10 reasons to be hopeful we will overcome climate change

Read the full list on the Guardian.

For the last few months, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have been at record levels unseen in over 800,000 years. The chairman of the IPCC, an international panel of the world’s top climate scientists, warned earlier this year that “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change”.

Future generations will no doubt wonder at our response, given the scale of the threat. It’s known that death, poverty and suffering await millions, and yet governments still vacillate.

But solutions are available. Here are ten reasons to be hopeful that humans will rise to the challenge of climate change.Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 17.08.58

Will carbon capture and storage ever make fossil fuels safe?

Eco audit verdict from 21st May, 2014 – Full story here

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a vital technology for avoiding dangerous climate change. MPs, Shell, the IPCC, the energy industry, the IEA and environmentalists all agree, with a minimum of vitriol. It’s almost eerie. Why is CCS, championed in every corner, stalling?

The large up-front cost of the test projects means governments are faced with investing billions in projects that they don’t know will work. Fossil fuel companies meanwhile, have little incentive to stump the cash themselves until carbon pricing forces their hand. This means that despite some good initiatives, enthusiasm for investment has been lacking.

Of course the unanimity surrounding CCS is an illusion. Everyone likes this, but for different reasons. Fossil fuels companies like it, because it allows their business model to have a future without being culpable for breaking the carbon budget. Green groups like it because it offers an opportunity to reduce the carbon impact of industry. British MPs like it because Britain will be able to make lots of money burying other countries’ emissions beneath the North Sea.

Perhaps the most convincing judgement is that of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Whose modelling shows that fossil fuel power with CCS is not simply a way to continue burning fossil fuels, but a key element of the cost-effective pathway to carbon abatement. A huge positive about this technology is the decarbonisation of the baseload power supply, thus complementing the impact of renewables, rather than competing with them.

Will it ever make fossil fuels safe? No. It will only ever capture most, not all, carbon emissions. And it might serve to slow the transition away from coal and gas. But it does offer the chance to make industries like steel and cement, for which we do not currently possess alternatives, much less polluting. For this reason alone it should be pursued. Further, the prospect of attaching CCS to bio-energy power plants and actually removing carbon from the atmosphere while producing electricity is a real and exciting prospect.

But today’s wisest observation, from Dustin Benton and others, was that CCS alone cannot carry our hopes for a stable climate. We must continue to invest in all abatement technologies and not put all our money on the horse that is still in the stable.

Reaction to Times report on rejected climate scientist

Climate scientists reacted agrily today at an apparent attempt to paint the discipline as ‘activist’. The Times ran a front page story that a paper written by Lennart Bengtsson had not been accepted because its findings were uncomfortable for climate scientists. The Science Media Centre gathered reaction today from some of the UK’s heavy hitters.

Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, said:

“The publishers of the journal concerned, IOP, express astonishment that the story of this rejected manuscript made front-page news.  Of course it’s perfectly normal for scientific papers to be rejected for a whole variety of good reasons.  But the reason it made front-page news in this case was because of the previous pressure brought to bear on Professor Bengtsson, from a variety of quarters including from other climate scientists, which made him resign his position as an academic advisor to the GWPF think-tank.  This is the real story here: why certain climate scientists believe it’s their role to pass public judgement on whether a scientific colleague should offer advice to political, public or a campaigning organisations and to harass that scientist until they ‘fall into line’.

“This episode tells us a lot about how deeply politicised climate science has become, but how some scientists remain blind to their own biases.”

Dr Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University College London, said:

“The rejection of a scientific paper becoming front page news is a surprise.  Scientific papers get rejected all the time. In top journals nine in ten papers get rejected; there is nothing unusual about it.  Decisions about publication are made by editors, not reviewers, so it is entirely wrong to selectively quote from reviewer comments alone.

“What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  They were because the paper contained important errors and didn’t add enough that was new to warrant publication.  Indeed, looking at all the comments by the reviewer they suggested how the paper might be rewritten in the future to make it a solid contribution to science.  That’s not suppressing a dissenting view, it’s what scientists call peer review.”

