Australia has been burning since New Year’s Eve, with bushfires spreading across a huge area of the eastern seaboard. The entire New South Wales coastal region from the border of Victoria to north of Sydney has been affected, along with a big swathe of eastern Victoria (Australia’s most densely-populated state) and communities up and down the coast are slowly being consumed. The main highway linking Western Australia to the eastern states has been cut, and towns on the route are running out of food. As I write this 21 people are listed as missing in Victoria, and about two score people have died along with the loss of hundreds of houses. These figures are preliminary because fire experts predict the fires will burn for weeks still, and the emergency services have not yet had any chance to assess damage in many areas. The federal government has mobilized 3000 army reserve soldiers, troop transports are being used to evacuate entire towns, and in many areas the fires have been left to burn because there are insufficient resources to fight them. Today, 4th January 2020, multiple records for maximum temperatures were toppled, with Canberra setting a new record of 43.8 C, 47C in western Sydney, and all of the south east under a blanket of intense heat and strong winds. The fires may change direction later in the day as a southerly change moves in, though intense winds may spread them even then. From a personal perspective, multiple friends of mine have been marking themselves safe on Facebook, or updating social media with information about their preparations for the incoming fire fronts. Although Australia is used to bushfires, the biggest ones usually occur later in the year and they do not normally all occur at once, across the entire country. This is the effect of global warming, and there is much worse to come over the next few decades.

Australia is currently labouring under a conservative government. For the past 40 years – barring a couple of years in the early 1990s – this party has refused to accept the reality of climate change, has denied its human origins, has fought tooth and nail in international forums to prevent global action against climate change, and has refused to do anything to stop climate change locally. After the past Labour government introduced real measures to begin mitigating climate change the incoming conservative government reversed them, hobbled the renewable energy industry, and used accounting tricks to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Even when they admit that climate change is real they refuse to link climate change to any of the environmental challenges Australia faces, whether drought, storm, flood or fire, and they refuse to take action to mitigate global warming, insisting instead on adaptation.

Today is what adaptation looks like. Communities destroyed, tens of thousands of people evacuating from their homes, huge stretches of forest and national park burnt out, wild animals and stock burnt alive, infrastructure ruined, and the entire country brought to a standstill as it watches the fury of nature in helpless horror. There is nothing that can be done, and ultimately nowhere to run. Climate change has reached the driest, most fragile continent on earth, and its inhabitants are adapting: running, hiding, burning, gasping and hiding on beaches and boats as they watch the sky turn black with the ashes of their homes and communities.

This is what adaptation looks like. This is what the climate change deniers have been demanding of us for the past 20 years. Mitigation is too expensive or impossible, they say, it is better to adapt, to prepare ourselves for the warmer future. Instead of preventing what is coming we should build robust communities that are ready to deal with it. These communities certainly have shown how robust they are as they adapt to the coming firestorms, crouching in the midday dark on beaches or waiting hours in crawling traffic as they abandon their homes. Robust communities, fleeing for their lives from a storm they have been forced to adapt to by 40 years of inaction.

This is what adaptation looks like, and it will get worse. Not only will it get worse, but the people who refused to take any action to prevent this storm coming will also abandon you to its fiery maw. They said you should adapt, but they won’t give you any money to adapt, because when conservatives are faced with a community challenge their answer is always: there’s no money. The same people telling you it’s too expensive to prevent climate change will also tell you it’s too expensive to adapt. Don’t believe me? Look at this government’s response to requests for funding for fire prevention. For two years the fire chiefs have been pushing the government to increase funding for fire services by a mere $12 million per year, and they have refused because “there’s no money.” Today they released $20 million for emergency fire fighting planes, which will arrive two weeks too late and probably won’t help anyway. Up until yesterday they were refusing to consider funding firefighting volunteers. That’s what they think of adaptation. You can burn, for all they care. They and their rich mates will hide in the cities, pretending to be friends of the communities that are forced to adapt, while they refuse to spend a single cent of the money they have made selling coal to the world. They will let you burn before they’ll share the profits of global warming with you.

This is what adaptation looks like, for communities that in many cases were staunch supporters of these conservative governments. Many of the towns and rural areas burning this new year are in staunch Liberal/National-voting seats, people who voted for the governments that deny climate change, and are now running because those same governments won’t help them adapt. Meanwhile the rich columnists of the conservative media sneer at them for not buying insurance, or for not preparing properly, as their homes become uninsurable and undefendable in the face of global warming. Conservatives don’t care about their own rural electorates, and will throw them to the fires of their greed. Nor will they show them the respect of even pretending to care: the prime minister, who in his victory speech last year said he would “Burn every day” to make the lives of the “quiet majority” better was on holiday in Hawaii as his country burned, and hosting a party for cricket players by the Sydney harbour as the disaster escalated. These people will never burn for you, nor will they show you even a modicum of respect or compassion.

Conservatives are traitors, economic wreckers, and ecological vandals. They will destroy this country before they will admit they are wrong, they will watch it all burn down before they will give up their ill-gotten gains, and they will never ever show compassion to the people whose lives are destroyed by their policies. Conservatives are the biggest threat to industrial civilization that humanity has ever faced, and their political movement needs to be destroyed utterly before it destroys us. Wherever you are in the world, you need to get these preening, greedy cowardly traitors out of office. The only hope for the future of civilization as we know it is the destruction of conservative political parties, their expulsion from the body politic, and their complete humiliation intellectually, culturally and politically. Get rid of them, before they get rid of you.

Warboss Wilde says: To lose one brexit minister may be considered unfortunate; but to lose both looks like carelessness

Tonight I was walking home from kickboxing thinking about the pickle Theresa May finds herself completely unable to resolve, and I really wanted to feel a little sympathy for her, even though she’s not a Tory. This is a state-educated woman who basically stepped in to clean up the mess the Bullingdon Boys made, and at every turn she has faced these useless red-faced Etonian babies throwing their toys back out of the pram and spitting the dummy, bawling and squealing because they can’t have their roast pork and face-fuck it too. It really smacks of the hired help being punished for doing her job, and I want to feel some sympathy for the terrible situation that she (and much more poignantly, all Britons) faces. But I can’t, because she would have a lot more bargaining space if she hadn’t arrogantly assumed she could beat Labour, and called an election she didn’t need to in order to do a blatant power grab. This duly backfired, and now she – and by extension all of Britain – are held in thrall to the whims of the DUP, who hold the balance of power and are clearly a bunch of certified religious nutjobs.

Somehow while I was ambling through the narrow streets of Koenji this reminded me of the time before the Good Friday agreement, and a common argument that was made back then against the idea of a united Ireland: That if Ireland united, the protestants of Northern Ireland would be forced against their will to live in a backwards country ruled by religious nutjobs. This argument pretended to be a reasonable centrist (or even left wing) argument. It accepted the validity of the nationalist cause, but argued that a large part of the Northern Irish community was protestant, and if the nationalists got their justice for past colonialism and oppression, this would mean that protestants – who were all loyalists – would be forced to accept living under the Roman Catholic leadership of Ireland, who at the time were religious nutjobs. In this argument often Sinn Fein weren’t first and foremost socialists, but were actually closet creationists. But even putting aside Sinn Fein’s loyalties, people were urged to reject unionist politics on the basis that it would force protestants to live under the christian equivalent of Sharia law, in an economically backward country[1].

