Friday, March 19, 2010

Charlie Perkins

There was a program on ABC TV last night about Charlie Perkins (1936-2000), an Australian aboriginal activist. It was very moving. It was narrated by his daughter.

The thing about Charlie Perkins is that there was never any bullshit but also he knew how to handle himself politically, he would make his point directly but not overstate it. He was a very effective advocate for aboriginal people in an Australia that was racist but then gradually emerged from racism.

There is a website, Charles Perkins, with video clips and extracts from the documentary. I read some of the transcript of an interview with Perkins towards the end of his life. This bit about how he represented the aborginal people in presenting to the Queen against the wishes of Malcom Fraser, the Prime Minister, is very funny:
And the next minute, the Queen comes around, stops, and who should be behind her, but big Malcolm. Well Malcolm was looking at me as though he wished I'd fall through a big hole in the ground. You know, his eyes were just riveting, and he waited for me to pull out a petition and everything. And I ... and the Queen come and said, 'Mm, Mr Perkins?' I said, 'Yes'. I never bowed, because I don't believe in that stuff. And I said, 'Eileen, don't you curtsy or nothing', I said, 'Just treat her just the same as everybody else', you know, and we did. We treated her with respect. I said, 'Yeah, good to see Your Majesty. Good to see you in Australia, and I'd like to, as an Aboriginal person, welcome you to this country'. And I said, 'You'll find no problem from us. We'll treat you decently'. 'Oh', she said, 'Thank you very much for that'. And of course, Fraser's going, [SHAKES HEAD] you know, and others around him are all screwing up their fingers, wishing to throttle me, I would presume. And then I said to her, 'I'll tell you what, you know, it's ... I was going to give you a petition, but I'm not going to give you that tonight, but I'll tell you what it's about. But I gave it to your right hand man, that Sir Something or Other, and he was a nice fellow, and he took it and he said that you're going to read it, is that right?' She said, 'Yes, I've given my word. I'll read that petition'. And I said, 'Well, that's good. That's all I wanted to know, and I won't embarrass you or nothing, but I'll tell you what I'll do. The Aboriginal people asked me to give you a present from us, not from the Australian Government, from us Aboriginal people', and it came off my walls by the way. It was a boomerang and a shield I took, because we couldn't find it in time, and I said, 'But it's a boomerang and some shield and things like that, we think are very important. It's got Aboriginal markings on them', but I said, 'We'll give it you, but please, would you not put it down back in your shed, down the back, you know, where people like yourself get a lot of important things, and you put it down the sheds, or back rooms, and so on. Can you hang it in an important place in Buckingham Palace?' I said, 'That's why we'll give it to you'. She said, 'I'll do that'. I said, 'Yeah, if you do that, then you can have them'. She said, 'All right'. So she ... and I said, 'Well now, I got nothing more to say. I've got no petition and that. That's all I want to say, and welcome to Australia again. Nice to see you'. And you know, 'Come again any time you like'. So, of course, the other lads were waiting out their says, so we moved aside, and then she went on, you know, and I just waited until the right time, and Eileen and I just sneaked out and then went home.
- full interview transcript

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hansen's book and sea level increase

Reading James Hansen's book, Storms of my Grandchildren, has convinced me that AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is a real problem. I won't attempt to summarise the book except to say that it is an outstanding  example of clear science communication to the public.

I haven't looked closely at the issue of species extinction yet but Hansen and other research convinces me that the threat of rising sea levels is real and that the IPCC estimates are conservative. Sea level rise is difficult for humans to adapt to since so many people and important cities are located around the coastline. I hadn't thought about this much before. I had thought that Climate might or might not be changing but the IPCC maximum projection of 59cm in the next century was a maximum and was sufficiently far off in the future to be not a major problem.

