Drones, Heathrow and non-violence

By Zeeshan Hasan

A few days ago, XR made the headlines for planning to stop Heathrow with drones.

I am finding it difficult to express how disappointed I was by this, especially after having spent a significant amount of time and effort editing the XR blog for the last few months. Like many others, I was drawn to XR precisely because it promised to be a non-violent movement to prevent climate breakdown.

Saying that drones will be flown in a busy airport implicitly threatens violence, just like a mugger who says “hand me your wallet or I will shoot”. There may well be no explicit violence, if the mugged person hands over their wallet; but there is obviously an implicit threat of violence which brought about the action of handing over the wallet. That’s why mugging cannot be called non-violent, and is both immoral and a crime. By the same logic, if airport authorities cancel or postpone flights because of threats of flying drones, they are acting under a threat of violence which is simply immoral and unacceptable on the part of an organisation like XR.

XR should be always claiming the moral high ground of saving all life on earth; it simply cannot threaten violence and maintain this moral high ground. This Heathrow strategy to me is simply the undoing of all that XR stands for.

I hope that XR people reconsider this strategy. For my part, I have to say that I can no longer be associated with a group that would entertain such violent and immoral strategies. This will be my last blog post.

Will we collapse like Easter Island?

By Zeeshan Hasan

The spectacular statues of Easter Island, a sparsely populated Pacific isle which is seemingly so desolate that there are not even any large trees on it, have been a mystery for centuries. How could an island of a few thousand people produce hundreds of such statues, the largest of which are 33 feet tall and weigh 82 tons? This question inspired Erich Von Daniken, a best-selling author of the 1970s, to speculate that the statues were erected by aliens from outer space. The real story of the statues and the people who carved them are the subject of the first chapter of Jared Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Survive’. Diamond is professor of Geography at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of several award-winning books on the impact of the physical world on human history. His Easter Island history turns out to have profound environmental lessons for us even today.

Diamond points out that archaeologists have proved that Easter Island was once very different from today; before being colonised by people, it was covered with forest typical of other sub-tropical Pacific islands. Once settled by explorers who arrived by canoe from other islands, it seemed to present itself as a hospitable place, and the human population expanded rapidly. Incidentally, this solves the mystery of the statues; a population several times bigger could more reasonably be expected to erect such monuments. However, unknown to the new settlers, the soil of Easter Island was much less fertile than that of other islands that they had lived on. This infertility manifested itself in slower tree growth. Thus when the Easter Islanders cut down trees for firewood, houses and deep-sea canoes, they did this at a rate which may have been sustainable on other islands that their ancestors had lived on; but on Easter Island it brought disaster. As the population grew, people cut down more trees for firewood and canoes. Canoes were necessary as dolphin-hunting provided a large portion of the animal protein in the diet (along with wild birds and other small animals from the forest). But once the forest cover was removed, the exposed land eroded quickly in the rain and wind. Crop yields decreased, and the islanders’ solution was apparently to cut down more trees to plant more crops and build more canoes for dolphin-hunting. As a result, within a few centuries the island was completely deforested. Without trees, there were no more wild birds or animals to hunt, except rats. With no more wood available for canoes, dolphin meat was also no longer available. The islanders descended into famine, war and cannibalism (unfortunately, human meat was one of few remaining sources of animal protein). Two-thirds of the population perished in this terrible manner.

Diamond describes other societies that collapsed primarily due to environmental difficulties, including several more Pacific islands, the Norse colony in Greenland, the native Anasazi culture of the southwestern US, the central American Maya civilisation and modern Rwanda. He also presents the case of Japan, which came close to such a fate but managed to avoid it thanks to intelligent decisions and good leadership.

There is a lesson for us here: in these times of global warming, it may be comforting to believe that our leaders can be trusted to sort everything out, and that humanity would never allow itself to be destroyed. But such a faith would be unfounded; many previous societies have thought this way, and failed. Long-term survival requires a real understanding of the limitations of our environment and a strong political will to live within those limits. Like the first settlers of Easter Island, we find ourselves in a new, unknown environment; namely an industrialised 21st century world with greenhouse gas levels higher than they have ever been in human history. We no longer need to colonise a new island to experience unfamiliar environmental conditions; our carbon dioxide emissions are altering the climate of our whole planet, which will bring unpredictable new risks for everyone. The lesson of Easter Island should make us think on the failure of our own leaders to take real action to prevent catastrophic climate change, even though the latest IPCC report said that only 11 years remain to prevent catastrophic global warming of more than 1.5 C.