Well, isn’t it funny how times have changed? In the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement Ireland’s economy boomed, it became a modern and open European country, legalized gay marriage and abortion, and now has a child of migrants as its president. It has a climate change policy, and recently had an inquiry into abuses by the catholic church. Meanwhile Northern Ireland is ruled by a bunch of creationist climate-change denying dipshits, who are holding the entire UK to ransom over the possibility that their little fiefdom might be treated mildly differently to the rest of the UK, and threatening to bring back the troubles (which, let us not forget, their older members were likely deeply involved in). Northern Ireland still doesn’t have legal same-sex marriage, while the rest of the UK and Ireland do. Can anyone look at the two countries now and conclude that unionism would have been worse for Northern Ireland’s protestants than staying in the UK, and being forced into the christian equivalent of Sharia law by the DUP?

Another, perhaps inverted version of this way that history washes away all the too-comfortable positions of its ideologues is the UK miner’s strike. I was in the UK when this happened and even though I was young it was a terrifying and all-consuming political event. I do not remember anyone ever discussing the strike in terms of climate change or clean air, only in terms of worker’s rights, industrial struggle and nationalization. The Tories blatantly lured Scargill’s union into striking in order to break them, and to break the back of a powerful force in the British left, to set the stage for the privatization drive of the late 1980s; the union and the left defended itself on these grounds. It’s worth remembering that the same police who committed violence on the picket lines also fabricated lies about the Hillsborough disaster, and were in Jimmy Saville’s pocket. These were evil times. But when you look back on what happened, for all the evil and corruption it unleashed on the UK, the closure of the mines was essential for the UK’s environment and for preventing climate change. Had they not closed, the UK’s air would remain filthy, northern children would be dying from asthma and growing up stunted, and the UK would be completely unable to meet its climate change commitments. It’s even possible to imagine that Scargill, emboldened by defeating the Tories, would have led his union to greater power in the Labour party, and that in the early 1990s they would have become climate change denialists. By now of course the closure of the coal industry would have become imperative, but it’s easy to see how this debate would unfold now: poisoned by Trumpism, with the utilities fighting against alternative energy, the Miner’s union would become a proto-fascist body, spreading climate change denialism and embracing some kind of UKIP-style demagogue in order to protect their patch. The miner’s strike was a terrible time for the north, the Tories were cruel and showed the worst side of the industrial ruling class, and the corruption and police violence unleashed by it took 20 years to be put back under control (and in some ways still isn’t); but if it hadn’t happened, it would be happening now, with scary Trumpist and brexit overtones.

History has a weird way of laying waste to ideologies.


fn1: I’m not here trying to say that the people making this argument didn’t also make the point that e.g. you shouldn’t give in to terrorists, there was never any colonialism to start with, only the IRA killed people, etc. Just that I remember this argument a lot, and often as a kind of “okay so let’s say we ignore the terrorism for now, even then we have the problem that …” It was a kind of “even if there was no terrorism, this unionist idea would still be terrible because… ” argument.

I’ve just returned a week with the WHO in Geneva, where I was working on tobacco control. The tobacco control lobby have made huge achievements in the last 20 years, managing to turn the tide of tobacco use in many countries and pushing some countries (like Australia) towards the dream of zero tobacco, without criminalizing anyone or directly engaging in prohibition strategies. However in the past 2-3 years the movement has been inflamed by a new controversy that they seem to be handling rather poorly – electronic cigarettes. Debate on what to do about e-cigarettes has been vocal and bitter, with the tobacco control camp dividing on roughly Atlantic lines between two opposing camps: harm reduction and prohibition. On the one hand, the prohibitionists see e-cigarettes as a product that glamorizes smoking and is no less healthy, and they want to control the proliferation of these products before they can get the market purchase that tobacco obtained in the early 19th century. This part of the tobacco control lobby sees them as a potential gateway to cigarette smoking, and thinks they should be punitively controlled from the start. Another part of the tobacco control lobby sees e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, and situates them within a harm reduction framework that suggests they could play an important role in moving smokers away from dangerous tobacco. e-Cigarettes are a nicotine delivery system without any of the carcinogenic products of burnt tobacco, and so offer a way for addicted smokers to satisfy their nicotine needs without inhaling carcinogens; from a harm reduction perspective this makes the e-cigarette a very useful tool in tobacco control. The debate is usefully summarized by the British Medical Journal here, with links, and the journal Addiction has a lot to say on the matter.

For what it’s worth, as someone who worked for years in the field of heroin use, I see harm reduction as the absolute best strategy for dealing with drug use, and I think e-Cigarettes provide an excellent tool for steering smokers away from tobacco. Nicotine itself is not a poisonous or carcinogenic substance, and the only reason to object to its consumption is a moralistic opposition to addiction itself. From a harm reduction perspective, such a position is completely nonsensical: if we object to a drug, we should do so purely for its health or social effects, not for the simple fact that it is addictive, and while the health and social effects of smoking tobacco are huge, there is no evidence of any serious negative consequences of vaping.

I would go further and say that vaping isn’t just a neutral thing – it’s potentially hugely beneficial. In the era of smoking bans, there is a huge market for a product that enables people to smoke in public places, cars, and their family home without offending or harming the people around them. Vaping doesn’t just not harm the individual, it enables them to smoke around those of their friends and family who didn’t take up this stupid habit. As quit campaigns, smoking bans and taxes begin to bite, smokers are surrounded by more and more people who don’t smoke, which gives them increasing incentive to drop tobacco. But tobacco is intensely addictive, so they couldn’t – until this technology offered a way to do it. I’ve gamed indoors with players who vape, and it is absolutely a completely innocuous habit. I’ve gamed with smokers too, and in order to not offend the group they have to pause the game to go outside and smoke. The better option is obvious.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a smoker who wouldn’t vape in such a situation.

About ten years ago I was involved in an evaluation of a sudden heroin shortage in Australia. One of the main lessons of this shortage was that prohibition and harm reduction are strategies that can complement each other. In an environment of strict prohibition, when sudden market disruptions happen, the availability of harm reduction measures can rapidly take people out of the marketplace for the drug and onto safer alternatives. As we ratchet up the pressure on tobacco companies, increasing taxes and making it more and more difficult to smoke in public, e-cigarettes offer the chance for smokers to switch away from a socially disapproved drug to a more comfortable choice, and our research on the heroin shortage suggests that there is a critical threshold at which people will rush to adopt this new technology. We absolutely need to push the market towards this position, so that as many people as possible adopt a low-harm, low-offensiveness alternative to smoking.

However, there is another huge benefit of e-cigarettes which I think tobacco control advocates need to consider, and which could have a huge impact on the tobacco control movement. To understand it, we need to draw on the lessons of solar power. e-Cigarettes have the potential to drive the tobacco companies out of business in the same way that solar power has begun to put pressure on utility companies through the utility death spiral. This basic model is simple, though disputed: As more and more people install rooftop solar, the utility companies lose money and have to raise prices for their remaining customers, encouraging more to switch to rooftop solar and hastening the loss of customers. This model also applies to e-cigarettes: as more and more people shift to e-cigarettes, tobacco companies will have to recuperate their profits from an increasingly small consumer base, forcing them to raise prices. Fortunately for the tobacco companies their primary production model is incredibly exploitative, so they have a very cheap cost base; but unfortunately most countries now have high tobacco excises, so any cost increase is multiplied to the customer. This will act the way the excise itself acts, encouraging more people to quit or switch to e-cigarettes … and so on.

