Solar Impulse; and other comedies

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Many nuclear supporters tend to shy away from overt criticism of renewable technologies because they are confident that in any objective analysis, unencumbered by radio-phobia, nuclear will dominate any effective response to climate change; should the world choose to give a damn. After all there is no shortage of very careful objective treatments that support such a view. But every so often the solar industry, in particular, shoots itself in the foot with a spectacular demonstration of just how bad this technology is and it behooves us all to call a spade a spade and a lemon a lemon.

I’m talking about the Solar Impulse circumnavigation project.

The Solar Impulse is a solar powered aircraft consisting of more than 17,000 solar cells and 633 kilograms of lithium batteries packed into a plane with a wingspan longer than a Boeing 747. Not to mention a cast including 80 engineers, 100 advisers, a 12 year construction time, sponsorship from 80 companies including Google, a real-time website, T-shirts and of course, the obligatory baseball caps. But my personal favourite, because the project hails from Switzerland, has to be the Victorinox commemorative pen knives which will get confiscated should you try to take them on-board a real plane.

How will Solar Impulse compare with Around the World in 80 days? That was a pretty good yarn, written by Jules Verne in 1873. But Verne’s story is fictional. Phileas Fogg didn’t exist and never really attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days to win a rather large bet. While it never happened, it did, apparently, create intense publicity at the time because people thought it was really happening. Which neatly mirrors, or perhaps I should say “heliostats”, the renewable energy “revolution”.

Some 140 years after Verne’s book, the Solar Impulse is definitely non-fiction. You can watch it in real time and buy stuff. The initial leg of the journey was on March the 9th and, as I write (May 31), they’re about to take off across the Pacific. Here’s a table of the legs completed so far and the other 6 listed on the website:

By my reckoning they’ll be about 5000 km short of a circumference, but we’ll let that slide. My real interest is how they managed to sell this as an achievement. In 2008 Mark Beaumont cycled around the planet in 195 days pedalling 29,000 kilometers … presumably with some shipping. That’s seriously tough. But it’s no feat of technology and doesn’t demonstrate a superior mode of locomotion or foreshadow a global shift to pedal power.

Does the Solar Impulse demonstrate a superior mode of transport? Does it herald a future of solar planes? Don’t be daft. It’s slow, expensive, risky, fragile, dangerous and the total payload delivered by all those panels and batteries and dollars is just a single person; the pilot. If there were ever a Solar Olympics, the motto would be something like slower, lower, and weaker.

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The Limits of Planetary Boundaries 2.0

Back in 2013, I led some research that critiqued the ‘Planetary Boundaries‘ concept (my refereed paper, Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?, appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution). I also blogged about this here: Worrying about global tipping points distracts from real planetary threats.

Today a new paper appeared in the journal Science, called “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet“, which attempts to refine and clarify the concept. It states that four of nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, re-imagines the biodiversity boundary as one of ‘biodiversity integrity’, and introduces the concept of ‘novel entities’. A popular summary in the Washington Post can be read here. On the invitation of New York Times “Dot Earth” reporter Andy Revkin, my colleagues and I have written a short response, which I reproduce below. The full Dot Earth article can be read here.

The Limits of Planetary Boundaries
Erle Ellis, Barry Brook, Linus Blomqvist, Ruth DeFries

Steffen et al (2015) revise the “planetary boundaries framework” initially proposed in 2009 as the “safe limits” for human alteration of Earth processes(Rockstrom et al 2009). Limiting human harm to environments is a major challenge and we applaud all efforts to increase the public utility of global-change science. Yet the planetary boundaries (PB) framework – in its original form and as revised by Steffen et al – obscures rather than clarifies the environmental and sustainability challenges faced by humanity this century.

Steffen et al concede that “not all Earth system processes included in the PB have singular thresholds at the global/continental/ocean basin level.” Such processes include biosphere integrity (see Brook et al 2013), biogeochemical flows, freshwater use, and land-system change. “Nevertheless,” they continue, “it is important that boundaries be established for these processes.” Why? Where a global threshold is unknown or lacking, there is no scientifically robust way of specifying such a boundary – determining a limit along a continuum of environmental change becomes a matter of guesswork or speculation (see e.g. Bass 2009;Nordhaus et al 2012). For instance, the land-system boundary for temperate forest is set at 50% of forest cover remaining. There is no robust justification for why this boundary should not be 40%, or 70%, or some other level.

