Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?

Pickering Traction Engine Rally, P. StevensonIs energy efficiency a key factor in reducing greenhouse emissions?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA thinks home energy efficiency should take priority, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is also very keen on large scale efficiency gains.

The Jevons Paradox is the idea formulated in 1865 that making coal-burning more efficient will lead inexorably to the burning of yet more coal. Newcomen’s steam engine dramatically increased the use of coal in England and William Jevons’ (1835-1882) book The Coal Question noted this. but Jevons  also saw that James Watt’s more efficient version was what made coal-burning really take off, truly inaugurating the ‘age of steam’. He wrote: Continue reading “Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?”

Climate Disruption as policy: wisdom or folly?

by Rarbol2004Could it be in China’s interests to ignore climate chance?

According to the Danish ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg:

Climate models show that for at least the rest of this century, China will actually benefit from global warming. Warmer temperatures will boost agricultural production and improve health. The number of lives lost in heatwaves will increase, but the number of deaths saved in winter will grow much more rapidly: warming will have a more dramatic effect on minimum temperatures in winter than on maximum temperatures in summer.
There are few arguments for China and India to commit to carbon caps – and compelling reasons for them to resist pressure to do so.”

Now to say that Lomborg has been accused of playing fast and loose with statistics would be an understatement, so there is no special reason to trust his unreferenced ‘climate models’. However, commentators at the Ecologist Magazine, hardly Lomborg’s best friends, have said more or less the same thing, and added Canada as a potential beneficiary of climate change. So let’s just suppose Chinese, Indian and possibly Russian officials and politicians are indeed thinking along these lines. After all, disruption and change always create opportunities for someone, somewhere. Would it be possible to develop policy on the basis that climate change will substantially alter the balance of environmental blessings between the world’s nations? In other words, could rising temperatures shift competitive advantage to certain nations? Of course it would be possible to develop policy on this basis. But would it be wise? Continue reading “Climate Disruption as policy: wisdom or folly?”

Climate Change: time to focus

combating global warmingMatthew Taylor at the RSA has recently argued that the Green movement is its own worst enemy.

This is so, he says, because in holding that ‘every little helps’ there has been a lack of policy focus on global warming solutions. This exposes a ‘scattershot’ approach to global warming (my term, not his) that has been taken so far. The One Hundred Ways to Save The Planet Right Now tendency leads to information and decision overload – “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” (Simon 1971:40).


In place of this, Taylor proposes a simple idea:

fix one policy area at a time, then move on to the next.

It’s both inspired and inspiring. The questions begged, of course, are: Who draws up the priority list? and What should be on it? Taylor thinks home energy efficiency is an obvious candidate, but who decides, and how, that it deserves top priority?
Continue reading “Climate Change: time to focus”

Australian Bush Fires: the ‘ground zero’ of meaning

The intensity and scale of the Victorian bush fires stuns the imagination. The photos of those killed are heartwrenching. For Australia this is an example of what Alain Badiou has called a ‘truth event’ – a moment prior to emotional or intellectual assimilation, an interpretative vacuum as yet unready to be filled with meaning or ideology.
Fires, of course, don’t speak, and they don’t deliver messages. To seek to understand what they say to us is inevitable, though, the start of a ‘truth process’. It is to come up against ‘the Real’, as Lacan put it.
For grid-group Cultural Theory, these kinds of events are a kind of ‘ground zero’ for the ongoing creation of meaning and organisation that is culture. Watch how quickly commentators now step into the breach and start to name the un-namable.

What, so far,  is the message of the fires?
For Egalitarian scientist Tim Flannery , the message is obvious: global warming. For many politicians, the message is more traditional, if still Egalitarian: we must all pull through together, or not at all.
However, with fires at one end of the country and floods at the other, many Australians will, as ever, be filling the vacuum with a Fatalist message: nature is capricious. Keep your head down, make the best of it you can, and put the rest down to sheer luck.

The climate is what we expect: the weather is what we get

sunburnt country by spoungeworthySupposedly, Mark Twain once wrote “The climate is what we expect; the weather is what we get.” Had he lived in in Australia he would surely have been even less confident.

Notoriouosly unpredictable, the climate in this driest of continents plays a large part in the dominance of fatalism over the national culture. So it’s news when climate researchers release a report claiming the origins of the long-running drought in South East Australia are even more complex than previously thought. Until now it has been held that the main driver of the weather cycle in this region is ENSO – the El Nino Southern Oscillation – a fickle two to eight year repeating pattern of temperature anomolies in the Pacific Ocean.

Now though it seems that Indian Ocean variability is more significant. Previously it was thought the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) only affected Western and Southern Australia, but the evidence now presented indicates the IOD is a major contributor to the weather in South Eastern Australia as well. This suggestion goes some way towards explaining why the ‘Big Dry’ which began in 1996 was not broken by La Nina conditions in 2007, but continues to the present. Further, the evidence suggests that there have been an unprecedented three successive positive cycles in the past three years, bringing warm, dry winds, low rainfall and high temperatures to South Eastern Australia.

