It’s Later Than You Think
Another week, another Sustainable Futures Report but still the same Anthony Day. Well, a week older, but more or less the same. It’s Friday 8th November. Soon be Christmas. Soon be the general election, but I’m going to try not to talk about that.
I call this episode “It’s later than you think”, but really it’s later than you want to think. We’ve had warnings for years about the climate crisis but as a global population we’ve been postponing serious action. Now, at the 11th hour plus 59 minutes there’s the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. This one is serious. (As if the others weren’t.)
In other news I’ll be talking about the moratorium on fracking, a citizens’ assembly, a new coal mine, smog in Delhi, why Trump may pull federal aid funds from California fire zones, why it could be the end of the runway for some private planes and why you may need more than wellies in Dublin. Finally Dr Matt Winning tells us about his work as a climate researcher and his other life as a stand-up comedian.
World Scientists’ Warning
This week the Alliance of World Scientists (AWS) has issued a climate emergency warning. The AWS is a new international assembly of scientists, which is independent of both governmental and non-governmental organizations and corporations. It claims 23,000 members across 180 countries. Here’s the opening part of their statement:
“We scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat. In this paper, we present a suite of graphical vital signs of climate change over the last 40 years. Results show greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, with increasingly damaging effects. With few exceptions, we are largely failing to address this predicament. The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity. We suggest six critical and interrelated steps that governments and the rest of humanity can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change, covering
- Short-lived pollutants,
- Economy, and
Mitigating and adapting to climate change entails transformations in the ways we govern, manage, feed, and fulfill material and energy requirements. We are encouraged by a recent global surge of concern. Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations. The Pope issued an encyclical on climate change. Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change. As scientists, we urge widespread use of our vital signs and anticipate that graphical indicators will better allow policymakers and the public to understand the magnitude of this crisis, track progress, and realign priorities to alleviate climate change. The good news is that such transformative change, with social and ecological justice, promises greater human wellbeing in the long-run than business as usual. We believe that prospects will be greatest if policy makers and the rest of humanity promptly respond to our warning and declaration of a climate emergency, and act to sustain life on planet Earth, our only home.”
A link to the full text of the paper is on the blog.
This week of course is when President Trump’s America begins the process of withdrawing the country from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. 188 countries signed up but the world’s largest emitter has decided to leave because compliance “punishes the United States”.
In Other News…
The big news in the UK is a moratorium on fracking. This brings England in line with Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and many other countries across the world. It is, however, a moratorium not a total ban, so if the present government were re-elected they could allow fracking to restart. Fracking is highly unpopular in the areas where exploratory drillings have taken place and the sites have been beset by determined civil protest. Opponents are concerned that fracking will release dangerous levels of methane and that water used in the operations will contaminate drinking water. Fracking produces natural gas, a fossil fuel, at a time when every effort is being made to phase fossil fuels out. In the US activists have monitored levels of methane leakage at fracking sites and found them to be well in excess of levels reported by the companies. At that level, fracked gas is producing more emissions than coal.
Jeremy Leggett - I’ve mentioned him a few times - has produced a detail analysis of fracking. He reports that nobody in the US has made money from it and describes the way that the companies are chasing returns by pouring more and more money into it as a Ponzi scheme. Remember Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme? He used money from new investors to pay out high returns. As long as there was a constant stream of new investors everyone was happy. When that stopped they found there was nothing left. Leggett reports that fracking firms are borrowing money to pay the interest on existing loans. He fears that the industry’s collapse could trigger the next global financial crisis. Find his report - presented as a slide show - at jeremyleggett.net.
In the same week as the UK government announced a halt to fracking it gave its approval to a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, Northwest England. At first sight it seems perverse to expand production of coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. This particular mine will produce metallurgical coal for steelmaking, both for export and replacing imports. Greenpeace says electricity should be used for steelmaking, but industry experts say that’s not how it works.
The mine will generate 500 new jobs with as many as 2,000 other in the supply chain.
If we are going to make steel we are going to need coal. Can carbon capture and storage be adapted to the industry? Maybe in the UK, as indicated on the West Cumbria Mining website. The risk is that this coal will be exported to nations with little or no emissions regulations and UK products made to exacting environmental standards will be priced out of the market.
