Monday, October 30, 2006


Headless chickens are everywhere after Sir Nicholas Stern's report on the effects of climate change. How do we react to news that, apart from hundreds of millions of refugees, deaths etc, this thing is going to cost us £3.68 trillion? (The money is the headline because Stern is an economist and lots of dead poor people don't register unless Geldof, Bono and Madonna are involved.) Gordon Brown reacts by appointing Al Gore as an adviser while drooling slightly at the prospect of more taxes; Tony Blair, radical as ever, reacts by writing for The Sun. Blair and Brown both make a point of saying that this is an international issue. Inevitably, therefore, the response becomes: why should we do anything when the US, India and China are the real culprits? Oddly enough the greatest of all greens, James Lovelock, agrees with the sentiment behind this question. I once asked him what Britain should do and he said, 'Burn the carbon.' As far as Jim's concerned, it won't make any difference either way since it is highly unlikely that a bunch of tribal carnivores will suppress their tribal carnivorous natures in order to do something as sensible as preventing The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI). 'We can't save the planet,' says Jim, 'we never could.' This is the truly profound issue here. We know that climate change is happening and we have known for 30 years what we must do to prevent it. But we have done nothing, less than nothing in fact since emissions are rising exponentially. Will we ever do anything? Can our reason overcome our tribal natures? This far from the Enlightenment and after the unprecedented savagery of the twentieth century, the answer would appear to be no.


  1. Just to say: sorry about yesterday, my post wasn't posted and your comments didn't appear. Blame Blogger, which succumbed to a global convulsion, possibly caused by the headless chicken phenomenon described above. All now appears to be well.

  2. I agree with Mr. Lovelock. There is a slight inbalance to global issues when one considers the likes of the 'next' superpowers. In their frighteningly desperate, selfish attempts to become leaders, we really do not have a chance in Hell (of which, I assume, we now share a similar climate).

  3. We will adapt to our changing environment. Isn't that what we have always done? The difference now is that we have caused the change and that there may be nowhere else to go. So be it. We will adapt to that too. When we realise we are done for, we will become increasingly fatalistic, hedonistic and ultimately homocidal. A few of us may survive and the planet may be able to recover and support another stab at the evolutionary bit. And that's an optimistic take on it.

  4. I have to say that my biggest concern is the generally accepted levels of hysteria surrounding the whole subject of global warming.

    My sceptical hackles tend to rise when I am told what to think by 'the consensus', especially when the favoured term of abuse for anyone who doesn't swallow the thesis in its entirety is to call one a 'climate change denier'- denier having all the right connotations of the accussee being similar to some Nazi.

    In many respects the behaviour is similar to that that surrounded the Millienium Bug. You remember? The last self-inflicted disaster waiting to engulf us but which in fact turned out to be even less than a damp squib despite the assurances and consensus of the experts that it was real and we needed to spend ridiculous sums on it.

  5. Perhaps the Islamic terrorists are the secret saviours of the world; sometime in the next 10 years, they will develop electromagnetic pulse weapons, deploy them outside stock exchanges around the world, and trigger a global economic collapse. A global recession should cut carbon emission rates.

  6. In 800 AD, Greenland was warm enough for Norse farmers to thrive there and vineyards flourished in England. I'm not sure man was doing in 800 AD to cause that warming or the subsequent cooling. Maybe we all need to realize that just because the weather was a certain way for 50 years that it doesn't mean it will always be that way.

    Meanwhile, back on Earth I'm not sure what you do to stop global warming that doesn't involve killing off 2/3 of the population.

  7. I think we should try to limit our carbon emissions to realistic levels; whilst trying to ensure that China et al to the same. No need for the green madness now being propogated. This is being done in the name of party politics not any well thought out process.

    There is no harm in trying and to give up before we being really is madness. We cured the Ozone hole problem; things can be done on a global level.

    To say we have known collectively for 30 years is also untrue. Only now are we even beginning to understand the problem , with much faux science still being propogated. There is enough time to start to make the changes and some fantasic inventions will save us - fusion power for one.

    However, of course for the UK global warming is likely to be profoundly beneficial. As a northern nation we will have great vineyards and nice long summers. So it is not all bad news.

  8. Is this really a problem of reason versus our "tribal nature"? Two things mean reason (in the sense of maximizing self-interest) stops us doing much about climate change.
    One is the free-rider problem - there's no point us doing anything if others don't.
    The other is that the people who stand to lose most from climate change don't have a say, as they haven't been born yet, whilst many of the people who stand to lose from doing something won't get any offsetting gain as they'll be dead before the gains from limiting climate change accrue.
    Our tribal nature - in the sense of an ability to co-operate or to sympathize with future generations - might therefore help solve the problem, whilst reason (self-interest) stops us. Many tribes - bushmen, Australian aborigines - have been better guardians of the environment than rational westerners.

