Thinking About Tomorrow

A clean green future for everyone     [Home]

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The human health effects of global warming

No Right Turn has a nice summary of some recent research published in Nature magazine on the geographic distribution of effects of global warming. Basically, the developed world gets off lightly and all the really bad shit happens in Africa, Asia and South America:

Image from No Right Turn

However snow-melt dominated water sources are predominantly in the northern (largely developed) countries, and these places will have trouble with water shortages:

Image from No Right Turn

Isn't it odd that the damage done by the (largely northern) industrialized nations seem predominantly to impact the (largely developed) nations near the equator. How evil is that?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Greenhouse-gas levels highest in 650,000 years

Two recent articles in Science magazine demonstrate that current CO2 and methane levels in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the last 650,000 years. In the case of CO2 the current level is about 375 ppm (parts per million). This is compared with a maximum of 290 ppm during the period between 390,000-650,000 years before present. In the case of methane, the current level is about 1700 parts per billion (ppb), as compared with an average of 600 ppb during the same historical period. Furthermore, Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, who led the analysis of Antartic ice cores that provided this information said:

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen 200 times faster over the past 50 years than at any other time during this period.

This unprecedented rate of increase of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere puts the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the human race. If we are driving this change, should we not therefore take it upon ourselves to reverse it?


Siegenthaler U., et al. Science, 310. 1313 - 1317 (2005).
Spahni R., et al. Science, 310. 1317 - 1321 (2005).

Friday, November 25, 2005


Bird flu is creating quite a stir at the moment, and rightly so - a pandemic would be disastrous and we should do all we can to prevent an outbreak. It is amazing to see what can be done on such a large scale, in such a short time to combat a problem once it is deemed threatening enough. The EU has banned imports of all wild birds, as well as farmed birds from Turkey and Greece, and EU nations are spending millions of Euros on the alleged miracle cure, Tamiflu, in an attempt to control the disease should it infect humans. The Americans have set aside $3.9bn in “bird flu funds”, mainly for antiviral drugs and vaccines. Curiously, although perhaps predictably, George Bush says that he has considered using the military to maintain control should the strain appear – cue images of GI’s gunning down poultry and guided missiles taking out chicken farms. Perhaps most impressive though, is the Chinese government’s decision to vaccinate 14 billion birds. This is a lot of birds.

And it isn’t just governments getting in on the act. Auckland University has recently developed a pandemic plan , including briefings to the senate and senior management, a dedicated “response team” and adopting the four-level WHO pandemic management system.

So the message is clear. Bird flu is a big problem and we are doing almost everything we can to prevent it, including spending lots of money on preventative measures and research.

It is interesting to contrast this with the global response to climate change and the threat of global warming. Whilst bird flu is a serious problem that we certainly need to address, global warming is surely a much greater threat to the future of humanity and yet it has initiated less response. Although there is plenty of discourse about global warming, there has been relatively little action. China is willing to vaccinate 14 billion birds but has done virtually nothing to reduce emissions – currently, China is on track to double the world’s anthropogenic carbon emissions. George Bush sees obtaining oil and eliminating dangerous chickens as good reasons to deploy the US military but has shown no interest in curbing US carbon emissions. Only the EU comes close to giving climate change the same sort of priority as bird flu.

So why have birds with colds got most of us more worried than melting glaciers? I suspect it has to do with the immediacy of the threat and that, stories and images of dead chickens (or people) make good news and a fairly convincing, easy-to-follow argument – if you get bird flu you could die, and this is bad. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is just as compelling but far less direct. So this might explain why people aren’t as worried about climate change, but why the lack of action? This is probably to do with the commons dilemma. It makes economic sense to spend money eliminating a disease from your chickens if you want people to buy them in the future. It is more difficult to justify spending a lot of money on cleaner energy sources and higher emissions standards. The climate is a shared resource and it is in a nation’s best interests in the short term to burn fossil fuels as a cheap energy source and to exploit the climate as a dump-site for carbon emissions, even if, in the long term, we all suffer.

