Climate Change – The Facts

I watched BBC One’s Climate Change – The Facts, narrated by David Attenborough. A pity about the title, as it’s the same as a book with authors that include Anthony Watts, Nigel Lawson and James Delingpole, but I thought it was pretty good. There was a good range of researchers and commentators who were interviewed and who presented pretty clear explanations about what’s happening and what we can expect. I probably don’t need to summarise as most of my readers probably know what they would have presented. It also ended with a positive message that it’s not too late to act, and presented some things that we could do; transform our energy infrastructure, fly less, eat less meat, eat local, etc.

The thing I found interesting, though, is that it seemed to essentially follow the deficit model. The goal was clearly to present information to convince people that this is a threat we need to face. David Attenborough explicitly said if we better understand the threat we face, the more likely it is that we can avoid such a catastrophic future. Yes, there were emotive images, and a positive message, but the key underlying idea was clearly to present information about anthropogenically-driven climate change and what could happen if we don’t act soon.

Anyway, I thought it was a good programme, and it’s good to see it being presented on the BBC and it getting so much coverage and attention. I’m now watching Age of Stupid, which came out in 2009, and is now starting to seem somewhat prophetic, although we don’t seem to yet have taken much notice.

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67 Responses to Climate Change – The Facts

  1. I think that the Age of Stupid is partly based on Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. I had a rather irritating, and amusing, discussion on Twitter with Mark when he criticised an article describing how to talk to a science denier. His criticism was – in my view – correct, but he referred to the author as a typical scientist. I had to point out that they were a historian.

  2. I think the Attenborough climate change documentary was excellent. Targetted at a general public who don’t understand the subject, it clearly illustrated the impacts we’re already seeing, and the causes; and made it clear what will happen in the future if we don’t start reducing emissions with some urgency. As you say, it ended with a call to action and mentioned specific things we need to do to stop the worst happening. I was thrilled to see the lead item in the news afterwards was the Extinction Rebellion demonstration in London, which echoed beautifully with what we’d seen in the film.

    I expect the impact of this documentary to be similar to David Attenborough’s ‘plastics’ film which has really raised awareness and started action on plastics nationwide. This CC documentary is the start of legitimising discussion of CC in the popular media. From now on I expect CC ‘acceptance’ to be the norm and any residual CC denial in the media to be seen for what it is—a outlier of crazy extremists; a ‘flat-earth’ mentality. What with one thing and another there seems to be a real turning point happening at the moment. About time!

  3. Even if providing information is not effective, it is the right thing to do for a public broadcaster (or science).

  4. If only we could get people in the US on board…

  5. Any thoughts on this “review”? (As far as I know, we can’t see the show yet in North America.)

    For the longest time, I have thought that the “messaging experts'” stock recommendation for concluding with a relatively upbeat “we have solutions*” was misguided – at least insofar as how it was conveyed. It is going to take a miracle of herculean effort and sacrifice and societal change to avoid 1.5C or 2.0C, etc., but people have been leaving the theatre (or getting up off the couch) since “Inconvenient Truth” fresh off a soothing dose of spinning windmills and peppy, silent EV’s that I think has had a pernicious effect – “well, I guess it’s not really that bad, we’ve got a handle on this, technology is coming, who could have imagined the iPhone ten years ago?”, along those lines.

    It is desperately late in the game now, but as David Wallace-Wells’ “Uninhabitable Earth” and others are showing, being stark about how bad climate change is going to be is not the turn-off we were advised it would be, and maybe saying “it’s going to be hard” can’t do worse than the complete dud that “it’s going to be easy”.

    * it used to be enshrined in Anthony Leiserowitz’s decade-old+ communications mantra “It’s happening, it’s us, it’s bad, scientists agree, there’s hope (we have solutions)”.

  6. transform our energy infrastructure, (to what?)
    fly less,(a little bit less or a lot less?)
    eat less meat, eat local, etc.(the call is for government action, we’ve been told minor voluntary lifestyle changes wont do the trick. What law do you want against eating meat or imported foods?)

    This isn’t snark. People cannot “act” without some idea of what action they are supposed to take. The UK and Germany have been spending lavishly to “transform our energy infrastructure” yet this documentary suggests it’s not happening or is terribly deficient. Meanwhile after 30 years of table-pounding, people are flying more and eating the same amount of meat.

    I feel this vagueness is being used to dodge conversation around the simple fact that the type of transformation climate activists prefer is hugely expensive, not effective at reducing emissions so far, and any effort to make the climate activists’ preferred path have a significant impact on emissions would be several orders of magnitude more expensive and intrusive than anyone is willing to admit. And we’re not having that discussion because it would clearly result in nations seeking alternative low-emission paths to the one promoted by climate activists.

  7. “The UK and Germany have been spending lavishly to “transform our energy infrastructure” yet this documentary suggests it’s not happening or is terribly deficient.”

    jeffnsails850, Once again, you are forgetting that fossil fuels are finite and nonrenewable. Germany has no oil or natural gas, and perhaps a little coal. The UK is showing massive depletion from their once plentiful North Sea oil reserves and their once thriving coal output is down to nearly nil. This has nothing to do with climate change. They are searching for alternative energy sources because they have no choice.

