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 »

Climate sensitivity wrangles don’t change the big picture on emissions

The sources of data that scientists can use to determine climate sensitivity include ice cores, the cylinders these researchers are holding at the Vostok station in Antarctica. Image credit: Todd Sowers, Columbia University

The sources of data that scientists can use to determine climate sensitivity include ice cores, the cylinders these researchers are holding at the Vostok station in Antarctica. Image credit: Todd Sowers, Columbia University

How much does the world warm up in response to a certain amount of greenhouse gases like CO2 in the atmosphere? It’s a simple question, but its answer depends on whether you mean short-term or long-term warming, and estimates vary according to the methods used. Scientists are currently intensively debating long-term ‘climate sensitivity’, which begs prompts the question: might we be pushing too hard to cut climate CO2 emissions, if this is uncertain?

The answer is no, according to Joeri Rogelj from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, and his coworkers. They looked at how a range of climate sensitivity values affected their 21st century warming projections in a paper published in Environmental Research Letters last week. “When taking into account all available evidence, the big picture doesn’t change,” Joeri told me. The ‘carbon budget’ of greenhouse gases we could still emit today and in the future is very limited whatever the climate sensitivity, he explained. “Keeping the so-called carbon budget in line with warming below 2°C still requires a decarbonisation of  global society over the first half of this century.”

Climate sensitivity is the measure of how much the world will eventually warm when it reaches equilibrium after a doubling of CO2 in the air. Today, we have upset the normal equilibrium where the Sun’s energy flowing into the atmosphere matches the flow the Earth radiates back out of it. Now more is coming in than leaving, and that’s heating the planet up. Think of the atmosphere as a series of pipes, with energy flowing through them like a liquid. The Earth is a reservoir in the system, filled by an incoming pipe and drained by an outgoing one. CO2 acts like a blockage in the outgoing pipe – it slows the outward energy flow and causes a build-up in the reservoir. When the reservoir gets fuller it can put enough pressure on the blockage for the outward flow through it to again match the incoming flow. Then we’d be at equilibrium, but with a fuller reservoir – a warmer planet. The more CO2 we emit, the worse the blockage gets and the hotter we get before reaching equilibrium. Read the rest of this entry »

Real-world grounding could cool 21st century outlook

The world's surface air temperature change ("anomaly"), relative to the world's mean temperature of 58° F or 14.5° C, averaged over land and oceans from 1975 to 2008. Inset are two periods of no warming or cooling within this overall warming trend. Copyright 2009 American Geophysical Union. Reproduced/modified by permission of American Geophysical Union.

The world’s surface air temperature change (“anomaly”), relative to the world’s mean temperature of 58° F or 14.5° C, averaged over land and oceans from 1975 to 2008. Inset are two periods of no warming or cooling within this overall warming trend. Copyright 2009 American Geophysical Union. Reproduced/modified by permission of Wiley/American Geophysical Union, see citation below.

Starting climate models from measured data helps simulate the early-2000s global warming hiatus better, and reduces projections for warming through to 2035. Jerry Meehl and Haiyan Teng have compared such ‘initialised’ model runs against more common ‘uninitialised’ ones starting without real-life conditions. The scientists, from the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, find initialised runs get closer to modelling that hiatus and surprisingly rapid warming in the 1970s. Using the same approach, admittedly rough 30-year predictions for Earth’s surface air temperature initialised in 2006 are about one-sixth less than uninitialised projections. “We have evidence that if we would have had this methodology in the 1990s, we could have predicted the early-2000s hiatus,” Jerry told me.

The hiatus Jerry and Haiyan studied – an easing off in the rate of global warming since 1998 – is perhaps the aspect of climate change most hotly debated today. But hiatus is a slippery word, whose meaning depends on who is highlighting what points on which graph. Climate skeptics will often infer that it’s evidence that global warming is not a problem, or that it shows we know too little to act on climate change. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it in plain numbers: the rate of warming from 1998-2012 was 0.05°C per decade; from 1951 to 2012, it was 0.12°C per decade. “In addition to robust multi-decadal warming, global mean surface temperature exhibits substantial decadal and interannual variability,” it adds.  “Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.”

In a paper published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters last week, Jerry and Haiyan touch on the current best explanations of the let-up. These include the chilling effect of recent volcano eruptions, but mostly focus on cooling in the Pacific as part of a natural cycle. Called the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), this regular wobble in sea surface temperatures has likely partly masked greenhouse-gas driven warming. The IPO has also been linked to a larger warming than might have been expected from greenhouse gases alone in the 1970s, the NCAR researchers add. Read the rest of this entry »

Renewable energy beats ‘clean coal’ on cost in Australia

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales' Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales’ Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

It’s unlikely that fossil fuel power stations that capture and store their CO2 emissions could supply eastern Australia’s electricity more cheaply than renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power. That’s according to a study based on hour-by-hour analysis of electricity demand by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and Mark Diesendorf from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Although renewables are often seen as expensive, these findings highlight that they can be competitive after accounting for the impact of burning coal and gas on our climate. “Our studies, and those conducted by other research groups around the world, find that it is possible to operate reliable national and subnational electricity systems on predominantly renewable energy generated by commercially available technologies and that these systems are affordable,” Mark told me.

