14. June 2023 · 1 comment · Categories: Art · Tags:

Last year, I posted a regular Friday twitter thread #ClimateRocks featuring songs I’ve been listening to over the last few years that address climate change in some way. As I’m no longer on Twitter, I’m putting the whole thing here. Enjoy!

First up has to be… 

1) Marillion, Seasons End

Incredibly, it was written in 1988 – the first I ever heard climate change referenced in a song. Love the guitar solo, but the lyrics are what makes this truly sublime:
“We’ll tell our children’s children why…”.
There’s also a reference to the ozone hole there: 
“We grew so tall and reached so high / We left our footprints in the earth / And punched a hole right through the sky”.

2) Billie Eilish, “All the Good Girls Go To Hell”

The next entry for my Friday #ClimateRocks series just has to be Billie Eilish with All the Good Girls Go to Hell. Now at first sight, this might not seem to be about climate change. But pay attention to the lyrics. It’s a damning indictment of humanity for what we’ve done to the planet, framed as a debate between good and evil. It’s quite a contrast to last week’s song. In the late 80s, in an earlier generation, Marillion were writing about climate change as a future threat, a curious news item (“I heard somebody say…”). Fast forward to 2019, and Eilish, captures the angst of her generation—who have grown up with climate change as a fact all around them: “There’s nothing left to save now”. The song is both gorgeous and nihilistic, an anthem for our current predicament.

While we’re at it, the visuals in the video are very apt too: Eilish is dressed as a fallen angel, rising from a pool of oil, struggling through a barren landscape trailing streams of black oil behind her, while the world around her burns.

3) Buffy Ste Marie, “Carry It On”

The next #ClimateRocks song has to be Buffy Ste Marie with Carry it On, from her 2015 album, Power in the Blood. In contrast to Billie Eilish last week, this song is full of hope, a call to action. Carry it On represents only the latest in a long series of protest songs from Buffy, covering Indigenous rights, peace, and environmental justice, going all the way back to her 1960s anti-war anthem Universal Soldier. Buffy donated the song Carry it On to the global climate movement, and it works brilliantly as the protest song we need, inviting us to take heart and join together in collective action to protect the Earth. It’s all about hope.

4) Neil Young, “Green is Blue” and “Shut it Down”

As Buffy Ste Marie has been singing environmental protest songs since the 1960s, so it only seems right to pair her with Neil Young. Two songs on Neil Young’s 2019 album Colorado are explicitly about climate change, so I’m going to include them both. The first is “Green is Blue”, a gorgeous song that laments all the things we didn’t do despite the warnings:
“We heard the warning calls, ignored them
We watched the weather change, we saw the fires and floods
We saw the people rise, divided
We fought each other while we lost our coveted prize
There’s so much we didn’t do
That we knew we had to do” 

And it’s immediately followed by a grungy protest song, Shut it Down, which really gets to the heart of the matter:
“They’re all wearing climate change/As cool as they can be/Have to shut the whole system down” 

Interestingly, Neil Young released a new video for Shut it Down in 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, which deftly re-purposes the song for the collective effort to flatten the curve. Actually, watching that video almost seems nostalgic. That was long before the anti-vaxxers and lockdown protesters destroyed the collective sense that we are all responsible for protecting one another. 

As a bonus, here’s a whole essay about how Neil Young has addressed climate change and environmental issues during his long career.

5) Miley Cyrus, “Wake Up America”

Okay, next up is, of course, Miley Cyrus, with her 2008 song Wake Up America. I wasn’t aware of this song until after I started this thread, but it’s just perfect for the series. Incredibly, Miley was only 16 when she wrote it, but it captures perfectly the bewilderment of a 2000s teen discovering the climate crisis:
“I want to learn what it’s all about but
Everything I read’s global warming, going green
I don’t know what all this means
But it seems to be saying…”
Miley wrote this during one of the big waves of activism on climate change, around the time of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and the lead up to the 2009 Copenhagen talks, which were supposed to usher in a new global agreement, but were completely derailed by fossil fuel funded disinformation. Today’s teens, of course, grew up in a very different world. They do know what all this means, and are (rightfully) a lot more angry about it.

6) Melissa Etheridge, “I Need to Wake Up”

This one picks up on the same theme as last week’s. It’s Melissa Etheridge with “I need to Wake Up“, written in 2006, specifically for the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and an Academy Award winner for best original song. So written a couple of years before Miley Cyrus’s Wake Up America, and, I think, a lot more convincing, because it’s focussed inwards on shaking oneself out of denial, rather than berating others to do so. And realizing connections matter:
“I am not an island / I am not alone”. 
Oh, and I listened a lot to Melissa Etheridge in the 90s, so I have a soft spot for her voice. 

7) Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning”

Next up, three songs that appear to be about climate change, but are not. Interestingly, each is about a different global issue that connects to the climate crisis in important ways. The first is Midnight Oil from 1987 with Beds are Burning. The chorus is instantly familiar:
“How can we dance when our earth is turning? / How do we sleep while our beds are burning?” 
But Beds are Burning was actually written to raise awareness of the need to return stolen land to Indigenous communities, in this case, the return of Iluru (previously Ayers Rock) in Australia to the Anangu peoples, to whom it is a sacred site.

