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The Conversation or: “Does my Brain look Big in This?

Mark Maslin was one of the climate scientists interviewed in the Attenborough programme “Climate Change – the Facts.” He has a new article (his 24th) at the Conversation, “..in which a climate scientist interviews his climate striking daughter.”

James DykeSenior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter also has a new article at the Conversation (his 44th) called “Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientist.”

Both of them are packed full of interesting facts. Unfortunately none of the facts are about the climate. Most of them are about Dyke and Maslin.

Dyke first:

It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop … Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.

Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” ..

Not so,” he replied…

But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”

He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”

That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.

Dyke was looking for life on other planets, and explains how this led to looking at what we’re doing to our own planet. [What is it about exobiologists that makes them such worriers?]

..my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on… So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have.. we humans can make an almighty mess.

He goes on to describe this mess, in terms which are surprisingly measured for this kind of article:

Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere … the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth. What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels.

In other words, climate catastrophe is like the honeymoon in the Noël Coward/Gertrude Lawrence dialogue: “It hasn’t started yet.”

After a brief nod to Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion he gets straight to the point, which is the meaning of life, the world and everything, or as he calls it, the Technosphere:

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff.

What Haff coined was the word “technosphere” not the thing. This is not idle quibbling. It’s like: I coined the word “Craposphere” to describe the content of the Conversation – the thinking fellow’s Readers’ Digest – but I didn’t invent the phenomenon. This is important, because, by using a word coined in 2014 to define human society, Dyke effectively ignores any view of who we are and why we are that’s more than five years old, and may not gel with the stuff you’ve been reading the Conversation for the past five years. Which is what he does; at great length, taking us via Malthus and Limits to Growth to Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal, and the tentative conclusion that:

Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans…

And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.

To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.

So the conclusion of this very long article spanning the entire history of humanity is that we’re in prison and we can’t see it, and billions will die as a direct result of our blindness. And to tie it all up nicely, Dyke comes back to his chat with a climate scientist in the coffee break:

Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.

So it’s not really about the world, (or technosphere, as it’s been rebaptised) is it? It’s about the day some anonymous bloke told Dyke that we’re doomed – the day his world was changed utterly.

But not mine, not yours. Only Dyke’s.

Mark Maslin‘s article is shorter and more to the point:

He starts with an upbeat comment, confirming our view that Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and Attenborough on Netflix and the BBC have “changed the conversation on climate change.”

there’s now a groundswell of public concern that human impact on the planet is unacceptable and we’re smart enough to correct it.

The evidence for a “groundswell of public concern” is a link to an article by Roger Harrabin on the BBC website claiming that Climate change ‘may curb growth in UK flying”

The evidence for this claim comes from a statement by a senior civil servant at the Department of Transport, backed up by Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University, who “told BBC News that curbing the growth in aviation would be politically possible because, in his opinion, most flights are taken by the rich.”

I don’t know when Professor Anderson gave up flying in order to save the planet – possibly in the 1950s. But if the BBC thinks that two quotes from a civil servant and a climate scientist constitute “a groundswell of public opinion,”well, it explains a lot about the BBC.

Then Maslin gets to the meat (or more likely tofu) of his subject:

I’m a climate scientist – and have been for 25 years – but I rarely take my work home. You don’t want to be the dad that goes home telling the family the world is screwed. So I was taken aback and pleasantly surprised when my 13-year old daughter Abbie said she wanted to go on the climate strike and asked if I would go with her. Brilliant, I thought – and then there was that moment of doubt. Is this because of me? Have I influenced her in some way and she is doing this to please her dad? I decided to have a chat with her to find out why she is going to strike.

There follows a transcript of the interview with his daughter and a rather nice, though sombre, drawing by Abbie titled “the Last Flower.” She’s worried about melting ice caps, rising seas, hotter temperatures, coral bleaching, wild bush fires, storms and floods. She wants people to save energy by switching off lights and computers, turning down the heating and putting on a jumper. She wants to recycle and reuse thing a lot more, use plastics less, “… and of course protest and make adults listen to us.” This is a young lady who is heading for straight As in her Geography and Environmental Science exams.

After the interview Maslin comments:

It seems that the world doesn’t revolve around me – my daughter has been absorbing information for years and has come to her own conclusions.

