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The Burning Question: A Review

Taking down the fossil fuel industry with balloons and bubbles.

One argument that caught my eye quite early on in this book is our attitude to efficiency as we aim for a transition to a low-carbon society.

There are two parts to this:

1. History reveals that as each new energy source is discovered, previous resources continue to grow producing a positive feedback mechanism: The more energy we have, the more technology we can create, the greater our population will grow – creating the need for more energy.

“Coal didn’t replace existing energy sources, it augmented them.”

2. Becoming more efficient doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to leave more fossil fuel in the ground, we’ll just find another place to put it. To explain this, Clark and Berners-Lee use the analogy of squeezing a balloon: when a person or a company consumes less energy, that will free up more fossil fuel for others to use. “Governments seek to reduce their own emissions at the same time as maximising their exports of fossil fuels for use elsewhere.”

The Squeezing Balloon Effect.

The Squeezing Balloon Effect.

Over the last decade, we have become concerned about our impact on the planet, even if there are still plenty of clashing arguments: the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, hybrid cars and even low energy light bulbs. However this hasn’t made a dent in the global exponential curve of our carbon emissions. In fact, it has strengthened it.

“From 2000 to 2010, the average annual growth of carbon emissions from all man-made sources was around 2.3% higher than the long-term trend of 1.8%.”

An exponential curve means that the steepness is proportional to the height. It's the curve you get the the more of something you have, the faster that something grows, in this case, energy.

An exponential curve means that the steepness is proportional to the height. It’s the curve you get the the more of something you have, the faster that something grows, in this case, energy.

Lowering the impact of our goods and services without making our consumption more efficient has presented a great challenge to lowering our carbon emissions. Efficiency doesn’t exempt us from the positive feedback mechanism, unless the demand for fossil fuel drops as we move to a low-carbon society.

So how do we reduce the demand for fossil fuels? That’s the burning question.

If becoming more efficient alone isn’t working, what else can we do to ensure a 50% chance of keeping below a 2C increase in global temperatures?

The authors examine 3 keys areas for constraining fossil fuel use:

  1. Minimising the influence of the fossil fuel sector on politics and public opinion in carbon rich countries.
  2. Maximising the positive global influence of nations which are ready to do an ambitious deal and
  3. Stemming the flow of money into fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure.

Money is flowing into oil, coal and gas extraction and infrastructure sectors as if global warming had ever been discovered. $672m a year is spent by the fossil fuel industry in securing more energy reserves that, as Carbon Tracker reports, are not safe to burn.

bubbleFossil fuel companies raise money from pension funds, lenders and other investors such as our universities and use the capital to develop more reserves. Investors assume that this will lead to oil, coal and gas sales which will generate revenue. When carbon limits are introduced through an inevitable global climate deal, less fuel will be consumed and reserves will become stranded assets that no longer provide returns. $6.74 trillion of capital expenditure, our universities endowments and pension funds could be wasted developing burnable reserves, producing a carbon bubble.

Cutting our financial links to the fossil fuel industry will have a massive impact on how they do business. “Art galleries and cultural institutions could shun their sponsorship and institutional investors could even divest from the fossil fuel sector all together.”

fossil freeThis year, students all over the UK will be demanding that their universities go Fossil Free. Motions for support are already being passed by student unions in the UK. This is looking to be the largest global climate movement our generation will ever be part of.

The authors observe that “the rapidly growing campaign around divestment is sending a powerful message and highlighting the idea that fossil fuel production now has an unavoidable moral dimension, much like other controversial sectors such as firearms and tobacco.”

The Burning Question covers plenty more questions, empowering the reader that it is possible to reach out to the community and build this movement whether fossil fuel companies and our governments like it or not.

If you’re serious about being a Fossil Free activist then this book should be at the top of your reading list.


They came, the feasted, and now they’re (almost) gone. This week I was besieged by a flock of climate change deniers (they now go by the name Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming deniers). All comments where made by the ardent readers … Continue reading

Adding fuel to out-of-date scepticism.

I must admit I was intrigued to hear about a climate change debate happening in Oxford especially when it was involving ‘one of the world’s leading climate change sceptics’, atmospheric physicist, Professor Richard Lindzen. Little did I know, not only was it a complete waste of my time but I may of played a vital role in the push to bury any attempts to encourage the world to act on climate change.


