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The capture and the long-term storage of CO2 is now central to plans for reducing CO2 emissions from large-scale fossil fuel uses. But new and controversial research argues the storage potential of CO2 may have been overestimated.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) involves the capture of the greenhouse gas CO2 produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. The captured and compressed CO2 is then transported to a location for long-term storage. While several proposals for the storage phase exist, geological storage has received the most attention. This is partly because it is believed to have the least logistical constraints.
While discrete components of a geological CCS system are mature, there is a broad consensus [subscription required] that significant technological and cost improvements are necessary for commercial CCS deployment. But in the absence of large-scale CCS demonstration plants, the technology is still surrounded by a haze of uncertainty such as cost and speed of deployment.
Adding to these uncertainties, a new study published in The Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering argues the potential for geological storage has been significantly overestimated. The results have prompted a very public and highly technical spat. A large body of experts from industry and academia have now contested the paper’s claims. Read the rest of this entry »
Jokes about climate change used to be in short supply, but fortunately climate “sceptics”* rectified all that. Here’s Richard Glover of the Sydney Morning Herald:
Do climate-change sceptics have the same attitude to other pieces of expert advice? When their car develops a fault and the local mechanic says the brake pads are shot, do they seek a second opinion? And having been told by the second mechanic that, yes, the brake pads are shot, do they then trawl around town until on the 99th visit, they strike a mechanic who says “no, the brake pads are fine”? And then driving at high speed up the F3, do they entrust their lives to this last opinion?
No. Because it would be mental.
What happens when Maurice Newman, climate agnostic and ABC chairman, goes to the doctor? Does he storm from the office when they diagnose chickenpox and seek second, third and 99th opinions until he finds a doctor who will give him the all clear? And does he then decry the first 98 doctors as victims of “group-think”?
No. Because it would be mental.
* The word “sceptic” can only be used euphemistically when describing those people who think anthropogenic climate change is some sort of massive hoax. They are, in fact, embarrassingly gullible: happily accepting whatever half-truths and distortions that have been put about by libertarian think-tanks and PR firms employed by fossil fuel dependent industry. True scepticism is the lifeforce of scientific enquiry, include climatology. The Royal Society’s motto is Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it.
Like a bad disaster film, the naysayers have been in charge over climate change. It’s not too late to rewrite the final scenes.
Every disaster movie has a stock character – the person who tells everyone else that there’s nothing to worry about. Shark? There’s no shark. What could possibly go wrong with that tower block, ship, plane, volcano, dinosaur safari park or paramilitary robot cop with a slightly psychopathic glint in its eye?
Such “don’t worry” confidence is always bullish and reassuring. The motives are mostly financial: to open in time for the holiday season or launch the product ahead of a few safety checks. People fall for it, of course, because they want to believe that things will be OK, that their plans won’t have to change. It always ends badly. In the battered landscapes as the final credits roll, there is little doubt that a false-negative diagnosis costs vastly more than a little healthy caution.
So, how lucky do we feel about the climate threat to civilisation? With a few important exceptions, the media swallowed spin and insinuation from peddlers of doubt about its seriousness, without ever holding them to remotely the same standard of evidence demanded of climate scientists. As a result, he time for meaningful action is shrinking just as fewer appear convinced of the need to act.
There is a fine line between noble self-interrogation (generally a good thing) and liberal self-flagellation (generally pointless, painful and scarring). Why is it that so many avowedly progressive people are drawn anxiously, like moths to the flames of even their most wild-eyed critics? Meanwhile, the latter sail on, blithely unconcerned by doubt or evidence.
And yet what has really changed since the strange convulsion of “sceptics’ hour”? It allowed a peculiar release of tension after the relative failure of much-hyped international negotiations. Then, it slowly dawned on the media that science always was about probabilities, not certainties, and decisions still had to be made on these. A huge, obfuscating dust cloud of doubt was kicked up, but now that it has settled, the landscape is the same, the basic science unaltered. There’s just a lot of grit in people’s eyes. Climate change is still real, happening and without radical action could, in a few short years, move into a phase whereby it becomes very difficult to reverse.
At least, and modestly reassuring, the world is already moving on. For, example, could there be a more symbolic act than GM’s decision to close its factory making the petrol-hungry Hummer, especially after China, rising economic power and its last hope for rescue, pulled out of the deal?