  8. Dave_Geologist says:

    The Age of Stupid is on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

    I’m hopeful Attenborough will make a difference, at least outside of the Al-Gore-Is-Fat brigade. But bear in mind he and the Beeb have done this before, in 2006-7. Probably better coverage this time though, with extreme weather more prevalent and Extinction Rebellion coinciding.

    Will your home be habitable by your grandchildren?

    The Truth About Climate Change. Joint with the Open University but not in their online repository, presumably because of BBC copyright. Shame, because the DVD seems to be out of stock (secondhand copies are available on Amazon: I’ve ordered one and will compare the two).

    Climate Chaos Season


    BTW until the early 2000s Attenborough was skeptical (in the true meaning of the word I think, not convinced rather than in denial). He attributed being convinced to a lecture he attended, so the deficit model worked for him. Of course he’s someone who trained as a scientist and has spent a career educating and informing as well as entertaining, so it would be hypocritical of him not to respond to the deficit model. The lecture didn’t contain anything new, so I suspect he had just regarded it as peripheral and long-term if a problem at all, and not given it his proper attention. That may seem strange, but I suspect that to someone like him (and David Bellamy), it was hard in the 1990s to see climate change as a threat on a par with habitat destruction, pollution, poaching and overfishing, which was immediate and in their faces. To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

  9. “jeffnsails850, Once again, you are forgetting that fossil fuels are finite and nonrenewable. ”

    I’m not forgetting that, I’m asking the BBC and activists to actually talk about their policies rather than pretend that deniers are preventing governments from saying we all, voluntarily of course, simply “have to fly a little less”.
    Once people see the actual costs of activists goals, they will seek alternatives that are less costly IMO. I could be wrong- let’s see the BBC documentary that calls for banning air travel, shows how much it will cost to cut the next 50% of emissions using renewables, limits meat, and forbids food grown outside the UK.

    Did the BBC show say this is all really about peak oil and not really about climate change? If so, it’s hard to understand why they’d participate in that charade.

  10. jeffnsails850 said:
    “Did the BBC show say this is all really about peak oil and not really about climate change? If so, it’s hard to understand why they’d participate in that charade.”

    Everyone in the media realizes that you should only stick to one bullet point at a time. That bullet point is climate change, while peak oil provides the “No Regrets” policy as backup — i.e. if climate change doesn’t pan out as predicted we always have to deal with peak oil, thus we will have no regrets.

    Isn’t it simple if you understand how public policy works?

  11. jeff,

    Once people see the actual costs of activists goals, they will seek alternatives that are less costly IMO. I could be wrong- let’s see the BBC documentary that calls for banning air travel, shows how much it will cost to cut the next 50% of emissions using renewables, limits meat, and forbids food grown outside the UK.

    Yes, I think getting emissions to reduce so as to avoid something like 2C of warming is going to be difficult/expensive. That doesn’t change if we fail to do so, we are likely to face increasingly severe impacts of climate change. If others have better ideas of how to get emissions to reduce, I’m more than happy to hear them.

  12. The thinking behind this documentary appears to be that if people understand how costly imminent climate change will be—drought, flooding, crop failures, extreme weather, migration from the tropics, biodiversity loss, sea level rise were all covered—then they’ll be prepared to change their lifestyles and even make sacrifices.

    I read a comment on Twitter yesterday about a report that Scandinavians were now developing a climate-based guilt complex about flying. They are well ahead of us, but it’s only a matter of time. I also read a comment about a UK radio presenter mentioning the Extinction Rebellion traffic hold-ups saying, “We all sympathise with their aims but…”.

    Once this ball starts rolling don’t be surprised how far it will roll.

  13. ATTP- where is this proposal for difficult/expensive policies? Alexandria Occassio Cortes, to her (ahem) credit, actually put one down on paper with the fact sheet on the Green New Deal and everyone’s been running from it (and denying it) ever since.

    IMO- when people see the actual expense, they are going to insist on using the much lower cost, much more reliable alternatives to fossil fuels that are available. So activists hide the actual expense, because they don’t like those alternatives.

    Finally I disagree with Paul. This isn’t about peak oil. It’s about limits to growth theory. A future with plentiful, low cost, reliable energy means people giving birth and buying things and would be a ecological disaster in the eyes of these activists even if it were done with emissions-free energy. For some strange reason, people who consider themselves climate concerned, have been willing to put climate action on hold for the last 30 years in hopes of achieving unnecessary, unlikely power-down.

  14. Willard says:

    > when people see the actual expense, they are going to insist on using the much lower cost

    That may not lead what you may presume it leads, JeffN:

    Everyone ought to know that plant-based diets cost less than meat-based ones, at least for city dwellers. Yet people still eat meat. How does your people model account for that form of akrasia?

