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 »

Fighting for useful climate models

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.
Princeton University's Suki Manabe published his latest paper in March this year, 58 years after his first one. Credit: Princeton University

Princeton University’s Suki Manabe published his latest paper in March this year, 58 years after his first one. Credit: Princeton University

When Princeton University’s Syukuro Manabe first studied global warming with general circulation models (GCMs), few other researchers approved. It was the 1970s, computing power was scarce, and the GCMs had grown out of mathematical weather forecasting to become the most complex models available. “Most people thought that it was premature to use a GCM,” ‘Suki’ Manabe told interviewer Paul Edwards in 1998. But over following decades Suki would exploit GCMs widely to examine climate changes ancient and modern, helping make them the vital research tool they are today.

In the 1970s, the world’s weather and climate scientists were building international research links, meeting up to share the latest knowledge and plan their next experiments. Suki’s computer modelling work at Princeton’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) had made his mark on this community, including two notably big steps. He had used dramatically simplified GCMs to simulate the greenhouse effect for the first time, and developed the first such models linking the atmosphere and ocean. And when pioneering climate research organiser Bert Bolin invited Suki to a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1974, he had already brought these successes together.

Suki and his GFDL teammate Richard Weatherald had worked out how to push their global warming study onto whole world-scale ocean-coupled GCMs. They could now consider geographical differences and indirect effects, for example those due to changes of the distribution of snow and sea ice. Though the oceans in the world they simulated resembled a swamp, shallow and unmoving, they got a reasonably realistic picture of the difference between land and sea temperatures. Their model predicted the Earth’s surface would warm 2.9°C if the amount of CO2 in the air doubled, a figure known as climate sensitivity. That’s right in the middle of today’s very latest 1.5-4.5°C range estimate.

Comparison between the measured sea surface temperature in degrees C calculated by the GFDL ocean-coupled GCM, from a 1975 GARP report chapter Suki wrote - see below for reference.

Comparison between the measured sea surface temperature in degrees C calculated by the GFDL ocean-coupled GCM, from a 1975 GARP report chapter Suki wrote – see below for reference.

At the time no-one else had the computer facilities to run this GCM, and so they focussed on simpler models, and fine details within them. Scientists model climate by splitting Earth’s surface into 3D, grids reaching up into the air. They can then calculate what happens inside each cube and how it affects the surrounding cubes. But some processes are too complex or happen on scales that are too small to simulate completely, and must be replaced by ‘parameterisations’ based on measured data. To get his GCMs to work Suki had made some very simple parameterisations, and that was another worry for other scientists. Read the rest of this entry »

Speeding poor countries’ progress could halve farming emission growth

Improving agricultural productivity - particularly without increasing fertiliser use - could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

Improving agricultural productivity – particularly without increasing fertiliser use – could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

If the world’s poorer countries progress faster towards farming like richer ones the improved food availability could help fight climate change. That’s according to Austrian and Australian scientists who say that they have looked at climate change’s links to both animal and crop farming in the most depth yet.

Hugo Valin from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, and his colleagues studied cutting the gaps between farming output in rich and poor countries. They say halving this ‘yield gap’ for crops, and reducing it by a quarter for animals, could halve the increase in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions from farming between 2000 and 2050. But they have also found that improved farming methods could raise how much food people eat, meaning that emission reductions aren’t as much as they would be otherwise.

“The widespread idea is that intensifying crop farming is beneficial to the environment because it spares land,” Hugo told me. “We show that it is more complex than this. Intensification also stimulates consumption because it allows farmers to supply more food at affordable prices.”

