Tag Archives: fossil fuels

Have 11,000 Scientist Got it Wrong on Climate Change? And the Problem of Melting of Ice.

Science and Its Relationship to Climate Change:

On the 40th Anniversary of the first World Climate Change Conference  (Geneva 1979), a statement was published in the Journal of Bioscience, signed by 11,000 scientists advocating a curb on population growth, a halt to forest destruction, a change of attitudes to meat production, and a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels: all with the intention of combating the climate emergency.

Harmony in the forest, but for how much longer?

By 2016 studies indicated that 90-100% of scientists believed that climate change was real, and if climate deniers wanted confirmation of their beliefs it would be best to consult amongst the doubting 10% and avoid those better informed where the census was up around 97%.

 Those with a vested interest in climate change, and politicians wishing to maintain support amongst deniers have regularly consulted with those who have the least expertise in an effort to elicit doubt.

By 2016 various papers had been published on ‘Scientific Consensus’ in relation to ‘Knowledge’

and an interpretation of some of them is shown in the graph below. At a glance, the base line looks dodgy: running from POOR to GOOD isn’t a precise way to measure anything, and must be considered unreliable.

Nevertheless, the top end of the graph is supported by other research projects that indicate a high degree of consensus amongst the most knowledgeable – nothing seems wrong here; but at the bottom end where scientific knowledge is poor, precision of measurement becomes more difficult because it all depends on how knowledge is being measured and who is being asked.

With this in mind the graph could start almost anywhere, but despite this there is clear evidence that the closer scientists work to climate change, the more likely they are to agree that it is happening: something in the science must be influencing their conclusions, whilst the less well informed demonstrate a greater bias, or they just don’t know enough to draw reliable conclusions. The abstract Consensus on Consensus. 2016. John Cook et al. looks at the relationship more closely.

We can’t be expected to follow every line of scientific of research, but are always better informed by science than matters of opinion. For those who choose not to accept the scientific consensus it is a matter of cherry picking the evidence to support personal beliefs; visiting the internet is a  good way to do this, because what we see there will be ruled by digital algorithms that use our previous search histories to select what we see next. 

If we want to confirm our beliefs in really stupid things, the World Wide Web maximizes our chances of doing so; it can even put us in contact with like minded people… Despite this, the internet is not the enemy of rational thinking, but an unfortunate quirk of the way the system operates causes it to search for information in a way that scientists don’t, which reinforces bias. Science works hard to avoid such a thing; prioritising facts over opinions it accumulates knowledge and opens up possibilities. The internet can be equally informative, but used uncritically it quickly reinforces our preconceptions, narrows our thinking and sometimes leads us away from the truth – not that a mistaken or surrealist thought is always a bad thing, it’s just isn’t the best way to deal with global warming – we need to keep it real.

If it doesn’t seem likely – you’ll find it on the Internet.

If we fail to confirm our beliefs amongst the scientific community, and can’t find what we need on the internet (which seems unlikely), there are any number of fake scientists and conspiracy theorists who can supply us with alternative views on evidence based information; but  those who want to stay closer to the truth, it is best to consult studies that are recognised by others accredited in the field. Over the last four years the percentage of scientists who believe that anthropogenic climate change is happening, has been rising and is now at around 99%.

Quite possibly, we are living through one of the most challenging centuries humanity will face – twenty years in, the likelihood that 11,000 scientists are wrong about the climate emergency is unlikely.

What we know:

  1. Carbon release into the atmosphere is increasing and human activity is the cause. Agriculture, forestry and industry are factors and the burning of fossil fuels is especially consequential and causing the Planet to warm.

2. The process is being monitored by scientists, and efforts are being made to convince politicians to act responsibly, limiting Carbon release to moderate the warming effect.

3. This must happen soon, because there are potential turning points beyond which it will be impossible to recover.

4. What needs to be done is clearly understood, but progress in combating climate change has been slow and there is cause for concern.

5. Some of us seem complacently smug about making small personal changes without fully appreciating the magnitude of the situation – small changes in lifestyle will not be enough.

If governments are to combat climate change, they must take action soon:

many world leaders and their governments have so far avoided coming into line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement – the first worldwide legally binding accord on climate; adopted at ‘The Paris Climate Conference’ (COP21) in December 2015 it set a framework to reduce Carbon emissions by limiting global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a target increase of not more than 1.5°C by the end of the Century.

