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Wednesday 26th September 2012
Steering a course between the cowardly optimist and the cowardly pessimist.
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

This month came the news that ought to have had the Secret Footballer [The Guardian's ‘man inside the game’ who lifts the lid on the world of football] doubling his doses of mirtazapine and citalopram, the drugs he takes for the depression that used to make him dread his day ahead.  In fact, it ought to have got him slide-tackling his pharmacist to get at the drugs cupboard.

The news was the confirmation that Artic ice cap has this year retreated farther and faster than even the most pessimistic predictions.  This summer the Arctic had half the area of ice we had in the 1970s.   The Arctic summer ice is going, perhaps by 2030 but perhaps before, given climate change scientists’ persistent over-caution in predicting what climate change is doing to the planet.  By any measure, this is ghastly stuff… it presages all sorts of feed-back loops kicking in.  The ocean floor will warm up more, releasing methane; with no ice to reflect the sun, the earth will heat further; with dire consequences.

Many people, of course, barely registered the news, perhaps due to the human species’ bent of concentrating on fairly immediate threats (losing jobs, illness, and so on) and discounting more distant dangers.  The reaction of oil company executives is choice, though.   Less sea ice?  More opportunity to drill for hydrocarbons – the very stuff that is causing climate change! You couldn’t make it up, as the Richard Littlejohn in The Sun would rant.

The House of Commons Energy Committee distinguished itself with a powerful call to halt Artic drilling until stronger safety measures are in place, pointing out that they’d heard that a well blow-out just before winter could not be capped until the following summer.   Cairn Energy, which has been at the forefront of Artic drilling, said in essence: bog off, MPs.  But the Committee should really have called for the Arctic to be declared off-limits and the oil and gas left where they are.

One reaction really struck me.   It was from Mark Lynas, the distinguished environment writer, author of the book Six Degrees, which spelt out convincingly what different degrees of warming will do to the planet and its occupants.  It is not a book for the Secret Footballer and his Black Dog.   

The headline on his reaction piece in the Guardian to the Arctic news was: “Atomic energy is our only hope to beat climate change.”  In it, he argues that without nuclear energy, the planet will be heading for 4 degrees warmer or above, which he correctly says “will devastate ecosystems and societies worldwide.”   With a wide scale adoption of nuclear power, he thinks there is a chance that warming can be limited to 2 degrees C.

My own feeling is that Lynas is right to bemoan Japan and Germany planning to close down already operating nuclear plants, and turning to imported carbon fuels.  That makes no sense. 

But would a dash for nuclear save us?  I think the answer depends on one’s estimate of the future.   Most writers and scientists and politicians have to embrace hope, the hope that there are still measures to be taken which will save the planet from the horrors of three degrees or above.  Nuclear, adopted world-wide, is a last hope… that the great coal fields of India will close down, Nuclear India will take over from Coal India; that the cars of world will be switched to electric, plugged in to their local nuclear energy grid.   This is why, in essence, that excellent man George Monbiot has also switched his allegiance to nuclear.  Not least because he is a new father, he wants to embrace a bearable future. 

But in terms of constructing a resilient society, resilient in the face of great stresses which are coming our way willy-nilly, how good are nuclear plants?    The answer of course is not good at all.   They require stable societies as well as stable landscapes.   They need highly trained technicians, able to drive down clear roads to get to the plants to control their temperatures and adjust their settings.  They need societies with operating and effective security forces to protect them from terrorism and to make sure their fuel rods, etc, arrive safely and their waste is taken away safely.  If we are going to have climates of great extremes, then nuclear plants are not a good idea at all.  On top of a ruined climate, we will have left later generations with the curse of toxic radioactive sites littered across the globe.

Philip Toynbee, the novelist and Observer journalist, talked once about “cowardly optimism”, the penchant of people to avoid facing dangers by thinking everything will all turn out right in the end.  There is also the phenomenon, I confess, of “cowardly pessimism” - of thinking that prospects are so appalling that there is nothing to be done.  I hope we can steer a course between these two forms of cowardice.  The Japanese government now calls for an eight fold increase in renewable energy.   Lynas derides this possibility.  I hope he is wrong.  And at least, if the climate becomes really appalling, solar energy plants won’t be bad neighbours.

