Friday, 24 June 2011

Global Warming - To Australia in a box

An Environmental Flight of Fancy

As I write I am flying to Australia to help with research into the greenhouse effect, so environmental matters are very much on my mind. Through the cabin window I catch glimpses of the wonderful world we all live in.

Not even the darkness can hide the human situation on the ground, The contrast between the bright lights which mark New Delhi, and the few feeble scattered lights from the rural parts of India typify the differences between the have's and the have not's in the Third World.

In the daylight it is easier to read the "book" of the world - from the wide meandering rivers and associated swamps of Borneo to the dusty brown desserts of central Australia, with their dunes and occasional flood gullies. Elsewhere the conical black masses soaring above the distant clouds remind me that the Indonesian island arc consists of active volcanoes.

Man's visible influence on the day time scene varies from the tiny innocuous looking fishing villages along the coast, to a range of mountains which show the signs of blanket clearance of rain forest, and the suburban developments that can be clearly seen as we approach Bangkok.

At one stage the plane flies over a delightful island, whose dark green forest contrasts with the bright blue sea and the subtle colours of the surrounding coral-fringed lagoon. No-one who can see such a marvel can fail to be concerned about the future of our environment. But who else sees it? There are about 60 people sitting in window seats - and every blind but mine is firmly pulled down, Who cares about Bali when there is a shot 'em up cowboy film to watch.

I ponder the situation. There are over 300 souls on the plane. Collectively we form a small but varied subset of humanity, cocooned in a cramped capsule whose continued operation requires it to generate a ton of carbon dioxide for each of the temporary occupants it carries from London to Sydney,

I think. Are things really any better on the ground? When we arrive in Sydney we will drive in mobile petrol-driven boxes to air conditioned living hutches with fly screens designed to keep Nature at bay. Electricity is supplied by pressing a switch. Pure water comes from a tap, and having been suitably contaminated vanishes from view. And in the corner of the room that ubiquitous rectangular screen continues to pour out a stream of popular images.

To be sure, every now and again the television spends a few brief minutes on environmental issues. Tut, tut, we think, someone is damaging this world of ours. Of course, we only sit in expensive houses, with wooden furniture and bulky newspapers delivered to the door. An ill-defined they cut down forests. Flooded valleys provide other people with drinking water, and Sydney's new outfall will ensure that their sewerage will not pollute our favourite beach.

I glance at the screen. The cowboy film has been replaced by shots of cuddly koalas in a zoo, Kangaroos bound across a plain free from sheep or wire fences. Man's impact is illustrated by views of the Sydney Opera House and other technological miracles. Everyday reality is carefully ignored.

As we land safely I realise that we are all engaged on another potentially more dangerous journey. As long as we sit snugly in our little boxes, blaming everyone else for the environmental changes, mankind is almost certainly heading for a very bumpy landing, with no global seat belts, and no galactic fire fighting squad to come to the rescue if the resulting touch down is not as smooth as we would like.


In 1990 I went to Australia on a one year contract to work for the C.S.I.R.O. on a computer system to provide up-to-date information on the greenhouse effect to politicians and civil servants.  This plan was for a conventional system but with the opportunity of following up some of the ideas in my paper A Software Package for Electronic Journals. The above piece was conceived on the flight out to Australia and was drafted in a form for publication - but only submitted to one publication which rejected it.

So how have things changed since then?

Well - most modern airline seats have individual screens - rather than everyone watching the same film  - but in other ways the journey could have been taken today.  Of course more rain forest has been cleared, and some of the coral reefs are less idyllic than they were. The carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continues to increase. There is far more awareness of global warming - and there is far greater scientific understanding of possible tipping points - such as the effect of warming on the northern permafrost areas, the Atlantic Conveyor and the future of the Gulf Stream,  and the possible effects of warming oceans on methane hydrate deposits.

The problem is majority of people still live their lives as if it is someone else's problem. Most, at least in the Western World, have heard of Global Warming, but are doing very little about it. Western culture and politics is built on the concept of eternally growing economy - without realising that the there must be limits on a finite planet. 

Some people are trying - but often some environmental savings are countered by environmental waste. For instance we have cut back to a single car, used less extravagantly, had extra roof and wall insulation installed, and conscientiously recycle wherever possible. The garden is turned over to the birds - and I am in the process of rebuilding a old hedge - and when finished it will contain wild cherry, wayfaring tree, dogwood, juniper, elder, spindle, dog rose, field maple, possibly holly and undoubtedly some ivy. Wonderful natural food for the birds and it makes me feel "Green." But of course I have forgotten the environmental costs of acres of sunflowers, etc, grown to provide the sacks of feed I use each year to top up the feeders. I would be doing more for global warming if I dug up my whole garden to grow fruit and vegetables for my own consumption and forget about the birds.

But what of Australia. How did the computer system I worked on help them to prepare the changes in the  Southern Oscillation - which has a crucial impact on rainfall in Eastern Australia.  The answer is not at all. About a month after I arrived someone in C.S.I.R.O. (or even higher in the political hierarchy) decided that the work was unnecessary and the project closed down. But no great surprise - climate change deniers are nothing new.

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