Friday, March 08, 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth

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Hello and welcome… 

…to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 8 March 2019. I'm Anthony Day and I’d like to welcome listeners from all over the world and especially my patrons whose contributions help me to cover the costs of producing this podcast. Last week I promised you a review of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and then I ran out of time, so I'm putting it at the start of this episode. I'm also going to talk about the attention that climate change is getting in Parliament and reactions to the American Green Deal. There’s more on extreme weather, on air pollution and a follow-up from The Lancet on the Planetary Diet.
We live in the Goldilocks zone.
Remember Goldilocks? She found the porridge that was too hot, the porridge that was too cold and the porridge was that was just right. And she gobbled it all up.
We live on a planet which isn't too hot, it isn't too cold, in fact it's just right. And we've mucked it all up. Or if we haven’t, we’re well on the way to doing so.
The Uninhabitable Earth
That, broadly, I think is the message of David Wallace-Wells’s book. It's received mixed reviews. Brian Appleyard of the Sunday Times calls it a catalogue of horrors. In The Times Mark Lynas said it was written in a tone of sustained high alarm and David George Haskell writing in The Guardian complained of many inaccuracies. On the other hand, Fred Pearce in the Washington Post described it as an excellent book. “Climate scientists have presented the data,” he said, “and now it's time to strike a strong public chord.”
Let's look in more detail at what the book actually says. Okay, it does use pretty alarmist language. 
Towards the end of the book Wallace-Wells says, 
“The emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment– collectively walking down the path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.”
And he starts starts his introduction: 
“It is worse, much worse than you think.”
The second part of the book is headed, “Elements of Chaos.” In this section he covers 12 different threats to the future of humanity, from heatstroke death and hunger to economic collapse and climate conflict. All pretty apocalyptic stuff. Our author's a journalist not a scientist and I have to say that a lot of his quoted sources are not scientific papers. But I also have to say that he's putting over many of the same messages as those of economist Lord Stern in 2006, of George Monbiot in his book Heat in 2007 and Mark Lynas in his book Six Degrees in the same year.
The Uninhabitable Earth is a long and detailed book and there are 66 pages of notes where the author identifies his sources and adds comments. I’ve mentioned the threat from sea level rise in the past. He’s fairly dismissive about it, by comparison with the other threats he describes. Even so, he says in the fullness of time you can forget any beach you’ve ever visited because it will be deep under water. Other chapter headings are self-explanatory - hunger, wildfire, freshwater drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, economic collapse, climate conflict. 
Waste of Energy
Let me just explore a couple of the facts which he throws out along the way. Apparently the amount of energy used for bitcoin mining is equivalent to the total global output of renewable energy. You’ll find his sources for this in the notes at the back of the book. I must admit that I have made several attempts to get my head round bitcoin mining and similar cryptocurrencies and I'm still struggling. It seems to me that bitcoin mining involves finding a winning code which is worth a lot of money by using brute computer force to try every possible combination. How can a bitcoin created in this way have any intrinsic value? It seems to be conferring a right to some value, like a banknote, but for every banknote that is produced, legitimately or otherwise, each banknote is worth that much less. Well it must be, because global value is constant at any given moment and if you divide that value by a larger number of banknotes each one must be worth slightly less. It’s illegal to produce your own banknotes, but it’s not illegal to produce your own bitcoins. And yet bitcoin mining is creating no value while generating this vast carbon footprint threatening the climate. If we stopped bitcoin mining we could shut down an equivalent fossil fuel based generating capacity. Is this cognitive dissonance, holding two conflicting ideas at the same time? The people who undertake this bitcoin mining must be of a fairly high intellectual calibre. They surely would have little problem in understanding climate science. Do they just prefer to ignore it?
Refugee Crisis
Another another scenario addressed in the book is the refugee crisis caused by areas of the earth becoming uninhabitable either because they are underwater, have become so hot and arid that neither crops nor livestock nor people can live there. We're talking about the displacement of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people, far in excess of the numbers of refugees currently generated by war zones and political instability. Such refugees are likely to be driven back and excluded by those countries more fortunately placed. They will take up arms against the poor.
Trump in Puerto Rico
The book quotes the behaviour of President Trump in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017. Apparently he flew in as the relief efforts were under way. He met a crowd of people and threw rolls of paper towels into the audience. Many of these people had lost their houses, had no power, no water, no sanitation, no food. Was this, seriously, Trump’s personal contribution to the relief effort? I thought this sounded highly unlikely, but I found the video on the Washington Post website - there’s a link on the blog: 
The hurricane immediately killed 64 people and nearly 3,000 died from the after-effects including the destruction of the island’s infrastructure. Trump called his government’s work after Hurricane Maria an “unsung success”. He called the mayor of San Juan incompetent. “President Trump thinks losing 3,000 lives is a success,” said the mayor of San Juan, who has been highly critical of the limited relief from the US. “Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”
The dispute continues today, 18 months on, over whether US aid is sufficient given that the country still has not recovered from the most violent hurricane ever to strike it.
Puerto Rico, by the way, is an American territory and the inhabitants are American citizens. However they do not have votes in the presidential elections and they do not have voting representatives in Congress because Puerto Rico is not a state.

