Category Archives: Uncategorized

Nuclear weapons and me

Remembering Hiroshima – the dead, the survivors and the blight that nuclear weapons have brought on this world – on this day, 75 years after the first nuclear weapon was used against a civilian population. A weapon, remember, that was developed because of a fear that Nazi Germany would develop it.

Joseph Rotblat, a scientist who I admire so much, left the project to develop a nuclear weapon when it became clear to him that Germany would not be able to develop it. Few if any others on the project possessed his moral vision and authority.

In 1981, Professor Mike Pentz, who led the formation of the OU (Open University) science department, founded Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA). I was at Bristol Uni. doing a Post Doc at the time.

I went to hear him speak. What an amazing and inspiring speaker he was; I signed up on the spot. The cruise missile crisis was in full swing.

Within months it seemed I was on the National Coordinating Committee of SANA.

It kind of killed my passion for science, something I’d been in love with since a young boy. I had a lab when I was just 12.

I left my research in computational quantum chemistry.

I went into the world of industry and in my spare time spent a lot of the 80s working in the background helping to develop tools for the anti-nuclear movement.

This included a Program to assess the impact of nuclear attacks, which I managed to squeeze onto an Amstrad PCW 8256 – with no hard disc and a memory of just 256K! Or 0.25Mb, or 0.00025Gb.

This program was given free to local authorities. 

During this time I had also married the beautiful nurse who I met in Bristol, and we brought up two girls. So Bristol always has a special resonance for me, on so many levels.

Eventually I was pretty burnt out and stepped back from nuclear activism – after all, we got rid of cruise. Job done, right?

If only.

SANA evolved into SGR, Scientists for Global Responsibility, a great organisation that is still going strong and doing good work.

Nevertheless, it might explain why it took a while for me to realise there was another great elephant in the room – global warming. 

This time, it was Naomi Klein, and specifically her book This Changes Everything which was the kick up *** I needed. I have a signed copy from when she spoke at the Cheltenham Book Festival.

Now I spend a lot of my time in retirement on climate change matters, but focusing my efforts on local community action.

I never lost my love for science, even if things turned out different to my boyhood dreams.

But damn you, nuclear weapons, and damn you fossil fuels, and you, the same old, same old vested-interest apologists.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Angry Weather

Dr Fredi Otto is the Acting Director of the Environmental Change institute and an Associate Professor in the Global Climate Science Programme where she leads several projects understanding the impacts of man-made climate change on natural and social systems with a particular focus on Africa and India.

Her new book, Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change published by Greystone Books is due out on 17th September in the UK (and 2 days earlier in USA), and I for one, can’t wait to read it.

She was interviewed about the book in The New Scientist

Credit: Rocio Montoya

Here’s a short review by Kirkus.

The attribution work Dr Fredi Otto has helped pioneer is extremely important and here’s why …

We need to be able to move beyond the general global trends that have tended to dominate the conversation on climate change. These demonstrate beyond doubt that human greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant factor in creating a warmer world, where extreme weather events are an expected outcome.

What has been harder to assess is the ability to pin a particular extreme weather event on man-made global warming.

I am hoping that this book will help me – and maybe you? – on a journey of discovery, to learn more about advances in our understanding of how to make that link (I am ordering my copy through my local bookshop The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, not Amazon, because (a) I support local businesses whenever I can and (b) YLB are just brilliant!)

In a previous era when smoking and lung cancer cases first began to appear in the courts, the tobacco companies would use the defence that nobody could be sure if this or that particular case was due to smoking or would have happened anyway. It was just bad luck!

No matter that the bad luck was rising exponentially amongst smokers.

The fossil fuel companies can and will use the same cynical defence.

Sir Richard Doll and collaborators did pioneering work to demonstrate the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950, using novel statistical methods to overcome the charge that ‘correlation does not mean causation’. In this case it most certainly did. Remember, that this long ago, the underlying biochemical mechanisms were not that well understood, and it was 3 years before we had even the basic structure of DNA established, in that seminal year when I was born 🙂

So, climate attribution science – the ability to pin man-made climate change on particular extreme weather events – is a complete game-changer.

The advantage here is that the underlying physical mechanism are extremely well understood, relying on 200 years of accumulated fundamental science. No need here for any new fundamental physics.

But once again, statistics is the hurdle that must be overcome.

Because while at a global level, the uncertainties as to the human causation for global climate change have now essentially decreased to the point where humanity’s fingerprints are all over man-made global warming, as one gets to smaller and smaller scales, the uncertainties mount up, for quite basic statistical reasons.

Once again, innovations are required in order to demonstrate the link at the level of a Hurricane Sandy, or the recent extreme Australian Fire season.

But imagine the implications of being able to make these connections.

We would then be in a position to hold businesses and politicians to account for their inaction, and put a price on the consequential damage, at least in the narrow sense of the quantifiable impact on property; something they at least understand [1].

As Dr Otto says:

“If governments don’t do their job and don’t do enough to put a stop to climate change, then courts can remind them of their purpose.”

So, far from being about some dry technicalities regarding climate attribution and statistical analysis, this book could become part of the tool-kit of everyone involved in action to limit the extent and severity of man-made global warming.

I really hope it does.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, July 2020

NOTES

[1] It is tragic that we seem – at least in the Anglo-Saxon culture – to put so much more weight on loss of property than loss of habitat or life even, but that bias can be turned to our advantage.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Following the science: what should that mean?

Following the science and politics

The ‘science’ represents the evidence, the ‘Is’, but we need values, the ‘Should’ to arrive at what’s possible, the ‘Can’, and then leadership, capabilties and capacity to turn that into action, the ‘Will’. Only when the plans are executed is it ‘Done’. The refinement loops come from ‘measure effectivity’ and ‘weigh opinion’, and there will always be a tension – sometimes a conflict – between these.

 

It has been a mantra repeated every day at the UK Government’s Covid-19 press briefing that they are following, or are guided by the science.

What does this mean or what should it mean?

Winston Churchill famously said that scientists should be on tap, but not on top. 

This meant, of course, that politicians should be the ones on top. 

Scientists can present the known facts, and even reasonable assessments of those aspects of a problem that are understood in principle or to some level, but for which there remain a range of uncertainties (due to incomplete data or immature science). As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Science navigates these three domains.

Yet, it is the values and biases, from whatever colour of leadership is in charge, that will ultimately drive a political judgment, even while it may be cognisant of the evidence. The science will constrain the range of options available to an administration that respects the science, but this may be quite a wide range of options. 

For example, in the face of man-made global warming, a Government can opt for a high level of renewables, or for nuclear power, or for a radical de-growth circular economy; or something else. The science is agnostic to these political choices.

The buck really does stop with the politicians in charge to make those judgments; they are “on top”, after all.

So the repeated mantra that they are “following the science” is rather anti-Churchillian in its messaging.

If instead, Ministers said, “we have considered the scientific advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, based on discussions of a broad range of scientific evidence and opinion represented on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and supporting evidence, and have decided that the actions required at this stage are as follows …”, then that would be correct and honest. 

And even if they could not repeat such a wordy qualification at every press conference it would be like a proverbial Health Warning – available on Government websites – like on a cigarette packet, useful for anyone who feels brave enough to start smoking the daily propaganda on how brilliant the UK is in its response to Covid-19 (which, despite a lot of attacks on it, has not been as bad as some make out, and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) have rightly gained a lot of credibility during the crisis).

The uncomfortable truth is that ‘following the science’ is about proaction not reaction; about listening to a foretold risk years in advance and taking timely and substantive actions – through policies, legislation, projects, etc. – to mitigate against or build resilience in the face of known risks.

Pandemics of either a flu variety or novel virus kind have been at the top of the UK’s national risk assessment for a decade. Both SARS and MERS were warnings that South Korea took seriously to increase their preparedness. The UK was also warned by its scientists to be prepared. The UK Government under different PMs has failed to take the steps required.

Listening to the science in the midst of a pandemic is good, but doing so well in advance of one, and taking appropriate action is a whole lot better. Prevention is better than cure, is a well known and telling adage.

Of course, the naysayers will come out in force. If one responds to dodgy code prior to 2000 and nothing bad happens, they will say that the Y2K bug was a sham, an example of alarmism “gone mad”; they will not acknowledge the work done to prevent the worst outcomes. Similarly, if we mothball capacity for a pandemic, then once again, expect the charge of alarmism and “why so many empty beds?”.

Our economy is very efficient when things are going well – just-in-time manufacture, highly tuned supply chains, minimal redundancy, etc. – but not so great when shocks come, and we discover that the UK cannot make PPE (personal protective equipment) for our health and care workers and we rely on cheap off-shored manufacturing, and have failed to create sufficient stocks (as advised by scientists to do so).

Following the science is not something you do on a Monday. You do it all week, and then you act on it; and you do this for risks that are possibly years or decades in the future. You also have to be honest about the value-based choices you make in arriving at decisions and not to hide being the science.

Scientists don’t argue about the knowns: the second law of thermodynamics, or that an R value greater than 1 means exponential growth in the spread of a virus. But scientists will argue a great deal about the boundary between the known and unknown, or the barely known; it’s in their nature. Science is not monolithic. SAGE represents many sciences, not ‘the’ science.

For Covid-19 or any virus, “herd immunity” is only really relevant to the situation where a vaccine is developed and applied to the great majority of the population (typically greater than 85%), with a designed-in strong immunity response. Whereas immunity resulting from having been naturally infected is a far less certain outcome (particularly for Coronaviruses, where there is typically a weak immune response).

So, relying on uncontrolled infection as a basis for herd immunity would be naive at best. It is true that it was discussed by SAGE as a potential outcome, but not as the core strategy (as Laurence Freedman discussed here); the goal was always to flatten the curve, even if there was great debate about the best way to achieve this.

One of the problems with the failure to be open about that debate and the weighing of factors is that it leaves room for speculation as to motives, and social media has been awash with talk of a callous Government more interested in saving the economy than in saving lives. I am no fan of this Government or its PM, but I feel this episode demonstrates the lack of trust it has with the general public, a trust that Boris Johnson failed to earn, and is now paying the price in the lack of trust in his Government’s pronouncements.

Yet I do have confidence in the CSA and CMO. They are doing a really tough job, keeping the scientific advice ‘on tap’. They cannot be held responsible for the often cack-handed communications from Ministers, and failure to be straight about PPE supplies and the like.

Some people have criticised the make up of SAGE – for example, because it has too many modellers and no immunologists and no virologists. I don’t understand the lack of immunologists.

Virologists are clearly key for the medium-long term response, but a vaccine is probably over a year away before it could be deployed. So, at the moment, containment of the spread ‘is’ the Emergency, and social distancing, hand-washing, isolation, hospitals, testing, etc. are the tools at hand, and it might be defendable that they are not currently the focus of the discussion.

Groups at Oxford University and Imperial College are being funded to help develop vaccines and to run clinical trials. Virology is not being ignored and it is rather odd to suggest otherwise.  But again, transparency should be the order of the day – transparency on who is invited onto SAGE, when and why, and transparency on the evidence they receive or consider. But having a camera in there broadcasting live discussions may inhibit frank debate, so is probably not a great idea, but the Minutes do need to be published, so other experts can scrutinise the thought processes of the group.

The reason why Dominic Cummings (or any other political role) should not be sitting on SAGE, in my view – even if they make no contribution to the discussion – is that there is a risk (a certainty, probably) that he then provides a backdoor summary of the discussions to the Prime Minister, which may conflict with that provided by the CSA. It is the CSA’s job to summarise the conclusions of the discussion and debate at SAGE and provide clear advice, that the Government can then consider and act on. The political advisers and politicians will have plenty of opportunity to add their spin after receiving the scientific advice; not during its formation or communication.

Now, it seems, everyone agrees that testing and contact tracing will be key tools in ending or reducing the lock down, but of course, that means having the systems in place to implement such a strategy. We don’t yet have these.

The British Army, I understand, don’t use the term “lessons learned”, because it is so vacuous. We have “lessons learned” after every child abuse scandal and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. 

A lesson truly learned is one that does not need that label – it is a change to the systems, processes, etc., that ensures a systemic response. This results in consistently different outcomes. It is not a bolt on to the system but a change in the system.

Covid-19 asks lots of questions not just about our clinical preparedness but the fairness of our systems to safeguard the most vulnerable.

Like a new pandemic, the threats from global warming have also been foretold by scientists for decades now, and UK politicians claim to be listening to the science, but they are similarly not acting in a way that suggests they are actually hearing the science.

As with Covid-19, man-made global warming has certainties and uncertainties. It is certain that the more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere the warmer the world will get, and the greater the chance of weather extremes of all kinds. But, for example, exactly how much of Greenland will melt by 2100 is an on-going research question.

Do the uncertainties prevent us taking proactive action?

No, they shouldn’t, and a true political leader would take the steps to both reduce the likely size of impacts (mitigations), and increase the ability of society to withstand the unavoidable impacts (adaptation), to increase resilience.

The models are never perfect but they provide a crucial tool in risk management, to be able to pose ‘what if’ type questions and explore the range of likely outcomes (I have written In Praise of Computer Models before).

Following the science (or more correctly, the sciences) should be a full-time job for any Government, and a wise one would do well to listen hard well in advance of having to respond to an emergency, to engage and consult on its plans, and to build trust with its populace.

Boris Johnson and his Government need to demonstrate that it has a plan, and seeks support for what it aims to do, both in terms of prevention and reaction. It needs to do that not just for the Covid-19 crisis, but for the array of emerging crises that result from man-made global warming.

We need to change the system, before the worst impacts are felt.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020.

 

FOOTNOTE – Sir Mark Walport and John Ziman – on science policy and advice

I listened to Sir Mark Walport a few years ago in a conversation about the role of Chief Scientific Adviser (a post he has held), which was very interesting

“ON STANDING FOR SCIENCE AND WHERE SCIENCE FITS IN POLICY”, SIR MARK WALPORT, Science Soapbox,

http://www.sciencesoapbox.org/sir-mark-walport/

[This episode was recorded on July 21, 2016 in front of a live audience at Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University.]

He said that any policy must look at a problem through 3 different lenses:
– Evidence lens
– Deliverability lens
– Values lens

and that science can only help with the first of these.

He made the point that trust in science is very context specific: Science can say anything about the Higgs Boson and be believed, but on an issue like embryology, values kick in and there will be much less trust.

He also makes a strong distinction between ‘pollable’ questions and non-pollable questions. I will give examples.

“does extra CO₂ in the atmosphere lead to increased global warming?” is a non-pollable questions (the unequivocal answer is: yes); whereas “should UK focus on renewables or nuclear power to decarbonise the grid?” is a pollable question (answer: Brits much prefer renewables, by a wide margin).

Scientists need a special range of skills to be able to do the advice job, above and beyond their scientific skills. John Ziman explored the differences between scientific discourse and political debate in his paper (2000) “Are debatable scienti􏰜fic questions debatable?”

Click to access Ziman.pdf

He explains how complex most scientific questions are, with rarely a simple resolution, and conducted in a way quite different to political debate (yet no less argumentative!). The two styles sit awkwardly together.

Yet public and political discourse (especially on social media, but in newsprint, and parliament too) often expects a binary answer: yes or no, right or wrong. Shades of grey are often not tolerated, and if you don’t ‘choose a side’, expect to get caught in the crossfire.

I haven’t read the belatedly released SAGE Minutes yet but I expect there will have been lots of discussions on points where Walport’s lenses (Evidence, Deliverability, Values) sit uncomfortably alongside each other.

At some point, I imagine a fly on the wall, hearing …

“we need to do test, trace and isolate as soon as possible”

“agreed, but we need to recognise the constraint that the test capacity is limited at the moment, so we’ll have to wait till we have flattened the curve enough, to reduce the testing demand, but also build up capacity; meanwhile we cannot avoid a lockdown”

“can someone answer this – how well will the public comply and how would this change the numbers?”

“we ran some sensitivity analysis, and we need very high compliance to make it work”

“…”

Leading to a messy compromise set of ‘options’ and scientists NOT the ones with the authority to choose which ones.

The scientists didn’t choose a context where Governments had failed to take on board prior recommendations over some years, to build capacity in PPE, etc. So the advice is very context dependent.

It is highly disingenuous of politicians to say they are ‘following the science’ when that is just one element in the decision making, and where a poor starting position (e.g. the lack of prior investment in pandemic responsiveness) is neither something they influenced, nor can change.

….  o o O o o ….

Updated with Diagram and Footnote on 28th June 2020

2 Comments

Filed under COVID-19, Global Warming Solutions, Transition to Low Carbon, Uncategorized

Becoming an artist: fundamentals

 

“you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye”

David Hockney reflecting on the Chinese attitude to art

 

I wrote about my ‘awakening’ in moving originally from a science background and finding my way to becoming an artist since my retirement.

Art may seem to be completely different to the science I grew up with, because there appear to be no rules. But the artist and scientist do have quite a lot in common, as I discussed previously:

        • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
        • ability to acutely observe the world; 
        • a fascination with patterns;
        • not afraid of failure;
        • dedication to keep going; 
        • searching for truth; 
        • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
        • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

The difference is that in science we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypotheses that challenge the boundaries of our knowledge. Whereas in art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see, and how do I make sense of it?’ , then, ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’.

In art we do not have rules like in science, but in order to make progress, it is important to articulate guidelines, or fundamental principles if you like.

My starting point is a desire to create representational art, but including impressionistic styles, and even abstractions. I am not interested in trying to create a perfect copy of a scene, because as I often say, if that was my objective I would use a camera, not a paint brush.

This is not about being lazy and not wanting to create all that perfect detail, but rather to highlight the fact that a painting is doing a completely different job to a photograph; it is an expression not a record.

This is the second essay in a series I am writing on Becoming an artist, and I want to turn to the fundamentals.

The fundamental principles can be loosely grouped under the following headings:

  • Heart – learning to develop one’s creative impulse;
  • Eye – learning to observe as an artist does;
  • Hand – learning general techniques applicable to any medium.

I cover just those principles that I have internalised particularly over the last few years as a student of Alison Vickery, my mentor on this journey.

I haven’t read Hockney’s reflections on the Chinese artist tradition, but it is curious that I independently – in my first draft of this essay – came up with Practice, Observation and Technique. It was Alison who suggested it fitted well with the Chinese approach that Hockney espouses, so I changed the headings to Heart, Eye and Hand. Maybe these really are universals that any student of painting, from any culture, will recognise on reflection.

I am always questioning things “why do you do that?” or “how do you do that?”, and then trying to find the why behind the why. 

Alison has never written down this list, this is my appreciation of the lessons I have learned, and I am sure I will have missed some important elements out, or presented things differently to how a professional artist like her would articulate things. 

I am sharing my journey and the ideas that have helped me, and so feel free to use and abuse these ideas in your journey.

Heart

The emotional side of painting is in many ways the most important. When you feel free to express yourself in the way you want, you are, by definition, an artist. 

While you try to be someone else and to follows somebody else’s standards of what you think you should be and do, then you will struggle to find your voice, and your language for expression. 

Under the heading of ‘Heart’ I highlight the things that most influenced me in finding my voice, which includes aspects of expressiveness.

Loosen up

In sport you need to do a warm up, and in art it is also important to free up any tension in your mind or body.  Try to start a session on a cheap piece of paper first (so you won’t stress about ‘wasting’ an expensive piece of art paper).

Even when doing a piece of work you wish to develop, you still need to be bold and work fast, initially at least, and avoiding tightening up.

Start with the biggest brush you can get away with, hold it loose not tightly.  When you start painting, avoid fine brushes altogether; they will kill your ability to work loose.

For watercolour, try starting with a size 12 brush  – a decent quality one that will hold a lot of pigment but still make a point.

Loosen up. Make mistakes, they may be happy ones.

Work the whole area

The opposite extreme would be to start painting in the bottom left and work your way up to the top right, or for Michelangelo to carve out the perfect head of the David before moving on to doing his willy! No, as with a sculptor, you must ‘chip away’ all over the subject in broad bold strokes.

As you move to less bold and more detailed strokes, still keep working all areas of the ‘canvas’.

A huge benefit of this approach is that you will being to see things that influence how you develop the painting. Maybe you had a preconception of how you wanted to develop it, but you can now see how to make it better.

Don’t be afraid of white space

Working every areas of the paper is not the same as covering every area with paint – it is ok and actually desirable to leave areas of white space (or whatever the background colour might be). You need the light to get in.

White might be used to suggest light falling on a subject; a painted tree might be dark on one side where there is shadow, and white on the other, suggesting light from the sun.

This is particularly important with a medium like watercolour, where you need to compensate for an inherent difficulty in creating good contrast, and the white space can help to achieve it.

Use sketches and studies

As part of trying to get to know the scene better, do several quick sketches or studies, maybe starting with a charcoal drawing, then a very quick watercolour. Give yourself a short time just to produce something. Use cheap paper again.

Perhaps tear off bits of paper and see how it changes your perspective on things.

Mess around. Don’t self censor. Just go for it. 

If you create something that you think ‘that looks interesting’, then cut it out and paste it into an art journal, and add some written side notes “I wetted the paper and dropped in a swathe of cobalt blue, then dabbed it with kitchen towel to create a cloud”. Build up an inventory of such experiments.

Play with composition

After doing an initial sketch of a scene, you can use a ‘window’ cut out of card (with the required aspect ratio for the final painting), placed at different distances from the sketch, and use it to see how much you want to include in the final piece.

