Monday, April 14, 2014

BBC Fails Again on Climate Change Report.

Listening to the BBC's Radio 4 news bulletins about the IPCC WGIII report on climate mitigation, one might be forgiven for thinking that all is well, that the climate could be sorted by adding some solar panels and at very little cost to the global economy.  What a relief!  This time the BBC did not roll out crackpot climate deniers - they just made up their own denial story.  The real report from the IPCC paints a very different story.  In the Summary, after a great deal of dire warnings, we reach page 17 where there is a paragraph about the economics, the aspect that the BBC focussed upon.  This is what it says.

Estimates of the aggregate economic costs of mitigation vary widely and are highly sensitive to model design and assumptions as well as the specification of scenarios, including the characterization of technologies and the timing of mitigation (high confidence). Scenarios in which all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available, have been used as a cost‐effective benchmark for estimating macroeconomic mitigation costs. Under these assumptions, mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450ppm CO2eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption - not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co‐benefits and adverse side‐effects of mitigation - of 1% to 4% (median: 1.7%) in 2030, 2% to 6% (median: 3.4%) in 2050, and 3% to 11% (median: 4.8%) in 2100 relative to consumption in baseline scenarios that grows anywhere from 300% to more than 900% over the century. These numbers correspond to an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 (median: 0.06) percentage points over the century relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6% and 3% per year. Estimates at the high end of these cost ranges are from models that are relatively inflexible to achieve the deep emissions reductions required in the long run to meet these goals and/or include assumptions about market imperfections that would raise costs. Under the absence or limited availability of technologies, mitigation costs can increase substantially depending on the technology considered. Delaying additional mitigation further increases mitigation costs in the medium to long term. Many models could not achieve atmospheric concentration levels of about 450 ppm CO2eq by 2100 if additional mitigation is considerably delayed or under limited availability of key technologies, such as bioenergy, CCS, and their combination (BECCS).

Original document here

The BBC has, quite rightly, received much criticism for its climate change reporting recently.  It now seems to have adopted a more subtle approach - selectively cherry-picking tiny fragments, removing them from their context and reporting them as the main story.  BBC fail again.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tipping Point for Climate Action?

For the past 40 years or more some of us have, one way or another, being saying that we'd better change the way we do things or we'll all be doomed. Back in the 1970s, we got excited by a couple of paragraphs mentioning the environment in a national newspaper.  Today the talk is everywhere, and we're a lot closer to being doomed.

There has been a gradual raising of awareness of environmental threats, with global warming leading the pack as our understanding improves but those threats have become more immediate as we have failed to address them.

If we project current trends forward, the future looks bleak. Greenhouse gas emissions are currently on a worse track that the worst scenario, RCP 8.5, described by the IPCC.  If this continues then those who survive to the 22nd century will be inhabiting a very different planet.  Some think it may not be survivable.

To ensure that the worst does not come to pass there has to be change, change so sudden and dramatic it may best be thought of as a tipping point in the affairs of people.  Tipping points are, in the global warming context, regarded more often as sudden, non-linear, changes in the behaviour of elements that influence global climate, the collapse of an ice-sheet for example.

But can there be tipping points in the socio-political sphere and if so are we at or close to one? For many millions of people, 1939 was a tipping point. The change from 1938 to 1940 was dramatic, a non-linear development of previous trends. Let's do some wishful thinking for a moment and consider what sort of tipping point is required to get us off our present path to the cliff-edge.  Most importantly we have to reverse the increase in, and then reduce, greenhouse gas emissions.  And we have to make the cuts so deeply and so suddenly that the climate system feels a tipping point and halts its warming trend.

We know there are no silver bullets to achieve this so everything at every level needs to be tried.  At COP21 in Paris in December 2015 we must have legally binding globally accepted emission reduction targets with a programme of mitigation and adaptation and the funding agreements in place to ensure targets are met.  A big ask, but necessary. We know that to help achieve this there must be a great raft of smaller agreements, focussing on particular parts of the system, addressing particular interest groups.  Some of these will involve international agreements between many or a few nations, others will be more local, within nations and regions and right down to the village and household, reaching to individual hearts and minds.  Many actions will be voluntary, others backed by legislation.  Nothing should be ruled out until it is demonstrably not part of the solution.  It all involves a large proportion of the human race behaving differently, as individuals, communities, companies and states.  The difference from the present trajectory is so profound it requires a socio-political tipping point.

Could it be that we are, right now, approaching just such a tipping point?

Last September saw the publication of the IPCC AR5 report on the science. Three points of note, two of them well reported: the science has become more secure since AR4, the prognosis more dire, and, importantly, the document was signed off by the 194 nations with much less argy-bargy than previous such reports.  In March 2014 we were given the WGII report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The writers tried hard to show that there was still hope, that mitigation now still has a point but also showed clearly the shape of the upcoming catastrophe if mitigation were to fail. All rational thinkers now accept the science, leaving just a rump of deniers.  The BBC is condemned by many for giving any airtime to them.  As I write this WGIII is considering the final wording of its report on mitigation and adaptation.  It seems it will be another unequivocal statement.  The IPCC synthesis report will be produced later this year and Ban Ki Moon has called a special Climate Summit 2014 this August.

Christiana Figueres has made numerous speeches recently, pulling few punches.  Notably she has declared that much of the fossil fuel already discovered will have to be left underground.  She speaks of stranded assets, a devastating concept for the fossil fuel industry and the global financial system of which it is such a large part.  Jeremy Leggett and Carbon Tracker have raised the phenomenon to the top of the agenda and the UK Parliarment's Environmental Audit Committee have warned of the carbon bubble danger. The Prince of Wales' Corporate Leadership Group have taken up the issue with their Trillion Tonne Communiqué.  This involves many leading businesses, including big carbon sources such as Shell, calling for government to set emission reduction targets and make a success out of COP21 in Paris in 2015. Business is running ahead of government in tackling global warming.

