Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Climate Change: 'Outside Context Problem'

Protests in Paris are now officially banned, so the world's corporate leaders are now free to meet the world's political leaders without any pesky protesters getting in the way.

There may well be the odd scientist wandering around looking lost, and a few representatives from the world's better behaved NGOs, but mostly this will be an occasion for those who run the world to meet those who own the world.

It will no doubt be a jolly occasion.  After all pretty much everyone present will agree on three things at least: that taxes on wealth should be low, that markets should be lightly regulated, and that economic growth must continue forever.

It will also, for the most part, be completely pointless. As George Monbiot put it earlier this year the entire twenty five year process that has brought us to COP21 has mostly involved "hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives".

The reason is not that global warming is an insoluble problem, but for those meeting in Paris Climate Change will be an outside context problem. Let em explain.

Outside Context Problem

The term Outside Context Problem was coined by the late, great Scottish science fiction writer Iain M Banks for his 1996 novel  Excession. This is how he defined one:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
For the high priests of Neoliberalism, whose response to problems is to cut taxes, sign free trade deals and, when the worst comes to the worst, invent some new money in the form of Quantative Easing,  Climate Change is a problem about as welcome as Cortez was for the Aztecs.

When faced with an Outside Context Problems cultures usually try two strategies in relatively quick succession; first pretend it doesn't exist and secondly try to placate the gods with a bit of magic.

We've been engaged in the first activity for a while now. Many of the key players have retired from the game, but a few with nothing better to do with their lives still soldier on. No doubt some will show up in Paris, but I suspect it will be their last, forlorn stand, because now we are well into the second phase.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, having spent a quarter of a century explaining very patiently to its backers that the scientists were in fact right about Global Warming in 1988, produced in December last year its Synthesis Report, which attempted to square the science with the economics.

The report contains 400 scenarios that show how to give a 50/50 chance of limiting Climate Change to 2 degrees by 2100 whilst still being "economically feasible". That means, no excessive taxation, no excessive regulation and economic growth continuing forever. This where the magic comes in.

In 344 of those scenarios emissions will drop at some point to less than zero. In 56 scenarios, emissions will peak in 2010. I shouldn't need to point out that at the present time it is impossible to emit less than zero CO2, and that by the time the report was published 2010 was nearly five years in the past, and emissions most definitely did not peak then.

So, without non-existent technologies or time travel, how many scenarios did the IPCC come up with that were "economically feasible"? Precisely none.

The ideas that increasingly individual wealth is not a reliable measure of personal wellbeing, that we'd all be better off corporations worked for our benefit and not the other way round or that the way the global economy has been run for the last thirty years is the only way it could ever be run, are apparently as alien to the people who run the world as the steam engine and the Maxim gun were the occupants of Mr Bank's metaphorical island.

All of which suggests we need to make an urgent choice as to whether we follow the rules of physics, or of economics. We need to get Climate Change in context because otherwise, as Iain M Banks said, an Outside Context Problems is one "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encounters a full stop."


Duality in Climate Science by Professor Kevin Anderson 
IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report
Excession by Iain M Banks

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Bang Goes The Climate

What causes big holes in Siberia and could be a huge problem for the climate?

Alas, this is not a joke, but a scary new dimension to Climate Change.

The Hole Story

Earlier this year what appeared to be sink hole opened up in Yamal, in the Siberian tundra.  Shortly afterwards two more appeared. Sink holes are a well known phenomena when the rock beneath our feet gets dissolved and suddenly a giant hole appears which can swallow cars, houses or in Manchester's case a road.

The holes in Siberia were bigger than most sinkholes - the first one found was 260 feet across - but there were other differences too. When scientists had a good look they found, not material slipping into the earth, but coming out of it.

Something from deep within had been released, violently.

Waking the Giant

The immediate finger of suspicion pointed at the gas methane, trapped below the frozen tundra in the
form of methane hydrates. As Climate Change warmed the Arctic, the permafrost melted and the gas was released.

This was a problem. Methane doesn't remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but whilst it is there it is a far more potent Greenhouse gas. 32 molecules of carbon dioxide are generally considered to have the same effect as one of CH4, so more of the stuff in the air is a very bad idea.

The question was, how much more was down there? Until this year everything I read said that most methane more than 200m below the surface and it would take a thousand year of warming to release it.

But that was before the Siberian holes appeared.

The Climate Bomb

But there had been Siren voices warning us to beware of the methane.

