Thinking About Tomorrow

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Monday, October 31, 2005

No wonder Winston wants to sit on the cross-benches

Just for fun I did a quick graphical analysis of the conscience votes for the leaders of the 8 parties as well as the votes for Michael Cullen and John Key. I used the same technique as I outlined in an earlier post in which I created a policy web of the parties. The only difference is that I used a method called "Neighbour-joining" to draw a tree (acyclic undirected graph) rather than a network. Basically I encoded the Yes and No votes as a binary string of "political DNA" and then asked which politicians' consciences are most closely related. The lengths of the edges in this graph correspond with how different the voting behaviours of the leaders are. If there is a short path along this graph between two leaders then their voting behaviours are very similar. It turns out that Winston, Tariana and Dr Don are comfortable (and fringe) bed-fellows based on this analysis. While all the other politicians are fairly closely clumped together miles away from these three (including John Key and Rodney Hide!). Click on the image to see a full-sized version...

Blair calls for global response to climate change

Tony Blair is a hard man to pigeon-hole. For all his foibles he does seem to have his eye firmly on the ball when it comes to and . His commentary in the Observer is full of completely sensible facts. Yes, the Kyoto Protocol is a step in the right direction, and No it is certainly nowhere near enough. And Yes, the United States and China and India and Brazil have to be included in any sensible long term strategy because it is a global human-population-driven problem. And Yes, urgency is required. Unbelievably sensible. How refreshing. But will anything actually get done? My worry is, will Dubya sign up to anything that admits greenhouse-gas-induced climate change is a serious reality that must be curbed immediately? We actually have to seriously reduce our emissions, not just make our exploitation of the planet's resources more efficient, as Bush seems to think is enough.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Australian Environment Minister latest to accept global warming is human-induced

The balance of the scientific evidence is that is occurring, is potentially harmful, and is largely caused by human activity. That is the conclusion that Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell has come to after evaluating the scientific evidence over the last 12 months. He claims that Dubya Bush, Tony Blair and Australia's former chief scientist Robin Batterham all agree with him. He also claims that, despite not ratifying the , Australia is one of the most progressive nations in the world on the issue of global warming. I wonder what policies he would point to in order to support that claim? Nevertheless, being aware of the problem is a start. Apparently he is planning a trip over to the UK for a conference on global warming that Tony Blair has organized. I wonder if they will announce some actual plans for action, or just proclaim once again that its an 'important issue'.

Senior scientists fed up with Bush over global warming

It must be seriously frustrating being a scientist in the United States of America right now. I mean, didn't previous American Presidents listen to and respect scientific evidence? Anyway, Dubya and the gang in the White House certainly don't. I doubt Bush would know what evidence-based science was if it smacked him in the head. I haven't met a single American scientist who was happy with their country's current two-term President. I for one have been boycotting all conferences in that country until they find a decent Administration. In the mean time, senior scientists in the USA will continue to be flabberghasted by Bush's views on amongst other things. I wouldn't be surprised if a few American scientists are starting to look for jobs offshore.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Think big because the planet is small

Northern madagascar from space

Increasingly it appears that the greatest challenge facing humankind is to sustainably manage the limited resources of the planet Earth, in the face of human overpopulation and increasing material demands of modern human societies. We still know too little about the detailed interactions of the and global climate to be certain of the long term consequences of human-induced . However we do know that the huge and growing human population on the planet is leaving a large footprint on the global . The long term consequences of human-driven global and wholesale transformation of land usage of the planet Earth are anything but predictable (see Box 1).
Box 1: This satellite picture of Egmont National Park and the surrounding area shows that the original native forests (dark green) of the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand have been largely replaced by argicultural pasture lands (light green). Only the circular national park boundary around Mt Taranaki appears to be providing protection against further land use transformation, and without the national park designation, even more deforestation would undoubtedly occur. The park's circular shape originates from its first protection in 1881, at which time it was specified that a forest reserve would extend from the summit of Mt. Taranaki in a 9.6 km radius. The park covers 33,534 hectares and its peak is 2518 metres above sea level.
The human-driven removal of large swaths of primary forests in New Zealand and worldwide are playing a large role in the changing dynamics of the planet's carbon cycle. The long-term consequences of this transformation of the planet's surface for the global climate and biosphere are not yet clear. The original image was produced by NASA in May 2001.