Maybe you decide that the house in the foreground is a distraction from the copse on the hillside which is what you really want to be the main focus in the composition.

Learn when to stop

Picasso once said that a finished painting is a dead painting.

It is so easy to over-work a painting, so learning where that inflexion point occurs – between improving a piece and killing it – is perhaps the most difficult skill of all.

Always err on being slightly underdone to overdone.

Eye

Painting is not photography. You are not trying to replicate what a camera would see. 

You are creating an impression that speaks to you (and you hope, will speak to others, but that is a bonus). While the work is representational, that does not mean you cannot be impressionistic.

You can decide to remove the annoying road sign that is upsetting the composition; make the clouds more moody; or whatever you care to. But it is important to learn to observe. Having a good eye is as important as having a good brush!

Paint what catches your eye or interests you

It might be the shape of a tree that intrigues you, or the curve of a river, or the curious shape of a cloud, or the tree line on a brow of a hill. Whatever it is, it is a great subject for you, because you are emotionally invested in it.

Learn to be acutely observant

How much time are you spending looking at the paper, and your brush strokes and how much time observing the subject matter? As a novice it is often a 80/20 split in time, when if anything it should be a 20/80 split.

The more you look, the more you see. The brain is telling you that the grass is green, but look closely and in the evening sunlight there seems to be some blue grass in the shadows of the tree – impossible? No, trust what you see.

The light from the window makes the shoulder of the sitter look almost white, but how can that be – they are wearing a black jacket. Look again, trust what you see.

Even if you don’t particularly like drawing, it is worth having a go, because it is another way to help develop one’s observational skills.

Think tonally

It is so easy to become obsessed with finding the right colour to use, but much more important than colour is tone.

Seeing the dark patches lurking in the depth of the wood, and noting that even on the apparently uniformly yellow daffodil there are shades and shadows, that help create a sense of volume; these are example of being tonally observant.

Having a good tonal range can really bring a painting to life.

Doing charcoal studies can really help to develop a sense of tone, unencumbered by considerations of colour.

When preparing to compose a picture, establishing the tonal range of the scene or subject is one of the most important things you can do.

Hard and soft edges

Often we feel compelled to paint or draw a hard edge because our brain says ‘there is a vase there, so I will draw around it’. Look more carefully and the brightly lit side of the vase blends in with the brightly lit background, creating a soft barely discernible edge. Resist drawing what you cannot see!

Look through someone else’s eyes

Take time out to step back, get a sup of tea, and then imagine you are someone else viewing the painting for the first time.

Does it grab you? Have you resolved the different elements of the composition? Have you established a focal point that draws the viewer in?

Look out for symmetry

Humans seem to like patterns in nature and one of the most universal patterns is simple bilateral symmetry – the kind created by the reflection of a scene in a body of water (with a horizontal line of symmetry), or created by the centre line of a tree  (with a vertical line of symmetry).

It can really help draw in the viewer to exploit the symmetries we see around us, in our paintings.

Background

A background may naturally present itself, as in a landscape, but in a studio, doing a still life for example, there may be a white wall behind the subject and little else. To avoid a painting looking flat, it is helpful to create a background, even where none exists. Maybe some imagined shadows or some texture on a wall will help.

Think about how a background might enhance the composition. It is so easy to get lost in a subject in a foreground, and forget how important a background can be in developing a composition.

Hand

Most, but not all, of the techniques described below are applicable to any of the painting mediums I have in mind: charcoal, pastel, watercolour, ink and acrylic. 

Later essays will focus on techniques specific to each medium. There are hundred of different techniques and ‘tricks of the trade’ out there. You will never stop learning new ones, but it is easy to get overwhelmed. I have included here the ones I feel are most important, at least to me.

Experiment with mark making

Try using different shaped brush heads, and other tools to create marks on a page.

We cannot all be Van Gogh who created his own brilliant style of mark making, but we can all just have a play.

To illustrate this, think about how you might paint a branch of a tree. You could use a classical pointed watercolour brush and carefully follow a line to mark out the branch. But you might struggle to control the thickness of the branch.

Alternatively, you could use a very wide headed flat brush to create the branch with a single dab of the brush.

Use brushes of different shapes and sizes, twigs, bunched up cloth, sponges, palette knives, or whatever; depending on the medium.

There are no rules with mark making – only that you approach it with confidence – so best to just try out as many variations as you can. Find out what works for you.

Play with negative spaces

A brightly lit vase on a table with a dark background might be approached first by painting the dark background – the vase will appear out of the darkness.

This idea can we be used in different ways, even when doing a simple sketch. Wainwright’s pencil drawings of the Cumbrian hills often include sheep, brightly lit from above. So instead of outlining the back of a sheep, he drew the grassland in the background; a sheep then appears as the negative of the grassland.

Use layering / glazes

When a medium is translucent or thinly enough applied to effectively be so, one can build up multiple layers to create a desired effect. 

In some cases – particularly with pastels – the painting may need to be fixed before proceeding further to avoid muddying the colours.

Surprisingly, even when using a medium as basic as charcoal, it is good to think in terms of layering.

With watercolour, glazes can help to develop depth.

Just as an old piece of furniture develops a patina, a painting can also develop a sense of complexity from multiple glazes.

Thin and thick

In any medium, it is normally best to start thin and only later to use a thicker form of the medium.

In acrylics, this is very important (in oils also, but I won’t be discussing oils in this series); using a more diluted medium at first. But the same applies to watercolours where one starts with light washes on the wet side, and only later might use some gouache on the drier side for some highlights.

The idea applies to pastel painting also. You should use light strokes with the side of a pastel stick at first.

Minimal palette 

Try when working in colour to use a minimal palette. Primary colours and white at a minimum.

It is a great discipline to learn how to make one’s own greens, browns and greys. With 2 yellows and 2 or 3 blues you can make a huge range of greens, for example.  As with all rules, you may want sometimes to break this rule; a ‘sap green’ can be difficult to replicate and is useful for bright foliage.

By using a small palette it makes it easier to tie the painting together, chromatically.

One can always add a few additional hues to finish a painting.

Knocking back

Sometimes a pigment is too bright for the current situation, such as on a grey day in winter. By adding a little of the complementary colour (on the opposite side of a colour wheel), it dulls the intensity of the pigment you are going to use.

With watercolour you can also, of course, reduce the hue intensity by adding white gouache.

Use of resist mediums

A ‘resist’ medium is something you can place on the paper (or canvas, or board) that will not absorb the pigment being applied to the surface. This can be for a range of reasons.

A masking fluid can be used to precisely cover a shape that must remain white in the final piece, or at least, not be covered by whatever is about to be painted over the medium. The fluid must dry fully then be removed by rolling a finger over it. This is ideal, for example, for snowdrop flowers.

The other kinds of resist medium tend to be ones that are used to cover a line or area and remain in place. For example, wax or a clear oil pastel crayon. These can be used to create texture – when wanting to create some extra effects in clouds, or in some landscape or on a building. 

Alternatively, resist might be used to suggest gaps between trees or foreground grasses, or some other effect where you don’t want the background (usually white, but not necessarily so) painted over.

Wet and dry

Particularly with watercolour but also with acrylics, the amount of water used when applying pigment can have a big impact on the picture. There is frequently a benefit to starting quite wet and allowing pigment to flow a bit. This avoids getting hard edges too early in a painting’s development. You can also just drop in other pigments and just see what happens.

You may need to use a hairdryer at some point to allow you to move onto a new wash or glaze / layer.

Later on, it may be you need to do some relatively dry work, dragging a relatively dry and lightly loaded brush – without completely covered the area – in order to deliberately generate striations. In a watercolour, this might be done with water colour pigment added to white gouache, for example.

Dabbing, rubbing and scraping

Sometimes, it is useful to be able to partially remove medium in order to create a necessary effect.

When doing a charcoal sketch, the rubber is as important as the charcoal in building up a patina to develop the image.

In watercolour, a paper towel can be all one needs to instantly create a cloud in a sea of blue that has just be painted.

For acrylic, scraping an upper layer of pigment away – before it has completely dried – to reveal pigment below can be used in number ways, such as helping to suggest a line of trees on the ridge of a hill.

Flicking and spraying

No one wants to paint every leaf on a tree and there is no need to. Look at a tree painted by Turner or Constable and you will see a fair number of brush strokes for foreground trees, to give the impression of detail, without excessive labour, but only broad strokes for distant trees.

Modern painters will often use an additional technique of flicking or spraying pigment to suggest the necessary complexity of the foliage. It can be repeated for different hues to create additional complexity.

Flicking of white gouache, slightly diluted can be used to help suggest the froth of a breaking wave, for example.

It is useful to have a cheap brush with quite stiff bristles (such as one might use for applying PVA in collage; if not available, an old toothbrush will also do the trick), as this allows one to do flicking by merely stroking the bristles (rather than using the wrist), giving much greater control.

Consider the interplay of simplicity and complexity

As we have seen with use of layering, resist and flicking techniques, there are several ways in which to develop complexity, and the human eye is intrigued by complexity. 

That is why we prefer to look at a rusty corrugated tin roof to one that is pristine and uniform. Yet we also like simplicity. A perfectly  rendered blue sky, a flat sea and a wide sandy beach – with just a small sailing boat in the distance – brings a sense of calm.

In developing an idea for a painting we can observe this interplay of complexity and simplicity in the world around us, and then decide how we might render it.

Consider the interplay between precision and imprecision

The painter must choose where to put effort into developing detail.

Typically, the subject is given more attention and other elements of the composition are allowed to be imprecise. A photographer, when doing a portrait amongst a landscape, will often use depth of field to make the background loose focus, and in a way so is the painter, but with greater freedom to emphasise or play with this imprecision. 

It may be that one needs the woodland on the distant hill to frame the picture of the family by the river, but the trick is to be very imprecise in how it is rendered – less is often very much more.

Choice of paper or other surface

There is a bewildering array of different surfaces to paint on. 

Papers can come in different weights and also levels of roughness of the surface.

Pastels require some grain on the surface to ‘take’ the pastel. Watercolour paper can be smooth or mottled and it depends a great deal on how wet you want to work, and whether you find the texture a help or a hinderance.

You will learn about stretching paper, and about priming paper or board with gesso. 

For any single sheet of paper, you need a board and masking tape to secure it to the board. Whether you need an easel or not depends on how you end up working. Some artists work so ‘wet’ they need to use a flat surface to work on with the ability to raise one side to cause the medium to flow; this is a long way from the classic image of an old master with the canvas on an easel.

Ensure you have some cheap cartridge paper you can experiment with, so you don’t get frozen by the thought that ‘this board is so expensive I better make this one a masterpiece!’. 

It can also help to have a range of sizes, so try doing small watercolour pieces, before migrating to larger formats. It is quicker to get a result and also takes the pressure off you.

Whereas for charcoal, you generally need to work on a bigger piece of paper straight away; but a relatively low cost large format ring-bound sketch book (around A3 size) is fine for this purpose.

Mixed media

In truth, many painting use mixed media, although some more obviously than others.

For example, a watercolour may use a number of other media:

    • pens to resolve some features (but best used sparingly), such as railings;
    • inks to help develop greater tonal depth;
    • gouache to finish a piece with greater colour intensity, for flicking effects or for white highlights;
    • pastels to help develop a light glaze of texture – for foliage or other features – as a finish.

There are also numerous special materials that can be tried, such as liquid pencil, to create effects.

But there is no obligation to throw everything at a painting, and it can be easy to get carried away with mixing media.

A great artist like Kurt Jackson has developed his own brilliant style – a vocabulary that is special to him – and his use of mixed media feels unforced and natural.

It is always best to start simple and work on adding ingredients over time, as and when they come naturally to you, rather than merely including them to try to emulate Kurt.

Conclusion

These fundamentals are the things I have internalised from an intensive three years of learning to become an artist, with the help principally of my mentor Alison Vickery, but also some other helpers along the way.

In the following essays, I want to show how these fundamental are reflected in sketches, studies and a few developed pieces I will share, from my endeavours.

I often forget these principles, catching myself in an act of regression, and then have to remind myself. Alison’s voice is often in my head …

‘paint what interests you’

‘don’t get too fiddly’

‘work the whole area’

‘stop right there!’

‘put down the pencil’

‘is the tonal range ok?’

‘loosen up’

I call them “Alison’s Aphorisms”.

It takes years to internalise the fundamentals of being an artist, and even then, so easy to get carried away and still fall flat on one’s face.

Equally, as time goes by nice surprises happen. 

You find that you ‘accidentally’ created something quite good, and you scratch your head and ask ‘How did I manage that?’. 

Don’t be surprised, you are becoming an artist!

Gradually, the better stuff happens more frequently and the not so great become less frequent. The art folder gets fatter and the dustbin less full of discarded pieces.

But everything you do provides a learning moment. Keep some of the not so great paintings to remind yourself of how far you have travelled.

Keep asking questions; it worked for me when I was a scientist and as a consultant, and it is something I continue to do as an artist.

Keep experimenting, and keep asking questions.

Making mistakes is fine, because that is the only way to learn.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: sketchbooks

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Becoming an artist: awakenings

This is about my journey. Everyone’s journey will be different. I am addressing those, who like me, have spent a long time thinking about doing art, but never finding the time or courage to do it.

How many people suffer from that debilitating idea “I can’t paint*”. This is often because someone told you so, or gave your confidence such a knock, you never quite recovered enough to try again [* paint, or anything else you would like to do – learn to play an instrument, be a sculptor, do maths, play the drums, or whatever].

Schoolchildren are expected to make a choice quite early in life as to what they want to be. At face value it seems reasonable to expect a student to start to specialise at some point, but the mirror image of this is that they must ‘drop’ a whole load of stuff that is valuable in life. Little wonder that in older age people often pick up on subjects they loved but did not have an opportunity to develop when young.

I chose to specialise in science, even before I was forced to make that choice. 

I’d happily freeze to death looking at the moon and stars through a small but much loved telescope, clutching my Observer’s Book of Astronomy (I think I may have had a 1st edition from 1962, when I was just 9). Geometry was my favourite subject. 

A little later but still quite young I had a laboratory, and loved to do experiments with bits of apparatus such as a Liebig Condensor, regularly causing a stink that required all the windows in the house to be opened to clear the smell.

I was never a rote learner. I always asked questions and challenged my teachers. I love the ability of small children to ask “why?” then why again, to never be afraid to ask questions. But it is also important to learn how to listen to the answers, to reflect on them and then to do work to explore things more deeply. This gives rise to more questions.

I wanted to understand the world and how it was put together, and went on to study Chemistry at university. To highlight my tendency to question things, there is a story from my final exams I want to share. 

There was a question about chemical bonding I didn’t like because of the way it was framed, so I answered it just like I knew the examiner would want it answered, but then wrote “However, I want to challenge the framing of this question, and believe the question ought to have been …”. 

I then wrote a second answer to my newly framed version of the question. The external examiner (Prof. S F A Kettle, I believe) was so impressed he told my mentor that he would have happily awarded me an upper first if such a thing existed. Nevertheless, I was very proud of the 1st Class Honours degree I did receive.

I stayed in academia for a while, doing a PhD at Cambridge and then a postdoc in Bristol, where I met Marilyn, who was to become my wife. 

For a range of reasons, I decided to leave academia in 1982, and worked in computer-aided design for several years, but for the final 30 years of my career up to 2016 I was an information management consultant, helping large organisation to be better at breaking down the information silos in their organisations, and be better custodians of their knowledge.

I enjoyed using creative ways to discuss and articulate problems. I never stopped asking questions. Clients liked my thoughtful approach, and the fact I didn’t try to ram software products down their throats (as had been their experience on the previous times somebody had promised to fix their issues).  In ways that I now recognise only in retrospect, my scientific and artistic sides both found expression in the way I did consultancy.

Throughout this time, I was always questioning myself, always learning from new engagements about other ways to look at things. Even when one thinks one has mastered a skill, there will always be opportunities to explore nuances or discover new variants of a skill.

Over my 63 years before I retired I had tried on a few occasions to learn to paint. Even at school there was a group of us scientists who showed artistic promise and the art teacher allowed us access to the studio to paint just for fun, not for any examination. And I have attended classes on watercolours 30 years ago, but it never went anywhere.

Meanwhile, one of the favourite activities that Marilyn and I enjoyed over these years was visiting art exhibitions, and we have numerous catalogues to testify to this. I was great at looking at art, but not doing it.

There could have been many reasons for the failure of my early attempts to develop further. 

I had a time-consuming and at times stressful job, involving a lot of travel abroad. Marilyn and I brought up two girls, and there were always too many projects (that, funnily enough, seems not to have changed!). In Bristol I was an early recruit to Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA), and became its Secretary for a while. Writing and speaking took up a lot of my extra curricula head space (SANA later became SGR, Scientists for Global Responsibility, and is still active).

Since my retirement, I have become very active on climate change, giving talks and helping to found a group, Nailsworth Climate Action Network in my home town, which I am currently Secretary of.

Despite being busy with family – now with grandchildren – and home, garden, climate change, etc. I decided I wanted to have another go at learning to paint. 

Marilyn and I have for several years tried to stop buying stuff – we have too much already – and instead buy vouchers for experiences or classes. 

About 6 years ago she bought me a voucher for a set of 1-to-1 art lessons from our dear friend Di Aungier-Rose. Unlike previous art teachers I had tried, Di was very good at getting me to loosen up and not stress about what I was doing; to not obsess about colour and so on. To just have fun, and see what emerged. She imparted little nuggets of wisdom here and there, but without overloading me.  

This unlocked the first door to me becoming an artist, and gave me a boost in confidence. I knew from that point on that I had an innate ability to become an artist, even while I knew it would be a long journey.

However, the ‘3 steps forward, 2 steps back’ rule seemed to hit me. I got waylaid by climate change, sorting out my pension for retirement, etc. There is always a long list of things stopping us doing what we want!

Also, I was really hankering after learning how to use watercolours, and had a lot of admiration for the work of another local artist, Alison Vickery. So, a few years ago Marilyn bought me another present: to attend a batch of classes at Alison’s weekly art class, held at Pegasus Art in Stroud.

I will talk more about what Alison has taught me in later essays in this series, but the key point here was that I started to carve out a time during the week – every week – when I wouldn’t be distracted by the other things crowding in on me. Wednesday afternoon was to be art time. So even if I didn’t manage to do any art during the rest of the week, this time was sacrosanct.

I have kept attending these classes ever since.

Maybe that is the secret – and of course a lot easier when you are retired – to find a space to do your art. 

If you are very disciplined and no longer require a mentor, then it is perfectly possible to create this time and space for yourself. It may mean creating a Woman Shed or Man Shed in the garden, to get away from domestic distractions.

However it is done, you need to find your time, and your space.

You need to unlearn the “I can’t do X” gremlin in your brain.

Now it is time to loosen up; to experiment; to ask questions; and to rediscover the joy of learning something new.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: fundamentals

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Keep Calm, But Take Action

How do people respond to ‘signals’ regarding their health and well-being? 

Some people will refuse to respond, such as these smokers I saw outside a hospital a few days ago (where I was visiting my daughter, thankfully now discharged after a nasty infection; not coronavirus).

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 07.27.24

There is a large sign ‘Strictly No Smoking’, that is routinely ignored.

And what of people who read Richard Littlejohn and others, for years in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, etc., railing against the ‘nanny state’ or ‘elf and safety’ ?

Large swathes of people are effectively inoculated against alarm, and will not respond to signals, even if a megaphone was put to their ear. 

These are the super-spreaders of denial and complacency. 

I am not talking here of professional dissemblers in the climate realm who make their living trying to undermine the scientific consensus. Those who write opinion pieces claiming, wrongly:

  • more CO2 is good for us because plants will flourish (Matt Ridley);
  • or claiming ocean acidification is non-existent (James Delingpole);
  • or that it’s the sun’s fault (Piers Corbyn);
  • or that we are about to enter an ice age (Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph every 6 months for the last 10 years) .

Like stories of Lord Lucan sightings, these lazy opinion formers simply dust off the old rubbish to serve it up again, and again. Year in year out. It pays the mortgage I suppose. And when they tell people what they want to hear – that we can carry on regardless – there is no shortage of chortling readers. Ha ha ha. How very funny, poking fun at the experts.

No, I am  not talking about these dissemblers, but rather, the mass of those who have been reading this rubbish for 30 years and are now impervious to evidence and scornful of experts.

And there is an epidemic of such people, who believe

no need to be alarmed, staying calm and carrying on regardless 

It is not just health or climate change, but is applied universally. For example, the  Millennium Bug was apparently overblown according to these people (having seen the code that needed fixing, I can assure you, it wasn’t).

However, those who deal with addressing threats are in a no-win situation: if they act and prevent the worst happening, then people – who are largely unaware of what is being done behind the scenes – will say ‘you see, it wasn’t a problem’.  If they didn’t act, then guess who would get the blame.

Yet when people do raise the alarm, such as when parents wrote letters complaining of the risks of the vast colliery tip adjacent to the Welsh town of Aberfan, they are often brushed off, and the result was a disaster that lives on in our memory (see Note).

Now we have the Covid-19 virus. 

It is no surprise that there have been many saying that people are being unnecessarily alarmed; and the message is the same – we should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

It’s just like seasonal flu, don’t worry. It will disappear soon enough.

These are often the same people who rail against ‘climate alarmism’.

