A Farewell to Ice Review: Watching Our Future Disappear in Front of our Eyes

It’s about time to write something that tries to reach out to the masses, and I can’t think of a better place to start than a review of Peter Wadhams’ book, A Farewell to Ice. I believe this is one of the key books on climate change and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in their own future or that of their children. Whilst this blog post (or essay) might seem emotive, I would encourage you to read the book and see for yourself just how close we are to an irreversible fate.

Peter Wadhams is a name that many students of polar geography will be familiar with. He is a polar scientist with over 47 years of experience in the field and has carried out over 50 expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. This book explores the impact of rising temperatures on the frozen areas of our planet, with a particular focus on the Arctic, because, “It is in the Arctic that global change appears to be most rapid and drastic” (Pg. 1). There’s never been a more poignant time to read this book as it’s recently been revealed that both the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice levels are at record lows.

The Arctic is a crucial part of our climate system, as it helps regulate temperature. The ice plays a crucial role in reflecting radiation and keeping temperatures lower than they would otherwise be through the Albedo effect (white sea ice reflects more than the black ocean beneath). To get an idea of just how big a role the Arctic sea ice plays in regulating temperature, Wadhams explains that once the Arctic melts, “The albedo change from the loss of the last 4 million km2 of ice will have the same warming effect on the Earth as the last twenty-five years of carbon dioxide emissions” (Pg. 4). Take a minute to think about that – it is an incredible figure to get our heads around. Even more concerning is that Wadhams warns that the Arctic may be free of sea ice by around September 2020. This could trigger rapid climate change, as I will discuss later on.

What is the Climate?

The climate is defined as the weather conditions in a region over a period of time (often 30 years). Therefore in order to see a change in climate, you will first see a change in weather patterns. If you happen to read a quality newspaper (i.e. The Guardian or The Independent), you will notice increasing weather extremes taking place around the world – physical evidence of our changing climate.

Carbon Emissions

Not a fan of the science stuff? Don’t worry, I will keep this simple. Scientists estimate the safe limit of carbon dioxide is 350ppm (parts per million). Prior to the industrial revolution, we had 280ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now we are at 406ppm and the rate of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere each year is around 3ppm.

Around 65 million years ago there was an asteroid impact which wiped out much of life on earth. Wadhams notes that, “The CO2 rise rate was still an order of magnitude lower than the current rate of 3ppm/year. We are injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere far faster than any known natural event, even an extreme one like an asteroid impact” (Pg. 28). Never before have carbon emissions risen so fast. Bear in mind that there is a direct correlation between carbon emissions and global temperature increases. So if we are pumping carbon into the atmosphere at a faster rate than ever before, then we can expect global temperatures to rise faster than ever before.

Impacts on the Arctic

Ice extent is so low in the Arctic that, “By the end of 2015 a total of 238 ships had sailed through it. In September 2012 sea ice covered only 3.4 million square kilometres (km2) of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, down from 8 million km2 in the 1970s (Pg. 2).”

Whilst the melting of the Arctic sea ice won’t raise sea levels, it’s white surface plays a crucial role through the albedo affect. To put this in perspective, we have lost 4,600,000km2 of sea ice in just 42 years. Worryingly the much maligned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is underestimating Arctic ice warming, as they have failed to update their models with recent data. So we look to Peter Wadhams who has been travelling to the Arctic since the 1970s and has been observing it’s depressing decline. Based on his estimates, the Arctic will be ice free in the summer in around 3 years’ time in 2020 (which is incredibly different to the IPCC’s forecast of between 2050-2080). The problem is that policymakers are basing their decisions on the inaccurate IPCC forecasts and not on reality…

Have you wondered why severe winter weather has hit Europe, North America and parts of Asia in recent years? What we are seeing is a weakening of the jet stream, which would normally confine the cold polar air over the Arctic regions. However, as the jet stream weakens, the polar air is shifting further south. So whilst Europe gets covered in deep snow, the Arctic temperatures actually begin to rise and less ice forms. Wadhams explains further, “In recent years we have seen an increase in the size of the meanders in the jet stream, that is, the north-south range of the meanderings. This drives another energy feedback: the north-bound air masses on the tropical side of the jet stream boundary bring warmer air into the Arctic, while the south-bound air masses on the polar side take colder air out of the Arctic into lower latitudes than in the past. This increased meandering of the jet stream is, therefore, in itself a heat-transfer accelerator from mid-latitudes to higher latitudes” (Pg. 135).

Wadhams notes that “The Greenland ice sheet, with its high latitude and huge elevation of 2-3km, always used to be solidly frozen year-round, except for a small amount of melt around the edges….The biggest melt so far was in 2012, when in the period 1-11 July surface melt spread across 97 percent of the surface of the ice sheet” (Pg. 10). Whilst we hope that a disintegration of the entire Greenland ice sheet won’t happen anytime soon, we should remember that the melting of Greenland’s ice will add 7.2m to global sea levels (whereas the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet could add 60m to global sea levels). Wadhams states, “They have found that the Greenland ice sheet is now losing 300km3 of water equivalent per year, a rate which is increasing and which is already as high as the loss from all other glaciers put together.”

So why does the Arctic matter so much? There is a hidden danger in the Arctic that has the potential to trigger rapid climate change in the coming decades.

Rapid Climate Change

“We are not far from the moment when the feedbacks will themselves be driving the change – that is, we will not need to add more CO2 to the atmosphere at all, but will get the warming anyway. This is a stage called runaway warming” (Pg. 108).