The connection to climate change is deep: colonialism spread the idea that we can buy and sell (and steal) land, own the rights to natural resources, and extract them for profit without taking responsibility for the long term consequences. It’s no coincidence colonialists work to eradicate Indigenous cultures. Those cultures offer radical alternatives to extractivism: eg land should belong to the community not the individual, and it must be safeguarded for the benefit of future generations. 

Naturally, in 2009, a large group of celebrities repurposed Beds are Burning as a climate protest song, with updated lyrics. And in the process, they eradicated the Indigenous land issues the song was written about.

8) Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes The Flood”

Our second example is Peter Gabriel’s 1977 song Here Comes the Flood.
“Lord, here comes the flood / We’ll say goodbye to flesh and blood / If again the seas are silent / In any still alive…” 
It could be about sea level rise and flash floods from extreme weather events under global warming. It’s not. Gabriel wrote the song after a dream “in which the psychic barriers which normally prevent us from seeing into each others’ thoughts had been completely eroded producing a mental flood”. Such a flood would sweep away those who prefer to cut themselves off as islands—concealing their innermost thoughts—just as much as those who are open and honest. He might as well have been describing the mental flood of social media, especially the way it sweeps away rational argument and stokes divisions, as everyone’s innermost thoughts are broadcast to the world. It’s ironic that the flood of disinformation on social media has come to dominate public discourse at exactly the moment in history when we most need to come together to address the climate crisis.
“There’s no point in direction / We cannot even choose a side” 

9) Chris Rea, “The Road to Hell”

Our third example is Chris Rea with The Road to Hell from 1989:
“Well, I’m standing by a river but the water doesn’t flow / It boils with every poison you can think of […] This ain’t no technological breakdown, oh no, this is the road to hell”
The inspiration for this song came when Rea was stuck in traffic on London’s M25 orbital motorway, a road that goes nowhere, and is notoriously congested. The locals call it the M25 car park. This is the “river that doesn’t flow” in the first line of the song. But the song is really much darker than just bad traffic.

It’s about being stuck on a technological path that inevitably leads to our destruction, and the feeling there’s nothing we can do about it. The M25 epitomizes what urban planners have learned the hard way: building more roads only increases traffic congestion. So, it does work very well as a metaphor for climate change. The question is: what are the exits from the road to hell, and will we take any of them?

10) Muse, “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”

This one isn’t subtle at all: it’s Muse with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable“. Everything about this song is over-the-top, so if you’ve never heard it before, turn up the volume and listen… Musically, the song fuses Muse’s trademark bombastic stadium rock with dubstep (inspired by the band listening to Skrillex, apparently). It shouldn’t work, but it does. 

But of course, we’re here for the lyrics. Delivered by a faux newsreader, they start out literally with the 2nd law of thermodynamics:
“All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases”… 
And then use this as a metaphor for climate change and environmental destruction:
“The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement. […] A species set on endless growth is unsustainable”
I already wrote about how this song links the 1972 Limits to Growth study with more recent work from ecological economists on our obsession with economic growth.

As a bonus, the next song on the album is a haunting piece called “The 2nd Law: Isolated System“, weaving lyrics from the previous song with snippets of news reports documenting a collapsing economy. (And was used in the zombie movie World War Z) 

11) Delusion Squared, “An Ominous Way Down”

Next is a French band called Delusion Squared, with the song “An Ominous Way Down“. Like the previous songs from MUSE, it weaves snippets of news and speeches into the music. This song is from their album “Anthropocene”. The first few songs tackle climate change, war, food crises and the collapse of the biosphere. Partway through the album it moves into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with songs about the survivors. There’s even a song, Under Control, about a desperate geoengineering plan to save the planet:
“We have a plan to cure the biosphere / There’s nothing that cannot be engineered /The loss of sunlight is so small a price to pay / And you’ll see everything will be okay” 

I could have picked almost any song from this album, but An Ominous Way down is the one that first captivated me, because of the sampled voices. I’ve managed to track a few of them down. It’s quite a collection! 

  • “Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of its civilization” is a quote from the 1958 Frank Capra movie Unchained Goddess. Yes, 1958!
  • “If you actually believe that global warming is the biggest problem we face…you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch on the planet.” is Glenn Beck, talking about then-President Obama in 2015. In the song, this quote helps set the scene for why we let the apocalypse happen. 
  • “The ocean is not Republican. It is not Democrat. All it knows how to do is rise.” is Mayor Levine of Miami, in the National Geographic documentary Before the Flood (narrated by Leonardo Di Caprio)
  • “No amount of technology and no amount of human ingenuity can possibly overturn the laws of physics” is Mike Ruppert in the documentary “Collapse”
  • And “We believed then and now: There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams” is Ronald Reagan in his inaugural address, ushering in the neo-liberal era in defiance of warnings of the Limits to Growth study. 

And all these quotes are woven through a lovely gentle song about a fight to save a majestic oak, which ends:
“There was a great old oak tree / We promised it would be regrown / While we were celebrating / The whole forest went down”. 
Not seeing the wood for the trees. 

