Latest Posts

Melting compost heaps and the permafrost precautionary principle 1

Thawing permafrost could inject enough carbon into the atmosphere to cook the planet. But nobody’s quite sure how fast it’s going to happen.

Permafrost is a giant cold-storage compost heap, stuffed full of frozen carbon. Just like you chucked out last night’s potato peelings, the planet has chucked out billions of tonnes of dead plants, trees, mammoths and, yes, polar bears, all of which is now happily interred under the Arctic wastes.

The difference is that while your compost heap ticks over at a nice warm temperature, breaking down the potato peelings into compost, the frozen ground which makes up permafrost stops that organic stew of Arctic flora and fauna from decomposing, safely locking up the carbon stored in it.

I say ‘safely locking up’ because from the point of view of creating human civilisation, permafrost has been pretty handy. While the permafrost has been permanently frozen, we’ve been busy ekeing out human life, discovering fire, developing agriculture, growing our population. While we’ve been busy nurturing the capabilities that ultimately allow the lucky few to participate in Britain’s Got Talent, the planet’s been watching our backs by keeping this massive store of carbon locked up under the frozen parts of the planet’s surface. Read more

Melanie Philips uses careful scientific investigation to debunk climate change

spectator*Yawn* Another week, another howler from the Spectator, rapidly pulling ahead in the ‘single least informed source on climate science’ awards, or maybe just the ‘most credulous rag’ category.

So Melanie Philips announces on her Spectator blog…

Yet another scientific scandal has come to light which knocks another whopping crater in the already shattered theory of anthropogenic global warming. Eight peer-reviewed studies, which for years have played a significant supporting role behind the IPPC’s claims of AGW, have been shown to be fraudulent.

Oh good, we can all pack up and go home – I can get on with writing that book about water polo I’ve been putting off. Just to make sure, let’s have a quick check on RealClimate, just in case… Read more

Labour conference: gauging the political weather 1

Brighton is renowned for its tolerant atmosphere, which extends to suffering the arrival of the country’s political classes for conference season each autumn. Yet this year, as an embattled Labour Party met for what is almost certainly its last conference whilst in power, it seemed that even Brighton had grown tired of its guests. ‘Labour is old news in Brighton’ declared a twenty-foot high hoarding for the Greens, cheekily installed on the main route party delegates were taking to the convention hall. An exhausted-looking Brown, fashioned out of newspaper cuttings, scowled down at the hordes of indifferent daytrippers enjoying the seaside sunshine.

Brown old news Read more

Misrepresenting Public Opinion? 5

The IPPR’s spin on its latest report – echoed in the media – misleads the public, and potentially damages efforts to mobilise action against climate change.

One of the most basic, but also one of the most important problems in the way people respond to climate change is the so-called “bystander effect”. This phenomenon, widely noted in the social science literature, concerns the way in which people’s responses are influenced by the responses of those around them, with various experiments demonstrating just how strongly people’s tendencies towards social conformity affect their behaviour. This even seems to apply in situations as cut-and-dried as simply stating which line on a chart is the longest; or as potentially life-threatening as watching thick smoke begin to pour through the bottom of a doorway. ((On scientific evidence of social conformity, see Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2009. Johann Hari talks about Darley and Latané’s “smoke” experiment in the context of climate change in “The climate camp – and a psychological experiment”, johannhari.com, 19 August 2007; http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=1172. Stanley Cohen explores the “bystander effect” further in States of Denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering, Polity Press, 2001.)) Read more

Mitigation and the emerging economic consensus

There”s an emerging economic consensus – in parallel with the scientific consensus – that investing in mitigation and adaptation is good value for money.

Joe Romm points out an overlooked conclusion of a recent IIED study by Martin Parry and others on the underestimated cost of adaptation, Romm notes:

In the “aggressive abatement” case (450 ppm), the mean online casino “Net present value [NPV] of climate change impacts” is only $410 trillion — or $275 trillion with adaptation.  So stabilizing at 450 ppm reduces NPV impacts by $615 to $830 trillion. But the abatement NPV cost is only $110 trillion — a 6-to-1 savings or better.

In English that means investing $1 in mitigation saves $6 in damages from unmitigated climate change. A similar conclusion to the Stern Review.

Read Romm”s full post here.

Evidence is not enough

Much commentary on politicians, and the political establishment in general, is heavily loaded with the rhetoric of corruption, personal accusation and recrimination. Politicians are accused of being greedy, corrupt, and contemptuous of the public. Many of these charges no doubt contain more than a grain of truth. Yet such personal accusations tend to miss the point.

