“The Green Party in Northern Ireland is opposed to all oil drilling in Northern Ireland particularly in areas of special scientific interest and opposes the licensing of exploratory or exploitation activities that atttempt to harness shale gas reservoirs using the process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.”
As it turned out, however, we were by this time running so late that we risked missing our parsnip soup, and since no one appeared to oppose the motion, it was passed without the need for my thoughts. So, for what they’re worth…
Six months ago, like most people, I knew nothing about fracking. Now I feel a bit like Homer Simpson – I don’t know how much old stuff has been pushed out of my brain …. Because it’s a complicated issue. Not because it’s technically complex – the process itself is frighteningly crude: they drill down a mile or so, across another mile or so, send down explosives and follow them with huge quantities of water, sand and those chemicals which may or may not be added (and in practice always are) at enormous pressures, to shatter the rock in all directions. It’s about as subtle as a toddler having a tantrum.
And it isn’t complicated, either, because there are finely balanced arguments on both sides – this isn’t a GM foods or a nuclear power issue. No, it’s complicated because there are just so many ramifications that affect so many areas. With some campaigns you can say “Stop this and save the ozone layer” or “Stop this and save the dolphins”. But with fracking it’s “Stop this and save – just about everything.”
So, since you don’t want to hear me talk about just about everything, I’ll stick to just one point. The pro-fracking people say this is an economic issue. And they’re right, it is. Not in terms of jobs that the industry will bring – the headline figures of 7 or 800 are a maximum, over several counties, north and south, and over half a century. What that boils down to is probably a very few, temporary, low-skilled and low-paid construction jobs, a tiny fraction of the real careers that the renewable sector could bring. No, the important thing about fracking is the jobs and the livelihoods that it will almost certainly take away.
For years Fermanagh has been building up its reputation and success as a tourist destination. But not just any tourist destination – we don’t have an Irvinestown Disneyworld or a Lisnaskea branch of Centre Parks. We don’t even have an Enniskillen Eye. All we’ve got are loughs and forests and moutains. And that’s what people come for – to walk and climb and fish and cycle and sail and paint. They come because it’s quiet and peaceful and clean and beautiful. And that’s what it won’t be if and when shale gas extraction goes ahead.
The industry calls their sites “wellpads” which sounds quite cosy, the sort of thing that Jeremy Fisher would perch on with his fishing rod. But what they really mean are huge concreted industrial facilities. They’re full of heavy machinery, pumps, processors, generators and so on,. In America these usually operate 24hours a day, they create incredible noise and light pollution, serious air contamination, great clouds of smog and the foulest of smells. Just what you want for your next eco-holiday. Then there are giant pits to collect rainwater, which of course belongs in the local water table, and more pits for the wastewater flowback which is by now strongly saline and contaminated with heavy metals and often radioactive materials. And there are wells themselves, of course. Initially there’ll be eight on each ‘pad’ rising to sixteen or more as time goes on. And we’re not talking about just one or two sites – they’re planning on around a hundred in the Lough Allen basin alone.
These sites will of course be connected by new access roads and along these and our small country lanes will come the HGVs bringing and taking away water and materials. It’s been calculated that each wellpad (and remember, we may be talking about a hundred or more) will need over five thousand one-way, so ten thousand return trips by twenty-ton trucks and tankers. Would you go on a cycling holiday in the middle of that?
And so where will these pads be built? Some may be on farmland, which will then remain contaminated and unusable for decades or more. But it seems likely that many of them will be built right in the forests, or what used to be forests. A lot of people think that couldn’t happen, that the reason we have publicly-owned woodland is to keep it safe from this kind of exploitation. That’s what I thought, so I emailed the Forest Service just to check with them. This is the entirety of their reply.
Thank you for your email. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is the Government department charged with the statutory responsibility and power to prospect or grant prospecting licences in relation to mineral and petroleum exploration.