This could be the moment for all of us, as individuals and working in households, communities, businesses and all levels of government and non-governmental institutions, to tip society and politics beyond the point of resistance, to re-engineer humanity's course towards as soft a landing as can be achieved.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Why Cameron was wrong to say climate change is one of the most serious threats.

Last Wednesday, 26th February 2014, there was an exchange in the House of Commons between the Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband. As recorded by Hansard,  where you can read the whole thing, after some discussion about floods and spending on protection, it went like this:
Edward Miliband: It is very interesting, because someone who in opposition wanted to talk as much as he could about climate change is now desperate to get off the subject. I asked him a question: will he just set out for his party and for the country his views on man-made climate change?
The Prime Minister: I believe that man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world face. …
Edward Miliband: Excellent; we are getting somewhere. I agree with what the Prime Minister said about the importance of climate change.
Yes, it is excellent, we are getting somewhere. But where and how quickly? Cameron is wrong to say that climate change is one of the most serious threats. It is far and away the most important threat; by far the most likely cause of the end of civilisation as we know it, perhaps even the extinction of the human race. Miliband is wrong for not pointing this out and wrong for not talking of climate change at all in his Labour Party Spring Conference speech two days later. That was rather a large omission for one of the most serious threats that this country and this world face.
Certainly the floods have increased the volume of climate related talking but let's just take a check as to where we are.  The first part of the IPCC AR5, the biggest scientific study ever undertaken about anything, was published last September. It presented the physical science. Near the end of this month the second part, on 'Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability' will be published, spelling out consequences.

On the same day as Cameron and Miliband came to agreement in Parliament a paper by Todd Sanford et al. was published in Nature with the opening lines: "It is time to acknowledge that global average temperatures are likely to rise above the 2 degrees C policy target and consider how that deeply troubling prospect should affect priorities for communicating and managing the risks of a dangerously warming climate." Sanford says that we are ill-prepared for a world that is increasingly likely to experience warming well in excess of 2°C this century.  The World Bank, in its 4 degrees Turn Down the Heat reports last year has shown just how unacceptable such a scenario is. My son, Chris Vernon, while working on the Greenland Ice Sheet melt problem, set out just why the the future for his generation is so bleak in this article over a year ago.
David Cameron (and Ed Miliband) are wrong to think that their brief parliamentary agreement represents any serious glimmer of hope.  Too much time has slipped by, the (arbitrary) 2 degree goal has slipped by, we are currently on course for worse than the worst case scenario presented by the IPCC.  Government, and that means all government ministers, must recognise that man-made climate change is the most serious threat that this country and this world face. And we the people must empower government to act accordingly. We mustn't just sit back and blame the politicians. It is our collective responsibility.

The choices before us:

The Ski Slope Diagram from German Advisory Council on Global Warming drawn in 2009.  We have chosen the red path, or worse.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Turned out Wet (and still raining)

My last blog-piece sparked off a twitter debate between Zoe Williams of the Guardian and one of the brigade of chicken headed deniers (See recent speech by Prince Charles). Richard Snape kindly recorded the conversation on this storify, and then went on to write a return blog-piece of his own. Thank you Richard, it’s very helpful and perhaps treats my piece with more gravitas than it deserved. The following is really a response so you’ll need to read it to make much sense of this post.
Importantly, mine is not a statistical analysis. The trouble is there aren't really any data to analyse. Rainfall records only go back ~250 years and I just made the wild assertion that this is the wettest such period since the Neolithic. That may or may not be true and probably we’ll never know.
It’s good not to cherry pick the data and I've not defined what period or events I'm talking about. Southern England December 2013, January 2014, into February 2014 and still counting, will do for time and space, rainfall, depression intensity and frequency, wind-speed, temperature, the whole gamut of weather will do for the 'event'. Sadly, we don't have the data set for all that lot going back to the Neolithic!
So is it 5-sigma? Well, frankly, I can't be certain; depending on where one draws the boundaries, it might be. Or not! You're quite right, Richard, about 'generic'. I'm wielding a broad brush.  So never mind the data, your three points of 'implied argument' are spot on:
1. If the observation is very unlikely, then the distribution must have changed.
2. The distribution changing implies climate change (and often the anthropogenic forcing element thereof).
3. If the climate is changing - that cannot be coped with using Business-as-usual methods.
I love Nick Taleb; if you haven't yet, read Black Swan.  Expect the unexpected.
But Richard, you say "climate science appears to indicate that warming would increase the amount of water that can be carried in the atmosphere". I’d put it more strongly. We know that global warming leads to more rainfall, (in as much as we know that apples fall downwards). And we’re not just dealing with Somerset. It’s reached Berkshire so must be important now. The bigger the unusual event is the more unusual it is, but of course there I go, cherry-picking boundaries.
“I think that Climate Change probably is happening." Good. But the IPCC put that more strongly. They use the word 'unequivocal' with reference not just to climate change but to the assertion that climate change is largely being caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. I agree with the IPCC position in this regard.
"Fundamentally, the rarity or otherwise of individual weather observations cannot, in my opinion, provide conclusive evidence for or against climate change." Very true, but the thing is, we've done and dusted that debate. We know, like we know that apples fall downwards, that our greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which is, in turn, causing climate change (see my earlier piece on these phrases). There are plenty of details to research and argue about, which is what climate scientists do, (we're not quite sure which daisy the apple will roll onto) but all the scientists working in the field accept the basics. There is consensus. My political purpose is to get folks to realise this.
It's really very difficult for climate scientists to communicate what they really believe. Everyone, at least in public, has to be very careful, trying to please their employers and not risk their careers. (Be particularly wary of what some meteorologists say. Weathermen are not always climate scientists, failing to see the wood for the trees.)
One of the trickier areas is with the global climate computer models. The numerical models are largely built on the underlying assumption that the climate is stable and they do not sufficiently account for thresholds and tipping points. But don't be tempted to think that therefore the models are rubbish. That would be ignoring the vital rider that the probability space of error is all on the bad side. The models underestimate the likelihood of catastrophic change. If you are not frightened of serious mathematics you might like to dig into the work of Lenny Smith at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

This diagram is for the comment below:

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Turned Out Wet

Climate scientists talk of extreme weather in terms of 3-sigma or even 5-sigma events. In a distribution of possibilities 3-sigma refers to the probability of something happening that lies at least 3 standard deviations away from the norm. For a normal distribution that’s a chance of some 1 in 370. A 5-sigma event has a probability of about 1 in 1.7 million, so you really should not be holding your breath waiting for it to happen.

