Thinking About Tomorrow

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Hottest year for Northern Hemisphere

2005 is looking like it will be the warmest (0.65°C above the 1961-1990 average for northern hemisphere) year in recorded history for the Northern hemisphere. In terms of global temperature it is heading for the top 5. The ten hottest years in recorded history have all occurred in the last 11 years.

10 hottest years on the globe (in °C above global average for 1961-1990):

1. 1998  +0.54°C
2. 2002  +0.50°C
3. 2003  +0.49°C
4. 2005  +0.48°C
5. 2004  +0.44°C
6. 2001  +0.40°C
7. 1997  +0.39°C
8. 1995  +0.38°C
9. 1999  +0.30°C
10. 2000  +0.30°C

(source Hadley Centre, UK Met Office) [2005 is provisional]

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A world view of global warming

Gary Braasch of World View of Global Warming was nice enough to let me reproduce this picture of a Polar Bear foraging on dry ground in Barrow, Alaska. His website is a photographic essay of how global warming is affecting people, plants and animals all over the world.

Personally, to date, global warming has affected my view of the detractors more than it has affected my day to day life. I have realised that media and politicians generally have little understanding about how science works, its interface with advocacy and how scientific information is best used in the face of uncertainty. Take the following statements:

Global warming will cause the extinction of 90% of life on Earth.

Global warming is caused primarily by human activity.

The truth or otherwise of these statements is not currently known with absolute certainty.

Is this uncertainty a reason for inaction? No! Based on current scientific evidence, there is a possibility that the human activities driving climate change could precipitate a mass extinction event — the first in 65 million years. Should we take that chance? Over time the scientific evidence will grow until we are near certain, one way or the other - either climate change will be devastating or it won’t. But can we wait until near certainty is established before we act? No! The precautionary principle says that if the consequences of an action (for example, converting all the world’s fossil fuels into greenhouse gases and deforesting the planet) are unknown, but are judged to have some potential for major or irreversible negative consequences (like making the planet uninhabitable for humans and many other species), then it is better to avoid that action. So why are we currently conducting an uncontrolled experiment on the only habitable planet we know of?

Invoking the precautionary principle is the only reasonable action that politicians can take in this situation. The quality of the debate in the media around this issue has been woeful. Especially the so-called ‘balanced’ reporting, where Kyoto Protocol detractors are given as much airtime as are advocates for action against global warming. This ‘balanced’ reporting is usually delivered without even mentioning the dwindling number of detractors and their tendency to be associated with the oil industry.

Apart from the wealth of information from long term studies of atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, ice cores and so forth, the record heat in summers in Europe, forest fires for months in Portugal, the worst Atlantic hurricane season ever recorded, and a rapidly disappearing Arctic ice cap are all (quite probably) signs of the long-term effects of climate change. The Tegua islanders of Vanuatu have had to shift their entire town recently due to frequent flooding and are probably the world’s first climate change ‘refugees’. How much more evidence is required before Dubya and his cronies join the rest of the world and acts on this problem now, before it is too late. Some things are actually more important than the Gross Domestic Product.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Paradise Lost

This week, a small Pacific Island community on Tegua Island in Vanuatu had to pack up their lives, disassemble their coastal village and relocate inland. Their village was being repeatedly flooded by tidal surges attributable to climate change. The UNEP calls the Tegua Islanders the world's first climate change refugees. I wonder how the villagers feel about this honour? Pretty pissed off I would say, and not so much because it happened, but because it happened and the rest of the world doesn't seem to care - most of the world seems obsessed with keeping terrorists off planes; meanwhile, carbon emissions from air travel threaten the lives of millions.

The obvious analogy between Tegua Island's villagers and the global village should have us all worried - and when the temperature rises, we don't have the option of relocation.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Not just another Aucklander?