The most recent Conference of Parties (COP25) recently took place in Madrid, and there was a pervasive sense of frustration amongst delegates because many governments fell short of prescribed temperature rise targets, and in some cases delayed meeting them altogether.

In the early 1970s when I made this simple cartoon I was unaware of what the future would bring. it isn’ just water vapour that planes put into the air: Carbon emissions from air travel has become a serious problem and continues to rise. If nothing changes, air travel alone will use around half of our emissions budget by 2050. Ironically I’ve contributed to the problem by flying around the world to work on environmental stories, but when it comes to climate change, few of us are squeaky clean.

Unfortunately, there has been a mismatch between what scientists know and how politicians behave in light of the facts. Climate scientists tend to be pessimistic about the current trend in rising global temperatures whilst politicians are more optimistic – in part because, when they take time to consult scientific research (which is by no means a given), they reach conclusions in a way that scientists don’t, cherrypicking the evidence that best suits their policies. The reality is, their goals are very different.

A Cross Section of Scientists and Politicians Stand Together.
It’s easy to tell the optimists from the pessimists, but the situation is complicated. Baz seems cheery, he’s a politician but has always identified as a scientist – he’s mistaken, although he does have a GCE O-Level in Biology, but has worked as an economists for most of his life – he thinks natural resources are free, to be taken without penalty, and world economies must keep expanding to survive, even though our world has finite resources. Then there’s Phil, who thinks he knows a lot about science because he has a school certificate in sociology. Recently, he’s been appearing on T.V., describing himself as a crypto-zoologist, claiming the existence of animals for which there is no scientific evidence, in some cases describing them as spiritual entities. Phil has a gift – he can sound convincing about almost anything, and the less he knows the more convincing he sounds, especially to those with limited scientific knowledge. A cursory glance at Phil’s face suggests pessimism, but really he’s just gormless – Phil is a likeable idiot.
Crypto Phil came for a visit the other day and noticed tracks across my lawn: he told me that their size and the presence of toes were a sure sign that a bigfoot had visited my garden. This he said was unusual. I mentioned that before the thaw had set in I’d been walking along the same snow track to put food out on the bird table. ‘And are you seeing fewer birds since the footprints showed up?’ he asked. The weather had become milder, the snow was melting and I admitted that fewer birds were coming in. ‘There you are then.’ he said. Phil likes coming to conclusions – it’s all the stuff before that he has trouble with.

Science is a rigorous process with the fine details being continuously refined; it never stands still and those working in different disciplines may not have enough expertise to make value judgements outside of their field. So, what chance do the rest of us have? Well, not a lot, but if the science under consideration derives from a prestigious scientific journal such as ‘Science’ or ‘Nature’, we can be fairly confident of the veracity of the published work, everything will have been vigorously peer reviewed, and we should pay attention to the conclusions because science is not a matter of opinion to be countered by ‘alternative facts’. There is in any case usually no need to get sniffy about less prestigious publications, as most are peer reviewed journals and in consequence reliable, although it is wise to be discerning. ‘The Journal of Little Green Men’, probably doesn’t need to be on your reading list unless all your research is being done on social media. 

There’s no need to make things up about science and nature – the real world is interesting enough already.

The result of Britain’s December 2019  general election was interesting because Parties with strong environmental policies (such as the Green Party) did not make inroads into votes going to more traditional parties. This raises the question as to how the electorate can be persuaded to vote for politicians prioritizing environmental issues over other concerns, because If this can’t be done, the traditional parties will have to be pushed into do doing far more to combat climate change.

Motivating individuals to react proactively to the climate crisis has been difficult; a great many people will happily admit to the problem, but so far, few have been inclined to vote for change. Tell people that it is necessary to keep global temperature increase down to 1.5°C over a century and they show very little interest – probably because the information is presented with no sense of urgency and it doesn’t spur individuals on to demand action from their leaders. Recently, Brexit split Britain with clear opinions for and against and there was a clear understanding that this was an important issue; but compared to rapid species loss, declining natural environments and climate change, it might prove in the longterm to be far less consequential.

Britain has experienced some really warm summers during the last century. The summer of 1976 stands out in my mind in particular because I spent a good many days filming heathland and woodland fires. Going back through meteorological records there have been many hot summers, but nothing compares to the present. The last 9 years have, globally, been the hottest on record.

