Tag Archives: climate change

Barack Obama’s latest climate speech

As I write this, Pope Francis is on the way to the United States to speak to political leaders and the UN on the subject of climate change in the lead up to the Paris conference, so it is worth noting what sort of response he might get. President Obama has been speaking regularly on the subject this year, most recently in Alaska (text here).

As we know, at the end of last year came a surprising but very welcome announcement of joint action between the United States and China, and this speech continues in the same vein. Much forms a familiar route through the crises we face:

Our understanding of climate change advances each day.  Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought.  The science is stark.  It is sharpening.  It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present.

Details are given of the particular threats found in Alaska and the Arctic: greater temperature rises than the world average, melting glaciers and permafrost, and damage to the very way of life of many. But, paradoxically, it is the unwillingness to change lifestyles which forms a major obstacle to action. People are in particular worried about the threat to the economy. “In countries where there remains significant poverty, including here in the United States, the notion is, can we really afford to prioritize this issue.”

He notes that climate change will, ironically, be a major threat to economic growth. So what is the solution? Efficiency, technology and ingenuity. “This is a solvable problem if we start now.”

So far so good. But some questions need to be posed.

Firstly, is it solvable in these ways? Possibly if this speech was being given in 1995, not 2015, but to make carbon cuts of the levels required seems to need more radical action?

Secondly, how far can Obama speak for the remainder of the US estabilishment and in particular the next administration. The various Republican candidates are – in the main – not so keen to take action, and doubts have been expressed about Hillary Clinton too.

Thirdly, Obama’s view is well short of the Pope’s agenda. How will talk of retreat from the idolisation of technology, placing economics back under the thumb of politics and heightened world equality play with the President, let alone the average American? We will find out starting later this week!

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A firmer timescale on global warming

A recent article in Nature is getting a lot of coverage: see for instance The Guardian, Daily Mail and The Sydney Morning Herald.

A group of researchers led by Camilo Mora in Hawaii have taken the bold step of attempting to predict how long we have before the climate will depart from its normal variability, specifically when our existing record climatic extremes will become typical. These records have been taken over a period of about 150 years to 2005, so already taking into account some climate change. The analysis is done over particular areas, ecological areas and types of species.

Typical dates come out at about 2050 if we continue down our existing emissions path (the IPCC’s RCP8.5) or about 20 years later if we start making substantial cuts (RCP4.5). But the tropics come out considerably worse, and in particular coral reefs, where we have already reached unprecdented levels of acidification in the past few years. Some locations, including parts of Indonesia, and Jamaica, have only ten years before they reach a new climate.

This may not be an enormous surprise, but it puts the issue into clear relief, perhaps more than the recent IPCC report did. The authors are pessimistic: they note that most of this change is already locked into our system. Even if our particular area might be further down the track (Britain seems to have until into the 2050s), our global economic and ecosystem means that we will be hit by secondary effects earlier.

It all calls for a renewed dose of hope. I’ve been reading on this topic recently: particularly some excellent writing by Richard Bauckham – watch this space.

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Climate change and farming

One of the concerns of climate change scientists in recent years is not so much that global temperatures will rise a handful of degrees, but that this will cause considerably more extreme weather due to greater energy in the atmosphere: Bill McKibben’s ‘global weirding’. Science isn’t in a position to predict what, where, or how much, except in extremely broad terms, but it seems from the evidence of the past few years that these kinds of changes may be beginning to start.

This has been picked up by the President of the (UK) National Farmers’ Union, Peter Kendall, as reported in the Guardian and was featured on Radio 4’s The World Tonight last night (audio from 21:58, may not be available long-term).

Kendall has been speaking to farmers about this and sums things up as:

A gentle increase in temperature is fine but extreme weather events completely stuffs farming: just look at last year. Farming is risky enough as it is.

As noted by a Welsh farmer quoted on the radio programme, the problem is that we seem to be getting long blocks of the same type of weather, often more extreme: drought, snow, rain and heat over the last year. These affect yields of both crops and livestock, and make feeding the UK more difficult.

Is this good news? Yes, in that an influential voice is raising the issue. But some farmers are yet to be convinced, and Kendall’s plans for action seem to involve other people taking action, not farmers. There is no acknowledgement that farming makes substantial contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and species loss and should at least re-examine its own practices.