Nonetheless, I think the assault on bird flu should give us hope. The Kyoto Protocol is a good first step towards managing the climate as a global commons and if the Chinese government can all of a sudden decide to do something as drastic as vaccinating 14 billion birds, perhaps getting them to fit a few million catalytic converters and start building zero emission vehicles isn’t unrealistic. We just need to convince the right people, and perhaps do what New Zealand has always done, and lead by example.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


One of the things that bugs me at every election is inane comments from 'business commentators' to the effect that 'the markets don't like instability, and eagerly await a conclusive result from this election.' Note the way in which markets are given human personalities. While amusing in a stomach-churning kind of way, there is a far more serious undertone: the markets don't like elections. Or at the very least they don't like the 'instability' associated with them, and with representative democracy more generally. They would, presumably, have preferred Ruth Richardson to be installed as Supreme Commander for Life circa 1992. The notion that government should be run not by elected representatives, but by technocrats whose ideologies have no public mandate, has resurfaced recently.

But let us suppose that markets really don't like 'instability' - by which I assume those commentators mean 'uncertain outcomes.' Why aren't they, then, speaking out about the climatic instability associated with global warming? Where are business' talking heads on this year's strange hurricane season, for example? I may have missed them, but I suspect not: business might not like democracy, but its distaste for instability doesn't seem to extend to any serious questioning of the effects its goods and services have on the climate.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Paraphrasing Diamond's Collapse

…Australia has a well educated populace, a high standard of living, and relatively honest political and economic institutions by world standards. Hence Australia’s environmental problems cannot be dismissed as products of ecological mismanagement by an uneducated, desperately impoverished populace, and grossly corrupt government and businesses, as one might perhaps be inclined to explain away environmental problems in some other countries.
- from Jared Diamond's Collapse

I could make a joke about Australians’ intelligence here, but I am not going to. I am part way through Jared Diamond’s latest book and, after discussing numerous environmental successes and failures, from the collapse of island ecosystems at the hands of Polynesian settlers, to the extensive national park systems and forests of Japan and Dominican Republic, Diamond turns to something much closer to home…for me at least. He chooses Australia as a case study of modern western environmental problems.

Now, Collapse is a fascinating read, but the above quote bugs me. In one sense it is quite obvious what Diamond is saying, and I don’t mean to criticize him for simply making the point that Australia is very different to, say, Haiti. It is wealthier, better educated, and politically and economically more stable and less corrupt. And, this should make it easier to initiate positive environmental change. This makes sense. What bugs me is that, given all these ‘advantages’, why is Australia (and the West in general) failing so dismally to instigate positive change? Are the factors Diamond mentions in the West really any better when it comes to getting people to live within the carrying capacity of their environment?

By assuming that our hallowed education system, high standard of living and political and corporate systems are advantages, we may fail to pick up on problems with these aspects of our society as far as the environment is concerned. Similarly, we may wrongly despair and lose hope about the future of societies without these characteristics.

Australians may be highly educated, but do they really have a better understanding in general of, say, how ecosystems function? Tertiary education itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to induce people to behave sustainably. For instance, Diamond speaks of the Papua New Guinea highlanders who have learnt to manage their local environment very effectively and they don’t need a degree to do this. Of course, I am not suggesting everyone pulls their kids out of school so they can learn bush-craft, just that, at the moment, despite our wonderful education system people don’t know much about their natural environment. How many times have I heard people confuse global warming and the hole in the ozone layer?

Our ‘higher’ standard of living is also falsely reassuring, and not just because it is largely the result of unsustainable per capita consumption rates. We also tend to value the fact that we are free to do something about the environment whilst the “desperately impoverished populace” of Third World nations can barely manage to get food for today, let alone think about tomorrow. I do not mean to trivialize the plight of the world’s poor, but we from the West also appear to be locked into a similar mindset of desperate impoverishment. Consumer culture subjects us to a constant, largely inescapable bombardment of invented wants and needs that render us desperately impoverished as far as the environment is concerned. Despite serious environmental consequences, few of us seem to be able to resist for long the opportunity to basically have anything we want and do anything we want, anywhere we want. In addition, it is consumer culture and our own ‘desperate impoverishment’ that is indirectly responsible for a large amount of the environmental destruction in the developing world. Whilst it is tragic when a poor Third World farmer is forced to overgraze his land one year and then starves the next, it is unconscionable that the world’s poor might be starving so that we can get cheap cotton or coffee.

Finally, we like to think that our just, democratic political and economic systems set us apart from the problems of corruption that plague environmental movements in the Third World. Again, this may be a false sense of security. For example, despite widespread public opposition, the Australian logging industry has managed to largely retain legislation allowing unsustainable logging of Australia’s last Old-growth forest remnants. Similarly, US environmental and foreign policy remains almost laughably in favour of oil companies and arms manufacturers at the expense of US citizens and the environment.

