climate change: a Greek tragedy?

January 11, 2017 Leave a comment

January 11th: Feeling more under the weather again today, I didn’t go for a walk, nor did I take a photo. But I did do plenty of reading and contemplating of the extraordinary events unfolding in the USA, where the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s run up to inauguration as US President just gets more intense and more bizarre. His press conference today was just chaotic and anything but presidential in manner, exposing a complete breakdown in trust between himself and all the US intelligence agencies he has to work with, which bodes very badly for a harmonious presidency. It’s becoming clear to most people, I think, that this is not going to end well.

At the same time, today, several nomination hearings were held in Congress for some of Trump’s cabinet picks, most of them climate deniers and promoters of fossil fuel interests. One hearing featured Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil and nominee for Secretary of State, who is  extremely compromised by Exxon’s history of funding climate denial and denigration of climate scientists. Exxon is such a big oil company that if it was allowed to exploit fully its own oil reserves, then the planet is pretty much fried!

As it is, at least 75% of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, permanently unextracted, if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change. The carbon budget left for using fossil fuels is small and declining fast, as this very clear infographic I saw today shows. There’s even a carbon clock to show just how fast the carbon budget is disappearing! Under one scenario, the budget for preventing a 1.5 degree Centigrade increase in global warming – an aspiration in the UN Paris climate agreement – has already disappeared!

Indeed, so fast is the carbon budget disappearing that prevention of catastrophic climate change is increasingly seen by many people as relying upon the use of technologies for removing carbon directly from the atmosphere, to create ‘negative emissions’, which would be very difficulty and costly to do on a global scale. Professor Kevin Anderson is one of those commentators on climate change who points out again and again just how difficult it would be to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to meet the targets set by the Paris agreement, and how policy-making by most governments is just not up to the task, so far, of making any real progress on reaching those targets.  I read today a very amusing but despairing account of one of Anderson’s presentations.

So where does that leave us? Watching the unfolding of a political drama, especially in the USA, that intersects – and at times clashes head-on –  with an unfolding climate disaster. It’s like watching an ancient Greek tragedy: you know it won’t end well, you know there’ll be blood all over the carpet, but it’s still endlessly and intensely gripping stuff, even cathartic, and you still want to see how the denouement plays out.

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slouching towards a beach near you…

January 10, 2017 Leave a comment

received_10208370813293334January 10th: Felt fantastic to be back at work in the great outdoors on this sunny, mild morning, helping my fellow volunteers at the local community apiary in Pevensey. Doing constructive stuff like pruning apple trees and building brushwood fences, whilst watching the local wildlife get on with their winter tasks, is deeply satisfying, and a welcome break from the tumultuous world of political strife and climate chaos that is so evident these days. Also, the sight of the green shoots of new growth already visible all over the apiary site is a very encouraging harbinger of Spring, which in England is always an exhilarating sight, especially when the fruit trees burst out in blossom.

Meanwhile, the Big Melt is on as the first week of 2017 has seen Arctic sea ice continue to set records for this time of year for extent and volume, and global sea ice cover is still at a jaw-dropping record low. I always used to wonder what it must be like to see climate change starting to occur so fats that every day sees a new development, a fresh worsening of the situation. No I wonder no more, as I, and all of us, ate living through a historically unprecedented time when climate change news comes in thick and fast, chronicling a  global system shift to a new and perhaps ultimately unlivable climate state.

Yet, despite the Big Melt, the facts and implications of climate change continue to get even more frozen out from the political establishment, especially in the USA. The philosophy of “drill, baby, drill” looks set to be the new order of the day. Even in the UK, the government’s drive to encourage fracking is gaining momentum as new drilling sites are opened up across the country. Our economic growth over the last century has been based on the enormous energy that could be extracted from fossil fuels, and ditching that level of economic growth is just so hard to do, it seems, for our politicians and leaders to do. Even locally, I read today about some of Eastbourne’s political and business leaders exultant about the grand new capital projects starting up around the town to boost local economic growth, despite the town being already prosperous and already at near full employment, and despite the lack of infrastructure, land and housing to cope with the influx of new businesses and people moving into the area. Many of the green fields surrounding my village, which is near Eastbourne, are being ploughed up to make way for the new homes being built especially to satisfy Eastbourne’s insatiable urge for economic growth. But when is growth ever enough?

