Archive for September, 2017

Climate change and prosperity

September 23, 2017

People can argue that climate change will bring economic prosperity. This is supposed to arise because currently frozen areas will become less frozen, the northwest passage will open, and we can more easily obtain minerals and oil from currently inhospitable locations.

So, let’s be clear – there may well be parts of the world which do appear to get a strategic or financial advantage from climate change. That is indeed possible. That does not mean the rest of the world will not suffer severely, nor that the melting ice will not mean that sea levels will almost certainly rise impacting many communities, that mountain glaciers will almost certainly shrink lessening water supplies, that deserts will probably expand, and that existing farming areas may become less productive. It is also possible that this could cause global warfare as people fight over access to water and arable land.

Indeed, I might argue that one of our problems is that we live in an economic system in which fantasies of wealth are encouraged to take precedence over survival, or even over having a healthy eco-system. Wealth has become symbolically equivalent to life and happiness. However, there is no prosperity if a civilisation undermines the ecologies it needs to survive or flourish. With current trends of climate change, it would seem that there is only increased hardship for most people, whatever the new economic openings (at best – it is hard to predict what the worst could be).

The fantasy of boom, also tends to be unreal because our economic system is problematic. Since the 1980s it certainly does not look like the proceeds from economic booms have been shared around. They have mostly gone to particular, and very small, groups of people, while the problems of economic busts have been shared around. So an economic boom arising because of the artic opening up, or tundras melting, is not likely to help that many people, or compensate the rest of us for the climate becoming tumultuous and hard.

It is probably better to put the money and effort into stabilizing climate, before pursuing fantasies of gain.


How can scientists predict future temperatures when they cannot predict the weather accurately?

September 20, 2017

Firstly, climate scientists cannot predict the exact temperature of a particular place, in exactly 50 years, easily or at all, any more than they can predict the exact temperature at a certain time, in a specific place, in one month’s time. And while this is problem raised by ‘skeptics’, this predictive ability is not an ability claimed by any climate scientists that I have read, and is of no relevance to the ongoing issues of predicting general increase in average global temperatures.

Weather systems form complex systems, and prediction in complex systems is notoriously difficult over length of time. We can predict climate trends such as: the average global temperature may rise by a particular order of magnitude, or that sea ice will melt and ocean levels rise, that low lying land will be flooded, and that deserts will expand, that weather will become more tumultuous, that storms are likely to get bigger, and that people will move as a result. But you cannot predict exact weather patterns for particular places. If we could, it would actually make climate change less devastating, as we could plan for it.

You can also predict that given the continuance of the circumstances we are in, it is extremely improbable that average temperatures will trend towards decrease, or that weather will become simple and nicely warmer everywhere. Indeed the prediction that this will not happen has been born out for years, and there is no sign that such climate beneficence will happen. However, it is possible that as climate patterns change some particular places may get colder – for example, if the gulf stream stops or shifts southward, then this may happen with the UK.

The point to bear in mind, is that climate and weather are complicated, but continuance of, or return to, the normal weather patterns of 20 years ago seems improbable in the extreme, and it is far more likely that weather events will become even more extreme than they are now, until (possibly) a new ‘steady state’ arises when the forces producing climate change have ceased. However, I am told that when we look at the last time the earth had high levels of CO2 and high temperatures (50 million years ago), massive storms may well have marked that normality.

We might add that other factors of the Anthropocene (such as peak phosphorus), make the prediction of livability of earth systems even more complex and fraught, but that is another question.

Petrol and Plastics

September 17, 2017

A long time ago I remember hearing someone say something like “petrol is so useful that future generations will look back at us and say ‘they burnt it, who can believe that!'”

One of the obvious uses of petrol is to make plastics, and even with a change to a renewable economy plastics can still be made – but we need to do something with the waste plastic. Hopefully plastic (or similar) can be made fully and speedily biodegradable as there will soon be something like more plastic in the sea than living plankton. This is not good for anyone. A recent article suggested that even sea salt is polluted with plastic.

