Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate: the 9/11 moment has arrived?

Image from "The Atlantic" Magazine

A few weeks ago, I published a post titled "Climate, a 9/11 moment? on Cassandra's legacy. In it, I said that we could experience a "9/11 moment" when:

"Something will happen; something so big, so horrible, so terrifying that people will watch the news in TV while telling themselves: "it is happening now, it is happening to us!

Does Hurricane Sandy fit the description? For sure it has caused the return of climate change in the mainstream news. Enough to qualify as a "9/11 moment?" Perhaps not, but surely we'll have more of these moments in the future. It is going to happen.

h/t Fausto

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cassandra's trap: the case of the six Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter

In a debate that took place in 2008, Mr. Enzo Boschi, professor of seismology at the University of Bologna, made some statements that likely he regretted later on. As recorded in this video (in Italian) he said something that can be translated as, “we made a complex and precise model that shows that this area is not subjected to a large seismic risk. So, you may feel some tremors, but your house will not fall on your head.” Unfortunately, not much later, in April 2009, the region was struck by a major Earthquake that caused several victims.

Stating in public what science says about the risks of global warming is not an experience for the faint hearted. If you ever tried that, you know that you'll be assaulted and abused by legions of commenters who will accuse you, among other things, of being an "alarmist;" with the innuendo that you are saying that in order to bring money to the fat coffers of your research institute. This is something that I often call "Cassandra's curse"

However, in recent times, I started to note a flow, small but increasing, of comments that carry the opposite criticism: "scientists," they say, "have been poor at explaining how things really stand with climate. They didn't do enough to inform us on how serious the situation is". This is something that we could call "Cassandra's trap," the fear of alarming people, of telling of disasters that won't come, in short of looking like an alarmist.

The attitude of playing down risks is something that we recently saw with the case of the six Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter because - the court said - they gave falsely reassuring statements before the quake that struck the region of Abruzzo, in Italy, in 2009.

The international press has been unanimous in criticizing the sentence, sometimes speaking of a "witch hunt,"and citing the case of Galileo Galilei. It may well be that the sentence was too harsh and it is true that earthquakes cannot be predicted. However, some of the statements by the sentenced scientists do look rather questionable - to say the least; especially the one that I have translated from the video, above. It is true that it was to be understood as referred to the seismic risk of a specific drilling project, but the way it was said it seemed to refer to the general seismic risk of the whole region. That could have misled people, indeed. My impression is that Mr. Boschi and his colleagues may have been victim of the "Cassandra's trap;" the fear of being branded as alarmists.

What we do as scientists often looks like a lot of fun. We make experiments, we publish the results, we speak at conferences, and the whole seems to have little to do with the real world. But sometimes we forget that science often deals with very dangerous things and that is true especially in some fields. Seismology is one: people die because of earthquakes. The experts in this field have the responsibility of telling people how things really stand.

The same holds for climate science: people die because of droughts, floods, hurricanes and other consequences of climate change. So, as scientists we have a heavy responsibility in what we say in public. We must be very careful in avoiding to exaggerate the threats we face, but also in not making the opposite mistake: minimizing them. It is not easy but, if we are real professionals, we must be able to tell the truth.

You know, sometimes I have this feeling that some climate scientists, are falling in the Cassandra's trap; that is they have a habit of playing down or not mentioning the risks we face. Considering the tone of some comments that I received, lately, I wonder: will that lead, one day, to some of us being sentenced to jail for manslaughter? Hopefully not, but it is not to early to tell people how things really stand!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Breaking news: hot revelations from the black box of the sunken Costa Concordia

The cruise ship "Costa Concordia" hit a reef in January 2012 and partly sunk in front of the Giglio Island, off the coast of Tuscany in the Mediterranean Sea. There were more than 30 victims among passengers. A criminal trial is in progress in Italy against the ship's captain, Mr. Schettino, and other officers, accused of manslaughter, negligence and incompetence. The following text is translated and adapted from the Italian blog "Attack on Earth"

Breaking news: exclusive revelations from the black box of the "Costa Concordia." What was said on deck during the accident.