Solar panels are actually a great market story. Solar power started off as a niche product for satellites, but as companies matured they researched new technologies and became more cost competitive, getting installed in low power applications like calculators and slowly expanding market share. As market share grew the technology became cheaper, and they were able to compete in more and more sectors, until finally now they are able to compete with mainstream utilities. Although the original technology benefited from government projects (especially satellites and space probes) the technology has not itself benefited from subsidies until recently, achieving most of its market share through good old-fashioned market competition and investment. e-cigarettes are similar, having developed through chemical companies in China and slowly expanded into the tobacco market. They’ve been remarkably successful considering the aggressive and anti-market behavior of most tobacco companies, which shows just how unpopular the tobacco product is even amongst many of its regular users. Furthermore, just like solar power, e-cigarettes are now benefiting from the regulatory framework within which they operate. In the past, without any regulatory framework, solar power competed solely on price. But now, with clean air laws and emission standards, solar power competes on these other regulatory aspects, which vastly increases its acceptability. Similarly, where once an e-cigarette would have seemed like a clunky and pretentious toy, it now appears sensible or sophisticated – it enables its user to smoke amongst non-smokers, ensures they don’t disrupt parties or meetings for a break, and doesn’t attractive opprobrium around children. In such a strict regulatory framework it has obvious appeal beyond price; and unlike electricity, smoking is a luxury, a choice, which makes e-cigarettes even more likely to attract rapid uptake.

The implications of this for tobacco companies are terrible, just as solar power is a real threat to utilities. If we allow e-cigarettes unfettered access to the smoking market, leave them largely unrestricted, and reduce taxes on their nicotine, we can quickly force a situation in which tobacco companies are massively undercut by a genuinely disruptive competitor. As tobacco companies lose money they lose the ability to fight court cases against new regulations, and to market aggressively in new markets (such as developing nations). But their only alternative is to raise prices on existing users, encouraging more to switch to e-cigarettes. This is especially problematic for tobacco companies because of their vulnerability to divestment; just this week AXA dumped 2 billion euros of tobacco shares, and encouraged other funds to do likewise. As they lose investors the tobacco companies lose funds to support further expansion, increasing pressure to retain current smokers – who are shifting to e-cigarettes, a product with a diverse corporate background.

Seen in the framework of “disruptive” technologies like solar power, it seems obvious to me what the tobacco control movement’s response should be, similar to that of environmentalists to solar power: encourage changes to the regulatory environment that favour e-cigarettes; reduce barriers to market entry for these products; continue to put regulatory pressure on tobacco companies; advocate laws that prevent tobacco companies from entering the e-cigarette market; and aggressively encourage divestment of tobacco company shares. With this combination of activities, the tobacco control lobby can hasten the end of the tobacco industry, without inconveniencing even a single smoker.


Over Christmas large swathes of northern England drowned, washed away in a huge flood caused by storms from the Atlantic. The same storms battered the Irish coast, and are now moving up towards the arctic, where the North Pole is expected to be 1C – 30C above the average for this time of year – on 30th December. Towns in the north that do not normally experience flooding, like York and Leeds, were submerged, and some towns on the west coast experienced their second or third major floods in three years. Insurers estimate the cost of the latest floods at 5 billion pounds, and more are expected tonight and tomorrow.

For many people these floods will bring financial ruin, because many people in the affected areas were no longer able to obtain flood insurance – the area they live in was deemed too high risk by the insurance companies, which stopped covering them after the 2011-12 floods. Those floods are estimated to have cost 3 billion pounds, and since then the government has been investing about half a billion pounds a year in flood mitigation measures that clearly were insufficient to handle the latest storms. This withdrawal of insurance comes despite the fact that the government instituted a 10 pound levy on all insurance plans in the UK to subsidize the continued provision of flood insurance to at-risk areas – even that additional support was insufficient to get the insurers to return to Cumbria, so people in that area have been running their businesses uninsured since the last floods.

Now the Environment Agency are talking about learning to live with floods instead of preventing them, because they think the government just doesn’t have the resources to cope with the weather. The first Labour member has broken ranks and demanded that mitigation and recovery funding be taken from the foreign aid budget, citing – of all countries! – Bangladesh as an example of a place that shouldn’t be receiving aid money when British people are at need. Bangladesh, of course, faces a future of flood adaptation measures that make the UK’s look trivial, and part of the reason it is economically unable to handle that future is past British colonial intransigence. But of course now that the UK begins to face its global warming future, solidarity with poorer nations will be one of the first higher ideals to give way.

It won’t be the last though, because this is what adaptation looks like: increasing amounts of resources being devoted to Canute-like strategies to temporarily shore-up defenses against increasingly vicious and uncontrollable natural phenomena, and the most vulnerable people on the periphery left to drown or burn. These unprecedented rains aren’t some kind of aberration or heavenly wrath with no explanation or pattern – they’re the latest manifestation of global warming, and there is much worse to come in our lifetimes. Some people will say they’re worse because of El Nino, but the same thing happened three years ago, and for six months much of Somerset was underwater before this El Nino started. The future is here now, long before everyone expected, and it’s not pretty. As the weather turns on us, what we have to do just to hold it back is going to get a lot worse, and the numbers of people affected – and their anger at the people who can’t fix it – are going to grow.

This extreme weather and its associated damage is coming at a time when our ecosystem is suffering increasing stress from other human interference – draining the water table for unsustainable farming, overfishing, habitat destruction and invasive species as well as increasing pressure for land and basic resources like water. We see these stresses running up against the influence of climate change all the time now, in debates like those in the UK and the US about how much water to sequester for protecting environmental flows in rivers. This combination of stresses means that we have less room to manoeuvre when it comes to adaptation. Californians, for example, have adapted to the drought by draining groundwater, which takes decades or centuries of quality rainfall to replace; in the UK there is pressure to dredge more rivers, but river systems are vital to the health of ecosystems, and damaging these systems through dredging will place other pressures on the environment. Increasingly, adaptation measures that were taken for granted in the past will come into conflict with other land-use practices or environmental safeguards.

The UK’s problem with flooding is a good example of this. To properly manage flooding in this “new normal” of increased rainfall and intense storms is going to require coordinated action all along river systems, and it will have to include setting aside some farmland to flood when rivers overflow. George Monbiot describes how upstream grouse moors and fallow fields will need to change land-use practices to prevent run-off, and the need to restore the health of rivers, rather than dredge them, in order to ensure major rains can be properly managed. Additionally, where previously winter precipitation would be stored as snow and released slowly in spring meltwater, now it will fall as rain and wash immediately off high lands, requiring changes in winter land-use patterns. This is going to create additional pressure on farmland and require new models of cooperation between urban and rural communities that, frankly, I don’t think are possible in the UK’s class-blighted society.

