Communicating Key Figures from IPCC Reports to a Wider Public

If you were to think about ranking the most important Figures from the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, I would not be surprised if the following one (SPM.10) did not emerge as a strong candidate for the number one slot:

IPCC AR5 Figure SPM.10

This is how the Figure appears in the main report, on page 28 (in the Summary for Policymakers) of The Physical Basis Report (see References: IPCC, 2013). The Synthesis Report includes a similar figure with additional annotations.

Many have used it in talks because of its fundamental importance (for example, Sir David King in his Walker Institute Annual Lecture (10th June 2015), ahead of COP21 in Paris). I have followed this lead, and am sure that I am not alone.

This Figure shows an approximately linear1 relationship between the cumulative carbon dioxide we emit2, and the rise in global average surface temperature3 up to 2100. It was crucial to discussions on carbon budgets held in Paris and the goal of stabilising the climate.

I am not proposing animating this Figure in the way discussed in my previous essay, but I do think its importance warrants additional attention to get it out there to a wider audience (beyond the usual climate geeks!).

So my question is:

“Does it warrant some kind of pedagogic treatment for a general audience (and dare I say, for policy-makers who may themselves struggle with the density of information conveyed)?”

My answer is yes, and I believe that the IPCC, as guardians of the integrity of the report findings, are best placed to lead such an effort, albeit supported by skills to support the science communications.

The IPCC should not leave it to bloggers and other commentators to furnish such content, as key Figures such as this are fundamental to the report’s findings, and need to be as widely understood as possible.

While I am conscious of Tufte’s wariness regarding Powerpoint, I think that the ‘build’ technique – when used well – can be extremely useful in unfolding the information, in biteable chunks. This is what I have tried to do with the above Figure in a recent talk. I thought I would share my draft attempt.

It can obviously do with more work, and the annotations represent my emphasis and use of  language4. Nevertheless, I believe I was able to truthfully convey the key information from the original IPCC Figure more successfully than I have before; taking the audience with me, rather than scaring them off.

So here goes, taken from a segment of my talk … my narrative, to accompany the ‘builds’, is in italics …

Where are we now?

“There is a key question: what is the relationship between the peak atmospheric concentration and the level of warming, compared to a late 19th century baseline, that will result, by the end of the 21st century?”

“Let’s start with seeing where we are now, which is marked by a X in the Figure below.” 

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 1

“Our cumulative man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have to date been nearly 2000 billion tonnes (top scale above)”

“After noting that 50% of this remains in the atmosphere, this has given rise to an increase in the atmospheric concentration from its long-standing pre-industrial value of 280 parts per million to it current value which is now about 400 parts per million (bottom scale above).”

“This in turn has led to an increase in averaged global surface temperature of  1oC above the baseline of 1861 to 1880 (vertical scale above).”

Where might we be in 2100?

“As we add additional carbon dioxide, the temperature will rise broadly in proportion to the increased concentration in the atmosphere. There is some uncertainty between “best case” and “worst case” margins of error (shown by the dashed lines).” 

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 2

“By the end of the century, depending on how much we emit and allowing for uncertainties, we can end up anywhere within the grey area shown here. The question marks (“?”) illustrate where we might be by 2100.”

Can we stay below 2C?

“The most optimistic scenario included in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was based on the assumption of a rapid reduction in emissions, and a growing role for the artificial capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (using a technology called BECCS).” 

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 3

“This optimistic scenario would meet the target agreed by the nations in Paris, which is to limit the temperature rise to 2oC.”

“We effectively have a ‘carbon budget’; an amount of fossil fuels that can be burned and for us to stay below 2oC”. 

“The longer we delay dramatically reducing emissions, the faster the drop would need to be in our emissions later, as we approach the end of the ‘carbon budget’.” 

“Some argue that we are already beyond the point where we can realistically move fast enough to make this transition.” 

“Generally, experts agree it is extremely challenging, but still not impossible.”

Where will we be in 2100?  – Paris Commitments

“The nationally determined contributions (or NDCs) – the amounts by which carbon dioxide emissions will fall – that the parties to the Paris Agreement put forward have been totted up and they would, if implemented fully, bring us to a temperature rise of between 2.5 and 3.5 oC (and an atmospheric concentration about twice that of pre-industrial levels).”

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 4

 “Now, the nations are committed to increase their ‘ambition’, so we expect that NDCs should get better, but it is deeply concerning that at present, the nations’ current targets are (1) not keeping us unambiguously clear of catastrophe, and (2) struggling to be met. More ambition, and crucially more achievement, is urgent.”

“I have indicated the orange scenarios as “globally severe”, but for many regions “catastrophic” (but some, for example, Xu and Ramanathan5, would use the term “Catastrophic” for any warming over 3oC, and “Unknown” for warming above 5oC). The IPCC are much more conservative in the language they use.”

Where will we be in 2100? – Business As Usual Scenario

“The so-called ‘business as usual’ scenario represents on-going use of fossil fuels, continuing to meet the majority of our energy needs, in a world with an increasing population and increasing GDP per capita, and consequently a continuing growth in CO2 emissions.”

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 5

”This takes global warming to an exceptionally bad place, with a (globally averaged) temperature rise of between 4 and 6 oC; where atmospheric concentrations will have risen to between 2.5 and 3 times the pre-industrial levels.”

“The red indicates that this is globally catastrophic.”

“If we go above 5oC warming we move, according to Xu and Ramanathan,  from a “catastrophic” regime to an “unknown” one. I have not tried to indicate this extended vocabulary on the diagram, but what is clear is that the ‘business as usual’ scenario is really not an option, if we are paying attention to what the science is telling us.”

That’s it. My draft attempt to convey the substance and importance of Figure SPM.10, which I have tried to do faithfully; albeit adding the adjectives “optimistic” etc. to characterise the scenarios.

I am sure the IPCC could do a much better job than me at providing a more accessible presentation of Figure SPM.10 and indeed, a number of high ranking Figures from their reports, that deserve and need a broader audience.

© Richard W. Erskine

Footnotes

  1. The linearity of this relationship was originally discussed in Myles Allen et al (2009), and this and other work has been incorporated in the IPCC reports. Also see Technical Note A below.
  1. About half of which remains in the atmosphere, for a very long time
  1. Eventually, after the planet reaches a new equilibrium, a long time in the future. Also see Technical Note B below.
  1. There are different opinions are what language to use – ‘dangerous’, ‘catastrophic’, etc. – and at what levels of warming to apply this language. The IPCC is conservative in its use of language, as is customary in the scientific literature. Some would argue that in wanting to avoid the charge of being alarmist, it is in danger of obscuring the seriousness of the risks faced. In my graphics I have tried to remain reasonably conservative in the use of language, because I believe things are serious enough; even when a conservative approach is taken.
  1. Now, Elizabeth Kolbert has written in the New Yorker:

In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two climate scientists—Yangyang Xu, of Texas A. & M., and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—proposed that warming greater than three degrees Celsius be designated as “catastrophic” and warming greater than five degrees as “unknown??” The “unknown??” designation, they wrote, comes “with the understanding that changes of this magnitude, not experienced in the last 20+ million years, pose existential threats to a majority of the population.”

References

  • IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovern- mental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.
  • IPCC, 2001: Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Houghton, J.T., Y. Ding, D.J. Griggs, M. Noguer, P.J. van der Linden, X. Dai, K. Maskell, and C.A. Johnson (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 881pp.
  • Myles Allen at al (2009), “Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne”,Nature 458, 1163-1166
  • Kirsten Zickfeld et al (2016), “On the proportionality between global temperature change and cumulative CO2 emissions during periods of net negative CO2 emissions”, Environ. Res. Lett. 11 055006

Technical Notes

A. Logarithmic relationship?

For those who know about the logarithmic relationship between added CO2 concentration and the ‘radiative forcing’ (giving rise to warming) – and many well meaning contrarians seem to take succour from this fact – the linear relationship in this figure may at first sight seem surprising.

The reason for the linearity is nicely explained by Marcin Popkiewicz in his piece “If growth of COconcentration causes only logarithmic temperature increase – why worry?”

The relative warming (between one level of emissions and another) is related to the ratio of this logarithmic function, and that is approximately linear over the concentration range of interest.

In any case, it is worth noting that CO2 concentrations have been increasing exponentially, and a logarithm of an exponential function is a linear function.

There is on-going work on wider questions. For example, to what extent ‘negative emissions technology’ can counteract warming that is in the pipeline?

Kirsten Zickfield et al (2016), is one such paper, “…[suggests that] positive CO2 emissions are more effective at warming than negative emissions are at subsequently cooling”. So we need to be very careful in assuming we can reverse warming that is in the pipeline.

B. Transient Climate Response and Additional Warming Commitment

The ‘Transient Climate Response’ (TCR) reflects the warming that results when CO2 is added at 1% per year, which for a doubling of the concentration takes 70 years. This is illustrated quite well in a figure from a previous report (Reference: IPCC, 2001):

TAR Figure 9.1

The warming that results from this additional concentration of CO2 occurs over the same time frame. However, this does not include all the the warming that will eventually result because the earth system (principally the oceans and atmosphere) will take a long time to reach a new equilibrium where all the flows of energy are brought back into a (new) balance. This will take at least 200 years (for lower emission scenarios) or much longer for higher emission levels.  This additional warming commitment must be added to the TCR. However, the TCR nevertheless does represent perhaps 70% of the overall warming, and remains a useful measure when discussing policy options over the 21st Century.

This discussion excludes more uncertain and much longer term feedbacks involving, for example, changes to the polar ice sheets (and consequentially, the Earth’s albedo), release of methane from northern latitudes or methane clathrates from the oceans. These are not part of the ‘additional warming commitment’, even in the IPCC 2013 report, as they are considered too speculative and uncertain to be quantified.

. . o O o . .

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Animating IPCC Climate Data

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is exploring ways to improve the communication of its findings, particularly to a more general  audience. They are not alone in having identified a need to think again about clear ‘science communications’. For example, the EU’s HELIX project (High-End Climate Impacts and Extremes), produced some guidelines a while ago on better use of language and diagrams.

Coming out of the HELIX project, and through a series of workshops, a collaboration with the Tyndall Centre and Climate Outreach, has produced a comprehensive guide (Guide With Practical Exercises to Train Researchers In the Science of  Climate Change Communication)

The idea is not to say ‘communicate like THIS’ but more to share good practice amongst scientists and to ensure all scientists are aware of the communication issues, and then to address them.

Much of this guidance concerns the ‘soft’ aspects of communication: how the communicator views themself; understanding the audience; building trust; coping with uncertainty; etc.

Some of this reflects ideas that are useful not just to scientific communication, but almost any technical presentation in any sector, but that does not diminish its importance.

This has now been distilled into a Communications Handbook for IPCC Scientists; not an official publication of the IPCC but a contribution to the conversation on how to improve communications.

I want to take a slightly different tack, which is not a response to the handbook per se, but covers a complementary issue.

In many years of being involved in presenting complex material (in my case, in enterprise information management) to audiences unfamiliar with the subject at hand, I have often been aware of the communication potential but also risks of diagrams. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this is not true if you need a thousand words to explain the picture!

The unwritten rules related to the visual syntax and semantics of diagrams is a fascinating topic, and one which many – and most notably Edward Tufte –  have explored. In chapter 2 of his insightful and beautiful book Visual Explanations, Tufte argues:

“When we reason about quantityative evidence, certain methods for displaying and analysing data are better than others. Superior methods are more likely to produce truthful, credible, and precise findings. The difference between an excellent analysis and a faulty one can sometimes have momentous consequences”

He then describes how data can be used and abused. He illustrates this with two examples: the 1854 Cholera epidemic in London and the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Tufte has been highly critical of the over reliance on Powerpoint for technical reporting (not just presentations) in NASA, because the form of the content degrades the narrative that should have been an essential part of any report (with or without pictures). Bulletized data can destroy context, clarity and meaning.

There could be no more ‘momentous consequences’ than those that arise from man-made global warming, and therefore, there could hardly be a more important case where a Tuftian eye, if I may call it that, needs to be brought to bear on how the information is described and visualised.

The IPCC, and the underlying science on which it relies, is arguably the greatest scientific collaboration ever undertaken, and rightly recognised with a Nobel Prize. It includes a level of interdisciplinary cooperation that is frankly awe-inspiring; unique in its scope and depth.

It is not surprising therefore that it has led to very large and dense reports, covering the many areas that are unavoidably involved: the cryosphere, sea-level rise, crops, extreme weather, species migration, etc.. It might seem difficult to condense this material without loss of important information. For example, Volume 1 of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which covered the Physical Basis of Climate Change, was over 1500 pages long.

Nevertheless, the IPCC endeavours to help policy-makers by providing them with summaries and also a synthesis report, to provide the essential underlying knowledge that policy-makers need to inform their discussions on actions in response to the science.

However, in its summary reports the IPCC will often reuse key diagrams, taken from the full reports. There are good reasons for this, because the IPCC is trying to maintain mutual consistency between different products covering the same findings at different levels of detail.

This exercise is fraught with risks of over-simplification or misrepresentation of the main report’s findings, and this might limit the degree to which the IPCC can become ‘creative’ with compelling visuals that ‘simplify’ the original diagrams. Remember too that these reports need to be agreed by reviewers from national representatives, and the language will often seem to combine the cautiousness of a scientist with the dryness of a lawyer.

So yes, it can be problematic to use artistic flair to improve the comprehensibility of the findings, but risk losing the nuance and caution that is a hallmark of science. The countervailing risk is that people do not really ‘get it’; and do not appreciate what they are seeing.

We have seen with the Challenger reports, that people did not appreciate the issue with the O rings, especially when key facts were buried in 5 levels of indented bullet points in a tiny font, for example or, hidden in plain sight, in a figure so complex that the key findings are lost in a fog of complexity.

That is why any attempt to improve the summaries for policy makers and the general public must continue to involve those who are responsible for the overall integrity and consistency of the different products, not simply hived off to a separate group of ‘creatives’ who would lack knowledge and insight of the nuance that needs to be respected.  But those complementary skills – data visualizers, graphics artists, and others – need to be included in this effort to improve science communications. There is also a need for those able to critically evaluate the pedagogic value of the output (along the lines of Tufte), to ensure they really inform, and do not confuse.

Some individuals have taken to social media to present their own examples of how to present information, which often employs animation (something that is clearly not possible for the printed page, or its digital analogue, a PDF document). Perhaps the most well known example to date was Professor Ed Hawkin’s spiral picture showing the increase in global mean surface temperature:

spiral_2017_large

This animation went viral, and was even featured as part of the Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony. This and other spiral animations can be found at the Climate Lab Book site.

There are now a number of other great producers of animations. Here follows a few examples.

Here, Kevin Pluck (@kevpluck) illustrates the link between the rising carbon dioxide levels and the rising mean surface temperature, since 1958 (the year when direct and continuous measurements of carbon dioxide were pioneered by Keeling)

Kevin Pluck has many other animations which are informative, particularly in relation to sea ice.

Another example, from Antti Lipponen (@anttilip), visualises the increase in surface warming from 1900 to 2017, by country, grouped according to continent. We see the increasing length/redness of the radial bars, showing an overall warming trend, but at different rates according to region and country.

A final example along the same lines is from John Kennedy (@micefearboggis), which is slightly more elaborate but rich in interesting information. It shows temperature changes over the years, at different latitudes, for both ocean (left side) and land (right side). The longer/redder the bar the higher the increase in temperature at that location, relative to the temperature baseline at that location (which scientists call the ‘anomaly’). This is why we see the greatest warming in the Arctic, as it is warming proportionally faster than the rest of the planet; this is one of the big takeaways from this animation.

These examples of animation are clearly not dumbing down the data, far from it. They  improve the chances of the general public engaging with the data. This kind of animation of the data provides an entry point for those wanting to learn more. They can then move onto a narrative treatment, placing the animation in context, confident that they have grasped the essential information.

If the IPCC restricts itself to static media (i.e. PDF files), it will miss many opportunities to enliven the data in the ways illustrated above that reveal the essential knowledge that needs to be communicated.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

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When did you learn about the Holocaust?

“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”,

used to be the question everyone asked, but of course is an increasingly irrelevant question, in an ageing population.

But a question that should never age, and should stay with us forever, is

“When did you learn about the holocaust?”.

I remember when I first learned about the holocaust, and it remains seared into my consciousness, thanks to a passionate and dedicated teacher, Mr Cromie.

I was a young child at a boarding school Stouts Hill Preparatory School, in the little village of Uley in Gloucestershire. The school no longer exists but that memory never fades. You cannot ‘unlearn’ something like that.

I was no more than 12 at the time, so this would have been 1965 or earlier, and our teacher told us about the mass murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but with a sense of anger and resentment at the injustice of this monstrous episode in history. And it has often occurred to me since that the peak of this programme of murder was just 10 years before I was born.

But what did I learn and what did I remember? I learned about the gas chambers, and the burning of bodies, but it was all a kind of vague memory of an atrocity, difficult to properly make sense of at that age.

What we did not really learn was the process by which a civilised country like Germany could turn from being at the centre of European culture to a murderous genocidal regime in just a decade.

For British viewers, this story of inhumanity was often framed through the lens of Bergen-Belsen, because it was the Brits that liberated this Concentration Camp, and the influential Richard Dimbleby was there to deliver his sonorous commentary on the horrors of the skeletal survivors and piles of corpses.

But it is curious how this story is still the reflex image that many Britons have of the holocaust, and I have often wondered why.  The Conversation tried to provide an answer:

“But even though many, if not most, of those involved in the rescue and relief effort were aware of the fact that Jews made up the largest number of the victims, the evolving official British narrative sidestepped this issue. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen became separated from what the people held in this camp had had to endure, and why they had been incarcerated in the first place.

Instead, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was transformed into a British triumph over “evil”. The event was used to confirm to the wider British public that the British Army had fought a morally and ethically justified war, that all the personal and collective sacrifices made to win the war had now been vindicated. Bergen-Belsen gave sense and meaning to the British military campaign against Nazi Germany and the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender. The liberation of the camp became Britain’s finest hour.”

Each country, each culture, and each person, constructs their own narrative to try to make sense of the horror.

But despite the horror of Bergen-Belsen, and the 35,000 who died there, it is barely a footnote in the industrialised murder campaign that the Nazi leadership planned and executed.

Despite the fact that most people are vaguely aware of a figure of several million Jews and others dying, they are rather less aware of the distinction between Concentration Camps and Death Camps (also know as Extermination Camps).

Many died in the numerous Concentration Camps, as Wikipedia describes:

“Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.”

The death camps at Chełmno, Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec were designed purely as places of murder.  It is not simply about the arithmetic of the holocaust. After all, the death squads and related actions in the east accounted for 2.5 million murders, and the death camps over 3 million. But it is the sheer refinement of the industrialization of murder at the Extermination Camps that is difficult to comprehend:

“Visitors to the sites of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (of who there are far, far fewer than travel to Auschwitz) are shocked by how tiny these killing camps were. A total of around 1.7 million people were murdered in these three camps – 600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz – and yet all three could fit into the area of Auschwitz-Birkenau with room to spare. In a murder process that is an affront to human dignity at almost every level, one of the greatest affronts – and this may seem illiogical unless you have actually been there – is that so many people were killed in such a small area.”

Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ – Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2005

Majdanek and Auschwitz also became Extermination Camps, but were dual purpose, also being used as Concentration Camps, so they had accommodation, bunks, and so forth that where not needed in the small camps designed purely for murder.

It is helpful to those who deny the holocaust or its full horror that Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka have not entered into the public imagination in the way that Auschwitz has. Being dual use it is then easier to play on this apparent ambiguity, to construct a denial narrative along the lines of: many died from hard labour, it was not systematic murder.

And of course, not knowing about Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chełmno is a lot easier than knowing, because they expose the full, unadulterated horror.

Remember that the Final Solution came after a decade of murderous projects – the death squads in the east, the euthanasia programmes, and early experiments with gassing – which led to the final horror of the Extermination Camps.

You can never stop learning, because you will never hear all the details, read all the books, or hear all the testimonies.

But if you ever find yourself not feeling deeply uncomfortable (as well as deeply moved) by the horrors of the Holocaust, then it is time to not turn away. To take another look.

For us today, the most important lesson is that it is possible for even a sophisticated and educated country to succumb to a warped philosophy that blames the ‘other’ for  problems in society, and to progressively desensitize the people to greater and greater levels of dehumanisation.

While nothing on the scale of the holocaust has occurred again, can we be confident that it never could? When we see what has happened under Pol Pot, or in Srebrenica, or in Rwanda, we know that the capacity of people to dehumanise ‘others’ for reasons of ethnicity or politics, and to murder them in large numbers, has not gone away.

The price of freedom, and decency in a society, is eternal vigilance.

Calling out hate speech is therefore, in a small way, honouring the 6 million – the great majority of whom were Jews – who died in the holocaust. It is stamping out that first step in that process of dehumanisation that is the common precursor of all genocidal episodes in history. It is always lurking there, waiting to consume a society that is looking for simple answers, and for someone to blame.

When did I learn about the holocaust?

I never stop learning.

 

#HolocaustMemorialDay #WeRemember

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Matt Ridley shares his ignorance of climate science (again)

Ridley trots out a combination of long-refuted myths that are much loved by contrarians; bad or crank science; or misunderstandings as to the current state of knowledge. In the absence of a Climate Feedback dissection of Ridley’s latest opinion piece, here is my response to some of his nonsense …

Here are five statements he makes that I will refute in turn.

1. He says: Forty-five years ago a run of cold winters caused a “global cooling” scare.

I say:

Stop repeating this myth Matt! A few articles in popular magazines in the 70s speculated about an impending ice age, and so according to dissemblers like Ridley, they state or imply that this was the scientific consensus at the time (snarky message: silly scientists can’t make your mind up). This is nonsense, but so popular amongst contrarians it is repeated frequently to this day.

If you want to know what scientists were really thinking and publishing in scientific papers read “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus”, by Thomas Peterson at al (2008), American Meteorological Society.

Warming, not cooling was the greater concern. It is astonishing that Ridley and others continue to repeat this myth. Has he really been unable – in the ten years since it was published – to read this oft cited article and so disabuse himself of the myth? Or does he deliberately repeat it because he thinks his readers are too lazy or too dumb to check the facts? How arrogant would that be?

2. He says: Valentina Zharkova of Northumbria University has suggested that a quiescent sun presages another Little Ice Age like that of 1300-1850. I’m not persuaded. Yet the argument that the world is slowly slipping back into a proper ice age after 10,000 years of balmy warmth is in essence true.

I say:

Oh dear, he cites the work of Zharkova, saying he is not persuaded, but then talks of ‘slowly slipping into a proper ice age’. A curious non sequitur. While we are on Zharkova, her work suffered from being poorly communicated.

And quantitatively, her work has no relevance to the current global warming we are observing. The solar minimum might create a -0.3C contribution over a limited period, but that would hardly put a dent in the +0.2C per decade rate of warming.

But, let’s return to the ice age cycle. What Ridley obdurately refuses to acknowledge is that the current warming is occurring due to less than 200 years of man-made changes to the Earth’s atmosphere, raising CO2 to levels not seen for nearly 1 million years (equal to 10 ice age cycles), is raising the global mean surface temperature at an unprecedented rate.

Therefore, talking about the long slow descent over thousands of years into an ice age that ought to be happening (based on the prior cycles), is frankly bizarre, especially given that the man-made warming is now very likely to delay a future ice age. As the a paper by Ganopolski et al, Nature (2016) has estimated:

“Additionally, our analysis suggests that even in the absence of human perturbations no substantial build-up of ice sheets would occur within the next several thousand years and that the current interglacial would probably last for another 50,000 years. However, moderate anthropogenic cumulative CO2 emissions of 1,000 to 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon will postpone the next glacial inception by at least 100,000 years.”

And why stop there, Matt? Our expanding sun will boil away the oceans in a billion years time, so why worry about Brexit; and don’t get me started on the heat death of the universe. It’s hopeless, so we might as well have a great hedonistic time and go to hell in a handcart! Ridiculous, yes, but no less so than Ridley conflating current man-made global warming with a far, far off ice age, that recedes with every year we fail to address man-made emissions of CO2.

3. He says: Well, not so fast. Inconveniently, the correlation implies causation the wrong way round: at the end of an interglacial, such as the Eemian period, over 100,000 years ago, carbon dioxide levels remain high for many thousands of years while temperature fell steadily. Eventually CO2 followed temperature downward.

I say:

The ice ages have indeed been a focus of study since Louis Agassiz coined the term in 1837, and there have been many twists and turns in our understanding of them even up to the present day, but Ridley’s over-simplification shows his ignorance of the evolution of this understanding.

The Milankovitch Cycles are key triggers for entering, an ice age (and indeed, leaving it), but the changes in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide drives the cooling (entering) and warming (leaving) of an ice age, something that was finally accepted by the science community following Hays et al’s 1976 seminal paper (Variations in the Earth’s orbit: Pacemake of the ice ages) , over 50 years since Milankovitch first did his work.

But the ice core data that Ridley refers to confirms that carbon dioxide is the driver, or ‘control knob’, as Professor Richard Alley explains it; and if you need a very readable and scientifically literate history of our understanding of the ice cores and what they are telling us, his book “The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future” is a peerless, and unputdownable introduction.

Professor Alley offers an analogy. Suppose you take out a small loan, but then after this interest is added, and keeps being added, so that after some years you owe a lot of money. Was it the small loan, or the interest rate that created the large debt? You might say both, but it is certainly ridiculous to say the the interest rate is unimportant because the small loan came first.

But despite its complexity, and despite the fact that the so-called ‘lag’ does not refute the dominant role of CO2, scientists are interested in explaining such details and have indeed studied the ‘lag’. In 2012, Shakun and others published a paper doing just that “Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation”(Jeremy D. Shakun et al, Nature 484, 49–54, 5 April 2012). Since you may struggle to see a copy of this paywalled paper, a plain-English summary is available.

Those who read headlines and not contents – like the US Politician Joe Barton – might think this paper is challenging the dominant role of CO2, but the paper does not say that.  This paper showed that some warming occurred prior to increased CO2, but this is explained as an interaction between Northern and Southern hemispheres, following the Milankovitch original ‘forcing’.

The role of the oceans is crucial in fully explaining the temperature record, and can add significant delays in reaching a new equilibrium. There are interactions between the oceans in Northern and Southern hemispheres that are implicated in some abrupt climate change events (e.g.  “North Atlantic ocean circulation and abrupt climate change during the last glaciation”, L. G. Henry et al, Science,  29 July 2016 • Vol. 353 Issue 6298).

4. He says: Here is an essay by Willis Eschenbach discussing this issue. He comes to five conclusions as to why CO2 cannot be the main driver

I say:

So Ridley quotes someone with little or no scientific credibility who has managed to publish in Energy & Environment. Its editor Dr Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen admitted that she was quite partisan in seeking to publish ‘sceptical’ articles (which actually means, contrarian articles), as discussed here.

Yet, Ridley extensively quotes this low grade material, but could have chosen from hundreds of credible experts in the field of climate science. If he’d prefer ‘the’ textbook that will take him through all the fundamentals that he seems to struggle to understand, he could try Raymond Pierrehumbert’s seminal textbook “Principles of Planetary Climate”. But no. He chooses Eschenbach, with a BA in Psychology.

Ridley used to put up the appearance of interest in a rational discourse, albeit flying in the face of the science. That mask has now fully and finally dropped, as he is now channeling crank science. This is risible.

5. He says: The Antarctic ice cores, going back 800,000 years, then revealed that there were some great summers when the Milankovich wobbles should have produced an interglacial warming, but did not. To explain these “missing interglacials”, a recent paper in Geoscience Frontiers by Ralph Ellis and Michael Palmer argues we need carbon dioxide back on the stage, not as a greenhouse gas but as plant food.

I say:

The paper is 19 pages long, which is unusual in today’s literature. The case made is intriguing but not convincing, but I leave it to the experts to properly critique it. It is taking a complex system, where for example, we know that large movements of heat in the ocean have played a key role in variability, and tries to infer (explaining interglacials) that dust is the primary driver, while discounting the role of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

The paper curiously does not cite the seminal paper by Hays et al (1976), yet cites a paper by Willis Eschenbach published in Energy & Environment (which I mentioned earlier). All this raised concerns in my mind about this paper.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and scientific dialogue, and it is really too early to claim that this paper is something or nothing; even if that doesn’t mean waiting the 50 odd years that Milankovitch’s work had to endure, before it was widely accepted. Good science is slow, conservative, and rigorous, and the emergence of a consilience on the science of our climate has taken a very long time, as I explored in a previous essay.

Ralph Ellis on his website (which shows that his primary interest is the history of the life and times of Jesus) states:

“Ralph has made a detour into palaeoclimatology, resulting in a peer-review science paper on the causes of ice ages”, and after summarising the paper says,

“So the alarmists were right about CO2 being a vital forcing agent in ice age modulation – just not in the way they thought”.

So was this paper an attempt to clarify what was happening during the ice ages, or a contrivance, to take a pot shot at carbon dioxide’s influence on our contemporary climate change?

The co-author, Michael Palmer, is a biochemist, with no obvious background in climate science and provided “a little help” on the paper according to his website.

