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Planet Earth Under Threat

London calling

  • Gabrielle Walker
  • 21 May 06, 01:29 PM

Hello everybody from rainy London. I’ll be presenting this series, and I’m happy to report that the first of our trips will soon be underway. Next week, Julian and I should be heading over to the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge to talk to some Antarcticans about their work in the Deep South. That will make me very happy since, as you can probably see from the picture, ice is one of my passions. (More about that later.) Gabrielle Walker at -50C

The following day we plan to be at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire to record the dawn chorus and talk to some expert naturalists about the effects that drought and weather changes could have on this extraordinary habitat. We might have to postpone the trip if the nasty weather doesn’t pick up. (I offered to go and crouch in a field at 4am whatever the weather, but Julian assures me that the birds won’t sing properly if it’s windy and wet. Thank you birds!) Anyway, for that and all our other endeavours, watch this space.

Meanwhile, let me introduce myself a bit. I’ve been writing and broadcasting about earth science and the environment for more than ten years now, for places like New Scientist, where I used to be Features Editor, and the BBC’s radio science unit. But usually I’ve been covering the physical side, climate, rocks, oceans and ice, rather than animals and plants. So it’s great to be working with the Natural History Unit, where I’ll get much more of a chance to see the effects of climate change on living things. I do have some thoughts about this already, which I've added below (along with a few more pix). Please let me know what you think.

One thing I’ve learned while looking into climate change on a longer timescale is that the Earth isn’t nearly as vulnerable as we sometimes think. For instance I wrote a book called “Snowball Earth” about a mega-ice age that happened more than 600 million years ago, that came about perfectly naturally before animals even existed, and makes more recent ice ages look like cool days out.

I also made a few series for the BBC about some of the other massive changes that happened to the Earth in its first 4 billion years of existence. (You can still listen to An Earth Made for Life - Series One and Series Two) All of these have convinced me that planet earth is not vulnerable, and nor is life. In its long history, our planet has suffered more extreme changes than we humans could possibly bring about ourselves, and yet life has always won through.

But that doesn’t mean I think we should ignore the changes that are happening now - quite the opposite. I believe that though the planet isn’t fragile, and life itself isn’t fragile, the particular forms of life that exist on the planet right now certainly are fragile. And that includes humans. Life will almost certainly find a way to adapt to the climate changes we bring about but there’s no reason that it needs to take us along with it.

And even though we humans are technologically very inventive, it bothers me that we have evolved, and then built up our societies, according to a global pattern of climates and habitats that may soon no longer exist. In other words, I think we should worry about climate change not for the sake of the planet, but for the sake of ourselves and the other creatures that are unlucky enough to share our slice of life.

OK I’ll get off my soap box for the moment. (Though I’d like to know what you think about all this - please let me know.) Instead, let me finish up with a few fun pictures. As I said earlier, I’m a bit of an ice-o-phile, having made lots of trips to the polar regions. So here are some pix from my latest visit to Antarctica. They are all true Antarcticans - in that they don’t migrate, but hang around the fringes of the continent throughout their lives.

First, a Weddell seal, popularly known as an Antarctic slug because that’s what they look like when hauled out onto the sea ice. They spend virtually all the Antarctic winter swimming under the sea ice, because the water is so much warmer than up above, and just stop to gnaw themselves breathing holes every now and then. This one has just recently hauled out to have her pup, which is only a few days old but already weighs about 40 kilos. Weddell seal pup and mum

Next, another of my favourites. This emperor penguin is probably one of the ones that featured in the “March of the Emporers” film since it lives in the same colony that was filmed. They really are gorgeous creatures with very miserable lifestyles. Those of you who have seen the film will know that the males spend the entire winter huddled together on the sea ice in pitch darkness and freezing temperatures, starving, guarding their eggs, and waiting for the spring. One early explorer, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, famously said “I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an emperor penguin.” Gabrielle Walker and Emperor penguin

But the best of all are the energetic little Adelie penguins. They’re only knee high but utterly unafraid when up on land. I’ve seen one little penguin run up behind a researcher and smack him on the leg to tell him to get out of the way. (Left quite a bruise too.) But this one was gentler. He decided to try to follow me home and after the first 100 yards or so that he trotted after me my heart melted. Adelie penguin

All three of these lovely creatures are threatened by the potential loss of sea ice around the Antarctic as our oceans warm. More about all of this as we go along.

Comments  Post your comment

For Ms. Gabrielle Walker: Your article was interesting. The Earth has changed. Unfortunately, humans have this feeling that they are not vulnerable [even those who have suffered the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and Wilma with some exceptions like myself have not learned the lesson]. The Time for action to protect all forms of life is now [not when the Earth has become a replica of its sister plant Venus]

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  • 2.
  • At 11:51 AM on 23 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Much environmentalism appears to be a reactionary desire to prevent change - i.e. let's preserve everything in amber now and make sure it stays that way. This is impossible and it is futile to try, but the call for it does tend to illustrate the gross scientific illiteracy of many environmental activists, which wuold be funny were it not so serious.