“I suspect that the rejection of a scientific paper hitting the news is simply because Professor Bengtsson has strong links to campaigners at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“The full referee’s report that has been released by the journal shows that Professor Bengtsson’s paper was rejected because it was not good enough.  While it did include an inappropriate comment about the perceived impact of the paper on media coverage, this was just a single phrase in the referee’s detailed and constructively critical review, which pointed out the technical limitations of the paper. It is clear that the recommendation to reject was based on the poor quality of the paper.

“It is not a surprise that Professor Bengtsson is upset about the rejection, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the decision was based on concerns about the paper’s impact on the media.  Most researchers who receive such feedback respond by improving a paper and re-submitting it for publication.  But it appears that Professor Bengtsson has decided instead to allow himself to be used as a pawn in the disinformation campaign by climate change ‘sceptics’.” 

Prof Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“Professor Lennart Bengtsson’s resignation from the GWPF Academic Advisory Council has received wide coverage and raises important issue.

“Whatever anyone’s views are on the role, motivation and integrity of the GWPF in this matter, it is up to individual academics whether or not to associate themselves with it.

“It is regrettable that perceived political stances on the climate issue are apparently so affecting academic activity.  The Grantham Institute at Imperial has always opposed such behaviour, believing that scientific progress requires an open society.  We try to engage with a wide range of figures, some with radically different views on climate change.”

“The outcome in this case is probably a reflection of the ‘us and them’ that has permeated the climate science debate for decades and which is in part an outcome of – and reaction to – external pressure on the climate community.

“This episode should not distract us from the fact that we are performing a very dangerous experiment with the Earth’s climate.  Even by the end of this century, on current trends we risk changes of a magnitude that are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.  How we respond to that is a matter of public policy but scientists clearly play a key role in providing policymakers with the evidence they require.”

Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said:

“As scientists we rely on peer review to ensure that the very best science is published.  You can’t cry foul and run to the media when you manuscript is turned down – however famous you are.

“In this case the independent reviewers suggested there were flaws in the science – and, even more damning, that it was not original.  The reviewers were right: publishing bad science does not advance the science or the policy relevant discussions at all.

“On the question of climate sensitivity to doubling carbon dioxide, there are already many excellent papers published which give a huge range from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C.  So even if this flawed paper been published it would have said nothing new or original.”

Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, said:

“No self-respecting scientist would reject a paper on the grounds that it might fuel climate scepticism.  However, according to the journal, the paper contained errors and did not sufficiently advance the science.”

Prof Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, said:

“Whether there is a story here at all depends on whether you read ‘unhelpful’ and ‘harmful’ in the quotes I have seen as meaning ‘harmful to our collective understanding of the climate system’ or ‘harmful to the case for a particular climate policy’.

“If the reviewer meant the first, then there is nothing wrong with them saying so.  Part of the job of a reviewer is to point out statements in a paper that are liable to cause misunderstanding.  The problem is that journalists can now spin this as meaning the second.

“The real tragedy here is that climate scientists are now expected to check their comments in an anonymous peer review to ask themselves how they might ‘play’ if repeated in the Times or the Mail.  The progress of science since Galileo has depended on the principle that an anonymous graduate student can point out errors in a paper by a Nobel laureate confident that their comments will be used solely for the purposes of editorial judgement.

“The peer review system has its faults, of course: good papers get rejected, bad papers accepted, and reviewers have their prejudices which editors have to take into account.  But overall, it has served us well, and there is a lot more than climate science at stake if we allow it to be undermined by forcing scientists to consult their lawyers before recommending that a paper is rejected.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“In the interests of transparency and informed debate, Professor Bengtsson’s paper should be made public along with reports from the referees and editor.  Only this will prove that his paper was rejected by the journal for sound scientific reasons rather than politics.  The peer review process is always susceptible to inappropriate comments from referees, but it is up to editors to ensure the integrity of the process.”