The point Diamond was making above, was that there are good reasons to be optimistic about the ability of the West to deal with environmental problems and adapt to live more sustainably. Whilst this may be true, it is easy to become complacent and even arrogant about the way the West operates. In fact, the environmental and social obstacles that Western societies face are not so different from developing nations. We have a public largely ignorant of their impact on the environment, starving for instant gratification in favour of long term planning, and a political and economic system geared towards short-term goals and big business interests. We cannot afford to be complacent or arrogant. We must be open-minded, humble and innovative, for the solution is surely not Western, but global.

-- by Quentin, member of the Thinking about Tomorrow Society

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Are you taking Climate Change seriously?

The Age has an in depth article on climate change and how it is already affecting a number of fragile species in Australia such as this frog that lives on the highest peaks of Queensland's wet tropical rainforests.

Bellenden Ker Nursery-Frog (Cophixalus neglectus)
[image source]

In the side panel of their article there is an interesting reader's poll on global warming. These were the results when I voted:

How seriously do you take global warming?

72% - Extremely - it's too late to avoid problems
10% - It's a moderate threat
4% - I think it's important but manageable
13% - Overblown - it's not a huge threat

Total Votes: 304

Of course all this says is that the majority of people that take the time to read about think its a problem. But I guess they are also the best informed. So what do you reckon?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Blair now has to live up to the rhetoric

The World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF UK) has strongly criticized Blair for his recent comments that suggest he is trying to undermine the idea of binding targets such as those that UK has signed up to under the . This comes just days after the President of the Royal Society made similar appeals to Blair and the British government to stop talking and start acting. The BBC reported that according to the WWF UK, there is little difference between Bush and Blair apart from rhetoric. This kind of comment must sting Blair given that has been one of his self-proclaimed strengths whereas Dubya is widely regarded as the least environmentally-friendly President in the history of the universe. Blair has got to start coming good on his promises.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fossil fuel sucks, lets do renewable

(Click image for larger version)

Thinking about tomorrow.

NZ Green Party Priorities

There have been various rumblings on Frogblog about Green party policy priorities. Most recently these rumblings have been instigated by news of the return of Nandor to parliament. Some posters have worried that
...many ‘environmentalist-only’ greens would be shocked by the sizeable number of votes that would be lost if the Green Party lost their parallel social justice focus.
However, as far as I can see none of the contributors have denied the importance of social justice as a corner-stone of Green party policy. The discussion has been about priorities, and it is a discussion I think the NZ Green party needs to have. How does the Green party allocate effort to the various policy platforms that they support. I would contend that both social justice and environmentalism are global issues. I would further contend that social justice is a fundamental requirement for a modern society, but is irrelevant if we don't also have sustainability.

Currently I think it would be fair to say that New Zealand is far closer to being a just society then India, China and most countries in Africa. New Zealand is probably also more socially just than the USA and Australia right now. However this is no reason to be complacent and the NZ Green party should continue its good work in this direction. Unfortunately, there is no developed country, including NZ, that currently has a sustainable future. All of the developed world is living on borrowed, non-renewable resources. A solution to this problem is urgently needed, and it is for that reason that I believe New Zealand should lead the way, and that the Green party should prioritize accordingly. I am not suggesting dumping social justice concerns. But I am suggesting that the resources and focus should be rationalized. Simple as that.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Blair must walk the talk on climate change

World-renowned scientist and President of the Royal Society, Lord May, has said that Tony Blair will not be able to continue claiming to be a world-leader on climate change because the UK has lost control of its own greenhouse gas emissions.

Lord May also explained to his peers that "research earlier this month suggests that a drop in rainfall in Ethiopia and surrounding countries in the past few years, where six to 10 million people are already facing serious food shortages, is also caused by a rise in sea surface temperatures, this time in the southern Indian Ocean. In the developing world climate change is about life and death - not just about domestic economics."

He continued by saying, "It is very difficult to criticise other countries, such as the United States, who will not meet their targets if we are unable to meet ours."

Tony Blair could start walking the talk by support a couple of backbencher bills that are being read for the second time in parliament today. The Management of Energy in Buildings Bill, promoted by Alan Whitehead, sounds like a great plan. It would require all new homes to have energy generation capacity such as solar panels or heat and power boilers. These would generate electricity that could be sold back to the electricity grid, thus reducing demand for dirty generation from coal and oil-fired power stations.

