Dump fossil fuels for the health of our hearts

Air quality in London on April 3, 2014 fell to a level where it became hard to see normally-visible skyscrapers. Conditions hit a 9/10 risk ranking  thanks to a combination of pollution and dust blown in from the Sahara desert. Tackling such pollution could immediately improve people's health, stresses New York University's George Thurston. Image copyright David Holt, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Air quality in London on April 3, 2014 fell to a level where it became hard to see normally-visible skyscrapers. Conditions hit a 9/10 risk ranking thanks to a combination of pollution and dust blown in from the Sahara desert. Tackling such pollution could immediately improve people’s health, stresses New York University’s George Thurston. Image copyright David Holt, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Sometimes when I blow my nose and – inevitably – look into my handkerchief, I see that my snot is black. It doesn’t happen when I’m at home, in the small English city of Exeter, only when I’m in London. It’s a clear sign of the extra pollution I’m inhaling when I’m in the capital – one backed up by data published last week by Public Health England. Its striking report says that in 2010 73 deaths per thousand in the London borough of Waltham Forest, where my girlfriend’s sister lives, could be put down to grimy air. For Exeter, the figure was just 42 per 1000. Across the whole of England, pollution killed 25,002 people in 2010, or 56 of every 1000 deaths nationwide.

But wherever you live, air pollution will become even more important as the climate changes, while fighting this scourge could also help the world bring global warming under control. “There’s more than enough rationale for controlling emissions based on the health effects and the benefits that we get as a society from getting off of fossil fuels,” New York University’s George Thurston told me. “Those are the benefits that are going to accrue to the people who do the clean-up – locally and immediately, not fifty years from now.”

Public Health England is trying to draw attention to ‘particulate matter’, or dust, less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, too small to see with our naked eye. You won’t find this ‘PM2.5’ pollution listed as people’s cause of death – it’s likely to be down as a heart attack or lung cancer. George has run huge studies in the US to help work out exactly how much such dust worsens people’s health. One study for the American Cancer Society followed 1.2 million men and women originally enrolled in 1982. Another, started in 1995, tracked over 500,000 US retirees over the following decade. And he was also a part of a worldwide project that last year showed ‘global particulate matter pollution is a major avoidable risk to the health of humankind’. Read the rest of this entry »

The climate challenges that my morning toast poses

Britain's wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms - but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Britain’s wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms – but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

It may seem that nothing could be simpler than toast, but next time I see a slice pop up I’ll also see an emblem of the world’s future. That’s thanks to a UK study exploring the problems surrounding growing enough wheat for flour and other foods as the world warms and has ever more people in it. The issue is especially tangled, Mirjam Röder and her University of Manchester teammates show, as adapting farming for the future will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, driving further warming. “Climate change and food security are two issues which can’t be decoupled,” Mirjam told me. “The same applies for mitigation and adaptation.”

Mirjam is part of the “Climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UK food system” project, led by Alice Bows-Larkin and backed by Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. One concern the project reflects is that without adaptation farming will probably be the industry worst hit by climate change, with worldwide productivity falling as temperatures rise. Meanwhile, farming also releases about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases we humans emit overall. “These are largely emissions other than CO2, such as nitrous oxide and methane, mainly occurring from natural processes,” Mirjam said. “They are much harder to reduce and control. Then of course global society is challenged by increasing global food demand. So we face a triad of challenges in the food system: we need to reduce emissions, while food demand is increasing and the sector is impacted by climate change.”

Alice and Mirjam’s team looked at wheat because it makes up almost a third of all cereals grown in the world. “Global wheat demand is projected to increase by about 30% by 2050,” Mirjam. “If we don’t find methods to reduce them, total emissions from producing more wheat will rise.” As well as gases released directly by bacteria and other soil microorganisms, emissions from wheat farming arise from the energy needed to produce nitrogen fertiliser. Whether growing more wheat or dealing with rising temperatures, farmers will need more fertiliser, driving more emissions and therefore further warming. Read the rest of this entry »

The warrior who gave his life to climate change

Steve Schneider juggled with the dilemma of conveying the urgency of climate change, while conveying how we can be confident about that when the evidence is sometimes uncertain Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.