Any licence issued by DETI entitles the licensee to carry out exploration on any land stipulated on the licence, including land managed by Forest Service, DARD.
Licensing this activity is a matter for Minerals and Petroleum Branch, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast BT9 5BF.
Regards, Alex Brown (Forest Service)
That’s it. What that tells me is that we can’t rely on existing leglislation, we can’t rely on public bodies and we can’t rely on those who are charged with acting for the common good. That’s why Northern Ireland needs a moratorium, and we need to pass this resolution. I haven’t talked about Fermanagh’s other main industry, agriculture and the production of food for the rest of the country. I haven’t talked about what happens if the smallest amount of benzene, say, gets into any dairy farmer’s milk, and the effect of that on the whole sector. I haven’t talked about the myths that shale gas could somehow lower our carbon emissions (it’s likely that its net emissions are actually higher than coal) or that it can act as a ‘transition fuel’ – transition to what? – we already have the technology, the skills and the resources to produce abundant renewable energy.
I haven’t talked about what happens at the end of a well’s active life when it’s capped off and abandoned, with its protective casing designed to last for a hundred years and nearby acquifers which are needed for thousands. I haven’t talked about the effects on human and animal health, on drinking water and fish stocks. I haven’t talked about the likelihood of earthquakes and the effect of those on the Marble Arch Caves or of the risks of explosion and fire and what that would do to the forests. But I won’t. I won’t talk about anything else. I’ll just urge you to support this motion and to get involved in the worldwide campaign. This isn’t a Nimby matter. We’re not saying, like people do about wind farms, yes this a good idea but it’s not appropriate here. Fracking isn’t appropriate anywhere. In America, where they’ve lived with the consequences, they’re coming to realise that. The president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said last month, talking about opponents of fracking:
“These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more. They’re the mainstream.”
We in Northern Ireland need to learn from the experience of that mainstream. We need time, we need research and we need a proper framework that will protect our people, our landscape and our resources. We need this resolution.
In County Fermanagh, the beautiful Irish lakeland region where I live, we’re in danger of being fracked. For those of you lucky enough not to know, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the industrial process used to extract shale gas for commercial exploitation. Tamboran, the company who have an exploratory licence here  are holding an “Information Night” in a couple of days time to pat us peasants on the head and tell us that there’s nothing to worry about. To prepare myself I made a few notes based on the sorts of things they might want to say to us:-
Natural gas is a clean, green fuel.
So-called ‘natural’ gas is a fossil fuel just like conventional gas, oil or coal. It is made up mainly of methane together with other gases and requires extensive processing before it can be used as a fuel. Much of this processing takes place on site where its toxic elements are burned off into the air. It is therefore not an ‘alternative’, sustainable or renewable energy source remotely comparable to wind or solar power.  Methane is a greenhouse gas fifty-six times more powerful than carbon dioxide and, to make matters worse, the production of gas by fracking produces 30-50% more methane emissions than conventional gas. We are invited to see ‘natural’ gas from shale as a solution to the disastrous levels of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the burning of coal. In fact, however, this type of gas creates at least 120% and possibly 200% of the emissions attributable to coal.  Far from being an answer to the urgent problem of climate change it is potentially one of the worst elements of the problem.
Hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) has been used for over sixty years
The process was first used in the middle of the twentieth century but, crucially, not in its modern form for the extraction of shale gas. It was used in conventional oil and gas wells as they began to run dry, to push out the last vestiges of fuel. Fracking as it is now practised involves much higher pressures, longer durations, volumes of liquid and complex cocktails of chemicals. 