There is a real worry that we will pass tipping points in the near future, after which the climate system will enter a self-perpetuating continuous warming cycle, where the earth will continue to warm up and we won’t be able to stop it. A bit like what happened to Venus. The potential cause of this is explained below.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, which is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat (however, carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for around 100 years, whereas methane only remains for around 10 years). Buried under frozen permafrost on land are methane deposits. Worringly there are also vast quantities of methane buried on the seabed below the Arctic sea ice. This type of methane is referred to as methane clathyrates. When these methane clathyrates melt, they release methane which then bubbles to the surface and is released into our atmosphere, thereby doing 23 times more damage than carbon dioxide, in terms of trapping heat.

Wadhams refers to a potential catastrophe triggered by largescale releases of methane as one of the most immediate risks facing us as a species, “The amount of methane stored in hydrate deposits in the entire ocean bed is estimated to be more than thirteen times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and amounts to 10,400 gigatons” (Pg. 122). Wadhams notes that at least 50Gt of methane could be emitted into the atmosphere through this process in the near future, resulting in additional 0.6°C rise in global temperatures. This may not sound like much, but look at the weather extremes taking place around the world. These have occurred with just 1.2°C warming. But a further 0.6°C rapid rise in temperatures, combined with an ice free Arctic and reduced Albedo effect could cause some major shifts in our climate system, leading to runaway climate change.

To get an idea of a worst case scenario, this informative blog post warns that mass extinction could take place within 9 years. Click here to read the blog.

What about Antarctica?

As mentioned in the introduction, the Antarctic sea ice is also at record low levels. Wadhams says, “The Arctic amplification and greater Arctic feedbacks mean that, whatever the interactions between Antarctic sea ice and temperate oceans, it will always be the case over the next few decades that the Arctic will be determining the rate of global warming more than the Antarctic. In this sense the Arctic is a driver and the Antarctic can be thought of as a passive trailer in the global warming race to oblivion” (Pg. 170).

Refugee Crisis

For every degree of warming in air temperature, “We add something like 7 percent of extra water vapour content to the atmosphere” (Pg. 109), states Wadhams. Not only is water vapour a greenhouse gas that will further increase the rate of warming but even more crucially, excess water vapour in the atmosphere means more potential for extreme and violent rainfall events. You only need to go onto social media sites to see people sharing pictures of unbelievably powerful storms in recent years. Whilst exciting to marvel at, these events will become more widespread and will have a multitude of unwelcome impacts; think crop destruction and increased food prices, increased flooding, mudslides, travel chaos (trains not running, more traffic on roads, planes delayed), more potholes and damaged car tyres, loss of topsoil which is essential for farming, more pollutants from land being washed into rivers and the sea. Conversely, it’s entirely possible that some regions will receive less rainfall and will therefore be dealing with more intense droughts. One major issue that we will have to deal with will be food production – if more regions become susceptible to extreme rainfall events/hail storms, whilst others become too hot and barren – where will we grow food to sustain our growing population of 7.5 billion people (expected to reach over 9 billion people in the next 33 years)?

As more regions become uninhabitable due to crippling droughts or violent precipitation events (e.g. intense hail storms) that will destroy crops, people will naturally seek to move to find areas where they can grow food to sustain themselves and their families. We have already seen something similar happen in Syria, where due to an intense drought, many farmers were unable to grow crops and instead moved to cities to find work. Due to a lack of jobs and government assistance, violence soon flared. This helped ignite the civil war which still has a stranglehold on the country. Click here to read more.

What concerns me is that we are unable to cope with this first wave of refugees and the fallout has seen voters in many countries favour anti-immigrant candidates. As extreme weather leads to more conflict and more uninhabitable regions, we are going to see immigration spike as hundreds of millions of people seek to move from the Middle East, Africa and low lying areas. I envisage this will take place over the next couple of decades. So if we are overwhelmed with several million refugees now, how will we cope with hundreds of millions of refugees in the future? Where will they go? Who will feed them?

Aid agencies will be overwhelmed (many organisations are already stretched with our present global issues – click here for more information), so we can’t rely on them for a solution. I think we will get to a point in the not too distant future where people are kept out of countries by military force, resulting in millions and millions of deaths. Intolerance and violence will come to define our species.

This is what we are heading towards. Is this a world you are happy for your children to inherit?

Current Commitments to Tackle Climate Change

Incredibly insufficient. That’s all you need to know. We should be finding ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to try and return from 406ppm to 350ppm as quickly as possible. Sadly we are still increasing our carbon dioxide emissions by 3ppm per year. We are balancing on a cliff precipice preparing ourselves to fall face first towards a rocky death.

To top it all off, we now have climate sceptics running America, who are putting in place policies to go hell for leather to extract and burn as many fossil fuels as possible. They are planning to tear up the one climate agreement that we have (Paris), which to be fair wasn’t strong enough anyway.

Scary Numbers

Supposing by some luck that Trump doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement, which commits countries to avoid a 1.5°C rise in temperatures. From an emissions point of view, it means we can only emit 353 gigatons of CO2 to meet this target. There is no guarantee that this will be sufficient to avoid a larger temperature rise, it only gives a 50% chance of avoiding smashing that target (in a bad way). So ideally we need to emit a lot LESS than 353 gigatons of CO2. The problem we have is that all the existing coal mines, oil wells and gas fields which are currently in operation are expected to produce 942 gigatons of CO2.

