Category Archives: Greenhouse Warming

Mass starvation is humanity’s fate if we keep flogging the land to death – George Monbiot. 

The Earth cannot accommodate our need and greed for food. We must change our diet before it’s too late.

Brexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is all the food going to come from?

By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where will it come from?

The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. These predictions could be optimistic.

Research published in the journal Agriculture & Environmental Letters finds that 4C of warming in the US corn belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.

The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.

Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with fewer than five hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the UK has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.

While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global sea grab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. About 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?

All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how exactly do we accommodate it?

Land required per gram of protein Square metres

The profligacy of livestock farming is astonishing. Already, 36% of the calories grown in the form of grain and pulses – and 53% of the protein – are also used to feed farm animals. Two-thirds of this food is lost in conversion from plant to animal. A graph produced last week by Our World in Data suggests that, on average, you need 0.01m2of land to produce a gram of protein from beans or peas, but 1m2 to produce it from beef cattle or sheep: a 100-fold difference.

It’s true that much of the grazing land occupied by cattle and sheep cannot be used to grow crops. But it would otherwise have sustained wildlife and ecosystems. Instead, marshes are drained, trees are felled and their seedlings grazed out, predators are exterminated, wild herbivores fenced out and other life forms gradually erased as grazing systems intensify. Astonishing places – such as the rainforests of Madagascar and Brazil – are laid waste to make room for yet more cattle.

Because there is not enough land to meet both need and greed, a global transition to eating animals means snatching food from the mouths of the poor. It also means the ecological cleansing of almost every corner of the planet.

The shift in diets would be impossible to sustain even if there were no growth in the human population. But the greater the number of people, the greater the hunger meat eating will cause. From a baseline of 2010, the UN expects meat consumption to rise by 70% by 2030 (this is three times the rate of human population growth). Partly as a result, the global demand for crops could double (from the 2005 baseline) by 2050. The land required to grow them does not exist.

When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.

Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.

There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal- to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people and double the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help: one paper suggests it reduces water use by at least 82% and land use by 99%.

The next green revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?

We’re being hurt by the fixation on economic growth at all costs – Larry Elliott. 

There had never been anything quite like the thick “pea-souper” fog that blanketed London 65 years ago. The wind dropped and the air grew damp. For five days, smoke from coal fires and power stations was trapped, making it hard to breathe. For the frail and elderly what became known as the Great Smog was deadly. Initial estimates put the death toll at 4,000.

The coal burned in the capital in 1952 turned the city into a deathtrap, but it was good for growth. It was cold and damp as well as foggy, and the more fuel that was bought, the better it was for the economy.

The same applies today. A thinktank, the New Weather Institute, estimates there will already have been 8,700 premature UK deaths this year caused by air pollution by the time of next week’s 65th anniversary. Some of them would have been avoided had more people worked from home or shared cars to the office. That would have meant fewer cars on the roads and less money spent at petrol stations. It would be good for the nation’s health but would reduce gross domestic product. As currently calculated, it would be bad for growth.

This is perverse. It is clear from the great smogs that engulfed Beijing in 2015 and New Delhi earlier this month that not all growth is good. Globally, one person dies ahead of their time every five seconds due to poor air quality. Yet the idea that success can only be measured by gross domestic product has become a fetish. When growth accelerates, it is a time for national celebration. When growth remains unchanged it is a cause for concern. When growth falls it is a time for the newsreaders to put on a long face.

Hence the response to last week’s budget, in which the Office for Budget Responsibility shaved around half a percentage point off its growth forecasts in each of the next five years. This was seen, unambiguously, as a very bad thing indeed. Commentators (me included, I hasten to add) vied with each other to find new ways of describing just how terrible it was.

Now, make no mistake, when it comes to the UK economy there is plenty to be concerned about. It is a worry that for the past decade Britain has had to work so hard just to stand still. It matters that people are taking on more debt to finance their spending habits. It is not a great idea to be investing so little and importing so much.

But it is absurd to believe that GDP provides the best – or even an accurate – picture of how well the country is really doing. Since the financial crisis, GDP has been going up, largely due to the increase in the size of the population. GDP per head is a better measure, but even then takes no account of how the growth is being divvied up. In recent decades the fruits of growth have largely been snaffled by those at the top.

GDP acts as a yardstick for things that can be measured in monetary terms, so it goes up if the defence sector exports more arms, if the City embarks on an orgy of speculation, or if betting shops double the number of fixed odds terminals. Simon Kuznets, the economist who first came up with the idea of GDP, had a point when he said it should exclude harmful things, such as military spending and advertising.

Bobby Kennedy agreed. On the campaign stump in 1968, he famously said GDP measured everything except that which made life worthwhile. “It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.”

The latest GDP figure shows Britain’s economy grew by 0.4% in the third quarter of 2017. The figure includes all the things Kuznets and Kennedy abhorred, but excludes quite a lot of good things that are not counted because they are done for free.