Wednesday 19th September 2012
Encouraging connectivity is vital for environmental innovation
Contributor: Will Bugler

Steven Johnson, a leading popular thinkers takes on-in exhilarating style-one of our key questions: Where do good ideas come from?

He seeks to address an urgent and universal question: What sparks the flash of brilliance? How does groundbreaking innovation happen? Johnson provides the complete, exciting, and encouraging story of how we generate the ideas that push our careers, our lives, our society, and our culture forward.

Beginning with Charles Darwin's first encounter with the teeming ecosystem of the coral reef and drawing connections to the intellectual hyperproductivity of modern megacities and to the instant success of YouTube, Johnson shows us that the question we need to ask is: what kind of environment fosters the development of good ideas? His answers are revelatory, convincing, and inspiring as Johnson identifies the seven key principles to the genesis of such ideas, and traces them across time and disciplines.

Most exhilarating is Johnson's conclusion that with today's tools and environment, radical innovation is extraordinarily accessible to those who know how to cultivate it. 

 

Friday 7th September 2012
Looking up from his paper, Jeremy Bugler gets into the mind of the climate change denier
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

 

You know the situation. You go to a favourite café or pub, find a favourite seat at a peaceful quiet time and relax into your favourite newspaper.  You are at peace.  Then someone in a nearby table spoils it all. He turns to you and says something like “there are so many blacks around here, we’ve got two hours less daylight.” You try to ignore him but your sweet quiet time has gone.

It happened to me the other day in Hay-on-Wye.   Dropped into an almost empty eaterie with a mint copy of The Guardian in my hand.   Ordered a small meal and a small glass.  Then an acquaintance loomed up saying  “Did you enjoy the Festival this year?”   Well, says I, enjoy is not the word I’d choose, but I went to some terrific talks on climate change.”   The Acquaintance booms back; “Oh that bollocks. That’s not going to happen.”  I showed him a piece in the paper, about Arctic Ice this summer at record low levels.  “They fiddle all that, Jeremy.  Don’t you know?   The climate scientists keep this up for the grants they get.”

How should I have responded?  Perhaps in a reasoned and patient way, as set out by George Marshall who is a climate communications expert.  He respects the Denier, even to the point of calling them Dissenters, and tries to lead them gently into enlightenment   ( http://youtu.be/Qp-nJKBwQR4).   But I didn’t do a George Marshall. I was still weary from the deniers who kept turning up at the Festival with cranky arguments (“Greenland used have no ice.   That’s why it’s called Greenland.   So it’s no big deal if it is losing ice now”   Rubbish, of course.)   So after a brief exchange, my sweet time in the café shattered, I did a Jeremy Bugler.  “For F’s sake, Jimmy, I can’t be doing with this.  I’m off.”

What should be the ‘resilient person’s’ mental and emotional make-up?  Being prepared for bad events, I suppose, even trivial ones like those in cafes in Hay on Wye.   History is full of examples of people and societies that went into shock when unexpected events occurred.  Read The World Before Yesterday for one example: Stephan Zweig portrays the Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was overwhelmed.  No one there could conceive that a comfortable life could vanish so quickly, least of the all Emperor and the Empress, last seen in a third-class carriage rushing for the German border.

Plainly I need to foster a resilient attitude, to be able to take set-backs in my stride.     One way I am trying to do this, in the context of the Deniers, is reading up what makes them so.  Know your enemy is always useful.   In this light, I came across an interesting report about a study to be published soon in the journal Psychological Science.  It looks at the mental make-up and attitudes of Deniers and finds that they tend to be either extreme free-marketeers or people who believe in conspiracy theories, such as NASA faked the moon landings, don’t you know.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia, lead by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky found that “endorsement of a laissez-faire conception of free-market economics predicts rejection of climate science.”  In fact, a staunch belief in free markets was an overwhelmingly strong factor in predicting Denial.   To a lesser extent, Deniers also tend to reject other scientific arguments, such as smoking causing cancer, and additionally to embrace conspiracy theories such as the CIA killed Martin Luther King.  Conspiracy theories are “the antithesis to scientific thinking” says Lewandowsky.  “You start out with a theory and stick to it no matter what the evidence.”   Denying the science of climate change is just of a piece with denying the moon landings.

