Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cows are now good guys

Their farts have been forgiven apparently

In reports of rising CO2 levels, it's easy to get the impression that the carbon-and-oxygen molecule is a kind of toxin, some alien vapor coughed up by a century-plus of heedless industrialism now coming back to haunt us. But on closer inspection, it seems that the problem isn't the carbon itself—it's that there's too much in the air and not enough in the ground.

When we consider our CO2 predicament, we tend to fault our love affair with the car and the fruits of industry. But the greater culprit has been agriculture: since about 1850, twice as much atmospheric CO2 has derived from farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels (the roles crossed around 1970). Over the past 150 years, between 50 and 80 percent of organic carbon in the topsoil has vanished into the air, and seven tons of carbon-banking topsoil have been lost for every ton of grain produced.

So, how do we get that carbon out of the air and back into the soil? Some suggest placing calcium carbonate or charcoal (aka "biochar") directly into agricultural soil (see "Black Is the New Green," Conservation, Summer 2010). But a growing number of soil and agricultural scientists are also discussing a low-tech, counterintuitive approach to the problem that depends on a group of unlikely heroes: cows. The catalyst for reducing CO2 and restoring soil function and fertility, they say, is bringing back the roving, grazing animals who used to wander the world's grasslands. The natural processes that take place in the digestive system and under the hooves of ruminants might be the key to turning deserts back into grasslands and reversing climate change. In other words, a climate-friendly future might look less like a geo-engineered landscape and more like, well, "Home on the Range."

Perhaps the most steadfast advocate of this future is Allan Savory. A 76-year-old native of Zimbabwe, Savory has the relaxed, weathered look of a lifelong outdoorsman more attuned to the etiquette of the bush than that of the boardroom. In the 1960s, as a young wildlife biologist in what was then called Southern Rhodesia, he noticed that, when livestock were removed from land set aside for future national parks, "almost immediately, these wonderful areas suffered severe loss of both plant and animal species." Cattle, he began to realize, could play—if properly managed—the crucial role in grassland ecology that used to be occupied by herds of wild herbivores. They could help prevent and even reverse land degradation and the desertification of grasslands, combating in the process both human poverty and the disappearance of wildlife. Over the course of several eventful decades—during which he was elected to the parliament, served as an opposition leader against Rhodesia's white-minority government, and spent four years in political exile—Savory developed a program to put these ideas into action.

Savory's singular insight is that grasslands and herbivores evolved in lockstep with one another. This means that to be healthy, grasses need to be grazed. Animals eat plants and stimulate their growth; they cycle dead plants back to the surface, which allows sunlight to reach the low-growing parts; their waste provides fertilizer. When a predator—say, a lion—comes into this bucolic scene, the animals bunch together and flee as a herd, their hooves breaking up and aerating the soil. Then, on a new patch of land, the process starts again. This way all plants get nibbled, but none are overgrazed. And none are overrested, which leads to accumulated dead plant material that blocks sunlight and hinders new growth.

Much more HERE

Former Greenpeace boss now a big player in the doomsday business

Throughout the history of mankind, doomsday prophesies have fascinated people. In this age of fast communications and world wide audiences clever manipulators - think of Al Gore - have realized that scaremongering is a huge business opportunity.

One of the newest entrants into the exclusive club of top doomsday entrepreneurs is Australian Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International.

Gilding, whose "merits" include being arrested five times, now has a private consultancy with several major companies "from BHP Billiton to Dupont" as his customers. (Business contracts are now clearly much more appealing than Greenpeace stunts for this former activist ).

Lucrative book contracts offer another business bonanza for climate change scaremongerers, which is why Gilding has written a book, "The Great Disruption". The former activist is now busy touting his literary "masterpiece" to warmist mainstream media, most of which willingly agree to spread his message of gloom.

Recently the NYT climate change hypocrite Thomas Friedman did his best to to promote Gilding´s book:
“One of those who has been warning me of [a coming crisis] for a long time is Paul Gilding, the Australian environmental business expert. He has a name for this moment-when both Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once-’The Great Disruption.’ “

Reuters is the next one to promote the book:
Gilding, author of a new book "The Great Disruption", has a simple message: We have left it too late to avoid serious impact from climate change and ecological damage after trying to drive global economic growth far beyond system and resource capacity.