Yet ironically all this new investment and growth is in dire peril of being undermined by the existential risks Eastbourne – a coastal town – faces from rapid sea level rise  over the next few decades. It is truly astonishing to see a ‘business as usual’ mindset operate almost robotically across mainstream political and economic life despite all the siren voices warning of the risks of climate catastrophe unless we start right now in putting environmental concerns above economic ambitions, and in putting long-term survival and sustainability above short-term economic gains.

the hollow men on their treadmills,

spin their grand schemes of growth,

while from the polar north the rough beast of rising seas

slouches towards a beach near you…

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doves of peaceful prosperity for a post-growth world

January 9, 2017 Leave a comment

imag3416

January 9th: got my daily constitutional walk in before the rain swept in to drive me indoors! Damp but mild day today, unlike what is happening in central and Eastern Europe at the moment, where extreme cold, with plenty of ice and snow, is causing havoc. It’s the kind of cold that should be in the Arctic, but isn’t because the Arctic is dominated by extremely mild weather, pushing the cold weather southwards over Siberia and Europe. Yet another aspect of the ‘global weirding’ going on as climate systems around the world become disrupted due to global warming.

Another type of global weirding is going on within the political world as political parties and leaders with, at best, a very tenuous grasp upon rational, evidence-based policy-making either take power or are on the threshold of taking power. The accession of Donald Trump as US President comes ever nearer, and with it a rising sense of dread and foreboding in the minds of many people, myself included. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s never more true than now, as one novelist has discussed in an article I read today.

Events like these are likely to produce a rate of change over the next few years that is faster and more transformational than any change that I, or anybody else, will have seen in their lifetimes so far. Climate, politics, society, economics, and more, will all change radically over the next few years in ways so profound and unexpected that the resilience of all of us will be challenged to the utmost.

But what can help us maximise resilience, or at least to simply cope with all the change happening? Fortunately, there are people who have thought deeply about how to deal with the collapse of existing social and economic systems in the wake of climate change, peak oil, and financial disasters. One such person was the late David Fleming, who produced a magnus opus in his book Lean Logic, which is, in effect, a primer for thinking through how we might survive the future, and do so in a way which gives us prosperity and well-being despite lack of economic growth and without environmental destruction.  I can’t rate this book high enough: it is the most comprehensive, thorough, deeply researched, yet easily readable book on sustainability I’ve ever come across, full of practical suggestions and proposals for creating, right now, the lean society that can survive the difficult times ahead. Like the doves I saw today in the dovecote I walked past, peaceful thoughts of a thriving future fly through the mind after reading such a visionary book as this!

doves calmly sitting on a dovecote –

vision of a peaceful world  –

lightens my step on a dull winter’s day walk.

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yielding to the rising sea…

January 8, 2017 Leave a comment

imag3410

January 8th: yet another walk today, as part of my rehabilitation, around yet another part of my home village. This time around the church and into the Pevensey Levels, the fields that were painstakingly reclaimed over the centuries from the former tidal marsh as it became silted up and cut off from the sea by shingle drift along the English Channel. These fields – from where my photo today was taken, looking north towards Pevensey Castle – are rich grazing land now, much prized by farmers, but now extremely vulnerable to being reclaimed by the sea as climate change makes sea level rise rapidly. Estimates vary amongst climate scientists, but even conservative estimates suggest it could be up to 2 metres by 2050, which would easily overwhelm these fields I walked over today, plus much of the land for  miles inland, including much of the fast growing town of Eastbourne nearby.

It’s strange to walk over fields that look so permanent a feature of the landscape yet knowing that they were underwater once for thousands of years and will be underwater again before this century is out. If one thing is certain about climate change, it is that there will have to be a Great Retreat from the present coastline in many parts of the world. And certainly we are not ready for that here in terms of preparedness and contingency planning, which strikes me as so odd when I think of how much effort normally goes into planning for most other aspects of modern life. So we’re back to this disconnect I’ve talked about before, this inability to connect up the facts of climate change with the awesome and awful implications of those facts for the radical changes and political choices that will have to be made if those facts are truly faced up to.

