Why we should be wary of ’12 years to climate breakdown’ rhetoric

safe_imageby Myles Allen, University of Oxford

I was invited to speak to a group of teenagers on climate strike in Oxford recently. Like many scientists, I support the strikes, but also find them disturbing. Which I’m sure is the idea.

Today’s teenagers are absolutely right to be up in arms about climate change, and right that they need powerful images to grab people’s attention. Yet some of the slogans being bandied around are genuinely frightening: a colleague recently told me of her 11-year-old coming home in tears after being told that, because of climate change, human civilisation might not survive for her to have children.

The problem is, as soon as scientists speak out against environmental slogans, our words are seized upon by a dwindling band of the usual suspects to dismiss the entire issue. So if I were addressing teenagers on strike, or young people involved in Extinction Rebellion and other groups, or indeed anyone who genuinely wants to understand what is going on, here’s what I’d say. Read the rest of this entry »

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Becoming more than an old gasbag: Climate chemistry on YouTube, cryogenic energy storage, and community renewable energy

All gas and bulls**t. That’s me – or so some of my critics think. And this time they’re right, although not in the way they think they are.

Over recent months I’ve been delighted to work with the enormously talented Adam Levy, better known as ClimateAdam, on a couple of videos. They deal with just why greenhouse gases trap energy in the atmosphere, a subject that has come up when I’m discussing climate with friends. It’s hard to understand how gases that are present in the atmosphere in such tiny amounts compared to oxygen and nitrogen can be so powerful. But it’s all to do with molecules absorbing light energy in a way that makes their atoms vibrate, which is also how substances get their colours.

I know this because it came up in my first year undergraduate chemistry course at the University of Southampton. My amazing lecturer, Martin Grossel, demonstrated the principles by standing on a stool with balloons in each hand, representing atoms. He then wiggled his arms to represent the vibrations in question. This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t come across in writing. So when I bumped into Adam at the Association of British Science Writers’ annual award ceremony last year, I suggested he put something like this into some of his videos. He then used the opportunity to apply for some science communication funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having secured that cash, through the course of 2018 we’ve been working together on the script, and here are the final products:

These videos also show why carbon emissions are not the same as carbon dioxide emissions – the difference is two oxygen atoms – a common confusion that jangles my chemical sensibility. Apologies in advance if I ever annoyingly pull you up on this.

That’s the gas, but it’s definitely not the bulls**t. That comes in an article I recently had published on Physics World that talks about the exciting prospects for gases in energy storage. Cryogenically cooling and condensing gases – such as the air around us – when renewable energy is abundant is a potential means for storage. What’s more, you can use the cooling for refrigeration, and the liquid gases are portable.

But the bulls**t is what excites me the most. As our second video above shows, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and its emissions from farming – including from cows belching and pooing – are hard to reduce. So one of the companies I wrote about is looking to store the manure, collect the methane and cryogenically store it. Then,  farmers can burn it when energy is needed and feed electricity into the grid, displacing natural gas, for example. But like the other gases, the liquid methane is portable and could be used to run trucks that currently use diesel, and eliminate the horrible pollution that brings. Or it could be used to supply the many people in rural areas that – surprisingly to many urbanites – have no access to the gas grid.

It’s been months and months since I last posted here, but I hope that some of you have been following my climate writings elsewhere. I’ve used the time I used to put into blogging for lots of other things, including becoming a director of Exeter Community Energy this year, supporting renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate issue is more pressing than ever. I’ve valued how Simple Climate enabled me to see how true that is. But having learned more about science writing, I appreciate that those reading this are mostly going to be those who likewise care about the climate. You guys know this stuff is important already – and so I’ve mainly decided it’s time to stop faffing around with blog posts and go do something practical. If you feel the same way, seeking out your local community renewable energy group is one excellent way to make a difference.

