When the leeve isn’t dry

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Even in the best case scenario, even if warming can be limited to just the 1.5 degrees agreed at Paris, its inevitable that we’re going to see an increased level of flooding. Higher temperatures means sea level rise. And it means more moisture being absorbed by weather systems, which means heavier rainfall and larger storm surges. So that means bigger and better flood defences being needed. Case in point, just last week we had flood warnings here in the UK. And I just came back from a trip overseas where there was, surprise, surprise flooding due to heavy rain.

And that’s the best case scenario. The worse case scenario, sees rapid melting of the Greenland or Antarctic icepack, leading to sea level rises, sufficiently large to drown many major cities and literally redraw the maps of the world.

However, even if a significant level of sea level rise is avoided, just coping with increased flooding isn’t going to be easy and its already stretching flood defences to their limits. As this vlog post from Vice News discusses, across large parts of rural America (hardly a poor country) leeves and flood defences are crumbling. Recent flooding has left dozens of breaches and there’s no money to fix them.

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Flood defences across America are crumbling following heavy rain

Furthermore, just fixing them isn’t enough, the defences, built decades ago without considering the impact of climate change, are no longer fit for purpose. This means that not only do they need to be build higher, but set back further to allow more room for the river to discharge excess water. Congress could assign funds, but inevitably this is going to cost more than a lot of money (there’s something like 100,000 km’s of leeves across the US alone, assume a few million $ per km….you do the math’s!) and that would mean acknowledging climate change is real (which Republicans don’t want to do).

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A recent congressional backed NCA report suggested that climate change could be costing the US $500 billion/yr by 2090, equivalent to the current military budget!

Instead politicians in DC are too busy lining their own pockets, with corruption under Trump now approaching African dictator levels of absurdity (he’s not so much drained the swamp, but filled it and released alligators). In the mean time many small US communities are left to deal with the aftermath of recent flooding and have to fend for themselves (so they live without reliable drinking water, roads destroyed, crops submerged, oh and Trump’s tariffs hardly help!).

A rising tide might lift all ships, but floods don’t effect everyone equally. Leeves prevent flooding in one location, but by redirecting the water flow they can cause flooding downstream. And that’s what’s been happening in parts of the US. There’s also been a trend of “Bourgeois leeves” getting built. Wealthier (and often white) communities have been building leeves privately, leading to flooding of poorer neighbourhoods down stream.

Thus floods are not equal opportunity catastrophes. The obvious example being how in hurricane Katrina, it was poorer (and often black) neighbourhoods which flooded and richer whiter neighbourhoods which were less severely impacted (plus blacks gathering supplies afterwards is called “looting” while whites doing the same is called “foraging”). And this can lead to a downward spiral. Naturally, those communities without flood protection can’t get flood insurance anymore, their house prices decline and they have to pay the costs of being flooded out regularly, creating a vicious economic circle.

And inevitably as climate impacts bite, without some sort of government intervention, this is only going to get worse. In effect were going to see a certain level of social darwinism play out, with wealthier parts of America being protected and less wealthy parts having to deal with the full fury of climate change. And recall, that in the US those wealthier parts are mostly democrat voting cities and its the smaller rural communities (who vote Trump) who are going to get shafted (so its literally Turkey’s voting for Christmas sort of stuff).

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NY is considering a series of large flood defences to protect Manhattan from future storm surges….

Case in point, NY is contemplating a massive series of flood defences, including leeves to protect Manhattan Island (the so called “big U”), as well as another on Staten Island. There’s even talk about a vast array of locks and sea walls being built across the entrance to New York harbour. Not only would these come with a hefty price tag, but they would require regular maintenance (so there’s be a fixed cost NY will pay every year….forever!). And recall, the issues in the Mid west with leeve’s is the cost of that upkeep. And such infrastructure will fundamentally change NY’s relationship with the sea. Some water front property will have to be demolished. No more gentle strolls along the beach, the sea views for some residents blocked by a massive concrete edifice and the constant drone of pumps.