Earth has indeed changed, and is changing, and will change again in the future, due to factors far more powerful than anything we can do. In the past, global temperatures have variously very much higher than today and very much lower than today, all of which had absolutely nothing to do with man - who didn't even exist at the time. Yet life persists.

It is hubristic arrogance to assume that humanity is so powerful and so important that he can change things like this. He cannot. All that man can do pales into insignificance compared to massive volcanism, asteroid impacts, fluctuations in solar output, and so on. We simply are not that important nor that powerful.

I'd like to see fewer calls for everything to be preserved as it is. Nature will not in any case permit such a thing, so why are those "in touch" with nature advocating it? Let's not waste our time and efforts on such futility.

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  • 3.
  • At 03:04 PM on 23 May 2006,
  • Tony Hills wrote:

Yes what a good media story. Everthing has to the fastest, the deepest, the warmest. etc. Good TV and radio. Don't get me wrong people have to be engaged.
The world is changing and it's to late to stop it so Goverment (which is so short sighted) has to be honest with the public and start preparing for what is coming...Yes this will cost money but the sooner we change our mind sets the better.
Sad to say some wild life will suffer, man has a lot to be feel guilty about, others will benefit. It has always been thus.
I am looking forward to watching the programmes...but what next?

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  • 4.
  • At 10:49 AM on 24 May 2006,
  • Steve Privett wrote:

It is folly to believe that we are not severely impacting the earth’s ecosystems and not endangering our very existence. Unfortunately many of us believe in business as usual without realising just how close we are to catastrophe. The simple underlying problem in that there are now far too many humans raping the planet for food and ever increasing material wealth. This is not sustainable.

Nobody is questioning that the earth is a dynamic ecosystem that has gone through natural cycles of heating and cooling in the past, the difference now is that humankind is driving the planet into rapid change, and one that is in the wrong direction to support our very lives.

As individuals we must take action, as we individually are the cause of the issues that are beginning to impact civilisation. The time has come to understand that there is only one earth and that we are entirely dependent upon it.

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  • 5.
  • At 12:10 PM on 24 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

So what's your solution, Steve? Reduce everyone to poverty and launch a programme of mass murder to reduce the population?

Would it not perhaps be better to consider how we can mitigate the problems by, for example, improving technology to make energy use more efficient, increasing the material wealth of the developing world because increased material prosperity results always in reduced population growth, and even perhaps exploring settlements off this planet?

Or is that not approved because it does not need large scale social regimentation and rationing?

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Euan says, "increased material prosperity results always in reduced population growth, and even perhaps exploring settlements off this planet?", but fails to mention that 'increased material prosperity' always increases the percapita ecological footprint, and the net degradation of ecological systems.

You can't eat GDP!
http://www.tipiglen.dircon.co.uk/gnprevue.html

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 7.
  • At 12:48 PM on 24 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Again, what's your solution? It's not enough to complain, you need to come up with a postive set of actions.

Should we murder large segments of humanity because they have larger economic footprints than fluffy bunny rabbits? Make everyone poor so we can all live in a pre-civilised socialist Nirvana in the pristine woods and caves?

Ecological systems change. Always. Nothing is static, and as change happens so some species will go to extinction, others will thrive, and new ones will evolve. All this happens continually on a scale so vast humanity has difficulty appreciating it, but it happens nevertheless and it will happen with or without humanity existing. What exactly is the problem with this, and what is you solution to it?

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Euan,

I simply pointed out that your 'positive set of actions' would increase ecological degradation, rather than solve it.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 9.
  • At 01:33 PM on 24 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

I don't see how they would - increasing energy efficiency, slowing population growth and looking at off-planet settlement would *increase* ecological impact? How?

And I'm still waiting for your set of actions. What do you propose? I had a look at your website, and I suspect your favoured answer is a small population (and just how do you achieve this?) living a somewhat backward life through Utopian simplicity. That's all very well, although it's worth pointing out that it is the capitalist system and the highly developed society in which you live - and about which you seem so unhappy - that permits you to make such a choice. Having everyone living like that would wreak far more havoc on the environment than our current system, and really would be unsustainable.

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Euan
I don't want to have a slagging match.

Increasing material prosperity increases material consumption, while at best only slowing population GROWTH.

My 'solution' does indeed involve a reduction in percapita energy use and material consumption. Both are essentially inevitable anyway, and it will be better to engage voluntarily.

In particular we spend huge amounts of energy unnecessarily moving folk and stuff around. We devote something like one third of our 'active time' to support this hypermobility.
http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/hypermobility.html

Wendell Berry has outlined possible characteristics of a local economy: The Idea of a Local Economy

As to actually reducing population (probably also inevitable) We have first to actually stop increasing. How population falls in the longer run is anyone's guess, and I have no helpful ideas beyond voluntary or encouraged reductions in fertility...