  15. Willard- who’s saying “do nothing”? I no fan of mandatory emissions reductions but I see action all the time- they’re switching to lower emissions natural gas, expanding nuclear, installing wind and solar where it makes sense, the Tesla is beautiful and is the future of cars IMO (as long as we have plentiful low-cost power)
    My kids will drive electric cars and have abundant energy. As an interesting trivia topic, their kids might try to figure out who won climateball. Probably as a result of whatever doomsday fantasy is the fad of the moment 50 years from now.

  16. Willard says:

    Dear JeffN,

    Enough “but CAGW” peddling for the thread. The point you’re dodging is quite simple – mitigation costs less in the long run.

    Your counterfactual (“what if people saw actual expenses”) has no basis in reality.

  17. IMO- when people see the actual expense, they are going to insist on using the much lower cost, much more reliable alternatives to fossil fuels that are available. So activists hide the actual expense, because they don’t like those alternatives.

    Not only does doing nothing about climate change cost more than solving the problem (200 billion per year in 2100 according to the latest numbers), the demographic that does not want us to invest in solving the problem is also the group that likes the private US healthcare system the most. This US system costs 18% of the GDP, while the UK public system costs 8% (or 6%?) of the GDP. Those ideologues are willing to vote for parties that make them work one month every year for nothing.

    The energy system is nowadays only 6% of the economy. Wind and solar are about the same costs as fossil fuels nowadays. Surely the investment in a renewable system (even ignoring its benefits/profits) will not be so expensive that it would come anywhere near the amount some are willing to waste on healthcare.

    Maybe the real discussion is not costs, but who we would like to see suffering and prospering.

    Flying and meat are the hardest problems to solve. Maybe that is why some like to talk about them most. Flying is just 1 or 2 % of the energy use. The problem of meat is largely methane. There are people working on making cows belch less; let’s see if they can solve the trick. A large part of CO2 staying the atmosphere basically forever, while methane is gone after 10 years; so we can afford to solve this last.

  18. Jason20 says:

    Is this documentary going to be available in the U.S. anytime soon?

  19. Plenty of us in the US are on board. We are outnumbered and cheating has become legal for Republicans. And lots and lots of people are eager to attack Democrats while leaving Republicans alone. One thing about our horrors is that a lot of stalwart and intelligent people have rediscovered that politics is a noble profession and are being elected. AOC is one example (don’t start, she’s not stupid, she has lots of academic cred and can think on her feet, and the insulters are just gaming the gullible).

    New topic: I think Greta Thunberg is amazing!”Greta Thunberg urges MEPs to ‘panic like the house is on fire’”

  20. bostonblorp says:

    Is there any realistic expectation that we can keep a growth-based economic model and attendant standard of living and achieve emissions targets? If the answer is “no” or “unlikely” then we are having pointless conversations.

    With everything else being the same let’s say the “flying guilt” thing “takes off” and passenger travel plummets by 50%. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs would be lost, tourism would dry up and the economy would swoon. The markets would crash taking out 401ks, underfunded pensions and a host of other financial promises that are very near and dear to people’s hearts. Just from a partial reduction in flying.

  21. boston,
    If we fly less, we wouldn’t stop travelling and we wouldn’t stop going on holiday. The point that many are making is that the cost of climate change could exceed the benefits we accrue from fossil fuel use if we don’t do something soon to curtail our emissions. Additionally, if we don’t start thinking about/implementing alternatives soon, we could be forced into much more drastic action in the not too distant future.

  22. I would say we should commit to our environmental standards and then we will see whether growth is possible.

    Not solving climate change is clearly a degrowth strategy with enormous economic costs, whether we can grow while solving climate change is not knowable, but I personally expect so nowadays. Renewable energy has become so dirt cheap that a large part of the problem has become easy to solve.

    We have to go to zero CO2 emissions, the size of the economy you multiply that zero with is irrelevant. For other environmental problems this may be different.

  23. Not solving climate change will result in billions of deaths in the longer run, and displacements on an unimaginable scale.

    back to BBC Attenborough: My recent attention has gone to deforestation, and that segment, starting just after minute 30, is simply devastating. We’re just catching up on this one, and in some ways it’s as bad or worse than fuels.

  24. Eventual_Horizon says:

    ATTP, I don’t question the thesis that action now makes sense on every level. I ask rather whether the economic model that currently runs the world is itself the disease and everything else (its consumption and waste products) is the symptom.

    Banking on solar to save the world while we cling to our high-energy lifestyles is akin to trying to lose weight through exercise while still eating fast food for every meal. You might just be postponing a fatal heart attack a little.

    As it is a deliberate reshaping of the economy and society is a conversation only the most radical are willing to have. Meanwhile there’s a notion growing in popularity that climate change plans must address inequality – raise the standard of living of the poor. Which means they get to buy cars and appliances and air-conditioners and nicer furniture and on and on. Of course the pursuit of improved welfare should be a fundamental goal but “save the planet” coupled with “more stuff for more people” might be a bridge too far.

  25. Jason20,

    Is this documentary going to be available in the U.S. anytime soon?

    I don’t know. I thought someone had suggested that it might be being shown on one of the streaming services, but I’m not sure if it is.

