Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Talking About Climate Change.

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

In his new book ‘Don’t Even think About It’ George Marshall raises a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

Marshall is an environmentalist, certainly is convinced of the seriousness of the impact of climate change, and considers himself a communicator.

His book, however, is not what you might expect. Instead of a defense of the science, he presents a strong case that climate change scientists and environmentalists have failed in their job of communicating.

George Marshall's book (climateconviction.org)

George Marshall’s book
(climateconviction.org)

It is a discouraging list. We have failed to explain ‘uncertainty’, we use language that turns off listeners, we lack engrossing narratives, we pile on more and more evidence that further turns people away, we buy into the confrontational approach of the extremists at both ends, and we do not honestly face up to our own energy-consuming habits that others find hypocritical.

And there’s a lot more. Marshall explores why it is that most of us avoid talking about climate change, or even thinking about it – hence the title of his book. He suggests that we find the topic too complex, with too many aspects, what he calls ‘multivalent’. It seems to be an issue of the future, not the immediate present. No single solution can possibly solve it. Thinking about it only provokes anxiety. We avoid thinking and talking about it the way we do about death, for some of the same reasons.

This isn’t a book that attacks the climate change deniers – in fact Marshall seeks to understand them and to find some common ground with them. This is an attack on the rest of us for our poor communications skills and for our silence and unwillingness to truly confront the issue.

Marhall has talked with a large number of people, and quotes a lot of them – this is book of many voices. Through it all is a sense that we as humans are deeply imperfect, filled with contradictions, our opinions a product of our biases and the views of our peers and society, struggling still to do the right thing. And that we need to acknowledge our imperfections.

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

So Marshall calls on us to talk about climate change with each other – not expecting everyone to agree since that will never happen, but to seek ways to cooperate, ways to deal with the issue together.

This is a scary book. It is scary because the problem ultimately is us. We are all responsible, and yet we are silent. Our limitations are too clearly on display. You may not read this book, but if you get a chance, at least visit his websites: www.climateconviction.org and www.climatedenial.org .

Let’s talk, not fight, about climate change.
Let’s talk about global warming.

Lessons from Irene: Future Weather

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Climatologist Heidi Cullen includes seven major examples in her fine book The Weather of the Future: The Sahel in Africa, coral reefs, California’s Central Valley, Nunavut in Canada’s Arctic, Greenland, Bangladesh – and New York city. She uses the examples to explore the changes in weather that lie ahead, and the opportunities and the catastrophes that will occur.

The Weather of the Future, by Dr. Heidi Cullen

With her focus on New York City, she looks at the damage a large Level 3 hurricane will have on the City as we know it now. Irene could easily have been that storm, had it not weakened and then dumped most of its remaining rain on the New England states. NYC prepared responsibly for a more direct hit with evacuations and highway and transit closures – but of course was not able to protect itself from the immense damage serious flooding would have wrought.

More intense storms, like Irene, are predicted by the many models of climate change. Cullen imagines that NYC, hit and flooded by a Level 3 hurricane, responds by building dikes and walls and protecting itself not just from rising sea levels but from the full impact of future similar storms.

Hurricane Irene sweeps into the US East Coast (NASA)

Will NYC actually now do this? The cost of doing so is considerable. The cost of not doing so is immense. Irene was a warning, and NYC was very lucky – despite Anderson Cooper’s plaintive ‘where’s the beef’ attitude when he wasn’t blown off the streets.

Cullen also presents a clear summary of the evidence for global warming and climate change, and her reference list is impressively up-to-date and peer reviewed, for anyone looking for the details. As she emphasizes, even if carbon emissions were now suddenly reduced to the levels of a few decades ago, we still have a long time to wait for atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide global and global temperatures to begin to drop again. The best case scenario will still us challenge us to adapt, and then adapt some more..

The current scenario, though, is ‘business-as-usual’, essentially taking no action even though we know more or less what lies ahead over the next century. Cullen has written her book with that attitude in mind, asking what does it take to get us to act to mitigate what we can, and prepare for the rest. As she and others have pointed out, if we wait until there really in nothing left to do but act, it will be too late: the planet will be irreversibly on the way to a ‘hot-house’.

Road Warrior: Challenging outcomes to 'business-as-usual' have been imagined for decades (thinkprogress.org)

And so she imagines what lies ahead, looking as far as 2050, if CO2 emissions remain at current levels. That’s not long from now. In some places, survival through planning and adaptation is possible – NYC, the Arctic, the Sahel. In others there will just be loss, with environmental refugees fleeing Bangladesh and all low lying cities that are not rich and prepared, and vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs dissolving and bleaching to oblivion.

One of my daughters lives in Connecticut, and felt the recent earthquake and coped with the stress of Irene, while some of her cousins live in Texas where endless hot days and drought have now morphed into a state of fires. And her comment is: so this is what it is now going to be like.