As you can see, this is three times more than we can burn to try and limit temperature rises to a supposed ‘safe’ limit. So not only can we not afford to open any new coal mines, gas fields or oil wells, but we have to leave much of the existing resources in the ground. Just so you know – our politicians haven’t taken steps to limit fossil fuel extraction – they are happy to let the world burn and destroy your children’s future. Worth remembering that little nugget…

Oh and Trump has done the worst thing imaginable. In Canada, they have the most polluting form of fossil fuel that produces shed loads of carbon emissions when extracted and burnt – called ‘Tar Sands’. Trump has given the go ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline which will transport this filth from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in the US. The world’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, has said that if the tar sands are extracted and burnt, then it’s “game over for the climate.”

Trump is hammering away at that nail and driving it deeper and deeper into our collective coffin.

Geoengineerng

This really scares me. In my opinion this should be a last resort (or preferably avoided entirely). That being said, I am all for planting more trees – but I class this more as a form of natural carbon removal, as opposed to geoengineering. Wadhams describes geoengineering options in the book and I will let you explore them for yourself.

Why don’t I know about all of this? It sounds pretty serious after all….

Is smoking cigarettes good or bad for you? Believe it or not, there once used to be a time when this was a genuine question. Tobacco companies were exceptionally rich and had an interest in maintaining their sales. The idea that smoking could have adverse health affects, didn’t sit well with their profit forecasts. So they got together and hired think tanks and lobbyists to ‘sow the seeds of doubt’ and question the science as to whether smoking was bad for your health. The lobbyists and think tanks were paid large sums by the tobacco industry to keep up their war on science and question/dispute medical findings, to make it seem to ordinary members of the public that the science wasn’t clear. When in fact the science was crystal clear all along. Those lobbyists and think tanks did a fantastic job and it took many many years for the science to be accepted, and for people to realise that smoking was harmful.

So what’s this got to do with climate change? Well the fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful industries in the world and oil companies such as Exxon are some of the richest in the world. It has recently emerged that scientists working for those companies realised as early as the 1970s, that burning fossil fuels would result in climate change. Once again, they too realised that their profit forecasts could tumble if the public realised that burning fossil fuels could one day jeopardise the future prospects of their children and grandchildren. And it just so happened that they had a whole bunch of lobbyists and think tanks who were keen to muddy the waters and make the science seem unclear (and in the process get paid incredible sums by oil companies). Wanna guess where the oil industry found these think tanks and lobbyists?? Yup – they poached some from the tobacco industry. If you’re interested to read more about this, I recommend a book called Merchants of Doubt. If you believe that the ‘debate’ about the causes of climate change is unsettled, or that human’s influence is negligible, you can thank the lobbyists and think tanks who poisoned your mind.

Wadhams explains the role these villains have played, “Their aims and methods are exactly the same as those of tobacco industry lobbyists – to sow doubt about the harmfulness of the impacts to the point that ordinary people become confused and are willing to tolerate inaction. They don’t have to persuade people that climate change is not happening – just sow doubt, and since action to save the world involves effort, cost and discomfort, it is always tempting to latch on to a statement that we don’t really need to do anything at all…The denial movement, which is now estimated to be funded…to the tune of $1 billion per year” (Pg. 199).

And to top it all off, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon as his Secretary of State. That’s right – the guy who led one of the richest companies in the world, which lied about the links between burning fossil fuels and climate change is now America’s Secretary of State. You couldn’t make this up.

Where is Our Resistance? 

In order for evil to prosper, all you need is for good people to sit back and do nothing. Looking at the state of the world, there appears to be a lot of good people sitting back and doing nothing. “Saddest of all is the personal paralysis that one sees in society. In the 1960s the young in the West were united in great crusades – against racism, against the Vietnam War – which showed that they really cared about the state of the world. Now, when the stakes are even higher and the need more urgent, they are passive” (Pg. 173). When our leaders fail to do the right thing, it is up to us to make them do the right thing. Think of the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement.

I am astounded by the complete lack of political participation of many of my peers in my age group. Many have openly admitted that putting a cross on a ballot paper every 5 years is all they deem necessary, in terms of democratic participation. Well I’m sorry, but this just isn’t good enough – not in these desperate times! I put climate change above all other issues, but you only need to open up The Guardian website to see a plethora of urgent problems which require action. When our politicians choose to do the wrong thing, we must put them back on the right path. In an ideal world they should serve the people who elected them. In reality, many serve the big corporations who helped finance their electoral victories.

“The young are not listening or being inspired to action, and the old are not leading or teaching” (Pg. 174). We must make a stand. March, protest, sue governments or corporations if you have too. Do something. We need to get out of our selfish isolated technological bubbles.

The Worst Part

If we carry on as we are right now, the climate system will reach a series of tipping points, after which it will be impossible to stop runaway climate change. All we need to do to ensure disaster happens – is to do exactly what we are doing right now. Isn’t that a sobering thought?

As Wadhams sums up, “It is the most important problem the world faces…If we don’t solve it, we are finished” (Pg. 206).

What Can I Do?

