Archive for December, 2009

Copenhagen and other disasters

December 31, 2009

I recently did a little interview for Newsround about the Copenhagen summit.  They filmed it before the conference had started so I tried to be upbeat and optimistic about the outcome.  As it turned out, the summit was a bit of a disappointment.  The Copenhagen Accord seems a bit lame, especially pages 4 and 5, which are a couple of blank tables shoved on the end.  It reminds of the kind of thing you would do at school if you had no results but wanted to make your report a bit longer.

Looking back, I had absolutely no reason to be optimistic about Copenhagen.  My relatively short education/career in weather and climate science has been littered with events that should’ve made me more realistic.  Here are a few such events…

1997 – Kyoto

In 1997 I’d just started my physics degree and was really interested in environmental issues.  I followed the Kyoto negotiations.  The big problem here was the unwillingness of the USA to ratify the agreement.  Even before the protocol had been finalised, the US Senate had decided not to ratify anything that did not include binding targets for developing nations.  This failure is not surprising given that the way members of the Senate fund their election campaigns – they are left with a responsibility to the interests of organisations who are resistant to big changes.  Al Gore, as vice-president, nonetheless signed the protocol in 1998.

2000 – George W. Bush

I was an MSc student in 2000, studying environmental science at UEA.  Knowing Bush’s background, his election seemed a big step backwards in the political negotiations regarding climate change.  It was.

2001 – IPCC Third Assessment Report and the “hockey stick”

Just as I was starting my PhD in Antarctic climate science, the 3rd report of the IPCC was finished.  The high media profile given to the report was an inspiration for my work but one of the details in the report has been under intense scrutiny since 1998 when it was first published in Nature.

The level of scientific and media analysis of this work must be unprecedented.  The attempts to discredit the science and reputations of the scientists involved with the Hockey Stick graph has continued right up until the UEA email theft in 2009.  However, the science has stood up to all the questions asked of it.

2003 – European heat waves

These heat waves were one of the clearest signals of a changing climate in Europe and resulted in an estimated 30,000 deaths.  30,000!  Most of these people were probably ill or vulnerable but the press coverage of this never seemed to reflect the scale of the disaster.

2004 – George W. Bush, again

2007 – Bali

Maybe the 2007 UNFCC conference would result in a better outcome?  Well, there’s Yvo de Boer (Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC) breaking down in tears at the final press conference.  Not a high point.

Ok, so Bali wasn’t so bad – some sort of agreement was cobbled together at the last minute but there was certainly no sense of pulling together.  So why is this all going so badly?  In 1987, with the Montreal protocol, World leaders managed to get together and solve the global CFC/ozone problem.  That process happened quite quickly but how long will it be before the solution to the climate problem starts to even get on the right track?  Will it be before the end of my career?  Regardless, Copenhagen was not that point.


December 16, 2009

The front cover of yesterday’s Daily Express is shown below.  Oh dear.  As an atmospheric scientist, I reckon I could come up with more than 100 real scientific reasons why Earth’s climate changes naturally.  However, the Express article is more political than scientific and it doesn’t really reflect the headline.

Unfortunately, even if they had listed 1000 reasons why our climate changes naturally, it still wouldn’t undermine the 1 reason why most of the recent climate changes have happened because of our activities:

We have emitted millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases over many years.  These gases block outgoing heat from the planet.  We have evidence of “unnatural” climate changes in the recent past and fully expect much more in the future.  This point is not refuted by any of the 100 points given in the Express article.

Where to start on climate change?

December 13, 2009

Climate change usually only comes up in the media and online when there is some progress on a small detail or when something like Copenhagen or the UEA email theft happens.  I think that this presents a big problem as the people consuming these stories might not know the basic science yet, these days, everyone is expected to have an opinion on climate change.  This issue is amplified on the web where George Monbiot’s column on the Guardian website, for example, regularly receives more than 1000, usually anonymous and often controversial, comments.

So I thought it might be a good idea to write a quick blog post for a complete climate science beginner. I’m only going to tackle two questions here, skipping over quite a lot of things, but they are the key points to understanding climate change.

What are greenhouse gases and what to they do?

All our planet’s energy comes from the Sun.  Most of the radiation from the Sun goes straight through our atmosphere.  When Earth absorbs the Sun’s radiation the planet heats up and then re-emits a slightly different type of radiation.  The atmosphere can absorb this different type of radiation.  This keeps some of the heat near the Earth like a blanket, or a greenhouse.  The greenhouse effect is really important because without it the Earth would be much colder and our lives would be very, very difficult.  Most of this science was known by about 1850 – we’ve been working on the details since then.

How has the concentration of greenhouse gases changed?

Ironically, also by about 1850, the Industrial Revolution had really got going and people were beginning to burn lots of fossil fuels and change the make up of our atmosphere.  In particular, carbon dioxide was being released in great quantities.  Our best measurements of CO2, however, didn’t start until the 1950s in Hawaii (see graph).  This shows a really clear increase in atmospheric CO2.  This increase is having an affect on global temperatures because the greenhouse effect is keeping more heat in than it used to.

This is the climate change problem described in its most basic form – more greenhouse gases lead to a change in the energy that is retained from the Sun.  How this affects the Earth, though, is quite complicated (this why we talk about “climate change” more than “global warming” now) but the basic idea is quite simple.

Still want to know more?

If you still want to know more then I would say that the best place to start, as far as reliability and lack of agenda is concerned, would be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – this is a scientific group, organised by the UN, who review all the science relevant to climate change.  This is obviously a massive task but, nonetheless, they publish their reports in full online – the last science report came in at around 1000 pages long.  This is clearly not very easy to get to grips with.  However, the do produce a short and well written Summary for Policymakers that covers most of the big issues.  Also, they produce a Glossary where you can find the meanings of any terms you don’t understand.  I really hope that more people go and find out more about the interesting science behind our planet’s weather and climate!