Although an unprecedented stocktake of UK wildlife in May revealed that most species are struggling, Kendall said: “As I travel around, I see a fantastic British countryside and I do not accept that the countryside and environment is going to hell in a handcart.”

So this is an important step forward, but not the whole story. I hope that Kendall and others can have a frank discussion with environmentalists (some of whom in turn need to recognise that the need to feed the UK population puts some limits on what is possible) and all come to a suitable plan for adapting to climate change, together with helping to mitigate the worst effects.

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John Vidal on climate change and its effects on food supplies

Well worth reading is an article by John Vidal from yesterday’s Observer which gives some forecasts as to the likely effects of climate change on food supplies over the next 20-40 years. Nothing particularly new, but good to have everything in one place reasonably clearly.

As you might expect, the news isn’t good, with North Africa and South East Asia possibly at greatest risk in the short term. The former is likely to be hit by increased temperatures beyond which most current crops can’t grow, the latter by increased and more unstable rainfall patterns, damaging rice crops in particular.

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Hasn’t the climate always changed?

My recent KLICE comment piece elicited an e-mail response from a Revd Dr wondering if the climate had always been changing, and (implicitly) if what we’re seeing is anything new. I don’t feel I should publish his e-mail in full, but here’s my reply:

Revd Dr […],

Thank you for your interest in my KLICE comment piece and the reply. Unfortunately given the constraints of space I couldn’t say everything about the subject, but let me address the questions you have.

You say that you are sure the climate has changed in the past, well before humanity’s ability to change it. This is true, and in fact there is an entire field of science, paleoclimatology, devoted to finding out what we can find out from the geological record, ice cores and other sources.

While this data can only take you so far, it is generally agreed that the various ice ages of the last few hundred thousand years saw global temperatures up to about 8C lower than present, but going back millions of years, there were periods in which global temperatures were a few degrees higher, so what is now England would have been tropical, helped by (at times) also being closer to the equator due to the continents moving round the earth. That is when the coal seams would have been laid down.

As well as the question of what the temperature was, research has been done into why it changes. There are numerous factors known or believed to contribute to both these longer term and short term variations in climate and weather. (Climate is taken to be variations over a 30-year period or more, weather is anything more short term.) These include variations in the orbit and axis of the earth, the changing positions of the continents and ocean currents, volcanoes, pollution, variations in the power of the sun, and the level of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. Some of these affect the global climate, others have more local effects. For instance, while Britain and neighbouring areas were distinctly warmer in the Middle Ages, there is no evidence that this was a worldwide phenomenon. And when we get to the level of months and days there are plenty of other factors which can cause the kind of extremes in weather we’ve been used to over recorded history.

It is the wide variety of factors that led to some fears about global cooling in the 1970s. At that point, pollution had increased rapidly, and many thought its cooling effect would dominate. What wasn’t foreseen was the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the decrease in pollution subsequently which has led to the trend going very much the other way.

Given all this, why is there so much concern about greenhouse gases? The first is that the effect we understand they will have is far bigger than any other factor that has affected our climate recently. The last ten thousand years, in which all human culture has developed seems to have been unusually stable, with global temperature varying only by about a degree or so, and CO2 levels in the atmosphere varying between about 270 and 290 ppm (parts per million). We are currently right at the top of that temperature range and expecting to gain anything from 1.5 to 6 degrees C this century, and CO2 will hit 400ppm within a couple of years and anything between about 600 and 1000ppm by 2100. There is uncertainty in both the science and how much humans will act to reduce emissions, hence the relatively large ranges, but the question is only whether between whether we get an outcome which is merely ‘bad’ or ‘a complete disaster’.

So we are moving into a climate which humans have never known, probably reaching the warmest for around 30 million years within a few decades. This leads to fears of possible unknown factors coming into play, which may slow warming down or stop it, but may also accelerate it. For instance, there is a considerable amount of methane (an even more potent greenhouse gas) frozen into the Arctic tundra. If this melts and is released, then it will cause even more warming. By the time these factors are definitively understood, it will almost certainly be far too late to do anything about them.

We are talking about a relatively short period of time, but that is because the speed of change is also alarming. Similar rapid climate shifts have occurred in the past, maybe over tens of thousands of year, maybe faster – we can’t tell. But their effect on the planet has been immense, usually causing mass species extinction as animals and plants cannot adjust fast enough to their environment changing. The worst killed 95%+ of marine life, 70% of land life, and life took millions of years to be as fruitful again afterwards as it had been before.