The sad naked hills of Motutapu
Photo from trust website
If you are:

(1) an Aucklander and
(2) are getting sick of reading the depressing stuff on this site and
(3) you would like to make a difference, then

Why not try volunteering for the Motutapu Restoration Trust? I have gone over for a day of volunteering three times so far, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. The trust has planted over 300,000 seedlings, covering 65 hectares of regenerating forest, since it was established in February 1994. A hectare of land can be planted with about 4500-6000 seedlings, which will eventually thin out to a mature patch of forest containing about 1000-1200 mature trees. To plant the whole island will take about 7.9 million seedlings, or about 430 volunteer years. I guess at some point the forest might start replanting itself though... The trust plans to plant 30,000 seedlings next year, amounting to 600 person-days of volunteering. You can be one of those person-days!

Based on standard calculations the regenerating forest on Motutapu is sequestering about 1.5-4.5 tons of carbon (5.5-16.5 tons of CO2) per hectare per year. Counting all 65 hectares, this is will neutralize about 730 tons of CO2 emissions).

A 1.4 litre car travelling 20,000 km per year will, on average, produce 3.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). This mean that the current regenerating forest on Motutapu neutralizes the greenhouse emissions of about 210 cars on Auckland's roads. If the whole island was planted in regenerating forests it would neutralize the emissions of about 5000 cars on the roads.

Not bad, but still leaves a lot to be done... for instance you could drive less and conserve electricity :-)

Now lets finish the calculation. New Zealand has about 3.6 million cars. From the above calculations you need about 0.32 hectares of regenerating forest for each and every car. That means we need about 1.15 million hectares of regenerating forests to neutralize the emissions of all the cars in New Zealand. That works out to only about 4.3% of the total land mass (268,021 sq km) of New Zealand. Totally reasonable. What we need is for scientists to work out a super-efficient automated way to plant regenerating forests. Because right now volunteer hours are the bottleneck!!

Assumptions for calculation of 7.9 million seedlings and 430 person years:
* Each hectare is planted with 5250 seedlings
* Each volunteer plants 50 seedlings a day
* Motutapu Island is 1509 hectares

* 1 metric ton of carbon equivalent is 3.67 metric tons of CO2

Beware of the fossil fools

This article in the Guardian is an oldie but a goodie. As a scientist I have been continually pissed off with the medias' so-called 'balanced' reporting on climate change. When 99% of the climatologists are saying global warming is happening and 1% are saying its not, why do media outlets like the BBC persist in giving both views equal air time? At the very least they could mention the fact that the supporting evidence for global warming outweighs that for other opinions. Otherwise If the media people are going to continue this farce they might as well invite the smoking-doesn't-contribute-to-lung-cancer and HIV-doesn't-cause-AIDS loonies to elaborate on their opinions as well.

Granted, many successful scientific theories start with a small number of supporters. But as evidence accumulates and the theory survives scientific testing, that small number of proponents eventually grows to a majority of scientists, at which point the theory becomes scientific dogma. In the case of climate change we are well on the way in this process. Very few scientists thought the world was heating up 30 years ago. Now almost all scientists agree that global warming is happening. There is still debate around how much of the global warming can be attributed directly to human activity, but again the trend is clear. As we accumulate evidence the picture is pointing more and more towards the greenhouse effect as a primary cause.

Polar bears on the front line of war on climate change

This polar bear on pack ice in the Arctic circle is feeling the heat well before we will. Although the average global increase in temperature in the last 50 years has been around 0.5 degrees celsius, in the Arctic circle it has been 2-3 degrees C. This dramatic rise has led some scientists to predict the complete disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic before the end of the century. Since polar bears use the sea ice to hunt for prey, this will spell disaster for the world's largest terrestrial carnivore. Polar bears could become extinct in the wild within a hundred years if the current trend in global warming persists.

Image source: WWF website (WWF-Canon / Jack Stein GROVE)

Imagine: John Lennon would have been 65 today

Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer,
But I'm not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.
- Written by John Lennon, 1970

The lyrics of Imagine by John Lennon have come to represent much of what he stood for as a person. Two things jump out at me from the wonderfully simple and powerful lyrics:

1. Imagine there's no countries: This would certainly make it clear that Africa's problems are as much ours as theirs. It would also mean that things like the Kyoto Protocol (and beyond) could be enacted without a superstate like the USA undermining it. But of course globalization of nation-states and democracy would be a massive transformation of society on Earth. George Monbiot has done an excellent job of arguing the case in his recent book entitled "The Age of Consent".