Adaptation is also going to require economic changes that a lot of mainstream economists aren’t going to be happy with. The flood levy obviously hasn’t worked, and the idea that insurers will continue to be able to operate profitably under current market conditions while also providing a useful social service is beginning to look untenable. They are going to need increasingly aggressive protections as climate change worsens, or the government is going to have to take on a bigger role as an insurer of last resort. Farmers who are forced to set aside land for flood plains are obviously not going to be insurable, and communities that are clearly intended to play a role as upstream sacrifices (as happened in parts of York) can’t be expected to insure themselves. It’s hard to see how these wide scale, often transnational environmental challenges can be effectively responded to by piecemeal responses in local areas or single countries, or by isolated market entities like insurance companies. A bigger cooperative model is going to be needed if we’re to preserve the key components of our environment in the near future.

Adaptation vs. mitigation was a key plank of the denialist platform in the 1990s and 2000s, and continues to be pushed by luke-warmers and delayers such as the Breakthrough Institute. It’s important to remember, though, that adaptation in practice means that some people have to sacrifice their livelihoods and sometimes their lives on the frontline of global warming’s impacts. For governments, adaptation is a question of dollars and shifting resources, but for the people who are forced to wade through water in the front room of their business “adaptation” can mean bankruptcy or financial ruin, displacement or – at best, in this current situation – a completely wretched Christmas. As the paid shills for delay and denial shift from braying “it’s too soon, we don’t know if it’s a real risk” to “it’s too late, all we can do is adapt,” we should remember what happened this Christmas in the UK (and also the US mid-west, and the Australian surf coast). Adaptation means some people losing their homes and livelihoods, it means towns flooded or (as happened in Japan earlier this year) entirely washed away. It also means increasing pressure on the environment and ecosystem services we all depend on, and on infrastructure like the collapsed bridge in Tadcaster or the overflowing US sewage works – infrastructure that we have taken for granted in some cases for hundreds of years. Even if we somehow conclude that adaptation is still cheaper than mitigation, we should stop and ask ourselves: is it worth the savings?

Let’s hope 2016 brings a renewed commitment to fix this growing and increasingly dangerous problem, before climate changes washes, burns and blows away all of industrial civilization.

This morning Japanese time the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) closed in Paris with agreement on what is being hailed as a ground-breaking deal on mitigating global warming. The basic outlines of the deal, summarized by the Guardian here are:

  • An aspirational goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 1.5C
  • A pledge to reach zero emissions by the end of the century
  • A promise to implement stronger emissions controls than currently in place, and a catalogue of existing measures (called INDCs)
  • Monitoring of emissions and efforts to meet the targets, conducted every five years
  • Recognition of the damage done to some countries that had little responsibility for warming by the past warming of the big emitters (“loss and damage”) though no legally binding compensation framework
  • Funding to support transition to low-carbon economies for developing nations that are still on the energy development path
  • Recognition that some countries need longer to adapt to low emissions than others
  • It’s legally binding

The most surprising pledges for me are the 1.5C target and the mid-century zero emissions goal. If we can achieve both of these we are truly going to have done a lot better than I ever expected. We already have reached about 0.9C of warming (people say 1C but some part of that is random variation due to El Nino), and there is still a lot of warming already built into the climate system (I have seen estimates of about 0.5C guaranteed), which leaves only a maximum of probably 0.1 C left before we hit that target. The target needs to be seen in terms of carbon budget, of course, and if we make reasonable assumptions about the climate sensitivity I have seen estimates of between 6 years to a couple of decades at current emissions before we hit that budget limit[1]. This makes the goal extremely hard to reach, but it’s much better to set a goal that requires aggressive action, miss it and fall under the 2C guardrail than to set a goal that is reachable but risky, miss it and fall into the seriously deadly zone above 2C. The 1.5C target is also important because it commits the whole world to at least try to act to prevent the destruction of the most vulnerable communities in the Pacific Islands and coastal zones of the developing world, which is important from a social justice and solidarity perspective. Setting 2C as the goal basically means telling these countries that they are going to disappear, and would obviously require that we also start talking about major refugee flows, a fairly contentious topic right now.

If the world can be held below or at 1.5C, the future our children inherit may be recognizable to those of us alive now. I think it’s worth trying for that.

I also approve of efforts to recognize the differential responsibility – both historic (US and Europe) and present (US and China) – for climate change, and the differential ability of countries both to adapt and mitigate. Past efforts at responding to warming, such as Kyoto, have failed to properly recognize this issue, and developing nations’ anger at being forced to slow development in order to prevent a problem that is 90% not their fault has been a major sticking point in subsequent agreements. It’s good to see a more realistic assessment of who can and should do what in what order, and all the reports out of Paris suggest that the atmosphere at the talks was much more positive than past talks. I think this positivity is partly because of the obvious horrors being unleashed on the world by 1C of warming, which makes action much more imperative than it was in 1997; but also by this recognition that development, inequality, peace and justice are all tied up in this issue and a strictly equal commitment to preventing warming by every country will exacerbate inequalities and probably fail.

The funding being made available also opens up the possibility of a serious commitment to alternative modes of industrial development than carbon-based mechanisms. This is particularly important in the least developed nations, where a classical carbon-based path is prohibitively expensive and an alternative based on local renewables and storage is likely to be cheaper and more reliable in the short to medium term. Much of the recent rhetoric of denial has been about the importance of coal for development in Africa, but this rhetoric is misguided. Coal requires huge set up costs in grid expansion, and although it is a mature technology it requires advanced skills and systems to maintain those grids. In contrast, local solar and wind with battery or hydro storage is scalable, requires little infrastructure investment, and has low fuel costs. This makes it an ideal first step for development in rural areas of poor countries, where the grid will not reach for years and where, even when it does, brownouts and dropouts are likely to be common. Twenty years ago the cost of solar and wind and their inefficiencies might have made such an idea impossible but not now, and the rhetoric of carbon-based development needs to be recognized as out of date and counter productive.

This agreement spells the end of the coal industry and, by mid-century, the widespread decline of oil. Oil will always have use for plastics and some vehicles, but demand is going to plummet over the next century; coal is going to be stripped very quickly back to coking coal and a few boutique uses, and a lot of people are predicting that this agreement is the opportunity many investors and banks have been looking for to secure their exit from coal. If anyone doubts the power of a global agreement to threaten the interests of the oil and coal industries, look at the desperation of the Saudi government at these talks – they even tried to portray themselves as “developing” and “too poor” to engage in mitigation efforts. Coal is not directly represented at these talks but the simultaneous Greenpeace sting that revealed the role of coal companies in buying commentary and “research” makes their desperation pretty clear[2]. The end of coal as a major source of power is going to be of huge value to human health and development, and I predict that if this agreement can be made to work it will lead to a democratization of and revolution in power generation that is going to vastly increase human wealth and, if done well, reduce inequalities across the globe.

There is, of course, every possibility that the agreement won’t lead to any outcomes, but I don’t think that is the case. It’s not the final statement on what we need to do, and there will be future meetings and further tightening of efforts, but this agreement sets out a framework and a commitment that gives countries the opportunity they need to get to work, and to coordinate efforts. Global agreements are not always as good as they should be but they are usually better than their critics suggest, and sometimes they are really effective: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, for example, and the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting gases are really good examples of agreements that have been very effective in achieving their goals. This agreement has some critics: James Hansen thinks it is a failure and George Monbiot thinks it should have been much stronger, for example. In this case I think Hansen is wrong, and I think his comments don’t really grapple with the way that international agreements work, and I think Monbiot is allowing his deep cynicism to obscure his vision. Global agreements, even with vague wording, can be powerful, and this agreement shows clearly that there is a global will to fix this problem. It would be unwise to be full of hope, but I see a light at the end of this tunnel[3].

