All Things Sustainable

ecology, economy, community

Looking Back at Our Ancient Climate

Climate Change Challenges MOOC (2)
This week started with Professor Tim Lenton taking a look into deep time and the early state of planet earth.
In the beginning, well pretty early on anyway, the sun was much cooler than it is today, it was 25% -30% less bright so one would imagine the earth’s temperature would be much cooler but in fact it was actually warmer than today. This was due to a rather thicker blanket of greenhouse gasses, later some of these gases were slowly removed over time by the action of the carbon cycle.

(Professor Tim doesn’t like ‘greenhouse’ terminology but the rest of the world still uses it so it has become something of a lingua franca.)

The carbon cycle extracts carbon from the atmosphere basically by dissolving CO2 in the raindrops and forming a weak acid. This then weathers the rocks and that reaction ends up creating carbonate ions, which, in turn, are washed into the oceans and waterways. The next change is a bit murky, somewhere along the way the carbonate ions get snaffled up, often it seems by calcium, and then quickly converted into seashells or similar. Eventually the carbon becomes part of the lithosphere as it morphs into carbonate rocks, something akin to the famous white cliffs of Dover perhaps. The carbon cycle is a negative feedback and as such it tends to maintain an existing state. As the sun’s radiation increased and the earth warmed the reaction speed increased, removing CO2 and cooling the planet.

But negative “put it right” feedbacks do not always win. Back in deep time again (2.2 billion & 700million years back) the earth froze over. The trigger is not clear – it may have been something to do with the continents forming. In any event a positive “make it worse” feedback problem developed. The poles froze, the ice reflected more heat, the planet cooled further and froze and cooled some more and once the ice reached the tropics well that was it, a snowball. But not forever because – well it isn’t frozen now –and the earth still had at least one get-out-of-gaol-free card left. Volcanoes. Again this took an awful long time but the volcanoes slowly put lots of CO2 and other gases back into the atmosphere, which started the world warming again and as the ice melted under the warming blanket of gasses so the reflectivity of the globe reduced and a little more warmth got through, ice melted, water evaporated, warming increased and we were back in business.

There are several mechanisms that create natural climate variability. They are mainly long term changes triggered by changes to the earth’s orbit (Eccentricity), the tilt of its axis varying (Obliquity) and the wobble of the axis (Precession). These changes are regular and predictable albeit on long time scales. They are called Milankovitch Cycles.
Volcanoes and solar activity also influence the climate and they are not regular or predictable but we can pinpoint those events using tree rings and/or ice cores for proxy dating information and compare the results against historical records of climate events such as the mediaeval warm period. The signature of the Mt Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991 is visible as a 2 or 3yr dip in global temperatures but in general global temperatures are rising and CO2 emissions are increasing at a much faster rate than has happened with previous natural climate variation.
Studies of the Ice Ages go back quite a long way and there is now a recognized discipline, Paleoclimatology, thanks to Svente Arrhenius, who in 1895 suggested that a reduction in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere could account for the drop in temperature during the ice age. He was also the first person to investigate the effect that doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide would have on the global climate.
Comparing historical data with the temperature rise over the last 100 or 150 years it seems there is a mismatch, first there is an of excess CO2 in the atmosphere but also the changes are happening much faster than would be expected.
The only way the models can reflect what actually happened is if the CO2 produced by the industrial revolution is included in the equation.

How right they were!

How right they were!

This is not surprising really because burning coal and oil is really releasing fossilized sunlight back into the atmosphere and the extra heat must go somewhere.


Aerosols, volcanoes and climate change

Volcanic eruptions produce dust and aerosols that act to provide short term cooling, however seems unclear as to whether there is any long term warming effect from the gasses emitted and also the effect of different aerosols and the interactions between them is unclear.

Most aerosols are of natural origin and key groups include sea salt, nitrates, sulfates, organic carbon, black carbon & mineral dust and they often clump together and form complex mixes. Sea salt, dust and volcanic ash are common types of aerosol, only about 10% of aerosols are of anthropogenic origin.