Steve Schneider juggled with the dilemma of conveying the urgency of climate change, while conveying how we can be confident about that when the evidence is sometimes uncertain Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.

  • This is part three of this profile. You can also read part one and two.

“Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” Those are words – seemingly advising his colleagues to lie to shape public opinion – credited to climate scientist Stephen Schneider in a 1989 Discover magazine article. Because of that quote, Steve was told, a number of US congressional hearings chose not to invite him as an expert witness.

With extreme irony, it came from an interview where Steve was expressing frustration after having been misrepresented in the media. He later argued that he was trying to explain how to succeed faced with the “double ethical bind” of being effective and honest in conveying both uncertainty and urgency. Even in the original article he adds, “I hope that means being both” – something often overlooked in scandalised reactions to his words. But perhaps the trouble this caused Steve in fact reflects the strangeness of the idea he dedicated much of his career to getting across. How can scientific projections with an element of uncertainty lead to the conclusion that we must act on climate change urgently?

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with uncertainty, and so Steve wanted clearer ways to get it across in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s second climate change assessment report. At a meeting in 1994 he pushed for their estimates to come as probability distributions showing the odds for each in a range of different values. This could be done, he argued, for everything from damage likely to be caused by global warming to values for numbers central to natural processes, like climate sensitivity.

With no-one backing Steve, ambiguity crept into the report. Did everyone think that saying they had “high confidence” in a statement meant the same thing? After the second report, returning to his recently-appointed post at Stanford University in California, he was determined to hammer out any doubt. Together with the IPCC’s Richard Moss, Steve found 100 examples of inconsistent use of such terms. Armed with that shocking finding they persuaded the IPCC’s working group I, which discusses the physics of climate change, to define clear scales.

The result would be a double strategy, with verbal scales both for the probability of a forecast and for the reliability of the underlying science. For probabilities, low confidence meant a less than 1-in-3 chance, medium between 1-in-3 and 2-in-3 and high 2-in-3 and above. Very high confidence meant a 19-in-20 chance, and very low confidence 1-in-20. There were four grades for the quality of science, ranging from ‘speculative’ to ‘well established’. Reading through thousands of draft pages ensuring consistency in the run-up to the IPCC’s third report, published in 2001, Richard and Steve became known as the ‘uncertainty police’. Read the rest of this entry »

The ice-age U-turn that set the stage for the climate debate

Steve Schneider (left), Jim Hansen (centre), and S. Ichtiaque Rasool (right) at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, circa 1971. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

Steve Schneider (left), Jim Hansen (centre), and S. Ichtiaque Rasool (right) at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, circa 1971. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

On 13 July 1971, world-leading researchers gathered in Stockholm, Sweden, concluded their presentations about human influence on climate, and opened the meeting to questions from the press. But rather than asking about the most important climate meeting yet, the assembled reporters first looked to the meeting’s 26-year old secretary. “Where is Dr. Schneider? When is the ice age coming?” they asked.

The journalists sought out Stephen Schneider about a paper by him and his NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) boss, S. Ichtiaque Rasool, published just four days before. Using early computer models, they warned of a scenario where enough dusty aerosol pollution could be ‘sufficient to trigger an ice age’. For Steve, this would be the first encounter of many with the media’s interest in climate, leading him ultimately to help define how scientists influence the wider world.

As a PhD student at Columbia University in New York in the late 1960s, Steve came into contact with some of the world’s leading experts on climate. Wally Broecker, who at that time was helping establish the timing of the ice ages, lectured him on oceanography. A talk by Joe Smagorinsky from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who was establishing some of the first computer climate models with Suki Manabe, played on Steve’s childhood fascination with hurricanes. And when he took a seminar by Ichtiaque talking about planets’ atmospheres – why Mars was too cold, Venus too hot, and Earth just right – he was hooked.

While writing up his PhD thesis he got a part-time job with Ichtiaque, tackling a key question at the time. Burning fossil fuels creates two types of pollution that influence climate – warming CO2 and cooling aerosols. But which one would win out? On the advice of fellow GISS scientist Jim Hansen, Steve used a method partly developed by astronomer Carl Sagan to calculate the aerosol effect. He put this into a model of warming from CO2 Ichtiaque gave him. They found that doubling CO2 levels in the air would raise temperatures by about 0.7°C – much lower than Suki’s earlier estimate of 2°C for this ‘climate sensitivity’ figure. But models where aerosols were spread everywhere experienced 3-5°C cooling, prompting Ichtiaque to write the ice age comment, referring to other controversial research of the time.