Man-made global heating will be orders of magnitude worse than Covid-19, across every aspect of society – food security, sea-level rise, eco-system collapse, mass migration, heat stress, etc. – and over a longer timescale but with increasing frequency of episodic shocks, of increasing intensity.

Unlike Covid-19, there will be no herd immunity to climate change.

But we have the ability to halt its worst impacts, if we act with urgency.

We cannot quarantine the super-spreaders of denial and complacency, but we can confront them and reject their message.

I wonder, as the mood seems to be changing, and experts are now back in fashion it seems, could this be a turning point for action on climate change?

Can we all now listen to the experts on climate change?

Can we Keep Calm, but Take Action?

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

 

Note

There was a collapse of part of the massive colliery spoil tip at 0915 on 21st October 1966  The main building hit was Pantglas Junior School, where lessons had just begun. Five teachers and 109 children were killed in the school.

As one example of numerous correspondence prior to this, raising concerns, was a petition from parents of children at The Grove school raising the issue of flooding undermining the tip. This was passed up through the bureaucracy, but a combination of the Borough Council and National Coal Board failed to act. As the official report noted in unusually strong words:

“As we shall hereafter see to make clear, our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. … the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied” (bullet 18., page 13)

1966-67 (553) Report of the tribunal appointed to inquire into the disaster at Aberfan on October 21st, 1966

1 Comment

Filed under Climate Science, Uncategorized

Thoughts on starting a community climate action group (a talk)

Good evening.

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist, and hugely influential communicator, is often asked:

What is the first thing I should do about climate change?

Her answer is simple:

Talk about it!

How on Earth can that reduce our carbon footprint you may ask?

On the other hand, it is a common phenomenon when climate groups start, that the first thought is often ‘we need to build a solar PV array on the edge of town’. 

I am not saying don’t do that, but there are big benefits to talking about it, and not rushing to build.

  • Firstly, if people are not fully on board with the idea that urgent action is needed to address global warming, then some talking will really help change hearts and minds.
  • Secondly, there are many different ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, and we need to push forward on all fronts. Don’t let the enthusiasm for one project crowd out ideas for other things that need to be discussed, and weighed up.
  • Thirdly, if we focus solely on technological solutions like electric cars, we potentially exclude a lot of people who are put off by technology, or cannot afford to invest in them; and would like a reliable bus service to be a priority! 
      • We need to build a much bigger tent where we discuss topics like consumption, waste, heating, public transport, energy efficiency and local food. Topics that will draw in as wide a population as possible.
  • Finally, by developing a wide perspective on all different approaches and potential initiatives, the group will be in a better position to call on community support for emerging projects.

Some will argue: but why is the challenge of addressing dangerous global warming being placed on the shoulders of householders and local communities? 

Surely, Government and big business have the resources and power to make it happen?

I reject the implied binary thinking here.

In fact, Government, big business, pension funds, County Councils, District Councils, Parish Councils, local businesses, householders – you and me – can all make a difference and influence what happens.

Ok, so there are some things that only Governments and big business can do. But ultimately, every product and service is – directly or indirectly – created for us. 

We have agency – we can decide: 

  • what we do, 
  • how we do it.
  • and how often we do it.

We can choose to car share twice a week; or opt for that staycation; or reduce our meat consumption. Every family is different, but we make lots of choices, intentionally or not; and every choice matters.

We started NailsworthCAN in 2016 around the time of the Paris Agreement. Our focus was always on practical action rather than protest. But action comes in many forms: engaging, influencing, networking, capacity building, constructing.

We have spent a lot of time developing the conversation with different groups in the community: with the Town Council, Church, Schools, Rotary, Transition Stroud, etc., and with our previous and current MP.  We act sometimes to lead, sometime to act as a catalyst, and sometimes simply to provide support to others. Hence the use of the word ‘network’.

We have run stalls, organised talks on diverse topics, and identified a range of projects. We created and distributed a Carbon Pledges sheet. We have met and talked with hundreds of local people, and we have recruited members with a fantastic range of skills and knowledge.

We have ran workshops to gather ideas on local projects that people are interested in across a range of topics –

  • Food and agriculture;
  • Mobility and transport;
  • Buildings and their environment;
  • Energy generation;
  • Waste;
  • Nature and the Environment;
  • Health and Wellbeing.

We have worked with the Town Council to help develop an outline plan across these areas.

One specific initiative is to conduct a survey of hospitality venues in town to assess current practice on energy use, waste, etc., and identify ‘wins’ for these venues, the town and the planet.

Another initiative is to develop a 5-year tree planting plan on council land.

And another is a community-led domestic retrofit scheme.

And yes, we have a few renewable energy generation schemes in the pipeline.

Each of the climate groups I have met has its own personality, way of organising, and methods for coordinating their efforts with their respective Parish councils.

Each has had ideas on how to push forward on different fronts, and all can learn from each other.

The great evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson – when being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ said:

“Humanity has Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like power, … and that is a dangerous combination”.

But I would respond by saying we also have the capacity to overcome our destructive power, and work collectively to reveal the positive side of our humanity.

Don’t be critical if you start with talking, then move to small actions.

Just don’t stop at small actions.

Small actions can provide learnings and help us move to larger ones.

Share and celebrate success, as we do on social and printed media. 

Small conversations can be the foundation for bigger ones, resulting in significant actions, and system change.  Ultimately, this is all about system change; business as usual  will not get us to where we need to be.

Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint, and like a marathon, we need to help each other stay the course.

I wish Minchinhampton every success as it starts its conversation.

Thank you.

…. o o O o o ….

Richard W. Erskine, Secretary of NailsworthCAN

Invited talk at the launch of Minchinhampton Climate Action Network.

11th March 2020.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Curious Case of Heat Pumps in the UK

Heat Pumps, whether Air-Sourced or Ground-Sourced, can and should be making a major contribution to decarbonising heating in the UK. Heating (both space heating and water heating) is major contributor to our carbon footprint.

Heat pumps are now incredibly efficient – for 1 unit of electrical energy you put in you can get at least 3 units back in the form of heat energy (a pump compresses the air and this causes it to rise in temperature; two century old physics at work here).  The process works sufficiently well even in UK winters.

The pumps are now relatively quiet (think microwave level of noise). They can deliver good payback (even more so if there was a cost on carbon). They even work with older properties (countering another one of the many myths surrounding heat pumps).

I even heard Paul Lewis on BBC’s ‘Money Box’ (Radio 4) – clearly getting confused between heat pumps and geothermal energy – saying ‘oh, but you need to be in a certain part of the country to use them’ (or words to that effect).

We clearly need much more education out there to raise awareness of the potential of heat pumps.

When combined with solar (to provide some of the electricity), they are even better.

So why is the take-up of heat pumps still too slow? Why is the Government not pushing them like crazy (it is an emergency, right!)? Why are households, when replacing old boilers, till opting for gas?

When we had the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the UK Government undertook a major health awareness campaign, and other countries also, which largely succeeded. In an emergency, Governments tend to act in a way that ‘signals’ it is an emergency.

The UK Government is sending no such signals. Bland assurances that the commitment to reach net zero by 2050 is not a substitute for actions. In the arena of heat, where is the massive programme to up-skill plumbers and others? Where is the eduation programme to demystify heat pumps and promote their adoptions?

And where is the joined up thinking?

This article below from Yorkshire Energy Systems, based on their extensive research and practical experience, suggests one reason – that EPCs (Energy Performance Certificates) issued for homes and including recommended solutions – are biased against heat pumps.

The mismatch between what the Government is saying (that heat pumps are part of the decarbonisation solution) and what EPCs are advising suggests a clear lack of joined up thinking.

… and no sign that the Government really believes that urgent action is required.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Increasing Engineering Complexity and the Role of Software

Two recent stories from the world of ‘big’ engineering got me thinking: the massive delays in the Crossrail Project and the fatal errors in the Boeing 737 Max, both of which seem to have been blighted by issues related to software.

Crossrail, prior to the announcement of delays and overspend, was being lauded as an example of an exemplar on-time, on-budget complex project; a real feather in the cap for British engineering. There were documentaries celebrating the amazing care with which the tunnelling was done to avoid damage at the surface, using precise monitoring and accurately positioned webs of hydraulic grouting to stabilise the ground beneath buildings. Even big data was used to help interpret signals received from a 3D array of monitoring stations, to help to actively manage operations during tunnelling and construction. A truly awesome example of advanced engineering, on an epic scale.

The post-mortem has not yet been done on why the delays came so suddenly upon the project, although the finger is being pointed not at the physical construction, but the digital one. To operate the rail service there must be advanced control systems in place, and to ensure these operate safely, a huge number of tests need to be carried out ‘virtually’ in the first instance, to ensure safety is not compromised.

Software is something that the senior management of traditional engineering companies are uncomfortable with; in the old days you could hit a machine with a hammer, but not a virtual machine. They knew intuitively if someone told them nonsense within their chosen engineering discipline; for example, if a junior engineer planned to pour 1000 cubic metres of cement into a hole and believed it would be set in the morning. But if told that testing of a software sub-system will take 15 days, they wouldn’t have a clue as to whether this was realistic or not; they might even ask “can we push to get this done in 10 days?”.

In the world of software, when budgets and timelines press, the most dangerous word used in projects is ‘hope’. “We hope to be finished by the end of the month”; “we hope to have that bug fixed soon”; and so on  Testing is often the first victim of pressurised plans. Junior staff say “we hope to finish”, but by the time the message rises up through the management hierarchy to Board level, there is a confident “we will be finished” inserted into the Powerpoint. Anyone asking tough questions might be seen as slowing the project down when progress needs to be demonstrated.

You can blame the poor (software) engineer, but the real fault lies with the incurious senior management who seem to request an answer they want, rather than try to understand the reality on the ground.

The investigations of the Boeing 737 Max tragedy are also unresolved, but of course, everyone is focusing on the narrow question of the technical design issue related to a critical new feature. There is a much bigger issue at work here.

Arguably, Airbus has pursued the ‘fly by wire’ approach much earlier than Boeing, whose culture has tended to resist over automation of the piloting. Active controls to overcome adverse events has now become part of the design of many modern aircraft, but the issue with the Boeing 737 Max seems to have been that this came along without much in the way of training; and the interaction between the automated controls and the human controls is at the heart of the problem. Was there also a lack of realistic human-centric testing to assess the safety of the combined automated/ human control systems? We will no doubt learn this in due course.

Electronics is of course not new to aerospace industries, but programmable software has grown in importance and increasingly it seems that the issue of growing complexity and how to handle the consequent growth in testing complexity, has perhaps overtaken the abilities of traditional engineering management systems. This is extending to almost every product or project – small and large – as the internet of everything emerges.

This takes me to a scribbled diagram I found in an old notebook – made on a train back in 2014, travelling to London, while I debated the issue of product complexity with a project director for a major engineering project. I have turned this into the Figure below.

Screenshot 2019-08-14 at 19.30.09

There are two aspects of complexity identified for products: 

  • Firstly, the ‘design complexity’, which can be thought of as the number of components making up the product, but also the configurability and connectivity of those components. If printed on paper, you can thinking of how high the pile of paper would be that identified every component, with a description of their configuration and connection. This would apply to physical aspects but also software too; and all the implied test cases. There is a rapid escalation in complexity as we move from car to airliner to military platform.
  • Secondly, the ‘production automation complexity’, which represents the level of automation involved in delivering the required products. Cars as they have become, are seen as having the highest level of production automation complexity. 

You can order a specific build of car, with desired ‘extras’, and colour, and then later see it travelling down the assembly line with over 50% of the tasks completely automated; the resulting product with potentially a nearly unique selection of options chosen by you. It is at the pinnacle of production automation complexity but it also has a significant level of design complexity, albeit well short of others shown in the figure. 

Whereas an aircraft carrier will in each case be collectively significantly different from any other in existence (even when originally conceived as a copy of an existing model) – with changes being made even during its construction – so does not score so high on ‘production automation complexity’. But in terms of ‘design complexity’ it is extremely high (there are only about 20 aircraft carriers in operation globally and half of these are in the US Navy, which perhaps underlines this point).

As we add more software and greater automation, the complexity grows, and arguably, the physical frame of the product is the least complex part of the design or production process. 

I wonder is there a gap between the actual complexity of the final products and an engineering culture that is still heavily weighted towards the physical elements – bonnet of a car, hull of a ship, turbine of a jet engine – and is this gap widening as the software elements grow in scope and ambition? 

Government Ministers, like senior managers, will be happy being photographed next to the wing of a new model of airliner – and talk earnestly about workers riveting steel – but what may be more pivotal to success is some software sub-system buried deep in millions of lines of ‘code’; no photo opportunities here.

Screenshot 2019-08-14 at 19.30.27

As we move from traditional linear ‘deterministic’ programming to non-deterministic algorithms – other questions arise about the increasing role of software. 

Given incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory inputs the software must make a choice about how to act in real time. It may have to take a virtual vote between independently written algorithms. It cannot necessarily rely on supplementary data from external sources (“no, you are definitely nose diving not stalling!”), for system security reasons if not external data bandwidth reasons.

And so we continue to add further responsibility, onto the shoulders of the non-physical elements of the system.

Are Crossrail and the 737 Max representative of a widening gap, reflected in an inability of existing management structures to manage the complexity and associated risks of the software embedded in complex engineering products and projects? 

© Richard W. Erskine, 2019

Leave a comment

Filed under Engineering Complexity, Essay, Uncategorized

Boris loves Corbyn

No not Jeremy; his brother.

For some years now Boris Johnson has channelled the crank theories of Piers Corbyn, who appeared in the 2007 film The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was shown to be ill-founded.

Rather like the myth that carrots helped RAF pilots see at night during WWII  which was such a great story that even today it is repeated and believed, the idea that some changes in the Sun’s output is responsible for recent climate change is a similarly attractive myth, which keeps on being repeated.

The BBC had to apologise for Quentin Letts’ execrable hatched job on the Met Office in 2015, which also included Piers Corbyn. 

The truth is that we know with a confidence unsurpassed in many fields of science what is causing global warming; it’s not the sun, it’s not volcanoes; it’s not contrails. The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (2013) was clear that greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide) resulting from human activities are the overwhelming driver of global warming (see Figure 8.15)

So you might expect Boris Johnson as a leading politician, to reference the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which gathers, analyses and synthesises the published work of thousands of scientists with relevant expertise on behalf of the nations of the world.

Instead, he has referred to the “great physicist and meteorologist Piers Corbyn” (It’s snowing, and it really feels like the start of a mini ice age, Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 20th January 2013). Piers Corbyn has no expertise in climate science and theories like his have been completely debunked in a paper published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society:

… the long-term changes in solar outputs, which have been postulated as drivers of climate change, have been in the direction opposite to that required to explain, or even contribute to, the observed rise in Earth’s global mean air surface temperature (GMAST) …

What is alarming is that in the face of this strong scientific evidence, some Internet sources with otherwise good reputations for accurate reporting can still give credence to ideas that are of no scientific merit. These are then readily relayed by other irresponsible parts of the media, and the public gain a fully incorrect impression of the status of the scientific debate.

“Solar change and climate: an update in the light of the current exceptional solar minimum”, Proceedings of The Royal Society A, Mike Lockwood, 2nd December 2009

So, for Boris Johnson to call himself an “empiricist” is, frankly, laughable.

He has also cozied up to neoliberal ‘think tanks’ implacably opposed to action on global warming. 

I think we can safely say that hitherto he has firmly placed himself in the DENIAL bucket (in the illustration below).

Screenshot 2019-07-29 at 21.24.30

He shares this perspective with other hard Brexiteers in the new Cabinet, who are itching to deregulate the UK economy, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, and see action on global warming as a constraint on unregulated markets.

In his acceptance speech on becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson never mentioned climate change. But since then he has reiterated Theresa May’s Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050, and

Responding to concerns expressed by Shadow Treasury Minister Anneliese Dodds that he had not focused sufficiently climate change in the initial statements outlining his priorities as Prime Minister, Johnson replied: “The House will know that we place the climate change agenda at the absolute core of what we are doing.”

(edie, 29th July 2019)

He went on to say

He said: “This party believes in the private sector-generated technology which will make that target attainable and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs. That is the approach we should follow.” …

Predicting that the UK will “no longer” be contributing to climate change by 2050, Johnson said: “We will have led the world in delivering that net-zero target. We will be the home of electric vehicles—cars and even planes—powered by British-made battery technology, which is being developed right here, right now.”

(edie, 29th July 2019)

By imagining that industry alone (without any stated plans for an escalating tax on carbon), can somehow address the huge transformation required, on the timescale required, without concerted effort at every level of Government (top down and bottom up), and civil society, he remains disconnected from reality, let alone science.

Moving from DENIAL to COMPLACENCY is an advance for Boris – assuming for the moment this is not another flip-flopping of positions that he is famed for – but it is hardly the sign of the climate leadership required. We need a leadership that respects the science, and understands the policy implications and prescriptions required.

Did anyone in the house ask the Prime Minister if he accepts and will fully support the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee’s report Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming? 

They need to, because great words need to turned into a plan of action, and every year we delay will make the transition more painful (it is already going to be painful enough, but they are not telling you that, are they?).

That will not be enough to meet the public’s concerns over the climate emergency, and increasingly, the public will be expecting leadership that has moved from COMPLACENCY to the URGENCY position.

Many see GREEN RADICALISM as now an unavoidable response to the COMPLACENCY in Whitehall.

If Boris Johnson fails to jettison his neoliberal friends and the crank science that is part of their tool-kit – who are trying (and have succeeded so far) in putting the breaks on meaningful and urgent action – the longer term political fall-out will make Brexit look like a tea party.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, essaysconcerning.com, July 2019

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Climate Change Committee just failed to invent a time machine

These past two weeks have been such a momentous time for climate change in the UK it is hard to take in. My takes:

On 21st April, Polly Higgins, the lawyer who has spent a decade working towards establishing ecocide as a crime under international law, sadly died. At a meeting at Hawkwood Centre, Stroud, I heard the inspiring Gail Bradbrook speak of how Polly had given her strength in the formation of Extinction Rebellion. 

On 23rd April, Greta Thunberg spoke to British Parliamentarians with a clear message that “you did not act in time’, but with imagination and some ‘Cathedral thinking’ it is not too late to act (full text of speech here).

On 30th April, Extinction Rebellion met with the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a small step but one that reflects the pressure that their actions (widely supported in the country) are having. Clare Farrell said the meeting “.. was less shit than I thought it would be, but only mildly”, but it’s a start.

On 1st May, the UK’s Parliament has declared a climate emergency

On 2nd May the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), setup under the 2008 Climate Change Act, has published its report “Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming” to the Government on how to reach net zero by 2050.

These are turbulent times. Emotions are stirring. Expectations are high. There is hope, but also fear.

The debate is now raging amongst advocates for climate action about whether the CCC’s report is adequate.

Let’s step back a moment.

The IPCC introduced the idea of a ‘carbon budget’ and this is typically expressed in the form such as (see Note):

“we have an X% chance of avoiding a global mean surface temperature rise of  Y degrees centigrade if our emissions pathway keeps carbon emissions below Z billion tonnes”

The IPCC Special 1.5C Report, looked at how soon we might get to 1.5C and the impacts of this compared to 2C. As Carbon Brief summarised it:

At current rates, human-caused warming is adding around 0.2C to global average temperatures every decade. This is the result of both “past and ongoing emissions”, the report notes.

If this rate continues, the report projects that global average warming “is likely to reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052”

Perhaps the most shocking and surprising aspect of this report was the difference in impacts between 1.5C and the hitherto international goal of 2C. The New York Times provided the most compelling, graphic summary of the change in impacts. Here are a few examples:

The percentage of the world’s population exposed to extreme heat jumps from 14% to 37%

Loss of insect species jumps from 6% to 18%

Coral reefs suffer “very frequent mass mortalities” in a 1.5C world, but “mostly disappear” in a 2C world.

So, in short, 1.5C is definitely worth fighting for.

In view of the potential to avoid losses, it is not unreasonable for Extinction Rebellion and others to frame this as a “we’ve got 12 years”. The IPCC says it could be as early as 12 years, but it might be as late as 34 years. What would the Precautionary Principle say? 

Well, 12 years of course.

But the time needed to move from our current worldwide emissions to net zero is a steep cliff. You’ve all seen the graph.

D5bh1ZmW0AAvOCd.jpg-large

It seems impossibly steep. It was a difficult but relatively gentle incline if we’d started 30 years ago. Even starting in 2000 was not so bad. Every year since the descent has  become steeper. It is now a precipice.

It is not unreasonable to suggest it is impossibly steep.

It is not unreasonable to suggest we blew it; we messed up.

We have a near impossible task to prevent 1.5C.

I’m angry about this. You should be too.

I am not angry with some scientists or some committee for telling me so. That’s like being angry with a doctor who says you need to lose weight. Who is to blame: the messenger? Maybe I should have listened when they told me 10 years back.

So if the CCC has come to the view that the UK at least can get to net zero by 2050 that is an advance – the original goal in the Act was an 80% reduction by 2050 and they are saying we can do better, we can make it a 100% reduction.

Is it adequate?

Well, how can it ever be adequate in the fundamental sense of preventing human induced impacts from its carbon emissions? They are already with us. Some thresholds are already crossed. Some locked in additional warming is unavoidable.

Odds on, we will lose the Great Barrier Reef.  Let’s not put that burden on a committe to do the immpossible. We are all to blame for creating the precipice.

That makes me sad, furious, mournful, terrified, angry.