But on a blog post comment he offers a rather dubious extrapolation from the paper:

“The irony is that, if we should succeed in keeping the CO2 levels high through the next glacial maximum, we would remove the mechanism that would trigger the glacial termination, and we might end up (extreme scenario, of course) another Snowball Earth.”,

They both felt unembarrassed participating in comments on the denialist blog site WUWT. Quite the opposite, they gleefully exchanged messages with a growing band of breathless devotees.

But even if my concerns about the apparent bias and amateurism of this paper were allayed, the conclusion (which Ridley and Ellis clearly hold to) that the current increases in carbon dioxide is nothing to be concerned with, does not follow from this paper. It is a non sequitur.

If I discovered a strange behavour like, say, the Coriolis force way back when, the first conclusion would not be to throw out Newtonian mechanics.

The physics of CO2 is clear. How the greenhouse effect works is clear, including for the conditions that apply on Earth, with all remaining objections resolved since no later than the 1960s.

We have a clear idea of the warming effect of increased CO2 in the atmosphere including short term feedbacks, and we are getting an increasingly clear picture of how the Earth system as a whole will respond, including longer term feedbacks.  There is much still to learn of course, but nothing that is likely to require jettisoning fundamental physics.

The recent excellent timeline published by Carbon Brief showing the history of the climate models, illustrates the long slow process of developing these models, based on all the relevant fundamental science.

This history has shown how different elements have been included in the models as the computing power has increased – general circulation, ocean circulation, clouds, aerosols, carbon cycle, black carbon.

I think it is really because Ridley still doesn’t understand how an increase from 0.03% to 0.04% over 150 years or so, in the atmospheric concentration of CO2, is something to be concerned about (or as I state it in talks, a 33% rise in the principal greenhouse gas; which avoids Ridley’s deliberately misleading formulation).

He denies that he denies the Greenhouse Effect, but every time he writes, he reveals that really, deep down, he still doesn’t get it. To be as generous as I can to him, he may suffer from a perpetual state of incredulity (a common condition I have written about before).

Conclusion

Matt Ridley in an interview he gave to Russ Roberts at EconTalk.org in 2015 he reveals his inability to grasp even the most basic science:

“So, why do they say that their estimate of climate sensitivity, which is the amount of warming from a doubling, is 3 degrees? Not 1 degree? And the answer is because the models have an amplifying factor in there. They are saying that that small amount of warming will trigger a furtherwarming, through the effect mainly of water vapor and clouds. In other words, if you warm up the earth by 1 degree, you will get more water vapor in the atmosphere, and that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas and will cause you to treble the amount of warming you are getting. Now, that’s the bit that lukewarmers like me challenge. Because we say, ‘Look, the evidence would not seem the same, the increases in water vapor in the right parts of the atmosphere–you have to know which parts of the atmosphere you are looking at–to justify that. And nor are you seeing the changes in cloud cover that justify these positive-feedback assumptions. Some clouds amplify warming; some clouds do the opposite–they would actually dampen warming. And most of the evidence would seem to suggest, to date, that clouds are actually having a dampening effect on warming. So, you know, we are getting a little bit of warming as a result of carbon dioxide. The clouds are making sure that warming isn’t very fast. And they’re certainly not exaggerating or amplifying it. So there’s very, very weak science to support that assumption of a trebling.”

He seems to be saying that the water vapour is in the form of clouds – some high altitude, some low –  have opposite effects (so far, so good), so the warming should be 1C – just the carbon dioxide component – from a doubling of CO2 concentrations (so far, so bad).  The clouds represent a condensed (but not yet precipitated) phase of water in the atmosphere, but he seems to have overlooked that water also comes in a gaseous phase (not clouds). Its is that gaseous phase that is providing the additional warming, bringing the overall warming to 3C.

The increase in water vapour concentrations is based on “a well-established physical law (the Clausius-Clapeyron relation) determines that the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by about 7% for every 1°C rise in temperature” (IPCC AR4 FAQ 3.2)

T.C. Chamberlin writing in 1905 to Charles Abbott, explained this in a way that is very clear, explaining the feedback role of water vapour:

“Water vapour, confessedly the greatest thermal absorbent in the atmosphere, is dependent on temperature for its amount, and if another agent, as CO2 not so dependent, raises the temperature of the surface, it calls into function a certain amount of water vapour, which further absorbs heat, raises the temperature and calls forth more [water] vapour …”

(Ref. “Historical Perspectives On Climate Change” by James Fleming, 1998)

It is now 113 years since Chamberlin wrote those words, but poor Ridley is still struggling to understand basic physics, so instead regales us with dubious science intended to distract and confuse.

When will Matt Ridley stop feeling the need to share his perpetual incredulity and obdurate ignorance with the world?

© Richard W. Erskine, 2018

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Ending The Climate Solution Wars: A Climate Solutions Taxonomy

If you spend even a little time looking at the internet and social media in search of enlightenment on climate solutions, you will have noted that there are passionate advocates for each and every solution out there, who are also experts in the shortcomings of competing solutions!

This creates a rather unhelpful atmosphere for those of us trying to grapple with the problem of addressing the very real risks of dangerous global warming.

There are four biases – often implied but not always stated – that lie at the heart of these unproductive arguments:

  • Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution;
  • Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales;
  • Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that marginalizes others;
  • Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Let’s explore how these manifest themselves:

Feasibility: Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution

This does not mean that an idea does not have promise (and isn’t worthy of R&D investment), but refers to the tendency to champion a solution based more on wishful thinking than any proven track record. For example, small modular nuclear has been championed as the path to a new future for nuclear – small, modular, scaleable, safe, cheap – and there are an army of people shouting that this is true. We have heard recent news that the economics of small nuclear are looking a bit shaky. This doesn’t mean its dead, but it does rather put the onus on the advocates to prove their case, and cut the PR, as Richard Black has put it. Another one that comes to mind is ‘soil carbon’ as the single-handed saviour (as discussed in Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle). The need to reform agriculture is clear, but it is also true (according to published science) that a warming earth could make soils a reinforcer of warming, rather than a cooling agent; the wisdom of resting hopes in regenerative farming as the whole of even a major contributor, is far from clear. The numbers are important.

Those who do not wish to deal with global warming (either because they deny its seriousness or because they do not like the solutions) quite like futuristic solutions, because while we are debating long-off solutions, we are distracted from focusing on implementing existing solutions.

Timescale: Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales

Often we see solutions that seem to clearly have promise and will be able to make a major contribution in the future. The issue is that even when they have passed the feasibility test, they fail to meet it on a timescale required. There is not even one timescale, as discussed in Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check, as we have an immediate need to reduce carbon emissions (say, 0-10 years), then an intermediate timeframe in which to implement an energy transition (say, 10-40 years). Renewable energy is key to the latter but cannot make sufficient contribution to the former (that can only be done by individual and community reductions in their carbon intensity). And whatever role Nuclear Fusion has for the future of humanity, it is totally irrelevant to solving the challenge we have in the next 50 years to decarbonize our economy.

The other aspect of timescale that is crucial is that the eventual warming of the planet is strongly linked to the peak atmospheric concentration, whereas the peak impacts will be delayed for decades or even centuries, before the Earth system finally reaches a new equilibrium. Therefore, while the decarbonization strategy required for solutions over, say, the 2020-2050 timeframe; the implied impacts timeframe could be 2050-2500, and this delay can make it very difficult to appreciate the urgency for action.

Priority: Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that precludes others

I was commenting on Project Drawdown on twitter the other day and this elicited a strong response because of a dislike of a ‘list’ approach to solutions. I also do not like ‘lists’ when they imply that the top few should be implemented and the bottom ones ignored.  We are in an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, so we have to be very careful not to exclude solutions that meet the feasibility and timescale tests. Paul Hawken has been very clear that this is not the intention of Project Drawdown (because the different solutions interact and an apparently small solution can act as a catalyst for other solutions).

Centralization: Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Some people like the idea of big solutions which are often underwritten at least by centralised entities like Governments. They argue that big impact require big solutions, and so they have a bias towards solutions like nuclear and an antipathy to lower-tech and less energy intensive solutions like solar and wind.

Others share quite the opposite perspective. They are suspicious of Governments and big business, and like the idea of community based, less intensive solutions. They are often characterized as being unrealistic because of the unending thirst of humanity for consumption suggests an unending need for highly intensive energy sources.

The antagonism between these world views often obscures the obvious: that we will need both top-down and bottom-up solutions. We cannot all have everything we would like. Some give and take will be essential.

This can make for strange bedfellows. Both environmentalists and Tea Party members in Florida supported renewable energy for complementary reasons, and they became allies in defeating large private utilities who were trying to kill renewables.

To counteract these biases, we need to agree on some terms of reference for solving global warming.

  • Firstly, we must of course be guided by the science (namely, the IPCC reports and its projections) in order to measure the scale of the response required. We must take a risk management approach to the potential impacts.
  • Secondly, we need to start with an ‘all hands on deck’ or inclusive philosophy because we have left it so late to tackle decarbonization, we must be very careful before we throw out any ideas.
  • Thirdly, we must agree on a relevant timeline for those solutions we will invest in and scale immediately. For example, for Project Drawdown, that means solutions that are proven, can be scaled and make an impact over the 2020-2050 timescale. Those that cannot need not be ‘thrown out’ but may need more research & development before they move to being operationally scaled.
  • Fourthly, we allow both top-down (centralized) and bottom-up (solutions), but recognise that while Governments dither, it will be up to individuals and social enterprise to act, and so in the short-medium term, it will be the bottom solutions that will have greater impact. Ironically, the much feared ‘World Government’ that right-wing conpiracy theorists most fear, is not what we need right now, and on that, the environmentalists mostly agree!

In the following Climate Solutions Taxonomy I have tried to provide a macro-level view of different solution classes. I have included some solutions which I am not sympathetic too;  such as nuclear and geo-engineering. But bear in mind that the goal here is to map out all solutions. It is not ‘my’ solutions, and is not itself a recommendation or plan.

On one axis we have the top-down versus bottom-up dimension, and on the other axis, broad classes of solution. The taxonomy is therefore not a simple hierarchy, but is multi-dimensional (here I show just two dimensions, but there are more).

Climate Solutions Taxonomy macro view

While I would need to go to a deeper level to show this more clearly, the arrows are suggestive of the system feedbacks that reflect synergies between solutions. For example, solar PV in villages in East Africa support education, which in turn supports improvments in family planning.

It is incredible to me that while we have (properly) invested a lot of intellectual and financial resources in scientific programmes to model the Earth’s climate system (and impacts), there has been dramatically less modelling effort on the economic implications that will help support policy-making (based on the damage from climate change, through what are called Integrated Assessment Models).

But what is even worse is that there seems to have been even less effort – or barely any –  modelling the full range of solutions and their interactions. Yes, there has been modelling of, for example, renewable energy supply and demand (for example in Germany), and yes, Project Drawdown is a great initiative; but I do not see a substantial programme of work, supported by Governments and Academia, that is grappling with the full range of solutions that I have tried to capture in the figure above, and providing an integrated set of tools to support those engaged in planning and implementing solutions.

This is unfortunate at many levels.

I am not here imagining some grand unified theory of climate solutions, where we end up with a spreadsheet telling us how much solar we should build by when and where.

But I do envisage a heuristic tool-kit that would help a town such as the one I was born (Hargesia in Somaliland), or the town in which I now live (Nailsworth in Gloucestershire in the UK), to be able to work through what works for them, to plan and deliver solutions. Each may arrive at different answers, but all need to be grounded in a common base of data and ‘what works’, and a more qualitative body of knowledge on synergies between solutions.

Ideally, the tool-kit would be usable at various levels of granularity, so it could be used at different various scales, and different solutions would emerge at different scales.

A wide range of both quantitative and qualitative methods may be required to grapple with the range of information covered here.

I am looking to explore this further, and am interested in any work or insights people have. Comments welcome.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

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Deficit, Debt and stalling carbon dioxide emissions

This essay is based on an extract from a talk I did recently that was well received. This specific part of the talk was described as very helpful in clarifying matters related to our carbon dioxide emissions. I hope others also find it useful. 

David Cameron said on 24 January 2013 “We’re paying down Britain’s debts” and got a lot of stick for this misleading statement. Why? Let me try to explain.

The deficit is the annual amount by which we spend more than we get in taxes. Whereas, the debt is the cumulative sum of year on year deficits.

As many politicians do, Cameron was using language designed to be, shall we say, ‘economical with the truth’. He was not the first, and he won’t be the last.

We can picture deficit being added to our debt using the following picture (or for greater dramatic effect, do it live if you are giving a talk):

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.10.49

If the deficit declines this year compared to last year, that may be of great solace to the Chancellor (and that was the situation in 2013), because maybe it’s the start of a trend that will mean that the debt may reach a peak.

Cameron could have said “Our debt keeps rising, but at least the rate at which it is rising is slightly less than last year. We’ll need to borrow some more to cover the additional deficit”, would the a honest statement, but he didn’t. It simply wouldn’t have cut it with the spin doctors.

The reality is that the only thing we can conclude from a deficit this year that is smaller than last year is that that the debt has increased by an amount less than last year. That’s it. It doesn’t sound quite so great put that way, does it?

You need year-on-year surpluses to actually bring the debt down.

Deficit and debt are useful in making an analogy with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because the confusion – intended or accidental – over deficit and debt, is very similar to the confusion that occurs in the mind of the public when the media report changes in our carbon emissions.

Let’s explore the analogy by replacing “Deficit” with “Emissions”, and “Debt” with “Atmospheric Concentration” …

The annual emissions add to the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere, i.e. the raised Atmospheric Concentration.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.25

There are two differences with the financial analogy when we think about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Firstly, when we add, say, 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (the green coloured area represents the added carbon dioxide) …

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.37

… then, within a short time (about 5 years) 50% of the added carbon dioxide (that is 20 billion tonnes, in this illustration), is absorbed in oceans and biosphere, balancing the remainder of carbon dioxide added to atmosphere, and we can visualize this balance as follows (Credit: Rabett Run, which includes a more technical description and an animation) –

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.52

Secondly, unlike with the economy, once the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide goes up, it stays up for hundred of years (and to get back to where it started, thousands of years), because for one thing, the processes to take carbon from the upper ocean to the deep ocean are very slow.

Unlike with the economy, our added carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere always goes in the wrong direction; it increases.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer reassurance, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

The story title below is just one example, taken from the Financial Times ( and I am not picking on the FT, but it shows that this is not restricted to the tabloids).

Whenever we see a graph of emissions over the years (graph on the left), the Health Warning should always be the Keeling Curve (graph on the right).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.12.05

So the global garbon dioxide emissions in 2014 and 2015 where 36.08 and 36.02 billion tonnes, respectively. Cause for cautious rejoicing? Well, given the huge number of variables that go into this figure (the GDP of each nation; their carbon intensity; the efficiency level for equipment and transport; and so on), projecting a trend from a few years is a tricky business, and some have devoted their lives to tracking this figure. Important work for sure.

Then 2016 came along and the figure was similar but slightly raised, at 36.18 billion tonnes.

But we were said to be stalled … 36.08, 36.02 and 36.18.

I liken this to heading for the cliff edge at a steady pace, but at least no longer accelerating. Apparently that is meant to be reassuring.

Then comes the projected figure for 2017, which includes a bit of a burp of carbon dioxide from the oceans – courtesy of the strong El Nino – and this was even predicted, and horror of horrors, it makes headline news around the world.

We have jumped by 2% over the previous year (actually 1.7% to 36.79 billion tonnes). Has the ‘stall’ now unstalled? What next?

The real headline is that we are continuing to emit over 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, year on year without any sign of stopping.

Only when emissions go down to 0 (zero), will the atmospheric concentration STOP rising.

So in relation to our emissions what word do we want to describe it? Not stall, not plateau, not ease back, but instead, stop, finito or end. They’ll do.

I have discovered – from talking to people who do not follow climate change on twitter, or the blogosphere, and are not fans of complex data analysis – that what I explained above was very helpful but also not widely appreciated.

But in a sense, this is probably the most important fact about climate change that everyone needs to understand, that

the carbon dioxide concentration will only stop rising when emissions completely stop.

The second most important fact is this:

whatever value the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide gets to – at that point in the future when we stop adding more – that it is where it will stay for my grandchild, and her grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and so on … for centuries* to come.

The Keeling Curve  – which measures the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – is the only curve that matters, because until it flattens, we will not know how much warming there will actually be, because of the third most important fact people must understand is this:

broadly speaking, the level of warming is proportional to the the peak concentration of carbon dioxide.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer hope that we’ve turned a corner, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

It is amazing how often the deficit/ debt confusion is played on by policitians regarding the nations finances.

The ’emissions stalling’ narrative of the last few years has led many to imagine we are, if not out of the woods, then on our way, but I think the confusion here is a failure of the media and other science communicators to always provide a clear health warning.

The truth is that we, as a species, are a long way still from showing a concerted effort to get out of the woods. Worse still, we are arguing amongst ourselves about which path to take.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

 

[* Unless and until we find a way to artificially extract and sequester carbon dioxide; this is still only R&D and not proven at scale yet, so does not rescue the situation we face in the period leading to 2050. We need to halt emissions, not just “stall” them.]

#carbondioxide #emissions #debt #deficit

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Musing on the loss of European Medicines Agency (EMA) from the UK

People are arguing as to whether the loss of the EMA from the UK will hurt us or not, and I think missing some nuance.

The ICH (International Committee on Harmonization) has helped pharma to harmonize the way drugs are tested, licensed and monitored globally (albeit with variations), enabling drugs to be submitted for licensing in the largest number of countries possible.

For UK’s Big Pharma, the loss of EMA is a blow but not a fatal one, they have entities everywhere, they’ll find a way.

There are 3 key issues I see, around Network, Innovation and Influence:

  1. Network – New drug development is now more ‘ecosystem’ based, not just big pharma alone, and UK has lots of large, medium and small pharma, in both private and public institutions (Universities, Francis Crick Institute, etc.). And so do other EU countries, which form part of the extended network of collaboration. UK leaving EU will disrupt this network, and loss of EMA subtly changes the centre of power.
  2. Innovation – Further to the damage to networks, and despite ICH’s harmonization, being outside of EU inevitably creates issues for the smaller innovators with less reach, shallower pockets, and a greater challenge in adapting to the new  reality.
  3. Influence – not being at the EMA table (wherever its HQ is based) means that we cannot guide the development of regulation, which is on an inexorable path of even greater harmonization. Despite the UK’s self-loathing re. ‘not being as organized as the Germans’, the Brits have always been better than most at regulation, its deep in our culture (indeed much of the EU regulations neoliberals rail against have been gold-plated by the UK when they reach our shores). But outside the EU, and outside EMA, we won’t be in a position to apply these skills, and our influence will wane.

Unfortunately, the Brexiters have shown that they misunderstand the complexity not merely of supply chains in the automotive sector, for example, but the more subtle connections that exist in highly sophisticated development lifecycles, and highly regulated sectors, like pharmaceuticals.

A key regulatory body moving from our shores will have long term consequences we cannot yet know.

Can Britain adapt to the new reality?

Of course it can, but do not expect it to be easy, quick or cheap to do so.

Expect some pain.

 

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Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check

Updated 11th November 2017 – Hopeful message following Figure added.

It seems that the we are all – or most of us – in denial about the reality of the situation we are in with relation to the need to address global warming now, rather than sometime in the future.

We display seesaw emotions, optimistic that emissions have been flattening, but aghast that we had a record jump this year (which was predicted, but was news to the news people). It seems that people forget that if we have slowed from 70 to 60 miles per hour, approaching a cliff edge, the result will be the same, albeit deferred a little. We actually need to slam on the breaks and stop! Actually, due to critical erosion of the cliff edge, we will even need to go into reverse.

I was chatting with a scientist at a conference recently:

Me: I think we need to accept that a wide portfolio of solutions will be required to address global warming. Pacala and Socolow’s ‘wedge stabilization’ concept is still pertinent.

Him: People won’t change; we won’t make it. We are at over 400 parts per million and rising, and have to bring this down, so some artificial means of carbon sequestration is the only answer.

This is just an example of many other kinds of conversations of a similar structure that dominate the blogosphere. It’s all about the future. Future impacts, future solutions. In its more extreme manifestations, people engage in displacement behaviour, talking about any and every solution that is unproven in order to avoid focusing on proven solutions we have today.

Yet nature is telling us that the impacts are now, and surely the solutions should be too; at least for implementation plans in the near term.

Professors Kevin Anderson and Alice Larkin of the Tyndall Centre have been trying to shake us out of our denial for a long time now. The essential argument is that some solutions are immediately implementable while others are some way off, and others so far off they are not relevant to the time frame we must consider (I heard a leader in Fusion Energy research on the BBC who sincerely stated his belief that it is the solution to climate change; seriously?).

The immediately implementable solution that no politician dares talk about is degrowth – less buying stuff, less travel, less waste, etc. All doable tomorrow, and since the top 10% of emitters globally are responsible for 50% of emissions (see Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam), the quickest and easiest solution is for that 10% or let’s say 20%, to halve their emissions; and do so within a few years. It’s also the most ethical thing to do.

Anderson & Larkin’s credibility is enhanced by the fact that they practice what they advocate, as for example, this example of an approach to reduce the air miles associated with scientific conferences:

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 11.51.25

Some of people in the high energy consuming “West” have proven it can be done. Peter Kalmus, in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution describes how he went from a not untypical US citizen responsible for 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, to now something like 1 tonne; which is one fifth of the global average! It is all about what we do, how we do it, and how often we do it.

Anderson and Larkin have said that even just reaching half the European average, at least, would be a huge win: “If the top 10% of emitters were to reduce their emissions to the average for EU, that would mean a 33% in global emissions” (Kevin Andreson, Paris, Climate & Surrealism: how numbers reveal another reality, Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, March 2017).

This approach – a large reduction in consumption (in all its forms) amongst high emitters in all countries, but principally the ‘west’ – could be implemented in the short term (the shorter the better but let’s say, by 2030). Let’s call these Phase 1 solutions.

The reason we love to debate and argue about renewables and intermittency and so on is that it really helps to distract us from the blinding simplicity of the degrowth solution.

It is not that a zero or low carbon infrastructure is not needed, but that the time to fully implement it is too long – even if we managed to do it in 30 years time – to address the issue of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases. This has already started, but from a low base, but will have a large impact in the medium term (by 2050). Let’s call these Phase 2 solutions.

Project Drawdown provides many solutions relevant to both Phase 1 and 2.

And as for my discussion that started this, artificial carbon sequestration methods, such as BECCS and several others (are explored in Atmosphere of Hope by Tim Flannery) will be needed, but it is again about timing. These solutions will be national, regional and international initiatives, and are mostly unproven at present; they live in the longer term, beyond 2050. Let’s call these Phase 3 solutions.

I am not here wanting to get into geo-engineering solutions, a potential Phase 4. A Phase 4 is predicated on Phases 1 to 3 failing or failing to provide sufficient relief. However, I think we would have to accept that if, and I personally believe only if, there was some very rude shock (an unexpected burp of methane from the Arctic, and signs of a catastrophic feedback), leading to an imminent > 3C rise in global average temperature (as a possible red-line), then some form of geo-engineering would be required as a solution of last resort. But for now, we are not in that place. It is a matter for some feasibility studies but not policy and action. We need to implement Phase 1, 2 and 3 – all of which will be required – with the aim of avoiding a Phase 4.

I have illustrated the three phases in the figure which follows (Adapted from Going beyond dangerous climate change: does Paris lock out 2°C? Professors Kevin Anderson & Alice Bows-Larkin, Tyndall Centre – presentation to School of Mechanical Aerospace & Civil Engineering University of Manchester February 2016, Douglas, Isle of Man).

My adapted figure is obviously a simplification, but we need some easily digestible figures to help grapple with this complex subject; and apologies in advance to Anderson & Larkin if I have taken liberties with my colourful additions and annotations to their graphic (while trying to remain true to its intent).

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 12.19.57

A version of this slide on Twitter (@EssaysConcern) seemed to resonate with some people, as a stark presentation of our situation.

For me, it is actually a rather hopeful image, if as I, you have a belief in the capacity for people to work together to solve problems which so often we see in times of crisis; and this is a crisis, make no mistake.

While the climate inactivists promote a fear of big Government, controlling our lives, the irony here is that Phase 1 is all about individuals and communities, and we can do this with or without Government support. Phase 2 could certainly do with some help in the form of enabling legislation (such a price on carbon), but it does not have to be top-down solutions, although some are (industrial scale energy storage). Only when we get to Phase 3 are we seeing national solutions dominating, and then only because we have an international consensus to execute these major projects; that won’t be big government, it will be responsible government.

The message of Phases 1 and 2 is … don’t blame the conservatives, don’t blame the loss of feed-in tarifs, or … just do it! They can’t stop you!

They can’t force you to boil a full kettle when you only need one mug of tea. They can’t force you to drive to the smoke, when the train will do. They can’t force you to buy new stuff that can be repaired at a cafe.

And if your community wants a renewable energy scheme, then progressives and conservatives can find common cause, despite their other differences. Who doesn’t want greater community control of their energy, to compete with monopolistic utilities?

I think the picture contains a lot of hope, because it puts you, and me, back in charge. And it sends a message to our political leaders, that we want this high on the agenda.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

 

 

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Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle

Incredulity, in the face of startling claims, is a natural human reaction and is right and proper.

When I first heard the news about the detection on 14th September 2015 of the gravitational waves from two colliding black holes by the LIGO observatories I was incredulous. Not because I had any reason to disagree with the predictions of Albert Einstein that such waves should exist, rather it was my incredulity that humans had managed to detect such a small change in space-time, much smaller than the size of a proton.

How, I pondered, was the ‘noise’ from random vibrations filtered out? I had to do some studying, and discovered the amazing engineering feats used to isolate this noise.

What is not right and proper is to claim that personal incredulity equates to an error in the claims made. If I perpetuate my incredulity by failing to ask any questions, then it’s I who is culpable.

And if I were to ask questions then simply ignore the answers, and keep repeating my incredulity, who is to blame? If the answers have been sufficient to satisfy everyone skilled in the relevant art, how can a non expert claim to dispute this?

Incredulity is a favoured tactic of many who dispute scientific findings in many areas, and global warming is not immune from the clinically incredulous.

The sadly departed Professor David Mackay gives an example in his book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (available online):

The burning of fossil fuels is the principal reason why CO2 concentrations have gone up. This is a fact, but, hang on: I hear a persistent buzzing noise coming from a bunch of climate-change inactivists. What are they saying? Here’s Dominic Lawson, a columnist from the Independent:  

“The burning of fossil fuels sends about seven gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere, which sounds like a lot. Yet the biosphere and the oceans send about 1900 gigatons and 36000 gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere – … one reason why some of us are sceptical about the emphasis put on the role of human fuel-burning in the greenhouse gas effect. Reducing man-made CO2 emissions is megalomania, exaggerating man’s significance. Politicians can’t change the weather.”

Now I have a lot of time for scepticism, and not everything that sceptics say is a crock of manure – but irresponsible journalism like Dominic Lawson’s deserves a good flushing.

Mackay goes on to explain Lawson’s error:

The first problem with Lawson’s offering is that all three numbers that he mentions (seven, 1900, and 36000) are wrong! The correct numbers are 26, 440, and 330. Leaving these errors to one side, let’s address Lawson’s main point, the relative smallness of man-made emissions. Yes, natural flows of CO2 are larger than the additional flow we switched on 200 years ago when we started burning fossil fuels in earnest. But it is terribly misleading to quantify only the large natural flows into the atmosphere, failing to mention the almost exactly equal flows out of the atmosphere back into the biosphere and the oceans. The point is that these natural flows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in balance for millenia. So it’s not relevant at all that these natural flows are larger than human emissions. The natural flows cancelled themselves out. So the natural flows, large though they were, left the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean constant, over the last few thousand years.

Burning fossil fuels, in contrast, creates a new flow of carbon that, though small, is not cancelled.

I offer this example in some detail as an exemplar of the problem often faced in confronting incredulity.

It is natural that people will often struggle with numbers, especially large abstract sounding numbers. It is easy to get confused when trying to interpret numbers. It does not help that in Dominic Lawson’s case he is ideologically primed to see a ‘gotcha’, where none exists.

Incredulity, such as Lawson’s, is perfectly OK when initially confronting a claim that one is sceptical of; we cannot all be informed on every topic. But why then not pick up the phone, or email a Professor with skills in the particular art, to get them to sort out your confusion?  Or even, read a book, or browse the internet? But of course, Dominic Lawson, like so many others suffers from a syndrome that  many have identified. Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

It is this failure to display any intellectual curiosity which is unforgivable in those in positions of influence, such as journalists or politicians.

However, the incredulity has a twin brother, its mirror image: credulity. And I want to take an example that also involves the carbon cycle,.

In a politically charged subject, or one where there is a topic close to one’s heart, it is very easy to uncritically accept a piece of evidence or argument. To be, in the technical sense, a victim of confirmation bias.

I have been a vegetarian since 1977, and I like the idea of organic farming, preferably local and fresh. So I have been reading Graham Harvey’s book Grass Fed Nation. I have had the pleasure of meeting Graham, as he was presenting a play he had written which was performed in Stroud. He is a passionate and sincere advocate for his ideas on regenerative farming, and I am sure that much of what he says makes sense to farmers.

The recently reported research from Germany of a 75% decline in insect numbers is deeply worrying, and many are pointing the finger at modern farming and land-use methods.