The Independent also ran a story on the effect of climate change on the British marine environment. The Environment Agency now says that climate change is the single biggest threat to British coasts, outweighing both pollution and overfishing! According to the Agency report erosion damage caused by global warming already represents an estimated cost of £100M/year to the UK economy and that cost is expected to grow over time.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Roger Kerr totally misses the point

In an ill-conceived and frankly idiotic press release by the New Zealand Business Round table entitled Global Warming and Kyoto Becoming Decoupled, Roger Kerr attempts to argue that the Kyoto Protocol and anything like it is fruitless.

I wonder if Roger Kerr is also dismissive of the objective of the Kyoto Protocol which is the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human-caused interference with the climate system.

Early in the article Roger Kerr says:
no democratically elected government could impose large economic costs on its citizens today for minimal environmental benefits a century into the future.
I guess Roger thinks that stabilizing the global climate system is a 'minimal environmental benefit'. Or perhaps he is refering to some of the other 'minimal environment benefits' of curbing global warming? Perhaps saving the Arctic from disappearing altogether is not important to Roger Kerr. Perhaps preventing a modern mass extinction event in the next century (the last one was 65 million years ago) is not a pressing issue for Mr Kerr. Perhaps maintaining the ability for humans to live on the planet past his lifetime is uninteresting to him. Otherwise his statement makes no sense. It is true that the Kyoto Protocol is not enough to curb global warming, but that is an argument that we need to do much more than Kyoto, not less.

I would guess that many democratically elected governments would impose large economic costs on its citizens today in aid of:

* Saving the Arctic from disappearing completely.
* Maintaining a sustainable environment for our children and grandchildren.
* Preventing large rises in the ocean levels.
* Preventing further increases in fires, droughts and flash floods in Europe and around the world.
* Prevented global warming from contributing to the extinction of many of the worlds plants and animals.

I would certainly vote for a government that wanted to do those things.

Roger Kerr goes on to say:
A report for the Greenhouse Policy Coalition by economic consultancy firm Castalia released this week makes it clear that it will be impossible to meet our Kyoto targets without causing unacceptable economic hardship.
What hardship is unacceptable given the potential consequences of unchecked climate change? I assume he is worried that he might have to settle for one latte a day rather than two? It seems that the smallest reduction in the amount of spare change in Roger's pocket would be totally unacceptable, even if saving the planet is the cause. Does Mr Kerr hope that by ignoring climate change it will go away? Maybe an old man who doesn't care about future generations can make that case, but I sure can't.

Turning to the newly elected New Zealand government and the agreement between the Labour party and its minority supporters, Roger Kerr crows:
Especially pleasing is the provision in the agreement with United Future that 'a new cost benefit analysis of the proposal to introduce a carbon tax as part of our Kyoto obligations will be conducted and no legislation will be introduced before the analysis is completed.'
Sorry Roger, but in any reasonable cost-benefit analysis, I suspect the cost of a few shiny dollars will be slightly outweighed by the long term benefit of saving the planet from being flushed down the toilet. How do you put a cost on our planet anyway? These money-worriers have to realize that the planet is not their personal port-a-loo. Someone has to clean up around here and for too long economists have been neglecting to notice that the planet is small and we only have one of them! If you want a worthwhile read, that uncovers the nonsense of doing a cost-benefit analysis of climate change, look no futher than here.

Rod Donald has died, cause unknown

Rod Donald, co-leader of the NZ Green Party, died suddenly early on Sunday morning at the age of 48. This is a terrible blow to the Green party and a tragedy to those that knew him. Most surprising is that a heart attack has been ruled out as the cause, although I don't know what else suddenly kills apparently fit and vital 48 year olds.

According to a story in the NZ Herald Rod Donald was a well-known and well-respected figure world-wide in the green movement, and it appears that he also was very well-regarded by his fellow NZ parliamentarians of all parties, as a great number of them plan to attend his funeral on Thursday.

The green party blog, Frog blog has a link to the Tom Scott cartoon about Rod that summarizes him as a Pragmatic Idealist, a Friend of the Planet and a Good Man. He has undoubtedly inspired many people to follow in his footsteps, as the condolence book on Frog blog, with hundreds of entries, is a testament to.

Kyoto Protocol reduces growth, but global warming costs money and lives

The BBC has run a story that the Kyoto Protocol will 'reduce Europe's growth'. The story is about a report from the Council for Capital Formation that shows Spain's growth will fall by 3% and Italy's will shrink by 2% because of their commitments under the . So what?! Without measures to curb global , there will be a lot more to worry about than a downshift in growth. Check out some of my previous posts on the effects that will have on Europe and worldwide animal and plant species.