A plot of a normal distribution (or bell-shaped curve) where each band has a width of 1 standard deviation Source: Wikipedia

The real world is not quite so simple. The probabilities of weather events are not distributed evenly about the mean – a dry day can’t get any drier but a wet day could be a lot wetter. Skewed or fat-tailed distributions are common. But to get a qualitative handle on things for practical purposes, such as whether it’s worth spending money on a particular flood defence, one might consider a 3-sigma event as very rare, maybe having occurred during the historical record just once or twice or not at all. That’s the sort of probability that the Environment Agency seriously considers planning for and often spends big money on defending against. There will always be some who say the money should not be spent, or should be spent differently, but that’s all part of the normal cut and thrust of public policy making and spending.
A 5-sigma event, even with fat-tailed weather event distributions, is so rare it’s probably never been experienced and may never have happened at least during much of the last few thousand years of the Holocene climate regime. Most people in a democracy would baulk at policies and public spending to protect against 5-sigma events. And if there are downsides to a policy that protects against such an event then it is soon and sensibly ruled out.
However, such thinking presupposes that the climate is stable, that what were 3-sigma events haven’t become a whole lot more common and that the previously 5-sigma events have not now slipped into the 3-sigma category. But that is exactly what climate science tells us to expect in a warming planet. The global warming caused by our emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses is producing climate changes that are shifting the probabilities. For the British Isles more stormy weather with higher rainfall totals falling with greater intensity, interspersed with occasional severe droughts, is the future we need to expect.
The winter of 2013/4 has seen a 5-sigma event in southern Britain. Rainfall has been the highest in the record and the number, frequency and intensity of Atlantic depressions has surpassed previous knowledge. One might justifiably wonder whether there has been a similar period of stormy weather since the Atlantic Period, since the Neolithic settlers built the Sweet Track across the Somerset Levels.
Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, asked, rhetorically, “Was it climate change or incompetence?” and stated, “These floods were predictable”. His opposition to windfarms and poor voting record in Parliament on climate related issues, makes one think that here is a man who does not understand climate science and does not take climate change seriously. But then he is a parliamentarian who, presumably, feels the need to represent the views of his constituents. Opinion surveys have shown that a large proportion of the British public do not accept the scientific consensus on climate change, so perhaps Mr Liddell-Grainger is not unusual. But he has now gone beyond the pale, not only failing to inform himself of the science and provide leadership towards sound policy, but has stooped to abuse of civil servants with a better grasp of reality. He has called the Chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith (who took a double first and a PhD at Cambridge) “a little git” and “a coward” and said, "If I just have to stick his head down the loo and flush, I will." That may win him popularity amongst some flooded residents but it is hardly a scientifically defensible position. It diminishes the office of Member of Parliament.
No, Mr Liddell-Grainger, these floods were, quite reasonably, not predicted, because they are a 5-sigma event. If the Environment Agency were to ask for money to protect against 5-sigma events up and down the land, it would be MPs like Mr Liddell-Grainger who would be voting the requests down. But these are just the sort of requests that will have to be made, and accepted, as 5-sigma turns to 3-sigma as our planet warms. If the MP for Bridgewater and west Somerset were to lead the calls for climate mitigation, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation, building resilience in the face of already committed climate change, then he would be worthy of his post.
There are times when insults have a place.  Mr Liddell-Grainger seems to support Prince Charles's intervention in the Somerset flood problem, but it was just a week earlier that the Prince of Wales berated those he called the brigade of headless chicken climate deniers.  His speech is well worth reading.

The Ecologist has just published a useful piece about 'Vision 2030', the long term plan for the Somerset Levels and Moors.  Natural England also write abut it and here's a useful contribution from Mark Avery.
Update 9th Feb 2014 Lord Chris Smith, Chair of the Environment Agency, has now spoken out in this piece for the Guardian. He says "Over the past two and a half months, Britain has faced the most extreme series of weather events we have ever experienced.... The surge down the east coast of England in early December was the biggest in 60 years, and in some cases even higher than in the tragedy of 1953. The storms over Christmas and new year were unprecedented, and they have since been followed by the wettest January in the south since records began. Last week the highest waves ever recorded in Britain were crashing against the south-west coast. Serious flooding has resulted, in many different parts of the country.

In other words, this has been a 5-sigma event, a concept that Mr Pickles clearly failed to grasp, while the Met Office's Chief Scientist said Dame Julia Slingo said "all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change".

There's a sequel to this piece on my next blog here.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Of windfarms, birds and global warming.