Dead birds on the floor – the building of the climate consensus

Published in the Guardian May 12, 2014

Climate scientists are canaries in the global coalmine – highly attuned proxies, who sense danger before we blunder into it. For decades, various researchers have issued calamitous warnings about climate change. But was there a moment when science collectively, definitively, dropped off the perch? And why do we keep ignoring the litter of dead birds on the floor?

During the 1990s, scientists were still debating the most basic assertions of climate change science. Was the world indeed warming? Consensus was growing, but slowly and many scientists remained undecided.

Two bold scientific statements bookended the decade – James Hansen’s statement to the US senate in 1988 and the 1999 hockey stick graph. Maligned and celebrated, the two were influential in bringing climate change into the public consciousness. Yet both were accused of using unproven methods to reach their conclusions, damaging the credibility of climate science and paving an easy road for denialism.

Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the energy and natural resources committee of the United States Senate in 1988 that his research on human-induced global warming was unequivocal. “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

The next day, the New York Times ran the headline “Global Warming Has Begun”. It was a galvanising moment for public opinion and Hansen became a poster boy for the environment movement, but not all were convinced.

“Hansen was a scientist that bumped right up against the edge of activism and a lot of scientists have been very uncomfortable going over into that. And rightly so … if you’re seen too much as an activist then people won’t trust your science,” said Marshall Shepherd, 2013 president of American Meteorological Society.

The US National Climate Assessment (NCA), released last week, echoed Hansen’s words 26 years later: “Climate change is already affecting the American people”.

But even the NCA, built as it was on the work of 800 scientists, has beencriticised for a lack of nuance.To maintain credibility, climate science must walk the narrow ledge between conservatism and activism.

Some scientists feel the hockey stick graph, published in 1999, dangled both feet over this edge. Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes used data gathered from tree rings, lake sediments, ice cores and corals to recreate the global temperature over the past 1,000 years. The image they produced was a startling visual communiqué of the world’s post-industrial warming trend. It was featured prominently in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2001 report.

But Mann et al’s willingness to use unproven methodology irked some scientists, including Hulme: “I don’t think it was seminal for scientists. To me that was never a decisive interventional piece of evidence. The data was absolutely scanty.”

Shepherd disagrees. “I think it would be characterised as a watershed moment in climate science,” he says, although he recognises it as “one of the singular most polarising graphs or scientific pieces of data that exist”. He says the paleo-climate data used to create the graph has since been showed to be “pretty good”.

The problem for Mann and Hansen is the world wants to see all the canaries keeling over together, a clear public moment of unequivocal proof. Shepherd says the public wrongly see science like a court case, in which reasonable doubt can outweigh a larger body of evidence. But science has a natural indifference to the desire for certainty. Each time a scientist gets too far ahead of the curve it makes the scientific community deeply uncomfortable. Disagreements of this kind can be latched onto as evidence that the scientific process is flawed, fuelling the denial movement.

Consensus on climate change built incrementally through the 1990s until, by the time the 2001 IPCC report came out (with the hockey stick graph in it), there were very few scientists who felt uncomfortable attributing some climate change to human activity.

But Hulme says there was no collective eureka moment and there will always be doubt and questions. “Science doesn’t really do that. It is always an unending process of confirmation, correction, refutation … It is the collective social practice of science that in the end gives science its particular credibility and status. But it’s a rather harder thing to get to the bottom of because you can’t just focus on one charismatic individual.”

Notably absent from the consensus building of the 1990s were the voices of climate scientists from developing countries, says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. For the most part, this was because the research was simply not happening. But increased interest from political leaders during this time led some countries (mainly in the Indian subcontinent, China and southeast Asia) to implement climate science programmes. Even so, the imbalance perpetuates today.

Bhushan says climate scientists from the south “still play a very little role in developing consensus on climate change negotiations.” The latest IPCC report drew more than 90% of its research material from developed countries.

Scientists participate in the compiling of IPCC reports with funding from their governments, meaning wealthy countries can afford to participate more in the process. This has the effect, Bushan argues, of politicising the reports, which he says have focussed unduly on the impacts of climate change on the developed world.