The effects on humanity are likely to be similarly severe. We cannot yet ascertain with any reliability what they will be, but a warmer atmosphere generally leads to wetter (globally) but more extreme weather, and it is now pretty much certain that some areas of the planet are going to become very difficult or impossible for humans to live. Typical predictions include that in 50 years or so parts of Africa will be too hot for any food crop to grow reliably, and that the entire Mediterranean basin will become desert. While some new areas near the poles may become more fertile, they almost certainly won’t counterbalance what has been lost, and in any case we have the social problem of moving millions of people to new areas.

Now, it remains theoretically possible that what we are seeing is some natural effect which is causing warming and we are just incredibly unlucky it is happening in our lifetimes. It would also be an incredible coincidence that the climate is changing exactly at the same time we are pumping lots of carbon into the atmosphere! However, even in that case we should be avoiding the emission of greenhouse gases which are known also to increase warming – the science on this has been settled for a century- and would exacerbate this effect.

So if we are to take our mandate to care for creation seriously, or even just to live as responsible citizens of Planet Earth, we need to seriously consider reducing our carbon emissions and preparing to deal with the consequences of our past actions as a species which seem inevitably to get worse in coming decades.

I hope that all makes sense to you and fills in the background on the article.

Yours in Christ,

Colin Bell

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Hope or crunch in 2013?

Apologies for a rather long hiatus in the blog. I’ve had to devote a lot of time to other writing projects, and while I’ve been keeping up with sustainability news, I haven’t had the opportunity to reflect on it so much.

For KLICE, I wrote their monthly comment, entitled Is there still hope for the climate? Many of the themes will be familiar to readers here: continued and increasingly bad indicators for climate, disinterest from our leaders, many campaigners beginning to despair and think only of the time beyond collapse.

But we’re also potentially at a point when the general public begin to wake up to what we’re doing. I covered that in more detail in a post called“Are we near the tipping point for climate change awareness?” Since then the trends have only increased. Hurricane Sandy seems to have a big impact in the US with 70% blaming climate change for it being such a large storm, and the continued wet weather in the UK may have a similar if less dramatic effect here. It would be interesting to know what effects the record high temperatures in Australia are having on the debate there.

On the other hand, we’re also nearing another potential tipping point. The international target has consistently been to avoid exceeding a 2C rise in global temperatures, but given there is a distinct lag between action and consequences, at some point this will be inevitable. Fatih Birol of the IEA predicted in 2011 we could have “lock-in” by 2017. The World Bank’s most recent report (106 page PDF: see media summary here) forecasts a rise of 3.5-4C by 2100 even if all existing pledges are fulfilled, and if not we can expect it by about the 2060s. Much more radical action is needed than most governments are even talking about, let alone implementing.

A Greenpeace report just out makes the same points in a much blunter way. They list 14 fossil fuel projects in planning or development round the world which between them would increase emissions by 20% by 2020 – completely the opposite of what we need. They describe them as “carbon bombs” and the imagery seems apposite. James Murray of Business Green gives an excellent summary of the report. He writes that he ‘tweeted that I was “trying not to think about this new Greenpeace report too hard, because the implications are absolutely terrifying”.’

So are we headed for hope or disaster? It’s not at all clear. It seems to me that while we’re in a situation where urgent decisions on the future of the planet need to be made, we’re also in a situation where, perhaps for the first time in a generation, you feel they just could start to be made, if public opinion switches and pressure is put on governments. 2013 could be an interesting year.

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Are we near the tipping point for climate change awareness?

I’ve been catching up on reading recently after a fairly busy August, and have been wondering: could 2012 be the year when people in the UK wake up to the fact that our climate is changing, and possibly changing faster than anyone thought?

A lot of people you talk to about climate change are quite accepting of the fact it’s likely to happen if we don’t do something, but don’t expect noticeable effects until 2050 or so, and don’t have too much of a problem waiting another ten years for us to take action. This narrative is backed up by our own government and the international community generally. Even on a relatively positive view of the last couple of governments they seem to be pretty leisurely about the timescales of the action required, and the fact we’ll have to wait until the end of the decade at least for international agreement on carbon reduction doesn’t seem a problem.