At a meeting of the Louth branch of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, we were treated to a talk by John Clarkson, local birder.  John spends much of his life sitting near or walking around windfarms.  For offshore sites a boat is required.  His job is to watch the birds, identify them, count them, track their movements and general behaviour as they interact with the windfarms.  Windfarm developers have to commission such studies as part of the planning process.
We learned that birds sometimes die as a result of collisions with wind turbines.  There was the celebrated case of the white-throated needle-tailed swift, only three records of which exist for the British Isles.  The last specimen to stray the thousands of miles from its normal home in eastern Asia died, to the consternation of the throng of birders that had gathered to watch this rarity, when it flew into a turbine.
However, it soon became clear from the data that John presented that wind turbine mortalities pale into insignificance beside the bigger dangers of buildings with windows, cats, motor vehicles and pesticides. The clear message is if you want to reduce bird mortality don’t have a cat.  Harder to quantify, we heard, but by far the most significant impact on bird populations is habitat loss.  More of that anon.
John’s detailed observation reports and the records of radar tracking over the North Sea were fascinating.  Birds, it seems, are well able to see wind turbines and take avoiding action – flying round them.  An exception, in Spain, is the gryphon-vulture, which flies with its head down looking at the ground and not watching where it is going!  Spanish windfarm operators have, however, greatly reduced mortality by keeping a lookout for approaching vultures and stopping the turbines for a few minutes, with negligible loss of electricity generation, while the vultures sail safely by.  British and Danish bird observations show that almost all daytime bird flights are low down, below the height of turbine blades.  This is especially true at sea where almost all birds fly within a very few metres of the waves.  Close observation of a group of marsh harrier nests within a proposed windfarm site concluded that the birds hunt close to the ground.  Radar tracking of night time migration flights shows that birds fly very much higher, way above the turbines.
A survey of a Lincolnshire windfarm and adjoining farmland showed a greater population of small birds marking their territories with song within the boundaries of the windfarm.  The varied habitat of access tracks and rough ground provided an improved habitat compared with the neighbouring arable monoculture.  The biodiversity associated with windfarms should be considered a bonus.  For off-shore windfarms this effect may be even more significant since turbines prevent the large-scale trawling operations that have destroyed so much of the North Sea’s bed habitat and the turbine bases provide structures for reef formation and an explosion of biodiversity.
In the question and answer session that concluded John Clarkson’s talk, it soon became evident that several of the wildlife-loving audience were against windfarms.  Some folk just do not like the look of turbines in the landscape, and it’s hard to argue against personal aesthetics.  They rarely say so explicitly, preferring to come up with other excuses that attempt to be factual rather than subjective.  Most such arguments fail miserably.  One lady talked of the vast amount of concrete (there’s really only a little concrete used per unit of electricity generated) and that in 25 years when the turbine would be removed the concrete would be left in the ground.  I’ve no idea where the idea that after 25 years the turbine will be removed came from, as if in the year 2039 we will no longer want electricity.  It seems more likely that as and when turbine components wear out they will be mended or replaced, with its concrete base having a pretty lengthy serviceable lifetime.
Now recall that John had suggested that far and away the biggest threat to our bird population was habitat loss.  It was upon this theme that I drew attention to the long term habitat loss that is inevitable in a business as usual, fossil-fuel burning future, in which global warming will push average temperatures 4 or more degrees higher within the lifetimes of our younger children and grandchildren.  We had a choice, I pointed out, of either producing our electricity from renewable sources or doing without power.  The alternative, our present course of carbon emissions, inevitably leads to habitat loss on such a world-wide scale that discussion of whether birds crash into turbines is utterly irrelevant.
There were, sadly, immediate mutterings of disbelief and opposition from some in this audience of nature lovers.  Denial of science is evidently rife within what one might assume was a fairly intelligent and informed group of people.  Such is the depth of feeling, the subjective loathing of windfarms, that rational discourse is set aside.  Somehow we have to convince these doubters, not only that the science is right, but that the future is bleak beyond imagination; that a 4 degree world is just not going to be survivable for vast swathes of the global population, either of humans or of birds.
Of course many people realise the truth and I am personally grateful to the lady behind me who thanked me for being brave enough to voice what she had been thinking.  And that brings me to the conclusion that it’s time to stop being polite about global warming, ducking the contentious issues, avoiding confrontation with deniers, whether they be fools or knaves.  We need to shout out that policy and behaviour change must come, quickly, urgently; we need radical emissions reduction policies, now.  We, the people, need to empower the politicians and legislators to change direction.  When someone mutters nonsense about doubting the climate science we must look upon them in the same way as we would one who claims the Moon is made of cheese.  After all, anyone can see that the Moon is the colour of a Wensleydale so of course it must be dairy produce.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Global warming or climate change?

These two phrases are used, misused and confused.  Time for some clarity.
They mean different things.  If you use them interchangeably to mean the same thing then you’re likely to have got it wrong at least half the time.  In fact I reckon folk get it wrong more often than not.  There’s a distinct bias towards climate change, which is somehow regarded as more politically correct, at least by those who haven’t really thought about it.
First, global warming.  There are clues in the words.  Global, because it affect the globe, the whole planet; warming because the temperature is rising.  Global warming is happening because we’ve added greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.  It will continue happening until the planet reaches a new equilibrium temperature at which incoming and outgoing radiation are in balance.
Climate change is to do with changes in climate.  Again there are clues in the words.  Global warming will cause changes in climate and these changes are local and regional, varying depending on the geography of land and mountains, oceans and their currents.
So, if you are discussing whether a particular part of the world will get warmer or cooler, wetter or drier, more unsettled of more stable, or you are discussing resulting changes in agriculture, floods and droughts, population adaptations and migrations, then fine, use the phrase climate change.  These are all the second order consequences of global warming.
If you are discussing the effects of burning fossil fuel and of the release of methane on the planet’s climate system, then it is only right and proper to use the phrase global warming.  Don’t be embarrassed; don’t worry about upsetting people with inconvenient truths.  Call a spade a spade and call freshly dug soil freshly dug soil, but don’t muddle them up.