However, I found something in amongst Harvey’s interesting book that made me incredulous, on the question of carbon.

Harvey presents the argument that, firstly, we can’t do anything to reduce carbon emissions from industry etc., but that secondly, no need to worry because the soils can take up all the annual emissions with ease; and further, that all of extra carbon in the industrial era could be absorbed in soils over coming years.

He relies a lot on Savory’s work, famed for his visionary but contentious TED talk. But he also references other work that makes similar claims.

I would be lying if I said there was not a part of me that wanted this to be true. I was willing it on. But I couldn’t stop myself … I just had to track down the evidence. Being an ex-scientist, I always like to go back to the source, and find a paper, or failing that (because of paywalls), a trusted source that summarises the literature.

Talk about party pooper, but I cannot find any such credible evidence for Harvey’s claim.

I think the error in Harvey’s thinking is to confuse the equilibrium capacity of the soils with their ability to take up more, every year, for decades.

I think it is also a inability to deal with numbers. If you multiply A, B and C together, but then take the highest possible ranges for A, B and C you can easily reach a result which is hugely in error. Overestimate the realistic land that can be addressed; and the carbon dioxide sequestration rate; and the time till saturation/ equilibrium is reached … and it is quite easy to overestimate the product of these by a factor of 100 or more.

Savory is suggesting that over a period of 3 or 4 decades you can draw down the whole of the anthropogenic amount that has accumulated (which is nearly 2000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide), whereas a realistic assessment (e.g. www.drawdown.org) is suggesting a figure of 14 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (more than 100 times less) is possible in the 2020-2050 timeframe.

There are many complex processes at work in the whole carbon cycle – the biological, chemical and geological processes covering every kind of cycle, with flows of carbon into and out of the carbon sinks. Despite this complexity, and despite the large flows of carbon (as we saw in the Lawson case), atmospheric levels had remained stable for a long time in the pre-industrial era (at 280 parts per million).  The Earth system as a whole was in equilibrium.

The deep oceans have by far the greatest carbon reservoir, so a ‘plausibility argument’ could go along the lines of: the upper ocean will absorb extra CO2 and then pass it to the deep ocean. Problem solved! But this hope was dashed by Revelle and others in the 1950s, when it was shown that the upper-to-lower ocean processes are really quite slow.

I always come back to the Keeling Curve, which reveals an inexorable rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since 1958 (and we can extend the curve further back using ice core data). And the additional CO2 humans started to put into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution (mid-19th century, let us say) was not, as far as I can see, magically soaked up by soils in the pre-industrial-farming days of the mid-20th century, when presumably traditional farming methods pertained.

FCRN explored Savory’s methods and claims, and find that despite decades of trying, he has not demonstrated that his methods work.  Savory’s case is very weak, and he ends up (in his exchanges with FCRN) almost discounting science; saying his methods are not susceptible to scientific investigations. A nice cop-out there.

In an attempt to find some science to back himself up, Savory referenced Gattinger, but that doesn’t hold up either. Track down Gattinger et al’s work  and it reveals that soil organic carbon could (on average, with a large spread) capture 0.4GtC/year (nowhere near annual anthropogenic emissions of 10GtC), and if it cannot keep up with annual emissions, forget soaking up the many decades of historical emissions (the 50% of these that persists for a very long time in the atmosphere).

It is interesting what we see here.

An example of ‘incredulity’ from Lawson, who gets carbon flows mixed up with net carbon flow, and an example of ‘credulity’ from Harvey where he puts too much stock in the equilibrium capacity of carbon in the soil, and assumes this means soils can keep soaking up carbon almost without limit. Both seem to struggle with basic arithmetic.

Incredulity in the face of startling claims is a good initial response to startling claims, but should be the starting point for engaging one’s intellectual curiosity, not as a perpetual excuse for confirming one’s bias; a kind of obdurate ignorance.

And neither should hopes invested in the future be a reason for credulous acceptance of claims, however plausible on face value.

It’s boring I know – not letting either one’s hopes or prejudices hold sway – but maths, logic and scientific evidence are the true friends here.

Maths is a great leveller.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

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JFK Conspiracy Story: Another Science Fail by BBC News

It seems only yesterday that the BBC was having to apologise for not challenging the scientifically illiterate rants of Lord Lawson … oh, but it was yesterday!

So how delightful to see another example of BBC journalism that demonstrates the woeful inability of journalists to report science accurately, or at least, to use well informed counter arguments when confronted with bullshit.

A Story by Owen Amos on the BBC Website (US & Canada section), with clickbait title “JFK assassination: Questions that won’t go away”  … is a grossly ill-informed piece, repeating ignorant conspiracy theories by Jefferson Morley (amongst others), without any challenge (BBC’s emphasis):

“Look at the Zapruder film,” says Morley. “Kennedy’s head goes flying backwards.

I know there’s a theory that if you get hit by a bullet from behind, the head goes towards the source of the bullet.

But as a common sense explanation, it seems very unlikely. That sure looks like a shot from the front.” 

That’s it then, common sense.

Case settled.

If it’s good enough for Oliver Stone and Jefferson Morley, who are we to argue?

But wait a minute!

The theory in question, if Morley is really interested, is the three centuries old  theory called Newtonian Mechanics (Reference: “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica“, Issac Newton, 1687).

Are we to cast that aside and instead listen to a career conspiracy theorist.

You can if you must, but the BBC shouldn’t be peddling such tripe.

As Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Laureate, pointed out long ago, the head MUST kick back in order to conserve both Momentum and Energy.  You need a picture?

IMG_2409

[I have not included the maths, but it is high school maths, trust me, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to do the calculation]

Morley would get a Nobel Prize if he disproved it. He hasn’t and won’t.

It seems that Morley has been doing the rounds in the media, and there is no problem finding gullible victims.

You might like to look at the Penn & Teller video of 2006 which demonstrates the physics in practice (with a melon), for the Newtonian sceptics like Morley.

Amos/BBC is gullible in uncritically replaying this nonsense, without mentioning Alvarez. Amos could have said something like

“this rationale (the head kick back) for a second gunman is completely unfounded as it flies in the face of basic Newtonian mechanics .. see this video

Unfortunately this fails the clickbait test for irresponsible journalism, which requires ‘debate’ by idiots in response to experts. It’s balanced reporting after all.

Why are journalists so incapable of understanding 300 years old basic physics, or so carelessly cast it aside. The same physics, by the way, that helps us design airplanes that fly, and a major pillar in climate science too (the science that so persistently eludes Lord Lawson).

I am waiting patiently for another BBC apology for crimes against scientific literacy and an inability to ask searching, informed questions of peddlars of bullshit, be they Lawson or Morley.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017.

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Trust, Truth and the Assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia 

How far do we go back to find examples of investigations of injustice or the abuse of power?

Maybe Roger Casement’s revelations on the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo, or the abuses of Peruvian Indians were heroic examples for which he received a Knighthood, even if later, his support for Irish independence earned him the noose.

Watergate was clearly not the first time that investigative journalism fired the public imagination, but it must be a high point, at least in the US, for the power of the principled and relentless pursuit of the truth by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

And then I call to mind the great days of the Sunday Times’ ‘Insight’ team that conducted many investigations. I recall the brilliant Brian Deer, who wrote for The Times and Sunday Times, and revealed the story behind Wakefield’s fake science on MMR, even while other journalists were shamelessly helping to propagate the discredited non-science.

But those days seem long ago now.

Today, you are just as likely to find The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator – desperate to satisfy their ageing and conservative readership, or in need of clickbait advertising revenue – to regurgitate bullshit, including the anti-expert nonsense that fills the blogosphere. This nonsense has been called out many times, such as in Climate Feedback.

Despite Michael Gove’s assertion that “Britain has had enough with experts” the IPSOS More Veracity Index of 2016 suggests differently  – It appears that nurses, doctors, lawyers and scientists are in the upper quartile of trust, whereas journalists, estate agents and politicians lurk in the lower quartile.

No wonder the right-wingers who own or write for the organs of conservatism are so keen to attack those in the upper quartile, and claim there is a crisis of trust. This is  displacement activity by politicians and journalists: claiming that there is a crisis of trust with others to deflect it from themselves. The public are not fooled.

It is a deeply cynical and pernicious to play the game of undermining evidence and institutions.

As Hannah Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

But investigative journalism is not dead.

In Russia there are many brave journalists who expose corruption and the abuse of power, and they have paid with their lives: 165 murdered since 1993, with about 50% of these since Putin came to power. He didn’t start the killing, but then, he didn’t stop it either.

The nexus of political, business and mafia-style corruption makes it easy from the leadership to shrug off responsibility.

And so we come to Malta, where the same nexus exists. Daphne Caruana Galizia has been exposing corruption for so long, there were no shortage of enemies, including the politicians and police that failed to protect her. Her assassination is a scar on Malta that will take a long time to heal.

The EU has produced anodyne reports on partnership with Malta and programmes continue despite a breakdown in the rule of law and governance, that have provided a haven for nepotism and racketeering. Is Malta really so different to Russia in this regard?

Is the EU able to defend the principles it espouses, and sanction those who fail to live up to them?

The purveyors of false news detest brave investigative journalists as much as they love to attack those like scientists who present evidence that challenges their interests. Strong institutions are needed to defend society against these attacks.

Remainers like myself defend the EU on many counts, but we also expect leadership when that is needed, not merely the wringing of hands.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017.

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America’s Gun Psychosis

This was originally written on 2nd October 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting where Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 851 more. The latest mass shooting (a phrase that will become out of date, almost before the ink is dry) at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This is also the 17th school shooting in the USA in the first 45 days of 2018. I have not made any changes to the essay below (because this is tragically the same psychosis), but have added Venn Diagrams to visualize the issue of mental health and guns. Mental health is not the issue here. It is people with homicidal tendencies (many of whom will indeed have mental problems) having easy access to guns. We should not stigmatise a growing number of people with mental health problems. We should reduce access to guns.

If ever one needed proof of the broken state of US politics, the failure to deal with this perpetual gun crisis is it.

After 16 children and 1 teacher were killed in the Dunblane massacre on 13th March 1996, the UK acted.

After 35 people were killed in the PortArthur massacre on 28th April 1996, Australia acted.

It’s what any responsible legislature would do.

So far in 2017, US deaths from shootings totals a staggering 11,652 (I think not including the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas, and with 3 months still to run in 2017 – see gunsviolencearchive – and note this excludes suicides).

The totals for the previous 3 years 2014, 2015 and 2016 are 12,571; 13,500; and 15,079.

The number of those injured comes in at about two times those killed (but note that the ratio for the latest Las Vegas shooting is closer to 10, with the latest Associated Press report at the time of writing, giving 58 people dead and 515 injured).

One cannot imagine the huge number of those scarred by these deaths and injuries – survivors, close families, friends, colleagues, classmates, first-responders, relatives at home and abroad. Who indeed has not been impacted by these shootings, in the US and even abroad?

I write as someone with many relatives and friends in America, and having owed my living to great American companies for much of my career. But I am also someone whose family has been touched by this never-ending obsession that America has with guns.

And still Congress and Presidents seem incapable of standing up to the gun lobby and acting.

The US, far from acting, loosens further the access to guns or controls on them.

This is a national psychosis, and an AWOL legislature.

In both the UK and Australian examples, it was actually conservative administrations that brought in the necessary legislation, so the idea that only ‘liberals’ are interested in reducing the number and severity of shootings, by introducing gun control, is simply wrong. This should not be a party political issue.

In the US some will argue against gun control, saying that a determined criminal or madman can always get hold of a gun. This is a logical fallacy, trying to make the best be the enemy of the good. Just because an action is not guaranteed to be 100% perfect, is no reason for not taking an action that could be effective, and the case of the UK and Australia, very effective. Do we fail to deliver chemotherapy to treat cancer patients because it is not guaranteed to prevent every patient from dying; to be 100% perfect? Of course not. But this is just one of the many specious arguments used by the gun lobby in the USA to defend the indefensible.

But at its root there is, of course, a deeply polarised political system in the USA. The inability to confront the guns crisis, is the same grid-locked polarisation that is preventing the US dealing with healthcare, or the justice system, or endemic racism, or indeed, climate change.

How will America – a country that has given so much to the world – overcome this debilitating polarization in the body politic?

America needs a Mandela – a visionary leader able to bring people together to have a rationale, evidence based conversation – but none is in sight.

It’s enough to make one weep.

The 3 branches of the US Government ought to be ashamed, but expect more platitudinous ‘thoughts and prayers’ … the alternative to them doing their job.

Trump is now praying for the day when evil is banished, for god’s sake! An easy but totally ineffective substitute for actually doing anything practical to stem the carnage, and protect US citizens.

Some pictures added 16th February 2018 to illustrate the problem facing the USA …

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.32Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.41

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BBC Science Reporting: Evidence, Values and Pollability

In his Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians on 15th October 2015, Professor Sir Mark Walport made the following observation:

“My PhD supervisor, Sir Peter Lachmann, has framed the distinction between the subjective and the objective in a different way, by considering whether questions are ‘pollable’ or ‘non- pollable’; that is, whether a question can be answered in principle by a vote (a pollable question), or whether the question has a right answer that is independent of individual preferences and opinions (a non-pollable question). This distinction can be easily illustrated by a couple of examples. It is a non-pollable question as to whether there is an anthropogenic contribution to climate change. There is a correct answer to this question and your opinion or mine is ultimately irrelevant. The fact that there may be uncertainties about the scale and the nature of the contribution does not change the basic nature of the question. In contrast, it is a pollable question as to whether nuclear energy is an acceptable solution to providing low-carbon power, and I will return to this later.”

The question presents itself: does the BBC understand the distinction between pollable and non-pollable questions related to science?

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday 12th September included two discussions on the nature of science reporting and how it has changed over the years, particularly at the BBC.

The first was with Steve Jones , Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College, who led a  review of the way the BBC itself reports science, about the changing nature of science reporting, while the second was with Richard Dawkins, Professor of evolutionary biology and David Willetts a former science minister, considering the “public’s evolving relationship with science, evidence and truth”.

Subsequent to this I wrote a letter to the Today team at the BBC, which is reproduced below, which I am now sharing on my blog:

Dear Sir/ Madam

I wanted to thank the BBC Today team for two excellent discussions that John Humphreys had, first with Prof. Steve Jones, and then subsequently with David Willetts and Richard Dawkins.

John Humphreys posed the challenge to Prof. Jones, as to why we should ‘believe’ climate change; and I am paraphrasing his words:

A. The world is warming

B. This warming is man made, and

C. There is only one way of stopping it.

This was an alarming way to approach the topic, for two reasons.

Firstly, the science – and by virtue of that statement, scientists – unequivocally answer A and B with a resounding ‘Yes’.  There is an aggregation of scientific evidence and analysis going back at least to John Tyndall in the mid 19th Century that brought us – no later than the 1980s in fact – to a consilience of science on these questions. I discuss this history and the nature of ‘consilience’ in an essay, here: https://essaysconcerning.com/2017/05/02/a-climate-of-consilience-or-the-science-of-certitude/ 

To question this is at the same level as questioning whether cigarettes cause lung cancer. There is no debate to be had here.  Yes, debate on how to get teenagers  to stop taking up smoking, but that’s a different question.  To say that everyone can have an opinion, and to set up a controversial ‘debate’ on these questions is the “false balance” Professor Jones identified in the report he did for the BBC. Representing opinions is not a license to misrepresent the evidence, by using ‘false balance’ in this way.

Secondly, however, scientists do NOT speak with one voice on how to stop it, as John Humphrey’s phrased his C question.  That is a why the UNFCCC takes up the question here which require policy input, and yes, the input of ‘values’.  Whilst the A and B questions are not questions where it is appropriate to bring values to bear on the answers; solutions are full of value-based inputs.  So the C that John Humphreys should be opening a dialogue on this:

C(amended): There are many solutions that can contribute to addressing the given man-made global warming – either by mitigation or adaptation – which ones do you advocate and why?

And of course many subsidiary questions arise when debating these solutions:

  • Are we too late to prevent dangerous climate change, therefore need a massive reduction in consumption – a degrowth strategy?
  • Can we solve this with a kind of Marshall Plan to decarbonise our energy supply, but also heat buildings and transport, through electrification?
  • What role does nuclear energy play?
  • Given the long time that excess carbon dioxide levels remain in the atmosphere, and the legacy of the developed worlds emissions, how can the developing world receive carbon justice?
  • Even if we decarbonised everything tomorrow, what solutions are feasible for reducing the raised levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; what degree of sea-level rise are we prepared to tolerate, ‘baked in’ already to the Earth system?
  • Is a carbon tax ultimately the only way forward, and what price do we put on carbon?
  • … and so on.

Yes, science can help answer these kinds of questions, but the values play a large part too.  

The fact the BBC still gets stuck in the groove of ‘debating’ A and B, is I think woeful. As woeful as ‘debating’ if smoking causes cancer.

I think David Willetts acknowledged the difference in these classes of question, whereas Richard Dawkins was disappointingly black and white; not recognising the role of values in the C(amended) class of questions.

David Willetts made the interesting point that in social science, there is often greater difficulty in getting to the truth, and this is highly problematic for politicians, but that for the physical sciences, if we’ve discovered the Higgs Boson, it is much clearer.  He made a lot of the need to bring values to bear on decisions and ‘not being able to wait for yet another report’. However, there is a qualitative difference with climate change: it requires long term strategic thinking and it is a challenge to the normal, national political cycles.

On the question of Lord Lawson. By all means invite him to discuss the economics of decarbonising the economy. But last time he was asked on – more or less to do this – and had a discussion with Justin Webb, he was asked by Justin to comment on Al Gore’s statement that we needed to push ahead with the solutions that are already available to us. Move on, in other words.

Instead of answering this question Lord Lawson tried to poke holes in unequivocal science (A and B), instead of addressing C; he has no intention of moving on.  He lost, and seems quite bitter about it; as he went on to make personal attacks on Al Gore.  While the interviewer cannot stop Lord Lawson saying these things, he should be called out on them.

“I am not a scientist” is a statement that US Republican Congressman use to avoid confronting the fact that A and B are true, and not up for debate.  John Humphreys should not be using the same statement (but he did on this episode). 

If climate change is “the big one” as he himself noted, surely it is time he made the effort to educate himself to the point where he understands why A and B are unequivocally “Yes”, in the same way that “Does smoking cause lung cancer?” has an unequivocally “Yes” answer.  There are no shortage of scientists at the Met Office, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and elsewhere who I am sure would be happy to help him out here.

Today was a good discussion – even a great step forward – but the BBC is still failing in its public service duty, on this topic of global warming.

Kind regards,

Richard Erskine

What seems to be clear to me is that John Humphreys is not alone amongst journalists in failing to distinguish between non-pollable (where evidence accumulated over many years holds sway, and values have no place) and pollable questions (where values can have as big a part to play as the science).

It is about time they started.

o o O o o

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The Zeitgeist of the Coder

When I go to see a film with my wife, we always stick around for the credits, and the list has got longer and longer over the years … Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Stuntman, Grips, Special Effects … and we’ve only just started. Five minutes later and we are still watching the credits! There is something admirable about this respect for the different contributions made to the end product. The degree of differentiation of competence in a film’s credits is something that few other projects can match.

Now imagine the film reel for a typical IT project … Project Manager, Business Analyst, Systems Architect, Coder, Tester and we’re almost done, get your coat. Here, there is the opposite extreme; a complete failure to identify, recognise and document the different competencies that surely must exist in something as complex as a software project. Why is this?

For many, the key role on this very short credits list is the ‘coder’. There is this zeitgeist of the coders – a modern day priesthood – that conflates their role with every other conceivable role that could or should exist on the roll of honour.

A good analogy for this would be the small scale general builder. They imagine they can perform any skill: they can fit a waterproof membrance on a flat roof; they can repair the leadwork around the chimney; they can mend the lime mortar on that Cotswold stone property. Of course, each of these requires deep knowledge and experience of the materials, tools and methods needed to plan and execute them right.  A generalist will overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulties, and so they will always make mistakes.

The all purpose ‘coder’ is no different, but has become the touchstone for our digital rennaissance. ‘Coding’ is the skill that trumps all others in the minds of the commentariat.

Politicians, always keen to jump on the next bandwagon, have for some years now been falling over themselves to extol the virtues of coding as a skill that should be promoted in schools, in order to advance the economy.  Everyone talks about it, imagining it offers a kind of holy grail for growing the digital economy.  But can it be true? Is coding really the path to wealth and glory, for our children and our economy?

Forgetting for a moment that coding is just one of the skills required on a longer list of credits, why do we all need to become one?

Not everyone is an automotive engineer, even though cars are ubiquitous, so why would driving a car mean we all have to be able to design and build one? Surely only a few of us need that skill. In fact, whilst cars – in the days when we called them old bangers – did require a lot of roadside fixing, they are now so good we are discouraged from tinkering with them at all.  We the consumers have become de-skilled, while the cars have become super-skilled.

But apparently, every kid now needs to be able to code, because we all use Apps. Of course, it’s nonsense, for much the same reasons it is nonsense that all car drivers need to be automotive engineers. And as we decarbonise our economy Electric Vehicles will take over, placing many of the automotive skills in the dustbin. Battery engineers anyone?

So why is this even worth discussing in the context of the knowledge economy? We do need to understand if coding has any role in the management of our information and knowledge, and if not, what are the skills we require. We need to know how many engineers are required, and crucially, what type of engineers.

But lets stick with ‘coding’ for a little while longer. I would like to take you back to the very birth of computing, to deconstruct the wording ‘coding’ and place into context. The word coding originates the time when programming a computer meant knowing the very basic operations expressed as ‘machine code’ – Move a byte to this memory location, Add these two bytes, Shift everything left by 2 bytes – which was completely indecipherable to the uninitiated. It also had a serious drawback in that a program would have to be re-written to run on another machine, with its own particular machine code. Since computers were evolving fast, and software needed to be migrated from old to new machines, this was clearly problematic.

Grace Hooper came up with the idea of a compiler in 1952, quite early in the development of computers. Programs would then be written in a machine-agnostic ‘high level language’ (which was designed to be readable, almost like a natural language, but with a simple syntax to  allow logic to be expressed … If (A = B) Then [do-this] Else [do-that]). A compiler on a machine would take a program written in a high-level language and ‘compile’ it into the machine code that could run on that machine.  The same program could thereby run on all machines.

In place of ‘coders’ writing programs in machine code, there were now ‘programmers’ doing this in high-level language such as Cobol or FORTRAN (both of which were invented in the 1950s), and later ones as they evolved.

So why people still talk about ‘coders’ rather than ‘programmers’ is a mystery to me. Were it just an annoying misnomer, one could perhaps ignore it as an irritant, but it reveals a deeper and more serious misunderstanding.

Coding … I mean Programming … is not enough, in so many ways.  When the politician pictures a youthful ‘coder’ in their bedroom, they imagine the next billionaire creating an App that will revolutionize another area of our lives, like Amazon and Uber have done.

But it is by no means clear that programming as currently understood, is the right skill  for the knowledge economy.  As Gottfried Sehringer wrote in an article “Should we really try to teach everyone to code?” in WiRED, even within the narrow context of building Apps:

“In order to empower everyone to build apps, we need to focus on bringing greater abstraction and automation to the app development process. We need to remove code — and all its complexity — from the equation.”

In other words, just as Grace Hooper saw the need to move from Coding to Programming, we need to move from Programming to something else. Let’s call it Composing: a visually interactive way to construct Apps with minimal need to write lines of text to express logical operations. Of course, just as Hooper faced resistance from the Coders, who poured scorn on the dumbing down of their art, the same will happen with the Programmers, who will claim it cannot be done.

But the world of digital is much greater than the creation of ‘Apps’. The vast majority of the time spent doing IT in this world is in implementing pre-built commercial packages.  If one is implementing them as intended, then they are configured using quite simple configuration tools that aim to eliminate the need to do any programming at all. Ok, so someone in SAP or Oracle or elsewhere had to program the applications in the software package, but they are a relatively small population of technical staff when compared to the numbers who go out to implement these solutions in the field.

Of course it can all go wrong, and often does. I am thinking of a bank that was in trouble because their creaking old core banking system – written in COBOL decades ago by programmers in the bank – was no longer fit for purpose. Every time changes were made to financial legislation, such as tax, the system needed tweaking. But it was now a mess, and when one bug was fixed, another took its place.

So the company decided to implement an off-the-shelf package, which would do everything they needed, and more. The promise was the ability to become a  really ‘agile’ bank. They would be able to introduce new products to market rapidly in response to market needs or to respond to new legislation. It would take just a few weeks, rather than the 6 months it was currently taking. All they needed to do was to do some configurations of the package so that it would work just as they needed it too.

The big bosses approved the big budget then left everyone to it. They kept on being told everything was going well, and so much wanted to believe this, so failed to ask the right questions of the team. Well, guess what, it was a complete disaster. After 18 months and everything running over time and over budget, what emerged?  The departmental managers had insisted on keeping all the functionality from their beloved but creaking old system; the big consultancy was being paid for man-hours of programming so did not seem to mind that the off-shored programmers were having to stretch and bend the new package out of shape to make it look like the old system. And the internal project management was so weak, they were unable to call out the issues, even if they had fully understood them.

Instead of merely configuration, the implementation had large chunks of custom programming bolted onto the package, making it just as unstable and difficult to maintain as the old system. Worse still, it made it very difficult to upgrade the package; to install the latest version (to derive benefits from new features), given the way it had been implemented. There was now a large support bill just to keep the new behmoth alive.

In a sense, nothing had changed.

Far from ‘coding’ being the great advance for our economy, it is often, as in this sorry tale, a great drag on it, because this is how many large system implementations fail.

Schools, Colleges and Universities train everyone to ‘code’, so what will they do when in the field? Like a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, even when a precision milling machine was the right tool to use.

Shouldn’t the student be taught how to reframe their thinking to use different skills that are appropriate to the task in hand? Today we have too many Coders and not enough Composers, and its seems everyone is to blame, because we are all seduced by this zeitgeist of the ‘coder’.

When we consider the actual skills needed to implement, say, a large, data-oriented software package – like that banking package – one finds that activities needed are, for example: Requirements Analysis, Data Modelling, Project Management, Testing, Training, and yes of course, Composing.  Programming should be restricted to those areas such as data interfaces to other systems, where it must be quarantined, so as not to undermine the upgradeability of the software package that has been deployed.

So what are the skills required to define and deploy information management solutions, which are document-oriented, aimed at capturing, preserving and reusing the knowledge within an organization?

Let the credits roll: Project Manager; Information Strategist; Business Analyst; Process Architect; Information Architect; Taxonomist; Meta-Data Manager; Records Manager; Archivist; Document Management Expert; Document Designer; Data Visualizer; Package Configurer; Website Composer; … and not a Coder, or even a Programmer, in sight.

The vision of everyone becoming coders is not only the wrong answer to the question; its also the wrong question. The diversity of backgrounds needed to build a knowledge economy is very great. It is a world beyond ‘coding’ which is richer and more interesting, open to those with backgrounds in software of course, but also in science and the humanities. We need linguists as much as it we need engineers; philosophers as much we need data analysts; lawyers as much as we need graphics artists.

To build a true ‘knowledge economy’ worthy of that name, we need to differentiate and explore a much richer range of competencies to address all the issues we will face than the way in which information professionals are narrowly defined today.

(C) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

——

Note:

In his essay I am referring to business and institutional applications of information management. Of course there will be areas such as scientific research or military systems which will always require heavy duty, specialist software engineering; but this is another world when compared to the vast need in institutions for repeatable solutions to common problems, where other skills are argued to be much more relevant and important to success.

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Elf ‘n Safety and The Grenfell Tower fire

The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower breaks one’s heart.

There was a question asked tonight on BBC’s Newsnight which amounted to:

How is it, in 21st Century UK, a rich and prosperous country despite everything, that a fire can engulf a tower block in the way it did last night?

This got me thinking.

People from the council, politicians and others talk of the need to ‘learn lessons’ in a way that makes one wonder if they really believe it.

Apparently, in the British Army they ban the use of such language. Because we all know what this means. Another report. Another expert ignored. Another tragedy, and another lesson unheard, and ignored. A lesson demonstrated through a change in behaviour, great, but some aspirational statement that one will change at some indeterminate time in the future? No thanks.

We know that tragedies like this are multi-causal, so no single cause can explain it. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseen. In this case there are factors that have been raised:

  • cladding that is not fire-retardant, but rather designed to make a building more aesthetically pleasing, with scant regard for how it undermines the underlying fire-safety of the original building;
  • a lack of any alarm to warn the residents of fire;
  • a lack of sprinklers in rooms or hallways (whereas in hotels this is standard practice; why the difference);
  • a failure to implement a report by a Select Committee of Parliament published following a previous tower-block fire;
  • a building with only one staircase for escape;
  • building standards that are evidently not fit for purpose and widely criticised (for some time) as providing a very low bar for compliance;
  • an arms length management organisation that refused to listen to the concerns of residents.

These and no doubt other factors compounded to either make the fire worse than it should have been, or the response to the fire by residents and rescue workers less effective than it could have been.

No doubt there will be questions about how it is that experts have known about the risks of the kind of cladding used, and have published papers on this, but their knowledge has fallen on deaf ears. No one in authority has had the smidgen of intellectual curiosity or moral impulse to track it down using Google. We apparently need another report to rediscover stuff we already knew, which who knows, maybe they will read this time.

