April 17, 2014

Plagues, Pandemics, and Politics

An important theme in the study of plagues and pandemics is the effect they have on political life. The following passages—one from William McNeill, the other from Thucydides—illustrate this impact in two notorious episodes. The Spanish conquest of the 1520s, argues McNeill, cannot be understood apart from the effect that disease had on the religious and political attitudes of Amerindians. Thucydides’ depiction of the plague also has sharp political overtones, as the effects of the plague on the human personality closely resemble those of the civil wars that befell most Greek cities in the course of the Peloponnesian War.  

The first passage is from William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor, 1998 [1976]), 215-17.
Wholesale demoralization and simple surrender of will to live certainly played a large part in the destruction of Amerindian communities. Numerous recorded instances of failure to tend newborn babies so that they died unnecessarily, as well as outright suicide, attest the intensity of Amerindian bewilderment and despair. European military action and harsh treatment of laborers gathered forcibly for some large-scale undertaking also had a role in uprooting and destroying old social structures. But human violence and disregard, however brutal, was not the major factor causing Amerindian populations to melt away as they did. After all, it was not in the interest of the Spaniards and other Europeans to allow potential taxpayers and the Indian work force to diminish. The main destructive role was certainly played by epidemic disease.
The first encounter came in 1518, when smallpox reached Hispaniola and attacked the Indian population so virulently that Bartoleme de Las Casas believed that only a thousand survived. From Hispaniola, smallpox traveled to Mexico, ariving in 1520. It affected Cortez's Tlaxcalan allies on the coast as well as those who had attacked him; but exact details of its overland transmission cannot be reconstructed. All the same, the outbreak in Tenochtitlan some four months after Cortez had been forced to withdraw looked very like divine punishment for those who had attacked the Spaniards. As a result, when Cortez returned to central Mexico, the peoples living around the lake decided to join him. This was important, since Cortez's Spanish forces remained tiny, and his Indian allies from the coast were insufficiently numerous to isolate Tenochtitlan from the surrounding communities that customarily supplied the capital city with food. Hence, once their lakeside subjects abandoned them, the Aztecs' fate was sealed, despite their brave, and indeed suicidal, resistance.
Clearly, if smallpox had not broken out when it did, Cortez's victory would have been more difficult, and perhaps impossible. The same was true of Pizarro's filibuster into Peru. For the smallpox epidemic in Mexico did not confine its ravages to Aztec territory. Instead, it spread to Guatemala, where it appeared in 1520, and continued southward, penetrating the Inca domain in 1525 or 1526. Consequences there were just as drastic as among the Aztecs. The reigning Inca died of the disease while away from his capital on campaign in the North. His designated heir also died, leaving no legitimate successor. Civil war ensued, and it was amid this wreckage of the Inca political structure that Pizarro and his crew of roughnecks made their way to Cuzco and plundered its treasures. He met no serious military resistance at all.
Two points seem particularly worth emphasizing here. First, Spaniards and Indians readily agreed that epidemic disease was a particularly dreadful and unambiguous form of divine punishment. Interpretation of pestilence as a sign of God's displeasure was a part of the Spanish inheritance, enshrined in the Old Testament and in the whole Christian tradition. The Amerindians, lacking all experience of anything remotely like the initial series of lethal epidemics, concurred. Their religious doctrines recognized that superhuman power lodged in deities whose behavior toward men was often angry. It was natural, therefore, for them to assign an unexampled effect to a supernatural cause, quite apart from the Spanish missionary efforts that urged the same interpretation of the catastrophe upon dazed and demoralized converts.
Secondly, the Spaniards were nearly immune from the terrible disease that raged so mercilessly among the Indians. They had almost always been exposed in childhood and so developed effective immunity. Given the interpretation of the cause of pestilence accepted by both parties, such a manifestation of divine partiality for the invaders was conclusive. The gods of the Aztecs as much as the God of the Christians seemed to agree that the white newcomers had divine approval for all they did. And while God thus seemed to favor the whites, regardless of their mortality and piety or lack thereof, his wrath was visited upon the Indians with an unrelenting harshness that often puzzled and distressed the Christian missionaries who soon took charge of the moral and religious life of their converts along the frontiers of Spain's American dominions.
From the Amerindian point of view, stunned acquiescence in Spanish superiority was the only possible response. No matter how few their numbers or how brutal and squalid their behavior, the Spaniards prevailed. Native authority structures crumbled; the old gods seemed to have abdicated. The situation was ripe for the mass conversions recorded so proudly by Christian missionaries. Docility to the commands of priests, viceroys, landowners, mining entrepreneurs, tax collectors, and anyone else who spoke with a loud voice and had a white skin was another inevitable consequence. When the divine and natural orders were both unambiguous in declaring against native tradition and belief, what ground for resistance remained? The extraordinary ease of Spanish conquests and the success a few hundred men had in securing control of vast areas and millions of persons is unintelligible on any other basis.
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The second passage comes from book two of Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translation by Benjamin Jowett. The plague that befalls Athens in the second year of the war follows closely on the heels of Pericles’ eloquent funeral oration, in which he glorifies the men fallen in the course of the war and the city for which they made the ultimate sacrifice. Soon after,  

the plague broke out at Athens for the first time. A similar disorder is said to have previously smitten many places, particularly Lemnos, but there is no record of such a pestilence occurring elsewhere, or of so great a destruction of human life. For a while physicians, in ignorance of the nature of the disease, sought to apply remedies; but it was in vain, and they themselves were among the first victims, because they oftenest came into contact with it. No human art was of any avail, and as to supplications in temples, enquiries of oracles, and the like, they were utterly useless, and at last men were overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up.
(48) The disease is said to have begun south of Egypt in Aethiopia; thence it descended into Egypt and Libya, and after spreading over the greater part of the Persian empire, suddenly fell upon Athens. It first attacked the inhabitants of the Piraeus, and it was supposed that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the cisterns, no conduits having as yet been made there. It afterwards reached the upper city, and then the mortality became far greater. As to its probable origin or the causes which might or could have produced such a disturbance of nature, every man, whether a physician or not, will give his own opinion. But I shall describe its actual course, and the symptoms by which any one who knows them beforehand may recognise the disorder should it ever reappear. For I was myself attacked, and witnessed the sufferings of others.
(49) The season was admitted to have been remarkably free from ordinary sickness; and if anybody was already ill of any other disease, it was absorbed in this. Many who were in perfect health, all in a moment, and without any apparent reason, were seized with violent heats in the head and with redness and inflammation of the eyes. Internally the throat and the tongue were quickly suffused with blood, and the breath became unnatural and fetid. There followed sneezing and hoarseness; in a short time the disorder, accompanied by a violent cough, reached the chest; then fastening lower down, it would move the stomach and bring on all the vomits of bile to which physicians have ever given names; and they were very distressing. An ineffectual retching producing violent convulsions attacked most of the sufferers; some as soon as the previous symptoms had abated, others not until long afterwards. The body externally was not so very hot to the touch, nor yet pale; it was of a livid colour inclining to red, and breaking out in pustules and ulcers. But the internal fever was intense; the sufferers could not bear to have on them even the finest linen garment; they insisted on being naked, and there was nothing which they longed for more eagerly than to throw themselves into cold water. And many of those who had no one to look after them actually plunged into the cisterns, for they were tormented by unceasing thirst, which was not in the least assuaged whether they drank little or much. They could not sleep; a restlessness which was intolerable never left them. While the disease was at its height the body, instead of wasting away, held out amid these sufferings in a marvellous manner, and either they died on the seventh or ninth day, not of weakness, for their strength was not exhausted, but of internal fever, which was the end of most; or, if they survived, then the disease descended into the bowels and there produced violent ulceration; severe diarrhoea at the same time set in, and at a later stage caused exhaustion, which finally with few exceptions carried them off. For the disorder which had originally settled in the head passed gradually through the whole body, and, if a person got over the worst, would often seize the extremities and leave its mark, attacking the privy parts and the fingers and the toes; and some escaped with the loss of these, some with the loss of their eyes. Some again had no sooner recovered than they were seized with a forgetfulness of all things and knew neither themselves nor their friends.
(50) The general character of the malady no words can describe, and the fury with which it fastened upon each sufferer was too much for human nature to endure. There was one circumstance in particular which distinguished it from ordinary diseases. The birds and animals which feed on human flesh, although so many bodies were lying unburied, either never came near them, or died if they touched them. This was proved by a remarkable disappearance of the birds of prey, which were not to be seen either about the bodies or anywhere else; while in the case of the dogs the result was even more obvious, because they live with man.
(51) Such was the general nature of the disease: I omit many strange peculiarities which characterised individual cases. None of the ordinary sicknesses attacked any one while it lasted, or, if they did, they ended in the plague. Some of the sufferers died from want of care, others equally who were receiving the greatest attention. No single remedy could be deemed a specific; for that which did good to one did harm to another. No constitution was of itself strong enough to resist or weak enough to escape the attacks; the disease carried off all alike and defied every mode of treatment. Most appalling was the despondency which seized upon any one who felt himself sickening; for he instantly abandoned his mind to despair and, instead of holding out, absolutely threw away his chance of life. Appalling too was the rapidity with which men caught the infection; dying like sheep if they attended on one another; and this was the principal cause of mortality. When they were afraid to visit one another, the sufferers died in their solitude, so that many houses were empty because there had been no one left to take care of the sick; or if they ventured they perished, especially those who aspired to heroism. For they went to see their friends without thought of themselves and were ashamed to leave them, at a time when the very relations of the dying were at last growing weary and ceased even to make lamentations, overwhelmed by the vastness of the calamity. But whatever instances there may have been of such devotion, more often the sick and the dying were tended by the pitying care of those who had recovered, because they knew the course of the disease and were themselves free from apprehension. For no one was ever attacked a second time, or not with a fatal result. All men congratulated them, and they themselves, in the excess of their joy at the moment, had an innocent fancy that they could not die of any other sickness.
(52) The crowding of the people out of the country into the city aggravated the misery; and the newly-arrived suffered most. For, having no houses of their own, but inhabiting in the height of summer stifling huts, the mortality among them was dreadful, and they perished in wild disorder. The dead lay as they had died, one upon another, while others hardly alive wallowed in the streets and crawled about every fountain craving for water. The temples in which they lodged were full of the corpses of those who died in them; for the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine. The customs which had hitherto been observed at funerals were universally violated, and they buried their dead each one as best he could. Many, having no proper appliances, because the deaths in their household had been so numerous already, lost all shame in the burial of the dead. When one man had raised a funeral pile, others would come, and throwing on their dead first, set fire to it; or when some other corpse was already burning, before they could be stopped, would throw their own dead upon it and depart.
(53) There were other and worse forms of lawlessness which the plague introduced at Athens. Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder. For, seeing the sudden change,--how the rich died in a moment, and those who had nothing immediately inherited their property,--they reflected that life and riches were alike transitory, and they resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of pleasure. Who would be willing to sacrifice himself to the law of honour when he knew not whether he would ever live to be held in honour? The pleasure of the moment and any sort of thing which conduced to it took the place both of honour and of expediency. No fear of Gods or law of man deterred a criminal. Those who saw all perishing alike, thought that the worship or neglect of the Gods made no difference. For offences against human law no punishment was to be feared; no one would live long enough to be called to account. Already a far heavier sentence had been passed and was hanging over a man's head; before that fell, why should he not take a little pleasure?
(54) Such was the grievous calamity which now afflicted the Athenians; within the walls their people were dying, and without, their country was being ravaged. In their troubles they naturally called to mind a verse which the elder men among them declared to have been current long ago:
    A Dorian war will come and a plague with it.
There was a dispute about the precise expression; some saying that limos, a famine, and not loimos, a plague, was the original word. Nevertheless, as might have been expected, for men's memories reflected their sufferings, the argument in favour of loimos prevailed at the time. But if ever in future years another Dorian war arises which happens to be accompanied by a famine, they will probably repeat the verse in the other form. The answer of the oracle to the Lacedaemonians when the God was asked 'whether they should go to war or not,' and he replied 'that if they fought with all their might, they would conquer, and that he himself would take their part,' was not forgotten by those who had heard of it, and they quite imagined that they were witnessing the fulfilment of his words. The disease certainly did set in immediately after the invasion of the Peloponnesians, and did not spread into Peloponnesus in any degree worth speaking of, while Athens felt its ravages most severely, and next to Athens the places which were most populous. Such was the history of the plague.
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April 9, 2014

Lovelock Recants

Matt Ridley is one of the most prolific of the climate skeptics. A terrific writer who can explain complicated scientific questions to the general public with ease, Ridley is the author, among other works, of The Rational Optimist. Ridley shows astonishing progress in sector after sector, taking us back to the bestial days before penicillin and other modern medical wonders, and making us appreciate that material progress is not an illusion.

In my course “Smiling Through the Apocalypse,” in May 2013, I used Ridley’s work as a counter to the doom and gloom message percolating through the other readings. With few exceptions (I don’t actually recall any), the students did not like it and did not find it persuasive. (I was persuaded by many, but not all, of his arguments.) Since I am not using his book this year, and don’t want to lose his voice in the conversation, I was anxious to find a short piece expressing his outlook. His most recent posting on James Lovelock's new book admirably fills the bill.   

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This book reveals that James Lovelock, at 94, has not lost his sparkling intelligence, his lucid prose style, or his cheerful humanity. May Gaia grant that we all have such talents in our tenth decades, because the inventor of gadgets and eco-visionary has lived long enough to recant some of the less sensible views he espoused in his eighties.

Eight years ago, at the height of global warming alarmism, Lovelock turned uncharacteristically pessimistic in his book The Revenge of Gaia. He’d been got at by the greens. Despite all our efforts, he thought, “we may be unable to prevent a global decline into a chaotic world ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated Earth”. Billions would die, he said, and the few breeding pairs of human beings who survived would be in the Arctic.

In his new book, he now thinks he “tended to exaggerate the immediacy of global warming”, that “we may muddle through into a strange but still viable new world”, and that we can “keep our cool as the Earth gently warms, and even enjoy it when we can”. He admits that “the global average temperature has not risen as expected”, having “hardly warmed at all since the millennium”, and that he was “led astray” by the ice cores that seemed to imply changes in carbon dioxide were the dominant cause of changes in temperature. He thinks it is a mistake to take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “projections almost as if written in stone”; instead we “need to stay sceptical about the projections of climate models”.

For those of us who have been saying such things for a while, and who were told more than once (as I was by the head of the Science Museum among others), that if Lovelock was very worried so should I be, this is delicious to read. Welcome to the Lukewarmer Society, Jim.

He regrets that huge sums have been “squandered on the renewable energy sources”, many of which are “ugly and hopelessly impractical” and threaten a “green satanic change” to Britain’s landscape. Yup. He thinks that Greenpeace is “a great and powerful negative feedback on all that enlightened technological progress stands for”. Amen to all that.

He still thinks climate change will happen, of course, as I and most people do, but he expects us to adapt to it, especially in the design of our cities. Singapore, he points out, is a very habitable city in a climate far warmer than expected for most of the world by the end of the century. He expects us, by combining our biological and our electronic brains, to “give Gaia to the wisdom to proceed to the next step, whatever that may be, with or without us as the lead species”.

Ah, Gaia. Lovelock famously borrowed this name from Greek theology to label his idea that life alters the physics and chemistry of the planet in ways that are self-regulating. If the planet gets too hot, for instance, living things get whiter, which cools it down. I have always had difficulty with Gaia, because I am never sure how seriously Lovelock wants us to take her. If he means by Gaia that the Earth has a tendency to self-correct, which has kept it lukewarm for billions of years through changes in the atmosphere unconsciously aided by evolution among life forms, I’m with him. But I never quite feel he does enough to disavow the idea that in some sense this tendency has become conscious or mystical. The book does little to clear up my confusion, but there are some fascinating ideas to enjoy along the way.

One of these is that he thinks Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine, invented in 1712, marks a turning point in the history of the planet — when we began to tap the almost limitless energy of fossil fuels, accessing cheap and abundant energy. Thereby we began to transform not only our population and our prosperity, but the ecology of the planet itself. I agree, and would go further, because I think Lovelock misses the fact that this was in effect the first occasion on which we linked heat with work.

Till Newcomen we had heat energy, from wood and so on, and work energy (motion mainly), from wind, oxen and so on, but the twain did not meet — except instantaneously in the barrel of a gun. Today nearly all the work done in the world starts out as heat. That is what has enabled cultural evolution to change at a breakneck pace.

Lovelock is a lone scientist, a species that he says is now “as rare as ectoplasm”, and he values the independence to think that comes with loner status. He comes up with plenty of thoughts that I happen to think are bunk, but no matter: there’s lots of marvellous ideas too. As the autobiographical snippets in this fine book illustrate, he is at least as much an inventor as a scientist, exemplifying in his career the fact that technology drives science at least as much as vice versa.

Roll on Lovelock’s eleventh decade: he’s getting better all the time.

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Matt Ridley, “A Rough Ride to the Future: James Lovelock recants his alarmism,” Matt Ridley's blog, April 8, 2014. 

South Stream Stutters

From the Moscow Times, April 9, 2014, comes this piece by Alexander Panin, "New Sanctions May Freeze South Stream Pipeline." As geopolitical tangles go, the controversy over pipelines all along the rim of Eurasia can seem pretty daunting to sort out, but at bottom it is not all that complicated. If you rule out Russia as a source of additional gas for Europe, and you assume that Azerbaijan cannot displace Russia by itself, you are left with the following options: Iran, Kurdistan, and Israel and Cyprus. Turkey is needed as a corridor for any of this, so Turkey's relations with these various nations is an important factor to consider. Turkey's position gives it leverage with each of these actors, an unexpected boom from the Crimean crisis. 

The standoff over Ukraine hovers in the back of this controversy; there too a complicated array of pipeline politics is playing out. The Ukrainians can't pay for the Russian gas and are basically flat broke. The Russians are within their rights in raising prices, but Ukraine can't pay even for cheaper gas, so that is less significant than Ukraine's generally bankrupt finances (hence its inability to service the debt for gas previously consumed, estimated by Russian president Medvedev at $16 billion). If the Russians stop shipments of gas intended for Ukrainian consumption, the Ukrainians would then probably follow suit and suspend transits of Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe. To avoid those tumbling dominoes one would need some kind of diplomatic settlement among Russia, the EU and America, but the prospects for that in the short term look pretty dismal. 

Here's Panin's take: 

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As the EU presses on with sanctions against Russia for seizing Crimea, the $50 billion South Stream pipeline, meant to bring Russian gas through the Black Sea to Europe, may be frozen in favor of other projects.

The European Union is close to freezing the progress of South Stream and has warned Bulgaria, the first country the pipeline would have a link to in Europe, to be very careful and not to interfere with the EU's new toughened position on the pipeline, said European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, The Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday.

On Thursday, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin said in an interview with Reuters that while the standoff between the West and Russia over Ukraine may temporarily disrupt realization of the South Stream gas pipeline, there is no threat to it in the long run.

"Well, generally nobody is putting the project under question, but of course in a time when political relations become more complicated this may affect the speed with which the solutions are to be found," Vigenin said.

While South Stream is still far from receiving all the necessary permits to operate across EU, Guenther Oettinger, the European Commissioner for Energy, earlier said that discussions with Russia on the link were suspended.

South Stream pipeline will transport gas from Russia's Yamal peninsula in the north, across the country to the Black Sea and underneath it to Eastern Europe, bypassing Ukraine.

With a full design capacity projected at 63 billion cubic meters per year, it aims to supply 15 percent of Europe's gas by the end of 2018. Delivery of the first 15 billion cubic meters of gas per year is slated to start already by the end of 2015.

Now, with the standoff over Ukraine, Europe may consider other alternatives. A priority may be switched to gas supplies from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field, Rosbalt news agency said Tuesday, citing European Commission's Barroso.

But this one gas field will not be enough to meet European demand, said Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner and analyst at consulting firm RusEnergy.

Azerbaijan can supply about 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year, which will clearly not cover up for the South Stream, Krutikhin said, adding that other alternatives, if combined, could create a rival to the widely discussed pipeline.

"Iran is increasing the capacity of its pipelines. It is able to transport 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Turkey today and this could be boosted to 20 billion cubic meters and re-exported to Europe," Krutikhin said.

Among other alternatives, he named the Iraqi Kurdistan zone that could supply up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year and excess gas from Israel and Cyprus, which could together provide another 12 billion cubic meters.

"If Turkey agrees to become a transit corridor for all this gas, it could fill the Trans Adriatic Pipeline going through Albania to Italy or there could be a return to the Nabucco West project which aimed to transport gas through Turkey to Bulgaria and Romania toward Austria," Krutikhin said.

Nabucco West was abandoned in 2013 because it lacked gas to fill it to design capacity and it was labelled too expensive and lost support from main stakeholders.

At the same time both Nabucco and Trans Adriatic Pipeline would be economically competitive with South Stream, Krutikhin said, because with a price tag of more than $50 billion for all of its sections it is a "very expensive project that is unlikely to pay off."

South Stream's offshore part under the Black Sea is planned to be built by a consortium of international oil and gas companies led by state-owned Gazprom. Other participants are Italy's Eni, France's EDF and Germany's Wintershall. And most of them so far have voiced their support of the project.

A spokesman for Eni said, citing the company CEO Paolo Scaroni, that "South Stream is a very important project from a commercial point of view and we ought to be in favor of it to avoid the risks of transit [of gas] through Ukraine."

Wintershall agreed that the pipeline will ensure security of gas supplies to the EU and also voiced support for the project.

"Construction of the pipeline is on schedule. We are operating on the assumption that the applications required continue to be duly processed by the authorities responsible," the company said in a statement.

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From David Johnson's Russialist.org,, April 9, 2014. 

Getting Motivated

One would presume that in principle the best way of motivating people to do something about climate change is to frighten them with portraits of a coming apocalyptic world. Not so, say Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, in an op-ed at the New York Times. These two chaps have conducted a long running argument regarding the utility of non-stop-disaster messaging from the environmental movement; they are also big advocates of nuclear power and natural gas displacing coal.

They begin by pointing to Showtime's  new nine part series "Years of Living Dangerously" (the first episode of which is available without subscription.) The first episode is pretty good. It shows Harrison Ford getting educated, amid very sophisticated equipment and astonishing maps, about the basics of climate change. Ford travels to Indonesia, where we learn of the role that deforestation (to make way for palm oil plantations) is playing in exacerbating climate change. Deforestation and burning contributes about 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the contribution made by the transportation sector.

The first episode also features Don Cheadle visiting drought stricken Texas. The heroine is a woman who teaches at Texas Tech, Katharine Hayhoe, who is that most unusual of creatures: an evangelical Christian and a climate change crusader. The local opinion leans heavily toward the idea that God is behind Texas's brutal drought (for which there is abundant evidence), but Professor Hayhoe says that God created human beings so that we could figure this stuff out by ourselves.

The Showtime series, thus far, doesn't really correspond to Nordhaus and Schellenberger's depiction. In fact, I was impressed by the degree to which Showtime intimated that it is impossible to do much of anything--even have a discussion about climate change--without lots of planes, trains, and automobiles hovering in the background.

Still, this question of how to do "messaging" is really interesting. Ultimately, I would prefer it if the advocates on either side didn't screen their advice with a filter that says: "Don't necessarily tell the truth as you see it, but shape the message so that readers and viewers will react appropriately." Most scientists would object to such a filter, but in their attempts to convince the public they have been dazed and confused by the seeming inability of the public to get it. If they want to do something about climate change, many have realized, they have no choice but to enter the arena and play by the somewhat underhanded rules that make for political success.

The producers of the Showtime series (including Joe Romm as one of the two chief science advsiors) are certainly themselves keenly aware of the importance of proper messaging. I haven't looked, but I imagine that Romm has already blasted away at Nordhaus and Schellenberger over at Climate Progress. We'll check in later with that; for now, here is how Shellenberger and Nordhaus present their counter-intuitive case.

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[T]here is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming. And beginning in 2007, as the country was falling into recession, public support for environmental protection declined.

Still, environmental groups have known since 2000 that efforts to link climate change to natural disasters could backfire, after researchers at the Frameworks Institute studied public attitudes for its report “How to Talk About Global Warming.” Messages focused on extreme weather events, they found, made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God — something to be weathered, not prevented.

Some people, the report noted, “are likely to buy an SUV to help them through the erratic weather to come” for example, rather than support fuel-efficiency standards.

Since then, evidence that a fear-based approach backfires has grown stronger. A frequently cited 2009 study in the journal Science Communication summed up the scholarly consensus. “Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.” In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use “dire messages” about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.

Many climate advocates ignore these findings, arguing that they have an obligation to convey the alarming facts.

But claims linking the latest blizzard, drought or hurricane to global warming simply can’t be supported by the science. Our warming world is, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing heat waves and intense precipitation in some places, and is likely to bring more extreme weather in the future. But the panel also said there is little evidence that this warming is increasing the loss of life or the economic costs of natural disasters. “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration,” the climate panel noted, “is the most important driver of increasing losses.”

Claims that current disasters are connected to climate change do seem to motivate many liberals to support action. But they alienate conservatives in roughly equal measure.

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy. But when renewable energy technologies are offered as solutions to the exclusion of other low-carbon alternatives, they polarize rather than unite.

One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

Nonetheless, virtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy, even after four leading climate scientists wrote them an open letter last fall, imploring them to embrace the technology as a key climate solution. Together with catastrophic rhetoric, the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

While the urgency that motivates exaggerated claims is understandable, turning down the rhetoric and embracing solutions like nuclear energy will better serve efforts to slow global warming.

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Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Global Warming Scare Tactics,” New York Times, April 8, 2014

As expected, Joe Romm lit into the authors' argument here: "The Brutally Dishonest Attacks on Showtime's Landmark Series on Climate Change," Climate Progress, April 9, 2014. 

April 3, 2014

Looking for a Needle in a Needle Factory

From CNN, a piece on the world’s toilet:

Another debris field, another new and so-far futile focus in the search for Flight MH370. More than three weeks after the Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared, one thing has been made clear: the ocean is full of garbage, literally."It isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack," Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjayan said of the difficulty in finding the Boeing 777 aircraft. "It's like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean."

Environmentalists like Sanjayan have warned for years that human abuse of the planet's largest ecosystem causes major problems for ocean life and people that depend on it. With the world's eyes now scouring Asian waters for any trace of the plane that was more than 240 feet long and weighed more than 700,000 pounds, the magnitude of the ocean debris problem has become evident. . . .

No definitive records exist, but estimates for how many containers go overboard range from about 700 to as many as 10,000 of the roughly 100 million that the World Shipping Council says get shipped each year. Lost containers are only a minor part of the problem. While ship waste also adds to ocean pollution, most of the garbage comes from land, Sanjayan said. More than a third of the world's 7 billion people live within 60 miles of an ocean coast, and their waste inevitably reaches the water -- either deliberately or indirectly. Estimates from various sources, including the Japanese government, indicate that more than 10 million tons of debris -- including houses, tires, trees and appliances -- washed into the sea in the 2011 tsunami. 

In addition, discarded plastics -- including countless bags like the kind routinely provided by retail stores and fast food restaurants until a movement in recent years to decrease their use -- form huge, churning garbage fields in the rotating currents of ocean gyres. One in the north Pacific is estimated to be at least 270,000 square miles, or an area larger than Texas. Sanjayan said the plastic breaks down in the saltwater to form a kind of "plastic soup" that gets ingested by marine life. Millions of sea turtles die from the plastic each year, he said, and one in 10 small bait fish has plastic in its stomach. That happens in the same waters that provide roughly 15% of the animal protein consumed by people.

"The world does use the ocean as its toilet, and then expects that toilet to feed it," Sanjayan noted. Many island nations and coastal cities lack infrastructure sophisticated enough to deal with all the waste produced, he said. In addition, much of that waste -- such as plastics -- now is so durable that it lasts for decades or longer in any environment.  Sanjayan cited Dhaka, Bangladesh, as an example. Considered the fastest growing city in the world, the capital of 15 million people could expand to more than 20 million people in the next decade, according to the United Nations. Such growth far exceeds the capacity to deal with the garbage and sewage, Sanjayan said, adding: "All that waste in countries like that -- low-lying, prone to flooding -- periodically flushes into the ocean." 

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Tom Cohen, “Plane search hampered by ocean garbage problem,” CNN, April 2, 2014. 

February 6, 2014

Living in a Dream World: California's Drought

From Paul Rogers, environmental reporter at the San Jose Mercury, comes a grim piece on the scale of California’s drought:

California's current drought is being billed as the driest period in the state's recorded rainfall history. But scientists who study the West's long-term climate patterns say the state has been parched for much longer stretches before that 163-year historical period began. And they worry that the "megadroughts" typical of California's earlier history could come again.
Through studies of tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years -- compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame: a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years.
"We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years," said Scott Stine, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay. "We're living in a dream world."
California in 2013 received less rain than in any year since it became a state in 1850. And at least one Bay Area scientist says that based on tree ring data, the current rainfall season is on pace to be the driest since 1580 -- more than 150 years before George Washington was born. The question is: How much longer will it last?
California, the nation's most populous state with 38 million residents, has built a massive economy, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and millions of acres of farmland, all in a semiarid area. The state's dams, canals and reservoirs have never been tested by the kind of prolonged drought that experts say will almost certainly occur again.
Stine, who has spent decades studying tree stumps in Mono Lake, Tenaya Lake, the Walker River and other parts of the Sierra Nevada, said that the past century has been among the wettest of the last 7,000 years. Looking back, the long-term record also shows some staggeringly wet periods. The decades between the two medieval megadroughts, for example, delivered years of above-normal rainfall -- the kind that would cause devastating floods today. The longest droughts of the 20th century, what Californians think of as severe, occurred from 1987 to 1992 and from 1928 to 1934. Both, Stine said, are minor compared to the ancient droughts of 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320.
What would happen if the current drought continued for another 10 years or more? Without question, longtime water experts say, farmers would bear the brunt. Cities would suffer but adapt. The reason: Although many Californians think that population growth is the main driver of water demand statewide, it actually is agriculture. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water consumed by people and businesses -- 34 million of 43 million acre-feet diverted from rivers, lakes and groundwater, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
"Cities would be inconvenienced greatly and suffer some. Smaller cities would get it worse, but farmers would take the biggest hit," said Maurice Roos, the department's chief hydrologist. "Cities can always afford to spend a lot of money to buy what water is left." . . . Farmers would fallow millions of acres, letting row crops die first. They'd pump massive amounts of groundwater to keep orchards alive, but eventually those wells would go dry. And although deeper wells could be dug, the costs could exceed the value of their crops. Banks would refuse to loan the farmers money. . . . In urban areas, most cities would eventually see water rationing at 50 percent of current levels. Golf courses would shut down. Cities would pass laws banning watering or installing lawns, which use half of most homes' water. Across the state, rivers and streams would dry up, wiping out salmon runs. . . .
If a drought lasted decades, the state could always build dozens of desalination plants, which would cost billions of dollars, said law professor Barton "Buzz" Thompson, co-director of Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment. Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries depend on desalination, but water from desal plants costs roughly five times more than urban Californians pay for water now. Thompson said that makes desal projects unfeasible for most of the state now, especially when other options like recycled wastewater and conservation can provide more water at a much lower cost. But in an emergency, price becomes no object.
"In theory, cities cannot run out of water," Thompson said. "All we can do is run out of cheap water, or not have as much water as we need when we really want it." Over the past 10 years, he noted, Australia has been coping with a severe drought. Urban residents there cut their water demand massively, built new supply projects and survived. "I don't think we'll ever get to a point here where you turn on the tap and air comes out," he said. . . .
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Paul Rogers, “California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say,” San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 25, 2014

January 26, 2014

No Gas Bonanza for Levant

I noted earlier Richard Heinberg’s dim forecasts for expanded fracking in Europe, once the expected venue of a geopolitical revolution sparked by energy. Similar hopes have been held out for the Near East. In 2012, Walter Russell Mead heralded the emergence of Israel as an energy superpower, “a tiny nation whose total energy reserves some experts now think could rival or even surpass the fabled oil wealth of Saudi Arabia.” As these extracts from the Economist show, Israel’s political isolation constitutes a serious obstacle to the exploitation of these reserves. The regional situation is unbelievably tangled, but it is likely, argues the Economist, that the governments of the Levant are fooling their people [and probably deluding themselves] with false promises of an offshore gas bonanza.
The sceptics say that the main brake is a lack of regional co-operation rather than a shortage of oil and gas. The Americans’ official Geological Survey estimates that from Gaza’s coast to southern Turkey the eastern Mediterranean holds 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, comparable to the reserves of Iraq. But Lebanon’s caretaker government lacks the authority to pass the legislation needed to persuade foreign oil companies to start drilling; a heralded auction is again likely to be delayed. America’s effort to mediate over a disputed maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel is stalling progress. The civil war in Syria is scaring away big oil companies. And drilling off the Lebanese coast has yet to begin.
It has done so off Cyprus, but estimates of the amount of gas and oil to be found there have been inflated, too. Delek Drilling and Avner Oil, two Israeli firms involved in exploration, say that Aphrodite, Cyprus’s only proven gasfield, has reserves of just 4.1 trillion cubic feet—barely enough to meet long-term local demand.
Oil companies, including Italy’s Eni and France’s Total, may find more gas there. If not, Cyprus’s LNG venture will depend on getting it from elsewhere, perhaps from Israel’s Leviathan field. In any case, Turkey and Cyprus both claim some of the same stretches of water. The Israelis, for their part, have prevented the Palestinians from developing Gaza Marine, a field off the coast of Gaza where BG (formerly British Gas) found gas a decade ago.
Israel, alone, is romping along. It has verified finds of 35 trillion cubic feet. Noble, an American company that has so far dominated Israel’s production, says that gas from its Tamar field, which began flowing this year, already supplies 45% of the country’s electricity. But development of the much larger Leviathan field, farther west, is slow. Fearing an outcry over the sale of public assets, Israeli ministers have delayed the timetable.
There are other obstacles. Asian buyers, who tend to pay the highest prices, are reluctant for security reasons to ship Israeli gas through the Suez Canal. Turkey, whose energy needs are soaring, might have been an attractive export market for Israel. Construction of a pipeline on the seabed between Turkey and Israel could prove more profitable than an LNG plant, because upfront costs are lower and Turkish gas prices quite high, says Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy, an advisory firm in Dubai. But such a pipeline might have to pass through officially recognised Greek Cyprus and the Turkish-ruled north of the island, so an agreement with both would be needed. That will be tricky. An alternative route, under Syrian and Lebanese waters, would be trickier still.
In any case, Israel is loth to strike an export deal with Turkey at a time when that country’s foreign policy has become unpredictable and its prickly prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could turn off the tap whenever he feels piqued. An Israel-Cyprus deal could make matters worse. Egypt’s decision to discard a Mubarak-era agreement to supply 40% of Israel’s gas serves as a warning against doing business amid unresolved conflicts. “Without peace with the Palestinians, we can’t sell our gas to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and—who knows?—maybe even to the Europeans,” says an Israeli former energy minister, Josef Paritzky.
Tangled in red tape and regional disputes, even oil companies in Israel may flag. Woodside Petroleum, an Australian firm with LNG expertise, is still pondering an ambitious plan to build a floating LNG platform. Noble lacks the capacity to go it alone. Few developers will invest without secure long-term contracts. And buyers in Asia, the best market, are banking on getting an alternative deluge of gas from new finds in the United States. Without exports, regional prospects are less sunny. Ploughing billions of dollars into platforms, rigs, offshore pipelines or costly LNG plants is feasible only if drillers are confident of shipping gas to foreign markets.
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Israel’s and Palestine’s Gas and Oil: Too Optimistic?The Economist, January 25, 2014.

January 24, 2014

Japan's Growing Fossil Fuel Burden

From Platt's Energy Economist, a tally of the sharply growing costs of Japan's fossil fuel imports, a consequence of the near-total shutdown of the nuclear industry after the accident at Fukushima in 2011. For a time in 2012, no nuclear plant was operating in Japan; since then, a few (of the some fifty reactors) have been restarted. The consequences for Japan have proven quite serious.   

It is no surprise that less than three years after Fukushima, the Japanese government is seeking to rehabilitate the nuclear industry’s role in the country’s generation mix as indicated by comments made by Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in December. Returning the country’s reactors to operation would have a significant impact on the trade balance, Japan’s over-dependence on imported energy commodities, and power prices.

It is a paradox that nuclear power can be described as both cheap and expensive. The cost of new nuclear power has risen over time and new reactor construction is significantly more expensive than in the past. Combined with the high capital cost and other risks involved it is hard to make the case that it is competitive with fossil fuels. But where the capital cost was sunk decades ago and paid down or written off, the ongoing low fuel costs of nuclear mean existing nuclear fleets do provide low cost and low carbon electricity.
Japan is the world’s largest importer of LNG, the second biggest importer of coal and the third largest importer of oil. Having minimal production of any of these three key energy commodities, nuclear power has been essential to offsetting the security and economic implications of such a high degree of import dependency. As a result of much reduced nuclear generation, in 2012, Japan spent $289 billion on net imports of fossil fuels, more than any other country in the world, including China and the United States, according to the Institute for Energy Economics Japan. . . .
Fukushima was a disaster not just in human terms, for the nuclear industry or the finances of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, but for the country and economy as a whole. The increase in fossil fuel imports and the money paid to secure them has outweighed economic growth and gains in income. The situation has been exacerbated by depreciation of the Yen, which has made energy commodity price imports, all priced in US dollars, more expensive in local currency terms.
 Spending on net imports of fossil fuels as a ratio of nominal GDP for Japan is thought to have reached 5.3% in 2013, compared with 3.1% for China and 1.5% in the US. According to the IEEJ’s senior economist Akira Yanagisawa, China’s ratio fell because GDP grew more strongly than the increase in net fossil fuel imports, meaning no additional burden on the economy. But for Japan the opposite was the case, while currency depreciation added one percentage point to the increased burden.
 Bringing the country’s reactors back on line is proving a slow and uncertain process, owing to the new regulatory safeguards put in place in the aftermath of Fukushima. But for commodity markets, the impact will fall entirely on oil rather than LNG or coal.
 According to the IEEJ’s medium-case scenario — 16 reactors back in operation for an average of eight months in the year — oil consumption would fall from a projected 241.8 GL in fiscal 2013 to 220.4 GL in fiscal 2014, a drop of 8.6%. In contrast, natural gas use is expected to continue to rise to a record 91.1 mt in fiscal 2014, while coal consumption will increase to 191.1 mt. Even with final energy consumption falling by 0.4%, Japan’s natural gas and coal usage are expected to breach new historic highs. As such, Japan has little choice but to revert to nuclear energy.

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Ross McCracken, “The burden that Japan is facing in its higher energy costs,” Platt’s Energy Economist, January 24, 2014. Via Barrel Blog.

Olympic Winter Games at Risk

From Yale Environment 360: 

As few as six of the world's previous 19 Olympic Winter Games sites will likely still be wintry enough to host snow sports at the end of the century, according to a report by Canadian and Austrian researchers. Iconic locales such as Squaw Valley, Utah, and Vancouver, Canada, will likely be too warm by the middle of this century. Even under conservative climate change scenarios, only 11 of the 19 sites would remain climatically stable enough to reliably host the games, the study found. Olympic organizing committees consistently cite poor weather as a major challenge for the winter games, and it's likely to get more challenging: The average February daytime temperature of winter games locations has steadily increased — from 0.4 degrees C at games held in the 1920s to 1950s, to 3.1 degrees C in the 1960s to 1990s, to 7.8 degrees C so far in the 21st century. These sites will likely warm by an additional 2.7 to 4.4 degrees C by the end of the century, according to the report. Technology like snow-making, track refrigeration, and high-resolution weather forecasting can mitigate weather challenges to some extent, but those advances are unlikely to keep pace with climate change, the researchers say. "Despite technological advances, there are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can cope with," said the study's lead author. "The cultural legacy of the world's celebration of winter sport is increasingly at risk."
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Future Olympic Winter Games At Risk as Climate Warms,Researchers Warn,” Yale e360 digest, January 24, 2014.

January 10, 2014

Fracking in Europe

Richard Heinberg is an author we’ve cited many times on Energy Predicament. In a recent interview with Selma Franssen talking about his new book, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperials Our Future, Heinberg has very interesting things to say about the prospects for fracking in Europe. These new technologies and the vision of energy abundance associated with them have often been seen as heralding a geopolitical revolution—with Poland, for instance, eliminating its dependence on Russia and becoming an energy superpower. Heinberg comments not only on the radical scaling back of the estimates for Poland but also notes the persistence of safety issues in the United States. He also offers an intriguing set of reasons for thinking that fracking faces a much more contentious environment in Europe than in the United States, including the dependence of the technique on a huge number of wells drilled, Europe’s greater population density, and mineral rights that are publicly owned in Europe (as against private ownership in the United States), making for a very different structure of incentives.  

Until test wells are drilled, it’s very difficult to know what the actual shale gas and oil production potential is for Europe. All sorts of numbers have been cited, but they are simply guesses. Back in 2011, the US Energy Information Administration estimated that Poland’s shale gas reserves were 187 trillion cubic feet, but a little on-the-ground exploration led the Polish Geological Institute to downgrade that figure to a mere 27 TCF—a number that may still be overly optimistic. My institute’s research suggests that US future production of shale oil and gas has been wildly over-estimated too. So, without attempting to put a specific number to it, I think it would be wise to assume that Europe’s actual reserves are much, much smaller than the drilling companies are saying. We do know that the geology in Europe is not as favorable as it is in some of the US formations, so even in cases where gas or oil is present, production potential may be low—that is, it may not be possible to get much of that resource out of the ground profitably. That being the case, governments should undertake a realistic cost-risk-benefit analysis using very conservative assumptions about likely production potential. . . .
The petroleum industry has certainly been trying to clean up its act, and it’s true that progress has been made in improving operational safety. However it’s also true that the industry has systematically hidden evidence of pollution, and of environmental and human health impacts. The industry has often claimed that there are no documented instances of such impacts, and that’s arrant nonsense. Where environmental and health harms are clear, the industry typically offers a cash payment to the parties affected, but that is tied to a non-disclosure agreement, so that no one else will ever find out what happened. The industry also points to studies showing low methane emissions and no groundwater contamination. These studies tend to describe operations where everything is working perfectly, with no mistakes or malfunctions. But of course in the real world well casings fail, equipment breaks, pipes leak, and operators cut corners or make simple human errors. Take a look at regions of the US where fracking is happening right now, presumably with state-of-the-art equipment: have all the bugs really been worked out? Evidently not, because there is still a steady stream of reports of bad water and bad air. . . .
There are at least three important factors that might limit fracking socially and politically in the European context. First is the number of wells needed. Because production rates in shale gas and tight oil wells tend to decline very rapidly, petroleum companies have to drill many wells in order to keep overall production levels up. In the US, the current total is over 80,000 horizontal wells drilled and fracked. If Europe says yes to shale gas, prepare for an onslaught of drilling.  
The second factor is population density: Europe, of course, has a much higher population density than the US. So taking these first two factors into account, Europeans face a significant likelihood of living in close proximity to one of these future shale gas or oil wells.
The third factor is the legal status of ownership of subsurface mineral rights. In most of the US, landowners control mineral rights; therefore if a company wants to drill on your land, it must obtain your agreement, pay you an initial fee, and also pay a subsequent royalty for the oil or gas actually extracted. (Gas and oil companies actually avoid paying royalties in many instances, but that’s another story.) As a result, citizens have a financial stake in resource extraction, and they therefore have an incentive to overlook or even help cover up environmental and health impacts from fracking. This is especially true in poor communities, where a little lease or royalty money can go a long way. In Europe, national governments control mineral rights. Therefore there is no incentive for local citizens to take the industry’s side if there are disputes over pollution. There has been a strong citizen backlash to fracking in the US; in Europe it is likely to be overwhelming.
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