The process is safe and controlled
If all goes well, this type of extraction involves drilling down around six thousand feet to the shale layer then turning in a right angle and drilling between one and three thousand feet horizontally. This shaft is then cased in steel and concrete under high pressure. The drill is sent down again and drills into the shale beyond the cased section of the shaft. A pipe gun goes down next, firing explosives into the shale through perforations in its length. These explosives create mini-earthquakes, fracturing the rock. Fracturing (fracking) fluid is then pumped into the cracks at extremely high pressures, expanding them and causing new fractures to branch out deep into the shale layer. The gun is withdrawn and a temporary plug put into the shaft after which the process is repeated along its length. At each stage there is a huge quantity of mud and fluid to be pumped out of the well up to the surface together with whatever minerals and compounds they have collected on their way. When sufficient fractures have been created, the gas is pumped to the surface where VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other chemicals are burned off into the air before the gas is transported away.  The whole business is characterised by machinery and explosives operating at very high pressures, using high quantities of fluid at great depths and great distances in geological formations whose precise nature and fluctuations cannot be foreseen. The CEO of Cuadrilla Resources, the company operating near Blackpool where recent earthquakes have been attributed to their fracking operations, has admitted that “You never have control. Fractures will always go into the path of least resistance.” Another expert has explained that the attempt to crack the shale predictably is like “trying to hammer a dinner plate into equal pieces”.
We’re not going to use chemicals in our fracking fluid
This is a recent claim by Richard Moorman, CEO of Tamboran, made as a response to concerns raised by local people in the Republic and Northern Ireland, people he describes as “anti-developers”.  It contrasts dramatically with his earlier comment that a “whole truckload of stuff” would be “going down”. Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornwell University, who has over thirty years experience as an expert in rock fracturing, has stated that it is “highly unlikely” that Tamboran will in fact be able to carry out these operations with, as Moorman claims, nothing but sand and water. As far as I can tell, no other company in the world involved in hydraulic fracturing of shale does so without using a complex and usually secret combination of highly dangerous chemicals.
In Colorado, for example, 245 chemicals have been identified as being used, 91% of which have at least one detrimental effect on human health.  Many are carcinogenic and/or cause reproductive damage. (The other 9% aren’t necessarily safe but there isn’t sufficient information to know one way or the other.) 35% of the products used contain endocrine disruptors which affect the development of the brain, thyroid, pancreas etc, especially in unborn and young children, even in the ratio of one part per trillion.
The “only water and sand” claim has been made elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania where the Department for Environmental Protection repeated the claim, saying to enquirers, “What do you have to be afraid of? It’s only sand and water.”  Later it was shown that the gas company involved had in fact used fearsomely toxic chemicals in their fracking fluid which a DEP official admitted was “nasty, nasty stuff”.
The potential for confusion and obfuscation in this area is assisted by several factors. First of all, the proportion of additives to the fracking fluid is very small in percentage terms – Cuadrilla, for example, say that their fluid is 99.75% water and sand.  This may well be true, assisted by the fact that water and sand are denser than many of the chemicals added to them, but it’s the remaining 0.25% that causes the problems. As the example of endocrine disruptors shows, it only takes minute proportions of poisons to injure and kill us and the huge amounts of fluid involved mean that the quantities involved are far from negligible. Incidentally, in an area characterised by an almost complete absence of regulation (see below) Dick Cheney’s Halliburton managed to break one of the very few fracking laws by including diesel in their fracking fluid. 
Secondly, fracking fluid is only one source of hazardous chemicals in the whole extraction process. During the initial stages of the well’s construction, “drilling muds” are used to lubricate the drill bit. These harmless-sounding muds can contain toxic substances including arsenic, barium and strontium.  There are also dangerous naturally-occurring compounds deep in the geological layers which are exposed during the drilling and fracking processes and brought into our environment via the opened fractures or in the discarded waste liquid brought out of the shaft. These include pyrite, an iron sulphide which upon exposure to air or water forms sulphuric acid and iron hydroxide, heavy metals and radioactive materials.  Mr. Moorman has stated that there are no radioactive elements in the rocks where Tamboran will be operating,  but it is difficult to know how he can possibly be sure of this, especially as no independent verification has been offered. As we will also see, there are other health implications of the most serious nature involved in the drilling and processing stages of the operation.