A hot summer’s day in Britain during the early 1980s. Memorable to me perhaps, but over a  short period of time more recent weather conditions have become more extreme.

Ian Bateman of Exeter University has authored a new study published in Nature – Food, and spoken about the effect of the warming climate on agriculture in Britain. He says that a standard rise of 2°C of global temperature over an average lifetime might initially benefit agriculture, as past warmer years have usually benefited food production; but if conditions should become too dry, it would be necessary to pipe water to the eastern side of the country from the north and west – these regions of higher rainfall; the cost of doing this would most likely eliminate any profit from the increased production; and if temperatures kept rising the benefits would be short term.

The scenario could be even more worrying if global warming proved to be more extreme, say a 3°C rise in temperature resulting in a more rapid melting of the Arctic ice and Greenland ice sheets which might turn off the Gulf Stream bringing warm water up from the Caribbean to flow around Britain. The Gulf Stream presently provides a warmer temperate climate than Britain could reasonably expect from its northern geographical position. If the stream just flowed (as it might) from west to east across the Atlantic and never reached Britain the results would be catastrophic.

When compared to most of Europe, the Gulf Stream makes Britain and Ireland a special case in the climate stakes. If these Islands could think, they might imagine themselves much further south because of the warm water presently flowing around them. If the gulf Stream switched off the climate would become significantly less warm and the British would at last be justified in moaning about their weather.

With the Gulf Stream off, Britain’s food production would be reduced by a third or worse. The Islands rely on food imports from other countries and if a reduction in food production is widespread, feeding Britain’s ever increasing population would in retrospect make Brexit seem trivial: unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to visualise ahead of time which are ‘the most important’ of ‘the most important things’ to worry about.

A BBC news reader recently expressed surprise when she read out, ‘almost 3% of the World’s Carbon emissions come from shipping goods around the world’. Like many other heavy transport systems, cargo ships run almost exclusively on ‘dirty’ Carbon based fossil fuels. Imagine then if we weren’t able to eat oranges or bananas because we lived outside of the regions where they grow; we might consider things were going backwards; but there is no doubt it would moderate climate problems if we all ate food grown closer to home.

There is however some good news: a change of emphasis has occurred in the way science and the media deal with environmental issues and climate change. In the past scientists never expected their many years of research to lead to the public interpreting the findings and acting appropriately, or expect politicians to act quickly on issues related by their work. The interpretation of science has always been the job of the media – with varying degrees of success – but with the present immediacy of environmental issues scientists have become more inclined to speak out, and the current mood of the media is to provide them a platform to do so.

Twenty years ago it was difficult to find scientists capable of  engaging public interest; those that could, would often transition to the media where they were more likely to be listened to and the money was better; but things are changing – why would scientists allow their ideas to be re-jigged by media personalities if they are able to speak effectively for themselves?

Professor Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds recently spoke to great effect on the melting of Greenland’s ice sheets and potential changes in sea level; he explained the current scientific work concisely and without melodrama  – in part because the current scientific work is so dramatically clear there is no need to overstate the case. The Planet has been heating for the last 30 or 40 years, and we have shown little concern for the consequences – and in the last ten years the Greenland ice sheets have begun to melt at a much faster rate than predicted.

Close to the Arctic Circle there is not only visible ice, but a lot of water held in the land as permafrost.

I fly from Vancouver to London Heathrow in early spring to visit my father in Southern England. Airlines usually take the most direct route flying north east over the white wilderness of Canada; then over the Labrador Sea before reaching the extensive permafrost and ice sheets of Greenland –  these northern landmasses keep you thinking the great white north will never end. But in the most literal sense, it seems they will, with things now changing more rapidly than expected.

The Arctic is melting faster than was the case 25 years ago when snowfall was countering ice sheet and glacier melts into the ocean. Since 1992 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice has disappeared from Greenland, with water flowing into the Ocean causing a rise in sea levels of 10.6 millimetres – this might not seem a lot, but for every centimetre rise, around 6 million people are put at risk and likely to experience at least one flooding event each year. Inevitably, without action, this can only get worse.

In recent time glaciers have been melting more quickly into the oceans.

Greenland is losing ice 7 times faster than was the case in the 1990s and if the warming continues many millions of people will be exposed to coastal flooding by the end of the century. A current IPCC projection demonstrates that if the situation continues at the present rate the melt from Greenland could push sea levels to rise by 8 or 9 centimetres by the end of the century. If it were just 7 centimetres which is a conservative estimate, the results would still be devastating for coastal areas and low lying communities around the world.