Ben is a PhD student, supervised by Iain and Mark, and together the three have sought to answer key questions about renewable energy. Is it possible to supply a whole electricity grid’s needs with these technologies, or are some ‘base-load’ coal or gas power stations needed to fall back on? And if it is possible, would it be affordable?

To answer these questions, Ben designed a computer programme to simulate running an electricity supply system. His program can go through a year’s hourly data on electricity demands, wind and sunshine over the region in a fraction of a second. “Everything else follows from this, provided of course one asks the right questions,” Mark noted.

Over the last two years they have published work exploiting that programme, first showing that it’s possible to reliably supply 100% of eastern Australia’s electricity using renewable energy. Wind and solar power supplied most of the electricity, but output from these technologies varies due to changes in weather. But rather than filling gaps with fossil fuels, they showed existing hydroelectric power stations and gas turbines burning biofuels could be used to meet the grid’s reliability standard. Read the rest of this entry »

Climate change science anyone can play with

It’s all very well to read about climate change – but you can probably get a better understanding from actually exploring the data and underlying physics yourself. That’s been driven home by some recent comments on this blog by non-scientist readers wanting to do just this, or recommending that I do. Inspired by them, in this week’s blog entry I’m bringing together various different ways we can all do this. Don’t worry, I won’t tax any weary brain cells any more than they want to be. I’m organising the blog entry in order of increasing effort/difficulty – just bail out or take a break whenever you need to.

The volume occupied by the average yearly CO2 emitted by someone in the UK is as big as a building. Credit: Carbon Quilt

The volume occupied by the average yearly CO2 emitted by someone in the UK is as big as a building. Credit: Carbon Quilt

As a simple starter, try the Carbon Quilt tool that lets you see your CO2 emissions. If you click on this link or the image above you should first see the size of a ‘quilt’ or ‘patch’. That represents the average amount of CO2 people in your country emit, overlaid on a map. Try out the sphere and cube options, and the different options in the drop-down menu to see how big your carbon footprint really is.

Click here to see how hot the Earth's predicted to get in your lifetime, and the lifetimes of children born today. Credit: The Guardian

Click here to see how hot the Earth’s predicted to get in your lifetime, and the lifetimes of children born today. Credit: The Guardian

Another simple but powerful demonstration is the Guardian interactive guide to how warm it will get in our lifetimes pictured above.

Click here to see how unusual current CO2 levels are, and how much worse they're set to get. Credit: The Guardian

Click here to see how unusual current CO2 levels are, and how much worse they’re set to get. Credit: The Guardian

Still more powerful, I think, is this guide showing the significance of CO2 levels in the air hitting 400 parts per million last year. Read the rest of this entry »

Is our weird weather linked to climate change? Oddly, sport can show us the score.

UK Met Office data shows some parts of the country had more than three times average rainfall levels in January, and the country overall set a new rainfall record for the month. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0

UK Met Office data shows some parts of the country had more than three times average rainfall levels in January, and the country overall set a new rainfall record for the month. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0

In a sane world, the worldwide weather chaos that has engulfed the start of 2014 would be memorable. As the eastern US and Canada freeze in winter storms of ‘historical proportions’ as far south as Texas, California remains parched and record temperatures have baked Alaska. As increasingly regular heatwaves scorch Australia, the UK is drowning under record rainfall and being battered by hurricane-force winds, with storms also felt elsewhere in Europe. Yet we may soon forget these dramas and have our attentions sucked in by a new set of meteorological monsters, if they’re linked to changing climate. But are they? Though it’s a murky question, if you look at it like sport, it’s easier to get a feel for than you might think.

Even if you detest football (or soccer, if you prefer), you’ll likely know that in sport the metaphorical playing field is often uneven. Take, for example, last Saturday’s English Premier League match between Manchester City and Norwich City. The Manchester side is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose personal wealth is estimated at £20 billion, lavished happily on players for his club. The joint majority owner of the Norwich side is celebrity chef Delia Smith who, despite her success, doesn’t quite have Sheikh Mansour’s financial muscle.

The status difference can be seen in Manchester City’s current lofty league position, and Norwich’s place near the foot of the table. It was obvious last November, when Manchester City thumped Norwich 7-0. So even though last weekend’s match was in Norwich, bookmakers knew Manchester City’s chances of winning were good. Their odds rated a Manchester City win as nearly eight times as likely as a Norwich win, and nearly four times as likely as a draw. But with the unpredictability that gives sport its excitement, Norwich battled hard and kept their opponents from scoring, earning themselves a 0-0 draw. Read the rest of this entry »

Warming makes flowers change dates, or don skates

Blue Fleabane (Erigeron acer) has only moved its flowering date forward around by 3 days in 50 years, and instead the places where it's found in the UK have moved north by around 9 miles. Image credit: Vlad Proklov, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Blue Fleabane (Erigeron acer) has only moved its flowering date forward around by 3 days in 50 years, and instead the places where it’s found in the UK have moved north by around 9 miles. Image credit: Vlad Proklov, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

If plants can’t flower earlier to adapt to global warming they’re probably being driven away from where they used to grow, towards cooler places. That’s what new findings on how these responses are linked from Tatsuya Amano at the University of Cambridge and his teammates suggest. “We believe that the link we’ve revealed will help us understand the complex implications of climate change on biodiversity,” Tatsuya told me. “Many studies have relied on models that only consider species’ spatial responses for projecting the impact of climate change on species. We might be able to generate more realistic projections.”

