our planet so less ice means more incoming solar energy is absorbed.

Because observing the change is hard and requires looking at swings in long-term averages (and worse still, effects far into the future), it’s hard to translate scientific knowledge about climate into the political cycle, where time-scales are much shorter, typically of the order of 6 months to a year. Even without concerns about climate, depletion of fossil fuels is an important issue for everyone. The developed world will have to make a transition as big as that from horses to cars, while the developed world has no opportunity to join the old type of industrialised economy because the wealthy nations have already consumed beyond the planet’s means.

Why it’s not Hopeless
We as individuals can contribute to consciousness by reducing our energy and environmental footprint, but, in the end, we need to force systemic change. The thing that pulls these two concepts together nicely for me  – doing the best we can in our own space and the need for global systemic change – is Robert Kennedy’s speech in Cape Town in 1966. I quote his words because I can do no better (I might rephrase in gender-neutral terms but that was the language of the era):
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
This ripple of hope speech is well worth listening to today, more than 40 years on. It applies not only to the traditional concerns of civil liberties and human rights campaigners, but also to the future of humanity – and that is what climate change is about. Here is another clip of RFK speaking. We need more of this today.