Richard Lindzen (left) and Medhi Hasan (right) go head to head, March 7 2013, Oxford Union

In a room that hosted speakers from the Dalai Lama to Steven Hawkings, Al Jazeera presented a televised debate on “Climate Change, Fact… or Fiction?” were its host Medhi Hasan went head to head with professor Lindzen. Comments were taken from expert panellists; Professor Myles Allen from the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Mark Lynas, author and environmentalist and David Rose, the token Daily Mail reporter.

For those who understandable don’t know who Richard Lindzen is, please let me explain. Lindzen, professor of Meteorology at MIT, proposed that the Earth acts like an infrared iris, the iris being the part of your eye that widens in the dark to let more light in. In Lindzen’s theory, the Earth’s iris uses the cloud system to allow the swift exit of the surplus heat we are creating in our atmosphere due to the increase in CO2 emissions. Long story short, we can emit as much as we want and the Earth will never heat up due to this handy little escape valve. *Surprisingly, this paper was never successfully published in a scientific journal due to the lack in credibility. However, he has been a major influence in scientific policy as lead author in the IPCC Third Assessment Report on Climate Change.

*Sarcastic comment.

Al Jazeera invited Lindzen and his buddy, the Daily Mail reporter to shine light on a debate that should be long out-of-date, yet certain members of the audience dotted around the union made it clear that there was still a conversation to be had. Without sounding as conspiracist as the sceptics themselves, these audience members had an agenda and that was to make loud, misconstrued statements, interrupting the debate out of turn. When on the subject of changing weather patterns, an aging interjector announced that while in his house in Oxford during the winter, he didn’t open his window once. *Some obviously clear evidence to debunk climate change.

*I seem to use sarcasm to funnel my anger.

Hasan started the debate asking Lindzen if he’d categorise himself as a sceptic or a climate change denier. He refused both claiming he didn’t wish to be labelled, despite going by the strap line ‘most credible of all climate skeptics’. Hasan continued by presenting all the accusations that were made against Lindzen, such as science journals rejecting his paper, his theories going against proven data records and the fact that there’s a 97% consensus by climate experts that climate change is going to affect us all. Lindzen admitted to charging “oil and gas interests $2,500 a day for his consulting services”.

At the age of 73, Lindzen didn’t make an exceptional speaker, pointing this out when Hasan commented on how relaxed he was that it was due to what his doctor had prescribed him. He agreed that the Earth is warming gradually (not in the past decade he adds) with the increase in greenhouse gases, but he spent the majority of his time on stage boring the hell out of me. He claims that the climate is not as sensitive that we think it is and it can control the heat that we produce in the atmosphere. He’s sides with the IPCC in taking proper precaution in making predictions and calls mainstream media ‘alarmists’. It got interesting when the Daily Mail guy, David Rose started making claims that global warming stopped 16 years ago, bless him. Mark Lynas made reluctant attempts to speak next to hot headed sceptics while Professor Allen tried to come to some sort of consensus with Lindzen, failing at each painful attempt. The whole time, these dotted interjectors hissed and mocked any actual science that was discussed.

This was nothing but a cockfight with male experts either fighting or trying to appease Dick, the reason for this fowl debate on the subject.

It was at this moment where I began to agree with Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE. Ward expressed his anger, via Twitter, that we were giving air time to a person who is now completely irrelevant to science and research in climate change: “Yet another example of the media hosting a falsely balanced debate about climate science instead of covering the real issues.” Ward did not attend this debate and I very soon saw his point. Not only would this be reaching media in the UK, but globally and with such power to control what people take away from this issue.

Hasan, on the side of real science made some intelligent statements but the audience were too polite to speak compared to the loudmouths in front tossing the debate around, making it seem more complicated then it was. I am sorry I was there, I felt like I was a contributor to this horse and pony show. The aim was to shame the sceptic, but we just gave him a stage.


”I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.” – William Butler Yeats. Growing up in Ireland, I had the opportunity of learning about Irish mythology and the … Continue reading

Does science leave room for religion?

Last weekend, I caught my eye on a debate between Chief online editor of Nature magazine, Ananyo Bhattacharya and Senior Research fellow at the School of psychology Cardiff University, Chris Chambers over Twitter. 

Sometimes science must give way to religion.” The article that subtly shovelled  the shit into the fan.

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University wrote an article in Nature pondering the similarities between science and religion.

His holiday to the Angkor temples in Camodia made him think about the research being conducted on the Higgs Boson at CERN ”The Higgs, of course, has been labelled the ‘god particle’ because it accounts for the existence of mass in the Universe.. to probe the origins and meaning of existence itself – which, to some, is the job of religion.”

