Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change

GeoscientistMay14The Geoscientist is the Fellowship magazine of the Geological Society of London. With the Permission of the Editor of the magazine, I hereby republish extracts from three items in the most recent issue (cover image shown here) of the magazine: (1) The Soapbox item (i.e. guest op-ed) by Roger Dunshea; plus Book Reviews of: (2) William Hay’s Experimenting on a Small Planet; and (3) Jermemy Leggett’s The Energy of Nations. There will, no doubt, be howls of protest from all the ‘climate ostriches’ within the Geological Society – those who dispute the problematic nature of the reality that: (a) the Earth’s fossil fuel resources are non-renewable and finite; (b) burning them is the primary cause of ongoing climate disruption; and (c) feeding 10 billion humans will be very hard without fossil fuels.

Sadly, however, reality is not altered by our refusal to face it!

——- (1) The Only Way is Ethics (Opinion piece by Roger Dunshea*) dunsheaWe all know geology is the most enjoyable of sciences, bringing together a differential of maths, a wave of physics, a whiff of chemistry and a gene of biology… Our science combines analytical techniques in the laboratory with equally important observation, sampling and experimentation in the field… We grapple with the fundamental structures of this planet, its minerals and history, and the enormous magnitude of time it has taken us to get to where we are now. As a group of scientists we are in a unique position to appreciate that this planet’s rock-based economic resources are essentially finite and that their replacement is either not possible or may take at least mega-millennia… These resources have delivered abundant power and materials, resulting in outstanding increases in agricultural and industrial output, as well as some glinting adornments for the celebs. The average lifespan of Homo sapiens has been transformed and global numbers have increased at an astounding rate… Geologists specialise in different areas of the science… Geology has made a major contribution to global society but do we risk threatening the prospects of future generations due to the current unsustainable levels of extraction? Should geologists start thinking more about helping the long term economic prospects of Homo sapiens? So while our peers in the medical and life sciences are developing new ethical standards to protect the wellbeing of current and future generations, is it not now time to start discussing and developing a set of geological scientific ethics that can support very long-term global economic sustainability? (*Roger Dunshea spent most of his career in the UK public sector in managerial and financial roles) (2) Experimenting on a Small Planet (by William Hay) bookcoverhayThis thick and well-illustrated volume is a highly readable tour through the multidisciplinary science behind Earth’s oceanographic and atmospheric warming and cooling on both geologic and anthropogenic timescales, by a major contributor with a phenomenal grasp of the whole… Many of these topics are neglected in mainline global-warming work, and professionals as well as outsiders will find much that is new to them… The decreasing temperature gradient south from the Arctic has already made the northern jet stream slower, more frequently erratic, and much more likely to stall in place with the weather masses it controls. Extreme weather is steadily increasing as a result, and more and worse would be coming even if greenhouse gas emissions stop immediately (which of course will not happen). Predicting the specific great changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulations is confounded, however, because there has been no documented past occurrence of an icy Antarctic and an ice-free Arctic from which to reason by analogy, and north-south interconnectedness is uncertain, nor has there been anything comparable to our geologically instantaneous increase of greenhouse gasses to levels unknown for 35 million years. Bill Hay has searched for explanations of the two major stable states of Phanerozoic climates, “greenhouse” and subordinate “icehouse”, and of the switches between them. He has focused on the Cretaceous and early Paleogene, when the poles were mild and temperate and deep oceans were warm, and the middle and late Cenozoic, when Antarctic continental ice and a mostly-frozen Arctic Ocean produced strikingly different regimes because the world’s oceans were dominated by polar-chilled deep water, and the atmosphere by great latitudinal temperature and pressure gradients, a regime that culminated in the waxing and waning continental ice sheets of the past two million years. Changes due to even ‘present’ atmospheric CO2 levels would continue to develop for millennia before new quasi-equilibria were established. Mankind is facing catastrophe as a rapidly increasing population simultaneously outgrows its resources and enters a more hostile global environment. (Review by Warren Hamilton) (3) The Energy of Nations (by Jeremy Leggett) bookcoverleggettSubtitled ‘Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance’, the risk that Leggett’s book draws to our attention is that because of the demands of nations for us collectively to cut back on the use of fossil fuels (so as to mitigate the effects of global warming caused by emissions of carbon dioxide) eventually the assets that oil companies have in the ground, and that form the basis for their share price, will become worthless because we shall have to stop using them… “This risk goes completely unrecognised by all sectors of the financial chain” he says. If that realisation comes suddenly rather than slowly, it could “amount to another bubble bursting and a grave shock to the global financial system”. We are looking at what Leggett calls “unburnable carbon”. Leggett’s argument also revolves around ‘peak oil’. Production has been running at about 82 million barrels/day, but the rise in demand by 2050 will be such that we will need 110 million Bpd. Yet all that industry has been able to do over the past few years is keep production flat in a time of extended oil prices. Where is all that extra production to come from?… Leggett’s answer is to call for massive investment in what he calls the cleantech energy sources we shall need in the future. Currently we are saddled with a dysfunctional dinosaur and riddled with short-term thinking. The industry may be right to say there will always be gas, and oil, and coal. But the Stone Age didn’t stop because we ran out of stones. Endless growth is a problem on one planet with finite resources. So what can we do about it? We could all start by reading Leggett for ideas, that’s for sure. (Review by Colin Summerhayes) ——- Copyright in all of the above remains with Geoscientist.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Anthropocene, Climate Science, Energy Crisis, Environment, Ethics, Fossil Fuels, Limits to Growth, Sustainable development and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change

