Hopped out

By Steve Trewick

Stand at the side of a mainland island reserve and the impact of humans on New Zealand’s natural environment is obvious. From a landscape naturally dominated by tall forest, agricultural ‘improvement’ rapidly moved us to a uniform, virtual biological desert. Not only are the trees and birds missing, but the lichens, fungi, insects, worms and molluscs are gone. Even the bacteria and other microbes of the soil are replaced. In response we resort to counting species and prioritising conservation efforts on the scarcest and restoration effort on the rarest habitats. But, wholesale environmental changes alter not just the abundance of native species but their ecology and interactions. Ultimately, by restructuring the landscape we alter evolutionary outcomes and this has become increasing apparent as research explores biological responses to human induced climate change.

Predator fence on boundary of native forest and exotic paddock. Bushy Park sanctuary near Wanganui.

An obvious difficulty with understanding environmental change is that it is much easier to say what is, compared to what was. We are readily inured to the situation and so are accepting of the status quo. One very powerful tool that has helped biologists understand how the geographic ranges of species and population change over time is phylogeography. Simply put, this approach combines information about where individuals and populations of a species are found with information about how those individuals are related to each other. DNA sequence data reveals how closely related individuals are (their genealogy), and how genetically diverse populations are. It is this type of data that shows, for instance, how our human ancestors left Africa and migrated into Europe, then Asia before eventually colonising islands in Oceania. We now know that New Zealand was probably the last major island to have be reached by people travelling by foot and finally boat.

Genetic data from living people has revealed how their ancestors migrated from Africa around the world (values are years before present).

Since the 1990’s phylogeographic studies have revealed the influence of many environmental factors on the distribution of biodiversity. In particular, natural, global climate cycling during the last few million years of Earth’s geophysical prehistory (the Pleistocene epoch) is known to have been influential. We now know for example that in the northern hemisphere repeated extension of the arctic ice cap during ‘glacial’ episodes extinguished populations of all species in northern Europe, Asia and America; remnant populations survived in warmer southern areas. As climate alternately warmed and cooled over 10–100 thousand year cycles, the ranges of animal and plant species expanded and retracted in response.

Estimated distribution of vegetation types in New Zealand during the Last Glacial Maximum. See Wild Life New Zealand.

In New Zealand a related pattern of species range change has been inferred. Pollen records show where plant species once lived and genetic data show that during cold phases of the Pleistocene, forest reduced and was replaced in many areas by scrub / grassland communities. Animal species are expected to have responded to these changes tracking their preferred habitat in space and time (or going extinct), and this has been found to be the case for some. North Island tree wētā, for instance, appear to have tracked climate niche.

A recent study examined the response of two related grasshopper species. These endemic Phaulacridium grasshoppers live in low elevation habitat, but as is typical of short-horn grasshoppers in temperate regions they require open habitat so they can gain heat by basking in the sun. That means Phaulacridium grasshoppers do not live in forest, and they do not survive above the treeline in the subalpine zone where cool temperatures prevent trees growing (other grasshoppers are adapted to those conditions). So space for Phaulacridium would have been restricted in prehuman New Zealand to scarce open areas such as coastal dunes, river flats, wetlands and semi-arid areas.  In fact, one species (Phaulacridium otagoense) occurs today only in the semi-arid McKenzie – Alexandra area of Central Canterbury and Otago. The other  species (Phaulacridium marginale) is today found in many places around the country.

Vegetation types across New Zealand before arrival of people (left) and in modern times (right).
Known occurrences of the two New Zealand Phaulacridium grasshoppers.

A small species range usually means a small population size, compared to a species with a big range; and small populations usually have a lower level of genetic variation. Low genetic diversity is documented in many endangered species such as the famous black robins of the Chatham Islands. Paradoxically, in Phaulacridium the opposite pattern exists; the species with the smallest range (pink in map) has much higher genetic diversity than the widespread more common species. The simplest explanation is that P. otagoense (pink),  had until recently a much larger range and so bigger population. Conversely, P. marginale (turquoise) appears to have expanded its range recently and has not yet had time to accumulate new genetic diversity.

Niche models for Phaulacridium otagoense indicating optimal habitat (red, orange) during the last glacial phase may have been similar to today.

It is known that global temperatures had recovered from the last cold phase of the Pleistocene by about 15,000 years ago. Perhaps P. otagoense had a much larger range in the period before that when cooler, drier conditions allowed scrub grassland to expand; similar to conditions where it occurs today? Niche modelling indicates that in current conditions the potential range of this species is bigger than the actual range in which it is found, and  taking into account estimated temperatures during the last glaciation suggests that the habitat preferred by this species had not been much more extensive.

So, probably the major change in fortunes for these Phaulacridium species relates mostly to the recent expansion of P. marginale. Climate modelling shows that the range of this species today is close to the potential occupiable range, but there is a problem. Although the climate across much of New Zealand suits this grasshopper, other factors in the environment do not. In particular, the presence of native forest excludes these little grasshoppers because they need to bask in the sun every day to warm up. How has P. marginale become so abundant and widespread?

The answer lies not in global climate change, but in recent anthropogenic changes to the environment much closer to home. By removing New Zealand native forest, humans created a landscape with the climatic conditions to allow P. marginale to increase in abundance and expand its range across the country. The addition of a mix of northern hemisphere grasses and herbs that thrive in this artificially open environment provided the nutrient-rich food for P. marginale. So that’s great! Well no.

Males and females of different species are capable of reproduction when they meet due to anthropogenic habitat change, resulting in loss of diversity. Male Phaulacridium otagoense with female P. marginale.

The increase in available habitat has meant that the spatial range of P. marginale now meets the range of P. otagoense. Where they meet, the grasshoppers makes mistakes when choosing mates resulting in gene flow. Genetic evidence shows that pure P. otagoense remain in only part of their natural ecological range. Genetic mixing is of course part of the natural evolutionary mill, but around the world human activity accelerates the rate at which species meet and interact in new ways. The Anthropocene may come to be characterised by global biological homogenisation and biodiversity loss because these creatures cannot opt out of the mess.

Fly less, Kiwis!

By Robert McLachlan

Something’s happening here:

Climate crisis: ‘We don’t fly to go on holiday now – and it doesn’t cost the earth’ (The Guardian, 10 August 2019)

No-fly zone: Could you give up flying if it meant protecting the planet? (Adventure.com, 21 August 2019)

Travel the world without destroying it (The Conversation, 22 August 2019)

Harry and Meghan tried, but can we really make our flights carbon neutral? (The Observer, 24 August 2019)

Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? (BBC, 24 August 2019)

Cheap, easy and endless: The big lie about plane travel (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 2019)

A Future Without Long-Haul Vacations (The Atlantic, 2 September 2019)

In New Zealand, the Facebook group Fly-less Kiwis was formed to focus attention on the need to reduce air travel. Unlike some campaigns, which encourage people to stop flying completely, either for a year or forever, its aim is simply to spread awareness of this issue and to support its members’ decisions to eliminate unnecessary flying.