  26. No streaming services necessary. I was told it might be taken down in a few weeks, not sure about that. There’s another series; this is the BBC single hour from this week.

  27. Boston
    Since when did standard of living mean “cars and appliances and air-conditioners and nicer furniture”?

  28. Eventual_Horizon says:

    @johnrussel40 – when did it not? Being able to afford an air conditioner is a huge standard of living issue around the world. As is a working fridge. Or a car to get to work or school without spending hours on public transport.

    My fundamental point is there is almost zero effort invested or traction achieved in figuring out how to get the world economy to work on a lot less inputs. We press forward assuming we can find a way to keep the ravenous beast of the modern economic engine (to which all of our fortunes is tied) fed and happy. The reality might be that it’s not possible to do that and avoid some of the nastier trajectories. Conversely it’s an incredibly tall order to get democratic societies to voluntarily pivot to a lot less consumption. It’s practically a divide-by-zero proposition to many.

  29. izen says:

    “– raise the standard of living of the poor. Which means they get to buy cars and appliances and air-conditioners and nicer furniture and on and on. ”

    That is a very parochial view of standard of living. It derives from a rose-tinted view of 1950s American society.
    For the majority of the poor, an improvement would consist of better education, better communal infrastructure and better security of tenure for occupation and living accommodation.

    Unless quasi-religious movements like Extinction Rebellion sweep the majority of the global population, trying to constrain the individual’s consumption of air travel, foods with high carbon footprints and inefficient energy use is impossible. Or would involve a level of authoritarianism along with the collapse of the current economic system that most people would regard as unacceptable. Much more effective and less deleterious of individual choice to constrain the industrial and financial systems that perpetuate, promote and protect their present proliferate exploitation of fossil fuel consumption.

    I do not demure from the necessity of change in the present economic system of mercantile oligarchy that is required to reach the zero carbon energy economy, That is needed to avoid ‘catastrophic’ climate change. But that change will happen from the effects of climate change anyway if effective action is not taken.
    But the current economic system is of relatively short historical extent. The belief that it is an inevitable and unchanging feature that will persist is countered by even a shallow view of the past. The last social ‘singularity’, the industrial revolution, swept in far greater changes in society and commerce than anything required to ameliorate the risk from climate change. The current technological singularity in genetics, meta-materials and AI is already underway, but like those living in the early 1800s, the precise direction it will take us is beyond prediction.

    All that is certain is that our present system will change radically. Either from collapse, decimation of the population and the charge of the four horsemen. Triggered by climate impacts and neo-liberal populism.
    Or from a bumpy and contentious transition to a new, more egalitarian, and efficient system of creating and distributing the revised categories of public and private ‘goods’.
    Probably a combination of both, or some as yet unimagined rupture with our present concepts of money, power, and value.

  30. izen says:

    “Or a car to get to work or school without spending hours on public transport.”

    Ah, the unexamined assumption that a job is a necessity, or like education, requires regular long journeys, beyond walking distance, away from where you reside.

  31. russellseitz says:

    I watched it too- , and there’s no avoiding how highly scripted and repetitious a production it is. The The players have been quoting the same handful of playbooks for a decade, and many of them are veteran video producers themselves. It will earn deserved Clio’s for its production values, , but it’s still what the French call with brutal candor la vulgarisation scientifique , and it’s painful to watch Attenburough reduced to reading sound bites.

  32. I watched it last night, and I have to say, it didn’t really have much impact on me except for the deforestation part (my reaction was basically the same as the scientist presenting it); however I don’t think I was really the intended audience. It would be nice if broadcasters made documentaries at different levels; I used to really enjoy science documentaries when I was young, but these days I find them basically repeating things I already know reasonably well (which is why I now find arts and history documentaries more interesting as my ignorance is well suited to the level).

  33. Dave_Geologist says:

    ATTP, I mentioned that the Postlethwaite film can be streamed on Amazon.

    Very lo-res versions of the two 2006 one-hour films can be found on YouTube, as can (or could) Iain Stewart’s 2008 BBC Climate Wars series.

    The Beeb’s Natural History and Science divisions actually have a pretty good track record. Although the high-profile big-budget shows tend to be toned down (although for some species and habitats, there are more immediate problems than climate change – they’re on track to be destroyed by other things first). And there’s always a debate about how to present these things. See Russell’s comment above. The 2006 series was mostly interviews with leading scientists. Some people will be switched off by that but touched by the image of a starving polar bear reduced to raiding seabird colonies. It’s hard to create a one-size-fits-all product.

    It’s the News and Current Affairs division which has an abysmal record. Still doing false balance years (a decade?) after they commissioned a report which concluded that they shouldn’t do false balance. Of course the denier demographic contains a lot people who don’t watch science or natural history programmes, but do listen to the News.

  34. izen says:

    “ATTP, I mentioned that the Postlethwaite film ‘The Age of Stupid’ can be streamed on Amazon.”

    Thank you for that heads-up. Watched last night. MUCH better than the anodyne earnest BBC ‘concerns’ .
    It is guilty of alarmist catastrophism… until you compare its predictions from 2009 to now.
    It is worse than we thought and we have done less than promised/needed.