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….Which may eventually include a flood barrier across the harbour entrance

There are other alternatives to sea walls. For example, Shanghai a city much larger than NY (which is practically a village next to Shanghai!) is also at risk from climate change induced flooding. They’ve been taking a slightly different approach. Walls alone aren’t seen as enough, so instead they are focusing more on using wetlands to soak up excess water and drainage canals to then flush it out to sea. This is of course a practice the Dutch have been engaging in for centuries. But, like sea walls, such measures have their limits.

While America (or China and the EU) can ultimately afford to defend its more valuable cities from flooding (for awhile anyway), other parts of the world aren’t so lucky. A quick look at this sea level rise predictor will show you how many parts of the world, where they simply can’t afford such infrastructure are at risk of getting flooded. And again, its the poor in these countries who’ll get flooded out. Be they poor farmers in the Bengal delta, lower caste urban dwellers in Mumbai, or the Shanty towns of Lagos. And at the other extreme, others will be displaced by drought.

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Of course the problem, even for the wealthy, is that flood defences only work if climate change remains nice and predictable, which it probably won’t be. Sea level rise might occur in sudden spurts (as has happened in the past) meaning flood defences can’t be built quickly enough. And beyond a certain tipping point, if sea levels get high enough, such flood defences just won’t work. The trouble with leeves and sea walls is that once they are breached, the effects are often devastating (as Katrina showed). Plus they only stop floods, if ground water gets contaminated by salt water, then it can make it virtually impossible to maintain large coastal cities.

So this brings up the option of what’s called “managed retreat”. However, this terms has, up until now, only been used with regard to maybe a couple of houses at risk from coastal erosion. We’re now talking about whole suburbs or even cities being abandoned. To say this is going to a big deal is to put it mildly. I mean imagine you live in a small working class town in Pennsylvania. How are you going to feel if a few million pushy New Yorkers suddenly show up and start acting like they own the place (which in time they probably will!), then turn your local bar into a hipster cafe. How do you think the locals inland of Lagos (who are mostly Muslim) will react when millions of those displaced by climate change (often Christian) start moving onto their land? And if the bigot brigade think we’ve got a refugee crisis now in America or the EU, wait till a few hundred million show up and want in.

All in all, what these issues show is that no matter how expensive you’ve been led to believe fighting climate change will be, its still going to be cheaper than dealing with the consequences. And for the record, those costs are often wildly exaggerated by the right wing media. If we can’t afford to transition away from fossil fuels, then fundamentally we can’t afford to keep using them.

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Conservatives say the funniest things

I’ve long been amazed at conservatives ability to wander around in a bubble of self imposed delusion. While ignorance (and a certain level of stupidity) helps, inevitably when confronted by the facts, they are forced to perform feats of mental gymnastics that would leave Simone Biles feeling dizzy. And nobody is a truer master of this than Donald Trump.

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Firstly he ignored comments he made about Meghan Markle that were played back to him. Fake news now extends to anything that Trump actually says or heards. Even Laura Ingraham had to remind her audience to unhear something about Trump (and in other news Trump is also increasing the chocolate ration from 25 grams to 20 grams).

Prince Charles, perhaps naively tried to convince Trump about the dangers of climate change. He’d be as well off talking to a lump of coal. Trump responded by saying that climate change is not the fault of the US, that it has the cleanest air and water. Of course this isn’t true. As I mentioned before, there’s huge issues with water quality in rural America, which are getting much worse under Trump’s watch. The disastrous consequences of which will plague the country for years to come. And America’s environmental standards have long lagged behind those in the EU.

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And while it is true China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases it only recently took that title, while the US held it for many decades. And China has over a billion people, it would be expected that the largest country in the world would have the largest emissions. On a per capita basis, America’s emissions are at least double those of the EU average and 2.5 times higher than China’s. And while both are signed up to the Paris accords and are taking measures too de-carbonise their economies, the US is still on the fence. To draw an analogy, the Americans have been fly tipping in their neighbours yard for decades, such that its now full of their trash. Yet because China comes along and discards one drinks can into the massive pile, America then turns around and blames the whole mess on China.

