Tag Archives: Eco

Climate change conversations : emails to a skeptic

From The Independent last night…. A series of Questions & Answers has produced a very interesting discussion and led to a huge reader response…

World-renowned physicist Professor Freeman Dyson has been described as a ‘force-of-nature intellect’. He’s also one of the world’s foremost climate change sceptics. In this email exchange, our science editor, Steve Connor, asks the Princeton scholar why he’s one of the few true intellectuals to be so dismissive of the global-warming consensus

From: Steve Connor

To: Freeman Dyson

You are one of the most famous living scientists, credited as a visionary who has reshaped scientific thinking. Some have called you the “heir to Einstein”, yet you are also a “climate sceptic” who questions the consensus on global warming and its link with carbon dioxide emissions. Could we start by finding where we agree? I take it you accept for instance that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet (1); that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen since direct measurements began several decades ago (2); and that CO2 is almost certainly higher now than for at least the past 800,000 years (3), if you take longer records into account, such as ice-core data.

Would you also accept that CO2 levels have been increasing as a result of burning fossil fuels and that global temperatures have been rising for the past 50 years at least, and possibly for longer (4)? Computer models have shown that the increase in global temperatures can only be explained by the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations (5). Climate scientists say there is no other reasonable explanation for the warming they insist is happening (6), which is why we need to consider doing something about it (7). What part of this do you accept and what do you reject?

From: Freeman Dyson

To: Steve Connor

First of all, please cut out the mention of Einstein. To compare me to Einstein is silly and annoying.

Answers to your questions are: yes (1), yes (2), yes (3), maybe (4), no (5), no (6), no (7).

There are six good reasons for saying no to the last three assertions. First, the computer models are very good at solving the equations of fluid dynamics but very bad at describing the real world. The real world is full of things like clouds and vegetation and soil and dust which the models describe very poorly. Second, we do not know whether the recent changes in climate are on balance doing more harm than good. The strongest warming is in cold places like Greenland. More people die from cold in winter than die from heat in summer. Third, there are many other causes of climate change besides human activities, as we know from studying the past. Fourth, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is strongly coupled with other carbon reservoirs in the biosphere, vegetation and top-soil, which are as large or larger. It is misleading to consider only the atmosphere and ocean, as the climate models do, and ignore the other reservoirs. Fifth, the biological effects of CO2 in the atmosphere are beneficial, both to food crops and to natural vegetation. The biological effects are better known and probably more important than the climatic effects. Sixth, summing up the other five reasons, the climate of the earth is an immensely complicated system and nobody is close to understanding it.

That will do for the first set of questions. Now it is your turn.

From: Steve Connor

To: Freeman Dyson

So you accept that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet, that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have been rising since direct measurements began several decades ago, and that CO2 is almost certainly higher now than for at least the past 800,000 years. You think it “maybe” right that CO2 levels have been increasing as a result of fossil fuel burning but you don’t accept that global temperatures have been rising nor that the increase in carbon dioxide has anything to do with that supposed trend. And finally, you have little or no faith in the computer models of the climate.

As a physicist you must be aware of the calculations of estimated increases in global average temperatures due to the positive radiative forcing of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the heat “captured” by CO2. The mainstream estimate suggests that doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels would increase global average temperatures by about 3C. If you accept that CO2 levels have never been higher, but not that global average temperatures have increased, where has the extra trapped heat gone to? Can we deal with this before we go on?

From: Freeman Dyson

To: Steve Connor

No thank-you! The whole point of this discussion is that I am interested in a far wider range of questions, while you are trying to keep us talking about narrow technical questions that I consider unimportant.

You ask me where the extra trapped heat has gone, but I do not agree with the models that say the extra trapped heat exists. I cannot answer your question because I disagree with your assumptions.

From: Steve Connor

To: Freeman Dyson

Sorry you feel that way, I hope we can get back on track. I was only trying to find out where your problem lies with respect to the scientific consensus on global warming. As you know these models are used by large, prestigious science organisations such as NASA, NOAA and the Met Office, which use them to make pretty accurate predictions about the weather every day. The scientists who handle these models point out that they can accurately match up the computer predictions to real climatic trends in the past, and that it is only when they add CO2 influences to the models that they can explain recent global warming. There is a scientific consensus that CO2 emissions are having a discernible influence on the global climate and I was attempting to find out more precisely why you part company from this consensus.