12) The 1975, “The 1975”

Finally, the 1975 with their song “The 1975“, which sets a Greta Thunburg speech to ambient background music. It packs a punch. The song has a wikipedia page, so I won’t explain the background, except to say the band’s intent was to document Greta’s words in popular culture. As a piece of art, I think it works brilliantly–it certainly makes you stop and think.

Okay, I’ve had a few days to reflect on the session on Software Engineering for the Planet that we ran at ICSE last week. First, I owe a very big thank you to everyone who helped – to Spencer for co-presenting and lots of follow up work; to my grad students, Jon, Alicia, Carolyn, and Jorge for rehearsing the material with me and suggesting many improvements, and for helping advertise and run the brainstorming session; and of course to everyone who attended and participated in the brainstorming for lots of energy, enthusiasm and positive ideas.

First action as a result of the session was to set up a google group, SE-for-the-planet, as a starting point for coordinating further conversations. I’ve posted the talk slides and brainstorming notes there. Feel free to join the group, and help us build the momentum.

Now, I’m contemplating a whole bunch of immediate action items. I welcome comments on these and any other ideas for immediate next steps:

  • Plan a follow up workshop at a major SE conference in the fall, and another at ICSE next year (waiting a full year was considered by everyone to be too slow).
  • I should give my part of the talk at U of T in the next few weeks, and we should film it and get it up on the web. 
  • Write a short white paper based on the talk, and fire it off to NSF and other funding agencies, to get funding for community building workshops
  • Write a short challenge statement, to which researchers can respond with project ideas to bring to the next workshop.
  • Write up a vision paper based on the talk for CACM and/or IEEE Software
  • Take the talk on the road (a la Al Gore), and offer to give it at any university that has a large software engineering research group (assuming I can come to terms with the increased personal carbon footprint 😉
  • Broaden the talk to a more general computer science audience and repeat most of the above steps.
  • Write a short book (pamphlet) on this, to be used to introduce the topic in undergraduate CS courses, such as computers and society, project courses, etc.

Phew, that will keep me busy for the rest of the week…

Oh, and I managed to post my ICSE photos at last.

In the last session yesterday, Inez Fung gave the Charney Lecture: Progress in Earth System Modeling since the ENIAC Calculation. But I missed it as I had to go pick up the kids. She has a recent paper that seems to cover some of the same ground, and allegedly the lecture was recorded, so I’m looking forward to watching it once the AGU posts it. And this morning, Joanie Keyplas gave the Rachel Carson Lecture: Ocean Acidification and Coral Reef Ecosystems: A Simple Concept with Complex Findings. She also has a recent paper covering what I assume was in her talk (again, I missed it!). Both lectures were recorded, so I’m looking forward to watching them once the AGU posts them.

I made it to the latter half of the session on Standards-Based Interoperability. I missed Stefano Nativi‘s talk on the requirements analysis for GIS systems, but there’s lots of interesting stuff on his web page to explore. However, I did catch Olga Wilhelmi presenting the results of a community workshop at NCAR on GIS for Weather, Climate and Impacts. She asked some interesting questions about the gathering of user requirements, and we chatted after the session about how users find the data they need (here’s an interesting set of use cases). I also chatted with Ben Domenico from Unidata/UCAR about open science. We were complaining about how hard it is at a conference like this to get people to put their presentation slides on the web. It turns out that some journals in the geosciences have explicit policies to reject papers if any part of the results have already been presented on the web (including in blogs, powerpoints, etc). Ben’s feeling is that these print media are effectively dead, and had some interesting thoughts about moving to electronic publishing, althoug we both worried that some of these restrictive policies might live on in online peer-review venues. (Ben is part of the THREDDS project, which is attempting to improve the way that scientists find and access datasets).

Down at the ESSI poster session, I bumped into Peter Fox, whom I’d met at the EGU meeting last month. We both chatted to Benjamin Branch, about his poster on spatial thinking and earth sciences, and especially how educators approach this. Ben’s PhD thesis looks at all the institutional barriers that prevent changes in high school curricula, all of which mitigate against the nurturing of cross-disciplinary skills (like spatial reasoning) necessary for understanding global climate change. We brainstormed some ideas for overcoming these barriers, including putting cool tools in the students hands (e.g. Google Maps mashups of interesting data sets; or idea that Jon had for a Lego-style constructor kit for building simplified climate models). I also speculated that if the education policy in the US prevents this kind of initiative, we should do it in another country, build it to a major success, and then import it back into the US as a best practice model. Oh, well, I can dream.

Next I chatted to Dicky Allison from Woods Hole, and Tom Yoksas from Unidata/UCAR. Dicky’s poster is on the MapServer project, and Tom shared with us the slides from his talk yesterday on the RAMADDA project, which is intended as a publishing platform for geosciences data. We spent some time playing with the RAMADDA data server, and Tom encouraged us to play with it more, and send comments back on our experiences. Again, most of the discussion was about how to facilitate access to these data sets, how to keep the user interface as simple as possible, and the need for instant access – e.g. grabbing datasets from a server while travelling to a conference, without having to have all the tools and data loaded on a large disk first. Oh, and Tom explained the relationship between NCAR and UCAR, but it’s too complicated to repeat here.

Here’s an aside. Browsing the UCAR pages, I just found the Climate Modeller’s Commandments. Nice.