There are a few other striking outcomes from this summit that are worth commenting on. First, I was heartened to see that existing commitments made independently by countries, states and cities would likely hold warming under 3C, which is far better than I thought. To be clear, 3C is close to a suicide pact for industrial society, but I thought we were more likely to be on track for 4-6C without further action, which would put us firmly in the post-apocalyptic zone[4]. It’s good to see that independent, small-scale changes have become this widespread and effective, even if they aren’t enough. Second, the complete failure of the denialist corporations and their shills and captive governments to grandstand and hijack this conference has been notable. This is partly because the two big denialist governments – Canada and Australia – have both been toppled and replaced with more rational alternatives, and also because China has really got serious about climate change since 2009. But it’s also because those denialist movements are now just being ignored, and none of the standard denialist memes circulated in this conference, even by countries like Saudi Arabia that were trying to stymie the process. What little intellectual energy the denialist movement had is spent, and they have been reduced to a bunch of old men yelling at clouds [for money]. Finally, the special stupidity of the Republican party in the USA was on display, with some parts of the text of the final agreement apparently being moved or weakened purely because of the problems Obama would have getting them through Congress. When the entire world is having to change what it says and does because of your patent stupidity, then your stupidity has become a genuinely toxic force. This reaffirms the importance of the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections for the future of the planet. Both domestically for Americans (on health care and judicial appointments) and internationally, for everyone who values our planet and industrial civilization, we need the Republicans to lose and lose badly. This isn’t a matter of partisan contempt (though I have plenty of that!) but of human survival. It’s sad that the party of Lincoln has fallen to such a low state, where they are simultaneously a laughing stock and a global threat.

Still, despite those caveats and the possibility that this agreement will not be as effective as we would all like, I am positive about it. It’s a good start that will begin to spur a whole range of actions that are going to revolutionize our approach to energy and environment. When I’m a grumpy old man sitting on my porch yelling at clouds, I will at least be able to complain that the young’uns don’t appreciate the clean air, abundant cheap energy and stable climate that I am leaving them. Here’s hoping!

fn1: I have seen these estimates on websites about global warming, which I don’t link to directly even if they’re scientific sites because the ensuing flame wars exhaust and depress me.

fn2: Again, no links because I don’t want the backwash.

fn3: A solar-powered halogen lamp, of course!

fn4: I think I am slightly more pessimistic than some other people on this issue. I really think the full power and force of global warming has been underestimated, and what we’re seeing at just 1C is really bad and happening a lot faster than the science expected.

Let's trash the stage!

Let’s trash the stage!


I have just returned from a training course in Italy, where I learnt some analysis skills with about 20 other early career researchers from around Europe. I was the only health researcher, and all the rest were studying ecology or agriculture of some kind. I was expecting this, but I was really surprise to discover that almost everyone else at the course was doing research pretty much directly related to climate change. One person was studying a polar animal, and their research had perhaps become more productive through warming. The rest were studying either changes in animal behavior due to climate change, or – the majority – changes in crops due to climate change. These changes were universally deeply concerning.

For example, I met an Italian guy who studies wine grapes. Wine is great, obviously, but I know nothing about how it is made. It turns out that it’s a delicate process, and different wines are determined by detailed aspects of when and how they are harvested. Small changes in temperature change the growing period and the harvesting process radically, so that, for example – this man told me – now for certain grape types they have to irrigate the vineyard heavily for a few days before harvesting to reduce the sugar content of the grape. To his father’s generation this kind of practice was considered anathema, but it has become essential because the growing zone is warmer and drier, and the sugar content of grapes has to be carefully balanced to ensure the wine has the right flavour. Other people told me of similar problems with apples, for example, or broader problems in crop management. Aside from one person who was studying aspects of regeneration of natural areas damaged by human interference, everyone was studying something about the way the natural world is reacting to heat. These aren’t your infamous global warming heavyweights with their nose in the government-funded global warming funding trough, mind you: they’re ecologists or agricultural scientists turning their skills to solving the biggest problem of our time, which is how to cope with a warming world.

Many of these problems are ultimately intractable. Wine grapes grow in a narrow zone that combines weather, pre-existing industrial skill and fertile soils in particular locations. As the temperature rises the optimal location for temperature shifts but the soil doesn’t shift with it, and neither, necessarily, does the rainfall pattern. The town I studied in was a big wine-growing area but it was in the border of some mountains (pictured); heading up or north to retain the temperature profile might be possible, but means going into precarious mountain environments where yields will necessarily decline. For other regions – for example Champagne – this is going to be a big problem, because Champagne is dependent on a particular soil profile[1], which obviously won’t shift north as the temperature rises.

Wine has been with human society for a long time, but it is actually a pretty delicate thing, grown only in a relatively small part of the world and dependent on factors that must stay within a narrow range of values. Wine features in pre-christian Greek urns and has been a constant fixture on modern dining tables for 20 or 3000 years now (depending on where you live). If we lose the ability to make wine – or if it becomes a joke product because it can only be grown in areas that don’t suit it – then we will have lost something that is simultaneously trivial and vitally important. Obviously everyone can just drink whiskey, or we can dilute ethanol with grape juice, but everyone will know that we have lost something special. If we lose wine we will only have ourselves to blame – what a pack of dickheads, our children will say, who sat around drinking fine Shiraz and debating whether global warming was happening, and now look at us stuck here in our cyclone shelters with nothing to drink but fucking whiskey. Arseholes, they will say.

The UK Met Office is saying that this year is likely to be the first year that is 1C over pre-industrial temperatures. We took 150 years to get here, but it’s likely we’ll get to 2C in another 50 years, possible sooner if we don’t make efforts to control emissions. We’re already seeing serious effects of warming, and there’s no evidence that we’re going to make serious efforts from now. Worse still, I suspect a lot of the effects we’re already seing are actually lagged effects from earlier warming, not the direct result of the full 1C. Animals don’t change their range overnight, multi-year ice isn’t destroyed in the same year that temperatures hit some threshold, and sea level rise is known to occur year after its proximal causes are instigated. Whatever we’re seeing now is not the full complement of changes we can expect from a mere 1C warming, and there’s probably another 1C in the pipeline. This makes me think that scientists have undersold just how terrible it’s going to be, and even if we can stop all emissions tomorrow we’re going to be in for a rough ride before things get better. Bad times are coming, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.

I don’t have any confidence in the Conference of Parties meeting that’s due to happen in Paris this year. Our governments are not going to do what is necessary. I read an article recently that suggested sub-national strategies – by states, municipal authorities, and private corporations – may be sufficient to contain emissions, but I’m really doubtful that those efforts will produce the serious changes required, or be enough in and of themselves. Real change is going to require a global agreement, and sadly this is going to require developing nations to give up legitimate justice claims (about who has responsibility for reducing emissions the most), but I can’t see rich countries agreeing to make the cuts necessary, and given the rich nations’ past intransigence I can’t see poor nations accepting any agreement that doesn’t put the main burden on rich countries. Furthermore, a couple of rich countries still don’t believe this stuff is happening (i.e. they know it is happening but their base and/or their donors believe it is not).