    In my cynicism I did wonder how much Shell had paid for the relentless product placement…

  35. Dave,
    Thanks. Yes, that was what I was thinking of.

  36. “Iain Stewart’s 2008 BBC Climate Wars series.” which were very good (IMHO)

  37. angech says:

    Izen “All that is certain is that our present system will change radically. Either from collapse or from a bumpy and contentious transition to a new, more egalitarian, and efficient system of creating and distributing the revised categories of public and private ‘goods’.
    Probably a combination of both, or some as yet unimagined rupture”.
    You are quite right.
    Amazing to look at how we have what we have now, how much we rely on our phones and information and delivery services and yet a mere 50 years ago we had just emerged from the horse and buggy cart era. I do not know that many people, even the Ben Elton’s, can truly know where we are going to go in the next 50 years let alone what will happen on the way.

  38. Eventual_Horizon says:

    @Izen – “Much more effective and less deleterious [is] individual choice to constrain the industrial and financial systems that perpetuate … fossil fuel consumption.”

    Which, to do anything significant, would require a global shift in consciousness that could only come about from a major change in externalities – perhaps from the collapse you describe.

    Meanwhile the status quo is preserved by the capitalist system having sealed the exits. A decent education in the US today either requires you have money or assume huge debt which in turn requires the pursuit of a high-paying job. What if you want to live simply and only work part-time? Well now you don’t get healthcare so pray nothing happens to you or you’ll immediately be saddled with life-long debt or consigned to a premature demise. All roads lead back to participation in the economic engine – the international hydra which must continually drink fossil fuels and eat labor or it collapses.

    I suspect the collective Stockholm Syndrome will persist and we will remain attached to our abusive master that wrecks our planet while leaving us at best dissatisfied. Until it is too late. Meanwhile let’s run another projection on next-to-impossible solar adoption rates.

  39. angech wrote “Amazing to look at how we have what we have now, how much we rely on our phones and information and delivery services and yet a mere 50 years ago we had just emerged from the horse and buggy cart era.”

    err 1969 was the year we first set foot on the moon and the e-type jaguar had been on sale for eight years. Predicting the future is difficult, but somethings are easier to predict than others, for example the effect of greenhouse gasses on the Earth’s climate is relatively straightforward.

  40. “… A credible argument can in fact be made that the pace of technological progress has lately been slowing, not accelerating. After all, what scientific discoveries of the past 80 years rank with thermodynamics, electromagnetism, relativity, and quantum mechanics? An intelligent inhabitant of the western world in 1950 would have no trouble understanding the technology of 2000. On the other hand, a citizen from 1800 or 1900 would each have been rendered inchoate by the technologies of 50 years later…”

    You do a Rip van Winkle in 1900 and wake up in 1950 and pretty much all of the following are “wtf??” moments – airplane, radio, television, computer, nuclear bomb, nuclear power, many more.

    Do the same in 1950 and wake up today? It’s different, but you pretty much recognize everything around you. And if you are going to say “internet!”, consider as the cited article notes “It is humbling to realize that the news of (Ulysses S.) Grant’s election in 1868 traveled from New York to San Francisco almost as quickly as it would have today.”

    The changes during the 19th century are generally considered as even more radical.

    We’ve really just sped some things up and made others smaller.

    As Dikran was saying, we put men on the moon by 1969. 350,000 km away.
    Since 1971, the furthest people have ventured from the surface of the planet is a few hundred km.

    Another good article, where he compares symmetrically from 1950 – 1885 to 1950, and 1950 to 2015:

    No doubt our knowledge of physics, biology, the universe has grown tremendously, but our lives are mostly recognizable.

    Wait! I forgot about Facebook! What was I thinking??!!

  41. So, I was able to watch the program on the link via Tamino.

    I find myself in the camp with Russell Seitz and dikran. Even wrote a comment to that effect earlier, but didn’t post while feeling “oh, don’t be such a stick in the mud.”

    But to be honest, I felt like I was in a time warp. I used to get a BBC channel as part of my cable package here in Canada in the 2006-2008ish timeframe, and I used to call it “the climate change” channel. There were some quite good documentaries.And what I saw in the 2019 seemed to be made to the same script, and I, personally, didn’t really learn much. The part that moved me the most was about the forests – I particularly did not understand how pervasive palm oil is in my life, had no idea.

    Again, I am probably not the target audience. But who in 2019 is really coming to the issue where what was said in the episode is somehow new to them? Was there something special about the presentation that was going to make it finally tip certain people over in their degree of understanding or concern? Or is it just the timing, coming on the back of apparent see-it-with-my-own-eyes evidence that makes more people interested/receptive?

    I did find the standard “we have solutions!” finale tepid at best, per my first comment.

    Anyway, hopefully it is a massive game-changer that suddenly shocks the entire English-speaking world into urgent action at the enormous scale required. We’ll see, I guess. But my sense is that the school strike and extinction folks no longer need or care about primers like this, and are likely going to have greater impact ongoing.