Is this a hint of things to come?
The key questions raised by the book are “How soon will all this happen?” and  “Can we do anything about it?” I think that much of Wallace-Wells’s hyperbole comes from frustration. Frustration that yes, we have the technology to mitigate and slow down climate change and adapt to protect ourselves from its worst consequences. Frustration because we had the technology 15 years ago and more when these dangers became apparent, but not enough is being done to meet the challenge. For him it’s not a science problem, it’s a human problem; a problem with getting people to take all these issues seriously and to do something - no, not just something - to do enough about it.
As a global community we are not really taking these issues seriously. Even though some 198 nations have come together, agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and signed the Paris Accord, that is by no means enough. Even if the nations meet their promised targets this will not be enough to prevent global temperatures from exceeding 3°C, while the IPCC urges that the safe ceiling is 1.5°C. The word is that when the nations come together next year for the five-year review of progress towards the Paris targets they will already have fallen short of their promises.
More Books
I’ve been recommended to read ’There is no Planet B’ by Mike Berners-Lee, brother of the guy who invented the Internet - which is said to be a counterpoint to “Uninhabitable Earth” on the grounds that it offers some ways out. It’s on my list. I’m going to need more patrons if I’m going to keep buying these books.
While I'm talking about books I’ll mention that I've been reading It's Not Rocket Science by Ben Miller. Yes that's the Ben Miller of the TV series Armstrong & Miller who also starred in the first series of the BBC's Death In Paradise. He's also a Cambridge physicist and Chapter 7 of his book has one of the best accessible analyses of the causes of climate change that I've seen. He covers the impact of the sun, El Nino, volcanoes, water vapour and clouds, as well as the effect of CO2. He ends his chapter on a note of optimism. He wrote it eight years ago. I have written to him via his publishers to ask what he thinks about the situation now.
Who Cares?
You are probably aware, wherever you may live in the world, that the United Kingdom is approaching Brexit, the point at which it leaves the European Union on 29 March. This has dominated our news and the political agenda for several months now and the House of Commons chamber has been packed for each debate. While Brexit will undoubtedly have a fundamental effect on the UK whether we leave or not, with or without a deal, by comparison with the challenges of climate change its significance is trivial. 
UK Climate
Disappointing then, that for a debate on climate change in the Commons last week very few members of parliament bothered to turn up with only about 10 representing the government. One wonders that if they do not appreciate the full significance climate change whether they understand the full implications of Brexit or of any other political issue for that matter.
The debate was a follow-up to the school pupils’ protest a couple of weeks ago against inaction on climate change which the prime minister described as truancy. Commenting on last year’s IPCC report during the debate, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith said, “If you look at the trends, we are not heading for that apocalyptic 2 degree rise, we are heading for something that looks more like 3 degrees, the consequences of which we cannot possibly estimate.”
In light of that, he said “the idea of children missing a few hours of geometry or PE to wake our political system up is somehow the wrong thing to do, just seems … absurd”.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said, “Time is quickly running out to limit warming even to the 1.5 or 2 degree aspirations of the IPCC. We face a climate emergency … It calls for unprecedented boldness of vision and a new way of thinking.”
At the end of the day it was just another debate. No decisions were taken, no legislation passed. Nothing was actually done.
US Climate - Green Deal
Across the pond the Americans have a Green New Deal. This appears to be based on the reports of the Green New Deal organisation which is based in the UK but takes a global view. Its members include familiar names such as Tony Juniper, Jeremy Leggett and Caroline Lucas.
A fourteen-page legislative resolution, sponsored by Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey has been introduced to the House of Representatives. It recounts the warnings laid out in last year’s IPCC report and calls for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” through a ten-year “national mobilization”. Its goals include guaranteeing everyone a job, affordable housing, and high-quality health care. 
It has sparked controversy. The president doesn’t like it. According to Fox News, Patrick Moore, the co-founder of the environmentalist group Greenpeace didn’t like it. He called Ocasio-Cortez a pompous little twit. (Let’s hear it for rational argument!) Actually Greenpeace say that he left them long ago, was not a co-founder and certainly doesn’t speak for them.
In its official response Greenpeace said that the resolution for a Green New Deal was moving the national climate debate to places no one thought possible even a year ago. “We stand behind the effort to create millions of family-sustaining union jobs that protect our nation’s clean air, water and communities while confronting systematic injustices head-on.”
But much of the response to the resolution was scathing, angry and aggressive. Many thought the plan went too far too fast. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - also a Democrat - declined to support it, saying it was going beyond the party’s remit which she stated was simply “about saving the planet”.
President’s View
(you can hear what he actually said on the pod)
The president, at a recent rally of the faithful, just made fun of it. 
After all, this is a man who cannot distinguish between climate and weather and is pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement.

Well that's enough for this week.
I leave you with the news that Australia has just finished its warmest summer on record, that urban air pollution is getting seriously worse, but cooking a Christmas dinner creates more pollution in your kitchen than you’ll experience in central Delhi in India on a bad day, and following the launch of the Planetary Diet The Lancet warns about water shortages: “if current dietary trajectories continue, water use will be pushed to the edge of the defined sustainability boundary by 2050.”
And that’s it.
I'm Anthony Day  and I do this podcast every week because I believe that we are facing a very serious challenge in the form of climate change and not doing nearly enough about it. I believe that we can take action to avoid the worst consequences but recycling plastic bottles, installing solar panels and having a weekly meatless day at the individual level is not going to solve it. We need actions from governments. That's why each week I try and make as many people as possible aware that we can do things differently, they don't need to be worse, but if we sit on our hands and do nothing they could be disastrous. Politicians listen to public opinion. In a small way I’m tryin to educate public opinion.
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I'm Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 8 March 2019. That means there’ll be another on Friday the 15th.
Till then!

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