A lot of documentaries and articles tend to shy away from advice that can actually make a difference, as it involves uncomfortable truths. We are well beyond ‘replacing lightbulbs’ now. To make a genuine difference, this is a list of things which I believe can make an impact:

  • Protest/march against ALL new fossil fuel developments (see the ‘Scary Numbers’ section above).
  • Reduce our consumption of meat, particularly beef.
  • Drive less, or purchase an electric car (assuming that our grid will move away from fossil fuel generation plants).
  • Fly less.
  • Stop reading tabloids, which present lies as truths and focus on sensationalism as opposed to reality. I can’t emphasise enough the role the media has played in the failure of climate change science communication. Major tabloids to be avoided include The Daily Mail and The Sun. It’s worth noting that The Telegraph has employed climate change sceptics to write columns and I would suggest avoiding this paper too. The BBC has done a really bad job with climate change and I steer away from this source wherever possible.
  • Educate yourself – read this book. I’m happy to recommend more books and documentaries.
  • Hold politicians to account.
  • Hold companies to account.
  • Avoid apathy – try turn your depression into anger, or something of equal usefulness. Apathy will not solve this problem.

Looking at the state of the world and taking into account how dire our predicament is in regards to climate change, I can’t help wonder about whether we deserve saving as a species. But that’s a debate for a seperate blog post.

Links

Arctic and Antarctic sea ice at record lows – http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2017/02/16/this-is-not-good-sea-ice-at-both-poles-at-record-lows-for-january/#6792cb463404

Methane release leading to mass extinction by 2026 – http://arctic-news.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/warning-of-mass-extinction-of-species-including-humans-within-one-decade.html

Syrian civil war ignited by climate change induced drought – http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/03/150302-syria-war-climate-change-drought/

Aid agencies currently overwhelmed – https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/02/humanitarian-system-stretched-to-its-limits-says-new-research

Scary carbon emissions numbers – http://www.ourfutureisgreen.co.uk/?tag=carbon-bubble

Tar sands are game over for the climate – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/may/19/tar-sands-exploitation-climate-scientist

Merchants of Doubt book – http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/

Exxon knew about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in the 1970s – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/14/exxons-climate-lie-change-global-warming

Cli-fi Story: Beaufort Eight

10th December 2016

Much of the cli-fi out there focuses on dystopian futures. I am trying to ground my writing in the here and now, with the aim of educating people about the impacts of our activities, and what we can do to change.

The idea for the story below came about for several reasons. I wanted to show the danger of transporting fossil fuels. I wanted to highlight the fact that tar sands are the most polluting form of fossil fuels, which if we continue to extract them in line with projections, could mean “game over for the climate,” in the words of Dr James Hansen. It’s worth noting that the UK lobbied for tar sands to be allowed into the EU back in 2011 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/nov/27/canada-oil-sands-uk-backing). We also know that climate change will result in increased storminess and extreme weather. It is in these conditions, in which the story is set.

This is my first proper attempt at cli-fi. Thank you for your patience for this to be uploaded. Apologies about the formatting, WordPress did not like my original formatting at all…

Beaufort Eight

Seafarer’s folklore states that every seventh wave is the largest of a set. These men knew from experience that some myths held true.

“Brace yourselves lads, here comes the seventh!” shouted Skip, straining to be heard above the roar of the gale force winds. Skip was a bear of a man with a dark bushy beard, whose large frame was constrained by the small cabin. The plucky RNLI Guardian rode up the enormous wave and at one point her bow was vertical, her spotlight shining into the driving rain that obscured the heavens, as if searching for respite. For the men, the sensation of cresting these monstrous waves was one of being airborne, followed by a gut-wrenching crash as the vessel succumbed to gravity and dived nose first back into the frothing cauldron of the North Sea. Showers of seawater broke over the wheelhouse, sending the automatic windscreen wipers into overdrive.

“Looks choppy out there,” mused Finny, the second-in-command. Finny was the opposite of Skip in many ways; shorter, more toned with only a hint of stubble around his square jaw.

“Aye, not the best day to go for a swim,” Skip replied as his seat swung from side to side on its shock absorbers. “Do we have visuals on the tanker yet?” Finny raised his binoculars, and took advantage of their elevated position at the peak of a wave to scan the horizon. A mile to the East, clouds of dark smoke rose above the enormous tanker and were being whipped away in gusts of wind and rain. The CC Andromeda was carrying the first batch of Canadian Crude’s refined tar sands oil; 180,000 tonnes of toxic and highly volatile black gold. Despite her heavy cargo, she was fighting against the waves to maintain an upright position.

“Affirmative Skip, she’s a mile to starboard, but she’s run ragged. Plumes of thick smoke above the wheelhouse and she is making a rough time of the weather.” Skip evaluated the information carefully. The distress signal had come from a tanker – common vessels in these waters, but there had been no mention of a fire onboard. He knew that the difficulty and danger of a rescue had increased immeasurably.

Skip negotiated the next wave and waited for the thunderclap of the vessel’s hull slamming back into the tumultuous sea to subside. He reached above his head for the VHF controller and spoke in a deep Scottish accent, “CC Andromeda, this is the RNLI Guardian. Do you copy? Over.” The static crackle of the receiver was drowned out by the howling wind and rain. “CC Andromeda, this is the coastguard aboard RNLI Guardian. We have you in sight. DO-YOU- COPY? Over.” Silence. Skip reasoned that it was implausible that the crew had abandoned ship. Yet the radio silence was an ominous sign.