This afternoon, I attended the session “A Meeting of the Models“, on the use of Multi-model Ensembles for weather and climate prediction. First speaker was Peter Houtekamer, talking about the Canadian Ensemble Prediction Systems (EPS). The key idea of an ensemble is that it samples across the uncertainty in the initial conditions. However, challenges arise from the incomplete understanding of the model-error. So the interesting questions are how to sample adequately across the space, to get a better ensemble spread. The NCEP Short-Range Ensemble Forecast System (SREF), claimed to be the first real-time operational regional ensemble prediction system in the world. Even grander is TIGGE, in which the output of lots of operational EPS’s are combined into an archive. The volume of the database is large (100s of ensemble members), and you really only need something like 20-40 members to get converging scores (he cites Talagrand for this) (aside: Talagrand diagrams are an interesting way of visualizing model spread). NAEFS combines 20-member American (NCEP) and 20-member Canadian (MSC) operational ensembles forecasts, to get a 40-member ensemble. Nice demonstration of how NAEFS outperforms both of the individual ensembles from which it is constructed. Multi-centre ensembles improve the sampling of model error, but impose a big operational cost: data exchange protocols, telecommunications costs, etc. As more centres are added, there are likely to be diminishing returns.

The American Geophysical Union’s Joint Assembly is in Toronto this week. It’s a little slim on climate science content compared to the EGU meeting, but I’m taking in a few sessions as it’s local and convenient. Yesterday I managed to visit some of the climate science posters. I also caught the last talk of the session on connecting space and planetary science, and learned that the solar cycles have a significant temperature impact on the upper atmosphere, but no obvious effect on the lower atmosphere, but more research is needed to understand the impact on climate simulations. (Heather Andres‘ poster has some more detail on this).

This morning, I attended the session on Regional Scale Climate  Change. I’m learning that understanding the relationship between temperature change and increased tropical storm activity is complicated, because tropical storms seem to react to complex patterns of temperature change, rather than just the temperature itself. I’m also learning that you can use statistical downscaling from the climate models to get finer grained regional simulations of the changes in rainfall, e.g. over the US, leading to predictions for increased precipitation over much of the US in the winters and decreased in the summers. However, you have to be careful, because the models don’t capture seasonal variability well in some parts of the continent. A particular challenge for regional climate predictions is that some placed (e.g. Carribean Islands) are just too small to show up in the grids used in General Circulation Models (GCMs), which means we need more work on Regional Models to get the necessary resolution.

Final talk is Noah Diffenbaugh‘s talk on an ensemble approach to regional climate forecasts. He’s using the IPCC’s A1B scenario (but notes that in the last few years, emissions have exceeded those for this scenario). The model is nested – a hight resolution regional model (25km) is nested within a GCM (CCSM3, at T85 resolution), but the information flows only in one direction, from the GCM to the RCM. As far as I can tell, the reason it’s one way, is because the GCM run is pre-computed; specifically, it is taken by averaging 5 existing runs of the CCSM3 model from the IPCC AR4 dataset, and generate 6-hourly 3D atmosphere fields to drive the regional model. The runs show that by 2030-2039, we should expect 6-8 heat stress events per deacade across the whole of the south-west US (where a heat stress event is the kind of thing that should only hit once per  decade). Interestingly, the warming is greater in the south-eastern US, but because the south-western states are already closer to the threshold temperature for heat stress events, they get more heatwaves. Noah also showed some interesting validation images, to demonstrate that the regional model reproduced 20th Century temperatures over the US much better than the GCM does. 

Noah also talked a little about the role of the 2°C threshold used in climate negotiations, particularly at the Copenhagen meeting. The politicians don’t like that the climate scientists are expressing uncertainty about the 2°C threshold. But there has to be, because the models show that even below 2 degrees, there are some serious regional impacts, in this case on the US. His take home message is that we need to seriously question greenhouse gas mitigation targets. One of the questioners pointed out that there is also some confusion between whether the 2°C is supposed to be above pre-industrial temperatures.

After lunch, I attended the session on Breakthrough Ideas and Technologies for a Planet at Risk II. First talk is by Lewis Gilbert on monitoring and managing a planet at risk. First, he noted that really, the planet itself isn’t at risk – destroying it is still outside our capacity. Life will survive. Humans will survive (at least for a while). But it’s the quality of that survival that is at question. Some definitions of sustainability (he has quibbles with them all). First Bruntland’s – future generations should be able to meet their own needs; Natural Capital – future generations should have a standard of living better or equal to our own. Gilbert’s own: existance of a set of possible futures that are acceptable in some satisficing sense. But all of these definitions are based on human values and human life. So the concept of sustainability has human concerns deeply embedded in it. The rest of his talk was a little vague – he described a state space, E, with multiple dimensions (e.g. physical, such as CO2 concentrations; sociological, such as infant mortality in Somalia; biological, such as amphibian counts in Sierra Nevada), in which we can talk about quality of human life a some function of the vectors. The question then becomes what are the acceptable and unacceptable regions of E. But I’m not sure how this helps any.