And this disconnect persists despite the fact that we have, in effect, run out of time to think or argue about it. As I read today, an ice-free Arctic for at least part of each year is now imminent (that is, sometime within the next few years), and that will be a truly unprecedented event in human history, guaranteed to destabilise climate patterns we’ve been used to, and guaranteed to massively accelerate global warming because of the drastic reduction in the amount of solar energy reflected back into space and the drastic increase of heat energy absorbed by the ice-free Arctic ocean.

Yet I read today that, despite this, Trump will take a chain-saw to Obama’s climate legacy, starting on day one of taking office as US President:

Trump is said to be looking at ways to extricate the US from the Paris agreement while aggressively exploiting fossil fuels. He has said that on his first day in office, he will lift “the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal, and we will put our miners back to work”.

the turf I walk on, torn from a retreating sea,

but soon to be torn back by a rising sea,

yields to my tread, like a cushion,

yielding to me and all like me,

who in turn must yield to nature’s power

as the super-storms roll in with the incoming tides.

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when the soil dries up…

January 7, 2017 Leave a comment

 

treeandsheep

January 7th: another day, another walk, but feeling stronger, I ventured out as far as the next village rather than just around my home village. The quietude of country lanes, the smells of damp leaves and grass, the soft squelch through muddy puddles, the glimpses of birds flitting in and out of trees and hedges, the sight of sheep grazing in nearby fields (as in the photo above that I took today), the sudden shafts of bright light slipping through scudding clouds. All, all mindfully present in my meanderings, evoking a soft, soothing joy within the heart. Priceless…

Meanwhile, the fun and games continues with the incoming Trump administration creating ever more controversy and consternation as the Presidential Inauguration comes nigh. Yet for all his keenness to maximise US fossil fuel exploration and extraction, he will be facing a world that is not only rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy technologies (my walk today took me past the first wind farm ever in East Sussex, only just becoming operational). But he is also facing a crisis within the fossil fuel industry itself as peak oil production and peak oil demand start to overlap and interact with each other in dramatic ways over the next few years, leading to severe economic shocks of various kinds as economies around the world struggle with the reliance they still have upon infrastructure that is still dependent upon fossil fuels. Oh, it would be so much simpler if those in power could just accept and adapt to the obvious trends, especially in the fields of energy and climate change!

And it does matter very much what Trump, and people who support Trump, say and do with respect to climate change.  Why? Because people’s lives are ruined by climate change, and by the lack of government action in the high carbon-emitting countries to deal with it. As this video from a US reporter in drought-ravaged Mozambique reveals:

I’m lucky to live in a land rich enough to adapt to climate change by investing in technologies like the wind farm I passed on my walk this morning to enjoy a hot soup at a nearby farm-shop cafe. But people living in poor countries like Mozambique are not so lucky, for they wonder where their next meal will come from as global warming dries up their land. When they’ll see their first wind farm is probably the last thing on their mind…

soil turns into sand

as heat dries up the land;

pity the poor who stand at hunger’s door,

wondering if there’s room for hope any more.

 

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thinking today about the day after tomorrow…

January 6, 2017 Leave a comment

westahmchurch6jan17

January 6th: the first day of my body feeling better gives me real hope that my illness is coming to a gradual end. That buoyed me up for yet another local walk, once again circling around the local church here in Westham, a 1,000 year old church still mostly surrounded by local lanes and open fields that presumably are little changed from centuries past.

What I find fascinating is the huge disconnect between what climate science tells us about climate change and its potential impacts, and the state of political discourse about what to do about climate change. On one side climate scientists, and campaigners advocating action on climate change, are united in their assessment of the urgency and scale of the challenge of slowing down global warming, whilst on the other side, the reactions of political establishments across most of the industrialised world is to either deny climate change outright (as a Trump administration will apparently do) through to a weak, slow acceptance of climate change as a problem to be dealt with, but in good time and in a way that should not be allowed to impact upon existing business models that are deemed essential to maximising economic  growth. The disconnect is so stark, so widespread, and so entrenched, that it takes me some while to get my head around how impressive this disconnect is. I’ve heard of psychological states like ‘denial’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’ – indeed, I studied them at university and in my psychiatric nursing career – but to see such disconnect on a societal, indeed, global, scale is just awesome, and makes me think that maybe Freud was right when he postulated a new urge within the human psyche: thanatos, the ‘death drive’.