Ukip has no policies beyond EU and immigration, says Green party leader

The Guardian, 28 April, 2014

Green party leader Natalie Bennett has attacked EU election frontrunner Ukip, saying Nigel Farage has stamped policy out of the party’s platform.

With polling showing Ukip looking increasingly likely to take first place in the election in May, Bennett said Farage’s party was without substance and were benefiting from a general disengagement with politics.

Speaking at the Green party’s campaign launch in London today, Bennett said: “As far as I can work out, Nigel Farage has entirely written it off so that Ukip has no policies at all. It seems to stand for getting out of the EU and stopping immigration and other than that he seems to have said, right, we have no policies.”

“It’s a reflection very much of the dissatisfaction with politics. I think they will get a lot of votes in the north from poor, dissolutioned people who feel like they’ve been left behind, left out. And in many ways they’re right.”

Bennett said the looming failure of the major parties in the election made it obvious that Britain’s electoral system was inadequate to represent the choice voters desired.

“What this also represents is the fact that two (or if we are being charitable two-and-a-half) party politics has very much broken down as a system. It demonstrates the utter unfitness of the first-past-the-post system that we have in Westminster.”

The Greens are the fourth largest voting bloc on the floor of the EU parliament. The UK party currently holds two seats in London and the south-east.

Green advisers say they are quietly confident they will double this number in the European elections on 22 May. They are engaged in a battle with the Liberal Democrats, whose vote has plummeted, to take two new seats in the eastern and north-west regions. Recent polling has both parties hovering around 8-9%.

In their election manifesto, launched this morning, the Greens presented what they described as solutions to the excesses of the banking sector, Tory austerity and David Cameron’s championing of the shale gas industry.

Will Tory plans kill onshore wind in the UK?

Eco audit verdict from 24th April, 2014 – Full story here

There seems to be little doubt that this policy will eventually sink the onshore wind industry in this country. The potential for the technology to compete without subsidies is poor and the handing over of power to local authorities will likely be the final nail in the industry’s coffin.

Tories and many industry leaders are loath to admit that this will put an end to onshore wind, saying that current capacity will be maintained and even grow for a time as projects granted permission before 2015 come online. But what industry survives without long-term growth? For onshore wind to continue to generate investment in research and development (and therefore to stay competitive) it will need to have the potential for new growth and projects. As Jennifer Webber, from RenewableUK says, this policy “will kill the industry dead”.

That is their prerogative, especially if the EU fails to introduce a 2030 renewable energy target as some observers are suggesting they will. But the Committee on Climate Change says the level of onshore wind will need to more than triple by 2030 if the UK is to meet its own emissions reduction commitments.

David Cameron said the policy was a removal of unnecessary subsidies. But this argument washes away quickly when you consider that onshore wind is less expensive than other renewable alternatives, which will continue to attract public funding.

What this is really about is votes in rural areas and an appeal to the NIMBYism that sways the Tory right towards Ukip. In the end, windfarms, like migrant workers and the EU, are seen as alien edifices being imposed on the British way of life. Renewable energy creates jobs, but it fails to create them in the areas where it changes the skyline. Thus locals feel the costs outweigh the benefits. The majority of Brits are for windfarms, but the Tories have decided that the votes they need are not only opposed, but they are so strongly opposed they will decide their vote on it.

Will fracking make Europe less dependent on Russian gas?

Full story here

Eco audit verdict from 26th March, 2014

Britain has a duty to exploit its shale gas reserves, says David Cameron. But is fracking the answer to Europe’s reliance on cheap Russian gas? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Prime minister David Cameron’s faith in shale gas seems to be misplaced. While fracking may play a part in Europe’s long term future, it will not be in large enough quantities to offset dependence on Russian gas.

The message from Cameron is partly disingenuous. By saying fracking is imminent and there could be wells operating this year, he implies that shale gas could soon be contributing to EU energy. This makes it relevent to the game currently being played between Russia and the EU. This achieves the rhetorical aim of shoehorning fracking into the dominant story of the moment – the Ukraine crisis.