Aviation accounts for up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Other sources put the figure lower, at 2-3%, but this refers to only the direct CO2 emissions, not the total climate impact due to water vapour, nitrous oxides, contrails, and aerosols.) Aviation is growing extremely quickly, up 75% in 8 years:

Source: ICAO

and is projected to rise by 200-360% by 2050:

Source: ICAO 2013

So far, few countries have any measures in place to rein in the growth of aviation. Some flights incur a carbon price (for example, domestic flights in New Zealand and internal flights in the EU). The UK departure charge is partly carbon based – £78 for a long-haul flight. This really is a global issue: New Zealand’s aviation emissions, at 0.8 tonnes CO2/person, are not so different from those of other developed countries.

(To be clear, while aviation is important, it’s not one of the top issues in climate change mitigation, which remain (both in New Zealand and globally) electricity generation, land transport, and economy-wide carbon pricing.)

Paul Callister, a founder of Fly-less Kiwis, writes:

Many of us on this group probably grew up not doing much flying. We used other means if traveling within NZ and even overseas. Then in our midlife we may well have done quite a bit through our work and for leisure. Now we are pulling back or stopping for climate change reasons. But when I mention this issue to many younger people (in hopefully a casual way not a preaching tone) I sense a moment of horror. The middle class amongst them grew up with hyper-mobility. Their first school trip may have been to Vietnam rather than Auckland. They have been to Sydney or the islands half a dozen times and may have been an exchange student in Europe. Even the environmentally committed, who are leading social media campaigns and/or going to protests, cannot easily see a life without flying or reduced flying. So if one looks at a ‘lifetime emissions’ profile, many of us used up our share in midlife, while these young people have already used theirs up. It’s going to be a real challenge for them.

and:

I think we can almost categorise air travel into three broad groups:

1. Vital (air ambulances, disaster relief etc).

2. Important (visiting overseas relatives, going to the occasional overseas scientific conference).

3. Trivial (I would suggest that weddings in Rarotonga, flying all the guests in, would count as that). So you do not worry about the vital group. You work hard to minimise the impact of the important category. And you put in place a whole heap of disincentives for the trivial travel.

One year has made a huge difference in the amount of attention given to aviation and climate change. Let’s make 2020 the year in which awareness turns into action.

Emission impossible?

Everyone knows about climate change and it’s a real drag. All of a sudden most of the things we liked doing are considered wrong. Some people even say we have to give up cars but that’s crazy talk isn’t it?

With around 70 million new cars produced each year around the world and a total of about  1.4 billion cars, trucks and buses in use it could be that there really is an issue. In New Zealand where we know our small population has a small relative contribution to climate change (don’t we?), motorisation rates are among the highest in the world. Our level of vehicle obsession is similar to the USA with around 82 cars per 100 people, so we make a disproportionate contribution of greenhouse gases as a nation with our personal transport decisions. But hey, technology will see us right, right?

It’s sometimes hard to avoid the inference that most new tech is directed towards getting us to buy more stuff, but manufacturers surely recognise the new environment reality and the marketing benefits of getting on board with the new way our planetary systems are heading. Car makers are surely developing vehicles with lower greenhouse gas emissions, because governments around the world have committed to reducing the primary causes of anthropogenic climate change. Besides those commitments, we car buyers are surely exerting our influence by demanding fuel-efficient cars that can save us money on fuel and save the environment. And it seems to work; CO2 emission ratings for new cars are coming down.   

Average CO2 emissions per km from new passenger cars in Europe. Naturally there is lots of variation across models and among countries (reflecting fleet composition), but the encouraging downward trend pre-empted the European emission limit of 130g CO2 per Km set in 2015. Yellow starts show target levels.

It turns out that manufacturers have been extremely responsive to the grown public and commercial pressure for better fuel economy giving us more kilometres per litre and so less pollution per kilometre. The figures that car sales people quote to us are encouraging and certainly allay any anxiety we had about justifying that big, new, shiny vehicle replete with all the extras.

Unfortunately, the official emission performance statistics (so-called type approval) on which we might base our decision of what vehicle to buy, and from which governments might infer success of policies directed at reducing emissions, are misleading. That’s putting it mildly. When you buy a car that that is stated to yield X g of CO2 per kilometre you’d be forgiven for assuming you will be producing about X g of CO2 for each kilometre you drive it.

Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

Combining data from 14 different sources, from eight countries and more than 1,000,000 light vehicles it is clear that in 2001, the approved emission specifications were about 9% below the real-world situation (above).  That there was a difference is not hugely surprising because the way we drive our cars (compared with the test conditions) has a big effect on how efficient they are in real terms. What is of much, much greater concern is that in subsequent years the discrepancy has got bigger. Overall, by 2017 the difference between approved emission and real world (what happens when you drive) emissions increased steeply to around 45% (ICCT 2017).

Divergence between type-approval and CO2 emissions measured by Spritmonitor.de

One of the contributory data resources considered 148,000 German built passenger cars that came off the production lines between 2001 and 2016. Using three example years and considering the range of emission discrepancy scores from different cars makes the scale of the problem very clear. At the start of the millenium, actual emissions from cars were close to specification, just 7% higher on average. At this time the spread of discrepancy scores (the relative difference between promised and realised emissions) was fairly narrow and included some instances where measured emissions were lower than expected. However, in the years since, the average deviation has increased and so has the range of the scores. In 2016 for example with an average discrepancy of 38%, few cars had measured emission levels the same or less than expected. Some showed a difference between stated and measured emissions of more than 80%.

What has happened? Despite all the commitments to GHG emission reduction (e.g. in NZ) and all the technology under the bonnet of modern cars, we are actually doing worse at managing the problem. Currently the evidence indicates that the official GHG emission values are the source of the discrepancy. It is easy to see why, as the world population becomes increasingly aware of, and justifiably concerned about, anthropogenic climate change, we can imagine that car manufacturers might benefit from ‘optimistic’ emission statistics. Car sales are increasingly likely to reflect GHG emission data, and it is getting easier to find that information.

You will have spotted that the discrepancy between expected and real work emissions might be a curious artefact that hides a positive story. Perhaps emissions in real terms (rather than percentages) are so small that the inaccuracy hardly matters; after all 40% of 1 (0.4) is still smaller than 7% of 10 (0.7). But no, in real terms the official data indicate that, on average, new cars with combustion engines in Europe produced slightly more CO2 per kilometre (118.5 g) in 2017 than in 2016.