Well, yes, professor. The world doesn’t revolve around you. It revolves around you and your daughter (and eventual granddaughters, as your colleague at UCL Chris Rapley will explain to you.) We knew that.

What most struck me was Abbie’s views on politicians, and her bewilderment at why leaders aren’t doing the right thing. Maybe her generation will demand better leaders – ones that really care about people and the planet..

Of course they will. We’re all demanding better leaders to “do the right thing.” Trouble is, we don’t always agree about what “the right thing” is. Which is why, up to now, we have chosen politicians as leaders, and not professors with security of tenure, because we can throw the politicians out when we want to. But what with the groundswell of public opinion and us being hell bent on destruction and all, that may have to change.

We’ve always been ruled, even if indirectly, by an unelected élite. It may be inevitable in a complex society. But once upon a time the “élite,” however you defined them, were bound together by a common culture, a common understanding of how the world is, which would stop them (mostly) from falling off the edge of rationality. They didn’t think you could enlarge your understanding of humanity by calling it a Technosphere for a start, or by embedding it in a new geological age called the Anthropocene.

One small example: anyone who has read Freud (or Wordsworth for that matter) would know that when a thirteen-year-old girl does a drawing called “the Last Flower,” she’s not commenting on the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. She’s talking about herself. We all are, most of the time. We humans are like that. And lecturers in complex systems more than most.

As well as being a full time professor, Mark Maslin is a Founding Director and Chief Scientific Officer of Rezatec Ltd. Rezatec applies data science to satellite imagery and geospatial data to deliver sophisticated, cloud-based analytics to customers owning and operating high value, distributed land-based assets. Rezatec data services enable improved margins, enhanced competitive advantage and optimised asset management for its customers.

If word were ever to get about that the climate is doing ok and your high value land based assets were quite safe in the hands of Gaia, and had no need of sophisticated, cloud-based analytics, then Professor Maslin would be out of one of his jobs. Luckily, that word isn’t likely to get about, thanks partly to Maslin senior, tenured professor and sometime BBC talking head, and Maslin junior, school striker and demonstrator.

One final note: Rezatec (founder and executive director Mark Maslin) offers its customers “enhanced competitive advantage,” presumably by keeping the information it sells out of the hands of competitors. I wonder if the IPCC (sometime author Mark Maslin) knows about that? Isn’t sophisticated, cloud-based analytics something the IPCC has admitted it doesn’t know much about?

19 thoughts on “The Conversation or: “Does my Brain look Big in This?

  1. How have such pathetic irrational
    anti-intellectual monsters risen so high in our culture?

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  2. Geoff, everyone’s brain looks big in the Conversation Craposphere. As it happens, I had a brief exchange with James Dyke a few days ago on the post about extreme sea level rise. He accused me of failing to grasp the nuance of the situation:

    “I’m afraid you have missed a good deal of nuance – that is important here. Would you get on a plane that had a 5% catastrophic failure rate? I’m assuming not. Similarly we should not ignore unlikely, but potentially very significant impacts.”

    I replied:

    “I rather think that it’s you who has missed the nuance. 5% catastrophic SLR of 2m is based on a global temperature rise and emissions scenario which is already extremely unlikely, so it’s more like 5% of 5%, which is 0.25%. I’ll take my chances with those odds, especially considering that not getting on the plane is nowhere near as detrimental as decarbonising the world by 2050.”

    Dyke says:

    “Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans…

    And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet.”

    Clearly, what he’s talking about is The Good Life. We should all be more like Barbara and Tom and forget about the technosphere. We’re not in control, so we cannot address climate change via technical solutions. We must radically alter the way we live. This, apparently, will prevent the deaths of billions of people living behind prison bars they cannot see – instead, billions of people will die from having abandoned the reliance upon the technosphere, the only thing which is actually feeding them and keeping them secure, safe and relatively insulated from the harshness of Mother Nature ‘out there’.

    Then bizarrely, Maslin takes the complete opposite view:

    “There’s now a groundswell of public concern that human impact on the planet is unacceptable and we’re smart enough to correct it.”

    Maslin thinks we are in control of the destiny of the planet and the solutions are ‘smart’, i.e. technical.

