The last word (for now) on shale gas

Debating the merits and dangers of fracking shale gas has become a major obession of those who worry about energy and the climate. Yale’s e360’s latest contribution comes in the form a forum that includes a wide variety of perspectives pro and con.

For me, the wisest observation, and the one that really trumps all others, comes from Kevin Anderson, who directs the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research’s energy program:

… the only responsible action with regard to shale gas, or any “new” unconventional fossil fuel, is to keep it in the ground — at least until there is a meaningful global emissions cap forcing substitution. In the absence of such an emissions cap, and in our energy hungry world, shale gas will only be combusted in addition to coal — not as a substitution, as many analysts have naively suggested.

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The stick sets the beat

The title of this post won’t mean much until you read this contribution to The Conversation, a new and laudable attempt by climatologists to get out the message that time’s a wastin,’ folks. Here’s a taste:

We’re only a few decades away from a major tipping point, plus or minus only about a decade. The rate at which the ice sheets would melt is fairly uncertain, but not the result that says we are very close to a tipping point committing to such melt and breakdown.

Is it irresponsible or “alarmist” of climatologists to point this out? The science brief for policy is not to prescribe policies, but to point out the implications of pursuing or not pursuing particular courses of action.

Pointing out that we are close to one of the largest tipping points imaginable in the climate system is well within the remit of science. It’s not alarmist to describe the threat accurately; it’s alarming if the political and social culture can’t absorb this.

There’s nothing new or surprising in the way of science in this Conversation. But it’s high time we started having it. As David Roberts at Grist points out, today’s most optimistic outlook for emissions reductions leaves us far short of safe:

Source: BP Energy Outlook 2030.

How asbestos made me a better journalist

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was a 21-year-old journalism student spending a couple of weeks as an intern at Science Dimension, a government-funded magazine (there weren’t any private science magazines in the country). I was assigned two short features while there: one on canola bioengineering and another on Canada’s asbestos industry. Both amounted to free publicity for industries heavily supported by the Canadian taxpayer, but I think the canola story withstood professional scrutiny. The asbestos piece? Not so much.

That story continues to haunt me. The only good thing I can say about it is I learned a hard lesson about the need for skepticism, especially when tasked with interviewing scientists whose livelihoods depend on something other than following the facts wherever they might lead. I bring it up thanks to Jon Stewart’s Daily show team, who recently discovered that Quebec and Canada continue to dump the province’s asbestos onto developing nations despite the overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific communities that it’s a powerful carcinogen.
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Canada returns to discontinuous tyranny

Climate change activists in Canada are understandably depressed by the results of Monday’s federal election, which produced a majority Conservative government run by a party with zero interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are shards of good news lying in the rubble, although they only hint at the possibility of progress in the far-off future.

The fact that the new Official Opposition, the New Democrats, support cap-and-trade legislation isn’t as positive a development as it could be, considering that they have no chance of influencing government.

More interesting is the election of the first Green member of a national legislative body in North America. Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party and a supporter of aggressive carbon taxation, managed to handily defeat a government cabinet minister in her hippy-heavy constituency on the Left Coast. She too will have zero parliamentary sway, and her party received only half the popular vote it got three years ago (in part a consequence of the Green’s strategy of focusing almost entirely on getting their leader elected rather than running a serious national campaign).

However, this means that May will be included in the next federal leaders televised election debate four years from now, and May is a formidable debater. Given that the New Democrats’ historic showing this time round is being tied to their leader’s debate performance, this could prove critical to the Green’s future electoral success. Of course, the notion that the Greens were excluded from this year’s debate but will be included in the next one despite losing half their voting base only proves how silly are both Canada’s electoral system and the criteria used by the television networks to determine debate inclusion.

Meanwhile, Quebec has finally gotten over its fetish for separatist politics, booting out all but a rump of Bloc Quebecois MPs in favor of New Democrats. From an environmentalist’s point of view, this is marginally a good thing, in that the Bloc, while ostensibly progressive ideologically, had little real interest in anything that didn’t enhance Quebec’s ability to do its own thing. This strategy is increasingly at odds with the growing realization that intergovernmental cooperation is essential to solve the real problems facing civilization. Not that Quebecers thought about that consciously when they went to the polls Monday.

Canada had a chance to move on climate change in 2008 when the Liberal Party embraced a carbon tax and was soundly defeated in the polls. This time around they more or less ignored energy and climate policy and lost even more support, ending up with the smallest share of the popular vote in history. Not that anyone took that into account when they went to the polls on Monday.

All of which means, the real lesson for all the losing parties and their supporters is that radical change is required. Existing strategies have failed. Even the New Democrats, which saw their best showing ever, now have less influence than that they did last week, thanks to the return of Canada’s traditional form of government, which can best be described discontinuous tyranny. It’s as if the country agrees to grant the winning party leader absolute dictatorial power, although only for a few years at a time. This is no way to run a country. In a sensible world, Canada would rise up and demand electoral reform. But it won’t. And even if did, the majority government that the country just elected would pay no attention. Why should it?

The heart of the problem

No one is more surprised than I to see something worthwhile reading in The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad magazine. You might even be forgiven for suspecting an April Fool. But there it is. It’s an editorial by Shikha Dalmia, a senior policy analyst at frequently misnamed Reason Foundation, exploring the fundamental problem with nuclear power. Dalmia’s indictment goes far beyond the nuclear industry, though. Intended or not, it strikes at the heart of the economic philosophy that dominates pretty much the entire planet To wit:

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Whale of a whopper

James Delingpole’s relationship with what is commonly understood by the term “journalism” is not readily apparent.

1. PLOS One publishes a peer-reviewed paper by some of the world’s leading marine biologists with an interest in the effects of underwater noise pollution. The paper tests the idea that naval sonar could have an impact on whale behavior. It makes no mention of wind farms.

2. The Telegraph publishes a story, “Wind farms blamed for stranding of whales” citing the paper, which has the conveniently precise title of “Beaked Whales Respond to Simulated and Actual Navy Sonar.”

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Fukushima incident a “success”

The journal Nature inadvertently (I suspect) reveals why the nuclear power industry has a public-trust problem:

Robin Grimes, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London … says that he believes the [Fukushima] event actually proves the safety of nuclear power plants. Despite being more than 30 years old, and having faced the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and a towering tsunami, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have, so far, largely contained their dangerous radioactive fuel. “Actually, it’s a success,” Grimes says, then adds: “Although do I think the general public will be able to see that? I think the answer is, sadly, no.”

It’s (not) funny, because it’s true: Ignorance on Capitol Hill

“What is the optimum temperature for man?” asked Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith at yesterday’s Congressional hearings on a bill that would remove the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions “Have we looked at that? These are questions that, believe it or not, I lay awake at night trying to figure out.”

ResearchBlogging.orgCall me crazy, but I don’t believe it. I worry about climate change every day of my life and this is not something that keeps me awake at night. Although, if I understood as little about the basic facts of human history as you, who knows what would keep me up night?

The truth is, we have looked at it. So in the interests of helping Mr. Griffith get some obviously much-need sleep (maybe that’s why he’s having trouble understood the science), here’s a precis of the answer for the benefit of Mr. Griffith:

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