  9. A Welsh conservationist turned entrepreneur has started a company whereby every you time you fly you can assuage your guilt by paying him a tenner and he plants a tree for you. Only problem is, a tree stores carbon for the duration of its life, then releases it when it starts to rot. So he's thinking of setting up a trust which will harvest the trees in a hundred years time and then dump them at sea. I'd love to see his business plan.

    Full story

  10. Life will go on but humanity might not. If you don't look at it from the arrogant short term point of view of the human species, what does it matter? Perhaps something better will evolve.

    By the way the only reason that the aborigines did less harm to the environment is that there were a lot less of them per square metre.

  11. Ah, the Enlightenment, Bryan - the greatest misnomer in world history after the Holy Roman Empire. Causer of most of the misery in my humble opinion.

  12. Dave Lull sends me Bill McKibben's thoughts on Lovelock and greenery in the New York Review of Books. Here are his takeout quotes:
    'It's to the question of solutions to mitigate the effects of global warming that Lovelock eventually turns, which is odd since in other places he insists that it's too late to do much. His prescriptions are strongly worded and provocative?he thinks that renewable energy and energy conservation will come too slowly to ward off damage, and that an enormous program of building nuclear reactors is our best, indeed our only, real option. "We cannot turn off our energy-intensive, fossil-fuel-powered civilization without crashing," he writes. "We need the soft landing of a powered descent." That power can't come from wind or solar energy soon enough:

    'Even now, when the bell has started tolling to mark our ending, we still talk of sustainable development and renewable energy as if these feeble offerings would be accepted by Gaia as an appropriate and affordable sacrifice.
    Instead, "new nuclear building should be started immediately."

    'With his extravagant rhetoric, Lovelock does us a favor?it is true that we should be at least as scared of a new coal plant as of a new nuclear station. The latter carries certain obvious risks (which Lovelock argues convincingly loom larger than perhaps they should in our imaginations), while the coal plants come with the absolute guarantee that their emissions will unhinge the planet's physical systems. Every potential source of non-carbon energy should be examined fairly to see what role it might have in avoiding a disastrous future. But Lovelock also undermines his own argument with what amounts to special pleading. He is a foe of wind power because, as he says, he doesn't want his Devon countryside overrun with windmills, placing him in the same camp as Cape Cod vacationers resistant to wind farms offshore in Nantucket Sound or Vermonters reluctant to see some of their high ridgelines dotted with towering turbines. "Perhaps we are NIMBYs," he writes, referring to the abbreviation for the phrase "Not In My Back Yard," but

    'we see those urban politicians [pushing wind power] as like some unthinking physicians who have forgotten their Hippocratic Oath and are trying to keep alive a dying civilization by useless and inappropriate chemotherapy when there is no hope of cure and the treatment renders the last stages of life unbearable.

    'This is an understandable aversion, but it would need to rest, as Lovelock admits, on something more than aesthetics, and in this case the foundation is all but nonexistent. He quotes a couple of disillusioned Danes to the effect that wind power hasn't been a panacea in Denmark, and says that Britain would need 54,000 big wind turbines to meet its needs, as if that huge number simply ends the argument. (The lack of adequate notes in this book makes checking sources laborious.) But in fact the Germans are adding 2,000 windmills annually, and nearing 20,000 total. Some object to the sight of them scattered across the countryside, and others are enchanted. In any event, whatever one's opinion of wind power, it's not at all clear that a crash program of building atomic reactors makes sense. Most of the economic modeling I've seen indicates that if you took the money intended for building a reactor and invested it instead in an aggressive energy conservation project (one that provided subsidies to companies to modify their factories to reduce power use, for instance), the payoff in cutting back on carbon would be much larger. This doesn't end the argument, either?we will obviously need new energy sources, and the example of the French success with nuclear power (it generates three quarters of their electricity) means it has to be included in the mix of possibilities, as Jim Hansen recently argued in these pages.[2] But Lovelock's argument against wind power is remarkably unpersuasive.'

  13. So why not build a nuclear reactor in Lovelock's backyard?

  14. TOM,
    He would be happy to oblige. He did offer to take plutonium from Sellafield to heat his house. He is convinced the dangers of radiation are overstated.

  15. To add to the mix... I basically agree with the "tribal carnivores" thing, but add to the mix the notion (from Edward Edinger) that we're being affected by an "Archetype of the Apocalypse"... this is another reason for the collective inertia we're experiencing -- an embedded archetype in the collective unconscious that is EXPECTING the end of the world. Sadly, its a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I would hope that becoming aware of it helps, but I'm pessimistic, because, you know, its all gonna be over soon anyway. ;)