Different aerosols reflect or absorb sunlight depending on their make up. Large volcanic eruptions can cool the earth for a year or more while sulfate aerosols remain in the atmosphere, black carbon deposited on ice or snow can contribute to global warming by altering the albedo (reflectivity) of the planet. It is a complex area and potential impacts are not fully understood. It certainly makes me worry about potential Geoengineering solutions to climate change….

1 Comment

Can Myopic Markets Save the World?

On January 17th 2015 NASA reportedly announced that 2014 was the world’s hottest year ever recorded and that this formed part of a continuing trend. It was also noted atmospheric CO2 levels are continuing, intermittently, to reach 400ppm. We are currently on a trajectory widely agreed to be heading for a temperature increase of around 5degC.
So is it possible that the strength of market forces could change the future, moving us from a pathway heading into a climate change disaster to one that instead leads us through the minefield to a safe haven? There are people who think this is a reasonable assumption and while I can understand the reasoning I must admit to being rather more pessimistic.

There are certainly many lights shining on a multitude of hills. The Chinese are moving quickly to reduce the use of coal and to ensure they return the atmosphere in their cities to pure clean breathable air and they have done some remarkable work rehabilitating degraded land as in the Loess valley, the USA is promising to move swiftly to control its emissions and even if its federal government fails to act there are several states which together are moving to take control and reduce greenhouse emissions. There are reports that the German State of Schleswig-Holstein has achieved 100% renewable power in 2014 and intends to triple that total. It may not be enough to change everything but it will be a serious commitment and as such could lead the world into a renewable future.
Yet in spite of these hopeful indicators it seems that we are already into planetary overshoot with resource use and pollution exceeding the natural ability of the world to absorb the waste or maintain our economy on a sustainable basis. The myopia of the market is reflected in pressure from corporate and government interests to open more coalmines, to extract oil from deep undersea sources, to increase coal seam gas extraction. At the same time the science estimates that to have a 50-50 chance of a reasonable climate future, a third of the world’s oil reserves, half the gas reserves and more than 80percent of the coal reserves cannot be used.

To help us all to change on 13th & 14th February will run a worldwide ‘divestment day’ to help the world to break up with fossil fuels, so check where your superfund invests, change your bank, re-assess your share portfolio if you have one. Another straw in the wind that perhaps suggests impending change.

There are serious questions to be answered about food production as well. Not only does our current monoculture agribusiness approach make quite large contributions to emissions it is also likely to be disrupted by climate disasters with floods or droughts hitting major food producing areas in the USA, or Australia. Some analysts have linked the Arab Spring to food shortages, triggered by drought and the associated reduced harvest size and high wheat prices. Other factors that might drive wheat prices higher are the use of agricultural land to produce ethanol for transport and fodder for feedlot cattle. Of course we should not forget the anticipated world population increase. The UN Food and Agriculture Association Asia-Pacific suggests that to avoid political turmoil, social unrest and civil war the world needs to increase food production by 60% by 2050

All this needs to be done without further stressing our natural ecosystems
Paul Ehrlich & Anne Ehrlich in a Simplicity Institute paper “Can a Collapse of Civilization be Avoided?” published by the Royal Society in 2013 pinpoints the likely triggers for collapse and looks for major cultural change for the hope of avoiding disaster:
Abstract : Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

Such a cultural change could be based on an underlying human tendency to cooperate rather than to compete. Can I hear ribald laughter in the gallery at such an unreasonable suggestion? Quite possibly, however a paper in published in Nature seems to support the idea… and also that cooperative behavior cascades to extend its influence through a population (Fowler & Christakis)

Then there are also suggestions that the capacity and perhaps a need to cooperate was an effective driver of the success story for early mankind. And surely markets were a part of that cooperation, markets that traded obsidian across hundreds of kilometers at a time when foot traffic reigned supreme. And another gem that paleoanthropology has thrown up is the idea that past climate change was also a trigger for the rapid evolution that saw homo sapiens out compete its rivals. Perhaps we are set for a great leap forward into a sustainable future and not a blind stumble that lands us in the trash can. A nice thought to end on perhaps.

Sour Cherries and Consumer Capitalism

Sour Cherries at Christmas
This Christmas I went up to the farm. Set between Canberra and Cooma the climate is cool enough to grow all the fruits and nuts that need winter chilling to produce their best.