Governments and political parties operate within an institutional framework that, while not entirely determining their actions, maintains intense pressures, and sets the limits of what can be achieved – the boundaries of the politically possible. As political analyst and former Downing Street insider James Humphreys suggests, the best way to understand how such political institutions work is to place oneself in policymakers’ shoes – what are the obstacles, blockages and pressures constraining your behaviour? Read more

Geoengineering, Part 1: the research motivation.

Imagine for a moment that all manmade greenhouse gas emissions ceased tomorrow (go with it). What would be the likely consequence?

Unfortunately, the answer may be: runaway climate change.

As the Climate Safety report points out, the melting of the Arctic summer sea-ice is accelerating beyond even the worst-case predictions of the IPCC, potentially disappearing in the next decade. As Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) puts it, “for a number of reasons, we’re on a fast track”. Unfortunately, however, “what happens in the Arctic actually doesn’t stay in the Arctic”. The sea-ice is in essence a keystone in the global climate system: as this keystone crumbles and falls away, the other bricks start to fall inwards, ultimately collapsing the entire structure – or, in this case, causing climate change to spiral out of our control. As reflective white ice is replaced with absorbent open ocean, more heat is taken up by the surrounding region (and thus by the global climate system as a whole). This places greater pressure on the Greenland ice-sheet, leading to greater sea-level rise; and causes permafrost and sub-oceanic methane deposits in these northern latitudes to melt, potentially releasing a vast quantity of greenhouse gases as a result.

What happens in the Arctic actually doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

Walt Meier, NSIDC

Bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to a halt will of course be absolutely essential in retaining a safe climate – at present, indeed, it is the most significant step the global community can take. But because of the dynamic that has been set in motion in the Arctic, the melting of the sea-ice is set to continue whether or not these emissions are halted. The reason for this is fairly simple: the earth is warmed by atmospheric concentrations – the “blanket” of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere – not by emissions, which merely thicken that blanket over time. Atmospheric carbon is re-absorbed into the biosphere over time, of course, by trees, oceans, and other processes – but as a recent paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests, this process will be occurring at roughly the same rate as heat currently absorbed by the ocean is transferred into the atmosphere. For this reason, the heating caused by the gases emitted today is effectively irreversible for the next few thousand years.

More worryingly, greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the emissions of aerosols, tiny atmospheric particles that deflect incoming solar radiation, and which have thus provided a cooling effect, masking the heating we would otherwise have received. Unfortunately, it takes only a very short period of time for these particles to be washed out of the atmosphere – thus, as the “heat shield” masking the warming of the planet is removed, while the blanket of greenhouse gases remains, we can expect to experience a significant “pulse” of warming. Even more worryingly, major uncertainties remain as to just how effective this shield has been in dampening down the warming effect so far – if its effect has been strong enough, with decarbonisation (which will have the ancillary effect of removing the shield), we could cause a sudden temperature rise, at an unprecedented rate and intensity. We have been fortunate enough to enjoy two significant “lags” in the climate system’s response to human activity – the “thermal inertia” of the world’s oceans, and the masking effect of aerosols emitted alongside our greenhouse gases – which we might not be able to enjoy for much longer.

Along with the sheer political inertia that has stalled action globally, it is these troubling signs above all that are making scientists consider the possibility of geo-engineering – large-scale schemes to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and to actively cool the earth. On the one hand, geo-engineering as an alternative to decarbonising human activities is unconscionable, not least as climate change is not the only carbon-related problem: the absorption of carbon by the ocean turns it to acid, destroying the species that form the base of the marine food chain. On the other, in light of the most recent climate science, it appears that in terms of the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are already in the danger zone: climate change is set to spiral out of our control even with the complete cessation of all our greenhouse gas emissions.

This unpleasant reality has two significant implications. Firstly, reducing the risk of runaway climate change is likely to mean mopping up some of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Secondly, we must prepare for the worst. If the most extreme predictions of scientists are realised, and the arctic experiences an extremely rapid decline – particularly as levels of atmospheric aerosols dissipate – the vicious spiral of extra heating and further release of greenhouse gases could quickly make a return to a safe climate impossible to achieve. If that is the case, we may well need a crash programme of research into ways of actively cooling the planet.

Most such schemes have rightly been written off as highly implausible, expensive, incredibly dangerous, or all of the above. Nevertheless, out of dire necessity we shall surely need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Part II will contain a brief rundown of some of the proposals.