The BBC article does correctly point out the is not enough by a long shot. But without concrete binding targets and cooperation of nations the problem will not be solved in the time that it needs to be. In the long term, inaction will be much much more costly then the short-term economic cost of action now. Yes, life will be a bit more difficult and costly in the short term if we reduce emissions, but that is because we have been living in an unsustainable and short-sighted manner, without regard for future generations. That short-sightedness must cease if we are to start taking responsibility for our actions and start thinking about our children.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Top 200 Universities according to The Times

The Times Higher Education Supplement ranks the top 200 Universities worldwide again for the 2005 year. The top 10 were:

 1. Harvard University (USA)
 2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA)
 3. Cambridge University (UK)
 4. Oxford University (UK)
 5. Stanford University (USA)
 6. University of California, Berkeley (USA)
 7. Yale University (USA)
 8. California Institute of Technology (USA)
 9. Princeton University (USA)
10. Ecole Polytechnique (France)

New Zealand universities

Auckland University managed a very respectable 52nd (up from 67th in 2004), coming in above the likes of Pennsylvania State University, USA (64), Copenhagen University, Denmark (66) and King's College London, UK (73).

Otago University came in at 186th (down from 114th).

Massey University was the only other New Zealand University in the top 200, coming in at 188th (down from 108th).

The volatility of these scores seems a bit suspicious. Usually you can't drastically change how good a university is in one year, which suggests to me that these scores are either really noisy (dependent on small sample sizes for peer review which is 40% of the score), or really sensitive to year-on-year data.

Either way, according to the outside world it appears Auckland University is held in the highest esteem of the New Zealand Universities. For a while now there have been arguments that New Zealand has too many Universities for its small population size, and would be better served by reducing the number of Universities from 8 down to about 4-5. That sounds like a very nasty business to me, but I guess having only 3 universities in the top 200 is the kind of argument used to support that conclusion. Either way, ensuring high quality research and tertiary teaching must be high on the agenda in any country that wants to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Incidently this is quite different from non-British-based rankings of Universities. It appears that the British think quite highly of us NZers -- maybe its because of the All blacks :-)

Global warming hurrying along the sixth mass extinction?

Over the last few years there has been a continous flow of evidence that the behaviour of plants and animals is changing (often inappropriately) in response to rapid and .

In a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, one of the authors, Marcel Visser, from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Heteren, sounds a stark warning:

"The point has often been made that temperatures have increased before in the Earth's past; but the rate now is 100 times greater. And whereas in those times there were large areas of natural habitat, now it's much more difficult for animals to change or migrate; plus there's loss of genetic diversity, habitat fragmentation - it's just much more difficult for species than 1,000 years ago."

In the research paper, Marcel and a co-author catalog over 50 publications carrying evidence for animals and plants responding inappropriately to changes brought about by modern global warming.

As well as the human-caused habitat destruction and deforestation which has already been heralded as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction in the history of Earth (and the first mass extinction since the end of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago), it appears that global warming is now taking part in the mayhem as well.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Think about clean energy

If you are a NZer then check out the Clean Energy Guide, and feel free to print out this image and paste it up somewhere that people can see:

(Click on image for larger version)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Dubya: By being the problem I will provide the solution

Type "failure" into Google and hit the "I'm feeling lucky" button. At 11:57pm NZ time the reproducible behaviour was to be taken directly to Dubya's website (This is the result of a successful ). On Dubya's site, if you dig deep enough you can find his official executive summary of the Administration's approach to climate change:

"Addressing global climate change will require a sustained effort, over many generations. My approach recognizes that sustained economic growth is the solution, not the problem – because a nation that grows its economy is a nation that can afford investments in efficiency, new technologies, and a cleaner environment." -- Dubya Bush

What a load of elephant shit. A simple fact he seems to be missing is that the Earth has finite resources. Unbounded growth of any kind is pure fantasy. We humans have had a nice ride during the rapid growth phase of our life on Earth, but that phase is about to end rather abruptly. Dubya is sitting down at one end of our little wooden vessel busily drilling a hole in the bottom in search of oil. The rest of us are watching the water level rise inside the boat and are starting to wonder whether or not we should start bailing.

Should we start bailing, or is there another solution?