2018 Carbon Budget

Let’s start with a figure.

2C pathways, from Global Carbon Project/ Robbie Andrew

Here we see the pathways to reach the Paris Climate Agreement, which proposed to limit warming to 2C by 2100. This threshold was basically set as a compromise to limit “dangerous” warming, and to be feasible politically. As we can see in the figure, emissions would have to be reduced at a rate of 5% per year in order to reach that target. The figure also shows how much easier it would have been if things started in 2000 (essentially a fairy tale where China does not industrialize) and how difficult it will be if things start 10 years from now (increasing to 9% per year reductions).

A couple of days ago, the 2018 carbon budget paper was published. In the paper, global carbon emissions are projected to increase by 1.8%. This essentially dashes the optimism that was going on a few years ago that global emissions were peaking, as we now see the effects of the Chinese economy rebounding, and changes to policy by the US government (in addition to the impacts of the unusually cold winter and hot summer in the US this year).

So, we are currently in a situation where emissions are going up, rather than down. As more nations industrialize, why should we expect that trend to be reversed, especially since the industrializing process emulates the Western model? Why should we expect mitigation in industrialized countries, when there is a growing trend towards authoritarianism that cares little except maintaining power? The answer, of course, is that we should not expect emissions to go down anytime in the near future.

I spend a lot of time looking at problems related to paleo-climate, and it is pretty clear to see what the future holds for the Earth under an unmitigated scenario. As the world warms, it melts the land-based ice and heats up the ocean. Ecosystems around the world will be disrupted, probably at a rate that is too fast for adaptation for many animal species (i.e. there will be extinction). Sea level rise will erode away our coasts and force the evacuation of anyone living near them. Agricultural lands will face the threats of extreme weather or drought (some places, both). Anyone who studies history knows what happens to countries if there is not a reliable source of food. These problems are not some problem to be dealt with long into the future, these things are happening now.

Everything looks pretty dire from my perspective, and really the only way that I can see a way to lower emissions is a complete reshaping of the economy. The rise in authoritarianism is a huge barrier for this, and the fear of change is likely the main reason why it is rising. So what can we do? I have some thoughts, which likely are not possible, since the current governments have little interest in it, but here we go.

  1. Break up large corporations. Nothing is a bigger threat to democracy right now than the influence of big companies. We see this is especially true in the US, where there are no limits to how much companies can spend on influencing politicians and people. In the 70s and 80s, the US government was not afraid of splitting up major corporations that wielded monopoly-like powers, like Bell. Companies like Google and Facebook effectively are monopolies, and have a massive influence on modern discourse. This is incredibly dangerous, and as we have seen in recent years, affect the outcome of elections and policy. Though Google and Facebook are mentioned here, they are by no means the only ones. Large energy producers also wield extreme influence, and there is a reason why things are going backwards in terms of emissions. Once a major company reaches a certain size, it should be split up.
  2. Transportation networks need to be completely overhauled. I currently am in Japan, a densely populated country. Yet, outside of the cities with subways, most people still go around in cars. You hardly see any bikes, even though the cities are as densely populated as a typical European city. How is a country like Japan supposed to meet the Paris goals when people still drive so much? The answer is, they won’t. Owing a car should be far more expensive than it is now. Only with emptier roads, does cycling and public transport becomes much more feasible. In a carbon-neutral world, there probably can’t be any cars at all, and I don’t see electric cars being a savior (since producing a car is still fairly energy intensive). 
  3. Interest rates should be increased. The biggest con in the global economy is the fact that interest rates are below 4%. This causes upwards pressure on the price of limited resources (such as land and property) and downwards pressure on the price of things considered disposable. If there is a higher cost to taking on debt, less people would consume, and it would also reduce the cost of housing, encouraging people to live closer to their place of work.
  4. Working hours need to be substantially reduced. Most people work way too much, and as a result, acquire more wealth than they need to live comfortably. They use this wealth to purchase too many disposable things. There were horrifying pictures published this year of dead animals in the ocean, with stomachs full of plastic. Would people use so much plastic if they were forced to save money and not throw things away? We have been convinced that we need ever-more quantities of money to maintain an unsustainable living standard. Inevitably if the Paris agreement levels are to be met, our expectations will need to be lowered. The added benefit of less working hours is that we will have more time for leisure and family, so maybe living standards will actually be higher.
  5. Economic focus of countries should return basic production. Adam Smith said there were two kinds of work: productive and unproductive. Productive work involves producing things like food and utilities that are useful to people. Unproductive jobs are ones that ultimately produce nothing of value, but may extract a lot of resources (think something like a stock market trader, but in Smith’s definition it includes professions like policing and law). In modern times, there are far more unproductive jobs than productive ones in wealthy nations. This is in a large part caused by the mechanization of labour. However, the mechanization of labour has a huge cost in terms of carbon output, and has also forced mass migration into cities. There has also been an outsourcing of labour to third world countries. While this enriches big companies (see point 1), it is one of the reasons why production has become more carbon intensive. I don’t want to say that we should deprive third world countries of a means to escape poverty, but that companies that utilize it should bear the costs. One way I would propose doing that is to ensure that the labour standards and pay in those third party countries be the same as the consuming country. 