And this from an administration that now calls fossil fuels molecules of freedom. Which is a funny way to describe something where about 40% of the global supply comes from the middle east. Yes American domestic gas and fuel production has increased recently, but fossil fuels are finite and the vast bulk of the reserves that remain are in the middle east (about 70% of them, 80% if we count all OPEC oil reserves). So at best, the US can avoid the need to directly buy Saudi oil for awhile, if we ignore the fact that oil is an international market with oil supplies both being exported from the US and imported. A vital fact, when you consider that Saudi crude is a particularly light blend of the stuff, ideal for cars or aviation.

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Oh and they’ve also taken to labelling some High level waste as low level waste, because changing the name of something will just magically reduced its radioactivity, doesn’t it? Well if its so safe, here’s a thought, how about we give it Trump supporters and they can bury it in their backyards near where their kids play?….actually I’d better watch myself, knowing Trump supporters they’ll probably think that was a great idea.

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Here in the UK we have the statements from the brexiters here in the UK, which are also reality bending. Farage, despite having no MP’s and remain supporters getting more votes that him by a considerable margin in the recent EU elections, thinks he should handle the brexit negotiations. I mean can you imagine if Change UK (or whatever they are going to call themselves now) showed up in number 10 and started moving in their furniture as May moves out.

Meanwhile, the Tory leadership candidates have promised all sorts of insane things. I mean there was a controversy last week, about one or two candidates doing drugs in their youth. I’d always just assumed everyone in the Tory party was high on crack! Raab reckons he’s going to shut down parliament for several months to prevent MP’s voting to stop a no deal brexit. So he’s going to suspend democracy, ignore the rule of law (this would almost certainly be illegal) and paralyse the UK government (and economy) for months (as they would unable to pass even the most basic of legislation without parliament) just to get brexit through. When confronted with these facts, rather than admit he was wrong, instead he said he couldn’t take such a option “off the table because that would make it harder for him to negotiate with Brussels (not sure if the EU has stopped laughing yet).

And needless to say Boris, holed up in his war room in a posh central London flat, is promising everyone everything. He will leave on October 30th no matter what. He’ll cut taxes and increase public spending. He’ll withhold paying the exit bill and blame the EU (for a mess of his own making), yet still get a free trade deal from them….Ignoring the fact that this is almost certainly illegal (and the EU can potentially recover the money by just not repatriating funds it owes the UK, or imposing a tax on all UK financial transactions). Yes, he’s saying he’ll refuse to negotiate, plunge the UK and EU into a crisis, refuse to pay any bills and then show up in Brussels on the 31st of October as if nothings happened and expect them to do a trade deal (of course the reality is he’ll be chucked out of the EU headquarters head first).

And a word from the populist left….

That said, its not as if they are alone. We also have similar problems on the populist left. Consider Corbyn’s position on brexit. As far as he’s concerned, losing seats and votes in the EU election to remain parties has nothing to do with his dithering on Brexit. Nor should we pay any attention to recent opinion polls which show a massive drop in support for labour (from 40% to just 20%, level with the lib dems and behind the brexit party). While its true that labour recently retained its seat in the Peterborough by election, this only happened because the Tory vote collapsed to the bexit party. Labour were 17% behind on the last election performance in 2017 (which suggests the opinion polls are about right, labour support, even in a leave voting seat, is down considerably). And, as if to add insult to injury, the winning labour candidate is now embroiled in a row over anti-Semitic comments she made (sound’s like she’ll fit right in then!).

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As with the Tories, Corbyn’s solution to pesky little facts is to ignore them and then airbrush from history those who repeatedly speak unspeakable truths, with Emily Thornberry and other people’s vote supporters, likely to face dismissal for having the nerve to tell their boss the truth. Labour isn’t a political party anymore, its the cult of the one true Corbyn. A straight talking politicians whose actually policies are shrouded in smoke and about as clear as mud.

