The UK has recently experienced a deluge of terrible weather that is bringing many parts of the country to crisis point. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, rolled up his sleeves and appeared on the BBC to exclaim: “We are in it for the long haul!”
David Cameron: "We're in it for the long haul!"
I had never previously considered Cameron to be an ironist but with this defying slogan he has proved himself a man of fine wit… even if slightly distasteful in the circumstances. The mainstream media in the UK seem to have an embargo on telling the public the truth about all the extreme weather (and the rest of the world) we are getting. It is worth keeping in mind that it is not just us. The US has experienced incredibly harsh freezing conditions, while the west coast is unseasonably hot with California recording its worst ever drought and Alaska experiencing extraordinary heat anomalies. In Europe, 40% of Slovenia's forests have been badly damaged by ice storms. In Australia heatwaves are breaking new records, floods in Bolivia have left 42 people dead, while in Brazil, extreme drought means that the water supplies of over 140 cities are now being rationed. The list really does go on. The weather is changing around the world and fast.
Last weekend I visited a friend in Salcombe, Devon and as we hiked along the coast we witnessed the erosion in realtime as the waterlogged cliff was literally collapsing into the sea. Concrete roads eaten away by the roaring seas. The houses that look out boasting views that would merit the front page of a travel supplement, now look eerily precarious. Dead birds litter the beaches and one can only imagine the stress being put on local wildlife as a whole.
Devon Coastline, West of Salcombe, February 2014
The BBC recently made an assessment highlighting a link to the loss of Arctic sea ice that is playing a big role in climate change. As any scientist who is looking at the Arctic will tell you, it is warming much faster than the rest of the planet and as it does so, it turns from white reflective skullcap into a dark heat absorbing region of the globe, which is actually accelerating the warming process.
It was the temperature differential between the Arctic and the equatorial regions that maintained the stability of the Jetstream, this is the fast moving band of high latitude winds that kept the cold air in the Arctic. As the Arctic warms and the temperature differential reduces, the Jetstream has become much more wavy and these larger waves are progressing far slower around the globe (see animation below). Because the amplitude of the waves is getting greater, the air masses have to travel much further north and south, and this means that the wind speeds increase producing the violent storms that we have been experiencing, and the sticking weather patterns.
Without the sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar regions and the tropics will continue to reduce and we can therefore expect to experience even greater extremes in the coming years. This will have disastrous consequences for farmers all over the world. Couple this with the desperate state of the world’s oceans which are increasingly polluted and acidifying, it is clear an impending global food crisis may be only a few years away.
Jetstream Animation Produced By NASA
Some politicians, especially those in the British, Canadian and Australian governments are playing down the causes of these extremes saying that “weather is always changing”. Well this is true of course but on a totally different timescale. Ice core records do show that the Earth has spent long periods at both hotter and cooler temperatures. The depth of last ice age was only 4 C cooler than now on a global average and the ice age cycle is every 100,000 years, driven by the earth's orbit. The difference now is the speed of the change driven by man’s release of carbon dioxide, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, which has added 40% more CO2 to the makeup of our atmosphere. Ice core records also show that the Earth responds slowly to change and that there is a lag in the system, this means that whatever course of action we take, there is more warming to come.
Dr Jennifer Francis - Understanding the Jetstream
The issues we face now are all directly attributable to how we power our lives as a society and almost everything we do has a carbon cost in its action, or its production. At a time when we desperately need to cut our carbon emissions globally, we are doing the opposite by continuing to increase them in ever larger quanitities, which is making matters much, much worse. Yet here in Britain, where we have the capacity to install renewable energy systems, Prime Minister David Cameron is marching around Britain telling us all we should jump on board with fracking and commit ourselves to a suicidal carbon pollution based future. So for once we have a politician who is (inadvertently) telling us the truth: “We are in it for the long haul!”.
David Cameron’s government has as its key advisers senior figures from the world of fracking and oil. People like Peter Lilly and Lord Brown, who play very prominent roles in policy formation, are ignoring the risks posed to civilians by climate change, in order to make short term financial gains. Peter Lilly MP is also the Vice Chairman and Senior Independent Non-Executive Director at Tethys Petroleum with earnings of £70,000 last year alone. These kinds of conflicts of interest mean that policy making in the UK is corrupt. Mainstream media is being complicit in not properly discussing the causes of climate change. They also seem to have missed the fact that the debate about climate change has moved on from "is it happening?", to "just how extreme is it? How much time do we have available to us and how best to repair our atmosphere?"
BBC News Saturday 15th February
The scientific community now understands what is happening to the Earth’s climate. In the crudest of terms the world is getting hotter and ice is melting. The Greenland ice sheet is 3 kilometres thick in places and its middle has turned soft like butter. It is carving off into the ocean at an ever accelerating rate. If we lose it then we will incur 7 metres of sea level rise. It is no longer a case of “if”, it is a case of “when”.