These are just five brief ideas that I think would be required in order to start reducing carbon emissions in a real way. Whether it is possible to achieve this politically, I am not optimistic. The default position of people who are relatively comfortable is conservatism, and major changes to the global economy would require some extreme levels of liberalism.

Georeferencing in QGIS

QGIS is a great program and is a viable alternative to the old stalwart, ArcGIS. However, one aspect of ArcGIS that is vastly superior to QGIS is georeferencing maps. In ArcGIS, when you want to georeference a map, you simply load up the map, along with another pre-georeferenced image or map, click on the map you want to georeference, and then click on the place on the reference map that is equivalent. ArcGIS will then adjust the map you are georeferencing to account for the anchor point. This makes it a nice and easy workflow. If the map has known coordinates, you can right click and enter them.

QGIS offers a much more awkward way of georeferencing. The map you are georeferencing is placed in a separate window. Making an anchor point with an existing map can be awkward using the default settings, and as the version I am using (2.18.16), it is not possible to enter a geographic coordinate if you are using a projected coordinate system.

In addition to the above, there is not really a clear workflow tutorial on georeferencing in QGIS that I could find. I managed to make one up after some trial and error and finding information on places like Stack Overflow. I also had to tackle merging together scans of maps that were done in a piece-wise way. I am writing this so that I can look back to it in the future, but I also hope this proves useful to other people. Continue reading

March for Science and Politics

On April 22, 2017 the March For Science will happen. It is an event where scientists around the world will take part to encourage lawmakers the importance of science in decision making. This march was precipitated by the election of Donald Trump, who has shown blatant disregard for evidence-based decision making, going as far as to appoint people who seek to dismantle the very institutions that they head. As for the marchers, I am encouraged that so many people are going out to show that scientists do care about the direction of the government.

However, it seems that lost in the message of marching for science is the extremely lengths some organizers are going to make sure this is a “non-partisan” effort. From the March For Science page:

Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?

From my twitter feed, it seems that there are organizers who are going to great lengths to distance themselves from any kind of political position, at the detriment of any solid message on how to move forward. Some organizers felt there should be a message of inclusion and diversity. This was resisted by those who felt it would detract from their message and repel the Republican lawmakers they wanted to bring to the fold.

I think that it is unrealistic to believe that science somehow lives in an elevated bubble that can work without inclusion and diversity in the modern world. But what role should science have in discourse? I would like to go through what the prerequisites are for science to exist, in the political realm. Continue reading

On History

As a geologist, we are introduced to the concept of uniformitarianism early in our scientific career, namely the principle that “the present is the key to the past”. Our understanding of geological processes is dependent on the assumption that the physical processes we observe now are the same as what operated in the past. As a climate scientist, we throw that in reverse, that the processes that happened in the past can serve as guidance to the phenomena we observe now, and to help us estimate what will happen in the future.