Farming produces about a third of all ‘man-made’ greenhouse gas emissions, though a lot of them are actually from farm animals’ belches and farts and manure. The rest come from chemical reactions of fertiliser used on crops in soil, and also gases released from soil, plants and trees when forests are converted into farmland. Four-fifths of these emissions happen in developing countries. The world’s population is set to grow from around 7 billion people today to between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050. We need more food for those extra people, which will add to the greenhouse gases farming puts into the air each year. Read the rest of this entry »

Ocean heat puts pressure on poorest fisheries

Warm water Red Mullet catches in the UK have increased as sea temperatures have warmed, which William Cheung has linked to global warming. Credit: Nate Gray: A Culinary (Photo) Journal via Flickr Creative Commons License

Warm water Red Mullet catches in the UK have increased as sea temperatures have warmed, which William Cheung has linked to global warming. Credit: Nate Gray: A Culinary (Photo) Journal via Flickr Creative Commons License

Since 1970, our warming seas have driven fish across the world into cooler, deeper waters, potentially threatening fishing in Earth’s hottest seas. By analysing worldwide fish catches, Canadian and Australian scientists have found that the proportion of warmer-water fish caught has steadily grown. And in future, the warmest waters are set to become too hot for some of the fish that might previously have been caught there.

“Tropical fisheries are likely to be most impacted by ocean warming,” William Cheung from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, told me. “We expect that the current trend would continue, and will reduce the catch for tropical fisheries. Many tropical fishing communities are in developing countries with limited socio-economic scope to deal with changes in resource abundance. Thus, these communities are most vulnerable to ocean warming.”

Like all living creatures, fish have a range of temperatures that they can comfortably live in. Sea temperatures are rising, with the US coast from North Carolina to Maine reaching the warmest level in 150 years last year, for example. Changing climate has already been linked to fish catches in some places, with William previously suggesting it’s behind rapid increases in warm-water red mullet catches around the UK. “However, there was no study that assessed the linkages between ocean warming and fisheries changes in the global scale,” he said.

So William and his teammates set about bringing together fish catch information from 52 ecosystems, including most of the world’s fisheries. That included data on 990 species, which the scientists analysed using a new measure, the ‘mean temperature of the catch’ or MTC, which William also calls a ‘fish thermometer’. To find the MTC, the scientists start by working out the preferred temperature of each species, based on the sea water temperatures in the areas that they used to live in. “For example, fishes that live in colder area, such as cod, will have a lower preferred temperature than a tropical fish, such as a tropical grouper,” William explained. Read the rest of this entry »

Probabilities reveal shape of climate change

Planners looking to prepare for floods, like this one in Venice, Italy, would like better local information on climate change - and now David Stainforth and his colleagues are helping deliver it. Image credit: www.WorldIslandInfo.com, Allison Lince-Bentley, via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Planners looking to prepare for floods, like this one in Venice, Italy, would like better local information on climate change – and now David Stainforth and his colleagues are helping deliver it. Image courtesy http://www.WorldIslandInfo.com, Allison Lince-Bentley, used under Flickr Creative Commons license.

If you want to plan for the future, or even for the present, knowing that our climate is changing, what’s the best way to do it? That’s a question that David Stainforth from the London School of Economics, Sandra Chapman from the University of Warwick and Nicholas Watkins from the British Antarctic Survey have puzzled over. And while David is co-founder of the climateprediction.net project that borrows spare time on peoples’ computers to run climate models, he doesn’t feel that models are always the best source of information.

“It’s clear to me that the detailed local information on how climate is changing, and what it will be like in 2050, can’t be had from climate models today,” David told me. “They’re just not that good. And yet I work a lot with the adaptation and impacts community, who are interested in what’s happening ‘here’, on a very local basis.” So together David, Sandra and Nicholas have turned to measured data, devising a simple way to pick the most important local climate changes from it.

Weather stations around the world monitor daily conditions, and combine to create a record containing occasional extremes, lots of ordinary days, and everything in between. Knowing how common these conditions are is important for people who want to prepare for future climate change. “For flood risks, you’re worried about going over certain rainfall amounts in a given time,” David explained. “Managers of overheating buildings are worried about what proportion of the time temperatures pass certain levels.”