  42. izen says:

    “You do a Rip van Winkle in 1900 and wake up in 1950 and pretty much all of the following are “wtf??” moments – airplane, radio, television, computer, nuclear bomb, nuclear power, many more.”

    Many of us commenting here have lived through the last 50 years and that may have skewed our perspective of how radical the changes have been. Consider that our parents or grandparents lived through the 1900 – 1950 transition without wtf shock or trauma because these changes are incremental and evolutionary to those that live within them.

    The comparison with the speed with which the news of (Ulysses S.) Grant’s election in 1868 travelled from New York to San Francisco with the speed of news today I find dubious. Certainly a telegram with the simple fact could travel almost as rapidly as it would on todays media. But the ‘Facebook’ you deride would also deliver several million reactions, responses and individual opinions. There is a point where the scale of the quantitative change in information communicated becomes a qualitative change in the information. This may not be a scientific advance, but the idea that it is probably as socially significant as the development of the printing press with movable type may well be correct.

    One obvious example of a vast step change in our knowledge between 1950 and now is in the structure and function of DNA. In 53 the structure, and probable hereditary function was established. Today we have the hox system, evo-devo and CRIPR.

    It is a matter of perspective, I suspect the radical nature of change is far less apparent to those living through it, than it is in hindsight. We live now in a similar state to the scientists around the 1900s when the ultraviolet catastrophe and the nature of the atom was an unfathomable puzzle. Except now it is dark matter/energy and reconciling GR/gravity with quantum theory. The Higgs boson is just the glimmer of a new frontier.

    I don’t discount the argument that scientific progress has been constrained over the last half century. In part that is because the previous advances have been applied to supporting an extra 2-3 billion people. And the extension of the mercantile system into a global infrastructure. Despite its flaws, one of which is an inhibition of change that might impede its expansion. But I think the internal contradiction between its role as support for the many and a re distributive system that concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, along with the challenges from environmental degradation and resource limits puts it on borrowed time.

    I just hope that our descendent live through the inevitable changes in science and society with the same relative equanimity we have shown, while undoubtedly looking back at their (grand)parents time as one of radical change, full of progress, and egregious errors.

  43. Cerridwen says:

    “The Age of Stupid revisited: what’s changed on climate change? Ten years after climate movie The Age of Stupid had its green-carpet, solar-powered premiere, we follow its director as she revisits people and places from the film and asks: are we still heading for the catastrophic future it depicted?”

  44. @izen,

    The predominant modern worldview is that presently we are living through an era of unprecedented technological change and innovation, whereas our grandparents were living through much, much more pedestrian change. Not vice versa. Add a Star Trek-ian influence on where the average first-worlder thinks we are (inevitably!) heading (accelerating!) towards, and we have a complete distortion of what has actually occurred.

    Diesel and gasoline engines & gas (including jet) turbines (Vaclav Smil’s “Prime Movers”), telephone, radio, television, radar, air conditioning, modern refrigeration, washing machines, electricity (ffs), computers, fission, mutual funds, Haber-Bosch, insulin, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides, I can go on and on. And many of early-to-mid 19th century advances are equally or more seminal and radical.

    You start trying to yank a few – even just one in several cases – out of the modern economy and it grinds to a halt. But much of the “ooh and aww” recent progress we could function without quite easily, if inconveniently. With some notable exceptions – GPS, semiconductors. (and yes, medicine has been revolutionized by genetics, but that’s a longer conversation).

    Now, at the same time, “The Great Acceleration” since ~1950 has no doubt had a radical effect as to how we have appliedmodern technology to human society and the planet, for better and worse, yes.

    But the blinkered “presnt-and-future-centric” fetishism with techmowology (as Ali G liked to say) is completely at odds with reality. And this is pretty broadly accepted in most economic and history of technology assessments.

  45. Sorry, but my FB feed just earnestly highlighted the Attenborough program, and highlighted this quote:

    “While Earth has survived radical climactic changes and regenerated following mass extinctions, it’s not the destruction of Earth that we are facing, it’s the destruction of our familiar, natural world and our uniquely rich human culture.”

    Which, instead of “calling me to arms!”, reminded me of the following kind of anodyne, fascinating, “good to know” info I have soothingly experienced from Attenborough in my living room over the years.

    “All life is related, and it enables us to construct with confidence the complex tree that represents the history of life.

    “Our planet, the Earth, is, as far as we know, unique in the universe – it contains life. Here, plants and animals proliferate in such numbers that we still have not even named all the different species.

    “Darwin’s great insight revolutionized the way in which we see the world. We know understand why there are so many different species.”

    As I said, I am genuinely “sorry” for experiencing it this way, because I know Attenborough and the producers are trying to deliver a sledgehammer in public broadcasting prime time.

    But there it is for me.

    Here’s the “quote” spoken/sung – clearly re-combined from several clips – and complete with the bit where auto-tuned Attenborough soars to sound slightly David Bowie-like! – … it was genuinely the first thing that came to mind..