In the geological past, there is a history of extreme changes in climate. It only took about 12,000 years for the ice sheets that covered much of northern North America and Europe to completely disintegrate. In that intervening period, the climate warmed in a generally steady manner, punctuated by transient returns to cold conditions. The causes of this steady warming were changes in orbital forcing, allowing more solar energy to reach the polar regions, combined with increasing carbon dioxide and decreased albedo effects as the ice sheets shrank. The periods when the warming slowed or reversed happened suddenly. The Younger Dryas period, for example, saw a return to glacial conditions, and the ice sheets grew again. The cause of the Younger Dryas is still an open question, but whatever it was, it was very abrupt, possibly caused by the sudden drainage of ice dammed lakes into the Atlantic or the break off of large volumes of ice into the ocean. Looking at longer time scales, that of the Earth, the glacial cycles that have occurred during the past 3 million years ago are very rapid oscillations.

As the atmospheric concentration of CO2 reached 400 PPM last year, a level we will never go below again in the foreseeable future unless some unforeseen technological advance happens, we look to the past to see what this means. The last time CO2 levels were this high was in the Pliocene, some 3 million years ago. Around that time, the Panama isthmus became fully formed, isolating the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic and completely reorganizing ocean currents. At that time, North America and Europe had yet to be glaciated, and the Greenland Ice Sheet never grew much beyond the mountains on its fringe. The Canadian Arctic, not yet a full archipelago, was covered in vast forests and supported animals like camels and beavers. Sea level was higher, as the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica were not as large as present.

Only as CO2 levels fell towards the end of the Pliocene did the first major continental ice sheets started to form in North America and Europe. After that, ice sheets grew and retreated, following orbital changes. At first, the cycles followed roughly 40,000 year periodicity, following obliquity changes (i.e. changes to the Earth’s axial tilt). About one million years ago, the cyclicity changed to 100,000 years, following the eccentricity cycle (i.e. the roundness of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun). However, if atmospheric CO2 levels were high enough, some of these cycles failed to produce large ice sheets. This forcing threshold may only be on the order of 20 PPM. We are now 120 PPM above interglacial levels, making the return to glacial conditions unlikely.

Human history

After all the above, it should be pretty clear that I am not just an Earth scientist, but also a student of history. In order to understand the motivations of humanity on the whole, we must look to the past and see how humans behaved before, just as in Earth science. For instance, we knows through the study of history that humans rapidly migrated around the world during the past 400 years, and that there have been atrocities and mass warfare as a result of this, as well as great technological and social advances.

And yet, with the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-science, and quite frankly, anti-fact groups that are seizing power in industrialized countries, it has become clear that we have not been paying attention to history. The only reason why the industrialized world is able to maintain peace is that there is a social contract that the savings of mechanization are passed to all people. This contract has been eroded during the past three decades. The people affected by this are now angry about the loss of their status and are lashing out against the power brokers. These people have been conned – the Trumps and Farages of the world don’t give a shit about the plight of those who are the victims of the mechanization of labour. However, they are easily convinced by the argument that the immigrants are taking away their jobs, or that their jobs are being taken away due to trade agreements with third world countries. It is a convenient scapegoat. With the increases in productivity due to mechanization, the centers of wealth have moved from rural areas to urban areas. The power brokers have been all to happy to cater to urban areas, because it is easier and cheaper. More extreme leaders than exploit the anger of the rural areas by playing on their fears.

It has been almost 30 years since the iron curtain fell, and with the end of the cold war came the end of the constant looming threat of global war. I think without this constant threat, people became more isolated, and happy to ignore their neighbour who might be suffering. As a highly mobile millennial, I am as guilty of this as anyone. I can scarcely remember a time when I was living that it felt like my livelihood was truly threatened. My memories of the Cold War basically start and end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can only read about these threats from a textbook or from anecdotes of those who lived through it. Without this existential threat to us all, we no longer feel the need to be united. We are more than happy to pursue our selfish ambitions without a thought to our community.