This is a new piece of information. According to a news report by Ben Cubby it ‘could overturn decades of weather research’. So it’s putting it mildly to say that this requires some interpretation. What then can we say about it? Is it good or bad? Who will benefit from this new reality (if such it is) and who stands to lose out? If this counts as knowledge, what is its power? Who and what does it change? The newspaper report of the announcement gives a number of clues.

For the lead author, Dr Caroline Ummenhofer, the news is positive since it might reduce uncertainty for farmers: “There really is that opportunity to improve seasonal forecasting and seasonal predictions due to these findings, because the Indian Ocean dipole is predictable several months in advance.”

For Professor Matthew England the co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre, the news is very negative, especially in terms of climate change trends: “If these Indian Ocean dipole events do follow the trend [of more positive and fewer negative events], this is a terrible piece of information for the Murray-Darling Basin.”

Meanwhile the authorities have the situation regulated by motitoring it carefully: ‘The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s quarterly update yesterday showed the drought there is worsening. Toxic algae blooms are expected, water storage is down by two-thirds and decent rain is months away.’

In the article you are now reading, the phrases in bold print, all except one lifted from the news report, summarise the four cultures of Grid-group Cultural theory. The theory suggests that when faced with new information, we rush to make sense of it, to fill the interpretive vacuum – but typically we do so in one of four competing ways, and we organise our environment to reinforce one or another of these ‘cultural biases’ . In the case of Australian climate science, we can see this happening in real time. Is it just an effect of journalism – to try to cover all perspectives (but then this begs the question of what counts as ‘all’)?

Why not check it out for yourself, by observing how people construct their arguments and their worldviews?

The report is to be published in Geophysical Research Letters but here is the pre-print.

Climate Change: is it a new religion?

Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008
Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008

The Murdoch rearguard action against climate change science just won’t die, although these days it tends to be confined to the opinion section of the newspapers, rather than counting as ‘news’. In today’s Sydney Telegraph, columnist Piers Ackerman gives another outing to his argument that climate change is natural (and, since you ask, probably isn’t happening anyway). He blames the state-run ABC media and the Fairfax press for perpetuating the myth. Which is slightly ironic, since in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax owned) columnist Miranda Devine writes almost the same article excoriating the ‘church’ of climate change ‘fundamentalists’ and promoting the same climate sceptic, who happens to have a new book out this month, Adelaide University professor Ian Plimer.

Paralleling Devine’s use of religious metaphor, Ackerman sees climate change as a kind of ‘religion’, which is not to be questioned, and has its own orthodoxy and its own high priest in Al Gore.

This is hardly a new line of argument, and it still doesn’t look like dying away any time soon, so what’s going on here?

Continue reading “Climate Change: is it a new religion?”

Can hierarchical thinking fix climate change?

A recent article about business responses to global warming highlights the extent to which hierarchical thinking can respond adequately to rapid changes in the climate. 

And it neatly illustrates the preoccupations of a hierarchical world-view, as understood by grid-group cultural theory.

The article, written by Leon Gettler, centres on the increasing role of ‘Chief Carbon Officer’ in businesses. 

‘The job of the future will be the chief carbon officer, or CCO. That’s because global warming is no longer an environmental issue.’

The author sees not only the CCO, but also new job titles like Director of Sustainability Strategy as ‘just the beginning’.

According to grid-group cultural theory, first established by anthropologist Mary Douglas, and expanded by numerous writers in several different disciplines, there are four fundamental world-views, related to social group strength and rule maintenance. The hierarchist position is ‘strong grid, strong group’. In other words it is both highly group-orientated and highly regulated. For this way of thinking, the crisis (any crisis) is less about external factors and more about who is in charge, and how the social structure is to be maintained. Continue reading “Can hierarchical thinking fix climate change?”

What we argue about when we argue about global warming

British Journalist George Monbiot has been writing a number of pieces about a TV ‘documentary’ which supposedly tried to debunk climate change by doctoring statistics and misrepresenting interviewees. Certainly it was one of the most mendacious things I’ve seen on TV, right up there with ads for shampoo that cures dandruff. Monbiot seems to think this kind of thing plays well because, as he puts it,

“We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths”.

I think he’s completely wrong on this. We are not self-deceiving in this way, and we are not living in ‘the age of stupid‘ as a film with a similar theory put it (although I look forward to seeing the movie). Well, not with global warming, anyway. Dandruff may be another matter. I’ll explain.

Filming a house wrecked by the New Orleans Hurricane
'The Age of Stupid' director Franny Armstrong films a house wrecked by hurricane in New Orleans

Continue reading “What we argue about when we argue about global warming”