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GLOBAL WARMING - WHAT A LOAD OF SNOWBALLS! Daily Star, 19th December 2009

CLIMATE NUT BROWN WILL RUIN BRITAIN - Daily Express 19th December 2009

Winter has arrived in earnest this week. It is just after 9 am here in Machynlleth and I have logs burning in the grate as light snow falls outside. During cold spells, lighting the fire is pretty much the first job of the day. Within an hour or so, the room in which I am working will be into double figures and I might take off one of the extra padded shirts I am wearing.

Edit. Just finished writing and the snow is now 1cm deep - and coming down again. Here's a magnified shot of the crystalline snow-grains from earlier:

Snow crystals

So... they came, they argued and they went. What can we conclude about the Copenhagen climate conference? Well, quite a lot of things but they all have a common thread. That is, that you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Unfortunately, our various leaders hold the opposite view, and that is the fundamental reason why nothing concrete came out of Copenhagen, and was very unlikely to in the first place. So I want to explore this issue in a bit more detail.

We, and virtually every other populated country on the planet, are to varying degrees living lifestyles that are demanded by the Infinite Growth Paradigm. Growth is seen as essential: non-growth means failure. To maintain growth means continually increasing economic activity on a personal level - in other words to maintain growth, we as individuals must consume as much as we can. Or, more fundamentally, we must purchase as much as we can - and we do - here in the UK we throw away 6.7 million tonnes of food every year.

The moralities or otherwise of that wastage are outside the scope of this post. They are merely one symptom of a deeper underlying illness. The illness is the very system by which we live, and I'll try to explain why.

It is a very basic first principle that to purchase and consume material things, we require materials in the first place. In the case of  modern farming, the materials are things like mineral fertilisers - phosphates, nitrates and so on, which increase yields of crops that are eaten directly or indirectly by people, either as grain and vegetables or as meat. In electrical goods such as mobile phones, the materials include a spectrum of uncommon metals such as niobium and tantalum. In the case of almost every consumable, oil or more correctly oil derivatives are required, for manufacturing the plastics such things invariably contain or are packaged in and, of course, for the transport that gets them from point of manufacture to your home.

gold ore, Clogau mine, 1980R: rich gold-ore just brought to surface, Clogau gold mine, North Wales, October 1980.

This ore contains tens of ounces of gold to the ton - it is very high-grade so can potentially be mined at profit despite the overheads.

Gold is widespread in the Earth's crust, but the average grade is just two parts per billion. It can only be obtained where natural processes have concentrated it into ore deposits. The same applies to phosphates and fossil fuels.

What have phosphates, niobium and crude oil all got in common? They all occur concentrated in what we geologists broadly refer to as economic mineral deposits. That is, although they occur scattered through the Earth's crust, a few crystals (or droplets) here and a few there, only locally do they occur in concentrations sufficient to be mined, refined and sold on the open market at a profit.

Now, it follows that because such deposits form over tens or hundreds of millions of years, once mined-out they won't be coming back in our lifetime. For sure, the niobium and tantalum in a mobile phone that has been discarded because it is sooo last year may be recycled. But the same cannot be said of oil or phosphates. Once used up, it is gone for the foreseeable: the combustion products of oil-based fuels, primarily water vapour and carbon dioxide, become finely disseminated in Earth's atmosphere. As each oilfield runs dry it won't be replaced.

For all natural resources, there comes a peak in production, beyond which available quantities enter a one-way decline. In the case of many metals, recycling can address this, but in the case of fossil fuels and fertilisers, there is no such fix. Each of the fossil fuels - oil, gas and coal - has a predicted peak and these vary from about now (in the case of Regular Crude) to decades away (in the case of gas and coal). But they are all within the lifetimes of your grandchildren, and in some cases within your lifetime.

Peak Oil

R: one way of graphically depicting the rise and fall of regular crude oil as the deposits are, one by one, pumped dry.

Peak Oil is sometimes misconstrued as a claim that oil will suddenly run out. This is wrong. Instead, it describes a point beyond which the rate of supply (expressed in millions of barrels a day) cannot satisfy the rate of demand. An unfortunate fundamental law of economics is that when supply does not satisfy demand, the price to the consumer goes up. During 2007, supply failed to meet demand in three out of four quarters and this triggered a steady increase in the price, culminating in the spike at $147/barrel in 2008, seen by many as the tipping-point into deep recession. Although the top of the spike itself may have been driven partly by speculators on the markets, the fundamentals were very clearly at work too.

But what has this to do with Copenhagen?

The answer is that Peak Oil and Climate Change are related problems. Their cause is the Infinite Growth Paradigm and their cure is the same - to curb our rate of usage - to use what we have left more wisely and over a much greater time period than is currently the case. Business as Usual (BAU) sees us burning these natural gifts at a faster and faster rate until we run into severe supply problems and our economies completely collapse, by which point we will have emitted enough carbon dioxide to have brought global average temperatures up by several degrees. That ain't pretty, whatever way you look at it.

Unfortunately, governments are run by economists, not scientists. Isn't it remarkable how quickly it was that trillions of pounds were rustled up to save our banking system, but on climate a fortnight of talks, yet another of several meetings over 17 years, again produced virtually nothing? The only conclusion that I can reach is that economists are so decoupled from the natural world that they cannot get their heads round environmental issues: in contrast, a collapsing bank is home turf and relatively easy to address. In fact, the Infinite Growth Paradigm has created a society where, to many, "the environment" is something that is "out there", that they are not really part of, the preserve of hippies and other wacky types. I have a simple message to such thinkers:

If the environment dies then we all die, for we are all part of it.


R: How the environment is misperceived by some people!

Copenhagen didn't work because the arguments of its negotiators were in most cases driven by the Infinite Growth Paradigm. Unless we find a way out of that piece of false logic, by which we all live our lives, and continue soiling our nest, we are, frankly, stuffed.

That sounds rather depressing, but if it does end up that way I'd sooner know that at least I tried to warn others and change my own lifestyle accordingly. I still use way too much carbon - I checked that out on  and it came to 10.1 tonnes a year. The average per capita global value is about 4 tonnes, and a businessman who does 25,000 miles per annum in a top-end V8 4x4 and flies from Heathrow to New York 10 times a year business class counts out at over 85 tonnes!

I've not flown since 1980, and I grow a lot of my veg these days, and catch a lot of my own fish, but I can certainly make savings (and save money at the same time) by reducing the mileage I do and by altering my consuming habits - concentrating on local/seasonal produce, eating less meat, avoiding unnecessary packaging and so on. But next year I will cut my emissions by 10% over 12 months - see and give it a go! The important thing to record, after all, is that my personal level of happiness is no different from the 85 tonne a year man, and a vital failure of the Infinite Growth Paradigm is demonstrated by recent psychological studies that have shown with little doubt that affluence does not automatically equate to happiness. It's time to tear up the economics book (a fat lot of good it's done us in any case!), listen at last to our scientists and reboot with a more sensible operating-system installed! And before anybody protests, I'm not advocating a socialist world government (a favourite accusation that is banded about by climate change deniers). I'm simply advocating common sense.



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