Ichtiaque had asked Steve to handle criticism of the study, but in the meantime Steve had managed to get an invite to the Stockholm gathering of leading climate scientists. Being a ‘rapporteur’ he was supposed to only be taking notes at the three week Study of Man’s Impact on Climate (SMIC) meeting, organised by Bert Bolin. But Steve couldn’t resist showing Suki some of his modelling work on clouds’ role in climate – and then the aerosol study was published. Ichtiaque had mischievously told a reporter that Steve was presenting the work at SMIC, forcing his young colleague to give a brief seminar, and face the press. Read the rest of this entry »

Give those we love the climate they deserve

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country's civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country’s civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Over the next week I hope to be spending time with those I love the most. But this week I’ve been reading the latest newsletter from Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) about the horrible situation in Syria. The country’s civil war has been ongoing since 2011, with a toll that puts the good fortune me and my family enjoy into chilling context.

It’s estimated that there have been 120,000 deaths with over 4.5 million – in a country of just 22.5 million – having to leave their homes. Though that’s a lot of people, I am increasingly numb to the numbers, like many of you might be. But the stories from MSF really hit home. Yes, Syria had serious problems before the war, but it had a comparatively good health system. Now, if you have asthma, diabetes, or appendicitis, it can be life threatening. Ever more children are being born with severe defects, possibly due to the mothers not getting enough folic acid in their diet.

Though there are many factors behind the conflict, an important one is a drought that hit the country’s poorest areas in early 2011. Commentators have highlighted that droughts in Syria have become more common in recent years, linking this to climate change. Earlier this month, US scientists reported that a recent three year drought in Syria was too unusual to be a natural event. All of us who use fossil fuel energy likely bear some responsibility.

While it’s always hard to be certain about such links, they’re backed up by what University of California, Berkeley’s Ted Miguel told me in August. “Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 2°C over the next half century,” Ted told me. “Our findings suggest that global temperature rise of 2°C could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50% in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions where such conflicts are most common.”

Earlier this month, Jim Hansen from Columbia University in New York and his team warned that even world average temperatures 1°C above pre-industrial levels would be dangerous. The Earth has already warmed 0.8°C in the past 100 years, meaning that threshold is near. And many other researchers I’ve spoken to this year have found evidence that shows the dangers. Read the rest of this entry »

Stark conclusions seek to empower young to sue for climate justice

Jim Hansen (bottom left) and his family. For their benefit, and for the next generation as a whole, he is pushing for more urgent action on global warming. Credit: James Hansen

Jim Hansen (bottom left) and his family. For their benefit, and for the next generation as a whole, he is pushing for more urgent action on global warming. Credit: JimHansen

Even limiting human-made global climate warming to 2°C above preindustrial temperatures would subject young people, future generations and nature to irreparable harm, leading scientists said on Tuesday. The team led by pioneering climate researcher Jim Hansen, now at Columbia University in New York, calls aiming for this internationally-recognised threshold ‘foolhardy’. In a paper published in PLOS ONE, they outline a case for aiming for 1°C that supports efforts to sue the US government for not doing enough.

“Governments are blatantly failing to do their job,” Jim told me. “They know that human-caused climate change is beginning and poses a huge risk to young people and future generations, and they understand that we must phase out fossil fuel emissions. Yet they go right ahead encouraging companies to go after every fossil fuel that can be found!”

As one of the first climate modellers, Jim has long warned about the greenhouse effect caused by the CO2 we emit from burning fossil fuels. On a sweltering June 23, 1988, he famously testified to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee of the US Senate on the dangers of global warming. “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” he told reporters at the time.