You could think of regular natural events, such as flowering in plants, as being triggered by an alarm clock – another type of dandelion clock, if you like. The study of when those alarms go off is known as phenology. In 2009, Tim Sparks from Coventry University visited Tatsuya, Bill Sutherland and others in Cambridge to give a talk on changes in when these events were happening. He was helped by notes on plant life many people in the UK had jotted down in their spare time, but that data’s inevitable patchiness caused him problems.

Bill and Tatsuya were working on mathematical models that helped fix similar problems in bird count data, and so they offered to help Tim with his work. They were also joined by Richard Smithers, then in charge of the Nature’s Calendar archive run by the UK’s Woodland Trust. He helped them realise the power of this publicly-accessible record of over 250 years’ worth of data on 405 UK species, nearly 400,000 records in all. Using that information, in 2010 the team showed that UK flowers are now blooming earlier in the year than in any 25-year period since 1760.

Read the rest of this entry »

Planners must be alert to CO2 impact on water supplies

The River Exe submerges the end of a pub beer garden by the Miller's Crossing bridge in Exeter. Nigel Arnell from the University of Reading and his team have predicted some increases in high river flow levels as climate change continues, but even larger decreases in low flow levels.

The River Exe submerges the end of a pub beer garden by the Miller’s Crossing bridge in Exeter. Nigel Arnell from the University of Reading and his team have predicted some increases in high river flow levels as climate change continues, but even larger decreases in low flow levels.

Although the river that slices through Exeter, UK, where I live, is today full from weeks of heavy rain there has been little reported harm from flooding. In the past, most notably in 1960, similar downpours swelled the river Exe until it engulfed the surrounding streets – and so we now have a flood defence system. But shifts in rainfall patterns are potentially the most serious climate changes that we’re facing as a result of the CO2 we emit. They pose a particular threat in a nation like China, where many ‘face severe water distress’, and where this month forestry officials warned about the country’s shrinking wetlands. Drought or deluge, what we do about climate change could have big effects on water supplies.

UK planners already include climate change in their water resource schemes, the University of Reading’s Nigel Arnell told me. But Nigel and his colleagues have also shown they’ll still need to be watchful if we stick to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord on climate change. “We can’t assume that if we adopt a stringent climate mitigation policy then we don’t have to worry about potential effects of climate change on water resource availability over the next few decades,” he told me. “This isn’t actually a surprise, because we know that impacts will continue even if we manage to hit a 2°C target.” Read the rest of this entry »

When the climate change fight got ugly

  • Steve Schneider talks about climate and energy with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1977, early on in his efforts to bring human-caused climate change to the public's notice.

    Steve Schneider talks about climate and energy with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1977, early on in his efforts to bring human-caused climate change to the public’s notice.

    This is part two of this profile. Read part one here.

“How many of you think the world is cooling?” That’s what Steve Schneider asked the studio audience of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in September 1977. And when the majority put their hands up, he explained that the recent cooling trend had only been short-term. Though the unscripted poll meant Steve wasn’t invited back to the programme, through the summer of that year he had brought climate science to US national TV. The appearances typified Steve’s efforts to bring climate change to the world’s notice – efforts that would later draw attention of a less desirable sort.

Building on his earlier high profile research, Steve had just published ‘The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival’, predicting ‘demonstrable climate change’ by the end of the century. Whether human pollution would cause warming or cooling, he argued governments should copy the biblical story where Joseph told Pharoah to prepare for lean years ahead. In a decade already torn by rocketing food and oil prices, the advice resonated with many who wanted to head off any further crises.

Some scientists criticised Steve and those like him for speaking straight to the public. In particular, climate science uncertainties were so great that they feared confusion – like that over whether temperatures were rising or falling – was inevitable. That dispute grew from a basic question about science’s place in society. Should researchers concentrate on questions they can comfortably answer using their existing methods? Or should they tackle questions the world needs answered, even if the results that follow are less definite?

At a meeting to discuss climate and modelling research within the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP) in 1974 near Stockholm, Sweden, Steve pushed for the second approach. Given the food problems the world was struggling with at the time, it seemed obvious that climate change impacts like droughts, floods and extreme temperatures would bring famines. “I stood alone in arguing that we had to consider the implications of what we were researching,” Steve later wrote. While some attacked him angrily, saying they weren’t ready to address these problems, conference organiser Bert Bolin agreed that socially important questions must be answered.

The suggestion was also controversial because it meant blurring the lines between climate science and other subjects, such as agriculture, ecology and even economics. The director at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, where Steve worked, warned that crossing subject boundaries might cost him promotion. But he responded with characteristic wilfulness, founding a journal doing exactly what he was warned not to. 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 »

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