Plastic needs modification in the long run.


Action on Climate Change

September 17, 2017

Some random comments.

Let us be clear, the issue is that people should not emit more greenhouse gases than the environment can handle, if we wish our ‘civilization’ to survive – not that we should not emit any. Not emitting any greenhouse gases is impossible, and the system emits and reprocesses these emissions naturally, just not as much as we are currently emitting.

Coal is particularly bad in terms of the poisons it emits at all stages in its production and use. There is very little positive to say about coal (that is not in the ground) at this stage in our history. Coal mining and power probably needs to be eliminated, as there is no evidence that coal can be made ‘clean’ or environmentally friendly to the degree that we need it to be.

We probably also need to work at changing what seems to constitute modern life. Modern life is not a product of free choice but of what we were offered and chose within a particular set of social arrangements that did not value ecological survival.

That needs to change – and frankly I’m not sure people really ‘need’ or ‘want’ disposable bottles, polluting and failing concrete, coal power, massive amounts of beef, destroyed fishing grounds, and so on. This can be modified, and hopefully will modify.

It will be hard of course. Some of the problem may well be that the system we live in seems to create a psycho-spiritual emptiness which we fill by purchasing products – and this keeps us acting as wage slaves and generally making ourselves feel empty. This is part of the pattern of domination which we often call neoliberalism, but is probably better ‘capitalist plutocracy’.

Recognising plutocracy is important. I’ve rarely met anyone who is interested in renewables, who is not aware that these new technologies are being resisted by people who have lots of wealth, power, status and symbolic resonance tied up in fossil fuels. It’s pretty much an every day experience, and the established powers have heaps of money to throw around to influence the debate. Without them, and without the triumph of neoliberalism, we probably would not be having a debate; we would be engaged in finding the best solutions. Resisting plutocracy is important but difficult.

My main problem with the “energy problem” is that it distracts attention from the other ecological crises which are happening simultaneously. These are produced by building (concrete), mining, farming methods and so on, which are destroying our fresh water supplies, downing our oxygen supplies, wrecking the phosphorus cycle, killing the oceans and so on.

To be real, we need a lot more action on a lot more fronts.

Christiana Figueres 05

September 17, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (Ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 05:
[My comments in square brackets]

[During the Paris talks, there was much activist discussion about the presence of fossil fuel companies at the discussion and the amount of influence they may have exerted. In this answer to a question, she may well be responding to this…]

We all know that fossil fuel companies have large amounts of fossil fuel reserves and exploration processes on their balance sheets. These are reserves, which if abandoned [as we do need them to be], will probably cause massive loss in share price and could drive the companies out of business [- or make the subject to takeover bids from less principled companies]. Consequently, many of these companies are putting up a strong fight against change.

However, they don’t want to be the “Kodak of the Twentyfirst century”, superseded by a newer and better technology.

Their survival is ultimately in their hands. There is no point in demonising them, they are working within the parameters they are used to, and the parameters which ensure their survival. If you demonise them then they will see themselves as being a corner and fight to the death. They have huge amounts of money they can throw at this fight – they can win – relatively easily [see how well they have been doing so far and they are not yet desperate].

We need them because of their experience and because they not only have masses of money which could be spent constructively, but because they have amongst the biggest engineering capacity and experience of anyone on the planet. We need this capacity devoted to being constructive. Energy demand will likely increase, so we need energy companies.

So we invite them to the table to get them involved.

There are some good examples of change in oil companies.

StatOil from Norway. They have rights to drill the Artic. They know this is not popular. They know the drilling is expensive, especially given the price volatility of oil. The problem is that abandoning previously promised exploration, with money already sunk into it, would damage their share price.
However, they are also seeking a future based on their experience, and building huge wind power platforms. They know heaps about building stable platforms at sea – so this is really good.

Similarly, Total from France, is migrating its capacity. They have bought a big solar panel company and are set to improve its panels, especially for sale in high temperature countries. They have bought a lithium battery company and are set to try and improve the batteries.