Around the garden perimeter there are numerous bushes growing sour cherries and this year they are all fully laden. Sour cherries are bright red and very small when compared with the commercially grown sweet cherries. If you have not tasted them before the flavour might come as a surprise to you, this year they are tart and clean and without sweetness but to my taste they are delicious. The Christmas turkey was cooked outside in a barbecue and served garnished with the cherries. I would have liked to experiment with making a sour cherry sauce to serve in lieu of the cranberry sauce but time did not permit.
Christmas turkey
I picked a large basin full, about a kilo, and brought them home with me. I have preserved some in kirsch and some in brandy, they will remain untouched until the winter weather arrives, then I will decant the flavored spirit to warm a winter evening and perhaps do something creative with the boozy fruit as well even though I didn’t remove the pips.
Sour cherries
I next pitted the rest of my harvest. A sour cherry with the stone removed weighs about 3 grams and as I wanted a total of 500gms that was quite a time consuming job but once done the rest was easy. I was making a cherry bake, similar to a clafoutis, whisking together eggs, sugar and softened butter, adding in plain flour and some milk then putting the mixture into a shallow baking dish. I put the 500gms of sour cherries on the top and popped it in the oven for half an hour.

Served warm with a sweetened vanilla yogurt it was so good.

Community & Consumer Capitalism 1st January 2015
As I never make the traditional New Year resolution this year I decided to break with my personal tradition. I decided that I would definitely do some research and some writing that explores the way our local communities are developing. This has been triggered by some of my own choices, one if which was joining a choir. This brought me into closer contact with the amazing musical fraternity that exists in the area. At a New Year’s Eve bash I attended, a continuous live show put on by some great local performers who created a fabulous low cost evening for the whole community and who for the most part actually paid to attend the gig.

Looking at newly emerging views on evolution that suggest our forbears actually out performed our hominin rivals due to a superior ability to cooperate, empathize and work together I am wondering if the competitive model of consumer capitalism is actually the main problem we need to deal with if we are to avoid climate disaster.

Time to do some more reading I think!!

Why Don’t We Get the Climate Threat?

Has the carefully orthodox behavior of climate scientists and the willful blindness of politicians led the world up a blind alley into a four degree or more dead end? Sadly I fear that may be the case and it is not due to careless science or incorrect claims about possible futures, it is the result of language and of politics.

On the language side, science, it seems, is incapable of making definitive statements about possible futures, instead everything is qualified, which would all be fine but for differing interpretations of the terms as understood by mainstream non-scientific members of the community. The general public will interpret ‘moderately likely’ as signifying that there is very little to worry about whereas the same phrase to a scientist might be interpreted as ‘get your skates on and pack the bag – in case.’

On the political front we face a different challenge. In the first instance few politicians have any scientific training and for a variety of reasons they tend to underplay the alarm calls. Assuming there is no preconceived bias or hidden agenda, once made aware of the gravity of the climate threat one might imagine that there would be an instant and effective response but this is not the case.
The conventional view assumes that economic growth is always good and we have to “grow the pie” if we would see wealth distribution more evenly spread through society. This view is promoted through platitudes like “a rising tide lifts all the boats” forgetting to mention that it may also drown those lacking a flotation device or that big boats take up much more space in the harbor.

Politicians see a growing economy as way to keep everyone happy, a guarantee of jobs and money for the next three or four years so that they (the politicians) can feel comfortable about re-election for another term. But they fail to see that the illusory rising tide of wealth brings with it a rising tide of pollution.
We live in a finite world, we fill it with the detritus of everyday life, industrial waste, pollution from coal-fired power plants and factory farms and we expect to escape unscathed. We require services from the natural world to maintain clean air, to filter our drinking water, to provide our food but we spray it with chemicals, cut it down, dig it up, build on it and in doing so we destroy the ecosystems on which we are dependent.

In 1994 Mathis Wackernagel and Professor William Rees of the University of British Columbia developed the concept and established the methodology for calculating humanity’s “ecological footprint”. In essence it is way to calculate our impact on the earth’s capacity to maintain clean air and water and re-establish natural systems disrupted by humanity..
Mathis Wackernagel explains the concept in this youtube clip outlining a way to estimate natural resource use and avoid ecological bankruptcy.