Sending folk to other planets is bound to be energy intensive, destructive, and I can't imagine large numbers (billions?) in any event.

Doing it the way we have since the industrial revolution has gotten us much good and quite a lot of bad, notably an exploding population with exploding 'needs'. Carrying on in the same vein will probably kill us all.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 11.
  • At 03:27 PM on 24 May 2006,
  • Oli wrote:

What a handy writer-tracking device.

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  • 12.
  • At 04:59 PM on 24 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

All to often we hear that there is a scientific "consensus" on climate change and its causes.
If this were the case why then is increasing evidence to the contrary being published in peer-reviewed scientific journals?
I could go on almost ad infinitum about such evidence, but I will restrict myself to one recent paper.
Briner et al (2006) Quaternary Research (65), pp. 431-432.
Check it out at www.sciencedirect.com.
Evidence is presented that some 8500 years ago the Canadian Arctic was 5 degrees C WARMER than at present. Also note that carbon dioxide levels were some 100ppm LOWER than at present.
Try and equate this with the modern myth that increased atmospheric CO2 = increased warmth.

(Dr. Don Keiller) Environmental Science research Centre, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

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Don,

I haven't got the price for the full article, and the abstract only says the site is particularily sensitive to radiative forcing. Possibly it's snowy most of the time now, but was then melting as the Laurentian sheet withdrew? May also be localised methane or other GHG?

There is a concensus, but not unanimity.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 14.
  • At 09:01 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Ed,

Nobody wants a slanging match, merely some concrete proposals beyond complaining about the current situation.

Per capita energy use is also important in relation to the overall efficiency of the energy process. Using more nuclear generated electricity in lieu of gas, oil, coal or electrcity generated therefrom raises the efficiency of the process, permits society to develop by using more energy in absolute but not per capita terms, and at the same time reduces the environmental footprint of that energy use.

You must consider the consumption of energy involved in moving people and goods, of course, but you must also consider the energy use in producing those same goods in the local environment, which may not be suitable for their production - it can require more energy to prodice goods locally than to import by sea or air. You may also wish to visit places in the Third World where much of the economy is of the localised nature you advocate - it is not pretty and it is extremely destructive and inefficient.

Population reduction will come naturally as material prosperity and average life expectancy increase and as infant mortality reduces. This is because people no longer depend to such an extent of their children to support them, and because proportionately more children survive, both of which reduce the need for larger families and thus slow population growth entirely naturally. If you want to see how not to do it, consider the demographic problems of China and India, where your sort of intervention causes all manner of long term problems. Contrast this with the west, where it has happened naturally.

Finally, I think you fall into the Malthusian error of assuming no technological progress and a purely linear relationship between population growth and resource usage. Malthus was wrong, and so I submit are you and those environmentalists who make the same assumptions.

You cannot turn the clock back, basically.

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  • 15.
  • At 09:04 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Don,

I don't think there's much doubt that the world is warming. However, there is contention over whether or not humanity has much or anything to do with it. Larger trends utterly beyond man's control are major contributors.

Better to assume it is warming and develop the necessary technologies to cope with it.

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  • 16.
  • At 09:16 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Roland Curtis wrote:

Stone me - the last thing we need is someone else going to Antarctica to see how 'we're changing the Earth'. We know. If you and Attenborough would quit jetting round the place it'd reduce our carbon dioxide emissions considerably.
Nuff said.

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  • 17.
  • At 09:26 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

Dear Ed. you have hit the nail on the head- radiative forcing. The sun is the only significant source of warmth this planet has and as such changes in solar output (radiative forcing) can cause major changes in the Earth's climate.
A good example to illustrate this is the recent paper by Soon, W. W.-H.  (2005)  "Variable solar irradiance as a plausible agent for multidecadal variations in the Arctic-wide surface air temperature record of the past 130 years".  Geophysical Research Letters 32.
Basically it compares Arctic temperatures with total solar irradiance (TSI) and global CO2 levels over a 130 year period.
Guess what? TSI gives a much better correlation with temperature than does CO2.
In fact virtually every solar variable you want to choose gives a better correlation with global temperature.
Take sunspots, for example,as reported in
Usoskin et al (2003) Millennium-Scale Sunspot Number: Evidence for an Unusually Active sun since the 1940s. Physical Review Letters (91):21, 2011-4.
Here global temperature over the last 1000 years shows an excellent (and far better) relationship with sunspot activity than it does with CO2.
The point I'm making is that there are other factors out there which are just as, if not more plausible, agents of climate change than CO2. What is more they are supported by hard evidence which, I'm afraid to say, is often conspicuous by its absence in the current media-driven "debate".
Don Keiller


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  • 18.
  • At 09:33 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

To put energy consumption into proportion, it is perhaps worth noting that the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 released an amount of energy equivalent to 250 times the entire power generation capacity of the United States.