Paleo-climatologists, who study the deep history of the earth's climate, had looked to methane hydrates as the cause of two of the world's great extinction events: the Permian-Triassic 252 million years ago and the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago. They speculated that a release of methane could cause runaway global warming in the timescale of a human lifetime.

The Permian-Triassic event cleared the world of giant insects and paved the way for the dinosaurs, whilst the PETM event led to the spread of mammals around the world and the rise of the Primates. Could a similar event mark the end of the planet's dominant Primate?

Into The Abyss

A couple of weeks ago a team of Russian scientists finally ventured into the first crater. With winter
approaching the ice walls had refrozen, making it safe to explore. Still, I expect nobody smoked.

They are not going to release their results until the work is completed, but at the bottom they found a frozen lake of gas and water, more than ten metres deep, just as they expected.

But the real question remains to be answered: how many more?

Worry, but...

So reason to be worried, but possibly not a reason to focus too much on Siberia. Methane Hydrates remain one of the 'known unknowns' of Climate Change, but there is enough we do know to press for action now, rather than waiting for more data.

As the Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University, and fellow Leicester University Physics Graduate, Dr Grant Allen told me earlier in the year:

My current personal take on the science here is that the phrase “ticking Arctic time bomb” is over-used and alarmist. There is a lot of science still to be done ... Empirical fluxes of CH4 from hydrate are simply not known with any useful uncertainty. But of much greater significance (in my opinion) are the changing source strengths in Arctic (and tropical) wetland methane emissions as a result of warming, as well as growing anthropogenic emissions.
In other words before worrying about the boost to Climate Change nature might provide, lets deal with our own Greenhouse gas emissions, which are running at rate that will fry the planet without any help from natural feedbacks.

However if you want a reason or three why we should not be smug about climate change, why we should act as quickly as we can and why we should not be confident that two degrees of warming is either a safe or stable level, then you just have to look at the big holes in the formerly frozen north.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Top Five Songs About Vikings

The BBC adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom is currently causing me a bit of a crisis of loyalty: should I cheer for the pagans or the English?

Well both, obviously.

Meanwhile, how about a list of Viking themed music. 

(Click on the title to listen to the song).

5. Horrible Histories Literally

Who better to start us off than the best thing to ever come from CBBC: Horrible Histories?

There is of course some real history here, but far more fun is counting the rock and pop references in the Queen-meets-Lordi video.

4. Leave's Eyes Sign of the Dragonhead

Of course you couldn't do a list like this without including some real Vikings. Viking Rock is a major genre in Scandinavia. Some of it is so heavy you need special ears to listen to it, and some has so many folk elements you think you're listening to a Spinal Tap parody.

That still leaves plenty of decent stuff though, and Norwegian-German group Leave's Eyes has been knocking out decent songs more than a decade, as well as keeping Viking reenactors busy in their videos. Founder member and front woman Liv Kristine recently left, casuing a crisis amongst their friends. However her replacement by Finnish born, but British based, soprano Elina Siirala was certainly all right by me. Siirala had been fronting her own band Enkelination since 2011, and they were pretty good. However with Leave's Eyes behind her she done even better.

3. Iron Maiden Invaders 

Power Metal may be alive and well and living in Scandinavia, but it has it's roots in this country.

When punk started to falter in the late seventies, a deluge of bands collectively known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal arrived. Working Class and utterly introverted, Iron Maiden were one of the few bands who escaped this sub-culture and made it megabig.

They were fond of songs about history, and this one is from 1982's breakthrough The Number of the Beast album.

2. The Darkness Barbarian

If there is any band today that channels that spirit of eighties rock excess it is Norfolk's The Darkness.

Hailing from a part of England well and truly trashed by the Vikings, lead singer Justin Hawkins has now stopped getting trashed himself and the band have survived the curse of the Christmas single to become the sort of really together rock outfit they should have been ten years ago. 

1. Led Zeppelin Immigrant Song

But before all of the above got into the act Robert Plant was singing about Vikings on 1970's Led Zeppelin III.

The title is ironic, given the racial problems of 70s Britain, and even more ironically the word 'immigrant' is itself an immigrant, having popped across The Channel from France to steal the job of an Old English word. The real Anglo-Saxons would have referred to the Norsemen - when they were being polite - as ingangers

Anyway, Last Kingdom is on again on Thursday, so we can find out how Alfred deals with the ingangers, but it has a rubbish soundtrack compared to these songs. BBC please take note.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Peak District National Park at risk from fracking.

Eighty-three years ago my grandfather took part in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass which led to the creation of the National Park. If anyone tried to frack under the Peak District there could be a second mass trespass to save it.