One hour after the initial call out, they had their first close up sighting of the Andromeda. As they approached, their spotlight fell on small figures on the windswept deck of the tanker, distinguishable by their orange high visibility life jackets. One of the figures on the deck threw something overboard, which was lifted away on the wind, before it lashed the side of the vessel. Skip said a silent prayer of thanks; the crew onboard the Andromeda had had the good sense to rig up a rope ladder, which was now swaying violently in the wind. A break in the clouds gave them respite from the rain, but it wouldn’t last; in the distance angry purple clouds were thundering towards them.

The tiny RNLI Guardian paled in comparison to the monstrous Andromeda, which was doggedly following a course through the storm. Skip carefully manoeuvred the RNLI Guardian so that it was parallel to the Andromeda. The sides of the vessels thudded together, jarring the men onboard. Skip turned his thrusters on full to ensure the two vessels maintained contact. The men aboard the RNLI Guardian fished the rope ladder out of the gale and tied it fast to their railings. The fate of all crew aboard both ships was now bound. Finny led one of the rescue team members up the rope ladder; together they would be responsible for setting up a safety rope and harness for each crew member of the Andromeda.

Finny shouted to be heard, “Alright lads, we are going to send you down one at a time. You will each be strapped into a safety harness, but make sure you hold onto the rope ladder at all times.”

The first crew member of the Andromeda made his way down the ladder and was judging the swell of the waves which lifted the smaller RNLI vessel up and down, making the final disembarkation onto the smaller vessel a particularly hazardous undertaking. Two rescue members were standing by to assist him onboard, and unstrap him from the safety harness, which was then pulled up by Finny.

Finny felt the first drops of rain against his face, before the heavens opened in earnest once more. “Skip, the weather is turning foul again. How much longer do you think you can hold the Guardian against the side of the tanker, without being thrown off?”

“This beauty seems to be holding her ground, don’t worry about us Finny! You just get the rest of them off the vessel Matey!” replied Skip.

Skip’s positivity and cheerfulness always had a calming effect on Finny and the other crew members. However, the North Sea was in a foul mood and had other ideas. Behind the vessels, a monster twelve meter wave had reared up. Something inside Skip warned him of approaching danger, but the wave was upon them before he could act.

The RNLI Guardian was lifted high on the wave, crushing a descending crewman’s leg against the reinforced hull of the Andromeda. The RNLI Guardian was dumped on her side and the rope ladder tied to her railings snapped with a loud thwack, catapulting the crewman into the abyss with only his safety harness saving him from certain death below. His right leg hung at an angle as he clung to the rope with all the strength he had. The howling wind drowned out his agonised screams.

The RNLI Guardian’s self-righting mechanism kicked in, giving her the buoyancy she needed to regain an upright position.

“Christ Skip! Are you all okay down there?”

“We took a bit of a tumble Laddie, but we are still in one piece.” Skip replied.

“Skip, we have a casualty on the safety line. Looks like a broken leg from up here. We lost the ladder, so we’ll use the safety harness to lower him down.”

Finny carefully lowered the crewman with the broken leg onboard. With no rope ladder to climb down, the remaining crewman aboard the Andromeda had to be lowered down using the safety harness.

Finny worked methodically and one by one the remaining men were lowered down. “Skip, all men are off the Andromeda. The fire onboard is ferocious. There is no way we are getting anywhere near it without heavy duty firefighting equipment,” said Finny.

Abandoning a stricken vessel carrying a large volume of oil in horrific weather conditions did not sit easily with Skip. Yet he knew they had very few options given that they were not equipped to deal with runaway tanker fires. He was conscious that every second he delayed pushing off the tanker, he was jeopardising all of their lives.

“Aye Finny, let’s make haste and get away from this burning beastie.”  As they pulled away from the Andromeda, the rain hitting the windscreen sounded like rapid machine gun fire and the automatic windscreen wipers responded frenetically. After seeing to the injured crewman, Finny returned to his position beside Skip, accompanied by a tall man with a Mediterranean complexion and dark slicked back hair. He was clearly accustomed to larger vessels which made easier work of large waves, and was clinging to the railing beside Finny’s chair for balance.

“Skip, this is Captain Alfonso Curano from the Andromeda and he wants to speak with you urgently,” said Finny.

“Señor, my men and I would like to thank you for saving our lives,” Skip nodded acknowledgement at Curano’s words. “We were travelling south down the coast of Scotland, when a fires broke out in engine room and spread quickly to the wheelhouse. The fire spread faster than we can contain. We send a distress signal and were forced to seek refuge on deck, preparing our liferafts as final precaution,” Curano explained.

Curano’s eyes fell to his feet, as if he wanted a hole to open up and swallow him down into the seething waters below, “Unfortunately Señor, the ship’s autopilot system was programmed for the final destination and in the rush of the evacuation, I have no opportunity to override this.”

Skip’s confusion was apparent, so Finny interjected loudly to be heard above the din that was taking place all around them, “What Captain Curano is saying Skip, is that the tanker has a satnav system, which it’s programmed to follow. It works the same way as a plane’s autopilot system.”

Skip hesitated; he had a sinking feeling in his stomach, “Where was the ship destined for Captain?”

“The Andromeda”, Curano began, “is bound for Grangie-mouth.” Skip inhaled deeply as the enormity of the words struck home.