- There is no proof that there are reefs in this area.

- Even if there were reefs, there is no proof that they could damage the hull of the ship.

- So what? There have always been reefs in the sea!

- Astronomers have discovered that there are reefs also on Mars and Jupiter!

- The previous captain promised to you to watch out for reefs. I promise to you that the ship restaurants will always serve great meals!

- We have e-mail messages from the Chief Mate that show that officers altered the data to show that the risk from reefs could be larger than what it is in reality.

- Stop looking at that stupid sonar! Why don't you look up, instead? Don't you see all those chemtrails? They keep trying to exterminate us!

- Changing course is expensive. Let's keep going this way; in any case we'll mitigate any possible damage.

- Are we sure that the ship is really sinking?

- After the Great Flood, God didn't let Noah's ark sink. Why should He allow the Costa Concordia to sink?

- The best strategy is always adaptation. After all, most passengers can swim.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Italy implodes

Image: fuel consumption in Italy. Slightly modified from "Mondo Elettrico" (click to enlarge)

In a post that I published in 2008, I wondered whether Italy could survive as an industrialized country with oil over $ 100 per barrel. Four years later, we have seen oil prices going through a cycle of collapse and return to high levels. Italy showed signs of recovery during the low price phase, in 2009, but the last two years with oil at over $ 100 per barrel seem to have hit hard the Italian economic system.

In a post written on the blog "Mondo Elettrico", (in Italian) Massimo de Carlo summarizes the most recent data on fossil fuel consumption in Italy. Let me report a translated summary of the text of a press release of the Italian "Unione Petrolifera" reported in De Carlo's blog:

Automotive fuels have shown the following trends: gasoline has seen a reduction of 18.2% in consumption while diesel fuel has seen a 15.6% reduction, both with respect to September 2011. Summed together, the loss of the two fuels has been of -16.3% with respect to Sept 2011. In this month, the sales of new cars have shown a contraction of  25.5% with respect to Sep 2011. The first nine months of 2012 have seen a contraction of 20,4% in the sales of new cars.

I don't know if you like to define that "decline" or, simply, "collapse". Surely, something bad is going on with Italy and the measures that the government is taking against financial collapse look more and more like the attempt of curing a cough by strangling the patient. Anyway, you can Google-translate De Carlo's post and give a look to more data (to read the figures, note that in Italian benzina stands for gasoline and gasolio for diesel fuel).

Perhaps you also wonder how it feels being in Italy in this period: given the situation, you'd expect to see people going around in ox-driven carts. But I see nothing of that sort in the place where I live, Florence and vicinity. Traffic is normal everywhere, even with the usual traffic jams at rush hours. Perhaps, poorer areas of the country, e.g. in the South, have been hit much harder, but there don't seem to exist reports in the media on this matter.

But there is a curious sensation around. You know, it is like one of those disaster movies; those where you know that the tsunami will arrive, or the dam will burst, or the volcano will erupt right under Los Angeles. Before the catastrophe, you see people worried about their everyday things; oblivious of the impending disaster. And yet, there are ominous signs all over that "something" is going to happen.

In downtown Florence, plenty of shops seem to be either closed or in the verge of closing.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The power of legends

During the past few years, Ryanair has been surrounded by various rumors, including that passengers would have to pay for the use of toilets, that there would be standing up flights, that they will charge extra costs to fat passengers,  that they fix their planes with scotch tape, and more. Most likely, it is all part of a PR campaign aimed at generating interest in Ryanair, but it illustrates the power of legends on the human mind. (image above from CNN)

A few days ago, sitting with some friends at a restaurant, we were chatting about this and that when there came up the subject of how traveling by plane has become crowded and uncomfortable. One of my friends, sitting near me, said, "and, you know, they will also make you travel in the plane while standing up!" I thought she was joking, but I soon realized that she wasn't. She really believed that airlines were planning to transform planes into winged subway cars.