Hansen points out that sea level stability has been with us for approximately 7,000 years and that this provided enormous advantages for the emergence of civilisation, such as increased fish breeding around the coasts providing a high protein diet for a settled population. He also uses paleoclimate data to point out that in the previous interglacial, the Eemian, 140,000 years ago, at one stage the climate was only 1 degree Celcius warmer and the sea level was 4-6 metres higher. See Fig. 3 (source)

My thinking was guided by the idea that everything changes continually anyway and in general new technological discoveries can be used to overcome new problems as they arise. I still think this is correct as a generalisation but I can't think of anyway in which new technologies would overcome a significant sea level rise for millions of people. Of course, it's possible / probable that sea level will rise anyway, sooner or later,  and we will have to adapt. But it seems that we have reached the point where we do have some control over the climate and should collectively exercise that control.

Back to the present, the evidence from the GRACE satellites (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) and other data indicates that the ice sheets in Antarctica (especially West Antarctica) and Greenland are losing mass at an accelerating rate. The GRACE figures are in gigatonne per year and the mass loss is accelerating over the period measured (2002-09) on both sheets:
In Greenland, the mass loss increased from 137 Gt/yr in 2002–2003 to 286 Gt/yr in 2007–2009, i.e., an acceleration of −30 ± 11 Gt/yr2 in 2002–2009. In Antarctica the mass loss increased from 104 Gt/yr in 2002–2006 to 246 Gt/yr in 2006–2009, i.e., an acceleration of −26 ± 14 Gt/yr2 in 2002–2009.
- source
A central issue is the inertia of the oceans and the ice sheets. Ice begins to melt slowly but the rate accelerates over time. Ice in the wild has different dynamics. Ice flows, ice can get dirty, moulins can form to accelerate the destruction etc. With oceans the warming process is much slower overall but the quicker part is early rather than late. These combined inertias create the threat that if you go past a tipping point, which we can’t predict, then you can’t recover from it. We may be letting systems which are controllable to an extent slip out of control. With so many people living in coastal regions then anything faster than the IPCC predictions would be a real concern for future generations.

I still think that economic and industrial development is very important for everyone, especially for the developing world. Since we have the nuclear energy option I don't see any reason for pessimism about the long term energy future for humans.  However, the present problem is that nuclear is more expensive and subject to excessive regulation owing to the widespread fear of anything nuclear. These issues have been and are being discussed in detail at Barry Brook's  blog, Brave New Climate.

At the moment I'm particular interested in the threat of rising sea levels. I found another excellent blog, Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism which has a series of posts about this question. This amazing page lists 94 skeptical arguments and links to responses to all of them based on reviews of peer reviewed papers by John Cook, a Queensland physicist. Here are some of the links to Cook's blog which directly or indirectly look at the issue of rising sea levels:

Sea levels aren't rising
Ice isn't melting
How much will sea levels rise in the 21st Century?
Is Greenland gaining or losing ice?
It's the ocean
Arctic ice melt is a natural cycle
Does ocean cooling prove global warming has ended?

Reading these references makes me think that the IPCC maximum estimate is a conservative one and the sea level may well rise faster than that. This video provides an illustration of how the ice sheet dynamics might work, explains the reasons for IPCC conservatism and looks at some of the paleoclimate data. The section right at the end is overly alarmist but overall it's worth watching:

Monday, March 01, 2010

james hansen

I've booked into the James Hansen presentation on March 11th in Adelaide, South Australia.

I've started reading his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

The full title of his book seems ridiculously melodramatic. I say this because we have a solution to worst case global warming scenarios (nuclear power) and Hansen knows about it and devotes a section in his book to it, pp. 194-204

Nevertheless, so far I'm very impressed by the way he lays out the big picture science in Chapter One. More on this later, hopefully.

I like the way in which he presents his differences with contrarian Richard Lindzen in Appendix 1. I was particularly interested in this because I have been influenced by Lindzen's articles.

Hansen explains that he is a shy person who would prefer to stay out of the limelight and just do the science. But because others can't explain the issues properly he has decided to speak out publicly more.

In the video clip below I think he is a bit too eager to blame the fossil fuel industry for clouding the picture. It would be better if the promotional video confined itself to the science.