Alan Robock talked about Geoengineering. He’s conducted studies of the effect of seeding sulphur particles into the atmosphere, using NASA’s climate model. In particular, injecting them over the arctic, where there is the most temperature change, and least impact on humans. His studies show that the seeding does have a significant impact on temperature, but as soon as you stop the seeding, the global warming quickly rises to where it would have been. So basically, once you start, you can’t stop. Also, you get other effects: e.g. a reduction of the tropical monsoons, a reduction of precipitation. Here’s an alternative: could it be done by just seeding in the arctic summer (when the temperature rise matters), and not in the winter. e.g. seed in April, May and June, or just in April, rather than year round. He’s exploring options like these with the model. Interesting aside: Rolling Stone Magazine, Nov 3, 2006 “Dr Evil’s plan to stop Global Warming”. There was a meeting convened by NASA, at which Alan started to create a long list of risks associated with geoengineering (and has a newer paper updating the list currently in submission).

George Shaw talked about biogeologic carbon sequestration. First, he demolished the idea that peak oil / peak coal etc will save us, by calculating the amount of carbon that can be easily extracted by known fossil fuel reserves. Carbon capture ideas include iron fertilization of the oceans, which stimulates plankton growth, which extracts carbon from. Cyanobacteria also extract carbon. E.g. attach an algae farm to every power station smoke stack. However, to make any difference, the algae farm for one power plant might have to be 40-50 square km. He then described a specific case study, of taking the Salton Basin Area in southern California, and filling it up with an algae farm. This would remove a chunk of agricultural land, but would probably make money under the current carbon trading schemes.

Roel Snieder gave a talk “Facing the Facts and Living Our Values”. Interesting graph on energy efficiency, which shows that 60% of the energy we use is lost. Also presents a version of the graph showing cost of intervention against emissions reduction, point out that sequestration is the most expensive choice of all. Another nice point: understanding of the facts – how much CO2 gas is produced by burning all the coal in one railroad car. Answer is about 3 times the weight of the coal, but most people would say only a few ounces, because gases are very light. Also he has a neat public lecture, and encouraged the audience to get out and give similar lectures to the public.

Eric Barron: Beyond Climate Science. It’s a mistake for the climate science community to say that “the science is settled”, and we need to move on to mitigation strategies. Still five things we need:

  1. A true climate services – an authoritative, credible, user-centric source of information on climate (models and data). E.g. Advice on resettlement of threatened towns, advice on forestry management, etc.
  2. Deliberately expand the family of forecasting elements. Some natural expansion of forecasting is occurring, but the geoscience community needs to push this forward deliberately.
  3. Invest in stage 2 science – social sciences and the human dimension of climate change (physical science budget dwarves the social sciences budget).
  4. Deliberately tackle the issue of scale and the demand for an integrated approach.
  5. Evolve from independent research groups to environmental “intelligence” centres. Cohesive regional observation and modeling framework. And must connect vigorously with users and decision-makers.

Key point: we’re not ready. Characterizes the research community as a cottage industry of climate modellers. Interesting analogy: health sciences, which is almost entirely a “point-of-service” community that reacts to people coming in the door, with no coherent forecasting service. Finally, some examples of forecasting spread of west nile disease, lyme disease, etc.

One interesting conversation I had at SciBarCamp was on how to get science fiction writers talking more to climate scientists, so they can take the latest science and turn it into compelling stories. The idea would be to tell it like it is. Instead of techno-optimizism or space opera, stories set in the current century that explain what the climate crisis will really do to us.

Several people talked about the need for some more positive visions, rather than the apocalyptic stuff. So, how about a set of stories from the latter half of the 21st Century, set in the world in which we won the battle. We made it to a completely carbon-neutral world. There were heroic efforts along the way by colourful individuals. There were political battles, and maybe a few bloody revolutions. But we avoided burning the trillionth tonne. The world is a little warmer, and we lost a few coastlines, but we avoided the critical thresholds that trigger runaway warming. I’d like to read stories about how we made it.

Maybe a volume of short stories?

I’m going to SciBarCamp this Saturday. The theme is open science, although we’re free to interpret that as broadly as possible. So here’s my pitch for a session:

Climate Change is the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. In the last two years, it has become clear that climate change is accelerating, outpacing the IPCC’s 2007 assessment. The paleontological record shows that the planet is “twitchy“, with a number of tipping points at which feedback effects kick in, to take the the planet to a dramatically different climate, which would have disastrous impacts  on the human population. Some climate scientists think we’ve already hit some of these tipping points. However, the best available data suggests that if we can stop the growth of carbon emissions within the next five years, and then then aggressively reduce them to zero over the next few decades, we stand a good chance of averting the worst effects of runaway warming. 

It’s now clear that we can’t tackle this through volunteerism. Asking people to change their lightbulbs and turn off unnecessary appliances is nothing but a distraction: it conceals the real scale of the problem. We need a systematic rethinking of how energy is produced and used throughout society. We need urgent government action on emissions regulation and energy pricing. We need a massive investment in R&D on zero emissions technology (but through an open science initiative, rather than a closed, centralized Manhattan Project style effort). We need a massive R&D effort into how to adapt to those climate changes that we cannot  now avoid: on a warmer planet, we will need to completely rethink food production, water management, disease control, population migration, urban planning, etc. And we will need to understand the potential impacts of the large scale geo-engineering projects that might buy us more time. We need an “all of the above” solution.