As a result of this, I think soon we can expect to start losing precious things, and the end game is going to begin. If the Paris COP fails, the world shifts to a collapse mode. We have a short time to get a really complex series of reforms in place. If it doesn’t happen, unless local efforts turn out to be far more effective than anyone has given them credit for, we’re toast. Human civilization grew, and developed all its food and survival technology, in a temperature range that we’re about to leave. In 50 years, wine is going to be last on the list of lost things that we worry about. Our humanity will be at the top of that list.


fn1: or so we are led to believe by perfidious frenchies

Heading off the beaten track...

Heading off the beaten track…

The picture above[1] shows the latest estimated volume of arctic sea ice in March, 2015. The red line is 2015, and it looks like it is heading below the 2010 maximum. This is a disturbing trend because 2014 had a very high minimum, but the March maximum may well be very low. We know that 2014 was the first or second hottest year on record, and January and February this year were very warm. Even a cursory look at the Polar Science Center website reveals the very real possibility that we are heading towards another year of very low arctic sea ice extent, which will mean more flooding in the UK and Europe, and another crazy winter in north east America.

Destructive beauty

Destructive beauty

At the same time as the sea ice is struggling to reach a decent maximum, and thinning out every year, the Pacific appears to be entering a new era of vicious storms. The picture above[2] shows four tropical storms or cyclones generating around Australia simultaneously. One is cyclone Pam, which subsequently laid waste to Vanuatu (the emergency response is underway as I write this).

Science is having trouble keeping up with the pace of change that global warming is forcing on the planet. There is no scientific consensus on the role of global warming in typhoons and hurricanes, no solid understanding of where the arctic is heading, no established climate models that can understand the huge drought that is slowly consuming California, and only suspicions about the relationship between Sao Paulo’s deep water problems and Amazonian deforestation, but the inherent conservatism of the scientific process is no reason for us lay observers not to draw the obvious conclusion: Global warming is here, and it is wreaking havoc on our planet as we stand by and watch. Where is our planet heading? Or more relevantly, where is our reckless disrespect for the planet taking us?


As these portents unfold, today I read an article at Lawyers, Guns and Money describing a new phenomenon of “ecooptimism.” Apparently Al Gore has written an article arguing that we may be turning the corner in our response to AGW, because lots of solar panels are being installed; apparently Andrew Revkin gave a talk last year where he said that everything was going to be okay. Apparently Naomi Klein thinks we are able to find a way out of the worst problems that our planet is heading towards. I guess people think that recent agreements between China and the USA, action in the USA on power station standards, and China’s independent decisions to limit its coal use, are signs that we have turned a corner.

Another strain of ecooptimism on the part of economists like Nicholas Stern, decision makers and some of the major international bodies (such as the IMF) holds that even though things are a bit ragged right now, we still have time to reverse the situation by implementing some basic policies, and we can prevent further warming above the 2C “guardrail” without causing major damage to world economic growth. Under this form of optimism, even though we have delayed up until now, moderate changes in the next few years will still be sufficient to prevent major harm to either the environment or the global economy and growth opportunities for poor countries. This view of the global warming challenge holds that it is a serious threat to human civilization, but we can avert the collapse of modern society by imposing a moderate tax regime.

Should I be an ecooptimist? I think not, because these people are deeply wrong. They are ignoring the damage we have already done, misunderstanding how we need to think about the causes, and ignoring the powerful momentum of the climate system.

Ignoring the damage done

What is happening now in the arctic is not a coincidence: global warming is already destroying our planet. The damage being done by the collapse of the arctic sea ice is profound and widespread, and goes well beyond the possibility of polar bear extinction. The ridiculously resilient ridge driving California’s drought is almost certainly related to the collapse of the ice, as are the crazy winters in the eastern USA and the extreme rains in the UK. But California’s drought is also exarcebated by higher surface temperatures, reductions in winter snowfall and the role of unseasonally warm rains in destroying the snowpack that supports summer water reserves. Further south, Sao Paulo’s extreme drought is a response to deforestation (which is also driving global warming) and increasing temperatures. These two droughts alone threaten something like 40 million people in two of the world’s biggest economies, but no one has a serious plan to reverse either. And in the case of Sao Paulo, adaptation is impossible – while Californians, if they act now, could build a desalination plant, Sao Paulo is inland and its choices have essentially already run out. Of course American politics is so stupid that California won’t build a desalination plant until its water levels are so low that it doesn’t have enough water to generate the power that the plant needs …

Optimism about our future ignores that our future has already been changed by the damage we have already done.

Misunderstanding the causes

Somewhat ironically, economists are very good at confusing budgets and flows. When discussing national debts and tax burdens, mainstream economists have a tendency to think about the total national debt and current interest rates, rather than the amount of the debt coming due at any time, and the rate of change of interest payments. When thinking about global warming, they seem to focus on the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon rather than the total amount we are allowed to emit and have emitted. Under this way of thinking, it’s sufficient to reduce the rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions – you just need to get them lower, but not necessarily to zero or negative. But this is completely wrong: when we make any policy about mitigating future global warming, we need to think about the total allowable carbon emissions, historical and future, and the rate of emissions is only relevant in as much as it determines how quickly we need to go carbon negative. When one thinks about the carbon budget, rather than carbon emission rates, then a carbon tax is simply a temporary policy to reduce emission rates so that we can buy time to achieve our real goal, which is hitting zero carbon emissions before we hit the budget. If a policy has a limit to how much it can reduce rates of emission – as most carbon taxes have been shown to have – then they are necessarily temporary policies. But most mainstream economists think that we can achieve our goals through only a carbon tax and a bit of minor regulation. They see reducing the rate of emission as the end goal, rather than staying within a carbon budget. They never go that extra step to ask – once we have dealt with the low-hanging fruit (coal-fired power emissions) how are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions?

How are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions? Cement-making, international air travel and shipping will probably be carbon-intensive for the foreseeable future. So what are we going to do? If your response is “carbon capture and storage,” you don’t have a solution.

Ignoring the momentum in the system

We already have a certain amount of warming built into the system. Due to feedbacks and the dynamics of the climate system, warming and its effects will continue to propagate after carbon dioxide emissions stop. This means that even if we could wave a magic wand that stopped all emissions tomorrow, the effects of those emissions on the biosphere through phenomena such as glacier melt, desertification, sea ice melt and storm intensity will continue to worsen for some time to come, and the planet will continue to warm a little more. Whatever effects we are seeing now from warming are going to get worse and then linger even if we stop emissions tomorrow. What we are seeing happening now is not the worst possible outcome of our best possible policy response – it is only the beginning. Practically, even if US and Chinese policy-makers have an epiphany tomorrow it will be 10 years before we get a really effective climate policy in place, 20 years before we can get carbon zero. That means we have 20 years of worsening warming, and beyond that an unspecified period of further warming, and beyond that period a further unspecified period of time when the effects of that warming propagate. Sea level rise may lag warming by years, which means that even if we act fast to get carbon zero in 20 years, sea level rise may worsen for 10 or 20 years after that. Arctic sea ice melt is obviously very responsive to warming, but we are only seeing the start of it – the effects of warming will continue to worsen the ice melt for years after the warming stops.