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Baking sands worsen leatherback turtle survival crisis

Baby leatherback turtles face many threats, and climate change looks set to add to them. Credit: Juanma Carillo/Flickr

Baby leatherback turtles face many threats, and climate change looks set to add to them. Credit: Juanma Carillo/Flickr

As the world warms in upcoming decades less than half the current number of Costa Rican leatherback turtles will succeed in their first, vital, journey from sandy nest to sea. That’s according to a team of US researchers who have closely monitored how regular climate fluctuations affect egg and hatchling survival. That’s allowed them to show a clear relationship that they can use to predict the turtles’ future prospects, explained James Spotila from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “With the projected warming that’s going to happen in this century, these eggs and hatchlings are going to have a serious problem,” Spotila told Simple Climate. “We’ll have to do some kind of mitigation to keep these animals alive.”

James, who is also chairman of the Leatherback Trust, has been studying nesting turtles, considered “critically endangered”, at Las Baulas Park in Costa Rica for 22 years. Over that time, he and his fellow scientists had noticed more hatchlings in some years than others, and wanted to know the cause. The close watch they keep on the turtles gave them the first clues that climate played a role. “We noted that as the season would progress, and got hotter and drier, you had a reduction in hatching success of the eggs,” James said.

To find a detailed link, the scientists focused on one important nesting area in the Las Baulas Park – Playa Grande – over 6 seasons, from 2004-2010. Over that time they tracked temperature and rainfall measurements recorded at a nearby airport. But the hardest part – much of which was done by James’ Drexel colleague Pilar Santidrian Tomillo – came after the nests hatched.

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The world’s New Year’s resolution: A global climate law

South African Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres at the closing briefing after the adoption of the 'Durban Platform' at the Climate Change conference in Durban Credit: Unati Ngamntwini/COP 17

South African Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres at the closing briefing after the adoption of the 'Durban Platform' at the Climate Change conference in Durban Credit: Unati Ngamntwini/COP 17

After 60 hours of continuous high-pressure negotiation in Durban, South Africa, earlier this month bleary-eyed politicians agreed on the first steps to a new legal treaty limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. 36 hours after the scheduled close of the talks, the world’s governments decided to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change by 2015 at the latest. The Kyoto Protocol that has controlled emissions since 2005 was extended another 5-7 years beyond 2012, by governments including 35 of 37 original participating, mainly European, industrialised countries. The rest of the world will have only voluntary limits until 2020, when the deal to be agreed by 2015 will require all countries to reduce emissions.

In one of the most interesting articles I read on these dramatic talks Frank MacDonald, environment editor of the Irish Times, notes that the climate issue has become ever more pressing with each year. He says that after covering the annual December climate “Conference of Parties” (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for almost all of the 17 years since it started. And 2011 was especially ill-tempered with China and, at the very end of the negotiations in a tense showdown with Europe, India not wanting the 2015 agreement to be “legally binding”. But Brazilian negotiators reportedly devised the wording “protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force” that was finally accepted. Read the rest of this entry »

Controls needed to avoid waste in $100B climate fund

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane opening a consultation meeting preparing for next week's climate summit in Durban. Credit: Jacoline Prinsloo/COP17

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane opening a consultation meeting preparing for next week's climate summit in Durban. Credit: Jacoline Prinsloo/COP17

It’s a massive, ambitious, program with a pledged $100 billion budget per year – seven times that of the Apollo program that sent man to the moon – but you’ve probably never heard of it. The program was one result of last November’s worldwide climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, established so developed nations can help developing countries respond to climate change. With so much money potentially at stake Simon Donner, a geographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) wants to make sure it’s used effectively.

“Naturally, governments want the money to be spent wisely,” Donner told Simple Climate. “The problem is that the standard mechanisms by which the spending decisions are made and evaluated sometimes do a poor job of addressing waste and misappropriation.” And even though the fund won’t start running until 2020, action to put the right mechanisms in place should begin with next week’s international climate talks in Durban, South Africa. “The next few years are critical,” he asserted.

Donner has worked on climate change adaptation in the Pacific Islands, and sought to bring that together with other lessons about international aid that can be applied to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) at the centre of the $100 billion program. He’s also a fellow at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues where two of his colleagues, Hisham Zerriffi and Milind Kandlikar, had similarly helped developing world responses to a changing climate. Together they called upon this experience, as well as previous reviews of the successes and failures of these kinds of programs, to gather advice relevant to theGCF. After two rounds of reviewing by fellow scientists, three main pieces of specific advice were published in top research journal Science last week.