The government could increase the size of the economy by 50% at a stroke if it included all the cleaning, cooking, childcare and other tasks around the house that are done for free. If your neighbour pays you to mow his lawn, that counts as GDP. If you mow your own lawn, it doesn’t.

At one level, the strange way in which success or failure is measured doesn’t matter all that much. As the chief economist at the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, noted in a speech earlier this week, only 10% of the public can actually define GDP. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to care too much about whether it is going up or down.

In the year or so since the EU referendum, the debate about Brexit has been framed by what the vote has meant for GDP. In the first six months, the Brexiteers thought they had the upper hand because growth averaged 0.5% a quarter. In the first half of 2017, remainers thought the pendulum had swung their way because growth slowed to 0.3%.

Both sides were assuming that people can differentiate between an economy growing by 2% a year and one growing by 1%, which they almost certainly can’t. A more relevant guide to attitudes was the recent official survey showing that the public (in England at least) got a bit happier in the year after the referendum. This probably has something to do with the continued fall in unemployment, which research has shown is more closely linked to personal wellbeing than inflation. It is, of course, possible that happiness would have been still higher had the referendum gone the other way.

But the constant use of GDP does matter because it creates a “growth at all costs” mindset. A report by the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School suggests that the upshot is the depletion of the natural world, which is not being measured or valued properly. “There is clear evidence of widespread ecosystem degradation and declining resilience in food and water systems,” it says.

In recent years there has been some recognition of the need to find a better way of measuring how things are going. There are now alternative measures of wellbeing, including national accounts that consider environmental damage. But they have not gone nearly far enough to challenge the tyranny of GDP, which is why the clincher in any argument about the economy is still that something is “bad for growth”.

As American writer Edward Abbey put it in his 1977 book The Journey Home: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” He could not have been more right.

The Guardian

The next energy revolution is here – Gao Jifan.

Over the period of one decade, the capitalized cost of generating solar energy in 2015 has decreased to as low as one sixth the cost in 2005, and I believe it will not take long for solar energy generation to be economically cheaper than thermal power generation worldwide.

Every year at the World Economic Forum, energy consumption and climate change are always hot topics.

Looking back at the history of human civilisation, for a long time, firewood was the primary source of energy; however, back then, energy ultilization was low and as such air pollution emissions were also low.

The invention of the steam engine in the 18th century marked the beginning of the industrial revolution, which led to the mining and consumption of coal on a large scale. In 1920, coal accounted for 62% of primary energy consumption, indicating that the world had entered the Coal Age.

In 1965, petroleum replaced coal as the most consumed energy, which led the world into the “petroleum age”. In 1979, petroleum contributed 54% of the world energy consumption, marking the second energy revolution from coal to petroleum. Up until now, fossil fuels have continued to dominate as our energy resource.

With each new age, the use and efficiency of energy have increased significantly — as have, unfortunately, levels of severe environmental pollution. Our future energy system must therefore be clean and low-carbon to ensure the sustainable development of human civilisation.

We are now embarking on a new era of energy revolution. The energy system of the future should have the following three features:

Low carbon energy production. Fossil fuels have to be burned to release energy, which caused emissions and environmental pollution. The existing intensive industrial usage of fossil fuels has significantly harmed the environment. Meanwhile, for most economically under-developed countries around the world, the cost of clean energy is too high to be affordable.

Solar power, however, is one of the best solutions. Not only is solar energy production clean, it may also soon become a much more affordable source of energy, as technology development and innovation continues to reduce the cost of solar power generation.

……. continued at Medium.com

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Gao Jifan, President , China Photovoltaic Industry Association

Public Choice Theory. The idea that climate scientists are in it for the cash has deep ideological roots – Graham Readfearn. 

Author and academic Nancy MacLean says cynicism about the motives of public servants, including government-backed climate scientists, can be traced to a group of neoliberals and their ‘toxic’ ideas.

You’ll have heard that line of argument about cancer scientists, right?

The one where they’re just in it for the government grant money and that they don’t really want to find a cure, because if they did they’d be out of a job?

No, of course you haven’t. That’s because it’s ridiculous and a bit, well, vomit-inducing.

To make such an argument, you would need to be deeply cynical about people’s motives for consistently putting their own pay packets above the welfare of millions of people.

You would have to think that scientists were not motivated to help their fellow human beings, but instead were driven only by self-interest.

Suggesting that climate scientists are pushing a line about global warming because their salaries depend on it is a popular talking point that deniers love to throw around.

But why do so many “sceptics”, particularly those who form part of the organised machinery of climate science denial, feel comfortable in accusing climate scientists of only being in it for the money?

Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean suggests some answers in her new book Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.

Charles Koch

The book documents how wealthy conservatives, in particular petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch, teamed up with neoliberal academics with the objective, MacLean says, of undermining the functions of government in the United States.

MacLean’s central character is the late James McGill Buchanan, a political theorist and economist who won a Nobel award in 1986 for his development of “public choice theory”.