No doubt there are questions to be asked of organisations like the British Standards Institute (BSI) that produces standards in this case that seem to fail to challenge the industry to reach the highest common factor for health and safety, but instead, to arrive a lowest common denominator of standard. They specify tests that are clearly not real-world tests. One is bound to ask if the BSI is fit for purpose, and whether its processes lead to an excessive chumminess with the industries it works with. It has a business model where it generates and sells standards and associated consultancy. Better not rock too many boats? No doubt the standards are “pragmatic” in the business-speak synonym for barely adequate.

Christoper Miers, in his conclusion of a report entitled “Fire Risks From External Cladding Panels – A Perspective From The UK”, wrote:

“Can anything be done about the worldwide legacy of buildings with combustible cored composite panels?  Unless something radical is done, such as national retro-fitting subsidy schemes, it seems inevitable that there will be further fires involving aluminium-faced polyethylene core panels.  Nightmare scenarios include multiple-fatality building-engulfing fires as in China, or given the proximity of towers in some districts, the ignition of neighbouring buildings’ cladding from an external cladding fire, or disintegrated burning panels igniting the roofs of lower buildings adjacent.

It is difficult to envisage owners voluntarily stripping off entire existing aluminium composite panel facades and replacing them with Fire Code-compliant cladding panels, as the cost would be prohibitive.  Partial replacement with barrier bands of fire resistant panels has been suggested to stop fires spreading, [48] but given the flame heights at the Tamweel, Torch and The Address, such barrier bands would have to be substantially large.  The works necessary to provide these barriers would involve much of the scaffolding and associated costs of full replacement.

It seems inevitable that insurers will differentiate between buildings with and without combustible aluminium composite panels and will charge higher premiums for higher risks.  One or two more fires, or a fatal fire, could lead to insurance cover being refused if the risk is considered excessive.  Insurance issues, bad publicity and loss of property value might then make retro-fitting external cladding a viable option in commercial, as well as fire safety terms.”

But despite all these unlearned lessons, there is something far more insidious at work here.

The sneering right wing commentators like Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Fail have waged a campaign for many years against what they claim is an over-weaning attempt by the liberal elite to protect us from ourselves, which goes under the catchy title of “elf ’n safety” (snigger, snigger, sneer). Imagine …

Poor Johnny can’t even go diving off some rocks without someone doing a bloody risk assessment, then someone else has to hold a flag. 

Stuff and nonsense – in my day we used to ski down black runs blindfolded. Never did us any harm.

You get the picture.

I remember once doing a study for the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) back in the 90s, and some of the horror stories of what used to happen in industries like farming and chemicals would make your hair stand on end.

And of course deaths and injury in these and other industries have fallen dramatically in the last few decades, thanks to organisations like the HSE. Far from hurting productivity, it has helped it, by enhancing efficiency and professionalism. In some industries it even drives innovation, as with the noise regulations for aircraft.

And even in the more parochial area of school trips, there was plenty of evidence that just a little bit of prior planning might well prevent poor performance (and injury).

But no, to Richard Littlejohn and his ilk, the “world has gone mad”.

Too often the bureaucrats seem to have bought into – maybe unconsciously – this background noise of derision towards health and safety. They feel inclined to dismiss the concerns raised by experts or ride roughshod over citizens concerns.

What do they know? Business must go on.

And once again we have the chumminess effect: councillors too close to developers, and lacking the critical faculties to ask searching questions, or even obvious ones.

For example, one might have imagined a councillor asking the questions …

“This cladding we plan use… is it anything like that used on that tower block that went up in flames in Dubai? Have we assessed the risks? Can we assure the tenants we have investigated this, and its OK?”.  

There is good box-ticking (in the cock-pit of an aeroplane) and the bad kind. The good kind is used by engineers, pilots, surgeons, school-teachers and others who are skilled in their respective arts.

The bad kind is used by bureaucrats wanting to cover their arses. We heard some of this  last night on Newsnight “we got the design signed off”, “we followed the standards”, etc.

Where is the imagination, the critical thinking, the challenging of lazy assumptions?

And most importantly, where is the answering of tenants’ questions and concerns, and taking health and safety seriously as the number one requirement, not as an afterthought?

But risk assessment planning and execution is incessantly mocked by the sneering, curled lip brigade who inhabit the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other right wing denigrators of “elf ’n safety”.

This has created a culture of jocular disregard for safety.

Try this. Go to a cafe with a few friends and ask “shall we have a chat about health and safety?”. I bet you that they will – whatever their political views – either laugh or roll their eyes.

Well, maybe not any more. Maybe they may feel suitably chasticised for a while at least, and stop their lazy sneering.

The champion sneerers have been successful through their drip, drip of cherry-picked stories or outright myths; their project has had an insidious effect, and has done its worst inundermining respect for health and safety.

But you see, it is not really health and safety that they have in their sights.  It’s just the easy to mock first hurdle in a wider programme.

There is a bigger prize: regulation!

What the de-regulators like Daniel Hannan want from Brexit is a bonfire of regulations, as he wrote about in his 2015 ‘vision’.

David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, claims not to know the difference between a ‘soft’ Brexit and a hard one.

Well, here’s a guide, David.

A hard Brexit is one where we have a bonfire of regulations; where we have no truck with experts who advise us on risks of ethylene-based cladding or excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; where ‘risk assessment’ is a joke we have down the club; where the little people enjoy the fruits of ‘trickle down’ economics in a  thriving Britain, free of (allegedly) over-weaning regulation.

But the British have made it clear they do not want a hard Brexit.

I hope and trust that the time is over for the sneering, arrogant advocates for de-regulation, and their purile and dangerous disregard for people’s health, and their safety.

Whether in bringing forth and implementing effective measures to prevent another terrible fire like at Grenfell Tower, or in all the other areas of life and work in the UK that are important for a safe and secure future, the time to take experts and regulations seriously is needed now, more than ever.

 

Richard W. Erskine, 15th June 2017.

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A Climate of Consilience (or the science of certitude)

There seems to be a lot of discussion about an apparently simple question:

Can science be ‘certain’ about, well, anything? 

If that meant not doing anything – not building a bridge; not releasing a new drug; not taking off for the flight to New York; not flying a spacecraft to Saturn; not vaccinating the whole world against polio; not taking action to decarbonise our energy supply; Etc. – then this lack of 100% certainty might totally debilitate a modern society, frozen with doubt and so unable to act.

But of course, we do not stop implementing solutions based on our current best knowledge of nature and the world, however limited it might be. We make judgments. We assess risks. We weigh the evidence. We act.

I think scientists often fall into the trap of answering a quite different question:

Do we have a complete and all encompassing theory of the world (or at least, ‘this’ bit of the world, say how black holes work or how evolution played out)?

And everyone will rush defensively to the obvious answer, “no”. Why? Because we can always learn more, we can always improve, and indeed sometimes – although surprisingly rarely – we can make radical departures from received bodies of knowledge.

We are almost 100% certain of the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’ and Darwin’s ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’, but almost everything else is of a lower order.

But even when we do make radical departures, it doesn’t always mean a complete eradication of prior knowledge. It does when moving from superstition, religious dogma, witch-doctoring and superstitious theories of illness: as when we move to the germ theory of disease and a modern understanding biology, because people get cured, and ignorance is vanquished.

But take Newtonian mechanics. This remains valid for the not too small (quantum mechanical) and not too massive or fast (relativistic) domains of nature, and so remains a perfectly good approximation for understanding snooker balls, the motion of the solar system, and even the motion of fluids.

As Helen Czerski describes in her book Storm In A Teacup, the physics of the everyday covers many interesting and complex phenomena.

In the following Figure, from her entertaining TEDxManchester talk The fascinating physics of everyday life, she shows how the physics of the every day applies over a huge range of scales (in time and space); bracketed between the exotic worlds of the extremely small (quantum mechanics) and extremely large (general relativity) which tend to dominate our cultural perceptions of physics today.

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 07.25.28

Want to build a bridge, or build a solar system, or understand Saturn’s rings? Move over Schrodinger and Einstein, come on board Newton!

And yes, if you want to understand the interaction of molecules? Thank you Schrodinger.

Want to predict gravitational waves from a distant galaxy where two neutron stars are collinding? Thank you Einstein.

That is why the oft promulgated narrative of science – the periodic obliteration of old theories to be replaced by new ones – is often not quite how things work in practice.  Instead of a vision of a singular pyramid of knowledge that is torn down when someone of Einstein’s genius comes along and rips away its foundations, one instead sees new independent pyramids popping up in the desert of ignorance.

The old pyramids often remain, useful in their own limited ways. And when confronting a complex problem, such as climate change, we see a small army of pyramids working together to make sense of the world.

As one such ‘pyramid’, we have the long and tangled story of the ‘atom’ concept, a story that began with the ancient greeks, and has taken centuries to untangle. Building this pyramid – the one that represents our understanding of the atom – we follow many false trails as well as brilliant revelations. Dalton’s understanding of the uniqueness and differentiation of atoms was one such hard fought revelation. There was the kinetic theory of gases that cemented the atomic/ molecular role in the physical properties of matter: the microscopic behaviour giving rise to the macroscopic properties such as temperature and pressure. Then there was the appreciation of the nuclear character and the electronic properties of atoms, leading ultimately to an appreciation of the fundamental reason for the structure of the periodic table, with a large dose of quantum theory thrown in. And then, with Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, a resolution of the reason for isotopes very existence. Isotopes that, with the help of Urey’s brilliant insight, enabled their use in diverse paleoclimatogical applications that have brought glaciologists, chemists and atmospheric physicists together to track the progress of our climate and its forcing agents.

We can trace a similar story of how we came to be able to model the dynamical nature of our weather and climate. The bringing together of the dynamics of fluids, their thermodynamics, and much more.

Each brick in these pyramids starting as a question or conundrum and then leading to decades of research, publications, debate and resolutions, and yes, often many new questions.

Science never was and never will be the narrative of ignorance overcome by heroic brilliance overnight by some hard pressed crank cum genius. Galilieo was no crank, neither was Newton, nor was Einstein.

Even if our televisual thirst for instant gratification demands a science with instant answers, the reality is that the great majority of science is a long process of unfolding and developing the consequences of the fundamental principles, to see how these play out. Now, with the help of the computational facilities that are part of an extended laboratory (to add to the test tube, the spectometer, x-ray diffration, and so much more) we can see further and test ideas that were previously inaccessible to experimentation alone (this is true in all fields). Computers are the microscope of the 21st Century, as one molecular biologist has observed.

When we look at climate change we have a subject of undoubted complexity, that is a combination of many disciplines. Maybe for this reason, it was only in the late 1950s that these disparate disciplines recognised the need to come together: meteorology, glaciology, atmospheric chemistry, paleoclimatology, and much more. This convergence of disciplines ultimately led to the formation 30 years later to the IPCC in 1988.

At its most basic, global warming is trivial, and beyond any doubt: add more energy to a system (by adding more infra-red absorbing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere), and the system gets hotter (because, being knocked out of equilibrium, it will heat up faster than it loses heat to space, up and until it reaches a new equilibrium).  Anyone who has spent an evening getting a frying pan to the point where it is hot enough to fry a pancake (and many to follow), will appreciate the principle.

Today, we have moved out of a pre-existing equilibrium and are warming fast, and have not yet reached a new equilibrium. That new equilibrium depends on how much more fossil fuels we burn. The choice now is between very serious and catastrophic.

The different threads of science that come together to create the ‘climate of consilience’ are diverse. They involve everything from the theory of isotopes; the understanding of Earth’s meteorological system; the nature of radiation and how different gases react with different types of radiation; the carbonate chemistry of the oceans; the dynamics of heat and moisture in the atmosphere based on Newtonian mechanics applied to fluids; and so much more.

Each of these threads has a well established body of knowledge in its own right, confirmed through published evidence and through their multiple successful applications.

In climate science these threads converge, and hence the term consilience.

So when did we know ‘for certain’ that global warming was real and is now happening?

Was it when Tyndall discovered in 1859 that carbon dioxide strongly absorbed infra-red radiation, whereas oxygen and nitrogen molecules did not?  Did that prove that the world would warm dangerously in the future? No, but it did provide a key building block in our knowledge.

As did the findings of those that followed.

At each turn, there was always some doubt – something that suggested a ‘get out clause’, and scientists are by nature sceptical …

Surely the extra carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activities would be absorbed by the vast oceans?

No, this was shown from the chemistry of the oceans to be wrong by the late 1950s, and thoroughly put to bed when sufficient time passed after 1958, when Charles Keeling started to accurately measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ‘Keeling Curve’ rises inexorably.

Surely the carbon dioxide absorption of heat would become ‘saturated’ (unable to absorb any more heat) above a certain concentration.

No, this was raised in the early 20th Century but thoroughly refuted in the 1960s. Manabe & Wetherald’s paper in 1967 was the final nail in the coffin of denial for those that pushed against the ‘carbon dioxide’ theory.  To anyone literate in science, that argument was over in 1967.

But will the Earth system not respond in the way feared … won’t the extra heat be absorbed by the oceans?

Good news, bad news. Yes, 93% of the extra heat is indeed being absorbed by the oceans, but the remainder is more than enough to ensure that the glaciers are melting; the great ice sheets are losing ice mass (the loses winning out over any gains of ice); seasons are being affected; sea levels are rising inexorably; and overall the surface temperature is rising. No need for computer models to tell us what is happening, it is there in front of us, for anyone who cares to look.

Many pour scorn on consensus in science.

They say that one right genius is better than 100 fools, which is a fine argument, except when uttered by a fool.

Even the genius has to publish, and fools never will or can, but shout from the sidelines and claim genius. All cranks think they are geniuses, whereas the converse is not true.

Einstein published, and had to undergo scrutiny. When the science community finally decided that Einstein was right, they did so because of the integrity of the theory and weight of evidence were sufficient. It was not a show of hands immdiately after he published, but in a sense, it was a show of hands after years of work to interrogate and test his assertions.

It was consilience followed by consensus (that’s science), not consensus followed by consilience (that’s political dogms).

We are as certain that the Earth has warmed due to increases in greenhouse gases – principally carbon dioxide, arising from human activities – as we are of the effects of smoking on human health, or the benefits of vaccination, and much more.  And we are in part reinforced in this view because of the impact that is already occuring (observations not only theory).

The areas of doubt are there – how fast will the West Antarctica Ice Sheet melt – but these are doubts in the particulars not in the general proposition.  Over 150 years of accumulated knowledge have led to this consilience, and was until recently, received wisdom amongst leaders of all political persuasions, as important and actionable knowledge.

The same is true of the multiple lines of enquiry that constitute the umbrella of disciplines we call ‘climate science’. Not a showing of hands, but a showing of published papers that have helped create this consilience of knowledge, and yes, a consensus of those skilled in their various arts.

It would be quicker to list the various areas of science that have not impacted on climate science than those that have.

In the two tables appended to the end of this essay, I have included:

Firstly, a timeline of selected discoveries and events over a long period – from 1600 to nearly the present – over which time either climate has been the topic or the underlying threads of science have been the topic.  I have also included parallel events related to institutions such as the formation of meteorological organisations, to show both scientific and social developments on the same timeline.

Secondly, I have listed seminal papers in the recent history of the science (from 1800 onwards), with no doubt omissions that I apologise for in advance (comments welcome).

When running workshops on climate fluency I used a 5 metre long roll – a handwritten version of the timeline – and use it to walk along and refer to dates, personalities, stories and of course, key publications. It seems to go down very well (beats Powerpoint, for sure) …

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 06.56.56.png

All this has led to our current, robust, climate of consilience.

There was no rush to judgment, and no ideological bias.

It is time for the commentariat – those who are paid well to exercise their free speech in the comment sections of the media, at the New York Times, BBC, Daily Mail, or wherever –  to study this history of the science, and basically, to understand why scientists are now as sure as they can be. And why they get frustrated with the spurious narrative of ‘the science is not yet in’.

If they attempted such arguments in relation to smoking, vaccination, germ theory or Newtonian mechanics,  they would be laughed out of court.

The science of global warming is at least as robust as any of these, but the science community is not laughing … it’s deeply concerned at the woeful blindness of much of the media.

The science is well beyond being ‘in’; it is now part of a textbook body of knowledge. The consilience is robust and hence the consequent 97% consensus.

It’s time to act.

And if you, dear commentator, feel unable to act, at least write what is accurate, and avoid high school logical fallacies, or bullshit arguments about the nature of science.

Richard Erskine, 2nd May 2017 

Amended on 17th July 2017 to include Tables as streamed Cloudup content (PDFs), due to inability of some readers to view the tables. Click on the arrow on bottom right of ‘frame’ to stream each document in turn, and there will then be an option to download the PDF file itself.

Amended 31st October 2017 to include a Figure I came across from Helen Czerski TED Talk, which helps illustrate a key point of the essay.

TABLE 1 – Timeline of Selected Discoveries and Events (since 1600)

 

TABLE 2 – Key Papers Related to Climate Science (since 1800)

 

END of DOCUMENT

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Lest we regret: science not silence

Cherish not only those who you love, but that which you love. Yesterday I went with my wife on the March for Science in Bristol, the city where we fell in love many years ago. We were on one of over 600 marches globally, to express a love for the science that has brought us so much, and promises so much more.

We do not want in the future to find ourselves mournfully recalling the words of some great poet, words of regret at our careless disregard, our taking for granted –

“When to the session of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste….” 

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

Humanity needs more experts now than ever before, but it also needs poets and novelists too to find that voice, that will reach the hearts of those who will be hurt by the cynical disregard for truth, for evidence.

This is no longer the preserve of cranks, but now influences men (and it is mostly men) in power who attack the science of evolution, vaccination and climate change, that has saved the lives of billions and promises to save the lives of billions more in the future. Notwithstanding the more prosaic inability to live without the fruits of science (try having a no science friday).

That is why the over 600 cities that Marched for Science yesterday spoke with a true voice. Science is for everyone and we all benefit from its fruits but just as few really know where their food comes from, we have become blind to the processes and creativity of the scientists who will bring us the next wonders, and the next solutions to the challenges we face. We the people, and scientists, must both now pledge to remedy our careless assumption that the Englightenment will prevail against the tide of ignorance that has reached the pinnacle of power, without strong and systemic defenses.

We ignore these threats at our peril.

Let’s not regret being so careless that we allowed an opinionated, ideologically motivated few to use their positions of power to drown out the voices of reason.

Let us, most of all, not waste our dear, precious time.

. . .. o o O o o .. . .

 

Richard W. Erskine, essaysconcerning.com, 23rd April 2017

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The speakers at the Bristol event were Professor Bruce Hood from the Bristol University’s School of Experimental Psychology; TV naturalist Chris Packham; science writer and scientist Dr Simon Singh; At-Bristol’s creative director Anna Starkey; and, scientist and writer Dr Suzi Gage.

Youtube videos of their speeches available here >

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLz3n5TyzhVlR88vhkd8guOjH8F53kizSt 

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Beyond Average: Why we should worry about a 1 degree C rise in average global temperature

When I go to the Netherlands I feel small next to men from that country, but then I am 3 inches smaller than the average Brit, and the average Dutchman is 2 inches taller than the average Brit. So I am seeing 5 inches of height difference in the crowd around me when surrounded by Dutch men. No wonder I am feeling an effect that is much greater than what the average difference in height seems to be telling me on paper.

Averages are important. They help us determine if there is a real effect overall. Yes, men from the Netherlands are taller than men from Britain, and so my impressions are not merely anecdotal. They are real, and backed up by data.

If we are wanting to know if there are changes occurring, averages help too, as they ensure we are not focusing on outliers, but on a statistically significant trend. That’s not to say that it is always easy to handle the data correctly or to separate different factors, but once this hard work is done, the science and statistics together can lead us to knowing important things, with confidence.

For example, we know that smoking causes lung cancer and that adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere leads to increased global warming.

But, you might say, correlation doesn’t prove causation! Stated boldly like that, no it doesn’t. Work is required to establish the link.

Interestingly, we knew the fundamental physics of why carbon dioxide (CO2) is a causative agent for warming our atmosphere – not merely correlated – since as early as Tyndall’s experiments which he started in 1859, but certainly no later than 1967, when Manabe & Wetherald’s seminal paper resolved some residual physics questions related to possible saturation of the infra-red  absorption in the atmosphere and the co-related effect of water vapour. That’s almost 110 years of probing, questioning and checking. Not exactly a tendency on the part of scientists to rush to judgment! And in terms of the correlation being actually observed in our atmosphere, it was Guy Callendar in 1938 who first published a paper showing rising surface temperature linked to rising levels of CO2.

Whereas, in the case of lung cancer and cigarettes correlation came first, not fundamental science. It required innovations in statistical methods to prove that it was not merely correlation but was indeed causation, even while the fundamental biological mechanisms were barely understood.

In any case, the science and statistics are always mutually supportive.

Average Global Warming

In the discussions on global warming, I have been struck over the few years that I have been engaging with the subject how much air time is given to the rise in atmospheric temperature, averaged for the whole of the Earth’s surface, or GMST as the experts call it (Global Mean Surface Temperature).  While it is a crucial measure, this can seem a very arcane discussion to the person in the street.

So far, it has risen by about 1 degree Centigrade (1oC) compared to the middle of the 19th Century.

There are regular twitter storms and blogs ‘debating’ a specific year, and last year’s El Nino caused a huge debate as to what this meant. As it turns out, the majority of recent warming is due to man-made global warming, and this turbo-charged the also strong El Nino event.

Anyone daring to take a look at the blogosphere or twitter will find climate scientists arguing with opinion formers ill equipped to ‘debate’ the science of climate change, or indeed, the science of anything.

What is the person in the street supposed to make of it? They probably think “this is not helping me – it is not answering the questions puzzling me – I can do without the agro thanks very much”.

To be fair, many scientists do spend a lot of time on outreach and in other kinds of science communications, and that is to be applauded. A personal favourite of mine is Katharine Hayhoe, who always brings an openness and sense of humility to her frequent science communications and discussions, but you sense also, a determined and focused strategy to back it up.

However, I often feel that the science ‘debate’ generally gets sucked into overly technical details, while basic, or one might say, simple questions remain unexplored, or perhaps assumed to be so obvious they don’t warrant discussion.

The poor person in the street might like to ask (but dare not for fear of being mocked or being overwhelmed with data), simply:

“Why should we worry about an average rise of 1oC temperature, it doesn’t seem that much, and with all the ups and downs in the temperature curve; the El Nino; the alleged pause; the 93% of extra heat going into the ocean I heard about … well, how can I really be sure that the surface of the Earth is getting warmer?”

There is a lot to unpick here and I think the whole question of ‘averages’ is part of the key to approaching why we should worry.

Unequivocally Warming World

Climate Scientists will often show graphs which include the observed and predicted annual temperature (GMST) over a period of 100 years or more.

Now, I ask, why do they do that?

Surely we have been told to that in order to discern a climate change trend, it is crucial to look at the temperature averaged over a period of at least 10 years, and actually much better to look at a 30-year average?

In this way we smooth out all the ups and downs that are a result of the energy exchanges that occur between the moving parts of the earth system, and the events such as volcanic eruptions or humans pumping less sulphur into the atmosphere from industry. We are interested in the overall trend, so we can see the climate change signal amongst the ‘noise’.

We also emphasis to people – for example, “the Senator with a snowball” – that climate change is about averages and trends, as distinct from weather (which is about the here and now).

So this is why the curve I use – when asked “What is the evidence that the world is warming?” – is a 30-year smoothed curve (red line) such as the one shown below (which used the GISS tool):

30 yr rolling average of GMST

[also see the Met Office explainer on global surface temperature]

The red line shows inexorable warming from early in the 20th Century, no ifs, no buts.

End of argument.

When I challenged a climate scientist on Twitter, why don’t we just show this graph and not get pulled into silly arguments with a Daily Mail journalist or whoever, I was told that annual changes are interesting and need to be understood.

Well sure, for climate scientists everything is interesting! They should absolutely try to answer the detailed questions, such as the contribution global warming made to the 2016 GMST. But to conflate that with the simpler and broader question does rather obscure the fundamental message for the curious but confused public who have not even reached base camp.

They may well conclude there is a ‘debate’ about global warming when there is none to be had.

There is debate amongst scientists about many things: regional impact and attribution; different feedback mechanisms and when they might kick in; models of the Antarctic ice sheet; etc. But not about rising GMST, because that is settled science, and given Tyndall et al, it would be incredible if it were not so; Nobel Prize winning incredible!

If one needs a double knock-out, then how about a triple or quadruple knock-out?

When we add the graphs showing sea level rise, loss of glaciers, mass loss from Greenland and Antarctica, and upper ocean temperature, we have multiple trend lines all pointing in one direction: A warming world. It ain’t rocket science.

We know the world has warmed – it is unequivocal.

Now if a the proverbial drunk, duly floored, still decides to get up and wants to rerun the fight, maybe we should be choosing not to play his games!?

So why do arguments about annual variability get so frequently aired on the blogosphere and twitter?

I don’t know, but I feel it is a massive own goal for science communication.

Surely the choice of audience needs to be the poor dazed and confused ‘person in the street’, not the obdurately ignorant opinion columnists (opinion being the operative word).

Why worry about a 1oC rise?

I want to address the question “Why worry about a 1oC rise (in global mean surface temperature)?”, and do so with the help of a dialogue. It is not a transcript, but along the lines of conversations I have had in the last year. In this dialogue, I am the ClimateCoach and I am in conversation with a Neighbour who is curious about climate change, but admits to being rather overwhelmed by it; they have got as far as reading the material above and accept that the world is warming.

Neighbour:  Ok, so the world is warming, but I still don’t get why we should worry about a measly 1oC warming?

ClimateCoach: That’s an average, over the whole world, and there are big variations hidden in there. Firstly, two thirds of the surface of the planet is ocean, and so over land we are already talking about a global land mean surface temperature in excess of 1oC, about 1.5oC. That’s the first unwelcome news, the first kicker.

Neighbour: So, even if it is 5oC somewhere, I still don’t get it. Living in England I’d quite like a few more Mediterranean summers!

ClimateCoach: Ok, so let’s break this down (and I may just need to use some pictures).  Firstly we have an increase in the mean, globally. But due to meteorological patterns there will be variations in temperature and also changes in precipitation patterns around the world, such as droughts in California and increased Monsoon rain in India. This  regionality of the warming is the second kicker.

Here is an illustration of how the temperature increase looks regionally across the world.

GISTEMP global regional

Neighbour: Isn’t more rain good for Indian farmers?

ClimateCoach: Well, that depends on timing. It has started to be late, and if it doesn’t arrive in time for certain crops, that has serious impacts. So the date or timing of impacts is the third kicker.

Here is an illustration.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 08.45.34.png

Neighbour: I noticed earlier that the Arctic is warming the most. Is that a threat to us?

ClimateCoach: Depends what you mean by ‘us’. There is proportionally much greater warming in the Arctic, due to a long-predicted effect called ‘polar amplification’, in places as much as 10oC of warming. As shown in this map of the arctic. But what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

Arctic extremes

Neighbour: I appreciate that a warming Arctic is bad for ecosystems in the Arctic – Polar Bears and so on – but why will that effect us?

ClimateCoach: You’ve heard about the jet stream on the weather reports, I am sure [strictly, the arctic polar jet stream]. Well, as the Arctic is warmed differentially compared to latitudes below the Arctic, this causes the jet stream to become more wiggly than before, which can be very disruptive. This can create, for example, fixed highs over Europe, and very hot summers.

Neighbour: But we’ve had very hot summers before, why would this be different?

ClimateCoach: It’s not about something qualitatively different (yet), but it is quantitatively. Very hot summers in Europe are now much more likely due to global warming, and that has real impacts. 70,000 people died in Europe during the 2003 heatwave.  Let me show you an illustrative graph. Here is a simple distribution curve and it indicates a temperature at and above which (blue arrow) high impacts are expected, but have a low chance. Suppose this represents the situation in 1850.

Normal distribution

Neighbour: Ok, so I understand the illustration … and?

ClimateCoach: So, look at what happens when we increase the average by just a little bit to a higher temperature, say, by 1oC to represent where we are today. The whole curve shifts right. The ‘onset of high impact’ temperature is fixed, but the area under the curve to the right of this has increased (the red area has increased), meaning a greater chance than before. This is the fourth kicker.

In our real world example, a region like Europe, the chance of high impact hot summers has increased within only 10 to 15 years from being a one in 50 year event to being a 1 in 5 year event; a truly remarkable increase in risk.   

Shifted Mean and extremes

Neighbour: It’s like loading the dice!

ClimateCoach: Exactly. We (humans) are loading the dice. As we add more CO2 to the atmosphere, we load the dice even more. 

Neighbour: Even so, we have learned to cope with very hot summers, haven’t we? If not, we can adapt, surely?

ClimateCoach: To an extent yes, and we’ll have to get better at it in the future. But consider plants and animals, or people who are vulnerable or have to work outside, like the millions of those from the Indian sub-continent who work in construction in the Middle East.  It doesn’t take much (average) warming to make it impossible (for increasingly long periods) to work outside without heat exhaustion. And take plants. A recent paper in Nature Communications showed that crop yields in the USA would be very vulnerable to excessive heat.