While the stated objective of the PB framework is to “guide human societies” away from a state of the Earth system that is “less hospitable to the development of human societies”, it offers little scientific evidence to support the connection between the global state of specific Earth system processes and human well-being. Instead, the Holocene environment (the most recent 10,000 years) is assumed to be ideal. Yet most species evolved before the Holocene and the contemporary ecosystems that sustain humanity are agroecosystems, urban ecosystems and other human-altered ecosystems that in themselves represent some of the most important global and local environmental changes that characterize the Anthropocene. Contrary to the authors’ claim that the Holocene is the “only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies,” the human-altered ecosystems of the Anthropocene represent the only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary civilization.

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Climate heating for 2014 in Australia

The Bureau of Meteorology in Australia has released its annual climate statement, for 2014. As expected, it was once again a hot year across the continent (and indeed, globally):

There is a lot of year-to-year variation driven by natural climate variability, but the running mean (10-year average) plots a relatively steady rise over the last 60+ years.

The mean continental temperature was 0.91 C above the average of the whole time series (starting in 1910, when sufficient station records were available), and that average reflects temperatures as they were in about 1980. If you look at the mean for the decade centred around 1914, it was ~1.3 C cooler than the year 2014.

Globally, the story is similar:

In this case the annual variations are more suppressed (averaging over a larger area, and including buffered oceans), but again the trend upwards is clear. Broad multi-decadal patterns are clear, and there has been some slowing of the rate of increase over the past decade.

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Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Regular BNC commenter and my friend Geoff Russell (@csiroperfidy) has published a new book. It’s called “Greenjacked!: The derailing of environmental action on climate change“. The blurb:

Today’s anti-nuclear movement began as the anti-atomic weapons movement in the late 1950s. At this time, DNA repair mechanisms were unknown and there was only one known cause of cancer … radiation. Then, during the next half century, DNA repair mechanisms of immense power were discovered along with many more causes of cancer. We now know radiation is a minor player compared to cigarettes, alcohol, red meat, processed meat and obesity; to name a few. We now know why Japanese people moving permanently from Tokyo to either Paris, New York or Sydney would experience a much bigger rise in cancer risk than if they moved into the area currently evacuated around the Fukushima reactors.

Nevertheless, despite growing and increasingly sophisticated knowledge about cancer causes, the anti-nuclear movement kept nuclear power hamstrung using obsolete notions of the risks posed to DNA by radiation. This paved the way for our fossil fuelled world and kept our cleanest most potent energy source off the table as a response to climate change. GreenJacked explains, in lay language, the progress in our knowledge about cancer and shows that nuclear power is our best hope in the battle against a deteriorating climate and why we have to overturn long held but obsolete fears.

Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Doherty has endorsed GreenJacked, along with climate scientists and activists. If you are an anti-nuclear environmentalist concerned about our planet, then you need to open your mind, prepare to be amazed and read this book.

You can buy it as a Kindle book (which is readable on Kindle devices, iPads, PCs, Android readers, etc. all with free software, so no excuses) and it less then the cost of a couple of cups of coffee. Get it! (Australians must buy it on the Amazon AU electronic store, here).

I have to say, Geoff has come a long way on the issue of sustainable nuclear energy since I first persuaded him to look at the issue seriously back in 2009! The next post on BNC is a new critique by Geoff of a recent Catalyst TV program on the Fukushima aftermath, so read on…


Highly Cited Researchers

Thompson Reuters (who produce the Institute for Scientific Information journal impact factors) have released the first update of Highly Cited Researchers in the sciences and social sciences since 2004.

I’m happy to report that I (Barry Brook) made the new (2014) list, which is easily searchable by name, institution or other keyword (it’s flexible) — so find your favourite scientist! (perhaps…)

I note that Australia is well represented in the Environment/Ecology field of research in particular.

The background and methodology of “Highly Cited” is explained here. In brief, it’s derived from Essential Science Indicators data, and is based on the number of top  1% cited papers (in the peer-reviewed literature), by field and year, that a scientist has accumulated over a 10-year period (as indexed in the Web of Science).

You can see my ResearchID profile here and my ORCID here, which shows all my publications. I also have a Google Scholar profile, which is based on a different method (not as rigorous as ISI, as it is prone to picking up various web-based [non-peer-reviewed] citations).