Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Is the Syrian conflict a climate war? A Question Revisited.

In the summer of 2013 I wrote some pieces about Syria on this blog. Now that it's all gone utterly pear-shaped, I thought I'd take a look at what I was thinking back then, more than three years ago. I've copied the three sections below.

But before we get there here are a few points that are not getting enough attention in the media. I make no excuses for the behaviour of Putin, Assad or anybody else but let's bear in mind the following:
1. Syria, under Assad's leadership, is a properly constituted state, recognised at the UN.
2. The Syrian government has invited, as is their right under international law, military support from Russia.
3. Other governments, including the UK's, have acted to aid those who would seek regime change, have supplied weapons and even been directly involved in military action within Syria's territory.
4. Israel remains an occupier of Syrian territory, in defiance of UN Resolution 242.

But back to my main point, the Syrian conflict is the first significant war triggered, at least in part, by global warming. I fear it may not be the last.

And here's an excellent new report from Alex Randall and The Climate and Migration Coalition.

Is the Syrian conflict a climate war?

The issue of water does not feature much in discussions on Syria but water shortage and a perceived unfairness in water distribution was one of the original triggers to the uprising a couple of years ago, though it's now been overtaken by all sorts piling into the scrum.
It's a fairly arid area with a growing population and growing demand for irrigation. Much of the water is supplied by rivers that start in other countries, Turkey and Lebanon, and flow to other countries, Iraq, Jordon and Israel. Some of the catchment, the Golan Height, has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Groundwater is being abstracted much faster than replenishment. There have been several drought years, particularly in the north and east of Syria. Global warming is likely to cause climate change towards less rainfall in the region and recent droughts may be the start of worse to come.
If there's one place where war will be triggered by water this is it. Or maybe this was it.
Here are a couple of significant articles to start off with: 
Quote from IRIN  (What is IRIN?)
DEIR EZ ZOUR, 17 February 2010 (IRIN) - Drought in eastern and northeastern Syria has driven some 300,000 families to urban settlements such as Aleppo, Damascus and Deir ez Zour in search of work in one of the largest internal displacements in the Middle East in recent years. 
The country’s agriculture sector, which until recently employed 40 percent of Syria’s workforce and accounted for 25 percent of gross domestic product, has been hit badly, but farmers themselves are worst affected, say aid officials.

In some villages, up to 50 percent of the population has left for nearby cities. 

Note the date - 17 February 2010. Mass migration of rural population forced by drought into cities such as Aleppo, scene of the latest atrocities. Without water, unable to grow crops, the cattle dead, uprooted to the city, is it any wonder that folk find scapegoats, religions and causes?
For a recent update see Peter Gleick's piece 
Syria, Water, Climate Change, and Violent Conflict


Is the Syrian conflict a climate war? Part 2

Winter precipitation trends in the Mediterranean region for the period 1902 - 2010.

This is the graph
That shows the drought
That drove the farmers
Away from their fields
And into the cities
Where they looked for scapegoats
And found religion
Took up their weapons
And were killed in number.

We watched in horror
We wrung our hands
We talked of bombs
But not of rain
Nor climate change
Nor carbon emissions
Nor greenhouse gases
Symptoms not causes
Our own complicity
In dreadful slaughter.

Now read Peter Gleick's piece on Science Blogs:
Syria, Water, Climate Change, and Violent Conflict

We need to talk about global warming


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
26 November 2008
2008 UNDrought Appeal For Syria
US Cable released by Wikileaks
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 inSyria 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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

High Winds - Equatorial crossing jet streams and the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation

Curious things are aloft.

Robert Scribbler, in his blog, brought the world's attention to the fact that over the last few days the jet stream was crossing the Equator in three different regions, over the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. He described it as 'unprecedented'. It may have happened but before but it is certainly not normal. Jet streams in the northern and southern hemispheres are separated by the equatorial air masses and don't, as a rule, mix.

Paul Beckwith picked up the story and made this informative video. He used the Earth Map that shows, quite wonderfully, all the planet's winds in real time. Click this link and have a play.  Click on 'EARTH' to pull up the menu. To see the jet stream click the 250 hPA on the row marked Height. Today, Thursday 30th June 2016, the jet stream can clearly be seen crossing the Equator if three places (drag across the map to see different views of the world). By the time you are reading this the patterns will, of course, have changed, but here's a screenshot I took yesterday:
The north to south equatorial jet stream crossing can be seen in the central Pacific Ocean.