Yet Jim remains frustrated at the slow pace of action, and regularly voices it. In 2006 Mary Wood from the University of Oregon Law School saw one of his articles in the New York Review of Books and contacted him. Her work inspired the formation of a team of lawyers who are suing the US federal government, highlighting the principle that US citizens, young and old, have ‘equal protection of the laws’. “I agreed specifically to write a paper that would provide the scientific basis for legal actions against governments for not doing their job of protecting the rights of young people,” Jim recalled. Read the rest of this entry »

CO2 for oil swap brings carbon capture viability closer

Oil and gas producer Denbury makes its case for its 300-mile plus “Green Pipeline” that transports CO2 for use in extracting more oil from old fields. University of Texas, Austin’s Carey King and colleagues have looked at the economics of using a larger network to store CO2 in underground saline aquifers.

For 314 miles from Donaldsonville, Louisiana, to Alvin, Texas a 24-inch diameter pipeline slithers under the landscape, dwarfing even the giant invasive snake species menacing the US. And while the Hastings Oil and Gas Field sits at the Texan end of the pipe, fossil fuels don’t flow along it: CO2 does. Rather than emit the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, in Louisiana, Mosaic Phosphates Company’s Faustina Plant sends it to Texas. There the pipeline’s owner, Denbury, uses the CO2 to swill more oil out of the ageing Hastings field, leaving most of the CO2 trapped underground instead.

Denbury estimates that from 2014 it could get 10,000 tonnes of CO2 a day from industrial sources. Though that sounds a lot, it pales against the roughly 15 million tonnes the whole US emits each day. But what if Texas’ coal-fired power plants were hooked up to pipelines to both produce more oil from old fields and keep CO2 locked out of the atmosphere?

A team of University of Texas at Austin scientists have been looking at the financial details of how such a network might work. Though it could trap much more CO2 than burning the oil it gets out will emit, they find that such a scheme likely could not yet support itself. “If you capture CO2 from multiple coal-fired generators to produce oil and you want to have a net storage of CO2, the costs are still greater than the revenues,” UT Austin’s Carey King told me. “But the oil revenues do pay for the majority of the costs.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Fossil fuels are more than just a bad habit

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

I’m increasingly realising how much of a creature of habit I am. I have the same bizarre sticky brown yeast extract goo on toast for breakfast each morning. I watch films in my lounge most evenings. And I wonder: How much of my personality is just a collection of habits? What about yours, and all of ours? Could our whole society just be a giant collage of habits? And most relevant to this blog: how much of the human greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming come from our habits?

Recently, I’ve been keeping track of how long I spend doing things, which has been helping me swap what I think are bad habits for better ones. It’s tempting to suggest fighting climate change in a similar way. Many people talk about how we burn fossil fuels to propel our cars or run our gadgets as a bad habit, and even an addiction. But it’s more complicated than other addictions. Fossil fuels have been to our society more like food and a salary are to us individually – they’ve helped produce many of the healthiest aspects of the modern world. They’ve powered more than a century of rapid social and technological progress, and given many countries their current rich, well-fed figures.

For an article I’m writing about employment prospects in the UK’s chemical industry, I recently spotted the table below. It shows ‘gross value added’ (GVA), a measure of the money contributed to the economy, per person across the country’s different industries. It was striking to me that while bankers may get all the headlines for their wealth, the energy industry has the greatest earning power per head in the UK.

Oil and gas extraction help the "Mining and Quarry; Energy & water" sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output . Credit: Office for National Statistics

Oil and gas extraction help the “Mining and Quarry; Energy & water” sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output. The ‘total’ figure is the overall GVA for the UK, averaged across all industries. Credit: Office for National Statistics

Much like I’d quickly struggle without food or money, today sharply taking fossil fuel energy away from our societies would immediately threaten our existence. In fact, some think even the small changes already happening taste bad. Again in the UK chemical industry, there are worries that higher costs from clean energy are making it less competitive with other countries. Part of the way it would like to avoid this issue is through unconventional natural gas supplies, presumably extracted through controversial ‘fracking’ methods. Read the rest of this entry »

Continuing the fight for CO2 monitoring

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.
Dave Keeling had to balance his work measuring CO2's rise in the air and tracking its movements through the Earth's systems with fighting to get the money to fund his work. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Dave Keeling had to balance his work measuring CO2′s rise in the air and tracking its movements through the Earth’s systems with fighting to get the money to fund his work. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

By 1963, having directly measured a steady increase in CO2 levels over five years, Dave Keeling felt he had clearly shown the value of such non-stop monitoring. But that message hadn’t reached government decision makers. And so Dave swung into the first battle in the war to continue tracking the key greenhouse gas that has flared up repeatedly in the following decades.

