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 »

Saturday round-up: Bloomin’ Early

Recent trends in flowering dates in the UK. Credit: The UK Phenology Network

Recent trends in flowering dates in the UK. Credit: The UK Phenology Network

UK flowers have bloomed earlier over the past 25 years than any other period since 1760, threatening pollinating insects and other creatures depending on them for food. An international team including researchers from Cambridge University and the UK’s Woodland Trust found that overall they flowered 2.2 days earlier than in 1910-1934, the previous earliest-blooming 25-year period. The team, led by Tatsuya Amano of Cambridge and Japan’s National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, also found that the current period’s flowering is 12.7 days earlier than the latest-blooming period, 1835–1859.

“There is a clear advance in the time of first flowering in recent decades,” Amano and colleagues write in a paper published online in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B on Wednesday. The timing changes could cause insects to miss out on their usual pollen supplies, in turn affecting birds for which insects and flowers are food sources. “This situation is critical,” Amano and colleagues write, “possibly leading to an increase in extinction risks.”

Their results show that flowering advances 5 days per 1ºC rise in temperature, matching results published elsewhere. They note that this kind of long-term perspective on the effects of global warming is unusual, which can be a problem. “Conclusions about the impact of climate change based on short-term observations can be misleading,” they write. “The 250-year index developed in this study should provide an important context for investigating ongoing responses to climate change.” Read the rest of this entry »

“It just feels like the sun is getting closer to the Earth”

Oxfam climate campaigner Janine Woodward

Oxfam climate campaigner Janine Woodward

The poorest parts of the world are set to be the most devastated by climate change and quotes like the one above, from a Ugandan woman, indicate that this might already be happening. The British charity Oxfam is campaigning hard to reduce global warming’s impact on the world’s poorest, driven partly by its observations of already increasing hardship.

Late last year I spoke to Janine Woodward, an Oxfam campaigner, shortly before she headed to Copenhagen to represent the charity’s members in my local region at the international climate negotiations. She explained why Oxfam feels that it must try to combat global warming, using the Ugandan woman’s words to help make her case.

“In Oxfam, we know that climate change is happening,” she told me. “Even if you take out the idea of why it’s happening, we know it’s happening because there are more natural disasters. We know that floods are getting worse around the world and we know that droughts are getting worse. We know that the people we’re trying to help with the aid work are suffering far more in the last 20 years than ever because their climate is changing.”

Woodward points out that more developed countries have been almost exclusively responsible for the increased CO2 emissions that cause the greenhouse effect. She suggests that the same nations ought to take responsibility for preparing developing countries for the results its likely to have. And to those that say they shouldn’t take any such steps because of perceived weaknesses in the science surrounding climate change, she replies: “Well over 90% of climate scientists around the world believe that climate change is happening, and all of the top scientific institutions have signed up to statements that say that.”

In the end, the final agreement reached in Copenhagen fell some way short of what Woodward hoped for in order to keep global temperature rises below the 2°C level that is widely considered to be especially dangerous. That would have been a 40% cut in CO2 by 2020 and an 80% by 2050. Nevertheless, everyone can help influence CO2 emissions, she pointed out, not least by joining with charities and helping them campaign for action on a national and international level.

More immediate, practical, actions are also possible, Woodward explained. “I think if you change little things and over a year you change two, three, four things you can make a massive difference to your carbon emissions. The best thing that you can do to start with, I’d personally say, is change your electricity to a green tariff, so that your heating and your electricity usage is taken from renewable sources. Another thing that you can do is not necessarily give up your car, but maybe make one less car journey per week.”

“We do make a difference and we must stand in solidarity with those in suffering, and work to create a better world.”