Buchanan and Koch developed and propagated their ideas through a private organisation called the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) – an influential group known as the “neoliberal thought collective” that was established in 1947 by famed free market economist Friedrich Hayek. Buchanan was a former president and joined in 1957. Koch, who has poured millions into groups attacking mainstream climate science, joined MPS in 1970. MPS has about 500 members in more than 40 countries.

In the US it has many members who also work at think tanks that push climate science misinformation and attack renewable energy. A membership list from 2013 showed Australian members included the Institute of Public Affairs boss John Roskam, former prime minister John Howard business figure Maurice Newman and former senator Bob Day. 

MacLean argues that in the minds of many exponents of this “public choice” school, people are motivated primarily by self-interest.

Public choice advocates will argue that people who work in government will push for increased departmental budgets primarily to protect their job prospects.

In an interview at the Brisbane writers festival, MacLean told me: “If you read some of the stuff that comes out of the people in the ‘public choice’ school, they will say that these climate scientists are just after the next federal grant … they will try and discredit them as human beings. It’s really toxic stuff.”

When Buchanan received his Nobel award, Prof Steven Kelman, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy school of government, wrote that Buchanan’s view was a “terrible caricature of reality ” and belied the public spirit of elected representatives and government officials.

This brings us back to the notion that cancer doctors might have a personal interest in not finding a cure. Proponents of public choice – including those who worked with Buchanan – have made just those claims.

In 1992, two academics from the Center for the Study of Public Choice at George Mason University (a centre established and led by Buchanan), wrote a book called The Economics of Smoking. In the book, economist Robert Tollison argued that the “anti-cancer bureaucracy will face weaker incentives to find and develop effective treatments of and cures for cancer, as well as facing incentives to magnify the risks of cancer”.

“A cure for cancer would put many cancer bureaucrats out of work,” Tollison wrote.

So the argument goes that these anti-cancer “bureaucrats” were not so much motivated to protect people from painful and deadly conditions linked to smoking, such as cancer and heart disease. Instead, they might work a bit less stringently to find a cure in return for a wage.

There’s an irony in this accusation of people acting in their self-interest. Before and after writing that book chapter, Tollison was paid consultancy fees by the tobacco industry.

In the archives of tobacco documents released as part of US litigation, you can find a 1988 invoice sent to the Tobacco Institute for Tollison work on a “media tour”.

In 1993, the archives reveal, Tollison and his GMU colleague Robert Wagner, who co-wrote The Economics of Smoking, pitched to the tobacco industry a report attacking the World Health Organization, which would cost $20,000.

Again, the pair would accuse “WHO bureaucrats” of engaging in spending patterns that “reflect the interests of bureaucrats”. The WHO should not be spending money on programs “against cigarettes”, the pair wrote.

MacLean points to a Bloomberg column by the liberal economist and Buchanan acolyte Amity Schlaes, written after Buchanan’s death.

Schlaes wrote glowingly that Buchanan’s “public-choice theory explained everything” to her about the true motives of public officials.

“Health officials’ interests in testing small children’s blood for lead made sense when one considered that finding poisoned children validated their jobs,” wrote Schlaes, who became a member of the Mont Pelerin Society in 2008.

“This is how someone could think,” MacLean tells me. “That a doctor would not be concerned about preventing a child from getting lifelong brain damage … no … they just wanted to expand their checking accounts. It’s really toxic.

“You’ve created this toxic wasteland now, and you can see the damage that those ideas have done,” she says.

It would be hopelessly naive to argue that money never motivates people to do certain things.

But to suggest global warming exists only because climate scientists need the money, you need to ignore melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, increasing extreme weather events, strings of record hot years, retreating glaciers, acidifying oceans, warming sea temperatures and bleaching corals. Or claim there is a conspiracy to manufacture these impacts in exchange for a wage.

The Guardian 

Democracy In Chains Introduction

THE DEEP HISTORY OF THE RADICAL RIGHT’S STEALTH PLAN FOR AMERICA

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The Ends of the World. Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions – Peter Brannen.

“As often as I have seen beds of mud, sand, and shingle, accumulated to the thickness of many thousand feet, I have felt inclined to exclaim that causes, such as the present rivers and the present beaches, could never have ground down and produced such masses. But, on the other hand, when listening to the rattling noise of these torrents, and calling to mind that whole races of animals have passed away from the face of the earth, and that during this whole period, night and day, these stones have gone rattling onwards in their course, I have thought to myself, can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste?”

Charles Darwin

***

It is the dawn of a new geological age. A teeming swarm of Homo sapiens gathers on the banks of an estuary at the edge of the North American continent. The glaciers have retreated; the seas have risen more than 400 feet since the last ice age; and the gleaming new steel-and-glass hives of Manhattan rise up from the marshes. 

Looming over the confident city, just across the Hudson River, is the sheer cliff face of the Palisades. The gigantic columns of basalt sit in unimpressed, stony silence, as they have for 200 million years. These cliffs, covered in highway weeds and graffiti, are monuments to an ancient apocalypse. They’re made of magma that once fed burbling fountains of lava at the surface – lava that once smothered the planet from Nova Scotia to Brazil.