You have written eloquently about the need for heretics in science who question the accepted dogma. There are a number of notable instances in science where heretics have indeed been proven to be right (Alfred Wegener and continental drift) but many more, less notable examples where they have been shown to be wrong and, in time, will be forgotten (remember Peter Duesberg or Andrew Wakefield?). So it was in the light of your heretical stance on climate science that I’d like to know why we should believe a few lone heretics – albeit eminent ones such as yourself – rather than the vast body of scientists who have a plethora of published work to back up their claims? It’s an important question because it’s about who we, the public, should believe on scientific matters and why?

From: Freeman Dyson

To: Steve Connor

When I was in high-school in England in the 1930s, we learned that continents had been drifting according to the evidence collected by Wegener. It was a great mystery to understand how this happened, but not much doubt that it happened. So it came as a surprise to me later to learn that there had been a consensus against Wegener. If there was a consensus, it was among a small group of experts rather than among the broader public. I think that the situation today with global warming is similar. Among my friends, I do not find much of a consensus. Most of us are sceptical and do not pretend to be experts. My impression is that the experts are deluded because they have been studying the details of climate models for 30 years and they come to believe the models are real. After 30 years they lose the ability to think outside the models. And it is normal for experts in a narrow area to think alike and develop a settled dogma. The dogma is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. In astronomy this happens all the time, and it is great fun to see new observations that prove the old dogmas wrong.

Unfortunately things are different in climate science because the arguments have become heavily politicised. To say that the dogmas are wrong has become politically incorrect. As a result, the media generally exaggerate the degree of consensus and also exaggerate the importance of the questions.

I am glad we are now talking about more general issues and not about technical details. I do not pretend to be an expert about the details.

From: Steve Connor

To: Freeman Dyson

Well, I’ll try to keep it general, but it may involve talking specifics. One of my own academic mentors once explained to me that science is really just a very useful intellectual tool for teaching us about the world, just as philosophy teaches us how to think. The trouble for non-scientists is that we have to rely on professional scientists to tell us what they are finding out. But as you say yourself, it is even difficult sometimes for scientists in one field of endeavour to truly get to grips with the details in a different discipline. So, as a layman, I look at the wealth of evidence being presented to me on climate change, and the qualifications and track record of those presenting their results in the peer-reviewed literature, and I make a judgement. Do I believe in the small minority of mavericks, many of whom do not have a published track record, or the vast majority who do? Do I go with the heterodox or the orthodox?

Politicians of course have to do the same but they have to make important decisions, or not as the case may be. And the problem with climate change, as you know, is that if we wait until we are absolutely certain beyond any doubt whatsover that global temperatures are rising dangerously as a result of carbon dioxide emissions, it will be too late to do anything about it because of the in-built inertia of the climate system. Even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissions overnight immediately, temperatures would still be expected to increase for some years to come before they stabilise.

So I guess my question would be, what if you are wrong? What if all the other scientists connected with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK Met Office, NASA, NOAA, the World Meteorological Organisation, and just about every reputable university and institute doing research on climate science, happen to be right? Isn’t it a bit risky for me and the rest of the general public to dismiss this vast canon of climate science as just “fuss” about global warming when all I’ve got to go on is a minority opinion?

From: Freeman Dyson

To: Steve Connor

I have this unfortunate habit of answering email immediately, which is in the long run not sustainable. So I will answer this one and then remain silent for three days.

Of course I am not expecting you to agree with me. The most I expect is that you might listen to what I am saying. I am saying that all predictions concerning climate are highly uncertain. On the other hand, the remedies proposed by the experts are enormously costly and damaging, especially to China and other developing countries. On a smaller scale, we have seen great harm done to poor people around the world by the conversion of maize from a food crop to an energy crop. This harm resulted directly from the political alliance between American farmers and global-warming politicians. Unfortunately the global warming hysteria, as I see it, is driven by politics more than by science. If it happens that I am wrong and the climate experts are right, it is still true that the remedies are far worse than the disease that they claim to cure.

I wish that The Independent would live up to its name and present a less one-sided view of the issues.