Meanwhile in Italy it looks like, the five turds star government is in its death throes. It would appear that enabling fascists has consequences. Left leaning voters recoil in horror and said fascists get to blame you for all of their mistakes and position themselves to take over. I mean who could have known, its not like Italy’s ever been taken over by fascists before.

And in Ireland Sinn Fein are taking a pounding in the polls. They were decimated in recent local elections and lost seats in the EU elections. Perplexed at this, they insisted a very expensive recount should go ahead in Munster. Why are they in such difficulty? Because their refusal to take any sort of a firm position on brexit means voters have realised that, like all populists, they are about as useful as tits on a mule. Lots of nice slogans and meaningless sound bites aren’t much use in a crisis.

My point is that there’s only so long that you can go on ignoring the truth. At some point populists are going to have to confront reality. The longer you delay, the harder it gets. And both those on the extremes of the left and right need to accept this fact.

The longer that conservatives ignore climate change, the harder it becomes to implement more capitalist friendly solutions to it. In fact, I’d argue conservatives are making a huge mistake. These free market solutions to climate change take time to implement. By running down the clock on climate change, there won’t have time to be effective. Leaving us with only the quick and nasty authoritarian options (i.e. rationing, high taxes and state level intervention).

The longer Corbyn pretends brexit isn’t costing him votes, the more votes he loses and the harder its going to be to convince his own supporters when he’s forced to change policy (I mean if he did back a 2nd referendum now, would anybody believe him?). And odds are, if he ever makes into number 10, his party will be as paralysed and divided on Europe as the Tories are, very little of any of his core policies will actually get implemented.

And brexit supporters need to admit to the public that the brexit promised in 2016 is impossible, the UK will be worse off out than in. Consider that recent polls show that concerns about immigration in the UK have fallen significantly since the referendum. While they could get away with selling harsh immigration controls (noting that Corbyn too has bought into this rhetoric) on the back of making the country poorer a year or two ago, that’s unlikely to be the case now or in the future.

The history of the world is littered with the tales of those who thought they could ignore their day of reckoning, by pretending it would never come, but it always does.

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News roundup

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I’ve been off on business for the last few weeks, hence the long silences. So, while I deal with the jet lag, I thought it would be a good idea to give a rundown of events that caught my eye while I was away….

The darling buds of May

So the big story has to be the most predictable, May’s resignation. She leaves office being widely acknowledged as the UK’s worst ever prime minster…although that said, give PM Boris a year or two!

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Now many will say this is unfair, it should be Cameron who claims the wooden spoon. After all he got us into this mess in the first place. To which my reply is that he’s certainly the 2nd worst (as things stand), but she’s in a mess of her own making. As one observer commented, it took her three years to…

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Trump and the truth about taxes

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Some details of Trump’s tax returns leaked recently, which seemed to suggest that he hasn’t paid any taxes for ten years due to the fact he’s lost over a billion dollars over that period. So doesn’t look like he’s such a great businessman then. Trump (America’s court jester in chief) then preposterously claimed that this was a deliberate strategy to avoid payment of taxes (essentially all but admitting to tax fraud). However it does highlight a number of important issues with regard to tax and the wealthy.

Firstly it shows that most Americans, in particular republicans, don’t understand how marginal tax rates work. That even if the 70% Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes was applied, it would only apply to top earners and only the portion of their income in the tens of millions. In truth they’d be paying closer to 20-35% on their overall income, particularly when you consider…

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Rural America under threat from capitalism, climate change and the GOP

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Rural America, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, is under attack from all sides. As this article from the Guardian discusses America’s factory farming system has destroyed rural America, turning many into little more than modern day serfs. Trump’s “tax cutmight actually push up the running costs of many US farmers, as it eliminated various deductions that they benefited from. Quite apart from the economic blowback from his tariff policy and trade wars. And inevitably the rate of suicides is up in rural America.

