Category Archives: Climate Change

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.

Links for the Week Ending 16 July 2014

I haven’t posted for quite a while. Basically, family commitments have eaten into my blogging time, and this state of affairs will likely continue for an indefinite period longer. Nonetheless, I will try to get some posts out as we grind through the last few innings of what I would term the ‘Great Hiatus': a hiatus period—or pause— amid the longer term trend of rising global mean temperatures, higher oil prices, increasing resource constraints and greater global economic instability.

For example, with a 70-80% chance of an El Nino by year-end, temperature records have the potential to start falling again. Further, oil has built a solid base above $100 per barrel but appears poised to go higher in the next year or so as oil companies struggle to find new fields that can be developed at the right price.

At the same time, many of the financial fragilities in the system posed by ageing demographics, declining productivity and increasing resource constraints have to date been countered by the super easy monetary policy pursued worldwide. The aggressive, unprecedented and unorthodox monetarism  led by the Federal Reserve Board has been a policy triumph over the short term. Since the credit crunch of 2008/2009, the sky has not fallen down.

Yet the jury is still out as to whether the provision of free money can be maintained long enough to see a return to sustainable economic growth, or whether it will beget a new cycle of chronic instability through having fostered the extension of credit into intrinsically poor investments and a generalized asset price inflation that benefits few but the rich.

In the meantime, here are some links which I hope will flesh out some of the themes of this blog:

  • Occasionally, my left-learning friends berate me for reading the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph. I offer two defences: first, you need to read opinion with which you may instinctively disagree, but find of some merit with a bit of reflection. Second, a good newspaper has intellectual mavericks—and The Telegraph has many (probably more than The Guardian). Here is an article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard portraying the fossil fuel industry as poor capitalists; in short, the oil majors have been investing ever more, to reap ever less; while renewables are slowing sloughing off their subsidies. Joseph Schumpeter would be proud of this epic creative destruction.
  • And despite all the new technology we are bringing to bear on oil extraction, when fields go into decline it is damn tough fighting the tide. North Sea oil was a much ignored saviour of the British economy in the 1980s, but is decline is inexorable and, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), accelerating. The Financial Times has the story here (access to FT articles after free registration), but if you want to go to the primary OBR source you can find it here.
  • We are still seeing a lot of commentary over “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. Piketty argues that the relative reduction in inequality in advanced countries over the post-war period was something of an aberration. Accordingly to his analysis, without direct political intervention (or in the most extreme case revolution), capital will gradually accrue to a relative few. In short, when the return on capital is greater than the growth rate, it is the owners of capital who prosper most, not those in capital’s employ. For a fuller treatment, I recommend Cory Doctorow’s summary here,  and an interview by Maththew Yglesias of Vox  a while back with Piketty here.
  • You can also slice growing inequality in different ways. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in the UK has just issued a report detailing how the real incomes of young people are falling much faster than those of any other age cohort (here). Meanwhile, I have often commented on how London has detached itself form the rest of the UK. In the US, Emily Badger of The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog charts a similar divergence between cities showing a virtuous cycle of education and growth and those showing a vicious cycle of poor education and decline (here)
  • Climate sceptics love to start any global mean temperature chart with a data point centred on 1997/98, which happens to coincide with the largest El Nino for a century. This monster El Nino ushered in the record breaking hot year of 1998 (slightly eclipsed in later years depending on which data set you look at, but still one of the hottest years on record: see NASA’s data set here). Global mean temperature is a construct of short-term weather volatility, long-term green-house gas induced temperature rise and the medium-term ENSO cycle. Eventually, CO2 will do its stuff and records will fall regardless of whether we have an El Nino. But for us to quickly retire all the talk of a hiatus in temperature rise will require a new and powerful El Nino. True, an El Nino appears on the cards by year-end, but quite how strong it will be is still clouded in uncertainty as this post at Skeptical Science explains here.
  • If you visit London, take time to visit some of the quirky, smaller museums. One of the most intriguing (and downright disturbing) is the Old Operating Theatre that used to be part of St Thomas Hospital just south of The Thames. This is no Disney Land reconstruction, but a perfectly preserved part of pre-antiseptic medical history.  Despite appearing to be a set from a particularly dark Harry Potter movie scene, the Old Operating Theatre shows how and where surgeons removed a damaged limb in around two minutes flat, with minimal anaesthetic. The museum demonstrates how far we have come health-wise in an historical blink of an eye (150 years or so). And for those who would welcome an economic collapse as a route toward a more authentic form of living, I direct you to a post at Club Orlov explaining a world of post-collapse, or village, medicine. Humanity is put right back on the St Thomas Hospital’s operating table. Pray for four strong men to hold you down—and a surgeon who has not only washed his hands, but is also quick with blade and saw.

Data Watch: UAH Global Mean Temperature April 2014 Release

On May 6th, Dr Roy Spencer released the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) global average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly as measured by satellite for April 2014.

The anomaly refers to the difference between the current temperature reading and the average reading for the period 1981 to 2010 as per satellite measurements.

April 2014: Anomaly +0.19 degrees Celsius

This is the 6th warmest April temperature recorded since the satellite record was started in December 1978 (35 April observations). The warmest April to date over this period was in 1998, with an anomaly of +0.66 degrees Celsius. Incidentally, April 1998 was also the warmest month ever recorded for this time series.