From: Steve Connor

To: Freeman Dyson

Just to return to Alfred Wegener for one moment. Although he wasn’t the first to note that the continents seem to slot together like a jigsaw, such as the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America, he was a visionary who actually went out to find the geological evidence to support his idea of continental drift. However, as you say, he didn’t have a mechanism for how this “drift” happened. So it is perhaps understandable that many of his peers dismissed his theory in the 1930s. It was only with the discovery of plate tectonics 30 years later that everyone could agree on the true mechanism, which replaced Wegener’s discredited theory of the continents somehow forging their way through the crust of the ocean basins. This doesn’t in any way undermine his heroic contribution to science, and I say heroic in the true sense of the word given that he died in 1930 on his 50th birthday while trekking across Greenland – his body was never recovered and is now presumably encased in ice and moving slowly to the sea.

The point I want to make is that it may well have been right for the scientific “establishment” of the 1930s to be sceptical of Wegener’s theory until more convincing evidence emerged, which it eventually did. The experts, rather than the public, could see the flaws in Wegener’s argument which is why there was a scientific consensus against him. You are saying that the situation today with global warming is similar. However, surely an important difference this time is that it is the scientific consensus that is warning us of the dangers of continuing emissions of carbon dioxide, and that this consensus is saying quite categorically that if we wait until utterly definitive evidence emerges of dangerous climate change it will be too late to do anything about it.

One of the problems I have with the climate “sceptics” is that they keep changing their arguments. First they say that there is no such thing as global warming, thereby dismissing all the many thousands of records of land and sea temperatures over the past century or so. Then they say that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing the Earth to warm up, thereby defying basic physics. If that fails, they say that a bit of extra heat or carbon dioxide might not be that bad – it may be true that more people die from cold than heat, but how many die of drought and famine? And true, carbon dioxide boosts plant growth, but did you see the recent research suggesting a possible link between two atypical droughts in the Amazon in 2005 and 2010, when the rainforest became a net emitter of carbon dioxide, with higher sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic? Plants need water, not just carbon dioxide.

And if all else seems to fail, the final line of argument of the “climate sceptics” is that, “OK, carbon dioxide may have something to do with rising temperatures but what the heck, we can’t do anything about it because the cure is worse than the disease”. It seems to me that although there are still many uncertainties, much of the science of climate change is pretty settled, more so than you will admit to. To continue to report on “both sides” as you suggest is rather like ringing up the Flat Earth Society and asking them to comment on new discoveries in plate tectonics.

From: Freeman Dyson

To: Steve Connor

My three days of silence are over, and I decided I have no wish to continue this discussion. Your last message just repeats the same old party line that we have many good reasons to distrust. You complain that people who are sceptical about the party line do not agree about other things. Why should we agree? The whole point of science is to encourage disagreement and keep an open mind. That is why I blame The Independent for seriously misleading your readers. You give them the party line and discourage them from disagreeing.

With all due respect, I say good-bye and express the hope that you will one day join the sceptics. Scepticism is as important for a good journalist as it is for a good scientist.

Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson

From: Steve Connor

To: Freeman Dyson

Sorry you feel that way. Thank you anyway.

Steve Connor

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/letters-to-a-heretic-an-email-conversation-with-climate-change-sceptic-professor-freeman-dyson-2224912.html

Freeman Dyson website

http://www.sns.ias.edu/~dyson/

More climate change discussions

http://www.supereco.com/person/freeman-dyson/

Guardian green blog festival: welcome to the world

from The Guardian today…. 

The environment is, by definition, global. So over the next two weeks, we will bring you a blog a day at 8am from a different part of the world, allowing fresh voices to explore the top green issues there.

Of particular personal interest is the post from Brazil we will run tomorrow. I visited last year and was really struck by the progress made there under President Lula and its ambition to be the world’s first environmental superpower( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/05/brazil-environmental-superpower ) (Problems remain of course.) So we’ve asked Gustavo Faleiros of O Eco Amazonia to write about the green credentials of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff.

In the course of the blog festival we will of course visit China, where the green dragon of low-carbon energy and efficiency is fighting the black dragon ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/oct/06/china-growth-pollution-green )

of rampant economic growth. India will feature as our first post today  ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/jan/31/gm-aubergine-india ) on the issue of genetically modified food and, completing the BASIC group, a post from South Africa will consider the role of coal and nuclear in providing that nation’s energy.