2. Imagine all the people sharing all the world: Not just with each other, but with all life on Earth. I wonder if you can.

A decade after the Imagine album was released, John Lennon was assassinated. I wonder what he would have done in the last quarter of a century, had he had the chance to live under the sky with the rest of us... Probably not as much as some might have hoped from these early lyrics.

Photo of the day

This is an old picture, but it is worth more than a 1000 words.

13 July 1999, Chukchi Sea Russian Federation

Walrus on ice floe; Greenpeace tour investigating climate change effects, Chukchi Sea, Alaska.

Photo is Copyright Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

DiCaprio to make a documentary on Global Warming

Leonardo DiCaprio. I didn't used to like this guy, in the way that you sometimes just don't like a Hollywood actor for no good reason. Envy perhaps. Or perhaps a feeling that Hollywood actors are inherently 'fake'. How could they possibly be real down-to-earth people with all that mind-distorting money, glitz and glam? However in the last couple of years I have been hearing that Leonardo DiCaprio is an environmentalist, or at least has a genuine concern about global warming. No doubt this will be viewed as being flaky from some corners. However I for one am looking forward to the documentary entitled 11th Hour that he is currently producing, co-writing and narrating. The subject of global warming is extremely important subject matter that has seldom been adequately tackled in film. The challenge of presenting it with scientific accuracy while still be an advocate for action is a very difficult one. Global warming epitomizes the tension between the cautious nature of scientific progress and the urgent need for action that some people feel the challenge of global warming warrants. When scientists finally find out, one way or the other, that we have sealed our fate by burning all the fossil fuels, it could well be too late to reverse. I wonder how long we might sit around, waiting for the inevitable conclusion, with the knowledge that, had we acted sooner, the end game could have been avoided.

Scientifically, it is clear that there is already a large body of evidence to support human-induced climate change, but there is also still room for doubt as well. You can't be a scientist without admitting this. However this should not be a reason to wait around. Even if there is only a 0.1% chance of human-caused catastrophe on a planetary scale, we are talking about the only planet we have. We don't have a backup in case our inaction proves imprudent. And for all you sci-fi freaks, No, Mars is not an answer. If we can't keep this Earth habitable then we don't deserve another planet.

In my opinion, even the small chance that our actions are causing a cascade of climate- and environment-related events that could jeopardize the habitability of the planet should be reason enough to start acting now! Since when did expendable income gain such primacy in the minds of the masses that even the smallest sacrifices in the bottom line seem unbearable, no matter what the potential future benefits? The prudent thing is to spend money on this problem now, because you can bet your life savings that it will be costlier to fix in the future! If not priceless.

Friday, December 02, 2005

International Day of Action on Climate Change

Saturday 3rd December 2005 is International Day of Action on Climate Change. So tomorrow you have an excuse to annoy your friends, family and colleagues by reminding them that every one can take small actions to reducing carbon emissions and promoting reforestation. Education and advocacy is definitely a large part of the solution, but action is even more important. Simple things like using your legs or your bike instead of the car and sending a letter to your local MP are positive ways to contribute.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

More good news

Three sobering points from Michael Hopkin in this week's Nature...

- The North Atlantic is losing its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This means that future emissions are more likely to cause global warming, said researchers at a meeting of the European CARBOOCEAN project in Amsterdam.
- The carbon dioxide that does dissolve in the ocean makes it more acidic, threatening to corrode the calcareous exoskeletons of animals such as corals, attendees told the meeting. The Atlantic soaks up some 25% of all carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.
- The system of currents that includes the Gulf Stream — which warms the temperate regions of Europe — is weakening. Research suggests its flow has reduced by a third since 1957. This weakening is evident not in the Gulf Stream itself (the fictional failure of which was dramatized in the film The Day After Tomorrow), but in the movement of cold, deep waters.

Not sure what to say about this really...the evidence just keeps on mounting and the predicted effects and speed of change keep on increasing. I guess at some point there will be a media frenzy and then we might actually start doing something! Any ideas for how to initiate said media frenzy would be much appreciated.