Elsewhere, business as usual no longer goes unquestioned. American web giant Facebook recently announced plans for a massive, energy-intensive new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. When it became clear that coal power plants would help provide its electricity, around 20,000 people formed a group on Facebook, calling on the company to use 100% clean energy with the strapline “We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy“.
Whatever people may say to pollsters, at a deeper level, the need for change is altering expectations for people, companies and governments. The fact that public attitudes seemed to change quickly in the wrong direction also means that they are volatile and could flip again. Perversely, we maybe in the last hurrah of the sceptics, and closer to a positive tipping point in attitude than it seems. Even with plenty on his plate, President Barack Obama took time out to explain the difference between weather and climate systems after heavy snowfall in North America (but melting ice at the winter Olympics).
Students of the disaster film genre won’t be surprised. Generally they adhere to a reliable story arc. In the first act, all seems well until a prescient few stumble across evidence of impending disaster. In the second act they get ignored. False reassurance (often with dubious motives) wins the day. Then, bad things happen. In the final act, with all hell breaking loose, the siren voices are either silenced or left quivering in the face of their own foolhardiness. Some kind of sense wins out.
Real life, though, is a movie whose script we have to write for ourselves. And here we are, stuck in the second act, with the bad things just beginning to happen. Quick, grab the keyboard, the floor’s beginning to shake, we’ve got 81 months, and counting…
In response to the recent media hysteria, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a news statement last week outlining their role and assessment process. This restated the ‘comprehensive, objective, open and transparent’ principles that guide the IPCC reviews. These principles seem to fit within a broader movement towards ‘evidence-based policy and practice’. This movement is characterised by a belief that sound evidence should inform policy and practice decisions. This seems to make sense on a very basic level. I am sure that we would all like to think that our governments are making decisions based on sound evidence (whether they are or not is another question). Indeed, the ongoing media focus on climate change research seems to suggest that we have a healthy obsession with ensuring that research feeds into our collective decision making.
Placed at the centre of the evidence-based movement is the systematic review. This represents a tool for summarizing and appraising research in a systematic and transparent way. The systematic review originated in the health field where studies about the effectiveness of a particular drug were gathered together to identify whether a particular drug did or didn’t work. For those who are interested, Ben Goldacre gave a simple and quick introduction to this on Radio 4. Whilst the IPCC report is not a systematic review, the procedures followed by the Panel seem to uphold some of its principles. As the recent news statement confirms, a standard set of procedures are followed using explicit and transparent methods. The reports aim to identify and appraise natural and social science research relevant to the climate change debate. The resulting outputs are then relevant and useful for policy makers (for example, producing Summaries for Policy Makers). It is this approach that gives us confidence that research forms the basis of the conclusions drawn by the IPCC.
Yet, it is important to recognise that the IPCC reports, as with any piece of research, can be improved. There is always scope to strengthen our understanding of climate change and its effects. After all, research and knowledge is not static but constantly evolving. This view seems to form part of the concerns expressed yesterday by Lu Xuedu, a Chinese climatologist. He suggests that the next IPCC report needs to incorporate more research from a wider range of sources (including more research produced from the developing world). The comprehensive, open and transparent nature of the IPCC procedures mean that it is completely possible and desirable to do this. This provides me, and hopefully you, with the confidence that our collective knowledge about climate change is, and will continue to be, evidence based. Whether this translates into policy is another question…
The world is not run according to climate science. Amid the almost hysterical jeering since the Copenhagen climate summit, it’s a fact worth remembering. If things were done with one eye carefully checking the planet’s ecological engines and the resource levels in its fuel tank, it would look very different The largest indoor snow park in the world would not, for example, be in the roasting Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai. Public transport would be quick and cheap, and Richard Branson would be an unknown gardener, quietly cycling back and forth to his organically-run allotment.
Yet fear of the likely adjustments needed to halt dangerous climate change seems to fuel the vitriol of the vociferous minority attacking climate science. It’s odd when you think what those changes might be. A cartoon currently going around sums it up. An academic-type gives a lecture, listing the outcomes of climate action: energy independence, clean water, clean air, green jobs, liveable cities, healthy children etc etc, while a man in the audience blusters, “But what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
And, it’s not, of course, a hoax. The basic chemistry of global warming has been understood and remained unchanged for around 200 years. Stories concerning the science in recent weeks have been of the type, “how long can you hold your breath?” Not “can we actually breathe underwater?” At the same time, observed trends on greenhouse gas emissions, measured since the last major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveal the opposite of scaremongering.