At this point, I made my mistake for the day (I seem to have a ticket book for social faux pas, sometimes I think I have to punch at least one every day). I told her that the story of people standing up in planes is an obvious legend; a publicity stunt destined to create interest in the airline creating it. I added that I am always surprised that people fall so easily for this kind of hoaxes. As you may imagine, that was a mistake. She stiffened up and she said, angrily, that she was sure it was true. I tried to remedy as I could, but it was too late. I think she went back home, later on, still angry at me and still convinced that in her next plane trip she was going to fly standing up, probably holding a handle hanging from the ceiling. That was worth at least five faux pas tickets punched.

Now, this friend of mine is blond haired, but she is no dumb blonde. She is a lawyer in her early 50s, by all means an intelligent person who, in her job, wouldn't be easy to fool. But she is not exceptional in falling in the legend trap. I have more examples and surely everyone of us has had some similar experience. Normal, intelligent people who completely fall for legends that are plainly absurd. It is what I called the "Anti-Cassandra effect;" believing the unbelievable.

The legend of standing up flights is basically harmless;  just like the several others surrounding Ryanair. Possibly, the idea is that passengers will feel privileged when they board the plane and they discover that they actually have a seat! The problem is, obviously, when the same disconnect with reality comes for subjects that involve real danger. Climate change is a classic example and there you find the most absurd legends taking hold with incredible strength. You know the examples: Greenland was ice-free at the time of the Vikings, Mars and Jupiter are warming up, in the 1970s they said an ice age would come, scientists have confessed of having falsified the data, and many more.

Now, imagine that you hear one of these climate legends told to you by one of your friends who believes that it is true. How would you react? Simply telling him or her that it is a legend and that it is obviously false wouldn't work. The reaction would be, most likely, the same that my friend had for the legend of standing up flights. So, I think that with climate legends we (intended as scientists and professionals) have made the same mistake. It is not enough to tell people that their beliefs on climate are incompatible with physical reality. Doing that just causes them to get angry and retreat even deeper into their beliefs. Scientists, indeed, seem to have been able to accumulate a huge number of faux pas tickets punched in their attempts to convey the message that climate change is real and that it is urgent to do something about it.

But how do we manage to tell people that climate legends are legends without hurting their sensitivity?  With a friend, maybe you can gently coach him or her into learning something more about climate. But dealing with the press and the Web is much more difficult - you surely have experience on what happens when the discussion heats up. So, what to do? Maybe we should ask to Ryanair's PR agency. Or does anyone have suggestions?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Club of Rome: seeing the climate elephant in the room

A view of the meeting room of the National Bank of Romania, in Bucharest, where the Club of Roma is holding the meeting titled "The Power of the Mind". On the screen, a portrait of Aurelio Peccei, co-founder of the Club (photo by Ugo Bardi).

The Bucharest meeting of the Club of Rome is in full swing as I am writing this post. Yes, the Club of Rome, the one that sponsored the first "Limits to Growth" study, back in 1972. The study was often vituperated and always ignored by policy makers but, 40 years later, it is coming back to attention. Its views and predictions are starting to come true; giving us a new vision of what is going to be our future.

In addition to a new awareness of the LTG study, the urgency of the climate problem is permeating the Bucharest meeting. Once thought as a minor problem, less important than resource depletion, the recent data on the North Pole melting have changed everything about Climate. What we thought was to occur by the end of the century is happening now. We are seeing the climate elephant walking in the room; right in front of us.

The acceleration of the climate problem calls for emergency measures. We must act now, otherwise it will be too late. The situation is clearly explained by Ian Dunlop in the talk he gave on the first day of the meeting.

From www.clubofrome.org

Climate Change – Emergency Leadership Needed Now

The latest evidence on climate change demands a radical reappraisal of our approach.

By Ian Dunlop

The Arctic has been warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the world. In the last few weeks melting of the Arctic sea ice has accelerated dramatically, reducing the area and volume to levels never previously experienced.  Some 80% of the summer sea-ice has been lost since 1979; on current trends the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by 2015, and ice-free all year by 2030, events which were not expected to occur for another 100 years. More concerning, the Greenland ice sheet this year has seen unprecedented melting and glacial ice calving, adding to a trend which will substantially increase sea level rise.