Put simply, we’ll need all the brainpower that the planet has to offer to figure out how to meet this challenge. We’ll need scientists and engineers from every discipline to come to the table, and figure out where their particular skills and experience can be most useful. We’ll need to break out of our disciplinary straightjackets, and engage in new interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research programs, to help us understand this new world, and how we might survive in it.

Governments are beginning to recognize the scale of the problem, and are starting to devote research funding to address it. It’s too little, and too late, but it’s a start. This funding is likely to grow substantially over the next few years, depending on how quickly politicians grasp the scale and urgency of the problem. But, as scientists, we shouldn’t wait for governments to get it. We need to get together now, to help explain the science to policymakers and to the public, and to start the new research programmes that will fill the gaps in our current knowledge.

So, here’s what I would like to discuss:

  • How do we get started?
  • How can we secure funding and institutional support for this?
  • How can professional scientists redirect their research efforts to this (and how does this affect the career scientist)?
  • How can scientists from different disciplines identify where their expertise might be needed and identify opportunities to get involved?
  • How can we foster the necessary inter-disciplinary links and open data sharing?
  • What barriers exist, and how can they be overcome?

Chris Jones, from the UK Met Office Hadley Centre, presented a paper at EGU 2009 yesterday on The Trillionth Tonne. The analysis shows that the key driver of temperature change is the total cumulative amount of carbon emissions. To keep below the 2°C global average temperature rise generally regarded as the threshold for preventing dangerous warming, we need to keep total cumulative emissions below a trillion tonnes. And the world is already halfway there.

Which is why the latest news about Canada’s carbon emissions are so embarrassing. Canada is now top among the G8 nations for emissions growth. Let’s look at the numbers: 747 megatonnes in 2007, up from 592 megatonnes in 1990. Using the figures in the Environment Canada report, I calculated the Canada has emitted over 12 gigatonnes since 1990. That’s 12 billion tonnes. So, in 17 years we burnt though more than 1.2% of the entire world’s total budget of carbon emissions. A total budget that has to last from the dawn of industrialization to the point at which the whole world become carbon-neutral. Oh, and Canada has 0.5% of the world’s population.

Disclaimer: I have to check whether the Hadley Centre’s target is 1 trillion tonnes of CO2-equivalent, or 1 trillion tonnes of Carbon (they are different!). The EnvCanada report numbers refer to the former.

Update: I checked with Chris, and as I feared, I got the wrong units – it’s a trillion tonnes of carbon. The conversion factor is about 3.66, so that gives us about 3.66 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to play with. [Note: Emissions targets are usually phrased in terms of “Carbon dioxide equivalent”, which is a bit hard to calculate as different greenhouse gases have both different molecular weights and different warming factors].

So my revised figures are that Canada burnt through only about 0.33% of the world’s total budget in the last 17 years. Which looks a little better, until you consider:

  • by population, that’s 2/3 of Canada’s entire share. 
  • Using the cumulative totals from 1900-2002. plus the figures for the more recent years from the Environment Canada report (and assuming 2008 was similar to 2007) we’ve emitted 27 gigatonnes of CO2 since 1900. Which is about 0.73% of the world’s budget, or about 147% of our fair share per head. 
  • By population, our fair share of the world’s budget is about 18 gigatonnes CO2 (=5 gigatonnes Carbon). We’d burnt through that by 1997. Everything since then is someone else’s share.

When my children grow up, the world they live in is likely be very different from ours. There’s a small chance that humanity will rapidly come to its senses, start massive program of emissions reductions, and avoid the worst climate change scenarios. The Hadley Centre gives us about a 50/50 chance if carbon emissions peak by 2015, and then fall steadily at a rate of 3% per year (They are currently rising by nearly 3% per year). If we manage to pull this off, and also win the 50/50 bet, our children and grandchildren will ask us how the hell we managed it.

If we can’t stop emissions growth in the next five years, things look much more grim. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is the picture painted by the New Scientist: How to survive the coming century: a world that is 4°C warmer, 90% of the human population wiped out, the rest relocated to dense cities in Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. Uninhabitable deserts across the subtropics. Virtually no life in the oceans. And that’s the good part. The New Scientist article glosses over the climate wars that are almost certain if large parts of the world become uninhabitable. If they survive, our children will demand to know what the hell we were doing: we knew it was coming, we knew how bad it would be, and still we did almost nothing to prevent it.

What did you do in the war?When my kids ask me these questions in decades to come, I need to be ready with an answer. I’d like to say that I did everything I could possibly do. I’d like to say that what I did was effective. And I’d like to be able to say that I made a difference.

Had an interesting conversation this afternoon with Brad Bass. Brad is a prof in the Centre for Environment at U of T, and was one of the pioneers of the use of models to explore adaptations to climate change. His agent based simulations explore how systems react to environmental change, e.g. exploring population balance among animals, insects, the growth of vector-borne diseases, and even entire cities. One of his models is Cobweb, an open-source platform for agent-based simulations. 