As a global society, humans need to understand the finite nature of the planet's natural resources and reorganize our behaviours to reflect this finite supply.
A tiny yeast population in a test tube of nutrients initially grows exponentially, unimpeded by the ultimately limited nature of the available resources. However at some point the population of yeast cells become so large that they compete for the remaining resources. In short order the population growth stagnates, as individuals scavenge for the rapidly diminishing left overs of previously unfettered consumption, while also contending with the increasing concentration of waste products of that consumption. Finally the whole population of yeast crash as the resources are completely exhausted and expended. Humans are currently still on the growth part of the curve, but the transition to decline and ultimate extinction can be extremely rapid. Luckily for us, unlike the test tube, the Earth is provided with a continual input of new energy from the Sun. However humans rely heavily on the global climate and ecosystem to harness this energy and convert it into usable resources like tuna and rice. Without a productive and healthy biosphere, we will be hard-pressed to find much nourishment from solar panels alone. We need to learn how to rationalize our energy consumption and restrict our ever-expanding encroachment on all other life on the planet. If we don't do this the consequences could be difficult or impossible to live with. There is no reason why New Zealand should wait for other countries to lead in the battle for a sustainable future. Smart people should apply themselves to this problem immediately and challenge the status quo.

Think as big as the oceans are vast

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has just co-hosted an inaugural conference urging international action to create a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to combat the effects of global climate change and human exploitation of our seas and oceans. A press release for the conference, held in Geelong, Australia, says that "nations across the world need to step up and scale up their efforts in protecting the world’s vast and increasingly vulnerable marine environment from climate change, pollution, resource depletion and other threats".

Friday, October 28, 2005

Climate change will bring drought and fire to Europe

Image from BBC story

A recent study published in the prestigious Science magazine, and reported on by the BBC, used computer modeling to predict the impact of global climate change on Europe in the next century. The main negative impacts are expected to be water shortages and droughts, increased frequency and severities of forest fires and increased flooding. Arguably, all of these effects have already been observed in Europe in the last few years. Apparently, it is only going to get worse. However, one of overall results of the report was that most of Europe is going to be less affected by global climate change than other regions such as the Arctic and the Amazon. Apart from droughts, fires and floods, the European simulations predict rapid changes in the distribution of various species of plants and animals as well as changes in crop suitability in agricultural areas. A good friend of mine from Portugal was telling me that the widespread fires that Portugal experienced this year have only just been put out in mid October, and that they are thinking about extending the fire season in Portugal to accomodate this shift. These kinds of things could well become the norm across Europe in the next few decades.

A NZ Herald piece picked up on the water shortage part of the simulation analysis, especially for the Mediterranean, and reminds readers that "in 1995, about 193 million people out of an EU population of 383 million faced water shortages."

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Millions of fish die in massive drought in the Amazon

Experts believe that global climate change and massive deforestation are to blame for the Amazon's worse drought in more than 40 years. Greenpeace has an alarming slide show of the devastation, including this image of what used to be a thriving lake:

Global climate change is "the greatest challenge to face man"

It must be true because the Prince of Wales says so! :-) I am not sure why we should listen to him more than thousands of the world's leading scientists that have already said the same thing, but at least the Prince is on message. Its a pity he can't use his royal powers to force some action...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Greens patience wearing thin

An article in the NZ Herald again references frogblog as a voice of green party membership. I wonder how long the media can afford to keep on getting that wrong. I leave comments on frogblog but I am not a Green party member. The Greens seem to be getting more coverage after the election than they did before. Not the right way around I would have thought.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Greens co-leader says being centrist is blah