Global warming will cause “Climate wars”

By Zeeshan Hasan

Climate Wars: The Fight For Survival As The World Overheats by Gwynne Dyer investigates the worst case scenarios of global warming, via studies done by and interviews of risk-assessment professionals at the Pentagon and defence policy think tanks. It does not make for reassuring reading. As the world heats up, the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Asia, Africa, Central America and South America are likely to become hotter and more arid; this is likely to decrease agricultural productivity and food production in these densely populated regions. The outcome could be a new age of warfare.
One possible location for conflict identified by Dyer is South Asia, where many of Pakistan’s rivers are reliant on sources in the Indian Himalayas. Due to global warming, the overall climate of the region is likely to become more dry and arid. This could spark increasing tension between India and Pakistan over the water in their shared rivers, possibly ultimately resulting in warfare between these two nuclear-armed states. This analysis of conflict potential also holds true for India and Bangladesh; however, since Bangladesh is not a nuclear power, the prospect of nuclear warfare between these two countries does not arise.
Another frightening possibility is of a Russia-China war. China is likely to become hotter and drier as global warming progresses. This is likely to affect water availability and agriculture, a major concern for a country of over a billion people. This may fuel expansionism on the part of China with the goal of controlling more land for food production. Any such expansionism might result in warfare with Russia, the dominant power among the ex-Soviet republics in the region.
These concerns seem remote in today’s world, where the worst case scenario for a bad crop in any country is increased food imports. However, the worst case scenarios of global warming inevitably involve a hotter, drier globe with less productive agriculture closer to the equator. In this scenario, it is not clear where the required shortfall in food will be produced, and whether there will be enough to go around. It seems that we may be living in an age of plenty which will be cut short by climate change. Life on a warmed globe means an age of scarcity, and increased risks of conflict.
By far the best outcome for everyone would be if governments around the world prevented global warming by real measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions. This requires taxes on fossil fuel use, and reinvesting the tax proceeds in renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Unfortunately, the governments of the world are still dragging their feet rather than taking real action, even though the UN IPCC report of 2018 made clear that there are now only 11 years left to cut carbon emissions and prevent potentially catastrophic warming of more than 1.5degrees Celsius. Further delay could well doom us to a future of climate warfare.

Burning coal, oil and gas may cause sudden, extreme climate change

By Zeeshan Hasan

It is scientifically established that our burning of fossil fuels and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions will result in global warming, and ultimately may cause dangerous climate change. But how fast can that happen? The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change And Our Future by climatologist Richard B. Alley, explores climate scientists’ answers to these questions. The author is Professor of Geo-sciences at the Pennsylvania State University in the USA.

Alley is one of the climate scientists who has spent years collecting and analysing ice cores; these are long samples of ancient ice which have been extracted from the two mile thick Greenland ice cap. This massive layer of ice has been forming for over 100,000 years, and is an repository of historical evidence to climate scientists. The snow deposited each year is still visible as layers in the ice, and these annual layers preserve much chemical information from which scientists can extract a record of past snowfall and temperature. Of particular importance is what the ice cores have revealed of the end of the “Younger Dryas” ice age.

‘At the beginning of this book, we met the Younger Dryas, the last cold gasp of the ice age between about 12,800 and 11,500 years ago… Standing in the science trench in Greenland, I measured how thick the annual layers were in the [ice] core across the end of the Younger Dryas. I found that… many thick layers were followed by one slightly thinner layer, one scarcely more than half as thick, one scarcely more than half as thick, another slightly thinner than that, then a lot of similarly thin ones grouped around a spike of thicker ones. This is most directly explained as a twofold change in three years, with most of that change in one year… So I cannot insist that the climate changed in one year, but it certainly looks that way.’ (pages 110-111).