The eruptions flooded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide at the end of the Triassic period, roasting the planet and acidifying the oceans for thousands of years. Brief blasts of volcanic smog punctuated this super-greenhouse with cold. The runaway volcanism covered more than 4 million square miles of the planet and killed off more than three-quarters of animal life on earth in a geological instant.

I struggled to keep up with Columbia University paleontologist Paul Olsen as he bounded up the scraggly path leading from the banks of the Hudson to the base of the Palisades. In front of us, smothered under this enormous wall of now-solid magma, were the remains of a quarter-billion-year-old lake bottom, complete with exquisitely preserved fish and reptile fossils. Behind us, faintly droning, was the skyline of New York City.

I asked Olsen whether the city across the river would be preserved for future geologists to discover, like this peaceful Triassic diorama at the bottom of the rocks. He turned to consider the scenery. “You might have a layer of stuff,” he said dismissively, “but it’s not a sedimentary basin, so eventually it would erode away to nothing. You’d have bits that would make it out into the ocean and would be buried and might show up—some bottle caps, maybe. There would be some pretty heavy-duty isotopic signals. But the subway system wouldn’t fossilize or anything. It all would erode away fairly quickly.”

It is from this disorienting perspective that geologists operate: to them, millions of years run together, seas divide continents, then drain away, and great mountain ranges erode to sand in moments. It’s an outlook that’s necessary to cultivate if one wants to get a handle on the staggering depths of geological time, which recedes behind us hundreds of millions of years and stretches out before us to infinity.

If Olsen’s attitude seems dispassionate in the extreme, it’s a symptom of a lifetime’s immersion in Earth’s history, which is both vast beyond comprehension and, in some exceedingly rare moments, tragic beyond words. Animal life has been all but destroyed in sudden, planetwide exterminations five times in Earth’s history. These are the so-called Big Five mass extinctions, commonly defined as any event in which more than half of the earth’s species go extinct in fewer than a million years or so.

We now know that many of these mass extinctions seem to have happened much more quickly. Thanks to fine-scale geochronology, we know that some of the most extreme die-offs in earth history lasted only a few thousand years, at the very most, and may have been much quicker.

A more qualitative way to describe something like this is Armageddon. The most famous member of this gloomy fraternity is the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, which notably took out the (nonbird) dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

But the End-Cretaceous is only the most recent mass extinction in the history of life. The volcanic doomsday whose stony embers I saw exposed in the cliffs next to Manhattan – a disaster that brought down an alternate universe of distant crocodile relatives and global coral reef systems – struck 135 million years before the death of the dinosaurs.

This disaster and the three other major mass extinctions that preceded it are invisible, for the most part, in the public imagination, long overshadowed by the downfall of T.rex. This isn’t entirely without reason. For one thing, dinosaurs are the most charismatic characters in the fossil record, celebrities of earth history that paleontologists who work on earlier, more neglected periods scoff at as preening oversized monsters. As such, dinosaurs hog most of the popular press spared for paleontology. In addition, the dinosaurs were wiped out in spectacular fashion, with their final moments punctuated by the impact of a 6-mile-long asteroid in Mexico.

But if it was a space rock that did in the dinosaurs, it seems to have been a unique disaster. Some astronomers outside the field push the idea that periodic asteroid strikes caused each of the planet’s other four mass extinctions, but this hypothesis has virtually no support in the fossil record. In the past three decades, geologists have scoured the fossil record looking for evidence of devastating asteroid impacts at those mass extinctions, and have come up empty.

The most dependable and frequent administrators of global catastrophe, it turns out, are dramatic changes to the climate and the ocean, driven by the forces of geology itself. The three biggest mass extinctions in the past 300 million years are all associated with giant floods of lava on a continental scale – the sorts of eruptions that beggar the imagination.

Life on earth is resilient, but not infinitely so: the same volcanoes that are capable of turning whole continents inside out can also produce climatic and oceanic chaos worthy of the apocalypse. In these rare eruptive cataclysms the atmosphere becomes supercharged with volcanic carbon dioxide, and during the worst mass extinction of all time, the planet was rendered a hellish, rotting sepulcher, with hot, acidifying oceans starved of oxygen.

But in other earlier mass extinctions, it might have been neither volcanoes nor asteroids at fault. Instead, some geologists say that plate tectonics, and perhaps even biology itself, conspired to suck up CO2 and poison the oceans. While continental-scale volcanism sends CO2 soaring, in these earlier, somewhat more mysterious extinctions, carbon dioxide might have instead plummeted, imprisoning the earth in an icy crypt. Rather than spectacular collisions with other heavenly bodies, it has been these internal shocks to the earth system that have most frequently knocked the planet off course. Much of the planet’s misfortune, it seems, is homegrown. 

Luckily, these uber-catastrophes are comfortingly rare, having struck only five times in the more than half a billion years since complex life emerged (occurring, roughly, 445, 374, 252, 201, and 66 million years ago).