Neighbour: Can’t the farmers adapt by having advanced irrigation systems. And didn’t I read somewhere that extra CO2 acts like a fertiliser for plants?

ClimateCoach: To a point, but what that research paper showed was that the warming effect wins out, especially as the period of excessive heat increases, and by the way the fertilisation effect has been overstated. The extended duration of the warming will overwhelm these and other ameliorating factors. This is the fifth kicker.

This can mean crop failures and hence impacts on prices of basic food commodities, even shortages as impacts increase over time.

Neighbour: And what if we get to 2oC?  (meaning 2oC GMST rise above pre-industrial)

ClimateCoach: Changes are not linear. Take the analogy of car speed and pedestrian fatalities. After 20 miles per hour the curve rises sharply, because the car’s energy is a function of the square of the speed, but also the vulnerability thresholds in the human frame. Global warming will cross thresholds for both natural and human systems, which have been in balance for a long time, so extremes get increasingly disruptive. Take an impact to a natural species or habitat: one very bad year, and there may be recovery in the following 5-10 years, which is ok if the frequency of very bad years is 1 in 25-50 years. But suppose very bad years come 1 in every 5 years? That would mean no time to recover. Nature is awash with non-linearities and thresholds like this.

Neighbour: Is that what is happening with the Great Barrier Reef – I heard something fleetingly on BBC Newsnight the other night?

ClimateCoach: I think that could be a very good example of what I mean. We should talk again soon. Bring friends. If they want some background, you might ask them to have a read of my piece Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications, which is along the lines of a talk I give.

Putting it together for the person in the street.

I have explored one of many possible conversations I could have had. I am sure it could be improved upon, but I hope it illustrates the approach. We should be engaging those people (the majority of the population) who are curious about climate change but have not involved themselves so far, perhaps because they feel a little intimidated by the subject.

When they do ask for help, the first thing they need to understand is that indeed global warming is real, and is demonstrated by those average measures like GMST, and the other ones mentioned such as sea-level rise, ice sheet mass loss, and ocean temperature; not to mention the literally thousands of indicators from the natural world (as documented in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report).

There are also other long-term unusual sources of evidence to add to this list, as Dr Ed Hawkins has discussed, such as the date at which Cherry blossom flowers in Kyoto, which is trending earlier and earlier.  Actually, examples such as these, are in many ways easier for people to relate to.

Gardeners the world over can relate to evidence of cherry blossom, wine growers to impacts on wine growing regions in France, etc. These diverse and rich examples are in many ways the most powerful for a lay audience.

The numerous lines of evidence are overwhelming.

So averages are crucial, because they demonstrate a long-term trend.

When we do raise GMST, make sure you show the right curve. If it is to show unequivocal global warming at the surface, then why not show one that reflects the average over a rolling 30 year period; the ‘smoothed’ curve. This avoids getting into debates with ‘contrarians’ on the minutae of annual variations, which can come across as both abstract and arcane, and puts people off.

This answers the first question people will be asking, simply: “Is the world warming?”. The short answer is “Unequivocally, yes it is”. And that is what the IPCC 5th Assessment Report concluded.

But averages are not the whole story.

There is the second but equally important question “Why worry about a 1oC rise (in global mean surface temperature)?”

I suspect many people are too coy to ask such a simple question. I think it deserves an answer and the dialogue above tried to provide one.

Here and now, people and ecosystems experience weather, not climate change, and when it is an extreme event, the impacts are viscerally real in time and place, and are far from being apparently arcane debating points.

So while a GMST rise of 1oC sounds like nothing to the untutored reader, when translated into extreme weather events, it can be highly significant.  The average has been magnified to yield a significant effect, as evidenced by the increasing chance of extreme events of different kinds, in different localities, which can increasingly be attributed to man-made global warming.

The kickers highlighted in the dialogue were:

  • Firstly, people live on land so experience a higher ‘GMST’ rise (this is not to discount the impacts on oceans);
  • Secondly, geographical and meteorological patterns mean that there are a wide range of regional variations;
  • Thirdly, the timing (or date) at which an impact is felt is critical for ecosystems and agriculture, and bad timing will magnify the effect greatly;
  • Fourthly, as the average increases, so does the chance of extremes. The dice are getting loaded, and as we increase CO2, we load the dice more.
  • Fifthly, the duration of an extreme event will overwhelm defences, and an extended duration can cross dangerous thresholds, moving from increasing harm into fatal impacts, such as crop failure.

I have put together a graphic to try to illustrate this sequence of kickers:

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 08.36.37.png

As noted on this graphic (which I used in some climate literacy workshops I ran recently), the same logic used for GMST can be applied to other seemingly ‘small’ changes in global averages such as rainfall, sea-level rise, ocean temperature and ocean acidification. To highlight just two of these other examples:

  • an average global sea-level rise translates into impacts such as extreme storm surges, damaging low-lying cities such as New York and Miami (as recently reported and discussed).
  • an average ocean temperature rise, translates into damage to coral reefs (two successive years of extreme events have caused serious damage to two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, as a recent study has confirmed).

Even in the relatively benign context of the UK’s temperate climate, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), in a report just released, is advising gardeners on climate change impacts and adaptation. The instinctively conservative ‘middle England’ may yet wake up to the realities of climate change when it comes home to roost, and bodies such as the RHS reminds them of the reasons why.

The impacts of man-made global warming are already with us, and it will only get worse.

How much worse depends on all of us.

Not such a stupid question

There was a very interesting event hosted by CSaP (Centre for Science and Policy) in Cambridge recently. It introduced some new work being done to bring together climate science and ‘big data analytics’. Dr Emily Schuckburgh’s talk looked precisely at the challenge of understanding local risks; the report of the talk included the following observation:

“Climate models can predict the impacts of climate change on global systems but they are not suitable for local systems. The data may have systematic biases and different models produce slightly different projections which sometimes differ from observed data. A significant element of uncertainty with these predictions is that they are based on our future reduction of emissions; the extent to which is yet unknown.

To better understand present and future climate risks we need to account for high impact but low probability events. Using more risk-based approaches which look at extremes and changes in certain climate thresholds may tell us how climate change will affect whole systems rather than individual climate variables and therefore, aid in decision making. Example studies using these methods have looked at the need for air conditioning in Cairo to cope with summer heatwaves and the subsequent impact on the Egyptian power network.”

This seems to be breaking new ground.

So maybe the eponimous ‘person in the street’ is right to ask stupid questions, because they turn out not to be so stupid after all.

Changing the Conversation

I assume that the person in the street is curious and has lots of questions; and I certainly don’t judge them based on what newspaper they read. That is my experience. We must try to anticipate and answer those questions, and as far as possible, face to face. We must expect simple questions, which aren’t so stupid after all.

We need to change the focus from the so-called ‘deniers’ or ‘contrarians’ – who soak up so much effort and time from hard pressed scientists – and devote more effort to informing the general public, by going back to the basics. By which I mean, not explaining ‘radiative transfer’ and using technical terms like ‘forcing’, ‘anomaly’, or ‘error’, but using plain English to answer those simple questions.

Those embarrasingly stupid questions that will occur to anyone who first encounters the subject of man-made global warming; the ones that don’t seem to get asked and so never get answered.

Maybe let’s start by going beyond averages.

No one will think you small for doing so, not even a Dutchman.

[updated 15th April]

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Complexity ain’t that complex

According to Megan McArdle in a Bloomberg View opinion piece we cannot trust computer models of the climate because economists have failed when they tried to model complex economic systems.

Leaving aside the fundamental fact that the ‘atoms’ of physics (molecules, humidity, etc.) are consistent in their behaviour, whereas the ‘atoms’ of economics (humans) are fickle and prone to ‘sentiment’, this is a failed form of denialism.

You do not have to be Champagne maker Taittinger investing in sparkling wine production in Kent (England), for example, to know that global warming is real, because there are thousands of scientifically observed and published indicators of a warming world. Most of these receive little attention in the media compared to the global average surface temperature (important though it is).

In her article she repeats something I believe is a key confusion in her piece:

“This lesson from economics is essentially what the “lukewarmists” bring to discussions about climate change. They concede that all else equal, more carbon dioxide will cause the climate to warm. But, they say that warming is likely to be mild unless you use a model which assumes large positive feedback effects.”

Matt Ridley is also often railing against the fact that the feedback from increased humidity turns a warming of 1C (from doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels) into closer to 3C (as the mean predicted level of warming).

This has nothing to do with the inherent complexity in the climate models as it is derived from basic physics (the Infra-Red spectra of CO2 and H2O; the Clausius–Clapeyron relation that determines the level of humidity when the atmosphere warms; some basics of radiative transfer; etc.). Indeed, it is possible to get to an answer on the basic physics with pencil and paper, and the advanced computer models come to broadly the same conclusion (what the models are increasingly attempting to do is to resolve more details on geographic scales, time scales and within different parts of the Earth system, such as that big block of ice called Antarctica).

But even in the unlikely event that Megan McArdle were to accept these two incontrovertible points (the world is warming and the central feedback, from H2O, are not in any way compromised by some hinted at issue of ‘complexity’), she might still respond with something like:

“oh, but we do rely on complex models to make predictions of the future and things are too chaotic for this to be reliable.”

Well, we have learned from many great minds like Ilya Prigogine that there is complex behaviour in simple systems (e.g. the orbit of Pluto appears on one level to perform according to simple Newtonian mechanics, but in addition, has apparently random wobbles). One needs therefore to be careful at specifying at what level of order ‘chaotic behaviour’ exists. Pluto is both ordered and chaotic.

Whereas for other system that are complex (e.g. the swirling atmosphere of Jupiter) they can display ’emergent’ ordered behaviour (e.g. the big red spot). We see this all around us in the world, and ‘complexity theory’ is now a new branch of science addressing many phenomena that were otherwise inaccessible to pencil and paper: the computer is an essential tool in exploring these phenomena.

Complexity is therefore not in itself a reason for casting out a lazy slur against models, that predictability is impossible.  There is often an ability to find order, at some level, in a system, however complex it is.

Yet, it can also be very simple.

At its most basic, adding energy to the climate system as we are doing by adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, tends to warm things up, because of well established basic physics.

In a similar way, printing too much money in an economy tends to lead to inflation, despite the irreducible random factors in human nature.

It ain’t rocket science and you don’t need to be an expert in complexity theory to understand why we are a warming world.

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The Climate of Clive James

Clive James is known as a man of letters and, in the UK at least, as an erudite and  witty commentator on culture, for which he is widely respected. He has also been extremely courageous in sharing his thoughts on his terminal cancer, with his customary wit and flair.

For all these reasons it is sad that he has decided to become embroiled in climate change in the way he has. For sure he has the right to an opinion, but he seems to have muddied the art he loves, with the science that he clearly does not, and the result will satisfy neither discipline.

For those in broadcasting and the media, paid to express a view on anything and everything, it must be easy to develop a self assurance that belies any lack of knowledge. We are now resigned to the almost daily stream of nonsense that those such as Melanie Philips and others produce, given free rein to fulminate in the press.

Clive James’s poem “Imminent Catastrophe” was published in the New Statesman, and discussed  in an article by Kaya Burgess in The Times, 17 March 2016  is barely more subtle, even shrouded as it is in the form of a poem.

The poem reveals more about Clive James’ self-declared ignorance on climate change than it does about the scientists, and if there is a metre absent then it is surely in his poetry, not the predicted sea level rise.

Let’s unpick the poem.

“imminent catastrophe”

No self-respecting climate scientists has ever talked about “imminent” catastrophe. The timescales vary greatly depending on the impacts in question. Yes, there is a strong argument about how fast we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, in order to avoid the medium to long term consequences. But that is a distinction lost on CJ.

“Not showing any signs of happening”

There are many signs and CJ must either be too lazy or too blinkered to find out about them. The receding mountain glaciers are not imminent, they are already well on their way, and there are many other signs, as illustrated in NASA’s ‘Vital Signs’.

“The ice at the North Pole should have gone” 

A typical exaggerated straw-man statement, rather than an accurate reflection of the scientific position. The clear evidence is that the minimum in sea ice is on a downward trend. “The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century”, says NASA (see Vital Signs above).

“Awkwardly lingering”

Yes it is … rather like those discredited contrarian memes, that CJ slavishly trots out.  Not much creativity at work here I am afraid on his part.

“It seems no more than when we were young” 

CJ’s anecdotal personal experience is worthless, like those who claim that smoking is safe because granny smoked 20 a day and lived to 90, so it must be ok. The disrupted weather systems are already bringing extremes in terms of both wetter winters and hot summers, depending on the region. While ‘attribution’ can get us into the difficult area of probabilities, the dice is already slightly loaded towards more extreme weather, and the loading will increase as the world warms. The National Academy of Sciences have just reported on this  (But once again, I am sure that CJ will not want his opinion to be confused by facts).

“Continuing to not go up by much”

Well, CJ might not be impressed by the sea level rise so far, but the projected sea level rise is expected to be up to 1 metre by the end of the century, which would have a devastating impact on many countries and many cities situated near sea level. The long term picture, over millennia, offers little solace because of the long time it takes for elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere.

“sure collapse of the alarmist view” 

A word of caution here from CJ regarding the sceptics’ who “lapse into oratory”, but he clearly shares the belief that those who warn of serious impacts of global warming should be labelled alarmist, while at the same time being affronted at the label denialist. Sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

He lazily conflates the science with those that who at first sight may easily be cast in the mould of  alarmist: those dreaded environmentalists.  Let us assume for arguments sake that some of who he objects to are shrill alarmists. Does that have any bearing on the veracity of the science? Of course not, yet he applies his broad brush to tar anyone who might dare raise a concern.

Scientists for their part are often a rather quiet and thoughtful bunch. They often take years before publishing results, so they can check and re-check. But what are they to do about global warming? Keep quiet and they could be criticised for not raising the alarm; yet if they tell us about the worst prognostications in the calmest of voices, they will surely be accused of alarmism. A no-win situation.

It is rather easy for those like CJ, whose opinions are unencumbered by knowledge, to discount thousands of diligent scientists with an insulting and pejorative label.

“His death … motivates the doomsday fantasist”

Scientists such as  Sagan have demonstrated a far less parochial view of the future than CJ. Boltzmann foresaw the heat death of the universe and scientists routinely remind us of what tiny specks we humans are in the universe. It is CJ not they that need reminding of how insignificant we all are.

Scientists show an amazing ability to have both a deep knowledge which challenges our deepest assumptions of the world, and a positive attitude to humanity. A combination of realism and optimism that is often inspiring.

The real fantasists here are those like CJ who imagine that they can stand judgment on 200 years of cumulative scientific knowledge, by rubbishing all those men and women who have established the understanding we now have, including the scientific evidence for global warming resulting from human activities that is now incontrovertible.

It is sad that someone who knows and loves poetry should decide to adulterate his art with this hatchet job on another discipline, science, for which he has little empathy and even less knowledge, but feels qualified to insult with the poetic equivalent of a latter day Margarita Pracatan.

Entertaining for some no doubt, but a rather sad reflection on CJ. He could have used a poem to provide a truly reflective and transcendent piece on the subject of climate change, but instead merely offered an opinion piece masquerading as art, clouded by contrarian myths.

We still love you Clive, but I really hope this poem is not your last.

 

(c) Richard Erskine, 2016

Note: If readers would like a presentation of a golden thread through the science, in plain English, then my essay Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications aims to provide just that.

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Data catching Santa in the exploding digital universe!

At this time of year, cynics and sceptics pour scorn on Santa and his faithful reindeer, the prancers and dancers of this festive time. The gauntlet is often laid down as follows. Santa will visit all those children who want presents from him – in about one billion homes – which he has to visit on Christmas Eve.

Thankfully, Fermilabs published the calculations some years ago and proved that Santa, travelling at close to the speed of light, would have no problems covering the ground, in 500 seconds, leaving a generous but fleeting 0.15 milliseconds per dwelling to wolf down some sherry and mince pies. We are of course assuming there is just one Santa, but please note that in Iceland they have 13 Santa Clauses, sons of a horrible mountain hag called Grýla (we leave the re-calculation as an exercise for the reader!).

So what about data? Let’s think not about boring networks and bandwidth, but something more fantastic: the whole of our digital universe.

The Guardian reported back in 2009 that “At 487bn gigabytes (GB), if the world’s rapidly expanding digital content were printed and bound into books it would form a stack that would stretch from Earth to Pluto 10 times.”

Assuming 500bn Gb was being added every 18 months, the speed of the 2009 virtual stack of books was about 1000 kilometres per second. This is fast but well short of the speed of light, that is 300 times this value.

The rate of growth is not constant. It too is doubling every 18 months. It is no wonder this was characterised as the “expanding digital universe”. IDC’s fifth annual study on the digital universe published in June 2011 estimated that we had reached 1.8 trillion gigabytes. We are exploding according to plan!

Translated into a velocity, I have calculated that the exponentially accelerating virtual stack of books, reaching well beyond our solar system, will be travelling at more than the speed of light by 2018. Unlike Santa and crew, our ‘virtual stack’ does not have to comply with the special theory of relativity (Einstein, 1905).

So data will not only catch Santa, but accelerate well beyond him, if we carry on at this rate.

With some thought and some digital out-sourcing, maybe Santa can use this virtual stack as a delivery mechanism, and so create a little space in his busy schedule at this time of year to enjoy the mince pies and sherry at more leisure, and avoid indigestion.

Merry Yuletide.

 

Republished from my 2011 post on thoughtfeast

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Thank you, Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor is stepping down as director of the British Museum at the end of 2015.

What an awe inspiring interpreter of our common human history, our common humanity; and what a leader, who has reached across the world, transcending political barriers with a diplomatic skill that matches his cultural sensitivity.

If you have never read A History of The World in 100 Objects (or better, heard the original BBC Radio broadcasts, enriched by his resonant voice), then you are missing a real cultural gem.

After seeing what Neil MacGregor achieved with his equally monumental Germany: Memories of a Nation (such magnificent antidote to an often one-dimensional view of Germany in the British media), Germany could be in no doubt about their choice of him as leader of the Humboldt Forum.

We all wait expectantly to see the fruits of this new project.

New wonders await, for sure.

Thank you, Neil.

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Why James Hansen is wrong on COP21

I think that James Hansen, as much as I respect him and his huge contribution to the science of climate change, and his personal commitment to communicating the risks we face (including getting arrested), has been outrageous in calling COP21 a fraud.

What would have happened if he had chaired the meeting? Hitting everyone over the head until they agree with a carbon tax, which he sets? I suspect the meeting would have ended in acrimony and the world would be in despair at no agreement.

Diplomats may not be great at science, but the converse is also true.

Laurent Fabius possesses another kind of genius.

Is the current agreement flawed? Yes, in many ways, but it is a framework on which to take us forward with 5-yearly reviews, and things that many developing countries had requested, like loss and damage.

I marvel at the ability to bring more than 190 countries together, all with very different histories and current needs, to knit something together.

French diplomacy tonight deserves our gratitude, not our scorn.

Is 1.5C achievable? The science suggests almost certainly not. So why include it? Because low lying and vulnerable countries demanded it. It is a recognition of their plight. Is that a sop to them, a fraud? No, its called diplomacy and of course not an easy thing for scientists like Hansen to accept.

It would not be the first time that ‘creative ambiguity’ was used in the cause of a greater good (I am thinking the peace accords in Northern Ireland where, if we had instead insisted on absolutely rigorous unambiguous language, would still be in a war there).

There is a joke about the visitor to Ireland who asks a local old man for directions to a place he needs to get to … and the old man says … “If I were going where you are heading, I wouldn’t have started from here!”.

We cannot change where we are starting from, not Hansen, not Fabius.

We can all help, individually, in our towns, in our communities, as voters, etc. to help turn aspiration into reality. e.g. like three examples below:

I think we all need to stop whinging about how hard it is and #JFDI.

By we, I mean all levels of civil society across the globe, utilities, politicians, industry, engineers, and all who can contribute.

It is surprising how much can be achieved when everyone decides to work together.

That spirit of working together may be up against huge hurdles, and punishing odds, but it is not a fraud.

(c) Richard Erskine, 12th December 2015

 

 

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Climate Alarmists?

Ted Cruz decided to use a Congressional Committee to ask the question “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Climate Change.”

A number of commentators have explored the why & wherefores of the meeting and analysed Cruz’s partisan summary .

My purpose here is not to reproduce those arguments. Detailed responses to Ted Cruz often repeated talking points are available.

I want to express my intense irritation at the dishonest use of emotional language by Ted Cruz, when labelling (the majority of) climate scientists, and those who are calling for action on global warming, as “alarmists”.

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book; to try to make your position seem reasonable by use of emotionally charges labels to apply to your opponent (or their arguments) in a debate. Unfortunately, as long as there are politicians, there will be abuse of language as a substitute for substance.

It is worth also recalling some wise words from Robert Thouless as true today as when first published in 1930:

Once we are on the look-out for this difference between factual and emotional meanings, we shall notice that words which carry more or less strong suggestions of emotional attitudes are very common and are ordinarily used in the discussion of such controversial questions as those of politics, morals, and religion. This is one reason why men can go on discussing such questions without getting much nearer to a rational solution of them. …

Those who show enthusiasm in support of proposals with which a speaker disagrees are extremists, while those showing similar enthusiasm on his own side are called staunch. If a politician wishes to attack some new proposal he has a battery of these and other words with emotional meanings at his disposal. He speaks of “this suggested panacea supported only by the bombast of extremists”, and the proposal is at once discredited in the minds of the majority of people, who like to think of themselves as moderate, distrustful of panaceas, and uninfluenced by windy eloquence. Also we may notice that it has been discredited without the expenditure of any real thought, for of real objective argument there is none, only the manipulation of words calling out emotion.

Robert Thouless, Straight and Crooked Thinking, Pan, 1930 (revised 1953)

Ted Cruz (like many politicians left and right), uses emotive words to  try to make a case that is stronger than it deserves.

But when he throws around the label global warming or climate “alarmist” to compensate for the paucity of genuine science on his side of the argument, and does this while chairing a US Senate Committee, this is abuse not merely of argument but of power.

When will Republicans realise that they are being manipulated, using the oldest tricks in the dishonest argument handbook?

 

 

 

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Falstaff prepares for battle in Paris

Christopher Monckton and his merry band of global warming contrarians have been in Paris last week plotting their next skirmish in their never ending war against the science of global warming.

Their meeting to discuss their ‘messaging’ for COP21 has been documented by a journalist from Open Democracy and gives a remarkable expose into their rambling thought processes.

I have a vision of Falstaff – a tragic, comic and hopelessly flawed figure – and his crew of weary old soldiers preparing for a new battle. For audiences of Shakespeare’s plays, these scenes provide some light relief from the more serious plots afoot in his great plays. The same was true here except that on this occasion no one was laughing.

In the main play at COP21 there are serious actors at work: mayors of cities planning to decarbonise; managers of huge investment funds now actively forcing businesses to accept fiduciary responsibility; entrepreneurs promoting zero carbon innovations in energy, transport and elsewhere; climate action networks working with citizen groups; and many more. They are not debating whether or not we have a problem – all informed people know we do – they are instead working hard on solutions. Whatever happens with the final text of COP21, the transition is underway. It cannot be stopped.

The contrarians are bound together by a suspicion, and in some cases hatred, of environmentalism, the UN and ‘big’ Government. They have no interest in exploring scientific truth, only in finding ways to create confusion in the climate debate, for the sole purpose of delaying action. So their strategy has been to challenge science in ways that are thoroughly disingenuous.

For example, over many years these people have said that you cannot reliably measure the average global surface temperature of the Earth, or have claimed it is in error because of the heat island effect or whatever (all untrue, but they keep repeating it). So guess what happens when it appears that the warming has slowed or ‘paused’? They then switch tack and say “look, its stopped warming”, now feigning a belief in the very science of global temperature measurement they were lambasting before.

I call that disingenuous.

This is a game that some people have called ‘wack a mole’, because the contrarians pop up in one place and no sooner have you wacked them there, they pop up in another place. Having no shame, they are happy to pop in the prior places where they have been thoroughly ‘wacked’, hoping no one will remember. This is ‘wack a mole’ meets Groundhog Day.

It is not merely a case of getting tangled in knots over the science. Even before we get to the science part, the contrarians deploy a myriad of debating techniques and logical fallacies. One of the favourite fallacies deployed by contrarians is what I call ‘Argument from Incredulity’.

Now, I do not blame anyone for being incredulous about the universe. I would say it is quite normal, on hearing it for the first time, to be incredulous that we are in a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars and in a universe with over 100 billion galaxies. Incredulity is often a good starting point for enquiry and discovery. But it should never be an excuse for persistent ignorance.

As a child, I was surprised when I learned that even 1oC temperature rise meant a fever and a few degrees could be fatal. It is indeed a wonder how a complex system, like the human body, works to create such a fine equilibrium, and that when the system goes even slightly out of equilibrium, it spells trouble.

The Earth’s system has also been in equilibrium. It too, can get a fever with apparently small changes that can knock it out of equilibrium.

In No. 7 of the talking points in Monckton’s rather long list is his observation that CO2 is less than a tenth of 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere (currently, it is 0.04%, or 400 parts per million [ppm])). True, but so what?

If I look through clear air along a long tube I see visible light from a torch at the other end undiminished, but if I then add a small amount of smoke there will be significant dimming out of all proportion with the relative concentration of the smoke. Why? Because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

The same is true when considering infra-red (which is invisible to the human eye but is emitted from the ground when it has been warmed by sunlight). Since 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to this infra-red, the ‘small’ amount of CO2 (which does absorb infra-red) is very significant in relative terms. Why? Again, because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

Contrarians like to express the rise as 0.03% to 0.04% to suggest that it is small and insignificant.

Actually, a better way to express the change is that it is equivalent to a 33% increase in CO2 concentrations above pre-industrial levels (see Note).

The current 400 ppm is rising at a rate of over 2 ppm per year. All of this increase is due to human combustion of fossil fuels. That is not small, it is huge, and at a rate that is unprecedented (being over a period of 150 years not the 10s of thousands of years over the ice age cycles).

But here is the most amazing conclusion to the Monckton meeting. In trying to rehearse the arguments they should use when ‘messaging’ on the topic of the greenhouse effect:

“We accept that there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect …
yes, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, it would cause some warming – there are some on the fringes who would deny that, but it’s tactically efficacious for us to accept that.”

Efficacious to say something you don’t believe! I don’t call that denial, I call it deceitful.

The old soldiers were naturally up in arms. Being sold out at this stage, would be a bitter pill to swallow. As the reporter noted:

Monckton suggested that they should accept that the greenhouse effect is real. There was a fair amount of disagreement in the room. The chair said “I’m trying to appeal to left wing journalists”. For a moment they lost control as a number of people shouted out their various objections. The conclusion?: “The Greenhouse Effect – the debate continues”.

Enough of dissembling contrarians, I say.

At this point the comic interlude must come to a close. Time to get back to some serious debate.

[Falstaff exits, stage Right]

[The action moves back to the main stage]

COP21 continues without interruption, despite noises off.

(c) Richard Erskine, 2015

NOTE

In fact, the Earth’s average surface temperature would be roughly the same as the Moon’s (being the same distance from the sun) without the CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, about 30oC cooler (-15oC rather than +15oC, on average). So adding even a small amount of CO2 to to an atmosphere of Oxygen, Nitrogen and Argon has a huge effect. Something on top of nothing is a big change in percentage terms.

Over the 4 last ice ages, CO2 concentrations have varied between 180 and 300 parts per million. So less than a halving or doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere moved the Earth from ice age to interglacial and back again. We know that less than a doubling can have dramatic changes.

Today’s level of 400 ppm has not been seen on Earth for almost 1 million years.

For at least the last thousand years, the level has been stable at 280 ppm, up until the industrial revolution.

The question of a ‘pause’ in surface temperature is debated amongst climate scientists. One thing they do not disagree about: the increased CO2 means there is an energy imbalance that is causing the planet to warm, with over 90% of the heat going into the oceans, mountain glaciers receding apace, etc.

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Bringing Protest to the Heart of COP21

In the light of the IS attacks on Paris that has terrorised the city, thoughts inevitably turn to the climate talks in December, COP21, and how France will respond.

Will this change the venue or format of COP21?

The message is that the conference remains on course. This is the right decision. This conference is much too important to be blown off course by the actions of murderous ideologues.

The event already had in place security that is inevitably needed for an event like this, with badged access to the conference area itself. I suspect they had already factored in what many Parisians expected might be coming (even if the reality was much more shocking than anyone had imagined).

Will security be beefed up? Yes, inevitably, but it would be a mistake to create an image of a besieged COP21 with popular protest groups shut out of the conference behind even higher ‘walls’ (an impression that many protest groups already feel).

Total security for the large numbers of the ‘unbadged’ outside the conference would be impossible. What to do? Not to be heard in Paris, to stay away?

I don’t believe so, but I do believe we need to re-think the organization of the protests, and I had this feeling even before the terrorist attacks.

We, the citizens of planet Earth all qualify for a ticket to this event: ‘how to save the Earth’, and clearly we cannot all be there.

Whereas UK citizens, like me, can find low carbon ways to travel to Paris, what about a citizen of Indonesia or Canada? Flying in large numbers to Paris would not exactly send a consistent message. A couple of tonnes of carbon dioxide for each far flung protestor: is that the right price?