So science tells us that very significant climate change can occur in just a handful of years. Similar warming may well be in store for us, given that our carbon emissions are changing the atmosphere far more rapidly than any natural process has in the past. Alley proceeds to give details of the sudden, extreme temperature change that occurred at the end of Younger Dryas ice age:

The most direct interpretation… is that the surface of Greenland warmed by about 15 F (8 degrees Celsius) in a decade or less. (page 112)

This should frighten us. This sort of warming today would mean the end of the world as we know it. Climatologists estimate global warming of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius today would render most of the world too hot for agriculture (except a narrow northern band comprising Canada, northern Europe, Russia and Siberia). Widespread famine, starvation and war would be the norm. The vast majority of humanity would almost certainly perish.

Alley’s conclusions regarding the climate change which ended the Younger Dryas ice age should serve as a wake-up call. The reason that no action has been taken by governments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and stop global warming is that climate change is assumed to be something that will happen very slowly, and thus only impact the distant future. However, this assumption is questionable given the findings of the 2018 UN IPCC report, which said that there was only 12 years left to drastically reduce fossil fuel use to prevent global warming of more than 1.5C. The scientific record of the Greenland ice cores shows that when climate change does occur, it can be both quick and extreme. In that case it is not just nameless future generations that our carbon emissions endanger. Rather, our addiction to fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas may well sacrifice the lives of our own children and grandchildren. All of us who wish for a better future than this need to start lobbying our governments and continuously demanding that elected officials quickly replace fossil fuels with solar and wind power.

The science of global warming

By Zeeshan Hasan
Unfortunately, many people still doubt the dangers of global warming and climate change. In particular, elected politicians intent on avoiding unpopular carbon taxes and higher fuel prices continue to assert that the relevant scientific issues are doubtful. The fact is that the non-scientist public has been deceived by a large number of books and newspaper articles by ‘skeptics’ of climate change who themselves often have no understanding of the science involved. Fortunately, a glimpse into the real world of climate science is available through Global Warming: Understanding The Forecast by David Archer, an ocean chemistry professor at the University of Chicago. Archer’s book is an introductory climate science text which aims to make the basics of climate science comprehensible to any one with a high school background in science.
The basic science of how carbon dioxide emissions raise global temperatures is outlined by Archer. On the one hand, the earth is constantly being heated by sunlight. On the other hand, the Earth is also cooled by loss of heat into space as infrared radiation. These two continuous mechanisms of heat gain and heat loss by the Earth result in a thermal equilibrium at the average global temperatures which we experience.
Heat gain from the sun is relatively constant, varying only slowly over time; however, heat loss into space has been reduced significantly by humans over the last century. Atmospheric ‘greenhouse gases’ such as carbon dioxide have the property of absorbing the infrared radiation which carries heat from the earth into space, and thus reduce the cooling of the earth. This effect of carbon dioxide is called the Greenhouse effect; it was discovered over a century ago and is undisputed. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been continuously burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, and thus adding huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This has resulted in an increase of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere from 320 parts per million in 1960 to about 400 parts per million today, or about 20%. This additional carbon dioxide functions like a blanket or greenhouse around the planet, slowing down loss of heat into space. If the same amount of solar heat comes into the Earth, while simultaneously heat loss from the Earth to space is reduced by additional carbon dioxide, then the Earth has to get warmer. At a higher temperature the Earth’s heat loss by radiation into space increases, because hotter objects lose more heat through infrared radiation than cooler ones; and the planet once more reaches a stable temperature.
A good analogy to the above is a pot of food simmering on an oven above a low flame; putting the lid on the pot does not change heat gain from the oven, but reduces heat loss through evaporation from the open pot and thus makes the food cook at a higher temperature. Our carbon dioxide emissions are effectively putting a lid on the earth, making heat from the sun ‘cook’ the planet at a higher temperature.
The question is whether a hotter stable temperature of the globe would be one capable of sustaining human life as we know it. Climate scientists have evidence from ancient ocean sediments that increasing the level of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere can cause temperatures to rise. Such an event took place 55 million years ago, when thousands of billions of tons of greenhouses gases were released into the atmosphere (probably because of a peak in volcanic activity). This event is known as the Permian Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During the PETM, global average temperature rose by about 5 degrees C and 90% of life on the planet perished. Such an increase in global average temperature today would have terrible consequences, rendering much of tropical and sub-tropical Asia, Africa, central America and southern Europe too hot and dry for agriculture. The consequences would be famine on a scale never seen before, and billions of deaths.
Dangerous global heating events like the PETM may seem distant and irrelevant. But as a comparison, burning all world’s known reserves of coal would release about 5000 billion tons of carbon dioxide, comparable to the surge in greenhouse gases which caused the PETM. Our current course is to exploit not only existing coal reserves but also oil and gas. So it is entirely within our power to destroy our planet.
Continuing our current policies of exploiting all fossil fuels available will literally ensure the end of the Earth as we know it. The only way to stop it is to keep fossil fuels in the ground and switch to solar, wind or nuclear power, none of which emit carbon dioxide. This will require worldwide imposition of carbon taxes to raise fuel prices and make investment in alternative energy feasible. The leaders of all countries need to make some hard decisions, which they have failed to do in 20 years of climate negotiations. They will only do so now if the public demands it of them. The public now needs to make their voices heard loudly and persistently to force politicians to reduce fossil fuel use.