There is a saying that the best time to have started serious efforts to decarbonise the economy was 30 years ago, but the next best time is today.

Unfortunately, the CCC does not have access to a time machine.

Everyone is angry.

Some are angry at the CCC for not guaranteeing we stay below 1.5C, or even making it the central goal. 

Extinction Rebellion tweeted:

The advice of @theCCCuk to the UK government is a betrayal of current & future generations made all the more shocking coming just hours after UK MPs passed a motion to declare an environment & climate emergency. 

It is I think the target of 2050 that has angered activists. It should be remembered that 2050 was baked into the Climate Change Act (2008). It should be no surprise it features in the CCC’s latest report. The CCC is a statutory body. If we don’t like their terms of reference then it’s easy: we vote in a Government that will revise the 2008 Act. We haven’t yet achieved that.

Professor Julia Steinberger is no delayist (quite the opposite, she’s as radical as they come), and she has tweeted back as follows:

Ok, everyone, enough. I do need to get some work done around here.

(1) stop pretending you’ve read & digested the whole CCC net-zero report. It’s 277 pretty dense pages long. 

(2) there is a lot of good stuff & hard work  making the numbers work there.  

3) Figuring out what it means for various sectors, work, finance, education, training, our daily lives & cities & local authorities and so on is going to take some thinking through.

(4) If you want a faster target, fine! I do too! Can you do it without being horrid to the authors and researchers who’ve worked like maniacs to try to get this much figured out? THEY WANT TO BE ON YOUR SIDE! 

(5) So read it, share it, reflect on it, and try to figure out what & how we can do a lot faster, and what & how we can accelerate the slower stuff.

Treat the CCC report as in reality an ambitious plan – it really is – in the face of the precipice, but also believe we can do better.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Maybe we do not believe that people can make the consumption changes that will make it possible to be more ambitious; goals that politicians might struggle to deliver.

Yet communities might decide – to hell with it – we can do this. Yes we can, do better.

Some are scornful at Extension Rebellion for asking the impossible, but they are right to press for better. However, can we stop the in-fighting, which has undermined many important fights against dark forces in the past. Let’s not make that mistake again.

Can we all be a little more forgiving of each other, faced with our terrible situation.

We are between a rock and a hard place.

We should study the CCC report. Take it to our climate meetings in our towns, and halls, and discuss it. 

How can we help deliver this?

How can we do even better?

I for one will be taking the CCC report to the next meeting of the climate action group I help run.

I’m still mournful.

I’m still angry.

But I am also a problem solver who wants to make a difference.

Good work CCC.

Good work XR.

We are all in this together.

… and we don’t have a time machine, so we look forward.

Let not the best be the enemy of the good.

Let not the good be a reason for not striving for better, even while the best is a ship that has long sailed.

© Richard W. Erskine, 2019

 

Note:

You pick an X and Y, and the IPCC will tell how much we can emit (Z). The ‘X%’ is translated into precisely defined usages of terms such as ‘unlikely’, ‘likely’, ‘very likely’, etc. To say something is ‘likely‘ the IPCC means it has a greater than 66% chance of happening.

Leave a comment

Filed under Global Warming Solutions, Science in Society, Transition to Low Carbon, Uncategorized

No Magic Bullet for Climate Change

Matt McGrath, Environment Correspondent for BBC News, posted a short piece entitled A ‘magic bullet’ to capture carbon dioxide?

Which was introduced as follows:

“CO2 is a powerful warming gas but there’s not a lot of it in the atmosphere – for every million particles of air, there are 410 of CO2.

The gas is helping to drive temperatures up around the world, but the comparatively low concentration means it is difficult to design efficient machines to remove it.

But a Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, believes it has found a solution.

Air is exposed to a chemical solution that concentrates the CO2. Further refinements mean the gas can be purified into a form that can be stored or utilised as a liquid fuel.”

The ‘magic bullet’ in the title is of course clickbait, because anyone who has spent any time looking at all the ways we need to reduce emissions or to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere will know that we need a wide range of solutions. There is no single ‘magic bullet’.

Not specifically commenting on this story, but in a related piece about so-called ‘Negative Emissions Technologies’ (NETs), Glen Peters highlights the scale of the challenge facing any type of NET, which aims to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. 

To remove the excess CO₂, sufficient at least to keep below 2oC …

“essentially we need to build an industry that’s 3 to 4 times the size of the current oil & gas industry just to clean up our waste” (2nd April 2019)

The issue is one of both scale and timing. We need big interventions and we need them fast (or fast enough).

It would take time and considerable resources to scale up NETs, which are currently mostly still in their development phase, and so the immediate focus needs to be on other strategies including energy in the home, reduced consumption, rolling out renewables, changing diets, etc., for which the solutions are ready and waiting and just needed a massive push from Governments, industry and civil society.

Glen Peters stresses that the first priority is emissions reductions, rather than capture, although capture will be needed in due course either using natural methods, or technological ones, or some combination. 

There are big questions hanging over NETs such as BECCS (Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage), which would require between 1 and 5 ‘Indias’ of land area to make the contribution needed. The continuing fertility of soils to grow plants for BECCS and competition for land-use for agriculture, are just two of the concerns raised.

The technology highlighted in the BBC piece is DAC (Direct Air Capture) which could – powered by renewables – have great potential and avoids land-use competition, but is energy intensive. As with BECCS, DAC used in sequestration mode would still need to overcome hurdles, such as the geological ones related to safely burying CO₂ in perpetuity (my emphasis)

My concerns with Carbon Engineering’s proposed application of DAC – for fuel to be used in transport – are as follows.

Firstly, road, rail, and even shipping, are being electrified, making fuel redundant.  There is the competing hydrogen economy that would use fuel, but a non-carbon based one.  Either way, this will rapidly decarbonise these parts of transport. Since transport is overall 25% of global emissions currently, this is a highly significant ‘quick win’ for the planet (within 2 or at most 3 decades).

Commercial Aviation is 13% of transport’s carbon emissions, but is less easy to electrify – at the scale of airliners travelling long-distance – because of the current energy density and weight of batteries (this could change in the future, as Professor Clare Grey explained during an episode of The Life Scientific).

Aviation is therefore just above 3% of global emissions (13% of 25%) from all sectors (albeit a probably increasing percentage).  A development-stage technology being focused on just 3% of global emissions can hardly be framed as a ‘magic bullet’ to the climate crisis.

Secondly, in terms of Government financing, would we focus it on decarbonising road, or decarbonising aviation? I suggest the former not the latter if it came down to a choice.

DAC may be great to invest some money in, as development phase technology, but the big bucks needed immediately, to make a huge dent in emissions, are in areas such as road sector. 

It is not a binary choice of course, but the issue with financing is timing and scale again. The many solutions we forge ahead with now must meet the test that they are proven (not futurism/ delayism solutions like nuclear fusion), can be scaled fast, and will contribute significantly to carbon reductions while also helping to transition society in positive ways (as for example, the solutions in Project Drawdown offer, with numerous ‘co-benefits’)

Finally, it is worth stressing that the focus for Carbon Engineering (and hence the BBC report) is on the capture of carbon dioxide, to be converted into hydrocarbons as fuel, for burning. This effectively recycles atmospheric carbon. It neither adds to, nor takes away, carbon dioxide through this cycle.

This therefore makes zero change to CO₂ in the atmosphere. It might be whimsically called Carbon Capture and re-Emission technology (CCE)! 

So I think it was wrong of the BBC piece to give the impression that the goal was ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS), whose aim is to draw down CO₂.

It is confusing to conflate CCE and CCS!

Especially when neither are magic bullets.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Veganism is an answer to the climate crisis, despite what the critics say

How the world feeds itself while at the same time becoming carbon neutral within a few decades (see Note 1), while at the same time protecting biodiversity and respecting other planetary boundaries, is a hugely complex issue. 

It is not helped by simplistic arguments on any side of the debate.

Food is much more complex than say, electricity generation or transport, because it brings together so many different interlocking threads, not least our different cultures and trading practices around the world; it cannot be glibly addressed through some technical silver bullet or indeed any single prescription.

Although it seems perfectly possible to have rewilding without conflating this with meat production for human consumption, Knepp Castle Estate clearly see these twinned in their overall vision for the Estate.

Knepp Castle Estate have done some wonderful work in their experiment to rewild the Estate’s farm and this has yielded some great results in promoting biodiversity on the farm. 

It is therefore disappointing that Isabelle Tree – who runs the Estate with her husband Sir Charles Burrell – decided that the way to counter what she believes are simplistic “exhortations” in favour of veganism is to use strawman arguments, which I will come to in a moment.

In her article “If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer: Intensively farmed meat and dairy are a blight, but so are fields of soya and maize. There is another way” (Guardian, 25th August 2018), she offers a vision of meat produced on a rewilded farm as an alternative.

The article ends with a statement I think can be defended (even if I disagree with it):

“There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy.”

The key words here are “simply by”, because of course, any diet begs a lot of questions on how food is produced, processed and transported. We all agree it is complicated.  We can all agree that a goat farmer in the Himalayas cannot simply adopt the practices of a farmer in England’s green pastures. We need to respect cultural and geographic diversity.

Except her last sentence does not address crop production methods, but simply asserts:

“Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.”

The problem is that to feed the UK or feed the world, we need to know what this means in quantitative terms, and there is really no indication of what a balanced omnivorous diet would look like or how to scale up the Knepp Castle Estate experiment, even for the UK.

Today, the reality of the impact – both in ecological and climate terms – of the meat industry is pretty terrifying, as the Friends Of the Earth laid bare in their 2008 report  “What’s feeding our food? – The environmental and social impacts of the livestock sector”.

We need alternatives, for sure, but any changes will take a long time to make a dent on a global scale. The world could simply follow the example of India with it relatively low level of meat consumption, but any proposed system must be able to scale effectively. 

Protein from livestock requires much greater land use, and also puts huge pressure on water resources, and as noted in the study ‘Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare’:

“… shifting the crop calories used for feed and other uses to direct human consumption could potentially feed an additional ∼4 billion people.”

Emily Cassidy et al, Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 034015

And if our goal is to address climate disruption as well as sustainable agriculture, the land will be in demand for other purposes: crops for human consumption; re-forestation; bio-energy crops; renewable energy assets; etc. 

Meat production whether it is intensively produced, or in a rewilded context, cannot wish away the basic fact that it is a relatively inefficient way of using land to produce calories.

The UK currently imports over 40% of its food, and on top of that imports soy and other crops for feed for livestock. Of the land we have in the UK, about 50% is given over to grassland for livestock, as illustrated in this Figure from the Zero Carbon Britain Report: Rethinking The Future:

screenshot 2019-01-07 at 09.19.53

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s alternative, set out in the same report, is aimed at getting the UK to zero carbon; balancing all the sectors that are involved, including food production, but recognising we need to fit everything required into the available land. They arrive at a radically different distribution of land-use:

screenshot 2019-01-07 at 09.20.06

In their scenario, livestock are not eliminated but are radically reduced.

What is most disappointing about Isabella Tree’s piece in the Guardian is that she feels the need to use Strawman Arguments to support her case (which immediately suggests it has some holes in it):

Strawman argument #1

“Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.”  

My Response: Well, since most of those crops are grown for animal consumption, that is another reason to release that land to grow sustainable crops (in soil-carbon caring ways); for forests; for bio-energy crops; for human habitation; etc.  The net result of low intensive meat production is that we would need to massively reduce meat production.

Strawman argument #2

“In the vegan equation, by contrast, the carbon cost of ploughing is rarely considered … up to 70% of the carbon in our cultivated soils has been lost to the atmosphere”

My Response: Untrue. Why do we have the permaculture movement, low-till systems, etc.? And to stress again, the majority of the cropland in UK and US, for example, today is to feed livestock. If we want to improve soil carbon there are many ways of doing it.

I could go on.

She implies that the proposed method of farming will make a big impact on soil carbon sequestration, and there is no doubt that soil plays a hugely important role in carbon sequestration, but this is an area which is very complex. It is reassuring that the article does not make outlandish claims (such as those made by Savory, see Note 2), but again, there is a lack of any estimates as to the extent to which the proposed farming practices would mitigate increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Plausibility arguments won’t cut it I’m afraid. 

For those interested in exploring all the questions touched on so far and more besides – with the benefit of some science to back up claims –  they could not do better than look at a few of the excellent food research organisations in Oxford. 

Isabella Tree acknowledges that we need to reduce meat consumption. No doubt she would agree that the sky-rocketing consumption of meat in China and globally is unsustainable. Here is the current picture:

screenshot 2019-01-07 at 14.28.04

 And as Godfray et al. state in the paper from which I took this Figure:

“It is difficult to envisage how the world could supply a population of 10 billion or more people with the quantity of meat currently consumed in most high-income countries without substantial negative effects on environmental sustainability. “

Godfray et al., Science 361, 243 (2018), 20th July 2018

Yes, it is much more complicated than simply choosing one’s diet, and we must all take care to consider the processes and pathways by which we get our food and how land is used – whether we eat meat or not. 

But for many, veganism remains an increasingly obvious option to make an immediate dent in one’s carbon footprint, and it remains a perfectly justifiable choice, whether from an environmental, ethical or scientific standpoint. 

It is by no means clear that even as a portion of our weekly diet, rewilded meat will be the solution to the world’s environmental and sustainability challenges, or at least on the timescales required. Veganism can make an immediate impact.

In fact, without a whole lot more vegans on this planet, it is difficult to see how those who want to remain meat eaters can carry on doing so with a clear conscience, given the current (as opposed to, wished for) farming practices.

In the future, meat eaters may have to pay a lot more to eat meat and even then give a big nod of thanks to vegans for making a space for them to do so.

If Isabella Tree’s article was entitled “If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the whole answer: Intensively farmed meat and dairy are a blight along with the fields of soya and maize they depend on. But there is a case for low levels of meat consumption.” …          it would have been less catchy but at least defensible.

Knepp Castle Estate are doing great work showing how to promote biodiversity on their farm, but as a model for feeding the world and preventing dangerous climate disruption, by 2050 or earlier … they have failed to make a convincing case that they have a credible plan.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

NOTES

Note 1

On our current emissions trajectory, the world “is likely to reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052”. If we are to avoid a global mean surface temperature rise of 1.5C, net global CO2 emissions need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” by around 2050.  See Carbon Brief’s ‘In-depth Q&A: The IPCC’s special report on climate change at 1.5C’ for more details. The IPCC’s 1.5C report made it clear that the difference between a 1.5C world and a 2C world was very significant, and so every year counts. The sooner we can peak the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (especially CO2, being long-lived) in the atmosphere, the better.

Note 2

Savory suggested that over a period of 3 or 4 decades you can draw down the whole of the anthropogenic amount that has accumulated (which is nearly 2000 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide), whereas a realistic assessment (e.g. www.drawdown.org ) is suggesting a figure of 14 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (more than 100 times less) is possible in the 2020-2050 timeframe.

FCRN explored Savory’s methods and claims, and find that despite decades of trying, he has not demonstrated that his methods work.  Savory’s case is very weak, and he ends up (in his exchanges with FCRN) almost discounting science; saying his methods are not susceptible to scientific investigations. 

In an attempt to find some science to back himself up, Savory referenced Gattinger, but that doesn’t hold up either. Track down Gattinger et al’s work  and it reveals that soil organic carbon could (on average, with a large spread) capture 0.4GtC/year (nowhere near annual anthropogenic emissions of 10GtC), and if it cannot keep up with annual emissions, forget soaking up the many decades of historical emissions (the 50% of these that persists for a very long time in the atmosphere), which some are claiming is possible.

I recommend Dr Tara Garnett‘s Blog-post: ‘Why eating grass-fed beef isn’t going to help fight climate change’, 3rd October 2017 – and if you need more, read the full paper referenced in the blog.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

On the Nth Day of Christmas …

We had a seasonal pub lunch with neighbours, and my christmas cracker included the question:

“How many gifts would you have if you received all the gifts in the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’?”

The song indicates the following gifts I will receive on each day:

on 1st day I’ll receive, a partridge in a pear tree;

on 2nd day, 2 turtle doves and a partidge in a pear tree;

on 3rd day, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partidge in a pear tree;

etc.

So, by the twelth day I will have received a total of:

12 x 1 partridges (each in a pear tree);

11 x 2 turtle doves;

10 x 3 French hens;

… etc; (until we get to)

1 x 12 drummers drumming.

So, the total number of gifts is:

(12×1) + (11×2) + (10×3) + … + (1×12)

which my abstemious wife very rapidly computed is 364 gifts.

By which time and after a few glasses of wine, I was of course wanting a more general result, so I declared:

“What about the number of gifts on the Nth day of Christmas?”

My wife mumbled “here we go!”, and by then my pen and paper napkin were at the ready …

Assuming the general gifts were denoted g1, g2, g3, …, gN, then we’d end up with…

N x 1 of gift g1

(N-1) x 2 of gift g2

(N-3) x 3 of gift g3

… etc. until

1 x N of gift gN

Let’s call the total number of gifts arrived at as G(N). So as an example, we already know that G(12) = 364

In mathematical notation I can write this in a different way (see Note 1), and solve the equation to show that …

G(N) = (1/6) * N * (N+1) * (N+2)

Testing this equation for case of N=12 I get

G(12) = (1/6) * 12 * 13 *14

           = 2 *13 * 14

           = 364

Job done!

When I got home I wondered if there was a geometrical way of deriving this result, rather like the trick that Gauss used as a young boy when the teacher asked the class to add the whole numbers from 1 to 100 (see Note 2).

I rather like the visual proof which I can show for N=4 as:

IMG_4743.JPG

which generally (for N rather than 4), and expressed algebrailly, can be expressed as

N∑[i] = (N2 – N)/2  + N

= (N2 /2) – N/2 + N

= (N2 /2) + N/2

= (1/2) * N * (N+1)

My question to myself was can we do a similar visual trick with the Nth Days of Christmas sum? (I say we, but without the genius Gauss to assist me!).

We have to go three dimensional now to build a picture of the number. The child’s blocks I could find were too few in number and we don’t have sugar cubes, but we do have veggie stock cubes! So, I created the following …

IMG_4738 3.JPG

The left hand portion represents 3×1 + 2×2 + 1×3 which is G(3)

The same number of blocks is in the right portion (in mirror image).

In the middle I have added 1+2+3+4 which is the familiar 4∑[i]

Put these all together and the picture is as follows:

IMG_4739 3.JPG

which is clearly 12+22+32+42  which is the familiar 4∑[i2]

That’s a nice pictorial solution of a kind.

So in algebraic terms that gives

2 G(3) + 4∑[i]  =  4∑[i2]

This gives me an algebraic solution that is not any simpler than the original solution I made on the napkin. The stock cubes give me:

G(N-1)  =  (1/2) * ( N∑[i2] – N∑[i] )

which can be solved (Note 3) to give

G(N) = (1/6) * N * (N+1) * (N+2)

as before.

However, I felt I had failed in my quest to avoid algebra or at least a much simpler algebraic resolution. Ultimately I couldn’t find one, but the visualization is at least a great way to play with the number relationships.

At least I will be very quick with the answer if ever I am asked

“How many gifts would you have if you received all the gifts in the general song ‘The N Days of Christmas’?”

“Oh, that’s easy, it one sixth of N, times N plus one, times N plus two.”

 

Richard W. Erskine, 30th December 2018


 

Note 1

G(N) can be written as the following sum:

G(N) = ∑ [(N – i + 1) * ( i )]

where N∑[] is shorthand for “sum of expression […] for i ranging from 1 to N”

Expanding the expression, I get

G(N) = ( (N+1) * N∑[i] )  –   N∑[i2]

Now, there are well known results that give us, firstly

N∑[i] = (1/2) * N * (N+1)

and secondly,

N∑[i2] = (1/6) * N * (N+1) * (2N + 1)

So, combining these I get,

G(N) = ((N+1) * (1/2) * N * (N+1) )   –  ((1/6) * N * (N+1) * (2N + 1))

Taking out a common factor (1/6) * N * (N+1), this becomes

G(N) = (1/6) * N * (N+1) * { 3*(N+1) – (2N + 1) }

Simplifying { 3*(N+1) – (2N + 1) } I get {N+2}, so

G(N) = (1/6) * N * (N+1) * (N+2)

Note 2

Gauss as a boy spotted a short-cut, which can be seen in the following picture:

IMG_4742.JPG

The sum 1+2+3+4 is represented by the shaded blocks, and the unshaded blocks are also the same sum in reverse order. So, we can see

1+2+3+4 = (1/2) * 4 * (4+1) = 2 * 5 = 10

and in general

N∑[i] = (1/2) * N * (N+1)

 

Note 3

G(N-1) = (1/2) * ( N∑[i2] – N∑[i] )

= (1/2) * { { (1/6) * N * (N+1) * (2N + 1) } – {(1/2) * N * (N+1) } }

= (1/2) * (1/6) * N * (N+1) * { (2N + 1)  –  3 }

= (1/2) * (1/6) * N * (N+1) * { 2N  –  2 }

= (1/6) * N * (N+1) * { N – 1 }

So,

G(N) = (1/6) * (N+1) * (N+2)  * N

or, rearranging

G(N) = (1/6) * N * (N+1) * (N+2)

as before.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Is Shell serious about carbon emissions reductions?