According to the Global Footprint Network the world is already in overshoot and annually uses 50% more resources than can be regenerated and produces 50% more waste than can be absorbed by the planet in a year.

Today we do not live in a world that has room to expand and grow without let or hindrance, that world ended about fifty years ago. Rather we are faced with a planet under stress from over exploited resources, an economy still based on planned obsolescence and a world polluted by its own waste. We frantically dig up any useful minerals, turn them into electronic toys like iPads, smart phones and notebooks that are discarded within 2 or 3 years and mostly then go into a landfill that leaches poison long into tomorrow.
Our world is a world created by a market economy that is addicted to economic growth and this is often overlooked and excluded from the climate conversation, or perhaps only referred to in terms of avoiding the need to take action. In Bermagui recently at a talk covering “The Politics of Climate Change” Dr Ken Henry explained the economic conundrum in terms of a market failure due to environmental impacts being treated as externalities. An externality is something that is not included in the accounting because it has no effect on the bottom line.
Business pollutes the atmosphere, the land and the water only because we do not require them to pay for the damage caused by their emissions and their waste products.
If we are to meet our global warming target of not more than 2degC increase above pre-industrial global average temperatures we must control these externalities and we will also need to abide by a “carbon budget” that does not exceed 1000 GigaTonnes of emitted CO2 as has been demonstrated in the United Nations Environment Program Synthesis Report ‘The Emissions Gap Report 2014’ published in November 2014 There is also an Executive Summary available to download.

In order to stay within the 2degC boundary it seems that we will need to be carbon neutral by 2055 and have zero net emissions worldwide by 2080. Unless there is a massive change of direction we will miss our 2degree target and end up in a world with four or five degrees of global warming.

In the book ‘Four Degrees of Global Warming – Australia in a hot world’ (published by Routledge and edited by political scientist Peter Christoff) some of our top scientists explore the likely consequences of a Four Degree World for Australia.
Scientists Will Steffen and David Griggs look briefly at historical records of collapsed civilizations and conclude that while climatic shifts were certainly important in the collapse there were probably other contributing factors. They suggest that, in line with ideas expressed by Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond, societies that cling to core values which have become dysfunctional due to changing circumstances (like perpetual economic growth perhaps) or have become so complex that they lose resilience, may have predisposed themselves to a negative outcome.
In the chapter on Marine Resources Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Elvira Poloczanska and Anthony Richardson point out that the ocean has buffered us from some of the effects of global warming by absorbing over 90% of the heat generated by the enhanced greenhouse effect and 30% of the additional carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by our industrial activities and life choices.
It is not clear to what extent the oceans can continue to protect us but it is clear that they have become warmer and more acidic and that this will impact on marine life and on economically important fisheries

Science seems generally unwilling to make pronouncements about sea-level rise, due perhaps to a lack of precise understanding about mechanisms involved in the melting ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. These large ice sheets will melt if the world continues to warm unabated and when they do all the world’s major cities will be battling for survival just as Venice is today.

Records for heat are constantly tumbling, 2013 was the hottest on record and now we hear that 2014 will probably match or even exceed that. As we move into this 2014-15 summer we are already facing record heat in many parts of NSW and we have not yet even reached 1degC above pre-industrial levels. The bush fire season is fast approaching, much of the State is still very dry if not actually in drought and there are questions about whether or not it will be an El Nino year.

It seems likely that at 4degC of global warming Australia will become very uncomfortable and looking fifty years into the future some parts of it may even become uninhabitable.

To Change Everything we need Everyone

From National Science week through to the September Climate events in Bega and Moruya (and the rest of the world) we have seen a multitude of actions, walks, marches, picnics, church bells rung by the Anglican Church all round Australia and more. Hundreds of thousands of people trying, with limited success, to “speak truth to power” on the subject of weather, sea level rise and the likely impacts of dangerous climate change.