  46. Snape says:

    Science and technology, or more broadly, human ingenuity, is responsible for all the environmental ills we see today – loss of flora and fauna, ruined ecosystems, climate change, all of it. Pretty much the same story going back thousands of years:

    The situation has become like the script of a cheesy movie: the sort that created the problems (innovative, scientist types) are the ones most needed to fix them.

  47. izen says:

    “And this is pretty broadly accepted in most economic and history of technology assessments.”

    I would be interested in links to such assessments.
    My suspicion is that the two extreme positions, science/tech/social change is stagnant now compared with radical shifts in the past against the opposite, is based on a prior assumptions for which evidence is then adduced by comparing (GMO?) apples to oranges.

  48. KiwiGriff. says:

    The internet is a step change in the human condition.
    Examine the eventual impact of the written word then printing on human civilization.
    First information could be reliable stored and retrieved by a select few with the abilty to read and write. Printing opened up the exchange of information to a larger but still limited audience.
    Now anyone so inclined can be informed of and influence the leading edge of knowledge on any topic from anywhere in real time.

    This morning from a remote location in the back blocks of NZ on a public Holiday I have read news directly from sources around the world accessed some of the latest research on topics that interest me and communicated directly with all of you without even leaving my bed.
    Thirty years ago all of these things would have been impossible for anyone even the most well resourced now the information of the world is a mouse click away for us all .

    The connections goes both ways . Not only can I keep up with what all of you are thinking I can add my two cents worth as an equal.

    The internet is an immense change in the human paradigm that we can not see because we are immersed in it .

  49. billbedford says:

    “The part that moved me the most was about the forests – I particularly did not understand how pervasive palm oil is in my life, had no idea.”

    It’s interesting to note what wasn’t said about palm oil. Half of all the millions of tons of palm oil sent to Europe is used to make ‘biofuel’, thanks to an EU directive stating that, by 2020, ten per cent of forecourt fuel must come from ‘renewable’ biological sources. Malaysia says this has ‘created an unprecedented demand’.

    To put it another way: misguided ‘action’ designed to save the planet is actually helping to damage it – although the EU has pledged to phase out palm oil biofuel by 2030.

  50. izen says:

    “Next time you take an antibiotic, think of the future children”

    The recommended dosage level of antibiotic use in humans is around 50mg/kg

    Click to access comparison-of-us-and-uk-farm-antibiotic-use.pdf

    Next time you eat some meat…

  51. David B. Benson says:

    Hottest Earth Day?

  52. mrkenfabian says:

    I remain of the view that a high profile, in depth doco series would be beneficial – but it needs to be exceptionally authoritative. Attenborough has the high level media profile but I don’t think this attempt can be enough; the imprimatur of our top science institutions is needed, with every claim and conclusion backed by documented peer reviewed science.

    My own preference would be for a doco styled as a deep review and critique, that examines each of the building blocks of our understanding of our climate system, from the observational data and experimental evidence for the radiative properties of atmospheric gases right the way through to how climate models work – and lets us look over the shoulders of independent experts as they do it. It should do so in tandem with peer reviewed publications in support of every conclusion.

    Surely the potential for high grade visualisations of climate processes has never been better – and that alone could make or break it. It needs the kind of production quality that is groundbreaking, better even than Attenborough’s “Earth” series, so that it has pervasive reach, and afterwards can become a kind of benchmark for journalists and public to hold politicians to.

  53. JCH says:

    Can anybody name an antibiotic that no longer works?

  54. dick seymour says:

    “Can anybody name an antibiotic that no longer works?”
    Any individual antibiotic is probably still efffective against something, but not what we want it to fight against.
    The resistance we’re seeing is merely evolution’s way of overcoming obstacles.
    Examples of no-longer effective antibiotics include:
    * Benzyl penicillin is now pretty much totally ineffective against Staphylococcus aureus (‘golden staph’ or MRSA) and Neisseria gonorrhoeae (the cause of gonorrhoea)
    * methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
    * vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE)
    * multi-drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MDR-TB)
    * carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) gut bacteria

    Those above with an M in their acronym have, as named, gradually overcome a number of previous treatment regimens.

    (back on topic: another source of the new BBC doc is )

  55. JCH says:

    The first reports of MRSA being resistant to penicillin came in 1942. The first time the medical corps of the 5th Marine Division used penicillin on a battlefield was Iwo Jima, in 1945. Prior to the battle, there was an outbreak of boils among the marines. Some were so bad they had to be hospitalized, and they missed the battle. During the battle, marines with lots of boils were ordered to report to aid stations for a daily penicillin shot, and most, if not all, if they survived the battle, left the battlefield boil-free.

  56. Joshua says:

    The operation was a success but the patient died.

  57. Dave_Geologist says:

    Some links to BBC and other precursors. First a real oldie from the BBC: The Reith Lectures: Frank Fraser Darling: Wilderness and Plenty: 1969. The webpage emphasises overpopulation but it was wider than that.