I do read history though. The rise of authoritarian powers has always been predicated by the wilful disregard for the rights and freedoms of parts of the population of the country. Usually those in power with more noble aims are unable to stop it due to the distrust from the general public, or through sheer incompetence. The United States was one of the first to put in place a structure to prevent authoritarianism – the Constitution. Over time, other checks have been introduced, sometimes at great cost. These include universal suffrage, separation of the bureaucratic, judicial, parliamentary and military branches of the state, having a free and open press and introducing strict political spending limits by individuals. Since World War II, these kind of measures have been pretty successful and preventing tyranny.

What has happened?

So what has gone wrong, why have these checks failed us? I think society in general does not take enough time to reflect upon what happened in the past. Scientists know that raising CO2 will cause the climate change, yet a significant number of non-scientists do not know this is a problem, and even go as far as to suggest that it is fear mongering. Part of the reason this is the case is because most countries do not give a proper mandatory introduction of Earth sciences in school. Where I grew up, if you wanted to learn about Earth sciences, you pretty much had to do it as a major in university.

The same goes for human history. We all are told of he cautionary tales of the rise of Hitler, but how many people were actually taught why Hitler rose? Did they learn about the stalemate that was World War I? Did they learn about the harsh reparations that the Allies imposed on Germany? Did they learn about how the German economy collapsed as a result of these reparations, combined with general incompetence and corruption, and paved the way for the rise of authoritarian power? Though I used Germany as an example, a similar story could be told for the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Stalin, Imperial Japan after the death of the Meiji Emperor, Franco Spain, Mussolini Italy, etc. It is not enough that we are told about what happened, the study of history must answer the question “why”.

I think we are at a threshold now. Will we be able to fight back against the rising tide of authoritarianism, and return to the democratic values that have allowed us a long lasting peace? Or have the cogs of our system become rusted, and unable to lower the defences? During the past week we have seen Trump take action to remove the checks on his power, while at the same time people have been marching in the street protesting these actions. Which side will prevail? Alas, history can only tell us so much, but I fear it will get worse before it gets better. The authoritarians will reduce the checks that hamper their power too quickly for people to fight back through legal means.

2017 – What’s in store

Last year, I wrote a post illustrating the good points of 2015, and tried to think positively about 2016. I have to say most of the things I had hoped for in that post did happen. 2016 turned out to be a much better experience than 2014 and 2015.

2016: the year that was

A lot happened in my life in 2016. I few back to Canada in February and saw my family and friends in Manitoba. I saw the sakura blossoms, something I had hoped to see. I climbed up Mount Kaemondake in Kagoshima, which was an amazing vista. I lived through several large earthquakes that devastated parts of Kumamoto. I moved to Germany for a new job, working on ice sheet modelling. I went to Sweden for a weekend to clear up some loose ends. I went to Japan in July, with a highlight of going to Yoron Island. I made many Japanese friends, and expanded my love of the drink of choice in western Japan, shochu. I went to England to go to friends’ wedding, and saw many friends I made in Australia. I started going to the gym on a very regular basis, and have started to lose some weight that I gained in 2015 and early 2016. I worked very hard on my hobby, SNES Central, and added more content than I had in many years combined. I have started to make headway into learning Japanese, currently on a path to learning all the kanji. I had many great experiences with my fiancee, and had a lot of fun thinking about what the future holds.

2016: the year that wasn’t

I didn’t make a whole lot of posts on this blog this year. When I started this blog a year and a half ago, I had big intentions to make this blog an outlet to communicate things of interest to me. Many years ago, I would have been totally absorbed into making posts about the state of world politics and how the effects of anthropogenic climate change are really starting to become very obvious. I did make a couple of posts to that effect, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was just too difficult, psychologically. I think the path that most major countries are going on right now is the wrong one, and I sit here pretty much powerless to do much about it. I live in Germany, and I can’t even vote here, or speak the local language in order to become politically active. It is also disheartening that even if you do write something, some denialist will just wave a bunch of fake news stories and blogs to ‘counter’ whatever you write, and so many people will just accept that we “don’t know anything”.