The Krakatoa explosion in 1883 was some TWENTY times the size.

So, which is more influential - the nasty, evil Americans or Mother Nature?

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Euan,
"Population reduction will come naturally as material prosperity and average life expectancy increase and as infant mortality reduces. Contrast this with the west, where it has happened naturally."

The rate of population increase may fall, but virtually nowhere has 'population reduction' happened, and where it threatens, cultures panic.

"assuming no technological progress and a purely linear relationship between population growth and resource usage."

The relationship may not be 'purely linear', but resource use rises with population, and exponentially so when coupled with 'development'. Please show me an example where this relationship fails.

As to assuming 'no technological progress', I refer you again to Eric Davidson:
http://tipiglen.dircon.co.uk/gnprevue.html

I think you may be falling into the error of ignoring the first law of thermodynamics.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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Euan,

One more question:

You said,"using more energy in absolute but not per capita terms".
ed

Can you explain how this is possible?
Vaya con Gaia

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  • 21.
  • At 10:03 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Examples of falling resource use? Sure:

Coal consumption, together with its emission of greenhouse gas and its horrendous health and environmental burden, has reduced markedly as technological progress has enabled more efficient energy use such as oil, gas and nuclear.

Deforestation has reduced in places where advances in technology mean than the consumption of wood for fuel and construction is no longer necessary (but note how it increases in areas with lower technological progress and expanding population, such as much of the Third World).

Phosphate mining has markedly reduced as synthetic fertilisers have become available. Energy use in transport has decreased per tonne-kilometre as more efficient electric trains, efficient trucks, etc., have replaced older wasteful technology.

Energy use in the production of a great many things has reduced per item produced as technology gets more efficient. The link you posted results in a 403 error, but I note on your website a link to a glass-blowing demonstration. I invite you to consider how much energy would be consumed per tonne of glass blown the old way compared to the modern industrial production of glass.

The first law of thermodynamics shows what would be the minimum energy consumption to make a given product. However, different production processes have different efficiencies, so this does not mean that making a tonne of glass bottles the old way requires the same energy as making the same tonne of bottles the modern way.

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Euan,
It seems to me that all your examples are substitutions rather than reductions in resource consumption, and as to glass, etc. the efficiency may have risen, but not as fast as the tonnage.

The first law of thermodynamics says you can't get a quart out of a pint jug, nor into one either.

"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a
finite world is either a madman or an economist."
--Kenneth Boulding
and my last link should have been
http://www.tipiglen.dircon.co.uk/gnprevue.html
Sorry
ed

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  • 23.
  • At 10:15 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Yes, such energy usage is possible because of improved efficiency in usage.

Suppose you have an old power station producing 100MW supporting a population of 100,000. Suppose you replace this with a 120MW plant supporting your growing town population of 150,000 people, who now need less per capita energy because they have insulated their houses and use more efficient appliances. Absolute energy consumption has increased by 20%, but per capita consumption has fallen by 20%.

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Euan,

But your town has exhibited phenomenal population growth! Besides, in the 'real world', both absolute and percapita energy and resource use are rising almost everywhere.....

Everybody's worried about China and India. Why? Because they want the lifestyle we've already got.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 25.
  • At 10:49 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Over the life of a powerplant, it probably would experience substantial population growth.

I don't think people are worried about China and India wanting the lifestyle we have so much as they are worried about the stages they'll go through to get there and their current inefficient use of energy.

If China and India are allowed to expand their nuclear power programmes - and note that China is at the forefront of developing new pebble-bed reactors - then they will very quickly become much cleaner and more efficient places with higher living standards. If they are required to stay where they are, they will continue their destructive use of fossil and wood fuels, to the detriment of everyone.

With well over a third of the human population between them, are YOU going to tell them that they are not allowed to progress, that they must go backwards? And what do you think their response is likely to be? And why are they wrong to disagree with you?

I think what you may be missing is that the type of society you seem to think is benign and with a small footprint is actually extremely destructive. It is simply that the destruction isn't usually that obvious, especially when it is among a light population in a rural area. It is utterly unsustainable for the global population, and indeed it is only our more advanced & developed society that actually permits such population growth and which will, in its turn, limit this same population growth.

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  • 26.
  • At 04:32 PM on 25 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

Dear Gabrielle,
I almost fell about laughing at your closing statement- were it not so misinformed.
"All 3 of these lovely creatures are threatened by the potential loss of sea ice around Antarctica as our oceans warm".