The Annual Arctic Report Card 2019 shows the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate, and much faster than scientists had previously anticipated. Without immediate action melting permafrost could soon release 600 million tonnes of Carbon (C) and Methane (CH4) into the atmosphere.

None of this is speculation – monitoring ice sheets by comparing satellite images over time provides compelling evidence of the problem. Perhaps we should think about this in the  same way we consider a close relative dying – there is never a convenient moment, but it has to be dealt with appropriately.

In the Antarctic scientists are now working on ‘The Doomsday Glacier’ which is falling into the sea at a rate of two miles a year. Thwaites Glacier sits on a vast basin of ice with a front that measures almost 100 miles across. At the point where the glacier approaches the sea the landmass forms a ridge that dips back under the base of the glacier and favours water flowing back landward; and this contact with water is hastening ice melt. It is startling to think that around 90% of the worlds fresh water is locked up in Antarctic ice with Thwaites Glacier presently containing half a meter of potential sea level rise. If the Western Arctic ice sheet should also melt which is possible, the loss will be equivalent to an astonishing 3 metres sea level rise .

If emissions of global warming gases were cut significantly the impact on reducing rising sea levels would be significant, but if temperatures continue to go up things will only get worse. There is still time to react, but as yet not enough is being done to hit global Carbon emission targets. In the end, the necessary changes might be driven by concerns over the dire economic consequences of doing nothing, rather than any loss of life or unfavourable changes to natural environments. As odd as it might seem it might be business interests that push politicians towards better outcomes. 

We are now close to reaching critical turning points which would lead to irreversible changes to the way global systems operate. Scientist might disagree on exactly when these changes will occur, and some changes might not occur all at once, they could perhaps move by degrees; and if we adapt our behaviours to changing conditions we might stave off imminent disaster; but abrupt switching points beyond which there are no returns remain frightening possibilities.

There have already been climate changes directly related to human behaviour and such events can no longer be ignored. Making predictions about almost anything has a degree of variability, and not knowing exactly when irreversible changes will occur, plays into the hands of those wishing to demonstrate that climate change isn’t really happening. Ironically, there is nothing worse than reaching a turning point, only to discover that ‘you’re not quite there yet’, although anything that buys time for leaders to react proactively must be a good thing, but with climate change happening more quickly that anticipated, there isn’ the luxury of too much time.

It is difficult to convince people that things will go wrong before they happen, and often a disaster must occur to precipitate a reaction. On occasions, big companies behave cynical: recognising a potential problem that might prove hazardous, they plough on without making changes, in the hope that profitability will exceed future insurance claims. However, when it comes to the climate emergency, refusing to act proactively is not a realistic option: if there are turning points beyond which we can no longer achieve stability we must act quickly;  many children seem aware of the urgency – politicians… not so much.

If the climate continues to warm, it won’t be a simple matter of fisherman moving further up the beach, lifestyles and even lifetimes will be changed.

With such huge profits being made from fossil fuels it is easy to understand why producers are reticent to give them up.

There has always been an unwillingness to factor in the millions of years of chemical and physical reactions that go into forming high energy fossil fuels, and the problems associated with the release of huge amounts of stored natural energy in such a short space of time has been largely ignored.

It seems we are best at solving immediate short term problems – our brain’s evolutionary course has left it inadequately wired to deal with uncomfortable situations that unfold over longer periods, and it might be necessary to start compensating for our ‘fallibility of thinking’. However, now that climate change is unfolding so rapidly, we might begin to see things more clearly. Run away ice melts in polar regions are just one of many signs of serious change and reinforce the view that 11,000 scientists are unlikely to be wrong about climate change. We must accept the evidence and push our politicians to act appropriately… and most important of all, they must do it soon.

Please follow and like this blog 🙂

UP, UP AND AWAY. From Ebola to Exponential and Beyond.

Perhaps the most reliable way to ‘save the planet’ is to take a picture that has been constructed by using mathematics and arithmetic; these exist in a variety of forms, but most commonly they are represented as charts or graphs that can provide at a glance, information on any subject for which there is reliable data, and graphs in particular are good at showing numerical change against a baseline of time.