In a recent interview with 95 bFM, Greens co-leader Rod Donald had this to say about being centrist:

"Well, being centrist is being blah from our point of view. I mean, I'm not interested in being a nothing. We want to stand tall on what we believe in. Sometimes those policies are popular; sometimes they're not. And over time, our positions become mainstream. Thirty years ago, if you'd talked wind turbines, people would have laughed at you. What's happening now? Most of the new energy projects are wind energy projects. It's the same with energy efficiency and solar water heating and rail. All those types of initiatives. Concerns about the environment generally are much more in vogue than they were when I started out in Values 31 years ago. I'm not about to sell my principles just to get the baubles of power." - Rod Donald.

I find it hard to disagree with Rod on most of this. Selling your principles for the 'baubles of power" does not sound cool to me either. I guess its just a question of what exactly are the Green party principles, focus and priorities? One of my associates from Oxford recently had this to say about his opinion on a reasonable set of principles for the Green party:

The Greens should "develop a tight focus on scientifically strong and politically relevant policies, and ... by reducing waste, eliminating perverse subsidies and creating opportunities for new eco-industries".

This sounds like a good starting point to me. I think that most would probably agree that the Green Party have at least tried to do something on the specific policies of reducing waste, eliminating perverse subsidies and creating opportunities for new eco-industries. But what about the overall approach as a party? Is the current Green party scientifically strong and focused on politically relevant issues? Or do they tend to tackle too many small and disparate issues. Are they always backing their positions with science, where science is relevant?

Scientifically strong!
I am a scientist. Some of us scientists still have principles, even in the morally bankrupt times we live in. One of the biggest things lacking in political discourse as far as I can see is scientifically sound, reasoned argument and a basic understanding of statistics. Too many issues are pursued with emotional fervour (nothing wrong with emotion!) but without any sound reasoning. For instance, acknowledging that marijuana use (on the current balance of evidence!) contributes to mental illness in teenagers. The scientific evidence for this is steadily growing. Of course, how you use this information to inform policies is another thing altogether. But it is not only important to understand, as a policymaker, the science, but also to communicate those principles of evidence and reason to the general population.

Politically relevant
As a small party, should the Greens be spending their time focusing on things like child smacking laws? Arguably, it is a worthwhile cause, but the planet is getting smacked much harder than our children are. Priorities are important. If the Green party maintains a focus on sensible environmental policy, the public will follow them. I am not suggesting that the Green party changes its principles, I am suggesting that the Green party re-assesses its priorities and the means by which it communicates those priorities to the public. As Rod correctly points out, environmentalism and clean energy are now mainsteam. Why isn't the Green party? Since the Green party is the only party that can make a clarion call for global environmental sustainability - shouldn't that be their number one priority?! In the same interview, Rod Donald himself says:

"There is some pretty radical change that needs to take place if we're actually going to save this place. That might sound over the top, but you've just got to look around you to see what we're doing to this earth, and it can't cope with much more abuse."

I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

25% more carbon released by Amazon deforestation than first thought

A recent article in Science magazine details research by American and Brazilian scientists using high-resolution satellite imagery to refine estimates of the amount of logging occuring in the Amazon rainforest. These new estimates suggest that "stealth" logging, in which individual prize trees are removed is very widespread and that previous estimates may have underestimated that amount of carbon dioxide released by Amazon deforestation by as much as 25%. For a forest the size of the Amazon, that is a lot of greenhouse gases...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Environmental concerns bring Jane Campion back to the director's chair

Jane Campion has come back out of her self-imposed exile from film to direct a new film called The Water Diary to highlight the United Nations's Millennium Development Goals. Campion said that "The Water Diary and the seven other films in the series are trying to help create public awareness of environmental and humanitarian concerns affecting us right now." According to Campion the film was inspired by her daughter and the children of friends.
"One day I heard them talking about the world they would inherit and how our generation had used up so much of the resources that they will inherit a depleted and plundered Earth where they might not live very long."