And another thing... think about sea level rise.  Much of it is the result of the thermal expansion of the ocean's water. Now that has to be a result of global warming, pure and simple. No climate changes involved.  Even the contribution made by ice melt is a temperature thing.  To talk about sea level rise under the heading of 'climate change' stretches language to absurdity. It's global warming.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lord Deben, Championing Climate Change

On his twitter page Lord Debon, John Gummer as he used to be, calls himself John Deben @lorddeben Climate Change champion.
Now, by the by, Lord Deben just happens to be the brother of Lord Chadlingtone, formally known as Peter Gummer, the CEO and chairman of the Huntsworth Group, David Cameron’s next door neighbour and Chairman of his constituency party. The Huntsworth Group is a major lobbyist for the gas and oil industry with clients such as British Gas.  Lord Deben is also founder and chairman of Sancroft International who are, in their own words, “…an international sustainability consultancy. We provide valued and trusted advice to multinational companies across the full spectrum of ethical, environmental and social issues.”
For a consultancy relied upon by so many global corporations, it is worrying that their boss has such fundamental misconceptions as to how the world works, as revealed in this twitter conversation I have just had:

Biff Vernon ‏@transitionlouth
@lorddeben BBC News says you support fracking. Increased CO2 emissions inevitable result
John Deben ‏@lorddeben
@transitionlouth  If environmentally regulated UK fracked gas is used to replace imported gas it makes sense 
Biff Vernon ‏@transitionlouth
@lorddeben No sense in searching for more fossil carbon when 80% of what's already found must not be burnt.
John Deben@lorddeben
@transitionlouth If we find fuel to substitute for imports avoiding dependence on unpleasant regimes that makes sense
Biff Vernon ‏@transitionlouth
@lorddeben You think the climate cares whether a regime is unpleasant? No more carbon fuels is existential priority
John Deben ‏@lorddeben
@transitionlouth Not talking additional gas but substituting our own for Mr Putin's. Climate effect probably less. 
Biff Vernon @transitionlouth
@lorddeben It is additional. Russian gas will still be produced. Fundamental error. Supply must be cut not increased.

The point is, if I might explain in more than 140 characters, is that to keep global warming to within 2 degrees of pre-industrial level (and yes I know that is a politically not scientifically devised goalpost; one degree is quite enough, thank-you) we need to keep some 80% of the already discovered fossil carbon fuels underground and unburnt. To search for more fossil fuel, which the drive for gas fracking is a part of, is a clear denial of the global warming threat. For Lord Deben to suggest that any gas we may find in the UK will not be an addition is clearly nonsense and the raising of Putin’s name and the ‘unpleasant regimes’ is disingenuous obfuscation. If the UK does not buy Russian gas there is no doubt that the Russians will find other markets.
Perhaps when Lord Deben describes himself as ‘Climate Change Champion’ he means he is championing climate change. Anyway, if the world’s corporates are relying on this man for their advice on sustainability, then I suggest they might do better to check with me instead.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Day of Global Warming Publications

It's been quite a day for global warming related publications.
In Europe we had a report from EASAC – the European Academies Science Advisory Council.  It is, to quote, "formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States to enable them to collaborate with each other in giving advice to European policy-makers. It thus provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard."
Their report's title is descriptive:
Over 19 pages the report summarises recent trends in extreme weather events and looks to the future with bleak forecasts.  The conclusion is obvious and stark:
"The risks associated with future climate change can however only be reduced by mitigation measures. These require governmental decisions." 

Then, from across the pond, we had two significant publications.  The National Academy of Sciences launched their report, "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises".
There's a four-page summary here and the whole 200-page document can be downloaded as a 19MB pdf here.
"The report calls for action to develop an abrupt change early warning system to help anticipate future abrupt changes and reduce their impacts."
Long gone are the days when we had to consider evidence for global warming; that is now taken as read and we are now concentrating on how best to build mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Jim White, chair of Committee on Understanding and Monitoring Abrupt Climate Change and its Impacts, introduces the report in a preface thus: 
"Climate is changing, forced out of the range of the last million years by levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases not seen in the Earth’s atmosphere for a very long time. Lacking action by the world’s nations, it is clear that the planet will be warmer, sea level will rise, and patterns of rainfall will change. But the future is also partly uncertain—there is considerable uncertainty about how we will arrive at that different climate. Will the changes be gradual, allowing natural systems and societal infrastructure to adjust in a timely fashion? Or will some of the changes be more abrupt, crossing some threshold or “tipping point” to change so fast that the time between when a problem is recognized and when action is required shrinks to the point where orderly adaptation is not possible?
"A study of Earth’s climate history suggests the inevitability of “tipping points”— thresholds beyond which major and rapid changes occur when crossed—that lead to abrupt changes in the climate system. The history of climate on the planet—as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores—is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years. There are many potential tipping points in nature, as described in this report, and many more that we humans create in our own systems. The current rate of carbon emissions is changing the climate system at an accelerating pace, making the
chances of crossing tipping points all the more likely. The seminal 2002 National Academy Report, Abrupt Climate Changes: Inevitable Surprises (still required reading for anyone with a serious interest in our future climate) was aptly named: surprises are indeed inevitable. The question is now whether the surprises can be anticipated, and the element of surprise reduced. That issue is addressed in this report."
The message is, again, clear and stark, and it comes from America's pre-eminent scientific institution.  There is no body that carries more weight.
A live webcast of the report's launch was broadcast today and an archive version is promised soon - check this site.

Some call Hansen's position extreme, but increasing numbers of scientists just call him right.
Central to the paper is the assertion  "we conclude that the target to limit global warming to 2°C, confirmed by the 2009 Copenhagen Accord of the 15th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, would lead to disastrous consequences".  We should be aiming for just 1°C.  No more.  And that means drastic action pretty damn quick.
Hansen provided this covering letter with the paper:
The paper 'Assessing "Dangerous Climate Change": Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature' is being published today in the leading open-access journal PLOS ONE. A 2-page paper summary + 4-page opinion (Hansen & Kharecha) re policy implications is available here or from my web site. 

The paper was written to provide the scientific basis for legal actions against federal and state governments, in the United States and other nations, for not doing their job of protecting the rights of young people. The legal actions being filed by Our Children's Trust ask the courts to require the government to provide a plan for how they will reduce fossil fuel emissions consistent with stabilizing climate. 