In fact sea ice around the Antarctic is increasing.
Check out
Zwally, H.J., Comiso, J.C., Parkinson, C.L. Cavalieri, D.J. and Gloersen, P. (2002). "Variability of Antarctic sea ice 1979-1998". Journal of Geophysical Research 107: 10.1029/2000
The authors have shown that sea ice area for the Southern Ocean has increased by 10,860 ± 3720 square km per year, or 1.26 ± 0.43 percent per decade. That's an increase of over 100,000 square kilometres over the past decade.
In other words I don't think our little, cuddly penguins are going to run out of real estate!

Oh and by the way- the vast majority of the Antarctic is COOLING!
see
Doran et al (2002) "Antarctic Climate Cooling and Terrestrial Ecosystem Response". Nature 415, 517-520

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Euan,

The American lifestyle requires a percapita energy use twenty times that of India and eight times that of China. Ours is about half the American level.

Do you expect efficiency increases are going to make such things conceivable in a finite world?

I'm certainly not saying they should be held back, or that they could, even were we to voluntarily reduce our own profligacy, but they definitely won't if we carry on as usual....

We are all going to have to do with far less.
Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 28.
  • At 07:51 PM on 25 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

No, Ed, we are not all going to have to make do with less. The question of energy consumption is only one side of the coin, the other being *how* that energy is produced.

If all we could do was burn coal and wood, then you'd probably be right. But we don't need to do that. We can produce electricity from nuclear plants far more cleanly than from any other source, even including wind and even allowing for waste disposal. Quite possibly you don't know this, and more probably do not actually want to to know it, but it is nevertheless true. Denial doesn't alter fact.

Once we have that energy, we can use it much more efficiently than we do now, and we can use more energy for a much smaller impact. We can electrify the railways, we can develop electric mass transit in urban areas, we can develop longer range electric vehicles, we can use nuclear generated electricity or heat to desalinate seawater, thus solving any conceivable drinking water problem, and we can electrolyse the leftover brine to produce hydrogen fuel for mobile transport.

Looking further ahead, we can - and probably will be forced to - produce food synthetically and hydroponically, which is more efficient than any natural process. This doesn't need huge farms, and it can be done basically anywhere you have power, thus eliminating the pressure on arable land and easing the ecological stress of farming. Further ahead still, there is the possiblity of geothermal and fusion power, although these need advances in materials technology.

You don't need to avail yourself of this, and if you wish to turn your back on modern society and live a simpler life, then that's your right and I genuinely hope it works for you. But you don't have the right to foist that view on everyone else, nor to demand that they may not progress just because you don't want to.

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  • 29.
  • At 08:49 AM on 26 May 2006,
  • Peter Cartledge wrote:

Interesting article. I trust that the party from the BBC will use public transport on their trip to Cambridge, to minimise pollution.
As for the results of 'latest' visit to Antarctica, surely once is enough, if not once too much. In travelling to these places we damage them, Ms. Walker is working on a programme called Planet under Threat, telling us about pollution damage and then she contributes in no small measure herself. I hate hypocrisy.

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Euan,

The resources for nuclear power are as finite as any other. You boldly expect efficiency increases beyond any past experience. All energy use, of whatever sort, ends up eventually as heat, and as to hydroponics and shipping populations to other planets, I refere you to the 'biosphere' projects.

You are not an arch pragmatist, but an arch utopian.

Good luck

ed

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  • 31.
  • At 11:21 AM on 26 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Of course the resources for nuclear power are finite - everything is. However, there are a couple of points you overlook:

Known readily exploitable reserves of uranium are sufficient for 50 years at current usage rates. Over one third of these are located in Australia, strategically safer than relying on Middle East or African oil. There's no impetus to search for more right now, because the market isn't there. In the good old capitalist fashion, increased demand, and hence increased price, will stimulate increased search for more deposits - and uranium isn't that uncommon a material, so more deposits will certainly be found. Furthermore, breeder reactors can produce plutonium, which further extends the fuel supply. And even if we get to the end of all that, do you assume we will not have developed something else?

Of course energy ends up as heat. This is not the issue. The putative problem of global warming is not heat release as such - a single big volcano can release far more thermal energy than we can, and don't forget the heat released by all other life on the planet - but rather the reflection of radiated heat back to Earth. Reducing this greenhouse effect reduces the amount of reflection, thus increases radiation loss to the cosmos, and thus basically this is no issue whatever.

As to efficiency gains, I think you probably don't quite appreciate just how significant these can be. For example, a battery-electric car using oil generated electricity is twice the overall oil-well-to-wheel thermal efficiency of a petrol car. Using nuclear generated electricity, the gain is more, because mine-to-plug thermal efficiency of nuclear power is greater than oil. Even that modern petrol car is hugely more efficient than it was even a couple of decades ago, thanks to advanced enegine management and design techniques. Solid state electronics, semiconductor lighting, cheap thermal insulation, more advanced industrial processes - these all make massive efficiency savings.

I'm not Utopian, but equally I am not a pessimistic Malthusian technophobe scared of change and the future.

