With climate change, uncertainty is no-one’s friend

Uncertainty cuts both ways highlights University of Bristol's Stephan Lewandowsky - if your preferred estimate is at the low end of a range, you're neglecting similarly likely high end estimates. Image credit: University of Bristol

Uncertainty cuts both ways highlights University of Bristol’s Stephan Lewandowsky – if your preferred estimate is at the low end of a range, you’re neglecting similarly likely high end estimates. Image credit: University of Bristol

Waiting longer to act on climate change will cost us more than taking immediate action. It’s a message that’s getting louder and louder, repeated from many sides. In March it was stressed by US Secretary of State John Kerry. In April it was highlighted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report. Last month it was underlined by Hank Paulson, treasury secretary under George Bush, hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This week the Council of Economic Advisors, the agency advising President Obama on economic policy, joined in.

These messages could hardly be any clearer, but still some of us remain uncertain on the need to act. The best argument for waiting until we’re more certain to act is that if climate change turns out to be harmless, our efforts to fight it will be wasted. Even simple things like current weather are enough to sway our opinions, and when uncertain it’s always tempting to feel like we don’t need to do anything. But that’s the wrong reaction to uncertainty on climate change, according to psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol, UK.

The researchers have found that greater uncertainty over how much Earth warms in response to our CO2 emissions would actually raise forecasts of average damage costs from climate change. Greater uncertainty also means projections see it as more likely that steps to cut emissions won’t keep the world below warming levels governments have agreed we must avoid. So, if we are unsure whether we can slow the climate juggernaut down before we smash into the wall, we’re better off hitting the brakes earlier. As Stephan explained, ‘uncertainty is no one’s friend’.

Evidence is piling up against the economic argument for waiting to see if climate sensitivity is less than 1C per doubling of CO2. Image copyright Springer, see reference below.

Evidence is piling up against the economic argument for waiting to see if climate sensitivity is less than 1°C per doubling of CO2. Image copyright Springer, see reference below.

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Temperatures make our global warming opinions change like the weather

The 2010 blizzards in the northeastern US they called the 'Snowpocalypse' buried this Maryland street, drove senators to deride the idea of global warming, and Columbia University researchers to look at how temperature influences our outlook on climate change. Image credit: BKL, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

The 2010 blizzards in the northeastern US they called the ‘Snowpocalypse’ buried this Maryland street, drove senators to deride the idea of global warming, and Columbia University researchers to look at how temperature influences our outlook on climate change. Image credit: BKL, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

On June 23, 1988, record 38°C temperatures in Washington DC provided a persuasive backdrop for NASA’s Jim Hansen to force the greenhouse effect into our consciousness. At least one of the senators hearing his landmark congressional testimony was well aware that the heat would help sear the message into people’s minds. Tim Wirth has since admitted turning off the air conditioning and opening the windows the night before, so Jim’s sweat would be obvious for the TV cameras.

That baking hearing likely played on how we think in a way psychologists had just started to untangle in the previous decade. That is, how we judge things is often dominated by a simple sense of our personal experience, rather than a deeper analysis of evidence available to us. “Numerical judgments are hard, so we grasp at whatever more tangible we can find,” Elke Weber, from Columbia University in New York, explained.

Identifying this tendency to answer an easier question, known as substitution, helped psychologist Daniel Kahneman win a Nobel Prize for Economics. And when it comes to our opinion on climate change, recent temperatures are especially important, Elke and her colleagues have shown over the last three years.

In 2010, a rather different extreme in the US capital drew Elke’s husband Eric Johnson to study this effect. Then, two massive snowstorms struck in one week in February, an event that was dubbed the ‘Snowpocalypse’, leading senators to deride the possibility of climate change. His team therefore looked at whether local weather information gets falsely substituted for global climate in three studies in the US and Australia.

Across three studies they asked people their opinions on global warming and whether the temperature on the day of the study was warmer or cooler than normal. Those who thought that day was warmer than usual believed more in and had greater concern about global warming than people who thought that day was colder than usual. They would also donate more money to a global-warming charity if they thought that day seemed warmer than usual. Read the rest of this entry »

Shrinking dairy’s carbon hoofprint

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

After 10,500 years of farming them, does climate change mean we humans must limit our reliance on cows, or just change how we treat them? Image copyright fishhawk, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Whenever I come across cows here in the southwest of the UK, usually placidly munching on a mouthful of grass, they always seem too lovable to be villains. But as we face growing twin challenges of feeding the world and fighting climate change, they’re increasingly getting a bad reputation.

Some scientists highlight reducing how much beef we eat, in particular, as an important step towards future sustainability. They say only about three or four parts in 100 of the energy in livestock feed becomes our food, while the rest is lost as manure, heat, digestive gases and slaughter by-products. Switching to more intensively farmed chicken or pork and plant-based food would be more efficient, the argument goes. It also gives a greater chance to trap carbon from waste material, which might otherwise become planet-warming greenhouse gases, as biochar that can help improve soil fertility.

