In the bleak midwinter

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

John Donne

With Donald Trump about to become the next President of the United States; with the United Kingdom getting ready to indulge in self-harm with a hard exit from the European Union; as European electorates consider voting for racists and authoritarians; and as the dreadful tragedy in Syria unfolds: it does really seem that the world’s whole sap is sunk.

The best hope is that electing a narcissistic and ignorant man-child as president and the coming Brexit debacle will expose the contradictions of these political rebellions and expedite their own undoing. But what a price we will have to pay before this becomes evident to all. As H.L. Mencken said:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

If I were a wise man, I would do my part

I don’t think that there has ever been a time in my life in which resistance to a new political movement has become so necessary. Not only must we fight the proto-fascists, at the same time we also have to understand where western liberalism went so wrong. So many people in our societies have decided that they had nothing to lose by giving the finger to the status quo. Globalization and, especially, robotization of manufacturing are hollowing out and leaving behind large swaths of our countries. Inequality is rising and the poorest halves of our societies are not getting ahead. Those of us who live comfortable lives and spend our days inside our bubbles distracting ourselves with intellectual pursuits have received quite the shock.

Blithe assumptions about how incremental progress would improve everyone’s lives are now revealed as complacency. At least the populist revolt has exposed the contradictions and failures we preferred not to notice.

Education is offered as a simplistic answer by some people—especially educators—who have forgotten what the question was: how can everyone lead dignified and meaningful lives? I don’t have the solutions, but we first need to acknowledge that the consensus we had entering the new millennium has failed.

I dislike the commercialized and kitschy festival we have made of Christmas. Due to overexposure, I have an especial loathing for carols. But Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Midwinter, set to music, is an exception. The midwinter despair tempered with hope captures the seasonal mood perfectly. At the darkest time of the year we can still look forward to new life.

Susan Boyle sings the best version I could find.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Justin Trudeau approves two big oil sands pipeline expansions

This piece was first published at Skeptical Science on December 1, 2016

In an announcement on November 29, 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two new major pipeline expansions for Canadian bitumen. Altogether, the two projects will add over a million barrels per day to Canada’s export capacity.

At the same press conference, Trudeau rejected the application for the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have provided 525,000 barrels per day of transportation from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean through the northern British Columbia coast, near Kitimat.

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Northern Gateway (map by Enbridge) Continue reading

Exaggerations in the pipeline

Exaggerations in the pipeline

There are a lot of claims about the benefits that the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Extension (TMX) pipeline project will supposedly have for BC, and Canada generally. Recently, I listened to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the CBC the other day making her pitch, emphasizing the economic benefits for BC. Some of what she said made me immediately reach out to Google to try verify the claims she made. Along the way, I looked critically at some of the other assertions the pipeline promoters have made. In the interest of fairness, I’ll briefly mention some of the exaggerations of the pipeline opponents.

At the outset, let me say that I’m generally inclined to support Premier Notley. In particular, I’m an admirer of the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan that was put together by an expert panel led by University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach. This was a major step forward by an oil-producing province traditionally governed by conservatives. To be sure, the plan is insufficient to reduce emissions to safe levels, but there are yet no such plans enacted anywhere.

Show me one. Continue reading

The looming irrelevance of big oil

The looming irrelevance of big oil

This a long piece that would probably be better split up into several separate, focussed articles. Never mind, consider it as a rambling, idiosyncratic and opinionated mind-dump on the subject of the future of oil. I may later rewrite parts of it more coherently and rigorously for a wider readership. As I make my way through the recently published IEA WEO 2016, I will provide updates.

Pioneers or pariahs?

James Gandolfini, the late actor who played the gangster boss Tony Soprano, was once asked what profession he would never have wanted to have pursued. He answered: “an oilman” (video at 5:00). Those of us who have followed careers in the oil industry might be a little surprised, but not really that shocked, by a response like that.  To many people, oil companies and the people who work in them are often seen as the embodiment of greed and environmental destruction. Oilmen get used to being thought of as pariahs. Continue reading

Carbon sequestration in basalts

I have just had a piece published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: ‘We’d have to finish one new facility every working day for the next 70 years’—Why carbon capture is no panacea . I’m not allowed to repost the whole article here, but it is open access on the Bulletin website.

I looked again at the outsized role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) along with Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) play in most of the IPCC 2 degree models. I have argued previously that the gigantic quantities of CO2 that need to be sequestered in geological reservoirs, according to these models, face huge obstacles in terms of scalability, financing, technical hurdles and public acceptance.

A recent paper in Science reported on a breakthrough experiment in Iceland in which CO2 (from a volcanic source) dissolved in water was injected into basalts at depths of 400-1000 metres. Using isotopic and chemical tracers, the researchers estimate that the CO2 had been mineralized into benign and stable carbonate minerals in the space of just two years. This was faster than suspected and, if this process turns out to be scalable, then sequestration in basalts would provide a solution to the need to monitor conventional sedimentary rock disposal sites for leakage over the long term. Continue reading

The Madhouse Effect, a review

Climate scientist Michael Mann has teamed up with cartoonist Tom Toles to write The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy. It’s an excellent book, well-written, authoritative on the science, revealing on the politics and laced with the wit of many superb cartoons. Buy a copy for the climate science doubter in your family. They will be drawn in by the cartoons and may well be unable to resist dipping in to the text.

MadhouseEffect_Book_On_Climate_Change

Michael Mann has previously written The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, about how he was hounded for writing a paper that featured the striking hockey-stick graph. He also authored Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change with scientist Lee Kump. At the same time that he turns out first-class books, Mann is a prolific research scientist and has an active presence on social media. You can only wonder how he does it all.

Tom Toles is a Pullitzer -Prize winning cartoonist who works for the Washington Post. His main focus is politics, but his cartoons have often featured climate science and the absurd lengths that many American politicians go to in avoiding the facing up to the reality of global change.

Writing about scientific subjects like climate change for the non-specialist is not easy and authors have to walk a fine line. Many readers expect scientists to be detached about the implications of their work, but that would make their message less engaging, less human. The science needs to be explained in ways that the average person can understand, but oversimplification can gloss over some of the important complications. And treatments of the topic can so so easily be depressing and dull. The Mann/Toles team have succeeded in bringing their talents together to overcome these problems. The writing is excellent  and the cartoons add a much-needed satirical perspective.

tipping point

One small shortcoming of the book, at least for non-American readers, is the focus on US politics.  But, then again, the leadership of the US—the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter—is indispensable when it comes to solving the climate crisis. Anyone who cares about the future of the planet has to pay close attention to the goings-on in the madhouse that has become the home of much of the US political right. Non-Americans can only watch what is going on there in fascinated and impotent horror. At least US citizens get to vote.

Despite all of the political lunacy and the dire consequences that will unfold if we don’t take action, Mann and Toles offer an informative, entertaining and, crucially, hopeful review of the science, politics and solutions to the climate crisis. There are signs that the politics of denial have reached a tipping point—reality is finally asserting itself against wishful thinking. All of the world’s nations took a vital first step in Paris in December 2015. Costs of key technologies like solar and wind power, energy storage and electrical vehicles are falling and show no signs of levelling off. There’s no reason to despair. Besides, that never was an option.