How ‘Merchants of doubt’ fooled the public about climate change

By Zeeshan Hasan

In 1988, Dr. James Hansen, senior climate scientist at NASA, testified to the US Senate that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels was a serious threat. Yet for 30 years the world did practically nothing, and both greenhouse gas emissions and global warming continued. Global inactivity was largely due to successive US governments pretending that the science of global warming was still uncertain and not worth the expense of reducing coal, oil and gas use. The intentional ignorance of climate science on the part of the American politicians was encouraged by a small group of right-wing scientists who were not specialists in climate change, but were rather driven by ideological opposition to the increased government regulation that would obviously be required to tackle issues such as global warming. Reluctance of US authorities to consider reducing fossil fuel use resulted in all other countries refusing to to act as well. How this happened is the subject of Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
Oreskes, a professor of history of science at Harvard University, points out that a number of the prominent scientific advisors of the US government (recurring names are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg) started their careers in nuclear weapons and missile research in the midst of Cold War conflicts with Russia. Thus these scientists were reflexively anti-Communist and inclined to oppose any scientific research that made a case for more government regulation; they saw such regulations as a sign of the socialism which they had opposed all their careers growing within the US. Hence this small but influential group of senior scientific advisors continuously opposed emerging scientific findings that tobacco caused cancer, that industrial pollution caused acid rain, and finally that dangerous climate change would be caused by burning coal, oil and gas. Unfortunately, these anti-regulation/pro-market scientists found support in the fossil fuel industry, various pro-market media and think tanks, and various US politicians whose political campaigns received money from coal/oil/gas companies. The result was that the science of global warming and climate change was perceived by the media, the government and the public as contested for decades after a scientific consensus on these issues was in fact established. Due to these manufactured doubts, government policy was slow to accept the scientific evidence on the danger of man-made global warming.
Of the various scientific issues discussed by Oreskes, climate change has by far the biggest impact on humanity as a whole and thus also created the most resistance amongst anti-regulation scientists, corporate lobby groups and politicians. Reading Oreskes’ book, one sees how naïve it is to expect that worldwide government policies regarding global warming would be simply be decided based on scientific evidence. The fact is that the political systems which have been established to govern democratic countries are not set up to make decisions based on science. Rather they are set up to encourage politicians to make decisions based on the likelihood of winning the next election. Multinational coal, oil and gas companies have more than enough money to make political donations big enough to legally “buy” political support for their industries in spite of dire scientific warnings. The public has largely been deceived by fake science produced by non-specialists in climate change presenting themselves as ‘experts’ and muddying up the waters with doubt. Oreskes’ book has also been made into an informative film.
The past 30 years has shown that voters around the world, and especially in the US, have not been sufficiently informed of the dangers of catastrophic global warming which could cause worldwide water shortage, crop failures and famines resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths if left unchecked. Fossil fuel companies and anti-regulation scientists and politicians have taken advantage of the lack of knowledge of climate science among the public to deceive and endanger us all. Hopefully this will change as the media and the public wake up to the threat of global warming. Only the tireless activism of all members of the public can change the cycle of misinformation and election of climate-skeptic politicians. Otherwise the world will continue getting hotter, and our children might grow up to inherit a climate running amok.