If anything, the IPCC has been too conservative, having underestimated how quickly we would be pushed toward dangerous change. Actual carbon emissions have been beyond even their “most fossil-fuel-intensive scenario”. Crowing over the inclusion in its last report of an erroneous date for the melting of Himalayan glaciers drowned out a new report from the World Glacier Monitoring Service, that detailed an “unbroken acceleration in melting” of glaciers around the world.
Sadly, right now, the climate change deniers have little to fear. We have no policies or actions remotely equal to the threat. Why is that? It is partly because the world is not run in respect of basic, well-understood physical laws. It is run according to the dictates of an altogether more variable discipline, economics, whose insights and proposals are subject to a weaker scrutiny. The real world ticks reliably according to the laws on thermodynamics and the conservation of energy. Such consistency cannot be claimed for the notion that a deregulated, greed-driven approach is the most efficient way to organise banking. But what if economic policy was subject to the same standard of evidence and review as climate science?
What would natural science make of the assumptions underlying mainstream economic models? They include the classic assertions that we are all perfectly rational, make choices that are unaffected by the behaviour of others, and that we have “perfect information”, knowing everything important there is to know. Or there’s the one in which an infinite number of small firms compete in open markets with no barriers to entry (think Walmart, Microsoft, Amazon, Tesco, Google). And the idea that consumption can grow infinitely on a finite planet.
Orthodox economics is based on simplifications that so distort the real world as to make it unrecognisable, yet its basic tenets are credulously repeated on an almost daily basis in national newspapers and on television news. A genuinely evidence-based approach to economic policymaking would not produce a system remotely like the one we have, the business-as-usual version that many climate sceptics seem so eager to defend. Given its task, the vast range of subjects covered, the thousands of scientists involved, and the sheer size of its reports, what’s stunning about the IPCC’s work is that comparing it to any economic analysis used to actually run the world is like comparing the complete Oxford English Dictionary to a guide to slang published by the Sunday Sport.
Elsewhere, some voices have called for there to be a separate climate sceptics’ report. On one hand, this misses the point. If the sceptics’ science was good enough to be published in decent, peer-reviewed journals, it would be considered alongside everything else by the IPCC. But on the other hand, subjecting the deniers to the same degree of rigorous review as everyone else is a rather delicious prospect. If that was done, the final report would likely be short indeed.
And, on current trends, it is still the case that by the end of the year 2016, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will make it unlikely that we’ll stay below the critical 2°C temperature rise. It’s 82 months and counting…
But what can blogging really do for climate change? Well, for a start, it provides a means for climate scientists to connect directly to a popular audience, without having to rely on the press and broadcast media. Ben Goldacre, doctor and author of Bad Science, has argued that more scientists should be blogging to increase public understanding. Fortunately, in the field of climate science there are some excellent blogs out there.
For dataheads, there’s no beating RealClimate, a strictly science-only blog run by five professional climate scientists, working at leading universities and scientific institutions, including the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The RealClimate guys don’t get involved in politics or economics, but they’re keen debunkers of pseudoscience nonsense that abounds in the climate denialosphere.
Then there’s Climate Progress, written by the unstoppable Joseph Fromm, who holds a Ph.D in Physics and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Joe goes beyond science to think about the political and economic solutions we need, and remains upbeat about the possibility of global climate deal at Copenhagen. His coverage of the US climate bill is second to none, and his rebuttals of climate blunders are hilarious as well as definitive. I especially recommend his take on the new book from the authors of Freakonomics. Climate Progress really is one of the best blogs around, climate-related or otherwise.
At nef, we’ve always believed that only a cultural paradigm shift will stop climate change, and deliver the economy we really need. That’s why we’ve made the arts such a vital part of The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence. My final climate-related blog recommendation is that of the RSA’s Arts and Ecology project. Every book, exhibition, film or social movement relating to climate change and other environmental issues gets clocked here. Well worth a visit.
So there’s my contribution to Blog Action Day. Sending our precious readers elsewhere. Go off and explore, but be sure to come back to the nef blog. There are big plans afoot!