I am glad that Jane Campion is thinking about tomorrow. More kiwis should.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Worst Hurricane Season Ever?

Hurricane Wilma is the 12th hurricane this season, and the 21st named storm. The last time there were this many hurricanes in a single season was 1969. The only other season that there were this many named storms was in 1933. Reliable hurricane records stretch back to 1851, eight years before the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

The link between the severity/frequency of hurricanes and global warming is still a hotly debated topic. My guess is that it will not be debated in 5-10 years time...

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Policy Webs and the Coalition Game

The Vote for the Environment campaign asked each of the eight main political parties in New Zealand to answer 59 specific questions on their policy regarding the environment and global climate change. The results of this questionnaire give invaluable insight into the affinities of different parties on policy related to the environment. One simple way of interpreting the results of this questionnaire is to look at the similarity of the answers given between each pair of parties. If this procedure was performed for all pairs of parties then a total of 28 measures of similarity could be tabulated, to completely describe the levels of policy similarity amongst all eight parties. Table 1 shows the policy similarities between all pairs of parties based on the Vote for the Environment questionnaire results.

ACTGreensLabourMaori PartyNationalNZ FirstProgressiveUnited
Maori Party26%84%65%-53%62%78%54%
NZ First60%52%69%62%70%-61%67%

By itself, this table makes for interesting reading. For example, it shows that, on environmental policy, the two most similar parties are the Greens and the Maori party, being 84% similar. Whereas the two most different parties are (unsurprisingly) the Greens and ACT, having only 12% common policy ground. As you would expect Labour and National are both fairly central. The Labour party shares more than 60% policy similarity with all other parties apart from ACT, while National shares greater than 50% similarity with all other parties except for the Greens. NZ First is the only party that somehow manages to maintain 50% similarity with all of the other parties, making them the most versatile party when it comes to coalition talks.

Although this table makes for interesting reading, sometimes a picture is even better. Its possible to turn these numbers into graph that visually illustrates the policy affinities of all the parties in a single picture. To do this we need to borrow some analysis tools used in evolutionary biology. Using standard software when can generate a graph that summarizes all these relationships by using a table of pairwise differences. It is trivial to convert Table 2 into just such a set of differences. For example the 12% similarity between Greens and ACT will convert to an 88% difference. With these differences (known in evolutionary biology as distances, and usually calculated based on the differences between pairs of DNA sequences) we can now use standard computer software to calculate a graph called a Neighbour Net, which provides a compact summary of pairwise similarities. The resulting graph (which I will dub a Policy Web) is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - Environmental Policy Web for 8 New Zealand political parties. The scale bar provides an idea of the approximate percentage difference that the edges in the graph represent.

One observation from the Policy Web is that the Greens, the Maori party and the Progressive Party form a policy clique advocating a strong focus on environmental issues. The second observation is that ACT is out on a fairly long policy limb compared to the other parties. The distance along the shortest path in the graph between two parties in the Policy Web is representative of the amount of difference between their respective policy packages. The Policy Web provides an at-a-glance summary of the relationships between different party’s policies. If it were used across the board, it should provide a quick insight into what coalition combinations actually make sense for a given policy area. Based on environmental policies, the Maori Party should be in coalition with the Greens, and could not possibly sit comfortably with parties such as ACT, National and United Future.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Abrupt climate change

According to Nature magazine's in focus on Climate Change:

"A change in global climate has been described as the greatest current threat to humanity. The fierce debate over how we should meet that threat is constantly stoked by researchers' efforts to understand more about how our climate works, and how exactly we are altering it. Here looks at the changing political and scientific climate in this emotive arena."

Recent research articles in Nature point to a growing consensus among climatologists, using many different data sources including satellite data, weather balloons and climate models. Not only is there agreement that global climate change is real, but independent estimates of the rate of global warming based on these different data sources and methods are starting to agree as well, with rates from 0.09-0.2 degrees Celcius per decade.