Royal Dutch Shell plc, or Shell for short, have issued a statement, under pressure from institutional investors, on how they will contribute to achieving the Paris climate change commitments. They state:

“Shell fully supports the Paris Agreement and believes that society has the scientific and technical knowledge to achieve a world where global warming is limited to well below 2°C.” (Ref. 1)

That sounds pretty unequivocal, and Shell are spending a lot of money aiming to persuade us that they are indeed serious. Let’s take a look at their claims.

Reuters reported in March 2018 that:

“Shell, the world’s top trader of liquefied natural gas, currently produces around 3.7 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, of which roughly half is natural gas.” (Ref. 2)

That’s 1.35 billion barrels per year, of which 50% is natural gas. This equates to about 0.5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, or 0.5 GtCO2e/yr  for short, from the end-use emissions from their products (Note 1).

Shell is claiming to take a lead on emissions reductions, but take a look at Shell’s own statement of ‘direct emissions’ (those resulting from operation of their operations):

“The direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from facilities we operate were 73 million tonnes on a CO2-equivalent basis in 2017, … The indirect GHG emissions from the energy we purchased (electricity, heat and steam) were 12 million tonnes on a CO2-equivalent basis in 2017” (Ref. 7)

So Shell are focusing on these production-based emission totalling 85 million tonnes of CO2e in 2017, or 0.085 GtCO2e.  

From the above figures we see that their production related emissions of CO2e are nearly 15% of the net CO2e resulting from production and end-use (see Note 2). By no means a trivial part of their net emissions, but no surprise that their marketing focuses on their production methods not the 85% coming for end-use of their products, that they clearly cannot mitigate, except by not producing them in the first place.

This explains why Shell, in the disclaimer to their statement to institutional investors, state:

“Also, in this statement we may refer to “Net Carbon Footprint” or “NCF, which includes Shell’s carbon emissions from the production of our energy products, our suppliers’ carbon emissions in supplying energy for that production and our customers’ carbon emissions associated with their use of the energy products we sell. Shell only controls its own emissions but, to support society in achieving the Paris Agreement goals, we aim to help and influence such suppliers and consumers to likewise lower their emissions. The use of the terminology “Net Carbon Footprint” is for convenience only and not intended to suggest these emissions are those of Shell or its subsidiaries.” (Ref. 1)

The key words are “Shell only controls its own emissions”, but offers to “support society” in meeting Paris Agreement goals.

Off the agenda of this statement is any suggestion of keeping fossil fuels in the ground or an acknowledgement of the devastating implications of the IPCC’s 1.5C special report.

They plan to boost natural gas extraction, tripling this by 2050 according to the Reuters report. Citing measures such as use of CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) lead them to state an aspiration to halve the ‘Net Carbon Footprint’ (which includes end-use emissions) by 2050. This may seem to be an ambitious and welcome commitment for a fossil fuel major, but it fails to acknowledge the urgency with which we must decarbonise energy, and relies on the same magical thinking involved in the massive scaling required in CCS technologies by 2050 that many policy-makers are prone to.

This is a self-administered license to carry on extracting and selling fossil fuels.

Shell have been flooding the media with reports of how they are reducing carbon emissions, and they will fund events such as the annual New Scientist Live 2018, where they had a large stand in the middle of the exhibition hall; right next to BP’s stall offering, you guessed it, the same soothing words on emissions reductions. They will be back for more next year (Ref. 8).

If Shell are the trail-blazers amongst the fossil fuel majors, then what to expect from the laggards? 40% reduction by 2050, or 30%, or 20%, or less? What is the ambition of the industry as a whole, which last year was responsible for nearly 37 GtCOoverall (Ref. 5)?

But they, like the other carbon majors and all the minors, are collectively in denial about the challenge we face, and the urgency required to get to net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, not 50%.

Shell can, as they admit, only seriously impact on the 15% (production emissions), not the 85% (end use emissions), of their fossil fuel cake, when the real issue is that we need a radical shrinking cake, not the growing one we have today.

I regard it as distraction tactics to focus on production emission, trying to deflect the discussion away from the calls to ‘keep it in the ground’.

Unfortunately for Shell and other gas majors, the science is showing we have run out of time.

‘Keep it in the ground, keep it in the ground’, the protestors cried at COP24.

They at least, will not be distracted by the latest greenwash from Shell and the others.

o o O o o

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 19th December 2018

Notes

  1. This assumes 0.43 metric tonnes of CO2 per barrel of oil (Ref. 3), and using 75% of this value for natural gas (Ref. 4). The figure of 0.5GtCO2e for Shell aligns with the figure shown in the CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 (Ref. 6). Note also that 5,800 cubic feet of natural gas is equal (using an energy metric) to a Barrel of Oil Equivalent https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_of_oil_equivalent
  1. Add the 0.5 GtCO2e from the end-use burning of their products and we see that this 0.085 GtCO2e is nearly 15% of the total for which Shell is ultimately responsible for. Note also that CO2e or CO2 equivalent includes the CO2 resulting from combustion as well as any leakages of methane, with the methane contribution converted into the equivalent amount (by its warming potential) of CO2.

References

  1. Joint Statement Between Institutional Investors on behalf of Climate Action 100+ and Royal Dutch Shell plc (Shell), 3rd December 2018
  1. “Shell’s gas production could be triple oil by 2050: CEO”, Ron Bousso, 7th March 2018, Reuters
  1. “Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator – Calculations and References”, US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA
  1. “Frequently Asked Questions”, US Energy Information Administration, EIA
  1. “Analysis: Global CO2 emissions set to rise 2% in 2017 after three-year ‘plateau’”, Zeke Hausfather, 13th November 2017, CarbonBrief 
  1. The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017
  1. Shell Sustainability Reporting and Performance Data / Greenhouse Gase Emissions
  1. New Scientist Live 2019, Exhibitors / Shell

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

12 years to Climate Armageddon?

The Guardian reported “We have 12 years to limit global warming, warns the UN”, and many others published similar stories, following the latest IPCC report.

Well not quite that simple, but let me explain.

I want to start with a quote from Risk, statistics and the media: David Spiegelhalter’s IPSO lecture :

“there are some fundamental difficulties with story-telling from data. Classic narratives have an emotional hit to the reader, they reveal a clear causal path, and have a neat conclusion. But science and statistics are not like that – they can seem impersonal, they don’t have a clear chain of causation, and their results are often ambiguous.”

In other words, when we convey facts through narrative we often seek certainty whereas paradoxically, scientists are the ones often having to grapple with uncertainty and ambiguity. In our popular imaginations, we might think that the reverse was true.

Yet on global warming, the irreducible uncertainty is increasingly concerning the when, not the if, of serious impacts. By debating the when (and trying to put a date on it), we are in danger of losing sight of the grindingly unavoidable fact that if a tsunami is heading your way, and you are on the beach, the exact ‘when’ is somewhat academic; the imperative is to run like heck to high ground!

We are already experiencing the impacts of global warming thanks to a rise of about 1C rise in global mean surface temperature (GMST). The impacts of man-made global warming are seen in thousands of places and contexts, and to cite just two – the rapid decline in the population of the European pied flycatcher; and the increasing severity of wildfires in California – illustrate how diverse these impacts can be.

So the questions being raised – how bad could it get and how soon – fit on a spectrum of possibilities. Our responses also fit on a spectrum, concerning how much work we are prepared to put in to limit the impacts. 

How much urgency are we prepared to put in to limiting the impacts or adapting to them, and will this be fair to everyone? Will it be fair to the energy poor of the UK, to rural Indians, to the flora and fauna already experiencing catastrophic losses (and set to escalate)?

If we miss the 1.5°C goal, can we limit it to 1.75°C,  and if not 1.75°C then maybe 2°C, and if not 2°C then can we limit it to 2.5°C,? The impacts are not ‘linearly related’ to temperature rise. There is an escalating level of impacts that ensue in areas such as heat stress, species loss, sea-level rise, crop yields, and more, and there are ‘tipping points’ that can create nasty surprises at multiple stages on this rising, jagged curve.

The context for this latest report was the Paris Agreement – arising from the  21st Conference Of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – held in Paris in December 2015. Hitherto, the UNFCCC had discussed policy aimed at ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’, which was deemed to be a 2C GMST rise. The UNFCCC in Paris was basing policy in part on the scientific input of the 5th Assessment Report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published in 2013/2014. However, low lying countries and those prone to the worst impacts of climate change requested that there be an investigation on the feasibility of limiting the GMST rise to a more ambitious 1.5°C, and also determining the benefits (in terms of reduced impacts) of 1.5°C as compared to 2°C.

The IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers of the 1.5C study includes the statement:

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approx. 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence)”

So, strictly speaking, it is ‘likely’ (meaning at least a 66% chance; for those that read footnotes) that we have between 12 and 34 years before we cross the 1.5°C threshold, unless we do something to improve on this prognosis.

So is 1.5°C more special than all the other thresholds laid out before us? Well, it is an upcoming and fast approaching threshold, and so, theoretically avoidable.

This is what Prof. Jim Skea told to Matt McGrath (BBC Environment Correspondent, 8th October 2018), summarising the IPCC report with two key observations:

“The first is that limiting warming to 1.5°C brings a lot of benefits compared with limiting it to two degrees. It really reduces the impacts of climate change in very important ways,” said Prof Jim Skea, who co-chairs the IPCC.

“The second is the unprecedented nature of the changes that are required if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C – changes to energy systems, changes to the way we manage land, changes to the way we move around with transportation.”

The 1.5°C report found – to the surprise of many – that there were significant benefits to keeping GMST to this lower level. For example, by 2100:

  • 14% of the world’s population will be exposed to extreme heat (as experienced in southeastern Europe) at least once every 5 years in a 1.5°C world, but this rises to 37% in a 2°C world;
  • Some sea-ice will remain in the artic in most summers in a 1.5°C world, but ice-free summers are 10 times more likely in a 2°C world;
  • Urban populations exposed to water scarcity would increase from 250 million to 411 million;
  • Species loss for insects, plants and vertebrates would increase from 6, 8 and 4% to 18, 16 and 8%, respectively;
  • Coral reefs would suffer frequent mass mortalities in a 1.5°C world, but would mostly disappear in a 2°C world;
  • Crop yields would be lower in a 2°C world, especially in sub-sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America.

We see how there is a definite ‘non linearity’ occurring in some of the examples.

For some natural systems that have been able to recover to naturally occuring extremes in climate in the past, the future is a marked change. The effect of repeated, closely spaced extreme conditions means that they then fail to recover. Like a boxer that has been floored, they may get up once, or even twice, but at some point they stay down.

So coral reefs are hurting badly today (in a 1°C world), and will manage to cling on in a 1.5°C world, but will disappear in a 2°C world. This is a graph where the line falls off the cliff; no comforting linearity here.

A key concept introduced in the 5th Assessment Report was the ‘carbon budget’ – the maximum amount of cumulative carbon emissions allowable to stay within a target GMST rise. 

The news which, if not good, is at least something of a relief, is that the so-called ‘committed warming’ due to emissions to-date (all that heat locked up in the oceans that will continue to drive increases in atmospheric temperature / GMST rise until the system reaches equilibrium again), is less than 1.5°C; although changes (e.g. to sea-level raise) will continue for centuries to millennia.

The not so good news (or rather extremely challenging news) is that 2030 emissions must reduce by 45% versus 2010 emissions to achieve 1.5°C, and get to zero by 2050 (note also that for 2°C, 2030 emissions would need to reduce by 20% versus 2010, and get to zero by 2075).

The IPCC make it clear that achieving 1.5°C would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (transport and buildings), and industry. 

These system transition are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed (we have all seen how quickly cars replaced horse-drawn carriages in New York City), and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and upscaling of investments.

However, achieving 1.5°C cannot be achieved solely by decarbonising sectors, but must be supplemented by technologies that will take ‘carbon’ out of the atmosphere and effectively bury it. The 1.5°C pathways explored by IPCC assume between 100 and 1000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) over the 21st Century. 

The most popular form of CDR currently being investigated is BECCS, which stands for Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. It works by growing plants/ trees that will capture carbon, and these are then burned to produce energy; but rather than re-release the carbon into the atmosphere, this is extracted from the exhaust gas stream, then buried in deep geological structures where CO₂ will remain in a condensed state. 

The required transition can be summarised in a graphic (produced by Glen Peters from the CICERO Institute), consistent with the median scenario from the IPCC 1.5°C report:

Screenshot 2018-11-17 at 00.16.37

(Credit: @Peters_Glen, 15th October 2018, On Twitter)

This graph illustrates that human activities would (by 2100) need to move from the current situation – a net source of 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (40GtCO₂) – to becoming a net sink of -15GtCO₂. Coal would be eliminated, and oil would almost be; gas would be uncertain, but any that was used would need to be combined with CDR; land-use would need to move from being a net producer of greenhouse gas emissions to a net sink; and CDR/BECCS would have to be massively scaled up.

Many question the feasibility of such a large roll-out of CDR, requiring perhaps 2 or 3 times the area of India for the energy crops required (while at the same time, there are many other pressures on the land, not least, feeding a population that could grow/ stabilize at about 10 billion).

The graph above shows a complete change in the net CO₂ but this is like turning around a very large tanker on a sixpence.

Personally, I would conclude that the very tough challenge of keeping warming below 2°C has just got even tougher. The scale and range of changes needed requires something like a Marshall Plan for the whole world to stay below 1.5°C.

This is why many commentators such as Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall centre in Manchester says that the only way we can square the circle is through a massive reduction in consumption (particularly amongst the high emitters). He has noted that if the top 10% of emitters reduced their emissions to the average European level, that would equate to a 33% reduction in global emissions!

We have run out of time to decarbonise all sectors fast enough, so are creating ‘magical thinking’ to imagine a scale of CDR that would allow us to continue to consume at the current rate (in the high emitting countries).

So the picture is mixed. Yes, the 1.5°C target is extremely important and worthwhile because it brings so many benefits as compared to 2°C. However, the already very challenging goal of decarbonising the world’s economy (both the established countries and those seeking justice and development), is made even harder.

Irrespective of whether you are an optimistic or pessimistic by nature, the fact is that we have to some extent already left it too late to avoid serious impacts. Whatever level of tolerance to risk we choose for ourselves and our families, by failing to seriously engage in action now, we are in effect making choices for our neighbours, for those communities and ecosystems that may not have the resources to adapt as well as we can.

Whether we imagine it is 0 years left to take action, 12, 34, or any other number that lies within the reasonable range between bad and catastrophic, we are really out of time. 15 years is a flick of the fingers in terms of transforming all sectors in all countries.

We should not hold up “12 years” as some magical number that is a binary switch between “we’ll be OK” and “it’s Armageddon”, but yet another milestone on the slow, and somewhat slippery path towards a very dangerous future.

Where each of us – as individuals, communities, countries or at whatever scale we wish to frame it – have started to take meaningful action, we should celebrate that and strive for wider and deeper change. Where this is not happening, we have to say that the sooner this process starts the better.

As Twitter just reminded me…

“The best time to start was 20 years ago, the second best time is now”

Let’s not wait another 12 years to act on the scale required.

 

Richard W. Erskine, 17th November 2018

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Embracing the Denial Curve

Most people are naturally conservative with a small ‘c’ – they really find it very difficult to change.

For nearly 30 years after leaving academia, I spent a lot of time helping organizations be better at managing their enterprise information and retaining knowledge. Many skills are required to help such aspirations to be realised, and not merely technical ones; as I discussed in The Zeitgeist of the Coder.

As always, techies would run around thinking they had a silver bullet that would make people adopt new practices, simply by installing the software and with a few hours of training. Time and time again I would find that an organization that claimed to have made a big change hadn’t. They had changed very little because no real effort had been put into the changes in behaviour that are required to ensure that the claimed outcomes of an enterprise system rollout would actually transpire.

Old habits die hard.

In my large tool-box of diagrams I used when consulting is the following figure, which originates from the field of ‘business change management’ (I have been using it for many years; long before I became active in climate change).

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 13.57.23

The denial (or change) curve is just a name for the grey path from Denial to Commitment, with each stage described as follows:

  • Denial – people do not believe that the change is needed or will really happen, focusing on business as usual and not engaging their own feelings.
  • Resistance – people now know change is coming and engage their feelings of anxiety, anger and rejection. The focus is personal resistance, not the wider organization. It can be disruptive and even counter to one’s interests.
  • Exploration – a switch occurs whereby people recognize need for personal change and start to explore new ways of working.
  • Commitment – people gain mastery of new ways of working and the focus moves from the personal to the organization – and participating in helping to make the change a success.

The denial referred to here is the regular kind of denial we are all prone to, and is well known to psychologists. In the business context I worked in, it was an illusion to imagine you could get staff to jump en masse from Denial to Commitment.

Denial is more characterised by folded arms and non-communication than by argument or engagement; denial of this kind is a shutting out of the possibility of change, not arguing against it.

Resistance is different. The resentment and anger that comes with Resistance is almost a necessary part of the journey; finding reasons why the change won’t work, and using active measures to frustrate implementation. This can be loud and angry.

Only when the benefits of at least the promise of change start to become appreciated, does Exploration begin, and while there will still be arguments, they move from destructive ones (“It can’t work”) to constructive alternatives (“I don’t see how it can work, but show me”).

Commitment follows, and those that have made this journey are much better at helping others tread in their footsteps than an external consultant. Personal journeys get transformed into communcal ones. There is a tipping point, when enough people are reinforcing the positives so that everyone wants to join the party.

Of course, getting action on global warming and decarbonising our economy is much tougher than getting a large organization to adopt new practices, but maybe there is a lesson here.

For one thing, there is nothing wrong in using the word ‘denial’. Some claim that this is being conflated with ‘holocaust denial’ and is therefore an outrageous slur on  ‘contrarians’ (it is always contrarians that make this claim and merely, I would argue, because they wish to deflect criticism and adopt a posture of victimhood, whereas they are the aggressors).

In any case, I am not so much interested in the tiny percentage of politically motivated contrarians, or ‘ideological denialists’ as I would prefer to call them, even though some are in highly influential positions.

We have to find ways to work around them, rather than give them too much of our time (although it has to be said, I am frustrated at how much airtime these people get on Twitter; and maybe that is a problem with Twitter itself as a platform). Their attention seeking behaviour is self-reinforcing and will not be a path to change (ask a psychologist), and it is wasting time that should be focused on the conversations that really matter.

The great majority of people fit more easily into the standard psychological meaning of the word denial; they are blocking their eyes and ears hoping it will go away.

La la la … la la la.

We are all in denial in some sense and to some level; otherwise we’d be seeing a rebellion wouldn’t we?

It is surely unrealistic to expect it will be a smooth and easy (psychological) journey, from Denial to Commitment, and that we can convince people with a few graphs. We can show all the data in the world – on the efficiency of heat pumps; the health benefits of low meat and EV buses; the falling costs of renewables; the ecological impacts underway; or whatever – but until this becomes internalised as the way we think and act, every day and in every way, it will not lead to measurable outcomes.

We have to pass through The Denial Curve – the pain and anger of the ‘loss’, for what we assumed was forever. That high consumption, limitless travelling, throwaway culture, and our infinite planet, with a mode of consumption that we have somehow slipped into sometime in the 60s or 70s. We have to shake ourselves out of a kind of consumerist trance.

We need to make so many changes at so many levels that the change is bound to create huge anxiety and then, of course, Resistance.

If people are resentful at feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place – between the  terrifying consequences of inaction and the trapped-in-the-headlights ‘conservative’ preference for inaction  – then that is entirely natural. Yet this is exactly the ‘tension’ that needs to be explored, and ultimately, needs to be resolved in each of us, and in our communities.

I sense that there is already a growing number of people who have moved from cross-armed denial, to resentment and hence Resistance. This is to be expected, and we should expect it to get a lot louder. We’ll need strong leaders and ‘counsellors’ amongst us, to help guide people on the journey; despite the noises off.

I would argue therefore that we should embrace The Denial Curve, rather than get stuck in the loop of raging against denial per se (that’s what the ‘ideological denialists’ want!).

If we can reassure people and find ways to help them transition from Resistance to Exploration, then that is the hardest part. Commitment will follow.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Brexit’s Sunlit Uplands

Those pesky Europeans, imposing their values on us – you know, a belief in the rule of law and all that. How dare they!

Freed from this prison, the UK can forge a new future with the world, based on emerging economies, and Britain’s long-established record for gun-boat diplomacy.

What can possibly go wrong?

China, for example, has emerged as a powerhouse likely to overtake the USA as the largest economy in the world by 2050. Ok, so they execute more people than the rest of world put together and lock up millions for ‘re-education’; anyone who does not support the ruling dictatorship.

Sunlit uplands.

Hey ho, at least they want to buy our stuff, so what’s not to like?

Ok, so they actually want to steal our stuff – the stuff they have not already hacked using their superior mathematicians (check out the Olympiad results) – but will then be handed over legally. As the mafia discovered, the easiest way to rob a bank is to own one. And the easiest way to steal from, say, Rolls Royce is to own it. Expect when, not if.

Sunlit uplands.

And what about weapons? Well Saudi Arabia is a great client, and the advantage of having an on-going war – namely pulverising Yemen back to the dark ages and murdering children without challenge (let alone journalists) – is that there is such a great repeat-business order book. BAE Systems shareholders are smiling all the way to the bank.

Sunlit uplands.

There seems no end to powerful and anti-democratic forces who want our stuff.