There needs to be protesters there for sure, and the French people are protesters par excellence. We need people there to create that energy, to help remind the delegates why we are here.

The people – and many of these student groups – understand the challenge better than the politicians, and understand the severe limitations of our politicians to speak for them, and show vision and leadership. They need their voice heard. Often, these events are accused of being ‘corporatist’ and the voices of the status quo still get undue access to the high table.

The organisers need to recognise this imbalance and not to allow the terrorist attacks on Paris to widen this imbalance further.

The COP21 organisers should create a protest space within the conference zone itself: a space where delegates must pass through and is a wall of images, tweets and statements from protest groups who are physically unable to be there. Every hour of every day, delegates must be reminded of why they are there.

We need the words of all nations represented … Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Kenyan, … not just the middle-class Europeans and North Americans who can afford to fly to be there.

If we want a global protest, inside the COP21 tent, then let’s find a way to do this that does not compromise the inevitable demands of security for delegates and observers.

Let’s bring protest to the heart of COP21.

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E O Wilson on Humanity & Biodiversity

E .O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, was in conversation with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ (a little gem of a series)

He discussed his early years (from age 8!), discoveries, and his ideas on how Darwinian natural selection works in  creative tension between individual selection (the self gene variety) and group selection (which many biologists dispute). Fascinating stuff.

In reference to Darwin, he said …

“the man was impossible, he was always right”.

HUMANITY & BIODIVERSITY

In the latter part of this wonderful programme, Jim Al-Khalili steered the conversation to Ed Wilson’s concerns about biodiversity and the impact that humanity is having on it.

For those of you who may be unable to access the BBC iPlayer or a download of the programme, I wanted to share his words, which were so powerful and insightful I felt compelled to transcribe them (my punctuation, because this was a mesmerising stream of thought):

”Humanity has palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like power … now that’s an extremely dangerous combination” …

“We are by instinct related closely to the survival of our distant ancestors by a driving need to strike nature as hard as we could and to draw as much as we could from it, and we haven’t lost that at all;

And we now come to a higher level recognition that we struck too hard and too far and we are threatening the world that we first entered so aggressively and so successfully in Africa;

And we’ve somehow got to pull back our instincts to exploit and subordinate and convert to our immediate welfare because if we take too much more of the Earth’s biodiversity we render the biosphere unstable;

We could in the worst circumstances reach a tipping point in which the whole thing collapses, and we with it.”

Humbling and thought provoking. Nothing to add.

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Demystifying Global Warming and Its Implications

This essay is published on my blog EssaysConcerning.com, and is the basis for a talk I give by the same title. It provides a guide to global warming in plain English while not trivialising the subject. It avoids technical terms & jargon (like ‘forcing’) and polarising or emotive language (like ‘denier’ or ‘tree hugger’). My goal was to give those who attend the talk or read this essay a basic foundation on which to continue their own personal exploration of this important subject; it provides a kind of ‘golden thread’ through what I believe are the key points that someone new to the subject needs to grasp. References, Further Reading, Notes and Terminology are included at the end of this essay. Slides from the talk, including some bullet points, are included in the essay to provide summaries for the reader. 

I am Richard Erskine and I have a Doctorate from Cambridge University in Theoretical Chemistry.  In the last 27 years I have worked in strategic applications of information management. Quite recently I have become concerned at the often polarised nature of the discourse on global warming, and this essay is my attempt to provide a clear, accurate and accessible account of the subject. I will leave the reader to judge if I have been successful in this endeavour.

Published July 2015 [Revised March 2016].

Contents

1.   The role of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
2.   Ice Ages and Milankovitch Cycles
3.   How do we know this history of the Earth?
4.   How do we know there is warming occurring and that it is man-made?
5.   What are the projections for the future?
6.   Can mankind stay within the 2oC goal?
7.   Is international agreement possible?
8.   Planning a path to zero carbon that supports all countries
9.   The transformation to a zero carbon future

This essay is about Global Warming, past, present and future, man-made and natural, and about our human response to the risks it poses. It starts with a historical perspective on the wider subject of climate change (See Further Reading – Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming).

In the early 19th Century people realised that there had been geological changes due to glaciers, such as large rocks deposited in valleys. By 1837 Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) proposed the concept of ice ages. We now know that there were 4 major ice ages over the past 400,000 years. Between each ice age are periods called inter-glacials. In the deep history of our 4.5 billion year old planet there were other periods of cooling and warming extending back millions of years.

1. The role of Carbon Dioxide (CO2 )

John Tyndall (1820-1893) was a highly respected scientist who loved to holiday in the Alps and wondered what had caused the ice ages. In 1861 he published a paper that was key to our modern understanding (Reference 1).

He showed that carbon dioxide (as we now call it) and water vapour, amongst others, were very effective at trapping the radiative heat (what we call infra-red radiation). Infra-red radiation is emitted from the surface of the Earth when it is heated by visible radiation from the Sun.

The Nitrogen, Oxygen and Argon that together make up 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere are completely transparent to this infra-red radiation. So, while carbon dioxide made up only 0.028% of the atmosphere, with water vapour adding variable levels of humidity, they were thereby recognised 150 years ago as being responsible for trapping the heat that makes the Earth habitable for humans. We call these gases ’greenhouse gases’.

Consequently, the Earth is 30oC warmer than would be the case in the absence of greenhouse gases (on average 15oC, as opposed to -15oC) [see Note 1]

Understanding how so-called ‘greenhouse gases’ absorb infra-red radiation and heat the atmosphere is well established textbook physics, but does get a little technical. Nevertheless, there are plenty of very good resources that are very helpful in explaining this [see Note 2].

Figure 1 - John Tyndall


2. Ice Ages and Milankovitch Cycles

But this still begged the question: what triggered the ice ages? Our modern understanding of the ice ages is informed by two hundred years of scientific research, and the accumulation of knowledge and insight. Milutin Milankovitch (1879-1958) was a Serbian mathematician and astronomer who calculated the cyclical variations (“Milankovitch Cycles”) in the Earth’s orbit and orientation which impact on the intensity of the Sun’s rays reaching polar and other regions of the Earth. His goal was to explain climatic patterns. It was only in the 1970s that Milankovitch Cycles were widely accepted as playing a key role as triggers for entering and leaving an ice age.

The explanation is as follows. Some change starts the process of cooling that takes us into an ice age. The most probable trigger is the start of one of the periodic variations in the orbit and orientation of the Earth. The timing of these cycles correlates well with the ice ages. The greater seasonality of the northern hemisphere (due to its proportionally greater land mass) was a significant factor in promoting growth of the ice sheets.

While these changes were insufficient to explain the full cooling required, they provided the trigger [see Note 3]. After this initial cooling there would have been more snow and ice sheet growth, with the Earth reflecting more light. Overall the resulting cooler Earth system would have been better at capturing carbon dioxide over these timescales [see Note 4]. Since cooler air is less humid, there would also have been less water vapour in the atmosphere.

Overall, the reduction in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would have led to further cooling. This negative feedback process continues, step by step, leading to a new equilibrium where the temperature dropped by a few degrees, the ice sheets grew towards their peak volume, and the sea levels fell accordingly [see Feedback in Terminology].

The exit from an ice age is the reverse of this process. There would have been a trigger that brought slight warming, during an alternate phase of a Milankovitch Cycle. Reductions in snow cover and retreating ice sheets meant less light was reflected, leading to another increment of warming.

Then some carbon dioxide would have been released from the oceans, leading to further warming. This slight warming led to increased humidity [see Note 5], which is a positive feedback effect, and this led to additional warming, which in turn led to the release of more CO2 from the oceans, which led to further warming.

This positive feedback process would have led to a progressively warmer planet and eventually a new equilibrium being reached [see Note 6] in an interglacial period such as the one we are living in.

Figure 2 - Milutin Milankovith


3. How do we know this history of the Earth?

Since the 1950s ice cores (see photo below) have been drilled into the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica that together hold 99% of the the Earth’s ice. The techniques used to analyse these ice cores have been advanced so that we are now able, since the 1980s and 1990s, to look back over these 400,000 years with increasing precision, across the timescale of 4 major ice ages. The Vostok ice cores in the late 1990s reached back 420,000 years. The EPICA cores drilled through the thickest part of the Antartica ice sheet reaches back 800,000 years. In Greenland, the NEEM ice core reaches back 150,000 years.

Figure 3 - Ice Cores

Scientists have literally counted the successive years of compressed snow fall manifest within the ice sheets. By looking at the bubbles of air and materials trapped in these ice cores scientists can determine the concentration of carbon dioxide and other gases over this period.

They can also measure the global temperature that would have existed over the same period through an ingenious measurement of isotopic ratios, as first suggested in 1947 (Reference 2) by the chemist Harold Urey (1893-1981). The story of these ice cores has been told very well by Professor Richard Alley [Alley, Further Reading]

Oxygen’s most common isotope is Oxygen-16 (16O), wherein the nucleus is composed of 8 protons (the defining attribute of the element Oxygen), and 8 neutrons. The next most common stable isotope of oxygen is Oxygen-18 (18O) which has extremely low abundance compared to 16O. 18O has 2 extra neutrons in the nucleus, but is chemically identical.

Water is H2O and when a molecule of it evaporates from the ocean it needs a little kick of energy to break free from its liquid state. The small percentage of 18O-based water in the atmosphere varies in a way that is related to the temperature of the atmosphere that Urey calculated. So when the moisture in the air is mixed and later gathers as clouds and turns to snow that falls in Greenland and Antarctica, it leaves an indicator through its 18O content, of the average temperature of the atmosphere at that time.

Figure 4 - CO2 and Temperature

Ice core evidence is being gathered and checked by many independent teams from many countries at different locations, and there are other independent lines of evidence to back up the main conclusions.

For example, there are the loess layers in the sediment of lakes that can be analysed using analogous techniques, with isotopes of other elements, to provide indicators of temperature over different periods . Some of these methods can look back in time even further than the ice cores, by looking at ancient shells in the ocean sediments, for example.

By analysing the ice cores up to 2 miles deep, scientists can look back in time and measure the CO2 concentration and the temperature, side by side, over several ice ages. Above is a presentation of the data  from the seminal Petit et al 1999 paper in Nature (Reference 3), derived from ice cores retrieved from Antarctica. These ice core projects were epic undertakings.

What this shows is a remarkable correlation between carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature. The studies from Greenland in the Northern Hemisphere and Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere reveal a global correlation.

Because the initial trigger for exiting an ice age would have been a Milankovitch Cycle related to the orbit and orientation of the Earth, the subsequent release of CO2 slightly lagged the change in temperature, but only initially (see Note 7). As previously described, the increased CO2 concentrations and the subsequent positive feedback generated by water vapour provided the principal drivers for the global warming that took the Earth into an interglacial period.

Within the glacial and interglacial periods changes occurred that reflected intermediate fluctuations of warming and cooling. These fluctuations punctuated the overall trends when entering and leaving an ice age. This was due to multiple effects such as major volcanic eruptions.

For example, the Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815 “released several tens of billions of kilograms of sulphur, lowered the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere by 0.7oC” (Page 63, Reference 4). This led to crop failures on a large scale and a year without a summer that inspired Lord Byron to write a melancholy poem. This was a relatively short lived episode because the sulphur aerosols (i.e. droplets of sulphuric acid) do not stay long in the upper atmosphere, but it does illustrate the kinds of variabilities that can be overlaid on any long-term trends.

Another major actor in long-term internal variability is the world’s great ocean conveyor belt, of which the gulf stream is a part. This brings vast amounts of heat up to the northern Atlantic making it significantly warmer than would otherwise be the case. There are major implications for the climate when the gulf stream is weakened or, in extremis, switched off.

On shorter timescales, the warming El Niño and cooling La Niña events, which occur at different phases in the equatorial Pacific every 2 to 7 years, add a significant level of variability that has global impacts on climate.

These internal variabilities of the Earth system occurring over different timescales ensure there is no simple linear relationship between CO2 and global temperature on a year by year basis. The variations ensure that as heat is added to the Earth system and exchanged between its moving parts, the surface atmospheric response rises on a jagged curve.

Nevertheless, overall CO2 can be clearly identified as the global temperature ‘control knob’, to borrow Professor Richard Alley’s terminology. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is the primary indicator of medium to long term global temperatures trends, in both the lower atmosphere and the upper ocean.

Over the period of the ice ages, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has varied between about 180 parts per million (ppm) and 300 ppm. So, less than a doubling or halving of CO2 concentrations was enough for major changes to occur in the Earth’s climate over hundreds of thousands of years.

As the ice cores have been studied with greater refinement it has been realised that in some cases, the transitions can be relatively abrupt, within a few decades, not the thousands of years that geologists have traditionally assumed, suggesting that additional positive feedbacks have come into play to accelerate the warming process.


4. How do we know there is warming occurring and that it is man-made?

We know from the physics of CO2 in the atmosphere and the way that heat is accumulating in the Earth’s system as concentrations rise (with over 90% of the extra heat currently being deposited in the upper oceans, Reference 5). Satellite and ground measurements confirm the energy imbalance.

Rising temperature in the atmosphere, measured over decadal averages, is therefore inevitable, which indeed is what is found (Reference 6): the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included published data based on the globally averaged temperature from instruments around the globe (illustrated below). The Annual Average is very spiky, due to short-term variabilities as discussed.

Each year is not guaranteed to be hotter than the previous year, but the average of 10 consecutive years is very likely to to be hotter than the previous 10 year average, and the average of 30 consecutive years is almost certain to be hotter than the previous 30 year average. The averaging smooths out those internal variabilities that occasionally obscure the underlying trend.

Figure 5 - Rising Temperature

Nine of the ten hottest years in the instrumental record since 1884 have been in the 21st century, with 1998 being the one exception because of a large El Niño (Reference 7). Update: it is now 15 of the 16 hottest years in the instrumental record that have been since the year 2000 (Reference 8).

Many people have asked whether or not variations in solar output could be causing the warming, or maybe CO2 from volcanoes, but as discussed below these do not explain the warming.

Below we show a Figure from the IPCC that shows the various contributions to the warming of the Earth system (Box 13.1 Figure 1, References 6) during the period 1970 to 2011. The cumulative energy flux into the Earth system resulting from the influence of various sources is shown as coloured lines: well mixed and short lived greenhouse gases; solar; aerosols in lower atmosphere (tropospheric); volcanic aerosols (relative to 1860–1879). These are added to give the cumulative energy inflow (black) [see also animation of the data at Reference 9]

What this shows is that the greenhouse gases, principally man-made CO2, have been the predominant contributor to warming, with changes in solar output having a minimal cooling effect. Volcanic and other aerosols have been significant but their effect was to reduce the net warming.

Excellent summaries of the IPCC findings are available [see References 10 and 11].

As we can see, the Sun’s output has been quite stable, and volcanoes in recent decades have only produced between 0.5% and 1% of the additional  CO2 to be accounted for. This is to be contrasted with over 99% of the additional CO2 coming from man-made sources. This assessment is also confirmed by analysing the tell-tale mix of isotopes of carbon in the atmospheric CO2 which shows that most of it must have come from the combustion of fossil fuels, rather than volcanoes.

Volcanoes, through their injection of aerosols (namely, droplets of sulphuric acid) into the atmosphere are actually doing the reverse – creating a cooling effect that is slightly reducing the net global warming.

Figure 6 - Whodunnit?

Since 1958 the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii reliably thanks to Charles Keeling (1928-2005). The “Keeling Curve” is a great gift to humanity (Reference 12) because it has provided, and continues to provide, a reliable and contiguous measure of the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in practice now uses data from many global sites.

The rate of that increasing CO2 is consistent with, and can only be accounted for, as a result of the human activities [see Note 8].

Figure 7 - Keeling Curve

For the last one thousand years leading to the 20th Century, the concentration of CO2 was quite stable at 280 ppm, but since the start of the industrial revolution, it has risen to 400 ppm, with 50% of that rise in the last 50 years. An annual cycle is overlaid on the overall trend [see Note 9]. The Earth has not seen a level of 400 ppm for nearly 1 million years.

The carbon in the Earth system cycles through the atmosphere, biosphere, oceans and other carbon ‘sinks’ as they are called. The flow of ‘carbon’ into the atmosphere is illustrated in the following Figure (Reference 6). Man-made burning of fossil fuels causes a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere above and beyond the large natural flows of carbon.

To understand this, an analogy used by Professor Mackay is useful (see Further Reading). Imagine an airport able to handle a peak of 100,000 in-coming passengers a day (and a balancing 100,000 out-going passengers). Now add 5,000 passengers diverted from a small airport. The queues will progressively grow because of a lack of additional capacity to process passengers.

Similarly, the CO2 in the atmosphere is growing. Humanity has hitherto been adding 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, and it is accumulating there [see Note 10]. This is the net flow into the atmosphere (but also with raised levels in the upper ocean in equilibrium with the atmosphere).  Once raised to whatever level we peak at, the atmosphere’s raised concentration would take many thousands of years to return to today’s level by natural processes.

Figure 8 - Carbon Cycle

It is significant enough that the Earth has not had concentrations as high as 400 ppm for nearly 1 million years. But today’s situation is unique for an additional critical reason: the rate of increase of CO2 is unprecedented.

The IPCC is conservative in assessing additional incremental increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations and other greenhouse gases on top of the human emissions, as a result of ocean and biosphere warming, but we are entering uncharted waters, which is why the current situation is so concerning.


5. What are the projections for the future?

In science and engineering computer models are used to understand the motions of billions of stars in galaxies; the turbulence of air flowing around structures; and many other systems. They are also used to help manage our societies. In our complex world models are used for the operational monitoring and management of all kinds of man-made and natural systems: our electricity networks; pathways of disease transmission; and in many other areas. When used to assess future risks, these models allow ‘what if’ questions to be posed (e.g. in relation to electricity supply, what if everyone puts the kettle on at half time?). This enables us to plan, and take mitigating actions, or adapt to impacts [These arguments are developed in more detail in a separate essay “In Praise of Computer Models”].

Given the high risks we face from global warming, it is essential we do the same here also. This is why so much effort has gone into developing models of the climate and, more broadly, the Earth system (including atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, land, areas of snow and bodies of ice).

These models have evolved since the 1950s and have become increasingly sophisticated and successful. While there is no doubt that the Earth is warming and that this is primarily due to man-made emissions of CO2, the models help society to look into the future and answer questions like ‘what if the level peaks at 500 ppm in 2060?’, for example. The models are a vital tool, and are continuing to evolve (Reference 13).

There are many questions that are not black and white, but are answered in terms of their level of risk. For example ‘what is the risk of a 2003-level heat-wave in Europe?’ is something that models can help answer. Increasingly serious flooding in Texas during May 2015 is the kind of regional effect that climate modellers had already identified as a serious risk.

In general, it is much easier for the general public to understand impacts such as flooding in Texas, than some abstract globally averaged rise in temperature.

Providing these assessments to planners and policy-makers is therefore crucial to inform actions either in supporting reductions in greenhouse gases (mitigation) to reduce risks, or in preparing a response to their impacts (adaptation), or both. It is worth stressing that mitigation is much more cost effective than adaptation.

Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) was a Swedish chemist who in 1896 published a paper on the effect of varying concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere (Archer, Further Reading). He calculated what would happen if the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was halved. He, like Tyndall, was interested in the ice ages.

Almost as an after-thought he also calculated what would happen if the concentration was doubled (i.e. from 280 ppm to 560 ppm) and concluded that the global average temperature would rise by 6oC. Today, we call this an estimate of the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS), or the estimate of the temperature rise the Earth will experience when it reaches a new equilibrium (see Note 11).

Guy Callendar (1898 – 1964) was the first to publish (in 1938) evidence for a link between man-made increases in CO2 in the atmosphere and increased global temperature. His estimate for ECS was a lower but still significant 2oC (Archer, Further Reading).

Since Syukuo Manabe (1931-) and Richard Wetherald (1936-2011) produced the first fully sound computer-based estimate of warming from a doubling of  CO2 in 1967 (Archer and Pierrehumbert, Further Reading), and General Circulation Models (GCMs) of the climate have been progressively refined by them and others.

The modern ‘most likely’ value of ECS is 3oC, different to both Arrhenius and Callendar, neither of whom had the benefit of today’s sophisticated computing facilities. 3oC is the expected warming that would result from a doubling the pre-industrial CO2 concentration of 280 ppm to 560 ppm (Reference 6).

Figure 9 - Arrhenius

The ECS includes short and medium term feedbacks (typically applicable over a period of 50-100 years) which takes us to the end of the 21st century, but not the full effects of the longer term feedbacks associated with potential changes to ice sheets, vegetation and carbon sinks that would take us well beyond beyond 2100.

“Traditionally, only fast feedbacks have been considered (with the other feedbacks either ignored or treated as forcing), which has led to estimates of the climate sensitivity for doubled CO2 concentrations of about 3°C. The 2×CO2 Earth system sensitivity is higher than this, being ∼4–6°C if the ice sheet/vegetation albedo feedback is included in addition to the fast feedbacks, and higher still if climate–GHG feedbacks are also included. The inclusion of climate–GHG feedbacks due to changes in the natural carbon sinks has the advantage of more directly linking anthropogenic GHG emissions with the ensuing global temperature increase, thus providing a truer indication of the climate sensitivity to human perturbations.” 
(Previdi et al., See Reference 14).

 

The so-called Earth System Sensitivity (ESS) is not widely discussed because of the uncertainties involved, but it could be as much as twice as large as the ECS according to the above quoted paper, and this would then be in the range of warming and cooling that was discussed earlier, in the record of the last 4 ice ages [see Note 12]. This is indicative of what could have occurred over these millennial timescales, and could do so again.

The key question we need to answer in the immediate future is: what pathway will the world follow in the next 50 years, in terms of its emissions and other actions (e.g. on deforestation) that will impact net atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases?

The IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5) included projections based on a range of different Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) leading up to 2100. Each RCP includes assumptions on, for example, how fast and how much, humanity will reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and on other factors like population growth and economic development (See Reference 15). The actual projections of future warming are dependent on what decisions we make in limiting and then reducing our emissions of CO2, because the lower the cumulative peak concentration the better, and the faster we reach a peak the better.

The following figure includes four of the IPCC RCPs. The one we shall call ‘business as usual’ would be extremely dangerous (many would use the word ‘catastrophic’) with a rise in the global average temperature of 5oC by 2100. It is not a ‘worst case’ scenario, because it is not difficult to envisage futures that would exceed this ‘business as usual’ scenario (e.g. much faster economic development with fossil fuel use increasing in proportion).

Only rapid and early cuts in emissions would be safe, leading to a peak in CO2 concentration by, say, 2030 (including some efforts to bring down concentrations after this using carbon capture and storage), leading to a 1.5oC rise by 2100.

The two other intermediate scenarios would be over the 2oC expected warming and would give rise to increasingly serious (and costly) interventions, with both short term and long term impacts.

Demystifying GW Talk (Slides) .001

The IPCC noted:
“There are multiple mitigation pathways that are likely to limit warming to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels. These pathways would require substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades and near zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases by the end of the century. Implementing such reductions poses substantial technological, economic, social and institutional challenges, which increase with delays in additional mitigation and if key technologies are not available. Limiting warming to lower or higher levels involves similar challenges but on different timescales.”
IPCC 5th Assessment Report, Summary for Policy Makers, SPM 3.4

Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), whose inaugural meeting was in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, stated the goal was to limit “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, but formal recognition of the much cited 2oC target wasn’t until 2010 (Reference 16). There has been some debate whether the target should be lowered to 1.5oC, recognising the inherent dangers in the perception (or hope) that 2oC is a ‘safe’ limit we can overshoot with impunity.

A temperature trend has variabilities, as we have seen, over short to medium timescales because of several factors. These factors will continue to make themselves felt in the future.

Some people may seek comfort in the knowledge that there areas of uncertainty (e.g. level of impact at regional level), but as some wise person once observed, uncertainty is not our friend. The long-term future for our climate would take an extremely long time to unfold – to reach some new Earth system equilibrium – even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today. For example, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could take many hundreds if not thousands of years.

Some changes are relatively fast and are already being felt as the planet warms, for example:

  • About three quarters of the Earth’s mountain glaciers are receding at accelerating rates (Reference 17), putting fresh water supplies at risk in many places such as Peru and the Indian sub-continent. While some may say that we can fix this problem by desalinating sea water, as they do in the Middle East, and even power this using solar, as the Saudis are planning to do, this is clearly a massive extra burden on stressed global water resources that would require significant additional electricity capacity, and brings with it huge risks to natural and human systems.
  • Sea levels are rising faster than expected and predicted to rise by up to 1 metre by 2100 (Reference 6). We could eventually see a rise of about 2.5 metres per 1oC rise in global surface temperature. So even if the world keeps to the 2oC commitment, we could anticipate a sea level rise of 5m eventually (Reference 18), putting at risk a majority of our cities that lie close to sea level today and where a growing percentage of the world’s population now resides (about 50% and growing). Note that while the IPCC scenarios focus on the state of the climate reached by 2100, in the longer term, changes could be locked in that have impacts for thousands of years  (Reference 19).
  • While a warmer climate can extend growing seasons in temperate zones, it can also bring problems for plants such as heat exhaustion, irrigation problems and increased range and resilience of insects. Outbreaks often defoliate, weaken and kill trees. For example, pine beetles have damaged more than 1.5 million acres of forest in Colorado, and this is attributed to global warming. The impact of temperature rise on food crops like wheat is expected to be negative overall, with yields likely to drop by 6% for every 1oC rise in temperature, according to a recent paper in Nature (Reference 20).
  • The acidity of the oceans has increased by 30% since pre-industrial times (Reference 21). This is increasing every year with 2 billion tonnes of CO2 being added to the upper layer of the oceans. This is having an impact on corals but longer term it can impact on any creatures that form calcium carbonate to build skeletons or shells. Plankton underpin a large part of the marine food chain and are thereby threatened by increasing CO2.

The IPCC analysed the widespread impacts of global warming that are already being felt (the following graphic is from the IPCC report, but the bullets are the author’s summary of just a selection of impacts).

Figure 11 - Current Global Impacts

Plants and animals evolve over long periods, so sudden changes cannot be compensated for by equally rapid biological evolution.

The planetary system is mind-bogglingly complex, and has huge reservoirs of carbon in fossil fuels and even greater ones in the deep ocean, so it is a marvel how the combination of physical and biological processes has managed to keep the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere remarkably stable for a long time.

The Earth, as James Lovelock famously observed, is like a living system. Without life, there would be little or no oxygen in the atmosphere. If there was much more than its current 21% contribution the atmosphere would be dangerously flammable, and if there were much less, we mammals would struggle to breathe.

We see intricate balances in nature wherever we look in the biosphere and physical systems. That is why small changes can have big effects. You may wonder how an averaged global temperature change of 1oC or 2oC can have any significant effects at all.

The first point to realise is that this is an average and it reflects much larger swings in temperature and also regional differences. The Arctic for example is warming at a faster rate than elsewhere, and also the lower atmosphere warms as the upper atmosphere cools: These are two effects long predicted by climate models (as far back as the crude models of the 1950s, long before these predictions were proven by satellite measurements).

One result of these changes in the Arctic is that the jet stream running below it is slowing and getting more wiggly. This wiggly jet stream can accentuate extremes and create phenomena like blocking highs that fix weather events for longer than normal.  This is already leading to increased risks of extreme events after just a 0.8oC average global warming.

To illustrate what this might mean to western Europe and the UK, let’s look at heatwaves. When the average temperature is shifted a little higher, so are the extremes. What was very rare, becomes rare, and what was infrequent, can become quite frequent (Reference 22). Whilst a specific heatwave is not attributable to global warming, the odds mean that some are, and increasingly so as the average temperature increases. This perhaps obvious point is now backed up by research:

“The summer of 2003 was  the hottest ever recorded for central and western Europe, with average temperatures in many countries as much as five degrees higher than usual. Studies show  at least 70,000 people died as a result of the extreme high temperatures. In August alone, France recorded over 15,000 more deaths than expected for that time of year, a 37 per cent rise in the death rate. The same month also saw almost 2,000 extra deaths across England and Wales … While a heatwave used to happen once every 50 years, we’re now likely to see one every five years, the study concludes.” Robert McSweeney (References 23)

Similar increases in frequency could occur for other kinds of extremes like the flooding that hit Somerset in the UK during 2013-14. These regional impacts (current and projected) are being researched through ‘attribution studies’ by the UK’s Met Office, for example.


6. Can mankind stay within the 2oC goal?

We as humans in just 150 years have emitted over 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (abbreviated as 2,000 GtCO2) by burning fossil fuels buried for millions of years. On the back of the energy we have unleashed, we have achieved huge advances in nutrition, medicine, transport, industry and elsewhere.

To have good odds of avoiding going beyond the 2oC rise (compared to pre-industrial levels) that the nations of the world have committed to, the world should emit no more than 565 GtCO2 in the 40 years from 2010 to 2050 (References 24, 25, 26). This is a red line (otherwise called the ‘carbon budget’) that we should not cross.

There is an equivalent of 3,000 GtCO2 (emissions potential) in the known reserves for listed companies. At our current rate of over 40 GtCO2 (equivalent) emissions a year [see Note 13] we would reach the red-line by 2030. By 2050 we would be well beyond the red-line and would exhaust the reserves by 2075 [see Note 13, 14].

