The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge marks its 200th anniversary this year, and has a small exhibition of prints connected by that date: some from Turner’s print series Liber Studiorum, of British and European landscapes, some from Goya’s bullfighting series La tauromaquia, and Peter Cornelius’ Faust series.
1816 was also “the year without a summer”, following the vast volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. According to the curators’ notes for the exhibition, written by Elenor Ling and Amy Marquis,
swathes of volcanic gas were thrust 40km skywards into the stratosphere, far above any rainclouds that could have sped up their dispersal. These gases and particles circled the planet and played havoc with the world’s weather systems.
Over at the excellent Global Dashboard, Alex Evans has a post reflecting on the things he and David Stevens called wrong (and less wrong), looking through their development and poverty lens, in the aftermath of the crisis. In a similar spirit, my sometime colleague Ian Christie sent me ‘Ten notes on the crisis’, representing his take on what we’d learnt about economics and politics since 2008. I thought they deserved a wider audience. And so, with his permission, I’m republishing his Ten Notes here. They start below the fold.
I’ve just had a review of The New North published in the APF’s quarterly newsletter, Compass. I’m sharing it here.
As the Arctic ice cover shrinks ever smaller, it seems a good time to review Laurence Smith‘s book The New North, which was well-received when it was published in hardback and has just been published in paperback. It tells four stories about the way in which climate change will re-shape the north of the planet (generously defined as the world north of 45*N) in the decades to 2050.
Smith, a geographer at UCLA, describes the book as “a 2050 thought experiment”, and any futurist would have been pleased to have written it. His building blocks are four long-term global trends – demographics, natural resource demand, globalisation, and climate change. Along the way a fifth intrudes, of “enduring legal frameworks”, that he sees as an outcome but I would regard as a further long-term trend driven by value shifts towards increasingly rights-based political frameworks.
I don’t often use this blog to summarise single articles, but a recent New Scientist has an article in it which is in urgent need of summary (the full article is behind the NS paywall).
The piece, called Global Warning, written by Michael le Page, observes that if the 2007 prognosis of the IPCC was gloomy, the next one ought to be even grimmer. Le Page offers seven reasons why: in a nutshell, our earlier climate change models didn’t have sufficiently strong system-wide feedback loops in them, and despite our knowledge of climate change science we’ve done nothing meaningful to change our behaviour. Here’s a summary of the seven reasons.
“We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it”. Stewart Brand’s brand of eco-pragmatism, spelt out in his new book Whole Earth Discipline, is prefaced with his knowing nod back to the Whole Earth Catalog, this time with added urgency. And being god-like involves solving the accelerating climate and resource crisis by adopting nuclear power, learning to love GM crops, and indulging in quite a lot of geo-engineering. A review by Jon Turney in The Guardian seemed to welcome Brand’s vision of “a new generation of science-led, environmentally aware ecoengineers who recognise that the state of the Earth is now in our hands”. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s worth unravelling some of this. The first point is that as the triple impact of resource scarcity, climate change, and increasing global population becomes more apparent, and as we continue to do little to mitigate them, the clamour for technology-based solutions grows louder. But they’re unlikely to be successful.
Blaise Pascal’s ‘wager’ was a pragmatic response to arguments about religious belief: if you believed and God didn’t exist, you hadn’t lost much, save your Sunday mornings. If you didn’t believe, and God did exist, you would burn in hell. Now there are obvious differences between this and climate change; we simply don’t know if God exists or not, but there is an overwhelming body of science which suggests that climate change is real (and which doesn’t vanish at the stroke of a hacker’s keyboard). But in the face of people who continue to assert that the science is flawed or even the product of conspiracy, the wager seems a good model.
In the Financial Times. columnist Tony Jackson has picked up on the Friends of the Earth report on carbon trading which I blogged about recently.FoE was mostly interested in the efficacy, or not, of carbon trading in driving down emissions, but it also warned that carbon trading could lead to derivative-type problems for the financial system. It’s this aspect which interests Jackson, as a way in to how risk managers should make these sort of assessments. His answer is by three yardsticks – simplicity, liquidity, and leverage.
I blogged a couple of years ago about the Doncaster floods of 2007 being the ‘first 21st century flood‘. The argument was that they had been caused not by high sea levels or accumulated water run-off, but because the water table and local river systems had been unable to absorb the sheer weight of rain that had fallen. There’s an excellent graphic in a story in New Civil Engineer (inserted above, click on it to enlarge) of the Cockermouth flooding which tells exactly the same story. The article also explains why the bridges collapsed.
A short post to note the Friends of the Earth report critiquing carbon trading, “A Dangerous Obsession” (opens in pdf).
In summary, these are the problems:
- It is ineffective at driving emissions reductions.
- It fails to drive technological innovation.
- It leads to lock-in of high-carbon infrastructure.
- It allows for, and relies on, offsetting (rather than promoting carbon reductions).
- It creates a risk of subprime carbon.
- It provides a smokescreen for lack of action on climate finance by the developed world.
New Scientist gave the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson some pages to edit on the theme of fiction, and he wrote an essay on the place of science fiction in creating meaning in the world of 2009, and commissioned eight British SF writers to contribute short pieces on life a hundred years from now. It works as a kind of snapshot of the literary “long imagination”. Without giving too much away, they don’t expect things to turn out well.