But it’s a history that has frightening echoes in our own world – which is undergoing changes not seen for tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions, of years. “It’s pretty clear that times of high carbon dioxide – and especially times when carbon dioxide levels rapidly rose – coincided with the mass extinctions,” writes University of Washington paleontologist and End-Permian mass extinction expert Peter Ward. “Here is the driver of extinction.” As civilization is busy demonstrating, supervolcanoes aren’t the only way to get lots of carbon buried in the rocks out into the atmosphere in a hurry.

Today humanity busies itself by digging up hundreds of millions of years of carbon buried by ancient life and ignites it all at once at the surface, in pistons and power plants – the vast, diffuse metabolism of modern civilization. If we see this task to completion and burn it all – supercharging the atmosphere with carbon like an artificial supervolcano – it will indeed get very hot, as it has before. The hottest heat waves experienced today will become the average, while future heat waves will push many parts of the world into uncharted territory, taking on a new menace that will surpass the hard limits of human physiology.

If this comes to pass, the planet will return to a condition that, though utterly alien to us, has made many appearances in the fossil record. But warm times aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The dinosaur-haunted Cretaceous was significantly richer in atmospheric CO2, and that period was consequently much warmer than today. But when climate change or ocean chemistry changes have been sudden, the result has been devastating for life. In the worst of times, the earth has been all but ruined by these climate paroxysms as lethally hot continental interiors, acidifying, anoxic oceans, and mass death swept over the planet.

This is the revelation of geology in recent years that presents the most worrying prospect for modern society. The five worst episodes in earth history have all been associated with violent changes to the planet’s carbon cycle.

Over time, this fundamental element moves back and forth between the reservoirs of biology and geology: volcanic carbon dioxide in the air is captured by carbon-based life in the sea, which dies and becomes carbonate limestone on the seafloor. When that limestone is thrust down into the earth, it’s cooked and the carbon dioxide is spit out by volcanoes into the air once more. And on and on. This is why it’s a cycle. But events like sudden, extraordinarily huge injections of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans can short-circuit this chemistry of life. This prospect is one reason why past mass extinctions have become such a vogue topic of late in the research community. Most of the scientists I spoke with over the course of reporting this book were interested in the planet’s history of near-death experiences, not just to answer an academic question, but also to learn, by studying the past, how the planet responds to exactly the sorts of shocks we’re currently inflicting on it.

This ongoing conversation in the research community is strikingly at odds with the one taking place in the broader culture. Today much of the discussion about carbon dioxide’s role in driving climate change makes it seem as though the link exists only in theory, or in computer models. But our current experiment – quickly injecting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – has in fact been run many times before in the geological past, and it never ends well. 

In addition to the unanimous and terrifying projections of climate models, we also have a case history of carbon dioxide-driven climate change in the planet’s geologic past that we would be well advised to consult. These events can be instructive, even diagnostic, for our modern crises, like the patient who presents to his doctor with chest pains after a history of heart attacks. But there’s a risk of stretching the analogy too far: Earth has been many different planets over its lifetime, and though in some salient and worrying ways our modern planet and its future prospects echo some of the most frightening chapters in its history, in many other ways our modern biocrises represent a one-off, a unique disruption in the history of life.

Thankfully, we still have time. Though we’ve proven to be a destructive species, we have not produced anything even close to the levels of wanton destruction and carnage seen in previous planetary cataclysms. These are absolute worst-case scenarios.

The epitaph for humanity does not yet have to include the tragic indictment of having engineered the sixth major mass extinction in earth history.

In a world sometimes short on it, this is good news.

Like many kids, I came to the topic of mass extinctions early. As the son of a children’s librarian, I grew up in a house that was often brimming with cardboard boxes of books – the surplus of the most recent book fair. Perhaps to my mom’s frustration, I would pass over copies of Where the Red Fern Grows and The Giver and go straight for the pop-ups. Tyrannosaurs and cycads leapt from the page as I obsessed over the strange Latinate names and the even stranger creatures they described. Here an artist had decided to spangle a bizarre-looking animal called parasaurolophus in neon, while another illustrator had oviraptors draped in zebra stripes. It was irresistible: a world of sci-fi monsters that had actually existed.

But Disney’s Fantasia illuminated for me as a child an even stranger fact about this world: that it had all occurred in the past, to the music of Stravinsky’s orchestra, the dinosaurs lurched to their deaths over a cauterized landscape, and the world ended in tragedy. It was no more. Later obsessions, like the movie and book versions of Jurassic Park, only reinforced for me the melancholy of living in a world that had lost its dragons.

In the past few decades, geologists have started filling in the rough sketches of the Big Five mass extinctions with gruesome detail, but the story has largely eluded the public imagination. Our conception of history tends to stretch back only a few thousand years at most, and typically only a few hundred. This is a scandalously shortsighted appreciation of what came before – like reading only the last sentence of a book and claiming to understand what’s in the rest of the library. 