Global warming and mass extinction of life on Earth

By Zeeshan Hasan

underagreensky

Climate change is usually pictured in terms of rising sea levels and increased storm and drought; but science has revealed that it bears further threats. These previously unknown dangers of climate change are the focus of Peter D. Ward’s book, “Under a Green Sky: Global warming, the mass extinctions of the past, and what they can tell us about our future”. Ward is a professor of biology and earth and space sciences at the University of Washington at Seattle, and also works at Nasa. He is one of the biologists whose analysis of the fossil record has helped scientists understand what caused the numerous mass extinctions that have occurred during the history of life on earth.

The most famous of earlier mass extinctions was the one which wiped out the dinosaurs; thirty years ago, scientists confirmed it was the result of an asteroid hitting the earth. Following that great discovery, scientists for years assumed that all the other mass extinctions were similarly the result of asteroid impacts. However, geologists were ultimately unable to find any evidence for those supposed asteroids. Apparently, the extinction of the dinosaurs was unique, and a different explanation was necessary for the remaining mass extinctions. This was ultimately found to be global warming due to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It turns out that large quantities of carbon dioxide can be released by volcanic activity; this is especially likely in major tectonic events such as when the Indian subcontinent collided with Eurasia (creating the Himalayas).

Ward’s book investigates the mechanism by which global warming caused mass extinctions such as the end-Permian extinction event, which destroyed 95% of life on earth 250 million years ago. Scientists have found that most mass extinctions were marked by the release of huge amounts of hydrogen sulphide gas, which is the smelly, poisonous gas released by rotten eggs. The hydrogen sulphide would have been created by an oxygen-free “Canfield ocean” (named after the scientist who discovered it), a condition similar to that which now exists in the Black Sea. Canfield oceans occur when global warming melts too much polar ice, releasing so much cold water that the normal ocean currents which circulate water from deep to shallow and keep the oceans oxygen-rich are disrupted. Once this happens, the oxygen-breathing fish and other sea creatures quickly consume all the oxygen left in the water and then suffocate. The remaining oxygen-free water can sustain only anaerobic purple bacteria which require no oxygen to live; by filling up the ocean, these bacteria would also turn the ocean purple.

Anaerobic purple bacteria in a Canfield ocean produce massive quantities of hydrogen sulphide gas, which then bubbles to the surface and poisons animals on land. Hydrogen sulphide also damages the ozone layer, exposing the remaining animals and plants to deadly levels of ultraviolet rays from the sun (as a minor side effect, hydrogen sulphide from a Canfield ocean would also turn the sky green; hence the title of the book). Thus global warming has caused mass extinctions on both land and sea which can only be described as apocalyptic.

How far away is this? We don’t know exactly how much polar ice has to melt to create a Canfield ocean and another mass extinction, but we do know the following:
“Using [current carbon dioxide emission] rates, which work out to about 120 parts per million per century, we might expect carbon dioxide levels to hit 500 to 600 parts per million by the year 2100. That would be the same carbon dioxide levels that were most recently present sometime in the past 40 million years — or more relevant, it would be equivalent to times when there was little or no ice even at the poles.” (Pages 164-5)

In other words, by the year 2100, within two or three generations, carbon dioxide levels will be high enough to virtually ensure another polar melt. This could possibly set into motion a Canfield ocean and mass extinction which humanity may not survive.

Our only chance to avoid this apocalyptic future is to stop using fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and gas, and replace them completely within a few decades with nuclear, wind and solar. This is the only way to prevent further polar ice melting and a Canfield ocean-created mass extinction. Unfortunately politicians and the public are in a state of scientific ignorance and denial of climate change. Anyone who cares about the survival of humanity beyond the next century needs to take action to stir the public from it’s state of inertia.