Tuesday, 4 December 2012

It's Getting Hot Here.

For anyone visiting this website for the first time, let me start with an introduction.  I have worked as an environmental engineer, and before that a marine engineer for almost forty years.  Having survived the stress and chaos of metropolitan Sydney for nearly thirty of those years, we made a small adjustment northward and for the next two years enjoyed the lifestyle of Newcastle about two hours up the coast.  But today’s contribution to the world of internet self-importance (which goes with being a compulsive blogger), is not about Newcastle – although it is without doubt, a Really Nice Place and I urge you to read more about it in my earlier contribution of that name. No, today I want to talk about something which has been close to my heart and part of my day job for many years.
I grew up in Far North Queensland in an environment which includes the Great Barrier Reef, tropical rain forests and a style of living which sadly no longer seems available in the 21st Century – even in Newcastle.  This was a time when heaven was a chocolate milkshake, served for less than 15 cents (or one shilling and sixpence in old money) in an aluminium container, and not a takeaway drink container in sight – let alone one with a kilo of crushed ice mixed with a blend of cola concentrate and water.
It was there that we learned to swim by biking to local creeks and rivers, with only the odd puncture from riding over gravel roads to worry us.  It was there also that we camped out on sparsely populated islands, or out of the way beaches now mostly owned by private corporations with architecturally flawless five star hotels that only the wealthy can afford.  Blessed with the fortune of living there for a foundational part of my life, it was consequently never hard to take up a career focused on providing solutions and preserving the good things of this world for future generations.
This is why today I want to say a few things about the planet and sustainability – something we frequently hear or read various experts and environmental evangelists banging on about.  One of the reasons why I think it might be my turn to have a go is that even when the world’s most articulate and learned educators preach, there is often no one listening except the choir.  So I might as well add to the babble and get my own thoughts out there.
Not that I am expecting my efforts to bring about any dramatic change to where this issue sits in a pecking order which includes the next episode of The Voice and discussions about Michael Clarke’s cricketing career or Adam Goodes' knee.
If I may, I would like to start by posing an hypothetical question – it won’t be hard to see where I’m going with this.  Let us imagine that about ten years ago we discovered a giant asteroid in the outer reaches of the solar system (let's name it Hades) and using sophisticated models, which predict orbit trajectories, experts have determined that we are on a collision course and that Hades will strike the planet in twenty-five years.  Specialist space engineers and scientists have been working on the models ever since the asteroid was discovered in an effort to more accurately predict the outcome, while at the same time others are developing plans to deal with this threat to humanity as we know it.
Of course there are some sceptics who believe that this is not going to happen and the whole thing is nothing more than a media beat up and a lot of scaremongering.  Some polls seemed to indicate that members of the public believe scientists are substantially disagreeing about the threat, despite the fact that fourteen thousand world experts have produced papers and evidence confirming the threat. On the other side, some twenty or thirty scientists have rejected these findings and are presenting papers and arguments which say there is no threat. Many of these papers had been produced and reproduced over a hundred times over the years since the threat was first discovered.
Another factor in this terrible menace is that it is going to cost trillions of dollars to develop and implement plans to divert the threat.  Engineers are looking at plans which include nuclear devices, gravity traction beams and a whole array of ideas and proposals. The only way to provide the resources and the knowledge to do this is to use funds which would otherwise be used by the defence industries and other big dollar corporations. It soon became evident that much of the influence and drive behind the sceptics was coming from these vested interests who wanted to see business as usual, and were seriously concerned that such efforts would only have a negative effect on profits and the economy.
But clear and determined leadership prevailed.  The threat was real and if there was even the slightest chance that something could be done to avoid a complete and utter disaster and the risk of making mankind as extinct as the dinosaurs, then the combined resources and intellect of the globe would be directed at saving the planet for future generations.
What terrifies me, is that the threat is real.  OK, it’s not an asteroid which is threatening us – in some ways its worse, because this threat is man-made.  I am of course, referring to the threat of global warming.  If you are still confused by this analogy, let me draw your attention to a most informative website recently acknowledged by TIME Magazine as one of the 25 best blogs in the world, called DeSmogBlog.com.  I’m going to refer directly from a recent post which says much more articulately than I can, “Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy. There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.”
The same website also posted a recent paper by geologist James Powell entitled Why Climate Deniers Have No Scientific Credibility – In One Pie Chart. It was from this paper that I extracted the fact that of 13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles in the twenty years between 1991 and 2012, twenty-four reject global warming or endorse a cause other than CO2 emissions for observed warming. The 24 articles have been cited over 100 times over the past twenty years for an average of five citations each.  In short, less than 1 in 500 have rejected global warming which means that 99.8% of scientists in this field accept that the world is getting hotter as a result of human activities.
So what, I hear some folk say. There’s nothing we can do about it, and what’s a couple of degrees anyway, it’s just like moving to the Gold Coast, or Florida, or the South of France.
Well there is much that can be done – but just like the Hades threat, it’s going to take money, resources and a whole lot of different thinking and behaviour. It is delusional to think that global warming is a mild inconvenience and it just means putting the air-conditioner up another notch (which by the way, will make things worse).
I’m going to quote another source on the impact of global warming on humanity. However, this is not a green environmental alarmist with a passion for extremism (although, for the record – I am alarmed).  This time I would like to refer to a paper recently published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, An Adaptability Limit to Climate Change due to Heat Stress by Steven Sherwood of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and Matthew Huber of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center in West Lafayette, Indiana. The paper argues that although it is often assumed that humans would be able to adapt to any possible warming, heat stress imposes a robust upper limit and that peak heat stress never exceeds a wet bulb temperature of 31 degrees C. It goes on to say that anything in excess of 35 degrees C for extended periods would induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of heat becomes impossible. While this never happens now, it would begin to occur with mean global warming of about 7 degrees C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11–12 degrees C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed and that eventual warmings of 12 degrees C are possible from fossil fuel burning.
What alarms me about this is that the paper states that recent estimates of the costs of unmitigated climate change are too conservative unless the range of possible warming can somehow be narrowed.
If you listen to David Roberts of grist.org these numbers are optimistic. He quotes an edition of the Royal Society Journal which states that as little as a 4 degrees C would be “hell on earth” with widespread desertification, water shortages, agricultural disruptions, rising sea levels, vanishing coral, tropical rain forest die-offs and mass species extinctions. If you are so inclined (and I really hope you are), I urge you to watch David’s excellent TEDx presentation on this topic.
Now to me one thing is absolutely clear, and that is that our present course is going to lead to catastrophe.  If we do nothing, that asteroid is surely going to hit us and there will be nothing left for our grandchildren and their grandchildren (if they should make it) to enjoy – not ever.
The International Energy Agency tells us in its report World Energy Outlook 2011 that every year of delay adds $500 billion to the investment required to start fixing the problem.
Most of my previous assaults on this topic have been around a barbecue with a cold beer in my hand, and I have to say, that I don’t think I have influenced those of my mulish and sceptical friends who deny there is a problem one iota. I will probably have less chance of doing so now that I have called them stubborn and mulish.  But if I have made just one reader think more seriously about this issue, I will feel I have achieved something. 
So to anyone who has any influence in this area (and we all have some don’t we?) - I say let’s stop rearranging deck chairs and selecting hymns.  There is an iceberg ahead of us, and Hades is coming our way. We can avoid both – but it ain’t gonna be easy and we are going to have to change – ALL OF US.