I’m one of those unfortunates who have trouble adding up a column of figures – seldom do I get the same total twice – even with a calculator! That’s discouraging, but it’s not a valid excuse to give up.  And mathematics doesn’t come any easier, but let’s face it, we owe it to the planet to try, because mathematics is the key to measuring everything important that is going on around us.

A politician or national spokesman who says, ‘I’m just hopeless with maths’ or ‘math’ (depending on where they are standing) and then laughs it off, should be looking elsewhere for work. There is understandable concern when the people who represent us do not usually have backgrounds in mathematics or science – political science doesn’t count, because that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, the ‘I don’t get mathematics’ excuse is unacceptable from any elected official and we should urge them to ‘try harder’.

When I heard a health spokesman say recently that the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa was growing exponentially month by month there was obvious cause for concern. The spokesmen then gave the number of infections that occured during the previous month followed by the predicted figure for the month to follow, and the figures were exactly the same. This implied that he either didn’t understand exponential, or the increase wasn’t exponential at all. The statement was confusing: was the  rate of infection steady and controllable? Or was it expanding  exponentially, suggesting that  heading for the hills was the best possible option?

Understanding exponential growth shouldn’t be a problem. Most small children can draw it, even if they can’t describe the outcome.

Little Timmy can't say the word, but he can certainly draw it - a simple example of exponential growth.
Little Timmy can’t say the word, but he can draw a simple example. Here, a single person infects two others and if the disease is passed on in the same manner, the infection quickly gets out of control. This kind of growth applies to many things including human population growth.

In everyday life, most people don’t think much beyond arithmetic progressions, where the increase between numbers is constant.  But exponential growth is nothing like that. Once you start down the road to exponential, by doubling up, it isn’t long before the figures are mind blowingly large, and if they relate to a dangerous disease that goes unchecked, no health service on the planet will be able to deal with it.

There is an ancient Persian story that explains the process well. An inventor who pleased his king with a wonderful invention was asked to name his reward; but he at once disappointed the ruler with the seemingly meagreness of his choice. The inventor asked for grains of wheat to be placed upon a chess board in the following manner: one grain on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on, until all of the 64 squares were covered. The numbers start small and most of us don’t think much beyond the 8th square where the total hits 128 grains, which isn’t an outrageous figure. Quite a surprise then to discover that to reach the 64th square requires 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat – more wheat than was available in the whole kingdom. The tale is spun as  an example of intelligence winning the day, or alternatively, it is a story of cunning and greed –  the inventor either becomes ruler of the kingdom, or he loses his head.

In today’s world we might relate this story to pyramid selling where an investment doubles up every move it makes down the line and before long the numbers become vast, but by then, many individuals have dropped out of the scheme and never pay their contributions, while those who stay in begin to run out of suckers to sell to.

Telling a story is a great way to explain numerical change, but an artful graphs is a more visual approach. The two graphs below are free of annotation which allows the image to pass for art if you prefer it – perhaps as a late Matisse paper collage.

This could be a late period Matisse paper collage, but we might also consider it as representing two curves on a graph running along a base line of time. curves
Consider the above as two curves on a graph with a base line (or x axis) representing the passage of time, and a vertical (or y axis) representing the numbers or the density of an animal population increasing linearly as the line progresses upwards. This colourful ‘picture’,  interpreted correctly, contains enough information to save the planet .

The upper curve begins between yellow and red but continues for the most part  between yellow and green – it starts shallow, then rises exponentially before levelling off. This forms a ‘logistic curve’ first used by Pierre Verhurst  in the mid 1800s to show natural population growth where numbers are held to an upper limit by predation and availability of resources.

The lower curve that runs at first between red and yellow and then red and green takes time to rise, but when it does the line steepens rapidly – this is exponential growth that hasn’t levelled off. The world human population presently follows this ‘run away’ curve, but without infinite resources it cannot continue to grow in this manner. In a finitely resourced world the predictable result is a sudden levelling of the curve and a plummet downwards that mirrors the up. To alleviate suffering, it makes sense to control the drop – this really is a case of the higher you go the harder the fall.  Birth rates are presently falling across the developed world, but for economic reasons the numbers are usually bolstered by immigration (O.K. there will then be fewer people somewhere else, but that doesn’t regulate the population in places where people are genuinely trying to control their numbers).