He’s also involved in the Canadian Climate Change Scenarios Network, which takes outputs from the major climate simulation models around the world, and extracts information on the regional effects on Canada, particularly relevant for scientists who want to know about variability and extremes on a regional scale.

We also talked a lot about educating kids, and kicked around some ideas for how you could give kids simplified simulation models to play with (along the line that Jon was exploring as a possible project), to get them doing hands on experimentation with the effects of climate change. We might get one of our summer students to explore this idea, and Brad has promised to come talk to them in May once they start with us.

Oh, and Brad is also an expert on green roofs, and will be demonstrating them to grade 5 kids at the Kids World of Energy Festival.

Okay, here’s a slightly different modeling challenge. It might be more of a visualization challenge. Whatever. In part 1, I suggested we use requirements analysis techniques to identify stakeholders, and stakeholder goals, and link them to the various suggested “wedges“.

Here, I want to suggest something different. There are several excellent books that attempt to address the “how will we do it?” challenge. They each set out a set of suggested solutions, add up the contribution of each solution to reducing emissions, assess the feasibility of each solution, add up all the numbers, and attempt to make some strategic recommendations. But each book makes different input assumptions, focusses on slightly different kinds of solutions, and ends up with different recommendations (but they also agree on many things).

Here are the four books:

Cover image for Monbiots Heat
George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. This is probably the best book I have ever read on global warming. It’s brilliantly researched, passionate, and doesn’t pull it’s punches. Plus it’s furiously upbeat – Monbiot takes on the challenge of how we get to 90% emissions reduction, and shows that it is possible (although you kind of have to imagine a world in which politicians are willing to do the right thing).

Joseph Romm, Hell and High Water: Global Warming–the Solution and the Politics–and What We Should Do. While lacking Monbiot’s compelling writing style, Romm makes up by being an insider – he was an energy policy wonk in the Clinton administration. The other contrast is Monbiot is British, and focusses mainly on British examples, Romm is American and focusses on US example. The cultural contrasts are interesting.

David MacKay, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. Okay, so I haven’t read this one yet, but it got a glowing write-up on Boing Boing . Oh, and it’s available as a free download.

Lester Brown, Plan B 3.0L Mobilizing to Save Civilization. This one’s been on my reading list for a while, will read it soon. It has a much broader remit than the others: Brown wants to solve world poverty, cure disease, feed the world, and solve the climate crisis. I’m looking forward to this one. And it’s also available as a free download.

Okay, so what’s the challenge? Model the set of solutions in each of these books so that it’s possible to compare and contrast their solutions, compare their assumptions, and easily identify areas of agreement and disagreement. I’ve no idea yet how to do this, but a related challenge would be to come up with compelling visualizations that explain to a much broader audience what these solutions look like, and why it’s perfectly feasible. Something like this (my current favourite graphic):

Graph of cost/benefit of climate mitigation strategies

Graph of cost/benefit of climate mitigation strategies

This is depressing.

We were at the bank this morning, setting up some investment plans for retirement and for the kids to go through University (In Canada-speak: RRSPs and RESPs). We started to pick out a portfolio of mutual funds into which we would be putting the investments, and our financial advisor was showing us one of the mutual funds he would recommend when I noticed the fund included a substantial investment in the Canadian Oil Sands. “No way” says I. So we went to his next pick. Same thing. And the next. And the next….

The oil sands have been described as the most destructive project on earth. They are the major reason that Canada will renege on its Kyoto treaty obligations. They will devastate a huge area of Alberta, and threaten clean water supplies and the wildlife of large parts of North America.

So, I was struck by the irony of funding the kids through University by investing in a project that will so thoroughly screw up the world in which they will have to live when they grow up.

But then I thought about it some more. Pretty much the entire middle class in Canada must have money invested in this project, if it shows up in most of the mutual funds commonly recommended for retirement and education savings plans. Most of them probably have no idea (after all, who actually looks closely at the contents of their mutual funds?) and of those that do know, most of them will prefer the high rate of return on this project because they have no real understanding of the extent of the climate crisis.

Those funds are being used to maximize the profit from the oils sands, by paying for lobbyists to fight environmental regulations, to fight caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and to fight against alternative energy initiatives (which would eat into the market for oil from the oil sands).

How on earth can we make any progress on fighting climate change when we all have a financial stake in not doing so?

We’re fucked.

As my son (grade 4) has started a module at school on climate and global change, I thought I’d look into books on climate change for kids. Here’s what I have for them at the moment:

Weird Weather by Kate Evans. This is the kids favourite at the moment, probably because of its comicbook format. The narrative format works well – its involves the interplay between three characters: a businessman (playing the role of a denier), a scientist (who shows us the evidence) and a idealistic teenager, who gets increasingly frustrated that the businessman won’t listen.

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming, by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon. Visually very appealling, lots of interesting factoids for the kids, and a particular attention to the kinds of questions kids like to ask (e.g. to do with methane from cow farts).

How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch. Beautiful book (fabulous photos!), mainly focusing on sources of evidence (ice cores, tree rings, etc), and how they were discovered. Really encourages the kids to do hands on data collection. Oh, and there’s a teacher’s guide as well, which I haven’t looked at yet.