As a consequence, we risk an environmental crash, triggering a sudden collapse in the global economy, and need to be ready to respond to the ensuing "social and economic hurricane", he says.
"If you thought the financial situation in 2008 was a crisis, and if you thought climate change was a cultural, economic and political challenge, then hold on for the ride," writes Gilding, a former head of Greenpeace International.

"We are about to witness humanity deal with its biggest crisis ever, something that will shake it to the core -- the end of economic growth," added the 52 - year-old Australian, who as an activist was arrested five times during protests....

He sees a series of ecological, social and economic shocks driven by climate change, including extreme weather, melting polar regions and agricultural output changes boosting prices.
Financial markets will see big drops, while the resulting economic and political crises will be massive in scale and last for decades....

So what are we supposed to do? Gilding says the stark view that it's too late now to avoid a crisis at first caused him despair -- he recalls breaking down sobbing during a 2007 presentation on the issue to a business audience in New York.

However, after 2007 things have improved for Gilding. No more sobbing and breakdowns for the hard working business entrepreneur. There is money to make in the doomsday business.

Although the doomsday prophesy is the one that is supposed to sell his book, Gilding obviously has realized that his consultancy business would suffer, unless there is a happy ending:
But despite the turmoil and geopolitical strife he says we could face he is optimistic that humanity will quickly respond once it wakes up to the scale of the threat.


1958 : Arctic Ice Same Thickness As Today

Some amazing gems in this article. A fascinating explanation of what causes ice ages.

Ice was the same thickness in 1958 as today, and “steadily thinning.”

Arctic Ocean is ice free during ice ages. This is plausible. We know that the Bering Strait was ice free when people crossed from Asia to North America.

This is what I have been saying. In situ melt is not the cause Arctic ice loss over the last 20 years. The whole summer extent game is a mindless distraction.

Rising sea levels trigger ice ages

Scripps used to do actual climate science!


EVs: Not so green after all

The Australian has reported the results of a fascinating British study. It turns out that electric cars (EVs), those holy icons of the Green religion, may actually produce more atmosphere-destroying emissions over their lifetimes than regular, gasoline fueled cars — when you do the commonsense thing and factor in the energy it takes to produce the necessary batteries.

To be precise, the study (which was funded by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a group that is, in turn, supported by both the British government and the British car industry) showed that the average EV would have to be driven over 80,000 miles for it to produce a net savings in carbon dioxide over the standard internal combustion engine. Considering that EVs have limited ranges (they average about 90 miles per charge), it is not clear that many EVs will last that long.

This study was the first to look at the whole lifecycle emissions of EVs, including their manufacturing, driving, and — please note — the tricky matter of disposal of their used batteries. These batteries are the culprits. They contain metals that are expensive to produce, and they have to be replaced every few years.

The study found that a mid-size EV produces about 23.1 tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, scarcely less than the 24 tons produced by a regular, gasoline powered car. This is in part because the emissions from manufacturing EVs are about 50% higher than those from manufacturing regular cars.

What the British Department for Transport will make of the report it called for is anyone’s guess. The Department is currently lavishing $7,700 grants on people who buy the damn things.


British Energy Policy Unravelling

Builders of nuclear reactors sitting on their hands until some more of that lovely government money comes their way

As energy companies put projects on hold, government plans for new nuclear reactors are in danger of unravelling. Experts expect that EDF will demand even more generous subsidies.

EDF Energy has indicated that it will not build the first of Britain’s new nuclear reactors by 2018, despite earlier promises.

Vincent de Rivaz, the energy group’s chief executive, told The Times that the reactor at Hinkley Point in Somerset would be ready “when the UK needs it”. Mr de Rivaz said that Britain no longer needed the reactor to be ready by that date because the financial crisis of 2009 and energy efficiency measures had reduced long-term electricity demand.

He said that a delay in building the reactor, which will push back his company’s intention to build a second reactor on the site by 2020, will not threaten Britain’s energy security. “It’s not a gamble at all. I will not let down the country,” he said. [...]

It will be operational in 2016, four years later than planned, the company said, and will cost €6 billion (£5.3 billion), almost twice its original price. Mr de Rivaz said that the delays were “quite normal” because it was the first of a new generation of reactors to be built in France.