Part of the problem is that the reports of the IPCC and climate scientists have to an extent also supported this line. Obviously there’s been considerable uncertainty both about what effects to expect and the timescale, so the mainstream have generally been reasonably conservative to avoid the charge of alarmism. Some have stuck their neck out and warned that things may be worse than the IPCC reckon, and in some areas it seems they’ve been right.

One specific data point in the news at the minute is the amount of ice in the Arctic, which has just hit a new historic low of 3500 km^3 (volume) or a bit under 4 million km^2 (area). This is about one quarter the volume or half the area that was a typical summer minimum in the 1980s. Experts have long forecast that at some point the Arctic would be largely ice-free in the summer, with a large uncertainty as to when this would occur as we don’t really understand the mechanisms behind melting that well, but with dates generally somewhere between 2040 and 2100. If the current trends continue, we are looking at it happening this decade. My sources for this are a series of articles on the Climate Progress site, see this for information on melting, and this for some more information on the consequences.

While Arctic sea ice loss may not have a major impact on us in isolation, the knock-on results are potentially quite severe. One immediate effect is that the amount of sunlight absorbed in the Arctic will increase (ice reflects a lot more sunlight back into space than water does), and the temperature rise there will accelerate. This in turn has two further consequences: affecting the jet stream and increasing methane emissions.

Again, we don’t yet know as much about these as we’d like. We do know there’s a lot of methane locked up in the Arctic permafrost, and if it starts to melt then we have a lot more greenhouse gases to deal with. One of the articles above suggests that the effect will be equivalent to 15-35% of our current annual emissions, which is bad enough. I’ve also seen reference to a paper by Malcolm Light with the cheery title of “Global Extinction within one Human Lifetime”. He warns that if we get eruptions of large amounts of methane in one place, we could get localised temperature anomalies of tens of degrees, a runaway methane problem, and resulting global temperature rises of somewhere in the region of 12-14 degrees. This takes us beyond the sudden rise that provoked the Permian extinction (the worst in Earth’s history) with mass dieoffs by mid-century in the northern hemisphere, delayed by 20-30 years in the southern.

Whether this is true or not, it shows the kind of tipping point we may well reach.

Less catastrophic, but more likely to be proven in the near-term is the effect on the jet stream. This is a band of high-speed high-altitude air which is one of the main governing factors in temperate northern hemisphere weather. What’s generally believed it will produce more extreme weather, and often “stick” for a time, which is exactly what we’ve seen happen in both the UK and USA this year – the jet stream has been way off where it normally is, and the USA has had an extremely hot summer and the UK an extremely wet one. This analysis demonstrates that since 2006 there has been a distinct pressure anomaly affecting the UK: we have had much lower pressure in the summer months each year, and a worse summer. The author isn’t sure whether Arctic melt has caused this, or vice versa, but the correlation is there so far.

And other parts of the world have had unusual weather too. Bill McKibben, in an article entitled A summer of extremes signifies the new normal lists some of the effects, and concludes with a rather chilling statistic from James Hansen: while normally only 0.1 to 0.2% of the planet was affected by an “extreme heat anomaly” at a given time, this figure has now been approaching 10%.

If we are now at the point where scientists are able to say with confidence that we are both getting more extreme weather than we used to, and that it is caused by climate change – and the American Meteorological Society for one has put out a statement to this effect – we may get a tipping point where the majority of people in the UK also believe that climate change is both real and here. (A friend who works in Uganda tells me that there there’s almost no doubt. The elders used to be able to predict the rainy season pretty reliably, but now they’ve just given up, and the people feel themselves much more at the mercy of the weather.) At least in the UK, our regular conversations about the weather seem to have changed recently, and most seem to think it’s now consistently worse than it used to be.

One interesting question is whether it will also have an effect on people’s willingness to take action. Some will undoubtedly want to do things to stop it getting worse, others may just say “it’s too late”, or – if they’ve picked up on the likelihood that things like the cost of food will probably increase due to poorer weather – batten down the hatches and be even less willing to spend money on mitigation.

But it’s at least an opportunity to reopen the debate, particularly in a time when the government’s reshuffle seems to have made it less green than before. Climate change as an issue has become “tired” for many people, but if it’s becoming real here, that could change quickly.

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