Although most manufactures were, officially, meeting the current European target of 130g/km this was a soft target and a long way from the 2021 EU target of 95g/km. If you take into account the mismatch between official CO2  emissions and real-world data, that showed in 2016 an average discrepancy of 45%, the supposedly achieved 118.5g/km translates to 171g/km (on average), which is above the 130g/km target.

So you have to ask yourself: are car manufacturers trying to avert planetary disaster or are they selling stuff? In the end the responsibility falls to us as individuals, and while the reality of our slide toward the operating limits of our world feels like too much to deal with, and the necessity to change your priorities and behaviour feels like somebody is getting one over on you, it is in fact wonderfully liberating. It is, now, not only okay to not follow the crowd, but the socially and environmentally responsible thing to do.

Steve Trewick

View from the UK: Interview with Julia King of the Committee on Climate Change

Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge) is an engineer. An academic career at the University of Cambridge led to senior business and engineering roles at Rolls-Royce. She is an independent member of the House of Lords, chair of the Carbon Trust (a private company that measures, reduces, and certifies carbon emissions), and chair of the adaptation subcommittee of the UK Committee on Climate Change.

The Committee’s annual report to Parliament was released on 10 July 2019 and was widely reported. The following interview with Robert McLachlan was conducted on 8 August 2019.

RM: The UK is often hailed as a leader in cutting emissions. Yet the report says that in the past five years, almost all the progress has been in the power sector; no other sector – transport, buildings, industry, agriculture – has shown progress.

JK: Transport came down a bit in 2008-9, but has now started creeping up again. Buildings have flatlined. They’re the most difficult for us, because of all the gas heating.

Source: Carbon Brief.

RM: So for all the talk of the climate crisis, and all the street protests, we’re not seeing action. Are people ready to take action? Do they realise what needs to be done?

JK: The problem is it has to be led by government, because these are very hard actions for people to take on their own.

One of the the things we asked the Government to do in our Net Zero report in May was that the Treasury should look at how the costs should fall. The problem with homes is that it’s fine for new homes: they only need to tighten up the building regulations. New homes should be so well insulated that you can use heat pumps. In 95% of the country that is perfectly possible. The trouble is that 80% of the homes that we will have in 2050, we already have, and because we have the worst-insulated and possibly worst-built homes in Europe, and also some of the oldest housing stock in Europe – we’re fond of our Victorian terraces – the big challenge is what to do about the 29 million homes we’ve already got. They need triple glazing and much more insulation.

Even then they may not be able to be heated with a heat pump alone, so we are suggesting a combined heat pump-hydrogen boiler system. The boiler would only be used occasionally, heating the house from cold or during a particularly cold winter.

RM: We certainly know about under-insulated houses in New Zealand. Is your committee proposing that owners be forced to insulate their homes?

JK: We’d like to see the Government starting with social housing, and then looking at the carrots and sticks for private houses, which are 60% of the housing stock. For example, people improving their house within two years of purchase could get a rebate on the stamp duty. If people are going to be heating their house with electricity and potentially hydrogen, that is going to cost more than gas. Whereas electric cars are going to be cheaper.

So we’re saying we need to think about how we’re going to redistribute these costs. There will be elderly people and low-income families with higher heating costs who don’t drive. Therefore, we need to look at taxing transport to subsidize heating and insulation. You’ve got to be thinking now about how to make this a fair transition.

RM: To refit every building in Britain could easily take thirty years.

JK: Yes, so you need to start now. The previous Chancellor proposed that no new homes would be connected to the gas grid from 2025. That’s a start. Actually, as well as higher insulation standards, we also need higher ventilation standards, because some of the early sealed homes have become damp with poor indoor air quality. And we spend more time at home, living longer and working from home.

Historically, we’ve had about 2000 heat-related summer deaths; by 2050 we expect 7000. Currently, there is a review of building safety, focussing on fire because of the Grenfell Tower fire, but we also need to think about safety in terms of heat and cold: far more people die in their homes from heat or cold than from fire.

RM: In New Zealand there’s been a debate about how much power the Climate Change Commission should have – it looks like it will be advisory only.

JK: We have this interesting split. The mitigation committee sets carbon budgets, which are then agreed by Parliament, and we monitor the Government’s progress against delivery. The adaptation committee provides advice on risks, but the Government puts together a plan and we review their progress against their own plan and their own targets.

RM: And on the mitigation side, your recent report says that the Government has only achieved one out of twenty-five actions that were needed last year.

JK: True, but on the adaptation side they haven’t achieved any of them.

RM: So what’s the comeback if they don’t achieve the targets?

JK: Nothing at the moment, everyone is distracted! But soon we will be asking the Government and the Environmental Audit and the BEIS (Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy) Committees of Parliament what new policies are proposed. These Committees are very active in calling the Government to account. They can summon Ministers and will typically base their inquiry on our reports. Also, the Government must provide an official response to our report.

RM: Your chair, Lord Deben, said ministers could be sued in court if the failure to act continued.

JK: It’s unlikely that we would do that, but there are plenty of green organisations who could call for a judicial review.

RM: On the whole, do you feel that this steady pressure over a long period, within this framework, will be sufficient?

JK: We need the help of the public and of green groups like Extinction Rebellion and of the press. More and more of the press are now on our side. The BBC has increased their number of environment correspondents from two to something like eleven. It’s for the same reason that the Conservative Party has become committed to the net zero target: young people are very concerned about this, while BBC viewers have an average age of 55 and Conservative Party members have an average age of 69 – well roughly, I probably haven’t got the numbers quite right! So they have to appeal to younger voters and younger viewers. It’s crucial that this interest from young people continues. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have been very helpful.

RM: How significant is the Government’s recent net zero 2050 target?

JK: We were asked to advise on when the UK could reach net zero. We said 2050 was the right date and that it was unlikely we could do it any earlier. But we also said, legislating the target is nice, but there’s no point unless you’re going to do something about it. So we got the legislation, but the change in leadership and parliamentary recess has brought a pause.

RM: The existing carbon budgets already look difficult to achieve.

JK: They are. The 4th budget [51% reduction on 1990 levels by 2025] might be achieved, the 5th [57% reduction by 2030] looks hard. However, the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions now lies below the 4th and 5th carbon budgets. So it would be cheaper to cut even faster. Now that we’ve made progress in decarbonising electricity, we should be accelerating electric vehicle uptake much faster.

RM: The UK has had quite large incentives and taxes on transport, but they haven’t had the effect I would have expected.

JK: Yes. But this year the figures are looking better – overall car sales are down, people are walking and cycling more, but pure electric sales are up. I fear that’s probably because of financial uncertainty over Brexit.

Electric vehicle market share in the UK was 1.9% in 2017 and 2.5% in 2018, which was 11th highest in the world. The UK has about 34 million cars on the road.