Change is happening.

Christiana Figueres 04

September 17, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (Ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 04:
[my comments in square brackets]

On the Paris negotiations and the way they were formatted….

Equity is a guiding principle of the negotiations. This is because we need to respect people’s sovereignty, and not impose what to do. People, and States in particular, resist imposition; especially in chaotic and unpredictable situations – like that of climate change.

The Paris Agreement is based on what people think they can do after consultation with their people and ‘interested parties’ or ‘stakeholders’ [which, in the contemporary world, are usually the economic and military elites]. Then these countries come back to the discussion and tell us what they think they can do, which is good for them.
This is called the “Nationally Determined Contribution”.

The problem is that this will not measure up to what we need. So the agreement is designed to be dynamic. Every five years there is another meeting and people decide what they can do now, given their experiences and the improvements in technology and its availability. That is, we expect the NDC’s to approach what is needed. [However, fossil fuel companies and their servants could derail this path – the path seems to be built on optimism, and requires people’s political action to keep it going]

This so called ‘ratchetting period’ was originally going to be every ten years, so its actually more responsive than originally planned and some targets have already been achieved before expected. It is better to under-promise and over-deliver – [that way people are not discouraged – we hope]

Christiana Figueres 03

September 14, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 03:

Technology and markets

We need to be aware that the economy and the energy situation forms a system.

Renewables are not fossil fuels, they have different characteristics. If your energy system is set up for fossil fuels then it is already not ‘technology neutral’, it is historically biased in favour of fossil fuels and the characteristics of fossil fuel power. Consequently, there is a legacy effect in the system which inhibits innovation, both politically and in terms of expectation of how energy should behave and what factors of that energy production can be ignored.

[For example we ignore the slow response time of coal power, the amount of poison and health problems, it generates, the fact that it cannot be turned down when we don’t need it, its tendency to fail with unexpected temperatures, the amount of subsidy we pay, and so on]

In Chile, which has the advantage of not having coal or oil, the electricity market is fully open. There are no subsidies for fossil fuels or for renewables. They simply have auctions and those companies which can provide the lowest electricity price win the auction. So far that has been renewables. It has not been coal.

India can also be freer of this legacy inertia, and India has recently announced that no new coal power plants will be built in India in the next ten years. This will give time for renewables to develop and demonstrate their worth. They aim for 60% of all power to be renewable by 2027.

Increases in electricity prices have nothing to do with renewables, as is often argued. Renewables have not been around long enough to cause the price rises in those countries in which price rises have been occurring. It is like blaming a baby for the ongoing dysfunction of a family. The baby cannot do it entirely by itself, and the problems were around before it came on the scene. Prices are high because of the way markets are structured and they are structured around fossil fuels. To repeat: fossil fuel markets are set up not to be technology neutral.

Fossil fuels are like libraries – huge centres of generation. Nowadays you almost do not need libraries. You have information online.
We are moving to a decentred market in power where you do not need to go to a centralised place of generation. Australia has the world’s biggest market penetration of rooftop solar, it is moving towards decentred power, irrespective of policy. Some of us will generate more power than we need for ourselves. We are moving from the library to the internet.

Christiana Figueres 02

September 13, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 02:
[some extra comments in square brackets]

Technological innovation is happening, and it is happening at a rate which is very promising; much quicker than we expected.

This innovation has five characteristics or needs.

1) Technology is developing exponentially.
Every time the International Energy Agency makes a prediction about the use and price of renewables it is wrong. It underestimates their success. It is not used to dealing with this level of innovation.

The price of offshore wind is now 50% cheaper than it was expected to be by 2030.

Electric cars are taking off [everywhere but Australia were they are taxed as luxury items]
Volvo, Jaguar, Landrover, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen have all said that they will stop making internal combustion engines soon.
China may prohibit internal combustion sales. India aspires to all new cars being electric by 2030

2) However this change is not automatic
Change is intentional. We have to keep asking what do we need to do. We need to help the change happen. This is the space for individual action and policy thinking.