Most immediate is the effect of the destabilising weather patterns on global food supply. Prices are predicted to go up as food becomes harder to produce. Britain is experiencing new trends in weather extremes. Without serious change in policies and leadership from international governments, there is going to be incredible pain and suffering around the world. What we are now learning is that no one is exempt. Centuries of relatively stable weather enabled us to build extensively close to coasts and on floodplains. Dramatic photographs that we see in the media of houses and villages under water reflect this very clearly. It is a nightmare for the residents who are now learning that their homes are in the front line of climate change, leaving them unliveable, uninsurable and unsellable.
On the bright side it is worth noting that there are good and clever people around the world who are taking these threats seriously and are developing proposals to remove the carbon from the atmosphere. But none of these proposals can really be successful if we carry on pouring our waste gases into the skyfill site. So the ball is thrown back to us to demand change from our leaders and a rapid transition to as close as possible to 100% clean energy. In answer to the question, what can we as individuals do, well if our leaders are too stupid to understand the science or too-weak to detach themselves from hydrocarbon paymasters, then we must vote them out of office.
We do still have a chance to turn this situation around but the window of opportunity is closing. If we cannot make the change then the natural world will respond by forcing change upon us that we will not like. And that will sincerely be “for the long haul” (or in geological terms, the short-haul to extinction!).
Facing The extreme Nature Of Changing Climate
For more information on how the heating Arctic is effecting global climate you can watch David Wasdell's Arctic Dynamics presentation: Video: Arctic Dynamics (Part 1 & 2) by David Wasdell
By Nick Breeze
And Bru Pearce
David Wasdell: Director of the Apollo-Gaia Project discusses Earth sensitivity to temperature, computer climate models and the link to greenhouse gas emissions:
Filmed and produced by Nick Breeze Twitter: @NickGBreeze
It is reassuring to see the Royal Geographic Society kicking off the new year season of Monday night lectures with one on the subject of climate change, delivered by the newly ennobled and eminent Dame Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the UK Met Office.
Guardian Headline Warning: UK Storms Batter Coast During Christmas 2013
Professor Slingo is an establishment figure who has worked tirelessly in developing the worldwide reputation of the Met Office, as a leading institution with the ability to analyse both regional weather and develop our understanding of climate change. In this lecture, she set out to explain how her stable of over 500 scientists have been working to build powerful computer models that can simulate climate and tell us what the far reaching effects of climate change are going to be.
After several demonstrations of how the models have performed compared with actual observations in recent years, Professor Slingo then vented her annoyance when people criticise the models and the results that they produce, describing them as her “laboratory”, where she and her colleagues go to study the climate. There is a direct correlation between the accuracy of the models and the computing power driving them. Recent years have seen enormous advances in the ability to model our atmosphere in much greater detail. The models rely on data from many sources, such as atmospheric greenhouse gases, moisture in the air, the movement of the thermohaline circulation, storm tracks and intensity, and so on. The more data fed into the model (and computing power available to process it), the better the results.
In terms of the IPCC report published every 7 years, Professor Slingo reassuringly made the point that this is not frequent enough in terms of being able to inform policy, as the weather and climate operate in real time, constantly responding to an almost endless number of feedbacks that cause changes. The need for ongoing analysis and developing intelligence is vital.
This neatly set the stage for the main core of the lecture: the growing need for understanding of climate change for everyone from policy makers, farmers, vulnerable populations, insurance companies and, as most of us around the world have recently experienced in various forms of extreme weather events, us the public. We are all, she says, potential climate “customers” of the Met Office. This concept has led to greater collaboration with the UK government who are funding the development of the models, based on a principal that money can be made from the creation of such valuable knowledge (which is true!).
Professor Peter Wadhams, Professor Martin Rees And Dr Hugh Hunt Discuss Emissions, Temperature And Carbon Dioxide Removal
But is there a fly in the ointment? The IPCC report has set a “target” of 2 degrees centigrade as a safe level of warming that human civilisation can go to before climate change becomes dangerous. Having myself interviewed many scientists working on Earth’s sensitivity to temperature, it seems that this figure of 2C has very little grounding in climate science at all. The Earth, as Professor Slingo pointed out, has warmed 0.8C since preindustrial times. We know that the planet takes many years to catch up with the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so the 0.8C we are experiencing now (coupled with ever increasing extreme weather events) are just the beginning of what we have in store.
Temperature will keep rising even if we managed to stop emitting gases such as carbon dioxide and methane right away. The other trouble on the horizon is that as the Earth warms, it triggers other feedbacks within the system that then accelerate the warming further. These feedbacks are many and still not fully understood. However, what we do know is that many of them are not included in the models and scientists doing work in this area are concluding that even warming of 1.5C is likely to trigger feedbacks that could accelerate warming to more like 4-5C and rising. A good example is the warming of the Arctic and the loss of sea ice. The rapidity of the loss of sea ice was predicted by scientists such as Professor Peter Wadhams who had been studying the thinning of the sea ice volume, in addition to the reduction in area (satellites only capture the extent/area but the volume has been measured from submarines able to move beneath the ice) over several decades. Strangely the models disagreed with what the eye could see and were still predicting a much more gradual loss leading to an ice free Arctic somewhere around 2080. These figures have been revised back to about midcentury but still seem to lag what is actually being seen with first hand observations.