To which a commenter replied ”Leon Lederman did not want to call it ‘The God Particle’, just the opposite ‘Goddamn Particle’. The publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might me a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”

Sarewitz continued to explain that most people acquire knowledge of complicated scientific research ”through the metaphors and analogies that physicists [regarding Higgs] and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.”

He follows this by saying ”for those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

To which another commenter replied, ”believing the Higgs Boson is faith if you can’t follow the mathematics is akin to Creationists who say, ‘Well, no one was around when the universe was made, so our explanation is as scientific as yours, and evolution is religion.’ You can teach someone the mathematics to understand the Higgs Boson. Absolutely no faith is required. You can begin studying the very foundations of physics, the work forward, step by step, to see the process which led to theorizing the existence of the Boson, of formulating tests to determine if it existed, to performing those tests. At no point in the process do you need to have faith.”

Sarewitz continues to express the power of the Angkor temples ”the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs Boson can.”

Chris Chambers was first to comment on Sarewitz’s article. He believes that his arguments are” weak and deeply flawed” ”the writer argues that ‘for those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.’ This is simply absurd… My belief is rational because (a) their method of obtaining the interpreting the evidence is itself rational; and (b) their method has revealed vertifiable truths in the past. In short, they have earned my trust. This is no more an act of blind faith then believing Moscow exists even though I have never been there.”

In response to Sarewitz’s visit to the Angkor temples in Cambodia, Chambers claims; ”Here the argument is that an ‘authentic personal encounter’ has more intrinsic value then actually knowing something about reality.”

Chambers concludes by stating that science is the best way for understanding reality as it refuses to accept the unknown. If science were a person he’d be the most straight laced, pedantic fecker you’ve ever met. ”Does religion give us an insight into the ‘unknowable and the inexplicable’, as the author concludes? Of course not. It provides no knowledge, it obtains no evidence. It can only pontificate and seek to emotionally impress. Religious faith provides comfort, control, and social reinforcement for animals that are cursed (or blessed) by the knowledge that they will die.”

In response to Chambers comment on Sarewitz’s article, Ananya Bhattacharya defends Sarewitz and the role of religion in understanding scientific study. ”It was here, in their rush to defend the walls of reason from the barbarians at the gate, the scientistas unwittingly took their cue from the logical positivists and came rather embarrassingly unstuck. It is as if, given an excellent Philips screwdriver, someone had concluded that only cross-head screws are of any use. Or worse, they are the only type of screw to exist.”

Bhattacharya argues that religion may have a role to play in understanding complicated stuff like, why are we here?

The philosopher of logic, mathematics, mind and language, Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that ”ethical convictions, values and metaphysical ideas… were the most important concerns in life”

In Wittenstein’s autobiography,  Rudolph Carnap describes  ”His point of view and his attitude toward people and problems, even theoretical problems, were much more similar to those of a creative artist than to those of a scientist; one might almost say, similar to those of a religious prophet or a seer”

But what has this got to do with religion? Wittenstein didn’t believe in god. 

Bhattacharya claims that ”Sarewitz was right that accepting new research requires not blind faith but ‘belief’, and most dictionary definitions of the word are perfectly consistent with his argument.”

In continuing to defend Sarewitz against the critisisms of commenters like Chambers, Bhattacharya says ”Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside of scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.”

Is Bhattacharya arguing that religion can explain phenomena better than science or his he merely defending the argument that science is not the only explicable way of understanding our existence?

Is the aim of this argument to find real facts or to provide a comfort in understanding or even to favour a more creative way of thinking like Wittgenstein?

It seems that the argument is slightly misunderstood, surely the temples in Cambodia can give one a sense of awe of the ability of humankind to build such beautiful structures, but was the aim really to communicate the actual meaning for our existence? Religion provides comfort, science provides an explanation.

Commenter:”I have confidence in the scientists researching the Higgs mechanism because they require 5 sigma accuracy before announcing a discovery and because they have a peer review process that, over time, will enforce a convergence to more and more accurate results. To try to make that equivalent to blind belief is nonsensical and is a disservice to the men and women who dedicate their lives to discovering and elucidating new information about the real, and wonderful, world around us.”

Chris Chambers’ response to Ananya Bhattacharya’s response to Chris Chambers’ Response to Daniel Sarewitz article (are you still with me?)

Chambers explains that knowledge can be acquired in different disciplines (e.g. history) using different techniques i.e not just the Scientific Method of testing the hypothesis. But certainly not religion!