Thanks to four new instruments called spectrophotometers, Dave had been able to use the same molecular movements that allow CO2 to absorb heat to measure it. Though his most famous site was at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, one was also installed in Antarctica. Another sailed on a ship and the final one stayed at Dave’s lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography analysing samples collected in vacuum-filled five litre flasks from aircraft and elsewhere. Thanks to funds from 1957-1958’s International Geophysical Year a team of scientists was busy collecting a “snapshot” of CO2 data that Dave’s boss at Scripps, Roger Revelle, wanted.

So in 1961, Dave moved his family to Sweden for a year to work out exactly what the measurements were showing. He took a fellowship at the Meteorological Institute, University of Stockholm working with its new director Bert Bolin, who had earlier worked on the first computerised weather forecast. With measurements ongoing, annual ‘breathing’ cycles of rising and falling CO2 and the increasing trend underlying them became ever clearer.

Together, Dave and Bert found CO2 concentrations were going up by 0.06 ppm per month on average. Bert also undertook a series of complex calculations by hand to work out CO2 movement and cycles in its levels. In doing so he was showing how oceans, plants on land, and human fossil fuel burning contributed to the patterns that would later need computer models for fuller analysis. This, Dave felt, clearly showed why non-stop CO2 monitoring was needed rather than just snapshots. But by 1963 the shipboard spectrophotometer had come home, and Dave had also called back the one in Antarctica. And with funding cuts biting at the Weather Bureau, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the staff at Mauna Loa fell from eight to three. And soon afterwards, a problem with Dave’s equipment proved too much for the overstretched team to fix.

“Suddenly there were no precise measurements being made of atmospheric CO2 anywhere,” he recalled. “I had seen the budget cut coming early in 1963 and had tried to prevent its terminating the CO2 program at Mauna Loa Observatory. I even went to Washington to plead for supplemental funding. This had no tangible effect, however, until the cessation of measurements actually occurred. The National Science Foundation (NSF) then found funds to pay for an additional technician at Mauna Loa. I learned a lesson that environmental time-series programs have no particular priority in the funding world, even if their main value lies in maintaining long-term continuity of measurements.” Read the rest of this entry »

Extra climate targets urge faster CO2 cuts

University of Bern's Marco Steinacher has helped show that setting limits on different aspects of damage from climate change will likely limit CO2 emissions more than just temperature alone. Credit: University of Bern

University of Bern’s Marco Steinacher has helped show that setting limits on different aspects of damage from climate change will likely limit CO2 emissions more than just temperature alone. Credit: University of Bern

To give the world a chance of restricting damage caused by climate change, we need more than just a single temperature target, Swiss researchers have found. Marco Steinacher and his teammates at the University of Bern worked out the chances that climate change can be kept within harmful limits in six different areas. “Considering multiple targets reduces the allowable carbon emissions compared to temperature targets alone, and thus CO2 emissions have to be reduced more quickly and strongly,” Marco told me.

In December 2009, world leaders agreed the non-binding Copenhagen Accord, which ‘recognises’ that scientists think world temperature increases beyond 2°C above the pre-industrial average from 1850-1899 would be dangerous. It also mentions sea level rise, protecting ecosystems and food production. And as climate talks have continued since the 1990s, specific new dangers of CO2 emissions have been found. One serious impact that has been realised in the last decade comes from the fact that oceans absorb CO2 from the air, which makes the seas more acidic. That can make it harder for sea creatures’ shells to form, and together with warmer seas can damage coral, and in turn reduce fish numbers available for food. “Traditional climate targets have not addressed this effect,” Marco said.

It might seem reasonable to assume that negotiating climate deals on temperature limits alone could protect against other dangers. But until recently only very simple ‘Earth system’ models were available to test this against the idea of having several targets. They couldn’t simulate regional effects on quantities such as ocean acidification or farming productions, Marco said. “Climate targets that aim at limiting such regional changes can only be investigated with a model that has a certain amount of complexity,” he explained. Read the rest of this entry »

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