Another feature that Paul Beckwith talked about was the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation. The what? Here's a useful short article from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) that explains this phenomenon and it's importance. Briefly, very high up there are winds that blow consistently east to west or west to east, changing direction about every 28 months.  The pattern has been rather regular for the last 40 years during which it has been observed - until this year.  You can see these winds on the Earth map if you adjust the Height to the for right of the scale by clicking on 10 hPa. These are winds high up in the stratosphere but they have their influence on the atmosphere lower down.

The ECMWF article was written more than a year ago and it concludes with this question: "...no-one knows what will happen to the QBO in the decades ahead – will it remain largely unchanged, will its period lengthen, or will it change more radically?" A year on and we can already begin to answer that. There is right now an ongoing radical change.

The data for the QBO has been made available by Markus Kunze of
Institute of Meteorology at the Freie Universität Berlin. Take a look at their accompanying figure showing the past 60 year record and then revisit Paul's video, about 12 minutes in. Here's a screen-shot showing the critical change in the QBO pattern this year.

These high level winds, in the stratosphere and upper troposphere, are important for the redistribution of heat energy from the tropics to the poles. And the temperature difference between tropics and poles influences in turn these winds - and ultimately our weather. As the planet warms because of the greenhouse gasses we have emitted, the poles are warming faster than the tropics, the high winds adopt new patterns and we experience weather we are ill-adapted to cope with.

While a local flood or dry spell may be dismissed as just the vagaries of weather these changes we are seeing up aloft are profound, on a planetary scale, and will gradually show their impacts. The thermal gradient, equator to pole is weakening as poles warm more. This weakens the jet (driven by density, pressure differences and the Coriolis force) letting it move around more, further mixing warm and cold air and reducing seasonality. The the warm wet winters we in the British Isles have experienced recently may be an impact of this phenomenon and we can expect similar in future winters. 

We don't know exactly what will happen but the probability distribution of uncertainty is skewed to the bad side. That's why Paul Beckwith and Robert Scribbler are calling this a 'climate emergency'. 

Since Robert wrote his blog on this subject and since Paul Beckwith made his video some aspects of the story have been criticised by other climate scientist and Robert has revised the original piece, adding a note of explanation at the bottom. That's the way science works. We're working at the frontiers of knowledge and all understanding is provisional, but it's important to understand the significance of the phrase I used earlier, the probability distribution of uncertainty is skewed to the bad side. The other important thing is never, ever bother with that dwindling band of climate change deniers who get excited who jump up and down whenever a real climate scientist, quite properly, pushes at the boundaries of knowledge. 

Further reading:

David Edwards
Gabriel Samuels
Caroline Holmes
Josh Marks

And for facebook users, join the discussions on Climate Geek.

Added note Friday morning 1st July.

The story has gained a lot of attention over the last 24 hours and divided the social media into it's two traditional camps. There are a great many in the "Oh dear, this looks bad" camp. There are also a lot of people, though not quite so many as at Camp 1, muttering "Utter nonsense" and linking to the story in the Washington Post and quoting the long-standing climate change deniers Joe Bastardi, Roy Spencer and Anthony Watts.

There is a third camp, the great majority of climate scientists who just get on with science, very properly publish their work in the peer reviewed journals so that almost nobody reads it when it eventually emerges. They don't get publicly shot down in flames when their work is not perfect and they don't create the public reaction that might influence politicians to act to save human civilisation from its own destruction.  Pity about that.

In the fullness of time we will discover whether the changes in the jet stream and the QBO are real and are significant or not but meanwhile these things are being thought about by non-scientists and questions are being asked. That's no bad thing, so we should sing yo for Robert and Paul.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


Today the Louth U3A Flora, Fauna and Ornithology Group (which includes LWT members) revisited the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust's site at Woodhall Spa Airfield to see how the Trust was progressing with the regeneration of the area as a nature reserve. Massive changes in a year and an amazing vision to create an area to commemorate both the Lancaster aircraft and men of the 'Dambusters' 617 Squadron and the men of 627 Squadron who fought so bravely during WWII, as well as to provide a wildlife area for visitors to enjoy into the future.
Kevin James, the Mid-Lincs Warden of the LWT, gave us a wonderful overview of the work that has already been completed and what is planned over the next few years. We all enjoyed it very much and returned home far more knowledgeable than when we had arrived.