The Government’s plans for new nuclear reactors are in danger of unravelling. The Times revealed in May that E.ON and RWE, the German companies that have formed the Horizon new-build consortium, have put their plans on hold because of financial pressures and Germany’s anti-nuclear stance after the Fukushima disaster.

The Government is keen not to be reliant on one company to deliver its nuclear policy, but industry executives fear that EDF Energy will extract even more generous subsidies.


Admit it: environmentalism was an ugly experiment

Mark Lynas has converted from eco-alarmist to pro-growth rationalist. But he still doesn’t get the problem with green thinking

by Ben Pile

Since becoming an advocate of genetic modification (GM) and nuclear power, Mark Lynas has drawn increasingly hostile criticism from his erstwhile comrades in the green movement. In turn, he has sharpened his criticism of environmentalists for their hostility to technological and economic development. In his new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, he attempts to reformulate environmentalism to overcome the excesses that have so far prevented it from saving the planet. This book will no doubt provoke debate, but what is this transformation really about, and is it really based on new ideas or merely the revision of old ones?

Last November, Channel 4 aired What the Green Movement Got Wrong, which featured prominent environmentalists, including Lynas, reflecting on the failures of environmentalism. The film claimed that environmentalists’ opposition to technologies that offered environmentally benign methods of energy and crop production had impeded their aim of creating an ecologically sustainable society. Since then, the debate between pro- and anti-nuclear environmentalists has deepened, exposing the many divisions that exist within the green camp.

That said, the green movement has never really been united by a coherent perspective that could withstand criticism with confidence. Instead, it has been more easily characterised as intransigent, its critics simply dismissed as ‘deniers’ funded by big business. Environmentalism, ignorant to criticism, has thus developed inside an insular, self-regarding bubble. Perhaps only someone from within it could prick that bubble, revealing to its members what those outside it have been telling them for decades.

However, the object of Lynas’s criticism is not the substance or ends of environmentalism but merely its means. The environment has not been saved by green hostility to development, he says. Environmentalism’s uncompromising demands that we accept lower living standards make green politics unpalatable. Accordingly, he attempts to locate the basis for an environmentalism characterised by realism and pragmatism: what the science really tells us and how it can be most effectively acted upon.

As a result, there is much to agree with in The God Species. Most importantly, Lynas makes a clean break from deep ecology – the idea that ‘nature’ has intrinsic moral value and a ‘right’ to be protected from our ambitions. He rebukes the environmentalism that imagines a return to a pristine nature, and that shows contempt for development as an attempt to ‘play god’ over nature. We should ‘play god’, he says, for the planet’s sake as well as our own comfort. There is a convincing criticism of green demands for austerity and environmentalists’ unrealistic expectations that people should make do with ‘happiness’ rather than material progress. These are the conceits of well-off, middle-class and self-indulgent whingers, Lynas explains. Some of us have been making similar arguments for a very long time.

In spite of some of his accurate criticisms, Lynas fails to get to the substance of environmentalism. We do not find out what takes environmentalists to their bleak view of the world and their low view of humanity. This is a shame, because Lynas is in a unique position to reflect on it, having once thrust a custard pie into Bjorn Lomborg’s face, with the words: ‘That’s for everything you say about the environment which is complete bullshit. That’s for lying about climate change. That’s what you deserve for being smug about everything to do with the environment.’

A decade on, Lynas now emphasises science and pragmatism rather than… erm… pies. It’s worth remembering that Lomborg started out on mission similar to Lynas’s: as an environmentalist, keen to establish the sensible limits of our interaction with the natural world. Before writing The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg aimed to debunk the works of the economist, Julian Simon, but ended up sympathetic to many of his arguments. Lynas, too, now finds himself sympathetic to many of the ideas from the economic right (he calls for the privatisation of all publicly owned water companies, for instance). And like Lynas, Lomborg never ended up ‘denying’ climate change, but instead sought to bring a sense of proportion to the problem, and to put it into context with other problems in the world. That is all it takes to find oneself called a ‘denier’: merely seeking a sense of proportion about environmental problems will put you in the lowest moral category, as Lynas, the ‘Chernobyl death denier’, has now discovered.