The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle is the main determinant of when global mean temperature hits a new record over the medium term (up to 30 years). In this connection, the U.S. government’s Climate Prediction Center is now giving a 65% chance of an El Nino developing this summer or fall (here). Should this happen, I would expect the UAH anomalies to head back up into the 0.5s, 0.6s or higher.

As background, five major global temperature time series are collated: three land-based and two satellite-based. The terrestrial readings are from NASA GISS (Goddard Institute for Space Studies), HadCRU (Hadley Centre/Climate Research Unit in the U.K.), and NCDC (National Climate Data Center). The lower-troposphere temperature satellite readings are from RSS (Remote Sensing Systems, data not released to the general public) and UAH (Univ. of Alabama at Huntsville).

The most high profile satellite-based series is put together by UAH and covers the period from December 1978 to the present. Like all these time series, the data is presented as an anomaly (difference) from the average, with the average in this case being the 30-year period from 1981 to 2010. UAH data is the earliest to be released each month.

The official link to the data at UAH can be found here, but most months we get a sneak preview of the release via the climatologist Dr Roy Spencer at his blog.

Spencer, and his colleague John Christy at UAH, are noted climate skeptics. They are also highly qualified climate scientists, who believe that natural climate variability accounts for most of recent warming. If they are correct, then we should see some flattening or even reversal of the upward trend within the UAH temperature time series over a long time period. To date, we haven’t (click for larger image).

UAH Global Temp Apr 14 jpeg

That said, we also haven’t seen an exponential increase in temperature either, which would be required for us to reach the more pessimistic temperature projections for end of century. However, the data series is currently too short to rule out such rises in the future. The Economist magazine published a very succinct summary of the main factors likely accounting for the recent hiatus in temperature rise (here).

One of the initial reasons for publicising this satellite-based data series was due to concerns over the accuracy of terrestrial-based measurements (worries over the urban heat island effect and other factors). The satellite data series have now been going long enough to compare the output directly with the surface-based measurements. All the time series are now accepted as telling the same story (for a fuller mathematical treatment of this, see Tamino’s post at the Open Mind blog here).

Note that the anomalies produced by different organisations are not directly comparable since they have different base periods. Accordingly, to compare them directly, you need to normalise each one by adjusting them to a common base period.

Data Watch: UAH Global Mean Temperature March 2014 Release

On April 7th, Dr Roy Spencer released the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) global average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly as measured by satellite for March 2014.

The anomaly refers to the difference between the current temperature reading and the average reading for the period 1981 to 2010 as per satellite measurements.

March 2014: Anomaly +0.17 degrees Celsius

This is the joint 7th warmest March temperature recorded since the satellite record was started in December 1978 (35 March observations). The warmest March to date over this period was in 2010, with an anomaly of +0.57 degrees Celsius.

The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle is the main determinant of when global mean temperature hits a new record over the medium term (up to 30 years). In this connection, the U.S. government’s Climate Prediction Center is now giving a 50% chance of an El Nino developing this summer or fall (here). Should this happen, I would expect the UAH anomalies to head back up into the 0.5s, 0.6s or higher. The next update is on the 10th of April.

As background, five major global temperature time series are collated: three land-based and two satellite-based. The terrestrial readings are from NASA GISS (Goddard Institute for Space Studies), HadCRU (Hadley Centre/Climate Research Unit in the U.K.), and NCDC (National Climate Data Center). The lower-troposphere temperature satellite readings are from RSS (Remote Sensing Systems, data not released to the general public) and UAH (Univ. of Alabama at Huntsville).

The most high profile satellite-based series is put together by UAH and covers the period from December 1978 to the present. Like all these time series, the data is presented as an anomaly (difference) from the average, with the average in this case being the 30-year period from 1981 to 2010. UAH data is the earliest to be released each month.

The official link to the data at UAH can be found here, but most months we get a sneak preview of the release via the climatologist Dr Roy Spencer at his blog.

Spencer, and his colleague John Christy at UAH, are noted climate skeptics. They are also highly qualified climate scientists, who believe that natural climate variability accounts for most of recent warming. If they are correct, then we should see some flattening or even reversal of the upward trend within the UAH temperature time series over a long time period. To date, we haven’t (click for larger image).

UAH March 14 jpeg

That said, we also haven’t seen an exponential increase in temperature either, which would be required for us to reach the more pessimistic temperature projections for end of century. However, the data series is currently too short to rule out such rises in the future. Surprisingly, The Economist magazine has just published a very succinct summary of the main factors likely accounting for the recent hiatus in temperature rise (here).

One of the initial reasons for publicising this satellite-based data series was due to concerns over the accuracy of terrestrial-based measurements (worries over the urban heat island effect and other factors). The satellite data series have now been going long enough to compare the output directly with the surface-based measurements. All the time series are now accepted as telling the same story (for a fuller mathematical treatment of this, see Tamino’s post at the Open Mind blog here).

Note that the anomalies produced by different organisations are not directly comparable since they have different base periods. Accordingly, to compare them directly, you need to normalise each one by adjusting them to a common base period.