Grangemouth was the largest oil refinery port in the UK. Skip went over the route the abandoned vessel would follow in his mind. The conflagrant Andromeda carrying her combustible load would enter the Firth of Forth Estuary close to Edinburgh, before being funnelled along a narrowing channel to the port of Grangemouth. The port would be full of oil and gas tankers waiting out the storm before continuing their journeys. He guessed that half a million people would be in danger in Edinburgh alone from any explosion that occurred. He closed his eyes and tried to expel the sombre thoughts. Outside the cabin a lightning strike lit up the purple sky, accompanied by deep booming thunder which filled the small confines of the cabin. Was this nature’s way of showing what was to come?

Skip’s large paw of a hand tightly gripped the VHF controller. “Grangemouth Port, this is the RNLI Guardian requesting immediate assistance.” Before Skip could replace the controller, an unmistakable voice came blaring out of the receiver.

“Skip, we copy you loud and clear! What is your emergency?” asked John ‘Mac’ Macintyre. Mac had been enjoying a marmite and cheese sandwich, which now lay abandoned on his desk. Mac had met Skip shortly after leaving the Royal Navy half a lifetime ago. He was born in the Cairngorms and his chiselled physique was often compared to a slab of granite from those mountains which he called home.

“It’s good to hear ya voice matey,” replied Skip. “We have a right piece of trouble heading your way…you may want to sit down for this. We have rescued crew from the tanker, C-C-Andromeda.” Skip emphasised the vessel’s name to be sure that Mac could understand.

“The Andromeda!” Mac exclaimed, “What happened to her?”

“They had a fire onboard, which spread to their wheelhouse and they were forced to abandon controls.” There was radio silence from Mac. “Unfortunately that’s only half the bad news. The Andromeda has a built in auto-pilot system, which is programmed with the co-ordinates of your port. She is heading towards you Mac, and she is primed with over 180,000 tonnes of crude oil, ready to blow at any minute.”

The words felt like a physical punch in the chest and Mac’s heart stopped beating.

“God in heaven,” he finally responded. “Skip, we have a dozen other tankers in port waiting out the weather. If that tanker comes anywhere near here…” Mac couldn’t bring himself to say those fateful words.

“Aye Pal, I know. Extinguishing the fire wasn’t an option; it’s spread to the wheelhouse and we don’t have the equipment to deal with that.” said Skip.

“Copy that. By your reckoning, how much time do we have to prepare before she is on us?”

Skip considered the question carefully, “At my reckoning, based on her current speed in this weather, she should be with you in three hours.”

Once the initial panic subsided, Mac’s years of experience in the Navy came into full swing. “Understood. You get those men home Skip and be careful out there.” After Mac replaced the VHF receiver, he picked up the landline and dialled the emergency number that took him through to the office of the First Minister of Scotland. He was answered by a polite female receptionist, “Office of the First Minister, Rozanne speaking, how may I help you?”

“Rozanne – this is John Macintyre, Grangemouth Harbourmaster. I urgently need to speak to the First Minister.”

“Sir, it’s a Sunday and the First Minister prefers not to take calls on the weekend. Could you call back tomo…”

Mac cut in before the receptionist could finish, “Look young lady! This is a dire emergency, there is a burning oil tanker headed for Grangemouth. If there is an explosion, people in cities like Edinburgh could be in danger! We need to order an immediate evacuation of every town and city along the Firth of Forth Estuary.”

There was silence at the end of the line. Finally the receptionist replied, “Please hold Mr Macintyre, I am transferring you through to the First Minister.”

***

The First Minister of Scotland had travelled to her crisis room in Edinburgh, which was sparsely furnished apart from a mahogany desk that she was now sat behind. At the opposite end of the country, the Prime Minister was in her lavish office in No.10 Downing Street.

“Prime Minister, this is an unprecedented emergency. We would be incredibly grateful for all the help you can provide,” said the First Minister.

“Let me be absolutely clear that we wholeheartedly stand by you at this difficult time. We will assist as best we can.”

“Thank you Prime Minister, we really appreciate that. Whilst we have some contacts to go too, we could use your links with all the public broadcasters and media outlets to help spread the urgent evacuation orders.”

“I understand your position First Minister, but you have to appreciate that this is a delicate situation for us. We fought hard against the EU to allow oil from the Canadian tar sands to be allowed into Europe. We need to manage the flow of information carefully, to keep the press off our backs. Can you imagine the backlash in public opinion if they hear about this?”

“I’m sorry Prime Minister, I don’t quite follow. What are you suggesting?”

“As you know we have developed a close relationship with Canada, following the agreement of our new post-Brexit trade deal. Canadian Crude is the first company to take advantage of this deal. To publicly broadcast this incident in anyway could irreparably damage this new agreement.” The Prime Minister replied.

The First Minister of Scotland was lost for words. Was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom really suggesting that a trade deal was more important than the lives of her people?

“Prime Minister! There are lives at stake! Lives mean more than some agreement with an oil company! We must act now and order immediate evacuation orders to save as many lives as we can.” The anger in the First Minister’s voice gave way to exasperation.

“No First Minister, I am afraid that simply can’t be allowed to happen. You see there is an unspoken understanding between politicians and corporations. We are co-dependent on each other. One finds it easier to get elected when there is sufficient financial backing from generous companies, and in return they receive favourable policies,” the Prime Minister explained. “No. There certainly won’t be any public broadcasting of any kind and no communication with the press. We will resolve this by tackling the fire onboard the tanker. When this has been done, we will guide her into port where she will unload the first batch of oil and no member of the public will be any wiser about the whole incident.”