There’s no danger of water contamination
This claim has repeatedly been made by gas companies operating throughout the world and sadly has been refuted by repeated experience. Sometimes they assert that, because there is no groundwater in the particular shale formation, such contamination cannot take place.  But a moment’s thought will show that this is entirely irrelevant. The drill which tunnels out the initial shaft may easily pass through rock formations which contain groundwater and the chaotic fractures created by explosive and high-pressure fracking fluids aren’t well-behaved enough to respect geological boundaries. Indeed, in the Blackpool operations, the bore passed through an aquifer about which the company could have had no foreknowledge.  These types of contamination have potentially deadly effects upon domestic and community water supplies, and upon the wildlife and vegetation of water and wetland habitats. Water pollution has also been caused by documented spills of wastewater onto roads and into rivers. 
The film Gasland highlighted numerous cases of families whose drinking water had been contaminated by nearby gas extraction operations including dramatic cases of tap water which could be ignited as it ran into the sink. The gas industry cannot deny the flammability of this water, demonstrated as it is on countless videos and television programmes. Instead they have put forward irrelevant technicalities and non-sequiturs: One is that no case of water contamination has officially been proven as being caused by fracking (only because the official bodies refuse to investigate and it’s impossible to separate fracking from the rest of the production process).  When chemicals associated with fracking fluids and drilling muds are found in nearby domestic water supplies, the logical conclusion is that these are the probable sources. It is only the power of the gas companies which reverses the burden of proof.
Another favourite claim is that the methane found in the water is biogenic (produced by decomposing vegetation near the surface) not thermogenic (caused by pressure within deep rock formations). In fact it isn’t always biogenic, and even if it was, the important point is its migration path not its geological source. Whichever type of methane it is, it’s getting into the water via the ruptures opened up by the drilling operations.  The truth in the worst cases has often been bought – when gas companies agree to supply affected families with transported clean water they usually insist on a gagging clause so that nothing more can ever be said. As it has starkly been put, they “trade silence for water”  .
It won’t affect your landscape or daily lives
Read any account of the experiences of communities near fracking facilities to find out the truth. Like our region, these are usually rural areas with little or no previous industry, often with stunning natural scenery and resources and depending upon agriculture and tourism. Once the drilling operations begin, the former peace and beauty of the landscape are torn apart with criss-crossed roads, huge concrete pads, ugly buildings and machinery and open pits like wounds in the earth. But the visual effect, horrific though it is, is only the beginning. Local residents tell of enormous clouds of dust and smog, twenty-four hour operation of immensely noisy diesel compressors, pumps, wellheads and dehydrators, sites lit up all night like sports stadia and noxious smells so that “the whole valley stinks”.  It isn’t just those closest to the wells who are affected; the pollution, smells and noise travel long distances to make life unbearable for people miles away who have received no royalties or sweetening payments.
A typical well density is one per forty acres, which sounds light until you realise that it means around sixteen wells per square mile. Each well requires between two and nine million gallons of water, all of which has to be transported by lorry – a conservative estimate is that one thousand return trips will be made by truck or tanker per well. That’s thirty-two thousand journeys for each square mile.  The country roads of Virginia aren’t almost heaven any more. Then there’s the question of where the water’s going to come from…
And all that’s when things go according to plan. As we’ve seen, gas is flammable stuff, and flammable stuff burns from time to time. In Colorado there have been fires in wells; one with two hundred foot high flames.  They’re worried about how their small town fire department could cope, and so should we be. In Virginia in 2008 a pipeline carrying the gas exploded, producing a fireball half a mile long.  We all watched in horror earlier this year as fires broke out across our forests and Mr. Moorman foresees that Tamboran’s operations will take place primarily in wooded areas. Well, I suppose at least there won’t be that many trees left to burn once they’ve finished: in Pennsylvania the trees and vegetation started dying even after the exploratory well was dug, before any actual fracking began, owing to an escape of chlorides from the shale. 