Lynas’s transformation shows few signs of self-reflection. Yet this would surely be the most interesting thing he could discuss. Why did ‘denial’ provoke such incomprehensible rage to the younger Lynas? And now that he finds himself accused of it, why is he not more cautious about the word ‘denier’, which he still uses with abandon? Instead, he puts his past eco-zeal down to mere ‘ideology’. Ideology it may have been, but there is no discussion about its character, its origins and context, or how he came to be vulnerable to it. His metamorphosis from long-time anti-GM campaigner to advocate came about, he explains, after he read some scientific literature in 2008. Lynas’s conceit is that he has freed himself from ideology simply by reading ‘the science’.

But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? Lynas would only have to watch the studio debate that followed What the Green Movement Got Wrong to recall that it was a pantomime, in which each green side claimed to represent pragmatism and science against the other’s ideology. Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.

So what is this science which has allowed Lynas to eschew ideology?

Lynas takes his inspiration from the work of Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which aims to offer ‘research for governance of social-ecological systems’. According to Lynas, Rockström and his associates – referred to by Lynas as the ‘planetary boundaries experts group’ – believe that they have identified nine fundamental measures of the planet’s ecological health that human development must not interfere with, if ecological catastrophe is to be avoided.

There is a chapter on each of these nine ‘boundaries’. For example, Lynas argues that we must observe the ‘biodiversity’ boundary by ensuring that fewer than 10 species per year are lost to extinction (against a current rate of over 100). The climate-change boundary means we must maintain atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide below 350 parts per million (ppm). (It’s already higher than that, meaning that society must become carbon negative.) The nitrogen boundary means we must remove no more than 35million tonnes of nitrogen from the atmosphere per year. And so on.

Anyone familiar with environmentalism’s history will recognise that this idea of ecological boundaries owes something to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth. Noting the similarity himself, Lynas insists that boundaries are not limits to growth. Growth can exist and continue within these boundaries, he says, adding a fairly convincing argument that he does indeed at least believe that economic growth, technological development and social progress can and should continue within them. But if a boundary isn’t a limit, what is it?

Although Lynas claims that this idea is both new, and founded on new science, the premise of this idea is the same as many other eco- centric perspectives: we live on ‘Spaceship Earth’, ‘Gaia’, in a ‘web of life’. The biosphere, says Lynas, comprises an ecosystem ‘characterised by near infinite complexity: all their nodes of interconnectedness cannot possibly be identified, quantified or centrally planned, yet the product as a whole tends towards balance and self-correction’. In the chapter on biodiversity, Lynas says: ‘By removing species, we damage ecosystems, collapse food webs and ultimately undermine the planetary life-support system on which our species depends as much as any other.’

In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich famously made dire predictions of doom, based on his attempts to model the biosphere and our relation to it, which failed to materialise. Nonetheless, his predictions helped to kickstart the contemporary environmental movement. In answer to Ehrlich’s failure to turn ecology into a predictive material and social science, environmentalists have claimed that what Ehrlich - and Malthus before him - got wrong was simply the ‘when’, not the ‘if’, in the familiar ‘not if, but when’ mantra. The failure, in other words, was merely in underestimating the resilience of ‘the system’, which in spite of Ehrlich’s failures is still presumed to exist. Lynas and his experts have merely sought to better estimate that resilience.

The possibility that that there is no ‘self-regulating system’ of the kind they have imagined does not seem to have occurred to Lynas. He claims that there exists an abundance of evidence for it, but his reasoning that it exists is deductive, rather than based on empirical science actually locating it. Contemplating the endurance of life – or ‘self-regulating systems’, on his view – on Earth for four billion years, through several catastrophic events, Lynas deduces unsoundly that ‘the only plausible explanation is that self-regulation is somehow an emergent property of the system; negative feedbacks overwhelm positive ones and tend to push the Earth towards stability and balance’. There must be a ‘self-regulating system’ producing ‘balance’ merely because Lynas can’t consider an alternative.

But rather than demonstrating that there is a self-regulating system, isn’t there an equally plausible argument that the endurance of life on Earth demonstrates that no such ‘self-regulating system’ exists at all? Life is enduring with or without stasis. Perhaps, rather than occupying sensitive niches, organisms simply survive when they are not pelted by rocks from the cosmos, frozen under ice sheets, buried under molten lava or suffocated by ash – that is, when and where conditions are not hostile to life. Perhaps the ‘balance’ and ‘self-regulation’ witnessed by Lynas and ecologists are merely artefacts of the scale at which they perceive nature: a human life in contrast to geological epochs. Why should it surprise us that life and its seemingly similar conditions endure? Maybe Gaia seems to be at the same time so resilient and so sensitive because she does not exist.