A couple of years back I put this to Peter and Henri Greig who run my favourite local butchers, Pipers Farm. As they showed us round their farm Peter explained how their Red Ruby cattle can graze Devon moorland that can’t be used for crops, before moving on to pasture. While I still don’t eat a lot of beef for both environmental and health reasons, that seems a good reason for not demonising cows entirely. In fact, a paper in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science highlights previous research that found more grazing land exists, unusable for human food, than cropping land.

We can’t ignore what that promises for feeding the world in the future, but we can’t ignore cows’ greenhouse gas emissions either. However, rather than beef cattle, the new paper’s authors focussed on reducing levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane coming out of the digestive systems of dairy cattle. Joanne Knapp, a consultant who has researched nutrition in ruminant animals like cattle, told me her team’s interest comes in part thanks to its backers: Innovation Center for US Dairy.

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Can changing how we build simply dismantle CO2 emissions?

Fewer steel beams and using buildings for their whole design life could cut construction emissions by up to 80% suggest the University of Cambridge’s Muiris Moynihan and Julian Allwood. Image copyright Mark Kirchner, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Fewer steel beams and using buildings for their whole design life could cut construction emissions by up to 80% suggest the University of Cambridge’s Muiris Moynihan and Julian Allwood. Image copyright Mark Kirchner, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.

UK engineers have found a way to bulldoze the building industry’s emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2. The University of Cambridge’s Muiris Moynihan and Julian Allwood say that better use of steel could halve emissions without any impact on safety. ‘We’re using double the amount of steel that we actually need,’ Julian told me.

Julian is director of UK Indemand, one of six national centres the country’s government set up in 2013 to help reduce energy demand by boosting efficiency. Construction is one of the first areas it’s tackling in its mission to reduce industrial energy and material use, and in turn cut CO2 emissions.

Today builders use lots of steel because ‘the cost of materials is low, and the cost of structural engineers is high’ Julian said. “Rather than designing a building precisely it’s cheaper to focus on the heavily loaded areas of the building and design carefully there. Then you can copy and paste, in effect, that design out to other areas that are less well loaded because you know it’s going to be safe. It’s quicker to do that than to spend the professional time required to design the structure accurately.”

Steel-making has one of the largest carbon footprints of any industry, its factories coming fourth in the list of ‘stationary emitters’ behind electricity generation, cement production and oil refining. Every year over 1.5 billion tonnes of steel are produced, emitting around one-tenth of the CO2 from energy generation and industrial processes worldwide. Julian and his coworkers had previously forecast that steel use will double in the next 37 years. If reducing steel use is possible, it therefore looks an obvious move to help avoid dangerous climate change. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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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 »

Fairness instinct trumps economic expectations on climate costs

ETH Zurich's Robert Gampfer hopes governments can learn from the climate negotiation games he ran. Image credit: ETH Zurich

ETH Zurich’s Robert Gampfer hopes governments can learn from the climate negotiation games he ran. Image credit: ETH Zurich

We care about fairness in sharing climate change costs, although differences in who’s more vulnerable to it can affect our ideas of what exactly is fair. That’s the clear suggestion emerging from a set of climate change negotiation games run by Robert Gampfer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich. In his experiments, students from Zurich universities took on the role of countries in climate talks trying to agree how costs should be shared. Robert feels this unusual approach provides unique insights into our true attitudes, and could help guide our leaders in responding to them.

“Proposals that are perceived as very unfair are likely to meet public resistance, and governments will therefore be unlikely to agree to them in the international negotiations,” he told me. “But the experiment also showed that participants who were richer or more responsible for climate change often acted rather fairly, even if this meant higher costs for them. This is quite a far-reaching conclusion, but maybe governments of developed countries could actually sell costly climate agreements to their citizens if they perceive some fairness obligation to accept them.”

This study builds on a realisation Robert made when looking into possible topics for his climate politics PhD, which he’s now writing the final thesis for. “A lot of surveys on climate change and climate policies ask only very broad questions – whether you would support your country reducing its emissions or not, for example,” he observed. “But we know very little about how specific aspects of global climate politics influence people’s opinion, for example the debate on burden-sharing fairness. In a standard survey it is easy to be in favour of emission reductions, because stating this does not cost you anything. Real emission reductions probably would have some cost, for example through higher energy prices.”

In seeking deeper insights, Robert realised that political science and economic experiments hadn’t addressed fairness much either. “This might be because many think people’s fairness preferences are not important for an international climate agreement,” he said. “I find this quite surprising: in the negotiations, governments use fairness arguments very often. And they probably do this, among other reasons, because they will receive domestic support from their citizens for adopting such negotiating positions.” Read the rest of this entry »