    I think what the Con wants us all to do and what Greens want us to do in general is, firstly give them all our money to solve the ‘climate crisis’ via technical solutions, then bugger off and live the Good Life in abject agrarian self-sufficient poverty so they can enjoy spending it.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. JAIME
    Yes. I read your exchange with Dyke at
    https://theconversation.com/climate-change-sea-level-rise-could-displace-millions-of-people-within-two-generations-116753

    It was interesting that he popped up while the authors of the article had failed to show when challenged by a couple of well-informed sceptics. The fact that two small numbers when multiplied together make an even smaller number has been puzzling me since the age of about eight. It’s obviously not understood by some geography professors.

    I see Paul and Kevin joined in the discussion a few days ago, and John Ridgway a few hours ago. If one of you would like to reference this article on the relevant comment threads I’d appreciate it.

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  4. Geoff, it’s not much of a Conversation as far as the authors of the article, which started the Conversation, are concerned. They haven’t responded to any critical comments; Bamber has made just two short comments only. The tax-paying public (who contribute to NERC, The Royal Society and the European Research Council – who fund Prof. Bamber’s research) deserve more for their money than just two brief comments.

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  5. Great examples of cultural belief and bias dominating the current evidence, even within some scientific circles. Mainstream science as a whole output (e.g. per IPCC/ AR5 technical chapters), no way says there is an imminent global climate catastrophe, so for now, even without reference to any skeptical position, it’s easy enough to perceive this cultural effect (i.e. as well as through social data). But who knows for AR6? Should the currently enormous gap between the cultural narrative and the mainstream science output get (largely) closed, one would not have a mainstream reference any more to point out the major cultural excesses (by comparison). But given all cultural narratives are wrong and so this one would indeed remain wrong, at that point science will have lost in theory as well as practice (already the cultural narrative dominates in most of the authority echelons). Out of the 831 scientists taking part in AR5, I could only find about about 12 or 15 who regularly tout the catastrophic. Even if this is actually an order of magnitude more (e.g. because I only searched in English, although this seems to be the main IPCC language), this is still a very modest minority, indeed as expected or the AR5 output would have been different. Unless the majority in the IPCC process and the wider mainstream science finally speak up against what their science does not support, indeed has never supported, it’s hard to see how this is not going to end very badly indeed for science.

    “But once upon a time the “élite,” however you defined them, were bound together by a common culture, a common understanding of how the world is, which would stop them (mostly) from falling off the edge of rationality.”

    This is not really so. Historically speaking elites have indeed typically been bound together by common culture, and largely this is a ‘priestly class’ expression of the wider / simpler populational beliefs (albeit all such populations simultaneously support, often widespread, innate skepticism). In modern times (more numbers and more geographical interconnections) it tends rather more to be an alliance of different but overlapping cultural interests. However, such cultural commonality is irrational from the get-go (all strong cultural narratives are wrong, truth-seeking is not their ‘job’, but strong agreement, and the two are fundamentally incompatible). And so if by ‘off the edge’ you mean ‘even more irrational’, way more, such as to cause cultural overload and breakdown, this is common in history. Often the balance mechanism of innate skepticism, aka cultural resistance (nothing to do with reasoned skepticism) rises up to perform some correction . But if this is in the form of a revolution or other serious cultural reset, that may still amount to a disaster for many involved even if the ‘decadence’ problem (in the evolutionary sense) is eventually resolved. The ‘technosphere’, as described by the excerpts here, appears to be just one more biased cultural lens with which to view the world, out of a practically infinite series of them stretching back into pre-history, and from archeological evidence of religious activity, probably since long before we were even homo-sapiens-sapiens. While every culture is different in its expression and detail, the mechanisms that drive them have always been the same throughout history, and what ultimately drives the culture of catastrophic climate change is no exception, whatever the intermediate processes and details.

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  6. The following is a comment just posted to Mark Maslin’s article.

    “There is some basic political geography missing in the views propounded by both father and daughter. Any harms to the planet are from global emissions, not just from those of the UK or from all the developed countries. No mention is made of developing countries, with >80% of the global population, >60% of CO2 emissions and about 100% of net emissions growth since 1990.
    The problem is with the Paris Agreement which specifically exempts developing countries from any obligation to start cutting their emissions. All that I find in the UK is activists clamouring to impose more onerous policies on the people of Britain, reducing living standards, without any significant reduction in any future harms. There is nothing done to persuade developing countries to change their priorities. Nor, for that matter, are there serious approaches to those nations where fossil fuel production constitutes a large part of their national income (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran etc.) to leave most of their resources in the ground.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Comment posted under the James Dyke article.