Figure 12 - Fossil Fuel Red Line

There are factors that will change the rate of emissions. Increasing consumption per capita in developing countries will increase the annual emissions if fuelled by carbon-based sources of energy. On the other hand, as countries transition to zero carbon sources of energy, there will be a trend to reduce emissions. This means that the ‘carbon budget’ may be spent over a shorter or longer duration. It is clearly a question of which of these two forces wins out over this period of transition.

However, the annual rate of COincrease during the four years up to 2015 has consistently exceeded 2 ppm, and in 2015 was about 3 ppm, as  NOAA have reported. Clearly there is no sign yet of a levelling off of emissions globally.

In the year 2000, the carbon footprint between the highest and lowest consumers differed by a factor of about 10. The USA was close to 25 tonnes of CO2 net emissions (equivalent) per person each year, compared to India, which was more like 2 tonnes (Mackay, Further Reading).

“Now, all people are created equal, but we don’t all emit 5½ tons of CO2 per year. We can break down the emissions of the year 2000, showing how the 34-billion-ton rectangle is shared between the regions of the world.”

Figure 13 - Carbon Footprint

“This picture … divides the world into eight regions. Each rectangle’s area represents the greenhouse gas emissions of one region. The width of the rectangle is the population of the region, and the height is the average per-capita emissions in that region. In the year 2000, Europe’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions were twice the world average; and North America’s were four times the world average.” (Professor David Mackay, Further Reading)

The above graphic (based on year 2000 data) is taken from Professor David Mackay’s book “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air”.  This book provides a clear approach to understanding our options and making the maths of energy consumption and supply stand-up to scrutiny: five different scenarios for reducing our carbon emissions are discussed to meet our energy needs.

It is also worth noting that research by Oxfam published in 2015  indicates that the top 10% of the world’s population are responsible for 50% of emissions, and that extreme carbon inequality exists around the world (Reference 27).

While much of the debate about ‘alternatives’ focuses on energy production (wind, solar, nuclear, etc.), consumption is an equally important topic. There is a need for radical reductions in consumption in order to have any chance of meeting emissions targets.

Imagine a world in 2050 where the population has risen to and stabilised at around 9 billion, in part due to a rising middle class making up perhaps 50% of the population, with smaller families but higher per capita consumption levels: then the total energy demands might have grown by nearly 5-fold. Those aspiring to an energy intensive life-style will be likely grow proportionally.

If we continue with fossil fuels generating 80% of our energy, we would expect that the global emissions would increase proportionally to say 5 times the current levels. At that rate we would go beyond desired levels well before 2050, setting in train a temperature rise well past the 2oC goal, and placing the planet on a path to unstoppable and calamitous global warming.

We would also have deferred the necessity to prepare for a world without fossil fuels, and through this delay we would have created an even steeper cliff to climb to make the transition to zero carbon.

Despite their different starting points, the per capita carbon emissions of all countries need to be planned to move towards zero carbon by 2100, and drastically reduced well before then. Professor Sir David King in his Walker Institute Lecture illustrated a possible scenario to achieve this (Reference 28):

Figure 14 - Getting countries to converge

The Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, which was the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) or COP21 for short, has been crucial in providing a framework to achieve this. New to this COP has been an emphasis on ‘bottom up’ initiatives at regional and national levels. The so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) have set targets and will enable countries to manage their own plans towards a low carbon future.

Some developed countries like USA and the UK have already been cutting emissions per capita from high levels. Economies like China and India starting at a relatively low level will rise in per capita emissions, peaking by 2030 if possible.

All countries should be aiming to converge on 2 tonnes of CO2 per capita by say 2050, then meet the zero target by 2100.

The above graph from King’s Walker Institute Lecture (Reference 28) plots an outline path towards a zero carbon 2100. The developed and developing parts of the world will follow different routes but need to converge well before 2100 on a greatly reduced level of emissions per capita.

This journey has already started and has been enabled by building new markets. The price per Watt of photovoltaics (PV) has fallen from $76 in 1977 to $0.3 in 2015 (according to Wikipedia). This was helped enormously by the introduction of feed-in tariffs in Europe that helped create a growing market for PV, and competition and innovation combined to help drive down the unit price. This is how markets develop, and it means that the rest of the world can benefit from the seed this created. However, there is a huge mountain to climb to transition the current energy model to a transformed one.  It is not about if, but it is about when this must happen.

While Sir David King shows it is possible to stay below 2oC, if we act with urgency, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, and some would argue that given the procrastination to date, is no longer realistic.  However, that does not negate the need to push for the most aggressive reductions in emissions that are achievable.


7. Is international agreement possible?

There are many examples of where regional and international agreements have successfully regulated environmental pollution, such as acid rain and lead in petrol.

A good example is to recall what was done to address the hole in the Ozone Layer, which was being caused by certain chemicals such as CFCs. This led to the Montreal Protocol (1987), and most importantly the subsequent agreements in London (1990), Copenhagen (1992) and Beijing (1999). The targets for harmful emissions were progressively reduced, including mechanisms to enable the market to transition away from CFCs. The world came together effectively to regulate and progressively reduce the threat.

The following picture demonstrates that agreements on global environmental challenges, like reducing damaging pollutants in the atmosphere, can be effective, but require sustained effort over a number of years.

Figure 15 - CFCs Ozone Hole

For global issues like the ozone hole, internationally agreed targets are essential, as Margaret Thatcher observed in her speech to the UN in 1989 (Reference 29). But this leaves industry free to compete. They can make fridges, innovating and competing on a level playing field, albeit one without CFCs.

Global warming is a much more challenging problem to solve. The history of the genesis of the IPCC formed in 1988 is discussed in Weart (Further Reading), and shows how long it took for the foresight of the pioneers in the field to be followed up, and for this to lead to internationally coordinated efforts.

On 1st June 2015, the CEOs of Shell and some other major European based oil & gas companies wrote to the Financial Times (Reference 30), with their letter entitled widespread carbon pricing is vital to tackling climate change, which was also the basis for a submission they made to the Paris Conference (COP21). This is demonstrating that the oil & gas industry is showing some indications of wanting to engage meaningfully, at least in Europe (albeit alongside their contentious desire to promote gas as a bridge to a zero carbon future).

The following Figure (Reference 28), taken from Professor Sir David King’s recent talk illustrates some of the international and national initiatives.

Figure 16 - Timeline for Climate Action

In short, it is not a choice between either environmentalism and regulation on the one hand, or free enterprise on the other, but in fact a combination of all three. There is not only room for innovation and entrepreneurialism in a greener world, but a necessity for it.


8. Planning a path to zero carbon that supports all countries

The path to low carbon will of course require addressing fossil fuels, in electricity generation, transport and industry. However, it is worth noting that improved machine efficiency, reduced travel, better buildings, etc., can make significant contributions (it is not just about changing the source of energy). The concept of ‘stabilization’ of the climate has a been around for some time through multiple parallel initiatives (see for example Reference 31).

Nevertheless, the role of fossil fuels remains a dominant feature of our energy landscape, and the question arises as to how we ensure ‘equity’ in a world where the developing world has neither been responsible for, nor had the benefits of, most of the fossil fuel burned to date.

However, those that claim we would hold back developing countries by denying them the benefits of cheap fossil fuels are ignoring 3 things:

  • When carbon pricing, or equivalent mechanisms, properly reflect the damage that is being done, and will be done, then fossils fuels will no longer be cheap.
  • The sooner we commit to a future without fossil fuels, the sooner we can develop the new infrastructure and systems needed to enable the transition, including new sources of energy, smart networks, information systems and conservation.
  • Some countries are already moving in this direction. Denmark has a goal of producing 100% of its energy from renewables by 2050, and Ethiopia is committing to reduce their CO2 emissions by two thirds by 2050. Despite all the rhetoric, China and the USA are adding large amounts of wind and solar power, and have made recent bilateral commitments. Even in the UK, with huge resistance to renewables in the media at least (which overstates the public’s views), renewables are significant: “Renewable energy provided 13.4 GW, or 43%, of British electricity at 2pm on Saturday 6th June 2015. I believe this is a new record” (Reference 32). This was an exceptional day, but nevertheless it may surprise many people, and is indicative of what could be possible. Also, in the second quarter of 2015, renewables generated more electricity than either nuclear or coal.

So a start has been already been made. Globally we need to increase greatly the level of commitment and delivery, as there is no  reason why renewables could not power humanity’s needs:

“Meeting 100 per cent of global energy demands through renewable energy is technically and economically feasible. The main problems are political and social.” Professor Mark Jacobson (Reference 33)

To achieve transformational change one needs a vision and a plan, which will have multiple streams of activity. The Solutions Project have a state-by-state plan to get the USA to zero emissions by 2100 (Reference 34).

For reasons of geography, a similar vision is more challenging for the UK, but a strategy has been developed that could achieve the same for the UK by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) that shows what could be achieved, if we choose that path  (see CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain report, Reference 35).

Internationally, we need to have a similar vision and plan to push each stream forward in the overall transformation. In so doing the target needs to include a significant cut in carbon emissions by 2050 in order to keep within the 2oC goal.

The earlier we reach a global peak in annual emissions of CO2, and the lower the peak in total concentration in the atmosphere, the greater the chance of achieving the goal. So every year of delay amounts to additional risk. There is a cost to procrastination, as Michael Mann wisely observed.

The World Bank has produced a report showing how decarbonization of development can be achieved, with early action on transportation being a key priority (Reference 36).

The following figure is a simplified extract from the referenced World Bank report, giving a flavour of the steps required to get to zero carbon (please read the full report to get a proper appreciation of the strategy).

Figure 17 - Steps to Zero-Carbon


9. The transformation to a zero carbon future

As Elon Musk said, “I think the solution is fairly obvious … we have this handy fusion reactor in the sky” (Reference 37). Man-made fusion reactor technology has no prospect of digging us out of our current carbon hole, which requires action now, not in 50 years time (commercially scalable fusion energy is famously always 50 year’s away), though no doubt in the distant future it could play a role [see Note 15].

There are many other forms of zero carbon energy to consider – including renewables like wind and wave power – and each country will have its own choices to make based on a wide range of factors. In our windy UK, wind and tidal power have particular potential. However, there are reasons for believing that solar power will play a major role in the future on a global scale.

Today, and every day, the Sun radiates huge amounts of energy onto the Earth:

“The planet’s global intercept of solar radiation amounts to roughly 170,000 TeraWatt [TW] ( 1 TW = 1000 GW). … [man’s] energy flow is about 14 TW, of which fossil fuels constitute approximately 80 percent. Future projects indicate a possible tripling of the total energy demand by 2050, would correspond to an anthropogenic energy flow of around 40 TW. Of course, based on Earth’s solar energy budget such a figure hardly catches the eye …”

Frank Niele (Reference 38).

Humans currently require about 15 TW of power (15,000 GW), and while this would grow as the Earth’s population and standards of living rise (and probably stabilise), it is clear that by harnessing a fraction of the energy provided by the Sun we could accommodate humanity’s energy needs.

If, in 2050, humanity’s power demand peaks at 40TW, then a modest 10,000 solar arrays, each 100 square kilometres (10km x 10km) distributed around the world would deliver at least 100% of our needs [see Note 16].

Figure 18 -Solar Key to Transformation

Achieving this solar energy potential in its full sense will require a sustained programme to create a flexible transmission and storage infrastructure, able to handle a distributed renewables network. It would require grid-scale solutions, able to store GW hours of energy. All of this is achievable. The solutions are receiving a lot of focus (Reference 39).

In addition to the domestic and utility scale batteries that Tesla Energy and others are developing, there are other ingenious ideas such as the Hydraulic Rock Storage System invented by Professor Dr. Eduard Heindl (Reference 40). This is analogous to existing reservoirs in places like Scotland, but using a more compact system.

Figure 19 - Energy Storage

So while we all feel daunted by the transition that needs to be made from our carbon-centric world to a zero-carbon one, it is reassuring to know that some brilliant minds are on the case. They are not waiting for the politicians to all agree.

It is worth recalling that the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself met with huge resistance in Britain, embedded as it was in the economy. The point is that sometimes things seem impossible at the start of a change, but appear to be obvious and inevitable with the benefit of hindsight.

The consultancy McKinsey has written of the disruptive impact of solar power on the energy market (Reference 41), in part due to the fact that it satisfies electricity supply when  demand is at its peak, thereby undermining the profits of traditional sources of energy that rely of high prices at these times.

There are huge challenges to society to become less wasteful of its material and energy resources, to ensure sustainability for everyone on Earth. However, this is achievable without going back to a pre-industrial past.

It will mean a greater democratisation of resources, and an acceptance that the process of achieving the goals of improved health, nutrition and other measures of well-being cannot be fuelled by fossil fuels. The carbon route is a dead end that will bring more pain than gain.

The impact of global warming on its current trajectory would be disastrous for humanity. And while four fifths of currently known reserves of hydrocarbons are deemed to be un-burnable ‘stranded assets’, if we want a good chance to stay under 2oC (as illustrated earlier), do not expect the carbon industries to be content with current reserves.

They are continuing as we speak to uncover more reserves of carbon in the Arctic, in the Canadian tar sands, through ubiquitous fracking, and so it goes on. Peak oil? Forget it! With advanced seismic techniques the geologists will continue to find reserves. The world has become drunk on carbon!

There is another way. We see the pressure building to ensure those dangerous carbon assets, both present and future, become stranded.

Diverse voices (Reference 42) are raising concerns: the Governor of the Bank of England is urging the financial community to consider the risk of stranded assets; the Pentagon has talked about global warming as a ‘threat multiplier’; and Pope Francis has now added his voice, concerned at the ethical dimensions of global warming.

Figure 20 - Diverse Voices

More radical voices are also coming to the fore including the author Naomi Klein, who sees global warming not so much as an issue of sustainable energy per se, but of justice for those who are and will be most impacted by global warming. While global warming has not been a central issue in recent general elections in the UK, it is rising up the political agenda. It is hardly ever out of the news, and campaigns like the ‘divestment’ movement are getting a lot of people thinking. Many organisations are divesting from fossil fuels.

Those commentators who see reductions in CO2 emissions as a low priority goal in a world crying out for cheap energy to drive developmental goals in emerging economies are falsely framing carbon reduction and economic development as mutually exclusive goals. Far from being just another global problem to add to a long list, global warming has become the defining issue that now frames the others.

“So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.”   Paul Krugman (Reference 43).

Our response should be positive and aspirational, heralding huge possibilities for innovation and positive changes for a cleaner and sustainable environment. Some countries are already deciding to take this route.

This is a future that remains energy rich, but fuelled by zero carbon sources, with greater energy efficiency and less waste than in our current throw-away culture. In this new world we will address the global challenges of the developing and developed world, because they are linked not separate. No country will be stranded.

We will also be aware of each other’s different backgrounds, cultures and values, which may determine which alternative energy resources we favour or fear. Inclusive public debate is a must.

In reality, the developmental goals that are being pursued in the developing world are crying out for a new model. Zero carbon development, including a major role for solar and other renewables which can be scaled up fast at both small and industrial scales, will help create this new model. Even new Saudi desalination plants are to be powered by solar power. The writing is on the wall for fossil fuels.

Such developments offer hope that a transition to a zero carbon world is not merely feasible within the right timescales, but is actually already underway, and offering a much more credible and sustainable future than a high-risk one based on fossil fuels.

Figure 21 - Ending on a light notes

This is a weighty topic, albeit such an important one. In order to end on not just a positive but also a lighter note, I invite you to enjoy the graphic I have included above! My own comment in response is, of course:

We can create a better world, so it won’t be for nothing!

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2015 (Revised March 2016).

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References

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For completeness references are included, if only to highlight the longevity, depth and diversity of work that has gone into building our current understanding of global warming and its implications. However, for the general reader, I recommend Further Reading, which includes some free to access books and other resources.

  1. Tyndall, J. (1861), ’On the absorption and radiation of heat by gases and vapours, and on the physical connexion of radiation, absorption, and conduction’, Philosophical Magazine Series 4, Vol. 22: 169-94, 273-85.
  2. Urey, H. C (1947), ‘The thermodynamic properties of isotopic substances’, J. Chem. Soc.562-581.
  3. J.R. Petit, J. Jouzel. et. al., ‘Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core in Antarctica’, Nature 399 (3 June), pp. 429-436, 1999.
  4. Courtillot, V., “Evolutionary Catastrophe: The Science of Mass Extinction”, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  5. Painting, R., ‘Ocean Warming has been Greatly Underestimated’, Skeptical Science, ‘Ocean Warming has been greatly underestimated’14 October 2014
  6. Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is available in full
  7. ‘Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet’, NASA
  8. “2015 was the hottest year on record”, Tom Randall & Blacki Magliozzi, Bloomberg, 20th January 2016
  9. Animation of the data is provided by the following link [use arrow at base of picture to step through] “What’s Really Warming the World?”
  10. A graphical and highly accessible summary of the IPCC AR5 in about 200 pages can be found in: “Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC”, by Michael Mann and Lee R. Kump, DK Publishing & Pearson, 2015. [also now available as an eBook]
  11. A useful summary of the IPCC findings can be found on-line at Serendipity
  12. ‘”Keeling curve” of carbon dioxide levels becomes chemical landmark’, NOAA, 27 April 27, 2015
  13. Regarding climate models (state of art, emergent patterns & uncertainties):
  14. “Climate sensitivity in the Anthropocene”, M. Previdi et al, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, Volume 139,  Issue 674,  July 2013 Part A
  15. “The Beginner’s Guide to Representative Concentration Pathways”, G.P. Wayne, Sceptical Science, v1.0, August 2013
  16. “Two degrees: The history of climate change’s ‘speed limit’”, Mat Hope & Rosamund Pearce, 8th December 2014, Carbon Brief
  17. “Melting glaciers are caused by man-made global warming, study shows”, Steve Connor, The Independent, 14th August 2014
  18. “Latest numbers show at least 5 metres sea-level rise locked in”, New Scientist, Michael Le Page, 10th June 2015
  19. “Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change”, Peter U. Clark et al, Nature Climate Change (2016)
  20. “Global warming will cut wheat yields, research shows”, Fiona Harvey, The Guardian, 23 December 2014
  21. “What is ocean acidification?”, NOAA
  22. “Climate Change and Heat Waves”, Kaitlin Alexander, 3rd April 2012
  23. “European summer heatwaves ten times more likely with climate change”, Robert McSweeney, The Carbon Brief, 8 Dec 2014
  24. Olivier JGJ, Janssens-Maenhout G, Muntean M and Peters JAHW (2014), ‘Trends in global CO2 emissions; 2014 Report’, The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency; Ispra: European Commission, Joint Research Centre
  25. “How much of the world’s fossil fuel can we burn?”, Duncan Clark, The Guardian, 23 March 2015
  26. ‘Unburnable Carbon – Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?’, Carbon Tracker Initiative
  27. “Extreme Carbon Inequality”, Oxfam, December 2015.
  28. King, D., ’The Paris UN Climate Summit – Hopes and Expectations’, Walker Institute Annual Lecture,10th June 2015
  29. “Speech to United Nations General Assembly (Global Environment)”, Margaret Thatcher, 8 November 1989. 
  30. “Widespread carbon pricing is vital to tackling climate change”, Financial Times, 1st June 2015, Signed by: Helge Lund, BG Group plc; Bob Dudley, BP plc; Claudio Descalzi, Eni S.p.A.; Ben van Beurden, Royal Dutch Shell plc; Eldar Sætre, Statoil ASA; Patrick Pouyanné, Total S.A.
  31. Pacala, S and Socolow, R, ‘Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 years with Current Technologies’, Science, Vol. 305, 13th August 2004.
  32. “New record for UK renewables output”, Carbon Commentary, 7th June 2015
  33. Professor Mark Jacobson, Director of Atmosphere and Energy, Stanford University and co-author, Powering a Green Planet
  34. “100% Renewable Energy Vision”, The Solutions Project (this is a state-by-state plan for the USA)
  35. A UK plan to make the UK to energy use 100% renewables has been developed by CAT: Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future”, Centre for Alternative Technology, 2013.
  36. Fay, Marianne; Hallegatte, Stephane; Vogt-Schilb, Adrien; Rozenberg, Julie; Narloch, Ulf; Kerr, Tom. 2015. Decarbonizing Development : Three Steps to a Zero-Carbon Future. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank
  37. “The Missing Piece”, 2015 Tesla Powerwall Keynote by Elon Musk, 1st May 2105
    • Also go to Tesla Energy to see the Powerwall
  38. Energy: Engine of Evolution, Frank Niele, Shell Global Solutions, 2005.
  39. Energy Research in North Rhine-Westphalia: The Key to the Energy Transition
  40. “Hydraulic Rock Storage: A new concept in storing electricity”, Heindl Energy
  41. “The disruptive potential of solar power: As costs fall, the importance of solar power to senior executives is rising”, David Frankel, Kenneth Ostrowski, and Dickon Pinner, McKinsey Quarterly, April 2014
  42. Diverse voices:
  43. “Salvation Gets Cheap”, Paul Krugman, New York Times, 17th April 2014



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Further Reading

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This is by no means an exhaustive list but includes some favourites of mine.

Items 1 and 4 are freely available on-line and offer an accessible combination of the history of global warming science and practical ideas on meeting our energy needs in the future – so good places to start one’s exploration of this broad subject.

For those wanting historical primary sources, Item 2 includes reprints of the paper by Tyndall (1861) and other seminal papers from 1827 to 1987, from a range of key scientific contributors (not all cited in the essay, but no less important for that), covering diverse topics. A history of the research into ice cores is well covered in item 3 in a popular form, by a leading geologist specialising in climate change (and if you visit Youtube, one of the most entertaining speakers you will find on any subject), Professor Richard Alley.

The IPCC report (Reference 6) is an impressive but challenging document. You can probably find time to read the ‘Summary for Policy Makers’, but for a compelling and pictorial guide, Item 5 is highly accessible. 

If you would like to explore the science more then Item 6 includes scientific treatments for those with some appetite for more technical explanations of the fundamental science, and won’t be scared off by a few equations: (a) Is a relatively accessible and short book from a leader in the field of the global carbon cycle and its relationship to climate change, Professor David Archer; (b) Is a scientifically literate and well structured blog (rather like a book in web form), that politely deals with blog comments, so useful for those wanting to explore deeper scientific questions, but having difficulty accessing the books; and (c) Is a complete, undergraduate level, textbook for those wanting a structured and coherent synthesis of the science, in all its details, from a leader in planetary climate science, Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert, who was a lead author of  the IPCC AR4 Report.

If you want to explore some of the debating points that are often raised about the science, then Item 7 provides a good guide: Skeptical Science does a good job at responding to the many myths that have been spread in relation to the science underpinning our understanding of global warming; Climate Feedback provides annotations of articles which abuse or misuse the science, so you can see comments and corrections in context.

With the exception of Professor David Mackay’s book, I have avoided books or sources covering policy questions (sustainability, energy, economics, etc.), which are crucial to engage on but outside the main thread of this essay.

  1. The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer R. Weart, Harvard University Press, 2008 (Revised and Expanded Edition).
  2. The Warming Papers – The Scientific Foundation for The Climate Change Forecast, David Archer and Raymond Pierrehumbert, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
  3. The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change and Our Future, Richard B. Alley, Princeton University Press, 2000
  4. Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air, David JC Mackay, UIT Cambridge Ltd, 2009
  5. Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC, Michael Mann and Lee R. Kump, DK Publishing & Pearson, 2015.
  6. More technical, scientific treatments:
  7. Countering myths



