Election 2010: Climate debate ‘hots’ up

Geoff Brumfiel; cross-posted from The Great Beyond

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Last night candidates from the three major parties here in the UK came to central London to debate on all matters climatic. Behind the podium were Ed Miliband, the current Labour government’s secretary of state for climate change, Greg Clark, the Conservative shadow secretary on the issue, and Simon Hughes the Liberal Democrat’s climate spokesperson.

The debate kicked off with a question about building a third runway at Heathrow, and it set the tone for the whole thing: “We’ve been very clear that we’re against a third runway at Heathrow,” Clark told the audience. Clark would rather have high-speed rail lines linking Heathrow to major cities in the south-east and continental Europe.

“What Greg didn’t tell you is that he’s in favour of airport expansion [elsewhere] in the south-east,” Labour-climate-guy Miliband retorted. He said Labour’s goal of having aviation emissions no higher than present levels in 2050 was a more ambitious target than declarations about a single runway here or there. That could only be achieved with higher taxes on air passengers, he said.

The Liberal Democrat’s Simon Hughes agreed with Miliband about expansion, but added he wanted alternative forms of transport to be “cost beneficial”. “That means lower rail fairs,” he says. How does he cover the cost? By raising the taxes on airlines flying with empty planes.

So Hughes and Miliband agree on taxes and Hughes and Clark agree on rail access and Miliband and Clark sort of agree on airport expansion. It felt like it was one of those story problems they give you in school that you solve by drawing a Venn diagram. So that’s exactly what I did (see right). Venn diagram.jpg

It really does show how this debate worked. Everyone agreed that climate change is bad, and each party had a set of solutions that looked, in many ways, like a variation on the solutions of the other two parties. Everyone agreed that the UK needs to stage a green recovery from the economic recession, that offshore wind farms were good things, and that it was the responsibility of politicians to make sure the public understood climate change.

The Guardian, which hosted the debate, dubbed Liberal Democrat candidate Simon Hughes the winner, but I’m less sure. It’s undoubtedly true that Hughes tended to stand out from his two rivals: he wholly opposed the expansion of nuclear power for example, nor was he supportive of coal-fired power plants that used carbon capture technology. But I couldn’t help but think he benefited from being in a minority party that, despite a recent surge in the polls, is unlikely to be running the next government. Hughes could say what he liked, and if his policies didn’t quite line up with reality, well it wasn’t so important—he’d probably never get a chance to enact them.

That being said, Hughes did mount a pretty convincing attack on Conservative Greg Clark. Numerous Conservative ‘back benchers’ (members of parliament who are not ministers) were climate sceptics, he pointed out. How was Clark going to enact climate policies when the majority of his party was not signed up to the official Conservative policy, Hughes asked. Clark responded meekly that climate change sceptics resided in all parties, but he was pretty unconvincing, especially when he got confused and told the crowd: “I don’t know of anyone in the shadow cabinet who doesn’t believe, as I do, in the reality of climate change and is not determined to make it happen.”

The crowd chuckled, and Clark moved on.

The other big gotcha moment came when environmental attack-dog George Monbiot laid into the three candidates for their support of expanding drilling for natural gas in the North Sea. That was a “clear contradiction” of stated goals to wean Britain from fossil fuels, Monbiot said. “Perhaps your policy in all three cases is to get as much of it out of the ground as you can, cross your fingers and then pray to God that no one uses it. Right or wrong?”

The Venn diagram pretty much overlapped on that one. All three candidates said that natural gas was a bridge between present-day technologies and future, greener ones.

As an American living in Britain, I have to say that the very exercise of watching three parties debate the environment was interesting enough all by itself. But none of them was able to whole-heartedly convince me that they were going to be able to turn Britain green.

Earth, but not as we know it

Olive Heffernan

eaarth.jpgOn Nature Reports Climate Change today, writer Christine Woodside interviews Bill McKibben about his new book, Eaarth, and on his transition from journalism to activism. Woodside writes:

In 1989, American environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote a book about climate change, for ordinary people. In The End of Nature, McKibben sounded one of the first warnings that the industrial age was altering Earth and argued that unless greenhouse gas emissions were cut back, the planet would change irrevocably. “I wrote The End of Nature and thought, ‘People will read this and be all set,’” he says. Governments would limit greenhouse gas emissions. Citizens would change their expectations. Some 20 years later, the global average temperature is still rising. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that McKibben’s latest book, eerily titled Eaarth, reflects a darker view. In Eaarth, McKibben writes that now it’s clear Earth will never be the same; it ought to be renamed.

McKibben argues that we must abandon the notion that economic growth and environmental sustainability are compatible. He mocks New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman as being a cheerleader for growth in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, writes Woodside, and even takes a dig or two at Friedman’s wife’s family’s mall development business. Woodside writes:

He hopes that soon it won’t be practical for anyone to just jump on a plane for fun or take long showers or live in huge houses. Instead, he suggests that people travel vicariously on the Internet, make energy on their roofs and view local food production as the norm instead of a fad… In many respects, the world he outlines seems like a trip back in time: small communities living with local economies, with most people practicing part-time farming and producing power on rooftops near to where it’s used.

The full interview is available here. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet is published in April by Times Books.

Copenhagen Accord – missing the mark

Nicola Jones

Current pledges to reduce emissions are no where near good enough to keep the planet’s warming to below 2°C, argue Joeri Rogelj, Malte Meinshausen and colleagues in an opinion piece in Nature this week.

They analyzed the pledges made in conjunction with the Copenhagen Accord, taking into account a few major loopholes that will likely make emissions worse. First, they say, most nations will only meet the higher ends of their emissions reductions targets if there is a better international agreement in place, so the lower ends of their targets are more realistic.

Secondly, many nations have banked surplus emissions allowances from 2008-2012 that they are likely to use after 2012. Thirdly, some nations will probably be permitted extra allowances thanks to land use change, such as planting forests, that go beyond actual emissions savings. All of this paints a poor picture of future emissions (see figure).

The team estimates that emissions will reach 47.9 to 53.6 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2020 — 10-20% higher than today’s levels, and higher than the 40-44 Gigatonnes that the team estimates would realistically keep warming to below 2°C. Even if nations commit to halving their emissions by 2050, there is still a 50% chance that warming will exceed 2°C by 2100, they report. It is critical, they argue, that something better than the Copenhagen Accord be established in the next year or two.


Figure: HISTORICAL DATA: P. BROHAN ET AL. J. GEOPHYS. RES.111, D12106 (2006)

Pachauri responds to allegations of IPCC inaccuracy

Olive Heffernan

Over on Yale E360, IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri responds to the allegations of inaccuracies in the panel’s 2007 assessment report. Specifically, he addresses the accusations of error referred to (somewhat absurdly) as Glaciergate, Amazongate and Africagate. Pachauri – who has recently been cleared of allegations of financial irregularity – writes:

On Glaciergate:

AR4 stated that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. This figure was incorrect and unfortunately based on a single unsubstantiated source. When this error came to light, the IPCC expressed its regret and noted it on its website. The error was contained in a single sentence and in one graphic representation out of AR4’s nearly 3,000 pages.

It did not appear in any of the IPCC summaries relied on by policymakers. In those summaries, the language states: “Glacier melt in the Himalayas is projected to increase flooding, and rock avalanches from destabilized slopes, and to affect water resources within the next two to three decades. This will be followed by decreased river flows as the glaciers recede.” This statement remains valid, as does the fact that widespread loss of glacial mass and reduction in snow cover will accelerate throughout the 21st century largely as a result of human activities that are warming our Earth’s atmosphere.

On Amazongate:

The IPCC was accused of exaggerating the extent to which the Amazon rainforest could be damaged by a decrease in rainfall. The paragraph in question correctly stated: “By mid-century, increases in temperature and associated decreases in soil water are projected to lead to gradual replacement of tropical forest by savanna in eastern Amazonia. Semi-arid vegetation will tend to be replaced by arid-land vegetation.”

This was a classic case in which the controversy was initiated not by scientists but by the mainstream media, which badly distorted the facts. Blogs and other articles argued incorrectly that a report, the “Global Review of Forest Fires,” should not have been cited as a reference, because

it was published by two non-governmental organizations. But the paragraph in question accurately presented results in the literature it cited. It was a small part of a long, well-referenced discussion of Amazonian risk. Although the “Global Review of Forest Fires” was not a peer-reviewed document, it nevertheless was an important compilation, assembling information from more than 100 sources, including peer-reviewed scientific papers and reports from governments and non-governmental organizations, as well as news articles.

On March 18, 18 respected rainforest scientists from Brazil, the U.S., and the U.K. issued a lengthy statement reaffirming the IPCC’s conclusion that up to 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest is at risk because of climate change. Their statement can found online.

On Africagate:

Another alleged exaggeration of AR4 was that climate change could reduce crop yields in parts of Africa by up to 50 percent. The only concern here was that in condensing the material from the underlying Working Group II Summary for Policymakers for the Synthesis Reports, the important qualifying phrase “by climate variability and change” was omitted from a statement that read: “Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised.” This is no way diminished or altered the scientific basis or the policy relevance of the statement included in the synthesis report.

The full piece by Pachauri is here. Yale E360 also has some other views of what the IPCC ought to do to restore its integrity in the wake of the recent allegations.

Eyjafjallajökull eruption: good news for the climate?

Olive Heffernan

DSCF9275.jpgI’m due to travel to Japan this Friday for a conference on Climate Change Effects on Fish and Fisheries. If I get there, I’ll be providing regular updates from the conference here on Climate Feedback. But that’s beginning to look like a big ‘if’. The volcanic ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull is still keeping planes grounded across the UK and could do for several days to come.

That’s bad news for a lot of people, but could it be good news for the climate?

Over on Treehugger, Matthew McDermott writes:

Resurgence magazine has posted on their Facebook page an interesting stat attributed to the Plane Stupid: "200,000 tonnes per a day of CO2 emissions have been prevented as a result of cancelled flights – that’s the same as 100,000 households would create in a whole year”. How that figure was derived isn’t entirely clear in terms of what assumptions were made, is that just passenger flights, et cetera.

There’s also the question of how the absence of contrails – or condensation clouds – from commercial airplanes will affect the climate in the short term. Remember that post 9/11 contrail study, which supposedly showed that the average daily temperature over the continental US suddenly widened in the 3 days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when all commercial air traffic was banned from American skies? Its main conclusion – that daily highs and lows in temperature were more extreme in the absence of contrails – has since been refuted, but the flight ban over Europe should provide another opportunity to test the hypothesis.

And then, of course, there’s the ash from Eyjafjallajökull itself. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperatures by about half a degree over the following months, which has led some to propose pumping sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere as a means of artificially cooling the climate. Katharine Sanderson writes on The Great Beyond:

So will the ash from have a lasting effect on our climate? Probably not according to Alan Robock, a meteorologist from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, US. “So far, the emissions have been so small, that I expect no climate impacts,” he says. On April 14, there was 0.004 megatons of sulphur dioxide, as compared to 20 megatons for Mount Pinatubo in 1991, and it was emitted into the troposphere, where its lifetime is only a week or so, as opposed to 1-2 years for the stratosphere for Pinatubo. The ash will also fall out quickly, so I expect no climate impact, unless the eruption gets much stronger.

Also on The Great Beyond, Daniel Cressey offers some assistance in pronouncing Eyjafjallajökull.

Image details: Volcanic ash, from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, is currently shrouding the whole of Northern Europe. Flying at around 30,000 feet, this Icelandair flight FI450 skirted the edge of the vast grey ash cloud (to the right of the jet engine) offering a rare glimpse of the cause of the air-travel disruption in Europe. Photo by Tom Bradwell of the British Geological Survey.

Election 2010: the parties on climate change

Olive Heffernan

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In what is anticipated to be the most closely contested election since 1992, Conservative leader David Cameron will, on May 6th, attempt to oust Gordon Brown and end 13 years of Labour Party rule in the UK. But if – as some are predicting – Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg manages to wrestle enough votes from Cameron and Brown, there is a chance of a coalition forming between two parties.

Some of the major issues the election could be won on are the economy, immigration and crime. On the environment, climate change remains a key issue. The Telegraph has a breakdown of the energy and climate policies of the main parties, which I’ve included in summary form below. And the Guardian is offering readers a chance to pose their suggestions for environmental policies the parties ought to adopt in their election campaign. You can add to the list of ‘environmental demands’ here. Or you can join the Guardian debate with the three leading party’s climate and energy ministers, being held in London this Wednesday. Details of how you can pose your questions virtually – via Twitter or Facebook – are available here. I’ll be popping along and will be back here later in the week with a postmortem. Also of interest is climatologist Myles Allen’s piece on why he won’t be voting Green.

Labour’s energy and climate-change policies include:

• Achieving around 40 per cent low-carbon electricity by 2020

• Creating 400,000 new green jobs by 2015

• Making greener living easier and fairer through ‘pay as you save’ home energy insulation

• Energy-bill discounts for pensioners

• Banning recyclable and biodegradable materials from landfill

Key Conservative environment policies include:

• Working towards zero waste

• Providing incentives to recycle

• Encouraging sustainable water management

• Work for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy

• Offering every household a Green Deal

• Transforming electricity networks with ‘smart grid’ and ‘smart meter’ technology

• Expanding offshore wind and marine power

Key Liberal Democtrats environmental policies include:

• Pledging that at least 20 per cent of energy and 40 per cent of electricity will come from renewable sources by 2020 rising to 100 per cent by 2050

• Seeking to toughen limits on pollution across Europe

• Introduce a supermarket ombudsman to get a fair deal for farmers

• Ensuring guaranteed fair prices for energy consumers

• Making energy suppliers ensure homes are well insulated

• Roll-out of smart metering in five years

• More investment in public transport to cut emissions

Sea level rise: defence and development

Olive Heffernan

Last week, I posted here on sea level rise and what’s in store for the 21st Century. Among scientists, that’s still a contentious issue, with current estimates ranging from about 18 cm to more than 200 cm by 2100 (see Figure 1 from a commentary by Stefan Rahmstorf; references are listed in full in the text). Rahmstorf figure 1.jpg

I started to look into this issue in detail some months ago in preparation for a talk I was giving here at Nature. Given the knowledge that sea levels will rise this century, whether by a little or a lot, I also became curious about the extent to which coastal states are preparing for the impacts.

Regions will experience sea level rise differently, depending on factors such as whether the coastline is gaining or loosing sediment and the extent to which it is developed. The most vulnerable regions worldwide are large deltas such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh, countries with large low-lying well-developed coastal plains such as the US and China, and small island states such as Tuvala and Carteret Islands. And in terms of cities, Miami tops the list.

But in spite of its vulnerability, coastal development continues virtually unabated in Miami. In the first of two features Mark Schrope reports from Florida, a state that could be losing billions each year by 2050 if it continues business as usual. Florida, say experts, could serve as a case study for what happens if you don’t prepare for sea level rise. From Schrope’s feature:

“Right now Florida is showing almost no leadership on responding sensibly to storms and to rising sea level,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Orrin Pilkey of Duke University in North Carolina, a well-known proponent of greater constraints on coastal development, is even more forthright. “I call it an outlaw state,” he says. “Florida has been particularly irresponsible and it’s going to pay the price very soon.”

Worse than just ignoring the threat of sea level rise, Florida state has taken drastic action to ensure that waterside properties damaged in storms can be rebuilt in the same locations time and time again.

Planners and lawmakers in Florida would do well to learn from neighbouring Louisiana, one of a number of locations worldwide now adopting a ‘soft’ approach to self-defence. In the case of Louisiana, this means allowing the water to flood certain parts of the state during high storms in order to protect more valuable land elsewhere. Similar ‘ecological engineering’ approaches are being considered in the Netherlands, a nation that has traditionally hardened its coastline as a protective measure against an encroaching ocean.

But as Mason Inman reports in a second feature in the same issue, such hard defences are now under threat. Mason writes:

Ecological engineering approaches are often cheaper than fortifying coastlines with concrete walls or defending cities with ever-stronger levees, advocates say. And in the long run, they could be more effective. A similar philosophy is now being adopted in parts of the United States and Asia, and if its proponents are right, ecological engineering could become one of the main tools for adapting to rising seas. “With sea level rise, it’s not going to be possible for us to do engineering as usual,” says William Mitsch of The Ohio State University in Columbus. “It will be too much to try to fight head on, with hard defences to protect all the settled coasts.” Ecological approaches, he says, are “more about adapting to what’s happening, rather than fighting it”.

Ultimately, better projections are needed to determine the likely extent of future sea level rise. But in the absence of such information, incremental adaptation using soft approaches might be the best solution both from an environmental and a political point of view.

Taming the geoengineering genie

Olive Heffernan

Over on NRCC today, Mason Inman reviews two books on geoengineering – two of the first, in fact, to cover this field for a popular audience. The first is Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, a reporter for Science magazine, and the second is How to Cool the Planet by Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor and reporter to Rolling Stone magazine and author of Big Coal.

Kintisch cover.jpgThe release of these books, both out this month, has been timed well, given that the geoengineering genie is now out of the bottle, as climate modeler Raymond Pierrehumbert puts it in Kintisch’s Hack the Planet. Just last month, experts met for the first time – at the Asilomar conference centre in Monterey, California – to consider how the field can be regulated. Meanwhile, governments are holding parliamentary hearings on the subject and venture capitalists are looking to it as an investment opportunity. It’s a far cry from the state of play just two or three years ago, when climate intervention was still considered by most to be an outlandish idea.

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While the idea of doing trials to test the various proposed methods for climate control is now more mainstream, it’s still contentious for two reasons: the potential side-effects, and also the fear that it will turn our attention away from the urgency of mitigation. So for the most part, geoengineering is still an armchair activity, as Kintisch puts it, and as a result the pool of people involved in still relatively small. Despite that fact, however, Kintisch and Goodell cover the subject from decidedly different perspectives, according to Inman. He writes:

“Both books cover a lot of the same ideas and quote many of the same sources, and both have in-depth chapters about two particular options: fertilizing the oceans with iron, and ships spewing cloud-brightening particles. Kintisch’s book, though, offers up more examples of geoengineering…Kintisch also digs deeper than Goodell into explaining the details of how geoengineering might work — and why it would be so difficult to do well. A reporter for the journal Science who regularly covers geoengineering for the journal’s ScienceInsider blog, Kintisch likewise takes an insider’s view in Hack the Planet. That’s not to say Kintisch argues in favour of geoengineering, but that he writes from firmly within the world of science, and for an audience who’s comfortable with science, too. He never explains the term ‘hack’ in the title, for example, which is borrowed from computer hacking and reflects the idea that geoengineering involves interfering with fundamental aspects of the climate to change how the whole system works. For this reason, scientists and other science-literate readers — especially those who already have some familiarity with geoengineering — will probably prefer Kintisch’s book over Goodell’s.

In contrast, Goodell’s book takes a step back, presenting an outsider’s view —unsurprising, as he is a regular reporter for Rolling Stone, the music and politics magazine. This perspective allows Goodell to be a guide to those who might reject the whole idea of geoengineering as far-fetched or crazy. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to understand the basic insanity of this undertaking,” Goodell writes, while emphasizing that the outlook for the planet is so bad that we have to think about these options anyway. Of the two authors, Goodell does a better job of taking the reader on a journey. Most chapters in How to Cool the Planet feature a central character, from geoengineer David Keith tinkering in his lab at the University of Calgary to environmentalist and scientist James Lovelock strolling the countryside around his quaint English home. By digging into their stories, Goodell portrays geoengineering as a human endeavour, carrying hefty doses of uncertainty, doubt and fear."

The full review is freely available here.

University told to hand over tree ring data

Daniel Cressey

pine tree.jpgThe UK’s information watchdog has told a university it has to release the tree ring data at the centre of a long running freedom of information fight.

Douglas Keenan, an independent researcher, has been attempting to get Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) to give him data including the width of rings and the location of trees used by its climate researchers (see: Keenan’s website). The university refused and Keenan appealed to the Information Commissioner (see: Climate researcher vs FOI, part two, Nature).

Now the Commissioner has ruled that all the grounds cited by the university for withholding the data are not valid. “The Commissioner requires QUB to disclose the withheld information … within 35 calendar days of the date of this Notice.” it says in a ruling dated 29 March (pdf).

The ruling also states that there were “a number of procedural breaches” in the handling of Keenan’s request.

“This has taken three years, but it is worth it,” said Keenan in an email. “It is an important victory for FoI [Freedom of Information] on research data. Also, for global warming studies, the data is extremely valuable for reconstructing temperatures over past millennia."

“The University has received the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice on this matter and is considering its position,” QUB said in a statement.

Image: photo by Steve & Jemma Copley via Flickr under creative commons.

CRU inquiry: science solid despite lack of statistical know-how

Cross-posted by Daniel Cressey on The Great Beyond

CRU.jpgThe integrity of research by the ‘climate-gate’ scientists has been upheld by the latest report into the email theft affair, despite the inquiry team expressing surprise that few professional statisticians were involved in work that is “fundamentally statistical”.

This inquiry, headed by Ron Oxburgh, is one of a number into the aftermath of emails leaked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. It was established to consider allegations that papers emanating from CRU had manipulated data dishonestly to support pre-determined conclusions on climate change.

“We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it,” says the Oxburgh report. “Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.”

This report reviewed 11 publications considered to be representative of the CRU’s output (including two papers published in Nature). These cover direct temperature observations and the tree ring work that has caused many climate change sceptics to get so hot under the collar.

The tree-ring work was considered by the panel to have been “carried out with integrity” and the methods used in the direct temperature work were “fair and satisfactory”. However, the lack of proper statistical input into CRU’s research did displease Oxburgh’s panel.

“We cannot help remarking that it is very surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians,” says their report.

In response, a statement from UEA says that specialists gain their own statistical skills. “However, we do see the sense in engaging more fully with the wider statistics community to ensure that the most effective and up-to-date statistical techniques are adopted and will now consider further how best to achieve this,” it adds.

Oxburgh’s panel has already been attacked by some over perceived conflicts of interest – such as its chair also being honorary president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association. The other inquiries into the email theft and subsequent ‘climate-gate’ furore have also been attacked on similar grounds.

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, said in a statement, “The panel has carried out a thorough investigation of the evidence, and anybody who simply rejects these findings will show that they are motivated by prejudice and ideology rather than by scepticism and a desire to uncover the truth. I think those so-called sceptics and commentators in the media who have attempted to undermine the credibility of climate change science on the basis of the hacked e-mails now need to apologise for misleading the public about their significance.”

Image: CRU building at UEA / wikipedia