More alarming is the possibility of abrupt climate change. This can occur when initial global warming creates the opportunity for positive feedback loops, where more warming triggers new events that create more warming or more greenhouse gases. Three examples of such feedback loops that are occuring are:
  • The shrinking polar ice in the arctic is exposing more dark open ocean, which absorbs much more sunlight then the reflective ice it is replacing. This increase absorption causes further rises in ocean temperatures and thus further decline of the polar ice caps. This process is likely to increase the rate at which the polar ice caps are melting, causing still greater rises in temperature and sea levels worldwide.

  • Increasingly hot and dry summers have in recent years caused widespread forest fires in the USA, Australia and this year in Portugal and Spain. These forest fires release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus accelerating global warming, and causing still hotter and drier summers in the future.

  • Increasingly hot and dry summers, even without fires, have also caused many agricultural crops in Europe to wilt, dry out and sometimes die completely. During this process a huge amount of carbon is released as CO2 into the atmosphere. It has been calculated that in this year alone, as much carbon was released by dry crops in Europe, as was stored by crops in the last 4 years.

These kinds of positive feedback loops could lead to a runaway process whereby even if we cease all human-caused production of greenhouse gases we would still experience the end-game of global climate change -- whatever that may be. Certainly it is likely to involved the complete disappearance of the arctic polar ice and a large increase in worldwide ocean levels. As well we should expect more powerful hurricanes, more forest fires and huge changes in the fauna and flora planet-wide, including the range and distributions of many species.

If the runaway process scenario is correct, than these changes could all occur very abruptly. Even if is not the case, we should expect this century to be the last nice one for humankind for a long time. Taking this scenario together with the fact of diminishing global oil supplies, and you have a recipe for economic paralysis and disaster if the status quo continues. The only good thing is that we know about all of this in advance. Thanks to solid scientific research that is growing more certain and dependable by the day. We are in a position now that we have enough information to act. So lets face this challenge while we are still in good nick! Lets start acting now!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Endangered Greens

Gordon Campbell weighs in on how the Greens went in the last election.

Green rank and file talking about a revolution

This article in the Herald suggests that the Greens are unhappy with their election result. They should be! There are enough potential Green supporters in this country that the Green party should be at least up near the 15% level. I hope that in the next three years, the Green party works out how to demonstrate to a large percentage of New Zealanders that the Green party is a mature, serious political force that can actually represent their views on the very important issues of environment and global climate change, and support those views with sound and sensible social and economic policies.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Arctic ice satellite mission has launch failure

This article on the BBC website reports on the failed launch of the recent Cryostat satellite mission. This mission was designed to give much improved readings of the decline of the polar ice cap which has been estimated to be decreasing at a rate of 8% per decade since 1980. The failure has thrown the project into disarray and it is not clear if and when a replacement satellite will be built to make these much-needed measurements.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Climate change and pollution are killing millions

A World Bank report says that environmental factors such as climate change and pollution are responsible for a wide range of ill affects on human health around the world including increases in cancer and diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Greens must turn on and tune into the mainstream

This article appeared in the NZ Herald on 6/10/2005. There is an interesting response from Frog of the Green party.

Although it is arguable that the majority of the New Zealand population is green, only 5.3 per cent voted for the Green party.

Is this because the Green Party is disenfranchising environmentally minded New Zealanders by the cocktail of policies it requires the voter to swallow with the Green pill?

Why does the Green party require that you also swallow the red social-engineering pill and the multicoloured hallucinogenic pill?

Would it not be better served by avoiding matters unrelated to the environment, and redefining itself as a party with a distinct focus: its raison d'etre, sustainability and the environment?

By only identifying with left-wing economics, does the Green Party not substantially reduce its political influence in the New Zealand MMP environment by discouraging a large pool of environmentally concerned people who are economically right of centre from voting Green?

Effectively, the Greens have backed themselves into a minority corner.

What have they actually achieved since their entry to Parliament? Have they successfully communicated to the public that global oil production has peaked? Are we better informed about global climate change?

No - but we do know that Nandor rides a skateboard and Keith Locke likes body-paint.