RM: My concern is that the incentives are designed based on modeling work which is quite uncertain.

JK: Our advice has been that incentives should have been larger and gone on for longer. Instead they were cut overnight last year, without telling the automotive industry. My view is that their scale and duration should be announced and fixed, and that they’ve got to be used alongside the EU approach of clear, tough regulations restricting the sale of high-emission cars.

RM: There have been headwinds, like dieselgate and the unreliability of fuel consumption figures. You’re also up against consumer behaviour. People would like to buy the biggest car they can afford.

JK: That’s the problem. When we started, even when I did the 2006 King report on decarbonising transport, we still had the fuel price escalator. That was really driving people to buy more fuel-efficient cars. The incentives of zero road tax (that is, zero vehicle excise duty), and a really large registration fee on high-emitting vehicles, they were all effective. Then towards the end of the Coalition government, George Osborne removed the fuel price escalator. Combined with the increased fuel efficiency of all vehicles, people have realised they can now afford to buy a bigger car. And overall fleet improvements have slowed.

RM: Was there any public backlash against all of these taxes and incentives?

JK: There was a bit of a whinge. But because we’d had it for a long time and the annual increase was small, it wasn’t like the gilet jaunes. The problem now is, how do you put it back in?

RM: I was amazed to read that industrial emissions have fallen from 121 to 66 million tonnes. Have you simply moved polluting industry to China?

JK: We have. But Sam Fankhauser’s analysis at the LSE shows that this is mostly due to the cost of labour and land and not green taxes. It would have happened anyway. Unlike Germany, the UK doesn’t subsidise electricity for industry. That’s related to our energy rather than our climate change policy.

RM: On the other hand, at least those industries are generating wealth and producing something useful, unlike people driving around in fossil-fueled cars. Shouldn’t there be a distinction between production and consumption?

JK: The energy-intensive industries do get a discount to compensate for the carbon price being effectively higher in the UK than in Europe. But the rules around who qualifies don’t seem entirely fair. Parts of the ceramic industry don’t qualify, but they are a very intensive industry and are a heritage industry. My understanding is that large brickmakers qualify, small ones don’t.

The long-term solution for industry is carbon capture and storage, CCS, focusing on industrial clusters around steel and cement. We have plenty of places to store CO2, in old oil wells. These clusters would also incentivise the start of the hydrogen economy. The market isn’t going to make that happen.

RM: Your report also says that Britain will need BECCS (Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) by 2030. That’s very soon, considering BECCS hardly exists yet.

JK: Drax does have a small demonstration plant, but there’s nowhere for them to store the CO2. The Government says they’d like to encourage capture capture and use – but what will all this CO2 be used for? Fizzy drinks and greenhouses? There’s lots of talk of synthetic fuels, but the energy required is enormous. Maybe for aviation, but it’s the last thing you’d try.

For large-scale industrial uses by 2050, the technology needs to be things we know about and are ready for demonstration now. Even the restrained hydrogen economy we need by 2050 – where you do all the energy efficiency you can first, then electrify everything possible, and only turn to hydrogen and synthetic fuels as a last resort – even that involves energy twice the size of today’s electricity system. So get a move on, guys!

I’m a champion for the offshore wind sector as part of the industrial strategy. You can take an offshore wind farm from permitting to operation in three years. So far, the Government hasn’t endorsed the industry’s own target of 50 GW by 2050. But for net zero we might even need 100 GW. Nuclear for baseload would be nice, but there’s a risk we might not get it because of the costs and timescales, whereas offshore wind is proven.

RM: Do you think Britain will start building onshore wind again?

JK: We won’t build a lot, for lack of space, but I hope we will start building it again. the Government is forcing communities that don’t want fracking, to have fracking, and yet communities that say they would like onshore wind are not being allowed to have it.

RM: Has agriculture been a focus of attention in the UK? Your agriculture emissions are similar to New Zealand’s, 49 Mt CO2e.

JK: Yes, we have a lot of dairy and beef. It hasn’t been a focus yet, but it’s going to be really interesting as we move away from the Common Agricultural Policy. Existing subsidies based on production encourage fertiliser use and overstocking. The Environmental Land Management Scheme is in preparation and we want to see it encourage low-carbon management practices, peat restoration as a carbon sink, and vastly more tree planting also for flood control. Overall our farming is uneconomic; about 50% of farm income is from the CAP.

RM: Can landowners be paid to plant trees?

JK: That’s what we’d like to see. So far everything in the agriculture and land use sector has been voluntary. There is also no system to check that farmers are doing what they say they are in terms of soil improvement. The new ‘Public Money for Public Goods’ system could be be quite destabilising. The worry, therefore, is that the Government won’t do anything radical, and will keep handing out subsidies. And although there are relatively few farmers, they are very effective lobbyists. With all the scares that there won’t be any food on the first of November, the farmers are in a strong position.

RM: Let’s turn to international aviation. In Britain people love city breaks and holidays in the sun. Would there be any public appetite for restraining the growth of air travel?

JK: It’s a problem, and young people like those short breaks. Our analysis suggests that for the target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, you could still get 60% growth in aviation. Under net zero you can’t get much growth. It will have to be priced. The main contribution is long-haul flights, especially for holidays and to see friends and family.

RM: On adaptation, your committee said that the Government’s preparations were like Dad’s Army.

JK: That was Lord Deben! I wouldn’t have put it quite like that.

We have an agreed climate change risk analysis for the country. And yet the Government publishes a national adaptation plan that doesn’t even address what it has agreed are the risks the country faces. It has the power to ask critical infrastructure industries about their adaptation plans. At first it was compulsory. More recently it’s been voluntary and many sectors didn’t report.

Interestingly, regarding the Whaley Bridge Dam incident, that type of reservoir had been flagged in the risk assessment as particularly sensitive to heavy rainfall and hot weather. It’s unreinforced, old concrete, in hot sun followed by cold water. The concrete was already cracking and under stress. The owners have never reported their adaptation plans and are not on the list for the future. Another similar reservoir failed in 2007.

On 1 August 2019 part of the spillway of the Whaley Bridge Dam, Derbyshire, was dislodged. 1500 residents were evacuated amidst fears that the dam, constructed in 1840, could collapse. The dam and reservoir will now be completely rebuilt. (Source)

Many telecom companies have not reported, and their networks have failed during floods. The systems have complex interdependencies that previous floods have demonstrated that parts of the ICT sector didn’t recognise. There are chains of guarantees and penalties, but this has led to complacency.

Now that the Met Office can provide probabilities on extreme weather on quite a fine scale, there is an opportunity for proper scenario planning. But because reporting is voluntary, we don’t actually know what analysis they are doing. It’s clear, though, that they’re not preparing for 2ºC and 4ºC, and the risk of 4ºC is still very high.