This seems persuasive, and I am most impressed with alignment of neo-liberal financial ideology with climate change denying.  That plainly is the driver behind such prominent Deniers as Nigel Lawson, who I suggest will go down in history not so much as a Thatcher Chancellor of the Exchequer but as, even more notoriously, a man who impaired for some years the British public’s understanding of the dangers of climate change.

In the spirit of understanding, can I highlight “How to Talk to a Climate Change Sceptic”; a series of articles by Coby Beck (http://grist.org/series/skeptics). Beck forensically dissects the arguments and attitudes of sceptics, and lists the scientific rebuttals to such as arguments as “the medieval warm period was just as warm as it is today.”   This is very useful stuff. I would also commend a paper published by the office of Governor Jerry Brown of California, which lists the commonest dissenting arguments and then the rebuttals. (www.opr.ca.gov/s_commondenierarguments.php).

One person who really needs to study this material is myself, of course, in the interests of having a quiet time in cafes, among other things.

Thursday 30th August 2012
Pam Warhurst starts a food revolution that has boosted community resilience
Contributor: Will Bugler

What should a community do with its unused land? Plant food, of course. With energy and humor, Pam Warhurst tells at the TEDSalon the story of how she and a growing team of volunteers came together to turn plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens, and to change the narrative of food in their community.

"I wondered if it was possible to take a town like Todmorden and focus on local food to re-engage people with the planet we live on, create the sort of shifts in behaviour we need to live within the resources we have, stop us thinking like disempowered victims and to start taking responsibility for our own futures."

- Pam Warhurst

Tuesday 28th August 2012
The climate resilience of ICT sector is vital for business continuity
Contributor: Will Bugler

Advances in information and communications technology (ICT) have transformed business productivity. Today there are few sectors that are not heavily reliant on ICT systems to ensure that their day-to-day operations run smoothly. As more and more businesses become increasingly reliant on mobile telecommunication networks, internet ordering systems, office management systems and cloud computing it is vital that the ICT sector is climate resilient.

Recent high-profile ICT system failures from the O2 mobile network to Amazon’s cloud-based storage service have caused many to question the resilience of the ICT sector. As business dependency on technology increases the quality of ICT infrastructure and its ability to withstand the impacts of climate change must be addressed.

A 2011 report from the UK’s Department of Environment highlighted how vital and vulnerable this sector is in the UK. It reveals that the provision of energy, ICT, transport, waste and water are all dependent on the supply of two things: energy and ICT. The report states that “As the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt, interdependencies and their vulnerabilities will become more evident. This may lead to service disruption becoming more likely. Combined with a lower understanding and/or lack of co-ordination between infrastructure operators and others, it can undermine the ability to adapt national infrastructure successfully.”

As extreme weather events become more intense and severe with climate change the potential for disruption of ICT infrastructure increases. The torrential rains, winds and power outages that hit Washington DC last month, for example, caused the internet based services provided by Amazon, Instagram, Pinterest and Netflix to go offline for some hours.

Adaptation to climate impacts is already being talked about in ICT industry press. For instance at the time of the Amazon outage the computer blog WiredCloud reported that: “It’s important to remember that power outages — like massive snowstorms and hurricanes — happen, so smart cloud adopters should take this as a lesson to spread workloads across data centre locations.”

From a resilience perspective climate adaptation must be a priority both from within the ICT sector – including measures such as diversification of data centres, fail-safes and back-up systems - and also from businesses that rely on ICT systems. Taking steps to ensure that key business operations are able to continue in the event of technological failure is important to ensure business continuity.

While ICT undoubtedly provides huge business advantages, and in many cases can enhance climate resilience – the increasing reliance on the sector means that it is in the interests of all businesses to ensure that it is climate resilient. 

This first appeared on the Acclimatise Network on 17th July 2012

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