    “In terms of required policy “wider society” is not “waking up to the need for urgent action”. The graphic “Required emissions reductions to limit warming to 2°C” refers to global emissions, not the emissions of the UK and other developed countries. Developing countries – as defined by the UN – are exempt from any obligation to reduce their emissions under the Paris Agreement. With >60% of global emissions and about 100% of the net global growth in emissions since 1990, this means that any alleged benefits of actual mitigation policies with be insignificantly different to zero. But the adverse impacts on living standards of climate policies on the people of Britain are increasingly significant. “

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Despite being one of the top few at school, when I was 13 I was too busy learning and being a kid to tell other people how the world should be run. That girl should grow up – children should be seen and not heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “The problem is with the Paris Agreement which specifically exempts developing countries from any obligation to start cutting their emissions.”

    This is the process whereby developed countries sacrifice their home industries and populations by imposing ever higher taxes on energy, in order for developing nations to come up to their level, known in UN parlance as “Contraction and Convergence.”

    It is described by its initiator, musician Aubrey Meyer, as “An International Conceptual Framework for Preventing Dangerous Climate Change” and has been adopted and subscribed to by the UN and member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCC).

    http://www.gci.org.uk/, http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Climate_Emergency_Katowice_Rulebook.png

    “Climate justice” demands that everyone on the planet has an equal right to emit the same amount of CO2. Greedy western nations have, since the industrial revolution, used up their share of this allowable CO2 amount and must now pay reparation to the undeveloped nations who have not industrialised.

    Developed nations must “Contract” their economies by cutting fossil fuel usage to levels previously reported in 1990 (the Kyoto Protocol), but now the new Paris INDC’s and then transfer knowledge, technology and finance to developing nations, to bring them up to the new lowered expectations of the developed nations, described as “Convergence.”


    “Global emissions of 12.5 billion tonnes in 2019 to zero in 2040 requires a removal rate of 218 tonnes per second for the next 20 years.”

    Hence we get the “pie in the sky” auctions of promises by our politicians, talking vapidly of “zero carbon” and imposing untold hardship on future as well as present generations.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The Con claims at the top left of its web page to give “academic rigour”. But in these two articles, yet again, it’s leftist propaganda, scaremongering, and opinion.

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  11. Pessimists will never become optimists. The problem is that pessimism did get the sciency label in 1968.

    “So you are not a pessimist, then you are a science denier.”

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  12. “Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet”
    If only James Dyke knew how correct he is.
    Once people realise that the the climate is controlled by powerful natural cycles and anything we do is going to have little or no effect in comparison then people would stop getting eco-anxiety and stop worrying about future changes as there is nothing that can be done to stop them, but there is plenty that can be done to make society more resiliant.

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  13. Matthew. There is a world of difference between being able to profoundly change our environment, including climate, and being in control of the changes we cause. Changes range from the small-scale and individual, which enable us to live everywhere from the polar ice caps or dry deserts to tropical rain forests, to the regional and global when we deliberately or inadvertently change the surface albedo and our atmosphere by releasing compounds into it, thereby changing its humidity and temperature. Anyone arguing against human ability to profoundly and deliberately modify climate has never visited an oasis, or even an Andalusian courtyard.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well done Jaime at the Nonversation – and also full marks to Robin Guenier for remaining polite and persistent and continuing to make the obvious points that the alarmists always ignore, all in the face of much provocation. I was tempted to join in, but then decided I couldn’t bear to put myself through it.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. John R has joined in too, correcting a commenter who thinks that risk assessment is a science. More of an art in my opinion, which uses statistical analysis much like the artist uses paints and brushes, but where creativity is (or should be) rather more constrained.

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  16. It’s encouraging to see so many sceptical comments there, including some new names (John Goody, Rick Beesley, Joseph Peck).

    Dyke doesn’t even seem to be intelligent enough to realise that his behaviour creates scepticism.

    Like

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