We dispute the common assumption that the world necessarily is going to develop all fossil fuels that can be found, thus making large global warming inevitable. Humanity does not need to be a bunch of lemmings headed over a cliff. Indeed, appropriate policies that phase out fossil fuel emissions over decades would be economically and environmentally beneficial. The editors of PLOS ONE, noting our statement "...there is still an opportunity for humanity to exercise free will", are establishing a "Responding to Climate Change" Collection in the journal PLOS ONE. They invite paper submissions in all areas of research and a broad range of disciplines aimed at returning Earth to a state of energy balance. 

The paper draws attention to the moral and ethical issues caused by the inertia of the climate system, which causes most of the impacts of climate change to be felt by young people and future generations, as a consequence of action or inaction of the current generation. Besides this moral issue, we point out that effective government policies, collecting a rising carbon fee from the fossil fuel industry that made fossil fuels pay their costs to society, would be a path to economic prosperity, while business-as-usual only assures economic decline. 
3 December 2013

We have the time from now, through COP20 at Lima to COP21 at Paris, just under two years to win the agreement of all nations to give humanity a sporting chance of survival.

Monday, November 11, 2013

BBC fails on Global Warming (again and yet again)

This morning in Warsaw the most important international meeting, The 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC and the 9th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, or COP19 for short, began.

No report appears on the BBC News homepage
Nor, directly, on the BBC News Science/Environment page except for a report headed Typhoon prompts climate 'fast' reporting on the speech made by Yep Saño, the head of the Philippine delegation.

Is the BBC trying to keep the most important meeting in the world a secret? Of course not; that would be silly.  So what is the real explanation?

In case you missed it, here's a link to the speech made by Yep Saño. Remarkable.

Friday, November 01, 2013

BBC fails on Global Warming (again)

Last night, Thursday 31st October 2013, the BBC failed again on its coverage of climate science and the existential crisis facing humanity.  Now I'm one who loves the BBC; radio is a constant part of my life and I would gladly pay the licence fee for that alone. So it's particularly distressing to find the Corporation guilty of promoting the crime against humanity of ecocide. We expect it of the Daily Mail.  We all know that half their articles are tosh and the wise amongst us discern which half, but the BBC?  Surely not.
The headlines left the impression that global emissions of CO2 were declining and that this was the result of shale fracking. Tosh.
The story was based on "Trends in globalCO2 emissions: 2013 report", a document published by PBL Netherlands Environment Agency, the Dutch national institute for strategic policy analysis in the fields of environment nature and spatial planning.  Download the 60-page report here.
Of course global CO2 emissions are not declining.  What the report shows is that there appears to be some slowing down in the rate of increase of emissions.  There was, briefly, a real drop in emissions following the 2008 financial crisis, but things soon picked up.  Now all we are seeing is a change in the exponent of the exponential increase.  Emissions are not rising quite as fast as they were.

Here's their key graph.  You can see the little dip associated with the financial crisis and the recent slowdown in the rate of increase.  From the planet's perspective it's the top line that counts. The actual downslope from the USA, and to a lesser extent Europe, reflects the shift of carbon-intensive industry to China. Shale gas in the USA, far from reducing CO2 emissions exacerbates the problem.  It is an addition to, not a substitute for coal, though now the surplus American coal is exported so appears on other countries' carbon inventories. Furthermore, fracking the shales releases the more powerful greenhouse gas, methane, a point emphasised by the Dutch report.
The reality, then, is exactly the opposite to the impressions left in the minds of millions who heard the BBC news headline and did not delve further. This represents a failure to uphold its own Charter.  The headline should have read:
CO2 Emissions Continue to Rise.  Fracking makes Global Warming Worse.

Update 4/11/2013
And the BBC has done it again.
Here's what I've just written to the Environment Agency:
This morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, the Medmerry scheme was, twice, described as protecting against a one in a thousand year flood. Of course, given global warming related sea level rise we are in no position to give such an assurance and I can find no mention of '1 in 1000' in the extensive documentation on your website.  Did the 1 in 1000 figure originate from yourselves or did the BBC invent it?
The importance of this question lies in the alleged systematic under-reporting of the significance of global warming by the BBC.
I look forward to your reply. 
Biff Vernon

Update 5/11/2013
BBC fail on climate science (yet again).  The International Conference on Regional Climate - CORDEX 2013 has just run two of its four days.  Somebody tell me I'm wrong but I don't think there has been a single word about it on any of the BBC's news outlets.  Fortunately we can watch it live over the net without the help of the BBC.  But that's not the point.  Here we have a major scientific conference in full flow, discussing how humanity's first existential crisis since the Lower Paleolithic, and it doesn't even get a mention on the Science/Environment section of the BBC News website.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Stranded Assets: Unburnable Carbon

Given that existing proved fossil fuel reserves represent more CO2 than we can afford to emit without causing catastrophic global warming, there can be no justification in further exploration.

So why do they do it?

Oil companies have included in their assets as yet un-proved oil and gas resources that they expect to find.  The value of the companies is based on the presumption that such resources will be found, developed, produced and sold.

The finance industry has invested in oil companies on this presumption.  The investment is so great that if it turned out to be valueless (if, for instance, governments declared that the threat of global warming was real and so no new oil and gas fields may be exploited) the global financial system would collapse.

Some politicians know that putting a cap on carbon emissions would result in financial collapse.  They don't want that happening on their watch.  They keep their fingers crossed that they will be dead before global warming really bites.

They have forgotten their grandchildren.

Other politicians just don't get it.

Our best hope for a relatively soft landing is Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs).

Meanwhile we must do what we can to stop any further development of new fossil fuel sources, anywhere.

For a much longer, and very authoritative, account of the stranded carbon assets go to Carbon Tracker or download the report Unburnable Carbon 2013:
Wasted capital and stranded assets

Update 8th October 2013
Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian: Campaign against fossil fuels growing about the report from Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and Environment (SSEE):  Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?