IPCC: Millions of words on climate change are not enough

The latest IPCC report has highlighted that it's dead certain that the world has warmed, and that it's extremely likely that humans are the main cause. Credit: IPCC

The latest IPCC report has highlighted that it’s dead certain that the world has warmed, and that it’s extremely likely that humans are the main cause. Credit: IPCC

The most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report saw perhaps the most severe conflict between scientists and politicians in the organisation’s existence. As its name suggests, governments take an active part in the IPCC process, whose latest main findings appeared between September 2013 and May 2014. Debate over what information makes the high-profile ‘Summaries for Policymakers’ is usually intense, but this time three graphs were dropped on politicians’ insistence. I show these graphs later in this blog entry.

At the Transformational Climate Science conference in my home town, Exeter, UK, earlier this month, senior IPCC author Ottmar Edenhofer discussed the ‘battle’ with governments on his part of the report. Another scientist who worked on the report highlighted confidentially to me how unusual the omission was.

To me, it’s more surprising that this hasn’t happened more often, especially when you look more closely at the latest report’s findings. There’s concrete certainty that warming is happening, and it’s extremely likely that humans are the dominant cause, it says. Governments have even – in some cases, begrudgingly – already signed up to temperature and CO2 emission targets reflecting this fact.

The inadequacy of those words is becoming ever more starkly obvious. Ottmar stressed that the emissions levels agreed at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, in November 2010, would likely need later emissions cuts the likes of which we’ve never seen before to avoid dangerous climate change. The latest IPCC report shines a floodlight on that inertia, which understandably cranks up the tension between researchers and politicians.

Ottmar was one of two co-chairs who led the ‘working group three’ (WGIII) section of the IPCC report that looks at how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He stressed that the need to make these cuts comes from a fundamental difference between the risks that come from climate change and the risks of mitigation. We can heal economic damage arising from cutting emissions – reversing sea level rise isn’t so easy.

Read the rest of this entry »

The urgent voice who refused to be silenced on climate danger

  • This is part three of this profile. Read part one here and part two here.
In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

By December 6, 2005, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies’ (GISS) temperature record was already sending a clear message: worldwide, 2005 would likely be the warmest year so far. For GISS director Jim Hansen, speaking to the annual American Geophysical Union conference, arguably the world’s largest environmental research meeting, it seemed fair to reveal. For several listening journalists it was newsworthy enough for them to cover Jim’s talk. But it would anger some of Jim’s colleagues at NASA headquarters enough to try to stop him talking to the media. In the process they’d drag him outside the world of pure research he was most comfortable in. “The undue influence of special interests and government greenwash pose formidable barriers to a well-informed public,” Jim would later write about the situation. “Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.”

The comments came during a lecture in honour of Dave Keeling, the CO2 tracking pioneer, who’d died of a heart attack in June that year. Soothing Jim’s hesitation, Dave’s son Ralph stressed he was continuing the work of his father, who had even been discussing one of Jim’s papers minutes before his death. And so Jim had brought together evidence showing that Earth’s climate was nearing a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be impossible to avoid dangerous changes. However, warming from 2000 onwards might still be kept below the 1°C level that Jim at that time considered hazardous if CO2 levels in the air were held at about 450 parts per million (ppm). Emissions of other greenhouse gases would also need to be significantly reduced. The message was clear: how we get our energy would must change, mainly by shifting away from coal and the vast volumes of CO2 burning it produces.

NASA headquarters was already reviewing all publicity on climate change research, but the latest coverage would force it into even more severe action. The following week it laid out new restrictions on Jim’s ability to comment publicly, and the global GISS temperature record was temporarily taken off the internet. Prominent amongst those setting the new conditions was NASA’s new head of public affairs, appointed by George Bush’s administration, David Mould. His previous jobs included a senior media relations role at the Southern Company of Atlanta, the second largest holding company of coal-burning power stations in the US. Only one company had donated more to the Republican Party than the Southern Company during George Bush’s 2000 election campaign: Enron. 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 »