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Climate dead-ends set to obstruct amphibian exodus

The speckled black salamander, one of the species studied, could expand its current range (orange) into new territory (gray). Climate change, however, will put the new areas beyond the salamander’s reach. Credit: Sax Lab/Brown University

The speckled black salamander, one of the species studied, could expand its current range (orange) into new territory (gray). Climate change, however, will put the new areas beyond the salamander’s reach. Credit: Sax Lab/Brown University

Warming temperatures will force creatures to journey in search of cooler areas to call home, but some are set to be trapped and endangered by short-term climate changes. That’s according to Dov Sax and Regan Early who have devised a way of understanding such “range shifts” in detail in research carried out at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Their “ecological niche modelling” approach looked at 15 types of salamanders, frogs and newts that are set to move from California northwards towards Oregon as the US gets hotter. “Six of the 15 species we studied became trapped in less than half of their potential habitat by the year 2100,” Early told Simple Climate. “Four of these are likely to become endangered because of this. This is startling since these species are far from endangered at the moment.”

“Over the past ten years or so, scientists have realised that climate change will force many species to move to new ranges, where the climate is suitable for them, often dozens or hundreds of miles away,” Early explained. Most of this research assumes steady climate change, but in reality there will be periods when these changes speed up and slow down. This is especially true of the western coast of the US that the Brown researchers were interested in, Early noted. “In this region the climate is strongly driven by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation,” she said. “That means that temperature and precipitation might change strongly for one decade, then in another go back to being similar to historic conditions.”

Species are likely to colonise new areas during warm periods, and pause or temporarily retreat during cool periods. It’s wasn’t previously clear that creatures will be able to get to the location that will suit them best in the future through this “two steps forward, one step back” process, Early said. “We don’t really know whether species will be able to move to these new ranges,” she underlined. Read the rest of this entry »

Fish in hot water pose tough dilemma

Spring run Chinook salmon, photographed in Butte Creek, upstream from Centerville, Calif., may become extinct in the future due to warming waters. Credit: Allen Harthorn, Friends of Butte Creek

Spring run Chinook salmon, photographed in Butte Creek, upstream from Centerville, Calif., may become extinct in the future due to warming waters. Credit: Allen Harthorn, Friends of Butte Creek

Is it more important that the water in our rivers is available for rearing fish to eat or generating clean electricity? And how is that decision affected by rising worldwide average temperatures? A group of US scientists has now found ways to help answer these questions, inspired by the plight of spring run Chinook salmon – though the prospects for the fish remain bleak. “These fish are very vulnerable to climate change,” Lisa Thompson, director of the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture at University of California, Davis, told Simple Climate. “It is likely that these salmon will decline, and may not persist to the end of the century.”

Salmon are famous for their exhausting upstream “run” from the ocean back to the water they hatched in, where they spawn the next generation of fish, and then die. It’s estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century the waters in California’s Central Valley, running from San Joaquin to Sacramento, teemed with 1-3 million Chinook salmon making this journey every year. In the last five years this number has fallen below 100,000, contributing to ocean stocks declining to levels where no salmon fishing was allowed off the California coast in 2008 and 2009. There are many reasons for this, including overfishing, changing sea conditions and water quality.

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, each season there is a run of Chinook salmon spawning. The spring run used to number approximately 1 million fish in 18 separate populations, but they have been reduced to approximately 16,000 in three groupings. Spring run Chinook salmon are therefore listed as threatened under both the California and US Endangered Species acts, Thompson said. “The adults must survive the summer in freshwater before spawning in the fall,” she noted. That means they are waiting to spawn during the state’s hottest, driest months, where raised temperatures can kill them. In trying to stay cool, the salmon can get trapped on the wrong side of stretches of warmer river water separating them from their spawning grounds. Read the rest of this entry »