Posted by: Jon | 18/11/2009

Titanic hopes and pockets of air

The  negotiations to draft an international treaty prior to the Copenhagen talks in December have been taking place for many months now. And it seems they have not been proceeding well.

Yesterday we were informed that the summit is no longer the end of a difficult and tortuous journey towards a legally binding treaty but merely another staging post along the way. How many more times will the political goalposts be shifted before the game is taken seriously?

Many of the experts who provide the evidence that informs our leaders of the urgency of the crisis believe that it is already too late to halt global warming and see the forthcoming inter-governmental talks in Copenhagen as a last opportunity for the world to act to mitigate its worst impacts.

So while Copenhagen seems set to fail in agreeing targets to keep warming below 2 degrees, climate scientists warn that CO2 emissions have risen by 29% in the last decade and, on this trajectory, we can now look forward to a possible rise of 4 degrees by 2060 and 6 degrees by 2100. Scientists, academics and NGOs are debating amongst themselves whether the public at large should now be apprised of the worst consequences. It’s beginning to look as though not only has the game not yet been taken seriously by our leaders, but it is probably already over.

‘Game over’ of course depends on whether or not you ‘believe’ in global warming. But for those that don’t, please humour me whilst I ask you to join me on a voyage that is very familiar to all of us.

Try imagining the progress of our industrial society as being like the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Untested and unproven, but in our minds an unsinkable ship, proclaiming all that is great about human ingenuity and achievement. Bigger, faster and more magnificent than anything that has gone before and proudly embarked on its momentous journey. So large and impressive in fact that, without timely warning, the ship cannot be slowed down or altered in its course.

Now imagine the possibility of abrupt climate impacts as the 90% of a potentially hazardous iceberg that remains underwater – with its visible tip the man-made ecological and environmental hazards that we do clearly understand, such as our depleting energy reserves, our no-longer fertile soils and our degraded ecosystems, as we steer our impossible course of indefinite exponential growth in a finite world.

So let’s go aboard. Down in the engine room, the stokers are sweating hard and the engineers have become a little nervous of our speed; they have already piped the bridge that we are pushing the engines to their limits and stress cracks are appearing in the boiler casings. The officer of the watch has noted their concerns but his attention is on charting a safe course through the visible tips of the icebergs. In the Stateroom, the Captain is entertaining the ship’s corporate owners. He too would prefer a less headlong course on his unproven vessel, but the owners have decreed ‘Full Steam Ahead’ and he neither wants to appear overcautious nor to be relieved of his proud command.

Meanwhile the wealthy passengers are dining, dancing and disporting themselves in the ballroom, blithely unaware of any dangers. The lesser masses are making the best of things in the overcrowded steerage quarters down below. They are uncertain of what their future holds when the ship reaches its destination and feeling oppressed by their airless quarters and the incessant throbbing of the engines. But, inspired by the strains of music drifting down to them, their hopeful expectations keep them cheerful and uncomplaining in their immediate discomfort. It has only crossed the minds of one or two how precarious their position will be should disaster strike and they are quietly keeping their anxieties to themselves.

Let’s go down to the bilges now where we can observe how some rivets are springing from the driving pace of the overstressed ship and water is already seeping in. We can watch as the leaks groan wider and we might attempt to plug them here and there. But more are opening up around us, water is gushing in now, and there are too few of us down here to man the pumps.

We still wouldn’t know it up in the bright-lit ballroom or in the rank air of the steerage decks because we’ve yet to be knocked off our feet by any shuddering impacts or to hear the screeching tear of metal that might alert us to our plight. But down here in the hull we can see the ship is already floundering in the chilly waters of recession and listing dangerously from the burden of her overcrowded decks, her ballast shifted by the unequal weight of the rich world in the upper cabins and the poor world down below. We can realise that we don’t need to collide with the submerged iceberg of climate change to acknowledge our peril on this mighty and uncaring ocean. The ship is already taking heavy seas on board. Sudden collision now will only seal our fate.

Back on the bridge, the captain knows that everyone cannot be saved. He commands the armoury to be opened and firearms issued to the crew. The watch officer argues that the steerage passengers must be warned – perhaps some could still improvise rafts and save themselves – but the Captain is unwilling to risk the uncontrollable mayhem of panic. Meanwhile, the owners have made arrangements for themselves and their intimates to be taken off the beleaguered vessel in fast and well-provisioned lifeboats. It’s only a matter of time before the Captain will order the sealing of the watertight hatches between the upper and the lower decks. Down in steerage, we can listen to the deep drawn breathing of the slumbering masses, broken only by someone’s fitful stirring in a troubled dream. Whilst up in the ballroom the music plays on, the champagne flows and animated voices still sparkle under the glittering chandeliers.

The End.

Well, what more do you want? That’s as much as I know. I could tell you how the real Titanic story ended, but you already know that for yourselves….          

I was asked the other day by Pat Takahashi what are my goals in writing this blog? It’s a good question which perhaps I’ve only partly answered in my ‘About’ page.

I suppose I can sum it up by saying this:  I’m searching for the pockets of air in a ship that’s going down. And I’m looking for staunch companions on the way. To seek out not blind optimism but those credible pockets of hope from which we may fill our lungs before we plunge back into dark waters that might or might not deliver us up to the surface – to see with fresh eyes the infinity of the stars above.



  1. Game over or an opportunity to raise the living standard of those in steerage?

    The Global Warming Mitigation Method (GWMM) leverages the potential of the water that would otherwise inundate coastal arrears due to sea level rise, to irrigate the world’s hot deserts, which in turn have the capacity to sequester as much as 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually.

    Irrigated, viable, deserts provide sustenance and economy to some of the poorest regions of the planet.

    GWMM would develop 1 TW of electricity through the process of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). This is triple the global output of the current world’s nuclear reactor fleet. Constant production of 1TW of OTEC power over the coming century would negate the potential for thermal expansion of the World’s oceans, which is the principal driver for sea level rise. The currently most viable approach to getting water into a desert environment, the only terrestrial locations capable of taking up water that would otherwise cause sea level rise, is to convey this power to desalination plants adjacent the desert. Existing technology can desalinate water at a cost of about 1.5 KWh per m3 using Reverse Osmosis. One terawatt (TW) could therefore produce 5840 km3 of water annually which is enough to cover the World’s hot deserts with .375 metres of water per year. At that rate between 12 and 20 percent of the World’s deserts could be reclaimed to productive agricultural use, which in turn would sequester between 2 and 3 gigatons of CO2 annually.

    OTEC is a method for generating electricity, which uses the temperature difference that exists between deep ocean water, typically at 5oC and shallow ocean waters, typically about 15oC, but as high as 24oC in equatorial regions where the deserts are found, to run a heat engine.

    The working fluid of the system is a low-boiling-point fluid that is vaporized by the warm water, with the vapour driving the heat engine, which in turn drives a dynamo to produce electrical energy. The cold water condenses the vapour in a condenser

    Cold ocean water is nutrient-rich whereas the warm water has been likened to a wet desert. More than 40% of all fish caught comes from the 0.1% of the ocean where cold, nutrient-rich water upwells to the surface. OTEC artificially upwells this nutrient-rich water providing both a sustaining habitat for edible biomass and a natural CO2 sink.

    GWMM would meet the global demand for water, energy and protein at the same time as it mitigates the cause and principal effect of Climate Change.

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