The other heavyweight in the global environment is of course the US, which sits between a rock and a hard place at the moment, with a congress unwilling to act on climate change. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/07/republicans-climate-change)

Two environmental villains will feature: Canada whose political leadership remains in climate denial and Japan, which at the UN summit in Cancun went from green hero to zero by pledging to kill the Kyoto treaty (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/08/cancun-climate-change-summit-japan )  . Indonesia, one of the world’s most populous nation is mostly know for the destruction of its forests (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/23/indonesia-climate-aid-forests-greenpeace ) , but where some small encouraging signs have been emerging.

It’s impossible to talk about the global environment without talking about energy and it’s impossible to talk about energy without talking about Russia – and so we will. Lastly, there’s Australia, the lucky country in love with the natural outdoor life but which also has one of the biggest per capita carbon footprints in the world.

The blog festival promises to be a fascinating journey. Do please let us know what you think in the comment threads or via Twitter.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/jan/31/guardian-green-blog-festival

http://twitter.com/#!/guardianeco

http://twitter.com/#!/james_randerson

http://twitter.com/#!/adamvaughan_uk

http://twitter.com/#!/dpcarrington

Oil spill – BP may not be ‘negligent’ but the industry IS ruinous against our ocean

The Guardian reports on BP and the oil industry….

Analysts said that blaming the oil industry, and not singling out BP, would help the company in its fight against being found guilty of gross negligence. But industry and legal sources told the Guardian that BP would still have to strike a deal out of court to settle myriad lawsuits. 

BP is more likely to escape the potentially ruinous charge of gross negligence, according to City analysts, after a powerful US commission blamed “systemic” causes for the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Barack Obama’s national commission released part of its final report into the disaster last night on Wednesday night. The report, to be published next week, could influence several other parallel investigations into the spill that are yet to finish.

The commission was scathing in its criticism of BP, as well as its contractors Halliburton and Transocean, which it blamed for a collective “failure of management”. But it added that it had found no evidence that the blowout which led to last April’s disaster was the result of “aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials”.

Commission co-chair William K Reilly said: “So a key question posed from the outset by this tragedy is, do we have a single company, BP, that blundered with fatal consequences, or a more pervasive problem of a complacent industry? Given the documented failings of both Transocean and Halliburton, both of which serve the offshore industry in virtually every ocean, I reluctantly conclude we have a system-wide problem.”

Analysts said that blaming the oil industry, and not singling out BP, would help the company in its fight against being found guilty of gross negligence. But industry and legal sources told the Guardian that BP would still have to strike a deal out of court to settle myriad lawsuits. Separately, the US justice department has launched a civil action against BP and is investigating potential criminal violations.

BP shares rose by more than 2% during morning trading in London but finished the day slightly down. Analysts expect BP to resume paying dividends – which were suspended last summer under intense White House pressure – when it reports full-year results on 1 February, as the company tries to move on from the disaster.

Before the spill the company paid out $10bn (£6.5bn) annually to shareholders but it is likely to resume dividends at only half that level. Investors could receive dividends for the last quarter of 2010 as soon as March.

Analyst Peter Hitchens, of stockbroker Panmure Gordon, said: “The national commission’s report is another chink of light for BP. BP was named and held responsible in the report but it also said ‘we can’t solely blame BP’.

“It’s hinting that there won’t be a finding of gross negligence. What seems to be coming through is there was an unfortunate string of accidents which led to the disaster. BP had a near-death experience. But time is a great healer for BP, it seems.”

The national commission report was also highly critical of the now-disbanded offshore regulator, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which it previously accused of giving a higher priority to increasing production in the gulf than to safety. The full report, to be released on Tuesday, is likely to recommend a radical overhaul of the regulatory regime to improve offshore drilling.

Charlie Kronick, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said: “The report sets up a big flag that the regulatory regime is going to be much tighter. The new regulator has already indicated that it won’t be a permit-fest once new guidelines for offshore drilling are drawn up.”

But he said that pointing the finger at BP’s contractors should not exonerate the company from blame. “Halliburton and Transocean were operating on BP’s behalf. It’s hard to see how that lets BP off the hook.”

If BP avoids a charge of gross negligence it will be able to charge its junior partners in the fateful Macondo well – Anadarko and Mitsui – for a third of the costs. US federal fines would triple under a gross negligence finding, with JP Morgan estimating that the total bill for BP under this scenario could be as high as $69bn.