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing! Have you gone stark raving made Prime Minister? If we don’t evacuate and are unable to prevent the tanker from reaching Grangemouth, we will have a disaster on our hands like this country has never seen before.” The First Minister could no longer keep her frustration in check.

“I assure you First Minister, should the worst case scenario occur, a joint fund will be put together by Canadian Crude and the British Government to cover any damage that…”

“Damage?!” The First Minister interjected, “Who gives a wee shite about damage! There are lives at stake Prime Minister! Hundreds of thousands of lives! Excuse my curt language Prime Minister, but you are a heartless coward and you represent everything the electorate hates about politics, with your sycophantic pandering to big money. I can assure you Prime Minister, if any lives are lost, the blood of the victims will be on your foul hands!” The First Minister slammed the phone down, and summoned her Chief of Staff into her office.

“Is everything alright First Min…”

“Don’t even go there Hamish,” the First Minister replied, “We have no help coming from England, so we will have to manage this ourselves. I want you to issue an urgent evacuation order for all towns and cities that could be affected. Use whatever means you can to get the word out. Commandeer every form of public transport available and get as many people out as we can. It may already be too late, but we have to try.”

“Right away First Minister!” The chief of Staff turned for the door.

“One final thing – please get John Macintyre, the Skipper of the rescue ship and the Captain of the Andromeda on a conference call,” said the First Minister.

Within one hour, Scottish television and radio stations broadcast the evacuation orders. The police and emergency services were sent to every housing estate with loudhailers, warning people to leave. Every bus and train had been commandeered by the state and all were being used to evacuate the elderly and the vulnerable from Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Livingston and North Berwick.

***

Skip had negotiated his way back through the storm and was now moored up safely in Aberdeen harbour. Finny and a member of the rescue team carried the injured crewman to a waiting ambulance. As the rest of the Andromeda’s crew were escorted off the boat, Skip pulled Captain Curano to one side and headed for his office. Skip had an idea on their return journey about how the Andromeda might be stopped, and he would need to draw on Curano’s knowledge of the vessel for confirmation.

The two men had just taken their seats, when Skip’s phone rang. “Skip speaking,” he answered gruffly.

“Good Afternoon, I am the Chief of Staff for the First Minister of Scotland. You are on a conference call with one other attendee; John Macintyre. Please confirm the whereabouts of the Captain of the Andromeda?”

“Captain Curano is seated beside me,” replied Skip.

“Thank you. Please hold the line, the First Minister will join you shortly,” came the reply.

“Chaps – Nicola here. As you know we have a potential disaster approaching the heart of Scotland and we have limited resources to deal with the issue. As men, who have worked with ships all their lives, I would like to know if you have any solutions in mind for dealing with this issue.”

“Pardon me for asking First Minister, but isn’t this something a special government response team should be looking at? Isn’t this the exact reason that COBRA was set up – to deal with national emergencies?” Mac enquired.

“Unfortunately Mr Macintyre, politics has prevailed in place of common sense. Right now, we are the special response team.”

The feeling that they had been abandoned, was a hard one to swallow.

“First Minister, this is Skip from the RNLI Guardian speaking. I have a wee idea, but I can’t be certain of its feasibility. I was hoping to run it by Captain Curano, however, your call beat me to it.”

“Let’s hear it Skip! You have everyone’s attention now,” she replied.

“My idea involves two tugboats and a small speedboat,” Skip explained. “Tugboats are hardy little beggars which can tow a vessel as large as the Andromeda. I propose we send two tugboats out into the mouth of the estuary with anchors onboard each. When the tugboats are in position behind the Andromeda, they will hook the anchors onto the tanker and put their thrusters in reverse. I’ll be damn near surprised if that doesn’t slow the Andromeda down! The zippy speedboat will then get up close and personal with the tanker’s single propeller, releasing a heffing great big steel chain into its path. The steel chain will wrap itself round the propeller, forcing it to stop rotating and putting an end to the tanker’s forward momentum. The plucky tugs can then tow the Andromeda away from the estuary and the populated areas.”

“Well it’s certainly innovative Skip. Captain Curano and Mr Macintyre, what do you think?”

“This idea to me, it sounds good,” replied Curano.

“I hate to admit it, but I think it’s the best chance we’ve got,” agreed Mac.

“Right that’s settled then. I will ensure that the required boats are made available for use. We just need to identify suitable captains for the vessels.”

“First Minister, if I may? I have decades of experience on a wide range of vessels that have graced God’s blue earth. I would be honoured to be given the opportunity to perform this deed on behalf of wee bonnie Scotland,” replied Skip.

“If that old sea dog is going, you can count me in too,” said Mac.

“I too can go!” chimed in Captain Curano.

“Well gentlemen, I am truly humbled. On behalf of Scotland, I thank you for your courage and bravery. Hundreds of thousands of lives now rest on your shoulders. God speed and please don’t let us down.”

After the conference call ended, the Chief of Staff reappeared with a flustered look on his face. “First Minister, there is an urgent call for you on line two.”

“Who is it?”

“The Prime Minister,” Hamish replied, “and she sounds furious.”

***

“You didn’t think you were going without me did you?”

“Finny, I couldn’t possibly demand this of you. There is every chance the oil tanker could blow, and we would be the first line of casualties…”

“Skip, if there is the remotest chance we can prevent a catastrophe, then I’m in. Besides which, who else is going to skipper the speedboat?”