It doesn’t need to be. Let’s once again raise the question of reducing carbon emissions. The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario is what we would expect from an ignorant and foolish species, and surely we are not that.

State of the Oceans

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Well, this is grim reading.

The International Program on the State of the Ocean – IPSO – has published a summary report of a meeting of late June. Twenty seven fisheries and ocean scientists and other experts from 8 organizations and 6 countries assessed the current state of the oceans. A lot of global expertize resides in this group of people. The ‘long’ summary includes a list of 100 references published in peer reviewed journals, a lot of them from 2010 and 2011 – the report is evidence based, to say the least.

And the evidence indicates that the oceans are well along the way of the worst case scenarios published in the IPCC report of 2007. Ice is melting faster in the Arctic Ocean, Greenland, and Antarctica; ocean surface temperatures are rising; sea levels are rising; increase in ocean acidification is measurable; methane trapped in sediments is beginning to be released; changes are occurring in the distribution and diversity of marine species, in primary production and in harmful algal blooms; and food webs continue to simplify, with jellyfish too often becoming the top predator in the ecosystem.

Sea surface temperatures, measured globally by satellite, are rising. (noaa.gov)

The lead-off statement of the summary is clear enough: The biggest threat to our ocean’s health is climate change, with its rising sea temperatures and acidification. Because this has become so difficult to resolve, we must at least reduce the other main stressors on the ocean to give it the best chance of dealing with climate change.

What are the other stresses whose impact we could reduce? They are too familiar: overfishing, habitat destruction, extraction pollution, and alien species introductions.

Negative synergy of these stresses will certainly drive any resilience to climate change ever lower. For example, global coral reefs, coping with rising temperatures and acidification, along with the other stresses, have little chance of surviving this century.

Those parts of the Great Barrier Reef that are most protected appear to be the healthiest, the most resilient (reefbuilders.com)

The IPSO report does have some strong recommendations.
– Reduce CO2 emissions immediately.
– Restore the structure and function of marine ecosystems.
– Reduce and close fisheries, and develop a holistic approach to sustainable fisheries management.
– Establish far more marine protected areas.
– Reduce pollution from agricultural runoff and from resource extraction.
– Apply the precautionary principle that everyone seems to agree with and then ignores.
– Promote effective governance of the high seas through the UN.

And then some stark conclusions:
– Current consumer values coupled with current rates of population increase are not sustainable.
– Timelines are shrinking rapidly – and the longer we wait to act, the greater the cost.
– Core values of human society and its relation to the natural world and the resources on which we all rely must be re-evaluated.

What do you think? In the face of the world’s growing economic and social problems, are we capable of changing our core values? Are we capable of finding the global resolve to meet any of the recommendations before we run out of time, and extreme and irreversible change is upon us?

Opportunities still exist. The IPSO report should be read as an opening salvo, leading up to the next UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June, 2012. Rio+20, as it also calls itself, apparently without any intended irony.

All the right things get said leading up to Earth Summits.

Silence on Climate Change

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Well, this is probably not surprising, but it is discouraging. In the current campaign leading up to Canada’s May 2 Federal Election, no one is talking about climate change, or reducing Canada’s Carbon emissions.

Considering that Canada has close to the world’s highest per capita consumption and emission rates, you would think this is at least worth some discussion.

All three Canadian national political parties with any hope of electing anyone have published platforms that do in fact address the question.

The Conservative Party of course does not support any sort of carbon tax or cap-and-trade policy. Its clearest written statement is that it supports a reduction of 20% in absolute levels of emissions by 2020. Explicitly though, it intends to do only as much as US decides to do, and since no federal action to reduce emissions will occur in the US in the next six years, the Conservative Party currently just ignores the issue.

The Liberal Party also has little interest in any carbon tax system, but its platform statement does promote cap-and-trade, and it also proposes to reduce carbon emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 1990. The same is true of the the New Democrat Party and its published platform.

These are quite strong statements to include in party platforms, yet we hear nothing from the party leaders or the local candidates. Politicians who should know better are afraid to say anything.

And it isn’t as if the Liberal or new Democrat Parties are about to win this election. They aren’t. What an opportunity this is then for the party leaders to speak up with courage and vision. What a missed opportunity.

Prime Minister Harper in 2020, on a poster prepared by Green Peace (there is also similar one of President Barack Obama)

The prospects of diminishing per capita emissions seem as poor in Canada as they do in the US. It is ‘Business As Usual’ – the one scenario among our various options described in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment certain to be a disaster.

Hope for action remains at the provincial and state level where efforts at cap-and-trade agreements continue between BC, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico. Called the Western Climate Alliance, California, British Columbia and Quebec expect a start date of 2012, with other states and provinces joining after it gets underway. Even with the conservative swing in states and provinces, some of this is likely to occur.