3) Technological change has to be comprehensive.
Everything we do is affected by energy and climate change. So the changes have to affect every sector (food, transport, IT etc). It is everyone’s responsibility. Nothing can be sheltered indefinately.

4) Technological Change is Symbiotic
Innovations in one area relate to changes in another. For example there is a relationship between the grid, renewables and electric vehicles. Cars need batteries, as does the grid. Innovations in batteries make both cars and grid better. Perhaps grid storage could be in distributed car batteries?

5) Technology needs to be restorative
We need to be able to repair damage to land, air and water. Otherwise we are going to find it hard to keep people alive.

[It is cheaper not to damage the environment in the first place. No more mining in agricultural zones, water catchment areas or in artesian basins]

Christiana Figueres 01

September 13, 2017

Notes on a talk given by Christiana Figueres (ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) at the Energy Lab 01:

There are two different principles which need to guide us.

1) The moral imperative: Protection of vulnerable people
Poor people throughout the world are the most at risk from Climate change, even though they have emitted very little of the CO2 that is the problem (even en mass). If we continue to destroy the climate, there will also be massive people movements away from unlivable areas.

2) The economic imperative
We can only emit another 600gt of greenhouse gases before we go into irreparable climate instability with uncontrollable and destructive weather.

We are currently emitting more than 40gt per year. We are exceeding what the natural systems of the planet can deal with.

If we stopped emissions completely that would be great, but we cannot do that without stopping the economy. So we need a transition period in which we move out of greenhouse gas emitting energy sources.

Now 600/40 = less than 17 years.

We have a time problem, but basically we need to start reducing greenhouse emissions within 3 years at most. We need to develop a trend of decreasing emissions until we reach zero emissions (or less).

That involves changes in policy, a shift of finance and technological innovation. It is all doable, and is in people’s interests to do.

Most capitalism is ‘crony capitalism’.

September 10, 2017

Often people speak of ‘crony capitalism’ as if it was an aberration of economics. However it is an inherent part of the capitalist system.

It was recognised by Adam Smith when he said that:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

It seems to be an essential part of human nature for people to cooperate to further their group interests, and when the powerful and wealthy do this it has large consequences. They also try and break up cooperation amongst ordinary people by demonizing Unions and preaching individualism to workers. That helps magnify the power of their own cooperation.

If business people can team up to manipulate the markets then they will. If capitalists can team up to make a State to enforce laws that benefit them, then they will. If capitalists can team up to take over the State to enforce laws that benefit them then they will. All of these acts help make money for them, and that is the point; such behaviours are a normal part of profit seeking. The bosses will call these laws, and these power structures, ‘free markets’, or say they are essential to the functioning of those markets.

In a society in which profit is the prime good, then the wealthy become the epitome of virtue and talent. They are by definition the good and worthy people, who have their status because of that virtue. They are supposedly the admirable and intelligent people who are worthy to rule, and critising them is base envy. They make sure that their kin inherent the wealth, and form a ruling class with a State to support them to make sure that even more of the social wealth goes to them. That is basically the history of the last couple of hundred years with a short interlude after the second world war.

In capitalism, wealth eventually comes to control the means of communication, the means of learning and the modes of thought, and the means of violence and law enforcement. By owning and controlling these essential parts of social process, the wealthy make sure they cannot be attacked, and that ‘free markets’ seem sensible and legitimate – and if you don’t like these markets, well you are an enemy.

The wealthy elites may try and deflect attention from their power by paying people to attack other groups as elites, but generally these other ‘elites’ are not that powerful to begin with – they don’t have that much wealth. Wealth ends up controlling the other elites (where do they get the money from to live on?)

The system of free markets always makes plutocracy, and the State grows to maintain the systems of wealth and oppression.

Indeed people/politicians who talk a lot about free markets carry out these policies all the time – this is what is called neoliberalism – and it has been working quite well for the wealthy for over the last 40 years.