There’s no danger to your health
As we’ve seen above, contamination of air and water supplies are tragically common as a result of gas extraction, either from chemicals used in the extraction processes or from the sudden release of deeply buried naturally-occurring substances. There are also serious health hazards resulting from the constant operation of heavy diesel machinery which pump nitrogen oxides and VOCs into the air at dangerous levels.  In combination with sunshine (and yes, we do get the occasional shaft of sunshine, even in Fermanagh) these oxides produce ozone which can plume over 200 miles and burns the tissue of our lungs, causing or exacerbating potentially fatal respiratory conditions. ‘Fugitive’ gases such as benzene (for which the safe level is none at all) also escape into the air in the vicinity of the wells.  As Dr. Ingraffea says, “There will be a few people who will derive very high wealth from this and everyone else bears the risk of human health concerns.” 
There’s no danger of earthquakes
The earthquakes near Blackpool were almost certainly caused by the nearby fracking operations  and it is highly likely that the recent quake on the east coast of the United States also resulted from the high level of fracking activity. The US Geological Survey have confirmed that fracking and similar processes can cause earthquakes. 
We’ll abide by all regulations
Cold comfort, I’m afraid, since there are so few. Unlike the coal and other established industries, fracking has grown up in the past couple of decades when governments throughout the world have been in the pocket of big business. It’s no coincidence that one of the big players in the field has been Halliburton whose connections at the heart of the US government have been notorious. The “Halliburton loophole” whereby the gas industry in the US is exempt from almost all environmental protection law  has its mirror in many other countries, including the UK where Caudrilla’s operations haven’t been subject to an environmental impact assessment, health impact assessment or life cycle analysis (of greenhouse gas emissions).  Sadly, we can’t rely on either national or local government to look after our interests or those of our vulnerable children.
We’ll protect your interests
In a recent letter to the Anglo-Celt newspaper, Mr. Moorman promised that “To the citizens of Ireland, we will always do our best for you in our operations.”  It would be an impressive sentiment if quite so many people hadn’t heard the same from gas companies seeking lucrative mining rights. Somehow it tends to fade away as soon as the agreements are signed. In Colorado all sorts of promises were made by the mining company that it was concerned about the well-being of local people. But now they are sadder and wiser. One resident said that the most important words you’ll ever hear from a gas man are “for now”.  It means nothing, and it means that they can change their minds whenever it suits them. In New York State, at one of the most productive and “successful” sites, the chastened landowners noted that the company carrying out the work there broke its promises about the extent of the area involved, the location of roads, the lining of wastewater holding ponds, the frequency with which the ponds were emptied, the length of time taken, the attitude of the employees, who were abusive and threatening, and most of all the restoration of the land at the end of the operation. “It began to feel as though something terrible had been unleashed.”  Mr. Moorman has promised that his boards of directors will sign declarations regarding the operating practices which Tamboran will use.  Very laudable, no doubt, but he knows that such declarations have no legal power whatsoever. As a commercial company, Tamboran’s paramount duty is to maximise profits for its shareholders. If the interests of Fermanagh’s people and wildlife stand in the way of these profits, which will he really choose?
It’ll bring prosperity to the region
In what ways could that happen? There are unlikely to be significant numbers of jobs available for local people and those that might appear would be unskilled and short term. Neither are contractors likely to spend substantial sums of money in the local economy. Landowners on whose property the initial wells are sunk may receive one-off and/or royalty payments (though they may, as in Montana, have to sue the gas company for them ) but these are unlikely to compensate them for the losses they will suffer. In the United States the licence agreements offered are recognised as being unfair on the landowner, who ought really to have the protection of a proper commercial lease, but the unequal balance of power between the parties precludes this.  Once the wells are in operation, the gas company has the right to continue as long as it wants to, and to drill as many additional wells as it chooses, regardless of the expiration of the initial lease or wishes of the landowner. The owner of the land is personally liable for any damage or injury caused by the drilling operations but is unable to obtain insurance against these enormous risks. Both landowners themselves and their neighbours see the value of their properties plummeting and find themselves unable to either sell or mortgage their land. Not exactly everyone’s idea of prosperity.