Ringing the Church Bell and celebrating the Anglican Church divesting its fossil fuel holdings at the Moruya Climate Action Picnic

Ringing the Church Bell and celebrating the Anglican Church divesting its fossil fuel holdings at the Moruya Climate Action Picnic

All this is just the latest skirmish in a battle that started at the Rio Summit in 1992 when a spotlight was turned on the patterns of production, toxic components and poisonous waste. The summit recognized the need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, to develop public transport in order to reduce pollution and congestion in our ever growing cities and the recognition of a growing fresh water scarcity. Our current report card is looking pretty sick when it is compared against this list of problems that were known and assessed twenty-two years ago. Had we acted responsibly at that time we would now be in a position to really look forward to safe and clean future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren but as it is we are faced with a world that is teetering on the brink of disaster sometime in the next 30 years or so.

The planet has its own mechanisms that maintained the comparative stability of the climate throughout the 3.8billion years since life first took hold. During that time the climate has shifted from very warm to icy cold and back again more than once, so it seems that sometimes the control mechanisms are overwhelmed. But the planet works on a time scale so different from our human perspective that the whole of human existence is but the blink of an eye.

The fingerprints of humanity and particularly advanced economies is clearly evident in the rise of carbon dioxide levels since the industrial revolution. While the rate of increase may be slowing the total is still going up. In the last twelve months atmospheric CO2 reached 400ppm a level that has not been seen for the last eight hundred thousand years and possibly not for the last 20million years. And emissions are still rising. The CSIRO Global Carbon Project advised that CO2 emissions in 2013 were in excess of 40billions tons of which 36billion tons came from burning fossil fuels and from cement production. There has been an increase of approximately 65% in fossil fuel emissions since the Rio Summit.

On current projections the world is looking at a probable increase in average global temperature of around 3.2 – 5.4degC above the pre-industrial levels. Given that we have accepted that a 2degC rise is likely to lead to dangerous climate change the mind boggles as to how the political class and the fossil fuel lobbyists will sell this concept as an acceptable outcome. One rather thinks that obscuring the information may suit them better.

There are other problems that come with delayed action, in particular the inexorable rise in sea levels. Once we see the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland start to melt we may never be able to stop or slow the melting ice.
Over time the sea levels will rise. It will probably take centuries, there is no real understanding of how or how fast the ice will melt, but it does seem that eventually all our coastal cities will vanish beneath the waves.
We are of course also losing our biodiversity at a rate that is believed to rival or even exceed the great extinctions of the past. This loss of complexity makes our ecosystems vulnerable and regardless of our skills and determination to control the natural world we remain dependent on functioning ecosystems.

There are hopeful signs on the horizon, we still have time to change our current direction and avoid the worst predictions. Action by China to limit pollution by burning less coal, and actions in the USA including the State based renewable energy initiatives are hopeful signs. Even here where we have seen so many initiatives undermined there is still massive public support for renewable energy. At a recent forum held by the Solar Council in partnership with Solar Citizens and supported by the multitude of small businesses specializing in renewable energy prospective attendees had to be turned away as they could not be accommodated in a hall that seats 600.

There are things that we as individuals can do as well, things that may just help to tip the balance. Small things like buying local produce, maybe selecting grass fed instead of feedlot or grain finished meat, being aware of the food miles that are in the shopping trolley and taking action where and when we can to move our own consumption patterns onto a sustainable trajectory. It will not be the easy transition that we would have had, had we acted in 1992 and it will take us all to make the change.

The worldwide climate action that took place on Sunday 21st September this year was initiated by and it was undoubtedly a magnificent success. Their mantra was “To Change Everything We Need Everyone”

Intergenerational Theft

Senator Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens speaks about the repeal of the carbon price. I can only say that I absolutely agree with every word. And I am not alone in that.

Quote taken from the online paper The Conversation:

“When the clean energy bill was introduced in 2012, there was a significant and immediate reduction in the emissions intensity of Australia’s electricity production. The improvement was due to a shift away from brown coal and an increase in gas and hydro power. In 2012, emissions from the National Electricity Market were 95 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Now they are 85 megatonnes per year, a reduction of 12%.

“This change has been driven by the price on carbon, as well as declining demand (driven by the increasing retail price in electricity, the decline in the manufacturing sector and increasing uptake in rooftop solar panels) and increasing wind power (due to the Renewable Energy Target). The cost of this shift is carried primarily by the largest emitters who have seen their revenue slashed, which is exactly what the price on carbon was supposed to do.”
Roger Dargaville, Senior Energy Analyst, Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne