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Money, money, money?

A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) asked what it would take for action on climate change to be ‘mainstreamed’[1]. The IPPR conducted research with ‘Now’ people – perceived as leaders of public opinion and a supposed barometer for the acceptability of behavioural norms. A key conclusion was that for these trend-setters to change their behaviour, there would have to be something in it for them. That something, according to the IPPR, was the promise of financial gain for their adventures in sustainability.

On these pages, Tim Holmes has already questioned some of the methodological assumptions of the study, and the predictable media response to it[2]. But there is a further problem with the logic of the report that raises a serious communication challenge for environmental campaigners: Using money as a motivator of sustainable behaviour simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.


Read more

Cuts? Sure, if you mean emissions cuts 1

Cuts! Cuts! Cuts! The knives are out at Westminster as all three major parties vie to outdo each other in their commitment to reining in the public debt and slashing government spending. With the Lib Dems retreating from their promise to abolish tuition fees, and the Tories looking to cut defence budgets by a quarter, it seems that few policy areas are off-limits. How, then, might spending on the environment fare in a time of retrenchment? Read more

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”,, 19 August 2007; 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.

July Arctic Sea Ice Outlook

The Arctic Sea Ice Outlook has just been updated for July. It”s based on a synthesis of 16 estimates which utilise a range of different projection methods. They note that there is “no indication that a return to historical levels will occur”.

Big surprise!

The full range of estimates range from 4.0-5.2 million square kilometers, the record low in 2007 was around 4.3 million square kilometres (2008 was 4.7). Most estimates therefore fall between the record lows in 2007 and 2008, although they do note that:

There appears to be about a 20% chance of reaching a new minimum in 2009.

Arctic Sea Ice Outlook (July)

On the flip-side, based on their estimates there is a 40% chance of sea-ice coverage being greater than 2008 levels. Even more interestingly, depending on which method you select, the chance of 2009 levels setting a new record is between 5-36%...

Picture 4

To quote from the summary:

The two lowest estimates, 4.0 and 4.2 million square kilometers, would represent a new record minimum. All estimates are well online casino below the 1979–2007 September climatological mean value of 6.7 million square kilometers. The uncertainty / error values, from those groups that provided them, are about 0.4 million square kilometers, thus many of the values essentially overlap.

Although the majority of the responses indicate either persistent conditions or a slight increase over the 2008 sea ice extent, there appears to be about a 20% chance of reaching a new minimum in 2009. The September 2009 extent, as we track it for the rest of the summer, will depend on several factors, including the dynamics of the relatively high levels of thin, first year ice; temperature and wind conditions; and sea level pressure.

The report confirms the importance of first-year ice (FYI):

Multi-year sea ice has been reduced to such low levels that the overall September sea ice extent is largely tied to the fate of the first-year sea ice, which appears thin or with low concentrations away from the central Arctic. Depending on August conditions, much of this first-year sea ice could either melt out by September or survive the summer as a vast expanse of thin sea ice.

Accounting for their low 4 million square kilometre estimate, Rignor et al commented that:

In comparison to 2007 and 2008, there is much more first year (FY) ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2009, which we expect to precondition thisarea for a more extensive retreat than in 2007 and 2008.

Place your bets in the comments below, the winner gets a free trip to the PIRC office in sunny Machynlleth, mid-Wales!


Join our team…

Team Member

  • Location: Machynlleth, mid-Wales
  • Position Type: Paid / Full time / 1 year
  • Closing Date: Applications Closed
  • Contact: Richard Hawkins / 01654 70 22 77 /

We are seeking an enthusiastic and confident generalist with experience of project management, communications and research to join our small and dynamic team, based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales on a one-year contract.

PIRC is an independent charity integrating key research on climate change, energy & economics – widening its audience and increasing its impact.

Our recent work has included “Climate Safety“, a synthesis of the latest climate science and its implications on policymaking and campaigning; “Coal in the UK“, an interactive map exposing and monitoring the proposed expansion of the UK coal industry and “Zero Carbon Britain“, an ambitious 20 year decarbonisation plan for the UK in collaboration with the Centre for Alternative Technology.

We act as a bridge between the academic/scientific community and policymakers and campaigning groups, translating technical research into engaging materials including reports, briefing papers, presentations, websites, videos and animations.

Our future work will explore social and technical solutions to the challenges of climate change and energy security in the face of economic uncertainty. This will include: promoting the ability of renewable energy to provide the majority of our energy needs; critiquing the media’s role in climate change communications and exploring mechanisms which can finance the transition to zero-carbon infrastructure.

PIRC has three permanent staff members supported by a rolling internship programme. Our working model minimises hierarchy, with all staff sharing administrative tasks, alongside core/project work.

The successful applicant will become a core part our team, working on a number PIRC projects, both existing and upcoming as well as contributing to the overall running of the organisation, including administration and fundraising when necessary.

Become our Climate Intern…

Applications Closed

It’s that time of year again, when we’re looking for a budding, confident and enthusiastic intern to join our small and dynamic team, in mid-Wales – applications to – details below:

The successful candidate will work over a six-month period on one or two of the following projects:

  • Climate safety – a project synthesising the latest climate science and its implications on policymaking and campaigning;
  • Coal in the UK – documenting the proposed expansion of the UK coal industry;
  • Renewables can do it – a project promoting the potential for renewable energy to provide the majority of our energy needs;
  • Core work – exploring mechanisms which can finance the transition to zero-carbon infrastructure.

This will involve:

  • Independent research to support PIRC projects;
  • Participation in project development sessions;
  • Opportunities to present material in meetings and seminars;
  • Collective duties and some administrative work.

Full training will be provided where necessary.

Personal & skills:

  • Great organisational skills;
  • Self-motivated & hard-working;
  • Environmentally conscious;
  • Ability to work individually & in a small team;
  • Some experience of copywriting an advantage;
  • IT skills essential (Word, Excel, Email etc.. )

In return we can offer a chance to make a significant contribution
to our work, to get experience of working for a small charity on
environmental issues, and the supervision and support of our staff.

You would need to be based in mid-Wales for the duration of the
placement. Within certain limits, PIRC will cover accommodation, travel
and lunch expenses for volunteers.

About PIRC

PIRC is an independent charity integrating key research on climate
change, energy & economics – widening its audience and increasing
its impact. Our most recent work has included “Climate Safety”, a
report synthesising the latest climate science and its implications on
policymaking and campaigning (; “Coal in the UK”, an
interactive map and website exposing and monitoring the proposed
expansion of the UK coal industry ( and last year “Zero
Carbon Britain” a collaboration with the Centre for Alternative
Technology on an ambitious 20 year decarbonisation plan for the UK

PIRC has three permanent staff members, and a working model which
minimises hierarchy, with all staff members sharing administrative
tasks, as well as more interesting work!


6 month placement
Interviews will take place between the 19-21st February.


PIRC can cover accommodation, travel and lunch expenses, within certain limits

To Apply

Send a CV supported by a covering letter that shows how your experience and skillset suits the position, to arrive by 9am, Monday 2nd February, to:

Richard Hawkins
Y Plas
SY20 8ER

01654 702277