There’s nothing simple in sustainability.
A very difficult call for the local planners but in the end they found in favour of the mine and the government supported them against objectors.
One of XR’s demands has been for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly. I complained last week that the government under Theresa May had promised such a body but that nothing had happened. Everything’s changed. Now a cross-party parliamentary group formed of six committees representing different government departments, has just announced that it will approach 30,000 households and invite people to become assembly members. The invitees to Climate Assembly UK have been selected at random from across the UK. From those who respond, 110 people will be chosen as a representative sample of the population.
They will meet over four weekends from late January in Birmingham, and will discuss topics ranging from transport to household energy use.
XR gave the move a very cautious welcome and explained that the proposed assembly did not meet their expectations.
“We’re pleased that 30,000 people will be receiving a letter in the post inviting them to take part in a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change,” they said, “We hope they respond so that they have a chance of participating in this important Citizens’ Assembly.”
More specifically they say:
- We are devastated that this Citizens’ Assembly will only be addressing how to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
- We would urge the organisers to ensure that the members of the Assembly are presented with evidence as to why 2050 is inadequate.
- This Citizens’ Assembly is advisory, toothless in other words.
- The Citizens Assembly must be founded in climate and ecological justice.
- Where is the select committee representing DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)? Why are they not involved in this?
- Extinction Rebellion demands a Citizens’ Assembly that is endorsed by government and has real decision-making power.
XR’s detailed response can be found on their website - link on the blog.
Net Zero Review
This week the UK finance minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer as we prefer to call him, launched a review to determine how the UK would end its contribution to global warming.
“The Net Zero Review,” said the Chancellor, “will assess how the UK can maximise economic growth opportunities from its transformation to a green economy.”
“The UK is leading the way on tackling climate change as the first major economy to legislate for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”
I’ve just been doing some research into carbon offsets, and I’m concerned about what net zero emissions actually means. I have serious doubts that it’s achievable. I’ll do some more research on that and get back to you. I’ll read the terms of reference for the Net Zero Review as well.
They say, “The review will also consider how to ensure we can cut our emissions without seeing them exported elsewhere.” That’s very important, because in the past the UK has not been the only country to claim massive emissions reductions while ignoring the fact that it has been importing goods which used to be made at home in factories which have gone.
I was also a bit concerned that it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who made the announcement. Does this mean that we’re going to do it as long as it doesn’t cost too much? I know we don’t have a Department of Energy and Climate Change any more, but shouldn’t the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy be taking lead on this? And what about the aforementioned DEFRA, given that land management and use contribute as much to emissions as electricity generation?
Reports from Delhi this week reveal that the city is shrouded in smog with atmospheric pollution some 10 times safe levels. The city always has a bad atmosphere, but the present crisis has been caused by firecrackers set off to celebrate Diwali and by farmers burning stubble in fields surrounding the city. In an attempt to improve things the government has announced that vehicles can only use the roads on alternate days, depending on whether their registration number is odd or even. Many drivers drive anyway and take the back roads to avoid being stopped. They probably drive further and make the problem worse. At least one politician decided to take his car out on the wrong day and defy the ban on principle.
It’s not just air quality. Women bathing in the river to give thanks to the sun god - which they couldn’t see - found the water thick, oily, smelly and shrouded in layers of foam. Like many developing countries, India seems to have regulations, but no effective enforcement.
The Labour Party is exploring plans to ban private jets from UK airports from as early as 2025 should it win the election, in the party’s latest broadside against the super-rich. It will undoubtedly improve air quality, at least to some extent, but it will be an impossible battle to win and there are so many other issues that a government should surely be focussing on. The prospect of electric planes for short journeys looks increasingly realistic. Maybe better to concentrate on supporting R&D in that area.
The poor air quality in Delhi has led to flights being diverted from the city. Fortunately air quality, though poor, is not yet as bad as that in London.