The logistic curve along with the wave curve (see the predator prey relationship graphs below) apply to almost any species other than our own and they have longterm benefits for both the species and the environment – and make better models for longterm regulation than does uncontrolled exponential growth. All the information we need for responsible behaviour is contained within a couple of simple graphs, indicating that self regulation of human population is a better option than the inevitable collapse that continued exponential growth has in store .

Unfortunately, governments do not run economies with a view to longterm sustainably – they invariably opt for growth above all else, and are reluctant to make changes, preferring instead to pass the parcel onto the next generation – a ticking time bomb which they’ve chosen to ignore. Economies are run as if resources are infinite and without cost beyond extraction, refining and transportation. However, at a certain point, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain this, and if the present generation continues to charge up the steep end of exponential… future generations will be forced to pay the price, and will know that we had all the information available to make the right decisions, but instead carried on, business as usual.

 

HERE WE ALL ARE, UP ON THE STEEPEST PART OF THE CURVE.

Human population growth started off slowly.It is obvious that population wasn't a problem prior to 1800, but an agricultural revolution, an Industrail Revolution and the development of modern medicine has aided population growth and  when the graph is climbing as it is today, there is a genuine need for us to engage with the reality.
Human population growth started off slowly. Population growth clearly wasn’t a problem prior to 1800, but an Agricultural Revolution, an Industrial Revolution and the recent development of modern medicine have all helped to allow our numbers to grow exponentially and there is now a genuine need for us to engage with reality.

Things often start off slowly before exponential growth kicks in. With the human population nothing much changed for a very long time. There was even a period around70,000 years ago (long before the time line represented in the above graph), when the human population dropped so low we almost disappeared altogether.

It may well have been cooking meat and the development of  agriculture that started things moving, but there have been other set backs: the black death was a devastating pandemic and can be seen as a dip in the population graph around 1400. Prior to the plague weather conditions around the mid-1300s  were unfavourable, and throughout Europe crops repeatedly failed. It was a perfect storm of a disaster and millions died – but the loss of a third of Europe’s population did change the economy. Suddenly, there was a shortage of workers and for the first time in recorded history a more reasonable wage could be asked by those who survived the devastation. Poverty was still widespread, but many people were liberated from serfdom, and took the first steps along a path that generations later would drive the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and eventually the modern Western economic system we have today.

In the broadest sense exponential growth isn’t a disaster, it is often the way things increase in the natural world, but there are always boundaries. A fertilised ova wouldn’t develop at a rapid enough rate if cell growth wasn’t initially exponential, but once a certain functional level has been reached, cells are programmed to be replaced when and where they are needed – if they keep on dividing without control, we call it cancer.

Almost everything that relates to our rapidly increasing human population is unsustainable.  The graph below demonstrates a normal predator prey relationship where foxes are eating hares; it could equally be wolves preying on deer, or any number of other predator prey interactions.

Along a base line of time the green curve of prey animals increase, producing more food for predators which set the pattern for controlling the prey as the prey numbers decline, so do the predators. The winner is plants. Without the predators the world becomes less diverse as the plants are eaten. This of course is an oversimplification as there is a web of life, but the principal holds.
Along a base line of time, the green curve shows prey animals beginning to increase in number, thus producing more food for their predators, the foxes – shown in black. Foxes then increase in number, eat more hares and cause their prey to decline. Fox numbers begin to fall in response to the diminishing food supply and hare numbers pick up again – the process continues in a cyclical manner.

Other species also benefit as predator and prey numbers ebb and flow. Plants for example will escape total obliteration by hares and rabbits as predators reduce herbivore numbers. Without natural predation environments become less diverse as certain species are eaten beyond their capacity to regenerate. However, the predator prey graph is an oversimplification, and although the general principle holds true, the system is really a three dimensional web of life that demonstrates far greater complexity. We refer to a natural balance of nature, but the reality is closer to a series of peaks and troughs. If our human population followed closer to the logistic curve, modern technology would allow us to regulate against a roller coaster of loss and gain in a manner that can’t so easily be applied to the steep end of exponential growth.

Related closely to our population numbers is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

This graph shows the level of oil extraction (fossil fuel) and as would be expected it follows the same line of exponential growth for the human population. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but follows the same exponential growth line.
This graph shows the level of oil (a fossil fuel) extraction.  As expected it follows the same line of exponential growth shown on the human population graph. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but clearly follows a similar exponential growth curve.