Update 19th October 2013
Citi GPS have produced a report, Energy Darwinism that highlights the fall in costs of renewables will lead to stranded assets in the fossil fuel industries. See also commentaries from Greentechgrid and SmartGridNews and GreenBiz.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Oil, gas and fracking Lincolnshire, part 7

But What Can I Do About It?

I've changed my light bulbs, lagged the loft, turned down the thermostat, don't take holiday flights and wear woollen underclothes and have solar panels on the roof. But is it enough? Is it any use at all?

No.  It's not enough and, in a way, it's no use at all.  We live in an energy constrained world where any fossil fuel we don't burn will just be burnt by someone else.  If I don't buy some energy, the world price will, marginally, fall, allowing someone else to afford that energy.  Every drop of oil produced gets sold and burnt and if more were to be produced it too would be used, no matter how frugally we as individuals choose to live our lives.

Of course all this frugality and energy saving is ethically sound and necessary if we are to live sustainably on a finite planet but the way the global markets work ensures that such personal actions have precisely zero effect on global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission.

If we want to actually do something that makes a difference we have to turn away, for a moment, from the demand side of the energy market and look at the supply side.  If we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we have to keep the fossil carbon underground.  Carbon capture and storage, if it can be made to work, is just tinkering at the edges.  The only thing that really counts is not digging the stuff up.

So what can we do about that?  Well, there are two things.  Firstly we can push for the only policy instrument on the shelf that could actually work, Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs).  If you don't know about this is or are not yet convinced it's part of the solution then read here.

Secondly, we have to stop oil, gas and coal being exploited. At source. Writing to the King of Saudi Arabia may not achieve much but this could be a case where, having done the global thinking, we act locally.  And locally to my neck of the woods means Biscathorpe in Lincolnshire, where Egdon Resources Plc has applied for planning permission to drill for oil and have and intention to produce gas from the underlying shale by fracking.

By their own estimates, they plan in the first instance to suck up 8 million barrels of oil.  All of which will be burnt and the carbon emitted to the atmosphere if we allow planning permission to be granted.  If we can persuade Lincolnshire County Council to refuse permission we will have done far, far more to mitigate global warming than all our collective efforts at energy saving could possibly hope to achieve.

So this is what to do:  Fill in the Online Representation Form (this form automatically goes to the right place but the planning reference number is PL/0179/13(E)N59/13)  The form allows space for a 3900 character comment but if you want to write more send it in the old-fashioned way to 
Lincolnshire County Council, Planning, 1st Floor, Witham Park House, Waterside South, Lincoln.  LN5 7JN quoting the reference.
The documentation is all at the planning website and of course we put together our own website complete with pretty pictures and lots of reasons why it's all a Bad Idea.  Please feel free to use any of the words on the website in whatever order you choose.  And there's a facebook group!

So now you know what to do about it.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Oil, gas and fracking Lincolnshire, part 6

Biscathorpe, the New Balcombe.

Lincolnshire County Council have now published the Planning Application from Egdon Resources Plc., for an oil well at Biscathorpe. I've put lot's of serious information on this website, with a map and pictures. Here I'll just have a little rant.

Now bear in mind what I wrote in The Elephant in the Landscape, that there are lots of local environmental issues related to fracking in particular and on shore oil and gas exploitation generally, but that none of these will end life on Earth. The really important thing is that any further extraction and burning of fossil fuels will add to global warming and that does risk ending life on the planet. So, having thus thought globally, we must now act locally and make sure that the Biscathorpe well is never drilled.

That said, lets look at the reasons why Egdon's planned well site is just about the worst possible location one can imagine.

Firstly, this whole area is really, really beautiful. It's right in the middle of an Area of Outstanding Beauty so maybe that's to be expected, but this exact spot defies the superlatives. Two streams, headwaters of the River Bain, come together in a wide area of open grassland. The spot must have been valued long ago as it is overlooked by low hills with Bronze and Iron Age remains and covered with the tell-tale bumps and lumps of an LMV, a Lost Medieval Village. The only buildings in view are the little church and the Church Cottage. This was unoccupied for several years but has just been refurbished and is available to rent as luxury holiday accommodation.

And here I shall quote from Egdon's Planning Statement "The closest residential property is Church Cottage which lies approximately 500m to the west of the Site, but is currently abandoned." Wrong. Not in the least bit abandoned and I don't suppose 'view over oil drill site' is included in the luxury holiday accommodation's brochure.

And while on the matter of quoting from Egdon's Planning Statement, it rather seems that they wish to convey to those County Councillors on the Planning Committee who are unfamiliar with the site, the idea that this is a rather forsaken corner, perhaps even part of the 'desolate north-east'. Take this, "Approximately 500m to the north west of the Application Site the more open areas of countryside are contrasted by the site of a disused sand and gravel quarry, known as Top Pit. This quarry comprises a number of industrial units, ponds and significant areas of landscaping including woodland." The 'number of industrial units' is actually the old weighbridge office of the quarry and the outbuildings of the residential dwelling. The 'landscaping' is just what got left after the quarry was abandoned many years ago. It is all overgrown and forms the most marvellous nature reserve with second to none biodiversity, a combination of low-nutrient soils and little or no human interference, what with not being on public access land. All of which is nothing to do with the proposed drill site because it is over the hill and beyond the wood, out of sight and not immediately relevant. 

Egdon helpfully tell us that "The sparsely populated nature of the landscape determines that the number of occupants of residential properties forming highly sensitive visual receptors would be limited." Doh! That's the point - this is a beauty spot because nobody lives here!

And on archaeology Egdon admit that: "A desk based archaeological assessment has been undertaken", i.e. they haven't had anybody who knows anything actually visit the site. At least they noticed that the site is adjacent to a medieval village and therefore, "given the nature of the development the proposals do have the potential to have an impact on archaeological remains, though this is largely confined to top soil and sub soil stripping of the area". Right, so they realise they might destroy the archaeology and yet that won't stop them. After all, they also pointed out that "The remains of the medieval village of Biscathorpe lie approximately 300m to the north west. However, these remains are not designated as a Scheduled Monument." No designation so no bother.