Let’s cut ourselves off from the cultures that we spent hundreds of years wrestling with – in war and peace – and ultimately worked together with to create a platform for peace, diversity and sharing, of hope, and collaboration. Be it the scientific endeavours, or the regulations that allow safe medicines across Europe, or the protection of consumer rights in telecommunications or even swimming on beaches (without going through the motions).

Who exactly are our friends?

Those in Russia, China and Saudi Arabia that have a long history of suppressing freedoms or those in the EU that have a long history of non-conformism and defence of freedoms, even in the face of despots (Diderot eat your heart out).

As we confront issues such as the unrestricted power of Google and Facebook, or the issue of man-made Global Warming, do we trust the USA, China, India or Russia to act as our friends, and in our interests? Not bloody likely.

Oh, but <keep chanting in the dark> ‘sunlit uplands’ (you know it makes you feel better, you just have to believe and everything will work out – even Chris Grayling’s 50 mile tailbacks for lorries – no pain, no gain).

Is there another path?

We could work with Europeans to push for change and to continue the tradition of European enlightenment and rebellion against elites, towards a better world however flawed; including radical reforms of the EU?

Inside the tent, we have a chance to make the changes, but outside it we merely become prey to deals with those that neither share our values, nor value them. Those who turn our creativity into death and destruction. Is that what we want?

How would you choose in this turbulent world?

Will the UK ultimately find itself  a slave to China, where we will have to attend re-education camps in Milton Keynes; where we will have to unlearn the Glorious Revolution (such a dangerous idea)?

Fanciful?

No less so than the sunlit uplands of post-Brexit Britain we have been promised in the false prospectus of Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg; a race to the bottom future of vestigual government, and the power of moneyed elites, who want to frame our future in 19th Century terms.

How about a 21st Century world where we are leaders in Europe, using our talents in genomics, engineering, and yes, regulation (we Brits are geniuses at that), to build a better, safer world. Where we transition our industries to confront climate change, mental health, ecocide, the digital economy and other great challenges; as Brits and as Europeans.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Richard W. Erskine, 2018.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Butterflies, Brexit & Brits

I attended an inspiring talk by Chris Packham in Stroud at the launch of Stroud Nature’s season of events. Chris was there to show his photographs but naturally ranged over many topics close to his heart.

The catastrophic drop in species numbers in the UK was one which he has recently written about. The 97% reduction in hedgehogs since the 1950s, and the Heath Fritillary has fallen by 82% in just a decade 

These are just two stats in a long list that attest to this catastrophe.

Chris talked about how brilliant amateur naturalists are in the UK – better than in any other country – in the recording of flora and fauna. They are amateur only in the sense that they do not get paid, but highly professional in the quality of their work. That is why we know about the drop in species numbers in such comprehensive detail. It appears that this love of data is not a new phenomenon.

I have been a lover of butterflies since very young. I came into possession of  a family heirloom when I was just 7 years old which gave a complete record of the natural history butterflies and moths in Great Britain in the 1870s. Part of what made this book so glorious was the intimate accounts of amateur scientists who meticulously recorded sightings and corresponded though letters and journals.

IMG_3828

The Brits it seems are crazy about nature, and have this ability to record and document. We love our tick boxes and lists, and documenting things. It’s part of our culture.

I remember once doing a consultancy for a German car manufacturer who got a little irritated by our British team’s insistence on recording all meetings and then reminding the client of agreed points later, when they tried to change the requirements late in the project: “you Brits do love to write things down, don’t you!”.

Yes we do.

But there is a puzzling contradiction here. We love nature, we love recording data, but somehow have allowed species to be harmed, and have failed to stop this? Is this a naive trust in institutions to act on our behalf, or lack of knowledge in the wider population as to the scale of the loss?

I heard it said once (but struggle to find the appropriate reference) that the Normans were delighted after conquering Britain in 1066 to find that unlike most of Europe, the British had a highly organised administration and people paid their dues. Has anything changed?

But we have our limits. Thatcher’s poll tax demonstrated her lack of understanding of the British character. We will riot when pushed too hard – and I don’t know what you think, but by god they frighten me (as someone might have said). Mind you, I can imagine British rioters forming an orderly queue to collect their Molotov Cocktails. Queue jumping is the ultimate sin. Rules must be obeyed.

I have a friend in the finance sector, and we were having a chat about regulations. I asked if it was true in his sector if Brussels ‘dictated’ unreasonable regulations – “Not at all he said. For one thing, Brits are the rule writers par excellence, and the Brits will often gold-plate a regulation from Brussels.”

Now, I am sure some will argue that yes, we Brits are rule followers and love a good rule, but would prefer it if it is always our rules, and solely our rules. Great idea except that it is a total illusion to imagine that we can trade in high value goods and services without agreeing on rules with other countries. 

In sectors like Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals where the UK excels, there are not only European regulations (concerning safety, licensing, event reporting, etc. – all very reasonable and obvious regulations by the way) but International ones. In Pharma, the ICH.org has Harmonization in its title for a reason, and is increasingly global in nature.

Innovation should be about developing the best medicines, not reinventing protocols for drug trials or the design of a drug dossier used for multi-country licensing applications. One can develop an economy on a level playing field.

The complete freedom the hard-right Brexiteers dream of rather highlights their complete lack of knowledge of how the world works. 

Do we really think we can tear up regulations such as REACH and still trade in in Chemicals, in Europe or even elsewhere? 

And are we really going to tear up the Bathing Water Directive?

Maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg fancies going to the beach and rediscovering the delights of going through the motions, but I suspect the Great British Public might well riot at the suggestion, or at least, get very cross. 

Richard Erskine, 10th July 2018

Leave a comment

Filed under Bexit, Science in Society, Uncategorized

Experiments in Art & Science

My wife and I were on our annual week-end trip to Cambridge to meet up with my old Darwinian friend Chris and his wife, for the usual round of reminiscing, punting and all that. On the Saturday (12th May) we decided to go to Kettle’s Yard to see the house and its exhibition and take in a light lunch.

As we were about to get our (free) tickets for the house visit, we saw people in T-shirts publicising a Gurdon Institute special event in partnership with Kettle’s Yard that we had been unaware of:

Experiments in Art & Science

A new collaboration between three contemporary artists 

and scientists from the Gurdon Institute, 

in partnership with Kettle’s Yard

The three artists in question were Rachel Pimm, David Blandy and Laura Wilson, looking at work being done at the labs, respectively, on:

This immediately grabbed our attention and we changed tack, and went to the presentation and discussion panel, intrigued to learn more about the project.

The Gurdon Institute do research exploring the relationship between human disease and development, through all stages of life.  They use the tools of molecular biology, including model systems that share a lot of their genetic make-up with humans. There were fascinating insights into how the environment can influence creatures, in ways that force us to relax Crick’s famous ‘Central Dogma’. But I am jumping into the science of what I saw, and the purpose of this essay is to explore the relationship between art and science.

I was interested to learn if this project was about making the science more accessible – to draw in those who may be overwhelmed by the complexities of scientific methods – and to provide at least some insight into the work of scientists. Or maybe something deeper, that might be more of an equal partnership between art and science, in a two-way exchange of insights.

I was particularly intrigued by Rachel’s exploration of the memory of trauma, and the deep past revealed in the behaviour of worms, and their role as custodians of nature; of Turing’s morphogenesis, fractals and the emergence of self-similarity at many scales. A heady mix of ideas in the early stages of seeking expression.

David’s exploratory animations of moving through neural networks was also captivating.

As the scientists there noted, the purpose of the art may not be so much as to precisely articulate new questions, but rather to help them to stand back and see their science through fresh eyes, and maybe find unexpected connections.

In our modern world it has almost become an article of faith that science and art occupy two entirely distinct ways of seeing the world, but there was a time, as my friend Chris pointed out, when this distinction would not have been recognised.

Even within a particular department – be it mathematics or molecular biology – the division and sub-division of specialities makes it harder and harder for scientists to comprehend even what is happening in the next room. The funding of science demands a kind of determinism in the production of results which promotes this specialisation. It is a worrying trend because it is something of an anathema when it comes to playfulness or inter-disciplinary collaboration. 

This makes the Wellcome Trust’s support for the Gurdon Institute and for this Science-Art collaboration all the more refreshing. 

Some mathematicians have noted that even within the arcane world of number theory, group theory and the rest, it will only be through the combining of mathematical disciplines that some of the long-standing unresolved questions of mathematics be solved.

In areas such as climate change it was recognised in the lated 1950s that we needed to bring together a diverse range of disciplines to get to grips with the causes and consequences of man-made global warming: meteorologists, atmospheric chemists, glaciologists, marine biologists, and so many more.

We see through complex questions such as land-use and human civilisation how we must broaden this even further to embrace geography, culture and even history, to really understand how to frame solutions to climate change.

In many ways those (in my days) unloved disciplines such as geography, show their true colours as great integrators of knowledge – from human geography to history, from glaciology to food production – and we begin to understand that a little humility is no bad thing when we come to try to understand complex problems. Inter-disciplinary working is not just a fad; it could be the key to unlock complex problems that no single discipline can resolve.

Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and scientist. Ok, so not a scientist in the modern sense that David Wootton explores in his book The Invention of Science that was heralded in by the Enlightenment, but surely a scientist in the sense of his ability to forensically observe the world and try to make sense of it. His art was part of his method in exploring the world, be it the sinews of the human body or birds in flight, art and science were indivisible.

Since my retirement I have started to take up painting seriously. At school I chose science over art, but over the years have dabbled in painting but never quite made progress. Now, under the watchful eye of a great teacher, Alison Vickery, I feel I am beginning to find a voice. What she tells me hasn’t really changed, but I am finally hearing her. ‘Observe the scene, more than look at the paper’; ‘Experiment and don’t be afraid of accidents, because often they are happy ones’; the list of helpful aphorisms never leaves me.

A palette knife loaded with pigment scrapped across a surface can give just the right level of variegation if not too wet and not too dry; there is a kind of science to it. The effect is to produce a kind of complexity that the human eye seems to be drawn to: imperfect symmetries of the kind we find alluring in nature even while in mathematics we seek perfection.

Scientists and artists share many attributes.

At the meeting hosted by Kettle’s Yard, there was a discussion on what was common between artists and scientists. My list adapts what was said on the day: 

  • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
  • ability to acutely observe the world; 
  • a fascination with patterns;
  • not afraid of failure;
  • dedication to keep going; 
  • searching for truth; 
  • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
  • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

How then are art and science different?  

Well, of course, the key reason is that they are asking different questions and seeking different kinds of answers.

In art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see. and how do I make sense of it?’ , and ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’. If I see a tree, I see the sinews of the trunk and branches, and how the dappled light reveals fragmentary hints as to the form of the tree.  I observe the patterns of dark and light in the canopy. A true rendering of colour is of secondary interest (this is not a photograph), except in as much as it helps reveal the complexity of tree: making different greens by playing with mixtures of 2 yellows and 2 blues offers an infinity of greens which is much more interesting than having tubes of green paint (I hardly ever buy green).

Artists do not have definite answers to unambiguous questions. It is OK for me to argue that J M W Turner was the greatest painter of all time, even while my friend vehemently disagrees. When I look at a painting (or sculpture, or film) and feel an emotional response, there is no need to explain it, even though we often seem obliged to put words to emotions, we know these are mere approximations.

In science (or experimental science at least), we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypothesis that challenges the boundaries of our knowledge. We can then design experiments to test the hypothesis, and if we are successful (in the 1% of times that maybe we are lucky), we will have advanced the knowledge of our subject. Most times this is an incremental learning, building on a body of knowledge. Other times, we may need to break something down before building it up again (but unlike the caricature of science often seen on TV, science is rarely about tearing down a whole field of knowledge, and starting from scratch). 

When I see the tree, I ask, why are the leaves of Copper Beech trees deep purple in colour rather than green? Are the energy levels in the chlorophyll molecule somehow changed to produce a different colour or is a different molecule involved?

In science, the objective is to find definite answers to definite questions. That is not to say that the definite answer is in itself a complete answer to all the questions we have. When Schrodinger asked the question ‘What is Life?’ the role and structure of DNA were not known, but there were questions that he could ask and find answers to. This is the wonder of science; this stepping stone quality.

I may find the answer as to why the Copper Beech tree’s leaves are not green, but what of the interesting question of why leaves change colour in autumn and how they change, not from one state (green) to another (brown), but through a complex process that reveals variegations of colour as Autumn unfolds? And what of a forest? How does a mature forest evolve from an immature one; how do pioneer trees give way to a complex ecology of varyingly aged trees and species over time? A leaf begs a question, and a forest may end up being the answer to a bigger question. Maybe we find that art, literature and science are in fact happy bedfellows after all.

As Feynman said, I can be both fascinated by something in the natural world (such as a rainbow) while at the same time seeking a scientific understanding of the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it seems that while artists and scientists have so much in common, their framings struggle to align, and that in a way is a good thing. 

There is great work done in the illustration of scientific ideas, in textbooks and increasingly in scientific papers. I saw a recent paper on the impact of changes to the stratospheric polar vortex on climate, which was beautifully illustrated. But this is illustration, intended to help articulate those definite questions and answers. It is not art.

So what is the purpose of bringing artists into laboratories to inspire them; to get their response to the work being done there?

The answer, as they say, is on the tin (of this Gurdon Institute collaborative project): It is an experiment.

The hypothesis is that if you take three talented and curious young artists and show them some leading edge science that touches on diverse subjects, good things happen. Art happens.

Based on the short preview of the work being done which I attended, good things are already happening and I am excited to see how the collaboration evolves.

Here are some questions inspired in my mind by the discussion 

  • How do we understand the patterns in form in the ways that Turing wrote about, based on the latest research? Can we explore ‘emergence of form’ as a topic that is interesting, artistically and scientifically?
  • In the world of RNA epigenetics can the previously thought of ‘junk DNA’ play a part in the life of creatures, even humans, in the environment they live in? Can we explore the deep history of our shared genotype, even given our divergent phenotypes? Will the worm teach us how to live better with our environment?
  • Our identity is formed by memory and as we get older we begin to lose our ability to make new memories, but older ones often stay fast, but not always. Surely here there is a rich vein for exploring the artistic and scientific responses to diseases like Alzheimers?

Scientists are dedicated and passionate about their work, like artists. A joint curiosity drives this new collaborative Gurdon Institute project.

The big question for me is this: can art reveal to scientists new questions, or new framings of old questions, that will advance the science in novel ways? Can unexpected connections be revealed or collaborations be inspired?

I certainly hope so.

P.S. the others in my troop did get to do the house visit after all, and it was wonderful, I hear. I missed it because I was too busy chatting to the scientists and artists after the panel discussion; and I am so grateful to have spent time with them.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

 

1 Comment

Filed under Art & Science, Essay, Molecular Biology, Uncategorized

Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Normally, as with 9/11, a conspiracy theory involves convoluted chains of reasoning so torturous that it can take a while to determine how the conjuring trick was done: where the lie was implanted. But often, the anatomy of a conspiracy theory takes the following basic form:

Part 1 is a plausible but flawed technical claim that aims to refute an official account, and provides the starting point for Part 2, which is a multi-threaded stream of whataboutery. To connect Part 1 and 2 a sleight of hand is performed. This is the anatomy of a basic conspiracy theory.

I have been thinking about this because a relative of mine asked me for my opinion about a video that turns out to be a good case study in this form of conspiracy theory. It was a video posted by a Dr Chris Busby relating to the nerve gas used to poison the Skripals: 

So, against my better judgment, I sat through the video.

Dr Busby who comes across initially as quite affable proceeds to outline his experience at length. He says he was employed at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham (see Note 1), where he worked, in his words, 

“… on the physical chemistry of pharmaceutical compounds or small organic compounds”, and he used “spectroscopic and other methods to determine the structure of these substances, as they were made by the chemists”. 

I have no reason to doubt his background, but equally have not attempted to verify it either; in any case, this is immaterial because I judge people on their arguments not their qualifications.

I want to pass over Busby’s first claim – that a state actor was not necessarily involved because (in his view):

“any synthetic organic chemist could knock up something like that without a lot of difficulty”

… which is questionable, but is not the main focus of this post. I do have a few observations on this subsidiary claim in Note 2.

He explains correctly that a Mass Spectroscopy spectrum (let’s abbreviate this as ‘spectrum’ in what follows) is a pattern of the masses of the ionised fragments created when a substance passes through the instrument. This pattern is characteristic of the molecule under investigation.

So a spectrum “identifies a material”. So far, so good.

He now makes his plausible but flawed technical claim. I don’t want to call it a lie because I will assume Dr Busby made it in good faith, but it does undermine his claim to be an ‘expert’, and was contained in the following statement he made:

“… but in order to do that, you need to have a sample of the material, you need to have synthesized the material”

In brief we can summarise the claim as follows: In order for you to identify a substance, you need to have synthesised it.

Curiously, later in the video he says that the USA manufactured the A-234 strain that is allegedly involved (see Note 3) and put the spectrum on the NIST database, but then later took it down. 

It does not occur to Dr Busby that Porton Down could have taken a copy of data from NIST before it was removed and used that as the reference spectrum, thereby blowing a huge hole in Busby’s chain of logic (also, see Note 4).

But there is a more fundamental reason why the claim is erroneous even if the data had never existed.

One of the whole points of having a technique like mass spectroscopy is precisely to help researchers in determining the structures of unknown substances, particularly in trace quantities where other structural techniques cannot be used (see Note 5).

To show you why the claim is erroneous, here is an example of a chemistry lecturer taking his students through the process of analysing the spectrum of a substance, in order to establish its structure (Credit: Identify a reasonable structure for the pictured mass spectrum of an unknown sample, Professor Heath’s Chemistry Channel, 6th October 2016).

This method uses knowledge of chemistry, logic and arithmetic to ‘reverse engineer’ the chemical structure, based on the masses of the fragments:

Now it is true that with a library of spectra for known substances, the analysis is greatly accelerated, because we can then compare a sample’s spectrum with ones in the library. This might be called ‘routine diagnostic mass spectroscopy’.

He talked about having done a lot of work on pharmaceuticals that had been synthesised “in Spain or in India”, and clearly here the mode of application would have been the comparison of known molecules manufactured by (in this case Wellcome) with other samples retrieved from other sources – possibly trying to break a patent – but giving away their source due to impurities in the sample (see Note 6).

It then struck me that he must have spent so much time doing this routine diagnostic diagnostic mass spectroscopy that he is now presenting this as the only way in which you can use mass spectroscopy to identify a substance.

He seems to have forgotten the more general use of the method by scientists.

This flawed assumption leads to the scientific and logical chain of reasoning used by Dr Busby in this video. 

The sleight of hand arrives when he uses the phrase ‘false flag’ at 6’55” into a 10’19” video.  

The chain of logic has been constructed to lead the viewer to this point. Dr Busby was in effect saying ‘to test for the agent, you need to have made it; if you can make it, maybe it got out; and maybe the UK (or US) was  responsible for using it!’.

This is an outrageous claim but he avoids directly accusing the UK or US Governments; and this is the sleight of hand. He leaves the viewer to fill in the gap.

This then paves the way for Part 2 of his conspiracy theory which now begins in earnest on the video. He cranks up the rhetoric and offers up an anti-American diatribe, full of conspiracy ideation.

He concludes the video as follows:

“There’s no way there’s any proof that that material that poisoned the Skripal’s came from Russia. That’s the take home message”

On the contrary, the message I took away is that it is sad that an ex-scientist is bending and abusing scientific knowledge to concoct conspiracy theories, to advance his political dogma, and helping to magnify the Kremlin’s whataboutery.

Now, Dr Busby might well respond by saying “but you haven’t proved the Russians did it!”.  No, but I would reply ‘you haven’t proved that they didn’t, and as things stand, it is clear that they are the prime suspect’; ask any police inspector how they would assess the situation.

My purpose here was not to prove anything, but to discuss the anatomy of conspiracy theories in general, and debunk this one in particular.

But I do want to highlight one additional point: those that are apologists for the Russian state will demand 100% proof the Russians did it, but are lazily accepting of weak arguments – including Dr Busby’s video – that attempt to point the finger at the UK or US Governments. This is, at least, double standards.

By all means present your political views and theories on world politics, Dr Busby – the UK is a country where we can express our opinions freely – but please don’t dress them up with flawed scientific reasoning masquerading as scientific expertise.

Hunting down a plausible but flawed technical claim is not always as easy as in the case study above, but remember the anatomy, because it is usually easy to spot the sleight of hand that then connects with the main body of a conspiracy theory.

We all need to be inoculated against this kind of conspiracy ideation, and I hope my dissection of this example is helpful to people.

——

© Richard W. Erskine, 2018

NOTES

Note 1: The Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham closed in 1995, when the GlaxoWellcome merged company was formed, and after further mergers transformed into the current leading pharmaceutical global entity GSK.

Note 2: Busby’s first claim is that the nerve agent identified by Porton Down is a simple organic compound and therefore easy for a chemist to synthesise. Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) said on Sky News (here reported in The Guardian)

“It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.”

But the difficulty of synthesising a molecule is not simply based on the number of atoms in the molecule, but rather the synthetic pathway, and all that, and in the case of a nerve agent, the practical difficulties involved in making the stuff in a safe environment, then preparing it in some ‘weaponized’ formulation.

Vil Mirzayanov who was a chemist who worked on Novichok has said that  that this process is extremely difficult. Dr Busby thinks he knows better but not being a synthetic chemist (remember, he had chemists making the samples he analysed), cannot claim expertise on the ease or difficulty of nerve agent synthesis.

