Category Archives: Climate Change

Chart of the Day, 23 Jan 2015: Davos and the Incredible Melting Country

The rich and powerful are in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum from 21-24 January. While climate change is one topic up for discussion, I doubt the following image will pop up on many Powerpoint presentations (Source: Swiss Office of Meteorology, click for larger image):

Swiss Yearly Mean Temperature Anomaly jpeg

For the general public, the idea that the planet has warmed by 0.6 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial levels is hard to get too excited about. But Switzerland shows what happens when you translate 0.6 degrees into high elevations, at higher latitudes, and in areas distant from the sea. In short, we get warming many multiples higher than 0.6. And if you think 2014 was a one-off, it wasn’t: as usual with climate, its a bumpy, but consistent, upward path (source: here).

Swiss Average Mean Temperature Trend jpeg

Having spent a year in Switzerland, I know the people are of a stolid disposition. Yet I am surprised that they are not more agitated over the wholesale transformation of their country that is currently underway. Much of culture is born of climate and doubly so for the Swiss.

You can get a sense of what a different country Switzerland will become in the decades ahead by reading the Swiss Climate Impacts 2014 report, put together by leading Swiss government agencies, universities and research centres. For just a taste, here is the future for Switzerland’s snow and ice (note: we are currently progressing along the highest emissions scenario A2):

Switzerland Snow and Ice jpeg

I am stunned by how the people of any country, not just Switzerland, remain mute in the face of forces transforming a nation’s climate–and so culture–before their eyes.

Chart of the Day, 22 Jan 2015: Glaciers Going, Going, Gone

Last month, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) came out with its bi-yearly mass balance estimate. Basically, this is a measure of the amount of melt. As expected, glaciers continue to lose mass:

Annual Mass Balance of Reference Glaciers jpeg

And on a cumulative basis:

Cumulative Mass Balance of Glaciers jepg

Although a little dated (2008), the WGMS also publishes an excellent report called “Global Glacier Changes: facts and figures“. And to get a better sense of what glacier retreat actually looks like check out James Balog’s Ted Talk on his glacier time lapse photo project (which later morphed into the Emmy Award winning documentary Chasing Ice):

Another excellent up-to-date source on glacier developments is the blog “From a Glacier’s Perspective” written by the leading glaciologist Mauri Pelto. Like most climate scientists, Pelto’s analysis is measured and considered; for example, he emphasises that not all glaciers are retreating since each glacier’s situation is unique. Moreover, some glaciers retreat and then find a new equilibrium.

But while this is true for individual glaciers (so providing fodder for climate skeptic web sites), it is not true in aggregate. From Pelto’s contribution to the alpine glacier section in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’s annual State of the Climate publication:

The declining mass balance trend during a period of retreat indicates alpine glaciers are not approaching equilibrium and retreat will continue to be the dominant terminus response.

It is difficult not to get a little depressed over the fate of the planet when you see images of glacier disintegration such as these (Careser glacier in Italy, from the same BAMS report).

Careser Glacier jpeg

But don’t get depressed, get angry! Lobby your local politicians! Climate change consistently comes at the bottom of public concerns. It should be at the top.

Chart of the Day, 18 Jan 2015: An End to the Hiatus (Pause) in Temperature Rise?

Actually, two charts today taken from a presentation given by Gerald Meehl on the 5th January 2015 at the American Meteorological Society’s 95th annual conference. Meehl is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). First up, a chart showing that you should think of global warming as a stepwise movement as opposed to a smooth upward curve (click for larger image):

Hiatus Period jpeg

Where climate skeptics are wrong is to say that the last decade is not substantially  hotter than the previous decade. Where they are right is to say that over the course of the last decade, global surface temperatures have only warmed just a bit. But global warming doesn’t just incorporate the atmosphere, it includes the oceans as well. Global warming broadly defined to include the whole earth system has never stopped, it just shows up in different places at different times. From Meehl’s summary slide:

Global Warming Hasn't Stopped jpeg

The mechanism behind this shift is the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), which at times transports heat from the Pacific Ocean’s surface to the deep ocean.  Unfortunately, at other times, this process also works in reverse.