One thing that really struck a chord for me was the lone wild red poppy growing at the end of the original runway. How appropriate as a natural sign of remembrance! JW

Thursday, May 26, 2016


HS2 and the railway network : the case for a review

Tony May and Jonathan Tyler


High Speed 2 [HS2] has been promoted as a means of improving rail capacity and connectivity between London and the North of England, rebalancing the UK economy and increasing sustainability. It remains controversial, with concerns over its opportunity cost, its independence from the classic rail network, its environmental damage and its wider economic impacts. Assessed against its four objectives:

  • HS2 does add to rail capacity, but there are much less costly and environmentally damaging ways of doing so; 
  • HS2 provides only limited improvements to connectivity, and will worsen London services for several cities, as well as many cross-country journeys; 
  • HS2’s wider economic benefits for the North are uncertain – investment in the North is a more certain way of providing them; and 
  • HS2 contributes nothing to the objective of reducing carbon emissions from transport.

A much fuller range of policy options should have been considered to meet these objectives. These include improvements to reduce the adverse impacts of HS2, alternative high-speed routes better integrated with the classic network, lower-speed but better-connected rail enhancements, investments within the North of England, and other lower-cost interventions.
These policy options must now be reviewed objectively, transparently and dispassionately against a set of scenarios reflecting the inherent uncertainties in economic and technological developments. This will take time and will inevitably involve some delay to the implementation of HS2, should it be broadly endorsed by the review. The delay should be minimised as far as possible, but it should not be used as a reason for pressing ahead unquestioningly with a scheme that has attracted so much expert criticism.
This report summarises the conclusions of a workshop6 convened to discuss these issues. It was designed to involve experts with a wide range of views. The report is intended to reflect the majority view, but inevitably its conclusions are not equally endorsed by all participants.

Download the whole report.

Here is my completely different alternative - a scheme to restore pretty much all of the local rail network closed by Beeching in the 1960s and before, returning the railway system's extent to its pre-First World War extent but with ultra-light-weight, solar-powered trains and all for the price of HS2.

Zing - The Incredibly Light Railway

The unanswerable question at the heart of transport is the one asked by the farm labourer standing bemused one day in the mid-eighteenth century at the side of the Liverpool-Manchester turnpike, crowded with urgently-speeding coaches: “Who would ever have thought that there were so many people in the wrong place?”
Lean Logic ~ David Fleming 1940-2010

Friday, May 13, 2016

Election Expenses

There is much in the news just now about the Tories' election expenses not being properly declared so I'd just like to remind folk of another election related illegal activity about which I blogged a year ago. Victoria Atkins, now the MP for Louth and Horncastle, ran a campaign that involved posters put up on the highway, in clear breach of Election Law.  I pointed this out to the police and they did seem to take the matter seriously. Eventually, after police intervention, the Area Highway Manager spoke to Tory Party officials and the posters were removed but no prosecution resulted. Below are links to the four parts to the story.

Honesty was not a feature of Victoria Atkins's campaign as I pointed out in my piece, Victoria Lied.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016



Syrian Refugees Arrive on the Greek Coast

Biff Vernon April 2016
Oil on board. 560 x 420 mm

Razor Wire

Syrian Refugees on the Greek - Macedonian Border

Biff Vernon March 2016
Oil on wood board. 650 x 450 mm

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Changing Lightbulbs Didn't Work

Almost a year ago, in May of 2015, I wrote a piece I called '404 Why it's a Bad Number'. At the time the Keeling Curve observations of atmospheric CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa showed weekly averages in April of 403.5ppm with some daily recordings over 404.

Over the last couple of decades the CO2 concentration has been rising at a rate of about 2ppm per year but the increase from 2014 to 2015 was almost 3ppm. We need to wait till mid May to be sure of this year's increase but it looks like another 3ppm increase.  The last few days, however, have been something else. For four days the average has been about 409ppm with the recordings showing over 410 at times. This is a real outlier from the trend, more than 5ppm above the highest measurement from last year.

Human emissions from fossil fuel burning have levelled off, albeit at record highs, so the simplistic expectation would be for concentrations to keep rising at about 2ppm/year. However, increased forest and peatland fires and melting permafrost are increasing CO2 sources. Warmer sea surface temperatures reduce the CO2 absorption rate.  This year's El Niño won't have helped with warmer Pacific surface temperatures and the likely slow down in plant growth through the year.

Even with flat anthropogenic emissions we should expect atmospheric CO2 concentration to continue increasing at an increasing rate.  Since the CO2 concentration is the primary driver of global warming it should be clear that we are losing the battle. Talk of limiting warming to 1.5° or even 2° is just so much whistling in the wind. We have failed. 