In the first of what may or may not be a regular ‘column’, I’d like to engage in a little bit of what humanities academics call ‘discourse analysis’: a close reading of a particular piece of text, in this case from yesterday’s leading article in The Times. The article is about the meeting of Nobel Laureates convened by the Prince of Wales to discuss solutions to climate change. The full text can be found here, but I am going to zoom in on a small part of it, take it apart and see what exactly is going on. Here goes:
We need our scientists to lay out, brutally if necessary, the scale of the problem. And we need them to apply all their ingenuity and inventiveness to the putative technological responses to the climate change. The best hope for man will be found in a laboratory, not on a soapbox.
But we also need economists. At present, it is too easy to see capitalism and environmentalism as natural enemies. Yet it is only by harnessing the power of capitalism, by finding a way of painting the age-old and inescapable laws of supply and demand green, that we will find sustainability. Man’s story is one of the pursuit of, and defence of, natural resources and riches. An economic template based solely on a self-denying frugality that goes against Man’s nature will not provide a lasting solution to the problem.
Now for the dissection. Let’s take it step by step.
1. “We need our scientists to lay out […] the scale of the problem.”
The leader author quite rightly says that scientists – climate experts – are the people with who should give us the diagnosis of the problem we face. This is, of course, what environmentalists have been saying for decades, and I completely agree. But the author of this article then makes a jump in logic: the unspoken assumption here is that if the diagnosis of the climate problem is scientific and thus requiring complicated things like computer models, weather satellites and paleoclimatological equipment in the Arctic, then the solution must also be scientific – which this author rather dubiously sees as synonymous with “technological” – and thus requiring complicated things like carbon capture and storage, ocean fertilization and so on. But the jump from the if to the then is not a clear one.
Imagine that you go to the doctor and you are told that you are overweight. You expect that because your doctor is a trained scientist she will be able to provide you with a scientifically tried and tested technology to alleviate your condition: a pill, perhaps, or an injection. Maybe even some good old-fashioned liposuction. But to your surprise, the doctor simply tells you to get more exercise, to lay off fatty, sugary and processed foods, and to eat more fruit and vegetables. There is, she says, no magic pill which will allow you to keep consuming at your current rate. Scientific diagnosis, yes, but no technological cure. Likewise, there is no technology that can fix climate change while allowing us to continue to live Western industrialised, consumer lifestyles. We have to detox and diet, and there is no way around that.
Today sees the launch of the government’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. nef‘s Centre for Well-being contributed two significant discussion papers to this project, which are also published today.
In Five Ways to Well-being, we reviewed the empirical evidence collected by Foresight from hundreds of research studies across the world. The outcome is a set of five different kinds of daily activity that, according to the latest and best evidence available, promote well-being and help to buffer against mental health difficulties.
With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a phsyical activity you enjoy and one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.
Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.
Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thanks someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
Our second discussion paper, somewhat less glamorous but no less worthy, explored the applications of well-being research to policy. If we are to take well-being seriously as a policy goal, we need to have a robust understanding of what it is and how to go about measuring it. In the paper we describe a new, policy-relevant schematic model of well-being that we are delighted to see has found its may into the main Foresight report.
Instead of worshipping the invisible, and usually remote, hand of the market economy (which too often can be caught picking the pockets of the poor), you design an economic system in which resources flow and circulate effectively to serve the invisible heart of the core economy – made up of family, neighbourhood, community and civil society.
Orthodox free market economists often like to portray their discipline as being as objective and impartial as any of the natural sciences. Milton Friedman once argued that economics should be considered an ‘exact science’, like chemistry, physics or medicine.
But when free market principles have pushed us into financial meltdown and are stoking the fires of global climate change, practitioners of those ‘exact sciences’ are rejecting the Friedmanite orthodoxies of deregulation and unrestricted growth. This week’s NewScientist is a case in point. It features a special report on the economy, with contributions from the likes of Herman Daly, David Suzuki and nef‘s own Andrew Simms.
The conclusion? We need a steady-state economy, with upper limits on wages and a drastically reduced financial sector. If we want the planet to continue sustaining human life, then we must steer the economy away from growth and ever-increasing production of consumer goods.
Susan George’s article will be of particular interest to Green New Deal fans. She calls for a Roosevelt-style reshaping of the economy along the lines of ‘ecological Keynesianism’.
Perhaps it’s worth remembering that history is littered with human pursuits which failed to qualify as real science. Alchemy. Phrenology. Astrology. If the ‘dismal science‘ doesn’t change quickly, it’ll be the next on the list.