US agriculture is now heading in completely the wrong direction, as such intensive farming methods are not only bad for rural communities, reducing the number of well paid jobs (in favour of low paid jobs filled by recently arrive immigrants) but they are also terrible for the environment. Carbon emissions are higher (there’s been some efforts to claim feedlot cattle is better, but that comes from poor scope definition of the underlying LCA’s) and the energy consumption levels are much higher, leading to poorer EROEI ratio’s. Not the sort of practices you want to adopt in a warming world dependant on a depleting source of fossil fuels. And climate change is having an effect on American farms, notably with regard to more frequent droughts and flooding.

The more controversial US agricultural policies include things like pumping growth hormones into cattle or chlorinating chickenWhat’s wrong with this? I mean you go through the little paddle pool at the front of a swimming pool, you chlorinating your own feet. Yes, but the reason Americans need to chlorinate their chicken is because of the terrible conditions in which those chickens are kept and processed, which all but guarantees they’ll emerge loaded with bacteria. But the trouble is that this process doesn’t always kill all the bacteria. Which probably explains why the EU has banned such practices and why food poisoning rates in the US are ten times higher than in the EU, while the dead rate from diseases like e-coli, listeria and salmonella is about five times higher in the US than the EU.

Another controversial practice on US farms is the US of GM crops. What’s wrong with that? While there might be some benefits with GM (drought resistant crops for example), but this is beside the point. The primary purpose of GM in the US has been to allow the crops to tolerate the mass spraying of pesticides such as Roundup (which is banned in the EU on grounds of public health). Furthermore farmers are forced to sign contracts with corporations, which lock them in to only receiving seed and pesticide from one particular company. Control of their farm is essentially lost. They are, like I said, reduced to the role of modern day serfs.

Another area of concern is the EPA, which has basically stopped doing its job since Trump took over. Take this piece from Vice news about coal dust ash, which is often loaded with heavy metals and carcinogens and how its working its way into US rivers and thus ultimately the drinking water of Americans. Or this piece, also from Vice, about Petcoke production and toxic fumes being openly realised over or near US towns and nobody is doing anything about it. Or there’s the US practice of mountain top removal, which again often causes major pollution problems in rural areas, impacting on local drinking water.

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Then there’s the US opoid crisis, a direct result of improper regulation of medicines in the US, the fact that doctors get kickbacks from big pharma for pushing their pills and a lack of affordable heathcare, which leaves some with no choice other than popping pills and hope for the best. And another issue with the US healthcare system is that control of heathcare services is in the hands of corporations not the people. Hence way there is a growing problem with hospital closures in rural America.

And education too is under pressure in rural and small town America, with teachers quitting in droves and school boards finding it very difficult to replace them. Which should hardly come as a surprise. You elect a bunch of politicians who hate public services, they cut taxes, starve services of funds and label those that insist on teaching “facts” as the enemy. And you elect a president whose base is literally the poorly educated, what did you think was going to happen? Schools and hospitals got gutted, rural and small town America get’s shafted. I mean whose side do you think these plutocrats are on?

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But at least all of these rural voters in the US have now learnt their lesson and they’ll vote for a democrat next election. LOL! You’ve obviously never met anyone from rural America! Not only would I expect support for Trump to be undiminished, it might actually increase.

In fact, probably one of the reason they came out in droves to vote for Trump was that they were feeling the initial effects of all of the above, which they blamed the democrats for (even though it was policies brought in by Bush at fault). And no doubt next time, they’ll probably find a way to blame the democrats for everything again. Its Turkey’s voting for Christmas sort of stuff….and then blaming the cows for it.

The brexit connection

I mentioned brexit, because there is a connection here. One of the things that you hear from brexiteers is how they feel the UK should try, post-brexit, to emulate the US and turn the UK into a bit of the old U-S of A. And some republicans too also share something of a misplaced admiration for the British empire, as discussed in the vlog post. Of course in both cases, its a view based on a misplaced understanding of history.

The Brexiteers seem to ignore the fact that the US is a large federated state, you know like the “United states of Europe”, they are in the process of leaving (because they think its too oppressive). And the republican plutocrats seem to forget who the enemy was when they fought for independence (you know the redcoats who wanted to hang the founding fathers for treason).