In fact, fracking is entirely irrelevent to the short and medium term energy strategies of the EU. Commercially viable fracking in Europe is only a few years closer than fusion power and contains almost as many uncertainties. The conditions that created the US shale gas boom were unique and, as Antony Froggatt of Chatham House says, “extremely unlikely to be repeated in other parts of the world”. Analysis of the potential for shale in Europe points to significantly higher production prices for Europe’s fracking industry. Under current global gas price conditions, even comparitively cheap indigenous shale gas would have to outcompete Qatari gas before it ate into Russia’s supply.

But that does not mean Cameron is wrong. He argues that the long game needs to be considered and weaning Europe off Russian gas is strategically important. If we accept prima facie that buying gas from Russia is bad. Then Europe’s huge shale reserve is one option for building resiliance and independence into the energy supply.

But according to academics it is simply not a very good one. Most think it might make up a small part of European energy in 20 years time. But it is unlikely to be the panacea Cameron seems to think. Although Harald Heubaum from Univeristy of London did say that you can never be certain with energy markets – very few people predicted the shale boom in the US.

Even so, why, at this moment in time, is Cameron so keen to talk primarily about shale gas and not about energy efficiency and renewable energy? Researchers say these measures are the most cost-effective and realistic ways to reduce the EU’s gas imports. His timing and omission of other options reveals his agenda.

Twitter praise!

February’s Guardian eco audits

The French today join the US and China as the latest country to crush its stockpile of seized ivory. But is it an empty gesture? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

As experts line up to draw links to climate change, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, looks at what is causing the series of storms and floods hitting the UK.

In the wake of a sodden winter, a series of sinkholes have opened up across Britain. But are they a natural phenomenon or induced by human activity. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

More than 1 in 20 badgers took more than five minutes to die after being shot by government contracted marksmen. After the badger cull also failed to meet its target number of kills, can the policy proceed? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

UN body calls Tasmania forest U-turn ‘exceptional’

Australia‘s move to strip part of Tasmania’s forest of its world heritage status one year after it was added is “very exceptional”, the UN has told the Guardian, adding its experts could not recall such a case in recent years.

Unesco spokeswoman said changes to world heritage sites were not uncommon. But, to the agency’s knowledge, the appeal to remove an area so soon after a national government had asked for its addition was unprecedented.

“It is highly unusual that a boundary change entail removing an extension requested just one year earlier,” she said. “Our experts in the world heritage centre have no memory of any similar cases in recent years.”

Shifting political agendas within the deeply polarised community of foresters and environmentalists who live on its fringes have caused the Tasmanian world heritage area to be changed more often than any other Unesco site.

“This site’s boundaries have already been modified four times, mainly for extensions. It’s the only site on the world heritage list to have undergone so many revisions,” the spokeswoman said.

The coalition government described the requested annexation of 74,000 hectares of forest as a “minor boundary modification”, saying the forests were “degraded” – a claim quickly disputed by the Wilderness Society. The area is part of a 172,500-hectare addition to the world heritage area requested by Australia and approved by Unesco last year.

Unesco’s world heritage committee will consider the amendment in June. It will decide whether the changes are classed as minor or major according to how they affect the overall value of the site. Minor boundary changes are significantly simpler to affect.

“The number of hectares is not what counts. Rather, changes are defined by their impact on what we call the “outstanding universal value” of the site; in other words, those characteristics that led to it being listed in the first place,” the Unesco spokeswoman said.

Peter Valentine, associate professor at James Cook University, said the committee was unlikely to consider any revocation to be minor and raised concerns about the precedent it could set.

“Because Australia did make a claim that the extension was a valuable addition, supported by both IUCN and the world heritage centre, it is unlikely that the committee would agree to just excising part of the world heritage area at the wish of the new government. Such an action would be a serious problem for future world heritage protection everywhere.

“It is my view that what the Australian government is asking cannot be seen as a minor boundary change. If the area is now so badly damaged perhaps the committee would seek an explanation of how this happened and what steps would be taken to ensure rehabilitation (which is an obligation under the world heritage convention).”