According to Lynas, Gaia is a metaphor for a ‘universal scientific principle’: the emergent property of self-organisation in complex systems. But the metaphor looks far more like those who invoke her than ‘nature’. The preoccupation with ‘self-regulating systems’ seems to coincide with a desire for the regulation and systematisation of human life. We have to presuppose a great deal to take this account of life on Earth at face value, and even more to start organising society around the principle. Indeed, we might now be able to call this ensemble of presuppositions about ‘balance’ and ‘self-organisation’ environmental ideology. Lynas, like many environmentalists, presupposes both balance and the system which produces it. They claim evidence for it in science, but the claim precedes the science. Scientists have looked for Gaia, but they have not found her. Perhaps scientists and science are not so immune to ideology, after all.

Reading each of the chapters on planetary boundaries puts one in mind of an attempt to use the concept of irreducible complexity to make an argument for ‘intelligent design’. Rather than being an attempt to digest scientific research, it seems more an attempt to bombard the reader with endless salvoes of facts. The problem with using science in this way is that it is presented without its caveats, its context or the limitations of its design. Rather than developing a critical understanding of the issues, the reader is encouraged to sit passively through tales of tragic environmental degradation, followed by the remedy.

This has been the environmentalist’s device of choice, because complex technical ideas hide political and ethical ideas - the remedy - behind scientific authority. And this is the biggest problem of the environmental debate. To take issue with the ethics or politics of environmentalism or its interpretation of science is seen as equivalent to denying scientific evidence. To point out that science requires interpretation is seemingly to suggest that there is no such thing as material reality. Environmentalists seem to imagine that science is a direct conduit from pure objectivity to humanity – it issues instructions about how we ought to live.

Lynas does not escape these problems. The God Species is littered with complaints about ‘deniers’ and their ideological motivations. In one section, Lynas complains about ‘the [political] right’s tendency to downplay or deny the environmental consequences of this human great leap forward’, and asks, why they do not ‘just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts’. And it is perhaps this question that most reveals Lynas’ naivety about ideology, and his failure to reflect on his own position.

Nobody is ‘denying the environmental consequences’ of human progress. Nobody could look at a river oozing with toxic sludge and say that it wasn’t pollution. What would be at issue is what kind of problem that pollution is. For a population that depended on the river for sustenance, its contamination would indeed be a huge problem. For a population which has no real use for the river, it is less of a problem. (Indeed, it may even be a convenient solution to the problem of what to do with all that toxic sludge, until some better means of disposal is developed.) What differs between perspectives is not necessarily assent to or denial of ‘facts’, but priorities, values and ways of interpreting them. If you believe that the planet is a highly sensitive self-regulating system that produces balance, it follows that you’d be more concerned about pollution than somebody who felt more confident about the world’s resilience.

Never mind environmental science’s failures to produce proof of Gaia’s existence and failure to predict ecological Armageddon, we only need to look at environmentalism’s political failures to understand Lynas’s reformulation of environmentalism. On the street, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to become a mass movement. At the level of regional government, ideas about saving the planet by ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ have only antagonised relations between the public and officials while degrading local services. At the level of national government, the political establishment’s environmentalism only serves to reflect the gulf that exists between the public and themselves – their various planet-saving initiatives looking more and more like desperate and self-serving attempts to legitimise their functioning in an era of mass political disengagement. At the supranational level, environmentalism has failed to unite nations in fear of Gaia’s revenge.

The attempt to locate planetary boundaries is equally an attempt to locate boundaries for humanity – to put it in its place within a supposed natural order. And within that order is a design for political institutions that are not legitimised by the public contest of values and ideas, but by the claim that they are necessary for ‘saving the planet’ and ourselves. Environmentalism is an ugly political experiment. That experiment failed, but not simply because its material science was flawed. Just as it was environmentalism’s political failure that preceded Lynas’s revision of its scientific basis, environmentalism’s political idea - its ideology - precedes the science. Rewriting the science won’t make the experiment any more successful for Lynas than it was for Ehrlich.



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here


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