The Western Climate Alliance - members in green, observers in blue: a growing initiative, by-passing federal political parties (westernclimateinitiative.org)

But what do we hear from our national leaders? Nada. Rien. Silence. For the love of Canada, for the love of the planet, speak up.

Climate Change is Not a Black Swan

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has become famous for his Black Swan theory: “A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principle characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after it occurs, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random and more predictable than it was. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and the inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world.”

The 2007 edition of The Black Swan

It’s worth checking out Taleb’s website for a sense of his energy, intelligence and impatience – he is not constrained by humility. And it’s worth reading his books, particularly The Black Swan (2007 or the recent 2010 edition)

Black Swans have occurred frequently during this past decade: 9/11, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the current rebellions in North Africa are reminders of how little control we have over political and cultural affairs.

The many natural disasters of the decade are also Black Swans: the fires of British Columbia and Russia, the floods of Pakistan and Queensland, the earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Chile, the tsunami of 2004, hurricanes or cyclones like Katrina, and now the triple impact of earthquake, tsunami and partial nuclear meltdown at the Daiichi facility in Japan. Amazingly, there are still some who try to explain the occurrence of such events as divine punishment for human transgressions.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

With more and more people living everywhere, the impact of each major Black Swan is felt by increasing numbers of people. With economic globalization, and the ever expanding Internet, each has the potential to impact the world.

But not all seemingly unexpected massive events are Black Swans. Taleb points out forcefully that the economic meltdown of 2008 was not a Black Swan, but that instead it was the unavoidable outcome of the extraordinary greed of the banks and other financial institutions: bankers might want to convince us that it was a Black Swan, but in fact they were responsible.

Our current global climate change can also look a Black Swan the size of our entire planet, and in many ways we behave as if it is, acting as if it is an improbable, random event with a massive impact whose causes are the natural cycles of the planet that are beyond our control.

But now we know that’s wrong. Current climate change isn’t random and improbable. It is the unavoidable outcome of our uncontrolled carbon emissions. We know how and when it started, how it has developed, and considering our collective unwillingness to do much about it, we know in general terms where it may take us. We know we caused it. Like the economic meltdown, but vastly greater in impact, this is no Black Swan.

We need another metaphor, something to identify a massive catastrophic event that we have made unavoidable because of our own deficiencies.

Any suggestions?

Arctic Melt 2010

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

The planet just had its warmest January through July period on record – and this despite the cooling effects of La Nina in the Pacific, not to mention the snow blizzard in Washington, D.C. last winter.

The Arctic had an extraordinarily warm spring, with temperatures as much as 6 degrees C above average, the warmest on record (adequate temperature records go back to 1948). The ice cover is now the second lowest it has been since ice records began to be kept in 1979. Though the northern Northwast Passage is not completely open, there is still time, for a month of melting still lies ahead in the lower Arctic.

Ice cover in the Arctic at the end of July 2010. The northern Northwest Passage is almost completely free of ice. (nsidc.org)

This is the 14th consecutive year of above average Arctic ice melt. Each year the ice starts to melt a little earlier, and then the increased extent of open water absorbs more heat instead of reflecting it back the way ice does. So the melt season then lasts a little longer. The melt season has extended an average of 6.4 days per decade over the past three decades: 20 days longer in just 28 years.

All this spurs on Canadian efforts to develop the Arctic as the irresistible Northwest Passage gets ever closer. This week, Canadian Prime Minister Harper, on his annual summer trip into the Arctic, announced the development of the airport at Churchill in northern Manitoba, on the west coast of Hudson’s Bay – anticipating that it will become the airport hub to serve Canada’s north.

Prime Minister Harper in Churchill to announce the expansion of the airport there (thetelegram.com)

Then Harper announced that Cambridge Bay in Nunavut will become the home of the planned Canadian High Arctic Research Station – and Cambridge Bay is (perhaps you guessed it) the major community nearest to the entry to the Northwest Passage.

Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, a community of about 10,000 that is now likely to grow considerably.(magicstatistics.com)

And so the drumbeat continues. The Arctic ice cover continues to melt at unexpected rates each summer, changing Arctic ecosystems in the process, with predicted but uncertain impact on global climate and on ocean currents. And the impending opening of the Northwest Passage forces coastal Arctic countries to press their sovereignty concerns with far greater energy and effectiveness than they do in trying to mitigate the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

What is Canada doing to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate global warming? Nothing. The Government will not initiate any stricter regulations than those that exist in the US, and the current US Congress will initiate nothing.

Now, sovereignty issues, and economic issues concerning who owns the Northwest Passage – that’s quite different. All the players are taking initiatives.

Are we really so short sighted? Not for a second.

But our leaders are.

Prime Minister Harper (grey pants) standing on an iceberg during his Arctic tour annonces that: We must continue to exercise our sovereignty while strengthening the safety and security of Canadians living in our High Arctic (Canadain Press)