I mean can you imagine the outcry if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on left leaning states (like New York or California) to break away from the USA, then trade on WTO terms, require those who were born in red states to register and get work permits. Yet Farage can do exactly that in front of the the heritage foundation and get a standing ovation. As I’ve said before, conservatives hypocrisy syndrome is a well established phenomenon.

But going for a hard brexit and a free trade treaty with the US (and there’s zero chance of getting a free trade deal without giving in to the US on farming), means (as noted) accepting a tenfold increase in the chances of being hospitalised due to food poisoning, a five fold increase in the odds of your children dying of food poisoning, GM crops and roundup being sprayed on fields, with farmers losing control of their seed stock.

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And another condition of any US/UK free trade deal will almost certainly include giving US healthcare companies access to NHS contracts. Or in other words, opening up the NHS to further privatisation and corporations getting to decide on whether or not to close your local hospital or GP’s office. I don’t recall any of this being on the ballot paper back in June 2016.

So what the brexiteers actually mean, is they want to copy certain US policies, such as its single payer healthcare system, its less than stellar commitment to environmental protection, lower taxes, lack of welfare state, its predatory finances and turning many British into defacto serf’s. They’ll never publicly admit to this of course (because that would be letting the cat out of the bag), but let’s be clear, that’s what they actually want.

Certainly there are some aspects of the US we in Europe should be copying, most notably in the UK. But equally, there’s a lot US policy which we shouldn’t copy, as its clearly been shown to just breed inequality and crime. So it leaves one confused as to exactly which US policies the UK should emulate, given that the obvious answer would seem to be to stay in the EU, lobby for a more democratically accountable EU and establish a UK constitution. All of which is the polar opposite of what brexiteers have spent the last few decades lobbying for.

And Americans would be well advised to take a leaf out of Europe’s book. These issues in rural America stem from a grossly unfair US electoral system, which basically guarantees many US representatives their seats, upon which they can get back to ignoring their constituents and lining their pockets with corporate cash. Proportional representation could help to break the duopoly of US politics.

And the US federal government has way too much power. Combining the powers of the head of state and head of government in the president is also just open to abuse (as Trump is perhaps in the process of proving). Not to mention the need to de-politicise the appointment to posts such as the supreme court or agencies like the EPA. And one thing the EU has been good at is directed funds in the direction of deprived areas, including rural areas, thus avoiding a number of the issues discussed above.

But clearly certain plutocrats both sides of the Atlantic share a desire to impose some sort of neo-feudal system, with them on top and at the bottom a lot of poorly educated, peasants on the edge of bankruptcy who’ll be too busy keeping their head above water to do anything other than vote for whoever the 1% decide to put on the ballot paper.

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A spoiler alert for the EU elections

daryanblog

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The UK’s local election results (in England, Scotland wasn’t voting this time around) have shown a massive swing away from the pro-brexit parties, towards pro-remain parties. Now while it is certainly true that local elections tend to be fought over issues such as fortnightly bin collections and the cost of the Christmas lights, certainly there’s clearly something of a trend here that’s a bit too obvious to ignore.

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At the end of the day, even if you are voting on local issues, who do you want in charge of local affairs? The party that proposed brexit, got a deal and then voted against it. Or the party that backed remain, but voted in favour of article 50 and who has been sitting on the fence ever since, with the party leadership trying to come up with an excuses for why they should vote for a Tory brexit plan they…

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The environmental impact of space Junk

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Figure 1: Its not just the oceans where the earth has a garbage problem

We often think of environmental problems as something that only effects the natural world and things back on earth, but there’s a growing environmental problem in space, which could have very serious consequences if it isn’t contained. The issue of orbital debris from expired satellites and spent rocket stages, which is gradually building up in space, making operations in space increasingly difficult and dangerous.

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Figure 2: A NASA radar image of the objects currently in orbit around the earth

A couple of weeks ago India was criticised for destroying one of its own satellites. This test produced a large cloud of debris (some 400 pieces) flying around the earth at twenty times the speed of sound (to put that in prospective that means a small 1g speck of debris has the same destructive energy as a 20mm cannon round!). This brought to the fore the topic of Kessler syndrome, whereby as the density of objects in orbit increases, then eventually the probability of collisions raises to the point where it becomes a near certainty. Which means one collision leads to another, which leads to more and so on, until eventually the earth is surrounded by a layer of lethal debris.

