Mitigation, adaptation and suffering

John Holdren, Barack Obama’ senior advisor on science and technology has been frequently quoted as saying:

We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.

This article from The Times by Matt Ridley prompted me to write this piece.IMG_0876

He makes the usual claim of mitigation pessimists that simply getting richer will allow us to adapt to climate change. Moreover, adaptation has better economics, and consequently in the minds of those driven by libertarian avarice, better ethics.

I will also take the opportunity to criticize metaphors of climate change mitigation that mention World War 2 retooling efforts, Marshall Plan scale investments and mitigation as a form of insurance.

Mitigation

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Exit, Pursued by a Crab

Participating in social media creates a wide and diverse network of acquaintances. Often, these people become “friends”, even though direct personal contact may never made with them. It can be hard to establish traditional friendships without face-to-face encounters. Before the Internet, reading body language, voice inflections and facial expressions was as big a part of communication as speech itself. For many of us who spend a disproportionate amount of time in front of screens, much of our communication has become disembodied. But we still have bodies and, unfortunately, bodies break down.

I never wanted to write this post, but I feel that I owe it to the people I have come to know as online friends. They deserve to know that I’m suffering from a fatal illness. However, I hate the idea of now being treated differently because of this disclosure. I am not fishing for compliments or looking for moral support.

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In 2002, at age 48, I was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. I had a prostatectomy, but, despite the entire removal of the gland, there were small amounts of metastatic disease detected in nearby lymph nodes. The cancer had not been cured. Progression of the disease was slowed for many years by intermittent hormone treatment. I experienced no physical symptoms of the disease for twelve years, although the consequences of surgery and hormone treatment were no fun. But life continued and it was good.

As Hemingway remarked about going bankrupt, my cancer progressed gradually at first and then suddenly. About two years ago, my body’s plumbing and scaffolding started to show signs of trouble. More aggressive hormonal drugs were prescribed, which brought me back to good health for a year. Then, as the effectiveness of those drugs failed, chemotherapy beat back the worst symptoms for most of another year. Chemotherapy side-effects can often be managed quite well these days and it is not the horror that many imagine.

You become aware that the treatment options are running out when the oncologists start talking about maximizing quality, rather than quantity, of life. That’s where I am now. My life expectancy has been reduced from years to months. There still may be a few tricks left in my doctors’ books that may help extend my life beyond current expectations, but they are long shots and may not be available.

Continue reading

The Globe and Mail “clarifies” its misleading oil sands article

A bungled correction to a Globe and Mail article reveals that the intent was to publish a puff piece on the oil sands, not an objective analysis of the future of bitumen production in the face of serious climate change mitigation.

Just over two weeks ago, I wrote a piece critical of an article in the Globe and Mail: Environmentalists should end the charade over the oil sands, written by Martha Hall Findlay and Trevor McLeod. I also contacted the editor at the G&M to alert him/her of the errors in the piece. I revisited the G&M article recently and found the following note at the bottom.

Eds Note: This version clarifies references to the IEA’s outlook for oil to 2040.

I didn’t keep a copy of the entire original article, so I can’t be sure of all the updates they made, but I did cite the problematic first paragraph of the original piece (the words that were later removed are marked with a strikethrough):

The story starts with global energy forecasts. Even if there is very aggressive adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies – which we wholeheartedly support – the world will use more oil each year through at least 2040. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if the world goes beyond the aggressive commitments made in Paris and achieves the 2C global goal, then oil demand would fall by 2040. Yet, oil demand will remain high for years after that.

The “clarified” version follows, with  text underlined

The story starts with global energy forecasts. Even if there is very aggressive adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies – which we wholeheartedly support – most forecasts, including two of the three International Energy Agency (IEA)’s scenarios, predict that the world will use more oil each year through at least 2040. According to the IEA’s third forecast, even if the world goes beyond the aggressive commitments made in Paris and achieves the 2C global goal, which many analysts doubt, then oil demand would fall before 2040. Yet, even in that most aggressive scenario, oil demand will still remain high for years after 2040.

I suppose it’s fairly standard for newspapers to try to save face by claiming to “clarify” rather than “correct” a piece. However, in this case they also introduced new errors and added confusion.  Continue reading

Global temperature update: February 2017

Global temperature update: February 2017

NASA’s GISTEMP temperature estimates for February 2017 are now out.  February 2017 was the second-warmest February since records began (the first-warmest being in 2016) and was tied for the fourth-warmest monthly anomaly for any month.

Here is a plot of all monthly anomalies since 1998. I have coloured the lines for the three recent record years of 2014, 2015 and 2016.

gistempfeb17monthly

We are currently not in El Niño conditions, so it is rather extraordinary that the temperatures are running so warm—warmer in fact than during any El Niño before 2016. The average temperature this year so far, 1.01° C, is warmer than the record-breaking annual average for 2017 of 0.98° C. This does not mean that 2017 will set a new record: it’s possible, but not likely, as I will try to show. Continue reading

Keeping oil sands in the ground is not a “charade”

Keeping oil sands in the ground is not a “charade”


If the world is successful in reducing emissions sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, there is a limited future for a prospering oil-sands sector in Canada. The conventional wisdom among the Canadian establishment is that growing the oil-sands business is compatible with meeting national and global emissions commitments. This is a myth that obscures government policy contradictions.

In a recent Globe and Mail article Environmentalists should end the charade over the oil sands, Martha Hall Findlay and Trevor McLeod argue that keeping oilsands in the ground and stopping new oil pipelines will actually increase global greenhouse gas emissions.

Their argument rests on two premises:

  • Oil demand won’t start to fall until 2040. After that it will remain high for many years.
  • Oil-sands production is becoming less emissions intensive thanks to improving technology. If oil-sands consumption by US refineries were replaced by, say, more emissions-intensive Venezuelan heavy crude, then global emissions would increase.

I won’t dispute the second point in detail, at least for now. The case I’m making here does not depend on rebutting it. If overall oil-sands upstream emissions intensities really are falling due to improved technology, that’s welcome news. But I haven’t seen the most recent average emissions data that back it up. My understanding is that newer projects are predominantly in-situ facilities that are more emissions intensive than mines, so that the average GHG emissions per barrel is actually rising slowly.

My focus here will be the first point, where Hall Findlay and McLeod made an important error by misrepresenting the scenarios from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2016. They wrote: Continue reading

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!