That the planet has nearly died five times over the past 500 million years is a remarkable fact, and as we, as a civilization, push the chemistry and temperature of the climate-ocean system into territory not seen for tens of millions of years, we should be curious about where the hard limits are. Just how bad could it get?

The history of mass extinctions provides the answer to this question. Visiting Earth’s turbulent and unfamiliar past provides a possible window into our future. Forgotten worlds spill from the sides of highways, from beach cliffs, and from the edges of baseball fields, hiding in plain sight. This was perhaps the central revelation to me as I began to accompany paleontologists in the field to learn more about the five major mass extinctions. I didn’t have to talk my way onto expeditions to the Arctic or the Gobi Desert to find the strange stratigraphy of long-past worlds. We live on a palimpsest of earth history. 

The lesson of geology is that we inherit this world – this “antique planet with a brand new civilization,” as Carl Sagan put it – from countless vanished ages. To see the world through the lens of geology is to see the world for the first time.

In North America, fossils are found not only in the mythic Southwest and in exposed Arctic mountainsides but hidden under Walmart parking lots, in quarries, and in road cuts on the interstate. Underneath Cincinnati is an endless fossil bas-relief of tropical sea life in the early oceans of the Ordovician period, which ended half a billion years ago in the second worst extinction in Earth’s history. 

There are plesiosaurs in riverbanks in downtown Austin, saber-toothed cats in Los Angeles, and killer crocs from the Triassic under Dulles Airport outside of Washington, DC. In Cleveland’s riverbanks are the armor-plated remains of a guillotine-mouthed, titanic fish from the Devonian period, 360 million years old. The wreckage from the Big Five mass extinctions lies on remote, verdant islands in the Canadian Maritimes, on icier patches in Antarctica and Greenland, under Mayan temples in Mexico, strewn across the desolation of South Africa’s Karoo Desert, and on the edges of farmland in China.

But this legacy of disaster is also visible next to skyscrapers in New York City and in the shales of the Midwest (so profitable for frackers and environmental fundraisers alike) that were forged in the chaos of the Late Devonian mass extinctions. Rising out of the deserts of West Texas are the Guadalupe Mountains, a haunted monument built almost entirely from ancient sea animals in the full bloom of life before the single worst chapter in the planet’s history: a period of crises capped by a carbon dioxide–driven global warming catastrophe that killed off 90 percent of life on Earth.

Life on earth constitutes a remarkably thin glaze of interesting chemistry on an otherwise unremarkable, cooling ball of stone, hovering like a sand grain in an endless ocean of empty space. This sheet of life that coats the planet – a feature of our world that has been almost miraculously durable over Earth’s history – is perhaps unique in the galaxy. But viewed through the lens of mass extinctions, it’s also remarkably fragile: when crises push the planet outside a narrow set of surface conditions, it has been nearly sterilized.

Much has been made of the search beyond our planet for spectacular external threats like asteroids, but we should be equally vigilant about the subtler threats from within. As the roster of lifeless planets in our solar system attests, the agreeable chemistry and conditions on the surface of the earth are incredibly unusual. And as the history of mass extinctions demonstrates, they’re not a given. 

In researching these ancient disasters, I expected to find a story as neat and tidy as the one about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. What I found instead was a frontier of discovery with much left to be unearthed, and a story still largely obscured by the fog of deep time. In my travels I became acquainted with whole worlds, still called “Earth”, that I had scarcely known existed, brought low by a suite of world-ending forces far subtler, but just as ominous, as asteroids.

This book is a woefully incomplete testament to the ingenuity of those who have labored to piece this fractured, and still unfinished – puzzle together, as well as a survey of the unfamiliar geography of deep time that surrounds us. It’s also an exploration of the turbulent centuries to come and the long-term prospects for life on this strangely hospitable but vulnerable planet that hurtles through a perilous universe. 

After hiking the Palisades, Olsen and I hit up one of the dozens of Vietnamese pho restaurants in the nearby Fort Lee neighborhood, where a snarl of highways branch out of the George Washington Bridge. Contemplating the history of the region and the ancient hellscape created by the rocks underneath us, I found it difficult not to wonder about the future. Currently the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere hovers at around 400 parts per million (ppm) – probably the highest it’s been since the middle of the Pliocene epoch 3 million years ago. 

What will life be like on the planet at 1,000 parts per million, which some climate scientists and policymakers project for the coming decades if we continue to take a business-as-usual approach to emissions? “The last time anything like that occurred, we had no polar ice at all and sea levels were hundreds of feet higher,” Olsen said, noting that crocodiles and lemur-relatives inhabited the tropical northern shores of Canada. “Ocean temperatures in the tropics were possibly 40 degrees Celsius on average, which would be completely alien to us now. “The interior of continents,” he continued, “endured persistently lethal conditions.” 