So back to the site. Lorries. To prepare the site Egdon say they will be bringing over 200 lorryloads of material to construct the 'platform' (that's the area of hard surface they work on) and the roadway from the public road to the field. An all these lorries have to come down the tiny road known as Gayton Lane and across two fords. All utterly picturesque and utterly unsuitable for heavy goods vehicles. In fact it would be hard to pick a spot anywhere on Lincolnshire's road network less suitable. These fords were not designed with 32 tonne artics in mind, especially not after it's been raining!

Here's a picture of one of the fords. Imagine an articulated tanker carrying 34 tonnes of crude oil in the middle of that picture.

Egdon point out that the construction traffic will only be temporary and, of course, Egdon will have a restriction in the planning grant that they have to reinstate any damage to the road. Fine, except that will completely alter the character of the road. And what is not temporary is the continuing traffic of oil tankers that will be needed to take oil from the site once production starts. No pipelines will be involved - it will be tankers by road till the oil runs out.

To the site. There's a standard practice for these sort of site to reduce the risk of pollution. The whole site is covered with a thick polythene sheet and the hardcore put on top. Surrounding the site they dig a ditch, again polythene lined. This means that any rain landing on the site can only drain off into the ditch, taking with it any oil or other spilled chemicals, preventing these potential pollutants escaping. The ditch is periodically pumped out into road tankers and taken away to a 'licensed disposal site'. Fine. Unless something goes wrong. Of course accidents in the oil industry are extremely rare but any risk analysis has to take into account not only the likelihood of an accident but also the consequences. If there were to be, heavens forfend, a major incident such as an explosion, then the little ditch and bund walls would be of little use. Pollution could rapidly enter the stream that runs alongside the site, and on into the Bain, causing an ecological catastrophe in almost the whole length of the River Bain and the Lower river Witham within hours. It would be hard to pick a more vulnerable site with respect to potential river pollution. 

Egdon make much of the 'temporary' nature of the proposal, as if they do not actually intend to find any oil and spend the next couple of decades producing it. Nooo, it will be a dry well, they will restore all to its pristine glory and be gone in a few months. Come of it, no oil company is going to do work like this unless they have a case that has convinced their investors that oil will be found and a handsome return on capital will ensue. It would be absurd for Lincolnshire County Council to grant planning permission for this 'temporary' exploration well if the intention would be to refuse a subsequent application for a production well and its ancillary facilities. This is not even the thin end of a wedge.

And then there is fracking. For sure, the current proposal is for conventional oil in reservoir rocks and that's all that Egdon are talking about in their planning application. But what they are telling their investors is that there are 2 to 3 kilometres of gas-rich shale source rock of the Bowland Formation in this, the southern extension of the Gainsborough Trough underlying the site. Egdon's Petroleum Exploration and Development License covers both oil and the gas below. They will naturally take the low hanging fruit of easily obtained conventional oil before moving on to fracking for the gas sometime later.

And what about the water and the earthquakes, I hear you cry. Ah yes, but even though the drill will pass through significant aquifer horizons the drilling fluids will be isolated by the steel and concrete of the well casing. And such things never break. Do they? And the potential earthquakes resulting from fracking really are very small and should not be worried about. Except that this area is close the fault that produced the Market Rasen earthquake and we actually have a very limited understanding of how tiny movements can trigger larger ones.

(There will be more, in the meantime please check out the website and the facebook group.)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Is the Syrian conflict a climate war? Part 3

Further Reading

In the previous two posts about the Syrian conflict I have suggested that the roots of the disaster lie in climate change.  A key feature of the current coverage of the reporting on the conflict is the absence of consideration of the origins, particularly any reference to global warming. Global policy decisions are being made with reference to symptoms not causes.

It turns out that there is an extensive literature relating what may be the Fertile Crescent's worst drought since the Neolithic to man-made climate change. Importantly, warnings were made of social unrest and military conflict that would be the likely consequences if the effects of the drought were not mitigated.  These warnings were issued in timely manner but, at least to any meaningful extent, were left unheeded, action not taken.

I list below a selection of reading, from short blog-pieces and journalists' reports to academic papers and lengthy reports from international organisations.

Water resources management in Syria
The Fertile Crescent
18 May 2009
Climate change, water resources, and the politics of adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa
Jeannie Sowers·Avner Vengosh·Erika Weinthal
Climatic Change  DOI 10.1007/s10584-010-9835-4
11 August 2009
Syria Drought Response Plan
Report from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
24 November 2009
Syria: Drought response faces funding shortfall
Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions: Climate change and the risk of violent conflict in the Middle East
Oli Brown, Alex Crawford
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD
16 January 2010
Drought drives Middle Eastern pepper farmers out of business, threatens prized heirloom chiles
Gary Nabhan
17 February 2010
Syria: Over a million people affected by drought
25 March 2010
Syria: Why the water shortages?IRIN
13 October 2010
Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived
Robert F. Worth, Hwaida Saad
New York Times
Drought Vulnerability in the Arab Region – Special Case Study: Syria
Wadid Erian. Bassem Katlan & Ouldbdey Babah
June 2011
Global and Local Economic Impacts of limate Change in Syria and Options for Adaptation
Clemens Breisinger et al.
International Food Policy Research Initiative (IFPRI)
27 October 2011
NOAA study: Human-caused climate change a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts
16 February 2012
Sowing the Seeds of Dissent: Economic Grievances and the Syrian Social Contract’s Unraveling
Suzanne Saleeby
29 February 2012
Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest
Francesco Femia & Caitlin Werrell
June 2013
Syria, Water, Climate Change, and Violent Conflict
Peter Gleick