Here in Fermanagh the traditional industry has been agriculture and the developing source of income is tourism. We have little or no other sources of wealth. Both of these areas are likely to be very seriously impacted by fracking. Pollutants such as ozone dramatically reduce crop yields while others cause disease and death to livestock. As for tourism, Fermanagh’s immense and unique strength is the beauty, purity and unspoiled expanse of its lakes, forests and mountains, attracting fishermen, hikers, climbers, naturalists and artists. Would any of these come to view concrete pads, wellheads, polluted holding ponds, constant heavy goods traffic and dead animals and fish? Would those who walk the hills breathing in the clean air and silence rejoice in constant engine noise and diesel stink? Nowhere in the world can fracking operations co-exist with a thriving tourist industry, least of all here where the importance of our geological and natural heritage, enshrined in the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, has been recognised by the United Nations. We are in real danger of throwing away what is most precious, economically as well as spiritually, in return for nothing at all.
Other communities have benefited from fracking
No they haven’t. The only people who have benefited are the directors, and sometimes shareholders, of gas and oil companies. As people in Colorado, Montana, Virginia, New York and many other places will sadly testify, fracking destroys communities, lifestyles and landscapes. Some are learning: in Dryden, New York, a prosperous and independent community, the town council has banned gas drilling  and in South Africa, despite tempting inducements by Shell and other companies in the poor Karoo region, the government has placed a moratorium on future permits.  As they point out, the promise of much-needed jobs is temporary; the destruction of their unique environment would be chillingly permanent. Meanwhile our neighbours in the Irish Republic whose communities would also be affected by this proposal are actively opposing it: at a recent public meeting organised by the Lough Allen Conservation Society (unlikely to be an anarchist front) more than five hundred people attended, more than the building would hold, so many had to listen from outside.
The film Gasland has been discredited.
No it hasn’t. An anonymous document called “Debunking Gasland” was produced by Energy-in-Depth, a lobbying and PR firm funded by the American Petroleum Institute, but all the criticisms made have been fully replied to by the director and his panel of experts.  Some of those issues have been mentioned above (biogenic/thermogenic methane etc.)
If fracking were really safe, could allow our unique landscape to remain unspoiled and our people to benefit from a sustainable source of energy and income, there would be no reason to oppose it. Sadly, the experiences of communities across the world, particularly in the United States which has had the longest exposure to fracking operations is very different. We need to ask hard questions before it is too late.
 quoted Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit↩
 McCarney, Damien.
Tamboran’s claims of chemical free frack fluid challenged by expert, 2011. Friends of the Irish Environment. [online] Available at: <http://www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.net/index.php?do=paperstoday&action=view&id=14394> ↩
 YogaBill, 2007. Rural Impact: What to Expect from the Gas Industry Part Two. Available at: ↩
 Bateman, Christopher. A colossal fracking mess, 2010. . Vanity Fair. [online] Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/06/fracking-in-pennsylvania-201006 ↩
[note: This post was first written around a year ago, pre-Copenhagen, when the mechanics of climate change weren’t quite so generally well-known as they are now and when a 2 degree rise didn’t seem quite so inevitable. I spent some time thinking about how best to tinker with it, but decided in the end, especially in the light of the East Anglian hysteria, to keep it as it is for the time being. Apologies, therefore, if it appears to be stating the obvious. ]
…Planet is the usual word. It’s a pity it’s so misleading. Whatever we are likely to destroy with our oil-glugging lifestyle, it isn’t the chunk of rock rotating around the sun. Earth sounds a bit cuddlier, but isn’t much more helpful, while the environment sounds like something only a geography teacher would get excited about. The trouble with all these words is that they sound like slightly geeky minority interests. You know; Charlotte collects stamps, Oliver plays chess and Duncan saves the planet. Yawn.