We know that our food supply chain is very sensitive to climate change overseas. Last year we had the ‘iceberg lettuce crisis’ due to a hot summer in Spain; we had the ‘avocado crisis’ a year or two earlier. Those are just indications of the risk. We said it was a risk, the Government said the market would sort it out. The committee thinks adaptation really does need strong leadership from government.

Also, they should be helping businesses understand what climate scenarios they should be preparing for, especially small businesses. If they do leave it to the market, we need compulsory climate risk disclosure. But that only covers large companies.

Another problem is that the Department of Food and Rural Affairs, which is in charge of adaptation, is nowhere near the top in terms of the power hierarchy in the civil service. DEFRA’s influence over business, housing and so on is small.

This summer we’ve seen that the rail industry, which claims to be very well prepared for climate change, clearly isn’t; parts of our water infrastructure are not prepared; we’ve seen people very uncomfortable in their homes. We’ve now got the NHS to agree to monitor temperatures in hospitals. We’ve got lots of 1970s hospitals with huge plate glass windows, bolted shut, with the radiators on. The NHS spends one to two billion a year dealing with heat-related conditions – and part of it’s due to their hospitals!

The day after this interview took place, there was a widespread power cut in the UK. A routine lightning strike, which the system should have been able to cope with, caused a gas-fired and a wind-powered power station to drop out nearly simultaneously. For reasons still under investigation, this caused the frequency to become unstable, requiring the National Grid operator to cut power to about one million people all over the UK. Knock-on effects to many train operators are also being investigated. In the photo, a staff member guides train passengers with torch light at Clapham Junction station in London. (Source)

RM: What has your experience been like on the Climate Change Committee?

JK: It’s great fun! It’s really, really interesting. It’s a team of twenty-five to thirty, mostly young economists, engineers, climate scientists. The quality of analysis and the quality of discussion on the committee is very high. I do think the committee and secretariat should have more people from industry. We do now have a behavioural economist which I think is important. The net zero report has a pie chart showing that the things that can be done with technology are not much more than a third. The majority of what needs to be done needs people to cooperate.

RM: The way people live is what they pick up from the world around them.

JK: The elephant in the room is that the economy is based on increasing consumption. Continually trying to drive endless GDP growth in the developed and rich world is not only a bad example to the rest of the world, it’s unsustainable.

We need a better way to measure progress and quality of life in developed economies.


Postscript added 22 August. The UK Parliament’s committee on science and technology has now responded to the CCC’s report. (Read their report or the summary in the Guardian.) Their recommendations are for the Government to

  • prepare a strategy to decarbonise heating
  • incentivise home efficiency improvements
  • reduce transport emissions by bringing forward the date to end the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles to 2035 at the latest; extend incentives and charging infrastructure; and decrease reliance on private cars.
  • support onshore wind and solar and review solar buy-back prices
  • maintain, but not expand, nuclear power
  • incentivise greenhouse gas removal and CCS
  • make Net Zero 2050 a principal objective of the energy regulator
  • support individuals and local councils to achieve Net Zero

If you can make it here… Mike Joy goes to New York

The New York Times, that is.

Today the incomparable Mike Joy, New Zealand freshwater ecologist and researcher at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University, has told the story of dairy farming in New Zealand to the New York Times’s 4 million subscribers and 140 million online readers.

Read the article: The Incontinent Cows of Middle-earth.

There’s a particular focus on the continuing expansion of intensive dairying on unsuitable land in Canterbury, involving high levels of irrigation and synthetic fertiliser with well-known damaging effects on water quality and human health.

And of course, there’s a Lord of the Rings hook too.

Sit back and watch the fun begin.

Notes on a New Zealand City: Wellington

On the evening of Friday November 26, 1971, viewers of the sole Wellington television channel, then called “Central Television”, could watch the 40-minute film “Notes on a New Zealand City”.

Everything about this film is spot on and, especially with the passage of time, extremely moving. The opening scenes show commuters clogging the brand new Wellington Urban Motorway to the sounds of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”) Thanks to Youtube, which seems to dissolve historical distance, Joni Mitchell sounds brand new and modern. But the cars look like some kind of retro-futurist nightmare, closer to the personal transporters in the movie Brazil than actual cars.

Virtually everything said in this film about suburban sprawl, traffic, motorways, suburban shopping malls, public transport, and the decentralization of employment, could be repeated today, 48 years later.

Director Paul Maunder, then aged 26 and fresh from the London Film School, was clearly something of an auteur – without appearing in the film, he comprehensively shapes its message that, in his words, “he was depressed to find that in urban planning Wellington was pursuing the American pattern of events, 20 or 30 years behind”. He later directed Sons for the Return Home before focussing on community theatre. He visited Grotowski at his “poor theatre” in Poland. He now lives in Blackball, where he writes and produces plays (currently Waiting for Greta, a version of Godot updated to the climate change era) and curates Mahi Tupuna – the Blackball Museum of Working Class History.

A young Ian Athfield shows off a model of the Pearce Apartments as originally envisaged. After continuous redesign for five years, a version was built and now stands at the top of Marjoribanks Street. Athfield’s vision of medium density housing bringing a greater diversity of people to the inner city? Still waiting.

There are scenes of the brand new Cuba Mall, successful then and now, and children watching the splash buckets just as they do today.

John Roberts, Professor of Public Administration and later a founder of Victoria University’s Institute of Policy Studies: “People are not progressive and they don’t like to disturb the status quo, because there’s too many interlocking agreements in it.” He argues for a regional authority for Wellington, and for reform “along the Auckland lines” while allowing Wellington City to stay in existence. Big tick, John.

The original and thoughtful Bill Sutch: “If you hack your environment about, if you cut down trees and put through rough roads,and then you make rough cuttings, and this is your pioneer way of life, you begin to think this is what the environment is like, and you begin to be numb about it, you don’t appreciate the fact that it is ugly. Now many New Zealanders look at their environment as something that is null or nil. Whether it is ugly or not ugly they don’t even notice… we should have much more understanding of the emotional aspects that our environment has on us as people.”

A few points are missed. In 1971 petrol was $0.09/l ($1.29 today), as it had been for decades. They didn’t know that very soon two oil crises would take the price to $0.60/l in mid-1982 ($3.65 today, and real incomes were half as much then). However, that didn’t stop the love affair with the car. Vehicle ownership went from about 0.30 vehicles per person in 1971 to 0.69 per person in 2000; after a short breather during the global financial crisis, it ramped up further to 0.86 per person today, about the highest in the world. We are now in the middle of the biggest splurge on cars and motorways that we have ever seen.

Pollution, already surely a concern in 1971, is not mentioned, nor road fatalities as a cost of car use. The 677 road deaths in 1971 rose to a peak of 843 in 1973.