I put the question a little more bluntly, asking him whether we might be at the beginning of another mass extinction. “Yeah,” he said, resting his chopsticks for a moment. “Yeah. Although the one that would be obvious in the fossil record happened over a 50,000-year interval from the time that humans spread out of Africa and wiped out all the megafauna. That’s the one that will show up like gangbusters in the fossil record. Someday they might say that the industrial spread of humans was just the coup de grâce.” 

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The Ends of the World. Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions. 

by Peter Brannen.

get it at Amazon.com

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Is It Time To Take Away The Carbon Punch Bowl? – Josh Ryan-Collins. 

Climate change poses serious financial risks. Perhaps the biggest systemic risk is a disorderly transition to a low carbon economy. As noted in the Bank of England’s, current forecasts suggest that to keep global average temperatures below 2 degrees, around two-thirds of current fossil reserves must be left in the ground. Companies with carbon-intensive business models are facing large potential losses since their activities and current market value rest upon the future extraction of what is, in effect, ‘unburnable’ carbon. 

Banks and other financial institutions which make loans to these companies may face higher than expected default rates and non-performing loans because a large part of these companies’ future income – needed to repay loans – is dependent on the use of these ‘stranded assets’.

Although only a small percentage of banks’ loans go directly to carbon-intensive industries (such as energy companies), transition risk might also affect a range of other industries such as transport, construction as well as households, to which banks are much more exposed.

For example, environmental taxes and regulations imposed on diesel cars could have a disastrous impact on car finance companies whose leasing models are dependent on the ability to sell on second hand cars at a reasonable value.

Eco Stress Tests

A recent attempt to conduct a climate change stress test on Eurozone banks found their exposures to this wider range of sectors to be similar in size to their existing capital base.

Yet the main approach of central banks and financial regulators, ministries of finance and international bodies such as the Financial Stability Board to the problem of stranded assets has been to rely upon market-based solutions.

In particular, there have been major initiatives to encourage the voluntary disclosure of fossil fuel assets and exposures by both companies and financial institutions. The hope is that with better information, financial institutions will naturally adjust their investment and lending behavior away from carbon intensive activities, leading to a gradual fall in value of such assets.

Whilst better market information is to be welcomed, the financial crisis of 2007-08 made clear the danger of relying on the market and financial institutions’ ability to judge and price risk themselves.

This prompted central banks to take a new approach: ‘macroprudential policy’. This recognizes that market actors may be blind to certain forms of economy-wide systemic risk – including for example the build-up of mortgage debt and house prices relative to incomes. Regulators have a duty to step in when markets are becoming overheated and risk is not properly priced into asset prices.

In more colourful terms, central banks have a duty to ‘take away the punch bowl as the party was getting out of control’. 

Credit rating agencies, equity and bond analysts typically focus on the relatively short term, e.g. 1-5 years, and assume linear returns on investment. But climate change, as Mark Carney has noted, poses a longer term, systemic risk with potentially non-linear impacts involving very rapid price adjustments to carbon-assets.

Green Macroprudence

What then might ‘green’ macroprudential policy look like? Most obviously, it might require banks to hold more capital against carbon-intensive (‘brown’) loans given the increased forward-looking risk of default.

The EU high level expert group on sustainable finance backed this idea in its recent interim report, arguing that a ‘brown-penalising’ factor would ‘yield a constellation in which risk and policy considerations go in the same direction’. 

Other options could involve quantitative caps on debt-financing of firms heavily dependent on carbon assets in line with a below 2 degrees temperature scenario; or some form of counter-cyclical measure, whereby capital requirements would be raised if lending to carbon-intensive sectors began to increase. All these tools are currently in use by a number of central banks to guard against excessive real estate exposures.

The most common argument against interventions of this type is that it is the job of the government, not the independent central bank, to impose policies to repress or support particular sectors of the economy.

Again, however, this seems inconsistent with macroprudential policy. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, independent central banks took on responsibility for interventions in the mortgage market precisely because it was felt politicians, ministries of finance and the market itself would find it harder to ‘Take away the Punchbowl’ given political pressures. For example, in countries where the majority of voters are home-owners or would like to become so, policies that restrict mortgage credit or reduce house price growth are likely to be highly unpopular.

Before The Deluge

The same issues apply to the problem of stranded assets. Politicians and ministers of finance are under enormous pressure not to regulate against large companies locked into unsustainable industries. The lobbying power of these organisations is evident in the still enormous subsidies they receive – far outweighing the subsidies flowing into renewable energy.

There is, as with house prices, also pressure from voters. The introduction of a carbon tax for example would almost certainly push up the cost of the majority of household’s energy bills.

This is not to say that governments should not also be going much further much faster to address the risks from climate change. It is rather to say that central banks have a duty to take financial stability risk seriously, whatever sector of the economy it is coming from.

No doubt designing effective green macroprudential policy will be challenging and have some unintended side effects. But many pension companies and other long-term institutional investors are already developing sophisticated green investment strategies upon which central banks and regulators could build.

Ultimately, it is surely better to have imperfect regulatory frameworks that begin to steer finance in the right direction and deflate the carbon bubble than clean up what could be a very big financial mess after the event.