Tears were building up in Skip’s eyes, “You’re a brave one Finny,” he said, wrapping a plate sized hand around Finny’s shoulder.

A police unit had been given the order to get the men to Grangemouth Harbour as a matter of utmost priority. When Skip and Finny arrived, they found two identical tugboats lined up, next to a smaller speedboat. Skip and Captain Curano made their way into one of the lifeboats, whilst Mac boarded the other on his own. Finny and another volunteer took their seats in the speedboat.

“You know, if we had an economy that ran on clean energy, we wouldn’t be in a situation like this,” Finny suggested over the walkie talkie system.

“Too right Pal,” agreed Skip.

“More wind turbines I say!” replied Mac.

As the men started up their boats, a small crowd had assembled in port to wish them a safe and successful mission. The men took a minute to appreciate the warm wishes that accompanied the applause. Seeing the faces of the men, women and children whose lives rested solely in their hands, brought into stark relief what was at stake.

The Carbon Budget and the Carbon Bubble

26th September 2016

Carbon Budget

Bill McKibben recently published a sobering article on our remaining carbon budget, based on a new Oil Change International Report.

Bill explains that if we want to meet the target of a maximum 2°C rise in temperatures, then we can release/burn 800 gigatons of CO2. However, if we want to limit the temperature increase to the 1.5°C target agreed in Paris in 2015, then we can only emit 353 gigatons of CO2 (this is a conservative estimate, which will only give us a 50% chance of meeting the target). Our problem arises because the existing coal fields, oil wells and gas fields in operation will produce 942 gigatons of CO2 assuming all of the fossil fuels are extracted and used.

We are therefore left in a situation where we can only afford to use approximately one third of fossil fuels from all fields and wells in operation, if we want to try and stave of the worst impacts of climate change and limit the global average rise in temperatures to 1.5°C. In addition, no government anywhere on the planet can allow a new coal field, oil well or gas field to be approved. This poses a monumental challenge, as fossil fuel companies want to extract every last unit of fossil fuel they can get their hands on. But supposing our political leaders stick to their word (please keep your laughter down) and enforce the 1.5°C, then our leaders are going to have to be brave (sigh) and tell the fossil fuel companies, who just happen to be some of the wealthiest and most powerful companies in the world, that they can only extract and sell around one third of existing fossil fuels from fields and wells that are in operation. This brings me neatly on to my next point – the carbon bubble.

Carbon Bubble

Broadly speaking, the share value of fossil fuel companies are based on the assumption that all coal, oil and gas in existing fields and wells will be extracted and burned. However, as we have seen if we are to stand any chance of meeting the 1.5°C target, then we can only extract and burn one third of existing reserves. As such, there is a significant amount of ‘unburnable carbon’, which some experts refer to as ‘stranded assets’.

Assuming that there is no uptake in carbon capture and storage technology, then the true value of shares at fossil fuels companies could be as low as one third of their current valuations. The current estimates of share value are therefore unrealistic and assume ‘business as usual’ scenarios, with little to no assumptions for future climate policies – this is what is known as the ‘carbon bubble’.

From an economics perspective, there is a fear that this could lead to a similar situation as the ‘housing bubble’, which contributed to the global recession in 2008. This is because a large number of private and public bodies have invested their funds in big oil and gas companies, as they have traditionally been seen as a safe bet. The type of organisations who have invested in fossil fuel company shares, include:

  • Government organisations (including local authorities)
  • Faith based groups (i.e. churches)
  • Foundations
  • Universities and colleges
  • Pension funds (this is a massive worry – if share values plummet to reflect their true value in light of climate change policies, then what happens to people’s pension pots?)
  • NGOs
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First Global Divestment Day – 14th February 2015

A whole new movement has started up to encourage ‘divestment’ from fossil fuel companies, which is based on a moral imperative to act on climate change, but also a financial imperative to protect pension funds and university funds, from potentially massive losses should the ‘carbon bubble’ burst and share values tumble.

The excellent US based NGO founded by Bill McKibben, 350.org, has put together a fantastic resource called ‘Go Fossil Free’. On this website, you can join or start your own divestment group, and you can also view some of the 630 organisations who have divested $3.4 trillion from fossil fuel companies so far, which include:

  • Rockefeller Brothers Fund
  • University Glasgow
  • Guardian Media Group
  • Oslo Pensjonsforsikring
  • Anglican churches from around the world
  • British Medical Association
  • City of Cambridge, MA (USA)
  • Newcastle University
  • Quakers in Britain
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • University of Hawaii
  • University of Southampton

For a full list, please see: http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

Summary

The figures are simple:

  • We have 942 gigatons of CO2 that we intend to emit from current fields and wells.
  • We can only emit 353 gigatons of CO2 at the very most to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Regardless of what you believe about climate change and even if you were to ignore the moral imperative to take action, there is still a strong financial argument to move your money away from fossil fuels. Should you feel so inclined, you might want to look at where your pension provider has invested their funds and if you’re unhappy with their choice – let them know!

We appear to have a tiny amount of leeway with our remaining carbon budget, but we need to commence a ‘Managed Decline’ of fossil fuels starting now, transitioning to a cleaner and greener future.

Resources

Bill McKibben – “Recalculating the Climate Math”: https://newrepublic.com/article/136987/recalculating-climate-math

Go Fossil Free: http://gofossilfree.org/

Oil Change International Report – “The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production”: http://priceofoil.org/2016/09/22/the-skys-limit-report/