Chambers ‘’I said that science is not just the best way of understanding reality, but the ‘’best and only’’. I agree that the use of ‘’only’’ here is debatable, and whether others agree or not may depend on their definition of what science is… the scientific method is by no means the purview of the traditional sciences, many disciplines in the humanities (e.g. history) adopt what I would regard as a form of scientific method.’’

Bhattacharya’s twitter response to Chambers’ response to Bhattacharya’s response to Chambers’ response to Sarewitz’s article (that’s enough!!)

AB: I’m not going to get into quails and the rest. The point is unless your definition of the scientific method includes things like…

AB: for example Wittgenstein’s description of language or Marx’s theory of history, your statement on science being the only or best

AB: description of reality is simply wrong. There are different modes of description available! Marx’s theory is not ‘right’…

AB: in any scientific sense. But neither is it ‘wrong’. It’s a useful way of analysing, critiquing, understanding history. ie reality

AB: but it IS NOT science. Certainly not in any form that most people would recognise it. Thus your statement is incorrect. End of.

CC: It’s dangerous to assert what most ppl think is and isn’t science. Many I know agree w/ this by @Neuroskeptic

–          ‘’ Outside science, people use all kinds of methods as well. Historians have their set of methods, economists have others, all tailored to the particular demands of the case. ‘’

AB: yes i like the post too+agree you can define it widely. but are you REALLY saying you’d include Wittgenstein+Marx in there?

AB: Many thinkers have concluded similar things about the sci method but at some point, if you widen a concept too much, it becomes meaningless

CC: Yes that is one thing that I take from this debate that makes me think…

AB: For those still thinking about Wittgenstein, reality, science, religion etc, here’s a quote I just came across to stir the pot 😉

“Elementary particles are not real; they form a world of potentialities and possibilities rather than one of things or facts” W. Heisenberg

To conclude, Science might be a broader topic then your typical Biology, Chemistry & Physics, but is there room for Religion?

I wouldn’t go as far as science being the ‘best and only’ way of finding real answers, however, I can understand the beauty of religion that could inspire a person to search for knowledge. But, unless religious texts can make their way past the peer review process, I’d be hesitant to change roles.

Can we outsmart evolution?

I’m not sure if many of you have been outsmarted by a singular cellular organism, but a team of scientists led by Erdal Toprak and Adrian Veres at Harvard University are trying to understand the evolution of bacteria to stop them mutating and outsmarting their drug treatment.

Evolution, a theory developed by Charles Darwin, suggests that we have been evolving for the past 65 million years through a process called natural selection. This process creates and preserves traits that are better for survival and reproduction, allowing a species to adapt to its environment. Natural selection is not the only known cause of evolution. Mutations, which are changes in the DNA sequence of a cell’s genome, are also a major factor.

Understanding evolution may help us understand how microbes develop resistance to drug treatment. Drug resistance is the reduction in effectiveness of a drug such as an antimicrobial in curing a disease. An antimicrobial can be an antibiotic, antiparasitic or an antiviral.

Bacteria can evolve in less than 10 days due to their short generation times and large population sizes. If a bacterium gets a resistance gene stuck into its DNA, all of its progeny (offspring) will inherit the gene. Due to natural selection, bacteria with these genes survive and outgrow susceptible variants. 

Mutations in the genome of bacteria can cause it to develop resistance to antibiotics by becoming less permeable, for example. If the antibiotic manages to enter the bacterial cell, some act like unfriendly club bouncers that kick the antibiotic out the back door.

To see how bacteria mutates, the team at Harvard developed a ‘’morbidosat’’, a device that constantly monitors the growth of bacteria and dynamically regulates antibiotic concentration. They investigated how Escherichia coli responds to three different antibiotics; chloramphenicol, doxycycline and trimethoprim over 25 days. Increased resistance occurred for all drugs, however, changes were observed in different areas of the genome. These results show that by being able to locate mutations on the genome of bacteria, further research can be conducted in designing drugs to switch these mutations off, minimising resistance. Much more research needs to be conducted as E. Coli is just one species of bacteria out of millions with billions of possible mutations.

A poorly treated bacterial infection can cause resistance. This could be due to not finishing the antibiotic prescription, allowing the remaining bacteria, which was less susceptible to the drug, to survive and reproduce.

Bacteria are not the only biological tricksters. Drug resistant viruses like influenza and parasites are becoming a larger threat in developing countries.

Malaria is a mosquito- borne infectious disease caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Once in the body, the malaria parasite multiplies and invades our red blood cells. Infection with P. falciparum, if not promptly treated, may cause kidney failure, seizures, mental confusion, coma, and death.

Chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, is affordable, accessible, with low toxicity making it easy to distribute in poor regions. Research published by David J. Johnson et al, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 2004 showed how a protein called PfCRT inside the parasite had enabled it to become resistant to chloroquine by creating a ‘back door’ and sneaking the drug out of the parasite by leakage. This is a very similar mechanism to the ‘bouncers’ in drug resistant bacteria.

Resistance is caused by poor drug administration programmes such as giving doses that are too low to kill the parasite, and like with bacteria, it follows with the evolution of strains of malaria parasites which are firmly resistant to that drug.

Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) were adopted. However, in 2006, a growing number of cases of malaria resistant to Artemisinin combination treatment were reported in Cambodia and now this resistant strain has spread to Thailand and neighbouring countries. Tim Anderson of the Texas Biomedical Research Institutes predicts that mortality figures will rebound if the drug loses its efficacy. “We are seeing that the drug kills the parasite less well than it used to. That doesn’t mean that the parasites are not killed, so we can still cure patients. But the concern is that the number of patients who are NOT cured will rise.’’ A team led by Aung Pyae Phyo MD, of Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand measured how long it takes for the number of malaria parasites in a person’s blood to halve in 3,200 patients from clinics on Thailand’s western border. With artemisinin treatment, this should take around 2 hours. In Cambodia, it now takes around 5.5 hours.

Isolating genes in the malaria parasite will help researchers understand how they have evolved to become resistant.

Instead of constantly developing new expensive drugs to combat these infectious diseases, scientists are looking into how mutations on the genome of a microbe during its evolution can cause resistance. From this, drugs that stop these mutations can be taken in conjunction of the treatment allowing the antibiotic or anti-malarial do its job. 

Harnessing the Power of the Sun

The Sun consists of hot plasma with a strong and complex magnetic field. Solar  activity is connected with these magnetic properties and it is a source of heat which sustains life on Earth and controls the climate and weather.

Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir named this state of matter plasma in 1929, a term well known in medical science because, according to Langmuir, the unpredictability of plasma bared a resemblance to life itself

With greater energy demands, utilizing energy from the sun does not seem to be a sufficient alternative to our heavily depleting store of fossil fuels. But can we harness the energy of the sun rather than from the sun? Can we create our own hot ball of plasma?

Plasma is not a liquid, solid or a gas; it is an electrically neutral ionized gas of charged particles at high energy. Believe it or not, it makes up 99% of our universe.

Auroras occur when low-energy plasmas known as solar wind stream from the sun and connect with the magnetosphere and produce heated particles that give rise to the light shows.

Man- made plasma can be seen in fluorescent lights, neon signs and plasma TV screens.

I took Issac Tobin, PhD Research student in plasma physics at Trinity College Dublin out for a cocktail to ask about his perspective on plasma. Needless to say, a Singapore Sling does not contribute much to an already baffling subject. Tobin explained; ‘’because plasmas are conductive and respond to electric and magnetic fields and can be efficient sources of radiation, they are used in applications were control and precision are required such as in the production of computer chips. Plasma is also used when special sources of energy or radiation is required, like in fusion power.’’

The sun’s 15.7 million ᵒC temperature is created through fusion reactions. In it’s core, the pressure is high enough to fuse two light atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus. Energy is produced in the form of intense light and heat. Without this reaction, there would be no life on earth, never-mind cocktails on the beach.

All nuclei have a positive charge, and as like charges repel, it takes a considerable amount of energy to force nuclei to fuse. When heated, they can overcome this electrostatic repulsion and get close enough for the attractive nuclear force to achieve fusion. The fusion of lighter nuclei such as hydrogen, which creates a heavier nucleus, helium, releases more energy than it takes to force the nuclei together producing a self- sustaining reaction.

The use of lasers to replicate these extreme conditions in plasma is being researched at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California. By ‘’focussing 192 laser beams onto a tiny gold container’’, researchers hope to achieve the temperature and compression conditions that are required for a self-sustaining fusion or ”ignition” reaction, around 40- 120 million ᵒC!! Researchers hope to end up with 10 to 20 times the amount of energy that was supplied by the lasers. Even though the study was done without fully understanding the interactions taking place between the laser beams and plasma, scientists are still hopeful for our future. “These results are better than we were hoping,” says NIF boss Edward Moses.

The ‘‘ignition’’ is aimed to take place in spring 2012 so hold onto your seats for some interesting results to come.