Today I read about how this climate disconnect is likely to play out as clashes between various environmental campaigners and the Trump administration in the first few months after Trump’s administration.

Meanwhile, I also read today that the Gulf Stream Drift that gives us in the UK a relatively mild climate system for our northerly latitude, has slowed down very significantly in the last century and is likely, as climate change progresses, to slow down much more to a point where it might stop altogether if a ‘critical desalination point’ is reached. This phrase was used in the Hollywood movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which I often think about because it’s one of the few movies that show very realistically how dramatic the disconnect between climate science and the political establishment can be, and how that disconnect can lead to not only a profound denial of the ‘fierce urgency of now’ with respect to climate change, but also lead to a lack of effort in building up the resilience and adaptation measures that can help society deal with climate change impacts.  Those impacts will apparently lead to strong storms hitting the UK with greater frequency and intensity, leading, for example, to the sort of catastrophic, widespread, record-breaking flooding events we’ve seen in the UK in quite a few winters since 2000.

That will lead to great changes in the area I live; indeed, some of the places shown in the photos I’ve posted on this blog over the last few days will be either under water or on the edge of the sea, if big enough storms destroy the fragile sea defences on the south coast of England, only a couple of kilometres from where I live. That adds both a piquancy and poignancy to my local walks, as I can’t avoid thinking about how inherently transient are the landscapes I pass through. That’s both a spur to appreciate them more for what they are right now, through a deeper application of mindfulness and a deeper sensory engagement with the landscape, but also a stirring of a bittersweet cocktail of present joy and anticipatory sadness at future loss. That emotional cocktail is both full of creative potential and a psychological challenge to be handled with as much care and skill as I am, hopefully, capable of. Game on…

As ice-shelves calve and ice-sheets melt,

Far away in the polar regions,

Here, now, plebeian struggles to melt icebergs of climate indifference

Amongst the senates and forums of this world

Race towards a dramatic climax before the curtain falls.

 

 

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Ruins of history – or history in ruins?

January 5, 2017 Leave a comment

pevenseycastleandtrees

January 5th: a day of glorious sunshine for me to stagger into on my rocky road to rehabilitation from my present illness. Lucky me has thousands of year of heritage to walk past on one of my local walks, and today’s photo shows off the impressive ruins of the Norman fort within the ancient Roman walls of Pevensey Castle. Always a great reminder of the rise and fall of empires, and within my own lifetime the British Empire has come to an end. Now the world apparently has superpowers, although what the difference is between ‘superpowers’ and ’empires’, I’m not sure! But of course, a superpower, no matter how strong, does not have the power to stop the natural world changing dramatically as a result of global warming, not even a superpower led by a reality TV superstar like Donald Trump.

But, it’s not just Trump who doesn’t understand climate change. A huge slice of the US population also doesn’t, including a large number of powerful politicians, who not only openly deny the findings of climate science but also launch attacks upon the integrity of climate scientists themselves, making all sorts of accusations about them without any evidence and even trying to withhold funding from essential climate research programmes. The attacks continue even though the latest research corroborates even more strongly the data climate scientists have accumulated over the last few decades, data which shows that global warming continues apace.

So it’s no surprise that the Arctic, that “giant refrigerator that helps make our world a viable place to live”, continues to show a record low amount of ice for this time of year, and that the Greenland ice sheet is continuing to melt at an ever faster rate. The loss of Arctic sea ice is now so great that the recently knighted sailor, David Hempleman-Adams, and his team, completed a sailing trip around the Arctic in about 3 months, a trip that would have taken up to 3 years some decades ago! And what does Trump now want to do in the Arctic? Team up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to drill for oil in the Arctic, thereby exacerbating the very climate change that is leading to the destruction of the Arctic ecosystem in the first place, as well as leading to global catastrophic climate change if the Arctic oil drilling goes ahead unrestrained!

Walking past peaceful ruins – thinking of present ruins

Of ecosystems, climate systems, ocean systems –

Past blends with present and future concerns.

Everything passes away, even empires,

But now even history may pass away –

Strange, the urge to record the end of history endures…