It is impossible for us to remove and burn fossil fuels indefinitely, because such resources are finite and as time passes, these diminish and become increasingly difficult to extract. And another consideration is the effect that burning fossil fuels has on our atmosphere should we decide to try it.

The increasing emission of carbon into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned is clearly changing the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not surprisingly Carbon dioxide emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels also follows an exponential line.
The time line starts here at 1600 – before this time, man’s burning of fossil fuels was negligible, but when the Industrial Revolution kicked in Carbon dioxide emissions began to pick up and were soon growing exponentially. Once again the sudden ‘up’ part of the curve runs close to the curve for human population growth.

Burning fossil fuels has a special place in the grand scheme of things, because it increases the levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that in turn increases global temperatures. Continuing to do so at an ever increasing rate not only changes the atmosphere, it also changes the weather and at a certain point these changes may be irreversible.

Some times politicians and spokesmen do know how to use the figures in their favour. Global temperatures are evidently rising, but what if they were to show you only the section on the red box?
Some politicians and spokesmen do appear to know how to use graphs when they work in their favour. Global temperatures are clearly rising, but what if you were shown only the section of graph in the red box?

If you looked only at a graph showing the period between 1950 to 1970 you’d consider global temperatures to be fairly stable.  There has also been a similar levelling of temperatures in recent years; these are the favoured areas for climate change sceptics to cherry pick their examples and tell us, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, but unfortunately, there can be no denying the general temperature trend is upwards – the planet is warming, which supports the idea that it is necessary to always view the whole picture.

The Ebola infection figures discussed earlier do indeed appear to be growing exponentially (at the time of writing). The curve ran fairly level through May and June, which would have been the ideal time for the developed world to have moved in and defeated the disease before it took off. To have ignored this opportunity seems careless if not arrogant. The question is, if I can manage the calculation on the back of a cigarette packet (see below), why can’t those in power do the same. It would be generous to put the terrible suffering in West Africa down purely to ignorance, but sometimes it is suffering economies rather than suffering people that elicit the most rapid responses.

Below: an ‘on the back of a cigarette packet’ calculation derived from figures freely available from news reports. This was quite tricky – not the mathematics… it’s just that I don’t smoke.

A back of a piggy packet graph for Ebola infection. Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control - an exponential doubling month by moth is almost too horrible to contemplate.
A back of a ciggy packet graph for Ebola infection shows more than 13,500 cases at the time of writing ( I drew this graph during October. Since then the figures have rapidly picked up and I’ve had to extend the graph upwards). Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control – an exponential doubling month by moth as can be clearly seen between the beginning of October and the beginning of November is too horrible to contemplate. Potentially, there is a long way to go before the disease peaks and crashes naturally if it is allowed to spread unhindered.

 

So far there have been around 5,000 deaths due to Ebola and there will be many more in the coming months, but hopefully, now that medical help is arriving in the affected West African countries (better late than never), the infection will begin to come under control.

Whenever we hear a spokesman say that ‘growth is exponential’ it is good to be clear about what he or she means. Certainly this is important when it refers to human population growth; or the increasing use of fossil fuels; and the rapid spread of a contagious disease. In each case we need to ask the right questions, then be certain that our answers make sense, and last but not least, act as quickly as possible – and so far we have been unforgivably slack on the last one.

The ciggy packet slip aside, all of the simple ‘mathematical’ pictures shown above have been colourful, and without exception are easy to interpret – this isn’t intended purely for the benefit of small children – it is also to grab the attention of the mathematically challenged politicians making important decisions; they really do need to, ‘get the picture, act in good time’, and in so doing, ‘save the planet’.

In mid October 2014 Tony Abbott predicted that coal would be the world’s principal energy source for decades to come. It was he said, ‘Good for humanity’. I wonder if I’m living in a parallel universe – Tony Abbott must be better informed than I am… he’s the prime minister of Australia.

At the time of posting there was some hopeful news. A decrease in the number of reported cases of Ebola in Liberia. WHO’s spokesman Bruce Aylward said the response to the virus was now gaining the upper hand, but warned the crisis wasn’t over. The Head of the U.N. Mission says that ‘presently he doesn’t have the  resources to defeat the disease’. How nuts is  that?

For a perceptive and amusing view of man’s destruction of the Planet,  take a look at this cartoon:

http://laughingsquid.com/man-animated-short-showing-our-destructive-relationship-with-earth/

 

 

Please follow and like this blog 🙂