We have failed but if we give up on climate change mitigation now the failure will be a whole lot worse and hit us a whole lot faster.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Graph that Matters IV

Last September I wrote about The Graph that Matters and then updated it in October and then again in November.  That all seems rather a long time ago.
If this was the patient's temperature chart on the hospital bed the nurse would call the doctor. Urgently.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Razor Wire

Razor Wire

Syrian Refugees on the Greek - Macedonian Border

Biff Vernon March 2016
Oil on wood board. 650 x 450 mm

Monday, January 04, 2016

To 2°C

There's been a lot of talk of strange weather, floods in the UK and many other places, droughts elsewhere, a record number of CAT 5 storms and the link to El Niño and global warming is now widely accepted. Much of the talk about flooding in the UK is around what should be done about this so-called 'new normal'. My prescription started here and was summarised in four key points in descending order of both importance and altitude:
  1. Slow down the rate at which water enters rivers.
  2. Divert water out of rivers on to land where flooding causes relatively little damage.
  3. Prevent water reaching homes and businesses.
  4. Get water into the sea.

It has been good to see that attention is being given to slowing water down before it reaches rivers, by reafforestation of uplands and creating leaky blockages to small streams, ponds, swales and other wetlands and a host of other farmland management practices.  The finger has been firmly pointed at the game-bird shooting industry, sheep farming, and subsidies that encourage farmers to do exactly the wrong thing.
Less attention has been given to what climate change we should be expecting over the next few decades.  The changes we are seeing are happening in a world that has seen only about 1°C of average global surface warming. There's at least another half degree already baked into the system even if we stop the rise of greenhouse gas concentration at its current level.  The recent Paris COP21 Agreement saw aspirational commitments towards a 50% chance of keeping the warming to 2°. Promised actions are leading us towards 3° and actual actions, if extrapolated, overshoot even that disastrous level.
But lets be optimistic, let's assume that the world's governments and peoples adopt strong climate mitigation measures and luck is on our side of the 50% probability and we do actually keep the global average surface temperature rise to 2°C.  When it comes to extreme weather event adaptation we should, rather than planning for more of what we have recently witnessed, be preparing for weather in a world where warming is double what we now see.
What weather should we expect in a 2° world and what do we need to do now to be able to cope with it?  That's where today's discourse needs to be.

Monday, December 28, 2015

After the Deluge

As I discussed in my piece, Turned Out Wet (Again), we need a new approach to flood management.  We've only had about 1°C of average global surface temperature warming so far, the Paris COP21 agreement promises a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2°, INDCs are heading us to 3° and actual actions are currently on track to push us through 4°.  Whatever the outcome of our endeavours, we should be planning for extreme weather events far more serious than the record rainfall in northern England of December 2015.

So first step is to get government to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly. It's a difficult first step.

And then we need a simple prescriptive framework to apply across river basins and adapt to site specific situations.  Here are some principles:

  1. Slow down the rate at which water enters rivers.
  2. Divert water out of rivers on to land where flooding causes relatively little damage.
  3. Prevent water reaching homes and businesses.
  4. Get water into the sea.

Top of the list, if water doesn't get into the river, the river won't flood!  The whole landscape needs to be looked at in terms of water retention.  The hills of northern England offer great potential.  Their natural vegetation is deciduous woodland and vast swathes of upland Britain should be re-afforested.  The grouse shooters would lose out. Tough on them. We need beavers not game-birds.  A new priority for farmers must be a smarter approach to drainage, allowing the appropriate soil water management for cultivations and pasture but restricting the rate of outflow from the farm overall, with ponds and swales an d wetlands so that heavy rain does not reach rivers in minutes and hours but is retained for days.

At number two, rivers should be engineered to not pass water on downstream quickly.  The dredging lobby have it exactly wrong. Except at the river's mouth, moving water faster downstream just shifts the problem. Rivers need to flood onto their floodplains as soon as possible so we need spillways to land where large volumes can be stored safely and then released slowly.  As with the upland farms, appropriate engineering and management incentives must be provided for farmers on floodplains.  The land has to be made available for flooding, not for housing estates!

Thirdly, flood defences for urban areas need to be improved, raised, strengthened and managed effectively.  That's a continuation of policy already under way, but the point to note is that the cost will be lower and the effectiveness greater if the previous two upstream principles have been dealt with seriously.  Without that, urban defences will sooner or later end in tears.