    Lake eutrophication due to fertiliser runoff (already a problem then)

    CO2 and global warming (he thought it was a far-future problem, but hadn’t appreciated the rate at which we’d increase our carbon footprint per head – of course to a man in late middle age, 50 years was the far future)

    Increase in water-borne pests and diseases due to change from season flooding to permanent irrigation (ditto)

    Over-use of DDT leading to pest immunity or making matters worse by killing pest predators as well as the target pest

    Accumulation of toxins at the top of the food chain (salmon in his example, but of course Silent Spring)

    Overpopulation (although he recounted a conversation with CP Snow and someone else, where one of them argued that birth rates would go down as the developing world developed)

    Famine (due to overpopulation – the Green Revolution had just started, and he acknowledged a new high-yield wheat, but pointed out that in three years, only 600 ha had been planted)

    The unsustainability of developing nations copying a western trajectory (he thought they shouldn’t for their own good, as he saw industrialisation as a necessary evil, but acknowledged that developing nations would doubt our good intentions if we told them that)

    He also prefaced some modern discussions in that he said we shouldn’t assume one magic bullet would work, but should pursue multiple options at once.

  58. Dave_Geologist says:

    You might wonder why someone would foresee birthrate decline when the Pill had just been invented, but remember that Marie Stopes was active a century ago. Which gave me an excuse to mention one of my favourite people 🙂 . She was not only a proto-feminist and a social campaigner, she was also a geologist (yeah! – palaeobotanist actually) with peer-reviewed papers to her name. I like to think that if she’d been born a century later, she’d be studying fossil leaf stomata and contributing to palaeoclimatology. And, like me, she combined her academic activities with industry work, using her skills as a consultant for coal-mining companies. She was an expert in determining the constituents of coal and in assigning rank (thermal maturity) from the degree of alteration of fossil plant matter. Which must have been something. A woman was rare enough in academia, let alone as an industry professional.

    Some more global warming links: Isaac Asimov is, of course, always worth a listen, in 1977 and href=””>in 1989 – “I had been talking about the Greenhouse Effect for twenty years”.

    And of course The Relativity of Wrong is always a useful standby when you have to confront pseudoscience.

  59. Dave_Geologist says:

    A probably-not-complete Stopes bibliography (some were specimens sent for her to identify, but she went on major expeditions to Japan and Canada):

    Stopes 1919. On the four visible ingredients in banded bituminous coal; studies in the composition of coal, No. 1.
    Stopes 1935. On the petrology of banded bituminous coal.
    Stopes et al. 1911. I. Studies on the structure and affinities of cretaceous plants.
    Stopes & Watson 1909. V. On the present distribution and origin of the calcareous concretions in coal seams, known as “coal balls”.
    Stopes 1914. The “Fern ledges”: Carboniferous flora of St. John, New Brunswick.
    Stopes 1913. II. Petrifactions of the earliest European angiosperms.
    Stopes 1914. A new Araucarioxylon from New Zealand.
    Stopes & Fuji 1906. The nutritive relations of the surrounding tissues to the archegonia in gymnosperms.
    Stopes & Kershaw 1910. The anatomy of Cretaceous pine leaves.
    Stopes 1919. An early type of the Abietineae (?) from the Cretaceous of New Zealand.
    Stopes 1918. XI. New bennettitean cones from the British cretaceous.
    Stopes 1905. On the double nature of the cycadean integument.
    Stopes 1907. The flora of the Inferior Oolite of Brora (Sutherland).
    Stopes 1921. The missing link in Osmundites.
    Stopes & Wheeler 1918. Constitution of Coal.
    Stopes 1910. Ancient Plants: Being a Simple Account of the Past Vegetation of the Earth and of the Recent Important Discoveries Made in this Realm of Nature Study.
    Stopes 1907. The” Xerophytic” Character of the Gymnosperms. Is it an” Ecological” Adaptation?
    Stopes 1910. Adventitious budding and branching in Cycas.
    Stopes 1910. The internal anatomy of ‘Nilssonia orientalis’.
    Stopes 1919. Botany or, The modern study of plants.
    Stopes 1903. The ‘epidermoidal’ layer of calamite roots.
    Stopes 1914. Palaeobotany: its past and its future.

    Oops, messed up second Asimov link.

  60. FWIW I enjoyed “the age of stupid” rather more (although I thought it hyperbolic, I don’t think there is any strong evidence to suggest it will result in the end of humans a species within a centennial timescale, but then it isn’t a documentary).

  61. Christopher Winter says:

    BostonBlorp: “Is there any realistic expectation that we can keep a growth-based economic model and attendant standard of living and achieve emissions targets? If the answer is “no” or “unlikely” then we are having pointless conversations.”

    In my opinion, taking it as axiomatic that our economy will wither without constant growth is as misguided as thinking that denying developing nations fossil fuels will keep their people poor.

  62. Paul Tikotin says:

    It seems to me that the factor most likely to move beyond our control in the foreseeable future is the release of carbon from the tundra. If that happens on a wide scale, the carbon released will be greater than anything else we have do so far. It is difficult to imaging how the results could be reversed.

  63. Norvergence says:

    Reblogged this on Norvergence and commented:
    Thanks for sharing this information. Nice Post. We at Norvergence also making people aware of climate change and global warming.

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