The UK position is that the extremely pure nature of the samples found in Salisbury point to a state actor. Most of us, and I would include Dr Busby, without experience of the synthesis of the nerve agent in question and its formulation as a weapon, cannot really comment with authority on this question.

Simply saying it is a simple molecule really doesn’t stand up as an argument.

Note 3: While the Russian Ambassador to the UK claims that the strain is A-234, neither the UK Government, nor Porton Down, nor the OPCW have stated which strain was used, and so the question regarding what strain or strains the USA might or might not have synthesized, is pure speculation.

Note 4: He says that if the USA synthesised it (the strain of nerve agent assumed to have been used), then it is possible that Porton Down did so as well. I am not arguing this point either way. The point of this post is to challenge what Dr Busby presents as an unassailable chain of logic, but which is nothing of the sort.

Note 5: There are many other techniques used in general for structuralwork, but not all are applicable in every situation. For large complex biological molecules, X-Ray Crystallography has been very successful, and more recently CryoEM has matured to the point where it is taking over this role. Neither will have used in the case of trace quantities of a nerve agent.

Note 6: He also talks about impurities that can show up in a spectrum and using these as a way to identify a laboratory of origin (in relation to his pharmaceuticals experience), but this is a separate argument, which is irrelevant if the sample is of high purity, which is what OPCW confirmed in relation to the nerve gas found in Salisbury.

.. o O o ..

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Conspiracy Theories, Uncategorized

Cambridge Analytica and the micro-targeting smokescreen

I have an hypothesis.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) won’t find any retained data at Cambridge Analytica (CA) gleaned from Facebook user’s. They might even find proof it was deleted in a timely manner.

So, would that mean CA did not provide an assist to the Trump campaign? No.

Because the analysis of all that data would have been used to provide knowledge and insight into which buttons to push in the minds of voters, and crucially, in which States this would be most effective.

At that point you can delete all the source Facebook data.

The knowledge and insight would have powered a broad spectrum campaign using good old fashioned media channels and social media. At this point, it is not micro-targeting, but throwing mud knowing it will stick where it matters.

Maybe the focus on micro-targeting is a smokescreen, because if the ICO don’t find retained data, then CA can say “see, we are innocent of all charges of interference”, when in fact the truth could be quite the opposite.

It is important the ICO, Select Committees in the UK Parliament and, when they get their act together, committees on Capitol Hill, ask the right questions, and do not succumb to smokescreens.

But then, that is only an hypothesis.

What do I know?

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

When did you learn about the Holocaust?

“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”,

used to be the question everyone asked, but of course is an increasingly irrelevant question, in an ageing population.

But a question that should never age, and should stay with us forever, is

“When did you learn about the holocaust?”.

I remember when I first learned about the holocaust, and it remains seared into my consciousness, thanks to a passionate and dedicated teacher, Mr Cromie.

I was a young child at a boarding school Stouts Hill Preparatory School, in the little village of Uley in Gloucestershire. The school no longer exists but that memory never fades. You cannot ‘unlearn’ something like that.

I was no more than 12 at the time, so this would have been 1965 or earlier, and our teacher told us about the mass murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but with a sense of anger and resentment at the injustice of this monstrous episode in history. And it has often occurred to me since that the peak of this programme of murder was just 10 years before I was born.

But what did I learn and what did I remember? I learned about the gas chambers, and the burning of bodies, but it was all a kind of vague memory of an atrocity, difficult to properly make sense of at that age.

What we did not really learn was the process by which a civilised country like Germany could turn from being at the centre of European culture to a murderous genocidal regime in just a decade.

For British viewers, this story of inhumanity was often framed through the lens of Bergen-Belsen, because it was the Brits that liberated this Concentration Camp, and the influential Richard Dimbleby was there to deliver his sonorous commentary on the horrors of the skeletal survivors and piles of corpses.

But it is curious how this story is still the reflex image that many Britons have of the holocaust, and I have often wondered why.  The Conversation tried to provide an answer:

“But even though many, if not most, of those involved in the rescue and relief effort were aware of the fact that Jews made up the largest number of the victims, the evolving official British narrative sidestepped this issue. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen became separated from what the people held in this camp had had to endure, and why they had been incarcerated in the first place.

Instead, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was transformed into a British triumph over “evil”. The event was used to confirm to the wider British public that the British Army had fought a morally and ethically justified war, that all the personal and collective sacrifices made to win the war had now been vindicated. Bergen-Belsen gave sense and meaning to the British military campaign against Nazi Germany and the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender. The liberation of the camp became Britain’s finest hour.”

Each country, each culture, and each person, constructs their own narrative to try to make sense of the horror.

But despite the horror of Bergen-Belsen, and the 35,000 who died there, it is barely a footnote in the industrialised murder campaign that the Nazi leadership planned and executed.

Despite the fact that most people are vaguely aware of a figure of several million Jews and others dying, they are rather less aware of the distinction between Concentration Camps and Death Camps (also know as Extermination Camps).

Many died in the numerous Concentration Camps, as Wikipedia describes:

“Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.”

The death camps at Chełmno, Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec were designed purely as places of murder.  It is not simply about the arithmetic of the holocaust. After all, the death squads and related actions in the east accounted for 2.5 million murders, and the death camps over 3 million. But it is the sheer refinement of the industrialization of murder at the Extermination Camps that is difficult to comprehend:

“Visitors to the sites of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (of who there are far, far fewer than travel to Auschwitz) are shocked by how tiny these killing camps were. A total of around 1.7 million people were murdered in these three camps – 600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz – and yet all three could fit into the area of Auschwitz-Birkenau with room to spare. In a murder process that is an affront to human dignity at almost every level, one of the greatest affronts – and this may seem illiogical unless you have actually been there – is that so many people were killed in such a small area.”

Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ – Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2005

Majdanek and Auschwitz also became Extermination Camps, but were dual purpose, also being used as Concentration Camps, so they had accommodation, bunks, and so forth that where not needed in the small camps designed purely for murder.

It is helpful to those who deny the holocaust or its full horror that Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka have not entered into the public imagination in the way that Auschwitz has. Being dual use it is then easier to play on this apparent ambiguity, to construct a denial narrative along the lines of: many died from hard labour, it was not systematic murder.

And of course, not knowing about Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chełmno is a lot easier than knowing, because they expose the full, unadulterated horror.

Remember that the Final Solution came after a decade of murderous projects – the death squads in the east, the euthanasia programmes, and early experiments with gassing – which led to the final horror of the Extermination Camps.

You can never stop learning, because you will never hear all the details, read all the books, or hear all the testimonies.

But if you ever find yourself not feeling deeply uncomfortable (as well as deeply moved) by the horrors of the Holocaust, then it is time to not turn away. To take another look.

For us today, the most important lesson is that it is possible for even a sophisticated and educated country to succumb to a warped philosophy that blames the ‘other’ for  problems in society, and to progressively desensitize the people to greater and greater levels of dehumanisation.

While nothing on the scale of the holocaust has occurred again, can we be confident that it never could? When we see what has happened under Pol Pot, or in Srebrenica, or in Rwanda, we know that the capacity of people to dehumanise ‘others’ for reasons of ethnicity or politics, and to murder them in large numbers, has not gone away.

The price of freedom, and decency in a society, is eternal vigilance.

Calling out hate speech is therefore, in a small way, honouring the 6 million – the great majority of whom were Jews – who died in the holocaust. It is stamping out that first step in that process of dehumanisation that is the common precursor of all genocidal episodes in history. It is always lurking there, waiting to consume a society that is looking for simple answers, and for someone to blame.

When did I learn about the holocaust?

I never stop learning.

 

#HolocaustMemorialDay #WeRemember

2 Comments

Filed under Holocaust, Uncategorized

Ending The Climate Solution Wars: A Climate Solutions Taxonomy

If you spend even a little time looking at the internet and social media in search of enlightenment on climate solutions, you will have noted that there are passionate advocates for each and every solution out there, who are also experts in the shortcomings of competing solutions!

This creates a rather unhelpful atmosphere for those of us trying to grapple with the problem of addressing the very real risks of dangerous global warming.

There are four biases – often implied but not always stated – that lie at the heart of these unproductive arguments:

  • Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution;
  • Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales;
  • Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that marginalizes others;
  • Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Let’s explore how these manifest themselves:

Feasibility: Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution

This does not mean that an idea does not have promise (and isn’t worthy of R&D investment), but refers to the tendency to champion a solution based more on wishful thinking than any proven track record. For example, small modular nuclear has been championed as the path to a new future for nuclear – small, modular, scaleable, safe, cheap – and there are an army of people shouting that this is true. We have heard recent news that the economics of small nuclear are looking a bit shaky. This doesn’t mean its dead, but it does rather put the onus on the advocates to prove their case, and cut the PR, as Richard Black has put it. Another one that comes to mind is ‘soil carbon’ as the single-handed saviour (as discussed in Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle). The need to reform agriculture is clear, but it is also true (according to published science) that a warming earth could make soils a reinforcer of warming, rather than a cooling agent; the wisdom of resting hopes in regenerative farming as the whole of even a major contributor, is far from clear. The numbers are important.

Those who do not wish to deal with global warming (either because they deny its seriousness or because they do not like the solutions) quite like futuristic solutions, because while we are debating long-off solutions, we are distracted from focusing on implementing existing solutions.

Timescale: Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales

Often we see solutions that seem to clearly have promise and will be able to make a major contribution in the future. The issue is that even when they have passed the feasibility test, they fail to meet it on a timescale required. There is not even one timescale, as discussed in Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check, as we have an immediate need to reduce carbon emissions (say, 0-10 years), then an intermediate timeframe in which to implement an energy transition (say, 10-40 years). Renewable energy is key to the latter but cannot make sufficient contribution to the former (that can only be done by individual and community reductions in their carbon intensity). And whatever role Nuclear Fusion has for the future of humanity, it is totally irrelevant to solving the challenge we have in the next 50 years to decarbonize our economy.

The other aspect of timescale that is crucial is that the eventual warming of the planet is strongly linked to the peak atmospheric concentration, whereas the peak impacts will be delayed for decades or even centuries, before the Earth system finally reaches a new equilibrium. Therefore, while the decarbonization strategy required for solutions over, say, the 2020-2050 timeframe; the implied impacts timeframe could be 2050-2500, and this delay can make it very difficult to appreciate the urgency for action.

Priority: Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that precludes others

I was commenting on Project Drawdown on twitter the other day and this elicited a strong response because of a dislike of a ‘list’ approach to solutions. I also do not like ‘lists’ when they imply that the top few should be implemented and the bottom ones ignored.  We are in an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, so we have to be very careful not to exclude solutions that meet the feasibility and timescale tests. Paul Hawken has been very clear that this is not the intention of Project Drawdown (because the different solutions interact and an apparently small solution can act as a catalyst for other solutions).

Centralization: Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Some people like the idea of big solutions which are often underwritten at least by centralised entities like Governments. They argue that big impact require big solutions, and so they have a bias towards solutions like nuclear and an antipathy to lower-tech and less energy intensive solutions like solar and wind.

Others share quite the opposite perspective. They are suspicious of Governments and big business, and like the idea of community based, less intensive solutions. They are often characterized as being unrealistic because of the unending thirst of humanity for consumption suggests an unending need for highly intensive energy sources.

The antagonism between these world views often obscures the obvious: that we will need both top-down and bottom-up solutions. We cannot all have everything we would like. Some give and take will be essential.

This can make for strange bedfellows. Both environmentalists and Tea Party members in Florida supported renewable energy for complementary reasons, and they became allies in defeating large private utilities who were trying to kill renewables.

To counteract these biases, we need to agree on some terms of reference for solving global warming.

  • Firstly, we must of course be guided by the science (namely, the IPCC reports and its projections) in order to measure the scale of the response required. We must take a risk management approach to the potential impacts.
  • Secondly, we need to start with an ‘all hands on deck’ or inclusive philosophy because we have left it so late to tackle decarbonization, we must be very careful before we throw out any ideas.
  • Thirdly, we must agree on a relevant timeline for those solutions we will invest in and scale immediately. For example, for Project Drawdown, that means solutions that are proven, can be scaled and make an impact over the 2020-2050 timescale. Those that cannot need not be ‘thrown out’ but may need more research & development before they move to being operationally scaled.
  • Fourthly, we allow both top-down (centralized) and bottom-up (solutions), but recognise that while Governments dither, it will be up to individuals and social enterprise to act, and so in the short-medium term, it will be the bottom solutions that will have greater impact. Ironically, the much feared ‘World Government’ that right-wing conpiracy theorists most fear, is not what we need right now, and on that, the environmentalists mostly agree!

In the following Climate Solutions Taxonomy I have tried to provide a macro-level view of different solution classes. I have included some solutions which I am not sympathetic too;  such as nuclear and geo-engineering. But bear in mind that the goal here is to map out all solutions. It is not ‘my’ solutions, and is not itself a recommendation or plan.

On one axis we have the top-down versus bottom-up dimension, and on the other axis, broad classes of solution. The taxonomy is therefore not a simple hierarchy, but is multi-dimensional (here I show just two dimensions, but there are more).

Climate Solutions Taxonomy macro view

While I would need to go to a deeper level to show this more clearly, the arrows are suggestive of the system feedbacks that reflect synergies between solutions. For example, solar PV in villages in East Africa support education, which in turn supports improvments in family planning.

It is incredible to me that while we have (properly) invested a lot of intellectual and financial resources in scientific programmes to model the Earth’s climate system (and impacts), there has been dramatically less modelling effort on the economic implications that will help support policy-making (based on the damage from climate change, through what are called Integrated Assessment Models).

But what is even worse is that there seems to have been even less effort – or barely any –  modelling the full range of solutions and their interactions. Yes, there has been modelling of, for example, renewable energy supply and demand (for example in Germany), and yes, Project Drawdown is a great initiative; but I do not see a substantial programme of work, supported by Governments and Academia, that is grappling with the full range of solutions that I have tried to capture in the figure above, and providing an integrated set of tools to support those engaged in planning and implementing solutions.

This is unfortunate at many levels.

I am not here imagining some grand unified theory of climate solutions, where we end up with a spreadsheet telling us how much solar we should build by when and where.

But I do envisage a heuristic tool-kit that would help a town such as the one I was born (Hargesia in Somaliland), or the town in which I now live (Nailsworth in Gloucestershire in the UK), to be able to work through what works for them, to plan and deliver solutions. Each may arrive at different answers, but all need to be grounded in a common base of data and ‘what works’, and a more qualitative body of knowledge on synergies between solutions.

Ideally, the tool-kit would be usable at various levels of granularity, so it could be used at different various scales, and different solutions would emerge at different scales.

A wide range of both quantitative and qualitative methods may be required to grapple with the range of information covered here.

I am looking to explore this further, and am interested in any work or insights people have. Comments welcome.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Deficit, Debt and stalling carbon dioxide emissions

This essay is based on an extract from a talk I did recently that was well received. This specific part of the talk was described as very helpful in clarifying matters related to our carbon dioxide emissions. I hope others also find it useful. 

David Cameron said on 24 January 2013 “We’re paying down Britain’s debts” and got a lot of stick for this misleading statement. Why? Let me try to explain.

The deficit is the annual amount by which we spend more than we get in taxes. Whereas, the debt is the cumulative sum of year on year deficits.

As many politicians do, Cameron was using language designed to be, shall we say, ‘economical with the truth’. He was not the first, and he won’t be the last.

We can picture deficit being added to our debt using the following picture (or for greater dramatic effect, do it live if you are giving a talk):

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.10.49

If the deficit declines this year compared to last year, that may be of great solace to the Chancellor (and that was the situation in 2013), because maybe it’s the start of a trend that will mean that the debt may reach a peak.

Cameron could have said “Our debt keeps rising, but at least the rate at which it is rising is slightly less than last year. We’ll need to borrow some more to cover the additional deficit”, would the a honest statement, but he didn’t. It simply wouldn’t have cut it with the spin doctors.

The reality is that the only thing we can conclude from a deficit this year that is smaller than last year is that that the debt has increased by an amount less than last year. That’s it. It doesn’t sound quite so great put that way, does it?

You need year-on-year surpluses to actually bring the debt down.

Deficit and debt are useful in making an analogy with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because the confusion – intended or accidental – over deficit and debt, is very similar to the confusion that occurs in the mind of the public when the media report changes in our carbon emissions.

Let’s explore the analogy by replacing “Deficit” with “Emissions”, and “Debt” with “Atmospheric Concentration” …

The annual emissions add to the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere, i.e. the raised Atmospheric Concentration.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.25

There are two differences with the financial analogy when we think about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Firstly, when we add, say, 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (the green coloured area represents the added carbon dioxide) …

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.37

… then, within a short time (about 5 years) 50% of the added carbon dioxide (that is 20 billion tonnes, in this illustration), is absorbed in oceans and biosphere, balancing the remainder of carbon dioxide added to atmosphere, and we can visualize this balance as follows (Credit: Rabett Run, which includes a more technical description and an animation) –

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.52

Secondly, unlike with the economy, once the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide goes up, it stays up for hundred of years (and to get back to where it started, thousands of years), because for one thing, the processes to take carbon from the upper ocean to the deep ocean are very slow.

Unlike with the economy, our added carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere always goes in the wrong direction; it increases.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer reassurance, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

The story title below is just one example, taken from the Financial Times ( and I am not picking on the FT, but it shows that this is not restricted to the tabloids).

Whenever we see a graph of emissions over the years (graph on the left), the Health Warning should always be the Keeling Curve (graph on the right).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.12.05

So the global garbon dioxide emissions in 2014 and 2015 where 36.08 and 36.02 billion tonnes, respectively. Cause for cautious rejoicing? Well, given the huge number of variables that go into this figure (the GDP of each nation; their carbon intensity; the efficiency level for equipment and transport; and so on), projecting a trend from a few years is a tricky business, and some have devoted their lives to tracking this figure. Important work for sure.

Then 2016 came along and the figure was similar but slightly raised, at 36.18 billion tonnes.

But we were said to be stalled … 36.08, 36.02 and 36.18.

I liken this to heading for the cliff edge at a steady pace, but at least no longer accelerating. Apparently that is meant to be reassuring.

Then comes the projected figure for 2017, which includes a bit of a burp of carbon dioxide from the oceans – courtesy of the strong El Nino – and this was even predicted, and horror of horrors, it makes headline news around the world.

We have jumped by 2% over the previous year (actually 1.7% to 36.79 billion tonnes). Has the ‘stall’ now unstalled? What next?

The real headline is that we are continuing to emit over 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, year on year without any sign of stopping.

Only when emissions go down to 0 (zero), will the atmospheric concentration STOP rising.

So in relation to our emissions what word do we want to describe it? Not stall, not plateau, not ease back, but instead, stop, finito or end. They’ll do.

I have discovered – from talking to people who do not follow climate change on twitter, or the blogosphere, and are not fans of complex data analysis – that what I explained above was very helpful but also not widely appreciated.

But in a sense, this is probably the most important fact about climate change that everyone needs to understand, that

the carbon dioxide concentration will only stop rising when emissions completely stop.

The second most important fact is this:

whatever value the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide gets to – at that point in the future when we stop adding more – that it is where it will stay for my grandchild, and her grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and so on … for centuries* to come.

The Keeling Curve  – which measures the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – is the only curve that matters, because until it flattens, we will not know how much warming there will actually be, because of the third most important fact people must understand is this:

broadly speaking, the level of warming is proportional to the the peak concentration of carbon dioxide.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer hope that we’ve turned a corner, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

It is amazing how often the deficit/ debt confusion is played on by policitians regarding the nations finances.

The ’emissions stalling’ narrative of the last few years has led many to imagine we are, if not out of the woods, then on our way, but I think the confusion here is a failure of the media and other science communicators to always provide a clear health warning.

The truth is that we, as a species, are a long way still from showing a concerted effort to get out of the woods. Worse still, we are arguing amongst ourselves about which path to take.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

 

[* Unless and until we find a way to artificially extract and sequester carbon dioxide; this is still only R&D and not proven at scale yet, so does not rescue the situation we face in the period leading to 2050. We need to halt emissions, not just “stall” them.]

#carbondioxide #emissions #debt #deficit

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Musing on the loss of European Medicines Agency (EMA) from the UK

People are arguing as to whether the loss of the EMA from the UK will hurt us or not, and I think missing some nuance.

The ICH (International Committee on Harmonization) has helped pharma to harmonize the way drugs are tested, licensed and monitored globally (albeit with variations), enabling drugs to be submitted for licensing in the largest number of countries possible.

For UK’s Big Pharma, the loss of EMA is a blow but not a fatal one, they have entities everywhere, they’ll find a way.

There are 3 key issues I see, around Network, Innovation and Influence:

  1. Network – New drug development is now more ‘ecosystem’ based, not just big pharma alone, and UK has lots of large, medium and small pharma, in both private and public institutions (Universities, Francis Crick Institute, etc.). And so do other EU countries, which form part of the extended network of collaboration. UK leaving EU will disrupt this network, and loss of EMA subtly changes the centre of power.
  2. Innovation – Further to the damage to networks, and despite ICH’s harmonization, being outside of EU inevitably creates issues for the smaller innovators with less reach, shallower pockets, and a greater challenge in adapting to the new  reality.
  3. Influence – not being at the EMA table (wherever its HQ is based) means that we cannot guide the development of regulation, which is on an inexorable path of even greater harmonization. Despite the UK’s self-loathing re. ‘not being as organized as the Germans’, the Brits have always been better than most at regulation, its deep in our culture (indeed much of the EU regulations neoliberals rail against have been gold-plated by the UK when they reach our shores). But outside the EU, and outside EMA, we won’t be in a position to apply these skills, and our influence will wane.