Finally, the rivers need to discharge to sea as speedily as possible.  It is only here, downstream from vulnerable infrastructure, that there may be local conditions that warrant dredging.  As sea level rises over the coming decades, as it surely will no matter what global warming mitigation measures are adopted, the importance of the three earlier areas for action increases. Discharge to sea is the last resort.

This picture has produced wry smiles around cyberspace.  (If you are the copyright owner do let me know.)  I gather it comes from near Clitheroe where the local planning authority is Ribble Valley Borough Council.  Party political point scorers may like to note that this council comprises 33 Tories, 6 LibDems and an Independent.

As I said, the first step is to get government to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

National Parks won't be Fracked.

Fracking for gas in the UK has always been a Ponzi Scheme. The geology is far more complex than in the USA and consequently the productivity and profitablility of ventures here have always been in doubt. There has never been a possibility that the sort of environmental impact seen in the US would be tolerated here.

As I pointed out here. and in other blog-posts in 2013, fracking in the UK has been pursued because inward investment can be spent by the directors of the companies now, and then in a few years when the scheme is abandoned, the investors will find they have lost out. Close relatives of senior government ministers stand to make a lot of money by convincing potential investors that there's money to be made in fracking. The latest farce concerning National Parks is just the latest PR effort to keep the money flowing in by sending a message that the government supports fracking.

Think about it; today's change to the rules allow sideways drilling to expend under National Parks from well-heads outside the boundary. There are only limited places where that would be geologically possible and will make no material difference to the industry.

In the USA the fracking industry is in deep trouble, debts are mounting and profits have gone. Our Paris COP21 Agreement means that these new sources of fossil carbon have to be left underground. To pretend that fracking will take place in the UK on any significant scale is delusional. We should focus our efforts on pointing out the Ponzi nature of the idea, warning gullible investors to find safer homes for their money, such as windfarms.

    Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organization, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned by the operator.

    Ponzi scheme - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Paul Mobbs has updated his Frackogram - the diagram that summarises the vested interests and relationships in the UK fracking industry.  It is well worth close scrutiny.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

After Paris COP21, Stop Shopping.

There's millions of words being written about the Paris COP21, the historic agreement that sets us on a course to a brave new world of sustainability, or a sell-out to the interests of power and greed, promoting the short-term interests of the 1% and leading to mass die-off and the end of civilisation.  You choose.

But first lets have a quick reality check.
  • There's enough greenhouse gas already emitted to send us past the 1.5°C mark whatever we do.
  • The ice caps are no longer in equilibrium with climate so will melt, raising sea level by a great many metres, though the rate of rise is unknown.
  • The pledges made (and they are only words not actions so far) will send global average surface temperature way into the territory of catastrophic climate change for many parts of the world.
  • The poorest people will suffer the most and the soonest, with scant hope for compensation from those who caused the problem
However one interprets the outcome of COP21, it is clear that the real work of change lies ahead of us.  We have to stop burning fossil carbon and we have to change everything to make that possible.
It's easy, and probably justified, to blame 'the leaders'. But that still leaves what each of us can do. Protest, persuade, vote, demonstrate, write, shout, whatever, but we need actions beyond words.
Each of us needs to stop burning fossil carbon and that, roughly speaking, means we have to stop shopping.  We can fill in one of those carbon footprint surveys to indicate (very roughly) what our share of the damage is but there's a pretty close link between what we spend and our climate impact.  Rich people (and I guess that's most of my readers) are far more part of the problem than poor people.
For sure, not all shopping is equal.  There's airline tickets and there's tickets for string quartets.  Every time we buy something we are performing a political and climate-affecting act that is likely to be more influential than all the voting or protesting that we can do.
If we all stop shopping the whole edifice of industrial capitalism collapses, and without all that messy business of the bad guys up against the wall.
If we all stop shopping in a smart way we can engineer the transition to the fossil fuel free future that COP21 promises.  String quartets will survive and we can concentrate on building conviviality in our neighbourhoods. I could be a good life.  We choose.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Turned out Wet (again)

[Update 26th December 2015: It's still raining. Much of northern England has had its wettest December on record.  UK Government still in material denial over significant action on global warming.]

In February 2014, at the time of the Somerset Levels flooding, I wrote a couple of blog-pieces about the weather (well, I am English). They are here: Turned out Wet and here:Turned out Wet (and still raining)

In case you don't want to follow those links I'll repost the first section, which turns out still to be relevant:

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. 