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Notes

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  1. If there were no heat-trapping (infra-red absorbing) gases in the atmosphere, the temperature can be calculated using Stefan’s Law and the answer is about -15oC. Actually, this is about the average temperature on the moon that receives about the same amount of visible radiation from the sun as we do on Earth per square metre, and has no atmosphere. So why is the Earth much warmer than this? When visible light from the sun heats the surface of the Earth it warms up, but at the same time it emits energy in the form of longer wavelength infra-red radiation which is absorbed by CO2 but there is infra-red emitted into space. How does this change the temperature of the Earth? This can be thought of as a bucket of water with a hole in it. The visible light is like the water being poured into the bucket, whereas the infrared is like water leaking from the bucket. At some point these balance each other, as the water rises to a point whereby the pressure is sufficient to ensure that the outward flow of water equals the inward flow.  The level of the water reached by analogy represents the equilibrium energy retained by the Earth, which translates to a warming of the Earth’s surface.  Because of the heat trapping gases, the temperature on Earth is 30oC higher (so about 15oC on average).
    • Note that we could have started the narrative with Fourier, who in 1827 had worked out the broad principles of what would be needed to explain the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. However, I chose to focus the narrative on the ice ages. This is not to diminish Fourier’s contribution and I recommend Weart (Further Reading) to get a fuller account of all the scientists who have made seminal contributions.
  2. Understanding the atmospheric ‘greenhouse’ effect:
  3. While there is little doubt that Milankovitch cycles play a key role in the ice ages, the details are subtle. For example, while a change in the eccentricity of the orbit will change the amount of sunlight reaching a pole during its summer, averaged over a year, the change in total energy reaching the Earth is small. The key insight is that the northern hemisphere has more land and overall more ‘seasonality’ so that changes in energy absorbed in the northern hemisphere when the snow/ice cover drops becomes highly significant.  There are subtle details to this process involving the Milankovitch cycles, the cryosphere and carbon reservoirs that are still the subject of on-going research. A useful discussion of these subtleties can be found at SkepticalScience, including references to primary research.
  4. The carbon cycle is complex and works using different mechanisms over different cycle times. Over the period of the ice ages, there was an overall reduction in CO2 in the atmosphere during the colder periods, but this is not as simple as saying that colder sea water absorbed more CO2. This is clarified in a very useful article: “Does temperature control atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations?”, Bob Anderson, 7th July 2010, Earth Institute Columbia University
  5. The increase in water vapour concentrations is based on “a well-established physical law (the Clausius-Clapeyron relation) determines that the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by about 7% for every 1°C rise in temperature” (IPCC AR4 FAQ 3.2). For a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, the well established radiative physics (definitively laid down in “Radiative Transfer”, S. Chandrasekhar (1950) and a corner stone for climate models), tells us that that would lead to about a 1°C warming. However, the effect of water vapour is to add an additional 2°C of warming (and like with CO2 its the energy budget at the top of atmosphere that is key in determining the warming of the troposphere). This is a fast feedback. This adds up (1+2) to the 3°C  of warming overall. This estimate excludes the effects of clouds in the upper troposphere (which tend to lower temperatures by reflecting sunlight) and lower troposphere (which tend to help to trap heat), but which overall appear to cancel each other out, and so have a net neutral impact on the temperature change overall [this is however an area of active research, with a number of questions to be resolved]. There is often confusion about the role of water. For example, a common misconception is that increases in water vapour will lead to more clouds that will then offset the warming, which is false because the relative humidity (which is what largely governs the propensity for cloud formation) stays almost the same (as discussed by Chris Colose in “How not to discuss the Water Vapour feedback”, Climate Change, 2008).
    • Another example of the misunderstandings surrounding the role of water vapour is provided by Matt Ridley in an interview he gave to Russ Roberts at EconTalk.org in 2015. There a three factors alluded to here (1) CO2 (2) Water vapour (invisible vapour acting as a GHG) (3) Water in a condensed form in the form of clouds. But in this part of the discussion Ridley succeeds in completely losing sight of factor (2), and while recognising that (3) equates to something small (if not zero), he concludes that the overall warming should be 1°C. Well no! The models used fundamental physics, not “amplifying factors” added as parameters. The effects emerge from this basic physics. Ignoring (2) does not make it go away. It is worrying when someone with as much influence as Matt Ridley (and whose biography of Francis Crick is testament of his qualities as a science writer in another field where he commands respect) seems not to be able to grasp something so basic and well established as this. Here is what he said, which so clearly reveals his misunderstanding of the subject:
      • “So, why do they say that their estimate of climate sensitivity, which is the amount of warming from a doubling, is 3 degrees? Not 1 degree? And the answer is because the models have an amplifying factor in there. They are saying that that small amount of warming will trigger a furtherwarming, through the effect mainly of water vapor and clouds. In other words, if you warm up the earth by 1 degree, you will get more water vapor in the atmosphere, and that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas and will cause you to treble the amount of warming you are getting. Now, that’s the bit that lukewarmers like me challenge. Because we say, ‘Look, the evidence would not seem the same, the increases in water vapor in the right parts of the atmosphere–you have to know which parts of the atmosphere you are looking at–to justify that. And nor are you seeing the changes in cloud cover that justify these positive-feedback assumptions. Some clouds amplify warming; some clouds do the opposite–they would actually dampen warming. And most of the evidence would seem to suggest, to date, that clouds are actually having a dampening effect on warming. So, you know, we are getting a little bit of warming as a result of carbon dioxide. The clouds are making sure that warming isn’t very fast. And they’re certainly not exaggerating or amplifying it. So there’s very, very weak science to support that assumption of a trebling.”
  6. Why a new equilibrium? Why does the Earth simply not go on warming? One of the reasons is that Stefan’s Law means that the total energy radiated from the Earth is proportional to the temperature (in Kelvin) to the power 4 (so two times the temperature would mean 16 times the radiated energy from the surface). Extending the analogy from Note 1, this is a bit like the following: The increased CO2 is equivalent to a restriction in the ability to emit infra-red into space, or in the case of the bucket, a smaller hole in the bucket. To re-establish the balance (because the flux ‘out’ must balance the flux ‘in’), the level of water in the bucket rises, increasing the pressure of the water at the base of the bucket, and thereby re-establishing the rate of water exiting from the bottom. In the case of the radiative effects of CO2, the equivalent effect is that the height in the atmosphere at which the flux balance occurs is raised and this implies a higher temperature on the ground when one descend down to the surface (using what is called the lapse rate).  These effects therefore combine to ensure that at a given concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, it finds a new equilibrium where the ‘energy in’ equals ‘energy out’, and the surface temperature has increased as the COconcentration increases.
  7. Regarding the ice age ‘lag’ question, the body of this essay provided an explanation. In Serendipity a financial analogy originating from Professor Alley is cited: If I take out a small loan at high interest, and get into a deeper and deeper hole, is it the interest rate or the initial loan that was the problem? Well, it was the interest rate. In the same way, the initial warming of a Milankovitch Cycle may be small, but the CO2 adds a lot of “interest” as does the consequent feedback from increased water vapour.
  8. From Mackay (see Further Reading), Note 8 to Section 1: “… the observed rise in CO2 concentration is nicely in line with what you’d expect, assuming most of the human emissions of carbon remained in the atmosphere.”  A useful way to calculate things is to remember that 127 part per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere equates to 1000 GtCO2. Now since roughly 2000 GtCO2 are estimated to have been emitted from the start of the industrial revolution to now, and assuming roughly 50% of this figure has stayed in the atmosphere for simplicity (see link below), then 1000 GtCO2 then equates to 127 ppm added to the atmosphere on top of the pre-industrial 280 ppm giving 407 ppm (roughly) in total, so in the right ballpark (we are at 400 ppm in 2015). It is also worth looking up the specific chapter within the IPCC AR5 dealing with “Carbon and other Biogeochemical Cycles”
  9. The sawtooth reflects the seasonal cycles of the predominantly northern hemisphere deciduous trees and plants. Dead leaves decompose and release CO2, whereas growing leaves draw it down. So the overall trend is overlaid with this seasonal variation. The data is taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who administer the measurements that are presented here
  10. Here is a simple calculation. Currently we are responsible for nearly 40 billion tonnes (Gt) CO2 per annum. Assuming 50% (Ref. 6) stayed in atmosphere in the short term and given that each GtCO2 equates to 0.127 parts per million (million) to CO2 atmospheric concentrations by volume, we get 0.127 * 50% * 40 = 2.5 ppm. This is about right. In Reference 6, 2001-2011 showed an average of 2 ppm per annum increase, and this rate has been increasing. However, it appears the rate of increase is if anything increasing: in 2015 the NOAA reported a 3 ppm increase of CO2 whilst at the same time the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions have been flat in 2014-2015 period, even while the economy has grown:
    • However, it appears the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 is if anything increasing: in 2015 the NOAA reported a 3 ppm increase of CO2 whilst at the same time the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions have been flat in 2014-2015 period, even while the economy has grown. This suggests that the balance between CO2 being absorbed in the Oceans or other carbon sinks, and the atmosphere, is changing, leaving more in the atmosphere. This is early days and more work is needed to establish is this is a trend.
    • We also know that once raised, the newly raised levels in the atmosphere remain raised for thousands of years – see “Carbon Forever”, Mason Inman, Nature Reports Climate Change, 20 November 2008 and this has been further reinforced by a paper showing this in relation to the IPCC AR5 scenarios (see Reference 19).
    • The CarbonTracker provides important calculations done by the Potsdam Institute derived from the IPCC AR5 data on ‘carbon budgets’ … “to reduce the chance of exceeding 2°C warming to 20%, the global carbon budget for 2000-2050 is 886 GtCO2. Minus emissions from the first decade of this century, this leaves a budget of 565 GtCO2 for the remaining 40 years to 2050”. The graphics in Reference 19 are eye catching, but in my experience can confuse some people. Hence the inclusion of the figure shown in this document (Fossil Fuel ‘Red Line’) where I try to simplify the key points (you can be the judge as to whether I succeed). The first thing to realise is that the CO2 emissions figures in Ref. 19 are just that (in other words – roughly 50% of these figures remains in the atmosphere [a more accurate figure is 60% but the purpose here is to provide an easy to remember, simple calculation – please refer to Mackay’s book, further reading and Carbon Tracker website for all the details of source data and calculations]).
    • During the Paris COP meeting (COP21) in December 2015, 1.5°C was introduced as an aspirational target, while 2°C remains the principal goal.  This has been discussed in “Scientists discuss the 1.5C limit to global temperature rise”, CarbonBrief.org, 10th December 2015.
  11. The Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) represents the increase in surface temperatures  after a doubling of CO2 (and other GHG) concentrations but also when there is a equilibrium reached between the heat content of the atmosphere and oceans, which has a lag time after the atmospheric concentrations have peaked. The temperature is reached is largely determined by the peak CO2 concentration and the fast feedback arising from increased water vapour in the atmosphere.
  12. The Earth System Sensitivity (ESS) tries to accommodate longer term changes that could give rise to additional ‘forcings’ such as changes to the ice/snow coverage; release of CO2 and methane from warming of the land and ocean; etc. This involves more imponderables and is over timescales beyond the IPCC timeframe for its scenarios up to the end of 21st century.  Long term consequences that are potentially locked in (even if atmospheric warming stabilises) are likely such as increased sea levels beyond 2100 (see Reference 19).
  13. In rounded numbers, what the Figure shows is approx 2000 GtCO2 emissions from pre-industrial time to around 2011 (rounded figure), and at that point, nearly 3,000 GtCO2 potential emissions if all the listed fossil fuel reserves were burned. The red line is crossed if more than 565 is burned in 40 years from 2011 to ~ 2050. Any fossil fuels in addition to this are deemed “un-burnable” or “stranded assets”. If all the reserves were burned at continuing rate of 40 GtCO2 per year, they would be exhausted by 2075 and we would have crossed the red-line well before 2050. The 40 GtCO2 per year is clearly not a fixed number – the rate of burn will tend to increase if consumption rises in developing countries on back of fossil fuels, but it will tend to decrease as zero-carbon sources of energy replace carbon-based ones.
  14. In 2013 the world emitted 35.3 GtCO2 equivalent (see Mackay, Further Reading) including man-made greenhouse gases in addition to CO2. In this essay, we have rounded the number to a convenient 36 GtCO2. Sometimes you see emissions in terms of carbon, because reserves of unburned fossil fuels make more sense in terms of carbon, and this often creates confusion. When carbon is burned, it produces CO2. The atomic mass of CO2 is 12 + (2 * 16) = 44, compared to carbon (C) which is 12, so to convert an amount expressed as a mass of carbon to one expressed as CO2 you need to multiply by 44 and divide by 12 (and vice versa). So, 36 GtCO2 equates to 9.8 GtC (12*36/44 = 9.8). In the text we rounded 9.8 to 10, making the 10 GtC figure per annum at 2013 rates.
  15. If we can make a Deuterium-Deuterium fusion reactor on Earth, rather than the Deuterium-Tritium one that is the current model for tokamak reactors such as ITER, then effectively infinite energy (in human society terms) is available because of the huge reservoirs of energy possible from the Deuterium that could be harvested from the world’s oceans. The issue is that commercial realisation of the dream, even for the easier Deuterium-Tritium reaction is still decades away, maybe 50, and so not relevant to the current debate on options for zero carbon pathways which require heavy cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. We do have a rapidly scalable ‘alternative fusion’ (solar energy).
  16. Back of envelope calculation on feasibility of solar energy powering humanity:
    • At the distance the Earth is from the Sun, it is receiving over 1300 Watts per square metre (W/sq.m) on average during the year, but we can approximate this as 1000 W/sq.m reaching the surface of the Earth on average, allowing for reflected light that does not warm the surface.
    • The Earth receives the resulting power from the Sun over an area equivalent to its apparent disc, whereas the Earths surface is 4 times this value (4 pi R^2). Therefore the average power received is (1000/4 =) 250 W/sq.m reaching the Earth’s surface.
    • As photovoltaics and other solar energy may be only 20% efficient, we can capture perhaps 50W/sq.m (50 = 20% of 250) which equates to a usable energy of 50 million Watts per square kilometre (W/sq.km) = 50 million W/sq.km
    • Now we are assuming that by 2050 the human power requirement grows to 40 TW = 40,000 GW = 40 million million W so we need an area of 40 million million W / 50 million W/sq.km = (4/5) million sq.km which is approx. 1 million sq. km, i.e. a square with sides of just under 1000 km.
    • Or more realistically, 10,000 squares distributed around the planet each of 100 sq.km (ie, 10 km sided squares), and each with some energy storage system able to smooth the energy between night and day, connected to a smart grid. Each would produce (40,000 GW / 10,000 =) 4 GW so 100 km.sq solar array equivalent to say four medium 1 GW nuclear reactors or 12 typical 330 MW coal-fired reactors.
    • Note: In the text a quote was included from Frank Niele’s book (Reference 30) that mentions a solar intercept of 170,000 TeraWatt (TW = 1000 GW). This is not the practical maximum for solar power we could harness (and Niele is not saying that, but some people might misread it that way). Due to a number of factors (we would only want to use a small area of land for solar, the efficiency of PVs, etc.) the practical limit is very much less. BUT, even allowing for this, the amount of energy is so massive that we are still left with an enormous potential, that far exceeds the 40 TW requirement. We need (in the 2050 projection) ’only’ about 1 million square km (or 0.67% of the Earth’s land area). So, in practical terms, there is no ‘functional limit’ in respect of the energy that humanity needs.


Terminology

Most spheres of enquiry create their own language and jargon, and the science & policy surrounding global warming has its fair share. In the essay I tried as far as possible to avoid using terminology that is not in common usage. As an illustration, I include a few below and my common usage alternative:

  • Albedo – is the technical term for the fraction of solar energy reflected into space. More snow and ice means a higher ‘albedo’. In the text I simply refer to the ‘Earth reflecting more light’ to convey this.
  • Anthropogenic – often used in context of ‘anthropogenic global warming’. I have used the more prosaic ‘man-made global warming’ instead.
  • Climate – this word is unavoidable! It is crucial to understand the difference between Climate and Weather (NCAR provide a short and useful description of the distinction ).
    • Because ‘climate’ deals with averaged conditions over extended periods, rather than the precise ‘weather’ at a specific place and time, it is possible to make long-term projections of the climate in a way that is impossible for weather. The climate is then characterised by ‘emergent properties’ of the model ‘runs’, such as averaged values for temperature, precipitation, etc., on a global (and also regional) level over a specified time period (e.g. up to 2100).
  • CO2e or COequivalent is used in a few places in the essay. It is used by the IPCC and others as a means of stating a single figure, say, for ‘man-made greenhouse gas emissions’. It aims to include contributions from all greenhouse gases:  CO2, Methane, etc. However, it can cause confusion, because of the different ways we can calculate the impact of different gases over different periods. Each gas has different residency times in the atmosphere, and different inherent strengths of their infra-red absorption. This issue has been discussed. The basic point to note is that “COequivalent” aims to include the contributions not only CO2  from burning fossil fuels, but changes in land-use, and all human activities. Also remember that CO2 remains the principal actor and reducing our emissions is what we can control.
  • Feedback – is a technical term, which many people will have experienced when rock musicians distort their music by taking a microphone in front of a speaker. The term ‘Feedback’ is now used for any system where the output of the system can ‘feed back’ and influence the subsequent state of the system. There are two types of feedback in general: Positive feedback happens when a signal is reinforced and grows in strength; a Negative feedback happens when a signal is dampened and reduces in strength. “Positive” has therefore nothing to do with “good” or “desirable”, but merely a mathematical adjective. In the essay, we discussed examples of both these types of feedback in relation to climate change [see Section 2].
  • Forcing – is a technical term used to denote some effect that adds additional energy to the atmospheric / planetary system, and is measured in Watts per square metre. Extra CO2, solar, aerosols, soot, etc. are all types of ‘forcings’ (which can be positive and negative), but the essay uses colloquial language like ‘influence’ on warming, or ‘contribution’ to energy.
  • KiloWatt Hour – The Watt measures the power of an electricity source or the rate of its consumption. It is quite small in the context of domestic devices, so we tend to think in terms of one thousand Watt, which is a KiloWatt.  A 1 KiloWatt electric fire is using electricity at the rate of 1 KiloWatt. But this is problematic when trying to articulate our usage of electricity, and it is better to think in terms of the total consumption over a chosen period, like 1 hour. So after one hour that electric fire has consumed 1 KiloWatt Hour.  Because we are switching lights on and off, using a toaster for a few minutes, etc. for the domestic total of consumption, we can then think about how many KiloWatt Hours (or KWh in brief) we consume in one day, or one year.  We can even express other forms of energy (e.g. the energy used by driving our cars) using the same units. Prof. Mackay (see his book in Further Reading) uses KWh liberally because it is easy to work with in this way.  In 2008, the average UK citizen was consuming 125 KWh per day.  [Note: One MWh = 1,000 KWh, and One GWh = 1,000 MWh (note shorthands: K=1000, M=1000,000, G=1000,000,000).]
  • Parts Per Million (ppm) – is a useful way to state the atmospheric concentration of CO2.  The current concentration is 400 ppm. Expressed as a percentage this is (400/1000,000)*100% = 0.04%. There are 6 x 1023 molecules of a gas in 22.4 litres at standard temperature and pressure, or 30,000 million billion in a cubic centimetre. So at 0.04%, that is still 12 million billion molecules (of CO2) per cubic centimetre, with an average separation between two nearest neighbour CO2 molecules of less than 5 micrometres at this density. Stated like that, CO2 does not seem quite so sparse as the 0.04% figure might suggest.

 

The End

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2015, 2016 – EssaysConcerning.com (Published July 2015, Revised March 2016)

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Global Group-Think?

Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection (and independently by Wallace) was the result of many years of meticulous observations of the natural world. In some ways it was even more brilliant because this discovery was made in the absence of any known basis for the variations in species (which are ultimately required by the theory).

It took a century to pass, with the discovery of DNA’s structure and processes, for scientists to understand how the shuffling and transposition of genes provided the underlying mechanism for the variations on which natural selection depends (along with the differentiation of environments that provides the selective pressures at the level of species).

While there continues to be a rich vein of discoveries in the exploration of this interplay between the genotype and phenotype, the underlying truth of Darwinian natural selection remains inviolate.

Similarly, through the statistical analysis of lung cancer rates, the link between smoking and lung cancer was clearly demonstrated in 1962 (Royal College of Physician’s report ‘Smoking and Health’), long before the underlying causative processes were understood (and these underlying processes could be argued to be very much still ‘work in progress’). No one seriously doubts the link, even though the tobacco industry tried for many years to claim that correlation does not prove causation.

In the case of man-made global warming (or ‘anthropogenic global warming’, AGW), the history of its discovery is in complete contrast to the above examples. With AGW we knew the essential underlying mechanism before, not after, the macro-scale phenomenon was even recognised as an issue!

By 1861, Tyndall’s experiments had demonstrated unequivocally that carbon dioxide was able to trap heat, and in 1896 Arrhenius had made the first calculations (laboriously by hand) of how variations in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would impact average global temperature.

Yet despite this, it took till 1938 before Callendar first published data to show that far from being a theoretical possibility, man’s emissions of carbon dioxide were indeed having a measurable influence on global average temperature.

Few scientists took this up as an issue at this time, or even as a research priority. Maybe in 1938 the world had some higher priorities to address, with the world already deep into the ‘dark valley’ and on the eve of World War II, but it is certainly true that there was not much interest in the topic even in academic circles.

Of course, over the years some did explore different aspects related to climate and related fields of enquiry, such as the study of glaciers, diverse isotopic methods, modelling weather and climate, and many more, but these were distinct fields which did not really converse with each other. It was really only in the 1970s that various seminal conferences took place that tried to piece together these disparate strands of evidence. This history is explored in meticulous detail in Weart’s ‘The Discovery of Global Warming’

Perhaps the most striking was the use of isotopes of oxygen measured in ice cores, acting as a proxy for temperature (because of the differential evaporation rates of water), which correlated strikingly with CO2 concentrations. As Weart notes:

“In the 1960s, painstaking studies had shown that subtle shifts in our planet’s orbit around the Sun (called “Milankovitch cycles”) matched the timing of ice ages with startling precision. The amount of sunlight that fell in a given latitude and season varied predictably over millenia. …
 
The new ice cores suggested that a powerful feedback amplified the changes in sunlight.

The crucial fact was that a slight warming would cause the level of greenhouse gases to rise slightly. For one thing, warmer oceans would evaporate out more gas. For another, as the vast Arctic tundras warmed up, the bogs would emit more CO2 (and another greenhouse gas, methane, also measured in the ice with a lag behind temperature). The greenhouse effect of these gases would raise the temperature a little more, which would cause more emission of gases, which would … and so forth, hauling the planet step by step into a warm period.

Many thousands of years later, the process would reverse when the sunlight falling in key latitudes weakened. Bogs and oceans would absorb greenhouse gases, ice would build up, and the planet would slide back into an ice age. This finally explained how tiny shifts in the Earth’s orbit could set the timing of the enormous swings of glacial cycles.

These ice cores and associated methods were improved over several decades with the Vostok cores reaching back 400,000 years finally convincing many in the scientific community.

Only in the 1980s was AGW finally gaining recognition as a serious issue, and this led eventually to the formation of the IPCC in 1988, which is the internationally sponsored vehicle for assembling, reviewing and reporting on the multiple primary published research including interlocking streams of evidence and analysis.

There are some who argue against the much vaunted consensus on AGW (the 97% of climate scientists who agree that AGW is demonstrated).

I was at a meeting recently on science communication where someone from the audience objected to this 97% consensus saying “can we trust a science where so many are in agreement?” … he was pointing out that often in science there is a hotbed of debate and disagreement. Surely this 97% is evidence of some kind of group-think?

Well, of course, as Weart documents, at almost every step in the 200 odd years of science that has tried to explain the ice ages, and latterly global warming, there has been intense scientific dialogue that has been a million miles from group-think. The role of Milanovitch cycles, mentioned in the above quote, is just one example. The dialogue continues, for example, in relation to the so-called ‘hiatus’ and many other topics.

But these same combative scientists do not dispute the reality of AGW only the details, and particularly those relating to regional impacts. These will of course be the subject of intense research that continues as we as humans seek to mitigate where we can, and adapt where we must.

Let’s consider some possible examples of ‘group think’ in science:

  • Ask 1000 biologists if they think Darwinian natural selection is true and I suggest over 97% would concur.
  • Ask 1000 clinicians if smoking will greatly increase the risk of lung cancer and I suggest over 97% would concur.
  • Ask 1000 physicists if they think the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is both true, and will survive any revolution in science (even the changes that dark matter and energy no doubt presages), and I suggest that over 97% would concur.

Are these examples of ‘group-think’?

I would say, absolutely not! They represent a consensus informed by many decades of cumulative scientific endeavour that has stood the test of time and battled through many challenges and tests.

As we see from Weart’s history, the acceptance of AGW is not something the scientific community have jumped to in some rash, rush to agree; that’s not how science works. Rather, it has been a methodical, multi-disciplinary emergence of an understanding over many decades, which only quite recently (1980s) can be said to have reached a consensus.

The reality of AGW has survived many challenges and tests (mostly from within the scientific community, best able to frame challenging tests).

I think it is therefore a rather lazy and ill-informed viewpoint to characterise the consensus on AGW among scientists (and specifically climate scientists) as evidence of ‘group-think’.

Perhaps those determined to disagree with AGW should ask themselves whether in fact they are the real victims of ‘group-think’: a curmudgeonly kind of contrarian group-think from an increasingly marginalised section of the media.

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In Praise of Computer Models

As you walk or commute to work, does it ever occur to you how much thought and effort goes into keeping the lights on?

I remember many years ago doing some consulting for a major utilities company, and on one visit being taken to a room which was full of PhD level mathematicians. “What are they doing?” I asked, “Refining models for calculating the price of electricity!”. The models had to calculate the price on a half-hourly basis for the market. The modellers had to worry about supply including how electricity is distributed but also how fast incremental supply can be brought on stream; and on the demand side, the cycles of demand as well as those unusual events like 10 million electric kettles being put on at half time during a major football game.

It should be pretty obvious why modelling of the electricity supply and demand during a 24 hour cycle is crucial to the National Grid, generators, distributors and consumers. If we misjudge the response of the system, then that could mean ‘brown outs’ or even cuts.

In December 2012: “… the US Department of Homeland Security and Science held a two-day workshop to explore whether current electric power grid modelling and simulation capabilities are sufficient to meet known and emerging challenges.” 

As explained in the same article:

“New modelling approaches could span diverse applications (operations, planning, training, and policymaking) and concerns (security, reliability, economics, resilience, and environmental impact) on a wider set of spatial and temporal scales than are now available.

A national power grid simulation capability would aim to support ongoing industry initiatives and support policy and planning decisions, national security issues and exercises, and international issues related to, for instance, supply chains, interconnectivity, and trade.”

So we see that we move rapidly from something fairly complex (calculating the price of electricity across a grid), to an integrated tool to deal with a multitude of operational and strategic demands and threats. The stakeholders’ needs have expanded, and hence so have the demands on the modellers. “What if this, what if that?”.

Behind the scenes, unseen to the vast majority of people, are expert modellers, backed up by multidisciplinary expertise, using a range of mathematical and computing techniques to support the operational and strategic management of our electricity supply.

But this is just one of a large number of human and natural systems that call out for modelling. Naturally, this started with the physical sciences but has moved into a wide range of disciplines and applications.

The mathematics applied to the world derives from the calculus of the 17th Century but was restricted to those problems that were solvable analytically, using pencil and paper. It required brilliant minds like Lagrange and Euler to develop this mathematics into a powerful armoury used for both fundamental science and applied engineering. Differential equations were the lingua franca of applied mathematics.

However, it is not an exaggeration to say that a vast range of problems were totally intractable using solely analytical methods or even hand-calculated numerical methods.

And even for some relatively ‘simple’ problems, like the motions of the planets, the ‘three-body problem’ meant that a closed mathematical expressions to calculate the positions of the planets at any point in time were not possible. We have to numerically calculate the positions, using an iterative method to find a solution. The discovery of Neptune was an example of how to do this, but it required laborious numerical calculations.

Move from Neptune to landing a man on the moon, or to Rosetta’s Philae lander on the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and pencil and paper are no longer practical; we need a computer. Move from this to modelling a whole galaxy of stars, a collision of galaxies, or even the evolution of the early universe, and we need a large computer (for example)

Of course some people had dreamed of doing the necessary numerical calculations long before the digital computer was available. In 1922 Lewis Richardson imagined 64,000 people each with a mechanical calculator in a stadium executing numerical calculations to predict the weather.

Only with the advent of the modern digital computer was this dream to be realised. Although of course, the exponential growth in computing power has meant that each 18 month doubling of computing power has created new opportunities to broaden or deepen the model capabilities.

John von Neumann, a key figure in the development of the digital computer, was interested in two applications – modelling the processes involved in the explosion of a thermonuclear device and modelling the weather.

The innovation in the early computers was driven by military funding, and much of the pioneering work on computational physics came out of places like the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

The Monte Carlo method, a ubiquitous tool in many different models and applications, was invented by Stanislaw Ulam (a mathematician who is co-author of the Teller-Ulam configuration for the H-bomb). This is one of many innovations used in computer models.

The same mathematics and physics used for classical analysis has been reformulated in a form susceptible to computing, so that the differential calculus is rendered as the difference calculus. The innovations and discoveries made then and since are as much a part of the science and engineering as the fundamental laws on which they depend. The accumulated knowledge and methods have served each generation.

Some would argue that far from merely making complex problems tractable, in some passive role, the computer models provide a qualitatively different approach to that possible prior to digital computing. Because the computers acts like experimental devices from which insights can be gleaned, they may actually inspire new approaches to the fundamental science, in a proactive manner, helping to reveal emergent patterns and behaviours in systems not obvious from the basic physics. This is not a new idea …

“Given this new mathematical medium wherein we may solve mathematical propositions which we could not resolve before, more complete physical theories may possibly be developed. The imagination of the physicist can work in a considerably broader framework to provide new and perhaps more valuable physical formulations.”  David Potter, “Computational Physics”, Wiley, 1973, page 3.

For the most part, if we think not of colliding galaxies, and other ‘pure science’ problems, the types of models I am concerned with here are ones that ultimately can impact human society. These are not confined to von Neumann’s preferred physical models.

An example from the world of genomics may help to illustrate just how broad the application of models are in today’s digital world. In looking at the relationship between adaptations in the genotype (e.g. mutations) and phenotype (e.g. metabolic processes), the complexities are enormous, but once again computer models provide a way of exploring the possibilities and patterns, that teach us something and help in directing new applications and research. A phrase used by one of the pioneers in this field, Andreas Wagner is revealing …

“Computers are the microscopes of the 21st Century” 

BBC Radio 4, ‘Start The Week’, 1st December 2014.

For many of the complex real-world problems it is simply not practical, ethical or even possible to do controlled experiments, whether it is our electricity grid, the spread of disease, or the climate. We need to be able to conduct multiple ‘runs’ of a model to explore a range of things: its sensitivity to initial conditions; how good the model is at predicting macroscopic emergent properties (e.g. Earth’s averaged global temperature); response of system to changing external parameters (e.g. the cumulative level of CO2 in the atmosphere over time); etc.

Models are thereby not merely a ‘nice to have’, but an absolute necessity if we are to have get a handle on these questions, to be able to understand these complex systems better and to explore a range of scenarios. This in turn is needed if we as a society are to be able to manage risks and explore options.

Of course, no model is ever a perfect representation of reality. I could repeat George Box’s famous aphorism that “All models are wrong but some are useful”, although coming as this did from the perspective of a statistician, and the application of simple models, this may not be so useful when thinking about modern computer models of complex systems. May I suggest a different (but much less catchy) phrase:

“Models are often useful, sometimes indispensable and always work in progress”

One of the earliest mathematicians to use computers for modelling was the American mathematician Cecil Leith, who during the war worked on models of thermonuclear devices and later worked on models for the weather and climate. In a wide-ranging 1997 interview covering his early work, he responded to a question about those ‘skeptics’ who were critical of the climate models:

“… my concern with these people is that they have not been helpful to us by saying what part of the model physics they think may be in error and why it should be changed. They just say, “We don’t believe it.” But that’s not very constructive. And so one has the feeling they don’t believe it for other reasons of more political nature rather than scientific.” 

When the early modellers started to confront difficult issues such as turbulence, did they throw their hands up and say “oh its too hard, let’s give up”? No, with the help of new ideas and methods, such as those originating from the Russian mathematician’s Kolmogorov and Obukhov, progress was made.

The cyclical nature of these improvements comes from a combination of improvements in methods, new insights, improved observational data (including filling in gaps) and raw computing power.

A Model of Models might look something like this (taken from my whiteboard):

image1-2

In this modern complex world we inhabit, models are not a nice to have, but an absolute necessity if we are to embrace complexity and be able to gain insights into the these systems, and anticipate and respond to scenarios for the future.

We are not able to control many of the variables (and sometimes only a very few), but we can see what the response is to changes in the variables we do have control over (e.g. use of storage arrays to facilitate transition to greater use of renewable energy). This in turn is needed if we as a society are to be able to manage risks and explore options, for both mitigation and adaptation in the case of global warming. The options we take need to be through an inclusive dialogue, and for that we need the best information available to inform the conversation.

Some, like US Presidential candidate Ted Cruz would prefer to shoot the messenger and shut down the conversation, when they do not like what the science (including the models) is telling them (e.g. by closing down the hugely valuable climate research based at NASA).

While many will rightly argue that modelling is not the whole story, or even the main story, because the impacts of increased man-made CO2 are already evident in a wide range of observed changes (e.g. large number of retreating glaciers), one is bound to ask “what is the alternative to doing these models?” in all the diverse fields mentioned? Are we …

  • To wait for a new disease outbreak without any tools to understand strategies and options for disease control and to know in advance the best deployment of resources, and the likely change in the spread of disease when a virus mutates to an air-borne mode of infection?
  • To wait for a brown-out or worse because we do not understand the dynamical response of our complex grid of supply to large and fast changes in demand, or the complexities of an increasingly fragmented supply-side?
  • To wait for the impacts of climate change and make no assessment of when and how much to invest in new defences such as a new Thames Barrier for London, or do nothing to advise policy makers on the options for mitigation to reduce the impact of climate change?

Surely not.

Given the tools we have to hand, the knowledge and methods we have, accumulated over decades, it would be grossly irresponsible for us as a society not to undertake modelling of these kinds; and not be put off by the technical challenges faced in doing so; and certainly not be put off by those naysayers who don’t ‘believe’ but never contribute positively to the endeavours.

We would live in a more uncertain world, prone to many more surprises, if we failed to model the human and natural systems on which we rely and our future depends. We would also fail to effectively exploit new possibilities if we were unable to explore these in advance (e.g. the positive outcomes possible from a transition to a decarbonised world).

Let’s be in praise of computer models, and be thankful that some at least – largely unseen and mostly unthanked – are providing the tools to help make sense of the future.

Richard Erskine, 24th May 2015

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