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About Josh Ryan-Collins

Josh Ryan-Collins is a Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation where he leads work on macroeconomics and finance. He is the lead author of two books: Where Does Money Come From? and Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing. He has broadcast experience on the BBC, Sky News and Radio 4 and his work has featured in the Guardian and Wall Street Journal.

Social Europe

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What Exxon Mobil Didn’t Say About Climate Change – Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes. 

Scrutiny is mounting on the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company. On multiple legal fronts the question is being asked: Did Exxon Mobil’s communications about climate change break the law?

That’s what some of Exxon Mobil’s current and former employees think. In February, they filed a lawsuit arguing that the company deceived them by making false and misleading statements about the financial risks of climate change, which they argue affected the value of shares they bought as part of a company-sponsored savings plan. Other Exxon Mobil shareholders are bringing similar charges against the company in a separate class-action securities fraud case.

And just last month, three California communities sued 37 oil, coal and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, for contributing to sea level rise while engaging in a “coordinated, multifront effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats.” At the same time, the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general continue to investigate whether Exxon Mobil may have violated racketeering, consumer protection or investor protection statutes. And the federal Securities and Exchange Commission started a probe of its own last fall, asking the company about its longstanding policy of not writing down the value of its oil reserves, as other companies had done.

The question dominating these cases is whether the company misled consumers, shareholders or the public about the environmental or business risks of climate change, or about the risk that oil and gas reserves might become stranded assets that won’t be developed, affecting shareholder value.

Part of the impetus for these suspicions was reporting by Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times in 2015 that concluded Exxon Mobil had long known about the risks of climate change but denied them in public. The company responded that the allegations were false and “deliberately cherry-picked,” and that anyone who looked into the matter would see that.

“Read the documents,” the company said, “and make up your own mind.”

A year ago we took up this challenge. We have read all of the documents, analyzed them according to established social science methods, and made up our minds. Today, we are publishing the results of our peer reviewed analysis in the journal Environmental Research Letters. To our knowledge, this is the first academic, empirical analysis of Exxon Mobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. (Our research was funded by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which also helped finance the reporting by Inside Climate News and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which published its examination of Exxon Mobil with The Los Angeles Times.)

Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public.

We applied an empirical method known as content analysis to all relevant, publicly available internal company files that have led to allegations against Exxon Mobil, as well as all peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications offered by the company in response. We also analyzed 36 of the company’s paid “advertorials” about climate change that appeared as editorial-style advertisements on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times between 1989 and 2004.

In total, we analyzed 187 documents generated between 1977 and 2014. We coded each document to characterize its positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious and solvable. (Research has shown that these four factors are key predictors of public support for climate policies. Not coincidentally, they also underpin most narratives of climate skepticism and denial.) We found that, from as early as the 1970s, Exxon Mobil (and its predecessors Exxon and Mobil) not only knew about emerging climate science, but also contributed research to it. Scientific reports and articles written or cowritten by Exxon Mobil employees acknowledged that global warming was a real and serious threat. They also noted it could be addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, meaning that fossil fuel reserves might one day become stranded assets.

For the most part their research was highly technical, hidden behind the walls of Exxon Mobil offices, or reported in academic publications with access only through a paywall.

In contrast, the company’s advertorials in The New York Times discussing climate change were designed to reach and influence the public, and the potential readership was in the millions. Each advertorial cost roughly $31,000. They overwhelmingly emphasized scientific uncertainties about climate change and promoted a narrative that was largely inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including Exxon Mobil’s own.

In 1997, for instance, in an ad titled “Reset the Alarm,” the company argued: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.” The company added, “We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

Some advertorials conflicted with Exxon Mobil research published the very same year.

In some cases, they included explicit factual misrepresentation, for instance, directly contradicting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and presenting data in a very misleading way, according to the independent researcher who produced that data, Lloyd Keigwin, a senior scientist in geology and geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In short, Exxon Mobil contributed quietly to climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it. We found that, accounting for reasonable doubt given the state of the science at the time of each document, roughly 80 percent of the company’s academic and internal papers acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. But 81 percent of their climate change advertorials in one way or another expressed doubt.

Of course, any analysis of words is subject to interpretation. It’s for this reason that we used established social science methods and subjected our analysis to peer review, to verify that our claims are supported by evidence, were analyzed according to tested methods and are not just a matter of our opinion.

Exxon Mobil will no doubt challenge our peer-reviewed study, just as it has challenged three decades of peer-reviewed climate science. (In a comment, Exxon Mobil disagreed with our conclusion and said that its statements on public policy and climate science “have always reflected the global understanding of the issue.”) But while we can debate the details, the overall picture is clear: Even while Exxon Mobil scientists were contributing to climate science and writing reports that explained it to their bosses, the company was paying for advertisements that told a very different tale.

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Geoffrey Supran is a postdoctoral fellow and Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science, both at Harvard.

New York Times