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  • 32.
  • At 12:58 PM on 26 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Here are some energy numbers that put man's effect on the environment into perspective. Feel free to check my back of the envelope calculations.

British installed power generation capacity is around 60GWe (gigawatt-equivalent). Running at around 75% loading, this produces overall some 400TWh (terawatt-hours) of energy each year.

Mount St Helens volcano released some 1.7x10^18 Joules of thermal energy, some 60% of this over the 9 hour blast period. This is equivalent to just over 30 terawatts, 500 times UK installed capacity. If we assume that all Britain's power plants run at 35% thermal efficiency and dump all the lost energy as heat to the atmosphere, then this means that Mount St Helens released in 9 hours the amount of waste heat the entire UK power generation system would lose in thirteen months.

So just how significant is man's energy footprint on the world, do you think?

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Euan,

Mount St Helens did not release heat which was not already in the system. It simply moved it from the core reservoir to the surface.

"For example, a battery-electric car using oil generated electricity is twice the overall oil-well-to-wheel thermal efficiency of a petrol car."

I would love to see your sources indicating the thermal efficiency differences between internal combustion and Electricity. My understanding is that they are similar and neither is significantly above one third. Add to this transmission losses of around one third, and I just don't believe it.

50 years' worth of uranium at 'current rates' won't last very long at your hoped-for rates. One third may well be in Australia, another lot in Canada, but the third largest amount in in central Asia...

We will have to wait and see which of us is nearer the truth.

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 34.
  • At 01:40 PM on 26 May 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Ed, if you think that volcanic eruptions are irrelevant in terms of heat input to "the system," then I'm afraid you need to look into things a little more deeply. The amount of heat energy in the "core reservoir" - i.e. already in the system - is unimaginably vast compared to absolutely anything humanity could ever do over any time scale.

For that matter, the amount of heat generated by the fission of uranium in a nuclear reactor is already in the system since it will fission naturally and thus release exactly the same amount of heat. What, therefore, is the problem? As far as heat is concerned in your view of things, we should be going all nuclear immediately since we aren't adding any heat that isn't already there.

On car efficiency, the calculations are simple and not only have I done them before but you can find them done by others on the web. Grid transmission of power is somewhat more efficient than you seem to think, and much more efficient than refining and transporting oil. The battery/electric motor combination in the car is some three times the efficiency of the petrol engine/transmission system in a conventional car. I'll do the calculations again and post them on my blog at some point, but the upshot is that the overall thermal efficiecy is something like 10% for petrol versus about 20% for electric cars. They aren't at all similar and your understanding appears somewhat inaccurate.

Clearly you missed the point about increased demand for uranium fuelling price increases and hence greater exploration efforts. Uranium isn't scarce.

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  • 35.
  • At 10:37 AM on 30 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

I see that no-one has bothered to comment about my blogs 17 and 26.
Either everyone agrees with me or there's a whole load of folk out there who are struck dumb when confronted by real science.
Sorry I haven't been on for a couple of days but I've been out in the gas-guzzling MPV and put (by my calculations) some 160kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Boy does it feel good knowing that I'm helping to make the planet a greener place!
If you don't believe me check out
Ainsworth, E.A. and Long, S.P. 2005. What have we learned from 15 years of free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE)? A meta-analytic review of the responses of photosynthesis, canopy properties and plant production to rising CO2. New Phytologist 165: 351-372.
and
Young, S.S. and Harris, R. 2005. Changing patterns of global-scale vegetation photosynthesis, 1982-1999. International Journal of Remote Sensing 26: 4537-4563

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Don,

"Real Science" is the practice of specialisms and isolation of variables. In any isolated case/system, the relationship[s between variables can be studied and analysed.

Relationships thus discerned rarely operate in exactly the same way in the "real world", where every such system is integrated within much larger, more complex systems. Enriched CO2, for example may result in increased photosynthesis, but dependent upon interacting patterns of moisture circulation, soil erosion, temperature, etc., etc.

The real "real science" is wholistic and far from complete at present, and in my opinion is unlikely of completion in the span of human existence...
Vaya con Gaia
ed

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  • 37.
  • At 12:02 PM on 30 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

Ed, I agree with much of what you say, except when you imply that enriched CO2 enhancement of photosynthesis will differ dependent an interacting patterns of moisture, temperature etc.
Increased CO2 increases photsynthesis and net primary production more when plants are stressed (eg. by low soil water availability, high temperature, pollution etc.) Read the articles the main paper (Ainsworth, E.A. and Long, S.P. 2005. What have we learned from 15 years of free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE)? A meta-analytic review of the responses of photosynthesis, canopy properties and plant production to rising CO2. New Phytologist 165: 351-372.)
refers to.