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Figure 3: An ESA test showing the impact of a small item of space junk hitting a 180mm tick block of aluminium.

There’s currently 600,000 pieces of space junk up there already. And collisions between space junk and satellites does indeed occur (although its usually disused satellites in uncontrolled orbits). Every few months the space station has to change its course to avoid a dangerous piece of debris and it has been hit before (though fortunately not sufficient to cause a breach). The danger is that eventually this debris problem will build to a point where space operations become impossible.

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Figure 4: The density of space junk at different altitudes, note the marked increase as a result of the 2009 satellite collision (Englert et al 2014)

One particularly worrying item of debris is the European Space Agency’s ENVISAT. This unexpectedly stopped working in 2012 (possibly an internal failure, as it was past its design life, but it could have been hit by debris). Now the trouble is that while most of the satellites were talking about are only about the size of a washing machine, or maybe a small car, ENVISAT is closer to the size of a school bus. Given the fact its in a relatively high and inclined orbit (meaning its going to take a long time to decay and fall back to earth, plus it crosses the path of many other objects on the way down) the odds of it being involved in a collision are rather high, as are the odds that this debris will go on to produce more collisions. In fact, the Europeans are so concerned about it they are already working on a mission to intentionally de-orbit ENVISAT.

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Figure 5: The European Space Agency’s ENVISAT, which provided vital information about climate change during its life, now unfortunately its contributing to an environmental problem of a different nature!

This is really the worst case scenario. One large collision produces a large shower of debris, which unleashes a chain reaction of further collisions, creating a cascade. Hence the concerns over ENVISAT or the recent Indian missile test. The end result would be something similar to what’s portrayed in the movie “gravity. The only real difference is timing. While in the movie such a cascade takes minutes, in truth it would take days, or more likely weeks, months or even years. But even so, the problem is that once the debris density reaches a critical threshold, there’s not a lot we can do about it. Like so many environmental problems, it reaches a tipping point and from that point onwards, the process becomes unstoppable. Hence a wait and see policy isn’t a good idea.

So, what would the consequences of this be? Well the satellites at most intimidate risk would be those in low earth orbit. This includes earth observation and remote sensing, weather satellites, spy sats, cell phones, various science experiments, most notably the Hubble space telescope. All of these services could quickly go down.

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Figure 6: Different satellites occupy different orbits, recall debris is at peak density closer to the earth in LEO

For astronauts in orbit how big a risk they are at depends on where the cascade starts. If it starts above them (e.g. ENVISAT), its going to take sometime for the debris to make it down to their altitude (its at about 800 km’s up, while the ISS is at about 400 km’s). Sufficiently long that they could potentially stay in orbit and missions to the ISS could continue for period. But if the debris cascade starts below them its more of a problem (hence the anger at the Indians), as they have to travel back down through the debris to safety. That said, debris at a lower altitude does decay and reenter the atmosphere much more quickly (so possibly they could try to ride it out).

Either way, beyond a certain point, it will be too risky to remain, meaning they’ll probably be eventually given orders to abandon the ISS. In theory, the station can be remotely operated from the ground, but not indefinitely. And the worse case scenario is that the ISS gets hit. Even if there’s nobody on board, the amount of debris that would generate would be enormous, its the size of a football field! And worse, while some of that debris would eventually burn up upon re-entry, not all of it would come down straight away, plus the danger is that any large part of it that do falls out of orbit in an uncontrolled manner won’t be guaranteed to burn up completely. When you consider that its orbit takes it over heavily populated areas such as the eastern US seaboard, central Europe, the middle east, Eastern India and SE Australia, you can see the problem. The decision might have to be taken to deliberately try and deorbit the station (effectively scuttling it) while it was over the Pacific.