The thing is, though, despite all the complaints about how “2016 is the worst year ever”, it actually wasn’t that bad. I think a lot of it is that the collective memory of humanity right now has forgotten about the pain of the past. There are tons of Syrian refugees flooding Europe right now, for instance, and it has got people on edge. Do people not read history and see how the flow of people was in the opposite direction just 75 years ago? Perhaps we have lived far too comfortably since the 1980s collapse of the communist bloc to see that it isn’t so bad right now.

2017: What lies ahead

For 2017, I am not making any big new years resolutions. Rather, I intend to continue what I have been practicing over the past 4 months. That is, going to the gym, studying Japanese and continuing work on my hobby of SNES Central. I am going to try to wake up earlier in the morning, so that when I get to work I will not be sleepy. This will hopefully improve my efficiency at work.

I currently have a year and four months left on my contract, and this year I will have to ponder my future. With the election of Trump and the Brexit situation in the UK, I think tough times lie ahead in my profession as a climate scientist. I love my work, as it allows me to explore the history of the past, and see how quickly things can change with even small changes in the climate system.

I truly believe that global warming is the biggest threat facing human civilization, but what can a lowly scientist do about that? There are powerful interests that are conspiring to prevent action, and they have had many political victories in 2016. With elections coming up this year in Germany, I expect that those same interests will make gains here as well. Even if I were to stay here long term, how likely is it that there is going to be funding for a job? My experience in Canada during the Harper years is that Earth sciences will be the first thing to get the axe when they gain power.

I think more likely I will be making an exit from the realm of academic Earth science research. There are too many people scraping for dwindling sources of money. Even if you get some, it is not necessarily possible to live in the place you want to me. My fiancee wants me to move to Kumamoto, and quite frankly, I am sick of criss-crossing the globe. Humans are a social animal, and are biologically wired to seek out regularity in life and relationships. The life I have been living the past 4 years is just not psychologically sustainable. I do hope that whatever I do, it will foster my love of history and the world. I have a long year to ponder.

The Facts Don’t Matter

 

I always love John Oliver’s take on current issues. I think we can all agree that in a world beset by uncertainty, it is nice to look upon it and laugh.

The video above shows his report on the Republican National Convention, with the main theme that they are appealing to emotions, and ignoring facts. Newt Gingrich, who was once at the top of the Republican leadership ladder back in the 90s, basically said that facts were some liberal ploy, and that he would defer to how people feel. Of course, people feel scared despite statistics proving otherwise mainly because of the rhetoric of politicians.

This brings me to the sad reality of 2016 politics – the facts increasingly don’t matter. Facts are regarded as a partisan wedge to a far too large segment of the voting public. This is a huge problem for democracy, because democracy works best when the voter is well informed and selects candidates that intend to make a more fair and equable society. However, in many countries there has been a rise in populist movements that seek to play on peoples’ fears. The politicians are increasingly looking to gain power by outright lying to people, and outright dismissing opposing viewpoints. And it is working. Continue reading

Brexit, Climate Change and Modern Political Discourse

Fry: This snow is beautiful. I’m glad global warming never happened.
Leela: Actually it did. But thank God nuclear winter cancelled it out.

– Futurama, Xmas Story

When I look at the current state of global politics, I can’t help but think about how helpless we are to address the most pressing issue facing our species. Climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions are starting to have a very notable impact. Rising sea level was likely a large culprit in the destruction of houses along Sydney’s richest boroughs earlier this month. Extreme heat that followed an extremely dry winter caused a massive fire that destroyed part of Fort McMurray last month. Extreme flooding has hit Europe during the past few weeks, swamping areas of France and Germany. Drought in India have affected millions of people this year. Continue reading