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  • 38.
  • At 03:15 PM on 30 May 2006,
  • Stuart Harmon wrote:

Global warming is a theory and no more. Now called climate change so that the flat earthers in the environmental lobby can have it all ways.
When its hot: cause greenhouse effect
When its cold:cause greenhouse effect
When its dry:cause greenhouse effect
When land collapses into the sea on the east coast of uk: cause global warming
When the sea recedes on the west coast: cause global warming.

I am a great fan of the BBC but as far as balanced reporting is concerned on this matter you have lost the plot.

Best regards

Stuart Harmon

ps the cause of the sinking of the Titanic was an unusual amount of large glaciers breaking off from the arctic:cause the Climate?

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  • 39.
  • At 06:33 PM on 30 May 2006,
  • Stuart Harmon wrote:

Dear Don Keiler

The reason you have had no response is simple unfortunately the supporters of global warming theory have a hole in their brain which affects their ability to assimilate true facts. They can understand the greenhouse effect because they know what a greenhouse looks like. They can understand hot and cold because they can feel it. Unfortunately they have no capacity to question or re-cycle the garbage presented to them by the environmental lobby (who would be out of businees otherwise) or the government (who wish/have to tax and turn carbon into a saleable commodity).

Unfortunately the more they cry wolf over carbon emissions the more cynical people will get and of course may result in people becoming cynical and concentrating less on taking true measures which prevent damage to the environment.

I like the statistics can you help with this one :-

If CO2 is 3 ppm of air. Methane is much less.

How much greenhouse gas is manufactured by nature naturally from flora and how much by the fauna.

Then compare with man made C02 which assists in preventing the next ice age.

It is clear that it will take some time to totally discredit the bucket science practiced by the environmental lobby but it is clear that more and more people are waking up to the fact that they are threatening the planet and costing us money.

The BBC needs to be pressured to allow a full debate on this subject, because before you know it if England win the world cup it will because of measures taken against global warming and if they lose it will be because not enough measures were taken.

Keep up the good work but remeber a journo will never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Best regards

Stuart Harmon

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  • 40.
  • At 09:09 AM on 31 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

Thanks Stuart- nice to know someone out there appreciates me.
Don

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  • 41.
  • At 10:28 AM on 31 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

Stuart, I will try and get the data- I don't keep everything to hand and do have a day-job!
In the meantime CO2 is some 380ppm (and rising-but not as fast as the IPCC models!)
Methane exists at a much lower concentrations about 1800ppb (some 200 times lower than CO2) and because of this its contribution to greenhouse warming is miniscule.
CO2 is absorbed by all photosthetic organisms and used to make sugars and other organic molecules that animals eat. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are, geologically speaking, currently very low and as a result plants are CO2 limited. Raising atmospheric CO2 enhances plants' ability to photosynthesise under almost all conditions.
Methane is produced by many organisms and is also a product of decay. Cow's farts are a major source of atmospheric methane, as are rice paddy fields.
Hope this helps,
Don

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Stuart & dON,
"How much greenhouse gas is manufactured by nature naturally from flora and how much by the fauna.

Then compare with man made C02 which assists in preventing the next ice age."

With the destruction of forests and cultivation of land, how do we distinguish between GHG from flora and fauna 'naturally' and that from liming fields, rotting compost and farting livestock (and human sewage sent to the sea)? Methane may be very small in concentration, but it's many times more powerful in trapping heat than CO2. Another powerful GHG is water vapour.

The feedbacks between these various factors are wonderfully complex and well beyond our present capacities for accurate modelling.

Despite this, there is little doubt that human activities contribute to climate change and will continue to do so. The relative proportion between human and 'natural' factors is where there is uncertainty.

There is no uncertainty whatsoever to my mind that the massive capabilities and power provided to mankind through the use of extrametabolic energy, from whatever source, constitutes the real danger to the Earth.

Elsewhere Don wrote that deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing, and salination by irrigation were problems of greater magnitude than climate change. I would add overpopulation to the list and point out that all of these factors are driven and empowered by our excessive use of energy, and that all of these factors also drive climate change.

Do we really need to fly in the genitals of plants grown in Africa to decorate our weddings, BarMitzvas, and funerals, or add garnish to our supper with the immature embryos of legumes flown in from other continents?

Eat local, gather wildflowers (prudently), and
Vaya con Gaia

ed

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  • 43.
  • At 04:43 PM on 31 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

OK let's get to the heart of the matter.
The crux of the Global Warming theorists argument is that we are in a period of "unprecedented" warmth (1) and that CO2 levels, which are equally unprecedented are to blame.
No-one (not even me!) seriously doubts that CO2 levels are higher than they have been for almost half a million years and that this rise started about 100 years ago and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
However the whole Global Warming edifice is based on this premise of "unprecedented warmth" Which is why the Global warmers are so hysterical in their defence of the Mann et al "Hockey Stick" graph.
Trouble is there is lots and lots of published evidence to suggest that late 20th Century warmth is not unusual and the temperatures were just as high, if not higher in the Medieval warm period (2), Roman warm period (3), Holocene Climatic Optimum (4) and in previous interglacials e.g. the Eemian (5)
Added to this is another unfortunate observation that CO2 levels were all lower than at present during these warm periods (5). This makes it very difficult indeed to attribute any major role to CO2 as a cause of present day global warming.