Almost two years on and in the light of the rainy weather in Cumbria and elsewhere it's time to re-visit the issue.  We've just seen another extreme rainfall event; the Honister weather station recorded 341mm in 24 hours, a new UK record.  That's certainly a 3-sigma event, maybe a 5-sigma, but that depends on how one does the statistics.  As I suggested in February 1014 (copied above) we should be looking at the dynamic aspect of the weather record; the climate is no longer stable so that which should once have been regarded as so unlikely it can, for practical and policy purposes be regarded as 'won't happen' should now be expected, mitigated against and adapted to.

This is where the weather buffets politics.  Last time I took a passing swipe at the Somerset MP, Ian Liddell-Graingers's grasp of climate science so let's now, in fairness, turn to the Penrith MP, Rory Stewart. What's his Parliamentary record on climate change?

Here's the TheyWorkForYou calculation

Climate Change: There have been votes in Parliament on targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and on increasing the proportion of electricity generated via renewable means as well as on the establishment of a UK Green Investment Bank, to invest in projects which, for example, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rory Stewart generally voted against measures to prevent climate change

Stewart is not just the local MP, he is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), so he was being interviewed for the television news in wellies and hi-viz in front of a flooded street scene.  To his credit, though I don't suppose he realised it, he got it right when he suggested that talking in terms of a one in hundred year event is not helpful. I think, however, he meant helpful as in helping the damp folks piling their carpets on the street, rather than the statistical meaninglessness of 'one in a hundred years' when the climate is changing.

It was only four weeks ago that an up-beat Rory Stewart said: “This is a real model of local river management" while on a visit to a flood management project in his constituency.  Stewart, as befits the 'Floods Minister', has actually involved himself and written quite a lot on the flooding issue, as can be seen from his own blog.  It's good to see, and perhaps surprising from a man more well-known for his writings about walking in the deserts of central Asia.

But, and please help me if I've missed it, he appears to have not noticed the elephant in the room.  He never mentions global warming.  Sorry, Rory, but it's well past time to push your government into serious global warming mitigation and adaptation instead of allowing the UK to be seen in Paris COP21 as the world's laggards.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

David Fleming, five years on.

By coincidence, we've just been in Amsterdam exactly five years since David Fleming died on the 29th of November 2010 there and we made the trip through the snow to his funeral to say our last goodbye.

I thought of him again as we passed through Europort, the planet's greatest agglomeration of stuff in containers and of the oil refineries that are so central to the whole sorry enterprise of industrial capitalism that has brought our planet's ability to sustain civilization to the brink.

Then at the Stedelijk Museum we visited the Isa Genzken exhibition, Mach Dich Hüpsch, in which she shows what happens to all that stuff after it has left the shipping containers, the shop-fronts and our homes. Mach Dich Hüpsch, she says, but there's nothing pretty about the detritus of our consumerism.

David saw the lie of bright plastic and might better have enjoyed the Dutch Masters in the Rijksmuseum nearby (the bookmark I use in my copy of Lean Logic is a postcard of Van Dijck's, Still Life with Cheese, he sent me from the Rijksmuseum) or appreciated Van Gogh's respect for the peasants' lives and feared the anxieties expressed by Edvard Munch and so brilliantly displayed at Munch: Van Gogh.

Meanwhile in Paris the COP21 begins.  David foresaw what he called a climacteric, "A stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune."  He wrote of "...the convergence of events which can be expected in the period 2010-2040.  They include deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains."

While there is no longer serious talk of uncertainty in the anthropogenic origin of global warming, there is a great deal of uncertainty in how the future will play out, but politicians and many other commentators struggle to deal with uncertainty.  David Fleming wrote, "It is unknown how fast the climacteric will develop. One view is that it will unfold as a slow deterioration - a long descent - with periods of respite allowing time for intelligent responses to be worked out and applied. Another view is that, because our civilisation is so connected, urbanised, and dependent on fully-functioning complex energy and distribution systems ... the turndown will be more delayed than expected: there is, as Adam Smith observed, a great deal of ruin in a nation. But when it comes it is likely to be more abrupt than expected."

Lean Logic, was published privately in limited edition shortly after David's death but thanks to the unstinting effort of Shaun Chamberlin to bring the work to a wider audience it will soon be available from Chelsea Green.

Shaun describes the book at greater depth on his blog at Dark Optimism and I commend Lean Logic as an invaluable tool for understanding the uncertain future.