The main point here seems to be that the foundation upon which the Met Office is getting ready to inform policy and global awareness of climate change is seemingly very flawed. There was a sense in the audience that 2C was a target that we are going to achieve and that as long as we have the models to guide us through then we will be able to adapt. Professor Slingo produced a slide with the words “mitigation and adaptation”. In other words, lets stop producing greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and agriculture, combined with accepting a certain level of climate change that we’ll adapt to. Various photographs of farmers and people in worst affected areas were shown to reinforce this point. Perhaps worrying to me is the fact that these images make climate change appear as if it is a problem for the rest of the world and that we, crammed into the Kensington auditorium, have quite a lot less to worry about.
Part of the IPCC discussion has centred around the idea of a “emissions budget”, which equates to how much more carbon dioxide we can emit before we have to stop, in order to avert dangerous climate change. Dates are being set a decade or two from now as the timeline that we have to work to. It would be interesting to know how these figures are reached because, again, climate scientists looking at the level of warming we are due from what we have already pumped into the atmosphere, know all too well that there is no budget left. We are way passed the level of safe concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Mitigation is a must but it will not be enough. Adaptation to the extreme weather events and destabilisation of the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets mean that we are moving into a very different planetary system. For many people around the world, surviving, let alone adapting, is going to be a very serious challenge. Those of us in more temperate climates will face the knock on effects of unstable climate, resource shortages and climate refugees.
Another hot topic that is now being discussed by many scientists and engineers is the need to start drawing carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere. If we could extract the gases from the atmosphere bringing the concentrations down from the current 400parts per million to somewhere near 320 parts per million (preindustrial levels were 280 parts per million), then we would stand a better chance of restoring the climate to something like which we’d be happy to call “home”. This is no easy task, as the amount of gases we currently put up into the atmosphere is far greater than any other material we handle on the planet. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try but it does mean it wont happen over night. Carbon dioxide removal is the essential third title to add to “mitigation and adaptation”. However, mitigation itself is currently a pipe-dream as humanity is ramping up its emissions as opposed to bringing them down. Even the IPCC “business as usual” scenario for greenhouse gas emissions states that we will hit 4C warming by the end of the century. Add in accelerated heating from multiple feedbacks (many are absent in the climate models) and this figure doubles and then triples. Welcome to the inferno!
To return to the Met Office climate modeling, it seemed more clear that this talk was about selling to us, the public, the idea that somehow the models are going to navigate us through this climate change challenge. I don’t personally find it very reassuring. The fact that an impaired and approximate simulation of our hugely complex planetary system, becomes the bedrock of reality for which we plan our futures in the real world, seems more like a form of escapism. Models are vital but they must be much more powerful than they currently are and much more detailed. They must also not seek to downplay what is going on in the real world from observation. If we go down this route then we are really entering the world of fantasy and there does seem to be much of it around at the moment.
In a discussion with friends who have no special interest in climate change, after the lecture, they seemed a little vague as to what they were meant to have taken away. The subject seemed so vast that it was best left to the experts. This again is great mistake. Climate change is an issue that is effecting us now and will continue to do so in ever greater ways. It is essential that we demand robust information and effective policy from those who are in a position to deliver it. Of course, the old adage said by many environmentalists that there is no “planet B” could be wrong. The Met Office models maybe a far safer place to live than down here on Planet A... let’s hope so!
- The Truth About This Devastating Weather: David Cameron’s Policies Will Make It Worse!
- David Wasdell: Earth Sensitivity To Temperature & Emissions
- The View From The Met Office: Super Models and Climate Change Customers ... Welcome To Planet “B”
- Part 2: Environment In TV
- Environment in TV - The View From The Audience...
- Extended Interview With Dr Natalia Shakhova (& Igor Semelitov)
- Drought & Extreme Heating Will Increase Even If We Stop Emitting... But Doing Nothing Is Not An Option
- Bill McKibbon Comes To Town - A Personal Account Of Humanity In The Face Of Misdirected Authority
- Behind The Scenes At Exxon/Mobil
- Atlantic Pacific Breeze - Honey Bee Update Podcast
Time To Engage The Issues
2012 is a critical year for communicating climate issues to the general public and creating a platform whereby the messages and calls to action being voiced by key scientists around the world.
Envisionation are uniquely placed at the heart of the climate issue, speaking to the worlds most distinguished scientists and conveying their findings to the world audience.
The big challenge is to affect change in the short term to create a safe environment for the future of life on Earth.