In California people are recovering from wildfires which have burned for weeks, damaging property and driving people from their homes. President Trump has threatened to withdraw federal aid from the state, blaming the (Democrat) governor for poor forest management. The governor responded by calling the president a climate change denier. Regardless of their spat I would have thought that top priority should be cleaning up after the fires and withholding aid money can only hurt the residents of the state.
Writing in Forbes Magazine, Michael Schellenberger suggests that the fire situation is not nearly as simple as it might appear, and might have nothing at all to do with climate change. The New York Times reports that the fires this year might have been spectacular but were not as bad as last year when 86 people were killed.
Quoting Dr. Jonathan Keeley, a US Geological Survey scientist, Schellenberger explains how different fires take hold in different locations. There are the forest fires and there are the fires which burn on shrublands closer to the coast. Few people live in the forests and fires are natural. Regularly burning the forest floor litter keeps it clean and keeps fires small. Over the last 100 years the US fire service has been quick to put out forest fires and so the quantity of leaf litter and fallen branches has grown. When this catches fire the fire has more fuel and so is more intense. Forests can withstand small fires. Major fires wipe them out and leave shrubland.
In the populated areas nearer the coast, fires have caught the undergrowth and the 70mph winds have driven the flames over wider areas. Many have been started by faulty power lines and others by careless people. Keeley believes climate change has little to do with it.
“I don’t think the president is wrong about the need to better manage,” he says. “I don’t know if you want to call it ‘mismanaged’ but [the forests] have been managed in a way that has allowed the fire problem to get worse.”
So on this occasion the president is not totally wrong, but it’s hard to blame the present governor for policies that have been in place for 100 years.
Listener Paul O’Mahony draws my attention to an article in the Irish Times. Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University says it’s only a matter of time until the elements combine for a devastating storm surge which will leave thousands of homes, businesses and landmark buildings in Dublin under water. If a storm-force onshore wind coincided with a high spring tide water from Dublin Bay would surge into the River Liffey while it was in full flow from the Wicklow mountains.
“The combination of water trying to escape and water being pushed up into the river means it will end up moving sideways,” he said. The Liffey would “over-top into the surrounding areas” resulting in major flooding in the city centre.
“There would be hundreds or thousands of properties basically – residential, commercial and government properties – that would be under water for a considerable length of time, with all the implications that that has.”
Of course Dublin is by no means the only city vulnerable to storm surges: many of the world’s major cities are on coastlines or estuaries. Sea level rise is measured in millimetres per year, but multiplying that by the vast area of the oceans’ surface gives an awful lot of water. Water to be added to the surge when wind, rain and tides coincide.
Professor Thorne expects to see such a surge within his lifetime. He’s 40 years old.
And now here’s Dr Matt Winning, climate researcher and comedian.
Sailing Off to Madrid
Greta Thunberg, tireless teenage climate activist, set sail for America back in August in order to attend the UN COP 25 climate conference in Chile next month. Now it’s announced that the venue’s changed and the event will take place in Madrid. Anyone sailing that way? Apparently Greta’s looking for a lift.
But Before I Go,
As I prepare this episode for publication news comes in that XR have won in court. They challenged the use of Section 14 of the Public Order Act by the police during the October rebellion. The police applied it to the whole of London, but the judge agreed with XR that it could only be applied to individual demonstrations, not a wide geographic area. It’s suggested that those arrested could now sue the police for false imprisonment.
You’ve got to sympathise with the police. They are being caught in the middle because XR believes that only by over-stretching police resources can the government be made to listen. While much of the policing in October was low-key and almost friendly, allegations of heavy-handedness, particularly against disabled protesters, must be investigated.
And that’s it…
…for another week. I’m Anthony Day, that was the Sustainable Futures Report and thank you for listening.
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That’s it for this week. There will be another Sustainable Futures Report next week. I wonder what it will be about.
Alliance of World Scientists
Government under fire for approval of new coalmine in Cumbria
Net zero review
Flights diverted in Delhi as toxic smog hits worst levels of 2019
Delhi residents engulfed in pollution blame authorities for inaction
Call for ban on UK private jets by 2025 as flight traffic soars
Chile climate pullout prompts tears from young activists sailing Atlantic