The film closes with a voiceover, shot against a montage of city life:

“The city awakes. Another day, another cycle begins. Endlessly repeated week after week, year after year. At the same time, we evolve. We build homes, we construct roads, we fill our harbours. We create our environment. We in New Zealand are in a unique position. Being twenty or even thirty years behind the most advanced western societies, we can predict the future. We can see the pattern evolving. We are in a position to choose. But will we?”

By Robert McLachlan. This post originally appeared at Greater Auckland. See the original post.

On the future: An interview with Martin Rees

Martin Rees has been Astronomer Royal since 1995. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. One of the world’s foremost cosmologists, he has studied the Big Bang, black holes, galaxy formation, and gamma ray bursts. In this interview he discusses his 2018 book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity with Robert McLachlan.

RM: Amongst scientists, cosmologists surely have the most cosmic view of time and space. Has that influenced your view of our present situation?

MR: The main reason that a cosmologist has a distinctive view is that we have an awareness of the far future. Most people, unless they are fundamentalists, are aware of the four billion years of cosmic evolution in the past, but many of them somehow think that we humans are the end of the process, the culmination. I think no astronomer could believe that, because we know that the sun is less than halfway through its life, and the universe may go on forever. So we see the future as being more long term. That makes us even less willing than most people to discount it.

RM: Does that change how you value the present?

MR: Not very much, because the main issue in environmental debates is to get people to think fifty or one hundred years ahead.

RM: It’s been a spectacular few decades in astronomy – it’s always a golden age in astronomy – gravitational waves, extrasolar planets, dark energy. What do you think is the most exciting or significant discovery?

MR: I’ve been lucky to be at the subject for fifty years now. When I started in the late 1960s, it was exciting: the first evidence for the Big Bang, black holes, neutron stars, …

Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias in front of the antenna with which they accidentally discovered the remnant radiation from the Big Bang in 1964.
High resolution map of the cosmic microwave background measured in the 2000s by satellite. These tiny fluctuations, seen much as they were when the Universe was 1/40,000th of its present age, evolved to become galaxies.

RM: That’s right, the cosmic microwave background was only discovered in 1964! So recent!

MR: Yes, an exciting period. And it was a good time for young people like me to join the subject, because when things are happening fast, the experience of the old guys is at a discount and young people can make an impact quickly. But looking at what’s been happening in the last five years, I think those entering the subject now are just as lucky, for all those things you mentioned. The opportunities for new discoveries are higher than ever now.

RM: You’ve worked on supermassive black holes. That must have been pretty special to see an actual photograph of a supermassive black hole.

The Virgo cluster of galaxies, 53 million light years distant. It spans the apparent width of your fist held at arms length. At the lower left is Messier 87, one of the most massive galaxies known, which contains at its core a supermassive black hole, also the most massive known (6 billion solar masses). This was the first black hole to be photographed directly, in April 2019.

MR: That picture didn’t really surprise us very much, because we had indirect evidence of what was there.

RM: Amazing resolution though!

MR: It is an amazing technical achievement what they did, to link together data from telescopes around the world and mesh it together, not in real time but much later.

RM: Turning to your book, “On the future: Prospects for humanity”, you wrote that your theme is optimism and anxiety. You’re trying to balance those two things. It seems to me you must have been influenced by the times, you would have come of age at the most anxious period of the cold war, you’ve seen all these technological improvements…

MR: I think so. One point about the cold war is that most of us weren’t aware of just how dangerous it was. When we read the memoirs of people who were active at the time, it was a very dangerous period, for the northern hemisphere anyway. But what’s made me concerned about the issues I address in my book is that during the last twenty years I’ve had the opportunity, through being president of the Royal Society and a member of the House of Lords, to get up to speed on various other policy questions, and this has made me slightly better informed about some of them, and to worry about some of the implications.

RM [laughs] And how did that tilt the balance between anxiety and optimism?

MR: It makes me a technical optimist, but a political pessimist. The advances in science are very exciting, and already we know enough to provide a good life for everyone on the planet. The fact that we’re not doing that is a political and ethical indictment. I do worry about the environmental effect of a larger global population, all empowered by technology using more resources. It’s very hard to deal with because it does require concerted global action. But I also worry about the misuse of bio and cyber technology. What’s new about those is that they allow a small group, even a single person, to have an impact that could cascade very widely and globally. This is something new. I like to say “the global village will have its village idiots” and they now have a global range. To cope with that, the new challenge is to balance attention between privacy, security, and liberty. For the next ten or twenty years, that’s my main concern. Disruption of that kind is going to be more frequent and is going to weaken the fabric of society. It’s going to be very hard to cope with that, because everyone says, “you have to have regulations”, but enforcing those regulations globally is really as hard as enforcing the drug laws globally or the tax laws globally. It’s not like nuclear, where you have large special-purpose facilities and you can monitor and verify what’s happening. You can’t monitor what’s happening in every biotech lab or everyone who has access to the internet.

RM: You mentioned “consequences”. All of these complex phenomena suffer from cascading consequences.

MR: We’re all connected. You probably know the Jared Diamond book Collapse. The difference with his scenarios is that now if there were collapse in one continent it would go global. That is rather scary.

RM: You mentioned Johan Rockström’s idea of nine Planetary Boundaries, which is a very powerful framework for looking at environmental issues. We’re living at the point where we’re running right up against those boundaries. Wasn’t this inevitable, that given economic growth and expanding power and consumption of resources, we were bound to run into this problem eventually?

MR: The population of course is growing. It’s doubled in the last fifty years. Fortunately, partly due to biotech, food production has kept pace with the rising population, so the doomsters of the late 1960s like Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome were overpessimistic. They thought there would be mass starvation by now. Although there is more pressure on world food supplies, that has been met by advanced technology. Famines still occur, but they’re due to maldistribution or conflict, not overall shortage. Even though the population is certain to rise to something like nine billion by mid-century, I don’t think there needs to be extreme pressure on food or resources (although there may well be). Everyone says that economic growth is going to use more and more resources. But economic growth can be of a kind that doesn’t use more raw materials, nor more energy. The most rapid economic growth is in electronics, and apart from pressure on a few rare earths, which is a serious constraint, that doesn’t consume much in the way of resources compared to old-style massive factories.

RM: When I run my eye down these planetary boundaries, many of these problems were not predicted. Ocean acidification was discovered in 2003, the ozone hole in 1985, the instability of the Antarctic ice sheets 1978. Given the power of science, isn’t that surprising? Is it related to unpredictability and tipping points?

MR: These topics were understudied. People didn’t study these issues enough. They only became mainstream science in the last twenty years. One message is that there may be other things that we are not aware of yet which will be just as concerning twenty years from now.

RM: Carbon dioxide dissolving in the sea to form an acid isn’t very complicated science.