What we really mean is us, the earth’s inhabitants; we humans together with the other creatures, animal and plants, with whom we share this little space, everything that provides us with food and shelter and most of everything that gives us inspiration and comfort. Not the human race in centuries to come but our fellow men and women in the world now, certainly our children, and probably ourselves, unless we’re planning to pop our clogs within the next few months.
Yes, it’s all the things you’ve been feeling a bit awkward about as long as you can remember, the rainforests and pandas, but now it’s oak trees and polar bears as well, in fact most plants and animals except for cacti and mosquitoes, and most people who aren’t billionaire survivalists (and even they are likely to have a pretty dull time, with no one else but cacti, mosquitoes and other billionaire survivalists to talk to).
So this is about global warming, right? I know about that, it’s er….
… Um. It’s a bit like girls and the offside rule, we know we’ve had it explained a few times, but the actual mechanics of the thing still seem to slide around to the dark bit at the back of our brains. Briefly, global warming is the rise in the earth’s temperature which happens as a result of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the air. These gases, most importantly carbon dioxide and methane, are called ‘greenhouse’ because they let the short-wave heat from the sun through to the earth, but trap the long-wave heat rays that are reflected back again. So, just like the little glass hut your Grandad grew his prize tomatoes in, the earth gets hotter and hotter.
Of course, we need some greenhouse gases, otherwise too much of the heat that reached the earth would bounce off again and the global temperature would be around -18 degrees. Not exactly bikini weather. The problem now is that, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the concentrations of these gases, which were just right to sustain life as we knew it, have gone up dramatically. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by around a third and those of methane have doubled. So far we haven’t seen too much impact on temperatures, as most of the heat has been absorbed by the sea, but we’ve already seen global increases of 0.8 degrees, and are set for far more to come.
A short digression for those who, like me, weren’t paying attention during geography lessons at school. When we read about global temperature rises of a few degrees and wonder what all the fuss is about, we are probably confusing weather and climate. As the NASA website puts it, “climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with pop-up thunderstorms”.
It’s a bit like taking a pack of shuffled cards and turning them over one by one. You might get an ace first time, but then have to turn over another twenty or thirty cards until you find another one. That’s like weather, and the wide variation between one day and the next. But if you were to keep drawing cards from the deck and reshuffling it for long enough, you’d find that an ace turned up on average once in every thirteen cards. That’s more like climate; the long-term trend. If you found, over thousands of deals, that you were getting aces more or less often than that, you’d know that there was something dodgy about that pack of cards. In the same way, increases in the average global temperature, though they may sound small, represent real and important changes in our lives.
For example, the terribly hot European summer of 2003, when up to 35,000 may have died from the heat, forest fires raged, crops failed and there were widespread water shortages, was only 2.3 degrees higher than the average. And in the other direction, during the deepest freeze of the last Ice Age, when New York was under a mile of solid ice, average global temperatures were around six degrees lower than they are now.
But so far it’s less than a degree hotter than…?
Than before the Industrial Revolution, yes. But there’s enough greenhouse gases already in the system to make another half or degree of warming inevitable. There’s nothing we can do about that; it’s already there, just hasn’t shown through in the actual temperatures yet. So we’re talking about a 1.4 degree rise, even if everyone immediately stops doing everything. What really matters is how much hotter than that it’s going to get. As I write this the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are estimating a rise of between the minimum of 1.4 and 5.8 degrees.
That’s nearly six degrees.