So the immediate consequences would be, we lose certain vital satellite services and an end to human space flight for some extended period of time. Other satellites in higher geostationary, quasi-synchronous orbits or higher still, would not be immediately effected. This includes most long range communication satellites, TV signals and the GPS network. However, we’d only be able to communicate with them when they are directly overhead. Not a problem if you are the US and you’ve got lots of massive dishes all over the world, but a bit issue if you are China, Russia (or ironically India), as it means you can only talk to some of your sat’s at certain times of the day. You would be blind to what’s going on the other side of the world.

Furthermore, those satellites in high orbits won’t last forever. The typical life span of a satellite is about 5-10 years. So once enough of those satellites go down, we risk losing those services as well, unless replacements can be launched.

So while we won’t wake up one day to find that GPS systems don’t work (that said, some older GPS system DID stop working recently due to a roll over of GPS system dates), the long term implications are still pretty severe. We’d lose weather forecast data pretty much immediately, which is vital to the safety of aircraft, ships at sea, predicting renewable energy production and advising farmers on when to harvest/sow crops. Lost of satellite communications would cut off many isolated communities, notably in the far north. They’d literally go from one day being able to tweet instantly, to the most up to date information coming in on via sled dogs (limited to how fast the dogs can move).

And while GPS services would take sometime to fail, given the vital function they perform, the consequences of losing it would be fairly dire. And I’m not talking about motorists being unable to navigate to Starbucks for a caramel latte. I’m talking about ships and aircraft getting lost. Many of the alternatives, such as the Loran system of radio beacons, have fallen into disuse. Certainly all pilots and ship captains have been taught how to navigate by compass, map and Sextant. But we’re talking about having pilots and mariners digging up their college notes and relearn something they’ve not had to practice for years. And inevitably they’ll get it wrong.

Which means planes flying into mountains and ships ending up on the rocks. It means crops rotting in the fields due to unexpectedly poor weather, it means medical emergencies which go unanswered. Because in the era before we had satellites, this sort of stuff happened all of the time. So we’d be talking a minimum of several thousand extra deaths per year if we lose access to satellites. So this is kind of a big deal. Even if you think space travel is a waste of money, you might feel a bit different if all of these services were lost.

There are solutions to this problem. It is possible for example to armour a spacecraft to be resistant to debris. Such technology has been tested out in space, but only on smaller capsules (typically those on the way to the ISS or the ISS itself). Building entire upper rocket stages and satellites with such armour would make them heavier, delivering a smaller payload, which would make them more expensive to launch, which would probably limit the number of launches. So while I’d argue certain vital space services would be maintained, whatever the cost (for the reasons outlined above, we just can’t afford to lose them!), that’s pretty much going to swallow up the whole space budget and leave little money for anything else (such as crewed missions, or space science).

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Figure 7: ESA’s ATV supply ships for the ISS are now clad in Kevlar reinforced spaced armour, which offers some protection…up to a point of course!

As for clearing the debris, some will fall back to earth by itself eventually. There are proposed missions to deorbit key satellites that pose a danger. And the introduction of several low cost launch vehicles (ESA’s Vega or Spacex Falcon rocket family) makes such missions a lot more viable. That said, such mission risk generating more debris (as they involve a further space launch) and if they were to fail, you’d risk making the worst of an already bad situation.

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Figure 8: ESA’s proposed mission to capture and deorbit ENVISAT is an example of how to clean up space junk….or making the worst of a bad situation! [Spacenews, 2018]

The idea of reusable space launch vehicles and even refurbish-able satellites (using a reusable launch vehicle to retrieve them from orbit) is another option. Alternatively we just fit them with a “kill vehicle” that either deorbits them or pushes them into a graveyard orbit. However the problem with all of these options is that it requires some sort of recognised “authority” to enforce such rules. And space is kind of a commons, one that risks becoming another proof of the tragedy of the commons.

But the concern is that this all might turn out to be too little too late. Like I said, the problem with Kessler syndrome is that a wait and see policy will likely mean waiting until we are passed the point of no return. Only by taking action now can these problems be tackled.

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