Global Warming for Dummies by Elizabeth May and Zoe Caron. Just what we’d expect from a “Dummies Guide…” book. I bought it because I was on my way to a bookstore on April 1, when I heard an interview on the CBC with Elizabeth May (leader of the Canadian Green Party) talking about how they were planning to reduce the carbon footprint of their next election campaign, by hitchhiking all over Canada. My first reaction was incredulity, but then I remembered the date, and giggled uncontrollably all the way into the bookstore. So I just had to buy the book.

A group of us at the lab, led by Jon Pipitone, has been meeting every Tuesday lunchtime (well almost every Tuesday) for a few months, to brainstorm ideas for how software engineers can contribute to addressing the climate crisis. Jon has been blogging some of our sessions (here, here and here).

This week we attempted to create a matrix, where the rows are “challenge problems” related to the climate crisis, and the columns are the various research areas of software engineering (e.g. requirements analysis, formal methods, testing, etc…). One reason to do this is to figure out how to run a structured brainstorming session with a bigger set of SE researchers (e.g. at ICSE). Having sketched out the matrix, we then attempted to populate one row with ideas for research projects. I thought the exercise went remarkably well. One thing I took away from it was that it was pretty easy to think up research projects to populate many of the cells in the matrix (I had initially thought the matrix might be rather sparse by the time we were done).

We also decided that it would be helpful to characterize each of the rows a little more, so that SE researchers who are unfamiliar with some of the challenges would understand each challenge enough to stimulate some interesting discussions. So, here is an initial list of challenges (I added some links where I could). Note that I’ve grouped them according to who immediate audience is for any tools, techniques, practices…).

  1. Help the climate scientists to develop a better understanding of climate processes.
  2. Help the educators to to teach kids about climate science – how the science is done, and how we know what we know about climate change.
    • Support hands-on computational science (e.g. an online climate lab with building blocks to support construction of simple simulation models)
    • Global warming games
  3. Help the journalists & science writers to raise awareness of the issues around climate change for a broader audience.
    • Better public understanding of climate processes
    • Better public understanding of how climate science works
    • Visualizations of complex earth systems
    • connect data generators (eg scientists) with potential users (e.g. bloggers)
  4. Help the policymakers to design, implement and adjust a comprehensive set of policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. Help the political activists who put pressure on governments to change their policies, or to get better leaders elected when the current ones don’t act.
    • Social networking tools for activitists
    • Tools for persuasion (e.g. visualizations) and community building (e.g. Essence)
  6. Help individuals and communities to lower their carbon footprints.
  7. Help the engineers who are developing new technologies for renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.
    • green IT
    • Smart energy grids
    • waste reduction
    • renewable energy
    • town planning
    • green buildings/architecture
    • transportation systems (better public transit, electric cars, etc)
    • etc

Over the last two years, evidence has accumulated that the IPCC reports released just two years ago underestimate the pace of climate change. Nature provides this summary. See also this article in Science Daily; and there are plenty more like it;

Emissions from fossil fuels growing faster than any of the scenarios included in the IPCC reports (news article ; original paper here). And recent studies indicate the effects are irreversible., at least for the next 1000 years.

Arctic Sea Ice, which is probably the most obvious “canary in the coal mine” is melting faster than the models predicted, and will likely never recover (Story from IPY here)

Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melting 100 years ahead of schedule (news report; original papers here and here). Meanwhile new studies show the effect on the coastlines will be worse than previously thought, especially in North America and around the Indian Ocean (press release here; original paper here).

Sea level rise following the worst case scenario given in the IPCC reports (news report; original paper here and here).

Oceans soaking up less CO2, and hence losing their role as a carbon sink. (news report; original paper here

And finally some emerging evidence of massive methane releases as the permafrost melts (news report; no peer-reviewed paper yet).

  1. Because their salaries depend on them not understanding. Applies to anyone working for the big oil companies, and apparently to a handful of “scientists” funded by them .
  2. Because they cannot distinguish between pseudo-science and science. Seems to apply to some journalists, unfortunately.
  3. Because the dynamics of complex systems are inherently hard to understand. Shown to be a major factor by the experiments Sterman did on MIT students.
  4. Because all of the proposed solutions are incompatible with their ideology. Applies to most rightwing political parties, unfortunately.
  5. Because scientists are poor communicators. Or, more precisely, few scientists can explain their work well to non-scientists.
  6. Because they believe their god(s) would never let it happen. And there’s also a lunatic subgroup who welcome it as part of god’s plan (see rapture).
  7. Because most of the key ideas are counter-intuitive. After all, a couple of degrees warmer is too small to feel.
  8. Because the truth is just too scary. There seem to be plenty of people who accept that it’s happening, but don’t want to know any more because the whole thing is just too huge to think about.
  9. Because they’ve learned that anyone who claims the end of the world is coming must be a crackpot. Although these days, I suspect this one is just a rhetorical device used by people in groups (1) and (4), rather than a genuine reason.
  10. Because most of the people they talk to, and most of the stuff they read in the media also suffers from some of the above. Selective attention allows people to ignore anything that challenges their worldview.

But I fear the most insidious is because people think that changing their lightbulbs and sorting their recyclables counts as “doing your bit”. This idea allow you to stop thinking about it, and hence ignore just how serious a problem it really is.