The practical effects of our stupidity

What this means in practice is that the arctic ecosystem is doomed. If anyone believes that another 20 years of warming are going to leave any appreciable ice in the arctic then they are very foolish. A collapse in this system means the near-extinction of a wide range of animals including polar bears, major changes to the jet stream with potentially catastrophic effects on northern Europe and America (including possible widespread cooling), the worsening of drought in California and massive changes in the Siberian ecosystem. Even putting aside potentially fatal methane releases from the sub-arctic, this is going to lead to a world we alive today do not recognize. It may also lead to the collapse of fisheries across the Pacific and Atlantic, depending on how major fish species respond to the loss of plankton and apex predators. The Pacific islands are doomed, of course, because they will run out of fresh water long before they sink beneath the waves, and low-lying Bangladesh is going to see widespread inundation with huge human movements. Pacific storm seasons will get far worse and much of the currently-inhabited coastal property of the eastern USA will have to be abandoned. The cost in flood defense and storm protection for cities like New York will be staggering. Water and food security in the Himalayan catchments, North Africa and Australia will become precarious, and cycles of flooding and drought in places as diverse as the UK and Australia will become much more extreme.

All of this is locked in, even under the best possible policy future.


There are people born today who are going to come of age in a world where the environment is unrecognizable compared to that which most of the human species has become used to. Some 20 – 40 years from now our children and their children will grow up into a world that recognizes our generation as the greatest criminals in the history of the human species. They will look on the devastation we have wrought and their anger will be deep and powerful, especially when they see the way that so many of our generation deliberately and wilfully ignored what was coming, or even made policy decisions that would worsen it. They will look on politicians like Australia’s Tony Abbott, who abolished a carbon price while bleating about “intergenerational debt” with deep scorn, and they will look on people who voted for these criminals as selfish clowns. This generation will also face a future far more precarious than anything we can imagine, because the world will still be warming and they will have to make not only deep cuts to their carbon emissions, but difficult and dangerous decisions about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while dealing with food insecurity and natural disasters on a scale we can’t imagine. Our generation thinks that debates about carbon pricing are difficult; our children’s children will be arguing about whether to ban air travel and the steel industry.

This generation will respond to these challenges with political movements that live up to all the worst claims that conservatives make about the modern environmental movement. For example, because of the corruption and stupidity of current politicians in America, our children’s children will face a world without effective antibiotics. They will also need to reduce carbon emissions radically. The simple solution to both of these problems will be to ban meat eating or to allow only free range organic meat, making the worst nightmare vision of conservative critics of environmentalists and hippies into a reality. Maybe by then there will be new antibiotics that aren’t affected by the stupidity of the meat industry, but it’s highly unlikely that there will be a solution to the industry’s carbon emissions, and our children’s children will not be in a position where half solutions are acceptable.

Unless we act now, this is the world we will grow old in. I see no reason for ecooptimism, and I think that the people expressing optimism on the basis of partial technological solutions, or the comfort of easy first steps like a carbon tax, are fooling themselves if they think that we as a species are going to pull through this problem with such a simple and easy response. This is no time for optimism, but for a society-wide effort, at the same level as was required in world war 2 to eliminate fascism. If we don’t make that effort now, we will all be ecofascists 20 years from now.

There will be no denialists and no ecooptimists in that future.

fn1: Taken from the Polar Science Center

fn2: Taken from the hotwhopper blog

If only they'd had a blight-proof potato ... or an end to British occupation?

If only they’d had a blight-proof potato … or an end to British occupation?

Debate over the infiltration of the Republican party by anti-vaccination ideas has naturally led to the resurrection of that old Shibboleth, the idea that the left is also “anti-science” because left-wingers and environmentalists are opposed to GMOs, despite the available evidence that they are safe. I think the GMO issue is a good example of why the “anti-science” label is not a good way to approach debate on science communication. The growth of anti-GMO ideas in the environmental movement is a good example of how motivated reasoning arises from genuine political and economic concerns, and later takes on a (usually tattered) cloak of scientific justification in order to give it mainstream respectability. In this post I hope to show that the pro-GMO crowd can themselves be irrational and “anti-scientific”, and that motivated reasoning isn’t in and of itself “anti-science.”

Is Opposition to GMOs left-wing?

First though, let’s put to bed the idea that opposition to GMOs is a uniquely left-wing attribute. Dan Kahan has a blog post on this topic, in which he explores risk perception by political orientation for a variety of issues. In this post he identifies no difference in level of concern between those who we might broadly define as left-wing and right-wing. In his survey right-wingers were much more worried about fiscal policy and immigration, while left-wingers were more concerned about nuclear power, global warming and guns; but they were all equally unconcerned about GMOs.

If we go a little further, and step into the cess-pit below the line to this National Review Online editorial on GMOs and the left, we can find plenty of evidence that right-wingers distrust Monsanto and approach the GMO issue with very similar motivated reasoning to the left: distrust of big corporations, vulnerability to the plutocracy, and informed personal choice.

I think opposition to GMOs appears left-wing because it is primarily articulated (surprise!) by environmentalist organizations like Greenpeace, and community organizations that tend to have a stronger history in left-wing movements than right-wing movements. But this is just appearances, and in fact there is a strong response to issues of unrestricted corporate power, profit-making from the food chain, and tampering with “traditional” foods that crosses party political lines. This makes the GMO issue very similar to the vaccination issue: opposition is broad-based, but articulated through leftist voices because community organizing tends to be a leftist thing, environmental and consumer choice organizations are often vaguely left-wing, and (by coincidence) in the case of anti-vax ideology, the wealthy and photogenic voices tend to be California liberals. I guess Buddha would say that critics are focusing on the pointing finger, and missing all the glory of the heavens.

Motivated reasoning and opposition to GMOs

Reading the comments in the NRO piece it should be fairly obvious that, while people’s scientific concerns might be articulated through worries about effects on the food chain and human health, the real well-spring of their discontent is economic and political. Right-wing people are worried about consumer choice, about increased power of big corporations in a very important market (food), and about the damage that vertical monopolies and plutocratic cosy relationships do to free market ideals. Left-wing people are worried about unrestricted influence of big corporations on food markets and the environment, about an increase in pesticide use, and about whether GMOs will really achieve what their backers say they will given the distributional inequities in world food markets. Right-wingers want to see more market diversity and believe that food prices and production levels can be improved through economic (market) changes rather than technological magic bullets; left-wingers think that the primary reason for world hunger is mal-distribution and not weak production.

In my opinion the “frankenstein foods” stuff and health concerns, and ecological worries, are primarily a gloss over these deep-seated and real concerns about inequity and inefficiency in our food markets. But there is no way that the big agribusinesses are going to be interested in debating distributional justice in a world market whose inequities deliver them huge profits, so they and their media friends make sure the debate remains firmly focused on narrow health and scientific concerns that can be easily dismissed. This in turn forces opponents of GMO to resort to weak scientific arguments within this restricted domain, rather than the broader issues of food security and inequality, or systemic farming practices that are clearly damaging the environment and which GMO crops will not necessarily improve.