It is, yes. The earth was six degrees hotter once before, 251 million years ago, during an episode called the Permian Crisis. It sounds like something your granny might have at the hairdressers, but it led to the extinction of at least 90% of all plant and animal species. If we got anywhere near that level of global warming then the prospects for any sort of life would be pretty slim. Actually, as we’ll see soon, the rise could be even more than six degrees.
There seems to be a lot of uncertainty about these figures. Can’t these scientists be any more exact than that?
Not until we are. There is a lot of uncertainty, but it’s mainly about what the actual greenhouse gas emissions are going to be over the next few years. And that, of course, depends on what we do. If we continue as we are, ‘business as usual’ then we will definitely be looking at the upper end of the range and at widespread disaster. If we act immediately to cut our emissions and to help others to do the same then hopefully we can keep the rise to a manageable level.
Which would be?
Probably under two degrees. That’s because of the direct effects of a higher rise but also because of something called ‘positive feedbacks’. (No, not the kind you get for buying stuff on eBay.) These are effects of global warming which themselves also speed up the warming process. In the European heatwave of 2003, one of the scariest things that happened was that plants, severely stressed by the heat and drought, shut down their photosynthesis mechanisms. Now instead of absorbing carbon dioxide they were producing it. The same kind of thing is already happening in the soil, which normally stores carbon but at higher temperatures, where bacteria work faster, releases it as carbon dioxide. Meanwhile layers of permafrost are melting in the Arctic, Alaska and Siberia, exposing ancient peat bogs which give out carbon dioxide and methane. As one ecologist put it,
‘We are unplugging the refrigerator in the far north. Everything that is preserved there is going to rot.’
Another type of feedback happens at the poles, where traditionally white snow and ice have reflected back a large part of the sun’s rays. Now that they are melting, more heat is absorbed, and more snow and ice melt, in a vicious warming spiral.
Two degrees of warming is generally considered to be the point at which these kinds of feedback would become unstoppable, pulling us into faster and fiercer temperature rises. And these feedback effects aren’t included in the IPCC estimates, which is why, once they really take hold, a rise of over six degrees could easily happen. We have been warned….
Browsing the teenage fiction section of the library the other day, I came across The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd. I borrowed it, planning to read a few pages and then pass it on to my sons (16 and nearly 13) but it proved impossible to rip it from my cold green hands until I’d got to the end.
The novel, as suggested by the title, is set in 2015 when, following storms which have devastated our western coasts, the U.K. is the first nation to bring in carbon rationing. It is narrated by Laura, a middle class sixth former from Greenwich in South London who plays bass in a straight edge punk band, argues with her parents and elder sister and is falling in love with the boy next door. The author is a teacher at a sixth form college and knows her environment well, with a few touches (the iPod has mutated into an ePod; a new quasi-anarchist hydro symbol is being scratched onto petrol cars) to remind us that the story is set a few years (but only a few) in the future. The love story is predictable, Jane Austen’s old favourite, and Laura’s dysfunctional parents distinctly George and Pauline Moleish (is it ever possible for teenage diaries to avoid echoes of Adrian?) but these don’t really matter, as the focus is upon the events surrounding the characters rather than their individual characteristics.
The story begins gently, with Mum’s attempts to negotiate the bus, their central heating being turned down and the family’s cuisine morphing from Waitrose ready meals to locally-grown carrots. Pretty soon, however, we’re into a summer of heatwave and drought, paralysing power outages, riots, torrential rains and the flooding of large parts of London. Meanwhile Laura’s cousin reports of the catastrophe wreaked by a hurricane across the western U.S. and we watch as European riot police strike down climate change protestors from Rome to Brussels. It’s all very much more than plausible; the virtually inevitable migration of catastrophes that are already taking place in the majority world.
The book, and its sequel, The Carbon Diaries 2017, are to be filmed for the BBC, so there will no doubt be much discussion (and dismissive contempt from the usual ‘sceptics’) of Saci Lloyd’s not-quite dystopia. Meanwhile I’ll be interested to see what our boys make of it…