Unfortunately, the Brexiters have shown that they misunderstand the complexity not merely of supply chains in the automotive sector, for example, but the more subtle connections that exist in highly sophisticated development lifecycles, and highly regulated sectors, like pharmaceuticals.

A key regulatory body moving from our shores will have long term consequences we cannot yet know.

Can Britain adapt to the new reality?

Of course it can, but do not expect it to be easy, quick or cheap to do so.

Expect some pain.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle

Incredulity, in the face of startling claims, is a natural human reaction and is right and proper.

When I first heard the news about the detection on 14th September 2015 of the gravitational waves from two colliding black holes by the LIGO observatories I was incredulous. Not because I had any reason to disagree with the predictions of Albert Einstein that such waves should exist, rather it was my incredulity that humans had managed to detect such a small change in space-time, much smaller than the size of a proton.

How, I pondered, was the ‘noise’ from random vibrations filtered out? I had to do some studying, and discovered the amazing engineering feats used to isolate this noise.

What is not right and proper is to claim that personal incredulity equates to an error in the claims made. If I perpetuate my incredulity by failing to ask any questions, then it’s I who is culpable.

And if I were to ask questions then simply ignore the answers, and keep repeating my incredulity, who is to blame? If the answers have been sufficient to satisfy everyone skilled in the relevant art, how can a non expert claim to dispute this?

Incredulity is a favoured tactic of many who dispute scientific findings in many areas, and global warming is not immune from the clinically incredulous.

The sadly departed Professor David Mackay gives an example in his book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (available online):

The burning of fossil fuels is the principal reason why CO2 concentrations have gone up. This is a fact, but, hang on: I hear a persistent buzzing noise coming from a bunch of climate-change inactivists. What are they saying? Here’s Dominic Lawson, a columnist from the Independent:  

“The burning of fossil fuels sends about seven gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere, which sounds like a lot. Yet the biosphere and the oceans send about 1900 gigatons and 36000 gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere – … one reason why some of us are sceptical about the emphasis put on the role of human fuel-burning in the greenhouse gas effect. Reducing man-made CO2 emissions is megalomania, exaggerating man’s significance. Politicians can’t change the weather.”

Now I have a lot of time for scepticism, and not everything that sceptics say is a crock of manure – but irresponsible journalism like Dominic Lawson’s deserves a good flushing.

Mackay goes on to explain Lawson’s error:

The first problem with Lawson’s offering is that all three numbers that he mentions (seven, 1900, and 36000) are wrong! The correct numbers are 26, 440, and 330. Leaving these errors to one side, let’s address Lawson’s main point, the relative smallness of man-made emissions. Yes, natural flows of CO2 are larger than the additional flow we switched on 200 years ago when we started burning fossil fuels in earnest. But it is terribly misleading to quantify only the large natural flows into the atmosphere, failing to mention the almost exactly equal flows out of the atmosphere back into the biosphere and the oceans. The point is that these natural flows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in balance for millenia. So it’s not relevant at all that these natural flows are larger than human emissions. The natural flows cancelled themselves out. So the natural flows, large though they were, left the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean constant, over the last few thousand years.

Burning fossil fuels, in contrast, creates a new flow of carbon that, though small, is not cancelled.

I offer this example in some detail as an exemplar of the problem often faced in confronting incredulity.

It is natural that people will often struggle with numbers, especially large abstract sounding numbers. It is easy to get confused when trying to interpret numbers. It does not help that in Dominic Lawson’s case he is ideologically primed to see a ‘gotcha’, where none exists.

Incredulity, such as Lawson’s, is perfectly OK when initially confronting a claim that one is sceptical of; we cannot all be informed on every topic. But why then not pick up the phone, or email a Professor with skills in the particular art, to get them to sort out your confusion?  Or even, read a book, or browse the internet? But of course, Dominic Lawson, like so many others suffers from a syndrome that  many have identified. Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

It is this failure to display any intellectual curiosity which is unforgivable in those in positions of influence, such as journalists or politicians.

However, the incredulity has a twin brother, its mirror image: credulity. And I want to take an example that also involves the carbon cycle,.

In a politically charged subject, or one where there is a topic close to one’s heart, it is very easy to uncritically accept a piece of evidence or argument. To be, in the technical sense, a victim of confirmation bias.

I have been a vegetarian since 1977, and I like the idea of organic farming, preferably local and fresh. So I have been reading Graham Harvey’s book Grass Fed Nation. I have had the pleasure of meeting Graham, as he was presenting a play he had written which was performed in Stroud. He is a passionate and sincere advocate for his ideas on regenerative farming, and I am sure that much of what he says makes sense to farmers.

The recently reported research from Germany of a 75% decline in insect numbers is deeply worrying, and many are pointing the finger at modern farming and land-use methods.

However, I found something in amongst Harvey’s interesting book that made me incredulous, on the question of carbon.

Harvey presents the argument that, firstly, we can’t do anything to reduce carbon emissions from industry etc., but that secondly, no need to worry because the soils can take up all the annual emissions with ease; and further, that all of extra carbon in the industrial era could be absorbed in soils over coming years.

He relies a lot on Savory’s work, famed for his visionary but contentious TED talk. But he also references other work that makes similar claims.

I would be lying if I said there was not a part of me that wanted this to be true. I was willing it on. But I couldn’t stop myself … I just had to track down the evidence. Being an ex-scientist, I always like to go back to the source, and find a paper, or failing that (because of paywalls), a trusted source that summarises the literature.

Talk about party pooper, but I cannot find any such credible evidence for Harvey’s claim.

I think the error in Harvey’s thinking is to confuse the equilibrium capacity of the soils with their ability to take up more, every year, for decades.

I think it is also a inability to deal with numbers. If you multiply A, B and C together, but then take the highest possible ranges for A, B and C you can easily reach a result which is hugely in error. Overestimate the realistic land that can be addressed; and the carbon dioxide sequestration rate; and the time till saturation/ equilibrium is reached … and it is quite easy to overestimate the product of these by a factor of 100 or more.

Savory is suggesting that over a period of 3 or 4 decades you can draw down the whole of the anthropogenic amount that has accumulated (which is nearly 2000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide), whereas a realistic assessment (e.g. www.drawdown.org) is suggesting a figure of 14 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (more than 100 times less) is possible in the 2020-2050 timeframe.

There are many complex processes at work in the whole carbon cycle – the biological, chemical and geological processes covering every kind of cycle, with flows of carbon into and out of the carbon sinks. Despite this complexity, and despite the large flows of carbon (as we saw in the Lawson case), atmospheric levels had remained stable for a long time in the pre-industrial era (at 280 parts per million).  The Earth system as a whole was in equilibrium.

The deep oceans have by far the greatest carbon reservoir, so a ‘plausibility argument’ could go along the lines of: the upper ocean will absorb extra CO2 and then pass it to the deep ocean. Problem solved! But this hope was dashed by Revelle and others in the 1950s, when it was shown that the upper-to-lower ocean processes are really quite slow.

I always come back to the Keeling Curve, which reveals an inexorable rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since 1958 (and we can extend the curve further back using ice core data). And the additional CO2 humans started to put into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution (mid-19th century, let us say) was not, as far as I can see, magically soaked up by soils in the pre-industrial-farming days of the mid-20th century, when presumably traditional farming methods pertained.

FCRN explored Savory’s methods and claims, and find that despite decades of trying, he has not demonstrated that his methods work.  Savory’s case is very weak, and he ends up (in his exchanges with FCRN) almost discounting science; saying his methods are not susceptible to scientific investigations. A nice cop-out there.

In an attempt to find some science to back himself up, Savory referenced Gattinger, but that doesn’t hold up either. Track down Gattinger et al’s work  and it reveals that soil organic carbon could (on average, with a large spread) capture 0.4GtC/year (nowhere near annual anthropogenic emissions of 10GtC), and if it cannot keep up with annual emissions, forget soaking up the many decades of historical emissions (the 50% of these that persists for a very long time in the atmosphere).

It is interesting what we see here.

An example of ‘incredulity’ from Lawson, who gets carbon flows mixed up with net carbon flow, and an example of ‘credulity’ from Harvey where he puts too much stock in the equilibrium capacity of carbon in the soil, and assumes this means soils can keep soaking up carbon almost without limit. Both seem to struggle with basic arithmetic.

Incredulity in the face of startling claims is a good initial response to startling claims, but should be the starting point for engaging one’s intellectual curiosity, not as a perpetual excuse for confirming one’s bias; a kind of obdurate ignorance.

And neither should hopes invested in the future be a reason for credulous acceptance of claims, however plausible on face value.

It’s boring I know – not letting either one’s hopes or prejudices hold sway – but maths, logic and scientific evidence are the true friends here.

Maths is a great leveller.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

8 Comments

Filed under Climate Science, Essay, Uncategorized

Trust, Truth and the Assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia 

How far do we go back to find examples of investigations of injustice or the abuse of power?

Maybe Roger Casement’s revelations on the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo, or the abuses of Peruvian Indians were heroic examples for which he received a Knighthood, even if later, his support for Irish independence earned him the noose.

Watergate was clearly not the first time that investigative journalism fired the public imagination, but it must be a high point, at least in the US, for the power of the principled and relentless pursuit of the truth by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

And then I call to mind the great days of the Sunday Times’ ‘Insight’ team that conducted many investigations. I recall the brilliant Brian Deer, who wrote for The Times and Sunday Times, and revealed the story behind Wakefield’s fake science on MMR, even while other journalists were shamelessly helping to propagate the discredited non-science.

But those days seem long ago now.

Today, you are just as likely to find The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator – desperate to satisfy their ageing and conservative readership, or in need of clickbait advertising revenue – to regurgitate bullshit, including the anti-expert nonsense that fills the blogosphere. This nonsense has been called out many times, such as in Climate Feedback.

Despite Michael Gove’s assertion that “Britain has had enough with experts” the IPSOS More Veracity Index of 2016 suggests differently  – It appears that nurses, doctors, lawyers and scientists are in the upper quartile of trust, whereas journalists, estate agents and politicians lurk in the lower quartile.

No wonder the right-wingers who own or write for the organs of conservatism are so keen to attack those in the upper quartile, and claim there is a crisis of trust. This is  displacement activity by politicians and journalists: claiming that there is a crisis of trust with others to deflect it from themselves. The public are not fooled.

It is a deeply cynical and pernicious to play the game of undermining evidence and institutions.

As Hannah Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

But investigative journalism is not dead.

In Russia there are many brave journalists who expose corruption and the abuse of power, and they have paid with their lives: 165 murdered since 1993, with about 50% of these since Putin came to power. He didn’t start the killing, but then, he didn’t stop it either.

The nexus of political, business and mafia-style corruption makes it easy from the leadership to shrug off responsibility.

And so we come to Malta, where the same nexus exists. Daphne Caruana Galizia has been exposing corruption for so long, there were no shortage of enemies, including the politicians and police that failed to protect her. Her assassination is a scar on Malta that will take a long time to heal.

The EU has produced anodyne reports on partnership with Malta and programmes continue despite a breakdown in the rule of law and governance, that have provided a haven for nepotism and racketeering. Is Malta really so different to Russia in this regard?

Is the EU able to defend the principles it espouses, and sanction those who fail to live up to them?

The purveyors of false news detest brave investigative journalists as much as they love to attack those like scientists who present evidence that challenges their interests. Strong institutions are needed to defend society against these attacks.

Remainers like myself defend the EU on many counts, but we also expect leadership when that is needed, not merely the wringing of hands.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

America’s Gun Psychosis

This was originally written on 2nd October 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting where Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 851 more. The latest mass shooting (a phrase that will become out of date, almost before the ink is dry) at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This is also the 17th school shooting in the USA in the first 45 days of 2018. I have not made any changes to the essay below (because this is tragically the same psychosis), but have added Venn Diagrams to visualize the issue of mental health and guns. Mental health is not the issue here. It is people with homicidal tendencies (many of whom will indeed have mental problems) having easy access to guns. We should not stigmatise a growing number of people with mental health problems. We should reduce access to guns.

If ever one needed proof of the broken state of US politics, the failure to deal with this perpetual gun crisis is it.

After 16 children and 1 teacher were killed in the Dunblane massacre on 13th March 1996, the UK acted.

After 35 people were killed in the PortArthur massacre on 28th April 1996, Australia acted.

It’s what any responsible legislature would do.

So far in 2017, US deaths from shootings totals a staggering 11,652 (I think not including the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas, and with 3 months still to run in 2017 – see gunsviolencearchive – and note this excludes suicides).

The totals for the previous 3 years 2014, 2015 and 2016 are 12,571; 13,500; and 15,079.

The number of those injured comes in at about two times those killed (but note that the ratio for the latest Las Vegas shooting is closer to 10, with the latest Associated Press report at the time of writing, giving 58 people dead and 515 injured).

One cannot imagine the huge number of those scarred by these deaths and injuries – survivors, close families, friends, colleagues, classmates, first-responders, relatives at home and abroad. Who indeed has not been impacted by these shootings, in the US and even abroad?

I write as someone with many relatives and friends in America, and having owed my living to great American companies for much of my career. But I am also someone whose family has been touched by this never-ending obsession that America has with guns.

And still Congress and Presidents seem incapable of standing up to the gun lobby and acting.

The US, far from acting, loosens further the access to guns or controls on them.

This is a national psychosis, and an AWOL legislature.

In both the UK and Australian examples, it was actually conservative administrations that brought in the necessary legislation, so the idea that only ‘liberals’ are interested in reducing the number and severity of shootings, by introducing gun control, is simply wrong. This should not be a party political issue.

In the US some will argue against gun control, saying that a determined criminal or madman can always get hold of a gun. This is a logical fallacy, trying to make the best be the enemy of the good. Just because an action is not guaranteed to be 100% perfect, is no reason for not taking an action that could be effective, and the case of the UK and Australia, very effective. Do we fail to deliver chemotherapy to treat cancer patients because it is not guaranteed to prevent every patient from dying; to be 100% perfect? Of course not. But this is just one of the many specious arguments used by the gun lobby in the USA to defend the indefensible.

But at its root there is, of course, a deeply polarised political system in the USA. The inability to confront the guns crisis, is the same grid-locked polarisation that is preventing the US dealing with healthcare, or the justice system, or endemic racism, or indeed, climate change.

How will America – a country that has given so much to the world – overcome this debilitating polarization in the body politic?

America needs a Mandela – a visionary leader able to bring people together to have a rationale, evidence based conversation – but none is in sight.

It’s enough to make one weep.

The 3 branches of the US Government ought to be ashamed, but expect more platitudinous ‘thoughts and prayers’ … the alternative to them doing their job.

Trump is now praying for the day when evil is banished, for god’s sake! An easy but totally ineffective substitute for actually doing anything practical to stem the carnage, and protect US citizens.

Some pictures added 16th February 2018 to illustrate the problem facing the USA …

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.32Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.41

3 Comments

Filed under Gun violence, Politics, Uncategorized

BBC Science Reporting: Evidence, Values and Pollability

In his Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians on 15th October 2015, Professor Sir Mark Walport made the following observation:

“My PhD supervisor, Sir Peter Lachmann, has framed the distinction between the subjective and the objective in a different way, by considering whether questions are ‘pollable’ or ‘non- pollable’; that is, whether a question can be answered in principle by a vote (a pollable question), or whether the question has a right answer that is independent of individual preferences and opinions (a non-pollable question). This distinction can be easily illustrated by a couple of examples. It is a non-pollable question as to whether there is an anthropogenic contribution to climate change. There is a correct answer to this question and your opinion or mine is ultimately irrelevant. The fact that there may be uncertainties about the scale and the nature of the contribution does not change the basic nature of the question. In contrast, it is a pollable question as to whether nuclear energy is an acceptable solution to providing low-carbon power, and I will return to this later.”

The question presents itself: does the BBC understand the distinction between pollable and non-pollable questions related to science?

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday 12th September included two discussions on the nature of science reporting and how it has changed over the years, particularly at the BBC.

The first was with Steve Jones , Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College, who led a  review of the way the BBC itself reports science, about the changing nature of science reporting, while the second was with Richard Dawkins, Professor of evolutionary biology and David Willetts a former science minister, considering the “public’s evolving relationship with science, evidence and truth”.

Subsequent to this I wrote a letter to the Today team at the BBC, which is reproduced below, which I am now sharing on my blog:

Dear Sir/ Madam

I wanted to thank the BBC Today team for two excellent discussions that John Humphreys had, first with Prof. Steve Jones, and then subsequently with David Willetts and Richard Dawkins.

John Humphreys posed the challenge to Prof. Jones, as to why we should ‘believe’ climate change; and I am paraphrasing his words:

A. The world is warming

B. This warming is man made, and

C. There is only one way of stopping it.

This was an alarming way to approach the topic, for two reasons.

Firstly, the science – and by virtue of that statement, scientists – unequivocally answer A and B with a resounding ‘Yes’.  There is an aggregation of scientific evidence and analysis going back at least to John Tyndall in the mid 19th Century that brought us – no later than the 1980s in fact – to a consilience of science on these questions. I discuss this history and the nature of ‘consilience’ in an essay, here: https://essaysconcerning.com/2017/05/02/a-climate-of-consilience-or-the-science-of-certitude/ 

To question this is at the same level as questioning whether cigarettes cause lung cancer. There is no debate to be had here.  Yes, debate on how to get teenagers  to stop taking up smoking, but that’s a different question.  To say that everyone can have an opinion, and to set up a controversial ‘debate’ on these questions is the “false balance” Professor Jones identified in the report he did for the BBC. Representing opinions is not a license to misrepresent the evidence, by using ‘false balance’ in this way.

Secondly, however, scientists do NOT speak with one voice on how to stop it, as John Humphrey’s phrased his C question.  That is a why the UNFCCC takes up the question here which require policy input, and yes, the input of ‘values’.  Whilst the A and B questions are not questions where it is appropriate to bring values to bear on the answers; solutions are full of value-based inputs.  So the C that John Humphreys should be opening a dialogue on this:

C(amended): There are many solutions that can contribute to addressing the given man-made global warming – either by mitigation or adaptation – which ones do you advocate and why?

And of course many subsidiary questions arise when debating these solutions:

  • Are we too late to prevent dangerous climate change, therefore need a massive reduction in consumption – a degrowth strategy?
  • Can we solve this with a kind of Marshall Plan to decarbonise our energy supply, but also heat buildings and transport, through electrification?
  • What role does nuclear energy play?
  • Given the long time that excess carbon dioxide levels remain in the atmosphere, and the legacy of the developed worlds emissions, how can the developing world receive carbon justice?
  • Even if we decarbonised everything tomorrow, what solutions are feasible for reducing the raised levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; what degree of sea-level rise are we prepared to tolerate, ‘baked in’ already to the Earth system?
  • Is a carbon tax ultimately the only way forward, and what price do we put on carbon?
  • … and so on.

Yes, science can help answer these kinds of questions, but the values play a large part too.  

The fact the BBC still gets stuck in the groove of ‘debating’ A and B, is I think woeful. As woeful as ‘debating’ if smoking causes cancer.

I think David Willetts acknowledged the difference in these classes of question, whereas Richard Dawkins was disappointingly black and white; not recognising the role of values in the C(amended) class of questions.

David Willetts made the interesting point that in social science, there is often greater difficulty in getting to the truth, and this is highly problematic for politicians, but that for the physical sciences, if we’ve discovered the Higgs Boson, it is much clearer.  He made a lot of the need to bring values to bear on decisions and ‘not being able to wait for yet another report’. However, there is a qualitative difference with climate change: it requires long term strategic thinking and it is a challenge to the normal, national political cycles.

On the question of Lord Lawson. By all means invite him to discuss the economics of decarbonising the economy. But last time he was asked on – more or less to do this – and had a discussion with Justin Webb, he was asked by Justin to comment on Al Gore’s statement that we needed to push ahead with the solutions that are already available to us. Move on, in other words.

Instead of answering this question Lord Lawson tried to poke holes in unequivocal science (A and B), instead of addressing C; he has no intention of moving on.  He lost, and seems quite bitter about it; as he went on to make personal attacks on Al Gore.  While the interviewer cannot stop Lord Lawson saying these things, he should be called out on them.

“I am not a scientist” is a statement that US Republican Congressman use to avoid confronting the fact that A and B are true, and not up for debate.  John Humphreys should not be using the same statement (but he did on this episode). 

If climate change is “the big one” as he himself noted, surely it is time he made the effort to educate himself to the point where he understands why A and B are unequivocally “Yes”, in the same way that “Does smoking cause lung cancer?” has an unequivocally “Yes” answer.  There are no shortage of scientists at the Met Office, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and elsewhere who I am sure would be happy to help him out here.

Today was a good discussion – even a great step forward – but the BBC is still failing in its public service duty, on this topic of global warming.

Kind regards,

Richard Erskine

What seems to be clear to me is that John Humphreys is not alone amongst journalists in failing to distinguish between non-pollable (where evidence accumulated over many years holds sway, and values have no place) and pollable questions (where values can have as big a part to play as the science).

It is about time they started.

o o O o o

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized