Feb 21, 2008

Monbiot's Heat

I haven't blogged for a couple of months, I've been staying mostly away from the internet for the winter. I may start putting up the odd thing now and again.

Previously I've written about the climate crisis and expressed something close to hopelessness. I've just read something that gives me at least some small hope. This is George Monbiot's "Heat." If you want a very accessible over-view of the technical issues involved, you couldn't do better than that. I heartily recommend it. Monbiot is brutally realistic, very rigourous (he actually crunches the numbers for you) and even writes with a verve and flair that keeps you engaged, no mean feat given the technical nature of the subject matter.

Mr. Monbiot's programme in the book is an ambitious one. He starts by doing the math about just how much we need to cut carbon emissions and how soon if we are going to stabilize the climate. Granted, there is always some guesswork involved in this field where the scientific details, if not the big picture, are still being worked out. But he makes a solid case for some quite startling numbers. We need, says Mr. Monbiot, to cut planetary carbon emissions by 80% before 2030. What's more, this translates into a 90% cut in the industrial countries.

Mr. Monbiot spends the bulk of the book showing how Britain, where he resides, could do this. He covers all major areas of the economy; transport, aviation, housing and so forth. Although he uses the example of Britain, most of what he says could be applied, with some changes, to any industrial country. (Or are we post-industrial already?)

I learnt some surprising things in this book; cement is a huge producer of carbon dioxide in the manufacturing for instance. (Who knew?) Micro-power like home windmills is highly over-rated. (It only looks good if you believe the manufacturer's hype). Monbiot disagrees with my other eco-guru, Lovelock, in a couple of places. Notably, he is not an advocate for nuclear energy.

In the course of the book, Mr. Monbiot surprisingly lays out a plan that could just do it, a plan that is both technically and economically possible. He also does it in a way that incorporates social justice; carbon emissions should be rationed not taxed. Futhermore, he manages to do it without scaling back the lifestyle of the rich nations as much as I would have thought necessary. He tries, whenever possible, to preserve our standard of living. He does this, I am pretty sure, not out of a sympathy with consumerism, but to make the scheme as palatable as possible to the broad masses. Where necessary, though, he can suggest quite severe changes; most notably in aviation. He says long distance jet travel simply cannot be made green. People in the future, if there is to be one, must simply travel less and travel more slowly. I would think we could and should actually cut a lot more out of our lifestyles, but I appreciate Monbiot's realism.

I would like to address the issue of voluntarism. I don't see how we can possibly stop runaway climate change that way. It's the old problem of the "tragedy of the commons." If one person lives in voluntary simplicity, it makes absolutely no difference to the problem. Granted, as one comment to this blog notes, it may set an example. But imagine if fifty percent of the public voluntarily gave up automobile travel. (An impossible number) What would happen? The price of gas would go down due to low demand, and those who didn't care would simply drive more and drive bigger cars.

No, the only action that can work is political (and Monbiot makes the same point.) The problem is way too big for each individual to deal with as they think best. The very least that must happen is a strict system of rationing for all goods that produce carbon emissions.

British Columbia has just introduced a budget said to be the greenest in North America, which includes a gradually escalating carbon tax. This is better than nothing, quite a bit better, but the problem with a tax is that the poor will suffer while the rich will continue to squander. (The budget isn't perfect, it still includes subsidies to the oil and gas industry, an insane policy)

I said earlier that Monbiot's scheme, worked out in meticulous detail, is workable both economically and technically. But is it workable politically? I remain pessimistic on that front. The public may make green mouth noises, but when it comes down to a reduction in their standard of living, such as giving up winter holidays in the Caribbean, the middle classes will not vote for anyone proposing something like Monbiot's plan in Heat. By the time things get so bad that people are willing to face tough decisions, it may be too late. Greed and ignorance strike again.

Rahu strikes again!

Last night there was a full eclipse of the moon. A very eerie sight; as the shadow of the Earth moves across the face of the moon it doesn't disappear, but turns a dull melancholy red. One can well understand how this sight must have been regarded as a bad omen before the astronomy was understood.

In Thailand, the traditional belief, derived like much of Thai culture originally from India, was that in primeval times the monster Rahu swallowed the sun and moon, depriving the world of light. Vishnu saved the universe by slaying the monster, cutting off it's head. Or not quite slaying, because Rahu is an immortal and his severed head wanders around in space, being the eighth planet in Thai astrology. Occasionally it swallows the sun or moon and we experience an eclipse, but happily the luminous orb in a short while emerges from the monster's neck.

Three questions about lunar eclipses occur to me. Two I think I can answer from first principles. One; is a lunar eclipse visible from the whole night side of the planet Earth? I would think yes; it's different from a solar eclipse in that it is essentially the shadow of the Earth moving across the moon, whereas a solar eclipse is when the moon blocks the line of sight of the sun from the Earth, and given the astronomically close position of the moon, parallax makes a significant difference from different localities. Two; how would it look if you were standing on the surface of the moon? I think the Earth would eclipse the sun totally, but I imagine one would see some kind of diffuse "halo" around the rim due to atmospheric diffusion.

Three is not so easy to answer; what was the scientific explanation for eclipses given before the emergence of the heliocentric model? I mean in learned western thought. How did the Aristotelians with their spheres and epicycles explain that? How did Tycho Brahe with his mixed model (sun and moon orbit the Earth, all other planets orbit the sun)? I have no idea.