In the past, models, methodology and supercomputing power were not sufficient to capture the IPO and thus temperature hiatuses. However, Meehl believes that science has  progressed and we are now in a position to model and predict both temperature pauses and accelerations. And it looks like an acceleration is just about to begin (bottom left chart, click for larger image):

Hiatus Exit jpeg

Putting Climate Change Front and Centre

Climate change is often treated in political discourse as the topic that dare not speak its name. For me, the biggest shock of the last cycle of presidential debates was that Romney and Obama were never even asked for an opinion on what to do about global warming. The topic had become taboo. Too difficult and contentious to discuss in polite company.

In the UK, David Cameron is now completely mute on the subject, desperate as he is to stop the right of the conservative party haemorrhaging to UKIP. I think this is cowardly stance: if the Tory right are going to haemorrhage over Europe and immigration, I hardly feel that climate change will make much difference. In fact, sticking to the original Conservative Party commitment to run the “greenest government ever” would have significant appeal to the much-neglected centre.

So plaudits to Ed Milliband for raising climate change as a wedge issue in today’s issue of the newspaper The Independent on Sunday. The Daily Mail will claim that this will put yet more distance between Ed and that great, all powerful God of British politics: “White Van Man”. But I am not so sure. A true politician of stature should be able to shape fashion, not follow it. The commentary by Ed Milliband is here. See what you think.

The Green’s Grievance

Since returning to the UK three years ago, I have been astounded by the media coverage given to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP’s leadership, when pressed (a rare occurrence), convey a ramshackle and rather incoherent libertarian philosophy juxtaposed with 1950s-style little Englandism.

The Greens, meanwhile, get barely a mention, despite actually having a lot to say about the big topics of climate change, resource depletion, low growth and inequality. I don’t agree with much of the Green’s world view, but at least they get stuck into those issues which truly impact on our long-term welfare.

Leo Barasi at the Noise of the Crowd blog puts some numbers on this phenomenon. Monthly media mentions for the Greens are minimal despite their respectable polling numbers.

Green Media 1 jpeg

This is even more evident when we look at mentions per percentage point of votes:

Green Media 2 jpeg

In a perfect world, it would be wonderful if journalists spent time reading UKIP’s policies and asked some probing questions about them. UKIP’s barking mad energy policy, for example, rests on the assumption that CO2 emissions are benign and manmade climate change a hoax. Instead, we get another Nigel Farage pint-in-a-pub picture and 1,000 words on the “people’s army”.

I am told by media friends that the UKIP political narrative plays well  to the general public; conversely, the narrative of dangerous climate change doesn’t. But, ultimately, climate change is a narrative with no spectators—only participants.

Oxford Climate Forum 2014

I’m fresh from the Oxford Climate Forum, held this weekend. Presenters and panel speakers attempted to remain resolutely upbeat, but it was hard, at times, not to feel despondent—and that came through.

Professor Lord Giddens, the eminent British sociologist, and doyen of climate change politics, gave a presentation entitled “What Cause for hope?” Note, he gave the same speech a month previously at the LSE, available here (starting at 4 minutes). He commenced his speech with this statement:

Over the period from 2008 to 2014 today, on the one hand, the science of climate change, our understanding of climate change and our understanding of the dangers posed by climate change to the future of our civilisation has advanced substantially…………yet public opinion has become more indifferent.

Why should there be such a yawning gap between the dangers we face and our reactions to those dangers?

To answer this question, Giddens pointed to the fossil fuel lobby, the inability of a small coterie of scientists to convey the climate change message, the free-rider problem and, finally, the ongoing disputes between rich and poor countries over who should shoulder the burden of CO2 mitigation. Yet Giddens ultimately sees all these reasons as secondary; rather:

No other civilisation has ever intervened in nature remotely to the degree which we do on an everyday basis. Therefore, there is no historical situation, no historical record, no historical data from which we can draw upon to seek to mobilise public opinion against it…… The consequences of it are not there, they are to come.

I see the central difficultly of our world getting a stable future for itself in the 21st century around this situation; this situation being that we are likely to wait until there is some cataclysmic happening which can be unequivocally linked to climate change before we stir ourselves to action. But then, by definition, it will be too late, because we can’t get the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. I see this paradox as the central issue.