In my opinion, if GMOs were around at the time of the potato famine, their backers would be claiming that the potato famine could be solved by a blight-resistant crop. Opponents of such an extravagant move would point out (rightly) that the famine is caused by maldistribution and colonialism, but their complaints would be dismissed as Chartist rabble-rousing. So then, not able to debate on the real issue, they would be forced into debating the issue as framed by the GMO backers: as a conflict between food safety and famine. Of course, history tells us that the potato famine was a political issue, not a technological one. Given its political origins, it’s unlikely that a GMO solution would have worked.

What is different with malnutrition today?

The Underpants Gnome thinking of the pro-GMO lobby

In my view the pro-GMO crowd are infected with a type of Underpants Gnome style of thinking. This thinking goes like this:

  1. Invent technologically advanced food
  2. ?
  3. Solve world hunger

This is not how the international food system works. A good example of this style of thinking is in my old post about GMOs, where I explained in detail why Golden Rice is not the panacaea its backers claim it to be, but my interlocutor continued to argue that Golden Rice would somehow solve Vitamin A Deficiency against all the evidence.

Malnutrition in the modern world has several inter-related causes, and a lot of them have nothing to do with an absence of food. Diarrhoea and unimproved drinking water lead to stunting and malnutrition even where food is abundant, as does poor diet and insufficient breastfeeding. Many low- and middle-income countries are experiencing simultaneous epidemics of obesity and under-nutrition, primarily due to inequality within and between nations, and again often related to open defecation (in South Asia) and unimproved water. Where malnutrition is directly related to an absence of food the causes are often either war and conflict (e.g. South Sudan) or maldistribution of food. Much of the food produced in some low- and middle-income farming communities is shipped out to the rich world to feed meat crops, and many countries devote a large amount of their productive land to cash crops for export, not to food crops for local production.

None of these problems will be solved by GMOs. Availability of drought-resistant crops won’t save South Sudanese families in refugee camps due to war; Roundup Ready corn won’t reduce diarrhoea in countries of sub-Saharan Africa with polluted water sources; improving the production of plantains won’t reduce stunting if the cause of stunting is inadequate breastfeeding and poor nutritional choices in countries like Ghana or Zambia where food sources are readily available but stunting still common. Increased production of wheat in the USA for feedlots won’t help reduce poverty in Africa.

Yet solving world hunger and improving the lives of poor farmers is one of the most often cited benefits of GMOs. To me this is evidence that the pro-GMO lobby – especially the scientific leftists and moderate right wing commentators who most strongly attack the environmental movement on this – are using the same motivated reasoning as their opponents. Despite the abundant evidence that malnutrition is easily fixed through infrastructure changes and shifts in the international food economy, backers of GMOs want to focus on their magic bullet argument for solving an ages-old problem through modern technology. The “green revolution” of the past 30 years has failed to solve the problem of world hunger, but they think another 10 years of further green revolutions will make all the difference. This is not scientific thinking, any more than claiming flounder genes in tomatoes will kill you.

I have yet to see any evidence that the pro-GMO lobby have seriously taken on the real causes of malnutrition and poor nutrition in low- and middle-income nations, and I have never seen any supporter of GMO argue that they won’t improve food security in these countries, or that changes to the international food system are more important than work on GMOs. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the environmental and consumer choice movement’s silly and bogus claims about health risks. I think this is because they are suffering from the same motivated reasoning as their opponents: they are presenting the world hunger argument because the real, underlying reason for these GMOs – to improve corporate profits – is not something they can talk about. But their arguments about world hunger are woefully weak, and they have to cleave closely to Underpants Gnome logic in order to defend a technology they genuinely believe is safe and beneficial.

Is the anti-GMO movement different to the anti-AGW movement?

Often the anti-GMO movement is pointed to as the left’s AGW denialism. I think this is fundamentally flawed for two reasons: first, because the underlying issue the left is attacking, food security and global inequality, is real and serious; and second, because of the difference in origins of the movements. Anti-GMO ideas, like anti-vaccination ideas, arose largely organically in response to real concerns about the product itself. AGW denialism, on the other hand, was created by a small group of activists endowed with money from Big Tobacco and energy interests, and is maintained by these interests in order to slow down essential responses. I think this difference is important, because it speaks to the fundamental honesty of the intellectual underpinnnings of the movement. Anti-GMO and anti-vaccination groups have genuinely-held concerns about the product they are attacking, and though these may be real and serious or may be misguided and ignorant, they are intellectually honest in their assessment of these risks. On the other hand, the monied interests at the heart of the complex web of AGW denialist organizations are fundamentally dishonest – they know that the science is against them, but deploy deliberate techniques to poison the science well in order to support their interests. I don’t think you can say someone is anti-science if they are honestly misusing weak science to defend a position that might have developed from other, unspoken concerns; but I do think someone is anti-science if they are funding a movement with the specific intent of attacking science and scientists to protect their financial interests. The idea that these monied interests know the science is against them but fund attacks on it anyway might seem conspiratorial, but we know this is what Big Tobacco did for about 30 years, when they knew tobacco caused cancer but attacked any public scientific studies that showed this – and Big Tobacco was behind the original AGW deniers.

Although I’m not fully convinced by my own thesis yet, I think the anti-AGW movement is unique in the pantheon of modern “anti-science” movements (anti-nuclear, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-fluoridation, anti-AGW) for being a created movement, rather than one that grew organically out of real (though often misguided) concerns about the product in question. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people with a financial interest in these other movements (see e.g. Andrew Wakefield); but the anti-AGW movement is unique for the level of corporate funding it has received, and the order in which the money-making grifters and the concerned public figures arose. Regardless of whether its origins are important, I think it is distinct from those other movements in that there is no valid underlying concern that is being blown out of proportion in this movement. There is no nuclear waste issue, no side-effects issue, no global inequality issue underlying this movement that can get the fixation of some lonely blogger who starts a movement – just a need to protect the profits of a particularly dirty sector of the economy. While the motivated reasoning of an anti-vaxxer might be “I’m concerned about the side-effects of these drugs, so I’m going to minimize the danger of the diseases and write a children’s book about how great measles is,” the motivated reasoning of an anti-AGW funder is “I need to protect my industry from mitigation efforts so I’m going to fund multiple organizations to attack the science.”

Those are fundamentally different things, and confusing these movements doesn’t help us deal with either.

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline. says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

China and Japan are in a dispute over the Senkaku islands. China has pulled out of UN negotiations over a territorial dispute with the Philippines.

Both of these disputes (and a few others) are about possession of the oil and gas resources under the South China Sea.

If the world is to avoid warming beyond 2C, all of the oil and gas under the South China Sea needs to stay buried there forever. If China and Japan resolve their disputes in any way that grants either side actual exploitation rights, the world will take one more small step towards being fucked. Some scientists are now arguing that even 2C is going to cause catastrophe; we need to get even tougher. This means that the best thing for the world is for China and its allies to continue locking horns over these islands for … about 1000 more years.

The best thing China, Japan and the Philippines can agree on is that exploiting these islands is against everyone’s interest. The whole region should be set aside as a marine park, and the military forces of every side of the dispute put to the task of sinking any oil research vessel, fishing boat or seismic survey ship that comes within a sniff of the place.

But that’s not going to happen, is it?