Beyond the Arctic, the world is in the fifth year of a severe food crisis, largely climate change driven, which is about to become far worse as the full impact of recent extreme drought in the US food bowl works its way through the global food chain, leading to substantial price rises.  Drought around the Mediterranean contributed to this food crisis, and has played a large part in triggering the Arab Spring, and the Syrian conflicts. Globally, the escalation of extreme weather continues.

Science is clearly linking these events to climate change, with human carbon emissions as the prime cause.

Does any of this matter? Yes – It is the most urgent issue now confronting the world, for the evidence indicates that climate change has moved into a new and highly dangerous phase. The polar icecaps are one of the vital regulators of global climate; if the ice disappears, the absorption of far more solar radiation accelerates ocean warming, with increasing risk of large-scale release of carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost. This in turn may initiate irreversible runaway warming. Energy, food and water security are also poised on a knife-edge in both the developed and developing worlds

These changes are occurring at the 0.8oC temperature increase, relative to pre-industrial conditions, already experienced, let alone the additional 1.2oC which will probably result from our historic emissions. The “official” target, of limiting temperature increase to no more than 2oC, is way too high.  Current policies, proposed by governments around the world, are far worse and would result in a 4oC plus temperature increase. Official panaceas, such as carbon capture and storage, are not working.

Political and business leaders glibly talk about adapting to a 4oC world with little idea of what it means – which is a world of 1 billion people rather than the current 7 billion.  Not much fun for the 6 billion departing.

To paraphrase Churchill: “— the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. We are now in an age of consequences”. We know how to establish genuine low-carbon economies, which would stave off the worst impacts of climate change, but we have left it too late for gradual implementation. They have to be set up at emergency speed, akin to the mobilization of economies on a war-footing pre-WW2.

Yet we hear nothing of this from the political, business or NGO institutions who should be leading our response. Why?

Financial incentives are the main culprit, in particular the bonus culture which has spread through the Anglo-Saxon world since the early 1990s.  Recently there has been some recognition that this might be a problem. The Chairman of Rio Tinto acknowledged that “the spiral in executive remuneration over the last two decades, simply cannot continue”, and chief executives are graciously deciding to forgo their annual bonuses in the light of adverse corporate performance.  Very worthy, but the damage caused by this culture is far more insidious than a debate about quantum. It threatens the very foundations of democratic society.

The bonus mentality inevitably led to short-termism – few directors or executives are prepared to give serious attention to long-term issues such as climate change when their rewards are based almost entirely on short-term performance. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it”.

Many privately agree that climate change needs far more urgent action that we are seeing, but few are prepared to speak out for fear of derailing “business-as-usual”. This is a fundamental failure of governance – directors have a fiduciary responsibility to objectively assess the critical risks to which their companies are exposed, and take action to ensure these risks are adequately managed.  But if they acknowledge climate change as a serious risk, they are bound to act, which requires a radical redirection of business away from our addiction to high-carbon fossil-fuels, powerful vested interests losing out in the process.  Better then to stick to absolute denial, irrespective of the consequences.

This flows through to politicians, NGOs and bureaucracies, who are subjected to immense pressure from the corporate sector not to rock the  “business-as-usual” boat, the result being politically expedient and contradictory climate policies.

Ethically and morally indefensible it may be, but that is what a deregulated market has delivered, and why it is so dangerous for the health of democracy.

Adversarial politics and corporate myopia are incapable of addressing life-threatening issues such as climate change.  It is time for communities to go around these barriers and demand leadership prepared to take emergency action, before the poisoned chalice we are passing to our grandchildren becomes even more toxic.

Ian Dunlop is an independent commentator, Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, Director of Australia21, and a Member of the Club of Rome.  He chaired the Australian Coal Association 1987-88, the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors 1997-2001.