MR: It’s consequences are still controversial, the coral reefs in Australia…

RM: Just astonishing. 2500km long and a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef is dead already.

        Speaking of nine billion population, I wanted to read from your book.

“On the other hand, 20 billion could live sustainably with a tolerable, if ascetic quality of life, if they adopted a vegan diet, travelled little, lived in small, high-density apartments, connected by a super internet and virtual reality. This latter scenario is plainly improbable and certainly not alluring.”

        I’m afraid that that is exactly the civilisation that we’re heading towards!

MR: It’s not clear, because in two-thirds of countries, and globally, the birth rate is going down. The reason the population is going to be higher by mid-century is because the demographic transition hasn’t happened in Africa, and secondly, because most people in the world are young, because of the growth in the last fifty years. And they’re going to have longer lifespans. So the prediction is confident to 2050. After that, there are some UN projections in which the growth does continue, but it may be that the population peaks soon after 2050 and starts going down. Surely we would like it to go down. If people are going to have decent lives and enough space, then, even though we can’t define a carrying capacity for the world because it does depend hugely on lifestyle, I think most people would say a less populated world  – 5 billion – would be better, and would give a higher chance of everyone having reasonable space and a reasonable share of resources. That’s what I hope. The biggest concern is what happens in Africa, where the demographic transition hasn’t happened. In rural regions, women are still having seven children. Their population is going to double by 2050. In some scenarios, if the birthrate doesn’t fall, there is another doubling, from 2 billion to 4 billion, by 2100. Nigeria would have a population of 900 million, equal to Europe and North America combined. If, as a consequence, Africa remains in the poverty trap, that’s surely bad news for the world: massive global instability, massive migration. Even though there will be some technical advances, it’s not at all obvious how the inequality between Africa and the more prosperous regions could be reduced. There are two things working against it. One technology that has percolated widely in Africa is IT and mobile phones. That means they are less fatalistic about their fate. They know what they’re missing. They know what it’s like in the rest of the world. This is a recipe for greater embitterment and disaffection.

RM: Which is what we’re seeing now.

MR: Yes, understandably. And the other point is that they don’t have the opportunity that the so-called East Asian Tigers had, to have an economic spurt by undercutting wage costs in manufacturing. Now there’s what’s called re-shoring of manufacturing, with robots doing that sort of work. That means it’s hard to imagine how Africa is going to catch up. I think it’s going to mean that, not just for altruistic reasons, but in our self interest, the prosperous countries ought to subsidize development in Africa. It’s a mega version of what’s been suggested by the Oxford economist Paul Collier, to deal with the Syrian refugees. There are several million of them in Jordan and other places. He points out that they don’t really want to come to England as refugees, they would like to earn a good living in Jordan, with a reasonable hope of going back to their homes sometime. We may need a version of the Marshall Plan to help Africa catch up with the rest of the world.

RM: And there’s another scenario, in which we do rein in population but still struggle with resource use.

MR: Yes, we’ve got to make sure that people are sparing of resources, because the world couldn’t support even three or four billion people if they all lived like middle class Americans or Europeans.

RM: So it almost needs a complete revolution in our attitudes and the way we live. At the moment, as soon as people get richer they want to fly more.

MR: There will have to be constraints. Still, the development of IT will diminish pressure on resources.

RM: Possibly, but that points to your scenario in which we’re living in virtual reality in little box apartments and not valuing what has been lost. The Shifting Baseline phenomenon was pointed out by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly: it refers to a failure to notice slow change, and also to a failure to appreciate what has been lost. Once a species has gone extinct, it’s sad, but it’s also too late, it’s out of people’s lives.

MR: I think that’s true. It’s an interesting question to what extent economic advance has actually made us happier and more fulfilled in our lives. We’ve lost as well as gained. One consequence of growth has been greater inequality as the demand for certain kinds of work has gone down. If you look at the lifestyle of the average blue collar worker in Western countries, in many respects it’s got worse: housing costs have gone up faster than their real wages, they’ve got less job security, less status. The only thing which has improved their lives is access to IT. Those are products where there’s a large consumer surplus: what we have to pay is less than we’d be prepared to pay. I’d be prepared to pay more for access to Google than to run my car. 

RM: You go on to talk about this short termism problem. That seems to be extremely fundamental. It’s got a philosophical component – what do we actually owe the future – and a political component: how to actually value the future more.

MR: We have short termism because of politicians worrying about the next election, and that also means their concerns are parochial rather than global. In business, the quarterly company report, and CEOs being incentivized by share options. And because everything is changing so fast, some people use that as an excuse for not planning ahead. “We don’t know what it will be like, so how can we plan?” And that’s true to some extent, because the changes are much faster than they were in earlier centuries. I quote in my book the cathedral builders, who, despite their far more limited horizons in space and time than us, built cathedrals that wouldn’t be finished in their lifetime. The reason they were prepared to do that was partly, despite their constricted horizons, they thought their children and grandchildren would lead lives rather similar to theirs. They would appreciate the finished cathedral. I think we have far less confidence predicting the lifestyle of people fifty years from now.

Then to another point, politicians will think long term, and make the right decision on environmental issues, if they feel the public is behind them. That’s why we should welcome all these campaigns like Extinction Rebellion, and also we should welcome the importance of charismatic figures. There’s a nice quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “It takes only a few determined people to change the world. Indeed nothing else ever has.” And that’s true if you think of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights. All those things start with a few people. Once there is a sufficient fraction of the public concerned, then politicians will take it on board.

Religions can also make people think long term. I quote in my book the Pope’s encyclical in 2015, which did have a big effect on helping to forge a consensus at the Paris climate conference. He has his billion followers, he had a standing ovation at the UN.

More parochially, in this country, Michael Gove has banned plastic straws. He wouldn’t be doing that had it not been for the influence of our secular Pope, David Attenborough, whose programmes were seen by millions and sensitized people to care about this. It wasn’t on the public agenda at all previously.

RM: Cambridge University certainly seems to have been able to adapt to the present while keeping an eye on the long future.

MR: It’s been around for 800 years! It’s the number one science university in Europe, it should care about these things. That’s why I helped to start the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, to think about long-term planning and long-term risk.

RM: In the book you talk about the responsibility of academics to speak up.

MR: We have the freedom and the opportunity to do this. But still there are far too few people thinking about catastrophic scenarios. There are lots of people thinking about carcinogens in food, and small risks, but fewer thinking about these big ones. Cambridge has an anarchic and flexible structure where it’s quite easy for bottom-up initiatives to gain traction.

RM: When we think about some difficult issues, say climate change and biodiversity loss, people can get pessimistic and start saying that our whole society is wrong and that we have to “end capitalism” or that democracy is fundamentally ill-suited to dealing with these issues. Can we work within our present system and strengthen our institutions sufficiently to address long-term challenges?