  1. jsam says:

    Canadian engineers attend a ritual and are bound by a Rudyard Kipling oath. Canada is very protective of the word “engineer”. Engineering courses are the the most difficult to enter. I wear my iron ring with pride – and a sense of obligation to my peers and society.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks John. Very interesting. I am not aware that MICE or CEng in the UK have anything similar (but then what would I Iknow (I am merely an FGS CGeol MCIWEM). I have been much relieved to read these pieces in the Geoscientist magazine because, I feel they validate my decision to change direction: Although I never pursued a career in Earth Sciences because of its potential financial rewards, I felt I had to change tack once I realised that humanity cannot afford to carry on ignoring the issues raised by these contributors to Geoscientist.


  2. Lionel A says:

    I groan inwardly every time I watch a politico on TV banging on about the economy and need for growth whilst at the same time putting roadblocks in the way of renewable energy. I am sure that the smart heads in Whitehall appreciate the bAltman hole that humans, and fellow earth travellers, are looking into but they dare not increase public awareness lest there be ‘War of the Worlds’ type consequences of the Orson Welles kind. I fear that when things begin to unravel the unravelling will be rapid because of mutually exacerbating factors such as warming and migration induced disease outbreaks. At the moment oil-boom in the US such as Dakota has lead to large numbers of migrant workers living in squalor and spending fluidly on the burgeoning sex trade. Such are the breeding grounds of trouble and will we see this here in the UK as tight-oil drilling goes along with gas fracking? I hear that the government are slipping through legislation to overcome property owners rights about what happens beneath their homes. Do we have one of the first casualties of the recently sneakily pushed through Lobbyist bill? The one not aimed at the real lobbyists with this, seen at Fracking Digest: Latest Digest Week Ending 4th May 2014

    “Kate McCann was unjustly imprisoned for 6 months today and is classed as a political prisoner, because David Cameron has personally endorsed the fracking agenda.”


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Lionel. I fixed your link (i.e. it had one too many ” in it) and deleted your second comment. It may seem odd but, I think it would be good if our politicians were aware of the reality of an approaching environmental meltdown (and were choosing to keep quiet about it). However, I suspect the reality is subtly different: They are aware of the views of the scientific community (IPCC AR5 WG1 to WG3 inclusive) but instead they choose to believe the fossil fuel lobby’s propaganda (that the meltdown can be avoided without abandoning ‘business as usual’). Thus, the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas lies at the heart of humanity’s failure to make the necessary changes to our global energy policies. One of my earliest blog posts still seems very pertinent :


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  4. Lionel A says:

    First noted at Fracking Digest UK: ‘‘Straight From The Horse’s Mouth’: Former Oil Exec Says Fracking Not Safe. Now Peter Lilley may consider Vanessa Vine to be

    “…a shrill, scaremongering environmental activist loony, and her views should be discounted”

    but she has made the shortlist for the Observer Ethical Awards along with another good egg Brian May. Their antithesis is depicted to the left of that page, as of today 3 May 2014 that is. Maybe OT here but other fracking messages I have posted on those threads seem to end up in the backwater of time.


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