1) Mann, M.E., Bradley, R.S. and Hughes, M.K. 1998. Nature 392: 779-787

2)Loehle, C. 2004. Climate change: detection and attribution of trends from long-term geologic data. Ecological Modelling 171: 433-450.

3) Tan, M., Liu, T.S., Hou, J. Qin, X., Zhang, H. and Li, T. 2003. Cyclic rapid warming on centennial-scale revealed by a 2650-year stalagmite record of warm season temperature. Geophysical Research Letters 30: 10.1029

4) Cheddadi, R., Lamb, H.F., Guiot, J. and van der Kaars, S. 1998. Holocene climatic change in Morocco: a quantitative reconstruction from pollen data. Climate Dynamics 14: 883-890.

5) Petit, J.R. et al (1999). Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature 399: 429-436.

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  • 44.
  • At 04:58 PM on 31 May 2006,
  • Don Keiller wrote:

This one's for Ed.
Don't know about you guys but I'm fed up with all this doom and gloom- now lets hear the positive side to CO2!
As we know the two major environmental issues have arisen regarding our increasingly CO2-rich world. These are climatic change (which are insignificant, always happened and will continue to do so, despite our efforts) and plant responses to the environment (which are significant and beneficial and my special area of expertise).

If you don't believe me then read Soule, P.T. and Knapp, P.A. 2006. Radial growth rate increases in naturally occurring ponderosa pine trees: a late-20th century CO2 fertilization effect? New Phytologist 10.


Basically they found that post-1950 radial growth was "more pronounced during drought years compared with wet years, and the greatest response occurred at the most stressed site." and that "the relative change in growth was upward at seven out of eight sites, ranging from 11 to 133%."
These are big numbers- particularly when you bear in mind that these are "old growth" trees which global warmers have repeatedly stated would have little positive response to elevated CO2.

Let's hear it for CO2- Greening the Planet!

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  • 45.
  • At 09:18 AM on 02 Jun 2006,
  • Marjorie Homer wrote:

At last, someone challenging the simplistic climate change theory. Can we also accept that not all environmentally aware people are in agreement with 'environmentalists'. Could the BBC find a way to make these arguments more available to the general public, do you think.

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The definitive report on the validity of temperature extrapolations from proxy data has just been published:

Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years
http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11676.html

It's conclusion, in brief, is:
Quote:
Based on the analyses presented in the original papers by Mann et al.
and this newer supporting evidence, the committee finds it plausible
that the Northerns Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades
of the 20th Century than during any comparable period over the
preceeding millenium.

The more precise conclusions concerning individual years and decades are less well supported simply because the older proxy data does not have the same degree of precision as the instrumental record, so individual exceptional years or decades may have been undetected.

Moreover:
Quote:
Surface temperature reconstructions for periods prior to the industrial era are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence.

and
Quote:
Science is a process of exploration of ideas―hypotheses are proposed and research is conducted to investigate. Other scientists work on the issue, producing supporting or negating evidence, and each hypothesis either survives for another round, evolves into other ideas, or is proven false and rejected. In the case of the hockey stick, the scientific process has proceeded for the last few years with many researchers testing and debating the results. Critics of the original papers have argued that the statistical methods were flawed, that the choice of data was biased, and that the data and procedures used were not shared so others could verify the work. This report is an opportunity to examine the strengths and limitations of surface temperature reconstructions and the role that they play in improving
our understanding of climate. The reconstruction produced by Dr. Mann
and his colleagues was just one step in a long process of research,
and it is not (as sometimes presented) a clinching argument for anthropogenic global warming, but rather one of many independent lines
of research on global climate change.

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  • 47.
  • At 02:49 AM on 13 Dec 2006,
  • Don wrote:

Quite a few of the gentleman in this discussion have been proposing the idea that the first world models are going to benefit the rest of the world. They have not however taken into consideration that the reason they have all their cheap goods, energy supply etc is by the use of market domination of said third world countries. Countries where deforestation and environmental degradation are rife, that have little to no environmental pollution control are the providers of the commodities our societies crave. First world countries haven't reduced their impact they have exported it out of sight. I work for the power industry and let me tell you that power usage hasn't decreased with technology it has increased. The average house would draw about 50A even as little as 10 years ago, now some have three phase and are blowing 100A fuses. The growth in temperature controlled houses but not better insulated or designed is phenomenal.

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  • 48.
  • At 02:29 PM on 24 Sep 2007,
  • rhiannon wrote:

That penguin that is on its own is sooooooo cute. I want one now

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