Why on Earth are they saying anything about matters that do not relate to the environment? Most New Zealanders were against native forest logging, most were against genetically modified food, and most New Zealanders say the environment helps give us our distinctive sense of identity, yet the Greens have almost no representation of the people who make up this majority.

Where is the business community within the Green Party? The urban professionals? Or farmers?

Instead, there is a reluctance even to appoint a leader - preferring "leadership sharing" - an inheritance from the 1970s Values Party.

A perfect example of how the party marginalises itself is its stance on the decriminalisation of marijuana.

What does this have to do with Green politics or saving the environment? Nothing. Then why have an opinion on it, particularly if it is an opinion that distracts people from core environmental issues and is not a mainstream political view?

The Greens have a mandate to do one thing only - to improve the chance that the human race and other species will not become a mass-extinction story in the long-term, and, in the short-term, that through our own greed we do not cheat our children out of the lifestyle we are able to enjoy.

Whatever means are required to legally and constitutionally arrive at this end should be pursued. All else is noise and distraction.

This aim has most chance of success if it can permanently move both the Left and the Right in a Green direction: an impossible aim under the party's current modus operandi.

To sell this message it needs to promote a new definition of family values that emphasises the hypocrisy of all socially conservative parties that promote (so called) family values, while pursuing greed-based, shortsighted policies that guarantee that our children will inhabit a worse world than us.

The Green Party needs to wake the sleeping world to unquestionable truths about the environment and the requirements for immediate action: reducing CO2 emissions; conserving our natural environment; and developing sustainable alternatives to non-renewable energy sources.

There is a large community of socially liberal, economically conservative people with a green agenda who are not catered for by any political party.

The German Greens, who enjoy a wider support base than our "lefty liberal" Greens, are economically almost completely centrist.

The British Greens, who are a political irrelevancy (and would be even if Britain had MMP), are more left than ours.

Green politics is unique in that its values can apply across the traditional political spectrum. Environmentalism is ubiquitous, crossing social, economic and cultural boundaries, but the Greens court only a subsection of environmentalists.

Today it is a no-brainer to be an environmentalist - this was not the case 30 years ago when we were still largely ignorant of our impact on the environment.

But the Green movement has not caught up with the fact that its cause is now in the mainstream. The look, feel and indeed policy of the Green movement still looks like something from the 70s fringe.

The Green Party remains the only party that is thinking about the sort of world our children will inherit - both major parties in New Zealand pay lip service to this while offering voters instant gratification.

It is for this reason that the Green Party needs to do a better job of focusing on why it exists, and a better job of widening its support base.

We are Green and we demand a mainstream voice.

* Daniel Batten is chief executive of Auckland-based bioinformatics company Biomatters, and a member of the Thinking About Tomorrow Society.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cities take the fight against climate change into their own hands

A recent article in Nature highlights a meeting of more than 20 world cities in London to trade ideas on how to combat climate change. One of the examples of success that individual cities have already had is London's congestion tax on driving in the city centre which was introduced in 2003 and has already reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 19%.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Satellite set to survey Arctic ice thickness

Nature reports that a new satellite that will accurately assess the rate at which the Artic polar ice is disappearing will be launched on 8th October 2005. UK scientists hope this will be the first of numerous missions and that the resulting information will alert the world to the increasing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Green demons or Kiwi battlers fighting for our planet?

In a recent Opinion piece, Simon Cunliffe does a good job of debunking the tired caricatures of the Greens. In fact I think he goes some way towards arguing for the importance of the NZ Green party's continued and increasing role in New Zealand politics. It is a refreshing perspective and I whole-heartedly agree. I think, like him, most of us have a soft spot for the planet, but at the same time get put off by the more exotic fringes of the Green party. Therefore the challenge is to ensure that in future elections the Greens are a viable mainstream party rather than a fringe party that barely makes the threshold. The only way for this to happen is for all those that agree with Simon Cunliffe's point to make their voices heard and engage the NZ Green Party.