BP has made good progress in its programme of selling assets worth $25-30bn, having netted about $20bn so far.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/06/bp-gulf-oil-spill-commission

Lessons from the oil spill…

Following one of the biggest disasters in recent history, BP boss Tony Hayward admitted to his company’s insufficient response to the Deepwater Horizon rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico. But was there anything better they could have done to avert the tragedy?

January 8, 2011 – Washington

Following one of the biggest disasters in recent history, BP boss Tony Hayward admitted to his company’s insufficient response to the Deepwater Horizon rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico. But was there anything better they could have done to avert the tragedy?

Obama’s commission pointed out lack of safety procedures as a determining factor behind the disaster.

“Major accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could also happen in the North Sea. But strong, organizational barriers between the oil industry, trade unions and the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway reduce the risk,” says Preben Lindoe, professor of societal safety and security at the University of Stavanger, Norway.

The researchers compare oil industry regulation in the USA, Great Britain and Norway.

The US regulator, Minerals Management Service, carries out inspections based on a fairly meticulous body of rules. Inspectors are transported to offshore installations, equipped with long and detailed check lists.

Norwegian authorities rely on the companies administering their safety work themselves. The model is based on trust – built up over time.

“The reason this model has succeeded in Norway, is because the parties have been able to fill the concept of internal control with substance. Both employers and unions are involved in developing industrial standards and good practice which can be adhered to,” he said.

“When attention fades, accidents happen more easily, and are followed by increased awareness. Societal safety is thus a perpetual Sisyphus effort. It is a big challenge for all organizations to maintain a high level of safety awareness over time,” he added.

According to Lindoe and associate professor Ole Andreas Engen, it is common practice in the US to look for scapegoats, and pin the blame for accidents on them, instead of changing the systems.

In Norway, the parties are more likely to come together to find out how systems and routines may have contributed to an employee making a mistake.

The researcher sum up the lessons learned after the Gulf of Mexico disaster:

“The Deepwater Horizon accident has uncovered some evident weaknesses within US safety regulation. The Government being restrained from intervening directly with the industry is one of them.

“To the Norwegian industry, this accident and the near-accident on Gullfaks C, should serve as reminders of the importance of maintaining the foundation pillars of the Norwegian safety management system: Effective and well qualified authorities, and clear guidelines for cooperation and trust between the parties,” Lindoe concluded.

Read more: http://www.andhranews.net/Technology/2011/Lessons-Gulf-Oil-spill-taught-us-173.htm?utm_campaign=30+topix+bp+oil+spill+gulf+of+mexico+%23oilspill&utm_medium=Twitter&utm_source=SNS.analytics#ixzz1ARz2xvy0

http://www.andhranews.net/Technology/2011/Lessons-Gulf-Oil-spill-taught-us-173.htm?utm_campaign=30+topix+bp+oil+spill+gulf+of+mexico+%23oilspill&utm_medium=Twitter&utm_source=SNS.analytics

Countries of world resolve, finally, to seek to save earth’s #biodiversity. Will real action now follow?

A historic deal to halt the mass extinction of species was finally agreed last night in what conservationists see as the most important international treaty aimed at preventing the collapse of the world’s wildlife. Delegates from more than 190 countries meeting in Nagoya, Japan, agreed at the 11th hour on an ambitious conservation programme to protect global biodiversity and the natural habitats that support the most threatened animals and plants.After 18 years of debate, two weeks of talks, and tense, last-minute bargaining, the meeting of the UN Convention on Biodiversity agreed on 20 key “strategic goals” to be implemented by 2020 that should help to end the current mass extinction of species.

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/countries-join-forces-to-save-life-on-earth-2120487.html

At the very least, the signing of the agreement in Nagoya late last night is the moment when the international community at last began to take the destruction of the natural world seriously.

Biodiversity loss has long been the Cinderella of global politics. For many years, while governments have prioritised the reduction of world poverty, and more recently, have taken on board the real threat of climate change, the remorseless destruction of the world’s habitats, ecosystems, species and natural genetic material has been an afterthought.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/michael-mccarthy-the-nagoya-deal-shows-the-world-has-at-last-woken-up-2120490.html

http://www.cbd.int/cop10/

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