Giddens’ paradox also explains why, ironically, the young appear less concerned about climate change than the old, despite it being the young who will shoulder the burden in years to come. I’ve blogged about this issue here, but, in short, my explanation of the relative indifference of the young is that they have less experience of the fact that “shit happens”. Most fifty-year olds know of someone who has died of cancer, been killed in a road accident, attempted suicide, descended into alcoholism or ended up in prison. Must 18-year olds don’t.

Dr Adam Corner of Oxford’s Climate Outreach and Informational Network (COIN) didn’t quite see it this way. To COIN, climate change communication is a question of narrative. You can see their approach here. Moreover, a unifying feature of the forum was that narratives should be positive: climate change mitigation being an opportunity as much as an obligation. My take is that we have seen some pretty powerful political youth movements in the past that were a reaction to a threat, whether fascism, Vietnam or apartheid.

If there was some silver lining in Giddens speech, it was that a transformational technological change may arise. This is a similar line taken by the Google engineers Ross Kosingstein and David Fork in an article titled “What would it really take to reverse climate change“. They argue that we should be pouring money and resources into blue sky thinking, since it is only such thinking that could help prevent a catastrophe.

An unapologetic bare-knuckle prize fighter at the forum was Bob Ward from the Grantham Research Institute. Ward concentrated on calling out UKIP’s climate skeptic energy policy, a copy of which you can find here. It contains such gems as this:

We do not however regard CO2 as a pollutant. It is a natural trace gas in the atmosphere which is essential to plant growth and life on earth.

To which my riposte would be that water is vital to human life, but that does not mean to say we can’t drown in it.

Ward’s worry is that UKIP could quite easily perform the  role of king maker in any future minority Conservative Party government. As such, UKIP’s demand that the UK’s Climate Change Act should be torn up does no bode well for any constructive British participation in the Paris 2015 climate talks.

The media currently views climate change activism as essentially “boring”. In the 1930s, large parts of the British media viewed the rise of central European fascism as a matter of no consequence. How wrong they were, and how wrong they are now.

World on Brink of New Temperature Record (Despite a Coy El Niño)

Usually, a big, fat El Niño sets the world up for a new temperature record; see the correlation in the chart below. (For a good explanation of why, read this post by Bill Chameides of Duke University.)

TempAnomElNino jpeg

And for most of 2014, forecasters have been debating whether a big one would or wouldn’t show sometime soon. However, in its latest ENSO forecast, out 6th November, the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has grown far more “iffy”:

The CPC/IRI ENSO forecast has dropped the likelihood of El Niño again, to 58%, despite the presence of “borderline” El Niño conditions (i.e. warmer equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature, and some reduction in rain over Indonesia). El Niño is still expected, but with less confidence.

But the Australians, in an even more recent update (18th November), think we may see a last minute appearance for this year’s elusive El Niño:

The Pacific Ocean has shown some renewed signs of El Niño development in recent weeks. Above-average temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have warmed further in the past fortnight, while the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) has generally been in excess of El Niño thresholds for the past three months. Climate models suggest current conditions will either persist or strengthen. These factors mean the Bureau’s ENSO Tracker Status has been upgraded from WATCH to ALERT level, indicating at least a 70% chance of El Niño occurring.

Regardless of whether El Niño shows, it is too late in the year for it to significantly pump up global temperature anomalies. So it should be tough for 2014 to take the number one spot. Or will it?

From Columbia University’s Earth Institute, we can see where the records stand:

Top 10 Warm Years jpeg

Note: the slight differences between the anomalies recorded by the two US government agencies, NOAA and NASA, are due to different measurement procedures. Nonetheless, for both time series, the years from the last decade dominate the table and broadly align. And for 2014?

The NASA data (here) have been published out to October and show an average temperature anomaly for the first 10 months of the year of 0.66 ⁰C. The nine months of data put out so far by NOAA (here) average 0.67 ⁰C. While the Pacific Ocean may not be characterised as exhibiting a full-blown El Niño, it certainly is on the warm side, with the result that the final months of the year are likely to come in well above average, temperature-wise.

So the annual global mean temperature record looks almost in the bag for 2014. Whether this record will be enough to put paid to the climate skeptic meme that global warming stopped in 1998 is doubtful (the old records will likely be beaten but not smashed). But the evolving data do show that when the next El Niño arrives, it will build on an ever hotter base.

Thus mankind presses ever further into unchartered temperature territory. The foolhardiness of this risk-taking amazes me.