MR: Issues like climate change have to be addressed globally. So we do need more organizations like the World Health Organization or the International Atomic Energy Agency to deal with climate and energy and to verify compliance with pledges made at the Paris conference. We’re not moving in the right direction at the moment.

RM: They need to have power and be trusted.

MR: We need to improve our politics and our democracy. First, we’ve got to depend more on the public sector. To digress, one of the things one worries about is changes in employment caused by automation and AI. The owners of the robots have to be taxed and the money used to provide fulfilling jobs for those who are displaced by the robots. It could be a win-win. The people who are now working in call centres or Amazon warehouses – pretty mind-numbing occupations – could have dignified secure employment as teacher aides or carers. In order to have a society where everyone feels respected and useful, probably there has to be greater redistribution of wealth.

RM: Your book discusses AI in the short and long-term. There’s no consensus about how quickly that’s coming. But we are already having trouble with the stability of the systems that we’ve built, for example with Russian interference in elections. Are we building a system that’s very complicated and also very fragile and difficult to control?

MR: We are. This is like the problem of cyberattacks. We are in an arms race between the attackers and the defenders. They will be AI attacks in the future. It will be a continuing disruptive force. It’s hard to know what to do about that, or about biothreats. It’s going to be ever more difficult to manage. We have to minimize the number of people who have a justifiable grievance against the world. All too many do now, because of the huge inequalities which prevail.

RM: You move on to the cosmic significance of life in the universe. There, we have learned something in the last few decades. We now know that planets of all types are common in the galaxy, and we also know that the galaxy is not full of easily decodable high-power radio signals from other civilisations. 

MR: Yes, and we will soon understand enough about how life began on earth, which biologists don’t understand at present. They understand evolution, but not the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising reproducing things we call life. I think that will come within twenty years. That will tell us whether the origin of life is a rare fluke or not. We’ll also know whether these other planets around other stars have biospheres. We’ll be able to analyse their atmospheric spectra and look for the ‘red edge’, a discontinuity in the albedo.

RM: Wouldn’t you be willing to bet that the universe is in fact teeming with life?

MR: We know too little to make an informed bet. I’d be disappointed if we don’t find life. Although it would be a cause for a less cosmic modesty if we are really unique. It’s realistic to hope for some evidence of life in the next twenty or thirty years. 

One challenge would be to find another Earth. Having just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, and the famous picture of the Earth from the Moon, an aspiration is that by the centenary of that famous image, which will be 2068, we might have an image, equally iconic, of another Earth, orbiting another star.

Whether there’s intelligent life is another question. I think it’s worth a search. Can we conceive what forms it might take?

RM: Some believe that intelligence has the destiny to spread through the universe.

MR: This is the Fermi paradox. Stephen Webb at the Open University wrote a book with 50 counterarguments to the paradox; in the second edition, 75 counterarguments. They’re all rather weak. It remains an open question. My view is, if we look at what has happened here on Earth, and what might happen, within a few centuries, posthumans, probably electronic, will take over. They’ll be near immortal, they won’t need a planet. I suspect that if we do detect evidence for intelligence, it won’t be a civilisation like ours. Even if there are other Earths that have had an evolutionary past like ours, it’s unlikely that they’d be synchronised. Either they’d be far behind, in which case we’d see no evidence, or they’d be far ahead, in which case what we would detect would be their near-immortal electronic progeny.

Darwinian evolution has favoured two things, intelligence and aggression. These electronic entities, as a consequence of intelligent design instead of evolution, might not have any motives that we could understand. They could be living entirely contemplative lives. 

RM: Your overall conclusion is that we need more science, and that we also need to make wise choices about what we do with the science and which sciences to develop. We need better education. 

MR: All rather platitudinous I’m afraid!

RM: My only criticism is that everything in the book would have been true twenty years ago, but now we are seeing disturbing developments like ‘post-truth’. As a scientist, it’s hard to understand how that can be a thing.

MR: But how fundamental a change is that? Is it just a phase? In the past, people got their information via mass media, which were organised by people who knew what they were doing. Now there is so much information being disseminated on the net, it’s very hard for people to find good information. If you’ve got some medical complaint and you look on the internet you’ve got no way of deciding what is rubbish and what is good advice.

RM: The institutions that we evolved over hundreds of years to ensure some kind of proper knowledge base have been subverted and dissolved.

MR: You’re right, this is one of the down sides of the internet. It’s something we have to cope with. Yet the internet allows benign mass movements to develop fast as well, it’s not all bad news!

RM: And this is just the dawn of the internet. But we always feel like we’re living in the present, we really don’t know what’s around the corner.

MR: That’s true, in most contexts we can’t predict thirty years ahead. In some areas, like climate, we can, and that’s what’s scary. In technology, we can’t: twenty-five years ago a smart phone would have seemed magical. There could be some biological development in the next twenty-five years that we’re not even aware of which could have a similar transformative consequence.

On the other hand, it’s not always true that things change fast. There has to be a political or commercial pressure. Many things go in a sigmoid curve, they go fast and then level off. Just thinking of the 50th anniversary of Apollo, fifty years ago many people thought there’d be footprints on Mars long before today. We know why that hasn’t happened, it would have been exorbitantly expensive and robots have made the case weaker. So that technology has languished. Two other things happened that same year – the first test flight of Concorde, we know what happened to that,  and also the first commercial flight of the jumbo jet, which hasn’t changed hugely in the last fifty years. The previous fifty years went from Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight to the jumbo jet. Quite a lot happened! Cars also have changed a lot less in the last fifty years than in the fifty before that. So the question is, will IT and bio continue to develop, or will they get stuck?

One area where I think people are losing enthusiasm is driverless cars. Will I ever have a driverless car so that I can sit in the back and relax, as on the train? People are pessimistic that having driverless cars mixed up with the traffic in London would improve anything. Progress will be slow.

RM: You mentioned Mars. In the book you write that you hope to see humans on Mars this century. What is that? Are you sure you’re not nostalgic for the Apollo era?

Earth photographed by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2014. Visit Mars in Google Earth.

MR: The practical need is getting less. That’s why I wouldn’t spend any taxpayer’s money on human spaceflight to Mars. NASA and ESA are risk-averse. Look at the shuttle – launched 135 times, two failures, each a big national trauma, whereas a 2% failure rate is entirely acceptable to test pilots and adventurers. My scenario is that if Elon Musk and others want to spend private money, accepting much higher risk, then we should cheer them on, just like we cheer on adventurers who walk across the Antarctic.

RM: Even New Zealand has a private space launch capability now!

MR: And you’ve also got some billionaires who have bought properties in New Zealand to escape the catastrophes.

RM: We do. Martin, thank you for your time today.